Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Book news from the Emirates

On its way to becoming an essential port of call for regional and international publishers, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair ended its 22nd edition on Monday, writes David Tresilian from Abu Dhabi

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This year's Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the 22nd, held in the magnificent surroundings of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre in the United Arab Emirates, brought together some 904 exhibitors from 54 countries, two-thirds of them Arab, and featured a cultural programme that saw meetings with major figures such as Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra, Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni and Sudanese novelist Amir Tag El-Sir.

Announcements made at the Fair included the winner of the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the "Arab Booker Prize," this year awarded to Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber for his novel The Druze of Belgrade, and of the winners of the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, with this year's winner of the award for Cultural Personality of the Year going to the United Nations organisation UNESCO for its work in cultural heritage protection and promotion worldwide.

While the Abu Dhabi Fair does not draw the crowds that typically attend the older Cairo International Book Fair and it does not have as rich or varied a cultural programme, it has positioned itself as perhaps a more user-friendly entry point to Arab publishing for non-Arabic-speaking visitors.

All events take place in simultaneous English-Arabic translation, and, according to Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chair of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the intention behind the Fair is to make Abu Dhabi "a centre of culture and cosmopolitanism in the region and worldwide," part of a strategy that includes the building of major museums and other facilities on the city's Saadiyat Island.

These facilities, advertised to visitors as they enter the city by road and including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a branch of the Louvre Museum in Paris designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the Zayed National Museum, designed by British architect Norman Foster, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, are scheduled to open over the next few years. In the meantime, the emirate is advancing its cultural vocation, acting as a steadier counterpart to its brasher neighbour Dubai, by renovating the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation and Al-Hosn Fort in the downtown area, still closed on the present visit but scheduled to reopen perhaps sometime later this year.

According to materials circulated at the Abu Dhabi Fair, the intention is to make the Abu Dhabi event a major bridge between the international and the regional publishing industries, and to position the Fair as a professional event on the Frankfurt or London models, rather than as an event designed to bring in a mass audience, as is the case at the Paris and Cairo fairs. This year's professional programme seemed designed to support that intention, with sessions advertised on matchmaking for exhibitors and trade visitors, effective marketing and expanding markets, and successful UK/Arab partnerships.

The association of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also sponsored by Abu Dhabi, and the emirate's Kalima translation programme, which promotes the translation of works from and into Arabic, with the Abu Dhabi Fair also underlines the Fair's intention to reach out to an international and non-Arabic-speaking audience, the winner of the Arabic Fiction Prize being guaranteed translation into English and possibly also other languages. This year's Fair designated the UK as "country of focus," the idea being, according to the British Council which cooperated on the associated events, to introduce contemporary British literature to Arab readers, as well as to build UK/Arab publishing partnerships and to share expertise.

It was possible to miss the crush of visitors that makes the Cairo International Book Fair such an exhilarating event, and unlike at the Paris or Cairo fairs books are not for sale at the Abu Dhabi event in any great numbers, in line with its professional focus. However, visitors to the Fair will have left with much to ponder, particularly the event's remarkable growth over its two-decade existence and the greater transparency such events encourage and represent for the contemporary Arab world, with the emphasis being on international partnerships and translation as much as on regional and solely Arabic-language publishing.

***

Six authors were short listed for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which was launched in 2007 and is funded by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi. These included the Lebanese writer Jabbour Douaihy for his novel Shareed al-manazil (The Vagrant), already short listed for a previous novel for the 2008 prize, the Egyptian writer Ezzedine Choukri Fishere for Inaq inda jisr brooklyn (Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge), an earlier novel being long listed for the 2009 prize, and Nasser Iraq, also an Egyptian writer, for his novel Al-atil (The Unemployed).

The Algerian writer Bachir Mefti was short listed for his Dumiat al-nar (Toy of Fire), as was the Tunisian writer Habib Selmi for his Nissa al-bassateen (Women of Basateen), in addition to the winning work by the Lebanese journalist and novelist Rabee Jaber. There were no women writers on this year's short list, with the short listed authors being spread equally between Lebanon, Egypt and the Maghreb countries of Tunisia and Algeria.

According to the chairman of the judges, the Syrian writer and critic Georges Tarabichi, two points emerged from reading the more than 100 novels the judges had gone through in drawing up the short list for the 2012 prize. The first was the sheer quantity of novels now being produced in the Arab world, and the second was the common interest among Arab novelists in technical innovation.

"The insistence on such innovation, even in its failed attempts, demonstrates that we are before a season of migration to a novel form that wants to be Arab, not in the nationalist or ethnic meanings of the word, but in the purely aesthetic meaning that is not merely a reflection, successful or not, of the classical western novel," Tarabichi said. "This is a quality that applies not only to the contemporary Arabic novel, but also to the novelistic culture in all cultures that had been marginalised until very recently by a centralised western culture, such as the Latin American, Japanese, or Asian novel."

The sense of place was also important in the works short listed this year, Tarabichi said, whether North American exile as in Ezzedine Choukri Fishere's Inaq inda jisr Brooklyn, or the Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria depicted in the works by the other writers. The Druze of Belgrade, Rabee Jabeer's winning work, published last year in Casablanca, describes events following the conflict in Lebanon in the 1860s when members of the country's Druze community were forced into exile in the Balkans, at the time still part of the Ottoman Empire.

In accepting the 2012 prize, Rabee Jabeer said that "I wanted to pose the question of, in a tough world, how much can we humanly endure?" It seems likely that The Druze of Belgrade, Arabic and English extracts from which were circulated at the Fair, will soon be available in English translation. In the meantime, readers might turn to Rabee Jaber's earlier novel Byretus madinat taht al-ard (Beirutus: Underground City), which is available in French translation.

Commenting on the latter novel in the Weekly when it first appeared, Youssef Rakha wrote that it is "the story of a movie theatre security guard who, following a strange figure through the empty lot behind the premises, slips and falls, losing consciousness only to awaken in an uncharted underground maze city where sentries are referred to as fishermen and people think twice before leaving their neighbourhood for fear of losing their way. It is an allegory of the unconscious and, through the occasional, apparently passing reference to the effects of political strife on the guard's life and the 15-year civil war, perhaps also a reflection of the internal rift such events will inevitably exercise on a people."

Perhaps something similar might be said of Rabee Jaber's The Druze of Baghdad, which also focuses on exile and displacement, as well as political strife, this time taking place in the 19th century, and its effects on individuals.

***

Aside from the announcement of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Fair also saw the announcement of the Sheikh Zayed Awards, established in memory of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates from 1971 to 2004. Here, the prizewinners included the Lebanese writer Abdo Wazen for his The Boy Who Saw the Colour of Air, a children's book, the Egyptian critic Shaker Abdel-Hamid for his Art and Eccentrics, and the Tunisian translator and critic Abu Yaarub al-Marzouqi for his translation of works by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl into Arabic.

The Dutch publisher Brill won a publishing and distribution award for its international focus and promotion of Arab culture, while the UN organisation UNESCO received the Cultural Personality of the Year award. Speaking at the Fair on behalf of the organisation, Russell Rivoallan said that though UNESCO had been severely affected by the cutting off of US funding following last year's decision to admit Palestine as a full member, this had not been unprecedented.

Thirty years ago, the US, the UK and Singapore had all left the organisation following disagreements over its management and funding, taking their budgetary contributions with them. All three countries had subsequently rejoined, Rivoallan said, and this time round the Obama administration had found itself "embarrassed" by US regulations making it impossible for it to continue funding any UN organisation that admits Palestine as a full member. Rivoallan said that the US administration was looking at ways of requesting a waiver to the US regulations. In the meantime, the organisation was "hobbled, but surviving," he said.

Elsewhere in the Fair, the writers invited by the British Council as part of the UK focus were speaking, though for some visitors at least the choice of speakers, however worthy, may have appeared to be not really representative of contemporary British writing, as the Council's publicity material nevertheless claimed. Similar doubts may have been felt regarding the range of publishers present at the Fair, with many of the largest British publishers being absent or having only a limited presence. France seemed to have sent more publishers to the Fair than the United Kingdom, even though the latter country was supposed to be the country focus.

Egypt's publishers were out in force, with the General Egyptian Book Organisation and Dar al-Shorouq, among many others, having arranged large stands. Egypt's writers were also represented, with Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers' Union, being included on the official programme, and Mohamed al-Makhzangi having a stand of his own as part of the "Daad Initiative" designed to "promote the writer as the principal component in the process of publishing and creativity."

Having had to leave the Fair early to go to Dubai, it was a matter of regret for the present writer that al-Makhzangi was due late in the day and therefore that it was not possible to see him. However, on the evidence of the present edition, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is going from strength to strength, on the way to becoming perhaps the region's leading professional event and possibly the most user-friendly one for foreign or non-Arabic-speaking visitors.

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, 28 March to 2 April, National Exhibition Centre, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

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