Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 April 2006
Issue No. 791
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

When representatives of five writers' unions meet, you expect a great deal from them. And this is what we got when a meeting took place at the headquarters of the Afro- Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organisation.

Professor Atukwei Okai, secretary-general of the Pan African Writers' Association, his deputy Mamadou Diop, Cultural Advisor to the President of the Senegal, Shamim Faizi of the Progressive Union of Indian Writers, Ali Oqla Orsan, secretary-general of the General Association of Arab Writers and Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers' Union, and others convened in the form of a preparatory committee for the forthcoming conference, called for by the Afro-Asian Writers' Movement, to discuss "Culture and the Intellectual in an Age of Hegemony". The meeting had two aims, first, to discuss ways to reactivate the Afro- Asian Writers' Association, and second, to draw up a plan for a conference.

It was in 1958 that the first Conference of Afro-Asian Writers was held in Tashkent, attended by leading writers from the two continents as well as observers from international writers' organisations. One of that conference's resolutions was to create "The Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers" and Colombo, capital of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), was chosen for its headquarters. I had the honour of being Egypt's representative on the Bureau, which comprised Mulk Raj Anand from India, Faiz Ahmed Faiz from Pakistan, Alex Laguma from South Africa and Anatoli Sofronov from the Soviet Union.

The second conference was held in Cairo in 1962, and one of its resolutions was to move the Bureau to that city. Youssef El-Sebai was elected secretary- general and I became deputy secretary-general. The Bureau was installed in "Dar- El-Odaba'", or "The Home of Writers" on Kasr El-Aini Street. From there, conferences and seminars were planned. These centred on such issues as "Literature of Resistance", "Tradition and Innovation" and "Oral Literature".

The Bureau began to publish Lotus, a quarterly in Arabic, English and French, which became the forum of Afro-Asian writers. The magazine published poems, short stories, excerpts from novels and plays, review of books and literary essays. Its two hundred pages, its coloured art section and the high standard of the contributions are a pride of men of letters from the two continents.

The second achievement of the Bureau was to create "The Lotus Prize for African and Asian Literature". Apart from its value, the prize carried with it a reasonable financial award. It was given to such writers as Alex Laguma from South Africa, Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, Ousman Sembene from Senegal, Ngugu wa Thiong'o from Kenya, Amilcar Cabral, Agostino Neto and Marcelino Dos Santos from the Portuguese Colonies, Malek Haddad from Algeria, Mahmoud Darwish from Palestine and others.

Then, for certain reasons, and especially after the assassination of its secretary- general, the Bureau moved to Beirut, then Tunisia, and finally came back to Cairo. Lutfi El-Kholi, one of Egypt's leading journalists and writers, became its secretary-general and when he died, the movement began to falter.

It was out of esteem for the valuable role played by the Afro-Asian Writers' Association that last week's meeting was convened. The meeting came out with a general declaration which laid down the bases for the reactivation of the Permanent Bureau, calling for the resumption of the publication of Lotus Magazine, the re-instatement of the Lotus Prize, as well as finding the means for financing the activities. A preparatory committee was formed which convened at the end of the meeting to discuss the forthcoming conference, scheduled for early 2007. The decision was made to inform public opinion and officials that this preparatory committee is the sole organisation that can speak on behalf of the writers of Africa and Asia.

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