Arabs take centre stage at book fair

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's biggest publishing event, is putting the spotlight on Arab literature in an attempt to reverse years of neglect in the West.

    Arab literature is still largely unknown in the West

    The fair has invited the "The Arab World" as

    its guest of honour to promote an understanding of Arab culture

    and literature and help heal the wounds of September 11

    .

    "The necessity for dialogue has never been so urgent as it

    is today," book fair director Volker Neumann said.

    "This will be the beginning of a dialogue - a late

    beginning, but a beginning."

    A particular element of excitement will be generated this

    year by the appearance of Ali Ahmad Said, the Syrian-Lebanese

    poet known as Adonis, who is the bookmakers' favourite to win

    the Nobel Prize for literature to be announced on Thursday.

    The book fair's ambitious vision has also sparked

    controversy with some Arab writers boycotting the official

    presentation in protest at what they see as tolerance by the

    Arab League

    of literary and cultural censorship and oppression.

    Political opportunity

    Nevertheless, it is a great commercial as well as political

    opportunity for Arab writers.

    "Since September 11, the Western world has experienced a

    surge of interest in Arab affairs," said Peter Ripken, director

    of Germany's Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and

    Latin American Literature, in Egypt's Al-Ahram weekly.

    "The necessity for dialogue has never been so urgent as it

    is today.

    This will be the beginning of a dialogue - a late

    beginning, but a beginning"

    Volker Neumann,
    Frankfurt Book Fair director

    But many more books have been sold about Arabs than by them,

    he said, adding that the fair will give Arab writers an

    opportunity to sell their own books in a marketplace that last

    year generated more than $700 million worth of business.

    "The Frankfurt Book Fair will give Arabs a chance to

    speak for themselves," he said.

    Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, 93, who

    helped put Arabic literature on the world map when he won the

    Nobel literature prize in 1988, welcomes the chance for younger

    writers to make a name for themselves.

    "It is true that the relations between East and West are at

    a low point but this is all the more reason why the Arabs should

    go to Frankfurt," said the hard-of-hearing Mahfouz in remarks

    relayed by his friend Muhammad Salmawy.

    Prejudice

    But some critics of the project to promote Arab culture said

    the stakes were too high in the current political climate.

    "As it is, the world already associates this culture solely

    with oppression, terror and contempt for women's rights," said

    Egypt's Jamal al-Ghitani in an interview published on

    www.qantara.de, a website dedicated to dialogue with Islam.

    Interest in Arab culture has
    increased since September 11

    "There is no need to do even more damage with a poor showing

    at the book fair," he said.

    With a broad spectrum of literary luminaries, publishers,

    critics and opinion-formers gathering for the annual fair,

    Neumann has assembled a programme that will see almost 200

    Arabic writers reading their work.

    Discussion will take place alongside architecture and

    calligraphy exhibitions, films, dance events and samplings of

    Arab cuisine.

    A reading from the work of father figure Mahfouz will launch

    the project, to be followed by such stars as Morocco's Tahar bin

    Jallun, Algeria's Assia Djebar as well as Nobel tip Adonis.

    Censorship

    "Arabic poetry is a tradition that has never got any prize

    and he is the greatest living Arabic poet," said Fredrik Lind of

    Hedengren's book store in Stockholm, known for predicting whose

    works to have in stock ahead of the Nobel prize announcement.

    The Arab League has rejected criticism that only

    government-friendly authors have been invited.

    "The Arab League is nothing but a dictators'

    club"

    Rafik Shami,
    Syrian novelist

    "The books have

    been chosen by the Arab Publishers' Union, which is a completely

    independent body," spokesman Hossam Zaki said.

    Syrian novelist Rafik Shami, who accuses the league of

    turning a blind eye to censorship and oppression of writers,

    begs to differ.

    "The Arab League is nothing but a dictators'

    club," he said.

    The effect of censorship on Arabic literature is compounded

    by high book prices, a lack of bookshops and libraries and

    varying degrees of literacy.

    Elites

    This means that reading is an activity

    only a few enjoy outside the literary centres of Cairo and

    Beirut, said Andre Gaspard of Arabic publisher Saqi Books.

    With its vision of bridge building, communication and

    dialogue, the book fair faces a great challenge, Gaspard, the

    publisher's co-founder and director, said.

    "I'm afraid there is a sort of trauma in the Western mind

    that they want to show they are not against the Arabs, and I

    fear that this may overshadow the real issue that for decades

    there hasn't been proper communication between the Western

    culture and the Arab culture," he said.

    "I hope that this real issue will be addressed, not

    September 11, not the Muslims, not the Christians, not the Jews

    . If this does not happen it will be sad, it will be a missed

    opportunity."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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