Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Safar: The Festival of Popular Arab Cinema proves its popularity

This Friday at 8.30pm the film programme of Safar: The Festival of Popular Arab Cinema begins at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London with the Open Gala UK premiere of the award-winning 2013 contemporary drama Factory Girl. The fact that tickets for the premiere were sold out welll in advance is proof of the high level of enthusiasm for the Safar Festival and for Factory Girl, and augurs well for the rest of the Safar programme. The screening will be followed by a Q and A session with the film's legendary Egyptian-Pakistani director Mohamed Khan.

Factory Girl

The film's central character Hiyam is a young factory worker who has fallen under the spell of the supervisor, Salah. Believing that love can transcend their class differences, Hiyam pursues a dream of being together. When a pregnancy test is discovered in the factory premises, her family and close friends accuse her of sinning, and when Hiyam decides not to defend herself, she pays an enormous price in a society that fails to accept her. The film is presented in partnership with Dubai International Film Festival.
Factory Girl

Safar - organised by the Arab British Centre in association with the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) - is the only festival in the UK solely focused on programming popular Arab cinema. This year's festival follows the success of the inaugural Safar held in 2012. The Safar programme of film screenings runs from 19 to 25 September.

Safar includes both UK premieres and classics of the Arab silver screen. These will be accompanied by Q and As, special introductions and an afternoon forum bringing together some of the most significant figures of Arab cinema.

This year, Safar has expanded its scope to include an exhibition - Whose Gaza is it Anyway?- of Arab movie posters and film ephemera, all shown in the UK for the first time. The exhibition opened on 2 September and runs until 5 October.

Omar Kholeif

Safar’s Artistic Director Omar Kholeif says: “Popular histories are too often sidelined in favour of a particular breed of ‘art house’ cinema which seeks to emphasise a Eurocentric model focused on particular social, political and aesthetic concerns. Safar seeks to remove Arab cinema from the perceived notion that it is a peripheral or ‘third’ cinema. It is a celebration of the complex social histories inherent within popular Arab cinema, and highlights the significance of particular icons and makers.”
Noreen Abu Oun

Executive Director of the Arab British Centre, Noreen Abu Oun says: “The Arab British Centre exists to improve the British public’s understanding of the Arab World, and it does so by showcasing the best of the region’s diverse culture in its year-round programme. Cinema is the most widely enjoyed and accessible cultural output, which is why Safar remains a permanent fixture in our Calendar. Safar is an ever growing project, and will continue to develop to make popular Arab cinema widely available to the general British public. We are thrilled to be working with Dubai International Film Festival and the ICA for the second edition of Safar, which sees the addition of a month long exhibition of Arab film art and memorabilia.”

Safar chronicles the re-mapping of the future of Arab cinema, and allows a unique glimpse of what it might look like tomorrow.
Rock the Casbah

The films to be premiered at Safar 2014 include Rock the Casbah, to be shown at the Closing Gala Screening on Thursday 25 September at 8.45 pm.  This award-winning contemporary film by Moroccan director Laila Marrakchi unfolds over the three days of the rites of mourning dictated by Muslim custom, following the death of a prominent magnate and family patriarch, Moulay Hassan (Omar Sharif). The solemnity of the occasion is disrupted by the unexpected return to the family fold of Sofia, the rebellious youngest daughter who left Morocco, against her father's wishes to pursue an acting career in the US. The film is presented in partnership with DIFF.

Rock the Casbah

The other highlights of Safar include:


Kit Kat

Kit Kat, voted one of the ten best Arab films of all time, is an early 1990s Egyptian comedy from Daoud Abdel Sayed, one of the most unique voices in global cinema. Sheikh Hosny is a marijuana-smoking blind man who lives with his old mother and his frustrated son in the Kit Kat neighbourhood. His son Youssef dreams of going to Europe to find work, and has a relationship with a divorced woman named Fatima. Sheikh Hosny refuses to admit his handicap and dreams of riding a motorcycle, he also spends his nights smoking marijuana with the locals in order to forget his miseries after the loss of his wife and the selling of his father's house. The film is presented in partnership with the Egyptian National Film Center.
West Beirut

West Beirut. is a late 1990s homage to Beirut. Set in 1975, this film documents the uprising that divided the city of Beirut into Muslim and Christian sectors that led to over a decade of civil war. A chilling story based on the award-winning writer and director, Ziad Doueiri's boyhood memories, this film underscores the terrors children suffer during wartime.
Salvation Army
Salvation Army (UK Premiere). This rapturous debut feature from Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia offers a charged, semi-autobiographical tale about a young graduate who must navigate the sexual, racial and political intrigue surrounding his arrival in Geneva. Inspired by his own autobiographical novel of the same title, Taia’s contemporary coming-of-age story unfolds with love, pain, desire and violence.

Around the Pink House
Around the Pink House, one of the most popular Lebanese films of the late 1990s, explores the changing urban landscape of Beirut after the Civil War. La maison rose (the pink house) is an old mansion in Beirut in which the Nawfal family found shelter during the Civil War. Unfortunately for them, their immediate environment is rapidly changing, as many of the old shell-ridden buildings are being torn down and replaced by new construction projects. When Mattar, the owner of the pink house, decides to sell it to make room for a large commercial centre, the residents of the neighbourhood become divided between the shopkeepers and businessmen in favour of a different kind of modernity.
The screening will be followed by a post-screening Q and A with director Khalil Joreige.

The Sparrow

The Sparrow  From the great auteur of Arab cinema Youssef Chahine comes this sumptuous digitally re-mastered 35mm print of a cinematic gem. Set shortly before and during the Six Day War in June of 1967, The Sparrow (1972) follows a young police officer stationed in a small village in Upper Egypt whose inhabitants suffer from the harassment of a corrupt businessman. The officer crosses paths with a journalist who is investigating what appears to be a scandal involving the theft of weapons and machinery by high ranking officials. Using the protagonist Bahiya's house as a meeting place, the police officer and the journalist come together to uncover this circle of black marketeers. During the inquiries, war breaks out and President Gamal Abdel Nasser announces his resignation.

The Saturday Forum at 1pm on 20 September consists of three 60-minute panel discussions. It will bring together some of the most significant figures in Arab cinema to publicly discuss the emergent trends and issues affecting contemporary Arab filmmaking, and is moderated by Safar’s Artistic Director, Omar Kholeif. The forum is a rare opportunity to capture the pulse of Arab cinema’s future.
In an exciting new addition to the Safar programme, the short films explore themes of memory, desire and place. This showcase presents stunning short film works from Ali Cherri, Roy Dib and Jumana Manna.

Exhibition: Whose Gaze Is It Anyway? (2 September – 5 October:
A central component of Safar, the exhibition Whose Gaze Is It Anyway? curated by Omar Kholeif is being held in the ICA’s Fox Reading Room. The display examines the history of Arab pop culture through printed matter – posters, notebooks, diaries and book covers, as well as through film and video.

poster for Al Asfour (The Sparrow) 1972

Included is a selection from the archive of Abboudi Bou Jaoudeh, a prolific collector whose archive located in Beirut holds one of the biggest collections of Arab film memorabilia; from rare Arab film posters to cultural magazines published from the 1930s to the present day, displayed in the UK for the first time.
La'bat al Huz (Roulette - Lucky Game) 1967

 Tareek Al Khataya (Way to Hell) 1968

Also from Bou Jaoudeh’s archive is a specially curated selection of historic publications curated by Beirut and Amsterdam-based artist Mounira Al-Solh. This material sits alongside a newly commissioned work by Sophia Al-Maria with Sam Ashby who exhibit an imaginary poster and sketchbook for her yet to be completed film, Beretta, a rape-revenge thriller set in Cairo. Additionally, Maha Maamoun presents Domestic Tourism II, 2009, a film that seeks to challenge how the image of the Egyptian pyramids has been used by the world’s tourist industry. Raed Yassin’s ebullient single-channel video work, Disco, 2010, also on show, tells the story of the artist’s father, a disco-addict and fashion designer who leaves his family to become a star in the Egyptian horror film industry.

Raed Yassin's Disco, 2010 (courtesy Kalfayan Galleries)

 Sophia Al-Maria's Beretta, 2-14

To view the full Safar schedule, click here 
To view the online catalogue, click here
To view the 20 second trailer, click here

Friday, September 12, 2014

Comma Press invites new Iraqi futuristic short stories by 10 November deadline


Manchester-based Comma Press is looking, by a deadline of 10th November 2014, for new short stories written by Iraqi writers and set in Iraq to be submitted for an anthology to be published in both Arabic (as an eBook) and English translation (book and eBook) in 2015. The anthology will be edited by the Iraqi short story writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim, whose collection The Iraqi Christ, published by Comma, won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Blasim and his translator into English Jonathan Wright.

Contributions will be selected according to how well they respond to the following brief.

Each story must:

• be set in the year 2103 - exactly 100 years after the allied invasion of Iraq.
• present visions of how the authors imagine life in particular Iraqi cities might be in 90 years' time.
• be a stand-alone drama and tell a complete human story in less than 6000 words.

Please note that the culture, politics, technology, architecture, and - most importantly - the language must all be set firmly in the future and tied to one particular real-life Iraqi city.


 editor and co-organiser Hassan Blasim

The reason for the futuristic setting is intedned to give Iraqi authors one of three possible opportunities.

They can use the setting to either:

(i) completely escape the political/religious context of Iraq today, and write about a different society/environment altogether;

(ii) write allegorically about the present (or recent past, e.g. the invasion) through the prism of the future; in other words, they can project current issues onto an ostensibly otherworldly or unconnected setting (use the future to write about now);

or to

(iii) write literally about the influence of the invasion 100 years down the line.

Comma invites submissions from Iraqi authors working across all genres - not just science fiction. "We feel that it's just as interesting to ask literary writers to try their hand at something they've never considered before, whether that be science-fiction or futurism; an allegory which allows authors to express what normal literary realism doesn't; or the opportunity to metaphorically comment on the present political, social and cultural existence through the prism of the 'future' (2103)", says Comma. "In short, we are interested in stories about relationships, comedies, existential narratives - everything! Not just science fiction and politics!!"

Ten stories will be included in the anthology. Comma envisions that each will be set in a specific Iraqi city in the year 2103.

With the exception of Kut, Najaf and Kirkuk which have already been commissioned, submissions can be set in any of the cities outlined in the list below.

Comma can pay £200 for every story it publishes. However it cannot pay for a story if it does not ultimately publish it.

If you would like to write for this project, please contact the two organisers via email to express your interest and to check that the city has not already been taken:

hassanblasim@gmail.com and christine.gilmore@commapress.co.uk

DEADLINE for submissions: 10th November 2014 

co-organiser Christine Gilmore

The Setting
The setting is important - "the history of each city should be written into its future". The list below isn't exhaustive - you can pick other cities or even regions if your story is not limited to an urban setting. Feel free to contact Comma with your queries and ideas!

Cities to choose from: 

In Iraq:
1. Baghdad
2. Basra
3. Mosul
4. Karbala
5. Fallujah
6. Tikrit
7. Nasiriya
8. Amarah
9. Sadr City
10. Ramadi
11. Ukbara

In Kurdish Iraq:
1. Hewlr / Erbil
2. Silman /Sulaymaniyah
3. Dihok
4. Zaxo
5. Kelar
7. Rewandiz /Rwandz
8. Helebce / Halabja
9. Saml / Sumail
10. Ranye / Ranya


Comma wants writers to think about which city to choose to set their work in creatively, and carefully. For example, if you want to write a piece of classic utopian/dystopian futurism, Basra might be a very interesting setting. Basra is the town from which HG Well's futuristic saviours, the 'Wings Over the World', appear, to save war-torn Western Europe in his book and film The Shape of Things to Come. Or if you're interested in a Borges-inspired vision of the future, Ukbara might be a great setting. Ukbara is the real-life origin of Borges' unreal city 'Ukbar' in his famous "Tln, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". The very fact that it's a real place undermines Borges' un-real game, so perhaps it could be a setting for a more existential set of questions, about the nature of reality. These are just examples.

H G Wells
Frequently Asked Questions  
Why has 2103 been chosen as the date in which the stories must be set?  
The idea here is both to give Iraqi writers some creative space to reflect on the long-term legacy of the Iraq invasion and, simultaneously, the chance to escape the pressures of the current political climate by projecting their visions of Iraq in the future. Setting the stories 100 years after the invasion gives writers freedom to be creative. They can choose exactly what direction they want their story to take, whether that be a complete escape from the present into a fictional future world; a realistic projection of the war's aftermath and how its' legacy affects the future; or an allegorical portrayal of contemporary issues in a future setting. Remember that for many science fiction writers, setting a story in the future gives them greater freedom to critique the present and evade the censorship and social taboos that so often hamper creative expression.

What are the requirements?  
The story should not have been translated into English before and should be written in response to the brief above. It must be fictional and set in one particular Iraqi city; the stories must be human stories rather than political. Each story will present a vision of how the authors imagine life in their chosen city in 90 years time, but through the story's context or background readers must grasp something of the city's past as well as the long term effects of the US invasion.

Who is eligible to submit a story?
Comma welcomes submissions from all Iraqi writers. We are particularly seeking authors currently based in Iraq.

Will the book be published in Arabic?  
The anthology will be published in both Arabic and English as an e-book, but the English version will also be published in print. Is Iraq + 100 a science fiction book? No! Science fiction is one possible genre, but the anthology is open to all styles and genres as long as the stories are set in the year 2103.

How many words can the stories be?
Ideally stories will be between 1250 - 3500 words in the Arabic, although we can be flexible.

How much will Comma pay for my story if it is published?
Comma can pay £200 for each story that it chooses to publish in the anthology.  

When is the deadline for submissions? All submissions must be received by 10th November 2014

Supported by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (Gertrude Bell Memorial).

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gazan writers' recent contributions to the international media

On 23 July this blog published a post on The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, an anthology of short stories by Gazan writers edited by author, journalist and political scientist Atef Abu Saif and published recently by Comma Press of Manchester, England. Abu Saif had visited the UK in June for a tour to promote the book, which has two awards from English Pen, for translation and for promotion. A  sign of the very difficult situation for besieged Gazans was that Abdallah Tayeh, a contributor to the book, had been unable to get out of Gaza to accompany Abu Saif on the tour as had been planned.


 The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction

Not only after Abu Saif returned to Gaza from his UK tour the Israelis started their assault on Gaza and Hamas launched rockets into Israel. The Tanjara blog post of 23 July included emails from Abu Saif and some of the other nine contributors to The Book of Gaza to Comma's Founder and Editorial Manager Ra Page telling of the impact of the onging Israeli air, land and sea attacks.

 Atef Abu Saif (L) with Comma Press publisher Ra Page at the Mosaic Rooms in London in June

Over the past three weeks articles by several of the writers whose short stories appear in The Book of Gaza have been published in the international media.The articles are a remarkable collection of testimonies, reflections and observations, taking us deep into the Gaza experience.

I Do Not want to Be a Number by Atef Abu Saif, Slate, 23 July 2014
The Children Have Barely Slept by Atef Abu Saif, Guernica Magazine, 31 July 2014
We wait each night for death to knock at the door by Atef Abu Saif, the Sunday Times, 27 July 2014 Life Life Under Fire in Gaza: The Diary of a Palestinian  by Atef Abu Saif, the Guardian, 28 July 2014
Eight Days in Gaza: Life and Death in the Gaza Strip by Atef Abu Saif, New York Times, 4 August 2014
We're OK in Gaza by Atef Abu Saif, Guernica Magazine, 8 August 2014


 Nayrouz Qarmout 

Umm Ahmed: Newsflash a short story by Nayrouz Qarmout, in English Pen's Pen Atlas, 29 July 2014
Life in War by Nayrouz Qarmout, English Pen's Pen Atlas, 31 July 2014
My City Burning Peacefully by Nayrouz Qarmout in The Electronic Intifada, 26 July 2014 

Tomorrow the war ends by Najlaa Ataallah,  New Statesman, 31 July 2014
The 14th Night (The Massacre) - Najlaa Ataallah in Diritti Globali, 7 August 2014


 Abdallah Tayeh

The First Refugee Centre by Abdallah Tayeh in Diritti Globali, 8 August 2014

 Without Words by Mona Abu Sharekh, Guernica Magazine, 6 August 2014

Asmaa al-Ghoul
Asmaa al-Ghoul (or al-Ghul) is a columnist on Al-Monitor, to which she has contributed a number of articles during the Israeli assaults.

The Asmaa al-Ghoul page on Al-Monitor has links to articles by the writer and  human rights activist, who was in 2012 awarded the Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women's Media Foundation.

Her recent articles include

Gaza residents return to destroyed homes, posted on 14 August 2014

and the intensely moving and thought-provoking:
Never ask me about peace again written after al-Ghoul found her own uncle's home in Rafah had been targeted by two  Israeli F-16 missiles, killing her uncle and eight members of his family including a 24-day-old baby.

Al-Ghoul begins her article:

"My father’s brother, Ismail al-Ghoul, 60, was not a member of Hamas. His wife, Khadra, 62, was not a militant of Hamas. Their sons, Wael, 35, and Mohammed, 32, were not combatants for Hamas. Their daughters, Hanadi, 28, and Asmaa, 22, were not operatives for Hamas, nor were my cousin Wael’s children, Ismail, 11, Malak, 5, and baby Mustafa, only 24 days old, members of Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or Fatah. Yet, they all died in the Israeli shelling that targeted their home at 6:20 a.m. on Sunday morning.

"Their house was located in the Yibna neighborhood of the Rafah refugee camp. It was one story with a roof made of thin asbestos that did not require two F-16 missiles to destroy. Would someone please inform Israel that refugee camp houses can be destroyed, and their occupants killed, with only a small bomb, and that it needn’t spend billions to blow them into oblivion?

"If it is Hamas that you hate, let me tell you that the people you are killing have nothing to do with Hamas. They are women, children, men and senior citizens whose only concern was for the war to end, so they can return to their lives and daily routines. But let me assure you that you have now created thousands — no, millions — of Hamas loyalists, for we all become Hamas if Hamas, to you, is women, children and innocent families. If Hamas, in your eyes, is ordinary civilians and families, then I am Hamas, they are Hamas and we are all Hamas."

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Enemy on the Euphrates: The British Occupation of Iraq & the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921


Enemy on the Euphrates: the British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921
by Ian Rutledge
Saqi Books, London, 471pp hardback
ISBN 978 0 86356 762 9

review by Susannah Tarbush, London
an Arabic version of this article appeared in  Al-Hayat newspaper on 9 August 2014.

Between July 1920 and February 1921 in the territory known to the British as Mesopotamia – the modern state of Iraq – an Arab uprising occurred which came close to inflicting a shattering defeat upon the British Empire.

“The insurrection in Iraq of 1920, measured in enemy combatant numbers, was the most serious armed uprising against British rule in the twentieth century,” writes the British economist and historian Ian Rutledge in his new book Enemy on the Euphrates: The British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921. The 471-page book was published recently in London by Saqi Books.

At the height of the rebellion the British estimated 131,000 Arabs were in arms against them. Iraqi estimates of the numbers are larger, and one Iraqi estimate is as high as 567,000.

Rutledge notes that to the vast majority of European and American historians of the 20th century Middle East, the term “Arab Revolt” has usually meant the role of British Colonel T E Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia” –in the pro-British rebellion of the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, and his sons, against the Ottoman Turks in the First World War.

In this pro-British Arab Revolt of 1916-18, the maximum number of Bedouin mobilised never exceeded 27,000, supported by around 12,000 deserters from the Ottoman army. Only a small minority of the Bedouin actually participated in combat operations.

 Indian cavalry on patrol, c 1918

Rutledge writes that if we ask the question “On whose side did the Arabs fight in the First World War?” most people who know something of the war’s history would probably say Britain’s. But in reality, the vast majority of Arabs did not fight for the British in the First World War. In 1914 about one-third of the regular troops in the Ottoman army were Arabs. And in addition, among the tribal Bedouin there were thousands of Arab volunteers who flocked to fight for the Ottomans.

In contrast to Lawrence’s 1916-18 Arab Revolt, the Iraqi uprising of 1920 was not a matter of sporadic guerrilla fighting. “It was a war: one in which a huge peasant army led by Shi’i clerics, Baghdad notables, disaffected sheikhs and former Ottoman army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) surrounded and besieged British garrisons with sandbagged entrenchments and bombarded them with captured artillery,” writes Rutledge.

During this war the Iraqi insurgents ambushed and destroyed columns of troops, and armoured trains, and burned or captured well-armed British gunboats. The insurgents established their own system of government and administration in the ‘liberated zones’ centred on the cities of Najaf and Karbela. “It was a war which, at one stage, Britain came very close to losing and which was won only with the help of a massive influx of Indian troops and, especially towards the end of the campaign, the widespread use of aircraft.”

The policy of using of Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft against the Iraqis rebels is very much associated with Winston Churchill, who was in 1920 the Secretary of State for War and responsible for putting down the revolution in Iraq. It is sometimes claimed that under Churchill the RAF bombed Iraqis with chemical weapons. Rutledge notes that although Churchill said he was ready to authorise the construction of gas bombs, it was decided “ordinary” bombing from the air was effective enough. Some of the “spectacular” bombing operations were carried out at night, and not only killed rebels but caused heavy casualties among women and children.

the more modern DH9A which largely replaced the elderly RE8 towards the end of the uprising

The story of the 1920-21 Iraqi uprising once closely engaged the attention of the British public but, Rutledge writes, “over many decades it slipped back into the mists of exclusively academic history, almost completely erased from the collective memory.” 

However, the ill-fated US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Iraqi insurgency against the occupation that followed, that once more brought to light the much older, forgotten 1920 insurgency in Iraq.

Journalists, historians and even functionaries of the US occupation drew lessons and made comparisons, “some appropriate, some less so”, between the 2003 invasion and Britain’s invasion and occupation of Iraq during and after the First World War. At the same time some of those Iraqis fighting the Americans and their allies in began to portray their own violent resistance to foreign intervention with reference to that 1920 armed struggle in which some of their grandparents might have participated.

In the first half of his book - entitled “Invasion, Jihad and Occupation” - Rutledge examines what happened in Iraq during the First World War. The oil industry, then in its infantry, was of growing importance to Britain’s whose admiralty was converting the Royal Navy’s warships to run on oil rather than coal.

 HMS Firefly, one of the 'Fly Class' gunboats used agaginst the insurgents



In June 1914 Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty, introduced a bill in the House of Commons to partially nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. One implication of this parliamentary Act was that “Britain had now committed itself to a strategic involvement in a region on the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire and within a few hours’ march of Ottoman troops based at the Iraqi city of Basra,” Rutledge says.

After Turkey allied itself with Germany, the Sheikh al-Islam on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan issued a fatwa on 14 November 1914, calling for jihad against the British and French. The Ottoman fatwa had a particularly strong impact among the Shi’i tribes of the mid-Euphrates area. Among the 18,000 volunteer mujahidin who joined up with the Ottomans were notables who would form the backbone of a second great struggle against the British six years later, in 1920.

The second half of Rutledge’s book, entitled “Revolution and Suppression”, depicts in great detail the different phases of the 1920-21 revolution, its crushing by the British, and the British goal of creating a “friendly native state” in Iraq. After the crushing of the insurgency a puppet government and army were installed and Emir Faysal, one of the sons of the Sharif of Mecca, was touted as the most suitable candidate as king, after the French expelled him as king of Syria.

The publication of Rutledge’s book is highly timely. This year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 1914, and this has in Britain prompted many books, articles and TV and radio programmes on the war. While much of the attention has been focused on the Western Front, and on the battlefields of France and Belgium, there is growing interest in Middle Eastern theatre in the First World War.

At the same time, the current violent upheavals in Iraq and Syria has focussed attention once more on the creation of modern Iraq, and on the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and British which defined their spheres of influence in the Middle East should the Ottoman Empire be defeated.

The Sykes-Picot agreement is often seen as a betrayal of the Arabs, but Rutledge sees as an even greater betrayal the breaking of the pledges made publicly to the Arabs in the Baghdad Declaration of 1917 and the Anglo-French Declaration of 1918. These pledges “were later ruthlessly ignored by the political and military authorities in Britain and France”.

 Ian Rutledge

Rutledge has a PhD in Economic History from Cambridge University, and is Research Director and co-founder of the Sheffield Energy Resources Information Services (SERIS).  Around 25 years ago he started to be fascinated by the economics, history, culture, and religions of the Middle East and North Africa. As an avid lover of books he set out to build a personal library on these subjects. Many of the books he discovered, many of them at second hand book shops and book fairs, provided crucial reference material for Enemy on the Euphrates.

He also set about learning Arabic, taking Arabic lessons with a personal tutor, Syrian Haytham Bayasi, formerly of Damascus and now living in Sheffield. Rutledge’s mastery of Arabic meant he was able to read important sources in Arabic. The extensive bibliography in his new book includes numerous Arabic works.

Enemy on the Euphrates is a long work, rich in detail, but Rutledge manages to make the text highly readable, lively and dramatic. And he presents fascinating accounts of the main British and Iraqi personalities involved in the narrative and the conflicts that sometimes erupted between them.

 Sir Mark Sykes, May 1013

The main British actors in the story include of course Winston Churchill and Colonel TE Lawrence, as well as Gertrude Bell; Sir Percy Cox; Sir Mark Sykes (co-architect of the Sykes-Picot agreement) and Lieutenant Colonel Arnold T Wilson, who was head of the occupation administration in Iraq.

On the Arab side there is Emir Faysal: Churchill, Bell and Lawrence engineered matters so that he came to occupy the Iraqi throne in 1921. Other key figures included Iraqi-born Ottoman army officesr Ja’far al-Askari and Nuri al-Sa’id, both of whom defected to the British.The Baghdad Shi’i merchant Ja’far Abu al-Timman was one of the most important leaders of the nationalist organisation Haras al-Istiqlal as was Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr.

  Ja'far Abu al-Timman, one of the principal nationalists in Baghdad, c. 1920

Al-Timman campaigned for Shi’i and Sunni Muslims to unite against the British occupation. Rutledge considers that in the decades that followed: “The one veteran of the 1920 uprising who remained loyal to the best ideals of the revolution was Ja’far Abu al-Timman.”

Wealthy landowner Sayyid Muhsin Abu Tabih, was a main leader of the 1920 uprising and was appointed as mutasarrif, to govern territory governed by the insurgents. Another key figure was Yusuf al-Suwaydi, elderly Baghdad Sunni notable and leading member of the nationalist Haras al-Istiqlal.  

In his conclusion to Enemy on the Euphrates Rutledge considers the long-term consequences of the uprising, and Britain’s crushing of it, on the modern history of Iraq. The state that was created after the uprising had virtually no roots among the predominantly Shi’i cultivators who constituted the majority of Iraqi ‘civil society’ at that time. The British made sure that the machinery of the state and the army was dominated by Sunnis, who were at that time around 19 per cent of the population. “This absence of representative state formation at the birth of the Iraqi nation established a dark precedent for the future conduct of Iraqi politics.”

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Medical workers & facilties being targeted by Israeli forces in Gaza: the evidence from Amnesty International

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC STATEMENT 7 August 2014


Evidence of medical workers and facilities being targeted by Israeli forces in Gaza
Testimonies from doctors, nurses, and ambulance workers who have spoken to Amnesty International paint a disturbing picture of hospitals and health professionals coming under attack by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, where at least six medics have been killed. There is growing evidence that health facilities or professionals have been targeted in some cases.

Since Israel launched Operation “Protective Edge” on 8 July, the Gaza Strip has been under intensive bombardment from the air, land and sea, severely affecting the civilian population there. As of 5 August, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1,814 Palestinians had been killed in the Gaza Strip, 86 per cent of them civilians. More than 9,400 people have been injured, many of them seriously. An estimated 485,000 people across the Gaza Strip have been displaced, and many of them are taking refuge in hospitals and schools.

Amnesty International has received reports that the Israeli army has repeatedly fired at clearly marked ambulances with flashing emergency lights and paramedics wearing recognizable fluorescent vests while carrying out their duties. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, at least six ambulance workers, and at least 13 other aid workers, have been killed as they attempted to rescue the wounded and collect the dead. At least 49 doctors, nurses and paramedics have been injured by such attacks; at least 33 other aid workers were also injured. At least five hospitals and 34 clinics have been forced to shut down due to damage from Israeli fire or continuing hostilities in the immediate area.

Hospitals across the Gaza Strip suffer from fuel and power shortages (worsened by the Israeli attack on Gaza’s only power plant on 29 July), inadequate water supply, and shortages of essential drugs and medical equipment. The situation was acute before the current hostilities, due to Israel’s seven-year blockade of Gaza, but have been seriously exacerbated since.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on Israel to immediately end the blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is collectively punishing the entire population of Gaza, in breach of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.

Amnesty International is aware of reports that Palestinian armed groups have fired indiscriminate rockets from near hospitals or health facilities, or otherwise used these facilities or areas for military purposes. Amnesty International has not been able to confirm any of these reports. While the use of medical facilities for military purposes is a severe violation of international humanitarian law, hospitals, ambulances and medical facilities are protected and their civilian status must be presumed. Israeli attacks near such facilities – like all other attacks during the hostilities – must comply with all relevant rules of international humanitarian law, including the obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects and military targets, the obligation that attacks must be proportional and the obligation to give effective warning. Hospitals and medical facilities must never be forced to evacuate patients under fire.

Mohammad Al-Abadlah, 32, a paramedic who worked for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), was killed on 25 July in Qarara by Israeli army gunfire when he was attempting to rescue an injured man stranded in an area controlled by the Israeli military. Hassan Al-Attal, 40, a colleague of Mohammad Al-Abadlah who was with him at the time and witnessed the shooting, told Amnesty International:

“On 25 July, my colleague Mohammad Al-Abadlah and I were tasked with reaching an injured man in Qarara. We went in the afternoon but were unable to cross the area because there were piles of sand blocking the roads next to which Israeli tanks were stationed. We were not able to reach our destination, so we cancelled the mission and we went back.

“At 10pm on the same day, we were tasked again with the same mission. We arrived at the intersection between Salah Al-Din and Al-Umda Streets and then headed north to try to access from a way other the one we had tried earlier. We were communicating with the Red Cross the whole time, relying on them every step of the way; we were communicating to them everything in details as we always do when we enter areas under Israeli military control.

“At one point while driving in the ambulance we were blocked by live electric wires on the road. We informed the Red Cross that the road was blocked and we could not cross. They asked us to try to cross somehow, but we told them we couldn’t. They then called the Israelis and told them about the wires blocking the road and how we were unable to cross. They got back to us saying the army says to get out of the car and cross on foot with our flashlights. So, Mohammad said to me ‘Let’s go, they agreed that we can go walking and collect the case from them directly’.

“We got out, we crossed about 10-12 metres and suddenly we were being fired at directly. My colleague screamed and said ‘I’ve been shot’. The shooting continued everywhere, so I could not pull him away or else I too would have got shot and fallen beside him – so I ran and sat in the ambulance. I called the station and told them we had been fired at and Mohammad was injured. The head of the centre came with two ambulances to try and save our colleague. When the colleagues got out to try and take Mohammed, they too were fired at. The head of the centre asked the Red Cross to ask for shooting to stop while we evacuated Mohammad. We brought him but sadly he died.

“When he was shot and I had gone back to the ambulance, we continued – he and I - to shout at each other. I could hear him. He was saying ‘come to me’ and I asked him to try and crawl closer to me, so that if he came closer I could pull him away – just so that he would move away from the shooting. He kept saying that he could not crawl to us and we couldn’t get to him. After that we co-ordinated with the Red Cross and the rest of our colleagues came and we were able bring him back, but he died.”

Amnesty International spoke independently to Mohammad Ghazi Al-Hessy, head of the PRCS’s centre in Khan Younis, who received the call to rescue Mohammad and attended to it with his other colleagues. He told Amnesty International: “When we received this call from the Red Cross. They said it was Israel that had requested the evacuation of the injured person. A team including Mohammad al-Abadlah as the ambulance driver, medic Hassan Al-Attal, and volunteer Ghaleb Abu-Khater were sent off to get the case. Fifteen minutes later, I heard Hassan Al-Attal on the radio shouting ‘There is shooting at us – we are being shot at by the Israelis and Mohammad Al-Abadlah has fallen and is not responding to me’.

“I immediately took two ambulances and went to the area while all the time communicating with the Red Cross. I tried calling Mohammad Al-Abadlah’s two mobiles but neither mobile responded. We first drove to a safe area nearby about 100 metres from where they were. I understood that Mohammad, Hassan and Ghaleb were out of the car because they could not reach the injured man with the ambulance; the Israelis had asked them to get out of the car, so the driver and the medic got out with a stretcher and a flashlight. The minute they entered the dirt road leading to the injured person, they were shot at directly and specifically at Mohammad Al-Abadlah.

“I asked the Red Cross to co-ordinate our entry to collect Mohammad. My colleagues and I got out. There were six or seven of us. We put the stretcher next to him and suddenly we were surrounded by very heavy gunfire from the soldiers in the area.

“They were direct shots aimed over our heads, under our feet, so we had to evacuate the area. During that time, Mohammad was bleeding very heavily, he was still alive at that point – his white uniform was completely red. Because of the gunfire we were unable to put him on the stretcher.

“So we ran and called the Red Cross and told them we were being shot at and it would not do. We remained there for 10 minutes then the Red Cross called back and told us to let two of us go in and grab him. Two of the colleagues did indeed go back in, put Mohammad on the stretcher and we drove him to Nasser Hospital. He was still alive and breathing. We worked on him at Nasser Hospital, but he died in the intensive care unit.” Speaking to Amnesty International about the killing of Mohammad Al-Abadlah, Dr Bashar Murad, head of PRCS’s emergency and ambulance unit, said:

“We had received permission to enter the area. The army had called the Red Cross asking for an ambulance. The call was about an injured person and when our ambulance worker Mohammad arrived he was killed, although he was travelling in an ambulance clearly visible as such. He was in medical uniform, which distinguishes him, and he was carrying a stretcher when he was shot by a sniper. He received bullets in the hip and chest, and even when his colleagues tried to rescue him they were also shot at. We had called the Red Cross and informed them and asked them to interfere and allow us to rescue the medic, but we were prevented from getting to him for half an hour. Mohammad bled to death.

“He was killed despite assurances we received from the Red Cross that the area was safe for us to work in. Our entrance to the area was checked twice with the army through the Red Cross. His colleagues would also have been killed if they had not found shelter in a house nearby. There was shooting at them. The Red Cross needs to call for accountability in this case”.

A’ed Al-Bor’i, 28, a volunteer medic with the PRCS ambulance service, was killed at around 4.30pm on 25 July in Beit Hanoun when a shell fired by the Israeli army hit the ambulance he was riding in on the way to treat an injured person. Jawad Budier, 50, a paramedic who was with A’ed Al-Bor’i and was injured in the attack, told Amnesty International:

“I received a call from the ‘dispatcher’ in Jabaliya ambulance centre while I was working in the Beit Hanoun area as there were injuries on Masriyeen Road. They were difficult conditions. Masriyeen Road was about 100 metres away from where I was in the Beit Hanoun hospital, which was our centre, so my team and I moved from there into Masriyeen Road. We went no more than 100 metres – to where the injured were. There was a side road around six meters wide which we tried to dive into, but suddenly there was an explosion directly on the ambulance – we were shocked.

“Suddenly there was fire on top of my head and my face was burnt – my hair was on fire along with my hand. I tried to put the fire out, but when I tried to open the door next to me to get out it would not open. So I thought I could get out through the door on the right – past the medic Hattem Shahine, who had been sitting next to me. Behind me was the late A’ed Al-Bor’i. To my surprise I could not find Hattem Shahine or the seat next to me. There was no one next to me. “I managed to get out… and was shocked to find A’ed thrown on the ground dead and his upper torso ripped apart (I could see his insides) – I am not sure how.

“I looked at the back of the car, and I could not see a back to the car, the back half of the car was all gone, totally separated from the front of the car, nothing was attached, no doors, nothing. I got out from the back and ran till I got to Beit Hanoun hospital, no more than 200 metres away. When I got to the hospital door I fainted from the shock and horror of the situation; I had also been fasting. The medical team took care of me and I was miraculously saved. I believe I was directly targeted. The Occupation [Israeli military] does not discriminate between rocks or trees or human beings.”

Dr Bashar Murad told Amnesty International that an ambulance which was sent to retrieve A’ed Al-Bor’i’s body was also shot at, which resulted in the injury of another medic. The PRCS were not able to retrieve the body until the next day.

Mohammad Abu Jumiza, 47, a Ministry of Health paramedic ambulance worker, was injured on 24 July when two ambulances he was riding in were hit by Israeli military aerial attacks in Khan Younis. He told Amnesty International:

“On 24 July at night, I received a call to transfer a case from Nasser Hospital, where I am based, to the European Hospital. That was around 11-11.30pm. The case need a nurse and a doctor; Dr Majdi Al-Amoor and colleague Shadi Abu Mustafa came with me. We picked up the injured person and took him along with two of this relatives to the European Hospital and dropped them off. On our way back to Nasser Hospital, it was only the three of us in the ambulance, it was clearly marked as such. All three of us were in medical uniform, and we were driving with the lights and sirens on as always.

“When we reached the Islamic University I heard an explosion right next to us. The front and back windscreens of the car fell out. My colleague asked me to speed up, so I did, and as I was going around a bend another missile hit next to us and then after that a third one hit next to us. Each of the hits moved the car. When the fourth missile hit, I lost control and we crashed. I was driving at 70-80km per hour at the time. When we crashed we ran out of the car and found shelter in a building. There were two more missiles fired; there were people there and some got injured. All the missiles that hit when I was driving hit very close to us.

“The people came out of their houses because of the bombing. Everyone was terrified, and some were injured by shrapnel. We found shelter and we called an ambulance. We called the PRCS and told them that medics were injured, so ambulances arrived after 10 minutes. I got in the car with my colleague; my head was injured and my face was bleeding. I got a ride with my colleague from PRCS Salem Abu Al-Kheir, along with three other people who were injured from the shrapnel. As we were driving we were hit by a missile, and then after another 30 metres another missile hit. There was a huge explosion; the sound was loud and the ambulance window fell out. I was sitting behind the driver. We stopped the car, got out and ran. We found a house and took shelter. My colleague was bleeding, as was I. My colleague called the PRCS and informed them about what had happened, but we told them not to send another car – because it would be hit – without first co-ordinating with the Red Cross. After 20-25 minutes, a PRCS ambulance came and took us to Nasser Hospital. My colleague from the PRCS was injured in his arm. Now I cannot hear, as well receiving injuries to the face (ear and lips) and to the head.”

Hani Ja’farawi, head of the Palestinian Ministry of Health’s ambulance unit, spoke to Amnesty International about some of the dangers he faced while joining ambulance missions in northern Gaza: “During my rides I saw massive destruction. I would be driving with the heavy sound of bombing the whole time. We were not directly targeted but there was the danger of fire around us. They fired right next to us when they wanted to tell us not to advance any more, and so we stop. They gave warning by firing at us.”

“On Thursday, 24 July, I accompanied an ambulance going to transfer injured people to Jerusalem through Erez. We worked to transfer at least six injured people per day. We would always go in a bunch of ambulances. We took off from the European Hospital and after we handed over the injured people we would come back on Salah Al-Din Street. We had lights and sirens on and, as we were driving in the empty streets – no one there, not a soul –we found two men injured and lying on the side of the road. When we stopped, the Israelis fired shells right next to us. There was some damage to the outside of the ambulances and one medic received an injury from the shrapnel. There was no one around us. The shelling targeted us although it did not hit the ambulance directly. How would you explain it otherwise? It was only us and injured men.”

On 21 July parts of the Al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah was struck by Israeli shelling, killing four people and wounding dozens, including medical workers, patients and people fleeing the violence and looking for refuge in the hospital. Jaber Khalil Abu Rumileh, supervisor of emergency and ambulance services at the hospital, who was there at the time, told Amnesty International:

“On 21 July, at 3pm, after midday prayer, I was at my workstation in the hospital. While I was working in the emergency unit, I heard a sound of bombing. It shook the hospital – a shelling. It hit the fourth floor, pregnancy and caesarean unit, then there were a few more hits. People were terrified, patients ran out, doctors could not enter and take out injured and killed people. And then as we were trying to calm people and attend to injuries and others, more shelling hit the building. The third floor was hit. It includes other surgery units, the childcare unit and the heart unit. Four people were killed from these hits. One shell went through the eastern wall on this third floor, through the wall in the middle and hit Nurse Eman Abu Jayyab. Her right arm was broken.

“It was chaos. All patients, visitors, people taking shelter at the hospital, nurses, doctors, workers – there were around 30-40 child patients - everyone was panicking. Everyone came down to the ground floor, everyone was scared, and when everyone was downstairs, another shell hit, and the glass down there fell out. The shelling kept on for 30 minutes from beginning to end. Ambulances and ambulance workers were hit when rubble fell down on them outside.

“It was a tragedy for all the pregnant women or those who gave birth. I saw one women come running with the child she had just given birth to. Some women gave birth during the shelling, the doctors did it on the ground floor, and three women were transferred to other hospitals.

“We were scared ourselves, I was worried about myself, but I have a duty to preform so I had not to worry about myself and attend to patients and my injured colleagues. We called the Red Cross and journalists. When the Red Cross came, we told them what happened. When they went up to see what happened, the hospital was hit again. They stopped their visit and left. Everyone was asking them for protection. We said that the hospital anywhere in any circumstances should be a safe place.”

Amnesty International has previously documented and reported on attacks by the Israeli army on health workers during military operations in Gaza in 2008/09 and 2012. Endangering the lives of aid and medical workers and obstructing their work is a violation of international law.

The Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 (Fourth Geneva Convention) obliges states to respect and protect the wounded, to allow the removal from besieged areas of the wounded or sick, and the passage of medical personnel to such areas. The deliberate obstruction of medical personnel to prevent the wounded receiving medical attention may constitute “wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health”, a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime.

evidence mounts of Israeli army's deliberate attacks on Gaza health workers

Press release issued by AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
Thursday 07 August 2014, 6:00 am GMT

Mounting evidence of deliberate attacks on Gaza health workers by Israeli army

An immediate investigation is needed into mounting evidence that the Israel Defense Forces launched apparently deliberate attacks against hospitals and health professionals in Gaza, which have left six medics dead, said Amnesty International as it released disturbing testimonies from doctors, nurses, and ambulance personnel working in the area.

“The harrowing descriptions by ambulance drivers and other medics of the utterly impossible situation in which they have to work, with bombs and bullets killing or injuring their colleagues as they try to save lives, paint a grim reality of life in Gaza,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International. “Even more alarming is the mounting evidence that the Israeli army has targeted health facilities or professionals. Such attacks are absolutely prohibited by international law and would amount to war crimes. They only add to the already compelling argument that the situation should be referred to the International Criminal Court.”

Hospitals, doctors and ambulance staff, including those trying to evacuate people injured in Israeli attacks, have come under increased fire since 17 July. Some medical teams have even been prevented from reaching critical areas altogether, leaving hundreds of injured civilians without access to life-saving help and entire families without assistance in removing the bodies of their loved ones.

Jaber Khalil Abu Rumileh, who supervises ambulance services in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital, told Amnesty International of a shelling attack on the medical facility on 21 July that lasted for half an hour.

 “It was 3pm and I was working in the emergency unit. I heard bombing that shook the hospital. It was a shelling that had hit the fourth floor, the pregnancy and caesarean unit. Then there were a few more hits. People were terrified, patients ran out, doctors could not enter to help the injured and remove the dead. Then the third floor was hit and four people were killed. I saw one women come running with the child she just gave birth to. Some women gave birth during the shelling.”

Mohammad Abu Jumiza is partially deaf after suffering head injuries during an attack that took place while he was transferring injured people in his ambulance in Khan Younis on 24 July.

“We were on our way back to Nasser hospital, driving with the lights and sirens on as always. The ambulance was clearly marked as such. The doctor, nurse and I were all wearing medical uniforms. When we reached the Islamic University I heard an explosion right next to us and the front and back windows of the car fell out. As I was turning another missile hit next to us, and then a third one. When the fourth missile hit, I lost control and we crashed, so we ran out of the car and found shelter in a building. Then there were two more missiles fired and some people were injured.”

Dr Bashar Murad, director of Palestinian Red Crescent Society’s (PRCS) emergency and ambulance unit, said that since the conflict started at least two PRCS ambulance workers had been killed, at least 35 had been injured and 17 health vehicles had been left out of service after attacks by the Israeli army.

“Our ambulances are often targeted although they are clearly marked and display all signs that they are ambulances. The army should be able to distinguish from the air that what they targeting are ambulances,” he said.

Ambulance worker Mohammad Al-Abadlah was killed on 25 July. He was in Qarara to help an injured person when he was shot in the hip and chest with gunfire and bled to death. Mohammad was travelling in a visibly marked ambulance and was wearing his medical uniform. Colleagues who approached him to help him were also shot at but were not injured.

A’ed Mustafa Bur’i, another ambulance worker, was burned to death on 25 July in Beit Hanoon after a shell hit the clearly marked vehicle he was travelling in.

Hospitals across the Gaza Strip are also suffering from fuel and power shortages, inadequate water supply, and shortages of essential drugs and medical equipment. Such shortages, already prevalent due to Israel’s seven-year blockade, have been made much worse during the current hostilities.

Public Document **************************************** For more information contact Amnesty International's press office in London, UK, on +44 20 7413 5566 or +44 (0) 777 847 2126 email: press@amnesty.org

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction


Last month the Gazan fiction writer and political scientist Atef Abu Saif toured Britain to promote a short story anthology he edited and contributed to: The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, published by Comma Press. He discussed the anthology at the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, the Mosaic Rooms in London, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester and – as part of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival – the Bluecoat Arts Centre.

Today Abu Saif and other contributors to the anthology are among the 1.8 million Gazans caught up in the hellish Israeli onslaught on Gaza by air, sea and land. His publisher Ra Page, Founder and Editorial Manager of Manchester-based not-for-profit Comma Press, has managed to keep in sporadic contact with him and some other contributors to the book.

Atef Abu Saif (L) and Ra Page at the Mosaic Rooms in London

On 19th July Atef emailed: "Ciao Ra, we are ok. waiting the unknown. it is hard to feel helpless and unable to predict what is coming even in little things which relates to ur existence. this feeling makes ur life unbearable. though u have to bear it. two nights ago the strikes destroyed the house of my good friend the poet Othman Hussain in Rafah. Othman spent his 30 years of saving in building this 2 stories house in a rural area east of Rafah. i remember that night 3 years ago when we celebrated the new house.. we grilled fish and ate and drank and sang until the down. now even my memories of the moments are broken images amid the destruction."

On 21 July Atef was in touch again:
"hi, i am sorry for late response. we have electricity for few hours. max 4 hours. i have to move from my place as a friend of mine was under tank attack in Beit Hanoun and we performed a miracle to get him out with his family, phonecalls to the red cross. we finally managed today at 5pm to get all the family in two ambulances and hosted them in my flat. thus i have to move to the little room in my father in law's house in Jabalia camp so we give them a space. now there are some 50 persons in my flat."

On the same day Nayrouz Qarmout, a contributor to The Book of Gaza, told Ra via email:
"I try to be okay, but I feel tired due to lack of sleep, and the increased pace of the bombing; every time we get near to achieving calm the parties on either side try to impose new conditions; ultimately it's the ordinary humans who die... But we are trying to hold out to the end; The warplanes' try to bomb us out of our humanity, to unbalance us; you know the number of Palestinian martyrs increases constantly, but I will continue to write and share the sorrows of others. The number of hours for using electricity has become less than before. I do not feel reassured, anxiety is on each side. I draw my strength from the far reaches of my imagination, not from here."

Najlaa Ataalah, another contributor, emailed Page on 20 July:
"The situation in Gaza is worse than ever... Now we just have electricity for a few hours and some areas just have it for [only] 2 hours per day, the sounds of shelling and bombing rip the ear drum and that's if you are lucky and live little way off the targeted place; if you are any closer the bombing may harvest your beloved friends or family members. “Please Ra sends my regards to all who are thinking of Gaza in during nightmare; tell them that we Gazans feel fear and horror just like anyone else in the world, but we don’t have any choice except to bear it till this nightmare is finished."

two awards from English PEN for translation and promotion
  
The significance and quality of The Book of Gaza was recognised by English PEN which has given it two awards:  one for translation, under the PEN Translates programme, the other for promotion via PEN Promotes which supported Abu Saif’s UK tour. Abu Saif was to have been accompanied on the tour by a contributor to the anthology, Abdallah Tayeh, but Tayeh was unable to get out of Gaza. He did however record a message which was played at tour events. (The message and a video of Abu Saif talking at the Manchester event can be accessed on the Comma website).

 Abdallah Tayeh

In the message Tayeh introduced himself as “a Palestinian writer, refugee, who lives in Jabalia camp in the besieged Gaza Strip. I am 60 years old, I have been writing novels, short stories, and articles since 1975. I have lived all my live in the miserable camp and I have never lost the hope of being free from occupation.”

Tayeh added: “This is the hardest time in the Gaza Strip that I have ever lived. I really wanted to be with you, enjoying these nice meetings, but the only border between Gaza Strip and the world has been closed for over a month, till now. Therefore I could not travel to be with you today although the organisers made a lot of efforts. I did not lose the dream to live in the independent state of Palestine and to be free to travel whenever I want and to see my family live a normal life.”

Tayeh said he hoped readers would enjoy his short story “Two Men”, translated by Adam Talib. He described the story as an allegory that makes the reader think its two main characters, a bald man and a security guard, have transported a girl against her will in a large cardboard box. “Events and the language indicate that a crime has occurred and that the girl is dead or sleeping under the influence of drugs.” The reader is surprised when the box is transported to the bald man’s house and its contents are revealed. Tayeh succeeds in creating a sinister atmosphere full of foreboding, and in overturning readers' assumptions. 

 a richer more nuanced picture of Gaza and its people

During the current Israeli assault on Gaza the media images of the Gaza Strip and its people are dominated by violence and destruction. The inhabitants tend to be seen as either militants, or victims. The ten stories in The Book of Gaza provide a much richer and more nuanced picture of the Gaza Strip and its people. The stories were contributed by five men and five women. Abu Saif is highly appreciative of the storytelling gifts of Gazan females. At the Mosaic Rooms he said his grandmother, who lived in Jaffa until 1948, was “the greatest storyteller...she was very talented in telling all this sadness, all the joy and happiness she had in her youth back home before she was exiled or forced to leave. This is where I learned my first narration skills, and from my neighbours in the refugee camp I grew up in, Jabalia"

In bringing the work of ten Gazan short story writers to an English-language readership, The Book of Gaza also highlights the skills of 11 literary Arabic translators, mostly from the younger generation. Each story, and the Abu Saif's introduction, was rendered into English by a different translator.

The book has the high production standards characteristic of Comma's output, and includes biographies of all the contributing writers and translators.  The book is part of Comma’s Reading the City series; the Gaza cityscape cover was designed by David Eckersall..

One recurring theme in the stories is of the sense of being trapped and wishing to escape. Gaza has been under a blockade for seven years. In 2000 Israel banned most Gaza residents from using the Erez checkpoint into Israel, and the Rafah crossing into Egypt has been virtually closed for a year due to the bad relations between Hamas and the Egyptian regime.


Abu Saif reads his story in Arabic at the Mosaic Rooms

The opening story in the anthology, Abu Saif’s “A Journey in the Opposite Direction”, translated by Thomas Apin, is set near the Rafah crossing. A young man named Ramzi has been waiting to meet his brother who, after three decades living in Italy has returned to live in Gaza. The brother has been held up for three days on the Egyptian side of the crossing.

At the cafe Ramzi encounters Samir, a friend who has returned to Gaza after ten years working in Dubai. Ramzi and Samir are joined by two young women carrying suitcases who have been trying in vain to leave Gaza through the Rafah exit. Nadia, divorced from a violent husband, has a bursary to study in Greece. Samah is being transferred to the Beirut branch of the international organisation for which she works in Gaza. “Gaza was hard on her. It was surprising how quickly her long hair had managed to become a family issue – the key to her honour – after she refused to imprison it under a head cover.” 

We learn that Samah’s only true romance, lasting four years, had been with Ramzi but her father had refused to allow her to marry this poor young man from al-Shati refugee camp. As for Samir, he had been smitten with Nadia in their university days, but the pair had not progressed beyond exchanging looks and smiles. The four young people set off by car to chase the moon.

three generations of Gaza writers

In his introduction to the anthology, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, Abu Saif divides Gazan writers in the period since 1967 into three generations. In the first phase of Israeli occupation most writers left Gaza, many of them heading for Cairo. The short story became increasingly popular, its brevity and symbolism providing a way to overcome Israeli printing and publishing restrictions. “Copying and transporting a story to publishing houses in Jerusalem to be printed was no easy task, and so its short length helped facilitate publication. Gaza, as was said in Palestinian circles abroad, became ‘the exporter of oranges and short stories'.”

Many of the meanings and themes of short stories at that time were intended to provoke national feeling, and steadfastness, Abu Saif said at the Mosaic Rooms. Writers described the miserable lives in refugee camps, and “much of this literature told of how the people in the occupied territories are living.”

The three writers from this first generation included in the anthology are Abdallah Tayeh, Zaki al‘Ela and Ghareeb Asqalani, the pen name of Ibrahim al-Zand. Asqalani’s short story “A White Flower for David”, translated by John Peate, is bold in its portrayal of the possibility of a friendship between two men from opposite sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide. The friendship comes under violent strain during a time of intifada: can the human rapport survive?

Zaki al ‘Ela, who was born in 1950 and died in 2008 is seen as a father of the Gazan short story. His powerful and poetic story “Abu Jaber Returns to the Woods”, translated by Max Weiss, conveys the brutality and humiliation to which the Israeli military occupation subjects Palestinians in a refugee camp. Taxi driver Abu Jaber is ordered by a group of armed fedayeen to drive them covertly out of the camp during a night curfew. Israeli soldiers interrogate him on his return, but he gives nothing away. After gunfire erupts outside the camp during the night all people between 16 and 60 are ordered by soldiers with megaphones to go into a cold rainswept pit. Soldiers subject Abu Jaber to a savage beating to try to force him to confess that he drove the fighters but he resists. “The rifle branch is flowering”, a line from a popular revolutionary song, is cited in the story. It suggests that to subject a people to such prolonged oppression was bound to lead to armed struggle.


The second generation of Gazan writers includes Abu Saif, Talal Abu Shawish and Yusra al Khatib. At the Mosaic Rooms event Abu Saif recalled writing a short story at the age of 19 during Ramadan in winter 1991 while imprisoned in an Israeli jail, “as most of my generation was”. His generation of writers was  “in a kind of limbo between the occupation era and the PNA (Palestinian National Authority).” In the second generation "the space took shape and the characters became more vivid. You find the streets of Gaza, the buildings."

In “Red Lights” by Talal Abu Shawish, translated by Alice Guthrie, the first-person narrator takes a taxi ride with a hard-pressed driver. The story presents a slice of Gaza life in just two and a half pages. For the beautiful-faced young boys selling chewing gum and sweets in the street, red lights and stopped cars are opportunities. Despite his own problems the driver treats the young sellers generously.  During his ride the narrator sees “two young men trail along behind a gaggle of careless, coquettish young women, who are wandering around the place in circles. All of them are looking for an escape”. The story ends:  "More red lights await  us".

A man agonises over calling a telephone number from long ago in Yusra al Khatib's story "Dead Numbers", translated by Emily Danby. The number is written on a piece of paper which he at one point  tears up, only then to piece it together again. The story reflects the fragility of the links between people. Could dialling the number hail a new beginning, and can one go back when all may have changed? 

 Nayrouz Qarmout

The third, youngest, generation is represented in the book through stories by four women. “Mona Abu Sharekh and Nayrouz Qarmout’s writings offer a critical – and one might say, frustrated – engagement with social reality, particularly with regards to the perspectives of women,” says Abu Saif.  “Najlaa Ataallah’s story deals with a harsh reaction to society’s constraints, a tale marked by her own personal word, while Asmaa al Ghul explores love that seeks to be freed from the dominance of men and society alike.”

In “The Sea Cloak” by Nayrouz Qarmout, translated by Charis Bredin, a young woman has been hemmed in by her family since the age of ten when her brother reported her to his parents for flirting with the neighbour's son. She goes with family members to Gaza beach, which is delightfully described by Qarmout. The sea seems to cast a spell on her "making her invisible to those around her and carrying her like a bride on her wedding day." She swims out to sea in her headscarf and black dress and headscarf: “panic and desire gripped her”. 

“The Whore of Gaza” by Najlaa Ataallah, translated by Sarah Irving is steeped in sexuality. A woman in her early thirties sprawled alone on a bed caresses herself  in a fever of frustration, then revels in the beauty of her body. Her mind is full of conflict as she considers male-female relations in Gaza. She goes to meet her older married lover of seven years;  their relationship, which was never fully consummated in order to preserve her hymen. While she waits for him she flicks through her many text messages from men. She decides "in all her anger that she will be whatever Gaza wants her to be, and how it wants her to be."

 Mona Abu Sharekh

In Mona Abu Sharekh’s “When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head”, translated by Katharine Halls, a woman receives over the course of a week mysterious daily letters from an unknown artist named Salwa. The woman who receives the letters is the only one in neighbourhood who doesn’t wear a headscarf, and who lets her daughter travel round Europe. Salwa is a kind of alter ego. “Where has Salwa come from? Who has sent her to dig deep into my soul’s wrinkles and my heart's vaulted cellars, opening doors I closed years ago?" As Salwa reveals her love affair through her letters, the narractor discloses things about herself.

Asmaa al Ghul

The first-person narrator of Asmaa al Ghul's story "You and I”, translated by Alexa Firat, engages in compulsive counting of objects, which seems to be a form of obsesssive compulsive disorder (OCD). The counting and repetitions give the story a rhythm. She is remembering a lost friend, but as she counts she "dissolves into forgetfulness. I forget your face, your features, your eyes bound to my soul like a white moth drawn to the beam of a candle." Towards the end of the story her counting moves from objects such as cars to the counting of graves.

Atef Abu Saif concludes his introduction to The Book of Gaza with the observation that people in Gaza "live on a remorseless stretch of land in a reality that tries to kill their desire to live, yet they do not tire of loving life, as long as there is a way to do so." Words that may offer some slight glimmer of hope in these terrible times.
by Susannah Tarbush