Frankfurt book fair opens in controversy as Rushdie sparks Iran boycott

Frankfurt (AFP) - The world's biggest book fair opens Wednesday under a cloud of controversy with Iran calling on all Muslim nations to boycott the exhibition because author Salman Rushdie has been invited to speak.

Organisers of the Frankfurt Book Fair defended the choice, saying freedom of expression was a key theme at this year's gathering of writers and publishers, 10 months after Islamists marched into the Paris office of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and gunned down its editorial team.

"We feel a strong politicisation this year and freedom of expression will be a key theme," said Juergen Boos, director of the exhibition.

The show promises to be controversial even before its doors open, with a press conference on Tuesday to be headlined by Rushdie, who has a death warrant on his head over his 1989 book "The Satanic Verses".

Iran's then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa saying the British author should be killed, forcing Rushdie to go into hiding and the British government placed the writer under police protection.

Tehran on Wednesday said it was boycotting the Frankfurt fair, because it had "under the pretext of freedom of expression, invited a person who is hated in the Islamic world and created the opportunity for Salman Rushdie... to make a speech".

It also urged other Muslim nations to join its boycott.

But the fair's organisers insisted that "freedom of the word is not negotiable."

"We regret the cancellation of the Iranian ministry of culture," said book fair chief, Boos.

"The Frankfurt Book Fair is a place of dialogue. At the same time, we hope that Iran's cancellation this year will only be a short interruption of the ongoing talks and that we will be able to expand and extend relations.

"It mustn't be forgotten that Rushdie is still facing a death threat because of his work," he said.

The organisers said that individual Iranian publishers would still be present and that they had increased their presence in recent years.

- Indonesia guest stars -

It is perhaps ironic that the guest country of this year's show is Indonesia -- the nation with the world's largest Muslim population.

About 70 writers from the Southeast Asian nation will attend, including author Laksmi Pamuntjak who will present her latest book "The Question of Red", a love story set at in the 1960s, a period of violent repression against communists.

Themes of barriers, borders and the fight against extremism will dominate during three days of discussions with 20 writers from around the world, led by Danish author Janne Teller.

Held for the second consecutive year, the discussions, titled "Frankfurt Undercover", are aimed at generating ideas aimed mainly at influencing political opinion.

The Frankfurt fair dates as far back as the Middle Ages with the invention of the Gutenberg press just down the road, and this year some 7,300 exhibitors will be present, with up to 300,000 visitors expected.

As in every edition, internationally renowned writers will be out in Frankfurt to promote their latest works, including Ken Follett, who is set to speak about the video game adaptation of his runaway success "Pillars of the Earth".

Chilean writer Isabel Allende, Denmark's Jussi Adler-Olsen and British anthropologist Nigel Barley are also among the attendees.

The show will be an occasion for the struggling book publishing industry -- with an estimated total value of 114 billion euros ($129 billion) worldwide -- to look for new ideas as younger generations turn their eyes increasingly online.

The consolidation of publishing houses -- reinforced by the birth in 2013 of the giant Penguin Random House -- the disappearance of major bookstore chains and the uneasy coexistence of paper and electronic publishing are also expected to be topics broached at the fair.

Representatives of online retailer Amazon will likely be closely watched when they participate in round-table discussions at the show, which opens on October 14 and runs until October 18.

Meanwhile, Germany, which is receiving a record number of refugees this year, will ensure that the newcomers are not left out from the major cultural event, by giving them free tickets to the fair and organising visits.

The question of access to culture in the refugee camps will be discussed at a conference during the fair, while the German writers' federation is expected to launch an appeal for solidarity for those who have fled their countries.