Why banning Arab authors from US is censorship

Excluding important Arab writers from the literary dialogue also punishes US readers.

Jordanian British poet and novelist Amjad Nasser was prevented from boarding a US-bound flight [Peter Money]

On September 30, Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser was scheduled to give the inaugural address at the Gallatin Global Writers series.

Nasser is a major Arab poet, whose “A Song and Three Questions” was chosen by The Guardian as one of the 50 greatest love poems of the past 50 years and whose debut novel, “Land of No Rain”, was acclaimed by Ahdaf Souief and Elias Khoury, among others.

Nasser is also a law-abiding British citizen who does not need a visa to take the short flight from London to New York City. Yet Nasser was still prepared. According to Gallatin series organisers, the author “was carrying his books and an official letter of invitation from NYU” when he arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

But as he got ready to board his British Airways flight, an attendant at the gate handed Nasser the phone. Someone from the US’ homeland security department wanted to talk to him. As Nasser wrote about the experience:

“The strangest ‘conversation’ ensued: Your name, your father’s name, your mother’s name, your paternal grandfather, your maternal grandfather, your great grandfather, your height, your weight, the colour of your eyes, of your hair … at this point I told the homeland security person: It is turning white now! ‘What was its colour before? Brown?’ he asked. ‘No, black,’ I said.”

At the end of the conversation, Nasser was told that he could not board the departing plane, which in any case had already left. The faceless homeland security officer would not disclose the reason Nasser wasn’t allowed into the US.

“Just like that?” Nasser asked. “Just like that,” the homeland security officer responded.

Nasser’s talk was still held, via Skype. But Homeland Security did manage to prevent him from the warmth of a personal address, from speaking individually to fans of his work, and from fruitful discussions with other writers.

Not the first

Terse denials of entry like Nasser’s aren’t common, but his was certainly not the first.

In the spring of 2012, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan was scheduled to tour with Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah. Zaqtan’s “Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me”, translated by Joudah, had just been released by Yale University Press. Joudah put a great deal of work into organising a tour, but, despite urging from the ACLU and PEN America, Zaqtan didn’t receive a visa. Zaqtan’s participation in his spring tour was reduced to a pre-recorded message.

Few Arabophone authors travel to the US to give talks or appear at literary events. Organisers note that the process itself can be a deterrent.

After increasing pressure, and statements of support from a broad range of US writers, Joudah managed to reorganise the whole tour and finally get Zaqtan a visa in the fall of 2012.

Yet despite the relative rarity of rejections, few Arabophone authors travel to the US to give talks or appear at literary events. Organisers note that the process itself can be a deterrent.

Novelist, translator, and academic Elliott Colla says that he has invited a few Arab authors to the US for events, including a recent talk by Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, and has not yet had any trouble. But “the process is intimidating and time-consuming”, Colla wrote in an email. “And it could be that the sponsoring organisations do not have the people-power [or wasta] to pull strings when that needs to happen.”

Arabs aren’t the only authors who’ve been refused visas for literary events. It took Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow, a vocal critic of the US National Security Administration (NSA), three attempts in order to enter the US. When he was turned away from a flight last September, he was given no reason, although many presumed it was because of the author’s criticism of NSA spying operations.

Denying entry to writers isn’t new. Under rules barring “communists and their sympathisers”, the US has denied entry to acclaimed writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, and Graham Greene. But visa procedures have tightened yet further in the last decade.

A 2012 New York Times report notes that, because of new difficulties, “requests for the standard foreign performer’s visa declined by almost 25 percent between 2006 and 2010”. During that same period, “the number of these visa petitions rejected, though small in absolute numbers, rose by more than two-thirds”.

Leftists like Marquez, Neruda, and Greene were the previous focus of US exclusions. But in the last decade, exclusions seem to be shifting towards artists with Arab names.

Subjected to scrutiny

In 2011, for instance, British theatre director Tim Supple brought a pan-Arab ensemble to Toronto to perform a new version of “One Thousand and One Nights”. The New York Times reported that the company “had no difficulty obtaining visas for Canada and Britain, but an engagement at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival had to be cancelled when nine of the troupe’s 40 members were subjected to the additional scrutiny and time ran out.”

In 2012, the New York Times suggested that many international performing artists were now writing the US out of their tour schedules because of increasingly difficult visa procedures. And that was for non-Arab performers.

What does Nasser’s banning mean for US readers? They are not prevented from accessing his ideas, as they can certainly still pick up copies of his brand-new “Petra”, his gorgeous novel “Land of No Rain”, or even an older copy of his “Shepherd of Solitude” . But author-author and author-reader interactions are also an integral part of literary development. Excluding important writers like Nasser from the literary dialogue punishes US readers, reduces their exposure to Arabic writing in translation, and potentially limits American literature.

Marcia Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at arablit.org.