Friday, June 27, 2014

John McHugo's A Concise History of the Arabs now out in paperback

At a time like this, when events in the Arab world dominate the headlines, there must be many news followers who would like to be able to stretch out a hand and reach for a book that would explain the history and  background of the complex conflicts raging in the Middle East. A Concise History of the Arabs  by British lawyer, Arabic linguist and Middle East specialist John McHugo might be just the book for them, and for those with some knowledge of the Arab world who need a refresher course or detailed reference source.

The publication by London-based Saqi Books of a paperback, updated, edition of A Concise History of the Arabs is timely, when news bulletins are routinely studded with references to such matters as the roots of the Sunni-Shia divide; the days of the Ottoman Empire; Sykes-Picot Agreement; Balfour Declaration; the Kurds; Christian minorities; Arab Spring, and so on.

It is often more challenging to write a concise account than a lengthier record. In 368 pages McHugo succeeds in producing a clear, elegant and fully-sourced account of the sweep of Arab history from the birth of Muhammad in around 570 AD to the military coup in July 2013 that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi.

Saqi first published A Concise History of the Arabs in hardback last year. It met with a highly-favourable reception, and the cover and inside page of the paperback carry accolades from leading specialists in Arab history, politics and journalism.

The late Patrick Seale dubbed the book "brilliant and erudite", while author David Gardner of the Financial Times says it is "brilliant and effortless read". Charles Tripp, SOAS Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East, finds it "a lucid and highly-readable history of the Arab peoples up to the present day."

John McHugo

McHugo is an international lawyer and Arabic linguist, with over forty years’ experience of the Arab region. He has a BA in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, an MA in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo and an MLitt in medieval Sufi thought from Oxford University.

He has worked as a lawyer in several Arab countries, notably Egypt, Bahrain and Oman. He is a board member of the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) and of the British Egyptian Society. McHugo, who lives in London, also chairs Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.

The titles of his chapters point to the broad themes he tackles. Chapter Four is aptly titled "Sharing an Indigestible Cake". It covers the First Word War and the carving up of Arab-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire: "Britain and France had sliced up the cake and shared it out, but it was indigestible." In the chapter McHugo provides an admirably succinct account of events whose repercussions are felt some hundred years later in Syria, Iraq and Palestine/Israel.

The final chapter is "Something Snaps: The Arab Spring and Beyond." Although the Arab revolutions have seen a swing from initial euphoria to turmoil and sometimes conflict, McHugo assesses the process within a wider historical framework.

He draws comparisons with the French Revolution, which "could not be rolled back" and the 1848 "Springtime of the Peoples" with various uncoordinated uprisings in different European locations. Over the following decades, rulers increasingly acknowledged that they needed to government by consent "and that it was better from their own point of view to make concessions to  popular demands than to be engaged in a cycle of endless, and fruitless, repression." McHugo considers that "a similar process has started with the Arab Spring. It has only just begun."

The value of McHugo's book is enhanced by the richness of its references and fullness of its bibliography. He also has a section for those who are new to the history of the Arabs, giving pointers as to how they can begin to explore further the matters covered by his book.

As well as publishing A Concise History of the Arabs, Saqi Books is publisher of McHugo's latest book Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. On 3 July at 7 pm the book will be launched at an event at The Mosaic Rooms in London. McHugo will be in discussion with Jonathan Fryer, freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster on international affairs and part-time SOAS lecturer. His publications include histories of Iraqi Kurdistan and Kuwait. McHugo and Fryer will talk about the history of Syria from the First World War to today, and how this relates to the greatest political and humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century so far, in which an estimated 190,000 people have died and nine million have fled their homes.

Susannah Tarbush, London

Thursday, June 19, 2014

announcement on Funeral and Condolences day of Palestinian Judge Eugene Cotran

Judge Eugene Cotran, one of the most loved and eminent members of the Palestinian community in the UK and far beyond, died on 7 June. Please find below the details of his funeral on 20th June and of the open day of Condolences on 21st June, plus a request for any donations to go go Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).

Judge Cotran, born on 6th August 1938, grew up in Jerusalem and was a circuit judge in England. He wrote this fascinating piece on his life for This Week in Palestine, under the headline A Day in the Life of Eugene Cotran.

 from Palestinian Mission UK

Funeral of our beloved Judge Eugene Cotran
The Funeral of our beloved Judge Eugene Cotran will take place on
Friday 20th of June at St Joseph Church at 11.00am
St Joseph Church
Cookham Road
Berkshire SL6 7EG

وتدعو عائلة قطران الأهل والأصدقاء لمشاركتهم الصلاة وستقبل التعازي بعد مراسم الدفن في فندق
Condolences after funeral on Friday will be held at

The Oakley Court Hotel
Windsor Road,
Water Oakley
Windsor SL4 5UR
In accordance with our beloved Eugene’s wish, his family is asking those who wish to send flowers, to donate the money to
Medical Aid for Palestine)MAP)
to be sent to:
W. Sherry & Sons
227 Acton Lane
London W4 5DD
Tel: 020 8994 5474

The Association of the Palestinian Community in the UK and Cotran family 
Are holding an open day of Condolences
On Saturday 21st June 17.00-20.00
AT Capthorne Tara hotel
Scarsdale Place
London W8 5SR

Saturday, June 07, 2014

'Translating the Syrian News': a prelude to UK tour of 'Syria Speaks'

(L to R): Malu Halasa, Paul Mason, Armand Hurault
At the Translating the Syrian News event held at the Free Word Centre in London on the eveing of Thursday of last week, a panel discussed how events in Syria are reported by the international and Syrian media and how the contrast between what is presented to a domestic and global audience can be mediated.

The event was chaired by Malu Halasa, who began by saying: "What is the news telling us about Syria, or rather what are we not getting from the news from Syria, and how is this information, or lack of information, forming our perceptions about the country?" The panel would also look at "the knock-on effect: how these perceptions affect government policy towards Syria."

Halasa is  co-editor of Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, published recently by Saqi Books of London.

Syria Speaks is a unique showcase of the work of more than 50 artists and writers challenging the culture of violence in Syria. "Their literature, poems and songs, cartoons, political posters and photographs document and interpret the momentous changes that have shifted the frame of reality so drastically in Syria," declares the book's cover.

The Free Word event was a fitting prelude to the UK tour of Syria Speaks, organised by Reel Festivals, from 11 to 16 June. Reel Festivals is presenting the events in partnership with English PEN, Saqi Books, British Council, LIFT Festival, Prince Claus Fund, CKU the Danish Centre for Culture and Development and the Arab British Centre. The project is supported with public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

The tour begins on 11 June at the Rich Mix in London, and takes in Bristol Festival of Ideas (12 June), Oxford (Ashmolean Museum, 13 June), Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (14 June), Bradford (Fuse Art Space,15 June) and Durham University School of Government and International Affairs (16 June). The visiting authors will also take part in workshops with English PEN at schools, refugee community centres and a prison. In addition there is an event at Waterstones bookshop in Piccadilly, central London, on 17 June at 7pm.

The packed-out Free Word event was presented jointly by Free Word and by English PEN: Syria Speaks has a 2013 English PEN Award for promotion within PEN's Writers in Translation programme. The event was Part of Free Word’s Translators in Residence Programme and the Islington Word Festival 2014.

The evening was introduced by Alice Guthrie, one of Free Word Centre's two translators in residence for 2014. Guthrie is one of the five translators who worked on the Syria Speaks book.

Malu Halasa is a London-based writer, editor and curator of arts events and the author of several books including The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design (Chronicle Books, 2008) with Rana Salam. She co-curated three exhibitions of Syria's art of resistance in 2012-13 in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and London.

Halasa's co-panellists were Paul Mason, Armand Hurault, and Zaher Omareen who is like Halasa a co-editor of Syria Speaks: the third co-editor is Nawara Mahfoud. In addition to co-editing the book, Omareen has contributed to it an essay: "The Symbol and Counter-Symbols in Syria: Power and propaganda from the era of the two Assads to the Revolution of Freedom and Dignity".

Omareen is a Syrian researcher and writer who has published articles and short stories in the Arab and English press. His short story "First Safety Manoeuvre’ won prizes awarded by the Danish Institute in Damascus and the 2012 Copenhagen Festival of Literature. He has worked on independent cultural initiatives in Syria and Europe, and co-curated exhibitions on the art of the Syrian uprising. He is a PhD candidate in Contemporary Documentary Cinema and New Media at Goldsmiths College, London University.

Paul Mason is the Culture and Digital Editor of Channel 4 News and has worked extensively as a journalist and broadcaster for a number of productions including BBC2′s Newsnight. He is the author of three books: Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Harvill Secker, 2007), Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2012) and Meltdown – The End of the Age of Greed (Verso, 2012).

Armand Hurault is deputy coordinator at ASML, a Syro-French organisation supporting the emergence of an alternative and professional media landscape in Syria. At the start of the uprising in 2011 he provided regular Skype training sessions to Syrian citizen journalists inside the country as  part of his work as former coordinator of the ‘Syrian Voices Initiative’ (2011-2013) at Transnational Crisis Project in London, a project that was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

A major focus of the event was the striking growth in citizen journalism in Syria over the past three years. Halasa noted that Syria Speaks includes critical essays by free speech proponents and interviews about news gathering and the rise of a citizens journalist movement inside the country.When the killings started in Syrian "the regime had a very well-oiled media machine; ordinary Syrians felt that they had to take matters into their own hands," Halasa said.  

Zaher Omareen, who  was a freelancer and a  journalist working in Damascus at the time the uprising began, set the scene.  "To be honest the revolution in Syria surprised us as it surprised the outsider or the Western media," he said. Soon after the uprising started in March 2011 the government took action against and arresting journalists. The regime asked international journalists to leave the coutnry immediately.

As for Syrian journalists many of them, especially the professioinal ones, spent weeks or months in prison for dealing with Al-Jazeera, the BBC or other news providers.  "So we found ourselves without any professional media coverage and we started trying to find alternatives to tell others what happened inside Syria."
Susannah Tarbush, London

Friday, June 06, 2014

BQFP publishes English translation of Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy's June Rain

... A shootout in a church in a northern Lebanese village on 16 June 1957 in which some two dozen people are killed. The tearing apart of the community into two bitterly divided clans. Neighbour turning against neighbour; husbands and wives forced to choose between their loyalty to one another and clan loyalty...

This is the loosely fact-based scenario of  Lebanese academic, novelist and short story writer Jabbour Douaihy's novel June Rain  newly published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) in English translation by Paula Haydar. The Arabic original of the novel, Matar Hzayran, was published by Dar Al-Nahar in Beirut in 2006. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2008 - the prize's inaugural year.

Douaihy was born in the northern Lebanese town of Zgharta in 1949. On 16 June 1957 there was a massacre during a requiem mass in the village of Miziara near Zgharta, when the Franjieh family, allegedly led by future president of Lebanon Suleiman Franjieh, attacked the competing Douaihy clan.

Jabbour Douaihy
Douaihy dedicates June Rain  to the Lebanese journalist, historian, author and publisher Samir Kassir who was assassinated in Beirut in 2005. In an interview with NOW Lebanon Jabbour pays tribute to Kassir's vital role in inspiring and encouraging the writing of the novel. It was Kassir who "gave me the idea of writing a literary novel about the background of the massacre of Meziara, which took place in our area in 1957. And that is precisely why I dedicated the novel to him, knowing that the murderers didn’t allow him to read more than two chapters of this novel; he had asked me to send him every chapter I finished writing.

"The idea as it crystallized in our discussions is that the Zawiya area in Zghorta underwent a period of civil violence that could easily be considered as a rehearsal for the civil war that stormed Lebanon in 1975. I lived these events at an early age, and I experienced the trauma that you can’t erase, as did a whole generation. All the details are hearsay, as two parties would tell a tale in a completely contradictory fashion and justify it as defense, no more" 

June Rain depicts the return to the village of Eliyya, twenty years after he emigrated to the USA. Eliyya is intent on learning about his father, who was shot through the heart in the church massacre, and whom he never knew. Eliyya had been conceived shortly before the church killings. Through his novel Douaihy evokes the horrors of internal division in Lebanon through the prism of observations of daily life in a village where revenge is the prevailing system of justice.

Prior to its publication in English by BQFP, June Rain was published in French (by Sindbad, Actes Sud), Italian (Feltrinelli) and German (Hanser). The world translation rights are with RAYA Agency for Arabic literature.

Paula Haydar
The translator to English of June Rain Paula Haydar is Instructor of Arabic Language in the Department of Foreign Languages at the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies, University of Arkansas. Haydar has translated various works of Arabic literature to English including novels by Lebanese writers Elias Khoury and Rachid Al-Daif, and by Palestinian writers Sahar Khalifeh and Adania Shibli. She has also translated short stories and poems that have appeared in international and national journals, and is a regular contributor to Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature.

Jabbour has a PhD degree in Comparative Literature from the Sorbonne and is a professor of French literature at the Lebanese University in Beirut. He is the acclaimed author of many novels and short story collections. He was shortlisted for IPAF a second time in 2012 for his novel Charid al-Manazil (journalist Anwar Hamed outlines the novel on the IPAF website here.). IPAF renders the title in English as The Vagrant: RAYA has it as Chased Away.

In all RAYA represents six titles by Jabbour.  In addition to June Rain and Chased Away. they are Hayy Al Amerkan (American Neighborhood, Dar al-Saqi 2014); Ayn Warda (Rose Fountain, 2002); Rayya an-nahr (Rayya-of-the-river, Dar an-Nahar -Beirut);  Iitidal al-kharif (Autumn Equinox),  Dar an-Nahar). The English translation of Autumn Equinox, by Nay Hannawi, was published in 2001 by the University of Arkansas Press. French rights to Ayn Warda were acquired by Sindbad, Actes Sud which  published it in 2009 as Rose Fountain Motel in translation by Emmanuel Varlet.

The latest title, Hayy Al Amerkan, is a highly topical novel set in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, in a quarter that is a cradle of salafism in Lebanon. Fighters are trained there to fight in Iraq. RAYA says: "As always, Douaihy offers a minute description of a city he knows well, Tripoli. With tenderness, and sarcasm, he introduces the reader to the complex world of the “American neighborhood”, a poor area of Tripoli where religious extremism has drastically increased in recent years.

American Neighborhood published by Dar al-Saqi
Susannah Tarbush, London

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

an evening of memories, insights and readings: Seamus Heaney Tribute at Kings Place

In March 2012 I was fortunate enough be present when Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney read his poetry at Kings Place in London during an evening celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Forward Prizes for Poetry.

Heaney won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2010 for Human Chain (reviewed in the Guardian by Colm Toibin). He shared the Kings Place stage with Forward’s creator and long-time supporter William Sieghart,  novelist Sebastian Faulks (a Forward Prize judge in 2006) and three poets who had won Forward Prizes: Jackie Kay, winner of the best single poem prize in 1992 for "Black Bottom", and Hilary Menos and Rachael Boast, winners of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2010 and 2011 for Berg and Sidereal (the latter collection also won the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry). 

On Monday of last week I again sat in the Kings Place balcony, this time for an evening of tribute to  Heaney, who died on 30 August at the age of 74 (among the many obituaries was this by Neil Corcoran in the Guardian)..

Like the Forward 20th anniversary celebration, Seanus Heaney: A Tribute was hosted by Poet in the City. This venture philanthropy charity is committed to attracting new audiences to poetry, making new connections for poetry and raising money to support poetry education. The evening was introduced and concluded by Poet in the City's Interim Chief Executive Isobel Colchester, and supported by Arts Council England.

Seats for the tribute were so much in demand that after all the tickets for Kings Place's Hall One were sold out Kings Place made 200 additional tickets available for live digital streaming in Hall Two. 

 Bernard O'Donoghue
The tribute evening featured on stage four people with special connections to the much-missed  Heaney: the Irish poet and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford Bernard O'Donoghue; Northern Irish poet and Emeritus Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford Tom Paulin; Irish film and stage actor Stephen Rea, and, from the younger generation, the Northern Irish poet Leontia Flynn who is Research Fellow at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry and Seamus Heaney poet in residence at the Bloomsbury Hotel in London.

Each of the four brought their own memories and insights on Heaney and his work. Bernard O'Donoghue, whose books include Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (Routledge, 1994), reminded the audience of Heaney's Nobel citation: "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995 was awarded to Seamus Heaney for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past".

O'Donoghue related Heaney's poetry to the changes within and around him, including the impact of the Northern Ireland "Troubles" on poems in his 1975 collection North.  The poems include "Punishment", relating an ancient bog woman to the barbaric punishments inflicted by the IRA. After North Heaney said he wanted to escape back to more social kind of writing and produced Field Work (1979). O'Donoghue read from it the poem "Badgers", which ends: The unquestionable houseboy's shoulders / that could have been my own.

Among the other poems he read were "The Underground", the first poem from Station Island (1984), and the  fourth of the eight-sonnet "Clearances" sonnet sequence in memory of his mother, from The Haw Lantern (1987): "Fear of affectation made her affect / Inadequacy whenever it came to/ Pronouncing words 'beyond her'. Bertold Brek."

He noted that Heaney was a great translator from many languages, and read from his translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (Faber, 1999). (He quoted from the Woody Allen film Annie Hall: "Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf!")

 Tom Paulin
Paulin recalled the impact of Heaney's collection Death of a Naturalist when it burst onto the then uneventful province of Northern Ireland in 1966: "I was overwhelmed as a schoolboy sixth former". The title poem has frogspawn hatching into tadpoles which then turn into frogs: "Some sat ? Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. / I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it."

Paulin and Heaney were among the six writers, three of them Catholic and three Protestant, invited to become  directors of the Field Day Theatre Company which was started in Derry as a collaboration by playwright Brian Friel and Stephen Rea in 1980. The company aimed to be inclusive of all Ireland. In 1991 it published the first three volumes of  Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing with Heaney contributing to the section on W B Yeats.

One of Paulim's anecdotes had the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew. who "seemed to have read 'Digging'", presented the poet with a spade - in response to which Heaney joked that he looked forward to putting it in the spade rack.

 Paulin read  "Sunlight" from North (1975), "Mint" from The Spirit Level (1996) with its hints of a prison yard: Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless / Like inmates liberated in that yard. He also read "Perch" from Electric Light (2001) and "Casualty" from Field Work. The  IRA had called a curfew after the killing of 13 on Bloody Sunday but a Catholic drinker went to a Protestant pub which was bombed. There are parallels between "Casualty" and W B Yeats' "Easter, 1916".  Paulin made a quip on the lines of  "Yeats is like garlic: you can always tell his influence."

Stephen Rea
Stephen Rea paid particular attention to Heaney's plays. He read in his inimitable fashion from The Cure at Troy: a Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone.(A main pleasure of BBC Radio 4's output this year has been Rea's beautiful reading of all the stories from James Joyce's Dubliners in the Book at Bedtime slot, in 20 15-minute episodes over four weeks).

 Leontia Flynn in her role as Seamus Heaney poet in residence at the Bloomsbury Hotel
Leontia Flynn, born in 1974, was the youngest on stage by a long way. (Poet in the City, in collaboration with Lavender Hill Studios  has Leontia as the subject of this  'Poetry Portrait' in which she reads from, and talks about her poetry, and about Heaney while having her portrait painted by Phoebe Dickinson). 

From the perspective of a young Northern Irish poet from a similar rural background to Heaney, she spoke of her changing attitude to Heaney, who had at first been too big, too close, overshadowing.  She came round to him like the stages of grief, starting with denial, anger, acceptance..She read  his poem "High Summer" from Field Work. The evening concluded with Rea's reading of "The Tollund Man" from Wintering Out and "Exposure" from North.
Susannah Tarbush, London