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 
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 ).

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.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Arab authors at Suhbbak Festival probe Writing Against the Grain

L to R: Robin Yassin-Kassab; Mona Kareem; Ali Bader,  Ghazi Gheblawi

'Writing Against the Grain' was the title of the opening session of the Shubbak Festival weekend min-festival at The British Library. The weekend - 'Two days of inspirational Arab literature' - was organised with Daniel Löwe, who is in charge of the British Library's Arabic collections, and the translator Alice Guthrie, literary programmer for Shubbak. Guthrie said it had taken nearly a year to put the weekend programme together "with the wonderful help of Daniel Lowe and the British Library team."

'Writing Against the Grain' was a great start to the two days. Chaired by Syrian-British writer and  activist Robin Yassin-Kassab the panel comprised Kuwaiti-born poet, writer, blogger and activist Mona Kareem Iraqi novelist and poet Ali Bader علي بدر and Libyan writer, blogger, activist and medical doctor Ghazi Gheblawi.

Ali Bader read in Arabic and then in English translation from his new novel Liars Get Everything. The excerpt's entertaining slant on a serious subject features an asylum seeker and smuggler, under constant threat of deportation, who fabricates sayings from Marx, keeping himself in disguise through using fake documents and false identities He goes under the name Amin although his real name is George - known to his friends as the Teacher. When he wants to assert the truth of anything, he says "Marx said that, I swear on my sister's honour Marx said it." (excerpt from the novel in English translation by Farah Sharaf here ).

Robin said he has so far read only one of Ali's 21 books, the novel Papa Sartre (AUC Press 2009, translated into English by Aida Bamia). "I strongly recommend it - I hadn't laughed out loud like that for a long time. It's a brilliant satire of one kind of false intellectual, somebody who goes from Iraq to Paris and sees Jean- Paul Sartre in the distance and then returns home and becomes Baghdad's chief existentialist. And he pursues Nausea by drinking a lot.  It's a  brilliant, very funny but also quite serious, novel."

Asked by Robin about the use of irony in his 21 books, Ali described how he uses it "as a political instrument in order to destroy the authorities," who - as in the case of Saddam Hussein - take themselves seriously. He added "I believe in culture, and I believe that we can change society by irony." Irony can also "violate the sacred things" such as religion and authority. From another angle, in his novels he constantly explores "the difficult relationship between the Arab world and the West."

Mona Kareem read in Arabic and English her witty and thoughtful poem "My body is my vehicle'. Robin asked her about a line in another of her poems, "I want to walk in a demonstration against myself." She said it is from her poem "I'm not myself". She had "noticed that I was always asked to define myself in a certain way and I would always answer in negation - I'm not this and I'm not that and not this and not that - and then I arrive at this conclusion of, well I should just like demonstrate against myself. I guess like the characters in Ali's novels, I recreate myself, I fabricate myself, because I find much liberation in this." She thinks one could see "the phantom" of the line "I want to walk in a demonstration against myself" all over the poetry collection it came from. "I'm always haunted by my body and that's why my next collection is about this, how can I explore my body, as a woman - but not necessarily in a sexualised way, the only way in which our bodies are dealt with - and on another level the immobility of this body, that no matter how light you are, you feel heavy."

Robin said this reminded him "of what Ali said in our conversation just outside, that he thinks the political focus of campaigning in the Arab world at the moment should just be on protection of the body - stop torture and stop execution. And if we can get the idea of the sacredness of the body, protecting the human body, everything else will come from that, and what you've just said fits back to that. Robin also discussed with Mona her poem "Kumari", her response to killings by maids in the Gulf of members of the families employing them, which had unleashed much racist discourse against Ethiopians and other nationalities. "There's much more work to do to debunk a whole culture that allows for this master versus servant relation to exist," Mona said. Her poem begins:

Dear Kumari,
I, of course, do not know if Kumari was really your name
It became a custom in the Gulf to change the name of the servant upon arrival,
The mama says to you, “Your name is Maryam/Fatima/Kumari/Chandra,”
Even before she gives you your cotton apron,
The same apron that the previous Kumari used...

Ghazi Gheblawi had replaced at short notice the Libyan playwright and novelist Mansour Bushnaf who had been unable to travel from Libya "because of some visa confusion". Gheblawi paid tribute to Bushnaf, telling the audience of his life -including years in prison from the 1970s with other Libyan writers held as political prisoners on trumped up charges - and of his work, and in particular the novel Chewing Gum ( Chewing Gum - Mansour Bushnaf ). The novel was published in Mona Zaki 's English translation by Darf Publishers in 2014. Gheblawi worked closely with Bushnaf on the English edition.

Bushnaf wrote many plays for the theatre, before and after his imprisonment. Chewing Gum was published in Arabic in Cairo but was confiscated inside Libya. "We got a copy and with the help of Ghassan M Fergiani who's the publisher of Darf Publishers we translated it into English.It's an interesting novel that talks about a guy who stands for 10 years as a statue waiting for his lover to come by and find him. There are lots of metaphors and anecdotes in it and it talks about the history and background of the country. It is very satirical, and very journalistic."

Robin Yassin-Kassab said he had recently read Chewing Gum: a remarkable book that he had much enjoyed, "funny and yet serious, and with really striking images."

Regarding Gheblawi's own writing, he read in Arabic, and the Iraqi-Ukrainian actress Dina Mousawi, read in English translation, an extract from his short story "A Rosy Dream". Robin also referred to Ghazi's short story "The Cave" and its similarity to Chewing Gum in that "you have this prose which is 'all that' - there are elements of post-modernism, and it's self-referential and it's inter-textual and so on, but it's more kind of meaningful and serious than a lot of post-modern experiments in the West." He asked "where does this come from? Because it looks like something that's got a huge tradition behind it."

Ghazi said: "It could be that there's a tradition behind it. I think that the short story specifically in Libya, short fiction, has a long tradition and a lot of writers, whether they were journalists or intellectuals in general, or even poets, dabbled a little in short fiction. There are according to my estimate about 150 short story writers in Libya who have published short story fiction, whether in one collection or several collections.

"The novelists that came later - there were two or three of them that worked on novels in the beginning, now there are more - the new generation who are tackling lots of problems in the country after 2011, and even before, are more or less abandoning the tradition of starting as poets and moving on to short fiction and then maybe moving on to becoming novelists and working in journalism at the same time. They go straight to writing short fiction but it has more attachment to reality and more attachment to the problems that are going on in society."

He said that Mansour Bushnaf once wrote a critique of what short fiction in Libya is, calling it "the prose of the city", in the sense that "because Libya was a rural society before independence in 1951 and then later on before the emergence of oil wealth in the 1960s 80 percent of people were living in small villages and towns. That was why fiction wasn't available at the time but then that social movement of migration to the city produced what he called ''the prose of the city'. So fiction is a product of urbanisation, and that's why you have that coming in the 1960s, 70s and so on."

With reference to the title of the session, Ghazi said that in Libya the act of writing itself is "against the grain". He has recently been involved in producing an anthology of 25 young Libyan writers. "They all wrote these amazing poems, and prose and short fiction after 2011, and all of them are young up-and- coming writers. Most of what is written is something that not only goes against the political atmosphere but also the whole narrative of a society.

"There are a lot of myths that are built in a society... When the writers confront these myths - through an absurdist novel like Bushnaf's Chewing Gum, or in other ways - actually they're writing a new narrative, they're trying to regain control of the narrative that has been taken from the writers or from the society itself. So in itself writing - in this moment of history - is writing against the grain."

report from London by Susannah Tarbush

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Two books by dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappe mark 50th anniversary of 1967 war


Ilan Pappe′s latest publications

Israel′s mega-prison

The dissident Israeli historian and activist Ilan Pappe is known for his challenging and meticulously researched books on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. His two latest books are in keeping with this reputation. By Susannah Tarbush

Ten Myths About Israel (Verso) is a paperback intended to be accessible to the general reader. The hefty hardback The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories (Oneworld Publications) drills into the 50-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It is rich in recently declassified material from the Israel State Archives.

The publication of the books coincides with two key anniversaries this year: the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the fiftieth anniversary of the June 1967 six-day Arab-Israeli war. At the launch of Ten Myths About Israel at the Mosaic Rooms in London, Pappe said the idea of the book had come to him during a visit to Australia. At the National Press Club in Canberra he had discussed Israel and Palestine with politicians, diplomats and journalists. ″I was surprised how they repeated one Israeli myth after another.″

Distortions with global resonance

 He has had similar experiences at the Houses of Parliament in London and with U.S. politicians. ″Basic historical facts about the reality of Israel and Palestine are not known to people who impact and affect the lives of those who live in Israel and Palestine,″ he said.

″This might have been forgiven 20 or 30 years ago when there was very little new research on Israel and Palestine, but in the last 25 years so much new stuff has been written about Israel and Palestine, a lot of it by critical Israeli scholars.″ He thinks the distorted historical picture ″may help explain our difficulty in changing European, American and Western policy towards the question of Israel and Palestine.″......

article continues at

Friday, July 07, 2017

'Brexodus! The Musical' opens at The Other Palace

 Donald Trump (James Sanderson) waltzes with Theresa May (Airlie Scott) 

James Sanderson as Boris Johnson 

Brexiteers vs Remainers in the final song: Heseltine (Paul Croft) and Mandelson (Scott Jones): "It's time, it's time, it's time, to stop exchanging oaths,
And say the empress has no clothes, the empress has no clothes."

Brexodus! The Musical, which opens at The Other Palace in Westminster on 11 July, is a highly amusing and thought-provoking satire on Brexit in song, dialogue and dance. The five-evening run at comes on the heels of the musical’s successful run to packed-out audiences at the Canal Café Theatre in Little Venice on 27-30 June.

The show has a richly talented cast of five versatile actors - James Sanderson, Airlie Scott, Paul Croft, Mike Duran and Scott Jones - playing some 46 roles. It is an updated, expanded and renamed version of Brexit! The Musical, which debuted at the Canal Café Theatre in November 2016 and was performed at the Waterloo East Theatre in January and at OSO Arts Centre in Barnes in February. On 1 February, there was a performance by special invitation in the Press Gallery of the Houses of Parliament.

Much has happened on the Brexit front since Brexit! The Musical was staged. Writer David Shirreff and composer Russell Sarre have added half an hour of fresh material and many new characters to the original hour-long musical, to create Brexodus! The Musical.  The show's musical director Frederick Appleby (deputised by John West) plays the songs and incidental music on an on-stage piano.  The production is directed by Lucy Appleby (no relation).

Brexit! The Musical had several changes of cast in its various stagings, and the cast of Brexodus! The Musical is largely new, though James Sanderson is a constant. Dressed in a blond wig and bicycle helmet, he reprises the role of Boris Johnson which he made hilariously his own.He also plays the new role of Donald Trump, along with Lords Pannick and Newby, First Eurocrat and civil servant Philpot.

Actor Paul Croft, a great comic presence, plays no fewer than 13 roles - from a tipsy Jean-Claude Juncker to Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, Liam Fox, President Erdogan and, clad as Tarzan, Lord Heseltine. Airlie Scott in silvery wig is a glamorous Theresa May waltzing with Trump; her other roles include Michael Gove's ambitious wife Sarah Vine, Jeremy Corbyn's wife Laura, Angela Merkel and Karen, a rare Remainer from Sunderland.

Scott Jones plays inter alia a creepy Michael Gove and Lord Mandelson. A rap between Jones' Putin and Sanderson's Boris Johnson is a highlight of the show. Mike Duran is a journalist (who interviewed many ministers) as well as an actor. As the then Prime Minister David Cameron, his song "I took the train to Brussels" opens the musical. His other roles include Andrea Leadsom, Iain Duncan Smith, Tony Blair, David Davis and Lord Tebbit, Shirref even manages to squeeze on stage Theresa May's powerful ex-political advisers, the "terrible twins" Nick Timothy (Duran) and Fiona Hill (a bewigged Jones)

Brexodus! The Musical is the fourth musical on political and financial crises to be written by financial journalist Shirreff in collaboration with composer Sarre. The series began with Broke Britannia in 2009, followed by EuroCrash! (2011) and Barack and the Beanstalk (2013).

Shirreff says of the revamped show: “We’re chasing a moving target. Every passing week the goal of Brexit seems to get further away. Exodus took 40 years. How long do we think Brexodus will take? Yet we've managed to compress this huge subject into a mere 90 minutes of wicked words and great songs. Among the fresh highlights are Theresa’s waltz with Donald Trump, Blair’s not-so-secret anti-Brexit plan, Corbyn as rock star, dodgy batsmanship from Boris, and the conspiracies of Tarzan and the Prince of Darkness.”

Shirreff has reported on finance since the early 1980s, and was with The Economist in London, Frankfurt and Berlin from 2001 to 2014. He is the author of several books including Dealing with Financial Risk (Profile Books, 2004) and Don’t Start from Here: We Need a Banking Revolution (Crunch Books, 2014), and Break Up the Banks! : A Practical Guide to Stopping the Next Global Financial Meltdown (Melville House Publishing, 2016).

Interview with David Shirreff 

David Shirreff 

Where did you find such a fine ensembles of actors? 
There is a huge pool of young professional actors/singers who are keen to keep in front of their public, even if the pay is minimal. Most of them have other jobs – run bars, sing jazz, do stand-up. I’m lucky that if they love the play they’ll take the risk that they won’t make much money.

Please say a bit about the writing process by you, composer Russell Sarre and musical director and pianist Frederick Appleby: how did you first meet? Does your work have any particular influences? 
I write a draft of the whole libretto before I involve the composer. The writing process can be quite fast, if I’m suitably inspired. And it can happen in strange places. I’ve written chunks of my musicals on holiday in Italy, Greece, Austria, Germany in between bouts of physical immersion in things like skiing, sailing, swimming etc. That seems to keep the brain fresh.

The influences are everything that has made me laugh since I was a child: the Goons, Flanders and Swann, Gilbert and Sullivan, Tom Lehrer, Monty Python, Richard Stilgoe (a less famous but very clever song-writer). I would say Gilbert and Sullivan are the strongest because their characters, however ridiculous, take themselves extremely seriously. I try to follow that model.

I met Russell Sarre in Germany – he was a mate, Goon-show addict, and fellow card-player long before I came to write my first musical in 2009. As I was desperately thinking of someone who could write tunes to my songs I remembered, wasn’t Russell supposed to be a composer? His sense of humour is probably more acute than mine. Frederick Appleby goes to the same church in Barnes, where he occasionally plays the piano. He joined the show as our musical director, then wrote two wonderful songs for it when Russell was overloaded.

after the show: David Shirreff (L) with James Sanderson, who plays inter alia Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Lord Pannick and a Eurocrat

What are the main differences between ‘Brexit! The Musical’ and ‘Brexodus! The Musical?’
Just as Brexit has morphed into an all-consuming saga, more like an Exodus than an exit, so too has the show. Part 1 is more or less the same as in the original, starting in February 2016 and ending with Theresa May’s first attempt to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament.

Part 2 starts in the High Court and follows the chaotic course of May’s premiership so far: her visit to Trump, her battles with Brussels and the House of Lords, and the ill-fated election. Meanwhile Boris charges around like a loose cannon; the anti-Brexit conspirators (Blair, Heseltine, Mandelson) gather; and Jeremy Corbyn achieves rock-star status. Just as the Brexit process has become more serious, and looks deeply damaging to the country, so the show is darker, the comedy perhaps not so much of a romp, more ringing alarm bells, in I hope still an amusing way.

Are future runs planned?
We have a week planned in October (2nd to 7th) at the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes. We would love to do more shows around the UK and perhaps in Brussels, Berlin and even Paris. But this needs private money, or state subsidy, and I’m running out of funds.

Will other recincarnations of the show come along as things develop Brexit-wise? 
There might be room for a part 3 if something dramatic happens – if Boris or Jeremy Corbyn become PM, if there’s a Breversal and Brexit never happens.

What are your views and feelings about Brexit one year on from the referendum? Have they changed since the first staging of the show in its original form?
As I said, Brexit might once have been a bit of a joke, but it certainly isn’t now. Just arguing about the process seems to be tearing our country apart. Surely there are far more important things to be concerned about than going through with such unnecessary self-harm. I blame the so-called Remainers almost as much as I blame the Brexiteers, because if they stood together they could stop this nonsense in its tracks. There’s no cohesion in the Remain camp.

Paul Croft as Jeremy Corbyn, Airlie Scott as Laura Corbyn 

How did the performance in the House of Commons Press Gallery go?
It was a tremendous experience, playing in such a place on the day of the vote on triggering Article 50 (1 February). The MPs, of both persuasions, who turned up, seemed to love the show. We were royally hosted by the Press Corps. I think a good time was had by all. Did we exert any influence on those political minds? I don’t think so, but they had a laugh.

What audience reactions did you have to the Canal Café Theatre run? The night I was there the responses were very positive.
Interestingly, I think the audiences were less inclined to belly-laugh than they were in the runs in November and January. We, the cast and I, think that is because the nature of Brexit has changed. We’re no longer so gleeful about the mess our political leaders have created. As the final song says:

It’s time, it’s time, it’s time,
To call a spade a spade,
And end this wild escapade,
This wild escapade.

 It’s time, it’s time, it’s time,
To stop exchanging oaths
And say the empress has no clothes,
The empress has no clothes.

I think most audiences have liked the show, but one or two people have commented that the subject-matter is now a bit serious for sheer comedy. We’re trying to play it less for laughs, more as a tragi-comedy. It will also benefit from an interval at The Other Palace. 90 minutes in one go was a bit long, for both audience and cast, I feel.

In addition to their being thoroughly entertained, do you hope that audiences take away some kind of“message” or deeper understanding of Brexit and the characters involved? 
I hope so. Although I love see that we’re entertaining people, I would hate to think that there is no more to the show than just laughs. I’ve written my musicals not just to have fun but to vent my frustration with the mess that our political/economic leadership have created. Serious journalism didn’t do that for me. I’m not cut out to work political change in any other way apart from writing. And comedy is a good mirror, I think.
interview conducted by Susannah Tarbush in London 

The Lords' risk abolition: "But we'll never crumble, though governments tumble" 
Fierce debate in the House of Lords over triggering Article 50

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Weapons of Mass Hilarity - Part II" brings together comedians of MENA origin

WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY- PART II ... The Road Map to comedy...

Hosted by LSESU Middle East Society: Students at LSE dedicated to raising awareness about human rights issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sat 29 April 19:30–21:30 (doors open at 19.30 show starts at 20.00)

 Upstairs at The Savoy Tup,
2 Savoy St, WC2R 0BA
nearest tube station; Covent Garden 

Tickets: £5 available online HERE

After a sell out premiere show held on 18 March, join us for the sequel comedy night of all comedy nights where comedians of Jewish, North African, Muslim, Christian, Arab, Non-Arab heritage from the Middle East unite to raise money for the AMAR International Charitable Foundation

 Hosting the night David Lewis will be returning... as delightful as ever describing himself as the "Super Jew" and head honcho of the comedy institution that is Big Nose Comedy inc.

The line up includes.

Victoria Howden
Back for a sequel, Victoria is a musical comedian with a dream of turning her life into a musical, she finds a tune for every occasion... get yourselves ready for an absolute treat!

Laila Alj
Laila is a Moroccan stand up with a very different insight into being North African in a Western climate

Ben Cohen
Prepare to be dazzled by this comedy GIANT...

Jenan Younis
London based comedian of Iraqi and Palestinian origin, be prepared to be terror-risingly amused...

Fatiha El-Ghorri
Fatiha is constantly getting lost on her way to the mosque and ending up in various comedy clubs instead! This gal smashed the Muslim stereotype!

Aaron Simmonds
Aaron has been trying to stand up for 27. years. Luckily he can do comedy even if he can't do the standing up...

Janine Harouni 
Janine is a Lebanese-American stand up and sketch comedian, winner of the Leicester Square Theatre's Sketch Off 2017; we've got star quality from across the pond...

Yazz Fetto
Yazz is a comedy writer and performer; he has written for BBC Radio 4s "Dead Ringers" and is one half of Christian comedy duo The Monks

below: group photo from WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY - PART I 
left to right; Mo Saffaf, Nicole Harris, David Lewis, Jenan Younis, Fatiha El-Ghorri, Victoria Howden

Monday, March 20, 2017

Omar Saif Ghobash's eloquent 'Letters to a Young Muslim'

UAE Ambassaor to Russia Omar Saif Ghobash addresses 'Letters to a Young Muslim' to his son Saif 
by Susannah Tarbush, London
[an Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 20 March 2017]

The book Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, has received much acclaim in the weeks since it was published. The book takes the form of 27 letters written by Omar to his elder son Saif, who is 17 this year. But the intended readership is much wider: “I write these letters to both of my sons and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them.”

The book, written in English, is published in the UK and US by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. There is also a digital audio version read by the author himself. The book is being translated for publication in German, Spanish, Turkish, and Complex Chinese for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ghobash hopes it will also be translated into Arabic.

Omar Saif Ghobash studied law at the University of Oxford and mathematics at the University of London. His letters to Saif are eloquent and beautifully written, their prose crystal clear. They can be seen as an antidote to the propaganda messages of ISIS (Daesh) and other organisations that use violence and destruction in the name of religion.

Ghobash aims to “reaffirm the duty to think and question and engage constructively with the world. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity.”

And he urges them “to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we need to make.”

Ghobash launched his book at a tour of four venues in the USA, and has been interviewed on leading US TV and radio shows. The book has received many highly favourable reviews. The author  and his book have also been making made a considerable impact in the UAE. On the evening of 8 March Ghobash appeared at an event at the Emirates Airline Festival in Dubai, discussing his book with another prominent Emirati intellectual and promoter of the arts, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. The event was a highlight of the Festival and many positive comments about it were posted on Twitter.

The festival’s director Isobel Abulhoul, who founded the festival in 2008, tweeted to Ghobash and Al-Qassemi: “You two made me so proud tonight. I had been waiting 9 years for this. The best session!” And the prominent British arts journalist and interviewer Rosie Goldsmith tweeted “Listen to this man: one of the most open, honest and important speakers I’ve ever heard on UAE, Islam.” Many other members of the audience issued similarly enthusiastic tweets - such as “Interesting (and funny!) talk by Omar Saif Ghobash”. “inspiring and vivid”, “amazing talk”. There were similar reactions to his appearance at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYAD) Institute. The internet magazine “The Dubai 100” featured him in its “local hero” series.

Ghobash was born in Ras Al Khaimah in 1971, “the same year the United Arab Emirates was founded, which has always been, to a certain degree, a point of pride and symbolic of my sense of self.” One thing that makes his book so compelling is that it is in part an autobiography. He writes with remarkable frankness about his experiences and struggles when he was growing up.

 In 1977 when Omar was only six years old political violence entered his life in a terrible way: his father Saif Ghobash was assassinated. Saif Ghobash, then 43 years old, was the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He was saying farewell to a Syrian delegation at the airport when a 19-year-old Palestinian shot him dead, mistaking him for a Syrian minister.

“The violence that destroyed your grandfather in 1977 continues to warp relationships and emotions in our family today,” Ghobash tells his son. “The effects of that violence continue to motivate me and color my view of the world.” Omar's father met his Russian wife when they were both studying engineering in Moscow. A Russian cousin of Omar’s recently told him via Facebook that “many of our male relatives had been Orthodox priests who had been killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.” The fact of being half Russian is very important to Omar. For example his mother introduced him to the great Russian writers, and in his book Omar mentions the internal turmoil of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky. But growing up half Russian also caused him some difficulties when he was a boy.

Ghobash is very aware of the pressures on young Muslims these days, especially given the rapid change to which they are subjected, including in means of communication. “In today’s world, you have access to all the information you could want about the most obscure ideas, events, and movements”, he tells his son. “You, and I, are overwhelmed by the media coverage of Islam and Muslims, intertwined with the constant linkage with terrorism and religiously inspired violence. You find that it is difficult to be a Muslim and live in societies that seem to be made up of lonely, sullen, and isolated individuals.”

Omar Saif Ghobash (credit Sigrid Estrada)

He urges against “black and white thinking” saying “there is much more gray in between the black and white than the ulema and other scholars present us. And the gray is where you develop intellectually and morally.”

He adds: “Certain dominant strains of Islam demand that it be placed at the centre of world politics. And supposedly you are obliged to be its servant. Why? Well, because we have a series of well-funded and persuasive voices who tell us daily that Islam is under attack and that we need to be on the offensive. Is this really the case? I do not believe so. These are shrill voices that have a warped view of the world and have managed to acquire finances and credibility.”

He criticises the education to which some young Muslim are exposed, which can lead to an atmosphere in which there is hatred towards those of different sects or religions. He gives advice on how to counter hatred, and live a worthwhile life. “You should know that for every action, there is a reaction. Your perseverance, kindness, or humour creates a ripple effect in our culture just as much as your indifference, violence or negativity.”

Ghobash  constantly stresses the need for individuals to take responsibility; he writes “Saif, I think you have noticed by now that I see the world through the prism of responsibility.”

When crimes are “committed by lunatics who claim they are acting for Islam” he often hears it said that “those people have nothing to with Islam”. But he has a different perspective. Though he does not like what the terrorists do, “I realise that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. We can take responsibility for demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can take responsibility for making it clear, to Muslim and non-Muslim, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary.” Young Muslims should “take back the definition of responsibility from those who would claim that responsibility is demonstrated by declaring violent jihad, or by carrying out suicide bombings.”

Omar repeatedly stresses the need to uphold the rights of women. In a letter entitled ‘Men and Women’ he reminds his son that has been brought up in a household where women are “strong, educated, focused and work hard”. All around him Saif sees women taking the lead, pushing on, striving to better themselves, and contributing to society in multiple ways. “We cannot claim women in Islam are unable to face the big, wild world out there if it is us who have deprived them of the basic rights and skills to do so…Our women need to be trusted and respected.”

Omar Ghobash is known not only as a diplomat but as a lover of, and promoter of, Arab arts and especially literature and the visual arts. In the preface to his book he explains how the shock of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 had a major impact on his thinking. Just weeks earlier he had been with Saif in Manhattan, carrying him in a baby sling. After the attacks “I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility towards this child. I decided that the time had come for me to take action in the limited ways that I could.”

He therefore involved himself in the arts, in literature and education. “My overwhelming desire was to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show myself and my fellow Muslims that our world has so much more to offer than the limited fantasies of deeply unhappy people.”

His work in diplomacy came later, “and I have approached it with the same attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. Through travel and interaction with all kinds of people, from the deeply religious to the highly knowledgeable, from the deeply uneducated to the hyperconnected, I see the common humanity that we all share.” He began his career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat at the UAE Mission to the United Nations and was then appointed ambassador to Russia in 2008.

Prior to becoming an ambassador, Ghobash founded The Third Line, Dubai’s first international contemporary art gallery showcasing artists from the Middle East. In the field of literature, Ghobash and his family sponsor the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, named in memory of Omar’s late father. This prize, awarded annually since 2006 was established by Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab literature and is the first prize in the world dedicated to rewarding translations of Arabic literature to English. The Ghobash family’s sponsorship of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize was last year extended to include an Annual Lecture.

Omar was a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – often known as “the Arabic Booker prize” - when it was launched in Abu Dhabi in 2007 with support from the Booker Prize Foundation in London. It was hoped that the prize would encourage recognition of high quality Arabic fiction, reward Arab writers and lead to increased international readership through translation. In the field of education Ghobash was instrumental in bringing New York University to Abu Dhabi. New York University Abu Dhabi admitted its first students in 2010.

The many warm responses Letters to a Young Muslim has received suggest that there is a thirst among Arab and Muslim youth, and Western audiences for positive and hopeful, yet challenging, ideas such as those contained in Ghobash’s book. At the end of his final letter to Saif, on the theme of ‘The Muslim Individual’, Omar writes: “In ending these letters to you, Saif, I want you to promise yourself that you will always maintain your dignity, your individuality, and your independence of mind… Now go and write your own letters.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Omar Sabbagh's new collection 'To the Middle of Love'

Omar Sabbagh's fourth collection: a reflection of different kinds of love
Susannah Tarbush, London 

Since his first poetry collection My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint was published by Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press in 2010, the British-Lebanese poet, author, essayist and academic Dr Omar Sabbagh has produced a stream of published poems and prose works. His writing has appeared in book form and in numerous literary journals. His first poetry collection was followed by the collections The Square Root of Beirut (Cinnamon Press, 2012) and Waxed Mahogany (Agenda Editions, 2012).

His first long-form prose work, the novella Via Negativa: A Parable Of Exile, appeared last year under the then new Cinnamon imprint Liquorice Fish, set up to encourage “innovative and idiosyncratic” writing.

Now Sabbagh has returned to poetry with publication by Cinnamon Press of his fourth collection, To the Middle of Love. Some of the poems, or earlier versions of them, have appeared in the journals or edited volumes Agenda, Agenda Online, CAPITALS, Peloton, Rusted Radishes, The Moth, The Warwick Review and The Wolf. To coincide with publication of the new collection, online publication The Punch Magazine published five poems from it, plus one of Sabbagh's hitherto unpublished poems.

To the Middle of Love carries praise on its back cover from one of Sabbagh’s main mentors, the distinguished multiple-award-winning British poet Fiona Sampson, Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton. she was awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List. 

"Omar Sabbagh writes with rare intensity and generosity," says Sampson. "Ideas and images overflow the lines of his verse, as well as their own boundaries, in a Shelleyian helter-skelter. Like Shelly, Sabbagh believes in the transformative power of poetry; unlike Shelley, he is also in love with language itself.”

Sabbagh was born in London in 1981 to Lebanese parents. He passed through the British school and university system and writes in English, although Lebanon is ever-present in his writing - at times overtly so, as in the poem "The Cedar Never Dies" in his new collection. The poem begins:

My country, my love,
Let me speak to you now in a foreign tongue,
Quipping against the flaming madness
Now begun.
The language in which I body my caress,
My missive in Dove...

Omar Sabbagh

Sabbagh has a BA from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE),  three MAs from London University - in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy - and a PhD in English Literature from King's College, London University.

A revised version of his doctoral thesis was published in 2014 as From Sight through to In-Sight: Time, Narrative and Subjectivity in Conrad and Ford by the Brill imprint Costerus New Series.

Sabbagh's literary career runs alongside his professional life as a university teacher. He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 2011-13 and is currently Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD). A first launch of To the Middle of Love was held at AUD at the end of January. It was followed by a 10 February London launch at the Big Green Bookshop, Wood Green.Sabbagh appeared alongside fellow Cinnamon Press poet Edward Ragg who was launching his new collection Holding Unfailing.

Omar Sabbagh at the Big Green Bookshop with Cinnamon Press founder Dr Jan Fortune 

Interview with Omar Sabbagh:

How would you compare To the Middle of Love with your three previous collections; for example has there been a change in your style over time?

First thing to say is, as well as being paraphrasably ‘romantic’ (this book is after all a reflection of different kinds of love), my working-method is just as romantic: which is to say, I generally write poems within the space of half-an-hour, and rarely revisit them to touch them up; if they work, they do, if they don’t, which is much of the time, then it’s just dross to be thrown away. Like a lot of poets, rarely do I know the full brief of a poem until I’m started; in fact the first line or 2 usually guide me to where I am going, or at least, where I was always meant to go.

The collection is eminently responsive to relations of love and care (caritas). For me love and death are the root/route of wisdom: that is, coming to terms with what these two terms really mean is to come to terms with what it is to be human. In one sense’ love is the solution, the salve, the tonic for our mortality (and any suffering or pain in life that is death’s precursor). But at the same time love is death…as against ‘onanism’, real love leaves us vulnerable, mortal, delimited. Death is merely the extreme on that spectrum. Thus, though I don’t practice or dub myself one there is a very basic buried Christian theme to the collection.

The book starts, black-comically, with a reference to self-love and progresses to more integral kinds of love. Many of the poems were occasioned by events in the lives of loved-ones, or near-loved ones. The book is dedicated, looping past into future, to my previous carers, parents, and my future one, Faten, my wife.

This is, evidently very much a ‘confessional’ collection. I am a neo-romantic and unashamedly confessional in this collection, which is to say, highly lyrical in the main and self-expressive and this: even though my critical wisdom has many tics against a romanticist approach to experience. None the less, the singing mode comes most naturally to me, so for all my other principles, I don’t fight it. As ever, sound in poetry is essential to how I express myself. I am not a sound-poet, but apart from rhyme, the discipline as it were in my poems are the way intravenous sounds play-out in my verse.

There is an Augustinian beeline through the book. It’s not only the three Augustine sonnets (first published a few years ago in the 2013 Templar Anthology Peloton), but also a reference in the villanelle “On His 75th Birthday” (dedicated to my father Mohamad Sabbagh). And also in the first segment of the book's Coda, the trinity as it were of ‘loving’ ‘understanding’ and ‘doing’ is deliberately invoked. This in-forming notion of ‘trinity’ also closes said Coda.

Something happened, subliminally, to me a year or two ago: I began to write nearly wholly in rhyme, or near-total rhyme. The vast majority of this collection involves rhyme – it’s a kind of discipline for me, and for the poem.

I think my voice remains the same or similar to my earlier poetic works, namely, in the main, emotive and unctuous. But also playful. Though I try for a kind of poetry that is universally accessible, my style (and its ear) remain very much rooted in the Englishness of English. I don’t think my work differs hugely from my first collection, both in discursive content or in mode or method, but I do think the one way in which I may have matured as a poet is in knowing where I stand in relation to my poetry; i.e. knowing my gifts and shortcomings, which only make me more sure of the work when I do deem it good, but also knowing in a more thorough way when a poem fails.

I do feel that it is indeed, if not my best book, which it may well be, it is definitely my best poetry collection.

Why are a few of the poems such as the beautiful "La Veuve" reprinted from your third collection Waxed Mahogany?

A few of the poems are taken from my third collection which was, in my view, a mistake. I rushed it. The editor of Agenda Editions is NOT was not responsible for this; she simply placed too much trust in MY judgement, which, at the time, unbeknownst, was a little warped. I have reprinted two or three poems from that collection merely to salvage them.

But Waxed Mahogany was well received, got some great comments and reviews. Why do you now seek to distance yourself from it?

 Because, simply put, the work, on the whole, was ill-judged in my view.

Your first published long-form fiction work, Via Negativa, appeared last year. In the light of that, and the fact that prose works being at the beginning and at the end of To the Middle of Love, please say something on the relation between your poetry and prose and how this has evolved. How much interplay is there between them: didn’t the St Augustine sequence in To the Middle of Love start off as a prose work?  

The Saint Augustine prose work is a different project, remaining something I plan to develop and work on. I would say this though: as a poet, I’m quite conventional; as in I’m not really trying to be aesthetically new/challenging; I just want to move people as I am moved; however as a prose stylist I am very much more experimental, or able to manumit effects which are more radical. Both forms are poetic of course, at least in my view, and I take just as much poetic satisfaction and care with a critical essay as I do a poem. Without claiming to be on a par with Joyce (obviously), I do relate to his sentiment quite early in his career when he decided that verse forms weren’t wholly for him, that prose would be where he’d do his impactful poetry. Now, I don’t wholly subscribe to this, but I do feel that in terms of consistency, at least, I’m a far better prose writer than poet.

Omar Sabbagh reads from To the Middle of Love at the Big Green Bookshop 

Eyewear is going to be publishing your Dubai sequel to Via Negativa. Do you yet have a title and date of publication of the sequel? Please say something about it, and how it relates to VN 

The Eyewear book is to be (creative) non-fiction; merely a snazzily-written cultural guide to Dubai in the context of today’s world; as planned: places, people, ethos, history and so on, but all directed and grounded in today’s evident cultural and political tumult. It is a sequel to VN merely in being shortish book that reflects (upon) a different city, what it’s like to negotiate one’s way around there, and what at a symbolic level said operative city represents.

It is evident from some of the poems in To the Middle of Love that Dubai has been quite an inspiration for you. It is a very different environment from other cities that feature in your work, such as London, Beirut, Marbella and so on. It would be interesting to know something of the Dubai effect on your work. 

Well, as ever, I’ve been both loonily manic and peaceful in Dubai, as elsewhere. I would say there is no more or less inspiration here than elsewhere; apart from a few different themes to do with Dubai in particular. In fact being a (semi-and-unfortunately-unavoidably-aesthete) in my writing, to certain extent I’m independent of my environment as a writer. I write from the English I carry in my head, and bones of course… I should say that I published the opening salvos of a projected creative non-fiction, a Dubai Diary, to follow my previous, ‘Beirut Cadenzas,’ in (the same) T&F Journal, Poem. However, this memoir, beyond the just-mentioned first 5000 words, has proven abortive as yet. From Bourbon to Scotch: Extracts from a Dubai Diary, were published in POEM, in 2016. Said chunk of Dubai-pertinent prose eponymously leads, though, a current manuscript of short narratives, being considered for publication by 3 publishers presently… My Eyewear Dubai-book, contracted-and-commissioned, is to be, rather, a book-length reflective thought-piece on Dubai, provisionally-titled: Minutes from The Miracle City: An Essay on Dubai in Today’s World. It will reflect the success story of Dubai, in the world of Trump, Trumpmania and Brexit, and so on…

You are remarkably frank and self-exposing in your poems. From where do you get this courage? 

I think it’s because in my context, I have suffered tremendously in an emotional, spiritual and psychological sense. When you hit ground-zero as I have, you learn to accept and well, you’ve nothing to lose. Also, it’s the way I’m rigged; to be affectionate and demonstrative of affection; all that, apart that is from an element of exhibitionism!

Did you decide the ordering of the poems in the new collection, and if so, on what basis?

No, this was done by my editor/publisher, Dr. Jan Fortune. And I trust her judgment. I think the ordering works wonderfully here, and there are some quite noticeable clusterings and patterns.

What question would you most like to be asked?

That would be: "Why is love such a significant theme for you?"
Well, love allows one to be both inside and outside the world at the same time. When faced by fear/anxiety or dread, avatars of our mortality, we realise after suffering that love just is the only salve or tonic. So one becomes a hippy! More pressingly, though, and especially regarding the Christian themes in this book, love in its truest, halest sense (as opposed to the opening notes on self-love) is a recognition of one’s mortality, in so far as to love is to be vulnerable to being hurt, de-limited. Which is one of the reasons, at a symbolic level, it would make sense that if God is Love, or, if you prefer, if the Meaning or Purpose of existence is love, that he’d have to die to fulfil his nature. I could wax on this for ages…