Hardly Any Coverage in the Arab Media

The fact that the League of Arab Nations is this year's Guest of Honour at the largest book fair in the world goes almost unnoticed in most countries of the Arab world. Jürgen Stryjak reports from Egypt's capital

During the days preceding the Frankfurt Book Fair, if you try speaking with Egyptians about the fair, and above all about the Arabic world as this year's guest of honor at the fair, you will run into a variety of problems.

Literature as a luxury

The largest problem is also the least literary in nature: The fair doesn't interest most Egyptians because they seldom read—with the exception of the Koran and an occasional newspaper or illustrated magazine.

Literature is a luxury that many cannot afford, and the kind of enthusiasm for reading that might be able to overcome the financial barriers is clouded by other factors: a poor book distribution system, the small number of bookstores that do a good job of screening books, the mechanical literary instruction received in schools, and the omnipotence of satellite television. Not to mention the high rate of illiteracy—thirty to forty percent of all Egyptians cannot read.

Nonetheless, many Egyptians still have an opinion about the approaching book fair in Frankfurt because it is a political event to them—one that will bear on the reputation of the Arabic world and Islam.

From skepticism to consipracy theories

As in many closed societies, skepticism and an innate mistrust of official institutions abound, even toward those institutions which organized the honored guest appearance of the Arabic world this year.

Conspiracy theories are also plentiful. This phenomenon is paired with a desire to make an appearance before the eyes of world of which they can be proud, for a change, with Arabs represented in a positive light and commanding recognition.

The bookkeeper Karim al-Azzab, 41, fears that the Arabic world is not up to a book fair in the Western world. "They will reproach us for all our faults, censorship, a lack of democracy, fanaticism, backwardness, the situation of women in the Arabic world. In the end we will only be ashamed." He believes that the West simply wants to keep a tight reign on definitions and dole out grades like a school master.

Like many Egyptians, Muhammad Samir has heard nothing of the Book Fair in advance. "Reporting in our media was very pitiful," says the 28-year-old telecommunications engineer, "and has done little to spark people's interest."

In the newspapers he reads, in the websites he visits online, the fair has so far played no role at all. Nonetheless, he finds it is a good opportunity for correcting the false image of the Middle East and its religions that dominates in Western media. "But my experience tells me that we will probably fail in this."

The feminist Hala Abdel Qadar hopes that it will be possible to demonstrate the very special identity of the Arabic world. "Arabic women are often portrayed in a very poor light in the West," says the young lawyer. "This is a widespread phenomenon in Western books, and I hope it will be possible to correct this—without hiding uncomfortable truths."

Her skepticism is directed at the organizers on the Arabic side. "As soon as an official institution participates in an event, success is automatically ruled out."

She says independent organizers, for example intellectuals, should have been included in the process. The Frankfurt Book Fair has integrity, says Hala Abdel Qadar, and she hopes that the Arabic world can adopt some of its positive neutrality.

The least adequate messenger for the Arabic people

Magdi Hussein, the General Secretary of the Islamic Hizb al-Amal (Workers Party) criticizes the fact that government officials dominated in the preparations for the fair. "The Arabic League is the least appropriate messenger imaginable for the Arabic people. Not a single project of theirs has been successful to date."

If the Germans would prefer to conduct a dialogue at the government level, then so be it. "I had hoped for a dialogue among the people. It should be between people and not between those who govern."

Concerning the Islamic Conference that was supposed to take place in Berlin in early October but then was forbidden, Magdi Hussein comments: "What can we expect from Germany if a conference in support of the resistance in Iraq and in the occupied Palestinian territories is outlawed? Must I change my ideology in order to be heard?"

An Arabic visitor to the press conference at the Goethe Institute recently appealed to the German organizers of the fair to finally get across a "correct" image of the Arabic world.

The reaction of the German deputy ambassador Britta Wagener was disarmingly simple and logical. Referring to the neutrality of the organizers, she said: "We Germans are not the right address for your appeal. The book fair is offering you, that is, the Arabic world, the chance to present yourselves as you see yourselves. We cannot speak for you!" Now we can only wait and see what the Arabic guests will show us.

Jürgen Stryjak

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White