Anger over Silencing of Palestinian Voices Overshadows Day 1 of 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair

The Frankfurt Book Fair got underway yesterday with a reduced offering of events covering Arabic literature, amid concerns over the exclusion of Palestinians from the program. 

Last week, German organization Litprom e.V., which had selected Berlin-based Palestinian author Adania Shibli as winner of its 2023 LiBeraturpreis, announced that it had cancelled the prize-giving ceremony which was scheduled to take place at the fair “due to the war started by Hamas.”

The announcement initially stated that the decision had been made in consultation with Shibli herself. It later emerged that this was untrue.

Meanwhile, fair director Juergen Boos—who is also director of Litprom—said that organizers of the fair were making additional space in the program for Israeli voices. “Frankfurter Buchmesse stands with complete solidarity on the side of Israel,” he added.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2022, Wikimedia Commons

In the days since, numerous authors and publishing professionals planning to attend or appear publicly at the fair have cancelled their own participation in protest at what they perceive as the exclusion of Palestinian voices from the fair.

The Sharjah Book Authority announced its withdrawal on October 14, saying, “Given the recent announcement by organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair, we have decided to withdraw our participation this year. We champion the role of culture and books to encourage dialogue and understanding between people. We believe that this role is more important now than ever.” As Ed Nawotka at Publishers Weekly noted, this year, the “SBA-sponsored Sharjah International Literary Agency was set to make its Frankfurt debut, under the leadership of Egyptian publishing professional Tamer Said; Sharjah was expected to be announced as the Guest of Honor at the 2024 Thessaloniki International Book Fair; and PublishHer [an initiative launched by Sharjah’s Bodour Al Qasimi] was set to host several events, including daily morning coffee meetups and several panel discussions focused on professional development.” 

An event entitled ‘New Arabic Writing,’ which was due to feature authors Rasha Abbas, Stella Gaitano, Saïd Khatibi, and Shady Lewis, will no longer take place following the withdrawal of Abbas, Khatibi and Lewis. In a post on his Facebook page, Egyptian author Shady Lewis cited the fair’s “racist stance and direct participation in the silencing of Palestinian voices.”

Translator and agent Katharine Halls of teneleven, a British-German literary agency, has also withdrawn from speaking on a separate panel, organised by Litprom e.V., the organisation which cancelled the prize ceremony. She wrote: “I cannot take part in a panel about Arabic literature in Europe hosted by an organisation which has chosen to prevent a European audience from hearing what one of the most talented Arabic writers I know has to say about the most pressing issues of our time.” 

A panel on new Syrian literature, organised by PEN Berlin and also featuring Rasha Abbas alongside writer and playwright Mohammad Al Attar, will not go ahead as both panelists have withdrawn. While stressing they were pleased PEN Berlin had made a public statement in support of Shibli, Abbas and Attar felt they could no longer speak in what they perceived to be an environment hostile to free speech. Attar told ArabLit, “It is concerning that a cultural event as significant as the Frankfurt Book Fair seems to have abandoned its basic duty to provide an environment that welcomes free expression and debate.”

Egyptian author Haytham el-Wardany was scheduled to speak on a further panel about the LEILA project, which promotes Arabic literature in European languages. He wrote in his message of withdrawal that “[t]he book fair’s decision not to honour a book translated from Arabic comes as part of the current atmosphere of demonising and defaming migrant cultural workers in Germany, especially Arabs and Muslims. It would feel cynical for me to participate in a panel about translating Arabic literature in such a situation.” 

Over the last week, Germany has enacted a range of repressive measures against demonstrations of solidarity with victims of the war in Gaza as well as expressions of Palestinian cultural identity, many of which have explicitly targeted children and minors. These have included bans on protests; aggressive disruption by the police of those protests which have secured permission to go ahead; a ban on wearing kufiyyas (a traditional checked scarf worn across the Middle East, including by Palestinians) in schools; and widespread random arrests and police violence, particularly targeting Palestinians and Arabs.

Many Book Fair attendees have also signed the open letter published on this website and in the LA Times criticizing the cancellation of the award ceremony. To date, the letter has been signed by more than 1,100 writers, translators, agents, and publishers from across the globe, including Shibli’s German, Dutch, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Swedish, and Turkish translators and her Arabic, Asturian, Brazilian, Dutch, English, French, Greek, Korean, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish publishers. 

Arabic-German translator and literary agent Sandra Hetzl, founder of teneleven, was among the signatories. She said that recent events had made her question her role as a bridge between Arabic and German literatures. “Working in this field, I feel trapped in a sick mechanism of conditionality in which Arab authors are subjected to constant suspicion and scrutiny. The second they confirm these suspicions, for instance by writing in ways that challenge German narratives, they’re deemed guilty.”

Late last night the Buchmesse released a statement aiming to quell the controversy, noting that “the book fair has always been about humanity.” It went on to say that “Frankfurt Book Fair is a platform for both Israeli and Palestinian voices.” It is not clear, however, how many Palestinians are now due to appear on the program, if any.

RAYA, a leading agency for Arabic literature in translation, has also withdrawn from the fair. In a message to her listserv, owner Yasmina Jraissati wrote: “What is the point of promoting Arabic literature in translation, if it is to silence it once it is translated? It is precisely in these difficult circumstances that brave books like Adania Shibli’s should be honored, not shunned.”