Dubai literary festival has blacklisted my book in a panicky bid to avoid controversy. I consider this a pretty contentious move
I originally hoped to launch my novel, The Gulf Between Us, at the first Dubai literary festival, which kicks off next week. But I won't be there because the book has been banned.
It seemed a perfect fit. Mine is the only novel I know of in English (but I can't think there are many in Arabic, either) set in a Gulf emirate. Most of the action takes place in a small fictional state called Hawar, which means either "little camel" or "dispute" in Arabic.
The book certainly isn't a PR handout for the region, but I suspect (even hope) that makes the overall warmth towards it that much more telling. The book is an affectionate portrait, and I rather expected readers to be surprised that there could be so much to like.
Apparently, the organisers of the Dubai literary festival, or whoever made the decision on their behalf, couldn't see this. After all the initial excitement on both sides, they took the book, sat on it for a long time and finally came back with an almost comically long list of reasons why they couldn't have it at their festival. These included "it is set in the Gulf", "it talks about Islam", and "it focuses on the Iraq war and could be a minefield for us".
These weird-sounding objections become even weirder when you look at the book, which is extremely respectful of Islam (the Church of England actually gets a much rougher ride) and in which the Iraq invasion is only a distant threatening rumble, still several months off.
The only objection that made any sense at all, from their point of view, was that a minor character, Sheikh Rashid, is gay and has an English boyfriend. To which I can only shrug and say that some people are gay, and this is fiction. The Dubai literary festival has a vision statement in which it claims to seek to "awaken the imagination". It is tempting to feel they should have added "though only in approved directions".
Can you have a literary festival and ban books because they feature gay characters? Is that what being part of the contemporary literary scene means? The organisers claim to be looking for an exchange of ideas – but not, apparently, about sex or faith. That doesn't leave literature an awful lot of scope.
The Gulf Between Us, now coming out in April, isn't an earnest book. It's a comedy, and a romantic comedy at that. But it does have a theme, and it's prejudice. All kinds of thoughtlessness crop up – not just homophobia, but Islamophobia, anti-Americanism, prejudice against women, against Arabs. The thread running through the novel is that the blinkered ideas that stop us understanding each other are often nonsensical.
So the ban really is ironic. The organisers claimed to be worried that if they launched the book "and a journalist happened to read it, then you could imagine the political fallout that would follow". I've worked as a journalist in the Gulf, and I recognise what's happening here: it's a kind of self-censorship that's terrified someone else – other people – might be offended, regardless of whether the material in question is really offensive at all.