Sunday, January 30, 2011

leila aboulela's novel 'lyrics alley'

Tracking a Sudanese-Egyptian family saga
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 30 January 2011

The title of Egyptian-Sudanese author Leila Aboulela’s novel “Lyrics Alley” refers to the poetry and song lyrics for which the paralyzed Sudanese poet Nur Abuzeid becomes famed, and also to the network of small streets in Umdurman on which he and his relatives live.

Nur’s first cousin and former fiancĂ©e Soraya, whose engagement to the poet was broken off by his father after Nur was paralyzed, is consoled by hearing songs with Nur’s lyrics on the radio. “Soraya would walk down the alley and hear snatches of Nur’s lyrics coming from the houses. She would sit up in bed and sing along with the radio. And every time she heard it, the pain decreased and the enjoyment increased.”

Aboulela’s novel was inspired by a real-life character, her uncle Hassan Awad Aboulela (1922-62) who wrote the lyrics for many popular Sudanese songs and was paralyzed in an accident. A similar accident befalls his fictional counterpart Nur Abuzeid, son of one of Sudan’s richest men Mahmoud Abuzeid. Nur, who had just completed his studies at the exclusive Victoria College in Alexandria, is paralyzed when he dives off rocks into the sea and breaks several vertebrae. Prior to that he had been the natural heir to the Abuzeid family business as his elder brother Nassir is an irresponsible wastrel.

In an interview with Saudi Gazette Leila [portrait below by Vaida V Nairn] said that in drawing inspiration from Hassan Awad Aboulela, “I was faithful to the details of his accident and the development of his career as a poet, and I used translations of his poems. However, the other characters and their storylines are fictitious.”

She shifted the timeline somewhat in her novel. “My uncle’s accident took place in 1948 but in the novel I moved the date to 1951 so that it would coincide with the progress of independence in Sudan. I also took many other artistic liberties and the novel should not be read as a true biography of the poet or his family.” She adds: “Of course many people in Sudan and in my family will be intrigued by the blur of reality and fiction and eager to explore how much truth is in the novel.”

Asked how her extended family has reacted to the novel, Aboulela replies: “Members of my family have been really positive and supportive. They’ve helped with sources and many of them shared with me their personal memories of Hassan.”

She did not find it difficult to write the novel. “This is because I was motivated by love for my father, and for my family. At the same time I did not let sentimentality or loyalty prevent me from being frank regarding the treatment of women in 1950s Sudan and the colonial-Egyptian prejudice towards Sudan.”

“Lyrics Alley”, Aboulela’s third novel, is published in London by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The US edition will be published by Grove Press on 1 March. Aboulela’s earlier novels “The Translator” (1999) and “Minaret” (2005) received considerable critical acclaim. Both were longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. “The Translator” was in addition shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year.

Aboulela’s short stories have also garnered praise. In 2000 she became the first-ever winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “The Museum”. Her 2001 short story collection “Coloured Lights” was shortlisted for the Macmillan Silver PEN Award.

While Aboulela’s first two novels were each focused on one female character, “Lyrics Alley” is a family saga, with a large number of characters and shifting points of view. The rich, complex narrative takes us into the characters’ inner lives, with Aboulela’s characteristic eye for detail, and her lyrical touch and atmospheric writing.

Asked why she chose multiple points of view, Aboulela says: “In ‘Lyrics Alley’ I was capturing my late father’s youth, his childhood growing up in Umdurman. My father had four brothers and five sisters. He had countless first and second cousins. All these families lived very close to each other with narrow passages leading from one hoash – open-air courtyard – to the next.”

The families shared meals, slept in adjoining beds, and were often joined by poor relations from the provinces and by servants and guests. The men worked together, and cousins very often married each other. “To reflect this teeming, close-knit populous world I had to have a large canvas,” Aboulela says. “Initially I had envisaged an even bigger cast, more brothers and sisters, more points of view – but to be realistic I narrowed down the list and concentrated on going deep with five characters and their points of view.”

Aboulela was born in Cairo in 1964 to an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father. At the age of six weeks she moved to Khartoum, where she lived until 1987. She graduated in economics from Khartoum University and then moved to Britain where she gained an MSc and an MPhil in Statistics from the London School of Economics (LSE). In 1990 she moved to Scotland with her oil engineer husband Nadir Mahjoub and her children, and started writing fiction in 1992. Since 2000 she and her family have lived in Jakarta, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. She now divides her time between Aberdeen in Scotland, and Doha.

Through the characters in “Lyrics Alley” Aboulela explores issues such as modernity and tradition. Mahmoud is a visionary businessman, but his brother Idris, a widower, is so conservative that he will not allow his schoolgirl daughter Soraya to read a newspaper or to wear spectacles. It is her fiancĂ© Nur who gives her the spectacles she needs to see clearly.

Mahmoud has two wives. The first is the Sudanese Hajjah Waheeba, mother of Nassir and Nur. The younger wife is the stylish Egyptian Nabilah, by whom Mahmoud has a young daughter Ferial and son Farouk. Aboulela depicts with skill the escalating rivalry between the two wives. Nabilah may be more superficially sophisticated, but Waheeba has a deep claim on Mahmoud who will never divorce her. Nabilah’s feelings of Egyptian superiority over Sudan lead her to feel some revulsion even at her own children’s Sudanese looks. Female circumcision, which Nabilah and Mahmoud oppose, is involved in a shocking plot development.

A key character from outside the family is Ustaz Badr, a devout and wise teacher from Upper Egypt who has been a private tutor to Mahmoud’s children. He lives in cramped conditions with his family and is desperate to lease a flat in Khartoum’s first high-rise building which Mahmoud is planning to build.

Aboulela has been extensively involved in radio drama at the BBC, both in dramatizations of her fiction and in scripting original plays. One could imagine “Lyrics Alley” as an effective radio or TV series or play. Aboulela says: “There are no plans yet, but I would certainly welcome the idea.”

Over the years Aboulela’s work has been translated into 12 languages. So far, the Dutch, Turkish and Polish language rights have been sold for “Lyrics Alley”. Her first two novels are forthcoming in translation into Malayalam, published by Olive Publications of Kerala, and she hopes the same publisher will also translate and publish “Lyrics Alley” in Malayalam.

Aboulela is also keen for “Lyrics Alley” to appear in Arabic. She says: “I am striving towards an Arabic translation, eager to see my uncle’s poems return to their original.”

Asked whether another volume of short stories is in the pipeline, Aboulela says: “I am hoping to publish another story collection. This would include my story ‘Missing Out’ in Granta as well as one that was published in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The National newspaper.”

At the same time, “I am ‘incubating’ a new novel, so I might head in that direction.” She is attracted by writing non-fiction and memoir “but somehow it doesn’t come naturally to me as fiction does – so it tends to take more time.” She adds “there was quite a gap between Minaret and Lyrics Alley and I hope now there won’t be such a gap until my next book is published.”

In addition to her own writing, Abouela has recently been involved in creative writing activities in Doha for Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP). “I taught a “Six Steps to a Story” course over a period of 6 weeks,” she says. “We started off with free-writing exercises designed to tap into the subconscious mind, then we moved on to points of view, building characters and finally to editing ones work and re-writing. I also gave them published short stories to read as I believe that reading is essential to pick up skills and inspiration.

“All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would welcome the opportunity to do it again. The students were of various abilities but there was a lot of talent and plenty of enthusiasm. I was lucky to have them over a six week period and watch them develop and grow in confidence.”

Aboulela’s increasing prominence over the past decade as a Muslim fiction writer, whose work often explores relations between Muslims and Westerners, has coincided with a fraught time in relations between Muslims and the West. How has this affected her writing, and do people look to her and her writing for explanations and understanding?

“From the beginning of my career I had wanted to write about Islam as a faith and about Muslims who, with varying degrees of success, are engaged with their faith,” says Aboulela. “I have always been keenly aware of the absence of religious observance in Arabic literature and cinema, an absence that doesn’t reflect the reality of most people’s lives. The men who crowd the mosques, the women who go on Hajj, the teenage girls who wear hijab are to a large extent invisible in the Arabic literary scene.”

For literature to be effective and meaningful it has to mirror people’s lives “otherwise it becomes an insubstantial as a dream.” Over the past decade, the interest in Islam has focused on terrorism and the veil. “For me the challenge is to resist explaining, defending or getting pulled into an agenda set by others. I write without looking over my shoulder, focusing on what I intimately know rather than on issues that grab the headlines.”

Leila Aboulela’s website is at

Sunday, January 23, 2011

josceline dimbleby's food memoir 'orchards in the oasis'

A food odyssey from Damascus to Gujarat
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 23 January, 2011

At the age of seven the future food writer Josceline Dimbleby travelled with a governess by cargo ship from England to Lebanon and was then driven over the mountains to Syria to join her mother and stepfather. It was 1950 and Dimbleby’s diplomat stepfather had been posted to Damascus.

To the young British girl the ancient city of Damascus “looked like an illustration from a fairy story: encircled by the desert hills, its domes and minarets nestled in an oasis of poplars and fruit orchards, irrigated by sparkling streams fed by a shimmering river, the Barada.”

Dimbleby’s memories of Damascus inspired the title of her latest book “Orchards in the Oasis: Travels, Food and Memories”, published by Quadrille Publishing of London. In Damascus the family was catered for by their Armenian cook, Joseph. Josceline was entranced by the kitchen’s unfamiliar smells of spices and herbs. On one occasion Joseph gave her a crispy honey pastry with a slightly scented taste. “That was the moment, I have always felt, in the distant aromatic kitchen, which awoke my taste buds and kindled my lifelong passion for food and flavor.”

Dimbleby is the prizewinning author of 24 books and was for more than 15 years food columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. She has written for various publications, and has featured in many TV food and travel programs.

“Orchards in the Oasis” is a lively account of Dimbleby’s adventures in travel and food, starting with her childhood in Syria and ending with a trip to Gujarat in 2005. Along the way she takes in Peru, Turkey, Iran, Morocco, the Canary Island of Lanzarote, North America, Burma and Vietnam.

Josceline also writes of food in her native England, from her maternal grandmother’s kitchen in Chelsea, London, to the village of Dittisham in the county of Devon where the Dimbleby family has spent many holidays.

The colorful book is beautifully designed, with photographs on every page. Dimbleby comes across as a warm, inquisitive travel companion, and her reminiscences include many amusing anecdotes and memorable characters. Scattered among the text are 70 recipes, illustrated by the renowned food photographer Jason Lowe. The Syria-related recipes include Damascus garden salad, Bloudan walnut soup, rose petal tart and apricot and pomegranate jelly (pictured at end of article).

Dimbleby’s stepfather Bill was a dominant, eccentric character. He drove the family all over Syria in his German “Nazi” car, a whale-like Horsch he had bought it after seeing it in the backyard of the British embassy in post-Second World War Paris.

When Bill was posted to the Peruvian capital of Lima, he took the family on marathon drives in a Buick Special, far up into the Andes. Peru is reckoned to be the birthplace of the potato, and countless varieties are grown there. Dimbleby’s Peruvian recipes range from a potato dish, to beef in chili and chocolate sauce, fish with avocado, lime and chili (pictured) and chilled passion fruit snow.

In the early 1960s Josceline studied singing at Guildhall school of music in London and lived in a basement flat. Here she started experiments in cooking. She relied on her memory and imagination rather than on any cookery book. The first dish she cooked was the quintessentially English shepherd’s pie, enlivened Syrian-style with cumin seeds and ground cinnamon.

Dimbleby first encountered Turkish food when the rich father of her friend Elizabeth gave the two girls a month’s holiday there plus first-class tickets from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express. Among her Turkish recipes is one for Muhalebi milk dessert with orange blossom syrup.

In 1967 Josceline married the British broadcaster David Dimbleby, who was at the time a CBS TV reporter in New York. Her time in the Big Apple is reflected in such recipes as baked cheesecake with a ginger crust. The couple returned to Britain in grand style, travelling first class on the legendary Queen Mary 1930s liner which was about to be retired from service.

For St Valentine’s Day 1970 Josceline and David went to Marrakech, the source of her recipes for crispy pigeon pie (a version of the Moroccan classic bastilla), meatballs (pictured), and spiced carrot salad with mint. In Marrakech the couple met a famous old soldier, Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck, who was nearing 90. Bizarrely, he entertained them by getting his Moroccan servant Bashir to dress up in masks of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill and many other figures.

At the end of that year the couple’s Iranian friend Jamshed arranged for them to visit Iran. In his opulent modern house on the mountain above Tehran, Jamshed indulged them with a bowl of Caspian Beluga, the largest most lustrous caviar they had ever seen. The dishes Josceline absorbed from Iran included eggs on crispy saffron rice, marinated kidney kebabs and Yazd honey cakes.

On her first visit to India, Josceline met some men going game shooting. They explained how their wives cooked quail, partridge, duck and other game. Back in England she tried combining game birds with Indian spices. This opened up delicious ways of cooking game, as shown by her recipe for rich red quail curry. (picture shows Calcutta kheer milk pudding) .

Josceline’s 25-year marriage ended painfully in 1992, and she found travel a welcome distraction. In Vietnam she discovered that country’s incredibly sweet and succulent seafood – as well as its French culinary legacy, with baguettes baked freshly in the mornings even in remote villages
Dimbleby’s food odyssey ends in Gujarat. She has visited the state three times, and finds its cuisine particularly delicate. She writes that it is only while travelling that she gets the feeling of simple excitement she used to get as a child. “I hope I can experience a wide variety of places, food, people and surprises for many more years,” she says.

Monday, January 17, 2011

'I Cried on the Mountain Top' - images and poems from Afghanistan

Opening a window on Afghan culture
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 16 Jan 2011

Despite all the Western involvement, military and otherwise, in Afghanistan, the Western public knows all too little of that country’s culture. A book published recently in the UK helps open a window on Afghan culture through poetry and photographs.

The 64-page book, “I Cried on the Mountain Top”, marries selections of traditional Afghan poetry to black-and-white images from the photographic archive (covering 1980-2010) of the independent London-based charity Afghanaid. The poetry is in the form of the ancient and widespread tradition of folk singing known as chaharbeiti. These quatrains (four-line verses) are popular all over Afghanistan and in Iran and Tajikistan.

The images and poetry were selected, and the poetry translated, by Doubleday, who published the book in collaboration with Afghanaid. The charity was founded in 1983 to provide assistance to Afghans in hardship and distress.

The book was launched in an event at the Afghan Embassy in London. The Afghan ambassador Homayoun Tandar is keen to promote Afghan culture in the UK, and he was enthusiastic about the project to prepare the book. He wrote the preface, in the form of a page of poetry on the sufferings and dreams of Afghans: “A dream of love, sweetness, tenderness, happiness, joy – a better life. “

In her introduction Doubleday writes: “With this book I have tried to show how – in the midst of chaos and trauma – Afghan people live, love, work, pray, suffer and enjoy themselves.” Any reader would immediately notice the passionate tone of the verses: “Romantic, sometimes mystical or stoical, and often concerned with sadness at separation from beloved people or places.” Yet at their core is “an inner faith and patient resilience that form a very strong aspect of the Afghan character.”

Doubleday was uniquely well-placed to undertake the project of the book. In the mid-1970s she lived for over two years with her ethnomusicologist husband Dr John Baily in the Western Afghan city of Herat. There she studied women’s music and learned how to perform it. She recorded and memorized many of the chaharbeiti in the dialect of Persian known as dari, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.

Her research and experiences formed the basis of her book “Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan”, published by Jonathan Cape in 1988 and republished by IB Tauris in 2006.

Each left hand page of “I Cried on the Mountain Top” carries a single photograph from the Afghanaid archive. On the facing page is a quatrain, chosen to reflect some aspect of the picture and displayed both in the original Persian –with beautiful calligraphy executed by Afghan calligrapher Parwiz Latifi – and in Doubleday’s English translation. The technique of pairing images and poems works well, and the cumulative effect is very moving. [picture of two young girls was taken by Amanda Curley]
Some of the photographs remind us of the years of destruction. One 1980s image shows an armed resistance fighter atop a crashed Soviet helicopter. The accompanying poem is entitled “Gunshots and Smoke”:
High on the mountain, a pair of leopards –
and the air filled with gunshots and rifle smoke.
Friends, you must appreciate one another,
for in the grave your sole companion is a pillow of stone.

A picture of a war-devastated Kabul alley is partnered by the poem “Alas, sweet Kabul.” Opposite a 1980s picture of migrants wheeling their belongings on a cart in the snow is the poem “Lonely traveller”:
O god! I’ve arrived in this town,
Sad and lonely, with no friends.
Give a traveller a smoke from your pipe!
I’m here tonight – but tomorrow, who knows where?

A portrait of a sad-faced old lady resonates with the poem “If you saw my daughter” in which the mother says: “If she asked how I was, say I’m as thin as a wisp of straw.” Poems with romantic themes are often tinged with sadness, such as “I kiss the earth” in which the poet pining for his sweetheart roams the mountains and deserts “like a sorrowful bird that cannot fly”. The charming “Chains of ringlets” is addressed to a girl whose black locks of hair “twisting like snakes” beautify her shining face. The accompanying photograph is of a seller of chains in Faizabad bazaar.

Some of the photographs show projects that Afghanaid has carried out over the past three decades. One shows workers in 2002 mixing cement for a wall to prevent river flooding, opposite the poem “Your pitcher of water”. A picture [by Howard Lake] of a tailor cutting cloth was taken in 1989 in Peshawar, Pakistan, where Afghanaid set up income-generating projects for refugees in tented refugee camps. The quatrain “The tailor” has as its final two lines: “I cut my garment of sorrow / and no tailor could ever sew it together.”

The availability of Afghan poetry in English translation will widen further in June when London-based Hurst Publishers issues “Poetry of the Taliban” by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn . The anthology has a foreword by Faisal Devji, Reader in the History of South Asia at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

The title of the book may raise eyebrows, but Hurst Publishers says that while the Taliban are synonymous with the war in Afghanistan, cultural aspects of their identity, “the Taliban’s other face”, is often overlooked. “Most Taliban fighters are Pushtuns, a people who cherish their vibrant poetic tradition, closely associated with that of song.” Taliban poetry has an appeal that transcends the insurgency. “For the Taliban today, these poems or ghazals, have a resonance back to the 1980s war against the Soviets, when similar rhetorical styles, poetic formulae and tricks with meter inspired mujahideen combatants and non-combatants alike.” The poetry includes “classics” of the genre from the 1980s and 1990s as well as a selection from the odes and ghazals of today’s conflict.

I Cried On the Mountain Top can be ordered from