Frankfurt Book Fair 2004

The Unknown Guest of Honour

Only weeks are left before the book fair in Frankfurt. Yet, in Beirut’s cultural scene, nobody seems to know about the event. Lebanese authors are worried, but also get their hopes up. Hannah Wettig reports

Only weeks are left before the book fair in Frankfurt. Yet, in Beirut’s cultural scene, nobody seems to know about the event. Lebanese authors are worried, but also get their hopes up.

photo: AP
Beirut's skyline

​​Beirut’s young cultural scene is thriving. During the last year, tens of galleries have opened in the rebuild Saifi village close to the city center, new cafes and jazz bars popped up in the gentrified areas of East Beirut, where DJs play the newest sound from Europe and young musicians rap in the Lebanese dialect.

"Frankfurt Book Fair? Never heard of it!"

At an abandoned train station, some musicians are organizing a techno party. On this rave, Ronja is handing out flyers inviting to a poetry slam at a private culture centre. "Book fair in Frankfurt? Never heard of it," she says. She grew up in Sweden and can’t read Arabic well. Thus, she doesn’t follow the Arab press.

Next time I meet her, she raps about terrorism, "the blindly religious and the agnostic blind." It’s at the poetry slam. Some poets are teenagers and rhyme about heartaches, others recite from their already published books.

Rawan and Sara go often to such events but haven’t heard about the book fair. Sara says those things don’t interest her. "I work and work and hardly make $250. I can’t go to Europe, anyhow."

Simon Khuan is reading poems he has already published. "Mamlaka As-Sarasir" ("Cachroche Kingdom") came out three years ago. The 31-year-old has heard about a large book fair taking place every year in Frankfurt, but not about the Arab World being the guest of honour. "We are not in a luxury period here," he says, "so people in general are not interested in culture."

He hopes that such an event will not be turned into a political stage. "It should just be for the intellectual aspect. We can’t solve our problems this way. You can’t cover a hole on the table with a table cloth," he says. "If the Arab World wants to carry a message, I ask what message could that be?"

The philosophy professor Bashar Haidar is having a drink at a bistro with his colleague. He has heard great things about the Frankfurt book fair, but nothing about this year’s focus. "That sounds fantastic," he says when understanding the idea. "We should book tickets and go," he tells his colleague.

Mixed feelings

The Lebanese authors who are invited to the fair are not quite as enthusiastic. "Since early 2004, everything I read was criticism. I haven’t read anything positive," says Emily Nasrallah. Three of her novels and one children’s book have been translated into German, the novel "Birds in September" ("Septembervögel") is in its fourth edition. "There was this delay, which also delayed the translation of books before the book fair. But this is something for the governments to answer."

She says she doesn’t expect anything, "but I hope they will succeed, because we have a lot to show." She hopes this could be a push for Arab literature. "I am also very happy that it is happening in Germany, because from my experience I feel they respect us very much. But it’s not only Germany. It is also the Frankfurt book fair. When I am asked by journalists here, whether I don’t think that the book is dead, I always tell them to go to Frankfurt and see for themselves," Nasrallah says, who has taken part in the book fair’s program in 1996.

Iman Humaidan will have her second novel, "Wilde Maulbeeren", translated into German just in time for the book fair. She is excited to go. "I am looking forward to it. I hear everybody around me saying it’s going to be a scandal because we have nothing to present. Of course, we have! The problem is we are not proud of what we have."

Lost images

Image is another problem. "They were lost, because they lost their image. The great ideologies have died. What’s left is fundamentalism and the old regimes. People like us are marginalized. My first reaction was to ask: How can we access this space between those two sides?"

She thinks the book fair should be different from those events "when the West thinks of dialogue with the Arab World as a dialogue with fundamentalists. I have the same problems with fundamentalists as you have."

Some of her colleagues’ criticism may be correct she admits. Many say the surrounding arts events are too folkloristic, especially the music and dance performances. In Lebanon, the invitation of the Dance Troupe "Caracalla" has raised some eyebrows.

Humaidan herself applied to do a reading with the small theatre group Studio 11 – certainly more amateurish, but also far from folklore. Yet, there was no money. She smiles. "Well, the Lebanese love their "Caracalla" so much," she says, adding, "but the Minister worked very hard."

Indeed, in Lebanon many are impressed that the Culture Ministry without much of a budget on its own was able to raise the money for 80 people to travel to Frankfurt.

"The real scandal is that those countries which have money didn’t pay enough," Humaidan says, referring to the Gulf States.

Hannah Wettig, © Qantara.de 2004

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