Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Book of Khartoum: ten short stories offer a dynamic tour of Sudan's capital

"The stories in this collection pick up where Season of Migration leaves off," write Raph Cormack and Max Shmookler in their introduction to The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction which they edited for Comma Press of Manchester, England. "From the 1960s to the present, these stories explore a post-colonial world shaped by conflicting aspirations and daunting obstacles."

The editors' reference to Tayeb Salih's novel Season of Migration to the North, published in Arabic in 1966 and in Denys Johnson-Davies's English translation in 1969, reflects the towering and enduring presence of Salih (1929-2009), the great pioneer of Sudanese, Arab, African and post-colonial literature. But in the years since Salih burst onto the international literary scene far less Sudanese literature has been translated into English than has literature from certain other Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Morocco. 

The Book of Khartoum claims to be the first major anthology of Sudanese stories to be translated into English, and is much to be welcomed. The acclaimed Sudanese novel and short story writer Leila Aboulela -  who writes in English - says in a comment on the cover that the book is "an exciting, long-awaited collection showcasing some of Sudan's finest writers. There is urgency behind the deceptively languorous voices and a piercing vitality to the shorter forms."

The Book of Khartoum won from English PEN both a PEN Translates Award and a PEN Promotes Award. It is the latest, and tenth, anthology in the Comma Press series 'Reading the City'. Previous titles in the series include  Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East  (2008) edited by Joumana Haddad, and The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction (2014) edited by Atef Abu Saif.

Raph Cormack

The editors of The Book of Khartoum are from the new generation of Arabic scholars and translators. Cormack is a translator and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh in modern Arabic literature. Max Shmookler is a doctoral student and translator in Columbia University's Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. His research is on Arabic literary history, particularly modern prose, and he has also worked as a refugee rights advocate.

Cormack has a translation blog, Curiosities, on which he has translated works by, among others, Egyptians Mohammed Taymur and Ahmed al-Kashif, and Sudanese writer and politician Mohammed Ahmed Mahjoub. A 30 December 2015 post, 'Muawyia Nur: Buying Books in Early 20th Century Egypt and Sudan' , profiles this key figure in the development of the Sudanese short story who died  in 1941. In their introduction to The Book of Khartoum the editors describe how Nur "moved back and forth between his home in Sudan and a bohemian existence in Cairo, writing stories and literary criticism and producing a huge body of work in his 32 years of life."

Max Shmookler

Cormack and Shmookler note that the countryside remains an important theme for much Sudanese literature: many authors including the famous Tayeb Salih and Ibrahim Ishaq made their names through works based outside big cities. Sudanese literary culture has also taken much interest in folk tales. The focus of The Book of Khartoum is avowedly urban, showing many facets of the Sudanese capital. The introduction includes a map of the city, with the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, and sets the scene of Khartoum's geography and literary activity, past and present. The derivation of the city's name is uncertain. It may come from the Arabic word for an elephant's trunk, or the "meeting point of two rivers" in the Dinka language, or the local Beja word hartooma meaning meeting place. Others claim the name refers to a drink that leads to speedy intoxication.

The Book of Khartoum contains ten short stories by ten authors including two women - Bawadir Bashir and Rania Mamoun - rendered into English by ten translators. Cormack and Shmookler write: "These literary portraits of Khartoum offer a dynamic tour of the city, its residents and its many peripheries. Yet the authors are not only guides to the city, but also sophisticated literary figures in their own right. They both draw from, and contribute to, a variety of literary movements in Sudan, the broader Arab world, and beyond."

Sudan's modern history has been filled with wars and turmoil and its writers practise their art in an often difficult environment. A number of the country's writers now live abroad. Take the example of Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin, born in Kassala in eastern Sudan in 1963. The author of many novels and short story collections, his 2010 novel al-Jango was banned by the Sudanese government shortly after it won the al-Tayyib Salih prize. Sakin's  books were confiscated from the Khartoum book fair and banned. They included Woman from Campo Kadis (2004) from which his contribution to The Book of Khartoum, 'The Butcher's Daughter', is taken. Sakin left Sudan and lives in Austria, while his work is published in Cairo.

a nightmarish vision 

The stories in The Book of Khartoum have energy, humour and vividness of expression. The techniques used are often experimental and enigmatic, with forays into fantasy. Violence, explicit or lurking under the surface, is present in several stories. 'The Passage' by poet, journalist and short story writer Mamoun Eltlib, translated by Mohamed Ghalaeiny, presents a nightmarish vision reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The story, written in poetic prose, has a cosmic quality and is full of disturbing images. "I saw all kinds of creatures and behaviours and horrific experiments. I saw people smiling acquiescently, as they were being slaughtered on blocks cast from solid gold. I saw men and women arriving with dry nibs to dip in fresh warm blood, before rushing to darker corners to start their writing - great stacks of books rising high beside them, their edges dripping with blood." Eltlib is a prime mover on the Khartoum literary scene, and part of a group which organises a monthly book market-cum-cultural event called Mafroosh which promotes literature in the capital.

Hammour Ziada

Several of the stories have footnotes containing essential historical or literary information. This is particularly the case with Hammour Ziada's story 'The Void', translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, set after the Battle of Omdurman or Karari in 1898. The story is prefaced by a Reuter report from The Egyptian Gazette headlined 'Shocking Details' describing the stench, the hundreds of wounded, streams of blood blackened in the sun. But 'no sympathy can be felt for them, for these fiends have already disniterred and mutilated our dead. If the Sirdar errs it is on the side of leniency.' The Sirdar refers to Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army. Ziada shows the aftermath of battle from the other side, mown down with the weapons of modern warfare. The protagonist of his story is a wounded soldier who has endured horrific experiences on the battlefield. His sister tends to his wounds and cuts out a bullet embedded in his thigh. The story of military conflict is intertwined with that of her brutal marriage.

'The Void' is part of Ziada's literary explorations of Sudanese history. His novel The Longing of the Dervish set in nineteenth century Sudan won the 2014 Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2015. Jonathan Wright's English translation of the novel is forthcoming from Penguin.

'you're a disgusting refugee'

Over the years many refugees have made their way to Khartoum. The story 'It's Not Important, You're From There' by the young South Sudanese writer and journalist Arthur Gabriel Yak, translated by Andrew Leber, gives the perspective of a refugee from "down there - that city with a Southern air." The story is  written. largely in the second person. The refugee will find "the office you've heard so much about. Inside there'll be people with pale faces who can't stand you. You're a disgusting refugee." The Christian refugees from the South suffer torture, imprisonment and possible death. The story conveys the depersonalisaton of the refugee, still dreaming of  possible futures and of being resettled abroad:  "Smiles of a 'migration to the North' will be drawn across the faces of your children."    

Ahmed al-Malik's 'The Tank', translated by Adam Talib, is a satirical exploration of the gaining of power by an individual through  the acquisition of arms. The deadpan first-person narrator buys a second-hand army tank, parks it under a tree outside his house and observes the effect on his friends ('it hasn't escaped my notice that most of them haven't visited me since'), tradesmen and others.

Several stories explore tensions between life in the countryside and in Khartoum. The central figure in 'Next Eid' by Bawadir Bashir, translated by Thoraya El-Rayess, is a village boy who has gone to university in Khartoum. Uthman returns to his village every Eid carrying presents, but he is envied by other villagers and 'despite his attempts to get closer to them, a coldness has formed between them...' A rumour spreads that he has a girlfriend in the capital, to the dismay of the village girl who longs for him. But the reader learns that Uthman's life in Khartoum is not what the villagers assume, and that he is caught in a cycle of deprivation. 

'In the City' by Ali al-Makk (1937-1992) , translated by Sarah Irving, depicts a boy named Hassan who leaves his village to go to secondary school close to Khartoum and faces difficulties in meeting women. His new friends take him to a brothel and he is quietly certain that, despite his lack of skill in engaging in small talk and the other rituals of the establishment, his innate virility will prevail.  "The guys in the village bragged much of this hidden potency, and left the sweet-talk and the niceties to the regular city folk... talk ... and more talk... let him be what he is."  The outcome is sad and comic.

'The Butcher's Daughter' by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin, translated by Raph Cormack, concerns a father who takes the bus to Khartoum, tormented by suspicions that his student daughter is engaged in shameful behaviour and may have entered an Urfi (unregistered and unwitnessed) marriage. He uses his ingenuity and a touch of menace to try and outwit the teacher with whom he believes she is involved.

'A Boy Playing With Dolls' by Isa al-Hilu, in translation by Marilyn Booth, is a delightfully imaginative tale in which a toymaker leaves his 13-year-old son alone in his shop. The boy creates a kind of theatre with dolls on  a glass surface. "He made each of them move in turn, like in a waking dream, or a dreaming wakefulness. On this mirror-surface the child remade his world." The boy invents a succession of scenarios, culminating in a voyage on a paper boat. The stories within a story reveal the boy's psychic state, anxieties and sexual awakening.

Bushra al-Fadil's 'The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away' translated by Max Shmookler gives an atmospheric portrait of crowds in the streets of Khartoum before zooming on a beautiful girl and her younger sister. The story includes a small drawing of the girl, with whom the first-person narrator becomes  obsessed. The story has references to Arabic and Sudanese poetry and mythology. Al-Fadil has a doctorate in Russian language and literature, and Russian influences are discernible in his engaging story. He now lives in Saudi Arabia.

Rania Mamoun

Rania Mamoun's elegiac story 'Passing', translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, is a delicately nuanced account of a father's death seen through the eyes of the daughter who knows he was disappointed by her failure to  keep her promise to become a doctor. The daughter senses her father's presence: "Your scent fills every inch of space. It pulls me out of a whirlpool of memory, tossing me into another, wider and deeper, and the feeling that you are close to me swells."

The launch of The Book of Khartoum happens to coincide with the publication of Banipal Magazine issue 55 which is largely devoted to a special feature on Sudanese Literature Today, comprising short stories, novel extracts and poems by Sudanese authors, and reviews of published works. The focus on Sudanese literature will continue in Banipal issue 56. The two publications complement each other well. Several authors feature in both, and in one case the same story appears in both, with different translators.  Readers may like to compare  Elisabeth Jaquette's translation of Rania Mamoun's  'Passing' with William M Hutchins' translation of the story in Banipal 55.
by Susannah Tarbush - London

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

chair of judges reveals the five Caine Prize finalists

Seventeenth Caine Prize shortlist announced

The five-writer shortlist for the £10,000 Caine Prize for African Writing 2016 was today announced by the chair of this year's judges, writer and academic Delia Jarrett-Macauley. The judges' chair described the finalised entries as "an engrossing, well-crafted and dauntless pack of stories. The high standard of the entries was clear throughout and particularly noteworthy was the increasing number of fantasy fictions, with the sci-fi trend resonating in several excellent stories...The panel is proud to have shortlisted writers from across the continent, finding stories that are compelling, well-crafted and thought-provoking.’"

Delia Jarrett-Macauley

The shortlist comprises Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya); Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria); Tope Folarin (Nigeria); Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe), and Lidudumalingani (South Africa). It includes a former Caine Prize winner (Tope Folarin, in 2013) and a former regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The Caine winner will be announced at an award ceremony and dinner at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, on Monday 4 July. In addition to the £10,000 prize, each shortlisted writer will receive £500.

This year a record 166 short stories from writers representing 23 African countries were entered for the Prize, a marked increase from last year's 153 qualifying stories from 17 countries.

the stories and their authors

Abdul Adan

Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) is shortlisted for ‘The Lifebloom Gift’ published in The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014 (New Internationalist, United Kingdom, 2014). His work has appeared in African magazines Kwani, Jungle Jim, Gambit, Okike, Storytime and elsewhere. He was a participant in the 2014 Caine Prize workshop in Zimbabwe, and is a founding member of the Jalada collective.
o Read ‘The Lifebloom Gift’

Lesley Nneka Arimah

Lesley Nneka Arimah  (Nigeria) is shortlisted for ‘What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky’ published in Catapult (Catapult, USA, 2015). A Nigerian writer living in Minneapolis, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and other publications. When she isn't spreading peace and joy on Twitter, Arimah is at work on a collection of short stories (What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky) forthcoming in 2017 from Riverhead Books. There are rumours about a novel.
o Read ‘What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky’

Tope Folarin

Tope Folarin  (Nigeria) is shortlisted for ‘Genesis’ published in Callaloo (Johns Hopkins University Press, USA, 2014. He won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013, and in 2014 he was named in the Africa39 list of the most promising African writers under 39. In addition, his work has been published in various anthologies and journals. He lives in Washington DC.
o Read ‘Genesis’

 Bongani Kona

Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe) is shortlisted for ‘At Your Requiem’ published in Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You (Burnet Media, South Africa, 2015). He is a freelance writer and contributing editor of Chimurenga. His writing has appeared in Mail and Guardian, Rolling Stone (South Africa), Sunday Times and other publications and websites. He is also enrolled as a Masters student in the Creative Writing department at the University of Cape Town.
o Read ‘At Your Requiem’·


Lidudumalingani (South Africa) for ‘Memories We Lost’ published in Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You (Burnet Media, South Africa, 2015). He is a writer, filmmaker and photographer, and was born in the village of Zikhovane in Eastern Cape province.  Lidudumalingani has published short stories, non-fiction and criticism in several publications. His films have been screened at various film festivals.
o Read ‘Memories We Lost’

an inspiring degree of risk-taking

Delia Jarrett-Macauley's co-judges are acclaimed film, television and theatre actor, Adjoa Andoh; writer and founding member of the Nairobi-based writers’ collective, Storymoja, and founder of the Storymoja Festival, Muthoni Garland; Associate Professor and Director of African American Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC, Dr Robert J Patterson; and South African writer and 2006 Caine Prize winner, Mary Watson.

Jarrett-Macauley said her fellow judges "commented on the pleasure of reading the stories, the gift of being exposed to the exciting short fictions being produced by African writers today and the general shift away from politics towards more intimate subjects – though recent topics such as the Ebola crisis were being wrestled with.’

She added: ‘It was inspiring to note the amount of risk-taking in both subject matter and style, wild or lyrical voices matching the tempered measured prose writers, and stories tackling uneasy topics, ranging from an unsettling, unreliable narrator’s tale of airport scrutiny, to a science-fictional approach towards the measurement of grief, a young child’s coming to grips with family dysfunction, the big drama of rivalling siblings and the silent, numbing effects of loss.’

 Caine Prize anthology 2015

The five shortlisted stories will  be published in New Internationalist’s Caine Prize 2016 Anthology in July, and through co-publishers across Africa, who receive a print-ready PDF free of charge from New Internationalist. In addition to the shortlisted stories, the anthology will include stories written at the Caine Prize workshop held in Zambia in March this year.

The co-publishers of the anthology are New Internationalist (UK), Jacana Media (South Africa), Lantern Books (United States), Kwani? (Kenya), Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana), FEMRITE (Uganda), Bookworld Publishers (Zambia), Langaa Research and Publishing (Cameroon) and amaBooks (Zimbabwe).

The Caine Prize, awarded annually for African creative writing, is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English (indicative length 3,000 to 10,000 words). An African writer is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or who has a parent who is African by birth or nationality.

The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka and J M Coetzee, are Patrons of The Caine Prize. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is President of the Council, Ben Okri OBE is Vice President, Jonathan Taylor CBE is the Chairman, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey OBE is the Deputy Chairperson and Dr Lizzy Attree is the Director.
Susannah Tarbush, London

Friday, May 06, 2016

Banipal 55 helps propel Sudanese literature onto international stage

Sudanese literature is in general less known internationally than the literatures of certain other Arab countries. But since the beginning of the 21st century Sudanese literature has been increasingly emerging on the global stage, a trend that can only be enhanced by the new issue, No. 55, of Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature. The issue is largely devoted to works by Sudanese authors -  short stories, novel extracts, poetry, non-fiction, memoir, essays, reviews and an interview. They convey a picture of a vibrant, varied and distinctive Sudanese literature by authors living both inside and outside Sudan. 

In  her editorial in Banipal 55 the magazine's publisher Margaret Obank writes: "Like our earlier features on the little known literatures of Yemen [issue 36], Tunisia [issue 39] and Libya [issue 40], we look forward to Sudanese literature in translation finding new audiences around the world, particularly through the encouragement and promotion this issue gives."  Furthermore, the next issue of Banipal, 56, will contain additional works by Sudanese writers.

Banipal 55's special feature Sudanese Literature Today kicks off with novelist and storyteller Ahmad Al Maliks' essay "A Short Introduction to the Sudanese Literary Scene". This essay is complemented  further on in the issue by novelist and critic Emad Blake's comprehensive eight-page article "The New Novel in Sudan."

Emad Blake

The Sudan special feature includes short stories by Al Malik, Hammour Ziada, Leila Aboulela, Rania Mamoun, Tarek Eltayeb, Abdel Ghani Karamallah, and Rania Mamoun, as well as extracts from novels by Hamed El-Nazir (The Waterman's Prophecy); Emad Blake (Shawarma) and Mansour El-Sowaim (Dhakirat Shirrir). There is also poetry by Mohammad Jamil Ahmad and Najlaa Osman Eltom.

From Abdel Ghani Karamallah comes the children's story "The Jealous Star", illustrated by the author. And Egyptian writer Azza Rashad has conducted a frank interview in Cairo with the prominent Sudanese publisher Nur al-Huda Mohammad Nur al-Huda, head of Azza Publishing which he founded in 1991. 

Abdel Ghani Karamallah at a story-telling session

One of Azza Publishing's authors is Stella Gaitano, born in Khartoum in 1979 to a family from South Sudan. She was forced to relocate to South Sudan in 2012. She contributes to Banipal 55, in its first English translation (by Adil Babakir), her compelling "Testimony of a Sudanese Writer" which she presented in a speech at the Tayeb Salif Award. In her testimony she recalls her annoyance at always being introduced as "the southern writer who writes in Arabic." This gave her a feeling of exclusion: "Why couldn't I be introduced simply as a Sudanese writer just like all the others?" But ironically, following the secession of the South, she finds the "southern writer who writes in Arabic" description has become a reality. With English being the official language of the new state she is now trying to write also in English as a way of trying to reach out to everyone.

Jamal Mahjoub, who writes in English, is best known as a novelist and - under the penname Parker Bilal -  as a crime writer. But in Banipal 55 he is represented by an extract from a non-fiction work-in-progress on the modern history of Sudan. The extract, "The Ghost of John Garang", tells of the death in a helicopter crash of Garang, the first vice-president of the new interim Government of National Unity and President of the Government of South Sudan.

Stells Gaitano
In his essay "The New Novel in Sudan", Emad Blake traces the development of the Sudanese novel from the first half of the 20th century. Tayeb Salih - whose 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North, published in Denys Johnson-Davies's English translation in 1969, is regarded as a landmark of Arab, African and post-colonial literature - "confronted the crucial issues of his time, such as the clash of Eastern and Western civilizations, as well as boldly employing sex and a style of writing we might term the 'impossible easy'." Whereas Salih drew on his experiences as a young émigré in London, and balanced dialect with more neutral language, Ibrahim Ishaq's writing explores the cultural environment of Western Sudan, and exclusively uses the local tongue in dialogue. "Most critics would agree that it was these two writers who were the true driving force behind the transformation of the form and content of the Sudanese novel."

Between the early 1970s and late 1990s, poetry and the short story rather than the novel were at the forefront of the Sudanese cultural scene, observes Blake. But since the turn of the millennium there has been a flourishing of the Sudanese novel, "in a spirit of openness and true revolution. Pushing poetry and short stories to the margins, it was now time for the novel to take centre stage amongst the  new wave of young writers. Most wrote from abroad, where they could read and immerse themselves in the culture of the 'Other' - with fewer concerns over problems of publishing."

Blake's essay is rich in information on contemporary Sudanese novelists, and he gives the flavour of themes in their work including the wars in the south and in Darfur.  

Hammour Ziada

As Ahkmad Al Malik notes in his introductory essay, one way in which the profile of Sudanese authors has been rising is through various literary prizes that have sprung up in recent years. In 2002 the Abdel Karim Mirghani Cultural Center organised a Tayeb Salih tribute event, at which it decided to establish an annual award in Tayeb Salih's name, for an outstanding work of fiction from Sudan. Al Malik says the award has created significant momentum in the Sudanese cultural scene although like all community-driven activities it has met with considerable obstances from the authorities. A major telecommunications company launched another award in Tayeb Salih's name, but Al Malik explains that this second award, which has unprecedented government support, is "widely believed to have some hidden agenda."

Hammour Ziada won the 19th edition of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his novel The Longing of the Dervish, which was also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2015.  Jonathan Wright's translation of the novel is forthcoming from the American University in Cairo Press's new imprint Hoopoe Fiction.

Banipal 55 features Ziada's short story "The Wad Azrag District", which shows the author's excellent storytelling skills. The story depicts the fragile boundary between the nomadic and the settled, and the prejudice that arises after a Bedouin, Ahmed Wad Azrag, arrives in the village of Hajar Narti with his family. It takes a long time for the distrcit of Wad Azrag to be accepted as part of the village; Ziada's story is epic in scope and has a  timeless, archetypal quality.

Hamed el-Nazir's novel Nubuat al-Saqqa made the longlist of IPAF 2016. In the Banipal 55 extract from the novel the title is translated as The Waterman's Prophecy, though IPAF translated the title as The Prophecy of Saqqa.

Amir Tag Elsir
The prolific novelist Amir Tag Elsir, by profession a medical doctor based in Qatar, was shortlisted for IPAF 2011 for The Grub Hunter. The novel was published, in William M Hutchins' English translation, in Heinemann's African Writers Series in 2012. Last year Tag Elsir's novel 366 won the Katara Prize for Arabic Literature, after in 2014 being  longlisted for IPAF.

In Banipal Clare Roberts reviews Tag Elsir's novels Ebola '76 , (Darf Publishers, 2015) translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby and French Perfume (ANTIBOOKCLUB, 2015) translated by William M Hutchins. These reviews follow her review in Banipal 53 of Tag Elsir's novel Telepathy translated by Hutchins (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2015). The English version of French Perfume is a finalist in the Best Translated Book Awards 2016.

Volker Kaminski reviews Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin's fifth novel Der Messias von Darfur, translated by Günther Orth, and Olivia Snaije reviews Nouvelles du Soudan (Magellan & CIE, Paris, 2009) a collection of short stories from Sudan translated into French by Xavier Laffin. "In a mere 95 pages, the selection of short stories in this collection reflect powerful and engaging story-telling recounted in an astonishing variety of styles," writes Snaije. 

Leila Aboulela

The best-known Sudanese author currently writing in English is the multiple prizewinning novelist, short story writer and radio dramatist Leila Aboulela, who lives in Scotland. She is author of four novels, most recently The Kindness of Enemies, a short story collection and a number of radio plays. Banipal 55 contains her short story "Amulet and Feathers" in which a young girl dresses up in her brother's clothes and, armed with a dagger, sets off to avenge her father's death. She masquerades as a  child fortune-teller, hoping thereby to track the woman she holds responsible for her father's stabbling.The story is rendered in a graceful poetic style blurring dreams and reality.
report by Susannah Tarbush, London


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rabai al-Madhoun's novel 'Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba' wins IPAF

Palestinian author Rabai al-Madhoun wins IPAF 2016

Rabai al-Madhoun receives the IPAF award from Mohammed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of TCA Abu Dhabi

Palestinian novelist and journalist Rabai al-Madhoun was last night declared winner of the International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF) 2016, for his novel Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba. His winning of the award was announced by this year’s Chair of IPAF  Judges, Emirati poet and academic Amina Thiban, at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. In addition to winning $60,000 - the $50,000 prize plus the $10,000 awarded to every shortlisted author - Al-Madhoun is guaranteed English translation of his novel, and is assured increased book sales and international recognition. IPAF is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). The Prize is popularly known as the Arabic Booker.

Rabai al-Madoun addresses the IPAF award ceremony

A pioneering novel written in four parts, Destinies chronicles Palestinian life both in occupation and exile. Each part representing a concerto movement, the novel looks at the holocaust, the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948 (known as the nakba) and the Palestinian right to return. Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba is a novel of Palestine from outside and from within. It examines everyday Palestinian life, telling the story of Palestinians living under occupation and compelled to assume Israeli nationality, as well as exiled Palestinians trying to return to their now-occupied home country.

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Thiban said: “In Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba Rabai al-Madhoun invents a new fictional form in order to address the Palestinian issue, with questions of identity underpinned by a very human perspective on the struggle. This tragic, polyphonic novel borrows the symbol of the concerto, with its different movements, to represent the multiplicity of destinies. Destinies can be considered the complete Palestinian novel, travelling back to a time before the nakba in order to throw light on current difficulties faced by the Palestinian diaspora and the sense of displacement felt by those left behind.”

Al-Madhoun, Palestinian-born but now a British citizen, lives and works in London as an editor for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper. His family fled Ashkelon, Palestine – now Israel – for Gaza after the 1948 Nakba exodus. After leaving Gaza to attend Alexandria University, al-Madhoun later became involved in the Palestinian liberation struggle as a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He left activism in 1980 to focus on writing and has produced a number of works of fiction and non-fiction. Destinies is the 70-year-old author’s third novel. His 2010 novel The Lady from Tel Aviv was shortlisted for IPAF 2010. It was published in Elliott Colla's English translation by Telegram Books in 2013 and won an English PEN Writers in Translation award that year.

an image of the cover of Rabai al-Madhoun's IPAF-winning novel

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of IPAF Trustees, commented: “Another brilliant novel has joined the distinguished list of IPAF winners. Rabai al-Madhoun has been recognised as one of the leading voices of his generation and we hope that this award will take his work to an even wider audience, both in the Arab world and beyond. As we approach our 10th year, it is gratifying to see such animated discussion around IPAF novels, cementing the Prize’s reputation as one of the most prestigious and important literary awards in the Arab world.”

Leading Arab critic and former IPAF judge, Palestinian Faisal Darraj, has likened Destinies to works by Palestinian literary giants Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. In Al-Ghad newspaper he said “Destinies has added to all these a fresh dimension that the Palestinian novel has not seen before. It has laid a foundation for new innovation in Palestinian writing”. He praised al-Madhoun’s ability to capture “the eloquence of longing”. An article in Al Qahira newspaper quotes al-Madhoun as saying: “I believe in co-existence as the only way to find an end to the bloody and painful struggle of the last 100 years. I don’t think it will happen in my generation, but it will happen one day.”

Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba was chosen by the IPAF judges as the best work of fiction published within the last 12 months, selected from 159 entries from 18 countries across the Arab World. The five other shortlisted finalists were also honoured at the ceremony alongside the winner, each receiving  $10,000.

The six names on the shortlist were announced by the judging panel in February 2016, at a press conference hosted by The Cultural Club in Muscat, Oman. In addition to al-Madhoun's Destinies the shortlisted titles were: Numedia (Dar al-Adab) by Tareq Bakari of Morocco;  Mercury (Dar Tanweer, Lebanon) by Mohamed Rabie of Egypt; Praise for the Women of the Family (Hachette Antoine) by Mahmoud Shukair of Palestine; A Sky Close to Our House (Difaf Publications) by Shahla Ujayli of Syria, and The Guard of the Dead (Difaf Publications) by George Yaraq of Lebanon. 

Chair of the IPAF judges Amina Thiban is an Emirati poet and academic specialising in literature. Her fellow judges were Sayyed Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist and poet, who is currently editor of Al-Qahira newspaper; Mohammed Mechbal, a Moroccan academic and critic; Munir Mujię, a Bosnian academic, translator and researcher, and Abdo Wazen, a Lebanese poet, critic and editor-in-chief of the cultural pages of Al-Hayat newspaper.

Delivering on its aim to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction, the Prize guarantees English translations for all of its winners. Raja Alem’s novel, The Dove’s Necklace (Duckworth), will be published on 2 June this year and Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing - BQFP) was published in 2015. Other winners published in English include Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (Sceptre), Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (Atlantic Books), Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks and Mohammed Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly (both published by BQFP). 2014 IPAF winner Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi has also secured English publication, in translation by Jonathan Wright, with Oneworld in the UK and Penguin Books in the US. Since 2008,  winning and shortlisted IPAF books have been translated into over 20 languages.

Friday, April 22, 2016

'Sicily: Culture and Conquest' at British Museum explores 4000 yrs of multicultural history

The Sicily: Culture and Conquest exhibition, which opened yesterday at the British Museum and runs until 14 August, is the first major exhibition in the UK to explore more than 4000 years of history of the largest island in the Mediterranean. The show, sponsored by Julius Baer, brings together more than 200 objects, many of which have never been displayed outside Sicily. They reveal the richness of Sicily's architectural, archaeological and artistic heritage, shaped by numerous peoples and cultures.

 a double-page map of Sicily from A copy of Muhammad al-Idrisi's Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq c 1300-1500 AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

"We want to show a Sicily that is different from the stereotypes that people have" said co-curator Dirk Booms at the press view of the exhibition on Tuesday. "Sicily is not just beaches, lemons, oranges, sunshine and Mafia -  it's much more, and we want to show that unknown history to a much larger public."  Booms is a British Museum curator of Roman archaeology; his co-curator Peter Higgs is from the museum's Department of Greece and Rome

Terracotta altar with three women, and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily, c 500BC ©Regione Siciliana

The exhibition is an eye-opener, illuminating the fascinating history of Sicily and its character as a multicultural society where different cultures and styles fused intriguingly. Over a period of four millennia Sicily was the target of waves of conquest and settlement by different peoples. From the 8th century BC, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans settled or invaded the island. They were lured by Sicily's strategic position and its fertile volcanic soils bestowed by Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the world's most active volcanoes. Over time, this series of conquests forged a unique cultural identity and made Sicily a cultural centre of the ancient and medieval worlds.

 ceramic dinos with triskelion, fired clay, c.650-600 BC ©Regione Siciliana

Sicily: Culture and Conquest highlights two key eras in Sicily's history. The first began with the arrival of the Greeks from the latter half of the 7th century BC and their encounters with earlier settlers and the Phoenicians. The second is the extraordinary period of enlightenment in the Middle Ages under Norman rule, between about AD 1100 and 1250. The exhibition also includes a small bridging section between these two periods.

The Greek Era

When the Greeks made their first official colony at Naxos on the east coast of Sicily in about 735 BC they imported new ideas and forged cultural and trading links with earlier indigenous settlers. At the press view Peter Higgs said: "There's this old-fashioned view that the Greeks went around civilising everybody and everyone was Barbarians before that, and most people that said that in antiquity were Greeks themselves. But we wanted to start the exhibition with a very small section about prehistoric Sicily and the wonderful sophisticated cultures that archaeologists have been turning up over the last 100 years or so." Such discoveries show that before the Greeks and the Phoenicians arrived on the island "there were thriving communities, hierarchies were taking place, the island was really the hub of the trade network of the Mediterranean from very early periods".

The Phoenicians set up trading colonies in western Sicily from the 9th century BC, and from the eighth century BC the Greeks arrived from different towns, city states and kingdoms all over the Greek world. They set up individual isolated communities on the island which then interacted with the Phoenicians and the people that were there earlier. "The Greeks though started to establish a different political system and one of the most famous systems of government was the Tyrants of Sicily who became notorious, particularly in Roman and later traditions, as being amongst the most cruel of all the Greek rulers in the Mediterranean," Higgs noted.
terracotta roof ornament with head of a gorgon, Gela, Sicily, c500 BC ©Regione Siciliana

"Luckily, they don't show much of this cruelty on their objects: alongside some of these alleged terror incidents they built great temples, some of the largest Greek-style temples anywhere in the Mediterranean. They didn't have their own marble source, they didn't have metal sources, so that any marble, gold or silver that came onto the island was extremely important. But what they did is decorate some of their wonderful temples with terracotta architectural sculptures which soften those harsh lines that you see on those wonderful stone buildings on the island today.

"They were famous, these Tyrants, for taking part in the Olympic and Pythian Games on a world stage where they could show in equestrian events, particularly the daredevil chariot racing in which they themselves they didn't drive the chariots -  they got someone else to do that - but they took all the glory and set up monuments in the mainland of Greece and also back home in Sicily."

The poet Pindar was commissioned to write victory odes for the Tyrants, "so they go down in different ways in history. But they created these extremely cultural courts, very rich, very vibrant, attracting famous names like Sappho, Pindar, Aeschylus, Plato, and it was the birthplace of Archimedes the famous mathematician and scientist. And it's this richness that attracted different people over time to come to Sicily. Some invaders, the Carthaginians had their eye on it, the Athenians tried to invade - but most unsuccessfully- in the 5th century BC.

 marble statue of warrior, Akragas, Sicily, c 470 BC ©Regione Siciliana

"By the 3rd century BC Syracuse became the most important Greek city on the island and Hieron II the Tyrant there was the first Tyrant to have his image on coins - Sicilian coins, fortunately for all those visitors to museums, are among the biggest and best of all ancient Mediterranean coins. He became very wealthy and set out a huge boat around the Mediterranean designed by Archimedes that was going to take the Sicilian treasures - all the wonderful riches and the textiles and agricultural produce - around the world to show off, but the only port that could take it was Alexandria, so he had a very good relationship with the Ptolemaic rulers there. And finally of course Sicily attracted the attention of the next great superpower, and that was to be Rome, and the Carthaginians and some of the Greeks united against this new threat."

gold libation bowl decorated with six bulls, Sant'Angelo Muxaro c 600 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Dirk Booms added that " in the 3rd century BC no one was safe anymore from the Romans who were becoming this new Mediterranean superpower. After having conquered the rest of Italy after their own region around Rome what better than to go immediately to your direct neighbours - which were of course in Sicily at just that tip of the foot of Italy." In the exhibition "we show that moment of conquest, - we are very fortunate because Rome won a decisive battle on 10 March 241 BC and conquered, slaughtered,  the Carthaginian fleet by the Egadi islands off the west coast of Sicily. And we show that in this one bronze battering ram that was put on the prow of a ship to sink your enemy ships, and this particular one is actually from that battle. It's an important object that symbolises that moment.

bronze rostrum (battering ram) and detail from Roman warship from the seabed near Levanzo, c 240 BC
©Regione Siciliana

"The rest of the section that bridges our Greek and Norman periods tells the same story over and over again - we have Romans, we have Vandals and Goths, we have Byzantines, we have Arabs. Sicily keeps its richness because it's still fertile and there are still people working the land  but it is ruled by the debauched elite on the island and by foreign powers outside - the Emperor in Rome, the Emperor in Constantinople, the Caliph in Egypt -and they don't care about the island as long as that richness keeps coming. So there is very little drive for innovation, little drive for art, and that's why this section is deliberately, and naturally, poorly represented in the records."

The Norman Period 

The Normans were the Christian descendants of Vikings that settled in France "and then there were just too many of them. So they start moving elsewhere: in 1066 they came here. Before that they had gone to Italy and  from around the year 1000  they start dominating the south of Italy. And again it's just one logical step from there to the island of Sicily, which was at that point in turmoil because the ruling Arab dynasties were battling each other. The Normans took that moment of opportunity to conquer, and in just 30 years the entire island was theirs," Booms said. 

Very quickly Roger I and his son Roger II - who  figures prominently in Sicily: Culture and Conquest -  "realised that in order to make his kingdom work he should not marginalise the other peoples on this island but should include them in society. Of course he was thinking that because  80 per cent of the population was still Muslim," Booms said. "And so we see a deliberate policy of Roger to incorporate elements from the big kingdoms around him - who also happened to be the people inhabiting his island - including them in  in art, in architecture, in daily life, in society."

In his prestige architectural project all these influences can be seen. "Fatimid craftsmen from North Africa built the woodwork, the wooden ceilings of his churches, of his palaces. Italian craftsmen working in the tradition of the Roman Empire have all the inlaid marble for their walls. And he had Byzantine mosaicists from Constantinople come to lay all those golden mosaics you can still admire today in Monreale, in Palermo, in Messina. It's a deliberate policy."

 Quadrilingual tombstone in 4 languages , marble, Palermo 1149 AD ©Regione Siciliana

One  object that highlights the period is a quadrilingual tombstone in four languages - Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, and Latin - which "really shows Roger's policy of including all the peoples on his island, not just Latin-speaking Christians but Greek-speaking Orthodox Byzantines and Arabic-speaking Arabs and Muslim,  Berbers were there as well, but also the Jewish community, barely recorded in the archaeological record but still on this tombstone in the Judeo-Arabic dialect that they spoke."

"The exhibition shows Roger's  interest in sciences, in new techniques coming ino the land, and the exhibition finishes with the legacy of both the Romans and Frederick II. Frederick II maybe more than Roger on the world scale was an enlightened ruler in the Middle Ages because as well as being grandson of Roger II he was  the grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, making him basically ruler of most of France, Germany, Italy and Sicily. He also became King of Jerusalem; he went on a crusade, the only peacefully negotiated surrender of Jerusalem was that of Frederick II."

 marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220-50 AD ©Deutsches Archaologisches Institut, Rome

"But his story was more than just Sicily - he was rarely ever there - his Kingdom, his Empire, is much bigger. And so we finish with his period because it's still a splendorous period on Sicily but it's just a continuation of what  the Normans already did before him," Booms said. "Unfortunately at his death the Pope sees it as his time to finally get his hands on Sicily, something he had tried to do for centuries, and there was no heir of Frederick that could hold onto the island."

 lid of a casket with peacock decoration, Enamel, gold, copper, probably Sicily, c1250-1300 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Culturally, this is a cyclical event. "We go back to what happened in the Roman period,  the Byzantine and Arab period, it's ruled from afar, firstly the French, then the Spanish,  different Spanish dynasties -  the Habsburgs, the Bourbons - and the people become again impoverished, illiterate, and that's also how they were meant to feel by these rulers from far away," Booms said.

"But that didn't prevent the island from still being full of amazing artists, artistic styles and architecture, following European trends rather than leading them. We show that by ending with a painting by Antonello da Messina, perhaps the most important painter of the Renaissance, born on Sicily. He moves away to train elsewhere but goes back to Sicily."

 Salting Madonna by Antonello da Messina c 1460s
© National Gallery, London

Arab-Norman Palermo a World Heritage Site

In 2015 UNESCO elected  nine civil and religious buildings in Arab-Norman Palermo as a World Heritage Site. Located on the northern coast of Sicily, the buildings comprise two palaces, three churches, a cathedral and a bridge, as well as the cathedrals of Cefalú and Monreale. UNESCO said: "Collectively, they are an example of a social-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures on the island which gave rise to new concepts of space, structure and decoration. They also bear testimony to the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French)."
Monreale Cathedral © CRICD

Sicily: Culture and Conquest includes objects loaned from some of these  nine buildings. They include a 12th century Byzantine-style mosaic showing the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, originally from Palermo Cathedral and held at the Museo Diocesano di Palermo. 

12th century Byzantine-style mosaic  c 1130-1180 AD (on display only from 14 June)

The British Museum is holding a programme of events to complement the exhibition. There is a Music of Sicily concert on 20 May, and on 20 June the Channel Four news presenter Jon Snow chairs a discussion, Crossing borders: European Migration Throughout History. On 22 July there is Sicilian Splendour, described by the Museum as "a free, multisensory evening celebrating the soul of Sicily, past and present - including music, drama, workshops and poetry performances." Sicilian food and drink will be on sale, and the evening includes a wine tasting and a flower mosaic workshop.

Three evening lectures will be held: John Julius Norwich on The Normans in Sicily, on 29 April; author Helena Attleee on Sicily: The Land Where Lemons Grow, on 6 May, and on 24 June Michael Scott of Warwick University talks on Sicily: A Force to be Reckoned With in the Ancient World. 

There is also a series of lunchtime lectures and talks, which are free but for which booking is essential. The curators of Sicily: Culture and Conquest  Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs give a 45-minute illustrated introduction to the exhibition at 13.30 on 28 April, 26 May, 11 June and 15 July.

Other lunchtime lectures and talks are on Athens' Sicilian Adventure (12 May); The Greeks in southern Italy and Sicily (27 May); Multicultural Sicily (3 June); Greeks in Sicily (4 June); Sicilian coins and their stories (14 June); Multiculturalism in Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily (16 June); An Archaeological detective story in early Byzantine Sicily (27 June); Storms, war and shipwrecks: treasures from the Sicilian seas (8 July); and Sicily under Muslim Rule (14 July).

The exhibition is also accompanied by a season of films, presented in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute: The Leopard (21 May); Cinema Paradiso (27 May); A Bigger Splash (4 June), and Nuovomondo (28 July). 
report by Susannah Tarbush, London 

gilded falcon, bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy 1200-1220 AD
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Friday, March 04, 2016

Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea urgently seeks accommodation for Syrian refugees

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC): Refugees Welcome 
Landlords needed

- Can you help refugees? Can you offer a house, a studio, or a flat?
- Are you a local landlord or interested in registering as one?
- Do you know local landlords and can help spread the word?

In response to the Syrian refugee crisis the RBKC Council agreed in October that the Royal Borough should offer to resettle 50 refugees from Syria. The refugees will be resettled as part of the Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS) under which 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees will be resettled by 2020.

The Council is now working with the The RBKC Refugees Welcome Committee  to make the necessary arrangements. They are looking for privately rented accommodation for resettled Syrian refugee families and individuals. Because of high housing prices in RKBC, and existing pressures on Council and housing association properties, the refugees will need to be housed in private rented accommodation.

"At market rents such accommodation would be too expensive for refugees to afford, so our ability to accept refugees in Kensington and Chelsea rests on the generosity of private sector landlords willing to provide suitable accommodation at lower rents than they would normally charge," says the RBKC Refugees Welcome Committee. Several offers of accommodation have been made, but more is urgently needed. Because of the depth of public sympathy and support for Syrian refugees' plight the Council and the Welcome Committee are hopeful that further such offers will emerge.

Landlords would be paid at the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and would need to be able to offer housing of good quality to meet the needs of resettled families, that is available to let for 3 years. 

Help make a difference! 

Interested? Contact Ffion or Maria at Migrants Organise (formerly Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum) at or 020 8964 4815.

To know more: Visit

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Peter Clark's Damascus Diaries give a unique view of life under the Assads

review of Peter Clark’s Damascus Diaries: Life under the Assads
Susannah Tarbush
for an Arabic version of this review see Al-Hayat Arabic daily

During his time as Director of the British Council in Syria in 1992-97, Dr Peter Clark OBE wrote a page-a-day diary. Now London-based Gilgamesh Publishing has published the edited diaries as the 393-page book Damascus Diaries: Life under the Assads.

Clark’s diaries make fascinating, lively and sometimes amusing reading. He was appointed Director of the British Council in Syria at a particularly crucial and sensitive time in relations between the two countries. Diplomatic relations had been restored in autumn 1991 - five years after Britain broke relations because of evidence that the Syrian embassy in London had been involved in Palestinian Nezar Hindawi’s 1986 attempt to blow up an Israeli El Al airliner.

The re-establishment of cultural and educational links via the British Council was a vital part of trying to improve relations between Syria and UK. Damascus Diaries conveys the texture of daily life in Syria as Peter set about restoring British Council activities, starting a programme of English-language teaching and developing educational and cultural exchanges. His diaries give a vivid picture of his many encounters, conversations, meals and parties with members of the artistic, literary, political, academic, and military elite and with “ordinary” Syrians. He also records his extensive travels around Syria on car or by foot.

Peter Clark with his British Council Damascus colleague Motaz Hadaya  ©Peter Clark

He dedicates the book to three key colleagues he employed at the British Council in Damascus: Motaz Hadaya, a Damascene; Vanda Harmaneh, a Christian Jordanian; and Ayoub Ghurairi, a Palestinian refugee who had lived in Damascus since 1948.

In his foreword to Damascus Diaries Sir Andrew Green, who became British ambassador in 1991, pays tribute to Clark’s record in Syria. “His achievements were all the greater because the Syrians were, throughout his time in Damascus, in the grip of a ruthless police state whose multiple secret police forces were deeply suspicious of all contact between Syrians and Western embassies.”

Clark had a unique vantage point from which to see some of the last years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule. There was in the 1990s much interest in contacts between Syria and Israel, and whether these would lead to peace negotiations. There was also speculation over the president’s health, and what would happen if he died (he lived in fact until 2000). His “heir apparent”, his eldest son Basil al-Assad, was killed in a car crash in January 1994. Clark wrote in his diary that the next son, Bashar, “lacks personality... it is his sister Bushra who has the personality”. He compared Bashar to British monarch Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son, Prince Edward, while Bushra was like the more forceful Princess Anne.

Peter Clark with Ulfat Idilbi  ©Peter Clark

In his diaries Clark has the observant eye of a novelist, but his main creative literary passion is translating Arabic literature. While in Syria he constantly met, and read the works of, Syrian authors such as Abdul Salam al-Ujaili, Hanna Mina and Hani al-Rahib. He translated two novels by Ulfat Idilbi, by then in her eighties, which were published by Quartet Books in London - Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet and Grandfather's Tale. His English translations of Sa’dallah Wannus The Elephant O Lord of Ages and Mamduh Udwan’s The Mask were performed at the Institute of Music and Drama in April 1997.

Clark speaks fluent Arabic, having studied the language at Shemlan, Lebanon, in 1971-72. He had spent 25 years with the British Council, in Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates before moving to Syria. But Syria has a special place in his heart. “I fell in love with the country on my first visit in 1962”, he says, and he returned there repeatedly.

Even after he left Syria in 1997 he went back several times escorting British and American tour groups. The last time was in early 2011, when the present crisis was in its early days. “Since then the country has imploded, with unspeakable savageries being committed, the displacement of millions of people, and a total disruption to the warm and friendly Syria that I have described.” Clark writes. He has decided to donate all the royalties from the book to the Saïd Foundation’s Syrian Relief Programme which has “been doing outstanding work for Syrians in crisis”.

It is clear from his diaries that Clark needed skill and patience in trying to navigate his plans for British Council activities in education and culture through the maze of the Baath Party, the Assad family and the power of certain Alawites. He often expresses frustration with the Syrian political system, and sometimes with the British embassy and his bosses at the British Council back in London.

One of his major achievements was getting Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas put on in Arabic 1995. The opening performance, at the Ebla Cham Hotel in Damascus was attended by nine Syrian minsters, the chief of staff General Hikmat Shihabi and the Lebanese Minister of Culture. “There is a sense of awe in the audience,” writes Clark. “We are presenting excellence, colour, movement, singing, and most of the performers are Syrian!” The opera was then performed in Palmyra, and at the Roman theatre in Bosra.

Clark is an intensely sociable character, and writes: “I am grateful for the friendship of hundreds of Syrians.” The index to his diaries contains the names of around 800 people, the majority of them Syrians. There are also references to some Britons: for example Bishop Kenneth Cragg who visited Syria in August 1995. Clark took the Bishop to meet the Mufti, Ahmad Kaftaru, and they “are soon talking warmly together... they walk hand in hand to the door.”

Peter Clark with Ahmad Kaftaru and (3rd from left) Bishop Kenneth Cragg © Peter Clark

An extract from Damascus Diaries: Life Under the Assads by Peter Clark

Thursday 19 August 1993
I have lunch with the novelist Hani al-Rahib. He does not think much of Ulfat Idilbi as a writer. I should be translating Ghada Samman. Ulfat is backward-looking and reinforces Western stereotypes. Hmmm. He is wanting to give up teaching – he is a lecturer in English at the University of Kuwait – and start a photography business. We discuss modern literature and Syria.

In the evening I go out to a restaurant in the Barada Valley with Hikmat Shatti, designer, Fitna al-Rayess, niece of the publisher Riyad, and two film directors, Muhammad Malas and Umar Amiralai. Conversation is all in Arabic, but it is searching and exhausting. We return, after much araq, at about half past one.

Saturday 21 August 1993
I work on translating Dimashq Ya Basmati al-Huzn by Ulfat Idilbi, and work out words for different rooms in a house – there are over ten words. I am invited to a “Hawaii” evening at a house of one of the British oil executives. Precious and beautiful people. I wear shorts, the shirt I bought in Carnaby Street in 1968 and a floppy hat. I have a long discussion with the helpful Adam Ereli [a diplomat from the US embassy] He loves suckled pig and is far more aware of Alawite politics than anyone in the British Embassy. He is also aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Ba’ath Paty. The member of the Party Command in charge of higher education, Wahib Tannous, is an old-style Communist sympathiser.

Monday 23 August 1993
I go to the Embassy and read the Ambassador’s carefully-written paper on what happens to the Peace Process if Hafez al-Assad dies. It is interesting, but suggests that there could be the possibility of a civil war and of Islamic fundamentalists taking over. Of course both are possible scenarios. But a civil war? There are numerous factions and confessions  in the country – as in Lebanon – but there has not been the build-up of private armies, with war lords. If there were a civil war, where would the weapons come from? Iraq overland? Libya by sea? Kurds? Before the level of weapons became dangerous there would be ample time to secure the borders. But I think plenty of people are mindful of what happened in Lebanon. There are plenty of forces against a civil war. Similarly there is a coalition against the Muslim fundamentalists, who could claim an alternative legitimacy. Hopes for the Peace Process do rely on the survival of Hafez al-Assad. All that is a sobering thought for our activities. We are getting a hundred enquiries a day about English classes.

Tuesday 24 August 1993
I have dinner with an Embassy colleague. There have been serious electricity power cuts. “After 30 years of the Ba’ath Party, they can’t get the electricity right.” This is saloon-bar political analysis. Syria, like any other place, is an aggregate of individuals. One of my Syrian colleagues tells me that her mother-in-law, who comes from a village in the north, was married when she was 11 and screamed as she was raped on her bridal night. In her older age she now hates men, all men.

Wednesday 25 August 1993
Salah Jadid, one of the rivals of Hafez al-Assad 25 years ago, has died.

At five in the afternoon I set out north and drive to Tartous. I buy some chocolates for my hosts and go the labyrinth of roads in the hills, asking my way to the village of Qarqifta. The Alawite villages are full of people walking out in the evening - men, women, girls, courting couples. I reach Qarqifta and a young man shows me the way to [General Dr] Mahmud Zughaiby's house. After a shower, Mahmud takes me off to a beach caféne near Baniyas where there is a party full of young people. It is 1am before I get to bed.

book extract published with the kind permission of Peter Clark and Gilgamesh Publishing 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

18 February London event celebrates Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize winner Paul Starkey

Event to celebrate and congratulate Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize 2015 winner Paul Starkey 
@ Waterstones Piccadilly
Thursday 18 February
* This is a free event, but please reserve your place by emailing *

“The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, published at the height of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, is one of the most adventurous and innovative novels to have appeared in Arabic in recent years and its English version is a tour de force of translation.” 

Paul Starkey - winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Egyptian writerYoussef Rakha's novel The Book of the Sultan's Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars - will be in conversation with Rakha - who blogs at The Sultan's Seal ("Cairo's coolest cosmopolitan hotel. General Manager: Youssef Rakha.") - and with Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation and former head of books at the Telegraph. The evening includes readings, audience Q and As, a book signing and a reception.
The event is hosted jointly by the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature and Waterstones Piccadilly.

from 6.30pm, for 7.00pm start

Waterstones Piccadilly Bookstore 203/206 Piccadilly, London W1J 9HD

Friday, February 12, 2016

Palestinian Ambassador to UK objects to Foreign Secretary Hammond's comment

The Palestinian Mission in the UK issued today the following statement on Palestinian Ambassador Manuel Hassassian's response to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's lecture at the Conservative Middle East Council's Policy Meeting earlier this week: 

Ambassador Hassassian at the Annual Policy Meeting of the Conservative Middle East Council.

The Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Manuel Hassassian attended the Annual Policy Lecture of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) on Wednesday evening, 10th February. The event enjoyed a packed audience of ministers, MPs, Peers and the Arab diplomatic corps in London.

The Foreign Secretary, The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP delivered the 2016 Annual Policy Lecture and spoke about the current security situation in the Middle East and the lack of stability. He emphasised that all efforts are now being exerted to find a solution to the conflict in Syria. Towards the end of his speech, he touched on the critical situation in Palestine, assigning the stalemate in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians to the intransigence of ‘elites on both sides’ leading to suffering among ordinary people.

H.E. Manuel Hassassian was the first to take the floor after the Foreign Secretary and re-joined that although he sincerely agreed with what The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP had said about Syria, he had to disagree, in absolute terms, with him in relation to Israel and Palestine.

He strongly questioned the fact that the Foreign Secretary had framed the issue by putting the Israelis and the Palestinians on an equal footing. This was an unacceptable assertion as they are not equal at all. Israel is the occupier and the Palestinians are occupied and the impasse in the peace process is directly due to Israeli policies. The Ambassador highlighted, in particular, the fact that Israel is building more and more illegal settlements on expropriated territory which amounts to a creeping annexation of Palestinian land. This, he emphasised, is the chief obstacle to any meaningful dialogue at the current time.

The Foreign Secretary thanked Ambassador Hassassian for his valuable contribution and said he was of the same view when it came to illegal Israeli settlement building which he agreed was definitely an impediment to peace.