Ali Abukhattab and Samah al-Sheikh, a married couple based in Gaza, were due to appear at the Institute for Contemporary Art on 28 June, as part of the Shubbak festival. They were to read from their own works and discuss how Palestinian writers in Gaza have responded to the Israeli siege and internal political situation.
Al-Sheikh, a short story writer and novelist, and Abukhattab, a poet and critic, are both established writers whose works have appeared in collections and anthologies. Al-Sheikh’s first novel is due to be published by Dar al-Saqi later in 2013. Both are also active in promoting the arts in Gaza.
But – in an increasingly familiar scenario for artists and writers seeking to visit the UK, USA and other Western countries – their visas were refused by the UK Border Agency.
According to an article in The Guardian newspaper, Omar al-Qattan, chairman of the festival, said the travel documents were refused on the grounds that the festival did not qualify as a “business reason,” and that British officials did not believe that Abukhattab and al-Sheikh would return to Gaza.
“Obviously they were coming for work, they were coming to do an evening in the festival,” al-Qattan told The Guardian, calling the ruling “ridiculous” and adding: “It is very distressing. London is supposed to be an open city, a welcoming city, especially for artists.”
The latest statement from the ICA says that the event will go ahead, featuring Abukhattab and al-Sheikh speaking via Skype.
The event also showcases the AM Qattan Foundation’s Narrating Gaza project, a website which brings together accounts of Gaza and especially the 2008-9 bombardment and invasion by Israel, in “a platform for encouraging people, whether they be writers, artists, or ordinary people both young and old - to contribute to the writing of contemporary Palestinian history.”
High-profile Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan was recently denied a visa to enter Canada until a public campaign signaled a reversal of the decision. Zaqtan was due to attend the ceremony for the prestigious Griffin poetry prize, which he won with translator Fady Joudeh. Zaqtan had previously been denied a visa for the USA for the launch of his collection Like a Straw Bird it Follows Me.
In April 2012 a tour by Palestinian oud player Ahmad al-Khatib and other musicians was delayed due to UK visa problems. Discrimination by immigration officials has also hampered other Arab artists visiting the UK, including Iraqi poet Sabreen Kadhim, and even those only transiting through UK airports, such as Syrian painter Tammam Azzam.