Saturday, August 25, 2007

apjp writes to brown over patronage of jewish national fund

When ‘Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP)’ sent a letter to the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a few days ago describing as “disturbing” his decision to become a patron of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), this was another example of the active campaigning of this international pressure group. The letter says: “Your becoming a patron of JNF-UK can be seen as a tacit acceptance of an unacceptable status quo, and also places you in the position of not being an unbiased mediator in the peace process”.

Among those signing the letter were the chairman of APJP the Jewish architect Abe Hayeem, APJP’s secretary the Palestinian architect Haifa Hammami, and a number of British and other architects. They include Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London University. He is author of the important new book “Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Oppression.” Copies of the letter have been sent to the new Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and to the Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN Lord Mark Malloch Brown (former deputy secretary general of the UN).

Its letter calls on Brown to withdraw his patronage of the JNF, and suggests he instead become patron of some of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that bring Israelis and Palestinians together, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

Brown accepted to become a patron of JNF UK after its president Gail Seal wrote to him conveying her good wishes the day after he took office on 27 June. Brown said he that he was “delighted to accept your offer to become a patron of JNF UK.” A spokesman for Brown told the weekly London-based Jewish Chronicle newspaper Brown had agreed to become a patron of the JNF UK “in order to encourage their work to promote charitable projects for everyone in Israel.” But as the letter from APJP to Brown makes clear, the JNF benefits only Israeli Jews and not its Arab-Israeli citizens.

The Jewish Chronicle report added that “Brown has long been known for his support of Israel”. He joins other JNF UK patrons including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Conservative leader David Cameron and the chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who is a close personal friend of Brown.

The APJP letter to Brown said that his agreement to become a patron of the JNF comes at an “unfortunate time”. The Israeli Knesset on 18th July approved its preliminary reading of a “racist bill” that prohibits the sale of lands registered in the name of the JNF to Arab citizens of the state. This reverses the ruling in 2004 by the Israeli Supreme Court that it was illegal for the Israeli Lands Authority to refuse to sell or lease land to Arab citizens of Israel. The Israeli Attorney General held that this 2004 ruling also applied to the JNF.

The JNF controls 13 per cent of the land of the state, which allows for the establishment of Jewish-only towns. In its letter, APJP notes that the State of Israel transferred around 2 million dunams of land seized and confiscated from Arab “absentee” owners to the JNF in 1949 and 1953 via arbitrary laws. “The Knesset’s attempt to enact the JNF’s policy into law does not absolve Israel from its obligations under international law to refrain from legislating racist laws or including discriminatory bodies in official decision-making institutions.” The letter added: “This new bill, alongside the racist Citizenship Law that prevents the unification of Arab families in Israel, are primarily and directly targeted against the native inhabitants of the country...both possess the basic characteristics of colonial laws.”

The new communities being created in the Negev, funds for which are coming from JNF UK, are for Jewish immigrants only. Israeli architects and planners design the new settlements and towns being funded by the JNF and JNF UK, and will be “designing these new towns and housing areas in the Negev and Galilee, which include the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin ‘unrecognised villages’.”

The letter asks Brown to “use the UK’s position as a key member of the EU in Quartet to hold Israel to account in its activities that perpetuate not only the Occupation, but treats a large minority of its citizens in a way that no truly democratic state would accept.”

In a separate development, on 16 August the London-based Financial Times newspaper published a letter from the APJP chairman Abe Hayeem regarding an article it had published on the famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie [pictured].

The article said that Safdie had picked his architectural commissions carefully, refusing to design any structure in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, but that he had unwittingly been drawn in to a national controversy with political overtones about the future of Jerusalem. Safdie told the Financial Times that a combination of right-wingers, who lay claim to the Greater Land of Israel, and green activists had thwarted his blueprint to expand Jerusalem away from Palestinian areas and deeper into Israel in the west where, he said, the city’s future lies.

This “Safdie Plan” for Jerusalem was cancelled earlier this year “as Israelis grapple with whether and when they will divide the land, including Jerusalem, with the Palestinians”, the article said. It mentioned that Safdie is on the record as opposing British architects’ moves “to impose a boycott on Israel”.

However, Abe Hayeem said in his letter to the Financial Times that APJP has not called for the imposition of a boycott on Israel. He explained: “We oppose the illegal construction of settlements and infrastructure that contravenes professional codes of conduct and international law, and are challenging the complicity of Israeli architects and planners in occupation and oppression.”

Hayeem said the article on Safdie had failed to point out “some interesting contradictions regarding this self-described ‘left of centre’ architect.” Safdie had told the Financial Times that he “laments” the separation wall and the damage being caused to villages and communities, but he had failed to mention the other “Safdie master plan” - in the Al-Bustan neighbourhood of Silwan, an illegally-annexed Palestinian village near Jerusalem’s Old City.

This plan is part of a project to re-create the mythical “City of David”, funded by a fundamentalist settler group called El Ad, which has been buying and expropriating houses in Palestinian neighbourhoods for many years. The project involves demolishing 88 houses, making over 1,000 Palestinians homeless. The European Union has condemned the project as contravening the spirit and letter of the “road map.” If carried out, the project will add another obstacle to creating a “viable” Palestinian state with Eats Jerusalem as its capital.

Hayeem also noted that Safdie’s residential and commercial project in the Mamilla quarter, near the Old City of Jerusalem, was built on no-man’s land, but this land was unilaterally annexed. Palestinian Jerusalemites would not be able to make free use of the commercial and tourist sectors. The Safdie plan for West Jerusalem, which was opposed by environmentalists, would have expanded housing only for Jewish Israelis in order to boost the Jewish population at the expense of the Palestinians, who are being squeezed out even in their own areas of East Jerusalem.

APJP is a relatively young organisation, having been set up in February 2006, but in the year and a half of its existence it has made a major impact with its campaigns. It aroused a great deal of controversy in May when a petition it organised was published as a half-page advertisement in the London-based Times newspaper. The petition was signed by more than 260 architects, planners and others from around the world, including some of Britain’s most famous architects and a number of Israeli architects and human rights activists. The petition said that the actions of Israeli architects and planners working in conjunction with Israel’s policies building of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory are “unethical and contravene professional codes of conduct and International Union of Architects (UIA) codes.”

The petition condemned “three typical projects that make Israeli architects, planners and design and construction professionals complicit in social, political and economic oppression, in violation of their professional ethics.” The three projects are the E1 plan to expand the largest illegal settlement Ma’ale Adumim to link it with metropolitan Jerusalem, the project in Silwan and the development of the deserted village of Lifta.

The petition said it is time to challenge the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) and the Israeli government to end such projects, and insisted that the IAUA should adhere to UIA codes. It called on the IAUA “to declare their opposition to the inhuman Occupation, and to end the participation of their members and fellow professionals in creating facts on the ground with a demographic intent that excludes and oppresses Palestinians.”
Those signing the petition included the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Jack Pringle as well as three former RIBA presidents, and president-elect Sunand Prasad. Moshe Safdie heavily criticized Pringle for signing, and told the weekly British magazine Building Design that he was disgusted that British architects, had singled out Israel when regimes across the world carry out “the most terrible atrocities.”

The lobbying group, British Architect Friends of Israel, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote jointly to the Paris-based UIA - the worldwide umbrella of 102 national organizations and 1.3 million architects – and called on it to suspend the membership of RIBA unless RIBA dissociates itself from the APJP petition. The letter alleged that with its “anti-Israeli focus” the campaign violated EU clauses and definitions on national discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Jack Pringle rejected any charge of anti-Semitism as “very offensive to me and quite absurd as a glance at the petition with its many Jewish co-signatories will show. Indeed, many Jewish agencies support the petition, and its main promoter is Jewish himself.”

Susannah Tarbush
[original of article published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat on August 25 2007]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

five asian novelists on booker longlist

Indra Sinha may be the world’s only novelist whose website invites his readers to submit, via You Tube, their performances of songs featured in his latest novel. The novel is “Animal’s People”, which last week won the distinction of being included on the long list of 13 novels for Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Booker, worth £50,000 Sterling.

Sinha [pictured below in 1999, with Holly], who is originally from Mumbai, went to school in India and England, and read English at Cambridge University. He worked as an advertising copywriter before leaving to become a “proper” writer, and now lives in the South of France. In 1999 his first book “Cybergypsies” appeared, followed in 2002 by “The Death of Mr Love”.

The songs referred to in “Animal’s People” are mainly from Indian films, plus Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”. Sinha is still seeking performances of the songs ‘Kaun aayaa mere man ke dvaare’ and ‘Main nashe mein hoon’. He prefers those contributing songs to record their own versions because recordings of film songs posted on You Tube often cease to be available, presumably after copyright complaints from distributors.

“Animal’s People” is set among the victims of a chemical leak catastrophe, modeled on the December 1984 Bhopal disaster. It is set in a fictional town called Khaufpur, afflicted by a gas leak one night from an American-owned chemical plant. The book’s nineteen-year-old central character Animal walks on all fours as a result of the events of That Night. A young female American doctor, Elli Barber, comes to the town to open a clinic for those affected by the gas, and Animal becomes involved in a web of intrigues, scams and plots.

Sinha dedicates “Animal’s People” to the Bhopal survivor and activist Sunil Kumar. Kumar travelled the world to try to mobilize support against the 1989 settlement between Union Carbide and the Indian government. In July last year he hanged himself at the age of 34.

Sinha says the novel owes much to Kumar and the stories he told him about his life. Kumar was 12 when gas seeped from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and killed all but two members of his large family. He became wholly responsible for looking after his younger brother and sister. Kumar suffered severe mental problems, which Sinha attributes to the effects of the gas.

The Bhopal disaster continues to blight lives. In addition to the 20,000 who have died so far, more than 120,000 continue to suffer ill effects. In 1994 Sinha advertised in the London-based Guardian newspaper for funds to set up a free clinic for Bhopal survivors. The Sambhavna clinic opened two years later, and has so far helped around 20,000 people.

The Man Booker is open to novels written in English from the Commonwealth nations, plus Ireland. The shortlist of five books will be announced on September 13, and the winner at a dinner on October 16.

Remarkably, this year’s longlist includes five novels by writers of Asian origin, including “Animal’s People”. Among them is “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Pakistani Mohsin Hamid. It tells of Changez, a Pakistani man living a Westernized life style in Manhattan who becomes radicalized after 9/11.

“Gifted” is the debut novel of Nikita Lalwani [pictured], who was born in Rajasthan, India and brought up in Cardiff, Wales. The novel is about a gifted girl, Rumi Vasi, whose controlling immigrant father wants her to become the youngest student ever to go to Oxford University. But friendship and love start to become more important to Rumi than equations.

Tan Twan Eng, author of debut novel “The Gift of Rain”, was born in Penang, Malaysia. He studied law at London University and worked as a lawyer in Malaysia before going to live in South Africa. The novel is set in Second World War Malaya. The central character, Philip, is half Chinese and half British. He finds a feeling of belonging in his friendship with a Japanese diplomat, but his loyalties become desperately strained.

The Second World War is also the backdrop to “The Welsh Girl”, the first novel by Peter Ho Davies, who is of Welsh and Malay-Chinese descent. In the novel a German-Jewish refugee is sent to Wales to interrogate Rudolf Hess. The Welsh girl of the title is the 17-year-old daughter of a shepherd; the other main character is a German prisoner of war.

This year’s Booker judges have produced a longlist full of fresh talent, including a substantial proportion of names that are as yet little known. Four of the books are by debut novelists. The chairman of the judges is Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The other judges are poet Wendy Cope, journalist and author Giles Foden, biographer and critic Ruth Scurr and actor and writer Imogen Stubbs. The judges considered 110 novels. “Slightly to my surprise, only 39 of the athors are women, while 38 are from outside the United Kingdom,” Davies writes in his Booker blog. “Even more surprisingly, 14 of the entries are either wholly or substantially set during the Second World War.”

There has been a predictable outcry over the omission from the longlist of some of the biggest names in fiction. Among the novels to be left out are Doris Lessing’s “The Cleft”, and novels by former Booker winners Graham Swift, Thomas Keneally, Michael Ondaatje and JM Coetzee (winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and two-times Booker winner).

The bookies William Hill’s favorite to win the prize is British novelist Ian McEwan, winner of the 1998 Booker for “Amsterdam”. Four of his other novels have also been shortlisted for the Booker. His longlisted novel, “Chesil Beach”, has odds to win of 3/1.

Chesil Beach is a famous beach in Dorset, south-west England. A virginal honeymoon couple, Edward and Florence, are staying in a hotel there in 1962. As they sit down in their room for dinner, both suffer anxieties about their wedding night.

William Hill’s next favorites to win are Nicola Barkman’s “Darkmans”, Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, Catherine O’Flynn’s “What was Lost” and A N Wilson’s “Winnie & Wolf”. The longest odds are 20/1 for “Mister Pip” by the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, despite this novel having won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. What is more, in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, it won both the Montana Medal for Fiction and the Reader’s Choice Award.

“Mister Pip” is set during Papua New Guinea’s blockade of its lush tropical island province of Bougainville in the 1990s. The one white man remaining, Mr Watts, reads to the children Charles Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations”. Young Matilda becomes obsessed with Pip, the narrator of “Great Expectations,” and her story is interwoven with the violence around her.

Nicola Barker’s novel “Darkmans” runs to 838 pages. It is set in Ashford. Kent and has themes of love and jealousy. Edward Docx , the former literary editor of the Daily Express, is longlisted for his second novel “Self Help”. Set in St Petersburg, Paris, London and New York, it is the story of a half-English, half-Russian family filled with secrets. Another dysfunctional family is at the heart of Irish novelist Anne Enright’s fourth novel “The Gathering”.

British writer Catherine O’Flynn’s first novel “What Was Lost”, set partly in 1984, concerns a bright schoolgirl, Kate, who goes missing while hanging around a Birmingham shopping centre following the instructions in her father’s book “How to be a Detective”. Twenty years later, a security guard and a female friend try to find out what became of her.

“Consolation”, by the American-born Canadian writer Michael Redhill, moves between Toronto’s past and present. A professor kills himself in the waters of Lake Ontario. The efforts of his widow to prove he did not falsify historical research is interwoven with a story from the 1850s.

The British biographer, journalist and novelist A N Wilson’s novel “Winnie & Wolf” explores the close friendship in 1925-49 between Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner, the English wife of composer Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried. Hitler and Winnie had a kinship, expressed through a mutual love of opera.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette August 13

Monday, August 20, 2007

gulf delegates attend british council's 'edinburgh showcase'

picture above: Sulayman Al-Bassam

Bring together a leading British playwright and an adventurous Kuwaiti theatre writer and director, leave them for 24 hours to devise a play, and what do you get? The result will become clear at 9.30am on Thursday August 23 when the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, stages the half-hour “Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast”, in cooperation with the award-winning theatre company Paines Plough. The two playwrights involved are Mark Ravenhill and Sulayman Al-Bassam, whose collaboration is being described by the British Council as “a unique clash of iconoclasts”. The subject of their play is expected to be the war on terror.

Al-Bassam has attracted much praise and attention in Britain for his theatre work. He obtained a Masters degree from Edinburgh University in 1994, and went on to found the Zaoum Theatre in London in 1996. The theatre’s Arab arm, Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, was set up in Kuwait in 2002. Al-Bassam produces work in both English and Arabic. His production, as writer and director, of “Richard III an Arab tragedy”, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was performed in February at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon as part of The Complete Works Festival. It received rapturous reviews. Al-Bassam has said: “I look forward immensely to working with Mark Ravenhill and the creative challenge of producing a new work in this format, especially for Edinburgh audiences.”

The Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast is part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase. The Showcase takes place every two years during the Edinburgh Festival, the world’s largest festival of the performing arts.

The “Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast” will be followed by refreshments and the opportunity to speak to Sulayman Al-Bassam about his collaboration with Ravenhill, and to talk to the other delegates from the Middle East about their reactions to UK performances in the Edinburgh festival so far. There will then be a one-hour panel debate on Arab theatre, involving members of the Middle Eastern delegation comprising more than 25 theatre specialists from the region.

This is the largest delegation the British Council has ever brought from the Middle East to the Edinburgh Showcase, and is part of the Council’s efforts to widen the scope for creative dialogue between people in the region and in the UK. The Middle Eastern delegates will see a diverse mix of contemporary UK performance.

Al-Bassam says: “The Edinburgh Showcase comes at a critical time in Arab-West relations. As a theatre practitioner, this is a fantastic opportunity to exchange new ideas and engage with contemporary UK theatre, start new dialogues and explore new ways for collaborations in the future.”

The British Council’s director of drama and dance Sally Cowling notes that the Edinburgh Showcase has provided an important marketplace for British theatre makers looking to build an international profile for their work, and is an exciting gathering point for theatre presenters from all over the world. She says: “We are delighted to welcome our largest-ever delegation from the Middle East this year and for many delegates, particularly from the Gulf region, it will be the first real engagement with contemporary UK theatre.”

The delegation includes five theatre practitioners from Saudi Arabia. Hail Ageel is a member of the Saudi Arabian Association of Arts and Culture in Jeddah and of Jeddah Theatre Club. He has worked as an actor, writer, director, lighting manager, and music and sound effects manager. He says: “Attending the Edinburgh Showcase is like a dream come true. I hope I can learn and see something new that will increase my knowledge and that I can try to pass on what I saw and learned to my friends when I came back.”

Tahani Al-Ghureiby, Assistant Professor of English Literature at the Riyadh University for Girls, did a PhD on Western concepts in Arabic drama. She initiated and directed the first play ever performed by female actresses at the Riyadh University for Girls. She is a lecturer on Western and English Drama, “in a country where drama needs to be introduced to the public as a means of expression and as a reflection of many crucial cultural and epistemological issues. I write articles in local papers and periodicals to enhance public awareness of the genre.” Al-Ghureiby says that her attendance at the Edinburgh Showcase will help her see how theatre is being used to express human experience and “will give me a new kind of understanding which I hope to bring back to Saudi Arabia.”

Ahmed Al-Huthail is General Manager of the Fourth Saudi Arabian Theatre Festival to be held in Riyadh in November. He studied Theatre at the University of Florida, having performed in radio, TV and theatre since 1965. He was formerly manager of the International Relations and News Exchange Department at Saudi TV.

Writer, actor, director and producer Abdullah Al-Jafal hopes to “meet the best UK theatre artists to discuss training opportunities.” Al-Jafal is a participant member of the Theatre Festival for Short Shows in Damman. He is leader of Afnan theatre group, and a member of the Theatre Department at the Art and Culture Institute, Dammam. He has participated in numerous plays with support from the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Art.

The director of the Saudi Theatre Festival Abha, Ibrahim Assiry, is a founding member of Theatre Workshop at Taif, establisihed in 1992, and a member of the Arab Committee of Arts and Culture in Taif. He has worked as production manager on 20 plays in Saudi Arabia, as well as in Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, Jordan and Tunisia. “I hope to see British culture and to watch performances by the world,” he says of his invitation to Edinburgh.

The other Middle Eastern delegates are coming from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Yemen. The strong emphasis on the Gulf reflects the fact that the British Council is launching its first comprehensive theatre program there, working with local partners to develop a program of tours, capacity building and collaborations. This builds on successful similar projects in other parts of the Middle East.

The British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase has programmed some 30 productions. The Traverse Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of the play “Damascus” by one of Scotland’s best-known writers, David Greig. It was inspired by Greig’s experiences in Syria as part of the British Council’s new writing project in collaboration with London’s Royal Court Theatre. The play tells of Paul, a Scottish businessman, who is in Damascus trying to sell his new English-language educational software. He has a brief encounter in his hotel that leaves him grappling with language and love, meanings and misunderstandings. “Laughter, romance and tragedy meet as he faces the complexities of truth, faith and love.”

image from Gecko's "The Arab and the Jew"
photo credit: Sheila Burnett

Another Middle East-related production comes from the theatre company Gecko, founded in 2002 by Amit Lahav and Al Nedjari. Gecko’s production is the world premiere of “The Arab and the Jew”, a two-man show in which the two actors explore their relationship as performers and friends. The preview states: “With almost no text, they tell a story of brotherhood, loyalty and conflict, as seen through the mist of their own Arab and Jewish backgrounds.”

Among the other productions, Hoipolloi Theatre’s production “Floating” examines issues of belonging and national identity. Hugh Hughes, an inhabitant of the Welsh island of Anglesey explores these issues with naïve wit when Anglesey is cast adrift from the mainland during an earthquake.

“Alice Bell”, performed by Lone Twin Theatre, is “a story of a fictional character born into a fictional conflict, told with the aid of songs, dance and ukuleles. Alice seeks happiness in a divided land, but finds love and companionship at a terrible cost.” Like these productions, many of the other productions ask questions about individual and national identity in an era of increased globalization – questions that are of much relevance to the Middle East.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette August 20 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007

new crop of books in english by iraqis

Saadi Youssef

'Iraq's writers bring a nation's agony to the world's bookshops'
The agony through which Iraq and its people have passed for so many years has long-been the subject of books, poetry and articles by the country's writers. The horrors that have been meted out on the country since the invasion of 2003 have forced its writers through many phases: in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall, when censorship was lifted, a new era of artistic freedom seemed to be the promise; the insurgency soon put an end to these new-found freedoms, as writers became the targets of extremism and their favoured haunts in Baghdad the target of suicidebombers.
Even so, as Susannah Tarbush writes, the contortions from which Iraq is suffering have produced a wide range of novels and other writings which are now becoming widely available to the English-speaking world. (right: Sinan Antooon)

Fadhil al-Azzawi (below) and Lewis Alsamari (right)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

former islamic radicals denounce violence

From Saudi Debate website:
'Former Islamist radicals denounce violence as British Muslims lead the way towards moderation'

The increasing readiness of former members of radical Islamic groups in Britain to speak out against extremism and denounce those who advocate violence, has brought with it a significant change in the political landscape in the UK. On 28 July several hundred Muslims marched through central London carrying banners denouncing extremism and the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Whether the tide is turning against the radicals - who not long ago could make claims to having mass appeal - it is perhaps too early to say.
"In his days as an activist in Hizb ut-Tahrir, British Muslim Shiraz Maher sported a long black bushy beard and wore flowing robes and a Muslim cap. TV footage from 2004 shows him at an anti-war demonstration outside Regent's Park mosque in London shaking his fist and roaring angry slogans. Today, his radical past behind him, he is a neatly-groomed bespectacled man in Western attire with a short clipped beard and his fiery rhetoric has been replaced by calmly-expressed warnings on the dangers of the Islamist ideology he once embraced. Maher is one of a small but growing number of British former Islamists who are publicly speaking out against Islamist groups, exposing their ideologies and methods. The former militants are constantly invited to appear in the media to give their views on causes of radicalism and its tipping over into terrorism. The stakes are high. The attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow at the end of June confirmed that Britain is a prime target of violent extremists including Al-Qaeda. The attacks came two years after the four suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005 that killed 52 innocent people, and the failed copycat attempts two weeks later. In the interim, a succession of trials of young Muslims in British courts has resulted in lengthy convictions relating to major terror plots. .."
Article by Susannah Tarbush at:

Saturday, August 04, 2007

film of 'yacoubian building' at ica in london

When I came out of the press screening of the Egyptian film “The Yacoubian Building” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London last Wednesday afternoon, I felt momentarily disoriented. The long feature film, running for nearly three hours, had taken me so powerfully into Cairo and the lives of its characters that for a time it seemed more real than the traffic-congested streets around Trafalgar Square. The interlocking dramas of the vivid personalities played by riveting actors including Adel Imam, Hend Sabri, Yusra and Nour El Sherif, replayed in my mind on the bus ride home.

The title of the novel and film of “The Yacoubian Building” comes from a 1930s apartment block in Cairo within which the lives of characters intersect in multiple narratives, which tackle some highly sensitive subjects. On the roof of the building are small rooms where poor families live. The block represents a microcosm of Egypt in around 1995. The sweeping cinematography encompasses the vast city with its teeming life, and also focuses on the intimacies of life within apartments.

“The Yacoubian Building” might be over-melodramatic in places, and the volume of the soaring music score by Khalid Hammad occasionally too insistent, but it is a major cinematic achievement. And yet it is only the second film to be directed by Marwan Hamed, who was 27 at the time. (His first film, a short, was based on the novel “Lily”.)

The film’s budget of more than 20 million Egyptian pounds (around 3.5 million US dollars) was the biggest of any Egyptian film to date. The film’s production company, Good News Group, assembled the largest cast of stars to appear in one Egyptian film. The script was adapted by veteran scriptwriter Waheed Hamed, Marwan’s father, from Cairo dentist Alaa Al-Aswany’s 2002 novel.

The press screening was part of the build-up to the launch of the film in Britain. The ICA is holding a special preview on August 29 as the prelude to a season of the film to be held in its arthouse cinema from September 14. The film will also be screened in a number of other British cities. At the same time a new paperback English edition of the novel is being published in the UK by Harper Collins, under the Harper Perennial imprint.

The film caused an outcry when it opened in Egypt last year, with 112 MPs calling for scenes to be cut, especially those involving gay newspaper editor Hatem Rashid (Khaled El Sawy). Some newspapers too decried the negative image of Egypt the film supposedly gave. But Culture minister Farouk Hosni rejected the calls for censorship.

In Al-Ahram Weekly, columnist Salama A Salama commented: “Our society is much more mature than some assume. We are mature enough to decide what we want to watch without having to be told...Those who lashed out at the movie made it sound as if the film was degenerate or pornographic, which it wasn’t.” The film broke box office records in Egypt.

The challenges in making the film arose not only from its highly sensitive subject matter. There were also technical feats to be achieved in for example filming a large university demonstration pitting security forces with batons and shields against Islamist demonstrators. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes shows the torture of demonstrator Taha El Shazly (Mohamed Imam). Bloodied from his beatings he is suspended in the air at the police station. His police interrogator then orders a degrading sexual assault on him that leaves Taha determined to seek revenge. As news reports have frequently shown, torture is a not infrequent occurrence in Egypt.

The film highlights the pressures on women. Corrupt businessman Haj Azzam (played by Nour El-Sherif) consults a sheikh when his middle-aged wife is no longer interested in satisfying his conjugal needs. The sheikh encourages him to find a second wife. He proposes marriage to young widow Soad (Somaya El Khashab) from Alexandria. His conditions are harsh. She must leave her small son behind with her relatives, must keep the marriage secret, and must not expect to have another child. When she tells Azzam she has become pregnant he is furious, and in an episode of great cruelty the fetus is forcibly aborted.

Buthayna, played by Tunisian actress Hend Sabry, is Taha’s fiancée and breadwinner for an impoverished family headed by her mother. She has left her job because the boss sexually pressured her, only to find that in her new job in a clothes shop the owner regularly retreats to the storeroom to physically exploit his female employees.

Taha is an academically bright student who wants to enter the police academy, but at his interview he is turned away when he admits his father’s lowly profession as a janitor. At university he is alienated from the spoilt rich fellow students. He falls under the spell of an Islamist student and a sheikh, and finds new meaning in life. After his torture and sexual assault in the police station he trains at a camp for Islamic militants. In a bloody bullet-ridden scene towards the end of the film he assassinates the policeman who had overseen his torture, and is then killed himself.

Taha’s increasing radicalization causes a breach between him and his unveiled fiancée. During his militant training, he undergoes a marriage ceremony with a young woman chosen for him by his leaders.

The central figure in the film, and in the end its warm heart, is Zaki El Dessouki played by Adel Imam, the 65-year-old son of an ex-pacha. Zaki lives with his sister Dawlat (Isaad Younis), but she throws him out after a young bar girl with whom he has had an assignation steals items including Dawlat’s ring. He is forced to live in the apartment he has been using as an office.

Zaki remembers Haj Azzam when he was only a shoeshine boy. Now he owns a string of shops and car dealerships. It emerges that his fortune has been built on drug dealing. Azzam has political ambitions, and is helped to get elected to the People’s Assembly by a corrupt minister, Kamal El Fouly (Khaled Saleh), who says he has important people behind him. El Fouly demands a large bribe and then blackmails Azzam over his drug dealing to demand a major stake in one of his agencies.

Zaki ‘s servant, Fanous (Ahmed Rateb) plots with his tailor brother Malak (Ahmad Bedeir) to cheat Zaki out of his apartment. They persuade Buthayna to go to work as his secretary, and tell her to get him drunk and then to make him sign a document passing his apartment to the two brothers after his death. Dawlat is complicit in the plot, and arranges for her brother to be caught red-handed with Bothayna.

This scheme falls through when a genuine love grows between Zaki and Buthayna. He is unlike other men in treating her with understanding, respect and charm. There is a happy ending to the film in the marriage of this unlikely couple.

Director Marwan Hamad had been apprehensive about the portrayal of Hatem Rashid, the editor of a French newspaper. A resident of the Yacoubian, he is the son of an aristocratic family and a French mother. In a flashback we learn that his homosexuality was caused by his having been abused by a servant as a child.

Some of the most painful scenes in the film involve Hatem’s pursuing of a naïve, handsome soldier Abd Raboh (Bassem Samra), a migrant from Upper Egypt. Adb Raboh is tormented by his sense of shame and of going against his religion when he succumbs to Hatem. In order to keep Abd Raboh in Cairo, Hatem rents a room for him on the roof so he can bring his wife and young son from Upper Egypt. When the son dies Abd Raboh is filled with remorse and leaves with his wife for home. When Hatem subsequently picks up a young man and takes him home, the man robs and murders him.

Marwan Hamad says: “Khaled El Sawy is the most daring actor I have ever seen. He has agreed to perform a very difficult personality and he has performed it with great intelligence and with a high degree of reality. The same applies to Bassem Samra.”
Susannah Tarbush
(original of the article published in Saudi Gazette on August 9 2007)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

banipal highlights saudi novelist al-mohaimeed

The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based magazine of Modern Arab Literature, reflects the growing international profile of Saudi novelist Yousef Al-Mohaimeed [pictured left]. The magazine’s fiction section includes three chapters from the English translation of his novel “The Bottle”. And the ‘Books in Brief’ section contains news of the publication of the English version of his novel “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press.

“Wolves of the Crescent Moon” was first published in Arabic in 2003 by Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut, under the title “Fikhakh al-Rai’ihah”, meaning “Traps of Scent”. The AUC Press English edition is for the Middle East; internationally, the novel is to be published by Penguin in December. The latest Penguin catalogue has praise for the book from the acclaimed Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh, who describes it as “a remarkable, rhythmic, genuine novel throbbing with sensuality and moral courage.” Two months ago a French translation, “Loin de cet Enfer”, was published in France by Acts Sud.

The Arabic original of “The Bottle” was published by the Arabic Culture Center Beirut/Dar Al-Baida in 2004. The English manuscript is with Al-Mohaimeed’s literary agent Thomas Colchie, and seems to have a good chance of being published in the US or Britain. The novel has also been translated into Russian.

“Wolves of the Crescent Moon” and “The Bottle” were translated into English by Anthony Calderbank, the noted scholar and translator of Arabic who lived and taught in Cairo for a number of years and now works for the British Council in Saudi Arabia. Two chapters from the translation of “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” appeared in Banipal’s Summer 2004 issue as part of a special feature, ‘The Novel in Saudi Arabia’. An essay by Saudi literary critic and fiction writer Ali Zalah in that special feature named Al-Mohaimeed as one of the most prominent of those contemporary Saudi novelists whose work portrays the major economic and social changes in Saudi society.

In “The Bottle”, Al-Mohaimeed shows a striking degree of empathy with women and sensitivity to the difficulties they face. His central character is a woman, Munira Al-Sahi. The extract published in Banipal opens in Riyadh in February 1991, soon after Operation Desert Storm. Military vehicles and troop carriers still patrol the streets at night. There is a description of Riyadh, with its different nationalities, coming to life on a cold morning. Munira, an unmarried woman in her early thirties, has spent a sleepless and tearful night after the discovery of her lover’s deception.

“Why had he deceived her so much, let the pretence go on for all these months? How had he managed to work his way into her life with his false name and his made-up job, and character and family and friends; a whole sinister world of deception?” Her father is particularly afflicted by the disaster. “The commander of the Mother of all Battles in Baghdad could not have felt more defeated and shamed as his armies withdrew from Kuwait than Hamad Al-Sahi had felt the previous night when the treachery of his favourite daughter’s fiancé was finally revealed.”

The city is full of Munira’s memories of her fiancé and the places where they would snatch time together. Her oppressive brother, who had spent time in Afghanistan, has forced her to give up her job as a journalist, and insists on escorting her to and from her work at the Young Women’s Remand Centre. Munira’s only comfort is writing on pieces of paper, rolling them up and putting them into an old bottle decorated with faded Indian designs in silver.

The narrative then travels back to Munira’s childhood, when her grandmother would reward Munira and her sisters with presents when they told sad stories. The grandmother gave Munira the bottle, which had colored sweets in it, and told her to keep it. Munira fills the bottle with her secrets and tells it all her troubles. Al-Mohaimeed has a rich, poetic narrative style and the extract from “The Bottle leaves the reader wanting to know more of the mysteries that lie within the bottle.

In addition to the extract from “The Bottle”, the latest issue of Banipal showcases exciting examples of Arab literature from across the Arab world and beyond. Lebanon is represented through an extract from a novel by Lebanese writer Hassan Daoud, “Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-making Machine”, translated by the US-based fiction writer and translator Randa Jarrar and to be published shortly by Telegram Books of London. Banipal also features the English translation, by Max Weiss, of the novel “Tahleel Dumm” (“Blood Test”) by the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun, who is cultural editor of As-Safir newspaper.

There is a special feature on the Iraqi novelist Ghaib Tu’ma Farman who was born in Baghdad in 1920 and died in Moscow in 1990. As well as an appreciation of Farman by Iraqi Professor Salih J Altoma, of Indiana University, the special feature includes two chapters from probably the best-known of Farman’s eight novels, “Five Voices”, translated by Issa J Boullata. There is also an extract from Farman’s novella “Mr Ma’ruf’s Woes” translated by William M Hutchins.

Another Iraqi novelist with work in the new issue of Banipal is Duna Ghali, who was born in Iraq in 1963 and lives in Denmark. The extract from her novel “’Indama Tastayqudh al-Ra’iha” (“When the Scent Awakens”) is translated by William M Hutchins.

Banipal’s book publishing arm will in October publish the English translation of the novel “Al-‘Ateeli” (“The Cripple”) by the painter, political cartoonist and author Nabil Abu Hamad who was born in Palestine, grew up in Lebanon and lives in London. The current issue of Banipal carries an extract from the novel, translated by Suhail Shehade, which is set among Palestinians who fled Haifa for Lebanon in 1948.

The “literary influences” section of the magazine is contributed by the Palestinian writer, literary critic and translator Issa J Boullata who grew up in Jerusalem. As well as providing a lively account of his childhood reading, he gives a portrait of the Palestinian educator, scholar and poet Khalil Sakakini. Sakakini inspired Boullata to become the teacher and educator he would be for 56 years, in Palestine, in the USA and then at McGill University, Montreal.

Another in-depth encounter with a writer is the perceptive interview with the Moroccan writer poet and literary critic, Mohammed Bennis carried out by Camilo Gomez-Rivas, who is writing a doctoral thesis at Yale University on Islamic law and society in the Maghreb. The interview is supplemented by Gomez-Rivas’s translations of poems by Bennis.

Bennis is one of several poets included in the latest issue of Banipal. From America, there are poems from Iraqi-born Sargon Boulus and the distinguished woman poet D H Melhem , born in Brooklyn to Lebanese immigrants. There is Iraqi poet, translator and filmmaker Sinan Antoon’s haunting poem about Baghdad, “Necropolis”, and poems from Iraqi Salah al-Hamdani, and Syrian Amira Abul Husn.

In addition, Banipal carries reviews of a number of novels. Mona Zaki reviews Hamdi Abu Golayyel’s novel “Thieves in Retirement” (Syracuse Univerity Press, translated by Marilyn Booth) set within a building in a newish Cairo neighborhood. Peter Clark considers Jordanian writer Fadia Faqir’s third novel “My Name is Salma” (published in the UK by Doubleday and in the US by Grove Atlantic under the title “The Cry of the Dove”) to be “easily her best”.

Judith Kazantzis reviews “I’jaam – An Iraqi Rhapsody” (published by City Lights) by Sinan Antoon.
Kazantzis writes: “The jerking contrasts between past ‘normality’ and the gathering nightmares of the isolation cell are done with such conviction that I’jaam reads as a miniature of Iraqi suffering from the Baathists to Bush.”

Tarek el-Ariss of New York University praises “The Illusion of Return” by the London-based Palestinian writer Samir el-Youssef as a “fascinating look at the generation of the 1970s and 1980s in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, capturing the ideological mood of the time and exposing its corresponding psychological framework.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 30 July 2007