x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Arab writers take centre stage at Colombian literary festival

At the Hay Festival Cartagena, Tahira Yaqoob examines the South American country's old and deeply entrenched Arab community.

Joumana Haddad, the Lebanese poet and author. Courtesy of Joumana Haddad
Joumana Haddad, the Lebanese poet and author. Courtesy of Joumana Haddad

Amid the cloisters of the 16th-century Santo Domingo church, there is a flurry of panic, an exchange of baffled glances and a frantic scrabble for headphones.

Joumana Haddad, the controversial Lebanese poet, author and magazine publisher, is speaking in Spanish. And not just any Spanish.

She is spitting out her words and stabbing her finger in the air with a vitriol and passion that suggests it is her first language and not her seventh.

Here in the ancient city of Cartagena in Colombia, she has come to talk about women's rights, love, politics and revolution in the Arab world.

Haddad may be more than 11,000km from home but she has clearly struck a chord with her audience at the seventh annual Hay Festival Cartagena, a five-day literary extravaganza drawing a mix of well-heeled Colombians and American and British expatriates. It is an entirely mutual love affair.

"I feel at home here," says the Beirut-born author of I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. "This is my fifth trip to Colombia and I immediately fell in love with the country and the people. It feels like coming home."

If it seems confounding that audiences here in Latin America could relate to her, even more incongruous is her double-bill with Khaled Al Berry, an Egyptian writer who was once part of Al Gemaa Al Islamiya, a radical Islamist group responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks that killed hundreds in the 1990s.

Al Berry, now 39, left his radical past behind after a two-month stint in jail 20 years ago and wrote about his experiences in Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise: A Jihadist's Own Story.

They make an unusual pairing on stage, with Haddad, 41, confident and outspoken, while a shy, hesitant Al Berry expresses himself with more difficulty.

Indeed, when he is introduced on stage, Haddad, once named the most hated woman in Lebanon after launching her daring magazine Jasad (meaning body), jokingly exclaims: "I just realised I am sitting down with the enemy."

Both, though, are here for a common purpose: to shed misconceptions about the Middle East to an audience that has been fed a stream of images through television and radio and has little idea of the reality on the ground.

Al Berry, who lived in London for a dozen years but returned to Cairo six months ago to be part of the new movement, says: "I think it's important for Egyptians to tell their story to the world."

It is an apt setting to relay their stories, for Cartagena is so firmly intertwined with literary history, it is hard here to separate fact from fiction. The lofty colonnades of the Sofitel Santa Clara, a 17th-century former convent that also serves as the home of the festival, were the inspiration for Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Of Love and Other Demons, while the private swimming pool of his mansion next door can be glimpsed from some of the hotel's suites.

It was his love of Marquez - who also set Love in the Time of Cholera in Cartagena - that convinced Al Berry to attend. Latin Americans and those from the Middle East share a common thread, he says, from political upheaval to a love of storytelling.

"Both worlds were under colonisation for a long time and had similar political discourse and military rulers," he adds. "All revolutionary groups start from very idealistic notions and when the idea fades, all that remains is violence. They want finance and power against any sort of rebellion from ordinary people. I see this everywhere - in Northern Ireland, in [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] Farc and in the Middle East. I can also relate to magic realism because of all the stories passed down by our grandmothers. We have similar worlds."

For Haddad, her polemic on women's rights is universal, while her Catholic upbringing means she understands the strict religious vein running through South America.

"Latin America suffers a lot from machismo so I have a lot of relevance in this part of the world," she says. "There is a lot of curiosity about the Middle East and a lot of clichés and misconceptions."

Connections between Colombia and the Arab world actually run much deeper than mere curiosity. A mass migration of Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrians in the late 19th century and early 20th century means the Arab population today is close to one million.

Many moved to coastal cities like Cartagena, Barranquilla further north - the birthplace of Colombian-Lebanese singer Shakira - and Santa Marta, drawn by the prospects of trade and fleeing financial and political hardships at home. The first wave of mostly Christian Arabs took place in the late 1800s; the second came in the 1940s, with many of the settlers establishing textile and pharmaceutical businesses and becoming completely integrated in Colombian life.

"Ninety per cent of people in Barranquilla have an Arab connection," according to Maria Abuabara, a representative of the tourism board ProExport Colombia, whose own father is Palestinian. It is not an official statistic but she says the evidence is everywhere.

Indeed, in the cobbled alleyways of Cartagena you are just as likely to find kibbeh on the menu as ceviche and grilled grouper.

The integration of Arabs into Colombian society has come a long way since the early 20th century, when Luis Lopez de Mesa, who was then foreign affairs minister, called for an "infusion of white blood" and immigrants were required to convert to Christianity if they wished to live and work in Colombia.

Pilar Vargas Arana wrote about the route from the Middle East to the Colombian Caribbean coast in Pequeno Equipaje, Grandes Illusiones (Small Suitcases, Great Expectations).

She describes how Arabs were "not received with love at first but were then accepted with affection and respect, an attitude the Arabs have repaid with infinite and inexhaustible love."

Just a few streets from the Sofitel Santa Clara, the words "Islam spread under waving banners" are etched in Arabic on a church bell in the Palacio de la Inquisicion, the former headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.

It dates back to 1317 and is thought to have been brought by early settlers to this former Spanish colony, a remnant of the Spanish Moors who were forced to convert to Christianity and shipped to the new colonies in South America amid fears that they had not wholeheartedly embraced the new regime.

With Palestinian grandparents, Vivian Ronderos, a 16-year-old from Bogota, is an embodiment of that heritage, and is as starry-eyed after speaking to Haddad as if she had just met a pop idol.

"I agree with a lot of things she said. I have both Arab and Colombian cultures in me and I think women in both worlds can relate to one another," she says.

Al Berry says revolution on both sides of the world has closed the gap: "We are a village now. What happens anywhere affects other nations and ideas."

Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer at The National.