It’s that time of the year when Durban has the honour of hosting some of the most acclaimed writers in South Africa, Africa and the world as the 15th Time of the Writer International Writers Festival kicks off on Monday.
Eighteen writers will gather for a week of literary dialogue, exchange of ideas and discussions at the festival, which is hosted by the Centre for Creative Arts (University of KwaZulu-Natal).
The organisers said in a statement that the thread running through the festival was predominantly African this year, with a powerful Arab-African and Caribbean presence.
One of the featured writers is Egyptian Bahaa Taher – one of the notable writers of the Gallery 68 movement which sought to challenge literature politics in the Seventies. As a social commentator and storyteller, Taher lost his job in radio broadcasting and was prevented from publishing in the mid-1970s during Anwar El Sadat’s rule. The winner of numerous awards, Taher received the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008.
Tonight chatted with the author about his life and experiences while under the ban, and this visit to SA – which marks his first trip to the country.
Taher explained that he was exposed to the Arab resistance in his early school years and that as he grew older, he decided he wanted to join, which led to his ban in 1975.
“There were some political differences with the authorities at that time. I almost lost my job and had to look for something outside Egypt. I worked abroad as a freelance translator and in 1981 I accepted a job at the UN.
“I came back to Egypt in 1995, at that time things changed a little,” he explained.
“Before that I was forbidden from publishing, but starting from the mid-1980s, I was allowed to publish again.”
The winner of numerous awards, Taher also received the State Award of Merit in Literature (1998), Egypt’s highest literary award.
Asked how it felt to return home after being banned from the country and seen as an enemy of the state, and then to receive such a high honour from his land of birth, Taher said it felt like a kind of “compensation”.
“It is very difficult for anyone in exile to live away from his home, so it was compensation for all that I suffered during that time.”
As someone who is passionate about fighting indigenous stereo- typing in his writing, we asked Taher about his thoughts on younger writers and if he felt they were succumbing to Western stereotyping in their writing.
“On the contrary, young writers in Egypt are becoming more conscious of their surroundings. Young people were at the forefront of the uprisings last year.
“I believe young people are better in so many ways than we were. They felt the situation more than we did – we were mostly speaking, they are acting.”
On a similar note, during a discussion on social networks and the internet and whether Taher thought it would negatively affect writing, he said: “I believe social networks are a great help for people to communicate and understand what’s happening around them in a better way,” he said.
On his first visit to SA, Taher said he was very happy about the trip and particularly glad to be visiting Durban, where activist, teacher, journalist and poet Dennis Brutus, was once based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“I very much liked Dennis Brutus. I remember once in the 1960s I presented a programme of African writers where Dennis was at the forefront. This is the first time I am participating in the festival. I think it is important for me to meet fellow writers and get to know people. We are from the same continent and we have, in a way, certain histories.
“I am very interested in the schools visits (that are on the programme). I did this once before in Italy and found young people to be very interesting, more interesting than old people,” he chuckled.
Another highlight is March 21’s Human Rights Day’s programme with Chris Abani from Nigeria and former deputy minister of defence, minister of water affairs, and minister of intelligence services, Ronnie Kasrils. The duo will feature on a panel entitled Human Writes Day.
In addition to the nightly show- cases at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, a broad range of day activities in the form of seminars and workshops have been organised to promote a culture of reading, writing and creative expression. These include the educators’ forum with teachers on implementing literature in the classroom, visits to more than 25 schools and a prison writing programme.