The 2016 Turin International Book Fair will be dedicated to Arabic literature, but it won’t be guest-hosted by Saudi Arabia, the fair’s board of directors announced Tuesday:
The Foundation for the Book, which produces the annual book fair, made the announcement. When the Turin-based Foundation had announced in May that Saudi would be its guest of honor, with a “300-square-meter space dedicated to Saudi literature,” there was an eruption of debate and dismay among Italian Arabists, and the guest of honor status was fiercely criticized by Chiara Comito, Paola Caridi, and Lucy Salazar.
Caridi’s post yesterday, greeting news of the reversal, was jubilant, while Comito’s was more cautious: Who now, she asked, would be invited to represent “Arabic literature” at the fair? Which books would be on the stands, selected by whom?
Comito adds that the organizers withdrew the invitation “only after the news was spread that young Saudi Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to death.”
The Foundation for the Book also approved a new editorial director for the 2016 fair, writer and literary critic Ernesto Ferrero.
This is not the first time for such a controversy, although it might be the first time Saudi lost its guest-of-honor status after protest. Generally, Saudi officials seem to prioritize book-fair involvement, and have spent a good deal of money on impressive-looking book-fair pavilions in London, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and elsewhere. But there is not complete consensus as to Saudi’s participaton in book fairs. In 2011, when Book World Prague hosted Saudi Arabia as its guest of honor, UK translator Alice Guthrie wrote a criticism of the kingdom’s participation in The Guardian, in “How can a book fair make Saudi Arabia ‘guest of honour’?“:
At Book World Prague 2011, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the “guest of honour”. But guest, in this context, actually means high-paying client: an oppressive regime hoping to buy itself some cultural legitimacy with its petrodollars. And honour? Given the dismal Saudi Arabian record on freedom of speech and other human rights, honour basically means shame.
So did Prague-based American writer Michael Stein, in Publishing Perspectives:
The book fair that truly seemed to come from another world though was that of the Guest of Honor, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has already faced its share of media backlash over the near total lack of literary content in the country’s presence at BWP. No prominent or even known Saudi writers were brought to Prague, and even a cursory look at the books exhibited show a marked leaning toward the neutrality of subjects such as plant life, photographs of desert vistas and an abundance of children’s books, as if they expected, or were merely hoping for, a 50-50 adult child visitor split. The rest of the selection comprised religious texts and other brochure-like material the majority of the visitors did not know what to make of.
But Saudi author Mohammed Hasan Alwan was against banning the kingdom from fair honors, as he wrote inThe Guardian, in “Book World Prague was right to honour Saudi Arabia“:
As a Saudi writer and a victim of censorship myself for many years, I was surprised at the criticism of last weekend’s Book World Prague for making the kingdom of Saudi Arabia its 2011 guest of honour. Much as I understand the concerns of freedom of speech campaigners about Saudi Arabia – a country that is not at all “writers friendly” – I found myself disagreeing when they suggested that the invitation was a “travesty”. What should the organisers have done? Should Saudi Arabians be banned from appearing at international book fairs instead?
It’s yet to be seen if writers like Alwan, who recently won the Prix de la Littérature Arabe for his novel The Beaver, translated into French by Stéphanie Dujols, will be invited to the 2016 Turin fair, or whether Saudi writers will be overlooked in favor of those from countries that are in the news.
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Thank you Marcia for reporting the news! Just to add a couple of things: the organizers withdrew the invitation only after the news was spread that young Saudi Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to death.
I wrote I was cautious because I want to wait and see what they’ll make of this “focus on Arabic literature”. As much as I’m glad that the invitation was withdrawn, I just think it is too soon to celebrate. Seen what happened with KSA, I think we all have the duty to be cautious.
I like & share your cautiousness; thanks for the addition about Ali al-Nimr.
Marcia, thank you for your report. I would like to further explain my position. Inviting a country as a guest-of-honor or not should not be used as a way of sending a message of disagreement with their politics. This is wrong for four main reasons: (1) it is hard to think of any country in the world today that does not govern with certain policies deemed immoral from different points of view. Criminals are being executed in the United States, refugees are being mistreated in Hungary, government critics are being jailed in China, vast lands are being deforested in Brazil, and political opponents are being silenced in Venezuela. Human rights are being routinely violated in Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Somalia, and the list is long. Corruption did not skip any country on the map nowadays. Since the utopia does not exist yet, who has the right to judge one country and spare another? And in which basis? (2) Artist did not pursue their art have they not deeply believed in its ability to repair the dysfunctions of humanity. Injustice, inequality, and oppression are the sorts of diseases that art has been fighting since the dawn of civilization. When you prevent “illegitimate” countries from participating in such events, you basically preventing the patients from being seen by the doctor because they are “too sick to cure”. (3) With all respect, organizers of literature events don’t possess the legitimate tools to assign an accurate moral score to any country. Even if they do, it is simply not their job. Doctors treat the victims, not penalize the criminal. There are plenty of international organizations that focus solely in taking actions against governments that violate human rights. If organizations which were established to promote art started to do that job, who would attend to the more important job of spreading the healing power of art, fighting immorality from within, and shedding more light on the problem instead excluding it from the stage? (4) Although some would consider it an act of principle, practically speaking, excluding any country from being a guest-of-honor does little in nudging it to change its policies. On the contrary, it does a lot in depriving the artists in this country from the opportunity to engage with an international audience. Although the act is aimed at penalizing a government, the harm is done to the artist is more devastating. The artists’ power to change their society through art is being limited by the same organization that is supposed to help them. It is not wrong to be pragmatic when the focus is the artist, not its government. We can choose to exclude North Korea from any activity on the planet and expect it to keep going, or we can create an opportunity for North Korean artists to inspire the change and watch the country progressively return to sanity. Thank you again, Marcia.
Thank you for adding this, Mohammed. I greatly appreciate your perspective & mabrukulations on your Prix de la Littérature Arabe. Well-deserved.
You are welcome. Forgive me if I have polluted your blog with my poor English! 🙂
Beware, I might ask you to contribute your thoughts more often!
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