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French Version

Arab world program at Frankfurt book fair provokes debate

Middle East media argue over region's representation

The Arab World is this year's guest of honor at the world's largest book fair in Frankfurt, Germany. From October 5 to 10, the 22 countries of the Arab League will display their culture - literature, music, films, theatre and art - to a global audience.

The space the Arab World will occupy amounts to 4,000 square meters, the largest space a guest of honor has held since 1976. In total, the fair will host 6,600 exhibitors, 335,000 books more than 10,000 journalists, 1,000 literary agents and the 270,000 visitors that are expected.

Despite the wide publicity and the massive amount of potential possibilities for Arab publishing presented by the Middle East's presence at Frankfurt, a spate of articles in the Arab media have raised questions debating the worth of being at the fair.

Items in newspapers like An-Nahar and As-Safir as well as on television stations like Al-Jazeera have indicated that Arab writers, commentators and intellectuals - for example, Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr and Lebanese author Hassan Daoud - are skeptical of the event.

Many arguments have been raised that the representation of the Arab world at the fair will be too one-sided - but in contradictory ways. Some believe that there will too much work presented from Egypt; Some pundits think the fair will be too biased towards the Gulf, while others do not; And some believe representation from the Arab World will be too political, while others believe it will not be political enough.

Yet more commentators worry about a lack of sufficient financing for the Arab world's section. Only $3 million of an estimated $6 million needed for the participation has been raised by the members of the Arab League - the major sponsors of the Arab exhibit. Organization started late on in the day and the original amount of space offered by the Frankfurt committee - 9,000 square meters - could not be filled.

Some countries from the region were so doubtful about the Arab League's ability to organize such an event that they decided to go it alone and set up their own program and exhibit separate from the main body - countries like Lebanon, Kuwait and Morocco.

On the German side, however, organizers have been impressed by the diversity and quantity of the Arab program. While most countries seem to be represented adequately enough, the decision by Lebanon, Kuwait and Morocco might have been for the better. Lebanon and Morocco, in particular, almost seem to be over-represented at the fair.

"The Lebanese can be really proud," said cultural attache at the German embassy in Beirut, Richard Asbeck, during a recent interview. Cooperation between German organizers and the Lebanese Ministry of Culture has been excellent, he affirmed.

Indeed, in a rare and enlightened move the Culture Ministry is paying for travel costs and accommodation for the 80 Lebanese invitees, who include renowned novelists and poets like Amin Maalouf, Elias Khoury, Rashid Daif, Hannah al-Shaykh, Alexandre Najjar and Abbas Beydoun, academics such as philosophy professors Radwan Sayyed and Salah Stetie, and media representatives like Ghassan Tueni. Culture Minister Ghazi Aridi and MP Bahia Hariri will travel to Frankfurt as political representatives. More than 45 musicians and actors will join them, including the Caracalla Dance Troupe and the Charbel Rouhana Musical Heritage Ensemble.

The German side will sponsor some political discussions. The Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, for example, which is close to the German Social Democratic Party, has signed a cooperation agreement with the Arab League which aims at strengthening the Arab-German relationship. The foundation's first projects under this agreement are its sponsorship of a number of panel discussions at the book fair about Arab Civil Society, Globalization, Arab Women in Politics, an exhibition about political caricature and a number of film screenings.

One of the most expensive areas the organizers have to deal with is translating books. Individual authors and publishers, the Arab League and local ministries, work on getting as much translated as possible before the fair. Yet the bulk will probably be undertaken by the German Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature, which organized the translation of 54 mostly fiction works into German.

This alone will boost the distribution and publicity of Arab literature immensely. Currently, Lenos, the one German-language publishing house specializing in Arabic literature, which is based in Basel, Switzerland, has about 60 novels available by Arab authors.

In previous years, the participation as guest of honor at the fair often meant a breakthrough for authors from those countries on the German market and also in other Western countries. Germany is one of the leading reading nations in the world: Some 80,000 new titles appear every year and only China and Great Britain offer more.

"During and before the book fair, the cultural pages of German newspapers are full of reports on the theme country. Thus, a broad audience is reached, far beyond the visitors of the fair," stresses Asbeck. "This time, they will not only concentrate on literature but on many other aspects of Arab culture."

There are exhibitions of archaeology, of Christian icons and calligraphy. Under the title "Half a century of Arab film," the Film Museum in Frankfurt will show more than 70 motion pictures.

For Asbeck, who holds a degree in Islamic Sciences, the diversity of the program is a great asset. "I hope that with this presentation, people (in Germany) will realize that the Arab World reaches from Morocco to Iraq and that it is not limited to deserts and camels, but that there is also a modern Arab World."

Some in the region, however, see such a display of modernity as a problem.

During a recent panel discussion on Al-Jazeera television with the president of the Arab publisher's association, Ibrahim Moallim, several viewers called in expressing their concerns about the book fair not showing the real Arab World. The organizers had mostly invited authors who live in Europe and would thus represent Europe more than the Arab world, one said. Another one asked if hatred of the US and the real Islam would be given some room. Interviewer Ahmad Mansour made the criticism that most participants from the Arab side will represent the same secular Western thinking as the European intellectuals: "Shouldn't the original Arabic culture and Arab-Islamic thinking be represented?" he asked.

Moallim replied that, indeed, authors who live in the West had been invited, such as Amin Maalouf and the Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun. "Their participation has the advantage that they are very successful in the West," he said.

Obviously, the organizers have decided for an appealing presentation as opposed to the kind of true representation the viewers of Al-Jazeera would have liked to see. This was not always the case. When reading through the German press' coverage of the Arab countries' display at previous book fairs, one can find much criticism and even mockery on the stacks of religious books and government brochures.

"They were always in the most hidden corner of the fair," Asbeck says. "Iran presented itself much better than the Arab publishers. Only Lebanon was always an exception." Besides educating the Germans about the Arab World his great hope is that the Arab publishers will, not only this time but also in future, take greater care of what they show the world.

More information and the full program of the Arab world's program at the Frankfurt book fair can be found at: www.frankfurtbook-arabguest.net

Beirut 30-08-2004
Hanna Wettig
The Daily Star

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