Sunday, October 30, 2011

three egyptian authors at residence of egypt's ambassador to uk

HE Hatem Saif Al Nasr

The recent tour of England by three Egyptian authors whose bestselling Arabic novels are newly published in English translation by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) had a wide geographical scope. The three writers - Khaled AlKhamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik - participated in literary events in cities from Durham in the north and Cambridge in East Anglia to the Southbank Centre in London and Bristol in the south west. Also in the south west, AlKhamissi appeared at two events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

But the event held at the splendid residence in South Audley Street, London, of the Egyptian ambassador to the UK HE Mr Hatem Saif Al Nasr at the invitation of Bloomsbury Publishing and the Ambassador, at which the guests included many Egyptians, had a particular resonance.

The event began with a minute's silence to remember the martrys of the revolution. In his opening speech the ambassador thanked his "dear friend" Bloomsbury’s founder and chief executive Nigel Newton, and Bloomsbury itself, for bringing to London and to a wider English audience three of Egypt’s “most renowned authors and their brilliant literary works. We are delighted to welcome Khaled AlKhamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik the authors of Taxi, Vertigo and Utopia, indeed three of the most successful and bestselling novels in Egypt in recent years.

“The three novels tell – each from a different angle yet all in unique and beautiful styles – important aspects of the story of Egyptian society’s journey to Tahrir Square... This is a story well worth telling, because it shows not only how our society evolved over recent years, but also how its people’s ingenuity preserved its historical accumulation of civility and humanity.”

The books, as different as they are, “were able to capture the humour, the temperament and the values of the Egyptian People and their undiminished eternal hope and optimism for a better tomorrow. Furthermore, you will also discover how our guest authors employed their narrative skills to shed light on some trends, patterns and challenges which we –as a people – will have to grapple with as we look ahead towards a brighter future for our society.”

The ambassador concluded: “One wonders if all of this and the other rich cultural expressions on the Egyptian scene during the past 10 years were a precursor, a bellwether to the civilized and peaceful Egyptian revolution of January 25th. The judgment is up to you…”

BQFP is a partnership of Bloomsbury Publishing of London and the Qatar Foundation. As well as publishing the three authors’ novels in English translation, it publishes the Arabic editions of Utopia and Vertigo outside Egypt: within Egypt the Arabic rights remain with the original publisher, Dar Merit.

Newton said that 18 months ago BQFP launched a new list of fiction and non-fiction from the Arab world. "This list is growing fast and earning recognition from many quarters. The Independent newspaper recently praised our enterprising list of Arabic fiction.”

Newton recommended the three books by the tour authors as “outstanding examples of contemporary Egyptian writing – they are not only by fine writers but offer valuable insights into the political transformations currently being experienced in Egypt.”

During the event the three writers were interviewed by BQFP consultant publisher Andy Smart, and then answered questions from the audience.

Asked about the inspiration for his debut political thriller Vertigo, Ahmed Mourad (33) explained that he had “worked with Mr Hosni Mubarak for 10 years from 2002 till the last 18 days [of his rule] as his personal photographer ...the atmosphere of the political layer of this society inspired me to write Vertigo.” It was a question of observing this stratum’s behaviour and treatment of others, and also its language: “Any layer in society has a slang – those people have a slang too.” He likened his novel to cutting through the layers of a cake. “My hero Ahmed Kamal is a wedding photographer for example, very low class” yet working in close proximity to the upper classes.

Mourad graduated from the High Cinema Institute in 2001 intending to work in film and media but found himself working on music video clips. He found this somewhat insubstantial, “like my footsteps on sand in the sea”, and started writing as a form of “therapy from our problems in Egypt”.

He started working on Vertigo while sitting in the rotating restaurant on the 40th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Cairo, waiting for a friend who was working in the hotel. Two businessmen plus bodyguards sat down beside him and he started to fantasise about their world and what they might be discussing. When they left “I wrote a scene from Vertigo – the assassination scene – imagining what might happen if some people came and assassinated all these people and me too! And this was the first page of Vertigo.”

He says it was his wife who eventually persuaded him that what he had written was a novel and that it should be submitted to a publisher. The novel was published by Dar Merit. He has continued to pursue a career in both writing fiction and in movie making, and has written the film script for Vertigo and for his second novel.

Mourad was asked whether he plans to write about what he saw while working as Mubarak’s personal photographer. “For me a photographer is like a doctor – I can’t tell my patient’s secrets” he said, but added: “If I write something it will not be now, it will be after 10 years when everything settles... in Egypt people are angry from the last regime, and if I write something now I have two choices: people may say I’m not angry enough, or the opposite. I prefer to wait for some years to make it more accurate."

Khaled AlKhamissi , born in 1962, said he is from the generation “that lived the fall of culture in Egypt”. He remembers the deterioration of culture in the 1970s and 1980s, with the closure of many bookshops, cinemas and theatres. He traced this to the 1967 defeat by Israel, subsequent US hegemony in the region, and Sadat’s policies as president. In 1971 a war was launched against the cultural intelligentsia, whose members tended to be Leftist. Khaled’s father, the famous poet, writer and journalist Abdel Rahman Al-Khamissi was phoned by Sadat who told him he liked him very much - and was giving him four days notice to leave the country, otherwise he would be jailed. Many other writers and intellectuals also left Egypt. Abdel Rahman remained in exile until his death in 1987, when his body was returned to Egypt.

After the decades of cultural stagnation “what happened in the last five years was for me a total surprise,” AlKhamissi said. “It was a cultural revolution – we had more writers, more bookshops, more cinemas, more theatres, more music troupes, more everything. What we experienced this year was totally related to this huge cultural revolution that happened in Egypt beginning in 2004, 2005.

“This cultural revolution had a mainly youth clientele –we have to know that two thirds of the Egyptian population are under 25 years... We cannot understand really the phenomena of publishing in Egypt and the phenomenon of best selling without understanding the boom of culture, which is totally related to political crisis and economical crisis. The youth are searching for a land to stand on, and during that search they use culture to try to understand where they have to go, and this is totally related to what happened this year.”

Khaled AlKhamissi

Khaled AlKhamissi grew up in the house of his late mother’s father, the great writer, poet, critic and translator Moufid El Choubachi (born in 1899). Khaled’s mother, the TV actress Faten Choubachi, died in 1968 at the age of only 32. His uncles Ali El Choubachi and Cherif El Choubachi are, among other things, important writers.

AlKhamissi had wanted to write from the age of 14. His grandfather’s house was home to novelists and poets and he asked himself how he could write in this milieu.“It was impossible as a matter of fact – and I remember that everything I wrote I put very quickly in the garbage. I was very anxious that the paper should be totally torn up because I was afraid that someone would read what I wrote. My grandfather was a great critic and I was really afraid that he might read something I wrote, which I felt was really nothing.”

In addition, in the 1980s and 1990s and until 2005 every time he wanted to write he would ask himself – why? “And I didn’t have an answer to this simple question, why. There was no reason at all. No readers, no bookshops, nothing."

It took him 25 years to become a writer. “And when I wrote I tried to write something totally different as in the matter of the literary form, and in the matter of the language and in the matter of the technique of writing. I tried to make something really different, to make my grandfather happy."

AlKhamissi added: “I’ll tell you something very personal: I didn’t find any happiness during my whole life till 2005 when I began to write. This was totally linked to what was happening - in 2005 there were parliamentary elections, a presidential election, constitutional changes to try to ensure Gamal Mubarak would succeed Husni. It was a catastrophic situation that made society shake and I found that a lot of people began to want, exactly like me, to speak loudly."

AlKhamissi's debut novel Taxi was published by Dar El Shorouk of Cairo in 2006. It takes the form of 58 fictional conversations between the first-person narrator and Cairo taxi drivers. The novel teems with humour and tragedy, and became an instant best seller. It was subsequently published by the now defunct British publisher Aflame Books in English translation by Jonathan Wright. The translator has improved the text for the English edition now launched by BQFP.

The British novelist Maggie Gee wanted to know whether Egyptian taxi drivers ever talk to AlKkhamissi about Taxi, and whether in Egypt there is a smaller gap than in Britain between highbrow and popular fiction. AlKhamissi said he didn't think taxi drivers read his novel. With 55 to 58 per cent of Egyptians living under the poverty line, taxi drivers are totally caught up in the struggle for survival and "these people in this poverty cannot for sure read a book".

On the question of the distinction between popular and non-popular fiction in Egypt, he said this had been through various phases in the past century."In the first phase from the beginning of 20th century until the 1940s for example we had popular fiction and non-popular fiction. During the 50s and 60s, with Nasser and the revolution dream, pop fiction was gone and we had "serious" fiction you may say. In the 70s, 80s, 90s, we lost culture totally, and for the past 15 years we have been trying to make a road."

Ahmed Khaled Towkik (left) Ahmed Mourad (right)

Ahmed Khaled Towfik is the prolific author of 500 works. “I’m famous in Egypt among the youth, in pop culture,” he said. He writes in the range of 17,000 to 40,000 words, novella length, for the 19-39 age group. Utopia was his first experiment in addressing an audience wider than a youth readership.

He spoke of the rewarding nature of writing for a young audience with its appetite for reading; after all, “no singer likes to sing to the deaf”. He values the feedback from the youth. “When I write something bad they say to me it’s bad, we hated what you wrote, when I write something good they say we love you very much ... When you write for them you feel you are alive”.

Utopia is a dystopian novel set in Egypt in 2030. The wealthy are living in gated communities in the north, insulated from life outside. He described the novel as “a form of prophecy” and “psychological therapy for myself because I felt the danger is coming – as I said once in my writing, if you squeeze Utopia, pus will fall from it, because it’s full of fear, full of anger.” He had sensed that disaster was approaching: “I began to understand that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and that one day the poor will be the amusement of the rich... the rich will start hunting the poor just for fun.”

He imaged that the situation would end in revolution. “I didn’t know what would happen in this revolution, but I predicted that the revolution would be done by the lower classes. This didn’t happen in January, when it happened through middle class youth who enter Facebook and have the picture of Che Guevara in their bedrooms.”

Ahmed Mourad

Asked whether the slang in his novel posed a particular challenge for the translator, Ahmed Mourad said: “Bloomsbury chose Robin Moger who’s a very talented translator, very professional. He lived in Egypt for eight years I believe, and he knows Egyptian slang very well. Every weekend Robin sent me a report on 10 or 12 words he wanted me to translate because he didn’t know the meaning.” An example was shankouti which seems to roughly translate as wheeler-dealer.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik said: “My translator Chip Rossetti would send me questions on words he didn’t understand, or that he just found it difficult to use or which had no parallel for him.” He added: “Slang is changing every day in Egypt with the very rapid social changes that are occurring. My son uses some words that I don’t understand, very strange words. When I learn these words he says I am very old and that these words are old!”

As the event was drawing to a close Ahmed Khaled Towfik asked to have a final word. He said that globalisation has helped increase interest in Arabic literature, and that it is now easier for Arab authors to have their work translated. Naguib Mahfouz had to wait a long time for his work to be translated, but “now it’s very rapid and active process... I think that some of the works that paved the way for this are the works of Alaa al-Aswany. The Yacoubian Building made youth interested in literature and made the world interested in Arabic literature, and I should thank him for this."
Susannah Tarbush

Monday, October 24, 2011

start of 3rd ipaf nadwa with 8 emerging arab writers

Mansoura Ez Eldin: a mentor for the Nadwa

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, often referred to as the Arabic Booker) has announced the names of the eight emerging Arab writers who are particpating in its third annual writers' workshop. The workshop, known as the Nadwa, started today in Abu Dhabi and ends on Monday 31 October. It is supported by IPAF and the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region.

The writers, three female and five male, are: Rasha al-Atrash (Lebanon), Ali Ghadeer (Iraq), Waleed Abdulla Hashim (Bahrain), Sara Abd al-Wehab al-Drees (Kuwait), Mohamed ould Mohamed Salem (Mauritania), Muhsin Suleiman (UAE), and Mahmoud al-Rahby and Jokha al-Harthi (both from Oman). The writers range in age from 24 to 42.

The list has a strong Gulf emphasis, with five writers from GCC countries (Oman gets two bites of the cherry) and one from Iraq. There is no writer from the three Arab countries - Libya, Tunisia and Egypt - where popular uprisings have toppled the leaders. The Libyan writer Mohamed Mesrati tells me that he was invited to the Nadwa, but that the UAE declined to give him a visa because of his status as a Libyan refugee. At 21, he would have been the youngest participant in the Nadwa by three years.

However, the Nadwa does have a mentor from Egypt. The two mentors are former IPAF shortlistees: Egyptian novelist and journalist Mansoura Ez Eldin and Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir [pictured]. Ez Eldin was shortlisted for IPAF 2010 her novel Beyond Paradise, and Tag Elsir was shortlisted for IPAF 2011 for The Larvae Hunter. Ez Eldin participated in the inaugural Nadwa in 2009 and went on to mentor the second in 2010. Under the mentors' guidance, the writers will be encouraged to examine each others’ work as well as discuss broader subjects of literary interest, such as the use of dialect in fiction. During the Nadwa each of the eight eight promising young writers will produce a new piece of creative writing - either a short story or a chapter of a novel.

“The Nadwa offers a unique opportunity for emerging Arab writers to receive constructive feedback from their peers," says Salwa Mikdadi, head of the Arts and Culture Programme of the Emirates Foundation. "Initiatives like the Nadwa motivate the local cultural scene in the UAE. Every edition of the Nadwa offers talented new Emirati writers a platform to enrich their writing experience.”

The eight young authors had work submitted for IPAF in the past year, and were commended by the IPAF judges. Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi, chair of the 2011 IPAF judges, comments:

“I am delighted that some of the emerging voices whose work was submitted for the Prize will be participating in the Nadwa and be mentored by one of our 2011 shortlisted authors. The Prize has a special interest in developing the abilities of promising young Arab writers, and the Nadwa aims to do this by encouraging the mutual exchange of literary experience amongst the participants and between the participants and the mentors, dedicated writers with exceptional experience who are capable of editing, directing and developing the texts shown to them by these new writers.”

IPAF, which is supported by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, is now entering its fifth year. It aims to recognise and reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and to encourage wider international readership of Arabic literature of the highest quality. IPAF also aims to encourage the writing of high quality literature and the Nadwa accords with this aim. Meanwhile, the judging process for IPAF 2012 is in full swing: the longlistwill be announced on 10 November, the shortlist on 7 December, and the winner on 27 March next year.

The inaugural Nadwa in 2009 resulted in eight pieces of new fiction which were published in English and Arabic in Emerging Arab Voices 1 by Dar Al Saqi Books. The publication of a second volume, of writing from the 2010 workshop, is currently under discussion.

the eight emerging writers:

Rasha al-Atrash is a Lebanese writer and journalist. She has worked on the Al-Safir newspaper and currently writes for Al-Hayat. She holds an MA in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths College, London. Her novel Soap was published by Saqi Books in 2010. She won first prize in the How to Write a Novel workshop, as part of UNESCO’s Beirut: World Book Capital in 2009.

Ali Ghadeer is an Iraqi writer and journalist, born in in 1971. He obtained a BA in military science at a military college in from Baghdad in 1993. He has worked for a number of Iraqi newspapers and civilian organisations, and is the author of a collection of short stories, a volume of poetry and prose and a novel.

Jokha al-Harthi is an Omani writer, born in 1978. She teaches Arabic Literature in Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. She has a doctorate in literature from Edinburgh University, Scotland and has published two novels, two collections of short stories, a volume of prose and poetry and a children's story. Some of her work has been published in translation, in English for Banipal Magazine and in German for Lisan Magazine.

Waleed Abdulla Hashim is a Bahraini novelist, born in1982. He began writing at an early age and his first novel, I Was Not There, was published by Dar al-Konooz in 1999, whilst he was still at secondary school. He completed his higher education in the UK and holds an LLB in Law from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. He currently works in Bahrain as a novelist, lawyer and legal advisor. His other novels are: Across Another Life (2006, Arabic Institute of Research and Publishing) and Glanced Visions from Yarmuq (2009, Al-Intishar Institute).

Sara Abd al-Wehab al-Drees is a Kuwaiti writer, born in 1987. She has a BA in Sociology and Administration from Kuwait University. She writes a weekly column in the Kuwaiti Al-Ra'i newspaper and is a member of the Kuwaiti Journalists' Association. She was the head of the literary cultural club of Kuwait University for the academic year 2010-11. She has published two novels herself and the third was published by Dar al-Fikr al-Arabi.

Mohamed ould Mohamed Salem is a Mauritanian journalist, writer and novelist. He was born in 1969 in Wadi Naga, Mauritania, and has a BA in Arabic Language and Literature. He has published three novels: Things from an Old World (2007, Dar Yusef bin Tashfin, Mauritania), Memory of the Sand (2008, Dar al-Aman, Rabat, Morocco) and The Paths of Abd al-Barka (2010, Culture and Media Department, Government of Sharja, UAE). He is an editor of the Al-Khalij newspaper in the UAE.

Muhsin Suleiman is an Emirati writer, born in 1976. He has written plays, screenplays and the short story collection Behind the Hanging Curtains, which was published by the Sharjah Department of Culture. He has won awards for a number of his works and often participates in cultural activities, both within and outside the UAE.

Mahmoud al-Rahby is an Omani writer. He was born in 1969 in the village of Sarur, Oman. He holds a BA in Arabic Literature from King Mohamed the Fifth University in Morocco. He has published four short story collections and two novels. His collection Why Don't you Joke with Me? won the Best Short Story Prize at the Muscat Book Fair in 2008 and another collection, Seesawing above Two Times, won the Dubai Cultural Prize in 2009.

the two mentors:

Egyptian novelist and journalist Mansoura Ez Eldin was born in Delta Egypt in 1976. She studied journalism at the Faculty of Media, Cairo University and her work has since published short stories in various newspapers and magazines: she published her first collection of short stories, Shaken Light, in 2001. This was followed by two novels, Maryam's Maze in 2004 and Beyond Paradise in 2009, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010. Her work has been translated into a number of languages, including an English translation of Maryam's Maze (translated by Professor Paul Starkey) published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. This year, she was selected for the Beirut39, as one of the 39 best Arab authors below the age of 40. She was also a participant of the inaugural Nadwa in 2009 and was a mentor at the second Nadwa in October 2010.

Amir Tag Elsir is a Sudanese writer, born in 1960. He studied medicine in Egypt and at the British Royal College of Medicine. He has published 14 books, including novels, biographies and poetry. His most important works are: The Dowry of Cries, The Copt’s Worries, The French Perfume and The Crawling of the Ants. His novel The Larvae Hunter was shortlisted for IPAF 2011. Some of his works have been translated into French and three novels are currently being translated into French, English and Italian.

Susannah Tarbush

Sunday, October 23, 2011

bqfp to publish sonallah ibrahim's 'beirut, beirut' in english

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) announced today that it has signed a contract for the English rights to Beirut, Beirut, the 1984 novel by Sonallah Ibrahim (74), a pioneering figure on the Egyptian and Arab literary scenes for around 45 years. Publication of the translation is set for September 2013.

Beirut, Beirut is set during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90. "In 1979 Sonallah Ibrahim travelled to Beirut to find a publisher for his novel but found himself in the middle of the conflict," BQFP says. "In an attempt to understand what was happening, Ibrahim began to research and document events, which formed the basis for Beirut, Beirut."

Beirut, Beirut received much critical acclaim on publication in Arabic in 1984 and has been reprinted several times. "Beirut, Beirut is one of a trilogy of documentary novels by Sonallah Ibrahim that employ a literary style unique in Arabic writing", BQFP notes. Ibrahim's other documentary style novels are Zaat (1992) and Warda (2002). And Beirut, Beirut is one of four novels in which the central protagonist is a writer, starting with The Committee (1981).

Several of Ibrahim's novels have been published in English translation including his 1966 debut prison novel The Smell of It (Heinemann African Writers Series, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies, 1971); The Committee
(American University in Cairo - AUC - Press, trans. Mary St. Germain Charlene Constable, 2001); Zaat (Syracuse University Press, trans. by Anthony Calderbank, 2001); Stealth (Aflame Books, trans Hosam M. Aboul-Ela, 2009).

Sonallah Ibrahim was born in 1937. After studying law and drama at Cairo University, he worked as a journalist until he was arrested and imprisoned in 1959 for his leftist activities. When released in 1964 he moved to Berlin to work for a news agency, and then to Moscow to study cinematography. He returned to Egypt in 1974 and since then has been a full-time writer.In addition to his novels, Ibrahim has written short stories and a dozen children's books. His works have been translated into many languages.

In 1999 he was a visiting associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies of the University of California at Berkeley. In 2003 he was awarded the Egyptian State’s Arab Novel Award, but rejected the award in public and used the event to deplore the corruption within the Egyptian regime.

In an interview for Jadaliyya conducted by Arabic-English translator and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University Elliott Colla in June this year, Ibrahim speaks about the Egytpian uprising ("not a revolution"), whether there is such a thing as revolutionary literature ("I don't think so"), and about his own writing process.

BQFP,which has its headquarters in Doha, is owned by Qatar Foundation and managed by Bloomsbury Publishing of London. It has built up a impressive list of authors since starting its official launch in April 2010. Its authors include Ibrahim Essa, Khaled Hosseini, Kamila Shamsie, Khaled AlKhamissi, Susan Abulhalwa, Suad Amiry, Abdo Khal, Mohammed Achaari and Ahlam Mostaghanemi. Earlier this month it signed for the English rights to Egyptian author Radwa Ashour's novel Farag to be published in English in February 2013.

BQFP has three stated aims: to publish books of excellence and originality in English and Arabic; to promote the love of reading and writing, including helping establish a vibrant literary culture in Qatar and the Middle East; and to transfer publishing and related skills to Qatar through regular internships and secondments in Doha and at Bloomsbury’s headquarters in London, as well as through training courses in key areas of publishing, and the mentoring of aspiring Qatari publishers.

BQFP has a commitment to helping improve standards of translation into and out of Arabic. It recently held the second annual BQFP International Translation Conference in Doha, in partnership with Carnegie-Mellon University Qatar.

Susannah Tarbush

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

Monday, October 17, 2011

three 'arab spring' egyptian writers tour england

'BQFP brings the Arab Spring to the UK'. This is the slogan under which Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP ) is promoting the current tour of England by three Egyptian authors of novels newly published in English translation: Ahmed Khaled Towfik (author of Utopia), Ahmed Mourad (Vertigo) and Khaled Alkhamissi (Taxi).

The Arab Spring may be running into difficulties on the ground, and the phrase may have been somwhat over-used, but it remains a useful shorthand that has the potency to raise pulse rates in the literary and publishing spheres. 'Arab Spring' authors tend to be seen as decidedly cool. And 'Arab Spring literature' includes works written not only during the Arab Uprising, but also literature which - as in the case of these three novels - somehow presaged it.

As BQFP puts it: "All three titles provide an insight into life under Mubarak; the corruption, mayhem and daily grind of everyday life in Egypt, as well as its comic side. With parliamentary elections due to take place on 21st November 2011 Egypt continues to make the headlines and these bestselling authors are three voices from the eye of the storm." With publication of the novels BQFP has "added three outstanding titles to its list of fiction translated from Arabic, introducing bestselling Egyptian authors to a new English readership."

The 15-23 October tour ranges widely over England, taking in the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Southbank Centre and the Egyptian Embassy in London, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Durham Book Festival, and Cambridge University (details are below).

Ahmed Khaled Towfik

Ahmed Khaled Towfik, born in 1962, is regarded as the Arab world’s most prominent and bestselling author of fantasy and horror genres and is the author of more than 200 books. Utopia (first published in Arabic in 2009 by Dar Merit in Cairo; now translated into English by Chip Rossetti) is a vision of Egyptian society in the year 2023. "It is a chilling dystopian journey beyond the gated communities of the North Coast where the wealthy are insulated from the extreme poverty outside the walls. In a time when the world is guessing what the future will hold for Egypt, Utopia portrays a grim scenario."
A review by Sholto Byrnes in the Independent said: "Utterly compelling… Far more convincing a depiction of a nightmarish future even than A Clockwork Orange [by Anthony Burgess], Utopia is a miniature masterpiece. I defy anyone not to read it in one sitting."

Khaled Alkhamissi

Khaled AlKhamissi, born in 1962, is in addition to being a novelist a TV producer, and former publisher. He is chairman and CEO of Nile for Cultural and Media Production.
An English translation by Jonathan Wright of his 2006 novel Taxi (published in Arabic by Dar El Shorouk) was published by the small (now unfortunately defunct) UK publisher Aflame Books in 2008. The "new and improved English translation by Wright includes a post-revolution introduction by the author and has been described as ‘the ultimate book on the Egyptian Revolution’ (by Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany)," BQFP observes. "Taxi transports the reader to the Cairo streets in this bestselling collection of colourful encounters with taxi drivers during the final years of the Mubarak era. The fifty-eight fictional monologues tell Herculean tales of the struggle for survival and dignity among Greater Cairo’s 80,000 cab drivers."
The Independent's literary editor Boyd Tonkin finds that Wright's translation catches the taxi drivers' "raucous, ribald, but also tender and melancholic, drift. Money, love, family, politics, and the sheer surreal mayhem of the daily grind under Mubarak's regime, drive this invigorating panorama of a city, and a country, stuck in an endless tailback. Prior to Egypt's revolution, Taxi would have told you more than a thousand Twitter feeds about what was coming down the road beside the Nile."

Ahmed Mourad

Ahmed Mourad, born 1978, is a photographer, graphic designer and novelist, and has won several awards for his short films. His debut novel Vertigo (translated by Robin Moger; first published in Arabic in 2007 by Dar Merit) is "a bestselling political thriller that exposes Cairo’s seedy nightlife. Ahmed, a society photographer in a celebrated nightclub, witnesses a friend horrifically killed in a fight between business rivals. When the photographer is forced to flee the scene of the crime he subsequently becomes ensnared in a web of crimes whose perpetrators stop at nothing to cover up." In its original Arabic the novel was reprinted seven times. Egypt's The Daily News described it as "a beautiful and exciting novel".

Tour Venues:

On 15 October Khaled Alkhamissi made two appearances at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. First, he participated in the Prospect Debate on The New Protest Movement, with Martin Bell, Shiv Malik, and Prospect editor Bronwen Maddox. And then he and Tarek Osman (author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak, Yale University Press) discussed 'The Arab Uprising - Where Next?' with Julia Wheeler in the chair.

Tonight, 17 October, the three authors are at the Egyptian Embassy in London for a reception, and a discussion on Egyptian literature moderated by BQFP consultant publisher Andy Smart.

Tomorrow 18 October 7.30-9 pm the writers are at the Bristol Festival of Ideas for 'Egypt and the Uprising' chaired by Sarah Lefanu.

Wednesday 19 October sees the trio at Keynes Hall, Kings College, Cambridge University for 'In the Eye of the Storm: Life and Writing in Contemporary Egypt' chaired by Professor Yasir Suleiman, Cambridge University's Head of Arabic.

On Thursday 20 October 7.45pm at London's Southbank Centre the authors will discuss their work and "offer fascinating insights ino a country at the heart of geopolitical events in 2011". In the chair is Paul Blezard.

The finale of the tour on Sunday 22 October is at 11 am at the Durham Book Festival in the north of England. The authors will "discuss contemporary Egyptian writing and publishing, and reflect on what the Arab Spring will mean for writers from the Middle East."

Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, October 15, 2011

interview with Libyan writer Mohamed Mesrati

An interview with the Libyan writer Mohamed Mesrati
"The only thing I’m in life for is to be a writer."

Mesrati at the London Book Fair seminar 'The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction'

Around five years ago the London-based Iraqi writer and journalist Samuel Shimon – founder of the Arabic literary website and cofounder of Banipal magazine – received by e-mail a short story from a then unknown Libyan writer named Mohamed Mesrati living in the northern English city of Manchester

Shimon found Mesrati’s short story “fantastic”, and had no hesitation in publishing it in a prominent position on Kikah. He asked Mesrati to send him more stories, and said he might arrange for some to be translated into English and published in Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature of which Shimon is now editor.

Shimon also asked Mesrati to send him a photograph of himself, and recalls his astonishment when a picture of “a young boy” arrived. He asked Mesrati how old he was: “Sixteen” came the answer.

Mesrati, who turned 21 in July, has amply lived up to this early promise. He has had a succession of stories published in Kikah and an array of other online publications and websites, in al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, and on his own blog Merciapide. Shimon praises both the story-telling skills and style of Misrati’s “really beautiful short stories”. And unlike those of some other Arab writers, Mesrati’s stories need virtually no editing when submitted for publication. Shimon thinks Mesrati has benefitted from his wide reading, including of English-language writers, and other writers in English translation.

The prominent Libyan short-story writer and translator Omar al-Kikli names Mesrati as one of the nine Libyan short-story writers “who have gained most prominence in the first decade of the new century”. Al-Kikli made his comment in an essay on the Libyan short story, published in Banipal’s first-ever special feature on Libyan fiction – published, fortuitously, not long after the Libyan uprising erupted in mid-February.

The 135-page special feature includes an excerpt from Mesrati’s novel-in-progress Mama Pizza, translated into English by Leri Price. Rich in comic touches, the novel has an 18-year-old first-person narrator and is set among Libyan fast-food workers and menu deliverers in the town of Runcorn, near the north-west English port of Liverpool. The excerpt features a Libyan leftist “pizza-making veteran and professional menu deliverer” named Ali Guevara.

Mesrati’s novel enters new territory for Anglo-Libyan and Anglo-Arab fiction: that of Libyan and other Arab refugees and workers struggling to get by in a northern English town, seen from the perspective of a teenage Libyan worker.

Mesrati is a writer from the Arab Spring’s Facebook Generation we hear so much about, eager and restless for change. He is an engaging, funny, outspoken character, playful and erudite. His Twitter profile reads: ‘Writer, journalist, blogger, and REBEL!’ His tweets have recently included irreverent observations on the new political players in Libya.

Mesrati has had a high profile as a writer during the Libyan revolution. He is one of four Libyan fiction writers based in the UK who have been much in demand for conferences, broadcasts, interviews and articles. They were the panellists at the London Book Fair’s groundbreaking ‘The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction’ seminars in April. The other three writers are prizewinning novelist Hisham Matar, the short-story writer Giuma Bukleb (born in 1952 and imprisoned with other writers in Libya for ten years from the late 1970s), and the short-story writer, surgeon, essayist and prizewinning blogger and podcaster Ghazi Gheblawi.

with Samuel Shimon at the London Book Fair seminar

Is it possible to sum up how the past eight months have been for you, as a Libyan and as a writer? Did you think the revolution would turn out the way it has?
It has been a strange eight months. From the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia, followed by the Egyptian uprising, and then the Libyan, I was all the time wondering if Libyans would make it one day and bring Gaddafi down. I had a big question mark in my mind as did most Libyan intellectuals. I was following many Libyans who were writing and preparing for February 17th as the day of the Libyan revolution, and I was wondering how it would be.

In fact, Libya is not Egypt, nor Tunisia; Gaddafi killed our history and our identity - our flag, street names, national anthem. That was horrible, but it was amazing when we finally saw the independence flag waving over Benghazi in the protests. When I was at school we were taught that our history started from 1969, that we just had Italian colonisation and then Gaddafi came in 1969. Before I came to Britain in 2005, I didn’t know that there had been a kingdom of Libya. And it was only then that I saw our old flag of independence, on opposition websites.

From the beginning of the revolution, we knew that one day Gaddafi and his regime would be a memory – a bad one –from the past. We knew it would take a long time - to be honest, six months is a very short time to bring down a regime that was deeply embedded inside the country, but we are proud to have brought down the whole regime and not only the president. Libyans have reclaimed their identity and everything they lost since Gaddafi took power, and what did we discover in the end? That Gaddafi’s regime was Muhawala Inqilab Fashela – ie A Failed Coup Attempt.

Have you been able to find time for writing during this period?
During the revolution I wrote a lot of essays and fiction. I wrote an essay for an anthology which will soon come out in English entitled Alsh’ab Yurid – The People Demand – and an article for the Lebanese magazine Kalamon. I also wrote short stories that I published mainly on my blog. Most of the short stories I wrote during the revolution are about dictatorship. I wrote and posted a story, entitled Rats in the Big Brother’s Alley about Gaddafi’s 22 February speech, and his phrase Zanga Zanga (alley by alley). Another story, The Origin of Dictatorship, is a fantasy about the night that Gaddafi’s dad slept with Gaddafi’s mum, and the sperm that made Muammar Gaddafi. In the story I ask what if Gaddafi’s mother hadn’t wanted to have sex that night, what would have happened to the sperm that Gaddafi came from? Maybe his dad would have lost it somewhere in the desert!

How do you think the revolution will influence the future path of Libyan literature and Libya’s literary life in general? How do you see the prospects for Libyan artistic and creative life, and what do you hope for?
In Benghazi, just eight months after its liberation, we see more than 100 newspapers and magazines coming out. The same thing will happen in Tripoli and Misrata, but it is still too early to talk about literary magazines. I have a positive vision of Libya’s literary and cultural future. I believe that people were suffering to build a literary community, and now, here you go, you have the space to fill and you have the ideas and the materials – so go for it and do your project. There are literary cafes already in Tripoli as well as in Benghazi, and I can see intellectuals standing up again to improve the culture situation. On the other hand, I have my own vision of the Tripolitan literary side. I hope to see a real theatre and culture centres, like London’s South Bank Centre, full of events, creative works and the warm blood of creation. I’m asking to have festivals in cinema, art and books. And can you imagine that we don’t have a cinema industry to make films in Libya? It’s bloody ridiculous in a country that is rich in stories and history that could easily be turned into scripts for the big screen.

Are you planning to go back to Libya soon, at least for a visit? And do you see your long-term future as being there, or here in the UK, or where?
No, it’s still early for me to go even though I’m dying to go there and see my family and friends. Some friends and family members fought during the uprising, and a number of them were killed. Some are still missing. After we left Libya in 2005 and claimed political asylum in Britain my family and I couldn’t go back, because of Gaddafi – we were against the regime. Our asylum claim was at first rejected, and we had to appeal in court – but we had the evidence to back it up. Now that Libya is free, people are going back and some of them already started making projects in media and culture - but I still feel it is too hard to go back. I am basically not ready yet to see Libya without my childhood friends. I’m not ready to see the land that never left my mind since I left it. I built somehow a romantic image of Libya in my mind, and I’m sure that I still need time before I go there and destroy this image by the reality. In the future, I see myself still in Europe, maybe still in London, but if not you will probably find me somewhere between Naples and Rome – two of my most favourite cities in the world.

How do you think the revolution may influence your own writing?
Oh hell, it will change my writing in every way. The revolution depended on people, some of whom I personally know, joining the revolution and holding weapons, and I already feel that the big amount of harm and stress we got from this revolution changed my writing. I can’t tell how, but I can feel there is something strange going on whenever I write. I have planned two novels on the liberation war of Libya and all I need is time to write them. One of the novels has five characters, each with a story from different places, meeting up in Misrata. It will try to show all aspects of the revolution, including a female perspective and a Gaddafi soldier’s point of view. The other novel is a bit personal, about me and my friends inside Libya.

Please say something about your trip to post-revolution Egypt. I understand you were hoping to get into Libya from there, but were turned back.
I promised myself to keep this trip away from any conversation or interview until I publish a book about it. It’s longer than any interview can hold … it basically changed my life 100%.. Before Egypt I was one person, and after it I turned into someone else.

I think you were working in a bookshop, but gave up your job when you went to Egypt.
I left my job at one of the Fergiani book company’s three London bookshops –Queens Park Books – when I went to Egypt. I am now working in journalism as a freelancer and I recently started working part-time in the bookshop again. The customers ask me about Libya, and about my family, and sometimes invite me out for a drink or wave to me through the shop window. I feel very close to home in that environment, and in Queen’s Park – where I used to live.

Queens Park Books

Where were you born?
I was born in Tripoli in July 1990. My family is originally from Misrata but my father and then I were born in Tripoli. My dad was born in Fashloum. I was born in a street whose name was changed every time the regime changed: the Italian colonialists called it Via Italia. After independence it was called December 24th (the date of Libyan independence) Street, and when Gaddafi took power on September 1st 1969 he called it September 1st Street. Now, after the fall of Gaddafi, suddenly people started to call it February 17th Street. The conclusion is that I was born in a street that lost its identity, the same as me.

Were your parents involved in the arts?
My father is a play actor and was in many international plays but he focused on the subject of freedom, like any young revolutionary in the 70s and 80s. He learnt much from Moroccan theatre and developed what they called ‘The Suffering Theatre’ and ‘The Poor Theatre’ and then ‘The Free Theatre’. They were making plays from their own money. They had a challenging approach and were trying to make a new kind of theatre, but as you know, under military control nothing like that could really happen. For example, in 1984 my father acted an international play, Dracula, and they came and arrested him at night because, they said, “you mean Gaddafi is like Dracula”!
My mother is a musician and journalist. She plays oud and piano, but she found herself in journalism – especially after she came to England, where she could breathe freedom and could write freely about the regime in Libya.

Have you done any acting yourself? – you seem to enjoy playing with different images and so on.
I acted in plays when I was at school, and before I decided to be a writer I dreamed of being an actor. When my dad went out in the evenings, back in Tripoli, I would look through his shelves and read old scripts of plays or series he acted in – I used to read them out loud. Even now I’ll stand in front of a mirror and change my style and act things. Sometimes I sit by myself thinking about a story I would like to write, or a novel, and when I am planning it I choose a scene and start to act it before writing it down. Who knows, maybe one day I will be an actor!

During the London Book Fair Libyan fiction seminar you vividly described the northern English town of Runcorn, near Liverpool, where your novel Mama Pizza is set. How come you went to live there and where else have you lived in Britain?
I lived in Runcorn for a while. I went there because it was summer and I needed to work and get money. It’s a nice small town, and in the old town there are many pizza and kebab shops - I used to work in one of ‘em. That’s the place I chose to write my novel about. It’s a fascinating place and I met many different Libyans there with very interesting stories that I thought it would be enjoyable to share. I think British culture and literature need to know more about this side of Britain. For example, have you ever seen a kebab and pizza shop menu in your post box and thought about the person who delivered it? Who knows, he could be me, because I was a menu distributor for more than two years of my life, in Runcorn, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester. I would put headphones on, listen to music and go from house to house posting menus and dreaming of being a writer one day – and not only a writer, but an international writer. I imagined writing MY Ulysses and I would calm myself down every time a racist person came out of his/her house, shouting at me to go back to my country, by imagining that that this person would one day read my books and would love them. Moreover, kebab and pizza shops are now a part of the British society and as a writer who worked in them I need to write about them.

I lived in Manchester between my parents’ house and my girlfriend’s studio until I turned 18, then I moved to London, it was 2009. I moved to London just to have more freedom and torture myself, like many great poets and writers did ages ago, so that I could then write good literature!

Runcorn Old Town
Is your novel autobiographical?
Mama Pizza draws a lot on my time working in Runcorn as a pizza maker and menu distributor. I had many troubles there. I faced racism, cultural misunderstanding, I found myself in a small Libya! I saw how people treated me badly when I was posting advertising leaflets to their houses and I was sure that these people didn’t know that I was human and had dreams, and would like to have a fine house and family like they did. This is what I talk about in the novel. I also try to show another face of England, a side that people are always facing but never think to go deep inside, either in fiction or in the media. It’s the weird life of a pizza and kebab maker.

What role did literature play in your life when you were younger?
Literature meant a lot to me from when I was a boy and trying to be an actor. I loved plays so much, and my dad’s library was full of them, and I didn’t read anything else. In the days when I was reading plays, I liked Syrian author Saadallah Wannous and Moroccan playwrights such as Mohamed Elmeskin and Elmeskini Alsagher. However I became passionate about literature in general when I watched an Arab TV series called An End of a Brave Man and read that it had been taken from a novel of the same title by the Syrian novelist Hanna Minah. I went to Fergiani Bookshop in Tripoli and bought it - I remember I was 11 or 12 at the time - and when I read that novel I said that I definitely wanted to be a novelist. I continued to read Hanna Minah for a long time until I started reading Naguib Mahfouz and so on. I remember going to small bookshops and I remember one owned by an old man where all the books were dusty because no one went there. The owner supported my interest in literature and he used to let me borrow books, as long as I took them back. My grandfather -my mother’s father - had a very big library. His brother was a well-known writer and judge, Mohamed Kamel al-Houni. He had many books, and gave his library to my grandfather. My grandfather encouraged me to be a writer.

When did you start writing fiction?
I started writing stories when I was around 12. I used to write short stories at home – my mum would see me writing in the afternoon and think I was doing school homework. The short-story writer Ali Mustafa al-Musrati [born in 1926] used to walk in the street in Tripoli – everyone would recognise him. When I was 13 years old I went up to him, gave him some of my writing and said “here’s a story”. He said “I’ll read it and come back to you.” About a week later I went to his house at 2 pm and rang the bell and his daughter said he wasn’t at home. I waited until 5 pm and rang the bell again and his daughter said she had forgotten that he had gone to Tunisia. A few days later he recognised me in the street and told me: “You story was very good, but it is not ready to be published.” He gave me a signed copy of his new collection: he was the first author ever to sign one of his books for me. I read most of his stories when I was young.

Ali al-Misrati
 the inscription from Ali al-Musrati to Mohamed Mesrati

How did your writing develop after you came as a refugee to Britain?
I came to England when I was 14 years and 10 months and went to North Manchester High School for Boys. All the time I was at school in Libya I was in mixed sex schools, and I thought in Britain schools were mixed, so was surprised to find myself in a boys-only school. I then went to the Manchester College where I did more GCSEs and some media studies. I started reading deeply and wrote my first stories in Manchester Central Library, which happens to be where Hilary Mantel wrote her first novel. The first story I sent Samuel Shimon for Kikah was called Asafeer Sharesa, meaning Fierce Birds – it’s about two brothers trying to kill their uncle and grandmother. I was 16 at that time. I had other stories published on Kikah, and two stories and a couple of articles published in Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. But like most of the writers I know of my generation much of my work was first published on blogs and websites; my generation’s writers only write for newspapers to get money. I have published often on the websites and –Ibrahim Ighneiwa’s website – and also on Libya Today at

Considering all the work you have had published online, is publication in book form still important to you?
For me, the only thing I’m in life for is to be a writer. And no one can consider himself to be a writer until he has had a book published.

What happened with your first collection of short stories, which you had prepared for publication?
My experience of trying to have my first collection of 15 short stories published is a long saga that will stress me out if I remember it here. I gave up with it after realising that publishing in Arabic is killing creativity. Publishing houses in the Arab World are one of the biggest problems in destroying the meaning of reading. There are no rights for the author, and we young writers have to pay money to have our writing published. Normally the publisher looks at your wallet rather than at your work.

Banipal’s special feature on Libyan fiction l has an excerpt from your novel-in-progress Mama Pizza in English translation. How far is the novel autobiographical, and when do you expect it to be completed? Is it your first novel?
Mama Pizza is not my first novel. I finished my first novel a year ago – I wrote it in 2006-2010 – but I hate it. I like to make tragedy funny in my writing, but this novel was only tragic. It covers three generations of Libyan history, through a grandfather, father and son. It’s short, at 35,000 words. Mama Pizza will be completed and ready for publication, first in Arabic, in summer 2012. I have put something autobiographical in all my writing. I believe that any author should have something autobiographical in any writing he or she does.
By the way, that Banipal special feature on Libyan Fiction was long overdue: we had been waiting for it for more than 7 years! And when Banipal Books published an anthology of short stories from North Africa, Sardines and Oranges, in 2005, it didn’t include a single story from Libya among its 26 stories.

What form of Arabic do you use in Mama Pizza?
As well as its Libyan characters, the novel has two Algerian and four Syrian characters, and the Arabic text of Mama Pizza includes Libyan, Algerian and Syrian dialects I use informal Libyan in the dialogue. I believe authors from other countries translated into English should use some of their own language phrases in the translation. This shows the culture they are talking about and make the text more easily envisioned. Mama Pizza and other fiction work that I will write will be dressed by the Tripolitan and Libyan dialect in general, especially given that Tripolitan Arabic is a mixture of Arabic and Italian, which makes conversations and dialogues rich.

Will Gaddafi’s departure and the new situation in Libya make any difference to the writing of Mama Pizza?
I never hid my hatred of Gaddafi and I have written about him in many of my previous works. Most of the characters in Mama Pizza left Libya and went to Runcorn just because of Gaddafi’s regime. I have already made the plan for the novel, and I don’t think his end will change anything in it. It’s already an anti-Gaddafi novel, most of my writing even before the 2011 revolution was anti-Gaddafi.

Do you have a particular writing routine?
I used to write daily in the train travelling between Leyton, in East London, and my work at the Queens Park bookshop. The journey took an hour. Now I can’t write every day, but some days I write from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon while listening to jazz.

Do you do much rewriting?
I rewrite a lot, I wrote some chapters of Mama Pizza three or four times, and then I compare and see what’s the best and what to add and cut. I do this before showing my work to anyone, and more editing comes up after showing my writing to friends or to my agent, Nemonie.

When do you think will Mama Pizza may be published in English?
I’m not sure when the novel will be published in English, but I believe it will be important for the British reader to have it and read about people he sees almost everyday!

The excerpt in Banipal was translated by Leri Price. Are you continuing to work with her, eg is she translating the whole novel?
Leri Price did a good translation but unfortunately I don’t have any contact with her and my agent found a good translator, Robin Moger. He has previously translated one of my non-fiction works and I thought, as did my agent, that he would be a good translator for Mama Pizza.

What have you been reading during your time in England?
When I came to England I read mostly Arabic, especially classical poetry. I went on to read in English, and I started reading British and American literature and literature translated into English from French and other languages. Now I’m reading many different books at the same time. I’m not really in a mood to read on one book at a time. I reread quite a bit nowadays, books including Kitab al-Tugra (Book of the Sultan’s Seal) by Egyptian Yousef Rakha and The Savage Detectives by Chilean Roberto Bolano. I read in English a lot of literature which has never been translated into Arabic, and a lot of post-modern literature. Roberto Bolano is one of my favourites, and he has not been translated into Arabic.
I also reread Matahat - Autobiography - by Libyan author Kamel Hassan Maghur. In fact I love this book, it talks about the biography of the author by telling the stories of his friends and neighbours in Tripoli during the 50s and 60s. I’m fascinated with this period of Libyan history.

a favourite book

Tell us something about your blog and about the Imtidad cultural podcasts which you co-produce and co-host with Ghazi Gheblaw. When did you first meet him, and what sort of subjects do the two o f you cover?
I started my blog under the title ‘My Camomile Tea’ in December 2009 – I have since changed its name to ‘Merciapide’, meaning Sidewalk . My posts focus on culture and literature, and include reviews of books, cinema and music - subjects on which the Imtidad podcasts also focus. I got to know Ghazi’s writing when I read his first published short-story collection when I was still in Libya, and then I met him in person in December 2007 after I came to Britain.
Ghazi and I select topics from our experiences –for example a recent film we have watched or books we have both read. We have put a huge amount of work into developing Imtidad. Ghazi spent a lot to make a small professional studio and we also pay the rights for the songs we choose for the episodes. We have tried to work to very professional and high standards, and have succeeded. We need more comments and other support to help us improve the show by introducing new subjects and involving more people. We plan to make the project bigger in the near future. We still have hope.

How important is the internet for you and other Libyan writers?
Hell, without the internet there wouldn’t even have been a revolution in Libya. It’s difficult to answer this question; I’ve never been in a situation to ask myself how life could be without the internet as a Libyan writer, it’s like a writer without a pen. But it made publishing much easier than before.

You have been doing a creative writing course at London University’s Birkbeck College. Do you think creative writing courses are a real help to writers, especially those starting out?
I am studying creative writing and culture at Birkbeck, and will be changing my subjects to journalism and media next academic year, starting autumn 2012. It was a challenge to study creative writing, but so far I have not found an undergraduate course in creative writing to be a good way to improve your writing. An author, especially a young author, needs to have freedom in writing and in making a new style in writing. A young author should experiment in many ways and feel free to write, but a course or degree in creative writing may limit a young author’s creativity and put him or her on a professional path that will hamper the creative. A creative writing course is best suited to a professional writer who has already discovered their style and who reads a lot.

It is sometimes said that it is almost more difficult for a writer to get taken on by a literary agent than by a publisher. You have been taken by an agent at a distinguished literary agency whose clients include Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Len Deighton and the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. How did you and your agent get to know about each other and what are you jointly hoping for in terms of writing and publication?
My manager in the bookshop where I was working introduced my agent Nemonie Craven Roderick –a director of Jonathan Clowes Agency – to me in March this year. We exchanged a couple of emails, and she read some of my short stories in English translation, and the Mama Pizza extract in Banipal, before we met for the first time during the London Book Fair at the Libyan fiction seminar. As a first assignment for her I wrote an essay about the Libyan revolution and the struggling of Libyans for the last forty-two years. I believe she liked the essay, and we signed a contract. We in fact hope to introduce a new kind of fiction and novels, but the most important thing is that both of us believe in my work. She is an amazing agent, and we have worked very well together so far. We are even good friends now. Nemonie will be handling publication rights for the Arabic edition of Mama Pizza, as well as of the English translation. Hopefully I will continue working with her for the rest of my novels.

Waguih Ghali's novel

When did your fascination with the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali start? You have said you identify with him in some ways.

I heard about Waguih Ghali for the first time in the middle of last year from my friend Ghazi Gheblawi who watched the programme on Ghali’s editor Diana Athill in the BBC’s Imagine series. Later, in autumn 2010, I heard his name again from various writers from the Middle-East who write in English and I started Googling him and bought Athill’s memoir of him, After a Funeral. Later still in 2010 when his novel was republished by Serpent’s Tail and I read it for the first time I was sure that I should have been the person who wrote Beer in the Snooker Club! Waguih’s personality in Diana’s book, and even in Beer in the Snooker Club, has a lot of similarities with me. All my life in Libya, for example, I tried to pretend that I was as rich as my cousins who were living in good areas of Tripoli and wearing fine clothes, studying abroad and speaking foreign languages. At the same time I was closer to the poor people in the area where I used to live. I cared about myself and what I looked like. I was a rebel against traditions, family life, society and God’s dictatorship. Also I was well read and I had many troubles because of my cousin who seems to be like Munir in Beer in the Snooker Club. I believe Waguih and I have a similar sense of humour.
For all these reasons and more, I started thinking of writing a biography of Waguih. His life still has many unknowns, especially his time in Egypt. I have often asked myself whether he still has family in Cairo, who they are, and whether they knew him. Moreover, when I visited Cairo a few months ago, I went to Groppi and after a tea there (they stopped serving the fine whiskey Ghali writes about!) I had a long walk to Zamalek as described by Waguih in his novel. I put my hands in my pockets and walked along the Nile, imagining the buildings and streets as they were in the 1940s and 50s. “Nothing changed” I told myself when I arrived in Zamalek, “Only people changed”.

Are you planning to write a memoir?
A memoir! Hmm, I think it’s still early to think about writing a memoir, but most of my essays are autobiography.

It seems that until the uprising in Libya – with the massing of Libyan demonstrators from Manchester and other cities outside the Libyan embassy in London – few Britons realised how large the Libyan community in Britain is. Is this your impression?
There are a lot of Libyans in England, especially in the north. There are more than 20,000 Libyans in the UK I believe. Some of them are students, and there is a small community of Libyan Jews, but the majority are asylum seekers, the same as me. Most Libyans here used to hide their nationality for one reason: if a Libyan said he or she is from Libya, the only image that came to the mind of the person they were taking to was that of Muammar Gaddafi – or they might not even know where this bloody Libya was. Some of my friends used to say they were from Lebanon, not even from Libya. Now, after the February 17th revolution, the image has started to change. In Manchester I saw cars of Libyans with the independence flag waving on ‘em, and sweet and sexy Libyan girls wearing clothes in the colours of the flag. I have seen someone in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens screaming ‘I’m Libyan, I’m Libyan and proud’. It was an emotional moment, until I fell down on my knees laughing when I heard a homeless person crossing the garden saying: “Then go back to your country!”

Do you see yourself as, say, a Libyan émigré writer, or an Anglo-Libyan writer?
I believe that I am an immigrant writer, lost in identity between Britain and Libya. I believe both countries are like two ladies who hate me and I am still keeping the secret relation between me and them. They hate me but I need to stay with them.

interview conducted by Susannah Tarbush