Photo by Elise Swain via InterKontinental

The German literary organization InterKontinental announced today, March 14, that it is rescinding its invitation to Mauritanian author Mohamedou Ould Slahi Houbeini to curate the 2023 edition of the African Books Festival Berlin. The decision is a response to the toxic outrage that has trailed Slahi’s invitation.

For the past two weeks, Slahi and the festival have come under intense fire from members of the German press who have accused Slahi of everything from being an Al Qaeda supporter to voicing anti-semitic views.  They have questioned his qualification as a writer and vilified his character. The way he has been treated in the press is a clear case of bully by misplaced outrage.

The festival coordinators have insisted that these accusations are baseless and politically-motivated. But the toxicity and sensationalism of the outrage eventually forced them to end Slahi’s curatorial role, given the challenges of holding a festival amidst widespread ill-will and concerns for safety.

The African Books Festival Berlin was established in 2018. Each year, it appoints a curator who provides the intellectual and artistic direction for the festival, deciding the festival’s themes and drawing up the invite list. Past editions of the festival has featured the likes of Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Dangarembga and South Africa’s Lidudumalingani as curators. The festival has hosted African writers from the continent and the world over and fostered timely and enriching debates around books, creating a space for exchange between African and German literary communities.

Slahi was born in Born in Mauritania in 1970.  He was unjustly imprisoned in the U.S. prison camp Guantanamo Bay and wrote a memoir Guantánamo Diary detailing his experience. The memoir was published in 2015 and became an international bestseller. He is also the author of the novel The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga published in 2021 by Ohio University Press. Slahi’s curatorship was supposed to focus on writing as a space of freedom and transformation.

As the statement shows, InterKontinental is clearly at a point were they believe that ending his curatorial role in the most auspicious decision for everyone involved, including Mr. Slahi and the festival. In the coming days, they will share more details on what comes next, with Slahi no longer curating the festival. Stay tuned.

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There has been some new developments since we last covered the story of Slahi’s ordeal with the German press.

Bhakti Shringapure, co-founder of Radical Books Collective and close friend of Slahi, released a statement in response to the on-going controversy surrounding Slahi’s “dis-invitation” by InterKontinental to the African Books Festival. The statement came within hours of the festival organizers’ statement about their decision to take back their invitation, citing concern of safety and the interest of the festival.

Shrigapure condemns what she calls “a barrage of vicious attacks from German media and trolls, resurrecting decades-old slander against Mohamedou – calling him a terrorist, etc.” She also criticizes the festival for their handling of the situation, stating that they should have anticipated the blowback against Slahi’s invitation in light of the existing political and media climate in Germany and made a better effort to protect him from the storm instead of, as she puts it, “throwing him under the bus.” Follow this link to read Shringapure’s full statement and see the festival’s prior statement below:

Read the full statement below:

The association InterKontinental e.V., organiser of the African Book Festival, will take over the event’s artistic direction this year and has submitted a request in this vein to its funding institution, the Hauptstadtkulturfonds. The association wants to prevent the festival from being affected by the ongoing discussions about Mohamedou Ould Slahi Houbeini, who was supposed to serve as curator.

The Peace Prize winner, human rights activist and writer has been subjected to serious but unsubstantiated accusations in the German press and public in these past weeks, which have since led to numerous attacks on the festival itself.

As an important and unique platform for African perspectives in Germany, the African Book Festival sees itself as responsible for giving expression to African voices in many different ways.

In order to place literature and not individuals at the centre of the festival as usual, the organisers, after careful deliberation, consider it right at this time to end the cooperation with Mohamedou Ould Slahi Houbeini as artistic director and to develop the 2023 programme from within the association instead.

We very much regret this step, because from an artistic point of view there is still nothing to be said against working together with Mohamedou Ould Slahi Houbeini. However, out of a sense of responsibility towards our association, its staff, festival writers and visitors, we see no other way to ensure that the festival can be held safely.