Following a swell of public support, Iranian children’s illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi has been granted a visa to enter the UK with just days to go before he is due to attend Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Last week, The Bookseller reported that Abdollahi had had his standard visitor visa application declined for his visit to Edinburgh International Book Festival, which provoked outrage from the book trade and the wider public. The illustrator was scheduled to host several children’s events and art workshops based around his new book, A Bottle of Happiness, and his publisher, indie press Tiny Owl, had secured funding to cover the costs of his visit.
However on Thursday (27th July) a "delighted" Tiny Owl publisher Delaram Ghanimifard confirmed the news that the UK embassay in Dubai had overturned its initial decision and granted Abdollahi a visa to enter the UK following a social media campaign.
Abdollahi has said he is "lost for words" by the U-turn. "A Bottle of Happiness is a story of understanding between two different people and cultures," he said. "It's about a little boy sharing the happiness of his people with others on the other side of the mountain. I experienced the solidarity and kindness of people who gave their support. The boy with the bottle of happiness overcame the obstacle of the mountain and can now travel to the people on the other side. A Bottle of Happiness made me happy again."
Ghanimifard praised the result as a "real testament to the support Abdollahi has received over the last week" and said she hoped the decision would set a precedent for artists wishing to enter the UK in the future.
“We're delighted that the embassy has overturned their decision to grant Ehsan Abdollahi's visa", she said. "We thank everyone who wrote to their MPS, shared the #VisaForAbdollahi hashtag and bought books in protest. We hope that for us, and for other publishers, this will set a precedent for artists wanting to come to the UK in the future."
Ghanimifard reiterated her views that stories were important to help people understand different cultures and find their own similarities with them. "Through meeting the artists that create these stories, children’s own literary and imaginative landscape grows and a greater understanding between cultures is developed," she said. "We believe that stories act as bridges – so from Ehsan and all of us at Tiny Owl, to everyone who helped us to keep building these bridges, thank you.”
Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, also welcomed the news, saying that it was a victory for free speech and the sharing of ideas. "I am absolutely thrilled for Ehsan Abdollahi, and for all the people who will now be able to meet him in Edinburgh," he said. "But more fundamentally I am relieved that an artist has been granted permission to travel to the UK from Iran and talk about his work at the Book Festival this summer. Now more than ever, we need to hear people like Ehsan talking about their ideas."
His comments were echoed by Janet Smyth, children and education programme director at the festival, who said: "Ehsan’s exquisite illustrations deserve a wide audience and I am excited that he will be able to appear with the author Pippa Goodhart to talk about their book, A Bottle of Happiness. And I’m proud that a brilliant independent publisher like Tiny Owl will have the opportunity to celebrate their work in front of our incredibly enthusiastic Edinburgh readers."
At the time his visa was refused, Abdollahi told The Bookseller he was dismayed to miss out on the “new experiece” of the festival. He said: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get upset because attending Edinburgh Book Festival is important to me. It would have been a new experience for me and I could have interacted face to face with writers, publishers, readers and children – giving all of us a chance to gain and share new experience and information.”
For a standard visitor visa, applicants must provide “evidence that [they] can support [themselves] during your trip, such as bank statements or payslips from the last six months”. However, the Home Office deemed Abdollahi's financial documentation as insufficient, and its letter stated: "I am not satisfied you have shown that your ties to Iran are sufficient incentive to leave the UK at the end of your proposed visit.”
Tiny Owl said it was the third consecutive year that its authors and illustrators had been denied entry to the UK in order to host children’s events at book festivals. The Bookseller also heard from publishers such as Comma Press and Saqi Books who have recently had their authors’ visas blocked through “bureaucratic traps” and “Kafka-esque potholes”.
Edinburgh International Book Festival is taking place from the 12th to 28th August 2017.