Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Leading authors campaign for Libyan novelist’s ‘disappeared’ father
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 26 January 2010
A campaign backed by around 250 of the world’s most distinguished writers is demanding that Libya provide information on the whereabouts of Jaballa Matar, a Libyan dissident and former diplomat who was abducted in Cairo 20 years ago and imprisoned in Libya. The Libyan authorities have never even admitted that Jaballa was imprisoned.
Jaballa Matar is the father of the London-based novelist Hisham Matar [pictured], 39, a major literary talent who created a literary sensation when his 2006 debut novel “In the Country of Men” (Viking) was shortlisted for Britain’s premier literary prize, the Man Booker, and for the Guardian First Book Award. The novel has won several prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book award for Europe and South Asia, the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Italian Premio Vallombrosa Gregor von Rezzori. It has been translated into 22 languages.
“In the Country of Men” is set in Libya in 1979 and is written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy who witnesses the events unfolding around his dissident father, who is tortured while in prison. The novel is permeated with a sense of absence and loss, and captures the paranoid atmosphere of the time.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband and other government figures have responded with sympathy to the campaign for Hisham’s father. If Libya fails to provide satisfactory answers to the questions the UK is currently raising on Jaballa and other dissidents, and on human rights issues, there could be a freezing of Libya’s efforts to forge an improved relationship with the EU.
In mid-January the 250 writers spearheading the campaign signed a letter from English PEN’s president Lisa Appignanesi and from Hisham, published in The Times daily newspaper of London. The signatories included three winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – JM Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk and Wole Soyinka – and nine winners of the Man Booker prize, among them Margaret Atwood, Kiran Desai and Michael Oondaatje, as well as the current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and her predecessor Sir Andrew Motion.
The letter noted that Jaballa Matar was one of the most prominent Libyan political activists, and had continually called for democracy, the rule of law and justice in Libya. He was kidnapped from his home in Cairo in 1990 and his family has not seen him since.
Two letters from Jaballa to his family were smuggled out of Libya’s political prison, Abu Salim, in 1992 and 1995. They revealed that the Egyptian authorities had held him in Cairo for two days after his abduction, before handing him over to Libyan officials. He had been flown to Tripoli, tortured and subjected to arbitrary detention.
The letter in The Times added that Jaballa was seen in 2002 in a secret political prison in Libya, and that his family, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International believe he is still in that country. But the Libyan government denies all knowledge of the whereabouts of Jaballa and other “disappeared” Libyans, and he is yet to be granted an open trial.
The letter concluded: “We urge the government to use its new relationship with the Libyan government to demand sincere and significant improvements in Libya’s human rights record. We, therefore, ask the Foreign Office whether having regard to the latest Human Rights Watch report, published on Dec. 12, in which Jaballa’s case is documented, it will seek information from the Libyan government about the whereabouts of Jaballa and other political prisoners.”
David Miliband responded with a message posted on the Foreign Office website and in a letter published in The Times saying: “I fully sympathize with Hisham’s situation. I can only imagine how it must feel not to know the fate of your father year after year.” Miliband said Hisham has his full support in his quest to find out what happened to his father and that “Hisham and his family need to know the truth now.”
After receiving the second letter from Jaballa in 1995, his family heard nothing more from him. So when news leaked out in 2002 that the authorities had massacred 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996, the family feared that he was among the dead. The Human Rights Watch report of December, which includes a reported sighting of Jaballa, has brought the family a surge of fresh hope. Hisham wrote in a recent article in the Guardian that he has received a message that someone saw his father in a secret political prison in Tripoli in 2002 and that he is “frail, but well”.
Hisham is now devoting much time to trying to find out what happened to his father. The Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts, who has known Hisham for some 15 years, quotes him as saying his daily routine has completely changed: “I am a novelist until lunchtime and then, from lunch to midnight, work on my father’s case. I was 19 when I last saw him. It has been hard to continue over the years. You block it out and try to get on with life. Boy, I am so thrilled now!”
The Free Jaballa Matar campaign has a Twitter account, a Facebook site and a website at freematar.org. The campaign has support from PEN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Center for Transitional Justice.
There is an uncanny overlap of fact and fiction in the story of Jaballa Matar and the work of his novelist son. Hisham referred in his Guardian article to the second novel, on which he has been working for the past three years. The novel concerns “a man haunted by the absence of his father. He stalks his lovers, lives in his house and wears his clothes. He is a most faithful son.” And now, weeks from finishing the novel, he has learned that his father, who disappeared 20 years ago, may be alive. If Libya fails to provide answers to the questions the British government is posing on Jaballa and other issues, this could impact on the framework agreement Libya has been negotiating with the EU since 2008 with the aim of strengthening political, social, economic, commercial and cultural relations.
When asked in the House of Lords last week whether the framework agreement must be based on meaningful progress in political and human rights reform, Foreign Office Minister Lady Kinnock answered “yes”. She also said that the latest talks with Libya on Jaballa Matar had been held the previous weekend.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2 of tipton 3 meet former guantanamo guard

Two ex-Guantanamo detainees meet their former guard
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 19 January 2010
They were known as the Tipton Three: a trio of young British Muslim men from the English town of Tipton who traveled in October 2001 to Pakistan for the wedding of one of them, Asif Iqbal. While waiting for the wedding arrangements to be finalized they crossed into Afghanistan where they were seized by the Northern Alliance and sold on to US forces. The Americans flew them to Cuba and incarcerated them for more than two years in Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
In March 2004 Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul [pictured below] were released without charge and flown home. On their return they made numerous allegations of torture in Guantanamo. The British film director Michael Winterbottom turned the story of the Tipton Three into the docudrama “The Road to Guantanamo”, screened on Channel 4 and released on DVD and in cinemas in 2006.
Now two of the men have appeared in an extraordinary 23-minute documentary film, in which they are reunited with a former guard from Guantanamo, Brandon Neely. The film was made for BBC-2 TV’s nightly current affairs program Newsnight and shown in two parts last week. The film was part of a special week of Newsnight programs marking the first anniversary of US President Barack Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo within a year. In practice, Obama has found it impossible to keep his promise.
The 29-year-old Neely, who is from the Texan town of Huntsville, left Guantanamo to serve in Iraq in June 2002 and resigned from the military in 2005 to become a police officer. But he was haunted by the ill-treatment and torture he had witnessed at Guantanamo. Those in charge of the detention camp had said the detainees were “the world’s most dangerous men.”
But the more he saw detainees being released without charge, the more he came to think that the stories they had told him about how they came to be in Guantanamo – and which he had at the time disbelieved – were true. He began to speak out publicly against Guantanamo. Neely says: “I never thought in a million years that the US would lock up so many innocent people for no reason other than being Muslim and in the wrong location. It really frustrated me and I was really angry and needed to tell my story.”
In December 2008 he approached the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas (CSHRA) in order to contribute testimony to the Guantanamo Testimonials Project. As a further step he decided to try and make contact through Facebook with some of the former detainees. “I decided to type in the names and see if a profile came up and I came across Shafiq’s Facebook page.” Neely sent Shafiq an email saying he was “truly sorry” for the hell the detainees had been put through in Guantanamo, adding: “If there’s anything I can do to help just let me know. Take care.”
Shafiq says: “It was shocking and surprising to receive a message from one of the guards saying basically that what happened to us in Guantanamo was wrong.” He replied to the message, and he and Neely embarked on an email correspondence. When the BBC learned that the former guard and former detainees were in touch by email, they approached them to ask whether they would be willing to meet in person. When they agreed, the BBC flew Neely over to London for a meeting with Shafiq and Ruhal.
The initial awkwardness at the meeting was dispelled when Ruhal told Neely lightheartedly “you look different without a cap”, and Neely replied: “You look different not in jumpsuits.” Neely again apologized for the way Shafiq and Rasul had been treated at Guantanamo.
Shafiq said: I’m really happy for Brandon to come all the way here to say sorry to us. It means so much to us.” He told him: “I don’t hold you responsible for what happened to me. You were there to do a job and you had to do that job.”
During the time they were at Guantanamo, the guard and two detainees found they had much in common. Neely was surprised to find what good English Ruhal and some other detainees spoke. When he talked to Ruhal, it was “no different from sitting with a friend and talking about women or music.” He would ask Ruhal if he listened to rappers Eminem or Dr. Dre, and Ruhal would “do a little rap; it was just funny”.
He also remembers him talking about James Bond movies. The detainees were forbidden sweets or candy, and Ruhal recalls how Neely smuggled him some Skittles sweets, which was “the kindest thing he could have done for me.”
Neely’s departure from Guantanamo coincided with life getting even tougher for the Tipton Three. They were put in isolation and pressure was placed on them to try to get them to confess to being members of Al-Qaeda. They were played a grainy video which allegedly showed them at a speech given by Osama Bin Laden. They said they could prove they were in Britain at the time the video was shot, but it took months for proof to arrive.
Ruhal says that out of all the torture techniques, the playing of loud music was probably the worst. “It was extremely loud in a very small room like someone screaming down your ears for hour upon hour. You could have gone crazy.” He thought many times about taking his own life, but “I thought if I kill myself that means they’ve won.”
Neely felt particularly bad about an incident on the first day of processing detainees in Alpha Block when a handcuffed older detainee who had been told to kneel had suddenly jerked and not done as instructed. Neely had slammed his face into the concrete floor. Another detainee told him some days later that the reason the man had jerked when made to kneel was that he thought he was going to be executed because he’d had a family member who was executed in the same manner in his country. Neely says: “I really felt horrible.”
In the evening Neely and the two former detainees and their wives were filmed at an Indian restaurant. This was the first time Neely had tasted curry.
The Tipton Three have always adamantly denied that they crossed into Afghanistan for purposes of jihad. Ruhal says that after Asif’s father said it would take two or three weeks to arrange the wedding, the friends were touring around and decided to visit Afghanistan. The war started the day they arrived and they eventually ended up in Kunduz.
They admit that they went to a Taliban training camp in Kunduz, but say this was to find out what was happening. And they have also admitted handling an AK-47, but this was out of curiosity. Ruhal says: “At the end of the day if I was guilty of a crime, or if Shafiq was guilty of a crime, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. We were released without any charge. If we were really a threat to this world, America especially, there would have been no way we’d have been released.”

Monday, January 11, 2010

palestinian higher education under israeli occupation

Professor Gaby Baramki‘s book tells the inside story of Birzeit
Susannah Tarbush
[original of article published in Al-Hayat in Arabic translation 11 Jan 2010]

One of the main arguments used by those opposing an academic boycott of Israel is that such a boycott would violate academic freedom. When in November the board of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology unanimously rejected a proposed academic boycott of Israel, the university’s rector Torbjorn Digernes cited the need to uphold academic freedom as one of the reasons for the decision. If the Norwegian university had decided to impose a boycott, it would have become the first Western academic institution to sever ties with Israeli academic institutions.

The rector of the University of Haifa Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, who led the campaign by Israeli academics against the proposal, said: “I am glad that justice has won over and I welcome the decision that recognizes academic freedom and emphasizes the universal fundamentals of justice and integrity."

But while opponents of a boycott speak out loudly in defence of Israeli academic freedom, there is less knowledge of, or talk about, the extent to which Israel has for decades curbed Palestinian academic freedom.

Now Pluto Press of London and New York has published a remarkable book that gives a unique inside story of Palestinian higher education under Israeli occupation. The book is “Peaceful Resistance: Building a Palestinian University under Occupation.” Its author, Professor Gabi Baramki, was the vice president, and acting president, of Birzeit University for 19 years after Israel deported the university’s president Hanna Nasir in 1974.

The foreword to Baramki’s book is written by former US president Jimmy Carter, winner in 2002 of the Nobel Peace Prize, and author of “Palestine Peace not Apartheid”.

Carter writes: “Birzeit University is a testament to the resourcefulness of a people under military occupation and their desire to build a state of their own. Students and staff demonstrate the intense commitment to education that has long characterized the Palestinian people.”

Carter adds: “But perhaps most important, Birzeit illustrates a space where Palestinians of diverse political views coexist, despite their difference. I hope this book will help remind Palestinians – especially the leadership on all sides – of these values that have allowed their community to survive so many hardships, values that are needed now more than ever in the inexorable move toward statehood.”

Baramki turned 80 this year, and his book fills a knowledge gap and provides a detailed long-term view of Palestinian higher education in the context of Palestinian aspirations and Israeli occupation. Baramki comes from a Greek Orthodox Christian family that can trace its roots in Jerusalem back at least 500 years. His life has been intimately interwoven with Birzeit ever since the day in 1934 when, aged five, he became a pupil at Birzeit boarding school, four decades before it became a university.

As there was at that time no Arab university in Palestine he went to the American University of Beirut to study chemistry. While he was there his family in Jerusalem lost everything they had in the 1948 Nakba. He returned to Birzeit to teach in 1953.

Baramki is sharply observant and he writes with clarity and passion, as well as humour, bringing vividly to life the many dramatic incidents he and the university lived through. His book deserves to be read widely, including by policy makers, academics and members of the media. It shows how Birzeit managed to develop despite all the Israeli obstacles and dehumanising measures put in its way, and how, with a constant emphasis on democracy, it has helped nurture a civil society in Palestine in preparation for a future state.

Birzeit pioneered Palestinian higher education, and there are now eight universities in the West Bank and Gaza. Baramki writes: “It almost defies belief that Israel went on to claim credit for the development of Palestinian higher education”. Birzeit has survived “despite the occupying power’s best efforts to destroy it, and the other universities have also been established without the participation of Israel.”

Birzeit University’s origins go back to 1924, when Miss Nabiha Nasir founded a school in the town of Birzeit near the West Bank town of Ramallah. The school’s name was changed to Birzeit College in 1942, and after Nabiha died in 1951 her brother Musa became principal. Baramki says that Musa Nasir “set the tone of positive non-violent action to serve the community within the spirit of Birzeit – that of placing the public good above one’s own interest. I was brought up in this spirit and lived all my active life practising what I believed in.”

Birzeit gradually evolved from a school into the first West Bank university. In 1951 it started to offer a first (freshman) year at university level, and in 1961 it added a second (sophomore) year. In 1972, despite Israeli opposition, the university began to offer full four-year university courses.

Baramki writes: “What has enabled Birzeit to survive is our determination to stay calm in the face of provocation”. The Israeli provocations over the years were many and varied. After military occupation began in 1967, the students witnessed confiscation of land and property and preparations for Israeli settlement of the West Bank. There were detentions and deportations without due process of law.

The students responded with demonstrations to Israeli actions, including the military’s strenuous efforts to intimidate and control Birzeit. Israel tried to hamper Birzeit’s efforts to develop into a fully-fledged university. Baramki recalls: “The Israeli hostility to us escalated when we announced in the summer of 1972 that we would go ahead and develop the two-year programme into a four-year full degree programme for arts and sciences.”

There were two reasons why Birzeit was determined to become a full university. One was that it had become difficult for Palestinian students to travel outside the West Bank for higher education. In addition, “we were building a better future for our people...We needed a university to develop Palestine, train professionals, act as a laboratory for ideas and create a leadership”.

Providing a high level of education would also enable Palestinians to talk to Israel on equal terms. “As long as our people were not educated, the only possible discourse, we feared, would be by acts of violence.”

The Israeli military authorities insisted that Birzeit needed a military permit for its plans to become a university, but when the permit arrived it was for one year only. Birzeit was told it would have to reapply for a permit every year. But when the first graduation ceremony took place in 1976 Baramki [pictured with his wife Haifa] wrote to the military governor saying the university regarded the permit it had as permanent and that it would not apply again for a renewal. The university never received a reply, “but we felt we had established yet another fact on the ground and asserted our rights.”

Among the obstacles the Israelis put in the way of the budding university were problems over registering the land necessary for a new campus. It also attempted to control the inflow of books. The military government demanded to see copies of all textbooks, and there were sometimes problems getting these expensive books returned. As time went on “the military government became increasingly obsessed with our reading lists.” Books and journals were often banned or confiscated – including certain Arabic journals on culture and literature – and yet they were freely available to students in Israeli universities.

Another Israeli ploy was to impose huge taxes on imported teaching materials. But “perhaps the most destructive intervention was the denial of residence permits to our international staff”.

After the 1973 war the Israelis struck a major blow against Birzeit when, following student demonstrations, they closed the college for two weeks. They also harassed Israeli Arab lecturers and students at the university, who were “citizens of Israel, but also Palestinian like us.”

The university was subjected to hostile Israeli propaganda including allegations that it had, for example, been founded with the sole aim of agitating against the Israeli occupation. In November 1974 Israel deported Birzeit’s president Hanna Nasir over the border to South Lebanon without informing his family or the university authorities. This was one of many deportations of Palestinian leaders and activists: up to now around 1500 people have been deported.

When it was clear Nasir would not be coming back soon, the academic staff and students discussed the future and decided that Nasir would remain president, wherever he was, while Baramki would officially continue as his deputy but would take on the day to day presidential activities and would take the necessary presidential decisions, in consultation with Nasir.

Although the West Bank military governor had banned communication with Nasir, Baramki and Nasir found ways to keep in close communication. The sections of Baramki’s book that deal with these clandestine contacts read almost like a thriller novel. “For many years Hanna and I discussed the university’s education programme, problems and needs by indirect routes.”

Nasir and Baramki also liaised with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). At the time this was punishable by imprisonment for anyone living under Israeli rule, if discovered. “But the Palestinians had regarded the PLO as their sole representative since 1974”. Funding for the university came from the Joint Jordanian-Palestinian Committee, in effect the PLO. Israel was aware of this: “They knew all about the way we were being funded but seemed to prefer this to paying for Palestinian higher education themselves.”

It was not until 1993 that Nasir returned to Birzeit, and Baramki retired. Nabil Kassis took over as president when Hanna Nasir retired in 2004.

The military governor tried in 1980 to exert control over the universities, contrary to international law by issuing military order 854 modifying the Jordan education law by extending the law from schools to cover universities.

Birzeit has produced some of the most prominent Palestinians working in different fields in Palestine and around the world. Baramki writes: “We were trying to create leaders of their communities, well-rounded individuals prepared to build a successful new society and move towards a free Palestine. Our graduates continue to stand out in their communities. We have educated many of Palestine’s political leaders.” Among those he names are Ghassan Khatib, Marwan Barghouti, Mohammed Shtayyeh, Hassan Abu Libdeh, and Bassam Salhi.

Many outstanding professors were educated at Birzeit: Baramki names as one example engineering Professor Gabriel Alexander Khoury of London’s Imperial College and also a professor for life at Padua University in Italy. Khoury played a key role in getting Baramki’s long-planned book project off the ground and through to final publication.

Other notable academics who studied at Birzeit include nuclear scientist Mujid Kazimi of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Khalil Mahshi, deputy director of the International Institute of Educational Planning at UNESCO in Paris, and sociologist Salim Tamari who teaches at Birzeit.

At the Madrid peace conference of 1991 the core of the Palestinian negotiating team was made up of Birzeit academics and Birzeit graduates. The vice-chairman of the team, Nabeel Kassis, its spokesperson, Hanan Ashrawi, and its press attaché, Albert Azagharian, were all from Birzeit University. Baramki remembers how Israeli journalists joked that Israel was actually negotiating for peace with Birzeit.

Baramki believes that “one alternative towards regaining our rights is strong pressure from abroad.”
He welcomed the launch in 2004 of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in Ramallah by Palestinian academics and intellectuals. “This has created a new way for international groups and individuals to make a statement of their distaste for Israeli’s policies by breaking organisational links with Israeli institutions and liking up with ours instead.”

Baramki points out that Israeli academics and academic institutions have over the years shown very little concern over the plight of their Palestinian counterparts. “No head of any other Israeli university ever enquired about the difficulties we might be facing as a university under occupation, or showed any interest in visiting us” he writes. “They all remained aloof even when Birzeit was closed down.”

There was some solidarity from individuals in the “solidarity committee with Birzeit university”, active in the 1970s and 1980s. But it was only in 2008 that a group of the country’s higher education professionals issue its first joint protest against the restriction of academic freedom in Palestine and even then, no university rector signed.
Baramki asks: “How can the Jews, the world’s most education-oriented people, seek to destroy our children’s prospects of learning?”

Palestinian universities have suffered frequent closures. The closure in 1973 was the first of 15 military-ordered closures of Birzeit. During the first intifada Birzeit was closed for an incredible 51 months, from January 1988 to April 1992.

Baramki gives an extraordinary account of how during this long closure the university continued to secretly hold classes in locations such as private homes, fields, company offices, mosques and churches. “Soldiers would scour the town for such classes” and would try to arrest those involved. The Israeli army would often announce that it had found “cells of illegal education”. Academic staff and students caught in raids were frequently jailed.

Under Israeli occupation students have for years suffered regular beatings, imprisonment and torture. A report issued by Birzeit’s Right to Education campaign in April 2009 found that Israel had incarcerated 411 Birzeit students since November 2003, of whom 87 were still imprisoned, 47 of them without charge. One Birzeit student had been held in Administrative Detention for three years.

The state of euphoria after the 1993 Oslo accords did not last long, and the Palestinians began to realise that “Israel had no serious intentions of making peace.” As a result, the second intifada erupted in 2000, much more violent than the first. The building of the apartheid wall was another indication of Israel’s real intent.

The setting up of hundreds of Israeli checkpoints has severely disrupted education. Israel has often blocked the road to Birzeit at the small town of Surda, sometimes for long periods, and has at times dug the road up so that cars and buses cannot pass. When the road is blocked it can take students and staff an hour and a half to walk to the university. The apartheid wall is also seriously hindering Palestinian education.

Baramki is frank about the internal difficulties Birzeit has encountered over the years. These have included serious political differences between factions of students, for example disagreements between supporters of the Islamic bloc and of the PLO, or between supporters of Fateh and of the PFLP. With chronic shortages of funds, there have been problems over staff pay, sometimes leading to strike action.

The recent proposal that the Norwegian University of Science and Technology should impose an academic boycott on Israel came from 34 of the university’s professors and assistant professors who said Israeli universities “have played a key role in the policy of oppression” and that “Israel goes against all the ideals of open universities and academic freedoms.” Even though in the end the university’s board rejected the proposal, the fact that it was discussed at the university’s highest level reflects the fact that the international academic boycott movement is gaining ground and that criticism of Israel is growing.

Professor Baramki’s book is invaluable in recording the story of Palestinian higher education under occupation, backed up with facts and with the documentation he includes in the appendix. In addition, the book is a fascinating personal memoir and an important contribution to Palestinian social and cultural history.

workshop on arab women diaspora writers

Arab Women Diaspora Writers under Study
Susannah Tarbush

The recent holding of a one-day interdisciplinary workshop at the University of Manchester on Arab women writers living in the West was a sure sign that the cohort of Arab women diaspora writers is now so significant that it is a meaty subject for theses and scholarly discussion.

The interdisciplinary workshop, ‘Arab Women Writers in Diaspora: Horizons of Dialogue’, was
sponsored by the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), Skills Awareness for Graduate Education (SAGE) and the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW).

Fiction by Arab women fiction writers has attracted interest in the West ever since translations of their work into English started to become widely available from the late 1970s. But these were mostly works by authors still living in the Arab world. Now the discussion has broadened, with substantial numbers of Arab women writers living in the West, some of whom are of mixed Arab-Western parentage. Their writing is informed by these experiences, and is permeated by questions of identity, displacement, exile, memory and the relationship with the homeland.

The workshop attracted some 50 participants from Europe and the Arab world. Its organizer Yousef Awad, who is preparing a PhD thesis at Manchester on ‘Cartographies of Arab women identities: Resistance, Diaspora and Transnational Feminism’, said: “This is an interdisciplinary event that benefitted from the different academic backgrounds of the participants. The approaches employed by the speakers and presenters have enriched the discussion and testified to the complexity of the works of Arab women in the diaspora.”

The workshop was introduced by the novelist Professor Patricia Duncker, head of Manchester University’s English and American Studies Department, who hailed the interdisciplinary spirit of the event. Professor Hoda Elsadda, co-director of CASAW stressed the need for further workshops on works by Arab women writers.

The workshop began with a video recording of Laila Halaby, who was born in Lebanon to a Jordanian father and American mother and grew up in Arizona, reading her poem “The Journey” . Next came a voice recording of New York-born Jordanian-American novelist Diana Abu-Jaber reading from her novel “Crescent”.

The first keynote speaker was Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir [pictured], who has lived in Britain for many years. In her presentation “Spinning a Self in the Language of the Other”, she recalled the contexts within which her three novels “Nisanit”, “Pillars of Salt” and “My Name is Salma” were written. Each novel is socio-political, but the tone, style and structure have evolved.

Her first novel was “a howl from the heart, raw, close to reality and unsophisticated perhaps.” In “Pillars of Salt” she moved on to explore imperialism and sexual politics, using the oral tradition and the tradition of travel writing. In “My Name is Salma”, on migration, racism and the constraints of the human condition, she began exploring “lyricism, pace, minute descriptions of daily life to construct a whole.”

Faqir is now at work on her fourth novel, “At the Midnight Kitchen”, set among a group of characters living in a block of flats in Hammersmith, West London. The novel’s prologue appeared in the fall 2008 issue of Weber Studies, the electronic cultural journal based at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. It won the Fiction Award for the best work published in the journal that year.

Weber Studies says of the novel: “There is violence, self-hate, guilt, pursuit of redemption, compassion, humor and forgiveness. But who stabbed to death the shady figure in flat number two?” The gripping prologue makes the reader anxious to read on.

In a session on issues of representation, Linda Maloul from the University of Manchester spoke on Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Maloul argued that in her first book, the collection of stories “Aisha” centered around an Egyptian girl growing up in Egypt and Britain, Soueif may have assumed the “perspective of an Orientalist” in choosing to highlight controversial aspects of Egyptian life. This is in contrast to her second novel “The Map of Love” in which, according to some studies, Soueif deliberately uses Orientalist imagery in order to criticize Orientalism. This places the novel firmly within an anti-colonial political and cultural discourse.

Dr Claire Chambers of Leeds Metropolitan University is interested in representations of British Muslim identity in the fiction of Sudanese-Egyptian Leila Aboulela, particularly her second novel “Minaret” which is set in Sudan and diasporic Britain.

Drawing on an interview she recently conducted with Aboulela, Chambers suggested that the author “writes back” to damaging fictions created about Muslim communities by earlier Orientalist writers and scholars. Aboulela is sometimes dubbed a “halal novliest” but Chambers maintained that “the portrayal of Islam in Aboulela’s three fictional works to date is neither monolithic nor simplistically idealist.”

The debut novel of Iraqi writer Betool Khedairi, born in Baghdad to an Iraqi father and Scottish mother, was the subject of a presentation by Jenny Chandler of Manchester University headed “The Inconstant Lover: Images of Masculinity in war and Diaspora in Betool Khedairi’s ‘A Sky so Close’”.

Dr Sandya Mehta of Sultan Qaboos University, Oman, scrutinized Syrian-born Arab-American writer Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” in order to examine the projection of the homeland in the consciousness of the immigrant “other”.

Natasha Mansfield of the University of Essex analyzed the short story “Shakespeare in the Gaza Strip” by Arab-American Sahar Kayyal who lived in Palestine for five years during the first intifada and is now based in Chicago. The story is set in a girls’ school in Gaza and features an American teacher attempting in an arrogant fashion to teach her pupils literature.

The work of Diana Abu-Jaber and the Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh in relation to “Arab urban diasporas and transnational imaginaries” was discussed by Christiane Schlote of the University of Berne. She pointed to how their writing maps urban life in Los Angeles and London, representing “the possibilities and limits of various forms of cosmopolitanism with a particular focus on alliances across ethnic, class and religious barriers.”

A non-fiction writer, the Palestinian medical doctor and political activist, Ghada Karmi [pictured below], was the afternoon keynote speaker. She examined the question of writing in exile with reference to her memoir “In Search of Fatima” and her second book “Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine”.

The workshop was an excellent introduction to the creative output of the growing number of Arab women diaspora writers in the US and UK. It will be interesting to witness further developments in this young but fruitful field of study.

Monday, January 04, 2010

arab literature in 'noughties' Britain

above: Youssef Ziedan receives his IPAF prize cheque from Emirates Foundation managing director Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh

A bright decade for Arab literature in the United Kingdom
By Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette 4 January 2010

The dawning of the new decade has prompted much looking back over the “noughties” to pick out the highlights in various fields. On the world literary scene, one of striking features of the past decade has been the high profile of Arab literature in the English-speaking world.
There had been hopes ever since Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 that the work of Arab writers would become better known in the West. But in Britain it took until the 2000s for Arab fiction to gain the momentum for a major breakthrough.
The Egyptian Alaa Al-Aswany came to particular prominence with his novels “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago” and the short story collection “Friendly Fire.” Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea [pictured] leapt to fame with her chicklit novel “Girls of Riyadh.”
These books gained many readers, and attracted much media attention.
Whereas in the past novels translated from Arabic tended to be the preserve of specialist publishers, these titles were produced by mainstream publishers. Alaa Al-Aswany’s UK publisher is the Harper Collins imprint Fourth Estate, while Rajaa Alsanea was published by Penguin.
There had, of course, long been the translation and publishing of Arab literature in Britain, issued by such well-regarded publishers as Saqi and Quartet. But the 2000s witnessed the gathering of a critical mass for Arab fiction publishing, especially when in 2008 the London Book Fair chose the Arab World as its World Market Focus.
Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature has been a motor of the increasing interest in Arab fiction. Founded in London in 1998 by Margaret Obank and Iraqi writer and journalist Samuel Shimon, Banipal has translated and published the work of hundreds of Arab authors whose work had never before appeared in English. In 2004 it established a book publishing arm, Banipal Books.
The enthusiasm for Arab literature has given rise to some other publishing vehicles. In 2008 Haus Publishing and Arcadia jointly founded in London Arabia Books, which works closely with the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press.
Arabia Books’ recent titles include “Learning English” by Lebanese author Rachid Al-Daif and “B as in Beirut” by another Lebanese, Iman Humaydan Younes. It is distributing “The Theocrat” by Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich, translated by Roger Allen and recently published in paperback by AUC Press.
The new venture Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) links two heavyweights: Bloomsbury Publishing of London, and the Qatar Foundation. “Our launch will be in April, which will kick off with a major event in London on April 6” says BQFP consultant publisher Andy Smart.
BQFP will also hold events in London, Doha and Beirut around “Beirut39” - the project of the Hay Festival to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40. Beirut39 is a centerpiece of the Beirut World Book Capital festivities 2009/10. BQFP is to publish in English and Arabic the anthology “Beirut 39 New Writing from the Arab World”, edited by Samuel Shimon with an introduction by Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf.
Other forthcoming BQFP titles in English include “Murad Murad” by Palestinian Suad Amiry , and “The Attack” by Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Algerian ex-army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul).
One sign of the growing presence of works by Arab authors in English has been their winning, or being shortlisted for, major literary prizes. In 2008 the Lebanese-Canadian novelist Rawi El-Hage [pictured] won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for “De Niro’s Game.” Worth 100,000 Euros (around $144,000), IMPAC is the world’s largest literary award for a single work of fiction written in English.

In 2000 the newly-created $15,000 Caine Prize for African Writing, administered from the UK, was awarded to the Egyptian-Sudanese author Leila Aboulela [pictured],
who writes in English, for her story “The Museum.” Aboulela’s first novel “The Translator”, published in 1999, was longlisted for the Orange Prize for women’s fiction. In 2001, her short story collection “Coloured Lights” was published by Polygon and she was taken on by the prestigious London publisher Bloomsbury for her 2005 novel “Minaret.”
The Man Booker Prize is Britain’s most important fiction prize, worth 50,000 pounds to the winner. Two Arab writers who live in London have in the past been shortlisted for the Man Booker. Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif was shortlisted for her 1999 novel “The Map of Love” (Bloomsbury). In 2006 the Libyan Hisham Matar was shortlisted for his debut novel “In the Country of Men” published by Penguin under a two-book deal. The novel has been translated into 22 languages and won a string of awards. Matar completed a draft of his second novel a few months back.
A powerful new force in bringing Arab literature to the West is the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), popularly known as the Arab Booker. IPAF was established with support from the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi in association with the Booker Prize Foundation. The first prize is $50,000, plus the $10,000 that goes to each of the six shortlisted authors.
In 2008, its first year, IPAF went to the Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher for “Sunset Oasis.” The translation of “Sunset Oasis” by Humphrey Davies was published by the Hodder & Stoughton imprint Sceptre last year. It received generally very favorable reviews, and was recently named in several British newspapers as a book of the year. The publication of the translation of the 2009 IPAF winner “Azazel” (Beelzebub) by Egyptian Youssef Ziedan, is eagerly anticipated. Atlantic Books is to publish the translation, by Jonathan Wright, in the spring.
The art of translating Arabic fiction to English received a major fillip in the noughties with the launch of the 3,000-pound Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006. The 2009 prize was awarded to Samah Selim for her translation of “The Collar and the Bracelet” (AUC Press) by Egyptian Yahya Taher Abudullah, who died in 1981.