Wednesday, May 06, 2015

debut novel inspired by the Arab Spring wins IPAF for Tunisian writer Shukri Mabkhout

The Italian by Tunisian author Shukri Mabkhout wins 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 

statement issued by IPAF:
The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout was tonight announced as the winner of the eighth International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The novel,  published by Dar Tanweer Tunis, was named winner by this year’s Chair of Judges, award-winning Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouti, at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi. In addition to winning $50,000 - plus the $10,000 that goes to each shortlisted writer - Shukri Mabkhout is guaranteed an English translation of his novel, as well as an expected increase in book sales and international recognition. The announcement took place on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The Prize is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi).

Shukri Mabkhout

Set in Tunis, The Italian tells the story of Abdel Nasser, nicknamed ‘the Italian’ due to his good looks. Against the backdrop of the protagonist’s political and amatory exploits, the book sheds light on Tunisia’s recent complex history, in particular the troubled transition from the Bourguiba era to the government of Ben Ali in the late 1980s.

In a recent interview, Mabkhout told how he was inspired to write the novel by the events of the Arab Spring: ‘Two years into the revolution... I remembered a recent period of Tunisia’s history that is similar in its fears, changes and conflicts to what I was witnessing and living: it was the period of transition from the reign of Bourguiba to that of Ben Ali following the 1987 coup.’

Mabkhout, who has just turned 53, was born in Tunis in 1962 and currently resides there, where he is President of Manouba University. A well-known academic and intellectual, he has written several works of literary criticism, but this is his first novel. The Italian was selected as the best work of fiction published within the last 12 months, selected from 180 entries from 15 countries across the Arab World.

Mourid Barghouti (credit Peter Everard Smith)

On behalf of the 2015 judging panel, Mourid Barghouti comments: ‘The whole of Shukri Mabkhout's debut novel is as astonishing as its first chapter: piquing the reader’s interest through a mysterious event in the opening scene, the book gradually reveals the troubled history of its characters and a particular period in Tunisia’s history. The hero, Abdel Nasser, is complex and multi-faceted and even the minor characters are convincing and we believe the logic of their actions. However, his most striking creation is that of Zina, Abdel Nasser’s wife: skilfully rendered as a blend of confidence and diffidence; harshness and love; strength and fragility. She is a highly individual character who, rather than being pre-conceived, clearly developed during the act of writing.

‘The novel brilliantly depicts the unrest both of the small world of its characters and the larger one of the nation, as well as exploring themes of personal desire, the establishment, violation and opportunism. Whilst it lifts the lid on Tunisian society, the book may also surprise many of its Arab readers who may recognise aspects of their societies in its pages too. Gripping the read from the first line to the last, The Italian is a work of art and an important contribution to Tunisian, and Arab, literary fiction.’

The five other shortlisted finalists were also honoured at the ceremony, and each received  $10,000. The shortlisted titles were A Suspended Life (Al-Ahlia) by Palestinian Atef Abu Saif;  Floor 99 (Difaf Publications) by Jana ElHassan of Lebanon;  Diamonds and Women (Dar al-Adab) by Lina Hawyan Elhassan of Syria; Willow Alley (Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi) by Ahmed el-Madini of Morocco and The Longing of the Dervish (Dar al-Ain) by Hammour Ziada of Sudan.

The shortlist was announced by the judging panel in February at a press conference at the Royal Mansour Hotel, Casablanca, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture of Morocco and the Casablanca International Book Fair.  In addition to Mourid Barghouti, the judges were Ayman A. El-Desouky, an Egyptian academic, lecturer on Modern Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS; Parween Habib, a poet, critic, and media expert; Najim A. Kadhim, an Iraqi critic and academic, Professor of Comparative Literature at Baghdad University; and Kaoru Yamamoto, a Japanese academic, translator and researcher.

Yasir Suleiman

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of IPAF Trustees, comments: ‘The Italian is an accomplished novel. It never lets go of the reader who willingly follows its intriguing characters on their converging and diverging journeys through a world full of incremental surprises. Set in Tunis in the second half of the twentieth century, the novel meanders in multiple directions to create a complex picture of a world that resonates in the present.

'Mabkhout is a master of suspense. He does so in standard Arabic that is full of vitality and pathos, thereby defying the unfair criticism that the Arabic language is a bookish and fossilised mode of expression at odds with the modern world. Mabkhout is not only a great narrator; he is also a master of an elevated language that breathes life into every word he pens.’

Delivering on its aim to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction, the Prize has guaranteed English translations for all of its winners - 2008- Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher (Egypt): 2009 - Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan (Egypt); 2010 - Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles by Abdo Khal (Saudi Arabia): 2011- The Arch and the Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari (Morocco) and The Doves' Necklace by Raja Alem (Saudi Arabia): 2012 - The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber (Lebanon): 2013 - The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (Kuwait): 2014 - Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq).

Since 2008, the winning and shortlisted IPAF books have been translated into over 20 languages. The 2014 winner, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, has secured English publication with Oneworld in the UK and Penguin Books in the US. It is set to be published in Autumn 2016. Saud Alsanousi’s 2013 winning entry The Bamboo Stalk (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) was published in the UK in April 2015 in English translation by Jonathan Wright. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Nigerian and South African writers dominate Caine Prize 2015 shortlist

Ten years after Nigerian author Segun Afolabi won the 2005 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story "Monday Morning", it was announced today that he is among the five writers shortlisted for this year's prize. The Prize is awarded for a short story of 3,000-10,000 words by an African writer published in English, whether in Africa or elsewhere.

The shortlist was announced by the chair of the Caine Prize judges, award-winning South African writer Zoë Wicomb, who described it as "an exciting crop of well-crafted stories." The winner of the £10,000 prize - now in its sixteenth year - will be announced at an award ceremony and dinner at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, on Monday 6 July. Each shortlisted candidate will receive a travel award and a prize of £500. 

Segun Afolabi ©Barney Jones

Afolabi is shortlisted for “The Folded Leaf” published by London-based Wasafiri magazine in 2014. Since winning the Caine Prize he has won further acclaim as a writer of both long and short fiction: his collection of short stories A Life Elsewherewas published in 2006 followed by the novel Goodbye Lucille in 2007.

Afolabi's fellow-Nigerian Elnathan John is shortlisted for “Flying” which appeared in 2014 in Per Contra, the international journal of the arts, literature and ideas, in 2014. John was first shortlisted for the Caine Prize in  2013, for “Bayan Layi".

Elnathan John

The strong record of Nigerian and South African writers in Caine Prize shortlists is maintained in the 2015, which includes two writers from each country. One of the South African writers is F. T. Kola, shortlisted for  “A Party for the Colonel” published by One Story magazine of Brooklyn, New York City in 2014.

F. T. Kola
The other South African, Masande Ntshanga, is shortlisted for “Space”, published in Twenty in 20 (Times Media, South Africa, 2014).

Masande Ntshanga ©Peg Skorpinski

The fifth shortlisted writer  is Namwali Serpell of Zambia, whose story “The Sack” was published in the anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara (Bloomsbury, London, 2014). Serpell was shortlisted for the Caine Pirze in 2010 for “Muzungu”.

Namwali Serpell

The judges for this year's Caine Prize are - in addition to the chair Zoë Wicomb - award-winning Indian novelist Neel Mukherjee; Zimbabwean novelist, short-story writer and 2004 Caine Prize winner Brian Chikwava; Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown Universit Cóilín Parsons, and Sudanese-British TV and radio journalist Zeinab Badawi.

Wicomb said:  "For all the variety of themes and approaches, the shortlist has in common a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics. Unforgettable characters, drawn with insight and humour, inhabit works ranging from classical story structures to a haunting, enigmatic narrative that challenges the conventions of the genre."

Wicomb added, "Understatement and the unspoken prevail: hints of an orphan’s identity bring poignant understanding of his world; the reader is slowly and expertly guided to awareness of a narrator’s blindness; there is delicate allusion to homosexual love; a disfigured human body is encountered in relation to adolescent escapades; a nameless wife’s insecurities barely mask her understanding of injustice; and, we are given a flash of insight into dark passions that rise out of a surreal resistance culture."

 "Above all, these stories speak of the pleasure of reading fiction. It will be no easy task to settle on a winner."
The stories will be published in New Internationalist’s Caine Prize 2015 Anthology in July and through co-publishers across Africa, who receive a print ready PDF free of charge from New Internationalist. Last year's anthology is entitled  The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014.

In April 2015, twelve writers from eight African countries convened in Ghana as part of the Caine Prize’s writers’ workshop. During the workshop, the writers were expected to write short stories for the 2015 Caine Prize anthology. During the 13 days of the workshop the writers wrote, read and discussed work in progress under the mentorship of Leila Aboulela, the Sudanese author who won the inaugural Caine Prize in 2000, and has since become an internationally renowned author, and South African novelist and journalist Zukiswa Wanner.

The Caine Prize for African Writing is named in celebration of the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc, who was Chairman of the 'Africa 95' arts festival in Europe and Africa in 1995 and for nearly 25 years Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee.  
Susannah Tarbush, London

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

29 April launch for Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi's novel The Bamboo Stalk in London

Tomorrow - on the second anniversary of young Kuwait writer Saud Alsanousi's winning the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)  (also known as the Arabic Booker) for his novel The Bamboo Stalk, - Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP ) publishes Jonathan Wright's English translation of the book.

To mark the publication of the translation, Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature and Waterstones Piccadilly - the flagship store of the Waterstones chain, and the largest bookstore in Europe - have jointly organised a launch at 6.30pm on Wednesday 29 April,

The venue is:
4th floor,
Waterstone's Piccadilly,
203/206 Piccadilly,
London W1J 9HD

Saud Alsanousi (courtesy BQFP)

The event is free, but those wishing to attend should reserve a seat by emailing 

At the launch Alsanousi will be in conversation with Dima Choukr, editor of Al-Araby Al-Jadeed's cultural supplement. Broadcaster Paul Blezard will introduce and read selections from the novel. There will also be a book-signing and a reception. Copies of the novel will be on sale. Jonathan Wright, winner of the 2013 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, will be a special guest at the event which is supported by BQFP and IPAF. 

The English translation of The Bamboo Stalk is reviewed in Banipal's current issue. In addition, this blog recently published an interview with Saud Alsanousi.

Daring and bold, The Bamboo Stalk confronts universal problems of identity, ethnicity and religion through its protagonist Kuwaiti-Filipino José, born to a Filipino mother and a Kuwaiti father whom he never met. In his late teens he travels from the Philippines to Kuwait and tries to get to know his Kuwaiti family.

Dr Rod Abouharb Labour candidate for Kensington: a profile

Parliamentary candidate Dr Rod Abouharb fights for Labour in London’s Kensington constituency
by Susannah Tarbush
[An Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 22 April 2015: ]

The campaign for the 7 May British general election began officially on 30 March, the day parliament was dissolved. But for Dr Rod Abouharb campaigning had begun in November 2013, after the Labour Party chose him as its parliamentary candidate in the London constituency of Kensington. By the end of March Dr Abouharb and his Labour team had knocked on over 30,000 doors in Kensington and had had conversations with more than 5,000 residents, in their “listening to Kensington” initiative. Now they are in the middle of the hectic final period of campaigning.

Abouharb, who is 40 this year, is the son of a Syrian father and English mother: his first name Rod is short for the Arabic “Rodwan”. He was born in Cardiff, capital of Wales, and spent the first five years of his life in Syria. He is a senior lecturer in International Relations at University College, London.

Kensington’s inhabitants include many voters of Arab and other Middle Eastern origin, ranging from the Moroccan community – located around Golborne Road in North Kensington –to wealthy Arab bankers and business people.

The constituency has extremes of wealth and poverty. Dr Abouharb points out that in some areas of deprived north Kensington men have a life expectancy of only 63 years; while in parts of the affluent south of the constituency it is 92 years. Abouharb is determined to promote fairness and equality and pledges that as an MP he will make sure the needs of vulnerable and less affluent Kensington residents are represented in parliament.

Kensington is generally regarded as a safe Conservative seat. In the 2010 general election, the former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind won the seat for the Conservatives by a majority of 8,616 votes. He got 17,595 votes, 50.1 per cent of the total, while Labour got 25.5 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 19.6 per cent.

However, these are unpredictable times in British politics. And the Kensington Labour Party points out that around a third of Labour supporters generally do not vote on election day. If every Labour supporter in Kensington were to vote on 7 May, and if there is also a swing towards Labour from the Liberal Democrats and some others, then it would be possible for Abouharb to win the Kensington seat

The 7 May election is taking place at a time when public trust in politicians and MPs is very low. And there is much criticism of the fact that an increasing number of MPs are “career politicians” who have spent all their working lives inside the “Westminster bubble” around parliament. They are felt by many voters to be out of touch with the issues facing ordinary people.

Abouharb told Al-Hayat that he decided to stand as a Labour candidate because he was frustrated with the way career politicians behave. “I got tired of yelling at the television, and of saying ‘well, I can’t do worse than any of this lot.’ I thought I had something to offer.”

He thinks there should be more candidates like him, “a normal person who actually has a career and is more than happy to buck the status quo and say what he thinks.” And he wants to change how decisions are made in the UK. “We must make choices based on evidence, not ideology, that improve the lives of hardworking families in all our communities.” 

Abouharb did his first degree in Politics and Modern History at Brunel University in London. He then won scholarships to attend two New York State universities in the USA: he did his MA in Political Science at University at Buffalo, and got his PhD in 2005 from Binghamton University.

While doing his first degree at Brunel he went to the US to work for Senator Spencer Abraham as part of an exchange internship programme. “He was the only Arab-American senator in the US Senate at that point,” Abouharb says. “He was actually a Republican, but the fascinating thing was that all the Arab issues –all the Palestinian, all the Israeli issues – came through his office.” At the time Abouharb was writing his undergraduate dissertation about finding a just solution for the city of Jerusalem. In his second year at Brunel he gained experience working for an MP when he did research for Gwilym Jones , a Conservative MP in Cardiff. “He was a Welsh Office minister at that point, and it was very interesting to see what was going on.”

Dr Abouharb visits a food bank

Abouharb’s expertise in international relations, and his concern for human rights and social justice, are reflected in his election campaign. He says: “Kensington’s diverse population is especially concerned with international issues. An equitable and just solution for Palestine is a lynchpin of broader peace in the Middle East. A Palestinian state based on the 1967 ceasefire lines would be an important first step.”

He told Al-Hayat that the UK government should to do more to help with the “very fluid and very complicated” situation in Syria. “The United Kingdom has a responsibility to protect civilians, as do all other governments, and I think there is much more we could do, not only by properly funding refugee camps and helping neighbouring countries cope with a huge influx of people but also by re-settling Syrians, in much higher numbers than we have done so far, here in the UK.”

In what Abouharb describes as the “shocking and heartrending” response of the UK government, so far only 143 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the UK – far behind the figure of 30,000 in Germany. Asked whether British airstrikes against ISIS should be extended from Iraq to Syria, he says “I think the options about whether we engage in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria should be done with our regional and international partners if there is a military need to do so.”

 Rod Abouharb with Labour politician Rachel Reeves, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary

When Abouharb applied to be considered as a Labour Party candidate, he had been a member of the party for just over the one year that is necessary to qualify to apply. After he applied he was shortlisted for several constituencies; hewas  chosen for Kensington after being interviewed against two other shortlisted candidates.

Why does he think Kensington selected him? “One of the things that got reported back to me was my willingness to tell them the things I disagreed with in terms of Labour Party policy,” Abouharb says. “I listed quite a few.” He and the Kensington Labour Party currently disagree with Labour’s policy of introducing a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £2 million. The money raised would go the National Health Service (NHS).

Recent years have seen an explosion in house prices in London, particularly in Kensington. In a recent column for getwestlondon, Abouharb warned that Kensington was becoming an "elephant's graveyard" of ovepriced overseas-owned homes. He said that during their doorstep encounters with thousands of Kensington residents, he and his campaign team had found residents' greatest concern to be housing. He noted that "6,000 homes are owned by companies registered in tax havens. They do not contribute to our communities, use our shops and restaurants, or pay tax." He told Al-Hayat: "We would make sure that those on modest incomes, those on the 20 per cent tax threshold, do not pay this high value property tax. We would rather see a property tax that includes many more bands so those with high value properties pay progressively more.”

Until recently, Sir Malcolm Rifkind had been due to stand again in Kensington as the Conservative candidate. But on 24 February he resigned as chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, and withdrew as the Kensington candidate. This was after he was secretly filmed by Channel 4 TV and the Telegraph newspaper offering a bogus Chinese company personal introductions to his high-level contacts, such as ambassadors, in return for a fee of £5,000 to £8,000 for half a day’s work. The affair became known as the “cash for access” scandal. Rifkind claimed he had done nothing wrong although he admitted making an “error of judgement”.

Rod Abouharb with Kensington Labour Party colleagues 

There was anger that Sir Malcolm told the supposed representatives of the bogus Chinese company that he was “self-employed” and that no one paid him a salary – when in fact taxpayers were paying him the MP’s salary of £67,060 Sterling a year, plus a further £14,876 as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Rifkind also told the fake company representatives: “you would be surprised how much free time I have”, and that he spent a lot of time reading and walking.

Even before the “cash for access” scandal Abouharb had attacked Rifkind over his private business interests. “Ever since I’ve been a candidate we’ve been talking about Rifkind’s multiple jobs and how much money he was bringing in with these non-executive directorships,” he told Al-Hayat. “It was clear that his office was a money-making scheme.”

 Abouharb wrote on his blog that Rifkind admitted to earning around £262,000 a year in non-executive directorships and consultancies and was spending a “vast amount of time on non-executive directorships”. Abouharb added: “Many believe this is a clear conflict of interests, particularly on issues of security and healthcare, and detracts from his responsibilities as an MP.” He described Rifkind as “the invisible MP".

After Rifkind’s withdrawal as Kensington’s Conservative candidate he was replaced by Lady Victoria Borwick, who was deputy mayor of London Mayor Boris Johnson. If she is elected as an MP she intends to remain a member of the Greater London Authority, with a salary of £53,439 a year in addition to her MP’s salary.

Abouharb is sharply critical of her decision to stay as a member of the Greater London Authority even if elected as an MP. He says the residents of Kensington “deserve a full-time dedicated MP who has only one job.” He has arranged with University College to take unpaid leave from his job if elected, “so that I can act as a full time representative for all the residents of Kensington .“ And he has promised not to take any paid company directorships. He pledges: “I will be a visible and accessible MP with a full-time staffed office in Kensington.” And he will hold regular surgeries across the constituency.

Abouharb’s parents met in northern England in the mid-1960s when his father was doing his PhD in civil engineering at the University of Manchester and his mother was doing a degree at Nursing School. His father then taught at Birmingham’s Aston University for a time before the couple went to live in Syria. Abouharb’s mother was one of very few British people living in Damascus at that time.

After Abouharb was born in Cardiff in 1975 his mother flew with him back to Damascus when he was six weeks old. “Apparently I ended up going first class because the stewardesses liked me so much ,” Abouharb says. He remembers going to nursery school in Syria, and speaking Arabic and French as well as English. But his parents got divorced and in 1981 his mother returned to Cardiff with Rod and his brother.

While the two boys were growing up, their mother often cooked favourite dishes from Syria. “We would spend time making tabouleh from scratch, hummous, babba ghanough, and lots of lamb dishes with garlic, and Kufta kababs. We would find shops that sold Arab pastries and sweets; I remember a particular Persian supermarket in Cardiff had a wonderful selection."

Abouharb’s father died in Syria around 18 months ago.“We’d actually been trying to get him out of Damascus, but it was effectively impossible when the embassies closed”.

Abouharb describes himself as coming from "a modest background” and says “my mother worked hard as a nurse to excel in her career, put food on our table and create a warm and supportive family environment.” He believes that this background gives him “a keen understanding of the challenges faced each day by individuals and families in this country, and this really helps me to understand and to represent our diverse and mixed communities in Kensington.”

Many voters are extremely concerned by the deteriorating state of the National Health Service (NHS) after five years of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. He pledges that if he is elected as an MP “I will campaign to prevent the backdoor privatisation of the NHS.”

Abouharb’s passion for supporting the NHS is at least partly due to the fact that many members of his family have worked in it. “My mum was an orthopaedic nurse, my uncle on my mum’s side was a geneticist, my brother and sister-in-law are both general practitioner doctors working in Essex,” he says. In addition, “On my father’s side of the family I have two uncles living in Vienna who are also both general practitioners.”

He says: “I very much had a first-hand experience of the NHS growing up with both my mum and uncle working in the local Heath hospital in Cardiff. I could see the importance of both what my mum and uncle did in helping many people especially babies.” He says the NHS is an amazing institution which provides wonderful care for so many people. “We do, however, need to fund it properly and that is critical as our population ages, and new and expensive drugs that improve the well being of patients become available.” He thinks there is money to fund the NHS long-term, for example in the form of the many tens of billions of pounds in avoided, evaded and uncollected tax.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

interview with Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi on publication of The Bamboo Stalk in English

On 23 April, the second anniversary of Kuwait writer Saud Alsanousi's winning of the  International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)  (also known as the Arabic Booker) for his novel The Bamboo Stalk Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP ) will publish Jonathan Wright's English translation. The novel's first-person narrator José is the son of a Filipina housemaid Josephine and a Kuwaiti journalist and writer Rashid, in whose mother's house she worked. Through this prism Alsanousi explores issues related not only to Kuwait, the Philippines and the predicament of immigrant labour, but more widely to questions of identity and the predicament of the "other". 

To mark publication of the English translation, Susannah Tarbush interviewed Saud Alsanousi.

It is now two years since you won IPAF for The Bamboo Stalk. Is it possible to summarise the difference that the prize has made to your life, as a writer or otherwise?

A lot has changed and here I am still reaping the benefits of the prize despite it having been two years since it was awarded to The Bamboo Stalk. My new novel Mama Hissa’s Mice was published a month ago and it immediately sold out in bookshops despite the censors issuing an order to remove and have it reassessed because of the sensitive topic it deals with. Despite this, the novel has been reprinted more than once within a month, and this couldn’t have happened without the trust of readers who encountered The Bamboo Stalk after the award was announced. The award was overwhelming at the start, but I soon overcame its effect and was able to return to writing about what occupies my mind and what I want to say – the way I want to say it – without becoming preoccupied with awards.

Saud Alsanousi (courtesy BQFP)

The English translation of The Bamboo Stalk is about to be published by BQFP. It would be interesting to know something about the process of translating the book from your perspective.

When I found out the translation of my novel had been assigned to British translator Jonathan Wright, I knew he would work very hard on it as I had been following his career in translation. We kept in touch via email and phone calls and he surprised me with questions that seemed unrelated to the text, but I soon understood his motive behind them, which is his keenness to establish a balance between the Arabic text and the discernment of the Western reader.

Jonathan doesn’t translate the words literally, stripping them of much of their meaning, instead he delves into the details and asks many questions to understand what is behind each word. So much so that I felt he was my partner in writing the story at times. I gave Jonathan complete freedom in changing some sentences as he saw fit without changing the main ideas. I imagine Jonathan’s efforts doubled so that he was acting as editor for some of the chapters as well as translator.

The English translation means that The Bamboo Stalk will reach a whole new readership. Presumably it means that many of the immigrant communities in Kuwait and elsewhere, and especially the Filipinos, will read it for the first time. Are you pleased about this? Could you say something about any launches that may be planned in addition to the event due to be held in London at Waterstones Piccadilly by BQFP and Banipal magazine on 29th April?

Of course it matters a great deal to me for the book to be widely read. However, setting aside the Kuwaiti-Filipino question, which is the subject of The Bamboo Stalk, I feel it’s much bigger than that. What I am presenting primarily is a question of identity. The problem of migrant workers is not the main idea although it is present in the story. The motivation behind the novel is the notion of accepting “the other” despite all the differences. It’s true that I wrote the novel on a character whose identity is fragmented between Kuwait and the Philippines, but this is a universal concern that touches upon the problem of the Mexican in the US or the Iraqi in Sweden. For this reason I don’t think about the Filipino in Kuwait specifically. The novel has been published in Kuwait, the Gulf and the Arab world, but I don’t have the slightest idea how it will be received by the English reader, although I do hope that it achieves similar resonance. I haven’t yet received invitations to events outside of the Arab world except for a literary festival in Berlin and one in Amsterdam. I believe the English translation will open new doors for me.

Saud Alsanousi at the IPAF awards ceremony © International Prize for Arabic Fiction

The Bamboo Stalk deals with sensitive subject matter, in both Kuwait and the Philippines. It was highly praised, but was there also any criticism in Kuwait or elsewhere over your portrayal of Kuwait or Philippine society?

There hasn’t been any criticism or praise for the novel from the Philippines because it hasn’t yet been published in English. A few Filipino friends of mine who I met during my stay in the Philippines have read the English draft and were more responsive to the Kuwaiti part of the story because they are looking for something new. Conversely, the Kuwaiti or Arabic readers were welcoming of the Filipino part as it described a different life and culture. In Kuwait, people were divided: some disapproved of the religious questions, criticism of the police and the addressing of the Bidoon problem (nonspecific citizenships). Some thought I painted a negative picture of my country, especially after winning IPAF in 2013. However, the first prize the novel won was the National Prize in 2012, which is the most prestigious literary award in Kuwait, and I consider this an implicit recognition of the issues addressed in the story concerning some of the ideas and behaviours in my country.

What I aspire to primarily and have mentioned in many book clubs, is for my novel to influence a positive outcome. I believe The Bamboo Stalk has achieved this in changing the way we view “the other”. We barely know anything about Filipino workers aside from their being employees in restaurants and cafés. It’s for this reason that we don’t empathise with others’ pain; they are like robots to us. However, when the reader encounters in the first half of the story a nation that deals with poverty and one that has a rich culture and magnificent history we know little about, that perception begins to change completely. I’ve heard a number of stories about housewives who have changed the way they treat maids after reading the novel. I feel I am accomplishing a large part of what I’ve dreamt about when a woman told me: “I bought two smartphones, one for the maid and the other for her family in the Philippines so they can contact each other on Skype. Thank you for making me see”. I feel completely content even if I only wrote my novel for this one woman. All the voices that disapproved of the novel at the beginning have disappeared, and those who were affected by the novel continue to support it.

Arabic original of The Bamboo Stalk

The novel is full of characters and interlocking stories and one imagines it would make a good adaptation for TV, film, radio or stage. Has there been discussion of such a possibility?

I received a number of offers for TV and feature film adaptations. However, I am hesitant about commercial projects and I always give the condition of being involved in the project for fear of it getting away from its main purpose. I’ve recently signed an initial contract with an important production company that is keen to produce the work and I stipulated the condition of overseeing the screenplay writing process.

There are female domestic workers from various countries in Kuwait. What led you to choose the Philippines rather than another country?

This is an important question. At the beginning I intended for the maid to be from India, for a number of reasons: Indian workers are in high numbers in Kuwait; it’s actually one of the first countries from which Kuwait imported workers; there is a long history between Kuwait and India in trade that stretches before the oil discovery; and I have always been fascinated by the Indian character, its cultural diversity and rich history. However, the plan changed because if Rashid al-Tarouf had a son with an Indian maid, the son wouldn’t look strikingly different from Kuwaitis. Only the Asian features would have enabled me to portray the idea behind the novel, because José Mendoza’s appearance is part of his struggle; people and the family do not accept him because he looks different. This is illustrated in the passage where José is at the airport in Kuwait and is scolded by a passport officer for not standing in the workers’ queue: “He turned me away when he saw my face, even before he had a chance to see my passport.”

The novel seems to include a plea for religious tolerance and diversity, and a kind of universality. José is spiritually open, and is drawn to Christian, Muslim and Buddhist religious buildings and to meditation in natural surroundings. Some of his Kuwaiti friends - the high-spirited “crazies” whom he first met when they were holidaying in the Philippines - are Shiite, some Sunni, and he notices the different ways they pray alongside each other. Was a message of tolerance something you wanted to get across?

The message is very clear. All believers agree, in one way or another, on a god. All religions, in essence, advocate peace, positive behaviour and refraining from sin. Yet we’ve taken to being distracted from our religion in order to scrutinise others, and gave ourselves the right to determine who is to go to heaven and hell. José, despite his simplicity and young age, understood the essence of religion through his experience when he arrived at a truth he believes in after visiting a church, Buddhist temple and mosque: “In my right ear I heard the call to prayer, in my left ear the ringing of church bells. The smell of incense from the Buddhist temples hit my nostrils.” He referred to his heartbeat and said: “I knew that God was there.” He read about different religions and grew fond of them, yet he almost turned away because of people’s behaviour. Finally arriving at the conclusion that “Religions are bigger than their adherents.” Thus recognising that the basis of religion is one’s relationship with his/her god.

For many readers the novel will be their first ever encounter with fiction set in Kuwait or the Philippines. Do you think literature can tell us more than, say, a sociological study? 

I don’t think it’s about which can tell us more, but rather which is more expressive and which can evoke closeness, empathy and enjoyment in the reader. Literature provides these opportunities for readers in the interaction it offers them with characters and events. Specialists can write reports full of numbers and facts, but literature, and only literature, delves deep and gives you a human experience. It touches upon emotion and logic together and makes you think, cry, laugh or even regret. I believe this is something studies cannot achieve regardless of their significance.

While researching the Philippines angle, did you find much useful material via the internet and other sources or was a trip there absolutely essential? And  did you penetrate Philippine society in Kuwait?

Yes, I went through a lot of reference in books and searched the internet but felt that everything I wrote was cold and devoid of emotion. My early writing resembled – to a large extent – surveys and reports that I’ve published in newspapers and magazines. So I stopped researching, and because I didn’t have any Filipino friends, I made the important decision of travelling to the Philippines to experience it in real life. This provided me with a great opportunity to discover the country, the people, and a culture that is completely different to mine. I wouldn’t have been able to portray José Mendoza without living in a house that looked like his, walked the roads he walked, attended the funerals and weddings he attended, and grew close to those around him. Since my return to Kuwait, and as soon as I landed in the airport, I’ve seen things in a completely different way. I wasn’t Alsanousi at all. I was José and it was as if I was discovering Kuwait for the first time.

 translator Jonathan Wright

It is intriguing to read about Josephine’s meeting with the real life Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail, from whom she learns of Rashid’s role in the resistance, and his capture. Is Ismail Fahd Ismail's time in the Philippines, and his writing a study of the resistance, based in fact - and why did you decide to introduce him into the book?

 After the Iraqi invasion, Ismail Fahd Ismail travelled to the Philippines to write a novel about the occupation. He needed to get away temporarily in order to write with clarity. Because he felt an urgency in the topic, he chose geographical distance from Kuwait, and spent around six years in the Philippines so that he could write objectively.

Ismail’s presence in the story lends it an unsettling distance. He is the one who raises the questions in the reader of whether Josephine really did meet Ismail; whether or not the story is real; and whether Rashid is one of the characters featured in Ismail’s biographical writing whilst in the Philippines. This is why I introduced Ismail Fahd Ismail in the story, as well as for other reasons I will keep to myself. I think any novelist tries as much as possible to create characters that the reader genuinely believes to be real. This is what drove a number of readers to actually search for José. The Filipino embassy in Kuwait received many phone calls enquiring about Ibrahim Salam (José’s friend, the novels’ translator into Arabic who works in the embassy in the story), as well as Ismail Fahd Ismail and a number of other realistic characters and events that took place in Kuwait. All of which perplexed the readers and made some believe that what they are reading is a true story. To this day, I refuse to answer the question: is this a true story?
Saud Alsanousi with his prizewinning novel © International Prize for Arabic Fiction

You would have been very young at the time of the 1990/91 Iraqi invasion and war. Do you remember much from those times? Rashid and his friend Ghassan were both in the resistance, and the book is a reminder of a period that is perhaps remembered less – at least, outside Kuwait – than it should be. How are the invasion, occupation and war remembered now, and what was their lasting impact on society?

Yes, I was nine exactly when the invasion began. When my family reads what I write they say “you’ve been saved by your memory!” I have a great amount of visual memories and this is because I grew up in a family house or “the big house” as we call it in Kuwait, with my grandmother, my parents as well as sixteen uncles, aunts and their children. Imagine the number of personalities and stories I’ve encountered since birth. The big house is the main reason why I became a novelist; because of the diversity of characters, the fond memories I have with each person I lived with, and because of my grandmother’s stories and legends. As for the impact of war, it’s something we cannot overcome despite twenty five years having passed, but I think I have tried as much as I could and succeeded to a degree. Perhaps Mendoza, José’s grandfather, was right to an extent when he said “‘War isn’t just the fighting on the battlefield…but also the war that’s fought in the minds of those who take part. The first ends, the second goes on and on.” My next novel Mama Hissa’s Mice explores this idea in more depth.

Your first novel Prisoner of Mirrors won the Laila al-Othman Prize and was excerpted in the Fiction from Kuwait special feature in Banipal issue 47, in translation by Sophia Vasalou. Are there plans to translate the whole novel into English?

Prisoner of Mirrors was my first attempt at a novel. I have no plans for translating it. As with any first attempt, I imagine it has many shortcomings. Not to say that I regret the experience in any way, because it was a real education in helping me overcome writing obstacles that I would experience later on. I often look for the motivation behind any piece of writing, and in the case of Prisoner of Mirrors I wrote it because I wanted to write, which I don’t think is enough of a reason. I wrote The Bamboo Stalk because I felt pained by the image others hold of us and I wanted to raise readers’ awareness. In my last novel, I was motivated by fear of a bleak future that possibly awaits us if we continue being blinded by extreme religious and sectarian outlooks.

In 2011 your short story "The Bonsai and the Old Man" won a competition organized by Al-Arabi magazine and BBC Arabic. Do you continue to write short fiction?

I do hope to write short stories, or novellas, because I am haunted by many stories and characters that stretch over a vast period of time and for this reason I prefer writing novels. I hope to succeed one day in writing a story about a few characters on a specific topic, which is a very difficult task for me.

Please tell us about your recently-published new novel and how it relates to your previous two novels. Are there any plans to translate it?

In my new novel Mama Hissa’s Mice, Hissa is the grandmother in the story, the teller of myths and legends. In all her stories mice are a symbol of strife and ruin. I don’t think I can sum up the story in a few words; it took me two years and nine months to complete it. If I was to describe it generally, I would say it is set in Kuwait and spans over forty years, beginning with the Iranian Revolution, to the first Gulf War (Iraq and Iran), the second Gulf War (Iraq and Kuwait), the third Gulf War (the falling of Baghdad), concluding in a fictional period in the year 2020 following what is referred to as the Arab Spring.

It’s about three boys who are friends and neighbours, and tells of the social changes borne out of political shifts and the wars that take on a religious and sectarian character, even in neighbouring countries. It describes how these changes have a direct impact on our behaviour, our ways of thinking and the nature of our relationships with each other as Sunnis and Shiites. It’s a story of four generations: the empathetic grandmothers’ generation; their sons’ generation which is torn between Arabist slogans and blind sectarian affiliations; and the grandsons’ generation (ours), which is the most volatile and detached from its environment. The latter is a deformed generation, having been raised as Arabists but renounced their Arabism – or rather it renounced them - after the second Gulf War. This is the period during which the West, led by the US, became the saviour and we became more American than the Americans themselves. Finally, the fourth generation (the great grandsons), who live in a fictional time. I haven’t yet received any offer for translating the novel. It was published just a month ago.

You have a remarkable track record of recognition for your writing. When and how did you start writing, and how did you learn the craft? And, as a contributor to newspapers, how does your journalistic writing relate to your fiction; does it contribute to the clear and precise yet expressive and lyrical character of your fiction? Are you part of a Kuwaiti  “literary scene”?

At the beginning, I encountered difficulty in being accepted in the literary world of Kuwait because I did not belong to a certain literary or cultural group. I wasn’t a member of the Writers Association or any known or unknown initiative and I never took part in courses or workshops. Reading as well as travelling are what taught me to write as well as my natural inclination; I was very inquisitive from a young age and tended to stop to observe the things other people didn’t. It’s hard to determine how I became a novelist because I’ve written in private from a very young age. I wrote about how I feel towards others without telling them. I thanked, cursed or expressed my feelings towards them and my fear of losing them, especially my grandmother. All my feelings were on paper and I used to read a great deal, which was worrying to my parents at times when I would spend long hours in my room away from people. I then published some works on the internet and newspapers but to my parents writing seemed like a waste of time and they refused to give me an office to use for my books and reading. After it was announced that I had won the Laila al-Othman Prize my father said to my mother: “It’s fine for him to take over the office”. They realised that writing is a life-long project to me rather than a pastime. My journalistic writing does not affect my creative writing because most of my published work is literary. I also avoid publishing anything in the newspaper whilst working on a novel, which helps me balance the two.

How important is reading to you. Who do you read, and who are you reading at the moment?

Reading is everything to me. I can’t imagine myself without a book, to the extent where I take four or five books with me even on three-day trips, for fear of not enjoying one or having to extend my stay and not having enough to read. I can’t imagine anything that could give me the experiences books have alongside travelling. I recently read Kafka on the Shore by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Since finishing it, I never ceased cursing it – cursing it affectionately! – for the pleasant experience it has given me, both while reading and afterwards.

Do you still have a “day job” in addition to your writing career, or are you now a full-time writer? Do you think it can be helpful for a fiction writer to have a “day job” to keep in touch with day-to-day life? – as well as to bring in an income!

If the Arab writer left his/her job to write they would starve to death. I have my permanent job, as writing does not generate enough income in the Arab world due to the low readership compared to other countries, as well as the piracy problem and forged books that are sold in some Arab countries. My job doesn’t create an obstacle for me as it helps me organise my time. Besides, the work atmosphere exposes me to a lot of stories and people from different cultures, which I find my inspiration in.

What are you working on now in terms of writing?

I am working on some notes for the next project; writing down ideas and details of times and places, as well as character profiles. It’s still at a very early stage as I am currently engrossed in Mama Hissa’s Mice.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

ANTIBOOKCLUB "sold out print edition of Amir Tag Elsir's 'French Perfume' in less than a day"!

a cheeky statement from ANTIBOOKCLUB:
ANTIBOOKCLUB goes too far with latest novel...
Shut out by its own industry, ANTIBOOKCLUB rises above The book no one would review just sold out within twelve hours of launching pre-orders... Without any advance reviews, without any money for promotion, without crowdfunding, and without any bookstores even so much as sniffing in their general direction: ANTIBOOKCLUB sold out its print edition of Amir Tag Elsir's disturbing novel French Perfume (in its English-language debut) in less than a day.

"It has been our intention from the start," says publisher Gabriel Levinson, "to prove to the book world that there is a better way to make and sell books. Some view this as arrogance, and perhaps there is a bit, but when every element of the industry we are devoted to shuns us from the playground--all because we choose to operate on our own terms (self-distribution, a sporadic book release schedule, grassroots marketing)--a bit of arrogance might be called for so as not to feel the crush of the Frown from Those On High."

Levinson, who was interviewed by no one and is writing this himself, fondled his sweater for fifteen minutes before hitting 'Send.' He is curious if anyone in the press will read this, but he isn't terribly concerned either.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

a memorable evening in London celebrates Sinan Antoon's winning of Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize

report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

Every year the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature organises an event in London to celebrate the winner of the annual Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The event is timed to coincide with the presence of the winner in London to receive the £3,000 prize at the official ceremony for the awarding of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and other translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors.

Sinan Antoon (R)interviewed by Paul Blezard

This year's event was held at Waterstones Piccadilly - Europe's largest book store - on the evening of 24th February, the eve of the Society of Authors' awards ceremony. It had a unique flavour in that, for the first time in the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize's nine-year history, the winner - Iraqi-born writer, translator and academic Sinan Antoon - was awarded the prize for a translation of his own work, The Corpse Washer. The novel was originally published in Arabic in 2010, as Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman (The Pomegranate Tree Alone) by al-Mu'assasah al-Arabiyya lil-Dirasat of Beirut. Antoon's translation was published in 2013 by Yale University Press, within its Margellos World Republic of Letters series.

 Sinan Antoon
Antoon had travelled to London from the USA where he is an associate professor at the Gallatin School, New York University. He was interviewed at Waterstones as both author and translator, by broadcaster and writer Paul Blezard, one of the prize judges. The other three judges, present in the packed out audience at Waterstones, were literary translator and joint winner of the 2013 prize Jonathan Wright; translator and writer Lulu Norman, and Banipal editor and trustee Samuel Shimon.

Antoon proved an inspiring interviewee in his wide-ranging discussion with Paul Blezard, combining profundity with humour. The evening included a reception with wine and Arabic food, and the ambience was further enhanced by the soulful oud playing of Khyam Allami who was born in Damascus to Iraq parents in 1981. Allami performed an evocative solo as a prelude to the interview,  and his melodies softly accompanied Antoon's three readings from The Corpse Washer.

Khyam Allami
The audience was welcomed by Paul Starkey, chair of the Banipal Trust, who was until his retirement Professor of Arabic at Durham University. Starkey explained that the Banipal Trust oversees the operation of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in conjunction with the Society of Authors, and that the prize is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash and his family in memory of Omar's late father Saif Ghobash, " a diplomat and a man of internationalist leanings, passionate about literature, who died in 1977 while still in his forties."
Paul Starkey
Blezard noted that the list of 17 works entered for the 2014 prize had been very strong. "You should be rightfully proud, not only for yourself as a writer and translator but also proud of the novel you created: it is a hell of a work," he told Antoon.

Edited transcript of interview:

Paul Blezard: A review in Al-Akhbar says this is the first Arab novel to tackle the subject of washing and shrouding the dead. Can I ask you first what you set out to write? And why did you choose this difficult area?

Sinan Antoon: I was actually writing another novel about something else and I just came across a story in the New York Times and then in Al-Hayat about this man who was a corpse washer. He was born into this family, he was in his early 30s, he was making a lot of money because of all the death in Iraq, but he was traumatised and was planning to leave the country so that his son would not inherit the profession. As soon as I read this story I cried; it touched me on so many different levels. It’s a harrowing story but it seemed to me that that person is the one person who deals - in addition to people who work at the morgue of course - with the full impact of violence. But it touched me as a very powerful story and -although I usually ridicule these kind of statements - at that point I realised that that I'm going to write a novel about this person.

I was fascinated by this corpse washing: the story described some of the rituals and they sounded so poetic and beautiful and sad. I went to the library and got out all of these books of Shiite theology and started to read about the details, and it just fascinated me. And later, I realised that it also seemed to be the most perfect structure and theme to deal with so many issues that I and so many other Iraqis have been dealing with. What does it mean when a society disintegrates? What does it mean when there is so much massive violence on a daily basis that defies logic? And what saddens me also in reading the stories of the corpse washers is that they had to deal with new types of death that had not been described in the manuals.

Paul Blezard: you’d read this piece of journalism in the New York Times; were there other stories you could draw on?  

Sinan Antoon: there were a few interviews with corpse washers, primarily in Iraq, who were speaking to some of these issues: how they used to have one or two corpses in the past and now they’re having this flood of corpses, but also how they were dealing with the new, sadly evil, creativity of human beings who are now mutilating the bodies in a new way. There wasn’t that much in terms of details, which was good for me in that I could then invent and add a lot of material.

Paul Blezard: The Corpse Washer is a story about the washing of corpses, and the treating of respect of the dead, as a way of telling a much bigger picture, which is the picture of Baghdad, which is the picture of Iraq. These are big issues to deal with for any novelist: it’s a very slim volume dealing with a massive concept. How did you figure out what you could and couldn’t deal with through the eyes of the corpse washer – and his father of course, this is also a transgenerational story. 

Sinan Antoon: initially I was very excited, because this is a rich subject, and then I had this paranoia because I realised I’d left Baghdad in 199 and grew up in a Christian family. But then I realised that that’s the challenge of the artist, to write about other worlds and not only one’s own. I’ve been haunted, and still am, by the figure of working men and women who every day, everywhere, have to wake up and deal with life and don’t have the option of giving up, it’s a luxury. So that helped me, but it was helpful that Jawad the main character is of my own generation so I had lived some of what he lived. And  frankly - although I always say it raises my blood pressure and has given me an ulcer - I obsessively followed the news since I was a kid. Being away from Iraq, I tried to over-compensate by following the news way too much so that I don’t feel that I’ve lost touch.

Way too many novels in the Arab world deal with intellectuals and with the elite and I was more interested in a lower middle class, or even working class, person, and also to chart this secular space that existed once and that’s eroding, and also to deal with a very important subject which is how does a person who is secular - and there are many people like Jawad in Iraq and elsewhere - deal with increasing sectarianism and the rise of the politicisation of religion. How do they maintain their own sanity, and how do they not themselves become sectarian? So I don’t know if these issues helped me have a more compact approach into the character, and also I think what helped, looking back now, is that most of the thinking and the action takes place within this space of the mghaysil and the corpse washing. So the daily rituals themselves kind of impose a certain order that helped me.  

 Sinan Antoon reads from The Corpse Washer
Paul Blezard: There's a poetic metre and a cadence to the narrative of the story you tell. I’m interested by what you say about telling the story of a person out of the working classes, who in any conflict are the ones who really suffer and whose story is so rarely told. Which makes me want to ask this - which is a bit of a weird question perhaps - what responsibilities did you feel when you were writing this to those working class voices who are so rarely heard? And also as a Christian, or brought up as a Christian, writing about Shia and also about Sunni. 

Sinan Antoon: well that’s the challenge, and I cherish the challenge in a way. The challenge is always - whether it’s race or gender or ethnicity or class - how to get into that world and really live the personalities without exoticising them. So frankly that was my fear. In addition the neighbourhood where most of the events take place, Al- Kazimiyya , is a place that I’ve only been to a few times.  But then thanks to the digital world we live in... for example there in the shrine in Al-Kazimiyya there is a website that has an inside camera that shows you the inside of the shrine. And none of this goes into the novel, but it made me feel secure that I at least know the surroundings and all of that.

And I guess I’m lucky that I lived in a neighbourhood that used to be a middle-class suburb in the 1960s and 70s. In the 80s, because of the social changes in Iraq, it became a mixture of working class and middle class families. So the people I played football with when I was a kid and hung out with were from different classes. So working class background and cultural world is not alien to me. And maybe being a Marxist at heart helps as well.

Paul Blezard: Why? 

Sinan Antoon: this may sound ‘70s, but some things were good in the 70s. Having a sensitivity to material reality and, frankly, social injustice, and economic injustice. And that is one thing that's  inescapable in Iraq and the USA: how class over-determines much - not everything, but much - of one’s world and where one goes, what one imagines, what one can do and what one cannot do.

Paul Blezard: it’s one of the aspects of this book that I particularly enjoyed, the interconnectedness of society

Sinan Antoon: Now I come out as a communist!

Paul Blezard: the communist catholic 

Sinan Antoon: we have a communist pope now, so..!

Paul Blezard: I have this luxurious position that I can talk to you not only as the author but also as the translator. And it is quite an act, to translate your own work. Can you talk us through how you approached that? Did you just go in and think OK, well I can turn this into an English story, into a story told through English, or is it more complicated than that? 

Sinan Antoon: It’s all about being selfish, basically. Two reasons primarily. I was so invested in the characters and in the events, and so when I finished the novel in Arabic, as with most authors I felt this postpartum depression because now there was this void. And naturally I wanted it to be translated and I couldn’t trust anyone else to do the translation, not because I am the best translator but because all of the references to the Qur’an and to things in Iraq itself and in Baghdad and in the poetry and all of that, and having been trained in Arabic and Islamic studies I thought I would be the person.

But it was selfish in that I wanted in a kind of masochistic way to go back to that atmosphere of the novel and to those characters and live with them again, painful as it was. So initially it was just the inability to deal with the void that comes after finishing a book that is very heavy in its subject matter and that - I should have said this about your previous question - was one way for me  to process , or try to process, all of the news that was coming out of Iraq, and that is still coming out every day and is really harrowing for any human being, but particularly for people who are from that country . And the novel was one way of trying to make sense or nonsense of it and the translation is just another act, a repeat in a way.

Paul Blezard: How much time was there between your finishing the Arabic version and then starting on the English translation? 

Sinan Antoon: I started translating it about five months after I finished.

Paul Blezard: so not that big a gap. But isn’t there the urge to update the story? Because I know from my own writing, every time you look at a piece of writing you think “I could do better now”. We only write to the best of our ability at that time but you can’t walk into the same room twice.

Sinan Antoon: definitely. I say in the preface that works ... it’s about poems but I think it applies ... that works are never finished, they’re only abandoned.

Paul Blezard: or published! 

Sinan Antoon: actually it goes back to Ibn al-Muqaffa’, the pre-modern Persian Arab author, who had a great quote about how human beings are never content with the text that they finish. There were certain parts where going back and looking at the text now as a reader and as a translator parts here and there where I thought maybe I overdid it a little bit in terms of description or what not, but of course it’s very difficult and challenging because I couldn’t completely step out of the author and just be a detached reader. But I was surprised that I didn’t change much, and maybe that’s not a good thing, though there were a few sentences in dialogue mostly that I took out. But I didn’t take out any big chunks. 

 Paul Blezard: so you resisted the urge to rewrite, it was actually an act of translation. 

Sinan Antoon: Yes, and not only that, I resisted the assaults of the editor which is a problem that a lot of translators from Arabic and other non-European literatures face, especially in the US.  

Paul Blezard: if you don’t mind, we have some of the Arab world’s finest editors and translators here in this audience. 

Sinan Antoon: yes, so they know, but I think Marilyn Booth has written an article about how US editors try to kind of domesticate the Arabic text so I won’t keep harping on it. But the editor wanted, for example, to take out most of the nightmares I have in the novel, and to my mind that’s the skeleton of the novel. I said well if we take out the nightmares then let’s take out the whole novel and not publish it. So I resisted all of that, not that any text is perfect, but I guess it might sound weird but to me those characters and the events are real, and to my mind they actually happened...  these characters did say these sentences, and to imagine that they didn’t say them would fragment and fracture this wall that I had built.

 Paul Blezard: do you consider it a specifically Iraqi novel?

Sinan Antoon: I do, not in terms of fetishising: I think all good literary texts are immensely tied to the place they’re written in but they also speak to larger issues. It is about a very important period, specifically the civil sectarian war in Iraq but also about these last three decades, that are the most violent in the country’s history and that have changed everything about the country. But there is something that doesn’t come out in English, sadly - that’s the loss, the real loss - I always write the dialogue in the Iraqi spoken dialect and it’s impossible to bring that out in English. So in Arabic it is specifically definitely a very Iraqi novel, because the dialogue is all in the Iraqi colloquial.

Paul Blezard: one of the things the judges liked was the sense of poetry. It’s like a little perfect jewel, a little piece of amber, perfect in form. I wondered how conscious you were - as the writer now, not the translator - about this almost imperceptible sense of atmosphere of the place in which the events happen. Let alone the characters. But this sense of where the water feeds into the pomegranate tree... I’m not going to give anything away here, but we see we have this pomegranate .... of rebirth of renewal and of redemption in a way, but this calmness, this stillness, the dustiness that you describe, were you aware of that as you were writing, was that conscious? Or is that part of the alchemy of authorship, it happens while you are thinking of other things?

Sinan Antoon: I think it is the alchemy, and then I’ll make another confession: as much as I love writing fiction much of my reading is actually poetry, even as I write, and actually the energy I’ve spent in translation was mostly translating poetry from Arabic to English and from English to Arabic. I’ve read a lot of fiction of course but in recent years maybe - I’m just guessing - it’s the effect of reading poetry. In the intense moments, of trauma and suffering I turn to poetry, I don’t turn to novels. So maybe that’s part of it, I don’t know. I’m happy with it but the refrain now in the Arab world is that they criticise novelists who write in a poetic way. And in that sense they agree with the American editors who for example said the title is too poetic; I told them only in America is being poetic a liability - it’s supposedly a good thing to be poetic, right?

So it’s not planned, but retroactively it might be the hegemony of a certain type of reading. And when I think of Iraq frankly and remember, I’m haunted by poets such as Muzaffar al-Nawab and al-Jawhiri... I can’t stop myself from using them in the novels and I think that diction and the atmosphere come back.

Paul Blezard: Can we talk about the brutality? You’re describing the result of brutality; how did you approach that? These corpses are coming into this place, they’re being washed, because of acts of brutality,  it’s a prism into the brutal world outside the doors of this building. 

Sinan Antoon: The challenge is some of us have the luxury of looking away, or even not looking, and what was compelling to me about the figure of the corpse washer, beginning from the newspaper story I read, is that here is a man who cannot look away, he has to look. So this  brutality is happening and there are different approaches. Some people like to leave it unsaid and unspoken. To my mind it had to be all described, but how does one do that without it being too gruesome? So I tried as much as possible to inhabit the persona of someone like Jawad who ....but for him being an artist and also the conflict of being someone who is not a believer, who is doing something because he has to for financial reasons, but he comes to understand the importance of these rituals and he never loses.. he never becomes detached and just a robot that does it mechanically.

Paul Blezard: it’s his compassion and humanity that carries a lot of this novel. 

Sinan Antoon: yes, and not to sound banal but there are so many people like that. I mean you read about them in every society, who have to do these really horrendous jobs in professions from which there is no redemption, there is no pleasure, there is no upward mobility, there is the same every day and they have to make sense out of it and find some kind of meaning. Some people misread it as kind of defeatist but it’s actually about resilience, about someone who’s talented and ambitious but history does not allow him to become an artist. He's forced into this profession, but he realises that fate or chance gave him this responsibility and he then starts to feel a responsibility towards the dead. Which is compassion and a sense of ethical responsibility towards other human beings.

Paul Blezard: Have any of the corpse washers read this do you know? Have you had feeback? 

Sinan Antoon: not yet, I think they’re too busy, but someone from the city of Najaf, where the great majority of Shiites are taken to be buried, read the novel and commended it. He didn’t believe that I wasn’t a Shiite, he said “are you sure you’re not a Shiite?” I said the last time I checked I wasn’t. But it would be of course a great honour, and interesting, to see how they would see it.

Paul Blezard: and how was it received in Iraq in general?

Sinan Antoon: it’s heart-warming and rewarding, I don’t have any complaints. My only complaint is that now everyone is going to expect another The Corpse Washer.

audience QUESTION and ANSWER session

Q:  I think it’s an honour for a Christian to write about a Muslim washing of the dead. It's something so new, I’m sure the Muslim community is indebted to you. Through these three generations, you said, of continuous violence, cycles of torture, I often think about the youth, their hopes and dreams. I left Iraq a long time ago when the time was good. How do the young people endure seeing injustice, brutality, lack of opportunities, the future? 

Sinan Antoon: that’s a very important question. To me one of the few resources of hope are the contacts I have with the young Iraqis who are in Baghdad, who are in their early twenties and are not burdened with history and all of this. They have a desire to live and they have all these initiatives in Baghdad and Iraq under catastrophic conditions of sectarianism and militia culture. They do activities, they write, they have these initiatives for reading, to kind of regenerate a sense of culture, and there are amazing artists and filmmakers and writers coming out. So in the midst of all this, that is the sign of hope, and many of them are unencumbered by the sectarianism and culture of violence of the last three decades. They are very hopeful, which is very important. I always think that despair is a luxury, it can be paralysing; they don’t have the luxury of despair, they have to live, and they have to make do with what they have. And I keep reading about them, not only in the terms of the cultural sense, but the sense of a massive initiative, for example to help all of these people who are displaced. And it crosses all of these lines of sect and ethnicity and religion. So it will take a long time, but that spirit never dies.

And I think the same thing applies to what happened - now I am making the mistake of going into a minefield - but in the 30 years before the Arab revolts we heard time and again from so many so-called intellectuals “oh where are the youth, what are they doing, they’re busy playing video games or watching video clips, they’re not reading” blah, blah - badeyn it turned out that all of these youths were actually inventing and imagining a new world and they actually started revolts. So the challenge for those of us who are outside, or who are of an older generation, is to listen and try to understand and go into the spaces where they go and to understand what they’re going through, and what type of a world they’re imagining. And what kind of victories they will have that some of us couldn’t have.

 Q: I’m halfway through the Arabic novel and it’s fantastic so far. One thing that really struck me, at least in the first half of the book, is that Jawad, the main character, was going to be an artist and then he decided not to be, he went back to his father’s occupation. There are lots of references also to people like Jawad Selim - who incidentally is my great uncle, so I’m glad to see him in the novel. But it was very sad, and also it made me really happy, to see reference to this strong and great history of Iraqi culture and Iraqi art that often gets forgotten, specially here in the West, and that was effectively destroyed. And I wondered if there were some parallels - or whether I’m reading too much into it - with your character Jawad’s decision to return to being a corpse washer. 

Sinan Antoon: No, without being nostalgic or beautifying the past I think a major problem in how many Iraqis look at Iraq is that they conflate Saddam Hussein and the Baath with something called Iraqi society and the Iraqi state. There was a lively Iraqi culture, everyone knows that, before Saddam Hussein appeared and the Iraqi state was a burgeoning state functioning everyone forgets. Modern Arabic poetry was invented in Iraq, and what Jawad Selim and others did in Iraq is something very unique throughout the third world, having this modernity articulated in local forms. So that’s one thing that we cannot afford to forget because a lot of the time this pessimistic look completely cancels out all of the past, as if it’s all just Baathist horror and there was nothing good. We end up erasing our own history.

The other thing that always haunts me is that I consider that I and some of my friends were lucky. There are people from my generation who were, like Jawad, very very talented, and had they had the opportunity they could have been great artists, great writers, great engineers. What I wanted to put forth, which happens so often, is that the structural conditions, the catastrophe of dictatorship and of sanctions and of war, destroyed the potential of people like Jawad. To make ends meet he cannot be an artist and this happened to so many artists and writers specially in the 90s, you could not make a living by being an artist or by being anything, everyone started changing professions. So he has to go back to the only thing that he can do. So it’s not a matter of choice actually, maybe one thing I was unconsciously trying to do.. I hate the term choice that so many people use because it’s ridiculous, thank you for choosing this, thank you for choosing that. Most human beings on this planet have one choice, or two at best and they’re both awful. There's no choice really; of course not to deny human agency, but you have the context that forces you to do certain things.

But to go back to the icons of Iraq, you know international media went to the Firdos Square because they are lazy and because the three 5-star hotels were there. When Iraqis demonstrate they went to Sahat al-Tahrir because that place means something and because that monument, aside from all the politics, is just an amazing work of art. It’s really beautiful. And that’s where people go to restore a sense of a republic with all its problems and attempt at freedom and non-sectarianism and citizenship until today. Even three years ago when there were protests in Iraq after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that's  where people went, to Sahat al-Tahrir, because that place means something and that monument means something and it invokes a history of creativity and of hope. I’m sounding like a very hopeful person but I’m actually very pessimistic.

Q: I was talking via Skype with an Iraqi journalist in Baghdad the other day and my Skype connection died and I called him back and apologised for the crappy internet in London. He said well I’m glad at least we have one good thing in Baghdad. You  mentioned the video of the website of the shrine in Al-Kazimiyya. I was just wondering if you could expand bit more on the research that you did and also how you used sources on the ground, people you know in Iraq, and also how you experienced that as an author living in exile, having your own cultural realities and your own cultural references, both from Iraq but also as in a sense whether you felt as an outsider as well in trying to approach this story.

Paul Blezard: do you see yourself as living in exile?

Sinan Antoon: no, as living abroad. I think it’s disrespectful to real exiles who suffered prison .. exile is sexy, but ..

Paul Blezard: it carries political weight and gravitas also. The wider question is about research, – obviously the website looking at the shrine and so on and so forth.

Sinan Antoon: Yes, I contacted this foundation in America, a Shii charitable foundation, because I knew they did some of this corpse washing but they completely ignored me. I had wanted to go and see it live but they were not helpful at all. I keep thinking, well I left the country in 1991 and I want to write about what’s happening right now. And at every step I - being a critical reader myself - would be crushed if someone reads and says oh, it is obvious that this guy is living abroad. So, I was incessantly reading the news and collecting everything that I could find about these corpse washers. But the good thing about theology books of all monotheisms is that they’re very much into details. There is a description of every possibility, and everything happening if someone dies abroad, if someone dies on a ship,. And I always say as much as I hate Facebook and YouTube, the reality is that we are lucky. You can actually be living in New York but live in Shanghai or Cairo or Baghdad because you can watch the satellite channels and see everything people are seeing over there and then spend time on Facebook and elsewhere and basically almost consume visually everything that is being consumed over there. So that helps. But I believe  - and this might sound too uncritical and unscientific - that it’s also about passion and about the madness of thinking that you can inhabit the body and life of another person and really try to see the world from their perspective. So that was very helpful. And having lived the first 23 years of my life in Baghdad and having roamed the streets a lot helps I think: it’s always surprising what one has in one’s own archive, that one is not aware of.

Paul Blezard: does Google Earth do Street View of Baghdad?

Sinan Antoon: actually it helped in certain parts, it’s not as extensive as Google elsewhere, but a lot of the streets and where they are, just to double check the names on the map

Q: I’m very interested in your experience as the writer of that particular work, and the translator at once. How did that feel? Did you feel that you were creating the exact self same version of your Arabic novel in English? Did you approach it with the aim of just transferring it from one language into another or did you feel that perhaps that you owned the manuscript as the writer and therefore perhaps maybe attempted to take some liberties with it, or slight liberties, and perhaps saw yourself as creating a very similar but parallel and slightly different piece of work in English? 

Sinan Antoon: yes, both of these actually, there aren’t many changes but of course I had much more liberty than someone who’s translating work by someone else, but I’ve also in dealing with this and others also in dealing with this and others I’ve used the metaphor of musical performances and variations. And you know there is always loss because there this question always comes up, why is there this loss. There is always loss, even in speech, even in language, you know it’s OK but it’s not radically different from the original Arabic, as I said, it’s only that the dialogue doesn’t have the resonance it would have in Arabic.

Paul Blezard: what criticisms as the author do you have of your translator? If you could have a conversation with him?

Sinan Antoon: I’ll have to think about it

Paul Blezard: maybe for tomorrow.

Q: can I ask you Sinan, was there a particular sense from the publisher that you were both the author and the translator? Behind that surface question is a deeper one... I mean we have to be deeply thankful to publishers and editors for bringing works to the surface, but at the same time I’m so aware of many wonderful novels that have been denuded of their spirit or their meaning.

Sinan Antoon: I think that perhaps because I was the author and the translator the editor tried to do a double aggression against both!  There is always this sense that he would say “but this doesn’t happen in American novels” and to go back to your question I said “well this is an Iraqi novel being translated to English. I’m really happy to be published in English but I’m not interested in writing an American novel and this is not.”

But there are many examples for example the word Allah is translated into God with a capital G. And he said why don’t we keep it as Allah. I said why keep it unless you want to give this sense of some distance. And he had problems with the erotic scenes, he wanted to cut down on the eroticism. On the one hand you complain that our background is Victorian and we give you the sex and you want to... I should say that the problem we have in the Arab world is that publishing houses don’t have editors. Sometimes I show .. to close friends and they function as editors. There is that problem but I don’t think editors should be too aggressive, especially when it comes to these kinds of decisions about, you know, keeping archaic language and this whole issue. The whole idea of writing it even in Arabic is that this world that seems distant then is so immediate. As someone was saying yesterday, a lot of people who are brought up as Shiites are not familiar with these rituals because unless you go and see them it doesn’t happen. And now in this atmosphere of sectarianism, it’s good for non-Shiites to read about these rituals of this community that’s supposed to be so alien and bizarre and to realise that it’s not that bizarre, it’s just human.

Paul Blezard: Let’s wrap it up like this: first of all, congratulations

Sinan Antoon: thank you

Paul Blezard: I think all the judges would agre that judging this year’s prize was an absolute pleasure, it was such a strong field. This is,  I think, an extraordinary novel. I think it will become the early 21st century Iraqi novel. I think it’s important. I think it’s beautifully written 

Sinan Antoon: ... you are creating a lot of enemies for me...!

Paul Blezard: I don’t care, you have to fight them off, I don’t. But there’s something else that this does. It kind of is perhaps why we judged it the way we judged it. For all that it draws upon a fantastic history and tradition, there is something incredibly approachable about this translation to a Western audience. A Western person who has no knowledge of Baghdad, or Shiism, or you, or Arabic culture really, could pick this up and enjoy it for the richness of the story and get so much.  And I think that’s why it’s a worthy winner and why we should be delighted to celebrate with you as you are given the prize tomorrow. So my question to you is this: you’ve had some fantastic reviews for this, but what does winning the prize mean to you? Because of course it does mean you now will have pressure to write The Corpse Washer 2 or whatever you call it.

Sinan Antoon: I’m really honoured and delighted. What it means is - and now I speak as a translator, and those of us who are literary translators know how literary translation is short-shrifted and how most of our labour is unrecognised and not rewarded - it’s an honour to win this prize, which is the only prize in the world specifically for Arabic literary translation. I’m honoured because it has in the past been honoured by amazingly good translators, so I’m really grateful to you and to the others. In writing, I try to learn from the masters that I admire about how not to keep doing the same thing. So after this novel I wrote a novel about a Christian family and the third novel is about two atheists. The pressure is always for a new one, it’s just to keep going and not to fall just into a mould basically and just do the expected.

Paul Blezard: and would you translate your own work again?

 Sinan Antoon: well this one really drained me emotionally to write and translate, so for Ya Maryam (Hail Mary)I have someone else to translate. Now I’ve regained some of my energy so I will translate my fourth novel.