Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 July - 4 August 2004
Issue No. 701
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pride and prejudice

What to expect of the Arab guest of honour presentation at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair in October? Contrary to the prevailing pessimism, on returning from a preparatory visit to Germany the head of the Arab Publishers Union Ibrahim El-Muallim professes much hope and not a little confidence

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We are working to show that the Arab world is not all bigotry and insularity and terrorism."

"In all sincerity I can tell you there are many positive things about preparations for Frankfurt, and some negative things, no doubt. But the positive outweighs the negative by far. I don't understand why the general perception is otherwise, the fault can only lie with the press and the media...

"The budget is a relatively minor issue that will be solved one way or another. I was never concerned about funding to start with, and even now it's the least of my fears, because while undoubtedly a factor, money is never the main factor. I was rather more concerned about possible failure in preparing for the event, problems in the way people conceived of it and in the content and appearance of the presentation. I feared the selection of books would not be based on objective criteria, that they would be too regime-oriented, too official, the way they often are in this part of the world. I also feared that potential participants would start thinking along the lines of Arab book fairs, which are popular events in the worst sense of 'popular', and which revolve around book sales, not the publishing business.

"THE CAIRO BOOK FAIR remains an extremely important event, it is undoubtedly the leading book exhibition in the Arab world, due not so much to its being ably directed or carefully planned as simply to size. There are more people in Cairo and Egypt, and consequently more publishers, readers and authors, a bigger book market, than anywhere else in the Arab world. But it can't be denied that all due attention is being paid to it by the powers that be. It receives a vast amount of media coverage, every year the President of the Republic, the greatest authority in the country, inaugurates it in person.

"Yet sadly the original purpose of the fair is often forgotten in the midst of chaos -- folklore, dancing, singing, theatre, seminar galore... Worst of all is the public relations dimension of the fair, with people pursuing individual interests at the expense of the event. You invite someone to participate in order for them to invite you to their own event, or you seek out a particular official figure simply because you happen to have an interest in the bureau he runs.

"ARAB BOOK FAIRS are now modelled on the Cairo Book Fair, because of its apparent success. Those responsible for book fairs are incorporating Cairo's positive and negative qualities. So instead of envisaging intellectual debate or cultural interaction, people are starting to say, 'I want to make a cultural fuss, to create a media blast.' And in many Arab states, as a consequence, the fair is reduced to a framework of propaganda for the regime.

"THE FRANKFURT BOOK FAIR could not possibly accommodate such dynamics. This is the most important publishing event in the world, the world's leading exhibition of titles; it has been reported for example that more American publishers participate in Frankfort than in American book exhibitions. No book sales take place at all, only copyright deals among publishers from all over the world. Frankfurt is the event for publishing, and you've got this rare, unique, massive opportunity to present yourself in a favourable light, so it would be a terrible shame if you missed or foiled it.

"Nor is the Frankfurt Book Fair a government supported event, it's a public limited company in which the Publishers Union in Germany is a partner. It's directed to make a profit every year, and the money is used to develop the event and promote knowledge of world cultures...

"If there is anything that embodies the positive face of globalisation, the topic to which Arab official discourse seems increasingly devoted, it is the Frankfurt Book Fair. The event is going to be covered by 12,000-16,000 journalists, and that's not counting television journalists and other media. No major world event, whether cultural or political, receives comparable coverage.

"The Cairo Book Fair remains very local by comparison. You cannot hold seminars at Frankfurt the way you do in Cairo, for example, in such inordinate numbers. Some of these are beneficial, it is true, some are very respectable indeed. But in the vast majority the number of participants exceeds that of attendees, minor figures sit around talking to each other.

"Some seminars have already been arranged with the German side, and they are all sensibly thought out, in stark contrast. We will be discussing Arab culture and Islamic thought, Germans and others will be joining us on the panels. For example I'm heading a seminar on relations between Arab publishers and their counterparts in the West, and both the present and the former head of the international publishers union will take part.

"PREPARATIONS FOR FRANKFURT were actually taken very seriously, contrary to the prejudiced views of the press. It was a long process of exchange that involved plenty of hard work, sensible organisation and an inclusive, holistic perspective. And the answer to the big question is, Yes. I think we have a more or less tightly constructed plan for representing as impressive and accessible a picture of Arab culture as we can. And a true picture. We are not going there to lie. No doubt Arab culture has a glorious past, and that heritage will be on show as comprehensively as the limitations of space and time allow. To be frank it is in this area alone that we have a relative advantage, in Arab history's enormous stock of cultural achievements in the arts and the sciences and other literary arenas. This survives in books and manuscripts to be found both here and in Europe -- something that gives us a firm ground to stand on, a strong basis on which to build an exhibition that also deals with the present. And the present is better than people imagine in the West, that too is something we're trying to make clear.

"But we cannot pretend that the present of Arab culture is comparable to or better than its past. For one thing, as soon as people anywhere in the world reach this conviction, that's the end of culture in that part of the world. More importantly -- when I said this before, people took issue with me for saying it -- if Arab culture is so glorious at present, if Arab civilisation really is at its zenith, then why are we defeated by Israel, why are levels of education so deplorably low, why is Arab democracy so limited, why are the media and the press so incompetent, and why don't we have better books and a larger percentage of readers?

"Still, we have culture. There are distinguished and emerging talents, there are people worthy of the Nobel prize for literature -- and we will spread awareness of these people, of course. Besides, we have variety, there is a plurality of perspectives and ideologies and modes of being. We are working to show that the Arab world is not all bigotry and insularity and terrorism.

"THE PROCEDURES OF SELECTION are too complex to describe. On finalising its decision to participate, the Arab League's Organisation for Education, Culture and Science nominated books and publishers; each state representative submitted a list of names, and the Union made its own nominations. The committees in charge sifted through these nominations, and I personally believe the selections that were finally made are objective and representative of the full gamut of Arab culture: its glorious past, our ideas about its future and what independence and objectivity it exhibits at present. They actually turned out to be rather heavily inclined towards the left, and I've since received objections from Islamic writers, among others, to the effect that our choices do not reflect the reality of Arab culture.

"But what really constitutes that reality? Who decides? And on what basis? The approval of governments, sales figures or the views of people who sit around the cafés downtown? Each of these tributaries is a valid part of the same greater river; all are represented. For everyone involved in the selection including myself believes in freedom of thought and the importance of diversity and difference. So we tried to represent the largest number of authors and books and the widest variety of material possible. But even if you had 5,000 authors who have made contributions of value to Arab culture, you'd still have to choose maybe 150 of them, not more. In the end you have only five days, and only so much space, and you have to limit yourself to an amount of material that you can adequately present...

"I can only be grateful for what we have. There has been enough planning, objectivity and forward thinking, and enough collaboration with the German side, to make me optimistic and hopeful that we can make a contribution to be proud of. Not only me. The director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Folker Neuman was so impressed in the few days that we spent there, he declared that, judging by what he saw, he was convinced that this Arab presentation at Frankfurt would be the best in the last 25 years. On the cultural front, at least, we are doing very well indeed.

"All that remains to be dealt with are a few minor points. What few minor points? Money is certainly one of them, but is it really conceivable that the Arab states cannot collectively provide $3-5 million? I think not.

"THE ARAB PUBLISHERS UNION should really have nothing to do with funds. It isn't my business as the head of the Union to make sure the funds are flowing in. I am not an employee of any Arab state, I am not an employee of the Arab League. The Union is an independent agency, thank God, and we represent publishers from all over the Arab world, irrespective of their orientation or the school of thought to which they subscribe. We might also happen to know a thing or two about the Frankfurt Book Fair. But who made the decision to participate?

"Not intellectuals, not the Union, not individual publishers or authors. The Arab League made the decision to participate, and Arab ministers of culture and information, as well as foreign ministers, signed a document to this effect. It is true that we as publishers can only be grateful for this, but we won't be held responsible for the politicians' mistakes. Nor can they let us down now...

"First of all, they should have made the decision in conjunction with the relevant parties -- intellectuals, writers and publishers. Secondly, they should have liaised sufficiently between their governments and Frankfurt to make sure that the necessary funds would be available in time. You make such a major decision, and then you can't procure $5 million to follow it through?

"DIFFICULTY IN PROVIDING FUNDS? There could be no explanation for this. Think of the response to the world cup bid. Now football isn't a game that we invented or that we can call ours, and we can't even play it properly. But there you have Egypt paying $80 and Morocco $70 million, and Libya announcing it would be willing to pay $13 billion. Then comes something of this magnitude, something we own collectively, something of our own -- if not, in a sense, us -- and all you say is, 'Sorry, I can't provide $5 million"?

"I had suspected all along that the money wouldn't arrive until the last minute; sadly that seems to be always the case in the Arab world. I of course still hold out hope that it will arrive at the last minute. If it doesn't we'll exercise pressure on those countries willing to provide funds to pay more than the amount allocated to them, and in the end it will work out somehow. We'll cooperate, intellectuals and publishers, everyone must cooperate to make this work. It has to work.

"For who is the guest of honour at Frankfurt? It is Arab culture. The whole of Arab culture. Now any human being with any sense of integrity or national feeling or cultural commitment or any dignity at all will immediately realise that this is not about individual governments or organisations.

"THE OFFICIAL WING is the main problem. As a Publishers Union we're not contenting ourselves with our own contribution, because if you did a guest of honour presentation and there was nothing in the official wing, that would be like pulling people's legs. We're therefore encouraging all the Arab states, whether or not they're official participants. And we're taking up some 1,200 square metres of space, as opposed to less than 100 metres in previous years.

"Publishers will come from all over the Arab world, including those states that have refused to participate, and they will exhibit in a single collective wing to be called the Arab World Wing, regardless of the position of their state. As far as the Union is concerned all members are participating, the whole Arab world. And the money is there, the selections have been made, everything is ready.

"But there is nothing we can do about the official wing, which will make us look bad. As an Arab citizen and as someone who reads, even occasionally, would you be happy if Morocco was not officially represented at such an event? If a country like Kuwait, which was eager to have cultural presence even prior to its independence, had absolutely no part to play? Would you not expect the money to be available in good time and in excess of what is needed? But I have hope, I have hope and -- this is a ludicrous, inexplicable situation. And the press should certainly criticise what's going on, not with the object of proclaiming failure in advance or making fun of the proceedings but to actively put pressure on the responsible parties to pay, and to officially participate. It's the responsibility of people like yourself to do that...

"Because it's not an exhibition of Amr Moussa or of the Arab League, it belongs to all Arabs. It won't matter to the rest of the world or in the historical annals of the future who was upset with whom, or what disagreements gave rise to a truncated presentation. Is it conceivable that when you have a chance to present your own culture, yourself, at a time when you are subject to accusations of terrorism and in dire need of appearing in a favourable light, that you should refuse to participate?

"OBJECTIONS FROM MINOR PUBLISHERS are particularly painful in that they are entirely unfounded. Two publishers recently gave an interview to As-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper and they said things that have absolutely no basis in fact -- to the effect that we were somehow excluding them. Now as a Publishers Union -- whether the Egyptian or the Arab Publishers Union -- what we do when an occasion like Frankfurt comes up is that we contact all our members, telling them to go and participate. But we are not Frankfurt's agents, people don't have to go through us, and the fair remains open to any Arab publisher.

"What we do as a Union is that we encourage small-scale publishers. We've procured a reduction in the cost of participation, and we're making it possible for those who can't afford an entire wing to occupy part of a wing, down to a single shelf, because we want as many people to go as possible. One of the accusations levelled at me was that I allegedly announced that only 150 publishers could participate. What I had actually said was -- my estimate was that 150 publishers would go. It's only an estimate, I would never dream of preventing anyone from participating.

"In fact, the better to encourage people to participate, we organised two workshops -- one with the American University in Cairo, the other with the Goethe Institute -- to help them understand the dynamics of business at the Frankfurt Book Fair, how to participate, how to translate and present their work, how to sell, or buy, copyrights... The truth is that we will happily help anyone who is interested in participating, and if someone wants to go without dealing with us, without ever seeing our faces, that's perfectly fine with me. It wouldn't upset me in the least.

"But if you can't even make the effort to be a member of your own country's Publishers Union, how you can claim to be a serious publisher I don't know. The point is we don't want to mislead people either, because for a very small publisher it can be exhausting and futile to go.

"Of the 10,000 books or so we're exhibiting, many are from small publishers, some even came directly from writers. And the only books we disqualified are those that have no copyright, those that are entirely inappropriate -- like college textbooks, for example -- and those that constitute crude propaganda for Arab leaders...

"SALES OF COPYRIGHTS are very unlikely to be made this time round, it would be a miracle if they were. This doesn't mean the event is any less important. What we hope to achieve is the groundwork, a basis to build on in the future. Doing lucrative business takes time. It took Dar Al- Shurouq ten years to begin to sell copyrights to children's books elsewhere in the world, because it's not only a matter of a new genre or a new publisher, it's a new culture and a literature that people are not used to working with.

"It's true that few Arabic books have been translated, but those that have sold in the West are even fewer, and this is something else we should take into account. Only a handful of Arab authors have sold, and many of them do not even write in Arabic in the first place. The books they seem to like in the West tend to be about a woman, and she tends to have complaints about social oppression and sexual frustration. Of course that's a valid genre, and it could be well written, but it's not the only kind of writing the Arab world has to offer...

"My conviction is that, whether in the official wing or the publishers' wing, we should work on exploiting the opportunity we have as a trigger- off point -- and present as much of our literature as we can. If we don't operate in a modern and systematic way, or if we fail to put in the required effort, we will achieve nothing in the long term. Think of Frankfurt as the inaugural party celebrating the opening of a new shop. You can't expect to make money out of that party, you actually spend on it. But if it makes your shop popular that means you'll make money later on. We must make use of the event to put ourselves on the publishing map of the world, to make ourselves known to as many relevant parties as we can, and to establish a basis for future cooperation and interaction. But we must never forget that Frankfurt is but a take-off, and we have a long journey ahead of us before we land."

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