Friday, November 28, 2008

philip arditti's radio 4 reading of syrian writer's story

The voice reading the BBC Radio 4 afternoon story today with a marked Arab accent sounded oddly familiar. It turned out to be that of Italian-born actor Philip Arditti [pictured], who played Saddam's son Uday to such chilling effect in the BBC serial House of Saddam a few months back. The story he read with gentle restraint was by a Syrian, Hassan Bahri, who lives in London and is part of Exiled Writers Ink. Bahri was born in Syria in 1955 and graduated as an engineer in Ukraine, then part of the USSR. He was imprisoned in Syria for more than eight years as a result of his political activities, and has been in the UK since 2001. Bahri's story Bread Heap and a Dreamer depicts a political prisoner surrounded by torture and "parties" (interrogation sessions) who draws strength from the words and images scratched on the walls by the previous occupants of his filthy cell 14 and manages to overcome his isolation. the story can be read here. The reading was part of Points of Entry, a series of readings over the past week intended to reflect the experiences of immigrants who have sought sanctuary in Britain over the past 60 years. Bahri was in good company: the other authors whose stories were read were South African novelist Gillian Slovo, 2004 Caine Prize winner Brian Chikwava from Zimbabwe, prolific Pakistan-born author Ziauddin Sardar and Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes.

Monday, November 24, 2008

the secret life of syrian lingerie

from the latest issue of qantara:

The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie

Panties from the "Axis of Evil"

While visiting Syria, two London-based women of Arab origin became fascinated by the risqué lingerie openly on display in the souqs and shops of Damascus and Aleppo. The book they now produced is one of the most unusual publications you are likely to see on the Arab world, says Susannah Tarbush

When Malu Halasa and Rana Salam visited the souqs and shops of Damascus and Aleppo during a visit a couple of years ago, they were surprised by the apparent contradiction between the unusually audacious and playful lingerie on display there and the relatively conservative society, in which so many women are veiled.

Halasa and Salam soon decided to co-author a book, "The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design", which was published recently by Chronicle Books of San Francisco with support from the Prince Claus Fund Library of the Netherlands.

Sensual Syrian playfulness

The colourful pages of the book are full of photographs of lingerie decorated with everything from birds, butterflies and feathers to fake scorpions, flowers and fur. Sequins, pearls, embroidery and tassels liberally adorn bra and panty sets. Some lingerie sets emit music, others vibrate or incorporate lights. Lingerie may be edible; in other cases it is hidden inside chocolates or eggs. There are crocheted one-piece body suits, and costumes influenced by belly-dancing gear. The lingerie often has a playfulness about it, with comic touches such as fake fur thongs which double as mobile phone holders...

surge of interest in Arabic literature in translation

The inclusion of the English translation of Saudi writer Rajaa Alsanea’s debut novel “The Girls of Riyadh” on the longlist for the world’s most valuable literary prize is a further breakthrough for Arabic fiction in translation.

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the largest annual prize for a single work of fiction, worth 100,000 Euros (equivalent to more than 127,000 US dollars). The nominations for the longlist of 146 novels, revealed on November 10, came from 157 libraries in 117 cities in 41 countries: “Girls of Riyadh” was nominated by Warsaw Public Library.

The longlist puts Alsanea [pictured at this year's London Book Fair] alongside such writers as Nobel prizewinners Doris Lessing and JM Coetzee, veteran US novelist Philip Roth, Michael Ondaatje, Alan Bennett and Khaled Hosseini (Afghan author of “The Kite Runner and “A Thousand Splendid Suns”).

A panel of five judges is to select the shortlist, to be announced on April 2, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin will reveal the winner on June 11. This year’s winner of IMPAC was an Arab: the Lebanese Rawi Hage, who lives in Canada, for with his novel “De Niro’s Game”. But unlike Alsanea, Hage writes his fiction in English.

With the success of “Girls of Riyadh”, Alsanea has become one of the biggest names in Arabic fiction globally. Another major name is that of Egyptian Alaa Al-Aswany, author of “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago” (coincidentally he and Alsanea are both Chicago-trained dentists).

Both writers have broken through into the Western literary mainstream, which has been a stimulus for Arab literature. Publishers are increasingly interested in publishing translations of Arabic writing, and are on the lookout for new Arab authors who may have mass readership appeal.

Given this surge of interest in Arab literature, the publication of David Tresilian’s “A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature” is very timely. The book is published by Saqi of London, Beirut and San Francisco as part of its new Brief Introductions Series.

Tresilian has taught at both the American University of Cairo and Cairo University, and is a former co-editor of the Cairo Review of Books published by Al-Ahram. Since 1999 he has taught at the American University of Paris.

He cites the scholar Salih Altoma who noted that between 1947 and 1967 only 16 modern literary titles were translated from Arabic into English. The figure increased to 84 in 1967-88, and the trickle has since become a flood, partly due to the awarding in 1988 of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz.

Tresilian focuses on Arab literature available in English translation. Egyptian literature gets the lion’s share of space in the book, something that Tresilian justifies in terms of Egypt’s place in modern Arab literature. As the old saying goes: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.”

This may no longer be true, Tresilian points out. The years of turmoil in Iraq have decimated the reading public in that country, while the civil war damaged Lebanon’s publishing industry. Furthermore, Egypt may be losing its traditional position of intellectual leadership of the Arab world.

At the same time some Arab publishers have established themselves outside the Arab world in cities such as London. And the rise in Gulf wealth has led to injections of capital into the Arab literary scene, for example in the form of prizes and of magazines and newspapers that publish and sometimes employ Arab authors.

Tresilian encompasses both fiction and poetry in his book, including a translation by Mursi Saad El-Din of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem “Song of the Rain”, with the Arabic and English on facing pages.

He covers much ground, but wisely he does not rush the reader through an exhaustive tour crammed with names. He takes time to deal with certain works in depth, including Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s novel “Men in the Sun”.

He touches on the controversies around translation and cultural exchange and explores ways in which modern Arabic literature might be thought about for the general reader and for students of comparative literature. He points to the danger that the choice of literary works for translation may create a distorted image of a culture.

Tresilian points to the difficult environment in which Arab writers operate when compared with their Western counterparts. Few if any Arab writers are able to live from their writing. Referring to the British author of the Harry Potter series, Tresilian observes:“There is no Arab JK Rowling”. Almost all Arab writers have full time jobs.

Arab writers do not enjoy anything like the book publishing and promotion industry found in the West. Although literature is admired in the Arab world, this does not guarantee that it will find a large readership. Writers also suffer from problems of censorship.
The book has an entire chapter on Palestinian literature. The influence of Palestinian writers reflects the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in shaping Arab culture. The relationship between politics and literature is also examined in a chapter on the impact on writers of the 1967 defeat. Egyptian writers Sonallah Ibrahim [pictured] and Gamal al-Ghitany had contrasting responses to the war. Ibrahim’s career developed through novels with a political stance, while Ghitani drew on pre-modern literary forms as inspiration, as in his novel “Zayni Barakat” about a market inspector in the Mamluk era. Another Egyptian writer, Edwar al-Kharrat, has been influenced by Proust.

Tresilian identifies three main trends on the contemporary Arab literary scene: a weariness with politics, a growth in the number of women writers, and a related emphasis on individual experience at the expense of larger public themes. A further development has been regional writing, as exemplified by Nubian writers and by the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni whose novels are set among the Tuareg people.

Recently there has been a turning away from European literary models and towards elements from the pre-modern literary heritage and from the oral and popular culture. But ominously there has also been a growing intolerance of literary expression generally, “which has made what was always perhaps a minority activity into one that is now that of a sometimes embattled minority.” One can assume that in such an environment, translation of their work from Arabic is likely to have increasing appeal to writers seeking to escape pressures and constraints.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, November 24 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

'the road from damascus' of robin yassin-kassab

Sami Traifi, the central character in Anglo-Syrian writer Robin Yassin-Kassab’s debut novel “The Road from Damascus”, was born in Britain to Syrian parents and lives in London with his Iraqi wife Muntaha. His wife’s decision to start wearing the hijab against his wishes is a key catalyst to the narrative that unfolds. Sami is forced to question everything at a profound level, and Yassin-Kassab’s exuberant novel chronicles his odyssey through chaotic, multicultural London.

Yassin-Kassab dedicates the novel, published in the UK by the Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, to his wife Rana Zaitoon. The couple were recently interviewed for an article in the London-based Sunday newspaper the Observer, and revealed certain similarities between the novel and their own lives.

Five years into Robin and Rana’s marriage, when the couple had moved to Saudi Arabia from Syria via a period spent in Morocco, Rana decided to start wearing the hijab. Robin was concerned that people would think he was forcing her to wear it, but he recognized that Rana thought she would be comfortable wearing the hijab and that she felt proud to be identified as a Muslim woman. “So, rather than worrying about other people, I started to listen to her. Now I feel comfortable too. And her hair is still there underneath, and free-flowing in the privacy of our home, as luxurious as it ever was.”

Rana admitted that she sometimes feels sorry for her husband. “He would prefer it if I didn’t wear the hijab. But what can I do? It is my wish.” She has worn the hijab for six years, in a range of colors and patterns, and “it has been liberating”. With the focus no longer so much on her looks she was encouraged to develop her personality, and has become more confident.

Yassin-Kassab (39) was born to a Syrian father and English mother and grew up in the North of England and Scotland. He is a graduate of Oxford University and has travelled widely, including working as a journalist in Pakistan and teaching English in Oman.

His ambitious 350-page novel fizzes with ideas and debates revolving around contemporary Islam, British Muslims, questions of identity, and the tussle between secularism and religion. The novel is set in summer 2001, in the build-up to the attacks of 9/11. The first chapter finds Sami on a visit to Damascus. He has gone to Syria “to reconnect with his roots; remember who he was; find an idea.”

Now aged 31, Sami has spent the previous ten years fruitlessly trying to establish himself as an academic while living off his wife’s salary as a teacher. He wants to write a thesis, get a doctorate, become an academic like his father was and “get it all back on course, his place in the world, his marriage, his mother.”

Sami has yet to escape the shadow of his Arab nationalist father Mustafa who died of cancer when Sami was a teenager. He is not on speaking terms with his mother because she did not talk to his father when he was dying, and because she betrayed his father’s secularism by wearing the hijab. And now his wife back in London is talking about wearing the hijab, which “somehow seemed to represent the end of everything Sami had hoped for”.

One past event that resonates in the novel is the Hama uprising of 1982 in which the Syrian regime killed tens of thousands of civilians. Sami’s father justified the killings to Sami as a response to assassinations carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood. The novel explores whether dogmatic secularism such as that of Mustafa can itself be a form of extremism.

When Sami goes to see his mother’s relatives in Damascus he encounters a broken older man shut away in a room. This is his mother’s brother Faris, who suffered torture and spent 22 years in jail after being betrayed for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Faris had told only close family members that he was a member, and the question is who betrayed him. Sami is reluctant to confront the truth, and the tragic figure of Faris haunts him.

Yassin-Kassab sensitively depicts the nuances in the relationship between Sami and Muntaha, and the tension between them after he returns to London. When she puts on the hijab Sami argues with her, but she says: “I want to show myself that I’m not afraid of who I am.” Yassin-Kassab portrays Muntaha very effectively, conveying her intelligence, integrity and inner stillness.

During Sami’s descent into a vortex of drug taking and drunkenness he is out of contact with Muntaha, and is unaware that her father has died. He fails to attend the condolence gathering at Marwan’s home, unlike Muntaha’s teacher colleague Gabor Vronk.

Gabor is of Russian, Hungarian and Jewish extraction. He deeply admires Muntaha, and their discussions of Islamic doctrines mesh with his knowledge of art and science and influence his painting. He hopes to become closer to Muntaha, but when later in the novel he tries to push things further she rebuffs him and reminds him that she is married although separated.

Sami’s binge of excess includes a sordid act of infidelity and ends with his being detained overnight by the police. On his return home his unfaithfulness is immediately apparent to Muntaha, who asks him to leave their home.

Living alone in student accommodation Sami starts to find himself, giving up his previous indulgences and establishing some inner discipline. He hopes to return to Muntaha, and eventually finds his way to a “trembling, contingent faith”.

While the main relationship in the novel is that between Sami and Muntaha, a host of other characters are woven into the narrative. Muntaha’s father Marwan, a poet, left Iraq in 1982 after being imprisoned and tortured. His wife was killed when she was beaten by the security forces on the night of his arrest. He found refuge in London with his daughter and his son Ammar thanks to help from the former cultural attaché at the British Embassy in Baghdad, Jim Clark. Clark is a recurring figure, an avuncular scholar with a love and knowledge of Arab culture and people.

Muntaha’s brother Ammar has a deep bond with Sami, first forged through a mutual love of the music of American hip-hop group Public Enemy. Ammar has now become radicalized with a fierce, simplistic interpretation of his religion. Yassin-Kassab captures Ammar’s speech patterns and gestures, and their mixed black and other influences.

Ammar’ views bring him into conflict with Muntaha. She is scathing about his jubilation over 9/11, telling him: “Islamic rules say you can’t kill women or children. You can’t kill civilians. You have to fight on the battlefield, not in the middle of the city.” Ammar responds: “They attack our cities. We attack theirs.”

Yassin-Kassab has broken new ground with his novel, which is the first to depict in such complexity the Arab émigré community in London and the religious and political currents swirling around it. A major new talent has arrived on the literary scene, and it will be interesting to see where his second novel takes us.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 17 Nov 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

sowar magazine

Picture shows the third issue of Sowar, with photos of the Lebanese civil war

The pioneer Saudi blogger Saudi Jeans tells of his contribution to the newish Arab photo-journalism magazine Sowar for its Minute 22 project The project involved people taking photographs throughout the Arab world at exactly the same time - 2.22 pm local Beirut time on 22 August this year. Saudi Jeans (AKA Ahmed al-Omran) happened to be in Beirut at the magic minute, and his photographs of that city are among those featured in the fourth issue of Sowar. Copies of the magazine can be ordered via the Sowar website...but the magazine told S Jeans that Saudi Arabia is the one country to have bounced every issue back! At least someone at the magazine sent him a scan of his photos, so they are posted on his blog with commentary.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

english pen online world atlas

The English Pen Online World Atlas was launched at the London Book Fair's Arab World Market Focus in April with an event featuring the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany. The site kicked off with a focus on writing from the Arab region; it now has 91 registered users from around the world, with links to their e-mail addresses and websites. Once signed in, users can post or edit material under countries, books or authors. In the entry for Palestine for example one finds a main entry on Palestinian literature, with links to articles on 19 Palestinian authors. So far there are 156 articles on books, 206 on authors. Users are also able to send messages directly to fellow users via the site. I have to say that quite a few of the users have not logged into the site for several months, but the site clearly has the makings of a valuable online community and resource base on Arab literature. But maybe the administrators need to rethink the site a bit in order to draw existing and potential users in more regularly.

The project's English Pen World Atlas Blog is gathering momentum as a useful source of news, views and links relating to Arab literature.

Monday, November 10, 2008

zakaria tamer's 'breaking knees'

Magic of the 'very, very, short stories'
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 10 Nov 2008

It is a sign of the stature of the Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer within Arabic literature that Garnet Publishing of the UK chose his short story collection “Breaking Knees” as one of the first titles in its new Arab Writers in Translation series.

The stories in “Breaking Knees” take the reader into a world at once entertaining and appalling: a society of seduction, corruption, rumors, illicit liaisons, false paternity, polygamy and jinns, ruled over by dictators and a state apparatus of torturers, interrogators and crooked officials.

Tamer lifts the lid on society’s conventions, taboos and political structures and explores power relations, whether between men and women or between citizens and a regime. At the same time he shows his characters’ dreams and escapes into fantasy. He often turns the status quo upside down and explores the resulting crazy situation.

“Breaking Knees” first appeared in Arabic in 2002, under the title “Taksir Rukab”. It is the tenth collection of stories by Tamer to have been published since he made his debut in the genre with “Neighing of the White Stallion” in 1960.

Tamer (photo below is from the Banipal website) was born in 1931 in the Al-Basha district of Damascus. He had to leave school at the age of only 13 to help support his family, and he subsequently educated himself. He has written in a variety of forms, from satirical newspaper columns to his many childrens’ books, and has been translated into many languages. But the genre for which he is best known is the very short story (“al-qissa al-qasira jjiddan”). The fact that there are 63 stories in the 162 pages of “Breaking Knees” indicates the brevity of the stories.

Publication of Tamer’s stories began in magazines in the late 1950s. He eventually became editor of Al-Ma’rifa, published by the culture ministry, but was fired in 1980 for publishing pro-freedom content. He decided to seek exile, and left Syria for the UK.

“Breaking Knees” has been meticulously translated by the Palestine-born scholar and translator Ibrahim Muhawi, who studied English literature at the University of California and was from 1997 to 2002 director of the Master’s Program in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His other translations include “Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales” and Mahmoud Darwish’s “Memory for Forgetfulness”.

In his illuminating introduction, Muhawi presents a persuasive case for translating an entire single collection of Tamer’s stories rather than selecting stories from several volumes. He argues that Tamer wishes his books to be read as artistic units, which is why the stories in “Breaking Knees” are given numbers rather than titles.

A detestation of dictatorship runs through “Breaking Knees”. In a searing story an old woman goes to a park to glare at the statue of the man responsible for the killing of her sons and husband. She stands before “the immense stone statue of a tall man with a stern face, his right hand raised in a gesture that inspired awe and respect, as if blessing his invisible minions kneeling there.” The old woman is filled with fear, and feels as if she is shrinking. Everything around her shrinks until nothing remains except the statue “and the birds whose pleasure it was to crap on it”.

In another tale a woman sees a man about to be hanged in public for killing an entire family in revenge for the murder of his brother. When she returns home and tells her husband what she has seen, he casually remarks: “He who kills only ten people is a criminal to be hanged. But he who kills hundreds of thousands is a hero among heroes.”

In story 56, a man wakes up after several years in a coma and finds that while he has become old, and his former friends from the arts sphere are dead or have abandoned their callings, the president and ministers are still in their positions and remain unchanged: indeed the president has become even more youthful and healthy. The old man closes his eyes and tries unsuccessfully to escape back into his coma.

The absurdity of internecine strife is depicted in the tale of two feuding neighborhoods, the Inner and Outer. The differences between them escalate to the point where none other than the UN Secretary General arrives to broker a peace agreement.

There are often elements of magic realism in the tales. The new-born baby of a widowed mother has the power of speech and starts cursing the hospital and its staff. When his mother tells him to keep quiet and not to say a word, the baby retorts: “You’re now talking like our leaders.” The baby mocks the society around him, and a pompous old preacher.

It is a cat that has the ability to speak in story 51. The narrator of the story is a writer who discusses his work with his cat. He tells the cat he is trying to write a story about Hitler and Abla, which the critics will see as “a portrait of the clash of European and Arab cultures”.

In story 53 a man who has bought a green apple and a red apple to eat on a park bench in warned by each of them in turn not to eat them. He anxiously questions the apples about their political connections. In another tale characters from TV programs start to emerge from a new TV set being watched by a young man. They argue with him, the climax coming when he sees news of soldiers firing on a demonstration of children.

In several stories the central character is arrested. A police interrogator says to a man who has confessed (falsely) to killing his wife: “All of us wish to get rid of our women, but some of us are brave while others are worthless cowards. Please allow me to express my admiration of your manliness, for our prisons are full of people who deny all they did, claiming they are innocent victims.”

In another instance a man is arrested for refusing to be bribed, but he insists he comes from a well-known family of people who are bribed. He tells his interrogator that bribery is “the adornment of life on earth”. Despite his praise of bribery he is tortured, and is released only after he offers the interrogator a large bribe – which to the interrogator proves his innocence.

“Breaking Knees” is a satisfying collection of stories told with humor, poetry and a good dash of fantasy. At the same time the stories are revealing of social and political conditions in some sectors of the Arab world. This translation of the collection into English may well appeal to a considerable readership.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

independent jewish voices: 'a time to speak out'

In February last year a number of Jews living in the UK came together to form a new body called Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). IJV did not set out to be a political party, or to have a defined political programme, but describes itself as “a network of Jews in Britain who share a commitment to certain principles”.

These principles, laid down in the IJV’s founding declaration, include: putting human rights first, rejecting all forms of racism, respecting international law, and treating as equally legitimate the Palestinian and Israeli quests for a better – a peaceful, just and secure – future.

Those who signed the IJV declaration wanted to challenge the claim of successive Israeli governments to represent Jews in general. And they were frustrated that those who claim to speak for British Jews –including the Board of Deputies of British Jews – tend to reflect only the position of the Israeli government.

The new network aroused very mixed reactions in the British Jewish community. Some welcomed it; others were highly critical and said the criticisms of Israel by Jews threatened Israel’s very existence.

More than 560 Jews resident in Britain have signed the IJV declaration. They include the Marxist historian and author Professor Eric Hobsbawm; Nobel prizewinning playwright Harold Pinter; fashion designer Nicole Farhi; actress Zoe Wanamaker; psychoanalyst Susie Orbach and film director Mike Leigh. The TV personality and comedian Stephen Fry said: “I am proud to lend my name to a free-thinking group like this.”

Now the first book written by IJV members has appeared. The 306-page paperback, “A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity”, is published in London by Verso Books. Each of its 27 chapters is an essay by a member of IJV.

The title of the book reflects the urgency that its authors feel over the need for Jews to speak out. As Professor Lynne Segal puts it:“the failure to settle this brutal conflict helps to strengthen warlords and military hawks around the globe.”

The book was launched some days ago at the Metropolitan University in north London, at an event that also marked the launch of the university’s new faculty of humanities, arts, languages and education. Many of the book’s authors attended, and there were animated discussions between them and graduate students.

One contributor to the book, London-based architect Abe Hayeem, told Al-Hayat how at the launch Lynne Segal (pictured below), “gave a passionate speech about her experience of the terrifying checkpoints and Israeli soldiers bristling with guns, and wondered how this could be conveyed to the wholehearted supporters of Israel and the status quo.” Hayeem adds: “That is why this book is so important and why it should be read not only by Jews but by the whole community.”

Hayeem thinks that IJV’s role is “of a continuing importance to regularly raise the issue of Palestine, to push for a lasting solution” and that the IJV is “now more confident with the publication of this book, which is a kind of manifesto by its best academic, legal, literary minds.”

Several contributors to the book point out ways in which Jews who publicly criticise Israel are sometimes put under intense pressure. Hayeem (pictured) is a founder of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP), an organisation which highlights “the complicity of Israel’s architects, planners and construction industry in the brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza”.

APJP was launched in February 2006 in the offices of the world-famous British Jewish architect Lord Richard Rogers. Lord Rogers only appeared at the beginning of the meeting, and made some introductory remarks on the importance of justice in architecture. A series of articles appeared in the British media claiming inaccurately that APJP had called for a boycott of Israel, and this led to a furious backlash against Lord Rogers in New York where he had recently been appointed architect for the $1.7 billion Jacob Javits Conference Centre.

Rogers was summoned to New York “like a suspected criminal, to face a tribunal of city councillors, heads of certain prominent mainstream Jewish organizations and elected officials.” They attacked APJP as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, and threatened to withdraw the Jacob Javits contract, and possibly another major New York project, from Rogers. Rogers was forced to disassociate himself from APJP, and he put out a series of increasingly strong statements in which he for example condemned Hamas and said he was in favour of the (separation) wall.

Emma Clyne, a Swedish Jew, writes of her experience as chairperson of the Jewish Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, in 2006-07. She came under intense pressure from the Union of Jewish Students, the umbrella organisation which works with Jewish societies in universities.

Before she became the chair of the SOAS Jewish Society, she had found it was like an Israel Society with frequent talks by pro-Zionist speakers. She took over the chair on condition that there was to be a clear distinction between the Jewish Society and the Israel Society. This led to a furious reaction from the Union of Jewish Students, which told her: “That’s not what the Jewish Society does. You can’t separate Israeli politics from Jewish identity. It is all the same.”

The antagonism towards her reached a peak after she went to the launch of Independent Jewish Voices in 2007 and found the speakers “honest articulate and inspirational.” When she invited some of the speakers to a meeting at SOAS to discuss “the impact of nationalism on Jewish identity” the pressure on her increased, and she was told that the Union of Jewish Students and the Israeli Embassy were very concerned about the meeting.

The distinguished human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman, points to the consensus among international lawyers that Israel “has been and continues to be guilty of serious violations” of international law. He examines in detail the Israeli claim that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to its occupation of the West Bank, and its numerous violations of the Convention.“The eventual extension of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court may point the way forward,” he writes.

Disputes among Jews over Zionism and Israel go a long way back. Lynne Segal, the Australian-born Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College, writes of her grandfather who in 1895 founded the first, and for many decades only, Jewish newspaper in Australia He “spent the last two decades of his life embattled in bitter disputes over the political goals of Zionism.” In 1941 he criticised Political Zionism in articles, saying it is “unjust, dangerous to a degree, even cruel in it s inevitable consequences and, after all, unobtainable.”

Segal says that what is most maddening for peace activists in the front line of the conflict, and for their distant supporters such as IJV, is “the knowledge that Israel has so rarely been serious in its talk of wanting peace.”

Stan Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, spent around 17 years at the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cohen grew up in South Africa, and when he started teaching in Israel in 1979 he expected that most of his colleagues would be the equivalent of their liberal counterparts in South Africa. But he was disappointed. Israeli academics know all about the multiple Israeli injustices against the Palestinians and yet their record of fighting such injustices is generally very weak.

Cohen (pictured) calls Israeli universities “virtual universities” because they are somehow detached from the realities of occupation and intifada. He remembers a law faculty graduation ceremony, when the invited minister of justice was speaking of the absolute value of the rule of law. “Just outside you could smell the tear-gas in the air and see spirals of smoke coming from the nearby village of Al-‘Isawiya, now under siege from the border police.”

The writer Gillian Slovo (pictured, credit Charlie Hopkinson) notes how in South Africa, the great majority of those Whites who refused to close their eyes to the injustices of apartheid were Jews, like her father Joe Slovo who was a leading member of the African National Congress.

Slovo includes in her essay an exchange of e-mails between her and Paul Gross, then a member of the Public Affairs Department of the Israeli Embassy in London, that occurred in February 2007 during Israel Apartheid Week. The embassy had put out a statement headlined “The myth of ‘Apartheid’ Israel”. But Slovo argued in her e-mails to Gross why it is right to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with that of blacks in apartheid South Africa.

Jacqueline Rose (pictured below), Professor of English at Queen Mary College, University of London, examines “the myth of self-hatred”. She writes: “There is one charge against Jews who criticize Israel that seems to me particularly misguided, and that is the charge that we are self-hating Jews.” She does not hate herself or Jewishness or Israel when she criticises Israeli policies. “I hate what the Israeli government is doing, and has been doing for a very long time, to the Palestinians and to itself.”

She points out that it is central to the founding declaration of Independent Jewish Voices that its members speak in the name of a Jewish ethic: “We hereby reclaim the tradition of Jewish support for universal freedoms, human rights and social justice.”

Richard Kuper, a founder member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, examines “the new anti-Semitism”. Those who criticise Israel are sometimes accused of being anti-Semitic. One of the core claims in the “new anti-Semitism” is that Jews worldwide are being held responsible for what Israel does. But Kuper argues that Zionism itself has systematically made such a conflation. If leading Jewish organisations and individuals cannot distinguish clearly between Jews and Israelis, “we should not be surprised if others fail the test as well.” Anti-Semitic attacks are often a reaction to the actions of Israel, and the greatest contribution in halting such developments would be a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Along with allegations of “new anti-Semitism” there are often complaints that Israel is singled out unfairly for criticism and is demonised. But, Kuper writes, Israel singles itself out and presents itself as special with its claims that it is the “only democratic country in the Middle East” with the “most moral army in the world”.

The writer, sociologist and broadcaster Anne Karpf writes on the ‘Arab Nazi’ and the ‘Nazi Jew’.” She examines in detail the allegations that Arabs behave like Nazis. Karpf writes that while it cannot be denied that there is a virulent strain of anti-Semitism in Arab and Muslim countries, “there is no evidence that the Arab nations in general, or the Palestinians in particular, have acted as Nazis in any meaningful sense of the term in the 60 years since the Second World War.”
The journalist and author D D Guttenplan says that many of his friends have told him that while they agreed with the IJV position, they will not sign its declaration. One main reason for this is that to support IJV in public would be “a scandal in front of the goyim” (ie non-Jews).

Guttenplan says that for decades Jews in the diaspora have kept silent “while a whole people have been brutalized and degraded.” He calls on his fellow Jews to meet the challenge laid down 2000 years ago by Rabbi Hillel, that Jews should stand up as individuals and be counted.

The writer and producer Michael Kustow, who has served as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and as associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, says the “last straw” that made him sign the UJV declaration was Israel’s blitz bombing of Lebanon in July 2006. “We diaspora Jews, with all the realism history might have taught us, should be reminding our leaders that they must talk to all parties, and not just to the Israeli leadership and [not just] to a Palestinian government that is not the government most Palestinians elected.”

Kustow praises the vigorous “alternative” tradition in which the best in Jewish culture has been produced by “Bad Boys and Bad Girls” (such as Harold Pinter, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Miller and Rosa Luxemburg) and not by unthinking solidarity with “the community”. Kustow ends his essay: “I do my best to keep company with the agitators and affronters, which is another reason why I signed this statement.”

Susannah Tarbush
published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat 6 Nov 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

poetry international & world poets' tour

Translating cultures through poetry
by Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette 3 Nov 2008

This past month in the UK has been an especially rich time for poetry linked to the Middle East and South Asia. The Poetry International festival, held at London’s Southbank centre every two years, attracted some of the some of the brightest poetry stars from around the world for nine days of events. The poetry of Palestine figured large in this year’s festival, through a session on Palestinian poetry and through the presence of one of the most outstanding Palestinian poets, Mourid Barghouti.

At the same time, a World Poets’ Tour of Britain took place throughout October. The tour was organized by the Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) founded in London in 2004 by the distinguished British poet Sarah Maguire.

The tour, funded by Arts Council England, brought together six acclaimed poets from abroad and their translators, who are prominent British poets. The British poet-translators do not know the languages of the poets they translate, but work via literal translations by experts in those languages. Examples of the high-quality results of this intensive collaboration can be read on the PTC website.

Various combinations of poets and translators travelled to readings and literary festivals in many locations, from Edinburgh in Scotland, to Bristol in South-West England. The poets were Al-Saddiq al-Raddi from Sudan, translated by Sarah Maguire; Corsino Fortes of Cape Verde, translated by Sean O’Brien; Farzaneh Khojandi from Tajikistan whose translator is Jo Shapcott; Kirkuk-born Kurdish poet Kajal Ahmad, translated by Mimi Khalvati; Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, known as Gaarriye, whose Somali poetry is translated by W N Herbert, and Noshi Gillani of Pakistan who writes in Urdu and is translated by Lavinia Greenlaw (picture, credit Crispin Hughes, shows As-Saddiq al-Raddi reading at the British Library).

The tour attracted media interest, and was featured on a podcast of the Guardian newspaper, and on BBC 4 TV news. The BBC 4 reporter interviewed Gaarriye and Sarah Maguire on the question of whether war poetry being written today, such as Gaarriye’s poems on the fighting in Somalia, can be compared with the work of Britain’s First World War poets in defining our understanding of war.

The tour also created excitement among Britain’s sizeable Sudanese, Somali and other communities, giving them the chance to meet poets from their home countries and to hear their work in its original languages and in English translation.

Poetry International opened with an event held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Palestinian poetry, and in particular the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. The event featured John Berger, now 82 years old (pictured top), who has long supported the Palestinian cause and its cultural manifestations.

This opening event was preceded by a Palestinian poetry and music event in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Young people from the Southbank’s Street Genius program read poems by Darwish and his fellow Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim and by Israeli poets Tal Nitzam and Rivka Miriam. The young Londoners, most of them black, injected the poems with fresh energy.

The readings were followed by a performance by Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani accompanied by pianist Bruno Heinen. Kelani’s love of Palestinian and other Arabic poetry permeates her work, and her performance was enthusiastically received by the audience. Towards the end she beckoned to the young poetry readers to join her, and they sang and moved to her music in a spontaneous jam session.

In the opening session, Berger was joined by Palestinian anthropology professor Rema Hammami (pictured) of Birzeit University and David Constantine, who co-edits the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation with his wife Helen. A focus of the session was Modern Poetry in Translation’s Palestine issue published earlier this year.

The twin themes of the session were the importance of poetry in translation and the particular resonance of poetry in today’s political climate. Berger said that thanks to the translation of poetry over the past century, “poetry became globalized before the traders got there.”

Berger and Hammami have jointly translated Darwish’s epic poem “Mural”, written after he suffered a serious heart attack in 1999. They took it in turns to read from their translation, breaking off midway for the screening of a film showing Darwish reading from his poem “The Dice Player” in his last public reading, just weeks before he died. Hammami said “The Dice Player” was “probably the most autobiographical poem he ever wrote, trying to explain who he was. Like a goodbye.”

Hammami recalled that when she started working on “Mural” with Berger she had done “a very technical translation, being very respectful to the Arabic and the poet”. The first pages that Berger edited and sent back “scandalized” her: she thought “he’s rewriting Mahmoud”.

Berger described poetry translation as a triangular process-“You have to penetrate the text to what is behind it – what is pre-verbal” and then allow that substance to find its words in another language. Hammami said the process was “like a wrestling match, but a very good one”.

The opening session began with a film of Berger reading, with much warmth and expressiveness, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Letter from Gaza”. Berger said he had dedicated his most recent novel “From A to X: A Story in Letters” (Verso, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize) to Kanafani, “a writer I admire very much”. He told of how Kanafani was assassinated in Beirut in 1972 at the age of 36 in a car bombing carried out by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

“Letter from Gaza”, with its civilians and especially children suffering under Israeli attacks, could have been written yesterday. And yet Kanafani wrote it in 1955, just seven years after the establishment of the state of Israel.

The writer of the story explains to Mustafa, the friend to whom he is writing, why he will not be joining him in California where he has won a university place to study engineering. “No, my friend, I have changed my mind. I won’t follow you to ‘the land where there is greenery, water and lovely faces,’ as you wrote. No, I’ll stay here and I won’t ever leave.”

The writer explains that he changed his mind when he visited his 13-year-old niece in hospital after an Israeli attack on Gaza and found that her leg had been amputated. He ends the letter: “I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.”

The main South Asia-related event of Poetry International was ‘The Six Seasons’, a poetic and musical homage to Bengal. It celebrated the dramatic changes in seasons in Bengal through the work of the region’s great poets – Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jibanananda Das. A performance by Drishtipat Creative combined spoken word and songs with original music by Kishon Khan, Soumik Datta and Sajib Azad.

The importance of poetry, and of poetry in translation, may grow in the dire political and economic conditions facing the world. As John Berger puts it: “The translation of poetry is important now because of the actual situation we are living in.” Berger adds: “In dark periods, poetry has a very special role.”