The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Frankfurt

Frankfurt International Book Fair

Because of the peculiarities of air travel in the Middle East, which seems to take place mostly at night, I arrived this morning in Frankfurt from Casablanca at 6am and headed groggily to the book fair for a few hours until I take the plane to Cairo this afternoon. (There will be a long post on Morocco later, when I've had time to digest my ten pretty hectic days there.) I am now writing from the press center, where I have been busily looking into the blasts in Sinai mentioned below, and which I will most probably have to work on tonight.

My first impressions, walking around the international area of the fair where the booths for individual Arab countries and publishers are gathered (I haven't been to the Arab League's booth yet, which is apparently the main one), is that things are pretty well organized. Some of the booths, especially the ones for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are pretty kitsch -- papier-mache renditions of Arabian forts and so on -- but these tend also to be the largest (although, as far as literature is concerned, the least interesting. Prominently displayed are such books 'Human rights and their enforcements in Saudi Arabia," which turns out to be a rather turgid treatise on how Saudi Arabia recreates various conditions that supposedly existed around the time of the prophet. Syria's stand, staid and boring in the tradition of that country's ministry of information, is replete with biographies of the two Assads that served as presidents and books on the philosophy behind their thinking. Perhaps the strangest thing in the Syrian stand is a kind of prayer computer, basically a screen that one places at the head of the prayer mat and which highlights Suras from the Quran. It looks like it is made with computer technology from the mid-1980s, although the manufacturers say it "helps make devout."

Much more interesting, obviously, are the stands by Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria and even Oman -- although I haven't seen all the Lebanese ones yet (they should be the best) or any Egyptian ones (the ones who produce the most books). There really is everything from cookbooks and technical books to fiction and history available, most often in Arabic but also in French and English. Often publishers will have the Arabic books they are selling next to their translations by other publishers, particularly for big names in Arab fiction like Naguib Mahfouz or Abdel Rahman Munif.

I'm going for another round now that more people are showing up, and will have another post before I head for the airport. In the meantime, I just read a nice article in the Times Literary Supplement on the relationship between Arabic and the Quran (and more). Here's an excerpt from the middle of the article, but you should read the whole thing.

God chose Arabic. This makes Arabic particularly open to stagnation, mythologization, formalization, kitsch, and demagoguery. It is the fascination and danger of all verbal magic, a theme that has preoccupied thinkers such as Gershom Scholem, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin and Karl Kraus. Anyone who has witnessed a well-phrased, rousing public speech in an Arabic country has felt the effect of the language on the audience. A politician, theologian, or poet who speaks in classical Arabic, provided he is a good orator, is sure to captivate a wide audience. It is difficult to imagine how such a speech might sound in a different language, removed from the constant presence of a 1,400-year-old language with strong sacral overtones in society, its theology, literature and politics. Language operates here as a kind of time machine, effectively transporting all present back to a mythical epoch. Even television broadcasts of a speech by, say, Qaddafi, Yassir Arafat, or Saddam Hussein may have this effect. And how much more impressive were the great speeches by Gamal Abdal Nasser, whose success in leading an uprising in Egypt was due to his extraordinary rhetorical skill.

Since the full article is not on the TLS website (this is all they have), I'll scan it and post it later today or tomorrow.