FBF Report

In this lamely titled opinion piece, Stefan Weidner argues that an increase in the number of Arabic books on the market ahead of the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair does not necessarily equate with a bigger public interest.

Even if the number of translations being commissioned is steadily growing, publishers in the German-speaking world still harbor reservations about Arabic literature. Publishing houses that have always offered Oriental literature such as the Switzerland’s Lenos Verlag, Amman Verlag and Unionsverlag, have strengthened their offerings even further. But others, including most of the major publishers, have kept their distance or at most concentrated their efforts on non-fiction and a few big name writers. Poetry, which for the Arabs themselves is the most esteemed of literary genres, is underrepresented in the fall line-up. With the exception of bilingual editions of the two pre-eminent Arabic poets, Adonis from Syria and Mahmoud Darwwih from Palestine (both from the Amman Verlag), German publishers have been hesitant to offer more poetry works.

Beyond translation, Weidner laments the lack of literary critics who specialize in “Oriental literature.” As a start, it might be helpful to not refer to Arabic literature as Oriental. Just a thought.

In Al Ahram, Rania Khallaf talks with Bahaa Taher about his decision not to attend the fair. Unlike other Arab intellectuals, he didn’t mind the decision to give the Arab League (a political body) the task of organizing the event.

To make that clearer, let me declare that I am an Arab nationalist, a writer who believes in Arab unity. What I am objecting to, rather, is the league’s procedural performance — the principle of excluding intellectuals from decision making,” Taher banged the table with his fist, “especially when the event in question is purely cultural,” he paused, somewhat abruptly. “Excuse me, I need to drink some tea before we go on with this conversation.”

Taher, being a nationalist, takes a very dim view of Arab authors who write in other languages. He conceded that the works of people like Mouloud Feraoun and Mohammed Dib were exempt because they were written during colonial times, but he says that now “the license cannot be extended to writers like Tahar Ben Jelloun.” It’s interesting to me, of course, as a writer who is both Arab and American, and who is fluent in Arabic but writes in English. But while I disagree with Taher’s narrow view of who should write what in what language, I was rather sympathetic to what he had to say about which Arabic novels get to be translated. Speaking of his experiences with Western publishers, he said:

“They want to translate Arabic literature, which focuses on stereotypical conceptions of Arabs as an underdeveloped people living in poverty. They are concerned primarily with highlighting the oppression of women and other undemocratic practises. Now one doesn’t deny that such problems beset Arab societies, Taher goes on, but this over emphatic focus on them results in other novels, some of them of greater human interest, being ignored. This can no longer be tolerated.” Such experience had come as a shock, he added, “because I expected the West to be more open and tolerant”.

You can read the entire interview here. Elsewhere, Expatica and Khaleej Times cover the fair as well, but the articles don’t offer any new tidbits. It’s worth mentioning, however, that next year’s guest of honor at FBF will be South Korea, and preparations have started for that as well.