Monday, September 28, 2009

raja shehadeh and kamila shamsie at the tabernacle in london

The Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh leapt to fame in Britain when his book “Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape” won the 2008 Orwell Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent award for political writing.

In his prizewinning book Shehadeh recounts a series of walks he made over 27 years in the hills of the West Bank, where he lives in the town of Ramallah. His walks reveal the devastation visited on the landscape treasures of Palestine by Israeli occupation and settlement building.

And yet when Shehadeh appeared onstage at the Tabernacle cultural center in West London last Wednesday evening, in conversation with the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie [pictured], he began by reading an account of hillwalking not in the West Bank but in the Scottish Highlands.

Shehadeh first walked in the Highlands of Scotland in 1992. His essay on that walk, entitled “Echoing Lands”, starts: “I come from a land of hills full of stories that the lingering ghosts of those who once lived there want to tell. I did not know the same was true of the Scottish Highlands.”

Shehadeh has done much walking in the Scottish Highlands in the nearly two decades since that first walk. “I welcomed the opportunity to write about that part of the world and found that there are so many echoes with Palestine. Palestine is not an isolated issue: it’s important to see it in wider context.”

“Echoing Lands” appears in the anthology “In a Wilder Vein”, newly published by Two Ravens Press, which focuses on the relationship between people and the wild places of Britain and Ireland.

The evening at the Tabernacle was organized on behalf of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). It gave the audience a chance to interact with a spellbinding writer who combines a passion for justice with sharp perceptions and gentle humor. His writing goes far beyond mere reportage and is permeated by a deep humanity.

In 1979 Shehadeh co-founded the human rights group Al Haq to defend human rights in the occupied territories. Although he is no longer working directly with Al Haq, he considers that through his writing he continues to serve the cause of human rights. Books, whether fiction or non-fiction, are able to touch readers and enable them to understand a situation through experiencing emotion in a way that reports, information or statistics alone cannot do.

Two of Shehadeh’s books, both published by Profile Books of London, were on display for sale and signing at the event. One of the books was the recently-published paperback edition of his 2002 family memoir “Strangers in the House”. The new edition has an afterword by Shehadeh entitled: “A Palestinian Son’s Search for Justice”.

Raja’s prominent lawyer father Aziz Shehadeh was murdered in 1985, and it took Raja years to reach at least the partial truth, with the Israelis laying false trails thereby causing the family much anguish. In his afterword he explains how only in 2006 was he finally able to piece together the story and identify the culprit, by then dead, who had enjoyed Israeli protection as a collaborator.

The other book on display was the 2008 paperback edition of “Palestinian Walks”. The first edition of the book included six walks, but for the paperback edition Shehadeh has added a seventh. During this walk, in August 2007, he and a woman volunteer he had first met in Scotland were menaced by two teenage Palestinians carrying clubs, their faces masked by kufiehs. Shehadeh feared that the situation would turn ugly at any moment. The incident left him feeling “the hills were not mine any more. I am no longer free to come and walk.”

Kamila Shamsie said she had read “Palestinian Walks” and “Strangers in the House” separately, and then together. “The way they interweave with each other is really very moving. They are both books which go right to the heart of how the personal and political are indivisible, and how the land and the people of the land are indivisible.”

When Shehadeh returned to Ramallah from his law studies in London, he was the first Western-educated lawyer to return to the West Bank since 1948. He was determined not only to practice law but to become a writer. His books draw on his own experiences to illuminate the wider human predicament of the Palestinians. His first book, “The Third Way: Journal of the Life in the West Bank”, was published in 1982. “When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Dairy of Ramallah Under Siege”, was published by Profile in 2003.

Shehade recently finished writing his latest book. It is based on his great great uncle Najib Nassar, originally from a Lebanese village, who lived in Haifa where he was the editor of Al Karmil newspaper. In 1908 he wrote a book on the dangers of Zionism to Palestine and Palestinian life.

During the First World War Nassar thought that it was a mistake for the Ottomans to enter the war, and to do so on the German side. The Germans and Ottomans tried to use him as a propagandist for their cause; when he refused to comply, a warrant was issued for his arrest. So as to avoid the risk of being hanged (as many others were) in what became Martyrs Square in Beirut, Nassar went on the run for the three years 1915-18. He first hid with Bedouin, travelling with them in Galilee, and then crossed the River Jordan to take refuge in the wilderness of the East Bank.

Nassar wrote in detail about his travels, and in his latest book Shehadeh traces his route, as well as visiting Nassar’s Lebanese village of origin. “I have tried to write about how things are today – all the borders, the fragmentation, and the difficulties – and the change that has occurred in the land from the way it was 100 years ago. And then I end the book by going into the future 50 years from today to see how things might look: so it’s the past, the present and the future.”

Shehadeh does not thinks that in 50 years the situation will be as it is now, with an ideological Israeli state believing it can survive through military power in a region that does not accept it. “They will have to make peace with the region, and peace must mean breaking the walls that they have put in place – ideological walls, and walls built by fear and insecurity.” He stressed the interdependence of states in the area. In 50 years there will be “either utter destruction, or peace built on more rational reasoning.”
Susannah Tarbush

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

quartet publishes george zakhem's memoir

[Original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat on 14 September 2009]

George’s Zakhem’s memoir
Susannah Tarbush

At book fairs and international seminars on Arab literature, participants often lament the fact there are so few memoirs and autobiographies by Arabs available in English. In Britain and the US, memoirs are an increasingly popular sector of the book market. As well as being an account of a particular life, a memoir can deepen our understanding of particular times, places and events.

The few memoirs by Arabs that have been published in English tend to be by writers, scholars or political personalities. There are fewer by figures from the world of business. The publication of “Men Who Can Dream: A Memoir” by prominent Lebanese contractor and engineer George Zakhem is therefore to be welcomed. Zakhem’s memoir was published recently by Quartet Books, the London-based publishing company founded by Palestinian publisher and businessman Naim Attallah.

It is an appropriate time for Zakhem to look back over his career and life. It is only now that Zakhem, who is 74 this year, is planning for his retirement. His sons Marwan and Salim and his youngest brother Albert are spearheading the growth of the Zakhem business.

Zakhem has led an eventful life. From his humble beginnings in the village of Deddeh in the Al-Koura district of North Lebanon, where he was born in 1935, Zakhem and his brothers built up an engineering and contracting business that has operated in many parts of the world including the Middle East, Europe, the US and Africa. The business has been though major challenges and setbacks, as Zakhem describes, but it has grown to have an annual turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the same time, George has over the past quarter of a century been a major philanthropist in the field of Lebanese higher education. He writes: “”By the year 2005, we had contributed over $18 million to institutions of higher education in Lebanon. This is a figure I believe was only matched by the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.” He adds: “Although many of our countrymen have amassed great fortunes and are much wealthier than we are, they have failed to make similar contributions to promote education in our country.”

Zakhem has written the story of his life in straightforward prose, with no attempt at a flowery literary style. Contracting and engineering might be thought of as dry and factual subjects, and Zakhem gives technical and financial details of the projects he has undertaken. But he also conveys something of the excitement in bidding for new contracts, of the fierce competition to win business and of the personality clashes and feuds that are sometimes seen.

The district of origin, Al-Koura, was notable for two reasons: “First, it boasted the highest percentage of educated people in Lebanon, and second, its inhabitants produced the best olive oil in the land.”
Zakhem was born in Deddeh to parents who had experienced considerable hardship. His father Salim’s father Tannous had gone out to Brazil to find a better life for his family, only to die in an epidemic there in 1918 leaving his widow Tarfa in Lebanon with three young children.

Zakhem dedicates his book to his parents Salim and Hanneh, and when he financed the construction of a building at Balamand University named it after them. His parents were determined that their children should have the best education possible despite their modest means. His father Salim had a grocery shop and later became a trader in olives and olive oil. He frequently found it difficult to pay his children’s school fees on time.

George Zakhem still has much feeling for the Al-Koura district, and remembers its hills and olive groves, valleys and brooks, and the different types of tree. The first English he ever heard spoken was from Australian soldiers who requisitioned the upper floor of his family’s house in the Second World War.

The Zakhem family is of the Greek Orthodox faith associated with the Church of Antioch, and this religious background was a mainstay to George and a source of values. He is secular-minded and non-sectarian, but at the same time proud of the role of the Greek Orthodox “as catalysts of dialogue, as educators, scientists, doctors, and businessmen.”

George pays tribute to an outstanding educator of boys in the Koura area, George Ibrahim Abdullah who opened a school at Bishmizene, 12 kilometres from Deddeh. George and one of his brothers would walk for two hours there on Mondays with their mother and stay there with an aunt during the week. When George Ibrahim Abdullah moved and set up a school the village of Aba, George transferred there, walking for two hours from Deddeh to get there every morning.

In 1948 George began his secondary education at Tripoli College High School, founded by Ilias Milhem. When he finished there he was recommended to the American University of Beirut (AUB) and entered the new engineering school. The dean of the engineering school, Ken Weidner, “was devoted to the idea of creating an Engineering school that would serve the ambitious construction and development projects of countries located in the Middle East and Africa.”

There was one Lebanese business personality above all who was a role model and mentor to George, and that was the legendary Lebanese MP and contractor Emile Bustani, the founder of the Contracting and Trading Company (CAT). Whiles studying at AUB George had summer work experience with CAT in Qatar. He joined the company after graduation, and was sent to work on projects in Pakistan.

When Zakhem decided to leave CAT in 1962 because he did not feel he was being properly rewarded., Bustani suggested that he and Zakhem set up a company in which Bustani would be the “sleeping” partner and Zakhem the active partner.

This joint venture undertook several projects in Pakistan. Bustani was keen that it should win a contract for work on the construction of the first Atomic Centre in Rawlpinkdi. He lobbied the President of Pakistan Ayub Khan by letter, and he when Prime Minster Rashid Karami went on an official visit to Pakistan in January 1963, Bustani was among those accompanying him. Zakhem came to admire Bustani’s qualities even more. “During his visit to Pakistan, Emile exemplified the ideal Lebanese politician and the experienced international businessman.” [picture shows Emile Bustani (with trademark cigar) with CAT employees on his trip to Pakistan, George Zakehm second from R]
Bustani was expected by many to become president of Lebanon. But tragedy stuck in March 1963 when his plane crashed in Lebanon. Emile was killed together with Palestinian engineer Marwan Khartabil – who was George Zakhem’s best friend – Dr Nimir Touqan of AUB and the pilot John Ogilvi.

After Bustani’s death Zakhem decided to liquidate his partnership with CAT and to launch his own business. In early 1964 he and his brother Abdullah registered Zakhem Engineering in Beirut. The business expanded and took on projects in a number of countries. In the personal sphere, Zakhem married in 1969 Lisa Masad. She had been born in Alexandria, Egypt to parents Nicolas Masad and Rose Kadir who were both originally from Zahle.

Zakhem gives several dramatic examples of how politics sometimes disrupted business. In Iraq in 1969, the year after the Baathist revolution, Abdullah Zakhem was arrested on his way to the airport and held for 45 days. At the time the Zakhems had around 400 people working in Iraq. They sought help from the Lebanese foreign ministry and leaders of the Baath Party in Lebanon to get Abdullah released. According to George, this episode showed “we had many enemies but few friends. Some who had appeared to be close to us immediately turned their backs at the first sign of trouble.”

In July 1972 trouble came in Italy when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) claimed responsibility for an explosion at Trieste oil, where Zakhem’s company was building oil tanks. Italian police seized a bus load of around 30 Lebanese and Palestinian welders and fitters who had been working on the project and expelled them from Italy. They later denied George and Abdullah permission to enter the country.

“A few years after the Trieste incident, the Italian government discovered the identities of the perpetrators, who of course had no connection to Zakhem Italia,” Zakhem writes. “But the damage had been done. Our work in Italy was stopped and our company closed its offices in Milan after liquidating our Italian assets.”

In 1975 George was detained by the police in Italy after travelling there on business, despite having the necessary visa. It was not until 1987 that he returned to Italy and even then he was so worried about how he would be treated by the Italian authorities that he asked his friend Dr Khalil Makkawi, then Lebanon’s ambassador to Italy, for his assistance and Makkawi met him at the airport.

Libya was an important focus of operations for the Zakhems, but serious problems arose in 1983 as a result of a row between Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at a summit meeting of non-aligned countries.

Abdullah Zakhem’s private jet was barred when it tried to enter Libyan airspace, and the Libyans forced the Zakhem’s company to cease operations in Libya. More than two decades later, the company has still not received payment for the construction equipment that was seized in Libya, despite a Libyan court ruling that it should be paid around $10 million.

In 1975 George Zakhem left Lebanon as a result of the civil war, and moved to London. Like many other Lebanese who left at that time, he assumed that his move abroad would be temporary. However, London has been the centre of the company’s activities ever since.

Trying to working on government reconstruction contracts in Lebanon in the 1980s provided some of the biggest frustrations of his career, for which Zakhem blames corruption, mismanagement and factionalism. His brothers disagreed with his gloomy view of the Lebanese government, and in the 1990s persuaded him to go after some fresh government work.

Zakhem executed five government projects in Lebanon, only one of which ended amicably. “The other four ended up in court, and we are awaiting the court’s judgement to this day. In the process we spent over $40 million to finance the jobs and complete them on time.” The Zakhems’ successes in other countries in effect subsidised the losses in Lebanon.

Zakhem has been very active in Lebanese higher education since the early 1980s, as a donor and fundraiser. He was intimately involved in the transformation of Beirut University College (BUC) into the Lebanese American University in 1994, and in the founding of the University of Balamand. Last year AUB announced that George and his four brothers, who are all AUB graduates, had given $3 million to establish a deanship at the AUB Faculty of Engineering and Architecture.

Some of Zakhem’s activities in higher education caused controversy: there was for example widespread opposition to his pushing for the building of a campus of BUC at Byblos. The Zakhem family donated the engineering building at the Byblos campus. In the 1980s Zakhem was keen to see a university set up in at Balamand sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Church. He proposed the idea to His Beatitude Ignatius IV, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church for Antioch and the Orient and to fellow members of the church’s Economic and Development Advisory Board, and the new university was launched in 1987. In all, the Zakhems gave $10 to the Lebanese American University and $5 million to Balamand University.

He writes of how he was never happy over MP and publisher Ghassan Tueini’s presidency of the university. Tueini was furious when Zakhem called in 1993 for his removal, although according to Zakhem he later cooperated over finding the most suitable person to replace him. Zakhem had always favoured former foreign minister Elie Salem as president of the university, a position that Salem took over from Tueini and still holds.

To cover its losses in Lebanon, the Zakhem group has since the beginning of this century sought income from other areas. In particular, it has focused on Africa. George is especially optimistic over the potential of Ghana where the company is developing a downtown area of the capital Accra including a five-star hotel which is due to open next year.

Zakhem’s memoir gives his own perspective on the events he has been involved in, and others are likely to have their own version of history. But his memoir is a lively read, and is also a useful contribution to the social and business history of Lebanon and the wider region over the past seven decades.
George Zakhem and Elie Salem on the steps of the building at Balamand University donated by him and named after his parents Hanneh and Salim

Monday, September 14, 2009

bbc documentary on 'the muslim tommies' of WW1

Shah Jehan Mosque, Woking: dead 'Muslim Tommies' were laid to rest in its burial ground

British television brings ‘Muslim Tommies’ to light
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 14 September 2009

Each year during Ramadan, British TV carries some special programs to mark the holy month. A major contribution this Ramadan has been the fascinating and moving documentary “The Muslim Tommies” shown on BBC One. “Tommy” is slang for a British soldier, and the half-hour film reveals the extent to which Britain depended on troops from India, including many Muslims, to hold the front line in France and Belgium during World War One.

The pre-screening publicity for the film said that while much has been made of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalist to the security of Britain, “what is often forgotten is that Muslims have fought on behalf of Britain for hundreds of years. Thousands have lost their lives in the process – a sacrifice that has rarely been acknowledged.”

Soldiers in the Indian corps experienced the full horror of trench warfare in Europe’s bloodiest of wars. Two divisions of infantry and cavalry of the Indian Army started to arrive in September 1914, a month after the outbreak of the war. The role of these sepoys in filling gaps in the British defensive line was crucial. Eventually, the Indians were stationed in their own sector, south of the Belgian town of Ypres, which accounted for around a third of the total 30-40 mile front line. The film brings the experiences of the Muslim soldiers powerfully to life through reconstruction of conditions in the trenches, and readings by actors from the soldiers’ letters back home. The letters were translated and typed up by military censors at the time so as to ensure they did not reveal sensitive military information.

The thousands of letters had lain undisturbed for nearly a century, and poignantly reveal the inner thoughts, hopes and beliefs of Muslim soldiers as they fought in “the war to end all wars.” Subadar Muhammad Agia of the 57th rifles wrote in May 1915: “It is just like the grinding of corn in a mill; there is no counting the number of lives lost. Not a single British or native officer of the old regiment is left, and not one sepoy.”

Many of the Muslim soldiers came from provinces which are now part of Afghanistan, Pakistan and North India. Recruitment from these areas was heavily influenced by the British idea of “martial races”. Jahan Mahmood, a community historian, says: “British martial theory was the idea that certain races were much more warlike and had much more stamina on the battlefield than others. Military historian Gordon Corrigan [pictured] says the role of the Indian soldiers was vital, and had they not been fighting on the front line the Germans might well have broken through and made it to the ports on the English channel. “The Punjabi Musselman, to give them their correct title, was regarded as the backbone of the old Indian army and was about a third of that army.”

Khudadad Khan was the first-ever Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, for his actions on Oct. 30, 1914. His grandson Abdul-Samad Khan explains that Khan was a machine gunner, and that all other members of his group had been killed by German shelling. “A shell hit him, but despite this, right to the end he kept trying to stop the Germans so they wouldn’t think everyone had died on the other side.” Khudadad survived, and lived until 1971.

The film begins in the recent past by recounting the July 2006 killing in Afghanistan of the first British Muslim to die during the “war on terror”. He was Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi who was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, and came to Britain at the age of 11. Hashmi’s death made headlines in Britain, and he was hailed as a Muslim hero. The film commented: “He wasn’t the first Muslim to be ready to risk his life for a British cause. Thousands of Muslims have fought and died on Britain’s behalf.”

The number of Muslims in the British armed forces has gradually been increasing, to reach about 400 today. Imam Asim Hafiz, the first-ever Muslim chaplain to the British armed forces, says: “Britain is a multicultural and multi-faith society, and it is important that the armed forces reflect the diverse nature of this country.” The film acknowledges, however, that for Muslims to join up at a time when there are wars against other Muslims raises “complex questions of national identity, personal loyalty and what it means to be British”.

Imam Asim Hafiz says: “At the moment because our current conflicts are in Islamic countries it could be more challenging for a Muslim to join the armed forces. What we have to understand is that everybody has a variety of identifies that makes them an individual – it could be their faith, it could be their culture, it could be their job: at different times one identity might take priority over another.”

During World War One some 12,000 injured Indian troops were sent for medical treatment to Brighton on the English south coast, where an army hospital was established in the famous Royal Pavilion. Muslim soldiers who died were buried in the Muslim Burial Ground at Woking’s Shah Jahan Mosque, constructed in 1889 as Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. Every summer a multi-faith ceremony is held at the Chattri Memorial in the countryside near Brighton, which was built to commemorate the Indian troops who died in hospitals in Brighton and Hove.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

max hastings: govt hides popularity of name 'mohammed'

Max Hastings has written a shamelessly alarmist article in the Daily Mail on what he alleges is an official statistical cover-up over the fact that Mohammed, in all its variant spellings, is now (on 2008 figures) the third most popular name for boy new borns in England. Nor is it only Max who has latched onto the story. The tabloid Sun warns that Mohammed in its various forms will be No 1 in two years.

Hastings' article is entitled: Mohammed is now the third most popular boys' name in England. So why this shabby attempt to conceal it?

He begins: This week, the Office for National Statistics published a list of the most popular boys' names in Britain: Jack, Oliver, Thomas, Harry, Joshua, Alfie, Charlie, Daniel. They reflect a cultural tradition as old the nation's history, and would provoke approving nods from Jack the Ripper, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Becket and Harry Hotspur. There is just one small problem: the list is deceitful. In reality, the third most popular choice for boy children born last year in England and Wales was not Thomas but Mohammed. The ONS explains blithely that it had no intent to deceive. Its normal practice is to catalogue different spellings separately, as in Mohammed, Muhammad and so on. But if you add these variants together, as surely seems logical, then Mohammed is right up there, near the top of the list.

Hastings goes on to say that unfortunately, in recent times we have been given plentiful cause for paranoia about attempts by official bodies to conceal from us information about the changing face of Britain which our rulers know that many people will not like.

He goes on to raise alarm over Muslim reproduction figures. The Muslim population is now close to two million, over 3 per cent, and rising fast because Muslim children have more children than most of the rest of us, many of them named Mohammed or Muhammed. In comparison, the Poles who settled her after World War II mostly had names like Wladyslaw or Miroslaw. But when they married and had children, few gave these Polish names. Most became Jacks and Olivers and Harrys. Today, their grandchildren are indistinguishable from ours. It is hard to believe that the same will be true in Birmingham or Leicester, where Mulsims are soon expected to outnumber whites.

Actually, the Poles I know tend to give their children names that "work" in both Poland and Britain, such as Peter/Piotr or Anna. Some of my Muslim friends similarly chose eg Rashid/Richard, or Idris, or Yousef/Joseph, or Samir/Sammy, and use them flexibly.

Isn't one reason for the prevalence of Mohammed in its different forms due to fact that the name is extremely popular among Muslims, and also that there is probably a more limited range of Muslim boys' names in use than of non-Muslim names?

If Hastings' alarmism over swelling Muslim numbers is well-founded, then would one not expect to find other Muslim names in the top 100? - Ahmed perhaps, Samir, or Mustafa. I can't actually find one. Or maybe some Muslims are already following Max's advice and calling their children Oliver, or maybe true-Brit name Ashton - a new entry this year, at no 74.

What about girls' names? Surely one would expect to see a similar phenomenon there, with Muslim girls' names riding high in the charts. Admittedly Jasmine is at number 35 - are the 1,653 babies given this pretty name last year all Muslim? (as an English spelling of Yasmeen) Layla is at 68 - a new entry since 1998, having risen 224 places. (Although some pure white Brit parents love this name, meainging "night". And there is of course the Eric Clapton influence). Maryam, a new entry at 99 - a grand total of 583 babies last year.

Let's look at Mr Hastings' own name. Max is now in 24th place , a +27 change in rank since 1998, and a +7 increase since 1997. Whereas the name Mohammed, now in 16th place, has risen more modestly, with corresponding figures of +18 and +1. Mind you the spelling Muhammad has risen 54 places since 1998, and +1 since last year. But some other names have shot up much faster. Jayden, now at 21, has risen +281 places since 1998.

Would it really be logical, as Hastings claims, for the ONS to lump all variant spellings of a name as one name? It surely makes more sense to list different spellings of the same name separately. The ONS tables say in a footnote: "these rankings have been produced using the exact spelling of the name given at birth registration. Similar names with different spellings have been counted separately."

Surely this policy has always been in place and not, as Hastings implies, hurriedly introduced as soon as "Mohammed/Muhammad" et al started creeping up the hot 100. Eg Ann and Anne, Catherine and Katherine, Jak/Jack/Jac/Jacques or come to that Susannah/Suzanna/Susanna/Suzannah/Susana. (All these numerous spellings of Susannah, "diluting" its impact. must be the reason why none has made it into the top 10 - not the fact that it has gone out of fashion!)

The Telegraph, in a more measured piece than that of Max Hastings, has an interesting more detailed breakdown of the names in terms of region. But to really make statistical sense of the whole picture, surely one needs to know what percentage of Muslim babies are given the name of one of the variants of Mohammed.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

manchester muslim writers

‘Curry Mile’ author strives to get Muslims writing in Britain
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 7 September 2009

Creative writing courses and groups have mushroomed in Britain in recent years. But as far as the novelist, poet and creative writing teacher Zahid Hussain [pictured above] knows, Manchester Muslim Writers (MMW) is the first society for Muslims who write fiction, poetry or non-fiction. The group covers not only novels, short stories and poetry, but screenwriting, travel writing, feature writing, memoirs, textbooks and technical writing.

Hussain initiated the setting up of MMW in the northern English city of Manchester in May [launch event pictured] , and said that he feels a sense of duty about this. “I believe Muslims have not been able to show the world the strength of our art and literature; we have to get Muslims writing,” he told Saudi Gazette in an interview. He sees MMW as “a stepping stone” to the mainstream, and hopes that “one day Muslim narratives will become part of British mainstream life.”
The MMW website and its links, including those to Hussain’s own website and blogs, are full of practical advice on writing. On its website, MMW describes itself as a “UK collective”. Inclusiveness is a key to Hussain’s approach. He wants MMW to access the vast range of local Muslim communities and to school them in writing. “I don’t just want them to write, I want them to write well.”

With no definition of a typical member, the youngest participant is 13, the oldest in their 60s; MMW is open to non-Muslims as well as Muslims, and attendees at its events have included a couple of non-Muslims who are interested in Muslim culture.
Hussain himself originated from a family of poets, and writes on his personal website: “My maternal grandfather and great-grandfather wrote poetry in Pushto and Urdu”. He was born in the northern English county of Lancashire to “a hard-working and traditional Pakistani family”. He is particularly well placed to start a group to nurture the writing of Muslims. He is a published novelist and poet himself, and has much hands-on experience to impart. He also teaches creative writing in schools.

At the same time he is a founder of the charity Regenesis Squared, a social enterprise headquartered in the Shakespeare House community center in South Manchester. Regenesis delivers innovative community regeneration projects and it supports MMW, whose classes are free of charge. (Hussain notes that among the other groups that use the facilities of Regenesis is the Saudi Men’s Club which meets there on Fridays. Manchester is said to have a Saudi community - spearheaded mostly by students - of around 1,000 families).
Hussain’s debut novel “The Curry Mile” was published in 2006 by Suitcase Press. The novel is named after legendary Wilmslow Road in the Rusholme district of Manchester, a road famous for its numerous South Asian - mainly Pakistani - restaurants. The novel’s plot is woven around a curry magnate Ajmal Butt and his spirited daughter Sorayah whom he has disowned after catching her living in London with a boyfriend. After her return to Manchester, she confronts the dilemma of whether to help her father’s threatened curry empire to survive.
The novel has universal themes and is highly accessible; both full of humor, while tackling important issues. It has received considerable praise, and one of the leading Muslim intellectuals in Britain, Ziauddin Sardar, chose it as one of his books of the year in the New Statesman magazine. Hussain has now completed his second novel along the working title of “The Somniloquist” - someone who talks in their sleep - and focused on one of Sorayah’s brothers, saying that it may become part of a “Curry Mile” series of novels.
MMW’s activities include workshops on single topics (such as metaphor, conflict, and writing for children), two reading circles a month – one combined with a visit by a well-known author – and seminars on subjects including great Muslim writers.
The group has some 120 people on its database, and varying numbers of people have attended its events. Hussain sees the Reading Circle, in which participants read their work out aloud and receive feedback from others, as the backbone of MMW. There will be also opportunities for members to submit their writing to group magazines and anthologies in due course.
The first guest speaker was Moazzam Begg [pictured], a British Muslim who was seized in Pakistan in 2002 and held for nearly three years, mostly in Guantanamo Bay. In collaboration with the journalist and activist Victoria Brittain he wrote “Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back” published in 2006 and subsequently translated into several languages including Arabic. While in prison he was moved to write poetry on his terrible ordeal.

The second speaker, Qaisra Shahraz [pictured], was born in Pakistan and brought up in Manchester from the age of nine. She is the author of two published novels, “The Holy Woman” and “Typhoon”, and is also eminent in academia and in teaching creative writing.

The third monthly author speaker, scheduled for early October, is likely to be Sufiya Ahmed (the pen name of Sophia Ahmed), who grew up in the East End of London and is the author of “Zahra’s First Term at the Khadija Academy”.

Hussain hopes an initiative similar to MMW will soon take root in the city of Birmingham and that similar Muslim writers’ groups will eventually be started in many other British cities and towns with sizeable Muslim populations.
Birmingham already has a major role in the promotion of Muslim writing, through the Muslim Writers Awards (MWA) which Innovate Arts launched there in 2007. For the first time this year the MWA moved to London for the glitzy annual awards ceremony held in May in the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane.
The MWA ceremony showed the impressively high caliber of those writers of Muslim origin whose work has excited interest in the mainstream British literary arena. The winner of the Published Fiction category was Kamila Shamsie for “Burnt Shadows”.
She was in competition with Robin Yassin-Kassab (“The Road from Damascus”), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Tahir Shah (In Arabian Nights) and Farahad Zama (“The Marriage Bureau for Rich People”).
Hussain sees the activities of MWA and MMW as complementary. MMW is concerned with the practical development of Muslim writing, while MWA celebrate the excellence of writing by Muslims. “There is now a pool of Muslim authors, and we would like to do a tour of the UK,” Hussain remarked.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

laila lalami blogs on hisham matar

Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami, whose latest novel is Secret Son, has added a timely ingredient to the current brouhaha over relations between the UK and Libya with the reminder on her website that: "A couple of years ago, the novelist Hisham Matar wrote a very moving piece about his father, Jaballa Matar, who was allegedly kidnapped by Egyptian security forces in March 1990 and then rendered to Libya. He has not been seen in nineteen years, and has not been heard from in ten". She quotes from his very moving essay in the Independent, and then refers her readers to the recent Guardian piece in which Matar explains his feelings over al-Megrahi's release:
I am imagining my father today. For the past 20 years he has been a political prisoner in Libya. The Libyan government continues to deny his existence. This even though Amnesty International has documented the case. In this time he has not been able to see or communicate with anyone outside the prison. Then I think of him hearing how well his oppressors are doing in the world. I think of him listening to the celebrations of the prison guards at the news of al-Megrahi's return. The prisoners might have been given presents to mark the occasion. Then I think of al-Megrahi's children welcoming him home.
Matar's debut novel In the Country of Men, set in late 1970s Libya, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker prize - a great achievement, especially for a first book. Maybe the Downing Street bunker reading group would like to add it to its autumn reading list.