Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dubai's International Festival of Literature Opens Today, But It Is Far From OPEN!

So I've been pretty frustrated over the past two weeks at the news that a new International Festival of Literature in Dubai refused to accept Geraldine Bedell's "The Gulf Between Us" because it included a gay character in a gay relationship in it.

What's been bugging me is how there were still 66 "star" authors scheduled to attend, and I was so angry that no one was standing up and saying it was wrong.

So Thank you, Margaret Atwood!

Atwood drops Dubai festival

Canadian author Margaret Atwood has pulled out of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature after the Dubai-based fair's decision to pull a book that refers to a gay relationship.

Penguin, which had planned to launch Geraldine Bedell's "The Gulf Between Us" at the event, was informed in September it could not launch the book at the fair, which is due to open on 26th February, because it was anticipated that the book would not get past the censor.

The rest of the article is here.

Margaret's letter to the festival explaining why she will not attend is on her website, here.

I know that we in the West struggle with these issues. Should we engage as much as these restrictive societies allow us, accepting their limits on free speech, in the belief that it will help OPEN their society up eventually?

Google believes so - witness their approach in China.

But when a particular minority (like us Gays) are targeted with such intolerance - the mere MENTION of the gay characters in the book!!! - I'm glad SOMEONE had the balls to stand up and say - I'm not going to be a party to this. I'm not going to let you use my fame and prestige to pass off your "international festival of literature" as something truly international and diverse when it has no interest in being worldly or tolerant or inclusive.

As the author of the banned book wrote on her blog:
"Can you have a literary festival and ban books because they feature gay characters? Is that what being part of the contemporary literary scene means? The organisers claim to be looking for an exchange of ideas – but not, apparently, about sex or faith. That doesn't leave literature an awful lot of scope."

So hurray for Margaret Atwood. She's been lauded as a "Civil Liberties Hero Of The Week!"

And here's hoping Geraldine Bedell's book is a huge success.

And shame on Dubai's Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature.

What do you think? Engagement or Boycott? What's the right response?


Angie said...

I can see both sides, actually. Arab countries are still very strongly conservative, and even the king or ruling sheik or whoever often has to curb his liberal impulses when it comes to making changes, because the religious authorities (and the citizens who support them) are just that powerful. If this is the first international lit festival ever to be held in the Middle East, then yeah, I can see why the organizers wouldn't want to ruffle too many feathers. It's easy for us to say that they should show courage and backbone and stand up for what's right and the principles we believe in, but we don't have to live there. And we don't have to face the possibility of there never being a second international lit fair if this first one causes enough outrage and stink.

At the same time, though, I do applaud Margaret Atwood for refusing to take part on principle. Trying to force the fair to accept Ms. Bedell's book would have been wrong as well as counterproductive, but Ms. Atwood's boycott lets the festival organizers do their thing and make the decisions they feel are necessary while still making it clear -- to them and everyone paying attention to this issue -- that there are fundamental disagreements between the Arab world and the European world about what's right, and how open and free literature and its celebration should be.

Ms. Atwood is making her point effectively, and the festival organizers are protecting their festival. At this point, I think that's the best we can do, on both sides. No matter how much we might want to, we're not going to bludgeon the whole world into agreeing with us Right Now, and it's kind of obnoxious to try, no matter how strongly we feel we're right.

Once the festival is an annual tradition, and there are other festivals in the area, and the idea of people coming together to celebrate international literature is established and more widely accepted as a normal thing to do in the Arab World, then some festival will doubtless step over the line and feature a book with gay characters and themes. It might still be shut down, or the organizers might be harassed, but the people who make that decision will have some sort of background of support, and some sort of reasonable hope that it might be time for that sort of change. Right now clearly isn't that time, and I can't find it in me to condemn the current group of festival organizers too hard for not wanting to sabotage their brand new endeavor over this one book.

I'll also point out that the European west (including the US) has a long history of trying to force its own views and values on other peoples. That's not necessarily cool, any more than harassing homosexuals is. Cultural imperialism is just as smug and self-centered as trying to force your religion-based morals on others, and fighting one wrong with the other probably isn't a good strategy. :/


Terry Doherty said...

While I can appreciate the Arab perspective (very conservative), you either respect literature as a voice across cultures, or you don't. That means ALL of its voices, not an altered one.

Congratulations to Ms. Atwood ... Ditto to Andy Roddick, who recently boycotted an "Open" tennis event in UAE closed to Israelis.

Sarah Laurenson said...

The UAE is quite an interesting place. It is supposed to be the most Westernized of the Arab countries. That doesn't mean it's liberal. I interviewed for a job that would include travel to the UAE. Still not sure how I feel about that. Really not sure I would bring my wife with me.

Should they have included all books - even those that include something they have strong beliefs against? It's part of their culture. It's not what I would choose and I would love it if they were more open.

As for the tennis, they couldn't guarantee safety so they chose to not deal with it. Not sure that's the right choice, but I can understand it.

How can I expect the world to accept me when my own state is trying to forcibly divorce me and my wife?