A Great Opportunity for Arab Publishers
As head of the "American University in Cairo Press", Werner Mark Linz is also the publisher of Nobel prize laureate Nagib Machfus. In this interview he talks about the current situation on the Arab publishing and literary scene and preparations for the Guest of Honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.
Mr Linz, how do you feel when you look forward to this year's Frankfurt Book Fair?
Werner Mark Linz: Optimistic, of course, otherwise I wouldn't be a publisher! Seriously though, the invitation to be Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair is a wonderful opportunity for publishers in the Arab world. That includes my company as well, American University in Cairo Press (AUC Press), as the leading English-language publishing company in the Arab world.
And of course, the invitation to Frankfurt represents an enormous challenge for the Arab organisers. You have to remember that the joint presentation involves bringing together a gigantic cultural region made up of a total of 21 countries - plus the Palestinian territories. That's anything but easy.
But it's happening: on an institutional level ALECSO (the Arab equivalent of UNESCO) will present several larger events; on a professional level, in other words on the part of publishers, authors and journalists, there are plenty of good ideas and a great deal to prepare.
How would you describe the Arab publishing world at the moment?
Linz: Because of the political situation, I would say things are generally rather difficult at the moment. The Arab world feels under pressure, is on the defensive. There is pride in the past and at the same time uncertainty as to what the future holds.
An occasion such as the appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair reveals this state of mind very clearly, focusing the positions together as if under a sunglass. Let's just look at the debate being conducted in the media here: there's everything in it - from the question "Should we take part at all?" to anxiety about making a fool of oneself and then a cautious optimism. But in the end something good will come of it. The Arab publishers are fundamentally very open-minded, they're good people who also have something to offer.
What do you expect, what do you hope for from the Guest of Honour presentation in Frankfurt?
Linz:The fact that Arab publishers are getting something off the ground together here, that new contacts will be made and existing contacts intensified can create an important momentum. It would also be lovely and desirable if more translations of Arab literature into western languages were initiated after this presentation.
I could envisage a major translation programme that would of course need the appropriate support. There are still only relatively few people who translate from Arabic. This delicate seedling of a translating tradition needs to be nurtured and cultivated.
That would be great for mutual understanding. After all, people in the Arab world know exactly what's going on in Hollywood, Berlin or Paris - but I rather doubt whether people in Hollywood, Berlin or Paris know just as much about Arab literature, art or films.
Fundamentally, it is a matter of working in the long term to develop reliable partnership networks. The connections between publishers, authors, translators and editors could be more systematic, up to now everything that happens is more by chance.
Has there been more interest or less interest in contemporary Arab literature in recent years?
Linz:Interest has definitely increased. There was a passing rush of great interest after Nagib Machfus won the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. Now, as a result of 11 September 2001, there is of course a great deal of interest in everything Arab.
This is an opportunity to get across more about this great and complex cultural region. This is where literature has a lot to offer. It can convey something that does not appear in headlines and shock reports.
From the Atlantic to the Gulf, the Arab world is fascinating, it offers very different ways of life that for western readers are in part most certainly exotic and strange. Experiences in a big city such as Cairo are fundamentally different from life in a village in Sudan.
And this is where literature can give insight beyond the brash arena of politics. What are people's lives like, what touches them, how do they look for happiness? - Dialogue on the cultural level is very important.
What authors do you see as being at the focus of interest? More the modern classics or writers from the younger generation?
Linz:There is such a need to catch up when it comes to Arab literature that we say "Modern Arabic Writing" with no further subdivisions. This includes established names such as Taha Hussein, Yusuf Idris and Latifa al-Zayat, but also refers to the younger generation with writers such as Miral al-Tahawi, Salwa Bakr or Ibrahim Abdel Meguid.
Some authors deal with traditional ways of life, such as Miral al-Tahawi who with her own highly descriptive language, has taken up themes from Bedouin life.
Others are more international in their books: Bahaa Taher for example, describing the experience of exile in Europe in one of his books. Or Hoda Barakat, she now lives in Paris and writes from a very interesting perspective.
The best-known Arab writer is Nagib Machfus who is published by AUC Press - and you also handle the translation rights ...
Yes, we had already translated and published his books before he received the Nobel literature prize. We hold all the rights in all languages except Arabic both for the books he wrote earlier and those still to come.
There are so far 400 foreign editions in 33 languages worldwide - that's a huge success for an author from the Arab world. Our shelf for archive copies looks very colourful and different with all the translations of his works. And there is still interest in more editions.
What will AUC Press be doing in Frankfurt for the Guest of Honour presentation? What's planned?
Linz:It's a long-standing tradition in Frankfurt to bring together books from and about the Guest of Honour. AUC Press wants to highlight the work of Nagib Machus, of course. It could be very nice to show our translations and the original Arabic editions side by side.
Our publishing company could also contribute other interesting titles from the categories history, anthropology, social sciences, Egyptology, to mention only a few. But the selection is made by the organisation committee which chooses the books on the basis of ensuring that all participating countries are adequately represented.
Werner Mark Linz was interviewed by Michaela Grom, a freelance journalist living in Cairo.
© Frankfurter Buchmesse 2004