Unclear destiny for Arab Horizons after Ibrahim Aslan resigns

Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 19 Jun 2011

One of the leading serial publication streams on the Egyptian literary scene is being shaken up with the departure, with some acrimony, of its renowned chief editor

Nobody ready knows about the future of the series “Afaaq Arabeya” (Arab Horizons), published by the Organisation for Cultural Palaces, offering a cheap edition for the works of Arab writers and poets to Egyptian readers.

The series started some years ago, with Ibrahim Aslan, a renowned Egyptian writer, as the chief editor. The series has published works of leading authors such as Mohamed Al-Maghout, Wadie Saada, Al-Tayeb Saleh, Bin Salem Hemish, Hoda Barakat and Kassem Haddad.

The selection depended largely on Aslan’s unique taste and his wide network of connections that enabled him to overcome issues of copyright, the authors donating their work “in appreciation for the Egyptian audience”.

The series was able to overcome many crises, including the famous one over the novel “A Meal of Seaweed” by Syrian writer Haidar Haidar (a lawsuit was raised against the novel, charging the author with heresy). Yet the series now faces an unknown destiny with Saad Abdel-Rahman’s leadership of the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces since March, and the announcement of his plan to change the editors of the series published by the organisation.

Aslan has indicated that he is afraid that Abdel-Rahman may censor the publications of the organisation, or that his taking over would lead to a drop in the quality of works proposed for publication. Consequently, Aslan confirmed his resignation from his post. As an example of Aslan's concerns, the complete works of Lebanese poet Mohamed Ali Shams El-din were delayed four months for censorship reasons, as confirmed by Aslan, who also said he will continue working until the three books currently under production are published, given his personal commitment to the authors.

Aslan denied that the reason for his resignation came in reaction to Abdel-Rahman’s statements, clarifying that his decision was made earlier: “I declared my resignation in a gathering at (artist) Adel El-Siwy’s house in the presence of the minister of culture, Emad Abou-Ghazi, at the end of March, in front of many intellectuals," stating that he is not an employee at the organisation and therefore not obliged to present a written resignation.

For his part, Saad Abdel-Rahman defended his plan, indicating that reforming the publishing segment in the organisation won’t touch leading writers who support the effort as individuals. “Our publishing was linked to many big names, but these names must be changed. The issue is not about one individual, but about a new policy that aims to develop publishing, so we will systematically change the editors of the series.”

“The works are presented to a board of critics and writers before publishing,” Abdel-Rahman explained, refuting censorship claims. “Yet despite there being no form of censorship, I have my own view, as an intellectual, about freedom. If Indians keep their cows sacred, then more worthy are our religions, so I will not accept any publishing of a literary work that attacks divinities, since I’m against rudeness, and against texts that may cause religious tensions.”

Confirming the same aim, Sobhi Mousa, head of publishing in the organisation, refused to comment on Aslan’s resignation stating, “I don’t know the reason behind the tension between Aslan and the head of the organisation. The first is a great writer and his presence gives credibility to the project, and I don’t believe his name was subject to discussion during the proposed changes. Yet I expect that he will understand the situation and the variables that control our work in the coming period.”

Moussa explained that the relationship with writers was based on appreciation and trust in their capacities, but the organization has the right to recast this relationship as per its new responsibilities and to bring young blood to leadership positions. In addition, Moussa felt that the January 25 Revolution has brought about a new atmosphere, and this should foster a change of leadership, confirming: “I really hope that our big writers understand this need in a changing society, not to belittle their role or their contribution to the service of Egyptian cultural life.”

Aslan replied to these statements saying that “Arab Horizons” was his idea and was started under the title “Writing Horizons” during the 1990s. He resigned amid the fuss around Haidar Haidar’s novel in 2000, and re-started the series with a new name. The author of “The Heron” indicated that he received offers to publish the series again but hadn’t decided to act on them. “Stating that I’m against change, which is the rule of life, is nonsense and reflects narrow-mindedness. Leading the series has no benefit for me, and its financial reward is nowhere near its effort.”

Meanwhile, the poet Mohamed Kesheik intervened to assert that Aslan did not have the rights to publish the series through another publishing house.

“Writing Horizons is originally my idea and not Aslan’s. During the 1990s I was leading publishing in the organisation.” Kesheik confirmed his surprise that Aslan considers himself the sole rightful owner for the series, saying: “It is certain that we were publishing it before he was the chief editor, both me and Ahmed Abdel-Razzek Aboul-Ela, the critic, who was supporting me in the publishing sector, and chose the name ‘Horizons’ for seven different series, including translation, visual art, and theatre in 1991, as requested by Hussein Mahran. I chose myself their respective editors. Although most of the editors changed the names of the series, Aslan kept this one.”

But Kesheik also asserted his gratitude to Aslan, and willingness to allow the writer to do with the series as he wishes.

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