I had wandered awestruck around the Alhambra before, but never in the company of someone who could – literally – read the writing on the wall. Visitors with no knowledge of Arabic vaguely grasp that lines of scripture and poetry, carved in stucco, crawl over almost every surface in the stunning Moorish citadel of Granada: Europe's most elegant graffiti.
I knew that the Nasrid dynasty who beautified the palace, and lost it and their realm to the Christian armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, had, with fateful false modesty, plastered this final jewel of Muslim art in Spain with the family motto, "There is no conqueror but God". Then, a few days ago, I stood in the Chamber of the Two Sisters with Mourid Barghouti, a leading Palestinian poet long exiled in Egypt. And he began to read the verse that curled around us: "We would love the stars more if they were fixed to this wall, not floating in the sky..."
To communicate its strength and scope, every culture needs interpreters whom outsiders will trust. And, in the half-millennium of suspicion and conflict that followed the downfall of Moorish civilisation in Spain, the absence of such honest brokers has bedevilled every stage of the perpetually rocky relationship between the Arab and European worlds. Imperial bureaucrats, soldiers and scholars on one side; radical nationalists, pious militants and oil-rich oligarchs on the other – all have had their various axes to grind, and to wield. Now, perhaps, the writers of the Arab world can begin to find a voice in the West again. It's always easier to love distant stars when they can shine, plainly and legibly, on the page in front of us.
Mourid Barghouti had joined a dozen other stars of Arabic fiction and poetry at the first Hay Alhambra festival this month – one flower in a remarkable bouquet of literary events, prizes and programmes with the common aim of quenching the rhetoric of a "clash of civilisations" with the reality of a dialogue between them. Today, the London Book Fair opens with the "Arab World" as guest of honour and Arab writers present in force, from Barghouti himself to Egyptian bestsellers Alaa Al Aswany and Khaled Al Khamissi, and Rajaa Alsanea – one of the new wave of young Saudi bloggers-turned-novelists.
The fair will be the culmination of a long-term plan, steered by the British Council, to forge firmer cultural bonds. And, although he comes from far beyond the Arab world (and writes in English), the Afghan author Khaled Hosseini's double coup in topping the UK charts both with The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns has helped to put a spring in the step of everyone who wants to widen the readership for literature from the Middle East and North Africa.
In the Gulf, lavishly funded new competitions such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the "Arab Booker") and the Sheikh Zayed Awards have signalled the intention of the emirate of Abu Dhabi to build up its name as a global centre of culture. Not to be outdone, and fretting perhaps at its current reputation as the world capital of bling, neighbouring Dubai begins a new literary festival next year. Also in Abu Dhabi, the Kalima translation project has launched an ambitious, state-financed programme to bring, at the rate of 100 per year, classic and contemporary books from around the world into Arabic for the first time and to distribute them across the region.
Last week, the British publishers Arcadia and Haus announced the creation of a new list: Arabia Books. Initially, it will draw on the library of modern Arabic writing in English translation developed by Mark Linz, director of the American University in Cairo Press. It promises works from, among others, Egypt's Baha Taher (who won the "Arab Booker"), Libya's Ibrahim Al Kouni (who took the Sheikh Zayed award for literature) and Alaa Al Aswany, the dentist-turned-author whose The Yacoubian Building last year bit deeper into British imaginations than any Arabic novel since the heyday of another chronicler of Cairo's streets, the 1988 Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz.
Look around a world of tension and turmoil, from Ground Zero to Gaza and Baghdad, and it hardly takes a magic mirror out of the Thousand and One Nights to see why so much expensive effort has gone into these bids to build a bridge of words. Writers hope they can succeed, but also fear that all this fancy soft diplomacy does no more than construct an Arabic version of Russia's Potemkin villages: an ornate façade that hides enduring truths of tyranny, repression and cultural deprivation across the Arab world – not to mention the occupations, in the Palestinian territories and Iraq, that prey on every Arab intellectual's mind.
Of course, all sweeping statements about culture in a region of 300 million people stretching from Morocco to Syria will come unstuck. "We can't generalise," says Juan Goytisolo, the veteran dissident who, dismayed by Franco's rigid Spain, cut his own path into Islamic culture and eventually settled in Marrakesh. "The Arab world is like a patchwork. What applies in one country does not apply in another." The Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, author of the epic novel of the Palestinian tragedy, Gate of the Sun, told me in Granada that "I don't like this idea of putting writers into categories... If I am to be read, it should not be because there are Arab elements in my work, but because it speaks to you as a human being."
Nonetheless, Arab writers themselves identify some shared burdens as well as the shared glory of a literary language that has helped to unite them since before the time of the Koran. "The problem of the Arabic book is the problem of Arabic society," Khoury insists. "It is dictatorship and censorship. And this censorship isn't only against writers and books – it's against the whole society." As he put it, speaking publicly under the walls of the Alhambra: "The freedom of the writer is meaningless if he is in a society which is not free."
For me, the Alhambra marked the end of an unplanned journey from east to west that seemed to lead backwards in time from the glittering future of Arabic culture imagined in Abu Dhabi, through its strife-ridden present in frantic Cairo, to its resplendent past amid the wonders of "al Andalus" in Granada. Last November, in Abu Dhabi, I talked to the founder of the Kalima project, the Egyptian entrepreneur Karim Nagy, about his dream of "filling the gaps in the Arab library" with well-produced, widely read editions of authors from Dante and Chaucer to Stephen Hawking and Haruki Marukami. In time, he plans to translate out of Arabic as well, making the scheme a "two-way street".
Sitting in the Arabian Nights fantasy of the Emirates Palace hotel, I heard him say something I have never heard from any other cultural masterplanner: "Funding is the least of our concerns." What does worry Kalima and other such ventures is: (of course) erratic and often arbitrary censorship across the 22 Arab states; the habits of book piracy, which have often turned the region into literary quicksand for unwary incomers; and the fragile production and bookshop networks in a part of the world where state-run, Soviet-style dinosaur firms often dominate the publishing scene. Even major authors may have to pay for publication or else simply wait in line, and a local bestseller may just about hit a peak of 5,000 to 6,000 copies sold.
Western liberals like to thrill to tales of cruel censorship in Arab lands – and, of course, they still arrive in bulk. Khoury reports that he knows 17 or 18 writers and intellectuals currently imprisoned in Syria. More trivially, but typically, 230 titles meant for display at the last Kuwait Book Fair were banned by the state censorship committee. Novels by the London-based Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh – including her taboo-busting Women of Sand and Myrrh – were first held up by Egyptian customs during this year's Cairo Book Fair, then allowed to enter the country. These are everyday irritants. Now, Arab writers face not so much the basement interrogation chambers (they are full of Islamists now) as an endless, wearying game of cat-and-mouse.
The Jordanian-born, British-based novelist and critic Fadia Faqir says that "the censor has a red pen, still! He'll sometimes say 'Kill this character!' It's quite intrusive." Yet, the more I talked to Arabic writers, the more sporadic government bullying took its place as just one of a daunting series of practical hurdles – from literacy rates to the cost of books, sluggish bureaucracy to dysfunctional retail systems – that lie in the author's way. "There are so many obstacles for Arab writers," Faqir sighs. "My heart goes out to them."
In 2002 and 2003, the much-discussed Arab Human Development Reports from the UN Development Programme – researched and written entirely by Arab intellectuals – issued a frank wake-up call to the region's societies. The authors demanded that states enlist their new-found wealth into the service of high-quality education, freedom of expression and greater social justice. "Arab culture has no choice but to engage in a new global experiment," the 2003 report argued: "It cannot enclose itself, content with living on history."
In Abu Dhabi, amid the shining air-conditioned towers, it was easy to believe the call had been heard, and heeded. But initiatives such as Kalima (under the patronage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan) and the "Arab Booker" (backed by the Emirates Foundation) offer a top-down solution to the plight of the insecure, isolated writer. In traffic-clogged, fume-blanketed Cairo, such well-meaning paternalism feels a world away. Egypt was always the cockpit and crossroads of the Arab cultural world, although cosmopolitan Egyptians seem uncomfortable with a monolithic "Arab" identity. The London-based novelist Ahdaf Soueif – Booker-shortlisted for The Map of Love in 1999 – recalls that, growing up in 1960s Cairo, "we thought of ourselves as Muslim, Coptic, Mediterranean, Arab, African... We took it for granted that you didn't have to be one thing."
Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building struck such a chord beyond Egypt in part because it reminded foreign readers of the rich human mix that always gets lost in political platitudes. Yet Egyptian writers today have to struggle harder than ever to hang on to their pluralist tradition.
On a wet day in January, I went from the sprawling Cairo Book Fair – where Islamists made their presence forcefully felt, both running stands and demonstrating in support of the Palestinians of Gaza – to a British Council dinner beside the Nile. There sat the new pashas of non-religious, open-minded Egyptian literature: Al Aswany, whose six-figure sales have raised the hopes and horizons for Egypt's publishers; and Al Khamissi, whose documentary novel Taxi parks comic, touching and satirical monologues by 58 Cairo cabbies side by side: a Thousand and One Nights of dodgy brakes and battered bodywork.
And there was the dauntless and impish Mohamed Hashem: founder of the Merit imprint, a beacon of fearless literary publishing; veteran of run-ins with both the state and the clergy of Al Azhar University; and an activist in the Kefaya ("Enough") movement that subjects the US-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak to democratic scrutiny.
Yet the guest who seemed to embody the future of free expression was the confident, headscarfed young woman who runs the English-language website of the Muslim Brotherhood. Technically banned, but hugely influential and visible, the Brotherhood has, over decades, locked horns with Egypt's secular government. This ritual standoff mixes outright repression and a strange kind of mutual dependence. It's still risky to work for the "Ikhwan" in Egypt – the editor's boss, Khaled Hamza, is currently in prison. The beatings and tortures undergone by the Islamists are real and painful enough. Yet the Brotherhood's prominence and prestige has made it a kind of shadow Establishment, stealing the thunder of the secularists who also clamour for true democracy in Egypt.
Perhaps, when it comes to literature and its limited impact, the authorities don't care that much any more. Online dissenters now run much graver risks. A blogger known as "Kareem Amer" is now serving a four-year sentence in Alexandria: three for attacking religious institutions (he called Al Azhar a "university of terrorism"), one for insulting the President. Ibrahim Issa, editor of the opposition paper Al-Dustour, last month received a six-month jail term for raising questions about the health of 79-year-old President Mubarak.
In contrast, Al Aswany's new novel Chicago – another runaway success on his home ground – ends with a fiercely satirical scene in which the unnamed but unmistakable president and his "famous cheerless smile" visit the US: "His complexion was exhausted by all the scraping, sanding and daily ointments to give it a youthful appearance..." And so, quite mercilessly, on.
To a large degree, as Egypt's long-serving culture minister, the painter Farouk Hosny, explained to me and other guests at the Cairo fair, creative writers do now enjoy liberty from pre-publication control: "It's an age of freedom – be sure of it." But afterwards they can be sued by aggrieved parties, or harassed by the religious authorities. In 2000 and 2001, a string of causes célèbres led to the banning of fiction originally issued by state publishers after campaigns led by religious militants.
At the time, Hosny called for critics of the government's sometimes erratic cultural stances to quit the country. "No, minister," replied the author and editor Gamal al-Ghitani, who in historical novels such as Zayni Barakat has explored Egypt's present through the mirror of its past: "We shall remain, and you shall leave." But Hosny is still there – although he does seriously want to be the next secretary general of Unesco. That decision should prompt some brisk debates.
With Egypt's economy in the doldrums, and food riots – deeply feared by the regime – breaking out once more in Nile delta towns, the novelist's plight might seem a sideshow. After the censorship rows of 2001, the critic Samia Mehrez, who teaches at the American University in Cairo, brutally pointed out that "the irony is that no one reads these books". But, with the sensational sales of Al Aswany and Al Khamissi, publishers are hoping readers have picked up a new taste for robust and realistic portraits of their lives and times.
Progressive firms such as Dar al-Shorouk certainly believe that up-to-date marketing and distribution can make the voice of Egyptian –and other Arab – writers carry further than before. With the spread of efficient and transparent rights deals –something sorely lacking now, according to mutinous British publishers at the Cairo fair – many more could reach the West. As Mohammed Latif of the Arab Publishers Union incontrovertibly said: "In literature, history and heritage, we have treasures that the world should know about."
Under the April sunshine of Granada, the tourist crowds who snake through the Alhambra clearly have no problem with Arab heritage from a safely distant past. Today's writers point out that barriers to understanding contemporary Arab life linger in Western minds, as well as in the censors' offices and state book depositories of the Middle East. Arabic fiction sold abroad often has to fit a familiar stereotype – such as tales of draped and downtrodden females. Fadia Faqir reports: "Every English edition of my work has had either a Bedouin woman with her head covered, or else a woman with a veil, on the cover." However, with the continental translations of her latest novel, My Name is Salma, things began to change. "No veils for my Salma in Italy, in France, in Spain. Fantastic! Breakthrough!"
In any case, innovative writers want to be appreciated as individual talents rather than as standard-bearers for a language, gender or culture: "I was afraid I was here to represent Saudi women," said novelist Raja Alem from Mecca, a specialist in a kind of Saudi magic realism, in Granada. "I don't represent Saudi women. I only represent myself."
Western publishers may also hint that Arab writers should bow to market conditions and tailor what they do to prevailing global trends. Radwa Ashour, the Egyptian novelist and critic (who is married to Mourid Barghouti), was once told: "'Why don't you write detective stories? That would find a wide readership.' I felt it was humiliating. We don't want to be read at all costs."
However, Arabia Books does plan to release a Casablanca-set murder mystery by the Moroccan crime novelist and screenwriter Abdelilah Hamdouchi, called The Final Bet.
Meanwhile, first-rate translators from Arabic into English remain rare and precious. The Yacoubian Building could hardly have won so many British hearts if Humphrey Davies had not caught its moods and timbres so well. One of the finest translators, Denys Johnson-Davies, actually won last year's Sheikh Zayed award for Arab "cultural personality of the year". Yet Radwa Ashour laments: "There are many important Arabic novels where the translation into English has been a catastrophe."
Ashour was unhappy with the English translation of one part of her Granada trilogy, a historical sequence set during the glory days of multicultural Andalus. The handsome Spanish edition – hot off the press – pleases her far more. Still, she admits: "I'm a bit troubled and confused" to be in Granada, "because my characters are still living with me. I know they're somewhere here."
So the circle closes, and a very modern Arabic writer from the brash metropolis of Cairo communes with the lyrical legacy of Moorish Spain. "I feel that there are spectres hovering over the place," she says, "but they're very real ghosts." Once again, I wish I had the chance to read much more of the writing on the wall.
The London Book Fair, with the Arab World as market focus; Earls Court, London SW5, ends tomorrow ( www.londonbookfair.co.uk)
TALES OF ARABIA: SIX TO READ
The Cairo Trilogy
(Black Swan; three volumes) £9.99
Egypt's Nobel Prize winner, who died in 2006 at the age of 94, had a sometimes risky ringside side for his country's 20th-century history. He used it to create a body of work that almost single-handedly revived the fortunes of Arabic prose fiction in the West. Often compared to Dickens or Balzac, this great family and political saga of his city in the throes of change is an addictive, and distinctively Arab, chronicle of private and public life.
Hanan Al Shaykh
Only in London
Since the 1970s, the influx of Arab visitors and residents has intrigued and often baffled native Brits. Comic, tender and mischievous, this novel by the fearless and pioneering Lebanese writer tells the stories of a quartet of these incomers. Erotic imbroglios join touching family dramas and episodes of farce in humanising the least-understood tribe of new Londoners.
Gate of the Sun
The unending Israel-Palestine conflict still looms like a black cloud over much of Arab culture. No Arabic novel has tackled it with more courage and vision than this epic by a Lebanese author who spent years researching the stories of Palestinian refugees in the camps. Free of slogans and clichés, it captures all the labyrinthine complexity of the crisis and the human tragedy of its victims.
Alaa Al Aswany
The Yacoubian Building
The Cairo dentist-turned-bestseller has launched a thousand painful puns, but then his fiction does get right to the root of modern Egypt's dilemmas. Set during the first Gulf War, this tapestry of tales threads the inhabitants of one crumbling Cairo apartment block into a panoramic picture of the city. His people dream of happiness beyond all the intractable divisions of gender, class and culture.
Girls of Riyadh
(Fig Tree) £7.99
Women may not drive in Saudi Arabia, but they certainly write. New technology, especially the blog, has given a sudden visibility to younger Saudi voices. This email-based novel made Alsanea the first of this generation to break through into mainstream international fiction. She transforms chick-lit conventions into an eye-opening group portrait of the children of privilege whose dreams of rebellion crash into their own, and their society's, boundaries.
Khaled Al Khamissi
(Aflame Books) £7.99
The Egyptian documentary film-maker and columnist Al Khamissi makes good use of his skills of reportage in this runaway success that combines the fictional monologues of Cairo's cabbies. Not so much a conventional novel as a string of satirical stand-up routines brought to the page, Taxi builds into a frank, funny and sometimes heartbreaking blast of jokes, anecdotes and revelations. Listen to the "Arab street" in all its smoggy, gasping glory.
To order a copy of all the books (free P&P, with The Cairo Trilogy available at the special price of £8.99) call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content