When the Arab League was announced as the guest of honor at the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair, reactions were mixed. The very concept of a wholesale presentation for an entire, diverse cultural sphere struck some as questionable. By Hassan Dawud
A German journalist questioned me repeatedly about preparations for participation in the 2004 Frankfurt book fair, by the Lebanese in particular and the Arabs in general. When she posed the questions over two months ago at a German-Arab writers' conference in Yemen, the Arabs attendees were startled at her interest in the event.
The other Germans we met there also seemed to be looking forward to the Book Fair, where the Arab countries will be this year's guest of honor.
More a German than an Arab event
Yet from our conversations it seemed to be more a German event than an Arab one. It was still unclear to us what would actually happen there. Some of us had not even heard of what is officially known as the "biggest Arab cultural event", even though it has been common knowledge for almost three years that the Arab countries would be guest of honor at the 2004 Book Fair. No one had discussed it.
Lebanon, whose cultural minister at the time, Ghassan Salama, submitted the idea to the Arab League's General Assembly, fulfilled only the administrative and financial obligations related to its participation. According to the director of the Culture Ministry's finance department, Lebanon has contributed its share of 30,000 dollars to the sum which the Arab countries must raise for the event in advance.
No cultural initiatives
That means that there has been no focus on the cultural activities so far. A few days ago, several cultural institutions hold a meeting for the first time, but the whole issue has yet to come to public attention. No one but the attendees knew of this meeting or learned anything about its results.
But worst of all – showing the degree of negligence regarding the approaching trade fair presentation – is the fact that the writers and intellectuals do not even expect to be informed or involved in the preparatory discussions.
They have learned from previous experience that events of this kind – recall the year 2002, when Beirut was Arab cultural capital – are merely an occasion for those responsible to bestow gifts, financial and otherwise, upon those they regard as Lebanon's intellectuals.
Even now the culture sections of Lebanon's newspapers barely mention the Frankfurt Book Fair. To this day the responsible authorities in the Arab League have provided no proposals for cultural activities and no lists of books to help decide what should be translated.
This still remains to be done – how will it be possible to submit, select and translate the books in the eight months left before the beginning of the Book Fair?
Where's the money?
The other Arab countries are faring little differently than Lebanon. Of the 22 states in the Arab League, only 4 or 5 have paid their share of the costs for the event, meaning that 2.3 million of the 3 million dollars required have yet to be collected. As though the Arab states were unable to raise the sum – although much larger amounts are regularly spent for various Arab conferences.
Moreover, in the individual countries there has been little or no discussion of preparing cultural activities. There is such an overwhelming lack of interest that even the possibility that the Arab presentation will be a flop provokes no debate whatsoever, neither in the Syrian nor in the Lebanese press.
In a Syrian newspaper a short article by the novelist Khalil Suwailih warns that this approach may end up damaging the image of Arab culture rather than celebrating it. Aside from that, little has been written so far; the culture sections are only just beginning to pick up on the issue.
"State poets" at an official presentation
Why this indifference? Perhaps it is because the intellectuals and writers know that the authorities responsible for preparing the presentation and selecting the participants are the same ones that also organize political events – and most Arab countries have their established "state poets".
And no one gets upset about that anymore, conceding that the state, like other state and non-state groups, has the right to its own intellectuals.
Moreover, it is by no means the case that the Arab countries have a common, homogeneous culture in which intellectuals occupy a clearly-defined position in the hierarchy. Who says that the "cultures" in each country coexist on an equal, peaceful basis, making it unproblematic to decide who could represent, say, Lebanon, Egypt or Morocco at the Frankfurt Book Fair?
In Egypt, for example, other currents exist alongside the official "state culture" and the intellectual mainstream, and we do not even know whether they are willing to recognize one another.
How to represent the entire cultural spectrum?
I do not know whether other societies – not necessarily just Arab societies – are able to reach "national" consensus on certain writers and intellectuals as representatives of the country. Perhaps respected academic institutions would be able to provide a minimum of cultural unity. But in our countries it would take a miracle for a neutral institution of this kind to represent the entire cultural spectrum.
If even the intellectuals of each individual Arab country are anything but homogenous, how can the "common" culture of these countries be presented? In the past twenty or thirty years Arab countries have generally focused on their own individual culture, meaning that a book published in Morocco (speaking of book fairs) does not reach readers in Lebanon, Syria or Egypt.
Since the war, Lebanon has no longer functioned as Arab publishing center, and a book's echo now remains restricted to the country in which it appears. And no other capital has taken over the function of a cultural center for the Arab world, the way Beirut once assumed the role from Cairo.
Instead, there are many scattered centers which learn about each other only through "pan-Arab", i.e. international newspapers published in Europe.
The Frankfurt Book Fair has not received even a quarter of the sum required for the Arab culture presentation. It is no exorbitant sum; some Arab states hold annual festivals costing much more.
The real reason for the Arabs' reluctance seems to be that no one is especially enthusiastic about representing Arab culture as a whole. No one country seems to expect any intrinsic advantage or prestige from a joint presentation.
Different elites are fighting for different interests
The "single Arab culture" has long since ceased to unite Arab countries. No poets converge from the Arab capitals to pay homage to the poet laureate, as at the beginning of the 20th century when everyone gathered around Ahmad Schauqi.
No longer do people worship one doyen of Arab literature, like Taha Hussain in his day. No longer is there one single Arab elite to which one belongs as an intellectual. Life has changed, and now different elites fight for different interests – not necessarily for culture and books.
Translation from German: Isabel Cole
This article originally appeared in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 17 March 2004