LEBANON: Some Arab writers lament roles as cultural ambassadors


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‘If anyone ever comes up and tells me my work is ‘responsible,’ I will punch him in the face,’ joked Moroccan-Dutch author Abdel-Kader Benali while discussing whether Arab writers have a duty to serve as cultural ambassadors.

His sentiments were echoed by the other authors present on the panel titled Rock the Casbah: Responsibility, Commitment and Art, one of dozens held over three days in and around Beirut as part of the Beirut39 festival, a subsidiary project of the Hay Festival.


‘I don’t want my work to be used as a piece of anthropology, a textbook for people who don’t know about the Arab world,’ explained Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, one of 39 Arab authors younger than 40 selected for the Beirut39 book festival.

‘I think [Arab literature] is in danger of becoming something else -- something non-literary,’ he added.

Beirut39 is one of several initiatives that have popped up recently with the intention of translating and marketing Arabic literature outside the region. But the West’s newfound interest in all things Arab, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, have left many writers wary of their novelty status.

The onus of ambassadorship mirrors some of the internal debates that have shaped Arabic literature since long before the Beirut39, the Arabic Booker Prize or the London Book Fair drew international attention to the region. Those who write in Arabic have often been held responsible by both readers and governments for the political implications of their work.

In many ways, translation into other languages, especially English, introduces a different set of expectations. Western readers expect Arab writers to be role models, iconoclasts, advocates, diplomats, historians and tour guides, an attitude that many find chafing.

‘Even if I were to write some piece of chick lit about three girls going shopping and they happened to be Arab, it would still be seen as political,’ said the Arab American novelist Randa Jarrar.


Despite their misgivings about being sucked into the genre broadly termed ‘ethnic lit,’ the mood of the panel and the festival, was celebratory, bringing together up-and-coming novelists, poets and writers from around the world.

“It was a nice holiday, four days of writing and drinking and meeting colleagues and opening up to a new audience,’ Benali told The Times after selling the rights to one of his books to an Arabic publishing house.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut