Algerian writer denied literary prize money for visiting Israel

Posted: July 18, 2012 in arts/culture

Arab diplomats in France have been sharply criticized for quietly withdrawing the prize money for a literary award because the winner, a famous Algerian novelist, visited Israel, with many here denouncing what they call an unacceptable incursion of politics into art.

The anger has been building in the French press since the award, minus the prize money, was handed out by a publishing company last month instead. The head of the jury resigned temporarily in protest.

The group of 22 diplomats under fire, who are from Arab League nations and have sponsored the prize for three years, said little, except that they were following the policies of their countries, which remain in a formal state of war with Israel.

The winner, Boualem Sansal, 63, a former engineer who began writing novels at 50 and became highly acclaimed, was scheduled to receive the Prix du Roman Arabe (the Arab Novel Prize) for his book “Rue Darwin” (“Darwin Street”). But in May, he spoke at a literary festival in Israel, and afterward Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs Gaza, said he had committed “an act of treason against the Palestinian people.”

Arab ambassadors based in Paris later wrote the jury that they had decided to cancel the ceremony and withdraw the 15,000 euros in prize money, about $19,000, “due to the current events in the Arab world.”

Sansal was incensed. “The Arab ambassadors have no right to behave in such way,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday from Boumerdès, a city near Algiers where he lives. “Those people don’t respect anything, especially the country they live in.”

Describing his time in Israel, he said he had been a guest of the third International Writers Festival in Jerusalem and had spoken about Israeli settlements on a panel with Israeli authors. He said he had described the settlements as an element of occupation and not as a “colony.” In general, the French use the word “colonists” to describe the settlers.

An official at the Arab League office in Paris, insisting on anonymity, said that “the ambassadors stopped sponsoring the prize after Sansal went to Israel, where he said that the colonization of occupied territory was nonexistent.”

Sansal denied that characterization and objected that his words were being twisted.

“I can’t express myself, as if I didn’t exist,” Sansal said. “But the future belongs to us, the military dictatorships in the Arab world are gone, the Islamists will go. The world needs stability and clarity.”

The head of the jury that awarded the prize, Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, director of France Culture radio, resigned in an open letter, calling the link between the Hamas statement and the withdrawal of the prize money “a sordid truth.”

He wrote that “between being nominated for the prize and actually receiving it, Boualem Sansal visited Israel.”

“Hamas immediately issued a statement calling his presence an act of treason against the Palestinians,” Poivre d’Arvor continued. “The reaction of Arab Ambassadors Council was a direct result of this.”

On June 21, Mr. Sansal was finally given the award, but without the money, at a small symbolic ceremony at the headquarters of his publisher, Gallimard.

But the diplomats’ decision to cancel the award ceremony and withdraw the prize money prompted members of the jury, authors and a prominent Jewish organization, the Representative Council of Jewish Organizations of France, or CRIF, to denounce the intrusion of politics into literature.

“If we needed additional evidence of the regressive imprisonment the Arab world is now plunging into, we find it is in this lamentable behaviour,” said an editorial recently posted on the CRIF Web site.

Members of the jury, who include the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, said that the prize would continue to exist and announced that new sponsors would be sought.

Sansal has been a critic of the military government in Algeria, where his books have been censored. In 2008, he compared Islamism to Nazism in his book called “Le Village de l’Allemand ou Le Journal des Frères Schiller” (“The Village of the German or The Diary of the Schiller Brothers”), which describes the life of a Nazi officer who becomes a hero of the National Liberation Front, now Algeria’s governing party.


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