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.