Monday, July 26, 2010

'mornings in jenin' by susan abulhawa

Mornings in Jenin: Susan Abulhawa's Palestinian family odyssey

“Mornings in Jenin”, by the Palestinian-American writer Susan Abulhawa [pictured below], is a rarity in being a novel on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict written in English by a Palestinian and published by a mainstream Western publisher, Bloomsbury of London, New York and Berlin.
With the muscle of Bloomsbury behind her, and with her novel written in highly accessible vivid prose that carries the reader along, Abulhawa stands a good chance of becoming a mainstream bestselling author. Comparisons are being made between “Mornings in Jenin” and the 2003 novel “The Kite Runner” written in English by US-based Afghan Khaled Hossein which was a runaway bestseller and was also made into a film.
With translation into some 20 languages, Abulhawa’s novel is already enjoying success beyond the English-reading world. The author reported on her Twitter feed on 14 June: “Starting the week with awesome news! Mornings in Jenin is the #1 bestseller in Norway! [i’m ridiculously excited].”
Susan Abulhawa was born to refugees of the 1967 Six Day war. As a teenager she moved to the US where she graduated in biomedical science and forged a career in medical science. In 2001 she founded Playgrounds for Palestine – an organization dedicated to upholding Palestinian children’s Right to Play. She lives in Pennsylvania with her daughter.
“Mornings in Jenin” traces over six decades the lives of four generations of the Abulheja family. The family is originally from the village of Ein Hod east of Haifa, where life traditionally revolved around the cultivation of olives and figs.
The family lives through the vicissitudes visited on the Palestinians since the 1940s. The main character Amal is the granddaughter of the patriarch Yehya. She is an attractive personality, with passion, humor and intelligence. Abulhawa depicts with tenderness and acuteness Amal’s process of growing up in the harshest of circumstances, and the characters with whom she strikes up friendships throughout her life.
The prologue to the novel finds the adult Amal in Jenin refugee camp in 2002 with the muzzle of an Israeli soldier’s rifle thrust against her forehead. Amal wonders “if officials might express regret for the ‘accidental’ killing of her, an American citizen. Or if her life would merely culminate in the dander of ‘collateral damage’.”
Abulhawa clearly has a mission as a novelist. Her writing is fuelled by a sense of anger and urgency. She cites the late Palestinian scholar and activist Dr. Edward Said as a major influence. “He lamented once that the Palestinian narrative was so lacking in literature, and I incorporated his disappointment into my resolve.” The Palestinian academic and politician Hanan Ashrawi directly encouraged her to write, after reading Abulhawa’s published memories of Jerusalem.
“Mornings in Jenin” is backed by extensive research, and includes a bibliography. Abulhawa draws extensively on her own experiences. For example she traveled to Jenin in 2002 after hearing reports of a massacre in the town’s refugee camp. “The horrors I witnessed there gave me the urgency to tell this story,” she says. “The steadfastness, courage, and humanity of the people of Jenin were my inspiration.”
An earlier version of “Mornings in Jenin” was published a few years ago as “The Scar of David” by a small US press that subsequently went out of business. “The Scar of David” was translated into French and published by Editions Buchet/Chastel under the title “Les Matins de Jénine”.
Anna Soler-Pont then became Abulhawa’s literary agent and, as Abulhawa puts it, “began breathing new life into the novel”. It was subsequently translated into a score of languages, and Bloomsbury offered to reissue it after extensive revisions and editing.
The publication of “Mornings in Jenin” could hardly be more timely. Palestine is very much under the spotlight as a result of the blockade of Gaza, the continuing outrage over Israeli settlement expansion and demolition of Palestinian homes, and alarm over the threat of war in the wider Middle East.
Earlier this month Abulhawa made a well-received appearance at the London Literature Festival in conversation with writer Rachel Holmes at a session held by the festival in partnership with the Palestinian Festival of Literature (PalFest). Since its inception in 2008, Palfest has taken many high-profile British and other writers to Palestine, and Abulhawa herself participated in this year’s PalFest in May.
“Mornings in Jenin” comes with praise on its cover from two well-known British writers – travel writer Michael Palin and novelist Esther Freud – and from Hanan Ashrawi. Palin writes that the novel gives a “powerful and passionate insight into what many Palestinians have had to endure since the state of Israel was created”. For Freud it is “a powerful and heartbreaking book.” Ashrawi describes the novel as “a unique literary experience not to be missed.”
One main strand of the novel starts with Amal’s older brother Ismael being wrenched from his mother’s arms by an Israeli soldier in the chaos of the violent expulsion of the inhabitants of Ein Hod from their village in 1948. The soldier gives the child to his wife Jolanta, a Holocaust survivor rendered barren by brutal assaults on her by the Nazi SS. The couple bring Ismael up as their son David. But the boy has a scar on his face as the result of being dropped in his crib by his brother Yousef: this scar would “mark Ismael’s face forever, and eventually lead him to the truth.”
The narrative takes the reader through the brutalities of attacks on Palestinians by Zionist terror groups, and then by Israeli soldiers, in the 1940s; the Nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians when Israel is created in 1948; the agonies and uncertainties of life as refugees in Jenin; and the 1967 war in which Amal’s father Hasan disappears, her brother Yousef is taken prisoner and tortured, and her mother is psychologically destroyed. Amal herself is shot at by Israeli soldiers and her severe abdominal injuries lead to permanent and extensive scarring.
Amal wins a scholarship to America where she tries to reinvent herself as American “Amy”. Her teacher brother Yousef had joined the Palestinian resistance after the 1967 war and she had lost contact with him. But he manages to trace her and phones her in the US in 1981. She joins him in Beirut where he is living with long-time sweetheart, now wife, Fatima. Amal falls in love with and marries a Palestinian doctor, Majid, and returns to the US while pregnant to wait for her husband to join her.
But then Israel invades Lebanon and lays siege to Beirut. The withdrawal of the PLO, including Yousef, to Tunis is followed by the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila camps. Amal suffers a series of losses, and a member of her family is driven by grief and fury to carry out a suicide attack.
Running alongside the story of Amal is the story of Ismael who had been raised as David. After the 1967 war, fellow Israeli soldiers tell him that the imprisoned Yousef bears a strong resemblance to him, and in an effort to obliterate these hints of a link between him and Yousef he beats Yousef up at a roadblock. Years later David, by now a semi-alcoholic, traces Amal to try to establish the full truth of his origins.
One line of attack against the novel has been that almost the Israeli characters are unsympathetically drawn, but Abulhawa is showing the Israelis as they are experienced by Palestinians in specific contexts. It cannot be denied that the record of Israeli violence against the Palestinians over many years has been extraordinarily savage.
She does present a different version of possible Palestinian-Jewish relations in the friendship that blossomed in the late 1930s between Amal’s father Hasan, then a teenager, and a young Jew Ari Perlstein. Ari, the son of a German professor who had fled Nazism, reappears much later in the narrative as a kindly elderly professor.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 26 July 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

zeid hamdan makes mark in london

Zeid Hamdan: Lebanon's underground maestro
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 22 July 2010
A throng of young people, many of them Lebanese, crowded into the basement of the Hoxton Gallery in East London a few nights ago for an eagerly-awaited performance by the legendary pioneer of Lebanese underground music Zeid Hamdan and his new band Zeid and the Wings.
Hamdan was born in Beirut in 1976, a year after the outbreak of the 15-year civil war. He is a pivotal figure in the development of alternative or underground music in Lebanon both as a performer and as a producer.
In an interview with Saudi Gazette, Hamdan said: “I grew up in a region where there is not an alternative movement for music. You have classical stars, and then the pop mainstream”. The mainstream pop scene has become dominated by Arabic video clips and “doesn’t have a beautiful vibration.”
Hamdan wanted “to give the Beirut youth a new model, a new way of considering Arabic music.” The Lebanese younger generation “has been traveling and learning abroad and coming back to the country with ideas.” The underground developed as a musical expression of this generation hungry for social and political change.
Hamdan and his band had been invited to London by the cutting edge Monocle magazine/website to record a show for Monocle’s Summer Series. Hamdan also took the opportunity to appear with his musicians at the concert arranged in the trendy area of Hoxton famed for its art galleries and restaurants.
The other acts booked for the concert included local bands Franco and Second Head and the Lebanese electro musician Charif-Pierre Megarbane, founder of Cosmic Analog Ensemble and of Heroes and Villains.
During the event, the performance of Zeid and the Wings could not quite go according to plan, with the visas of three members of the band not coming through in time for them to travel. The final line-up in the Hoxton Gallery consisted of Zeid with two members of Wings – keyboardist Rita Okais, and nay and bass clarinet player Bechir Saade – plus backing vocalist Reine Kabban, Charif-Pierre Megarbane on bass and local drummer Oscar Challenger.
Hamdan has his own special brand of on-stage charisma, and sang a selection of his songs in Arabic and English in his distinctive tender and soulful voice which in its upper reaches has an otherworldly quality. He was ably backed by the attractively-voiced Reine Kabban. Zeid and the group received an enthusiastic response to numbers including “Chouei”, “Castle of Sand” and “Ocean”, with “Sah al-Naum” as an encore.
Earlier in the day Monocle had recorded a Summer Series show with Zeid and his musicians in the Hospital Club in Covent Garden. Monocle will release the Zeid show as a podcast in mid-August. Producer Alex Mills said the “absolutely amazing” recording “went so well”.
Hamdan has come a long way since, as a young boy living in Paris, he first picked up a guitar and found himself spontaneously composing a song. His family moved to France for six years in 1986 when Zeid was ten.
While living in Paris he got to know the music of Western performers such as the Doors, David Bowie, French hip hop artists and above all the Beatles. “My band The New Government is very influenced by the Beatles” he says.
Hamdan typically has several music projects on the go. His solo vehicle is ShiftZ, into which “I throw all my experimentation. It can be a reggae song, it can be Arabic electronics. Shift Z is my playground, my space for myself.”

He has founded several bands over the years. After he returned to live in Lebanon in 1992 his first band was Lombrix, which released the hit EP “Lucy” in 1994. It was a time of optimism and stability and the press was interested “that a young Lebanese band made an EP after the war which had a mixture of Western and Eastern influences.” The Lombrix line-up included singer Yasmine Hamdan (no relation to Zeid), possessor of a beautiful sultry voice.
After other members left the group, Zeid and Yasmine formed Soapkills. Why this name? Hamdan explains: “I wrote a song called Soapkills, and it talked about erasing all remains of the war, cleaning up the town – like killing the memory, killing the truth, through the action of washing up.”
Soapkills drew both on classical Arabic song and on electronics. Zeid and Yasmine first wrote songs in English, but then the artists Rabih Mroue and Walid Sadek joined the group and worked with them on Arabic lyrics. Soapkills gained much from this input “because their writing in Arabic was so rich and funny, and because Rabih is an incredible flute player and Walid is a trumpet player.”

After Mroue and Sadek left the group Zeid and Yasmine continued as a duo and enjoyed considerable success in Lebanon and beyond. But the parting of ways came at the end of 2005 when Yasmine saw her music future as being in Europe and moved to Paris while Zeid wanted to develop the local Lebanese music scene.
Soapkills remains influential, and six of its albums are still on sale.
Hamdan was involved with several other acts on the burgeoning Lebanese underground scene, such as Scrambled Eggs. In 2006, he met Katibe 5, a hip hop group of five young Palestinians from the Bourj Al-Barajneh refugee camp. He got them signed to the Lebanese label Incognito and co-produced their 2008 CD “Ahla Bil Fik Moukhayyamat”.
In November 2004 Hamdan formed The Government. The name was changed to The New Government the following year after Lebanon was plunged into a period of assassinations and political instability. The New Government’s first CD was released in 2006.
The band had five members, of whom three now remain: Hamdan and French brothers Timothée and Jérémie Regnier. Although the Regnier brothers live in France, they regularly perform and tour with Hamdan.
On June 7 last year, the day of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, The New Government released five free downloadable tracks to “voters” who cast a vote for the band on its website. Hamdan sums up the band’s indie rock style as “a blend of the Pixies tendency with the Beatles, Beach Boys and Franz Ferdinand.”
Hamdan’s African project Kanjha Kora-ShiftZ began in December 2006 when he was brought together with Kandia Kouyate, a 17-year-old singer and kora player from Guinea. The duo’s collaboration produced a highly appealing mixture of “reggae, hip hop, Guinean music and electro.”
Hamdan says The New Government and Kanjha Kora have signed publishing agreements with Moka Music, a subdivision of Chrysalis, and should be developing their new albums by the end of this year.
Hamdan has also worked to develop the singing career of Syrian singer Hiba El-Mansouri, who was last December signed by Jihad Al-Murr of Murr TV (MTV). Hamdan produced and directed Hiba’s first video, “Ahwak”, released in January this year. MTV recently released a video of Hiba’s rendition of “Fog el Nakhl” directed by Pedros Temizian with music produced by Hamdan. MTV is soon to produce a third video, the song “Suleyma” written by Nawaz Charif and originally sung by Zakia Hamdan.
Hamdan has written music for several films, and is currently scoring the music for the latest movie by controversial Lebanese director Danielle Arbid, due for release in spring 2011. He has also licensed seven tracks to Shankaboot, the Arab world’s first Arabic webdrama, which is produced by Batoota Films in association with the BBC World Service Trust. A Shankaboot launch concert took place in Beirut on June 12 with performers including Zeid and the Wings.
Hamdan is negotiating a CD release for Zeid and the Wings with the independent Beirut record label Forward Music,. “If we agree, a CD should be ready by the end of the year,” he says.
He has also produced with Wings, “with a special boost from Marc Codsi”, a song for the Nat Geo Music Channel series “Making Tracks.” On July 30, Zeid and the Wings are to perform at the Batroun International Festival in Lebanon, in an event entitled the Electro-Acoustic Waveform.
As ShiftZ, Hamdan is due to perform with the Syrian singer Dima Orsho in Damascus, Friday. “We’ll be creating an hour of live music in a workshop taking place from July 20 to 23. The concept is to create music for the live digital performance of a young genius visual artist called Mohamad Ali.”
As if all these activities weren’t enough, Hamdan is also playing guitar with Ziad Saad’s electro band Pop Will Save Us. “I think this band has a unique style and I am curious to push this project that has been on hold for too long,” he says.
below: Hoxton Gallery gig

Monday, July 12, 2010

BQFP signs up Ahmed Khaled Taufiq's dystopian novel 'utopia'

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing announced today that it has signed up the Arab world's most prolific horror and science fiction writer, Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq, to publish his bestselling Arabic novel Utopia in English translation in autumn 2011. (The author has copious internet references with his surname transliterated as Tawfik; BQFP transliterates it more accurately as Taufiq).

BQFP describes Utopia as a grim futuristic account of Egyptian society in 2023 which takes readers on an adventurous journey that ventures out of the gated communities insulating the wealthy from the bleak realities of Egyptian life. "A young man and a young girl break away from the idyllic bubble of affluence they know, and delve into the harsh existence of the impoverished Egyptians that live right outside the fortified gates of their compounds. Utopia’s twists and turns will certainly leave readers in suspense until the very last page."

Since its release in 2008, Tawfiq’s novel has enjoyed wide acclaim and was reprinted three times to fulfill the overwhelming demand of Arab readers. "With over 200 published titles, Tawfiq has perfected the art of horror and science fiction" BQFP says. It cites praise from the famed Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany who dubs Utopia “a wonderful novel, a real addition to Arab literature.”

Tawfiq was born in 1962 in the city of Tanta, Egypt. In 1985, he graduated from Tanta University's medical school, and later received a PhD in 1997. In January 1993, he published the first installment in his Ma Waraa Al Tabiaa series of novels titled The Vampire and The Legend of the Werewolf.

The signing up of Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq is an interesting development in the publishing of Arabic literature in English translation. Arabic fiction in various genres has been translated, but this may be the first publication in English of an Arab horror/science fiction author. An Egyptian equivalent of Stephen King?

olufemi terry wins caine prize

[picture above: Olufemi Terry with bust of Sir Michael Caine]

First time for Sierra Leonean
By Susannah Tarbush - Saudi Gazette 12 July 2010
Caine Prize 2010 In his story “Stickfighting Days”, which won the Caine Prize for African Writing last week, the Sierra Leonean writer Olufemi Terry references the great British fantasy writer JRR Tolkien whose world of Middle-earth has captivated children around the world for more than 70 years.
The 13-year-old first person narrator Raul lives on a rubbish tip in an unnamed location. He and the other boys living in the dump sniff glue and fight with sticks. The “judge”, who arbitrates between the fights, has told the boys stories from Tolkien and Raul has secretly named his two sticks Mormegil and Orcrist after swords in Tolkien’s oeuvre. The narrator expresses an urge to eliminate his stickfighting rival: “I like Markham, but I’d like to kill him. I dream of doing it in front of a huge pack of boys. Clinically.” The story builds to a shocking end.
Speaking to Saudi Gazette the day after winning the prize, Terry said Tolkien had influenced the first story he ever wrote at an early age when he was at a boarding school in the northern English country of Yorkshire. The rules by which the rubbish tip boys live and fight have echoes of the arcane rituals of boys’ public schools in England.
In “Stickfighting Days” Terry choreographs the fights with such skill, engaging the reader viscerally in every move and reaction of the fighters, that one might assume he draws on minute observation of actual fights. But Terry says: “I made up all the stickfighting. Although stickfighting exists in different parts of Africa I didn’t watch it. But I did observe boys sniffing glue on the streets of Nairobi.”
He says the story “came out of me easily – I can’t say that always happens – and poured out as a torrent over a week or 10 days.” Terry’s story, which first appeared in Chimurenga magazine, was among the 115 entries from 13 African countries for this year’s prize. He won against strong competition from the four other shortlisted writers: Ken Barris and Alex Smith of South Africa, Lily Mabura of Kenya and Namwali Serpell of Zambia.
Terry was born in Sierra Leone and is the first Sierra Leonean to win the Caine Prize. But he left his country of birth at the age of one and has not been back since the mid-1980s. He points out that he also has a Caribbean side: his mother is from the Antilles.
At the Caine prizegiving dinner, held in the medieval Divinity School of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the chair of the five judges Fiammetta Rocco said Terry’s story “forces the reader to dwell on the short violent lives of African boys who live on urban garbage dumps sniffing glue and scavenging for food. Not a place many of you would like to visit, but guided by Mr Terry, you go anyway, unable utterly to stop reading.” She revealed that Terry had been “voted for by every single judge.”
Rocco added that the story is “ambitious, brave and hugely imaginative”. It presents “a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception. The execution of this story is so tight and the presentation so cinematic, it confirms Olufemi Terry as a talent with an enormous future.” The Caine prize, sometimes referred as the African Booker, is Africa’s most prestigious literary award. In addition to the £10,000 prize money the winner has the opportunity to spend a month as a writer in residence at Georgetown University, Washington DC.
Rocco, a third-generation Kenyan, is the literary editor of the Economist. Her fellow judges were Granta’s deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, the award-winning Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, Professor Jon Cook of the University of East Anglia and Professor Samantha Pinto of Georgetown University.
The prize was founded in 2000 in memory of Sir Michael Caine, who was for nearly 25 years the Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee. The prize is awarded for a short story of between 3,000 and 10,000 words, published in English.
Many previous winners and shortlistees of the Caine Prize are now prominent literary figures. They include Leila Aboulela, Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, and Chika Unigwe.

Terry hopes that winning the Caine Prize will boost the chances of publication of his first novel, which he started to write in 2000 while living in New York. He also hopes that the prize money will give him space to write.
“Stickfighting Days” and the four other shortlisted stories are published in this year’s Caine anthology “A Life in Full and Other Stories”, newly issued in the UK by New Internationalist, in South Africa by Jacana and in West Africa by Cassava Republic Press.
Terry also had a story, “Digitalis Lust”, published in the 2008 eighth annual collection of Caine Prize writing. As well as organizing the prize itself, the Caine Prize fosters African writing by holding writing workshops in Africa. It was at the Celtel Caine Prize African workshop held in Cape Town in 2008 that Terry wrote “Digitalis Lust”, a haunting tale of an emotionally isolated scientist who offers to help a woman, whom he visits for monthly “massages”, to slowly poison her handicapped sister.
Terry’s father is a distinguished plant expert and administrator who has held key posts at international agricultural research and development institutions in various countries. Terry grew up in Nigeria, the UK and Ivory Coast. He graduated from New York University in 1994 with a BA in Political Science, and from 1995 to 1998 he held several editing positions at the Wall Street Journal.
Terry also has a 2002 Master of Professional Studies in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University’s Tisch School. He has worked for a host of international organizations, including publications in the Economist group, researching, editing and writing reports on mainly African issues.
For the past three and a half years Terry has been living in Cape Town, where in 2008 he completed an MA at the University of Cape Town’s renowned center for creative writing. His MA thesis was the novel he has been working on over the past decade, “The Sum of All Losses.” This coming of age diasporic novel, set mainly in New York City, focuses on two Africans in their early twenties with very different backgrounds and experiences.
One of the young men is a Cameroonian who has been living in the US for around four years. The other is a Nigerian who lived in the UK before going to the US and who feels alienated from Nigeria, England and the US. “One of them does not survive the novel,” Terry says.
The novel has been through four or five drafts, and Terry is currently tweaking the final version. He hopes to have a publisher by the end of the year. Cape Town has an active publishing scene. But Terry says Cape Town publishers are most interested in novels which, unlike his, are by South African novelists or are set in South Africa. He thinks it is possible the novel will be published in Nigeria. However, with his literary star in the ascendant as a result of winning the Caine Prize, the novel would seem to have a good chance of being taken on by a UK or US publisher.
Asked about his favorite authors, Terry names Americans James Salter and Ernest Hemingway; the South Africans J. M. Coetzee and Damon Galgut (author of “The Good Doctor”) and Erich Maria Remarque (the Franco-German author of “All Quiet on the Western Front”). As regards British writers, he is partial to the work of Will Self.
Terry is also interested in reading authors of mixed heritage, such as the Anglo-Nigerian Diana Evans and Anglo-Sudanese Jamal Mahjoub. In particular he mentions Mahjoub’s novel “Travelling with Djinns”.
below: Baroness Emma Nicholson, president of the Caine Council, in Oxford with the shortlisted writers