Mapping Democracy

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Seismographs of the Revolution
    The Arab Literature Festival in Frankfurt

    The motto of this year’s Arab Literary Festival, which took place in Frankfurt in January, was ‘Moving Towards Freedom’. Significant Arab authors met with their German counterparts and discussed developments.

    People stand packed together in long queues in front of the ticket office; large groups gather around the bookstands; there is a respectable media presence. Above all, there is a gentle hint of Weltgeist (‘world spirit’) in the air. Just a year and a half ago, before the spirit of rebellion had swept through the Middle East, it would have been reasonable to doubt whether all these Arab poets, authors and musicians would be speaking and performing in front of sell-out crowds. litprom (the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian, and Latin American Literature), which is behind the festival, knew only too well from its many years of experience that Arab literature alone has only limited mass appeal. An additional something is needed to pull in the crowds; a revolution, for example. Almost overnight, the Arab Spring transformed authors who were largely unknown in Germany and are often persecuted in their own countries into sought-after figures on the German literary market.

    litprom made the most of this opportunity and gave the invited authors a platform, which they used, albeit more for political concerns than for literary matters. Boualem Sansal, for example, who was presented with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade last autumn, explained the subtle differences between real democracy and sham democracy. His native country, Algeria, enjoys the reputation of being a model country in terms of freedom of speech, he explained. Algeria has a huge number of newspapers, magazines and television and radio stations. However, the problem is that, in one way or another, the state is behind most of them. The state, explained Sansal, gave citizens such a vast media choice that they were soon exhausted by all that was on offer and switched off. This meant that texts were being printed, but hardly anyone was reading them. In this way, he continued, media plurality benefits the government above all others. The government is using this plurality to legitimise itself both domestically and internationally. After all, said Sansal, why vote a government that respects freedom of speech out of office? With a wink, he added that such a move becomes even less likely the less this freedom results in political demands.

    Magdy El-Shafee, on the other hand, told of a text that certainly is being read. In 2008, the Egyptian author published Metro, the first Egyptian graphic novel, a genre that has proved to be a big headache for the censors. The censors, El-Shafee explained, are not actually interested in literature; literature only ever reaches a small number of readers and has quite simply become too insignificant to be banned. Metro, on the other hand, which tells the story of a young man who has had depressing encounters with those who benefitted from what used to be the Mubarak regime, was read by a great many people, thereby undermining the logic of the censors. After all, Metro is undoubtedly a book and, indeed, quite obviously literature. That said, it is a book that contains pictures, and a disturbingly large number of pictures at that. So to what genre does it belong, then? The censors didn’t even bother to enter into such theoretical literary considerations and promptly banned the book. Only now, four years later, is there any chance of an officially sanctioned new edition being published.

    Rosa Yassin Hassan explained how conventional literature can also fall foul of the powers that be. The Syrian author, who has had a travel ban lasting several years imposed on her because of her writing, was only given permission to leave the country the day before she was due to arrive in Frankfurt. The courage she showed in speaking openly about the situation in her country is thus all the more impressive. Several thousand have already died, she reported; Syrians are living in fear; many have gone underground in an attempt to evade the attention of the state. In the face of such events, she explained, she found it very difficult to talk about literature.

    Maha Hassan, an author with Kurdish roots who travelled to Frankfurt from Paris, fled the regime in Syria eight years ago. She didn’t just flee because she feared for her life; she had already published her first novels at that time and feared for her intellectual independence. ‘I wrote about three taboo subjects,’ she explained, ‘politics, sex, and religion.’ That immediately attracted the attention of the censors. Her books were banned, and labelled ‘morally contemptible’.

    ‘Cultural corruption’

    Censorship can, however, do much more than just condemn this book or that. Censorship is menacing because it is omnipresent, can strike at any moment, and can ban authors and their works. Moreover, what happens when posters of the president hang all over Syria, when he looks down on Syrians from countless signs, posters, and banners, when it is obvious that the entire state has been tailored to suit him? This is what happens: authors take great care and give careful consideration to what they should and shouldn’t write before they pick up their pens. Making greater or lesser concessions, taking precautionary measures, and indeed the opposite: a secret desire to please, coming to an arrangement with the powers that be ... for Maha Hassan, such behaviour is an expression of ‘cultural corruption’ from which no writer can escape.

    According to the Lebanese author Alawiyya Sobh, however, there is also pressure from society, traditions, and customs that citizens allow to regulate their daily lives. In her country, she said, this is above all demonstrated by two phenomena: the relationship between the religions and the sexes. Lebanon is a denominationally structured state. This is, however, very dangerous because an order such as this encourages citizens to base their entire political vision of the world on a denominational foundation, which brings them dangerously close to racism, a cultural racism that is no different from a biologically-based racism in its destructiveness. Moreover, the tacitly acknowledged hierarchy between the sexes and women does not contribute to the development of a free society either. According to Sobh, hierarchical thought is very difficult to overcome because it is upheld not only by openly conservative people, but also by a similar number of people – both men and women – who are supposedly modern and supposedly advanced.

    Speaking of which, women certainly dominated the event in Frankfurt. Mansura Izzeddin had travelled from Egypt and Sihem Bensedrine from Tunisia.

    Ultimately, what made the event in Frankfurt noteworthy was the fact that numerous German authors were also invited to come and debate with their Arab colleagues. Among others, Thomas Lehr and Michael Kleeberg – in whose works the Arab world plays an important role – were at the event.
    Kersten Knipp
    is a journalist and literary critic who lives in Cologne.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2012

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