The National Media Council has dismissed an English author's claims that her book has been banned in the UAE, after her allegations left a literary festival embroiled in controversy this week. Geraldine Bedell claimed that her novel, The Gulf Between Us, had been banned from sale because it features a homosexual character. Her publisher, Penguin, repeated the claim. The charges prompted the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, a Booker Prize winner, to boycott the International Festival of Literature in Dubai that she was due to attend and at which Ms Bedell's book was to be launched. Others among the 60-plus authors scheduled to attend the International Festival of Literature next week have contemplated following suit or have written letters of protest.
But Ibrahim al Abed, director-general of the media council, said the book had not been banned and was highly unlikely to be. "It's not our policy to ban any book unless it's crude pornography or it's contemptuous of religion whether it's Islam or any religion," he said. "Our country is known to be open. More than 70 per cent of the population are non-Emiratis. They're living freely and openly." The festival organiser, Isobel Abulhoul, said Ms Bedell had been informed in September of the decision not to feature her book in the festival.
"We are very disappointed and a little surprised that it has taken so long for anyone to reconsider their position," she said in a statement, particularly as it "has come to the public's attention only now and around the publication of her novel". She added: "We have tried to contact Ms Atwood asking her to reconsider as we would like to speak directly with her to share the full picture." Ms Abulhoul said she hoped any informed observer would understand and respect the issues involved in establishing a literary festival in the Middle East.
Ms Bedell wrote in The Guardian that she had spent time as the journalist in the Gulf and knew about the area's sensibilities. "I don't believe the blacklisting of The Gulf Between Us - now also banned from sale in the UAE - reflects public opinion in the Gulf states," she wrote. "Gulf Arabs are far more tolerant and accepting, diverse and argumentative than we in Britain (and their protectors in Ministries of Information) are inclined to give them credit for."
Responses on The Guardian website to her article ranged from support for an author whose book has been blacklisted, to calls for consideration to Emirati cultural mores, to accusations of cynical courting of publicity to boost book sales. Mr al Abed said the decision not to feature the book at the festival was made by the organisers and had nothing to do with the UAE authorities. Ms Abulhoul "decided she didn't want this book", Mr al Abed said. "She didn't check with us. She didn't consult with any government body."