Dubai Festival of Literature: Censorship, women writers...and camels

At the first Dubai Festival of Literature last weekend, disparate writers gathered from all over the world.
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According to the author Robert Irwin, there is a verb in Arabic, aqrahu, which has to do with contending with another for superior glory and generosity in the hocking or slaughtering of camels. This is one of many things that his audience learned in the event: The Camel: Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know ... and Plenty You Didn't. It could also have served as a metaphor for the inaugural Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature.

Dubai is a city of firsts, biggests and most expensives. It has the largest population in the United Arab Emirates. The Burj Al Arab is the world's tallest building. It appears to contain more women in burkas carrying Chanel handbags than anywhere else in the known universe. It makes sense, then, that it should host the "first true literary festival in the Middle East, celebrating the world of books in all its infinite variety". If this was an attempt to buy a little class in the midst of a cultural desert, it worked. And so, for an all-too-fleeting four days last week, the InterContinental hotel in Dubai, Festival City, became an oasis of cultivation in the otherwise featureless landscape of designer labels and oil billionaires.

British audiences would be forgiven for knowing only one thing about EAIFL: that it "banned" the author Geraldine Bedell, and her book The Gulf Between Us, because it had a gay character. A fortnight before the festival began, Bedell revealed that the director had rejected her novel on the grounds that "I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book." Margaret Atwood, the vice-president of the freedom of speech charity International PEN, pulled out of her event there – before sheepishly attempting to pull back in again when she discovered that all was not as it seemed.

The book had not been "banned", it turned out, but rather was one of many that had simply not been invited. It will be for sale in Dubai's largest chain of bookshops, Magrudy's, owned by the festival director, Isobel Abulhoul. Atwood was too late to reclaim her Emirates Business Class flight into Dubai's unfeasibly shiny new airport, and appeared by video link from snowy Toronto, none too pleased to have missed the party. "You have to be careful with language," she sighed, when she explained the events to her interviewer, Liz Thompson. "Old war horses like me hear the word 'ban' and creak out with our rusty swords to ... rally around a flag that wasn't really there."

Unfortunately, the official reaction to Bedellgate only served to reignite the debate about freedom of speech that had almost burned out by the time the festival began. An event was hastily scheduled for Saturday morning – a time when UK delegates' jetlagged brains were reluctant to be dragged out of bed – and a line-up of authors assembled to discuss the thorny issue of censorship in literature. His Excellency Mohammed al-Murr, the vice-chairman of the Dubai Cultural and Arts Authority, hosted a panel that included Atwood, from Canada; Rajaa Alsanea, the author of Girls of Riyadh; and the Ukranian author Andrea Kurkov.

They discussed censorship, vaguely, in all its forms – including its insidious Western equivalent, political correctness. Kurkov made veiled reference to publicity-seekers, when he explained that he had resigned from his country's censorship board because publishers kept trying to get their books banned. "When I was refused the right to be published in Russia, it was an honour to be banned," he said with evident nostalgia. "It was a badge of quality ... Now [authors] want only to entertain." The one thing they didn't discuss was Geraldine Bedell. Having been referred to for a heady week as the Infamous Banned Novelist of the UAE, she instantly became known by the less-flattering title: The Elephant in the Room.

Paul Blezard, one of the festival's three hard-working moderators, was one of many who were incensed by the lacklustre debate. "It's very good that it happened," he explained. "It shows how far the Emirates have come in at least understanding the concept of freedom of speech. But ... people who have come all this way do not want to feel that they are part of suppressing. PEN lent its credibility to a debate that was deserving of it but did not make the best of it. But these were the first steps into the ocean of dialogue. That's why I am proud to be here." Blezard was among the first to use the word, but "dialogue" was to become something of a theme.

If they were not available on this particular stage, however, controversy, inspiration and discussion were everywhere else at the festival. Not least among the audiences who had travelled – putting lazier UK readers to shame – from across the Arab world to hear authors who might be genuinely banned in their own countries.

A party of nine women students had come from Kuwait to see the Iranian-American author, Anita Amirrezvani, who spoke about her vivid and evidently inspiring novel The Blood of Flowers. A young man in Amirrezvani's audience asked why Arabic fiction is so dry. Why are there are no potboilers from Baghdad – no detective fiction from Kuwait? He was advised to go away and write them, and instantly fled the room to create Riyadh's answer to Morse while inspiration was still hot.

Louis de Bernières was also struck by the muse: his new poem, "An Arab Couple Ill-Advisedly Holding Hands in Dubai" was inspired during a lunch break on the shady terrace, as a peculiar sandstorm whipped up along the Dubai Creek and left dust all over the tables. It received a round of applause when he read it to his rapturous fans.

Kate Mosse, director of the Orange Prize, met several Arabic women writers who told her how important the prize is to them. An Arabic publisher who wouldn't touch a controversial novel by a woman will look a lot more kindly on a "potential Orange contender", they said. The online publication of the annual longlist is eagerly awaited by women writers all over the world. (Alsanea went as far as to say that the internet will mean "the end of censorship"). Mosse herself arrived suffering from book tour fatigue, having attended 16 global festivals in the past year. She departed a few days later, inspired and moved by the writers she had met, and counting the revelations she'd had about being An Author.

Greg Mosse taught a number of sold-out creative writing classes to women students. He so enjoyed the Evening of Arab Poetry on Friday that he has arranged to bring three poets back to West Dean college in Sussex for a week-long residency and a performance at London's Southbank Centre.

Late one evening on the terrace, a disparate group of writers shared fundamental truths over white wine and sweet Turkish coffee. Kate Adie brought Rajaa Alsanea almost to tears when she told the young writer about human rights abuses in China – Adie is currently making a documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Then to tears of laughter when she told her favourite anecdotes about our Queen.

Women writers in particular seemed to make the most of the festival. Mansoura Ez Eldin, the Egyptian author of Maryam's Maze, talked to me on the last evening, as a surreal busload of international authors trundled into the desert to watch a whirling dervish and take camel rides and endless mezes at a ridiculously lavish theme hotel. She couldn't stress enough how "important" it was to her to be able to speak openly and without prejudice to an international audience of readers, she said. And how moving it was that her readers, many of them from countries where such things are not tolerated, were able to hear her.

But if one author could sum up the spirit of the festival, it was Rajaa Alsanea – the author of the book that has, for better or worse, become known as a Saudi Sex and the City: Girls of Riyadh. Her book was initially published in Lebanon in 2005. Its bold and witty take on life as a young woman in Saudi Arabia's "velvet class" swiftly made it a samizdat bestseller across the Middle East. When the Saudi government realised that it was slightly awkward to have an international superstar in their midst who could not be read in her own country, the Minister of Information gave her permission to publish. She now lives in Chicago and is a dentist as well as a writer, but still receives death threats – something she doesn't like to dwell on for fear of "discouraging other women".

While the majority of her audiences fell utterly in love with Alsanea, some still find the existence of her novel intolerable. As one of a panel of Women Writing from the Arab World, she was told by a young Saudi woman in the audience that Girls of Riyadh insults her countrywomen. But, she told me, she found such discussion incredibly valuable. "I think the essence of such forums [is] to give the chance to understand the complexity of each culture and thus lead to more understanding and acceptance rather than judgement and negative stereotyping." She was thrilled, she said, that "the world is so small" that so many people had had the chance to read her book.

Later, as the festival was dismantled and the Middle East and Africa Gas Turbine Users' Conference moved into its space, Alsanea offered her thoughts about freedom of speech: "My website has had a very healthy debate," she said. "I am educating people to disagree with me." Unlike some with whom she shared a platform, Alsanea clearly believes in freedom of speech for everybody – even those who disagree with her. "Sugar coating the truth," she said, "is not the purpose of literature." Some might say that the purpose of literature was what happened last week in Dubai.