FREEDOM BOOK FAIR at Migratie Museum in The Hague

This year saw the Hague’s Freedom Book Fair enter its 4th year. Inspired in protest at the violent murder of  Bangledeshi writer and blogger, it is designed to provide a space for writers and  journalists for whom freedom of expression is a luxury.

Hosted by the Hague Peace Projects initiative, the book fair provides a platform for writers who hail from places where their work is unlikely to get published and their lives are frequently in danger, if it is. For book lovers, this event presents an opportunity to become acquainted with a far wider spectrum of books than one might ordinarily come across in hard copy. I was fascinated by the range of writers from places that do not usually feature in international literary fairs or festivals – Kurdish literature, Arabic literature, writers from Tajikistan and the Sudan, poets from Nicaragua and Honduras.

In February 2015, a popular Bangladeshi activist and blogger, Avijit Roy was hacked to death with a machete by Islamic fundamentalists while promoting his book, The Virus of Faith in Dakhar. His wife, Rafida Ahmed, who was with him, sustained severe head injuries and lost her thumb. Ahmed attended this year’s Freedom Book Fair to talk about her work as a writer and activist. She is now dedicated to raising awareness about attacks on secular intellectuals in Bangladesh by Islamic fundamentalists. One of the world’s largest and poorest democracies, Bangladesh was founded as a secular country but the influence of Islamic fundamentalists there has been growing since the 1990’s and it is now a majority-Muslim country. It has become a battle ground for religious fundamentalists and secular government officials, Ahmed tells us. ‘Is Bangladesh going to be the next Pakistan or Afghanistan?’ she asks.

This theme of secularism vs fundamentalism is echoed in another Freedom book fair event I attended, on Arabic literature in Europe. It included discussion of the tension between what one panellist described as the conflation of Arabism and Islamism. Feras Abo Dabboseh, founder of Lagrange Points bookshop in Brussels and political scientist, explains that his aim in beginning such an initiative is to promote understanding in Europe about Arabic culture through books, music and art. He describes his approach as secularist but is quick to point out that both religious and non-religious texts are included in his book selection. He is joined by writer and translator of Arabic poetry, Nisrine Mbarki and Arabic Professor at the College of Europe, Lore Baeten. In spite of the Arab world’s long and rich literary tradition, there is little literature currently being published in the Middle East. All the panellists agree that this is a reflection of the current intellectual crisis of the Arabic world.

However Belgian academic, Baeten, points out that Arabic literature is seldom given much coverage at European universities – even in History of Literature courses. She is hopeful however, that this is changing as the Arab-speaking community in Europe grows. She also calls on institutions like universities to play a bigger role in broadening perspectives and including more Arabic texts in their syllabi. Baeten also works as a translator of both classical and contemporary Arabic theatrical texts and argues that ‘everything is translatable’. This in spite of the fact that Arabic is recognised as a language of extremely wide vocabulary where many words have multiple meanings. Translator of Arabic poetry, Nisrine Mbarki agrees. ‘Language is just a tool for feelings and emotions which are universal.’ Coming across an English translation of one of famed Syrian poet, Adonis’s volumes, one cannot help but be moved by the beauty and originality of his language. Perhaps something has been lost in translation, but the power of his words transcends time and space and leaves one with a renewed sense of wonder at the beauty and diversity of literature.    Souwie Buis       5th May 2019