Beirut, April 18. It's 6:00 a.m. in the Riviera Hotel off the Corniche in Beirut and the café is buzzing with conversation. The Saudi Arabian novelist Abdullah Thabit, the Iraqi poet Bassim al Ansar and the Egyptian novelist Hamdy el Gazzar have been up all night, talking. It's been like this for all four nights of Beirut39, an unprecedented gathering of 39 young writers from all over the Arab world.
The festival is the last event of Beirut's year as the World City of Books and it has created a talking-shop for writers of very different cultures and literatures. Throughout the city people are carrying the newly-released anthology, Beirut39, which appears in Arabic and English and represents each of these writers--many translated into English for the first time--providing a snapshot of a new, young Arabic literature. In a tight program of 50 events, the writers discussed issues ranging from "literature and taboos" to "the language of men and women" before audiences from throughout the Arab world. People came to support the festival from as far abroad as Colombia and California and translators came from Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, France and Britain. It is a landmark event for modern Arabic writing and is expected to lead to a new wave of translations of these new voices, many of whom are well-known in the Arab world but have been inaccessible to western audiences until this week.
In one event, the gay Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia spoke to a class of 20 Shiite schoolgirls. "This was the best event for me," he said, "Their questions were so urgent and so important and I really felt I could connect with a community I never normally get to speak to." As the hour-long session drew to an end, Abdellah brought up the duty of writers to confront taboos in Islamic society -- politics, sex and religion. A wave passed through the girls and they leaned forward and began to talk. When the teacher tried to hurry her students off, one girl turned to the teacher and said, "Stop. This is important for us."
"What is thrilling to me is that, coming from so many Arab countries, many with oppressive governments, we discovered that we all have this in common: to get rid of clichés, to abandon ideologies, to write from a universal point of view," said the Lebanese novelist Hyam Yared. She was aware that Lebanon was more liberal than some of the other Arab countries represented, but said: "The illusion of freedom is worse than a lack of freedom because it makes you forget what you are fighting for."
"Beirut39" is a project of the Wales-based Hay Festival, with the goal of identifying and exposing a new generation of Arab writers to a worldwide audience. These 39 writers were chosen last fall by an independent panel of judges from over 480 nominations worldwide. Future Hay Festivals will present these writers to audiences from Hay-on-Wye to Cartagena in the coming years. The writers have been offered residencies in artist residency programs from Montana to California to Louisiana, as well as Italy and France, through a partnership with the American-based Alliance of Artists Communities. Bloomsbury's Beirut39 anthology was released this week simultaneously in Beirut and London and will be published in the U.S. in June.
"This Festival is just the beginning. The legacy of the project through the many future events already planned, the Beirut39 anthology and forthcoming translations, will ensure that these great voices are heard internationally," said Festival Director Cristina Fuentes La Roche.
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