Home Office denies visa to festival writer

Mehdi El Ghaly (right) with Houssain Belabbes.
Mehdi El Ghaly (right) with Houssain Belabbes.

An appeal is being made by Wigtown Book Festival organisers after a young Moroccan storyteller was denied a visa for entering the UK.

Mehdi El Ghaly is due to be one of the official artists in residence at Wigtown Book Festival, as the prestigious international event (which starts this weekend) takes place in Galloway.

Adrian Turpin, Wigtown Book Festival Artistic director, said: “It is disappointing and frustrating that a respected young storyteller involved in a long-running arts project designed to bring peoples together should be denied a visa to attend an international festival.

“Wigtown Book Festival involves writers, journalists, academics, artists and visitors from all over the world and is an award-winning showcase for Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland and the whole of the UK.

“We are calling on the region’s MPs and MSPs to make representations to the Home Office, whose decision mars the country’s reputation for intellectual openness and exchange.”

Mehdi along with photographer Houssain Belabbes from Morocco, have been working with Scottish counterparts Anne Errington and Laura Hudson Mackay on a project called Confluence exploring and comparing storytelling traditions from the two countries.

They have been awarded a fully funded residency at the Wigtown Book Festival where they were due to tell stories, many illustrated by photography, from Morocco and work with festivalgoers to gather or create new tales. The project was planned as an exchange, the second part of which would see the Scots welcomed to Morocco.

Laura, who has worked extensively in Morocco for many years, said: “The project is about humanity and exploring storytelling traditions of what on the surface appears to be very culturally different, Celtic and Arabian.

“Mehdi is utterly dedicated to his country and its culture, a social entrepreneur running projects to teach Morocco’s ancient stories to a new generation and to preserve their centuries old traditions of public storytelling. To deny a gifted, enthusiastic young man who wants to share his storytelling talent and culture with us in Scotland is shortsighted and negative.

“To deny him the opportunity to be part of the Confluence event at Wigtown Book Festival is a shame, but we very much look forward to October when our next Confluence event takes place in Marrakech, Morocco, where Mehdi lives.”

Describing what inspired him, and his passion for his country, Mehdi said: “Whenever there was a storyteller in the square in Marrakech you’d find me there. And I as grew the passion for storytelling grew in me. So, I said to myself, ‘Why not become a storyteller?’ I want to share the art that changed my own life.”

Despite the setback Confluence will go ahead the Wigtown Book Festival which runs from 22 September to 1 October.

Joyce Woodcock, interim director, of the Upland Arts Agency which is funding Confluence and collaborates with Wigtown Book Festival on an annual residency, said: “It is deeply unfortunate that a young man taking part in a project intended to bring people together is being prevented from coming to the festival – especially at a time of such international tensions when there is a greater need than ever to build bridges between countries and cultures.

“It is a tribute to the other people involved in Confluence that they are determined to continue with their work and make it a success.”

A Home Office spokesman said that applicants for visit visas must provide evidence of their financial circumstances and where they fail to do so their applications will be refused.

The spokesman said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits and in line with UK immigration rules and guidance. Applicants for visit visas must provide evidence of their financial circumstances and how they intend to support themselves during their trip, where they fail to do so their applications will be refused.”

Mr El Ghaly is entitled to submit a fresh application addressing the reasons for refusal.