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

The writing on the wall

Judging by the design of the Frankfurt Book Fair guest-of-honour pavilion, and the expectations of both the Arab and the German officials in charge, the Arab presentation is promising indeed

Click to view caption
Computer-generated images of the Arab pavilion in Frankfurt

Aired in the course of two consecutive meetings held at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo between Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Volker Neumann, the International Frankfurt Book Fair's new president, news of the design of the Arab exhibition space on the fair grounds and the two officials' expectations for the event sounded a cheering note. The meetings, the second of which took place in the presence of many literary figures, were also an occasion for Neumann to promise his Arab League partners that the fair administration is committed to making their contribution as convenient as possible, and for the Arab League officials, for their part, to assert their intention to give as interesting and thorough a presentation as they can. Arab organisers, it was also announced, will start moving into the pavilion on Monday, while books and other exhibits will be in place by Thursday in anticipation of the official inauguration.

The 2,450-square-metre pavilion allocated by the administration of the Frankfurt Book Fair to its guest of honour this year should provide ample space for the thousands of visitors, organisers and reporters expected to take part in the event, which is to be officially inaugurated on the evening of 5 October. With an impressive hi-tech display featuring over 10,000 titles and divided by transparent screens decorated with Arabic calligraphy, it is hoped that the space will draw the attention -- and sympathy -- of visitors from all over the world. As they walk through the official presentation pavilion, designers hope, visitors will be able to make instant contact with Arab culture and, hopefully, quickly come to appreciate its virtues. Indeed the design of the pavilion, in terms of layout and decoration alike, is thought to be an essential factor in the success of this unique Arab mission.

"We wanted to avoid the stereotypes," Yasser Mansour, chief designer of the Arab pavilion, declared. "This was very important for us because we realised that one of the main objectives behind the Arab guest-of-honour presentation at Frankfurt was to counter misconceptions about Arab culture and identity." With this objective in mind, Mansour explained, designing the Arab pavilion was no easy task -- especially when it came to the decoration. "We thought the pavilion would be the first thing visitors would encounter on walking in -- the first message they would receive from the Arab world. And it had to be instantly engaging in a positive way, breaking with the most common stereotypes." According to Mansour's perception, the latter include the notion that Arabs are an isolationist people who do not mingle with other cultures and fear exposure. "So we wanted to tell visitors that this is not true. We wanted to tell them that we like to communicate and that we are not building barriers between us and other cultures. That's why we decided to make the partitions transparent -- so that visitors in any one part of the pavilion can literally see through the walls..." The next challenge was to decorate those walls in a way that reflects "the spirit and the richness of Arab culture without recourse to the clichés of domes, minarets and mashrabiyas ". Eager to reflect the diversity of Arab culture -- its Kurdish, Turkumani, Amazighi and Sawhili, among other, declensions -- designers also wanted to avoid over-Islamising the pavilion.

"We asked what is the thing that brings us all together," Mansour goes on, "and decided it was love of our culture. So we thought we'd resort to the basic tool of this culture's self- expression: the writing." Indeed the calligraphy -- the principal decorative principle -- encompasses a variety of styles reflecting the way Arabic script is written in a plurality of geographical and cultural domains. In addition to the calligraphy, the decoration will make use of a few simple drawings of the most celebrated figures in the history of Arab culture, along with posters showing Arab capital cities and their key cultural establishments. Perhaps to a greater extent than any other objective, the designers sought to avoid dramatising or politicising the character of the interior in any way. "We knew from the start that this would be faut-pas," Mansour pointed out. "So there are no pictures of Arab leaders, no pictures of American or Israeli brutalities inflicted on Iraqis or Palestinians. There will only be the 22 flags of the Arab states and that of the Arab League -- under the auspices of which the Arab countries will collectively participate.

Such a line of thinking reflects the orientation of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who will personally inaugurate activities at the pavilion, together with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, several Arab culture ministers and first ladies, like Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, who have been directly involved in promoting the cause of culture in their respective countries. "This is a cultural, not a political mission," he said. "We are going to go to Frankfurt to discuss culture, not to engage in political sparring. We are going to address and engage the other at the cultural level, not to lobby our political views." Three weeks before the start of an event that has generated disquiet in most Arab cultural quarters, prompting questions about the ability of Arabs to live up to the organisational challenges of participating, Moussa sounded reassuringly confident, predicting not only success but a decidedly improved image of Arab culture and identity on the part of the West.

And contrary to the expectations of those who have suggested that the German organisers are unhappy with Arab preparations, Neumann professed much faith in the Arab side. "Your preparations are very, very, very good," he told a press conference at the Arab League on Saturday, adding that he was impressed not only with the organisational skills demonstrated by Arabs but with the details of the official guest-of- honour programme as well -- one of the best programmes provided by a guest of honour in the last few years, he said. "We have hardly ever seen such good organisation -- through our many years of experience. The programme is compact and well coordinated, it should lead to an excellent contribution. This year," he added, "we are glad to host the most interesting guest of honour that we have had: the Arab world... and it will be an excellent opportunity for you to introduce yourselves to an international audience at one of the most celebrated book fairs in the world. The best way to achieve this is to engage in dialogue. The Frankfurt Book Fair has always served as an excellent platform for dialogue -- a forum of exchange." In Neumann's view, such dialogue is urgently needed. "There is inadequate translation from Arabic into the European languages and vice versa," he insisted, pointing out that prejudice emerges out of mutual ignorance. "In Europe we are particularly called on to learn more about our neighbours in the Arab world today." This issue of translation is expected to figure highly on the fringe of the Arab presentation. Both Arabs and Germans concede that far more effort must be exerted to boost the volume of available translations.

According to Ibrahim El-Muallim, chairman of the Arab Publishers' Union, the average number of books translated from Arabic into German every year is 10-12. This year, with the Arab guest-of-honour presentation, some 50 books have been translated. To celebrate Arab presence, Deutsche Welle has devoted a few minutes of its time to introducing Arab culture to its listeners. According to Mohamed Ghoneim, executive director of the committee responsible for the Arab guest-of-honour presentation, Arab organisers have coordinated with Deutsche Welle to broadcast 360 hours of excerpts from Arabic literature over a period of seven months. "This project was launched three months ago and is now receiving more and more attention," Ghoneim said. More in line with the principal purpose of the fair, El-Muallim and other publishers hope to generate interest in Arabic titles among their counterparts from all over the world -- selling rights to translations into German, French, English and other languages. Excerpts of several books have been prepared specifically for the publishers' venue with this end in mind, while in the official pavilion, writers will occupy individual booths to read out of their best books. English and German translations will be simultaneously available on screens set up within the booths in which these writers are placed.

It is hoped that this will encourage Western publishers to buy translation rights. Judging by the increase in Spanish titles following the Latin American guest-of-honour presentation at Frankfurt, the Arab organisers should expect a significant increase in their business in the next few years. In addition, it is hoped that the fair will improve the business of publishers who work with Arab authors writing in foreign languages, mainly French, by generating interest among Arab publishers in translating such work into Arabic. Arab plans for establishing a fund for translating Arabic books into other languages are currently being debated as well; and one such plan may be launched during the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Aside from translation, that most essential form of literary exchange, the official programme provides for seminars on the dialogue of civilsations and religions, as well as such potentially explosive topics as the woman rights and the role of Islam in modern societies. The very first seminar, to be held on the eve of the official opening, in fact, will be entitled "East and West: a New Beginning". Featuring an impressive array of high-ranking figures from both the Arab and German sides, it is set to promote "reflection", according to Neumann. "If there is one concern that has linked all the guest country presentations since 1976, it has been the declared belief in open and critical dialogue between cultures." Such dialogue, many believe, will centre on that section of the pavilion dedicated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, since the name of the ancient library is associated with the mingling of cultures. To capitalise on this associations, Bibliotheca Alexandrina representatives have identified dialogue as the principal theme of their programme.

"This is one of the most important elements of the Arab contribution to Frankfurt," Hesham Youssef, chief of staff of the Arab League, explained. "We are going there primarily to talk to others and listen to them. The perception of Arab culture and identity has suffered seriously since 11 September, and presentation is intended in part to rectify misconceptions. This is why we have seminars dedicated to issues that have attracted much attention in the West... But it is very important to stress that we are not going to stage a performance about our culture. We are not going to Frankfurt to tell the world that we are faultless or that we have no problems. We just want to tell them that our problems are comparable to those of any other society, and that we also have positive things to offer, foremost among which is our rich and diverse culture."

Further cause for optimism can be found in Neumann's pronouncements regarding efforts "to improve working conditions for exhibitors and trade visitors", making this year's round "a focussed working fair". With newly introduced professional centres for film distributors, international trade visitors and photographers, as well as space relocations to facilitate the tasks of service providers, booksellers and literary agents, improving customer access, much effort seems to have been exerted indeed. "Electronic press boxes" to help exhibitors direct their information at specific target media have been set up. The German side has also increased the number of events on offer, with some 1,000 participating, among them Nobel laureate Gènter Grass, who will join Peter Rèhmkorf for a performance reading. Events also include presentations and competitions to take place in the Comics Centre, the "Film & TV Forum" and some dozen more venues. With over 200 Arab figures, however, Neumann was confident that the guest of honour will be the principal focus of this year's round of the fair.

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