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

1 comment:

Noor Amin said...

Arab Writers Union conference is a good initiative by Arab officials to promote Arab literary work. It’s a best platform where cultural personalities can gather and such events encourage cultural and poetic events in the country.