Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Concert in the time of blasts
There could hardly have been a greater antidote to the grim and apprehensive atmosphere in terrorism-stricken London than the concert of Iranian Kurdish music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday evening.
If the bombings and mass murder reveal the vile depths to which those terrorists who misuse Islam are prepared to sink, the concert affirmed the high level of culture that artists from the Muslim world bring to London. Some of the music had a deeply spiritual, meditative character while other pieces were joyfully exuberant.
The concert featured musician and vocalist Ali Akbar Moradi, one of the leading Iranian masters of the tanbour lute. Alongside him were his sons Arash, who plays sehtar, and Kourosh who plays the tombak goblet drum and daf frame drum. One of the numbers they performed was an extraordinary trio, with each of the Moradis playing a tanbour.
The programme also featured the well-known London-based percussionist Fariborz Kiani, on tombak and dohol.
The programme opened with a tanbour solo from Ali Akbar Moradi, accompanied by Kourosh. The solo was a fusion of Kurdish maqam music with classical Persian music.
The second half of the evening consisted of Kurdish music and dance. Towards the end, some Kurdish members of the audience couldn’t resist rising leaving their seats and dancing in front of the stage.
Ali Akbar Moradi was born in Kermanshah in 1957 and started playing tanbour at the age of six, encouraged by his grandfather. Later on he received lessons from the grand masters of Kurdish tanbour. By the age of 30 he had completed learning the entire 72 maghams played on tanbour.
The concert was part of the Rhythm Sticks International Drum and Percussion Festival held at the South Bank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room from July 16-24.
The 18 concerts were given by percussionists and musicians from around the world, such as Musicians of the Nile from Upper Egypt, Master Drummers of Africa, and Iraqi oud player Ahmed Mukhtar with Master Arab Percussionists.
Saudi Gazette July 26 2005
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
By a quirk of timing, BBC Radio 4's serialisation of Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela's novel "Minaret" was broadcast in the Book at Bedtime slot during the period following the bomb attacks in London on July 7.
It is hard to think of a more appropriate book for this time when understanding between Muslims and wider British society is under huge strain. The serialisation was wonderfully rendered by actress Adjoa Andoh, who brought a lively variety of voices to her reading.
Aboulela has a gift for writing from the interior experience of a Muslim woman, and "Minaret" takes us deep into the life of her Sudanese first-person narrator Najwa. Aboulela approaches the story with her customary grace and skill, and her characters are subtly drawn. We learn what it is that brought Najwa to a renewal of her religious faith, and to the decision to start wearing the Islamic headscarf.
The novel, published recently by Bloomsbury, constantly moves in place and time between Khartoum and London, in a time frame from the mid-1980s to today. The minaret of the title is that of Regent's Park mosque, glimpsed by Najwa as she waits to enter the flat of her new employer Lamya whose small daughter she looks after.
Najwa tells us at the beginning of the novel "I've come down in the world." Born to a privileged family in Sudan, and with her father close to the president, she mixes with a Westernised partying crowd of young people in Khartoum in the mid-1980s. At university there is a mutual attraction between her and Anwar, a young radical who is critical of her father and the family's well-off lifestyle.
Disaster befalls the family after a coup in which Najwa's father is arrested. Najwa flees to London with her mother and twin brother Omar and her father is tried and hung. Najwa's twin Omar, who has long been a worry to her, ends up in prison.
While working for Lamya, Najwa develops a close friendship with Lamya's brother Tamer, which causes her conflicting emotions.
Aboulela was in 2000 the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing for the short story "The Museum". She was longlisted for the Orange prize for women's fiction in 2000 with her first novel "The Translator". Her collection of stories, "Coloured Lights", was published in 2001. She has had several dramas performed on BBC Radio.
Aboulela's writing exemplifies the capacity of fiction to touch readers and encourage empathy in ways that straight reporting can never do. Such imaginative leaps are needed now more than ever.
July 19 2005
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Segun Afolabi with bust of Sir Michael Caine
This year's winner of the $15,000 Caine Prize for African Writing, Nigerian-born Segun Afolabi, has had a succession of stories published in some of the most prestigious literary magazines in Britain. They include the London Magazine, Wasafiri, Edinburgh Review and Pretext.
Afolabi won the prize for his story "Monday Morning", published in the spring 2004 issue of Wasafiri. He is set to make a high-profile debut in the book world when Jonathan Cape (part of Random House) publishes his short story collection "A Life Elsewhere." The collection was due to be published next April, but now that Afolabi has won the Caine Prize the publication date may be brought forward. The collection will be followed by Afolabi's first novel, "Goodbye Lucille", due to be published by Cape in early 2007.
The Caine Prize was established in 2000 in memory of Sir Michael Caine, the businessman lover of literature and of Africa who was for nearly 25 years the chairman of the Booker Prize management committee.
The chairman of the judges, Baroness Young, announced that Afolabi had won the prize at the prize-giving dinner held on July 4 in the Divinity School at the Bodleian library, Oxford University.
She described "Monday Morning" as "a very fresh, elegantly written tale which gave us an insight into the perspectives of a family who escaped torture and mutilation in their own country to arrive in London, which for them is a city of misunderstandings and hostility."
When I met Afolabi the day after the won the prize, he told me that he is halfway through the year he has taken off from full-time employment in order to write his second novel. He has been trying to get by on as little money as possible, and the prize has come as a "big boost". Afolabi's past jobs have included working as a subeditor on the Radio Times and as an assistant content producer for BBC digital radio.
Afolabi was born in Kaduna in 1966. His father's work as a diplomat took the family to live in countries including Congo, Canada, Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong. When Afolabi was nine, he was sent to school in England and later on he read management studies at Cardiff University, Wales.
While at school Afolabi developed a passion for literature, and he continued to read voraciously at university, getting through the entire works of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck and others. His favourite writers today also include Caryl Phillips, Jamaica Kincaid, Lorrie Moore and Jhumpa Lahiri.
It was while working in a London bookshop that Afolabi attended evening classes in creative writing at the City Lit Institute, under the tutorship of the poet and novelist Alison Fell. His first published story, "Jumbo and Jacinta", appeared in the London Magazine around 10 years ago. It is a quirky tale about a very overweight husband and his nagging wife, from St Lucia, visiting Niagara Falls in Canada.
One recurring theme in Afolabi's stories is people moving to other countries and "trying to negotiate their lives." His novel "Goodbye Lucille" is set in Berlin, Nigeria and London. The central character is a young Nigerian photographer, and the novel is informed by Afolabi's experience of living in East Berlin where his father was posted in the mid-1980s before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The novel has comedic aspects and "I set it in Berlin partly because it is a very eccentric city."
Afolabi is halfway through the first draft of his new novel, but smilingly fends off enquiries with "I tend not to talk about a work in progress." He is greatly looking forward to attending the Caine writers' workshop to be held in Kenya next year.
July 12 2005
Friday, July 08, 2005
Nick Elam and Muthal Naidoo
The final phase of judging for the annual $15,000 Caine Prize for African Writing, during which the shortlisted writers are invited to London for some days, always includes an evening at the Royal Over-Seas League (ROSL). The writers read excerpts from the stories for which they have been shortlisted and there is then a question and answer session.
Nick Elam, administrator of the Caine Prize since its launch in 2000, said at the ROSL last Friday that the ROSL evening is "one of the most delightful of the occasions that we have during the Caine prize programme each year."
With his unflappable manner, friendliness and quick humour, Elam has a way of making the shortlisted writers who have travelled to London feel at home. He said that this year more stories than ever arrived - over 100 - that were suitable for submission to the five judges. This year the judges are chaired by Baroness Young, chair of the arts advisory committee of the British Council.
At question time the Jamaican-born writer Patrick Wilmot set the cat among the pigeons. He said he had read all the stories and was quite impressed by them, and by the quality of the prose. "But if I didn't know you I would have thought it was someone my age who was writing," said the 63-year-old writer, who taught sociology in Nigeria for 18 years and has turned from writing academic textbooks to writing novels. He described the stories as "polished, middle class, quiet, sedate prose… I like your stories, but next time you're writing let's have some fireworks."
The Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana responded: "As a writer you can't really write to demand, we all have our individual styles. Hopefully, some people can appreciate our styles."
Doreen was shortlisted for the Caine Prize last year, and is the first author to be shortlisted two years running. Her story "Tropical Fish" is hardly "sedate" in its subject matter, being the explicit first-person account by a young Ugandan student of her physical relationship with a white man 15 years her senior. Before starting to read, Doreen joked: "I hope you're all over 18!"
The Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub's story "The Obituary Tango" is also a first-person narrative, of a middle-aged Arab man located in London. The man's observations and grumbles, especially about Africans and Arabs in Britain, met with appreciation and amusement.
Nigerian writer Segun Afolabi's story "Monday Morning" explores the efforts of a refugee family to settle in London. South African Muthal Naidoo's story "Jailbirds" depicts the tension between two black women in prison. One of the women was detained for organising a demonstration on the release of Nelson Mandela, and the other is her jailer.
The other shortlisted Nigerian, Ike Okonta, started to write fiction in the early 1990s when, as a political journalist and oppositionist, he was forced to go underground. Okonta explained that he enjoys "the push and pull between fiction and fact in the creative process". The central character in his story "Tindi in the Land of the Dead" is a journalist who visits a village devastated by a strange and terrible illness. The precision and sensitivity with which the story is told may not have "fireworks" in the Patrick Wilmot sense, but the story has a cumulative power and sense of horror.
July 5 2005
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
Visitors strolling in London's Kensington Gardens during the next three months will notice an intriguing new architectural structure on the lawn of the Serpentine Gallery. The striking building is the latest of the Serpentine's annually commissioned summer pavilions. With its segmented, armoured appearance it resembles something from the animal world.
The Pavilion has been variously compared to an armadillo, a dinosaur, and a cross between a turtle and a millipede. Its impermeable shell (a translucent polycarbonate material on a timber lattice) stops 1.3 metres above the ground, giving the impression that the Pavilion hovers over the lawn.
The Pavilion opened last Saturday and remains in place until early October when it will be dismantled. As well as viewing the Pavilion from outside, visitors can go inside for a cup of coffee or a meal. The pavilion is a café and restaurant by day, and a space for learning, debate and entertainment by night.
The Pavilion was designed by Portuguese architects Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, together with the deputy chairman of Arup, Cecil Balmond, and his team. Siza is regarded as the greatest living Portuguese architect, and has received many awards. In designing the Pavilion he tried to establish a "dialogue" between it and the contrasting Neo-classical architectural style of the Serpentine Gallery.
The Pavilion is based on a rectangular grid, skewed into a dynamic, curving form. It is constructed of interlocking timber beams. This use of timber gives the structure an organic character, and evokes the relationship between the Pavilion and the richly treed Kensington Gardens.
The first Serpentine Pavilion was designed in 2000 by the London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Hadid's structure, which marked the gallery's 30th anniversary, subverted the conventional idea of a tent or marquee.
In the years since, the erection of the Serpentine Pavilion has been a highlight of the London summer. The Serpentine has commissioned some of the world's most distinguished architects to design pavilions. In summer 2001 the architect was Polish-born American Daniel Libeskind.
In 2002 the commission went to the Japanese architect Toyo Ito, and in 2003 to the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer - who was 96 years old at the time. Last year there was no summer pavilion because the Serpentine was trying to raise money for the highly ambitious scheme of Dutch architects MVRDV to build an artificial grass-covered mountain to completely enclose the gallery. This is MVRDV's novel concept of a summer pavilion, but the project has proved costly and technically challenging and has been postponed until 2006 at the earliest.
Saudi Gazette 5 July 2005