DUBAI: Martin Amis set to add ‘fireworks’ to upcoming literature festival


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To most outsiders, Dubai appears a town of ludicrously tall towers, bumbling Mossad agents sporting unconvincing tennis gear and leaky aquariums in oversized malls.

But away from the recent headlines, the city has also been trying to position itself as a land of culture and sophisticated debate.


The Festival of Literature (sponsored by Emirates Airlines) kicks off this week at the aptly named Festival City, another of the United Arab Emirates city-state’s shopping mall and hotel complexes.

While the venue may not sound the most inspiring for a cultural chin-stroking session, the attendees – one in particular – should ensure some rather lively banter.

Outspoken author and England’s ‘punching bag’ Martin Amis probably hadn’t considered his future travel plans when he made a few comments during a 2006 interview in the English newspaper The Times.

Discussing issues of terrorism and security back then, he suggested “strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan” and “discriminatory stuff” against the Muslim community, “until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.’

His words, as one might expect, went down like a Hummer at a Greenpeace picnic. UK writer Yasmine Alibhai-Brown described Amis as “with the beasts” with it came to dealing with Islam, along with “the Muslim-baiters and haters,:

Novelist Ronan Bennett described Amis’ views as “symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of otherness.’


The director of the Dubai literary festival has been fielding a lot of queries regarding Amis’ involvement. In an interview with Abu Dhabi-based, English language newspaper The National, Isobel Abulhoul said she expected “fireworks” during his talk.

But, she added, “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Whatever provocative asides may fall out of Amis’ mouth during the exhibition (in his latest outburst he suggested there should be voluntary euthanasia for elderly retirees, “a population of demented very old people, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops”), it’s not going the first time the festival – only in its second year - has been the focus of controversy.

At 2009’s inaugural event, the issue of censorship became the unwanted buzzword after news broke that an author had been banned and her book removed from the festival list because of a homosexual character (who also happened to be a fictional Arab tribal sheik).

The organizers claim it was untrue, that the author – Geraldine Bedell – had never been invited to talk and her debut novel – ‘The Gulf Between Us’ – never a part of the lineup. But it was too late. Famed novelist Margaret Atwood – also a vice president of International PEN, which promotes freedom of expression – immediately canceled her flights, eventually appearing apologetically via video link on a newly arranged “censorship debate” after she discovered the facts.

Despite the headaches, the censorship issue generated a great deal of attention for the fledgling festival and provoked the sort of healthy conversation not usually seen in these parts.

This time around, with the likes of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ author Vikas Swarup, Amit Chaudhuri and Yann Martel in attendance, alongside more local literary giants such as French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi (who wrote and illustrated the graphic novel ‘Persepolis’) and the recent winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Saudi Arabian Abdo Khan, Isabel Abulhoul and her fellow organizers no doubt hope the authors and books who do appear generate the headlines this year.


Martin Amis is probably hoping nobody forwarded his comments about strip-searching to the security officials at Dubai International Airport.

-- Alex Ritman in Dubai