April 15, 2013KR BlogBlogEthics

On Being Silenced

Quick note: I have just received a phone call and follow-up email re-inviting me to the festival.

Much has changed in the last two weeks. From my last post to today, I have different eyes. More to the point, I have a different tongue.

I don’t disagree with my ideas – that art can and should be engaged even when the countries promoting it are punishing critical speech; that boycotts must be very well-considered; that to freeze out a country also freezes out its artists – but I cringe at the tone, which reads as so sure that I will never be the one silenced, the one frozen out for her writing.

Things began to change when the big-money Sheikh Zayed Book Awards (SZBA) were announced early last week. I had been looking forward to this announcement, as it was my impression that the SZBA — handed out each year at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair — could be morphing into a more interesting award. It’s rare enough to have an interesting award for Arabic literary production; many such awards have been suffocated by their close affiliations with state bodies.

The SZBA, now in its seventh cycle, has always had a “literature” category. But, in its earlier years, “literature” had included an apples-and-oranges jumble of creative and critical works. In 2010, the award (to a critical work) was stripped after allegations of plagiarism. But the organizers were open about it. They seemed to be saying: We made a mistake, let’s start over.

Last year, many of the books on the SZBA’s six-strong literature longlist were lesser-known, although the list was not without promise. Nonetheless, the final judging committee withheld the 2012 award, a decision I found baffling. I could find out no more about it than the canned statement: The books didn’t meet the committee’s “stringent criteria.”

This year, I was pleased to see that only creative works were eligible for the lit award, and I was even more pleased to see both acclaimed authors and popular works on the fourteen-strong list. It seemed a broad, varied longlist, with seven poetry collections (including one by Ibrahim Nasrallah) and seven prose works (including Mohamed al-Bisatie’s last work). Then last week, I was surprised to find, at the bottom of the press release about SZBA winners, that the lit award had been withheld for the second year in a row.

I see belatedly that there is some organizational sensitivity about this — Gulf news reports seem to gloss over this withholding, or decline to mention it altogether. Officially this is not the case: The PR manager for the award, Karin Boulos Aghadjanian, tells me that criticism of the SZBA is always welcome.

My criticism of the prize’s withholding was, if anything, mild. My final paragraph reads: “One year of not awarding the prize (like the US Pulitzer) is annoying; two years is silly: If this prize is to continue, the judging system clearly needs an overhaul.”

I initially wrote: “One year of not awarding the prize (like the US Pulitzer) is annoying; two years is silly: If this continues for a third year, they might as well scrap the prize altogether.” But I thought that was too sharp, and really, why shouldn’t the prize continue? We’re all a work in progress.

The first comment that my post received was not just surprising; it scared me. The poster, who identifies himself publicly only as “Andy,” wrote:

“What I cannot understand is, since you are so much against this Award as if you are out on a vengeance spree as if they killed your child (apparent from your continuous attacks on it) then why do you accept the invitations to visit Abu Dhabi Book Fair and even attend SZBA’s dinner??? so you only write your “best” works on a full stomach? An unmatched lesson in hypocracy, to say the least.”

After some further commentary, which you are free to read, he finishes:

“Trust me, the only list you’d make it to is a BLACK LIST.

“Enjoy your misery.”

If I could go back in time a week, I would not change a word in my post about the SZBA. But I would tell myself: Let it go. There’s no need to respond to anyone who suggests that misery is in your future. I responded to “Andy’s” ongoing criticism politely enough, although, with each successive reply, I got myself spun into a dynamic where my diffidence appeared as weakness.

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is run by the Abu Dhabi Culture and Tourism Authority, the same Authority that holds ultimate sway over the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. In 2012, I attended a large chunk of the fair, which has rapidly become a fair of international significance. This year, I had agreed to do double-duty: I’d write for the fair’s daily publication as well as speak at a panel about lit blogging, and probably introduce a speaker or two.

I certainly benefited from my time at the fair last year: With the powerful Frankfurt Book Fair’s five years of cooperation, the Abu Dhabi fair blossomed into a powerful, sophisticated book event. In 2012, I witnessed wonderful exchanges about topics I had thought would be taboo at an Emirati fair: sexuality, revolution, torture. Oh and yes, as “Andy” noted, I took several opportunities to fill my restless belly.

But despite my invitation to the 2013 fair, and my willingness to go, I will not be attending. “Andy”’s initial comment was apparently to the point:

“Trust me, the only list you’d make it to is a BLACK LIST.

“Enjoy your misery.”

Soon after his post, I was warned by friends that “Andy” might have touched a chord within the Authority. A few days later, I received a phone call from a friend at the fair, telling me that I was being dis-invited.

A number of people involved with the fair fought for my inclusion. A joint letter was written and signed by seven fellow journalists invited to the fair; we have waited since April 9, but have received no response.

I am not the first to complain of being frozen out by the fair; Egyptian publisher Sherif Bakr said as much to me last year. The fair went on without Sherif, and it will go on without me: With tens of thousands of books and intellectual luminaries like Nihad Sirees, Jim al-Khalil, Sjon, Ella Shohat, Rachid Boujedra, and Youssef Rakha (and and and), as well as mega-best-selling writers like Ahlam Mosteghanemi, fair-goers will find plenty to do.

The Abu Dhabi Book Fair is a big, extravagant, exotic plant brought to the city as a joint venture between Abu Dhabi’s cultural authority and the Frankfurt Book Fair. It came into flower suddenly and dazzlingly in 2007, bloomed more brightly in each successive year, and now is fully managed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority. The fair could adapt, set down roots, and become a local plant, one that is a leader regionally and globally. The Arabic reading, writing, and publishing communities could use an inclusive, critical, open-minded, well-managed book fair. The world could use it.

But the fair will not succeed if it hacks away at its roots — and surely among the roots of any literary festival are openness to criticism and a free exchange of ideas.