AFP: "Arab novel booms as Beirut named World Book Capital"


"BEIRUT (AFP) — As Beirut prepares to don the mantle of UNESCO "World Book Capital City 2009," Arabic novels are enjoying an unprecedented boom across the Middle East, breaking taboos on topics such as sex and religion.

The Lebanese capital was chosen as the world's literary centre this year "in the light of its focus on cultural diversity, dialogue and tolerance," according to the UNESCO selection committee.

There is no shortage of literary fodder as book readings and launches are scheduled across Beirut daily for the last week of April. Among books being showcased will be a wealth of latest offerings from leading authors.

"More than 100 novels were up for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Arab version of the Booker Prize) in 2008/09 -- and that's an unprecedented number," said Fakhri Salih, a former jury member for the award and current chairman of Jordan's association of literary critics.

The prize was awarded to Egyptian author Yussef Zeidan for his book "Azazil," which centres on changes in religion in Arab countries around the Mediterranean in the fifth century AD.

The novel quickly gained popularity as a genre in 2002 when Egyptian writer Ala al-Aswany published the highly successful "The Yaacoubian Building," a novel-turned-movie depicting regime corruption and the rise of Islamism in Egypt.

The publication was followed by a flurry of works that delve into taboo topics, primarily sexuality and religion, in countries where such books had been historically banned and where the novel was almost non-existent.

"The production of novels in Gulf countries exploded in recent years," says Rana Idriss, who heads the Beirut-based Al-Adab (Literature) publishing house.

In 2005, for example, Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea found fame with "Girls of Riyadh," a book that traces the lives of four young women in the ultra-conservative kingdom." (for full article, click here)

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