Es began with a polemic. Just before eighty writers from the francophone world were due to travel to the Beyrouth Livres literary festival, some of the most prominent of them canceled. Half of the Prix Goncourt jury, which exceptionally and expressly wanted to hold its shortlist meeting in Beirut this year and expressly out of solidarity with the stricken Lebanon and wanted to announce the result in the “Résidence des Pins” there, stayed away from the festival. The general secretary of the Académie, the writer Philippe Claudel, apologized to his colleagues, pointing to the “general deterioration of the situation in Lebanon”. The cancellations have nothing to do with the statements made by the Lebanese Minister of Culture Mohammad Mortada, who accused the festival of Zionist activities on Twitter. Mortada is close to the Shia Amal movement. Among the authors, he claimed in a tweet, are some who “are committed in thought and practice to Zionist projects, which they support both in their literary work and in their daily lives.”
The tweet was soon deleted. The Ministry of Culture promised the French Embassy its full support for the festival. In addition, dozens of mainly Lebanese intellectuals showed understanding for the absent colleagues in an open letter, but also emphasized their determination to breathe a spirit of resistance into the event – against all obscurantism. The book, they wrote, is a non-negotiable space of freedom.
Have mercy, do something!
Against the background of currency collapse and pauperism in Lebanon, however, it has to be bought at a high price. That is why the Institut français decided to organize a literature festival this year instead of the francophone book fair. It was a premiere that, with around one hundred events, eleven exhibitions and twelve performances, seemed almost oversized – but given the circumstances, it wasn’t. Mathieu Diez from the Institut français, who was in charge of organizing the whole thing, talked about the many conversations held beforehand, during which he always heard the same thing: “Have mercy, do something!” For three years there has only been bad news from this country , whose book scene is also enormously important for France. Sixty percent of translations from French into Arabic come from Lebanon, from where they are exported to North African countries in particular. “Lebanon is a hub,” said Diez. The festival was an attempt to keep it moving.
You were grateful for that. You could feel that not only in the streets of Gemmayze, where for an afternoon there was actually something like a crowd on the narrow sidewalks. People with books under their arms walked from one signing shop to the next; from Zeina Abirached to Hyam Yared, from Dima Abdallah to Georgia Makhlouf. In the “Bibliothèque orientale”, in which the “Parliament of French-speaking women writers” negotiated the question of whether and why writing women are dangerous in a show trial, joy and a pleasure in playing with serious accusations could be experienced, which caused great hilarity . And after a zoom session with their colleagues, the four members of the Prix Goncourt jury who had traveled there announced the shortlist for this year’s prize from Beirut. Meanwhile, in distant Baalbek, one could visit a small, very fine show with illustrations of famous Lebanese women whose life stories tell a lot about the urge for freedom, about asserting oneself in male worlds, about breaking with conventions.
Writing about the disaster
In general, there was a lot of talk about fighting during these ten days of the festival. About literature as a tool of resistance with which sovereignty over the catastrophic events that Lebanon and the people there are experiencing can be regained. A whole series of books have already been published that reflect the country’s decline. The most interesting is a literary diary entitled “Beyrouth 2020 – Journal d’un effondrement”. It’s by Charif Majdalani, who has performed several times, once in the crypt of the Saint-Joseph church, which was severely damaged in the Beirut port explosion a good two years ago.
Majdalani sat there with French-born Michaël Ferrier, who was in Japan when the 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear reactor went out of control. How do you write about a disaster? What does personal experience say about the collective trauma? Those were her questions. Until at the very end of the evening someone from the audience wanted to know what writers could do in the face of such events.
Then Michaël Ferrier shrugged his shoulders, took the book by Majdalani and opened it to one of the last pages. There it says: “I am writing these lines on the terrace. It’s very hot, but a gentle breeze has come up and it’s blowing with conviction.” Ferrier closed the book. “I think,” he then said, “we writers are like that breeze.”