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.
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”
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.
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
“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.
“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”
“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.
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.”