Ghassan Zaqtan allowed to attend Griffin poetry prize ceremony following outcry over government's refusal to admit him
A social media victory is being claimed on behalf of the leading Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan after his visa to enter Canada to attend a prestigious poetry award ceremony - initially denied - was granted on Thursday.
Zaqtan was shortlisted for the C$65,000 (£41,000) Griffin poetry prize in April for his 10th collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, described by judges as poetry which "reminds us why we live and how, in the midst of war, despair, global changes". But the Palestinian poet and novelist, who is also founding director of the House of Poetry in Ramallah, found that his request for a visa to travel to Canada to attend the ceremony was denied by the Canadian embassy in Cairo, according to his translator Fady Joudah, on the grounds that "the reason for the visit is unconvincing".
"There was another reason for the rejection: Zaqtan's employment and financial status. This and the purpose of the visit did not 'satisfy' the officer that Mr Zaqtan would return to his place of origin after a temporary visa is granted," said Joudah, an award-winning poet and translator, and a doctor, who lives in Houston.
Joudah, who believes Zaqtan's poetry "is important because, simply, it is poetry of the highest kind that speaks to the human condition in general and in particular; this particularity is not only Palestinian, but also that of oppression in the age of the nation-state", took to Facebook to mobilise support for the Palestinian writer. Literary names and organisations including Margaret Atwood and PEN also raised the alert about the situation on Twitter. The Griffin Trust, meanwhile, said that it was "working through appropriate Canadian government channels in the hope we can welcome poet Ghassan Zaqtan to the Griffin Poetry Prize awards festivities in mid-June".
"People took to social media. A piece in The National Post was written. In less than 48 hours, an official from the Canadian embassy in Cairo called Ghassan Zaqtan's residence in Ramallah and informed his wife that no further action need be taken, no need for new application or further documents: the old file was reopened, and approved. The visa was now granted," said Joudah.
"The issue was resolved yesterday and Ghassan Zaqtan's visa has been issued in order that he can visit Canada," said Ruth Smith, manager of the Griffin Trust.
But Joudah queried why the reversal happened - and why the situation even occurred in the first place. "The language I encountered during the last 72 hours is one of dilution and equivocation: this is terrible, shocking, unacceptable, but it happens to so many? Which many? Does it happen to Israeli authors? Does it happen to institutionally famous authors?" he asked.
Previously, Zaqtan's visa for a trip to the US for a book tour in 2012 had been delayed, with PEN and the American Civil Liberties Union both protesting the situation, and the was visa eventually granted .
"Twice in a year to a Palestinian author? Is this a coincidence?" asked Joudah. Zaqtan himself, said Joudah, "does not think this is about his person. But he has no doubt that this is about a policy in place set to humiliate, silence and marginalise Palestinian voices and artists in the English world, particularly in North America."