That wealthy and powerful individuals are treated differently than ordinary people, never mind their literary talents, is a longstanding practice and policy. Yet, many of the 15 Arab women poets invited last March by the Arab World Institute to attend the Fifth Festival of Arab-French Poetry in Paris were surprised when they were not treated equally or given the same attention bestowed upon the wealthy Kuwaiti poet and publisher, Souad al-Sabah. While this treatment is hardly characteristic of any specific culture, Arab or French, it ignited a controversy initiated by both participant Arab women poets and by press reports.
From March 11 to March 14, 2004, women from the Arab world and France convened for a four-day festival of Arabic and French poetry in Paris. The “Fifth Festival of Arab and French Poetry” was hosted by the Arab World Institute in Paris . This organization is funded by French and Arab sources to further cultural exchanges between France and the Arab world. The Institute holds an annual celebration each March to bring poets together.
The festival was a conclave to read poetry, deliver papers, and discuss Arab and French women poets. It was also an especially appropriate time for honoring the recently deceased “poet of Palestine,” Fadwa Tuqan, who died in December, 2003 (See Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 45).
To the surprise of the participant Arab women poets, Tuqan's homage was secondary to that honoring Kuwaiti poet Souad al-Sabah. Many of the poets present complained that the homage to Tuqan was skimpy and poorly prepared, with only one hour devoted to her, while al-Sabah was given an entire evening.
The 15 Arab women who arrived in Paris were surprised to learn, upon reading the festival's program, that the festival was “under the patronage” of al-Sabah. None of the Arab poets invited to the festival had been notified of al-Sabah's sponsorship. Many were prepared to protest, stating that they may not have participated in the event had they known about al-Sabah's sponsorship. Zalikha abou Richa wrote an article in protest of the event, which was followed by press reports which questioned the motives behind the Arab World Institute in Paris and the festival.
Souad al-Sabah is a wealthy poet from the ruling family in Kuwait . She owns a publishing house, Dar Suad al-Sabah, with branches in both Cairo and Kuwait. She is known for her patriotic poems, some of which have been set to music.
The festival featured 15 Arab poets and five French poets, all women. The Arab poets invited were Souad al-Sabah, Zalikha abou Richa, Bisan abu Khaled, Nujoom Alghanem, Aisha Arnaout, Malika Assimi, Safaa Fathy, Joumana Haddad, Ashjan Hendi, Najma Idrees, Hala Mohammed, Necera Mohammedi, Amel Moussa, Fatima Naout, and Nabila Zebari. The festival was intended to examine the condition of women's poetry in the Arab world.
The festival's first two evenings were dedicated to the “femmes flambeaux” or “women torches,” as the program called them, al-Sabah and Tuqan. The first evening, in honor of al-Sabah, was widely attended. According to Abduh Wazen in Al Hayat, the institute's director, Nasser al-Ansari, bestowed laudatory praise upon al-Sabah that evening. Al-Ansari also made the comment that similar programs of the institute may be in jeopardy because of financial difficulties.
Wide speculation believes that al-Sabah contributed money to the festival and that this was the reason so much attention and praise were showered upon her. While this is not a known fact, Bashir al-Bakr suggests in As Safir that the festival's organizers were hoping that al-Sabah would contribute to future festivals.
Among those attending al-Sabah's homage were Arab diplomats and prominent officials of the hosting institute. She was introduced by Samir Sirhan, the head of the prestigious Egyptian Committee of the Book, who came to the event in a wheelchair from a Paris hospital.
On the second evening, the event honoring Fadwa Tuqan was a considerably smaller affair, lasting no more than an hour, and lacking both an Arab diplomatic presence and any of the hosting institute's prominent officials, according to Abou Richa. According to Abduh Wazen in Al Hayat, Tuqan was honored silently, without books or booklets, and the whole event lacked the sense of a sincere gesture. The poor attendance was attributed to minimal advertising and promotions by the institute.
Angered by the festival's focus on al-Sabah at the expense of Tuqan, and other allegedly negligent details of the festival, the Arab poets appointed Zalikha abou Richa to speak for them in an article in Al Hayat, which appeared March 23, 2004.
Citing the “shameful” actions of the Arab World Institute's administration, Abou Richa wrote that “the institute, or to be specific, its management, had no interest in poetry, or women's rights, or honoring a dead poet. All they were concerned with was funding.”
Abou Richa also listed other administrative shortcomings during the festival, such as the fact that no one met and greeted the Arab poets or entertained them during the festival. The institute planned their quick departure, so they were not invited to participate in the events associated with the French poets at the festival. A Libyan “surprise” poet, Radinal al-Falali, was invited to present her poetry, although her name was not listed in the event's program book. By many accounts, her poetry was lacking professionally, thus demeaning the work of the more accomplished poets present. The institute was also criticized for failing to acknowledge some countries, while deliberately excluding others. For example, two poets from Syria were present, but none from Iraq. “There were no representatives of Iraq. What explains this absence?” asked Abou Richa.
“We thought of boycotting the festival and declining to read poetry, but we were afraid that if we did this, it would harm the memory of Fadwa, just as the institute did by marginalizing her and making her homage secondary to its other considerations,” Abou Richa continued.
Nonetheless, Abou Richa was clear that the Arab poets present did not oppose al-Sabah or her poetry, and did not oppose the institute's desire to be financially sound. The institute's goals are a service to Arab culture in the West, Abou Richa stated; however, the poets had not expected al-Sabah's sponsorship of the program, nor the precedence she would take over Tuqan: “This is unprecedented for the institute, to try and crown one poet over the kingdom of woman's poetry. This has never happened in Arab culture before.”
Bashir al-Bakr upheld these assertions in a March 24 article in As Safir, writing that finances should have been irrelevant in the event. “Whether she [al-Sabah] donated money to the event or not, honoring her is out of context. The occasion of the poetry festival was to honor Tuqan.”
However, Lebanese poet Inayeh Jabber, who did not attend the festival, responded to the events in As Safir newspaper following Abou Richa's article. Jabber suggested that honoring Tuqan should not rest solely on the shoulders of the Arab World Institute in Paris. “Maybe the Arab women poets should have done it on their own,” she wrote. The poets “should have done it outside the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, honoring Tuqan through simple things such as reading her works even in a café, or in someone's home, or on the sidewalk.”
This essay appears in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, nos. 46/47 (Winter/Spring 2004)
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid