Monday, October 17, 2011

three 'arab spring' egyptian writers tour england

'BQFP brings the Arab Spring to the UK'. This is the slogan under which Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP ) is promoting the current tour of England by three Egyptian authors of novels newly published in English translation: Ahmed Khaled Towfik (author of Utopia), Ahmed Mourad (Vertigo) and Khaled Alkhamissi (Taxi).

The Arab Spring may be running into difficulties on the ground, and the phrase may have been somwhat over-used, but it remains a useful shorthand that has the potency to raise pulse rates in the literary and publishing spheres. 'Arab Spring' authors tend to be seen as decidedly cool. And 'Arab Spring literature' includes works written not only during the Arab Uprising, but also literature which - as in the case of these three novels - somehow presaged it.

As BQFP puts it: "All three titles provide an insight into life under Mubarak; the corruption, mayhem and daily grind of everyday life in Egypt, as well as its comic side. With parliamentary elections due to take place on 21st November 2011 Egypt continues to make the headlines and these bestselling authors are three voices from the eye of the storm." With publication of the novels BQFP has "added three outstanding titles to its list of fiction translated from Arabic, introducing bestselling Egyptian authors to a new English readership."

The 15-23 October tour ranges widely over England, taking in the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Southbank Centre and the Egyptian Embassy in London, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Durham Book Festival, and Cambridge University (details are below).

Ahmed Khaled Towfik

Ahmed Khaled Towfik, born in 1962, is regarded as the Arab world’s most prominent and bestselling author of fantasy and horror genres and is the author of more than 200 books. Utopia (first published in Arabic in 2009 by Dar Merit in Cairo; now translated into English by Chip Rossetti) is a vision of Egyptian society in the year 2023. "It is a chilling dystopian journey beyond the gated communities of the North Coast where the wealthy are insulated from the extreme poverty outside the walls. In a time when the world is guessing what the future will hold for Egypt, Utopia portrays a grim scenario."
A review by Sholto Byrnes in the Independent said: "Utterly compelling… Far more convincing a depiction of a nightmarish future even than A Clockwork Orange [by Anthony Burgess], Utopia is a miniature masterpiece. I defy anyone not to read it in one sitting."

Khaled Alkhamissi

Khaled AlKhamissi, born in 1962, is in addition to being a novelist a TV producer, and former publisher. He is chairman and CEO of Nile for Cultural and Media Production.
An English translation by Jonathan Wright of his 2006 novel Taxi (published in Arabic by Dar El Shorouk) was published by the small (now unfortunately defunct) UK publisher Aflame Books in 2008. The "new and improved English translation by Wright includes a post-revolution introduction by the author and has been described as ‘the ultimate book on the Egyptian Revolution’ (by Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany)," BQFP observes. "Taxi transports the reader to the Cairo streets in this bestselling collection of colourful encounters with taxi drivers during the final years of the Mubarak era. The fifty-eight fictional monologues tell Herculean tales of the struggle for survival and dignity among Greater Cairo’s 80,000 cab drivers."
The Independent's literary editor Boyd Tonkin finds that Wright's translation catches the taxi drivers' "raucous, ribald, but also tender and melancholic, drift. Money, love, family, politics, and the sheer surreal mayhem of the daily grind under Mubarak's regime, drive this invigorating panorama of a city, and a country, stuck in an endless tailback. Prior to Egypt's revolution, Taxi would have told you more than a thousand Twitter feeds about what was coming down the road beside the Nile."

Ahmed Mourad

Ahmed Mourad, born 1978, is a photographer, graphic designer and novelist, and has won several awards for his short films. His debut novel Vertigo (translated by Robin Moger; first published in Arabic in 2007 by Dar Merit) is "a bestselling political thriller that exposes Cairo’s seedy nightlife. Ahmed, a society photographer in a celebrated nightclub, witnesses a friend horrifically killed in a fight between business rivals. When the photographer is forced to flee the scene of the crime he subsequently becomes ensnared in a web of crimes whose perpetrators stop at nothing to cover up." In its original Arabic the novel was reprinted seven times. Egypt's The Daily News described it as "a beautiful and exciting novel".

Tour Venues:

On 15 October Khaled Alkhamissi made two appearances at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. First, he participated in the Prospect Debate on The New Protest Movement, with Martin Bell, Shiv Malik, and Prospect editor Bronwen Maddox. And then he and Tarek Osman (author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak, Yale University Press) discussed 'The Arab Uprising - Where Next?' with Julia Wheeler in the chair.

Tonight, 17 October, the three authors are at the Egyptian Embassy in London for a reception, and a discussion on Egyptian literature moderated by BQFP consultant publisher Andy Smart.

Tomorrow 18 October 7.30-9 pm the writers are at the Bristol Festival of Ideas for 'Egypt and the Uprising' chaired by Sarah Lefanu.

Wednesday 19 October sees the trio at Keynes Hall, Kings College, Cambridge University for 'In the Eye of the Storm: Life and Writing in Contemporary Egypt' chaired by Professor Yasir Suleiman, Cambridge University's Head of Arabic.

On Thursday 20 October 7.45pm at London's Southbank Centre the authors will discuss their work and "offer fascinating insights ino a country at the heart of geopolitical events in 2011". In the chair is Paul Blezard.

The finale of the tour on Sunday 22 October is at 11 am at the Durham Book Festival in the north of England. The authors will "discuss contemporary Egyptian writing and publishing, and reflect on what the Arab Spring will mean for writers from the Middle East."

Susannah Tarbush

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