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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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