Middle East authors are the centre of attention at the final weekend of the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, an annual celebration of culture in the Welsh countryside.
Middle East authors a magnet at the prestigious Hay festival
It's an idyllic early summer's day at the closing weekend of this year's Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts. The temptation to do nothing but kick back and read a recently purchased novel from the on-site pop-up bookshop is clearly immense. But a queue snakes around the deckchair-strewn central garden. There's a palpable buzz in the air, just as there had been when The West Wing's Rob Lowe arrived in the first few days of this fortnight of literary revelry - or when Wikileaks's Julian Assange made his way to Hay via helicopter.
Right now, though, there are no front-page stars to be seen. The clamour is for an event predominantly in Arabic, featuring three writers from the groundbreaking Beirut39 project which highlighted the "new voices in modern Arab literature." Indeed, the interest in Mansoura Ez Eldin, Kamel Riahi and Youseff Rakha is such that the start is delayed by 20 minutes to get everyone in. Headsets are handed out to translate the words of these three authors into English. Was this the moment the Beirut39 project and the work of Literature Across Frontiers and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction finally came of age? At Hay - which styles itself as a festival of ideas - anything is possible.
In fact, as Ez Eldin, Riahi and Rakha spoke of this year's revolutions in their native countries of Tunisia and Egypt, one actually struck a note of caution. Though all three have been hugely encouraged by the interest in their work, Rakha (who also worked on the launch of The National) warned that a lot of the curiosity may be anthropological and political rather than literary. He had a point. Later in the festival, the Yemeni writer Mansur Rajih and the Iranian poet Pegah Ahmadi read from some of their fascinating work, but the first question asked of both of them concerned the upheavals in the Middle East. Understandably so - as Rajih spoke, the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was leaving his country for Saudi Arabia - but there was the sense that their actual literature might get lost in the clamour to get an intellectual's take on the Arab Spring.
Which is why, in a final weekend dominated by talk of the events across the Middle East, perhaps the most satisfying session was from a would-be politician himself. Mohamed ElBaradei - famously, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency during the ill-fated weapons inspections in Iraq - has, of course, stated his intention to run for the Egyptian presidency. And at Hay, promoting his new book The Age of Deception, the Nobel Peace Prize winner made a remarkably persuasive argument for how new democracies can be engines for social change. "Poverty," he said, "is the most lethal weapon of mass destruction."
ElBaradei was also very funny. On the basis of an hour in his company, he'd make a very entertaining and intelligent president. And perhaps only at Hay - which now boasts a network of linked literary festivals in countries as varied as Lebanon, South Africa, Spain, India and the Maldives (where wellies are unlikely to be a necessity) - can meaty political discussions and weighty literature enjoy equal billing with, er, cycling. Surely there aren't many festivals where it's possible to lurch from the sheer physical exertion of completing the Tour de France, to discussion of the correct social etiquette to employ when bumping into Robert Mugabe buying lipstick in a New York convenience store. But within one glorious half hour at Hay, that's exactly what happened: the immaculately dressed David Millar described his love/hate relationship with the world's most famous cycle race in Racing Through the Dark, swiftly followed by, in the next packed tent, Peter Goodwin entertaining and horrifying his audience in equal measure with the anecdotes that make up his latest book on Zimbabwe, The Fear.
The bedrock of Hay, of course, is a love of books and literature. So any premature talk of the death of the book or its diminishing influence gets short shrift here. In fact, the author Hanif Kureishi, whose festival appearance coincided with the publication of his Collected Essays, wasn't in the least bit worried by the growing interest in reading digitally. "They'll change," he said of our book-reading habits. "But they won't die. I'm excited by the possibility of reading a book on an iPad, where a specific chapter could be in a different, more visual, format, for example. People will always like storytelling." Meanwhile, the award-winning Welsh author Deborah Kay Davies argued at her event with Tahmima Anam (the Bangladeshi author currently receiving deservedly rapturous notices for The Good Muslim) that the "act of reading is a moral act in that through it, you develop empathy." And Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, emphasised the importance of reading the classics in a modern age. "Reading Homer to my students is how I learnt to tell stories myself," said the former teacher. "They are the best stories."
And as much as, naturally, these authors were preaching to the converted, the beauty of Hay lies not only in the verdant Welsh hills dotted with sheep, gazing down on a tented village full of cultured people. The festival's tag line is "Ideas May Blossom", and, time and time again, the words of an author, thinker or, yes, even a sportsman, reverberate long after they have finished speaking. Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose book on Jerusalem is now a bestseller, spoke of cities being made by "people and families". Sonia Faleiro, talking about her new investigation into the "pulsating, damaged soul of Bombay", Beautiful Thing, wondered how long the deep distinctions in her country's society could be "got away with". And the British designer, writer and television presenter Kevin McCloud asked why it was that we can get so animated about sustainability in the food we eat and the energy we consume, but don't seem to be at all bothered that the jeans we all wear are usually made via the efforts of separate people in about seven different countries.
That certainly made everyone look at the labels on their clothes when they retired to their nearby tents and B&Bs later that night. But not before they'd listened to the Catatonia frontwoman turned full-on folkie Cerys Matthews play songs from her recent album, enjoyed the Anglo-Iranian comic Shappi Khorsandi's new stand-up show or been shocked by verbatim theatre starring Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes, Richard E Grant and Gillian Anderson. Hay, then, isn't just about sitting in tents listening to authors talk about how they work. And while the theatre was at times hard going (unsurprisingly - it was about torture in Guantanamo) it made a powerful point: that simple words spoken from a page without much embellishment can be as enlightening as the most in-depth documentary.
Which, in the end, is what Hay comes down to; the power of the word. As festivalgoers headed back into the chocolate-box beauty of the nearby town of Hay-on-Wye (twinned, brilliantly, with Timbuktu) one last time, heated discussions about Mexico's drug cartels, the World Wildlife Fund and Bob Geldof's band drifted into the cool mountain air of the Brecon Beacons. Just one more day in the life of this brilliantly thought-provoking and spectacularly enjoyable festival.
www.hayfestival.org. The biennial festival in Lebanon returns in 2012.