Moroccan poet to perform at Scottish festival after Home Office visa climbdown

Poet Soukaina Habiballah is now set to appear in St Andrews
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An award-winning Moroccan writer and performer is to appear at Scotland's international poetry festival after a Home Office U-turn over a UK visa refusal.

Organisers of Stanza, which is taking place in St Andrews this weekend, say the climbdown will allow Soukaina Habiballah to perform on Sunday.

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They had earlier accused the Home Office of treating the poet like a "potential illegal immigrant", ignoring her "considerable talent and body of work" and undermining cross-cultural collaboration.

Habiballah, who has performed around the world, had been due to appear at the opening event of the festival at the Byre Theatre along with Scotland’s Makar, Kathleen Jamie, who was among those to protest at her treatment.

The festival had revealed Habiballah had been denied a visa despite submitting 35 official documents and providing proof that she was a leading Arabic poet.

However, after coming under mounting criticism over the treatment of the poet, the Home Office said they had decided to grant the visa after being provided with “further information”.

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A spokesman added: “Applications must be considered on their individual merits, based on the information provided and in accordance with the immigration rules.”

Moroccan poet Soukaina Habiballah.Moroccan poet Soukaina Habiballah.
Moroccan poet Soukaina Habiballah.

Ryan van Winkle, artistic director of the festival, said: "Stanza and Soukaina are incredibly grateful for the overwhelming attention this issue has received from people across social media, MPs and fellow cultural organisations nationwide.

"The outpouring of public pressure has been instrumental in achieving this remarkable outcome and we are heartened by it. While it’s been tremendous to witness such solidarity, it’s also concerning that such attention was necessary in the first place.

"The free flow of people and ideas should be supported, regardless of nationality. I hope that by continuing to advocate for a more inclusive and equitable approach to visa policies, situations like this will be avoided in the future.”

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Asif Khan, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, said: “This is fantastic news for Soukaina and the festival. The solidarity in the outcry of artists, organisations and politicians today demonstrates that when the cultural community in Scotland speaks as one voice, we can move mountains.”

Speaking before the Home Office U-turn was confirmed, Habiballah said: “To be dismissed as merely a potential illegal immigrant was not just an insult; it was a painful oversight of my identity, as a North African artist.

“Throughout my career, in which travel to western countries is one of its pillars, I have proudly acted as an ambassador for my art and Moroccan Arab culture in numerous western countries. To the surprise of some, I have chosen, and will continue to choose, to return to Morocco, my homeland.

"What might be seen as a straightforward and prideful statement if made by a British artist, appears to be met with scepticism, disbelief and doubt when it comes from a Moroccan artist.”

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Scottish culture secretary Angus Robertson said: “Too often Scottish festivals and cultural events are let down by the UK Home Office, who block the participation of international performers.

"This is just the latest appalling example and it must stop. I have already met with the UK government to discuss this problem, but it still persists. The Home Office and Scotland Office need to get their act together.”

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