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Arab countries withdraw prize reward for novelist who visited Israel

Latest update : 25/06/2012

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Article text by Tony Todd

Algerian writer Boualem Sansal was due to receive a prize of 15,000 euros. But because of the novelist’s visit to Israel in May, the prize’s Arab sponsors withdrew the award and “divorced” themselves from a prize they had set up themselves.

A celebrated Algerian novelist was given a top French literary award on Thursday in a ceremony that was marred by the withdrawal of its Arab sponsors.

Boualem Sansal had been due to receive the Editions Gallimard Arabic Novel prize for his book “Rue Darwin” [Darwin Street] earlier in June.

A15,000-euro cheque was to be given by the Paris-based Arab Ambassador’s Council, which founded the award in 2008.

But between being nominated and being awarded his prize, Sansal attended the Jerusalem Writers Festival in May – as guest of honour.

Militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas called it, “an act of treason against the Palestinian people.”

By the time the writer was due to receive his prize, the Ambassadors Council had permanently withdrawn its support for the award.

‘Unhappy divorce’

The Editions Gallimard jury finally handed Sansal his laureate on Thursday - minus the 15,000 euro prize money - after weeks of deadlock with the ambassadors.

In an open letter announcing his resignation from the jury, Olivier Poivre d'Arvor, director of France Culture radio, called the link between the Hamas statement and the withdrawal of the prize, “a sordid truth”.

“Between being nominated for the prize and actually receiving it, Boualem Sansal visited Israel,” he wrote. “Hamas immediately issued a statement calling his presence an act of treason against the Palestinians. The reaction of Arab Ambassadors Council was a direct result of this.”

French-Lebanese writer and jury member Venus Houry-Ghata said the split between the publishers and the ambassadors was “an unhappy divorce” and accused them of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

“The ambassadors have to do what their governments tell them,” she told FRANCE 24. “But the jury believes culture, and in this case a novel, should not be restricted by borders or by politics. We will continue with the award in the future.”

‘A prison of intolerance’

Speaking on France Inter radio on Friday, Sansal said it was “completely unacceptable” that the ambassadors should interfere with their own jury’s decision and withdraw from any future association.

Arguing that Arab countries remained locked into a “non-existent” conflict with Israel, he said that those countries, and in particular his native Algeria, had “shut themselves in a prison of intolerance.”

“We have to do away with this dictatorial approach,” he said. “Yes, there are complicated relations with Israel, but we are not at war with them. And if we really want to help the Palestinians, people like me should be able to visit the country freely.”

His words echoed a June 6 interview with news site DNA Algerie: “We have to break this taboo [with Israel] .... I believe we need to go to a different level and that this would be in the interest of the Palestinians.”

A spokeswoman for the Arab Ambassadors Council told FRANCE 24 on Friday that Sansal’s visit to Israel had forced their hand – but denied the Hamas statement had any bearing on the decision.

“The Ambassadors are subject to the official position of the Arab League which considers itself effectively in a state of war with Israel,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

“The council is obliged to follow directives from the Arab League. Every ambassador regrets that this has happened. They would never want to interfere with literature.”