Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Salma Khadra Jayyusi's Arabic fiction anthology

The renowned Palestinian scholar, poet and translator Salma Khadra Jayyusi has made a unique contribution to the study of Arab literature and civilisation during a long and productive career. The latest fruit of her passion for bringing Arabic literature to a wide readership is “Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology”, edited by Jayyusi and published by Columbia University Press. The anthology is a companion volume to “Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology” which she edited for the same publisher in 1987.

This ambitious fiction anthology has been many years in the making, and its 1056 pages encompass an immensely rich array of work by Arab novelists and short story writers translated into English. The short stories and novel extracts reveal the vitality and diversity of a literature that is still little known in the West.

The book is divided into three sections. The first includes the work of 14 “pioneers”. The second comprises short stories by 119 writers, and the final section groups extracts from novels by 28 writers (some writers appear in both these sections). There is a biography for each writer.

Jayyusi’s 70-page introduction is an essential guide to Arabic fiction. She traces the historical roots of fiction, with classical Arabic literature being “one of the richest and most varied in world literary history.” She points to Arabic influences on European literature, and to certain similarities between Arabic and Western fiction.

Jayyusi examines the development of the Arabic novel from the late 19th century and of short story writers from the 1920s. She points out that Egypt managed to stay at the centre of fiction in the Arab world, especially with the rise of Naguib Mahfouz in the 1950s. When Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, this was “not simply a recognition of a single author’s achievement but also an acknowledgement of the fact that the Arabic novel had reached distinction on a global scale.”

Other writers whose work Jayyusi discusses at length in the introduction include novelists ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif, Ibrahim al-Koni, Gamal al-Ghitani, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ghassan Kanafani, Edward al-Kharrat, Gha’ib Tu’ma Farman and Fu’ad al-Takarli, and short story writers Yusuf Idris and Zakaria Tamir. In compiling the anthology, Jayyusi has been keen not only to include such famous writers, but also the up-and-coming and the lesser known.

Almost all the translations have been undertaken afresh, even when previouisly published English translations of certain works exist. Most of the translations are collaborative efforts, pairing a translator from the Arabic with a writer. The translators include Jayyusi’s daughters May and Lena, Salwa Jabsheh, Aida A Bamia, Roger Allen and Mona N Mikhail. Among the distinguished writers with whom they have worked are Christopher Tingley, Anthony Thwaite, Jeremy Reed and Naomi Shihab Nye.

Jayyusi does identify one gap in Arabic fiction, when she writes that there is a need for a fiction to match the state of terror in which the Palestinians are living. She writes: “…neither literature nor art, as far as I know, has been able to match the colossal dimensions of this communal experience… a Palestinian Guernica is now overdue.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 21 February 2006

freemuse report on US music censorship

The continuing row over the Danish cartoons has generated much debate over limits to the “freedom of expression”. Vivid proof of limitations to the freedom of expression in the musical arena came earlier this month when the Rolling Stones played the US Super Bowl halftime show.

The Rolling Stones’ performance was subjected to a form of censorship. When the group was singing lyrics deemed too suggestive, the microphones were temporarily silenced. In addition ABC, the broadcaster of the concert, imposed a five-second delay in transmission in case further censorship was needed.

Although the Stones later said that the censorship had been “absolutely ridiculous” and completely unnecessary, a National Football League spokesman stressed that the group had agreed to it.

By chance, the censorship of music in the US since September 11 is the subject of a special report, “Singing in the Echo Chamber”, published a few days ago by the Copenhagen-based charity Freemuse which campaigns against music censorship

Freemuse says it is often assumed that violations of freedom of expression occur only in distant, undemocratic countries ruled by despots. “However, it has become obvious that any country undergoing war or stress introduces censorship as a tool to control its population and emerging discontent within the society.”

The picture on the cover of the 64-page report shows gleeful children trampling CDs underfoot. The report’s author, Eric Nuzum, sees the current censorship as part of the wider pattern of curbs on civil liberties in the US since September 11.

Nuzum highlights the role that much of the US media is playing in banning or condemning certain types of music, songs or actions of musicians. Citizens seem to support this, with four out of ten Americans considering that music should be censored.

The “echo chamber” in the report’s title refers to the media’s endless repetition of a news item without any sense of the checks and balances normally applied to reporting. In the post-September 11 climate, once an action has been labelled as “treasonous”, “unpatriotic”, “anti-Bush” or “unsupportive of troops”, these statements tend to become part of the echo.

Among the US music acts which have suffered reprisals from radio stations and other media and from the music-buying public because of their stance on US President George W Bush and the war in Iraq are the group Pearl Jam, the girl band Dixie Chicks and the singer Linda Ronstadt.

Although some eminent musicians have used their music to protest against Bush and the war in Iraq, the Freemuse report points out that some observers think this protest music is being stifled by the powerful corporations controlling the music industry.

There are also increasing curbs on suggestive material, particularly since the Super Bowl incident in 2004 when Janet Jackson’s breast was momentarily exposed by her famous “wardrobe malfunction.” This explains why the Rolling Stones found themselves censored.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 21 February 2006

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

naim attallah in touch with his roots

In his first autobiographical book, “The Old Ladies of Nazareth”, the London-based publisher and entrepreneur Naim Attallah gave a delightful account of his boyhood in Palestine.

In his follow-up “The Boy in England” Attallah recounted his adventures after arriving in Britain to study engineering in 1949, an exile from Palestine. Attallah was avid for new experiences, and he was attractive to other people, particularly women, and had a knack for meeting the right person at the right time.

When the Israelis disrupted his father’s financial aid, Attallah took a series of unskilled jobs and was a fitter in an electrical components factory, a steeplejack, a hospital porter and a nightclub bouncer.

In his latest autobiographical volume, “In Touch With His Roots”, published like the previous two by Attallah’s publishing house Quartet, the story moves to the British and Arab business scenes of the 1960s. Attallah is now married to the lovely Polish girl Maria. As a Palestinian with British nationality, able to mingle freely in British and Arab society, urbane but with “a streak of devilment”, he is active as a banker at the interface of Arab and Western finance.

Attallah has an unusual approach to writing memoir, writing about himself in the third person. In the first two books he refers to himself as “the boy”; in the latest he has become “Naim”. He explains that this use of the third person helps him write without inhibition and unlocks memories that might otherwise not have resurfaced.

“In Touch With his Roots” is dominated by the late Palestinian-Lebanese banker Yusif Bedas and the Intra Bank that he founded. The book is dedicated to Bedas, for his “enterprising spirit and greatness of vision.” Yet Attallah does not shy away from discussing what he saw of some of Bedas’s weaknesses.

The collapse of Intra Bank in 1966 was one of the most dramatic financial-political shocks the Middle East has witnessed. As someone who had a sensitive position within the bank, and who was close to Bedas and his wife Wadad, Attallah is well placed to give an insider’s account of events which are still in dispute 40 years on.

There are lively descriptions of the characters Attallah encountered and who in many cases became friends. Among them are the Middle East Airlines (MEA) chairman Sheikh Najib Alamuddin, Egyptian businessman Ahmed Abboud Pasha (“the Pharaoh of Free Enterprise”), Hungarian aristocrat Vamos, King Hussein’s ex-wife Princess Dina, ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, and Lebanese actress Nidal al-Ashkar.

For Attallah, a most unhappy footnote to the Intra collapse came in 1995 when, without warning, Wadad Bedas and her three children issued a complaint with the juge d’instruction in Beirut against the Intra Investment Company, Attallah and Antoine Best. It alleged there had been a breach of trust with respect to the Bedas estate, allegations that Attallah describes as “preposterous”. In 2004 Attallah was informed that the court of 1st instance in Beirut had ruled in favour of him and the other defendants; no appeal against the ruling has been lodged.

After the collapse of Intra, Attallah pursued multiple careers in publishing, the arts and business, as will be told in the fourth part of the Naim Attallah story, to be published in early 2007.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 7 February 2006