Friday, April 27, 2012

the life and adventures of palestinian-british publisher naim attallah

In a talk entitled 'The Life and Adventures of a Dedicated Publisher', given to the British Lebanese Association at the Royal Thames Yacht Club at Knightsbridge in London on Tuesday, the Palestine-born CEO of London-based Quartet Books Naim Attallah gave a rollicking account of his publishing career. He was introduced by the Association's new president Sir David Richmond, a former diplomat who served as UK Special Representative to Iraq and Director General for Intelligence and Security at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Attallah’s life has been so packed with incident that  he could only relate a fraction of his varied experiences and achievements. Those wanting to read more can turn to his four volumes of memoir, published by Quartet, which appeared in quick succession in the mid-1990s. The first, The Old Ladies of Nazareth, appeared in 2004. It was followed by The Boy in England (2005), I n Touch with His Roots (2006) and Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975-1995 (2007). Attallah signed copies of his books after his talk.

Attallah was born in Haifa in 1931 during the days of the British Mandate, and he began his talk with an account of his early years in Palestine. His love of the written word goes back to this time, when  he was "fortunate enough to be taught by nuns in a convent close by our home. This gave me three languages at my disposal: Arabic, French and English."

Naim  had a difficult relationship with his father who had been to a German school in Jerusalem. The school's "strict, authoritarian methods fostered a rigidity of mind that in a sense crippled him throughout his life." His father had a tyrannical way of ruling the household, erratic moods swings and overprotectiveness. Naim was "a sickly child and as a result felt as if I was spending much of my childhood shut in a cage, my freedom often restricted."

In his small bedroom Naim became engrossed in books and started to produce his own writings, including a weekly newspaper in Arabic which he distributed to family and friends. Thus began "the start of a lifelong love affair with the printed word."

When Attallah was around 15 his father grew alarmed at the growing disquiet on the streets of Haifa and sent him to live with his grandmother and her sister in Nazareth. “It was another escape to freedom. I sat under a pine tree in their garden and read any books I could lay hands on. I came to love George Bernard Shaw for his worldly humour and revelled in the wit of Oscar Wilde. I took on Shakespeare, though in his case I needed to keep a dictionary close to hand.”

Naim aspired to enter journalism, but his father insisted that he study engineering and made this a condition of Naim’s going to England. “As it happened, I was never able to complete my course because my father could no longer pay the fees due to altered foreign-exchange rates in the new Israeli state. Naim instead took up jobs that seem “bizarre in retrospect”. He was a fitter on the shop floor of English Electric components factory, a steeplejack, a hospital porter and a bouncer in a Soho night club, before entering banking.

Chairmanship of Quartet

By the 1970s he had various business interests including the luxury goods market and an association with Asprey. These involved strong links with the Middle East, and he played a part in planning a Yorkshire TV trilogy The Arab Experience (there is a Catholic Herald review of the trilogy here) A spin-off of the series was a book, and Attallah hastily set up a new company, Namara Publications, in association with young publishing firm Quartet Books. Quartet, a self-proclaimed socialist company dedicated to quality without elitism, was at the time in financial straits and Attallah became chairman with 85 per of the stock.

Attallah explained that “Quartet’s championship of the underdog held a particular appeal for me. As a Palestinian Arab I was acutely aware that the Israeli cause received high-profile attention, while dispossession and disadvantage of the Palestinian people was little understood.” He dared to feel he would have the opportunity of developing a counterweight to such a powerful publishing figure as Lord Weidenfeld, found of Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Quartet “soon managed to stir a major row” with the publication in 1979 of BBC presenter Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Palestinians, with powerful photographs by renowned war photographer Don McCullin. "In no time the book ran into the propaganda phenonemon that brands any criticism of Israel or Zionist aspirations as anti-Semitic, the very thing that has for decades made rational discourse on this aspect of the Middle East situation all but impossible."

There was an even greater furore, in 1983, over the book God Cried on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The text was by Newsweek reporter Tony Clifton and pictures by the distinguished French war photographer Catherine LeRoy. The children's author Roald Dahl, at one time a fighter pilot in Palestina, reviewed God Cried for the Literary Review of which Attallah was proprietor. There was a storm of accusations of anti-Semitism.

"These were serious issues, but there was no lack of fun in Quartet's approach to publishing." When Margaret Thatcher was in the ascendancy as new Conservative leader Quartet pubished the Mrs Thatcher's Handbag kit "the idea being dreamed up in a pub one lunchtime." It included a Mrs Thatcher mask and cut-out doll with outfits for various occasions and a hairstyle for every day of the week - each one exactly the same.

Ever on the lookout for new directions, Attallah encouraged a "brilliant young woman publisher", New Zealander Stephenie Dowrick, to set up The Women's Press. "There were sometimes tensions when the feminist contingent felt some of Quartet's projects were pandering to male chauvinist tastes. Certainly some of the items on our list of cutting-edge photographic titles caused disquiet, including White Women, the first ever collection of Helmut Newton's photographs."

Attallah said Quartet was on safer ground with Norman Parkinson's Sisters under the Skin. The only Arab among the noted women whose portraits were included was Princess Dina Abdel Hamid "a descendant of the Hashemite dynasty, who was briefly married to King Hussein of Jordan. Later she remarried to Salah Ta'amari, the charismatic leader among the Palestinians who helped to organise the Palestinian defence during the Israeli assault of Beirut in 1982. Salah was captured and became a high-profile prisoner in Israel's notorious Ansar prison camp. "We published Princess Dina's book Duet for Freedom which told in her own words the extraordinary story of how she initiated and drove through negotiations to gain Salah's release along with several thousand other prisoners, both Palestinian and Lebanese."

Attallah said there was "no doubt that Quartet helped to glamorize publishing in the 1980s. Our publication-day parties set a new standard for such occasions - colourful and lively and held in imaginatively chosen locations. Hitherto, as often as not, such celebrations had been rather dowdy affairs in a company boardroom over glasses of sherry. Our style offered much fodder for the press and gossip columns."

Rumpus over Leni Riefensthal's memoirs

A fresh storm hit Quartet when it published the memoirs of the famous film-maker of the Nazi era Leni Riefensthal under the title The Sieve of Time. Riefensthal is particularly known for her films The Triumph of the Will on the Nuremberg rallies of 1934 and Olympia on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Attallah said Riefensthal was in denial over the way her films served the interests of the Third Reich. "She was an artist, she claimed, and politics were not her business." The launch of the book took place on her 90th birthday in the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank, but the press mostly stayed away "in a conspicuous boycott". The review coverage on the other hand was "phenomenal. Helena Pinkerton in the Jewish Observer asked why, if she so abhorred the excesses of the Nazis, she 'never jumped ship'. Hers may have been an 'independent artistic vision', but she had allowed 'her art to serve an evil master, and for that she must take  the rap. She was certainly not heroic. But how many were?'" Attallah said Quartet's publication of The Sieve of Time brought all such important questions and arguments into the foreground for open discussion". It was often the unpredictability of Quartet's publishing programme that won it "a high share of public attention."

Jazz books were an important part of Quartet's list "from the earliest days, with back-list titles that earned their keep." One that took "an ironic backward look was Mike Zwerin's entertaining La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing under the Nazis which charted the fortunes and ambiguities of jazz in Paris under the German occupation. "It was a form of music the Third Reich officially despised and sought to ban as a manifestation of racially inferior decadence. Regardless of Dr Goebbel's doctrines, however, the SS loved the music when they went to relax in their time off in the Parisian night clubs. Their favoured musicians, some of them Jewish, were protected from deportation. So even with the jazz list we challenged stereotypes."

Attallah told of how he he come to take over Literary Review which had started in Edinburgh. "The founding editor departed abruptly in a huff, leaving the editor's chair vacant and a major row thundering as she tried to assert her moral right to the magazine's title."   He said the press, including the satirical magazine Private Eye, "was fed with assertions that I had worked to impress a pro-Palestinian imbalance on editorial content. This was nothing but a plausible myth, yet a deluge of slurs and stirred-up partisan accusations continued for weeks and months. I found myself portrayed as an enemy of culture who had purloined the magazine for my own profit. The idea that there was  any profit in it was itself absurd." In fact during his proprietorship he supported its losses to the tune of £2.5 million. He spoke warmly of Auberon Waugh, 'Bron'  who left Private Eye to become editor of Literary Review. The Eye's editor Richard Ingrams told Bron he was stupid to "go and work for Naim" who was "a madman".

Attallah described how Quartet ran into problems when it launched a series of translations of 20th century European authors with forewords from distinguished British or foreign academics, initially called the "Encounter" series. Quartet was forced to change the name to the plural "Encounters", after Melvin Lasky, editor of the prestigious journal Encounter, took court action arguing that the Quartet had exploted his title. "It was  hard to see what all the fuss was about, but we didn't know then that Encounter had for years been backed with undercover finance from the CIA to encourage it in an anti-Soviet stance. The case landed Quartet with legal costs and 10,000 copies of the books in stock, each of which had to have a sticky label attached by hand to correct the series title. The Encounters list eventually grew to more than 100 titles.

'The Slipper and the Rose', and 'Women'

Alongside his parallel careers in publishing and luxury goods, Attallah has been an impresario, promoting live theatre and other events. As a film-maker he produced The Slipper and the Rose, starring Gemma Craven and Richard Chamberlain, in association with David Frost.
The film was selected as the 1976 Royal Command Performance film. "The Queen Mother attended with Princess Margaret. As I stood in the glittering line-up waiting to be presented, I reflected on how far I had come since I was first married, when my wife and I lived in a small flat that didn't even have its own bathroom. The press hailed the film as a glamorous example of what the British film industry could achieve given the chance."

In addition to his activities in publishing, luxury goods, and as an impresario, Attallah has made a name as an interviewer. For his book Women he planned to interview 50 women: in the end the number rose to 318. "The result was an enormous mass of taped material that needed a lot of work form an editorial team, but the function of the interviewer, in drawing out the replies through our conversations, was mine alone."

Attallah said the intention behind the book was to convey the views "of many women from various walks of life in answer to my questions on such important topics as early influences, feminism, sexuality, motherhood, creativity, relationships and gender differences." When the book, of well over 1,000 pages, was published "the paradox began. On the one hand, the press were falling over each other to obtain serial rights. On the other, the literary critics, with some exceptions, sharpened their axes to set about a demolition job."   He said: "I continue to be perplexed to account for so much hostile reaction, but it did nothing to dent the book's commercial success."

Private Eye and 'naked buttocks'

Attallah said the important thing about taking knocks from the media is to maintain a sense of humour. "This was especially so with all the mockery I received over the years from Private Eye, who early on settled on me as a sitting target." He recalled how the magazine's first assault followed the premiere of The Slipper and the Rose when they lampooned him as "the grinning Palestinian" in the line-up presented to the Queen Mother.

"Now" they wrote, "visitors to his opulent Wellington Court, Knightsbridge, home are shown the pictures of him with our sovereign's mother. Alas, it hangs on a wall next to another picture: that of a young woman displaying naked buttocks. And the nauseating Naim likes to indicate the latter picture of visiting Arabs - 'My friend the Queen Mother'.  Needless to say many of the daft desert folk believe it to be true." 

Attallah said this "completely scurrilous invention, with its obvioius overtones of racism, amde me so angery that I phoned Michael Rubinstein [the Quartet lawyer] to ask his opinion on taking a libel action. He saie one could well succeed, but added, 'Don't you see, if they're attacking you it means you've made it! They wouldn't be bothering you if they thought you were a nobody."

Attallah said: "So however severe the provocation, in the end it is a sense of humour that helps us to keep things in proportion." Of the responses to Singular Encounters, his book of interviews with prominent. men, he best remembers the skit, in lieu of a review, written by the late Humphrey Carpenter for the Sunday Times. Attallah said "I loved it for what it was, a little gem encapsulating the English sense of humour at its best. I wrote to Humphrey to tell him how brilliant I thought his piece was. It thrilled him that I had taken no offence at his ribbing.

The piece begins:

Hallowed Be Thy Naim 

1. And the Lord created Naim Attallah and sent him from Palestine to London to be chairman of Quartet Books. And the Lord God said to his servant Naim, Increase and multiply.

2. And Naim Attallah published The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex, and showed his balance sheet to the Lord, and said, Lord, I have increased and multiplied, and done thy bidding. And the Lord God said that was not quite what I had in mind.

3. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, if thou art going to be a prominent London publisher, then thou wilt have to get thyself a lot of women, so that people will talk about thee. And Naim said unto the Lord, Lord, I will do thy bidding.

4. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways of Sloane Square, and hired a lot of young women with double-barrelled names to work for him, and said Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

5. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, If people are are going to talk about thee, and if thou art going to make the gossip columns, thou wilt have to become intimate with a lot of successful members of the opposite sex. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I understand, and will do Thy bidding.

6. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways and found three hundred and eighteen remarkable women whose common denominator was achievement. And Naim Attallah published the interviews in a book called Women, and said unto the Lord, Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God sighed and said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

7. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I am bored and dejected now that the excitement of publishing my book Women is over, so I will go and publish a book on men. And the Lord God said, Naim, my servant, why on earth do you suppose anyone wants to read a book about men?

And so it continues for 18 verses.

Naim's 'Seraglio'

Attallah said that much of the stir in the  gossip columns about his publishing activities "certainly centred on what Bron decorously called my ‘seraglio’, the attractive, well-connected young women who at various times worked in Quartet and Namara, learning the ropes about the world of books and often going on to achieve distinguished careers in other parts of the media." In effect Quartet and Namara had been for them "a sort of finishing school".

Attallah noted that Quartet Books started out on 1st May 1972 - 40 years ago. "It has generally speaking held to its course, discovering new young authors who stand little chance of being noticed in the corporate jungle that the publishing industry has become." The value of the small independent publisher is that "it can bridge the gap in the market and ensure that authors of talent and originality are there for the future. It can also pick up on unconsidered manuscripts that slip through the sieve of corporate myopia and ensure they see the light of day.

"So many of Quartet’s bestsellers were originally rejected by the big names. We have held true to those original principles through thick and thin, and continue to do so when the book trade is more full of changes, upheavals and uncertainties than at any other time in living memory and the future of the book continues to be debated.

"Times are hard, but just now we have another bestseller on our hands, which has won a great deal of press coverage, in the shape of Brian Sewell’s autobiography, Outsider. It is candid, controversial and gossipy in the informed way that people love to read, and a second volume is being written and will be eagerly awaited. You can certainly say that publishing is a hazardous occupation, but it also offers rewards that cannot be matched in any other line of business or measured merely by the conventional signs of success."

Susannah Tarbush

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