Al Aswany bails on lit festival, criticizes selection process

A while back, we mentioned the Beyrouth 39 Literature festival, which aims to select and promote 39 Arab writers under 39. It is a cooperation between the well-know British literary Hay Festival and the UNESCO Beirut World Book Capital 2009 initiative. I just read that Alaa Al Aswany--who was one of the judges--has quite the festival, disagreeing with the selection process. Al Aswany first objected to the competition being characterized as "open" when a list of 90 authors, submitted by the literary magazine Banipal, was under consideration. 

But the organizers agreed to postpone the nominations deadline, and publicize the festival more widely. I have seen articles about the festival in the Egyptian press. There is a link on the festival's site that allows one to nominate writers. (And the organizers of the festival actually solicited suggestions from Arabist--we could only think of a few, because of the age limit). So the festival does seem to have been open, even if a whole slew of nominations was submitted by Banipal editors.

So I'm left confused as to what Al Aswany's real, unsurmountable objection was. Articles in the Arab press have suggested--without quite coming out and saying so--that the festival's nominations list was fixed or flawed in some way. In any case, it seems a pity that an event promoting Arabic literature should be bogged down in rancorous debates and resignations before it even starts.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.