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The 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair 2004 focuses on the Arab WorldImage: dpa

The Unknown Guest of Honor

Hannah Wettig, © Qantara.de
October 4, 2004

In Beirut's cultural scene nobody seems to know about the book fair in Frankfurt. Lebanese authors are worried, but also get their hopes up.


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.

At an abandoned train station, some musicians were recently organizing a techno party. On this rave, Ronja was handing out flyers inviting to a poetry slam at a private culture center.

"Book fair in Frankfurt? Never heard of it," she said. She grew up in Sweden and can’t read Arabic well. Thus, she doesn’t follow the Arab press.

Rawan and Sara go often to such events but haven’t heard about the book fair. Sara said those things don’t interest her.

"I work and work and hardly make $250 (€200)," she said. "I can’t go to Europe, anyhow."

No time for luxury

Arabische Rapper in Israel
Arabic rappers, from right to left, DJ Charley Shaby, 25, Richy Shaby, 20, Wassim Akar, 22, and Mahmoud Shalaby, 20Image: AP

Simon Khuan was reading poems he has already published. Mamlaka As-Sarasir (Cachroche Kingdom) came out three years ago. The 31-year-old said he had heard about a large book fair taking place every year in Frankfurt, but not about the Arab World being the guest of honor.

"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," he said. "We can’t solve our problems this way. You can’t cover a hole in the table with a table cloth. If the Arab world wants to carry a message, I ask what message could that be?"

But Bashar Haidar, a philosophy professor who was having a drink at a bistro with a colleague, said he had heard great things about the Frankfurt book fair, but nothing about this year’s focus.

"That sounds fantastic," he said. "We should book tickets and go," he told his colleague.

Mixed feelings

The Lebanese authors who are invited to the fair were not quite as enthusiastic.

"Since early 2004, everything I read was criticism," says Emily Nasrallah, who has had three novels and one children's book translated into German. "I haven’t read anything positive. 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 said she doesn’t expect anything, "but I hope they will succeed, because we have a lot to show." She said she hoped this could be a push for Arab literature.

Skyline von Beirut, Libanon
Beirut´s Skyline, LibanonImage: laif/Sasse

"I am also very happy that it is happening in Germany, because from my experience I feel they respect us very much," she said. "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."

Iman Humaidan will have her second novel translated into German just in time for the book fair. She said she is excited to go.

"I am looking forward to it," she said. "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," Humaidan said. "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 said 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."

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