Toronto International Festival of Authors returns with inaugural Arabic programme

11-day event will host some of the world’s most prominent writers including Mazen Maalouf and Kamel Riahi

The Toronto International Festival of Authors 2023 begins on Thursday. Photo: TIFA
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On Thursday, the 44th Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) will open its doors to the public, bringing 168 authors and creatives from Canada and around the world to the city’s Harbourfront Centre.

Under the theme Where Imagination Takes Flight, the 11-day event will host some of the world’s most prominent writers including Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author Richard Ford, Man Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright, celebrated writer Alberto Manguel, Oscar-winning director of Women Talking Sarah Polley, The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood who will participate in a performance reading alongside actor Jesse Eisenberg, and many others.

The prestigious event will bring together authors and academics to discuss significant issues such as the future of AI, its threats and potential; food culture and how it relates to cultural heritage and self-expression; the fascination with the world’s oceans and the urgent action needed on climate change.

Besides its aim to keep the conversations relevant to contemporary times, the festival is also taking real steps to expand its reach to include more non-English speaking authors and readers – something the organisers say they were able to explore further thanks to two online editions during the pandemic years.

In 2020 and 2021, TIFA was able to present, through digital editions, both Canadian and international writers in their own languages, with audiences of diverse backgrounds tuning in from Canada and globally, aided by live captions. Last year, for instance, the festival invited Bengali writers, who are coming back for this year’s event. “I think one of the very important roles of what we do as a festival is represent and celebrate those stories and languages,” Roland Gulliver, director of TIFA, tells The National.

Now for the first time, TIFA will have a dedicated Arabic programme featuring three conversations with six authors: Tunisian writers Kamel Riahi and Mohamed Khelifi, Egyptian-Canadian novelist May Telmissany, Palestinian-Icelandic Mazen Maalouf, Egyptian writer and academic Waleed Al Khachab and Syrian poet Jackleen Hanna.

Developed in collaboration with Riahi, the programme will have these authors take the stage on Saturday to discuss the festival’s theme of taking flight, in the context of democracy, what it means to be a writer away from your home country and how you can participate in shaping the idea of democracy when you’re not there.

“Taking flight is a very, very powerful idea in terms of your own personal safety and having to flee for your own security … and the things that some people have to do to find a place to feel safe and secure and have that freedom of expression,” Gulliver says.

Riahi’s conversation with Telmissany will discuss the reality of Arabic writing in exile today, while Al Khachab and Hanna will come together for a discussion and some Arabic poetry reading. Maalouf and Khelifi will talk about how immigration can impact a writer’s style and even imagination.

Hani Yakan, an events coordinator at TIFA – who is among the team behind the development of the programme – says the talks will feature live translation. “These events will be interpreted… [The festival] is catering to the Arabic communities here [in Toronto] that are thriving now,” he says.

However, outside of these curated talking series, other noteworthy Arab authors are also participating this year. Sudanese-Scottish writer Leila Abulela will take part in a reading from the Toronto Public Library Sanctuary collection, which will be installed at TIFA and will include books that have been banned, censored and challenged from a public library or school in North America.

Palestinian-Canadian writer Saeed Teebi will give a creative writing masterclass, while Lebanese graphic novelist Joseph Kai will discuss his latest book Restless. Christine Estima, an author of Lebanese, Syrian and Portuguese heritage, and who has written The Syrian Ladies Benevolent Society will also talk about her latest work.

To conclude this special Arabic programme, a musical show from the Canadian Arabic Orchestra will have its TIFA debut featuring classical Middle Eastern music under the direction of composer and orchestra co-founder Lamees Audeh. The performance will include pianist Elliot Sarkis, Oud player and composer Manar Naeem and percussionist Kareem El-Tyeb.

The impact of this effort translates to a festival that is more representative of the multicultural city where it takes place. A five-metre high swing set called The Swings – a part-performance, part-installation attraction of TIFA inspired by its theme – will sit within the festival’s outdoor space.

Gulliver hopes it will serve as a reminder to authors and readers, of all backgrounds and languages, to celebrate the joy of books, “both when a writer creates a story, but also when you pick up a book and read.”

The Toronto International Festival of Authors runs from September 21 to October 1. More information at

Updated: September 21, 2023, 3:02 AM