by Susannah Tarbush
A new Anglo-Arab literary salon based in London and Doha made an auspicious start last Thursday with its launch event – a lively and wide-ranging discussion between the Egyptian-British novelist, essayist and activist Ahdaf Soueif and the director of the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, Peter Florence.
The Bloomsbury Qatar Literary Salon is a spinoff from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), which was launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October as a partnership between Bloomsbury Publishing and the Qatar Foundation.
Bloomsbury’s founder and chief executive Nigel Newton [pictured, with (L) Florence, and Soueif] said at the launch that the salon is to organize meetings in London and Doha at which Arab authors will be invited to speak about their work. He added: “I am pleased to announce that our next event will be in Doha, and it will be the first BQFP Ramadan Iftar, featuring readings by local poets in Arabic and English.” The Iftar will be held on September 9 in the BQFP villa at the Qatar Foundation.
In addition, the salon is to run two reading groups in London and Doha, which will meet every two months to discuss a book of Arab interest.
The venue of the salon’s inaugural event in London was the historic St Barnabas House at 1 Greek Street in Soho, dating from 1746. The packed audience of Arabs and non-Arabs included the Egyptian ambassador to the UK, Hatem Seif El-Nasr. Florence’s interview of Soueif was followed by a question and answer session with the audience.
No living Arab writer has explored more deeply than Soueif, through both her writings and her activism, the many layers of the Western-Arab encounter. Her first volume of short stories, “Aisha”, published in 1983, was followed by the novel “In the Eye of the Sun” and a second volume of short stories “Sandpiper”. In 1999 Bloomsbury published her best-known work, the acclaimed novel “The Map of Love”, which had the distinction of being short-listed for Britain’s leading literary prize, the Man Booker.
Since then Soueif’s published output has been mostly in the form of journalism and commentary. Bloomsbury published in 2004 a collection of her essays, “Mezzaterra: Fragments of the Common Ground”. Members of the audience were delighted to hear from Soueif that she is now working on a new novel, partly inspired by the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians.
Soueif’s activism on Palestinian was fuelled when the Guardian newspaper sent her to report from the West Bank in late 2000, after the outbreak of the second intifada. The newspaper published her memorably vivid account of life under occupation in a searing two-part report. The 9/11 attacks and events since then have added to the urgency of her non-fiction writing.
Soueif’s twin passions of literature and activism were united last year when she organized the first Palestine Festival of Literature, of which she is the founding chair. The festival provided a vital means by which Palestinians under siege could interact with visiting writers , helping to meet their need “to feel part of the world”. A second festival was held this year in conditions of severe Israeli harassment. The festivals have been eye-openers for the participating Western writers: Soueif cited as examples testimony from the novelists Andrew O’Hagan and Claire Messud.
Soueif’s dialogue with Florence, and her answers to questions from the audience, touched on her writing from many angles. Asked why she chooses to write literature in English, Soueif explained that as a child she had started reading in English rather than Arabic. Between the ages of four and seven she had lived in London where her mother was doing a PhD. She read a great deal, and continued to read in English when the family returned back to Cairo where she was surrounded by her mother’s library of books in English. “Arabic was the language I lived in mainly, and English was the language I read in.”
Soueif’s high degree of sensitivity to the nuances of language – her PhD at the University of Lancaster was in linguistics –is very evidence in her writing, whether in conveying in English different types of Arabic discourse, or in choosing precisely the right words to describe for example a certain effect of waves on a seashore.
Soueif spoke about her experiences of both being translated, and of translating. Her late mother, the distinguished scholar Fatma Moussa, translated “The Map of Love” into Arabic. This process had created some heated discussion between mother and daughter on the lines of “whose novel is it anyway?” Soueif translated into English the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti’s memoir of return, “I Saw Ramallah”, published in the UK by Bloomsbury. She explained the choices she had made to try capture the vitality of Barghouti’s Arabic.
At the end of the event Soueif signed copies of the five of her books published by Bloomsbury. Also on sale were copies of the first book to be published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing: a bilingual Arabic-English edition of the delightful children’s book “The Selfish Crocodile” by Trinidad-born writer Faustin Charles and illustrator Michael Terry. The book was launched in Qatar on World Book Day, April 23, with a series of events involving schoolchildren.
BQFP will next spring begin its program of publishing books across a diverse range, including fiction, non-fiction, education and reference. The publishing venture is open to book proposals from Arab authors, which can be sent via the BQFP website at www.bqfp.com.qa