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 Aarti Nagraj
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.”