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Discussion Forum

Alexandria, Mediterranean Centre for Poetry: let us make it so!

David Wardrop, UK Friends

The original proposal

Carmela Ruby, Californian Friends, has asked the International Friends for comments on her proposals to raise the profile of poetry at the Bibalex. She proposes the appointment of a poetry advisor or consultant who would become a focal point for the promotion of poetry both within the Bibalex in its collection development programme and into the Egyptian hinterland, to the public and schools. So why not for Mediterranean also? Here are some reasons for this proposal and steps we can take.

What the Friends can do

The institution that annually brings the International Friends of the Bibalex (the Friends) together identifies itself as:

The World's window on Egypt; Egypt's window on the world

In supporting and promoting the Bibalex, we should try to keep this in focus. This will help us reconcile our work with the many challenges facing Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world. Carmela Ruby invites us to concentrate on poetry, an art which the cultural community fiercely supports but which struggles to attract funding. Arabic poetry suffers especially as it faces the language’s principal barrier, lack of translation. If the Friends agree an initiative along the lines proposed, then we must ensure we recognise the need for two-way traffic through the window.

So, what do we know and how might the Bibalex provide the focus Carmela speaks about?

Worldwide interest in Arab poetry

In Switzerland, the International Poetry Festival al-Mutanabbi is held in five cities. There is an Arabic poetry competition in Hong Kong. Canada’s Blue Metropolis Arab Literary Prize invites poetry submissions but disappointingly, there have been no Arabic poets short-listed for the Canada’s prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize.

Initiatives in the Arab world

The Arab world is rich in poetry and makes concerted efforts to promote it. The Emir Chaouara international poetry competition offers a 1st prize of 500k Emirate dirham. A new Arabic poetry competition has been launched in the memory of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, to be based in Sharjah. But it is disappointing that the new International Prize for Arabic Fiction, launched in collaboration with the Booker Prize Foundation, does not include a Poetry section. Abu Dhabi’s TV programme Million's Poet is one of the most popular prime-time show in the Middle East. Journals promoting Arabic poetry include Le Poeme Arabe Moderne, Iraqi Poetry Today, The Post-Gibran Anthology of New Arab-American Writing, New Arab Poetry and The Poetry of Arab Women. The Al-Babtain Central Library for Arabic Poetry in Kuwait claims to be the first and largest library specializing in Arabic poetry, totaling more than 72,000 books. The Princeton online library (see below) features Arabic poems but the World Poetry Collection (see below) only features poems in English.

Poetry in the Mediterranean

The Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad-Said) was tipped for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. There are international awards made by Turkey, the International Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award; Croatia, the Tin Ujevićc Award; Italy, the International Poetry Prize Castello Di Duino and Nosside; Spain, the Premio Adonáis; Morocco, the Argana International Poetry Award; and Israel, the Acum Prize. The French coastal town of Lodeve hosts the annual Voices of the Mediterranean poetry competition.

Alexandria, a Mediterranean home for poetry: why not?

The city’s historic trading partners were the Mediterranean ports of the countries listed above. Poetry travels also and from Callimachus and Theocritus to Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell, Alexandria has given inspiration to poets. For centuries, it has served as the ‘entry point of romance’, its window onto the wider Arab world. There is poetry in the Med. Can Alexandria provide its heart?

Lost in Translation?

A chronic weakness of the Arabic-speaking world is the lack of translated literature as the shelves of the Bibalex will testify. The novel and the poem suffer especially. The poet and the publisher face an uphill struggle getting works translated. The newly-launched Saif-Ghobash - Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation is welcome. Also, Three Percent, an initiative of the University of Rochester, USA, launched last year seeking to become a destination for readers, editors, and translators interested in finding out about modern and contemporary international literature. But from the time when its scholars were credited with the translation of the Pentateuch, Alexandria has excelled in its capacity to deal in and with many cultures and languages. The staff at the Bibalex continue in this fine tradition and the Bibalex is well-placed to take forward this precious inheritance.

The role of the International Friends

The International Friends bring through ‘the window’ created by the Bibalex a degree of energy and new ideas, spared from the mincing machine of government. The Alexandrian Friends themselves are well-travelled and amongst them, there are those well-placed to observe and advise on the challenges facing young poets in Egypt, Alexandria’s attraction as a city for poets, the Bibalex’s capacity to initiate a new discipline and the potential of the Bibalex to underpin such initiatives and debate.


* The Bibalex is the "World's window on Egypt and Egypt's window on the world",

* Alexandria, a city with a great history of poetry, should work towards the title of the Mediterranean’s home of poetry,

* The city and its new library have unrivalled strengths in the field of translation into the languages of the Mediterranean,

* The International Friends consider alternative proposals around Carmela Ruby’s proposals and set up an internet-based group with Bibalex staff membership to progress the proposal.

Over to you all

I invite comments from all International Friends and look forward to our next meeting.




World Poetry Collection


Three Percent


1 October 2008