I will attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month, despite a sincerely argued call from the Think Twice Campaign to embargo it. Boycotting the festival, they say, “would send the message that the Dubai government must stop suppressing free thinking and free speech.” I think a boycott would send the opposite message: that free thinking and free speech are quite capable of suppressing themselves.
I admire Think Twice and feel that their campaign highlights human rights in an effective way. And I hope it goes without saying that I have undiminished respect for any authors who do choose to boycott. Though I dissent, I don’t for a moment deny either the magnitude of the issue or their moral conviction in choosing to react to it in this way.
I follow the news and I knew what Dubai was like when I signed the agreement last year to attend the Festival. In a volatile region the UAE is at a crossroads, able to move towards the West or away. It is making up its mind, which marks it as a significant place to engage with at this time. I took advice from journalist friends who cover the area, and from friends who live and have lived there. Their view is that Dubai is one of the more tolerant states in the Middle East, and that if we turn up our noses when engagement is on offer then we should not later complain if engagement is withdrawn. A festival, anywhere on earth, is held under a flag of truce.
I choose to believe in dialogue, and my starting point is that my own opinions may be in need of reform as much as those of my interlocutor’s. Festivals create opportunities for dialogue, formal and informal, on the record and off. If I were a country solely bent on suppressing free thinking and free speech, then there are several festivals I might sponsor over a literary one. I could host a symposium on surveillance methods, or an extrajudicial jamboree, but I probably wouldn’t invite a couple of hundred international writers to make unscripted and live-streamed comments in front of a paying audience.
The deeper issue, then, is whether one’s participation in any state sponsored festival equals an endorsement of the sponsor. Does the international writing community, by its engagement, sprinkle a sugar frosting of free speech on an excrescence and thereby disguise it?
The danger of selectively applying that absolute logic, of course, lies in falling into the trap of Western paternalism. I don’t boycott the French government’s cultural invitations because they bulldoze a refugee camp at Calais. I don’t shun the British Council’s outreach programmes because the UK subsidises jet fuel and sells arms to oppressive regimes. I don’t eschew the Edinburgh Book Festival because a sponsor, the Scottish Government, allows asylum seekers to be detained without trial in South Lanarkshire.
Instead I write books about these things, and I talk about them when I’m offered a platform, perhaps even if it is imperfect. I don’t use the festival to signal my position – I use the stage. At festivals, I engage. On the assumption that every country on earth is a more-or-less polished turd which its citizens must nonetheless inhabit, I engage.
I am not sufficiently sure of my worth to believe that my silence has any special weight. I don’t believe that a writer’s silence is worth more than a nurse’s or an architect’s. And in any case silence is safe, silence is easy, silence is the same default setting selected by the people who consciously boycott a conversation and by the people who merely don’t join it. My only legitimacy is as a communicator, so when I choose silence I am not being brave, but remiss.
By muzzling myself I do not claim the moral ground but surrender it to louder voices which – and here I do flatter myself – may have less of value to say. I shan’t stop touring the United States, for example, if they elect Donald Trump to the office of President. I shall continue to believe that there are hundreds of millions of Americans who deserve to remain part of the world’s cultural conversation even if they find themselves in a minority. I engage. Even after Abu Ghraib, even despite Guantanamo, even though it still has to be daily pointed out that black lives matter, I engage.
There is a whole set of presumptions in boycotting a speaking event. You presume that the speaker is unsubtle. You presume that the audience is naïve. You presume that the sponsors are inhuman and therefore immutable. But the fact is that you don’t know what I’m going to say on any given stage, and with which nuance, and to whom. You don’t know who will be in the audience, and what they will hear or understand, and what they will go on to do. You can’t evaluate the inclination of the powerful to make up their minds upon judging the arguments they hear, nor can you guess their agenda in the first place.
Furthermore, to decline to speak brings an attendant refusal to listen. In previous years, by attending Dubai, I’ve discovered things about my own country that I hadn’t learned elsewhere. What is unique about the Festival is its rendezvous between the writers of the Arab and the Western worlds. This year in Dubai in addition to presenting my own body of work I will be interviewing the Palestinian exile Ghada Karmi on stage, in front of an audience of Emirati writers and guests drawn from over 100 nationalities in the local population. I don’t know of anywhere else that could happen. I plan to speak my mind and I suppose that Ghada does too.
I will also be visiting local schools, as I do every time I go to Dubai, and where I hope I provide an inspiration – or at least a cautionary tale – for a large number of kids who might not otherwise get a writer visit from one end of the year to the other. I will also be teaching master classes for local adults who are at various stages of their journey with writing, and perhaps I will help in that way to speed a new and important voice towards publication.
In whatever downtime this packed – and unpaid – schedule will leave, I shall be available in the Festival’s lobby, as I am every time I attend, to enjoy hundreds of unticketed, unpredictable one-on-one conversations with readers of all stripes. If the net effect of all that is to bring darkness then I really ought to be doing more than boycotting the Festival: I ought to be boycotting myself.
It’s wrong to presume that writers attend festivals only to present our books. We go to engage with the diaspora of readers, wherever they find themselves in the world. We assume they have a good reason for being there. We go to learn from them, and from our fellow writers – and this becomes a festival’s big attraction as we age, as hustle gives way to curiosity.
I hope I don’t go to any festival unthinkingly. Nor do I go for the wine (I don’t drink) or the sun (I’ve had chunks of my skin cut out) or the relaxation (I just don’t) or the gossip (I’m interested in my fellow writers, but only really in what they write, and how they talk about their writing). Mostly I go where I’m invited, with the assumption that my hosts are complex. And in the countries that have urgent progress to make on human rights – which is all countries – I assume they’ve invited a bunch of progressives through the door because they can see some benefit in people listening to one another.
Above all I keep in mind how important it is – in an era in which dark forces on both sides seek to precipitate a clash of civilisations – to support these peaceful meetings between almost unimaginably different cultures. I wish there were a British literary festival that flew 200 Arab writers over here for a week – but until such a time, anyone curious will have to go in the other direction instead.
For Western writers to boycott Dubai would merely be well meaning self-censorship. But if Dubai ever chose to boycott Western writers – well, that would be a much more ominous occurrence. That isn’t happening, and we should soberly acknowledge the fact. My readers will know that I am not an apologist for any regime – least of all my own – but so long as our hosts have the refinement to invite us, I hope I shall have the grace to speak my mind, not turn my back.
London, 24th February 2016