Cairo, Asharq Al Awsat – The events that transpired during the 23rd General Union of Arab writers (GUAW) conference do not befit the intellectual elite who gathered for this occasion. In an edition entitled “Naguib Mahfouz and the Arab Novel”, the conference took place 21-27 November at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo, marking a first for Egypt to host the conference after it had been transferred to various other countries since the signing of the Camp David peace treaty in 1979. The conference has since been relocated to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad in 1979 where it was hosted for six years, then another six years in the Jordanian capital, Amman after which it was hosted by Tunisia to be finally relocated to Damascus from 1996 unto the 23rd edition.
But matters did not run smoothly; the observer of the conflict that unfolded on the peripheries of the conference between the member Arab states would know that what has been ruined by politics cannot be rectified by culture and that everyone is submerged in a sea of corruption. Accusations, attacks and slander were exchanged with unwarranted and unprecedented ferociousness.
Before the conference headquarters’ location was announced, news circulated that it would be moved to Egypt and that the Chairman of the Egyptian Writers’ Union (EWU), Mohammed Salmawi would be the secretary-general of the GUAW. But the transition was problematic – libel and slander campaigns began erupting between Syria and Egypt, coinciding with the resignation of acclaimed poet Abdel-Rahman al Abnoudi from the EWU as he felt he was no longer represented by the union. He said that the EWU had become “a club where futile meetings and conferences are limited to deliberations and discussions that have no impact on the Egyptian cultural life.” He emphasized that he was deeply saddened for this important cultural entity which had been a platform for Arab culture over the years. Sharing the same stance, prominent Egyptian novelists Radwa Ashour and Bahaa Taher and historian Abdel-Wahab al Messiri similarly agreed that they no longer felt represented by the union. Rumors circulated that Salmawi had deliberately snubbed al Abnoudi, Gamal al Ghitani and Youssef al Qaeed by excluding them from a publication that was issued by the union to commemorate Naguib Mahfouz, which they took as an outright affront causing al Abnoudi to say, that “it was a real insult to Naguib Mahfouz’s closest friends since the 1960s.”
But the controversy that flared up after al Abnoudi’s resignation did not subside when another storm started brewing over the relocation of the GUAW’s headquarters to Egypt. Salmawi fuelled matters further when he said that Egypt is above nominating itself in a win-lose vote against other Arab countries, stressing that it will not compete to head the union, and that “if selected unanimously by all other member states, Egypt will accept. But if the member countries opt for a vote, Egypt will not compete.”
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Jordanian Writers Union Dr Ahmed Madi had nominated himself for the post of secretary-general of the GUAW and was calling for a relocation of the headquarters to Amman. But the last straw was when Salmawi issued a statement in a press conference saying that the Syrian Arab Writers Union receives funding from the Baath Party, adding, “In terms of the budget, it was the Baath Party [Arab Socialist Baath Party in Syria] that backed the Syrian Arab Writers Union and we are proud that the EWU is not backed by any party. This is sign of Egypt’s independence.” Yet still, there were more battles to be had; another showdown commenced after Salmawi described the Iraqi delegation as “The union that was appointed by the Iraqi government after the American occupation.”
This statement aggravated Iraqi intellectuals who launched numerous campaigns against Salmawi on websites prompting Chairman of the Iraqi Writers Union and acclaimed critic Fadel Thamer to say, “Literary figures and writers inside and outside Iraq have read with dismay and anger statements attributed to you pertaining to the Iraqi Writers Union. It is a false and unjust judgment that must be followed up upon by figures of authority.” Furthermore, Thamer stated that the stance adopted by Salmawi was the same as that of politically inclined figures within the unions who have nothing to do with academia and literature but rather have secret agendas and are appointed by governments, who are bias and have affiliations and who follow administrative, secret and public decrees.
Thamer issued a tongue-in-cheek defense of the Iraqi delegation saying, “We regret to inform you and all other writers and literary figures who conform to the orders of ‘governments’ and most of the dictatorial Arab regimes that our union is a non-governmental cultural institution. It is an autonomous entity that has nothing to do directly or indirectly with the Iraqi government or the Ministry of Culture and is moreover immune to the influence of the occupational forces.” He added that, “We believe that the alleged statements are a prejudice introduction to an unjust attitude that you will adopt against our union. You are supposed to be a just and fair arbitrator who listens to all sides, not someone who sees the figure of the governor, the attorney general and the executioner as one.”
The conference awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Arab Writers worth US $10,000 to Palestinian poet Samih al Qassem for his, “absolute commitment to struggle against all attempts to uproot the Palestinian identity,” but even that was met by some doubts and murmurings as to whether he truly deserved the prize and whether it had been granted for literary merit or for the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, there were problems related with the Palestinian representation and finalizing the members of the Palestinian Writers Union.
Although the weeklong conference which had prominent literary figures from the world over in attendance was successful in its literary sessions and much was discussed, exchanged and shared, it is a travesty that politics couldn’t be extricated from the literary event. It seems ironic that the Chairman of the GUAW Mohamed Salmawi said of the attending foreign delegations that their presence was important to form relations between Arab writers’ unions and their foreign counterparts when the relations are so evidently strained on a national level.