The Cairo Literature Festival: Between splendid and prosaic
Sunday, February 15. Translating Arabic Literature: Obstacles and Prospects

The first Cairo Literature Festival began with a summoning to old Cairo on February 14. The name Orhan Pamuk was being murmured all over Beit al-Suhaymi.

Organized by the six-year-old Sefsafa for Culture and Publishing, and supported by various local and foreign cultural centers as well as the Culture Ministry, the festival involved meetings between an impressive range of 35 writers from over two dozen countries until February 20. The stated aim was to create a literary bridge between different cultures and generations. The atmosphere was one of oriental pathways, power cuts and a significant number of stray feline creatures.

Saturday, February 14. Opening

As I made my way through a full house to find a standing spot, I caught remarks from novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, author of La Ahad Yanam fil-Askandariya (No One Sleeps in Alexandria, 1996, published in English in 1999). He was admiring Naguib Mahfouz and Franz Kafka, and commenting on the effect of space and setting on a novel and its form.

Fuzzy yellow lights, arabesque architecture and entranced listeners reminded me of a scene from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: Darley, the modern European writer, riveted by and envious of Justine’s spell over her Alexandrian audience as she tells the epic of Yuna and Aziz and “their great many-petaled love.” The festival’s foreign guest speakers appeared to me as Darleys marveling at the effect our literature has on us, the Cairene counterparts for Justine’s Alexandrians.

Critic and English professor Sherine Abou al-Naga, moderating, interrupted the literary trance to ask an earthbound question.

“Translation,” she said. “How do you deal with translation? How do you make sure that a translated work is faithful to your original text?”

Pamuk, a bestselling, prize-winning Turkish novelist and festival star, said his work has been translated into 62 languages.

“I can only check the English translations. And as Nabokov once answered, ‘God knows what happens in all the other languages’,” he responded to a round of laughter.

Abdel Meguid claimed that he leaves translation to publishers. He only cares what happens to a text while he’s writing it. For him, a book’s journey into being is an entirely internal process, and what follows does not faze him much.

“Translation only matters when it interferes with me having a glass of wine with a lovely young lady in Paris,” he quipped, generating more laughter.

This tranquil reaction to translation from these two novelists seemed to come from a place of comfort, their being able to afford closing themselves off and reveling in the romanticism of being a writer at this point in their accomplished careers.

There was applause for conclusion and no chance to ask Pamuk questions. The blissful ceremony ended to make way for meetings with much more frustrated sentiments toward books and their creation.

The splendor of the locations versus banal organizational issues was also echoed in the following literary discussions. There was a juxtaposition of writing as a solitary meditative act that reveals itself to a public by mere force of talent, with the obstacles of an industry of institutions and practical disputes that remain very much tangible and unromantic.

Most of the meetings I attended — limited in number, since they often took place at the same time — managed to bridge the gap between the Abdel Meguid attitude toward writing, and debates about institutional support, finances and dissemination.

Sunday, February 15. Translating Arabic Literature: Obstacles and Prospects

The conversation on translating Arabic literature to other languages ended in Egyptian poet Ahmed al-Shahawy sighing in frustration, “There is real pain.”

At Sayada Zeinab’s Beit El Sennari, the poet, author of Al-Wasaya fi Aashq al-Nisaa (Advice on Loving Women, 2003), indulged in a soliloquy on how the selection of Egyptian works for translation is subject to whims and personal relations, resulting in higher quality works going unnoticed for the sake of second-rate works. He also passionately explained the difference between merely being translated, and “existing” in the literary consciousness of another language, speaking of the importance of a public audience over a niche of scholars and “orientalists.”

The need for state support was a consensus point. Shahawy talked about how Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago was sponsored by his state, which had decided to make the prize a priority for its cultural scene, and funded a huge campaign to translate his works and put him forward. Saramago now suddenly resonates, for me, with institutional support, state sponsorship and national iconography, instead of elephants taking worldwide journeys to faraway empires.

Humphrey Davis, translator of 20 Arabic works to English, complained about the low pay in the translation business, saying “if we’re that important, give us anything.” He also mentioned the lack of dictionaries for different Arabic colloquial dialects, which forces him to work only on Egyptian texts. 

This panel was nowhere near as relaxed as Pamuk or Abdel Meguid had been, nowhere near as dreamy or as reluctant to discuss the practical issues surrounding work and its distribution. There is real pain, and one that is not meditative but quite prosaic.

Tuesday, February 17. Arabic Literature Away from Publishing Centers

At the Cairo Atelier in downtown, the bridge between the romantic internality of the process and the institutional fabric of the industry was discussed further with Fadi Zaghmout from Jordan, author of Arous Amman (Bride of Amman, 2012), and Hammour Ziada from Sudan, whose novel Shawq al-Darwish (The Longing of the Dervish, 2014) won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for literature and is shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

The microphoned panel and the audience (mainly concerned journalists eager to cover the event) was separated from the obliviously festive conversations of the Atelier’s café-goers sitting on the other side of a short, symbolic wooden fence. A cat struggled on the plastic roof of the yard we were in, jumping from wall to wall to find the perfect spot from which to hear. Three other cats kept flowing in and out, reporting the discussion to an outside party.

Ziada appeared to share the same level of frustration as Shahawy, but pertaining to a different topic. He is “the son of the periphery,” as he put it. He made sarcastic comments about being introduced to the six-member literary scene that congregates in Khartoum. A fellow countryman was introduced to him as the best contemporary poet in Sudan. When Ziada asked where he could find his poetry, the poet said he had never been published and offered to email Ziada samples.

An inability to successfully go through the hassles of an industry forced him to keep life and poetry separate. Ziada, on the other hand, forced himself into the center, getting rejections from countless publishers in Cairo until one accepted a payment to publish his first work, Hikayat Omm Durmaniya (Tales from Omdurman, 2008). From there, Merit Publishing took note and published his second book, placing him in the face of marketing-related questions and giving him access to Egyptian media coverage, which he did not have back in Khartoum. He had to stay in the center, he said.

Zaghmout’s struggle in Jordan was not dissimilar. He said he carried out the task of distributing his first bestselling book all on his own — walking from bookstore to bookstore convincing the owners to put his book on the shelf and then delivering profits to the publisher, which had not bothered to lift a finger.

Awards were also a fundamental concern for the panel. According to Ziada, they cement your existence like a positive review. Those tangible verdicts of validation serve an author for a lifetime. The process did not stop for these writers once they put down the pen, like it apparently did for Abdel Meguid.

Thursday, 19 February 2015. Voice of the People: Contemporary Colloquial Poetry

On the last day, bathos persisted: A power cut in Wekalet al-Ghoury cemented the bridge between the banal and the dreamy. I only caught the last 15 minutes of the meeting on “Voices of the Youth,” since my goal was to attend the finale: A meeting with notable poets including Sayyid Hegab on contemporary colloquial poetry,which was to take place right after. I heard parts of a conversation on social media lowering the quality of literature consumed by the general public. These presumptuous claims hid in darkness and questions could barely be heard in the absence of microphones.

The meeting ended and I walked past two lovemaking cats and their screeches to ask about the finale, only to be told that it was canceled because of the power cut and the terribly cold weather. Quotidian excuses vanquished colloquial poetry.

Sara El Adl 

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