Why I’m not boycotting the Emirates Lit Fest 2016

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East, and that if we turn up our noses when engagement is on offer then we should not later complain if engagement is withdrawn.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.

Chris Cleave

London, 24th February 2016

4 thoughts on “Why I’m not boycotting the Emirates Lit Fest 2016”

    1. Thanks for flagging that up, Sarah. We were not aware of the article you’ve linked to. Having seen it, we’ve now removed the reference to the Bedell book in the version of the comment we posted on our news page (http://www.eafolthinktwice.org.uk/news.html#28Feb) and added a footnote explaining the edit which also links to the article by you flagged up.

  1. Response from Jonathan Emmett and Zoe Toft, Think Twice Campaign Organisers.

    You make a lot of valid points, Chris, but as organisers of the Think Twice Campaign you won’t be surprised to learn that there also several that we’d take issue with. The chief one being that supporting the campaign, is a form of self-censorship.

    If anything the campaign has encouraged authors to stop self-censoring themselves. Several of the authors who are supporting the campaign admitted to having had ethical concerns about the festival for several years, but prior to the campaign, had not felt comfortable voicing these concerns publicly. You can read some of their comments on the signatories page of our site. We know that some (if not all) of the authors that have supported the campaign would feel that it would be hypocritical of them to voice these views while being sponsored by the very government they were criticising. And the recent case of Australian illustrator Jodi Magi shows that the UAE government is not above arresting foreign nationals that are critical of the country which suggests that authors not wishing to self-censor their views would be wiser to air them from outside of the UAE.

    Crime writer and campaign supporter Val McDermid made the following statement in relation to the campaign.

    “I will not lend my name to festivals associated with regimes that persecute their LGBT citizens. I won’t strut my stuff in a country where I would not be allowed to live openly and honestly without fear of arrest, incarceration or torture.”

    Homosexuality is forbidden in Dubai and punishable by harsh, discriminatory laws which promote homophobia. In 2009, the festival’s inaugural year, Geraldine Bedell’s book ‘The Gulf Between Us’ was dropped from the festival, the inclusion of a gay character being cited as one of the justifications. Author Margaret Atwood subsequently pulled out of the festival in protest.

    Several of the authors supporting our campaign have cited LGBT rights as a key reason. Regardless of their own sexuality, these authors are not comfortable appearing on a platform where an author such as Val would not feel comfortable expressing her sexuality openly.

    You characterise the UAE as being at a crossroads, deciding to move towards or away from western values. There is little evidence to suggest that the festival is helping to encourage the country in the right direction. If anything, the UAE government has become less tolerant of free speech since the festival was launched. The festival was in its third year (2011) when the government began its current crackdown on peaceful activists, persecuting and imprisoning UAE citizens who were calling for greater democracy and government accountability. More than 100 peaceful activists and critics of the government have been imprisoned since then. At least 67 of them remain in prison today.

    Your final paragraph implies that authors that refuse to attend the festival are “turning their backs” on the problems within the UAE. If you read some of the statements from human rights campaigners working for Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE on our site’s news page (all of whom know the country well) it should be clear that they are concerned that the festival is helping the West to turn it’s back on the grave human rights abuse that are taking place in the UAE. Here is a quote Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Researcher Nicholas McGeehan gave to the campaign.

    “What concerns me about these events is their normalising effect and the glossy, progressive image they lend to a repressive and abusive government that has zero tolerance for free speech. Authors attending the festival should ask themselves if they are contributing to the furtherance of free speech or indirectly assisting in its suppression.”

    The principal aim of our campaign is to raise awareness of the three issues highlighted on our home page. If you intend to use your appearance at the festival as an opportunity to raise awareness of these issues with your audience and/or other attendees, we commend that. However we don’t think it is reasonable to suggest that those who wish to raise the same concerns, without being sponsored by the government they are criticising, are somehow making things worse.

    And we haven’t even touched on the ethics of helping to promote an airline that is actively undermining efforts to combat climate change…

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