Tag Archives: Dunya Mikhail

SWF 2019 Sunday, Part One

I managed four sessions at the Festival on Sunday. Time is at a premium just now, so I’ll split it into two posts.

At 10 in the morning we went to A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in which, as the Festival web site say, ‘In conversation with ABC’s Sophie McNeill, three uniquely placed foreign writers and journalists share[d] their perspectives on the struggles and costs of reporting the truth and exposing lies under corrupt and oppressive governments.’ The three writers were Mexican Anabel Hernández (author of Narcos, about the far and deep reach of Mexican drug cartels), Iraqi-American Dunya Mikhail and Turkish Ece Temelkuran (author of How to Lose a Country).

I’d seen Dunya Mikhail in a more intimate session where she was wearing her poet hat, and this was the second of three sessions on my schedule featuring Ece Temelkuran. There was some repetition but I didn’t find any of it tedious.

We hear a lot about the noble calling of journalism these days, often from journalists whose work is deeply compromised. But from my seat in the stalls I felt something like awe, thinking that the three women on the stage were heroes of our time, exposing corruption and naming tyranny in the face of threats to their safety and even their lives. ‘Why are you here?’ Ece asked, as if having read my mind. ‘Do you want to see three martyrs? Do you want to learn about the realities of journalism?’

Quite apart from anything they said, the passion of all three women was deeply impressive. Anabel Hernández in particular delivered what was practically an aria on the importance of the truth, and the attempt to find and communicate it. In Mexico, where the institutions of society have pretty much failed, she said, journalists are currently called on to do the work of governments, investigators, prosecutors, even therapists. I think it was she (though it might have been Ece) who said, responding to a question from Sophie about the difficulty of persuading people to speak out, and picking up on the therapist tag, that people want to be heard: it takes two people to remember; if just one person has the memory it comes to feel like fantasy; an important part of the journalist’s job is to listen, even sometimes when you know that you will never be able to publish what you hear.

There was some dark humour. ‘Protect your journalists even if you hate them. We are not nice people.’ ‘Journalism is not a profession. it is a sickness in the head.’

On Julian Assange: He is not a pleasant person, but he has changed history. The impact of social media is huge, changing how we experience ourselves as human beings, and he is part of that much larger story. Social media are controlled by large companies for whom they make huge profits, and democracies are no longer strong enough to leash them.

In question time, someone asked what we could do to support good journalism. Ece gave the expected answer: Buy newspapers. Anabel picked up the baton: ‘Everything is connect,’ she said. When you take drugs in Sydney you become part of the problem for Mexico. Neoliberalism has penetrated deep into our minds to make us believe we are isolated individuals who are primarily consumers, but in reality we are all connected, and our actions have far reaching effects.

This is the first session I attended that had remote attendance. I expect it will turn up on the Festival’s podcast over the coming months. I’ll happily listen to it again.


At half past one, I joined an unexpectedly long queue (seats are allocated, so why queue?) for Simon Shama in conversation with Paul Holdengräber in Belonging: The Story of the Jews. This was the only session I attended that was all men, or even a majority of men, on stage. Simon and Paul gave the impression that they were old friends, though they had never appeared together in public before. I gleaned from the Festival program that Paul does a lot of conversing with famous people in public, and lives in the USA. He seems to be a kind of US Richard Fidler rather than a Kerry O’Brien.

Simon Shama’s recent book is the second in his intended trilogy, The Story of the Jews. This volume, Belonging, spans the period 492–1900 of the Current Era. I have had the first volume, Finding the Words 1000BCE – 492CE, beside my bed for some time, and have cracked it open since Sunday. I expect I’ll blog about it in time.

This was a remarkably entertaining, free-ranging chat, starting with Paul announcing that Simon had just told him he loved meeting and signing books for men, women, children and dogs, and would do so after the session. The very mild laughter had barely died down when he followed up with a passage from the last pages of Finding the Words, a contemporary Christian monk’s account of the sufferings and courage of Jews fleeing Spain in 1492, and we were away: two hugely intelligent, warm and mutually appreciative Jewish men going where the subject and the moment took them, interrupting each other (especially Paul interrupting Simon), telling little bits of their life stories, swatting a fly and accusing it of being anti-Semitic, telling jokes that were only marginally relevant, but funny. When asked if he was Jewish, Jonathan Miller said, ‘Well, Jew-ish‘. This joke was relevant because Simon Shama was describing himself as more a Jewish historian than a historian of the Jews (or possibly the other way round – I didn’t take notes).

They talked about the Jews who faced the choice between fleeing Spain in 1492, converting to Christianity or pretending to convert – and how neither converting or pretending to convert was any protection from the Inquisition that came soon after. They spoke of Moses Mendelssohn, 18th century intellectual who believed that the Enlightenment promised a degree of safety for the Jewish people, and how his hopes were largely dashed.

Simon said he was dreading writing the third book in the series. Asked why, he said that writing about the Holocaust is a huge challenge. So much written on it, especially fiction, is meretricious. The third volume will have to come right up to the present, given the new wave of anti-semitism sweeping Europe and elsewhere.

I came away determined to read the first volume, which covers 1500 year in 169 pages, and then this one, if the world and I last that long: just 500 years but something like 800 pages. These guys may have seemed a bit chaotic, but they knew how to whet their audience’s appetites.

SWF 2019 Saturday

My second day at the festival turned out to be fairly light on – just two events.

We had double booked for the 11.30 am session, and reluctantly chose to pass on to friends our tickets to Akala‘s sold-out session (the Festival has a no-refunds and virtually no exchanges policy). The Emerging Artist then went to The Kingdom and the Power: Saudi Arabia, and I went to:


Poetic Justice. This was in ‘Track 12’, a small theatre space that was only about a fifth full, but soundproff. Dunya Mikhail, Iraqi journalist and poet now living in the USA exile was in conversation with US poet Michael Kelleher.

Dunya Mikhail’s most recent work is a non-fiction prose work, The Beekeeper of Sinjar, but for the sake of this session she was a poet. Unusually, I turned up with a question in mind. Having learned from an excellent issue of Southerly edited by Laetitia Nanquette and Ali Alizadeh that poetry occupies a central and honoured place in Iranian culture, I wondered if the same was true of Iraq. The question was given added point by the apparent discontinuation of the lively strand of poetry events that has previously been a major attraction of the festival for me, and by Fiona Wright’s admittedly facetious defensiveness about her poet identity on Friday.

My question was answered resoundingly in the positive. Actually, it was implicitly answered in Dunya Mikhail’s whole demeanour and way of speaking. Michael Kelleher asked her to the title poem from her first collection, The War Works Hard, which manages to be both slyly witty and devastating, and then invited her to talk about her first 15 years, the only years of her life when there has not been war in Iraq. She painted a marvellous picture: children in Baghdad lived their lives on the roofs or the streets. It’s a big city, but if a child wandered too far from home, someone would always bring them back.

She spoke of the ancient Mesopotamian practice of burying people with food and water to sustain their bodies on the journey of the dead, and poetry to nourish their souls. And it is still the practice in Iraq to have poetry recited at funerals – bad poetry at her father’s funeral, she said. There is a strong oral poetry tradition of which the funeral poems are a part, and poetry is held in high esteem: when she was about to go into exile, a friend was concerned, not whether she would be able to continue working as a journalist (she hasn’t really) but whether she would sill be recognised as a poet (she has been).

Though was brought up Catholic, religious, ethnic, or linguistic differences weren’t used as pretexts for mistreatment in her childhood, she said: the oppressive regime was pretty even handed on those matters. And the Qur’an has a surah about poets.

Asked if the 1001 Nights had been an influence, she said not directly: she had heard many of those stories, and others, from her grandmother, and they had found their way into her poetry.

Poetry, she said, has literally saved her life: she put ‘Poet’ on her passport when she thought she was going to travel to the US as a young woman; that fell through, but much later when she was fleeing the country because it had become seriously dangerous to be a journalist, the official at the airport noted that she was a ‘Poet’, and waved her through.

She spoke interestingly about translation. Poetry, she realised when she started writing poetry in the US, was her true homeland. Now, she writes her poems in Arabic and translates them herself. She prefers to do this because she has more freedom than a translator who is not her. In effect, she produces two distinct poems.

I don’t think I mentioned that yesterday, talking about mental illness, Fiona Wright and Luke Carman agreed that writing didn’t work terribly well as therapy. Dunya Mikhail echoed their sentiment in response to a question about the role of poetry in terrible situations such as Saddam’s Iraq or the decades of war since his overthrow. ‘My poetry,’ she said, ‘will not save. Poetry doesn’t heal a wound, but it is a way to see it and understand it.’

Michael Kelleher was an exemplary interlocutor – self effacing, well-informed, flexible, and asking questions that opened doors.


We went home for lunch etcetera, then I caught the bus back intending to go to the 3 o’clock session, Blak Brow: Blak Women Take Control, with Evelyn Araluen and other first Nations women poets. But it was a free session and I’d forgotten about the SWF queues. I arrived at 2.45 to see a queue of about 30 people, who turned out to be the ones who were left over once the room was full. So I went home and finished blogging about Friday.


After an early dinner we went downtown for Lie to Me: An Evening of Storytelling at Sydney Town Hall. Our tickets were for General Admission in the stalls, so we arrived with more than half an hour to spare. The queue must have been at least thousand people long, but we eventually got decent seats, and the readers/performers all appeared on a huge screen as well as in their tiny persons, so all was well.

I hadn’t looked closely at the program, and was half expecting a fun evening along the lines of that British TV show where you have to guess whether a panellist is telling an outrageous lie or an even more outrageous truth. That’s not what I got.

Benjamin Law, warm, suave and revealing his naked ankles, did a great job as host. Each of six story-tellers delivered their piece, and then had a brief chat with him.

Patricia Cornelius, whose plays I’m ashamed to say I’ve not seen any of, read the powerful opening monologue from a new play, Julia, which turned out to be about child sexual abuse and the Catholic church, and added something I didn’t understand about Julian Assange. Chatting with Benjamin, she said she didn’t care for naturalistic drama, and often wrote dialogue in a very poetic move, but no one seemed to notice.

Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran’s opening gambit was to say that though she knew we expected her to talk about politics, she was going to tell some long concealed truths about herself. ‘I was a concubine in Saudi Arabia for ten years,’ she said, and before we could even gasp, she went on, ‘It was fun.’ She then reeled off a string of sordid, deeply cynical and increasingly improbable confessions. All these things had been written about her, she said, and not by Twitter trolls but by prominent journalists. She went on to talk about the absence of shame about lying in public life under neo-liberalism, and not only in Turkey. The idea of freedom, she said, has been corrupted so that it now applies only to consumption and sex.

Tim Soutphommasane, former Race Discrimination Commissioner, spoke soberly of the foundational stories of Australia, about our fabled egalitarianism and commitment to the fair go, which he argued don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Nayuka Gorrie, a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer, warmed us up by chatting about the Harry Potter movie where Harry is accused of lying when he has told an uncomfortable truth, and his punished includes ‘I must not tell lies’ being magically carved into the sin of his arm. Then they spoke powerfully about the lies that colonisation depended on – White lies about Black truths, repeated in currucilums, in literature, in speeches, until they become accepted as truths.

Oyinkan Braithwaite gave a deceptively modest talk. She began with assertions young women make to each other. ‘All men are cheats,’ for example. And she talked about things she learned about the oppression of women in Nigeria when she challenged these assertions.

Scott Ludlam was the only one in my festival who spoke about climate change. Memorably, he said that the Antarctic ice shelfs haven’t even heard of Tony Abbott.

And the evening finished with a song by Megan Washington: I’m probably showing my age here, but I wish they’d managed to get Tim Minchin.