Sunday, April 29, 2007

two books by lebanese women

Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America
by Evelyn Shakir
Syracuse University Press, New York
pp 184, ISBN 978-0-8156-0881-3

Dreams of Water
by Nada Awar Jarrar
Harper Collins, London
pp 233, ISBN 978-0-00-722195-0

Evelyn Shakir and Nada Awar Jarrar are writers of Lebanese origin who explore the responses of women to migration, war and other upheavals. One point of correspondence between Shakir’s short stories and Jarrar’s novel is the enduring pull of Lebanon, no matter how much migrants may try to leave behind “the old country” of Shakir’s Lebanese-Americans.

The adults in Remember Me to Lebanon pepper their conversation with Lebanese dialect and cook Lebanese dishes. Marriage remains a focal point of concern; the sisters in “Remember Vaughn Monroe?”, who originate from Zahle, are “ripe for the picking” by potential bridegrooms.

Members of the younger generation may try to shake off their Lebanese or Arab roots, only to rediscover them. In “Let’s Dance”, it is when Nadia, daughter of a divorced American mother and Lebanese father, introduces herself to fellow college students and wishes to impress a young Greek Cypriot man that she says for the first time ever “I’m Arab”.

Aneesa, the central character in Jarrar’s Dreams of Water, has a painful relationship with Lebanon where her brother Bassam disappeared during the civil war. She escapes to London, where she works as a translator, but Lebanon haunts her.

When Aneesa refuses to accompany her boyfriend of one year, Robert , to New York, where he has been offered a job, her friend Isabel accuses her of not wanting to make a commitment because it was not convenient. According to Isabel, Aneesa failed to take Isabel, Robert and the others she had met in London seriously, seeing them merely as “something new and exotic”. But when Aneesa eventually returns to Lebanon, there are “things about this new Beirut that no longer seem right so that she sometimes feels out of place where she least expects to.”

Shakir and Jarrar draw on their individual and collective experiences in their fiction. Shakir grew up as a Lebanese-American in post-Second World war America. She is an essayist and scholar of Arab-American literature with degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard and Boston University, and is professor emerita of Bentley College.

Shakir’s book Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States, published in 1995, contains stories from Arab-American women she interviewed and from her mother (an Arabic version is soon to be published). Some of the ten stories in Remember Me to Lebanon were previously published in literary journals, and “Remember Vaughn Monroe?” appeared in Post-Gibran: Anthology of New Arab-American Writing edited by Khaled Mattawa and Munir Akash.

Jarrar was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese father and Australian mother. After leaving Lebanon in 1975 because of the civil war, she lived in London, Paris, Sydney and Washington DC. She now lives in Beirut with her husband and daughter. During the war last summer she and her family sought refuge in the mountains but decided not to leave Lebanon. She wrote about the impact of the war in the article “A Family at War” published by the Times newspaper in London.

Jarrar’s first novel Somewhere, Home won the Commonwealth Best First Book award for Southeast Asia and the South Pacific in 2004. The mountains of Lebanon are again an important presence in her new novel, particularly through the Druze belief in reincarnation. In the novel’s opening scene four-year-old Aneesa is taken by her mother Waddad to a sheikh because she has been talking about “my children”. The sheikh declares that she is remembering a past life.

When Aneesa returns from London to Lebanon, she finds that Waddad believes she has found the reincarnated Bassam in Ramzi, an eight-year-old boy abandoned in an orphanage. Aneesa is struck by the change in Waddad from the middle-aged woman she left behind to a crop-haired woman who looks like a 12-year-old boy in her jeans and white T-shirt. Whether or not Ramzi is a reincarnation of Bassam, identifying and caring for him has transformed Waddad.

Jarrar delicately delineates the mysterious currents connecting people. In London, Aneesa strikes up a tender friendship with Salah, a Lebanese widower in his seventies. “Our mountain people would say we were only two old souls recognizing one another after a long absence” Aneesa tells Salah in a section of the narrative addressed to him.

Dreams of Water is introspective and muted, told in the present tense with scenes constantly shifting in time and place. Jarrar finds poetry in the everyday, whether in the homely tasks of preparing food, in scenes in a London park or in Aneesa’s watching fishermen on the Beirut corniche.

The women in Evelyn Shakir’s stories tend to be feisty, independent characters with a sharp wit. The stories, set at different times over the past four or so decades, are full of vitality and momentum. The female characters often strive to establish their independence in the face of family pressures. “The Story of Young Ali” depicts a father trying to transmit traditional ways to his cheeky, argumentative daughter by reading her Arab tales. The father of the protagonist of “Oh, Lebanon” cuts links with her after she strikes up a relationship with a black Jamaican fellow student. After a series of subsequent romances, she is at a loss over how to find a husband. “Back in Lebanon, her stepmother’s housekeeper had taught her to snap the pointy tip of okra to test for freshness and sniff a honeydew for ripeness. But no heart-to-heart from anyone about sizing up a man.”

Through a dating agency she meets a Christian of Lebanese origin who is delighted she is Muslim because it makes her “more authentic. A card-carrying Arab.” A former boyfriend had told her always to introduce herself a “Phoenician” or, if she must, as simply “Lebanese”, because saying she was Arab did “not sound very nice”.

The suspicion that may be attached to Arab immigrants today is reflected in “I Got My Eye on You”, in which an elderly American woman living alone is nervous about the activities of her unruly adolescent Arab neighbours. She is egged on over the telephone by her sister, who tells her the kids “must be hatching something” and reminds her about 9/11.

These latest published writings of Nada Awar Jarrar and Evelyn Shakir are vibrant examples of the fiction currently being produced by Lebanese women. The ongoing uncertainty in Lebanon, and the current tumult of the wider Middle East, is likely to increase the international readership of such works.
Susannah Tarbush
Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature No 28 Spring 2007

gallup poll on british muslims

Since 9/11, and particularly following the suicide bombings in London on July 7 2005, public perceptions of British Muslims have become increasingly negative. Among the prevalent images of Britain’s 1.6mn to 2mn Muslims is that they sympathize with extremism and in some cases even with Al-Qaeda, are disloyal to British values, refuse to integrate, feel victimized, repress women, mistrust the police, and want to turn Britain into a Shariah state.

There is no denying that there is a terror threat from a small number of Muslims in Britain, as was shown on 7/7 and by the attempted bombings of the London transport system two weeks later. Six young Muslim men are currently standing trial at Woolwich Crown Court in London for those attempted explosions, and three men were recently arrested and charged in relation to the 7/7 attacks. The head of intelligence service MI5, Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, has said that MI5 is tracking around 30 terror plots in relation to which it has 1,600 people under surveillance.

The Muslim community has paid a heavy price for the violent activities of a few. After an alleged plot to blow up aircraft flying from Britain to the US was uncovered last summer, the government markedly toughened its stand towards the community. It declared that multiculturalism was a mistake and is adopting measures intended to enforce integration, “moderation” and the diffusion of “British values”. The media has over the past six months run many negative and often unfair stories about Muslims, with sensational headlines.

Now one of the world’s most respected polling organizations, Gallup, has published the results of an opinion poll which gives a more reassuring picture of British Muslims, at least in London, and which overturns some of the public perceptions. It is markedly more upbeat in tone than some of the alarming polls published since 9/11 in various newspapers.

The poll challenges the often stated view that Muslims must choose between Islam and Britain. It indicates that a strong identification with one’s religion and with one’s nationality are not mutually exclusive. A majority of London Muslims strongly identify with their faith (69 per cent) and most (88 per cent) say religion is an important part of their lives (compared with only 36 per cent of the general public). But a majority (57 per cent) also strongly identify with Britain, which is more than the 48 per cent of the general public which does so.

In its presentation of the poll results Gallup stresses that Muslims’ comparatively strong identification with their religion should not be taken as evidence of radicalization. London Muslims are almost as likely as the general public to condemn terrorist attacks on civilians (88 per cent), and are more likely than the general public (81 per cent against 72 per cent) to find no moral justification for using violence for a “noble cause”.

Muslims are also more likely than the general public to express confidence in the police (78 per cent as against 69 per cent). This is surprising given the tension over the wrongful arrests of Muslims such as those in the Forest Gate area of East London last year. Compared with the general public, Muslims also have appreciably more confidence in the national government (64 per cent versus 36 per cent), the judicial system (67 per cent versus 55 per cent) and elections (73 per cent against 60 per cent).

The Labour Muslim MP Shahid Malik (above) chaired a press conference held a few days ago at Gallup’s London headquarters to mark the release of the results. He said they were “incredibly encouraging” and “very welcome”, but added “there are some challenges there as well.”

Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, presented the results. (She is co-author with John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, of the forthcoming book “Who Speaks for Islam? Listening to the Voices of a Billion Muslims.”)

Mogahed explained that in 2005 the Gallup organization launched the largest social science research project in history, the Gallup World Poll. It is polling a representative sample of 6.5 billion people, or 95 per cent of the world’s population, in 130 countries. This study is completely independent and self-funded.

In addition to the core questions addressed to each person questioned in the World Poll, there are regionally specific questions. In 40 predominantly Muslim countries these relate to issues such as the preferred form of government, the role of women and views of the West. This year the study has branched out into minority Muslim populations in the West, focusing on London, Berlin and Paris. In London the researchers interviewed 500 Muslims aged 15 years and over. The comparison polling of the general public was carried out through random telephone dialing of 1200 British residents.

The poll reveals some major differences between Muslims and the general public, especially in the field of religious and social values. Only 13 per cent of Muslims consider the removal of the face veil (niqab) to be necessary for integration, while 55 per cent of the general public think it is essential. (The niqab is actually only worn by a small percentage of British Muslim women). And while 66 per cent of the public think that homosexual acts are morally acceptable, only 4 per cent of Muslims share this view. Just 10 per cent of Muslims think abortion is acceptable, compared with 58 per cent of the public. A much higher proportion of Muslims than members of the general public think that suicide, viewing pornography, having an affair or having sex outside marriage are morally wrong. As regards honor killings, 1 per cent of the public but 3 per cent of Muslims think they are morally acceptable.

There is a widespread perception, shared by some politicians, that Muslims are segregationists who only want to live in Muslim areas. But the poll found that just a quarter of London Muslims prefer to live in a neighborhood made up mostly of people who share their religious or ethnic backgrounds. This is substantially lower than the 35 per cent of the general public.

One criticism often leveled at Muslim immigrants is that they fail to learn English; the poll finds that nearly 80 per cent of Muslims think it necessary for minorities to master the language in order to integrate into British society, compared with 89 per cent of the general public. Sixty six per cent of Muslims also think it is necessary to participate in politics in order to integrate, virtually the same percentage as among the general public.

In terms of being “involved citizens”, measured by donating money or money to an organization, helping a stranger who needs help, or voicing opinion to a public official, Muslims are more “involved” than the general public at 27 per cent compared with 22 per cent.

The poll highlights the way in which Muslims feel discriminated against. Twenty eight per cent of London Muslims say they have suffered racial or religious discrimination in the previous year, double the figure for the public in general. And only 68 per cent say they were treated with respect all day the day before they were questioned by Gallup, compared with 90 cent of the general public. They were less likely than members of the general public to feel they have the opportunity to do their best, at 69 per cent as opposed to 78 per cent.

Ninety-six per cent of London Muslims consider that life has purpose, substantially more than the figure of 79 per cent for the general population. And 55 per cent of Muslims say they learnt or did something useful the previous day, compared with 49 per cent of the public. Gallup warns: “The relative lag in opportunity coupled with the high sense of ability and purpose, could translate into frustration and social unrest. It also suggests a waste of potential”.

The poll identifies some big gaps between how Muslims perceive themselves and how the general population sees them. Thus 74 per cent of London Muslims consider that British Muslims are loyal to the UK, and 82 per cent say Muslims are respectful of other religions. But only 45 per cent of the public think British Muslims are loyal to the nation, and only 55 per cent say they are respectful of other religions.

Media coverage has played a major role in building up the negative images of Muslims. Gallup points to the finding of the media research institute Media Tenor that from December 2006 to January 2007 Islam was covered in UK TV news more than any other religion, and that the coverage was almost 10 times more negative than positive

The methodology and findings of the Gallup poll could be open to question. For example, it does not explore the impact of foreign policy issues such as the Iraq war and Palestine in radicalizing the views of British Muslims, particularly the youth. Nor is there a breakdown of attitudes in terms of age. A few months ago the Policy Exchange think tank published a report on ‘British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism’ entitled “Living Apart Together”. That report drew attention to a conflict within British Islam between “a moderate majority that accepts the norms of democracy and a growing minority that does not.”

There has already been one effort to undermine the Gallup poll findings. In an article for the website of the ardently pro-Israeli pro-Iraq war US-based organization Campus Watch (a brainchild of neoconservative Daniel Pipes), David Conway of the Centre for Social Cohesion tried to rubbish the positive Times newspaper coverage of the poll, which was headlined “Poll of Muslims in London shows hidden face of a model citizenry.” The article seeks to undermine the Gallup project through its link with John Esposito, but then Esposito has long been a target of Campus Watch in its politically-inspired campaign against certain American academics.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 23rd April 2007

Saturday, April 28, 2007

kershaw-kelani interview on bbc's pick of the week

As a PS to the previous post, Andy Kershaw's interview with Palestinian chanteuse and composer Reem Kelani will be featured tomorrow, Sunday 29th April, on Radio 4's Pick of the Week tomorrow, 18:15 - 19:00 London time. This week's presenter of the programme of BBC radio highlights is Quentin Cooper. The programme can be listened to live via the BBC website, or the Pick of the Week webpage, but please note that it can only be heard live and will not be available via "listen again". The full interview can still be heard until Monday night via the link to the Andy Kershaw show's website, as per the previous post.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

palestinian diva reem kelani on BBC's andy kershaw show

Don't miss the chance to listen over the next week to last night's extended interview with Palestinian diva Reem Kelani and live performances by her and her band on the Andy Kershaw show on BBC Radio 3. Andy Kershaw can be listened to via the appropriate link on the Radio 3 World Music website. The full programme is 1hr and 45 minutes, but it's well worth listening to.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

alan johnston blog button

Alan Johnston banner

The Editors' blog on the BBC website has posted the html for the button above, which leads to a site with information, a timeline, and a petition.

bbc silences kureishi's 'weddings and beheadings'

Hanif Kureishi has accused the BBC of censorship for deciding not to broadcast the scheduled reading of his short story Weddings and Beheadings following unconfirmed reports that BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped in Gaza five weeks ago, has been killed by his captors or those to whom his original captors sold him (the "Tawhid and Jihad Brigades" claimed responsibility). The BBC says it has postponed, and not censored, the story because it is about the beheading of a hostage. The first-person narrator of Kureishi's story is an aspiring filmmaker who, in his unnamed "war-broken city", is regularly hired to film beheadings. "The cameras are good quality, they're taken from foreign journalists..." A mate in the same line of filming has business cards inscribed WEDDINGS AND BEHEADINGS. The nervous narrator constantly resorts to such glib humour to get him through his gruesome assignments.

The story was due to have been read this week as one of the daily readings at 3.30pm on BBC Radio Four of the five stories shortlisted for the £15,000 National Short Story Prize. The prize is supported by Radio Four and Prospect magazine with administrative support from Booktrust and Scottish Booktrust. In the Sunday Times on April 15 Prospect's associate editor Alex Linklater predicted that the BBC might alter its plan to broadcast the story, saying: "As with all fiction where there are close parallels to real news, it's a question of sensitivity. The sensitivity may be increased by the fact that British hostages in addition to Iraqis and others have had their murders by insurgents filmed." Surely Kureishi should also have directed his ire against Prospect, for seemingly supporting the BBC decision.

In his diatribe against the BBC, reported in today's Guardian, an "angry" Kureishi describes the decision as the result of "stupid thinking" by BBC executives. "It seems to me that he would be against censorship" he says of Johnston. "There are journalists and newspapers in peril all the time around the world. We support them by supporting freedom of speech rather than by censoring ourselves." In his notably solipsisitc outburst, Kureishi expresses not one word of sympathy for Johnston and what Johnston's family and friends are going through, nor any understanding of the BBC's predicament. It might have been better if he'd held his peace on this occasion.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

jewish 1940s plot to assassinate bevin, bomb parliament

Middle Eastern insurgents, bent on forcing out an occupier country, travel to that country with the mission of assassinating its foreign minister and carrying out other terror acts including blowing parliament to pieces. Does this sound like some Islamist extremist plot from today, perhaps related to Iraq? The insurgents concerned were actually Jewish, and the plot dates back to the years immediately following the Second World War. The story was related today at 1.30pm in a repeat of an instalment of the BBC Radio 4 series Document first broadcast last July. The half-hour programme A Date with Bevin on "Jewish insurgency in Palestine and a plot to assassinate Britain's foreign secretary Ernest Bevin", can be listened to via the Document website.

From the website:

"In 1946, not long after the Second World War was won, Britain was again under threat. Jewish insurgents, who had long been fighting a bloody insurgency campaign against British troops in Palestine, were about to take their war to London. Previously top secret documents reveal that assassination squads were being sent to the capital armed with a hit list. On it were the names of several top government figures. These included Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Earnest Bevin.

"Extremist groups like The Stern Gang (or Lehi) and Irgun, were determined to end the British mandate in Palestine and replace it with a Jewish homeland. Hundreds of their fighters, along with many British soldiers, were killed or injured in a struggle that escalated after the end of the war. Desperate to achieve a breakthrough after the arrest or deaths of many of their members, the two groups set up underground cells in Britain. It wasn’t long before British security services got wind of what was happening and in early 1946 they issued this top secret internal warning: 'Members of the Stern group are now being organised and are under training. It is expected that they will be sent to the United Kingdom to assassinate important members of his majesty’s government, particularly, Mr Bevin.'

"In the months that followed a number of bombs exploded in London and an attempt was made to drop on a bomb on the House of Commons from a hired plane. This last effort was only stopped after French Police discovered Stern Gang members preparing to cross the channel in a plane containing a large bomb.

"Mike Thomson and the Document team track down the assassin sent to kill Ernest Bevin and the man who gave him the explosives to do it."

In Jerusalem, Document interviews a former Stern-gang member who is still bitter about the disappearance in May 1947 of his then best friend, a 16-year -old Stern gang member Alexander Rubovitz , who had been taken for questioning by the much-decorated Captain Roy Alexander Farran. There were rumours that Farran, who fled to Syria before being arrested, had tortured and killed him although no body was ever found. The murder case against Farran was dropped due to lack of evidence and he was found not guilty at a court martial. Police members of Farran's former squad and some military men applauded in court when the verdict was announced. The former Stern gang member is still convinced that Farran tortured Rubovitz to death, saying that when Farran was caught in Syria he asked not to be sent back to Palestine "because I killed a Jewish terrorist and the Stern Gang is after me." Captain Roy Farran's brother Rex was killed in 1948 when he opened a parcel bomb addressed to Roy at their home in England. At the time the programme was made it tracked Roy Farran to Canada although he declined to speak to Document on the phone and has since died.(The Guardian published an obituary).

The programme has recorded in Israel interviews with several of the former plotters of attacks that were to be carried out in Britain. But Yaakov Heruti, a member of Lehi who was sent to London to assassinate Bevin and was responsible for the bomb that killed Rex Farran instead of his brother would only provide a written statement to the BBC after backing out from giving an interview. Heruti did confirm he had been in England to assassinate Bevin, had received explosives from America and had played a part in the inadvertent killing of Rex Farran. Heruti told the BBC in his written statement that "the atmosphere in Britain today is unfortunately and for no good reasons anti-Israeli" and he that did not see a "fair chance of an objective public discussion of the 1948 war of Israeli independence."

bbc's love affair with john bolton

Yesterday I had to go out of London for the day, and before I left BBC Radio 4's Today programme was interviewing John Bolton at length. As always he was calling for regime change in Iran and lambasting Britain and the EU for the feeble way in which they have so far dealt with Iran. After I returned in the evening I put on BBC2 TV's Newsnight and once again John Bolton was being interviewed, calling for regime change and vehemently opposing any engagement with Iran. These are just two more examples of the BBC's current love-in with Bolton, which is reminiscent of the corporation's constant interviewing in the 2002-04 period of Richard Perle, who was another neocon hawk calling for regime change in a Middle Eastern country, before, during and after the invasion of Iraq. Perle and the BBC then fell out. Is the BBC's constant resorting to Bolton, often as the only American voice in a package on Iran, a sign of laziness on the part of BBC researchers and producers? ("Let's not bother to get anyone else"). Or is there a desire somewhere to constantly ram home Bolton's message? During Bolton's stint as US ambassador at the UN, and his failure to be confirmed in this position by the Senate, Newsnight and other BBC programmes treated Bolton with considerably less deference than they do now. Naughtie introduced him on Today as "one of Washington's hawkish voices". He asked Bolton whether, because of the great weakening of the US administration as a result of events in Iraq and the unpopularity of the war, "the truth is your point of view has lost out in the administration hasn't it?". Bolton admitted "that may well be and that is one reason why I am looking to the '08 election" but added that the mood on issues such as Iran and North Korea within the Republican and Democratic parties is "quite strong" . The "only failure of will" he is worried about is in the State Department because of the intertia and "clientitis" not just in the State Department but in foreign ministries around the world. "The idea we're going to talk them out of the course they [Iran] are pursuing is delusional."

Broadcast Bolton's views by all means, but let's also hear some other views from America and how to deal with Iran.

Monday, April 09, 2007

'mark of cain' to be shown on thursday

Channel 4 was scheduled to screen the new feature film 'The Mark of Cain' last Thursday, but delayed it after coming under enormous pressure from the Ministry of Defence, Army and other quarters, as I reported in an article published in Al Hayat on the morning of that day. In addition to concerns that the film would stir up anti-British feeling that might increase attacks on British forces in Iraq, it was claimed that if it was screened during the delicate British-Iranian negotiations on the Royal Navy personnel held in Iran, Iran might use the depiction of British brutality in the film to delay a release of the captives. In the event, the captives were released on Wednesday but Channel 4 still decided not to show the film the following night. It will now be shown this Thursday, when the controversy over it is bound to be rekindled.

The film, written by Tony Marchant, takes its title from the famous speech made by Colonel Tim Collins, the then commander of the Royal Irish Regiment, on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He warned his men that anyone who took an Iraqi life needlessly would “live with the mark of Cain” upon them. Collins says that the film “panders to popular prejudices” against the British Army and what its soldiers do. It “fails to capture the realities and subtleties of the most disciplined and professional army in the world” and Channel 4 should “put this rubbish in the dustbin.”

Conservative MP Michael Gove, a staunch supporter of the war, acknowledges that the film is an “effective, wrenching drama” but says it is“radically unbalanced”. Everyone who appears in British uniform in it is “either a villain or a moral coward” and it makes the British Army seem like a “quasi terrorising force.”

“The Mark of Cain”, which is based on real-life incidents, is the first British feature film on the experiences of British soldiers in the Iraq war. At its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in February, it won Amnesty International’s award in the “Movies that Matter” category. After its screening on Channel 4, the film is due to be released on DVD and shown in cinemas.

Defence Secretary Des Brown considers that the film will hand a propaganda opportunity to insurgents and put British lives at risk. Major General Patrick Cordingley, former commander of the Desert Rats, has said that the film is “bound to have an impact in the Middle East” and was among those who called on Channel 4, during the negotations over the captives in Iran, to delay the screening. But he considers it an “important” film that should eventually be shown.

Lisa Marshall, Channel 4’s commissioning editor for drama, told BBC Radio: “We are very proud of this film and we think it is an even-handed portrayal of soldiers.”

onadaatje shortlist includes libya novel

The Ondaatje Prize is a literary award with a difference: rather than being bestowed on the best book within a particular genre , it goes to the book which best evokes the spirit of a place, whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry. And this year's shortlist includes...yes, Libyan writer Hisham Matar's first novel 'In the Country of Men' once again makes a literary shortlist (last year for example it was shortlisted for Britain's premier literary prize, the Man Booker). One of this year's Ondaatje judges, Adam Nicolson, unveiling the shortlist this morning on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, said that 'In the Country of Men' is "told from the point of view of a young boy under the Gaddafi tyranny, a very beautiful and frightening book". (The pictures here are of Tripoli, where the novel is set in summer 1979).
The £10,000 prize was established by the businessman, philanthropist, adventurer and writer Sir Christopher Ondaatje, and is now in its fourth year. (Ondaatje, who was born in Sri Lanka to Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese-Portuguese parentage, is the brother of Michael Ondaatje who is probably best known for the Booker prizewinning 1992 novel 'the English Patient').
In its first two years the prize was awarded to a travel book, but last year it went to a novel, James Meek's 'The People's Act of Love'. This year there are no travel books on the shortlist. There are two novels; the second novel is 'Half of a Yellow Sun' about the Biafran war, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Nicolson pointed out that the shorlist includes four topographies, ie deep descriptions of place. Roger Hutchinson's book 'Calum's Road' is about a crofter on a Hebridean island. "The county council refused to build a road to his door, so for 20 years he built the road himself, by hand."
'Connemara: Listening to the Wind' is a "huge, monumental book" by Tim Robinson, a Yorkshireman who lived in Ireland for most of his life. It combines history, memoir and reflections on the meaning of place.

'The House by the Thames' by Gillian Tindall is "an extraordinary biography of a single house, a Queen Anne house, on the south bank of the Thames opposite St Paul's. She takes it from its murky, medieval roots right up to its lovely, gentrified condition today with an absolutely dense concentration of meaning within the four walls of a single house over five or six centuries." The sixth book on the shortlist is South African Ivan Vladislavic's 'Portrait with Keys' about Johannesburg today.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

hometown baghdad videos site

Came across this website today, Hometown Baghad, "a documentary web series following the lives of a few Iraqi 20-somethings trying to survive in Baghdad". It's really worth a look at; harrowing, sad, sometimes funny, stories of how people try to cope.

From the site: "The everyday life of the Iraqi citizen has been the great untold story of the Iraq war. "

The Distribution
The brave Iraqi subjects and crew risked their lives every time they turned on a camera to make this series. They want to show the world what life is like when your hometown is a war-zone. We believe that people who see their stories will want to share them with others. That's why we're distributing the series online. So please - watch the videos, rewatch them, tell friends about them, comment on them, and link to them. "

(the still left above is from the video 'Forbidden Salad' , on the right from 'Symphony of Bullets')

reem kelani to perform at 'heart of the world' festival

the back cover of Reem's CD Sprinting Gazelle

The acclaimed London-based Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani and her band will be performing at The Maltings, Ely, on May 7th. The concert is part of the week-long Heart of the World Festival being held in the Cambridge (England that is, not Boston! sorry US-based fans) area, during which Reem will also be leading a series of workshops and taster sessions with schools, youth and community groups in East Cambridgeshire. For details of events see Reem's calendar.

Monday, April 02, 2007

remembering Shimon Tzabar

Today's Guardian has an obituary of the much-missed Shimon Tzabar - artist, mycologist, humourist, publisher, author and long-time critic of Zionism - by two of those who knew him best, Moshe Machover and Liz Nussbaum. Tzabar was 81 when he died, but was an eternally youthful and creative spirit. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Shimon and his partner, the neuropsychologist Judit Druks, a few years ago by our mutual friend the Iraqi satirist and journalist Khalid Kishtainy. In their hospitable and warm flat, whose walls and shelves were crammed with Tzabar's accomplished works of art (his obituary is illustrated by a self-portrait rather than a photograph), we feasted on hand-picked mushrooms; one of Shimon's passions was mushroom hunting and his fungal forays took him to Siberia and other exotic locations. When I left he presented me with a copy of his guide to mushrooms on CD.

Shimon was founder of the Israel Imperial News satirical magazine. His wise and entertaining book “The White Flag Principle: How to Lose a War and Why” was published by Penguin in 1974 and was republished in an updated edition in 2003 by New York publisher Four Walls Eight Windows.

Three years ago Shimon, with the help of a group of fellow anti-Zionist Israeli exiles in London, produced a guidebook to Israeli “prisons, jails, concentration camps and torture chambers” in the guise of a green (Much Better Than the Official) Michelin Guide. Michelin started legal proceedings aginst him in the High Court in London for using their distinctive format but they eventually dropped the charges and let him off paying any of their legal costs. In a letter to the High Court Tzabar wrote: "Being a French company, I was sure that they would know what satire is and would have enough sense of humour to tolerate a spoof based on one of their products, especially for such an humanitarian cause."

The Israelis who produced the book are described as “a small group of native Israelis who left the country of their birth after the war of 1967. When that war, in which some of them served as soldiers, ended, they discovered that it had not been a defensive war against invading armies as they were told at the time, but a war provoked by Israel itself, in order to conquer the West Bank and annex it while driving out its native inhabitants.”

The members of the group have long called for a democratic secular binational state to be set up in all of historic Palestine. The guidebook declares on its first page: “The Grand Tour of the Palestinian Holocaust. The Israeli efforts to get rid of the Palestinians and settle Jews in their place in the whole of the Holy Land. And the world looks on and does nothing just as it did during the Jewish Holocaust.”

In their introduction the editors of the guidebook write “Some might object to our calling the policy of eliminating the Palestinians, which is what the Zionist Israeli government is doing, a Holocaust. The fact that the Jews were the victims of a Holocaust does not give them the copyright on the name or on the concept. Holocausts are not a Nazi invention. There were a lot of Holocausts in human history from very early times. Many communities have been wiped out by other communities and the Jewish Holocaust was only one of many.”

The first half of the book provides details of the system of prisons in which Palestinians may be held. Road maps in Hebrew and English give the locations of prisons and interrogation centres, complete with telephone and fax numbers.

The guidebook suggests that visitors can experience the system from the inside by getting themselves arrested, and advises: “The safest way of being arrested, although this also carries a risk with it, is to look like a Palestinian Arab. This can easily be achieved by putting on some Arab garb, such as, for example, an Arab head dress or a kefiyah as it is commonly known.”

The second half of the book consists of a translation from Hebrew of “Checkpoint Syndrome”. This book, written by former soldier Liran Ron Furer, which caused an uproar in Israel when it was published in 2003. Furer describes how he and other members of his unit behaved at checkpoints and on patrol in Gaza from 1997 to 1999. “Checkpoint Syndrome” is written in a crude and brutal Hebrew slang, the flavour of which is kept in the English translation. As well as describing how soldiers at checkpoints arrested, killed and robbed Palestinians, Furer described soldiers' sexual fantasies, some of them focussed on Palestinian women, and viewing of pornographic movies.

Among Tzabar's other written works is an enthralling and bitingly funny unpublished autobiography, complete with his own illustrations. It tells the story of a truly remarkable life.

jad el hage's new novel 'the myrtle tree'

The Lebanese author and journalist Jad El Hage is interviewed on Australian radio station SBS about his new novel The Myrtle Tree, published in London by Banipal Books. The interview can be listened to via the SBS website. El Hage, who divides his time between Lebanon and Australia, will be visiting Britain soon to promote the novel. El Hage's first novel published in English was The Last Migration (Panache, 2002). This novel's first-person narrator Saad migrates from Lebanon first to Australia and then to London where he lives in Shepherd's Bush and works for an Arabic newspaper -a CV not a million miles from El Hage's own.

The SBS introduction to the interview says: "Lebanon's devastating 15 year civil war was as confusing to the Lebanese people as it was to outsiders. At one point, more than 30 groups were involved in an environment of shifting alliances, with foreign powers and internal warlords, resulting in devastating violence. That's according to our next guest, whose book; The Myrtle Tree takes a very personal view of the conflict. Jad el Hage worked as a journalist in Lebanon until 1985 when he emigrated to Australia. With Lebanon again facing internal tensions, The Myrtle Tree is a fresh reminder of how quickly and easily things can get out of control. It is not so much a political analyses of the civil war but a very personal view of life in a small village during the war but the book gives perhaps a greater understanding of the conflict than is possible from any newspaper article. Jad el Hage is speaking with Greg Muller."

pankaj mishra on matar and lalami in NYRB

The New York Review of Books has a perceptive essay by Pankaj Mishra on Hisham Matar's novel In the Country of Men and Laila Lalami's novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.

It was a year ago that I heard the then largely unknown Matar reading from his still unpublished novel, at the Irish Centre in Hammersmith during an evening of Arab writers in London organised by Banipal. The experience was electrifying - it was clear from the first few paragraphs that here was something really special. The novel has done astonishingly well, shortlisted for the Man Booker and other awards in Britain and now riding a second wave of excellent reviews in the US. The Arabic version came out recently, published by Dar Al Muna of Stockholm. It would be interesting to know how this has been going down. A stand-alone section of Lalami's novel was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing last summer. Lalami (pictured above) is also well known for her insightful blog Moorish Girl.