Monday, December 29, 2008

saleh al-kuwaity's 100th anniversary

The Al-Kuwaity brothers in Iraq days with singing legend Muhammad al-Qubanji © Shlomo al-Kuwaity

Saleh al-Kuwaity’s 100th birthday celebrated in London
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 29 December 2008

Saleh al-Kuwaity, one of the greatest figures in 20th century Iraqi and Arab music, was born in 1908 to a family of Iraqi Jews in Kuwait, to where his father had migrated from Basra in the late 19th century. Saleh and his brother Daoud became famous musicians in Iraq, but their musical careers were disrupted when they left for Israel in 1951.

“When their plane took off into the Baghdad skies, it signaled for Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity the end of their rise and the beginning of their decline” says Saleh’s son Shlomo.
However, the songs of Saleh al-Kuwaity remained popular in Iraq, Kuwait and beyond. This was shown when two years ago Shlomo and other family members managed to produce the 18-track double CD “Daoud & Saleh al-Kuwaity: Their Star Shall Never Fade.”

“The album had a limited release, and was sent, among others to some prominent Arab figures around the world and in Kuwait and Iraq in particular” says Shlomo. “We were very surprised at the positive responses from the Kuwait, Saudi, Lebanese and Iraqi press, and also from a whole host of online websites which specialize in Arabic music.”

Now a special day has been held at the Brunei Gallery of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Saleh, who died in 1986.

The climax of the day was a packed-out concert during which some of the current generation of Iraqi musicians living in exile performed Saleh al-Kuwaity’s music to a wildly appreciative audience.

A main organizer of the event, the London-based Iraqi oud master Ahmed Mukhtar, said in his welcoming speech: “We commemorate Saleh al-Kuwaity as a person of artistic value not as Iraqi or Kuwaiti, but as of great human value. He managed with his rich compositions to establish some very valuable music in the area, and in particular for the Iraqi people: all the Iraqis tend to sing his songs and are still attached to his classical compositions.”

Mukhtar paid tribute to “the genius of Saleh al-Kuwaity” and the way in which “he created new styles of Iraqi maqam music and freed the maqam from its restrictions and mixed some of it with urban music.”

The concert began with Mukhtar performing variations on several of Saleh al-Kuwaity’s songs. The singer Ismail Fadhel, who lives in Australia, then delivered in rousing style a succession of al-Kuwaity songs. The Iraqi instrumentalists in the ensemble were London-based violinist Taher Barakat and, from the Netherlands, qanoun player Jamil al-Assadi and percussionist Ali Khafaji. The concert was a joyous occasion, with the audience clapping and singing along to songs laden with memories.

During the concert Mukhtar presented a 100th anniversary award to Shlomo al-Kuwaity, who later described the celebration for his father as “incredibly exciting. I was totally surprised and touched to see that he is still present in people’s hearts.”

He added: “For our family and for me, of course it was a great honor. But most important for us is restoring his place in the history of Arab music. We think he deserves it. The response of the audience was overwhelming and I felt at home. I must thank the organizers and SOAS for this event, and hope that a door has been opened without differences of religion and without politics. Just for the Arts!”

The centenary day began with a talk by Shlomo on the extraordinary musical journey of his father Saleh and uncle Daoud. As boys, their musical gifts were revealed after an uncle returned from a business trip to India with a violin for Saleh and an oud for Daoud, two years Saleh’s junior. (The brothers would remain faithful to these instruments throughout their lives.) Their father arranged for them to have lessons with the Kuwaiti musician Khaled al-Baker. They learnt the elements of Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Yemeni and Hijazi music and song, and became famed for their performances at gatherings of dignitaries.

The brothers recorded for the Baidofone company, which in those days would travel to Kuwait. After Baidophone stopped visiting Kuwait in 1928, Kuwaiti artists traveled to Basra to make recordings. A club owner asked Saleh and Daoud to stay in the city and work at his club as musicians. This was when they started to perform with the legendary maqam singer, Muhammad al-Qubbanji.

In 1930 the brothers moved to Baghdad and began to work as musicians in the Malha el-Hilil club accompanying the famous Jewish singer Selima Murad, married to fellow singing star Nazem al-Ghazli. She asked Saleh to write songs for her: the first was “Qalbak Sakhr Jalmoud”(“Your Heart is Rock Hard”).

Over the next two decades Saleh al-Kuwaity was the pre-eminent song writer in Iraq, composing songs for singers including Zakiya George, Munira al-Hawazwaz. Afifa Iskander and Zohour Hussein.

When the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum was touring Iraq in 1931, Saleh taught her “Qalbak Sakhr Jalmoud”. Another towering Egyptian performer, the singer and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab made trips to Iraq in the early 1930s. He was very interested in Iraqi and Kuwaiti music, and would sit with Saleh after performances so the two could learn from each other.

In 1936 the al-Kuwaity brothers were asked to found an orchestra for the new Iraqi broadcasting service. They were also favorites of King Ghazi, who had a personal radio station in his palace. The king gave Saleh a personally inscribed watch, which is still in the possession of the al-Kuwaity family – and is still working.

Many of the instrumentalists in Iraq were Jewish. According to Shlomo, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said, himself a keen amateur musician, switched on the radio one day in 1945 and found there was no music. “When he contacted the radio, he was told that it was Yom Kippur and the Jews did not work. And so it was decided to set up another orchestra with non-Jewish musicians under the direction of Jamil Bashir.”

The tumultuous politics of the region shattered the position of the Jewish community in Iraq. Most of its members emigrated, and in 1951 the al-Kuwaiti brothers left Iraq for Israel. This was despite the Emir of Kuwait’s sending messengers the day of their departure asking them to move to Kuwait, where he guaranteed they would be treated with great respect.

Like many Iraqi Jews, the al-Kuwaity brothers initially faced a difficult time in Israel. Saleh set up a store for household items in the market of Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood. “The store was not a great success,” Shlomo recalls, “but it did serve as a kind of office and address for people who wanted them to perform.” Eventually the brothers had their own radio program on the Arabic service of the Kol Israel official radio station, and this enabled them to reconnect with their lost listeners in the Arab world.

[picture of Saleh al-Kuwaity © Shlomo al-Kuawity]
At the 100th anniversary celebration, the Iraqi author, artist and columnist Khalid Kishtainy recalled Baghdad at the time when the al-Kuwaity brothers were in their heyday. He spoke of Saleh’s well-know love affair with the Muslim Syrian singer who adopted the Christian name of Zakiya George, thinking this would make it more acceptable for her to sing in public.

In a film screened at the event, Ahmed Mukhtar interviewed Yeheskel Kojaman, a London-based Iraqi-Jewish expert in Iraqi music and author of the book “The Maqam Music Tradition of Iraq”, He also interviewed, over the phone, Baher al-Rajab musician son of the Iraqi-Jewish musician Hashim al-Rajab.

In the film it was stated that a committee was formed in Iraq in 1973 to “remove the impurities in the Iraqi heritage.” Many names vanished, including those of the al-Kuwaity brothers, although their music was still widely listened to.

The day also included the screening of a program broadcast by the US-sponsored satellite TV channel Al-Hurra. In the program three experts on Iraqi music, including the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra Abdul Razzak al-Azzawi, discuss Saleh al-Kuwaity’s importance and identify him as the definitive Iraqi composer of the 1930s and 1940s.

Shlomo notes that at the 8th conference of Baghdad University’s Faculty of Fine Arts this year, Ibrahim al-Jazrawi presented a paper entitled “Saleh al-Kuwaity and his work in Iraqi music and poetry”. Al-Jazrawi proposed the establishment of a library to preserve all material related to Saleh.

Following the success of the double CD, and with fresh material surfacing from sources in countries from the Netherlands and England to Iraq and Kuwait, the family is now working on a publication on the lives and work of Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity. Like the double CD, this seems destined to become a treasured collector’s item.

Monday, December 15, 2008

arab booker shortlist

shortlisted titles (credit James Darling)

The shortlist of six novels for the $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), announced last week at an event in London’s South Bank arts complex, confirms the importance of Beirut as a publishing center. No fewer than five of the novels are published in Beirut, two of them by Dar al-Adab.

At the same time the shortlist reflects Egypt’s continuing domination of Arabic fiction writing. As in the first year of the prize, the shortlist includes two novels by Egyptian authors. The other shortlisted writers cover a broad sweep of the Arab world, from Tunisia to Palestine-Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

The winner of the first IPAF, who was announced in Abu Dhabi last March, was Egyptian Bahaa Taher for “Sunset Oasis”. Taher’s publisher, Dar al-Shorouk of Cairo, is the only non-Lebanese publisher with a book on the IPAF 2009 shortlist.

The IPAF 2009 winner will be announced in Abu Dhabi on March 16, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The winner will receive a total of $60,000, comprising the $50,000 prize itself plus the $10,000 awarded to each of the six shortlisted authors.

IPAF was established in Abu Dhabi in April 2007 with funding from the Emirates Foundation and support from the Booker Prize Foundation, which administers Britain’s leading fiction prize the Man Booker. IPAF is often referred to as “the Arab Booker”.

At the announcement of the shortlist, the chairman of the Booker Trust Jonathan Taylor said: “This is only the second year of the prize, but already it seems to be pretty well established. Indeed last year’s winner, Bahaa Taher’s novel ‘Sunset Oasis’, is in the process of being translated into eight languages – including, rather remarkably, Serbian – and the other shortlisted authors are also being translated. ”

The chairman of the five IPAF 2009 judges, the eminent Lebanese scholar and literary critic Youmna el-Eid, read out the titles of the shortlisted books. The best-known author on the shortlist is probably Jordanian-Palestinian poet and novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah, with “Time of White Horses” published by Arab Scientific Publishers of Beirut. The two Egyptians shortlisted are Muhammad Al-Bisatie for “Hunger” (Dar al-Adab) and Yusuf Zaydan for “Beelzebub” (Dar al Shorouk).

Syrian Fawwaz Haddad is shortlisted for “The Unfaithful Translator” (Riad el Rayyes, Beirut). The Iraqi journalist Inaam Kachahi – the only woman on the shortlist – is included for “The American Granddaughter” (Al Jadid, Beirut). From Tunisia there is Al-Habib Al-Salmi with “The Scents of Marie-Claire” (Dar Al Adab).

In all, 131 books were submitted, but ten were deemed unsuitable and the judges read 121 books to arrive at their 16-book longlist announced on November 11. Youmna el-Eid’s co-judges (pictured with el-Eid) are the Egyptian Rasheed El Enany, Professor of Modern Arabic Literature and Director of Arab Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, England; the Emirati writer, journalist and head of the Dubai Cultural Council Mohammad al-Murr; the Palestinian-Jordanian critic, journalist and author Fakhri Saleh, and the German translator of Arabic literature Hartmut Faehndrich.

As in the first year of the prize, the identity of the judges was kept secret until the announcement of the shortlist. This secrecy might seem excessive, but last year the organizers explained it was enforced so as “to ensure the independence and integrity of the selection process.”

El Eid stressed that the judges made their selections irrespective of a particular writer’s position or country of origin. Some well known authors of the 121 books considered were omitted from the longlist. And a striking example of a longlisted author who did not make it to the shortlist is the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni, famed for his novels set in the desert among the Tuareg.

Al-Koni is an acclaimed author who won the Mohamed Zefzaf Prize for the Arabic Novel in 2005 and the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature, and his some 60 books have been translated into 35 or so languages.

But then the shortlist for the Man Booker prize itself produces upsets almost every year: for example there was shock in September when Sir Salman Rushdie, widely tipped to win this year’s Man Booker for “The Enchantress of Florence”, failed to make the shortlist.

The six shortlisted novels encompass a wide range of Arab historical, social, religious and political concerns, and explore their impact on individuals. Muhammad Al-Bisatie’s “Hunger” tells of those on the bottom rungs of society, and the contradictions between rich and poor. The judges describe it as “a detached yet intimate portrait of day-to-day lives”.

Inaam Kachachi, Paris correspondent of Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, delves into the dilemmas of Iraqis who have grown up abroad, and their relationship with Iraq. A young American-Iraqi woman, “The American Granddaughter”, returns to Iraq as an interpreter for the US Army after the 2003 invasion.

In “Time of White Horses” Ibrahim Nasrallah depicts the history of three generations of a Palestinian family in a small village, from Ottoman times to the modern era. The judges observe that this saga is descended from a genre introduced into Arabic fiction by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy”.

Tunisian Al-Habib Al-Salmi’s “The Scents of Marie-Claire” evokes another genre of Arabic fiction, exploring the East-West relationship through a love affair between an Arab man and a Western woman. Earlier examples of this genre are Tayib Saleh’s “Season of Migration to the North” and Tawfik Al-Hakim’s “Bird from the East”.

Yusuf Zaydan’s “Beelzebub” is set in fifth century Upper Egypt, Alexandria and Northern Syria at a critical time in Christian history. The novel, by a respected Muslim historian, has received critical praise but has upset the Coptic Orthodox Church, which reportedly tried to get it banned.

The central figure of Fawwaz Haddad’s “The Unfaithful Translator” is a translator accused of betrayal. He builds a network of literary figures, journalists and critics to campaign for the upholding of human values and an end to oppression in the art of writing. Ironically, this novel upholding freedom of expression is apparently banned in its author’s home country, Syria. (This was similarly the case with a novel by a Syrian author shortlisted for IPAF 2008, “In Praise of Hate” by Khaled Khalifa).

One of IPAF’s main aims is to encourage the translation of Arabic fiction into English. Arrangements for the translation of the eventual winner of the 2009 prize, and the other shortlisted novels, are already being discussed.

The English translation of the 2008 winner “Sunset Oasis”, being carried out by the highly-regarded translator Humphrey Davies, is funded by the philanthropist and publisher Sigrid Rausing. It is due to be published in the UK by Sceptre, a Hodder & Stoughton imprint, late next summer. The other five novels shortlisted in 2008 have been, or are being, translated into English and other languages.

Taylor says: “We are also becoming aware of another challenge and priority which is to improve the distribution and availability of our Arabic shortlisted writers within the Arabic-reading world. That may be as great a challenge – or even a greater challenge – as securing translation.”
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, December 15 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

lerman critical of macshane's 'new anti-semitism' book

Antony Lerman's incisive New Statesman review of former Labour Europe Minister Denis MacShane's book 'Globalising Hatred: The New Anti-Semitism' is headlined 'Misdirected Passion'. Lerman [left] dismisses MacShane's arguments and material as "familiar stuff" which will only have added credibility for those who are "swayed by exaggeration and ready to overlook a surfeit of unsubstantiated assertions and errors of fact".

Lerman is director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and, as any regular reader of the Jewish Chronicle will know, his critics are legion. He is a signatory to Independent Jewish Voices, and a contributor to the recently-published volume 'A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zioinism and Jewish Identity' (Verso). His review of MacShane's book is unlikely to persuade his enemies to revise their view of him.

Lerman argues that, through "elevating" Anti-Semitism and writing that it is "the world's most pernicious ideology and practice", that it is "preventing just and equitable solutions to world problems", and that Islamism is merely a sub-component of it, MacShane betrays a lack of knowledge and understanding of anti-Semitism's modern history. For example, MacShane writes that "Israel is the one state in the world where anti-Semitism cannot exist", when there has been ample evidence of anti-Semitic neo-Nazi groups emerging there in recent years. And MacShane ignores, say, the hatred that led to the Rwandan genocide, or that is curently directed against the Roma.

Lerman adds: "Unsurprisingly, at the heart of MacShane's definition of 'neo anti-Semitism' is the belief that 'anti-Zionsim is Jew-hatred by other linguistic means'". Further, although MacShane wants a Palestinian state, the arguments in his book are a "gift to the israeli right and right-wing Diaspora Jews, who use the mantra 'the world is against us and Palestinians are like Nazis' to stymie any determined moves towards a two-state solution."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

israeli settlers' 'pogrom' against hebron palestinians

Israeli newspaper Haaretz has a horrifying article and video today on what Avi Issacharoff terms a progrom by rampaging Israelil settlers against Palestinians in Hebron.

The article begins:

Hebron settler riots were out and out pogroms

By Avi Issacharoff

An innocent Palestinian family, numbering close to 20 people. All of
them women and children, save for three men. Surrounding them are a few dozen masked Jews seeking to lynch them. A pogrom. This isn't a play on words or a double meaning. It is a pogrom in the worst sense of the word. First the masked men set fire to their laundry in the front yard and then they tried to set fire to one of the rooms in the house. The women cry for help, "Allahu Akhbar." Yet the neighbors are too scared to approach the house, frightened of the security guards from Kiryat Arba who have sealed off the home and who are cursing the journalists who wish to document the events unfolding there.

The cries rain down, much like the hail of stones the masked men hurled at the Abu Sa'afan family in the house. A few seconds tick by before a group of journalists, long accustomed to witnessing these difficult moments, decide not to stand on the sidelines. They break into the home and save the lives of the people inside...
article in full

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

guardian blog 'visits' egyptian literature

As the English Pen Atlas blog points out, the Guardian Books blog World Literature Tour is currently 'visiting' Egypt.The tour blog posting and comments section reflect the fact that Egyptian literature is increasingly available in translation : the names that recur most are, predictably, Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa al-Aswany. Bahaa Taher, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) - the 'Arab Booker' - in its first year, for 'Sunset Oasis', is also mentioned. (I have his 'Love in Exile' from Arabia Books in my shelves in the 'soon to be read' section). Yahya Hakki ('The Lamp of Umm Hashim') gets a write-up by commenter suzanabrams.

Other names featured include Ahdaf Soueif (London-based and writing in English), Tawfik al-Hakim, Taha Hussein, Nawal al-Saadawi, Radwa Ashour, Sonallah Ibrahim, Somaya Ramadan, Edwar al-Kharrat, Khairy Shalaby ('The Lodging House', though I prefer the original title in Arabic 'Wikalat Atiya' - lodging house somehow suggestive more of a dismal out of season seaside B&B than a once-splendid cavernous caravanserie). From the new generation Khalid al-Khamissy (pictured below, author of 'Taxi'), Ahmed Aalidy ('Being Abbas El Abd'), Magdy al-Shafei (the graphic novel 'Metro'), Marwa Rakha ('The Poison Tree'), Miral al-Tahawi ('The Tent', 'The Blue Aubergine', 'The Gazelle's Walk)' , and May Telmissany ('Dunyazad').

So far, the blog entry on Egypt has attracted only 17 comments (some of which weren't on Egyptian literature, but suggested a next stop on the 'tour'), much fewer than the 45 for Portugal, the previous stop, Nigeria (42), Australia (116 comments), Ireland (213). Of course it's not really appropiate to compare interest, as indicated by comments, in relatively newly available Egyptian fiction with that in literature from Anglophone countries.
Egypt was chosen as a destination by readers of the blog, but there was a miniscule number of votes. It got 2 votes, tied with the same number for a combined destination of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. As Egypt had been shortlisted a few times previously it was the final choice. Surely Moroccan literature (including poetry) is 'present' enough to merit inclusion in its own right rather than only as part of a general Maghreb entry. Or, if one insists on a general North African entry, why not expand to `include Libya. From a younger generation is Booker-shortlisted Hisham Matar ('In the Country of Men'); veteran authors available in translation include Ibrahim al-Koni, Ahmed Fagih, and those anthologised in Ethan Chorin's 'Translating Libya'.

Monday, December 01, 2008

abdelillah hamdouchi's police novel 'the final bet'

Watching the Detectives Moroccan Style
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette December 1 2008

The picture of British actor Kenneth Branagh on the cover of the latest issue of the London-based weekly Radio Times reflects the public’s abiding appetite for crime drama, and the hope of the BBC that this will extend to crime fiction in translation. The picture shows a rumpled-looking Branagh in his latest role as Swedish detective Inspector Kurt Wallander, the central figure in a series of novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell.

The three 90-minute Wallander dramas, shot on location in the southern Swedish seaport of Ystad, are a highlight of the BBC’s end-of-year schedules. Mankell’s books have been published in 33 countries and his books have been bestsellers in Europe. He has won several international prizes for his Wallander series.

Mankell is just one of a growing number of crime writers from Europe and beyond whose books are, partly through translation into English, widening the vistas of crime fiction. Now Arabia Books of London is hoping that the Moroccan author Abdelilah Hamdouchi (pictured below) will prove a worthy addition to ranks of crime writers in English translation with the publication of “The Final Bet” translated by Jonathan Smolin.

“The Final Bet” is being promoted as the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English. Hamdouchi, who lives in Rabat, is described as one of the first writers of detective fiction in Arabic. He has written eight novels, and is an award-winning screenwriter for Moroccan TV and cinema. All his police novels, including “The Final Bet”, have been produced for Moroccan TV.

“The Final Bet” was published recently as a hardback by the American University of Cairo (AUC) Press. It was recently issued as a paperback by Arabia Books, which was founded earlier this year by Haus Publishing and Arcadia Books in close cooperation with AUC Press.

The story opens with the stabbing to death of a rich old Frenchwoman Sofia who lives in a swanky area of Casablanca with her much younger Moroccan husband Othman. She was 73 and Othman not yet 33, younger than her son by her first marriage. Sofia owned a restaurant on the coast managed by Othman who, thanks to her wealth, wears expensive Italian clothes and drives the latest BMW.

Othman married Sofia for the material benefits she would bring him and his family, but feels trapped by this marriage to a far older woman who physically repels him. He is having a passionate affair with Sofia’s beautiful young Moroccan aerobics teacher Naeema, who despairs that he will ever leave Sofia. Othman is the prime suspect in Sofia’s murder, especially after it emerges that Sofia had changed her will to make him her sole beneficiary.

On one level “The Final Bet” is a conventional police procedural, and not a particularly sophisticated one. What adds to its interest of the novel is the light it sheds on changes in wider Moroccan society and their impact on policing.

We are in a Morocco of mobile phones and aerobics classes, a society that is in some ways modernizing but which is failing to provide its young people with the opportunities they desperately need. Othman was a bright law graduate who like many other educated Moroccans found himself joining the ranks of the unemployed. He had considered emigrating illegally to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar, but could not afford to pay the boat smugglers, and had even contemplated suicide.

Sofia’s first, French, husband had been killed in a car crash and her second husband, from whom she was eventually divorced, was a young Moroccan immigrant in France who had persuaded her to open a restaurant in Morocco. Knowing Sofia’s proclivities for young Moroccan men, Othman had set out to woo her and his marriage to her had seemed his last chance. “When he met Sofia he thought Europe immigrated across the Strait to him.”

The characters of the policemen are drawn with touches of humor. There is Allal ben Alawaam, known by those under his command as Alwaar or “rough guy”. He and like-minded cops opposed the recent reforms curbing police violence.

The novel is set at a time when the government is calling for an end to torture-related deaths in police custody, is launching investigations into police misconduct and is arresting police implicated in human rights violations. Alwaar has found it hard to do his job without using brutality, and he has become addicted to betting on racehorses.

At one point Alwaar releases Othman after questioning him. When Boukrisha protests, Alwaar asks him what he wants him to do in this age of democracy and human rights when there is “no more falaqa, no more shock treatment, no more beatings or torture.”

Alwaar’s sidekick is the impulsive younger Inspector Boukrisha, and their team includes the hopeless Asila who dozes off in his old car while supposedly keeping Othman under surveillance.

The role of the good guy of the story is taken by lawyer Ahmed Hulumi who studied law at university with Othman, and who has taken a public stand in support of human rights. He picks holes in the police investigation of Sofia’s murder, and discovers some clues vital to Othman’s defence.

The book’s translator Jonathan Smolin is assistant professor of Arabic at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. In his afterword he puts the novel in its political context. The so-called Years of Lead, in the 1970s and 1980s, had been a period of grave human rights violations in Morocco. At that time reference to the word ‘police’ was virtually taboo, and the police almost never appeared in Moroccan fiction. The growing liberalization of the 1990s produced new forms of fiction, and genres such as literature on illegal immigration and prisons started to appear.

It was in the mid-1990s that the first modern Arabic police novel was born. “The Final Bet” was first published in Arabic in 2001, and dealt with themes of police reform and legal rights. All the evidence relating to Sofia’s murder seems on the surface to point to Othman as the guilty party, and Hamdouchi shows how the police make no effort to look for new leads. In addition, he criticizes the way in which an individual arrested in Morocco cannot have a lawyer present during initial police questioning.

Given that crime fiction is a thriving area of the British book market, “The Final Bet” will surely attract interest from aficionados of the detective genre, as well as from those with an interest in Moroccan and Arab fiction. And who knows, maybe it will be turned into a drama for British TV: even if there is no role for Kenneth Branagh there are plenty of Middle Eastern actors in Britain who could play Othman, Alwaar et al.

Friday, November 28, 2008

philip arditti's radio 4 reading of syrian writer's story

The voice reading the BBC Radio 4 afternoon story today with a marked Arab accent sounded oddly familiar. It turned out to be that of Italian-born actor Philip Arditti [pictured], who played Saddam's son Uday to such chilling effect in the BBC serial House of Saddam a few months back. The story he read with gentle restraint was by a Syrian, Hassan Bahri, who lives in London and is part of Exiled Writers Ink. Bahri was born in Syria in 1955 and graduated as an engineer in Ukraine, then part of the USSR. He was imprisoned in Syria for more than eight years as a result of his political activities, and has been in the UK since 2001. Bahri's story Bread Heap and a Dreamer depicts a political prisoner surrounded by torture and "parties" (interrogation sessions) who draws strength from the words and images scratched on the walls by the previous occupants of his filthy cell 14 and manages to overcome his isolation. the story can be read here. The reading was part of Points of Entry, a series of readings over the past week intended to reflect the experiences of immigrants who have sought sanctuary in Britain over the past 60 years. Bahri was in good company: the other authors whose stories were read were South African novelist Gillian Slovo, 2004 Caine Prize winner Brian Chikwava from Zimbabwe, prolific Pakistan-born author Ziauddin Sardar and Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes.

Monday, November 24, 2008

the secret life of syrian lingerie

from the latest issue of qantara:

The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie

Panties from the "Axis of Evil"

While visiting Syria, two London-based women of Arab origin became fascinated by the risqué lingerie openly on display in the souqs and shops of Damascus and Aleppo. The book they now produced is one of the most unusual publications you are likely to see on the Arab world, says Susannah Tarbush

When Malu Halasa and Rana Salam visited the souqs and shops of Damascus and Aleppo during a visit a couple of years ago, they were surprised by the apparent contradiction between the unusually audacious and playful lingerie on display there and the relatively conservative society, in which so many women are veiled.

Halasa and Salam soon decided to co-author a book, "The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design", which was published recently by Chronicle Books of San Francisco with support from the Prince Claus Fund Library of the Netherlands.

Sensual Syrian playfulness

The colourful pages of the book are full of photographs of lingerie decorated with everything from birds, butterflies and feathers to fake scorpions, flowers and fur. Sequins, pearls, embroidery and tassels liberally adorn bra and panty sets. Some lingerie sets emit music, others vibrate or incorporate lights. Lingerie may be edible; in other cases it is hidden inside chocolates or eggs. There are crocheted one-piece body suits, and costumes influenced by belly-dancing gear. The lingerie often has a playfulness about it, with comic touches such as fake fur thongs which double as mobile phone holders...

surge of interest in Arabic literature in translation

The inclusion of the English translation of Saudi writer Rajaa Alsanea’s debut novel “The Girls of Riyadh” on the longlist for the world’s most valuable literary prize is a further breakthrough for Arabic fiction in translation.

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the largest annual prize for a single work of fiction, worth 100,000 Euros (equivalent to more than 127,000 US dollars). The nominations for the longlist of 146 novels, revealed on November 10, came from 157 libraries in 117 cities in 41 countries: “Girls of Riyadh” was nominated by Warsaw Public Library.

The longlist puts Alsanea [pictured at this year's London Book Fair] alongside such writers as Nobel prizewinners Doris Lessing and JM Coetzee, veteran US novelist Philip Roth, Michael Ondaatje, Alan Bennett and Khaled Hosseini (Afghan author of “The Kite Runner and “A Thousand Splendid Suns”).

A panel of five judges is to select the shortlist, to be announced on April 2, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin will reveal the winner on June 11. This year’s winner of IMPAC was an Arab: the Lebanese Rawi Hage, who lives in Canada, for with his novel “De Niro’s Game”. But unlike Alsanea, Hage writes his fiction in English.

With the success of “Girls of Riyadh”, Alsanea has become one of the biggest names in Arabic fiction globally. Another major name is that of Egyptian Alaa Al-Aswany, author of “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago” (coincidentally he and Alsanea are both Chicago-trained dentists).

Both writers have broken through into the Western literary mainstream, which has been a stimulus for Arab literature. Publishers are increasingly interested in publishing translations of Arabic writing, and are on the lookout for new Arab authors who may have mass readership appeal.

Given this surge of interest in Arab literature, the publication of David Tresilian’s “A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature” is very timely. The book is published by Saqi of London, Beirut and San Francisco as part of its new Brief Introductions Series.

Tresilian has taught at both the American University of Cairo and Cairo University, and is a former co-editor of the Cairo Review of Books published by Al-Ahram. Since 1999 he has taught at the American University of Paris.

He cites the scholar Salih Altoma who noted that between 1947 and 1967 only 16 modern literary titles were translated from Arabic into English. The figure increased to 84 in 1967-88, and the trickle has since become a flood, partly due to the awarding in 1988 of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz.

Tresilian focuses on Arab literature available in English translation. Egyptian literature gets the lion’s share of space in the book, something that Tresilian justifies in terms of Egypt’s place in modern Arab literature. As the old saying goes: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.”

This may no longer be true, Tresilian points out. The years of turmoil in Iraq have decimated the reading public in that country, while the civil war damaged Lebanon’s publishing industry. Furthermore, Egypt may be losing its traditional position of intellectual leadership of the Arab world.

At the same time some Arab publishers have established themselves outside the Arab world in cities such as London. And the rise in Gulf wealth has led to injections of capital into the Arab literary scene, for example in the form of prizes and of magazines and newspapers that publish and sometimes employ Arab authors.

Tresilian encompasses both fiction and poetry in his book, including a translation by Mursi Saad El-Din of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem “Song of the Rain”, with the Arabic and English on facing pages.

He covers much ground, but wisely he does not rush the reader through an exhaustive tour crammed with names. He takes time to deal with certain works in depth, including Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s novel “Men in the Sun”.

He touches on the controversies around translation and cultural exchange and explores ways in which modern Arabic literature might be thought about for the general reader and for students of comparative literature. He points to the danger that the choice of literary works for translation may create a distorted image of a culture.

Tresilian points to the difficult environment in which Arab writers operate when compared with their Western counterparts. Few if any Arab writers are able to live from their writing. Referring to the British author of the Harry Potter series, Tresilian observes:“There is no Arab JK Rowling”. Almost all Arab writers have full time jobs.

Arab writers do not enjoy anything like the book publishing and promotion industry found in the West. Although literature is admired in the Arab world, this does not guarantee that it will find a large readership. Writers also suffer from problems of censorship.
The book has an entire chapter on Palestinian literature. The influence of Palestinian writers reflects the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in shaping Arab culture. The relationship between politics and literature is also examined in a chapter on the impact on writers of the 1967 defeat. Egyptian writers Sonallah Ibrahim [pictured] and Gamal al-Ghitany had contrasting responses to the war. Ibrahim’s career developed through novels with a political stance, while Ghitani drew on pre-modern literary forms as inspiration, as in his novel “Zayni Barakat” about a market inspector in the Mamluk era. Another Egyptian writer, Edwar al-Kharrat, has been influenced by Proust.

Tresilian identifies three main trends on the contemporary Arab literary scene: a weariness with politics, a growth in the number of women writers, and a related emphasis on individual experience at the expense of larger public themes. A further development has been regional writing, as exemplified by Nubian writers and by the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni whose novels are set among the Tuareg people.

Recently there has been a turning away from European literary models and towards elements from the pre-modern literary heritage and from the oral and popular culture. But ominously there has also been a growing intolerance of literary expression generally, “which has made what was always perhaps a minority activity into one that is now that of a sometimes embattled minority.” One can assume that in such an environment, translation of their work from Arabic is likely to have increasing appeal to writers seeking to escape pressures and constraints.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, November 24 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

'the road from damascus' of robin yassin-kassab

Sami Traifi, the central character in Anglo-Syrian writer Robin Yassin-Kassab’s debut novel “The Road from Damascus”, was born in Britain to Syrian parents and lives in London with his Iraqi wife Muntaha. His wife’s decision to start wearing the hijab against his wishes is a key catalyst to the narrative that unfolds. Sami is forced to question everything at a profound level, and Yassin-Kassab’s exuberant novel chronicles his odyssey through chaotic, multicultural London.

Yassin-Kassab dedicates the novel, published in the UK by the Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, to his wife Rana Zaitoon. The couple were recently interviewed for an article in the London-based Sunday newspaper the Observer, and revealed certain similarities between the novel and their own lives.

Five years into Robin and Rana’s marriage, when the couple had moved to Saudi Arabia from Syria via a period spent in Morocco, Rana decided to start wearing the hijab. Robin was concerned that people would think he was forcing her to wear it, but he recognized that Rana thought she would be comfortable wearing the hijab and that she felt proud to be identified as a Muslim woman. “So, rather than worrying about other people, I started to listen to her. Now I feel comfortable too. And her hair is still there underneath, and free-flowing in the privacy of our home, as luxurious as it ever was.”

Rana admitted that she sometimes feels sorry for her husband. “He would prefer it if I didn’t wear the hijab. But what can I do? It is my wish.” She has worn the hijab for six years, in a range of colors and patterns, and “it has been liberating”. With the focus no longer so much on her looks she was encouraged to develop her personality, and has become more confident.

Yassin-Kassab (39) was born to a Syrian father and English mother and grew up in the North of England and Scotland. He is a graduate of Oxford University and has travelled widely, including working as a journalist in Pakistan and teaching English in Oman.

His ambitious 350-page novel fizzes with ideas and debates revolving around contemporary Islam, British Muslims, questions of identity, and the tussle between secularism and religion. The novel is set in summer 2001, in the build-up to the attacks of 9/11. The first chapter finds Sami on a visit to Damascus. He has gone to Syria “to reconnect with his roots; remember who he was; find an idea.”

Now aged 31, Sami has spent the previous ten years fruitlessly trying to establish himself as an academic while living off his wife’s salary as a teacher. He wants to write a thesis, get a doctorate, become an academic like his father was and “get it all back on course, his place in the world, his marriage, his mother.”

Sami has yet to escape the shadow of his Arab nationalist father Mustafa who died of cancer when Sami was a teenager. He is not on speaking terms with his mother because she did not talk to his father when he was dying, and because she betrayed his father’s secularism by wearing the hijab. And now his wife back in London is talking about wearing the hijab, which “somehow seemed to represent the end of everything Sami had hoped for”.

One past event that resonates in the novel is the Hama uprising of 1982 in which the Syrian regime killed tens of thousands of civilians. Sami’s father justified the killings to Sami as a response to assassinations carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood. The novel explores whether dogmatic secularism such as that of Mustafa can itself be a form of extremism.

When Sami goes to see his mother’s relatives in Damascus he encounters a broken older man shut away in a room. This is his mother’s brother Faris, who suffered torture and spent 22 years in jail after being betrayed for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Faris had told only close family members that he was a member, and the question is who betrayed him. Sami is reluctant to confront the truth, and the tragic figure of Faris haunts him.

Yassin-Kassab sensitively depicts the nuances in the relationship between Sami and Muntaha, and the tension between them after he returns to London. When she puts on the hijab Sami argues with her, but she says: “I want to show myself that I’m not afraid of who I am.” Yassin-Kassab portrays Muntaha very effectively, conveying her intelligence, integrity and inner stillness.

During Sami’s descent into a vortex of drug taking and drunkenness he is out of contact with Muntaha, and is unaware that her father has died. He fails to attend the condolence gathering at Marwan’s home, unlike Muntaha’s teacher colleague Gabor Vronk.

Gabor is of Russian, Hungarian and Jewish extraction. He deeply admires Muntaha, and their discussions of Islamic doctrines mesh with his knowledge of art and science and influence his painting. He hopes to become closer to Muntaha, but when later in the novel he tries to push things further she rebuffs him and reminds him that she is married although separated.

Sami’s binge of excess includes a sordid act of infidelity and ends with his being detained overnight by the police. On his return home his unfaithfulness is immediately apparent to Muntaha, who asks him to leave their home.

Living alone in student accommodation Sami starts to find himself, giving up his previous indulgences and establishing some inner discipline. He hopes to return to Muntaha, and eventually finds his way to a “trembling, contingent faith”.

While the main relationship in the novel is that between Sami and Muntaha, a host of other characters are woven into the narrative. Muntaha’s father Marwan, a poet, left Iraq in 1982 after being imprisoned and tortured. His wife was killed when she was beaten by the security forces on the night of his arrest. He found refuge in London with his daughter and his son Ammar thanks to help from the former cultural attaché at the British Embassy in Baghdad, Jim Clark. Clark is a recurring figure, an avuncular scholar with a love and knowledge of Arab culture and people.

Muntaha’s brother Ammar has a deep bond with Sami, first forged through a mutual love of the music of American hip-hop group Public Enemy. Ammar has now become radicalized with a fierce, simplistic interpretation of his religion. Yassin-Kassab captures Ammar’s speech patterns and gestures, and their mixed black and other influences.

Ammar’ views bring him into conflict with Muntaha. She is scathing about his jubilation over 9/11, telling him: “Islamic rules say you can’t kill women or children. You can’t kill civilians. You have to fight on the battlefield, not in the middle of the city.” Ammar responds: “They attack our cities. We attack theirs.”

Yassin-Kassab has broken new ground with his novel, which is the first to depict in such complexity the Arab émigré community in London and the religious and political currents swirling around it. A major new talent has arrived on the literary scene, and it will be interesting to see where his second novel takes us.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 17 Nov 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

sowar magazine

Picture shows the third issue of Sowar, with photos of the Lebanese civil war

The pioneer Saudi blogger Saudi Jeans tells of his contribution to the newish Arab photo-journalism magazine Sowar for its Minute 22 project The project involved people taking photographs throughout the Arab world at exactly the same time - 2.22 pm local Beirut time on 22 August this year. Saudi Jeans (AKA Ahmed al-Omran) happened to be in Beirut at the magic minute, and his photographs of that city are among those featured in the fourth issue of Sowar. Copies of the magazine can be ordered via the Sowar website...but the magazine told S Jeans that Saudi Arabia is the one country to have bounced every issue back! At least someone at the magazine sent him a scan of his photos, so they are posted on his blog with commentary.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

english pen online world atlas

The English Pen Online World Atlas was launched at the London Book Fair's Arab World Market Focus in April with an event featuring the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany. The site kicked off with a focus on writing from the Arab region; it now has 91 registered users from around the world, with links to their e-mail addresses and websites. Once signed in, users can post or edit material under countries, books or authors. In the entry for Palestine for example one finds a main entry on Palestinian literature, with links to articles on 19 Palestinian authors. So far there are 156 articles on books, 206 on authors. Users are also able to send messages directly to fellow users via the site. I have to say that quite a few of the users have not logged into the site for several months, but the site clearly has the makings of a valuable online community and resource base on Arab literature. But maybe the administrators need to rethink the site a bit in order to draw existing and potential users in more regularly.

The project's English Pen World Atlas Blog is gathering momentum as a useful source of news, views and links relating to Arab literature.

Monday, November 10, 2008

zakaria tamer's 'breaking knees'

Magic of the 'very, very, short stories'
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 10 Nov 2008

It is a sign of the stature of the Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer within Arabic literature that Garnet Publishing of the UK chose his short story collection “Breaking Knees” as one of the first titles in its new Arab Writers in Translation series.

The stories in “Breaking Knees” take the reader into a world at once entertaining and appalling: a society of seduction, corruption, rumors, illicit liaisons, false paternity, polygamy and jinns, ruled over by dictators and a state apparatus of torturers, interrogators and crooked officials.

Tamer lifts the lid on society’s conventions, taboos and political structures and explores power relations, whether between men and women or between citizens and a regime. At the same time he shows his characters’ dreams and escapes into fantasy. He often turns the status quo upside down and explores the resulting crazy situation.

“Breaking Knees” first appeared in Arabic in 2002, under the title “Taksir Rukab”. It is the tenth collection of stories by Tamer to have been published since he made his debut in the genre with “Neighing of the White Stallion” in 1960.

Tamer (photo below is from the Banipal website) was born in 1931 in the Al-Basha district of Damascus. He had to leave school at the age of only 13 to help support his family, and he subsequently educated himself. He has written in a variety of forms, from satirical newspaper columns to his many childrens’ books, and has been translated into many languages. But the genre for which he is best known is the very short story (“al-qissa al-qasira jjiddan”). The fact that there are 63 stories in the 162 pages of “Breaking Knees” indicates the brevity of the stories.

Publication of Tamer’s stories began in magazines in the late 1950s. He eventually became editor of Al-Ma’rifa, published by the culture ministry, but was fired in 1980 for publishing pro-freedom content. He decided to seek exile, and left Syria for the UK.

“Breaking Knees” has been meticulously translated by the Palestine-born scholar and translator Ibrahim Muhawi, who studied English literature at the University of California and was from 1997 to 2002 director of the Master’s Program in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His other translations include “Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales” and Mahmoud Darwish’s “Memory for Forgetfulness”.

In his illuminating introduction, Muhawi presents a persuasive case for translating an entire single collection of Tamer’s stories rather than selecting stories from several volumes. He argues that Tamer wishes his books to be read as artistic units, which is why the stories in “Breaking Knees” are given numbers rather than titles.

A detestation of dictatorship runs through “Breaking Knees”. In a searing story an old woman goes to a park to glare at the statue of the man responsible for the killing of her sons and husband. She stands before “the immense stone statue of a tall man with a stern face, his right hand raised in a gesture that inspired awe and respect, as if blessing his invisible minions kneeling there.” The old woman is filled with fear, and feels as if she is shrinking. Everything around her shrinks until nothing remains except the statue “and the birds whose pleasure it was to crap on it”.

In another tale a woman sees a man about to be hanged in public for killing an entire family in revenge for the murder of his brother. When she returns home and tells her husband what she has seen, he casually remarks: “He who kills only ten people is a criminal to be hanged. But he who kills hundreds of thousands is a hero among heroes.”

In story 56, a man wakes up after several years in a coma and finds that while he has become old, and his former friends from the arts sphere are dead or have abandoned their callings, the president and ministers are still in their positions and remain unchanged: indeed the president has become even more youthful and healthy. The old man closes his eyes and tries unsuccessfully to escape back into his coma.

The absurdity of internecine strife is depicted in the tale of two feuding neighborhoods, the Inner and Outer. The differences between them escalate to the point where none other than the UN Secretary General arrives to broker a peace agreement.

There are often elements of magic realism in the tales. The new-born baby of a widowed mother has the power of speech and starts cursing the hospital and its staff. When his mother tells him to keep quiet and not to say a word, the baby retorts: “You’re now talking like our leaders.” The baby mocks the society around him, and a pompous old preacher.

It is a cat that has the ability to speak in story 51. The narrator of the story is a writer who discusses his work with his cat. He tells the cat he is trying to write a story about Hitler and Abla, which the critics will see as “a portrait of the clash of European and Arab cultures”.

In story 53 a man who has bought a green apple and a red apple to eat on a park bench in warned by each of them in turn not to eat them. He anxiously questions the apples about their political connections. In another tale characters from TV programs start to emerge from a new TV set being watched by a young man. They argue with him, the climax coming when he sees news of soldiers firing on a demonstration of children.

In several stories the central character is arrested. A police interrogator says to a man who has confessed (falsely) to killing his wife: “All of us wish to get rid of our women, but some of us are brave while others are worthless cowards. Please allow me to express my admiration of your manliness, for our prisons are full of people who deny all they did, claiming they are innocent victims.”

In another instance a man is arrested for refusing to be bribed, but he insists he comes from a well-known family of people who are bribed. He tells his interrogator that bribery is “the adornment of life on earth”. Despite his praise of bribery he is tortured, and is released only after he offers the interrogator a large bribe – which to the interrogator proves his innocence.

“Breaking Knees” is a satisfying collection of stories told with humor, poetry and a good dash of fantasy. At the same time the stories are revealing of social and political conditions in some sectors of the Arab world. This translation of the collection into English may well appeal to a considerable readership.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

independent jewish voices: 'a time to speak out'

In February last year a number of Jews living in the UK came together to form a new body called Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). IJV did not set out to be a political party, or to have a defined political programme, but describes itself as “a network of Jews in Britain who share a commitment to certain principles”.

These principles, laid down in the IJV’s founding declaration, include: putting human rights first, rejecting all forms of racism, respecting international law, and treating as equally legitimate the Palestinian and Israeli quests for a better – a peaceful, just and secure – future.

Those who signed the IJV declaration wanted to challenge the claim of successive Israeli governments to represent Jews in general. And they were frustrated that those who claim to speak for British Jews –including the Board of Deputies of British Jews – tend to reflect only the position of the Israeli government.

The new network aroused very mixed reactions in the British Jewish community. Some welcomed it; others were highly critical and said the criticisms of Israel by Jews threatened Israel’s very existence.

More than 560 Jews resident in Britain have signed the IJV declaration. They include the Marxist historian and author Professor Eric Hobsbawm; Nobel prizewinning playwright Harold Pinter; fashion designer Nicole Farhi; actress Zoe Wanamaker; psychoanalyst Susie Orbach and film director Mike Leigh. The TV personality and comedian Stephen Fry said: “I am proud to lend my name to a free-thinking group like this.”

Now the first book written by IJV members has appeared. The 306-page paperback, “A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity”, is published in London by Verso Books. Each of its 27 chapters is an essay by a member of IJV.

The title of the book reflects the urgency that its authors feel over the need for Jews to speak out. As Professor Lynne Segal puts it:“the failure to settle this brutal conflict helps to strengthen warlords and military hawks around the globe.”

The book was launched some days ago at the Metropolitan University in north London, at an event that also marked the launch of the university’s new faculty of humanities, arts, languages and education. Many of the book’s authors attended, and there were animated discussions between them and graduate students.

One contributor to the book, London-based architect Abe Hayeem, told Al-Hayat how at the launch Lynne Segal (pictured below), “gave a passionate speech about her experience of the terrifying checkpoints and Israeli soldiers bristling with guns, and wondered how this could be conveyed to the wholehearted supporters of Israel and the status quo.” Hayeem adds: “That is why this book is so important and why it should be read not only by Jews but by the whole community.”

Hayeem thinks that IJV’s role is “of a continuing importance to regularly raise the issue of Palestine, to push for a lasting solution” and that the IJV is “now more confident with the publication of this book, which is a kind of manifesto by its best academic, legal, literary minds.”

Several contributors to the book point out ways in which Jews who publicly criticise Israel are sometimes put under intense pressure. Hayeem (pictured) is a founder of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP), an organisation which highlights “the complicity of Israel’s architects, planners and construction industry in the brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza”.

APJP was launched in February 2006 in the offices of the world-famous British Jewish architect Lord Richard Rogers. Lord Rogers only appeared at the beginning of the meeting, and made some introductory remarks on the importance of justice in architecture. A series of articles appeared in the British media claiming inaccurately that APJP had called for a boycott of Israel, and this led to a furious backlash against Lord Rogers in New York where he had recently been appointed architect for the $1.7 billion Jacob Javits Conference Centre.

Rogers was summoned to New York “like a suspected criminal, to face a tribunal of city councillors, heads of certain prominent mainstream Jewish organizations and elected officials.” They attacked APJP as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, and threatened to withdraw the Jacob Javits contract, and possibly another major New York project, from Rogers. Rogers was forced to disassociate himself from APJP, and he put out a series of increasingly strong statements in which he for example condemned Hamas and said he was in favour of the (separation) wall.

Emma Clyne, a Swedish Jew, writes of her experience as chairperson of the Jewish Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, in 2006-07. She came under intense pressure from the Union of Jewish Students, the umbrella organisation which works with Jewish societies in universities.

Before she became the chair of the SOAS Jewish Society, she had found it was like an Israel Society with frequent talks by pro-Zionist speakers. She took over the chair on condition that there was to be a clear distinction between the Jewish Society and the Israel Society. This led to a furious reaction from the Union of Jewish Students, which told her: “That’s not what the Jewish Society does. You can’t separate Israeli politics from Jewish identity. It is all the same.”

The antagonism towards her reached a peak after she went to the launch of Independent Jewish Voices in 2007 and found the speakers “honest articulate and inspirational.” When she invited some of the speakers to a meeting at SOAS to discuss “the impact of nationalism on Jewish identity” the pressure on her increased, and she was told that the Union of Jewish Students and the Israeli Embassy were very concerned about the meeting.

The distinguished human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman, points to the consensus among international lawyers that Israel “has been and continues to be guilty of serious violations” of international law. He examines in detail the Israeli claim that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to its occupation of the West Bank, and its numerous violations of the Convention.“The eventual extension of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court may point the way forward,” he writes.

Disputes among Jews over Zionism and Israel go a long way back. Lynne Segal, the Australian-born Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College, writes of her grandfather who in 1895 founded the first, and for many decades only, Jewish newspaper in Australia He “spent the last two decades of his life embattled in bitter disputes over the political goals of Zionism.” In 1941 he criticised Political Zionism in articles, saying it is “unjust, dangerous to a degree, even cruel in it s inevitable consequences and, after all, unobtainable.”

Segal says that what is most maddening for peace activists in the front line of the conflict, and for their distant supporters such as IJV, is “the knowledge that Israel has so rarely been serious in its talk of wanting peace.”

Stan Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, spent around 17 years at the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cohen grew up in South Africa, and when he started teaching in Israel in 1979 he expected that most of his colleagues would be the equivalent of their liberal counterparts in South Africa. But he was disappointed. Israeli academics know all about the multiple Israeli injustices against the Palestinians and yet their record of fighting such injustices is generally very weak.

Cohen (pictured) calls Israeli universities “virtual universities” because they are somehow detached from the realities of occupation and intifada. He remembers a law faculty graduation ceremony, when the invited minister of justice was speaking of the absolute value of the rule of law. “Just outside you could smell the tear-gas in the air and see spirals of smoke coming from the nearby village of Al-‘Isawiya, now under siege from the border police.”

The writer Gillian Slovo (pictured, credit Charlie Hopkinson) notes how in South Africa, the great majority of those Whites who refused to close their eyes to the injustices of apartheid were Jews, like her father Joe Slovo who was a leading member of the African National Congress.

Slovo includes in her essay an exchange of e-mails between her and Paul Gross, then a member of the Public Affairs Department of the Israeli Embassy in London, that occurred in February 2007 during Israel Apartheid Week. The embassy had put out a statement headlined “The myth of ‘Apartheid’ Israel”. But Slovo argued in her e-mails to Gross why it is right to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with that of blacks in apartheid South Africa.

Jacqueline Rose (pictured below), Professor of English at Queen Mary College, University of London, examines “the myth of self-hatred”. She writes: “There is one charge against Jews who criticize Israel that seems to me particularly misguided, and that is the charge that we are self-hating Jews.” She does not hate herself or Jewishness or Israel when she criticises Israeli policies. “I hate what the Israeli government is doing, and has been doing for a very long time, to the Palestinians and to itself.”

She points out that it is central to the founding declaration of Independent Jewish Voices that its members speak in the name of a Jewish ethic: “We hereby reclaim the tradition of Jewish support for universal freedoms, human rights and social justice.”

Richard Kuper, a founder member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, examines “the new anti-Semitism”. Those who criticise Israel are sometimes accused of being anti-Semitic. One of the core claims in the “new anti-Semitism” is that Jews worldwide are being held responsible for what Israel does. But Kuper argues that Zionism itself has systematically made such a conflation. If leading Jewish organisations and individuals cannot distinguish clearly between Jews and Israelis, “we should not be surprised if others fail the test as well.” Anti-Semitic attacks are often a reaction to the actions of Israel, and the greatest contribution in halting such developments would be a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Along with allegations of “new anti-Semitism” there are often complaints that Israel is singled out unfairly for criticism and is demonised. But, Kuper writes, Israel singles itself out and presents itself as special with its claims that it is the “only democratic country in the Middle East” with the “most moral army in the world”.

The writer, sociologist and broadcaster Anne Karpf writes on the ‘Arab Nazi’ and the ‘Nazi Jew’.” She examines in detail the allegations that Arabs behave like Nazis. Karpf writes that while it cannot be denied that there is a virulent strain of anti-Semitism in Arab and Muslim countries, “there is no evidence that the Arab nations in general, or the Palestinians in particular, have acted as Nazis in any meaningful sense of the term in the 60 years since the Second World War.”
The journalist and author D D Guttenplan says that many of his friends have told him that while they agreed with the IJV position, they will not sign its declaration. One main reason for this is that to support IJV in public would be “a scandal in front of the goyim” (ie non-Jews).

Guttenplan says that for decades Jews in the diaspora have kept silent “while a whole people have been brutalized and degraded.” He calls on his fellow Jews to meet the challenge laid down 2000 years ago by Rabbi Hillel, that Jews should stand up as individuals and be counted.

The writer and producer Michael Kustow, who has served as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and as associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, says the “last straw” that made him sign the UJV declaration was Israel’s blitz bombing of Lebanon in July 2006. “We diaspora Jews, with all the realism history might have taught us, should be reminding our leaders that they must talk to all parties, and not just to the Israeli leadership and [not just] to a Palestinian government that is not the government most Palestinians elected.”

Kustow praises the vigorous “alternative” tradition in which the best in Jewish culture has been produced by “Bad Boys and Bad Girls” (such as Harold Pinter, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Miller and Rosa Luxemburg) and not by unthinking solidarity with “the community”. Kustow ends his essay: “I do my best to keep company with the agitators and affronters, which is another reason why I signed this statement.”

Susannah Tarbush
published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat 6 Nov 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

poetry international & world poets' tour

Translating cultures through poetry
by Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette 3 Nov 2008

This past month in the UK has been an especially rich time for poetry linked to the Middle East and South Asia. The Poetry International festival, held at London’s Southbank centre every two years, attracted some of the some of the brightest poetry stars from around the world for nine days of events. The poetry of Palestine figured large in this year’s festival, through a session on Palestinian poetry and through the presence of one of the most outstanding Palestinian poets, Mourid Barghouti.

At the same time, a World Poets’ Tour of Britain took place throughout October. The tour was organized by the Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) founded in London in 2004 by the distinguished British poet Sarah Maguire.

The tour, funded by Arts Council England, brought together six acclaimed poets from abroad and their translators, who are prominent British poets. The British poet-translators do not know the languages of the poets they translate, but work via literal translations by experts in those languages. Examples of the high-quality results of this intensive collaboration can be read on the PTC website.

Various combinations of poets and translators travelled to readings and literary festivals in many locations, from Edinburgh in Scotland, to Bristol in South-West England. The poets were Al-Saddiq al-Raddi from Sudan, translated by Sarah Maguire; Corsino Fortes of Cape Verde, translated by Sean O’Brien; Farzaneh Khojandi from Tajikistan whose translator is Jo Shapcott; Kirkuk-born Kurdish poet Kajal Ahmad, translated by Mimi Khalvati; Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, known as Gaarriye, whose Somali poetry is translated by W N Herbert, and Noshi Gillani of Pakistan who writes in Urdu and is translated by Lavinia Greenlaw (picture, credit Crispin Hughes, shows As-Saddiq al-Raddi reading at the British Library).

The tour attracted media interest, and was featured on a podcast of the Guardian newspaper, and on BBC 4 TV news. The BBC 4 reporter interviewed Gaarriye and Sarah Maguire on the question of whether war poetry being written today, such as Gaarriye’s poems on the fighting in Somalia, can be compared with the work of Britain’s First World War poets in defining our understanding of war.

The tour also created excitement among Britain’s sizeable Sudanese, Somali and other communities, giving them the chance to meet poets from their home countries and to hear their work in its original languages and in English translation.

Poetry International opened with an event held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Palestinian poetry, and in particular the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. The event featured John Berger, now 82 years old (pictured top), who has long supported the Palestinian cause and its cultural manifestations.

This opening event was preceded by a Palestinian poetry and music event in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Young people from the Southbank’s Street Genius program read poems by Darwish and his fellow Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim and by Israeli poets Tal Nitzam and Rivka Miriam. The young Londoners, most of them black, injected the poems with fresh energy.

The readings were followed by a performance by Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani accompanied by pianist Bruno Heinen. Kelani’s love of Palestinian and other Arabic poetry permeates her work, and her performance was enthusiastically received by the audience. Towards the end she beckoned to the young poetry readers to join her, and they sang and moved to her music in a spontaneous jam session.

In the opening session, Berger was joined by Palestinian anthropology professor Rema Hammami (pictured) of Birzeit University and David Constantine, who co-edits the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation with his wife Helen. A focus of the session was Modern Poetry in Translation’s Palestine issue published earlier this year.

The twin themes of the session were the importance of poetry in translation and the particular resonance of poetry in today’s political climate. Berger said that thanks to the translation of poetry over the past century, “poetry became globalized before the traders got there.”

Berger and Hammami have jointly translated Darwish’s epic poem “Mural”, written after he suffered a serious heart attack in 1999. They took it in turns to read from their translation, breaking off midway for the screening of a film showing Darwish reading from his poem “The Dice Player” in his last public reading, just weeks before he died. Hammami said “The Dice Player” was “probably the most autobiographical poem he ever wrote, trying to explain who he was. Like a goodbye.”

Hammami recalled that when she started working on “Mural” with Berger she had done “a very technical translation, being very respectful to the Arabic and the poet”. The first pages that Berger edited and sent back “scandalized” her: she thought “he’s rewriting Mahmoud”.

Berger described poetry translation as a triangular process-“You have to penetrate the text to what is behind it – what is pre-verbal” and then allow that substance to find its words in another language. Hammami said the process was “like a wrestling match, but a very good one”.

The opening session began with a film of Berger reading, with much warmth and expressiveness, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Letter from Gaza”. Berger said he had dedicated his most recent novel “From A to X: A Story in Letters” (Verso, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize) to Kanafani, “a writer I admire very much”. He told of how Kanafani was assassinated in Beirut in 1972 at the age of 36 in a car bombing carried out by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

“Letter from Gaza”, with its civilians and especially children suffering under Israeli attacks, could have been written yesterday. And yet Kanafani wrote it in 1955, just seven years after the establishment of the state of Israel.

The writer of the story explains to Mustafa, the friend to whom he is writing, why he will not be joining him in California where he has won a university place to study engineering. “No, my friend, I have changed my mind. I won’t follow you to ‘the land where there is greenery, water and lovely faces,’ as you wrote. No, I’ll stay here and I won’t ever leave.”

The writer explains that he changed his mind when he visited his 13-year-old niece in hospital after an Israeli attack on Gaza and found that her leg had been amputated. He ends the letter: “I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.”

The main South Asia-related event of Poetry International was ‘The Six Seasons’, a poetic and musical homage to Bengal. It celebrated the dramatic changes in seasons in Bengal through the work of the region’s great poets – Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jibanananda Das. A performance by Drishtipat Creative combined spoken word and songs with original music by Kishon Khan, Soumik Datta and Sajib Azad.

The importance of poetry, and of poetry in translation, may grow in the dire political and economic conditions facing the world. As John Berger puts it: “The translation of poetry is important now because of the actual situation we are living in.” Berger adds: “In dark periods, poetry has a very special role.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

'palestine aloud' in cadogan hall

Celebrating a Catastrophe
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 27 October 2008

At the end of ‘Palestine Aloud’, a cultural celebration held in London’s Cadogan Hall last Wednesday night, the General Secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) Betty Hunter came on stage to thank those who had made the evening such a success. She paid particular tribute to the staff of the Hall, who had “come under pressure not to allow this evening to go ahead”.

The 60th anniversary of the establishment of Israel is being celebrated by numerous cultural happenings in countries including Britain. But, as Hunter’s remark suggests, it was always going to be difficult to mount a cultural event in a major London venue to mark the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe).

In the weeks leading up to ‘Palestine Aloud’, the administration of the Cadogan Hall was subjected to complaints and pressure from certain quarters. The weekly Jewish Chronicle reported that the Hall had apologized for any upset caused by the notice of ‘Palestine Aloud’ in the brochure of its autumn season.

The apology was in response to a complaint to the Cadogan’s general manager Adam McGinlay and senior executives over an advertisement in the brochure. The advertisement noted that “2008 is the 60th anniversary of the nakba (catastrophe) when thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes in the wake of the establishment of the state of Israel, and this concert is dedicated to them.” The advertisement said it was in support of PSC, and gave the Campaign’s web address.

The complainant said that it was wrong for the Cadogan to “take such a one-sided view on an emotive political subject like this” and added: “What about the civilian population of Sderot in Israel, who live under a daily barrage of indiscriminate Palestinian rockets – any opinion or concert for them?”

McGinaly responded that he was “personally unhappy” to receive such a complaint, and added: “I sincerely apologize if we have, albeit unwittingly, angered or upset you. This was never our intention, as we aim to present cultural concerts celebrating music the world over.”

He said he had taken up the matter with PSC, which had told him that the concert would be a cultural event with no political speeches. PSC had said: “Our aim in this event is to promote Palestinian culture, particularly as in the West most people only know about Palestine through the conflict and politics.” The Hall’s marketing manager Lisa McFaul pointed out that the Hall has previously hosted the Israel Philharmonic orchestra and an event run by the Jewish Music Institute.

One of those participating in ‘Palestine Aloud’, the veteran Jewish stage and screen actress Miriam Margolyes (pictured), attracted controversy before the event with criticism of Israel. During an appearance as guest of the week on the BBC Radio 4 series Desert Island Discs she said that while being Jewish is very important to her, “I have to mention also that I reject many of the things that I see in the Jewish world, and I passionately object to the way that Israel is dealing with Palestine.”
She added: “I have been castigated by many Jews who feel that I am betraying my people, and I can’t help it, I have to say what I believe. And I am a proud Jew but I am also an ashamed Jew.”

Margolyes was unable to attend ‘Palestine Aloud’ in person, but she appeared via a video link and, after stating that she is a Jew but not a Zionist, she read from the Palestinian author Suad Amiri’s darkly comic book “Sharon and my Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries”.

The director of ‘Palestine Aloud’, Poppy Burton-Morgan, explained in her Welcome Note in the program that last year she and her partner Will Reynolds (lighting and projection designer of the evening) last year had “the privilege of visiting Palestine”. They had been working on a Choir of London production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” which toured the West Bank, directed by actor and theatre director Sam West. Burton Morgan said: “It was a life-changing experience for us both and I must thank Sam from the bottom of my heart for asking me to replace him when he had to pull out as director for tonight’s show.”

Burton-Morgan added: “Tonight is not a night of political protest but rather a night of performance – a celebration of Palestinian life and culture.” It was “not merely a lament for the horrors of the past – the nakba whose anniversary this event commemorates – but also a celebration of the thriving Palestinian culture of the present and more optimistically a declaration of hope for the future.”
The Cadogan Hall is located near Sloane Square in the upmarket Chelsea area of London. It seats more than 900 people, and the program of ‘Palestine Aloud’ made the most of the spacious venue. Changing images of Palestinian scenery were projected behind the stage throughout the evening.

There was a line-up of excellent musicians. The Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani, accompanied by pianist Bruno Heinen, opened the evening with “Galilean Medley”. Later in the program the duo performed “Ode to the Downtrodden” by Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish.

The Palestinian singer, composer and oud player Marwan Abado travelled with his percussionist Peter Rosmanith from Vienna for the event. Abado was born in Beirut in 1967 as a refugee, and moved to Vienna in 1985. He and Rosmanith (pictured, photo credit Bettina Frenzel)

have developed a distinctive and original sound, with warmth and intimacy: they performed “Rain” and “On the Street”. In two affecting performances, Jordanian pianist Tala Tutunji, who studied music at Trinity College of Music in London, performed a Samuel Barber cello and piano sonata with cellist David Lale, and “Elegy” by Amo Babadjanian.

The British musicians included two of the country’s most acclaimed guitarists, John Williams and John Etheridge. Williams performed Recuerdos de la Alhambra composed by Francisco Tarrega. The two guitarists played “Ragajuma”, which is associated with the Senegalese singer El Hadj N'Diaye. The Choir of London (pictured, credit Jim Four 2006) an admirably talented and spirited assembly of 30 young singers, sang “Magnificat” by Giles Swayne and “Song of Songs” by Clemens non Papa.

The readers during the evening included actor Corin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa Redgrave) and his actress wife Kika Markham, who are long-time stalwart supporters of the Palestinian cause. They read extracts from the Palestinian lawyer and author Raja Shehadeh’s book “Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape”, which won the Orwell Prize for political writing earlier this year. Their readings captured the ironic tone of the encounter between the narrator and an Israeli settler whom he comes across smoking hashish alone in the countryside.

The Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh and the author and former associate foreign editor of the Guardian, Victoria Brittain, read the Arabic original and English translation of the late Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Not as a Foreign Tourist Does”. Jordanian Samer Raimouny read from his own poem “Diaspora of the Soul: (The Taboo of Allahu Akbar”).

The distinguished actress Juliet Stevenson read “What She Said” by poet Lisa Suhair Majaj, in which a mother living in the shadow of occupation and violence warns her child not to play outside. Another major British actor, Jeremy Irons, read Nathalie Handel’s poem “Bethlehem” by video link.

The finale of the evening was a specially-commissioned work by the young composer Jessica Dannheisser to the words of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “I am from There”. The new work suited both the occasion and the grand scale of the Cadogan Hall. It brought on stage the Choir of London together with all the readers and musicians from the evening, and the Choir of London. Reem Kelani was the soloist in the dramatically moving commission.

PSC General Secretary Betty Hunter said the evening had been “a really amazing celebration of Palestinian culture”, which showed the increasing support for the Palestinians in the world of arts and culture. But with the 60th anniversary of the nakba coming to a close there is no sign that things are improving; instead there is more death and more silence. Many in the Hall would have agreed with her concluding words: “It is time to end this silence”.