Shamsie paying the price for backing Palestinians | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Shamsie paying the price for backing Palestinians

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Anglo-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie

Anglo-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie staunchly supports the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” (BDS) movement designed to put pressure on Israel over its brutal treatment of the Palestinians, although her stand has cost her a prestigious German literary award and $16,500 (Dhs60,608). Early this month, the jury selecting this year’s winner of the Nelly Sachs prize chose to honour Shamsie for her body of work but, upon learning that she backs BDS, the award was revoked.

She responded by saying it is an “outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust.”

Indian origin author Hari Kunzru responded by saying, “I understand the sensitivities around a prize named for Sachs but deplore the implication that anyone advocating for Palestinian human rights is anti-Semitic.”

More than 250 authors joined the protest by signing a letter published in the London Review of Books. Among them were Noam Chomsky, Amit Chaudhuri, William Dalrymple and Michael Ondaatje, a former winner of the award, who accused the Nelly Sachs prize jury of choosing to “punish an author for her human rights advocacy.”

Egyptian novelist and pro-Palestinian activist Ahdaf Soueif said the withdrawal of the award was “a manifestation of a new McCarthyism — on an international scale.” Her reference was to the “enemies within” campaign launched by US demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s against Communists, suspected Communists, spies, infiltrators and political opponents in the US.

The prize is named for the German-Swedish Jewish lyric poet and playwright Nelly Sachs, who fled Germany for Sweden to escape Nazi persecutions of Europe’s Jews. In 1961 she was the first winner of the Nelly Sachs prize and was awarded the 1966 Nobel prize for literature, sharing it with Israeli novelist Shmuel Yosef Agon.

The German jury explained its position: “With its vote for the British writer Kamila Shamsie … the jury honoured the author’s outstanding literary work. At that time, despite prior research, the members of the jury were not aware that the author has been participating in the boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies since 2014.” The jury refused to publish her response. The jury changed its mind after the Ruhrbarone political blog posted an item about Shamsie’s support for BDS. Ruhrbarone had previously called for “genocide against Palestinians.”

The jury argued that the award is meant to celebrate authors who transcend borders and reconcile peoples rather than divide them through boycott. Its members did not take into account Israel’s military conquest of Palestine, ethnic cleansing of its native population and enduring occupation. This is far more divisive and disruptive than BDS.

Ignoring Israel’s brutal actions against Palestinians, the German parliament in May adopted a non-binding motion calling BDS “anti-Semitic,” or anti-Jewish, “reminiscent of the most terrible chapter in German history.” The motion was criticised by 60 Jewish and Israeli academics, who said that the move was part of a trend to label “supporters of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic.”

The hard fact is that Germans find it difficult if not impossible to criticise Israel and its actions because of the Holocaust. Its black shadow crouches over Germany and the rest of Europe three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II. The European Parliament has called on its members to protect Jews and Jewish property and to combat anti-Semitic language. France has ordered criminal prosecution of anti-Semitism and has, under President Emmanuel Macron, increasingly equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. No comparable actions are taken against Islamophobia which is rampant in some European countries and North America.

Last year, Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire, which focuses on the negative impact of anti-terrorism policies on British Muslims, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. One of the main characters in the novel is a déraciné Muslim home secretary who is a member of the Conservative Party, a post recently filled by Sajid Javid, son of a Pakistani-origin bus driver, who has taken a tough line on the repatriation of Daesh-affiliated women and children caught up in the war in Syria.

Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi into a family of Pakistani intellectuals. Her mother, Muneeza Shamsie, is a well-known academic and journalist, her great aunt was the pioneering British-Indian novelist Attia Husain, and her grandfather was Jahanara Habibullah, who wrote about the British Raj. She grew up during a “particularly bleak” time in Pakistan, she said in an interview with the Scottish Review of Books. “When I was four, in 1977, military rule came in and lasted until I was fifteen. There was a lot of pretend Islamisation. It was also the period of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan got involved and trained (anti-Soviet fighters). I would sit and listen to adults having conversations about the terrible path the country was on and the dangers of religious extremism. On the other hand, I had my family life, which was a happy place full of books.” Events unfolding around her and books have shaped her life and fill her writing with characters struggling with identity and politics.

Shamsie was nine when she decided to be a novelist and a teenager when she determined to write in English. She studied creative writing in the US and wrote her first novel, In the City by the Sea, while at university. Thereafter, she lived a semi-nomadic life between Pakistan, the US where she taught at university and Britain, where her family has a home in St John’s Wood, where she has settled. In 2007 she moved to London and applied for naturalisation, agonising for many months before becoming a dual British-Pakistani citizen. She is the author of seven novels, the first four set in Karachi, and has won five literary awards.


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