Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cinnamon Press publishes poet Omar Sabbagh's 1st collection

British-Lebanese poet Omar Sabbagh's debut collection
Susannah Tarbush
(Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat 13th Oct 2010)

The publication of Omar Sabbagh’s first collection of poems, “My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint”, establishes this 29-year-old British-Lebanese poet as an exciting, courageous compelling new poetic talent. The collection’s back cover carries praise from Lebanese former Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who writes: “Greatly enjoyed...I recommend ‘My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint’ to everyone who wants to read poetry emergent from the soul of the south, yet chiselled from a native English rock.”

The collection was published recently by the independent publisher Cinnamon Press, based in the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales. Omar, who writes in English, composed the collection’s 56 poems between summer 2006 and winter 2009/10.

Professor Philip Davis of Liverpool University, editor of The Reader magazine, writes on the book’s back cover: “Omar Sabbagh is a distinct presence and a powerful voice: a young poet worthy of attention.” And poet and lecturer Martyn Cruceifx finds that Sabbagh “writes brilliantly about alienation from country and family: even his love poems are often troubled, and this makes for a distinctively modern sensibility.”

Asked by Al-Hayat whether he has plans to get his poetry translated into Arabic, Omar says: “I haven’t really thought about translations, but would be very open to one.” He adds: “this book had to be written before I could move on. It’s what T S Eliot would call an ‘objective correlate’ of my prolonged adolescence, the objectifying of a certain period of tempestuous pain between two covers.”

The poet discloses: “I have a contract now for a second collection, provisionally titled ‘The Square Root of Beirut’, forthcoming in February 2012 from Cinnamon.”

Omar’s parents Mohamad and Maha Sabbagh left Lebanon in 1975 because of the civil war and settled in London, where Omar was born. They returned to live in Lebanon permanently only four years ago. Omar dedicates the collection to his father and to a mysterious female identified only by the initial “C”, who had a profound effect on the poet’s psyche. The second half of the collection is entitled: “’Hiatus Hayatee: For C”.

The moving first poem in the collection, dedicated to Mohamad Sabbagh, is entitled “A Father’s Love.” The final stanza reads: “Let me remember him, immemorial / as ringed time in a tree; / let the echoes of his voice remind me / the whole way home / of where home is; / and as my eyes turn to glass / I’ll lift them up to a father’s love.

Many of the poems in the collection have personal dedications to family members or friends. The poem “Easy Going” is for “the two grandfathers I never met.” A number of the poems directly refer to Lebanon; “Rula’s Epiphany” begins: “Picture the undressed woman, Beirut, / her stone skins of yellowed pearl / the sun drips upon.

It is not easy for an emerging poet to make his mark, but Omar has had remarkable success in having his poems published in leading British literary journals including Agenda, Stand, Envoi, The Reader, Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry Wales and The Warwick Review. The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based magazine of Arab literature, includes several of his latest poems.

Sabbagh thinks that “my literary side comes from my mother’s side of the family. Growing up she loved English literature, and she passed onto me the desire to read from an early age.” She gave him the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to read when he was 11. “Her mother, my now deceased grandmother Sabiha Faris, used to teach children’s literature at the American University of Beirut and one of my uncles on my mother’s side, Waddah Faris, was an art dealer and artist.”

Omar is a scholar as well as a poet, and is the final stages of revising the PhD thesis at Kings College, London University, on the subject of Narrative and Time in the writings of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. He read for his first degree, in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), at Exeter College, Oxford University, and then did an MA in English Literature. He started a doctorate at Cambridge, but left after eight months to devote himself to poetry. He then did a second MA, in creative writing, at Goldsmiths College, London University, at the same time embarking on his PhD at King’s College. He is currently doing a third MA, in philosophy, at Birkbeck College, London University.

At Goldsmiths he studied under the award-winning poet Fiona Sampson, who writes of him: “He is very very able, and I think very interesting as a cross-cultural phenomenon. (I don’t mean in ANY tokenistic way, I mean in the way he fuses Western liberal education and home experience). He writes in a range of genres, not just poetry – he’s incredibly bright, full of energy and assiduity. I warmly recommend him.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

IPAF longlist announced

One of the striking features of the 16-book longlist for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, AKA the 'Arabic Booker') is how many of the titles explore - often through love relationships - the experiences of Arabs in flux between the contemporary Arab region and the West.

The central character of Egyptian Khalid al-Bari's 'An Oriental Dance' is a young Egyptian who marries an older British woman. Through him, the author examines the Arab community in the UK. The heroine of Saudi novelist Raja Alam's [pictured] 'The Doves' Necklace', set in Mecca, offsets the sleazy underworld of that city with her love letters to her German boyfriend. In Syrian Maha Hassan's novel 'Secret Rope' a young Syrian woman finds in France a freedom that is denied her in her own country. And in 'The Eye of the Sun' by Syrian Ibtisam Ibrahim Teresa, a woman returns home to Syria after living in exile in Sweden. Lebanese Renee Hayek focuses on the impact of the Civil War on family and friends, and relationships between those who stayed and those who left the country. The narrative of another Lebanese writer, Fatin al-Murr, in 'Common Sins' shifts between Lebanon and London as she depicts the resistance in southern Lebanon.

Egyptian Miral al-Tahawy [pictured] has a female narrator recount the story of Arab New Yorkers in the novel 'Brooklyn Heights'. The Algerian author Waciny Laredj takes a historical approach in 'The Andalucian House' which tells the story of a house in Granada through the generations of its inabitants over the centuries.

One of cruellest interfaces of Arab-Western interaction in the 21st century is that of Arabs in captivity, and under "extraordinary rendition", and this is the tough subject matter of 'My Tormentor' by Moroccan Bensalem Himmich [pictured]. The "war on terror" is also the backdrop to Syrian Fawaz Haddad's book 'God's Soldiers' in which a Syrian father goes in search of his son, who has joined Al-Qaeda, only to be kidnapped himself. Moroccan Mohammed Achaari's 'The Arch and the Butterfly', tells the story of a father whose son has joined Al-Qaeda rather than study in Paris, and has died a martyr in Afghanistan.

Saudi author Maqbul Moussa Al-Alawi in 'Turmoil in Jeddah' tells of British imperial involvement in the Middle East through a bloody naval confrontation between the British and Ottomans off Jeddah in the late 19th century.

'Women of Wind' by the Libyan woman fiction writer Razan Naim al-Maghrabi takes us deep into the world of women as she portrays the efforts of her Moroccan servant girl central protagonist to migrate illicitly by sea.

Relationships between religions in particular Arab countries are explored by Yemeni writer Ali al-Muqri and Egyptian Khairy Shalaby. In 'The Handsome Jew' al-Muqri recounts the story of a love affair and elopement of an Imam's daughter and her Jewish pupil. Shalaby dramatises Coptic-Muslim relations in the Egyptian Delta through his account in 'Istasia' of a Muslim lawyer who brings the murderer of a Coptic man to justice.

Much has been made of the headline-grabbing fact that 7 of the 16 authors on the longlist are female, the largest representation of women on the longlist in the prize's four-year history. The list is also noteworthy for its geographical range, from Morocco to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and from Syria down to Sudan. The Sudanese writer listed is Amir Taj al-Sir - family name also transliterated as al-Sirr; the Jeddah-based Saudi newspaper Okaz and its sister publication Saudi Gazette proudly report that al-Sirr is "an Okaz writer" as well as highlighting the presence of Saudi authors Raja Alem and Maqbul Moussa al-Alawi on the longlist. Last year IPAF was won for the first time by a Saudi writer - Abdo Khal for 'Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles'.

The longlist:

The Arch and the Butterfly
by Mohammed Achaari
Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre)

The Doves’ Necklace
by Raja Alem
Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre)
Saudi Arabian

Turmoil in Jeddah
by Maqbul Moussa Al-Alawi
Saudi Arabian

An Oriental Dance
by Khalid Al-Bari
El-Ain Publishing

God’s Soldiers
by Fawaz Haddad
Riad El-Rayyes Books

Secret Rope
by Maha Hassan

A Short Life
by Renée Hayek
Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre)

My Tormentor
by Bensalem Himmich
Dar El Shorouk

The Andalucian House
by Waciny Laredj
Jamal Publications

Women of Wind
by Razan Naim Al-Maghrabi
Thaqafa l-al-Nashr (Cultural Publications)

The Handsome Jew
by Ali Al-Muqri
Dar al-Saqi

Common Sins
Fatin Al-Murr
Dar An-Nahar

by Khairy Shalaby
Dar El Shorouk

The Hunter of the Chrysalises (or The Head Hunter)
by Amir Taj Al-Sir
Thaqafa l-al-Nashr (Cultural Publications)

Brooklyn Heights
by Miral Al-Tahawy
Dar Merit

The Eye of the Sun
by Ibtisam Ibrahim Teresa
Arab Scientific Publishers

As usual, the identity of the IPAF judges is being kept secret until the announcement of the shortlist - on 9 December in the Qatari capital Doha,this year's Arab Cultural Capital. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Monday 14 March 2011, the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. IPAF is funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy and is also supported by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

From the announcement issued though IPAF's London-based PR firm Colman Getty:
The longlist includes seven women writers, the highest number in the prize's history. The as-yet nameless Chair of Judges comments: “This year’s novels were thematically varied, covering the issues of religious extremism, political and social conflict, and women’s struggle to liberate themselves from the obstacles standing in the way of their personal growth and empowerment. We are delighted with the very high percentage of women who reached the longlist compared with previous years.”

Joumana Haddad, Prize Administrator, comments: “The Prize in its fourth year has become a critical conscience and a literary reference in all that relates to the modern Arabic novel, in both the Arab and Western worlds. The 2011 longlist is proof of that.”

2011 marks the fourth year of the Prize, the first of its kind in the Arab world in its commitment to the independence, transparency and integrity of its selection process. Its aim is to celebrate the very best of contemporary Arabic fiction and encourage wider international readership of Arabic literature through translation.

To date, the three winners of the Prize have been translated into English, in addition to a range of other languages including Bosnian, French, German, Norwegian and Indonesian. Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (2008) was translated into English by Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton) in 2009, Youssef Ziedan’s Azazel(2009) will be published in the UK by Atlantic Books in August 2011 and news of an English translation of Abdo Khal’s Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles (2010) will be announced shortly. In addition, a number of the shortlisted finalists have also secured translations, the most recent of which is an English translation of Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter through the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation.

Jonathan Taylor, Chair of the Board of Trustees, comments: “The longlist for the fourth International Prize for Arabic Fiction is as varied, talented and powerful as ever and includes writers from seven Arabic countries, a high proportion being women.”

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is awarded for prose fiction in Arabic and each of the six shortlisted finalists receives $10,000, with a further $50,000 going to the winner. It was launched in Abu Dhabi, UAE, in April 2007, and is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.

Details of the 2011 longisted authors and novels:

is a poet and novelist from Morocco. He is the head of the Union of Moroccan Writers and was Minister of Culture from 1998 to 2007. He has published a number of works of fiction and poetry, some of which has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian and Dutch.

The Arch and the Butterfly Tackling the themes of Islamic extremism and terrorism from a new angle, The Arch and the Butterfly explores the effect of terrorism on family life. It tells the story of a left-wing father who one day receives a letter from Al-Qaeda informing him that his son, who he believes is studying in Paris, has died a martyr in Afghanistan. The novel looks at the impact of this shocking news on the life of its hero and consequently on his relationship with his wife.

RAJA ALEM is a well-known Saudi novelist living in Mecca. She has published a number of novels and plays. Two of her works, written in collaboration with American novelist and cinematographer Tom McDonough, have been published in English: Fatma: A Novel of Arabia (2002) and My Thousand and One Nights (2007). In The Doves’ Necklace, she defends the old town of Mecca which is threatened with destruction in the name of modernisation.

The Doves’ Necklace - The sordid underbelly of the holy city of Mecca is revealed in this astonishing story. The world painted by heroine Aisha embraces everything from prostitution and religious extremism to the exploitation of foreign workers under a mafia of building contractors, who are destroying the historic areas of the city. This bleak scene is contrasted with the beauty of Aisha’s love letters to her German boyfriend.

MAQBUL MOUSSA AL-ALAWI is a Saudi writer, whose stories and articles have been published in local newspapers. This is his first novel.

Turmoil in Jeddah - Set towards the end of 19th century, Turmoil in Jeddah is a story of Ottoman nationalism played out in the Arabian Gulf. When an Arab naval captain pulls down the British flag on his ship and raises the Ottoman flag in its place, he provokes outrage from the British Consul, the ship’s protector, and events spiral out of control, culminating in bloodshed and a popular uprising against the British.

KHALID AL-BARI is an Egyptian writer with a degree in Medicine from Cairo University. He has lived in London for over 10 years. He has published two books, one of which is a biography.

An Oriental Dance tells the story of a young Egyptian who, on marrying an older British woman, moves to England. Through his eyes, the reader is given a vivid account of the struggles and relationships of the Arab expatriate community living in the UK.

FAWAZ HADDAD is a Syrian novelist born in Damascus. A full-time writer, he has published several novels and a collection of short stories. He was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 for The Unfaithful Translator and was on the judging panel for the Hannah Meeena Novel contest in 2003 and the Almazraa Novel contest in 2004. A chapter from his novel Passing Scene was published in English in Banipal Magazine in 2008, translated by Paul Starkey.

God’s Soldiers - an action-packed story set in modern-day Iraq ,in which a father goes in search of his son who has joined Al-Qaeda, hoping to take him back to Syria. Despite the protection of the American and Syrian Secret Services, the father is kidnapped by his adversaries and, along the way, finds himself in an audience with the real-life character Abu Muses al-Zarqawi, once Iraq’s most notorious insurgent.

MAHA HASSAN is a Syrian novelist and journalist living in France, who has published her work in a number of Arabic newspapers and online. She is the author of two novels, but she has been banned from publishing in Syria since 2000. In 2008 she lived for a year in the former, renovated apartment of Anne Frank and her family at the Amsterdam Merwedeplein, at the invitation of Amsterdam Vluchtstad.

Secret Rope contrasts life in Syria and France through the story of a mother and daughter. After her marriage in Syria, the daughter finds she must return to France to pursue a life of freedom that she cannot achieve in her homeland.

RENÉE HAYEK was born in southern Lebanon and studied philosophy at the Lebanese University, before embarking on a career in journalism and literary translation. She is the author of a collection of short stories called Portraits for Forgetfulness (1994) and one of the stories within the collection, The Phone Call, was translated into English and included in Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women. Her novel, Prayer for the Family, was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009.

A Short Life gives an eye witness account from a woman living in Lebanon during the long years of Civil War. Writing in the present tense, the reader is given an insight into daily life in wartime, from the difficulties and dangers of travelling across the country to the war’s effect on social life, from family to relationships with friends who have remained and those who have sought a new life abroad.

BENSALEM HIMMICH is a Moroccan novelist, poet and philosopher and the current Minister of Culture. He has published 26 books, both literary and scientific works, in Arabic and French, and has won numerous literary prizes including the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature (twice) and the Riad El Rayyes Prize. His novels The Theocrat (2005) and The Polymath (2004) have been translated into English by Roger Allen. His novel, Black Taste, Black Odour, was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009.

My Tormentor - a gripping novel, whose narrative style is a blend of Kafka and One Thousand and One Nights, in which Himmich imagines an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison. During his captivity, the protagonist is subjected to interrogation and torture by both Arabs and foreigners and yet, against all odds, the author manages to find some hope in an otherwise desperate situation.

WACINY LAREDJ is a prolific Algerian author, well-known both in his own country and in France. His books are published in Arabic and French. He has won a number of prizes for his work, including the Sheikh Zayed Prize for Literature in 2007.

The Andalucian House relays the history of a house in Granada through the stories of the people who live there over the centuries. Amongst its many residents are two famous, real-life characters: the first, Dali Mami, a sixteenth-century pirate who fought for the Turks and was responsible, amongst other things, for Miguel de Cervantes's period of captivity in Algeria and the second Emperor Napoleon III, whose wife Eugenie was born in Granada.

RAZAN NAIM AL-MAGHRABI is a Libyan writer who has published five collections of short stories and a novel called ‘Ala Madar Al-Hamal.

Women of Wind is a moving story of female friendship and the secret lives of women. It tells the story of a Moroccan servant girl who requests the help of the women in her life to help raise enough money secure a passage on a smugglers’ ship. Before the heroine embarks on her harrowing voyage, the narrative weaves together the stories of the different women who help her, from the Iraqi woman who acts as a go-between between the heroine and the smugglers, to a female novelist and a little girl whose mother has abandoned her.

ALI AL-MUQRI is a poet, journalist and novelist born in Yemen. Al-Muqri started writing at the age of 18. After the reunification of Yemen in 1990, he became a cultural editor for various publications. Since 1997, he has been editor of Al-Hikma, a literary publication of the Yemeni Writer’s Association. He also heads a literary journal called Ghaiman which was established in 2007. His novel, The Man from Andalucia, was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009.

The Handsome Jew tells the story of two teenagers from opposing religious backgrounds who meet and fall in love against a backdrop of Yemeni culture. The story begins in a local village when the daughter of the Imam teaches a local Jewish boy to read and write Arabic. When they decide to run away to the capital in order to be together, neither foresees the long-lasting consequences of their decision.

FATIN AL-MURR is a teacher of French literature at the Lebanese University. She has published a novel and a short story collection.

Common Sins
A story of love and resistance set in Lebanon. Told from the perspective of a female narrator, Common Sins moves between southern Lebanon, Beirut and London and gives a perceptive view of the resistance in southern Lebanon.

KHAIRY SHALABY was born in Kafr al-Shaykh in Egypt’s Nile Delta in 1938. He has written over 70 books, including novels, short stories, historical tales, and critical studies. The Lodging House was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003 and he won the State Prize for Literature in 2005. His books have been translated into several languages including English, French, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Urdu and Hebrew, and some adapted for film and television. The Lodging House (2006) and The Times Travels of the Pickle and Sweet Vendor (2010) have both been translated into English.

Istasia is a Coptic widow living in the Egyptian Delta, who becomes a local legend when she dedicates her life to revenging the death her son through prayer. Assistance comes in the unlikely form of the son of the village’s leading Muslim family, notorious for their ruthlessness and cruelty, a lawyer who decides to investigate the case and bring Istasia’s son’s unknown murderers to justice. The moral of the story is that not every Muslim is good or Christian evil and that, no matter the religion, God will answer the prayers of anyone who has been wronged.

AMIR TAJ AL-SIR is a Sudanese writer. He has published nine novels, two biographies and one collection of poetry.

The Hunter of the Chrysalises (or The Head Hunter) is the story of a former secret service agent who, having been forced to retire due to an accident, decide to write a novel about his experiences. He starts to visit a café frequented by intellectuals, only to find himself the subject of police scrutiny.

MIRAL AL-TAHAWY is an Egyptian writer currently living in New York. Her first novel, The Tent, was widely acclaimed when it was first published in Arabic and was published in English by the AUC Press in 2000. Her other works have also been translated into different languages, including English, French and Spanish.

Brooklyn Heights tells the story of New York’s Arab immigrants and those who live among them through the eyes of the female narrator. By contrasting her experiences in her chosen home, America, and her homeland Egypt, she reveals the problematic relationship between East and West. It is a story of fundamentalism and tolerance, loss and hope in love. Simple yet full of rich detail, the novel evokes the atmosphere of America over the last decade.

IBTISAM IBRAHIM TERESA is a Syrian writer who has published four novels and two short story collections.

The Eye of the Sun - protagonist Nasma returns to Syria after years in exile in Sweden and is forced to confront painful memories. Her story reveals a past filled with conflict: from domestic turmoil under a cruel and manipulative father, to political upheaval affecting both her family and the entire population of Aleppo. As well as relating the events that shaped her life up until the present, the novel explores the relationships she has with the men in her life, from her father and brother to her lovers, the man who tortures her and the man to whom she is now married.

In addition to the annual Prize, IPAF supports an annual nadwa (writers’ workshop) for emerging writers from across the Arab world. The inaugural nadwa took place in November 2009 and included eight writers, who had been recommended by IPAF judges as writers of exceptional promise. The result was eight new pieces of fiction which have been published in English and Arabic by Dar Al Saqi Books in Emerging Arab Voices 1, which was launched at Sharjah International Book Fair on 27 October 2010 and will be published in the UK in January 2011. A second workshop took place in Abu Dhabi in October 2010 with seven writers. Both nadwas were run under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region, UAE