Sunday, April 17, 2011

arab spring at london book fair

Arab Spring reaches the London Book Fair
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 17 April 2011

The ‘Arab Spring’ was a recurring theme at seminars and other events that took place during the three-day London Book Fair (LBF) held at Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre last week. In relation to the Egyptian revolution, there was a buzz at the LBF’s International Rights Centre over the manuscript of the book “Revolution 2.0” written by Wael Ghonim [pictured], the Egyptian internet activist and Middle East and North Africa manager of Google.

The New York literary agency Inkwell Management of New York has scored a coup in signing up Ghonim. During LBF, Inkwell placed Ghonim in a conference room in the Rights Centre where he made presentations on his life story to a total of some 120 people.

It was Ghonim who set up anonymously the Facebook page “we are all Khaled Saeed” devoted to the young man allegedly beaten to death by police in Alexandria last June. The Facebook campaign helped trigger the Egyptian uprising in January. Ghonim was released on 8 February after 12 days in secret detention and came to worldwide fame with his subsequent emotional interview with Dream TV. He is due to pick up the John F Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, in the name of the people of Egypt, in Boston on 23 May.

The Arab Spring also cropped up during a seminar on ‘Translation and the Arabic Novel: Beyond the Politically Symbolic Act’ organized by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) and chaired by ALECSO’s Dr Rita Awad. The speakers were Dr Ayman El-Desouky, chair of the Centre for Culture, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, and Dr Rana Kabbani, the Syrian academic and author.

Dr Awad said that with the so-called Arab Spring, the Arab world is at the centre of attention worldwide. “The Arab youth over a vast geographical and cultural landscape are leading a revolution which has become an uprising model for youth in other cultures. Now people more than any other time before want to know more and to read more about these youth, about modern Arabic culture and the Arab world.”

She added: “These are best reflected in the modern and contemporary Arabic novel, which has predicted such an uprising and has reflected the complex Arab cultural and social scene in a highly sophisticated artistic and literary structure and style. For publishers who are keen at presenting translated works this is a precious opportunity to seize.”

Given the current uprising in Libya, and its brutal suppression, a seminar on ‘The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction’ attracted much attention. The panel was chaired by the Iraqi editor of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature, Samuel Shimon and featured four UK-based Libyan writers: Hisham Matar, Ghazi Gheblawi, Mohammed Mesrati and Giuma Bukleb. Novelist Wafa Al-Bueissa, was also scheduled to take part but visa problems prevented her from travelling from the Netherlands, where she now lives.

The Libyan writers on the panel are among the 17 included in the 135-page special feature on Libyan Fiction in the recently-published 40th issue of Banipal. The subjects discussed by the panel included the reasons why the short story has until recently been the preferred fiction form for Libyan writers, why Libyan writing has been generally neglected by outsiders, and the ruthless crushing of literary expression during the four decades of Gaddafi dictatorship.

Giuma Bukleb was jailed for 10 years from the late 1970s. He described what is happening in Libya today as “a dream come true: I never expected in my life that I am going to see this happen in Libya, because of what I know of Gaddafi and the regime. Thank God I lived to the day when I see these things happening in Libya, and see the man who really suffocated our lives now with his back to the wall, and when I see Libyans now coming out, reclaiming their country, reclaiming their identity, reclaiming their independence, reclaiming themselves.”
L to R: Hisham Matar, Ghazi Gheblawi, Mohammed Mesrati, Giuma Bukleb, Samuel Shimon

The publication of Arab literature in translation has been growing in the three years since the Arab World was the Market Focus of the LBF in 2008. Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) – the joint venture of London-based Bloomsbury Publishing and the Qatar Foundation – marked its first anniversary during the LBF.

BQFP has so far published 50 titles and holds regular events, workshops and author visits. To celebrate its first anniversary, the award-winning cultural journalist and critic Maya Jaggi interviewed Samuel Shimon on the new edition of his best-selling autobiographical novel “An Iraqi in Paris”, published recently by BQFP, and on trends in fiction writing in the Arab world. The fresh translation of the novel was undertaken by Piers Amodia and Christina Phillips.

Shimon’s engrossing and entertaining narrative recounts his adventures after he left Iraq in 1979 with the dream of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker. His experiences encompassed torture in Lebanon, Syria and especially Jordan, and encounters with Arab writers and with such cultural icons as Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard. At one stage Shimon lived on the streets of Paris.

When asked by Maya Jaggi what impact, if any, he thought the Arab Spring would have on Arab literature. Shimon said he did not think that for now it would have a serious effect “because the situation is chaotic and no one really knows what is happening”.

When asked about the Beirut39 project, in which judges selected 39 outstanding writers aged 39 or less from across the Arab world, and the 2010 “Beirut39” anthology that he edited for Bloomsbury, Shimon said the situation of Arab literature has changed completely in the past 10 years. “We have more young authors now, we have more women writers, we have more fiction.” He said that nowadays Arab poets are increasingly turning to novel writing. There are now more translators of Arabic literature into English and many more translations of Arabic literature are appearing than was the case at the end of the 1990s. The International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF) has also led to change. Shimon is being contacted by US publishers wanting him to help identify young Arab authors.

BQFP announced during LBF that it is to translate two consecutive winners of IPAF – Saudi author Abdo Khal’s 2010 winning novel “Throwing Sparks as Big as Castles” and Moroccan Mohammed Achaari ‘s “The Arch and the Butterfly” which was joint winner this year. BQFP will publish both novels in English in 2012. It has secured world language rights (except Arabic) for Abdo Khal’s novel, and similar rights (except Arabic and Italian) for Achaari’s book.

Co-winner of IPAF this year was Saudi novelist Raja Alem with “The Doves’ Necklace”. London-based literary agent Andrew Nurnberg Associates recently announced that it is representing Alem worldwide, except for Italy.

There was a boost for the younger generation of translators from Arabic when it was announced at LBF that Arabic has been chosen as the language for this year’s Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, organized in association with Foyles bookshop and with the support of Banipal.

The competition, for which the prize is £1,000 Sterling plus a selection of Harvill Secker titles and Foyles tokens, is open to translators aged between 18 and 34. Entrants are required to translate the short story, “Layl Qouti” by the Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez Eldin by a deadline of 29 July. The judges are Deputy Director of the British Council in Saudi Arabia, and translator, Anthony Calderbank; novelist Penelope Lively; journalist Maya Jaggi, and editor Briony Everroad. (Entry forms, and the story for translation, can be downloaded from the website).

The announcement on the prize came during a seminar on “Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Edited by Reza Aslan under the umbrella of Words Without Borders, the “Tablet and Pen” anthology published by Norton includes translations from Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Arabic.

On the first morning of LBF the literary editor of the Independent newspaper Boyd Tonkin [pictured] announced the shortlist of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Disappointingly for Arab literature aficionados, no title translated from Arabic made even the longlist of this year’s prize.

This was in marked contrast to last year, when the longlist of 15 books included three Arabic titles – by Elias Khoury, Hassan Blasim and Bahaa Taher – in translation. In addition, there was a translation from German of Syrian author Rafik Schami’s “The Dark Side of Love.” Bahaa Taher’s “Sunset Oasis”, translated by Humphrey Davies, made the shortlist.

Tonkin said he does not think the situation for Arabic literature in translation is as bleak as the language’s poor showing in this year’s Foreign Fiction Prize would suggest. “Certainly there are new endeavours such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the “Arabic Booker” - and part of the benefit of winning that prize is that the victorious book is translated into English. So I think we can possibly expect to see a bit more from the world of Arabic literature, if only because people are giving it a fair amount of care and attention at the moment.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

pictures from 'the hidden face of libyan fiction' seminar at london book fair

Some images from the 'The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction' seminar, a well-attended highlight of the London Book Fair on 13th April. The panel, chaired by Banipal editor Samuel Shimon, turned out to be all-male as Libyan novelist Wafa Al-Bueissa, who lives in the Netherlands, unfortunately had visa problems which prevented her from travelling to London to participate. The recently-published 40th issue of Banipal presented at the seminar includes a major 135-page special feature on Libyan Fiction with work from 17 writers, including the four on the seminar panel. The seminar attracted a great deal of interest, and was revealing on a literature which has (with the exception of one or two names) had little exposure elsewhere in the Arab world, let alone further afield. There was an emotional charge in the room as the panellists spoke of their current feelings of hope and described the difficulties that have faced writers over the past four decades including imprisonment (Giuma Bukleb was jailed for 10 years from the late 1970s when he and other young writers were rounded up), censorship, raids on bookshops and other attempts at silencing.
Hisham Matar

Mohammed Mesrati (L) and Samuel Shimon

(L to R) Hisham Matar, Giuma Bukleb, Ghazi Gheblawi

Ghazi Gheblawi Hisham Matar (L) and Giuma Bukleb Ghazi Gheblawi (L) and Mohammed Mesrati

Ghazi Gheblawi

Giuma Bukleb and Mohammed Mesrati in signing mode

socialising at the end of the event

(L to R) Hisham Matar, Ghazi Gheblawi, Mohammed Mesrati, Giuma Bukleb & Samuel Shimon Mohammed Mesrati and his Free Libya badge have the last word

Sunday, April 10, 2011

libyan fiction writers in the international spotlight

Libyan writers raise their profile
Susannah Tarbush
[Saudi Gazette 10 April 2011]

The ongoing crisis in Libya is leading to an upsurge of international interest in various facets of Libya, including its literature. This has prompted the London Book Fair (LBF) which opens tomorrow to add to its program at short notice a seminar entitled The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

The five Libyan writers participating in the seminar will “talk about the unknown Libyan novels, short stories and literary life in Libya, and open a discussion on the ongoing struggle for freedom in their country.” Four of the writers – Ghazi Gheblawi, Hisham Matar, Giuma Bukleb and Mohamed Mesrati – live in the UK. The fifth, Wafa Al-Bueissa, settled in the Netherlands after leaving Libya amidst controversy over her debut novel “Hunger has Other Faces”.

Chair of the seminar is Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, editor of Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature. By what Shimon terms an “amazing coincidence”, at the very time the uprising in Libya is raging Banipal has produced its first-ever special feature on Libyan fiction. The major feature takes up 135 pages of the 224-page 40th issue of Banipal. It showcases fiction by 17 Libyan authors including the five who are taking part in the LBF seminar.

Banipal issue 40 had been planned long before there was a whiff of revolution in the Libyan air. Shimon writes that he met by chance the veteran Libyan writer Ali Mustafa al-Musrati at the Greek Club in Cairo in 2007. Shimon told the writer how saddened he was by the neglect of Libyan literature in the Arab world and in the West. “I promised him that Banipal would publish a special feature on the wonderful literature of Libya. How happy we are to fulfill this promise at this time in particular…”

Banipal 40 includes a profile of al-Musrati (now 85) written by Banipal’s publisher Margaret Obank. Al-Musrati’s stories draw on the oral storytelling tradition, and are characterized by humor and biting satire. A marked vein of humor also runs through a number of the short stories and novel extracts by other authors in Banipal’s Libyan special feature. Satire can be a potent weapon in a culture in which freedom of expression was curbed for much of the periods since the early 20th century by the Italian occupation and then dictatorship.

The special feature has two introductory essays. The first, on the short story, is by Libyan short-story writer and translator Omar Abulqasim Alkikli [pictured]. It is followed by the thoughts of short-story writer and literary editor Ibrahim Ahmidan on the Libyan novel.

Alkikli refers to the toll the Gaddafi regime has taken on writers. The short story has been “the strongest manifestation of the Libyan literary movement”, but in the 1980s “the presence of the short story was greatly reduced as a result of the arrests of young authors and intellectuals that had been taking place since the mid-1970s”.

Three short-story writers were among those detained: Abdelsalam Shihab, who stopped writing during his imprisonment, Giuma Bukleh, who only resumed his literary career some 20 years after his release, and Omar Abulqasim Alkikli himself. Alkikli spent 10 years as a political prisoner before being released in 1988 with other jailed Libyan writers.

A number of other authors, though not imprisoned, stopped writing. The short story was revived in the 1990s with the gradual release of political prisoners, and the provision of the “lowest possible level of freedom of expression”. In addition to Alkikli’s essay, there are two of his short stories in Banipal 40 translated by Elliott Colla, Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. The fine story “Leap” expresses a longing for freedom as experienced by a fenced-in horse.

Ibrahim Ahmidan [pictured] observes that with the short story and poetry for long the dominant literary forms in Libya, the Libyan novel took time to emerge. Trailblazers such as Ibrahim al-Koni, Ahmed Fagih and Saleh Snoussi helped develop the Arabic novel. Since the 1990s a stream of novels has appeared, including outstanding contributions from women such as Najwa Binshatwan, Wafa al-Bueissa and Razan Naim Moghrabi. Ahmidan writes: “We seem to be on the verge of a change that will push the novel to the forefront of the Libyan cultural scene…”

The 17 authors in Banipal 40 are varied in terms of their background, age and location. All but one write in Arabic and appear in Banipal in translation. The exception is Hisham Matar who writes in English. Banipal 40 reproduces the first few pages of his much-praised second novel “The Anatomy of a Disappearance”, published in early March by the Penguin imprint Viking.

The Libya special feature has a substantial section on the novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, born in 1948, whose Tuareg background is central to his highly original desert novels. Al-Koni lives in Switzerland and is the author of over 50 works. The extract, “The Winged People”, from his novel “New Waw” is a striking lyrical piece of writing that meditates on bird song and draws parallels between birds and tribes in the desert.

There is a review by Peter Clark of al-Koni’s novel “The Puppet”. In addition, Elliott Colla writes on his experiences of translating al-Koni’s novel “Gold Dust”. Colla writes: “It is hard not to be caught up in the beauty of Ibrahim al-Koni’s writing.”

Al-Koni's works have become increasingly available in English translation in recent years. And as a further sign of the intense interest in his novels, Georgetown's Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies is from 28 to 29 April hosting 'Tents in the Desert: A Colloquium on the Literary Imagination of Ibrahim al-Koni'. The symposium includes public readings by al-Koni himself, and presentations by translators and critics from the Arab world, Europe and North American.

Ahmed Fagih is represented in Banipal 40 through his vividly-realized short story “Lobsters” subtitled “In praise of lobsters and in mockery of men”. The story is rooted in an incident in which Jean-Paul Sartre took the hallucinogenic drug mescaline and suffered waking nightmares of crustaceans. In Fagih’s story a solemn Beirut philosophy teacher who wants to be like Sartre in every way tries but fails through the use of mescaline to replicate Sartre’s experience of crustacean hallucinations. Ultimately he succeeds all too well and is driven mad by battalions of lobsters.

Some of the 17 writers achieved recognition in the first decade of this century. Razan Naim Moghrabi is a prolific writer of short stories and novels, and nine of her works have been published since 2000. Her novel “Women of the Wind” was longlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

In the extract from “Women of the Wind” the Moroccan central character Bahija, who works in Tripoli, is hoping to arrange her passage to Europe through people smugglers. She talks to an Iraqi woman friend to find out all she can about the people-smuggling business.

Najwa Binshatwan [pictured], a lecturer at Garyounis University, is a poet, dramatist, novelist and short story writer. She was one of the Beirut39 authors chosen from across the Arab world by a panel of judges, whose work is compiled in the anthology “Beirut39”.

Binshatwan’s satirical short story “His Excellency the Eminence of the Void” takes aim at the regime’s system of patronage through a retired colonel. He dictates via his wife’s niece a petition to the Commander-in-Chief and Supreme Leader complaining that he has not been rewarded with the privileges of his former military colleagues.

In the extract from Wafa al-Bueissa’s debut novel “Hunger has Other Faces” a girl who is 15 but pretends to be older, falls in with a Turkish Cypriot man in Alexandria and embarks on “a phase of enjoyable delinquency”. In Azza Kamil al-Maghour’s story “The Bicycle” young girls liberate themselves by learning to ride bikes like boys.

Some of the authors write from the perspective of Libyans living in Europe. The youngest of the 17 writers Mohammed Mesrati [pictured], who is 21 this year, is represented through an extract from his novel-in-progress “Mama Pizza”. Mesrati gives an energetic, amusing account of a Libyan door-to-door menu delivery man in the English town of Runcorn, and his bearded, expansive mentor Ali Guevara.

The writer and award-winning blogger Ghazi Gheblawi [pictured] works as a medical doctor in London. In 2006 he founded the Arabic Imtidad Cultural Podcast. His short story “A Rosy Dream” is narrated in a direct, informal style by a young Libyan man travelling back to Libya from Paris via Malta in the days when travel restrictions on Libya were still in force. The story has a melancholy humor.

Two short stories by Giuma Bukleb are set in London, where Bukleb has lived since 1988. He brings a touch of exoticism to the city with “Tarzan of Palmers Green” and “The Good Woman of Turnpike Lane”.

The poet and short-story writer Omar el-Kiddi lives in the Netherlands. His warm, funny, well-constructed short story “The wonderful short life of the dog Ramadan” tells of a Libyan dog adopted by a Dutch woman and is taken to the Netherlands. From writer and painter Redwan Abushwesha there are five short tales, Borgesian in character, set in different countries and dedicated to different friends.

Some of the pieces in the Libyan special feature are set in the Libyan countryside. From Mohammed al-Asfar there is the delicately-written short story “The Hoopoe”, actually a chapter of his novel “Sharmoulah”. Mohammed al-Arishiya’s story “The Snake Catcher” resembles a folk tale.

Banipal will continue with the theme of Libyan literature in its next issue when it publishes work by Libyan poets including Salem al-Okaly, Abdelwahab Gringo and Sakeh Qaderbouh. The fate of the Libyan revolution is still uncertain, but whatever its outcome it looks as if 2011 will be a year in which the country’s literature comes out of the shadows in terms of international exposure.