Literary dispute

Louise Sarant interviews Alaa El Aswany on why he resigned as head of the Beirut 39 literary Competition

“I have suffered 20 years in Egypt because of this type of competition. I will never inflict this on any other young writer,” explains internationally acclaimed Egyptian novelist Alaa Aswany after he stepped down as jury president of the Hay Beirut Festival.

Beirut39 is a collaboration between the Hay Festival and Beirut World Capital of the Book 2009 and is a project aimed at bringing together 39 of the most interesting writers of Arab heritage under 39 years of age. Two conditions are mandatory for each candidate: they need to be under 40 years of age, and they must have at least one book printed.

Aswany was offered to preside over a new jury made up by Abdo Wazen, Lebanese writer, poet and cultural editor of the international daily Al-Hayat newspaper, Alawiya Sobh, Lebanese writer and poet and Saif Al Rahbi, Omani poet and editor in chief of “Nazwa”, an Omani cultural magazine. “One day after I accepted their offer, I received a list of 90 names of young writers who were candidates for the competition. I later learned that those names had been chosen by the literary magazine Banipal, which issued its own selection.”

Furious, he contacted Cristina La Roche, the president of Beirut39 in order to redefine the meaning of “open competition”, which he considered misused in this context. “How can you call it ‘open’ when a magazine is filtering the candidacies?” His indignation did not cool down when he was told that Banipal has been researching literary talents in the Arab World for a long time, and consequently knew who the new promising novelists where.

Negotiations followed this incident until late May, when Alaa Aswany, accompanied by a British press officer, met with Cristina La Roche in London in order to reach a final agreement. “I had already made up my mind at that time. I told Cristina that if the competition was carried on in this manner I would step down as president of the jury.”

According to Aswany he gave Cristina La Roche two options: first, to change the name of the competition from “open” to “Banipal” to reflect its true nature, or to launch a huge campaign to advertise the competition in the Arab world. “In Egypt no one was aware of the mere existence of this literary contest, except people with good connections in the cultural field and a bunch of journalists”.

They finally reached an agreement, adding two more months to the initial deadline as well as arranging a campaign in the press that was supposed to start on the 1 June. Unfortunately none of the above promises were actually carried out, the deadline for the candidacies submission remained the 31 June and the press campaign never happened.

“I came back to Egypt on the 23 June after attending some conferences in France and Italy, and noticed that none of the commitments we agreed on during the London meeting came true. I wrote Cristina La Roche a letter at once to resign from the jury.”

Mrs Laroche explained to Al Masry Al Youm that she has great respect for Alaa Aswany, but his role was to judge the stories, not to administer the prize. “It’s a pity it did not work out, but if more young writers got to hear about this project then his involvement will have been positive,” said the president of the competition.

Aswani’s resignation has been criticized by some who claim that in fact Aswany had asked for extra money to remain president of the jury. “I faced many attacks after I took the decision to withdraw from this competition. Some said that I wanted more money. They disregard the fact that I once was heading the jury of Al Akhbar Al Youm literary competition and did not get a single pound for that. In the end we discovered not less than 10 talented new writers that were unknown until then!” adds clearly irritated.

According to Aswany, Hoda Barakat, an acclaimed Lebanese novelist and member of the same jury wrote him an email days after his resignation, announcing that she was leaving the committee as well, for the same reasons. “I think they ignored my nature and temperament when they asked me to be president,” explains Alaa, his eyes glowing. “They must regret it badly!”

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