‘Literature doesn’t have a sex’: A report on the 3rd Cairo Literature Festival
Right to left: Ola Adel, Anna Katharina Hahn, May Telmissany and Milena Michiko Flašar at Bayt al-Sennari on February 13. - Courtesy: Ramy Abo Raya

The third Cairo Literature Festival, which ran from February 11 to 16, boasted its international credentials and a focus on women’s writing. It invited 50 writers, including 30 women, from 18 countries to take part in panel discussions, read extracts of their poetry or prose and, in some cases, launch Arabic-language editions of their works.

Sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and state-run media organization Al-Ahram, and working in association with various embassies and cultural forums, festival organizers Sefsafa Publishing House had a reach and funding to be envied. They were able to accommodate guests in five-star hotels, set up live translation booths, and hire some of Cairo’s most impressive venues, including Bayt al-Suhaymi, Bayt al-Sinnari and Greater Cairo Library.

It was a shame, therefore, that the festival’s publicity and organization fell well short of the preeminence and promise of its guests, and that attendance figures were correspondingly low. A reading by acclaimed Arab writers, including Egyptian poet Iman Mersal and Syrian novelist Maha Hassan, at downtown’s Rawabet Theater on February 12 pulled an audience of 60 people. This was one of the week’s most popular events, yet the next day, at the same venue but organized separately from the festival, Mersal launched her new book, How to Mend: On Motherhood and its Ghosts, to a full house of over 120 people.

The website went live two days after the festival began, and its social media promotion was Arabic only, even though many events were held in Arabic and English. The poster splashed a graphic of a generic ancient Egyptian goddess on a vaguely Egypto-Islamic backdrop. It looked more like an advert for Cleopatra cigarettes than for an international literary festival: cheap, gaudy and the sort of thing you would frankly choose an alternative to given the choice. “Exotic and kitschy,” was the terse description of one guest speaker, when asked for her opinion. The same could be said of the festival’s slogan: “Women are the ink and the soul of writing.”

In contrast, the work of most of the participating writers sought to discredit such token and fetishistic images of women. The team behind the festival should be applauded for inviting a refreshing proportion of female writers, but it would appear that those handling the publicity, at least, need to digest the import of their works a little more thoroughly.

At a discussion on contemporary women’s writing on February 12, a couple of writers were proud to identify as women writers. Omneya Talaat, an Egyptian novelist and journalist, probed the question of how women can live independently from men, and has recently published a self-styled “informal anthropological work” on the lives of women in Egypt.

Generally, however, there was a marked resistance among the festival’s guests toward labels such as “women’s writing” or “female writer,” with their implication that women only write about particular topics or in particular styles. Maha Hassan has written, “The deepest layer of the tyranny that women must battle with is that of the reactionary man, the shadow man inside every Eastern male that prevents him admitting woman as his equal.”

On occasion, this shadow man popped into the hearts of the festival’s male moderators with an almost comic effect. At the discussion on contemporary women’s writing, writer Medhat Taha’s smart flat-cap and charismatic smile belied his lack of preparation, as he squinted at his A4 print-out to read the names of the guest writers. During a reading by two Slovenian poets, Sayed Mahmoud, the event’s moderator, sat next to them scrolling on his smartphone. Following readings of three writers from their recent novels, Sefsafa’s Mohamed El-Baaly, the festival’s kind and welcoming executive director, surprised everyone by saying he would now pass on the duties of moderating to professor Ola Adel, the event’s translator, who was more surprised than anyone else. She proceeded to facilitate the Q&A with an elegance and professionalism missing in some of the performances of other moderators I saw at the festival.

Of course, these are shortcomings that are far from exclusive to Arab men. Marisa Silver, a visiting American novelist, recounted sitting on a panel in the US where a male novelist claimed “men write better about politics and war, and women about domestic concerns and families.” Louisa Young, a British novelist and writer, provided a biting response: “Anyone who thinks that war doesn’t also include the home and the family doesn’t know a thing about war.”

Young’s best-selling series on World War I and its aftermath, like Hassan’s two recent novels on the war in Syria, insist on human beings, in their emotional entirety, allowing their daily lives to resonate and interplay with broader social and political contexts. That a main character happens to be a woman or that there are descriptions of food being prepared is no justification to label it “women’s fiction.” May Telmissany, an Egyptian-Canadian novelist and film critic, put it more bluntly during a talk on Monday at Bayt al-Sinnari: “I do not believe literature has a sex.”

Many of the guest speakers throughout the week expressed a broad humanism that entailed a duty first and foremost to people and their stories, not to a particular gender, agenda or political ideology. During the Q&A on English literature, a university professor asked whether it was right for her faculty to continue teaching ideology as the key to understanding a text – “Is this view becoming out of date?”

The clearest answer had been given the day before at Bayt al-Sinnari, by German author Anna Katharina Hahn. Asked about the political responsibilities of European novelists in the face of rising right-wing nationalism, she drew a sharp distinction between political and creative writing, and made it clear that, as an author, “I am here to describe the world, not to explain it.” Other writers at the festival shared her view that the role of literature was not to change the world, but to improve the way we think about it, to appreciate its intricacies, and expand our sympathies for its inhabitants.

This responsibility is particularly pressing in a world, not just a Europe, in which people, communities, and nations are increasingly closing in on themselves. Telmissany read an extract from her new collection of short stories, al-Ein al-Sihriya (Peephole, 2016), which sees this isolationist trend manifested in the increasingly guarded and distrustful architecture of house-fronts in Cairo’s upscale Heliopolis neighborhood. Basma Abdel Aziz, at an event at the Greater Cairo Library on February 15, discussed the inspiration for her debut novel, al-Taboor (The Queue, 2013): a small unmoving line of people waiting outside a government building. The novel takes a surreal turn, as the queue grows and grows to extraordinary proportions, until becoming a whole bustling dynamic society of its own.

A message we can glean from Abdel Aziz’s bleak metaphor is that in our global historical moment we have an opportunity to engage everyone waiting in the queue and “to spread a habit of understanding each other’s complexities,” in the apt words of Young at a panel discussion earlier in the festival. We have to play the waiting game, but we do not have to wait silently. If we can embrace and share this deeper humanism, when the floodgates of change open again they might lead to further doors of possibilities, and not to halls of mirrors.

It’s a shame so few people were able to enjoy and partake in the festival’s stimulating discussions and readings. At the final panel on literature and reality at Greater Cairo Library, only six of the audience members did not have a professional or personal connection to the event. With more creative marketing, and a little more thought into the structure of the events, this festival has the potential to be a real treat of the cultural calendar.

Ali Porteous