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London Calling

By Georgia de Chamberet

The wilderness years are over for Arabic writers in translation it seems, as they were in the spotlight this week in London's Earls Court. Arabia Books was launched in the run up to the London Book Fair—the agenda being to publish the best contemporary fiction from the Arabic World. The venture is a collaboration between Haus Publishing and Arcadia Books, with the American University in Cairo. A rich display of modern Arab literature was on offer at the stand of Banipal Magazine—novels and short stories, poetry and memoir, translated into, or written in, English. The English PEN Literary Café was a hit, with Maya Jaggi, Danuta Kean and Stephanie Merritt hosting a series of talks with writers, including Ed Husain, Mourid Barghouti, Alaa al Aswany, Bahaa Taher and Khaled al Khimassi. Saqi Books' celebration of its 25th anniversary proved to be a crowd puller at the Town Hall, while the British Council with co-host Professor Nasser Khalili, founder of the Khalili Collections , partied in style at the Roof Gardens in Kensington.

English PEN launched its Atlas of World Literature at a lunchtime discussion between Alaa Al-Aswany, Christopher MacLehose and Mark Thwaite. The decline of the intelligentsia as a force in society was flagged up as one of the reasons for the lack of reciprocity when it comes to literary exchange and translation—of fiction published in the UK in 1999 1.8% was translation; in the US 1.3% ; in Canada 6%. A unique online resource linking readers, writers and publishers around the world (funded by Arts Council England), the website aims to "promote literature as a means of intercultural understanding, bridging cultural boundaries within today's diverse English society."

French publishers I spoke to at the French Institut's soirée were hopeful that rights sales to books by Maghrebi writers would take off in a big way. Arts are still seen as a national duty in France, although how long this remains the case is up for debate. Didier Bezace, who has directed plays in the immigrant suburbs of Paris, at the Théâtre de la Commune, in Aubervilliers, recently commented: "Sarkozy has been the greatest enemy to the suburbs not because he said the people there were 'scum,' but because everything about him reinforces the idea among the French urban poor that the goal is a fat wallet, brand-name clothes, big hotels and cars."

A diverse range of seminars provided relief and a different kind of stimulation from meetings and the business buzz of the fair. "Digitisation: International Solutions," led by the Chairman of Ehaus, a leading supplier of services to the book trade, proved to be an unexpected eye opener. Will all sides of the book trade in Britain come together and collaborate, or not? Or will "someone come in and take the business, like Google or Microsoft?" The message is clear: cooperate or die.…

Published Apr 24, 2008   Copyright 2008 Georgia de Chamberet

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