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Atlantis and the book

August 20, 2009

Literature in the Arab world has been suffering for a long time. Ever-increasing censorship, ever-decreasing readership, and brutal conditions imposed by publishers are viciously contributing to an already compromised literary scene. A saviour is by all means needed. But is this saviour to be found in the Gulf?

The gulf states, mainly U.A.E and Qatar have taken it upon themselves to revive the literary arts in the Middle East and are constantly creating funds and award schemes to bring it back to life. What quickly becomes evident is that the Gulf States are approaching this matter in the exact manner they approach a real estate project: collecting funds, releasing press releases and bringing in expats to give the project an aura of legitimacy.

What the Gulf States fail to recognize is that unlike the Palm Island and Atlantis, building a publishing industry does not happen overnight. For that there has to be sophistication, insight and most importantly, substance. The Middle East of course is abundant with topics worthy of being discussed, dissected, and ravaged the way only literature can do. But here is the caveat; the Gulf States’ programs specify that in order to receive funding, or just to be published, the work must not cross the “red lines”. These red lines are religion, politics and sex.

An example would be Oktob, a program that is part of the Muhammad Bin Rashed Al Maktoom Foundation. According to the website, Oktob “aims at laying the foundations of a Pan-Arab literary renaissance that will contribute to reviving the region’s rich cultural heritage”. The website then proceeds to explain the financial and professional contributions to be made by the program, and finally, the criteria for eligibility. No mention of red lines is to be found. However, upon calling Oktob we were explicitly told that any works discussing politics, religion or sex would not be eligible.

Forcing a writer to stay clear of these topics is ludicrous at best. Religious fanatics, corrupt politicians, and sexual taboos are the stuff of everyday life in the Arab world. A writer willing to be so irrelevant and out of touch with their society, culture and reality simply ceases to be one.

Literature is meant to reflect the reality of a society, its fears, its obsessions, its triumphs and its shortcomings. This unwillingness to take a look in the mirror held up by literature is very consistent with the Arab world’s attitude towards its problems. Just like the U.A.E wants beautiful modern buildings while it hides the not-so-beautiful construction workers out in the desert, in concentration-camp living conditions; the Gulf States want a literary scene that does not reflect the harsh realities of the Middle East. They refuse to pay the non-monetary cost for having a healthy literary scene.

In 2007, the Man Booker Foundation teamed up with Abu Dhabi to launch an Arab equivalent of the esteemed Man Booker Prize. The question is: do some worthy titles get quietly ignored? And if not, doesn’t the fact that the prize is run out of censorship-happy Abu Dhabi make the prize complicit by default, as censored books will never make it to the jury’s hands? Again, this is the usual real-estate project formula of gaining instant credibility by affiliating to a logo, while choosing to not affiliate to its values.

The literary scene in the Middle East is similar to a sickly old man, and the gulf’s attempts to help it to its feet are his fatal blows.

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