Frankfurt 2004, London 2008, BEA 2009 all three international events featured the ‘Arab world’ as a focus – not to mention the Turin 2009 fair, which a couple of years after turning into an international event had Egypt as a guest of honor. The least we can say is that the ‘Arab world’ is getting a lot of attention in the international publishing industry, after having been reported missing for years.
Before 2004, translation of Arabic written literature was the work of a few pioneers and only really established authors’ names had made it to the light, and not always quite without the ‘Literature from the Arab world’ tag, that has an undeniable ethnographic flavor to it.
In France, Sindbad played a major role in bringing to the knowledge of the general public some important names of the contemporary Arabic literature. Though essential, the fact that Arabic written literature had become Sindbad’s established playground is not without a few drawbacks. Current Sindbad editor Farouk Mardambey, very knowledgeable reader of the Arabic, has a real advantage over his peers: he reads the language. By the time other editors hear about a book, he has heard about it, read it, and decided to acquire it or not. Books not acquired by Sindbad in France are therefore susceptible of arising suspicion: why wasn’t the book acquired by Sindbad? Isn’t it good enough? That reasoning, though unjustified since Sindbad publishes a mere 10 books a year, does not only go on in France, but in other countries where books written in Arabic will not be acquired before they are fully translated into an accessible language. For historical reasons, France is expected to be the gateway. Sindbad contributed to the establishment of this general impression, while in fact not so many French publishers readily acquire Arabic written literature, even if in the recent years, things seem to be changing.
The problem with Arabic written literature is that it is in Arabic (!). This sentence might seem absurd, but it is the most obvious obstacle contemporary literature from this part of the world is facing. Acquiring rights of a book that is written in an inaccessible language always presents this challenge. Some editors are ready to take the risk. But to do so, if they cannot read a translation of the book themselves, they need to rely on inhouse readers, or on external readers they trust for having worked with them for years. The structural problem Arabic written literature faces is thus the absence of readers the publishing houses can rely on. So far, they haven’t had the need to find readers of Arabic for lack of interest. But things might be changing.
The second problem with Arabic written literature is the blurred rights situation. A lot is being said about ‘rights’ these days. This notion has been increasingly focused on, but it’s never been messier. Most of the time, the author does not know if he/she has the rights, is not sure what this notion refers to, or believe he/she does have the rights even if he/she does not. The rights to one’s own book is taken to be a natural thing, not a legal issue. The fact is that few Arab publishers have the translation rights to the books they publish. Most of them do not include them in publishing contracts knowingly, because they feel they can’t do anything about them, and do not want to limit the author.
However, with all the current buzz on rights in the area, some publishers want to test the market, and start acting as if they were the rights’ owners. Notable illustration of this state of affairs, the Lebanese ministry of culture issued a ‘Lebanese rights list’ for the BEA, in the context of the Beirut World Book Capital event. The list features publishers and some of their leading titles, most of which publishers unhesitatingly confirm not having the rights to. Still, it is as if no one sees the contradiction. There is a clear difference between an overview of the Lebanese literary production, and a ‘Lebanese rights list’, but no one seems bothered by this confusion. Not to mention ‘Lebanese rights list’ is in itself an intriguing notion: is ‘Lebanon’ the owner of the rights?
Last but not least, the third problem with Arabic written literature, is the fact that there is no context. Publishers have no way of knowing an author’s place in the literary scene. They have no way of knowing the players. It might be a little harsh to say there is no such scene, but taken literally, it is true. That is not to say that there are no interesting Arab writers out there, but they are almost as unreachable to the international players as they are to the local ones. The main reason to this is the absence of information. Here, language is not the obstacle. The almost total lack of structure in the Arab book industry is. We have writers, we have publishers, booksellers and readers. But the links between these elements of the book chain are missing. Mainly, distribution and diffusion networks are completely absent.
So what is all the buzz on the so-called ‘Arab world’ really about?
To some extent, it may be political. The fact that some parts of the ‘Arab world’ are obviously at the center of current international affairs, leads many to feel that ‘gaps should be bridges’ and ‘cultural dialogues’ established. Though in itself an honorable intention, this kind of effort, if it is institutionalized and not the result of some individuals’ true passion, conviction and commitment, does not serve the literature right. It intents to take it out of its marginalization, but all it really does is move the borders. ‘Gaps’ will be bridged, and ‘cultural dialogues’ established, only when literature of this part of the world ceases to be ‘special’. And it can only lose this ‘specialty’, if it is treated like any other literature in the world, welcomed with the same individual curiosity, and its quality judged in the same way. A good book is a good book. Period.
That the ‘Arab world’ is taken as a whole is a good lead on the fact that the focus on the Arab world is not literary. Too many voices exist out there to be fitted in a single program featuring ‘Arab’ countries. At the Frankfurt 2004 fair, there seemed to be some confusion regarding what was really at stake. The Arab world was treated as a literary entity and an impressive number of authors were invited. The event was meant to be literary, but at the same time the diversity of the area’s literature seemed to be confused with the Arabic language common to all these countries, which in publishing leads to the fact that it is treated as a single territory. The BEA of 2009 was very clear in this respect. The Arab world was the Global market focus. As such, not a single author was invited. Publishers, professionals of the industry, specialists were. And the panels, fairly attended, were dynamic and sincerely addressed many issues.
Thus, the interest in the Arab world is clearly economical. Some 300 million of potential readers is a sizable market. But only if the structural problems are addressed. Or in other words only if the issues of diffusion, distribution are dealt with. And in fact, not only does the Abu Dhabi/Frankfurt Book Fair joint venture called KITAB focuses on rights, but it also intends to put in place a distribution and diffusion network.
Now we’re talking.
A whole panel was dedicated to this issue at the BEA, and seemed to be aiming at explaining the realities of the Arab book market to the world. The panel however limited itself to the observation that no diffusion and distribution system existed, listing the reasons behind this, never alluding to how things actually worked on the ground, nor to what should be done in order to offer a solution. The discussion mentioned pricing differences and economical discrepancies across countries, which do pause a problem, but mainly focused on piracy. However, nothing substantial was said about censorship, perhaps the main obstacle to diffusion. A clear reason to why nothing was said about censorship is the simple fact that there is nothing the Arab Publishers’ Association (APA) can do about it.
However, while talking about censorship, one APA member made an intriguing comment. He deplored the fact that censorship was not consistent across countries, and even within a country. It may have been a sort of cynical sense of humor, but otherwise, this line of reasoning is somewhat alarming. ‘If only censorship laws were common to all, at least it would be predictable and we, as publishers, would act accordingly’ this alarming line of reasoning goes.
From an economical perspective, the remark completely makes sense. Instead of producing books that cannot be sold due to unpredictable censorship laws and lose money, publishers, if the laws were predictable, would only produce books that would not be censored – and not lose money. But from the freedom of expression perspective, the inconsistency of the censorship laws are the only margin of action writers, publishers and book sellers have. Self censorship is already taking place, slowly contributing to the atrophy of thought and minds. Consistent censorship laws would be a catastrophe.
Of course, if publishers do not make a profit and stop existing, books will not be served better. However, is it to say that the book economy should prevail over freedom of expression? Are we really wishing for a trade off between book producers and the powers in place that would benefit all except the books themselves and the readers? Such a trade off would favor book diffusion and distribution for sure, but what good does it do if ideas are not freely diffused? Censorship is not like any other logistic problem. Exactly as books are not like any other product. It is in this context that one may fairly wonder how an Abu Dhabi based diffusion system will manage to deal with this issue, and hope for the best.