PalFest an ‘Attack on Arabic’?

Yesterday’s  PalFest wrap-up in Al Jazeera, penned by Sousan Hammad, provides sharp criticism for this and other literary events in the region.

Her main criticism is that core PalFest events—as at the big Abu Dhabi and Emirates lit festivals—take place in English. And at some PalFest events, unlike the Emirati festivals, simultaneous translation was apparently unavailable.

Certainly, the smaller book-festival organizers face difficult decisions. If a festival aims to be “international,” drawing renowned authors from around the world, how then to deal with authors, publishers, and audience members who don’t understand Arabic? How much of a festival should be “popular” (like the one we have in Cairo) and how much geared toward those in the trade, both locals or foreigners?

PalFest’s case is even more difficult. It is not only a literary festival for the benefit of authors and Palestinians, but—as Ahdaf Souief explained in a talk at the AUC last month—a way for English-language authors to come see the reality of Palestine so as to describe it to English-reading audiences. In her words:

The thing with Palfest is that you could see it progress from me going there and writing in a way that I hope represents Palestinian reality, in other words just by allowing Palestinian characters to come alive on the page, and then to me thinking, well I wish—I wish there were more people to see this or…and eventually coming up with the idea of actually taking people to go see it. To be able themselves to describe it and talk about it and so on.

So definitely the motivation of PalFest is to allow people to see each other.

To this end, most of the events have taken place in English. Hammad, in her piece for Al Jazeera, characterizes it thus:

Most of the educational programming in the festival seemed to target English-speaking Palestinians from middle class backgrounds, who are a minority in the West Bank.

Palestinian author Suad Amiry, who addressed her Cairo audiences mostly in Arabic late last month, apparently spoke in English at PalFest. According to Hammad, she joked that the reason PalFest authors were speaking in English was Palestinians were “smart enough to understand English.” But Hammad said (in a section subtitled “Attack on Arabic”):

The reasons, however, go beyond one’s intellectual capabilities and for many contribute to what they see as an attack on the Arabic language, whether through the imposition of Hebrew inside Israel or of English in Ramallah.

Hammad spoke with Jowan Safadi, who worked in 2003 on public-awareness campaigns about saving the Arabic language. Safadi said:

We were, and still are, forced to speak and interact in Hebrew at work and in schools.

The coming generations may not even speak in Arabic with the way Hebrew and English are being imposed on us.

Even literature translated into Arabic is unreadable. And now you have these PalFest writers, like Suad Amiry and Raja Shehadah, who were both raised in Palestine, but write in English. If this is not ironic, I don’t know what irony is.

Hammad’s article goes on to say that this is quite widespread. She writes:

From Beirut to Amman, much of today’s cultural activities are conducted not in Arabic but in English, thus restricting the audience to either middle class English-speaking Arabs or Western ex-pats.

From Beirut to Amman, perhaps. Beirutis and Ammaneyeen will have to speak to that. But—here in Cairo—literary events are conducted in Arabic. This is, of course, as it should be—and should remain. On the other hand, it’s hard to remember a literary event in our city that was as large-scale, international, and well-organized as PalFest.

Although, who knows, perhaps when we (finally) do have such an event, it will take place entirely in Arabic (with simultaneous translation into Hindi, Farsi, Urdu, Swahili, Dutch, Italian….).

Another (much cheerier) PalFest wrap-up from the Guardian books blog: PalFest book festival puts Palestinian writers on the map.

The Al Masry Al Youm piece also includes Hammad’s criticism: PalFest2010.