Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Weapons of Mass Hilarity - Part II" brings together comedians of MENA origin

WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY- PART II ... The Road Map to comedy...

Hosted by LSESU Middle East Society: Students at LSE dedicated to raising awareness about human rights issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sat 29 April 19:30–21:30 (doors open at 19.30 show starts at 20.00)

 Upstairs at The Savoy Tup,
2 Savoy St, WC2R 0BA
nearest tube station; Covent Garden 

Tickets: £5 available online HERE

After a sell out premiere show held on 18 March, join us for the sequel comedy night of all comedy nights where comedians of Jewish, North African, Muslim, Christian, Arab, Non-Arab heritage from the Middle East unite to raise money for the AMAR International Charitable Foundation

 Hosting the night David Lewis will be returning... as delightful as ever describing himself as the "Super Jew" and head honcho of the comedy institution that is Big Nose Comedy inc.

The line up includes.

Victoria Howden
Back for a sequel, Victoria is a musical comedian with a dream of turning her life into a musical, she finds a tune for every occasion... get yourselves ready for an absolute treat!

Laila Alj
Laila is a Moroccan stand up with a very different insight into being North African in a Western climate

Ben Cohen
Prepare to be dazzled by this comedy GIANT...

Jenan Younis
London based comedian of Iraqi and Palestinian origin, be prepared to be terror-risingly amused...

Fatiha El-Ghorri
Fatiha is constantly getting lost on her way to the mosque and ending up in various comedy clubs instead! This gal smashed the Muslim stereotype!

Aaron Simmonds
Aaron has been trying to stand up for 27. years. Luckily he can do comedy even if he can't do the standing up...

Janine Harouni 
Janine is a Lebanese-American stand up and sketch comedian, winner of the Leicester Square Theatre's Sketch Off 2017; we've got star quality from across the pond...

Yazz Fetto
Yazz is a comedy writer and performer; he has written for BBC Radio 4s "Dead Ringers" and is one half of Christian comedy duo The Monks

below: group photo from WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY - PART I 
left to right; Mo Saffaf, Nicole Harris, David Lewis, Jenan Younis, Fatiha El-Ghorri, Victoria Howden

Monday, March 20, 2017

Omar Saif Ghobash's eloquent 'Letters to a Young Muslim'

UAE Ambassaor to Russia Omar Saif Ghobash addresses 'Letters to a Young Muslim' to his son Saif 
by Susannah Tarbush, London
[an Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 20 March 2017]

The book Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, has received much acclaim in the weeks since it was published. The book takes the form of 27 letters written by Omar to his elder son Saif, who is 17 this year. But the intended readership is much wider: “I write these letters to both of my sons and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them.”

The book, written in English, is published in the UK and US by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. There is also a digital audio version read by the author himself. The book is being translated for publication in German, Spanish, Turkish, and Complex Chinese for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ghobash hopes it will also be translated into Arabic.

Omar Saif Ghobash studied law at the University of Oxford and mathematics at the University of London. His letters to Saif are eloquent and beautifully written, their prose crystal clear. They can be seen as an antidote to the propaganda messages of ISIS (Daesh) and other organisations that use violence and destruction in the name of religion.

Ghobash aims to “reaffirm the duty to think and question and engage constructively with the world. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity.”

And he urges them “to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we need to make.”

Ghobash launched his book at a tour of four venues in the USA, and has been interviewed on leading US TV and radio shows. The book has received many highly favourable reviews. The author  and his book have also been making made a considerable impact in the UAE. On the evening of 8 March Ghobash appeared at an event at the Emirates Airline Festival in Dubai, discussing his book with another prominent Emirati intellectual and promoter of the arts, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. The event was a highlight of the Festival and many positive comments about it were posted on Twitter.

The festival’s director Isobel Abulhoul, who founded the festival in 2008, tweeted to Ghobash and Al-Qassemi: “You two made me so proud tonight. I had been waiting 9 years for this. The best session!” And the prominent British arts journalist and interviewer Rosie Goldsmith tweeted “Listen to this man: one of the most open, honest and important speakers I’ve ever heard on UAE, Islam.” Many other members of the audience issued similarly enthusiastic tweets - such as “Interesting (and funny!) talk by Omar Saif Ghobash”. “inspiring and vivid”, “amazing talk”. There were similar reactions to his appearance at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYAD) Institute. The internet magazine “The Dubai 100” featured him in its “local hero” series.

Ghobash was born in Ras Al Khaimah in 1971, “the same year the United Arab Emirates was founded, which has always been, to a certain degree, a point of pride and symbolic of my sense of self.” One thing that makes his book so compelling is that it is in part an autobiography. He writes with remarkable frankness about his experiences and struggles when he was growing up.

 In 1977 when Omar was only six years old political violence entered his life in a terrible way: his father Saif Ghobash was assassinated. Saif Ghobash, then 43 years old, was the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He was saying farewell to a Syrian delegation at the airport when a 19-year-old Palestinian shot him dead, mistaking him for a Syrian minister.

“The violence that destroyed your grandfather in 1977 continues to warp relationships and emotions in our family today,” Ghobash tells his son. “The effects of that violence continue to motivate me and color my view of the world.” Omar's father met his Russian wife when they were both studying engineering in Moscow. A Russian cousin of Omar’s recently told him via Facebook that “many of our male relatives had been Orthodox priests who had been killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.” The fact of being half Russian is very important to Omar. For example his mother introduced him to the great Russian writers, and in his book Omar mentions the internal turmoil of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky. But growing up half Russian also caused him some difficulties when he was a boy.

Ghobash is very aware of the pressures on young Muslims these days, especially given the rapid change to which they are subjected, including in means of communication. “In today’s world, you have access to all the information you could want about the most obscure ideas, events, and movements”, he tells his son. “You, and I, are overwhelmed by the media coverage of Islam and Muslims, intertwined with the constant linkage with terrorism and religiously inspired violence. You find that it is difficult to be a Muslim and live in societies that seem to be made up of lonely, sullen, and isolated individuals.”

Omar Saif Ghobash (credit Sigrid Estrada)

He urges against “black and white thinking” saying “there is much more gray in between the black and white than the ulema and other scholars present us. And the gray is where you develop intellectually and morally.”

He adds: “Certain dominant strains of Islam demand that it be placed at the centre of world politics. And supposedly you are obliged to be its servant. Why? Well, because we have a series of well-funded and persuasive voices who tell us daily that Islam is under attack and that we need to be on the offensive. Is this really the case? I do not believe so. These are shrill voices that have a warped view of the world and have managed to acquire finances and credibility.”

He criticises the education to which some young Muslim are exposed, which can lead to an atmosphere in which there is hatred towards those of different sects or religions. He gives advice on how to counter hatred, and live a worthwhile life. “You should know that for every action, there is a reaction. Your perseverance, kindness, or humour creates a ripple effect in our culture just as much as your indifference, violence or negativity.”

Ghobash  constantly stresses the need for individuals to take responsibility; he writes “Saif, I think you have noticed by now that I see the world through the prism of responsibility.”

When crimes are “committed by lunatics who claim they are acting for Islam” he often hears it said that “those people have nothing to with Islam”. But he has a different perspective. Though he does not like what the terrorists do, “I realise that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. We can take responsibility for demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can take responsibility for making it clear, to Muslim and non-Muslim, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary.” Young Muslims should “take back the definition of responsibility from those who would claim that responsibility is demonstrated by declaring violent jihad, or by carrying out suicide bombings.”

Omar repeatedly stresses the need to uphold the rights of women. In a letter entitled ‘Men and Women’ he reminds his son that has been brought up in a household where women are “strong, educated, focused and work hard”. All around him Saif sees women taking the lead, pushing on, striving to better themselves, and contributing to society in multiple ways. “We cannot claim women in Islam are unable to face the big, wild world out there if it is us who have deprived them of the basic rights and skills to do so…Our women need to be trusted and respected.”

Omar Ghobash is known not only as a diplomat but as a lover of, and promoter of, Arab arts and especially literature and the visual arts. In the preface to his book he explains how the shock of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 had a major impact on his thinking. Just weeks earlier he had been with Saif in Manhattan, carrying him in a baby sling. After the attacks “I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility towards this child. I decided that the time had come for me to take action in the limited ways that I could.”

He therefore involved himself in the arts, in literature and education. “My overwhelming desire was to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show myself and my fellow Muslims that our world has so much more to offer than the limited fantasies of deeply unhappy people.”

His work in diplomacy came later, “and I have approached it with the same attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. Through travel and interaction with all kinds of people, from the deeply religious to the highly knowledgeable, from the deeply uneducated to the hyperconnected, I see the common humanity that we all share.” He began his career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat at the UAE Mission to the United Nations and was then appointed ambassador to Russia in 2008.

Prior to becoming an ambassador, Ghobash founded The Third Line, Dubai’s first international contemporary art gallery showcasing artists from the Middle East. In the field of literature, Ghobash and his family sponsor the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, named in memory of Omar’s late father. This prize, awarded annually since 2006 was established by Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab literature and is the first prize in the world dedicated to rewarding translations of Arabic literature to English. The Ghobash family’s sponsorship of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize was last year extended to include an Annual Lecture.

Omar was a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – often known as “the Arabic Booker prize” - when it was launched in Abu Dhabi in 2007 with support from the Booker Prize Foundation in London. It was hoped that the prize would encourage recognition of high quality Arabic fiction, reward Arab writers and lead to increased international readership through translation. In the field of education Ghobash was instrumental in bringing New York University to Abu Dhabi. New York University Abu Dhabi admitted its first students in 2010.

The many warm responses Letters to a Young Muslim has received suggest that there is a thirst among Arab and Muslim youth, and Western audiences for positive and hopeful, yet challenging, ideas such as those contained in Ghobash’s book. At the end of his final letter to Saif, on the theme of ‘The Muslim Individual’, Omar writes: “In ending these letters to you, Saif, I want you to promise yourself that you will always maintain your dignity, your individuality, and your independence of mind… Now go and write your own letters.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Omar Sabbagh's new collection 'To the Middle of Love'

Omar Sabbagh's fourth collection: a reflection of different kinds of love
Susannah Tarbush, London 

Since his first poetry collection My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint was published by Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press in 2010, the British-Lebanese poet, author, essayist and academic Dr Omar Sabbagh has produced a stream of published poems and prose works. His writing has appeared in book form and in numerous literary journals. His first poetry collection was followed by the collections The Square Root of Beirut (Cinnamon Press, 2012) and Waxed Mahogany (Agenda Editions, 2012).

His first long-form prose work, the novella Via Negativa: A Parable Of Exile, appeared last year under the then new Cinnamon imprint Liquorice Fish, set up to encourage “innovative and idiosyncratic” writing.

Now Sabbagh has returned to poetry with publication by Cinnamon Press of his fourth collection, To the Middle of Love. Some of the poems, or earlier versions of them, have appeared in the journals or edited volumes Agenda, Agenda Online, CAPITALS, Peloton, Rusted Radishes, The Moth, The Warwick Review and The Wolf. To coincide with publication of the new collection, online publication The Punch Magazine published five poems from it, plus one of Sabbagh's hitherto unpublished poems.

To the Middle of Love carries praise on its back cover from one of Sabbagh’s main mentors, the distinguished multiple-award-winning British poet Fiona Sampson, Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton. she was awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List. 

"Omar Sabbagh writes with rare intensity and generosity," says Sampson. "Ideas and images overflow the lines of his verse, as well as their own boundaries, in a Shelleyian helter-skelter. Like Shelly, Sabbagh believes in the transformative power of poetry; unlike Shelley, he is also in love with language itself.”

Sabbagh was born in London in 1981 to Lebanese parents. He passed through the British school and university system and writes in English, although Lebanon is ever-present in his writing - at times overtly so, as in the poem "The Cedar Never Dies" in his new collection. The poem begins:

My country, my love,
Let me speak to you now in a foreign tongue,
Quipping against the flaming madness
Now begun.
The language in which I body my caress,
My missive in Dove...

Omar Sabbagh

Sabbagh has a BA from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE),  three MAs from London University - in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy - and a PhD in English Literature from King's College, London University.

A revised version of his doctoral thesis was published in 2014 as From Sight through to In-Sight: Time, Narrative and Subjectivity in Conrad and Ford by the Brill imprint Costerus New Series.

Sabbagh's literary career runs alongside his professional life as a university teacher. He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 2011-13 and is currently Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD). A first launch of To the Middle of Love was held at AUD at the end of January. It was followed by a 10 February London launch at the Big Green Bookshop, Wood Green.Sabbagh appeared alongside fellow Cinnamon Press poet Edward Ragg who was launching his new collection Holding Unfailing.

Omar Sabbagh at the Big Green Bookshop with Cinnamon Press founder Dr Jan Fortune 

Interview with Omar Sabbagh:

How would you compare To the Middle of Love with your three previous collections; for example has there been a change in your style over time?

First thing to say is, as well as being paraphrasably ‘romantic’ (this book is after all a reflection of different kinds of love), my working-method is just as romantic: which is to say, I generally write poems within the space of half-an-hour, and rarely revisit them to touch them up; if they work, they do, if they don’t, which is much of the time, then it’s just dross to be thrown away. Like a lot of poets, rarely do I know the full brief of a poem until I’m started; in fact the first line or 2 usually guide me to where I am going, or at least, where I was always meant to go.

The collection is eminently responsive to relations of love and care (caritas). For me love and death are the root/route of wisdom: that is, coming to terms with what these two terms really mean is to come to terms with what it is to be human. In one sense’ love is the solution, the salve, the tonic for our mortality (and any suffering or pain in life that is death’s precursor). But at the same time love is death…as against ‘onanism’, real love leaves us vulnerable, mortal, delimited. Death is merely the extreme on that spectrum. Thus, though I don’t practice or dub myself one there is a very basic buried Christian theme to the collection.

The book starts, black-comically, with a reference to self-love and progresses to more integral kinds of love. Many of the poems were occasioned by events in the lives of loved-ones, or near-loved ones. The book is dedicated, looping past into future, to my previous carers, parents, and my future one, Faten, my wife.

This is, evidently very much a ‘confessional’ collection. I am a neo-romantic and unashamedly confessional in this collection, which is to say, highly lyrical in the main and self-expressive and this: even though my critical wisdom has many tics against a romanticist approach to experience. None the less, the singing mode comes most naturally to me, so for all my other principles, I don’t fight it. As ever, sound in poetry is essential to how I express myself. I am not a sound-poet, but apart from rhyme, the discipline as it were in my poems are the way intravenous sounds play-out in my verse.

There is an Augustinian beeline through the book. It’s not only the three Augustine sonnets (first published a few years ago in the 2013 Templar Anthology Peloton), but also a reference in the villanelle “On His 75th Birthday” (dedicated to my father Mohamad Sabbagh). And also in the first segment of the book's Coda, the trinity as it were of ‘loving’ ‘understanding’ and ‘doing’ is deliberately invoked. This in-forming notion of ‘trinity’ also closes said Coda.

Something happened, subliminally, to me a year or two ago: I began to write nearly wholly in rhyme, or near-total rhyme. The vast majority of this collection involves rhyme – it’s a kind of discipline for me, and for the poem.

I think my voice remains the same or similar to my earlier poetic works, namely, in the main, emotive and unctuous. But also playful. Though I try for a kind of poetry that is universally accessible, my style (and its ear) remain very much rooted in the Englishness of English. I don’t think my work differs hugely from my first collection, both in discursive content or in mode or method, but I do think the one way in which I may have matured as a poet is in knowing where I stand in relation to my poetry; i.e. knowing my gifts and shortcomings, which only make me more sure of the work when I do deem it good, but also knowing in a more thorough way when a poem fails.

I do feel that it is indeed, if not my best book, which it may well be, it is definitely my best poetry collection.

Why are a few of the poems such as the beautiful "La Veuve" reprinted from your third collection Waxed Mahogany?

A few of the poems are taken from my third collection which was, in my view, a mistake. I rushed it. The editor of Agenda Editions is NOT was not responsible for this; she simply placed too much trust in MY judgement, which, at the time, unbeknownst, was a little warped. I have reprinted two or three poems from that collection merely to salvage them.

But Waxed Mahogany was well received, got some great comments and reviews. Why do you now seek to distance yourself from it?

 Because, simply put, the work, on the whole, was ill-judged in my view.

Your first published long-form fiction work, Via Negativa, appeared last year. In the light of that, and the fact that prose works being at the beginning and at the end of To the Middle of Love, please say something on the relation between your poetry and prose and how this has evolved. How much interplay is there between them: didn’t the St Augustine sequence in To the Middle of Love start off as a prose work?  

The Saint Augustine prose work is a different project, remaining something I plan to develop and work on. I would say this though: as a poet, I’m quite conventional; as in I’m not really trying to be aesthetically new/challenging; I just want to move people as I am moved; however as a prose stylist I am very much more experimental, or able to manumit effects which are more radical. Both forms are poetic of course, at least in my view, and I take just as much poetic satisfaction and care with a critical essay as I do a poem. Without claiming to be on a par with Joyce (obviously), I do relate to his sentiment quite early in his career when he decided that verse forms weren’t wholly for him, that prose would be where he’d do his impactful poetry. Now, I don’t wholly subscribe to this, but I do feel that in terms of consistency, at least, I’m a far better prose writer than poet.

Omar Sabbagh reads from To the Middle of Love at the Big Green Bookshop 

Eyewear is going to be publishing your Dubai sequel to Via Negativa. Do you yet have a title and date of publication of the sequel? Please say something about it, and how it relates to VN 

The Eyewear book is to be (creative) non-fiction; merely a snazzily-written cultural guide to Dubai in the context of today’s world; as planned: places, people, ethos, history and so on, but all directed and grounded in today’s evident cultural and political tumult. It is a sequel to VN merely in being shortish book that reflects (upon) a different city, what it’s like to negotiate one’s way around there, and what at a symbolic level said operative city represents.

It is evident from some of the poems in To the Middle of Love that Dubai has been quite an inspiration for you. It is a very different environment from other cities that feature in your work, such as London, Beirut, Marbella and so on. It would be interesting to know something of the Dubai effect on your work. 

Well, as ever, I’ve been both loonily manic and peaceful in Dubai, as elsewhere. I would say there is no more or less inspiration here than elsewhere; apart from a few different themes to do with Dubai in particular. In fact being a (semi-and-unfortunately-unavoidably-aesthete) in my writing, to certain extent I’m independent of my environment as a writer. I write from the English I carry in my head, and bones of course… I should say that I published the opening salvos of a projected creative non-fiction, a Dubai Diary, to follow my previous, ‘Beirut Cadenzas,’ in (the same) T&F Journal, Poem. However, this memoir, beyond the just-mentioned first 5000 words, has proven abortive as yet. From Bourbon to Scotch: Extracts from a Dubai Diary, were published in POEM, in 2016. Said chunk of Dubai-pertinent prose eponymously leads, though, a current manuscript of short narratives, being considered for publication by 3 publishers presently… My Eyewear Dubai-book, contracted-and-commissioned, is to be, rather, a book-length reflective thought-piece on Dubai, provisionally-titled: Minutes from The Miracle City: An Essay on Dubai in Today’s World. It will reflect the success story of Dubai, in the world of Trump, Trumpmania and Brexit, and so on…

You are remarkably frank and self-exposing in your poems. From where do you get this courage? 

I think it’s because in my context, I have suffered tremendously in an emotional, spiritual and psychological sense. When you hit ground-zero as I have, you learn to accept and well, you’ve nothing to lose. Also, it’s the way I’m rigged; to be affectionate and demonstrative of affection; all that, apart that is from an element of exhibitionism!

Did you decide the ordering of the poems in the new collection, and if so, on what basis?

No, this was done by my editor/publisher, Dr. Jan Fortune. And I trust her judgment. I think the ordering works wonderfully here, and there are some quite noticeable clusterings and patterns.

What question would you most like to be asked?

That would be: "Why is love such a significant theme for you?"
Well, love allows one to be both inside and outside the world at the same time. When faced by fear/anxiety or dread, avatars of our mortality, we realise after suffering that love just is the only salve or tonic. So one becomes a hippy! More pressingly, though, and especially regarding the Christian themes in this book, love in its truest, halest sense (as opposed to the opening notes on self-love) is a recognition of one’s mortality, in so far as to love is to be vulnerable to being hurt, de-limited. Which is one of the reasons, at a symbolic level, it would make sense that if God is Love, or, if you prefer, if the Meaning or Purpose of existence is love, that he’d have to die to fulfil his nature. I could wax on this for ages…

Thursday, February 09, 2017

'Calligraphies of Love' marries Hassan Massoudy's art to inspirational quotes

If you pass by Al Saqi bookshop in London's Westbourne Grove and glance at its windows your attention is likely to be arrested by a large display in which the word Love appears repeatedly. Get closer and you will see that the display comprises multiple copies of a book entitled Calligraphies of Love. The book carries on its cover a striking calligraphic illustration and the name of the Iraqi artist Hassan Massoudy.

Al Saqi's window (pic courtesy of Saqi)

Publication of this new title by Saqi Books could hardly be more timely, not only because Valentine's Day is fast approaching but also because, with so much hate in the world at the moment, love seems in short supply.

Your eyes, two dark palm groves just before dawn.
Or two balconies, under a distant moon

Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab (1927-1964) 

The book marries Massoudy's sublime calligraphy-based art with inspirational quotes on many aspects of love. The quotes come from poems and proverbs, ancient and  modern, from around the world: sources include Rumi, Gibran, Ibn Zaydoun, Donne, Majnoun Leyla, Gide, Keats and The Thousand and One Nights.  Elisabeth Jaquette translated the quotes from Arabic, and Sophie Lewis the quotes from French. The attractive design of the 128-page book is by Somar Kawkabi. The format is relatively small at 18cm by 16cm,  just the right size to fit into a handbag or generous pocket.

Where there is love there is life 

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) 

The book's introduction is by Austrian national Saeb Eigner, a banker and financial expert with a deep interest in the arts and education.  He was the British Museum’s Senior Advisor to the books accompanying the ‘Word into Art’ exhibitions  (London, 2006 and Dubai 2008 ) and is the author of Art of the Middle East (Merrell, London 2010, expanded edition 2015) and its French edition L’Art du Moyen-Orient  (Éditions du Toucan,2010).

 Hassan Massoudy 

Hassan Massoudy was born in Najaf, Iraq in 1944, He moved in 1969 to France, where he studied at L'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He still has his studio in Paris. His work has been widely exhibited in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and is to be found in several permanent collections including those of the British Museum and the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts. Nineteen books of his calligraphy have been published in France, as has his autobiography Si loin de l'Euphrate: Une jeunesse d'artiste en Irak.

The beauty you see in me is a 
reflection of you.

Rumi (13th century)

In his introduction Eigner writes of the lasting impact that Massoudy's childhood experiences of calligraphy and colour in Najaf has had on his work. "Anyone who has visited Hassan's studio, along Paris' river Seine on the Quai de la Marne, cannot but sense the influence those early years have had on him. The walls of his atelier are adorned with beautiful calligraphic compositions, in colour and in black and white, based on short phrases that he has collected from around the world.

"The words are in Arabic and often translated into French, and include poetry, quotes by celebrated literary figures as well as proverbs and words of popular wisdom as his mother might have used. One word is picked out, and sits at the centre of each composition, while the phrase in its entirety is beautifully written below, mainly in a script reminiscent of traditional Kufic. The studio is clean and orderly, and the overall atmosphere is one of serenity, installing a sense of calm in all those who visit."

Where there is love, there is no
room for darkness

Mediterranean proverb

review by Susannah Tarbush, London 

Monday, January 16, 2017

four Iraqi novelists and only two women on IPAF 2017 longlist

Longlist and judges of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction announced

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) today revealed the longlist of 16 novels in contention for the 2017 Prize - four of them by Iraqi authors. There are only two women on the longlist: Libyan Najwa Binshatwan and Lebanese Renée Hayek. The novels were chosen from 186 entries from 19 countries, all published within the last 12 months. They were was chosen by a panel of five judges chaired by Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifa.

This year, the tenth anniversary of the prize, marked a break with IPAF tradition in that the judges were identified alongside the longlist, rather than their names being kept secret until the shortlist was announced. Perhaps this reflects a sort of maturation and a growing confidence in the IPAF judging process by the Arab literary scene.

IPAF is awarded annually for prose fiction in Arabic. It is worth a total of $60,000 to the winner - the  $50,000 prize plus the   $10,000 awarded to each of the six shortlisted authors. In addition - in fulfilment of IPAF's ambition to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction -  the Prize provides funding for the English translation of the winning title. This is the tenth year of the Prize, which is recognised as the leading prize for literary fiction in the Arab world.

IPAF is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London - which is why IPAF is often referred to as the Arabic Booker Prize -  and is funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) in the UAE. It  is also supported by Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) and Etihad Airways

The longlistees represent 10 countries across the Arab world and range in age from 37 to 76. Iraq accounts for a quarter of the authors, ie four.  It is followed by Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt with two authors apiece, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, Kuwait and Syria with one author teach.

Renée Hayek

The shortlist will be announced at the Palace of Culture in Algiers on Thursday 16 February. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 25 April, the eve of ADIBF.

The 16 authors chosen include many recognised literary names. Three have been shortlisted for IPAF  in previous years – Mohammed Hasan Alwan, Sinan Antoon and Amir Tag Elsir­ – and a further five longlisted:  Renée Hayek, Ismail Fahd Ismail, Abdul-Kareem Jouaity, Elias Khoury and Mohammed Abdel Nabi. These authors' repeated recognition by the Prize demonstrates the enduring quality of their writing.

The well-known Moroccan poet Yassin Adnan makes his first appearance on the list with his debut novel, Hot Maroc. The Emirati writer Sultan Al Ameemi began writing his longlisted book, One Room Is Not Enough, at the 2014 Nadwa – the annual writing workshop for talented, emerging writers that is supported by the Prize. Other Nadwa attendees on the list include Ali Ghadeer and Mohammed Hasan Alwan, who is the youngest writer to be selected.

The IPAF 2017 Longlist:

Hot Maroc
by Yassin Adnan (Morocco)
Dar al-Ain

One Room Is Not Enough
by Sultan Al Ameemi (UAE)
Difaf Publishing

A Small Death 
by Mohammed Hasan Alwan (Saudi Arabia)
Dar Al Saqi

by Sinan Antoon (Iraq)

The Slaves' Pens 
by Najwa Binshatwan (Libya)
Dar Al Saqi

The Resort of the Enchantress 
by Amir Tag Elsir (Sudan)
Dar Al Saqi

by Ali Ghadeer (Iraq)
Dar wa Maktabat Sutur

The Year of the Radio
by Renée Hayek (Lebanon)
Dar Tanweer, Lebanon

Zuheir al-Hiti 
Days of Dust 
by Zuheir al-Hiti (Iraq)
Dar Tanweer, Tunis

by Ismail Fahd Ismail (Kuwait)

The North Africans 
by Abdul-Kareem Jouaity (Morocco)
Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi

The Slaughter of the Philosophers 
by Tayseer Khalf (Syria)
Arabic Scientific Institute for Research and Publishing

Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam 
Elias Khoury (Lebanon)
Dar al-Adab

In the Spider's Chamber 
by Mohammed Abdel Nabi (Egypt)
Dar al-Ain

The Bookseller's Murder 
by Saad Mohammed Rahim (Iraq)
Dar wa Maktabat Sutur

by Youssef Rakha (Egypt)
 Dar Tanweer, Egypt

The 2017 judges are: Sahar Khalifa (Chair), a Palestinian novelist; Saleh Almani, a Palestinian translator; Fatima al-Haji, a Libyan academic, novelist and broadcaster; Sahar ElMougy, an Egyptian novelist and academic; and Sophia Vasalou, a Greek academic and translator.

Chair of Judges Sahar Khalifa comments: ‘We chose the longlist of 16 from 186 novels submitted. The longlisted novels are hugely varied in their subject matter and imagined worlds, embracing history, political and social themes and fantasy. As a whole they express the interactions, struggles and defeats, as well as the hopes and dreams, of the Arab world today.’

Professor Yasir Suleiman CBE, Chair of the Board of Trustees, says:‘This tenth anniversary longlist presents new writers and established ones who have reached the longlist before. This combination is testimony to the Prize in its search for creative voices whose provenance extends from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf. The longlisted novels for this year speak to the pressing concerns of the Arab World, doing so in different voices and styles that give texture and nuance to their narrative material.’

IPAF Longlist 2017 – biographies and synopses

Yassin Adnan is a Moroccan writer and broadcaster, born in Safi, Morocco, in 1970. Since his early childhood he has lived in Marrakech and for more than two decades has worked in cultural journalism. In 1991, he published the Contemporary Voices magazine and then Poetry Raid, which embodied the new poetic sensibility prevalent in Morocco in the early 1990s. Since 2006, he has researched and presented the weekly cultural television programme "Masharif". He is the author of four books of poetry, three short story collections, a book (with Saad Sarhan) about Marrakech, Marrakech: Open Secrets (2008) and The Moroccan Sheherazade: Testimonies and Studies of Fatima Mernissi (2016). Hot Maroc (2016) is his first novel.

Hot Maroc is a novel about the changing face of Morocco: about Marrakech and the effects of ruralisation and deforestation, the university and its student movement, internet cafés and hackers, politics and journalism. It is about the coward who becomes a hero in both dreams and online but Hot Maroc is bigger than any online space and hotter than any title might suggest.

Sultan Al Ameemi is an Emirati writer born in Al Dhaid, the UAE, in 1974. He has published 19 books: 14 studies of popular culture in the UAE, three collections of short stories and two novels: P.O. Box 1003 (2014) and One Room Is Not Enough (2016). For the past seven seasons, he has been a judge of the Million's Poet contest. In 2014, he took part in the Nadwa workshop for talented young writers run by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, where he began work on One Room Is Not Enough. He is currently director of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Poetry Academy and writes a weekly column on cultural matters in the Al-Emarat Al-Youm newspaper.
One Room is Not Enough 

One Room Is Not Enough sees the hero of the novel wake alone in a strange room. He doesn't know how he got there and there is no way out. Through the keyhole of the door, he discovers someone else is living a normal life in the adjoining room. This person looks like him, behaves like him and has the same hobbies, but he is unable to communicate with him. In the room he finds a book entitled Sole Choices, with his name on the cover as the author. It contains a strange introduction, but the remaining pages are blank. In an attempt to escape his isolation, he fills the blank pages with the peculiar history of his family, followed by the account of his experiences in the room and what he sees as he spies upon his neighbour through the keyhole.

Mohammed Hasan Alwan is a Saudi Arabian novelist, born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1979. He graduated with a doctorate in International Marketing from the University of Carleton, Canada. Alwan has published five novels to date: The Ceiling of Sufficiency (2002), Sophia (2004), The Collar of Purity (2007), The Beaver (2011), and A Small Death (2016), as well as a non-fiction work, Migration: Theories and Key Factors (2014). His work has appeared in translation in Banipal magazine ("Blonde Grass and Statistic"s, translated by Ali Azeriah), in the  Guardian ("Oil Field", translated by Peter Clark), and in Words Without Borders ("Mukhtar" translated by William M. Hutchins). In 2009-10, Alwan was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and his work was published in the Beirut39 anthology. He was also a participant in the first IPAF Nadwa in 2009 and a mentor on the Nadwa in 2016. In 2013, The Beaver was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and in 2015, its French edition (translated by Stéphanie Dujols) won the Prix de la Littérature Arabe awarded in Paris for the best Arabic novel translated into French for that year.

A Small Death is the fictionalised account of the life of a Sufi saint, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, from his birth in Muslim Spain in the 12th century until his death in Damascus. It follows his mystic Sufi experience and heroic travels from Andalusia to Azerbaijan, via Morocco, Egypt, the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Of a sensitive and anxious nature, Muhyiddin struggles with inner turmoil throughout the course of his travels. Witnessing fictitious events including savage military conflicts, he attempts to fulfil his mission against a backdrop of states and numerous cities where he meets countless people.

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist and translator born in Iraq in 1967. He has published four novels, I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (2004), The Pomegranate Alone (2010), Hail Mary (2012) and Index (2016), as well as a volume of poetry entitled A Night in Every Town (2007, published in English as The Baghdad Blues). His writings have been translated into eight languages. In 2003, he returned to Iraq to direct a documentary film called About Baghdad (2004), which dealt with Baghdad after dictatorship and occupation. He has translated the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Sargon Boulos, Saadi Youssef and others into English, and his English translation of his novel The Pomegranate Alone (published in English as The Corpse Washer in 2013) was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014. Hail Mary was shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and published in Spanish as Fragmentos de Bagdad (2014). Antoon has taught Arabic literature at the University of New York since 2005.


Index tells the story of Namir, who meets Wadoud, an eccentric bookseller in Al-Mutanabbi Street during a brief visit to Baghdad after the 2003 occupation. Wadoud is working on a vast project, an index detailing the minute by minute history of the war from the perspective of rocks, trees and animals as well as humans themselves. Taken with the bookseller and his index, Namir tries to contact him to find out more, with the aim of writing a novel about him after his return to the US. Influenced by Wadoud’s ideas, Namir begins to observe his own nation as it fragments, collecting newspaper clippings, images and everything relating to Iraq. Meanwhile, Wadoud is on the edge of insanity and trying to gather the broken splinters, sounds and ghosts of his surroundings. Will he succeed in rescuing them from oblivion?

Najwa Binshatwan
Najwa Binshatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist, born in 1970. She is the author of two novels: The Horses' Hair (2007) and Orange Content (2008), three collections of short stories and a play. In 2005, The Horses' Hair won the inaugural Sudanese al-Begrawiya Festival prize, in the same year that Sudan was Capital of Arab Culture. She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and her story "The Pool and the Piano" was included in the Beirut39 anthology.

The Slaves' Pens lifts the lid on the dark, untold history of slavery in Libya, of which the effects can still be felt today. Slave owner Mohammed and his slave Ta'awidha have fallen in love, but their relationship is considered taboo. Living in a community where masters take female slaves as lovers as they please, Mohammed's father sends him on a trading mission in an attempt to distance him from Ta'awidha. During his absence, his mother forces her to miscarry by serving her a spiked drink, and she is married off to another slave. On his return from his trip, Mohammed learns of his family’s activities and he begins searching for his beloved.

Amir Tag Elsir is a Sudanese writer, born in Sudan in 1960, who now works as a doctor in Qatar. At an early age he wrote poetry and in the 1980s began to write novels. He has published 23 books, including novels, biographies and poetry. His most important works are: The Dowry of Cries, The Copt’s Worries and French Perfume (all 2009) and The Crawling of the Ants (2010). His novel The Grub Hunter (2010) was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011 before being translated into English and Italian, and his novel 366 (2013) was longlisted for the prize in 2014 and was among the winners of the 2015 Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel.

The Resort of the Enchantress

The Resort of the Enchantress follows Ababa Tsfay, who gets off a bus coming from the Eritrean border, fleeing war in her country. She is a striking beauty who has ended up in the wrong place, friendless and penniless, without a place of refuge. Abdel Quyum Dalil Jum’a is a practised thief who lives on the streets. After noticing her, he elects himself as her protector and his love for her changes his life. However, fate has other plans in store for them.

Ali Ghadeer is a writer and journalist, born in Kirkuk province, Iraq in 1971. He obtained a BA in military science from Baghdad in 1993 and taught at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Since 2003, he has worked as a journalist and founded several newspapers and magazines. He has published two collections of short stories, a prose volume, a collection of poetry and two novels. He has won a number of prizes, including the 2008 Najla Muharram Short Story Award (3rd place) for his story "Don't Press the Button", the 2013 Egyptian Short Story Club Prize (2nd place) for his story "Woman in a Cup", and the 2016 Baghdad Prize for the Arabic Novel for his novel Swastika (2016). Ali Ghadeer took part in the Nadwa workshop for talented young writers run by IPAF in 2011.


Swastika is a novel about Hawas, who is born poor but dreams of visiting a prostitute in Baghdad after hearing about her, and the cost of a night in her company, from the son of the village Sheikh. After stealing his mother's golden ankle bracelet, he boards a train to the capital city and his adventure begins. On his train journey he is joined by a strange character who shares not only his delicious food but also his theory of good luck and the means of attracting it. ‘Swastika’ is a Sanskrit word meaning "leading to luxury” and an ancient symbol of prosperity and regarded as good luck by Iraqis, the red Indians of America and Hindus. Denying the common belief that man is born either happy or unfortunate, ‘Swastika’ affirms a person’s capacity to make their own good fortune.

Renée Hayek is a Lebanese novelist, born in southern Lebanon in 1959. She studied Philosophy at the Lebanese University before embarking on a career in journalism, literary translation and teaching. She has published two collections of short stories and ten novels including: The Well and the Sky (1997), The Land of the Snows (2001), Days of Paris (2004), Prayer for the Family (2007), longlisted for the 2009 IPAF, and A Short Life (2010), longlisted for the 2011 Prize.

The Year of the Radio is set in contemporary Beirut and is the story of a young female speech therapist working in a school on a short term contract. At the end of the school year, this contract is terminated and she tries different things before finding a job for a year at a radio station. Here she works as a psychologist, presenting live programmes in which she offers advice to the parents of children with speech and psychological problems. Over the course of a year, we follow her experiences of love, loss, work, illness and unemployment.

Zuheir al-Hiti is an Iraqi writer and journalist, born in 1957 and currently living in Germany. He has published three novels: My Distant Day (2002), American Dust (2009) and Days of Dust (2016) as well as an academic study, The Image of the Iraqi in the Arabic Novel (2006).

Days of Dust 

Days of Dust is set after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of American occupying forces, when Iraq descended into chaos. With acts of murder committed in an attempt to purify the country of its former regime, mobs sow fear in the hearts of people across Iraqi society, most notably within the Christian community. Ghusn al-Ban's family had built its fortune and reputation in the days of the monarchy. Using her relationships with various Christians and the great art collection of her grandfather, Ghusn al-Ban follows the transformation of Iraqi society in this novel.

Ismail Fahd Ismail is a Kuwaiti writer and novelist. Born in 1940, he has worked as a full-time writer since 1985. He graduated with a BA in Literature and Criticism from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, Kuwait, and has worked as both a teacher and in the administration of educational resources. He also managed an artistic production company. Ismail is regarded as the founder of the art of the novel in Kuwait. Since the appearance of his first novel, The Sky Was Blue, in 1970, he has published 27 novels as well as three short story collections, two plays and several critical studies. His novel The Phoenix and the Faithful Friend (2012) was longlisted for IPAF in 2014. His support for a large number of short story writers and novelists and his encouragement of new creative talent had a significant impact on the Kuwaiti and Arab literary scene.


Al-Sabiliat explores the reason behind the existence of a green artery in the midst of a vast wasteland in Iraq following the longest war of the 20th century, between Iraq and Iran. Iraqi forces blocked the entry points of the tributary rivers and streams of the Shatt al-Arab river. This prevented water flowing to the forests of palm trees situated on the western side. Years passed and the palms dried up, no longer bearing fruit. Eventually, all the trees, vegetation and fruit died apart from one green strip of land stretching from the Shatt to the edge of the desert to the west, in an area called "Al-Sabiliat". One old woman is responsible for this green lifeline, which supplies the village and the soldiers living in it.

Abdul-Kareem Jouaity was born in Beni Mellal, capital of the Tadla-Azilal province of Morocco, in 1962 and currently works as director of the Ministry of Culture for this region. He is the author of six novels: Night of the Sun (1992) winner of the Moroccan Writers’ Union Prize for Young Authors, Pomegranate of the Insane (1998), City of Brass (2004), Celebrations of Death (1996) translated into French, Yellow Morella (2002) and Platoon of Ruin (2007), IPAF-longlisted in 2009. He has also published other books and translations.

The North Africans

The North Africans follows the central character, Mohammed al-Ghafaqi and his relationships with his grandfather, the Pasha, his military brother and the neighbours' servant girl whom he loves. It tells of how he is struck by blindness and of the broker who betrays him and steals his wife. Interwoven with this central narrative are the stories of the grandfather, the graveyard of skulls and other tales interlinked with political and social resonance.

Tayseer Khalf is a Syrian writer, researcher and novelist born in 1967. He is the author of more than 30 books of literary criticism, historical research, and travel writing. His novels include: Moviola (2013) and The Slaughter of the Philosophers (2016).

The Slaughter of the Philosophers 

The Slaughter of the Philosophers follows the final years of the city of Palmyra, which had become the capital of Eastern Europe under the rule of its king, Odaenathus. Narrated by Palmyra’s Grand Priest during the reign of Queen Zenobia, the novel sheds light on obscure parts of the city’s history, including Zenobia's plans to turn it into a Utopian city. This was a vision that went unrealised. Attacked by the Roman Emperor Aurelianus' forces who were aided by some of the Arab tribes, Zenobia’s reign was brought to an end in the year 275. The Queen and her council of wise philosophers were escorted to Homs where a court condemned the philosophers to death and sentenced the Queen to imprisonment in Hadrian's Villa near Rome.

Elias Khoury was born in Beirut in 1948. He worked as an assistant editor on Palestinian Affairs magazine (1975-1997) and was editor of the cultural section of Al-Safir newspaper (1981-1991), Al-Karmel magazine (1981-83) and the literary supplement of Al-Nhar newspaper (1992-2008). Since 2001, he has edited Palestinian Studies magazine. He has previously been a visiting professor at Columbia University, New York (1980-82), global distinguished professor at the University of New York (2001-2014) and visiting professor at the Lebanese American University (2015). He is the author of 13 novels including Little Mountain (1977), The Journey of Little Ghandi (1989) and Sinalkul (2012), which was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as three plays and four critical works on the theatre. His work has been translated into 15 languages.

Children of the Ghetto - My Name is Adam 

Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam tells the story of Palestinian Adam Danun and his attempt to write a novel after immigrating to New York. A retelling of his own personal story, the novel recounts his childhood in Lud, Palestine, where in 1948 the city fell to occupying forces who drove out the majority of its inhabitants. Adam's mother remained in the city with her baby and his story is that of the barbed wire encircled Palestinian ghetto created by the occupying army. It is a tale of remaining and an attempt to interpret the victims' silence.

Mohammed Abdel Nabi is an Egyptian writer, born in 1977. He obtained a BA in Languages and Translation from the English and Simultaneous Translation Department of Al-Azhar University and currently works as a freelance translator. He has published five short story collections, a novella titled Imprisoned Phantoms (2000) and two novels: The Return of the Sheikh (2011), which was longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and The Spider's Room (2016). In 2010, his short story collection, The Ghost of Anton Chekhov, won the Sawiris Literature Prize, and his latest collection, As the Flood Passes the Sleeping Village, won the prize for best short story collection at the 2015 Cairo Book Fair. He publishes creative writing, criticism and translations in a number of newspapers and websites, and since 2009 he has taught creative writing in a workshop called The Story and What Is In It. He recently published a book on narrative techniques with the same title.

In the Spider's Chamber is the tale of Hany Mahfouz, a fictional character who shares the real-life experience of more than fifty men arrested in the notorious "Queen Boat" incident in Cairo in 2001, who were either declared innocent or sentenced to prison terms of two or three years. Hany is declared innocent but emerges from the experience a broken man. Having lost the faculty of speech during the trial process, he finds that writing is the best way of healing his soul.

Saad Mohammed Rahim
Saad Mohammed Rahim is an Iraqi writer, born in Diyala province, Eastern Iraq in 1957. He has worked as a teacher and journalist and his articles have been published in Iraqi and Arab newspapers and periodicals. He is the author of six collections of short stories, a number of political and literary studies and three novels: Twilight of the Wader (2000), winner of the 2000 Iraqi Creativity Award for Fiction, The Song of a Woman, Twilight of the Sea (2012) and The Bookseller's Murder (2016). In 2005, he won the Iraqi Award for Best Investigative Journalism for that year, and was also awarded the 2010 Creativity Prize for the Short Story, for his collection Almond Blossom (2009).

The Bookseller's Murder follows Magid Baghdadi, an experienced journalist, who arrives in Baaquba, 60 km north of Baghdad, to conduct a two-month investigation commissioned by a rich and influential anonymous person. He must write a book about the life and mysterious death of 70-year-old Mahmoud al-Marzouq, a bookseller and artist. Magid forms relationships with friends and acquaintances of the deceased and comes across a notebook containing some of his diaries. These record his life in the city since the first day of the US occupation. He also discovers letters between al-Marzouq and Jeanette, a Frenchwoman who worked as a model for artists, with whom he had a relationship when he was a refugee in Paris. From these and other sources, the personality of al-Marzouq comes to life and various chapters of his interesting and complex life are revealed. What will remain obscure is the reason for his death.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in 1976. He obtained a BA in Literature from Hull University in the UK, and has worked for Al-Ahram Weekly since 1997. He co-founded the English language paper The National in Abu Dhabi in 2007-8 and in 2009 he was selected as one of the best Arab writers under 40, for the Beirut 39 project. He writes in English and Arabic and his work has been translated into Italian, French, German, Spanish and Polish. His first two novels were The Book of the Sultan's Seal (2011) and The Crocodiles (2013), both published in English in 2014. His third novel, Paolo (part 2 of The Crocodiles) was published in 2016.

Paolo is the eye-witness account of a man involved in the Egyptian "revolutionary movement" since 2011 who shares his experiences of the period before the election of Morsi and the struggles going on behind the scenes. But the revolutionary activist is not all he appears to be. He is more than a photographer or a bookshop manager – one of the intellectuals of downtown Cairo. Paolo is also an agent for the security services and a Don Juan, whose female lovers all end up dead. He sees himself as the covert manipulator of the revolution, who carries a message of ultimate defeat to the revolutionaries.

IPAF 2017 Judging panel

Sahar Khalifa (Chair) (Palestine) is one of the most important living Palestinian novelists. Her writing focuses on Palestinians' daily life under occupation and on the lives of Arabic women and the discrimination and oppression which hinders their progress in society and participation in the Arab renaissance. She has published 11 novels as well as many articles and studies. Her novels and non-fiction writing have been translated into several languages, including Hebrew, and she has been the recipient of many Arab and international awards, including the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in Egypt, the Mohamed Zafzaf Prize in Morocco, the Simone de Beauvoir Prize (the French readers' prize), the Dubai Al-Thaqafiya magazine Prize, the Alberto Moravia Award for International Fiction and the Cervantes Prize for literature translated into Spanish.

Saleh Almani (Palestine) is a translator, born in Homs, Syria, in 1949. Since the late 1970s, he has completed translations of over 100 works of Latin American literature into Arabic, including dozens of books by the most prominent names in Latin American writing. His translations have been published across the Arab world and he has participated in numerous Arab and international conferences, seminars and research groups working on translation as well as overseeing literary translation workshops at the Cervantes Institute, Damascus. He has received numerous awards and honours for his work from the School of Translators in Toledo (part of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, 2013); the Order of Culture, Science and Arts (for Creative Writing), the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, (2014); the Arab Writers Union in Tangiers, Morocco, and Abu Dhabi (2015); the International Gerard of Cremona Translation Prize (2015); and the Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Award for Translation (in the individual achievement category, 2016).

Fatima al-Haji (Libya) is an academic and novelist, and member of the teaching faculty at Tripoli University, currently living in Tunis. She has studied in the UK and Canada and is the author of three books of literary criticism: New Literary Criticism (1998), The Concept of Time in the Libyan Novel (1999), Fictional Discourse (2007, written in English and later published in Arabic) and a novel The Scream of the Ground Floor (2015). She has presented papers at a number of academic and literary conferences and is a former assessor of the pieces appearing in Al-Hikma magazine, published by the philosophy department of the University of Al-Fatih, and the Al-Jil magazine for literary and intellectual studies published by the Jil Centre for Academic Research, Lebanon. From 1996 until 2000, she was on the judging panel assessing works published by the Libyan Writers' Union. She is former head of the translation department at the General Foundation for Culture and is a member of the Libyan Writers' Union and Institute of Journalists.

Sahar ElMougy (Egypt) is a novelist and academic. She has published two short story collections and two novels: Noon (2007, winner of the 2007 Cavafis Award) and Daria (1999, winner - as an unpublished manuscript - of the 1998 Sharjah Girls' Clubs Prize for Women's Creative Writing). She teaches English Literature and American Studies at the English Department, the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. Since 2012, she has been running a creative writing workshop ("Seshat", after the Ancient Egyptian goddess of writing) at the Doum Cultural Foundation. She also facilitates psychodrama workshops and directs the "Doum Storytelling" theatre group, which gave three performances from 2014-16.

Sophia Vasalou (Greece) studied Arabic and Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and obtained her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 2006 with a thesis on Mu'tazilite ethical thought. Since then, she has occupied a number of teaching and research posts in different universities and academic institutions, including the University of Cambridge, the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, the Orient-Institut in Beirut, and New York University Abu Dhabi. She is currently a senior lecturer in philosophical theology in the Department of Theology and Religion at Birmingham University. Her research focuses on Islamic ethical thought, particularly ethical theories appealing to reason. She is also the author of studies on Western philosophical thought. Her published works include Moral Agents and Their Deserts: the Character of Mu'tazilite Ethics (2008, winner of the Albert Hourani Book Award for Middle Eastern Studies in 2009), Schopenhauer and the Aesthetic Standpoint: Philosophy as a Practice of the Sublime (2013) and Ibn Taymiyya's Theological Ethics (2015). She is also a translator of classical and modern Arabic literature.
Susannah Tarbush, London

Friday, January 13, 2017

Roger Hardy's book 'The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East'

[an Arabic version of this article was published in Al-Hayat on 12 January 2017]

How Western imperialism in the Middle East left a “poisonous well” 
Susannah Tarbush

The growing furore over the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 2017 is a striking example of how Britain’s imperial past in the Middle East continues to have consequences. For Israel the centenary of the Declaration will be a time of huge celebration, for which it is already making preparations. But among Palestinians it is provoking anger and bitterness, and a petition has been launched demanding that Britain formally apologise for the Declaration. Meanwhile Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to sue Britain over the Declaration.

As the British broadcaster, journalist and writer Roger Hardy writes in his new book The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East, even after the European powers left the area “the memory and folk-memory of their rule remains. In the Middle East, events of a century ago such as the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration are remembered as if they happened yesterday, and in the blackest terms.”

The 2 November 1917 letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the British Jewish Zionist leader Lord Rothschild said the British government “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this.” However, it added: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. This is an obvious reference to the Palestinian Arab majority.

In her recent speech to Conservative Friends of Israel, British Prime Minister Theresa May described the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history” and pledged her government to celebrate its centenary “with pride”.

She was full of praise for Israel, “a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance, an engine of enterprise and an example to the rest of the world”. In contrast she scarcely mentioned the Palestinians, although she admitted that “people are correct when they say that securing the rights of Palestinians and Palestinian statehood have not yet been achieved. But we know they can be achieved. We in Britain stand very firmly for a two-state solution.”

Hardy writes: “Of all the problems bequeathed from the colonial era, the Palestine issue has proved the most enduring and the most toxic. By sponsoring Zionist settlement in Palestine and then failing to resolve the conflict between Arab and Jew which this provoked, Britain bears a direct and inescapable responsibility for creating the Palestine problem – which, despite claims to the contrary, remains one of the principal root causes of the region’s malaise.”

Hardy’s book is published in London by C. Hurst and Co, which also published his 2010 book “The Muslim Revolt: A Journey Through Political Islam”. The grim photograph on the book’s cover shows British soldiers in Jerusalem during the 1920-48 mandate period searching Palestinian Arabs for weapons.

"Western imperialism is not responsible for the ills of the modern Middle East,” Hardy writes. “But the Western world has played a significant role in shaping the region and its destiny.” His book” tells the story of how it did so, and how the Middle East emerged from the shadow of empire.”

The First World War of 1914-18 and the Peace Settlement that followed gave birth to the modern Middle East. During the First World War Britain made no fewer than four sets of promises on the future of the region. In the McMahon-Hussein letters of 1915 it promised Hussein bin Ali, the Sherif of Mecca, that if he joined the war and helped defeat the Turks he would become leader of an independent Arab state.

But in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 Britain and France decided to divide the Middle East between them. In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, and then in the Anglo-French declaration of November 1918 Britain and France promised “the complete and final liberation of those peoples who have been so long oppressed by the Turks”.

Hardy asks, “How, if at all, could these contradictory and ill-defined promises be honoured?” In fact, victorious Britain and France divided the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire between them in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In the Peace Settlement, the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to govern Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, and the French the mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The mandatory power was supposed to groom the people it ruled for eventual independence. But Arab nationalists saw the mandates as a cover for colonial rule, and felt betrayed. “The ghost of the Peace Settlement has haunted Arab politics ever since,” wrote the British historian of Lebanese descent, Albert Hourani.

Hardy was a Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service for more than 20 years and is currently a Research Associate at Oxford University’s Centre for International Studies. The origins of his latest book go back to the ten-part radio series “The Making of the Middle East” that he made for the BBC World Service in the early 1990s.

Hardy interviewed a variety of people for the series: “In Ankara I was lucky enough to meet people who had known Ataturk; and in Cairo, two of the surviving Free Officers who had overthrown the British-backed monarchy in 1952.” Many of those he interviewed are no longer alive, “but their voices live on in the unedited tapes of their interviews.”

Roger Hardy

In writing his book Hardy has drawn on eyewitness accounts wherever possible: “Oral history tells us not just what happened but what it felt like to be there.” As well as his using stories from his interviews he has drawn on photographs, letters, memoirs and diaries, and on novels and poetry. Hardy succeeds admirably in bringing history vividly to life. His book is full of fascinating details and extraordinary characters, from the famous to the little-known.

In addition to the main index, the author provides a biographical index with short biographies of more than 100 of the personalities in the book. They include “nationalists and colonial administrators, soldiers and spies, consuls and courtesans, oilmen and missionaries, journalists and schoolteachers. Some played a role in the struggle for independence, others simply observed it.”

Hardy was keen to include the perspectives of women. The first eyewitness in the book is the Turkish writer, nationalist and feminist Halidé Edib, the only woman in Ataturk’s inner circle. She wrote two volumes of memoirs depicting the Turkish struggle for independence and its transition from empire to republic.

Among the other women depicted are the Palestinian poet and feminist Fadwa Tuqan; Lebanese-born Anbara Salam Khalidi (wife of Palestinian scholar and educationalist Ahmed Samih al-Khalid)i; British writer, traveller, and colonial official Gertrude Bell (who helped install Faisal as king of Iraq in 1921); the Syrian Druze princess and singer Amal al-Atrash, known as Asmahan; the British traveller and writer Dorothy Ingrams, wife of the colonial administrator Harold Ingram and author of “A Time in Arabia” and the British journalist Monica Dehn who worked in Palestine in 1944-48.

The book has ten main chapters, each telling of the struggle for independence in a particular country, starting with the emergence of modern Turkey in the 1920s and moving on to Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, Syria, Israel and Jordan in the 1940s, Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s and Algeria and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the 1960s.

Muhammad Mossadeq (Wikimedia Commons) 

There is also a chapter on Iran chronicling the rise and fall of Muhammad Mossadeq, the elected prime minister who nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. The British and US intelligence agencies MI6 and the CIA conspired to get him overthrown in a 1953 coup. Hardy comments that neither Britain nor the US understood “that by removing a popular nationalist and restoring an unpopular monarch they were sowing the seeds of hostility to the West which, two and half decades later, exploded in the Islamic revolution of 1979.”

The Suez crisis three years later was an unsuccessful attempt at another regime change, engineered secretly by Britain, France and Israeli to try and get rid of the troublesome President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Hardy notes that the five great disasters of British foreign policy in the last 70 years were all in the Middle East. They were Palestine (in 1948), Iran (1953), Egypt (1956), Aden (1967) and Iraq (2003).

In two of these disasters – Palestine and Aden – Britain withdrew from situations it was unable to manage and they are “painful imperial humiliations”. Three were fateful interventions – the overthrow of Mossadeq, the attempted overthrow of Nasser, and the overthrow through invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Hardy endeavours to give eyewitness accounts from the sides both of the imperial rulers, and of those they ruled. The distinguished Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani told Hardy how on 14 July 1958 she had returned from Cambridge University to Baghdad for the summer vacation and was sleeping with her family on the roof. Suddenly she heard shots ring out and she remarked to her brother it must be some quarrel between two tribes. “This is Cambridge education,” he retorted angrily. “The idea that there are tribes on the streets of Baghdad!” In reality, she had heard the first shots of the revolution that toppled the British-backed monarchy.

When she realised what was happening, Al-Gailani rushed down to the street in her nightdress. “For many Iraqis, it was a moment of exultation and unity: a coming-of-age,” Hardy writes. “For Britain, it was something more sombre.”

Hardy stresses there is no single uniform legacy of empire in the Middle East. At one extreme are Palestine and Algeria, where “colonialism is a raw wound”. In a number of other countries the imperial period left problems which persist until today, through for example favouring certain sects or ethnicities.

After independence the new Middle Eastern states failed to live up to hopes and expectations, and there is a general “crisis of the state”, at the heart of which is an absence of legitimacy. During the regional turmoil of the past six years, some commentators and political actors – including Daesh – have claimed that the Sykes Picot agreement under which the imperial powers drew up Middle Eastern borders “has been torn up, leaving a scarred landscape of failed and failing states.”

But Hardy disagrees. He  does not see these “lines in the sand” as at the heart of the problems of the Middle East but, rather, what goes on within these lines. In fact, the most striking thing about these lines is how durable they have proved to be. “It is not self-evident that the new jihadists – or insurgent minorities such as the Kurds – will succeed in permanently redrawing the map.”

While criticising Middle Eastern governments, Hardy is also highly critical of Western actions since the direct imperial era ended. The West has failed to understand the depth of anti-Western feeling: “Hostility to Western power and influence is not baseless, but rooted in a shared historical experience.”

The West is deeply implicated in the region’s failures, Hardy concludes. Western policy has locked the region “into a web of interests which the West feels a constant need to protect, either through proxies or through direct intervention.” Western intervention in various forms thus seems destined to continue. It is to be hoped that while doing so, Western governments will learn some of the lessons from their history in the Middle East.