39 Arab authors spread their literary wings
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 19 April 2010
In her preface to the newly-published anthology “Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World” the acclaimed Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh, whose first novel was published 40 years ago, praises the new generation of Arab writers.
“They have flung open the doors on Arab culture, inviting the reader to transcend cultural boundaries and land in a region known as the ‘Arab World’” writes Al-Shaykh. “The reader touches, feels, hears, tastes and sees the Middle East and North Africa as it really is: cosmopolitan cities, villages, towns, desolate mountains and deserts.”
The anthology features the work of the 39 Arab writers aged 39 or less who were chosen from more than 480 entrants by the Beirut39 panel of judges last October. The judges were chaired by Egyptian critic Gaber Asfour, Omani poet Saif al-Rahbi and two Lebanese literary figures – poet and critic Abdo Wazen, and novelist Alawiya Sobh.
A program of events held in Beirut and London last week marked the launch of the Arabic and English editions of the anthology, published by Bloomsbury Publishing of London in collaboration with the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts.
Beirut39 authors traveled to the Lebanese capital for four days of events starting with the presentation of awards at a ceremony in Casino du Liban. The writers took part in multiple literary conversations at venues dotted around the city. But two Palestinian authors, Ala Hlehel and Adania Shibli, had problems with the Israeli authorities over travelling to Lebanon. Even though the Israeli Supreme Court defied the government in agreeing to Hlehel’s request for permission to travel, the Lebanese authorities hesitated over giving permission for entry. The two authors were instead showcased at a series of events in London, including International PEN’s Free the Word Festival.
Beirut39 is a project of the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts which began in 1988 in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, famed for its numerous second-hand and specialist book shops.
The festival is constantly widening its international scope: Beirut39 follows Hay’s Bogota39 project which in 2007 identified 39 leading Latin American writers under 40. As in the case of Bogota, the Beirut39 project celebrated the designation of the city by UNESCO as World Book Capital for a year.
The anthology is edited by Iraqi author and journalist Samuel Shimon, the co-founder and deputy editor of Banipal, the London-based magazine of new Arab writing in English translation. He worked closely with the 39 authors, who live in 20 cities in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and the USA, to select the pieces that would best represent their work. As well as being a sampler of the 39 writers’ work, the anthology is a testament to the translation skills of the team of 24 translators, some long established, others relatively new.
The Beirut39 writers include three Saudis: Abulllah Thabit, born in Abha in 1977; Mohammad Hassan Alwan [pictured] born in 1979; and Yahya Amqassim born in 1971. The anthology includes an extract of Thabit’s novel “The Twentieth Terrorist” translated by Peter Clark.
Also included is Alwan’s tender story “Haneef from Glasgow” about the friendship between a young Saudi man and his family’s Kashmiri former servant. The story was translated by Anthony Calderbank, deputy director of the British Council in Riyadh. Calderbank also translated a section of Amqassim’s novel “Raven’s Leg”.
In his introduction to the anthology Abdo Wazen says that the new generation of Arab writers is brought together by “their tone of protest and their rebellions against traditional literary culture.” The boundaries between the literatures of different Arab countries are breaking down, and “a youthful pan-Arab literary movement currently dominates.”
These young writers want to write as they speak - absolutely spontaneously. But sticklers for the rules of language may be uncomfortable with Abdo Wazen’s observation that the writers believe the new information age “does not leave them with enough time to decipher the mysteries of grammar and rhetoric.”
They are not afraid to make grammatical errors; some intentionally do not finish sentences, while others are fond of slang, street talk and dialect.
At a press conference held at the Free World Centre in London to launch the English edition of the anthology , and to introduce Hlehel and Shibli to the media, Hay Festival director Peter Florence outlined his hopes for the Beirut39 project over the next decade. He drew parallels with Bogota39, which has helped put young Latin American writers on the world literary map.
Florence said: “I am hoping that this group of 39 writers from the Arab world will become as familiar to us as European or American writers are in Britain.” From reading their work in translation he reckons “they are all at least as good as anybody I know of the same generation writing in English, French or Spanish.”
He plans to encourage Beirut 39 writers to participate in festivals around the world, thus bringing them new readerships. He believes that the most important way one can learn about another culture is through “the simple, intimate, sometimes domestic concerns of writers who have absolute freedom of imagination in their own heads... the more we learn about the Arab world, the more we meet these writers, the more we begin to understand stuff that we really don’t know.”
Bill Swainson, Bloomsbury Senior Commissioning editor, said the publisher will be trying to find foreign language publishers for the anthology in territories such as Spain, France, Holland and Germany. The American arm of Bloomsbury will publish the anthology in the USA later this year.
The Hay Festival - from May 27 to June 6 - will bring to Hay-on-Wye six Beirut39 authors: Adania Shibli, Joumana Haddad from Lebanon, Youssef Rakha from Egypt, Moroccan Abdellah Taia who lives in France , Algerian Faiza Guene from the Netherlands, and Palestinian-Egyptian Randa Jarrar from the USA.
While the future looks rosy for the Beirut39 authors, let’s not forget the many other highly talented Arab writers who did not make the list. As the judges said in announcing their chosen authors: “The final choice of the 39 names does not detract from the worthiness of many other, important, contributors. Many entrants were eligible to be shortlisted in the competition, but the Hay Festival’s commitment to the 39-name rule proved to be unlucky for some.”