Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1382, (22 - 28 February 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1382, (22 - 28 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Home and away

Nahed Nasr was at the opening of the Cairo Literature Festival


the Cairo Literature Festival
The Cairo Literature Festival

I live in Cairo, I don’t know why since other Syrians are always looking for a chance to go to Europe.  Does Cairo resemble Damascus to the extent that I am attached to this place, unable to move away? I think the homeland consists of those everyday details that you surround yourself with wherever you are. But at the end of the day you realise that you are a refugee, a lonely stranger without a homeland. At the end of the day I am home alone, melting in melancholy. When I look at myself in the mirror I see a lonely woman in her fifties, a stranger, a refugee, who never knew a home.

I’m the last person to speak about home.

I just received a prize for peace, but I’m not at peace with myself.

When I hear the word “home” — I wish to escape.

Some say that language is their home — others prefer

the body — for myself the heart.

We need different words to say the same things.

These two quotes, by the Syrian poet Rasha Omran and the American poet Michael March, respectively, opened the fourth Cairo Literature Festival (12-22 February) at Bayt Al-Suhaymi, the Ottoman residence-turned-cultural space, last Saturday. This round’s theme is home and homeland from afar, and it brought together writers from  Syria, Palestine, the United States, Finland, Angola, Slovakia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Canada, Spain, Denmark and Germany as well as Egypt – “homeless” characters, all. Omran moved from Tartus to Damascus as a child, but it was the civil war that brought her to Cairo a few years ago that truly deprived her of her sense of home. March left the US at an early age for the UK and onto the Czech Republic, where he has lived most of his life, and he has no concept at all of home...

Organised by Sefsafa Publishing House (on the initiative of its founder and director Mohamed Al-Baaly) in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, several embassies and cultural centres. The theme, Al-Baaly says, is inspired by recent events in the Middle East and the world at large: “We now now in a world where there are millions of actual and potential refugees, displaced people and immigrants, whether they have moved voluntarily or been forced out of their homes. How a writers look at their homelands from distance and how they look at the concept of homeland seems like the right kind of question to ask this year.”

The festival, an unusual initiative, is Al-Baaly’s way of bolstering up the role of publishers and improving the literary sphere – and beyond: “Knowing, understanding and accepting the other is essential for a healthy society. Intercultural dialogue is the best way to achieve this. The festival is a space for local writers to interact with diverse cultures from all over the world. Cairo is a big city rich in history and heritage as well as artists, writers and literary figures, and we’ve had every kind of festival except for a literary festival. It is the role of the civil society to fill this gap.” The annual event provides readings, discussions and launches.

This year’s programme is as rich as any with a series of readings and discussions on literature and the image of the homeland across boundaries, how war and crisis inspire literature and the mutual influence of literature and journalism. A Certain Regard section named after Cannes’s offers an in-depth look at the contemporary literature of the Czech Republic and Slovakia (featuring Slovak author Irena Brezna and Czech author Valsta Brtnikova).

There are also events on North American English-language literature featuring Michael March, the the Indian-American author Akhil Sharma and the Canadian poet Jane Munro. There are poetry readings by the Catalan poet Carles Rebassa i Giménez, the Palestinian poet Donia Al-Amal Ismael, the Finnish poet Lauri Otonkoski as well as the Egyptian poets Hanan Shafie, Ahmed Abdel-Gabbar, Sara Abdine and Abdel-Moneim Ramadan. Also participating are the Danish author Anne-Cathrine Riebnitzsky, the Cairo-based Syrian author Samer Mohktar and Egyptian authors Wahid Al-Tawila and Samar Nour.   

Sefsafa is launching two of its own books newly translated into Arabic, with events featuring the authors: Violence and Man by the German historian Jörg Baberowski and Life Has Another Opinion, a novel by the Cairo-based Angolan author Jonas Nazareth – one of very few sub-Saharn African writers to be made available in Arabic in a bid to widen the cultural scope and move away from the West, according to Al-Baali:

“The festival is a good opportunity to promote African literature by releasing a book in translation, risky though the step remains – but we’ll wait and see its commercial results. With the limited budget we have and the current recession in the book market it is difficult to take too many risks but I believe the festival could give it a push so we can translate more books from Africa in the future.” But the difficulty in publishing translations, a topic discussed by five translators from Egypt and Finland this year, is not limited to budgets: “We also face the major challenge of the lack of translators from original languages, lack of professional proofreaders and editors.”

Nazareth, for his part, spoke of similar challenges in Angola: “My two novels are written in Portuguese and were published in Portugal because there is no chance to publish your book in Angola where selling books is a luxury. I believe when I am able to publish my books in my country, when the cultural conditions are better there and all across our continent then probably we’ll be able to reach you here in Egypt. I am overjoyed to be read in Arabic, though.”

Although the festival has survived and progressed, that is a function of the dedication and independence of its organisers, who face continuous challenges. “It is a hard-up festival where some of the expenses have to be covered by Sefsafa. At the same time we try to bring in new partners to pay the travel and accommodation expenses of the guests, and this is our biggest challenge because if you want to preserve your independence you have to find partners who make small and specific contributions and this is not an easy thing.”

The Ministry of Culture hosts some guests and make tourist venues under its jurisdiction available for events for free: “Part of our duty is to give the local audience the chance to enjoy different cultural events in the tourist areas run by the ministry.” The ministry provides Bayt Al-Suhaymi and Bayt Al-Sit Wasila in Fatimid Cairo, while events also take place at the Rawabet Theatre, the Cairo Atelier, the Goethe Institute, Ain Shams University’s Al-Alsson Faculty and the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek.

Because it is non-Arab partners who cover travel and accommodation (their Arab counterparts are seldom cooperative), it is difficult to host Arab figures, who sometimes also have trouble obtaining a visa. This is another difficulty with which Al-Baali contends yearly: “The festival has its ups and downs. For many reasons including financial reasons this year has fewer activities and participants compared to previous years but at least it is progressing in terms of building credibility among the audience. I hope we can continue as independently and ambitiously as we have been.” 

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