Celebrating multicultural literature in Beirut

International Writers’ House founder Charif Majdalani. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Many of our most famous authors wrote their masterpieces in a second language. Vladimir Nabokov penned his first nine novels in Russian, but wrote “Lolita” in English.

Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, and although he chose to write in English he identified as a Pole. Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett lived in Paris for much of his adult life and was an accomplished writer in both English and French.

The increasingly commonality of authors living and working between two or more countries, cultures or languages, and the ways in which that affects their work, is the driving force behind Beirut-based NGO International Writers’ House.

Founded in 2012, the NGO is headed by author and literary critic Charif Majdalani, and run by a small team of five literature lovers. This October the organization is set to hold its first event, a series of literary meetings featuring international authors, entitled “Writers Between Two Cultures.”

Majdalani founded the organization, he explains, because he felt that existing literary events were too niche.

“There are book fairs in Lebanon,” he acknowledged, “one French and one Arabic, but they exclusively invite authors who write in [those languages]. We felt that it was necessary to invite international writers to Lebanon ... In Lebanon there are music, dance, theater and even storytelling festivals, but not really literary equivalents, aside from the book fairs.

“We think that it’s important to promote literature on an international scale. Our aim is to really invite authors from every country, working in every language ... and also to work a lot on multiculturalism, that is to focus on authors who live and work between two cultures, immigrant authors and those working in other languages, as reflected in this year’s program.”

The organization aims to organize a week of literary events every year, Majdalani explains, adding that this year’s inaugural event, which features six authors, is smaller in scale than future editions.

“Appearances will consist of a reading,” he explains, “either done by actors or the authors themselves ... and then there will be a dialogue with the author addressing questions of intercultural writing and language, but also on literature more generally and on their own output in particular. Then it’s very important that the public can have a chance to ask their questions. It’s a real dialogue.”

Running from Oct. 3 to 11, “Writers Between Two Cultures” will open with an appearance by Canada-based Lebanese author and photographer Rawi Hage Oct. 3. Hage, who writes in English, has won numerous prizes for his three novels, “De Niro’s Game” (2006), “Cockroach” (2008) and “Carnival” (2012).

Celebrated Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who also writes in English, will make an appearance Oct. 8. Best known for the 1999 bestseller “The Map of Love,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Soueif has won numerous awards and had her work translated into 30 languages.

Romanian poet and writer Marius Daniel Popescu, who is based in Switzerland and writes in French, is scheduled to appear Oct. 10. With several books of Romanian poetry, a weekly newspaper, a literary magazine and two novels under his belt, Popescu’s career is characterized by diversity and has even included a stint as a bus driver.

Also appearing Oct. 10 is Paris-based Moroccan writer and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa. As well an award-winning film “Salvation Army,” based on his 2006 debut novel of the same name, Taïa has written three further novels in French, “Une Mélancholie Arabe” (2008), “Le Jour du Roi” (2010) and “Infidèles” (2012). Taïa’s 2014 film will be screened at the French Institute’s Salle Montaigne Oct. 8, prior to his appearance.

Canada-based Armenian writer and essayist Viken Berberian will make his appearance Oct. 11. Raised in west Beirut, Berberian moved with his family to Los Angeles at the outbreak of the Civil War, an experience he explores in his first novel, “The Cyclist” (2002). His second novel, “Das Kapital” was published in 2007 and he is currently working on a graphic novel.

Rome-based Colombian author Santiago Gamboa will be speaking later the same day.

A journalist, diplomat and novelist, Gamboa is best known for his 1997 novel “Perder es Cuesti?n de Método,” which is being made into a film, and the prize-winning 2009 novel “Necropolis.”

The selection of authors this year was constrained by the NGO’s limited budget, Majdalani explains, adding that they initially hoped to bring 15 authors to Lebanon. It is nevertheless reflective of International Writers’ House’s larger aim, which is to create a diverse annual event featuring authors from the Lebanese and Arab diaspora as well as international authors.

“I think that Lebanon is a county with a mixture of languages, cultures, traditions,” Majdalani says, “and I think that speaks a lot to the Lebanese. It should naturally interest them. Beirut is a very open city. It’s a city that has given birth to a lot of emigration, unfortunately, but on the other hand a lot of things from outside have been adopted by the Lebanese.

“We speak several languages and we’re capable of absorbing cultural influences from France, America, England ... Today Lebanon is confronted with problems stemming from conflicts between different communities. Everyone hides behind the identity of his or her own community and that’s very dangerous. It’s important for people to reflect on openness.”

The NGO is currently dependent on private donations from sponsors. The team organized a similar literary event in 2009, Majdalani explains, at which time they were promised funding by the Culture Ministry. Nothing came of this, however, so in 2012 they decided to launch an independent organization.

An auction of work by well-known artists, including Lebanese modernist Paul Guiragossian, is set to take place at Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth Oct. 16. All proceeds will be donated to help fund next year’s event in May.

Majdalani is hoping to host Turkish and Armenian authors, he says, to mark 100 years since the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Funding allowing, the organization also intends to begin issuing a literary magazine as of next year, featuring extracts of the participating authors’ work translated into English, Arabic and French.

The authors invited each year will be left free to select their own readings and the direction of their talks. Majdalani says he hopes the discussions will touch on issues such as translation, and how the choice of language affects the atmosphere and subject matter of a novel.

“We want the authors to talk about how they live,” he says, “how they work in whatever language they write in, and how that makes itself felt it their work, but also to discuss how the choice of words is influenced by their language of origin.”

“Writers Between Two Cultures” runs from Oct. 3 to 11 at venues across Beirut. For more information, please visit





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