I was invited to the book fair's
'festival of curiosity'; but it turned out to be more of a cultural
Friday October 29, 2004
I entered the Frankfurt book fair with a map of Iraq as a brooch on my
blouse. The spotlights dangling from the publishers' aisles were burning
into contract paper, glossy posters and visitors' faces. The scent of
smoky ink brought back memories of my late Scottish mother, a librarian
in Edinburgh in the 1950s. She invited me to become a writer, and the
Arab League invited the writer to Frankfurt.
She took care of hundreds of books: dusted, archived,
and cherished them, but she would never keep them at home. In Baghdad,
she would proudly arrange her collection of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, but she would never display novels on her shelves. Her
philosophy was: "Novels should be circulated among readers. We have to
let go of them, to allow the stories to spread." Holding that thought, I
searched for fellow novelists.
The opening ceremony highlighted the importance of
building a bridge between east and west. The speakers took turns: the
German chancellor, the lady mayor of Frankfurt, the secretary general of
the Arab League, the chief of the union of German publishers, and a
representative of Naquib Mahfouz, the Nobel prize winner.
First Lady Mubarak did not give a speech. Instead,
she had a poster in the Egyptian pavilion with her photo stating:
"Reading is for all". It was claimed that 1,000 writers, novelists and
thinktanks would be there, 300 of them from the Arab world.
The event was referred to as a festival of curiosity;
meeting the unknown; the alien; the foreign; the exotic; poverty and
crisis; it ended with the key words, the third world. Opinions varied:
"Islam is generalised"; "it is not about a clash of cultures, it is
about fighting terrorism"; "the question is not about who was right, we
are now responsible for stability and democracy"; "all that happens in
the world is due to the written word". The brief mention of the issue of
Palestine sounded like history, and the issue of Iraq sounded like the
With fresh sunflowers in the
background, the speakers engaged in botanical terminology. "A book is
like a garden you carry in your pocket"; "we want to smell the roses of
your garden"; "flowers of light"; and "fruits of culture". Entwined in
the Laura Ashley exchange, the Arabs insisted they were the source of
knowledge since the dawn of civilisation, a fact the Germans
I sensed a subtext: "Hey, west,
let's settle the account. You acquired our sciences: now you have the
technology. We write about our miseries: now you can help us publish
them - and maybe make some money."
I learned to sense subtexts when
I was little. I was my mother's translator. It was my duty to explain to
her what was meant in the language of my father's people. Thus I learned
the art of simplification. It is interesting what one picks up amidst
the differences in cultures. From my parents' disputes I learned the dos
In this cultural gathering, I
tried to remember not to use the word orientalist in the presence of
researchers into Arabic culture; nor to use the term Arabist in the
presence of Palestinians. Meanwhile, Iraqis thrived on the term
occupation, and a bunch of Israelis who were not happy demonstrated
outside the fair against the guest of "honour".
I liked the expression of a
German official who labelled the event "the city of intellectual
wrestling". I particularly salute its unknown soldiers, the translators.
I followed their miraculous input in a very short time, nearly breaking
down with exhaustion as they translated the Arab works into German, with
great care. They are the true bridge builders.
Throughout the symposia I felt
too much emphasis was put on questions like: Who are we? Who are they?
Who does the novel belong to? What do you consider your home? And the
issue of double identities. The theme repeated itself to the extent that
when someone asked me, "So where do you live?", I decided to adopt my
global attitude: "In my head, and when I want to talk, I open my mouth
to let myself out."
During an overwhelming four days
of self-promotion, I was surprised by my Iraqi compatriot's choice of
reading. It was a short story about a crime of honour in which the male
catches his female partner messing around with another man. A shotgun
shows up in the scene, bang, and the lady is dripping with blood in bed!
Then I tried to detach myself by
attending Arabic musical performances. Sheherazade was a good idea, but
Rimsky-Korsakov - not original Arabic compositions - was thrown at the
western public, along with an exaggerated sketch of the evil dancer
chopping off the heads of 10 female dolls with an Arabian dagger!
Low on energy, I bumped into
Khalil Shawki, a veteran Iraqi actor in his late 80s. I said: "I'm not
sure that my writing will contribute to changing the world, as expected
by all these speeches." He replied: "It's up to you how you use your
pen. The human being is like steam: he can move a train or limit himself
to a boiling kettle."
Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003