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."

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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt