By Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director
President Trump’s hasty and malign January 27 Executive Order barring immigration from seven countries, blocking the entry of all refugees, and cutting off all migration from Syria to the United Sates is disrupting the movement of artists and ideas, thwarting one of the most potent vehicles for international understanding.
Alongside the chaos and hardship of families divided, plans destroyed, and law-abiding individuals faced with handcuffs and detention, the Executive Order has thrown into question artistic appearances, ceremonies, performances, and exhibitions that engage artistic talent from around the world. Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a 16-year resident of New York who plays with cellist Yo Yo Ma, is performing overseas and uncertain whether he will be permitted to return home. Oscar-nominated director Asghar Farhadi, who is from Iran, expects not to be able to travel to attend the Academy Awards ceremony in late February. In an act of protest, Farhadi has said he will not attend the ceremony even if he were granted an exemption. Hussein Hassan, the Iraqi-Kurdish director of the feature film “Reseba—The Dark Wind,” which was to premiere at the Miami Film Festival next month, has likewise decided to withdraw his visa application to protest Mr. Trump’s policy.
The 2017 PEN World Voices Festival, sponsored by PEN America to bring important voices from international literature to New York each spring, includes planned participants from more than 25 countries; with rules fast changing, it is as yet uncertain how many will see their plans disrupted.
In keeping with its mission to defend freedom of expression and foster the free flow of ideas between cultures and across borders, PEN America will continue to monitor the cases of writers and artists caught up in this assault on creative expression and artistic collaboration. Cultural institutions and individuals affected by the executive order are encouraged to bring their situations to the attention of the Artists at Risk Coalition, a network of organizations led by PEN America to coordinate assistance to threatened artists globally.
Arts and culture are an antidote to isolationism, paranoia, misunderstanding, and violent intolerance. By interrupting the ability of artists to travel, perform, and collaborate, the Executive Order will only exacerbate the hatreds that fuel conflict and hobble the transcendent power of the arts to enable people to see beyond their differences. In the countries most affected by the immigrations bans, it is writers, artists, and filmmakers who are among the most powerful forces fighting oppression and terror; by cutting off their access to the world, the United States is abetting those who would silence their essential voices.
Suzanne Nossel is Executive Director of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.