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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 October, 2004, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Arab writers steal the show
By Ray Furlong
BBC Berlin correspondent

This year's Frankfurt Book Fair has opened its doors to Arab writers by inviting writers from Middle East countries to the annual literary festival.

Frankfurt Book Fair
Arab women writers are getting a warmer reception at home
"I write about women, and about sexual relationships between men and women," says Palestinian feminist novelist Sahar Khalifa.

"At first, back in the 1980s, my work was attacked by the Leftists. But now the Palestinian's women's movement is stronger - those who called me a chauvinist and a man-hater have retreated."

Ms Khalita is one of more than 200 Arab writers who have come to this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, the publishing world's biggest annual event, to show the rich variety of Arab writing.

This year the fair has invited the Arab League to be its special guest, with the stated aim of improving mutual understanding between East and West.

'Mutual ignorance'

"There's incredible mutual ignorance between Europe and the Arab world," says fair spokesman Holger Ehling. "There are hardly any Arab books translated into European languages, and hardly any European ones into Arabic."

The statistics back this up. Here in Germany, for instance, there are less than 500 works of fiction by Arab authors in print - 0.3% of the total available.

In English-speaking countries there's more, but it tends to be produced by specialist publishers - so it doesn't reach a wider audience.

"Part of the problem is that European publishers have a preconception of what Arab literature is. If I present a book that doesn't fit the prejudice, they reject it," says German-Lebanese literary agent Leila Chamaa.

Frankfurt Book Fair
The Iraq war has spurred interest in Arab writing
"They're interested in books from Palestinian or Iraqi women writers, because they have the idea that Arab men repress women. But if I present a book that gives another picture, they don't take it."

The publicity created by the Frankfurt fair may have helped change this already. Some 50 titles have been translated into Germany this year, compared to between 12-15 in previous years.

'Bad news'

The "war on terror" and Iraq crisis have also spurred interest in Arab literature in other countries. But there is concern this is also providing the outside world with a skewed vision of Arab societies.

"Since the Arab world is bad news all over Europe, I believe it is important that people here read what Arab writers have to say about their own countries," says Peter Ripken, a tireless promoter of Arab writing.

Mr Ripken is head of the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature - funded by the German foreign ministry and the Swiss foundation Pro Helvetia.

It has financed 114 translations of Arab works since being founded in 1984.

"There is censorship in the Arab world, but it has not stopped writers doing their work," says Ripken. "Many of the best have gone into exile - in Paris, London or Germany. There are even some who are now writing in Dutch."


This underlines the other side of the coin - the oppression faced by writers in Arab countries.

In Washington, the Bush administration has pointed to this, along with literacy problems and an under-developed publishing industry, as major factors preventing democracy from taking root in the Middle East.

Frankfurt Book Fair
The Arab League has been invited to bring East and West closer
"Around 60% of people only read religious literature or Islamist propaganda. Only about 15% read books like mine," says Palestinian writer Sahra Khalita.

But she adds that no two countries are alike. Her books are banned in Saudi Arabia, she says, but freely available where she lives in Jordan.

"Also, the Americans are only saying this to give themselves credibility for the invasion of Iraq - and perhaps for invasions of other Arab states," Khalita says.

The decision to make the Arab League the guest nation at this year's fair was controversial. There were fears that only pro-regime authors would come, and that the fair would be a platform for undemocratic states.

But these have largely disappeared, as critical voices have also come.

"This lays the Arab regimes bare, because it uncovers their weak-point - they have nothing to show," says Rafik Schami, a German-based Syrian writer whose work has been translated into 23 languages - but is not available in Arabic.

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