Benjelloun and Khoury

Frankfurt International Book Fair

I barely have anytime left before I run to catch the plane, but I wanted to put this down now: Elias Khoury and Tahar Benjelloun -- respectively some of Lebanon's and Morocco's most respected and best-selling writers -- were just discussing Arab pulbishing. Benjelloun launched into a tirade against Syrian publishers especially, calling on Syria to ratify the relevant intellectual property rights international agreements and clamp down on pirate publishers.

"There is this Syrian publisher who loves my books, but in a rather perverse way," said Benjelloun, who writes in French but is frequently translated into Arabic. "Not only does he steal my books, but he translates them badly and then censors all the sex and politics out of them."

One example he gave was a character who picked up a newspaper, saw a picture of Saddam Hussein, and exclaims, "Not that bastard again!" In the Syrian Arabic version of that same book, the whole passage was taken out.

"If Syria can't even respect intellectual rights than it will never respect human rights," Benjelloun said. "It's not a question of money, but a question of morality and respect."

It was an interesting aside from a discussion forum that was still very centered on the information gathered in the Arab Human Development Report -- both Khoury and Benjelloun were rather puzzled when they were asked who their readership was (Khoury just said, "I don't know, I'm not a sociologist.") But there was this idea that the German moderator was attached to that literature has a certain readership in terms of social class -- the elite. I don't think that's really true, and the more important criteria may simply be youth and level of education, which doesn't necessarily correlate with income levels and social class in countries with traditions of free higher education.

More to come on this later.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.