On Being Silenced

M. Lynx Qualey
April 15, 2013
Comments 10

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.

10 thoughts on “On Being Silenced

  1. If you’ll excuse my intrusion (and this has nothing to do with whether or not I am a fan of your work), no Gulf country is in any position to promote Arabic literature. The theory is that, through engaging Western institutions by sheer force of the moolah, a place like the UAE — where most people don’t even speak Arabic and where “national identity” if it ever existed has been totally uprooted and replaced for the most part by migrant prostitution of both the physical and moral varieties — would bring to non-Gulf cultural production the professional and ethical rigor missing in the true cultural centres of the Arab world and so promote it on the “international” scene. But being in essence prostitue clients, it has been demonstrated time and again the powers that be in the UAE (no less than the non-Gulf Arab “cultural figures” employed by them) have neither ethical integrity nor any interest in what they are doing beyond political self-promotion for Western consumption free-of-charge. So all this talk about “services to literature” (to which, truth be told, you have contributed) is really a load of camel shit. The obscene taunting it permits on the other hand just goes to show how far the mindsets are from anything approximating your good will: Andy is evidently unaware of the fact that tribal custom in the Arabian peninsula dictates overfeeding a guest, and that any mention of that on the part of the host constitutes terrible loss of face. But it is well to remember that the minimum requirement for effective patronage of the contemporary arts is that it should be unconditional, the presumption being that the patron, if not a true connoisseur, is at least capable of making their own decisions and sticking by them. This, unlike most Gulf achievements in recent years, might actually take more than an inexhaustible supply of crude oil monopolized by a bunch of desert-raider clans turned quasi-monarchies. The suggestion that your not attending the Abu Dhabi Fair is tantamount to MISERY just may be a reflection of your own enthusiasm for such circus shows of the pearl divers, however. So the question for me is not whether or not the fair will go on without you nor even whether it should be boycotted (only something with reference to a moral universe of thought is subject to boycott). The question is rather why, failing to take into account the cultural-politics dimension of your subject, you continue to promote such bullshit unreservedly, proffering only mild criticism that doesn’t even touch the festering pustule at the source of the relevant “sensitivities”.

    • Darling, I know Andy, and YOU ARE NO ANDY.

      Anyhow. I doubt the other Andy, the real Andy, ever much thought about whether I was promoting a cultural circus or not; he was probably projecting his own feelings onto me. Misery for the goose would be misery for the gander. Anyhow, I’m no longer scared of/entranced by/gamed by Andy and his worries about whether I’m eating too much of his food.

      On the more important topic of bullshit, and in no particular order: Yes, no, yes, no, yes-yes, no.

  2. As a reader of your blog, I’m disappointed that your coverage of the fair will be curtailed! Have you thought about instituting a commenting policy? I don’t always read the comments on your posts, but when I do they always seem very friendly and respectful. Perhaps you don’t want to act as a censor yourself, and I can understand that. But I don’t think you should have to defend yourself to a reader that characterizes you as being “out on a vengeance spree as if they killed your child”(!!) What a repugnant thing to say!

    • When “Andy” leaked onto another post (http://arablit.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/applications-for-prestigious-iowa-international-writing-program-due-april-7/#comments) I did make some noise about instituting a comments policy.

      I even roused some friends, asking them to suggest a decent comments policy for me.

      But I’ve never had a comments policy, and I’ve never needed one (even though Dr. Ferial Ghazoul, when I spoke at the AUC, seemed quite surprised that the Arabophobes hadn’t found me). And yes, as you guess, I hate the idea of censoring anything — you know, except the spammers.

      Still haven’t made up my mind about it. Do we have a comments policy here at the KRO? I guess I should find out.

      • It’s a difficult question, the comments policy one. Mine (and the Arabophobes found me a while ago, although they only pop up very occasionally, having bigger fish to fry) is generally to publish the nasty ones, as they generally do a better job of discrediting their authors than I ever could.

        • Yes, I can’t imagine Andy did his cause much justice by shouting at me that I should better reproduce press releases and not get so “creative.” But he did scare me, at least at first.

  3. With all due respect to you, and I’m one of your oldest fans, you attending any fair held by UAE is a credit to the fair, not you. Therefore, I feel you’ve given that award way too much unworthy credit. Nonetheless, I understand you’re going where your passion for literature leads you & I can only admire you the more for it, particularly when you have to walk through the swaps & sewage.

    • Thanks for your support, S. I’m bummed about the talks I won’t attend, the interviews I’ll miss out on doing, etc. I’m — as I guess you must know — unaffiliated with any institution, so it’s always a challenge for me to get places.

      I guess I’ll just have to make better use of Skype.

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