Israel-Gaza tensions hit Frankfurt Book Fair as Malaysia pulls out

The country joins groups such as Sharjah Book Authority and Arab Publishers' Association withdrawing from the event

Frankfurt Book Fair is facing backlash after postponing Palestinian author's award ceremony. Getty Images
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The Israel-Gaza war is set to overshadow the Frankfurt Book Fair this week after the postponement of a Palestinian author's award ceremony sparked condemnation from top writers and the withdrawal of several Arab groups.

The world's biggest publishing trade event begins on Wednesday just more than a week since Hamas launched the deadliest attack in Israel's history, prompting Israel to respond with a relentless bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip.

Organisers swiftly denounced the Palestinian militants' “barbaric” assault and rushed to reorganise the schedule, pledging Israeli voices would feature prominently.

The fair “stands with complete solidarity on the side of Israel,” said director Juergen Boos.

But the run-up to the five-day event has been overshadowed by a furious backlash after an award ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli was postponed.

She was due to receive the LiBeraturpreis, a German award, for her book Minor Detail, based on the real events of a 1949 rape and murder by Israeli soldiers.

It is organised by Litprom, which gives out the honour each year at the fair, but the group said they had decided not to go ahead with the ceremony “due to the war started by Hamas”.

It said in a statement that it was looking for a “suitable format and setting for the event at a later point,” while insisting that: “Awarding the prize to Adania Shibli was never in question.”

However, in an open letter released on Monday, more than 600 signatories including high-profile authors, publishers and literary agents, condemned the move.

Postponing the award amounted to “closing out the space for a Palestinian voice”, said the letter, whose signatories included Abdulrazak Gurnah and Olga Tokarczuk – both winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“The Frankfurt Book Fair has a responsibility, as a major international book fair, to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down,” it added.

Other writers who signed included Pankaj Mishra, William Dalrymple, Colm Toibin and Naomi Klein.

Malaysia's education ministry has withdrawn from participating, accusing the organisers of taking a pro-Israel stance, amid growing global divisions over the continuing conflict between Israeli and Palestinian forces.

“The ministry will not compromise with Israel’s violence in Palestine, which clearly violates international laws and human rights,” Malaysia's education ministry said on Monday.

“The decision (to withdraw) is in line with the government’s stand to be in solidarity and offer full support for Palestine.”

Some Arab publishing industry groups also announced on the weekend that they were pulling out of the fair.

These included the Sharjah Book Authority, which said that “we champion the role of culture and books to encourage dialogue and understanding between people.

“We believe that this role is more important than ever.”

The Emirates Publishers Association released a similar statement, and the Arab Publishers' Association in Egypt also pulled out.

While declining to comment on the decisions of individual exhibitors, Boos insisted the fair was “open to authors, publishers, translators and literature fans from all over the world.”

It is a “platform for both Israeli and Palestinian voices,” he said.

Elsewhere at the fair, one of the most anticipated authors featuring this year will be Salman Rushdie, who has appeared only rarely in public since a stabbing attack last year that nearly killed him.

Rushdie, who has faced death threats since his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was declared blasphemous by Iran's supreme leader, lost sight in one eye in the attack in the small American town of Chautauqua.

The author is due to speak at a press conference on Friday and will be awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on Sunday.

Also in focus this year is artificial intelligence and its potential impact on the publishing industry.

There is “a deep sense of insecurity” among book industry players worldwide about AI, said Boos.

Concerns range from potential copyright violations to low-quality, computer-written books flooding the market, he said.

The 75th Frankfurt Book Fair runs from Wednesday to Sunday

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: October 17, 2023, 9:55 AM