Frankfurt Book Fair draws anger after Palestinian writer’s award postponed

By Rozanna Latiff and Riham Alkousaa

KUALA LUMPUR/BERLIN (Reuters) – Hundreds of international writers have condemned a literary association and the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest forum for books and literature, after a Palestinian writer’s award was postponed and a public discussion with her cancelled.

The Malaysian government said on Tuesday it would boycott the fair entirely, because of the postponement and after the fair said it would highlight Israeli voices following the Hamas attack on Israel.

Adania Shibli, a Palestinian novelist who divides her time between Berlin and Jerusalem, had been due to receive a prize for “literature from the developing world” for her novel Minor Detail at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The novel, an account of the 1949 war in which clashes between Arabs and Jews saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes, one of the formative moments of the long-lasting Arab-Israeli conflict, has drawn comparisons with the works of Albert Camus.

Litprom, which is funded by the German government and the Frankfurt Book Fair and manages the prize, said last Friday it would postpone Shibli’s award due to the war against Israel. On Tuesday, it said it had decided to hold the award ceremony at a different time in a “less politically charged atmosphere”.

The fair itself said separately it wanted to foreground Israeli and Jewish voices in the aftermath of Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel in which over 1,300 were killed.

“Frankfurt Book Fair stands with complete solidarity on the side of Israel,” the book fair posted on Instagram on Saturday, citing the fair’s director, Juergen Boos, who is also the president of Litprom.

Boos also said “the war against Israel, the resulting suffering and the travel restrictions have had an impact on our programme… Terror, however, can never be allowed to win, which is why we want to make Jewish and Israeli voices especially visible at the book fair.”

Asked about the postponement of the award, Boos said the Fair could not comment but added, “Freedom of words is the backbone of our publishing industry. This is part of the DNA of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and that is what we stand for.”

A public discussion with Shibli and her book translator scheduled at the Fair was also cancelled, a spokesperson for the Fair said.

In an open letter, the postponement was condemned by over 600 writers, including Nobel prizewinners such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, Annie Ernaux, and Olga Tokarczuk, and Booker Prize winners Anne Enright, Richard Flanagan and Ian McEwan.

“The Frankfurt Book Fair has a responsibility, as a major international book fair, to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down,” the open letter said.

Acclaimed Syrian playwright Mohammed Al Attar and Syrian writer Rasha Abbas said they would boycott the fair.

The education ministry of Muslim-majority Malaysia accused the organisers of taking a pro-Israel stance, amid growing global divisions over the conflict in the Middle East.

“The ministry will not compromise with Israel’s violence in Palestine, which clearly violates international laws and human rights,” Malaysia’s education ministry said in a statement late on Monday.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff, Riham Alkousaa, Thomas Escritt; Editing by Sonali Paul, Friederike Heine, Alexandra Hudson)