At Norway’s WEXFO, Iraqi Mazin Lateef Ali Wins IPA’s Prix Voltaire

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Iraqi publisher Mazin Lateef Ali’s son Abdulmoahimen accepts the 2023 Prix Voltaire for his father, who was abducted in 2020.

Mazin Lateef Ali, the Iraqi publisher honored with the 20213 Prix Voltaire. Lateef has been missing since his abduction in 2020. Image: International Publishers Association

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

A Prix Voltaire and a Special Award
Tonight (May 22) at Norway’s World Expression Forum, WEXFO, the International Publishers Association has named Iraqi publisher Mazin Lateef Ali its 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire laureate.

The founder of Dar Mesopotamia in Baghdad, Lateef was known to publish a range of books, including many about the Jewish communities and individuals of Iraq prior to his kidnapping at gunpoint on January 21, 2020. He reportedly has not been heard from since.

In addition, the program has announced a Prix Voltaire special award for the late children’s author and poet, Volodymyr Vakulenko, whose remains were found in a mass grave in Ukraine in November.

The word from Lillehammer tonight—our work is set in Abu Dhabi this week—is that the awards’ presentation program has been “an emotional celebration of the freedom to publish against a backdrop of tragedy.”

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, WEXFO, the World Expression Forum created and helmed by IPA Freedom to Publish chair Kristenn Einarsson, is having its second annual staging this week at Lillehammer.

The core program opened today and runs through Tuesday (May 23), and an extensive new dimension, WEXFO Youth, is in place this year providing an impressive new “catalyst for change” to WEXFO—both youthful and influential in only its second year’s staging—with compelling support from Sparebankstiftelsen DBN.

The ceremony this evening included the presence of the Lebanese 2021 Prix Voltaire laureate Rasha al Ameer, among the most eloquent and focused of those who have spoken to the awful beauty of this award, which honors valor under sometimes unspeakable, murderous oppression.

The Prix Voltaire program, under the direction of IPA’s communications lead James Taylor, announced this year’s shortlist during London Book Fair last month. Since then, an unverified report has surfaced, its unnamed sources asserting that Lateef’s disappearance was linked to lobbying efforts in favor of normalized relations between Tel Aviv and Baghdad.

By 2022, Baghdad had criminalized relations with Israel, although the law, calling for “Criminalizing Normalization and Establishment of Relations with the Zionist Entity, according to a report from Al Jazeera,  but this would have been some three years after Lateef’s disappearance.

And, as highlighted in our coverage of the PEN America Freedom to Write Index, Vakulenko was abducted in March last year by Russian-affiliated forces. In IPA’s program tonight, it has been pointed out that Vakulenko was a known supporter of the Ukrainian military in the Kharkiv area and had been arrested twice since the February 2022 invasion by Vladimir Putin’s forces. He was not released in the second instance, and his remains were found in Izium.

Accepting the Awards

Mazin Lateef’s son Abdulmoahimen Mazin Lateef is accepting the Prix Voltaire, with its honorarium of 10,000 Swiss francs (US$11,144) on behalf of his father.

Abdulmoahimen has provided this video address to the assembly seated at Lillehammer. A transcript is provided, as are subtitles, on the YouTube page itself here.

And for the late Vakulenko, the Ukrainian writer and war-crimes researcher Victoria Amelina has kindly been in touch with Publishing Perspectives.

“In his last years,” Amelina writes, “Volodymyr Vakulenko focused on the following areas as an activist: helping the Ukrainian army, supporting civilians, including children in the war zone in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and inclusivity for children.

The late Volodymyr Vakulenko and his son, Vitalik. Image provided by IPA

“For example, Volodymyr had one of his children’s books printed in Braille and dreamed of creating an edition that would be accessible to all children with no limitations. The project was quite expensive, and as far as I know, he struggled to find enough funds.

“In the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022, Vakulenko decided to stay in his native village. He was kind and, even knowing history, hoped that the occupiers would be humane and spare the caregiver of a vulnerable child, his son Vitalka.

“Vakulenko believed we are to make history. He always responded to the challenges of his time. During the Revolution of Dignity, he didn’t stay at home with his young son; instead, he threw himself into the midst of events and got injured in Kyiv.

“After the start of Russia’s aggression, he often visited festivals in eastern Ukraine; I once met him and his son in Kramatorsk. Like many other writers, he also helped to supply the Ukrainian army in between 2014 and 2022.

“When I came to Vakulenko’s house after Izium had been liberated, I found an anthology called For Our Freedom and Yours dedicated to the protests in neighboring Belarus. This title was written in several languages, including Ukrainian and Belarusian. So the freedom of other nations also mattered a lot to Volodymyr.

“In his diary, which I found buried in the garden of his house, Volodymyr hopes that the information from the diary will become available to the international institutions.”

In a note for the program tonight, Amelina adds, “I am a Ukrainian writer speaking on behalf of my colleague Volodymyr Vakulenko who, unlike me, didn’t survive another attempt of the Russian Empire to erase Ukrainian identity. The Ukrainian literary community is grateful for the award.

“This award is unique, meaningful, and moving to us, partly because no one out of hundreds of other Ukrainian writers—who, like Vakulenko, were murdered throughout Ukrainian history—ever received such an international award posthumously.

“I am sure that Volodymyr Vakulenko would like to dedicate this award to them too.”

Einarsson: ‘Celebrate the Stories’

Kristenn Einarsson

In commenting on tonight’s honors, Einarsson, speaking both as WEXFO’s chief and chair of the IPA Freedom to Publish committee chair, says, “Mazin Lateef’s commitment to the literary community and freedom of expression in Iraq should be an inspiration to us all.

“We call on those who have taken him to return him safely.

“Volodymyr Vakulenko is a symbol of the horrific cultural destruction perpetrated by the Russian army in Ukraine. May we hold him in our memory and celebrate the stories and poems he left us before being taken too soon.”

Jobava: ‘Lateef and Vakulenko Are Heroes’

Gvantsa Jobava

And Gvantsa Jobava of Tbilisi, IPA’s vice-president, says, “Silencing cultural expression is one of the tools of repressive regimes.

“We must resist their intimidation and celebrate our brave authors and publishers who help us experience and understand the diversity of our cultures.

“Mazin Lateef Ali and Volodymyr Vakulenko are heroes.”

About the IPA Prix Voltaire

In its statement of intent, the IPA writes about its program, in part, “Prix Voltaire nominees are publishers—individuals, groups, or organizations—who or which have typically published controversial works amid pressure, threats, intimidation, or harassment, whether from governments, other authorities, or private interests.

“Alternatively, they may be publishers with a distinguished record of upholding the values of freedom to publish and freedom of expression. For the purposes of the IPA Prix Voltaire, the definition of ‘publisher’ is an individual, collective or organization that provides others with the means to share their ideas in written form, including on digital platforms.”

The IPA Prix Voltaire and its cash award are made possible by generous contributions from sponsors, all of which are publishing houses and organizations that share the values that the IPA Prix Voltaire recognizes.

The current sponsors of the IPA Prix Voltaire are, in alphabetical order:

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that the Prix Voltaire shortlist for 2023, announced at London Book Fair on April 20, included: 

  • Mazen Lateef Ali, Iraq
  • Günışığı Kitaplığı Publishing House, Turkey
  • Mehr Husain, Pakistan
  • Ahmed Mahmoud Ibrahim Ahmed, Egypt
  • Mercier Press, Ireland
Prix Voltaire Laureates to Date
Year Prix Voltaire Laureate Special Award
2023 Mazin Lateef Ali (Iraq) Volodymyr Vakulenko (Ukraine)
2022 Same Sky Books (Thailand)
2021 Dar Al Jadeed (Lebanon) Li Liqun (China)
2020 Liberal Publishing House (Vietnam)
2019 Khaled Lotfy (Egypt)
2018 Gui Minhai (Sweden / Hong Kong
2017 Turhan Günay and publishing house Evrensel
2016 Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia)
2014 Ihar Lohvinau (Belarus)
2012 “Zapiro” (South Africa)
2011 Bui Chat (Vietnam)
2010 I. Shovkhalov and V. Kogan-Yasni of DOSH (Chechnya / Russia)
2009 S Bensedrine, N. Rijba, M. Talbi, Founders of OLPEC (Tunisia) Irfran Sanci (Turkey)
2008 Ragip Zarakolu (Turkey)

Trevor Ncube (Zimbabwe)

Anna Politkovskaya (Russia) and Hrant Dink (Turkey)

Shalah Lahiji (Iran)

‘We Worry About Them a Lot’

Victoria Amelina adds that more than 50 people in cultural roles in Ukraine have died since Putin’s unprovoked assault began.

“Everyone in Ukraine, including Ukrainian writers, keeps losing their loved ones.”Victoria Amelina

Familiar with the work of PEN in the region, she writes to us, “The number [of cultural workers’ casualties] includes librarians, historians, filmmakers, sculptors, ballet dancers, and, for example, a chief conductor of Kherson Philharmonic, Yuriy Kerpatenko—both civilians and those who joined the army and died defending Ukraine and Europe.

“More than 56 Ukrainian and foreign journalists were killed.

“Also,” she tells us, “everyone in Ukraine, including Ukrainian writers, keeps losing their loved ones. A Ukrainian poet, Svitalana Povalyaeva, lost her son. A young civil activist-turned-soldier Roman Ratushny died a hero near Izium in June 2022. Now, PEN Ukraine helps to organize a literary festival in Kyiv in Roman’s memory.”

“Writers and poets who chose to join the army and are currently on the front line in the East include Yaryna Chornohuz, Artem Polezhaka, and the young 21-year-old poet Arthur Dron. They are fighting to prevent more murders of civilians, like Volodymyr Vakulenko.

“We Ukrainian writers are grateful to them for protecting us. And we also worry about them a lot.”

From left, Kristenn Einarsson; Victoria Amelina; Gvantsa Jobava at the May 22 IPA Prix Voltaire ceremony at WEXFO 2023. Image: IPA

More from Publishing Perspectives on issues of the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here, more on the Prix Voltaire is here, and on the International Publishers Association is here. More on the World Expression Forum, WEXFO, is here, and more on the Norwegian market is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the global media partner of the International Publishers Association.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.