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LUMINATO 2011

The new voices of Arab lit Add to ...

The kohl-eyed assassin glides out of the perfumed mists in bejewelled slippers, her silken veils fluttering erotically as she steals into the forbidden tent and whispers low …

At least she used to. In 2011, she is more likely to shout.

"I killed Scheherazade!" the assassin exclaims proudly over the line from her home in Beirut, preparing for a visit to the Luminato Festival in Toronto on Sunday, where she will do her best to finish off the remaining clichés about Arab literature.

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As a poet, culture critic and editor of a pioneering erotica magazine "that tries to fight and dismantle all the absurd taboos that are frustrating Arab culture and language," Joumana Haddad, the proud assassin, is one of five figures scheduled to show the literary face of the Arab Spring at Luminato this year.

Although her message may discomfit programmers, who have relied heavily on the legendary storyteller in creating their Arab showcase, it nonetheless proves the point they set out to make - that literary taste in the Middle East is changing as fast as its governments can topple.

Haddad makes her case in I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, arguing that the figure who saved her own life by telling stories for 1,001 nights is no longer a fit cultural model. "Although she had a great imagination and she was educated and smart, what she did was she negotiated with the man over her basic right - the right to live," Haddad said. "Now is the time to say enough with this, we should not negotiate with any authority over our basic rights. …

"That is why I killed her."

Like the other writers who will come together for Luminato's "Beirut 39" panel, named for a new anthology of contemporary Arab literature to which they contributed, Haddad can still speak more freely abroad than she can at home. But the authors' quest for expression is growing from marginal dissent into a central force of the revolutions currently shaking the Arab world.

Saudi writer Mohammad Hasan Alwan is seeing the fruits of reform - if not revolution - even in his own notoriously repressive country. As recently as five years ago, Alwan said in an interview from Ottawa, where he is studying for a PhD in marketing, his books were banned in Saudi Arabia.

"Nowadays this is part of history," he said, adding that books of all types now circulate freely in the kingdom. "It's a kind of breakthrough," he said. "We see signs of more freedom. It's not enough yet, but I'm thinking positively."

The once moribund Riyadh book fair is now "as busy as an airport" as young people avidly sample the new abundance, according to Alwan. "They want to read something different, they want different ideas," he said. "It's very normal to see a 25-year-old go to the book fair in Riyadh and leave with a trolley full of books. That's a scene I didn't grow up seeing."

Writing full time for a living is still not an option for most Arab writers, according to Alwan - hence the marketing degree. But the sheer number of new titles now being published is in itself an epochal change. "It shows something," Alwan said. "This society is trying to break through, trying to say something."

The same is true for Arab writers abroad, according to Randa Jarrar, the only Beirut 39 writer who lives in the United States and writes in English. Although she admits she can "barely have a conversation in Arabic," Jarrar has found a creative home among Arab-American writers forced into self-consciousness by the trauma of 9/11.

In addition to gaining unprecedented attention from U.S. publishers in the aftermath, members of the Radius of Arab American Writers have achieved something more, according to Jarrar - a freedom from politics.

"Today you can be a person of Arab background and write about whatever you want," she said, "and not have to constantly be defending your background or educating people about it, but simply creating art."

Similar status is difficult to obtain for Arab-language writers living in the Middle East, even amidst the euphoria of the Awakening. "I understand euphoria, but euphoria is a luxury I cannot afford as an Arab woman," said Haddad, who fields a "daily dose of threats and insults" in her struggle to publish her magazine Jasad (Body), which is barely tolerated in Lebanon and banned everywhere else in the region.

In Saudi Arabia, women are struggling for the right to drive, "as if driving your car is some kind of evil or pornographic act," according to Haddad. Women are barely represented in the new governments of Tunisia and Egypt.

"Some people ask me, 'Why are you so angry?' " Haddad said. "I think everybody needs to be angry if you live in this part of the world."

The fact that some Saudi women are petitioning King Abdullah to uphold the ban against their driving is one measure of the distance yet to go, according to Alwan. But as a writer, he cannot suppress his hope.

"You can't expect anything bad from people getting more engaged in reading and writing," he said.

Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World takes place Sunday at 1 p.m. at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio ( www.luminato.com ).

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