Open Letter

An Open Letter to Participants in the Seventh Annual International Translation Conference,

In light of the continued imprisonment of Qatari poet, Muhammad Al-Ajami, we urge you to consider the ethical dimensions of your participation in the upcoming conference on translation sponsored by Translation and Interpreting Institute of Hamad bin Khalifa University (TII).


Like other Gulf autocracies, The State of Qatar has tried to promote the idea that the region produces more than carbon-based fuels. By any measure, Qatar’s investments in this regard have been extraordinary, perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the Arab world. It has built a constellation of professional, civic institutions that have given support to Arab thought and artistic expression. With respect to support for the literary arts, the State of Qatar launched a series of large-scale projects through a nominally independent organization, the Qatar Foundation (QF). Thus were born initiatives, such as (the now-defunct) Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, The Sheikh Hammad Translation Award, Katara, and the Qatar National Library, all of which support Arabic literature through awards, translations, publishing and preservation. Qatar has also invested directly in the careers of prominent artists, intellectuals and writers from the across the Arab world. In so doing, Qatar has tried to create an image for itself as an oasis of creativity and freedom.


At the same time, however, Qatar has never ceased to repress the basic civil rights of its citizenry, nor the human and labor rights of its massive foreign population. Included on the list of basic freedoms that are violated by the Qatari state are those protecting the press and expression. And thus while deplorable, it is not entirely an aberration that a poet like Al-Ajami would find himself behind bars for the simple crime of having written lines of poetry. Given this reality, it is sufficiently tragic and not merely ironic that the conference notes how “the power to re-shape, re-cast, re-arrange and re-model significations is a political instrument …” and how “the wide span of translational mechanisms” are used “to represent power and create new ways to transform itself and develop its avatars to the eyes of the governed.”


In light of this, we appeal to you as independent writers, scholars and translators to recognize the lines that tie an apparently independent civic institution, like TII, to the imprisonment of Muhammad al-Ajami. TII, as you may know, is part of the QF family of organizations. And while some would claim that the foundation is an autonomous institution, no one can say that it is democratic, transparent, or even non-governmental. The Qatar Foundation may not be housed in the royal palace, but its directors are drawn almost exclusively from the ruling Al-Thani clan. Your participation in this conference, however limited, will grant legitimacy to the same family who have unjustly imprisoned Muhammad Al-Ajami. Your presence as guests of the State of Qatar can only serve to normalize its undeserved position as patron of Arabic literature.


We acknowledge that Qatar’s treatment of Al-Ajami is neither unique in the Arab world, nor is it more egregious than how other regimes treat writers. We also acknowledge that thought and expression are widely and brutally suppressed all across the Arab world. However, few other Arab regimes have invested as deeply in the literary arts as have Qatar, or cultivated this image of liberal patronage. Indeed, it is on the ground of these investments that we ask you to join our appeal: Qatar’s rulers need to understand that they will not be respected as patrons so long as they imprison artists for practicing their craft.


Qatar’s rulers now face a clear choice: either patron or jailor, but not both. For months, the human rights community, joined by PEN, have unanimously condemned the treatment of Al-Ajami, but the regime persists. Clearly, Qatar’s rulers will not relent unless pressured by more than words. And this is where your choice comes in.


You are now in a position to register your protest of Al-Ajami’s treatment in a tangible way. By withdrawing from the conference, you are making an ethical choice. By making this choice, you are sending a powerful message to the conference’s sponsors—the same family that has imprisoned Al-Ajami—that free thought and expression deserve to be protected, not prosecuted.


Sinan Antoon. New York University.

Marilyn Booth. University of Oxford.

Rula Jurdi. McGill University.

Elliott Colla. Georgetown University.

Humphrey Davies. The American University in Cairo.

Alexa Firat. Temple University.

Gretchen Head. Yale-NUS College.

Iman Humaydan. Writer and novelist, President of Pen Lebanon.

Samah Selim. Rutgers University.

Stephen Sheehi. College of William and Mary.

Maia Tabet. Translator and editor. Institute of Palestine Studies.

Adam Talib. The American University in Cairo.

Max Weiss. Princeton University.

Rawi Hage. Author.

Zaki Haidar. Carleton College.


To add your name to the list of signatories, please visit the following link.