Sunday, November 02, 2014

open evening at BALMAL - the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature

 Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature - BALMAL

On Thursday evening Banipal magazine of modern Arabic literature and the Arab British Centre jointly held the first-ever open evening of BALMAL - the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature. BALMAL is located in the Arab British Centre at 1 Gough Square - just off Fleet Street, and next door to the historic Dr Johnson's House.

The Arab British Centre's Communications Manager Ruba Asfahani said it was great to see so  many people eager to use the library. She and a trustee of the Centre, Palestinian-British filmmaker Said Taji Farouky, signed up new BALMAL members in the course of the evening. Life membership is £10, which is ploughed back into  maintenance and development of the library. The evening included a book sale, with prices ranging from £1 to £12.

The guests were invited to give their feedback on the event. Asfahani explained that the idea behind the  open evening was to find out whether people would like the opportunity to use the library outside of the Arab British Centre's office hours. If this proved to be the case, such evenings could become a regular event.

The guest speaker of the evening was the translator and journalist Jonathan Wright, who this year won both of the major translation prizes open to translators of Arabic literature. In January he was joint winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan's novel Azazeel (Atlantic Books, 2012). In May, Wright and Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Wright's translation of Blasim's short story collection The Iraqi Christ (Comma Press, 2013).

 Jonathan Wright guest speaker at the BALMAL open evening

Wright is currently one of the four judges of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize 2014: the books, all of them novels, in contention for this year's prize are on display in the BALMAL library. The judges are currently drawing up individual shortlists in preparation for their meeting later this month to agree a winner. The winner will be announced in February.

books entered for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arab Literary Translation 2014

BALMAL's roots go back to the 2008 London Book Fair when, for the first-time ever, the Fair had the Arab World as its Market Focus. During the Fair Banipal collaborated with LBF organisers over a display of books donated by publishers. This display became the foundation stone of BALMAL, which was formally opened at a reception in January 2010 - the day after the award ceremony of the 2009 Saif Ghobash Banipal Arabic Literary Translation Prize (won by Samah Selim for her translation of The Collar and the Bracelet by the late Egyptian author Yahya Taher Abdullah).

Margaret Obank

The evening was introduced by Banipal's publisher and cofounder Margaret Obank. She described Jonathan Wright as "a fantastic translator of a very wide range of Arabic literature, from Taxi [by Egyptian writer Khaled Al Khamissi] to Azazeel, to Judgement Day [by Lebanese author Rasha al Ameer]."

Jonathan Wright praised BALMAL as a great resource, with 600 works of Arabic literature in translation within its total collection of 2,000 works on the Middle East. BALMAL's literary collection comes via Banipal, "the magazine which has been at the forefront of promoting Arabic literature in English since  1998, 16 years now. Margaret Obank and her husband Samuel Shimon have been introducing Arabic writers to the world and introducing the world to Arabic authors ever since then, and the literary scene would be very much the poorer without them."

Ruba Asfahani

Wright noted that over the period Banipal has been publishing there have been big changes in the world of Arabic literary translation. "There has been a steady increase in the flow. In the 1990s only two to eight literary works a year were coming into English from Arabic. That rose to between 10 and 16 in the first decade of this millennium and then up to 26 in 2009. This time the Banipal prize, which I'm judging, has 17 works of fiction - that's just from one year's publication - which is a very impressive number. I wouldn't say it's the tip of an iceberg - I wouldn't go quite that far - but it's certainly not the whole picture, there are plenty more that didn't make that list."

Wright added that there is a similar pattern in the USA. "In 2013, out of 500 new works of translated literary fiction 30 were from Arabic, which means that Arabic ranked fourth in the world's languages, after French, German and Spanish. So Arabic really is way ahead of other languages, way ahead of Italian, for example, and Russian, languages that you might expect to be much higher."

 Arab British Centre Executive Director Noreen Abu Oun

Wright said there are all sorts of reasons why this matters of course, including cultural exchange, common  humanity, learning about each other, finding out about other countries and so on. But there is also the malign side: "It's often noted that some books are chosen maybe to reinforce prejudices, and many of the books have veiled women on the covers, or scary looking men. In parallel there has been a massive increase in the teaching of Arabic in Western universities but there is of course also a malign side to that because a lot of people who learn Arabic end up listening to your phone calls."

Referring to his personal experiences, Wright presented an eloquent case for the reading and translation of Arab literature. "I was a journalist for 30 years mainly in the Middle East for Reuters news agency and I travelled widely: I think the only Arab country I never went to was Mauritania.  I met thousands of people, interviewed them, sat in their homes, drank tea, heard them make speeches in public and so on, and I really thought that I was quite knowledgeable and that I was familiar with the fabric of society, and of course I read the newspapers, and I watched television.

Jonathan Wright

"Eventually I became somewhat dissatisfied with the journalistic way of life because it is a little superficial and you're very much driven by deadlines, you don't have time to dig very deep. Then I gradually discovered literature, and I realised that literature was a very good channel for discovering more about other countries and the way people live. Of course it's subjective, and not the whole truth, but in a way that's its strength because it is a very intimate and a very authentic immediate voice that sticks in your mind in a way that other forms of information do not. And if it's coupled with alternative representations of reality from other authors then it really does build up a picture that is very rounded and quite deep.

"For the last couple of years I've been dealing with quite a few Iraqi authors.  I used to go to Iraq occasionally, not for long periods of time,  but I really feel that now I have a much better feeling for Iraq than I ever had from visiting and walking around and speaking to people, because the literature that I've discovered is highly condensed, it's distilled experience, people have put their whole lives into these pages. So after reading people like Hasssan Blasim and Ahmed Saadawi and Sinan Antoon and so on I feel that I know Iraq much better than I would have done by reading the New York Times or the Guardian or watching Al Jazeera.

 doorway of the Arab British Centre

Wright added: "I mentioned this to some of my journalistic colleagues and many of them agreed with me and said that, yes, they find reading literature does add another dimension. Of course I'm not suggesting that we should stop reading newspapers - and if you want to find out what Iraqi oil production was in 1960 probably literature is not the place to go. But I was reminded of literature as a source of socioeconomic data when I was reading Thomas Picketty's book on capitalism, and he starts off by talking about Jane Austen novels and Balzac, and  how their characters perceived the social structure around them, and socioeconomic reality that they lived. No amount of graphs or economic statistics could give you the same sense that you get when you read Jane Austen or Balzac on how their characters saw their place in society. And there are plenty of other examples of people who've used literature as a means for analysing social attitudes and so on - Edward Said for example, and even Max Weber. So that's how I see the value of literature: may it thrive, and may you go on reading."

report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

sign off Fleet Street to Dr Johnson's  House - and the Arab British Centre

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