Arab Spring reaches the London Book Fair
Saudi Gazette 17 April 2011
The ‘Arab Spring’ was a recurring theme at seminars and other events that took place during the three-day London Book Fair (LBF) held at Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre last week. In relation to the Egyptian revolution, there was a buzz at the LBF’s International Rights Centre over the manuscript of the book “Revolution 2.0” written by Wael Ghonim [pictured], the Egyptian internet activist and Middle East and North Africa manager of Google.
The New York literary agency Inkwell Management of New York has scored a coup in signing up Ghonim. During LBF, Inkwell placed Ghonim in a conference room in the Rights Centre where he made presentations on his life story to a total of some 120 people.
It was Ghonim who set up anonymously the Facebook page “we are all Khaled Saeed” devoted to the young man allegedly beaten to death by police in Alexandria last June. The Facebook campaign helped trigger the Egyptian uprising in January. Ghonim was released on 8 February after 12 days in secret detention and came to worldwide fame with his subsequent emotional interview with Dream TV. He is due to pick up the John F Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, in the name of the people of Egypt, in Boston on 23 May.
The Arab Spring also cropped up during a seminar on ‘Translation and the Arabic Novel: Beyond the Politically Symbolic Act’ organized by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) and chaired by ALECSO’s Dr Rita Awad. The speakers were Dr Ayman El-Desouky, chair of the Centre for Culture, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, and Dr Rana Kabbani, the Syrian academic and author.
Dr Awad said that with the so-called Arab Spring, the Arab world is at the centre of attention worldwide. “The Arab youth over a vast geographical and cultural landscape are leading a revolution which has become an uprising model for youth in other cultures. Now people more than any other time before want to know more and to read more about these youth, about modern Arabic culture and the Arab world.”
She added: “These are best reflected in the modern and contemporary Arabic novel, which has predicted such an uprising and has reflected the complex Arab cultural and social scene in a highly sophisticated artistic and literary structure and style. For publishers who are keen at presenting translated works this is a precious opportunity to seize.”
Given the current uprising in Libya, and its brutal suppression, a seminar on ‘The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction’ attracted much attention. The panel was chaired by the Iraqi editor of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature, Samuel Shimon and featured four UK-based Libyan writers: Hisham Matar, Ghazi Gheblawi, Mohammed Mesrati and Giuma Bukleb. Novelist Wafa Al-Bueissa, was also scheduled to take part but visa problems prevented her from travelling from the Netherlands, where she now lives.
The Libyan writers on the panel are among the 17 included in the 135-page special feature on Libyan Fiction in the recently-published 40th issue of Banipal. The subjects discussed by the panel included the reasons why the short story has until recently been the preferred fiction form for Libyan writers, why Libyan writing has been generally neglected by outsiders, and the ruthless crushing of literary expression during the four decades of Gaddafi dictatorship.
Giuma Bukleb was jailed for 10 years from the late 1970s. He described what is happening in Libya today as “a dream come true: I never expected in my life that I am going to see this happen in Libya, because of what I know of Gaddafi and the regime. Thank God I lived to the day when I see these things happening in Libya, and see the man who really suffocated our lives now with his back to the wall, and when I see Libyans now coming out, reclaiming their country, reclaiming their identity, reclaiming their independence, reclaiming themselves.”
The publication of Arab literature in translation has been growing in the three years since the Arab World was the Market Focus of the LBF in 2008. Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) – the joint venture of London-based Bloomsbury Publishing and the Qatar Foundation – marked its first anniversary during the LBF.
BQFP has so far published 50 titles and holds regular events, workshops and author visits. To celebrate its first anniversary, the award-winning cultural journalist and critic Maya Jaggi interviewed Samuel Shimon on the new edition of his best-selling autobiographical novel “An Iraqi in Paris”, published recently by BQFP, and on trends in fiction writing in the Arab world. The fresh translation of the novel was undertaken by Piers Amodia and Christina Phillips.
Shimon’s engrossing and entertaining narrative recounts his adventures after he left Iraq in 1979 with the dream of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker. His experiences encompassed torture in Lebanon, Syria and especially Jordan, and encounters with Arab writers and with such cultural icons as Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard. At one stage Shimon lived on the streets of Paris.
When asked by Maya Jaggi what impact, if any, he thought the Arab Spring would have on Arab literature. Shimon said he did not think that for now it would have a serious effect “because the situation is chaotic and no one really knows what is happening”.
When asked about the Beirut39 project, in which judges selected 39 outstanding writers aged 39 or less from across the Arab world, and the 2010 “Beirut39” anthology that he edited for Bloomsbury, Shimon said the situation of Arab literature has changed completely in the past 10 years. “We have more young authors now, we have more women writers, we have more fiction.” He said that nowadays Arab poets are increasingly turning to novel writing. There are now more translators of Arabic literature into English and many more translations of Arabic literature are appearing than was the case at the end of the 1990s. The International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF) has also led to change. Shimon is being contacted by US publishers wanting him to help identify young Arab authors.
BQFP announced during LBF that it is to translate two consecutive winners of IPAF – Saudi author Abdo Khal’s 2010 winning novel “Throwing Sparks as Big as Castles” and Moroccan Mohammed Achaari ‘s “The Arch and the Butterfly” which was joint winner this year. BQFP will publish both novels in English in 2012. It has secured world language rights (except Arabic) for Abdo Khal’s novel, and similar rights (except Arabic and Italian) for Achaari’s book.
Co-winner of IPAF this year was Saudi novelist Raja Alem with “The Doves’ Necklace”. London-based literary agent Andrew Nurnberg Associates recently announced that it is representing Alem worldwide, except for Italy.
There was a boost for the younger generation of translators from Arabic when it was announced at LBF that Arabic has been chosen as the language for this year’s Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, organized in association with Foyles bookshop and with the support of Banipal.
The competition, for which the prize is £1,000 Sterling plus a selection of Harvill Secker titles and Foyles tokens, is open to translators aged between 18 and 34. Entrants are required to translate the short story, “Layl Qouti” by the Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez Eldin by a deadline of 29 July. The judges are Deputy Director of the British Council in Saudi Arabia, and translator, Anthony Calderbank; novelist Penelope Lively; journalist Maya Jaggi, and editor Briony Everroad. (Entry forms, and the story for translation, can be downloaded from the vintage-books.co.uk website).
The announcement on the prize came during a seminar on “Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Edited by Reza Aslan under the umbrella of Words Without Borders, the “Tablet and Pen” anthology published by Norton includes translations from Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Arabic.
On the first morning of LBF the literary editor of the Independent newspaper Boyd Tonkin [pictured] announced the shortlist of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Disappointingly for Arab literature aficionados, no title translated from Arabic made even the longlist of this year’s prize.
This was in marked contrast to last year, when the longlist of 15 books included three Arabic titles – by Elias Khoury, Hassan Blasim and Bahaa Taher – in translation. In addition, there was a translation from German of Syrian author Rafik Schami’s “The Dark Side of Love.” Bahaa Taher’s “Sunset Oasis”, translated by Humphrey Davies, made the shortlist.
Tonkin said he does not think the situation for Arabic literature in translation is as bleak as the language’s poor showing in this year’s Foreign Fiction Prize would suggest. “Certainly there are new endeavours such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the “Arabic Booker” - and part of the benefit of winning that prize is that the victorious book is translated into English. So I think we can possibly expect to see a bit more from the world of Arabic literature, if only because people are giving it a fair amount of care and attention at the moment.”