The Dubai literary festival’s decision to ban a novel set in a fictional Gulf Emirate due to launch at the event next week because of “cultural sensitivities” prompted Canadian author Margaret Atwood to withdraw Tuesday out of concern over censorship.
Other authors, including bestselling children's authors Anthony Horowitz and Lauren Child, were reportedly also reconsidering whether to attend, while a leading Egyptian novelist and author said they opposed the ban but would still attend.
Atwood, best known for her book The Handmaid’s Tale said that as vice president of an international writers' group concerned with freedom of expression she could not take part.
“I was greatly looking forward to the festival, and to the chance to meet readers there; but, as an International Vice President of PEN -- an organization concerned with the censorship of writers -- I cannot be part of the festival this year,” she wrote in a letter to the organization’s director posted on her official site.
"I know you have put an enormous amount of work into it, I can imagine how many difficulties have had to be overcome, and I am very sad about the regrettable turn of events surrounding The Gulf Between Us," Atwood wrote to the festival’s director.
Isobel Abulhoul, director of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature, said it was “regrettable” Atwood withdrew “especially at such late notice.
The book was due to receive its official launch during the festival, but Abulhoul noted that Bendell was told in September about the festival’s decision but that it only came to the public’s attention after the publication of her novel, which is also banned in the UAE.
“In the time that has elapsed since issuing provisional invitations and in confirming attendance, Dubai has not changed its social mores, culture or laws,” Abulhoul said Wednesday.
The Gulf Between Us
The Gulf Between Us is a romantic comedy set in a fictional emirate, the only English novel the author said she knows of that is set in the Gulf. In an article she wrote on Britain’s the Guardian books blog Tuesday, she said the “weird-sounding objections” she received from the event’s organizers included “an almost comically long list of reasons why they couldn't have it at their festival.”
“These included "it is set in the Gulf", "it talks about Islam", and "it focuses on the Iraq war and could be a minefield for us," wrote Bedell. There is also a minor character who is a gay sheikh with an English boyfriend.
Bestselling children's author Anthony Horowitz, a key speaker at the festival, was also considering whether he would have a bigger impact by pulling out of the event or protesting at it, according to the Guardian.
"The issue here is not sexuality – but you must understand that as both a children's author and a member of PEN, I cannot be associated with a literary festival that opposes freedom of speech and which attempts to censor other writers," he wrote in an email to the festival's organizer.
"I must ask you to let me know, with some urgency, quite how this situation has arisen and where exactly you stand. It doesn't help that my name is being used constantly to promote the festival … in truth, I should have known about this earlier."
But Arab authors, who pointed out that they live in states that do not enjoy as much democracy as Britain, remained committed to attending the festival to support literature in the Arab world.
“I’m committed, I’m going anyway and I feel it is important to support such events even though they take some decisions I oppose still it is not my role to tutor them. My role is to represent my culture, my country, my writing and a budding festival,” Sahar el-Mougy, an Egyptian author and lecturer at Cairo University due to speak about women writers in the Arab world, told AlArabiya.net.
“I know very well how literature and culture are used in political battles, I know that very well,” she said, based on her experience in Egypt. “There have been incidences of censorship when MPs and others haven’t read the books but are using them to impact the Ministry of Culture. This threat is there all the time.”
"Writers must fight against censorship but also support literature," said Khaled al-Khamissi author of the best-selling Taxi, the Egyptian version of taxi-cab confessions, who planned to attend the festival despite the ban.
“We live with censorship. We must survive with it. We don’t accept it but we live with it,” he told AlArabiya.net.