Great Ideas: An Arabic Literary Salon in Louisville, Kentucky

Sophie Maier, superstar librarian* from Louisville, Kentucky recently emailed me about an Arabic literary salon being started up in her local library. Literary salons have a long history in the Arabic-speaking world, and, needless to say, I was delighted and fascinated. I asked Sophie a few questions, to which she graciously responded.

When you say “Arabic lit salon,” can you describe a little more about what you mean? Will it be held simultaneously in Arabic and English?

Here at the [Louisville] Iroquois library we have we both a Spanish Literary Salon and a French Circle. The Spanish Literary Salon was started with the input of three Cuban professors who had yet to master English but had such a wealth of information to share with their new community. They wanted an opportunity to share with a diverse population of Spanish speakers, including their own youth, who they thought might benefit from learning more about the rich and diverse intellectual history of their many countries.  The program proved quite empowering to folk who were taking entry-level manual jobs after years of prominent positions in the university system in Cuba. This gave them a forum to show what they are bringing to this country!

We were approached by a professor from West Virginia (who resides in Louisville) and prominent members of our local Rwandan and Congolese communities who wanted a forum for intellectual discussion and debate in French. We have a speaker who presents for half the program followed by lively discussion. We have had French speakers from over 25 countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, Haiti and Togo to name but a few.

My personal love of the Arabic language and outreach into the Arabic-speaking refugee and immigrant community of Louisville helped spawn the idea of a similar program to be held in Arabic. Working with people from many different countries of different religions I realized there were few if any opportunities for a neutral, secular meeting place where Arabic speakers could join to discuss literature, the arts, and history. I had been tossing the idea about for some time but didn’t have anyone willing to do the first program.

I then met Ali Habash at a local refugee resettlement school where he introduced himself confidently by asserting “Hello. I am a poet.” I replied bluntly – We are going to work together, you and I!

[There is] no interpretation, all Arabic is the modus operandi. For this initial salon, Ali will be showing clips from an English-language documentary in which he is interviewed but other than that I want it to be an Arabic only environment.

Why did you choose Ali Habash as the first author?

I have been trying to get Vian Sora to present on her art work. She is an amazing Iraqi artist based out of Lousiville.

She, though, has been quite busy so I have had that idea on the back burner for quite a while.

I have a Tunisian friend who did a presentation in English on Islamic Science that was really amazing and received positive feedback from U.S. folk who had had no previous exposure to the history of the contribution of Islamic scientists. He since moved to New York. I have high hopes that we will lure him back for a Kentucky visit and  a similar presentation in Arabic.

I want to be sure to have presenters from a variety of different countries so it does not get pigeonholed as being an Iraqi program. I had a similar problem with our Literary Salon when someone in the Latino community said that it was being viewed as “a Cuban event” versus something more inclusive.

Truth be told, I do not speak Arabic thus I need help. I see a need for this and can envision it as being quite empowering for Arabs in Lousiville seeking to establish a more inclusive sense of community and appreciation of heritage.  Perhaps I am wrong, but at this point I have not gotten the support for which I had hoped. We will continue to hope for a good turnout this Saturday and then I will await the response of community members who I hope will step forward to offer to present or to set me straight about the difficulties of such an ambitious project created by, undoubtedly, “an outsider.”
How are you describing the project/series to the general public, and what sort of audience are you targeting?

I have advertised at the refugee schools and Arab students and professionals via Facebook. I have called Islamic centers and will post fliers in the Arab owned businesses.

How many salons are planned? Have you selected future authors?

I hope to have another on January 22nd at 1:00 p.m. I am seeking a presenter. It need not be an author. It could be an artist , musician, or novice historian who simply wants to engage others in dialogue. Need I mention our budget is zero thus this is purely an act of love of Arabic culture on the part of the presenter!

Excuse my ignorance, but is there a large Arabic-speaking population in Kentucky?

We resettle refugees from Iraq and Darfur. We have immigrants from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania  and international students from all over the Arab world, not to mention professional immigrant workers in the field of education and medicine.

My next project for 2011 will be create a program similar to what Ghada Elturk is doing in Colorado. An Arabic books in translation reading circle that will bring together folk from the Arab world , US born folk and others from within our incredibly diverse immigrant community. All in the circle, learning from each other’s literature and life experiences!

*Not her official title. She is officially the “Immigrant Services Librarian,” although I think my title is better.

And for goodness sakes, if you know anyone in Louisville, Kentucky, get them to this event! Or newspaper reporters in Louisville: Get them on the job.


  1. In 2003 I produced the documentary “Voices in Wartime,” which features poetry from Ali Habash at the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq. Voices in Wartime began in 2004 as a feature-length documentary that sharply etches the experience of war through powerful images and the words of poets – unknown and world-famous. Soldiers, journalists, historians and experts on combat interviewed in Voices in Wartime add diverse perspectives on war’s effects on soldiers, civilians and society. In “Voices in Wartime,” poets around the world, from the United States and Colombia to Britain and Nigeria to Iraq and India, share their views and experiences of war that extend beyond national borders and into the depth of the human soul.

    1. Andrew, thanks for letting us know. In case people don’t know to click on your name, the website is:

  2. What a fantastic idea! Good on Ms. Maier and LFPL for serving our community in this way!

    1. Thanks Abby. Where are you a librarian?

  3. I meant to give credit to an international photographer who took the above photo in our library. You may find more of his work here:

  4. This is great! I don’t have any particular interest in the arabic community, but it seems to me that this is just the thing libraries should be doing — reaching out to community members of all stripes. If the upcoming program doesn’t work, so what? Doing interesting things carries risk. I applaud your superstar interviewee for engaging the various communities in her area. Kudos!

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