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A world of books waits to be discoveredImage: BilderBox

Opinion: Open, Sesame!

Stefan Weidner
October 2, 2004

When the Frankfurt Book Fair opens next week, the guest of honor will be the Arab world. The event promises to be a success by drawing attention to a significant segment of world literature, as long as everyone joins in.


Arabic literature is booming these days on the German-language book market – but no one has quite noticed it yet. Ever since Egyptian writer Nagib Machfus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the number of books translated from Arabic into German has grown by 10 to 20 percent.

While in the mid-'80s only a handful of contemporary Arabic authors were available in translation, today German readers can choose from some 150 works, ranging from volumes of poetry to novels, anthologies and classics. And this number does not even include North Africans writing in French, such as Tahar Ben Jelloun or Assia Djebar; nor does it account for editions of the Koran, or non-fiction books about the Arab world.

Stacks of books in the world's largest bookstore, amazon.comImage: AP

This trend will most likely peak this fall as publishers rush to bring out their next year's line-up to coincide with the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair, where the Arab World is featured as guest region. But an increase in the number of Arabic books on the market does not necessarily equate with a bigger public interest.

The Arab world in publishers' fall programs

Even if the number of translations being commissioned is steadily growing, publishers in the German-speaking world still harbor reservations about Arabic literature. Publishing houses that have always offered Oriental literature such as the Switzerland's Lenos Verlag, Amman Verlag and Unionsverlag, have strengthened their offerings even further. But others, including most of the major publishers, have kept their distance or at most concentrated their efforts on non-fiction and a few big name writers.

Kairo Buchmesse - Bücherladen
Bookstore in northern Iraq

Poetry, which for the Arabs themselves is the most esteemed of literary genres, is underrepresented in the fall line-up. With the exception of bilingual editions of the two pre-eminent Arabic poets, Adonis from Syria and Mahmoud Darwwih from Palestine (both from the Amman Verlag), German publishers have been hesitant to offer more poetry works.

Fear no classics

Among the big-name German publishers, C.H. Beck undoubtedly has the strongest Oriental program. Its "New Oriental Library," designed for bibliophiles but nonetheless affordable, is currently the only book series in the German language that offers a home to the great classics of Islamic culture.

An illuminated manuscript page from the Koran, in the British LibraryImage: british library
All of the other publishers focus their efforts almost exclusively on modern authors. It might very well be that publishing the classics is not as rewarding in terms of quick sales. But the works appearing in the "New Oriental Library" indisputably belong to the great classics of world literature, and the success with which the new translation of "1001 Nights," also by C. H. Beck, was greeted shows that, with the right marketing and support from bookstores, this can also be a best-selling segment.

Curiosity called for

Widely considered "fringe" literature among German mainstream publishers, the real problem facing Arabic authors in German-speaking countries is not a lack of translations, but rather a lack of vocal proponents. There are hardly any literary critics who specialize in Oriental literature. The Neue Züricher Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, leading papers in Switzerland and Germany, are the only newspapers that publish reviews of Arabic literature with some degree of regularity.

Thus, there is a danger that, although plenty of Arabic books will be available this coming fall, there will be very few critics who will be working to familiarize the public with this segment of literature. Moreover, there are no overviews available to help interested book dealers, critics or readers orient themselves in the market.

The choice of the Arab world as guest region at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair calls for a certain amount of curiosity, openness and willingness to experiment on the part of all those involved: book dealers, critics, literary event organizers, publishers and, last but not least, readers. They will be richly rewarded with the discovery of a new literary continent, which promises to captivate for years to come and which might very well hold plenty of surprises in store for the future.

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