Dubai Festival Update: The Gulf Between Us

Dubai will shortly be the venue for the “first true literary festival in the Middle East.” The inaugural Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature will take place between 26th February and 1st March 2009, with a host of writers from all over the world.


However, over the last week, the festival has been subject to widespread criticism as a result of their decision not to feature Geraldine Beddel‘s novel, The Gulf Between UsMargaret Atwood, Vice President of International PEN, has subsequently decided to pull out in protest against this decision, whilst children’s author Anthony Horowitz and others are said to be reviewing their positions.


As such, on 19 February, International PEN announced that they would be holding a partnership event with the inaugural Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai on the subject of Censorship:


Further to recent media reports regarding the reputed banning of Geraldine Bedell’s novel from the inaugural Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai and the subsequent withdrawal of International PEN Vice President Margaret Atwood from the programme; International PEN will stage an event in partnership with the festival exploring the issue of censorship at the festival on Saturday 28th February.


Whilst International PEN greatly regrets the festival’s decision not to include Geraldine Bedell on the basis of the content of her novel, it is important to clarify that Geraldine Bedell and her book have not been banned in the region as some reports have suggested and that, whilst the book was submitted for consideration, it was never included in the festival programme. Therefore it was never withdrawn. It could not have been present at the festival in published form, as its publication date is April 2nd.


The event will include a panel of international writers and will explore the issue of censorship and the cultural pre-conceptions which we hold regarding the acceptable limits of freedom of expression.


International Secretary, Eugene Schoulgin commented, “Literary festivals such as the International Festival of Literature in Dubai create an important opportunity for cultural exchange and understanding. The staging of this event exploring the issue of censorship will ensure that this takes place.” Margaret Atwood will attempt to be at the panel via video link, if the equipment can be made available.


Director of International PEN, Caroline McCormick added, “It is the role of International PEN not only to highlight censorship wherever it exists but, where differences arise, to facilitate dialogue to enable understanding. This is the function which we will be undertaking at the festival.”

About International PEN

Founded in 1921 to promote literature, today International PEN has 144 Centres in 102 countries across the globe. It recognises that literature is essential to understanding and engaging with other worlds; if you can’t hear the voice of another culture how can you understand it?


Our primary goal is to engage with, and empower, societies and communities across cultures and languages, through reading and writing. We believe that writers can play a crucial role in changing and developing civil society. We do this through the promotion of literature, international campaigning on issues such as translation and freedom of expression and improving access to literature at international, regional and national levels.

Our membership is open to all published writers who subscribe to the PEN Charter regardless of nationality, language, race, colour or religion. International PEN is a non-political organisation and has special consultative status at UNESCO and the United Nations.


Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, has today made the following statement regarding English PEN’s position on the festival:


“We now understand that Geraldine Beddel’s novel, The Gulf Between Us, has not been banned from sale in the United Arab Emirates, and that the decision not to feature this novel at the first Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai was solely that of the festival director, Isobel Abulhoul. As such, this is not a case of censorship per se. We are sad that the festival organisers are unwilling to include a novel on the basis of its gay or religious content and we are delighted that they are proposing to hold a debate in partnership with International PEN at the festival on the nature of free speech and censorship in the culture of the region. We continue to promote contemporary literature from the region through our World Atlas and would be delighted to work with the International Festival of Literature in Dubai in promoting literature as a means of cultural exchange in the future.”


Rachel Billington, Vice-President of English PEN, has made the following statement about her position on the festival:


“The Air Emirates Dubai Literary Festival is the first literary festival ever held in an Arab country. It is a surprising breakthrough in an area better known for restrictions than openness. Probably for that reason, many distinguished writers agreed to attend. Like myself, they may have been encouraged by the Festival’s aim to bring Arabic writers together with Western and to keep prices down so that the audience would be inclusive. I also agreed to be part of an educational programme which takes writers into Dubai schools; in my case I will be talking to 200 8-9 yr olds in primary schooling. When interviewed for a local paper, I wrote that I expected to learn as much as I expected to entertain or teach. To my mind, this is what Festivals should be about and not only a pleasurable form of self-promotion.

It was therefore with some shock that I learned (through the English press) about a novel that had been ‘banned’ from the Festival and from publication in the UAE. As an ex-President and current Vice-President of English PEN, and veteran of many protests over censorship, I felt it my duty to discover the truth of the matter before deciding whether to go ahead with my visit. Several points emerged: firstly, the book is not ‘banned’ in the UAE. Secondly, it was not ‘banned’ by the Festival because it had never actually been invited. The publishers put the novel forward but an e-mail was sent declining it last September. This e-mail from the Festival’s director did cite one of the reasons for the turn-down as ‘cultural sensitivities’ which could be offended by some of the subject matter. Nothing more was heard from writer or publisher till the press took it up a week ago.


The question for those of us who believe in freedom of expression is whether turning down this, as yet unpublished novel (directors of festivals routinely turn down hundreds of proposed books) amounts to censorship and whether other writers should boycott the Festival. After my initial concerns, I eventually decided that staying away was to close the door on an important engagement with writers and readers not usually available to the West, and I determined to go.

My decision was helped by the news that the Festival is to stage an open East West Writers’ Forum which will have censorship as its theme. International PEN will be co-sponsors for this event and Eugene Shoulgin, International PEN’s General Secretary will attend. I believe that this kind of discussion in an Arab country is to be celebrated and I shall be there as a Vice-President of English PEN.”


For more information, please see:


 – Claire Armitstead’s article ‘Censorship row echoes through Dubai literary festival’ (The Guardian, 2 March 2009)  


 – The Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature website


 – Alison Flood’s article ‘Atwood confirms Dubai festival appearance’ (The Guardian, 26 February 2009)


 – Alison Flood’s article ‘Authors condemn Dubai literary festival in censorship row’ (The Guardian, 19 February 2009)


 – A statement from EAIFL Director, Isobel Abulhoul, on Margaret Atwood’s decision to withdraw from the festival


 – Amol Rajan’s article ‘Atwood accuses Dubai festival of censorship’ (The Independent, 19 February 2009)


 – Jack Malvern’s article ‘Geraldine Bedell’s novel banned in Dubai because of gay character’ (The Times, 16 February 2009) 


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