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.