Boyd Tonkin: Free thinkers bloom in the desert

The Week In Books

Mohammed Hashem runs Merit Publishers in Cairo. As an utterly fearless promoter of the best new writing in Egypt and beyond, he has some resounding coups to his credit. Merit first published Alaa Al Aswany, whose Chicago – successor to the world-seducing The Yacoubian Building – just won a poll as the best-loved novel in the UAE.

These days, Hashem mixes cutting-edge fiction with a growing range of "green" titles and children's books committed, he tells me through an interpreter, to a "rational and non-racist" world-view. I ask if this uncrushable scrapper with censors and clerics has managed to stay out of court lately. "I'm never out of court!" Which gives Merit more grief, the Egyptian state or religious authorities? Mohammed – who understands more English than he speaks – merrily holds up two fingers.

He's constantly distracted by well-wishers – a good sign for the health of the Fair as a burgeoning intellectual market-place. Hashem does worry that the explosion of state-run literary patronage in the Gulf could steal the thunder of free-standing (and free-thinking) entrepreneurs such as Merit. It would be satisfying to think that public and private enterprise can work in tandem to nurture the Arab book. That depends on the lavish official initiatives having the nous to match their depth of pocket with breadth of vision.

The omens look promising so far. I attended the prize-giving of the Sheikh Zayed book awards, with cheques across nine categories that dwarf other honours just as the Emirates Palace – where it took place – does other hotels. Impressively, the literature award (750,000 dirhams, or £125,000) went to another dauntless Cairene, Gamal Al Ghitani, for his new novel Ren. Ever since he was jailed in the 1960s for opposing Nasser's police state, Al Ghitani has twin-tracked landmark historical fiction exploring the roots of today's Egypt with courageous dissenting journalism. Next month, Arabia Books in the UK will issue his The Zaferani Files.

A couple of days earlier, also in Abu Dhabi, the second International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the "Arabic Booker" – had confirmed that the past illuminates the present in these parts. Its winner was Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan, whose Beelzebub returns to the fifth century AD, and the violent imposition of orthodoxy – Christian, in this case – on a tolerant local pluralism. No prizes for spotting modern parallels.

As Abu Dhabi works to entrench its emerging niche as the emirate for brains rather than bling, a degree of scepticism will – rightly – shadow its endeavours. Of course, a grand programme of top-down enlightenment pursued by a pro-Western oil state will always have a strategic dimension when militant Iran lies just across the Gulf. But I can see abundant evidence of good faith as well as high hopes. Keep watching this – increasingly fertile – space.

P.S.Classics and reprint lists have grown into one of the unheralded triumphs of British publishing, with new outfits joining the precious treasure-houses curated by Penguin and Oxford. HarperCollins has even just released a black-coated stash of vintage erotica, from Fanny Hill and My Secret Life to Emmanuelle. Add your own jokes about express delivery to the Home Secretary's constituency office. Now comes a covetable set of five hardbacks from Penguin, which reproduce the first-edition designs of Raymond Chandler's masterworks from The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye. Back in 1939, Hamish Hamilton plugged new kid Chandler as a rival to Dashiel Hammett and James Cain, destined to "duplicate" their popularity; they promised to "promote and advertise" him hard. Plus ça change? If only: these grim days, publishers hardly advertise.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific