Pro Tip: How to Prevent Arab Authors from Reaching Audiences in the US

On March 24, Jordanian short-story writer Hisham Bustani is set to appear at Amherst College as part of a multi-city tour of the United States:

Writers, editors, publishers, and translators meant to be speaking at Amherst College.
Writers, editors, publishers, and translators meant to be speaking at Amherst College.

Bustani, co-winner of this year’s University of Arkansas Translation Prize, is also scheduled to be in Arkansas to receive his prize, as well as at events in Ohio, North Carolina, and New York. Bustani has thoughts about the short-story form that surely will interest US writers and readers, and he alsocan discuss his award-winning short-story collection, The Perception of Meaning, which has been translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes and is set come out in English in 2016.

But instead of appearing at Amherst in person — alongside translator Thoraya El-Rayyes, editors Jennifer Acker and John Siciliano, and publisher Michel Moushabeck — Bustani is now scheduled to join them via Skype.

That’s because on Feburary 2nd of this year, after his interview with the US State Department, Bustani was put in the “additional scrutiny” category, which in pratice — for many artists — means they are simply unable to attend events in the US.

In 2011, for instance, British theatre director Tim Supple brought a pan-Arab ensemble to Toronto to perform a new version of “One Thousand and One Nights.” The New York Times reported that the company “had no difficulty obtaining visas for Canada and Britain, but an engagement at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival had to be cancelled when nine of the troupe’s 40 members were subjected to the additional scrutiny and time ran out.”

Bustani didn’t sit on his hands after receiving his “additional scrutiny” ruling. He said that all of his hosts — Amherst College, Apogee Literary Review, University of Arkansas, Case Western Reserve University, Hunter College, and Appalachian State University — sent letters to the US embassy in Amman asking for the visa to be issued on time. However, Bustani wrote in an email, “I was contacted by the head of the cultural department at the embassy to say that he was sorry and that he cannot do anything about the processing time and that he advises to reschedule the program[.]”

These restrictions don’t affect only Arab poets and writers. A 2012 New York Times report noted that, because of new difficulties, “requests for the standard foreign performer’s visa declined by almost 25 percent between 2006 and 2010.” During that same period, “the number of these visa petitions rejected, though small in absolute numbers, rose by more than two-thirds.”

In that report, the New York Times suggested that many international performing artists were now writing the US out of their tour schedules because of increasingly difficult visa procedures.

When he was denied entry to the US, Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser also presented via Skype.
When he was denied entry to the US last October, Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser also presented via Skype.

There are no ethnic or regional breakdowns on the “additional scrutiny” category, and it’s difficult to know how many Arab poets and writers miss out on presenting in the US because of visa issues, since only high-profile rejections like that of Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser and Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan are usually reported. But the numbers of Arab poets and writers flown to the US for events is already small, and these additional visa restrictions make it yet more difficult to host events where writer-to-writer, writer-to-reader, and writer-to-translator discussions can occur.

Certainly, texts and files continue to flow freely, and US readers can access Bustani podcasts, videos, and short stories online. But moments of confrontation and questioning between writers and audiences — and writers and writers — are also important. And because of State Department restrictions and paperwork, these seem to be narrowing ever more.