Sunday, March 01, 2015

Saqi Books publishes John McHugo's 'Syria: A Recent History'


British author John McHugo explores the historical roots of the Syrian predicament
by Susannah Tarbush 
(An Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 28 February 2015)

Despite the crucial importance of Syria in today’s turbulent international politics, there is a striking lack of in-depth knowledge of the country and its history in much of the West. In the preface to his book “Syria: A Recent History”, British author John McHugo writes: “To the English-speaking world Syria is a far-off country which relatively few people have made a serious effort to understand.”

The “Arab Spring” aroused great interest and excitement when it began. But when the crackdown on protesters in Syria evolved into civil war and a man-made humanitarian crisis, “disaster fatigue seemed all too often to be the general reaction to what was happening.”

McHugo’s book, published by Saqi Books in London as a paperback in March, makes a valuable contribution towards increasing knowledge and understanding of Syria and of the historical processes that contributed to the dire situation in it is today.

The book will appeal to the specialist and the general reader alike. In addition to McHugo’s lively, clear, and admirably fair-minded and balanced text, the book includes copious notes on each chapter, an extensive bibliography, a nine-page chronology of history, maps and a glossary of terms.

Saqi published the first edition of McHugo’s book in mid-2014 as a hardback entitled “Syria: From the Great War to Civil War”. For the new, paperback, edition under the title “Syria: A Recent History” McHugo has updated his text to take into account changes on the ground since the first edition was published.

The new edition includes high praise for the book from publications such as the Sunday Herald, Jordan Times, Journal of Peace , and Times Literary Supplement, and from experts and scholars including Nikolaus van Dam, Ray Hinnebusch and Andrew Arsan.

The New York publisher The New Press bought the North American publishing rights to the book. It published the book in February this year as a hardback and as an e-book under the title: “Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years.”

McHugo is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University, Scotland, a board member of the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) and a member of the supervisory board of the British Egyptian Society.He read Arabic at Wadham College, Oxford University, and after graduating in 1973 he spent two years at the American University in Cairo studying for an MA in Islamic History.

 John McHugo
While at the American University in Cairo McHugo made his first visit to Syria, taking a walking holiday in November 1974 through the mountains from the Crusader Castle at Crac de Chevaliers to the Assassins’ Castle at Masyaf. He spent every night as the guest of local people, and in his book he describes his various encounters with Syrians, who clearly made a deep impression on him.

From the American University in Cairo McHugo returned to Oxford University and obtained an MLitt degree in Medieval Sufi Literature. He then studied law and qualified as a solicitor, working first in Oman, and then in London for the Bahraini government, and later spending much time in Cairo.

McHugo joined the Liberal Democrats because that party opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he is chairman of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.

Sadly, one way in which he has had to update his book for the new edition is in giving increased figures on the devastating human toll of the civil war. By December 2014 an estimated 200,000 Syrians had been killed. Of the population of almost 22.2 million people, more than 9.6 million had fled their homes: of these, 3.2 million had left Syria, while a further 6.45 million were internally displaced. McHugo has also updated the book in terms of the rise and expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Shaam (ISIS), and its declaration of a Caliphate state in June 2014.

A major recurring theme of the book is the effect of actions of outside powers on Syria over the past 100 years, with France and Britain deciding under the 1916 secret Sykes Picot agreement on how to carve up Greater Syria and neighbouring parts of the former Ottoman Empire after the end of the First World War.

One reason the English-speaking world knows relatively little about Syria is that after the First World War it was the French who got the mandate for Syria and Lebanon while Britain had the mandates for Palestine and Iraq. McHugo is highly critical of French actions in Syria. France had a vision of a permanent presence in Syria, which conflicted with the “sacred trust of civilisation” which the mandate system of the League of Nations was supposed to provide. Another major outside factor has been the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has had “an enormous and deleterious effect on Syria” over the years.

During the Cold War Syria was a pawn between the Soviet Union and USA, and “in fact today’s Syrian civil war could be said to be the last proxy conflict of the Cold War.” Or, even more disturbingly, as “the harbinger of the revival of the Cold War which has now begun in Ukraine.”

Certain Arab states – especially Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – and non-Arab Middle East countries Iran and Turkey have also “played games” in Syria. It is because of the importance of the outside factors that for each of the main periods covered in his book, McHugo first considers the impact of wars and foreign affairs before turning to the developments which took place within Syria.

At each stage “events happening outside Syria circumscribed the freedom of action open to its rulers and foreclosed the options available to them. This does not excuse or justify some of the actions those rulers took, but their actions cannot be examined in isolation from what was going on between Syria and its neighbours.”

McHugo sees one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Syrian politics as being what happened to Ba’thism. Initially a nationalist movement which seemingly cared deeply about social justice and healing the rifts in society throughout the Arab world, it had the added advantage for Syrians of having been born in Damascus. But the way in which Ba’thism degenerated into the dictatorship of the Assads is “an object lesson for other Arab countries at the present time.”

Another salutary example is the chaos of parliamentary life in Syria under the mandate and the years after independence. “The glimpses of that chaos which this book contains are a dire warning. It led to impatience with elected politicians and is part of the story of the descent into dictatorship.”

The importance of religious politics grew as a reaction to the failures of Ba’thists and other Arab nationalists. “Islamism is not well understood in the West. It is ultimately a quest for authenticity and identity” McHugo says. “Many Syrians may well want a form of democracy that acknowledges in some way the Islamic roots of the majority of the population. Such a democracy could not be more different from the kind of rule offered by militant organisations like al-Qa’ida or ISIS, which are infamous for their brutality and intolerance.”


McHugo makes interesting comparisons between the behaviour of the French in crushing the 1925-27 Syrian revolt, and the campaign of violence since 2011 by the Ba’thist regime of Bashar al-Assad. In both cases the regimes resorted to intense violence against civilians, as in al-Assad’s bombardment of civilian areas and his recruitment of militias such as the Shabiha to terrorise rural areas and put down uprisings.

Both the French and Ba’thist regimes demonised their opponents as religious extremists. There was a strong feeling among Syrian protestors that the French in 1925, and Bashar al-Assad today, lacked legitimacy. And in both cases expectations had been raised: before the French arrived, Syrians had expected that their country would become independent, while in the early years of Bashar’s presidency many hoped he would reform the system and bring freedom. The weakness of the economy, and the failure of government to help the population, also helped to fuel both the 1925 rebellion and the uprising which began in 2011.

 Historical comparisons can also be drawn between the harshness of the response of Bashar al-Assad’s regime against the demonstrations that grew into a civil war and that of his father Hafez al-Assad in Hama in 1982.

President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar in his turn demonized their opponents as Islamist fanatics. While Hafez al-Assad found overwhelming force worked against his opponents, the actions of Bashar’s regime against people demonstrating for their freedom helped turn the protests into an Islamist uprising. “It was much easier to fight with tanks and bomber aircraft against a demonised opponent in battles that destroyed half the urban landscape of Syria than to deal with crowds agitating for their human rights and free elections.”

McHugo often wonders what became of those Syrians and their families he met while he was walking in the mountains on his first trip to Syria four decades ago. On that trip he was entertained by Orthodox Christians, Ismaili Muslims and Sunni Muslims, and what struck him most was the great similarity between them all. “Whatever differences their religions might have, the likenesses were far greater.” Whenever he has returned to Syria – most recently in December 2014 – he has observed exactly the same thing.

McHugo writes that although at the moment Syrians are being forced back into their sectarian identities, “I refuse to believe that in Syria the secularism based on mutual respect between members of different faiths has ended. But I also know that many would now call this belief of mine an act of faith. Only time will tell.”

Friday, February 13, 2015

shortlist of IPAF - the 'Arabic Booker' prize - is unveiled

International Prize for Arabic Fiction announces 2015 shortlist 


Atef Abu Saif of Palestine, Jana Elhassan of Lebanon, Lina Huyan Elhassan of Syria, Shukri al-Mabkhout of Tunisia, Ahmed al-Madeeni of Morocco and Hammour Ziada of Sudan were today announced as the six authors shortlisted for this year's $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, often referred to as the Arabic Booker Prize).  For the first time in IPAF's eight year history, no Egyptian author appears on the shortlist.

The shortlisted novels are A Suspended Life (published by Al-Ahlia) by Atef Abu Saif;  Floor 99 ( Difaf Publications) by Jana Elhassan;  Diamonds and Women (Dar al-Adab) by Lina Huyan Elhassan;   The Italian (Dar Tanweer, Tunis) by Shukri al-Mabkhout;  Willow Alley (Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi) by Ahmed al-Madeeni and The Longing of the Dervish (Dar al-Ain) by Hammour Ziada. 

IPAF is awarded annually for prose fiction in Arabic. The winner receives $50,000, plus the $10,000 that goes to each of the six shortlisted finalists.  The novels were chosen from 180 entries from 15 countries, all published within the last 12 months.

The winner of IPAF 2015 will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on Wednesday 6 May - the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The prize, launched in Abu Dhabi in April 2007, is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and is funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. There is additional support from Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Etihad Airways

Mourid Barghouti (credit: Peter Everard Smith)

In keeping with IPAF tradition, the identities of the judges of the prize were kept secret until the press conference in Casablanca, Morocco, to announce their choice of shortlisted novels. The  chair of the judges was revealed to be the award-winning Palestinian poet and writer, Mourid Barghouti. His fellow judges are Egyptian academic  Ayman A. El-Desouky; Bahraini poet, critic, and media expert Parween Habib; Iraqi critic and academic Najim A. Kadhim, and Japanese academic, translator and researcher Kaoru Yamamoto

IPAF 2015 judges with (centre) IPAF administrator Fleur Montanaro

The press conference was held at the Royal Mansour Hotel, in partnership with the Moroccan Ministry of Culture and the Casablanca International Book Fair. 

The judges praised the effective and creative artistic techniques with which the writers approached their subjects. Such techniques included: adopting a flowing, quiet narrative when rendering the intricacies of a violent history (Floor 99); the widening, panoramic view offered of a tumultuous period of history, through a gripping and inspiring story (The Italian); the ability of a narrator to effectively portray the cruelties a society can inflict on its dispossessed minority (Willow Alley); delving into the complex and hidden recesses of a human soul which is grappling with the authority of the sacred, whether religious or secular (The Longing of the Dervish); a writer being able to undo fixed views by offering rich counter narratives, penetrating into the intricacies of social realities (A Suspended Life); and, finally, the shrewd narration that blends disparate life stories into one account of intertwined destinies (Diamonds and Women). 

Jana Elhassan

One formerly shortlisted novelist, Jana Elhassan (Me, She and the Other Women, 2013) makes the list along with a former nadwa participant, Lina Huyan Elhassan. (The IPAF nadwa or workshop is held annually for around a week to encourage emerging Arab authors, with established Arab authors acting as mentors).

The shortlisted authors are a mixture of academics and journalists and range widely in age, with Ahmed al-Madeeni the eldest at 67 and Jana Elhassan the youngest at 30. There is one debut novelist, Shukri al-Mabkhout, with The Italian. One of the books, The Longing of the Dervish, was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in December 2014. 

Chair of the judges Mourid Barghouti commented: "Reading the 180 novels nominated for the Prize this year, the judges observed that the thematic concerns were broadly similar. Our objective was to identify the ability of the novelists to find artistic solutions and fresh technical approaches to their themes. We believe that this is reflected in the six novels announced today."  

Professor Yasir Suleiman

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said: The novels on this year's shortlist feature a diverse range of characters and narratives stances and styles. They are all marked with subtlety of voice and force of vision. This list builds on the success of previous years in bringing quality Arabic fiction to wider audiences.

THE 2015 SHORTLIST  
 Atef Abu Saif

Atef Abu Saif was born in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1973, to a family originally from Jaffa. He holds a B.A. from Birzeit University, an M.A. from the University of Bradford (UK) and a PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the University of Florence, Italy. Abu Saif teaches Political Science at the University of Al-Azhar, Gaza, and is Chief Editor of Siyasat magazine, published by the Public Policy Institute in Ramallah. He is the author of four novels: Shadows in the Memory (1997), The Tale of the Harvest Night (1999), Snowball (2000) and The Sour Grapes of Paradise (2003). He has also published two collections of short stories, three plays and a number of books of political science, including: Civil Society and the State: A Foundational Reading with Particular Reference to Palestine (2005). He writes a weekly article for the Palestinian Ayyam newspaper. Abu Saif edited, and contributed a story to, The Book of Gaza - an anthology of short stories by Palestinian writers published last summer by Comma Press. His account of the 2014 Gaza War The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries From a City Under Fire, with a foreword by Noam Chomsky, is forthcoming from Comma. His acclaimed dispatches during that war appeared in international publications including the New York Times, The Sunday Times and Guernica. 

A Suspended Life

A Suspended Life is set in a Gaza refugee camp. Naim runs the only print shop in the camp, where he prints posters of martyred members of the community. When he is shot and killed by the Army, the fallout from his death changes the lives of the community living a quiet life on the fringes of the camp, where Naim's house sits on a small hill. The place has historical significance for the residents and, when the government plans to build a police station and mosque on the spot where Naim's house stands, this leads to a clash between the residents and the police. 

Jana Elhassan is a Lebanese novelist and journalist, born in 1985. She has worked in journalism and translation since 2009 and has published literary texts and short stories in a number of cultural periodicals. Her first novel, Forbidden Desires, was published in 2009 and won the Simon Hayek Prize in Batroun, northern Lebanon. Her novel Me, She and the Other Women was shortlisted for IPAF 2013. 

Floor 99

Floor 99 unfolds between the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon and life in the city of New York in 2000. Majd is a young Palestinian man who bears a scar from the massacre. In present day New York, he falls in love with Hilda, a dancer, whose wealthy family from Mount Lebanon thrived on the power of the Christian right wing during the Lebanese civil war - who were directly linked to the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. When Hilda decides to return to her village on Mount Lebanon to discover her roots, Majd is torn between mental images of the old enemy and his fear of losing her. He is forced to reflect on the painful events which took the life of his pregnant mother and turned his father, a teacher, into a rose-seller on the streets of Harlem. From his office on the 99th floor of a New York building, Majd's Palestinian identity seems ambiguous, especially given that he was born and has always lived in exile. The novel reflects on the power of love to cleanse hatred and brings the post-war Lebanese generation face-to-face with their ancestors. 



 Lina Huyan Elhassan

Lina Huyan Elhassan is a Syrian novelist, born in 1975. She obtained a Diploma in Advanced Philosophy Studies from the Damascus University. She currently lives in Lebanon and has worked as a journalist since 2003. She has published nine works of fiction and non-fiction, including novels, poetry and studies of the Syrian desert. She took part in the 2010 nadwa - writers' residential workshop - hosted by IPAF. 

Diamonds and Women
Diamonds and Women describes two generations of Arab exiles, revealing the secret, privileged world of Arab emigrants and showing their influence on their chosen cities of Paris, Sao Paolo and Damascus. The novel focuses particularly on Syrians living in Paris and Sao Paolo from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1970s and 1980s and the experiences of the heroine, Almaz, as she witnesses key points of Arab social and political history in the modern era. 

Shukri al-Mabkhout

Shukri al-Mabkhout was born in Tunis in 1962. He holds a state doctorate in Literature from the Arts College of Manouba, Tunisia, and is head of the Manouba University. He is on the editorial board of several refereed journals, including the magazine published by the Institute of Arabic Literature in Tunis (Ibla) and Romano Arabica published by The Centre for Arab Studies in Bucharest, Romania. He is the author of several works of literary criticism. 

The Italian

The Italian is al-Mabkhout's first novel. At its heart  is Abdel Nasser (nicknamed 'the Italian') and his mysterious assault on the Imam, his neighbour, during his father's funeral procession. The book's narrator attempts to uncover the motivations behind the attack, re-constructing his friend Abdel Nasser's troubled history from childhood. It looks at Abdel Nasser's time as a left-wing student at the University of Tunis, during the final years of the Bourguiba era and the beginning of Ben Ali's, through to the period of radical changes that subsequently rocked Tunisian society, when the dreams of a generation were torn apart by the fierce struggle between the Islamists and the Left. The novel reveals the mechanisms of control and censorship exercised through the press as well as the fragility of human beings, their secret histories and buried wounds. 

Ahmed al-Madeeni

Ahmed al-Madeeni is a Moroccan writer, born in 1947. He studied at the University of Morocco, the University of Paris 8, and the Sorbonne, where he gained his doctorate. He has published a number of novels and short story collections as well as works of literary criticism. His complete works were published in five volumes by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture in 2014. He won the Moroccan Prize for Literary Criticism in 2006 and the Moroccan Prize for the short story in 2009. He holds an academic post in higher education. 


Willow Alley tells the story of a bustling, ancient Moroccan town which hides many secrets, where residents struggle to live in peace while at the mercy of a few arrogant and despotic individuals. Focusing on the struggle between the caretaker of a building under construction and a group of people clinging to their land in order to survive, the novel examines the individual's right to exist in a country where lives are vulnerable to exploitation and the powerful thrive at the expense of the weak. 

Hammour Ziada

Hammour Ziada is a Sudanese writer and journalist, born in Khartoum in 1977. He has worked for charitable and civil society organisations, and as a journalist for a number of Sudanese newspapers, including Al-Mustaqilla, Ajras al-Horriya, and Al-Jarida. He was Chief Editor of the cultural section of the Sudanese Al-Akhbar paper. He is the author of several works of fiction: A Life Story from Omdurman (short stories, 2008), Al-Kunj (a novel, 2010), Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain (short stories, 2014). His second novel, The Longing of the Dervish (2014), now shortlisted for IPAF 2015, won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2014.

The Longing of the Dervish

The Longing of the Dervish, set in 19th century Sudan during the collapse of the theocratic state, follows the story of Bakhi Mindeel, a former slave newly released from prison and seeking revenge for his imprisonment. His release coincides with the end of the Mahdist war, a British colonial war fought between Egypt and a section of Sudanese society seeking independence under their religious leader, Mahdi when Mahdi and his followers are defeated and force to flee. The Longing of the Dervish examines the social conflict between white Christian and Islamic Sufi cultures in Sudan, exploring the concepts of love, religion, betrayal and political struggle. 

IPAF 2015 Judging Panel 

Mourid Barghouti (Chair) is an award-winning Palestinian poet and writer. He has produced 12 volumes of poetic works, the first published in 1972 and the last in 2005. His poetry has been translated into many other languages and won him the Palestine Award for Poetry in 2000. He is also the author of two novels: I Saw Ramallah (2003) and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here (2011). I Saw Ramallah won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 1997 and was translated into several languages, including English, with an introduction written by Edward Said. He has written articles of literary criticism on poetry and prose and delivered lectures on Arabic literature at several Arab and international universities. 

Dr Ayman El-Desouky

Ayman A. El-Desouky is an Egyptian academic and the Founding Chair of the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS, 2009-2012) at SOAS, University of London, where he has been lecturing on Modern Arabic and Comparative Literature since 2002. He is also co-founder of a pioneering programme in Global English Literary Studies (launched 2014). Dr El-Desouky has lectured on World Literature and American Literature at the University of Texas at Austin (1993-1995), on Arabic Language and Literature at Baltimore  Johns Hopkins University (1995-1996), where he founded a new programme in Arabic Language and Literature, and at Harvard University (1996-2002). He is a member of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America (MESA) and the British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA). He has lectured widely on hermeneutics, comparative literature and literary theory in Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. His most recent publications include: The Intellectual and the People in Egyptian Literature and Culture: Amara and the 2011 Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Between Hermeneutic Provenance and Textuality: The Qur'an and the Question of Method in Approaches to World Literature, Journal of Qur'anic Studies, 16.3 (2014); and Heterologies of Revolutionary Action: On Historical Consciousness and the Sacred in Mahfouz's Children of the Alley, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 47.4 (September 2011). He is currently preparing a long monograph on Figuring the Sacred in the Modern Arabic Novel for Edinburgh University Press. 

Parween Habib

Parween Habib is a Bahraini poet, critic and media expert. She has overseen specialist training for Dubai Media Incorporated and helped to launch highly successful cultural dialogue programmes, the first of their kind in the Gulf. In 2011, she won the Dynamic Women Prize awarded by The George Washington University, the first international prize to be given to successful and inspiring women from around the globe. Her story was studied by students of the university on one of the world's largest online networks. She is the author of two critical works and three poetry collections and her poetry has been translated into seven languages. 

Habib obtained an MA (with distinction) in Literary Criticism, focusing on the poetic style of Nizar Qabbani, from Ain Shams University, Cairo, and a PhD (with distinction) in Literary Criticism: a study of the language of women's poetry in the Gulf (1975-2004), from the Arab League University, Egypt. Her book on Techniques of Expression in the Poetry of Nizar Qabbani is part of the Arabic language curriculum at secondary school level in Bahrain. Habib is a member of the committee for modernising methods of teaching the Arabic language, an initiative of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She writes a weekly article for Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper and a monthly article for the Dubai Cultural magazine. She has conducted televised interviews with 500 Arab novelists, poets and thinkers. Her poetry collections include: Your Scared Masculinity, my Paper Childhood (2001), I Gave the Mirror my Back (2009), The Butterfly (2012), and a book of prose entitled: Lace/Less than the Desert (2010). 

Najim A. Kadhim is an Iraqi critic and academic, born in Iraq in 1951. He obtained his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Exeter (UK) in 1984. He has since taught there as a visiting lecturer, and has also taught at universities in Iraq, Libya, Jordan and Oman. He currently teaches Critical Theory, Modern Literature and Comparative Literature at the University of Baghdad's College of Arts. His special area of interest is 'The Other in modern Arabic literature'. 

Among his published works are: The Problem of Dialogue in the Arabic Novel (2004), winner of the 2003 Rashid Bin Humaid Award in the UAE; The Other in Modern Arabic Poetry (2010), winner of the 2010 YBA Kanoo Award in Bahrain; Icons of Delusion: the Arab Critic and Problematics of Modern Criticism (2011), longlisted for the 2014 Sheikh Zayed Book Award; Us and the Other in the Contemporary Arabic Novel (2013), winner of the 2014 Arab Creativity Award given by the Arab Thought Foundation in Lebanon; Encyclopedia of the Iraqi Novel 1919-2014 (2015). 

Kaoru Yamamoto is a Japanese academic, translator and researcher. Having received her PhD in Literature from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, she lectures in Arabic language, literature and culture at several Japanese universities. She has published many articles on both classical and modern Arabic literature, and has translated many works, including those of Emile Habiby, Rashid al-Daif and Abdul Rahman al-Abnudi, into Japanese. She was previously a research associate of the Research and Educational Project for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Here she took charge of the translation team, which focuses on Arabic daily papers, and published a textbook on the translation of Media Arabic into Japanese.  

Previous IPAF winners

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).

Taher's Sunset Oasis was translated into English by Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton) in 2009 and has gone on to be translated into at least eight languages worldwide. Ziedan's Azazeel was published in the UK by Atlantic Books in April 2012, while 2013 saw the publication of Spanish translations of Baha Taher's Sunset Oasis (El Oasis) and Rabee Jaber's The Druze of Belgrade (Los Drusos de Belgrado) and Youssef Ziedan's Azazeel (Azazel) by Madrid-based publisher Turner. More recently, English translations of Abdo Khal and Mohammed Achaari's winning novels appeared on bookshop shelves in 2014, published by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. 

Saud Alsanousi's The Bamboo Stalk (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, June) will be published in the UK in April 2015. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi has recently secured English publication with Oneworld in the UK and Penguin Books in the US. It is set to be published in Autumn 2016, translated into English by Jonathan Wright.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Karim Miské to discuss his debut novel 'Arab Jazz' at Oxford & London events

Arab Jazz – Book Tour
February 9 @ 7:00 pm - February 11 @ 8:00 pm


The prizewinning French filmmaker and writer Karim Miské visits the UK in the second week of February to celebrate the publication of the English translation of his debut novel Arab Jazz. The translation, by Sam Gordon, is published by Quercus imprint MacLehose Press and is supported by Institut Français du Royaume-Uni in London, English PEN, and Arts Council England.

The novel was first published in French in 2012 as Arab Jazz by Éditions Viviane Hamy. It was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière  

Arab Jazz won a 2014 English PEN award for promotion via the PEN Promotes programme, hence the UK tour. At three events - two in London, one in Oxford - Miské will be in conversation variously with writer and activist Tariq Ali, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, writer, and lecturer Kenan Malik, journalist and Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore and thriller writer Sarah Lotz.

The novel, a literary thriller set amongst Muslim and other immigrant communities in Paris's cosmopolitan 19th arrondissement, could hardly be more topical. Miské told the London-based Independent newspaper: "When I heard about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I was deeply disturbed like most people. Then I heard how the killers crashed their car at Place du Colonel Fabien and that they had hijacked another car and driven down the Rue Petit – all places which appear in Arab Jazz - I thought what is happening? Why have these people invaded my book?

Miské was born in 1964 in Abidjan to a Mauritanian father and a French mother, and grew up in Paris.  He studied journalism in Dakar and now lives in France where he is a documentary filmmaker on subjects including deafness (for which he learned sign language) and the common roots of the Jewish and Muslim religions.

The publisher of the English translation of Arab Jazz says:
"Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse.

"The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm?

"In debut novel Karim Miské demonstrates a masterful control of setting, as he moves seamlessly between the sensual streets of Paris and the synagogues of New York to reveal the truth behind a horrifying crime."



 Karim Miské ©Antoine Rozes

Karim will appear at the following events to celebrate the launch of Arab Jazz:

OXFORD – Monday 9 February 2015, 7pm at Blackwell’s Oxford: Karim Miské in conversation with Tariq Ali. Tickets: £3 (Tel: 01865 333623
Email: events.oxford@blackwell.co.uk

LONDON – Tuesday 10 February 2015, 7pm at Institut Français: The Spectrum of Radicalism – Fact and Fiction. Karim Miské in conversation with Kenan Malik and Suzanne Moore. Tickets: £8/£6

LONDON – Wednesday 11 February 2015, 7pm at Waterstones Piccadilly: Collisions of Faith and Culture. Karim Miské in conversation with Sarah Lotz and Elif Shafak. Tickets: FREE (but please reserve your place by email: piccadilly@waterstones.com)
Susannah Tarbush, London

Monday, January 05, 2015

Iraqi poet Fadhil Assultani writes his perspective on British poet Philip Larkin

Review - first published October 2014 in About Larkin issue 38 -  of Fadhil Assultani's  Philip Larkin, An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude, Sex and the Ordinary (Mira Publishing House, Leeds, UK, 2013), 84pp. £6.60. ISBN 978-1-908509-05-5

by Susannah Tarbush, London

The study Philip Larkin, An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude, Sex and the Ordinary by the Iraqi poet, translator and journalist Fadhil Assultani may be the only work on Larkin by an Arab author written and published in recent years in English. Assultani has lived since 1994 in London, where he is head of the cultural department of a leading pan-Arab newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat. He was editor-in-chief of the cultural quarterly Aqwas from 2009–2011, and contributes poems to the independent Iraqi daily Al-Mada "to reach Iraqi readers after so many years of discontinuity with them".

Assultani wrote his Larkin study as the dissertation for an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, London University. Mira Publishing House of Leeds has published the dissertation as an 84-page book. In addition to writing about Larkin, Assultani is one of the few translators of his poems into Arabic. His translations of the poems 'Wants', 'The Literary World', 'New eyes each year' and 'How to Sleep' appear in his compendious anthology Khamsoun Ama min Al-Shi'ir al-Britani 1950–2000 (Fifty Years of British Poetry 1950–2000) published in Damascus in 2008. The anthology contains the work of 56 British poets in Arabic translation. Assultani edited and researched the book, and carried out all the translations. He worked on the anthology on and off for 10 years.

Khamsoun Ama min Al-Shi'ir al-Britani 1950–2000 (Fifty Years of British Poetry 1950–2000)

Assultani is a key figure on the lively Arab-British cultural scene. His own poetry has appeared in English translation in publications including Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature, Open Democracy, and Modern Poetry in Translation's March 2003 Iraqi Poetry Today issue, which was the first collection of modern Iraqi poetry to appear in the West. His poems have also been translated into Dutch, Spanish, Kurdish and Persian.

Assultani was born near the city of Hillah, capital of Babylon province, in 1948. That year also marked the birth in Iraq of the modern Arab free verse poetry movement, which Assultani describes as 'the biggest revolution in Arabic poetry for more than 1,000 years'. From Iraq the new poetry movement spread to Lebanon, Egypt and other Arab countries. In classical Arabic poetry, verse is written according to the rules of al-'amud, meaning pillars or columns. 'There is a rhythm in free verse, and rhyme as well, but with different units, not just one unit as in classical Arab poetry,' Assultani says.

There were three major Iraqi pioneers of the free verse movement: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati, and the woman poet Nazik al-Malaika. British and other English-language poets – including T S Eliot, W H Auden, Ezra Pound and Edith Sitwell – were a major influence on the Iraqi poetry movement. Sitwell famously had a profound effect on the poetry of al-Sayyab. Her poem 'Still Falls the Rain' influenced his 1960 poem 'Song of Rain'.

Assultani came of age as a poet in this atmosphere of experimentation with form. He wrote his first poem at the age of 11: 'It was of course about love'. His poetry was first published, in a newspaper literary supplement, when he was 17. He was eager to read the new poetry, and would borrow money to buy the latest issue of Al-Adab literary magazine founded in Beirut in 1953. He was particularly influenced by al-Sayyab, whom he regards as the greatest Arab poet of the 20th century.

Fadhil Assultani

Assultani studied English literature at Baghdad University's College of Arts. 'We studied prose and poetry, we studied Eliot, we studied Dylan Thomas, we studied Graham Greene, we studied Henry James and many many more.' After graduation in 1971, he became a journalist on the daily culture page of the Iraqi Communist Party newspaper Tariq al-Shaab (The Way of the People). The editor of the culture page was Saadi Youssef, who turned 80 this year and is regarded as the most famous living Iraqi poet. When Youssef left the newspaper, he recommended that Assultani be appointed in his place.

In 1977 Assultani left Iraq, disillusioned with the Iraqi Communist Party and its policy of joining with the Baath Party in the National Progressive Front. Saddam Hussein was becoming the most powerful man in Iraq and beginning his brutal dictatorship. In 1978, Assultani recalls, 'about 500 Iraqi intellectuals left Iraq – poets, novelists, architects and so on'. Many more left during Iraq's subsequent wars, sanctions and waves of internal repression.

Assultani became an English teacher, first in Morocco and then in Algeria. His poetry was published in Al-Hurriya (Freedom), published in Damascus. Its literary editor was a leading Palestinian poet, Ghassan Zaqtan. Assultani's first poetry collection, entitled simply Poems, was published in 1982 by East and  West Publishing House, set up in London by an Iraqi journalist. In 1985 he moved to live in Damascus, where his second collection, Incomplete Anthem, was published. His third collection Burnt by Water was published in Beirut in 2000. His most recent collection is The Various Colours of the Lady.

The distinguished Iraqi-American author, university teacher and translator Saadi Simawe, who edited the Modern Poetry in Translation Iraqi Poetry Today issue, and has translated some of Assultani's poetry, sees Assultani as part of a new trend in Iraq literature: 'a kind of complex imagination in which existentialism is mixed with humor alongside an unusual compassion for all humans'.

The Iranian author Amir Taheri, a columnist on Asharq al-Awsat, wrote a preface to Assultani's study entitled 'Larkin and Assultani: several points in common'. He writes that Assultani's dissertation 'came to me as a treat', for two reasons: 'First because I have been a fan of Larkin since, as a student in London, I discovered him in the 1960s.' And secondly, 'in the 1990s I had the pleasure of making Fadhil Assultani's friendship which, in turn, gave me the privilege of being among the first readers of his poems as he committed them to paper.'

Taheri says that although they 'hail from different horizons', Larkin and Assultani have several points in common. Both are the product of cultures in which poetry is still of great importance. Taheri recalls that he was surprised in his first encounter with Britain to find that compared to other European countries he knew, including France and Germany, poetry attracted large audiences. And 'one might even claim it was in Iraq, the ancient Mesopotamia, where the epic of Gilgamesh marked the birth of literature as deeply felt human response to the mysteries of existence.' Taheri adds that 'from the start, I saw Larkin's work as a poetical version of chamber music. He is the poet of small touches, fleeting moments, and flashes of insight, the poet of enduring transience as formulated in "Modesties", one of his shortest poems.' For his part, Assultani 'especially in his poems written in the past decade or so, has distanced himself from the epic ambitions of many Arab poets of his generation and moved closer to what René Char called "the small music of life".'

In the introduction to his study, Assultani refers to Colin Wilson's 1956 book The Outsider, which was translated into Arabic soon after its appearance in English, and was received with enthusiasm by Arab readers and writers. Assultani notes that the cultural climate in mid-twentieth century England was not receptive to the techniques of surrealism, nor to the concept of an outsider. Regarding the first, David Gascoyne was something of an exception, and lived for some time in France. Wilson's The Outsider 'tellingly focused on foreign writers, with the exception of T E Lawrence and H G Wells.'

For this reason, perhaps, 'Larkin was not viewed as an outsider, apart from some references to his life as a solitary and a bachelor which has nothing to do with the concept of being an outsider in its philosophical interpretation'. But Larkin was not just a loner or reclusive person: from the beginning, he 'held his own existentialist views on life, art, society, sex, solitude, selfhood and otherness, belonging, uncertainty, self-realization, anxiety and undecidedness'.

Assultani writes: 'For me, Larkin, both as a person and as a poet, is an outsider, in the existentialist sense of the word, and he is in harmony with himself. There aren't two distinct Larkins, or two sides of him, as many of his critics suggest. By making a comparison of his poetry, prose and his personal letters, we can discern coherent views and visions that govern his seemingly contradictory attitudes.' From this perspective, Larkin's work 'forms one protracted poem, in which he meditates on these big issues occupying humanity in the twentieth century'. Larkin's whole persona, 'similar to existentialist outsider characters in modern literature, confronts the issues preoccupying his age, such as consciousness, freedom of choice, human knowledge, and selfhood and otherness in modern societies. Confronting these issues, Larkin's approach is neither nihilistic nor pessimistic.'

Assultani's Arabic translation of Philip Larkin's poem 'Wants'

Assultani argues that by analysing his early poems, even as far back as the 1930s, and comparing them with his later poems 'we will see that there are coherent existential issues penetrating the poetry from the very beginning'. A sense of alienation from the outside world characterised much of his poetry. In his first published poem 'Winter Nocturne' which appeared in his school magazine the Coventrian in 1938 when he was 16, we find: 'A web of drifting mist o'er wood and wold, / as quiet as death.' And the final line 'Dark night creeps in, and leaves the world alone.' In the 1954 poem 'Places, Loved Ones', published in The Less Deceived (1955), Larkin writes: 'No, I have never found / the place where I could say / This is my proper ground / Here shall I stay.' In his 1979 interview with the Observer he said: 'I do not really notice where I live'. The 1974 poem, 'The Life with a Hole in It', with its 'three-handed struggle has the same theme as 'Wants', written in 1950 and published in The Less Deceived. 'Mr Bleaney' (1955, and published in The Whitsun Weddings) is 'perhaps the most existential poem Larkin ever wrote'.

As regards Larkin's fiction, the protagonists of Larkin's two published novels Jill and A Girl in Winter – John Kemp and Katherine Lind – are outsiders haunted by alienation.

Assultani notes that Terry Whalen wrote in his 1986 book Philip Larkin and English Poetry that Larkin is close to poets such as Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn and R S Thomas, sharing with them 'not only the depth and integrity, but also profound doubts, tensions and existential anxieties and, and exploration which are everywhere attentive to bleaker truth and realities of our day'.

Assultani argues that Larkin is closest to R S Thomas. 'It might even be claimed that Larkin shares more themes with Thomas than with any other British poet in the second half of the twentieth century, though their approaches and style have differences.' He adds that 'waiting, absences, death, failure, suffering, echo, shadows, and death are very common vocabularies in their poetic discourse. It seems that both poets echo ideas of Kierkegaard, perhaps unconsciously in the case of Larkin, and consciously with Thomas who read Kierkegaard and dedicated a poem to him.'

They are preoccupied with almost the same existential themes. 'Unlike the secular Larkin, Thomas's approaches to his themes are arguably theological, but his main concern, like Larkin's, is the human condition.' He compares Larkin's 'Church Going' with Thomas's 'In Church'. Assultani's enthusiasm for Larkin and his work suggests that, far from being an insular poet, Larkin transcends boundaries of nationality and language. His poetry has a universal appeal.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Sumia Sukkar's novel 'The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War' dramatised for BBC

  "I hope my readers feel an emotional attachment with the characters and are able to get a glimpse of the disastrous state many families are in. Syrian children had to suddenly wake up one day as adults, and missed an essential part of the growing up experience" says Sumia Sukkar 

from article published in Qantara.de 28 November 2014
 
Translating sights, sounds and feelings into colour
Sumia Sukkar wrote a novel about a young Syrian boy with Asperger Syndrome who paints the horror and violence of the war around him in vivid colour. BBC Radio 4 adapted the novel for its Saturday Drama series. Susannah Tarbush read the book, listened to the radio play and spoke to its young author

The drama "The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War", broadcast recently on BBC Radio 4, was a powerful and moving prelude to a week of special, intensive coverage of the Syrian conflict across BBC radio and TV.

The play was adapted from the debut novel of the same title by British-born Sumia Sukkar, daughter of a Syrian father and Algerian mother. Remarkably, Sukkar was only 21 when the novel was published in hardback in 2013 by London-based independent Eyewear Publishing.



Sumia Sukkar reads from her novel at the launch party for the paperback

To coincide with the radio drama, the publisher brought out a paperback edition of the novel with a new cover design. The paperback includes an afterword by Laura Guthrie, a Glasgow University PhD student who researches fiction featuring characters with Asperger Syndrome.

 Adam, the central character in Sukkar's novel, is a 14-year-old Syrian with Asperger's, a condition on the autistic spectrum. His mind translates sights, sounds and feelings into colour. He has a talent for painting, in which he engages obsessively.

Through Adam's first-person present-tense narration, Sukkar skilfully conveys his bewildered perceptions of the growing violence and horror around him "Why do you always paint war?" asks his brother Isa. "Because it's filled with endless painting possibilities and the range of colours is so wide," Adam replies. The harsh realities of war

Adam's mother died when he was 11. He lives in Aleppo with his schoolteacher father, older sister Yasmine, and student triplet brothers Khaled, Tariq and Isa. The family is badly impacted by the war. The physical and mental health of Adam's father disintegrates, and his brothers get caught up in the fighting.

Yasmine does her best to keep the family together and to protect Adam. At the same time, she suffers the pain of an impossible love affair. When she is abducted and tortured by militiamen, the first-person narration switches from Adam to her.

Sukkar started writing "The Boy from Aleppo" while reading for a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing at Kingston University, London. Her tutor was the Canadian-British poet, critic and teacher Dr Todd Swift, director and publisher of Eyewear Publishing.

Dr Swift told Qantara.de: "I taught creative writing at Kingston University for seven years and had about a thousand or so students on the BA, MA and PhD levels; Sumia would be in the top three or four of those in terms of talent."

She was a "dedicated, serious, ambitious writer, who took the support I gave her editorially and ran with it. Her novel was completed in less than a year, and her hard work was impressive. She has a great mind for metaphor and surprising detail. I knew when we met she was a born writer."... continued here

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saudi novelist Yousef al-Mohaimeed's 'Where Pigeons Don't Fly' apears in English translation


Saudi writer Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's prizewinning 2009 novel Where Pigeons Don't Fly  is to be published on 4 December by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) in Roger Moger's translation from Arabic to English. Al-Mohaimeed, who was born in Riyadh in 1964, has a reputation for provoking controversy with his novels and short stories set in Saudi Arabia. His work has sometimes been banned, and much of it has been published outside Saudi Arabia.

Where Pigeons Don't Fly continues Al-Mohaimeed's literary interrogation of Saudi society. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the obstacles facing the younger generation, and the stultifying grip of religious extremism. And it depicts many kinds of sexual activity, from sexting and same-sex attraction, to details of passion snatched in cars or in the improvised equivalents of "love  hotels".

Al-Mohaimeed's works have been translated into several  languages, including Russian, Italian, Spanish and German. Two of his novels have previously been published in English translations by Anthony Calderbank. The English version of the 2003 novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon was published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, and by Penguin, in 2007, and the 2004 work Munira's Bottle  by AUC Press in 2010.

Where Pigeons Don't Fly was originally published in Arabic in 2009 by the Arab Cultural Centre in Beirut, under the title Alhamam La Yatiru Fi Buraida (Pigeons Don't Fly in Buraida), and became a bestseller. It won the Abu al-Qasim Ashabbi Prize for the Arabic Novel in 2011. The original title alludes to Fahd's childhood memory of "velvety" pigeons in his uncle's yard in Buraida, scuttling on red legs while pursued by his boy cousins. "They dashed about, flapping their clipped wings..."  Pigeons and feathers recur as symbols in the narrative. 

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

The novel is written in a flowing poetic style, rendered pleasingly into English by Robin Moger's lively translation. Though dealing with urgent, serious issues, it is an absorbing and entertaining read, full of humanity and often touched with humour.

The novel opens with its central character, Fahd al-Safeelawi, on a train travelling from London to the coastal town of Great Yarmouth in the county of Norfolk. It is July 2007 and the young Saudi has been taking a two-day break in London from his exhausting job at a print and copy shop in Great Yarmouth.

Fahd is a talented artist, whose paintings were exhibited in Saudi Arabia. The novel he has chosen to read on his  train journey is Elizabeth Hickey's The Painted Kiss on the relationship between the Viennese painter Gustave Klimt and his young lover Emilie, whose name he uttered as he died.

Fahd turns his attention to his mobile phone and on a whim dials the phone number in Saudi Arabic of Saeed, his closest friend from his childhood and "shameless, wild youth" in Riyadh. He hears not a dialling tone but a song that seems to wipe away his new life in Great Yarmouth. "At the same instant he was possessed by fear, a terror of the sheikhs - the fat men with long black beards he always saw at night, advancing with sharpened lances with which they pierced his pillow and riddled it with holes, the white feathers flying out until he couldn't breathe, and he would awake in a panic, feeling that he was choking."  Fahd starts to cry, his slender body shaking with a strange hysteria; the elderly Englishwoman sitting opposite him in the train touches his arm and asks if he is all right.

The sheikhs who fill Fahd with such dread are members of the Committee for Virtue and Prevention of Vice who police the lives of young unmarried Saudi men and women. In July 2006 Fahd and his divorcee lover Tarifah were detained by members of the Committee for the "sin" of being together in the family section of a coffee shop.

Robin Moger

During his train journey Fahd travels through his memories and the reasons for his abandoning Saudi Arabia for exile in the UK some 11 months earlier. Al-Mohaimeed gives a compelling account of the life of this liberal-minded, artistic and politically aware young man, chafing under the constraints of Saudi society and the oppressive activities of the Committee and other religious fundamentalists.

In one memorable scene, set in an auditorium during a literary festival, extremist students mutter their disapproval during a poetry reading in front of a segregated audience of males and females. They try to mount the stage and "hand out advice to what they see as the sinning, misguided poets and guide them to the path of righteousness." During the play that follows, entitled A Moderate Without Moderation, they hurl sandals and and smash up the set. A punch-up erupts, ending only when a security guard shoots in the air. A bemused American critic, invited to the festival to speak about American poetry, records proceedings with the camera of his mobile phone.

The novel loops through time, cumulatively filling in the picture and revealing the interlocking stories of numerous characters. Meanwhile the fates of Fahd and Tarfah at the hands of the Committee hang in the balance. Fahd looks back to his childhood, and to the four-year imprisonment of his father Suleiman for distributing underground pamphlets. Suleiman had at the time been working on behalf of the Salafist movement whose adherents, led by Juhayman al-Otabibi, seized the Great Mosque in Mecca in November 1979. The novel vividly depicts the siege of the Great Mosque, which lasted for days.

Great Yarmouth

After his release, Suleiman had been anxious that his son should not engage in extremist activities or turn to violence. He entrusts his wife Soha with a bag containing his old religious books, prison journals and words of wisdom, and the prayer beads he had fashioned from olive stones while in prison. The bag is to be given to Fahd when he has grown up. It as if Suleiman has a premonition of his death in a traffic accident when Fahd is 15.

Fahd's mother is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, and his accent, fair skin and reddish blond hair and moustache set him somewhat apart from other Saudis. After Suleiman's death Soha is married off to Suleiman's brother Saleh, who already has two wives. Saleh is a conservative-minded bully, and bans satellite TV and all pictures from the house. Fahd clashes with Saleh, and finally moves out to live with his friend Saeed after Saleh gets Fahd's sister Lulua to tear up a precious album of family photographs. When Soha falls seriously ill Saleh fails to get her the medical treatment she needs, relying instead on traditional Islamic remedies and quacks.

Freed from Saleh's efforts at control, Fahd follows his destiny as an artist. He recalls how when he was a child  Suleiman had taken him to an art exhibition where a Sudanese artist had been struck by the way in which the boy responded to the works on display. The Sudanese had told Suleiman: "The soul of a great artist sleeps in his depths and it must be awoken."

The novel is unrestrained in its depiction of its characters' love lives and sexual activities. The pursuit of romance by the young in a strictly segregated society, under the eyes of the Committee, is facilitated by the deployment of such tools of modernity as the automobile, internet, mobile phone and shopping mall. Fahd and his girlfriends seek out dark places, or empty apartments, for their encounters, and sometimes pretend to be married.

While it was his relationship with Tarfah, a divorced mother who studies at the Academy for Health Scienes, that led to his detention by the Committee, Fahd also has memories of two other lovers. The first is young, mischievous Noha with whom he had a short liaison. The other is the predatory, older Thuraya, a mother of six in a now sexless marriage. She revels in her carnal adventures with Fahd.  But she eventually starts to pester and virtually stalk him to the point where he wonders if she reported him and Tarfah to the Committee, precipitating their detention.
Susannah Tarbush

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hurst publishes Prof Jean-Pierre Filiu's definitive history of Gaza in English translation


During the prolonged Israeli assault on Gaza this summer, the  presenter of the BBC Radio 4 weekday news programme The World At One Ed Stourton interviewed Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po in Paris about his book Gaza: A History (C Hurst and Co Publishers Ltd). The French original of the book was published in France by Fayard in 2012 as Histoire de Gaza . John King has done an excellent job of translating the book into English for the the Hurst edition.

Stourton asked Professor Filiu about the importance of tunnels to besieged Gaza. The tunnels Stourton had in mind were not those constructed by Hamas, but the tunnels used at various times in history, beginning with Alexander the Great's siege and destruction of the city of Gaza in 332 BC.

"The tunnels were one of the main features of Gaza at that time", Filiu said. In his book he describes the tunnels and counter-tunnels of Alexander's Greeks and of the locals under the leadership of Batis, known as "the King of Gaza". After Gaza fell, all those suspected of having fought were slaughtered and their families sold into slavery. "Batis, who refused to kneel before the conqueror, was bound to Alexander's chariot after having his legs broken, and his body was then dragged in agony below the ramparts of the defeated city. The sack of Gaza filled six ships with booty to be send back to Macedon."

Jean-Pierre Filiu

Ed Stourton observed that Gaza has had "a very warlike history" with all "sorts of people going through there, fighting, from Alexander to Boneparte, to the British including General Allenby in the First World War, Ariel Sharon, President Nasser ...."

Filiu said the historical pattern has changed dramatically since 1948. "Until 1948, Gaza was a crossroads that any empire in the Middle East who wanted to conquer Egypt had to gain, or that any empire controlling Egypt had to take over in order to open and break through to the Middle East."

But after 1948, when the Egyptians took what is now called the Gaza Strip under their protection and administration, "Gaza became a dead end where basically Israel and the Palestinians started to fight the war they are still fighting today. And so it has to be reopened, this space, to give a horizon for peace and for the people." In 1948 the 80,000 people in Gaza, were joined by 200,000 refugees. The  proportion of refugees is roughly similar today: "Among the 1,800,000 inhabitants of Gaza today, two thirds are refugees."

Although Gaza has become a powerful symbol for Palestinians, while writing his history Filiu was "quite puzzled to discover how little some Palestinians know about the history of Gaza; they’ve been focused on Jerusalem, on the diaspora, on the refugee camps." 

Filiu writes in his foreword of the many difficulties and methodological problems he faced in writing a history of Gaza. Parts of the local archives have been destroyed during numerous conflicts, while other parts have been moved out of Gaza and are the object of wrangling between Fatah and Hamas. Filiu sought to overcome the deficiency of local information by conducting a series of interviews, and by gaining access to a substantial number of unpublished documents. Security constraints were also a problem.

A further constraint is Hamas's policy of promulgating an "official history" of Gaza. This "spuriously credits the Muslim Brotherhood with a continuous existence in a position of pre-eminence over the last seventy years, which suggests that the Brothers had always been in the vanguard and at the heart of the Palestinian national struggle." Such claims tend to withhold credit from the other Palestinian factions, and in particular from Fatah.

"The perspective of history provides the ability to reinterpret these often tenuous and biased accounts of Gaza's history: and as Hamas's intention is to reinforce its dominant position now and in the longer term, much is at stake."

...also by Professor Filiu

In addition to his position at Sciences Po, Professor Filiu has held visiting professorships at both Columbia University and Georgetown University. His book The Apocalypse in Islam (University of California Press, 2012) was awarded the main prize by the French History Association. His books and articles on the Arab world have been published in a dozen languages. His book on Gaza is claimed to be the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language.

The book's jacket well describes its contents: "Through its millennium–long existence, Gaza has often been bitterly disputed while simultaneously and paradoxically enduring prolonged neglect. Squeezed between the Negev and Sinai deserts on the one hand and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, Gaza was contested by the Pharaohs, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Fatimids, the Mamluks, the Crusaders and the Ottomans. Napoleon had to secure it in 1799 to launch his failed campaign on Palestine. In 1917, the British Empire fought for months to conquer Gaza, before establishing its mandate on Palestine.

the late Haydar Abdel Shafi: medical doctor, and a key figure in Gaza's modern political history

"In 1948, 200,000 Palestinians sought refuge in Gaza, a marginal area neither Israel nor Egypt wanted. Palestinian nationalism grew there, and Gaza has since found itself at the heart of Palestinian history. It is in Gaza that the fedayeen movement arose from the ruins of Arab nationalism. It is in Gaza that the 1967 Israeli occupation was repeatedly challenged, until the outbreak of the 1987 intifada. And it is in Gaza, in 2007, that the dream of Palestinian statehood appeared to have been shattered by the split between Fatah and Hamas. The endurance of Gaza and the Palestinians make the publication of this history both timely and significant."

Although Filiu's book reaches far back in Gaza's history, his main emphasis is on the modern era. The book's first section, "Gaza Before the Strip", comprises three chapters. The first examines its position as the crossroads of empires, the second the Islamic Era, and the third the British Mandate.

The book's remaining three main sections each covers a 20-year period:  "1947-67: The Generation of Mourning"; "1967-87: The Generation of Dispossession", and "1987-2007: the Generation of  the Intifadas". Filiu ends his history with "Conclusion: The Generation of Impasses?"

Filiu's history is written with admirable clarity and draws on a wide variety of sources, including Gaza rap group Palestinian Rapperz (PR) The author provides numerous references and an extensive bibliography. In addition, he helpfully provides 16 pages of biographies of many of the protagonists in the modern history of Gaza. All in all, Gaza: A History merits a prominent place in any library of works on Palestine.
Susannah Tarbush, London

Britain faces rising domestic terror threat related to Islamic State

لندن في قلب الحرب على الإرهاب قد تغيـّر عدداً من قوانينها below is the original English text of article published in Al-Hayat newspaper on 18 November 2012 in Arabic translation

by Susannah Tarbush, London

The rise of ISIL (known also by the Arabic acronym Dai’ish) in Iraq and Syria, and its declaration of a caliphate state in the area it controls, has added an alarming new dimension to the long-standing problem of Islamist extremism and terror in the UK.

There is anxiety both over the direct participation of young British Muslims who have joined Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, and over the radicalising impact on some young British Muslims of its massive propaganda effort on the social media to publicise its gains and attract recruits to its cause. IS has urged its followers to carry out attacks wherever, and in whatever way, they can.

The police and the security service MI5 have warned senior British ministers that the scale of terrorist activity within the UK is now so big that a terror attack is “almost inevitable”. This follows the increase in the terror level in the UK at the end of August to “severe” because of the threat associated with Da’ish.

Theresa May

An estimated 500 to 600 British Muslims have been out to Syria to fight with IS  and other Islamist groups. About half of them are thought to have returned to the UK. But as they return, others travel out to Syria.

The passports of some Britons seen as Islamist extremists have been confiscated to prevent them travelling to Syria or elsewhere. Home Secretary Theresa May has used the “royal prerogative” to withdraw passports 23 times in the 12 months to August 2014.

But there was intense embarrassment for the government authorities when it was revealed on 11 November that one of the most outspoken public supporters of Da’ish in the UK, Abu Rumaysah, had fled the UK with his family 24 hours after being ordered by a court to surrender his passport as a bail condition. He failed to surrender his passport, and is thought to be in Syria in the area controlled by IS.

Abu Rumaysah (a Hindu convert to Islam, originally named Siddhartha Dhar), had been arrested on 25 September along with eight other men including the notorious Anjem Choudary. Choudary jointly led Al-Muhajiroun with Syrian Omar Bakri Mohammad before it was banned in 2005, and he remains an influence on certain young Muslims. Individuals associated with Choudary have been involved in several terror plots over the years, but although he continually makes inflammatory statements in support of terror, and has been arrested several times, he remains at liberty.

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe

The head of Scotland Yard, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said recently that at least five Britons a week are travelling to Iraq and Syria to join Da’ish. He added that so far this year, 218 arrests for terrorist offences have been made, an increase of about 70 per cent on three years ago. “A large part of this increased arrest rate is due to terrorist activities, plots and planning linked to Syria. The trend is, I think, set to continue.”

 So far around 30 British jihadists are known to have been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq; the true figure is likely to be higher than this. In addition to the young men going out to fight in Syria and Iraq, British Muslim teenagers and young women are going out, often to marry jihadi fighters.

Because of the heightened threat from terrorism, security was extremely high on the annual Remembrance Sunday, this year on 9 November, at the military parade during which the Queen and politicians laid wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, near parliament.

In the three days before Remembrance Sunday four young Muslim men were arrested in West London and the town of High Wycombe. There were newspaper reports that they had plotted attack the Remembrance Sunday event and to kill the Queen herself.

In a separate alleged plot, four young Muslim men from West London were charged in mid-October with intending to commit acts of terrorism. They were said to have sworn allegiance to Da’ish and to have plotted a terror attack on soldiers or police in London. A fifth man was charged with transferring a Baikal handgun and ammunition.

Britain has already experienced the devastating effects of Islamist terrorism. On 7 July 2005 four suicide bombers killed 52 innocent people in attacks on the London underground system and a bus. Three of the four suicide bombers were British-born Muslims of Pakistani origin. And on 22 May 2013 British soldier Lee Rigby was killed in broad daylight in a London street by two young Nigerian men who had been brought up as Christians but converted to Islam. They ran him over in a car and tried to cut his head off.

 Anjem Choudary

The widespread use of beheading in Syria and Iraq is characteristic of Da’ish’s terror, and some Britons have played a part in this. A tall hooded man dressed in black and speaking English with a London accent has been has been seen in videos on different occasions since August beheading American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff, then Britons David Haines, and Alan Henning, and most recently American Muslim convert Abdul Rahman – or Peter – Kassig. This apparently British beheader has been nicknamed by the media “Jihadi John”.

Kabir Ahmed

The first suicide bombing by a Briton in Iraq was recently carried out by Kabir Ahmed, known as Abu Sumayyah al-Britani, from the northern English city of Derby. He had served a jail term in the UK for saying gays should be put to death. Ahmed carried out a suicide attack on behalf of Da’ish in the town of Biaji, killing a senior Iraqi police official and seven other police officers. Abdul Waheed Majeed, the first British suicide bomber in Syria, blew himself up in February when he drove a lorry packed with explosives into a jail in Aleppo.

 In trying to deal with the threat of terror related to Islamic State the government has to decide what to do about those jihdais who have returned or want to return, as well as trying to deter those who plan to go out to join IS.

David Cameron

After Da’ish’s beheading of the American hostage James Foley on around 19 August, and the raising of the UK’s terror threat, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to MPs to introduce tough new anti-terror laws. 

On 13 November, during a speech to the Australian parliament in Canberra, Cameron unveiled the measures that will be included in a new anti-terror bill. The government intended to publish the bill by the end of November and to rush it through parliament so that it becomes law by the end of January.

Under the proposed new anti-terror law, suspected jihadis returning from Syria or Iraq will be prevented - under new “Temporary Exclusion Orders” - from returning to Britain for at least two years - unless they agree to face a court trial, home detention, or police monitoring, or to go on a “deradicalisation” course.

If they do not agree to these conditions, their passports will be cancelled and their names will be put on a “no fly” list to prevent them returning. “Airlines that don’t comply with our no-fly lists or security screening measures will be prevented from landing in the UK,” Cameron declared. Jihadis who try to enter Britain in secret will face a five-year jail term under a new criminal offence.

The police will also have the power to seize for 30 days the passports of those people it suspects of intending to travel abroad to fight in Syria or Iraq. But these proposed measures in the anti-terrorism bill are highly controversial, and there are concerns that they are not compatible with existing laws on human rights, immigration and citizenship. For example, refusing to allow British jihadis to return to the UK could be seen as making them stateless, which is illegal under British and international law.

The Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper says “much more” needs to be done to prevent radicalisation and said the government should force all returning jihadis to go through a deradicalisation process.

Deradicalisation programmes are designed to prevent or reverse radicalisation but there are doubts over how effective they really are. One main deradicalisation programme is the Channel programme which is part of the Preventing Violent Extremism strategy, known as “Prevent”, introduced by the Labour government after the London suicide bombings of July 2005.

The Channel programme aims to identifying those at risk of engaging in violent extremism and to support them, primarily through community-based interventions, challenging their extremist beliefs. But it is under-funded and can hardly cope with the growing demand on its resources. Between April 2007 and March this year nearly 4,000 people were referred to Channel. Currently, around 50 people a week are being referred to deradicalisation programmes.

The uncertainly in recent weeks over how jihadis will be treated when they return to the UK is making some of them reluctant to come back. It was reported recently that up to 100 British jihadis who had left Syria were stranded in Turkey, scared to come home. Dai’ish had apparently taken the passports of some.

Peter Neumann

Some observers are adamant that jihadis should never be allowed back into Britain. On a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 series The World Tonight, Colonel Richard Kemp a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan said: “We have to assume that having got blood on their hands they could well come and carry out acts of terrorism against us. The best thing is that they don’t get a chance.

Kemp adds: “Why should we spend our taxes on putting them in front of a court and putting them in prison, or spending vast amounts of money on deradicalisation, or on surveillance? The best thing is they don’t come back.”

But Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) disagrees. “We need to consider the lessons of history. What happened after [the war against the Soviets] in Afghanistan in the 1980s was that people were not allowed to go back to their own countries. A lot of Middle Eastern countries were taking passports away, and threatening really severe repression to the ‘Afghan Arabs’ who fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan.”

These 'Afghan Arabs' were trapped in Afghanistan, and “they went on to other battle fronts, they formed international networks out of which eventually Al-Qaeda emerged.”