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Censorship and checkpoints

Literary festivals in the Middle East face a range of obstacles

The organisers of the Hay Festival have announced Beirut39, a literary festival that promises to "take a fresh look at Arab literature", promoting 39 regional authors at a four-day celebration in 2010. Beirut (Book Capital of the Year 2009) follows Cartagena and Segovia in hosting global Hay festivals, but the literary celebrations in the Middle East aren't without their pitfalls.

In May, the Palestinian Festival of Literature was shut down by armed Israeli police on a few occasions and authors were stonewalled at the Allenby Bridge border checkpoint for hours. Jeremy Harding recalls opening night at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, when "scores of well-dressed people, drinking orange juice and managing their canapés, suddenly found themselves backing away from large men kitted out to fight the Battle of the Bulge or assault the Sunni Triangle".

Prior to that, the Dubai Festival of Literature saw controversy over the perceived blacklisting of Geraldine Bedell's The Gulf Between Us, a novel dealing with a gay Arab sheikh and his English lover. Margaret Atwood boycotted, citing concerns about censorship, but later made two live video appearances after organisers explained that the book wasn't banned, but rather not launched due to lack of commercial viability. Still, issues of censorship in the Arab world took centre stage after the much-publicised incident.

There have already been squabbles over biased judging criteria at Beirut39. The Egyptian writer Alaa El Aswany resigned as jury president, accusing the organisers of misrepresentation, as the potential participants were pre-selected by the literary journal Banipal. "How can you call it 'open' when a magazine is filtering the candidacies?" Aswany asked.

The obstacles faced by such festivities may be of many kinds but they are bound by a common theme. When confronted by intractable Israeli soldiers at the Allenby Bridge, Ahdaf Soueif summed it up best, succinctly remarking: "Here, we saw the clearest example of our mission: to confront the culture of power with the power of culture."