Tuesday, November 21, 2006

michael horovitz and moazzam begg poetry reading

The veteran poet and poetry event organizer Michael Horovitz and former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg (left) might seem an unlikely pairing. But their joint poetry reading last Thursday evening at the Everyman Cinema Club in Hampstead, North London, revealed much common ground.

The reading was organized by Penned in the Margins, founded in 2004 by the young poet Tom Chivers to celebrate the power of words in performance and on the printed page. Chivers said the event would explore questions such as: “Can a poet be political? Can he or she engage with and respond to war and conflict? Should poets take sides, and what happens when poetry arises in the most unusual situations and settings?”

Begg’s poetry grew out of some of the most challenging situations imaginable. In February 2002 he was seized by the CIA in Islamabad and spent a year incarcerated in Bagram air base, and then two years in Guantanamo. It was only in January 2005 that he was released without charge. He witnessed the brutal treatment of fellow detainees, including two killings in Bagram.

“I’d never written poetry until Guantanamo Bay, and I’ve never written poetry after it,” Begg told the audience. The poems were written in solitary confinement, “where I spent two years in a cell measuring eight feet by six feet.”

Although Begg has written no poetry since his return to Britain, poetry was the catalyst for his continuing urge to express himself through words. His memoir “Enemy Combatant”, written in collaboration with journalist Victoria Brittain, was published a few months ago. Saudi publisher Al Obeikan is to publish it in Arabic translation. Begg frequently contributes op-eds to US and British newspapers, and he works for the Cage Prisoner Islamic human rights website at http://www.cageprisoner.com/

Begg found a strange beauty in the most ghastly surroundings. His poem “Chime of the Razor Wire” was inspired by the sound of intertwined barbed wire and razor wire rubbing against each other. “It sounds not unlike wind chimes, and it sounds almost calming, particularly when it’s pushed by a soft Caribbean breeze and particularly at sunset.”

Michael Horovitz has been a leading light in British poetry, and the organizer of major poetry ‘happenings’, for more than half a century. A man of many parts - troubadour, beat poet, songwriter-singer, visual artist - the Open Democracy website describes him as “a one-man poetic antidote to social complacencies”.

Numerous volumes of his poetry have been published, and he is also the editor of several important anthologies, some arising from events he has organized. During the poetry evening he read from some of his earlier work, and from his hugely ambitious new epic poem “A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth at Nillenium”.

This work, which took nine years to write, runs to 250 pages, including illustrations and cartoons, plus 150 pages of notes. Imbued with Horovitz’s characteristic wit, it is his take on New Labour and on national and international events.

Susannah Tarbush

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

national novel writing month

This November more than 77,000 people around the world have risen to the challenge of trying to write a novel of 50,000 words in the space of one month. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) goes back to 1999 when a young writer named Chris Baty, living in the San Francisco Bay area of California, decided that he wanted to write a novel in a month.

Baty recalls: “In a more grounded age, my novel-in-a-month concept would have been reality-checked right out of existence. Instead, the very first National Novel Writing Month set sail two weeks later, with almost everyone I knew in the Bay Area on board.”

The 21 people who took part were “undertalented goofballs who had no business flailing around at the serous endeavor of novel writing.” They hadn’t taken creative writing courses or read how-to books on story or craft. “We were in our mid-twenties and we had no idea what we were doing. But we knew we loved books, and so we set out to write them.”

That first year, only six of 21 participants made it across the 50,000 word finishing line. Baty has organized NaNoWriMo every year since. The number of participants has grown rapidly, and this year 77,320 contestants are registered on the website at www.nanowrimo.org.

Participants submit their word counts to the website either through figures they provide, or through an online word counter. Although entire novels in progress cannot be posted on the site, participants can post excerpts. There are no prizes, but all who manage to produce 50,000 words are termed winners. By last Sunday, the participants had written more than 371.6 million words.

Baty’s breezy approach to fiction writing is reflected in the title of his handbook “No Plot? No Problem! Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.”
He urges writers to turn off their internal censors, and to regard the month’s output of 50,000 words as a rough first draft. And Baty claims that “plot happens”. He writes: “You don’t need to do research; you don’t need to understand anything about characters or plan out your setting. It’s fine to just start. And making it up as you go along does not require you to be a particularly gifted novelist.”

The website has six registered participants in Saudi Arabia. But only one, a 50-year-old man based in Riyadh, author of a work in progress entitled “As I Remember It”, had posted any word count to the website by last Sunday. His engaging excerpt is in the form of a memoir beginning with the narrator’s birth.

The other Saudi-based writers including 26-year-old Moody Writer with the novel “The Quest of Life”, 15-year-old alludra with “The Boat Maker”, and 60-year-old Dhahran resident jonikxx with “The Great Chunnel Heist” have yet to make their presence felt on the website.

NaNoWriMo may be no guarantor of good-quality writing, but tens of thousands of people worldwide find it a rewarding experience annually and many of this year’s participants are repeat performers from previous years And a few lucky participants have succeeded in having their NaNoWriMo novels published.

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette November 14 2006

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

saqi's 'sexuality in the arab world'

Hot from the stable of Saqi Books comes the new title 'Sexuality in the Arab World', complete with torrid cover. The publication of this book, hard on the heels of Briain Whitaker's 'Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East', suggests that Saqi is carving a niche for itself in the vital but understudied (in the academic sense) area of Arab sexuality. The new book is edited by two prominent sociologists: Samir Khalaf, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Behavioural Research at the American University of Beirut, and John Gagnon, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who is described as 'a leading figure in the sexual research field.'

The book is a collection of papers which were presented at the three-day conference on Middle Eastern sexuality held in Beirut in December 2003. That conference was a follow-up to a conference held at St Antony's College, Oxford University, in June 2000 with funding from the Ford Foundation. Khalaf presents a strong case for an open and informed public debate on Arab sexuality. But despite the popular media, feminist groups, human rights advocates, medical and public health practitioners, NGOs and policy makers making repeated appeals to address the dire consequences of some of the problems around sexuality in the Arab world, little has been done to heed such calls. 'Sexuality remains a mystified, taboo and unexplored dimension of Arab culture,' Khalaf writes.

Professors Khalaf and Gagnon have each provided a valuable introduction to the book. In his introductory chapter 'Living with Dissonant Sexual Codes', Khalaf explores the ways in which in the Arab world 'the sexual realm, particularly in recent years, has been subjected to conflicting and dissonant expectations and hence has become a source of considerable uncertainty, ambivalence and collective anxiety.' Gagnon's chapter 'States, Cultures, Colonies and Globalization: A Story of Sex Research' put the study of sexuality in the Arab world in a global and historic context. Even in the US, where research into sexuality was pioneered, the field of sex policy especially in relation to HIV/AIDS is a politicla and religious minefield.

Susannah Tarbush

banipal translation prize

(left: photo of Humphrey Davies by Samuel Shimon)

The art of translation from Arabic to English has taken a major step forward with the awarding for the first time of the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The £2,000 prize went to Humphrey Davies for his translation of Elias Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun.” The translation is published in the UK by Harvill Secker, and in the USA by Archipelago Press.

The new prize puts Arabic on a par with the five other languages which already had annual translation prizes of £2,000 each. All six prizes are administered by the Translators Association and the Society of Authors.

The prizes include the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from French, the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from Swedish, and prizes for translations from German, Italian and Spanish. The awards ceremony for all the prizes took place at the British Centre for Literary translation, University of East Anglia.

The prize for translation from Arabic was established by Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation, and the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature, founded in 2004. It has been wholly sponsored during its first year by the arts patron and publisher Mohammed Al-Sowaidi of Abu Dhabi. The Banipal Trust’s honorary president Peter Clark said the first awarding of the prize was “a memorable event in the reception of contemporary Arabic literature in English.”

The award is Davies’ first prize for translation, although he received support for the translation from English PEN’s competitive Writers in Translation Program. He said the award “represents for me, primarily, recognition of the novel itself. ‘The Gate of the Sun’ is a work of extraordinary strength that non-Arabic readers need to have available.” He added: “I am doubly happy that, in translating it. I have helped to put before the reader of English so compelling an account of the dispossession of the Palestinians.”

Davies has a first-class degree in Arabic from Cambridge University, and also studied the language at the American University in Cairo. He completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. For the AUC Press he has translated Naguib Mahfouz’s “Thebes at War”, Alaa Al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building”, Ahmed Alaidy’s “Being Abbas el Abd” and Gamal al-Ghitani’s “Pyramid Texts”.

Literary journalist Maya Jaggi, one of the award’s three judges, said their choice of winner was unanimous. She added: “Inspired by refugees’ accounts of the Palestinian expulsion of 1948 and its lingering aftermath, Khoury’s ambitious and richly-crafted novel is an epic retelling of myriad individual stories through the central narrative of Khaleel, a doctor tending a comatose former Palestinian fighter in a refugee camp’s makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Beirut.”

The novel “subtly questions the nature of memory and history, literature and imagination, heroism and defeat.” It is “a momentous achievement, whose translation by Humphrey Davies brilliantly captures the nuances and style of the original.”

The other judges were the author Moris Farhi, and the scholar and literary translator
Roger Allen. Farhi commented: “What impressed me most was the natural poetry in the prose…Needless to say, to convey such delicate poetry to an English readership is also a great achievement by the translator.”

Susannah Tarbush Saudi Gazette, November 7 2006

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

the film 'iraq for sale'

left: Edward Sanchez

The newly-released documentary film “Iraq for Sale: the War Profiteers” highlights the way in which a handful of well-connected US corporations have made a fortune from the Iraq war, to the detriment of both Iraqis and US nationals.

The well-researched documentary was shown at the Frontline Club in London last week. Made by Brave New Films, it is directed by Robert Greenwald. According to Rick Jacobs, the chair of Brave New Films, Iraq war profiteering has “alienated Iraqis, killed American soldiers and contractors and damaged American credibility more than the war itself.”

Greenwald examines how the Bush administration has offered no-bid unsupervised Iraq contracts to a small group of US corporations, earning them billions of dollars. He takes the viewer inside the lives of soldiers, truck drivers, widows, children and Iraqi torture victims who have been affected.

His film uncovers the connections between private corporations which have profited, and the decision makers who have allowed them to do so. Greenwald says that before he started working on the film, he was aware that corporations were making enormous profits from the war. “What I didn’t know was the amount of graft and corruption and cheating that was going on. And the big shocker was the fact that corporations, in doing what they do, cutting corners to increase profits, were resulting in people being killed. That was an eye opener to all of us.”

The incidents covered by the film include the killing and mutilation of four Blackwater contractors in Falluja in March 2004, for which the contractors’ families blame Blackwater. Private contractors played a role in the torture at Abu Ghraib prison. An Arab-American former translator for the Titan Corporation, Marwan Mawiri, witnessed “institutionalized waste, lack of employee supervision, incompetence and unethical management of employees.”

In April 2004 several KBR/Halliburton drivers were killed, and many others wounded, when they were sent by KBR into a volatile part of Baghdad. One driver, Edward Sanchez, says the massacre was “totally preventable. There was absolutely no reason for us to be there.” His colleague Bill Peterson says: “We were told repeatedly we were not soldiers, we were noncombatants, not to do anything that made us appear as soldiers or military personnel. And that we would not be sent into any areas of known danger.”

A former KBR water purification specialist, Ben Carter, says that from his first day in Iraq “I started to see just incredible waste and compromised safety standards.” A radio mechanic and former US soldier, David Mann, found that he and hundreds of other soldiers trained to provide logistical support were charged with training KRB contractors. “We shouldn’t have to train them how to do their job,” he says.

Rick Jacobs says he has worked with politicians and groups all over the US trying to promote the message of the film: “That we have to ask questions, to demand that Congress does its job. It appears that to do that, we need to make some serious changes in Washington. I hope and expect that the American public will look at this film and demand change.”

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette 10 October 2006