First Published: 2009-09-17

Arab-German dialogue through literature

Germany's 'International Literature Festival Berlin' to focus on books from Arab region.


Middle East Online

By Mohamed Massad - BONN, Germany

According to the head of the 'International Literary Festival Berlin', Ulrich Schreiber, this year's event–which began on 9 September–aims to be a milestone for literary communication between Europe and the Arab world.

The focus of this year's programme for the International Literature Festival Berlin is on the Arab region. What does the programme hold in store?

Ulrich Schreiber: The International Literature Festival Berlin (ilb) is the most international of all international literature festivals around the world. Every year we invite over 150 prose and poetry writers from around 50 countries on all continents to present and discuss their work at almost 300 events. In our "Reflections" category we address key political topics. This year that includes visions for the future of dialogue between the West and the Arab world.

The "Speak, Memory" section consists of readings from texts by authors who are no longer alive–all the way from the ancient Greek poet Homer to the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died last year.

Another important part of our programme is "International Children's and Youth Literature"–more than 10,000 of our over 30,000 visitors are of school age, storming our morning readings at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, an exhibition venue in Berlin. In recent years we've placed more emphasis on young literature, inviting authors who aren't yet known on the international circuit but have grabbed people's attention with debut novels in their home countries.

The festival has already featured various authors and musicians from Arab countries in the past. And now we want to intensify the contacts we've forged and the knowledge of Arab literature in the West.

We'll be focusing our efforts on setting up a stage in Berlin, offering our guests from the Arab world a chance to present their literature, their intellectual, cultural and political standpoints, in an authentic way. We want to ask: what issues are moving the Arab world?

Is that the only reason why you chose the Arab region as the focus of this year's festival?

In view of recent developments I think it's become absolutely essential to promote greater understanding for Arab cultures in the West, if I may put it in very simple terms. And what art form is better placed to do that than literature, which tells us all about people's most intimate wishes, hopes and fears?

So the aim of the focus on the Arab region at the 9th international literature festival berlin is to open up the cultures of the Arab region for an interested audience, promote mutual understanding and encourage contacts between artists, players in the cultural industry and authors.

What were your criteria for selecting Arab writers?

To start with, I'd like to say that we always go to great lengths to get something approaching an overview of the literary terrain of our focus region, this year as every other year.

And our main criterion is naturally literary quality. We were advised by former guests from the Arab region, translators from Arabic, European publishers of Arabic prose and poetry, the Goethe Institutes in the Arab region and local authors recommended to us in Cairo, Alexandria, Ramallah, Dubai, Beirut, Damascus and Israel as well, where there are also many Arab writers.

We wanted to persuade outstanding authors from the region to participate, including writers from the younger generation not yet familiar with Germany.

What is your assessment of previous encounters between Arabic and German literature?

There are already various cultural projects focusing on the dialogue component of relations between the West or Europe and the Arab region. Our Focus programme aims to follow in the spirit of these projects–for example, project manager Peter Ripken's work at the Frankfurt Book Fair or the West-Eastern Divan, a Berlin-based project devoted to improving mutual knowledge of the literature of the Middle East and Germany, through encounters between authors from the two regions.

Admittedly, we have seen an increase in interest in the literature and cultures of these countries since 9/11–the clearest expression of that being the Frankfurt Book Fair's Arabic focus in 2004. But in essence, the reception situation has changed very little: Arabic literature is barely published and read outside the region itself. The encounters have been too marginal in character to date.

What are your hopes for the festival's Arab focus?

That it will be a milestone in literary and cultural communication with the Arab world, that friendships will be forged and plans made by the German visitors to travel to these countries and intensify their contacts there.

What is your answer to authors from the Arab world who aren't in Berlin this year?

You mean writers who might be disappointed not to have been invited? My answer is this: the festival will go on forever!

Mohamed Massad is a freelance writer. This article, translated from German, is distributed by t Common Ground and can be accessed at GCNews. It appeared in


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