Hisham Matar in conversation with Deena Chalabi
Serpentine Gallery and Mathaf:Arab Museum of Modern Art map London-Arab links
by Susannah Tarbush
The second half of Pop-Up Mathaf: Mapping Arab Literature in London, held at the London Review Bookshop, featured three Arab authors with strong links to London: prizewinning Libyan novelist and essayist Hisham Matar; Jordanian short fiction writer and advertising copywriter Ma’n Abu-Taleb (who, like Matar, lives in London); and Qatari-American writer, artist and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria who describes London is one of her "two adopted cities".
The three appeared along with Margaret Obank, publisher, former editor, and co-founder in 1998 of London-based Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature.
Pop-Up Mathaf marked the beginning of Continuous City: Mapping Arab London, a series of talks, discussions and publications mapping relationships between London and Arab cities. Continuous City is being developed by Doha-based Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Serpentine Gallery's Edgware Road Project as part of Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture.
The event was hosted by its guest curator Deena Chalabi, a New York-based writer and curator who grew up in London and was founding Head of Strategy at Mathaf, which opened in 2010. The evening was a tribute to the great Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) who for many years lived and worked in London. The British capital is the setting of crucial parts of his masterwork, the novel Season of Migration to the North.
The first part of Pop-Up Mathaf included an engaging conversation between Co-Director of the Serpentine Gallery, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Salih's friend and creative collaborator, the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi. The artist's major retrospective Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist opened the day before the event took place and continues to 22 September.
The participants in Pop-Up Mathaf: Mapping Arab Literature in London spanned the generations. Ibrahim El-Salahi, is 82, and the Beirut-born poet and artist Etel Adnan 88. (Adnan sent from Paris a text on Salih which was read out at the event by Co-Director of the Serpentine Gallery Hans Ulrich Obrist.)
Six decades separate Adnan from Sophia Al-Maria who, at 29, has already made quite an impact with her writing and art, some of which is on concepts of Gulf Futurism. Al-Maria's writing has appeared in publications including Harper's, Five Dials, Triple Canopy and Bidoun. Her acute, courageous and entertaining memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth, published last November by Harper Perennial, has attracted much favourable attention.
Sophia Al-Maria's memoir
Al-Maria studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and aural and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work has been exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, the New Museum in New York and the Architectural Association in London.
Al-Maria spoke on the background to her writing a memoir at the age of only 29. "Although I'm here in very amazing company to talk about Arabic literature, I write, speak and dream for the most part in English. And since this is an event that is supposed to be about mapping, I'm going to talk a little bit about the landmarks, the literary landmarks specifically that made it possible for me to write this book and to find my way here."
The project of Arab literature as she first read it at AUC seemed to be about "the internalisation of the post-colonial state - the narrativization of trauma from the safe distance of fiction - the speaking of things left too long unspoken.
"The books on my syllabus all occurred at least in part in London, this metropolis of Arab dreams or, as Tayeb Salih terms it, 'London, another mountain, larger than Cairo, where I knew not how many nights I would stay.' To Arabs through the 20th century 'Lenden' provided a sort of centrifugal point where the gravity of reputation, language and nationality is set to zero, if only for a brief moment, somewhere along the Edgware Road or, increasingly these days, the richer cousins in Knightsbridge.
The first pair of books to "make a serious dent in my nascent ideas about being Arab, and actually about writing", were published in the mid-1960s: Season of Migration to the North and Waguih Ghali's Beer in the Snooker Club. Both were "filled with antagonism and indifference and were set in the complex terrain of post-colonial and post -evolutionary states. They were stories encased inside the extremely subjective but also supremely fun to read experience - that of young philandering male narrators who travel to the West, or perhaps more accurately to the North or whatever."
Later, when the time came to write of her father's travels from the Saudi desert to the Pacific North West, where he met Al-Maria's mother, "these two books are the ones which paved the road. Like my father, both Ram and Mustafa like women and drinking, and both books talk quite explicitly about sex, specifically sex with foreign women - an act that seems in their hands to be a symbolic conquest sometimes or occasionally, more disturbingly, some kind of retrograde revenge for the rape of their respective countries."
While reading the books she had "moments of cringey discomfort in the thought of my American mother falling prey to my father, the young Arab student. Had he objectified her in this way? Had my father been as cynical?
"No, nor was he as educated or entitled, but he was like the protagonists of these novels in another way - because in the end he came to the same understanding: that the chasm between his home and this alien culture was too deep for him to cross. In the end he returned to the Gulf with the legion of others like him and started a second family with his cousin, my stepmother Flu."
Al-Maria asked "What happens to the offspring of these sojourns? Where does the story go with the narrative? This was where my mission picked up, this is where I hoped vainly to write something new and this is what turned my book into some kind of weird sequel to Season and Snooker - at least in my mind - both of which circled my two adopted cities Cairo and London."
Many books gave Al-Maria "the courage/terrible idea to write from the experience of being a decentered Arab woman: Ahdaf Soueif's Aisha, Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero and, more surreally, Fantasia by Assia Djebar."
Most of the time outside the syllabus of modern Arab literature was spent with SF, cult, weird fiction and comics. "I was wallowing in the Janus-faced literature and film born of binaries, the stories of mutts and half-castes and twins and trannies. The neither/nors with crossed eyes who spoke in doublespeak - forever possessive of their dispossession.
"In revisiting the only recently abandoned Atlal of my personal past I found my way as an extraterritorial extraterrestrial lost with nothing but a broken moral compass of these books and music and movies for a guide."
She said she couldn't talk about the beacons that led her to writing without talking about the over-arching theme of her book: "being lost". In writing her memoir "I had to have a clear destination and route in mind when I began or I'd end up hacking my way down the same old paths as my predecessors who are far better at writing anyway. .. navigating a narrative from my prehistory to my present without falling into certain traps of writing as or about being Arab and being female was going to be tricky. There were traps set out for the native informant not all of which I avoided successfully ... anthropological musings on Islam, tribalism, cultural mores, sexual proclivities and that sin of sins self-Orientalisation."
Al-Maria concluded: "The leaden personal geographies of north, south, east, west, here, there have in the 20th and 21st centuries provided a fine ballast to the literatures of the Arab world, and more generally post-colonial literature - but I'm not so sure any more.
"This approach - however wonderful and necessary at the time Tayeb Salih or Waguih Ghali were writing - has in this age of selfies started to seem really indulgent and has turned us into tail-eating ouroboroses, Golems lost to time isolated in our caves, muttering in schizophrenic debate about identity politics, when the world is waiting for a surprise and something shiny and new, something ... precious to emerge."
Ma'n Abu-Taleb reads All Things
In introducing Jordanian writer Ma'n Abu-Taleb to the audience, Chalabi said he was "determined to steer clear of identity politics" in his contribution. In addition to his fiction writing Abu-Taleb is co-founder and editor of the online Arabic music analysis and criticism magazine Ma3azef.com. His story, All Things, was translated jointly by him and Egyptian Wiam El-Tamami, who in 2011 won the Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize. Abu-Taleb's interests include philosophy and his story is introduced with a quote from Alexandre Kojève: "Except that the dog is here and now, while its concept is everywhere and nowhere, always and ever." Abu-Taleb works in communications and in his short fiction he has a talent for succinct writing and clarity.
The narrator of All Things is on a worldwide quest to recapature the experience of eating a wondrous chocolate ice-cream once given to him by a big, comforting hand in a strange street in which people are speaking a strange language. "In London, I thought I would find it. This is why I fell in love with that city: if there were five people in the entire world obsessed with one very odd and obscure thing, three of them would be in London - and will most likely have formed some sort of club.
"There, I got together with ice-cream lover; in fact, I joined a society for fans of my flavour, chocolate. Our monthly meetings were held in a pub called The Duck and Barrow and were usually attended by twelve or thirteen people, most in their forties. We would have a few pints, share stories about ice cream, and organize visits to ice cream artisans all over Europe I soon came to realise, however, that their obsession was not quite the same as mine..."
Hisham Matar''s debut novel
In the final session of the evening, Chalabi interviewed Hisham Matar and Margaret Obank. Like Sophia Al-Maria, Hisham Matar writes in English. His first novel, In the Country of Men (Viking, 2006), set in Libya, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. His second novel Anatomy of a Disappearance also won accolades. Both novels have been translated to many languages. Matar writes for publications including the New Yorker magazine and the Guardian newspaper.
New York Review Books Classics edition of The Wedding of Zein, with an introduction by Hisham Matar
Matar said he had been deeply touched by Obrist's discussion with Ustadh Ibrahim El-Salahi about the artist's friendship and artistic collaboration with Tayeb Salih. "It was a wonderful portrait that you painted of two friends - I think you said coming to know one another perfectly - it made me think about whether I know anyone perfectly, I don't even think I know myself perfectly.
"I find it very difficult to imagine that Tayeb Salih wouldn't feel deeply grateful to you for this wonderful, generous portrait that you've painted tonight - generous towards him but also towards us. So it's an inspiration."
Matar thought it appropriate that Tayeb Salih had been chosen as the inspiration of a conversation about London. He remembered reading the line by Edward Said describing Season of Migration to the North as a Heart of Darkness in reverse. "That statement is for a Western audience - but for me in a sense Season of Migration to the North is a sort of Heart of Darkness not in reverse, in the sense that through it he managed to paint for us a sense of isolation that perhaps we were enduring and feeling but no one had articulated in this particular way."
Matar thought London was an interesting place to do that because "notwithstanding the usually stated assertion that London's wonderful qualities of tolerance and acceptance of outsiders it remains on some level a complicated place to be a foreigner. It lacks some of the social grace - for lack of a better expression - that eases the path, that maybe even helps to delude, the foreigner that he or she is not a foreigner.
London is an interesting and wonderfully appropriate place for an exiled artist to work because it offers an "abstracted existence where you are not socially obliged - in fact you are socially almost the opposite - in a sense that the abstracted space itself is on some level cruel, it needs to be cruel, and so for me personally it's a place that it's good to make work for that reason."
Asked by Chalabi whether, after all these years, he thinks of London as home, Matar said: "I never think of this question about home, until someone asks me. When I sit and make work I don't think about home, when I'm walking around I don't think about home. I think about incredibly mundane, specific things - who I'm going to see, where will I sleep, when do I eat, you know. It's home in the sense that I know how to do all of those things here, I know the good places to eat, I know where my friends are, and I know where to escape, which I think is a definition of home."
Chalabi said it is clear from Matar's books that he is able to function in a variety of cities. "I would be interested to hear you talk further about this idea of dislocation and of mapping cities onto cities and that process that occurs as a exile."
Matar replied that when he first came to London as a 15-year-old "I found that my most visceral experiences were happening with literature, and art, and film, and music. I didn't belong to an Arabic community that was somehow sheltering me. I felt very exposed to British culture for that reason.
"Being Libyan and from a family that's the wrong side of the dictatorship your immediate instinct when you hear a Libyan voice is to run in the opposite direction. So your own don't represent a sense of kind of a sheltering community, and my engagements were through art and literature."
Matar added, to audience laughter: “When I watch the quantity of Arabs that hover around Selfridges I think that maybe that is also a sort of engagement with the city. Perhaps the history of the Middle East would be entirely different if the amount of people that have been going to Selfridges from say 1948 - an interesting year - to the present had gone, say, to the National Gallery or the Serpentine Gallery."
Asked about the experience of having his work translated, Matar said "I don't really have much to say except that every time I am translated into a language I know it is a deeply painful terrible process, not marked by any pleasure at all." Even though he thinks very highly of his Arabic translator, with whom he works together, it is still "deeply painful". He is not sure of all the reasons for this, but "one of the things we forget when we read a book in translation is that none of the words in there have been written by the author. If you are the author, it is slightly complicated. But as a reader I find it incredibly interesting... when I read a translation, particularly a good translation. It's fascinating because what you're hearing is two writers working at the same time in a sense. And a good translation can conceivably be better than the original because you have two writers working on it. But when it's my own work I'm too close and too involved to be objective about it."
Chalabi said the landscape sounds very different from when Matar began, and "we see that in London with Shubbak as a festival, now in its second iteration." (Pop-Up Mathaf was one of the final events in the second Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture, which ran in London from 22 June to 6 July). She said: "I think it's interesting to see that there is a certain generation of young Arab authors, artists etc who feel that this notion of the Other is no longer necessarily relevant". She asked Matar about the issue of "how does one conduct oneself, how does one position oneself, in terms of representation, in terms of acceptance by different places to which one is supposed to belong ."
Matar said that one of the things that happens to you when you're Arab, or from anywhere in the world, and you go to a place that has very specific ideas about who you might be or the place you come from is that you are immediately confronted with history, that you have to engage with in a sense. At some level history is not only events but it is also assumptions. Britain has a ... very definite sense of the self which expresses itself in a kind of confident gesture such as criticising oneself, criticising the place, flirting with ideas of living here and there, buying places here and there, a kind of expression on one level of a sort of national confidence that invests a lot in certain readings of history.
"And if you come from a place like Libya or the Sudan, and you are a young man here, and you are not surrounded by your own, then you are in a sense in a very vulnerable historical place. I remember when I first came here and there wasn't a day I didn't hear something on the radio or read something in the paper that wasn't presumptuous about myself, or about my part of the world, or about my history. It had some sort of presumption that wasn't exactly accurate and that is something that you have to find a way to deal with. I think particularly as an artist."
She recounted how Banipal came to be founded in 1998. She knew many members of the Iraqi community in London and then met and married the Iraqi writer and journalist Samuel Shimon who was at that time a publisher of poetry in France, with the small press Gilgamesh Editions. She had been trying to learn Arabic at night school and so on "but never learnt enough to read it. I've always loved poetry and literature myself." And so the idea was born of translating and publishing Arab literature in English themselves, and after discussion with some of their many Arab writer friends "we decided to do that. And we didn't know how it would happen but it did.
"We felt really the most important thing was the literature of the Arab world is part of the canon of world literature. We, I, felt a responsibility to bring it into the English language." She showed the audience the first issue of Banipal, with its cover illustrated by the Syrian aritst Youssef Abdelké showing the Arabic letter "ayn" and the letter "E" to symbolise the Arabic and English languages. The magazine started an A4 size but is now in a book format. Three issues appear annually and the 47th issue of Banipal, with a focus on Kuwait fiction, has just been published.
Obank said the magazine had received a lot of letters telling them they had made a mistake in depicting Banipal as a magazine of Arab, rather than Arabic, literature. "We said no, we haven't made a mistake. Arab authors write in many different languages, particularly with the growing diaspora. So we publish Arab authors who write in any language, and even in English of course."
Many Arab writers do not know any English, and are very pleased to be translated into it. Obank noted the ways in which the world of translation has changed since Banipal started, including the introduction of new technology. When Banipal started, many people thought that translation from Arabic had to be carried out by a mother tongue English speaker with an English name. If a translator had an Arabic name some found this less acceptable - an attitude that still persists to a small extent.
The teaching of Arabic, and of translation, has completely changed. Since 9/11 there has been a phenomenal growth of interest in the Arab world, and translation departments are massively over-subscribed. "Two or three generations of young students have come out who are very keen and who have a completely different attitude from the older generation about the Arab world."
"We're always looking for ways to encourage people to read, to get across, because you've got in this country a massive media, you've got a massive state establishment, and you have an ideology which is actually full of stereotypes about the Other, particularly about the Arab world, considered to be full of camels." (When the Mayor of London Boris Johnson spoke at the Shubbak reception, he told a story about a camel and its drooling lips..)
But on the other hand we want readers all over the world to enjoy contemporary Arab authors and to get into the heart and soul of those countries where they come from. And we really feel that it's through literature that you understand the other and you get this dialogue between cultures and, you know, when somebody reads a translation you read and you get involved in it and you have such an incredible experience - you are sort of living the life of the author, of the author's characters, and so for human beings this is incredibly important. to have an experience of other cultures.
Banipal receives many requests from the younger generation with BAs or MAs from top universities to work as interns at Banipal, and "so we have this continuous stream through".
In addition to the magazine, Obank felt ahamed that the field of Arab literature translation was so poor, and so every few years Banipal launches an initiative to increase it. One of its major initiatives was to start the first-ever prize, the annual Saif Ghobash - Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, for an Arabic literary translation published as a book.
This immediately put Arabic on the same level as languages such as French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Greek and Hebrew for which there are literary translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors and awarded at the annual awards ceremony.
Banipal has also organised tours of Arab authors, "bringing them over from different countries to travel around Europe, going to read in libraries and we came here to the London Review Bookshop." Then the London Review of Books started World Literature Weekends, which in 2011 included an Arabic Literary Translation Workshop run by Professor Paul Starkey.
Deena Chalabi said that one aim of Continuous City: Mapping Arab London is to try to map out archives in London that help to tell certain kinds of histories and stories about the Arab world. She asked Obank about the Banipal archive. "How accessible is it, and what are your plans for increasing its accessibility?"
Obank said "we haven't really thought about it being accessible unless somebody's doing a PhD or a study." She noted that the Banipal website carries every issue of the magazine, and information about the contributors, including authors and translators. There have been around 800 contributors so far.
Obank pointed out that although Banipal has many translators and authors all over the world, "in our little office is a very small team." And Banipal does not really get any support from the Arab world. "We always thought that we would once we started we would get major funding and would be able to employ somebody to create and look after an archive." But there is virtually no funding coming from the Arab world, and yet there are huge foundations translating into Arabic from other language.
Obank said the lack of respect for contemporary Arab literature is "a big problem in the Arab world." There are many prizes, and literary festivals, but "making sure that the rest of the world hears the voice of contemporary Arabic literature is not one of the concerns. And that's a problem for us - we have to rely on asking the Arts Council to give us some support" - which is tiny. "We'd love to have an archive, but we need the funds to create it. If anybody wants to come to our office, they're very welcome to visit."