Hay puts focus on Arabic literature as festival is exported to Granada

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The Independent Culture

For the legions of bibliophiles who descend on Hay-on-Wye's literary festival every year, the lashing rain and biting winds which tend to greet visitors are an integral part of its charm.

This year, however, the event that Bill Clinton called "the Woodstock of the mind" is to be exported to the far more exotic destination of Granada, Andalucia.

The rain-sodden lecture tents on the outskirts of the Welsh border town will be swapped for the opulent 10th Century Alhambra palace, but the scores of book enthusiasts will remain. The four-day festival is expected to attract 20,000 visitors from across the globe when it opens on 3 April, but it will not replace the British original, which will go ahead as usual from 22 May.

Organisers hope Granada's location on the edge of the Arab world will be used as the focus for discussion, with literary greats and intellectuals including the author Umberto Eco, the historian David Starkey and the Muslim academic Professor Tariq Ramadan gathering to speak at the event.

The founding director of the Hay festival, Peter Florence, said: "The best thing about Granada is it gives us the chance to engage with Arabic literature. We all labour under this misapprehension that there is only one book in the Arabic world, the Koran. But they are going through a golden age, with 20 or 30 fantastic writers across the Middle East and the Arab world.

Dr Starkey said the setting would be ideal for his talk. "I am looking forward to going to the Alhambra palace to talk about Catherine of Aragon in the city, which, more than any other, she regarded as home," he said. He said speaking in Granada would complement previous international festivals he had attended.

This is not the first time the literary celebration has been taken outside "the town of books"; there is already a version of the festival in Colombia, and the organisers are hoping that soon there will be a "Hay" festival every two months somewhere in the world.

"It will parallel my earlier experience in speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias, [Colombia] about English and Spanish visions of Empire in a major Spanish imperial port," said Dr Starkey. "Only the Hay festivals could provide such a perfect match of places and themes."

The travel writer Michael Jacobs said the festival would be a fitting reminder of Spain's Islamic past. "The occasion promises to be a reminder of what Islamic Spain had once been like – a great cultural meeting point not only for Spain and the rest of Europe, but also for the Arab world and the West."

The Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouti agreed that the choice of the Moorish Alhambra palace for the Granadan Hay was highly fitting, referring as it does to Spain's cosmopolitan past.

"The multicultural spirit of the Hay Festival could not possibly manifest itself in a more suitable place other than Granada," he said. "To me, a grandson of the builders of Alhambra, it will be an intimate event."

The Hay festival has come a long way since 1988, when Mr Florence first thought of attempting a celebration of literature in the then obscure town which today is still home to just 2,000 permanent residents.

"We really hoped when we first set up Hay that we would get enough people to watch Carol Ann Duffy in the back of a bar that seated about 45 people", he said.

"It was like a family party; we invited mates up to talk and read a bit and have supper. That spirit has stayed on, but we're a lot bigger now."