Middle East

Margaret Atwood Snubs Literary Festival

The United Arab Emirates' debut to literary society is already off to a rocky start. The inaugural Emirates Airline International Literary Festival, which will bring more than 60 international authors to Dubai at the end of February, is generating some negative press. British author Geraldine Bedell has been barred from the conference because a minor character in her new book, The Gulf Between Us, is a gay sheikh. And now, Canadian author and International Pen VP Margaret Atwood is bowing out in protest, and other notable authors may follow. "I was greatly looking forward to the festival, and to the change to meet readers there; but as international vice president of PEN -- an organisation concerned with the censorship of writers -- I cannot be part of the festival this year," Atwood wrote on her site. The festival director claimed the book was banned simply because of the cultural gulf between east and west. “I have lived in Dubai for 40 years, and based on my knowledge of who would appeal to the book-reading community in the Middle East, and having read 150 pages of Ms Bedell's manuscript, I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities,” she said. In a blog post for The Guardian, Bedell admits that while her book, which is set in the Emirates, "certainly isn't a PR handout for the region," it painted an "affectionate" portrait of its culture. Bedell said that after she submitted the book, festival administrators thought up several excuses for why the book wouldn't be appropriate for the Festival, claiming it didn't handle Islam and the Iraq War appropriately. When Bedell discovered that the real reason they didn't accept her book was because of the homosexual character, she responded, "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."