Friday, August 26, 2011

libyan writers in exile & their support for the revolution

Libyan writers at the London Book Fair April 2011: L to R Hisham Matar, Ghazi Gheblawi, Mohamed Mesrati, Giuma Bukleb, with the editor of Banipal magazine Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon

article from 19 August 2011

Libyan writers in exile: In support of the uprising

Due to the well-nigh total oppression of cultural life during 42 years of Gaddafi's dictatorship, Libyan literature has for decades been produced abroad. But with the uprising, everything has changed for them, too. Susannah Tarbush reports

This is proving to be a momentous year not only for Libyan politics and history but also for the country's literature. Libyan poets and fiction writers, particularly those in exile, have emerged as some of the most eloquent and credible Libyan voices to be heard internationally in support of the uprising during its first six months.

They have been speaking out in a variety of forums – newspaper articles, radio and TV interviews, on the social media, at conferences and literary festivals.

Eyes have also been focused on their creative writing. The prizewinning London-based Libyan novelist Hisham Matar said at the London Book Fair in April: "If you want to know any country you read its poems and its novels; what literature gives you is not only the news of the place but the spirit of the place and the preoccupations of the place."

Certainly, readers have been turning to Matar's two novels, "In the Country of Men" and "Anatomy of a Disappearance", to try to deepen their understanding of Libya.

Literary production inspired by the uprising

"Literature conveys not only the news of the place but the spirit of the place": Hisham Matar has been living in London since 1986 The uprising has inspired some Libyan writers to produce new poems and fiction. They include the acclaimed award-winning poet and translator Khaled Mattawa who was born in Benghazi in 1964 and teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In his poem "Now that we have Tasted Hope", Mattawa conveys the defiance and aspirations of the revolution. It begins:

Now that we have tasted hope
Now that we have come out of hiding,
Why would we live again in the tombs we'd made out of our souls?

Mattawa has also written a series of beautifully crafted articles on the revolution for the international media.

The uprising has seen an interplay between writers inside and outside Libya. In areas of the country wrested from regime control, a multiplicity of voices is being heard. "There is a boom in civil society organisations all over free Libya," the Libyan surgeon, short-story writer, and award-winning blogger and podcaster Ghazi Gheblawi said in an interview with Qantara in London, where he lives. "A new association of journalists has been established, and a few weeks ago a new union for Libyan writers was founded in Benghazi. Writers in free Libya are involved in many new publications, with more focus on new literature."

Writers risking their lives

Gheblawi pays tribute to writers within Libya. "The amount of involvement of Libyan writers in the Libyan revolution inside Libya is tremendous," he says. "Many of them were involved before the revolution, many were vital in getting the truth to the outside world, and many have been detained, tortured and face horrors."..continued..

Sunday, August 14, 2011

libyan historian: 'tony blair and gaddafi synonymous in the libyan psyche'

In an interview in today's Independent on Sunday, headlined "Libya can't trust Blair says rebels' ambassador to UK", Libya's new ambassador in London Mahmud Nacua says the Libyan people are "not satisfied" with the closeness of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Colonel Gaddafi. In contrast he praises "courageous" Prime Minister David Cameron. He also criticises the Scottish government's release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

The interviewer Matt Chorley, political correspondent of the Indie on Sunday, writes: "The 74-year-old poet and academic, who has lived in the UK for 23 years, hopes to use his new ambassadorial role to rebuild relations between Britain and his homeland."

The interview put me in mind of comments made on the Blair-Gaddafi relationship by the three panellists at the event Britain and Libya: What Does the Future Hold? organised last month at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, by the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU).

The panellists were Libyan historian and writer Dr Faraj Najem, director of Studies and Academic Research at Grafton College of Management Sciences; former British Ambassador to Libya Sir Richard Dalton, now an associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa programme; and Professor George Joffe, professorial research fellow at the Global Policy Institute, research fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University, and research fellow and director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Qatar.

During the Q&A session, the panellists were asked this question: Tony Blair likes to say “history will be my judge” – how is history going to judge Tony Blair and Libya, and then his successor and the whole Megrahi thing – isn’t this going to be the elephant in the room even after liberation, even after Britain's current military involvement in Libya?

The Libyan panellist saw things differently from his two co-panellists. Dr Najem said: "Tony Blair. Bless him. He’s a name synonymous with Gaddafi in the Libyan psyche... I would love to see him next to Gaddafi in the ICC (International Criminal Court) because he’s someone who is equally just as much a culprit as Gaddafi. He was the one who was instrumental in rehabilitating Gaddafi. It was a blemish on Western democracy, and particularly Britain, when Tony Blair went into the tent and embraced Gaddafi and kissed him on the cheek [in 2007]. How could you kiss someone like him? It just revolts you. But also to tell us that this is after all a tamed monster that we can do business with... I’d love to see Blair talking on the issue because he has been conspicuously absent from the whole thing because he knows he and his cronies were..."

When Sir Richard Dalton interjected: "I must be one of his [Blair's] cronies then!" Dr Najem said: "No, no, you are a civil servant so I will forgive you – I’m talking about the policy makers, Peter Mandelson and everyone else."

Sir Richard Dalton, who played a key role in the Libyan-British rapprochement when he was ambassador in 1999-2003, stoutly defended the British record of dealings with the Gaddafi regime. "Don’t over-emphasise Tony Blair’s role," he said. "The Libyans began the business of improving their international relationships in the mid-1990s and it’s possible to argue that they rehabilitated themselves through dealing successively with these 'legacy issues' – these were hot –button issues, whether it was assistance to the IRA, or supporting Abu Nidal, their attitude to Israel, you can see any number of cases where the Libyans have shifted their behaviour – it culminated, it didn’t start with, the British-American diplomatic effort to achieve the surrender of Libya’s embryonic nuclear weapons programme and associated material.

"So Tony Blair came very late to the game. We proceeded incredibly cautiously with Libya. We didn’t invite our ministers to go for three years after the resumption of diplomatic relations in 1999 and we didn’t send our Prime Minister until a further two years down the line. And many many years after our fellow Europeans had been sending their presidents and prime ministers in a queue to shake the dear leader’s hand.

"And that was because of the absence of a clear political consensus in the UK that we should rush into the embrace until we’d got a solid settlement of our disputes ... and on the whole that strategy worked. Now there is an argument that we shouldn’t have even have embarked on that, that this person [Gaddafi] is so far beyond the pale that we should simply eschew his country, but that would have been to betray a lot of solid British interests and that translates into jobs, yes, and security, yes, and furthermore it would be completely at odds with the policy we adopt internationally in general. International relations 101, as the Americans say, is that you have to deal with regimes which you fundamentally dislike and disapprove of. I can think of so many examples in my lifetime have borne this out, starting with the Soviet Union."

George Joffe said: I don’t really have very much to add – I can’t comment on Tony Blair because of my well known antipathy - but apart from that I do think we have to take what Sir Richard Dalton says seriously. Because actually Libya made a quite conscious set of policy decisions very early on, and I’d put them even earlier than the mid-1990s, I think they actually began in the late 1980s, that it had to rehabilitate its relationships – and it had to find ways of doing it.

"The regime demonstrated a quite remarkable opportunism in the way in which it did that. And so in a way I think Mr Blair came on the coattails of that – the fact that the manifestation of his interest was not the most appealing is perhaps not surprising. If you looking for an area in which he had a direct effect on policy it’s not so much in Libya case, it’s in the case of Iraq – and that’s the really crucial thing, if you’re looking for a reason to blame him as an individual that’s what you can blame him for. But again I have to say you know arguing politics simply in terms of personalities is a little dangerous so I think we need to look at the Libyan case really in the round to understand what really happened."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

hisham matar's anatomy of a disappearance goes international

There was disappointment and surprise in some quarters when Libyan novelist Hisham Matar's second novel Anatomy of a Disappearance did not make the Man Booker longlist of 13 novels announced on 26 July. See for example the take of reviewer and critic Suzi Feay who includes Anatomy of a Disappearance on her personal longlist. Matar's debut novel In the Country of Men caused a major stir in 2006 when it was shortlisted for the prize, and it has received a surge of new interest during the Libyan uprising for its compelling and subtle portrait of the Gaddafi police state in Tripoli in 1979. It won several major literary awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Award for the Best First Book, Europe and South Asia Region, and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize for the book that best evokes the spirit of a place. It has been translated into nearly 30 languages.
In the Country of Men is the focus of a forthcoming edition of the BBC World Service's World Book Club. The programme is due to be recorded on 24 August at the World Service's Bush House headquarters in central London. Matar will be talking about the novel in front of a live audience; questions can be emailed to

Anatomy of a Disappearance has received much praise and generally, though not uniformly, highly favourable reviews - certainly better than some of the titles that made the longlist. But waht would a Man Booker longlist or shortlist be if it did not cause ripples, and complaints that a particular hotly tipped favourite was not selected.

When the BBC presenter Rosie Goldsmith interviewed Matar for last month's London Literature Festival she enthused about his “absolutely wonderful” second book. “It's been heaped with praise and I can only heap it with even more praise," she said. "It is superb. It is also the most wonderful page turner. It’s a short book but it’s quite epic and grand in its ambition. It is also very erotic: the whole book is saturated with a kind of suppressed sex and emotion.”

Anatomy of a Disappearance is now beginning to appear in other territories and langauges following its debut UK publication [pictured centre] by Penguin imprint Viking on March 3. The German edition, translated by Werner Löcher-Lawrence, is published by the Random House imprint Luchterhand Literaturverlag under the title Geschichte eines Verschwindens. Another Random House imprint The Dial Press publishes the US version on 23 August.
It's interesting to compare the covers of a novel in different editions and languages - I recall the Jordanian-British novelist Fadia Faqir writing on this in her article A Dalek in a Burqa published by
What to make of the garment on the cover of the US edition? One of the most striking images in the novel is the narrator's first sight of Egyptian-British Mona (for whom the narrator falls as a young teenager, and whom his father marries) at the swimming pool of a hotel in Alexandria wearing "an outrageoulsy bright yellow swimsuit that made her skin seem darker, her age younger." The cover of the US edition has a part-Edwardian part-Japanese effect.

Hisham's London-based literary agent AP Watt says that other editions agreed so far are Canada (Hamish Hamilton, a Penguin imprint); Arabic (Dar El Shorouk, Cairo); Danish (Gyldendal); Dutch (JM Meulenhoff); Finnish (Söderström); French (Denoël); Hebrew (Keter); Italian (Einaudi); Norwegian (Cappelen Damm); Polish (Smak Slowa); Portuguese - Brazil (Record) - Portugal (Civilizacao); Spanish (Salamandra); Swedish (Forum); Turkish (Pegasus).

Hisham appears with Egyptian-British novelist and essayist Ahdaf Soueif and BBC special correspondent Allan Little at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26 August, at an event titled Revolution in the 21st Century: North Africa. On 29 August he is in conversation with Kirsty Lang, presenter of BBC Radio 4's cultural daily slot Front Row, at the inaugural Voewood Festival ("the literary garden party of the year" - other participants include the legendary Diana Athill) near Holt in Norfolk. He travels to Italy in September for the Mantova literary festival. He's due to appear at the Jaipur Festival in January and is likely also to appear at the Emirates Airline Festival in Dubai in March.

Hisham is an associate professor at women's liberal arts college Barnard College, New York, an affiliated college of Columbia University, where he will be teaching a new course in the fall: Estrangement and Exile in Global Novels.

Monday, August 08, 2011

waguih ghali's bbc talk on visit to israel post-1967 war

One for Waguih Ghali completists – a battered copy of Good Talk: An Anthology from BBC Radio (Victor Gollancz, 1968). The volume includes the BBC Radio talk “An Egyptian in Israel” that the author of the novel Beer in the Snooker Club gave after his visit to Israel, post-June 1967 war. Ghali speaks of how his trip drastically changed his attitude towards Israel: “...whereas my pleas for understanding were previously directed towards the Arabs, I now feel that Israel is very much more to blame than the Arabs for the state of belligerency that exists in the Middle East.”

The volume is edited by the distinguished writer and editor Derwent May. At that time May was Literary Editor of The Listener – the celebrated highbrow BBC weekly that ran from 1929-91. Ghali is in excellent company: among the other contributors to the anthology are A J Ayer, Ted Hughes, Max Beloff, René Cutforth, Robert Gittings, Sir Bernard Lovell, Christopher Sykes and Magnus Pyke.

In his foreword, May writes that the talks and discussions in the volume had all been broadcast in the previous year or two on BBC Radio 4 (“previously the Home Service” – the change had only recently been made) or the Third Programme (which would in 1970 become BBC Radio 3).

May hoped that, for all their variety, “they each display a style and a kind of curiosity of mind that will please any reader who likes authentic reports on the state of the world in which we live.”

The book is divided into five sections: people, problems, places, imagination and fact. Ghali’s talk comes under “problems”; some of the other entries in this section are A J Ayer interviewed by Robert Kee and Olivier Todd on “What Are Philosophers For?”, Max Beloff on “The Americanisation of British Intellectual Life” and David Martin, a sociology reader at LSE, on “Trouble in the Universities”.

Waguih Ghali died in hospital in the first days of January 1969 ten days after taking a massive overdose of sleeping pills on Boxing Day, December 26. He had at the time been living in the flat of his editor, and briefly lover, Diana Athill.

In her memoir of Ghali, After a Funeral, Athill describes how a married friend whom adored and for whom he had developed a “pure love” helped Ghali “to the one practical achievement of his last years. She was able to give him the necessary introductions and wise advice on how to use them when he decided to visit Israel after the Six Day War.”

Athill records that both the Times and the Observer newspapers were ready to put up money for Ghali’s journey to Israel against articles which he would write when there, or after he came back. There was a “larky” last evening before his trip, at the end of which euphoria prevailed. “This, he was sure, was the beginning of great things.” Even though his advances from the newspapers would be swallowed up by the cost of the trip, if he sent back good stories other work would be bound to follow: “he would become established as an expert on the Middle East.”

Athill writes about how Ghali proved himself with the articles he wrote about his trip. She does not however mention a BBC talk.

The contributor’s note on Ghali in his six-page chapter of Good Talk reads: “Waguih Ghali is an Egyptian living in London. He is the author of an ironical novel about Egypt called Beer in the Snooker Club”.

Ghali begins his talk by saying that he managed to get a visa to Israel because of this novel “in which I made a plea for peace with Israel and tried to remind the Egyptians of the sufferings the Jews had experienced in Germany and in Eastern Europe. I depicted the corruptness of the Egyptian army officer class – our new elite. As a result I fell foul of the Egyptian government.”

Beer in the Snooker Club was “well received in Israel; it was translated into Hebrew and read by many people there. I mention all this to demonstrate my attitude towards Israel before the June war and before I visited that country myself.”

But “as a result of this visit, my attitude towards Israel changed drastically. I am still very much in favour of an understanding between the Arabs and Israel. But whereas my pleas for understanding were previously directed towards the Arabs, I now feel that Israel is very much more to blame than the Arabs for the state of belligerency that exists in the Middle East.

“This change of attitude on my part has not come about through reading books or delving into political and geographical sophistries, but through friendly and informal conversations with Israelis when I was in their country. The more I spoke to the ‘top” people, the policy makers, the less I felt that there is a chance for peace between us.”

Towards the end of his talks he says: “I was often asked by Israelis: ‘What should we do to have peace with the Arabs? ‘ My answer has been, and still is, to support the progressive movements in the Middle East. To tell the Arabs: ‘We are not the tools for imperialist designs on the Arab world.’ To acknowledge that the 1956 Suez war was the greatest mistakes they made – because it shook many Arabs like myself who were not anti-Israeli. The Israelis seem to remember the past only when it is to their advantage.”

Ghali pinned much hope on the Oriental Jews.

In his conclusion he says : “Although the Arabs seem to have begun to be more realistic about Israel, as they showed in Khartoum recently by listening to Bourguiba’s advice rather than Shukairy’s, I feel that real peace can come only if Israei really wills it. I can see this ‘will for peace’ coming about only when and if the government of Israel is composed of Israelis who feel an affinity with the Arabs, and not with the West. There are many such Israelis, but they are Oriental Jews or Separidim, and have no political power. After all, most of the political parties are financed by Zionist movements in the West and are therefore pro-Western. If there is, at the moment, a government in Israel which really wants peace, the first thing it should do, in my opinion, would be to evacuate its side of the Suez canal and to stop humiliating the Egyptians by their presence there. Furthermore, it must acknowledge former Palestinians as countrymen with equal rights."

Would the BBC allow the broadcasting of an opinion piece with such frank criticism of Israel today? One thinks not (see review of More Bad News from Israel by Professor Greg Philo and Mike Barry, an analysis of BBC and other media coverage of Israel-Palestine).