April 17, 2012

Egyptian publishers pushed out of Middle East’s biggest book fair

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The status of books and the people that write them as arbiters of dissent appears to be holding strong. As MobyLives wrote yesterday, the London Book Fair has attracted controversy this year by inviting China as the guest of honor. This move meant that all Chinese writers critical of the current regime were excluded.

Now another book fair is being criticised for what is seen as discriminatory practices.  Maya Jaggi on the Daily Beasts‘s Book Beast reports that at the Middle East’s biggest literary event, Abu Dhabi International Book Fairsome Egpytian publishers were refused entry.

Egyptian publishers claim that they were pushed out due to fear from the Arab Emirates — whose troops helped Saudi Arabia crush protests in Bahrain last year — that the Egyptian books might inspire further rebellion.

“Bakr and two other [Egyptian] publishers who criticized last year’s fair in the Arab press were refused entry this year on the grounds that it was overbooked—despite its stated policy of first come, first served. All say they applied at last year’s fair, though Al-Qubaisi says their papers were late or incomplete. Bakr then applied to attend as a trade visitor without a stand, but was refused. Given his record in international deals, he says, “If I am not their target publisher, then who is?” Hashem, who did not apply this year, partly because, he says, he was refused a stand in 2011 and had to share, claims, “They buy from those who say yes, but those who oppose them, they punish.””

Still, the Fair has at times intentionally invited controversy. According to Abu Dhabi’s English language press The National, the Saudi Arabian poet Hissa Hillal appeared last year, despite having recited a 15-verse Nabati-style poem on the Million’s Poet TV show that criticised Muslim preachers.

The growth of such fairs will continue to create such dilemmas in the region, when international cultural aspirations clash with a fear of political openness.  According to Jaggi, “with 900 exhibitors—most of them Arab—from 54 countries, the fastest-growing book fair in the Middle East and North Africa is part of a strategy to reinvent the richest emirate as a global “center of culture and cosmopolitanism.””  Indeed, Abu Dhabi is nothing if not aspirational:

“This ambition—partly insurance for when the oil runs out—is also behind the extravagant designs for a cultural quarter on the city’s Saadiyat Island, to include Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel’s Louvre.”

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.

MobyLives