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French Version

Arab Book Fair opens in Beirut

Event runs for 10 action-packed days, encouraging readers, writers, publishers and book lovers of all ages to join in

Heat and sweat filled the crowded entrance to the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure (BIEL) center on Thursday evening for the opening of the 50th annual Arab Book Fair in Downtown Beirut. At the door, there were two sets of metal detectors, one side for women and the other side for men. Inside, as the festivities began at 4 p.m., book fans were greeted with a spray of high-profile speeches, each as faintly tinged with politics as the next, to mark the opening of a 10-day event that celebrates reading, writing and publishing.

On Thursday night, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora delivered an opening address. Last night renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish put in an appearance and a special event was held to pay tribute to Mai Ghoussoub, the writer and artist who founded the publishing house Saqi Books and passed away unexpected this year. From now through April 22, the Arab Book Fair is proceeding with a packed schedule of events, discussions and debates that have the cumulative effect of pulling together some of the region's most daring and tireless literary voices for a sustained group gathering.

A true feat of continuity, Beirut's Arab Book Fair has taken place every year since 1956 - despite the chaotic, often violent episodes that have intermittently afflicted Lebanon. The birthplace of the book fair was the American University of Beirut's West Hall, before it required its recent round of renovations. In the mid 1950s, it was the first event of its kind in the Arab world.

According to a representative from the Arab Cultural Club, which organizes the fair, this year's event at BIEL presents the public with a wide range books from across the region. But the major difference is that due to Lebanon's relative openness and tolerance, the Arab Book Fair in Beirut is able to air publications that have been banned elsewhere in the Arab world.

"All you have to do is get the books signed by Internal Security," said the representative, who asked to remain anonymous. "Most are allowed. A book you find banned in Cairo, you'll find on our shelves here."

Although several critics have noted that the number of books being produced by Arab writers is currently at an all time low, the Arab Cultural Club representative argues that "Arab publications are increasing and improving."

Over the past 50 years, he said, books from the region have improved in terms of design and aesthetic appeal, along with the means of distribution and the methods of display in trade fairs and bookstores. To encourage such development, the Arab Book Fair awards a set of prizes for the best-looking books.

This year's fair was originally scheduled to take place in December 2006, but due to the political tensions in the country and security concerns, the event was postponed until April, a delay of five months.

"We weren't going to let the political situation stop this," said the representative, "not this year. After 50 consecutive years, we felt like it was an obligation to open."

"It is the 50th year," said Siniora in his opening address on Thursday. "This is not a regular occasion." The decision to begin the Arab Book Fair despite prevailing circumstances, added Siniora, exemplified the ability of the Lebanese to coexist with one another and control their own destiny. He said the book fair was a "message that Lebanon would not be a fighting arena for others ... or a bag of sand for anyone."

This year there are 133 publishing houses with booths at the fair, each displaying their latest books in the exhibition area. The participating countries include Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and, of course, Lebanon.

Last year the fair, which is geared toward visitors of all ages and interests, made $162,740 in sales of books alone.

After Thursday's speeches, awards were given to various publishing houses, including Saqi, which won first place for best publication overall with "The Bird's Journey to Mount Qaf" by Hoda Shawa Qaddumi, a book of poems illustrated by textile patterns.

The reissue of Mai Ghassoub's "Leaving Beirut," translated into Arabic, was featured prominently, as was her husband Hazem Sageih's "Mazaj al-Mudn" ("Moods of the Cities"), a compilation of her essays. Saqi has been participating in Beirut's Arab Book Fair since 1985.

One of the more interactive booths is Saudi Arabia's, sponsored by the Saudi Embassy's cultural attache in Lebanon, Ayman Maghrabi. Arabic coffee, dates and a traditional Saudi sitting area welcome visitors to the corner booth. Examples of Saudi dress decorate the walls and a tent covers half the sitting area. A television screen with tapes of Saudi dances and men reading poetry plays alongside rows of books.

According to Maghrabi, one of Saudi Arabia's tasks is to "participate in worldwide cultural festivals and book fairs so as to display our cultural repertoire and show our customs and traditions." One of the features of the Saudi stand is a translation of the Koran into 42 languages, Maghrabi says.

Marseille,16April2007
Redaction
The Daily Star


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