Building a bridge between the Middle East and the west is no small task, but its something the organizers of this year's book fair in Frankfurt hope to accomplish. Can literature and commerce do the job?
Showing some spine: Frankfurt Book Fair organizers welcome controversy
The organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair are set to find out in October, when the Arab world makes its debut as guest of honor as the world's largest publishing trade fair opens its doors in October.
Despite the difficulties of organizing such an event while Arab-Western relations are in a state of crisis, authors or booksellers from 17 of 22 nations in the Arab League will officially attend (absent are Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Kuwait and Iraq.)
Frankfurt Book Fair poster, 2004
Still, authors from these countries are nonetheless represented, Arab League representative Mohamed Ghoneim stressed. Some 200 publishers 150 authors are expected to give readings, lead discussions, and otherwise take part in the program. For many, the fair offers a chance to break through to a larger market.
The choice to feature the Arab world at the book fair was interesting but inherently difficult, organizers say -- if only because so many different countries are involved. Despite common roots, the region is plagued by unresolved, divisive political issues, such as the Near East conflict and the Iraq war.
"Would a German author bother worrying about a book fair when Dresden is being bombed?" wondered Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim.
But despite the diversity of countries that have been invited, it makes sense to have them all as the focus of the fair together, since the output of literary texts in individual countries is often small (the trade in religious texts is much stronger.)
More than likely, some of planned discussions will turn into hot debates. Scandal is far from unheard of in Arab literary circles. For example, Sonallah Ibrahim caused an uproar when he turned down a coveted Egyptian literary prize at the Cairo Opera House, citing oppression of the Egyption people by the government as his grounds.
And Algerian author Assia Djebar -- who writes in French -- would like to see a talk on the topic of language-based discrimination in Arab literature. "The literature in the Arab world needs to become more pluralistic," she said. In 2000, Djebar won the German Booksellers' Peace Prize.
Arab League agenda
Other planned topics which could prove controversial: the role of women in Islam, human rights and religious tolerance.
Arab League representatives say they are hoping the fair will show the Arab world in all its modernity and diversity -- and help rectify the biased view many westerners hold of Arabs. Publishers and authors will speak out at the fair against "intellectual tyrrany" and "all forms of intellectual terrorism," said Mongi Bousneina, the general director for cultural arm of the Arab League.
And those in the west seem eager to open the debates. Said Book Fair Director Volker Neumann: "Any chance for a dialog has to be grasped with both hands."