Wednesday, April 27, 2016

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

Palestinian author Rabai al-Madhoun wins IPAF 2016

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

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

Rabai al-Madoun addresses the IPAF award ceremony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greek Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Norman Period 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arab-Norman Palermo a World Heritage Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 04, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help make a difference! 

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

To know more: Visit

Thursday, March 03, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Clark with Ulfat Idilbi  ©Peter Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

from 6.30pm, for 7.00pm start

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

Friday, February 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Saqi to publish Sayed Kashua's essay collection Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Saqi to publish Native by Sayed Kashua

London-based publisher Saqi Books anounced today that it is delighted to have acquired UK and Commonwealth rights to Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life by Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua. It will be publishing the book in April 2016, as a paperback.

Sayed Kashua is the author of the novels Dancing Arabs; Let It Be Morning, which was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and Second Person Singular, winner of the prestigious Bernstein Prize. He is a columnist for Haaretz and the creator of the popular, prizewinning sitcom, Arab Labor. Now living in the United States with his family, he teaches at the University of Illinois.

Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life gathers together for the first time a selection of Kashua's personal essays, first published by Haaretz between 2006 and 2014. The essays explore questions of identity, cultural divides and the deeply-rooted complexities of a tragic conflict, alongside witty and intimate depictions from Kashua's personal life as both a father and husband.

Kashua writes with poignancy and candour about his children’s upbringing and encounters with racism, as well as the rising social and political tensions that led him to emigrate from Jerusalem to the United States in 2014.

Sarah Cleave, publishing manager of Saqi Books, who acquired rights from Abner Stein in association with the Deborah Harris Agency, said: ‘Native is a wickedly sardonic, moving and hugely entertaining collection that offers real insight into the lived experiences of Palestinians in Israel. Written by one of the true masters of the form, this ostensibly light-hearted book is a nuanced and enlightening critique of Israeli society that exposes the difficulties of living as a Palestinian in the Jewish state."

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist unveiled in Oman

the six titles shortlisted for IPAF 2016

International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2016 shortlist
Tareq Bakari (of Morocco), Rabai al-Madhoun (Palestine), Mohamed Rabie (Egypt), Mahmoud Shukair (Palestine), Shahla Ujayli (Syria) and George Yaraq (Lebanon) were today announced as the six authors shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), widely known as the Arabic Booker Prize. The shortlist is dominated by writers from the Mashreq, among them two prominent Palestinian authors.

The prize is worth a total of $60,000 to the winner: $50,000 plus the $10,000 that goes to each shortlisted author. In addition, the winner is guaranteed translation into English. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 26 April 2016, the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The six shortlisted titles were chosen from 159 entries from 18 countries, all published between July 2014and June 2015. They are:
Numedia by Tareq Bakari (Dar al-Adab)
Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba by Rabai al-Madhoun  (Maktabat Kul Shee)
Mercury by Mohamed Rabie (Dar Tanweer, Lebanon)
Praise for the Women of the Family by Mahmoud Shukair (Palestine) - Hachette Antoine  
A Sky Close to Our House by Shahla Ujayli (Syria) - Difaf Publications
The Guard of the Dead  by George Yaraq (Lebanon) - Difaf Publications

The 16-title longlist was announced on 12 January, though one of the books - Kuwaiti author  Taleb Alrefai's novel Here - was subsequently disqualified , as per the rules of submission, because it was found an earlier edition had been published before July 2014. 

This is the ninth year of the Prize, recognised as the leading prize for literary fiction in the Arab world. It is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). It also enjoys supported from Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Etihad Airways.

The shortlist was revealed by a judging panel chaired by Emirati poet and academic Amina Thiban at a press conference hosted by The Cultural Club in Muscat, Oman. "The process of choosing the shortlist was a pleasure and a challenge in equal measure," Thiban said. "This year’s list features a number of experimental works, which try out new ground as they explore the experiences of the individual and the larger concerns of the Arab world, from personal issues to social, political and historical ones. The shortlisted novels are characterised by their innovative narrative forms and styles, which both question the heritage of the Arabic novel and address the tragedy of the present day Middle East.”

Professor Yasir Suleiman CBE, Chair of IPAF's Board of Trustees, added: “This is a strong list, one that reflects the energy of the Arab literary scene as it marches forward to reach an ever-expanding readership. Through their subjects, well-crafted characters and technical ingenuity, these novels transcend their local sources to reach distant shores where the human spirit is the ultimate champion.” 

As always, the identity of the five IPAF judges had been kept secret until the shortlist was announced.. Thiban's co-judges are Egyptian journalist, poet and editor of Al-Qahira newspaper Sayyed Mahmoud; Moroccan academic and critic Mohammed Mechbal; Bosnian academic, translator and researcher Munir Mujić, and Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, who edits Al-Hayat newspaper's cultural pages.

the IPAF judges announce the 2016 shortlist

A statement from IPAF said: "The six novels are wide-ranging in subject matter, setting and style. They include the story of a Moroccan intellectual searching for identity through a series of relationships (Numedia); a pioneering novel, written in four parts – each representing a concerto movement – on the subject of Palestinian life both in occupation and exile (Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba); a dystopian imagining of “the counter revolution" in Egypt, set in a nightmarish future where the police battle against a mysterious occupying power (Mercury); the story of the Al-Abd al-Lat tribe, former Bedouins whose women play a vital role in integrating the family into urban Palestinian society during the 1950s (Praise for the Women of the Family); memories of Syria’s past and times of tolerance and simple pleasures from the viewpoint of a Syrian woman now living in exile in Amman after her town, Raqqa, is occupied by ISIS (A Sky Close to Our House) and, finally, a new perspective on the Lebanese Civil War through the eyes of a hospital undertaker, whose former life as a mercenary puts his life in danger (The Guard of the Dead)."

IPAF has been making efforts to increase the representation of women and young authors on its submissions, longlists and shortlists. Some eyebrows are bound to be raised at the fact that that there is only one woman, Syrian Shahla Ujayli, on the shortlist. The ages of the authors range from 28 (debut novelist Moroccan Tareq Bakari) to 75 (Palestinian Mahmoud Shukair), with an average of 52 years.

One previously shortlisted author, Rabai al-Madhoun, makes the list. His novel The Lady of Tel Aviv was shortlisted in 2010 and has been translated into English by the Saqi imprint Telegram Books. One first novel, Numedia, also makes the list. Two of the shortlisted authors have participated in the annual IPAF Nadwa (workshop): Mohamed Rabie in 2012 and Shahla Ujayli in 2014. Ujayli worked on what is now the fifth chapter of her shortlisted book, A Sky Close to Our House, during the workshop and credits the experience with helping her move forward with the novel.

IPAF Shortlist 2016 – biographies and synopses 

 Tareq Bakari

Tareq Bakari was born in Missour, eastern Morocco, in 1988. He graduated with a BA in Arabic Literature from Mohamed Bin Abdullah University, Fes, in 2010 and obtained a diploma from the Meknes Teacher Training College in 2011. Since then, he has worked as an Arabic language teacher in Meknes. He has published numerous articles and pieces of creative writing, both in print and online, but Numedia (2015) is his first novel.

Numedia tells the life story of Murad, as written by his French former girlfriend Julia. An orphan, Murad is cursed by the people of his village. Ostracised, insulted and beaten, he turns to love in an attempt to take revenge on fate: first with Khoula, who becomes pregnant; then Nidal, his classmate and fellow comrade in resistance; then Julia, seen as the French coloniser, and with his final love Numedia, the mute Berber. The rich story of Numedia unfolds against the backdrop of the real-life historical, political and religious landscape of Morocco. 


Rabai al-Madhoun

Rabai al-Madhoun is a Palestinian writer, born in al-Majdal, Ashkelon, southern Palestine (now Israel), in 1945. During the 1948 Nakba exodus, his family emigrated to Khan Younis in the Gaza strip. He studied at Cairo and Alexandria Universities in Egypt, but was expelled from Egypt in 1970 before graduating, because of his political activities. He has worked at the Palestinian Centre for Research Studies and as a journalist and editor for many newspapers and magazines, including Al-Horria, Al-Ufuq, Sawt al-Bilad, Al-Quds al-Arabi, Al-Hayat, WTN (an American TV news network), and APTN-Associated Press. His published works include The Lady from Tel Aviv (2010), a novel shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and his second novel Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba (2015). The Lady from Tel Aviv was translated into English by Elliot Colla and published by the Saqi imprint Telegram Books. The book won the English PEN Writers in Translation award. He currently works as an editor for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London.

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


Mohamed Rabie

Mohamed Rabie is an Egyptian writer, born in 1978. He graduated from the Cairo faculty of engineering in 2002 and his first novel, Kawkab Anbar (2010), won first prize in the emerging writers' category of the Sawiris Cultural Award in 2012. His second novel, Year of the Dragon, was published in 2012, followed by Mercury in 2014. In 2012, he took part in the IPAF Nadwa (writers' workshop) for promising young writers.

Mercury is a dark fantasy which imagines “the counter revolution" in Egypt as a reality in a nightmarish future. The eponymous hero of this fantasy novel is an officer who witnessed the defeat of the police in Cairo on the 28 January 2011. Over a decade later, Egypt is occupied by a mysterious power and the remnants of the old police force are leading the popular resistance, fighting among the ruins of a shattered Cairo. It is a daily hell of arbitrary killing, an intensified version of the sporadic massacres witnessed since the famous revolution in January.

Mahmoud Shukair

Mahmoud Shukair is a Palestinian writer, born in Jabal al-Mukabbar, Jerusalem, in 1941. He writes short stories and novels for adults and teenagers. He is the author of forty-five books, six television series, and four plays. His stories have been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Chinese, Mongolian and Czech. He has occupied leadership positions within the Jordanian Writers' Union and the Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists. In 2011, he was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression. He has spent his life between Beirut, Amman and Prague and now lives in Jerusalem.

Praise for the Women of the Family is a history of the women of the Al-Abd al-Lat clan, which has left the desert and is preparing to leave its Bedouin customs behind. The women of the clan struggle with these changes and many scorn those embracing modern life: when Rasmia accompanies her husband to a party, Najma wears a dress and Sana gets a tan on her white legs, they set malicious tongues wagging; meanwhile, Wadha, the sixth wife of Mannan, the chief of the clan, still believes that the washing machine and television are inhabited by evil spirits. Set after the nakba (the Palestinian exodus from what is now Israel) in a time of political and social change, the novel witnesses the rapid advance of modernity and the seeds of conflict beginning to grow in 1950s Palestine.

Shahla Ujayli

Shahla Ujayli is a Syrian writer, born in 1976. She holds a doctorate in Modern Arabic Literature and Cultural Studies from Aleppo University in Syria and currently teaches Modern Arabic Literature at the University of Aleppo and the American University in Madaba, Jordan. She is the author of a short story collection entitled The Mashrabiyya (2005) and two novels: The Cat's Eye (2006), which won the Jordan State Award for Literature in 2009, and Persian Carpet (2013). She has also published a number of critical studies, including The Syrian Novel: Experimentalism and Theoretical Categories (2009), Cultural Particularity in the Arabic Novel (2011) and Mirror of Strangeness: Articles on Cultural Criticism (2006). In 2014, she took part in the IPAF nadwa (writers' workshop) for promising young writers, where she worked on a passage from her 2016 longlisted novel, A Sky Close to Our House.

A Sky Close to Our House spans the second half of the 19th century to the present, featuring characters from different backgrounds who meet in Amman, Jordan, the city at the heart of the story. It is here that Jaman Badran, a Syrian immigrant, gets to know Nasr Al-Amiri, a Palestinian-Syrian who has come to Amman for his mother’s funeral. They soon discover that their grandparents were neighbours in Aleppo. Through the dramatic fall of families in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Serbia and Vietnam, A Sky Close to Our House shows how wars can change concepts of identity and nation, and create new destinies for large numbers of people; it also underlines that mass tragedy does not in any way negate the significance of individual suffering. 

George Yaraq

George Yaraq is a Lebanese novelist, born in 1958. He has worked as an editor and freelance writer for several Lebanese newspapers and magazines, such as Al-Nahar, Al-Liwa', Al-Hayat, Al-Sayyad, and Jasad. His first novel, Night, was published in 2013. 

The Guard of the Dead is the story of Aabir, a hospital undertaker. Working in the morgue by day and the operating theatre by night, he learns to pluck out and sell the gold teeth he finds in the corpses’ mouths. However, he lives in a state of constant dread and apprehension, his past working for a political party and as a sniper during the Lebanese Civil War hanging over him. One day, Aabir is kidnapped from the morgue. With no idea about where he is, who has taken him or why, he finds himself searching for clues about his kidnapping in his past.

The Judging Panel

Amina Thiban (Chair) is an Emirati poet and academic specialising in literature and forms of narrative, in particular the modern Arabic novel, who has also worked in journalism. She has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and a PhD in Modern Arabic Literature, both from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. After graduation, she studied English at Cambridge and Comparative Political Poetry in Cyprus and America. She is the author of Transformation and Modernity in the Desert: Tribal Saga in "Cities of Salt" (2005), The Discourse of Contrast and Irony in the Works of Emile Habibi (1993) and Flower of Blood (2013), as well as numerous studies focusing upon the Arabic novel, modern Arabic feminist discourse and academic criticism.

Sayyed Mahmoud is an Egyptian journalist and poet, born in 1969. He is currently editor of Al-Qahira newspaper, issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, and has edited the cultural sections of a number of publications including Mu'asasa al-Ahram al-Masriyya and several independent Egyptian papers. In 2001, he won a prize awarded by the Union of Egyptian Journalists for the best literary coverage, and he has worked as a literary editor and freelance correspondent for several Arab newspapers, such as Al-Hayat (London), Al-Akhbar (Beirut), and Reuters. He has served as a judge on the Egyptian Sawiris Cultural Award and the Arab Journalism Award in Dubai (in the Cultural Journalism category), and was honoured for his media work at a conference for Egyptian writers in 2013. He has written several documentary films and is a founding member of the Arab Group for Cultural Politics. He is the author of a volume of poetry, Recitation of the Shadow (2014), and editor of a book of interviews with literary figures by Bahraini poet Qasim Haddad, titled The Temptation of Questioning (2008), as well as A New Page: the young Arab writers' workshop (2005). 

Mohammed Mechbal is a Moroccan academic and critic. He is head of the Rhetoric and Discourse Analysis team in the College of Arts of the Abdul-Malik al-Saadi University, Tetouan, Morocco. He has written the following works: Rhetorical Utterances in Poetry Analysis (1993), The Rhetoric of the Anecdote (1997), Secrets of Literary Criticism (2002), Rhetoric and Origins: a study in the foundations of Arab rhetorical thought - Ibn Jani as a case study (2007), Rhetoric and Narration: the controversy of argumentation and imagery in "Akhbar Al-Jahiz" (2010), Rhetoric and Literature: from imagery in language to imagery in discourse (2010), Egypt through Moroccan Eyes (2014), and The Discourse of Morality and Identity in the Letters of Al-Jahiz: a rhetorical argumentational approach (2015). He has also translated The Image of the Other in Literary Imagination (2009), co-translated The Image in the Novel (1995) and Argumentation in Communication (2013), and was one of a team of translators who translated the Oxford Dictionary of Rhetoric (2015).

Munir Mujić is a Bosnian academic, translator and researcher. He received his PhD in Literature from The Sarajevo University. He lectures in Arabic literature and Arabic rhetoric at the Sarajevo University, in the Department for Oriental Languages and Literatures at the Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences. He has published three books and numerous articles on both classical and modern Arabic literature as well as Arabic rhetoric. His literary translations from Arabic into Bosnian include works by Ghassan Kanafani, Salah Abdel Sabour and the poetry of Khalil Mutran. His scope of interests also includes Arabic manuscripts and he translated a manuscript of Arabic rhetoric by Bosnian author al-Aqhisari. He is a member of the Bosnian Philological Society and of the editorial board for publications of the Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences.

Abdo Wazen is a Lebanese poet and critic, born in 1957. He is editor-in-chief of the cultural pages of Al-Hayat newspaper. He won the Dubai Press Club's 2005 Cultural Journalism Award, and the 2012 Sheikh Zayyed Children's Literature Award for his novel The Young Man who Saw the Colour of the Air (2011). He has published seven volumes of poetry and two novels as well as works of criticism and translation. His poetic works include: The Closed Wood (1982), The Eye and the Air (1985), Another Reason for the Night (1986), Garden of the Senses (1993), Doors of Sleep (1996), Lantern of Temptation (2000), Fire of Return (2003), A Broken Life (2007) and The Days Are Not for Bidding Them Farewell (2014). His other works include: My Father's Room (2003), Open Heart (2009), Mahmoud Darwish: the Stranger Falls Upon Himself (2006), Poets of the World (2010), An Introduction to Novels of the Lebanese War (2010), and Amin Maaluf, Breaking Boundaries (2012). His poetry has been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. His novel Open Heart was published in French as À Coeur Ouvert (2016) and his poetry volume Garden of the Senses was the subject of an MA thesis at Toulouse Le-Mirail University, France.

Delivering on its aim to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction, the Prize has guaranteed English translations for all its winners.The first eight winners are:
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); 2015: The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout (Tunisia).

The English translation of Raja Alem’s novel will be published by Duckworth on 2 June. Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk was published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) in 2015. Other  winners translated into English include Sunset Oasis (Sceptre), Azazeel (Atlantic Books)  Throwing Sparks and The Arch and the Butterfly (both published by BQFP). The 2014 winner, Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, in English translation by Jonathan Wright, has secured publication by Oneworld in the UK and Penguin Books in the US.
In late February Saoud Alsanousi will take part in the Muscat International Book Fair and an event with students at Sultan Qaboos University.

In addition to the annual Prize, IPAF supports an annual nadwa (writers’ workshop) for emerging writers from across the Arab world. The inaugural nadwa took place in November 2009 and included eight writers, who had been recommended by IPAF Judges as writers of exceptional promise.A number of former nadwa participants have gone on to be shortlisted and even win the Prize, including Lina Hawyan Elhassan from the 2015 longlist, 2014 winner Ahmed Saadawi, and Mohamed Rabie and Shahla Ujayli from this year’s shortlist.
Susannah Tarbush - London

Friday, February 05, 2016

Darf Publishers issues new edition of trailblazing book 'Translating Libya'

When Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story by Ethan Chorin was first published in 2008  by London publisher Saqi, in association with the London Middle East Institute at SOAS, it was hailed as a welcome addition to the bafflingly small corpus of Libyan literature in English translation. And the book was most timely, produced just as Libya was “coming in from the cold” after years of international isolation and sanctions. Chorin was himself a member of the small team of US diplomats which went out to Tripoli after US-Libyan relations were restored in July 2004. (I reviewed the book for in September 2008).

The book comprised sixteen stories by fifteen Libyan authors, translated by Chorin (in three cases jointly with Basem Tulti), together with Chorin’s engaging essays and jottings on Libyan short stories and his adventures while searching for them. The stories were selected and organised on a geographical basis: to be considered for inclusion the stories should be descriptive and should mention specific places. The authors ranged from pioneers of the Libyan short story such as Wahbi Bouri, Kamel Hassan Maghur, Ali Mustapha Misrati, Sadiq Neihoum and Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih to writers from a later generation, including Abdullah Ali Al-Ghazal and Meftah Genaw, and emerging women writers Najwa Ben Shatwan, Maryam Ahmed Salama and Lamia El-Makki.

Now Darf Publishers of London has published a revamped and updated edition of the book. It is appropriate that Darf should be the publisher of the new edition. Founded in 1980, it is the English-language imprint of Libyan publisher and bookseller Dar Fergiani, which dates back to 1952. In Translating Libya Chorin describes his fruitful visits to one of Fergiani’s two bookstores in Tripoli and his discussions with Hisham Fergiani, who suggested various possible avenues in his quest for short stories.  

The publication of the new edition comes at a time when the situation in Libya is drastically different from that when the first edition appeared. In 2008 “many believed Libya, with a nudge and a kick from the West, could morph from brutal dictatorship to something approaching the ‘kinder, gentler’ oligarchic models of the Gulf and East Asia,” recalls Chorin.

Few could have foreseen the 2011 revolution that would violently overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The situation today is ever more fraught, with two rival governments, and Islamic State gaining a foothold in certain places and perhaps posing a future threat to Europe. 

Ethan Chorin

There was a literary renaissance in Libya during and immediately after the 17 February revolution, and new publications burgeoned. But within two years the stranglehold of militias and Islamism imposed a kind of censorship.

The new edition of Translating Libya includes both Chorin’s introduction to the first edition, and a new introduction in which Chorin asks: “Why a revised Translating Libya?” He explains that the changes in Libya since the first edition gave him the opportunity in the second edition to say some things he couldn’t while the old regime was in place, lest he put the authors in a difficult position. “Post-revolution I could make explicit some of the more ‘subtle aspects’ of the original, and add some additional content to a literary history that is experiencing shifts and mutations in Gaddafi’s wake.”

Throughout Libya’s modern history the literary scene has been bound up with tumultuous developments in the country’s politics and economics. Some of the stories in Translating Libya deal with the impact of oil wealth, and the influx of foreign influences. Ramadan Abdalla Bukheit’s “The Quay and the Rain” features a dock worker trying to survive with his family in wretched circumstances amidst an alienating urbanisation. He is haunted by the harshness and danger of his former work in oil drilling in the desert.

Libya was under an often brutal Italian occupation from 1911 to 1943, and was a major theatre of fighting during the Second World War. The constitutional monarchy installed in 1951 was overthrown by Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution, and his unpredictable dictatorship ruled for the next 42 years.

During Gaddafi’s four-decade rule some writers left the country, others stopped writing or took refuge in allegory and metaphor. Some wrote in private, with their works surfacing in public only years later. The writer and critic Mohammed Fagih Salih called the 1970s in Libya “the age in which people before it wrote, and people after it wrote.”

'a lesson in how writers communicate in a repressive regime'

The second edition of Translating Libya has a new foreword, by the veteran Libyan novelist, short story writer and dramatist Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih. In a sense this brings the book full circle, for it was reading Fagih’s story “The Locusts” when he first went to Libya that triggered the idea of preparing an anthology of Libyan stories in English translation. Chroin was introduced to “The Locusts” by his Libyan assistant Basem Tulti after he asked for suggestions of Libyan literature he might read. Chorin loved the story and translated it, and then he and Tulti embarked on the project to collect and translate stories which culminated in the publication of Translating Libya.

In his foreword, Fagih writes: “Translating Libya is an expression of Libyan culture, but also a lesson in how writers communicate in a repressive regime, where heavy censorship, and random, severe punishment are common.” The stories reflect society past and present. “They even give voice to the sufferings and psychic disturbances of the dictator, living in constant tension with the people.”

Fagih observes that the idea of “searching for a place” committed Chorin to visiting the very towns and sites mentioned in the pieces. “Libya is a vast country of 1,760,000 square kilometres. It has a number of very different environments, colours and flavours. Libya encompasses rich coastal areas, oases, mountains: its people are Bedouin, urban dwellers and rural folk. The reader of this book will gain, both from the stories and Chorin’s commentary, a sense of this geographical and cultural variation in Technicolour.”

Translating Libya is divided into three main parts. The first part sets the scene, tracing the short story from Benghazi in the 1960s, through the decades to the 21st century. It also tells of how Chorin set about finding and collecting stories, through scouring bookshops, newspapers, magazines and the internet, and picking the brains of Libyan acquaintances.

Azza Kamel Maghur

The second part of the book contains the translated short stories, divided into three geographical sections:  East, West and South of Libya. These correspond roughly to the old provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. To the sixteen stories in the first edition Chorin  has added one new story, by human rights lawyer and author Azza Kamel Maghur, daughter of the short-story pioneer Kamel Hassan Maghur (1935-2002.

 Azza Kamel Maghur: a leader in 'realist-fiction'

Chorin reckons that Maghur’s short story “The Olive Tree” establishes her as a leading figure in modern Libyan ‘realist-fiction’. The story is set in Zintan during the 2011 revolution and is dedicated to its real-life central figure “the Martyr Sheikh Mohammed al-Madani and the heroes of Zintan”. The story is taken from Maghur’s collection of stories on the revolution, Fashloum: Qisas Februaee. Chorin sees “The Olive Tree” as marking “the passing of the baton to a new literary generation.”

The third part of the book, "Interpreting the Stories", includes Chorin's essays on such aspects of the stories as Three Generations of Economic Shock, Migration, Minorities (including Jews, Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans), Between Depression and Elation (on the mix of despair and humour in Libyan stories), and Women in the Stories. Chorin has kept these essays largely as they were in the first edition. "One reason is that I wish to highlight the ways in which the stories foreshadowed the revolution, and may explain what will happen to Libya in the future". The books's third part concludes with three new sections, the first examining the contemporary revolutionary context of Libyan literature. The final two sections reproduce two of Chorin’s articles: “The Graffiti of Benghazi”, published in Words Without Borders on 17 August 2011 and “Benghazi Blues” from Foreign Policy, 5 August 2011.

Chorin left Libya in 2006 and departed the diplomatic service two years later to work for a multinational in Dubai. His two years working as a diplomat in Libya left him with an abiding interest in the country and an affection for its people. His book Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution was published in 2012 by Public Affairs in the US and (as Exit Gaddafi : The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution) by Saqi in the UK. He is Founding Partner and CEO of Perim Associates LLC which provides economic analysis and strategic advice to companies and governments.

In the new edition of  Translating Libya Chorin recounts how in autumn 2010 he was contacted by someone who had read the first edition of the book and had gained insight into a country he had left 35 years before. Chorin discovered that he and this person had a common interest in medical logistics and they discussed projects they might do in Libya. They set up the framework for a partnership between a US teaching hospital and the Benghazi Medical Centre (BMC).

On 10 September 2012 Chorin and this colleague witnessed in Benghazi the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding that had the potential to improve the city’s emergency care capacity. On the afternoon of the following day the US Ambassador Christopher Stevens told Chorin and his colleague he was thrilled at this, but a few hours later came the attack on the US compound in Benghazi in which Stevens was killed.

 Libyan artist Mohammad Bin Lamin

After the trauma of the killing of Ambassador Stevens, a number of the late ambassador’s friends and former colleagues worked to bring the prominent Libyan artist Mohammad Bin Lamin to California for a memorial art show, carrying with him the work of several other Libyan artists.

Chorin's friendship with Bin Lamin goes back to when Chorin was living in Libya. Chorin recalls that at the time he was preparing the first edition of the book he had discussed with Bin Lamin a particularly striking group of the artist’s paintings entitled “Yellow Beings”. Later on, Chorin was despairing of finding for inclusion in the book a story referring to Derna, “the most beautiful place in all of Libya”. His problem was solved when Bin Lamin asked him to look at some stories by a friend of his: “With its timely and detailed descriptions of Derna and its environs, Abdullah Ali Al-Ghazal’s ‘The Mute’ would constitute the final piece of our geographic jigsaw puzzle.”

Looking to the future, despite Libya's grave problems, Chorin refuses to give up hope that things will eventually improve. "If insulated from outside influence, I believe Libya may ultimately sort itself out, as it has in the past, during times of great pressure and turmoil. It will be interesting to see what literature emerges from the post-Revolutionary high, and subsequent lows."

Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih says that since February 2011, Libyans have been forced to answer dark questions, such as "was 'freedom' worth the costs associated with the current harsh reality?" Libya's past provides evidence of similar periods of fragmentation, chaos and re-integration. "The key is to make sure that the processes established now incorporate lessons from the past, so that we do not repeat the same old stories."
- Susannah Tarbush, London