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Lebanon: French writers withdraw from literary festival following Israel controversy

Activists accuse event organisers of hosting Zionism supporters and failing to invite pro-Palestine Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux
A poster for the literary festival Beirut Books, which takes place in Lebanon between 19 and 30 October 2022 (Twitter/French Cultural Center)

A number of French authors withdrew from a literary festival in Lebanon on Wednesday after pressure exerted by the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in the country.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Selim Nassib, Pascal Bruckner and Pierre Assouline, known for their pro-Israeli remarks in the past, said on Wednesday that they were not attending Beirut Books.

The French Cultural Center and the French Embassy in Lebanon funded and organised the literary festival to promote and celebrate Francophone literature. 

'An author such as Pascal Bruckner, who said, 'If Zionism did not exist, we must invent it', is someone promoting colonialism and the killer'

- Afifa Karake, Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel

The first edition kicked off on Wednesday and will end on 30 October, with literary and reading events taking place in multiple centres and schools in Lebanon.

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However, the highlight event of Beirut Books will be the announcement of the shortlist of the prestigious literary award, Prix Goncourt, in the Pine Residence, the official residence of the French ambassador to Lebanon.

"Some authors withdrew due to the security situation in the country, and others for personal reasons,” organisers told Le Figaro.

Mohammad al-Mortada, Lebanon's Minister of Culture, criticised Beirut Books and tweeted on 8 October that the festival is "exploiting the cultural movement in order to promote Zionism and its apparent and hidden aggressive occupation plans, which began with the land and will not end with the minds”.

The tweet was later deleted, but the ministry said that there remains deliberation about the issue.

Selim Nassib, a French author of Lebanese origin, said in a press release on Wednesday that he withdrew from the festival after Mortada's tweet "deeply disgusted" him, according to Le Figaro.

'Incitement to kill us'

Afifa Karake, an activist from the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel, told Middle East Eye that some French authors invited to Beirut Books made staunch remarks supporting Israel.

"We perceive these remarks as incitement to kill us," Karake told MEE. "An author such as Pascal Bruckner, who said, 'If Zionism did not exist, we must invent it', is someone promoting colonialism and the killer. We refuse to welcome him, and even if he came we will ask the Lebanese to boycott his readings and lectures."

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Karake said that Beirut Books should have invited Annie Ernaux, the French author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature and is known for her pro-Palestine and pro-Ukraine remarks.

"We welcome culture and Lebanon needs culture. But we feel that this festival is trying to celebrate French writers who support Israel on a Lebanese land," Karake said.

She added that they call on the French Cultural Center "to respect the Lebanese people and to replace the promoters of Zionism with other writers who defend the humanity of our causes, such as the example of the writer Annie Ernaux".

Nevertheless, other events are going according to plan.

"The festival's ambitious programming continues," said Sabine Sciortino from the French Cultural Center. "The Goncourt Academy has assured us that it will honour the commitment made: president Didier Decoin will travel to Beirut to announce the finalists for the prize on 25 October," she added.

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