Monday, August 31, 2009

bahaa taher & elias khoury at frontline club in london

Bahaa Taher at the Frontline Club, against the backdrop of a classic photo of a nuclear explosion

Two Arab novelists on the frontline in English
by Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette 31 August 2009

Among the Arab writers who have had novels published in the UK in English translation this year, two names in particular stand out: Bahaa Taher of Egypt and Elias Khoury of Lebanon. Both are major literary figures in the Arab world, and thanks to the magic of translation, they are becoming increasingly known to the English-reading public.

The English version of Taher’s novel “Sunset Oasis”, published by the Hodder & Stoughton imprint Sceptre, hits UK bookstores this week. The Arabic original was in 2008 the first-ever winner of the $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), so the publication of the English translation has been eagerly awaited.

Khoury’s novel “Yalo” was published in English translation in June by the MacLehose Press imprint of London publisher Quercus and has already garnered some highly favorable reviews.

Like “Sunset Oasis”, “Yalo” was translated by Humphrey Davies, one of the most eminent translators of Arabic literature. Davies’s translation of an earlier Khoury novel, “Gate of the Sun”, won the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006. (This is not the first English translation of “Yalo”. Last year Archipelago Books of New York published a translation by Peter Theroux which was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book 2008 Award.)

Taher and Khoury were in London last Thursday evening en route to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, to participate in a session of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Aficionados of Arab literature had the chance to meet them when they appeared at the Frontline Club, West London, in an event billed as “an Edinburgh taster”. They discussed their work with the prominent cultural journalist Maya Jaggi [pictured] of the Guardian newspaper before the floor was thrown open for questions.

The writers spoke eloquently, and with a generous sprinkling of humor, about their own work and on wider issues of Arab literature and politics. The subjects ranged from narrative techniques, to portrayals of victim and victimizer, women in novels, Arab prison literature and torture methods, and the impact of invasion and occupation on fiction writing.

Taher, born in 1935, is the author of six novels and five short story collections. “Sunset Oasis” is the fourth of his novels to be translated into English.

The novel is set in late 19th century Egypt under British colonial rule, and depicts Police officer Mahmoud Abd El-Zahir, who is sent to the rebellious Berber-speaking oasis town of Siwa in the remote west of Egypt as district commissioner and tax collector. His posting is a punishment for his having sympathized with the Urabi revolt, the failed nationalist uprising that led to the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian war and to British colonial rule. Two of Mahmoud’s predecessors in the Siwa posting have been murdered.

Mahmoud’s wife Catherine insists on accompanying him on the hazardous journey to the oasis. She is determined to try to salvage her shaky marriage and to find the tomb of Alexander the Great. Things turn out disastrously, and the novel culminates in a spectacular act of destruction by Mahmoud, who is based on a real-life character.

Khoury, 61, is the author of 12 novels, six of which have appeared in English translation. He is particularly known for his 1998 novel “Gate of the Sun”, an epic narrative of the Palestinian 1948 naqba (catastrophe). Possessor of a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, he is editor in chief of the cultural supplement of the daily newspaper An-Nahar and Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

“Yalo” is set in the early 1990s in a prison outside Beirut. The protagonist Yalo is repeatedly tortured, interrogated and forced to write accounts of his life. He relates how he joined a barracks during the civil war, deserted to Paris, was picked by a Lebanese arms dealer to become a security guard, had an affair with his boss’s wife and became a robber, voyeur and rapist. He falls in love with one of his victims, who denounces him and precipitates his arrest

Khoury [pictured] said that forcing a prisoner to write his life story “is a bizarre technique, but it is, unfortunately, used in Arab prisons.” The technique is designed to destroy the psyche of the prisoner at the hands of his torturers.

Yalo is both a victim and a victimizer. He is “an outcome of the civil war, and fought with the fascists. He is pushed through torture to confess things he didn’t do, and discovers that through the writing which is destroying him he can reconstruct his personality.” He is of Assyrian background and Khoury links his story in modern Lebanon with the thread of blood stretching from the massacres of Assyrians, along with Armenians, in Turkey in 1915.

Taher said the idea of victim and victimizer is also reflected in the themes of “Sunset Oasis”, whether in relation to Mahmoud, or to Alexander the Great who “while victimizing others was at the same time defeating himself.”

Khoury remarked his generation of writers is indebted to people like Taher who brought about a new wave in Arab literature. The 1960s generation in Egypt was important in “liberating fiction from imitating the naturalistic and realistic European novel”.

Taher expressed some caution over experimentation. He has read “Yalo” twice and discovered that it has “a form of its own; you cannot categorize it”. He warned that this kind of development “in the hands of a novelist less experienced than Elias Khoury or others of his generation is very dangerous, because a writer would not know where to stop.

“I find that in our modern literature there are some writers who are writing experimental things just for the sake of experiment – not because they have really something new to add, or because they believe that they should modernize Arabic literature, but just because they want to be unusual and do not want to be conventional writers, And in cases where the writer is not very experienced or very talented this could be a very dangerous development in the history of the novel,” he concluded.

PS: Despite Taher's warnings over experimentation for experimentation's sake, he was warmly positive about some of the new generation of novelists. But he and Khoury expressed divergent views on the use of slang in novels.

A young woman in the audience asked Taher what he thinks of new Arab fiction writers. During a recent visit to Egypt she had picked up examples of a novels by young Egyptian writers produced by a small publishing house. Such writers are, for example, "really experimenting and improvising in fusha [modern standard Arabic] and dialect." When Taher asked her for an example, she mentioned Ahmed Alaidy's "Being Abbas el Abd" [which happens to be yet another novel translated by Humphrey Davies].

"That's a very good novel" he responded. "There is a very promising new generation of writers in Egypt in their early twenties: they are presenting a new wave in Egyptian writing which is very welcome. And I can say I have very good relations with all of them including Alaidy."

But he added: "They face a problem in a way. They are very talented, they are trying to do things, they are trying to be new blood in Arabic literature especially in Egypt, but they are facing a problem which you have spoken about now - this writing in slang sometimes, and not mastering their own language. Writing in slang they are defeating themselves. Why? I know writers who write in slang and they were very popular like Yusuf Idris [1927-1991] for example, he wrote in slang and he was read all over the Arab world. At that time Egyptian slang was understood everywhere because of Egyptian films, because of Umm Kulthum, because of Abdel-Halim Hafez - the famous Egyptian singers Egyptian slang was common in all the Arab world and could be understood.

"Now the situation has changed. I don't think that Egyptian slang can be understood in Morocco, Tunisia, as it was before. So they are restricting their readership, this generation of young writers. They wouldn't have the possibility to address themselves to Arab readers everywhere, they are addressing themselves only to Arab readers in Egypt - or if they are writing in slang in Syria, they are addressing themselves to Syrian readers."

He does not use slang in his novels "but I can read slang ... Moroccan slang is very different from Egyptian slang - I can appreciate and I can understand, but I am asking myself the question - are you defeating yourself writing this way, are you restricting your own readership? But they are very good writers."

Elias Khoury said "I write colloquial, what my friend calls slang. I use colloquial, and I don't agree with him - I think we have to use colloquial. And when I read any novel in any language there are some parts which I don't understand - you make an effort, if I am reading an English novel I make an effort. So if you are reading an Arabic novel why not make some effort to understand that the Tunisians say nejim [?] to mean I can? It seems very bizarre to us in the Levant." (To laughter to he said that 'ma nejimish' means "I cannot" and that he knows Tunsian very well). So I don't agree about this point.I think the only way a language will be alive and renew itself is through the spoken , we cannot write without the spoken. I think one of the merits of what we can learn from the Egyptian novel actually, from writers like Sonallah Ibrahim and others is the use of colloquial."

Monday, August 24, 2009

'indian voices' at the bbc proms

‘Indian Voices’ captivates London
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette August 24 2009

The “Indian Voices” day held last Sunday as part of the eight-week series of BBC Promenade Concerts (the Proms) at the Royal Albert Hall, was a vivid example of London’s ongoing love affair with Indian culture.

The intensive program ran from morning until late into the evening and included three major concerts. Two of the concerts - broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 - were staged in the Royal Albert Hall. The third was held in Kensington Gardens. The grand finale, starring the Indian singer Shaan, made BBC Proms history as being the first-ever Prom of Bollywood music.

The day also included two literary events: a discussion on Bollywood movies held in the Royal College of Music, and a radio broadcast of readings from Indian literature interspersed with music.
The discussion on Bollywood, chaired by the scholar and broadcaster Rana Mitter, involved the prize-winning writer for adults and children Jamila Gavin [pictured] and theater director Jatinder Verma. Both retain powerful memories of the first Indian films they saw as children. Gavin grew up in Mussoorie in the foothills of the Himalaya, and Verma was raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Verma described Bollywood movies as “India’s opera, but unlike opera in the West this is opera for everyone, and that has been a tradition within Indian cinema from the time that it started.” Jamila said: “One of the great triumphs of the genre of the Bollywood movie, and to some extent in the early years of the Hollywood musicals, is that it bridged the gap between the haves and have-nots. It actually brought a democracy to storytelling and music.”

In the second literary event, a 75-minute Radio 3 Words and Music broadcast entitled All India Radio, two of Britain’s best-loved actors, Meera Syal and Art Malik, delivered 13 readings. The excerpts were drawn from diverse works, ranging from ancient Indian classics to Aravind Adiga’s novel “White Tiger” (winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize), Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s “The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian” and poems by Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar.

The event generated much enthusiasm, especially amongst the UK’s population of approximately 1.5 million people of Indian origin, and bringing together Indians and non-Indians in a shared appreciation of the Indian culture. Indeed, it was the third high-profile manifestation of London’s intense interest in Indian arts within four months. India was the Market Focus of the London Book Fair in April, and the associated three-day program of literary happenings brought some 50 Indian writers to London.

In May, the British Museum opened its stunning exhibition “Garden & Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur” which runs until Oct. 11 and is accompanied by a six-month Indian Summer festival of Indan culture.

The three “Indian Voices” concerts provided a rich cross-section of musical styles. The morning concert comprised music from great performers in the khyal tradition, plus a group from Kerala named Asima, described as “an iconoclastic, boundary-breaking young vocal ensemble”.
Among the performers in this first concert was the greatest living virtuoso of the sarangi (short-necked fiddle) Pandit Ram Marayan, with his sarangi-playing daughter Aruna, accompanied by Natasha Ahmed on tanpura.

He was followed by the rising khyal singer Manjiri Asnare Kelkar, and by the snowy-haired brothers Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra who displayed extraordinary vocal techniques.
Two other highly-talented brothers who performed during the concert were the young tabla players Akbar and Babar Latif, sons of the late Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan.
The afternoon saw the free open air concert, “Indian Voices in the Park”, bring a dazzle of color and the penetrating sounds of Indian voices and instruments to the normally sedate Kensington Gardens. The concert was well attended with the expanse of grass in front of the stage crowded with spectators seated in the warm sunshine.

The concert featured folk music and dance from Rajasthan (including ghoomer dance) and Gujarat (ras and garba dances). The singers from Rajasthan included a number of boys with beautiful and powerful voices, indicating that the great traditions of folk music are indeed, being passed down.
The grand finale of “Indian Voices” was the Prom of Bollywood numbers performed by 36-year-old Shaan, the award-winning singer and TV talent show host. Shaan is both a pop star and a playback singer for many Indian films. He appeared with his group The Groove and with dancers from the

Honey’s Dance Academy, which teaches the Bollywood performing arts in the London area.
BBC Asian Network presenter Nikki Bedi noted: “Shaan really represents the Westernized sound of Bollywood.” His music switched from bossanova grooves to rock and then reggae.
“The purists out there would say it’s derivative, - well yes it is, Bollywood is, it’s a mish mash masala of so many different styles. It’s a great way for people in the whole of India to get a taste of what’s going on in the rest of the world so they’re unapologetic about it.”

“Indian Voices in the Park” was held near one of London’s most famous landmarks: the Albert Memorial with its gilded statue of Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert. Under Queen Victoria, India was “the jewel in the crown” of imperial Britain.

Now India is a global cultural powerhouse, and the concert showed it asserting confidently and colorfully its musical identity and traditions, and in a sense speaking back to the former colonial power.

Monday, August 17, 2009

laila lalami's novel 'secret son'

Secrets and lies in Casablanca

Early in Moroccan writer Laila Lalami’s first novel “Secret Son” a young man brought up by a supposedly widowed mother in a Casablanca slum discovers that his father is not only still alive, but is a wealthy businessman. From this premise Lalami [pictured below] weaves an engrossing multi-stranded story to reveal a society of inequalities which bear down particularly harshly on the younger generation.

Lalami was born and grew up in Morocco, but has lived for many years in the US. She obtained a PhD in linguistics from the University of Southern California, and is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

She is one the few North African fiction writers who choose to write in English rather than Arabic or French. Her 2005 debut work “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” consisted of interlinked short stories whose characters are desperate, for various reasons, to make the hazardous voyage to Europe. One of the stories, “The Fanatic”, was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

In “Secret Son”, published in the US by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Lalami again scrutinizes Morocco through the prism of its young people. Eighteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki and his mother Rachida, a hospital clerk, live in the Hay an-Najat slum. Their house consists of “one room with no windows and a roof made of corrugated tin held down by rocks.” Youssef is a clever boy, and Rachida is ambitious for his education.

The already miserable conditions in the Hay worsen when storms break a three-year drought and cause severe flooding. Local bureaucrats are ineffectual in dealing with the emergency, and the Hay’s people are instead helped by the Islamist Hizb or Party.

Youssef has always dreamed of being an actor and cherishes his weekly visits to the Star Cinema. But after the cinema is flooded out, the building becomes the headquarters of the Hizb, chaired by charismatic Si Hatim. The Party’s help to the people boosts its standing, but beneath its socially benevolent front lurks a militant agenda.

Rachida has always told her son that his schoolteacher father died in an accident in Fes when Youssef was two. But after Youssef passes his final school exam, and is preparing to major in English at university, she reveals that she was not married to his father, who was not schoolteacher Nabil El-Mekki but a lawyer, Nabil Amrani. The couple had been due to wed, but he was killed in a car crash.

When Youssef sees an interview with a transport tycoon named Nabil Amrani in the Casablanca Magazine he suspects his father is still alive. The picture of Amrani in the magazine closely resembles Youssef, down to the unusual blue eyes, and when confronted Rachida admits that the man in the picture is his father.

Even then she does not tell Youssef that Nabil had already been married when, as a trainee midwife, she met him when she went to tend his pregnant wife Malika. And there are other secrets she keeps from Youssef about her background and identity.

Nabil has no idea he has a son, and is stunned when Youssef tracks him down and tells him of their blood relationship. But he is not displeased. On the contrary: he has been having problems with his daughter Amal, his only child by Malika, and has been wishing he had a son. While studying in the US Amal has acquired an American boyfriend and a furious Nabil has cut off the money for her studies.

Nabil decides to keep Youssef’s existence a secret from his wife, but gives him the keys to an apartment. Youssef moves in and begins to live a life of privilege, like the “Mercedes-and-Marlboro” set of spoilt young people he has observed at university. He wears designer clothes, has a maid and indulges in flings with girls who would previously have been out of his league.

A pivotal character in the novel’s plot is investigative journalist Farid Benaboud of the Casablanca Magazine, whom Youssef first meets when he comes to the apartment to interview Nabil about tourism. On a subsequent visit Farid tells Nabil that Casablanca Magazine is threatened with closure for upsetting a minister and asks him to sign an open letter supporting freedom of expression. Nabil refuses.

It is not only the government that is exasperated by Benaboud’s journalism. Hatim constantly fulminates against Benaboud for his published reports on the Party.

Nabil gets Youssef a part time job in the Grand Hotel, in which he owns a large stake, and the course of his future seems clear. When he finishes his degree Nabil will send him to London on an internship, after which he will be awarded a position in the Amrani group and Nabil will tell his wife about him.

But Youssef’s plans are shattered when he is thrown out of his job and apartment, with no explanation. His evasive father eventually admits that his wife and daughter have found out about him. Youssef’s rejection by his father is complete when security guards bar him from Nabil’s office.

Youssef returns to the Hay, alienated and angry. He tries in vain to find a job, going from city to city and company to company. He fails to get into the police academy, and loses his money in a lottery scam promising visas to the US.

Hatim sympathizes with him, saying: “This country is like a car going down a ravine, and everyone’s asleep in the backseat.” He begins to manipulate Youssef, asking: “Are you on your mother’s side, or your father’s?” and showing him videos of violence against Muslims abroad. Will Youssef succumb to Hatim’s influence, or will his innate wisdom prevail?

Lalami writes in clear, economical prose. Her plain style may be a reaction against the lush exoticism with which Morocco has tended to be viewed by foreigners, but one might have hoped for rather more vivid use of language.
“Secret Son” is deftly plotted, with many twists to the plot, and is rich in perceptions of Moroccan society. Lalami controls the narrative with skill, and sustains the narrative tension to the last paragraph.
Susannah Tarbush

indian voices in kensington gardens

Images from the concert of Indian song and dance held in Kensington Gardens on the afternoon of Sunday 16 August; part of the Proms' Indian Voices Day.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

ottolenghi and tamimi's cauliflower and cumin fritters with lime yoghurt

Today's edition of BBC Radio Four's The Food Programme featured Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemites Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the duo behind the Ottolenghi food chain in London, extolling the praises of cauliflower, that much belittled vegetable (in Britain at least). Yotam is the founder of, and a chef at, the eponymous restaurant business, in which Sami is partner and executive chef. The first of the Ottolenghi restaurant/takeaway outlts opened in Notting Hill in 2002, and branches have since sprung up in Islington, Kesington and Belgravia.

This recipe sounds irresistible:

Cauliflower and cumin fritters with lime yoghurt

1 cauliflower
120g plain flour
3 tbsp chopped flat –leaf parsley
1 garlic clove crushed
2 shallots chopped
4 eggs
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1.5 tsp ground turmeric
1.5 tsp salt
1. tsp black pepper
550 Ml oil

Lime Sauce:
330g Greek yoghurt
2 tbsp chopped coriander
Grated zest 1 lime
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Put all the sauce ingredients in a bowl and whisk well. Taste – looking for a vibrant, tart, citrusy flavour – and adjust seasoning. Chill or leave out for up to half an hour.
2. Prepare the cauliflower, dividing it into florets. Add to a large pan of boiling salted water and simmer for 15 minutes or until very soft. Drain into a colander.
3. Put the flour, chopped parsley, garlic, shallots, eggs, spices, salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk into a batter. When the mixture is smooth, add the warm cauliflower. Mix to break down cauliflower into the batter.
4. Pour sunflower oil into a pan – 1.5cm depth – and heat. When hot, spoon in generous portions of the cauliflower mixture, 3 tablespoons per fritter. Fry in small batches, controlling oil temperature so the fritters cook but don’t burn. They should take 3-4 minutes on each side.
5. Remove from pan and drain on a kitchen paper. Serve with sauce on the side.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

precipitous decline in iraqi date production

Iraq was traditionally famed for its dates, and the fruit and the syrpup made from it are central to Iraqi cuisine, but an article in the New York Times draws attention to the catastrophic decline in date cultivation and production. Iraq at one time produced three quarters of the world's dates and had 629 varieties (a figure as precise as those often cited for France's cheeses). Output is now half what it was in the 1980s. There were 33 million date palms in the 1950s; now there are only nine million. The decline in date production has consequences for health, given the nutritional value of dates and the fact that they don't need refrigeration, and for the environment. The number of date packing factories has declined from 150 in pre-invasion of 2003 days to only six, and Iraqi dates are now packed in the UAE.

I notice that the jar of addictive (especially when mixed with tahini) Basra date syrup in my kitchen has Monalisa Trade of Stockholm on its label of origin. Who knows by what circuitous route path the jar's contents went from date palm to Sweden.

Friday, August 14, 2009

NYT review of dave eggers' latest book 'zeitoun'

What's the connection between American writer Dave Eggers and olives? This is what some readers of the New York Times Sunday Book Review may think when they see that it carries has a an exuberant review by Timothy Egan of Eggers' latest book 'Zeitoun'. The book is in fact a non-fiction account of the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans seen from the perspective of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, "a middle-aged Syrian-­American father of four, owner of a successful painting and contracting firm. He works hard and takes good care of his loved ones, in America and in Syria. He is also the kind of neighbor you wish you could find at Home Depot."

His wife, Kathy," has Southern Baptist big-family roots, but drifts after a failed early marriage until she finds a home in Islam and a doting husband in Abdul. Her hijab is a problem for her family, and for many citizens in post-9/11 America. Yet her charms and his smarts make for a good pairing at home and at the office — which is often the same place, an old house in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans."

At one point during the family's watery hell Zeitoun is taken away by six armed officers. "After that he goes missing, with no contact with the outside world. His wife assumes, after six days without communication, that he’s dead. This is perhaps the most haunting part of the book, and Eggers’s tone is pitch-perfect — suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America?

"Only a spoiler would reveal anything beyond this point. Suffice it to say that Zeitoun is mistaken for a terrorist and subjected to a series of humiliations, locked in a cage, then a prison, all the while without being charged with anything or even being allowed to make a phone call to his wife."

All in all, 'Zeitoun' is "a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics. That is in large part because Eggers has gotten so close to his subjects, going back and forth between Syria and America, crosscutting to flesh out the family and their story."

Another book for the "must read" list.

Monday, August 10, 2009

jordanian poet amjad nasser's 'shepherd of solitude'

A Bedouin wind blows in the ‘Shepherd of Solitude’
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 10 August 2009

The collection “Shepherd of Solitude: Selected Poems 1979-2004” is the first selection of works by Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser to be translated from Arabic to English and published in book form. Its publication provides an opportunity for English-language readers to encounter the work of an acclaimed poet who is regarded as an important voice in contemporary Arab literature.

The volume, newly published by Banipal Books, comprises 56 poems from seven of Nasser’s published collections translated by the Libyan-born scholar, poet and translator Khaled Mattawa. The translator also provides an invaluable 24-page introduction, which is full of insights into Nasser’s work and his place in modern Arabic poetry.

The collection covers Nasser’s work over the quarter of a century between his first collection “Praise for Another Cafe”, published in 1979 and the 2004 volume “Life Like a Broken Narrative”. The prominent American poet, critic and teacher Alfred Corn writes on the book’s back cover: “Confronted with the problem of finding a voice that honors tradition as it opens new ground, Nasser has developed an unusually wide expressive range.” His poems “manage ingeniously to blend what he calls ‘the Bedouin accent’ with European literary Modernism.”

Nasser was born in the Jordanian town of Mafraq in 1955, in a community of recently-settled Bedouin. He adopted the name by which he is known when he decided to become a poet and to leave home. He went first to Amman, and then in 1977 to Beirut which was then in the throes of civil war but was where he was exposed to exciting new currents in Arab poetry.

A supporter of the Palestinian cause, he left Beirut in 1982 when the Palestinian resistance was expelled from the city. He lived and worked in Cyprus, and then moved in 1987 to London where he is the cultural editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. This history of repeated displacement and exile, and its link with the wider Arab experience past and present, has profoundly marked Nasser’s work.

The title of the selection is derived from the title of Nasser’s 1986 third collection “Shepherds of Solitude”. Khaled Mattawa points out that the word “shepherd” resonates in, and even haunts, Nasser’s poetry. In some poems Nasser is “like a shepherd watching over a flock of wayward, reckless versions of himself. He gives these selves free rein to act out their crises and victories, and they in turn reveal to him various shades of the glory and folly of human nature. Their flaws recounted and noted, he shepherds them home at the end of the day and closes the stable door behind him.”

The lengthy poem “Shepherds of Solitude” is the highlight of the collection. It tells of the poet’s departure from his village and the beginnings of his wanderings, and is at the same time a narrative of the Bedouin past, alluding to its values and ancient poets.

Nasser’s translator Khaled Mattawa was born in Benghazi in 1964 and emigrated to the USA in 1979. He is the award-winning author of three published poetry collections, with a fourth due to be published next year.

He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has served as president of the Radius of Arab American Writers Inc (RAWI). Mattawa has translated seven volumes of works by leading contemporary Arab poets including Saadi Youssef, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Maram Al-Massri and Hatif Janabi, and has co-edited two anthologies of Arab American literature.
His beautiful renderings of Nasser’s poems capture the potency and striking imagery of the originals, and have compelling rhythmic structures.

The poems display a biting wit. In “Lampoon”, the poet compares himself to “a broken-hearted falcon” or a “toothless storm”. He refuses to “fantasize about the Arabs’ great conquests” or to “weep over the Pyrenees”. Instead, he will remember “the bribes of gold and silver”, the “hunger on desert plains” and the “brigands and stags that came to drink from my wounded palm”.

While there are recurring themes in Nasser’s work, each of his collections has a distinctive character, reflecting the poet’s odyssey. In the fifth volume, “Joy to All who See You”, the emphasis is on love between man and woman. The subsequent collection, “The Ascent of Breath”, was inspired by the poet’s visit to Andalusia in the early 1990s. It revolves around the last Moorish king of Andalusia, Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Saghir. The poems include “Farewell to Granada”.

In “The House After her Death” the poet writes of his four sisters’ efforts to keep his dead mother’s house as it was. There are the same rituals of coffee in the mornings, ginger at midday and mint in the evenings: “At my family’s home you do not need a watch/The scent will tell you the sun’s place in the sky.” In a related elegiac poem, memories are triggered by his discovery of the family’s old Phillips radio.

Other poems in the seventh volume are set in London. “The Ring from Karouan” is a tribute to the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef who has been such an influence on other Arab poets and who, like Nasser, has settled in London.

The prose poem “An Ordinary Conversation About Cancer” is dedicated to the late Saudi journalist and photographer Salih al-Azzaz who died of a brain tumor in 2002.
Two other prose poems feature an elderly woman neighbor with whom the poet is on chatting terms. She is convinced the poet is Indian, despite his reminders that he is from Jordan.

Monday, August 03, 2009

bloomsbury-qatar literary salon kicks off in london

Bloomsbury and Qatar unite to host literary salon for Arab writers
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 3 August 2009

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