Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Gulf You Put Between Us

"We rallied round a flag that wasn't there,' Margaret Atwood is quoted as saying by today's glorious technicolour Gulf News*.

She has my absolute respect for the way she has handled the situation regarding the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature book ban issue with total integrity - and with self-effacing charm. The fact that she was misled so effectively in the first place and reacted in the way she did is unfortunate, if understandable.

The fuss over Geraldine Bedell's book, created in a large part one suspects by a certain Geraldine Bedell, does rather smell like a slightly inept but certainly cynical publicity stunt. But now it's over. The book wasn't banned; the book likely isn't really that interesting anyway.

Those of you who followed my posts on Harper Collins' authonomy will be aware of my views on big publishers and cynical behaviour. I do allow it to be a possibility that large corporate publishing companies will dissemble shockingly.

But what I do believe to be a shame is that Dubai has learned a lesson. While people have been preaching about censorship, Dubai has learned a new form of censorship. It's more insidious than banning books - it's banning the freedom to speak your mind.

I do believe (sorry, Isobel) that Festival Director Isobel Aboulhoul's letter declining Bedell's book be launched at the festival was naive. But she was direct and did give her honest views. Now we've learned not be direct or give our honest views. We can use weasel words so that we're being 'politically correct' rather than open ourselves to criticism in future. In fact, Atwood herself said in the Guardian:

"This happens every day at every festival in the world. Publishers always want to launch or feature their authors, and all festivals pick and choose. Usually, however - being experienced - they don't give the real reasons for their rejections. They don't say "It's a stinker" or "The local Christians will barbecue us". They say: "Not suitable for our purposes." They know that if they tell the truth, they'll be up to their noses in the merde.

First-time festivalite Abulhoul had not yet been hardened in the fire. She was candid. She sent her actual reactions in an email: publisher asked, publisher didn't get, here's why. She thought the exchange was frank and also confidential. She thought all parties were acting in good faith. Silly her. "

And so, in the name of freedom of expression, a little bit of freedom is taken away. We have learned to mask our true feelings. We have learned The New Censorship. We have learned that you have to use doublespeak.

So much more important than censorship in a 'culture of fear', this new way of not saying what you believe because of the repercussions...

*I've got bored with weighing Gulf News which is now pretty steady at around 640g. Would you believe that silly habit made it to the front page of The Financial Times? Sheesh!


sarsour said...

The lines between political correctness, freedom of speech, spin and diplomacy seem to have disappeared and what we're left with is bland, neutralized conversation. There certainly is a pressure, not just in the media I think, but in society to remain as inoffensive as possible. Certainly in Britain it's starting to feel like you're always watching to make sure you're not treading on anyone's toes.

Mars said...

kinda sad she missed out on it cos of the stupidity. heard loads of people wanted to see her.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

It’s ironic that Raja’ Al Sane’ spoke in the festival, even though her novel “girls of Riyadh” is reportedly banned here in the UAE (as well as, it goes without saying, in her own country Saudi Arabia)

Ahsan said...

DubaiJazz, Girls of Riyadh is on Sale in the UAE.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Ahsan, are you sure the arabic version is on sale too?

Ahsan said...

DJ, yes, the arabic version is also being sold.

Perhaps it was banned initially upon release, I don't know. But it sure is available now.

Anonymous said...

hardly the front page of the Financial Times... Second-last page in the Middle East edition actually.

alexander... said...

You're absolutely right, Anonymous! Would you believe, a colleague showed it to me and, the way the paper was folded, it looked like the front page!!!

How silly of me - and how right you are to correct me!

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