The most prominent francophone cultural event in Lebanon, the Francophone Book Fair, kicked off on Friday, Nov. 1 and will last until Nov. 10. The fair, which is celebrating its 20th year, will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. During these last 20 years, the exhibition has become a landmark that cannot be ignored: a steady expansion that includes lectures given by authors, discussions, signings, and exhibits (in photography and plastic art) accompany the book fair, not to mention another impressive series of activities that turn these 10 days into an integral cultural agenda.
Perhaps it did not cross the minds of owners of francophone bookstores in Lebanon that the initiative they started in the early 1990s would turn into a raging success and become an integral part of the activities of this country. Back then, the capital was rising from the ashes of its “glorious” war. The French Cultural Center (the name was changed a few years ago to the French Institute) was still in ruins due to the missiles that had hit it. This center was located in an area known as the “demarcation line.”
Perhaps the sporadic wars, which have different ways of showing up, are not over yet, but this book fair managed to overcome everything, including the difficult period that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. On that very day, there was a serious discussion about the permanent cancelation of the Book Fair, which almost led to a sad ending! Magic (as the Lebanese like to call it), however, brought everything back to normal and the exhibition carried on.
Throughout the years, the exhibition has moved from one place to another. It started in downtown, then moved to Futuroscope in Sin el-Fil, and then finally to the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL). This transition is indicative of the fair’s expansion and the increasing number of participants and visiting writers; past locations were no longer able to fit them or the visiting public. Some sources say that more than 100,000 people visit the Book Fair each year, ranking it third worldwide.
In this context, we should draw attention to one fundamental point: the Paris and Quebec exhibitions have entry fees (deemed symbolic by some), while entry into the Beirut Exhibition is free. This means that people can visit it several times, and every time they visit they must register their visits as new visitors. This is by no means aimed at discrediting the Book Fair. This just seemed a point worth mentioning, especially in light of the serious reading crisis plaguing a large section of the world, not only Lebanon.
It is therefore important that we refrain from convincing ourselves that all visitors are book-buying readers. Just because people visit the exhibition does not mean that they are readers. The Book Fair has actually turned into a meeting place, reflecting a rampant trend in society. Still, having it is definitely better than not.
Les mots des Autres, which is French for “The Words of the Others,” is the theme of the exhibition this year. It comes after Les mots de la Méditerranée (The Words of the Mediterranean) and Les mots de la Liberté (The Words of Freedom).
Understandably, the first title was given because a Mediterranean boat was moving authors from the Mediterranean to Beirut, including Daniel Rondeau (French writer and journalist, and French ambassador to Malta at the time). The second came after a series of events and assassinations (and because freedom, needless to say, is a magical word that raises all kinds of passions). The third title refers to Arabic book publishers.
I am really trying to understand why these are considered part of the "others," knowing that they will exhibit their books for the first time in the history of this exhibition, especially those translated from French literature and thought. If some Arab publishers have taken the initiative — and this should be the case when it comes to the convergence of arts and “civilization” (a long, recurring theme) — and offered those who do not read French the chance to read other literatures, why does the honorable francophone community want to keep them on the other side by referring to them as others? It is a question I ask without having any answers.
A while ago, the exhibition began appointing a guest of honor every year. This is a good initiative and is derived from the Paris exhibition, which, in turn, has named a guest every year since its early beginnings. The difference, however, is that when the Paris exhibition selects a country, French publishing houses work on translating works from that country’s most prominent authors . For instance, if Japan were named on a given year, the Paris exhibition would include hundreds of books translated from Japanese and dozens of Japanese authors would be in attendance.
We certainly do not have the capability to do this. The Beirut exhibition is for French books libraries and some small Lebanese publishing houses that publish French books. Last year, the Goncourt Academy was the guest of honor due to the release of the Liste Goncourt/Choix de L’Orient, an award in which students at Arab universities choose a French novel to be among the novels nominated for the French Prix Goncourt. It was won by Mathias Énard for his novel, Rue des Voleurs (Street of Thieves). The Arabic version of the book was published by Les Éditions du Chameau. The author will attend this year as member of the committee, which is headed by Lebanese writer Charif Majdalani (last year, the committee was headed by the novelist Hyam Yared). Philippe Claudel, member of the Goncourt Academy, will also be in attendance.
This year, the guest of honor is the French Academy; four of its immortal members will be present. (Academy members are called "immortals." The Academy itself was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century). The four members are: Hélène Carrère d'Encausse (permanent secretary), Michael Edwards, Dominique Fernandez and Amin Maalouf, who confirmed his attendance after he had apologized for not visiting Lebanon in previous years.
There is no doubt that his presence will add a great deal of value to the French literature written by Lebanese authors, and perhaps to the exhibition. Other known literary names will attend the exhibition, such as the Canadian poet of Haitian origin, Dany Leferriére. It is coincidental that this excellent writer will be at the exhibition when the guest of honor is the French Academy, which nominated him a couple of days ago for membership (pending its next elections).
Other nice and similar coincidences occurred during the exhibition, including but not limited to: novelist Paule Constant, who was [in Lebanon] when she heard the news that she had won the Prix Goncourt (1998), so went back to her country. Just hours after his arrival [in Beirut] to participate in a symposium, Pierre Michon was selected in Paris as the winner of the Prix Décembre (2002). In 2011, Alexis Jenni participated in a symposium on his book The French Art of War and quickly left the next morning to receive his Prix Goncourt too. Many others have gone through a similar experience. Perhaps the book fair is a lucky charm for some authors.
In any case, there are many seminars, round tables and activities. Maybe we should draw attention to the launch of the Beirut International Book Fair (which will be managed by Charif Majdalani), the celebration of the centenary of Albert Camus’ birth, and other activities that will gather a number of participants and include many debates and activities.
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