Home World Literature The Utopia & Dystopia of Literary Festivals

The Utopia & Dystopia of Literary Festivals

The Utopia & Dystopia of Literary Festivals
A painting about Arabic poetry session in ancient era - Courtesy: Wikipedia

More than 15 centuries ago, poets from the Arabian Peninsula used to accompany merchants.

By Ashraf Aboul-Yazid

World cultures have been practicing literary festivals in different forms for many centuries. If we call them festivals or conferences or forums in modern times, such elite gatherings had different names in the past, but they were still showing a sort of similarity with its new forms.

In Arabic culture, in pre-Islamic era, the Arabian Peninsula has been home to the premier art of Arabic language; poetry which was deeply connected to values of bravery, nobility, eloquence and, at times, sensitivity. More than 15 centuries ago, poets from the Arabian Peninsula used to accompany merchants attending the Akaz Market. Surprisingly, they would have the world first anthology; as they were hanging their handwritten poems on the Kaaba in Mecca city, as a tradition. There were the seven wonders of poetry art (or ten- in another narrative history), called Mu’allaqat, or the suspended poems. Names of those early poets are still considered the fathers of great poetry: Antarah ibn Shaddad, Al-Khansa, Imru’ al-Qais, Samaw’al ibn ‘Adiya and Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma, and their poems that were full of wondrous stories of adventures, great achievement and bravery.

More than a century ago, the Arabic culture has been introduced to a new form of cultural and literary gatherings, the saloons. Men and women figures in Arab countries, basically Egypt, had their own saloons to receive icons of literature and art at certain locations. It could be a home, a garden, a boat, a coffee shop or a club. Fans and lovers of those figures could join from time to time, not to participate in talks but to enjoy listening to and watching the grand names, face to face. Most famous names connected with those saloons were Mai Ziada, Abbas Mahmood Al Akkad and Naguib Mahfouz.

The need to establish a pan Arab gathering was raised after the flourishing of cultural journalism. Magazines, such as Al Hilal in Cairo, inspired the poets and writers to come together, not only on the printed pages, but in life. A wave of literary conferences started to be formed, arranged at the highest level, under the patronage of governors, kings and presidents.

In the last four decades, poetry festivals have become a common event everywhere, organized by official and non-official authorities. Ministries of cultures shared literary clubs, universities and media organizations the responsibility for holding such festivals.

But the recent easy progress and growth of poetry festivals has mostly come from the online culture. Two years ago, if we referred to the phrase “Online Culture”, it would be restricted to all activities transferred from actual life to be broadcasted via any internet platform. This year, the same Online Culture phrase could easily mean the actual actions of culture totally practiced online.

I am bringing two forms of these practices, which used to perform on ground, for years, in India and Egypt. Both were bringing cultural figures from distant destinations around the world, to perform a type of culture for a live audience.

After the spread of Covid-19, and the lockdown forcing cultural activities to stop, the two organizers were left for two options; to cancel their mega annual events, or to find an alternative. The second solution was a success that gave a life kiss for the Egyptian society and Indian movement to continue their missions in a distinguished style.

The use of Web conferencing as an umbrella term covers various types of online meetings and collaborative services including webinars (web seminars) and web meetings. It is made possible by internet technologies that may allow real-time point-to-point communications from one sender to many receivers. It offers data streams of text-based messages, voice and video chat to be shared simultaneously, across geographically dispersed locations.

In the 1870s, scientists presented the first concepts of video conferencing as part of an extension of audio devices. It started with the video telephone in the late 1920s with the AT&T Company Bell Labs and John Logie Baird. The first company experimented with video phones in 1927, while video conferencing experiments were launched in the late 1930s in Germany, with still images. The mega spread of video conferencing began with the computer revolution of the 1980s.

The first commercial webcam, introduced on the market in August 1994, was called QuickCam, which was compatible with Mac. A PC version was released the following year. Time Magazine named QuickCam one of the top computer devices of all time in 2010.

One of the most popular video conferencing platforms has been Skype. Although it has professional limitations, Skype is popular because it’s a free cross-platform service. The video chat service first appeared on the market in 2003 and was acquired by eBay a few years later. It was sold to investors in 2009 then acquired by Microsoft in 2011.

Via Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google meeting, zoom and many other platforms, both free and paid, made it possible to act virtually as if actors on the ground. Last month 90 Journalists from 50 countries with different time zones could be invited by JAK to attend the World Journalists Conference 2020.

In India, Kritya Poetry Festival, established in 2005, came with certain objectives; to promote the aesthetic experience through poetry and the allied art forms, provide a common forum for poetry-lovers all over the world to come together, show case their talent and exchange views, to allow free expression through poetry and the allied arts regardless of class, creed, color or country, to encourage new talent without compromising on quality, to create an awareness of the past masters with due tributes and to establish and strengthen a fraternity of peace and mutual understanding through the medium of poetry.

The first round there were 13 poets from outside India, along the years more poets were invited to recite poems , not only for literary circles, but the poets were visiting hospitals, prisons, schools and religious places to read poetry for all.

In the pandemic era, Rati Saxena, the founder poetess of Kritya, invited 150 poets, may be equally the same number of poets who could participate, adding more number of local poets. The tough time proved that human beings can utilize technology to advance in their mission. Recorded videos and live talk shows could be followed live from the Kritya’s YouTube channel and Facebook Pages, open for all, and documented with the chance of recording them.

In Egypt, the online transfer seemed more difficult; because the symposium was dedicated for the art of painting, so the seventh international Burullus Symposium for painting on walls and boats (which was launched on October 1, 2020, for 2 weeks, with the participation of more than 65 Egyptian artists, and artists from other 20 countries), had to get help from technology to go online.

The forum, in its previous years, used to have painting on the walls of Burullus City in Kafr el-Sheikh Governorate, and drawing on boats; which would be exhibited later in Cairo for a sale to fund the forum. This year the online addition has been introduced to follow the activities with the participation of artists in Egypt and abroad.

The Supreme Organizing Committee of the forum consists of artist Abdel Wahab Abdel Mohsen, the president of the Forum; artist Iman Ezzat; Ramy Shehab and Islam Abdul Wahab are among the committee members. Dr. Abdel Mohsen launched the International Forum for Arts in Burullus 7 years ago, as a bridging point between art, artists and citizens in a daily life contact within a tiny city and a humble village. The forum also gave the artists a chance to practice living and working in a green environment. The artists’ paintings came out their frames to act like street arts, establishing a needed communication with people. The choice of boats is a symbol for fishing, which is completely connected to the common fishermen of Burullus, which its lake is connected to the Mediterranean Sea.

Live scenes and short films of the artists’ activities could mark a huge success, boats from India, Italy, Tunisia, among others, were shown vividly. The only disadvantage is that they cannot travel for show in Cairo; something internet cannot handle easily!

But if organizers were able to create their own Utopia out of the dystopian reality, there could be another dark face. We are luck to gather today, face to face, but this is currently impossible for hundreds and thousands who used to travel and meet. Events’ sponsors are less interested to support online events than offline ones. We were not only travel to recite our poems, rather we were communicating, discussing, visiting inspiring places, meeting folks not only elites. Such practices are currently impossible. Travel has been an economic mission to save money for in a world that knocks at every door of our lives.

[Mr. Ashraf Aboul-Yazid read this paper at 5th Eurasian Literary Festival of Festivals recently held in Istanbul, Turkey]  

[author title=”Ashraf Aboul-Yazid ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Ashraf-Aboul-Yazid-Kosovo-Poetry-Festival-Sindh-Courier-e1630353882979.jpg”]Ashraf Aboul-Yazid is an eminent Egyptian journalist, poet, novelist, author of about three dozen books and Editor-in-Chief of Silk Road Literature Series. [/author]