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Where should Dubai draw the line?

Where should Dubai draw the line?

The censorship of a book from the literary festival in Dubai has let to anger and indignation among the participating authors. But is Dubai justified in its step?

February 21, 2009 9:29 by

International media outlets are currently debating a possible collapse of the upcoming Dubai International Festival of Literature, after authors began protesting the censorship of a British book.

The book, The Gulf Between Us, by Geraldine Bedell was supposed to be launched at the event, but was cancelled after organizers said that it could affront the regional sensitivities because it talks about Islam, focuses on the Iraq war and included a gay character.

At first glance, the statement from the festival’s director Isobel Abulhoul, seems fair. “I have lived in Dubai for 40 years. Based on my knowledge of who would appeal to the book-reading community in the Middle East, and having read 150 pages of Ms Bedell’s manuscript I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities.”

Basically, Abdulhoul doesn’t want to rub anyone the wrong way.

But it also brings to light Dubai’s torn image: even as it struggles to bring international cultural and artistic events to the region on one side, it is desperate to hold onto what it believes are its cultural principles.

Authors, filmmakers and other artist are always looking to break free from the mould, to explore new avenues and to express themselves with no strings attached. As Bedell told The Independent, “Can you have a literary festival and ban books because they feature gay characters? Is that what being part of the contemporary literary scene means? The organizers claim to be looking for an exchange of ideas – but not, apparently, about sex or faith. That doesn’t leave literature an awful lot of scope.”

While Canadian author Margaret Atwood has already pulled out of the festival, children’s author Anthony Horowitz is also reportedly thinking about withdrawing. Others may follow suit.

The negative publicity surrounding the inaugural event in Dubai is certainly not going to work for the city. But are the festival directors’ hands tied?

Furthermore, is Dubai justified in censoring books that it thinks aren’t in line with its beliefs? Or should it think twice before inviting international art and cultural events?

Update- A statement from Isobel Abulhoul on Saturday, 21 February.

“I am delighted that Margaret Atwood has re-confirmed her support for the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EAIFL) at which authors from more than 20 countries will be present. We are naturally disappointed that Ms Atwood can not now attend the Festival in person after the unfortunate chain of events over the past week initiated by a series of misleading and incomplete press reports.

One of the positive outcomes from this is that PEN International has accepted our invitation to stage an event in partnership at the Festival on Saturday 28th February. This event will explore the issue of censorship and cultural preconceptions about the acceptable limits of freedom of expression. All authors attending EAIFL, many of whom are PEN members, are being invited to participate. The event will be facilitated by Eugene Schoulgin, International Secretary of PEN International. I am personally in touch with Margaret Atwood and her office about how best she can be involved in this event.”

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  1. Dismanirie on February 21, 2009 12:41 pm

    Any author participating in a “literary” festival in a country without freedom of speech should expect subjective interpretations to come into play. Arab countries fear their own authors, let alone foreigners writing about the region and culture.

  2. Ahsan on February 21, 2009 6:34 pm


    This article is several days behind. The Story has moved on:

  3. Dar K on February 22, 2009 5:51 am

    Most of these educated authors would have been well aware of the culture of censorship in the region when they accepted invitations to the event. Why such a fuss now?

  4. Rasheed on February 22, 2009 7:06 am

    Why do people feel hurt and offended when they face such issues which arise because they did not do their homework? Any kid on this planet would know that you cannot publish a book with sexual overtones, even if it’s negligible, in any of the GCC countries or other countries with Islamic rule. How could Geraldine Bedell be ignorant about this basic fact?
    We, and Kipp, should keep our expectations within limits. We can not expect Dubai to behave the way every one of us want it to. If we have come to Dubai, we behave the way Dubai want us to behave. It is understandable if someone complains about an administrative inefficiency or bureaucratic issues, but no one should demand to change a foreign country’s culture just because that culture cannot accommodate their demands.

  5. Ian on February 22, 2009 7:51 am

    Ms Abelhoul is between a rock and a hard place, and I sympathise strongly with her dilemma. Like it or not, the importation of books here is subject to the whim of the authorities. I quote from the Dubai Customs website:

    “Ministry of Information/Department of Information controls the import of print and visual media articles Like books, CDS, VCDs. The articles/items will be released ONLY after inspecting/censuring it to the importer. Normally any thing which contradict with the values, tradition and morality of the land will be banned”

    With this in mind, I understand that the author was advised by Ms Abelhoul that the book was unsuitable to be launched in Dubai some 6 months ago! So why has the furore erupted only now?

    One might suspect that the book’s publisher (Penguin – part of Pearson Longman) has manipulated the situation to gain maximum exposure for Bedell’s book, at Ms Abelhoul’s expense.

    Or would that be too cynical?

  6. Chris on February 22, 2009 8:43 am

    I’m not sure whether that is too cynical at all Ian. Crazy, when you think about it as it could create such long lasting damage to the new literary festival in Dubai. Surely this is a time when the industry requires both intrinsic support and a utilitarian outlook – get a new festival established and witness the good it can do books in the years to come (albeit a little rough on Bedell and her new launch at this juncture, but hopefully acceptance of these taboos will be realised in time). Instead it seems that someone, somewhere is riding roughshod, for the sake of a launch, over a laudable effort to promote a platform for literature in an emerging region…………..plenty of foresight there!!

  7. Jamie on February 22, 2009 10:47 am

    I’m surprised by people’s interpretation of the issue presented in this article. The issue isn’t about cultural sensitivities or hurt feelings or even the author’s ignorance to societal norms. The issue is about censorship of a work of fiction. An artist’s freedom of expression is their most important resource for furthering thought. If Dubai is going to hold a real literary festival, or any art festival for that matter, they need to consider that art will likely present (sometimes uncomfortable) ideas to evoke response. If you don’t like the idea of a story about a gay Sheikh then don’t read it. Better yet, debate the issue. I would like to reference the book Fahrenheit 451 but I’m afraid that those in charge might burn it.

  8. SAS on February 22, 2009 8:15 pm

    What people seem to be forgetting is that since the Dubai authorities are being open minded and enterprising enough to invite authors from all over the world to participate in their festival, they are NOT under any contractual obligation to invite authors whose works contradict their basic values. If the content of a certain book goes against the culture of Dubai, then Dubai is not required to invite the author to its shores, neither is it forcing anyone to participate in the festival in question.

  9. Aiz on June 12, 2009 11:56 pm

    To those preaching freedom of expression… you are free to go to other parts of the world to express your freedom to express… This is a Muslim country and Muslim morals standards apply (unfortunately only just these days). You are free to leave if you don’t like it. Freedom of expression may be a sacred pillar of western culture (a pillar steeped in hypocrisy) but its not sacred in this part of the world and our cultural norms have as much legitimacy as yours. So thank you for taking your patronising preaching elsewhere. Muslims have compromised values and standards to accommodate westerners too much for outsiders in this town already.

    Dubai needs to stop looking to the west for inspiration, which doesn’t fit in with its own cultural profile and start asserting its own ideas of what culture should be. We as Muslims have a rich and vibrant past our scholars and writers have been giants in their own right. Western works are welcome but why should the whole world have to move to their beat?

  10. godofreason on July 5, 2009 12:34 am

    How about they advertise the ‘Rules’ of the event instead of being mindless in their pursuit of social cohesion?

    UAE has no idea what its cultural morals are.

    Here’s a short list of what it might be
    1. no gay references
    2. no sex references
    3. nothing anti Islamic
    4. nothing against the kingdom of UAE

    Such a progressive society !


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