Looking back on EAIFL

<p>Writing back in the wet, as opposed to sandstorm heat of Dubai, it&rsquo;s extraordinary how significant a mere five days in Dubai feels. There were, of course, a few teething problems&nbsp; &ndash; anybody who&rsquo;s ever launched anything or run anything, knows one learns through trial and error &ndash; but the success of EAIFL is extraordinary.<br />
<br />
It is not, of course, by any means the first book festival in the Arab world and, politically, the Palestinian Book Fair in May 2008 was probably more significant. But it was my first experience of taking part in so genuinely international a festival outside of the UK. We are lucky in Britain with a huge number of book fairs, not least the Guardian Hay Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival both of which are excellent in inviting authors from every corner of the globe and at cross-cultural programming. But, in other countries, readers and indeed authors have fewer opportunities to interact, to listen, to learn. Rarer still is the chance for authors from the east to meet authors from the west, and on equal terms.<br />
<br />
In the PEN debate on censorship, the Saudi novelist, Rajaa Alsanea won over the room with her calm explanations of how she battled to have her novel <i>Girls of Riyadh</i> published and to bring the uncensored lives of Saudi women to a wide audience. She talked of &lsquo;courage&rsquo; and of &lsquo;support&rsquo; for other writers. I suspect there were many European, North American and African authors in the audience who had accepted the invitation to EAIFL with this romantic view standing shoulder to shoulder with writers who have fewer opportunities to be published than do we.&nbsp; She was joined on the PEN platform by the Palestinian author, Ibrahim Nasrallah. After years of persecution, harassment and intimidation, he lives and publishes in Jordan. He, too, talked about the necessity to support other writers, for a dialogue between east and west against the forces of conservatism, wherever they might show their faces. A collective voice can help to protect the individual author, isolated in his or her country.&nbsp; Mohammed Al Murr, deputy chairman of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, spoke as an author and journalist, a poet and short story writer who, too, has faced censorship of his work. For all the participants, the underlying message was that the purpose of literature was not to sugar coat the truth, but to portray life as it is from the inside. As the Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkhov added, when censored by a State with whom one is in opposition, it becomes &lsquo;an honour to be refused.&rsquo;<br />
<br />
For me, though, the question of the huge differences facing female and male authors in the Arab world was paramount and became clearer as the festival went on. Several women admitted they would have found it impossible to be published at all had they not either been supported by fathers, brothers, husbands to work, to write. Many had struggled in the first instance and several had experienced death threats, intimidation and isolation as a result of it. Many were in exile from their own countries, not for the substance of what they had written necessarily, but simply for writing at all. As a corollary to this, the essential influence and possibilities of the internet was highlighted by authors on the platform time and again, particularly for female writers in countries where there are different legal and social restrictions on men and women - Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Palestine and the UAE itself. Many of the Arab authors, male and female, had published online in the first instance, thereby building up support outside the country for their poetry or novels or polemical writings. This modern day equivalent of samizdat of the Soviet era, gave visibility, a voice, a little authority as author. And in some cases, such as that of Saudi novelist Rajaa Alsanea&nbsp; &ndash; where the book became a bestseller in 26 languages and countries &ndash; it led to works subsequently being published in the authors&rsquo; home countries.<br />
&nbsp;<br />
It is early days, of course. The dust &ndash; sand? - has barely settled. There will be analysis, feedback, discussions about what worked, what did not. Next year, there will be changes, no doubt. There will be new faces, different faces.&nbsp; But what mattered was the beginning of new relationships between authors, a tentative sharing of ideas, of possibilities. And the closing event - where poets Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, Grace Nichols and John Agard amongst others, celebrated the work of the late and revered Arabic poet Mahmoud Darwish - was an illustration of the purpose, the ambition and the success of EAIFL.</p>
<p><b>Updated, 6th March, see comments below.</b></p>