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Remaindered in Frankfurt

I was invited to the book fair's 'festival of curiosity'; but it turned out to be more of a cultural confusion

Betool Khedairi
Friday October 29, 2004
The Guardian


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 future.

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 diplomatically conceded.

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 and don'ts.

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."

  • Betool Khedairi was born to an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother; she is the author of two novels, A Sky So Close and Ghayeb (The Absent One)

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