Wednesday, June 06, 2007

naim attallah's new memoir

In the first three volumes of his memoirs, published since 2004, the London-based Palestinian publisher Naim Attallah recounted his boyhood in Nazareth, his adventures in Britain after arriving there as a student in 1949, and his experiences of the British and Arab business scenes.

Now in the recently-published fourth volume, “Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995”, he tells of his career as a publisher heading the Namara Group with its main publishing wing Quartet Books and its offshoot The Women’s Press. He also funded several magazines including the Literary Review and The Oldie. In parallel to his work in publishing, he was chief executive of the famous Aspreys luxury-goods group of New Bond Street in London. At the same time he was an impresario, producing and financing a series of film and theatre productions, and an entrepreneur in pursuit of new ventures.

Attallah is a man of colossal energy and drive, an eccentric extrovert of considerable charm, but at the same time a sensitive person susceptible to being wounded. At the age of 76 his activity levels remain high and he has been busy promoting his new book, including holding a launch party attended by some of the many women who in their youth worked at Quartet. The press used to refer to the bevy of lovely creatures at Quartet as Attallah’s “harem”. In a ‘Londoner’s Diary’ that he wrote recently for the Evening Standard weekly magazine, Attallah said it was delightful to see at the launch party these women “assembled in one venue, retaining their original sparkle and having with maturity grown more devastatingly attractive than I would have dared to imagine.”

The names of Attallah’s stable of female former employees read like a roll call of British aristocracy. The Quartet alumni include the actress Helena Bonham-Carter, the biographer Rebecca Fraser, the food writer and TV chef Nigella Lawson, and the heiress and socialite Sabrina Guinness.

Attallah describes in his book how he embarked on a successful long-distance wooing of the Syrian writer Rana Kabbani to come and work for him in London after her second attempt at marriage to the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish broke down and she returned from Paris to Damascus.

Kabbani is one of the numerous former employees of Attallah who have contributed tributes to him that are published in the book. “It is only now, as I write this twenty years later, that I realize Naim Attallah probably saved my life,” she writes. Kabbani gives a vivid picture of life at Quartet in its ramshackle, Dickensian buildings in a broken-down area off Tottenham Court Road. “Everyone working there looked like a character from a novel – lush, mad, exotic and highly-strung, with a hilarious sense of humor.”

Each volume of Attallah’s memoirs has been longer than its predecessor. The first, “The Old Ladies of Nazareth”, was a slender 71 pages, while the fourth volume runs to nearly 800 pages. Attallah is one of the best-connected people in Britain, and the index of names at the back of “Fulfilment & Betrayal” takes up 19 pages and reads like a ‘who’s who’ of British and Arab culture in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Nor is its vast size the only thing that marks a departure from the previous volumes. Up to now Attallah has written about himself in the third person, which has a distancing effect, but in his new book he uses the more spontaneous and direct first person. He claims this is because “the banker completes his transformation into a man in charge of his own destiny.”

The compendious book is structured chronologically, with Attallah telling us in minute detail, year by year, of his publishing and other activities, sprinkled with entertaining anecdotes and descriptions of people. Attallah is disarmingly frank about the lows as well as the highs, and there are full accounts of the many spats and controversies in which he has been embroiled. He reproduces attacks that have been made on him in articles, reviews or letters, as well as the responses he fired off.

One fiasco was his “grandiose vision” of an Arabian Fantasy show at the Royal Albert Hall. It was to have been “an extravaganza featuring Arabian music and dancing, with all the exotic sights and sounds from the Middle East, from harem girls to real camels.” A lead dancer, Ludmilla Nova, was engaged, the hall was hired and a performance date was set for 2 April 1976. But the show was badly choreographed and insufficiently rehearsed, and it turned out to be a shambles. Attallah was too ashamed to emerge from his box at the interval as he saw members of the audience, which included many celebrities, leaving by the score. He writes: “the night was destined to be the most embarrassing of my entire career”, and he quotes from a scathing review in the Guardian.

“Fulfilment & Betrayal” has attracted much interest from reviewers and interviewers, and even those who poke fun at some of the more flamboyant aspects of Attallah’s behavior admit that he has a record of solid achievements and has contributed much to British publishing. The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer David Herman observed that the history of British publishing is full of colorful characters, many of them Jewish refugees. “However few are a match for Naim Attallah, the Palestinian self-made millionaire, former chief executive of Aspreys and for 30 years the man behind Quartet and The Literary Review.”

Attallah has also proved generous and willing to dig deeply into his own pockets to support publishing and other ventures. The Literary Review accumulated losses of over two million pounds of his money before it was eventually sold, and Attallah is still keeping The Oldie afloat.

One of Attallah’s main objectives in becoming a publisher was to publish books of Middle Eastern interest. He wanted not only to cover the Palestinian conflict and the sufferings of the Palestinian people, but also to promote the Arab culture that had been so long ignored in the West. He was determined to have Arabic literary output translated into English to stand alongside Quartet’s international list, “which was made up of sometimes obscure or newly discovered talent together with established writers.”

Among the books he commissioned was “The Palestinians”, published in 1979, by the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby with photographs by Donald McCullin. The book gave the Palestinian side of the conflict, which was a breakthrough for those days. As Attallah observes: “There was no shortage of eminent publishers, like George Weidenfeld, to persist in promoting the Israeli side of the picture.” The book caused a stir and was attacked by pro-Zionist sections of the press, but mainstream reviewers thought the true voices of the Palestinians came through in the text.

Several of Attallah’s most fraught times came in relation to the Palestinian issue and he was sometimes accused of being a propagandist for the Palestinians, or of the PLO, and even of being anti-Semitic. In 1983 the writer Roald Dalh wrote a review for the Literary Review of Tony Clifton’s book “God Cried” which is about Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. When Attallah read the review he knew its publication “would send the influential pro-Zionist lobby into a frenzy of rage”. The editor of the Literary Review was also taken aback by the piece, and she and Attallah consulted the lawyer of the firm, who happened to be Jewish. To their “utter surprise” he liked, and approved of, the review and after editing out a few of the more intemperate expressions he urged them to publish it.

“The reaction to the review was far more extreme that we had anticipated,” Attallah recalls and there were calls for a boycott of the magazine. The writer Paul Johnson, known for his Zionist sympathies, wrote in the Spectator that Dahl’s review was, in his view, “the most disgraceful item to have appeared in a respectable British publication for a very long time.”

But Attallah writes that his Palestinian sympathies “have never prevented me from highlighting the plight of any other repressed minority or race, the Jews being no exception.” He includes in the book a list of books published by Quartet that are by Jewish authors or on Jewish topics.

Over the years Attallah was caught up in the intrigue and Asprey family feuding over the luxury-goods group. Asprey was sold in November 1995 to Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Attallah asserts that “the glory days of Asprey sadly came to an end with my departure”, and denies that all its problems were due to his expansionist policies while he was its chief executive.

Attallah concludes his book by writing that after his departure from Asprey he refused to be put out to grass. “I set sail to explore fresh seas and my journeys of discovery were to uplift my spirits and lead me intellectually to more fertile lands.” This next phase of Attallah’s life will be the subject of the next volume of his memoirs.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 4 June 2007

below: Attallah with his mascot 'Kaiser' in 1984

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