x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Talking books

A recent panel discussion at New York City's Public Library put Arab publishing in the spotlight.

The Girls of Riyadh, the 2008 "chick lit" novel by Rajaa Alsanea, was discussed by the New York panel.
The Girls of Riyadh, the 2008 "chick lit" novel by Rajaa Alsanea, was discussed by the New York panel.

In a recent panel discussion at the New York Public Library, prominent writers from America and the Middle East made the case for the "soft power" of literature. The discussion, titled New Eyes on the Arab World: Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice, was held last week in the auditorium of New York City's Public Library in conjunction with BookExpo America. BookExpo America is the largest annual publishing convention in the US, bringing together authors, publishers and booksellers from around the country. This year's conference included a Global Market Forum focusing on the books and publishing industries in Arab countries.

New Eyes on the Arab World is just one of the events marking the growing interest in the artistic developments of the contemporary Islamic and Arab worlds. This trend, currently working its way through American culture capitals such as New York City and Washington, DC, reflects the change of guard in the White House and a more open diplomatic environment. The panel consisted of four writers including the Saudi Arabian author Raja Alem and her collaborator Tom McDonough, the graphic novelist Joe Sacco and the author-translator Peter Theroux. They were moderated by Dr Sulaiman al Hattlan, the CEO of the Arab Strategy Forum, which is part of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF), also the evening's sponsor. Al Hattlan asked the speakers to elaborate on the role of literature in bridging cultural chasms between East and West.

"I think literature or translation is an answer to this mistrust in the world," said Alem, who is best known to English-speaking audiences for her books Fatima and My 1001 Nights: a Novel of Mecca. "I believe in art and literature as a way to open up to the world." Alem and others then bantered back and forth about the merits of translation and the problems they encountered trying to get Arab authors recognised in the US.

Too often, the panel agreed, the books from and about the Arab world that make it on to American bookshelves are focused on war or politics, since their topical nature cashes in on the Middle East's image in the news. Yet 2005's publishing sensation The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea, covered neither of these issues. Fun, frothy and almost cartoonishly feminine, Alsanea's book centred on a clique of wealthy young Saudi women looking for love and was quickly labelled as the Middle Eastern answer to western chick-lit such as Bridget Jones's Diary and Confessions of a Shopaholic.

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Arab authors of more profound works feel that enlightening the English-speaking public about Middle Eastern culture through "lite" lit such as The Girls of Riyadh is a dubious achievement. However, the real situation is more nuanced, and there is a great deal of generosity of spirit in Middle Eastern literary circles. "The new generation of writers [including Alsanea] is expressing their individuality and I see this as a positive sign," said Alem, whose books have dealt with deeper themes yet sold less well than Alsanea's. Though Alem admitted that it was disappointing, she doesn't hold any grudges. "The new generation is light but maybe will become more serious later. Maybe we need to be somewhere in the middle - but whatever speaks to us, we should take it."

Theroux, who is known for translating the work of the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, said he was familiar with The Girls of Riyadh and didn't understand the outpouring of negativity for it. "So [does that mean] young Arab women can't write for other young women in the rest of the world?" Theroux asked. "I think it's another voice and that's positive - it didn't reflect the Saudi Arabia that people expected to see."

Meanwhile, projects such as the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's Kalima and the MBRF's Tarjim initiatives are striving to translate hundreds of English-language books into Arabic. Likewise, contemporary Arabic-language novels like 2002's The Yacoubian Building garnered buzz in English-language markets, and Beirut was chosen as the World Book Capital City for 2009 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"There is a great humanity that is common in the work of great writers," said Theroux. "It's important to keep finding authors around the globe and publish, translate and promote them." Even the discussion itself was a step in the right direction, according to al Hattlan, who hosts a current events television programme broadcast on Saudi Arabia's Al Hurra TV as well as helming the Arab Strategy Forum.

"This is part of the work the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation is doing now to create more communication to better understand the world," said al Hattlan. "There's a long way to go, of course, but we need to talk as much as possible."