Just weeks before she was set to arrive in Kuwait for a series of literary panels and discussions, Palestinian-American writer Susan Abulhawa received a notice that she was being disinvited.
The reason for the rescindment? A series of statements Abulhawa made on Twitter days before criticizing the government of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The exchange in question took place on October 5th between Abulhawa and a media executive of the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC), Mohammed al-Shahry.
According to Wikipedia, al-Shahry is the Saudi regional director of MBC.
In response to a tweet from someone praising Abulhawa’s critically acclaimed novel Mornings in Jenin, al-Shahry wrote: “Someone who accuses my country of killing and committing crimes and accuses my leadership of being criminals doesn’t deserve one sentence to be read [of her book].”
التي تتهم بلدي بانه يعدم ويقتل ويرتكب جرائم وتتهم قادتي بأنهم مجرمون لا تستحق أن نقرأ لها سطراً واحداً .. pic.twitter.com/0UNUkz9sLq
— محمدالشهري 🇸🇦 (@m7mmd) October 5, 2019
Alongside his tweet, al-Shahry shared a screenshot of year-old tweets from Abulhawa criticizing the Saudi government’s execution of dissidents and Bin Salman’s photo opp with the son of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
From there ensued a back and forth between Abulhawa and al-Shahry, who likened Palestinians to “criminals” who “sold their land to the Jews.”
The next day Abulhawa woke up to an email rescinding her invitation to speak in Kuwait.
“The letter was very apologetic, I think the person was truly apologetic, I just think they feared the wrath that could come down on them if they didn’t rescind,” Abulhawa told Mondoweiss, referencing the “immense pressure” put on Kuwait by Saudi and other Gulf influences.
“She was certain that the official government cultural venue couldn’t host someone like me who was openly challenging or disparaging the ruler of Saudi Arabia,” she continued.
According to Abulhawa, the person — who she asked remain anonymous — confirmed that the Twitter exchange with al-Shahry is what lead to her being disinvited.
“The letter also indicated that in addition to the sponsor pulling out, there was also a security risk to me because there are reciprocal agreements between the gulf states… basically extradition agreements stating that if someone openly insults a leader in any one of the countries, they will extradite them to the offended country,” Abulhawa continued.
When asked if she believed the actions taken against her were related to the larger political climate surrounding Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and the US, Abulhawa responded affirmatively.
“Saudi Arabia has been working for years to promote this new narrative that says, much of what al-Shahry said: that Palestinians ‘sold’ their land and are playing the victim to the world in order to make money off of it,” she said.
“This narrative is becoming more widespread. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Arabic-speaking people to be exposed to other points of view that could harm MBS from his agenda of bringing the entire Middle East under his purview, obliterating Iran, and becoming master of the region, etc.”
During her conversation with Mondoweiss, Abulhawa recounted the story of the Native American Crow nation who allied with white settlers against their tribal enemy, the Sioux nation, and likened it to the current geopolitical dynamics between Saudi Arabia and Israel uniting against their common enemy, Iran.
“The Crow nation saw an opportunity to ally with stronger colonial movement to get rid of the Sioux, thinking they could come to an agreement with the settlers,” Abulhawa said. “But after they defeated the Sioux, the settlers began robbing and destroying the Crow nation.”
هنا ، صورة لتذكير بالوقت الذي تحالف فيه ال Crow Nation مع المستوطنين الأجانب ضد أعدائهم ال Sioux. بعد هزيمة ال Sioux، سجن المستوطنون الأوروبيونهم قيادة ال Crow ودمروهم أيضًا. pic.twitter.com/9jvASmCn2e
— susan abulhawa (@sjabulhawa) October 10, 2019
“I wanted to make this analogy because it’s ‘Colonialism 101’, and it’s happening in this region with Saudi aligning with Israel against Iran,” she said.
In the wake of her events being cancelled, Abulhawa says she doesn’t blame Kuwait for what happened. “They’re a small nation that is dwarfed by these far greater powers, and they had to act accordingly.”
At the end of the day, she says she wishes she could have had the chance to sit down with people, be challenged by them, and hold “open robust discussions, the way societies in the Middle East should be having.”