SPECIAL FEATURE: Alice Guthrie's blog from Prague

A final word from Prague
24th May 2011

Since last week’s coverage of the controversial Saudi Arabian presence at Book World Prague both here and on Index On Censorship’s Free Speech Blog, the debate has spread far and wide. The Guardian covered the story both in its books blog with a piece by me and a response by Saudi writer Mohammed Hassan Alwan  and as a news item and an editorial in praise of banned Saudi writer Abdo Khal . There have been numerous other articles and responses in a wide range of online media, and the broader context of the story – what Index On Censorship’s founding editor Michael Scammel refers to as the ‘sinister trend’ of repressive regimes buying a presence at international book fairs – will obviously continue to be explored.


This is not the first time, of course, that there have been concerns – and protests – over state control of dissenting voices at international book fairs. Two particularly famous cases of recent years concern the Frankfurt book fair. In 2008 the Turkish presence as guest of honour provoked a boycott of the fair by several leading Turkish writers, and a highly critical opening address by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. In 2009, Frankfurt Book Fair director Peter Ripken lost his job over obeying the Chinese state demand to prevent dissidents from appearing at the event.


Given China’s shameful record at Frankfurt, current Index On Censorship editor Jo Glanville cites the upcoming Chinese state ‘guest of honour’ status at London International Book Fair 2012 as a prime example of what concerns her. ‘Not only does this whitewash the image of countries that suppress freedom of expression, there is deeply worrying evidence that the sponsors are banning outspoken writers.’ Jo Glanville is very clear about Index On Censorship’s position: ‘It's time for the European book world to abandon the practice of seeking the financial support of repressive regimes.'


But for PEN, who work closely with the London International Book Fair on these issues, the matter is not quite as simple – they want to use their presence at the fair to ensure that there are a plurality of Chinese literary voices heard there, and to keep the Chinese record on freedom of expression squarely in the public eye. Director Jonathan Heawood stresses that 'PEN is fundamentally opposed to the Chinese censorship of writers. Liu Xiaobo was a former President of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, and his imprisonment strikes a blow against the freedom to write of all Chinese authors.’ As such, PEN will be ‘continuing our calls for the release of Liu Xiaobo and all Chinese writers who have been imprisoned in violation of their rights under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And we will be celebrating the exciting literature that is coming out of China and the Chinese diaspora around the world.'


What was notable – and newsworthy – about the Saudi presence in Prague, was that it was the intersection of the old with the new: a repressive regime seeking to appropriate and sanitise the cultural output of a whole nation, whitewashing its international image in the process, is a sadly familiar occurrence. The Saudi regime, too, has long been crucially emblematic of all that is rotten in the old Arab dictatorial orders. But what is new, here, is that those old orders are in the process of being ripped out at the root across the region, and Saudi Arabia, increasingly armed by the USA, is centrally involved in quashing the people’s legitimate quest for democracy and human rights, in Bahrain and elsewhere. So currently, and inevitably, the familiar old issue of literary censorship in the Arab world has taken on a new urgency, and a new relevance, in the public and media imagination.


This may only be one aspect of the European duty of solidarity with the embryonic Arab spring, but it still represents an integral part of the whole of the globalised Arab struggle. At Prague we heard from Egyptian Mansoura Ez Edin, Iraqi Hassan Blassim and Tunisian Hassouna al-Musbahi that there are many kinds of censorship besides the obvious official state variety, including cultural and internal (auto) censorship – which can be the hardest to root out. So this is a long struggle, for sure, that needs as many voices to join it as possible. As Index On Censorship’s founder Michael Scammell told his audience in Prague, a lifetime’s work fighting censorship has taught him to rely on two principles which he sees as key watchwords: ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the job of the intellectual is to speak truth to power.’


So it will be interesting to carry on watching this debate unfold, and to see what our collective vigilance and speaking out can achieve on behalf of the writers of the Arab world at this exciting and dangerous moment in history.

Censoring the censors
Saturday 14th / Sunday 15th May

Feelings are running higher and higher here in Prague about the Saudi Arabian presence as ‘guest of honour’ at Book World Prague. Despite a widespread and chilling Czech ambivalence to the clear echo of Prague’s pre-1989 cultural reality the Saudi Arabian censorship record represents, there has been an increasingly vociferous web-based media reaction, and of course the Arab authors here are incandescent about it.

During an illuminating – if depressing – session on literary and press censorship by the Index On Censorship team, the issue of international book fair sponsorship by repressive regimes’ was explored. Index’s founding editor Michael Scammell referred to this attempt by authoritarian regimes to whitewash their dismal human rights record via book fair attendance as a ‘sinister trend.’ Especially in the light of China being lined-up as guest of honour at the 2012 London International Book Fair, current Index editor Jo Glanville is adamant that this issue needs to be examined honestly.

Throughout the various fascinating and lively panel sessions with the Arab authors who are here this weekend, the topic of state censorship has inevitably cropped up with regularity. For Egyptian and Tunisian writers such as Hasouna al-Musbahi and Mansoura Ez Edin, the giddy prospect of the revolution being completed and delivering a progressive and democratic regime which allows freedom of expression is almost too much to believe. For others, such as Iraqi Hassan Blassim, pan-Arab publishing censorship has meant that his work has still only been published online in Arabic – despite the English translations of his work, published by Comma Press, earning him much praise.

For all these writers, then, the site of the mock Saudi fortress here in the middle of the exhibition hall is a painful reminder of the nature of one of the most censorial and influential regimes in the Arab world – and that’s before we even allow ourselves to think of the Saudi involvement in the brutal quashing of revolutionary protests in Bahrain.

Of course the writer most conspicuous by his absence from Book World Prague, given the Saudi Arabian ‘guest of honour,’ is 2010 Arabic Booker prize winner and Jeddah native Abdo Khal. But then, his books are completely banned in his home country, so it would be naive to imagine the regime inviting him to represent them here – or him accepting their invitation.

However, the question that the shameful Saudi presence here in Prague really begs us to ask is whether we are simply being naive by expecting the international book fair scene to promote writers and books, rather than despotic regimes? In the middle of the most significant revolutionary moment since 1989, in the middle of one of the most iconic revolutionary cities in Europe, it is deeply insulting to the Arab world for us to ignore this highjacking of literary culture for use as instant kudos by the distinctly anti-literary regime of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Hemmed in and het up
Hassan Blasim and Mansoura Ez Eldin
Friday 13th May

The dark cloud of fortress Europe has been hovering over the Exhibition Hall here in Prague today, after the visionary Egyptian graphic novelist Magdy al-Shafee was refused admission to the Czech Republic on a Schengen visa technicality. So instead of making his star appearance here this morning, and completing various interviews – including shooting a film for use at the Steinbeck International Festival in California – Magdy is languishing on the wrong side of the fence, stuck in Cairo, shut out of the literary ball.

And yes, this too relates to the Arab revolutionary moment, like everything these days – this is just the latest tiny manifestation of the increasingly paranoid actions of a European border regime intent on shutting out anyone it can, and of securing its borders in the face of revolutionary refugees and migrants. So as we sit in the much duller air of a Prague without Magdy today, we receive the news that the Schengen open border agreement is possibly to be abolished. Yes, there is a well-established precedent of crises being exploited to rush through extreme measures with no real mandate, in the spirit of ‘trust the experts – no time for democracy now!’ But this has a crueler-than-usual irony, given the lip-service being paid by so many of the Schengen states to the Arabs’ quest for democracy, and to the nobility of their cause. And it is chilling, on yet another angry Friday, with Syrians being mowed down by their regime as I write, to know that this is how Europe is preparing to receive the traumatised refugees that the Arab revolts will be producing for many moons yet, whatever the immediate outcome of the uprisings.

On a brighter note, today at Prague Book World sees one of the most popular events at the fair, the long-running and notorious award ceremony for the year’s worst translation into Czech. Although it does of course sound like a humiliating ritual for the translators involved, fans explain that it is much more a question of shaming the actual publishers at the extreme end of the translation quality spectrum – those lazy skinflints who commission translations by people who are not remotely equipped for the job, and give them no editorial support. Today’s winner, a translation from the German, was defended by its publisher on the grounds that translation is a question of rendering content only! The annual event was originally launched not just as a gimmick, but as a serious attempt to raise standards in the industry, and has drawn huge and enthusiastic audiences. In fact, it seems to have worked so well that it is no longer the hilarious and exaggerated spectacle it was a decade ago – there were complaints from one audience member that ‘sections of the winning translation were not too bad!’ So which country will be next to dare to adopt this grand Czech literary innovation, I wonder, and reap the benefits?

Guests, honour, writers, silence...
The LAF Stand

12th May 2011

So here we are at Book World Prague 2011, where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the ‘guest of honour.’ But what does that term mean, here? In these revolutionary spring days of shifting and constantly reassessed meanings, here in this iconic revolutionary city, here in Kafka’s homeland, ironies ring out like tear-gas canisters hitting the ground. In this context, guest means high-paying client: in this case an oppressive regime buying itself some superficial legitimacy with petrodollars, changing itself some clumsy cultural currency. And honour? Well, honour means shame then, really, doesn’t it?

Under the soft rainbow colours of an arching art nouveau roof in the Prague exhibition grounds’ central hall, the Saudis have erected a huge and lavish stand, replete with scale models of Mecca and Medina, children’s play area, some blond women in Saudi costumes, and plenty of individually plastic-wrapped dates for all. Oh, and there are even a few books, as a concession to this being a book fair – tempting contemporary classics catch my eye, such as ‘All What The Tourist Need to Know in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ and ‘Types of Dates in the Kingdom.’ But I’m being unnecessarily mean, I admonish myself, chewing on a date – I know there are some good and courageous Saudi writers, some voices who will soothe my frayed nerves, remind me that there is hope underground. But where are the Saudi writers on the programme?

The most eloquent comment on the cultural situation in Saudi, the regime’s treatment of its citizens, and its role in the region, is made by the complete absence of Saudi writers from the programme of events here in Prague. It seems they dare not celebrate what their main writers are actually writing. I can’t help wondering what Kafka would have made of this, in his hometown? We get stuck in to our fascinating and illuminating debates – both on and off the stage – with our real pan-Arab guests, guests in the original sense of the word, many of them blazing with the true honour of ongoing revolutionary involvement. Whatever topic is set for the panels to ruminate on, it just comes back again and again to revolution, in all its senses – regime change, paradigm shift, toppling the dominant father, the auto-censor, the harasser.

But these guests have been invited by the book fair itself, by Literature Across Frontiers, by Index on Censorship, and not by the so-called ‘guest of honour’ Kingdom. So it emerges that, in a neat microcosm of the current Arabic moment, we have a kind of regime establishment here, standing proudly and shamelessly amidst its bling, hogging all the resources, embodying its many crimes in all it does, blinking dumbly in the face of the extraordinary intellectual courage, wit, and stamina displayed by the ordinary artists we are sitting with.

An even clearer visual motif? As part of the opening ceremony the Czech organisers have brought in a local Czech-Arabic fusion band, Al-Yaman, whose lead singer Ashwaq Abdulla Kulaib is originally from Aden in Yemen. So it’s 10am, and a packed trapped and seated audience of tired dignitaries are suddenly faced with a beautiful bare-foot grinning diva, a tiny wiry woman with an almost Afro of corkscrew hair bouncing around her as she dances in a genuine ecstasy, free and grooving, to the oriental electro beats of her band. Her passionate wails are ancient Yemeni spirituals, laments, keening heartsongs of a mystical female heritage, guarded and passed on through generations of Yemeni women, that she is fearlessly embodying and showering down on the Saudi men in suits, totally oblivious of their reactions.

Yes, I know it’s such a tired trope, the poor old woman as the embodiment of everything, staggering along under the weight of all this symbolism – but I can’t resist celebrating this upsurge of raw power, this dancing in the face of the machine. This spectacle says so much about what the despotic regimes of the Arab world are facing, right now, and why they are quaking, and why we have no choice but to keep celebrating it all, even in the middle of all this death and trauma, and to keep speaking out.

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL