An international book festival in Dubai is facing the possibility of a mass walkout in its inaugural year with authors queuing up to protest against the censorship of a book that discusses homosexuality.
The Canadian novelist and former Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood sparked the controversy by pulling out of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature after a fellow writer was blacklisted for offending “cultural sensitivities”.
The book at the centre of the latest storm is The Gulf Between Us, a romantic comedy by the English writer Geraldine Bedell which is set in a fictional Gulf emirate. It was due to be formally launched at the festival but has been withdrawn by the festival at the last minute because it features a gay relationship. Bedell commented: “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 organisers 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.”
The festival director, Isobel Abulhoul, issued a statement in which she said: “I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities. I did not believe that it was in the festival’s long term interests to acquiesce to her publisher’s request to launch the book at the first festival of this nature in the Middle East.”
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The news story is one that has been brewing for a long time and is not the last of its kind we will read about. Dubai, and anyone who understands the region, knew that by trying to become a centre of world trade, commerce, art and sport that it has to bring in people from all over the world. This has resulted in a flood of expat labour as well as huge numbers of visitors/tourists. Naturally with foreign visitors come foreign ideas, beliefs, notions of acceptability and world views.
This row is a fine example of what happens when you invite the western literati to an event in a conservative Muslim Gulf state. Both sides have an issue here. Writers, in this case spearheaded by Atwood, see this as censorship against their freedom of ideas, freedom to pen whatever they like about whoever they like and basic freedom of expression. Muslims see this as an an unwanted element that can not be encouraged. It is however unfortunate for the event organisers that by banning the book they have drawn more attention to it.
In short, both sides have something to learn. The writers need to appreciate Dubai is a Muslim country with strict ideas, some of which have absolutely no flexibility. There must be some senstivity towards this in that a respect needs to be show for another’s way of life, beliefs and faith. Emiratis can not be expected to roll over and accept whatever is thrown at them in the name of modernity and freedom of speech. On the other hand, Dubai needs to assess how it will handle similar issues that arise in the future and think of alternative means to overcoming such bad publicity.