A world of promise

The Hay Festival project Beirut39 seeks to celebrate and promote young Arab literary talent.

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At the London Book Fair two years ago, Arab literature took centre stage. It was the subject of lectures, debates and interactive sessions with authors and publishers. Despite its prevalence over the course of the week, however, we learnt that Arab literature hadn't made significant inroads into the West. Factors ranging from censorship to an under-developed publishing infrastructure and a paucity of translators were contributing to its status as a largely untapped literary market.

Two years on, and progress is being made. There is an increasing literary awareness within the region and a growing international interest. A number of prestigious awards are being offered to stimulate reading and translation in the Arab world. We have an "Arab Booker" prize, publishing houses including Penguin and Bloomsbury are expanding into the Gulf and authors such as Alaa el Aswany are becoming household names: all paying testament to the serious drive to place Arabic texts alongside writing from more heavily marketed parts of the world on western bookshelves.

Beirut39, a Hay Festival project that aims to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40 as part of the Beirut World Capital festivities 2009/10, is a forerunner in promoting this literature on a global stage. The Hay Festival's interest in Arab literature is linked in no small part to the obvious potential of this emerging market. "The statistics speak for themselves," says Bachar Chebaro, the owner of Arab Scientific Publishers and the secretary general of the Arab Publishers Association. "Twenty-four Arab countries, a population of 340 million and 422 million Arabic speakers living outside of the region." In the current economic climate, western publishers are increasingly tempted by this huge potential readership and the world's largest festival of books has taken note.

Hay, now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution. In May, more than 100,000 people braved the rain to head to the sleepy book town on the Welsh border. The festival has hosted ex-presidents, rock stars and Booker prize winners and has extended its global reach in recent years to include offshoots in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, Segovia and Alhambra in Spain and Nairobi, Kenya. Beirut39 follows Bogotá39, which launched in the Colombian city in 2007 and identified many of the most promising rising Latin American talents, including Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Wendy Guerra, Andrés Newman and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

In the past, Arabic texts translated have generally been those produced by established writers. Important new literary awards have increased the profile of Arabic literature in the Arab world and worldwide, but the writers who have benefited have for the most part already enjoyed long careers. In recognition of the fact that the difficulties facing emerging Arab writers are particularly acute, Beirut39 set out to identify writers at the start of their careers struggling to find a wider audience. First or second-generation Arab authors born after 1970 with at least one published work of fiction or poetry were eligible for inclusion and nominations were solicited from publishers and literary critics across the Arab world and internationally. Members of the public were invited to nominate writers online and - controversially - authors could nominate themselves.

Around 500 young authors from across the Arab world as well as the Arab diaspora in Europe and America submitted their works. The vast majority of these texts were written in Arabic. "England has always struggled to get interested in any literature not written in English," says Cristina Fuentes La Roche, the Hay Festival project director. "They translate less literature than other countries in Europe. At the moment there are some terrific Arab authors succeeding in the western world, but they all write in English or in French. This project will give Arabic writers a real boost," she says.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, the entrants were whittled down to the final 39. Members of the committee, headed by the Egyptian literary critic Gaber Asfour, and including the Lebanese novelist Alawiya Sobh, the Omani poet Saif Al Rahbi and the Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, focused on the degree of potential shown by the authors. The winners include the Saudi-born Abdullah Thabit, the Moroccans Abdelaziz Errachidi, Yassin Adnan, Abdelkader Benali and Abderrahim Elkhassar, Lebanon's Hala Kawtharani, the Egyptoian Youssef Rakha, the Palestinian Adania Shibli and the Iraqi Ahmad Saadawi. Faiza Guene, a young French-Algerian writer whose first novel was published at the age of 19, is on the list, as is the award-winning short-story writer, novelist and translator Randa Jarrar. Her first novel, A Map of Home, was released to critical acclaim in six languages, and won the Hopwood Award, the Gosling Prize and the Arab American Book Award. The Iraqi poet and playwright Bassim Al Ansar was also shortlisted. In 1999, Ansar started a contemporary literature magazine in Denmark, his current home, and has had several books of poetry published.

The 39 authors will travel to Beirut in April for four days of literary talks, debates and recitals. Libraries, bookshops, cafes and universities will welcome visitors to discuss the issues at the heart of Arab contemporary fiction. The festival hopes to attract a diverse audience, reflecting the power of writing to stimulate social cohesion and cultural understanding. To mark the occasion, Bloomsbury will publish Beirut39, an anthology of fiction and poetry by the selected authors with an introduction by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. The book will be published in English and Arabic in the UK, the US and the Arab world.

"This is one of the most exciting projects Bloomsbury has undertaken in recent years and is entirely in keeping with its commitment to the best writing from all over the world," says Bill Swainson, the senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury London. "We are hugely appreciative of the judges' careful work in considering submissions and delighted with the scope, energy and quality of their final selection."

The backing of the publishing house is a boost to the project and will facilitate the sharing of literature around the globe. For the author and former National staffer Rakha, however, the problem of engagement is about understanding and appreciation as well as infrastructure. "Pessimistically, I think perhaps westerners are not as interested in the contemporary Arab world as we like to think they are, and when something is written in a language so different from French or Spanish and published by a small house with no contacts on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is no reason to expect publishers or readers who might feel culturally superior to pay attention to it," he says.

"The irony, of course, is that a lot of Arabic writing could actually be very relevant and engaging to westerners at the basic, human, universal level - if only they had the means and inclination to read it. Should the resources become available to translate and publicise the right books in the right contexts, which I feel they increasingly are, I think we can expect the situation to improve. But the most encouraging development is that many Arab publishers are increasingly aware of the global publishing industry and working hard to reach out."