The London Book Fair is busily unfolding this week, with the “Arab world” as its guest of honour—as Boyd Tonkin explained in the Independent this morning. Is the Arab world ready for a literary revolution? he asks. Yes, probably, maybe, he answers.
The west is certainly ready for the Arab world to be ready. Among other things, the book fair sees the launch of PEN’s admirable World Atlas, a reader-generated global resource linking writers and readers which will focus for its first year on writers of Arab origin; the book fair will also feature the prominent presence of Kalima, a not-for-profit initiative (which we’ve written briefly about before) dedicated to bringing great texts in translation to Arab readers. But formidable internal obstacles remain. According to the UN’s 2004 Arab human development report, the Arab world still has the second lowest adult literacy rate in the world (after sub-Saharan Africa), at just 63 per cent, while both freedom of expression and gender equality for its citizens are severely limited by western standards. Not to mention that many Arab writers now winning international recognition would prefer to be read as individual artists rather than as cultural ambassadors.
Culture is no panacea—and, I’d argue, more a beneficiary than an engine of political change—but, at least on our side of the great divide, the study and translation of Arabic are booming as never before (a 2007 study by the Modern Language Association of America found Arabic has entered into the top 10 languages taught in post-secondary institutions for the first time in US history). Change is being geared up for at a considerable rate. Best to be careful, then, that the creditable energy being poured into this doesn’t prove too successful at creating an international Arab-lit expressly designed to serve the growing desire of students and publishers for middle eastern encounters.
To take a related (non-Arabic) example, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a powerful and important recent novel, but its author hasn’t lived in Afghanistan since his family moved to Paris when he was eleven. Reportage from a war zone it isn’t; and the vast international success of this title shouldn’t be taken as evidence of the sudden emergence of an authentic Afghan literature or literary culture. This in no way damages The Kite Runner‘s claims to literary or historical truth, but we should remember there are different kinds of that much-sought-after…