I recently had the opportunity to witness Greek cultural diplomacy in action and I liked what I saw. Although I am familiar with the term ‘cultural diplomacy’ and its synonym, ‘soft power’ this was my first time seeing how they work in real time.
It all happened in Egypt last week where Greece was the guest country at the 53rd Cairo International Book Fair held between January 26 and February 7. What this meant in practice was that among the 900 pavilions that hosted the books of over one thousand Egyptian, Arab, and foreign publishers from 51 countries there was one special pavilion assigned to Greece. The organizers also covered some of the costs of the Greek delegation.
As in most cases of Greece’s representation in cultural events abroad, the delegation was made up of members of the Hellenic Foundation of Culture (HFC) led by its President Nikos Koukis. The HFC is an institution whose mission is to disseminate Greek language and culture in coordination with the government’s Ministry of Culture.
A small number of Greek authors who had either translated books from Arabic into Greek or whose books had been translated into Arabic by Egyptian publishers also traveled to Cairo. Also invited was a handful of Greek book publishers. A recent book of mine on the Greeks in Egypt had been translated into Arabic by the Library of Alexandria so I was fortunate enough to be among the invitees along with novelists Amanda Michalopoulou and Dimitris Sotakis.
I observed this Greco-Egyptian cultural encounter with great interest. Relations between these two neighboring countries go back to antiquity. From the early 18th century through the 1960s there was a large Greek community in Egypt. Many of its members felt attached to Egypt and considered it their adopted country. And to this day and many Egyptians reciprocate those feelings and remember the Greek presence fondly.
Yet there was a weak link in the relationship, and that was the inability or the unwillingness of many Greeks in Egypt to learn Arabic. Nor did the Greeks do anything to encourage Egyptians to learn Greek. The differences in the script between Greek and Arabic are only a partial excuse.
Greek educators based in Egypt before the big exodus of the Greeks thought that somehow the community could survive without a firm grasp of Arabic. They were wrong. One of the reasons the Greeks began leaving in the 1950s and 1960s was they were not proficient in the local language.
Greece’s place of honor in this year’s Cairo International Book Fair cannot turn the clock back, much less promote the knowledge of Arabic in Greece itself. But it offers a wonderful opportunity to bridge the linguistic divide by promoting the translation of Greek language books into Arabic and vice versa. Several years ago, author and translator Persa Koumoutsi, a Greek born in Cairo who became fluent in both languages, rendered in Greek several of Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s novels into Greek. The Greek reading public responded enthusiastically.
With Greece’s presence at the Cairo International Book Fair such a Greco-Egyptian cross-fertilization is becoming more systematic. Over the almost two-weeks the fair was held, there were discussion panels each day on translated books presented by their authors on issues of translation between the two languages, and there were also discussions on translating books for young adults and children from Greek to Arabic and vice versa. A panel highlighted the Greek Ministry of Culture’s GreekLit program headed by writer Nikos Bakounakis. GreekLit funds the translation of Greek language books into other languages including Arabic.
There were 530,000 visitors to the Book Fair in the first of the two weeks it was held. Very many of those passed by the Greek pavilion. What will really matter of course will be the impressions created by the Greek authors and the agreements the publishers in Athens were able to secure. Yet the reception for the Greek delegation and the officials of the Cairo Book Fair held by the Greek Ambassador to Cairo Nikolaos Garilidis, who was born in Egypt and speaks Arabic fluently,; offered some clues. The conviviality and warmth made it obvious that Greece was making an excellent impression on its hosts. Even when some of the conversations needed the help of a translator!