Leading writers discuss the state of the Arab novel in Tunis forum

Featuring novelists from Sudan to Iraq to Morocco, the forum’s panels addressed concerns over declining readership in the Arab world.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Guest of honour. Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Kouni speaks at at the first Tunis Forum of the Arab Novel.                            (Tunis’s City of Culture)
Guest of honour. Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Kouni speaks at at the first Tunis Forum of the Arab Novel. (Tunis’s City of Culture)

TUNIS - Leaning on his cane and treading carefully, 70-year-old Ibrahim al-Kouni was greeted by a crowd of people as he approached the theatre room.

Kouni, a Libyan novelist who is a star of the Arab literary world, was the guest of honour at the first Tunis Forum of the Arab Novel, which took place in Tunis’s City of Culture. The forum marked the inauguration of the House of Novel, a newly created cultural institution in the City of Culture.

Headed by Tunisian writer Kamel Riahi, the House of the Novel aims to promote the novel as a literary genre and to create a cultural hub for writers throughout the Arab world.

“The House of (the) Novel strives to become an important cultural hub and a minaret of literature in the Arab world,” said Riahi. “It also aims to promote the Tunisian culture and the Tunisian writers. This institution is one of its kind in the Arab world.

“Not only will it be devoted to the literary genre of the novel but it will be open for other genres and one of its objectives is to reintroduce the genre of novel and to promote novel writing and also to praise and promote the Tunisian production.”

The Tunis Forum of the Arab Novel attracted hundreds of literary figures, including writers and critics. Among them were Kouni, Tunisian writer Chokri Mabkhout and Sudanese writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin.

“The annual forum of the Arab novel aspires to become an annual meeting for literary figures and critics as well as fans of the novel to exchange and discuss pertinent issues to the future of the Arab novel,” Riahi said. “This forum also aims at engaging film-makers and artists from other disciplines to work on ways to have the genre of the novel open up to other disciplines.”

Kouni’s appearance at the forum was a highlight for guests, who crowded around to take pictures and receive autographs from the literary figure.

“The turnout of the audience is fascinating, which proves today that novels and readers are an important portion,” said Riahi.

“If it is true that there are no readers and that the novel has no following and that the novel is in a critical state, then how come we have novelists that are still chased out of their countries? How come we still have novelists in exile like Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, who did everything he can to come to the forum today?”

Mabkhout stressed that Tunisia and the Arab world in general are in need of events to shed light on the importance of the novel as a literary genre.

“The existence of a cultural institution regardless of its objectives or changes is an accomplishment to be celebrated and an important event to be praised,” said Mabkhout, who received the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2015.  “We need to reflect on the ability of the novel to change the mentality and the thoughts and people’s approaches to life and this is the unprecedented theme and we need to focus on this issue to be able to understand it.”

Sakin also expressed his appreciation for the new institution.

“Such meetings and forums are important on three levels,” he said. “First, they serve to document the different opinions and reflections regarding the novel and novelists and especially the evolution of the novel. The second point concerns the relationship of the reader and the novelists. When there is an exchange between the readers and the novelist, this especially provides support for young writers who cannot find the opportunities to meet great novelists.

“It is also an important space for novelists themselves. Here different generations of writers meet and these novelists are my teachers. When we meet, there is an immediate learning experience for me as a writer.”

Featuring novelists from Sudan to Iraq to Morocco, the forum’s panels focused on “the novel and its ability to change” and addressed concerns over declining readership in the Arab world.

“As for this year’s theme, which is the novel’s ability to change, it is important in the sense it brings up other questions. Who reads the novel? We cannot speak of readers in the Arab world anymore. There is even illiteracy. Even those educated in these societies do not read,” said Sakin.

Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi said novelists themselves were partly responsible for readers’ lack of enthusiasm.

“If there is a danger to the novel today, it is a danger presented by the novelist himself, especially that there is a wave of novelists who are interested in appealing to the foreign reader for the sake of getting translated and becoming internationally renowned,” said Alsanousi, who won the International Prize of Arab Fiction in 2013.

“Today when we read these novels, we find the same stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood. I don’t find Arab characters I can identify with but rather those characters that the West wants to see. The real danger consists in the concessions that these novelists are making for the illusion of becoming international writers.”