Tuesday, January 15, 2019

New book brings the works of Palestinian artist Nabil Anani to a wider audience

Stunning collection of images and words celebrates a Palestinian master of composition, colour and symbolism 

by Susannah Tarbush, London
(an Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 15 January 2019)

The Palestinian artist Nabil Anani, born in the town of Latroun in 1943, has had a long and productive career as a painter, ceramicist, sculptor and art teacher. He has taken part in group and solo exhibitions in many parts of the world and his works are held in museums and private collections.

And yet, according to two of his biggest admirers, Sulieman Mleahat and Martin Mulloy, Aman has not fully received the recognition he deserves. Their determination to bring Anani to wider public attention has now resulted in the publication in London, by Saqi Books, of the beautiful book Nabil Anani: Palestine, Land and People. The book is co-edited by Mleahat and Mulloy, who have been friends since the days when Mleahat lived in London and they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend.

The 176-page volume contains high-quality reproductions of more than 150 works by Anani. The cover illustration is Ananis 2013 painting Palestinian Village.

The pictures in the book are grouped into three sections: Land, People, and Mixed Media. They are complemented by substantial essays from six leading Middle Eastern art historians: Rana Anani, Lara Khaldi, Bashir Makhoul, Nada Shabout, Dr Housni Alkhateeb Shehadeh and Dr Tina Sherwell.

The images show the range and variety of Ananis work, and his immense talents in composition, use of colour, and symbolism. Many are in fresh, bright colours while others are in more sombre hues. Some echo a continuing Palestinian identity and tradition, others are more directly political such as the haunting images of Palestinians queueing at the checkpoint at Qalandia, or standing in a line waiting to see their relatives in prison, as in the 2015 painting Visiting Hour.

Visiting Hour (2015) © Nabil Anani

Anani works in many media in addition to paint, including wool, embroidery, plaster, leather, wood, leather, copper, dyes, and concrete. The works vary greatly in size. Some are relatively small, other are large and extend over double pages of the book, such as the striking and graceful mosaic mural Ramallah Martyrs Memorial (2013).  

The Palestinian prize-winning poet Mourid Barghouti has contributed a characteristically eloquent foreword to the volume. He writes:

In a society living in catastrophic conditions, the artist does not have the luxury of being preoccupied with a single vision. Perhaps this can clarify the enigma of Nabil Anani, the artist and sculptor who opened his eyes to the Palestinian Nakba, which continues to generate more Nakbas."

Barghouti adds: "The works of Nabil Anani simultaneously perform the roles of the novelist, poet, historian, architect, musician and restorer of memory.  His works grasp at moments from people’s lives, their hills, olive groves, homes, their grandmothers’ embroidered gowns, their weddings and funerals, as if their creator fears the demise of all these things.

Bride (2005) © Nabil Anani

“In his paintings, Anani is a novelist because he tells the story of a group of people too brutalized to tell their own story. He is a poet when he seizes a single detail here and there: a glancing eye, the tilt of a neck or miles of threatened trees; the frailty in a body in one instance, its amazing power in another. He is a historian when he chronicles through art the events of Palestinian life, its joys and sorrows, the various ways it disappears in spite of joy, and manifests itself in spite of death.”

According to Barghouti, Anani, the genuine artisan, desires to be unambiguous in his celebration of Palestinian art and nature, as if he were hosting a celebration in which life itself is the guest of honour.

The books Palestinian co-editor Sulieman Mleahat lived in the UK for 28 years after winning a scholarship at the age of ten to the famous Pestalozzi International Village for young people in East Sussex, in the south of England.

He did his university and postgraduate studies in international development in the UK and then, wanting to work with Palestinian refugees, returned to live in Ramallah eight years ago. He is an education and arts specialist working with the non-governmental organisation (NGO) American Near East Refugee Aid in Palestine (ANERA) establishing kindergarten schools and training teachers. At the same time Mleahat supports Palestinian artists in exhibiting their work and has curated in many exhibitions in Ramallah and participated in many art fairs in the Middle East.

Nabil Anani in his studio in Ramallah, 2017

Martin Mulloy had a career in publishing, and was for ten years a director at the BBC. He has lived and worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and travelled widely throughout the region. He now works independently pursing educational and media projects in China and elsewhere.

The two co-editors describe their initiation and implementation of the Anani book project as a labour of love for us both The seeds of the project lie in an exhibition of Ananis solo calligraphic exhibition Art Into Script held in 2007 in the gallery of the legendary Foyles bookshop in central London. The two subsequently travelled to Ramallah to meet Anani in his home and studio.

Lynn Gaspard, publisher of Saqi Books, was enthusiastic about Mleahat and Mulloys proposal for a book on Anani. Publication was made possible by sponsorship from the A M Qattan Foundation, Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), Palestinian Ministry of Culture, the Palestinian Museum, and Paltel.

The books six illuminating essays explore many facets of Ananis work and life. Bashir Makhoul's essay is entitled The Inability to Forget and the Promise of Memory. He writes that Anani has made an outstanding contribution to the development of Palestinian art, and he has played an explicit role in the construction of a modern national identity, particularly in relation to national memory.

Anani is constructing a visual narrative from a memory that is living in the menacing shadows cast by the trauma of the Nakba and its continuation in the occupation and ongoing Israeli colonisation of Palestine.

There is a continuous need in the work to search for traces of the past, to seek restoration, draw conclusions and pass on messages and symbols of what has been lost in the hope that the Palestinians will one day find it . This idyllic re-imagining of the past imbued with nostalgia becomes a speculative image of the future an aspiration for what is to come rather than a memorial for the past. 

In 2012 Anani started a series of works Life Before 1948 based on photographs taken of families around Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century.  by photographers including the Palestinian Khalil Raad. “What really haunts me about these photographs, and what I think Anani captures in his paintings, is the fact that they were taken before the Nakba, They are pictures of unity, of undivided families in a homeland that was about to be torn apart by war and colonial occupation.”

Ayyoub family from Safad (1948) 2014 © Nabil Anani

In her essay How Childhood Captivated an Artist the artists daughter Rana Anani writes of Nabils childhood in Halhul, where his parents moved in 1942. Halhul is particularly known for its grape production.

Whenever Anani speaks of his childhood in Halhul, his eyes sparkle and his face lights up with great passion, writes Rana. We cannot underestimate the extent of the influence of his childhood in that village on the art he was to produce later in life.

In 1965 Ananis father sent him to university in Cairo, but was furious when he found out Nabil had insisted on registering at art college, and he cut off his finding. Nabils sister Adla who was working in Kuwait, then supported him financially. Anani graduated in Fine Art from Alexandria University in 1969 and returned to Palestine to join UNRWA as an art teacher.

Dr Tina Sherwell examines Ananis work in the 1970s and 1980s under the harsh restrictions of the Israel occupation, which imposed censorship on artists. In this atmosphere Anani had his first exhibition at the YMCA in Jerusalem in 1972 and at this time he met the artist Sliman Mansour who would become a lifelong friend and colleague. Anani was very active in the formation of the League of Palestinian Artists.

Motherhood II (1995)  © Nabil Anani

During the first intifada which started in December 1987, The New Visions Group was set up by Anani, Tayseer Barakat, Sliman Mansour and Vera Tamari. With a Palestinian shunning of imported Israeli products, including oil paints and canvas these artists began to work with natural local materials such as wood, clay, mud and leather. Lara Khaldi notes how the New Visions Group moved away from committed art into more experimental work.

Nadia Shabout in her chapter Modernism, Palestine and the Arab World writes: It is particularly interesting to understand the intersection of imagination between a Palestinian artist like Anani and, for example, the Iraqi Dia al-Azzawi whose work engaged with Palestine frequently.

Housni Alkhateeb Shehadas essay History, Calligraphy and Landscape in the Works of Nabil Anani (2000 2017) examines Ananis art works within their political context. He writes: Undoubtedly. Nabil Ananis close engagement with the exhausting political situation has for years been reflected in his works.   He examines Ananis love of calligraphy and the recurring appearance of landscape and olive trees in his work. The olive tree is perhaps the most important symbol used by Anani in various works of drawing, painting, sculpture and other genres.

At a time when interest in Palestinian arts and culture is growing, in Palestine itself and far beyond, the publication of Nabil Anani: Palestine, Land and People is very much to be welcomed. It is truly one of the most moving and visually-stunning books to have appeared in 2018.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

PEN Translates award goes to 'Palestine +100' among tittles from 15 countries

The latest batch of Pen Translates awards includes one book - with multiple authors and translators - to be translated from Arabic: Palestine +100 due to be published by Manchester-based Comma Press in May 2019.

Comma Press said in a statement: "We're delighted to announce we've won a PEN Translates Award for our forthcoming anthology Palestine +100, which will fund the translation of a number of the stories from Arabic into English.

"The collection is the sequel to our hit Iraq +100 anthology, which went viral on social media, selling out in advance of publication and featuring on BBC News and The Guardian website. The rights were sold to Tor (Pan Macmillan) for a North American edition shortly after in our biggest rights deal to date.

"This time we asked Palestinian writers to imagine their country 100 years after the Nakba;  in the year 2048, what will have been the repercussions of the displacement of more than 700,000 people after the Israeli War of Independence, and how might Palestine have finally escaped it, and found its own peace, a hundred years down the line?

"Palestine +100 will be released in May 2019 and will feature established and emerging authors from Palestine including Selma Dabbagh, Nayrouz Qarmout, Ahmed Masoud and many more.. Huge thanks to the team at English PEN! Congrats to the other award winners."

Nayrouz Qarmout 

Press Release from English PEN 

A diverse list of books make up the latest round of PEN Translates award winners. These include new novels by László Krasznahorkai and Marie Darrieussecq; the debut short story collection by politician Selahattin Demirtaş, currently imprisoned in Turkey; a memoir by legendary Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman; Spanish poetry for children; as well as novels from Bosnia, the Comoros Islands, and Indonesia.

Ros Schwartz, co-chair of the Writers in Translation committee, said:
'The list of award-winning titles is more diverse than ever, with translations from 15 countries and 12 languages, including Bosnian, Indonesian, Slovenian and Tamil, with the first ever novel from the Comoros Islands to be translated into English. English PEN is thrilled and proud to be supporting such an exciting range of outstanding titles.'

Books are selected for PEN Translates awards on the basis of outstanding literary quality, strength of the publishing project, and contribution to literary diversity in the UK. The award-winning books are featured on the English PEN World Bookshelf website, in partnership with Foyles.

PEN Translates award-winning titles in autumn 2018

Mountain That Eats Men by Ander Izagirre, translated from Spanish by Tim Gutteridge. ZED Books, May 2019. Country of origin: Spain

My Mother Said by Chantal Ackerman, translated from French by Daniella Shreir. Silver Press, June 2019. Country of origin: Belgium

An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes and Juana Adcock. Charco Press, October 2019. Country of origin: Colombia

The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha, translated from Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein. Harvill Secker, March 2020. Country of origin: Indonesia

Poems That the Wind Blew In by Karmelo C. Iribarren, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel. Emma Press, September 2019. Country of origin: Spain

A History of the World with the Women Put Back In by Kerstin Lücker and Ute Daenschel, translated from German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Jessica West. The History Press, September 2019. Country of origin: Germany

The Baby by Marie Darrieussecq, translated from French by Penny Hueston. Text Publishing, July 2019. Country of origin: France

When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from Danish by Denise Newman. Quercus, March 2019. Country of origin: Denmark

Dawn by Selahattin Demirtaş, translated from Turkish by Amy Marie Spangler and Kate Ferguson. Hogarth, April 2019. Country of origin: Turkey

A Drop of Happiness by Selvedin Avdić, translated from Bosnian by Will Firth. Istros Books, March 2020. Country of origin: Bosnia

Palestine +100 by various, translated from Arabic by various. Comma Press, May 2019. Country of origin: Palestine

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang. Tilted Axis, May 2020. Country of origin: China

Baron Wenkheim's Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Tuskar Rock Press, November 2019. Country of origin: Hungary

Dreams by Rajathi Salma, translated from Tamil by Meena Kandasamy. Tilted Axis Press, October 2020. Country of origin: India

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Jacaranda Books, 2019. Country of origin: Comoros Islands

The Fig by Goran Vojnović, translated from Slovenian by Olivia Hellewell. Istros Books, October 2019. Country of origin: Slovenia

English PEN's Writers in Translation programme has been promoting literature in translation since 2005. The programme includes translation grants, events, and PEN Transmissions, an online zine for international writing.
English PEN's major publisher grants programme, PEN Translates, awards grants to UK publishers for translation costs and is supported by Arts Council England. Over 200 books in translation have been supported by English PEN grants since 2005.
English PEN, a registered charity, promotes the freedom to write and the freedom to read in the UK and around the world. The founding centre of a worldwide writers' association, established in 1921, we work to identify and dismantle barriers between writers and readers, whether these are cultural, political, linguistic or economic.

report from London by Susannah Tarbush

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Saqi to publish Raphael Cormack's book on women who created Egypt’s modern culture

Saqi to publish story of Cairo’s female cultural trailblazers in the early twentieth century

Saqi Books has announced that it has acquired the world rights to Martyrs of Passion: The Women Who Created Egypt’s Twentieth-Century Culture from debut writer Raphael Cormack. Publication is set for spring 2020. 

Raphael Cormack

"Martyrs of Passion tells the exciting, little-known story of Egypt’s entertainment industry in the inter-war period through the lives of its most prominent women," says Saqi. "In what was then the cultural centre of the region, singers were pressing hit records, new theatres and dramatic troupes were springing up everywhere, and Cairo’s cabarets were packed – a counter-culture was on the rise. In the bars, hash-dens, music halls and theatres of the roaring ’20s, people of all cultures, classes and backgrounds – Muslims, Christians and Jews – came together. A passionate group of eccentrics, narcissists and idealists strove to entertain the broad spectrum of Egyptian society.

"Women asserted themselves on the stage and behind the microphone like never before. Some of the biggest stars of Cairo’s stages were female. Two of the most famous troupes of the 1920s were run by women. It was in the 1920s that Oum Kalthoum, the legendary singer, first won her fame. And in the 1920s, the casino and dancehall owned and run by Badia Masabni became the hottest nightspot in town, and one of the early pioneers of Egyptian cinema, Aziza Amir, came up through the stage. These were women who were not afraid to fight for their rights."

Cormack's book is set among the theatres, cabarets, music halls and cinemas of Cairo, It will present a unique view of the cultural, social and feminist movements in early twentieth-century-Egypt, and show how this global scene laid the foundations of Arabic popular culture.

Raphael Cormack says, ‘I’m very excited to be able to tell the compelling and captivating stories of the women of Cairo’s interwar nightlife and entertainment industry. It is a world full of eccentric characters, revolutionary ideas and provocative art, that is little known among English readers. For me, Saqi is the perfect publisher to work with; they have long experience of publishing books on the Middle East and we share an understanding of what makes this history so important.’

Lynn Gaspard, publisher at Saqi acquired world rights directly from Raphael Cormack. She said, ‘Raphael has been a friend to Saqi for many years. I am thrilled to be working with him on Martyrs of Passion, which tells the riveting story of modern Cairo as we have never heard it before. Now is the time for Arab women to reclaim their place in herstory, and I’m very proud to be working with Raphael who in this book is celebrating these female cultural icons’ triumphs.’

Raphael Cormack has a first in classics from Oxford and a PhD in Egyptian theatre from the University of Edinburgh. He co-edited the first collection of Sudanese stories translated from Arabic, The Book of Khartoum (Comma Press). One of the stories in this collection won the Caine Prize 2017. He is also currently editing for Comma The Book of Cairo, which will appear next. He has written on Arabic culture for the London Review of Books, TLS, Apollo, Prospect and elsewhere.

Saqi says that for all rights outside the UK, enquiries should be addressed to  Elizabeth Briggs elizabeth@saqibooks.com

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Saqi Books announces that Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela wins Saltire Award

press release from Saqi Books

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela wins
Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year Award

We are absolutely thrilled to share the news that Leila Aboulela has won the Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year Award 2018 for Elsewhere, Home.

The winners of Scotland’s most prestigious annual book awards were announced on Friday 30 November at Dynamic Earth in
Edinburgh. Sarah Mason, the programme director for the Saltire Society, said: ‘This year’s awards are a testament to the outstanding calibre of modern Scottish literature in all its varied forms. Every one of the awards was hotly contested, making the judges’ decisions particularly challenging.’ Our extended congratulations to all the award winners.

A Guardian Summer Read, Elsewhere, Home deftly captures the search for home in our fast-changing world, offering a rich tableau of life as an immigrant. It is the most recent work by British-Sudanese writer and playwright Leila Aboulela, whose novels have been translated into more than fourteen languages.

To celebrate,
we’re offering 20% off Elsewhere, Home when ordered direct from the Al Saqi Bookshop. Simply enter Saltire2018 at checkout to claim your discount.
‘A lovely collection about love, loneliness and spirituality’
Nadiya Hussain, Good Housekeeping

‘A beautiful collection … There is so much quiet brilliance.’

The Observer

‘Thoughtful, wry, funny …
The deceptively quiet tales in Elsewhere, Home are barbed with tension and conflict.’
Scotland Herald





Copyright © 2018 Saqi Books, All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Karl Sharro tweets and maps his unique brand of Middle Eastern satire in debut book

Since this blogpost first appeared, it has been announced that Karl Sharro will be appearing in a panel discussion on Satire In Surreal Times as part of the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre at 3pm on Sunday 28 October. Tickets can be booked here
On 4 October he appears at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in London.

The Lebanese-British satirist and architect Karl Sharro’s debut book And Then God Created the Middle East and said ‘Let There be Breaking News', published recently in London by Saqi Books, defies categorisation. It is primarily a book of humour, but it arguably also deserves a place in other sections of a bookstore or library, such as the Middle East, politics or media studies.

The book is authored in the name of Karl reMarks, Sharro’s “Middle East political and cultural online commentary, with frequent forays into satire.” Sharro founded his blog in 2007 and the @KarlreMarks Twitter account two years later. His trademark avatar, a bearded figure with a conical hat against a red background, is taken from his cartoon series “The Phoenicians Invented Everything". The figure also appears on the cover of Sharro's small format book, which is in a striking palette of bright blue, mustard and white. "My own colour scheme is red, so the blue was a change, but we wanted a nod to Twitter" Sharro says in the Q & As below.

Sharro is a master of the Twitter form, with his pithy one-liners and tweeted diagrams. The book provides many examples of both (the Karl reMarks Twitter self-description includes "Director of the Institute of Internet Diagrams"). The @KarlreMarks Twitter account has 135,000 followers and its witticisms and sharp commentary are essential daily reading for many.

As noted in a recent interview with Qantara.de Sharro was in conversation at the launch of his book with senior lecturer in International Journalism at City, London University Dr Zahera Harb She said  he manages to say in 140 characters what may take hours to explain to her students. It seems the book will be put on her studentsʹ reading lists and it looks a safe bet that other academics will do the same.

Sharro told Qantara.de: "I know that several professors do include my blog and tweets on some syllabuses already, and having the tweets in book form will "make it easier for students to find them." He wanted to collect the tweets into a book "so as to give them a more permanent home, beyond Twitter where they eventually get lost".

Asked by an audience member at the launch whether he welcomed and felt "liberated" by last year's doubling of the permitted length of a tweet from 140 to 280 characters, Sharro said: "I think 280 characters is really awful. Seriously, the greatest thing about Twitter is learning to express yourself in a very short medium. If anything, they should have introduced 'Twitter extreme' with only 70 characters!"

                                                               Karl Sharro   Photo credit James Berry 

Sharro's book is divided into 10 sections, such as Geography for Dummies, War and Peace, Extremism: A Study and Democracy for Realists, and ending with a selection of his Bar Jokes. His best-known bar joke is probably the one about Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian diva: Umm Kulthum walks into a bar. Walks into a bar. Walks into a bar. Walks into a baaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. On Fairouz, the famous Lebanese singer, we have Fairouz walks into a bar. The moon caresses the olive tree."

Sharro often lampoons Western journalists and analysts: in fact the full Tweet from which the title of his book is taken is "And Then God Created the Middle East and said 'Let There be Breaking News and Analysis'." The final two words had to be dropped from the title for reasons of space.

One tweet runs: “A telling Western phrase about the Middle East is ‘borders were drawn without regard to ethnicity’, as if it’s a bad thing. I mean, if they had divided states by ethnicity, my grandmother’s old neighbourhood in Baghdad would have been four different countries.” Also,"I'm deeply grateful to Westerners who, despite being in the midst of a historic crisis of their own, still take the time to lecture us."

Tweets in the "Geography for Dummies" section include: “People often ask me ‘where is the Middle East?’ It’s the area between Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Turkey and the British Museum." The "Sykes and Picot Go Out for a Pizza" diagram shows a pizza hacked into a crude jigsaw with the characteristic straight lines of imperial borders.

The book would have been incomplete without Sharro's classic "Simple One-Sentence Explanation for What Caused ISIS" - which extends over two pages. In 2006 his video of the endlessly convoluted sentence went viral and had 1.6 million views on Facebook alone. He recently posted on YouTube this new video of the "Simple One-Sentence ..." recorded on the banks of the River Thames:

"You want the Simple One-Sentence Explanation for What Caused ISIS? Here goes...." 

Western journalists covering the Middle East may well identify with the following tweet: “We Arabs are like, ‘You can’t report on Arab countries without learning Arabic.” Learns Arabic. ‘Why do you know Arabic? You must be a spy'.”

Sharro's satirical eye often focuses on Arab politics. "After the Arab awakening comes the Arab siesta", "An Arab dictator is like a matryoshka doll in reverse, Every time you remove one, you get a bigger one" and "Many people are asking me why I'm not commenting on the Arab Summit. Not into them anymore, I preferred their early work." The section on "Extremism: A Study" pokes fun at ISIS, through tweets such as "I personally don't think we should worry about ISIS. Launching a magazine was a fatal mistake. It will bankrupt them within years" "I love statistics like 'bees have killed more people than ISIS'. True, but bees aren't a death cult" and "How many ISIS jihadis does it take to change a lightbulb? ... What's wrong with eternal darkness?" 

The pages of Sharro's book are liberally sprinkled with diagrams. His endearing Phoenician characters Abdeshmun and Hanno appear in two cartoon strips  - "The Phoenicians Invent Speech Bubbles" and "The Phoenicians Invent Polytheism".

  The Phoenicians Invent Speech Bubbles © Karl Sharro

He uses maps to make powerful points. The "Map of Western Invasions of the Middle East vs The Other Way Round" shows numerous coloured arrows pointing from Europe and America towards the Middle East and North Africa - contrasted with a few arrows the other way round. The maps in "Six New Ways to Divide the Middle East and North Africa" use different colours to divide the region in terms of eg "Jeans / Traditional" "Olive oil / Oil" "Kings / Generals / Other", reminiscent in style of maps of the Middle East in Western publications.

Western Invasions of the Middle East vs The Other Way Round
© Karl Sharro

Q&As with Karl Sharro

Karl Sharro was born in Zahle, Lebanon, in 1971 to a Lebanese father and Iraqi mother, and is from a Syriac Christian background.  According to his blogpost "I Wrote My Own Wikipedia Biography" while at school he used to pass short funny messages to his schoolmates, “acquiring a skill that would be useful later in life on Twitter.” He moved in 2002 from Beirut to London, where he still lives and works as an architect.

In addition to his blog posts and tweets, Sharro's work has been featured in many print and online publications, from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian and POLITICO, as well as on broadcast media such as the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Channel 4.  He sometimes gives lectures and TedX Talks. Earlier this year he presented the BBC radio documentary "Skiing Mount Lebanon."

The book's design is very appealing. Did you always envisage a small format book that could be slipped into a pocket (and that could make a good, affordable present), and how was the colour scheme decided? 

Sharro: Yes, the idea from the beginning was for a small format book which would be practical and affordable. I am grateful to Saqi’s team for the great work on the design. It was particularly challenging to get all of the title on the cover and I think it looks brilliant. My own colour scheme is red, so the blue was a change, but we wanted a nod to Twitter.

Did you think of including some of your blog posts and articles in the book, in addition to the tweets?

Sharro: In the beginning I considered including some of the blog posts but ultimately they didn’t fit the format of the book and its small size. I also considered adding one or two of my Lebanese recipes as a bonus but that didn’t make it in the book either. However, I will offer to send the recipes to anyone who buys the book. Perhaps there will be another book in the future which will include the blog posts.

Many of your fans first got to know your satire and analysis through your blog as well as Twitter. You made a peak of 106 blogposts in 2013. But by 2017, the number had dwindled to just one post – on the first anniversary of the EU Referendum – and so far this year to zero. After initially embracing the blog form, why have you abandoned it so decisively? After all, you do still write longer pieces for a variety of media outlets and you contributed a substantial piece "The Joys of Applying for a US Visa" to the book Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic (Saqi).

Sharro: I decided in 2016 to stop writing on the blog, and the few posts written after that were one-offs. I had gotten to the point where the blog wasn’t receiving the same number of readers and the same level of interest. I think it was a combination of blogs suffering overall - I blame podcasts - and my writing becoming a bit repetitive. There were two factors that led to my decision. Firstly, it was getting harder to sustain the energy for writing so frequently - I have only my lunch break to write in - and after years it was exhausting. Secondly, I was considering other formats. I was doing a pilot for a TV show at the time and was thinking of other ways of doing satire. Two years later, I am still thinking.

The launch of your book at The Book Club in Shoreditch, East London, at which you were in conversation with Dr Zahera Harb, went down very well with the audience. You are due to appear at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in London on 4 October. Are other events in the offing?

Sharro: I am planning one other event so far, at Oxford University’s Middle East Centre in November, but hopefully there will be others.

Which humorists in the UK, US or elsewhere do you particularly rate, and perhaps see as influences?

Sharro: I think my first comedic influence was Woody Allen, particularly in his writing and stand-up comedy. I learned a lot from that. Technically I think Stewart Lee is one of the best, and I love Jack Dee’s early work in particular. Jerry Sadowitz is another influence, his comedy work was amazing for me. And in terms of style, I’ve always liked Mark Steel. I will probably be criticised for not including any women on this list. And the eternal wit of Dorothy Parker.

CNN interview with Karl Sharro shows  his "Diagram of Political Relationships in the Middle East" - one of the illustration in And Then God Created the Middle East and Said 'Let There be Breaking News' 

These days we often hear about the rise of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim comedy  in the UK and elsewhere.  Do you feel comfortable with such categorisations?

Sharro: A lot of my stuff is about the Arab angle, so that I don’t mind so much but I find it strange when it goes into religion, partially because in Lebanon this is just not done. It would be very strange for someone to describe themselves as a Muslim comedian or Christian comedian there. But ultimately I don’t want to be known just for that, if I ever decide to take up comedy I wouldn’t want to be known as the Arab comedian. My ideal stand-up routine is actually about the etiquette of space travel, nothing to do with the Middle East.

Your first stand-up performance, at Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, seems to have given you a taste for stand-up. Are you planning further performances?

Sharro: I enjoyed that a lot, although people thought I was crazy to do a 45 minute routine for my standup debut. I should do more, particularly that I took the trouble to memorise the routine, but I haven’t yet decided on the venue and the timing.

Given the variety of comedy genres in which you have been involved, what lies ahead for Karl reMarks?

Sharro:  I have for a few years been  thinking of doing podcasts or vlogging, but I seem to never find the energy or the time. Perhaps after my children grow up -  if the Middle East is still in the news by then.

report and interview by Susannah Tarbush

a clip from Karl Sharro's stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2017

Thursday, July 12, 2018

review of Rana Haddad's novel 'The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor'

English version of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat newspaper on 12 July 2018.

Rana Haddad tells a Syrian love story in English

The Syrian-British writer and journalist Rana Haddad has worked widely in print media and TV as a researcher, editor, producer, and translator. At the same time, she writes poetry, and fiction. An illustrated book of her poems, The Boy Moon: Lost Love Poems Found in an Envelope, appeared in 2008.

Now her debut novel, The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, has been published by Hoopoe – an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press As in her poetry book, the moon is a recurring symbol in Haddad’s novel.

Haddad has a degree in English literature from Cambridge University in the UK. She told Al-Hayat:“ I tried to write fiction in my twenties but it was impossible for me then, it always turned out too poetic. I needed to learn to become more practical. Journalism, and especially working in television I think helped me with that, especially the structure aspect of fiction over such a long canvas.” (See the interview with Rana Haddad on this blog).

Dunya Noor, the heroine of Haddad’s novel, grows up in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia in the 1980s. She is the daughter of Syria’s most famous heart surgeon Dr Joseph Noor and his glamorous blonde English wife Patricia.

Haddad herself grew up in Latakia, daughter of a Syrian father, and a Dutch-Armenian mother. She left Syria at the age of fifteen and has lived since then mainly in London, but also in Paris, Madrid and, for a short time, Beirut. She says the plot of her novel is “very much a fiction, but the settings and impressions are all mine. This is the Syria I lived in as a child and teenager and later visited over the years.”

She dedicates her novel to Syria and its children and also to her father Marwan, “whose love for his country was deep and unbreakable.”

The novel brings 1980s and 1990s Syria vividly to life. Haddad writes with candour and humour and, through satire shows the pressures and restrictions facing people living under a repressive regime.

Though the novel is set in a system that curbs freedom, Haddad’s writing is full of light and is rich in poetry, songs, music, and engaging depictions of characters and places. Haddad wrote almost all the poetry in the book. An exception is a song made famous by Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez, “The Coffee Cup Reader”, the words of which Haddad translates. In the novel, a female fortune teller who reads coffee grounds plays a crucial part in the plot.

Dunya is a unique creation. Her father is well connected in the upper echelons of Syrian society, and the family lives in luxury. But Dunya does not comply with what is expected of a girl of her age and class. She has inherited her father’s mop of curly black hair rather than her mother’s blonde locks. She shows much independence of spirit and is endlessly curious about the mysteries she perceives around her.

When Dunya first falls in love, at the age of eight, the object of her love is an old-fashioned camera which she buys from a shop. The old shopkeeper tells her it “a box of light, a machine that can see. If you buy it I promise to teach you its secrets.” As an adult, Dunya becomes an art photographer whose work is shown at exhibitions. References to light and photography occur throughout Haddad’s novel.

Dunya is very interested in love, a subject she researches. Her parents are shocked when they learn from gossip that she has been seen hand in hand with a fisherman’s son who refers to her as his fiancée. Dunya discovered that real love was love at first sight, which “was produced when twin souls happened to look into each other’s eyes”, but in her relationship with the fisherman’s son she had done nothing but cause a scandal.

The concept of twins is entwined with the novel’s intricate plot. There are echoes of Shakespeare plays featuring twins and mistaken identities, such as The Comedy of Errors – which has two pairs of male twins - or Twelfth Night with its male and female twins Sebastian and Viola. Viola disguises herself as her brother by wearing men’s clothes.

At the age of thirteen, Dunya gets into serious political trouble after a woman school instructor in Youth Military Education orders the pupils to take part in a political demonstration. Dunya refuses to take part, and then refuses to apologise for her absence. Nor does she accept the punishment of crawling like a caterpillar along the cement playground.

Dunya’s defiance enrages the instructor Miss Huda, “a twenty-two-year-old despot with scary contacts in the Baath Party and extra-black kohl that she used to enhance her terror-inducing eyes”. When the instructor asks “is this because you are against the Baath Party?” Dunya nods her head. Miss Huda says “Yes? Did you say yes? Say it, say it to my face, say the word! Are you against our great Baath Party?” Dunya replies “Yes”.

Miss Huda rushes to the local headquarters of the Baath Party to inform them of Dunya’s grave offence. Patricia, realising the danger her daughter is in, rushes her to the airport and flies with her to the safety of her grandparents in England. Dunya’s parents decide it is safer for Dunya to stay in England, “for how could anyone be sure she would not open her mouth and tell the truth again?”

But despite being “50 percent English” Dunya finds it hard to adapt to life in England and is critical of English society. English teenagers appear to be fixated on sex, but never mention love. She had left her heart in Syria, but it would be ten years before she would see the country again.

One day Dunya sees and photographs a handsome young man sitting on a bench in London reading a book with the Arabic title “Biography of the Moon”. The pair are instantly attracted to each other: “Love came to them like lightning, the way they’d both heard it sometimes did.”

Hilal is a brilliant student, winner of the Aleppo University Physics Prize physics, which included a full postgraduate grant to study in London. He is studying the moon. His parents are tailors, his father Said a Sunni and his mother Suad an Alawite. Originally from southern Syria, they had fled to Aleppo from their families when they got married. But they remain unhappy. “The source of his parents’ unhappiness became more and more of a mystery to Hilal as the years went by.”

 Dunya secretly starts living with Hilal, without the knowledge of his or her parents. When Hilal does not hear from his parents for six months, and then receives a letter from his mother saying his father had died, he returns to Syria with Dunya.

Dunya’s father Dr Noor, a Christian, is furious that his daughter is in love with a Muslim from a humble family of tailors in Aleppo. He orders him to leave Latakia for Aleppo and to never have anything to do with Dunya again. Dunya tells her mother she will never give Hilal up. But the next day she finds he has vanished from the hotel where he was staying in in Latakia. The hotel [male] receptionist say he was taken away by two men in a Mercedes with darkened windows. To Dunya it is clear he has been abducted by Baath Party members or the mukhabarat.

Dunya travels to Aleppo in search of Hilal and sees in the street a young man who looks just like him. She follows him to an all-men’s café and finds he is a hakawati named Najim. He plays the oud, performs songs and engages in repartee with the customers. When he invites Dunya to his home, and he tears off his moustache and men’s clothes and reveals himself as a stunningly beautiful girl, Suha, a baker’s daughter.

Dunya is dazzled by Suha, and her rapturous infatuation with her overshadows even the memory of her beloved Hilal. Suha tries to helps her Dunya find Hilal, and gradually the mysteries within The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor are revealed.
Susannah Tarbush, London