Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 September 2004
Issue No. 708
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

An equivocal optimism

German optimism about the Arab world guest-of-honour presentation at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair helps allay the mounting fear accompanying the advent of the event

Volker Click to view caption

Volker Neumann, president of the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, talked about the Arab guest-of-honour presentation in Germany days before his arrival in Cairo to attend the last Arab League conference on the event. The conversation, conducted over the phone between Frankfurt and Berlin, reflects Neumann's commitment to giving Arabs the best possible chance to effectively present their literature and culture -- and perhaps also the remarkable level of tolerance and understanding that Germans have displayed vis--vis the Arab world since 11 September

Preparations for the Frankfurt Book Fair were subject to wide-ranging criticism, but what can we expect this year?

I am sure that we will see not only an impressive exhibit of Arab culture but a presentation of the problems and topics of the contemporary Arab world. With an entire region as our guest, I expect an exhibition that will be more manifold than previous Frankfurt Book Fairs, when our guest of honour usually represented a single country.

Critics from both the West and the Arab world have accused the Arab presentation organisers of delayed and insufficient preparation, pointing up such topics as lack of funds, translations and creative ideas, and the Arab partners' failure to cooperate. Do you share these observations?

I think these observations about our guest of honour this year, the Arab world, will be no different from what we have witnessed with previous guests of honour. Last year it was much the same with our Russian friends. Of course, it is only inevitable that people should take a critical look at the preparations. The Greeks and their preparations for the Olympic Games were criticised in the same way. In the end they hosted a wonderful sporting event.

What work can or should be done still? What improvements would you like to see during the final phase of preparations?

I think the most important thing is that more Arab countries should officially participate. Much to my regret, countries like Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Kuwait and Iraq are not taking part in the official presentation. Of course, they will be represented by authors, but the countries themselves will not contribute to the official guest-of-honour presentation, and I really do regret that. Forward-looking nations should work to cooperate, since our fair offers a twofold opportunity. First of all, there will be a chance for dialogue with the Western world on neutral grounds -- and a possibility for the Arab world to finally introduce itself, its cultural background and its current cultural developments in the way it wants to be seen. Secondly, I'm sure such an important and unique event, in bringing together a large number of Arab countries working side by side to present themselves, will have a positive impact on political and cultural debate within each country. Freedom of the press and censorship, copyright issues and the status of the author -- conditions affecting these things do not appear to be uniform across the Arab world, with some countries faring more favourably than others. I believe the guest-of-honour presentation will have a positive effect on such interior issues.

Why is it, in your view, that those Arab countries prefer to not contribute to the official guest-of-honour presentation?

I am glad that a large number of Arab countries will take part. But it is no secret that there are differences within the Arab League concerning the assessment of joint projects. Many, but sadly not all, Arab countries will participate in the official presentation. My belief is that this does not necessarily have to do with the presentation itself, but rather reflects disagreements between members countries. Some publishing houses will intentionally take part as independent exhibitors -- something that happened last year with Russia, by the way, when publishing houses preferred not to participate in the official presentation, purposefully dissociating themselves from the joint endeavour. This is perfectly normal. And it is why I am quite confident that most probably, in the end, most Arab countries will be represented.

Judging by your early expectations, are you satisfied or disappointed with the current state of preparation?

I am deeply impressed. At the beginning I was quite sceptical -- which had nothing to do with the guest itself, rather with the fact that the time allotted to preparation was more limited than it had ever been. The decision that the Arab world should be our guest of honour was made very late. My predecessor in office had decided to end the Frankfurt Book Fair's guest-of-honour programme with Russia, and so no talks were held concerning the selection of a guest for 2004. When I assumed the post, I immediately tried to resume the guest-of- honour project, and I was extremely thankful that our Arab partners should be more than ready to accept the challenge, a decision all the more brave for having been taken under intense pressure.

Many observers fear that Arab regimes will be presenting themselves in too favourable a light. Are you expecting a pluralistic view of Arab culture, which covers critical aspects of Arabic writing?

I am amazed by the extent to which we managed to make it clear that the guest-of-honour presentation is not about producing a propaganda show. It is definitely not a presentation of state culture. The responsible partner for organising the event is, of course, the Arab League, specifically the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO), based in Tunisia, but the Arab Publishers Union is equally involved, and this ten-year-old organisation is well-known for its commitment to freedom of expression and the fight against censorship. The head of the organisation, Ibrahim El-Muallim, is not only heavily involved in the preparation process, but is a clear-thinking visionary for the group. And this is why I am quite optimistic about the whole situation.

How do you feel about the fact that the official list of invitees excludes prominent figures like novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and the Muslim thinker Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, who lives in exile in the Netherlands?

I must make it clear that, whether this year or in previous years, we are not responsible for the content of the guest-of-honour presentation, which responsibility is borne completely by our guest. Of course, we try to assist in the task of producing an impressive exhibition and positively influencing the press coverage of the event. It was clear from the beginning that Arab authors have to be invited, including those that live abroad or in exile, those who write in Arabic or in the language of the countries in which they live, reflecting Arab topics or influenced by their Arab backgrounds. You sometimes have a situation in which writers who are well-known in the West are to a certain extent lesser-known in the Arab world, because their books aren't published there. Promoting awareness of this problem is one of our tasks, and I think we've been successful. Nevertheless, as everywhere, there is occasional jealousy, and we know of some authors who were officially invited but refused to take part. Nasr Abu Zeid will take part in a symposium on the weekend prior to the book fair, which will kick-start the debates and presentations.

Radical Islamist groups or individuals could use this year's Frankfurt Book Fair as an effective platform to spread their ideas. Do you perceive this possibility as a potential danger?

You may think I am naïve, but I don't expect such groups will be able to exploit the fair for their purposes. I am sure that certain groups or individuals may be planning to do so, but the Frankfurt Book Fair is an implausible platform for ideological propaganda. Besides, the guest-of-honour presentation aside, we ourselves are planning several meetings and discussions, not as a corrective action, but complementary to our guest's programme -- which, of course, remains its exclusive domain. Already on Saturday and Sunday before the opening of the fair, we will hold a two-day symposium in collaboration with the Annemarie Schimmel Forum. And the fair's International Centre and "Forum Dialogue" will provide space for a variety of events. We will create a platform for dialogue between the West and the Arab world, which will of course be host to all kinds of controversial discussions.

Since the Frankfurt Book Fair consists not only of the official guest-of- honour presentation, but also of contributions by Western intellectuals, publishing houses and institutions, there is concern about the distribution of topics and roles, that Western participants will dominate topics like human rights or the lack of democracy in the Arab world, which will just present folklore.

The risk always exists. And I think our Arab guests are as aware of this as we. I am sure they will include corresponding topics in their programme, for example censorship, freedom of expression, dialogue between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, etc. There are always risks and objections, but what are the chances of failure? The upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair is a unique opportunity for the Arab and Islamic world to bring the dialogue with the West up to a new level.

What personal experience has impressed you the most while preparing this year's book fair?

The most touching personal experience I owe to our project was my meeting with Naguib Mahfouz. Mr Mahfouz was voicing criticism of our project at a very early moment, and I visited him at his home in Cairo, and we had a long and intensive talk, which deeply moved me.

By Juergen Stryjak

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