The 2016 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (“EAFOL”) is drawing to a close. Sponsored by the Dubai government-owned Emirates Airline and the government’s Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, the festival regularly brings over 140 international writers and other guests to the city.
This year, EAFOL also brought some controversy: the Think Twice Campaign urged British writers and illustrators to pledge not to attend the festival this year or in the future because of the Dubai government’s suppression of free speech, its human-rights record, and Emirates Airline’s impact on climate change. A number of writers—including some who were scheduled to attend—signed the campaign’s pledge. Writer Matt Haig withdrew from the festival unilaterally while Chris Cleave affirmed his intent to participate.
As with the Dubai International Film Festival , EAFOL highlights a stunning contradiction. Namely, that the Dubai government is sponsoring an arts festival while simultaneously curtailing creative expression and the free exchange of ideas. As human-rights activist Nicholas McGeehan has pointed out , the festival hosted a lecture on George Orwell even though the UAE’s Ministry of Education and Youth apparently banned the teaching of Animal Farm in the country’s schools. It must also be pointed out that in the UAE, no one may operate a printing press without first obtaining a government license .
It’s deeply self-defeating for Dubai’s arts scene that while EAFOL imports a field of international writers, homegrown works about the experiences of Dubaians are banned. Copies of Dubai resident Craig Hawes’ UK-published short-story collection The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqueim, for example, were confiscated by the UAE’s National Media Council just before they were to go on sale in Dubai. The collection presented stories from the perspectives of fictional Dubaians including Filipina domestic workers, European partiers, and a gay couple.
Such incongruity only supports the Think Twice Campaign’s contention that the Dubai government intends EAFOL to be a public-relations exercise meant to gild Dubai’s image rather than a sincere effort to promote literature. Despite their good intentions, the festival’s supporters risk legitimizing the practice of censorship in the country.
Dubai’s profoundly multicultural society potentially offers a plethora of diverse voices and narratives that each present a valid portrait of Dubai culture. It is unfortunate and detrimental to any genuine homegrown literary scene that such voices are silenced when they don’t happen to fall in line with the government’s “official” Dubai narrative.
The new Dubai Font that was launched with much fanfare by the Dubai government and Microsoft earlier this week was quickly shot down by people who pointed out that promotional slogans like “Expression has no boundaries or limits” were completely at odds with the UAE’s draconian restrictions against free expression. As Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan and others have pointed out on Twitter , a look at the fine print (no pun attempted) very much bears that out: the Dubai government wants to retain control over what people say while using the font.
First, those terms assert that use of the font is governed by UAE law, and that “You hereby irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Emirate of Dubai.”
Dubai’s crown prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, announced the launch of the Dubai Font —Dubai’s own Microsoft font—on Sunday amid official announcements that included phrases like “Expression knows no boundaries or limits,” and “Expression is strength and freedom. It defines who you are.”
I know firsthand how detached from reality these statements are, and you don’t have to look very far at all to see the UAE’s many boundaries and limits against expression. You can be jailed for posting a comedy video based on your own childhood, of course. But there are also the restrictions on academic freedom , the harsh and inexplicable treatment of residents who have posted innocuous pictures on Facebook, the risk that talking about fires and floods could get you charged with threatening state security, the confiscation by officials of a short-story collection set in Dubai, the restrictions on what you can and can’t say in private conversations on WhatsApp —the list goes on.
And then there’s Ahmed Mansoor , the award-winning Emirati human-rights activist who has been in detention since March for peacefully expressing his views. Not only is Mansoor an example of the UAE’s restrictions on expression, his experiences fighting off spyware from hackers suspected of working on behalf of UAE authorities raise a disturbing question: is it a good idea to download anything—even a font—that’s being promoted by UAE officials?