Beirut39 Spotlights Arab Writers Under 40

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije

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LEBANON: The UK-based Hay Festival has announced the shortlist of writers who will be part of Beirut39, a project that intends to give exposure to 39 of some of the most accomplished Arab writers under the age of 40.  Hay had previously organized Bogotá39 in 2007, which identified talented young Latin American writers and introduced them to a wider audience.

The Beirut39 festival, directed by Cristina Fuentes La Roche who is also the Programming Director of the Hay Festival Segovia, follows up on Beirut’s role as World Book Capital in 2009. It will take place April 15-18, 2010, teaming up with Bloomsbury, which will publish an anthology of fiction and poems by the selected authors and will be selling translation rights. The Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation will publish the anthology in Arabic.

The project was launched at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair last March. There are four members of the jury: Lebanese poet and cultural editor of Al Hayat newspaper, Abdo Wazen, Lebanese writer Alawiya Sobh, Omani poet and editor of Nazwa magazine, Saif Al Rahbi, and Gaber Asfour, an Egyptian literary critic who also presides over the judges. Originally, Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany was to be president of the judging panel but withdrew when he felt the selection process for the writers was too narrow. Beirut39 organizers had originally relied heavily on recommendations from Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon, founders of the London literary journal Banipal, which publishes contemporary Arab fiction and poetry in English. The the scope was then later widened to include nominations from various publishers, literary critics, academics, writers and the public.

In the end, the long list contained over 450 names, which was then reduced to the chosen 39 writers, some better known than others. Faiza Guene, the French author who leapt into the worldwide spotlight in 2004 with her novel Kiffe Kiffe Demain (Just Like Tomorrow) and has since published two other novels, is one of the best well known authors internationally.  Another writer, Franco-Moroccan Abdellah Taia, has also been attracting much attention with the recent translation in English of his novel (he has published five books in French) L’Armée du Salut (Salvation Army), in which he openly discusses his homosexuality. Taia had a very public coming out in Morocco last April, when he wrote an open letter to his family in the magazine Tel Quel. Joumana Haddad, the flamboyant Lebanese cultural editor of An Nahar newspaper and founder of the new and controversial Jasad magazine, which celebrates the body in literature and art, is another well-known choice, as is Arab-American Randa Jarrar, whose first and critically acclaimed novel, The Map of Home, was published last year and will soon appear in translation in six languages.

It will be of particular interest for the public as well as professionals to become acquainted with some of the lesser known writers, some of whom, such as Rabee Jaber, are widely read in Arabic but have not yet been translated into English. Other authors on the shortlist include Omani Hussein al-Abri, a doctor in Muscat who has published a trio of novels and a collection of short stories; Najwa Binshatwan, a Libyan novelist and short story writer; and Sudanese writer Mansour El Souwaim, author of two novels and two collections of short stories.

The 39 writers will be invited to Beirut for four days in April, and will participate in some fifty events, including panel debates and workshops, scheduled to take place around the city. Events will be free and open to the general public. The project has several solid sponsors behind them including the British Council, An Nahar newspaper, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and Solidere, the Lebanese company responsible for redeveloping Beirut’s central district.

VISIT: The festival Web site for more information.

JOIN: The Beirut39 Facebook page.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels. She is a contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Art, The Global Post, The New York Times and CNN.