Festival appearances underscore growing appetite for Arab fiction

Appearance of three Beirut39 contributors at the Manchester Literature Festival underscores the success of the literary project and a growing international appetite for Arab fiction.

It's a cold autumnal evening in Manchester. Inside the city's imposing Town Hall, ancient portraits of Victorian dignitaries peer down on the proceedings. It feels a long, long way from Beirut - but as three Arab writers read from their work and swap stories about the perils of translation and writing in their native language, the distance melts away.

In fact, despite the bleak weather and austere surroundings, the mood is positively celebratory. Abdelkader Benali, Ala Hlehel and Yassin Adnan are here for the latest Beirut 39 event, the project which began as a joint-initiative between the Hay Festival in the UK and the Beirut World Capital of the Book 2009. The idea was to "identify and highlight contemporary literary movements among Arab youth", as the judge Abdo Wazen put it. And the interest in the venture - 450 entries from across the Arab world and diaspora were whittled down to just 39 writers born in 1970 or later - has been impressive ever since. In April this year, the four-day Beirut 39 Festival attracted global attention, not least because it coincided with the launch of an anthology (published by Bloomsbury in both English and Arabic) featuring the chosen writers' work.

So, six months later, a Beirut 39 event at Manchester Literature Festival proves the project didn't just end with the book. It's a significant moment when one of the authors, the Moroccan writer Yassin Adnan, admits he has never read in Britain before. His appearance in Beirut 39 has opened up a whole new world for him.

"Although it was quite a challenge to read the English version of my story!" he laughs afterwards. "I was looking at the words thinking, 'What are they in Arabic!' Seriously, though, I can personally measure the success and importance of Beirut 39 quite easily. Somebody has come up to me, just now, saying he was really interested in translating my novel into French and publishing it."

Unfortunately, there was a slight problem with the proposal. Adnan doesn't write novels.

"I'm a poet, really, who writes short stories - two of which were published in Beirut 39," he smiles. "But his offer does illustrate two things: what opportunities there are when you're under this Beirut 39 umbrella, and the huge desire for new Arab novels. I just wish I wrote them myself!"

Abdelkader Benali, however, does. He's had four novels published, in fact, two of which have won awards for the perceptive way in which they discuss social and religious traditions within the framework of entertaining, thoughtful fiction. But it was the country in which his books shot to prominence that epitomises how wide Beirut 39 cast the net. Benali was born in Morocco but his parents moved to the Netherlands when he was four. He now lives in Amsterdam and writes in Dutch - presumably not a language Beirut 39's translators thought they would have to contend with when the project began. Nevertheless, his darkly comic story - about a young boy bullied at school - is one of the stand-out entries in the collection and has undoubtedly increased his international profile.

"I have had some of my novels translated into English before, but this inclusion in Beirut 39 has definitely meant I've become better known in the Anglo-Saxon world," he says. "Obviously, I can't completely speak for the Arab writers actually living in the Arab world, but I think we all feel that the anthology has been important in getting visibility in Europe and the Americas - which is naturally where there are big audiences. It almost feels like Beirut 39 is shining a light on something that has been in the shadows for too long."

To prove Benali's point, we are interrupted by an audience member who has stayed behind to ask which of his books are available in English. After enjoying his submission to Beirut 39, which is titled "from the novel The Trip To The Slaughterhouse", I'm similarly intrigued to learn where he's up to with that story. "I'm not up to anywhere" he says, somewhat sheepishly. "I just put that on the top to make it sound intriguing, and entice someone to pay me to write the rest of it!" Proof that cunning marketing ruses aren't the preserve of the big publishing houses.

In the meantime, we'll have to hope his new book, Zandloper, in which a fictitious version of Benali joins a group of Moroccan distance runners in an attempt to find the meaning of life, is translated into English - or Arabic. Zandloper is an intriguing novel if only because it's clear that Benali is wrestling with the same issues and problems that every Arab writer faces in the West - that everything they produce is picked over for its social and anthropological subtexts. "Trying to write outside of someone else's agenda is becoming increasingly difficult," he says.

And that idea - of not conforming to expectations - permeates the Palestinian writer Ala Hlehel's work, too. His story in Beirut 39 depicts a Palestinian dealing with the difficulties and often farcical nature of life in that region, but from the perspective of someone actually living in Israel. This is Hlehel's life too, and he believes the inclusion of the story isn't just an opportunity for his work to be more widely read.

"It's more than that for me. It's about acceptance. For a long period of time, to be an Israeli-Palestinian, to have an Israeli passport, was seen by some as almost a traitorous act. So to be a part of this was a huge step for me, to be included in Arab literature and language at last."

And as Hlehel ventures out into the dark Manchester night, he has one final thought which, perhaps, sums up just what a success Beirut 39 has been.

"You know, just highlighting these 39 people as the future of Arab literature is very interesting because it's not in our culture to do such a thing. We are embarrassed by these things; we worry that it's not nice to pick some people and leave others out. But it's meant there are writers who have travelled abroad for the first time, been translated for the first time. This is the first chance for many of them, even though they were already good or sometimes brilliant writers. And I think it proves there's an enormous amount of extraordinary writing from the Arab world."

Beirut 39 is out now in English and Arabic. www.hayfestival.com/beirut39