Award-winning Algerian author denied cash prize for visiting Israel

Arab ambassadors withdraw prize from Boualem Sansal because he attended Jerusalem Writers Festival; Hamas accused him of ‘treason’ against the Palestinians

Algerian author Boualem Sansal, left. (photo credit: CC-BY 2.0, by Das blaue Sofa, Flickr)
Algerian author Boualem Sansal, left. (photo credit: CC-BY 2.0, by Das blaue Sofa, Flickr)

Well-known Algerian writer Boualem Sansal received a prestigious French literary award Thursday. However, he did not get the prize of 15,000 euros he had been slated to receive, as the fact that he had visited Israel prompted the Arab sponsors of the prize to withdraw their support, according to a report by French24.

The Editions Gallimard Arabic Novel prize has been granted by the Arab Ambassadors Council, which is based in Paris, since 2008. In the past, the prize was comprised of both an award and a cash prize.

Sansal was nominated for the prize for his book “Rue Darwin” (Darwin Street). However, after being named the winner, he attended the Jerusalem Writers Festival, which took place in May. He was invited to the festival as the guest of honor. Palestinian groups slammed his decision to attend, with Hamas reportedly calling his participation “an act of treason against the Palestinian people.”

After a protracted argument, Sansal was given his award on Thursday, but without the prize money, France24 reported.

Commenting on the decision to withdraw the prize money, laureate Sansal said it was “completely unacceptable,” adding that Arab countries – and his home country, Algeria, in particular – had “shut themselves in a prison of intolerance.”

Sansal added that in order to truly help the Palestinians, individuals like himself should be able to visit Israel freely. “Yes, there are complicated relations with Israel, but we are not at war with them,” he said.

French cultural figures were quick to denounce the council’s decision as a capitulation to Hamas pressure.

France Culture radio director Olivier Poivre d’Avror said the prize money had been withdrawn as a “sordid” consequence of Hamas pressure. “Between being nominated for the prize and actually receiving it, Boualem Sansal visited Israel … 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,” France24 quoted him as saying.

French-Lebanese writer and jury member Venus Houry-Ghata said that although “the ambassadors have to do what their governments tell them … the jury believes culture, and in this case a novel, should not be restricted by borders or by politics.” She added that the jury would continue to grant the award in the future.

A spokeswoman for the Arab Ambassadors Council claimed the council’s decision had not been influenced by the Hamas statement on the matter.

However, she said, “The Ambassadors are subject to the official position of the Arab League which considers itself effectively in a state of war with Israel. 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.”

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