Sunday, May 31, 2009

Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas

There is a fascinating festival going on right now in New York called Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas that aims to use culture (books, film, visual arts) to break through the stereotypes that we (Americans and Muslims) have about each other. As part of this festival, the New York Public Library (NYPL) hosted a panel discussion entitled New Eyes on the Arab World: Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice with Muslim and American writers and translators this past Saturday evening.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that there are a large number of young Arab writers who are interested in getting published in the West. It wasn’t completely clear as to why this is (do they want to reach a larger audience, is there more money to be made by selling in the West, do they want to de-exoticise the Arab world, or perhaps all three), but Paul Theroux, one of the panelists and a well-known Arabic-English translator, was encouraged by this wave and half-jokingly suggested that these young authors should be in touch with him as he is always looking for new books to work on!

Raja Alem, the only female writer on the panel, also seemed encouraged by these younger writers even if many of them may be able to sell more books than she, especially if they write books in the “chick lit” style of the Girls of Riyadh. She seemed particularly excited by the the web, in all its permutations, and sees the internet as a real opportunity for young Arab writers to be free from geographical borders and allows their work to be accessed immediately anywhere and by anybody.

Of course I always think of questions once the event is already over, but it occurred to me afterwards that no one really addressed the numerous books by Iranian authors that have already reached a wide audience in the West. I’m thinking of: Reading Lolita in Tehran, Persepolis, Lipstick Jihad, etc. Have their works helped to “break down barriers” and introduce a more nuanced Iran to Western audiences? What about hyphenated authors (i.e. Syrian-Americans, French-Algerians, etc…)? How do their experiences of living in multiple cultures influence their work and bridge the gap between the Arab world and the West?

The festival ends June 14. Go check it out!

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