Tuesday, September 26, 2006

new issue of banipal

The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature, focuses particularly on work by Egyptian and Iraqi authors, with features presenting work by writers from those two countries. But the issue also includes plenty of material by, or about, writers from other Arab countries.

The issue begins with the short story “In the Long Shadows”, written in English by the Sudanese-British writer Jamal Mahjoub. This mysterious and powerful story mixes memory and myth with a dystopian vision of the decaying outskirts of a town and a strange abandoned tower. A traumatized photographer brings back images from a distant western region of “burned villages, barren hills, blackened grass, graveyards.”

There is an extract from Tunisian writer Hassan Nasr’s novel “Return to Dar Al-Basha”, of which the English edition is to be published by Syracuse University Press later this year. Another Tunisian writer, Ali Mosbah, won the Ibn Battuta Prize for Travel Writing in 2004 for his volume “Mudun wa Wujooh”. The magazine includes his chapter on Istanbul.

The magazine’s Literary Influence section was penned by the late Jordanian writer Ghalib Halasa. Halasa died in 1989, but his essay, full of perception and humor, is of lasting interest.

The Iraqi feature comprises excerpts from novels by Saadi Youssef, Mohammad Khudayyir, Lutfiyya Dulaimi, Fadhil al-Azzawi, Kadhim al-Hallaq and Inaam Kachachi. The feature on New Writing in Egypt continues a feature that began in the previous issue. The writers included are Yasser Abdel Latif, Mustafa Zikri, Hamdy el-Gazzar, Youssef Rakha and poet Girgis Shukry,

Syracuse University Press has emerged in recent years as a major publisher of novels translated from Arabic to English. Banipal has an enlightening interview, conducted by the magazine’s editor Margaret Obank, with Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar, editors of the press’s successful Middle East Literature in Translation series.

Syracuse University Press was recently chosen as the new publisher for the winning translation of the Arabic Translation Award, sponsored by the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas.

The books reviewed in the latest Banipal include Saudi writer Mohammad Hassan Alwan’s Arabic second novel“Sophia”, Libyan writer Hisham Matar’s novel “In the Country of Men” (now shortlisted for the Man Booker prize), the bilingual Arabic and English book of stories “Burning in the Past Tense” by Syria-born Suhail Shadoud, and the critical study “Le roman arabe (1834-2004)” written in French by Iraqi-born scholar and poet Kadhim Jihad Hassan who lives in Paris.

October 9 will be a red-letter day for Banipal, as its marks the first occasion on which the newly-instituted Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation will be awarded. The award will be made at a ceremony at the University of East Anglia, at the British Center for Literary Translation’s annual Sebald Lecture on literature in translation.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 26 Sept 2006

sufi poetry and music evening in london

Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Center in London was the venue last Tuesday for readings of classical poetry in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Punjabi, followed by a recital of Afghan music.

The Human Rights Action Center, which opened last year, is the headquarters of Amnesty’s UK Section and also provides space for human rights activists. Its auditorium was packed out for Tuesday’s double bill, which was organized jointly by Amnesty and Poet in the City, a project of the Poetry Society.

The Center is located in the East London area of Shoreditch, not far from the City of London. The holding of the evening there reflects the value that Amnesty places on the arts. In its foyer last week was a retrospective exhibition by the Brighton-based artist Paula Cox. The exhibition was both a retrospective of Cox’s work for as an artist for Amnesty, and a showcase for her most recent project “Celebrating the Life of Palestinian Women”.

The theme of the event was Sufi poetry, and it was presented by the British scholar, linguist and Middle East traveler Bruce Wannell. The multinational audience listened with attentiveness and appreciation to the poetry read in the four Oriental languages by native speakers (Wannell himself read some of the Persian poems), and to the English translations.

The second half of the program was a music recital led by tabla player Yusuf Mahmoud, who since coming to London has established himself as a leading Afghan and world musician. His skills on the tabla are extraordinary, and the audience was enthralled by his high-velocity solos.

Mahmoud performed with Professor John Baily of Goldsmiths College on rubab and dotar, Veronica Doubleday on frame drum and vocals, and Timor Shaiedaie, a new arrival on the Afghan music scene in Britain. Shaiedaie played harmonium and sang in a beautifully melodious, tender voice. The recital ended with a standing ovation.

Amnesty International, Poet in the City and Bruce Wannell are to be congratulated for organizing an event that helped Londoners to see that some of the most war-torn areas on earth have produced some of the world’s most wonderful poetry and music.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 26 September 2006

john reid's speech to muslims

John Reid

The address by Home Secretary John Reid to Muslims in East London last Wednesday was always bound to be controversial, with his call for Muslim parents to be vigilant over signs that their children are being “brainwashed” by extremists.

But after Reid was heckled loudly and at length by a well-known extremist, Abu Izzedeen, there were accusations from some quarters that Reid’s team had “engineered” the interruption so as to enable the Home Secretary to say it showed how dangerous the views of extremists are.
In his address Reid said: “There is no nice way of saying this. These fanatics are looking to groom and brainwash children, including your children, for one thing: to kill themselves in order to murder others.” He told Muslim parents to “look for the tell-tale signs now and talk to them before their hatred grows and you risk losing them for ever.”

Izzedeen, a Jamaican convert whose original name was Trevor Brooks, interrupted to ask how Reid dared “come to a Muslim area when over 1000 Muslims have been arrested. You are an enemy of Islam and Muslims, you are a tyrant. Shame on all of us for sitting down and listening to him.” Izzedeen was escorted out of the meeting by police, whereupon his associate Anjem Choudary stood up and said: “Muslims do not need British values. We believe Islam is superior, we believe Islam will be implemented one day.”

There was anger among some Muslims at the amount of coverage the media subsequently gave Izzedeen and Choudary, both of whom are marginal, fringe figures, while moderate mainstream Muslims struggle to get their voices heard.

The Respect MP George Galloway wrote in a letter to Reid that Abu Izzedeen is “a well-known and violent extremist from an organization your own government has proscribed. Yet he was allowed within punching distance or the British Home Secretary. How? Why?”

The organization to which Galloway referred is the Al-Ghurabaa group of which Abu Izzedeen was a spokesman and which has been banned under anti-terror legislation. Galloway said Abu Izzedeen is the same man who led “a group of fanatic thugs in the brief ‘hostage-taking’ of myself and my daughter and several innocent members of the public during a general election meeting last year. This is well known to the Special Branch and senior police officers in East London – the very people in charge of your security today.”

Galloway noted that Abu Izzedeen praised the terror attacks of 9/11 and those in London July 7 last year. The MP claimed there were only two conceivable explanations as to how he had been allowed to “hijack” the meeting. Either the police and security services are fantastically incompetent, or “someone somewhere wanted to engineer precisely this confrontation to show you in a certain light and to portray the Muslims of Britain in the most aggressive violent and extreme way possible, as a justification for the utterly counter-productive policies you are following.”

Reid’s call for Muslim parents to monitor their children upset many in the Muslim community. Ahmed. Versi, editor of the Muslim News newspaper, claimed in a press release that Reid was calling for parent to “spy on the behavior of their sons as suspected terrorists” and “trying to divide Muslim families”.

There was widespread outrage when Abu Izzedeen was invited onto the BBC Radio Four Today program on Friday to be interviewed by presenter John Humphrys. He was given a 12-minute interview in the 8.10 am interview slot, which is normally reserved for a cabinet member or other top politician. The decision of the BBC to give Izzedeen such a prime slot to expound his extreme views was condemned by many newspapers and commentators.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 26 September 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

man booker shortlist

When the judges of this year’s £50,000 Man Booker Prize announced last week their shortlist of six novels, only two of which are by well-known writers, one might have expected them to be praised for choosing the finalists solely on the quality of their writing rather than on the basis of their pre-existing reputations.

Instead, literary critics and the media expressed astonishment and some chagrin at a shortlist that excluded the bookies’ top favorite “Black Swan Down” by David Mitchell.

They seemed to forget that some reviews of the novel, though admiring Mitchell's writing, had expressed disappointment that his canvas in this "boy comes of age in an English village" novel had shrunk in comparison with his earlier books, particularly "Cloud Atlas" shortlisted for the Man Booker in 1994.

Nor had some of the other excluded books received unanimously positive reviews on publication. Whereas for example "In the Country of Men" by Libyan Hisham Matar, which is on the shortlist, received widespread critical praise (an exception being a bafflingly ungracious review by Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef in the New Statesman).

When the bookies give their odds, they perhaps attach too much importance to the bigness of the authors' names, and too little to the merits of their novels. Other favorites from the longlist of 19 books who failed to make the shortlist were Australian Peter Carey (already two times winner of the Booker) for “Theft: A Love Story” and Scottish Andrew O’Hagan for “Be Near Me”. Nor did South African Nobel laureate and previous Booker winner Nadine Gordimer or Jewish comic writer Howard Jacobson appear on the list.

Professor John Sutherland, the chairman of last year’s Man Booker judges, said he was “gobsmacked” by the shortlist, adding that the “bizarre” list may show “we are seeing a turning of the tide, the older generation giving way to the new.” Many of the press reports of the shortlist announcement, referring to the upset over bookies' odds, resorted to racing metaphors. Nearly all the favourites had "fallen at the penultimate fence" wrote Lousie Jury in the Independent.

The only longlisted favorite to appear on the shortlist is “The Night Watch” by Sarah Waters (above), set in London during the Second World War. Waters is now favorite to win, with odds of 2/1 from bookmakers William Hill. "Apart from Sarah Waters, it's a field of dark horses, any one of which has a chance of winning", according to Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer,

The other widely-known finalist is the Australian Kate Grenville, shortlisted for “The Secret River”, about a criminal transported to Australia in Victorian times. The novel has already won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Fellow Australian woman novelist, M J Hyland, is a finalist with “Carry Me Down”, about a 12-year-old boy growing up in Dublin.

Hisham Matar's novel “In the Country of Men” is set in Libya in 1979. Matar was the only debut novelist on the longlist, and to be included on the shortlist against most expectations is an extraordinary achievement. The Indian Kiran Desai is on the list with her second novel “The Inheritance of Loss”. She will be hoping for better luck than her mother Anita Desai, who has been shortlisted three times for the Booker but has never won it. Edward St Aubyn is a finalist with “Mother’s Milk”, whose protagonist Patrick Melrose is trying to cope with middle age haunted by a wretched childhood.

The chairman of the judges Hermione Lee, professor of English literature at of Oxford University, said: "Each of these novels has what we as judges were most looking for: a distinctive, original voice and audacious imagination that takes readers to undiscovered countries of the mind, a strong power of storytelling and a historical truthfulness."

The winner will be announced at a prizegiving dinner on October 10. Lee’s fellow judges are poet Simon Armitage, novelist and reviewer Candia McWilliam, actress Fiona Shaw and writer and reviewer Anthony Quinn.

For those who still take notice of bookies' odds, or delight in seeing how poorly predictive they sometimes are, the odds cited in last Sunday's Observer were 2/1 for "The Night Watch", 3/1 for "Mother's Milk", 4/1 for "The Secret River", 5/1 for "Carry Me Down", 6/1 for "In the Country of Men", and 7/1 for "The Inheritance of Loss".

Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, September 16, 2006

palestinian women writers launch 'qissat' in London

( L to R: Adania Shibli, Liana Badr, Huzama Habayeb and Jacqueline Rose)
The publication of ‘Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women’ was celebrated on Thursday night at an event in the Purcell Room, part of London's South Bank Centre, featuring four of the writers included in the anthology. The evening was spirited, thought-provoking and often humorous, thanks to the stories and lively contributions from the four Palestinian writers and the empathetic yet gently provocative chairing by Jacqueline Rose. Rose, a Jewish scholar and writer, is professor of English at Queen Mary's College, London University. Her books include the 1995 work The Question of Zionism, a reply to Edward Said's The Question of Palestine.

The anthology of 16 short stories translated into, or originally written in, English is edited by journalist and radio producer Jo Glanville and published by London-based Telegram Books. The writers are from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and locations. But for all of them Palestine and the Palestinian experience are an ever-present concern and inspiration.

Some of the writers in 'Qissat' are from the younger generation, including Samah al-Shaykh who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1980 and now lives in Gaza and Basima Takrouri who was born in Jerusalem in 1982. Two are deceased: Samira Azzam died in 1967 and Nuha Samara in 1992.

The four writers on the platform of the Purcell Room had travelled from far-flung parts of the world. Liana Badr had come from Ramallah, Huzama Habayeb from Abu Dhabi, Randa Jarrar from Detroit and Adania Shibli from Berlin. The writers read from their own work in English or Arabic, and English translations were vibrantly rendered by the renowned British actress Diana Quick.

Randa Jarrar's story Barefoot Bridge centres around a trip made by a family to Jordan and then the West Bank for the burial of the grandfather. In a text shot through with wit the child first-person narrator observes the tense process of crossing the border. ("First my land, now my Guccis! God damn it" exclaims a trendily-dressed young Palestinian women after an Israeli soldier 'mislays' her shoes which have been removed for security reasons). Later, the child sits with her grandmother Sitto and imbibes her magical tales and recollections.

Adania Shibli's story May God Keep Love in a Cool and Dry Place brilliantly dissects the disintegrating relationship of a woman in love for the first time and living with her lover. Her "tolerance of his mistreatment of her has run out." The pair had first met at the fiftieth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakbbah, the Catastrophe. The details of preparing and eating a meal evoke wider resonances, and the viewpoint shifts between the man and the woman.

In Other Cities, Liana Badr takes the reader on a hazardous journey by service taxis from old Hebron to Ramallah, through Israeli-occupied territory littered with military checkpoints. The journey is made by Umm Hasan whose children have implored her to take them to Ramallah. "Little by little, the idea had begun to take hold in her mind. To actually go to Ramallah. To thumb her nose at Israel, and go - whether her husband, Abu Hasan, liked it or not. " The journey takes on epic proportions, and is a journey of self-discovery for Umm Hasan herself. At one point the narrative shifts to the thoughts of an Israeli captain, when Umm Hasan has the guts to march up to him to tell him that her baby is sick and that he should let the cars through. "For an electrifying moment he felt that he was only punishing himself, out here in this hostile wilderness."

Huzama Habayeb's story A Thread Snaps has earned a certain notoriety in Jordan for the frank way in which it handles a girl's growing awareness of her bodily desires. The story is set in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, as the girl does the family washing by hand, and Habayeb told the audience in the Purcell Room that it shows the economic, social and sexual suppression experienced by men as well as women in this environment. There is a sense of blockage: "even the water is blocked." The issue of Al-Katiba magazine in which the story was first published was banned in Jordan, as was the collection of her stories in which the story subsequently appeared.
In her introduction to 'Qissat' Jo Glanville says that when she began looking for stories for the anthology, she wanted to find work by young, emerging writers to add to stories by some of the most distinguished and established Palestinian women writers. She also felt it important to look for writers not only in Palestine but also in the disaspora.

The four writers invited to London for the launch represent a cross-section of the roster of contributors to the collection. Liana Badr, who is married to Palestinian politician Yasser Abd Rabbuh, is the writer with the most direct involvement in Palestinian national politics. She lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and her early published works reflect the Palestinian predicament during that conflict. She is a filmmaker as well as a fiction writer, and was from 1995 to 2003 General Director of Arts at the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in Ramallah.

Randa Jarrar was born in Chicago to a Palestinian father and Egyptian mother, grew up in Egypt and Kuwait, and is now a single mother living in Austin, Texas. She has received the Million Writers Award for best short story, and her first novel will be published in 2007. Adania Shibli, born in Palestine in 1974, has twice won the Young Writer's Award from the A M Qattan Foundation. Huzama Habayeb was born in Kuwait and has never set foot in Palestine. She won the short story prize at Al Quds Festival for Creativity in 1993 and the Mahmoud Seif El Din Al Irani prize in 1994.

Glanville notes that in the past few years there has been in increasing appetite for Palestinian memoir. While such memoirs are powerful testimonies, "there is also a danger that so long as the world outside limits its interest to factual accounts, then Palestinians will only ever be viewed in terms of the conflict, while culture, the wider society, remains unseen." Her collection certainly succeeds in fulfilling the aim of offering "the chance to engage with a broader perspective - through the literary imagination."

Susannah Tarbush

(L to R: Randa Jarrar, Adania Shibli, Liana Badr and Huzama Habayeb)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

british muslims five years after 9/11

British Muslims, five years on from 9/11

In the five years since the terror attacks in the US on 9 September 2001 – and particularly following the suicide bombings in London on 7 July last year – British Muslims have been under coming under increasing pressure and, sometimes, suspicion. At the same time, they have become more assertive and organised, and are exploring questions concerning their place in British and European society.

The British Muslim community is estimated at between 1.6 million and 2 million people, and is very diverse. The majority are from Pakistan and the rest of the Indian sub-continent, but there are substantial numbers from Arab and other Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere.

In the attacks on the London transport system on 7 July last year, four suicide bombers killed themselves and 52 other people. Unlike the 9/11 attacks, these attacks were carried out by Muslims who were born in the country they were attacking. A shocked Britain asked itself: how is it that young British-born Muslims have become so radicalised that they are prepared to kill themselves and large numbers of their fellow citizens?

Two weeks after the 7/7 attacks there were failed attempts to carry out four more suicide bombings in London. Government officials and the police frequently warn that further terror attacks in Britain are inevitable.

The US magazine The New Republic even claimed recently that Britain now presents a greater security threat to the US than do Iraq or Iran because its Muslim communities are a breeding ground for violent extremism. The magazine said that after the latest security alerts and arrests it can be argued “that the biggest threat to US security emanates not from Iran, or Iraq or Afghanistan, but from Great Britain, our closest ally.”

The government has introduced increasingly stringent anti-terror legislation since 9/11, aimed mainly at Islamic radicals. Ordinary Muslims feel the new laws and powers are disproportionately used against them, and human rights activists, the legal profession and many politicians are alarmed at the curbs on individual freedoms in the name of security. There have been some cases of wrongful arrests of Muslims, including two brothers suspected of being suicide bombers who were arrested by 200 officers in Forest Gate, East London, in June. One brother was shot in the shoulder during the arrest, but no evidence was found against the two.

Almost every day brings news of security alerts, plots or arrests. On August 10 the Home Secretary John Reid announced that a plot to blow up a number of aircraft travelling from the UK to the US had been disrupted. By September 7, 17 Muslims had been charged in relation to the alleged planned attacks. They included recent British converts to Islam.

In a separate case, police arrested 14 people on September 1 in raids on a Chinese restaurant in London and other addresses. They searched an Islamic school in the county of East Sussex, which they suspected might have been used for the training of Islamic militants.

Peter Clarke, head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terror branch, says that police are currently monitoring “thousands” of British Muslims on suspicion that they are involved in terrorism. Some British Muslims have gone to fight in Iraq, where a few are known to have become suicide bombers. The intelligence services and police worry about the security threat those radicals who return from Iraq may pose in the future.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of his cabinet repeatedly insist that the terror attacks and the threat from Islamic extremists has nothing to do with foreign policy, including the war on Iraq. Instead, they blame a historic struggle within Islam, and a battle with Western “values”.

These denials of a link between foreign policy issues and security threats have little credibility. British foreign policy in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Lebanon, and Blair’s close adherence to the policies of US president George Bush, is fuelling Muslim anger.

In a most unwelcome development for the government, on August 12 three Muslim Labour MPs, three Muslim members of the House of Lords, and 38 Muslim groups signed an open letter to Blair calling for “urgent” changes in UK foreign policy to show that the UK values the lives of civilians.

The signatories of the letter warned that British policy is putting civilians at increased risk in the UK and abroad. It pointed to the “debacle” of Iraq, and the UK’s stance over the Middle East crisis. Sadiq Khan, a Labour MP who signed the letter, said British foreign policy is seen by many British Muslims as unfair and unjust. “Whether we like it or not, such a sense of injustice plays into the hands of extremists.”

Home Secretary John Reid was furious about the letter, describing it as a “terrible misjudgement”. He insisted that no competent government would remain in power if policies were “dictated by terrorists.”

The terror attacks in London and the perceived threats from Islamic extremism have thrown into doubt the concept of multiculturalism, which was for decades the basis of British government policies towards ethnic communities.

An opinion poll conducted by the Pew organisation found Muslims in Britain to be the most anti-Western in Europe. It is increasingly argued that multiculturalism has encouraged a dangerous separateness of communities, and there is a new emphasis on the need for a shared sense of “Britishness”.

Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has called for a “new, honest debate” about rooting out extremism, and said it is “not racist” to discuss immigration and political asylum.

There are deep divisions within the British “talking classes” over Islamic radicalism. Melanie Phillips, a pro- Israeli author, newspaper columnist and broadcaster, has written a book entitled: “Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within”. Phillips claims that “under the noses of the British government, parliament, intelligence services and police, Britain has become the European hub for the promotion, recruitment and financing of Islamist terror and extremism.”

Phillips’ views are echoed by some other influential figures in the British media and political establishment. Such people used the term “Islamofascism” years before US President George W Bush uttered the word in a speech.

There has been a campaign in some quarters against the Muslim Council of Britain, the umbrella organisation of 400 Muslim mosques and organisations founded in 1997. One reason is its refusal to attend the annual Holocaust Memorial Day, which was introduced by Tony Blair’s government. The Council explains this is not to dismiss the Holocaust, but because it believes all genocides, and not only the Holocaust, should be commemorated by such a day.

The political editor of the liberal weekly magazine New Statesman Martin Bright has written and broadcast criticisms of the MCB, saying it has links with the Muslim Brotherhood. He presented a Channel 4 TV programme in July on the alleged “love affair” between the British government and radical Islam.

Martin Bright and others have also targeted Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. Qaradawi has been encouraged by the British government, which regards him as a moderate. His critics claim some of his opinions, including his support for Palestinian suicide bombers, mean he is not moderate.

There has been some criticism of the alliance between the British left, particularly the Socialist Workers party, and Muslim groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain, in for example setting up the Stop the War Coalition which organises demonstrations and other activities against the Iraq war. In addition the Respect Party founded by MP George Galloway, after he was kicked out of the Labour party for comments he made about the Iraq war, has a strong Muslim component.

After the attacks of July 7, the government made some efforts to publicly engage the Muslim community, by inviting is leaders to Downing Street for talks and setting up a task force. This Muslim task force made 64 recommendations, but the government has in practice adopted very few of them.

There have been efforts recently to encourage new bodies as a so-called “moderate” counter to the Muslim Council of Britain. One of these bodies is the Sufi Muslim Council, which was launched in mid-July at a reception in the House of Commons, attended by Ruth Kelly. Leaders of this group claim to represent a “silent majority” frustrated with slow progress since the 7/7 bombings.

The group has formed a partnership with the British Muslim Forum, which represents 300 mosques in central and northern England. The British Muslim Forum helped set up the Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board launched this year to improve standards at British mosques.

Susannah Tarbush
published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat newspaper 12 September 2006

Monday, September 11, 2006

saqi publishes 'lebanon, lebanon'

In a remarkably quick turnaround time for the preparation and publication of a new book, Saqi Books of London will shortly publish “Lebanon, Lebanon”, a 229-page book responding to the war in Lebanon.

The proceeds of the book will go to children’s charities in Lebanon, as will the proceeds from an evening of readings, music and performance to be held on 27th September, at New Player’s Theatre in central London. The evening is being organized by Saqi together with Pen, Open Democracy, and Index on Censorship.

The book, edited by Anna Wilson, has texts from 50 writers, ranging from poetry and stories to memoir and reportage. There are pictures from 25 artists, and from displaced Lebanese children.

Among the Lebanese writers featured are Hanan al-Shaykh, Hoda Barakat, Abbas Beydoun, Hassan Daoud, Zena El-Khalil, Nada Awar Jarrar, Mai Ghoussoub and Alexandre Najjar. From the Australian-born publisher Carmen Callil there is the memoir “Lebanese Washing Stories”.

Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish is represented by the elegiac sequence “Diaries”. Jean Said Makdisi writes poignantly in “The Little Girl with Gold Earrings” of a dead child who reminds her of her own granddaughters.

British novelist Margaret Drabble writes of her long-standing friendship with the Lebanese writer Rachid El-Daif and of her dream of visiting his hometown of Zgharta. Owen Sheers recalls a meal he had with his girlfriend in a Lebanese restaurant in an Irish village, after three weeks spent watching the Lebanon war on TV. Argentinian-born Jewish writer Alberto Manguel depicts the Beirut he now sees and the city he remembers. The Jewish cookery writer Claudia Roden relives “Mezze in the Bekaa Valley”.

Judith Kazantzis’ “found poem” entitled “The Refugee” is taken verbatim from the English translation of a UN witness statement. In “Too Black, Too Strong”, Malu Halasa recalls coming of age in America and the Middle East as someone of part Jordanian, part Filipino heritage.
There are stories from Pakistan-born writers Aamer Hussein and Kamila Shamsie, and contributions from Doris Lessing, V S Naipaul, Moris Farhi, Toby Litt, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Adrian Mitchell, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jalloun. Among the journalists represented are Britons Robert Fisk of the Independent and Brian Whitaker of the Guardian, and the American Charles Glass.

Susannah Tarbush

gaddafi: a living myth

The show “Gaddafi: A Living Myth”, which burst last week onto the stage of the Coliseum Theatre in central London, has left critics perplexed.

Is the show a questionable glorification of a dictator with much blood on his hands? Or is it a commendable experiment in political theatre, mixing the music of the electro-rap band Asian Dub Foundation, Middle Eastern musicians and the ENO orchestra with rap and dance in order to elucidate the contradictory aspects of a leader who has survived for 37 years through a series of extraordinary volte-faces?

Critics have also tied themselves in knots trying to decide whether the piece, directed by the Australian opera director David Freeman, is an opera, a musical, a hybrid of both or a new form. The text of the libretto by Shan Khan is mostly shouted over the music rather than sung like opera.

The show was initiated by Asian Dub Foundation member Steve Chandra Savale who has long been fascinated by the Libyan leader. It had a three-year gestation period and is receiving only six performances. The show is certainly a spectacle, with its its rousing, churning sound track and its gyrating female bodyguards in camouflage uniform performing robotic and kick-boxing dance routines.

Actor Ramon Tikaram struts the stage as an intense, energetic Gaddafi (even if somewhat lacking in the height department). Film, photographs and graphics projected onto a screen behind the actors depict major political events.

The opening night last Thursday received generally poor reviews. The Guardian gave it only one star out of five and said it was “never more than a hodgepodge of musical and cultural influences”. The Evening Standard gave it two stars, describing it as a “bizarre theatrical experiment”. Bloomberg critic Warwick Thompson was angered and depressed by the piece and its “tiresomely predictable” anti-Americanism.

When I went to see the show on Saturday night I found it an interesting theatrical and musical event, despite its flaws. The auditorium was packed, partly because some tickets (which normally cost £32 to £49) had been made available at the bargain price of only £10 through special offers such as those from the Guardian, and the London Middle East Institute. The audience seemed to enjoy the show and its humor, and applauded it enthusiastically.

Shan Khan’s spoken libretto has been criticized for the quality of its rhymes and its lack of subtlety. But it suits the sloganeering talk of Gaddafi (as in his Green Book) and of his opponents, including President Ronald Reagan who described him as the “mad dog of the Middle East.” And it is debatable how much fine detail is possible in an evening of two hours that covers Libyan history from the brutal Italian occupation to Gaddafi’s abandonment of his weapons of mass destruction programs in 2004, and his meeting in Tripoli with British PM Tony Blair.

The production depicts the different phases in Gaddafi’s political career, and his frequent changes of image and costume. He is shown variously as a Bedouin, a revolutionary, a dictator, an instigator of world terrorism, and an unstable depressive who retreats to the desert for long periods. During Blair’s visit he declares: “If I wasn’t here you’d need an actor to play me”, and there are cries of “Gadaffi Superstar”. At the end, his face projected on stage is left blank.

Opponents of Gaddafi in Britain are unhappy about the production. Outside the Coliseum a polite Libyan man handed out leaflets headlined “The Truth of the Living Myth”, which said: “Gaddafi is a tyrannical dictator who destroyed a country and its people. He has robbed Libya of its assets and its dignity.” It was signed by the Libyan National Committee in the UK.

Susannah Tarbush

naeem murr's 'the perfect man'

When it was announced that Naeem Murr’s novel “The Perfect Man” was on the longlist of 19 books for the £50,000 Man Booker prize, some commentators assumed he was Indian-American (“the Desi-American author” as some US-based websites described him).

This supposition arose from Murr’s name, and from the fact that the central character in his novel is a half-Indian boy, Rajiv Travers. In fact Murr is half Lebanese. He has lived in the US for many years, and his novel is set in Pisgah, a small town in Missouri.

Rajiv is the son of an Indian mother who has been abandoned in India by his English father. The novel begins in 1947 when Rajiv’s father brings him from India to London to be looked after by his uncle and his wife. By 1954 Rajiv’s uncle’s wife can no longer tolerate uncontrollable, witty Rajiv who is a brilliant mimic. Her husband takes Rajiv to America to spend the summer with another of the boy’s uncles, Olly. But shortly before they arrive Olly commits suicide and Rajiv is left with his girlfriend Ruth.

Ruth makes her living writing romantic novels. As Olly said in a letter: “We have a great time choosing people in this small town for her to transform into the heroes and heroines of these tawdry worlds.”

Rajiv remains in Pisgah with Ruth, and becomes close friends with four other children. The novel tracks them as they grow into adolescence and beyond. As in his previous two novels “The Boy” and “The Genius of the Sea”, Murr is interested in exploring the impact of an outsider on others.

The dense, complex novel is lit up by Murr’s striking use of language and gift for drawing memorable characters, and is a most pleasurable read. Successive chapters move backwards and forwards in time. A key event took place in 1952, when the autistic brother of one of Rajiv’s friends, the troubled Lew, died in mysterious circumstances. The secrecy around the death is set to detonate years later.

Murr may not be Indian, but another longlisted writer is. She is Kiran Desai, longlisted for her second novel “The Inheritance of Loss”. Kiran is the daughter of Anita Desai, whose novel “Fasting, Feasting” was shortlisted for the Booker in 1999.

The Man Booker shortlist of five books will be announced on September 14 and the winner on October 10. There is a good chance that India will feature on the shortlist, through an author, or a character in a novel, or both.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette September 5 2006

Thursday, September 07, 2006

campaign against israeli exhibit in venice

There is a growing international and Palestinian campaign for the organizers of the 10th International Architecture Biennale in Venice to cancel the exhibition in the Israeli pavilion. The Israeli exhibition is entitled “Life Saver: Typology of Commemoration in Israel.”

Fifty countries are participating in the Biennale, which runs from September 10 to November 19 and is one of the most important events on the international architectural calendar. Egypt is the only Arab country taking part in the Biennale, the title of which is “Cities, architecture and society”.

The exhibits in the Israeli pavilion comprise plans, models and full architectural details of 15 memorials built between 1947 and 2006, some commemorating dead soldiers or intelligence officers, others the Holocaust. The Israeli Defense Ministry is at the top of the list of the organizations that gave “generous support” for the exhibition.

The international pressure group Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) has sent a petition to the organizers of the Biennale saying it is “dismayed and concerned” that the Biennale agreed to host the Israeli contribution.

APJP requests the Biennale Committee to consider withdrawing the Israeli entry as being “provocative and counterproductive to the aims of the Biennale, and particularly distasteful in the context of the aftermath of an ugly and unnecessary war in neighboring Lebanon, and a continuing one-side war in Gaza.”

At the same time four Palestinian organizations have sent a joint letter to the organizers asking for the Israeli exhibition to be cancelled. The Palestinian organizations are the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI); the Palestinian Engineers Association – Jerusalem Center; the Society of Palestinian Architects; and RIWAQ – the Centre for Architectural Conservation.

The four Palestinian organizations say: “It is inconceivable how the Venice Biennale, an international celebration of art and architecture, of civilization and the progress of humanity, can provide a venue for such a blatant justification for and commemoration of genocide, war and bloodshed.”

APJP says Israeli pavilion, funded by the Israeli government, “totally excludes the Palestinians who are the target and real victims of the seemingly unending series of wars being memorialised, and awards Israeli the sole position of victim and victor.”

It notes “there are no memorials in Israel to the Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy of displacement and dispossession where the intention of transfer and exclusion led to the destruction and elimination of 580 Palestinian villages, towns and cities.”

The 21 signatories of the APJP petition include Palestinian, Israeli and British/Jewish architects and also the eminent British architect Ted Cullinan, and the distinguished architectural critic and writer Charles Jencks.

Their APJP petition quotes Dan Daor who writes in the exhibition catalogue that the message of memorial structures is that “there are no heroes – all there is, is the eternity of Israel, all of the country is the front, and all of us are victims.”

The letter from the four Palestinian organizations says the Israeli exhibition should be cancelled because it is supported by a state that continues against all international laws and UN resolutions to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, to deny the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and to wage a daily war against the Palestinian children, men and women their homes and livelihoods.

The letter says that the Israeli state is still engaged in a war with Lebanon, “that has resulted in the killing of over 1,000 Lebanese, the destruction of infrastructure, roads, buildings, bridges, electricity power plants, and thousands of homes, and the denial of the right of education of thousands of Lebanese children who cannot attend a new school year because their schools have been destroyed.”

The Palestinian organizations note that the exhibition contains models of memorials commemorating both the victims of the Holocaust, and those killed in Israel’s wars since 1948. “The history of the Holocaust and its Jewish victims is thus confused with that of Israel’s colonial history and the death of soldiers killed while invading, occupying and annexing Arab lands.”

Both the APJP petition, and the letter from the four Palestinian organizations, strongly condemn the role of Israeli architects. The Palestinian organizations say: “Israeli architects, engineers and planners are fully engaged in the planning and implementation of a system of oppression and control that began with the appropriation and confiscation of lands since 1948, and continues today in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the form of illegal settlements building, bypass roads and the construction of the Apartheid Wall.”

The APJP says that the “eminent Israeli architects” represented in the exhibition “are being used as tools of Israeli propaganda, and consequently would be deemed to be complicit in the agenda of excluding the Palestinian narrative.”

The APJP petition and the letter from the Palestinian organizations both quote the statement by the curator of the exhibition, Tula Amir, in her introduction to the exhibition. Amir writes: “The justification of Israel’s wars legitimates the loss of life in the past and its possible loss in the future; the continuation of unconditional cooperation between the country’s military and defense establishment and its individual citizens; and an unequivocal understanding that this struggle is the only means for Israel’s survival.”

The Palestinian organizations say that while this paragraph can be read as a critique of this type of architecture, “the fact that it is being displayed at this level little over a month after Israel has just gone through another of its cycles of destruction is a celebration of it. The attempt to dissect it and analyse it in an abstract manner from an architectural point of view is not convincing.”

They add that “nowhere in the quotations from the curator is the exhibition presented as a way to examine Israel’s past or to try to learn from all its bloody history. The entire exhibition accentuates Israel as “a victim state constantly under attack and in danger.”

While the title of the Biennale is “Cities, architecture and society,” the theme is Cities of the Future, with the aim, the organizers say, of “presenting a manifesto for the cities of the 21st century.

The Biennale has several sections. In the 300-metre long “Corderie dell’Arsenale” space, there are videos, photography, film and thee dimensional graphics presenting the urban experiences of 16 world cities in four continents, including Cairo, Istanbul, Barcelona, Caracas, Los Angeles and Mumbai.

In addition, each of the 50 participating countries has its own pavilion. The content of the Israeli pavilion is in marked contrast to the pavilions of other countries, which look forward to cities of the future.

To take just a few examples of how other countries exhibitions are approaching the theme of the exhibition, the exhibition in the US pavilion is entitled “After the Flood; Building on Higher Ground”, the UK exhibition explores the issues facing Britain’s regional cities, the exhibition, the republic of Slovenia’s pavilion has the title “Formula New Ljubljana”, and the Romanian exhibition is dubbed “Remix! Urban drama for nine cubes and many players.”

Susannah Tarbush
Al Hayat September 7 2006

Sunday, September 03, 2006

apjp petitions venice biennale over israeli exhibition

A week before the opening of the 10th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, the international pressure group Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) has sent a petition to the organizers asking them to consider withdrawing the Israeli contribution.

In its petition sent on September 2, APJP says it is “dismayed and concerned” that the Biennale, which opens on September 10 and runs until November 19, has agreed to host the Israeli contribution entitled “Life Saver: Typology of Commemoration in Israel.”

APJP says the exhibition in the Israeli pavilion, funded by the Israeli government, “totally excludes the Palestinians who are the target and real victims of the seemingly unending series of wars being memorialized. In this exhibition, Israel has the sole position of victim and victor.”

It requests the Biennale Committee to consider withdrawing the Israeli entry as being “provocative and counterproductive to the aims of the Biennale, and particularly distasteful in the context of the aftermath of an ugly and unnecessary war in neighboring Lebanon, and a continuing one-side war in Gaza.”

The 21 signatories to the petition include Palestinian, Israeli and British/Jewish architects. Among them are the eminent British architect Ted Cullinan, and the distinguished architectural critic and writer Charles Jencks.

The Israeli contribution comprises exhibits of 15 memorials built between 1949 and 2006 to commemorate Israeli military war dead or the Holocaust. The Israeli Defense Ministry provided substantial support for the exhibition.

Israel is one of 50 countries participating in the Biennale, which is regarded one of the world’s most prestigious architectural events. The only Arab country taking part is Egypt.

APJP says that whatever the committee may decide to do about the Israeli participation, it would like the organizers “to consider asking for a Palestinian contribution, highlighting the historic and ongoing displacement of the Palestinian people.”

The petition says that the “eminent Israeli architects” represented in the Israeli entry are “being used as tools of Israeli propaganda, and consequently would be deemed to be complicit in the agenda of excluding the Palestinian narrative. Significantly, the Israeli organization ‘Zochrot’, which deals with remembering the Nakba, has been omitted from this exhibition.”

APJP notes there are no memorials in Israel to the Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy of displacement and dispossession, in which “the intention of transfer and exclusion led to the destruction and elimination of 580 Palestinian villages, towns and cities.”

It adds: “Even today, this dispossession and humiliation goes on in Gaza and the West Bank, with the destruction of their heritage in the historic cities of Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jericho. This is particularly ironic when the subject of the Biennale is the celebration of cities.” (The title of the Biennale is ‘Cities, Architecture and Society.’)

The military memorials exhibited in the Israeli pavilion include the Ammunition Hill Memorial for the Six Day War, the Negev Brigade Memorial, the Nitzanim Memorial building, the Palmach History Museum, Bet Yad Labanim, the memorial for soldiers from Tel Aviv University, and the National Memorial in Honor of the Fallen of Israel’s Intelligence Community.

Among the Holocaust-related memorials are the Holocaust Museum and the Hall of Remembrance of Yad Vashem, Yad LaYeled Children’s Museum, and the Ghetto Fighters’ House.

The curator of the Israeli exhibition, Tula Amir, writes in the exhibition catalogue: “The justification of Israel’s wars legitimates the loss of life in the past and its possible loss in the future; the continuation of unconditional cooperation between the country’s military and defense establishment and its individual citizens; and an unequivocal understanding that this struggle is the only means for Israel’s survival.”

But commenting on Amir’s statement, APJP says: “It has been evident that the wars and tragedies engulfing Palestine/Israel since 1948 have been due to Israel’s intransigence and refusal to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

Amir does briefly mention the omission of the Palestinian narrative when she writes: "It is important to note, at this point, that this exhibition focuses upon this phenomenon as it is expressed in Israel's Jewish sector, which comprises approximately eighty per cent of the country's population. The approach to remembrance and commemoration within Israel's Arab-Palestinian minority represents a completely different narrative, which is given almost no architectural expression in Israel."

Amir fails to point out that while there are over a thousand memorials in Israel, no such expression is permitted to the Palestinians. Zochrot is the only Israeli organization that attempts this, by erecting signs of destroyed Palestinian villages, which are immediately taken down by the authorities.

APJP was founded in February 2006 as an independent international pressure group of design professionals who seek international support for an ethical and just practice for their professions in Palestine and the Occupied Territories.

Its website states: "We hold all design and construction professionals involved in projects that appropriate land and natural resources from Palestinian territory to be complicit in social, political and economic oppression, and to be in violation of their professional ethics."

APJP seeks to raise awareness within the planning, design and construction industries of how these professionals "are central to the occupation of Palestinian land and to the erosion of human rights." It acts as a channel to disseminate news and information relating to the built and natural environment in Israel/Palestine, "in particular highlighting ways in which planning, architecture and other construction disciplines are being used to promote an apartheid system of environmental control."

The group forges links with Israeli and Palestinian professionals and other solidarity groups "committed to non-violent resistance to the Occupation and to the establishment of a just and lasting peace."

APJP calls on Israeli and international architects, planners and those in the construction industry to express their concern in each and every instance of unjust action in annexing Palestinian land, and the projects to be built on them. "The future security and justice, in both Israel and Palestine, are at stake."

Susannah Tarbush