Tuesday, April 25, 2006

laila lalami's novel

The Moroccan writer Laila Lalami wears more than one hat. She is known to internet users worldwide for her stylishly-presented and incisive literary blog “Moorish Girl”. And she is also a novelist writing in English, with her first novel “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” published in the US by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Born in Rabat, and educated in Britain and the US, Lalami lives in Portland, Oregon. She brings to her novel the same qualities of clarity, liveliness and insight that characterise “Moorish Girl.”

In the novel’s introduction, seen through the eyes of graduate Murad, we are introduced to a group of characters crossing illegally to Spain at night in a flimsy boat. “Fourteen kilometres. Murad has pondered that number hundreds of times in the last year trying to decide whether the risk was worth it.”

The characters include a young women Faten who wears a hijab, Aziz who is on a second attempt to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, and abused wife Halima running away with her children. As the boat nears the Spanish coast, the migrants are ordered to swim to land, although not all can swim.

The next section of the book, “Before”, explores the reasons for the characters’ decision to take this risky voyage. The final section “After” looks at what becomes of the characters..

Lalami does not take the obvious path in approaching her characters. We first see Faten from the point of view of a father working at the Ministry of Education worried about the influence of this religious girl on his daughter. He uses his position in the educational bureaucracy to exact a revenge that will blight Faten’s future.

Lalami writes an uncluttered prose with grace and fluency. Her novel is relatively brief at 195 pages, but every word counts. Her deft and subtle characterisation has much humanity, and also irony and playfulness as in her depiction of Murad and his efforts to be a guide in Tangier, an over-crowded field. His opening line to tourists is: “Interested in Paul Bowles?”

Are those who do manage to make it to Spain really better off than those who are turned back and returned to Morocco? The migrants’ dreams are inevitably tempered by reality. Aziz and his wife pay a high price for their years of separation, and on his first visit home his memories of the women he consoled himself with while away somehow sully his relations with his wife.

Faten attains an independence in Spain, but only through selling her body. The Orientalist attitudes of some European men are alluded to in her odd relationship with young Spanish client Martin. As for Murad, he may find his way not by leaving Morocco, but through following his gift for storytelling.

Lalami’s novel is a major contribution to the literature on migration and on the ambiguous relationship between the two sides of the Mediterranean, and thus between two cultures. These contemporary themes will become all the more pressing in the future.

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette April 25 2006

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

booklet on bethlehem

Widad Kamel Kawar is famed for the extensive collection of Palestinian and Jordanian traditional costumes, weavings, jewellery, amulets and everyday tools she has built up over 45 years. As well as being a means of salvaging and preserving Palestinian culture, the collection is a vital resource for researchers and museums.

Now Mrs Kawar, who lives in Amman, has written a booklet entitled "Bethlehem: From Golden Threads to Cement Blocks." The Golden Threads are the threads used in the exceptionally rich embroidery of Palestinian dresses in Bethlehem, which were traditionally imported from Syria. The Cement Blocks are the hideous grey ramparts of the apartheid wall that is making daily life in Bethlehem so difficult. Mayor Dr Victor Batarseh describes the town as an "open air prison".

Mrs Kawar writes that her booklet contrasts Bethlehem's glorious art form of textiles and embroidery "which reflects an innovative and refined society, with the current Israeli actions and policies to isolate, impoverish and dispossess its people."

The wall isolates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, less than six kilometres away. Economic life is declining, and Bethlehem has deteriorated from a flourishing centre for pilgrimages and tourism into an isolated enclave.

The attractively-designed booklet juxtaposes black and white historical photographs of Bethlehem and its people with examples of colourful embroidery and costumes. It also highlights the architecture of the town including the castles (qasoor), built by prominent families, some of which now lie outside the apartheid wall.

The pinnacle of the costume industry is the malak (royal) dress, so called because of its richness. In addition to the brightly striped and embroidered dress, the malak ensemble includes a short-sleeved embroidered jacket known as the takseereh, a high fez-like shtaweh headdress adorned with the gold coins of the dowry, and a silk shawl. The headdress is fastened under the neck with the silver Chain of Seven Souls. The costumes reflected the wealth of the town.

The booklet, designed by Salua Qidan of the Jordanian design and digital solutions company SYNTAX, is a most valuable and informative publication, and it is to be hoped it will be widely distributed. In depicting the fate of Bethlehem and its culture, it powerfully portrays the conditions that the Palestinians have had to endure more widely.

The Kawar collection is at www.arabheritage.org

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette April 18 2006

sotheby's sells archive of makkah and medina photos

An archive of photographs of Makkah and Medina dating from the early 20th century has been on display at Sotheby’s auction house in London in preparation for the Natural History, Travel, Atlases and Maps sale on May 9. The sale of the archive is expected to realise £40,000 to £60,000.

The photographs were taken by Muhammad ‘Ali Effendi Sa’oudi (1865-1955) who accompanied General Ibrahim Rif’at Pasha on two pilgrimages from Egypt to Makkah and Medina in 1904 and 1908. The general was responsible for protecting the mahmal procession which carried to Makkah the elaborate embroidered draperies known as the kiswa for the covering of the Ka’ba.

Sa’oudi worked for the Ministry of Justice in Cairo where he specialised in identifying forged documents. His Dresden Stereo Palmos camera, on of the most advances cameras of its day, is included in the sale along with a wooden stereoscope for viewing its slides. The stereoscopic slides appear as 3D images when viewed through the stereoscope.

There are 114 original photographs, 88 stereoscopic glass slides and a modern album containing a complete set of prints of the slides. There are also 80 stereoscopic photographs mounted on card.

There are images of Al Haram Mosque in Makkah, including internal shots with the Ka’ba and Zam Zam, and of the Prophet’s Mosqueon Medina. Other images show archaeological sites and intimate photographs of groups and individuals.

Although Sa’oudi’s photographs are of great interest, they are not the earliest photographs of the two holy cities. Muhammad Sadiq Bey, an Egyptian colonel and engineer photographed Medina in 1861 and Makkah in 1880. Sotheby’s sold his original photographs of Makkah in 1998 for a world record of £1.25 million.

General Rif’at Pasha wrote a lavishly-illustrated book, “Mir’at Al Haramayn Aw Al Rihlat Al Hijaziyya”, published in Cairo in 1925, on his four journeys to Makkah and Medina between 1901 and 1908. Many of the 557 photographs in the book were taken by Sa’oudi. The sale includes Sa’oudi’s copy of the first edition of the book.

Sa’oudi’s contribution to the book, as well as his literary skill and literary output, have not previously been fully recognised. Sotheby’s says that through the archive he “emerges from the shadows as a man who brought the natural and architectural splendour of the future Saudi Arabia to a wider audience just as the Kingdom was reaching pre-eminence.”

The sale includes two manuscripts written in Arabic in Sa’oudi’s hand. “A Synopsis of the Pilgrimage” was written after his first pilgrimage, and “The Construction of the Ka’ba” was written after 1905.

There is also Sa’oudi’s “Voyages au Hedjaz et en Arabie” (1919) with printed text in Arabic and French and manuscript annotations by the author, together with a modern English translation. And there is an unpublished translation into Arabic of the chapters on Makkah and Medina from J L Burckhardt’s “Travels in Arabia” published in 1829.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette April 18 2006