Dubai - bridging the gulf between us

Liz Thomson
News - International 01 Mar 2009

The and the reported banning of her novel The Gulf Between Us (which Magrudy's has stated that it will stock) had threatened at one time to derail the Festival, but Margaret Atwood's expression of doubt about her decision to withdraw from Dubai ensured that everyone remained on board. Novelist Kate Mosse took the view that Dubai, for her at least, would be about engagement with Arab writers and writing, and that more good would come of participation than a boycott. In the event, the organisers' response to the fracas was to stage an International PEN/EAIFL debate, chaired by Eugene Schoulgin, International Secretary of International PEN, and featuring writers from Saudi Arabia, Palestine and the Ukraine, as well as Britain (Rachel Billington, past President of English PEN), Dubai (HE Mohammed al-Murr, Vice-Chairman of the Dubai Cultural and Arts Authority) and, by videolink from Canada, Atwood herself, plus Nelofar Pazira, President of PEN Canada.

To the evident fury of many who got up early to hear it, the debate mentioned neither Bedell nor her book. Schoulgin opened the proceedings by noting that there were 'a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to freedom of speech' and that the battle against censorship was 'a fight that has to go on'. He added that even Norway did not have freedom of expression 50 years ago. Billington talked about the need for 'a sense of proportion' and the fact that, according to the most recent figures, some 1,000 writers were in prison because of their writing'. Those on the outside 'must think of what we can do in a positive way to bring people together'. In other words, dialogue not boycott.

Andrea Kurkov, a Ukrainian who writes in Russian, observed that, in the old days, a banned book was a sign of quality. 'Now we don't have censorship, writers have no stimulus to be clever. They only want to entertain,' he observed impishly. There was, he said, 'a very thin borderline between real censorship and real freedom of expression'. He worried that political correctness might be as damaging as actual censorship.

Al-Murr a published writer as well as a politician, recalled how his work had been branded 'obscene' by UAE censors in the 1980s for its depiction of 'drug-taking and unfaithful wives'. He had felt compelled to point out that medieval Arab literature had been free to celebrate 'the voluptuousness of physical pleasure'; only the 'new puritanism' found it disgusting.

The debate's star turn, though, was Rajaa al-Sanea, the young Saudi woman whose fiction debut, Girls of Riyadh, now published in almost 30 languages, was first published in the Lebanon. She spoke of the importance of the internet in the fight for freedom of expression, and of how, along with mobile downloads, it helped sweep away 'the obstacles in the path of this taboo-breaking book'. Having been published in the Lebanon, Girls of Riyadh was both downloaded and bought illegally in Saudi, where censors eventually sanctioned its official publication. Al-Sanea - who is now a qualified dentist - referred lightly to the death threats she had received and observed that what had happened to her book would not have been possible 10 years ago. She looked forward to further progress in the region.

Atwood talked about the West's self-censorship and the need for writers to consider their audience. And she pointed out that, while we may not like it, parents had to have the freedom to brand as unsuitable some of the books their children were studying a school. 'You have to take your chance. A novel is a message in a bottle which you throw into time and space. You don't know who will pick it up, but your responsibility is to the work.'

Later, in a videolinked 'in conversation', the novelist admitted that she'd heard the words 'ban' and 'censorship' and had gone into action, without first checking the facts: 'We rallied round a flag that wasn't there.' Acknowledging that 'an independent festival has to exercise its own right and judgment - it's not the same as a ban', she said she regretted not being in Dubai, and did not deny that her presence would have been an encouragement to her fellow writers. Among these was a handful of Arab women writers, in addition to al-Sanea, who, during her own controversially moderated session, demonstrated only too clearly what very real obstacles had yet to be overcome. Self-confessed feminist Sahar el-Mougy, author and academic, had to contend with broadcaster Hani Nakshabandi, an unreconstructed male, in a situation that was as nothing compared to real life for many Arab women.

That, and al-Sanea's casual reference to death threats, puts the Bedell affair into context. It is nothing more than a tempest in an Arab teapot when compared with the life and death issues with which many less privileged writers grapple. That is the real gulf between us - a gulf that can only be bridged with support from Atwood and the rest of us in the supposedly more enlightened West.

Photo: Margaret Atwood and Nelofer Pazira on videolink from Canada as, in Dubai, Festival delegates (l-r) Ibraham Nasrallah, Andrea Kurkov, Rachel Billington, Eugene Schoulgin, Rajaa al-Sanea and HE Mohammed al-Murr discuss censorship.

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