Monday, July 30, 2007

imran ahmad's book 'unimagined'

The cover of Imran Ahmad’s book “Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West” shows a toddler with a curiously adult face dressed in a suit, white shirt and tie. This is Ahmad in the early 1960s competing in the Karachi ‘Bonnie Baby’ contest.

Ahmed sets the humorous tone of his memoir, published in London by Aurum Press, from the start. “Smartly dressed, suave and handsome, I looked like James Bond, although I was too young to have seen either of his movies,” he writes. “I was also somewhat unsteady on my feet. People were particularly impressed by my light skin.” But he came second when the first prize went to the child of the organiser. “The judges were her friends. This is absolutely typical of third-world, banana republic unfairness. In the West, the organiser’s child would not be allowed to enter the contest. I was denied the title of ‘Karachi’s Bonniest Baby’ by blatant nepotism. I began my lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice.”

Ahmad’s memoir covers the first 25 years of his life, although it adds a brief epilogue set in 1999-2000 when he is 37. The book gives a refreshing insight into the texture of life for a bright Pakistani boy who was two years old when his parents emigrated to Britain in 1964.

The memoir is written as a series of vignettes written in the present tense, which gives a sense of immediacy. Although Ahmad is a highly intelligent, bookish boy he is sometimes naïve and finds it hard to decipher codes of behavior. He does not always realize the significance of what he describes, which is amusingly evident to the reader

Relations with the opposite sex are a constant source of puzzlement. From the age of nine, Ahmad feels he has a special connection with certain girls. At Stirling University, Scotland, he falls for fellow student Janice and is convinced for years he will eventually marry her, despite all the evidence to the contrary. His obsessive attentions can make females uncomfortable. And yet he underestimates his ability to forge genuine friendships with them.

Ahmad has a rich fantasy life. At school he dreams of being James Bond or his other fictional hero Simon Templar, the Saint. In the epilogue he returns to London to work for General Electric, for which he has worked for five years in America. As always, one of his priorities is to buy a car, and he manages to find a third-hand Jaguar XJS, the model favored by Simon Templar. His life is punctuated by the various cars he owns, including in his student days the battered old VW Beetle that takes him and his best friend at Stirling on many trips to the lochs, forests and mountains of Scotland.

Racism often rears its ugly head in “Unimagined”. When Ahmad’s parents arrive in England, they find to their dismay that they will not be able to get jobs as professionals, but are expected to be lower-class manual workers. They first rent an unfurnished house in the northern English city of Manchester and buy furniture with the precious money they have brought with them. But after three weeks a lawyer’s letter arrives. It turns out that the family’s landlady was herself a tenant, and was not authorized to rent out the house. The true owners of the house have found it is being rented to Pakistanis and wants them out. The family leave the house, abandoning the furniture they had bought.

The family then lives in a succession of bed-sits, with bathroom and kitchen shared with other tenants. Signs advertising rooms for rent often said “No Irish or Coloureds.” When Ahmad is five, his mother is “highly stressed by the misery, humiliation and poverty of life in England (not to mention the cold and the rain), and is possibly having a nervous breakdown.” She considers moving the family back to Pakistan permanently. But they stay and make a go of life in Britain. Ahmad becomes the first in his school whose family has a VCR recorder, so that his father can watch Indian films, and he is very proud when his father buys a Mercedes car.

As a teenager, “racism takes me by surprise sometimes. Living in an affluent suburb, going to a posh school, sometimes it’s easy to think that it has gone away forever, that I am now immune, but occasionally its malice disturbs the tranquility, the calm optimism of life.”

At the age of 12 there are a “few racist lowlife” in his school who are racially abusive and bullying towards him for being a “Paki”, the only one in the school at that time. Their racism is fuelled by talk in the media and gutter press about immigrants who come to Britain to take people’s jobs, or get unemployment benefits, or both. “The funny thing is, I can understand their point of view. From their perspective why wouldn’t they resent immigrants? They even have their own political party, the National Front, whose key policy is that all coloured immigrants should be repatriated, sent back home”. Ahmad is very concerned about the possibility of having to live in Pakistan.

Before she won the 1979 general election, Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher warned of people being “rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture.” Yet the young Ahmad thought it would be amazing if Mrs Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister, because “women are more compassionate and peace- loving than men.”

Ahmad’s own story is interwoven with the international events of the time. When he is eight years old, he is very aware of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which reverberates through the Indian and Pakistani communities in Britain. His parents had previously been friendly with a couple from East Pakistan, but after the war they never speak to them again.

When the Falklands War breaks out in 1982, Ahmad’s Britishness is put under severe strain especially after the Argentine ship the General Belgrano is sunk by the Royal Navy with the death of hundreds of Argentine sailors. Ahmad asks himself whether he should cave in and jeer at the deaths of ‘Argies’ to show how British he is, or whether he should express disquiet at the loss of ‘enemy’ human life and thus show himself to be a foreigner after all, not really committed to Britain.

At school and university, Ahmad is the focus of attention and sometimes Islamophobia from assertive evangelical fundamentalist Christians. At Stirling one fellow student is particularly persistent, and Ahmad finds much later that he had “been on an American course in converting Muslims and has selected me as his field project.” Ahmad becomes very wary of evangelical or “American style” Christians, and prefers what he calls lukewarm or “British-style” Christians. He spends much time at university discussing religious matters with Muslims and others he encounters.

Ahmad does not complete his Chemistry PhD at Stirling because he has lost interest in the subject, and dreams of being out in the world and doing something. He succeeds in winning a place on the Unilever Companies Management Development Scheme. But although he is proud of being awarded a place, he does not feel completely at ease with the crowd he works with. He is very uncomfortable with the alcohol, cigarettes and lewd jokes culture of his colleagues and dislikes having to socialize with people he has been working with all week, when he would prefer to relax at home. Even after spending almost all his life in Britain, Ahmad is still in his mid-20s negotiating a path so as to reconcile his faith and value system with societal norms and peer expectations.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, July 23 2007

Saturday, July 21, 2007

monica arac de nyeko wins the caine prize

African literature is on something of a roll these days. When the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko was awarded the $20,000 Caine Prize for African Writing a week ago at a celebratory dinner in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, this was the third occasion within a few weeks on which a major literary award had been made in Britain to an African writer. On June 28, also at a ceremony in Oxford, the 76-year-old Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe had been awarded the £60,000 Man Booker International Prize. Earlier that month a Nigerian novelist from the younger generation, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (30), had won the £30,000 women-only Orange Broadband Prize for her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun”.

In his speech at the Caine dinner, the chairman of the judges, Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub, said: “The writing that is coming out of Africa today is hugely interesting. It is coming into a new age, a new phase, with some very young writers who are writing in different ways, and tackling subjects in ways that haven’t been done before perhaps, and reaching a wider audience.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Arac de Nyeko is the first Ugandan to win the Caine Prize, now in its eighth year. In her acceptance speech she said: “It is a very exciting time for Ugandan fiction.” The prize, set up in memory of businessman Sir Michael Caine, is awarded for the best published short story by an African writer. Arac de Nyeko’s winning story, “Jambula Tree”, was published in “African Love Stories”, an anthology of stories by African women edited by Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo and published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing.
Mahjoub described “Jambula Tree” as “a witty, mischievous story about a love between two people and the effects of this relationship on the community in which they live. It’s got a very lively, very mischievous tone, it’s funny, and it doesn’t follow a straight-through narrative line but weaves around, bringing you slowly into the center of the narrator’s thoughts.”

The shortlist included three Nigerian writers: Uwem Akpan for the story “My Parents’ Bedroom”, E C Osondu for “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes” and Ada Udechukwu for “The Night Bus.” Also shortlisted was South African Henrietta Rose-Innes, recent winner of the SA PEN Literary Award, for “Bad Places”. In addition, the judges highly commended Kenyan Billy Kahora’s story “Treadmill Love”.

“Jambula Tree” revolves around two girls who have been close friends throughout childhood, their fascination with each other as they enter adolescence, and the shame that follows discovery. The story is told in the first person by one of the girls and is addressed to her friend, who is about to return from a long exile in London. The story is set in Kampala’s Nakawa Housing Estates, where Arac de Nyeko grew up. It has an intimacy and richness of texture and is full of vitality and acute observation of character. In an interview with Saudi Gazette, Arac de Nyeko said: “It is a story about love, very innocent, very pure. You may think it’s sad, but I think it comes out in the end like a triumph; in the way she narrates it you get a sense that it’s OK.”

From this year, the Caine Prize winner receives not only the cash prize, but is also granted a month’s writer-in-residence period at Georgetown University, Washington DC, with all expenses paid. The chairman of the Caine Prize Council Jonathan Taylor said: “This will bring an important US-North American dimension to the Caine prize”. Arac de Nyeko thinks the residency is “a great thing”, and will give her additional time for writing.

Arac de Nyeko is an Acoli, originally from the Kitgum district of northern Uganda. The region has been torn apart by conflict since 1986, and thousands of children have been abducted, abused and forced to become soldiers. Although Arac de Nyeko spent much of her childhood in Kampala, she attended Gulu High School in the north for several years. She remembers gunshots ringing out and children having to run for safety.

Arac de Nyeko’s experiences of northern Uganda have had a profound effect on her writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of her fiction is located in the north, including her short story “Strange Fruit” which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004. All her writing has a marked sensitivity, warmth and humanity. At the same time her concern for those, especially children, affected by war and other hazards has led her to work in the humanitarian and developmental field.

After obtaining a degree in Education from Makerere University, Arac de Nyeko taught literature and English language at a boys’ school, St Mary’s College, Kisubi (SMACK), for two years. She then completed an MA in Humanitarian Assistance at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and now works in development for an international organization in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Arac de Nyeko’s winning of the Caine Prize is an indication of the growing literary presence of Ugandan woman. “We are writing: we are not silent anymore,” she says. Among the Ugandan women to have won international literary prizes in recent times are Doreen Baingana (twice shortlisted for the Caine Prize), Glaydah Namukasa and Jackee B Batanda.

Arac de Nyeko says there had been a “missing gap” in Ugandan fiction, and particularly women’s fiction, because of “the very difficult time in Uganda’s history when art became very secondary.” At the height of conflict “archives were destroyed and, for example during the Amin era, artists were deliberately targeted.”

As she puts it: “We haven’t quite captured our history; the story has not all been told, there are still so many stories, so many viewpoints, so many discussions, so many emotions, that have to be captured in fiction.”

Arac de Nyeko has won considerable acclaim for her writing. Her first published work was a poem in a Berlin poetry anthology, and her writing has appeared in a number of anthologies, periodicals and magazines;. She won first prize in the Women’s World Voices in War Zones competition with the 2003 personal essay “In the Stars”. Her first internationally published short story, “October Sunrise”, was part of the 2003 anthology “Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America” edited by Jane Kurtz. Arac de Nyeko was chosen for the British Council writers’ scheme Crossing Borders which, in collaboration with Lancaster University, has linked writers in Africa with UK counterparts.

Arac de Nyeko read voraciously as a child, and says she began writing “very informally”, starting with a mystery story. She praises FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association), founded in 1996, for its role in developing women’s writing. The association holds weekly Monday sessions at which those present critique one another’s writing. The identity of the writer of a piece of work is kept anonymous until the end of the session. The work of some who have gone on to become successful writers has been “torn apart” during these sessions. Arac de Nyeko is in favor of such frank criticism, and thinks it is more useful to writers than merely “patting them on the back and saying ‘what you’ve written is splendid’.”

More stories by Arac de Nyeko are in the pipeline. A story is to appear in “Dreams, Miracles and jazz”, an anthology of new African writing edited by a former Caine Prize winner, Nigerian Helon Habila, and the literary activist of Sierra Leonean descent Kadija Sesay. The anthology is published this year by Picador Africa. She also has a story in the anthology “City Link and Other Stories”.

Arac de Nyeko’s skills in building narrative and creating characters, and her arresting use of language and her breadth of vision, suggest she has the makings of a great novelist. She is frequently asked when she is going to write a novel, and is currently working on a piece that is longer than her stories. But beyond confirming that the new work is set in Uganda, she declines to give details at this stage.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette July 16 2007

Saturday, July 07, 2007

sarah maguire's 'the pomegranates of kandahar'

Guests at the launch of British poet Sarah Maguire’s latest collection “The Pomegranates of Kandahar”, at Daunt’s Books, West London, were treated to a bilingual reading of the title poem by Maguire and the renowned Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef. Saadi read his own Arabic translation of the poem, which appears in his collection of translations of Maguire’s poems published in Damascus. The title of the Arabic collection is “Haleeb Muraq”, the title of one of Maguire’s best known poems, “Spilt Milk”. Maguire is said to be the only living English-language poet with a book in print in Arabic.

One of those attending the launch said that 73-year-old Saadi’s moving reading of the poem in Arabic made him think not only of Afghanistan but also of the bloodshed in Saadi’s native country. This is just one example of Maguire’s ability as a poet to cross national boundaries and address questions of universal concern.

The powerful title poem moves between the famed pomegranates of Kandahar and the deadly legacy of landmines in Afghanistan. The collection’s cover illustration is of a cluster not of fruit but of landmines, and of a pair of vulnerable bare feet. The picture is a reminder of the many Afghans, especially children, who have been injured by land mines. The poem ends by telling the reader to open a pomegranate with a knife and tease each “jellied cell” from its white fur of membrane “till a city explodes in your mouth / Harvest of goodness, / harvest of blood.”

Maguire has dedicated the new collection, published by Chatto & Windus, to Saadi Yousef who has lived in exile from Iraq since 1979 and has resided in London since the late 1990s. Maguire has written that he is “widely acknowledged as having had the deepest impact on poets now writing in Arabic today.” He is the most significant translator of poetry into Arabic, and his translations “have transformed the way in which poetry is written.”

Maguire is one of the most highly-regarded poets writing in English today. In recognition of the high caliber of “The Pomegranates of Kandahar”, the Poetry Book Society has chosen the volume as its Summer 2007 choice. As the poems in the collection confirm, Maguire is truly a poet of our times, in language that is at once precise and charged with mystery.

Maguire’s concerns range across the world, particularly the Middle East. She was the first writer sent by the British Council to Palestine (in 1996) and Yemen (1998). She has taken a particular interest in the work of Palestinian poets, working on translations of poems by Mahmoud Darwish, Zakariya Mohammed and Ghassan Zaqtan.

In 2004 Maguire founded, and became director of, the Poetry Translation Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. The centre’s collaborations between British poets and linguists have resulted in top-quality translations of work by poets from countries including Sudan, Somaliland, Mexico, India, South Korea and Peru.

Maguire has also jointly translated with the Afghan Yama Yari the novel “A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear” by Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi. The poem “Almost the Equinox” in her new collection is dedicated to Yama. In it she writes of sharing a walk in London with an Afghan friend. The “huge nave” of St Paul’s cathedral reminds her companion of the Great Mosque in Kabul, “sunlight falling on pillars of stone, the hushed intentness / of prayer. Shattered, war-torn, it’s still standing, /somehow, next to the river by the Bridge of Bricks, /just as Wren’s great dome once soared above the Blitz, / intact.” The poem’s lines “the constant pull of elsewhere / mooring us outside ourselves” have echoes elsewhere in the collection.

Maguire wrote “From Dublin to Ramallah” for Ghassan Zaqtan, at a time when the situation in the West Bank prevented him from travelling from Ramallah to Dublin for a poetry event. The defiant poem plays with images of water, which knows no boundaries. “And instead of a postcard, I post you a poem of water. / Subterranean subterfuge, / an indolent element that slides across borders, / as boundaries are eroded by the fluency of tongues.”

The plight of migrants caught up in the international tides of human traffic is the subject of “Passages”, which was shortlisted in the best single poem category of the Forward prize in 2005. The stimulus for the poem was a news report of a stowaway falling to his death from an aircraft which was coming in to land at Heathrow.

In the poem“Europe”, young men on the coast of Tangier at night, lured by the prospects in Europe, “climb these crumbling ramparts // and face north / like true believers, while the lighthouse of Tarifa blinks // and beckons, / unrolling its brilliant pavement across the pitiless Straits.”

Maguire’s poetry is deeply informed by her passion for, and expertise in, plants and gardening. Born in West London, Maguire trained as a gardener after leaving school, before going to university and later becoming a poet and broadcaster. She has been Poet in Residence at Chelsea Physic Garden in London, and at Hungercombe Place Young Offenders’ Institution.

Maguire’s first collection “Spilt Milk”, published in 1991, was followed by “The Invisible Mender” in 1997. Her 2001 collection “The Florist’s at Midnight” comprises poems about flowers and gardens. She has edited two plant-related anthologies: “A Green Thought in a Green Shade: Poetry in the Garden” (2000) and “Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse” (2001).

Some of the poems in “The Pomegranates of Kandahar” are directly related to botany, and imagery from the plant world is threaded throughout her work. “The Grass Church at Dilston Grove” was inspired by the work of two artists who sowed grass seeds all over the walls of a deconsecrated church. “Glaucium flavum” focuses on the adaptation of the yellow horned-poppy to the harsh saline environment of the coast near Sizewell nuclear power station.

Throughout her career as a poet Maguire has written compelling love poetry, and there are several memorable examples in her new collection, which portray the difficulties of love in these times of dislocation, separation and unease. The lover seizes moments of intense joy amidst periods of waiting and yearning, and the poems have an elegiac tenderness. “Vigil” begins: “Late June, the night air stitched with the scent of lime-blossoms./When you left, these trees were bare.” Later, the poet writes: “I measure out the cloth to sew a new cover for our bed:/ the warp and weft of fabric, its journeys, the places we will meet.” In “A Bowl of Transvaal Daisies”, the wilting over time of a bunch of these flowers, also known as gerberas, parallels the painful decline of a love affair.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette July 2 2007