Trouble in Oz

   One of the international authors invited to take part in the Brisbane Writers Festival which ran 12-16 September was Abdel Bari Atwan, who has been editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the leading daily newspaper in Arabic, since 1989. He was born in a Palestinian refugee camp, and moved to London in 1978 to take a masters degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). As journalist, author and commentator, he is a well-known expert on Middle East affairs. He is also one of the few people ever to have interviewed Osama bin Laden (before 9/11), in a heavily armed cave in Afghanistan. He was petrified, as he told ABC radio: ‘Because I am a Palestinian he thought I was a guerilla-type person. I said, “I’ve never been a guerilla – I can’t even use a gun. I never killed a chicken in my life. I live in London.”‘
    Abdel was due to speak in Brisbane about his recent and well-received book ‘The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida’. But when the day for his departure arrived, he had still not received a visa to enter Australia, though he had applied six weeks previously. Normally – as in my own case – Australian visas, applied for on the internet, arrive electronically within about 48 hours. He could only conclude he was being discriminated against because of his race and religion, even though he has travelled to speaking engagements all over the world including the USA. Without a visa, he could not attend the Festival.
     He publicised his predicament, and the Australian newspapers and radio took it up. At the opening ceremony of the Brisbane Writers Festival, where I spoke briefly about the work of English PEN, and mentioned, under the circumstances, the importance of being watchful about what went on in our own backyards, the ’empty chair’ was centre stage with a particular significance. Michael Campbell, the Festival director, was in his address outspoken about Abdel Bari Atwan’s regrettable absence and the implications for freedom of expression in Australia. Campbell was in contact with the Immigration Department and was told the visa application was ‘still being assessed’ – but there was a quick change of heart, due no doubt to pressure from the Festival and to the media coverage, and the day after the opening ceremony the visa was issued.
     Abdel in consequence had to miss his first event, a panel discussion, but spoke twice – to packed audiences – during the course of the Festival, once on his book, and once on ‘Religion, Society and the Individual’. He told me he had greatly appreciated the support of his fellow writers.

Victoria Glendinning

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