Saturday, July 23, 2011

royal court theatre to present plays inspired by arab spring

One of Britain’s most prominent Arab writers, the Iraqi playwright and scientist Dr Hassan Abdulrazzak [pictured below], was in the audience at last Thursday’s discussion “The Arab Spring: A literary perspective” held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University.

Abdulrazzak used the occasion to publicise ‘After the Spring: New Short Plays from the Arab World’ to be held at the Royal Court Theatre on 11 and 12 August, in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. He has translated one of the plays into English – “Voluntary Work” by Egyptian theatre director and playwright Leila Solman.

The SOAS event was part of the Shubbak festival, London’s first-ever celebration of contemporary Arab culture. It was organised by the Arab British Centre, in collaboration with Banipal magazine and the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).

The three writers on the panel were Khaled al-Berry of Egypt, Giuma Bukleb of Libya and Ghalia Kabbani of Syria. The event was chaired by the author Brian Whitaker, an editor of the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free (CIF) section and former Guardian Middle East editor

Abdulrazzak made his intervention from the audience when the panel discussion turned to the possible impact of the Arab Spring on censorship and self-censorship. He cited Soliman’s play as an example of how the Arab Spring and use of social media may be easing self-censorship.

He did not refer to Soliman by name, but said of the Egyptian play he has translated “the young lady who wrote it is an activist and blogger. I was given a play by her before, and it was self censoring, but this one is very direct. It attacks the army and what it is doing right now, and the imprisonments.”

He wondered whether this will now “be the way” of writing with young people having got used to expressing themselves on Facebook and so on during the Arab uprisings. “Will this translate into literature?” he asked.

In addition to Soliman’s play, the ‘After the Spring’ programme, directed by Simon Goodwin, features plays by Mohammad Al Attar of Syria, Kamal Khalladi from Morocco, and Arzé Khodr from Lebanon. There is additional material from Elyes Labidi of Tunisia.

‘After the Spring’ is part of the Royal Court’s Rough Cuts season of work in progress , experimental pieces, readings and shorts to be held from 9 to 20 August. It is a new phase of the project the Royal Court first launched in Spring 2007, in collaboration with the British Council, to encourage the writing of plays by young authors from across the Arab world.

As a first step 21 writers from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Syria - three writers per country - were invited to Damascus in April 2007. There they worked with Elyse Dodgson and with playwrights David Greig and April De Angelis.

A second session was held in Tunis in November 2008 and a third phase in Cairo in March 2008 under the Royal Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke.

Rehearsed readings of plays were held at the Royal Court in November 2008 in the "I Come from There: New Plays from the Arab World” season in November 2008. Seven Arab writers were involved, and the season including a panel discussion with the writers chaired by David Greig.

Abdulrazzak translated the play “603” by Palestinian writer and actor Imad Farajin for ‘I Come from There’. His translation was published by Nick Hern Books in the collection “Plays from the Arab World” edited by Elyse Dodgson. The other plays in the volume are “Damage” by Kamal Khalladi, “The House” by Arzé Khodr, “Egyptian Products” by Laila Soliman and “Withdrawal” by Mohammad Al Attar.

In Spring 2009 there were readings of the plays with local directors in Amman, Beirut and Tunis. Some of the plays have had full productions in various locations in the Arab region.

Abdulrazzak combines his writing career with his work researching stem cells at London’s Imperial College. He made his playwriting debut with the multiple award-wining “Baghdad Wedding” staged at the Soho Theatre. It was subsequently broadcast as a BBC Radio 3 play in 2008. Since then several of his short plays have been staged. He also writes poems, short stories and monologues.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing 2011, reads from her prizewinning story Hitting Budapest at the London Literature Festival last Sunday during an evening of readings and interviews with the shortlistees.

Lauri Kubuitsile of Botswana discusses her entertaining shortlisted story In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata with compere of the evening, the Ghanaian poet and writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes.

David Medalie of South Africa reads from his story The Mistress’s Dog.

libyan novelist ahmed fagih & 'homeless rats' in english translation

Libyan novelist Ahmed Fagih with a copy of his novel Homeless Rats hot off the press from Quartet Books of London, in English translation by Dr Sorayya Allam. Quartet's Palestinian chairman Naim Attallah has been tweeting enthusiastically about the novel, saying that it is "receiving tumultuous praise from those who bought early will receive a literary prize" and that it "will be heavily marketed in September. Be the first to read this exciting novel." The one review to appear so far on is most positive and gives a five-star rating. It compares the novel to Richard Adams' highly successful 1972 epic rabbit fantasy Watership Down, the film of which was released in 1978. Of course the real test of the novel will come when it is the hands of readers and reviewers.

bqfp publishes tweets from tahrir

Tweeting the Tahrir revolution

On February 7 the Egyptian tweeter and blogger Sandmonkey (actually 29-year-old Mahmoud Salem) tweeted: “A revolution organized by facebook, spread by twitter and organized by a guy working for Google. I LOVE OUR REVOLUTION.”

Sandmonkey issued his tweet on the day Google executive and internet activist Wael Ghonim (30) was released after 11 days of being held blindfolded in detention. Ghonim had been seized on the day after the uprising started. His detention had led to a vigorous campaign in Egypt and beyond demanding his release.

On his release Ghonim gave an emotional interview to Dream TV, which made a considerable impact. It emerged that he had been among the anonymous administrators of the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said”.

The page was set up in memory of a young man who was publicly beaten to death by police in Alexandria June 2010. He was reportedly targeted because he had recorded on video evidence of police involvement in a drug deal. The “We are All Khaled Said” page became a vital engine of the revolution when it circulated calls for the first demonstrations.

Certainly the social media has played a vital part in the revolution. A fascinating record of the use of Twitter is provided by the book “Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt’s Revolution as it Unfolded, in the Words of the People who Made It”, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns.

The book is published in the Middle East and North Africa by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP). Its editors are young activists based in Britain. Nadia Idle, who is half-Egyptian half-English, is the Activism and Outreach officer at the anti-poverty charity War on Want. Two weeks into revolution she decided she must fly out to Cairo and join the action. Alex Nunns is a writer, campaigner, musician and political editor of Red Pepper magazine.

The foreword is by Egyptian-British novelist and essayist Ahdaf Soueif, who was in Tahrir Square during the revolution. “Without the new media the Egyptian Revolution could not have happened in the way it did,” Soueif writes. “The causes of the revolution were many; deep-rooted and long seated. The turning moment had come – but it was the instant and widespread nature of the new media that made it possible to recognize the moment and to push it into such an effective manifestation.”

Twitter, with its real-time messages of up to 140 characters, was citizen journalism at its most immediate and rawest. Idle and Nunns aim to present a “readable, fast-paced account of the Revolution that gives a sense of what was being said on Twitter.”

The tweets are displayed eight to a page, in chronological order. The narrative also includes some of the photographs circulated by tweeters, including several by the journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy who tweets under the name 3arabawy.

The editors have left the tweets just as they were, complete with misspellings, swear words, and imperfect grammar. The stream of tweets adds up to a cumulatively powerful and moving testimony. The courage, spirit and good humor of people persisting in the face of violence and authoritarianism, sometimes putting their lives on the line, is awe-inspiring.

The book’s 21 chapters are arranged chronologically, each introduced by a summary of the main events covered by the tweets in that chapter. The first chapter, “The Spark”, covers the period between January 14 – the day Ben Ali left Tunisia – and January 25, the Day of Revolt. The first tweet was sent by Gsquare86 (the Twitter name of Gigi Ibrahim) on January 14: “the Tunisian revolution is being twitterized...history is being written by the people!”

Each chapter that follows covers a day, from January 25, the National Police Day holiday, when demonstrations were called across Egypt, up to February 11 when Mubarak resigned, and February 12 when the people embarked on an impressive cleaning up of Tahrir Square. After the news of Mubarak’s resignation ManarMohsen tweeted: “Who did this? WE did, the people. Without guns. Without violence. Rather, with principles and persistence. Mabrouk, everyone!”

The hashtag #jan25 was used throughout to identify tweets related to the revolution and is still used today, for example in relation to the fresh protests in Tahrir Square. The book’s epilogue has tweets from the revolts inspired elsewhere in the Arab world after the baton of revolution passed from Tunisia to Egypt.

On January 28, the Day of Rage, the internet was blocked when the government ordered internet service providers and mobile phone operators to shut down. The editors recount the events of that particularly violent day, on which hundreds of people died across Egypt.

The absence of tweets due to the internet shut down of that day is represented effectively by two black pages. Although the internet remained shut down for four more days, some tweeters found ways to skirt round the blockade and got online.

The tweets vividly recreate the events and mood of the revolution. On January 25 ashrafkhalil tweeted that “police and protesters in tahrir all gagging on tear gas”. On Bloody Wednesday, February 2, the security forces were remobilized in plain clothes and were joined by thugs paid to attack demonstrators. There was the notorious cavalry charge of thugs charging through the crowds on horses and camels and attacking people with whips. Monasosh (Mona Seif) tweeted: “Cut wounds, fractures, rupture eyes. Weapons used glass, coke bottles, knives, swords.”

The authors make no claim that their compilation of tweets is comprehensive. “To print every tweet that related to the uprising would take several volumes,” they point out. “One activist alone managed to tweet 60,000 words during the revolution!”

In selecting tweets to tell the story of the revolution the editors decided to use only English-language tweets “for logistical and stylistic reasons”. This means that some popular tweeters who write in Arabic, such as Wael Abbas, are excluded.

The editors acknowledge that one reason English was so commonly used by Tweeters is that those who have laptops and smartphones tend to be the more affluent members of society, among whom the use of English is quite widespread. They stress that on the ground the tweeters were just part of a far wider movement that included the urban poor.

Numerous tweeters are represented in the book, but some “core tweeters” appear with particular frequency. Among them are Sandmonkey; tarekshalaby; Gsquare86; ManarMohsen; 3arabawy; adamakary (Adam Makary); and ashrafkhalil.

Humor is a constant feature of the #jan25 Twitter stream. There is a tweet from a spoof HosniMobarak Twitter account on January 26: “I blocked Twitter and Facebook so you could focus on your work, not run around the streets shouting.” The final tweet in the book, dated February 13, is from the same account: “You people are hypocrites! You talk about democracy, but you won’t let me run for president? Where’s the freedom?! #VoteHosni.”

The Egyptian revolution is an evolving story, and will remain so for a long time. The editors end their book with the words “Not the End”. And on Twitter one can daily witness Egyptian history continuing to unfold in real time as in the violent protests in Tahrir Square in recent days. There is clearly scope for follow-up editions of “Tweets from Tahrir”.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 3 July 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

raja alem & mohammed achaari at london literature festival

IPAF winners Raja Alem and Mohammed Achaari in joint appearance at London Literature Festival

Speaking about her prizewinning novel “The Doves’ Necklace” at the London Literature Festival (LFF) last Saturday, the Saudi novelist Raja Alem said: “When I look at ‘The Doves’ Necklace’ I feel as if I have taken a whole generation to a therapist and allowed it to express how it felt growing up in Mecca in the 70s or 60s, or my aunts’ generation.”

Her characters express their agonies growing up in this inward-looking place insulated from the outside world. “How could a person coming from this background get exposed to the 21st century? This shock is in my book.”

In mid-March “The Doves’ Necklace” and Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari’s book “The Arch and the Butterfly” were declared joint winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The award marked several firsts for IPAF: the first time in its four-year history that the prize had been awarded jointly; the first time a woman had won it, and the first time it had gone to a Moroccan. The joint award was good news for the publisher of both winning novels, al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi of Casablanca and Beirut.

Mecca-born Alem is a prolific author and the winner of several major Arab writing awards. She has written four plays and ten published novels (two of them written in English with Tom McDonough) and has collaborated with artists on several art books.

Raja and her artist Shadia Alem co-founded a women's cultural and recreation centre in Mecca, and have a creative collaboration unique on the Saudi and Arab arts scene. Their installation The Black Arch was chosen as the exhibit for the first-ever independent Saudi pavilion at the Venice Biennale in June.

Achaari is the author of ten books of poetry published since the early 1970s and a short story collection. "The Arch and the Butterfly" is his second published novel. Twice elected head of the Moroccan Writers' Union, his political activism led to his imprisonment in the early 1980s. More recently he has served as Morocco's Cultural and Communications Minister and as an MP.

The LLF event was the first-ever joint public reading by Alem and Achaari of excerpts from their winning novels. The author and broadcaster Paul Blezard chaired the session and interviewed the authors.

The event was held in a suite high up in the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank arts complex. The authors sat with Blezard on a stage against a dramatic backdrop of the slowly turning London Eye big wheel, a huge inflatable purple cow lying on its back and, across the River Thames, the Houses of Parliament.

In addition to being an LLF event, the session came under the umbrella of the Shubbak Festival, London’s first-ever celebration of contemporary Arab culture which began on 4 July and runs until 24 July.

The 126-page IPAF book ”Excerpts from the Shortlist 2011”, distributed free to those attending the event and signed by the authors at the end, proved invaluable. The book contains biographical information, photographs and extracts from the novels of the six shortlisted authors in Arabic and in English translation.

Alem and Achaari read the excerpts from their work in the original Arabic, and Blezard then read the English translations. Even those members of the audience who did not know Arabic appreciated the chance to listen to the authors reading; in the Q&A session afterwards one attendee said how struck she was by the evident poetry and musicality of the language.

In the interviews Alem responded to Blezard’s questions in English while Achaari spoke in Arabic, with translation into English by IPAF board member Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Massih. Abdel-Massih is Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo (AUC), and is currently on secondment to the University of Kuwait.

IPAF was launched in Abu Dhabi in April 2007. It is funded by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy and run with the support of Booker Foundation located in London: it is often dubbed “the Arabic Booker”. The prize is worth $50,000, plus the $10,000 that each shortlisted author receives.

Blezard introduced the session with a reading from the introduction to “Excerpts from the Shortlist 2011” by the Chair of this year’s IPAF 2011 judges, Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al-Azzawi.

Al-Azzawi describes the huge number of new Arab novels published every year in almost all Arab countries as a “not only new but astonishing phenomenon.” Traditionally poets played a dominant role in Arab literature “but in the last two or three years something happened that has turned the Arab literary scene upside down.”

Al-Azzawi attributes the change to the influence of IPAF: “the ‘fever of writing novels ‘has caught everyone in the Arab world. Even poets and critics are now trying their luck in writing novels...”

He ended: “Good literature expels evil spirits. It gives us wings to fly and makes us freemen and women.”

“The Arch and the Butterfly” tackles the themes of Islamic extremism and terrorism from a new angle. A left-wing father who believes his son is studying in Paris is told by Al-Qaeda in a letter that the son has died as a martyr in Afghanistan. The novel examines the impact of this shocking news on the man’s life and on his relationship with his wife.

“The Doves’ Necklace” is set in Alem’s home town, the holy city of Mecca. Al-Azzawi writes that the novel “enchants us with an unprecedented account of the holy city Mecca. Behind the city’s sacred facade there is another, hidden, world full of prostitutes, thieves, killers, terrorists, sex maniacs and poor foreign workers who have lost all hope.” This harsh environment is set against with the beauty of the love letters the book’s central character Aisha writes to her German boyfriend.

Alem explained to the LLF audience that the title of her novel alludes to “The Dove’s Necklace” by the philosopher Ibn Hazm, a philosopher who lived in Andalusia during the glory of Arab rule in Spain. His book “is about love: how love is the answer to the problems of the world. Love starts as a game but it ends up serious.”

By coincidence the excerpt from Achaari’s novel refers to Ibn Hazm’s great work. After receiving the letter about his son’s death the father experiences profound upheavals, one of which involves writing a series of “Letters to my Love”, published first in the newspaper he works for and then in book form. A critic describes them as the most important work on love since “The Dove’s Necklace”. A footnote in the English translation explains the reference to the book by Ibn Hazm (994-1064 CE).

As a tribute to Alem, when reading the excerpt from his novel in Arabic Achaari replaced the title of Ibn Hazm’s book “Tawq al-Hamama” in which “dove” is singular, with “Tawq al-Hamam” the title of Raja’s book, in which the plural is used. Raja smiled and touched Mohammed gently on the shoulder as he read the alterered title in his text; at Blezard's request, Abdel-Massih explained to the audience the reason for Raja's gesture.

Asked about the role of the novel in contemporary Arabic literature, Alem said the novel is the best way to know about Arab countries and to “reach inside each other”. Literature not only gives us wings, to use Azzawi’s phrase, but “gives us insight into each other. When I read Mohammed’s book it gives me insight into a world that is remote from me.” Regarding her novel, “if I didn’t write this novel probably nobody would know anything about Mecca because it is a mysterious world.”

Achaari was previously known primarily as a poet. Asked what a novel can do that poetry cannot do, Achaari said that the novel is important for him as a poet because it allows him “a new dimension of addressing people – how to evoke their imagination and change their insights and their orientations.”

He said that he and Raja are very interested in presenting through their novels “the reality people are living today. This was not the case with the early Arabic novel which was written for history or had more interest in past history and superficial realism. Both of us meant to present a new form of the novel and we also wanted to give a representation of today’s present not just deal with our Arab heritage.”

Alem said she felt a sense of responsibility when she writes about Mecca and introduces the people in her book to readers. Blezard asked whether this sense of responsibility was towards the people about whom she is writing, or her readers. Raja said it was to both: “When I write about my people it’s as if I am exposing them, the way I see them, because I have an insight inside those people. And when I introduce them I expect to be responsible in front of readers because I’m allowing them to see how we think.”

Blezard asked about the reception of novels among audiences who “don’t have this background of being brought up with the novel, being more used to poetry.”

Achaari said the novel form is very well accepted by the public, “who are really fed up with repetitive forms, easy reading, and are now looking forward to read books that respect their intelligence, that are not familiar. Maybe we are able to present something that answers the reader’s expectations.” He added as proof that his novel was very well received the fact that it was published three times in one year.

Blezard asked Alem whether she has a freedom in constructing her novels that Western authors perhaps don’t have. “Actually you’ve got a green field out there that you can do whatever you want with,” he suggested. “It doesn’t have to fit within the niche publishing that we have in a highly evolved Western culture.”

Raja replied: “Yes. My reference when I write is the Western novel but I’m influenced by old Arabic books such as ‘Al-Hayawan’ by Jahiz. It’s like the way ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ was written – it evolves, it starts from a little seed and goes up and up building up the story. I came from this tradition, added to the Western way of writing – so I never felt that I am restricted when I am writing, although I am coming from Saudi Arabia.”

Raja said of her novel: “I’d like to note that in the beginning I wrote it in English, in a way to have a foreign eye looking at our life because when I am writing Arabic, it is like there is an Arabic eye or an eye which has a censorship built in. I didn’t want to see my life with that eye, I wanted to see it as a foreigner at the beginning to explore what is around me. So I wrote it in English to feel freer writing it – then I translated it into Arabic, using the skills I had in Arabic to refine it. So I felt totally free when I wrote ‘The Doves’ Necklace’”.

Blezard asked Achaari whether he recognised Alem’s assertion that in writing with an Arabic eye there is a self-censorship built in.

Achaari said he had written the novel through his own eye not the Arab eye. “If you read the book you will find out that I did not subject myself to any internal or external censorship – on the contrary, I dealt with private and public issues, I dealt with love, I dealt with corruption both social and political. You must be aware that now many changes have taken place in the Arab world and even censorship is much less than before.” He believes that it is “not only the author that has to be free from internal and external censorship, but also the reader as well has to really exert an effort for that.”

Blezer asked the two writers what winning IPAF meant to them. Alem said: “I write as I breathe, every morning I wake up and start writing, reading – it’s my life. I never looked back at what I wrote or counted what I did – I wrote many books.” But when she won the Arabic Booker “I suddenly looked back – I saw this heap [of books], this curve - imagine me a girl from Mecca where announcing your name is a shame and I’m here, it’s a big curve.

“When I look at this curve and I see it not with my eye but with the eye of girls there in Mecca it’s possible, everything in life is possible, it’s what you make of your life. You cannot say ‘I’m born in this country or that country, I’m oppressed, I’m so and so’ – no, it’s not where you are, it’s what you are. And the Booker made me realise this.”

For Achaari a main benefit of the prize is that it enables a novel written in a language, Arabic, that has only a limited readership to generate much interest and to be read in other languages.

“The Arch and the Butterfly” talks of Islamic extremism and terrorism from a new angle, Blezard said. How was it received when published in Arabic?

Achaari explained that his novel is not simply about terrorism but is about a person who receives a letter that his son who had been studying in France has been killed while involved with the Taliban. “For this person everything is shattered, and he even lost his sense of smell, and that’s why he starts recalling stories about his life, about his father, about his German mother, about his lover, and he starts to reconstruct his story through these other stories.”

The novel is “not really about terrorism, it’s about the violence which we have to put up with in the Arab countries. For us when we hear about for instance a terrorist act in the West we always as Arabs think of it as something that is external to us, something that isn’t linked to us, that we are not terrorists. But actually we are living terrorism inside our Arab countries and when something affects us the whole view of violence and terrorism changes.”

The authors were asked whether they were aware of the poetry in their prose and whether they put it there on purpose or whether it is a natural way of writing prose given the poetic tradition of Arabic writing.

Achaari made a distinction between musicality and the poetic “because the importance when writing is working with language, manipulating language ,creating a new aesthetic, and this for me is poetry, this is for me the poetic. Not sonority in a sense. I am basically a poet, I have published ten poetry books, and perhaps this has its impact.”

Alem said: “Your style is like your fingerprint: you don’t choose it. When I started writing in Arabic people said it is as if I am possessed by an ancient seeress who’s speaking through me. I didn’t learn this language in school, I didn’t learn it anywhere. If there is a sense of Sufism, a sense of poetry in my books I didn’t choose it and I wrote in English to escape this because it’s complex language. So when I write in English I want to escape this. .. and I wanted to master the novel.” But – “after all I think we Arabs when we write novels cannot escape the musicality or the poetry.”

She added that “when you read my books in Arabic they are really complex they are like something you read on a cave wall written by somebody who extends from past generations. I don’t know where it came from but it’s beautiful but in a way sometimes you want to get away from yourself and write differently.... maybe this is what I’m doing.”

On the question of whether novelists can build cultural bridges, Achaari said “if Western readers are able to understand us better through our novels this means that novels can set networks of communication... and open windows to our culture. I wish this could be realised.”

He hoped that schools and universities in the West would open up to contemporary Arabic literature. “Paradoxically enough French contemporary mainstream and avant garde literature is taught in Maghrebi schools but not contemporary Maghrebi writers and literatures.”

The information on the prize published in the IPAF book of excerpts says: “translation into English is assured for the winner”. Achaari’s novel is being translated by Kareem James Abu Zeid and is due to be publishedby Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in September 2012.

Alem’s novel is represented by the London-based literary agency Andrew Nurnberg Associates, which also handles two other IPAF winners, both Egyptian – Bahaa Taher and Yousef Ziedan.

According to Andrew Nurnberg Associates “The Doves’ Necklace” is currently on submission with publishers in the UK and US, and several are interested. There is no deal in the offing just yet, though the agency is hoping for one shortly. Although Alem originally wrote the novel in English, the plan is to retranslate her polished Arabic version back into a fresh, fluent English version, and it is expected IPAF will sponsor this once there is a publisher on board, as one of the conditions of the prize.

The agency has already sold “The Doves’ Necklace” to Editions Stock in France and Unions Verlag in Germany. The novel has also sold to Marsilio Publishers in Italy via Alem’s Italian agent, Maria Cristina Guerra.

Alem asserted that had her novel been about the Arab Spring, it would have been translated immediately into English given that the Arab Spring is in fashion. She recalled a man in Tahrir Square tearing at his clothes and declaring “What is this life? – I am going to die in Tahrir Square. The characters in my book are all saying the same. They are in Midan Tahrir in a way."

The opening section of her novel is narrated by an alley named Abu al-Roos. “Abu al-Roos is in a way my Midan Tahrir, where the characters are fighting” she said. One of the characters, Youssef, “spent his life defending history and defending the past, while he doesn’t have a present”. The girls in the book “took a lead, and they are doing something I couldn’t imagine myself doing.”

As for the son of an Imam, who is supposed to follow his father and become an Imam himself, “he stays working as a photographer, enlarging photos of the surroundings in order to understand what’s going on.”

Susannah Tarbush

Sunday, July 10, 2011

national gallery's 'living masterpiece' based on van gogh painting

Came across this extraordinary piece of living wall art erected on a hoarding outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Dubbed "the first living masterpiece" it's a botanical rendering of Van Gogh's A Wheatfield with Cypresses: the painting - below - is on display in Room 45 of the Gallery. The work, made up of more than 8000 living plants, is a collaboration between the National Gallery and GE.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

'sing for syria!' music benefit in london tomorrow

This is the flyer for the 'Sing for Syria' benefit to be held at Mare Moto from 7 to 11 tomorrow (Weds 6 July) night. Mare Moto is at 562 King's Road, London SW6 2DZ. Tel 020 7731 8685 Performers include Zeid Hamdan, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Maryam Saleh, over in London for the Shubbak festival for which they gave the opening concert on Monday night.

shubbak concert of zeid hamdan, tamer abu ghazaleh, maryam saleh

The cutting-edge sounds of today's Arab youth music floated across the River Thames Monday evening as the musical opener of Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture - London's first-ever festival of contemporary Arab culture - A Musical Revolution Into the Arab World was staged in the Scoop amphitheatre just by City Hall and Tower Bridge.

The event featured "three of the most exciting performers from the Middle East, coming together in Europe for the first time". London's earlier clouds were chased off by a hospitable sun as Zeid Hamdan (Lebanon - on machines, guitar, keyboards, frame drum etc), Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (Palestine - oud and vocals) and Maryam Saleh (Egypt) did their stuff. Zaid used his machines to play numbers from his various musical incarnations, including most recently Zeid & the Wings, and remixes of other contemporary music and Arab classics.

As a tribute to the Arab Spring the event kicked off with the anthem 'Eskat el Nizam'.

The free event was more like a gathering in a club than a formal concert as groups of friends, many of them Arab Londoners, chatted on the tiered steps, kids played, and passers-by paused to look down from the top level of the Scoop. Zeid, the maestro of Lebanese and Arab underground music, was an affable and relaxed presence as he orchestrated the event, at times bouncing up and down or jogging in his trainers.

While the event was highly enjoyable, and generated enthusiastic responses from audience members, perhaps more could have been said about the music performed live and mixed on the soundtrack, for the benefit particularly of those hearing Arabic modern alternative genres for the first time. Who were those various wonderful, arresting vocalists on Zeid's mixing track? We were left in the dark. And what were the songs the three musicians performed? Little was said. Never mind - there's plenty of material on the three out there on the net. Maryam Saleh, actress as well as singer and songwriter, from Alexandria who has been collaborating with Zeid Hamdan since last November, has an entry and a few tracks on the lebanese underground site. She has been tipped as "Middle Eastern music artist to look out for in 2011" She started her career as vocalist for Cairo alternative rock band Baraka. Her voice is bold, at times almost harsh. She is very much the rebel songstress.

Zeid has numberous references on the net, in his own right as ShiftZ in his pioneering duo with Yasmine Hamdan Soapkills and now with his new band Zeid and the Wings which has just released its first album in Beirut. His Lebanese Underground, website is an invaluable, constantly updated source of information and sounds from Lebanon's alternative music scene. And for written material, there's always Tanjara's interview with him from last year!

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh has a bio and music downloads on Mondomix - he was born in Cairo to Palestinian parents, but moved with his family to Ramallah in 1998 and pursued his music studies there, then studied economics at the American University in Cairo. On graduation he founded eka3 Productions. He composed and performed music for Ghassan Halwani's music film Takhabot

Monday, July 04, 2011

poets stephen watts & adnan al-sayegh in live link up with makkah literary club

On 19 May an intriguing transcontinental experiment in English to Arabic poetry reading took place in the form of a live link-up between British poet and translator Stephen Watts reading his poetry in English with poet Adnan al-Sayegh reading it in Arabic translation, in London, and a gathering of poets in a cafe in Makkah, Saudi Arabia.
Four videos of the occasion were posted on YouTube by the makkah88188 channel on 5 June, and I have embedded them here. In the final video Stephen discusses his rewarding experiences in translating poetry from various languages. Below the videos is a selection of the poems read by Stephen in English and Adnan in Arabic.

This was the preview of the event:
Saudi and Arab audience will be on an exciting date with the well known British poet Stephen Watts, in an open evening, poetry recitation and dialogue in the Cultural Cafe at Makkah Cultural and Literary Club, Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Watts will read a selection of his poems in English, and the Arab poet Adnan al-Sayegh will read their Arabic translations.

The poems have been translated by the story-teller Ali Almajnoni , artist Alaa Jumaa and translator Ali Salem. They have been reviewed by Adnan al-Sayegh and Marga Burgui-Artajo. The session will be presented and organized by the critic and translator Musa Al-Halul and the poetry assistant professor at Umm- al-Qura University, Dr. Suzanne wazzan. Later on, there will be time for comments and an open discussion between the poet and his Saudi and Arab audience in the cultural cafe and in other parts of the world through internet.

Watts who lives in the British capital, London; is a poet, editor and translator. He was born in 1952. He published several books including: Gramsci and Caruso (2003) , The blue bag (2004), and Mountain Language (2008). He participated in translating the works of many poets from all over the world. He reviews the online bibliography of world poetry translations into English after 1900.

The layout of lines, combining the words with spatial effects, is an important element in Stephen's work. Unfortunately this architectural element is missing in the left-justified layout that blogspot has imposed on his poems below. I did not even attempt to reproduce the long poem "Birds of East London" in which the design of the lines on the page is particularly esssential. That poem can be read here

Stephen Watts

Uma pequenina luz
Jorge de Sena

Simply for the breath of staying alive
I should talk to you,
simply to pass some words across a table
as bread or oil,
and not have them die in me. Or
die in you.
And as I
measure by measure slowly toss the crisp
herbs of speech over towards your face,
a very little light will come into my eyes,
a very little light
will glow out at you and enter your eyes
and will be returned to me and calm our
mouths against duplicity.
And when all the bitter fratricides are
piled up about us
this little light, this tiny flame out on the
waste patch,
this wind-shaped tent that is your eye
with its slow torch,
this flickered heart with its ventricles
that beat and pump,
will provoke in us a bonfire and the will
to live,
and even from the embers there will glow
a little light, a very little
shining light,
as we pass some words across the table,
simply for the breath of
staying alive.

©Stephen Watts


i.m. Arshile Gorky

Sun, you dervish in the dancing tree
that glints and points and slowly spins
its fulcrum centred on the will to see.
You are lucid like the panels of light
and flow inside this archaic hall that
language is : you break and scatter and
in the rift, you create yourself anew.
You are the sudden sea-song of starlings
that bursts a tree at the shoreline edge.
You are blue spruce on the rim of frost.
You are a field of gauntly pecking swans
and the first November snow that tricks
the hill – cud of flower and cow’s bell.
You are green, green on the inward lips
of hot night and you are the colour opal
in the human eye of the word. You are
the lucid void between blue mountains
and the eye that sees. You are the falcon
that plunges down coiling gusts of need.
You are my language, you are my speech
and you are a million years old and you
are silent, sun you circling spun dancer
in the still centre of the body’s tree : sun,
you definition in the flesh of the child,
of the verb to be.

©Stephen Watts


Not that there is a gate to be climbed
through in my lyric ¬-
but what is a poem if not an opening
onto an open field

The white sutra climbed into the sun
o my burning crow,
a slabbed path descended to breath,
a gap to infinity

When magmas rose in circuits toward
the earth’s crust,
red sulphurs burst on the steepled air,
already the open field was swallowing
our voices

And in the beautiful discourse of the
physicists, it was
the autistic poet who brought al-gebr
and music to the tongue

Giving to logic its lyric and its lemmas
and opening our eyes to
the most fertile and exacted images of
verbal disorder.

© Stepehen Watts


All the colours of snow imminent in the sky
that is coming,
black and brown obelisks in a dance of light
birds whorling white beaks in front of an
unshattered curtain,
gulls whose backs become white as they spin
against the breaking air,
green flecks that are owl flight in front of
the storm,
fire when the prayer wheels burn in cartons
of raw light,
crimson flame when mountain tenements go
staggering on singed air.
This is language that is forming in my throat
revolt of burst energies from the skies of my
snows that tossed dead gulls across the moor,
in the perfect circle of dawn they are strewn
about the shorelines,
in the exact geometries of morning they are
bruising my veins.
Remember the tortures and the poetry, and
the fertile crests of the white-out,
the horses of laughter, the nostrils that foam,
the sermons on barbarism, and the struggle
against butchered choice.
This is language that is forming from a clot
in my throat,
a torch of fire out on the wasteland, a tent of
heat beneath the mountain,
a little drinking fountain for those abandoned
by language,
a spray of paint on democracy wall, democracy
wall that does not exist.
Moorland with snow and fire : a far-off burnt
headland has stood up in my blood – it is
trickling its crystals down the garnet

© Stephen Watts