A new week-long literary festival in Beirut promises to bring together writers who sit at the crossroads of two or more cultures and interested readers:
By Mishka Mojabber Mourani
“Writers Between Two Cultures” is a new series of literary events organized by the International House of Writers in Beirut that will host six authors from around the world.
According to the organization’s website, “In Beirut, the multifaceted and multilingual capital at the crossroads of cultures and civilizations, from which many Lebanese embarked on lifelong journeys to different parts of the world, the International Writers’ House organizes meetings with international writers to encourage debate around the forms of literature that exist and thrive between two cultures.”
The driving force behind the small team of literature lovers is Charif Majdalani, who has written several highly acclaimed novels in French, including the latest, Le Dernier Seigneur de Marsad (The Last Master of Marsad), which was shortlisted for three of France’s most prestigious literary prizes in 2013.
In two of Majdalani’s novels, the main characters disassemble structures and carry them across borders, only to reassemble them in Lebanon. In Caravanseray, Samuel Ayyad dismantles a small palace in Africa, where he had gone to make his fortune, and brings it back to his homeland. In Our Brief Years of Glory, the main character goes to Syria to import sewing machines that are taken apart and then put together again.
Life imitates art with an interesting twist as the author of these works of fiction undertakes to transport international writers, including two recent emigrants from Lebanon, in an inaugural event that seems rooted in the resilience of the Lebanese diaspora.
I first met Charif Majdalani when his first novel, Histoire de la Grande Maison, was published. I invited him and his wife Nayla to a book club I was hosting. Like my family, his has links to Egypt, his mother being a Lebanese woman from Cairo. As both my parents were born in Egypt, my mother of Greek origin, my father Lebanese, I felt like I had found a long-lost cousin. Lebanon’s history of sending emigrants into the world has gone on for centuries, with reportedly some 16 million in the diaspora compared to 4 million within Lebanon.
When the International House of Writers decided to bring over Rawi Hage, I was delighted to be asked to engage him in the inaugural activity on October 3. I am particularly intrigued that he has written about topics that have been central to my own writing — identity, exile, war — but in so different a manner. How does a writer choose his voice? How much of fiction is reality? Does emigration afford you a better lens to view your experience? Ahdaf Soueif is another great favorite of mine, and I am looking forward to all the encounters on the program.
Over eight days, Writers Between Two Cultures will feature six renowned novelists who choose to write in a language which is not their first tongue, or who live outside their original homelands. They include:
- Award-winning Canadian/Lebanese novelist Rawi Hage, author of De Niro’s Game (2006), Cockroach (2008) and Carnival (2012);
- Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif, who writes in English, and is the author of several novels and short stories including Eye of The Sun and The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Soueif ‘s award-winning work has been translated into 30 languages. EDITOR’S NOTE: This has unfortunately been canceled because of unforeseen circumstances;
- Romanian Marius Daniel Popescu, who lives in Switzerland and writes in French. Popescu has published two novels. He is also a poet and publishes a newspaper and a literary magazine;
- Moroccan writer and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa, who lives in Paris. He is the author of Salvation Army, which has been made into an award-winning film. Taïa has written three other novels in French, Une Mélancholie Arabe (2008), Le Jour du Roi (2010) and Infidèles (2012);
- Canadian/Lebanese/Armenian writer and essayist Viken Berberian, who is the author of The Cyclist and Das Kapital. He is currently working on a graphic novel; and
- Colombian author Santiago Gamboa, who lives in Italy. He is also a diplomat and has worked as a journalist. He is the author of Necropolis and Perder es Cuestion de Método.
Majdalani explains that the program will include dramatized readings and conversations with the guest writers about their craft and about issues of language and intercultural writing, with time left for audience interaction. He hopes that this will be the first of many annual events that will focus on “the literature of the New World and the Old World, literary work in multilingual cultures, literary work of minorities, of immigrants and diasporas, and the relationship between immigrant writers and literature in their host country.”
“Writers Between Two Cultures” runs from October 3 to 11 at venues across Beirut. For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/beytelkottab.
Mishka Mojabber Mourani’s (@MishkaMM1) most recent book is ALONE TOGETHER, co-authored with Aida Yacoub Haddad. It is published by Kutub – Beirut, 2012. ISBN: 9789953554167; you can read more about the bilingual project here. Mourani is also the author of the memoir BALCONIES, which is distributed by Lebanon’s Dar an-Nahar.