Monday, August 31, 2015

review of Leila Aboulela's 4th novel 'The Kindness of Enemies': crises of identity and loyalty from Scotland to Caucasus

Book review: "The Kindness of Enemies" by Leila Aboulela
Crises of identity and loyalty from Scotland to the Caucasus 

In her engrossing fourth novel, "The Kindness of Enemies", the Sudanese-British writer Leila Aboulela tackles themes of identity, jihad and Sufism. She does so through two parallel narratives, one set in contemporary Scotland and Sudan, the other in nineteenth-century Imperial Russia and the Caucasus. 
By Susannah Tarbush

Leila Aboulela's novel "The Kindness of Enemies", which is published in the UK by Weidenfeld and  Nicolson, could hardly be more topical. Its characters include a Muslim university student, Oz, who is arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. His name is an abbreviation of Osama, perhaps not the most fortunate name to have in the post-9/11 era.

The arrest has serious implications for his university lecturer Natasha Wilson. In line with UK anti-terror laws, she was supposed to monitor Oz and his fellow students for signs of "vulnerability to radicalisation".

The nineteenth-century narrative revolves around the compelling historical figure of the Sufi Imam Shamil, who led tribes in the Caucasus against Russian expansionism. The novel shows him regularly consulting his revered Sufi teacher, the gentle scholar Sheikh Jamal al-Din.

 In 1839, the Russians exact a terrible price from Shamil during negotiations to end the bloody siege of his Akhulgo mountain rock fortress. They demand that he hand them his eight-year-old eldest son, Jamaleldin, as a temporary hostage.

Shamil reluctantly agrees to this demand. But after negotiations break down, the Russians fail to return Jamaleldin. They whisk him off to the imperial capital, St Petersburg, where he is brought up as a Russian officer and gentleman. Tsar Nicholas I tells him: "You will rule Dagestan and Chechnya on my behalf. No one will be able to win the tribes' loyalty and trust more than Shamil's son ...You will be my mouthpiece in the Caucasus."

review continues at

 Leila Aboulela

Friday, August 28, 2015

efforts in UK to counter ISIS in cyberspace

New British initiatives aim to counter ISIS on social media
by Susannah Tarbush

 Arabic version  was published in Al-Hayat daily newspaper 20 August 

 a still from Not Another Brother

One of the main tools used by ISIS in spreading and attracting followers has been its skilful use of YouTube, Twitter and other social media and internet sites to get its messages across and persuade Muslims from around the world to join it.

The ISIS videos that have gained most attention worldwide are those portraying its most gruesome killings and tortures. These are partly intended to strike fear into the enemies of ISIS. But at the same time ISIS uses social media to try attract young Muslims to join it as fighters, brides and members of its self-proclaimed “Islamic State”.

ISIS-related propaganda on social media has been blamed as a major factor in fact that an estimated 700 young British Muslims left Britain for ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq. Around half of them have returned, and the government fears they pose a security risk. Around 50 young Britons have been killed fighting in Syria or Iraq. While it was largely young men who went out at first, young Muslim women soon started to follow, and more recently entire extended British Muslim families have gone to areas under the control of ISIS.

Only a tiny proportion of British Muslims - who number around 2.7 million, nearly 5 per cent of the total UK population – have gone out to join ISIS, but it is thought a number of others have at least some sympathy with it. The terror threat in Britain was raised to “severe” a year ago because of the threat from ISIS, and it has been at this level ever since. Now, in recent weeks, anti-ISIS videos have started appearing on YouTube and other social media, with the aim of countering the ISIS message to young Britons. One of these new initiatives is Open Your Eyes which has a website at 

The Open Your Eyes initiative began when three young Yazidi women, who had suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of ISIS, visited the UK with the help of the government to address the media, politicians, and children at two schools, to tell them about their ordeal. The young Yazidis joined forces with a Birmingham-based activist Upstanding Neighbourhoods, to launch the Open Your Eyes campaign with support from the charity AMAR Foundation.

On its Twitter account Open Your Eyes says: “ISIS is lying to you. Open your eyes to the real story. We are working with young people, activists, bloggers and filmmakers to raise our voices against ISIS.” One of its Tweets says “Open Your Eyes needs your contributions – send in your video messages to take a stand against ISIS.” In one of its videos a young girl in a black headscarf named Krya speaks to the camera about British girls going out to join ISIS. In another Sabah, a Sunni who escaped ISIS in Iraq tells his story. Another video shows 18-year old schoolboy Surfaraz speaking up “because I don’t want anyone to be brainwashed by lies.”

A separate initiative to produce video material against ISIS is “Not Another Brother”, a campaign which aims to show the true human cost of radicalisation. As part of this campaign a short anti-ISIS film with this title has been circulating recently on YouTube, Twitter and other social media. The words accompanying it on YouTube say: “ISIL are radicalising our brothers to fight in Syria. They are tearing families apart. Enough is enough. Sharing this film will show ISIL that their extremist views have no place in our community. No family should lose another loved one to such hatred.”

The film shows a young British Muslim man, supposedly a fighter for ISIS in Syria, reading a letter from his older brother whose voiceover is in a strong London accent. There are the sounds of bombardments and explosions, and the young fighter’s wounds are dripping blood. In the letter his older brother apologises to for statements he had made that seem to have radicalised his younger brother and led to his deciding to go Syria to “become a hero”. At the end of the film words flash on screen: “Don’t let your words turn our brothers into weapons.” The film is meant to show how ideas can influence someone to become violent.

The “Not Another Brother” video campaign was launched by the Quilliam Foundation, the controversial counter-radicalisation think tank set up in 2007 by two former British Islamist extremists, Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain who had both previously belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir. “The video was developed in partnership with an agency named Verbalisation and its team of psychologists, military experts and linguists. It was financed by crowd-funding from 150 donors from 10 countries". Quilliam claims the it “can counter the influence of ISIL, and more broadly challenge the extremist narratives and ideologies that threaten us all.”

Reactions to the “Not Another Brother” film, on for example Twitter, reveal deep splits among Muslims. Some praised it, but others claim the Quilliam Foundation has no credibility at all within British Muslim communities. Critics see it as being too close to the government and as having too much influence on Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

These new anti-ISIS video campaigns have emerged alongside Cameron’s increasingly tough stance on ISIS, at home and abroad. In a speech on extremism he gave at a school in Birmingham on 20 July Cameron’s outlined his new five-year “Counter-Extremism Strategy”. His speech attacked the “poisonous ideology” that is hostile to British values. Quilliam co-founder Maajid Nawaz trumpeted the fact that he had had an important role in the drafting of the speech.

“We have to confront a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain – and who feel little or no attachment to other people here,” Cameron said. He laid down his comprehensive strategy to try and tackle Islamist extremism and the “poisonous ideology” that lies behind it. He attacked non-violent extremism, saying: “You don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish.”

Cameron insisted that “the root cause of the threat we face is the Islamist ideology itself” and dismissed the impact on young Muslims of British and Western foreign policy, or the poverty, deprivation and discrimination suffered by some British Muslims, which he referred to as “perceived grievances” rather than genuine ones. 

Cameron has been taking an increasingly hard line towards British Muslims since he first became prime minister after the May 2010 general election. In 2011 he gave a key speech in Munich, condemning “non-violent” extremism as well as violent extremism.

David Cameron

In 2011 Cameron and his Home Secretary Theresa May relaunched the “Preventing Violent Extremism” agenda, known for short as Prevent, introduced by the Labour government after the 9/11 attacks in the US. The new policy stressed the dangers of non-violent extremism.

In June this year he gave a speech in the Slovakian capital Bratislava in which he urged British Muslims to do more to counter Islamist extremism. He upset many British Muslims when he accused some British Muslims of “quietly condoning” Islamic State ideology.

In order to try and deal with the terror threat in Britain, and the problem of young fighters going out to, and returning from, Syria and Iraq the Counterterrorism and Security Bill 2015 was introduced and has now became law. For example, from 1 July staff at schools, universities, the health service, councils, the police and prisons have had a legal duty to report people they think are vulnerable to radicalisation so that steps can be taken to try to prevent them becoming extremists.

Cameron said in his 20 July speech that the government will “use people who really understand the true nature of what life is like under ISIL to communicate to young and vulnerable people the brutal reality of the ideology.” In addition, the government will “empower the UK’s Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish communities, so they can have platforms from which to speak out against the carnage ISIL is conducting in their countries.”

Cameron also urged internet companies to go further “in helping us identify potential terrorists online.” The internet companies have shown through their clamping down on child abuse images that “they can step up when there is a moral imperative to act. And now it’s time for them to do the same to protect their users from the scourge of radicalisation”.

Lord Ahmad

Minister for Countering Extremism Lord Ahmad reinforces Cameron's message
The Conservative politician Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon was appointed as the Minister for Countering Extremism after the May 2015 general election. This is a position that was newly created at the Home Office after the election, reflecting the seriousness of the threat from extremism and terrorism facing Britain today.

Al-Hayat asked about Lord Ahmed about uncertainty and confusion over how “extremism” is to be defined. Lord Ahmed replied “I don’t think there is a confusion. I think it is at times a bit disingenuous for people to say they don’t understand.” He added that the government has been very clear over the definition of extremism as being “the vocal or active opposition to the values that we share, and those values include democracy, the rule of law, the mutual respect of people for all faiths, and cultures and practices. After the tragic death of Lee Rigby we added calls for attacks on our armed forces.” (British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered on 22 May 2013 in a London street on by two Nigerian male converts to Islam who ran him over in a car and tried to cut his head off).

Al-Hayat asked Lord Ahmad whether David Cameron’s new five-year Counter-Extremism Strategy will lead to yet more new legislation, given that this year has already seen the coming into law of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Lord Ahmad said that in the autumn the government will introduce a bill on the new Counter Extremism Strategy which will include orders which will prevent particular individuals “from being provided with a platform where they can again launch a tirade of abuse and perverse narrative which seek to divide our country and our society.” The bill will also include orders banning particular organisations which do not at present meet the current criteria for being proscribed, but which “vent not just a negative ideology but a very perverse ideology which calls for attacks on other communities and minorities.”

Al-Hayat pointed out that Britain has already had around a decade of efforts to prevent violent-extremism, later widened to include non-violent extremism. Does David Cameron’s new five-year Counter-Extremism Strategy have a better chance of reducing the threat from extremism than these previous attempts?

Lord Ahmad stressed that whereas previously, governments had looked at extremism through the prism of violent extremism, now it is “looking at extremism in all its ugly guises” before it becomes violent, so as “to prevent the seeds being sown in the minds of the young.” Groups such as ISIL, Al-Qaeda and in Nigeria Boko Haram are using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and so on “as a means of attracting and influencing younger minds, they’re being effective in some part because many youngsters use those very mediums. So what we have to do is to ensure we tackle this evolving threat, this poisonous narrative.”

Lord Ahmed said that through its new Counter-Extremism Strategy the government will look at the behavioural aspects of people to ensure it can identify extremism “before it becomes violent, before we see the tragedy of terrorism gripping us.” To meet the challenge, there must be a counter-narrative against for example “those that hijack the religion that I myself follow, Islam, using the internet.” Therefore, “we need to work with our communities to ensure that we can get a very positive counter-narrative, accentuating the positive features of Islam - using the very same scriptures that the extremists use in an erroneous fashion - to say No, the faith is quite different, the faith tells you the true Islam - the faith followed by over a billion people across the world, both here in the UK and globally –is a religion of peace which promotes mutual respect for other faiths and humanity in general.”

Lord Ahmad stressed that “the government cannot work alone, in a vacuum. It’s for a community effort, for the whole country, the police, the communities, the youth leaders, our faith groups to come together face up to the extremists’ narrative. “And there will be a Them and Us: there’s the Us, a nation united by the fact that we have to face up to a tyranny and those who seek to divide us, and there is Them - a despicable poisonous narrative.” 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

'Vanished' - Ahmed Masoud's novel of a father's disappearance in Gaza


Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda by Ahmed Masoud
Rimal Publications, Cyprus, 2015
pbk, 204pp
ISBN: 978-9963-715-13-8

In this absorbing debut novel the Gaza-born Palestinian-British writer Ahmed Masoud tells of the obsessive quest of a young Gazan, Omar Ouda, for the father who disappeared in February 1982 when Omar was seven months old. Part thriller, part coming-of-age tale, Vanished takes the reader deep into Gazan society from the perspective of a boy growing up under the brutal Israeli occupation and in the tumultuous years following the Oslo Accords.

Vanished is published by independent publishing house Rimal Publications, established in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1993 by publisher Nora Shawwa. It is one of seven books shortlisted for the MEMO Palestine Book Awards 2015. The winners will be announced at a ceremony on 19 November. An earlier version of Vanished, entitled Gaza Days, won the award for best unpublished novel at the Muslim Writers Awards in London in 2011.

Most of the novel is narrated by Omar in the first person, and is set in Gaza from 1981 – the year of Omar’s birth – to 2011. These three decades include the Israeli occupation, the first intifada, the Oslo Accords, the rise of Hamas, and the second intifada.

Masoud interweaves this political backdrop and Omar's own story with skill. He gives a vivid picture of life in Jabalia refugee camp: the cramped alleyways, the mixture of smells, the savour of Gaza's characteristic foods and the terror and paranoia created by Israeli curfews, attacks, detentions and killings, and the treachery of collaborators. There is a sense of people being trapped in their national, family and personal histories. While Vanished is the story of  Omar’s search for his absent father, beneath it runs the wider loss of Palestine and the trauma of a people uprooted from their homes in the Nakba. Omar’s family comes from the village of Deir Suneid, which became part of Israel, and like so many other Palestinian refugee families still has the key to its house in Palestine.

Omar's first-person narrative is juxtaposed with a third-person narrative rendered in italics and set at the time of the Israeli assault on Gaza in summer 2014. Omar is living in London with his British wife Zoe and his baby son, named Mustafa after Omar’s father. During the Gaza war he tries to keep  in contact with his family and friends in Gaza through emails, and breaks down when his uncle Attiya phones, the sound of explosions in the background, and asks to be forgiven for all the mistakes he has made.

Omar knows that the tiny family house in Gaza is unlikely to withstand the heavy Israeli bombardments. "But it wasn't just the house that troubled him, it was the story hidden in its thin walls, and story of a boy growing up in fear and later the reconciliation that finally happened there and allowed him to let go and move on, start a new life in London."

Omar feels compelled to return to Gaza, travelling via Egypt and the Rafah crossing. At Heathrow Airport he buys a large leather notebook and begins to write his life story in the form of a letter to his son, in case something happens to him in Gaza and his son never sees him again. It is Omar's story written for his son that takes up most of Vanished.

Omar's planned return to Gaza is hampered by bureaucracy. Despite the fact that he has both British and Palestinian passports, an official at Cairo International Airport insists that he must have an exit visa in his Palestinian passport from the country he travelled from. Omar is forced to travel on to Jordan solely for the purpose of getting an exit stamp from Queen Alia Airport. On his return to Cairo Airport he is escorted to the "disgusting deporation room" where Palestinians have to wait to be put on a bus to Rafah; some of those squeezed into the room have been waiting more than a week.

As a young child Omar felt the absence of his father keenly but his mother was tight-lipped about the full circumstances of his disappearance. All Omar knows is that his father was regularly woken in the night by Israeli troops who would order him to clean graffiti off walls outside, and that it was while engaged in one of these nocturnal graffiti removal exercises that Mustafa disappeared.

Omar lives in a small house with his mother. After the death of Omar's grandfather, Mustafa and his brother Attiya had divided the family house, with Mustafa getting the smaller share. Attiya had built the biggest house in Jabalia Camp with many lemon and apricot trees and a vine. He is a big contractor and supplies Gazan workers to Israeli contruction companies. The thousands of workers get up at 4am to prepare for the crossing into Israel.

At the age of eight Omar feels his father  to be “my invisible companion” and constantly scrutinises his  photograph, pleased to note the physical similarities between him and his father. In the photograph Mustafa is wearing dark jeans and a shirt that would have been in fashion at the time: “it made me smile to think of my dad as fashionable guy who liked to keep up with the latest trends.”

Omar resolves to do all he can to  try and find his father. He knows from the Egyptian crime novels about the boy detective Takhtakh that “a good detective cannot do his job properly without the help of a sidekick”. One one level Vanished  is in the tradition of children's detective stories popular in many cultures - though this story is much darker than most. Omar enlists as his right-hand man his best friend Ahmed. Ahmed is loyal, courageous and honest, and has a  sharp nose for clues. But the more clues Omar and Ahmed discover,  the more the mystery of Mustafa's disappearance deepens.

The two boys' search for Omar's father takes place amidst the climate of danger facing Gaza's children. At one point Omar  is hospitalised after being shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers using live ammunition in a confrontation with children who respond by throwing stones. Omar is a mixture of bravado and fragility; he is attached to the animal fables of Kalila wa Dimna, some of which are recounted at certain points in the narrative. 

The Israeli occupying forces in Jabalia Camp are based in the El-Markaz Military Station under the feared military commander Uri. One day Omar manages to slip into El-Markaz, intending to demand information on his father's fate. He is at first defiant under questioning from Uri, but finds himself ensnared in a web of treachery, betrayal and blackmail. Omar’s predicament is compounded by a depraved incident that makes for horrifying reading; the trauma comes to overshadow Omar's life but he must at all costs try to keep it secret. One theme in Vanished is the phenomenon and mechanism of collaboration.

Omar starts to lead a double life and joins the underground resistance. This is a world of masked gunmen, secret tunnels and safe houses. The most influential woman in his life at this time is the memorable Um Marwan – a capable and committed middle-aged neighbour who holds Omar's father in high regard. Her wisdom and steadfastness are vital to Omar at crucial points.

When the Oslo Accords are signed in 1993 there is at first euphoria. Although Omar has some scepticism over the accords he is swept up in the excitement and becomes involved in Fatah organisations. But over time disillusionment and factionalism increase, and support for Hamas grows. 

Vanished is well plotted, with convincingly-drawn characters and constant twists, and the suspense is maintained until its final pages. It could however have done with some editorial tightening in places, and the text occasionally feels somewhat rushed - but then it does cover a remarkable amount of ground.
review by Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, August 01, 2015

interview with Egyptian writer Bahaa Abdelmegid on his Dublin novel 'Temple Bar'

The English translation of Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Bahaa Abdelmegid's 2011 novel Khammarat al-ma'bad (Dar Merit) is published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press under the title Temple Bar - the name of an area in Dublin famed for its bars, cafes and cultural life. The novel, translated by Jonathan Wright, explores the cultural and spiritual dislocation of Egyptian student Moataz after he leaves Cairo for Dublin in 1998. A Fulbright scholar from a poor family, Moataz endures various unexpected travails after he enrols at Dublin’s Trinity College to research a PhD on Irish literature.

Bahaa Abdelmegid 

How far is Temple Bar autobiographical? It is written mainly in the first person, and certain facts coincide, including your going to Dublin’s Trinity College in 1998-99, though as a visiting academic rather than a student. You have also been a Fulbright scholar, though elsewhere. Moataz encounters many different types of people in Dublin. Was this also the case with you?

To some extent the novel is autobiographical. I was a visiting academic at Trinity College more than fifteen years ago, at a time when Ireland was fresh to the EU. Dublin was flourishing and progressing and welcomed foreigners, though with some fear and apprehension. Although my hero suffers a lack of generosity from the authorities, who neglect the expatriates and foreign students, on the level of ordinary people he finds them very sympathetic and kind. My personal experience was important, but as a novelist I try to reflect my own imagination and skill as a writer rather than depending on memories or easy reflections on my travel experiences. I tried to make Temple Bar a sort of A Passage to India or Death in Venice in which the author is a serious and independent character and not just a narrator from the first person perspective.

How much were James Joyce and other Irish writers in your mind when you were in Dublin and when you were writing Temple Bar?

I was fascinated by Dublin and Irish writers when I was an undergraduate, though they were taught within an English literature syllabus, but it was when I started writing about Ted Hughes in my MA thesis that Seamus Heaney started to become a reality, and he was an open door to Irish culture. I was of course fascinated by Yeats , Synge , Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Living in Trinity College gave me the chance to read many contemporary poets such as Seamus Heaney and others. Joyce was a colossal figure for me as a novelist with his great novel Ulysses and his characters Bloom, Dedalus, Molly, and Dublin with its vividness and the story of its people at the beginning of the twentieth century. For me Joyce represents two things: modernism, and a genius mind. With his modernist approach he created a new novel form, and with his genius mind he did unprecedented work . Ulysses was strongly in my mind when I was writing Temple Bar and I identified with its hero all the time and I imagined myself as both Stephen and Joyce at the same time. I tried to walk in the same places and I planned my novel as a journey in the mind and the place of my character as James Joyce did.

It’s interesting for people to read a literary work depicting their country through the eyes of a writer and  fictional characters from another country and culture. Has there been much fiction by Arab writers set in Ireland as far as you know, and written in Arabic or English? 

It is true, and I think I tried to depict Ireland as I saw it from many different perspectives. But from a literary historian perspective, as you ask, Somaya Ramadan wrote Leaves of Narcissus - published in English by AUC Press as well - about her own journey to Dublin. We are friends by the way, and we are very fond of Irish culture.

Has your book been read by any of your contacts, friends, in Ireland, and have you had feedback or reviews there? Are you worried about how they might react to your depiction of Dublin and the treatment there of foreigners? Would you like a launch in Dublin, and how did you find the literary scene in that city – eg at the Irish Writers’ Centre – did you have much contact with Irish writers?

I do not know what reactions there will be to my novel in Ireland, and this is very difficult to predict. I do not have a lobby either in Cairo or somewhere else in the world may be an interview like that will help in promoting my novel and make fair publicity. I am very timid and I never ask for more, like Oliver in Oliver Twist by Dickens. I think my publisher AUC Press will help introduce me to Dublin readers and the Irish intelligentsia in the near future; it is doing its best to promote my books. My novel is highly experimental and sophisticated and needs a good critic to reveal its narratives. I think it could be studied on comparative or post-colonial literature courses. I think if the novel was introduced to Irish reviewers they would write about it but till now I do not see any reaction. Of course I would love to launch in Dublin it is an old and a great city for culture. I often visited the Irish Writers’ Centre, and I had many writer friends, but that was a long time ago. Irish writers are very distinguished and I think Irish readers would be open-minded enough to accept any observations made about their lives by a foreigner. I wrote my novel to immortalize them and to document my own experience from different perspective. Although there have not yet been any reviews of Temple Bar in Ireland, there are many in Arabic.

Did you find Ireland and Dublin different from the Ireland and Dublin of your imagination?

To some extent it was the Ireland of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World but when I was there I discovered the difference between the image of fiction and reality but still people are interested in myth and talk. 

Flowers play a significant part in your book, with Moataz becoming a flower seller at one point, after running out of money, and thereby getting an entry into the lives of the women flower-sellers. We learn from him that he had also sold flowers back in Cairo. Could you say something about your own relationship with the flower business and how you know it so well?

My family has one of Egypt’s major flower businesses, and we have very luxurious and prestigious shops in the Maadi area of south Cairo. I was introduced to the business when I was only 13 and I have very good experience in this field. I used to visit the Netherlands with my brother to attend the great Aalsmeer flower festival. My novel Leaves of Paradise is about this travel and I think it would be great if it were translated into Dutch. I am a lover of greenery and interested in the purity of nature and I would love to join the Green Party in UK if this were possible! Creating a clean environment is one of my interests and aspirations.

Could you say something about what you were writing in terms of fiction when you were actually living in Dublin, and where you were when you wrote Temple Bar? Did you need some distance of time and place from Dublin to write this novel?

I was researching on Seamus Heaney for my PhD and I consider it a good exercise on writing and I benefited from it when I came to write Temple Bar. I wrote The Black Piano in 1996 and I was looking for a big writing project, especially a novel. I started writing the novel Saint Theresa and some sketches based on certain characters I met in Dublin, especially women of flowers. It is true that I took some time to finish Temple Bar: in fact it took me 13 years to write and rewrite it and for it to be published. I felt it was necessary to be objective and direct and not to be over-sentimental. I did not want it to be a “travel literature novel” but a novel in the classical sense.

The novel was translated by the prizewinning translator Jonathan Wright and published in English by AUC Press. How did these two things come about? How did you work with Jonathan – did you meet him, did he have many questions in person or by Skype or email?

I consider myself lucky in English translation and I would like to take this opportunity to thank my publisher, AUC Press, for taking care of my writing. They translated two of my previous novels, Saint Theresa and Sleeping With Strangers, translated by Chip Rossetti and published as one volume in 2010. Jonathan Wright did a great job in translating Temple Bar. He is in my view an excellent translator, and he took great care over the novel’s stream of consciousness technique and its polyphonies. He was very accurate and asked me many questions via emails and Facebook. I did not meet Jonathan before or during the translation, but after the publication of Temple Bar AUC Press introduced us, and I am honoured by this cooperation.

Is Temple Bar your technically most complex work? You have various flashbacks, changes of tense and of person. Was this style difficult to accomplish? Do you do much rewriting after a first draft? Did you start Temple Bar with a definite outline of the novel that you stuck to, or did it evolve as you went along?

It is true and I consider it a turning point in my writing career. It was a reflection of my power as a writer; I wanted the novel to reflect my skills as a writer, but at the same time I remember how much I enjoyed writing Temple Bar even though I was writing about the sufferings and sorrows of its hero. At a certain point I did not want to publish it and I was even afraid of publishing it as it revealed so much of myself and the lives of others. I rewrote it many times and I have many drafts, to a degree I want to sell them in an auction or put it in an archive! but my friends in Egypt laughed at this and said “Who do you think you are, James Joyce?” I wanted to write the life of Moataz , this was my first plan, but then life changed and fate played its part in the life of Moataz so I had to add a different ending because many event evolved from this new end.

Do you have a daily writing routine, and are you always writing? Do you keep a notebook of observations etc and did you have such a notebook in Dublin? Do you listen to music, write at home, at work, or in cafes and so on?

Yes, I have a routine to my day. I work in the early morning , and I always go out to look for a place to write, maybe a coffee shop . Sometimes I write at home, as recently as two years ago I used to write only with pen but I then started to use a keyboard. I write every day, though not necessarily fiction: I also write emails, reviews, and my Facebook status. I write sometimes in the summer where I am free of teaching obligations. I like to keep a notebook and I still have my notebook from when I was in Dublin. I am fond of listening to music while writing especially Beethoven and Mohamed Abdelwahb , Om Kulthum and Angham.

In an interview with Egypt Today you said that during the years you were writing Temple Bar, you got married and changed your life completely. Could you say something about how in your view marriage and children may affect a writer’s life and material?

He becomes more mature and responsible and also it widens his domestic experience and puts him in touch with life in a broader sense. Sometimes domestic responsibility for a writer can stand as an obstacle in his development and his search for different and unusual experience but with some organization he can cope. I am lucky because I have a wife who understands the meaning of being a writer. She tries as much as she can not to interfere in my life as a writer and most of the time she gives me some space in which to create.

In your CV you say singing is one of your hobbies. The character Simone, with whom Moataz becomes involved, studies world music, and Moataz sings on occasion. Could you say something about this music angle of the novel? Did you yourself do any singing or take part in music making while in Dublin?

Yes I did, I sang sometimes in pubs in Dublin, though as a guest rather than professionally, and joined in singing with friends. Music is essential in the life of the Irish, and especially the singing of ballads. Music can be heard everywhere and this is similar to Egypt where music is common in coffee shops and in the streets. Singing is equal to existence to me and it releases me from my cares. When I sing I become happier and lighter. Many members of my dad’s family practised Sufi singing, and my father taught me many songs. In this sad city of Dublin singing is a vital route to survival.

Despite Moataz’s tribulations there’s quite a bit of humour in the novel, and at times his apparent innocence creates some amusing encounters. Was this something you intended, or did it come naturally with the writing?

It is natural I think, I am still innocent like Moataz. Humour comes naturally from ironical situations. Life itself is a big joke and art’s function is to reveal this joke. Though tragic end is essential , but can we stop it , no so it is better to try to laugh. But at certain moment in Moataz’s life he could not laugh, especially when he was depressed, and from here comes the irony.

At one point Moataz teaches Arabic to a young French Jew, Lusini, who later tells him he has Egyptian roots and that his grandfather had left Egypt after the 1948 war, going first to Israel and then England. “I don’t know why, but after that I stopped going to give him Arabic lessons, despite his polite manner...” and lack of racism, and Zionism. Could you say a bit about this brief but somehow revealing passage of the novel?

History and culture play a big role in the attitudes of people. Moataz has a heritage of suspicion and lack of tolerance and maybe he wanted to be free and to live his own life, but he could not. He was afraid of being a traitor in the eyes of Egyptian socialists who think peace with Israel is a crime, and a normalization of ties a sin. 
interview conducted by Susannah Tarbush

Friday, July 31, 2015

record number of entries for Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Tanslation

The list of 29 titles - a record number - submitted for the £3,000 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation 2015 was released during the Open Evening of the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature (BALMAL) held at the Arab British Centre in London on 29 July. The titles, translated by 25 translators, were on display on the shelves of BALMAL, together with a display of the titles to have won the prize, now in its 10th year.
The 2015 prize is open to Arabic-English translations published between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2015.

In alphabetical order by translator, the submitted titles are:

Hosam Abou-Ela
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim (New Directions)

Kareem James Abu-Zeid
Nothing More to Lose by Najwan Darwish (New York Review Books)
The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail (New Directions)

Marilyn Booth
The Penguin's Song by Hassan Daoud (City Lights Publishers)

Charis Bredin
African Titanics by Abu Bakr Khaal (Darf Publishers)

Raphael Cohen
Butterfly Wings by Mohamed Salmawy (The American University in Cairo Press)

C J Collins
Fullblood Arabian by Osama Alomar (New Directions)

Humphrey Davies
The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol by Elias Khoury (MacLehose Press)

Sarah Enany
Diary of a Jewish Muslim by Kamal Ruhayyim (AUC Press)

Paula Haydar and Nadine Sinno
Who's Afraid of Meryl Streep? by Rashid Al-Daif (University of Texas Press)

Kay Heikkinen
The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (AUC Press)

William M Hutchins
French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir (Antibookclub)

Luke Leafgren
Dates on my Fingers by Muhsin al-Ramli (AUC Press)
Oh, Salaam! by Najwa Barakat (Interlink)

Robin Moger
Where Pigeons Don't Fly by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing - BQFP)
Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy (AUC Press)
The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Seven Stories Press)

Nancy Roberts
Chaos of the Senses by Ahlem Mosteghanemi (Bloomsbury)
Days of Ignorance by Laila Aljohani (BQFP)
Lanterns of the King of Galilee by Ibrahim Nasrallah (AUC Press)

Barbara Romaine
Blue Lorries by Radwa Ashour (BQFP)

Chip Rossetti
Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim (BQFP)

Paul Starkey
The Book of the Sultan's Seal by Youssef Rakha (Interlink)

Mbarek Sryfi and Roger Allen
Monarch of the Square: An Anthology of Muhammad Zafzaf's Short Stories
by Muhammad Zafzaf  (Syracuse University Press)

John Verlenden and Ferial Ghazoul
The Chronicles of Majnun Layla and Selected Poems by Qassim Haddad (Syracuse University Press)

Farouk Abdel Wahab
Rain Over Baghdad by Hala el Badry (AUC Press)

Jonathan Wright
Land of No Rain by Amjad Nasser (BQFP)
Temple Bar by Bahaa Abdelmegid (AUC Press)

Mona Zaki
Chewing Gum by Mansour Bushnaf (Darf Publishers)

* Robin Moger and Nancy Roberts each translated three of the 29 titiles

* Jonathan Wright, Kareem James Abu Zeid and Luke Leafgren translated two titles each

* of the 29 titles, seven were written  by women (ie less than a quarter)

* 10 of the 25 translators are women (less than half)

* three titles were translated jointly by a duo of translators 

* AUC Press has entered eight titles; BQFP five titles; New Directions three; Interlink, Darf Publishers, and Syracuse University Press two titles each,  and City Lights, MacLehose Press, University of Texas Press, Antibookclub, Seven Stories Press, New York Review Books and Bloomsbury one title each.

* Three Egyptian writers - Youssef Rakha, Sonallah Ibrahim and the late Radwa Ashour - each have two titles submitted

* Humphrey Davies won the inaugural Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2006  for his translation of Lebanese author Elias Khoury's novel Gate of the Sun and in 2010 he won for his translation of Khoury'sYalo (he was also runner up in 2020 for Egyptian Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis). This year he is in the running for his translation of yet another Khoury novel, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol 
report by Susannah Tarbush, London

Monday, June 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

 Dr Joanne Liu

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

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

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

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

English PEN's translation scheme widens support for independent publishers 

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

Max Shmookler

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

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

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

Raphael Cormack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

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

press release from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP):


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

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

Atef Abu Saif

Arabic original of A Suspended Life, shortlisted for IPAF 2015

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

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

Faïza Guène

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

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

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

Selma Dabbagh

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

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

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

Dr Ahmed Khaled Towfik

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

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

review by Susannah Tarbush 

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

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

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

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

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

unlikely that IS would have existed without digital technology

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

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

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

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

Abdel Bari Atwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'the management of savagery' 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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