Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Lebanon, Hong Kong, and France as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

From the town nestled in the peaks of Lebanon, to the recent surge in Hong Kong streets, to the crystal waters of the Occitanie coast, our three literary destinations of the week bring forth an array of Lebanese love stories, reimaginings of home, and the rich culture of Mediterranean poetry. In the words of the great Sufi poet Yunus Emre, “If I told you about a land of love, friend, would you follow me and come?”

Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Lebanon

The mountain town of Bsharri in Lebanon should see an increase in tourism following the Lebanese debut of a musical adapted from Gibran Khalil Gibran’s Broken Wings, published in 1912. Born in Bsharri in 1883, Gibran’s book The Prophet, published in the United States in 1923, is still one of the best-selling books of all time after ninety-six years and 189 consecutive print runs. Showing at Beit El Din Palace, a nineteenth century palace which hosts the annual Beiteddine festival, the musical tells of a tragic love story which takes place during the turn of the century in Beirut.

Closer to sea level, an evening of poetry in Beirut celebrated Lebanese poet Hasan Abdulla.  Born in Southern Lebanon, Abdulla was inspired by its natural beauty, and infused his poetry with observations of nature. His work, spanning over forty years, has been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian. 

Interest in Sufi poetry remains high with the American University of Beirut hosting a talk titled The Presence of Jalal Al Din Al Rumi in Arab Culture, about the thirteenth century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, and Sufi mystic.

Across the ocean, Shubbak Festival, the UK’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, held every two years, recently wrapped up in the UK. Taking place in spaces across London, including the British Library and The Mosaic Room, it brings together literature, visual art, theatre, dance, film, and music, shifting official narratives about the region. Writers this year included Syria’s Dima Wannous discussing her most recent book The Frightened Ones, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018. Palestinian novelist Rabai Al-Madhoun, Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi, and Sudanese novelist Hammour Ziada explored a re-telling of the past through narratives of political structures, exodus, and the right of return. Eckhard Thiemen, the festival’s Artistic Director, credited the importance of engaging with local Arab speaking neighbourhoods: “We are lucky that some of our funders, including Amal (a Said Foundation programme) encourage and support us to engage with local communities.”

Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

This summer has seen some of the most intense political conflicts in the history of Hong Kong over the protection of the city’s autonomy under the promise of “One Country Two Systems.” In the light of the continuing protests against the Extradition Bill proposed by the Hong Kong government in February 2019, which aims to make amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in order to allow transfers of fugitives to Mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau, a general strike was organised on August 5 as a campaign of civil resistance. As the event looms larger due to the government’s failure to respond to the public’s concern and the people’s strong discontent with police violence, the public demand has extended from retraction of the bill to setting up an independent investigation on the police and calling for universal suffrage.

Workers from the art and culture sector have urged fellow workers to join the strike. Many art and culture organisations, including literary magazines Fleurs des Lettres and Sample, independent book shops, and performing arts groups participated in an assembly of the sector on the day of the strike in Tsim Sha Tsui. Moreover, workers from the publication sector also issued a declaration of strike to show their stance of solidarity. On August 27, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, will organise “Poetry & Politics” as one of the sessions of the Cha Reading series to explore how writing and poetry are connected to politics.

This year’s Hong Kong Literary Season, organised by the House of Hong Kong Literature, spans three months from June to August. With the theme of “Writing and Living Space,” the event includes a series of talks, workshops, community docent tours, and an art exhibition to reflect on the concept of living and its conditions in Hong Kong. An interdisciplinary exhibition of art and literature, “Home and Poiesis,” will be open from August 2 to 24 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre to showcase collaborative artworks by nine pairs of writers and artists, on the theme of reimagining “home” and “living place,” as well as to explore familial and social relationships related to living.

Sarah Moore, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from France

The long summer holidays have begun in France, meaning that until the rentrée in September, most people will be on holiday for at least two weeks (and for many, the whole of August) either abroad or elsewhere in France. 

In the south of France, the end of July brings good news for poetry fans as the 22nd edition of the Voix Vives international poetry festival takes place in Sète from July 19 to 27. Le Festival Voix Vives de Méditerranée en Mediterranée highlights Mediterranean culture in poetry, exploring the shared roots of these countries, as well as the plurality of the region’s languages and identities. 

Voix Vives Festival was founded by Maïthé Vallès-Bled and now takes place four times a year in four different countries: Sète, France; Genova, Italy; Toledo, Spain; and Ramallah, Palestine. This year, the festival welcomes more than eighty poets from over forty countries and, according to Maïthé Vallès-Bled, is one of the most visited poetry festivals in the world, with almost seventy thousand listeners attending last year. Vallès-Bled was present on Saturday evening for the opening of the festival, accompanied by Sapho, this year’s patron. With over eight events scheduled every day, one was spoilt for choice. Here is a selection of highlights:

Pauline Catherinot gave a sound and visual poetry event on July 20. The French poet, whose work seeks a discordant rhythm and to “swallow silences” in mouthfuls of words, read passionately, with plenty of plosives, accompanied by ghostly chanting. In an event entitled “Between the sea and the sky,” the acclaimed poet and editor Bruno Doucey read before the beautiful backdrop of the Mediterranean sea and the Saint Louis lighthouse at Sète’s breakwaters. The Algerian-born poet Souad Labbize, who writes in French and translates from Arabic, highlighted the importance of international poetry festivals such as Voix Vives. Referring to recent events in Algeria and Sudan, she affirmed: “I feel more and more the affinities with my country of origin.” Her sensitive, yet humorous readings from her forthcoming collection Je franchis les barbelés (Éditions Bruno Doucey, September 2019) particularly resonated with the audience in one of the most memorable performances of the festival.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: