Even Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury — an author and scholar of international standing and the anchor of Shubbak’s literary events — took time out of his compelling Sunday-evening discussion with Marina Warner to discuss his problems getting a visa to come to the Shubbak Festival:
Khoury, who is a professor at New York University, described the complications of applying online for a British visa. After that, he said, he gave his passport to the processing company and “waited and waited. Nothing, no sign.” Shubbak organizers, Khoury said, “did a lot of work” to get his visa pushed through. It was only day before he traveled that he received a text message saying the visa had gone through, and “there was a visa for ten days. This was the shortest visa that I’ve ever had in my life.”
If not for the Shubbak Festival’s work in pushing through his visa, Khoury said, “I would not have come. If they [the British government] don’t want us, khalas, we stay at home.”
Indeed: Several of the Shubbak panels were impoverished because writers had stayed at home. The science fiction panel lacked its star, Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi, who apparently was frustrated by the visa process. The comix panel also lacked its star, since Andeel — who has been multiply rejected for British visas — opted not to put himself through it again. “England is afraid of me,” he tweeted.
Ali al-Muqri, a Yemeni novelist, was missing from the panel on “New Arabic Writing,” as time ran out to get his visa finished. He also couldn’t join by Skype, organizers said, because the internet in Djibouti was too spotty.
Rasha Abbas, a Syrian writer whose visa was refused, did join a panel on writing and “extreme conflict” via Skype from Berlin. But her participation was certainly lessened, as it was difficult for her to fully engage with what was going on in the British Library conference center.
Skype participations were frustrating — Ahmed Khaled Towfik was part of the science fiction panel, which he joined from Tanta, Egypt, and he dropped off the panel partway through. But Gazan writer Atef Abu Saif said in a Monday interview that we couldn’t discount these sorts of electronic participation. Abu Saif knows what it means to have his travels limited: He was trapped inside the tiny Gaza strip from 2006 until November 2011, he said, and his travels have been restricted multiple times by multiple parties.
But, as he is currently in the UK doing a writer’s residency, he was able to participate in the 2015 Shubbak Festival, the only representative from Gaza. Other writers from Gaza, he said, need to participate in more festivals around the world. Organizers can’t simply accept that it’s too hard to get them out of Gaza, or too hard to get them a visa.
“Doors should be opened,” Abu Saif said. It’s a mistake for festivals not to invite writers from Gaza because organizers believe the writers won’t be able to attend. “You have to invite people from Gaza,” he said.
“You need the people of Gaza.” Even if, in the end, the author can’t travel, “you have try.”
Gaza needs more literary communication, he said. “Nobody visits,” he said, and “Gazan books are printed inside Gaza,” where they are read almost solely by Gazans. His novel, A Suspended Life, was one of the few to escape the confines of Gaza, as it was published outside Gaza, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and it will be the first written inside Gaza to be translated into English.
“It’s very important,” for Gazan writers to participate in festivals, “because you want to see what others are doing right now. You have to keep updating your knowledge of the novel.”
Moreover, other Arab and international writers can also be enriched by learning what’s going on with literature in a small island like Gaza.
I asked Abu Saif, during our interview at the Delphina Foundation, if it was any easier for him to travel now, since he’s famous.
“Gaza is famous, so what.”