When Should Authors Take Money from a Government?

M. Lynx Qualey
April 1, 2013
Comments 1

Recently, The Art Newspaper reported that Human Rights Watch issued a warning to arts organizations about dealing with Qatar.

According to The Art Newspaper, HRW consultant Nicholas McGeehan said:

“The Qataris [have] projected an image of themselves as progressive and enlightened—whether it’s investment abroad or the hosting of the football World Cup. But when you actually analyse Qatar’s record on human rights, particularly in relation to migrant workers, it’s problematic. What we’re seeing with the Al-Ajami case is that the mask is slipping slightly.”

Two things caught my attention. First was the mention of the al-Ajami case, which is the reason this article caught in my google filter and beached up in my news stream. I, like many others, have been following the case of Muhammad al-Ajami sympathetically and passionately, particularly since he was first sentenced to life in prison (more or less for this poem) and then had his sentence reduced to a still-very-lengthy 15 years.

We are yet waiting on a final appeal, which should have come by the end of March.

The second reason the story caught my attention is that I have taken money from the Qatar Foundation, or anyhow a plane ticket and hotel, to visit the country’s book fair in 2010.

When does collaborating with a government-affiliated program (and let’s include the US government, which does not have its hands so very clean-and-dry-smelling) amount to white-washing that government’s human rights record? And when is it making connections? When is it stringing together a living?

The connection between literature, money, and human rights was a big issue at Book World Prague in 2011, where Saudi Arabia was the Guest of Honor. Many news sources reported the irritation of fair-goers (here, here, here, here). Saudi author Mohammad Hassan Alwan, shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, objected to all this and wrote back in The Guardian: “Book World Prague was right to honour Saudi Arabia.”

I’m not sure if it was Alwan’s headline, but in any case he wrote, “We have a long way to travel before things are satisfactory in Saudi Arabia. Spreading enlightenment is a job for writers, but if they are isolated from international contacts these writers will soon be in need of enlightenment themselves.”

After the uprisings of 2010 and 2011, a number of Egyptian writers sought to distance themselves from Mubarak-era literary prizes they had received. Few authors had taken the stance of Sonallah Ibrahim in 2003, when he denounced a major prize, turned down the check, and called out the government as not having the credibility to grant it.

Indeed, this continues to be a living question: It wasn’t long ago that a reader posted a comment on my blog, asking when Arab writers were going to stop accepting Gulf money, which, the commenter said, was giving tacit approval to various non-democratic regimes and practices.

I blanch at the thought of whitewashing any government’s suppression of freedom, life, or speech. I do think there are narrow and targeted opportunities for cultural boycotts, when a particular practice — such as apartheid, or perhaps drone attacks — is clearly being targeted. Certainly, anyone should know their partners in an artistic collaboration, and try to avoid bullshit, lying, and rah-rah-ism. But broad-scale cultural boycott against “those countries” (the ones that suppress speech)? I’m not sure where it would end, and how much of the writerly and readerly universe I would not see again.

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