Tuesday, April 03, 2012

'voices from iraq' - 3 bqfp Iraqi writers at london's southbank

'Voices from Iraq' speak out at London's Southbank Centre

Ali Bader (L) with Andy Smart, BQFP Consultant Publisher

Inaam Kachachi

Samuel Shimon

Last night three leading Iraqi authors - Ali Bader, Inaam Kachachi and Samuel Shimon - discussed their work in front of an audience at London's Southbank Centre, as part of the 'Voices from Iraq' UK book tour organised by their publisher, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP). The discussion was chaired by Paul Blezard author, broadcaster, Literary Director of Firebird Poetry Prizes - and literary interviewer par excellence.

Ali Bader is author of The Tobacco Keeper (translated by Amira Nowaira), Inaam Kachachi of The American Granddaughter (trans. Nariman Youssef ) and Samuel Shimon of An Iraqi in Paris (trans Piers Amodia and Christina Phillips). In 2009 The American Granddaughter was shortlisted, and The Tobacco Keeper longlisted, for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

The three authors had appeared the previous day at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. Today they travel to the south west of England to participate in the Bristol Festival of Ideas [this event was in fact cancelled]. The tour of Iraqi writers followed a UK tour by three bestselling BQFP Egyptian authors Khaled AlKhamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik last October. I went to an evening with the three Egyptian writers at the residency of the Egyptian ambassador in London.

Paul Blezard

The Iraqi writers' discussions with Blezard were wide-ranging, rich and sparky - with the writers at times challenging him and each other. One question that was raised repeatedly was that of the responsibility of the Iraqi author to for example recreate Iraqi history, which might otherwise be lost, for the younger generation of Iraqis. The discussions often referred back to an Iraq that seems to have vanished, including in its previous multiculturalism. Asked about the Iraqi future, Inaam said "we are living in the past" and described how Iraqis are very active on the internet in looking back and remembering and posting old songs and other cultural elements and creating a sort of virtual Iraq in cyberspace. Samuel Shimon said the second part of his autobiographical novel, in which he writes about his childhood growing up in multicultural Iraq had struck a chord with Iraqi readers, many of whom had sent him appreciative letters.

Paul Blezard asked Bader about the fact that the central character of his "absolutely brilliant" novel The Tobacco Keeper is actually three characters over time. Bader said that when he visited Iraq in 2008 it was a time of civil strife, which made him confront issues of identity. His novel explores "the tangle of identity in Iraq" and the way in which it has caused suffering from the 1941 pogrom (the Farhud) against the Iraqi Jews onwards. And yet there has been no real Iraqi self-critique of the link between identity and violence, he observed.

Ali Bader's references to his long years as a conscript in the Iraqi army, taking part in the war against Iran and then the invasion, occupation and war in Kuwait in 1990/91, were harrowing. Many of his friends were killed, and he had returned from Kuwait to Iraq after the 1991 war to find his country destroyed. This led to tortured feelings: "Everyone thinks his country is immortal. I couldn't 't understand how all this culture, arts, had disappeared."

Shimon in contrast had left Iraq to pursue his dreams of making films in Hollywood in the 1970s at a time when Iraq was very wealthy - and when the Iraqi dinar was worth three US dollars. He remembered the profusion of cabarets, bars and streets full of bookstores. "It was very civilised... Iraq was so beautiful. If I think about Iraq I think I'll be sad. I wanted to write about my dream."

Blezard started the discussion by asking how the culture of novel writing had developed in Iraq, when poetry had been traditionally the dominant literary form. Bader referred to an explosion in novel writing from the early 1990s and Kachachi noted that 65 Iraqi novels have been written dealing with the 2003 invasion alone. Blezard also asked about the influence if any of foreign literary models on novel writing. Samuel Shimon - who as well as being a novelist is co-founder and editor of Banipal magazine and founder of the kikah.com website - said he had learned from Russian writers "how to write about tragedy in a noble way".

Bader noted that influences on Iraqi fiction had passed through several phases, starting with Russian novels and moving to the influence of French pioneers of the Nouveau Roman such as Alain Robbe-Grillet - who visited Iraq several times in the 1980s. Bader, who is a journalist as well as a novelist, said one particular influence on him had been the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, with his elements of docudrama. Bader said Iraq is itself really like a fiction: "Iraq is not a well of petrol, it is a well of stories."

When Blezard asked why, when Iraq offers so many real-life stories that could lend themselves to non-fiction forms, there is a need to write fiction. Kachachi, who is a Paris-based journalist as well as a novelist, said that in her work as a journalist she meets a lot of people and witnesses many events but there are stories you cannot put in reportage or features. In addition, there is the problem of the pressures on freedom of expression from Saudi Arabian and Gulf control of the Arab media. Arab journalism cannot be as free as novel writing. She thinks the strength of Iraqi novel writing comes from its subject rather than its style. Iraq has "so many stories that go beyond the imagination." She does not need to find "a fantastic idea" to write a novel, because "the reality is fantastic."

The room in which the 'Voices from Iraq' event was held was high up on the fifth level of the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall, with a spectacular panoramic view across the River Thames. "How many literary events do you get to go to where you see the sinking sun through the prism of the London Eye and with arguably the world’s third oldest parliament building?" Blezard said in his introductory comments of welcome to the event.

But during the discussions Kachachi, a woman of great spirit, described how a photographer had come to take pictures of the writers an hour before the event. "He photographed the three of us outside on the terrace and he said 'Do you see? There is the Parliment in the background of the photo, what do you think about it?'" Inaam sighed deeply as she said she had answered the photographer: "All those big lies of Tony Blair flew from here to destroy my country, that's it!" The audience burst into resounding spontaneous applause.

The authors' discussions were to have been followed by an audience Q&A session but this swiftly gave way to audience demands for readings from the writers' three novels. Bader chose to read a steamy bedroom scene from The Tobacco Keeper and there were some barely suppressed giggles from certain audience members as the scene hotted up. Would Bader read the scene to its conclusion? He did, and someone later joked that BQFP should consider releasing audio versions of its books read by their authors.

Susannah Tarbush

1 comment:

LibraDoodle said...

Well as the Paul Blezard of the event I'd like offer a heartfelt thank to The Tanjara for what has to be the most comprehensive and accurate account of a rather fine evening. If you could't be there in person then this will tell you all you need to know!

Thank you and 'shukran' to those who were there and to The Tanjara.

Paul Blezard