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