The Book Festival takes a trip to the Middle East
Raja Shehadeh

This week sees the Book Festival’s largest gathering of Middle Eastern writers and experts. Tim Cornwell looks at what they’ll be talking about

Raja Shehadeh
[Raja Shehadeh, who has curated the Middle East sessions at the Book Festival, reads to artists at the 2014 Palestine Festival of Literature outside Ramallah in June – picture: Rob Stothard/Getty Images]

In 2007, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi sponsored a kind of Pop Idol for Arab poets, with a top prize of a million UAE dirhams – about £150,000. The show, Prince of Poets – featuring 35 finalists from about 4,000 people who sent in their work – was rated a roaring ­success, with poets grilled and criticised live. Although he didn’t win it, the people’s favourite was a young Palestinian poet, Tamim Al-Barghouti, who read his poem ‘In Jerusalem’; a poetic diary and paean to the city Palestinians claim as their own.

Al-Barghouti dismisses that episode now, but his performances get millions of hits on YouTube, and verses of the poem have been turned into ringtones. He performed more ­recently in the charged setting of Tahrir Square in Cairo, with one Egyptian general questioning why a man with “a weird accent and non-Egyptian features” was so prominent in debating Egypt’s future.

Born in Cairo, Al-Barghouti is something like literary royalty, the son of a Palestinian poet and an Egyptian novelist, as well as a US-trained political scientist. He comes to the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of a strand exploring the history and future of the Middle East.

The sessions have been curated by Raja Shehadeh, the Palestinian playwright who has been coming to Edinburgh for close on 20 years and first appeared at the Book Festival in 2002. The writers’ expertise ranges from the last days of the Ottoman Empire to modern Turkey, where presidential elections were held on Sunday. The ­victor, Recep Tayip Erdogan, made furious attacks on Israel while out on the campaign trail.

When Shehadeh was putting the programme together, one could have expected Syria to dominate the discussions – the Israel-Palestine dispute, for once, seemed on the back burner. But just after shocking advances in Iraq by black-clad jihadi extremists, Israel cut its swathe of devastation through Gaza. A British minister has resigned, two Israeli shows have effectively been drummed out of the Edinburgh festivals, and about 2,000 people have died. The issues in the region are moving so fast it is impossible to know which crisis will flare up next. Libya’s fresh descent into anarchy is hardly more than a sideshow, though rumblings of Egyptian military ­action may herald yet another conflagration.

“I found hell in an ink pot, and heaven in an ink pot too,” Al-Barghouti wrote, in his popular poem ‘The Gift’. In another work, ‘The Goat’, he portrays a hungry goat, wandering the ruins of the National Museum of Baghdad, “for a plant or a document”. It’s hard for outsiders to understand, he said, that poetry is treated in Arab countries as music is in other cultures, with performers working big venues. In Edinburgh he will read his first attempt at translating poetry into English in verse.

He appears in the final session, in which Shehadah has asked leading writers and journalists to look ahead at what the future holds for the Middle East. Al-Barghouti already works on ­future scenarios as a consultant to the United ­Nations in Cairo. “I see our societies growing more independent, free from state domination,” he says, with street power enabling “narrative and conviction” to replace state coercion. “As gruesome and inhumane as these conflicts are, the collective drive to survive will help people reach a narrative that liberates them from tyranny in the same degree as it brings them together. Call me over-optimistic, but I see civil wars ending, and revolutions prevailing.”

Raja Shehadeh

The Middle East sessions are likely to be some of the most charged of the festival and are already mostly sold out. They feature writers who have often taken huge personal risks. Shehadeh, who lives in Ramallah, may be best known to Edinburgh audiences for his 2003 play When the Bulbul Stopped Singing. He will chair the opening discussion focused on the First World War and its aftermath, particularly the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and the colonial powers’ ­creation of countries whose arbitrary borders may be finally falling apart today.

The debate moves on to Syria, where speakers include the novelist Samar Yazbek, a member of the country’s Alawite community and also a leading voice for human rights and women’s rights there. Her courage in opposing the Assad regime has helped her to several awards. The session also features the British-Syrian journalist and novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab, full of anger over those in Syria and Gaza whom he sees as “fighting ­valiantly against a fully-armed, superpower-backed, genocidal enemy”. In a recent Facebook posting on Gaza he wrote: “I am overjoyed that the terrorist soldiers are being eliminated. I wish the Palestinians had better weapons so they could wipe out the Zionist troops in their hundreds of thousands.”

Yassin-Kassab, who will be reading from the draft of a second novel set amid the Syrian revolution, is also known for his reportage from that country. He is unapologetic about his outspoken views on Gaza, saying its inhabitants “absolutely have a right to fire missiles”, but his argument is also with those on the British Left for misunderstanding the conflict in Syria.

From the beginning, he says, liberal commentators misread the conflict there as part of an age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia. In fact, a peaceful protest movement calling for reform was driven into an armed struggle, in which the West failed to offer support, and extremists emerged in a proxy war fought by Iran and others. “This thing could have been over in 2012 if someone had armed the moderate resistance,” he said. “Now there are nine million displaced people and Iran is running the Syrian regime. This is a much bigger strategic threat than Iran’s nuclear programme. It’s an absolute disaster – it’s a security disaster for Britain in the next decade too.”

A session looking at current crises in the Arab world has, sadly, seen the leading journalist Patrick Cockburn drop out. Replacements include Dawn Chatty, a University of Oxford anthropologist and specialist in forced migrations. She sees the end of this year as a critical time for Syria, when millions of refugees forced to the borderlands or to countries like Turkey will begin to make choices on where and whether to stay. Chatty says “there are good reasons to be optimistic” that people will return and that Lebanon and Syria’s “local cosmpolitanism” of different communities living side by side may re-establish itself.

The voice of Israel – at least as represented by its government officials, or its supporters at home or abroad – is hardly being heard in these sessions. “We didn’t go into Israel/Palestine,” said Shehadeh, “though in recent days it has been difficult to keep my mind off Gaza. The suffering is too much to bear – and the thought of the kind of people we live next to all too frightening.”

Al-Barghouti, for one, believes Israel “should be boycotted on the same grounds as the apartheid regime of South Africa in the past century”, and artists should not be exempt. Right or wrong, a cultural boycott of sorts seems to be falling into place in Edinburgh.

For all the tragedies in Gaza this past month, the death and destruction in Syria in recent years is on a different scale. But Shehadeh and others involved are united in the belief that more than ever, finding a way out of the 70-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict – with hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of ruined lives over that period – is key to a future for a region in huge turmoil. “It’s one of the things all of us feel; if you can solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, everything else will fall into place,” says Dawn Chatty. “It’s the root of everything else that’s going on.”

At a time when the legacy of colonial boundaries, the tragically misguided Iraq war, and now the Arab Spring, seems to have brought nothing but continuing turmoil, Shehadeh holds doggedly on to some broader hope. “I always find the good part in things,” he says. “I base my optimism on the fact that we were in a terrible state before the Arab Spring; everything seemed locked and immobile, there didn’t seem to be any way out. Then we had the beginning in Tunisia, which seems to be going well, and then Egypt… I’m not losing hope over Egypt though I am more and more alone in this.

“I believe that when people discover the strength they have and the ability to change things, they don’t lose that easily,” he continued. “They don’t forget it easily, even though you pass through that period you have that experience and you never lose it. It stays with you, becomes part of you, you realise your humanity, and you are a human being with a will that can make a difference.

“It is folly to assume that revolutions bring good things quickly – always there were terrible periods before you come to something good.”

The Middle East in Charlotte Square

• Today (12 Aug), noon. Lines In The Sand: How The Region Was Carved Up, more info

Raja Shehadeh joins historians James Barr and Avi Shlaim, and Salim Tamari, an expert in Palestinian and Ottoman studies.

• Today (12 Aug), 5pm. Syria: A Country At War With Itself, more info

Syrian writers Robin Yassin-Kassab, Samar Yazbek, and Malu Halasa look at lessons from the conflict.

• Tomorrow (13 Aug), 2pm. The Middle East Now: In The Present Tense, more info

Author and Channel 4 journalist Ramita Navai, Cairo-based history professor Khaled Fahmy, and anthopologist Dawn Chatty discuss tensions in the region.

• Thursday 14 August, noon. Living And Writing In The Middle East, more info

Kuwaiti author Mai Al-Nakib, Egyptian novelist Khaled Al Khamissi and British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh.

• Thursday 14 Aug 3:30pm. The Future Of The Middle East: After The Arab Uprisings, What Now?, more info

Palestinian poet and political theorist Tamim Al-Barghouti, journalist Justin Marozzi, and British-Turkish author Alev Scott.

Originally published in The Scotsman

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