Book Fairs News Article

Governments are afraid of words

What is it like to write abroad because you are not allowed to publish in your own country? This was the question put to Arab authors who live away from their homeland.
“All of us have had problems with the discovery of own identity, whether we belong in this place or that, whether – let’s say – we are more Czech or more European. But what happens when you lose your original identity, not only on the personal level but also the creative?” These were the words of František Ondráš of the Institute of Near Eastern and African Studies (Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague) as he opened the debate.

Searching for an identity

“I live in Finland, but I was born in Baghdad, and for me changing identity is like moving from one hotel room to another. As long as a man has the chance to move to a room that suits him better than the last, he will do so,” explains Hassan Blasim. “I had bigger problems with my personal identity than my identity as a writer. Although I live in Finland, my family that lives in Iraq urged me to have my son circumcised. At that moment my Iraqi identity caught up with me, and it was up to me how I dealt with it. And I discovered that the most important part of my identity was neither Iraq nor Finland, but my son.”
Abdelakder Benali, whose roots are in Morocco but who lives and writes in Holland, claims that the writer’s troubled identity is a myth that should be dispelled. “You don’t ask a greengrocer or a butcher where he comes from. So why is this question put constantly to writers? We should banish identities. What is important is the work, and this does not depend on what our identity is.”

Far from the reader

The second part of this interesting debate addressed the topic of finding ways to the reader, which for writers working abroad is a complicated matter. “I cannot meet my readers, which of course is difficult for me, but I believe that one day I will return to the Lebanon and be able to meet the children I write for,” says Fatima Sharafeddine, who now lives in Belgium. “But by writing in a foreign land I have the opportunity to mediate to European children an image of life in my native country, and this I would not achieve in the same extent from my homeland. I still write out of my own experience: in the time since I left, not a great deal has changed, unfortunately.” The authors’ return
Asked to consider whether the ongoing revolutionary changes in Arab countries will make possible the return of exiled authors to their homelands, the authors in discussion agreed that governments are generally afraid of writers.
“Writers disseminate ideas; they show what is wrong in today’s world and tell us how it could be, in what ways it might be better. They spread the word, and that is a powerful weapon,” says Hassouna Mosbahi. “But I believe that the place from which a writer sends out their words is less important than whether those words continue to serve citizens. It is important to write so that we serve our own people, so that they become ever more critical, so that we help the fight for freedom and the dignity of humanity.”