Jack Malvern writing in The Times
A book festival in the Middle East that claims to celebrate the “world of books in all its infinite variety” has banned a British author because her novel contains references to homosexuality.
Geraldine Bedell's book The Gulf Between Us was greeted with enthusiasm by organisers because of its setting in the Middle East, but the mood changed swiftly when they discovered a gay character.
Isobel Abulhoul, director of the festival, wrote to Ms Bedell to tell her that she was not invited. “I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book,” she wrote. “If we launched the book and a journalist happened to read it, then you could imagine the political fallout that would follow.”
“It is incredibly affectionate towards the Gulf. I feel very warmly towards it, except when things like this happen. It calls into question the whole notion of whether the Emirates and other Gulf states really want to be part of the contemporary cultural world ... You can't ban books and expect your literary festival to be taken seriously.”
She said that the gay sheikh was a minor character.
Authors due to attend the festival, which begins on February 26, include Kate Adie, Jung Chang, Carol Ann Duffy, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Anthony Horowitz, Frank McCourt, Sir Mark Tully and Wilbur Smith.
One author contacted by The Times privately condemned the censorship: “One always hopes that these sorts of literary festivals open people's minds to other people's cultures, but this doesn't seem to be the case here.”
Giles Foden, who also plans to attend, said: “I've never heard of this happening at other literary festivals, though there is an interesting comparison with that Dutch MP not being allowed to come here, which shows that Britain is not above barring entry to people because of what they say or write.”
Sir Ranulph Fiennes said the festival organisers were merely being practical. “I think that if anybody out there wants to establish a festival of some sort, they would be rather stupid to offend the locals in any way.”
Juliet Annan, Ms Bedell's publisher, said the censorship system was opaque but was known to discriminate against references to homosexuality, drugs and the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was banned throughout the Middle East, she said.
Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, the writers' association, said: “Great literary festivals, like great literature, provide amazing opportunities for cultural exchange, which we need now more than ever".