Sunday, February 13, 2011

peter kosminsky's palestinian-israeli channel 4 drama 'the promise'

above: Eliza (L) and Erin

New TV drama probes human side of Israel-Palestine conflict
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 13 February 2011

At the beginning of British TV station Channel 4’s groundbreaking new drama series “The Promise”, 18-year-old Erin accompanies her mother to a hospital ward where Erin’s elderly grandfather Len lies gravely ill. The sulky teenager, played by Claire Foy, has little sympathy for the comatose grandfather she barely knows, and is repulsed by the signs of his physical decline.

After the hospital visit, Erin and her mother go to Len’s house to sort out his things. Erin comes across a diary that her grandfather kept while serving as a soldier in Palestine after the Second World War. Erin knows nothing of her grandfather’s life as a young man. The large diary, its pages covered with his neat handwriting and crammed with photographs, sparks her curiosity.

When shortly afterwards Erin goes to Israel for the first time at the invitation of her best friend Eliza (Perdita Weeks), a dual UK-Israeli national, she takes Len’s diary with her. She retraces her grandfather’s footsteps and comes see him in a radically new and loving light.

The drama is written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, and the screening of its four weekly 110-minute episodes began last week. The series has a dual time frame, switching between Len’s story as a soldier in 1940s Palestine, and Erin’s present-day experiences in Israel and the West Bank. Both Len and Erin learn about love and betrayal during their time in the Middle East. Len becomes involved with Clara, [pictured] a Jewish refugee from Germany; her father has connections with the underground Jewish movement the Irgun and he opposes the relationship.

Kosminsky brings to the making of “The Promise” an outstanding reputation for hard-hitting TV dramas based on real-life conflicts. His subjects have included ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Northern Ireland problem, and Muslim radicalization. He has won a string of British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and other awards.

“The Promise” is ambitious in scope, running for a total of some seven and a half hours . It tackles through its two main storylines the complexities of a situation that is more highly-charged, divisive, and resistant to a solution, than almost any other foreign policy issue.

Kosminsky faced the challenge of trying to present the stories as fairly and credibly as possible, while making his characters believable rather than mere ciphers mouthing different positions. Those interviewed during seven years of research included more than 70 former servicemen who had served in Palestine. It is to the credit of Kosminsky and his production team and actors that the series works so well and is utterly gripping.

The characters are three-dimensional and convincing. Kosminsky stresses: “there are no caricatures – all the characters are based on people we met, read about or interviewed.” He adds: “It would do an immense disservice to a complex situation to attempt to over-simplify it.”

Kosminsky insisted on making “The Promise” on location in Israel, despite the difficulties in doing so. By making the film in Israel, “you have the real physical elements –the terrifying wall for example, the white stone, the Bauhaus architecture – and you have the invisible elements, the relationships between Israeli Jews and Arabs in the cast.”

The two leads are established stars of British TV. Claire Foy (26) was the heroine of the series “Little Dorritt” and was in the recent remake of “Upstairs, Downstairs”. She also stars alongside Nicolas Cage in the Hollywood medieval blockbuster “Season of the Witch”.
Foy portrays Erin as a moody vulnerable young woman who is a naïve observer of the Palestine-Israel conflict. She is pale and in fragile health, suffering from epilepsy.

Len is played by Christian Cooke, a 23-year-old actor with a decade of TV roles behind him. Originally from a mining community in the North of England, Len is a thoughtful, decent young man full of humanity.

The reason Eliza goes to Israel is to begin two years of national service. Her well-off parents live there in a villa with a pool near the sea. Her father Max (Ben Miles) is a well-known liberal and ex-general.

Eliza’s brother Paul is played by the well-known Israeli film and stage actor Itay Tiran, who starred in “Lebanon” (2009). Paul derides his father’s “cozy, liberal opposition”, asserting that it actually perpetuates the occupation. Max claims that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East: Paul says it is a military dictatorship.

Eliza explains to Erin that Paul had at one time been pro-military, but after serving as a soldier in the West Bank town of Hebron he has become a “super hardline anti-Zionist” who volunteers for “weird ex-military pressure groups”.

One such group is Combatants for Peace, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian former fighters. Paul takes Erin to a meeting of the group in Nablus addressed by Omar Habash, a former member of the Al Aqsa Brigades who has renounced violence. Omar lives on the Israeli side of the wall, and Paul and Erin give him a lift in Paul’s car. But Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint treat Omar in a most humiliating way and he tells Paul and Erin to drive on without him.

On the way home Paul takes Erin to a café. After they leave he realizes he left his wallet on the table and goes back to retrieve it. The first episode ends with the café exploding in a ball of flame, presumably caused by a suicide bomber.

Omar [pictured] is portrayed by American actor of Lebanese origin, Haaz Sleiman, star of the 2008 film “The Visitor”. Nazareth-born Ali Suliman, star of “Paradise Now” {2005) plays Mohammed Abu-Hassan, with whom Len becomes friendly. Another Palestinian character is Jawda, who is played in old age by Hiam Abbass and as a young woman by Maria Zreik.

Most reviewers in the British media have greeted the series with enthusiasm and high praise. There are predictions that it will win BAFTAs. But comments posted in online editions of newspapers, and in the social media, show that some supporters of Israel are trying to portray the makers of “The Promise” as having an anti-Israel agenda.

And yet Kosminsky has made every effort to put events in 1940s Palestine in the context of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Before being posted as a sergeant to Palestine, Len had taken part in the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Erin is reduced to tears when she reads in his diary of the horrors he saw. The series also includes archive footage from the camp.

When Len first arrives in Palestine he is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Jews who are fleeing to Palestine by ship, arriving in a desperate state. He writes in his diary that had he suffered like them he too would want a homeland. But as a result of what he experiences over time, including attacks by Irgun, and his encounters with Palestinian Arabs, he develops a more nuanced attitude.

Kosminsky is highly critical of Britain’s historical role in Palestine. “We were the colonial power. It was for us to leave Palestine in good order.” But Britain “found a quick fix and left. Those who live there are still, daily, dealing with the consequences.”

The director notes certain parallels between the historical and current day situations. For example the British forces blew up certain Jewish houses; today the Israeli Army demolishes Palestinian homes.
below: Omar at Israeli checkpoint

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

judges of the caine prize for african writing are announced

Caine Prize 2011 judging panel announced [update added]

The award-winning Libyan novelist Hisham Matar has been appointed as chair of the panel of judges for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing, it was anounced today. Joining him are Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, Georgetown University Professor of English literature Henry Schwarz, publisher, film and travel writer Vicky Unwin, and the award-winning author Aminatta Forna. Update: On 11 February it was announced that David Gewanter - Georgetown University Professor and poet - was joining in the panel. He replaces Henry Schwarz.

Matar was previously a judge of the prize in 2008. He was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel In the Country of Men (2006), which won several literary prizes. His second novel Anatomy of a Disappearance is to be published by Penguin imprint Viking in the UK on 3 March.

This year 126 qualifying stories have been submitted to the judges from 17 African countries. The judges will meet in early May to decide on the shortlisted stories, which will be announced shortly thereafter. The winning story will be announced at a dinner at the Bodleian Library in Oxford on Monday 11 July.

Last year the Caine Prize, described as Africa’s leading literary award, was won by Sierra Leonean writer Olufemi Terry , pictured below at the Caine Prize award ceremony held in the Bodleian Library's Divinity School, Oxford University. Chair of judges Fiammetta Rocco said at the time “ambitious, brave and hugely imaginative, Olufemi Terry’s ‘Stickfighting Days’ 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, awarded annually for African creative writing, is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English (indicative length 3,000 to 10,000 words). An “African writer” is normally taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African, and whose work has reflected that cultural background.

The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee, are Patrons of The Caine Prize, as is Chinua Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is President of the Council and Jonathan Taylor is the Chairman.

Monday, February 07, 2011

saif ghobash-banipal translation prize awarded in london

Cairo events meant winning translator and author were absent from London ceremonies
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 6 February 2011

The Cairo-based British translator Humphrey Davies was due in London last Monday to receive in person the 2010 Saif Ghobash -Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation at the annual Translation Prizes awards ceremony. A panel of four judges had unanimously chosen him as winner of the £3,000-Sterling prize for his translation of Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s novel “Yalo”, published in the UK by the Quercus imprint MacLehose Press.

But as the day of Davies’s planned departure for London drew near the streets and squares around his apartment in downtown Cairo, where he has lived for many years, erupted in dramatic protests, violence and flames.

Humphrey’s brother Hugh Davies, a violinist with English National Opera, explained that Humphrey could have tried to take a taxi to the airport and to leave for London. But although he had very much wanted to be in London, Humphrey had told his brother in a telephone conversation that he did not want to leave his adopted country of Egypt. “He says it’s a very historic time, he feels tectonic plates are shifting. And he wants to be there.”

Hugh Davies picked up the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize on Humphrey’s behalf on Monday night from the guest presenter at the Translation Prizes Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Stothard quoted a judge of the prize, novelist Margaret Drabble, as saying “Yalo” is “a tour de force for both author and translator... an important and complex book which brings the history of Lebanon vividly, painfully and colorfully to life.”

In all, six literary translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors, with support from Arts Council, England, were awarded during the ceremony at Kings Place. The winners of prizes for translation from French, German, Spanish, Hebrew and Italian read selections from their translations. In Davies’s absence an extract from “Yalo” was read by the awards secretary of the Society of Authors Paula Johnson.

The prize-givings were followed by the annual Sebald Lecture, delivered by fiction writer Ali Smith. The lecture is named in honor of the late German writer and academic W G Sebald, founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. In her inspiring lecture Smith explored many aspects of literary translation, with particular reference to Sebald’s works.

Elias Khoury had been due to travel to London to accompany Davies to the Translation Prizes and to a reception organized by Banipal at the AM Qattan Foundation's Mosaic Rooms on Tuesday evening in celebration both of Davies’s win and of the fifth anniversary of the Banipal Prize. But in a public statement Khoury said he had dropped his plan to travel to London from Berlin as “a sign of friendship” towards Humphrey Davies.

“I want once again to insist on the fact that the translator is a partner in the process of creativity,” Khoury’s statement said. “Yalo can now speak English better than me and he began, through the work of Humphrey, a new journey and a new life.”

Davies’s winning of the 2010 Banipal Prize was all the more remarkable for being the second occasion on which he had won the prize for a translation of a Khoury novel. He won the prize in 2006, its inaugural year, for his translation of Khoury’s great Palestinian novel “Gate of the Sun”.

Khoury’s statement said: “This is the second time that I have accompanied Humphrey in this adventure. I want to praise his understanding and creativity that made our work together a real pleasure.”

Khoury ended by saying: “The struggle for democracy and freedom that began in Tunisia and is shaking dictatorship and despotism and corruption in Egypt will open the way for a new Arab world. I am sure that Yalo, in his prison in Beirut, is beginning to feel the impact of the Egyptian freedom and is ready to rewrite the stories of our Arab experience with oppression.”

Margaret Drabble’s fellow judges of the Banipal Prize were the translator and Professor of Comparative Literature at Warwick University Susan Basnett; the translator and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University Elliott Colla, and, on behalf of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature, Yasir Suleiman, Professor of Modern Arabic Studies and Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Davies not only won the 2010 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize but was also joint runner-up for his translation of “Sunset Oasis” by Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher. The Egyptian-American translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid was the other joint runner-up for his translation of “Cities Without Palms” by the Sudanese writer Tarek Eltayeb, published in the UK by Arabia Books.

The reception in the Mosaic Rooms was compered by Banipal co-founder and publisher Margaret Obank. Translator Peter Clark, a trustee of the Banipal Trust, read an extract from “Yalo”. Hugh Davies [pictured] gave a lively picture of Humphrey’s career since he graduated with a first class degree in Arabic from Jesus College, Cambridge, in the late 1960s.

Humphrey’s CV includes working for Oxford University Press, doing a PhD at Berkeley and working with his tutor Martin Hinds on a dictionary of colloquial Arabic. “I would say the theme of Humphrey’s scholarship, what he put his considerable scholarly abilities to, is the service of demotic Arabic rather than classical Arabic,” Hugh Davies said. Humphrey worked for Save the Children and for the Ford Foundation before deciding to devote himself to literary translation.

Hugh held up one of the three volumes of
Humphrey's work related to Yusuf Al-Shirbini's "Kitab Hazz Al-Quhuf Bi-Sharh Qasid Abi Shaduf "17th century text on the Egyptian peasant, (translated as "Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded"). In this project, Humphrey had "somehow put together his scholarship and his interest in local Egyptian language." The volumes include a critical edition of the text, an English translation, and a lexicon of 17th-century Egyptian Arabic, published in the Analecta Orientalia Lovensiana series published by Peeters.

Critic, translator and prizewinning poet André Naffis-Sahely [pictured below] had originally been due to hold a conversation with Davies and Khoury at the Mosaic Rooms. In their absence he gave an eloquent talk encompassing “Yalo” and Khoury’s oeuvre more generally, as well as questions of Arab censorship and the translation of literary Arabic. [a PDF of the talk is posted on the Quercus website]

Naffis-Sehely noted that at Society of Authors Translation Prizes awards the previous evening “it struck me that prizes such as the Scott Moncrieff and the John Florio, for French and Italian respectively, have been running for over forty-five years, whereas the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize only for five.”

At one time translation of Arabic literature was considered peripheral and it was only in the late 1980s with Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize and the efforts of translators such as Denys Johnson Davies and Paul Theroux that this started to change. “The need to examine the ‘Arab Other’ since 9/11 has propelled Arabic literature beyond its former status as mere exotica,” Naffis-Sahely said. He wondered how long this will last. “In the 1970s and 80s it was a common sight to see anthologies of Hungarian poets and Romanian novelists in prominent shelves in boo shops ...where are they now?”

Christopher MacLehose spoke warmly of Khoury as “a very great writer” with a gift for storytelling, a “deeply learned observer of the Arab world, of the Palestinian world, and Israel’s part in it.” And he said Humhrey's winning of the prize for the second time "may say something to the American publishers that they haven't already grasped: namely that Humphrey Davies is the outstanding translator of Elias Khoury, and of others too, and that this is a noble, heroic and entirely successful publisher!"

In June MacLehose Press is to publish Davies’s translation of a third Khoury novel, “As Though She Were Sleeping”. MacLehose paid tribute to Andrea Belloli, also present at the Mosaic Rooms, the "brilliant line editor" of both "Gate of the Sun" and "Yalo", who has just finished with "As Though She Were Sleeping".

Paul Starkey, Professor of Arabic at Durham University and Chair of the Banipal Trust, reviewed the first five years of the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize, which is sponsored by UAE businessman and diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash in memory of his late father and literature lover Saif Ghobash. Starkey said: “We are optimistic that this Arabic translation prize will go from strength to strength in the years that follow.”