Kennedy Center Festival Underscores Growing Interest in Arab Literature

Andrea Shalal-Esa

Literature had a starring role at the Kennedy Center’s three-week festival of Arab arts and culture from February 23 - March 15, drawing dozens of noted writers and literary critics from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and other Arab countries, as well as the United States. Eight panels on varying topics and five performances were largely at full capacity, underscoring what many writers described as growing interest in their work.

The panels discussed issues including the state of publishing and reading in the Arab world, the growing impact of Arab writers in exile, the nuances of capturing voices of the opposite gender, and the importance of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Topics such as the politics of reception, stereotypes, censorship, problems with translations, and the mysterious forces that make some books bestsellers while others languish, also ignited debate and discussion over the seven days of the literary series.

The series became essentially a gathering of friends, some old, some new, many of whom remain deeply concerned about violence, death and destruction in their home or native countries. Some said they were guardedly optimistic that the recent change in government in the United States would lead to increased dialogue – and less war. Others remained skeptical.

“Of course, I believe poets more than politicians,” said Hayan Charara, a Detroit-born poet and anthologist who is currently living in Texas, while speaking on a panel about Arab-American writers. Charara, who recently won a coveted National Endowment for the Arts award, said the sheer stature of the writers participating in the festival was a huge draw for him, noting that he had long read the work of Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim but never dreamed he would someday meet him in person.

Ibrahim was one of many participants in the literary series, which brought together a veritable “Who’s Who” of Arab letters, including Egyptian-British writer Ahdaf Soueif, Moroccan poet Mohammed Bennis, Hoda Barakat from Lebanon, and Gamal al-Ghitany of Egypt, to name just a few.

One of the younger writers present, Adania Shibli, is a Palestinian novelist who is currently completing a Ph.D. in London. Shibli said her generation yearned for the sense of purpose that inspired earlier writers like Mahmoud Darwish, but felt sorely absent today. “The other generation has a hope. Now we know there is hope, but not for us,” Shibli told a panel that explored the challenge of addressing current political and social concerns. Shibli described writing as “the most silent job in the world.”

Radwa Ashour, an Egyptian writer and academic who has published seven novels, an autobiographical work, short stories and four books of literary criticism, noted that writers had pursued different approaches – some more experimental, some more focused on reality – through the ages. “Literature is a historical construct. It is an intervention. The mere fact that you write means you intervene in the world,” she said.

Many U.S.-based writers were also on hand, including Suheir Hammad, the Palestinian-American spoken-word poet who won fame for her role in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam; Elmaz Abinader, a Lebanese-American writer; Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American writer and blogger; and Nathalie Handal, who staged a multi-media evening including poetry, film and a short monologue about a woman storyteller.

Khaled Mattawa, a poet and professor at the University of Michigan who has also published two important anthologies of Arab-American writing, helped shape the literary series and moderated two panels. Speaking of the writers at the festival, most of whom are also members of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), Mattawa observed that they were “the closest thing to brothers and sisters I have.”

The literary series, which included an intimate “author’s dinner,” brought together many Arab and Arab-American writers at a time when the barriers between the two groups have finally begun to come down. Many of the older Arab writers were deeply impressed and inspired by the work being down by young Arab-American writers, Soueif said in an interview with Al Jadid.

Soueif described her excitement when she first came across Suheir Hammad. “There was this voice that was unmistakably Arab and unmistakably American too,” she said, also citing recent work by Charara, Handal and other bicultural writers.

Of course, earlier writers like Etel Adnan and Naomi Shihab Nye also played a huge role in laying the groundwork for the current flourishing of the Arab-American literary scene, Soueif added. “I think this generation wouldn’t have happened without the other one, but this generation is speaking to people now, and that’s very important.”

For many Arab writers, it was their first encounter with writers on this side of the Atlantic, and the challenge now was to continue to nurture that relationship, said Soueif.

“People like Radwa were just so taken with the Arab Americans – look at what these people are doing. It’s just fantastic. It’s really exciting,” she said.

Whereas earlier works focused heavily on questions of identity, many of the younger Arab-American writers are addressing larger issues and making their distinctive voices heard, said Elmaz Abinader. “There’s a different kind of agency,” she said. “What has to happen next is an evolution of larger bodies of literature.”

The Internet has clearly eased the ability of readers in Arab countries to “see” and experience Arab-American writers and performers. Conversely, U.S. publishers are responding to increasing interest and publishing more works that were originally written in Arabic in the United States.

But publisher Michel Moushabeck, founder and president of Interlink Books, told Al Jadid that selling Arab fiction was still an uphill climb in the difficult U.S. book market, especially now when even large chain bookstores are scaling back due to the economy.

Adila Laidi-Hanieh, a Palestinian critic, pointed out that the trend toward scaling back came against the backdrop of what she called an overall ghettoization of literary fiction.

Political forces and the ongoing U.S.-led war in Iraq also continue to cloud the horizon, writer Gamal Al-Ghitany observed at the dinner. He said Arabs would truly like to experience more American art and music across the stages of the Arab world, but they also wanted to stop seeing American soldiers.

Many complex issues complicate the exchange of arts between the American and Arab worlds, according to many of the speakers. Books that challenge societal taboos are eagerly scooped up by U.S. publishers and heavily marketed, while other deeper and more literary works still had trouble reaching audiences.

In other areas, censorship limits the discourse, said Saad al-Bazei, who teaches English and comparative literature in Riyadh. He cited the case of Ghazi Algosaibi, a former Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, who wrote a novel about young Saudi men who discover a new world of sexual and political freedom when they study abroad. The book, “An Apartment Called Freedom,” generated headlines when it was first published in Arabic, but remained banned in his own country until just two or three years ago, despite Algosaibi’s status as a member of the government, al-Bazei reported.

Just as stereotypes shape U.S. impressions of the Arab world, most Arabs have access to American pop culture and commercialism, but have little knowledge of more artistic endeavors. One recent study indicated reading was on the rise in many Arab countries, although the situation varied greatly from country to country. In any event, magazines, cookbooks and other popular titles are in far greater demand than poetry or fiction, said al-Bazei.

Poor translations also remain a concern. Translations from Arabic into English often suffer from poor writing, which renders the books inaccessible to American readers, Soueif noted. She said she is working to try to create a stable of superlative translators, possibly through workshops and other events.

Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet and translator of Darwish, acknowledged the difficulty of translating poetry during a panel that paid tribute to Darwish. Joudah, who won the 2008 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Darwish, said he tried to let the musicality of the poetry guide his work.

Despite his acclaim, Joudah said he would never claim to have authored the definitive translation of any one particular work. Even Darwish, he said, “believed in the multitude of the poems.”

Soueif, who helped shape the overall Kennedy Center festival, said heavy attendance at nearly every event on the schedule left no doubt about the demand for Arab arts and culture in the United States, but the challenge for Arab artists would be to keep the momentum going.

“In the last few decades there were vested interests in keeping the image of the Arab as irrational, fanatic, backward. Certainly not a singing, dancing, painting individual,” she said, calling the Kennedy Center festival “a great breakthrough.”

“It’s very clear that there is a market, if you like, that there are people who will respond. And there’s a lot of work that can be done. Now everyone needs to think about how they can contribute.”

Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for international programming, said the festival had proven far more successful than expected, with ticket sales at 90 percent for most performances, including the literary series, and even reaching 100 percent for the film series.

“There’s huge interest in this part of the world, and I think in the future you will see the door much more open, in terms of presenting at venues around the country,” Adams told Al Jadid. She said officials from many cultural venues and booking organizations attended the event and she expected to see more performances at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere in coming years.

Adams said the positive response from audiences and upbeat reviews were also heartening for many of the Arab artists who had grown wary of the United States in recent years. One artist told her that it was the first time he had felt comfortable when visiting the United States. “He said that this was a different America, one that was welcoming,” she said.

This report appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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