Since its modest beginnings in the small village of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where dusty second-hand book shops fill the streets, the yearly literature festival has become something of an international cultural tradition, and now represented in fifteen countries. Building on the success of the 2010 book, ‘Beirut39’ featuring the winners of a Hay Festival competition that turned the spotlight on Arab writers aged under 40 – this year marks the first full-scale edition of the festival in Beirut. A number of those ‘Beirut39’ authors return to Beirut to speak as part of the festival over the next few days, including Hyam Yared, Hala Kawtharani and Joumana Haddad from Lebanon; Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez Eldin and Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish.
In a region currently going through a process of transformational change it seems particularly pertinent that the festival enables dialogue in the region. Recent events may have re-connected the Middle East, yet it could be said that there is a distinct lack of major platforms for debate, discussion and interaction where literature is concerned. ‘The huge events that took place in the Arab world recently intensified contact between Arab writers and made them urgent,’ Fadi Tofeili says, a Lebanese poet chairing a discussion at this year’s festival. ‘Unfortunately though, we don’t have this tradition of open and direct discussions between writers in the Arab world,’ pointing to the complicated visa processes that complicates travel for Lebanese writers as one. Hay Festival will place writers from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Palestinian and Lebanon ‘face-to-face in front of an audience for the first time,’ in what Tofeili considers to be a ‘significant and enriching moment.’
The festival delves into topics at the heart of Lebanon’s contemporary history with a discussion surrounding Beirut’s collective post-war memory loss, an examination into the role of writers in sectarian society by Abbas Baydoun, Abdo Wazen, Najwa Barakat and Hala Kawtharani, a topic that holds particular resonance for Lebanon. Social media, as a vital communication tool in conflict zones, will be explored by bloggers Sondos Shabayek from Egypt and Macell Shehwaro from Syria. A number of international writers and journalists will also be flying in for the occasion, including The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson and a conversation on literature with Mathias Enard. Away from the heavier discussions will be a night of slam storytelling, The Poeticians Collective and a look at graphic novels.
It is a significant step that Hay Festival comes to a country often accused of suffering from a collective amnesia over its recent past, where open debate and discussion is still frequently censored through film, literature and theatre. ‘Hay Festival helps put people in the mood for dialogue. This is crucial not just for our region but for culture worldwide,’ Tofeili says. ‘But coming to Beirut at this moment of political ambiguity and cultural vibrancy is essential. We need any sort of fresh air at this moment to stay in balance and stop thinking of electric generators.’
*Hay Festival Beirut takes place on July 4-6 at Beirut Art Center and Zico House
Photography: Courtesy of Hay Festival Beirut