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We were looking forward to Sudanese author Hammour Ziada becoming this year’s Fellow at St Aidan’s College and starting his Fellowship on 10 January, but the UK government’s visa office have decided against it and refused him a visa. In spite of an official College invitation and all his expenses during the term’s residency being paid for by the Fellowship, and in spite of his own reputation as a writer with a busy schedule of many literary visits to many countries, the UK government has said they are not satisfied that he is “genuinely seeking entry as a visitor or intends to leave the UK at the end of [his] visit”.
We regard this as appalling discrimination against a well-known and respected international author. We reject the grounds given and are working to overturn the refusal. However, as the letter denying Hammour Ziada his visa came when the Christmas and New Year holidays had already started, there was no way anything could be done immediately. We have decided to hold his Fellowship over until 2020, and will work to welcome Hammour Ziada as the Fellow then.
Denial of short-stay visitor visas for authors, artists and musicians, who have been invited, all expenses paid, by reputable cultural bodies to perform or attend cultural programmes and events, is now a commonly experienced obstacle to international cultural visits to the UK. Director of Edinburgh Book Festival Nick Barley, said in August 2018: “We’ve had so many problems with visas, we’ve realised that it is systematic. This is so serious. We want to talk about it and resolve it, not just for this festival, but for cultural organisations UK-side.”
The Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship was established in October 2016 by St Aidan’s College of the University of Durham and Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature with the support of the British Council. Specifically for a published Arab author writing in Arabic, it takes the form of a writing residency at St Aidan’s College during the Spring academic term, plus literary events with the University, UK authors and the public, and is wholly sponsored by the Fellowship. The first Fellow (2017) was Iraqi author Ali Bader, the second Fellow (2018) Libyan author Najwa Binshatwan, both of whom are residing in Europe.
The Fellowship is based on the three cornerstones that have formed the core of Banipal magazine: that Arab literature is an essential part of world culture and human civilisation; that dialogue between different cultures needs to be continually deepened; and that the joy and enlightenment to be gained from reading beautiful poetry and imaginative writing is an integral part of human existence.
The Fellowship’s purpose is to encourage dialogue between the UK and the Arab world through literature. The cultural exchange and dialogue that it enables, and creates, opens windows for non-Arab audiences in the UK onto the realities of Arab cultures in all their diversity and vibrancy, enabling fruitful discourse to develop which is hoped can lead to further exchange, mutual respect, new writings, and deeper understanding.
The denial of a visa to Hammour Ziada puts in jeopardy the future of the Fellowship. How can it continue if such an award-winning and successful Arab author is refused a visa? We will challenge this denial and discrimination with all our might. We are presently considering our next steps, as well as the possibility of bringing in a substitute Fellow for 2019.
We will update this announcement as soon as possible.
Susan Frenk, Principal, St Aidan’s College
Fadia Faqir, Writing Fellow, St Aidan’s College
Samuel Shimon, Editor-in-Chief, Banipal magazine
Margaret Obank, Publisher, Banipal magazine