I went to Dubai to speak at the fantastic Emirates Literature Festival last month. Just before it opened a number of authors announced that they were boycotting the festival because of the UAE’s human rights record.
There was also a thoughtful petition by Human Rights Watch and English Pen as well as the campaign to boycott. I agreed to sign the petition but I thought and still do think there are much better ways to encourage free speech than by boycotting a literary festival. Emirates festival is the largest literary festival in the Arabic speaking world and I think we should be doing all we can to encourage dialogue everywhere but surely especially in the middle east where there are differing perspectives we can all learn from. Chris Cleave puts it a lot better than I could here.
Anyway, during the lead up to the festival a number of activists were tweeting to me encouraging me to boycott etc etc and i struck up a conversation on twitter with Ahmed Mansoor, one of the UAE’s leading activists who was previously imprisoned. We ended up meeting for a coffee and I was so shocked by his story that i feel obliged to write about it here:
‘the only thing clear in this country is it’s opacity!’
Ahmed Mansoor is an Emirati writer and poet who has a masters in IT. He did his IT studies in the US and on his return he was involved in setting up a discussion website in the UAE uaehewar.net (hewar means dialogue). The discussion threads that emerged were topics like politics, human rights, news from international media which is banned domestically. The website became popular and the UAE government managed to shut it down and imprisoned some of those responsible. Ahmed became more and more politicised by the actions that were going on around him that he and other intellectuals/activists initiated a petition calling for political reform. Five of them were imprisoned. He was detained for 8 months and the government ran a smear campaign. They were tried by a closed court which sentenced Ahmed to 3 years in jail and the others to 2 years each. Amnesty deemed the trial grossly unfair and after an international outcry the ‘UAE 5’ were released.
However after his ordeal he had a criminal record and his employer were forced to dismiss him. His passport was also confiscated in a raid on his house and has never been returned, his email and phone were hacked, a new ‘cyber crime’ law was passed by the government (which has been deemed unconstitutional) which means he and others like him will never have ‘security clearance’ and without ‘security clearance’ he has no possibility of getting a job. Then, all of his money ($160,000) suddenly disappeared from his bank account. The nature of its disappearance implicates not only the government but also the bank. When Ahmed was reporting the disappearance of this, his life’s savings, his car tyres were first let down and then his car was stolen… all outside the main court/prosecution building in Abu Dhabi. He was also twice beaten up and received numerous death threats which has made it impossible for him to complete his law studies at university. (He had tried to return to university after he lost his job)
So Ahmed is currently without his life’s savings or a job or a way to leave, but he says many are facing much worse consequences than he has. There are hundreds of political prisoners currently in jail without charge. Often they just disappear. People are terrified to speak out and face a similar fate. As Ahmed says ‘extremism grows when hope for peaceful change evaporates’ and i cant help worrying with him about the wider consequences of such extreme crackdowns.
Despite these stories there was so much else I saw in Dubai that seemed hopeful about the UAE. The festival itself was incredibly inspiring. The astronaut Chris Hadfield gave an incredible talk aimed at inspiring children into science and exploring the unknown and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy made I call out to support womens day on the opening ceremony. I did school visits as part of the festival, all were very multicultural and open, one of the classes I taught had 110 children from an incredible 33 different countries, and the schools were some of the best equipped i have ever seen. One of my friends is an academic advisor working with institutions there and he raves about the enthusiasm of the young people and the set up that he works with. The country has developed at a faster pace than literally anywhere else in the world and has achieved an incredible amount in just a few decades. Hopefully the politics can be changed equally quickly.
Ahmed Mansoor won the Martin Ennals award in 2015
(Ennals was the first head of Amnesty International)
You can read about it on the BBC here
Please consider supporting Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Ahmed’s story made me appreciate the fantastic work they are doing all the more.
One of my school visits in Dubai
The Dutch version of A Bit Lost (Mama Kwijt) was made into a school theatre production for special needs children. The actors (parents and a grandparent) have used gestures to re-enforce the narrative for the children. The school’s speech therapist plays the little owl. Thanks to Lenie for mailing me about this! WOW! Its a real honour to see the story being used in this way.
for more about the wonderful events for A Bit Lost in Holland take a look here
A Bit Lost (Un Peu Perdu) has just won the Prix P’tits Mômes in Geneva! As part of the prize i was invited to come to Geneva and to give a presentation to children at the Pomenade des Bastions. There were really lovely events organised by the city of Geneva for very young children and it was a huge honour to have been part of it.Everything there was just beautifully put together, the poster for the festival was designed by one of my favourite picture book artists Madelena Matosa (Planeta Tangerina), a stunning exhibition for children at the main city library by Haydé and there were events including beautiful readings by all the nominated books by professional performers. even the programme is beautiful, take a look here
The 4 other nominated books are here, one of the other books, Cours! was from the same publisher as mine, Borim press in Korea. In fact my book was very lucky to have got onto the shortlist, it only made it because another publisher had to drop out but then the final four were were voted on by the children in a little ballot box all the libraries, so its a special honour to have received it from the children themselves.
There is an article about the prize here
Thank you to everyone who showed me around Geneva for the 2 days especially to Olivia, Damien and Davide. An amazing two days. Merci!
DESIGN MUSEUM SHOP
Reading and workshop 2-4.30pm
People’s Supermarket. Fair Trade Exhibition.
Runs for 2 weeks 27th Feb-12th March
29th Feb 4.30-5.30
Englands Lane. Reading and signing
1st March. I will be doing signings in the following shops. pop in if you are in the area.
Museum of Childhood
2nd March I will be doing signings in the following shops. pop in if you are in the area
The Lamb Bookshop
Book Launch Night (Victoria Park Books)
Discover Book event. Talk and presentation.
Fair Trade Design Talk at the Peoples Supermarket
PIVOT exhibition of visual curiosities
Filmbase Temple Bar
Irish Design Shop signing event 5-7pm
TV3 Ireland AM
signings around Dublin
9th -11th March
Presentation London YLG AGM
Start of Blog Tour
Prix des bébés lecteurs de Nanterre
Paris Book Fair signing 4-6pm
Bologna Childrens Book Fair
OH NO! what is george doing now? drawing worksheet: please feel free to download/print.
Im very very excited about the South Ken Kids festival next month.
The line-up is really AMAZING… have a look… quentin blake / marc boutavant / kitty crowther
the entire list is really amazing, ive really never seen such an exciting line-up like that before and im very honoured to be alongside those names
Quentin Blake, Stephanie Blake, Marc Boutavant, Lauren Child, Kitty Crowther, Polly Dunbar, Sara Fanelli, John Hegley, Joëlle Jolivet, David McKee, Julien Neel, Axel Scheffler, Viviane Schwarz, Hannah Shaw, Olivier Tallec
I will be doing 3 different events. see my events page here
. It includes a DRAWING DUEL with Joëlle Jolivet …. Im not exactly sure what is involved but im sharpening all my best pencils in preparation (owl is sharpening his beak just in case it gets nasty)
PS if you look on the website you might see a stray owl has accidentally fallen in there. we are very sorry about that. myself and owl are working on our professionalism over the next month to make sure this wont happen again.
SOUTH KEN WORKSHOPS
We also did some school workshops and invented our own little stories
In the original early version of the story owl bumps into animals on the way down when he falls from the nest. So, in the workshops we invented some things that could happen to owl on his fall. Here he bumps into birds/down chimneys and into the mouth of a crocodile! Fold a page in half and do a before and after fall!