Classic Arab writers and poets like Al-Mutanabbi could not have imagined that centuries later authors would be discussing their masterpieces live with an international audience. Thanks to technology a global audience was recently able to access a recent Arabic literature festival called “Bila Hudood: Arabic Literature Everywhere.”
Bila Hudood—the name means “Without Borders”— brought together authors, translators, publishers and readers in an ambitious project that provided a needed respite from today’s world of pandemic and restrictions.
Held July 9 to 11, the festival was put together by Sawad Hussain, winner of the 2019 ArabLit Short Story Prize and two English PEN Translates awards, and Marcia Lynx Qualey, a freelance journalist based in Rabat who frequently contributes to Al-Fanar Media. It invited people to join discussions on contemporary Arabic literature in genres such as food writing, memoir, poetry, science fiction, fantasy and theater.
Panels consisted of authors from across the Middle East and Africa. Since the festival was online only, because of the pandemic, the challenges for organizing it were not as difficult as it would have been had it taken place face-to-face.
“I don’t think we could’ve organized this festival in any other time,” said Lynx Qualey. “Pioneer events like Palestine Writes, African Writers Festival, Mother Tongue Twisters, and the World Kid Lit events have shown us how vibrant and engaging online literary events can be.”
For Lynx Qualey, the inspiration for Bila Hudood was a World Kid Lit panel on Arabic literature for young readers. “The huge response to that panel surprised me, particularly how it forged new connections between readers, writers, publishers, agents, and editors,” she said. “We hope Bila Hudood will do the same.”
Arab Literature in Germany’s Capital
The festival’s first event, on July 9, focused on Arabic literature in Berlin. The German capital has had an Arab population since the 1960s, when Moroccans arrived as “guest workers,” and has become a center of Arabic literary production.
“There is great visibility of people working within culture from the Arab region.”Haytham El Wardany
A writer who has lived in Berlin for 20 years and has organized workshops with Arab writers there.
The city’s Arab population grew steadily over the years, and so has the output of works by Arab authors who live there, such as Haytham El Wardany, the playwright Liwaa Yazji and the Arabic-German translator Sandra Hetzl.
El Wardany has lived in Berlin for 20 years and has organized workshops with Arab writers.
“There is great visibility of people working within culture from the Arab region,” El Wardany said.
He noted that many Arabs who arrived in Berlin this past decade came as refugees with harrowing tales of their ordeals to get to Germany.
“When they arrive in the city, it’s after a traumatic experience and they try to figure out what they have been through,” El Wardany said. “They want to represent their pain, the revolution, the war back home, and we work with them to see how to write such a catastrophic event.”
Arabic Food Writing as a Memoir
Arabic food is taking center stage in the gastronomic world, and a panel moderated by Nour Kamel delved deep into the politics behind food and reflected on the various ways that make up food writing in Arabic. Think of how your favourite meal can transport you to a childhood memory or the anguish in waiting for your shawarma to marinate, when all you want to do is eat it right now. The panel, called “The Taste of Letters,” was inspired by a collection of texts with the same title that emerged from a food-writing workshop in Cairo and appeared as part of the Summer 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly.
Participants in this segment included Salma Serry, a researcher, writer and filmmaker. Food plays a big part for women in Arab culture, she said, mainly because it is they who spend most of the time in the kitchen conjuring up meals that were passed down orally from grandmother to mother to daughter.
“A lot of things go undocumented and unwritten, and there’s a lot of personalization in the kitchen as well in our culture,” Serry said.
“There isn’t specifically a set recipe for certain foods, so every woman or every household has their own touch,” she explained. “So a spoon here and a pinch there, and as they say, ‘it’s blessed’ (‘bil baraka’).”
This way of cooking sustains Arab culture and rituals, and many people want to hold on to the recipes passed down the generations and keep them as a food memoir.
The Importance of Young-Adult Literature
Young adults also had their chance to take part in Bila Hudood with the event “Young-Adult Lit: Fantastic Worlds and Where to Find Them.”
Interest in Arabic young-adult fiction has been growing steadily over the last decade, and with growth in technology, young Arabs can take part in discussions about the genre and bring about new ideas to help the authors and publishers who produce it become more recognized.
Despite this, mainstream festivals are difficult for authors and publishers of young-adult literature to get into.
“The Bila Hudood festival is a spotlight on the diversity of Arabic literature, and highlights genres and writers that tend to be ignored in literary events.”Susanne Abou Ghaida
A leading expert on young-adult literature
Susanne Abou Ghaida, a leading expert on young-adult literature, explained: “The Bila Hudood festival is a spotlight on the diversity of Arabic literature, and highlights genres and writers that tend to be ignored in literary events. Literature for children and young adults is an obvious example as it is often treated as having no place in Arabic literature or the cultural history of the Arab region.”
Abou Ghaida added that she hoped the festival “can act as a regular meeting point for lovers of Arabic literature in all its forms and give much needed visibility to new emerging literature and authors.”
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Arabic literature, particularly young-adult literature, is becoming more accessible, both online and in bookshops. As more Arabic books get translated into English and other European languages, these beautiful and hard-worked texts should be able to reach more people who would otherwise not have known anything about Arabic literature.
That is another thing that Al-Mutanabbi would probably have never envisaged. But if he did, his advice would be something he wrote in one of his poems: “If you ventured in pursuit of glory, don’t be satisfied with less than the stars.”