The Alhambra literary fair

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alhambraJamila Sherif at the Alhambra literary fair [with accounts of Tariq Ramadan and Adhaf Soueif

The 4-day literary Hay Festival at the Alhambra 3-6th April was a unique and highly enjoyable cultural event which included lectures, discussion, poetry recitals, bookstalls, book signings, film showings and music concerts.

Granada once again became a great cultural meeting point reminding us of its remarkable history. The organisers wanted Granada’s location on the edge of the Arab world to be used as the focus for discussion and it was done so by a number of the invited speakers. These included great literary figures such as Umberto Eco and Juan Goytisolo, the Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, and the historians David Starkey and Paul Preston.

Granada was an inspired choice for the festival’s focus on Arabic literature. As the founding director of the Hay Festival, Peter Florence, said: “The best thing about Granada is it gives us the chance to engage with Arabic literature. We all labour under this misapprehension that there is only one book in the Arabic world, the Koran. But they are going through a golden age, with 20 or 30 fantastic writers across the Middle East and the Arab world”. Indeed it was a great introduction for me personally to the world of modern Arabic literature. Invited Arab literary figures included Murid Barguti, the Palestinian poet and writer and winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature 1997 for I saw Ramallah and Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist and one of the most highly-regarded authors in the Middle-East, as well as many others.

The programme also included Arab writers famous for their work in English such as Adhaf Souief, the best selling author of The Map of love, short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction 1999, political analyst and commentator particularly well-known for her reporting on Palestine.

The events took place on the Alhambra Hill in and around the palace grounds. The Manuel de Falla Auditorium lecture theatres were packed with several hundreds of attendees at events such as the talks by Tariq Ramadan and Umberto Eco. The views from the terraces of the auditorium are breathtaking particularly at sunset. Just outside the auditorium gates is a great stone cross which was built in 1901 and ‘commemorates Christian prisoners (the ‘martyrs’) who died in the dungeons scattered about these parts in Moorish times.’ (Lorcaís Granada, Ian Gibson1992)

Close by was a second venue, Carmen de los Martires, which stands in beautiful gardens, home to a pair of beautiful peacocks. The Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra complex was the grand setting for the concerts. The emperor Charles V had fallen in love with the Granada during his honeymoon there in 1526 and decided to erect within the Alhambra a magnificent Christian Palace to compete with the ones built by the Muslims. The building symbolising power and conquest stands in contrast to the delicate Alhambra palaces.

The event was very well-attended and the profile of the attendees varied according to the topic of the event. They included Spanish Arabists, British ex-pats, the local Spanish Muslims, Spanish students and writers and journalists, and visitors, such as ourselves.

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European Muslims: an original marriage between faith and culture
Tariq Ramadan
Thursday 3 April

In his thought provoking and entertaining talk Tariq Ramadan began by encouraging European Muslims to have a character grounded in deep faith and a critical mind. He felt that Muslims in the West were undergoing a silent revolution that is not covered by the media.

In less than two generations there is a mainstream movement of people being able to say they are Muslim and European. They are knowledgeable about Islam and society. He also mentioned that society had to understand that there are many trends within Islam and that the beginning of respect was accepting that Islamic following was as complex as any other. ‘Good’ does not equate to ‘moderate’ and ‘bad’ to ‘fundamentalist’. He emphasised that Muslims in Europe were of one religion but of different cultures, for example British and Spanish, and followed different religious interpretations.
He asked the question ‘as a European Muslim is there anything that is a problem for me to be a European?’

He went on to explain that we all share the same concerns and questions on the religious and philosophical levels. These include questions such as ‘How am I going to transmit values such as dignity to my child?’ He advised that we should come together on common issues of concern such as the treatment of refugees through shared values and principles such as dignity and justice.
He also talked about the relationship of faith and culture and being critical of one’s culture. He mentioned the problems of a reductionist and literalist reading of the sacred texts and also a cultural projection on to the texts. Having being able to make a difference between culture and religion Muslims are able to discuss identity and indeed they have multiple complex identities. Encouragingly he said that this discourse was already going on in the leadership level at the grassroots.
Tariq Ramadan described himself as ‘Swiss by nationality, European by culture, Egyptian by memory and Moroccan by adoption.’ He advised that we should use ‘the richness of our memories to build common histories and a sense of belonging. My presence is of value, not a problem.’ He noted that very little was said about our collective memories in the school curricula and lamented how one could, for example, be a doctorate in philosophy in Spain without knowing about the contribution of Muslims to the European mind. European society should acknowledge and ‘accept the diversity of the past to build on the diversity of the future’ a comment that I took a way with me to ponder on further.
He discouraged talk of minorities, rather encouraged Muslims to see themselves as citizens that belong to society.’European governments should treat citizens equally and have a duty of consistency.’ On a very positive note he said we had moved on from talk of integration and should move the discourse to ‘belonging’.

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Adhaf Soueif in conversation with Peter Florence [Sponsored by Casa Arabe and the British Council]
Friday 4 April

Peter Florence introduced Adhaf Soueif as one of the great novelists writing in the English language.

He asked her start by further exploring issues about the multiplicity of identity introduced by Tariq Ramadan on the previous evening. She said while writing the introduction to her book Mezzaterra, Fragments from the Common Ground, which is a collection of political essays and essays on literature, culture and politics, she came face to face with the issue of identity. Growing up in Egypt in the sixties, she said they thought of themselves comfortably as Egyptian, Muslim, Arab, African, Coptic etc. She did not come across the word for identity in Arabic, huwiyyah until many years later. She said she was comforted by Tariq Ramadan’s words about multiple identities and shared cultures and traditions. ‘What am I?’ she asked: ‘I am Egyptian, Arab and part of Western culture.’

When asked about how English became her writing language and about which language she dreamt in, she replied that her dreams were merged in both and that she was most comfortable when she can speak in both languages. In the fifties she accompanied her parents, both lecturers, to the UK aged 4, in order for her mother to pursue her PhD in English literature. On her return to Egypt aged 8 she had lost Arabic and had to re-learn it. However she had begun to read books in English and continued to be an avid reader. They had two libraries at home; her mother’s which was mostly English: fiction, poetry and her father’s; mostly sociology and history. She preferred her mother’s library.

Florence commented that she had become on of the great mediators of the Arab world. She felt that through her books she was enabling people to feel at home with a place and culture (Egyptian/Arab) that was not automatically theirs. Florence further probed her whether she was writing as a corrective force or complimentary vision. She replied succinctly that if one writes from the heart it is a true vision and therefore a corrective vision.

Another very interesting question was about how she translated colloquial expressions and metaphors from Arabic to English given that her books are set in Egypt but written in English. She explained that she imagined her characters speaking in Arabic but translated it automatically into English. She explained the process required thought and often it was most authentic to give the gist of an expression rather than translating it literally. She gave the amusing example of the extremely common use of ‘Wallahi’ or ‘By God’ in Arabic, a literal translation of which may not always be appropriate. She avoided using Arabic words unless there was good reason.

Finally, she was asked how comfortable she was being politicised and associated with the Palestinian political cause. She explained that ‘The Map of Love’ had provided her with a platform and she was invited after the second Intifadah by the Guardian to do a reportage piece. She agreed eagerly as she wanted to see and write about what was going on there. She used her skills as a novelist to bring the characters she met to life for the reader. She has embraced the opportunity unequivocally because she feels there is a desperate need for this kind of ‘activist’ work. Due to her commitment to this cause she has not had time to write further novels although she reassures us there is one ‘wanting to come out’.