Saturday, June 21, 2008

London as an Arab literary capital

London is sometimes described as an Arab capital - or at least an Arab cultural capital. Certainly it is one of the most important capitals for Arabs outside the Arab world: the Palestinian author and journalist Saudi Aburish, in his book 'A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite', dubs it "Beirut on Thames".

The increase in the Arab presence over the past four decades, to several hundred thousand, has been accompanied by a growth in Arab-related cultural activities. Yet much Arab cultural life in London takes place within a largely Arab milieu, without many links to wider British culture.

With the flying around of buzzphrases such as "cultural cooperation", "soft power" and "winning hearts and minds in the post 9/11 era", Arab-British cultural exchanges are often portrayed as if they were something new - when in fact they have been going on for decades, if largely untrumpeted.

The Arab communities that have descended on the British capital at different times have included traders and tourists, bankers and businessmen, priests and imams, restaurateurs and plumbers – and along with them they brought journalists, novelists, playwrights, cartoonists, poets, broadcasters, musicians and artists.

The pan-Arab media was born in London when Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, distinctive on news stands with its green front page, was launched in 1978. It was the first Arabic newspaper to use satellite transmission to print in several cities around the world simulataneously. Ten years later the Lebanese newspaper Al-Hayat moved from Beirut to be relaunched from London as a pan-Arab daily.

London was also midwife to Arab satellite TV when Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) started broadcasting from the city in September 1991.

In a three-page memoir published in the Economist in 2003, the legendary Middle East journalist Barbara Smith, then on the verge of retirement, recalls her nearly half a century career at the magazine which she joined shortly before the Suez War of 1956. She writes of her “exasperated affection” for the Arab world - a phrase with which many will surely identify.

Over the years, the work of some Arab writers has resonated with a wider British audience. One Arab author to command attention in London in the 1960s was the Egyptian Waguih Ghali, an exiled communist whose acclaimed novel Beer in the Snooker Club is set between Cairo and London.

In her 1986 memoir After a Funeral, the publisher Diana Athill tells with unflinching clarity of her difficult five-year friendship (they were only occasionally lovers) with the complex and troubled Ghali. He committed suicide in 1968 through taking an overdose in Athill’s flat. Athill’s book is a sharp observation of an Arab-British lived relationship.

Towards the end of the 1960s the pioneering Sudanese novelist Tayib Salih, who worked for years at the BBC Arabic Service in London, attracted much acclaim for his novel Season of Migration to the North. The novel, which moves between Sudan and London, is regarded as a landmark work of Arabic and post-colonial literature. It was translated into English by Denys Johnson-Davies and published in Heinemann’s African Writers Series in 1969. Its enduring reputation led to its being republished in the Penguin Classics Series in 2003.

Johnson-Davies, whose career spans 60 years, is the doyen of translators of Arabic fiction. He studied Arabic at Cambridge University, but told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram: “I really learnt Arabic at the BBC Arabic Service, where I started working in 1940. It had started in 1938 and they were looking for anyone who knew Arabic to work there. So many Arabs who lived in London worked there, including many Egyptians.” During his five and a half years at the BBC he learnt from his colleagues how to speak Arabic, and about Arabic literature.

Several of Johnson-Davies’ translations of Egyptian writers were published by the African Writers Series. He was appointed as the consultant to Heinemann’s Arab Authors series, and translated much of its output, but the series did not take off in the way the African series had and it was discontinued in the late 1980s. Since then, translations by Johnson-Davies, who has lived in Cairo for many years, have been published by publishers such as Quartet, the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press and Saqi Books.

Arab migration to London increased in the 1970s as a result of two main factors: new wealth in the oil states from the rise in oil prices, and the Lebanese civil war. The influx of Arabs included writers, journalists and publishers. In the 30 years since, there have been further waves of migration of Arab exiles, refugees and asylum seekers from Iraq, Sudan and other countries.

A landmark for the development of Arab culture in London was the establishment in 1979 of Al Saqi bookshop in Westbourne Grove by the late Lebanese writer, artist and publisher Mai Ghoussoub and her friend Andre Gaspard. The shop’s stock included books censored by certain Arab countries, and Arab visitors to London would make pilgrimages to Saqi to get their hands on these banned titles. In 1983 Saqi launched a publishing arm, Saqi Books, and in 1990 it set up the sister Dar Al-Saqi publishing house in Beirut.

Next door to Saqi the Iraqi architect Dr Mohamed Makiya established the Kufa Gallery, which became a centre for Arab culture in London, hosting art exhibitions and book launches. Makiya sold the Kufa to Saqi in 2006 and it closed down when Saqi were unable to find a tenant who would keep it as a gallery.

The colourful Palestinian Naim Attallah [here in a portrait by Emma Sergeant], proprietor of Quartet Books, brought fun and panache to Arab publishing as recounted in his fourth volume of memoirs, Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975-1995, published last year.
Zelfa Hourani built up the Arab fiction list at Quartet, and in 1986 Quartet published in English translation Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh’s taboo-breaking novel The Story of Zahra. Al-Shaykh has lived in London since the early 1980s, and her first London novel, Only in London, was published by Bloomsbury in 2002.

After a hiatus of several years, Quartet has recently been revived. Its new titles include “By the Rivers of Babylon”, the new novel of Iraqi satirist, writer and artist Khalid Kishtaini, a long-time resident of London. The novel is set in the 1940s and focuses on Iraqi Jews in Iraq and Israel.

Increasing numbers of Arab authors in Britain write in English rather than Arabic, and some have received wide recognition. The Egyptian novelist and short story writer Ahdaf Soueif was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1999 for The Map of Love.
The Libyan Hisham Matar was shortlisted for Man Booker with his debut novel, In the Country of Men, in 2006. The work of both authors explores the impact of the history and politics of their countries on individuals.

Leila Aboulela, the Sudanese-Egyptian writer whose short story The Museum won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000, the prize’s first year, deals in her fiction with themes that are more overtly Muslim than most Arab novelists in Britain.
Her first two novels The Translator (Polygon) and Minaret (Bloomsbury) were longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Palestinian-British Tony Hanania wrote three well-reviewed novels in quick succession between 1997 and 2000 - Homesick, Unreal City and Eros Island, all published by Bloomsbury - but has since disappeared from British literary circles. The Palestinian Samir El Youssef stirred controversy with the book of short stories, Gaza Blues (David Paul), he co-authored with Israeli writer Etgar Keret, and with his novel The Illusion of Return (Halban Publishers). The Jordanian Fadia Faqir’s novel My Name is Salma was published last year in London by Doubleday/Random House and in the US (under the title The Cry of the Dove) by Grove/Atlantic.

The prospects for Arab literature in Britain and beyond were boosted in 1997 when Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in translation, was launched in London by publisher and editor Margaret Obank and her Iraqi journalist and writer husband Samuel (author of An Iraqi in Paris). The magazine has showcased hundreds of Arab authors whose work had never before been translated into English. Banipal also has a book publishing arm, Banipal Books, and in 2006 it launched the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, administered by the Society of Authors.

Arabic literature was brought into the Booker fold last year with the launch of the annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction, worth a total of $60,000 to the winner, in association with the Booker Prize Foundation of London and with financial support from the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi. The prize was awarded in March to Egyptian Bahaa Taher for his novel Sunset Oasis.

The Arab World Market Focus at the London Book Fair in April showed that Arab literature in London has entered a dynamic new phase, at least as far as publishers are concerned. Some 100 Arab publishers and organisations took part, and more than 60 Arab writers, publishers and academics appeared in a programme of seminars organised jointly by the Fair and the British Council. The participating writers included some of the hottest names in Arab fiction: Faiza Guene born in France to Algerian parents, Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany - author of the extraordinarily successful “The Yacoubian Building” - and Saudi Raja Alsanea, whose debut novel “Girls of Riyadh” was this month published in English translation as a Penguin paperback.
During the Fair it was announced that a new publishing venture, Arabia Books, has been set up by London-based publishers Arcadia Books and Haus Publishing, focussing on the publication of titles from the American University in Cairo Press. The first ten titles are scheduled for publication in the late summer. They include Al-Aswany's 'Friendly Fire - Ten Stories of Today's Cairo', Hoda Barakat's 'Tiller of Water' and Alia Mamdouh's 'The Loved Ones'.
Susannah Tarbush

Monday, June 02, 2008

palestine festival of literature

In the latest issue of the London Review of Books, Scottish novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan reflects on the inaugural Palestine Festival of Literature held recently in the West Bank and Jerusalem. “Thousands of people turned out: they wanted to believe that Palestine is not just a cause but also a culture and a country, a place not simply for stone-throwing but for ideas and for modernity” writes O’Hagan, whose latest book “The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America” has just been published by Faber.

O’Hagan was one of around 15 writers - British, Irish, American, Indian and Arab - who travelled to the festival from abroad to give public talks and readings, network with Palestinian writers, and hold workshops at universities.

During their travels between festival venues in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem the writers constantly came up against the harsh realities of the Israeli occupation and the “separation wall”. O’Hagan writes: “Everywhere we went the wall seemed a shadow, a heavy ornament of Israeli aggression and a horrible reminder to those us who grew to see the wall come down in Berlin and the end of apartheid in South Africa.”

In Hebron, the writers found that most of the shops had been closed down and “the general atmosphere is of a people being harassed, obscured, denied and cancelled.” But O’Hagan ends his piece on an upbeat note. He observes students at Birzeit University engaging in discussion under the olive trees, and comments: “They seemed to agree that too much talk about one’s suffering is a kind of provincialism and more than anything wanted to see themselves as a generation that could inhabit the world.”

The five-day festival, which took place at the same time as Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, embodied the call of the late Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said for the “reaffirmation of the power of culture over the culture of power.” The festival met with an enthusiastic response from those attending its events, which were often filled to bursting. There were repeated declarations of appreciation that the writers had come to Palestine.

The Palestinian festival coincided with the first Jerusalem International Writers Festival, organized by Israelis. Inevitably, some journalists and commentators drew attention to the total lack of interaction between the two festivals. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the Egyptian-British novelist Ahdaf Soueif was asked about the absence of Israel participants. She said this was not deliberate, but “I’m resistant to this idea of always having to twin, that every time you talk about Palestine you have to invite an Israeli, or vice versa. They aren’t twinned.”

The festival had a distinguished list of patrons: Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, British critic, writer and novelist John Berger, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, and two Nobel prizewinners – Irish poet Seamus Heaney and British playwright Harold Pinter.

There were seven local and international partners including the British Council and the AM Qattan Foundation, and support also came from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, UNESCO, the Ford Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Charitable Fund.

The delegation of writers included four Palestinians. Two of them - poets Nathalie Handel and Suheir Hammad - live in the USA, where they have built up substantial fan bases. Handel is editor of “The Poetry of Arab Women”, while Hammad is known for her brand of rap poetry.

The writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, who lives in Ramallah, is author of the acclaimed memoir “Strangers in the House”. His most recent work, “Palestinian Walks: Notes on the Vanishing Landscape”, has won the Orwell prize for political literature. Poet and author Mourid Barghouti has many published collections to his name. His book “I Saw Ramallah”, written after he returned to that city after an absence of 30 years, won the Naguib Mahfouz prize for literature and has been translated into several languages.

The delegation also included two of the best-known Arab novelists living in Britain: Ahdaf Soueif [below] (shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 1999 for “The Map of Love”) and the Lebanese Hanan Al-Shaykh [above] (whose highly-praised novels include “Only in London”). Novelist Jamal Mahjoub [right] , born to a Sudanese father and English mother, grew up in Khartoum and has lived in Denmark and Spain. He is the author of several novels that explore dislocations.

Among the British participants in the festival was Brigid Keenan, the journalist and author who is married to a British diplomat and whose books include “Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City” and “Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse”. William Dalrymple is a prolific author of books on themes related to Islam and to Middle Eastern and Indian history, among them “White Mughals” and “The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1957”. From Ireland, there was Man Booker prizewinning novelist Roddy Doyle, whose humor during festival performances was much appreciated.

The Indian member of the writers’ party was essayist and writer Pankaj Mishra, author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India”. The actor Khalid Abdulla, the star of the film “The Kite Runner” who was born in Britain to parents of Egyptian origin, took part in some of the festival events.

The festival began in Jerusalem with an evening of readings in Dar el-Tifl al-Arabi, chaired by the Palestinian politician, human rights activist and English literature scholar Hanan Ashrawi. The theme of the first session was journeys. Dalrymple spoke of the travels he undertook in Palestine while preparing his book “From the Holy Mountain”. British novelist Esther Freud [bottom] told of her childhood in Morocco (the basis of her novel “Hideous Kinky”), and Keenan recounted incidents from her life as the EU ambassador’s wife in Kazakhstan.

The writers travelled to Birzeit University, Ramallah, the next day. Among those who gave readings was British journalist and author Victoria Brittain, who read from “Enemy Combatant: The Terrifying Story of a Briton in Guantanamo”, the book she wrote jointly with former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg. The readings were followed by workshops with students, and a meeting at the A M Qattan Foundation with 20 leading Palestinian authors. During an evening at the Al-Kasaba Theatre, Roddy Doyle read from his Irish historical novel “A Star Called Henry” and drew parallels between the history of Ireland and Palestine.

Travelling from Ramallah to Bethlehem, the writers chose not to go by the easier tourist route, but to experience the way a Palestinian would have to go. They passed through the notorious Qalandia checkpoint, which the daily blog of the festival recorded as being “deeply unpleasant”. In Hebron, “we walked through nightmare wires, tunnels and metal detectors, saw groups of settlers out jogging with AK-47s round their necks.” To get to Abraham’s mosque, the writers were made to pass through another metal detector. “Once inside some people had to take themselves away to cry. All very very rough.”

The events in Bethlehem included an evening at the new Dar an-Nadwa cultural centre where Suheir Hammad’s rap poetry captivated a full house of several hundred. The main entertainment came from El Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe dressed in brightly colored costumes. The festival blog records that the writers were told how they had energized the city. “Bethlehem, they told us, is being slowly strangled to death, but this Festival has really given people a kick.”

The festival finale was an evening in the Palestinian National Theatre, Jerusalem. The writers took it in turn to read from their choice of works by other authors including James Joyce and Charles Dickens. There were performances by the group Yasmeen from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. But the realities of the situation on the ground intruded even into this. “Although their oud player and vocalist had been held at a checkpoint, the remaining four musicians played beautifully,” the festival blog said.

Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette, June 2 2008