Dubai festival: a fair for all

<p>On Thursday (26th) the inaugural <a href="http://www.eaifl.com/">Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EAIFL)</a> will launch with more than 60 authors attending what is being described as a four day celebration of the &ldquo;world of books&rdquo;, with 51 events to be held across three days, followed by an &ldquo;education day&rdquo;. Fourth Estate is kicking off its 25th anniversary at the show: the event has its own <a href="http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=16597512809">Facebook group</a>, and you can even follow it on <a href="http://twitter.com/EAIFL">Twitter</a>.</p>
<p>Its opening will have come as a relief to its organisers following a week when it has become mired in controversy over a decision made by the festival&rsquo;s founder Isobel Abulhoul to reject a book on the grounds that it featured a gay character.</p>
<p>What the festival has now described as the mis-reporting of this rejection led to Margaret Atwood, one of its star authors, pulling out only to later soften her position&mdash;she is now attending virtually, taking part in a debate on censorship via a web link.</p>
<p>For a Middle East festival the event has a distinctly Western flavour. Isobel Abulhoul was born in Cambridge, emigrating to the United Arab Emirates in 1969. Bill Samuel, vice-chairman of Foyles, is a co-director. Midas has been handling the UK PR. While the event&rsquo;s sponsor, Emirates Airlines, is run by English-born Maurice Flanagan, without whom, Abulhoul writes on the EAIFL website, &ldquo;this bestseller would not have happened&rdquo;. Though there are number of events focusing on Arab writing, most of the slots are given over to Western authors, such as Kate Mosse, Anne Fine, Wilbur Smith and Anthony Horowitz.</p>
<p>The attendance of some of these authors was briefly put in doubt after the <i>Times</i> reported that Geraldine Bedell&rsquo;s <i>The Gulf Between Us</i> had been banned because it contained a gay character. In fact the book was not banned, it was merely submitted, and rejected. In the email sent to Penguin, now widely distributed, Abulhoul wrote: &ldquo;One of the Sheikhs is gay (Sheikh Rashid) and has an English boyfriend.&rdquo; The other reasons for rejecting the book were that it queried Islam and featured the Iraq War. &quot;These are just a few of my concerns,&quot; Abulhoul wrote, adding protectively, &quot;I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book.&quot;</p>
<p>The <i>Times'</i> story was widely picked up, and Bedell wrote a blog for the <i>Guardian</i> stating that the book had also been banned by the United Arab Emirates. Atwood almost immediately announced her withdrawal as other authors demanded explanations.</p>
<p>Later in the week, <i>Evening Standard</i> literary editor David Sexton weighed in calling on attendees to reconsider:&nbsp; &quot;What [do] they think they are doing attending a festival that has banned such a book. Betraying freedom of expression for a few days by the seaside in a luxury hotel, perhaps?&quot;</p>
<p>In a statement Abulhoul put out in response to the original <i>Times </i>story, she acknowledged that it had been her final decision, and said she &quot;knew that [Bedell's] work could offend certain cultural sensitivities&quot;.</p>
<p>It took about a week for a fuller explanation to emerge, orchestrated in the UK by Midas. The book had not been part of the event, the rejection email was sent in September, Abulhoul was merely respecting local mores. A&nbsp; hastily arranged debate on censorship was to take place in Atwood&rsquo;s slot, hosted by PEN.</p>
<p>The media guns instead turned on Penguin and Bedell. There were suggestions that the book was rejected by local booksellers because it was not very good, and that Penguin was milking the story for publicity.&nbsp; Philip Hensher, in the <i>Independent</i>, stated: &ldquo;It [official sanctioning] happens all the time; I don&rsquo;t like it any more than Bedell does, though I hope my objections are less nakedly self-interested.&rdquo; Abulhoul talked of &ldquo;misleading and incomplete press reports&rdquo;.</p>
<p>The <i>Times&rsquo; </i>Jack Malvern, who broke the story, told <i>The Bookseller </i>that he was unimpressed with the subsequent spinning. &ldquo;I was told by Bedell and by Penguin that the book had been banned, and I put this to Abulhoul for a response. She issued a statement through her British public relations representative that not only ignored my questions but stated, contrary to her admissions in her email, that the book had been excluded because the festival was oversubscribed. If she had responded properly to Penguin&rsquo;s allegation when she was first asked then she would be in a stronger position now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>For Malvern the rejection amounts to a ban: &quot;It is my guess that contrary to what Penguin told me, the book has not technically been banned by the censor, but has been banned de facto because Abulhoul (and her bookselling company Magrudy) anticipated the censor's reaction.&quot;</p>
<p>Juliet Annan, Bedell&rsquo;s publisher at Penguin imprint Fig Tree, is equally defiant. &ldquo;We certainly do not feel that we manufactured anything,&rdquo; she told <i>The Bookseller</i>.</p>
<p>Penguin still believes the book is banned in the UAE, if not by the official censor, then by booksellers themselves, perhaps in anticipation of the censor. It is not published until April, but <i>The Bookseller </i>was unable to ascertain whether this self-ban included Magrudy&rsquo;s&mdash;the UAE bookselling chain run by Abulhoul. In her September email Abulhoul certainly expressed an interest in selling it: &quot;I think it would be a&nbsp; good idea to have a proof copy asap and get a pass note to sell it.&quot; But Annan told the <i>Guardian</i>, &quot;we rely on information from the booksellers and they told us it was banned.&quot;</p>
<p>Sexton, who perhaps took the strongest line among media commentators, told <i>The Bookseller</i> that he did not regret his sentiments, like Malvern he says that what has happened amounts to a ban: &ldquo;There has been a refusal [on grounds that a character is gay], that remains the case. If there has been published a more suitable book to appear at such a festival then I don&rsquo;t know it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>But others are more forgiving. Mosse, who is to blog from the event for <i>The Bookseller,</i> described the furore as silly. Horowitz, who initially threatened to withdraw, acquiesced having been &ldquo;reassured&rdquo; by the organiser. Pen said it regretted the omission of the book, but has decided it was not a case of censorship. Director of International PEN, Caroline McCormick said: &ldquo;It is the role of International PEN not only to highlight censorship wherever it exists but, where differences arise, to facilitate dialogue to enable understanding.&rdquo; The British Council, which is partnering with the organiser, said it was committed to building mutually beneficial relationships and understanding through open dialogue.</p>
<p>Bedell is also sanguine. &ldquo;The only point I attempted to make was that <i>The Gulf Between Us</i> had been re&shy;jected by the festival on the grounds that it was too controversial,&rdquo; she told <i>The Bookseller</i>. &quot;The reasons were that there was a gay character and the book mentioned Islam and the Iraq war. Whatever the organisers may have said subsequently, these were the only reasons given; they claimed to like the book. This seemed to be an odd position for a literary festival.</p>
<p>&quot;When Penguin attempted to sell in the book into bookshops in Dubai, they were told the censor had banned it. (They say this is the usual way they find out that books are banned in the region). For all the sound and fury this week, neither of those facts has changed.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Nevertheless she still supports the festival and its aims. &ldquo;I didn&rsquo;t ever ask or want other writers to boycott the festival. I admire Isobel Abulhoul for setting it up and I think the only way forward is for writers to go to the Gulf and engage with people.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Midas is now hoping that coverage of the festival will move beyond the censorship row, with two of its directors attending the festival along with about a dozen journalists invited to cover the event by the organisers.<br />
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<p>* Kate Mosse will be blogging from the event for theBookseller.com.</p>