Houston’s overwhelming diversity–of language, culture, cuisine, art, business, religion—affirms our status as an international city. But that status is at risk. Governor Abbott and his ilk would prefer our horizons be provincial rather than global.
Earlier this month, an essay by artist Khaled Akil in the New York Times Magazine detailed his frustration, sadness, astonishment, and anger over being denied a visa to visit the United States to take part in what he identified merely as “an art event” in Houston.
That it was in Houston was not a crucial element in the essay, but it was relevant to me, a Houstonian.
I suspected, and Akil confirmed, that “art event” is Fotofest. A world-renowned gathering that began in 1983, the biennial photography and photo-related art fair was the first of its kind in the United States. Founded and still run by documentary photographers and journalists Frederick Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, Fotofest’s purpose is:
… to promote the exchange of art and ideas through international programs and the presentation of photographic art. Our programs work globally and locally, bringing together an international vision of art and cross-cultural exchange with a commitment to community involvement and the enrichment of Houston’s cultural resources.
Khaled Akil went to the US Embassy in Istanbul to apply for a visa to travel to Houston to take part in the 16th biennial event, but although they accepted his application fee, they turned down his request.
When the clerk got to my passport, he kind of smirked. He told me in a deadpan voice that he couldn’t give me a visa because I was Syrian and there was war in my country. He said I might have fabricated the invitation to find asylum in America.
The federal government, not the state government, is responsible for this policy.
Were Akil, or others, to appeal, that appeal would be considered by the federal government. And if such an appeal were heard, and accepted, how would our governor behave upon receiving news that another Syrian would be coming to Texas?
What benefit is there to our city, our state, to advocate for Akil’s visa, set the governor up for a sound bite and photo op, and once again make our state the object of derision in the international community?
Abbott has been outspoken and belligerent in his unwillingness to welcome Syrians to Texas. It is safe to assume Greg Abbott would behave badly if Houstonians rallied to Akil’s cause.
Akil is not a refugee in the sense that he crossed a border under cover of darkness, all of his belongings in one bag and a child strapped on his back. He did made the difficult decision to leave his home country, however, and move to Istanbul, when he could no longer risk remaining in Aleppo to bear witness to the revolution.
Aleppo, his home, is a city drenched in history and culture. But it is a city which has become, because of a repressive regime, isolated and inhospitable.
I’m afraid Houston could suffer a similar fate.
Today, an artist. Tomorrow, what doctor, what engineer, what entrepreneur, or what child will go elsewhere, or stay home?
How quickly will our international soul wither if we cannot feed it with the energy and vision of visitors and immigrants?
Thankfully, the likelihood of the city being literally war-torn is nil.
Still, when we cannot welcome artists, when we turn away refugees, we become isolated, inhospitable, and a place to be bypassed. Acting out of fear, we foreclose upon our future.
Tragically, our governor is not the champion we need who can help us remain open to the possibility and promise of our global culture.
We need to change that, come 2018, a year which will be the 17th biennial Fotofest. If we cannot welcome Khaled Akil next year, I look forward to welcoming him in two years.
Illustration is The Unmentioned 19, a fine art paper print made in 2008 by artist Khaled Akil. The calligraphy translates as “Thanks god anyway.”