Palestinian photographer’s visa problem exposes British government’s double standards
Palestinian Hamdi Abu Rahma is a gifted photographer whose work in Gaza has been highly acclaimed around the world. He is also now at the centre of a political storm after he was told that he could not travel to Britain in order to take part in the renowned Edinburgh International Festival. Scottish politicians and supporters have accused the British government of trying to damage the reputation of the festival by its “overly bureaucratic and insensitive decision” to refuse Abu Rahma a visa.
The row has erupted as Prime Minister David Cameron prepares to roll out the red carpet for Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The timing is particularly sensitive, as an online petition calling for Netanyahu to be arrested for war crimes when he arrives in London next month has already attracted more than half of the 100,000 needed to trigger a parliamentary debate.
Now that the decision to reject the young Palestinian’s visa application has been challenged by members of the Scottish Government, as well as festival organisers and pro-Palestinian activists, there are hopes that the UK Visa and Immigration agency will think again.
Already widely travelled to show his work at exhibitions around the globe, this is the first time that Abu Rahma has had a visa application rejected without warning. Some observers are particularly surprised since the focus of his photography is about the power of non-violent resistance in Palestine, which he has captured through his camera lens.
“The UK government refused to give me a visa today and the reason for refusal was that I didn’t show any bank statements or documentation to demonstrate my ability to support myself during my visit,” he said in a prepared statement. “Despite sending complete evidence of the sponsorship provided to fund my trip and all contact details of my sponsors, proving that all my travel and accommodation costs have been met, they still refused my application.”
Abu Rahma pointed out that he has travelled extensively in order to tell the Palestinian story through his photographs but Britain is the first country that has refused him entry. “We all know the real reason for this refusal,” he said. “Britain knows very well what my trip is about. I am not going there to claim asylum or beg in the streets. I am going there to educate the British people and pose some questions.” Such questions as: “Have you ever asked Israel why they kill and murder innocent men, women and children in Palestine? Do you know why Israel occupies Palestinian land illegally and destroys our homes, and why it allows colonial settlers to move into our homes illegally against international law?”
Expressing his “deep disappointment” at being unable to travel to Britain on this occasion, the young photographer thanked his friends across the country for their support and for being willing to host him in their homes.
Phil Chetwynd, one of the festival organisers who invited Abu Rahma said: “The Network of Photographers for Palestine raised the money through crowdfunding to finance Hamdi’s visit earlier this year.” All of his travel and subsistence expenses are covered by this, he explained. “I pledged to provide accommodation throughout the visit. Last month I tried to contact the visa office in Amman to back-up Hamdi’s application, but the process is so obscure that they didn’t seem to have a mechanism to add information to that already submitted by the applicant. It seems that the FCO has tendered out the whole process to another organisation.”
Despite the visa ban organisers have said that they will still exhibit Hamdi’s photographs and will ask a performer from another show to read out the speech that he has prepared. As news spread of the visa ban, an additional exhibition of his work may now also be shown at “Welcome to the Fringe: Palestine day at Out Of The Blue (OOTB)”. Other events organised for Hamdi to speak in Inverness, Dundee and Glasgow may still go ahead via a live link-up to his home in Gaza.
According to Sofiah MacLeod, the chair of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the visa rejection came as “no surprise”. She pointed out that the Cameron government is preparing to welcome the “war criminal” Benjamin Netanyahu to London in September. “As the petition calling on Netanyahu to be arrested for war crimes nears 55,000 signatories, the government’s visa denial to Abu Rahma will only strengthen our resolve to oppose its complicity in Israel’s ethnic cleansing project against the Palestinians.” MacLeod is adamant that Palestinian voices, including Abu Rahma’s, will be heard at this year’s Edinburgh Festival in “unprecedented” numbers. “We already know that the Israeli government has received our message loud and clear that it is not welcome during the festival, or at any other time.”
Scottish Parliamentarian Joan McAlpine of the SNP raised the issue with Sarah Rapson, the Director General of UK Visas and Immigration within hours of hearing about Abu Rahma’s visa being rejected. In a letter seen by MEMO, she told Rapson: “While I understand that immigration is a reserved matter, culture is not. I am the co-convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Culture. I certainly feel that this decision is damaging to culture and the world’s greatest art festival in Edinburgh.”
McAlpine called for a rethink on what appeared to be “an overly bureaucratic and insensitive decision” adding: “I am particularly concerned that the decision means festival goers will miss the opportunity to hear this artist discuss his award-winning work, which of course has implications for freedom of expression.”
This is not the first time that Palestinian artistes have encountered difficulties at the hands of the UK Border Agency. Ali Abukhattab and Samah Al-Sheikh, a married couple also based in Gaza, were due to appear at the Institute for Contemporary Art in June 2013 as part of the Shubbak festival. They were to read from their own works and discuss how Palestinian writers in Gaza have responded to the ongoing Israeli siege and internal political situation.
Al-Sheikh, a short story writer and novelist, and Abukhattab, a poet and critic, are both established writers whose works have appeared in collections and anthologies. Both are also active in promoting the arts in Gaza, but that was not enough for the British government. In an increasingly familiar scenario for artists and writers seeking to visit this country, their visa applications were also rejected.
In April 2012, a tour by Palestinian Oud player Ahmad Al-Khatib and other musicians was delayed because of visa issues raised by the UK Border Agency. Discrimination by immigration officials has also hampered other Arab artists visiting the UK, including Iraqi poet Sabreen Kadhim, and even those only in transit through Britain’s airports, such as Syrian painter Tammam Azzam.
In an age when racial and religious discrimination is increasingly — and thankfully — more unacceptable, the fact that Arab artistes can still face what looks like systematic institutionalised discrimination is a huge concern. Instead of welcoming an alleged war criminal to London, perhaps David Cameron could look into this situation and start to treat all would-be visitors to Britain with fairness and justice.