Arabic literature finds an audience in Europe

Arab authors were the guests of honor at the world's biggest book fair, in Frankfurt this fall.

By Isabelle de Pommereau, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 2004

Iraqi novelist Alia Mamdouh has a message for the West: "How can you expect me, an Iraqi, whose country is being subjected to destruction, to trust Westerners - Americans - and to accept that they're the only ones on Earth and in the universe to possess the truth, when they don't take a step toward my culture, my existence, my language?" she asked in an interview with the International Parliament of Writers, a support organization for persecuted scribes.

Ms. Mamdouh is trying to bridge that cultural divide. She was one of 200 Arab authors who presented works at the Frankfurt Book Fair this fall, the world's biggest annual publishing event.

Since then, she has been touring Europe to promote her newest novel, "Passion." Set in England, where four Iraqi exiles meet after the US invasion of Iraq, the book explores the relationship between a polygamous man and his second wife. It's just one of 50 Arabic novels translated into German this year.

Far from the geopolitical battlefields that have brought Islam and the West face to face since Sept. 11, 2001, Arabic literature, unexplored in Europe just a decade ago, is making significant inroads here - and is helping to break down long-held stereotypes.

While still relatively small, the number of Arabic works translated into German, French, and English has been rising. Previously confined to specialized publishing houses, Arabic literature is now reaching mainstream publishers. "For the first time in the history of German publishing, there is a public debate about what Arab literature is," says Peter Ripken, director of the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian, and Latin American literature, in Frankfurt.

Since 9/11, books that deal with Arabic and Islamic issues have abounded. But they are often written by European experts and present "a false image of the Arab world," says Hachem Moawiya, head of Avicenne in Paris, one of Europe's biggest bookstores devoted to Arab authors.

"There is not only very latent but also very manifest racism when it comes to Arab literature," says Mr. Ripken. "That's why it's so important to read books by Arabic authors, because they have a different perspective than the Arab 'experts' who explain the Arab world to us."

The heightened profile of Arabic literature comes against a backdrop of controversy following complaints by the Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish rights groups, that at least eight books at the fair contained blatant anti-Semitic messages. "A book fair must celebrate the values of tolerance and not allow itself to endorse a cult of racism and hatred," Shimon Samuel, the Center's director for international liaison wrote in a letter to the book fair's president, Volker Neuman, urging him to remove these books and examine the shelves of all exhibitors.

Frankfurt prosecutors reviewed the claims but said they didn't have enough information to open a formal investigation. Tom Forrer of Lenos, one of two main publishers of Arabic literature in the German-speaking world, stresses that the Arab authors translated into German shied away from political themes.

At a time when much of the world associates Arabic culture with oppression, terror, and contempt for women's rights, Arabic novels are tackling such universal themes as love, death, and women's issues. Many of the new writers are women. In "The Hatred," for instance, Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifa tells of the prohibited love between a Muslim and a Christian in a village near Jerusalem, presenting a woman's view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Mamdouh's most successful novel, "Mothballs," which is available in English, the plot focuses on a young girl's relationship with her father in 1950s Baghdad. Meanwhile, "Passion" tackles the issue of identity, exploring what it means to be an Iraqi.

Ripken, whose organization promotes little-known writers, says reading Arab authors should allay fears among many Europeans that Turkish accession to the European Union will mean that a river of Islam will flow through Europe. "Good Arab writing is against prejudices and clichés," he says. "Most of good fiction is critical fiction."

Mr. Neumann says he chose to showcase Arabic writing at the fair because it is still so rarely translated into English, German, or French. "The West and the Arab world are largely foreign to each other when it comes to literature, philosophy, or political debate," he says.

As she went from stand to stand at the book fair, Jordan's minister of state, Asma Khader, said she hoped that this budding interest in Arabic novels would "show the world the reality, the richness of our culture."