Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hisham Matar wins Glen Dimplex award

The Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, a long-time resident of London, has won the fiction category of the Glen Dimplex New Writers Awards for his first novel In the Country of Men. The awards were made at a ceremony in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, on the night of Monday November 26 , by Ireland’s Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism Seamus Brennan and Martin Naughton, the chairman of the Glen Dimplex Group. The panel of 10 judges for the awards was chaired by David Goodhart, founder and editor of the London-based monthly current affairs magazine Prospect.

The Glen Dimplex Award is the latest in a remarkable list of international awards and honours to have been won by In the Country of Men since it was first published in London by Penguin/Viking in summer 2006. The novel has been published in 22 languages so far including Arabic. It was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize – Britain’s most important literary award - and for the Guardian First Book Award. It has won the 2007 Commonwealth First Book Award (Europe and South Asia), the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the Premio Vallombrosa Gregor von Rezzori Prize, the Premio Internazionale Flaiano (Sezione Letteratura) and the Arab American National Museum (AANM) Book Award. The novel is set in the Libyan capital Tripoli in 1979 and sees brutal political events through the eyes of the nine-year old narrator.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize awarded

The art of translating Arabic literature into English was in the spotlight in London last week when the Egyptian scholar Farouk Mustafa was awarded the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. He won the prize for his rendering of Egyptian writer Khairy Shalaby’s novel “Wikalat Atiya”, which earned Shalaby the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003. Mustafa’s highly accomplished translation, produced under his pen name of Farouk Abdel Wahab, is published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press under the title “The Lodging House”.

The prize was awarded on Thursday evening at a ceremony held in the Purcell Room, at the South Bank Centre. During the prizegiving ceremony a total of seven prestigious translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors were presented by Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. They included the Scott Moncrieff prize for translation from French, the Premio Valle-Inclan for translation from Spanish and the Schlegel-Tieck prize for translation from German. The ceremony was preceded by readings by the translators from their prize-winning translations and by the 2007 Sebald Lecture on the Art of Literary Translation, which was delivered by Marina Warner. The lecture was entitled ‘Stranger Magic: True Stories and Translated Selves’.

Shalaby’s novel tells of the descent into the underworld of a trainee teacher and aspiring author after he is kicked out of a teachers’ training college during the Nasser era for beating up a teacher. The teacher had driven the young man beyond endurance by constantly persecuting him for being one of those “sons of detestable peasants…more like barefoot riffraff than anything else” for whom the coming to power of Nasser had brought new educational opportunities. The novel takes its title from a notorious old Damanhour caravanserai, where the poor and disreputable end up living. The narrator is drawn into the world of the place’s inhabitants and encounters a series of extraordinary characters. He comes to know from the inside the tragedies and turmoil of their lives, and the strategies they adopt in order to survive.

The Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, chair of judges from the Banipal Trust, said: “Khairy Shalaby’s ‘The Lodging House’ is an outspoken message, in defense of the forgotten, the downtrodden and the poorest of the poor. Before Khairy Shalaby nobody dared to give such a statement.” Another judge, the journalist Maya Jaggi, said Shalaby’s novel is “a wise, anarchic, ribald, compassionate compendium of life at its most precarious and most ebullient.”

Mustafa’s translation brings Shalaby’s prose vividly to life in a text that is charged with vitality, tragedy, tenderness, humor and bawdiness. A glossary of terms explains words such as “sabaris” – cigarette butts collected from the streets, the tobacco from which is used by the poor to roll cigarettes.

The presence at the prizegiving ceremony of both Mustafa and Shalaby, who had travelled to London for the occasion, added to the spirit of the event. Mustafa had come from the US, where he is Ibn Rushd Professorial Lecturer in Modern Arabic Language at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Banipal is the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature in translation, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its foundation this year. Its translation prize is worth a modest £2,000 Sterling, but the prize’s significance is far beyond its monetary value. When Banipal established the prize, which was awarded for the first time last year, it made a major contribution to the presence and appreciation of Arabic literature on the world literary scene.

The prize is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash of the UAE, and his family, in memory of his late father Saif Ghobash. Saif Ghobash was a passionate lover of literature, Arabic and non-Arabic. He built up a remarkable collection of literary works in many languages, which has been passed on to his family. Omar Saif Ghobash said: “A prize for people who are so dedicated to the power of literature and the power of translation seems so clearly something my father would have supported himself. When I spoke with other members of our family, they supported the idea immediately – before I could finish my sentence! It is a small but fitting tribute to my father’s memory.”

Cultural exchanges via the medium of literature are more needed than ever during these troubled times. But as one of the judges of the prize, Roger Allen, commented: “It is not a little ironic that, in an era in which the Western world seems more than ever focused on events taking place in the Middle East and especially the Arabic-speaking world, the opportunities and publication outlets available for making well crafted translations of Arabic literature available are fewer than ever.”

In Allen’s view: “It is almost as though, in an era where we see a plethora of works on Islam, terrorism and Middle Eastern economies, literature is not to be considered as a reflection of a nation’s/culture’s view of the world- indeed, one might suggest, as the most accurate reflection of it.” Allen added that if the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize can serve to highlight the excellence and relevance of the literary works that are available to a readership of English-language texts “then it is providing an invaluable service. It deserves the widest possible support.”

The runner-up of the prize was Marilyn Booth, for her translation of Egyptian Hamdi Abu Golayyed’s first novel “Thieves in Retirement” in what Maya Jaggi described as “a supple, subtle English that brilliantly captures the dark ironies and skewering satire of a relatively new voice in Egyptian fiction and Arabic literature. It reads delightfully, as though it were not a translation at all.”A third work, Peter Theroux’s translation of Palestinian Emile Habiby’s “Saraya, The Ogre’s Daughter”, won a commendation from the judges of the prize.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, November 12 2007

Sunday, November 04, 2007

memorial evening for shimon tzabar

Remembering a “Hebrew-speaking Palestinian”

“We don’t have enough people like Shimon Tzabar in the Middle East, in Israel, in Britain, in America, everywhere. If we did, the world would be a better place. It would be a world based on what he believed in, what he fought for – justice, peace, equality, whether equality between people or equality between nations.”

These were the words of the Iraqi writer, journalist and satirist Khalid Kishtainy at a memorial evening held a few days ago at University College, London, to commemorate the life of his old friend, the Israeli dissident Shimon Tzabar [self portrait below]. Tzabar died in March at the age of 81 in London where he had lived since leaving Israel after the 1967 war. He called himself “a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian”.

During his life Tzabar was a man of many parts: activist, fighter, satirist, artist, poet, mycologist, author, children’s writer, journalist, columnist, husband, lover, father. The compere of the evening, Daphna Baram, said he was “an enemy of occupation and oppression in all their forms”. He possessed a gift for friendship, and the evening was attended by many members of his wide circle of friends and admirers.

In a packed lecture theatre, a succession of speakers went to the rostrum to pay tribute to different aspects of Tzabar. His old friend and comrade the mathematician Moshe Machover, emeritus professor of philosophy at King’s College, London, said that the 1967 war had been the turning point in Shimon’s becoming a political activist. The decade before that had been “the most quiescent in the history of the Arab-Israeli problem”. In the 1956 Suez War, Israel “revealed its expansionistic claws - I remember Ben Gurion declaring the third kingdom of Israel.” But the decade that followed “allowed people to forget, and therefore when the 1967 war happened, most people not only in Israel but around the world believed that Israeli was fighting a defensive war against annihilation. Very few people were not fooled, and Shimon was one of them.”

In September 1967 Shimon published an advertisement in Haaretz newspaper in which he and 11 other signatories, including Machover, called for an immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. The advertisement accurately predicted the course of events over the next 40 years in the absence of a withdrawal. It read: "Our right to defend ourselves from extermination does not give us the right to oppress others. Occupation entails foreign rule. Foreign rule entails resistance. Resistance entails repression. Repression entails terror and counter-terror. The victims of terror are mostly innocent people. Holding on to the occupied territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let us get out of the occupied territories immediately."
Tzabar then made the momentous decision to take himself into political exile. “He wasn’t running away, and it wasn’t just an expression of disgust,” Machover said. “He understood very clearly that because of the role that Israel was playing internationally, it was, and is, very important to fight not only from inside but outside to make world public opinion aware of the truth of what was going on.” One of the first things he did in exile was to start publishing in London the satirical political magazine Israel Imperial News. The recently revamped website of this publication is at:

One of Tzabar’s sons, the BBC radio producer Rami Tzabar, gave a touching son’s-eye view of Shimon. Being Shimon’s son was like having several fathers: he would teach him how to mix oil paint, and also how to mix cement on a building site, how to turn the coffee grinder exactly thirty times to make a decent cup of coffee, the difference between a real and a false chanterelle, and that Matisse was more interesting than Monet.

Some of the best times had by father and son were summers trundling around Europe in what was known as the “chicken coop”, made when Shimon took a Renault 4, “one of the least valuable cars, and devalued it by cutting the roof off and replacing it with a wooden hut ... it turned the car into a mobile Swedish sauna.” Rami remembered too his father’s “experimental cuisine”.

>During the memorial evening there were readings of several of Shimon’s works. One of his closest friends, Rami Heilbronn, read two of his poems, “Intensive Care” and “In this Moment”, which Rami had translated from Hebrew. Rami’s wife Ruth read from Shimon’s (as yet unpublished) “unauthorized autobiography” a passage on the dire effects of eating a certain hallucinatory mushroom. Liz Nussbaum read a fable from Israel Imperial News.

Khalid Kishtainy first got to know Shimon in 1968 when Shimon contacted him to ask if he could republish in Israel Imperial News an article Kishtainy had written for Peace News. The two became friends. “We were both painters, artists, writers, journalists, and satirists. The only difference between us was that he was a worldwide authority on mushrooms, and I don’t like mushrooms.”

Kishtainy recalled how Shimon had once asked him if he would agree to meet the press attaché at the Israeli Embassy. The press attaché was a friend of Shimon’s but had criticized him for defending the Arabs. He had said: “Shimon how can you defend people who aren’t even prepared to sit with us at the table or talk to us?” He challenged Shimon to “produce for me one Arab willing to sit and talk to me.”

Shimon said he knew one Arab, Khalid Kishtainy. The skeptical Israeli attaché said: “Don’t believe it, he will promise to come and then when the day comes he will not turn up.” Kishtainy accepted the challenge and went to the dinner, but “we sat and we waited and we waited, and the man didn’t turn up. So it was the Israeli who didn’t want to sit with an Arab for dinner.”

Kishtainy added that on a visit to Shimon a few months before his death he had looked rather sad and dejected. “He told me ‘Khalid, I am very disappointed in the Arabs.’ I said to him, ‘Shimon, you are speaking like an Arab. That’s what all Arabs feel now. In Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Egypt, North Africa, everywhere, they are feeling disappointed in themselves. The failure of the Arabs is the great disappointment of the century’.”

Three years ago Shimon was taken to the High Court in London by the company Michelin for producing a satirical “Michelin Guide to Israeli Prisons, Jails, Concentration camps and Torture Chambers.” The book, with its shiny green cover, resembled a Michelin Guide down to the Michelin man logo. The first half of the book provided details of the system of prisons and interrogation centers in which Palestinians are held. The second half was a translation from Hebrew of “Checkpoint Syndrome” in which former soldier Liran Ron Furer describes in coarse slang the brutal manner in which he and members of his unit treated the Palestinians in Gaza. Michelin sued Tzabar for trademark infringement, but in the end dropped the case on condition that he stopped distributing the publication.

The memorial evening included a screening of the film “Dear Mr Tzabar” made by Christopher Sykes. The diminutive figure of Shimon, clutching has trademark walking stick and wearing his customary cap, was seen emerging from a tube station on his way to the High Court. In the engaging film Shimon talked about his life as an activist.

Tzabar wrote 27 books in Hebrew, including poetry, fiction, children’s stories and travel. His book “The White Flag Principle: How to Lose a War and Why” was first published in English in 1972 and has been translated into nine languages. A second edition was published in February 2003 by Four Walls Eight Windows of New York.

The author and former Times newspaper journalist Christopher Walker worked with Shimon in 1969 and 1970 on “The White Flag Principle.” He described the text as being “often clownish and earthy but edged with seriousness. One felt there was some kind of fraternity with ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ and Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’.”

Walker added: “Shimon not only saw the violence and repression of the occupation, he also highlighted the discriminatory regime against Arabs within the Green Line, pointing out how Israeli Arabs could not get decent jobs or accommodation within Israeli society and that the basis of Arab citizenship within Israel is based on a truly Orwellian concept, that of an Arab being at a certain time in 1948 ‘present absent’. It is worth remembering these points today at a time when British supporters of Israel speak of the country’s ‘culture of equality’.”

Before leaving Israel, Tzabar worked as a cartoonist and columnist for Ha'aretz and the weekly Haolam Hazeh, and was an acclaimed artist. Dr Gila Ballas of Tel Aviv University (wife of the prominent Iraqi-Israeli novelist Shimon Ballas) explained how his activism was expressed through his painting as well as his writing.

Bruce Ing, a professor of mycology, first met Shimon when he started attending fungus forays organized by the British Mycological Society in the late 1970s. “My first impression was that he was undoubtedly a ‘character; he was very keen, and he did not like rules. He could be irascible, and he did not necessarily respect the opinions of the experts.” Shimon made meticulous descriptions, and attractive and accurate paintings of his mushroom material. He also constructed a CD-Rom key for the identification of mushrooms and toadstools, with his own illustrations, which he published, produced and marketed himself “with typical Shimon panache.” [photo shows the mushroom man at work in Spain].

Ing described trips Shimon had made all over Europe on fungal forays and meetings on mushrooms. He went to Siberia, living in primitive conditions, “but his joie de vivre was so infectious that the whole expedition was highly successful socially and scientifically.”

In a tribute to Shimon his partner, the psychologist Judith Druks, said: “We all know he did not compromise politically and morally.” She recalled how he had wanted to live in such a way that he did not have contradictions in his life. She was grateful to Shimon for “showing us how to live well, how to grow old well, and how to die well.”

Susannah Tarbush
October 28 2007

Friday, September 21, 2007

sayed kashua's novel 'let it be morning'

With less than four months to go before the start of a year in which Israel will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of its establishment, the future of the 1.3 million or so Arabs and their descendants who remain within its borders is uncertain. The Arab population, which makes up some 20 per cent of the Israeli population, has been consistently discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens.

Particularly since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, and then during the war with Lebanon last year, the Arab minority has been regarded with growing suspicion. Given the mounting pressures on Israeli Arabs, the publication in Britain of the novel “Let it be Morning” by Galilee-born columnist and author Sayed Kashua, translated from Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger, is most timely. The novel, published by Atlantic Books, explores the ambivalence and contradictions of being an Arab in contemporary Israel.

Kashua, who writes in Hebrew, is currently the most internationally acclaimed Israeli Arab fiction writer. His first book, the short story collection “Dancing Arabs” published in 2002, enjoyed major success. Published when Kashua was only 28, the collection was a best seller in Israel, won Italy’s prestigious Grinzane Cavour Prize for Emerging Writers and was a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Year. It has been translated into eight languages.

“Let It Be Morning” is, like its predecessor, semi-autobiographical. Kashua was born in the village of Tira and first had direct experience of being an Arab in an almost wholly Jewish environment when, at the age of 15, he was admitted to the highly-regarded Israel Arts and Sciences Academy High School in Jerusalem. From there he went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then became a journalist, but he had some setbacks in his career, apparently partly because of being an Israeli Arab. He contributes a weekly column to Haaretz and lives in Beit Safafa, an Arab village within Jerusalem.

In 2003, Kashua and his young family moved back for several months to his home village of Tira. The first-person nameless narrator of “Let It Be Morning” is similarly a journalist who has moved back to his home village. The reason for the narrator’s move back to his village is that he has found it increasingly difficult to operate as an Arab journalist on an Israeli newspaper, especially after covering the demonstrations and riots of October 2000 in which 13 Arabs were killed by Israeli forces. The stories he filed from then on were subject to particular scrutiny. “I was liable to be seen as a journalist calling for the annihilation of the Zionist state, a fifth column biting the hand that was feeding it and dreaming each night of destroying the Jewish people.”

The narrator has to make efforts to put up with the jokes colleagues make at his expense. By the time he goes to the village with his wife he has become a freelance contributor to the newspaper and gets hardly any commissions, although he continues to go the office every day. He has not told his wife of his reduced role at work.

Life back in his village hardly proves idyllic. The narrator, with his cool detached eye, notes the changes from ten years earlier; for example it is becoming the norm for men to bring young brides from the West Bank as second wives. The villagers are materialistic, gossiping endlessly about new houses and cars. At the same time, there is a rising crime rate. His wife had not wanted to come back to the village and his relationship with her is tense.

Kashua’s precise narrative style, set in the present tense, has a naturalistic, immediate feel. He skillfully builds the tension in the days that follow the sealing off of the village by Israeli forces with tanks, for no apparent reason. The narrator sees the siege as having the potential for a good story, but when he calls the editor-in-chief of his newspaper he is cut off and he finds that his phone, and those of the other villagers, have gone dead.

Kashua lays bare the deleterious effect of the siege on the village and its social relations. The village quickly runs short of essentials, from money in the bank to food in the shops. Power and water supplies are cut off and stinking garbage mounts in the streets. Israeli TV has only said there is a red alert in the Arab villages in the Triangle area, and the narrator assumes a gag order has been put on the media. At the same time, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are continuing their meetings in Jerusalem.

The village is rife with theories and rumors about what is going on, and political factions and criminal gangs are quick to exploit the situation. When a contractor and two of his workers try to force their way through the Israeli ring around the village they are killed, and the village witnesses its largest-ever funeral, with the dead men declared as “shahids”. The funeral turns into a demonstration, at which the Islamic Movement, Communists and pan-Arabists shout rival slogans.
The narrator claims that in the 1980s and 1990s the Arabs in Israel had started to not just resign themselves to being citizens of Israel, but to like their citizenship, and they were worried it might be taken away from them. “In fact the idea of being part of the Arab world began to frighten them”.

The way in which Israeli Arabs look down on the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza is one of the less palatable aspects of village life. Workers from the West Bank and Gaza become scapegoats, and the heads of families meet with the mayor and decide that they will hand them over to the Israelis, on the assumption that the main concern of the Israeli police is these illegal workers. There are hundreds of such workers in the village, and the narrator recognizes that, to a large extent, they are responsible for its prosperity. “As the condition of people on the West Bank got worse and worse, things were looking up for Israeli Arabs.”

Several hundred young men are recruited to round up the workers and put them on buses, deprived of their clothes except their underpants. When they are forced towards the Israelis, two of them are shot dead. It is only the older women of the village who have some compassion for the workers and try to save them.

After the Israelis are shot at one night, former criminals take credit and become like war heroes. “The village seems to have decided on a new kind of leadership headed by criminals who acquired their weapons for illegal purposes, certainly not nationalistic ones.”

The narrator is most concerned for the welfare of himself and his family, and he stockpiles food and drink from the shops. Water is stolen from the family’s rooftop tanks, and after he refuses to give a neighbor milk for her baby his house is attacked by a mob which takes food provisions. The narrator has, however, secretly hidden food in his parents’ house.

The siege ends as abruptly as it started. Lights and electrical appliances come to life, water pressure builds once more in the taps. On TV news a new peace agreement is announced under which the Palestinian Authority will receive Israeli land, including the narrator’s village, in return for Israel being given sovereignty over the larger West Bank settlements. An Israeli demography professor says: “At long last the Zionist dream is coming true.” The narrator and most of his immediate relatives are apprehensive at the terms of the peace deal, and at the prospect of being under the rule of the Palestinian Authority.

Still, one upside for the narrator is that he is suddenly in demand as an Arab journalist who knows Hebrew. His formerly indifferent editor-in-chief eagerly calls him, wanting him to be “our man in Palestine.” He adds that there might be a problem with the pay because of drastic budget cuts, “but your cost of living is going to be much lower now anyway, isn’t it?”

Susannah Tarbush
Al-Hayat September 17 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007

freemuse report 'music will not be silenced'

At a concert given by the US rock band Pearl Jam in August, lead singer Eddie Vedder included some lyrics critical of George W Bush in his performance of the song “Daughter”. The telecommunications group AT&T was subsequently accused of censoring the song, when it was found that the lines criticising Bush had been cut from the webcast of the concert.

When Vedder sang the line “George Bush leave this world alone”, to audience cheers, the broadcast was interrupted, and it remained silent while Vedder repeated the line and then sang “George Bush, find yourself another home.”

On its website, Pearl Jam says: “This, of course, troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issues of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media.” AT&T claimed that the incident was due not to censorship, but to an “unintended error” made by a subcontracted webcast vendor. But this did not explain why the “error” had been made only during the anti-Bush part of the song.

A report on the Pearl Jam controversy is one of the news stories from around the world currently featured on the website of Freemuse. This international organization was formed in 1998 to promote music freedom and fight music censorship. As the case of Pearl Jam shows, music censorship is by no means confined to non-Western countries. It is an international phenomenon.

The news page carries reports on music censorship and other issues of music freedom from countries including the UK and Sweden, as well as Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Malaysia, Iran, Turkey, the Ivory Coast and Mexico. The organization’s archive has references to reports from many countries, including a number of countries in the Middle East.

The Freemuse report “Music Will not be Silenced”, which has just been published as a book and also in digital form on the Freemuse website, covers issues of music censorship from various countries. The report is based on the 3rd Freemuse World Conference on Music and Censorship held in Istanbul last November, which was attended by more than 200 musicians, journalists, scholars and activists. The book includes a CD of video interviews with some of the conference speakers.

In one of the interviews, Mirwaiss Sidiqi, the programme manager in Afghanistan of the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia, speaks of the continuing attacks by the Taleban on Afghan music, culture and development. His programme’s response is to organize concerts, and raise awareness of Afghan music, particularly the rich traditional music. Sidiqi says: “We are engaged in a process of protecting our culture, developing our culture, and explaining our culture; the trouble between the civilizations is because we don’t know each other.” He adds: “Music and having having a high culture is nothing new in Afghanistan. We’ve been familiar with it for thousands of years, and we do know things other than fighting. That’s a message which I want absolutely to pass on.”

Another videoed interview is with the highly-gifted British guitarist and music producer Jason Carter, who speaks with warmth of several visits he has made to Saudi Arabia. His visits have typically been at the invitation of the British government, through the British Council, and he has played at concerts in venues such as schools and private compounds. Carter says: “I find Saudi very hard to leave because I have great connections with people and almost every month I get text messages from my friends in Saudi Arabia saying ‘when are you coming back?’”

Carter thinks it is frustrating and sad for many young people in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Brunei where “music is not really seen as a way of earning a living and expressing yourself.” He has quite a few Saudi friends who “love to jam” and are “fine, creative guitar players who would love to pursue music as a career, and they have the talent to do it, but they’re so restricted in that. So they might fly to Bahrain or Dubai to find some people to collaborate with and bands to listen to.” The musicians he has been impressed by include a young Syrian computer operator working in Jeddah, who is a wonderful oud player.

Carter’s latest album “Jason Carter: The Helsinki project”, recently released on the Naim label, was partly inspired by the Saudi desert. He finds “a stunning and peculiar familiarity between the desert of Arabia and Finnish landscapes. Both can be magical, hostile, empty, silent and awesome. It makes sense to try and bring these two worlds together, not only in musical style but also with the talents of the artists in both geographical areas”.

Since 1993 Carter has performed in more than 70 countries. “The Helsinki Project”, which features musicians of various nationalities, is an attempt to bring together the worlds he has experienced through music. Carter writes on his website: “And thanks to Farid Bukhari, for calling Paul Stephenson at Naim Audio as we were driving across the desert in Saudi and suggesting this project to him.....”

Among the countries covered in the Istanbul conference were Afghanistan, Indonesia, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, China, South Africa and Ivory Coast. The session on China was in memory of Kurash Sultan, the exiled Uighar musician from East Turkestan, who suddenly died not long before the conference.

A major highlight of the conference was a session on the censorship and repression of music in Turkey over many decades. More than 15 Turkish singers, musicians, composers, producers and broadcasters took to the podium one by one to give harrowing personal testimonies of censorship, imprisonment, silencing and exile. Among them was the Kurdish singer Selda Bagcan, dubbed ‘the Turkish Joan Baez’ in the 1970s.

The Middle East and North Africa session at the conference was entitled “All that is banned is desired”. The speakers included Thomas Burkhalter, an ethnomusicologist from Switzerland, and Algerian rapper Ourrad Rabah, also known as Rabah Donquishoot, who lived for seven years in France before moving to Barcelona. Burkhalter introduced sounds and opinions from “alternative” music groups in Lebanon such as The New Government, The Arcane and The Kordz, and described the pressures on certain music.

Rabah recalled how he had founded the rap group MBS in 1994, at a time when Algerian society was being torn apart by a savage internal war. The group’s name stands for “Le Micro Brise Le Silence”, or “The Microphone Breaks the Silence”. Rabah gave examples of the censorship of musicians in Algeria including the harsh measures taken against those singing in Berber. The Berber singer Matoub Lounes was assassinated in Algeria in 1998.
Following up a suggestion made at the conference by Ann MacKeigan of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Freemuse designated March 3 this year as the first Music Freedom Day. Radio and TV broadcasters around the world were encouraged to devote time to coverage of music censorship. To mark the day, Jason Carter recorded a new song, “Navai”, with the Iranian singer Marjan Vahdat. The two musicians met and performed together for the first time at the Freemuse conference, and their song can be downloaded from the Freemuse website. Plans for the second Music Freedom Day, on March 3 2008, are already being laid and on the Freemuse website there is a song to mark the day, “Can You Censor This!” recorded by Rabah Donquishoot, MBS and friends in a mixture of languages including Algerian Arabic, Spanish and English.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette September 10 2007

Saturday, September 01, 2007

samir el-youssef's novel 'the illusion of return'

In 2004 the London-based Palestinian fiction writer, essayist and journalist Samir El-Youssef co-authored the story collection “Gaza Blues” with Etgar Keret, widely seen as one of Israel’s most important short story writers. The book, published in London by David Paul, consisted of 15 of Keret’s surreal short stories and El-Youssef’s novella “The Day the Beast got Hungry”.

This was an audacious move by a Palestinian writer, especially at a time when the political climate has led to a decline in Israeli-Arab interchanges. The book was well-reviewed and translated into several languages. Now the small independent London publisher Halban has published El-Youssef’s first novel written in English, “The Illusion of Return”. The title of the novel is provocative, referring to the “right of return”.

El-Youssef was born in 1965 and brought up in the Rashidia refugee camp in southern Lebanon. He has lived in London since 1990 and has a Masters Degree in Philosophy from Birkbeck College, University of London. He has had collections of short stories published in Arabic, and has written for many newspapers and journals.

At the beginning of “The Illusion of Return” the unnamed Palestinian narrator, who lives in London, says: “Since the start of this month I have been waiting for the day of the 27th. The closer it gets, the more I have become aware of the fact that it will soon be exactly fifteen years since I left Lebanon. I have been here for fifteen years, that’s fifteen years without ever going back, nor seeing any of the people that I used to know then, I kept telling myself with an unmistakable sense of achievement.”

The narrator admits that in the years since he left Lebanon he has achieved very little, “so little in fact that I was desperate enough to consider an achievement the mere completion of fifteen years without seeing anybody from the past.” And now this sense of achievement has proved premature, as an old friend from his days in Lebanon, Ali, has phoned to say he will be passing through Heathrow Airport for a couple of hours on the 24th on his way back from America to Lebanon. The two arrange to meet at Heathrow.

The novel takes the reader through recurring circles of time, gradually revealing the stories of the characters. Ali had left Lebanon seventeen years previously, two years before the narrator. The narrator is obsessed by the events of that time, in particular the evening he and Ali spent in late 1982 or early 1983, with their friends Maher and George in their customary haunt, Hajj Ramadan’s Café. They did not realize that this would be the last evening they would spend together. At the time of this last evening together, the narrator is haunted by the death of his sister Amina ten years earlier. The shocking circumstances of her death become clear in the course of the novel.

During his tube journey to Heathrow to meet Ali, the narrator thinks how important it is to him to be seen as someone who had “managed to leave”. He frets that Ali will realize how little he has achieved during his time in London. The narrator has always yearned for completeness, but from as far back as he can remember, he has only half-finished anything he started. He has had a “half relationship” with a woman, his jobs have been part-time, and he has abandoned his PhD thesis.

The thesis had been intended to show how a generation of Palestinians in Lebanon had managed to move from being an underclass to being socially (if not legally or politically) middle class. But some fellow Palestinian students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) oppose this choice of topic. In several comic scenes, three students from ‘The Campaign for the Right of Return’ argue with the narrator, saying that such a thesis will only benefit “our Zionist enemy”. The narrator derides their use of this phrase. He urges them to be realistic and forget about the right of return. “The only return we should think of is one of a more symbolic value.” The students’ response is to beat him up one night.

At this early stage of the novel, the narrator comes across as somewhat arrogant. He speaks to the students in highly patronizing tones and recognizes that their accent is that of those who remained in camps rather than those, like him and Ali, who got out. “It was the accent which made me feel that we came from two different societies and that what they were saying might have applied to them, but not to me.”
As the novel progresses the narrator becomes a more sympathetic character. He may have rejected the concept of return, but his life in London seems empty, and there is no mention of friends or of the texture of his day to day life. He appears to be embedded in his vivid past in Lebanon. He rarely speaks Arabic, and tells Ali he prefers to speak in English even to Arabs in London because he enjoys the feeling of anonymity and the freedom to completely cut himself off from assumptions and values that he no longer holds.

The novel is written in an unadorned prose. Much of the narrative is in direct or reported speech, and El-Youssef is adept at creating lively, authentic-sounding exchanges. At the time of the four friends’ last meeting in the café, George is deeply into the philosophy of Heidegger, and is trying unsuccessfully to explain the philosopher’s notion of “being-in-the-world”. Maher is a Marxist political activist, and the two often disagree. The narrator’s friendship with Ali goes back to school when they smoked cigarettes together and then joints, and took pills, habits that have continued up to the “last night”.

George’s family are Palestinian Christians with Lebanese nationality who live in an area dominated by Muslims. During a walk after the two leave the café together, George confides to the narrator that he lives in a “cold home” devoid of emotion. He reveals that his parents have been divorced for the past 27 years although they continue to live together.

The same evening Maher is abducted by Lebanese men in a car and shot dead by the son of the late owner of a factory where Maher had gone to mobilize the workers. After a worker burnt the factory down, the owner had died of grief, and his son holds Maher responsible.

In the narrator’s view, Maher had not really been concerned to stop exploitation of the workers, but “just wanted to examine in the real world the thoughts and claims which he had learned from those little red-covered Marxist pamphlets.” The narrator has a loathing of empty slogans and the corruption of ideology. Young men from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), to which the narrator’s brother Kamal belongs, are educated, respectful young men who visit the narrator’s home and tell his parents about liberation movements all over the world. And yet when Amina joins the DFLP’s Women’s Organization at the age of 17, domineering Kamal’s patriarchal instincts are aroused with ultimately tragic results. According to posters put up in the camp, Amina was a “heroine martyr who died while fighting the Zionist enemy.” The narrator only tells Ali the truth of Amina’s death when the two meet at Heathrow.

Not long after the last night in the café, Ali’s brother Sameh, a young man who is drawn to men rather than women, is arrested by the resistance. The resistance wants to use his father’s van with Sameh as the driver, to smuggle weapons to their comrades in the south. Sameh is shot in an incident at an Israeli checkpoint, and Ali and his father are subsequently arrested by the Israelis. It is then that Ali, terrified that he will be killed, agrees to become a collaborator.

Towards the end of the novel, Ali speaks to the narrator about Bruno, an old Polish Jew who had told him about his experiences in the Second World War and how he had survived only by doing things that caused him shame and guilt. Bruno had gone to the US rather than Israel, because he did not know if it was right for Jews to go to Palestine and because “he didn’t believe in the right to return anywhere.” Bruno believed it was not possible for people to return; they only moved on, and said Jews who went to Palestine had not returned but emigrated there. Ali says: “The idea of return is actually an attempt to escape the inhospitality of the present state of the world – the discrimination and persecution.”

The narrator wishes he had heard this before meeting the three students from the Campaign for the Right of Return. “I would have told them, the Arab countries are not the most hospitable places, especially for Palestinians.” But “they certainly would not have accepted the idea that there is no such thing as the right of return.”

Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette August 27 2007

Saturday, August 25, 2007

apjp writes to brown over patronage of jewish national fund

When ‘Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP)’ sent a letter to the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a few days ago describing as “disturbing” his decision to become a patron of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), this was another example of the active campaigning of this international pressure group. The letter says: “Your becoming a patron of JNF-UK can be seen as a tacit acceptance of an unacceptable status quo, and also places you in the position of not being an unbiased mediator in the peace process”.

Among those signing the letter were the chairman of APJP the Jewish architect Abe Hayeem, APJP’s secretary the Palestinian architect Haifa Hammami, and a number of British and other architects. They include Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London University. He is author of the important new book “Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Oppression.” Copies of the letter have been sent to the new Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and to the Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN Lord Mark Malloch Brown (former deputy secretary general of the UN).

Its letter calls on Brown to withdraw his patronage of the JNF, and suggests he instead become patron of some of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that bring Israelis and Palestinians together, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

Brown accepted to become a patron of JNF UK after its president Gail Seal wrote to him conveying her good wishes the day after he took office on 27 June. Brown said he that he was “delighted to accept your offer to become a patron of JNF UK.” A spokesman for Brown told the weekly London-based Jewish Chronicle newspaper Brown had agreed to become a patron of the JNF UK “in order to encourage their work to promote charitable projects for everyone in Israel.” But as the letter from APJP to Brown makes clear, the JNF benefits only Israeli Jews and not its Arab-Israeli citizens.

The Jewish Chronicle report added that “Brown has long been known for his support of Israel”. He joins other JNF UK patrons including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Conservative leader David Cameron and the chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who is a close personal friend of Brown.

The APJP letter to Brown said that his agreement to become a patron of the JNF comes at an “unfortunate time”. The Israeli Knesset on 18th July approved its preliminary reading of a “racist bill” that prohibits the sale of lands registered in the name of the JNF to Arab citizens of the state. This reverses the ruling in 2004 by the Israeli Supreme Court that it was illegal for the Israeli Lands Authority to refuse to sell or lease land to Arab citizens of Israel. The Israeli Attorney General held that this 2004 ruling also applied to the JNF.

The JNF controls 13 per cent of the land of the state, which allows for the establishment of Jewish-only towns. In its letter, APJP notes that the State of Israel transferred around 2 million dunams of land seized and confiscated from Arab “absentee” owners to the JNF in 1949 and 1953 via arbitrary laws. “The Knesset’s attempt to enact the JNF’s policy into law does not absolve Israel from its obligations under international law to refrain from legislating racist laws or including discriminatory bodies in official decision-making institutions.” The letter added: “This new bill, alongside the racist Citizenship Law that prevents the unification of Arab families in Israel, are primarily and directly targeted against the native inhabitants of the country...both possess the basic characteristics of colonial laws.”

The new communities being created in the Negev, funds for which are coming from JNF UK, are for Jewish immigrants only. Israeli architects and planners design the new settlements and towns being funded by the JNF and JNF UK, and will be “designing these new towns and housing areas in the Negev and Galilee, which include the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin ‘unrecognised villages’.”

The letter asks Brown to “use the UK’s position as a key member of the EU in Quartet to hold Israel to account in its activities that perpetuate not only the Occupation, but treats a large minority of its citizens in a way that no truly democratic state would accept.”

In a separate development, on 16 August the London-based Financial Times newspaper published a letter from the APJP chairman Abe Hayeem regarding an article it had published on the famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie [pictured].

The article said that Safdie had picked his architectural commissions carefully, refusing to design any structure in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, but that he had unwittingly been drawn in to a national controversy with political overtones about the future of Jerusalem. Safdie told the Financial Times that a combination of right-wingers, who lay claim to the Greater Land of Israel, and green activists had thwarted his blueprint to expand Jerusalem away from Palestinian areas and deeper into Israel in the west where, he said, the city’s future lies.

This “Safdie Plan” for Jerusalem was cancelled earlier this year “as Israelis grapple with whether and when they will divide the land, including Jerusalem, with the Palestinians”, the article said. It mentioned that Safdie is on the record as opposing British architects’ moves “to impose a boycott on Israel”.

However, Abe Hayeem said in his letter to the Financial Times that APJP has not called for the imposition of a boycott on Israel. He explained: “We oppose the illegal construction of settlements and infrastructure that contravenes professional codes of conduct and international law, and are challenging the complicity of Israeli architects and planners in occupation and oppression.”

Hayeem said the article on Safdie had failed to point out “some interesting contradictions regarding this self-described ‘left of centre’ architect.” Safdie had told the Financial Times that he “laments” the separation wall and the damage being caused to villages and communities, but he had failed to mention the other “Safdie master plan” - in the Al-Bustan neighbourhood of Silwan, an illegally-annexed Palestinian village near Jerusalem’s Old City.

This plan is part of a project to re-create the mythical “City of David”, funded by a fundamentalist settler group called El Ad, which has been buying and expropriating houses in Palestinian neighbourhoods for many years. The project involves demolishing 88 houses, making over 1,000 Palestinians homeless. The European Union has condemned the project as contravening the spirit and letter of the “road map.” If carried out, the project will add another obstacle to creating a “viable” Palestinian state with Eats Jerusalem as its capital.

Hayeem also noted that Safdie’s residential and commercial project in the Mamilla quarter, near the Old City of Jerusalem, was built on no-man’s land, but this land was unilaterally annexed. Palestinian Jerusalemites would not be able to make free use of the commercial and tourist sectors. The Safdie plan for West Jerusalem, which was opposed by environmentalists, would have expanded housing only for Jewish Israelis in order to boost the Jewish population at the expense of the Palestinians, who are being squeezed out even in their own areas of East Jerusalem.

APJP is a relatively young organisation, having been set up in February 2006, but in the year and a half of its existence it has made a major impact with its campaigns. It aroused a great deal of controversy in May when a petition it organised was published as a half-page advertisement in the London-based Times newspaper. The petition was signed by more than 260 architects, planners and others from around the world, including some of Britain’s most famous architects and a number of Israeli architects and human rights activists. The petition said that the actions of Israeli architects and planners working in conjunction with Israel’s policies building of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory are “unethical and contravene professional codes of conduct and International Union of Architects (UIA) codes.”

The petition condemned “three typical projects that make Israeli architects, planners and design and construction professionals complicit in social, political and economic oppression, in violation of their professional ethics.” The three projects are the E1 plan to expand the largest illegal settlement Ma’ale Adumim to link it with metropolitan Jerusalem, the project in Silwan and the development of the deserted village of Lifta.

The petition said it is time to challenge the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) and the Israeli government to end such projects, and insisted that the IAUA should adhere to UIA codes. It called on the IAUA “to declare their opposition to the inhuman Occupation, and to end the participation of their members and fellow professionals in creating facts on the ground with a demographic intent that excludes and oppresses Palestinians.”
Those signing the petition included the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Jack Pringle as well as three former RIBA presidents, and president-elect Sunand Prasad. Moshe Safdie heavily criticized Pringle for signing, and told the weekly British magazine Building Design that he was disgusted that British architects, had singled out Israel when regimes across the world carry out “the most terrible atrocities.”

The lobbying group, British Architect Friends of Israel, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote jointly to the Paris-based UIA - the worldwide umbrella of 102 national organizations and 1.3 million architects – and called on it to suspend the membership of RIBA unless RIBA dissociates itself from the APJP petition. The letter alleged that with its “anti-Israeli focus” the campaign violated EU clauses and definitions on national discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Jack Pringle rejected any charge of anti-Semitism as “very offensive to me and quite absurd as a glance at the petition with its many Jewish co-signatories will show. Indeed, many Jewish agencies support the petition, and its main promoter is Jewish himself.”

Susannah Tarbush
[original of article published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat on August 25 2007]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

five asian novelists on booker longlist

Indra Sinha may be the world’s only novelist whose website invites his readers to submit, via You Tube, their performances of songs featured in his latest novel. The novel is “Animal’s People”, which last week won the distinction of being included on the long list of 13 novels for Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Booker, worth £50,000 Sterling.

Sinha [pictured below in 1999, with Holly], who is originally from Mumbai, went to school in India and England, and read English at Cambridge University. He worked as an advertising copywriter before leaving to become a “proper” writer, and now lives in the South of France. In 1999 his first book “Cybergypsies” appeared, followed in 2002 by “The Death of Mr Love”.

The songs referred to in “Animal’s People” are mainly from Indian films, plus Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”. Sinha is still seeking performances of the songs ‘Kaun aayaa mere man ke dvaare’ and ‘Main nashe mein hoon’. He prefers those contributing songs to record their own versions because recordings of film songs posted on You Tube often cease to be available, presumably after copyright complaints from distributors.

“Animal’s People” is set among the victims of a chemical leak catastrophe, modeled on the December 1984 Bhopal disaster. It is set in a fictional town called Khaufpur, afflicted by a gas leak one night from an American-owned chemical plant. The book’s nineteen-year-old central character Animal walks on all fours as a result of the events of That Night. A young female American doctor, Elli Barber, comes to the town to open a clinic for those affected by the gas, and Animal becomes involved in a web of intrigues, scams and plots.

Sinha dedicates “Animal’s People” to the Bhopal survivor and activist Sunil Kumar. Kumar travelled the world to try to mobilize support against the 1989 settlement between Union Carbide and the Indian government. In July last year he hanged himself at the age of 34.

Sinha says the novel owes much to Kumar and the stories he told him about his life. Kumar was 12 when gas seeped from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and killed all but two members of his large family. He became wholly responsible for looking after his younger brother and sister. Kumar suffered severe mental problems, which Sinha attributes to the effects of the gas.

The Bhopal disaster continues to blight lives. In addition to the 20,000 who have died so far, more than 120,000 continue to suffer ill effects. In 1994 Sinha advertised in the London-based Guardian newspaper for funds to set up a free clinic for Bhopal survivors. The Sambhavna clinic opened two years later, and has so far helped around 20,000 people.

The Man Booker is open to novels written in English from the Commonwealth nations, plus Ireland. The shortlist of five books will be announced on September 13, and the winner at a dinner on October 16.

Remarkably, this year’s longlist includes five novels by writers of Asian origin, including “Animal’s People”. Among them is “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Pakistani Mohsin Hamid. It tells of Changez, a Pakistani man living a Westernized life style in Manhattan who becomes radicalized after 9/11.

“Gifted” is the debut novel of Nikita Lalwani [pictured], who was born in Rajasthan, India and brought up in Cardiff, Wales. The novel is about a gifted girl, Rumi Vasi, whose controlling immigrant father wants her to become the youngest student ever to go to Oxford University. But friendship and love start to become more important to Rumi than equations.

Tan Twan Eng, author of debut novel “The Gift of Rain”, was born in Penang, Malaysia. He studied law at London University and worked as a lawyer in Malaysia before going to live in South Africa. The novel is set in Second World War Malaya. The central character, Philip, is half Chinese and half British. He finds a feeling of belonging in his friendship with a Japanese diplomat, but his loyalties become desperately strained.

The Second World War is also the backdrop to “The Welsh Girl”, the first novel by Peter Ho Davies, who is of Welsh and Malay-Chinese descent. In the novel a German-Jewish refugee is sent to Wales to interrogate Rudolf Hess. The Welsh girl of the title is the 17-year-old daughter of a shepherd; the other main character is a German prisoner of war.

This year’s Booker judges have produced a longlist full of fresh talent, including a substantial proportion of names that are as yet little known. Four of the books are by debut novelists. The chairman of the judges is Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The other judges are poet Wendy Cope, journalist and author Giles Foden, biographer and critic Ruth Scurr and actor and writer Imogen Stubbs. The judges considered 110 novels. “Slightly to my surprise, only 39 of the athors are women, while 38 are from outside the United Kingdom,” Davies writes in his Booker blog. “Even more surprisingly, 14 of the entries are either wholly or substantially set during the Second World War.”

There has been a predictable outcry over the omission from the longlist of some of the biggest names in fiction. Among the novels to be left out are Doris Lessing’s “The Cleft”, and novels by former Booker winners Graham Swift, Thomas Keneally, Michael Ondaatje and JM Coetzee (winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and two-times Booker winner).

The bookies William Hill’s favorite to win the prize is British novelist Ian McEwan, winner of the 1998 Booker for “Amsterdam”. Four of his other novels have also been shortlisted for the Booker. His longlisted novel, “Chesil Beach”, has odds to win of 3/1.

Chesil Beach is a famous beach in Dorset, south-west England. A virginal honeymoon couple, Edward and Florence, are staying in a hotel there in 1962. As they sit down in their room for dinner, both suffer anxieties about their wedding night.

William Hill’s next favorites to win are Nicola Barkman’s “Darkmans”, Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, Catherine O’Flynn’s “What was Lost” and A N Wilson’s “Winnie & Wolf”. The longest odds are 20/1 for “Mister Pip” by the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, despite this novel having won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. What is more, in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, it won both the Montana Medal for Fiction and the Reader’s Choice Award.

“Mister Pip” is set during Papua New Guinea’s blockade of its lush tropical island province of Bougainville in the 1990s. The one white man remaining, Mr Watts, reads to the children Charles Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations”. Young Matilda becomes obsessed with Pip, the narrator of “Great Expectations,” and her story is interwoven with the violence around her.

Nicola Barker’s novel “Darkmans” runs to 838 pages. It is set in Ashford. Kent and has themes of love and jealousy. Edward Docx , the former literary editor of the Daily Express, is longlisted for his second novel “Self Help”. Set in St Petersburg, Paris, London and New York, it is the story of a half-English, half-Russian family filled with secrets. Another dysfunctional family is at the heart of Irish novelist Anne Enright’s fourth novel “The Gathering”.

British writer Catherine O’Flynn’s first novel “What Was Lost”, set partly in 1984, concerns a bright schoolgirl, Kate, who goes missing while hanging around a Birmingham shopping centre following the instructions in her father’s book “How to be a Detective”. Twenty years later, a security guard and a female friend try to find out what became of her.

“Consolation”, by the American-born Canadian writer Michael Redhill, moves between Toronto’s past and present. A professor kills himself in the waters of Lake Ontario. The efforts of his widow to prove he did not falsify historical research is interwoven with a story from the 1850s.

The British biographer, journalist and novelist A N Wilson’s novel “Winnie & Wolf” explores the close friendship in 1925-49 between Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner, the English wife of composer Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried. Hitler and Winnie had a kinship, expressed through a mutual love of opera.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette August 13

Monday, August 20, 2007

gulf delegates attend british council's 'edinburgh showcase'

picture above: Sulayman Al-Bassam

Bring together a leading British playwright and an adventurous Kuwaiti theatre writer and director, leave them for 24 hours to devise a play, and what do you get? The result will become clear at 9.30am on Thursday August 23 when the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, stages the half-hour “Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast”, in cooperation with the award-winning theatre company Paines Plough. The two playwrights involved are Mark Ravenhill and Sulayman Al-Bassam, whose collaboration is being described by the British Council as “a unique clash of iconoclasts”. The subject of their play is expected to be the war on terror.

Al-Bassam has attracted much praise and attention in Britain for his theatre work. He obtained a Masters degree from Edinburgh University in 1994, and went on to found the Zaoum Theatre in London in 1996. The theatre’s Arab arm, Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, was set up in Kuwait in 2002. Al-Bassam produces work in both English and Arabic. His production, as writer and director, of “Richard III an Arab tragedy”, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was performed in February at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon as part of The Complete Works Festival. It received rapturous reviews. Al-Bassam has said: “I look forward immensely to working with Mark Ravenhill and the creative challenge of producing a new work in this format, especially for Edinburgh audiences.”

The Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast is part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase. The Showcase takes place every two years during the Edinburgh Festival, the world’s largest festival of the performing arts.

The “Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast” will be followed by refreshments and the opportunity to speak to Sulayman Al-Bassam about his collaboration with Ravenhill, and to talk to the other delegates from the Middle East about their reactions to UK performances in the Edinburgh festival so far. There will then be a one-hour panel debate on Arab theatre, involving members of the Middle Eastern delegation comprising more than 25 theatre specialists from the region.

This is the largest delegation the British Council has ever brought from the Middle East to the Edinburgh Showcase, and is part of the Council’s efforts to widen the scope for creative dialogue between people in the region and in the UK. The Middle Eastern delegates will see a diverse mix of contemporary UK performance.

Al-Bassam says: “The Edinburgh Showcase comes at a critical time in Arab-West relations. As a theatre practitioner, this is a fantastic opportunity to exchange new ideas and engage with contemporary UK theatre, start new dialogues and explore new ways for collaborations in the future.”

The British Council’s director of drama and dance Sally Cowling notes that the Edinburgh Showcase has provided an important marketplace for British theatre makers looking to build an international profile for their work, and is an exciting gathering point for theatre presenters from all over the world. She says: “We are delighted to welcome our largest-ever delegation from the Middle East this year and for many delegates, particularly from the Gulf region, it will be the first real engagement with contemporary UK theatre.”

The delegation includes five theatre practitioners from Saudi Arabia. Hail Ageel is a member of the Saudi Arabian Association of Arts and Culture in Jeddah and of Jeddah Theatre Club. He has worked as an actor, writer, director, lighting manager, and music and sound effects manager. He says: “Attending the Edinburgh Showcase is like a dream come true. I hope I can learn and see something new that will increase my knowledge and that I can try to pass on what I saw and learned to my friends when I came back.”

Tahani Al-Ghureiby, Assistant Professor of English Literature at the Riyadh University for Girls, did a PhD on Western concepts in Arabic drama. She initiated and directed the first play ever performed by female actresses at the Riyadh University for Girls. She is a lecturer on Western and English Drama, “in a country where drama needs to be introduced to the public as a means of expression and as a reflection of many crucial cultural and epistemological issues. I write articles in local papers and periodicals to enhance public awareness of the genre.” Al-Ghureiby says that her attendance at the Edinburgh Showcase will help her see how theatre is being used to express human experience and “will give me a new kind of understanding which I hope to bring back to Saudi Arabia.”

Ahmed Al-Huthail is General Manager of the Fourth Saudi Arabian Theatre Festival to be held in Riyadh in November. He studied Theatre at the University of Florida, having performed in radio, TV and theatre since 1965. He was formerly manager of the International Relations and News Exchange Department at Saudi TV.

Writer, actor, director and producer Abdullah Al-Jafal hopes to “meet the best UK theatre artists to discuss training opportunities.” Al-Jafal is a participant member of the Theatre Festival for Short Shows in Damman. He is leader of Afnan theatre group, and a member of the Theatre Department at the Art and Culture Institute, Dammam. He has participated in numerous plays with support from the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Art.

The director of the Saudi Theatre Festival Abha, Ibrahim Assiry, is a founding member of Theatre Workshop at Taif, establisihed in 1992, and a member of the Arab Committee of Arts and Culture in Taif. He has worked as production manager on 20 plays in Saudi Arabia, as well as in Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, Jordan and Tunisia. “I hope to see British culture and to watch performances by the world,” he says of his invitation to Edinburgh.

The other Middle Eastern delegates are coming from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Yemen. The strong emphasis on the Gulf reflects the fact that the British Council is launching its first comprehensive theatre program there, working with local partners to develop a program of tours, capacity building and collaborations. This builds on successful similar projects in other parts of the Middle East.

The British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase has programmed some 30 productions. The Traverse Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of the play “Damascus” by one of Scotland’s best-known writers, David Greig. It was inspired by Greig’s experiences in Syria as part of the British Council’s new writing project in collaboration with London’s Royal Court Theatre. The play tells of Paul, a Scottish businessman, who is in Damascus trying to sell his new English-language educational software. He has a brief encounter in his hotel that leaves him grappling with language and love, meanings and misunderstandings. “Laughter, romance and tragedy meet as he faces the complexities of truth, faith and love.”

image from Gecko's "The Arab and the Jew"
photo credit: Sheila Burnett

Another Middle East-related production comes from the theatre company Gecko, founded in 2002 by Amit Lahav and Al Nedjari. Gecko’s production is the world premiere of “The Arab and the Jew”, a two-man show in which the two actors explore their relationship as performers and friends. The preview states: “With almost no text, they tell a story of brotherhood, loyalty and conflict, as seen through the mist of their own Arab and Jewish backgrounds.”

Among the other productions, Hoipolloi Theatre’s production “Floating” examines issues of belonging and national identity. Hugh Hughes, an inhabitant of the Welsh island of Anglesey explores these issues with naïve wit when Anglesey is cast adrift from the mainland during an earthquake.

“Alice Bell”, performed by Lone Twin Theatre, is “a story of a fictional character born into a fictional conflict, told with the aid of songs, dance and ukuleles. Alice seeks happiness in a divided land, but finds love and companionship at a terrible cost.” Like these productions, many of the other productions ask questions about individual and national identity in an era of increased globalization – questions that are of much relevance to the Middle East.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette August 20 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007

new crop of books in english by iraqis

Saadi Youssef

'Iraq's writers bring a nation's agony to the world's bookshops'
The agony through which Iraq and its people have passed for so many years has long-been the subject of books, poetry and articles by the country's writers. The horrors that have been meted out on the country since the invasion of 2003 have forced its writers through many phases: in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall, when censorship was lifted, a new era of artistic freedom seemed to be the promise; the insurgency soon put an end to these new-found freedoms, as writers became the targets of extremism and their favoured haunts in Baghdad the target of suicidebombers.
Even so, as Susannah Tarbush writes, the contortions from which Iraq is suffering have produced a wide range of novels and other writings which are now becoming widely available to the English-speaking world. (right: Sinan Antooon)

Fadhil al-Azzawi (below) and Lewis Alsamari (right)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

former islamic radicals denounce violence

From Saudi Debate website:
'Former Islamist radicals denounce violence as British Muslims lead the way towards moderation'

The increasing readiness of former members of radical Islamic groups in Britain to speak out against extremism and denounce those who advocate violence, has brought with it a significant change in the political landscape in the UK. On 28 July several hundred Muslims marched through central London carrying banners denouncing extremism and the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Whether the tide is turning against the radicals - who not long ago could make claims to having mass appeal - it is perhaps too early to say.
"In his days as an activist in Hizb ut-Tahrir, British Muslim Shiraz Maher sported a long black bushy beard and wore flowing robes and a Muslim cap. TV footage from 2004 shows him at an anti-war demonstration outside Regent's Park mosque in London shaking his fist and roaring angry slogans. Today, his radical past behind him, he is a neatly-groomed bespectacled man in Western attire with a short clipped beard and his fiery rhetoric has been replaced by calmly-expressed warnings on the dangers of the Islamist ideology he once embraced. Maher is one of a small but growing number of British former Islamists who are publicly speaking out against Islamist groups, exposing their ideologies and methods. The former militants are constantly invited to appear in the media to give their views on causes of radicalism and its tipping over into terrorism. The stakes are high. The attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow at the end of June confirmed that Britain is a prime target of violent extremists including Al-Qaeda. The attacks came two years after the four suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005 that killed 52 innocent people, and the failed copycat attempts two weeks later. In the interim, a succession of trials of young Muslims in British courts has resulted in lengthy convictions relating to major terror plots. .."
Article by Susannah Tarbush at:

Saturday, August 04, 2007

film of 'yacoubian building' at ica in london

When I came out of the press screening of the Egyptian film “The Yacoubian Building” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London last Wednesday afternoon, I felt momentarily disoriented. The long feature film, running for nearly three hours, had taken me so powerfully into Cairo and the lives of its characters that for a time it seemed more real than the traffic-congested streets around Trafalgar Square. The interlocking dramas of the vivid personalities played by riveting actors including Adel Imam, Hend Sabri, Yusra and Nour El Sherif, replayed in my mind on the bus ride home.

The title of the novel and film of “The Yacoubian Building” comes from a 1930s apartment block in Cairo within which the lives of characters intersect in multiple narratives, which tackle some highly sensitive subjects. On the roof of the building are small rooms where poor families live. The block represents a microcosm of Egypt in around 1995. The sweeping cinematography encompasses the vast city with its teeming life, and also focuses on the intimacies of life within apartments.

“The Yacoubian Building” might be over-melodramatic in places, and the volume of the soaring music score by Khalid Hammad occasionally too insistent, but it is a major cinematic achievement. And yet it is only the second film to be directed by Marwan Hamed, who was 27 at the time. (His first film, a short, was based on the novel “Lily”.)

The film’s budget of more than 20 million Egyptian pounds (around 3.5 million US dollars) was the biggest of any Egyptian film to date. The film’s production company, Good News Group, assembled the largest cast of stars to appear in one Egyptian film. The script was adapted by veteran scriptwriter Waheed Hamed, Marwan’s father, from Cairo dentist Alaa Al-Aswany’s 2002 novel.

The press screening was part of the build-up to the launch of the film in Britain. The ICA is holding a special preview on August 29 as the prelude to a season of the film to be held in its arthouse cinema from September 14. The film will also be screened in a number of other British cities. At the same time a new paperback English edition of the novel is being published in the UK by Harper Collins, under the Harper Perennial imprint.

The film caused an outcry when it opened in Egypt last year, with 112 MPs calling for scenes to be cut, especially those involving gay newspaper editor Hatem Rashid (Khaled El Sawy). Some newspapers too decried the negative image of Egypt the film supposedly gave. But Culture minister Farouk Hosni rejected the calls for censorship.

In Al-Ahram Weekly, columnist Salama A Salama commented: “Our society is much more mature than some assume. We are mature enough to decide what we want to watch without having to be told...Those who lashed out at the movie made it sound as if the film was degenerate or pornographic, which it wasn’t.” The film broke box office records in Egypt.

The challenges in making the film arose not only from its highly sensitive subject matter. There were also technical feats to be achieved in for example filming a large university demonstration pitting security forces with batons and shields against Islamist demonstrators. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes shows the torture of demonstrator Taha El Shazly (Mohamed Imam). Bloodied from his beatings he is suspended in the air at the police station. His police interrogator then orders a degrading sexual assault on him that leaves Taha determined to seek revenge. As news reports have frequently shown, torture is a not infrequent occurrence in Egypt.

The film highlights the pressures on women. Corrupt businessman Haj Azzam (played by Nour El-Sherif) consults a sheikh when his middle-aged wife is no longer interested in satisfying his conjugal needs. The sheikh encourages him to find a second wife. He proposes marriage to young widow Soad (Somaya El Khashab) from Alexandria. His conditions are harsh. She must leave her small son behind with her relatives, must keep the marriage secret, and must not expect to have another child. When she tells Azzam she has become pregnant he is furious, and in an episode of great cruelty the fetus is forcibly aborted.

Buthayna, played by Tunisian actress Hend Sabry, is Taha’s fiancée and breadwinner for an impoverished family headed by her mother. She has left her job because the boss sexually pressured her, only to find that in her new job in a clothes shop the owner regularly retreats to the storeroom to physically exploit his female employees.

Taha is an academically bright student who wants to enter the police academy, but at his interview he is turned away when he admits his father’s lowly profession as a janitor. At university he is alienated from the spoilt rich fellow students. He falls under the spell of an Islamist student and a sheikh, and finds new meaning in life. After his torture and sexual assault in the police station he trains at a camp for Islamic militants. In a bloody bullet-ridden scene towards the end of the film he assassinates the policeman who had overseen his torture, and is then killed himself.

Taha’s increasing radicalization causes a breach between him and his unveiled fiancée. During his militant training, he undergoes a marriage ceremony with a young woman chosen for him by his leaders.

The central figure in the film, and in the end its warm heart, is Zaki El Dessouki played by Adel Imam, the 65-year-old son of an ex-pacha. Zaki lives with his sister Dawlat (Isaad Younis), but she throws him out after a young bar girl with whom he has had an assignation steals items including Dawlat’s ring. He is forced to live in the apartment he has been using as an office.

Zaki remembers Haj Azzam when he was only a shoeshine boy. Now he owns a string of shops and car dealerships. It emerges that his fortune has been built on drug dealing. Azzam has political ambitions, and is helped to get elected to the People’s Assembly by a corrupt minister, Kamal El Fouly (Khaled Saleh), who says he has important people behind him. El Fouly demands a large bribe and then blackmails Azzam over his drug dealing to demand a major stake in one of his agencies.

Zaki ‘s servant, Fanous (Ahmed Rateb) plots with his tailor brother Malak (Ahmad Bedeir) to cheat Zaki out of his apartment. They persuade Buthayna to go to work as his secretary, and tell her to get him drunk and then to make him sign a document passing his apartment to the two brothers after his death. Dawlat is complicit in the plot, and arranges for her brother to be caught red-handed with Bothayna.

This scheme falls through when a genuine love grows between Zaki and Buthayna. He is unlike other men in treating her with understanding, respect and charm. There is a happy ending to the film in the marriage of this unlikely couple.

Director Marwan Hamad had been apprehensive about the portrayal of Hatem Rashid, the editor of a French newspaper. A resident of the Yacoubian, he is the son of an aristocratic family and a French mother. In a flashback we learn that his homosexuality was caused by his having been abused by a servant as a child.

Some of the most painful scenes in the film involve Hatem’s pursuing of a naïve, handsome soldier Abd Raboh (Bassem Samra), a migrant from Upper Egypt. Adb Raboh is tormented by his sense of shame and of going against his religion when he succumbs to Hatem. In order to keep Abd Raboh in Cairo, Hatem rents a room for him on the roof so he can bring his wife and young son from Upper Egypt. When the son dies Abd Raboh is filled with remorse and leaves with his wife for home. When Hatem subsequently picks up a young man and takes him home, the man robs and murders him.

Marwan Hamad says: “Khaled El Sawy is the most daring actor I have ever seen. He has agreed to perform a very difficult personality and he has performed it with great intelligence and with a high degree of reality. The same applies to Bassem Samra.”
Susannah Tarbush
(original of the article published in Saudi Gazette on August 9 2007)