In the past seven months, Arab authors have been asked to speak for their nations. Book festival-goers, journalists, and fans have asked them to explain not just their craft, but the past, present, and the future of our region. Is this one of the functions of a good literary author: to predict the future? Jose Vericat is Adviser of the Middle East Program at the NYC-based International Peace Institute, which is inviting Arab authors to come speak at their “Arab Intellectuals Series.” Previously, Vericat worked in the Middle East for nine years, first as a journalist for the Spanish News Agency EFE and then as spokesperson for the European Union.
ArabLit: The IPI Arab Intellectuals Series events are by invitation only? (The first is September 15, with Ali Al-Muqri and Hisham Matar.)
Jose Vericat: IPI caters for a specific audience, international and national policy makers and more particularly UN diplomats and experts, so our events are organized by invitation, however they are widely advertised and anyone interested may contact us and if there are sits available they are most welcome to join too.
AL: Why novelists for the intellectuals series? Why not scientists or philosophers or journalists, etc.?
JV: As the title reads, it is an ‘intellectuals’ series, so we are interested in the whole spectrum. However, we are particularly interested in novelists and poets since one of the objectives is to provide a different perspective from the one usually offered in events analyzing the Middle East, and which most often focus on journalists, regional experts or policy makers.
AL: Why the particular authors you chose? What were you looking for in a novelist? (Literary quality? Particular political insight?)
JV: We are looking for writers who represent the wave of change in the Middle East. The uprisings took most people, whether observers or the local population, by surprise. I was in Egypt the week before the demonstrations started in earnest on January 25th, the majority of people I spoke to did not foresee what was about to happen. Experts are still at a loss in trying to point out where it is all heading. Writers, however, have a capacity to identify underlying narratives. It is this skill that we are trying to tap into.
AL: Who are you inviting to attend? What sort of audience are you looking for? How many?
JV: For our first two speakers we have two events planned. The first one is in the evening, September 14th. We are inviting Permanent Representatives and Special Representatives at the UN, up to forty participants. The next day, early afternoon, there will be a slightly bigger event for Middle East experts and other interested persons in and out of the UN.
AL: What is the format? Talk by the author followed by Q&A? Reading?
JV: There will be a short introduction by the writers but the emphasis is on creating a conversation, between the speakers and the audience. For this Senior Fellow at IPI and former Permanent Representative of Yemen, Abdullah Alsaidi, and New York Times Bureau Chief, Neil MacFarquhar, will moderate the discussion.
AL: What do you hope will come of the event? What would be the best possible outcome? For the author, the audience, all concerned?
JV: With these events IPI is giving policymakers direct and rare access to writers of great intellectual caliber. In the case of Hisham Matar from Libya, his country is undergoing a historical transformation and with his own personal history (his father an opposition figure who disappeared in a Libyan prison, life in exile) he has so much to say about it. Ali al-Muqri is flying in from Sana’a exclusively for these two events.
Also we are inviting speakers from two different countries to speak together, each with particular insight into the causes and paths of the uprisings in their countries. We are hoping that when they are speaking side by side, answering question, this will generate fresh perspectives. We think this is an extraordinary opportunity. I am certainly looking forward to it very much.