Monday, May 09, 2022


mastering the walks around Portobello Road Market

mastering the walks around Portobello Road 

Having another go - he went to St Antony's College, Oxford

For those of you who use Blogger 

Saturday, December 07, 2019

interview with the Lebanese-British poet Omar Sabbagh

Interview with the Lebanese-British poet, author, critic and academic Omar Sabbagh to mark the publication - by Wales-based publisher Cinnamon Press - of his fifth poetry collection But It was an Important Failure. Sabbagh lives in the United Arab Emirates where he is Associate Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD). 

How do you see this fifth collection,  compared with the preceding four collections, in the trajectory of your output?

It’s in the main a confessional and lyrical artefact, like all my preceding collections – barring the one collection which was an absolute failure down to my own loss of perspective at the time.  However, like my first, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint, and my fourth, To The Middle of Love, I do think this collection is me, with the caveats below in mind, at closer to my better (rather than best), on the whole anyway.  As per the highly ironic opening and closing prose entries of this 5th collection, while in many ways parodic (which is not by any means to say, comic, somehow) in some of this verse, I am in this collection as bare as I’ve ever been.  And I would say that I think this collection hangs-together as a collection in the most effective way among my poetry books.  Nearly all the verse was written very swiftly, and usually on impulse; however, that doesn’t mean I invoke some romanticist notion of sudden, overwhelming ‘inspiration.’  It merely means that due to certain psychological fears that remain with me, in some subliminal way I don’t tend to invest as much time in writing verse as perhaps a poet should, or a better poet would.  This is primarily because I see the stakes as particularly high in poetry, and would rather avert losing in that artistic game; that said, when I do succeed, as I feel I may have done in over half this collection, I think the time spent means very little.  In those places, as it were, the brain was following the mind, or vice versa.    

How did you decide on the title, which plays with the line "But for him it was not an important failure" from W H Audens poem "Musée des Beaux Arts"?

Well, the collection being in the main confessional and lyrical, and the life in the living for an individual in today’s world, like me at least, meaning in the main suffering, it seemed like a propitious play for the title.  Also, failure is important to me.  It is more than just the gauge of success; it is in some significant way success, when that failure is the right kind of failure, an ‘important’ one so to speak.  I don’t need to invoke (very) late Beckett, to indicate how artistic endeavours are above all else like the soul itself, processual, more than to do with some final end-product.  I suppose the process of trying, essaying verse is itself the verse for me: as I suggest, too, in the closing ironies of my 5th, ‘My Practice of Poetry, or, Not Bad’.  All this means that poetry is indeed a part of my behaviour, and not part of some tale I feel that really needs telling.  That said, there may come a day in the near or farther future when I begin to write verse about things beyond my-self! 

Your fourth collection To The Middle of Love was dedicated to your parents and to Faten, now your wife and mother of little baby Alia. What impact have marriage and fatherhood had on your poetry? Some of your particularly beautiful tender poems are for Faten or your daughter.

Yes, true.  Even if I’m not quite, or don’t quite consider myself a truly responsible poet, I am I think a responsive one.  And relationships of tenderness are the quickest spurs for my pen.  Alia and Faten are like my wings, a twinned and colourful surprise.

Is your foreword to this new collection, "A Pretentious Man", a witty rebuke or riposte to certain critics? Yusuf pops up again -  Yusuf Ghaleez whom we remember from your first novella Via Negativa? The foreword throws names around, eg “… what Hegel would have dubbed, probably in Findlays translation, looking-on’…” And you observe: However, though he was often seen as a pretentious man, he knew himself to be merely pompous.

Well, it’s a comic response to myself as a critic of that same self.  Findlay wrote prefatory material, but didn’t as far as I’m aware (at least not in my Oxford translated editions) translate Hegel.  That was a little red herring to amplify the comedy there.  Throwing names around is kind of the point.  I do it often, but most often when I really do know the name’s works well.  However, I can see how others might be sceptical; hence, I took this prose piece as an occasion in a way, if not to answer actual critics, necessarily, the ones who populate the air, potential critics or others perhaps with lambasting concerns.  Yusuf is a name I often use.  Father of Jesus in the Christian mythos; and also a name I think Kafka uses.

Omar Sabbagh with his 2nd novella Minutes from the Miracle City (Fairlight Moderns, 2019) 

The collection ends with your essay My Practice of Poetry, Or, Not Bad. Is your head for ever bubbling with poetry waiting to come out or do you have arid spells? Does what comes out as you write sometimes surprise or baffle you? Do you write by hand, or straight onto a screen? Do you feel sometimes the poetry comes almost too easily?

Yes, the poetry does come too easily, which is why I don’t, as yet at least, consider myself a responsible poet.  I write, normally at will, and always onto a screen (this is my one thoroughgoing concession to modern technology, along with a few other things, like email).  Because I write so much, and at will, no, I rarely surprise myself.  What is often missing in my verse, because my ‘will’ is quite a logical one, is what Wallace Stevens called the element of the ‘irrational.’  But sometimes I get this, and when I do, logic and reflection (which in part may define my approach to verse, in the main) meet and are surprised by successful lines on occasion.  In other words, it’s not so much that ‘poetry’ comes too easily, but words (and thoughts) do.  Poetry comes rarely to me, but when it does, if not ‘easy’, it is swift.

Dubai and Lebanon (also Egypt & England) are very much presences in your poems, and Dubai is the setting of your recent 2nd novella Minutes from the Miracle City  could you sum up the importance of place to you?  And also say something on your experience of teaching at AUD and  before that at the American University of Beirut (AUB)?  

One of the first major influences on my reading (and thus, writing) life was Lawrence Durrell, and for him the spirit of place is key.  This is not as powerful a concern for me (I’m not Lawrence Durrell, as yet at least), but I do feel like personae and places can and do interact in seamless, palpable and fruitful ways.  And apart from issues of prose style and more attitudinal concerns like voice, character is for me the root of my love for and my love in trying at least to build my own narratives.  Teaching, in Beirut and Dubai, so far, has been as it would be anywhere, at times a joy, at others a drain.  However, I should say that my teaching has influenced and informed some of my prose publications.  In particular I have made use of insights gained while teaching fiction or poetry in some of my papers, and the loci of universities have figured centrally in some of my most successful fiction: not only my Beirut novella, Via Negativa: a Parable of Exile (Liquorice Fish, 2016), but also such prize-winning fictions of mine as ‘Dye’ (later in Cinnamon Press’s Ruins and Other Stories) or ‘Bad Faith’ (in Cinnamon’s first The Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction); or, as another instance, my piece of creative nonfiction, ‘From Bourbon to Scotch: Extracts from a Dubai Diary’, which was published some years ago in the Routledge journal, POEM.

A reviewer of your previous collection (RoulaMaria Dib, writing in the Oxford Culture Review) noted its various references to digging in tribute to Seamus Heaney - this is continued in your new collection with On Digging, dedicated to your father. You pay tribute to various named figures in your poems and their dedications; are they kind of father figures and mentors?

Yes, father figures in craft and in life loom large for me.  In fact, I was recently re-reading in and about Lacan’s Seminar XX, which deals with female sexuality and knowledge, among other things.  And as ever, I used this recent bout of re-reading to garner a new batch of inferences.  I think I like to lend myself authority in my writing – whether it’s by the use of capitalised initials at the starts of my lines in my poetry, or an authoritative voice, using at times well-nigh heroic syntax, or stagey punctuation in my prose.  And all of these features of my mental life, reflected directly in my writerly, are ways of me searching for the law(s).  I am both, I like to think anyway, highly gifted at abstract thinking or ratiocination, and to boot, my father, the best dad in the world, probably loved me, now as then, too much.  In other words, coded, I am like Kafka’s ‘hunger artist’ and like most narcissistic types, both too much myself and too little.  And so on.  Theodor Adorno, one of my favourite twentieth century philosophical writers (in translation) cashes out in a serial manner this kind of psychological phenomenon in one of his aphorisms, ‘Hothouse Plant’, in what is my favourite of his works (in translation), Minima Moralia.  In fact, to recoup, this last aphorism was used as an epigraph at the start of my first collection of poetry from 2010, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint (Cinnamon Press).

You often use colour words in your poetry and fiction emerald eyes being a recurring motif. I remember reading in one of your group emails how the poem "For Vincent" in But It was an Important Failure was  triggered by seeing the Schnabel film on Van Gogh, Do you have painterly vivid imagination? Like some people have with colour and music, a kind of synaesthesia.

I’m not sure I suffer or prosper from synaesthesia, but I do have a deeply-embedded relationship with words.  And this reaches between and through their representative content and their materiality; both the way they denote and connote, but I think anyway, in ways that synergise.  Colours are examples of this, where they seem to be to me (and seam to be) both abstract and concrete.  I would say or guess that as well as being quite good at descriptive writing, and from the inception of my writerly attempts, I also have (and without any detailed or deep knowledge of music) a quite musical imagination, and that, in many dovetailing senses.

Do you think a reader of your poems need to be well versed in English literature so as to get all the allusions? Or is it enough that they may be carried away by the language, images and rhythms?

Only the latter, yes.  Especially in my verse, which is far less sophisticated than my prose.

Your two novellas were well received. You are now working on a novel entitled The Cedar Never Dies (which is also the title of one of your earlier poems). Could you say something about this, and about the current upheavals in Lebanon, which have inspired some of your most recent poetry? 

The plot of this projected novel, as per the already worked-up synopsis, embodies by the end the notion of ‘at-one-ment’.  Both in its use of a Christian mythos, married in signal ways to other presiding religious affiliations in Lebanon, and in the way it hopes to enact a kind of Lebanese solidarity of sorts by its close, in some respects very different to the current events in Lebanon, but in some, strangely, uncannily, serendipitously relevant.  Indeed, the novel was conceived and work was begun this past spring, much before the onset of contemporary Lebanese events in autumn of 2019.

Anything else youd like to say?

Plenty of things.  But you’ll have to send me more questions at another time!

Interview conducted via email by Susannah Tarbush, London 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

first-ever anthology of Palestinian science fiction to be launched at British Library

report by Susannah Tarbush, London

Tomorrow evening at 19.00 the British Library in London is to host an event that should warm the hearts of lovers of Palestine literature and of science fiction alike  ‘Palestine 2048: Science Fiction and the Future Past . The event marks the London launch of  Palestine + 100: Stories from a century after the Nakba (Comma Press), said to be the first ever anthology of SF from Palestine.

The British Library describes the event as “an evening of  Palestinian futurism celebrating the power of Science Fiction to shed new light on historical events and contemporary politics in the Middle East.”

Manchester-based Comma Press published the book with assistance from Arts Council England and with an award from English Pen’s ‘PEN Translates’ programme. Six of the 12 stories were translated from Arabic, each by a different translator; the others were written in English.

At the  launch Comma’s founder and editorial manager Ra Page and the anthology’s editor Basma Ghalayini will chair a panel including two contributors to the book: British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, author of Out of It, and Palestinian-Hungarian poet, journalist and novelist Anwar Hamedauthor of eight Arabic novels.  Hamed’s novel Jaffa Makes the Morning Coffee was longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).  

Selma Dabbagh

Ghalayini was born in Khan Younis, Gaza, and spent her childhood in the UK until the age of five before returning to Gaza. She has worked in various finance roles in the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, and is also an Arabic translator and interpreter. She translated short fiction from Arabic for the KFW Stifflung series Beirut Short Storiesand for Comma projects including Banthology and The Book of Cairo (edited by Raph Cormack).

The 12 Palestinian authors commissioned to write stories for the anthology have risen to the challenge of producing SF stories set in 2048 with zest, imagination and ingenuity. Some had written SF previously; for others it was a new field of writing. Of course, this raises the perennial question of what distinguishes SF from the closely related genres of speculative fiction, magic realism, fantasy, surrealism, ghost stories and so on.

The  Nakba is the 1948 'catastrophe' in which more than 700,000 Palestinians – some 80 per cent of the total –were expelled from Palestine during the establishing of Israel. Ghalayini writes in her insightful introduction to the anthology that the Nakba did not end in 1948. “Since then, countless Israeli government policies have furthered this gradual ethnic cleansing." The ‘ongoing Nakba’ is “continually evolving. We are forever entering new stages of it…”

The anthology is dedicated to the memory of Tom Hurndall, the British photography student who was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper in Gaza in April 2003, dying in the UK in January 2004 without regaining consciousness.

The stories in Palestine + 100 extrapolate from the often bizarre and disturbing reality in which Palestinians live today: advanced Israeli weapons, surveillance, cyber warfare, drones, separation walls, increasing pollution and attempts to stifle or wipe out history. To judge by the stories, the Palestinian predicament lends itself well to SF,and  perhaps increasingly so. There has always been something surreal and fantastical about the Palestinians' history in the 20th and 21st centuries - for example in the condition of being "present absentees".

Basma Ghalayini

As Ghalayini points out SF “uses the future as a blank canvas on which to project concerns that occupy society right now The real future - the actual future – is unknowable. But for SF writers, the mere idea of ‘things to come’ is licence to re-imagine, re-configure, and re-interrogate the present.” 

However, she observes that the SF genre “has never been particularly popular among Palestinian authors; it is a luxury, to which Palestinians haven’t felt they can afford to escape. The cruel present (and the traumatic past) have too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ imaginations for fanciful ventures into possible futures.”

She suggests that another reason SF has not been popular among Palestinian writers is that it doesn’t offer an obvious fit with the Palestinian situation. “In classic SF, the battle lines are drawn quickly and simply: the moral opposition between a typical SF protagonist and the dystopia or enemy he finds himself confronting is a diametric one.

"But in Palestinian fiction, the idea of an ‘enemy’ is largely absent. Israelis hardly ever feature as individuals, and when they do they are rarely portrayed as out and  out villains.” She cites as an example Ghassan Kanafani's novel Returning to Haifa.

Anwar Hamed 

Anwar Hamed’s tale “The Key”, translated by Andrew Leber,  is told from the perspective of Israelis anxious about the rusty old keys Palestinians in refugee camps retain from the homes in Palestine they were forced to leave.  "My grandfather feared those photographs of people holding keys more then any arms deal being signed by neighbouring countries" says the main character of the story. His grandfather had developed the  idea of a transparent "gravity wall" to keep out those without the right 'code'. But now, on the centenary of Israel's establishment, ghostly presences are making themselves felt through the sounds of keys turning in locks. 

Selma Dabbagh's savvy and in places hilarious story "Sleep it Off, Doctor Schott" tells of a suspected emotional relationship between two middle-aged scientists, Gaza-born Professor Mona Kamal and her co-worker, Tel Aviv born Dr Eyal Schott, who are being spied on by young Layla in her capacity as a "Recorder". The scientists work in the privileged 'Secular Scientific Enclave'. Professor Kamal had been a hero to Layla as a girl growing up in a refugee camp, for her creation of  a "bot army" that burst through the borders in 2032. The story is written in the form of dialogue, and one could imagine it making an entertaining radio play.

Saleem Haddad 
The anthology's opening story is Saleem Haddad’s poignant“Song of the Birds”. Haddad gained international recognition with his debut novel Guapa, which has a gay central character. It won The 2017 Polari Prize and was awarded a Stonewall honour.  "Song of the Birds" was written  in memory of Mohannad Younis a  Gazan writer and pharmacy postgraduate who killed himself in August 2017 at the age of 22. Younis was seen as a symbolic of the wave of young Gazans killing themselves over the hopelessness of their situation.

The main character of the story is 14-year-old Aya whose beloved brother Ziad killed himself the previous year.  Ziad starts to appear to her in dreams, and she keeps having visions of war, destruction and ruined buildings. When she is swimming in the sea it suddenly becomes full of "bottles, soiled tissue paper, plastic bags and  rotting animal carcasses". It is all a total contrast to her actual Gaza City neighbourhood with "its wide leafy streets, exquisite limestone buildings, quaint cafes and vintage furniture shops".  Ziad reveals to her that the horrific visions she has been experiencing are the  "real Palestine" and that what she ha been living in is in fact a simulation. "They've harnessed our collective memory, creating a digital image of Palestine. And that's where you live."  While the older generation spend a lot of time asleep, "it is up to us to develop new forms of resistance."

Like Haddad, Mazen Maarouf has a growing international profile, with his  short story collection Jokes for the Gunmen (Granta Books), translated by Jonathan Wright, longlisted earlier this year for the International Booker Prize.  Maarouf’s story "The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid", translated by Wright, is at 43 pages by far the longest story in Palestine +100

Mazen Maarouf 
The complex story portrays a dystopia  in which the Palestinians had all been forced southwards  and were no longer called Palestinians but Falasta. In 2037 a hitherto untested biological warfare munition was launched, programmed to identify and kill the Falastis and within three weeks there was no Falasti left  except for the narrator of the story. 

The narrator says: “I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. I didn’t want to save the world, or even save all the children of Falasta. I just wanted to save my sister when they came to steal her imagination.” The stolen imaginations of Palestinian children are gathered into a satellite named the Dabraya Star. Being the last Palestinian the narrator is confined within a glass cube and transported on a motor bike by Ze’ev, whom he had fist met in an orphanage. “Every week we go to a primary school in a kibbutz or a town we haven’t visited before. Ze’ev puts me on display in front of the schoolkids in the playground for half an hour. None of them have ever seen a Palestinian before.”

In her story "Commonplace" Gaza-based Rawan Yagh conjures up a ghastly cityscape. Adam, a dealer in sedative drugs, known euphemistically as "grapes", lives in an area constantly under attack by swarms of drones from over the wall. The drones plant explosive devices on roofs, destroying whole buildings. Adam has been traumatised by the death of his quirky sister Rahaf. after she was attacked by a drone. The story sees him embarking on a desperate mission.

Questions of memory and history echo through  the anthology. In Samir El-Youssef's story "The Association", translated by Raph Cormack, there has been a 2028 Agreement under which “the people of the country – all the different sects and religions, Muslim, Christian and Jewish – had decided that forgetting was the best way to live in peace. The study of the past is forbidden.” In 2048  an eager young journalist investigates the assassination of a Palestinian history professor.  Those who oppose the Agreement and seek to investigate and record the past are regarded as extremists: they are said to have dozens of different groups such as the Jidar "who harboured evidence of the effects of the near 20-year blockade of Gaza." . It appears that the Professor's views on Palestinian history may be connected to his murder.

Abdalmuti Maqboul plays with time in his searing story "Personal Hero", translated by Yasmine Seale. Time runs in reverse, bodies arise from graveyards, and the great Palestinian was hero Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni comes back to life one hundred years after his death in battle on 8 April 1948. The story is skilfully unfolded towards an unexpected ending.

In "Vengeance" Tasnim Abutabikh combines environmental concerns with a story of revenge for a historical wrong involving land sales in Palestine. Carbon dioxide levels are rising and global temperatures have soared. In rich countries people live in air-filtered biospheres but in poorer areas such as Gaza people have to wear lifemasks with filtering systems, just a flick of a switch away from death.

The classic SF trope of a monster landing from outer space appears in Talal Abu Shawish's "Final Warning"in translation by Mohamed Ghalaieny.  The creature lands in Ramallah, darkening the sky and knocking out power and communication systems. The local Christian Father, Muslim Imam and Jewish Rabbi join hands and chant to terrified crowds, with some people thinking that  Judgment Day has arrived. Eventually the creature addresses the people and warns them they have one last chance to rectify their behaviour. "Your struggles in this tiny sector of the planet's surface have, for more than a hundred of your planet's orbits, cause more tension and conflict, directly and indirectly beyond its borders than any other area of its size in the known universe... By continuing to threaten the planet's stability as  a whole, you also threaten the wider galaxy's stability... "

In “Application 39” UK-based Gazan novelist, dramatist and dance promoter Ahmed Masoud envisages a Palestine divided into independent statelets. After the collapse of the  Oslo Accord and the 2025 Israeli invasion, each major Palestinian city had been forced to declare itself an independent state. These republics are linked by a network of tunnels and lifts. From time to time the cities fought each other, but in 2030 a peace deal between the states was signed.

In 2040 mischief makers Ismael and Rayyan, young friends in the Republic of Gaza, carry out a hoax they call “Operation Application 39”, in which they submit an application from the Republic to host the  39th Summer Olympic Games in 2048, forging the President of the Republic's signature.  The hoax is uncovered after the IOC writes an enthusiastic letter of acceptance to the president, saying to hold the Olympics in the Republic of Gazawould seal the peace deal of 2030. But a woman official of the Republic warns Ismael and Rayyan that this "could lead to another war here...with Khan Younis, or Rafah, or even Ramallah." Nor will Israel be happy, and it might start a bombing campaign, leading to a regional war. Masoud fully develops the potential of this scenario in a lively narrative.

Majd Kayyal 

Majd Kayyal was born in Haifa to a displaced family from the village of Birwa. His first novel The Tragedy of Mr Matar (El Ahlia 2016) won the  Qattan Young Writer of the Year Award, and his first collection of short stories Death in Haifa came out this year. In his compelling story "N" translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes  Kayyal creates two separate worlds existing simultaneously, one Palestinian, the other Israeli.

The story focuses on a father, who lives in the Palestinian world, and his son "N". There has been a peace Agreement between the two sides under which only those  born after the Agreement, such as "N", are allowed to travel between the two worlds. The father watches a PhotonTransit system which conveys his son back to Israel and  produces "a spectacular flash of light. It's unlike any other light I've seen, a light we don't know the source or path of, which swallows our children to over there, to the other there."

The story references Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s film The Time that Remains. “Father and son fishing at night under military surveillance. I grew to love that dialogue,” muses the father. "N" returns with his partner Nada to live in the Palestinian world “I don’t know if all the Palestinians who stayed in the Israeli world maintained their identity like this, but this Nada, she’s very special," the father thinks. "You can see a profound sadness in her that hasn’t healed.”

The Cairo-based academic, journalist and translator Emad El-Din Aysha was born in the UK to a Palestinian father from the Akka region. He is an avid fan of  history and SF, and has published fiction and essays on Arab and Muslim SF. His humorous story "Digital Nation" is set as Israel's centenary Independence Day approaches. 

The Palestinians “hadn’t had a single state to govern for a long time. Instead they made do with a series of banana republics. Literally, they grew bananas on the slopes of Ramallah – as well as mangos in Judea and pineapples in Samaria.”

The protagonist of story,  the ageing Asa Shomer, is Director of the Israeli security service. Shabak. He faces a security crisis in that a highly sophisticated hacker Shabak has nicknamed Hannibal is "destabilising the stock market, hijacking media outlets, hacking servers... these are all issues of national security," an aide tells Shomer.

Old-fashioned Shomer is nostalgic for “good old fashioned-terrorism” rather than cybercrime.
“But who could believe an Arab would be capable of such ingenuity: a vision of a united Palestinian State, simmed so perfectly and in such detail, then virus-leaked into every VR console on the Israeli market…”  He is alarmed by the Palestinian Utopia portrayed by the hack: "Hope was contagious." and "who needed to 'liberate' Palestine if you could convert Israel into Palestine?"The virus spreads and spreads, right up to Israel's Independence Day.

The publication of Palestine + 100  follows Comma Press's first anthology of  specially commissioned Arab SF  - the acclaimed  Iraq + 100: stories from a century after the invasion edited by Hassan Blasim and published in 2016. Comma has been making a major contribution to the translation and publication of Arabic literature, particularly short stories. It's newest collection of short stories from Palestine is The Sea Clock & Other Stories by Gazan author Nayrouz Qarmout ,winner of a  'PEN Translates' award. Comma is - most deservedly - currently shortlisted for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture, with the winner due to be announced on 26 September. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Two Arabic titles among recipients of latest batch of English PEN's translation awards

English PEN announces PEN Translates award-winning titles

The awards go to books from sixteen countries, in eleven languages including Arabic. 

Books from sixteen countries and eleven languages make up the latest round of PEN Translates award winners. They include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories and childrens literature and for the first time translations from the Burmese, Vietnamese and Romanian.

The two titles translated from Arabic are God 99 by Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, due out from Comma Press in January 2020 and Minor Detail by Palestinian-German author Adania Shibli, translated f by Elisabeth Jaquette, to be published by. Fitzcarraldo Editions in May 2020. 

Jonathan Wright (L) and Hassan Blasim in 2012 

Will Forrester, Translation and International Manager, English PEN, said:

"These awards go to seventeen books of outstanding merit and courage. In a moment where the movement of art and ideas across borders is being challenged, translation is a vital corrective. We are thrilled that PEN Translates continues to contribute to literary accessibility and internationalism, and to ensure translators are paid properly for their work. Were excited that the UK public will get to read these important books."

Sarah Ardizzone, Co-chair of the English PEN Writers in Translation Committee, said:

"The depth of field for these PEN Translates awards is breathtaking from a hard-hitting memoir by a young Rohingya man, to a poignant childrens illustrated work from Slovenia, via a zany exposé of colonised language in a Belarusian novel. Were proud to be supporting outstanding literary fiction from across Latin America, as well as China, Vietnam, Palestine, Iraq and Romania; together with poetry from Haiti, Cuba and Romania, and short story collections from Malaysia and Myanmar. Dynamic and innovative models for international publishing are especially to be saluted, in a list that is proactively both global and local."

Books are selected for PEN Translates awards on the basis of outstanding literary quality, strength of the publishing project, and contribution to literary diversity in the UK. The award-winning books are featured on the English PEN World Bookshelf website, in partnership with Foyles.

PEN Translates award winners:
Alinarkas Children by Alhierd Bacharevic, translated from Belarusian by Jim Dingley. Scotland Street Press, June 2019. Country of origin: Belarus.

God 99 by Hassan Blasim, translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Comma Press, January 2020. Country of origin: Iraq.

Crossroads and Lampposts by Trn Dn, translated from Vietnamese by David Payne. Oneworld Books, September 2020. Country of origin: Vietnam.

Exodus by Benjamin Fondane, translated from French by Henry King and Andrew Rubens. Carcanet Press, Autumn 2019. Country of origin: Romania.

Chaophony by Franketienne, translated from French by Andres Naffis-Sahely. Carcanet Press, Autumn 2019. Country of origin: Haiti.

First They Erased Our Names: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman and Sophie Ansel, translated from  French by Andrea Reece. Scribe, August 2019. Country of origin: Australia/Myanmar.

Lake Like A Mirror by Ho Sok Fong, translated from  Chinese by Natascha Bruce. Granta Books, January 2010. Country of origin: Malaysia.

A Little Body Are Many Parts by Legna Rodriguez Iglesias, translated from Spanish by Abigail Parry and Serafina Vick. The Poetry Translation Centre, October 2019. Country of origin: Cuba.

Theatre of War by Andrea Jeftanovic, translated from Spanish by Thomas Bunstead. Charco Press, January 2020. Country of origin: Chile.

Felix and His Suitcase by Dunja Jogan, translated from Slovenian by Olivia Hellewell. Tiny Owl, May 2020. Country of origin: Slovenia.

The Past Is an Imperfect Tense by Bernardo Kucinski, translated from Portuguese by Tom Gatehouse. Latin American Bureau, November 2019. Country of origin: Brazil.

Loop by Brenda Lozano, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott. Charco Press, November 2019. Country of origin: Mexico.

Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo, translated from Spanish by Charlotte Coombe. Charco Press, May 2020. Country of origin: Colombia.

The Town with the Acacia Tree by Mihail Sebastian, translated from Romanian by Gabi Reigh. Aurora Metro, September 2019. Country of origin: Romania.

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. Fitzcarraldo Editions, May 2020. Country of origin: Germany/Palestine.

Yezet by various, translated from the Burmese by Alfred Birnbaum. Strangers Press, November 2019. Country of origin: Myanmar.

Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. Chatto & Windus, February 2020. Country of origin: China.
English PEN's Writers in Translation programme has been promoting literature in translation since 2005. Overseen by a dedicated committee of literary professionals, the programme includes a dynamic portfolio of activities, which includes translation grants, events, and PEN Transmissions, an online magazine of international writing.

English PEN's major publisher grants programme, PEN Translates, awards grants to UK publishers for translation costs and is supported by Arts Council England. Together with the PEN Promotes programme (supported by Bloomberg) over 300 books in translation have been supported by English PEN grants since 2005.

English PEN, a registered charity, promotes the freedom to write and the freedom to read in the UK and around the world. The founding centre of a worldwide writers' association, established in 1921, we work to identify and dismantle barriers between writers and readers, whether these are cultural, political, linguistic or economic. In 2011 English PEN was awarded the highest funding increase in the literature sector by Arts Council England to develop literature in translation.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Obituary of Libyan fiction writer, playwright and journalist Ahmed Fagih

Remembering Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih: b. 28 December 1942 d.28 April 2019 

by Susannah Tarbush London

The death of the Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih in a Cairo hospital at the age of 76 has deprived the Arab literary scene of a major and prolific figure whose work won recognition in his native Libya and far beyond.

Born in 1942 in the small oasis town of MIzda in the Nafusa mountains, south of Tripoli, Fagih pursued his literary ambitions from his teenage years. In a 60-year career he was variously a journalist, columnist, short story writer, essayist, novelist, dramatist, scholar, TV personality and diplomat.

Fagih never left his Mizda roots behind. On the contrary, his writing was often inspired by his intimate knowledge of rural life and by traditions of fable and folk tales. He was concerned with the animal kingdom and with mans relationship with animals and the environment.

Fagih was a master of both the short story and novel forms. His writing tackled with humanity and humour many themes of relevance to Libyan society: the legacy of the brutal Italian colonisation, urbanisation, social justice, the impact of oil wealth, tradition vs modernity, and the oppression of women. He pushed boundaries, in for example writing explicitly about sex.

His output was so prodigious that it was hard to keep a full tally. He told the Bookanista webzine in 2015: I have written 22 novels and 22 books of short stories, 40 short and long plays, as well as 20 or so books of essays. Even when seriously ill last year he continued his work routine and told me in an email from Cairo last September that he was writing away on my bits and pieces and published this year five books in Arabic. His works were translated into many languages, including Chinese (he was twice invited to China for academic events on his work). 

Fagihs many friends, readers and colleagues around the world now mourn the passing of a warm, original and highly talented character with an irrepressible sense of humour. There was something refreshingly unpretentious and down to earth about him.

Since his death many tributes have appeared in the mainstream and social media. The American scholar and former diplomat Ethan Chorin, author of Translating Libya: In Search of the Libyan Short Story, tweeted: Extremely saddened by the passing of Dr. Ahmed Ibrahim al Fagih - the inimitable Libyan-Arab short story writer, novelist and playwright. His work was a big part of my introduction to Libya in the early 2000s. He will be sorely missed. Farewell, my friend.

The Libyan lawyer and short story writer Azza Kamel Maghur (whose short story The Bicycle appeared in Banipal 40: Libyan Fiction) ended her eloquent obituary with: Faghih remained young in his heart, tender with his grandchildren, respectful with women and  their  status,  a lover of his homeland, suffering from its pain, and a loving man to his family.

Azza is from a younger generation of Libyan writers who were encouraged and influenced by Fagih. She is the daughter of the lawyer and fiction writer Kamel Hassan Maghur whose work was championed by Fagih in his writing and his PhD thesis on the Libyan short story.

Fagih will be missed by his many friends in London, which was to him a home from home. He had lived in the UK for two periods in the 1970s and 1980s and submitted his doctorate to Edinburgh University in 1983.  

Fagih visited London as often as he could. He loved to host mini-literary salons in cafés, with a succession of friends and acquaintances dropping by. He was particularly fond of the famous Whiteleys department-store-turned-shopping-mall in Queensway, a busy thoroughfare in Arab London where Arab émigrés, intellectuals, tourists and refugees congregate. For some years Fagih was a patron of the café in a large open space at the middle of Whiteleys ground floor. When that closed down he migrated to the Costa coffee shop on the corner of Whiteleys whose big windows allow one to see the world pass by.

After his return to Cairo last year from Tunis, where he had sought medical treatment, Fagih emailed that he was practising my life almost as normal, my daily session in Costa reading and writing.  The Cairo branch of Costa was wider and more elegant and more friendly than the one in Whiteleys. Its not far from where I live, with glass walls that overlook a large and modern street in Muhandisien area, in the middle of Cairo.

English translation of Faagih's novel Valley of Ashes (Kegan Paul International) 

Fagih was supportive of Banipal from its founding in London in 1998. An excerpt from his novel Valley of Ashes appeared in issue three and a lengthy interview, conducted by Banipals co-founder and then editor Margaret Obank, was published in the fourth issue, Spring 1999, under the headline Ahmed Fagih: A writer at night. Fagih explained that Arab authors often have to write at night because they cannot live from their writing alone and have to be otherwise employed during the day. Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, was never a fully-time writer until he retired. He was a government employee from the 30s until he retired. 

In the interview Fagih described how at the age of 14 he left Mizda for Tripoli which was a larger community, a place where I could find the books I wanted to read, there was theatre, music, shows films. There I was meeting people a little older than me who had already started writing and I took part in that literary world.

He started writing and by the age of 17 had a regular newspaper column. He went to Egypt on a scholarship when he was nearly 19. That put me in contact with so many Arab writers and the literary society. There I really set out on my literary career.

Fagihs talent as a fiction writer was recognised early when in 1965, aged 22, he won the first prize in a Higher Council for Literature and Art literary competition with his first collection of short stories The Sea Has Run Dry.

In 1968 Fagih travelled to the UK to continue his education. Like other Arabs of his generation, he had been traumatised by the Arab humiliation in the 1967 war and he wanted a change of scene. He attended a tutorial college in the southern coastal town of Brighton and then studied drama for two years at the New Era Academy of Drama and Music in London. Among the stage roles he played were those of Shakespeares Shylock and Othello.

After the 1969 revolution that toppled King Idris and brought Gaddafi to power Fagih returned to Libya. He would over the years hold various positions, including serving as director of the Institute of Music and Drama. He told Banipal I wrote a musical, Hind and Mansour, while I was there so that the students, male and female, could work and perform together.

At one time he was head of Arts and Literature at the Ministry of Information and Culture.  He founded the Union of Libyan Writers and was for a time its secretary general. And he was appointed as editor of The Cultural Weekly.  He wrote for many newspapers and spent four years working in Morocco.

In 1977 Fagih returned to Britain to do a PhD at Edinburgh University, but he put his studies on hold when he was appointed head of the press department at the Libyan Embassy (Peoples Bureau) in London. For four years I was a diplomat, he told Banipal.  It was only after this that he had time to study full time at Edinburgh University for his doctorate.

During his time in the UK a group of us formed what we called the Arab Cultural Trust. We put on a cultural season, produced a magazine called Azure. Fagih was editor-in-chief of this English-language glossy magazine, published first as a quarterly and then twice yearly. There were in all 14 issues before publication ceased in 1983.

Libyan Stories: Twelve Short Stories from Libya (Keegan Paul International)

Azure covered a spectrum of Arab arts, from fiction, art and theatre to civilisation and antiquities. It was an example of the way in which Fagih was a dynamic pioneer in bringing Libyan and Arab culture to the UK. At the time there was little translation of Arab literature into English. Azure published in translation stories by Libyan and other Arab authors. All the stories in the anthology Libyan Stories: Twelve Short Stories from Libya (Kegan Paul International, 2000) edited by Fagih, as well as his introduction, were first published in Azure.  The stories include Fagihs The Last Station, Kamel Maghurs Crying, Ali Almisratis Mussolinis Nail, Ibrahim el Konis She and the Dogs and Khalifa Takbalis Dignity.

The renowned Arabic translator Denys Johnson-Davies was among those involved with Azure. In his book Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature Johnson-Davies recalls translating and publishing in Azure part of an early novel by Lebanese author Elias Khoury. 

Among the contributors to Azure was the English poet, critic and editor Anthony Thwaite who had been a university teacher at the Benghazi campus of the University of Libya in 1965-67 (his acclaimed book The Deserts of Hesperides: An Experience of Libya was published in 1969 by Secker & Warburg.). 

Other contributors included the journalist and writer Peter Mansfield, the Young Liberal campaigner for Palestinian and gay rights Louis Eakes. critic and publisher Timothy OKeeffe and Arab writers and critics such as Sabry Hafez.

Alongside editing Azure, Fagih was making headway in the drama field. In 1982 his two-act play Gazelles was performed at Londons Shaw Theatre in an adaptation by the English poet, novelist and playwright Adrian Mitchell. The staging was part of a Libyan cultural season arranged by the Union of Libyan Writers and Artists.

Fagih first made his name as a writer of short stories: his novels such as Valley of Ashes came later. One of his most famous works, the trilogy of novels I Shall Offer Another City, These Are the Borders of My Kingdom and A Tunnel Lit by One Woman was published in 1991. The following year the trilogy won Lebanons premier literary award. The trilogy appears in 16th place on the Arab Writers Union list of 100 best Arabic novels.

The English version of the trilogy was published by Quartet in London in 1995, as Gardens of the Night, in translation by Russell Harris, Amin al-Ayouti and Suraya Allam. The trilogy traces the fortunes of a Libyan academic, Dr Khalil Al-Imam, from his days at Edinburgh University preparing a doctorate on The Thousand and One Nights, through a psychotic breakdown in which he embarks on hallucinatory journey in an Arabian Nights-type setting, to his obsessive love for a woman in modern-day Libya. 

Fagihs presence in English translation took another significant step forward in 2000 when London publisher Kegan Paul International produced simultaneously five books he had written or edited. The books were launched at an event with a panel discussion at the much-missed Kufa Gallery near Queensway, in those days a centre of Arab culture. In addition to Libyan Stories: Twelve Short Stories from Libya the books were the novel Valley of Ashes; two volumes of his short stories, Whos Afraid of Agatha Christie and Other Stories and Charles, Diana and Me and Other Stories, and Gazelles and Other Plays.

In 2011 Quartet published the English translation of Fagihs novel Homeless Rats. The Arabic original of the novel had started life as a serial in a Libyan journal before being published in Arabic in 2000 as Firan bila Juhur. The novel tells of a titanic struggle in the Libyan desert between humans in a caravan from Mizda and the hopping rats known as jerboas as they compete over scanty food sources during a drought.

Ahmed Fagih in Costa Cafe, Whiteleys, London with a copy of Homeless Rats

The translation of Homeless Rats happened to be publishing during the Libyan revolution. The books desert battles, alliances, war crimes, emergency meetings, tribalism and waves of refugees resonated strangely with the battles raging at that time in Libya. No translators name appears in the book, which was competently edited by the young novelist and travel writer Anna Stothard.

A landmark was reached in the publication of Libyan literature in English in translation when Banipal 40: Libyan Fiction appeared in spring 2011. Coincidentally the issue was published just as the Libyan uprising was erupting. In an essay on the Libyan Novel in the issue the Libyan short story writer and literary editor Ibrahim Ahmidan writes that Fagih opened the way for the Libyan novel to make a genuine contribution to the revitalisation of the Arabic novel through his own distinctive contribution, first with his trilogy of novels (published in English as Gardens of the Night) and more recently with his unique literary experiment Maps of the Soul.

Banipal 40 included Fagihs vividly-realized short story Lobsters subtitled In praise of lobsters and in mockery of men translated by Maia Tabet. The darkly comic story was inspired by a true incident from the life of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in which Sartre took the hallucinogenic drug mescaline and suffered persistent hallucinations of crabs. which triggered a nervous breakdown.

Fagihs most ambitious literary project, intended as his masterwork, was the 12-volume cycle of novels Maps of the Soul published in 2009 by Darf in Libya and al-Kayyal in Lebanon. Fagih saw this series as a Libyan counterpart to the famous 12-novel sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time by English novelist Anthony Powell.

In 2014 Darf Publishsers published the first three novels - Bread of the City, Sinful Pleasures and Naked Runs the Soul - in a bumper volume of 656 pages under the title Maps of the Soul.  The preparation of the English text was very much a team effort with the initial translation by Soraya Allam and Brian Loo revised and edited by Ghazi Gheblawi and Graeme Estry.

The first three novels of Maps of the Soul trace the life of Othman al-Sheikh, driven from his desert village by a sexual scandal in which he is fact innocent.  In Italian-occupied Tripoli Othman takes every opportunity to climb the ladder, using his charm and wits.

Fagih told the Tanjara blog that he envisaged the 12 books as four trilogies which deal with the life and soul of Othman through its ups and downs. One striking feature of the first trilogy is that it uses the second person you throughout.  Fagih noted that over the 12 books he used a variety of viewpoints including third person, first person, second person, and the all knowing god-like authority.

One of the most significant recent contribution sin recent years  to the body of Libyan literature in English translation is Ethan Chorins book Translating Libya, first published by Saqi in 2008 and republished by Darf Publishers in 2015, updated and expanded in light of the changes brought by the Libyan revolution.

In his introduction to the first edition Chorin explained that the idea for the book came after he arrived in Libya and asked his Libyan colleague Basem Tulti if he could recommend any good local authors. Tulti produced a paperback containing Fagihs story The Locusts (Al-Jarad) which Chorin loved and translated to English.

The first edition of the book consisted of 16 stories, newly translated by Chorin (in three cases jointly with Tulti), combined with Chorins accounts of his travels around Libya and his search for stories. It was a highly enjoyable mixture of travelogue, scholarly study and personal encounters.

second edition of Translating Libya 

For the revised second edition, Chorin invited Fagih to write a foreword. Chorin describes meeting Fagih for the first time, in a Cairo hotel in 2012. Fagih was more or less as I imagined him from his writing, and the occasional dust cover photo: a strong personality, witty and humane with an artists appreciation for the absurd.

In his introduction Fagih wrote: Translating Libya is an expression of Libyan culture, but also a lesson in how writers communicate in a repressive regime, where heavy censorship and random, severe punishments are common. The stories reflect society, past and present. One story was added for the second edition: Azza Kamel Maghurs The Olive Tree.

Over the decades, in tandem with his writing career, Fagih continued his life as a diplomat and in the 2000s was Libyan ambassador to Greece and then Romania. While ambassador to Romania he performed his one-man show A Portrait of a Writer Who Wrote Nothing at the 2009 Sibiu International Theatre Festival.  He dreamed of one day performing on a stage in London.

At the time of the 17 February 201 Libyan revolution Fagih was serving as part of the Libyan delegation to the Arab League. In the early days of the uprising the delegation denounced Gaddafi and Fagih defected to the rebel government.  Thereafter he wrote many articles and columns condemning Gaddafi and his regime.

Fagih told Bookanistas Freddie Reynolds in an interview to mark the 2015 publication of the second edition of Translating Libya: Now the country is liberated from the chains of dictatorship, and that should be reflected in the soul of every creative writer and artist. We all regret the aftermath of the revolution, yet there was a sense of relief at the ousting of the rule of terror, combined with a sense of achievement at being able to defeat it. As a writer, I felt like a long-distance swimmer who was restricted to swim in a little pond and suddenly saw that the ocean is open for him.

As for Libyan literature as whole, and how it is affected by these developments, it is perhaps too early to judge. But the new era should open new avenues for writers, and will definitely result in a prosperous literary movement in the near future.

Fagihs final book to be translated into English was the unexpected Lady Hayatts Husbands and other erotic tales, published by Quartet in 2016. The slender volume contains seven stories by Fagih plus a story from One Thousand and One Nights. The red cover of the book is an illustration by the English illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). Beardsleys distinctive erotic illustrations and decorative elements, influenced by Japanese woodcuts, are scattered throughout the book.

Last August Ahmed emailed me to say he was suffering from the serious lung condition pulmonary fibrosis. He had tried to come to London to see the doctors at the London Clinic who had first diagnosed his condition but the British had refused him a visa, despite his two periods spent living in the UK and his frequent visits there.

He asked me if I could find out information on possible new treatments for his disease. He wrote: Somebody says sharks are attacking fibrosis meaning that a medicine is taken from the fat of sharks. One can entertain himself with such news in order to absorb and take in the shock till he gets used to the illness. Some sort of psychological trick.

There was some irony in the thought that a shark might come to the rescue of someone whose writing had been so intimately linked with the animal world. Alas, although there is indeed research in Australia research on using substances found in sharks blood to treat pulmonary fibrosis, trials are only in their early stages.

Fagih was understandably frustrated and hurt by the refusal of the UK to give him a visa for medical purposes and he pleaded with the UK to reconsider. The Libyan authorities contacted the British embassy in Tripoli on his behalf and the Secretary General -designate of the Arab-European Center of Human Rights and International Law, Dr. Ramadan Benzeer, publicly urged the British authorities to grant Fagih a visa, but all was in vain.  

Fagihs literary legacy will endure. Much of his vast body of writing in Arabic has yet to be translated, or retranslated, into English. For example, it is an open question whether any of the nine as yet untranslated novels of his 12-volume Maps of the Soul will eventually appear in the English translation.

Fagihs works will continue to be an important source of information on Libya. The other day I happened to pick up a copy of the newly-published novel The Fourth Shore by the prizewinning British author Virginia Baily. The novel is centred around the Italian colonisation of Libya. Baily lists numerous sources in the acknowledgements section including just two novels by Libyans - one of which is Maps of the Soul.