Writers defy criticism to attend Jerusalem book festival

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | by rachel marder

jerusalem  |  The third International Writers Festival did not pass without controversy.

The weeklong gathering, which closed May 18, drew authors to Jerusalem from 12 countries to meet with their Israeli colleagues, as well as book lovers from across Israel for discussions and book signings.

Some writers, including U.S.-born and London-based novelist Tracy Chevalier, British writer Tom Rob Smith and Algerian author Boualem Sansal, encountered pressure not to attend the literary event, said Uri Dromi, director-general of festival host Mishkenot Sha’ananim.

“Some of our friends from abroad confronted some, how shall I say, unfriendly criticism,” said Dromi at the opening event May 13, as he applauded those writers for visiting Israel.

Israeli author David Grossman (left) and Algerian writer Boualem Sansal at the third International Writers Festival in Jerusalem.   photo/jns-michal patel
Israeli author David Grossman (left) and Algerian writer Boualem Sansal at the third International Writers Festival in Jerusalem. photo/jns-michal patel
Chevalier, whose 1999 novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was adapted to the screen, ignored a letter from British Writers in Support of Palestine urging her not to attend the festival. Smith, author of “Child 44” (2008), “The Secret Speech” (2009) and “Agent 6” (2012), also rejected a written plea from the group and calls online for a cultural boycott of Israel.

Sansal, 62, who participated in a May 16 panel with Daniel Ben-Simon, a Moroccan-born Labor member of Knesset, said when he accepted the festival’s invitation he became a target of condemnation.

“I talked with my wife, and she said I’d have problems,” he told the panel guests. “But to me it was important to come to Israel to prove my autonomy from the government. So my wife said, ‘Great, go for it.’ ”

Sansal, who worked in the Algerian government, is an engineer and holds a Ph.D. in economics. He has won major literary prizes in France and is considered one of the most important Algerian writers of his time. His books, written in French, have been banned in Algeria since 2006. Sansal’s fifth novel, “The German Mujahid” (2009), was his first to be translated into English. Sansal received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt last year for his books that protest oppression and encourage respect and understanding between cultures.

During the panel discussion, Sansal, a secularist, warned about the growing tide of Islamism since the Arab Spring.

“I feel we’re in the 1930s in the last century. Then, no one responded properly. Today Islamism is becoming fascism,” he said. “If there’s no democracy, people will look for religion to be their parliament, their government and so forth. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Israeli author Zeruya Shalev, international bestselling author of “Love Life” (2000), thanked Sansal and other writers for attending during the festival’s opening. “In so doing, you have proved your faith in literature,” she said.

Shalev called her country “a writer’s paradise.” She said being a writer in Israel means to struggle for inspiration in an ongoing drama, to be asked in every international interview why you don’t write about politics, and for critics to think every character is a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.