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Arab countries were recently the center of attention at one of the world’s largest literary events. The Frankfurt Book Fair invited “the Arab world” to be its guest of honor in October. And so writers, publishers and cultural officials from 22 Arab countries spent a week in Germany presenting and discussing the culture and literature of their countries.


The invitation was extended to “begin a dialogue”, said the fair organizers, but it produces an anxious soliloquy on the Arab side. In the weeks leading up to the fair, the Arab media was rife with articles second-guessing every step of the process. As one Egyptian writer Mahmoud El-Wardani told Al Ahram Weekly, “Arab intellectuals were very sensitive regarding their participation in this German event, so much so that some went as far as describing it as an assessment of the validity of our very existence in the world today.”


This hyperbolic sensitivity exists because the Arab world has been diagnosed with a cultural crisis these days (alongside its political and economic ones). The invitation triggered a bad case of stage fright. It also highlighted a couple of the most serious challenges facing Arab writers today. One is the degree of official oversight exercised by most Arab governments in cultural matters; the other is a pervasive anxiety over “outside” perceptions of Arab culture. These two trends are related and tend to reinforce each other.


A large part of the pre-fair debate involved questioning whether the Arab League — a political organ of unparalleled ineffectiveness, representing authoritarian governments that all engage in varying degrees of censorship — had any place coordinating the event. A few countries, such as Morocco, decided that they would go solo rather than be amalgamated into a questionable “Arab world” whole. Some prominent writers were excluded. Some declined to attend. Those who didn’t question the league’s right to organize the presentation still worried about its ability to do so. The fair was huge, and without having been there it’s very hard to gauge how successful it was. Arab visitors and attendees had good things to say about the degree of German interest, and the quality of some of the forums and discussion panels. But they also complained that works were poorly translated, and that some of the official presentations were folkloric and apolitical: kitchy amalgams of carpets and sand dunes.


Although on principle bureaucrats should not be allowed anywhere near art, the Arab League was probably the only agency capable of pulling the event off. But the bigger question raised by the fair is the heavy hand that governments lay on all forms of cultural expression in Arab countries. All Arab governments exercise censorship, although to widely different degrees. Saudi Arabia revoked the citizenship and banned the work of the renowned and recently deceased Abdel-Rahman Munif, whose classic Cities of Salt (available in English from Vintage International, 1989) series chronicles the kingdom’s transformation from a bedouin land to an oil state. Contemporary Saudi novelist Turki al-Hamad’s controversial coming of age novel Adama(Saqi Books, 2003) has also been banned and the author has been targeted by several fatwas. Given the country’s support for the arts and letters, it is unsurprising that the big attraction at the Saudi pavilion was a pure-bred Arabian horse.


Iran’s Islamic Revolution has also been hard on writers. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie is infamous. But the recent book Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003), by Azar Nafisi — a beleaguered female literature professor whose students put Daisy Miller on trial — gives an even better idea of the daily assault of fundamentalism on creativity.


Even other countries, like Lebanon and Marocco, which have lively literary scenes and many publishing companies — in part because they can depend on a wider Francophone audience — are not immune to ridiculous acts of censorship. This summer Lebanon banned the Da Vinci Code, even though the Vatican itself had no problem with the book.


In Egypt a few books — usually dealing directly or indirectly with religion — are banned every year. A few writers have been targeted with hisba lawsuits. (This is a rare and charming legal action that allows a third party to sue someone who has allegedly abandoned Islam — in this case, a controversial author — for divorce from his or her own spouse, without the spouse’s consent). And, infamously, Egyptian Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz barely survived a stabbing attack by an Islamic fundamentalist in the 1980s.


More insidiously, the Egyptian government has co-opted a large number of writers, intellectuals, and artists by handing out plum positions at official publications. Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim caused an uproar when last year he dramatically declined Egypt’s Supreme Council for Culture’s Novelist of the Year award, standing next to stunned and embarrassed Ministry of Culture officials and saying it was “from a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the credibility to grant it.” He was celebrated as a hero, and more to the point, an exception.


Censorship is one of the reasons for the “knowledge deficit” described in last year’s Arab Human Development Reports, which documented, among other things, the very low number of books written and translated into Arabic compared to the population of the region. In 1996, according to the report, Arab countries produced less than one percent of the world’s books, although they are home to five percent of the world’s population. This is also due to high illiteracy, the low buying power of potential readers, and the fact that copyright laws are sparsely enforced. It’s a common understanding that people in the Arab world read very little, and therefore it’s impossible to make a living as a writer here.


Arab intellectuals themselves have long bemoaned the situation. It is particularly painful to Arab and Muslims who pride themselves on a millenarian civilization to view themselves and be viewed as (moving) “backwards”, Syrian philosopher Sadik J. Al-Azm delves into this issue in a brilliant recent essay, “Time Out of Joint” in the Boston Review (October/November issue, 2004). He writes about the painful shock Arab and Muslims regularly experience as their expectations of their just place in the world collide with realities of political powerlessness and intellectual stagnation. “In the marrow of our bones,” he writes, “we still perceive ourselves as the subjects of history, not its objects, as its agents and not its victims.”


Insecurity is one of the reasons the idea of “image” is so potent in Arab countries. One of the most troubling things about censorship in Egypt is the extent to which it is accepted. In a patriarchal society, the government presents censorship as its paternal duty to protect the country’s honor. Many Egyptians view works of art or literature that delve into the nation’s conflicts, problems, and blemishes as the equivalent of airing one’s dirty laundry in public.


Yet the only way Egypt and other Arab countries can find a new place in history is by handling — rather than regretting, skirting, rhetoricizing or endlessly apostrophising — the truth. And by not allowing anyone — father or spiritual leader or president — to decree what it is acceptable to say.


Thing is, that is exactly what writers in the Arab world have always done, despite censorship, intimidation and penury. In my time here, I have discovered one excellent Egyptian writer after another; from the already mentioned Naguib Mahfouz and Sonallah Ibrahim to Gamal al-Ghitani and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid and the recently successful Alaa Al Aswany, whose book The Yacoubian Building (American University in Cairo Press, 2004), is a compilation of things gone wrong in modern Egypt.


As the Arab Human Development Report itself notes, writing is one of the few creative fields in which a lack of funding or support is not an insurmountable handicap. Writers aren’t like scientists. They don’t need labs. You don’t have to live in a rich country, or a free country, or a powerful country, to write a good book.


And as Brian Whitaker of the Guardian has pointed out in his article, “Reading Between the Lines” (13 September 2004) the West suffers from its own “knowledge deficit” about Arab literature. While Arab countries are faulted for making so little of the world’s scientific, philosophic and literary material available in translation, Western countries, and the US in particular, only translate an infinitesimal amount of Arabic works.


I studied Comparative Literature at university and yet had never read an Arab author before moving to Cairo. I know now that one of the best things that could come out of the Frankfurt Book Fair would be if a few more Arab authors got to be known and read in the West. Then those who are interested in the Arab world could see that some of its fiercest and finest observers are dedicated Arab writers—who have always been, and will always be, the subjects of the story.

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