Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 August 2004
Issue No. 702
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Of Arabs and the young

Four young writers assess the prospect of the Arab world guest of honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair in which they will participate this October

Click to view caption
A 1937 postcard of Frankfurt

Iman Mersal , 37, poet, the Arab League's official representative for "young writers":

"It doesn't surprise me that the Arab world is the Frankfurt Book Fair's guest of honour this year. Every world event to do with culture must have a title, around which writers and topics of discussion are gathered. Politically it's understandable why the Arab world should be the centre of attention at this time. It's been three years since 9/11, and they've barely had time to think about anything else in the West. Each year one of the world's cultures is the focus of attention, so it's hardly surprising.

The question is how Arab culture is going to be perceived, as a single, homogeneous bulk that you either accept or reject or as a rich and varied heterogeneity? This is largely our task, not theirs. It all depends on how we present our questions. Do we want to appear as diverse as we are in reality or do we want to hold another round of the Cairo Book Fair? It's a question that Arab institutions are cracking their teeth on no doubt. Do 200 individuals speaking for themselves really represent Arab culture?

I've done poetry readings in Germany twice before now, and each time I knew exactly when and where I would be reading some two months in advance. This time it's different because it's the participants who will be organising the events, and having accepted the Arab League's invitation to participate, I must also accept the way they organise things. For example, I haven't received the official invitation yet, and I don't know what I'm reading. I have no more information than what's available in the newspapers.

I was never invited to participate in a cultural event by the [Egyptian] Ministry of Culture before now, so this is an altogether new experience, which is why I decided to accept the terms of the Arab League. I will be representing only myself, reading my own poetry. Of course I'm still worried about the translation, because it could spoil the text, but in the end I'm going because I want to find out what it will be like. I'm neither enthusiastic nor reluctant, I just want to find out. It's an institution with its own system and policies, so if you want to work with them, you accept them as they are. You can't work with the Ministry of the Interior and claim to be democratic.

I know I'm not going to achieve the impossible in Frankfurt. I'm going to watch and see how things go. It's really very simple, it's not a political issue in any sense. The notion of representing young writers is somewhat absurd. Everyone represents their own text. And people should be free to say whether or not they like it. I'm not convinced by the idea of representing the young. I will only represent myself.

But I'm pleased to be going because it's an opportunity to see how people think -- the Arabs as well, not just the Germans."

Ibrahim Farghali , 36, novelist, representing a Goethe Institute exchange programme entitled Madaad, part of which will be held to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair:

"I think hosting the Arab world is a positive if somewhat belated step. The timing is significant in itself. The Europeans we've had an opportunity to meet or work with, whether now or in the past, are writers and artists, intellectuals, so they don't subscribe to clichés and stereotypes. But if you think in terms of audience -- they don't know anything about us. And it's in this sense that Frankfurt could bridge a gap and promote a more realistic image of Arab culture, which is so rich and fertile. Of course there is a conflict between modernity and authenticity, but Arab culture is about so much more than a beard and a jilbab. More important is what Arab participants are going to say. You have to know yourself and your worth. And part of this is about admitting that we do have problems.

A little more than 50 percent of the organisation is the responsibility of Arabs, with the remaining 40 percent or so in German hands. And they seem to be filling the gaps: there is no mention of censorship on the Arab programme so the Germans came up with an event on that, for example. Again, it was Germans who took the initiative to organise an event dealing with the status of women. As to contemporary poetry I'm not sure what's happening. The vast majority of the poetry chosen by Arabs was written more than 30 years ago. My concern is that members of the Generation of the Sixties will be presented as if they were the poets of today. There is a very significant difference and it has to be shown."

Ahmed El-Aidi and Zahra Yousri are to participate, with novelist Gamal El-Ghitani, in a series of preparatory seminars to be held in several German cities with the intention of introducing contemporary Arabic literature to the West, starting on 30 September

Ahmed El-Aidi, 29, author of the best-selling novel To be Abbas Al-Abd:

"One doesn't go to the biggest book fair in the world to improve one's image as an Arab. All this talk of Arabs being good people, really much better than they appear in the West, that they're not all terrorists etc -- it's ridiculous. The reason we're going is that we do have place on the cultural map, we have a literature that cannot be ignored. We may not be the richest or most powerful region in the world, but we have real culture.

There are very important books in Egypt, and they must be well presented. I only really know about my generation of writers, whom I will be representing. I know I'm not the best among them, but equally I feel the need to highlight their achievement, offering the very best I can. I spent a sizable period of time in the process of selecting the passages that will be read of my own work, following their translation and making sure it's as accurate as possible. Germans are so disciplined and efficient. Everything is ready as of now.

Frankfurt is the first step on a long, long road. Whatever achievements will be made there should be followed up, with Arab cultural institutions putting in the necessary effort. The state should sponsor translations. It's worth noting in this context that most of the translations that have been made are actually German funded.

I'm cheerful in an almost childish way about it, the idea of participating in Frankfurt thrills me, though I realise there are those who deserve the opportunity more than I. But it's my first time at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I find it fortunate that the Arab world will just happen to be the guest of honour in the same year. I'm excited about finding out how we will be received, and how Westerners really see us. Doubtless I'm also a little scared, because I'm a young writer and nobody knows me, but it helps a little to have Gamal El-Ghitani, a well-known writer, introducing me to the public.

I'm also hopeful that the organisers of the Cairo Book Fair who attend will try and learn something about book exhibitions. Maybe in its next round the Cairo Book Fair won't be all koshari stands and pop music, the way it has been for so long.

I'm sure there is real interest in Arabic literature in Germany. My concern is whether or not the Arab representatives will be up to the task at hand. I don't feel the official participants will be sufficiently representative, with a writer of Sonalla Ibrahim's stature not making an appearance. A writer should not be excluded because of his stance. [Novelist Sonalla Ibrahim publicly rejected the award of the Culture Council's Second Conference for Creativity in the Novel.] The official team could well turn a significant cultural event into a series of tourist advertisements for their countries.

I'm also concerned that Arab literature will turn into a fad, which is why I hope the presentation will show diversity as well as depth. I'm scared that Arabs will confirm Western stereotypes. We should simply present the full spectrum of our literature as it is, from the far left to the far right, and let Westerners judge for themselves. From this perspective I think the official representation is a disaster. Besides receptions and photo ops, we should show the full range of Arab identity, shatter the idols as it were, and present everyone we have on an equal footing. And let the West judge for itself."

Zahra Yousri , 30, poet:

"I think Frankfurt raises a lot of questions that are very difficult to answer. Is it about improving the image of Arabs in the West or marketing Arabic books? The former notion is patronising; then again without adequate translations it would be hard to achieve the latter goal. I think the four days of the fair will give Arab writers a chance to meet Western publishers, but equally Arab publishers should benefit from exposure to publishing and marketing mechanisms they will encounter there. Publishers should really ask themselves why it is that we don't have a book market here. It really isn't a writer's problem, it's the problem of the publisher. And the answers usually given in response -- people don't buy books, books are expensive -- are simply not true. People do buy books, the question is which books do they know about and therefore choose to buy.

From the personal point of view it will be a pleasant introduction to a new culture and an opportunity to meet with other writers. I can't judge the translation of my text because I don't know the language, and it would have been better to be involved in the process of translation itself, because poetry can be very ambiguous, but I have no idea how it was done. When my work was translated to French and Italian I could feel it was a good translation simply because the people who did it would keep calling and asking me questions, even though I don't know either language any more than German. That passionate interest is crucial, because a single word stands for so many different things, it has so many connotations, and it's heard to tell when you're from a different culture. So in a sense the translation is my biggest concern. At the same time I wish there were more translations of German books into Arabic, because, knowing so little of contemporary German literature, I feel somewhat unprepared for the interaction in which I hope to engage."

By Lina Mahmoud

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