Methinks thou dost protest too much

I don’t normally use this blog for political comment. I rarely get involved in this sort of thing; I’m self aware enough to know I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about most of the time. But I do know a few things:

1. I am a white western woman from a middle class background who received an excellent education and continues to live a privileged life in all ways: housing, personal safety, financial security, health, education, social and political freedom.

2. I try hard not to take it for granted, but basically, it’s difficult not to in any real terms. The best I can do is educate myself better about how other people live and try to be a person who says and does things that will improve other people’s lot in life.

3. I believe the most effective way to do this is not by ‘unprivileging’ myself; instead, I can choose to do what is within my grasp to change what I see around me, even if it’s just a little bit. My creativity, through writing and improvisation, is a way to harness this privilege and turn it into something that might make a small difference in the world.

The reason I write this is because I’ve stumbled across a campaign that is currently running to encourage authors to boycott the literature festival in Dubai. At first, it made me sad, from every conceivable viewpoint, that such a thing existed. Then, as I read further, it seemed to make sense, that some people would choose to join in. Then, I wondered what I would do, and I decided that boycotting isn’t something I would consider but it’s fair enough someone else did. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and if their moral compass directs them that they just can’t bring themselves to visit a certain place because they believe the bad outweighs the good, then that’s up to them, I thought.

Then there was some Facebook bashing, and I got a bit cross, because the comments began to come across as part-judgy, part-ignorant and part-patronising, and I hate that. As a few more people who have actually been to Dubai voiced the suggestion that actually, maybe boycotting a literature festival wasn’t the most effective way to show dissent for a particular country, the arguments began. A barrage of reasons…it’s not the festival, it’s the sponsor; it’s what they represent, it’s a terrible regime; the festival is sponsored by an airline and so it’s environmentally unethical; the airline is run by a government that doesn’t support LGBT issues; censorship… again, I thought, okay. Fair enough. And then, as these things always do, it got a bit personal. To those who had been to the festival – authors and visitors – it was suggested (no matter what was said to the contrary), that our experience enhanced our white privileged lives without addressing the other issues on the table – ‘sweeping them under the carpet’ in order to serve ourselves. The usual number of people trotted out lines like they wouldn’t be seen dead in ‘a place like that’, everyone there is a money-grabbing wanker etc etc etc. And then someone suggested the lack of culture in Dubai was reason enough not to go. Dubai lacks culture, ergo, boycott a literature festival. 

Listen to yourselves.

I’m not going to bang on about what this one festival has done for Dubai culturally because you either know that because you live there or don’t believe me because you inexplicably ‘hate Dubai’. Actually, yes I am. I know from personal experience it is a springboard for many people from very different walks of life to explore their individual voices in an alternative way. It created a hunger for cultural activities in the city that wasn’t there before. And audiences crave more. They literally cannot get enough. I’ve been on stage in a theatre with standing room only – where people who have never been to a theatre before have stood for two hours just to watch a show. I’ve played to hundreds of people in the crowded streets of the old town. I’ve stood in classrooms and helped bring stories to life – stories of the children’s own creation – in schools bursting with different languages and religions and skin colour. The festival was indirectly a part of what enabled me to do all that, and enabled audiences to begin experiencing new things. The fact of the matter, whether you like it or not, is that five years on from when it started, there is a thriving arts community that wasn’t there before. And by definition, that means people are experiencing new things. In terms of myself, it allowed me to find a way to mix with other people who aren’t exactly like me, and to explore their worlds a little bit – but it also allowed the audiences and schoolchildren I met to explore mine. And that is a Good Thing. I’m proud to have been part of that.

Creativity. This amazing gift we are given is the essence of what makes us human. It empowers people, educates, entertains, and allows us a window onto a different world where the things we don’t/can’t/won’t experience for ourselves in our everyday lives are brought to life for us from the pages of a book, or the scene of a film, or through a painting, a dance, a moment on the stage, or by looking at a photograph or listening to music. As an audience, we learn and grow from these moments, and as the individual creating them, we express our unique point of view, to share and be counted. So what sort of sense is there in boycotting a literature festival? Surely that is censorship of the worst kind? It’s saying the audiences (and let’s forget, for a moment, about the thousands of adults that attend) – the children and young people from every kind of background who wait for this amazing experience of having authors and poets visit them, talk to them about any number of things and explore new worlds with them – it’s saying all these kids don’t deserve a festival which encourages creativity and conversation, because they live in the wrong place. It’s forgetting that these children will one day be grown ups themselves, and that if doors are opened and new worlds are seen through the eyes of their imagination, maybe when they are the ones in charge, their view might be different; they might be the very people to make things better, the way we all want them to be. Those ‘over-privileged Emirati kids’ you don’t want to meet? They are precisely the ones you should be meeting. One day they will be the rule makers and well, wouldn’t it be nice if they were as well-rounded and thoughtful and ‘right-on’ as, say, you? 

They say one person can’t change the world. It’s never really been my thing, and I will hands up say I’m not very good about taking extreme stances on anything, but I agree that protest en masse is sometimes the only way to be heard. And yes, sometimes it works. But a literature festival? Hurting something that’s so precious and relatively fragile – a place where the conventions of normal Dubai society can be set aside and where there might be a single genuine, allowable moment that might change a mind or plant a seed of knowledge inside a young mind – this can only have an outcome that will be damaging in the long run. We should be using our privilege, our education and our social and political freedom to show what being a good citizen of the world looks like – and how can we do that by denying others of ourselves?

We are creative people. Our imaginations know no bounds. Our responsibility as a creative person is to open minds and hearts and fill them with the voices of the world. Each to their own, indeed; but I fail to see how walking away in disgust will help anyone. We should be saying ‘I believe the world can be a better place’, not by holding a banner up at the people in charge of today, but by sharing knowledge, challenging viewpoints and figuring out a new way, a better way, a more creative way to make it actually happen tomorrow.



2 thoughts on “Methinks thou dost protest too much

  1. I’m completely with you Faye when you write “The best I can do is educate myself better about how other people live and try to be a person who says and does things that will improve other people’s lot in life.” Awareness raising is precisely what the Think Twice campaign has been about, and we know that whilst some authors and illustrators (whether attending the festival or not) have known about some of the free speech and human rights issues in the UAE, and/or the link between and need for personal responsibility when it comes to flying and climate change, we’ve had lots of people say to us that they were not aware of some or even many of the issues we’ve highlighted. For anyone wanting to educate themselves, we’ve linked to lots of reports (by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE amongst others) here:

    I also completely agree with you when you write “I can choose to do what is within my grasp to change what I see around me, even if it’s just a little bit. My creativity, through writing and improvisation, is a way to harness this privilege and turn it into something that might make a small difference in the world.” What I can do is be a voice which raises questions, shares information, engages in debate (just like you).

    Jonathan and I, as campaign instigators, have been at pains not to personalise the campaign. We’ve made a point of not singling out any of the speakers attending the festival. Rather we’ve tried to create a campaign simply by putting information out there for people to find themselves. As with any campaign you can then get people saying things, which are not part of the argument and which we as campaigners find abhorrent. Jonathan and I categorically do not support the claim there’s a lack of culture in Dubai.

    I’m sure the festival has done a great deal for the people in Dubai who have attended the festival or whose businesses are supported by people who attend the festival. What I’m not so sure about is the extent to which the festival has helped promote freedom of expression and democracy. Since the festival was launched in 2009, if anything, the UAE government appears to have become less tolerant of free speech. The festival was in its third year (2011) when the government began its current crackdown on peaceful activists, persecuting and imprisoning UAE citizens who were calling for greater democracy and government accountability. More than 100 peaceful activists and critics of the government have been imprisoned since then. At least 67 of them remain in prison today.

    Again, I agree with you Faye, that festivals do a great deal to foster creativity and bring people together. The Think Twice campaign isn’t about stopping festivals taking place in the UAE, it’s about boycotting a specific sponsor which is contributing enormously to climate change (an issue that threatens the whole planet) and which is owned by a government which represses free speech and treats certain classes of people as second class citizens. We’re not calling and never would call for a cultural boycott.

    Sharing knowledge, challenging viewpoints and trying to find a better way? Yes, I agree with you again! If the Think Twice campaign hadn’t run we wouldn’t be here talking, discussing on this post (or on Matt’s FB page or else) sharing our experiences, challenging viewpoints or trying to find ways to do what we can can in our own small way to attempt to make the world a little bit better. I suspect that as in previous year, many authors and illustrators would have attended the festival pushing to one side any voices of concern in the back of their heads, arguing instead that if so many respected and brilliant people attend, then surely it must be ok. At least the campaign has shone a light on more of the cases of concern, the difficult issues about personal responsibility, and the complex discussions about cultural and creative engagement.

    • Thanks for your reply Zoe. I understand you believe this is the way forward but I can’t condone it. It’s the equivalent of putting the UAE in the naughty corner. They might sit there for a little while while you ask them to ‘think about what they did’ but in the end it will be ineffective. Life will go on as usual – except possibly without a literature festival that benefits a huge number of people. You say you’re not calling for a cultural boycott, but in a country like the UAE where every corporation large enough to sponsor an event like this is government owned or government run, the result is the same.
      Of course no one is going to argue that the things you stand for aren’t important. Of course they are. But you target one place, one company, one festival – and this doesn’t seem right to me. If you really feel passionately about climate change, why not ask authors to boycott flying altogether? If you really feel passionately about human rights, have a list of countries and their violations all around the world so that authors can decide across the board which places they feel comfortable visiting and why.
      But mainly, my issue is still this: you do not take into account my main point, which is that much of the audience is there to learn and explore in a myriad of different ways – and as creative people who have the ability to take learning out of the classroom, out of the ordinary, and into every dimly lit corner of the world, it is their future we should invest in, to try and change our own. Young people, especially in the current political climate of the world, are the ones who need us the most to help them become the sorts of people we want looking after us and our planet as the world grows older. They are the people we want not just to make change, but BE change. You are right, your campaign has shone a light on difficult issues of personal responsibility. I just don’t feel that this is a very positive way to manage them.

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