The Arabic Booker Panel at the London Book Fair

This year’s LBF honored the Arab World, which meant there were dozens of panels to attend, with literary rock stars both on- and off-stage. Most of the panels were conducted in Arabic, with wildly gesticulating translators behind plexiglass, their voices snaking into non-Arabic-speaking attendees’ headphones. The most interesting of these panels included the one for nominees of the Arabic Booker, which was moderated by Feisal Darraj, the James Wood of the Arab Lit World. Darraj introduced each writer, and the writers went on to talk about why they write, the impetus behind their nominated novels, and the political implications of their work.

Darraj introduced the entire panel by pinpointing the authors’ common ground: he said the novels nominated this year all refused to worship the past, and instead, looked ahead to a golden future age.

The first introduced was the winner of this year’s prize, Bahaa Taher, who went on to say that he wrote Sunset Oasis because he believes that the purpose of his writing is to show his society its flaws. He said this was a Moliere-ism, and then he paraphrased Chekov, too, saying that he didn’t write sad stories to make people cry, but to force them to change.

The following authors all agreed, disagreed, and celebrated writing in their own ways. May Menassa said that she wrote to live. Jabbour Douaihy said he wrote simply because he liked it. And Khaled Khalifa, the most hilarious of them all, said he wrote because it was the only thing he was good at.

It was an inspiring panel, and later, I meant to ask Darraj how the committee decided on the nominees, but I was thwarted by throngs of readers. It was exciting to see so many people interested in and excited by Arabic fiction.

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