Palestinian writers denied UK visas

Cover image of Samah al-Sheikh's collection of short stories, 'Possible Form'

Samah al-Sheikh’s first collection of short stories

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.




....perhaps, like the BBC, the UK Border Agency (!) is under pressure from those who favour Israel's discriminating policies.


The systematical denial of visa for arab or african citizen in Europe or in the USA expresses the end of the western power domination over the world. The' western power' is constricting like an old and try skin. The agony might be long but there is no hope and good so! The history of those powerful is full of major crimes and nobody will waste a tear for the end of this 'western power' We, the people under these western powers need to express that we are standing definitely with all the people in the world and our struggle is one struggle: the struggle for dignity for each of us.


This is racism. How can the UK Border agency do something like this. The Israli's can travel any country without a visa. Unacceptable

Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.