Monday, April 30, 2012

premier david cameron's new jibe at octogenarian 42-years-an-MP dennis skinner

British Prime Minister David Cameron today again referred disparagingly to the age of veteran left-wing Labour MP Dennis Skinner- who was 80 in February and has been MP for Bolsover since 1970 (when Cameron was only three). Cameron had been forced to appear before MPs this afternoon after Speaker John Bercow ruled that he must answer an urgent  question from Labour on his refusal to hold an inquiry into Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's handling of the BSkyB bid of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp  Skinner asked the Prime Minister: "Why is the Secretary of State for Culture getting better employment rights than the rest of the workers in Britain? Is it possibly because he [Cameron] knows that whilst the Secretary of State is in the firing line that it prevents the bullets from hitting him, the Prime Minister?" Cameron's terse response was: "Well the honourable gentleman has the right at any time to take his pension and I advise him to do so."

and his earlier "dinosaur" attempted putdown, on 18 January 2012

Many saw Cameron's remark as rude and ageist, just as some of his remarks in the House to women MPs, including Tory Nadine Dorries, have been dubbed sexist. Dorries got her own back last weekwhen she accused her party leader Cameron and the chancellor George Osborne of being "two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others - and that is their real crime." There is a growing feeling in the country that Cameron and his privileged cabinet clique are out of touch with how ordinary people, and his comment to Skinner is likely to reinforce this, especially as it comes so soon after the "granny tax" in the Budget caused much criticism and was portrayed by many as an attack on the elderly.

Cameron's comment triggered a flurry of tweets. Labour MP Toby Perkins‏ tweeted: "Will be writing to PM to ask him + his Ministers to pledge to stop relying on ageist abuse in place of answering questions from D Skinner." Harriet Harmon, Labour Deupty Leader and Shadow Culture Secretary,  said: "David Cameron couldn't answer Dennis Skinner question so stooped to ageist abuse. Shameful." Kevin Maguire of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror tweeted "Cameron reveals the inner Buller Boy every time he insults Dennis Skinner. The posh boy can never win abusing an ex-miner". Janice Turner of the Times said: "Very soon all the bootstraps working class MPs like Dennis Skinner will have have retired. Leaving no one but Etonians and professors' sons." But Turner's Times colleague Hugo Rifkind retorted: "Skinner is a disgrace. When ppl talk about the braying horror of parliament, a good 70% of it is him."And Daily Telegraph columnist Iain Martin tweeted: "Labour MPs presenting Skinner as loveable, gentle, Mother Teresa type surely remember vile stuff he's said about opponents." Nicknamed "the Beast of Bolsover" years ago by satirical magazine Private Eye Skinner has been suspended from the House of Commons at least 10 times, often for his use of "unparliamentary language" against others and is an ardent and outspoken anti-royalist. He routinely makes an anti-royalist joke at the Queen's Opening of Parliament; the New Statesman once published a list of his best Queen's Speech jokes. But Cameron makes what are widely seen as unpleasant comments to Skinner at his peril, for nowadays the Labour MP is regarded by many with some affection and even as a National Treasure.

Cameron has form when it comes to age-related put downs of Skinner. In January he referred to him as a dinosaur after Skinner asked him when he expected to be cross examined by the Leveson enquiry, and "doesn't he agree that the British people deserve an answer as to why he appointed one of Murdoch's top lieutenants, Andy Coulson, to the heart of the British government?" Cameron replied that he would be delighted to go to the Leveson Inquiry whenever he is invited, and would answer all the questions when that happened. He added: "It's good to see the honourable gentleman on such good form. I often say to my children  'no need to go to the Natural History Museum to see a dinosaur, come to the House of Commons at about half past twelve'."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

lebanese-british poet omar sabbagh writes in poetry review on youth poetry in beirut

In his essay ‘Texts With and Without Context: Youth Poetry in Beirut’, published in the Spring issue of Poetry Review, the Lebanese-British poet Omar Sabbagh reflects on his encounters with the work of young poets in the Lebanese capital where he has been living and teaching for the past seven months. One fascinating aspect of the essay is seeing how Sabbagh, who was born in London and was educated and mostly lived, in the UK, and who writes in English, perceives Lebanese poets of his age cohort who remain in Lebanon.

Sabbagh focuses in particular on Ali Zaraket, who at the age of 29 has already made a considerable mark as a poet. Sabbagh writes: "He has been published in the major newspapers (there are no specialist poetry journals here), such as Al-Hayat, Al-Mustakbal, Al-Safir and Al-Nahar, and is the author of two books, Kitab Farigh (Empty Book) and Kannit al-Hayat Rakhwa (Life was Simple)."

The epigraph to the essay quotes from Life Was Simple:

At first life was simple; life was an umbrella that protected our serendipitous fruit
And with and within our life we used to draw white dreams along the rims of volcanoes
And between the flames and our cold beds we were inhabited by joy.

Thirty-year-old Sabbagh has himself been enjoying considerable success as a poet, in the UK. His second collection The Square Root of Beirut was recently launched at an event organised by his publisher, Cinnamon Press of Wales, at the Poetry Cafe in London. Cinnamon Press published his first collection, My Only Oedipal Complaint in 2010. At the same time Sabbagh has pursued his academic studies, and was last year awarded a PhD at Kings College, London University,  for a thesis on the subject of Narrative and Time in the Writings of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad.

Sabbagh moved to Beirut from London last September to take up a position at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as a visiting assistant professor teaching creative writing and English literature. In his essay he describes how he first came to meet Zaraket: "By October I had already lived my way into a groove of work alternating with soused relaxation. One evening I entered a restaurant round the corner from my apartment and saluted the owner, who I knew and to whom I'd given a copy of my first collection. Taking my seat at the bar I was immediately introduced to the young man sitting next to me, as one 'poet' to another."  A couple of weeks later "I sat with him in a pub in the hub (Hamra) of Beirut. Over the course of an hour I was able to gain an insight into the youth poetry scene here, of which he is eminently representative."

Sabbagh notes that the title of Zaraket's first book, Kitab Farigh, "suggests the idea of the tabula rasa or blank cheque of youth (the book being the self), which is to be filled and/or fulfilled in time. Indeed, some of the text of this first book builds on sentences written at the age of nine, when Zaraket began to write: the rawness of that as yet unfulfilled state being unrecoverable. Interestingly, this first volume is printed in the author's own cursive, and illustrated with his line drawings."

Not only does Zaraket write in the Lebanese idiom rather than in classical/literary Arabic "but he also talks of his praxis as a poet as breathing contemporary life into the (sacred or not) Arabic. Arabic, as I have always suspected, and as he agreed with some excitement, is a far less alienated language than say, contemporary French or English. Words in Arabic are poetically rich and overcharged with equivocation and plurality of meaning, due to remaining within the concrete and storied context (mythoi) in which they originated." Zaraket describes his use of Arabic in delimiting his contemporary life as "archaeological" work.

Sabbagh writes: "and yet, for all the fecund polymorphousness of the language, Zaraket told me that when the young want to discuss relationships, especially sexual or romantic relationships, they speak in English, finding, as Wittgenstein attests, the context and life-game of that language-game (say) more apt for the subject." Sabbagh discusses further Zaraket's views on poetry. "When I asked about the youth (say twenty- to forty-year-old) poetry scene in Beirut, Zaraket was more despondent. Although his personal creative process, that of distilling a contemporary idiom from a sacred/ancient language, involves creating text out of an objective context, he told me that as a 'scene' or 'literary community', Beirut was eminently anomic." According to Zaraket, there is "far more of a publishing 'scene' (with publishers such as Dar al-Jadeed, Al-Farabi, Dar Al-Nahda Al-Arabeeya, Al-Jamal and Riad El-Rayess) than any poetry 'scene'. This is not surprising to anyone who knows the entrepreneurial panache of the Lebanese."

Sabbagh notes that poetry is complicated in the Arab world by the split between the social "tone" of the various states. "In the more conservative states of the Gulf, for instance, poets use traditional metres and forms; similarly there are still those within such a disenchanted and worldly city as Beirut who work almost exclusively within traditional forms. However, Zaraket and his peers inherit the non-restrictive vers libres which became widespread during the seventies in the Arab poetry world. Significantly, Zaraket says that this split is almost absolute; there is no sense of a common heritage or present situation. As ever, like Lebanese to Lebanese, Arab to Arab is not the most easeful story."

The poets "suggested as Zaraket's peers include names such as Mazen Ma'rouf, Samer Abu-Hawash, Rami Al-Amin, Fidel Sbeiti, Joumana Haddad, Nazem Al-Sayed, Samar Abdel-Jaber and Yehia Jabber. The latter is 'one of the most vivid, modern and moving of poets in contemporary Arabic,' according to Zaraket. Although these poets all  know each other, their poetic praxes can be seen as a series of truncated attempts at representing or expressing what is to a certain extent abject and unspeakable."

Sabbagh adds perhaps somewhat ruefully that it is precisely this "existential", this "sublime" factor to life in Lebanon, which he finds missing in his own work as a poet. "Like Israelis, Lebanese live for the moment, jaundiced by decades of foreign interference and sectarian troubles. Indeed, I remember friends telling me that in the recent (summer 2006) war with Israel, the  young continued to party at night while Beirut was being bombed. A sense of risk or urgency ( and concomitant sang froid) informs life here.

"On the other hand, I was born and grew up in England to an upper middle class family in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War in a bubble so to speak; a bubble which to this day allows me to be precious and extremely self-indulgent on occasion, whereas the exigencies of Lebanese life seem, in my eyes, to offer a justification of all Lebanese woebegone expressions." He adds: "My conversation with Zaraket was, thus, a lesson in humility."

Zaraket was born just after Israel invaded Lebanon in the early eighties. "He experienced civil war at first hand in his earliest years. And then there was the war with Israel in 1993, when Israel occupied the Lebanese south. Further catastrophes occurred throughout the nineties and into the early twenty-first century. Most recently, there was the thirty-four day war in July 2006, about which the epigraph to this article speaks in a protean, readied and very Lebanese spirit."
In his concluding paragraph Sabbagh writes: "Although not on the scale of the Holocaust or the Palestinian tragedy (al-Nakba) the Lebanese live, to a certain extent, as hunted life. My time spent with Zaraket was both a meeting of minds and also a setting for stark contrast, a chiaroscuro of discretely exclusive life-worlds."

Poetry Review is published by the London-based Poetry Society. The theme of the Spring issue in which Sabbagh's essay appears is  The Poetry of Place. A few  items from the issue - including a poem by Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan - can be read online but Sabbagh's essay is not among them.

The Poetry Review's editor Fiona Sampson resigned in February following upheavals at the Poetry Society last year. Sampson told the Guardian at the time of her resignation: "... I was absolutely delighted that the Society – with whom I'm parting on very good and cheerful terms – made it absolutely clear that the allegations about me were completely untrue. They also apologised for the damage done to me, and stated that it was an issue of governance." Sampson is listed as commissioning editor on the masthead of the Spring issue of Poetry Review. Sampson had been editor since 2005, and has been an encouragement to Sabbagh both in publishing his poems and in being one of his teachers at Goldsmiths College, London University, where he did an MA in creative writing.

Sabbagh says:  "Fiona Sampson was one of my earliest - if not the earliest - champions. I'd submitted some work to Poetry Review in Summer of 2006, and then when in late September I and my peers at Goldsmiths met up with her to organize tutorials, she said she 'already' knew of me, and then revealed she'd accepted one of my poems. Since then, along with 12-15 rejection slips, she published poems from me 4 times and a couple of feature articles. She was and is one of the most empathic mentors I've ever worked with, one of the most understanding that is, given the bad infinity of foibles native to young poets! As an editor she did a superlative job, making poetry more mainstream than it's been for decades." He sums up her qualities: "Intelligence, versatility, affection."

Susannah Tarbush

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

daniel barenboim and jon snow talk music and politics at SOAS

Update: on 25 April 2012 Katara, the cultural village in Qatar, abruptly announced that "against the backdrop of the current political developments across the Arab region", it had cancelled the five-day Music and Dialogue Festival it was to have held from 30 April to 4 May. Barenboim and the  West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gave concerts in Qatar in 2010 and 2011, and were due to return there for a prominent role in the Festival. There was speculation as to the reasons for the cancellation. The Doha News said ticket-holders would be reimbursed. This blog post includes some details of earlier political controversy over Barenboim's mixed Israeli-Arab-Spanish orchestra of young musicians.

On Saturday the renowned Argentine-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was in conversation with Channel 4 TV News presenter Jon Snow in the Brunei Gallery of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The event, hosted by SOAS’s London Middle East Institute, was organised at short notice and was live streamed on the SOAS website for those who could not make it in person. The LMEI notice of the event said that Barenboim “uniquely, holds both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship” and that he is recognised for his work as a musical bridge builder, especially for his work in the Middle East and through the Barenboim-Said Foundation. He received a SOAS Honorary Doctorate in 2008.

Barenboim, who turns 70 in November, has for half a century been famous the world over for his piano performances and  conducting. But in the 21st century he has also become famed as the co-founder, with the late Palestinian intellectual, activist and music lover Professor Edward Said, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) which takes its name from the title of a Goethe poetry cycle. WEDO brings together young Israeli, Palestinian, Arab and Spanish musicians. It has achieved a sharply rising international profile since beginning in 1999 as a workshop for young  Middle Eastern musicians organised by Barenboim and Said in the German city of Weimar, Germany, at the invitation of Kunstfest Weimar. Since 2002 the Orchestra has been based in Seville, where it is supported by the regional government of Andalucia.

This summer the Orchestra, conducted by Barenboim, has a starring role at the annual BBC Proms. The orchestra will perform all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, starting on Friday 20 July.and culminating with the performance of the Ninth, the Ode to Joy, on 27 July - the night of the 2012 London Olympic Games opening ceremony.

The Proms programme says Beethoven's Ninth is "perhaps the richest, most provocative statement in Western art music. An impressive team of soloists joins the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra to project the finale's inclusive vision of hope, reconciliation and hard-won triumph. What better to mark today's opening of the London 2012 Olympics than Beethoven's ultimate hymn to universal brotherhood?"

Barenboim has been music director of the Berlin Staatskapelle since 1992 and conductor for life since 2000. Last week the Staatskapelle gave three concerts in London at the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall, with Barenboim conducting  Bruckner's last three Symphonies 7,8 and 9 and performing two Mozart piano concertos. The concerts drew rave reviews, with Stephen Pritchard writing in yesterday's Observer: “the length of the seventh symphony gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the fantastic sound that Barenboim draws from this orchestra, the depth of the string playing evident right from the opening cello and viola theme, the woodwind singing beatifically, the brass in full pomp.”

A film on WEDO was screened as the audience entered the Brunei Gallery and waited for Barenboim and Snow to appear. The invitation to the encounter said it would be on “the role of culture and the arts in a political and international context focussing on the situation and recent developments in the Middle East.” In the event Barenboim maintained an energetic tempo as he embarked on a flow of  memories, anecdotes and analysis.

Barenboim described how he first met Edward Said some 20 years ago when Said approached him in the lobby of the then Hyde Park Hotel in London's Knightsbridge. Barenboim was already familiar with Said's work, notably his book Orientalism, and Said told him he had read and been impressed by Barenboim's 1992 memoir A Life in Music and that he had "never heard Israelis talk like this". This was the start of  a  friendship that would last until Said's death from leukemia in 2003, at the age of 67. Dialogues between the two  were published in the 2002 book Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society.A revised and updated edition of  Barenboim's  A Life in Music, including his friendship with Said and their joint endeavours, appeared in 2003.

Barenboim devoted considerable time during his conversation with Snow to depicting the internal changes he witnessed in Israel in the 60 years after he arrived in Israel from Argentina in 1952 as a 10-year-old. At that time Jewish immigrants to Israel were mainly of Central and Eastern European origin. He recalls that in those days the Holocaust was never spoken about by, for example, his friends' parents. But as a result of the trial and execution in Israel of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 this changed and the new generation started to come to terms with the Holocaust.

He said "when one talks about the modern state of Israel one has to talk about it in two periods" -  from 1948 until 1967, or  1977 (when Likud came to power), and the period since then. The socialist nature of Israel changed after  the 1967 war when Israel started to use cheap Palestinian labour, and some Israelis amassed fortunes. The question was, should Israel hold on to the occupied territories. Likud and the religious parties started to rise, with the latter stressing territories were not occupied but "biblically liberated". 

After the 1967 war French support was replaced by American and  Israel became more US-oriented. Jews from Brooklyn arrived, "some with a very right-wing mentality". Soviet Jews, who had suffered a great deal of anti-Semitism, arrived  "with a similar right wing way of thinking." The combination of right wing US Jewry and the vision of Soviet Jewry "changed completely the makeup of Israeli society".

Snow asked: "If you look at present day Israel and the makeup of the country now, what percentage is left of that original secular European idyll?" Barenboim said he did not know precisely, "but you have the feeling that most Israeli enlightened people vote with their feet by leaving the country. They don't vote at the elections - they simply go." He gave the case of Jerusalem as an example of the change in Israel.  "When I was very young I used to go to the lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem of Martin Buber  and Max Brod.  All  this has disappeared". Jerusalem is "now mostly a religious village from the Jewish side." And with the passage of time and the changes inside Israel, "many Israelis have actually lost the idea of what life is for the Palestinians, especially since 1967."

Barenboim said as an Israeli he views the Israeli politicisation of the remembrance of the Holocaust with much "abhorrence". He said: "Everything now has to be explained to the world in terms of the trauma that all the Jewish people suffered because of the Holocaust. I’m certainly in no way reducing the horror of the Holocaust, but to say that we cannot go to the peace table with the Palestinians because ... we must avoid a second Holocaust... As if Palestinians’ lack of acceptance of so many things to do with Israel –in a way, in an extreme case, even about the existence of the State of Israel - to equate that with European anti-Semitism is totally wrong, and it is against all the traditions of Jewish thought and morality."

Snow found it "very interesting" that "the Holocaust is now such a central plank of the ideological argument and you're saying that in your childhood it wasn't at all."

Barenboim said: It was never  mentioned." As an example of the politicisation of the  remembrance of the Holocaust he cited the problems he had experienced trying to conduct peformances of Wagner in Israel, where there is a in effect a ban on performing Wagner's works. He broke the ban with a concert at the Israel Festival in July 2001 when he conducted the Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra  in a second encore played the overture to Tristan and Isolde, after announcing that he was going to do so and giving members of the audience the chance to leave. He caused outrage to some members of the audience and to the then prime minister Ariel Sharon, the then Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert and other politicians.

"The argument is, for better or worse, there is an inevitable association between Wagner's music and the Nazi regime. True. Therefore, whether the association was only used or abused is of no interest - what is [of interest] is that this has had such an impact on memory that it cannot be expected of survivors of the Holocaust to face the music of Richard Wagner being played on Israeli soil.

"First of all, I don't know what gives the government the right to decide what it tolerable or intolerable for someone who has suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. I'm perfectly in agreement with the fact that as long as this generation are alive there is no need to confront people with  the obligation to go and hear Wagner. I would be against any Israeli orchestra playing Wagner in a subscription concert, if you are a loyal subscriber and have a ticket for 12 concerts a year ... why should you be faced with it suddenly the work of Richard Wagner."

But if someone buys a ticket specifically for a Wagner concert, "where is the problem? If I suffer from this terrible association [with Wagner's music] then I don't go, but why should I be able to impose on  you,  or why should I allow the government to stop you from going?" Barenboim added that  "when this subject is mentioned I always give the example of the great Jewish Hungarian writer Imre Kertész who was in Auschwitz and suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. When I met him, the first thing he asked of me was to help him get a ticket to Bayreuth" (the annual Bayreuth Festival is devoted to performances of Wagner operas).
Jon Snow asked - what happened to your personal journey within this evolving environment for Israel?

Barenboim said that when he arrived in Israel aged 10 he did not have the intellectual capacity to check all the Israeli narrative of its founding. "In fact because of this narrative I believe that so many opportunities were missed  by the Israeli government in the 1950s. This by the way I think is very objectively and very clearly described in Avi Shlaim's book The Iron Wall - there were so many opportunities that got missed to make contact with the Arabs."

He said Israel had missed the opportunities offered by three revolutionary developments in Egyptian society: with Nasser after the 1952 revolution - "In his programme the word Israel was not even mentioned he was interested in the social conditions of his people etc etc." -  with Sadat after his 1977 visit to Jerusalem, "and the third was last year." Instead of saluting the Egyptian revolution, "you heard a lot from Israeli leaders about the dangers of this revolution."  He added: "We don't know what will be the end of the Arab revolution in Egypt,  and now Syria. But there mere fact that a soicety basically of 80 million poeple is able peacefully to go to Tahrir Square and demand change for themselves, better conditions of life, not only economically but also freedom - this has to be saluted. The first thing you have to do in a case like this both morally, and strategically if I may say so from Israel's point of view, it should have saluted that. But to immediately say "we are concerned about this", what do you expect people to think?"

When Jon Snow asked "At what point did Palestine begin to invade your music?" Barenboim stressed that his journey away from the official Israeli narrative had begun long before he met Edward Said. He said he became aware of the lack of knowledge that he and his generation had of the Palestinians when he was in Australia during Black September 1970 when "so many thousands of Palestinians were killed by the Jordanians. And the then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said in an interview 'what is this talk about the Palestinians, there is no such thing as the Palestinian people – we are the Palestinian people because we live in what used to be Palestine.' I thought, 'just a moment, I have missed on something here" so I started educating myself and it was not so easy because the [Israeli] New Historians ... [with] so many documents and so many different analyses were not in existence."

He told the story of a "very interesting meeting" he had with two young Syrian musicians in Prague in 1966, a year before the 1967 war, where he performed a concert with the English Chamber Orchestra and where the following day there was to be a concert by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein with the Czech Philharmonic.  "I had finished a rehearsal with the English Chamber Orchestra and two young men my age, I was 23, came and introduced themselves and said they were young musicians from Syria. I had never met a Syrian in my life and had no idea there were Syrian Western musicians. But they were very charming, and so we went out for coffee and after the English Chamber concert, which of course I invited them to, they asked me whether I could help them get into the rehearsal of Arthur Rubinstein. I said yes, I’m going to the rehearsal and you can come with me.  I got to Rubinstein rehearsal with my two new Syrian friends and after the rehearsal I greeted Rubenstein and said 'these are two young musicians from Syria'. He said 'musicians from Syria?' And he was so taken by it that he invited them to lunch, for which unfortunately I couldn’t stay. Then came the war and I lost all touch, contact. One of them became the director of the Conservatory in Damascus, and  33 years later when Edward Said and I founded the Divan he was very important in encouraging young Syrian musicians to come to the Divan."

When Jon Snow said of Barenboim's first meeting 20 years ago with Said "from it sprang the orchestra", Barenboim said "this is again one of those legends that is not much to do with reality." The idea that they set out to establish an orchestra was "rubbish". Rather, in 1999 when Weimar was declared the cultural capital of Europe the authorities running the cultural programme there requested that a forum be created "where young people from the Middle East – Israel, Palestine, Syria, and other countries - would come together for a seminar, for a workshop, of music making and conversation on humanistic subjects and of course politics. And we thought of somewhere between 10 and 15 young musicians .. and this is how we really got started on the idea."

At that point they knew "a lot more about the musical standards of Israelis than about Arabs; even Edward, who knew everything there is to know about the Arab world, had no idea about the level.." They decided to ask the Goethe Institute – the cultural arm of the German government – to help them carry out auditions in the Arab countries.

Barenboim asked his then assistant Sebastian Weigle - now music director of the Frankfurt Opera - to carry out these auditions. Weigle went to Damascus, Beirut, Amman and Cairo on an expedition financed by the Goethe Institute. "To my surprise and Edward’s we had more than 200 applications from these four countries. Over 200 applications, for a workshop with Edward Said and with me for two or three weeks in Weimar in 1999."

Wegle visited many of the applicants, while others sent tapes, video or audio. He reduced the applications from 200 to 60 and then down to 40 or 30.  " And I listened to those and I made the final selection. And then and only then did we send him to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem" to audition young musicians there. "And that was my first surprise – that the best of the Arab musicians were no less good than the Israelis although in Israel there was a much greater tradition of music."  From the final pool of musicians they identified "we had to make an orchestra. There was no way we could justify the selection from that group of only 10 or 15, to make chamber music – so the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra started."

Even in negative or depressed moods he is encouraged "that we must be doing something right since we have more or less equal support, and equal level of criticism." Telling the story of the beginnings of the Divan he said that when the musicians came to Weimar in 1999, up to 70 per cent of them had never played in an orchestra, and 40 per cent had never heard a live concert. And they were confronted with the 7th symphony of Beethoven and the Schumann Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma."

 Yo-Yo was completely fascinated by the idea of the Orchestra and "played a wonderful role" whether in classes or outside them. There was a 15-year-old boy from the region who took classes with Yo-Yo in Weimar [Kyril Zlotnikov] and is today the principal cellist at the Berlin Staatskapelle. It’s really quite wonderful."

Barenboim asked how it was possible that over a period of eight years the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra had managed to go from an Orchestra up to 70 per cent of whose members had never previously played in an orchestra to playing the most difficult works in the repertoire – the Schoenberg variations – at the 2007 Salzburg Festival to a high level. He attributed this to the Orchestra building "a strategy for the development of the musicians in a way that is quite unique" in which the young musicians are trained by principal musicians from other orchestras and are followed through in subsequent years.

Jon Snow asked: "Do you think that this could be extended to other parts of intercommunal life or does it have to take something with the extreme excellence, which kind of moves it from the political fray?"

 Barenboim replied: "It's not the excellence, it’s the fact that music is in the end in my view a unique combination of the most personal that is possible for a human being with the most abstract at the same time. You and I may view certain events in the world differently and we may have different ideas, about intellectual matters, about economic matters, and also about music, but when you and I are sitting on the same stand of a string section in an orchestra the music is more important than you and I and the music is responsible for the fact that at that moment you and I are going to think alike. You and I play the same notes with the same bowing movement, with the the same intonation, the same volume, the same length .the same expression, the same the same the same the same, and we do that for six or seven hours every day for three weeks we acquire the ability to think alike about something which you and I are every passionate about. I don’t know how you would do that without the music."

 Jon Snow asked what the students talk about: "do you earwig in on conversations at supper afterwards?
Barenboim said: "The only thing I can say is that we have stopped talking about the conflict because we have done that for so many years we know what everybody thinks. We know what everybody expects and we have simply learned to accept the fact that somebody who we actually like, in some cases are even attracted to, will continue to disagree about this and we have learned to spend time together knowing that we disagree, that we will not attempt any more to convince the other one about it. But that they know that whether we like it or not we are blessed or cursed with living in a way that we have some kind of contact with each other. This is what it does." He added that "it is not an orchestra for peace."

Snow commented: "You’ve taken us to the very heart of what I think both mystifies and excites everybody in this room about you – you’ve described exactly what happens to a musician, the whole business of being six or seven hours sharing a stand, absorbed in this experience, sharing this experience, and one senses that for many that detaches them from the real world and they live in this gorgeous arena –  it's hard work, but nevertheless utterly uplifting and so on – so what it is about you that enabled you to connect with the conflict – most musicians are not connected to ...?

Barenboim said the strength of music is that while it is a very spiritual activity, and has the ability to inspire human beings, it is at the same time "extraordinarily physical, in the end purely physical". When young people engage in music together, with its physical expression, this is different formn for example their doing philosophy together for six or seven hours.

"And the basis of my friendship with Edward Said was that we were very unhappy about many things, but about two things in particular – one was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in all its aspects and ramifications, and the lack of curiosity – on both sides. Of course there are many aspects of the conflict that are asymmetrical, starting with the fact that Israel is a powerful nation and the Palestinians haven’t got a nation as yet. But there are some aspects of the conflict that are absolutely symmetrical and the first aspect that is symmetrical is the lack of curiosity about the other. And Edward and I were very concerned about that."

The second subject "that bothered us very much, and still continues to bother me - in fact more and more as the years go by - is that music has been seen for many years, and is becoming so much more so now, as an expression of an ivory tower. In other words there is no music education in schools. ..And on the other hand you have children who have an aptitude for music and maybe ambitious parents and they send them to the conservatory, and academies, to study music. And they study music also in an ivory tower. They are taught how to play hemi-demi-semi quavers- softly, loudly, short notes, long notes, powerfully, sentimentally, etc etc but they are completely ignorant of everything else that has actually been happening next to it – literature, painting, philosophy, all of that. I am not trying to say that you can explain the Beethoven symphonies from a philosophical system point of view but it is obvious is not only a factor of harmony and counterpoint, but an important statement to make, and that statement must have had some connection with statements made by other great men at that time and the mere fact that today so many hundreds of years later we are still interested in the Beethoven symphonies and those of us who are musicians continue to work on them and those who are listeners listen to them, there must be something about them. But all this is totally absent from the musical education at conservatories.

"Now when you put that together with the conflict.. also with  each one is also in his ivory tower -  the Israeli in his ivory tower, and the Arabs in theirs .. it is absolutely essential to put all this together and this is what Divan is about."

There was little time for the two men to converse in detail about the current situation and the rising temperature in the Middle East including over the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran. As Snow said in  his concluding remarks: "Well you’ve elegantly pulled us into the Finale direct from the Overture: there is so much more of the symphony to do but somehow we have talked for an hour. Somehow the journey you have taken us on is not the journey I expected." Snow observed that the way Israel has evolved is not often talked about in the way Barenboim had done. "In understanding how Israel has evolved maybe one understands how it could engage more." Snow thought the fact that Barenboim had talked about something which  transcends the conflict and which pulls people from both communities together - which "de-ivory towers" could offer hope and optimism.

When Snow asked Barenboim "are you optimistic about the Middle East, or downcast?" Barenboim simply replied: "Optimism sometimes is a form of self-defence."

During the question and answer session a member of the audience asked whether the same body of musicians was kept in the Divan from one year to the next, or whether some leave and some new come in. Barenboim replied: "The orchestra got much too good for us to be able to find new musicians in the area that up to the standard without taking a very clear decision to lower the standard which obviously I was not prepared to do. But one of the musicians in one of our orchestras maybe three years ago addressed this subject and expressed unhappiness about the fact that there was much less change and therefore there were less new musicians able to come in. And when I explained to him that I was not willing to make the decision to lower the standards he said well then why don’t you make another orchestra. Very simple. So I took his advice and we created a second orchestra of younger players less experienced... It’s called Al-Andalus Orchestra because it’s from Andalucia.

The Orchestra's first concert in an Arab country came in August 2003 when it gave a concert in Rabat, Morocco. In 2005 it performed in the Mashreq for the first time with a concert in Ramallah, Palestine, which was broadcast live by ARTE. Its first-ever Gulf concert took place in Doha in January 2010; Al-Jazeera English reported on the concert and the difficulties for the Orchestra in playing in Arab countries. Regarding the prospects of further concerts in the Arab world, Said's widow Mariam Said told Al-Jazeera: "If I want to be candid with you it's not going to happen in the Arab countries in the near future. Realistically speaking the situation is becoming more complex, more dire after the assault on Gaza, so I think this may not be happening soon." The Orchestra had cancelled two concerts in Egypt and Qatar in January 2009 due to the Israeli onslaught on Gaza.

There was controversy after the January 2010 Doha concert over  a claim that the Orchestra represents "normalization" with Israel. Mariam Said wrote an article posted on Electronic Intifada on 17 March 2010 in which she passionately defended Divan against this claim. Her article came after the Palestinian Campaign For the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s (PACBI) called on the Qatari government to boycott Barenboim and the orchestra. Mariam Said argued that the Orchestra met none of the criteria for a Boycott. PACBI stuck to its initial position in a response on Electronic Intifada a few days later. The Orchestra returned to Doha in May 2011 for the Music and Dialogue Festival. Separately from his role with WEDO, Barenboim had conducted his first-ever concert in Gaza, a "peace concert" earlier that month with an orchestra of European musicians known as "the Orchestra for Gaza". 

Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra were to have returned to Qatar to perform during the five-day Katara Cultural Village five-day second Music and Dialogue Festival from 30 April to 3 May, but on 25 April Katar suddenly cancelled the Festival, "against the backdrop of the  current political developments across the Arab region." The Divan Orchestra was to have peformed there on 3 May , and on 4 May in a concert given jointly with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. On 30 April Barenboim was to have given a Schubert piano recital  at Katara Opera House., and there was to have been a recital of Schubert and Schumann lieder on 1 May, performed by  Barenboim and the German singer René Pape. There was also to have been the screening of a film about Edward said, The Last Interview, followed by a discussion with his widow Mariam Said.

The pride of place given to the Divan at this year's Proms, including its peformance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the night of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, may arouse some controversy. This is especially so given the furore at last year's Proms when four members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) - "since known as the "LPO 4" were suspended for six months without pay for being among the 24 people, almost all of them musicians, who signed a letter to the Independent newspaper calling on the Proms to cancel a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Although the concert went ahead it was disrupted by protesters inside the Royal Albert Hall - none of them one of the four LPO members who signed the Independent letter - and the BBC took its broadcasting of the concert off the air. In mid-January it was reported that one of the four suspended LPO musicians, Sarah Streatfeild, was taking her case to an employment tribunal
Susannah Tarbush

Update: a commenter on this post has kindly drawn my attention to this useful 23 April article on the "LPO 4" by Chris Somes-Charlton published on Mondoweiss Who really wields the baton at the London Philharmonic Orchestra?

Friday, April 20, 2012

reflections on the london book fair and its china market focus

The London Book Fair (LBF), which ran from Monday to Wednesday at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, was one of the most controversial in the LBF's 41-year history --  thanks to the choice of China as this year's LBF Market Focus, and the exclusion of dissident and exiled writers from the Market Focus programme. The publicly-funded British Council and its Chinese partner in organising the Market Focus, the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), were subjected to a .storm of criticism in the days before the Fair opened. During the Fair there were several demonstrations inside the exhibition area by Chinese and other protesters.

The Market Focus brought 181 Chinese publishers and 21 Chinese writers to the LBF. The associated programme of events, organised by LBF in collaboration with the British Council and GAPP and divided into cultural and professional streams, was the largest to be held at the Fair since the annual Market Focus was instituted in 2004. The Market Focus concentrates on a single country or region, and aims to promote literary and trade ties and long-term partnerships in the publishing industry.

The Chinese delegation was led by Liu Binjie, the director of  GAPP,  who is widely described as "China's censor-in-chief". He is seen as the man responsible for the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, who was arrested on 8 December 2008, sentenced to eleven years in prison on 25 December 2009 and  awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu's artist wife Liu Xia remains under house arrest. On the fair's opening day Liu Binjie abandoned giving his speech due to protests by Chinese, Uyghurs, Tibetans and their supporters, and his speech was instead read out for him.

A letter published in the Guardian on 12 April, signed by representatives of 11 human rights and freedom of expression organisations, expressed "deep disappointment" that LBF and the British Council had "apparently acquiesced to pressure from the Chinese authorities and failed to invite dissident authors and poets." The signatories included executives of Amnesty International, Pen International, Index on Censorship, Tibet Society and Chinese Unofficial Publication Network.

At the same time English PEN issued a statement urging discussion of Chinese literature and censorship at the Fair and noting that at least 35 writers are in prison in China, some serving sentences of up to 20 years. “It is a deep disappointment to everyone in PEN that although China will be the focus for the London Book Fair we will not be hearing the voices of those in prison, or the many others who live in exile." English PEN added that "the repression is continuing. On 10 February Zhu Yufu, a member of Independent Chinese Press Centre (ICPC), was sentenced to seven years in prison for his allegedly subversive poem It’s Time."

In an article in the Observer newspaper on Sunday, headlined "The British Council brings more shame on us" Nik Cohen wrote: "Tomorrow, Britain will get a taste of dictatorial control when the London Book Fair opens."

The LBF Director Alistair Burtenshaw and the British Council's Director of Literature Susie Nicklin robustly defended their organisations in a letter to the Guardian. They said the LBF events represented "a great opportunity to deepen understanding and strengthen cultural and business links between the UK and China."  They pointed out that any international institution working with books in China has to liaise with the GAPP. The selection of writers for LBF 2012 had been undertaken by the British Council in wide consultation with its official partners, industry professionals, and experts in the field in China and the UK.  

Burtenshaw and Nicklin added that while many authors attend LBF at the invitation of the organisers, many more attend for a variety of other reasons. "The British Council programmed events before, during and after the Fair and will include festivals and a variety of partners from around the UK throughout 2012. We have participation from a variety of voices, including Ma Jian, Diane Wei Liang, Ou Ning, Murong Xuechen, Guo Xiaolu, A Yi, Sheng Keyi, Han Dong,Tsering Norbu and Jung Chang. No author has been refused involvement."

The letter said that that censorship and human rights were expected to feature prominently in all the discussions and debates. "These are key issues for UK audiences. We respect the opinion of the signatories and welcome the debate that is arising around these issues."

The demonstrations that took place during the LBF had an air of dignity, using the strength of words, spoken or on placards. In a  "poetry protest" on Wednesday members of the Tibet Society and IPCP were joined by English PEN's head of campaigns, Robert Sharp and read poems by imprisoned writers Shi Tao, Zhu Yufu, Nurmehemmet Yasin, and Dokru Tsultrim. Members of the official Chinese presence hastily erected banners so as to form a barrier preventing the people in the LBF's Chinese Pavilion seeing the protesters. Sharp commented: "They're not quite as solid as the real Great Wall of China but the effect is the same: to keep people out. 'The'Great Pullup Banner Wall of China'!"

Ma Jian, author of the novel Beijing Coma about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was a  particularly vocal critic of the China Market Focus. He lives in exile in London with his partner and translator Fiona Drew and their children, having been banned from re-entering China after publication of Beijing Coma, which is banned there.

Inside the LBF on its first day  Ma Jian made a powerful statement in Chinese,  repeated in English translation ( a video of his speech is posted on the Guardian website). During his speech he painted a red cross on his face and on his banned book.  He said that when had tried to give a copy of the book to GAPP head Liu Binjie at the Fair he had been manhandled and had not been able to get close to him. "No Chinese writers enjoy freedom of speech. When you see 180 Chinese publishers here it may appear that there is a great variety but in reality they all come from the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party."

Jian added: "In this book fair that looks so modern, so impressive, so beautiful you will not see the ugly reality that  lies behind, you will not hear  the voices of those Tibetan lamas who have set fire to themselves or the writers who are persecuted in China. The reality will not be present here in the fair". He said he was happy that the British Council is setting up some kind of dialogue with China. "This is a start, but what makes me disappointed is that within this dialogue you will not hear any mention of the tabloo areas of  Chinese  history, or Tiananmen Square. You will not see any book that has  not been censored by the Chinese authorities." 

Jian also wrote an article circulated to newspapers by Project Syndicate which began: "You would think that the British, having practically invented appeasement and paid a heavy price for, would know better. But appeasement of China for commercial gain apparently is not considered repellent."

An activist inside the #LBF2012, protesting Literary Censorsh... on Twitpic This photo, from the Fair's first day, shows Chinese dissident and Tiananmen Square survivor Shao Jiang demonstrating next to the China Pavilion where state-approved books were being launched and discussed, He held aloft the two protest signs - "Free speech is not a crime" and "Stop literary persecution" - in English and Chinese. .

LBF 2012 coincided with a wide effort by the British and Chinese governments to reinforce cultural links. China's propaganda chief Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Central Committee's Political Bureau, addressed the LBF opening ceremony during a four-day official goodwill visit to Britain. While in London he met Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague.

At the same time Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt met  Chinese State Councillor Liu Yandong (the only female member of the CPC politburo) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to launch a new cultural dialogue. A statement said: "This marks an uplift of the UK’s bilateral relationship with China, making it the only country apart from the USA to have high level discussions on these issues. From now on it will form part of the wider cooperation that the two countries have including an economic and financial dialogue, and a dialogue on human rights."

The impact of the Market Focus events spread well beyond the confines of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. Seven of the events were sceduled at locations in London outside the LBF  including the British Library, London Review Bookshop and London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Yesterday events were held in the cities of  Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle. On Sunday writers Mo Yan and Lu Jiande will appear in an event, Opening up the East, at the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival, in Stratford's Shakespeare Centre.

In previous years English PEN has  hosted, in the English PEN Literary Cafe, Market Focus authors selected by the British Council. But for LBF 2012  English PEN said it would not be providing a platform to the authors included in this programme "as it has been produced in partnership with GAPP, the official government agency responsible for the regulation and administration of all Chinese publishing, including the issuing of publication licenses and the active censorship and banning of books in China."

However, as part of English PEN's hosting a programme of British and international authors at the Literary Cafe, it did host the celebrated writer Bi Feiyu, one of the 21 Market Focus authors. Feiyu, who won the Man Asian Literary Prize 2010 for Three Sisters was LBF "author of the day" on Tuesday and was interviewed in the Literary Cafe by broadcaster and writer Rosie Goldsmith. English PEN noted that it has supported one of his books in the past.

On the first day of LBF Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, wa critic of China under it previous and present leadership and was not part of the World Focus programme, was interviewed by English PEN President, the novelist, memoirist and playwright Gillian Slovo.  Chang, who has lived in the UK since 1978, is a bestselling author, with 13 million copies of Wild Swans sold, but her works are banned in China. This year marks the 21st anniversary of the publication of Wild Swans, her first book, in 1991. The book covers three generations of women. Slovo, who recently reread it, said “it's  the most wonderful book, both a history of a family and the history of a country.” With her husband Jon Halliday Chang wrote a 2005 biography Mao: The Unknown Story. She is now working on a new book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.

Jung Chang and Gilliam Slovo

The event was a fascinating encounter with the vibrant, elegant, author. She was asked about accusations made by some that writers in mainland China are guilty of self-censorship. "I wouldn’t accuse the writers in China because it is very difficult – you could be sent to prison for over a decade for something you write," she said. "No one but the most hardened heroes can do this and not everyone can be a hero, and you have to think about your wife, your husband, your family, your parents."

Jung Chang added: "it’s very very hard – so I feel that we must have a lot of sympathy for them. Of course if you peddle the party line unashamedly that’s another matter but for the average writer I think we have to understand that they all write with a straitjacket in their mind – they can’t write freely because of this straitjacket."

Despite its criticisms of the Market Focus, English PEN carries on its newly-relaunched Pen Atlas  an essay by Han Dong, a Market Focus author who is considered one one of China's most important writers and avant-garde poets. The essay is entitled Chinese Literature: Where are we now?

The distinguished poet Yang Lian, a founder of the Misty school of poetry, became an exile after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and has lived in London since 1997. Lian is editor with W N Herbert of an important new 320-page anthology of Chinese poetry, Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry published by Bloodaxe Books this month. The associate editors are Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu.

Bloodaxe says: "This anthology is the record of a revolution in Chinese poetry. As the Cultural Revolution gave way to the post-Mao era – years of political turmoil, economic boom and the return of Hong Kong – the present period has been one of extraordinary and deeply problematic growth. Chinese poets, driven by alienation, trauma and exile, have responded with one of the most thorough and exciting experiments in world poetry."

The anthology was launched at a World Market event at the London Review Bookshop on Monday, with the Yang Lian, W N Herbert and Xi Chuan, who is considered one of the most influential poets in China and is one of the 21 World Market authors. the Fair. There was a second launch in Newcastle yesterday.

Looking back over the past week, the rumpus over China's World Market Focus drew attention to the programme itself and the Chinese writers included on it. At the same time imprisoned, dissident or exiled writers were present at the fair whether in person (as with Ma Jian)  or through the efforts of Chinese and other campaigners to ensure that LBF Market Focus attendees  were reminded of the continuing imprisonment, and literary works, of Nobel Laureate  Liu Xiaobo and other writers. In practice the boundary between "inside" and "outside" Chinese writers had some flexibility. Overall, the LBF introduced visitors to a rich range of comtemporary Chinese literature and writers. Most immediately I am looking forward to reading the Jade Ladder poetry anthology, Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters and Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, and following up the work of other Chinese writers on the official and unofficial agenda at the Fair.

advertising the fact that Turkey has been chosen as LBF 2013 Market Focus 

At next year's LBF the honour of being chosen as Market Focus goes to Turkey. There was a sizeable Turkish contingent at this year's fair, as well as a seminar entitled "Literary translation: Turkey & Beyond". Activists predict that the choice of Turkey will, like that of China, prove controversial - given its human rights abuses, imprisonment of writers, and Kurdish and Armenian issues.
Susannah Tarbush

Sunday, April 15, 2012

bqfp releases arabic version of 'i shall not hate' by gaza doctor izzeldin abuelaish

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) has announced publication of an Arabic edition of Gaza doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish's wonderful memoir 'I Shall Not Hate'.
In a review of the book's English original for Banipal a year ago I wrote:

The full human horror of the 23-day Israeli assault on Gaza that began on 27 December 2008 was brought to world attention on 16 January when a distraught Palestinian doctor told an Israeli TV host live by phone from Gaza that minutes earlier Israeli tank shells had killed three of his daughters and a niece... Abuelaish constructs a profoundly moving and thoughtful narrative around the attack that killed Bessan (21), Mayar (15) and Aya (13) and their cousin Noor (17). Another daughter, Shatha (16), was badly wounded and left blinded in one eye. At the time of the attack Abuelaish’s six daughters and two sons had been having to come to terms with the death of their mother Nadia from leukaemia just four months earlier.

... Abuelaish puts his family tragedy in the context of his own history and that of the Palestinian people... [he]powerfully conveys the experience of growing up in poverty in a Gaza refugee camp. The 1967 Israeli invasion and occupation left particularly painful memories. Ariel Sharon, Israeli military commander of Gaza, bulldozed hundreds of houses, including that of the Abuelaish family, so as to make the camp’s roads wide enough for tanks. “The level of inhumanity was astonishing, and it has stayed with me to this day” writes Abuelaish.

... After the years of growing disillusionment with the peace process since the Oslo Accords of 1993 Abuelaish’s belief that building human understanding at grassroots level will eventually lead to peace may seem over-idealistic and utopian. But his book has an inspiring positivity and humanity about it. Through his descriptions of the personalities, achievements and dreams of his late daughters they become symbols of a young generation of Palestinians whose spirit and talents bode well for the future.

Press release from BQFP:

"يضرب أبو العيش في هذا الكتاب مثلا رائعا للعفو والمصالحة،
يوضح أساس سلام دائم في الأراضي المقدسة".
جيمي كارتر، الرئيس الأمريكي الأسبق

دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر
تصدر السيرة الذاتية للطبيب الفلسطيني الذي رشح لجائزة نوبل للسلام
عز الدين أبو العيش

الدوحة، قطر – 11ابريل 2012:
تصدر دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر كتاب "لن أكره" وهي القصة المؤثرة لطبيب فلسطيني يشهد مقتل بناته الثلاث ضحايا لقصف الدبابات الإسرائيلية، وبدلا من أن يثأر لمقتل بناته استمر في دعوته لشعوب المنطقة للالتقاء تحت مظلة من التفاهم والاحترام والسلام.

وكان الدكتور عزالدين أبو العيش أسر القلوب وتصدر اسمه عناوين الصحف حول العالم في أعقاب مأساة مروعة: ففي يناير2009 قصف الإسرائيليون منزله بقطاع غزة، فقتلوا ثلاثا من بناته وإبنة أخيه.

ويروي كتاب "لن أكره" الحياة الإستثنائية للدكتور أبو العيش طبيب أمراض العقم، المتخرج في جامعتي القاهرة وهارفرد، وهي سيرة مرعبة ومفجعة وملهمة في آن واحد.

ويتخطى الدكتور أبو العيش الحدود النفسية والفعلية التي تفصل الفلسطينين والإسرائيلين كل يوم بصفته طبيبا يعالج مرضاه على الجانبين، وكإنسان يؤمن بأن الإهتمام بصحة المرأة وتعليمها هما السبيل لتقدم المنطقة، وأخيرا كأب قتل الجنود الإسرائليون بناته. وبدلا من السعي للثأر او الاستسلام للكراهية دعا أبو العيش شعوب المنطقة للتحاور بعضهم مع بعض، متمنيا من كل قلبه أن تكون بناته هن "آخر الضحايا على طريق السلام بين الفلسطينيين والإسرائيليين".

وقد نال الكتاب تقديرا كبيرا في الغرب عندما صدر العام الماضي فوصفه أمين معلوف، الأديب اللبناني العالمي بأنه: "يجعلنا نتأمل شراسة العالم، إلا أنه يرينا في الوقت نفسه لمحة لما هو أثمن شيء في الإنسانية: وهو شعلة الأمل المرتعشة ". ووصفته جريدة الجارديان بأنه: "كتاب قوي ويهز المشاعر".

وقال الأديب إيلي ويزل، الحاصل على جائزة نوبل للسلام: "هذه السيرة درس ضروري ضد الكراهية والانتقام". ووصفته مجلة ببلشرز ويكلي، بأنه: "عمل لا ينسى.. مشوب بالعاطفة، يكشف لنا أن الغضب شيء والكراهية شيء آخر".

كما ذكرت جريدة ذا جلوب آند ميل، أن "لن أكره" هو: "سيرة أخاذة. أحد أكثر الكتب التي قرأتها تأثيرا حول الصراع الفلسطيني الإسرائيلي".

ويذكر أن كتاب "لن أكره" وصل إلى قائمة أكثر الكتب مبيعا في كندا، كما بيعت حقوق ترجمته إلى الفرنسية والألمانية والأسبانية والإيطالية والبرتغالية والتركية والإندونيسية والعبرية.

– انتهى –

نبذة عن دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر
تأسست دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر في أكتوبر 2008، وهي مملوكة لمؤسسة قطر للتربية والعلوم وتنمية المجتمع وتديرها دار بلومزبري البريطانية الشهيرة، ومقرها الدوحة. تسعى الدار إلى تحقيق ثلاثة أهداف رئيسية، ألا وهي: أولاً، نشر الكتب والروايات القيمة والمتميزة بكل من اللغتين العربية والإنجليزية للكبار والصغار.
ثانياً، تهدف دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر إلى تشجيع حب القراءة وتنمية مهارات الكتابة، والمساعدة في نشر ثقافة أدبية حية في قطر والمنطقة، وذلك من خلال إقامة الفعاليات التي تشجع على القراءة، ونوادي القراءة، والاحتفال باليوم العالمي للكتاب، وغيرها من المبادرات. كما تسعى الدار إلى تنمية المواهب الأدبية العربية الجديدة، وذلك من خلال إقامة أنشطة ثقافية وتنظيم ورش للكتابة الإبداعية لدعم وتنمية تلك المواهب الأدبية الناشئة.
أما الهدف الثالث لدار بلومزبري فيتلخص في نشر مهارات النشر والارتقاء بها في المجتمع القطري من خلال توفير التدريب المهني المتخصص بصفة دورية في قطر وفي مقر بلومزبري في المملكة المتحدة. كما تساهم الدار في الارتفاع بمستوى الترجمة من وإلى اللغة العربية وذلك من خلال تنظيم المؤتمر الدولي للترجمة الأدبية، والذي يعقد سنويا في الدوحة بالتعاون مع جامعة كارنيجي ميلون في قطر.
لمزيد من المعلومات حول أنشطة دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر برجاء زيارة موقعنا:
لمزيد من المعلومات حول إصدارات دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر يرجى مراسلة لورا بروك على البريد الإلكتروني التالي: أو فرح أبورمضان على
للإتصال بفريق دار بلومزبري – مؤسسة قطر للنشر، يرجى الإتصال على الرقم التالي: 4454-2431