Arab Novel Forum a ‘waste of money’ according to Al-Aswany

As the International Forum for Arab Novel Creativity is nearing an end, prominent novelist Alaa Al-Aswany voices incendiary criticism of the endeavor dismissing it as “a waste of public money”.

“This is a farce? Has the forum ever improved the Arab novel? Novels would  improve only when individual novelists can write good novels in their houses… We do not have to spend millions that come from Egyptian taxpayers,” said Al-Aswany.

The government-sponsored forum opened its fifth round under the title “The Arab Novel: Where is it Going?” earlier this week with the participation of 250 novelists and literary critics. Ninety participants came from around 19 different Arab countries to engage in extensive discussions on the future of the Arab novel.

For the last four days, prominent authors and commentators have been debating many aspects of novel writing. Their talks have touched on timely and controversial  issues such as the portrayal of women in Arab novels, feminist creative writing, the future of the Saudi novel and the impact of religion on literature.

“You rarely find good research,” said Al-Aswany who participated once in the forum back in the late 1990s.  “All this research can be conducted at universities.”

With his award-winning “Yacoubian Building,” Al-Asway is honored as one of the most talented contemporary Egyptians novelists. His novel, with its unflattering portrayal of Egypt’s society and politics, was translated into several languages and went into multiple printings. The author is also a well-established columnist. In recent years, he has risen as one of the staunchest critics of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

For Emad Abou Ghazi, the Secretary General of the Supreme Cultural Council, universities cannot play the same role as forums.

“This is a narrow-minded look,” Abou Ghazi told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Universities do not play this role, they do not hold large conversations where a large number of creative thinkers get together.”

“These forums allow Egypt to maintain its cultural ties with the Arab world,” said Abou Ghazi, adding that more Arab countries are in competition with Egypt to prove themselves as the region’s cultural pivots.

“We are protecting and extending Egypt’s cultural role in light of ongoing fierce competition,” he said. “Competition is coming from many rather than only one Arab country.”

He contended that allocating public money to such cultural activities is accepted worldwide. “Many countries in the world dedicate some of their budgets to culture and consider it an addition to their diplomatic and political power,” he added.

The Arab Novel Forum was first launched in Cairo in 1998. At the last day of each convention, one novelist is awarded a prize worth LE100,000. In previous years, the award went to high-ranking writers  including Abdel Rahman Munif from Saudi Arabia, Al-Tayeb Saleh from Sudan and Edward Kharrat from Egypt. This year’s winner is set to be announced at the closing ceremony later tonight.

Many prominent writers second Abou Ghazi on the importance of the forum, which is held every two to three years.

“Forums are a good opportunity for Arab writers to meet and exchange ideas,” said author Gamal Al-Ghitani.  “Spending money on cultural events where respectable Arab writers are invited–isn’t that better than wasting public money on other stuff?” Al-Ghitani asked.

He listed names of highly influential authors who are in town for the conference including Olweyya Sobh from Lebanon, Aminr Tag Al-Sir from Sudan, Mohamed Al-Ashaary from Morocco, among others.

For his part, Bahaa Taher, Arabic Booker winner, intimated that the government is already not spending enough on culture. “The state spends on culture one tenth of what it spends on football and TV,” said Taher, who chaired one of the panels at this year’s forum.

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