The eighth edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature drew to a close in Dubai last Saturday and provoked some debate among writers (see here and here and here) about the rights and wrongs of hosting a celebration of the written word in a country that has zero tolerance for critical thought.
The UAE is a country where the authorities forcibly disappear journalists and academics and throw people in jail for sharing poems that criticize the government. On March 12, the day the festival ended, Human Rights Watch and PEN wrote to the UAE prime minister, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktum, the festival’s patron, and urged him to safeguard its future credibility by putting an end to the country’s “assault on freedom of expression.” So it’s not surprising that writers, whose livelihood depends on their ability to express themselves freely, might have misgivings about Sheikh Mohamed’s government’s dismal record on free expression.
The festival’s organizer, Isobel Alhoul, stressed the importance of engagement, arguing that the festival’s aim “has always been simple – to get as many people, particularly youngsters, reading and engaging with books in the Gulf region and beyond.” This is a valid and reasonable point, but it is also true that writers, publishers, and literary festival organizers have a vested interest in supporting the principle that underpins their industry.
The writer and philosopher AC Grayling and children’s author Chris Haughton chose to show their support for free speech when they took time out from their schedules at this year’s festival to meet with the award-winning Emirati rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, whom authorities have banned from leaving the country. Grayling also addressed the UAE’s poor record on free expression during his public talks.
These actions will have been noted and will send a powerful message to those in the UAE government who have made the mistake of thinking that a sprinkling of visiting writers can gloss over what’s really going on in the United Arab Emirates.