Literature in the Balance

The Arab world at the Frankfurt Book Fair

This year’s Frankfurt Book Fair has invited the “Arab World” as guest — to present itself and works emanating from the twenty-two countries within the region. Ten thousand titles, as many as 200 authors, and a cultural program spread over several locations are intended to bring about a change in prevailing perspectives on the Arab world. Is this yet another Western-oriented event riding on the back of the current wave of interest in the Arab world? Mohamed Ghoneim, director of the Arab program for Frankfurt, the world’s largest book fair, characterized the maxim of his organizational team as “You don’t have much of a chance but make the best of it.”

The question, however, remains — to what end?

Given the attempt to clarify the problematic views of literature from the Arab region, a certain irritation was already built into the initial formula and address. Take the idea of the “Arab World” as guest country. Under different circumstances, this would have received a pan-Arab framing, but in cultural and artistic spheres it is time and again used blithely as a reference. While the fair usually selects individual countries as themes to work around (Russia and Korea, last year and next year, respectively), the Arab World was invited as a region. The publisher of the literary journal Akhbar al-Adab, Gamal al-Ghitani, brought the issue to a head in a recent column. The exaggerated identification of the Arab World with Islam and 9/11 overlooks and eradicates important historical and sociological details. Authors who have an alternative approach, as well as subcultureand country-specific aspects, are simply absent from this perspective.

The Arab League and its sub-organization, Alesco, the Arab Organization for Education, Culture, and Science, are to some extent in charge. The difficulties are obvious. Just as “too many cooks spoil the brew,” the selection for, and realization of, an event involving twenty-two countries is far from easy. Which criteria should be used for the individual countries’ selections? Who can claim a greater literary tradition? Or does one achieve a balanced representation based on population figures and land mass? Or with political themes?

According to the speakers present at a press conference held in June, it seems that a mixture of these aspects will prevail. The general director of Alesco, Mongi Bousneina, said it is “essential to overcome existing obstacles in order to bring about an open dialogue.”

More than 200 Arab authors, lyricists, and translators have confirmed their trips to Frankfurt, among them Morocco’s Taher ben Jelloun, Egypt’s Edwar al-Charrat, Algeria’s Assia Djebar, and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. At the time of writing, the planning of the program, however, is only progressing slowly. Differences of opinion within the Arab League are being carried over into the organization of the book fair, and the bureaucracy of Alesco has let valuable time slip by. There are still no official lists of authors, publishers, or other involved literary institutions. Nonetheless, the book fair will take place between October 6 and 10 at the exhibition center in Frankfurt.

These issues and others seem sufficient grounds for bringing up the theme of literature in Bidoun. In the pages that follow, two established writers, Ghassan Zaqtan and Edwar al-Charrat, talk us through the younger writers’ scenes in their countries and highlight up-and-coming authors and poets. And Lebanese novelist Iman Humaydan Younes discusses the process of writing between fussha (classical or written Arabic) and ‘amiya (colloquial or spoken Arabic). See also for further information about Bidoun’s regular discussion forum with young writers, editors, and artists at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as short stories and texts by young writers.