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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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution