The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Culture links

I've been traveling and then had trouble logging into the blog, so it's been a while since I posted. But here's a collection of interesting culture links from the last weeks. 

1. Beirut 39 -- an event that selected 39 writers under 39 from the region, and aimed at raising the profile of emerging Arab writers -- came to a close. I'm eager to read the anthology that came out of it (even though I am not really a fan of anthologies...) Here's an article about the event in the Daily Star, but I haven't found many reviews yet. 

2. The latest edition of the  Palestinian Literary Festival -- a literary festival that travels around the Occupied Territories, because it is so hard for audiences to all gather in one place, and whose participants regularly face long waits at checkpoints and harassment by Israeli security forces -- also came to an end. Not before Ethan Bronner could lament, in the NYTimes, that it hadn't held some joint events with a concurrent Israeli festival. 

Again, it seemed like the two groups of writers could benefit from hearing one another’s reflections. Should the festivals meet? Should Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, A. B. Yehoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn, all of whom were speakers in Israel, join Geoff Dyer, Victoria Brittain and Raja Shehadeh, the writers on the other side?

Yes, said Anthony David, an American biographer and professor at the Bard Honors College of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. “It is ridiculous to have writers from all over the world in the same city and not meeting each other,” he said as he waited in Ramallah for a reading to begin. “The boycott thinking here among Palestinians is so entrenched that people are threatened by meeting people from the Israeli side. Building networks is the only way to undermine nefarious forces.”

But Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian-British author who runs the Palestinian festival, disagreed. “I feel that Palestinians are too often seen as an adjunct or reverse side of another coin,” she said. “Palestine is an entity in its own right and it deserves its own festival. If the day comes when Jerusalem is a shared capital, then we can reconsider.”

Yeah, the Palestinians don't get to keep their olive groves or their home in "contested" East Jerusalem, can they  have their own literary festival, for #*@*'s sake? 

3. At the Guardian, Jack Shenker gave the Cairene publishing house Merit the kudos it so amply deserves.

Mohamed Hashem's office seems an unlikely home for Egypt's nascent literary revolution: to find it you have to ascend a shabby set of stairs in a downtown Cairo apartment block shared by, among others, the Egyptian Angling Federation and an orthopaedic surgeon. It's a far cry from the slick headquarters of Egypt's biggest publishing houses. Yet on any given day it's here on Hashem's threadbare sofas that you'll find the cream of young Egyptian writing talent, chain-smoking cigarettes, chatting with literary critics and thumbing through some of the thousands of books stacked from floor to ceiling.

4. At the National Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reviewed the latest edition of the home-grown Lebanese art event Home Works, and wonders if it hasn't fallen victim to its own success: 

And this is the thing. Home Works was never meant to be a sprawling international art event, a spectacle divorced from its context. When Ashkal Alwan began in 1994, its mandate was to engage the city and create artworks that tackled urgent social, economic and political issues inextricably linked to the experience of Beirut and its relationship to the region and the world. 

Home Works was an alternative to big-budget biennials and splashy arts festivals well before either of those models was even plausible or desired in a place like Beirut. For better or worse, in its fifth incarnation, Home Works became the very thing it never needed or wanted to be: an art-world power summit, an occasion for lavish lunches, dinners and after parties, an event with little to no local audience or consequence that rolls into town, makes a lot of noise, blows a lot of hot air and disappears.

5. At Al Ahram Weekly, novelist and critic Youssef Rakkah reviewed AUC Professor Samia Mehrez's just-out-in-English Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Paradise. 

By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit -- freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu's notion of literary autonomy -- Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany's phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building ; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics -- the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say -- out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or "intellectual" achievement, what makes Egypt's Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.

6. And at Al Masry Al Youm English, I reviewed the latest collection of short stories (actually written before his novels) from Hamdi Abu Golayyel and the recently translated Drumbeat by Mohammed El Bisatie