Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lebanese-British poet Omar Sabbagh's 3rd collection: Waxed Mahogany


The publication next month of Omar Sabbagh's third poetry collection, Waxed Mahogany, is a further highlight in an eventful year for the 31-year-old Lebanese-British poet, critic and scholar.  Waxed Mahogany is published by Agenda Editions, the book publishing arm of Agenda poetry journal located in the English town of Mayfield in East Sussex. Agenda Editions produces small, beautifully printed, limited editions of an individual’s poems.

The new collection comes with high praise from, among others, poet and physician Norbert Hirschhorn (whose latest collection Monastery Of The Moon was recently published in Beirut by Dar Al-Jadeed). Hirschhorn writes: "In Waxed Mahogany you will find poems written by an audacious young poet that cover the topics most young poets write on: parents, elegies, lust and longing, mortality; but unlike many published today, you will not find ordinary language in any of them."

Hirschhorn adds: "Perhaps it comes from Sabbagh’s dual identity as Arab and Englishman, but one hears echoes of Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, Fady Joudah in the poems’ alliterations, bold rhymes, surprising metaphors, richness in noun and verb. Sabbagh writes with a refreshing, muscular formalism to challenge the pallid ‘free verse’ so much in vogue. A winner."

Sabbagh recently returned to London after spending the past academic year as Visiting Assistant Professor in English Literature and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Earlier this year Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press published his second collection The Square Root of Beirut. It was Cinnamon that published his debut collection,  My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint, in autumn 2010. The Square Root of Beirut was launched in March at the Poetry Café in London along with two other Cinnamon collections - Frank Dullaghan's Enough Light to See the Dark and Bill Greenwell's Ringers.

Sabbagh produced a steady stream of poetry and essays during his sojourn in Beirut. His essay on  youth poetry in Beirut appeared in the Spring issue of Poetry Review. The  June issue of the Warwick Review carries in its Notebook section his essay 'Letter from Beirut'. Two of his poems - 'La Veuve' and 'Music of The World's Defeat' - appeared in the March issue of the Warwick Review,  together with his review - entitled 'Three Kinds of Atonement' - of new collections by poets Carole Bromley, Christopher James and Fawzia Kane.

The back cover of Waxed Mahogany carries a warm appraisal from Dr Jan Fortune, editor of Cinnamon Press and of the poetry journal Envoi. She writes: "Sabbagh is a rare and gifted poet. He brings enormous pressure to bear on his themes – love, existential meaning, the rage against darkness, an identity finely tuned to both Beirut and the West – marshalling philosophy and literary allusion with intelligence and elegance so that the reader is immersed in his distinctive world in which ‘…sense has two meanings: / To make you see and to make you see.’ ('After Conrad’s Preface'…)."

In her view, "Waxed Mahogany has the hallmarks of his previous two collections – an emotional intensity and vivid honesty in constant dialogue with the metaphysical and analytical – but with an increasingly assured voice and daring range; an extraordinary and exciting poet."

Sabbagh says a good half of the 62 poems in Waxed Mahogany were written between late April and mid-July. Of the unusual speed with which he writes he says: "I take a romantic view of poetic praxis: it must come in one fell swoop, which is to say within 30 minutes, or, most of the time, it is just dross."

He adds: "I believe in boldness in poetry, which is to say I want to affect people,  make something happen, not intrigue them or fascinate them. Thus, for any subtle understanding or sophistication or insight I may have as a critic/philosopher I'm more interested in humane communicability than in cleverness (in my poetry at least)."

He cites Professor Najla Hamadeh, who writes of his new collection: "Though philosophical even while singing 'a song fresh to the flesh', his poetic good sense pre-empts sophistication and knowledge from overshadowing the felt and imagined."

Omar Sabbagh 

Sabbagh says he often composes "more by ear than by eye; which is to say that 'imagery' isn't as important in my poetry as sound pattern. This makes my poetry, or some of it, a bit like abstract art rather than representational art. That said, my best work is able to realise both simultaneously, immanently...which is the ideal."

Asked how Waxed Mahogany compares with his first two collections, he says: "I don't think this third collection is in any way an 'improvement' on my first and second collections. In fact as I get older I become a lot less 'intense' and a lot more 'realistic'/conservative...but it certainly to a large extent, in relation to the latter, evinces less resentment and bitterness/negativity than my first two collections. I'm just a more mellow(ed) human being now." 

In the view of Professor Hamadeh: "Between his earlier poems and Waxed Mahogany, Sabbagh has turned resentment into love, has polished his linguistic play, and has given more room to his fascinating wit."

Asked how his year teaching in Lebanon has impacted on his art he says: "My teaching is in a way like my poetry - it is performative, charismatic, and I often teach by way of outlandish analogy. So in a way my teaching practise is or was very poetic, but there is no causal relationship between my experience teaching at AUB and this third collection."

Nor did living in Beirut really affect this collection: "What it did affect was the more occasional/rubbish/(literally speaking) reactionary poems, rather than the ones in this collection, which are better in that they act, integrally, rather than 'react'." 

Sabbagh has two MAs, in English Literature and in Creative Writing, and was awarded his PhD at Kings College, London University, last year for a thesis on  'Narrative and Time in the Writings of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad'.

He has a provisional offer to publish his PhD thesis, as part of a philosophy series. In preparation for the rewrite of his thesis for publication, he recently set off for the family summer vacation in Marbella armed with  "25 hardbound notebooks and about 10 files and my PhD...hardly any books (for the first time in maybe 20 yrs!)"

Next term Sabbagh starts a third MA, in philosophy, at Birkbeck College with a view to eventually doing a second PhD, in philosophy. "As evidenced from my first collection, my critical understanding, say of Freud, or Lacan, or Hegel often gives me my (implicit and partial) 'discourse' for poems...in the sense that my thinking is part of me, as is my poetry..."

The enchanting cover image of Waxed Mahogany is a detail from ‘Cendra / Vida’ 2009 (meaning Ashes / Life 2009 in Catalan), a mixed media and collage work on canvas by the distinguished Catalan artist Assumpció Mateu. The artist is married to Sabbagh's maternal uncle, the art and design consultant Waddah M A Faris, and the couple live in Barcelona.   

Omar Sabbagh reads from The Square Root of Beirut at its Poetry Café launch

Sabbagh has a distinctive voice, with a striking use of language and the poems are both intimate and universal. He has a fondness for humour, punning and wordplay. The literary references include John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Cavafy, Durrell, Kafka. The first two couplets of Canto One of Vladimir Nabokov's 'Pale Fire' were well chosen as the collection's epigraph and postscript.

As in his first two collections, members of Sabbagh's family are a constant presence in Waxed Mahogany. His previous collection was dedicated to the memory of his maternal grandmother Sabiha Faris, and her son Bisher Faris, who died within a week of each other in summer 2010. The new collection is "For my family, sanctum, sanctorum" and also in loving memory of Sabiha and Bisher. 'Of the Licit and the Dear' is dedicated to "both my un-met grandfathers", just as in his first collection 'Easy Going' was dedicated to "the two grandfathers I never met".

 'His Scarf By My Heart ', dedicated to Bisher, begins:  'I wear his octoroon scarf / Like the mettle / And vault of my heart. / It reminds me of how little / The dead are.'  And further on: 'Advancing on a different summer now, / All that’s literal in me crows / Into metaphor and figure. // Longevity’s a truth for verse...'

In 'Villanelle', for his mother Maha Faris Sabbagh, Sabbagh writes: 'I’m unsure which way this mannish wind blows, / Lust-dependent, skin-dependent from a fruit tree, / Inside the square orchard where a frail psyche grows.'

'C', Sabbagh's muse from his Oxford University days, again features in several poems. From 'Heart-Ford': 'We culled what was to be culled / From each other // And in a wide-mouthed emptiness / Preferred the stir / Of what didn’t happen, / What we didn’t do, gram / For gram // In the fleet of the  hourglass...'

A number of the poems refer to Beirut. 'This City' - subtitled 'After Cavafy's conceit', includes: 'Beirut, if Beirut could, would / Make war with the sun. // Beirut’s like a struck drum / Which fails to resonate / To, or mate with sound / Or understand / Anyone.

'Uncle Waddah Recommends Durrell's Alexandria Quartet' ends: 'The old man died unhappy, alone, forsook. / The old man: my first truly loved book, / The first ‘City’ in which I flowered and emerged // To gambol and to look, / Circumspect, panoramic, / Like a desert-Oryx, // gazelle-pure // And tome-thick,/ And well-nigh Rabbinic – // The inheritance of my mother / And of my mother’s Other / Brother.'  
 report by Susannah Tarbush

Friday, July 20, 2012

'ANITA: A Memoir' - Anne Dunhill's moving book about her late daughter


The veteran Palestinian-British publisher Naim Attallah takes a particularly hands-on approach to the selection of titles for publication by London-based Quartet Books, of which he is chief executive officer. If a manuscript takes his fancy, he will promptly give the green light for its publication and once it is published he takes a personal interest in promoting it, including on Twitter and on his blog Naim Attallah Online.

For the British novelist, translator, language teacher and former model Anne Dunhill it was a Facebook friend request from Attallah that paved the way for the recent publication by Quartet of her book ANITA: A Memoir. Anne wrote the book as a tribute to her eldest daughter Anita Ferruzzi who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, at the age of only 35.

In one of the instances of synchronicity that seem to recur in Dunhill's life, she received Attallah's Facebook friend request just as she had finished writing the memoir and was facing the task of trying to find a publisher. "I still don't know what miracle prompted him to make the friend request," Anne says. When she sent Attallah a message accepting his friend request, she mentioned her book.

Speaking at the launch of ANITA: A Memoir at the Phoenix Arts Club, Attallah recalled that when he and Anne became friends on Facebook about a year ago "she told me about her manuscript and I invited her to show it to me. I read it over one weekend and rang her on the Monday to say how pleased I would be to publish it."

The London newspaper the Evening Standard commented: "Aspiring writers take note: we all knew about Facebook's power to advertise a book, but comely heiress Anne Dunhill has demonstrated how the networking website can be used actually to get one published."

Dunhill had never met Attallah before he sent his Facebook friend request but "I'd often read about Quartet and all the glamorous young women working there over the years and wished I was one of them. So even though I was far from young when I got there I was thrilled to be part of it, and the experience completely lived up to expectations."

She adds that after Quartet took her book on, "Naim was a joy to work with, very quick in responding to everything I sent him and always constructive in his comments. He also chose the perfect editor for me, Anna Stothard, who took endless trouble and who I've become extremely fond of."

Anne was among the guests present at the Royal Yacht Club in London's Knightsbridge in April to hear Attallah's talk to the British Lebanese Association   on the theme of the  Life and Adventures of a Dedicated Publisher

Anita and Anne

Bereavement is always painful, but for a parent the death of a child is especially devastating. Anne has written a moving and revealing book which is likely to ring bells with others who are on the long, often lonely journey through grief with its tumultuous emotions, memories and sometimes regrets.
In ANITA: A Memoir Anne recounts Anita’s life, and chronicles her illness and death, depicting the dynamics of the family and the sometimes difficult mother-daughter relationship.  The eventful life stories of mother and daughter are skilfully interwoven in the text. 

Anne is the granddaughter of Alfred Dunhill, founder of the Dunhill tobacco company. But she describes media references to her as "the Tobacco Heiress" as irritating and inaccurate. Her father only worked for the family firm for a limited time, and by the time Anne was born he had long stopped working for it. Dunhill's parents had been living together for six years when she was born but her father was still married to another woman. In 1951, when Anne was four, her father's wife died and her parents married.  Her father died in a car accident when she was 12, a tragedy with far-reaching effects on Anne.

When Anne's aunt Mary Dunhill published a book entitled Our Family Business in 1979 she referred to Anne’s father and his previous girlfriends - but Anne and her mother were left out. Anne says that her father and Mary had fallen out over money and had not spoken for many years “so it’s possible she didn’t even realise my parents had married.”

Anita was blonde and beautiful like her mother, and a striking five feet 11 inches tall. Anne recalls how when Anita was 15 and getting more beautiful by the day model scouts  constantly stopped her in the street. In early 2009 things were going well for Anita. At 35 she was "at her most beautiful" her mother writes. She had overcome earlier problems with drink and drugs and had left behind a dysfunctional marriage and various broken love affairs. Anita had trained as a Pilates instructor and was successful in building up a Pilates business first in Sierra Leone, where she lived with a boyfriend for a time, and then in London. She had appeared on BBC Breakfast TV in August 2008 demonstrating Pilates, which was in the news because the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown was reported to be practising it.  


Anne and Anita modelling in 1979

   
The first indication that all was not well with Anita's health came in late spring 2009 when she started to  suffer from stomach pains. The  first doctor she went to put the symptoms down to stress and suggested that she might have a pre-ulcerous condition. Anita was indeed under stress: her Italian painter father Roberto -"Bobo" - Ferruzzi who lived in Venice had been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas not long before, although he had not been told of his diagnosis. Anita's own pains started not long after his cancer diagnosis. (Bobo would outlive his daughter, dying in February 2010).

An ultrasound revealed Anita had lumps in her liver and she was sent for a CT scan. When she went with her mother to get the results, they arranged to meet first at an Italian café in Tottenham Court Road. Anne writes: “I saw her walking towards me, slim and graceful in her summer clothes and smiling and waving as she spotted me. No, I told myself disbelievingly. It’s quite impossible there can be anything seriously wrong with her.”

But the scan showed she had a tumour in her pancreas and several smaller ones in her liver. And on 1 July 2009 came the shocking diagnosis: Anita had stage four cancer of the pancreas. She was likely to survive about three months without chemotherapy, or six months with the treatment. Anita decided she would not have chemotherapy, and opted for NHS treatment in the Royal Marsden hospital.

Anne was desperate for her daughter to go to the Fuda Cancer Hospital in China, but Anita declined this proposal. Anne says: "After Anita decided not to go to China, things between us were never the same again because I knew she was going to die and there was nothing I could do to save her." Anne still believes "one hundred per cent" that going to the clinic in China would have been Anita's only chance.

Anita died in the Royal Marsden Hospital in August, just six weeks after the diagnosis.There is a  touching account of her final days spent mainly out of hospital, with members of the family rallying round.  All was  not gloom: "One therapy we all agreed on was the value of laughter. We started a campaign to make Anita laugh every night" with the help of funny films and DVDs.

One consolation for Anne was that her relationship with Anita had markedly improved in the period before Anita became ill. “Because we were both single for most of her last year, we spent a lot of time together and became closer than we had probably ever been before,” Anne writes. They were "extraordinarily close" during the Christmas 2008 break and  “it seemed that Anita and I had healed our relationship and that all was peace and harmony between us at last."

The lives of Anita and Anne were in some aspects parallel - including the early loss of a father (in Anne's case through death, in Anita's thorugh separation), stints of modelling, an urge to write, and the attracting of numerous suitors. Anne was a debutante during the 1964 season and then enjoyed success as a model. In 1965-69 she modelled in London and Paris and in Milan, where she spent six months. 

In 1968 she married a man named Ken Sweet, who turned out to be violent. A month after the breakup of the marriage she went on a Mediterranean tour "in the footsteps of St Paul" with her Aunt Dorothy. Terrified of Sweet, Anne was reluctant to return  home and so stayed on in Venice. There in 1969, at the age of 22, she met Bobo who was 19 years her senior. "I moved in with him two weeks after our first date for all the wrong reasons," she writes. Bobo was married when he and Anne met: his Danish-German wife was seeking a divorce. Anne and Bobo were together for six years, but never married. They had a son, Ingo, and then Anita was born. Anne thinks what what went wrong between her and Bobo was having children: "Before that we had been so carefree." 
 

Anita and her father Roberto Ferruzzi - Bobo - in 2009 


In 1975 Anne and Bobo broke up and she married Anthony Russell-Roberts, the nephew of dancer and choreographer Frederick Ashton. Anne and Anthony had two daughters, Tabitha and Juliet, and in 1983 he became the Administrative Director of the Royal Ballet. Anne went on Royal Ballet tours including to Moscow and Australia. But after 20 years of marriage, "I learnt that, to quote Princess Diana, there were three people in my marriage” and she and Anthony separated.  

Anne subsequently had a relationship with Jeremy Isaacs, General Director of the Royal Opera House, which began on a Royal Ballet tour of Japan. Isaacs was married, although Anne thought at the time, she now thinks mistakenly, that his wife was  having an affair.  The affair ended in a blaze of tabloid scandal. “I got my decree nisi in December 1995 and shortly after that Jeremy was doorstepped by a news cameraman coming out of my house. He accused me of selling him to the newspapers and dropped me flat”. Anne managed to get a letter from the journalist concerned, saying that Anne had neither tipped her off nor been paid, and she sent it to Jeremy who apologised, but it was too late. 

Anne's memoir of Anita is not the first time she has turned her own experiences into a book. She had always wanted to be a writer, and has kept a diary for every day of her life from her 11th birthday, apart from the period 1966-70. Anne's first novel A Darker Shade of Love was about her ill-fated marriage to Ken Sweet. She wrote it in 1971 in less than four weeks but it was not published until 20 years later, in 1991, by American Michael O’ Mara and his wife Lesley, through the publishing company Michael O'Mara Books.

The association with Michael O'Mara had begun when, through Anthony, Anne was commissioned to ghostwrite a book by dancer Marguerite Porter, Ballerina: A Dancers Life. After the original publisher Pavilion wanted changes, Dunhill and Porter took the book elsewhere and Michael O' Mara published it and went on to publish her two novels.
  
Anne's second novel Web of Passion was based on her relationship with Bobo, although she made his character an antique dealer rather than an artist. The publisher's blurb describes the novel as "a story of sexual passion and intrigue set in Venice and London in the 1970s." 

Anita also aspired to become a writer, and while working part time for the Prince's Trust she wrote a novel about her stormy marriage. Anne quotes parts of the novel in ANITA: A Memoir

In 1986, at the age of 39, Anne started a  BA in English and Italian at Royal Holloway, University of London. She was asked to translate a feminist Renaissance work by Venetian Lucrezia Marinella, entitled The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men. It was published in 2000 by the University of Chicago Press in the series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. In 2002 she did an MA in Representations of Italy at Royal Holloway. Alongside her studies and translating she taught  English at the famous Berlitz Language Centre in London. 

Anne has always searched for the spiritual dimension of existence. In the early days of her relationship with Bobo she wrote: “I seem totally liberated – sexually etc – but perhaps I find it easier to liberate myself sexually than to begin the painful struggle of spiritual liberation.” In 2002 she converted to Catholicism, something she had been drawn to doing for many years. At the same time she retains an interest in  astrology, clairvoyance, healing and  alternative therapies. 

 The pages of ANITA: A Memoir are crowded with people, incidents, encounters and places. An  index would be useful: perhaps one will be provided in a future edition.


by Susannah Tarbush

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

libyan writer mohamed mesrati discusses libya and its revolution at gate theatre

 Mohamed Mesrati at the Gate Theatre

The 22-year-old Libyan writer Mohamed Mesrati (who was interviewed on this blog last October), a resident of London, appeared at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, West London, on Monday night for a reading from his essay "Bayou and Leila", and to discuss the Libyan revolution with the Gate's artistic director Christopher Haydon. Haydon is currently directing The Prophet, a play on the Egyptian revolution by the London-based Iraqi playwright and scientist Hassan Abdulrazzak, running at the Gate from 14 June until 21 July. Monday event, held  after that evening's performance of The Prophet, was one of several post-performance happenings during the play's run.

The event took place just two days after Libya's historic first free elections in half a century, which gave it an added piquancy. The media was abuzz with news that, contrary to predictions of many, Libya  had surprisingly "not gone Islamist".

"I am very optimistic about Libya" Mesrati said. Asked by Haydon about the role of Libyan authors, especially fiction writers, in the revolution Mesrati said we need "still more shocks to change the society... as a secular liberal person I believe that we still have to change people from inside and build a new generation. And this is my next battle. As a writer or as an activist or as a blogger that’s my goal, that’s my dream - to write to celebrate freedom, also liberation. That's what we get from writing, that’s what makes us satisfied."

"Bayou and Leila" is due to be published next spring by London publisher I B Tauris in a book entitled Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus. Introducing Monday night's event from the state, Mesrati's literary agent Nemonie Craven Roderick - of the Jonathan Clowes agency - said the book is "an anthology of new writing from The Middle East and North Africa. I've been working with Matthew Cassel and Layla al-Zubaidi, editors of the book, since February 2011". (Cassel is a journalist and photographer living in the Arab world. Al-Zubaidi is a Beirut-based activist, writer and editor).

Nemonie added: “We’re very grateful to the Gate for giving an additional platform to what is already supposed to be a platform for outstanding new writing and essays, moving between the personal and the political." The majority of the pieces in the anthology are translations from Arabic by Robin Moger." Moger is "the translator, and a great supporter, of the work of Mohamed Mesrati whose essay you’ll hear a reading from tonight."

Moger, who has a degree in Egyptology and Arabic from Oxford University and is at present living in South Africa, is translating Mesrati's debut novel-in-progress Mama Pizza. An excerpt of Mama Pizza appeared in spring 2011 in Banipal issue 40 as part of the magazine's 135-page first-ever special feature on Libyan fiction. Coincidentally the feature on Libyan fiction appeared just as the unanticipated Libyan revolution was erupting. The April 2011 London Book Fair marked the momentous developments in Libya by adding to its programme a seminar on "The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction" with a panel comprising four London-based Libyan writers including Mesrati. Mesrati emerged in the broadcast and printed media as a commentator during the Libyan revolution. For example and after Gaddafi's death he was commissioned to write this article for the Telegraph newspaper: My family and friends in Libya did not die in vain. Mesrati's memories of his childhood friends from schooldays, and his anguish over the death of several of them during the revolution, is one theme of "Bayou and Leila".


Christopher Haydon

Mesrati and his family came to the UK from Libya in 2005 as refugees seeking political asylum and settled in the northern English city of Manchester. Along with completing his school education Mesrati determinedly followed his vocation as a writer, and by the age of 16 his short stories were appearing on the prestigious Kikah literary website of the Iraqi author and journalist Samuel Shimon, co-founder and now editor of Banipal. Mesrati has lived in London since 2009, writing, studying, and working part-time in a bookshop.

The actor Scott Karim [pictured left], who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), read  from "Bayou and Leila" seated alone on stage. He delivered Misrati's eloquent essay in a tone that that reflected the author's characteristic blend of sharpness, tenderness and humour. 

Mesrati was born in Tripoli in 1990, at a time when the country was under a severe sanctions regime as a result of the 1988 Lockerbie aircraft explosion. In "Bayou and Leila" he recalls classroom pranks with his friends, but also reflects on how the brutal dictatorship of Colonel Gaddafi affected his parents, who witnessed the craven brutality of the regime in for example public hangings of students.  His father was an actor and dramatist with a collection of books filled with notes in the margin on stage adaptations he hoped to  make, but he had to suppress his talents in the repressive climate. Mesrati recounts his favourite boyhood tale "The Elephant O Ruler" of Time which his father would tell on Eid nights.



In his essay Mesrati vividly recreates his feelings during the various stages of the revolution. He re-established contact with his childhood friends in Libya in the heady early days of the uprising, getting through them daily information on what was happening and then spreading it on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. His friends fought for the revolution for which, like so many young Libyans, they ultimately sacrificed their lives.

Christopher Haydon told Mesrati: "What I think is beautiful about your writing in those extracts is the way you combine humour and a sense of the absurdity of the situation under Gaddafi... and then the real sense of emotion and tragedy as to the human effects."

Mesrati had seen a performance of The Prophet earlier that evening, and was asked whether he had felt this play on the Egyptian revolution related to him. He said he had related to it in some ways: "All that happened was like a dream. I've been through that nightmare, so I felt especially at the end that there was something of me there in that play."
But he added "it's very difficult sometimes to compare Libya with Egypt and Tunisia. It's completely different, and people could not understand that." He finds it frustrating when people say things such as "'look at Tunisia, it's much better than Libya or Egypt.' It is very difficult to say that."

Haydon said it had been interesting to find how many of the people he and his colleagues had spoken to in Egypt while preparing the play  "really hated the phrase 'the Arab Spring' precisely because it grouped together a lot of things which actually, when you look at them in detail, differ."

Mesrati said the common factor in the Arab revolutions is that it is "all revolution, an uprising and asking for your rights." The Prophet had been about him in that it portrayed people asking for their freedom and human rights. "I followed the Egyptian revolution from the beginning and the day Husni Mubarak fell I went to a pub and got drunk and was so happy." The play had brought back those hope-filled days.

Asked about media coverage of the Libyan revolution, he said that in the beginning he had been extremely happy with it. "It was the first time I saw a Libyan who is not Muammar Gaddafi appear on the front page of the Guardian and the Times. It was a great experience." He still has those issues of the newspapers. But on the other hand he had not liked the way in which leftists in talking about Libya would liken the NATO intervention to the invasion of Iraq. "That's what I don't like at all, because there is nothing to compare between Iraq and Libya." Some pundits described Libya as "the new Iraq" in terms of outside intervention, a comparison he rejected. "We know that intervention is not something good, but sometimes we need it." Some of the media, especially the Western media, "didn't give Libya its own right to the revolution - they didn't even call it a revolution, they called it a war against Colonel Gaddafi."

Mesrati said that when the revolution began "we all knew it would be very difficult to take Gaddafi down because, as I say in my essay, the whole country was controlled by militias and not the army as for example in Egypt or Tunisia."  (In his essay Mesrati explains how Gaddafi had divided the armed forces into security militias commanded by his sons.)

After 40 years of Gaddafi's rule they had thought it might take "maybe a year, two years, four years, five years - but we were full of hope it was the end of Gaddafi." After Tripoli fell in August and Gaddafi fled to Sirte, and then was killed in October,  "I was with my friends and we said well, it didn't take that long actually. To take down 40 years in eight months is a big achievement."

When asked by a member of the audience about struggles between armed militias, Mesrati said it is "not a fight between militias, it's a fight between mafias." He said there had been such violence in Libya under Gaddafi - sometimes related to alcohol or drugs - but it was never reported in the local media. He pointed out that during the revolution even when Libya had no government and  no law "people still opened their shops until 2 or 3 in the morning and nobody came to rob them".

On the question of why the Islamists and the Musllim Botherhood, had not done as well as anticipated in the parliamentary election, whereas the National Forces Alliance of former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril appeared to have done well, he said that Libya is "a 100% or 99% Muslim country...   and it’s not like in Egypt for example where the Muslim Brotherhood has been there 40 to 50 years or 60 years. In Libya it’s still new and the people themselves always think that they are Muslim and they don’t need somebody to come to them and control them in the name of Islam."

People in Libya may say "OK I’m Muslim, sometimes I drink, sometimes I smoke - but I still go to pray, I still fast in Ramadan and so I am Muslim and so you are not going to come, get the government, and tell me you are better than me."

One member of the audience was keen to visit the remains of the Roman city of Leptis Magna and wondered if he will have to wait a year to do so. "You can go tomorrow if you like, Mesrati said. He was encouraing on the subject of  tourism in Libya. His relatives tell him that tourists are going to the coast at Misrata, and there is tourism in the beautiful Libyan mountains.

"You can go there, you can look, nobody is going to touch you." Perhaps partly because of tribalism Libyans are not scared of  foreigners but want to respect foreigners, and hope that when tourists return back to their own countries they will talk well of Libya  "and give it the bright face that Gaddafi always tried to hide."

report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Monday, July 09, 2012

International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in spotlight at London Lit Festival

 (L to R) Jonathan Wright, Maudie Bitar and Paul Blezard

What impact has the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF - also known as the Arabic Booker Prize) had on Arabic literature since its launch five years ago? And how has the prize influenced Arabic literary translation? Such questions were to the fore during an event held on Friday evening at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre as part of the London Literature Festival.I

The event was originally intended to celebrate Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber's winning of this year's IPAF in Abu Dhabi in March. Jaber had been expected to travel to London to discuss his work and to read from his prizewinning novel The Druze of Belgrade. But the author, who is notably publicity-shy, decided for one reason or another not to attend and the event was re-jigged as a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the inception of IPAF in Abu Dhabi in 2007.

IPAF is worth $60,000 to the winner, comprising $50,000 plus the $10,000 that goes to each of the six shortlisted authors. the prize is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London, and has up to now been funded by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation; funding is now being taken over by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

In his absence, Rabee Jaber was saluted through the reading in the original Arabic of an excerpt from The Druze of Belgrade by IPAF Trustee Professor Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih, a panellist at the event. The excerpt is published in the Arabic original, and in English translation, by Nancy Roberts in  the IPAF publication Excerpts from the Shortlist 2012, copies of which were distributed at the event. Abdel-Messih is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cairo, currently on secondment to the University of Kuwait. Her books include  A Transcultural Reading of Literature, and National Culture: Global or International Options. She has been a judge for the State Fiction and Arts Prizes, the Writer’s Union Fiction Prize and the Sawiris Fiction Prize.

IPAF's Arabic-English publication carrying excerpts from the 2012 shortlist

One of Abdel-Messih's co-panellists was the Lebanese journalist and literary critic Maudie Bitar who writes a column on Western literature for Al-Hayat newspaper: she was among the five judges of IPAF 2012. The third panellist was journalist and translator Jonathan Wright, whose translation into English of Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan's 2009 IPAF winner Azazeel was published in April by Atlantic Books. Azazeel is the choice of book for the next meeting of the Banipal Book Club, to be held on 26 July at the Arab British Centre in London (Both Azazeel and Wright's translation of Lebanese writer and publisher Rasha al Ameer's novel Judgment Day - American University in Cairo Press, 2011 - have been entered for the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation).

Chair of the event was writer and broadcaster Paul Blezard, Literary Director of Firebird Poetry Prizes and former literary editor of the Lady magazine. Blezard has chaired events at myriad literary festivals including the Emirates Airline Literary Festival in Dubai.



 Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih

Asked by Blezard about the significance of IPAF, Wright thought it had made a difference in two main ways. "Firstly, it is transnational – most prizes before that have tended to be national prizes within specific countries. The Arab book market is still very fragmented nationally, so to some extent it’s contributed to breaking down those barriers.

“But the biggest difference has simply been the amount of money involved. It’s $60,000 – by the standards of the Arab literary market that’s a large amount of money. So it’s a massive incentive for people to cultural production generally." The size of the prize has also attracted much attention to the winners and to the other shortlisted books. In addition, IPAF "helps people who report on literature to get a sort of framework in which to place the various books that are coming out. That also counts very much with the foreign market because one unusual feature of IPAF - which is slightly controversial in my view - is the provision that the winner of the prize is automatically translated into English and inevitably finds a publisher in English.”

What is controversial about the winning novel's guaranteed translation into English? Wright said: “It is anomalous, I don’t think other prizes in other parts of the world would contain such a provision. So I think it’s a reflection of the imbalance between Western cultural production and Arab cultural production and it reflects the sort of power relationship between the two worlds.”

Asked whether he sees IPAF as a force for good, Wright answered: “In many ways I think it’s good that people should be reading more Arabic literature in translation, but it may be having some adverse side effects by skewing the type of production you’re getting from within the Arab world. I don’t think you’ve actually seen much evidence that this has happened yet but there’s always the possibility that Arab authors might end up or might find an incentive to produce for a Western audience and give preference to a possible Western audience out there.”

When Maudie Bitar interjected “what’s wrong with that?” Wright said: “I’m not sure there’s anything necessarily wrong with it but it seems a little odd to me that people should be writing in one language and primarily addressing themselves to readers of another language."

Wright added that while he didn't know that there's proof of Arab novelists writing for a Western audience, "there has been an increase in the number of books written which address themes of cultural encounter – themes of migration, and contact with the outside world. Now maybe this is a healthy development, which merely reflects the reality of the way Arabs live. Because the outside world is very much part of their lives in many ways - not just through television but through travel, through bombs falling on them or whatever. I mean it’s just a question that should be considered and discussed. I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad but it’s certainly interesting.”

Blezard asked Bitar if there is evidence that Arab writers are writing purely to win IPAF, and in order to get a Western audience. Bitar said translation is one of the benefits of IPAF "and if indeed there are writers who are writing towards translation and being published in the Western world I don’t see anything wrong with that." She said that the East and West, as a result of factors such as immigration, have much in common regarding the human condition and experiences: "Maybe the exotic element, the ethnic nature, that people used to look for in One Thousand and One Nights doesn't exist any more." 

Bitar added: "There are a lot of Arabs who live in the West and although sometimes they try to maintain basic aspects of their culture they become different, whether they like it or not. So there is a universal element here and I think what makes IPAF different from other awards is the fact that the winner, and sometimes other authors on the shortlist, are being translated into one or more European languages. I think that’s a very positive thing which should be encouraged, and I do hope that people in the Arab world keep sponsoring this prize because it means a lot to Arab writers to be recognised and to find a bigger audience worldwide."

Abdel-Messih stressed the past and present cosmopolitanism of the Arabs. These days writers, no matter where they are in the world, do not write "from a strictly ethnic point of view. If somebody is living in the present he cannot be divorced from the cosmopolitan, and from what is going on in the world." The Arabs cannot be viewed as people who live in tents and know nothing about the West. "Most Arab nations were cosmopolitan all through – just look at the Mediterranean basin, at Egypt and the Levant and Tunisia and all these countries, they were always in association with the West ... think of the culture of Alexandria." 

Wright denined none of this, and said "let’s face it, the very concept of the novel is undoubtedly derivative from European literature. I don’t think the novel would have evolved in the Arab world in the way it has without European influence." Abdel-Massih added: "And it is inconceivable to look at the European novel without remembering Cervantes, without remembering Andalucian literature."

Wright is "not sure that Arab novelists when they try to introduce European or American characters are as successful as they are when they are dealing with Arab characters. And I think the same works in reverse; I don’t think that Europeans when they are dealing with Arab characters are very successful either." He added: "Although I don’t have any problem with them trying I think the reality is that they don’t do it very well generally, at least many of them don’t."

 Youssef Ziedan's 2009 IPAF-winning novel Azazeel translated by Jonathan Wright

Blezard asked Bitar about the judging process. "There are several criteria; you have to take into consideration the insight, the range of the narrative, the building of the characters, the way the narrative progresses," she said. "You take all these into consideration - but in the end it is subjective. During the discussions some of us thought that the fluidity of the language was a criterion enough to consider a novelist a winner or not. There are really many factors."

Blezard invited Bitar to lift a curtain on the judging room: how heated is the debate? Bitar noted that press coverage had suggested that in one or two years of IPAF the judges' deliberations were heated "but  we were very civilised this year, maybe because there were three women. The judges were chaired by the esteemed Syrian intellectual Georges Tarabichi and he really was a very good chair."

The controversy in a previous year to which Bitar alluded came  when the 2010 shortlist was announced . (One of the judges, Egyptian Shereen Abou El-Naga of Cairo University, resigned the day after the shortlist was announced. She was quoted as blaming the voting system and a lack of dialogue or debate - although the Kuwaiti chairman of the judges novelist and short story writer Taleb Al-Refai refuted such allegations.)


Abdel-Messih said "we do our best to have no leakage" of the judges' deliberations: "that’s why the judges are secret, nobody knows their identity until the shortlist." Keeping the identities secret is also  aimed at preventing the judges being pressurised by any quarter.

Two of the shortlisted authors - Rabee Jaber and Tunisian Habib Selmi (shortlisted for The Women of Bassatin) had been shortlisted in previous years. Blezard asked whether the judges view previously shortlisted writers, who might narrowly have missed winning, "with more charity". Bitar said “No not really – you have in the end to agree on one of them. You have your first choice,  your second choice... We gave marks to every one of them." In the end the judges had to discuss, and reach a consensus.

Bitar said the 2012 judges had first met in Paris to decide the longlist, which was supposed to be 16 novels.  "It was difficult for us to select 16 novels so we settled for 13, and I was really happy with the shortlist - although there was one novel - I cannot of course say what it was and who wrote it - that was good enough to be on the shortlist but it was eliminated in the first process" When Blezard asked why this was, Bitar said she thought the judges "should have more time to read more carefully."

Blezard noted that in  Georges Tarabichi's introduction to IPAF book of excerpts from the 2012 shortlist, he writes that the judges had to read over 100 novels in less than four months. Blezard said he does that every year himself - "I’ve read a book a day for the last 10 years, Georges obviously has a life - I don’t!"

Bitar said: " It depends on whether you have enough time to read, and how you view a novel and what you want from it, and in the end you have to agree on one novel whether it was your first choice or not." Blezard said it is a charge often  levelled at literary prizes that it is not the best novel that wins but the one that all the judges can agree upon. Does the same hold true for IPAF? Bitar replied: "I think most of the IPAF winners were worthy ones, not all of them." But she declined to be specific.

Wright thought the prize had been very effective and had several benefits: "It’s focused minds, both domestically in the Arab world and abroad, on specific works, given them a lot of attention, and there have been spinoffs in that the short list and longlist also get masses of attention, and it’s noticeable that publishers have been picking up on translations of those books. Many of the shortlisted books were published too."

Blezard remarked that "those of us in the West who read Arab literature in translation now tend to see it through the prism of IPAF and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP)." He asked Wright:"Do you think we are only getting a fine detail of Arabic fiction and there’s a much broader spectrum than we may be aware of, because we only see it through this small window?"

Wright said there has been much debate on the selection of Arabic literature for translation, and the  possible flaws of this process. "Who is doing the choosing, which books get translated, is it a representative or wise selection? The argument has been round and round in circles." In his view "there are a lot of people involved in the selection process so it’s probably as good as it’s going to be – the more people who take part in that process the better, and IPAF has added another element to that mix, so it can only be beneficial."

There was some discussion on the rules for the submission by publishers of books for IPAF. Each publisher may submit three novels - but if one of these is by an author who has been shortlisted for IPAF in a previous year, the publisher may submit an extra novel. The aim is to increase the chances of submissions of emerging writers, who might otherwise be squeezed out at the submission stage by those with previous form in terms of making the shortlist. The judges have the right to call in a novel that has not been submitted by its publisher.


Maudie Bitar

Bitar suggested that IPAF judges should be asked  not only to pick the winner, but also to nominate other shortlisted novels for translation. "It is not fair only for the winner to be translated", especially because it is not the best novel that wins every year. "Sometimes there is more than one fine novel on the shortlist," - from the shortlist of six "there should be at least three fine novels".

Blezard asked Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih about her interest  in the strands of Arabic writing that are coming through this prize, particularly the strand  focusing on estrangement and belonging. 

Abdel-Messih said: “Most of the novels, I think, express existential conflicts." She pointed out that themes of belonging do not always arise in the context of an Arab-West divide and whether or  not an Arab belongs to the West.  "For instance The Druze of Belgrade which won IPAF this year is about how conflicts between different ethnicities and religious sects in one Arab society can lead to this idea of estrangement and 'not belonging'. It’s not only a matter of East-West relations but also inter-Arab relations between different communities. Arabs are not one community: there are so many different communities that are sometimes are not very well related.".

She added that the issues are becoming magnified nowadays for political reasons, "not only because political reasons lead to migration, but also the disapora is not a condition of being in another country – you can feel an exile, an outsider, a stranger in your own country. It is one of the most common themes dealt with in these novels, and I think this is what one binds them together."

She gave as an example Algerian writer Bachir Mefti's novel  Toy of Fire shortlisted for IPAF 2012. It has "the idea of estrangement in his own society – due to censorship, paternalism, sexual frustration, and the practices of the police state."


Paul Blezard

A member of the audience wanted to know whether the panellists have in the past five years seen a  difference in the quality of the literature emerging in the Arab world. Abdel-Massih said there has "always been very good writing in Arabic", but "perhaps we have got to see new modes of writing". In addition,  "perhaps we as Arabs, because of censorship and politics, are not able to read other Arabs. So IPAF also enabled us to read each other, and to know more about each other."

Wright thought there had been an improvement in quality. "I’m not well enough read to be absolutely definitive on this... but the incentives are there, and there are more young people who are trying their hand at writing. Inevitably it may take a while really for this to feed through but I think there are signs of that already."

Bitar thought quality had increased: "The way Arab writers are practising their craft is different, the language is less lyrical - except maybe in the Gulf - and it’s becoming more minimalist and we don’t see as much excess language as we used to."

Wright agreed that the lanaguage has become "much more succinct, much more to the point." The Arabic novel he is translating now "reads like James Bond". When Blezard commented "I thought you said there’s an improvement in quality!" Wright noted that Bond author Ian Fleming "was a master of style".

On the question of what Western audiences want, or are perceived to want, from Arab fiction Wright said "I don’t think there’s any simple answer to that, I think they’re actually quite willing and quite open to quality, and quality can come in many different guises. Clearly the most successful book is Alaa Aswany’s book The Yacoubian Building which, interestingly is not a book which addresses the outside world at all, it’s a completely enclosed Egyptian world."

There was disagreement among the panellists on the reasons for the success of The Yacoubian Building in the West. In Wright's view "The secret of his success is that Aswany is a very good story story teller – his characters are plausible, and there’s a good pace. In structure it is very much a traditional almost Victorian novel it has a beginning and an end and people go through the motions.”

Bitar suggested the novel's succcess in the West was due to its containing what the West wants from Arabic fiction. "Almost 25 years after Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel prize, we have almost forgotten him and the real star is Al Aswany with The Yacoubian Building and what he writes about is maybe what the reader in the West is looking for – it’s about homosexuality, corruption, fundamentalism, terrorism, sex outside marriage ..."

Wright thought "that’s a little unfair if I may say so. These are facts of life, I don’t think it’s a gross misrepresentation of reality."

Abdel-Massih thought "the success of Alaa al Aswany really goes to his translator - I’m sure of that, because when you read Alaa al Aswany in Arabic, his language is really flat." But, adding that he's populist, she said "I think we owe him gratitude for raising a new readership, we are grateful to him for that."

Abdul-Massih said intellectuals don't accept al Aswany "because of his language - you can't savour what he writes" prompting Blezard to wonder whether there is a culturel difference in that "Arabic readers expect Arabic novelists to be intellectual whereas Western readers rather hope for a populist storyteller who is successful." In Britain, "more people buy Dan Brown than buy Julian Barnes."

Wright pointed out that the reading public in the Arab world has been extremely small, and what was available was mainly pretentious literary works, "but the emergence of more popular literature has opened up a new field for marketing". When Blezard asked “is there an Arabic readership for Arabic popular literature?" Wright pointed out that Arabs "used to read  Agatha Christie in translation, all kinds of translated stuff – and Dan Brown  is sold.in large numbers."

Bitar asked: “Is the European or American reader interested in having someone talking about the same experiences that we have as human beings, are they interested in reading about them from a different kind of perspective, or do they want to be tourists and read about an exotic place or a different ethnic group?" She wondered if we have any idea about the sort of circulation that Arab writers have here in Britain.”

Blezard redirected her question to Andy Smart consultant publisher of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, which is "growing day by day – you have six new publications coming out in the next few months - what sort of circulations do you get?"

Andy Smart said it was interesting that the biggest-selling BQFP books are original works in Arabic. The new  Ibrahim Issa book is for example into its second printing in two months, which means over 3,000 copies. BQFP has ventured into translating popular genre fiction, such as books by two Egyptian authors: Ahmed Khaled Towfik's science fiction novel Utopia and Ahmed Mourad's thriller Vertigo. Of Utopia, Smart said  "it’s hard to break a new novelist through the English reading market ,but it has attracted good attention."

In addition to its activities around the prize itself, IPAF has been holding Nadwas or workshops in the UAE annually since 2009. “The concept of the Nadwa is to encourage emerging writers” Abdel-Messih said. “Usually they are selected from different parts of the Arab world. There are two mentors - writers who advise them all through and discuss what they are writing. What they write at the end of the Nadwa is published and translated.” The third Nadwa was held last October.

Asked by Blezard if this is the first workshop of its kind in the Arab world, Abdel-Maassih said there have been for some time several one-country workshops in for example Egypt and Lebanon.

One intriguing question that cropped up during the event was whether IPAF would be open to a non-Arab writing in Arabic. Bitar said “I don’t know whether they have to be Arabs.” Wright said: “If somebody who was non-Arab managed to write in Arabic, which is quite a feat, then they would be welcomed – Arab is a linguistic term anyway."

report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Review of Sarah Irving's book 'Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation'


Sarah Irving's biography of Leila Khaled illuminates the life of a woman freedom fighter in half a century of Palestinian resistance

by
Susannah Tarbush

British writer Sarah Irving’s book Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation , on the PFLP activist and one-time air hijacker, has created quite a stir since its publication a few weeks ago by London-based independent publisher Pluto Press. Zionists campaigned against the holding of the book's first launch event at Blackwell's bookshop in the northern English city of Manchester. They relentlessly harassed shop staff by phone and e-mail until Blackwell's cancelled the launch.

Pluto Press deplored the dangerous development represented by these actions of "pro-Israel apologists", and said "these attempts to shut down free discussion about the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict must be opposed. Without such discussion historical injustice will not be recognised and mutual understanding put even further out of reach."

The Zionist campaign backfired, increasing publicity for the book including on the internet and through social media. The Manchester launch took place anyway, with the venue moved to Manchester Digital Laboratory (known popularly as 'Madlab').  At the London launch, held in  Housmans radical bookshop,  Irving addressed a packed out audience and demand for her book was high. Irving's book has attracted a string of highly favourable reviews, examples of which are posted on the Pluto website.

In the second week of July Irving undertook a launch tour of organised by the Educational Bookshop, East Jerusalem, with events in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem (the tour had a dedicated Facebook page).

Alongside her book tour Irving appeared with Leila Khaled over video link at the Marxism 2012 festival in London on Sunday 8 July during the event 'Intifada! The Struggle for Palestinian Freedom', also featuring Peyman Jafari, at 3.45-5.00 pm. Irving and Khaled had been due to appear together on 16 July at Readers Bookshop in Cozmo mall, Amman, but the event was cancelled; Sarah Irving explains in the comment below that this was "due to problems with the Jordanian postal system (and therefore censor copies not arriving on time) and then late deliveries. Leila will hopefully be doing a replacement event at Readers after Ramadan..."

Further down the line, Irving will be participating in Word Power Books Radical Book Festival to be held in Edinburgh from 24 to 28  October. 

Leila Khaled's name on a Marxism 2012 poster displayed at SOAS

Irving first visited Palestine and Israel in 1996, and has a long record of involvement in Palestinian issues. She has worked in Palestine not only as a writer but as a human rights observer, tour guide and fair trade goods purchaser.

Irving is author of the much-acclaimed Bradt Guide to Palestine (2011), and runs www.palestineguesthouse.com which promotes community tourism and ecotourism in the West Bank and among Palestinian enclaves in Israel. She is co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza Beneath the Bombs (Pluto Press, 2010). She blogs on her website www.sarahirving.co.uk and writes for a variety publications including the Guardian, New Internationalist and Electronic Intifada. Her Twitter address is @sarahonline_

Some pro-Israelis have claimed that Irving's book glorifies terrorism. But such allegations are wide of the mark. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation  is a thorough, thoughtful and nuanced work in which, among other things, Irving examines the ambiguities and contradictions around Khaled's activities.

In its statement on the Zionists' forced cancellation of the Blackwell's launch in Manchester Pluto Press noted "the hypocrisy of such threats." Leila Khaled’s actions in the late 1960s should certainly be open to criticism and questioning, "but they resulted in no deaths or physical injuries. By contrast sycophantic memoirs and autobiographies of Israeli leaders responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians raise barely a murmur."

The book is the third volume in the Pluto Press series Revolutionary Lives, intended as short critical biographies of radical political figures. The stated approach of the series is “sympathetic but not sycophantic” - and this well describes Irving’s attitude to her subject.

Irving points to the double-edged consequences of hijackings designed to draw attention to the Palestinian cause. "Hijackings carried out by Palestinian groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s certainly meant that few people in the USA and Europe could continue to claim to have no idea who the Palestinians were," she writes.  "But the extent to which this new knowledge had a positive impact is questionable." For many, "it simply turned Palestinians from a group of people they had never heard of into a group of people they associated irrevocably with the word 'terrorism'".

Khaled says the hijacking were a "tactic not a strategy. After the last PFLP hijackings we concentrated on operations in Occupied Palestine and on defending ourselves in Lebanon, against the Lebanese Army and the Israelis." Irving says that Khaled is impassioned and at times tearful when she defends the tactic of hijacking, saying it was justified and effective. "It was a panic for people for a short time but we never meant to hurt anyone. For our people there had been years and years of suffering, under occupation or in the diaspora, and yet no one wanted to show this side of things."

In 155 pages Irving covers an impressive amount of ground. A major source of her material is a week of  interviews she conducted with Khaled at her home in Amman in September 2008, and the e-mail and Skype communications between the two between then and November 2011. Irving has interviewed Palestinians who have known Khaled and has referred to numerous English-language published sources; the book has extensive chapter notes and a four-page bibliography. The book quotes from certain works that are hostile to Khaled - notably American feminist Robin Morgan's book The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism.

The book fills a gap in the material published on Khaled. There is no up-to-date biography of her in English: what biographical material there is was published years ago. After the hijackings in which she was involved Khaled co-operated on an autobiography with George Hajjar, an academic who worked for the PFLP's publicity department. The aim was to take political advantage of the events of 1970. The resulting book My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1973.

The TV broadcaster Peter Snow wrote, with David Phillips, Leila's Hijack War: From the day of the Mass Hijack to the Day of Nasser's Funeral (Pan Books, 1970). And there is Eileen MacDonald’s Shoot the Women First (London, Arrow Books, 1991) for which the author interviewed a number of women including Khaled.


 Sarah Irving

Irving's book is written in a lively way, with information conveyed in a highly readable and engaging style. And it is funny in places: Khaled was a tomboy as a child, and has a roguish sense of humour and a persistent defiance.

Irving opens her narrative with an account of the dramatic event that catapulted Khaled to fame in August 1969: the hijacking by Khaled and her PFLP comrade Salim Issawi of a TWA flight from Rome to Athens. The flight was diverted to Damascus, Khaled ordering the pilot to fly low over her birth city of Haifa which she and her family had been forced to leave in 1948. In Damascus Issawi blew up the aircraft's nose cone and the Syrians held the two hijackers for several weeks.

The beautiful young female hijacker attracted international attention. Reuters images of Khaled with her high cheekbones and doe eyes, wearing a kaffiyeh and posing with a Kalashnikov became iconic of the Palestinian revolution. Khaled told Irving  that these pictures were actually taken in Lebanon well after the hijacking.

The following year, on 6 September 1970, Khaled and Sandinista Patrick Arguella tried to hijack an El Al plane bound for New York. Since her first hijacking Khaled had undergone six rounds of plastic surgery to try to disguise her appearance. This hijacking was part of an audacious PFLP multiple operation in which four aircraft were to be hijacked and forced to fly to Dawson’s Field in Jordan. But the attempted hijacking of the El Al plane was foiled and Arguella was killed by an air marshal.

The plane was diverted to Heathrow airport and Khaled was held at Ealing police station in West London. She was released after three weeks as part of a deal for the release of hostages from the three planes that the PFLP had diverted to Dawson's Field and blown up.

Irving points out that "in a post 9/11 world it is hard to grasp the extent to which the meaning of hijackings, and the reactions of hijacked passengers have changed." Unlike today passengers had no reason to think they would die, but hijacking is a tactic which relies on fear and hijackings are "still dependent on the terror of the passengers and crew to work."

the iconic image of Leila Khaled 

Khaled was born in 1944 to a lower middle-class family in Haifa where her father was a café owner. In April 1948, a few days after the Deir Yassin massacre, the family fled to refuge in Lebanon where there was an uncle in Tyre. They spent a year in Tyre, a time that Khaled remembers as "one of exile and dispossession". Even though the family was not as badly off as the majority of refugees and was able to stay with relatives rather than go to a camp, the difficult transition was the basis of her politicization in her teens. 

It was Khaled's older siblings who introduced her to the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) founded by George Habash and Wadi'a Haddad as students at the American University of Beirut (AUB). As a 14-year-old at the time of the 1958 conflict in Lebanon, Khaled carried food to fighters on the front line. Her bravery allowed her to join the ANM as a full member after the conflict was over. She enrolled at AUB, and was involved in Palestinian student politics, but after a year her brother could no longer pay the fees, and she left for Kuwait to teach. She remained there for six years while still working underground for the ANM.

The PFLP was formally established at the end of 1967, in the wake of the disaster of the June war, and  Khaled enthusiastically trained as a PFLP fighter: Haddad eventually picked her for the 1969 hijacking. Irving traces the development of the PFLP from the merger of the ANM with two other Palestinian organisations; the DFLP and PFLP-GC later broke away. 

Khaled's name may have become synonymous with the hijackings that took place in a certain phase of Palestinian  history, but as Irving shows there is far more to Khaled's life than that. Khaled has remained an activist in the four decades since those events. In 1979 she was elected as a PFLP representative to the Palestine National Council, of which she is still a member. Two years later she was voted onto the PFLP's Central Committee. She heads the PFLP's committee on Refugees and the Right of Return, a role which requires constant travel.

Irving depicts well the interweaving of Khaled's personal and political lives. She has paid a high personal price for her activism: on Christmas day 1976 she returned home to find her sister, and sister's fiancé, shot dead. Her sister had been mistaken for her. Khaled refused to work for the PFLP until those guilty were caught, a year later. 

Khaled's first marriage ended in divorce at least partly because of the difficulty of combining married life with the discipline of being a PFLP militant. She had fallen in love with her first husband, an Iraqi named Bassim, when he was commander of her first PFLP training camp in 1969. He had joined the PFLP after being imprisoned for 10 years in Iraq for membership of the Iraqi Communist Party. The long separations while they were on PFLP postings contributed to the breakup of the marriage.

While at university in the Soviet Union in 1978 Khaled met fellow PFLP member Fayez Hilal , originally a West Banker. Khaled's mother advised Hilal not to marry Leila, but they did marry in 1982 and in Irving's book Khaled praises her supportive husband.

Khaled shared with many Palestinians the need to move location as circumstances changed. She and Fayez moved  from Beirut to Damascus after the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut, and the departure of the Palestinian resistance from the city. After the birth of her two sons Bader and Bashar, Khaled found herself trying to juggle motherhood and work at a time when her husband was still in the Soviet Union specialising. Pressures from Khaled and other women led the PFLP to set up nursery facilities.

Khaled had little eagerness to get involved in the Palestinian women's movement when George Habash asked her in the early 1970s to become a PFLP representative in the General Union of Palestinian Women. She had up till then been keen to prove that women could do the same as men, but  Habash told her: "As a woman you have to fight for the rights of women, you have to be the voice of women" and she reluctantly agreed. The circumstances of the Lebanese civil war were tough for Palestinian women, and Khaled also had to contend with complicted internal issues in GUPS. But she grew to find her work with the General Union among  omen in the camps fulfilling and educational.

Palestinian women were also finding their feet on the stage of international women's gatherings. Such events "opened her eyes to issues she had never dreamed of" - such as demands for lesbian rights. At such gatherings she was  forced to "meet with her Israeli enemies in an environment which wasn't an airplane hijacking or a military confrontation - and in some cases to accept that they might even be her allies." Among the Israelis present at such events were members of the Israeli Communist Party Maki, which included Palestinian citizens of Israel. Khaled was introduced to Felicia Langer, the legendary Israeli lawyer who defended Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel.

When Khaled attended the UN Women's Conference in Copenhagen in 1980 she received death threats and there were  reports that Israel would seek to have her extradited from Denmark. She "re-emerged" in Copenhagen, and some Western feminists, such as Robin Morgan and to a lesser extent Jill Tweedie, criticised the tension between feminism and nationalism that Khaled seemed to embody.

The General Union of Palestinian Women faced an uphill task in trying to promote the position of women in a society torn between tradition and revolution. The PFLP was in general at the forefront of Palestinian groups in trying to combat discrimination against women, but she recalls how the first time she led a group of fighters in Lebanon some of the men tried to refuse to let her lead until the chief of their military section said they must do so. 

In 1992 Khaled and her husband decided to move to Amman; it took Khaled and her sons two years to get passports. Khaledwas reelected to the PFLP central committee in 1993 and 2000. She left GUPS leadership back in 1985 but remains on its Administrative Council, and she is still on the PNC.

The PFLP strong opposed the Oslo Accords with Israel, and Khaled is  critical of the PNA. It was membership of the PNC that gave Khaled the one chance she has had since childhood to return to Palestine, for the PNC meeting held in Gaza in 1997. She faced great difficulty in getting admitted across the border to the West Bank and her confrontation with Shin Bet (Israeli intelligence) during prolonged questioning was reminiscent, Irving says, of "the kind of debates that had so frustrated David Frew [her British police interregator] in Ealing police station" more than a quarter of a century earlier.

There were fears Israelis might try and abduct her and she was whisked away in a Palestinian official's vehicle after crossing the border. The meeting of PNC in Gaza was emotional, with many delegates not having seen their homeland for decades.

The PFLP has tried to negotiate new political relationships since first intifada - both with its old adversaries in Fatah and with rising Islamist movements, especially Hamas. The PFLP has sometimes tried to broker peace between Fatah and Hamas. Like Hamas the PFLP opposes Oslo, but Khaled is sceptical of Hamas as a  movement. "On practices such as suicide bombing, with which Hamas is strongly associated in the West, Khaled remains ambivalent but certainly does not issue a complete rejection," Irving writes. Khaled says: "We don't justify it, but we cannot condemn it." The PFLP's Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, named after the assassinated PFLP General Secretary, has carried out a few suicide operations itself. Irving points out that while suicide bombings have a high profile in the Western media, Palestinian civilian casualities receive much less coverage.

Although in 2000, in recognition of its cadres' increasing age, the PFLP decreed a retirement age of 55 for men and 65 for women - and Khaled is a decade beyond retirement but she laughs that she will "only retire when I get back to Haifa." She travels on PFLP work and attends international conferences including  World Social Forum conferences. She is still open to working with certain Israelis, but not with the wider Israeli peace movement which refuses to discuss Jerusalem or refugees.She sees the right of return of refugees as the key to solving the conflict. 
"Unless the core issues, the land and the refugees, are dealt with in a just way this conflict will go from one generation to another. All these elements of the struggle and the conflict will gather together. It will work itself out. I don't think it will be in my lifetime but for other generations."

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Nigeria's Rotimi Babatunde wins the 2012 Caine Prize

Rotimi Babatunde Baroness Emma Nicholson with the bust of Sir Michael Caine

Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria was last night awarded the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for his short story Bombay's Republic first published in 'Mirabilia Review' Vol. 3.9 (Lagos, 2011). Babatunde is the fourth Nigerian to have won the prize in its 13-year existence; Nigeria has produced more Caine winners than any other African country.

The Chair of Judges, Bernardine Evaristo MBE, announced Babatunde's award at a dinner held in the Bodleian Library's Divinity School, Oxford University. Evaristo said: “Bombay's Republic vividly describes the story of a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma campaign of World War Two. It is ambitious, darkly humorous and in soaring, scorching prose exposes the exploitative nature of the colonial project and the psychology of Independence.”

The 13th Caine Prize, worth £10,000, was awarded by Baroness Emma Nicholson, President of the Caine Council. The prize was founded in 2000 in memory of Nicholson's late husband Sir Michael Caine, a lover of Africa and of literature who was Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years.

Like previous winners of the Caine Prize, Babatunde has the opportunity to go to Georgetown University in the US as a writer-in-residence for a month at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. The award will cover all travel and living expenses. Babatunde will also be invited to take part in the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September 2012 and events hosted by the Museum of African Art in New York in November.

Babatunde, who lives in Ibadan, told the BBC's Network Africa programme that he felt happy to have his story recognised and privileged to have been on such a strong and diverse shortlist. His story is "about liberation and how a character can have his world widened," It tells of  "African soldiers who go to Burma and came back with a sense of new realities and new possibilities." The boundaries that the main character, Bombay, witnessed in Nigeria fell away during the heat of the campaign, he explained. "He lost his reverence for the colonial officers". He told he BBC he is now working on a novel about migration, choice and love.

Babatunde will be participating in three events this week. Today he  is in conversation with Nii Parkes, Jose Eduardo Agualusa and Dinaw Mengistu in London's Southbank Centre’s Level 5 Function Room at 6.30pm. A seminar on African Writing will be held tomorrow Wednesday 4 July at 1pm at the Anatomy Museum, King’s College London. Babtunde will also take part in an event at Manchester Art Gallery on Thursday 5 July at 8pm, part of the public programme for We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today.

Babatunde’s fiction and poems have been published in Africa, Europe and America in journals which include Die Aussenseite des Elementes and Fiction on the Web, and in anthologies such as Little Drops and A Volcano of Voices.

He is a winner of the Meridian Tragic Love Story Competition organised by the BBC World Service and his plays have been staged and presented by institutions which include the Halcyon Theatre, Chicago and the Institute for Contemporary Arts.

He is currently taking part in a collaboratively produced piece at the Royal Court and the Young Vic as part of World Stages for a World City. The Royal Court explains: "The journey of Yoruba culture, tradition and religion, as it moved through slavery from West Africa to the Americas, is one of the most powerful stories of exploitation, resistance and survival that has never been told.

"The Royal Court Theatre has been working with playwrights from five countries where the Yoruban legacy has had great impact on contemporary life." The collaborative piece, entitled Sugar, is written by Babatunde and Yunior García Aguilera (Cuba), Marcos Barbosa (Brazil), Tanya Barfield (US) and Gbolohan Obisesan (UK. It is directed by Rufus Norris. Details of the dates and venue of the production have yet to be announced.


The other four shortlisted writers for the 2012 Caine Prize were Billy Kahora of Kenya for Urban Zoning; Stanley Kenani of Malawi for  Love on Trial; Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe for  La Salle de Départ; and Constance Myburgh (the pen name of Jenna Bass) of South Africa for Hunter Emmanuel.

The chair of this year's judges, Bernardine Evaristo, is the award-winning author of six books of fiction and verse fiction. Her new novel, Mr Loverman, will be published by Penguin in 2013. A literary critic who teaches creative writing at Brunel University, she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.

Evaristo's fellow judges were cultural journalist Maya Jaggi; Zimbabwean poet, songwriter and writer Chirikure Chirikure; Associate Professor at Georgetown University, Washington DC Samantha Pinto; and the Sudanese CNN television correspondent Nima Elbagir.

Last year the Caine Prize was won by Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo. She has subsequently been awarded the highly regarded two-year Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford University, in the US and her debut novel, We Need New Names, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in North America and Chatto and Windus in the UK.

Previous winners are Sudan’s Leila Aboulela (2000), Nigerian Helon Habila (2001), Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Kenyan Yvonne Owuor (2003), Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava (2004), Nigerian Segun Afolabi (2005), South African Mary Watson (2006), Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007), South African Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), Nigerian EC Osondu (2009) and Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry (2010).
by Susannah Tarbush
Pictures courtesy of The Caine Prize