Feature: Beirut39

By Robin Grossmann

In March 2009 at Abu Dhabi Book Fair, the Hay Festival of Literature launched Beirut39, a project to select and celebrate 39 of the best young Arab writers under 39 as the flagship project of Beirut Unesco World Book Capital 2009. Beirut39 is a successor to a project which ran three years ago in Bogota, World Book Capital in 2007. Hay Festival’s ‘Bogota39’ featured the 39 selected writers with follow-up events at Hay-on-Wye, Segovia and Granada in Spain, and Cartagena de Indias in Colombia.

Beirut39 is billed as a “fresh look” at modern Arab Literature, reflecting “the power of writing to stimulate social cohesion and cultural understanding”. And it is this aim that has brought together the partners behind Beirut 39: apart from the key funder, the Beirut 2009 authority and the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, the main supports of the project are Banipal, the London-based magazine for modern Arab literature, the British Council and Literature Across Frontiers, while Bloomsbury and the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation will publish an anthology of the 39 authors’ work in English and Arabic.

The names of the selected authors were announced at Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2009, and they will be brought together for a festival in Beirut on April 16-18, with 50 free events in public spaces across city, including readings, panel discussions, and Q&As on the state of contemporary Arabic literature.

The 39 authors were selected by a panel of judges from a long list of names chosen by publishers, critics, and – as a sign of the ongoing democratisation of culture in the age of electronic media - an online public vote. The judges, who made selections based on the potential for development in the nominees’ work, are Lebanese poet and cultural editor-in-chief of Al-Hayat newspaper Abdo Wazen, Lebanese writer Alawiya Sobh and from Oman Saif Al Rahbl, poet and chief editor of the cultural magazine Nizwa, and Dr. Gaber Asfour, Egyptian literary critic and Honorary President of the judging panel. Entry requirements stipulated that all entrants be of Arab heritage but could work other languages, in the spirit of project partner Banipal magazine’s policy of promoting Arab - rather than Arabic - writing. The definition of an Arab writer might of necessity be fluid. The authors selected come from more than a dozen countries, including Iraq, Sudan and Yemen. Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco are represented by at least five writers each; Saudi Arabia and Syria by three. Others come belong to the first or second generation of the Arab diaspora, like Faiza Guene, or Abdelkader Benali. Born in France in 1985 to Algerian parents, Guene’s first novel was published when she was 17 and sold in the hundreds of thousands. Benali was born in the Netherlands, has won prizes for his Dutch-language novels, and produced a collaborative account of 400 years of Moroccan history from a Dutch perspective.

Among the winners are poets, novelists, short story writers and playwrights. Many of them are journalists (from Aljazeera and the BBC as well as national publications), or editors in television, radio and print. There are artists, television presenters, teachers, students, a translator, a screenwriter, a photographer, and in the case of novelist Hussein al-Abri from Oman, a medical doctor. The Lebanese writer Joumana Haddad is administrator of the IPAF literary prize (the 'Arab Booker') and the editor-in-chief of the controversial Jasad magazine.

Inevitably, the jury’s choices sparked an animated public discussion, and the Beirut39 blog quotes one of the selected authors, Youssef Rakha, as saying: “there was a lot of so called debate here in Cairo following the announcement of the winners. A lot of non-winners vented their frustration and even older writers who had nothing to do with the whole thing expressed various reservations and grievances. [....] But that is one part of what being part of the festival has done to me, to place me face to face with difficult questions about the value of what I do and how this value is actually measured.”

And this is in keeping with the spirit of the project. In addition to readings of the authors’ work, the themes of Beirut39 will be the questions: What do we write about and how? Which writers have formed us? and What is happening to contemporary Arabic literature? For an insight into the kinds of points that may be raised in April see the Beirut39 blog, where you can learn more about the authors. Interviewees so far have expressed an enthusiasm for Jean Genet (“[he] will one day become a saint in the Arab world”), nostalgia for prehistoric civilisation in Morocco, and in the case of Youssef Rakha, an eyebrow-raising antipathy for the late Mahmoud Darwish. And while many of the authors show modernist tendencies in their preoccupation with form, others draw directly on life experiences which become inevitably tied with political engagement. Randa Jarrar , the award-winning short story writer, has written powerfully of her younger self carrying a notebook to record the experience of crossing the Palestine-Jordan border for the first time. And Abderrahim Elkhassar states boldly: “ I do nothing more than pour my own life on paper”.

Language itself complicates the question of literature and identity. Shortlisted twice for the prestigious French Prix Renaudot, Abdellah Taia is haunted by the very language in which he works: “In 1991 I was immersed in Arabic words. [....] French was the language for the Moroccan elite, those who abandoned us in our poverty... Today, I write in the French language. I became a traitor, me too.”

For Palestinian playwright Ala Hlehel, Palestinians within Israel are ‘more affluent’ in film and literature because "we feel a deep need to defend our identity.” Yet Egyptian writer and journalist Youssef Rakha is optimistic, quoting the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus: “The time has finally come to treat Arabic as a great reservoir, a live magnet that can absorb foreign influences today as easily as it did in the past." A pragmatist, he is open about his hopes that the festival will help him with the “ongoing and incredibly difficult task of freeing up time to travel and write, whether through residencies or a book deal.”

Beirut39 will be fascinating, but many, like Youssef Rakha, will be wondering what else may come from these four days in April? Most significantly, perhaps, Bloomsbury will publish Beirut39, an anthology of fiction and poetry by the selected authors. Due to appear in English and Arabic editions, it aims to reach a world-wide readership and eventually to be translated into other languages. And before the festival takes place, Literature Across Frontiers has organised ‘Beirut 39 in Cairo’ on the eve of the Cairo Book Fair 2010, bringing together five Egyptian writers selected for the project - Hamdy el Gazzar, Mansoura Ez Eldin, Mohamed Salah Al Azab, Nagat Ali and Youssef Rakha. Hopefully, the momentum generated in Beirut will lead to many more such events. As Raquel Vicedo Artero from the Hay Festival of Literature says: “You can feel the excitement Beirut39 has created in many different people around the world. The feedback we have received on this unique project pays off the hard work and makes us feels part of an amazing experience.”

In addition, Beirut39 is supporting Beirut19, a project organized by iEARN that aims to engage Arab youth in critical discourse on power, identity, globalization and Arab culture, and further promote young talent. Students between 12-19 (of Arab nationality residing in Arab countries) can submit short stories, essays, analysis, critical theory and journalistic pieces between 500 and 2,500 words on the themes of ‘Power and identity in the 21st Century’ or ‘Arab culture in a globalized world’. The winners, announced in March 2010, will be invited to share the limelight at Beirut39 in April, perhaps to meet their future colleagues, collaborators or even sparring partners.

For more information visit:

Beirut 39 homepage


The Beirut39 blog

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