Saturday, June 30, 2012

authors shortlisted for the 2012 caine prize for african writing meet their readers in london

 Tricia Wombell, Stanley Kenani and Billy Kahora

The five writers shortlisted for this year’s Caine prize for African Writing have been arriving in London in recent days in advance of the prizegiving dinner at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library on Monday. The £10,000 prize is for a short story, and this year's shortlist was chosen by a panel of judges - chaired by author and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Bernardine Evaristo - from 122 entries from 14 African countries.

Rotimi Babatunde 

The shortlisted writers are: Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria for Bombay's Republic; Billy Kahora of Kenya for Urban Zoning; Stanley Kenani of Malawi for  Love on Trial; Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe for  La Salle de D├ępart; and Constance Myburgh (the pen name of Jenna Bass) of South Africa for Hunter Emmanuel. The five stories are posted on the Caine Prize website

As every year in the 13 years of the prize’s existence the shortlisted writers are participating in a number of events in London in the days before and after the announcement of the winner.

A well-attended event in the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University this afternoon stressed the writer-reader relationship: it was entitled “The 2012 Caine Prize Authors Meet Their Readers.”

The writers on the stage of the gallery were flanked by the joint chairs of the event: Tricia Wombell of the Black Reading Group and Black Book News Blog, and Jacquie Auma of the London Afro-Caribbean Book Club. After the authors briefly outlined their stories, Wombell and Auma discussed the stories with them and raised some of the questions posed by members of their book groups. The floor was then thrown open for questions from members of the largely black and relatively youthful audience.

The format of the event made for a notably lively and frank session. This was very much Wombell's aim. In advance of the event she wrote on her Black Book News Blog: “This is an exciting first for us. In 2010 I went to my first Caine Prize discussion and could not quite get my head round why the talk was totally framed in a very formal and academic mindset.” She added: “ I know that Black Reading Group members will have stretching and searching questions, and I am really looking forward to an event that brings book clubbers - who love to read and talk about what they have read, face-to-face with an exciting group of supremely talented writers.”

Constance Myburgh 

The event was part of the inaugural two-day Africa Writes literary weekend, a celebration of contemporary African writing. Africa Writes is organised by the Royal African Society (RAS) and is to be held annually. It has ten partners including the Caine Prize, Black Reading Group and Black Book News Blog, and the London Afro-Caribbean Book Club.

Wombell explained that the two book groups had come together on 27 May to discuss the five stories shortlisted for the Caine Prize. The joint meeting was in the slot of the regular meeting of the Black Reading Group held at Waterstones book shop in Piccadilly on the last Sunday of every month. Before the meeting of 27 May Wombell wrote on her blog on her first impressions of each story, and listed several questions for possible discussion.

Since its inauguration in 2000 the Caine Prize has helped intensify interest in African writing. The new annual Africa Writes project is another indication of this increasing interest in the continent's literature, as is the springing up of initiatives such as the Black Reading Group (founded 13 years ago) and the London Afro-Caribbean Book Club (which meets monthly in a restaurant, and whose members "read books by Afro-Caribbean, Afro-American or African authors, or any books that explore the current state of affairs of people of African origin all over the world") The past couple of years have also seen a rapid growth of social network activity around the Caine Prize. Last year several blogs critiqued each of the shortlisted stories in turn, and this year has seen a further mushrooming of such Caine critiquing. Different bloggers have given varying assessments of this year's shortlisted stories, and there seems to be no clear frontrunner in what many consider to be one of the strongest ever Caine shortlists. 

Jacquie Auma

At the conclusion of the event the new Caine Prize administrator Lizzy Attree ascended the stage. She flourished a copy of the hot-off-the-press Caine anthology for this year, African Violet, copies of which were instantly available for sale to those attending the event. The anthology includes this year's shortlisted stories plus ten stories produced at the Caine Prize Workshop held in South Africa in March this year. The workshop participants featured in the anthology are Mehul Gohil, Grace Khunou, Lauri
Kubuitsile, Beatrice Lamwaka, Brenda Mukami, Tendai Rinos Mwanaka, Waigwa Ndiangui,
Yewande Omotoso, Rehana Roussouw, and Rachel Zadok.

Report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

'Tripoli Witness': Rana Jawad's book on Libya & on going 'underground' to report on insurgency for BBC

English original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat newspaper on 27 June 2012

The Arab uprisings over the past 18 months have been challenging for journalists covering the historic and dramatic developments. There have been deaths, injuries, imprisonments and torture of journalists. Some regimes have tried to control, censor and intimidate reporters.

Journalists have often needed courage and resourcefulness during the Arab uprisings to carry out their work and get their stories out. The young Lebanese-British radio journalist Rana Jawad, the BBC Radio correspondent in Libya, is a remarkable example of a journalist who rose to the challenges of the time of Arab revolution.

In the early days of the Libyan uprising Jawad informed the Libyan authorities that she was “taking a career break for personal reasons.” But in fact she went “underground” in Tripoli, which remained under the control of Gaddafi’s regime, and continued to report for the BBC in secret.

The BBC disguised her identity during this dangerous time by having her dispatches read on air by a man, under the name “Tripoli Witness”. The “Tripoli Witness” dispatches were invaluable in giving the audience some picture of what was going on in Tripoli, pieced together from Jawad’s own observations and from the eyewitness reports the gathered from family, friends, and trusted contacts.

 Jawad avoided official briefings at the Rixos hotel, where the foreign media was kept under tight scrutiny by the authorities. Her position was made even riskier by the fact that her Libyan husband is originally from Benghazi; the uprising had started in Benghazi and there was hostility to Benghazians from some in Tripoli. In the early days of the uprising Rana and her husband moved into the home of her in-laws in Tripoli, and there they remained for the next seven months.

 It was only after Tripoli fell to the revolutionaries on 21 August that the BBC revealed that “Tripoli Witness” was in fact Rana Jawad, and that again began to report under her own name.

Jawad tells of her experiences during the uprising in her book “Tripoli Witness: The Remarkable First Hand Account of Life through the Insurgency” published in London by Gilgamesh Publishing. Her book is a valuable contribution to the existing literature on Libya itself, and on its revolution.

In the book she explains how she first went out to Libya as BBC radio correspondent in 2004, at the age of only 22, and had been there for seven years when the uprising first erupted in Benghazi on 15 February 2011.

At the time she first went to Libya the country was beginning to open up to some extent following Gaddafi’s abandonment of his programme to make weapons of mass destruction. It was not easy to get permission to be a journalist stationed in Libya – it took her four months to get a visa. And once she was there, it was difficult for her to work freely; she recalls how some of her BBC reports got her into trouble with the then head of the Foreign Press Office, a man she refers to only as “Mr Grumpy” rather than by his real name. Many ordinary Libyans were nervous of speaking to her, although she found that in some cases her Lebanese dialect encouraged people to open up to her more than they might have to a fellow-Libyan. Her Lebanese accent gained her the nickname “Star Academy” - after the famous pan-Arab TV show made by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC).

 In her first few years in Libya she sometimes thought of leaving and moving somewhere else in the region, but by her fifth year there she had a personal reason for staying: she fell in love with a Libyan, Motaz Elgheriani, whom she married in August 2010.

 Jawad’s book is in two main sections. The first is a nine-chapter portrait of Libya, a “reflection on many elements and realities constructed or influenced by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime.” She aims to “shed light on what led to the peaceful uprising in Libya that rapidly transformed into a bloody conflict to topple the man who ruled there for forty-two years.” Her approach is not heavy or academic and her book is a lively and informative read, whchi includes some amusing observations and incidents. Jawad succeeds in capturing the distinctive, sometimes bizarre features of Gaddafi’s “Jamahirya”.

The second half of the book includes all the dispatches Jawad sent to the BBC in the name of “Tripoli Witness”. She introduces each dispatch with a “Retrospective”, putting the dispatch in context and explaining the circumstances in which it was written.

In addition to her determination and professionalism, Jawad brings to her journalism a talent for highlighting the human dimension to a story, and a refreshing sense of humour. Her Tripoli Witness dispatches often include a funny incident, or a joke current at the time. One of the dispatches is headlined “Humour amid the Fear”.

Jawad filed stories to the BBC under the name “Tripoli Witness” for the first three months of the uprising. But it then became too dangerous to continue, and on 13 May she filed her last report - on “Tribalism and the threat of conscription”.

In order to help reduce stress and pass the time, Jawad started knitting and baking cakes in the seven months of the uprising. After she mentioned her cake-making in a 28 August interview on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday series Broadcasting House, the programme’s website published recipes for three of her exotic cakes - Chilli Chocolate Cake, Rosewater and Apricot Cake, and Turmeric and Fennel Seed Cake (Rana comments that the last of these recipes was “inspired by an ethnic treat from my home country, Lebanon").

In December Jawad presented on BBC Radio an excellent 55-minute documentary entitled “Knitting in Tripoli”. In the programme (which can still be heard via the BBC website) Jawad tells of the difficulties and dangers she and her husband and mother-in-law faced during the uprising, interviewing both of them, and speaks to women friends who had been with her in Tripoli at that time. She also interviews men and women who had been involved in the underground resistance in Tripoli to Gaddafi. During the uprising, it was very hard for people in Tripoli to do the usual things, “but as I’ve been discovering ,since I’ve been free to report again, plenty of people were actually doing plenty of unusual things to prepare for zero hour – the liberation of Tripoli.” These “unusual things” included the smuggling by women of ammunition in their handbags.

Asked by Al-Hayat for some biographical details, Jawad said “I’m originally from Juwaya in south Lebanon. I lived in Lebanon for a total of three years throughout my life and graduated from a High School in Beirut. Other than that I spent a lot of summers going back there for the holidays in my teen years, most of which were spent in Tyr.”

Jawad’s family left Lebanon when she was very young because of the civil war, and she spent much of her early childhood in Belgium. She was around seven years old when she went back to Lebanon for the first time. As a teenager she moved around quite a bit between Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lebanon.

Jawad says: “I don’t visit Lebanon often any more, not since High School. I love going back every few years and feel I don’t go enough, but the world is full of undiscovered treasures and life and work gives you only a few weeks off a year. I love travelling and when I do I try to explore a new destination every time.”

Rana moved back to Belgium for her university education, at Vesalius College in Brussels, from where she graduated in Communications in 2003. (the teaching at Vesalius is in English, and the college says it gives “an international education in the capital of Europe”).

Jawad has said she mastered the art of “controversy” through the Vesalius college magazine, The Vernacular, and through her membership of various student committees. “I wrote for The Vernacular for a couple of years, and then became the editor.”

 Jawad “moved to London the day after I graduated.” In her first couple of months there she did one odd job and a work experience stint, and then succeeded in getting a work experience placement in the African Service of the BBC World Service, located in Bush House. “The rest, as they say, is history! I was posted to Libya by the BBC African Service, leaving London in February 2004, and never looked back.”

Her parents were initially not happy that she had accepted a posting in Libya. On the night that she broke the news to her father, he said: “Libya?! You’re going to Gaddafi’s Libya?!...Gaddafi with his crazy hair and those scary bodyguards around him...No!”

 Rana Jawad as pictured on BBC Online

But once she had started work there, and faced some difficulties, her father was encouraging. In her book she writes that the reason she remained in Libya at the beginning was that “my father diligently reminded me that I was a ‘Jawad’ and that we do not just ‘give up’ when we are afraid.” As time passed, she wanted to stay to help give people in Libya a voice, “which they had not had in decades.”

Jawad wrote her book at speed, starting it after the fall of Tripoli and finishing it in mid-November. “Between the book, and breaking news, and many long months of confinement in the Libyan capital – I was slightly burnt out.” So in December she began a 40-day holiday.

 She returned to London at the end of January for training and working in different parts of the BBC. In late April she returned to Tripoli to resume her reporting for the BBC on Libya and the wider region of North Africa.

She had looked forward to reporting from Libya again and says: “My job is much easier now without having to constantly look over my shoulder, or worry about who listened to my last phone call, read my last e-mail, saw my last story and what possible consequence it may incur”

How does she see the future of Libya? “I am cautiously optimistic of the country’s long-term prospects,” she says. “It could either all go very wrong or it could all go well but with a mighty struggle ahead – these are the uncomfortable realities of post-revolutionary societies.” Jawad notes that “Colonel Gaddafi left a broken nation and a broken people behind – that was ultimately his legacy for many. You can rebuild a nation with money but you can’t fix a society with it.”

She predicts: “It will take a new generation to shed the police-state mentality, the corruption and many other ills that dictatorships breed over decades of ultimate power. On a lighter note, Jawad confirms that she is still an avid cake maker and that “my publisher has asked me several times – at times jokingly...I think – if I’m ready to produce a cook book or baking book and I continue to quizzically look him over when he does. You never know though!” If she ever does write such a book, “it won’t be like anything you’ve seen before. I’ll probably write a story before each recipe to tell you all about how it came to be.” With a joking reference to the standards the BBC demands of its journalists, she says the recipes will be “balanced (including all failed attempts), informative and entertaining.”

Monday, June 25, 2012

Celebrating Sanctuary and Refugee Week hold Casablanca evening at V and A

this brief video clip conveys the atmosphere of the performance by Palestinian singer Reem Kelani and her musicians 

 Reem Kelani
Live music resounded through London's Victoria and Albert Museum from several performance points on  Friday night as the museum hosted a 'Casablanca Evening'  - the first-ever joint event of Celebrating Sanctuary and Refugee Week to be held at the V and A. The streams of music cascading through the V and A's Cafe, galleries, Grand Entrance and courtyard  included Palestinian, Egyptian and Tunisian songs, Arab melodies on piano and oud, Andalucian music, Latin piano jazz and North African Gnawa music.

At a time when multiculturalism has come under pressure and criticism from certain quarters in Britain, the evening was a highly enjoyable affirmation of the rich contribution immigrant and refugee communities make to Britain's musical life.

Alex Wilson

The evening (to which entry was free) was inspired by the 1942  classic film Casablanca - starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart as former lovers Rick and Ilsa - with its themes of flight, refuge, identity, Morocco North Africa, and piano music. As a tribute to Casablanca, which marks its 70th anniversary this year, the dress code was "black and white". 

Rick's Piano Bar is the setting of some of Casablanca's most memorable lines including Rick's ""Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine" and "You played it for her, you can play it for me!" and Ilsa's "Play it Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'".  

Pianos were at the heart of the three main musical acts of the Casablanca evening, with three grand pianos specially transported to the V and A and installed in different locations. The Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani, with pianist and Arabic keyboard player Bruno Heinen, double bassist Andrea di Biase and percussionist Pedro Segundo, gave two performances in the V and A Cafe. The 83-year-old Jewish-Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni (who made aliyah from France to Israel in 2009), Syria-born Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami and Greek drummer Vasilis Sarikis, gave two performances in the  Sculpture Gallery. British-Sierra Leonean jazz pianist Alex Wilson played solo three Latin jazz sessions in the museum's Grand Entrance. 

The annual Refugee Week, held this year from 18 to 24 June, is a UK-wide programme of cultural and educational events celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK, and aiming to improve understanding between communities. Celebrating Sanctuary is an annual free festival which celebrates the art of refugee communities in the UK and launches Refugee Week. 

Celebrating Sanctuary is programmed by curators and broadcasters Max Reinhardt (BBC Radio 3, Late Junction) and Rita Ray (BBC World Service), and creative producer Almir Koldzic (UK Refugee Week/ Platforma). Supported by Arts Council England/The National Lottery, the Mayor of London and the PRS Foundation, Celebrating Sanctuary's media partners include fRoots Magazine, Radio SOAS and BBC Radio 3.

Max Reinhardt introduces Maurice El Medioni, Khyam Allami and Vasilis Sarikis

The Casablanca evening was one of three London events organised by Celebrating Sanctuary during Refugee Week. The first event was Celebrating Sanctuary on the Southbank, held on the afternoon of Sunday 17 June in Bernie Spain Gardens.  On Saturday 23 June an event was held at Rich Mix arts centre in East London.

At the V and A Casablanca evening, the programme included Sounds of the Souq in the V and A shop. In the Johan Madjski Garden and Sculpture Gallery there were three performances of classical Arabic and Andalusian music by Algerian trio El Andaluz, interspersed with traditional music and world dances performed by Dance Around the World. In addition there were  three performances in the Grand Entrance by Electronic Gnawa Fusion - comprising North African Gwana Dub produced by Soundspecies and Moroccan Gnawa Master Simo Lagnawi. In the  Hochhauser Auditorium there was a screening of the film Casablanca introduced with a talk by journalist and newsreader Samira Ahmed, and there were also two screenings in the Lecture Theatre. 

To coincide with the Casablanca evening Samira Ahmed wrote an excellent piece for the Spectator on the refugee theme of Casablanca. Examining the plight of refugees during Second World War Morocco one finds a "reversal of black and white" contrasted with today's refugee situation. In the film "the desperate hordes are white. Their traffickers and potential liberators mostly Middle Eastern or black." The term 'refugee' has become "debased into a synonym for economic or illegal migrant mostly black or dark skinned, probably ill-educated." One rarely finds positive stories on refugees in the media, but she cited some stories each of which is "a Casablanca of inspiration, talent, love and determination". 

The splendidly ornate interior of the V and A Cafe

Reem Kelani and fan at the mike

Reem Kelani and her musicians provided the packed-out audience in the V and A Cafe with a vibrant menu of Palestinian and Egyptian music, including songs from her first album Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora and from her forthcoming second album of songs by the pioneering Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923). Kelani has been researching Darwish's work for eight years now; his compositions have recently enjoyed renewed popularity during the Egyptian revolution. 

The enthusiastic audience clapped and sang to the spirited joy-infused performances of Reem Kelani and her trio of musicians, and Reem frequently invited members of the audience to join her at the mike. The nationalities of those who joined her included Turkish, Iraqi, Moroccan, Yemeni, Sudanese and Eritrean. The Palestinian singer and oud player Bassel Zayed, originally from Jerusalem and currently studying music therapy in London, had a solo spot singing at the mike in his deep sonorous voice.


Bassel Zayed

As so often at her concerts Kelani had a musical surprise up her sleeve, in the form of a Tunisian addition to her repertoire - the 1972 song Babour Zammar meaning The Ship Sounded its Horn. Kelani explained that the song, inspired by the French students' revolution, speaks of the emigration of young Tunisians to work in Europe and is commonly known in Tunis as Anthem for Emigration. The song's composer, singer El Hedi Guella, died in March - having witnessed the Tunisian revolution, which came after years of his being sidelined because of his political views. The song's lyricist, 'Amm El-Mawlidi Z'leilah was a street and railway platform sweeper and a champion of poetry written in colloquial Tunisian.
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Maurice El Medioni

L to R: Maurice El Medioni, Khyam Allami, Vasilis Sarikis

Saturday, June 09, 2012

London's historic Electric Cinema saved from blaze

There was drama in tourist-crammed Portobello Road, West London, this afternoon when smoke started billowing from the vicinity of the legendary and much-loved Electric Cinema, London's oldest purpose-built cinema which first opened its doors in 1911. Next to the cinema is the Electric Brasserie, and above that the private Electric members' club. As smoke filled Portobello Road police vehicles and 12 fire engines with more than 60 firefighters and ambulances rushed to the scene and Portobello with its buzzing street market was evacuated. An emergency services helicopter circled low overhead while the firemen fought the blaze.

Messages of alarm started circulating on Twitter; was it possible that the iconic Electric Cinema was being engulfed in an inferno? After some five hours  the London Fire Brigade tweeted: ‏@LondonFire "Lots of interest in the fire at Electric Cinema including from @StephenMerchant the cinema suffered little damage. Fire was in extractor fan". The fire started in the Electric Brasserie kitchen, Soho House, which runs the Electric, said. (Soho House was founded by entrepreneur Nick Jones whose wife is the TV presenter and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs Kirsty Young). The  Telegraph had a report on the fire this evening.

The pictures below show the scene in Portobello Road at around 9pm. There was a stench of smoke as one approached Portobello. The sections of the road around the Electric cinema and Brasserie is still taped off. There is much relief that the beautiful cinema has survived virtually unscathed. The open windows were one of the few signs that it had been threatened with destruction by fire just a few hours earlier. It is not clear when the cinema will be able to resume its screenings (current film had been  Prometheus), nor when the Electric Brasserie and Club will be back in action.

report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush