Thursday, August 30, 2018

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

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


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

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



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

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

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


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



                                                               Karl Sharro   Photo credit James Berry 

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

  The Phoenicians Invent Speech Bubbles © Karl Sharro

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

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

Q&As with Karl Sharro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

report and interview by Susannah Tarbush


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

Thursday, July 12, 2018

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



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

Rana Haddad tells a Syrian love story in English

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Q&As with Rana Haddad author of 'The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor'



Q&As with Syrian-British writer Rana Haddad, whose debut novel The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor was recently published by Hoopoe, an  imprint of the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press

How far is your novel autobiographical, for example in terms of Dunya's mixed Syrian-English parentage?
The plot is very much a fiction but the settings and impressions are all mine. This is the Syria I lived in as a child and teenager and later visited over the years. Dunya is very much a fictional creation but I share my 'mongrel' status with her and perhaps a little of her stubbornness. My mother is half Dutch and half Armenian and my father is Syrian. He is very different from Joseph Noor, except for his pride in Syria and his blue eyes.

At what point did you leave Syria, and where did you go? 
I left Syria at fifteen and a half. I lived mostly in London but also in Paris and Madrid and a short while in Beirut. I am now living between England and Crete.

You are a journalist of long standing, working in print and broadcast media. You  have also had a volume of poetry published (The Boy Moon Lost Love Poems Found in an Envelope - 2008). How long have you been writing fiction? 
I tried to write fiction in my twenties but it was impossible for me then, it always turned out too poetic. I needed to learn to become more practical and journalism and especially working in television I think helped me with that, especially  the structure aspect of fiction over such a long canvass.

I had the title, idea and general plot outline for this novel in the early 2000 but from first draft to final draft there were major stops and starts due to a number of reasons including health and moving countries and work. But during that time I also developed quite a lot of the plot and even the text for my second novel and third.



Photography and Dunya’s passion for it is a key dimension of the novel. Did you  have a previous special interest and practice in photography?
 I have never practiced photography myself and whenever I tried I failed because my mind does not work that way - I struggle with the technical element of it. But I had a deep and important friendship with a photographer which made me even more interested in it. Recently my mother told me, after reading the book, that I was always interested in photography as a child, though strangely enough I don't remember that at all. And I never had a camera like Dunya had, I was always interested in writing and wrote poems in Arabic and tried to make them rhyme.

Could you say something about your ongoing work in theatre and drama?
I helped during a Royal Shakespeare Company workshop of a play written by a long standing friend of mine, and this made me realise that Theatre comes naturally to me and is something I would like to pursue, but I feel that I want to pursue it with a strong element of music. Currently I am developing a small performance with a friend who is a Syrian singer - where we will mix scenes from Dunya with songs which she will sing live. We will try to develop this into a more extended performance and work possibly with actors and other musicians. I have also done quite extensive research for three BBC dramas. But they were factual dramas and even though it was a very interesting and educational experience for me, I know I am more interested in poetic and romantic ways of making things, not the hard factual approach.

How did your connection with Crete come about? 
I'm exploring living part-time in Crete, which is the most south Eastern part of Europe and  very near Syria. I can't imagine myself being able to spend all my life entirely in England as I miss Syria too much, and currently I feel Crete is a wonderful compromise and counter-point, and I am learning a lot about Syria's Byzantine and pre Islamic and even pre Christian roots from there. Crete and the Levant have a deep and important link, in myth and culture.

The novel has plenty of poetry in it, including song lyrics …. is this poetry your own, traditional, a mixture of the two?
All the poems and songs in Dunya are written by me, except for "Reader of the Coffee Cup" (of course!) The first song Suha sings which includes the words, Oh Night on Eyes, (Ya leili ya Ein), that expression is of course taken from popular mawals, but the rest is pure fiction.

Are there plans to translate the novel into Arabic and perhaps other languages?
No idea so far, I heard of talks to translate the novel into German and Dutch but so far nothing concrete. I would love it to be translated into Arabic of course, but also Spanish and French as I think it would particularly work in those languages.

Could you say something  about your next novel? Your LinkedIn entry mentions that it will be set in Indonesia in the 30s and 40s, and will also take in the Armenian diaspora and Persia.
My second novel which I am working on now is set in London and it will continue on from some of the major themes I explored in Dunya, but in a very different setting and the characters will be in their 30s. My third novel will be set in Indonesia, but I have already started research for it, as it will take me years to understand Indonesia enough before I can write anything that makes any sense about it. My maternal grandmother and mother and aunts were born and grew up in Indonesia actually. She was the child of the Armenian diaspora from Isfahan who moved to Java island around 1917, and my grandfather was Dutch who came there after the second world war. I want to take that time period and setting but then improvise, as I like to do, and as I did in Dunya.

Susannah Tarbush, London 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Writers' voices from the "banned" Muslim nations cross the Atlantic in Banthology



In January the UK publisher Comma Press published a unique and timely anthology of new short stories, by writers from the seven Muslim-majority countries named in US President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations appeared on the first anniversary of Trump’s 27 January 2017 signing of Executive Order 13769 which imposed the US's first-ever Muslim ban. The Executive Order banned people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA for 90 Days. It also halted refugee settlement for 120 days and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely. 

Banthology is edited by Sarah Cleave, who writes in her introduction: “The idea for this book was born amid the chaos of that first ban, and sought to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are populated entirely by terrorists.” 

She adds: “As publishers, we are acutely aware of the importance of cultural exchange between communities, and have also seen first-hand the damage caused by tightened visa controls and existing travel restrictions, not just on artists but on their families – that is to say the damage that impacts on all citizens of nations targeted by prejudicial border controls.”

On 27 March Deep Vellum Publishing of Dallas, Texas, in association with Comma, is due to publish the US edition of the book under the title of Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations.

Since the ban was first issued, it has faced a series of legal challenges and has undergone various reformulations. Will Evans, director and publisher of Deep Vellum, says: “The collection was created in response to Trump’s hateful original order, and remains especially urgent in the wake of recent events resulting in the reinstatement of the ban, and as the world awaits the Supreme Court’s final ruling on its legality.”

Evans says literature offers a means “to bring cultures into conversation, to share stories, build connections grow empathy. The stories in Banthology reflect the shared experience of the human condition that unites us all, and no hateful political ban will ever be stronger than the bonds of our shared humanity.”

the US edition - Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations.

The two men and five women contributors to Banthology are Najwa Binshatwan from Libya, Rania Mamoun (Sudan), Zaher Omareen (Syria), Fereshteh Molavi (Iran), Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (Somalia), Anoud (Iraq) and Wajdi al-Ahdal (Yemen). Two of the stories were written in English, while four were translated from Arabic and one from Italian.

Comma Press is, like Deep Vellum, a not-for-profit publisher. It is supported by the Arts Council England, and focuses on promoting new writing, particularly short stories. It takes a keen interest in translating and publishing literature by Arab authors, and prior to Banthology had published seven books of stories translated from Arabic including, in 2016, The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction edited by Ralph Cormack and Max Shmookler and Iraq +100: stories from a century after the invasion edited by Hassan Blasim. 

After Trump signed the Muslim ban, Comma declared it would stand in solidarity with those of its writers affected by the ban, including all 20 contributors to The Book of Khartoum and Iraq +100.

The contributors to Banthology were asked to develop "a fictional response to Trump’s discriminatory ban, exploring themes of exile, travel and restrictions on movement.” The publisher wanted “to showcase as many different experiences as possible, as the travel ban not only affects those living inside the so-called ‘banned nations’, but also those that have sought peace and freedom in exile.”

The writers approached the themes in diverse ways, often entering the realm of speculative fiction. Their accomplished and disturbing stories tell of attempts to transcend borders and barriers of various kinds. The elliptical narratives are frequently laced with irony, playfulness and a sense of the absurd. Though the authors’ protagonists show resilience, they are prone to a sense of loneliness and to psychological distress that on occasion tips over into breakdown.

Wajdi al-Ahdal 

The stories range freely over place and time. “The Slow Man” by Yemeni novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and dramatist Wajdi al-Ahdal, translated by William M Hutchins, transports the reader back to the year 100 according to the Babylonian calendar. Al-Ahdal explores what might have happened had the prophet Yusuf of the Quran, Joseph of the Bible, been barred from crossing the border into Egypt with the caravan that rescued him as a boy after his brothers tried to kill him and then abandoned him in the desert.

The Commander of the northern frontier of Egypt and Gaza – the “Slow Man” of the story’s title – has imposed a ban preventing the Babylonians and those they rule from entering Egypt. “He justified his ban as a temporary measure, designed to keep Egypt and its territories safe from the infiltration of enemies.” The High Priest persuades the Commander to waive the ban for the Israelite caravan carrying the boy Yusuf, and the Commander agrees, but after the Priest falls victim to an assassination plot the conspirators order the caravan to turn back.

Al-Ahdal sketches the disasters that befall Egypt and reshape world history, geography and spirituality in the absence of Yusuf over a series of time slots starting with the year 128 in the Babylonian era when more than 80 per cent of the Egyptian population dies in a famine, that Yusuf would have helped avert, and Babylon takes over the country and erases Egypt from the map by diverting the Nile to flow south into Lake Chad. In the Babylonian year 4000 previously unknown creatures slip through the cracked “space-time cone of four-dimensional existence”, claiming to be the planet’s primordial species returned to recolonise earth as “They Who Have Come to Retrieve the Earth from Mankind.”

Najwa Binshatwan

In Libyan author Najwa Binshatwan's adventurous story "Return Ticket", translated by Sawad Hussain, a woman tells her grandson about the only time she left her home village of Schrödinger. She was pregnant at the time with her grandson’s father, and travelled to meet her husband who had left the village for work. At every stage of her journey she encountered hostile airport officials. They imposed strict and baffling rules, forcing her to forfeit inter alia her headscarf and underwear. When she arrived at her destination her husband was so enraged by her partially unclad state that he divorced her on the spot. She was stranded in the airport for years, "selling tissues to travellers until I could buy a return ticket to Schrödinger".

The village’s name alludes to the Nobel Prizewinning quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger. It is “an open-minded village, where people, animals, plants, diseases and every type of wind pass through with great ease.” And it is a cosmic anomaly: "The name granted the village extraordinary powers; it could move through time and space, changing its orbit spontaneously as if it were the sun rising in one place and setting in another.”

'the Statue of Liberty and her bird-shit-splattered crown'


The only humans to visit Schrödinger were six American tourists, who got stuck there because the walls of their nation rose day by day until it was cut off from the world. Each attempt by an American tourist to scale the towering walls and return home was fatal. The walls were built higher and higher “until all that could be seen was the snuffed-out torch of the Statue of Liberty and her bird-shit-splattered crown.” From time to time the dead tourists speak from their graves in Schrödinger, and the eldest one comments: “It’s good that we died before America’s prison warder came to power.”

Rania Mamoun

In Sudanese author, journalist and activist Rania Mahmoud’s lyrical story “The Bird of Paradise”, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, the protagonist has longed to travel “ever since I realised that the world’s limits are not those of my city, Wad Madani; that the world expands so much further than the reach of my imagination”. She is oppressed by her tyrannical brother, who assaults here for daring even to spend the day in a nearby village. “I dreamed of becoming a bird of paradise, resplendent with colourful feathers, a beautiful head, black eyes and powerful wings.”

With the support of her girl cousin Ashwaq, who unlike her had been allowed to study at Khartoum University, she plans her escape. “Everything was arranged. I would have a seven-hour stopover then get on another place to another city, where Ashwaq’s friend would be waiting for me.” And yet when the moment comes to board the plane she finds herself nailed to the spot and unable to move forward in the queue. Like the protagonist of Binshatwan’s story she is marooned in an airport, stuck in limbo.

An earlier story by Mamoun, “Passing”, appeared in Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction. Comma is scheduled to publish her story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise this year.

A story by the Iraqi woman writer Anoud, entitled “Kahramana”, was published in Iraq +100. “Storyteller”, her story for Banthology, depicts an Iraqi woman driven to the edge by the serial traumas of Iraq and then of living in the UK as an asylum seeker.

While eating in an Indian takeaway in East London, Jamela recites her harrowing personal chronology to the staff, starting with her first experience in 1991 of an air raid, and moving on to describing her hunger under economic sanctions in 1996, the 2003 US and UK-led invasion, the torture, rape and killing of a friend, the murder of a cousin, and her own surviving a car bombing. As an asylum seeker in the UK she has drifted into alcoholism, drugs, dodgy sexual encounters and suicide attempts.

Jamela describes seeing a car wrecked by a bombing in Baghdad that she has seen as an exhibit “mounted on a clean white podium under a blinging spotlight at the Imperial War Museum in London … The slabs of dented metal were so mangled they looked like tens of human guts pressed together and left baking in Iraq’s burning sun until they were bone dry.” (Presumably a dig at the uncomfortable concept of the aestheticization of violence). Jamela erupts into uncontrollable fury when the TV in the  takeaway shows Trump’s notorious December 2015 campaign speech: “Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s’ representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Zaher Omareen 

The protagonist of Zaher Omareen’s blackly comic “The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling”, translated by Perween Richards and Basma Ghalayini, is an illegal migrant from Hama, Syria. A former prisoner in his mid-twenties, he is travelling across Europe to his hoped-for destination, Sweden, “where I will press the RESTART button”. Omareen’s story is well-observed and witty, its narrator given to wry asides such as “When in Rome do as the Romans. When in Greece do as the Syrians do.” He had travelled on a boat with other refugees from Turkey to Kos had capsized. He grumbles to himself about the “XL sized family who got overly excited when they saw the land of dreams getting closer. The boat had tipped over with everyone in it.”

The migrant constantly curses Kalimera, the Kos-based people smuggler from Aleppo, with “ten mobile phones in front of him, all ringing and falling silent in chorus.” Carrying a mobile phone is essential for those making their perilous journeys to Europe. “Oh god of mobile phones, master of the luminous dawn, carrier of fertility to our barren lands, patron saint of the tired and hungry,” the narrator muses.

Kalimera has provided the narrator with a fake passport of the Hungarian ambassador to Turkey’s husband, throwing in a Greek ID as well for free. The narrator manages to pass himself off as Hungarian during his flight from Greece to Paris, and then masquerades as Greek. From Paris he arranges a lift in a car to Denmark from where he will travel to Sweden. To the narrator’s horror he finds the driver of the car has brought along a giant Doberman: the narrator is terrified of dogs. The Doberman’s barks remind him of interrogations by prison guards.

Fereshteh Molavi 

The enigmatic story “Phantom Limb” by Iranian writer Fereshteh Molavi is set among a group of artistically-inclined exiles in Toronto, where Molavi herself lives. The first-person narrator is an Iranian who came to Toronto on a student visa with dreams of becoming a theatre director. He and his three roommates, who are aspiring actors, perform plays at home after dinner. But in the day they have to work at mundane jobs.

The story focuses on the narrator's observations of the elusive Farhad, an Iranian Kurd whose Persian cat stalks from room to room. The narrator is fascinated by two pictures Farhad has hung on the wall: an old map of Iran "covered with intricate painted patterns, much like a Persian cat's coat" and an old black-and-white photo of a woman on horseback, dressed in Kurdish men's clothes and a turban, and carrying a gun.

The roommates speculate on whether the photo is of Farhad’s mother or of the girl he had loved years before. The girl would sing to him from the prison cell next to his before she was executed.

After Farhad learns in a phone call from his father back home that his mother has had to have her right leg amputated he starts to develops pains in his foot and leg and eventually his leg is badly injured in an accident. The story is suggestive of the bonds between those in exile and their homeland and family. Their pain is carried like a phantom limb, and the difficulties in realising one’s dreams in a new environment.

The roommates work for an exiled Iranian entrepreneur of an older generation who had served in the Iranian Air force under the Shah. While he interviews the narrator for a job he tucks into a  gargantuan display of Iranian delicacies lovingly provided by his wife, “As he ate, he spoke endlessly about his journey from lowly immigrant to top-class businessman. His story didn’t interest me. I’d heard it before…”

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

Somali writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah was born in Verona, Italy, to an Italian father and Somali mother. Her exquisite story “Jujube” is translated from Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson. The dreamlike story becomes increasingly chilling as the reliability of the narrator Ayan, who has lived through horrific violence in Somalia, is called into question.

Farah starts her story by evoking the traditional way of life in the village, where Ayan's mother is a healer using medicinal plants. The mother tends the hair of  her two daughters with extracts from the leaves of the Jujube tree. People flee to the village from the city, which "burns and glows like a brazier, a filthy firework under the full moon", before the village itself is attacked.

Ayan becomes separated from her mother and sister and we next find her in freezing Italy where she is nanny to an Italian woman’s young daughter. Ayan has filed a request for family reunification with her mother and sister whom she says are in the US. But her narrative is interspersed periodically with brief notes by an interpreter. The interpreter states that Ayan’s account, while making a request for asylum, is full of omissions and incongruences.

Comma Press should be applauded for commissioning and publishing this powerful collection of original stories, as should Deep Vellum for being Comma’s co-publisher of Banthology in the USA. The stories shine a light on collective experiences through individual stories and might help bring about an understanding that runs counter to the demonisation of a religion and of entire nationalities through a crass, unjust and discriminatory ban.

Susannah Tarbush, London

Thursday, February 08, 2018

50 years on from Waguih Ghali's suicide his taboo-busting diaries make debut in print


The diaries of Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali are published  half a century after his suicide 
by
Susannah Tarbush, London
[an Arabic translation of this article was published in Al-Hayat newspaper on 8 February 2018] 

Fifty years after the suicide of the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali in London, the first-ever publication of his diaries is helping to boost the revival of interest in the writer and his ground-breaking novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

The diaries are published in two volumes by the American University in Cairo Press under the title The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties. They are edited by Egyptian scholar and writer May Hawas, assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

The diaries are astonishingly frank, chronicling in explicit detail Ghalis manic depression, his chaotic love life and many sexual adventures, his drinking and gambling, his interactions with a huge number of friends and acquaintances, the pain of exile, memories of Alexandria where he was born, and his pride in being Egyptian and a Copt.  His gifts as a novelist are evident in the way he writes scenes and character sketches, with a sharp ear for dialogue and frequent humorous touches.

The diaries have met with great success, Hawas told Al-Hayat. Readers are touchingly empathetic to Ghalis psychological struggles, curious about his sexual exploits, and drawn to the historical events that he mentions in passing. Weve received plaudits from old fans and new fans, novelists and scholars, but also filmmakers and translators keen to work on the diaries.

May Hawas

In her illuminating introduction to the published diaries Hawas says they mark a watershed “in the genre of the Arab (or Anglo-Arab) memoir in their openness about the taboos of family conflict, psychological trauma, alcoholic dependency and sexual dissipation.”

Asked whether she hesitated over including certain sensitive material in the edited diaries, Hawas replies: I hesitated over every paragraph but not for particularly moral reasons. We were very lucky with Ghali. He makes it clear in his diary that he wants it to be published. He writes this repeatedly and wills it in his suicide note. Were lucky, too, that hes an unreliable narrator.

She adds: So Im an editor, not the inquisition. I didnt hesitate over what to include as much as I hesitated over what to exclude. Its a long text, non-fictional, sometimes repetitive, and at times, incredibly depressing. Then again, thats what posthumous diaries are like. Changing them would have really meant I was rewriting the material into another genre. I didnt think I had the authority for that. That worried me. How he chose to spend his time, didnt.

Writing his diary was important for Ghali and he seems to have used it as a form of therapy. In his first-ever entry, on 24 May 1964, he wrote: Going mad, as I seem to be going, perhaps itd be better to keep my Diary [] if only for a streak of sanity.

The entries in the first volume of the published diaries were written while Ghali was living in the town of  Rheydt, in West Germany when he was working in the offices of the British Army of the Rhine. He had become a political exile in around 1954; before moving to Germany in 1960  he had lived first in Paris as a medical student in 1953-54 and then in London where he attended Chelsea Polytechnic in 1955-58 - before moving to Sweden.

Ghalis debut novel Beer in the Snooker Club had been published by London publisher André Deutsch,in 1964, and then in the US by Knopf. It had received generally excellent reviews in leading publications. But Ghali struggled to write his second novel, entitled Ashl.  While in Germany he wrote some pieces for the Guardian newspaper, and a play. But writing in his diaries was his main literary outlet. He often wrote in his diaries about the many books he read, and his feelings of inferiority in comparison to writers he admired.


One of the main characters in Beer in the Snooker Club is a Jewish woman named Edna, lover of the novels narrator Ram. While living in Germany Ghali was reminded of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, and deplored the racism he encountered.

During the time he lived in London his circle of friends included a number of Jews and Israelis. The climax of the diaries is the controversial visit he made as a journalist to Israel and occupied east Jerusalem and West Bank from July to September 1967, after the June war. He was commissioned to write articles for the Observer and Times newspapers. He claimed to have been the first Egyptian to visit Israel for fifteen years or so.  In May 1968 an Egyptian official in London declared publicly that Ghali was not an Egyptian but a defector to Israel, which hurt him deeply.

Ghalis diaries show that during his visit to Israel he met a wide spectrum of people, including Israeli officials, Israelis of different political hues, and Palestinians. He became increasingly disillusioned by Israel. He wrote in Jerusalem on 7 August 1967: “… I am angry and feel that the Jordanian and Arab Palestinians are just being pushed about; and the whole Israeli propaganda stinks with hypocrisy and lies. I prefer to wear an Arab headdress and walk about in the old town alone, and not have one of the conquerors with me.

In the essay An Egyptian in Israel written for the BBC, and republished in the 1968 book Good Talk: An Anthology from BBC Radio, he wrote: As a result of this visit, my attitude towards Israel changed dramatically. I am still very much in favour of an understanding between the Arabs and Israel. But whereas my pleas for understanding were previously directed towards the Arabs, I now feel that Israel is very much more to blame than the Arabs for the state of belligerency that exists in the Middle East.

After his visit to Israel Ghali writes in his diaries of getting to know and socialise with a group of left-wing dissident Israelis in London including Akiva Orr, a most lovable Communist Israeli. The group included the journalist, artist and writer Shimon Tzabar, who with help from Ghali and others launched a satirical magazine called Israel Imperial News. In its first issue, which can be read online, there are articles by Waguih Ghali and the Iraqi writer and journalist Khalid Kishtainy. 

But Ghalis wide network of friends and contacts, and a new love relationship with a medical student, could not save him from his whirlpool of depression. On 26 December 1968 he swallowed a massive overdose of sleeping pills intending to kill himself. He was at the time alone in the London flat of his literary editor, friend, mentor and briefly -  lover Diana Athill. He had been living in her flat since moving to London from Germany in May 1966.

“I’m going to kill myself tonight,” Ghali wrote in the final entry in his diary.  “The time has come. I am, of course, drunk. But then sober it would have been very very very difficult.”


We know from the book Athill wrote about Ghali, After a Funeral, published in 1986, that after swallowing the sleeping pills Ghali telephoned a friend and was rushed to hospital by ambulance. Friends were at his bedside as doctors tried to save his life, but he died on 5 January 1969. He was only in his late thirties (his year of birth is not known, but according to May Hawas it is thought to be 1929 or 1930).

In the final diary entry, Ghali made it clear that he wanted his diaries published. He wrote: “Diana sweetheart… I am leaving you my Diary, luv – well edited, it would be a good piece of literature.”

Half a century later, May Hawas certainly has edited the diaries very well. The handwriten diaries were in the form of six notebooks covering around 700 pages. A photocopy has been digitised for the Cornell University archive of “Waguih Ghali Unpublished Papers. The sprawling handwriting gives the impression of speed spontaneity, and is difficult to read. Hawas deciphered it and typed it up: she says she kept around 85 percent of the original handwritten diaries in the published version.

Asked why she was so keen to see the diaries published, and why she took on the project of editing them, Hawas says: “Waguih Ghali is something of a cult hero for Egyptians in their twenties and thirties (or who are in their twenties and thirties at heart), and an important forefigure for the Anglo-Arab novel. We felt it was important that we salvage his diaries for the public.

She has added valuable material, in the form of her highly informative introduction and two interviews conducted by Deborah Starr of Cornell University. The first interview is with Diana Athill. The second is with Samir Sanad Basta, the son of Ghali’s mother’s sister Ketty.

How did Ghali’s family and friends react to the project of publishing his diaries?  Hawas says “Samir was wonderfully supportive, as have been all of Ghalis family and friends whom we talked to and who reached out to us.

 The 12-page interview with Samir Basta contains many insights into Ghali’s personal history and his character. Some of Ghalis psychological distress may be attributable to his mothers rejection of him after his physician father died when he was young and she remarried. It was Samirs mother Ketty who brought him up. It could be that Ghali was always seeking a maternal love from other women, only to reject them once they had succumbed to him.


EXCERPTS from The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties , volumes 1 (1964-66) and 2 (1966-68)

Thursday 11th March 1965 [Rheydt, West Germany]
I hate the Germans. There is no getting away from it. Vulgar, loud, greedy. Nothing fine, delicate or sensitive in them. Enfin.  But at the same time, I have never, in my life, met such kindness and hospitality as I have here. This is, to me, a very difficult business altogether. I have been given asylum here, helped, fed, saved, and yet yet. But it is ungratefulness to dislike them and hate them. I wish I could just hate the hateful, and love the lovable but one cant, one has to reach a conclusion about the whole country [].

Wednesday 16th September 1965 [Rheydt]
Yesterday evening, lying in bed, I read some Chekhov again. An Anonymous Story. I even handle his books with reverence and love. He is the greatest of all men, is Chekhov. I have never heard any of his contemporaries say anything bad about him. But what is most remarkable is that Chekhov makes life worth living I dote on him so much that if I say Why was I ever born? I could answer, but to read Chekov
I wrote a bit for my novel yesterday, but after reading Chekhov, I knew what horrible trash it is

Saturday 16th October 1965 [Rheydt]
Woke up at 4 a.m. feeling suicidal, smoked two cigarettes, tried to sleep again nothing but nightmares and tossing [] I am feeling absolutely empty and dead inside. I shall never be a happy man-

Tuesday, 6th June 1967  [London]
Tragedies catastrophes. Native, international and personal. There has been war between the Arabs and Israel for forty-eight hours. The Egyptian army, which has been built at unbearable expense for ten years, has been wiped out in twenty-four hours of fighting. It is really pathetic. To save his face, Nasser says there was Anglo-American support of Israel. This is not true. He has led us and all the Arabs into a moral and physical disaster .

31st January 1968  [London]
For two weeks at the beginning of the month, I had been having a simultaneous active affair with Carmen, Susan and Ruth. Carmen would come here at lunchtime, then I would make love to Susan in the evening. Ruth would invite me for supper and next morning I would wake up straight for a date with Carmen. One by one they expressed terms of love, and each one in turn I gently, unabusively, unconsciously as far as they are concerned, I have discarded.

26th May 1968 [London]
Akiva Orr, Bill Hillier and myself were to give a talk about Israel and Palestine at the LSE or rather the School for Oriental and Islamic Culture. The hall was packed with Israelis, some Arabs and the rest English. Just as they closed the door and the chairman rose to introduce us, a chap from the back rose and said: Excuse me please. Before you start I would like to mention one important thing: on your posters you advertise Waguih Ghali as an Egyptian. I am a representative of the Egyptian government. Mr Ghali is not Egyptian. He has defected to Israel.

I was completely and utterly furious and yet the next few minutes were the only ones in which I was eloquent. I wiped the floor with the chap I was loudly applauded and the chap left. But afterwards while Aki spoke (he was giving the main talk) I sat in my chair drowned in an incomprehensible sorrow. It suddenly, after all those years, dawned up  on me that not only had I had no home since the ages of ten or so, but that I now also had no country.

Extracts published by kind permission of The American University in Cairo Press.










interview with May Hawas editor of The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties


May Hawas

Susannah Tarbush interviews Egyptian scholar and writer May Hawas, editor of The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties published by American University in Cairo (AUC) Press in two volumes, covering 1964-66 (published in 2016) and 1966-68 (2017).

What made you so keen to see Waguih Ghali’s diaries published, and to take on the project of transcribing and editing them?
Waguih Ghali is something of a cult hero for Egyptians in their twenties and thirties (or who are in their twenties and thirties at heart), and an important forefigure for the Anglo-Arab novel. We felt it was important that we salvage his diaries for the public. I’ve described elsewhere how – tentatively – the diaries made it into print: (see The AUC Press Newsletter )

The handwriting in the diaries lodged in the Waguih Ghali archive at Cornell University is hard to decipher (at least I find it so!) Did you do all the transcription yourself, or was there a team of some kind, and roughly what proportion of the original handwritten diaries appear in the final published version?
I did the transcription myself, about 85 percent of which is now in the published version. How, practically? With a photocopy of the material, a computer, and more periods of sitting down than I would like to remember.


The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties 1964-66

In the West there is a growing appetite for knowing the intimate details of a writer’s life, in terms of diaries, memoirs, letters and so on. Is this also the case in Egypt and other Arab countries?
Is it a growing appetite? Everywhere, any time there are famous writers, there will be fans, editors, scholars, translators, and flies on the wall.

The diaries are remarkably frank, particularly when it comes to Ghali’s sex life. Did you sometimes hesitate over including certain passages, or names, in the published version?
I hesitated over every paragraph but not for particularly moral reasons. We were very lucky with Ghali. He makes it clear in his diary that he wants it to be published. He writes this repeatedly and wills it in his suicide note. We’re lucky, too, that he’s an unreliable narrator. Much of what he says, if we’re fussed about historical veracity, can be taken with a pinch of salt. I explain this in my introduction to the Diaries.

'I'm an editor, not the inquisition'

So I’m an editor, not the inquisition. I didn’t hesitate over what to include as much as I hesitated over what to exclude. It’s a long text, non-fictional, sometimes repetitive, and at times, incredibly depressing. Then again, that’s what posthumous diaries are like. Changing them would have really meant I was rewriting the material into another genre. I didn’t think I had the authority for that. That worried me. How he chose to spend his time, didn’t.

How have readers and critics reacted to the published diaries, and what did they find most surprising in them?
The Diaries have met with great success. Readers are touchingly empathetic to Ghali’s psychological struggles, curious about his sexual exploits, and drawn to the historical events that he mentions in passing. We’ve received plaudits from old fans and new fans, novelists and scholars, but also filmmakers and translators keen to work on the Diaries.

Have launch and other events for the diaries been held/planned?
We’ve had two events so far: one held at Oriental Hall, in the American University in Cairo in September 2017, through the kind invitation of the Centre for Translation Studies, and we were graciously invited to hold another event at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo in October 2017. And, not to put too fine a point on it, we are open to other invitations.

Are there plans for a translation of the diaries into Arabic? And perhaps German (especially the first volume) and other languages.
Let me leave the cat firmly in the bag on that one.

How far does the Waguih of The Diaries resemble the Ram of Beer in the Snooker Club?
Tricky question. How far does any author resemble his or her creation?

I find that among young Arab writers in Britain, there is quite an interest in Waguih Ghali – as if a new generation is discovering him. Do you find the same in Egypt, and maybe elsewhere, and does his single published novel Beer in the Snooker Club have a renewed relevance today?
Beer in the Snooker Club was previously famous primarily in departments of English and in small circles of Anglophone readers in Egypt. The novel’s reprint in the 1980s gave it new life alongside the growing interest in world literature in English, particularly from the Middle East. You are right of course about the interest by Arab writers connected to Britain. If Ahdaf Soueif was one of the earliest and most famous to champion the novel in the 1980s in the London Review of Books, Saleem Haddad was one of the first to review the Diaries last year (see review of Volume 1 in full-stop.net ).

In Egypt, in the 1990s, the novel found resonance with a younger generation of English-speaking Egyptians restless with the political status quo and more open to the lifestyle portrayed in the novel. Its translation into Arabic in the early 2000s gave it a whole new dimension of fame. There is much that resonates for Egyptians, but mostly – I think! – is its mixture of the political and non-political. Then, there’s the popularity of Ram himself. A charmer, a boozer, and a ladies’ man who reads and is viciously critical of the world, who walks the familiar streets of Cairo and narrates the familiar private homes of Egyptians.

'the personification of cool'

There’s also something particularly youthful about it. It’s a young person’s novel, mixing risible superficiality with deep moral outrage. Much has been made about how Ram belongs to nowhere – actually, Ram seems to be one of those rare people who has created for himself a system of values in which he is supremely comfortable. It’s everyone outside the system – the mainstream, the government, the public – that doesn’t belong. So in his self-sufficiency and romantic alienation, Ram is the personification of cool.

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties 1966-68

As a Londoner, for me one of the pleasures of reading the diaries has been the connections it has with events, places, people in Britain. Have you received feedback in the diaries from anyone in the UK?
I share your pleasure in this. The Diaries, much like the novel, are a love story to London. Ghali calls it the place in which he feels most at home. This is the reason for the ‘swinging sixties’ in the title: except it’s an impoverished-upper-crust-Egyptian look at the swinging sixties.

I’ve heard from people around the world, actually, from the US, France, Germany, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, but also from the UK, especially from children of Ghali’s friends curious to see how their parents figure in the Diaries. Of course, knowing Ghali’s writing, the characterisation usually includes sex, alcohol, politics, books, some slagging off, and a lot of exaggeration.

Do you think the diaries would be of interest to psychologists, analysts and therapists – especially those with an interest in the relationship between creativity and mental distress?
Absolutely. The Diaries give an incredibly honest description of the feelings of both depression and euphoria, as well as of alcoholism, and the effects of all this on creativity. Some of the reader reviews have picked up on it already.

How did Waguih Ghali’s family and friends react to the publication of the diaries? The interview with his cousin Samir Basta in the second volume is a most valuable addition.

Thank you, yes, Samir was wonderfully supportive, as have been all of Ghali’s family and friends whom we talked to and who reached out to us.

The Waguih Ghali papers in Cornell University Library include two fragments of Ghali’s unfinished second novel Ashl and 51 letters, mostly from Ghali to his literary editor Diana Athill. Are there plans to transcribe and publish these?
You know, I sometimes think the definition of Tragedy should be “an unfinished novel”. One of the greatest storytellers of all time, Charles Dickens, has an unfinished novel. Who reads it? So I’ll take a leaf out of that example and stay away from the Ashl novel for now, and the same goes for his letters to Diana. If in the future a publisher thinks it would be a good idea to issue a complete volume of Waguih Ghali’s non-fictional writing, including his diaries, letters, articles and the Ashl novel, then I may be the first in line to take up transcribing again.

May Hawas is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo (AUC). She received her PhD in Literature from Leuven University. In addition to editing The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, May has published a number of articles, book chapters, and short stories. Her work has appeared in the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, the Journal of World Literature, and Comparative Literature Studies, while her stories have been published in Mizna: Journal of Arab American Art; Yellow Medicine Review, and African Writing. She is editor of The Routledge Companion to World Literature and World History, due to be published in April.