Saturday, July 26, 2008

london magazine's anglo-arab issue

The London Magazine, which can trace its roots back to 1732, is famed as a publication that has featured many of the greatest names in English literature as well as encouraging new writers and breaking boundaries. Now, with the publication of an “Anglo-Arab” issue, it brings to its readers the work of Arab writers and artists.

The issue’s cover illustration is Gaza-born Palestinian artist Laila Shawa’s watercolor “Mirage”, a colorful array of geometric patterns. The freshness and vibrancy of the cover continues into the content of the magazine, which is a lively mix of poetry, pictures, stories, essays and reviews by Arabs and non-Arabs.

Some of the Arab writers featured in the issue are long-established names such as the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus and his compatriot Adnan Al-Sayegh, Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Palestinian novelist and short story writer Mahmoud Shukair, and Moroccan writer Leila Abouzeid. The distinguished Palestinian critic Fakhri Saleh, the author of many books on Arabic literature, has contributed a feature on “The Arabic Novel at the Beginning of the 21st Century: the thematic thread of history”.

The Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad is particularly known for her sensual poetry of the body. “Cadaver”, translated by Marilyn Hacker, is a meditation by a woman gazing at her own corpse. The Jordanian medical doctor Fathieh Saudi, two of whose poems appear in the issue, has established herself as a poet and critic since her arrival in London. Her work has a questing, spiritual quality. In “Searching for a Language”, she writes: “Languageless I became / My paralysed feelings go on hurting me!” The witty and wise “Timeless” features a cancer patient, bald as a result of treatment, being fitted with a wig.

From the younger generation, there is 23-year-old French-Algerian novelist Faiza Guène (pictured), author of two bestsellers articulating the experience of Arab and African youth in combustible Paris suburbs. Guène’s innovative use of language is evident in an extract from the English translation of her second novel, “Dreams from the Endz”, published recently by Chatto and Windus.

The novel’s translator Sarah Ardizzone describes the challenges in translating the novel’s “backslang” or “verlan” in which words are spliced and reversed. Ardizzone enlisted the help of “slangsta” Cleo Soazandry, from LIVE! magazine of Brixton, south London, who is bilingual in the urban slangs of Paris and London. Ardizzone writes that in Guènes’ writing, “Maghrebi dialogue jostles with Mexican soap-operas, French rap and the couture of Agnes B.”

The Arab writers’ work often bears the legacy of oppression, war, exile and survival. Al-Sayegh’s (pictured) poem “Passage to Exile” begins: “The moaning of the train kindles the sorrow of the tunnels / Roaring along the rails of everlasting memories / While I am nailed to the window / With one half of my heart...”

Amjad Nassser’s writing is suffused with a wry melancholy. The brief story “An Ordinary Conversation about Cancer” is dedicated to the Saudi photographer and journalist Salih al-Azzaz, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. Nasser, managing editor and cultural editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, predicts: “I will die in London on a rainy day. (A rainy day in London, what a far-fetched prophecy!) And I decree at this very moment that I will be buried in Mafraq next to my mother who was convinced that no space will ever contain us both. Of course, she may be right, since as everyone knows, she is going to heaven.” Nassser’s second story, “Neighbours”, tells of “the only Englishwoman in our neighbourhood” of London.

Academic and writer Barbara Bridger gives an appreciative review to exiled Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer’s story collection “Breaking Knees”, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi and published by Garnet Publishing. Tamer “uses satire to critique religious hypocrisy and sexual repression. His tough message is underscored by a style which is consistently direct, economical and unsentimental.”

The issue includes exciting new work from non-Arab writers. Anglo-Irish-Indian poet John Siddiqui’s touching poem “Unintended Loyalty” imagines his parents asleep in 1969. “They have put their holy war / on to their nightstands, Islam on one table, / Catholicism across the room on the other.” James Wilkes’ poem “From ‘4096 Poems’” has an intriguing structure of repeated and shuffled images, including the line “Of tessellated squares the colours of North Africa”. Tim Cummings’ poems “Giza”, and “Mango” from his “Cairo Sonnets”, reflects his responses to Egypt.

Another poet inspired by the Arab world is Agnes Meadows, who has lived in the West Bank and Gaza. Novelist and editor Jenny Newman gives her “fine impassioned” collection “At Damascus Gate on Good Friday” a generally positive verdict, writing of Meadows’ “warmly reciprocal world”.

The Anglo-Arab issue pays attention to the Arab visual arts. There are reproductions of works by Laila Shawa, Tunisian Nja Mahdaoui, and Iraqis Maysaloun Faraj and Satta Hashem (all of whom have works in the British Museum’s collections). Two members of the London Magazine’s staff contribute probing essays on art. Sub-editor Nicki Seth-Smith writes with verve of her encounters with four Arab women artists in London: Shawa, Faraj, Yara El-Sherbini and Jananne Al-Ani. “If we are to fulfill Maysaloun Faraj’s dream of a world at peace, or approach Laila Shawa and Yara El-Sherbini’s vision of a public that questions and self-criticises, we would do well to pay attention to the creative minds speaking out from a part of the world that is so routinely and grotesquely misrepresented by the West,” Seth-Smith comments.

Editorial assistant Oliver J Dimsdale discusses Tate Britain’s exhibition of British Orientalist art, The Lure of the East, with the exhibition’s curator Nicholas Tromans and scholar and writer Robert Irwin, a critic of the late Palestinian professor Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”.

The London Magazine has been through several upheavals in its 276-year history. It closed down in 2001 after the death of Alan Ross, for 40 years its editor, but was bought and relaunched by Christopher Arkell with the poet Sebastian Barker as editor.

Barker resigned last year in protest at the cutting off by Arts Council England of the £30,000-a-year grant on which the magazine heavily depended. The Arts Council, financed by the government and the National Lottery, withdrew its funding as part of swingeing government cuts to the arts so as to divert funding to the ever-soaring cost of the 2012 London Olympics.

There was consternation in the arts world at the prospect of the magazine’s demise. Harold Pinter, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Melvyn Bragg and poet laureate Andrew Motion were among those who signed a letter published in the Times Literary Supplement deploring the cutting off of funding, but to no avail.

Christopher Arkell is seeking a new editor to replace Sebastian Barker. In the meantime, Sara-Mae Tuson, assisted by her enthusiastic team, is the acting editor. The high quality of the Anglo-Arab issue is testimony to the flair she and her colleagues are bringing to their task, and one can only hope that the magazine will before long find a way of putting its finances on a more secure footing.

Susannah Tarbush

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