Official, Schmofficial

Writing in Al Ahram, Peter Ripken, the director of the Frankfurt-based Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature shares his thoughts about the Frankfurt Book Fair. Ripken hails the fair’s decision to choose the Arab world as a guest of honor as “courageous,” as if the act of reading literature was something that required temerity. Still, in the current political climate, it’s understandable that the organization’s decision is seen in this light, I suppose. At any rate, Ripken talks about the process of organizing the fair, and the questions that arose after the assignment of the Arab League (a political body) to the task of designing an official program for a cultural event. Certainly this would seem an odd way of going about it, and perhaps explains the decision by some countries (among which Morocco) to organize their own lists. Speaking of which, I was highly amused by the mention of Tahar Ben Jelloun halfway down the article.

In early September the internationally known, Paris-based Moroccan writer Taher Ben Jaloun, for example, speaking to the prestigious German weekly Die Zeit, lamented the fact that the organisers prioritised authors writing in Arabic, ignoring those who use other languages and/or live in exile; he failed to mention the fact that he himself had been invited along with several others writing in French and living in France, including the Saudi writer Ahmed Abu Dehman.

Ben Jelloun is one of the few Arab authors who doesn’t need the attention that the FBF will bring, considering the many awards (IMPAC, Goncourt, etc.) he’s won in his career, so it’s hard to understand his grudge against (lesser known) authors. The problems over this “official” program do not end there, and Ripken does a good job of dissecting them. Youssef Rakha tackles the same issue, but focuses on how it played out in the Arab world.

Both the choice and quality of translations of Arabic books to be presented at the fair have been called into question, with novelist Gamal El- Ghitani, editor of the literary journal Akhbar Al-Adab and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s most outspoken antagonist, pointing out that they were produced within an impossibly short period of time — three months — and under the supervision of state employees rather than men of letters. The message, diametrically opposed to the reassuring statements of Amr Moussa, secretary- general of the Arab League, is that the presentation has the makings of a great fiasco.

It seems as though, with the fair only a week away now, most countries are assuming that they will “go it alone.” Still in Al Ahram, Rania Gaafar reviews the current German press about FBF.

One of the more interesting essays published last week on the perception of Arabic literature in Germany was by the Berlin- based assistant lecturer Andreas Pflitsch, author and co-editor of books about modern Arabic literature and Oriental Studies. “Awarding Naguib Mahfouz the Noble Prize has had a ripple effect,” he wrote. “Since then the number of German translations from Arabic clearly increased. Still, the marginal presence of Arabic literature [in Germany] stands in stark contrast to the omnipresence of the Arab world in the media.” Knowledge of the Arab world in Germany, he went on to point out, is characterised by a “shameful superficiality”. Germans, he indicated, “are over-newsed and under-informed”. Romanticised cliches of “a Thousand and One Nights Orient”, both positive and negative, stand in the way of unbiased encounters as publishing houses cater to the Western audience’s demand for Oriental exoticism, providing book covers with striking images of “palms, camels, or veiled women”. “Exoticising the Arab World is a form of positive discrimination,” Pflitsch remarked, expressing criticism of “the assumption that Islam is a fundamentally backward religion” and that this has become “a hardly questioned certainty”.

Gaafar also reports reactions from Arab writers like Etel Adnan, Habib Tengour, Abbas Beydoun and others. She also reports on the creation of a new portal, called Qantara (‘Bridge’), which seeks to promote dialogue with the Islamic world (rather than just the Arab world).