A canceled congress is also a congress

17 okt 2023 • 14 min

By choosing Dubai to host WLIC 2024, IFLA sparked a debate about Dubai's relationship with human rights. In the end it was too much for an emirate that wants to appear modern – and the offer to stand behind the conference was withdrawn.

The warm wind is gusty. The queue of idling cars is long: a silver Mercedes. A gray Audi. A black BMW. All models from 2022. At first glance it looks like a car show, but the caravan rolls out from the newly opened Mohammed Bin Rashid Library (MBR).

From the tinted car windows, not a living soul is visible on the pavements. The mercury lies and oscillates just below 45 degrees. It is said that it never gets hotter than this, because outdoor work on the city’s buildings then has to be stopped.

Dubai is known worldwide for its lavish luxury, man-made islands, world’s largest shopping mall and tallest building. Now they also want the outside world to talk about their library.

Named after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, at a cost of 272 million dollars, the state has erected a library in the form of a Koran support, a rehal. With over 1.1 million printed books in a 54,000 square meter facility, they hope to attract an audience that prefers culture to consumption.

– Many people like shopping malls, but many also like books. Dubai is known as a center for business, commerce and tourism, but now this iconic building conveys the message that the cultural background actually exists in Dubai, and there is nothing better than books to convey that message, said Jamal Al Shehhi, Emirati author , publisher and member of the new library’s board.

A lot of the books in the new library are impossible to reach.

Inside the air-conditioned facility, it is totally quiet. Except for an unmanned grand piano playing the same tune over and over. The entrance hall is built like an atrium, and around the marble floor rise ten meter high bookshelves and escalators that take visitors all the way up to the eighth floor.

Timeline – Ifla and Dubai

  • In mid-June, the International Federation of Libraries Ifla announces that next year's World Congress, Wlic, will take place in Dubai. At the request of the host country, program points with an LGBTQ connection cannot occur, but must instead be moved to another place at another time.
  • The announcement leads to strong opposition from library organizations in a wide range of countries. The library associations in, among other countries, Sweden, USA, Norway, France and Germany are protesting.
  • The then Ifla chairman Barbara Lison admits that she and the rest of the board know that LGBTQI people may not feel comfortable participating in WLIC 2024, but that other groups will feel comfortable participating for the first time. The latter relates to the board's main argument for Wlic in Dubai: the country is open to many nationalities in Africa and Asia who, for visa reasons, have difficulty visiting Europe and North America.
  • During the summer, Ifla conducts a member vote on the choice of Dubai. When the results are presented in August, it turns out that 68 percent of the members who participated in the voting are against the choice of Dubai. A majority of these members are in Europe, North America and Latin America, while members in Asia, the Middle East and Africa are more supportive of the election.
  • As this year's Wlic Congress takes place in the Netherlands' Rotterdam in August, many participants are openly protesting that Ifla went to Dubai and decided to exclude LGBTQI issues from the 2024 Congress.
  • In early October, Ifla announces that the Dubai Library Association has withdrawn its candidacy as organizer of Wlic 2024.
Seeing the titles on the top shelves is impossible, and soon I understand the purpose of the wall when two tourists from Korea start taking selfies with the book spines in the background. Then another tourist from China live streaming his walk and two young students filming each other.
– It is not possible to borrow books, explains a guard as if he read my mind. But you can look and take pictures of them.

In the middle of the entrance hall stands an industrial-like robot cart, once the system is up and running, it should be able to pick up the titles that the visitors are looking for and bring them up in seconds via a rail down into the underground.

The screen, on which you can search for books, is as big as a small dining table. With shaky fingers I turn in Shuggie Bain, the Booker Prize-nominated novel by Douglas Stuart about a man who grows up gay in an environment that allows only a narrowly defined heterosexuality.

The search circle starts spinning, and I look over my shoulder.

**

It all started on June 19, 2023, when Ifla announced that next year’s International Library Congress, Wlic, would be held in Dubai.

Ifla’s board had agreed to exclude LGBTQI issues from the program in accordance with UAE:s wishes. Sensitive topics would be discussed in other countries with more permissive legislation.

The ensuing debate was intense. On one hand, it offered an opportunity for countries in the global South to participate without visa complications and a chance to influence the host country.

On the other hand, it was seen as a form of ”library-washing,” reminiscent of last year’s ”sports-washing” in neighboring Qatar, which hosted the World Cup.

For example, a drag artist reading stories in a library in the country would be sentenced, with the support of the United Arab Emirates’ penal code, which criminalizes (Art. 412.2 of Code of Crimes and Punishments, Decree of Federal Act No. 31 of 2021) “any man … disguising himself in women’s clothing.” with a year in prison and fines of up to 10,000 dirhams (30,000 Swedish kronor).

For (Code of Crimes and Punishments, Art. 411) “any act … or speech” that is “scandalous” and “offends modesty” or “public morals” can carry a prison sentence—or a fine of 1,000–100,000 dirhams.

In 2020, the United Arab Emirates amended certain words in Article 356 of the penal code to remove “to remove criminalization of consensual sexual acts.”

However, according to Amnesty International’s researcher on UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain, Devin Kenney, it was only done to appease critics.

– There was a legal loophole for a year, between the old law being removed and the new one being introduced, during which consensual homosexual relationships were legal.

But the paragraph that was changed and later reintroduced states that the punishment now ranges from six months to three years, he explains over the phone from Beirut.

What was changed in the legal text is that charges can now only be brought if ”if a male guardian requests prosecution”.

– So what will happen is that conservative families can use the law against their sons and daughters, but foreigners coming on vacation in Dubai are at far lower risk of imprisonment, because their families are unlikely to call the authorities.

The researcher calls the law ”sneaky” because it offers severe repression within the country without affecting the tourism industry.

The other provisions that criminalize ”statements that offend ‘public morals” and “scandalize public morality.” make it punishable to “entic[ing] … a man or woman … into committing sinful or indecent acts.” (Code of Crimes and Punishments, Article 417) are equally problematic.

– This means that displaying a rainbow flag could be enough to be sentenced. But exactly how the penal code will be used at international events like Wlic, or COP-28, in 2023 is known to very few.

The last time someone publicly spoke about a verdict was in 2017, regarding transgender individuals from Singapore.

A lawyer practicing in Dubai confirms to Biblioteksbladet that the law is used, and people are convicted using it without it reaching the media.

There are also provisions in the law regarding what happens if someone gives birth without being married.

– A woman from the Philippines giving birth in a hospital  “without proof of marriage can be taken to prison”.

Amnesty is currently banned from entering the country to investigate the situation and can only attempt to connect the data points that are public.

– After Ahmed Mansoor was arrested in 2017, there has been silence, says Devin Kenney.

Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights defender, has been held in confinement since then. In 2021, a letter was smuggled out in which he described his situation in prison, leading to international condemnation.

Another prominent academic, Nasser bin-Ghaith, is serving a ten-year prison sentence for his criticism of the United Arab Emirates. Others are currently detained due to political opposition like the group of 60 people from a mass trial known as the ‘UAE94 case”. Some were acquitted at the trial, some were convicted and imprisoned but later released after giving videotaped “confessions” to their supposed crimes, some escaped abroad but were captured later and are in prison now accused of attempting to overthrow the country’s government.

Ifla has stated that it has had limited presence in the Middle East so far and that a congress in Dubai would be an opportunity to make up for it, especially as they could ”empower female librarians in the region.”

However, one of the problems, according to Ifla, was that homosexuality was illegal, and delegates could feel ”unsafe and uneasy” due to the country’s laws.

Devin Kenney agrees that an international conference in Dubai could be positive if the international umbrella were used to raise issues that are otherwise undiscussable.

– If the organizers can freely choose topics and discuss gay rights in a panel where organizations and individuals from the country are involved, I would see it as progressive.

But if those discussions take place elsewhere and not in the country, he believes the situation will be different.

– If some topics are moved to Germany, it’s just ridiculous and doesn’t contribute to developing the local situation or debate.

Fundamentally, he believes that, to understand the human rights situation in Dubai, the LGBTQI perspective is just one aspect.

– If we look at other rights that should interest an association that brings together libraries, such as freedom of information and the press, the country is one of the worst in the world.

The new Mohammed Bin Rashid Library i Dubai cost 272 million dollars.

The authority with the neutral name ”The National Media Council,” according to the text on its Arabic website, was tasked with ”banning the printing of materials without permission and their dissemination”.

– It was literally a censorship organization that examined everything: every book, every newspaper, and all websites used within the country. In 2021, the National Media Council was replaced by the Media Regulatory Office, which continues to play a censorship role.

As a researcher, Devin Kenney has studied several authoritarian countries with censorship laws in the Gulf region, and he believes that the UAE stands out even compared to neighboring countries.

– The enforcement of censorship in the UAE is aggressive. It is such effective censorship that the censorship itself is never discussed. Everything said, written, and disseminated is screened. It seems to me entirely absurd to hold a library congress in a country where all books that are brought in are checked

**

Douglas Stuart cannot be found in the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Library database. But a quick search on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses yields a hit. Call me by your name by André Aciman does not seem to exist, however. The public Swedish investigation from 2017 on transpersons in Sweden, on the other hand, is on a shelf in the academic library.
– Can I help you with something, a guard suddenly asks politely.
– I’m just checking, I say and click back to then quickly walk straight past the selfie wall and into the magazine section.

Once here, the familiar feeling of being in a library sets in. Here you can find the slightly lower ceiling height, the slimmed-down magazines, and students sunk into soft armchairs. The only sound is the rustle of white cloth wrapping around the legs of a passing Emirati.

As far as the eye can see, there are 35,000 printed international journals as well as over 5,000 historical journals from around the world.

It had required a skilled apartment photographer to capture the feeling. Each shelf is a work of art. I see a cover for my insides. The progressive American magazine Mother Jones came out in the winter of 2022 with a theme issue about how ”Petrostates took over soccer.” The cover photo was a bloody football and focused on Qatar’s arms purchases and the deaths of the migrants that left the sport rotten. I follow the alphabet further and further into the room, E, F, G.

I pass two Indian mothers bragging in whispers about their children’s education. One is captain of the school’s rugby team, the other has top marks in all subjects except French. K, L, M.

Then suddenly it’s there: the radical theme number. Placed in a glass case by the librarians. Apparently, ”sportwashing” is a subject the national media council approves of.

But then Dubai was also accused of being behind some of the criticism against Qatar.

At the top of the library is the exhibition ”The UAE between the past and present.”

The headline is sufficiently directionless to accommodate the official narrative. A beach with sailboats, then a handshake in the desert and now a forest of skyscrapers straining the metal to get closer and closer to the sun.

Three words recur: stability, development and success.

While the construction industry in other parts of the world slowed down and stopped, it has exploded in Dubai.

In just half a century, the seven small absolute monarchies of the Persian Gulf that make up the United Arab Emirates have undergone an unlikely transformation. Even in the 1950s, these small desert states were poor backwaters that made a living from fishing and smuggling, but then oil was found and the money started flowing in.

But one type of images is conspicuous by its absence. The millions of migrant workers who made the miracle possible are nowhere to be seen. Not a single picture shows anyone who is not an Emirati.

They are, however, in every room and on every floor.
The exhibition is guarded by a lone guard from Nepal who accompanies me around. He has been in Dubai for two months and hopes to try several countries in the Gulf before returning home.

— In Kathmandu we don’t have libraries like this, he says impressed.

**

Outside the panoramic windows, the desert spreads out on the horizon. In the other direction, you can see the sea.

While the construction industry in other parts of the world slowed down and stopped, it has exploded here. The commercials for investing in real estate describe Europe as a burning, dying continent with a lack of security and recurring suburban riots.
Another explanation is that Dubai was the last country to close its borders during the covid-19 pandemic and the first to open. With the invasion of Ukraine, first the Russian oligarchs and then the Ukrainian ones came and settled wall to wall along the water.

Money can’t buy everything and this is where the library conference comes into play. Because the country’s government has a dream of something else.

Planning for a life after oil has turned the emirate of Dubai, above all, into a trade and entertainment center with several of the world’s most spectacular buildings. To that list they now want to add libraries and literature.

For some time now, the state-owned airline ”Emirates” has been sponsoring Dubai’s annual literature festival. Advertising for the festival is everywhere and among the selection of new blockbusters at the airline’s films are the author talks from the last festival: Onjali Q Raut talks about the book Boy at the back of the class about the refugee disasters in the Mediterranean and writing for children.

Alexandra Schulman is interviewed about her time at Vogue and her book Clothes and other things that matter.

The Dubai of today is not a caliphate, but to understand what the country’s ruling sheikh wants, you have to go back to 14th-century Spain. At the Alhambra fort, not only was free healthcare and education offered. Above all, there was a huge library of historians who wrote down the thoughts of the time.

Those who had conquered the word had the Sultan’s respect. Then as now.

One of the subway’s end stations bears the name Expo after the world exhibition that ended last year. The event was a feather in Dubai’s cap and gave a boost of confidence that manifested itself in plans for the city’s 100th anniversary in 2033, or D33 as it is known. By then, the city’s economy will have doubled and a million new residents will have moved in.

The closest analogy is a start-up. Instead of an urban planning office: a pitch. Instead of investigations and consultations with the residents: ”immediate action”. Instead of a city: a dream.

A new idea is freelance visas for Europeans together with abolished alcohol tax. If they still work from home, they might as well sit in Dubai.
A third of the world’s inhabitants only have a four-hour flight time to the city. In 2050, this will be the ”heart of the world”.

The question is, will the dream of the Alhambra come true? That palace, too, was built by slave labor in a time of economic and political unrest.

There, too, the critics were imprisoned.

**

The country’s authorities can be shy, but when it comes to defending international conferences, they usually have a lot to say. When Expo was questioned, they were in the game. Likewise, when criticism grew strong against Dubai’s hosting of this year’s climate conference, COP-28, the decision was publicly defended.

But there is no word on Ifla’s congress.

All relating to the country’s libraries is coordinated by the ”Emirates Library and Information Association”, but no one there responds to emails, sms, whats-app messages or DMs on Instagram.

But I see that they read everything I send and it feels like something is not right.

For a while I think about going up and knocking on their door, but it seems like the wrong way to seek answers to what the country wants with literature.

Within a week, the silence will have an explanation, when Ifla will announce that they are withdrawing their offer to host the conference.

The Old Library in Dubai was founded by British soldiers.

Instead, I take the subway to ”The Old Library,” founded by British soldiers who were stationed along what was then known as the ”Pirate Coast.”

The library is beautifully located on the ground floor of an office building in central Dubai. From the tinted glass doors decorated with the text ”The Old Library” you can sense the strong sun.

Leaning against the counter, volunteer Penny Mackenzie tells the story of how it all began.
– Everything else you will see in Dubai will be more impressive. But we are all people who have a strong passion for reading.

Raised in Zimbabwe, she settled down with her husband in Dubai in 2007. With a background as an actor and radio journalist, she felt right at home in the library.
That and the theater have been her second home in the city.
– Many who move to Dubai are alone and maybe know one or two other people in the whole country. Then the library becomes an important place. Here I have met friends, got a job and a connection in a new part of the world.

During her years in the city, Penny Mackenzie has seen how the country’s leadership has come to invest more and more in literature.
– It started with the literature festival ”Emirati Literature Festival grew” which became a success which then grew into an international event.

During the festivals, the writers also travel to schools outside the big cities, where the students don’t speak much English.
– There they can spread a love of reading and a different view of the world than the one the students are used to.

2017 was proclaimed the ”year of reading” by Dubai’s rulers.

– The whole country was on its toes and great efforts were made at all levels from schools to festivals to promote reading, and it definitely made a difference. They invested heavily in reading in Arabic.

The country has a long, vibrant tradition of poetry and literature that they want to preserve and develop. Even the ruler is a celebrated poet.
The state is also concerned that the new generation only speaks English. There, as here, there is also great concern that the screens are taking over young people’s time and interest.
– More and more children are growing up who do not speak Arabic. So the reading is very important for the government.

Penny Mackenzie is a volonteer at The Old Library.

In addition to international festivals, there is also investment in the country’s school libraries. At each festival, the country’s best school library is designated in ceremonial ways.

The largest section inside The Old Library, in terms of the number of titles, is also the children’s section.

– The children’s books are borrowed all the time, says Penny Mackenzie. Our top 100 list consists only of children’s books.

The volunteer-run library is a non-profit association. All surplus is invested in the business.

– This is not an academic library, the categories are rough and sorting is complicated, but we use Dewey Decimal, continues Penny, taking the thick classification bible out of a shelf.

The library’s holdings are searchable and recently ”Roman Empire” has been a popular search term following the viral trend online.

There is concern about what will happen if it becomes possible to borrow books from the sheikh’s large library. The lead in terms of English titles they can quickly take in if they wanted to.
– Then we have to shut down. But for now you can borrow books from us, it’s not possible from Bin Rashid.

Running a library in a Muslim country with strict laws has not been a major problem, explains Penny Mackenzie.
When the library turned forty years old, senior politicians came and participated during the mingle.

– We never self-censor. If we started with that, it would be the start of a slippery slope. What we do is we order home the books we want from a local bookstore chain and then the national media council gets to see the lists of what we ordered.

After reviewing the lists, the national media council announces which books are allowed to enter the country and which have been stopped.

– If they say that title is not suitable for the area, we do not order it from abroad. If it’s not supposed to be available, we have to accept it, because that’s how the law is written. But we never censor ourselves and we don’t go thinking: no, we shouldn’t order that book.

The largest section inside The Old Library is the children’s section.

Penny Mackenzie believes that the annual literature festival has been a natural way to bring in both new books and new authors.

– The National Media Council must allow the books of the invitees and this has made more literature available. There is a big difference compared to twenty years ago and everything moves slowly forward. I see no backlash.

I click through to the library’s database and search for Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart.

It takes a while. A digital panel on the wall testifies that the AC is at 24 degrees. It’s 43 outside. But in just a month or so the temperatures will be down to 30.

The worst of the heat is behind us.

Then it flashes. Hit. The Department of Fiction. There is one (1) copy inside.

Penny Mackenzie also explains that censorship is ”not a science”.

– It can vary from day to day. There are books we were sure to get in that were stopped and other things we never thought we would get in that weren’t a problem.

Martin Schibbye is the editor of Blankspot. In 2022, he won the Swedish Grand Journalist Prize for the ”Cards of Qatar” report on the situation of migrants in Qatar.

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