Monday, June 22, 2015

Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) awarded Chatham House Prize 2015 for its Ebola efforts

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has been awarded the Chatham House Prize 2015, the London-based Chatham House think tank (which incorporates the Royal Institute of International Affairs) announced today. The Chatham House Prize - launched in 2005 - is presented annually to the person or organization deemed by members of the Royal Institute of International Affairs to have made the most significant contribution to the improvement of international relations in the previous year.

The selection process draws on the expertise of Chatham House's research teams and three presidents, who nominate candidates. Its members are then invited to vote for the winner in a ballot.

This year, members voted for MSF in recognition of its work in combating the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. MSF was among the first groups to respond to the epidemic in March of that year and remained engaged on the ground throughout the crisis, caring for the majority of patients in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. MSF leaders and staff were persistent and forceful in their action to halt the spread of the epidemic and, as a result, were instrumental in saving thousands of lives.

The  three other nominees for the Chatham House Prize 2015 were:
 • Mahamadou Issoufou, President, Republic of Niger (2011-)
 • Juan Manuel Santos, President, Republic of Colombia (2010-)
 • Angela Merkel, Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany (2005-)

 Dr Joanne Liu

Dr Joanne Liu, MSF’s international president, will represent MSF at the Chatham House Prize award ceremony in London in October 2015 where she will be presented with a crystal award and a scroll, signed by Her Majesty The Queen, Patron of the institute. Previous recipients of the Prize include President Lula of Brazil, Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr Robin Niblett CMG, director of Chatham House, said: “I warmly congratulate Médecins Sans Frontières on being voted the recipient of this year's Chatham House Prize. This is the first time an organization has been awarded the Prize and I am delighted that their vital work has been recognized in this way. MSF led the fight against Ebola by sounding an early alarm on its dangers. It put into place a highly effective operation that saved thousands of lives, and helped prevent a more wide-spread catastrophe, risking and, in some cases losing the lives of its own staff.”

Dr Joanne Liu, international president of MSF said:
"I am honoured that MSF will be the recipient of this year’s Chatham House Prize and I look forward to accepting this award on behalf of the thousands of people who worked in the Ebola outbreak. This includes the doctors, nurses and logisticians who volunteered from around the world, and the thousands more national staff in Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, who made our work possible. Knowing that they did this while coping with the fear of Ebola in their communities and in the face of incredible stigma, makes their contribution even more remarkable. While we continue to work on the ground, our focus is also trying to ensure that next time there is an outbreak, that patients get the care and treatment they need, on time, before it spreads and turns into a killer epidemic. But we all still have a long way to go and it is important that we work together to respond to these challenges and opportunities.

Friday, June 19, 2015

'The Book of Khartoum' among latest awardees of PEN Translates grants

English PEN's translation scheme widens support for independent publishers 

The Book Of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction  - edited by Raphael Cormack and Max Shmookler and published by Manchester-based UK publisher Comma Press - is among the 13 new titles to receive a grant under English PEN's scheme PEN Translates.This collection of short writing from Sudan is the sole work translated from Arabic to receive a PEN Translates grant in the latest batch of awards, announced by English PEN today.

Max Shmookler

Winners of PEN Translates awards are chosen on the basis of their outstanding literary merit, and their contribution to the UK's literary diversity and publishing strategy. The 13-book list of recipients announced today is very varied: it includes a Tamil poetry anthology, novels from Uruguay and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a children's fantasy novel from Denmark and a work of journalism from China.

PEN Translates is part of English PEN's Writers in Translation programme, which has been promoting literature in translation since 2005 - and thus celebrates its 10th anniversary this year - and is supported by Bloomberg. 2015.  The PEN Translates scheme awards grants to UK publishers for translation costs, and is supported by Arts Council England. The English PEN World Bookshelf features more than 100 books that have received support from the Writers in Translation programme.

The Book of Khartoum includes contributions and translations from Arabic by Marilyn Booth, Max Shmookler, Adam Talib, Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Mohammed Ghaylani, Andrew Leber, Elisabeth Jaquette, Sarah Irving, Thoraya El-Rayyes, and Raphael Cormack. It is due to be published by Comma Press in 2016.

Raphael Cormack

The PEN Translates award is a further success for Comma Press, which has received PEN Translates and PEN Promotes awards for a number of previous titles including Iraqi writer Hassan Blaim's short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) in 2014.  The Well of Trapped Words collection of short stories by Turkish writer Sema Kaygusuz, which received a PEN Translates award, was published by Comma Press in May in translation from Turkish by Maureen Freely.

Raphael Cormack is doing a PhD at Edinburgh University, on 19th and 20th cenury Egyptian literature.  Max Shmookler is a PhD student in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia, where his work focuses on 20th century Sudanese literary history. He is the managing editor of Baraza - a meeting space for critical collaboration run by MESAAS graduate students. He wrote about The Book of Khartoum last October in a blogpost entitled Translating an Aesthetic: Reflections on Sudanese Literature in English.

As well as disclosing the 13 latest recipients of PEN Translates awards today, English PEN announced  increased opportunities for publishers seeking funding. UK publishers with turnover of less than £500,000 per annum will be eligible to apply for 100% of the translation costs of a book acquired from another language. Previously, only publishers with a turnover of less than £100,000 per annum were able to apply for this highest level of grant. All other publishers were eligible for a maximum of 75% of a book’s translation costs.

Erica Jarnes, manager of the Writers in Translation programme, said: "We are delighted to be able to offer 100% grants to more publishers. The adjustment to the threshold means that more funding can go towards books (and translators) published by the small, independent, dynamic publishers who have been at the forefront of a vibrant new culture for translated literature in the UK."

Emma House, Director of Publisher Relations at The Publishers Association and a member of the English PEN Writers in Translation Committee said: "The work of English PEN is incredibly important to publishers and we are delighted that the threshold for 100% translations grants is being increased, so that many more publishers will be able to benefit from full grants".

Samantha Schnee, chair of the Writers in Translation committee, commented: "The increase in publisher turnover threshold is exciting news for many creative publishers who are working hard to bring as much literature from abroad into English as possible. It will mean their translation costs could be fully covered, potentially allowing them to take on more titles.

In addition to The Book of Khartoum the other 12  winners of a 2015 PEN Translates award are:

Paper Tiger by Xu Zhiyuan, translated from Mandarin by Michelle Deeter and Nicky Harman. Published by Head of Zeus, August 2015

Lost Evenings, Lost Lives: Tamil Poets from Sri Lanka's War by Aazhiyaal, Theva Abira, P Ahilan, Anaar, K P Aravindan, Avvai, Cheran, Dushyanthan, Faheema Jahan, Kutti Revathi, Malathi Maithri, Nuhman, Ravikumar, A Sankari, M Rishan Shareef, Sivaramani, S Sivasegaram, Solaikilli, Sukirtharani, Sharmila Syyed, Thirumaavalavan, Urvashi, Captain Vaanathi, S Vilvaratnam, S Vivaratnam, Yesurasa, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, Sascha Ebeling. Published by Arc Publications, October 2015

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from French by Roland Glasser. Published by Jacaranda Books, October 2015

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, translated from German by Anthea Bell. Published by Granta Books, November 2015

Diary of a Body by Daniel Pennac, translated from French by Alyson Waters. Published by Maclehose Press, November 2015

On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. Published by Harvill Secker, February 2016

The Transmigration of the Bodies by Yuri Herrera, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman. Published by And Other Stories, March 2016

I'll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey. Published by And Other Stories, June 2016

Nouons-nous by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated from French by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins. Published by And Other Stories, July 2016

In the Rock by Clemens Meyer, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire. Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, October 2016

Erik's Journey to Valhalla by Lars-Henrik Olsen, translated from Danish by Paul Russell Garrett. Published by Aurora Metro Books, May 2017

The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero, translated from Spanish by Ana Fletcher. Published by And Other Stories, publication date tbc

Monday, June 15, 2015

BQFP announces the participation of 4 of its authors in Shubbak Festival

press release from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP):


Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) is proud to be a sponsor of this year’s Shubbak Festival - a window on contemporary Arab culture - taking place in London on 11 -26 July.

The literary portion of Shubbak will include author talks and discussions with four of BQFP’s published authors, covering a range of relevant topics in the world of Arab literature – from the rise of Arabic literature in English to the conceptualizing of a futuristic Middle East through science fiction. The authors and their most recent works are:

Atef Abu Saif

Arabic original of A Suspended Life, shortlisted for IPAF 2015

A Suspended Life by Atef Abu Saif
To be published by BQFP in July 2016
Event: Hot Off the Press
Venue: The British Library, Saturday 25 July 4:30pm

Written originally in Arabic, A Suspended Life was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction   (IPAF 2915).
Atef Abu Saif was born in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, the eldest of 14 children. He still lives in Gaza, where he teaches Political Science at the University of Al-Azhar. His writing has been published in the New York Times and the Guardian.

Faïza Guène

Men Don’t Cry by Faïza Guène
To be published by BQFP in August 2016
Event: Arabic Europe
Venue: The British Library, Sunday 26 July 12:30pm

Faïza Guène is a French writer and director. Born in Bobigny, France in 1985 to parents of Algerian origin she is best known for her two novels, Kiffe kiffe demain and Du rêve pour les oufs. She has also directed several short films, including Rien que des mots (2004).

Men Don't Cry is translated by Sarah Ardizzone from the French original, Un homme, ça ne pleure pas. The novel's central character Mourad was born in Nice to Algerian parents, and would like to forge his own destiny. His biggest nightmare: to become an obese old man with greying hair, nurtured only by his mother’s deep-fried cooking. To prevent this, he will have to reject his heavy family history. But is it really through cutting off that we can fully become ourselves?

Selma Dabbagh

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh
Event: The Rise of Arabic Literature in English?
Venue: The British Library, Saturday 25 July 11am
Published by BQFP in 2012

The writing is both literary and accessible, fast-paced, passionate, exuberant and heart-lurching. We'll be hearing much more from Selma Dabbagh’ - Guardian

Out of It follows two Gazans, Rashid and Iman, as they try to forge places for themselves in the midst of occupation, religious fundamentalism and the divisions between Palestinian factions. Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer based in London. Her short stories have been nominated for the International PEN David TK Wong Award and the Pushcart Prize.

Dr Ahmed Khaled Towfik

Utopia by Dr Ahmed Khaled Towfik
Event: Science Fiction in the Arab World
Venue: The British Library, Saturday 25 July 12.30pm

Published by BQFP in 2011 ‘Towfik paints a vivid picture of Egypt in 2023... a disturbing dystopic vision.’ – Guardian

Ahmed Khaled Towfik was born in 1962 and is the Arab world's most prominent bestselling author of fantasy and horror genres. A medical professor at Egypt's Tanta University, he has written over 200 books.

A futuristic account of Egyptian society in the year 2023, Utopia takes readers on a chilling journey, beyond the gated communities of the North Coast where the wealthy are insulated from the bleakness of life outside the walls. When a young man and a girl break out from this bubble of affluence, they are confronted by a world that they had not imagined possible.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate - new book by Abdel Bari Atwan

review by Susannah Tarbush 

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate
by Abdel Bari Atwan
Saqi Books, London. 256 pages. Hbk and eBook
ISBN: 978-0-86356-195-5
eISBN: 978-0-86356-101-6

Nearly a year on from Iraqi jihadist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ‘s declaration of a caliphate, with himself as caliph, Islamic State (IS) has shown itself to be remarkably resilient despite setbacks from time to time. It controls almost half of half of Syria and at least a third of Iraq: an area the size of Britain. Despite the air strikes and other measures against it by the US-led alliance, IS continues to make gains. It recently captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.

The 2 June conference in Paris attended by ministers or their representative from 24 countries in the anti-IS coalition reflected the deep concern over efforts to defeat IS. The conference also brought into focus the lack of a coherent and effective strategy against IS, despite the surely over-optimistic claims by certain US and other participants. 

IS is linking up with other jihadist movements around the world, and has established a strong foothold in Libya, just over the Mediterranean from Europe. It is attracting hundreds of young Muslims from Western and other countries, and there are regular instances in the UK of young British nationals being arrested or charged in relation to terror offences related to Syria or Iraq.

IS’s conquests, and its behaviour in areas it controls, are accompanied by a catalogue of atrocities.  Its massacres, tortures, beheadings and destruction are carefully recorded and widely disseminated on videos whose grotesque choreography and production skills are routinely described in the media as “slick”.

unlikely that IS would have existed without digital technology

The Palestinian journalist and author Abdel Bari Atwan alludes to IS's adept use of all forms of social media and other digital platforms in the title of his book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, published recently in London by Saqi Books. Atwan writes: “Without digital technology it is highly unlikely that Islamic State would ever have come into existence, let along been able to survive and expand.”

It is just 10 years since the video-sharing site YouTube was created, transforming the world of social media. IS and its forerunner organisations have shown themselves adept at using the whole panoply of digital and social media. Atwan says it is paradoxical that a group which aims to take the world back to the days of the “Righteous Caliphs” – the first generations of Muslims –should be so dependent on the most sophisticated and modern technology. "But in war people use every weapon at their disposal", and the  leaders and foot soldiers of IS are 21st century men who have been brought up with computers, mobile phones and social networking platforms as part of their natural environment.

A pioneer in the use of digital technology to record jihadi operations and spread videos with a jihadist message was the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, who became Al-Qa’ida’s emir in Iraq. Zarqawi also led the way in the kind of gruesome violence now characteristic of IS. In May 2004 he personally beheaded 26-year-old American businessman Nick Berg, who was dressed in the type of orange jumpsuit similar to those of men in US custody. The video of Berg's murder caused shockwaves far beyond Iraq. Zarqawi was killed by the Americans in 2006, but his legacy remains. In a chilling sign of what is to befall them, a number of  IS's captives or hostages have been dressed in orange jumpsuits for their videoed murders.

The American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was prominent in Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula until his death in a US drone attack of 2011, further developed the digital side of jihadism. He encouraged the use of social media such as blogs, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate jihadist material and indoctrinate new recruits.

Abdel Bari Atwan

Over the past two decades Abdel Bari Atwan has been a prominent writer and commentator on the global jihadi movement. In 1996 he spent 72 hours with Al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama Bin Laden in his Tora Bora cave complex. Saqi Books published three of his previous books: The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida (2006); After bin Laden: Al-Qa’ida, The Next Generation (2012), and the memoir A Country of Words: A Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page (2012).

Atwan was editor -in-chief of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi for 25 years and now edits the Rai al-Youm website, which claims to be the Arab world’s first Huffington Post-style outlet. He contributes to various newspapers including the Guardian and in Scotland the Herald. He often appears on TV and radio, and is a frequent guest on the BBC TV show Dateline London, whose presenter Gavin Esler contributed the comment on the front cover of Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate: “A brave and important book ... a must-read.”

articles on IS attract "ten times the readership of other articles"

In his exhaustively-researched book Atwan draws on a variety of sources, contacts and correspondents, some of them close to IS. He also draws on contributions to Rai al-Youm, observing that articles on IS attract ten times the readership of other articles, and hundreds of comments, “most of them expressing positive views of Islamic State.”
Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate has been receiving a considerable amount of attention. In May Atwan discussed his book at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts and at the Bradford Literature Festival. On 17 June he is due to appear in London at a Chatham House panel discussion on “ISIS: Marketing Terror” together with David Butter, Chatham House Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, and Sarah Khan, Director of Inspire. The event will be chaired by BBC investigative reporter Peter Taylor OBE.

The  rise, structure and operations of IS presents a complex and often confusing picture. Atwan’s clearly-written and thorough account is a highly informative guide. On the practical level, it is  somewhat marrred for those reading the print rather than the digital edition by the fact that the many footnotes are geared to the digital edition, consisting solely of internet addresses, some of them three of four lines long. But at least the book has a comprehensive index - unlike one of the other recently-published key books on ISIS and IS.

Atwan puts IS in its historical and regional context, covering in detail its origins in Iraq, and Syria, and among the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, with both of which there are connections and rivalries.He notes that when al-Baghdadi declared himself Caliph and Emir al-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful) on 1 July 2014, following the capture of Mosul, many commentators overlooked the important fact that the position had already been occupied by Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, since 1996. “This ‘battle of the caliphs’ is at the heart of current jihadist politics,” he writes.

The development of IS's rivalry with Jabhat al Nusra is examined. Jabhat al-Nusra was formed by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani after Baghdadi dispatched him to Syria for this purpose in summer 2011. After the divide appeared between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the latter pledging its allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Al-Jolani has been in the news in the past few days after he gave an interview with the Al-Jazeera TV channel in which he was highly critical of IS, describing it as "illegitimate". There was much scepticism over his apparent attempt to portray Jahbat al-Nusra as relatively moderate, and some Arab commentators condemned Al-Jazeera for conducting the interview with a terror leader.

the crucial role of Saddam's former military personnel in IS Atwan repeatedly highlights the importance of former members of Saddam’s military to IS’s structure and operations. The previously secular Saddam had himself realised that Islam could be a rallying cry against the West and at the height of UN sanctions he launched a 'Faith Campaign' supervised by his deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Saddam ordered his army commanders to become practising Muslims, and he tolerated the presence of a small jihadist enclave, Ansar al-Islam, near the border with Iran. Atwan says: "Unbeknown to Saddam, al-Qa'ida had sent some of its own operatives into this enclave. They were instructed to make valuable connections with the newly Islamised army commanders from Saddam's brigades."

After the 2003  invasion, these regular Iraqi army personnel became crucial in the insurgency against the occupiers and to the various Islamist organisations, and eventually to IS.  Today, officers from Saddam's military and security cadres serve IS as experts in key fields such as manufacturing IEDs, security issues and intelligence. "These professional soldiers have advised on the development of a military hierarchy and command that enables Islamic State to function as a highly disciplined army, rather than as a terror group," writes Atwan.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri went into hiding and evaded capture after the 2003 invasion, playing an important role in the insurgency and then in ISIS's capture of Mosul and northern Iraq. He is reported to have been killed in April this year.

Atwan pieces together a portrait of the secretive Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi, or “Caliph Ibrahim”, with the help of an unnamed contact who was held with him in the US detention centre Camp Bucca for around two years from 2004. For al-Baghdadi as for many others held there, Camp Bucca became a centre of Islamist radicalisation and links forged between its inmates would be important in the uprisings and violence in the years that followed.

Atwan explores in considerable detail the consolidation, expansion, organisastion and administration of IS and describes daily life within IS,  “the richest terror group in history". Its wealth is derived from oil fields and refineries under its control, looting and trading antiquities. Ransoms from kidnappings. were reported to have brought it $20 million in 2014 alone.

In a particularly depressing passage of his book Atwan tells of how IS  considers human trafficking and slavery to be legitimate practice. Atwan notes that the  "Western press has been full of lurid tales of female captives being sold as 'sex slaves'"- but he adds that these stories cannot be dismisssed as sensationalist propaganda.

'the management of savagery' 

The title of the chapter “The Management of Savagery” is taken from that of a 2004 internet document by al-Qa’ida ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. Naji’s document draws heavily on the work of the 14th century Islamic scholar Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyyah, “who is considered the first Salafi-jihadist and is revered by today’s hardliners.”

Atwan claims that while IS’s record of atrocities, carefully packaged and distributed by its media department, may seem like an undisciplined orgy of sadism “it is far from being that”. It is “systematically applied policy.” IS comes across as a ghastly hybrid of Saddam's mass sadism and the worst type of of Islamist violence. Atwan examines in detail Naji’s document, which is often referred to by IS’s online speakers and writers.

Atwan references Donald G Dutton's book The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres and Extreme Violence: Why Normal People Come to Commit Atrocities.  Atwan claims that “Americans scarcely blinked when stories of the most barbaric CIA torture practices in Guantamano Bay were revealed” and that civiilised societies "blithely accept atrocity when it is under the banner of a shared cause". Such claims overlook the complexity of contemporary societies, and widely ranging attitudes on human rights.

Atwan includes a chapter on “Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and Islamic State.” He refers to an 8 August 2014 article by David Gardner in the Financial Times attacking Saudi Arabia, and  blaming the advent of IS on the house of Saud, its wholesale export of Wahhabism and jihadist fighters and its funding of extremist groups.

Gardner argued that Saudi Arabia had lost its claim to lead the Sunni world and described the modern jihadist as “a Wahhabi on steroids.” Atwan regards this as a simplified picture, but says: “The Saudi regime, rightly, feels that the declaration of the caliphate, and the overt criticism levelled at the House of Saud by the extremists, constitute a very real threat to its existence. That the challenge is mounted within the unique framework of the House of Saud’s own construct – Wahhabism – makes it all the more potent.” 

In the conclusion to his book Atwan warns that IS is not going away, at least in the short term, and that it has put down roots that will not easily be torn up. "The jihadists have been honing their strategy and battle techniques for more than three decades; unsurprisingly, this latest extremist entity is more powerful, more effective, more ruthless and more worrying than anything that has gone before."

He says there is a chance for a way forward, which is to talk to and negotiate with IS. He draws parallels with the British government's negotiations with the IRA after a century of bloodshed and terrorism and the US sitting down with the Vietnamese in Paris in 1973 after nearly 20 years of slaughter. But he offers no suggestions whatsoever as to what could possibly be negotiated with IS.

Atwan ends by writing that while it is rare for him to agree with an American hawk, he fears that former CIA director Leon Panetta was correct when he told the newspaper USA Today in October 2014: "I think we're looking at a kind of 30-year-war, one that will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere."

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

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

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

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

Shukri Mabkhout

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

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

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

Mourid Barghouti (credit Peter Everard Smith)

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

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

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

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

Yasir Suleiman

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Nigerian and South African writers dominate Caine Prize 2015 shortlist

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

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

Segun Afolabi ©Barney Jones

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

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

Elnathan John

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

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

Masande Ntshanga ©Peg Skorpinski

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

Namwali Serpell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

Saud Alsanousi (courtesy BQFP)

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

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

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

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

Dr Rod Abouharb Labour candidate for Kensington: a profile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Abouharb visits a food bank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rod Abouharb with Kensington Labour Party colleagues 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Saud Alsanousi (courtesy BQFP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arabic original of The Bamboo Stalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 translator Jonathan Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you working on now in terms of writing?

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