Luxury, Propaganda and Books in the Middle East

Have you tried shark?

I have just tasted a shark curry, at the Dubai World Expo. There, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula present themselves not so much as they are, but as they would like to be: bombastic videos, huge shiny screens and the acritical grandiloquence of their leaders fill their pavilions. For its part, China’s pavilion welcomes the visitor with a screen on which Xi Jinping greets everyone with an impassive expression, as does Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. “We believe that every human being is part of the collective conscience,” reads one message of his; I can’t help but wonder if the Syrian regime applied this slogan while dropping bombs on its own fellow citizens. Lebanon is presented on various illuminated billboards as a paradise on earth with hedonistic beaches and a turquoise sea even though the country has been suffering from severe power outages for months.

I emerge from the gloom of the pavilions, from that darkness interrupted by the gaudy but unconvincing images and messages, and am dazzled by the midday sun in the eternal summer of the Persian Gulf. In the middle of the crowd – the entrance fee is only $11- I look for the bus; it leaves me outside the Expo pavilions where I hail a cab that takes me to a very different fair: the book fair. Whereas the Dubai World Expo is the first to take place in the Middle East, the Sharjah International Book Fair is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

While Dubai, with its Babylonian shopping malls, indoor ski slopes and luxurious nightlife is becoming the Las Vegas of Asia, the neighboring emirate, Sharjah, is called the cultural emirate, so the Indian cab driver informs me in his thick accent. The daughter of the sheikh of this emirate is the promoter of many cultural activities offered by this country, among them the Art Foundation that houses only rabidly contemporary art or the “House of Wisdom” library, designed by Norman Foster.

We arrive at the fair. I head for the pavilion of Spain, my adoptive country and this year’s guest, which has brought writers and screenwriters, as well as illustrators, to represent its literature. An Egyptian woman, an employee of the Spanish embassy, passes me the list of Arab publishers interested in translating books. I walk through the aisles of this fair, the fourth largest worldwide, after Frankfurt, Germany, Guadalajara, Mexico and London, UK. Although this year, due to the pandemic, there were not as many exhibitors as usual, the fair attracted 546 publishers and literary agents from 83 countries; very few of them from the West, though.

For a European like me, that’s quite a lesson. Deep down, the vast majority of Westerners are not fully aware of the cultural life beyond our small world. We don’t fully realize that novels, poetry and essays circulate between Arab countries and their neighboring countries, India, Thailand, Indonesia and so many others in Asia, but also in Africa, just as they do in the West.

Although I do not know how to read Arabic writing, on the covers I see images of Dostoevsky, Pessoa, Camus, Bolaño, Marguerite Duras… The Arabs do translate Western literature, while we translate them to a much lesser extent.

And here in the Arab world too, publishers are aware of their role in society, of their commitment to the society of their time, beyond mere business. One of the publishers I have been interviewed by, an Egyptian, sighs: “During the Arab Spring, we let ourselves be seduced by the hope for change. But believe me, hope is no good in politics. Only books never let you down.”

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)