A call to Think Twice

posted in: Playing by the book | 16

think-twice-square-800In a break from normal transmissions, this post involves me sticking my head above the parapet and talking about ethics, loyalty and being part of the (children’s) book community.

Today author Jonathan Emmett and I are launching a social and environmental justice campaign to highlight concerns about the sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. The campaign encourages authors and illustrators who care about free speech, human rights and climate change to think twice about attending the festival.

The annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs this year during early March. It has a particularly strong children’s programme, with around 40 children’s authors and illustrators attending, including many very high profile ones. The festival is sponsored by Emirates Airline which is wholly owned by the Dubai government, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The campaign encourages authors and illustrators to decline invitations to the airline’s festival because:

  • UAE citizens calling for greater democracy and government accountability are persecuted and imprisoned by the airline’s owners [source]
  • Women’s, LGBT and migrant workers’ rights are ignored or abused under the rule of the airline’s owners [sources 1 2 3 4]
  • The airline’s international passenger flights already generate more CO2 than any other airline and the airline has recently announced plans to double the size of its fleet [source 1 2] at a time when we all need to be taking climate change more seriously

  • By publicly pledging their support for the campaign, authors and illustrators can send the message that:

  • The Dubai government must stop suppressing free thinking and free speech.
  • The Dubai government must treat people fairly and without discrimination, regardless of their sex, sexuality or status.
  • Emirates Airline and the rest of the aviation industry must help to tackle climate change by reducing their CO2 emissions.

  • There are many more details (including how to pledge support for the campaign), further references, FAQs and additional links at the campaign website http://eafolthinktwice.org.uk/.

    If all this difficult politics hasn’t already turned you off and you’re still reading this post – thank you. Maybe you’re wondering why I’m involved with it, given that I’m not an author or illustrator and it’s taking place somewhere several thousand miles away.

    It’s simple, really: the issues this campaign focuses on matter a great deal to me.

    I want my children and all children to be able to read about people in all their diversity. I want writers and illustrators, whatever their personal background, be be able to create and inspire and tell us stories. I’m not happy playing lip service to, for example, LGBT rights.

    All sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is illegal in the United Arab Emirates and carries a penalty of “confinement for a minimum period of one year” (UAE Penal Code article 356). Penalties for homosexuality include jail terms and fines. Whilst there are no recorded cases of the death penalty being incurred for consensual anal intercouse, the UAE Penal Code is ambiguous as to whether homosexuality is punishable by death. [source].

    I have read brilliant books written by people who happen to be gay. I have read amazing, life-changing books which include LGBT characters. Have you? What do you think about a government that punishes people who are gay? What would it be like for you and your kids not to be able to read books featuring a diverse range of characters, including LGBT characters?

    I want my children and all children to recognise that we are all equal and worthy of dignity. Books such as Chris Riddell’s new Little Book of Big Freedoms featuring sixteen drawings illustrating the freedoms of the Human Rights Act are great for sharing together as a family, but I also need to show my kids that I walk the walk, and not just talk the talk and by voicing my concerns over the sponsorship of this particular book festival, I’m living by my values.

    I want my children and all children to grow up in a world where the natural environment hasn’t been destroyed beyond all recognition by our selfishness. I believe climate change is the single biggest threat to all our lives and I endeavour to do what I can to minimize my impact on the planet.

    Following the recent flooding in the UK, widely recognised as a symptom of climate change [source 1 2] many in the UK book community have rallied to support the bookshops who have suffered terribly as a result of flooding. This is wonderful and inspiring, but if we don’t address the root cause of such environmental disasters, don’t we undermine such support? Flying contributes massively to the release of CO2 (and other emissions) into the environment and yet it attempts to limit aviation induced CO2 were left out 2015 Paris Climate agreement. What this means to me is that we have to take individual responsibility, that we can’t rely on our political representatives (hah!), and consequently I have to take personal decisions which limit what I do. Just because I can fly, should I?

    As it happens a few years back I was invited to attend and run workshops at a children’s book festival overseas but I turned down the opportunity because it would have meant taking a long haul flight and thereby doubling the amount of CO2 in the environment that year as a result of actions I’m personally responsible for (based on electricity use, gas use and other transport use).

    I want my children and all children to be able to voice their opinions, even when they disagree with their grown-ups, their friends or the rules which govern different aspects of their lives. “Freedom of speech” can seem like a high falutin’ ideal which doesn’t really impact everyday life on the ground for many of us, but then think of the Charlie Hebdo events or the case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (would I continue blogging if I was threatened with flogging?). So very many in the book community have rallied to support the freedom of expression, and yet it is something denied to many in the UAE. Earlier this month a Palestinian man was sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of insulting the UAE on social media. I don’t often get political on twitter or facebook, but I believe we should all be free to do so.

    Over the year’s I’ve been active in the children’s book community I’ve seen many examples of authors, illustrators and others in the community thinking of others and taking a stand on ethical grounds. I’ve seen boycotts of book awards because of their sponsorship, awards declined because of their sponsorship, huge fundraising efforts to support people in terrible situations (for example, Authors for the Philippines and Patrick Ness’s Save the Children Syrian Refugee Crisis fundraising), outcry at censorship of books and I believe the Think Twice campaign follows in this tradition. The book community is an empathetic, thoughtful community of which I’m proud to be a tiny part.

    I believe the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature helps to give a sheen of respectability to an oppressive government and a company that is actively undermining critical efforts to tackle climate change. This is why I’m calling on authors and illustrators – who I respect, admire and hugely value – to think twice about attending the festival this year or in the future. It may well turn out that having considered the issues (invited) authors and illustrators still feel it appropriate to attend the festival and whilst I would disagree with them I hope that we can all agree that raising and discussing the issues around the festival’s sponsorship is a reasonable thing to do.


    @EAFOLThinkTwice #thinktwice #EAFOL

    Click here to read Jonathan Emmett’s blog post about the campaign.


    16 Responses

    1. Laurence and Catherine Anholt

      Big respect to you, Zoe and to Jonathan Emmett for taking a stand on this very important issue. The Dubai government cannot have it both ways – if they want to encourage literature and the arts, then they must allow unrestricted debate and freedom of speech to all. All modern governments should understand that the suppression of debate and the violation of human rights diminishes their standing in the eyes of the rest of the world.

      • Zoe

        Thanks Ruth. I do hope the campaign encourages discussion of the issues – not just amongst authors and illustrators, but also the wider book community.

      • Zoe

        Thank you Rebecca. These are some difficult conversations – so many people I admire are going this year, or have gone in past years. But hopefully some conversations about what matters to us, even when what matters may be different, can be encouraged through this campaign.
        Zoe recently posted..A call to Think Twice

    2. Rebecca Stonehill

      Hi again Zoe, I had another little thought about this and wanted to share it. I think raising awareness about these kind of issues is SO important and I really salute you for, as you say, sticking your head above the parapet. As far as the environmental cost of flying goes, I’m with you all the way. But I also started thinking about Kenya where I live and the literature festival that takes place here every september. Kenya, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t have the greatest track record of human rights abuses, particularly when it comes to the LGBT community. But this festival invites along huge numbers of school children who can witness, probably for the first time in their lives, a varied programme of cultural and literary events. There is absolutely no space for creativity in the Kenyan schooling system so I think it’s fantastic many kids get this opportunity. At the end of the day, authors have to weigh up such issues. It’s really not an easy choice. But well done for making people at least have the conversation.
      Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..A celebration of writing by hand and why we must retain this ancient artform

      • Zoe

        Hi Rebecca, I get you thinking, you get me thinking – this is all great. Of course, I understand how the experience of meeting an author or attending a workshop can be quite transformative, and one I’d love as many children as possible to experience, wherever they are in the world.

        When I was asked to run workshops at a festival in India, one of the things that influenced me was thinking about whether it had to be me personally, flying from thousands of miles away, giving the workshops. I’m proud of what I do, but I know there are lots of other creative playful people out there, and I’m certain that the festival didn’t need to fly in someone to do what I do. Of course, I’m not a “name”, and the situation with an author or illustrator is a bit different. But even so, I do think that as with say the issues around food miles, there’s a case for author/illustrator miles too. One of the things EAFOL does which from a festival organisation point of view that I like is include lots of local authors and book people.

        With this particular festival (ie EAFOL) there would also be for me the issue of – on a very personal level – having to decide what I’m happy for my name to be associated with. If I were an author or illustrator would I want my name in some small way to be adding to a sheen of respectability for a company, and by proxy a government, which does things I really don’t agree with? It’s like an offsetting argument – which weighs more heavily? Making a group of children happy or effectively supporting behaviour that I feel is unethical?

        One other thing, a constructive alternative at least some of the time, is that there’s Skype of course – several authors and illustrators use that tremendously well to connect with their readership around the world. I don’t know what the infrastructure is like where you’re based in Kenya and whether that might be a possibility – and one that can happen outside festivals, but at any time!
        Zoe recently posted..A call to Think Twice

    3. Debi Gliori

      This is a spot on and very uncomfortable post for me to read. I agree with every single word, and admire you hugely for taking the time to write and also taking an ethical stance and deciding to not attend the festival.
      It’s uncomfortable for me to read because after being asked to attend the festival several years on the trot, I ran out of excuses for not being able to go ( my main reason for not wanting to attend was the Co2 burden that I’d be adding to our already overstretched planet). My work was not going well at the time and I’d hoped that by attending the litfest, I could generate some more income.
      In this, I wasn’t disappointed. I found an amazing client who commissioned four huge drawings from me and that income carried us through a very lean period. BUT. And this is a huge but. Being in Dubai, accepting the amazing hospitality offered by the litfest ( it is the best and most luxurious gig I’ve ever attended) meant that I was silently in collusion with the oppressive regime. By being their guest, I was signalling that I was cool with slavery, cool with needless overconsumption and chilled with the idea that I was worth all that carbon. And I’m not any of those things.
      I came home feeling weird. On one hand, I’d had the best time ever. Hanging out in a warm pool with Ben Okri, Anthony Horowitz et al was good fun. All writers are a bit odd, and to hang with your kinfolk was heaven on toast. The hotel was beyond luxurious, the food outstanding. We were taken out into the desert in 4WDs ( oh, the shame) and driven at vast speed up and down sand-dunes while our driver played Very Loud Thrash Metallica. To my eternal shame, I loved it. Oh, dear. I rode a camel ( bliss) and we had dinner in an encampment under an Arabian sky. It was something I’d never ever choose for myself, but it was stunning.
      It also was all taking place under cloud of unknowing about a breast lump. I think it may have been that uncertainty that made it all seem like something you do before death claims you. But normally this sort of thing would never be on my bucket list. I’m much more a climb-the-In-Pin-before-I-go sort of person. The breast thing turned out to be ok, thank the lord. But, and but and but. I felt I’d totally compromised my small amount of principles by attending the litfest. I feel like an ingrate saying this because I was treated like royalty while I was in Dubai, and it seems unbelievably crass for me to turn round now and say what I’m saying. However, I’m saying it. I’m also saying thank you to the organisers for their kindness, their skills at putting on an amazing litfest, their professionalism and their good humour. None of that is in any doubt. It was the best festival I’ve ever attended, but I’ll never return.

      I was asked back to do a creative writing programme off the back of the litfest, but I made an excuse and didn’t go. With our poor planet rapidly warming, and there being an urgent need to drop consumption of Stuff, drop Co2, eat a simpler plant-based diet etc, and also, DEAR HEAVENS, being the bloody author and illustrator of The Trouble With Dragons ( an environmental call to arms for small children) I cannot attend such festivals without being called the biggest hypocrite in Scotland. So – on balance, I’d absolutely love to go back if the regime changed their policies on the oppression of LGBT people, changed their policies regarding suppression of free speech and most importantly ( because there really is only one game in town, given the data coming out of the Arctic right now) changed their policies regarding flying and Co2 creation. I wish this would be possible, but I suspect that Co2 isn’t to the forefront of the minds of the Emirates shareholders. Not yet, that is. By the time Dubai begins to feel the disturbances wreaked by a climate off-kilter, I suspect lit-fests may be a thing of the past. I think we need to think very carefully about everything we do, and weigh up how much we imagine our carbon burning to be worth when set against our talents for inspiring children on the other side of the world. I think we need to wake up.
      With love and hope
      Debi Gliori

      • Zoe

        Dear Debi,

        I can only thank you for such an honest and courageous response. We’re very grateful to you for sharing your experience – both of the festival – and of grappling with the issues surrounding attending the festival.

        We’ve heard from several people how generous the festival organisers are, how well run the festival is, and how enjoyable it is for speakers attending in terms of what’s laid on for them. We hope that it’s clear that our concerns don’t lie with the individual organisers in any way – but with the sponsorship behind the festival. That the festival is such a pleasant experience definitely appears to have been a big draw for many attendees, having heard conversations about it over the past few years, but as you so eloquently write, at what cost?
        Zoe recently posted..A call to Think Twice

    4. Sohan Dsouza


      A counterpoint raised by my friend, Faye Brann, vis-à-vis your campaign

      After all, if the only people who end up going to these festivals are those who agree, or those who agree to hold their tongues, the festivals will be full of ass-kissers (e.g. Tyrese Gibson my personal favorite).

      Does sitting where you are open minds to your perspectives, or to expose new audiences to your principles? It merely intensifies polarization and isolation.

      The catch, of course, is that you have to not agree to leave those perspectives and principles at customs check-in. Have a bone to pick with the government of a country to which you have been invited? You’ll make a bigger impact if you physically go there and make your views known, in person, to the people who actually live there. Force your hosts to choose between letting you speak your mind or deporting you. This, after having been flown in and housed at their expense.

      Moreover, you can expand your following there, and continue to argue for the change you seek after you leave, reaching a much wider audience of the people for whom such change would matter and who can bring it about in the first place.

      It’s not ignoble to call for a boycott, but I think that Think Twice would do better to eschew boycotts in favor of rallying the would-be boycott participants to go to Dubai and stir shit up.

      • Zoe

        Dear Sohan,

        Think Twice’s primary aim has been to raise awareness of the issues surrounding free speech, human rights and climate change that arise given the sponsor of this festival. So if attendees were to go ahead and ask questions about these when they arrive, we would only support them in doing so – hopefully our campaign has drawn together lots of the information one might want to be able to ask questions (there’s lots of background reports eg by Amnesty here: http://www.eafolthinktwice.org.uk/info.html).

        The very first FAQ on our campaign site addresses precisely the issue of going to the festival and talking about the issues:

        “We recognise that not everyone that cares about these issues will wish to boycott the festival. If you still intend to go to the festival, you might use your appearance as an opportunity to raise awareness of these issues with your audience and/or other attendees. Alternatively, If you’d like to express your concerns directly to the festival’s sponsors, you can find contact details for both Emirates Airline and the UAE government on our Links & Contacts page.”

        You rightly note the difficulty, however, of raising challenging questions when your hosts are paying for your flights, accommodation and meals (though Chris Cleve’s recent post suggests that the festival, interestingly enough, does not pay speakers’ fees – the subject of a different boycott by authors recently http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/call-boycott-festivals-dont-pay-author-fees-320344). We’ve heard only wonderful things about the festival’s organisers, about their hospitality and thoughtfulness. Some people will prefer to withdraw from such a situation up front, avoiding any conflict of interest or embarassment to their hosts.

        I don’t know if any authors who have previously attended the festival have raised their concerns about the issues our campaign addresses, whilst at the festival. If they have, it would appear that the impact hasn’t been great: Since the festival was launched in 2009, if anything, the UAE government appears to have become less tolerant of free speech. The festival was in its third year (2011) when the government began its current crackdown on peaceful activists, persecuting and imprisoning UAE citizens who were calling for greater democracy and government accountability. More than 100 peaceful activists and critics of the government have been imprisoned since then. At least 67 of them remain in prison today.

        It’s worth pointing out that authors who raise any concerns they may have may themselves be subject to blacklisting from the UAE or potentially worse. Nick McGeehan, Human Rights Watch Gulf Reseacher, has been blacklisted (permanantly refused entry) to the UAE on the grounds of the questions he’s asked. The recent case of Australian illustrator Jodi Magi (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/15/australian-deported-from-abu-dhabi-after-writing-bad-words-on-facebook) shows that the UAE government is not above arresting foreign nationals that are critical of the country. This too might suggest that authors not wishing to ask what could be seen as awkward questions would be wiser to air them from outside of the UAE.

        On the issue of keeping doors open, of dialogue, the campaign is categorically not calling for a cultural boycott. Our second FAQ on the campaign website states:

        “This campaign is NOT proposing a cultural boycott of Dubai. We are objecting to the festival’s sponsorship rather than its location. We believe that by associating themselves with the festival’s sponsor, respected UK authors and illustrators are giving a sheen of respectability to a government that is oppressing its citizens and a company that is actively undermining efforts to tackle climate change.

        We don’t object to authors and illustrators establishing or maintaining links with UAE organisations or events that are not sponsored by Emirates Airline or the Dubai government. However we would encourage UK authors and illustrators to consider virtually visiting the UAE (using software such as Skype) rather than contributing to aviation-induced climate change by flying there. One person’s return flight from London to Dubai generates more CO2 than all of the electricity used by a typical UK household in an entire year. ”

        Jonathan and I support continuing to work with, for example, schools in the UAE, but just would argue that it could be done in a different way.

        Thanks Sohan.

    5. Sohan Dsouza

      Hi, Zoe.

      Thanks for your clarification. It seems we’re in agreement on a few more points than I thought we were. However …

      //You rightly note the difficulty, however, of raising challenging questions when your hosts are paying for your flights, accommodation and meals //

      It was more an observation of delicious irony, actually. What’s better than raising awareness of problems? Doing it under the sponsorship of those whose problems you are raising awareness of. And there are ways to bring up uncomfortable topics without being rude or directly thumbing your nose at anyone specific among your hosts.

      //It’s worth pointing out that authors who raise any concerns they may have may themselves be subject to blacklisting from the UAE or potentially worse//

      If they were planning on boycotting anyway, I don’t see how being blacklisted from the UAE will be terribly problematic.

      //the UAE government is not above arresting foreign nationals that are critical of the country//

      Kinda, sorta. In my experience as a long-term resident there, non-resident foreign nationals are given far more wiggle room than are residents. Indeed, this increases the importance of having people from outside say the things that those in the UAE are thinking, but would be wary of saying.

      //This too might suggest that authors not wishing to ask what could be seen as awkward questions would be wiser to air them from outside of the UAE.//

      Which was my other suggestion: network with the people there, build up a local following, then go home and pull out the safety pin.

      //On the issue of keeping doors open, of dialogue, the campaign is categorically not calling for a cultural boycott.
      We don’t object to authors and illustrators establishing or maintaining links with UAE organisations or events that are not sponsored by Emirates Airline or the Dubai government.//

      That’s good to know. However, it’s rather difficult to find cultural organizations and festivals that are neither sponsored nor chaired by the state. At least among the ones capable of bringing people into the country, and housing them, and such.

      • Zoe

        Hi Sohan, what one person might find delicious irony, another might call personal hypocrisy 🙂 Certainly, I wouldn’t be able to take the money/hospitality on one hand, and then criticise on the other. Still, thanks for alerting me to Faye’s original post (where I’ve also left a response) and for engaging with this issues.
        Zoe recently posted..An invitation to the ball – a guest post by Katherine Woodfine

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