Tag Archives: Reza Aslan

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 4

Saturday dawned with yet another clear sky. I finally understood that El Niño and the weather gods are smiling on the Writers’ Festival this year, and my light linen jacket was all the warmth I needed. It was my busiest day at the Festival, even busier for The Art Student, who went in early for The Joy of Art with Betty Churcher, John Armstrong and Alex Monroe. Rachel Kent, director of the MCA, who chaired the session, tried to keep up the SWF tradition of ditching her advertised topic, in this case presumably because joy hasn’t been sufficiently theorised, but according to the Art Student the panellists gave the audience what they’d paid for and kept joy on the agenda.

I arrived at Walsh Bay in time to join the AS in the packed Sydney Theatre for

11.30 am: Reza Aslan: Zealot
There’s a famous clip on YouTube of Reza Aslan being interviewed on Fox News. The Fox person is outraged that Aslan, a Muslim, has written Zealot, a book about Jesus Christ. The implication hangs in the air that this close to a literary equivalent of 9/11. Aslan is the very picture of cool reason, repeating over and over that he is a scholar who studies religion and has a scholarly interest in Jesus. He insists, to the point of being boring, that his primary identity in this context is as a scholar rather than as a Muslim.

I was a little worried that he might be just as one-track boring when not dealing with a terrified fundamentalist, a worry which was intensified by my past experience of interlocutor Steven Gale as somehow impersonal, even mechanical. But my worries were total garbage  – both men were fabulous. Reza Aslan was witty, warm and exuberant as well as scholarly; Steven Gale obviously liked him and revealed a mischievous streak of his own, at one stage slapping his thighs in enjoyment.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus rather than what he calls ‘the Christ of faith’, but he’s not a debunker – not, as he put it one of those biblical scholars who peers as if down a microscope and cries, ‘Ooh, look at all the people believing things!’ Asked what was known with certainty about the historical Jesus, he said that if you brought a hundred biblical scholars onto the stage and asked that question, once the fisticuffs had finished they would come up with a hundred different answers. But they would agree on three things: he was a Jew; he preached something called the kingdom of heaven, though there would be much disagreement about what it was; and the Roman occupiers executed him because of that. All the same, he says there’s nothing particularly new in his book – its aim is to open up the field to a wider audience. Sure, he takes many positions that other scholars will disagree with, but then he lists the disagreers in copious endnotes.

Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. He was one of probably hundreds of self-proclaimed messiahs of the first century of the common era, which Aslan said was the Middle East’s most turbulent period in history (cue gasp from audience!). Every messiah, including Jesus, had a project to free the Jewish people from the oppressive Romans, and when each one failed he was seen not to have been the real messiah. Jesus differed crucially (no pun intended, the cross wasn’t particularly distinctive) in that his disciples reported experiencing him as risen from the dead – something completely novel in the Hebrew context.

The four Gospels, he pointed out uncontroversially, were written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Given that the Jesus movement had been pretty unsuccessful among Jews, the Gospel accounts were tailored to make it more attractive to the Romans. This they did in three ways: they made Jesus’ teachings seem less embedded in Jewish culture, more ‘universal’; they removed the nationalism, translating it into ‘spiritual’ terms; they shifted the blame for his death from the Romans to the Jews (what we know of the historical Pontius Pilate’s extraordinary cruelty makes the Gospels’ account of him reluctantly complying with the High Priests’ demand that he crucify Jesus completely implausible).

Aslan ended on an enigmatic note: in all the gospels, it was women who discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is a stumbling block for historians, because at that time women could not be called as witnesses, so if the gospels were inventing the story they would have picked  someone else as the discoverers. [I immediately decided that Mary Magdalen was the key person who ensured that the Jesus movement survived his death.]

We had an hour for lunch and then were just about the last people to squeeze into the Philharmonia Studio for

1.30: The Changing Face of Indigeneity: Now and Beyond
Wesley Enoch, Anita Heiss and playwright Nakkiah Lui were on a panel chaired beautifully by Lydia Miller. If I understood what Lydia Miller said in her introductory remarks, Native Title legislation of the early 1990s changed the way people in Australia think about indigenous identity, because it led to a diversity of narratives. There is also diversity because of intergenerational differences – I think I heard correctly that 60 percent of Aboriginal Australians are now under 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are under 15.

The panellists, two from the theatre and one novelist, addressed the theme interestingly. Wesley Enoch described himself as a psychological vampire, looking around for young Aboriginal blood for use in the theatre. Anita Heiss told us that there are 60 different pieces of legislation in Australia defining what it is to be Aboriginal, and this obsession on the part of whites with defining Aboriginal identity  was something that Aboriginal artists constantly have to negotiate: ‘We don’t sit around discussing identity with each other all day, you know. We have other things to do, like shopping.’  Nakkiah Lui, who spoke very quickly with the result that she was often incomprehensible to me (more about that later), said she was interested in critiquing the power relationships that were the context of cultural work. All three of them brought both zest and urgency to the question of challenging the dominant culture’s unremitting project of containing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in straitening identities.

[I’m writing this after seeing the wonderful Brothers Wreck at Belvoir Street on Sunday evening. The play reminded me of two other comments: Nakkiah Lui pointed out that there had been two Indigenous productions a year at Belvoir Street for some time now, and that this was building on an established tradition of Aboriginal theatre making. Wesley Enoch said that at the Queensland Theatre Company (of which he is Artistic Director) they find that if the audience is more than 20 percent Aboriginal, the response to Aboriginal theatre is completely different – the white audience members become a lot less uncertain in their responses, more open to the work.]

And then with a rapid change of mindset, to

3 pm: #three jerks,
This is a descendant of Alleyway Honour, a highlight of the 2009 Writers’ Festival. Like that event it is an austerely theatrical reading devised by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and directed by Roslyn Oades. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman and Peter Polites, three of the five readers from the earlier production, here read interlocking first-person stories. My assumption is that each of them wrote his own story.

Opening with an infamous 2006 quote from Sydney Muslim cleric Sheikh Hilaly about where blame should be apportioned for a number of rapes in Western Sydney, the stories play out a key couple of days in the lives of a number of Western Sydney adolescents – a gay Greek boy, a white boy who gets caught up in a petty crime, and Lebanese boys dealing with adolescent sexual politics. Some of it is confronting stuff, but there’s an intelligent reaching for understanding, and a basic decency in all three narratives.

The show is scheduled for a second appearance at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne: at the Wheeler Centre 7 pm Friday 30 May. So if you’re in Melbourne here’s a chance to hear voices direct from Western Sydney, to provide some kind of counterpoint to the constant wailing about Western Sydney in the political commentariat.

[Luke Carman read very quickly, too quickly for me to understand most of it. This being the third time I’ve made such a complaint at this Festival, I have to ask if the problem isn’t with me rather than the rapid speakers. My ever-sympathetic partner is adamant that the problem is not that Melbourne poets, young playwrights and anglophone Western Sydneysiders talk too fast, but that my deafness has passed the point where I need a hearing aid.]

Bickering amiably about my growing disability, we headed up the queue outside the same theatre for the next session:

4.30: Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist from the US, chatted for an hour to Australian TV journalist  Mark Davis about his book detailing the extent of the US’s covert military operations, particularly those undertaken by the Joint Security Operations Council.  This was pretty scary stuff: Scahill’s early discoveries were dismissed by a spokesman for the White House as conspiracy fantasy, but the Snowden tapes confirmed that he was right on the money. Denied access to top levels of the military and the government, he has nonetheless built a substantial number of sources at the operational level. Mark Davis repeatedly expressed his astonishment and envy that in the US public employees seem to be willing to speak frankly to the press in a way that is not only illegal in Australia, but also simply not done.

Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (subtitle taken from a Dick Cheney memo) is a hefty paperback. We stayed to watch the film of the same name, which follows his investigation into darker and darker territory until it reaches the climax of the killing by drone of a 16 year old boy, a US citizen against whom no charge had every been made. This was by a military unit that was legitimised by Rumsfeld but now operates under Barack Obama’s direct authority.

We walked to the train though the incredible crowds that had turned out for the first Saturday night of the Vivid Festival. The Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Customs House are all lit spectacularly. Having just come from these revelations of what the government of our special allies are doing in almost complete secrecy it was hard not to think of bread and circuses. Here’s the bit from Juvenal’s 10th Satire (which I found on Wikipedia):

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

End of Year Lists

The Art Student proposed that I post about my best five books, best five movies and worst three movies for 2010. And hers. Being an obliging fellow, and at the risk of exposing myself as a philistine, here they are. Do nominate your own favourites in the comments.

The five movies most enjoyed in 2010 (in no particular order):

By me:

Animal Kingdom, David Michôd’s first feature, so human and yet so vile. (When Jacqui Weaver was being made much of in the US for this performance, Michôd reportedly said to himself, ‘About time.’ To which I cry Amen!)

Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole, what some people would undoubtedly see as a fundamentalist left feminist feelgood movie – and what’s wrong with getting to feel good about a victory?

Peepli [Live], directed by Anusha Rizvi & Mahmood Farooqui, a wonderfully ebullient satire on the way the media in India just like here makes spectacle out of misery – a comic commentary on P Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought.

Temple Grandin, made for TV by Mick Jackson, starring Clare Danes as Temple Grandin, the woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who revolutionised the treatment of cattle in US slaughterhouses.

In the Loop, exuberantly enraged, foul mouthed satire directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Peter Capaldi, which I found cathartic.

By the Art Student:

City Island, a genial comedy directed by Raymond De Felitta, starring Andy Garcia, and Julianna Margulies playing a very different character from Alicia in The Good Wife on TV.

The Yes Men Fix the World, featuring culture jammers Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, and any number of corporation representatives being taken for a ride.

Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater.

Peepli [Live]. At last we agree on one.

Fair Game, the pic about Valerie Plame, directed by Doug Liman.

The film that most cried out for a thumbs down from both of us

Rob Marshall’s Nine. At least they had the good taste to wait until Fellini was dead before defiling his work in this way. The fault lines in our unanimity of taste showed when the Art Student had trouble choosing between this, Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, both of which I enjoyed.

Five favourite books read in 2010

By me:

I listed 121 books in my Reading and Watching blog during 2010. I didn’t finish all of them, but picking five favourites is necessarily pretty arbitrary because so many of them delighted and enlightened me. However, here goes.

China Miéville, The City and the City. Science fictional policier, marvellously taut and convincing us to believe in an impossible world.

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda. Written by an Australian, this tells the story of a Japanese man who fought against and killed Australians in the jungles of New Guinea, and his resolve to honour his comrades who died there.

Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season. I read this in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Haiti. It is a very rich introduction to the culture and recent history of the nation created by the first successful black slave revolt of modern times.

Jennifer Maiden, Pirate Rain. This may not be the best book of poetry published this year. Many people would probably give precedence to Les Murray’s Taller When Prone or Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain. But Jennifer Maiden gets my gong.

Marilynne Robinson, Home. If I ever convert to stern Presbyterian Protestantism, it will be because of this book and its predecessor, Gilead. I love the characters’ unrelenting quest to love with integrity.

By the Art Student, in her own words:
While I have read quite a bit of fiction that I enjoyed, the books that stand out are all non fiction.

Reza Aslan, How to win a cosmic war. I heard him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. The book is a clear and compelling account of the past and current drivers of religious fundamentalism – Islamic, Jewish and Christian. It shows the common threads in religious fundamentalism while focusing on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. What is interesting is Aslan’s description of the difference between Islamic nationalist groups (which the West should learn to love) and internationalist jihadism. By fighting the former, Aslan argues, we are pushing alienated young western-born Middle Eastern  Muslims into joining the latter and terrorism.

Carol Duncan,  Civilizing Rituals, Inside Public Art Museums. This includes a fascinating account of the development of public art museums after the French Revolution liberated the Louvre. It mainly focuses on the development of public galleries in the USA and England, but links these developments to a popular movement to have art galleries in all major western cities (including Sydney). But most interesting are the struggles about what galleries were and are for, how they should be funded and what they should show. In the USA, private philanthropists were the driving force in establishing galleries, allowing them to build spacious monuments to benefactors. The down side was that those benefactors wanted control beyond death, so that many galleries are filled with replicas of ballrooms and indifferent art that are never to be changed. Duncan’s final chapters critique current public galleries’ approaches to their art and audiences, making it clear why many people find the experience of visiting galleries unsatisfying and alienating.

John Hirst, Sentimental Nation, the Making of the Australian Commonwealth. Federation? Surely the dullest topic in Australian history. But to my surprise this book was a wonderful read of the decades-long fight for federation. Depressingly familiar in some respects (the Murray–Darling debate, immigration, taxes, mining, Commonwealth–state power sharing) it was also a wonderfully inspiring account of democratic processes that gave Australia a constitution. There were three Constitutional Conventions, with 60 men voted from  the colonies to draft, debate and redraft the constitution over 12 weeks each time. Once agreed on, the constitution was subject to two referenda before being passed. Town hall meetings were held in every suburb and town in the country, each meeting often taking four hours while every section of the draft was read aloud,  explained and debated. Hirst makes the back and forth of politics come alive with a contemporary feel.

Richard in the Era of the Corporation

Patricia Hill, Alice Neel. Alice Neel (1900 to 1984) was a US artist who painted mainly portraits of ordinary working people over from the 1920’s until her death. She was a socialist and worked as part of the Federal Art Project (a New Deal initiative) during the Depression. She only received recognition of her work in the 1970s, partly because portraiture was out of fashion in Modernist American art circles,  partly because of her left wing views and partly because of her gender. I love her work. Her portraits are often distorted yet capture absolutely a sense of the person and their context. She saw herself as painting ‘definitive pictures with the feel of the era’, pointing to her portrait of her son in a business suit, ‘Richard in the Era of the Corporation’ as a good example.The book is largely Neel’s own words taken from interviews conducted by Hill. An inspiring read for someone at the very beginning of an art career as she approaches 60.

Do tell us your bests of 2010 in the comments

My second full day at the SWF

I was off to Walsh Bay again for the day today.

10 : 00 Marie Munkara in conversation with Irina Dunn
I first heard of Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing on Will Owen’s blog last December, and it’s been on my To Be read list since then. If it hadn’t been, this session would have put it there, especially when she read the opening pages, beginning most memorably, ‘It had been a shit of a day for Sister Annunciata and Sister Clavier.’ Irina (full disclosure: she’s an old and dear friend) did a lovely job of drawing out Marie’s biography in relation to the book, giving her scope to be – miraculously –  funny about her experience as a member of the stolen generations meeting up at last with her Aboriginal family:

My mother was black. I was thinking, ‘That can’t be my mother. And you know how they say all black people look the same … I’d say, ‘Hello, Auntie,’ and my mother would say, ‘Don’t talk to her, she’s rubbish.’ I’d say, ‘But isn’t that Auntie …’ ‘No!’

When she was little her class at school had to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. She drew a figure with a red cloak and a crown. Sister Damien said, ‘Marie, you can’t be a king.’ But young Marie insisted that that’s what she wanted to be, because a king has lots of money and can do what he wants. ‘Now,’ said Marie today, ‘I haven’t got much money but I do what I want.’

11 : 30  Terrorism: How to Win a Cosmic War – Reza Aslan talking to Tony Jones about the futility of the War on Terror
I am not a Tony Jones fan. Ever since his extraordinary performance interviewing Nicole Cornes on election night 2007, I have had trouble watching him interview anyone. But Reza Aslan’s articulate confidence was a match for his combative style, and their sparring was actually enjoyable. Reza Aslan distinguished between Islamism and Jihadism. Islamism, he says, is a form of nationalism seeking to establish an Islamic state in principle no more diabolical than a Christian state like Greece or a Jewish state such as Israel. Jihadism is anti-nationalist, seeking to establish planet-wide Islamic theocracy. He went on to say that Islamism is the answer to Jihadism: that if Islamists are able to participate in normal political processes, Jihadism will lose its recruiting grounds. It was a riveting presentation, and we bought his book.

13:00 to 14:00 Three Australias: Les Murray, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Kim Cheng Boey reading their poems, chaired by Rhyll McMaster
This was the only event I attended where I had to stand in one of the monster queues and for some reason receive a “Good work” stamp on my wrist. The readings were interesting. I was especially glad to hear more of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s work, having read only her long piece on the Intervention in the Best of 2009 collection. Kim Cheng read one of the poems he read on Friday morning, and it was a pleasure to hear it again. Les Murray, who was probably the reason this event was held in one of the bigger spaces, was as always Les Murray, and a good thing too.

Ali Cobby Eckermann acknowledged the Gadigal people, as Anita Heiss and Boori Prior did yesterday. I wonder if it was by formal decision that such acknowledgements were not made at any other events, at least none of those I attended. Whether deliberate or not, I think the festival was the poorer for the absence of such acknowledgements. I also missed the PEN chairs at paid events, and the brief explanation of the imprisoned writer each chair represented. There is a roped off area in the vast Heritage Pier populated by a dozen beautifully painted chairs and a soundscape. The chairs are to be auctioned to raise money for PEN, but that’s not the same as explicit acknowledgement of named individuals.

2: 30  Who’s Interviewing Who? Alan Ramsey and John Faulkner
These two – a retired journalist famous for his take-no-prisoners opinion pieces and the Federal Minister for Defence famous for his ineluctable pursuit of corruption – have been friends for 20 years or so. They told us in all seriousness that the reason the friendship has thrived for so long is that they never discuss politics. They then moved on to discuss politics, with some tense moments. They were very funny together. At one stage Ramsey left the stage to get the quotes he’d left somewhere. Faulkner continued in the role of interviewee.

17 : 30 The Big Reading: Hanan al-Shaykh, Willy Vlautin, Dubravka Ugresic, Natasha Solomons and Rupert Thomson
This was my last event for the festival. It was, as it always is, pleasant to be read to. In particular I loved being read to again by Rupert Thomson – and the tone of the extract he read from This Party’s Got to Stop couldn’t have been further from that of the one he read on Thursday morning. It must be an intriguingly complex book.

I had been planning to stay in the general area to hear Jennifer Maiden, David Brooks and Adam Aitken read. But the reading didn’t start until 9.30, and it was in a wine bar. As a non-drinker who is very often in bed by 10 o’clock, I found the deterrents outweighed the attractions. I had heard a little of Aitken and Brooks this week (though the latter hadn’t been reading his own work), and I decided with regret that I would have to forgo the great pleasure of hearing Jennifer Maiden.

The Festival’s slogan this year was Read, Rethink, Respond. There wasn’t a lot of space at the festival itself for responding (question times just don’t do it!), and for that matter not a lot of reading got done, at least by the punters. But I’ve come away with plenty to think about, and the world is full of opportunities to respond, and far too much waiting to be read.