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