More Than 20 Top Translators, Novelists Call on Translators to Withdraw from Qatar Conference

More than twenty of the world’s most award-winning Arabic-English translators and Arab novelists — including Humphrey Davies, Iman Humaydan, Rawi Hage, Sinan Antoon, and Samah Selim — yesterday issued an open letter to participants in the seventh annual International Translation Conference sponsored by the Translation and Interpreting Institute of Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa University:

Mohamed al-Ajami
Mohamed al-Ajami

The petition marks one of the first high-profile efforts by the Arab writing and translation community to withhold its support from the Gulf state, which simultaneously is keeping poet Muhammad al-Ajami in prison on a 15-year sentence and launching major educational and creative initatives. The open letter lists a few:

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (now-defunct), The Sheikh Hammad Translation Award, Katara, and the Qatar National Library, all of which support Arabic literature through awards, translations, publishing, and preservation.

Like other nations in the region that have simultaneously repressed and feted authors, Qatar, the letter notes, has “invested directly in the careers of prominent artists, intellectuals, and writers from the across the Arab world. In so doing, Qatar has tried to create an image for itself as an oasis of creativity and freedom.”

The letter continues:

At the same time, however, Qatar has never ceased to repress the basic civil rights of its citizenry, nor the human and labor rights of its massive foreign population. Included on the list of basic freedoms that are violated by the Qatari state are those protecting the press and expression. And thus while deplorable, it is not entirely an aberration that a poet like Al-Ajami would find himself behind bars for the simple act of having written lines of poetry. Given this reality, it is sufficiently tragic and not merely ironic that the conference notes how “the power to re-shape, re-cast, re-arrange and re-model significations is a political instrument …” and how “the wide span of translational mechanisms” are used “to represent power and create new ways to transform itself and develop its avatars to the eyes of the governed.”

Al-Ajami is serving 15 years for a poem. The Qatari government arrested the well-known poet in November 2011 for writing and reciting a poem deemed critical of Qatar’s ruling family. His 15-year sentence wasconfirmed after an unfair trial.

English PEN has tirelessly worked to raise the profile of al-Ajami’s case, and, on Feb. 25, they will be holding a protest in support of al-‘Ajami and delivering a petition to the Qatari Embassy in London.

But a targeted boycott — of Qatar’s expensive and high-profile cultural initiatives, such as the annual International Translation Conference — could likely have far more bite.

The translators and novelists who have signed the open letter ask fellow translators to refuse to attend the conference:

Your participation in this conference, however limited, will grant legitimacy to the same family that has unjustly imprisoned Muhammad Al-Ajami. Your presence as guests of the State of Qatar can only serve to normalize its undeserved position as patron of Arabic literature.

The letter authors are certainly aware of the “whataboutism” that attends any effort to exercise one’s conscience, noting that this action is important because “few other Arab regimes have invested as deeply in the literary arts as has Qatar, or cultivated this image of liberal patronage. Indeed, it is on the grounds of such investments that we ask you to join our appeal: Qatar’s rulers need to understand that they will not be respected as patrons so long as they imprison artists for practicing their craft.”

You can read the letter and see the complete list of signatories at

Learn more about English PEN’s efforts at

Kareem James Abu Zeid’s translation of al-Ajami’s “Jasmine Revolution Poem” is also online.