Friday, October 21, 2011

syrian writer fadi azzam's novel 'sarmada' published in english translation

Fadi Azzam
against a background of art works by Syrian artist Fadi Yazigi

The publication of Syrian writer and journalist Fadi Azzam’s novel Sarmada in English translation by Adam Talib was celebrated last night at the Mosaic Rooms in central London. The event also marked the launch of the Swallow Editions imprint; the English translation of Sarmada is the new imprint’s first title. The Arabic original of the novel is published by Scientific Arab Publishers of Lebanon. Azzam's first published book was a collection of poems, stories and a piece on Damascus, issued in 2010 by Cairo publisher Merit under the title Thahtaniat, ie Underground.

Swallow Editions says of Azzam's novel: “In Sarmada, three women struggle against the forces of society, family, and passion in a small Druze village in the south of Syria as the country itself struggles against the forces of the Ottoman Empire, the French Empire, and then the Baath.

“The village of Sarmada is an enchanting place, but the people who live there don’t much notice it. To them, the transmigrating souls, potions, soothsayers, and animals in the rocky wasteland are all part of the landscape...Some women risk their lives to follow their hearts and Sarmada is their story.”

Swallow Editions is a sister imprint to London-based Haus Publishing, as is Arabia Books. The Mosaic Rooms event was introduced by Haus’s vivacious founder and publisher Dr Barbara Schwepke.

Swallow Editions is the brainchild of the eminent Syrian novelist Rafik Schami who has lived in Germany for many years and writes in German. Arabia Books published the German -English translations, by Anthea Bell, of his most recent books – The Dark Side of Love and The Calligrapher’s Secret.

Schami has championed Azzam’s writing for a number of years. He says: “With Sarmada, Fadi Azzam proves to us that there are still undiscovered gems in Arabic literature… beautiful writing, long stifled by dictatorship, has just begun to free itself from the grips of censorship. Sarmada and its women dance in front of us with all their senses; they take us by the hand and escort us into their village homes, where the events of this great novel take place.”

Schwepke explained that the seeds of the idea of Swallow Editions first came to Schami when The Dark Side of Love was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. He planned that if he won the prize he would put the money into a pot to help finance the translation of emerging Arab writers into English. At a “conspiratorial lunch” cooked by Schwepke, she and a number of others decided they would take up Schami’s idea whether or not he won the prize (he did not).

Barbara Schwepke

Schwepke explained that through Swallow Editions Rafik Schami will identify and publish emerging Arab voices which are “passionate, powerful and politicised. In other words, they are the voices of the revolution, all these wonderful brave young people – and ‘young’ meaning not necessarily young by age, but in spirit –who have been held back by not sucking up to the dictator or not kissing the hand of the sheikh, or who have fallen foul of censorship.”

She added: “We want to give these emerging writers a voice in English so we can hear them too. And the first of these voices is Fadi Azzam.” She was glad that he could be at the launch “to introduce us to a very passionate novel.”

At the launch Azzam was interviewed by Peter Clark, who was at one time the head of the British Council in Damascus. Azzam and Clark then read sections of the novel, in Arabic and in English translation respectively, before a lively question and answer session.


When Azzam was asked by members of the audience about his next novel and about what young Syrian writers are writing, he said the Syrian revolution has stopped all his projects and that no one can write during this revolution: “We are just reacting. Later we will write about it. For me now Syria is a revolution like any revolution, like the French revolution, like the American Civil war, but the situation will change in all the Middle East. And I believe the Syrian people will win –and I know we need three years for this.”

Schwepke introduced Clark as “a doyen of translation and of cultural bridge building.” She added that Clark is one of her authors at Haus Publishing, which will publish his forthcoming book Dickens’s London in April 2012.

It turned out that Azzam shares Clark’s love of Dickens. Azzam has been based in Dubai for the past decade (he arrived in the UAE after the failed Syria Spring of 2001), but in 2005 he came to Britain on a visit that turned out to mark a breakthrough in his writing career. He financed the trip through “loans on about ten credit cards from the bank”, went to the British Council and asked them to recommend one of the towns where Dickens had lived. “They choose for me Broadstairs, between Margate and Ramsgate” on the Kent coast of south-east England.

In Broadstairs, where he stayed for some 100 days, Azzam visited Dickens’s house. He also attended the Charles Dickens festival during which people dress up in the streets as characters from the novels of Dickens. It was at around this time that he started writing articles for two websites: Oxygen, and Damascus Motherfucker. Rafik Schami contacted him, full of praise for an article on Damascus published online and in the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi.

Azzam became a regular contributor to the newspaper. He wrote 252 articles in three years for Al-Quds al-Arabi and says this was good writing practice and discipline for when he came to write Sarmada.

Asked about his literary influences, Azzam singled out the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (born 1936, assassinated Beirut 1972). He had read Kanafani “like crazy: I think until now he is for me the best writer around the Arab world.” He also named the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif (who lived in Syria for many years and died there in 2004), the late Syrian playwright Saaddallah Wannous, and several Syrians from Azzam’s generation.

The author had a beguiling way about him as he discussed with Peter Clark his life and work from his childhood in the small village of Taara near the city of Sweida in southern Syria where he was born in 1973. The village did not have electricity until he was seven years old, and he remembered his wonderment when a refrigerator, TV and washing machine first arrived.

School was for him like a “punishment” and he dropped out at the age of 15 and ”started to rock and roll”, listening to Michael Jackson on cassette and doing things forbidden at school such as growing his hair long. But at 18 he returned to education because if a young man of that age was not at school or university he had to enter the army. When he moved to Damascus to attend university, “everything changed in my life. Damascus gives every person something in his passion, in his dream. In Sweida you are just Druze, in Damascus you are Syrian. I was 10 years in Damascus, in 25 homes in each area of Damascus – I know it stone by stone, road by road. I’m from Sweida but Damascus made me. It gave me everything.”

But despite the importance of Damascus to Azzam, it was to the land of his native Sweida that he was drawn for his first novel Sarmada. Peter Clark said that while the novel has different generations and different people, and a fantasy world and a real world, “it is the place that is essential”. Fadi said: “The secret is, the place is my hero...This place is full of power and magic, and it’s like virgin land – not a lot of people know about it. I think this place has thousands of stories.” He recalled also the characteristic hard black stones of the land (the terrain of southern Syria is particularly known for its black volcanic rock).

The rural setting of Sarmada is reflected in its language. Translator Adam Taleb was sitting in the audience, and Clark congratulated him on his translation, and asked him about the process. “It was a challenge – Fadi uses a lot of village vocabulary,” Talib said. “We’ve had probably 30 to 40 e-mails and conversations, so he helped me through.”

Clark said one of the things he found most interesting in the novel was that while the three central women characters over the generations may accept their destiny, yet they have some control of their destiny also and make decisions over their environment.

Clark found the sole central male character Bukhair (who he thinks has some similarities with Azzam) has the voice of the new emerging generation of Arab writers, such as the Beirut39 group of 39 Arab authors aged 39 or less, “who are your age or younger, and are quite different I think from the previous generation.”

Peter Clark

Azzam told Clark that he is from a generation between the older, “loser generation” that has lost out in politics and everything else and is “finished”, and “the generation coming after us”. He said: “We are in between and no one has mentioned us actually.”

Azzam highlighted the difficulties he had faced in getting his first book published, difficulties shared by the new generation of Arab writers more generally. At least he had had some clout through being in Dubai and having at least some money: he asked what about those who don't have such advantages. There is a neglect of writers from countries such as Somalia, Mauritania and Syria where there are "a lot of creative people" who receive no attention and are marginalised. "I read a Somali writer and it is amazing – a new unknown voice full of power and love... we should know about these voices."

Some members of the audience who had read Sarmada were particularly struck by Azzam’s writing from the perspective of women. One woman said to Azzam: “I really loved the book. I found it haunting, beautiful in places. I think that you write about female sexuality in a way that I’ve rarely come across before: how as a man do you do that?”

Azzam said that in the village, which is more open than the city, “it’s a normal thing to know the women and the girls better than the others. In Syria we are playing together with the girls in the nature, and we know everything in nature. I am in communication with women more than the city guys. In the village you see animals make sex, and see nature make love in front of you. You have your neighbour’s girl and discover the world with her. “ He said that when he writes as a woman, “I am woman in that moment, yes I feel it. And also my atmosphere is women. I have a lot of aunts and it is easy to know the female things.”

Susannah Tarbush

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