Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Emerging Arab writers meet in Abu Dhabi for week of IPAF literary masterclasses

 Picture from the first day of the nadwa (via IPAF)

Six emerging Arab authors today started a week-long writer’s workshop - or nadwa - as part of the 2012 nadwa programme of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, often known as the Arabic Booker). The annual nadwa brings together emerging talents from the Arab literary world, identified by former IPAF judges as ‘ones to watch’, and gives them the opportunity to hone their skills under the tutelage of IPAF shortlisted authors. This year's mentors are Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi and Sudanese novelist Amir Tag Elsir who have both been shortlisted for IPAF in previous years.  Tag Elsir's IPAF shortlisted novel The Grub Hunter was recently published, in the Heinemann African Writers series, in English translation by William Hutchins. He was a mentor at last year's nadwa together with fellow IPAF shortlistee Egyptian novelist and journalist Mansoura Ez Eldin.

Amir Tag Elsir 

As in its three previous years the nadwa is sponsored by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region. It is taking place over eight days in the privacy of a desert retreat in Abu Dhabi. During this time, the six writers will each produce a work of fiction. Guided by their mentors, the writers will be encouraged to critique each others’ work as well as discuss broader subjects of literary interest, such as the use of dialect in fiction. The new work from the nadwa will eventually be translated into English and published as a bilingual volume.

This year’s authors, two female and four male, range from 33 to 43 years of age. They come from six countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq and the UAE. Two of them - Sara al-Jarwan and Palestinian Waleed Ouda – are based in the UAE. Al-Jarwan made history as the first female Emirati novelist, when she published in 1992 (though written years before in 1984) her novel, Shajan Bint Al Qadar Al Hazin (The Melancholy of the Daughter of a Sad Destiny).

Sara al-Jawan pictured in Banipal magazine

Mentor Inaam Kachachi was shortlisted for IPAF for her second novel, The American Granddaughter, in 2009. She was a mentor at the inaugural nadwa in 2009, with Mansoura Ez Eldin who went on to be shortlisted for IPAF in 2010 for her novel Beyond Paradise. Kachachi's fellow mentor thisyear, Amir Tag Elsir, was shortlisted for IPAF in 2011 for The Grub Hunter.

Kachachi describes the IPAF nadwa as an always enjoyable and mentally stimulating event that "provides an opportunity to discuss the art of the novel." She adds: "The first time I participated, on the island of Sir Bani Yas, was a unique experience because of the varied ages, perceptions and literary styles of the participants. We also felt a genuine pleasure in seeing new writing taking form in front of us, holding it in our hands, and then later reading it in a printed book."

Inaam Kachachi 

IPAF Administrator Fleur Montanaro, coordinator of the nadwa, explains that the nadwa is like no other literary workshop in the Arab world: "It brings together young writers from many different Arab countries in a non-competitive atmosphere and allows them to discuss each other's work and support each other in their creative endeavour." She finds that "some changed the way they write as a result of the workshop, and others have gone on to be nominated for IPAF and other prizes.’

The inaugural nadwa took place in November 2009 and included eight writers. The resulting fiction was published in English and Arabic by Dar Al Saqi Books in Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa1 launched at Sharjah International Book Fair on 27 October 2010 and in the UK in January 2011. Two further workshops were held in  Abu Dhabi, in October 2010 and October 2011 and a second book, Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa2, published by Arab Scientific Publishers, was launched at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2012.

IPAF, now in its fifth year, is the leading international prize for Arabic literature. The IPAF 2013 will be announced in Abu Dhabi on 6 December.  The shortlist will be revealed on 8 January and the winner on 23 April. The Prize is now funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA) which recently took over IIPAF funding from the founding funder, the Emirates Foundation. IPAF is run in association with the London-based Booker Prize Foundation in the UK, and  "aims to celebrate the very best of contemporary Arabic fiction and encourage wider international readership of Arabic literature through translation".

The Nadwa 2012 participants:

Yemeni journalist and author Huda al-Attas was born in Hadhramaut, in 1973. She teaches in the Sociology Department of the Arts College in Aden University and is head of the non-governmental organisation Yemeni Institute for Social Studies. She has published four short story collections and won several prizes, including the Sharjah Prize for female short story writers. For several years she had weekly columns in Gulf and Yemeni newspapers and she currently writes for the Arab and Yemeni press. Her work has been translated into more than seven languages and has been the subject of PhDs and many critical studies. A human rights and political activist, she is a member of several unions and associations.

Emirati writer and cultural researcher Sara al-Jarwan lives in Abu Dhabi. In addition to her novel The Melancholy of the Daughter of a Sad Destiny, her short stories, articles and screenplays have been published. After serving in the armed forces, she wrote Diaries of a Woman Soldier during the Gulf War (1991). She has won several prizes, including the Best Emirati Book in 2003 for her short story collection The Dream Icon (2003) and the 2012 Owais Award, in the best novel category, for The Virgin, the Saint and the Magician (2011).

Lebanese writer Charbel Kattan was born in Maghdouche, Southern Lebanon, in 1970. He finished his schooling in Lebanon before moving to South Africa in 1990, where he continued higher education and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Computing. He currently lives and works in Johannesburg and is married with two children. He has been a member of a number of emigration committees and written articles about the experience of exile and its challenges. Suitcases of Memory (2010), his first novel, was longlisted for IPAF 2012.

Palestinian writer Waleed Ouda was born in Kuwait in 1973. He has a doctorate in Computer Engineering and currently works managing technical projects in Dubai. He has published several academic and literary books, including four novels between 2010 and 2012.

Egyptian author Mohammad Rabie was born in 1978, and graduated from the Faculty of Engineering in Cairo in 2002. His debut novel Kawkab Anbar (2010) won first prize in the emerging writers' category of the Sawiris Cultural Award in 2012. His second novel Year of the Dragon was released in 2012.

Iraqi novelist, poet and screenwriter Ahmed Saadawi was born in 1973 in Baghdad, where he works as a documentary film maker. He is the author of a volume of poetry, Anniversary of Bad Songs (2000) and two novels, The Beautiful Country (2004) and Indeed He Dreams or Plays or Dies (2008). He has won several prizes and was selected for Beirut39, as one of the 39 best Arab authors below the age of 40, in 2010.wr

Iraqi writer Inaam Kachachi was  born in Baghdad in 1952. She studied journalism at Baghdad University, working in Iraqi press and radio before moving to Paris to complete a PhD at the Sorbonne. She is currently the Paris correspondent for London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat and Kol Al-Usra magazine in Sharjah, UAE. Kachachi has published a biography, Lorna, about the British journalist Lorna Hales, who was married to the famous pioneering Iraqi sculptor Jawad Salim, and a book in French about Iraqi women's literature produced in times of war. She produced and directed a documentary about Naziha Al Dulaimi, the first woman to become minister of an Arab country, in 1959. Her first novel Heart Springs appeared in 2005 and her second novel The American Granddaughter, was shortlisted for IPAF in 2009. An English translation of the novel was published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in 2010.

Sudanese Amir Tag Elsir is a writer and doctor born in 1960. He studied medicine in Egypt and at the Royal College of Medicine in Britain. He has published 16 books, including novels, biographies and poetry. His most important works include The Dowry of Cries (2004), The Crawling of the Ants (2008), The Copt’s Worries (2009) and The French Perfume (2009). His novel The Grub Hunter (2010), shortlisted for IPAF 2011, has been translated into English by William Hutchins for publication this month in the Heinemann African Writers Series. It has also been  translated into Italian.

Report by Susannah Tarbush

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sotheby's 2-day Qatar exhibition of highlights from Contemporary Art Sale

Sotheby's two-day exhibition in Qatar of highlights from its forthcoming 13 November evening  Contemporary Art Sale in New York opened today, 21 October, at the Katara Gallery, Building 5, Katara Cultural Village.

The show features 16 masterworks by some of leading post-war American and European contemporary artists including Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat.  The exhibition is led by of one of the most elegant and fully resolved abstractions by Gerhard Richter ever to appear at auction - Abstraktes Bild (712) estimated at more than  $16 million (estimates exclude the buyer's premium).

 Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild (712)

The sale follows the remarkable price of $34.2 million (£21.3 million) achieved for Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (809-4) on 12 October at Sotheby’s London. This established the world record for a work by Gerhard Richter, as well as a new benchmark for the work of any living artist at auction. Abstraktes Bild (712) from 1990 was painted at a crucial moment in the artist’s career and epitomizes his mastery of the art of abstraction. The Abstraktes Bild paintings are conceived through an extensive, time-consuming and labor intensive process in which the introduction of “chance” produces a calculated and magnificent chaos of color and structure.

Francis Bacon's Untitled (Pope)

A further highlight in the New York sale is one of the most important versions of Francis Bacon’s iconic Pope Paintings ever to have appeared at auction (est. $18/25 million). The vision of screaming Popes emerged from the desolate shadows of the Second World War as humanity tried to make sense of the horrors that had been committed during those years. This version was painted circa 1954 and is closely related to the artist’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, the seminal masterpiece that is now housed in the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. Untitled (Pope) has been in the same private collection since a 1975 auction at Sotheby’s London.

 Franz Kline's Shenandoah

Other highlights of the exhibition include 20th century masterworks from the extensive collection of Sidney and Dorothy Kohl. Acquired predominantly in the early 1970s, the offering features prime examples by the titans of the American Abstract Expressionist movement. The works on view from this collection include Franz Kline's commanding canvas Shenandoah ) from 1956,. The painting  is archetypal of the artists urgent and powerful yet complex and sophisticated brand of action painting (est. $6.5/8.5 million). This monolithic work comprises a visceral onslaught of broad swathes of heavy impasto, principally in the signature black and white oils of his technique, though also foundationally suffused with layers of golden ochres that mark a key departure from his purely monochromatic canvases of the earlier 1950s.

 Joan Mitchell's Untitled

Joan Mitchell's Untitled of 1957, presents the distilled essence and perfect fulfillment of her late 1950s Abstract Expressionist vernacular. The frenzied application of paint evokes both the chaotic vitality of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and the powerful atmospheric compartmentalization of Mark Rothko's dense, hovering spatial forms (est. $6/8 million). Executed the following year, Adolph Gottlieb's Transfiguration ranks in the very top tier of the artist's instantly recognizable 'Burst' paintings (est. $3/5 million, below left). Rounding out the works from the Kohl Collection on view is Nirvana by Hans Hofmann – a simultaneous culmination and rebirth of his prodigious life's work (est. $5/7 million).

 Andy Warhol's The Kiss (Bela Lugosi)

Five paintings by American Pop Art legend Andy Warhol will also be on exhibition. These include The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) from 1963, created shortly after Andy Warhol first pioneered the silk-screening technique that was to transform the direction of his work and with it the course of art history (est. $4.5/6.5 million). Also by Warhol is Cagney from 1964, a remarkable and unique work on paper, which depicts an intense James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) (est. $4.5/6.5 million). Cagney is markedly differentiated from Warhol’s later, more mechanical and commercial prints and sees Cagney’s character, the ruthless mobster Rocky Sullivan, confronted by the ominous shadow of his adversary’s machine gun.

Andy Warhol's Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice)

Other Warhol works on view include Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) (est. in the region of $12 million), Suicide from 1964 (est. $4.5/6.5 million), Martinson Coffee from 1962 (est. $3/4 million) and the 1964 painting Flowers (est. $1.5/2 million).

Other paintings on view include two works by Jean-Michel Basquiat: Onion Gum from 1983 (est. $7/9 million) and John Lurie (est. $1/1.5 million).

Friday, October 19, 2012

The New Libya: Its Writers and Bloggers event at Birmingham Book Festival

Libyan writers (L to R): Ghazi Gheblawi, Giuma Bukleb, Mohamed Mesrati

In his opening remarks at the event The New Libya: Its Writers and Bloggers held at the Birmingham Book Festival on 8 October, the Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands , Jonathan Davidson, said that as well as hosting well-known writers the Festival is “very keen to welcome writing cultures that are perhaps marginalised in some way - marginalised because they happen beyond our shores, or because they demand translation before they can be experienced, or simply because we in this country don’t take enough time to read and understand the cultures of other countries.”

Jonathan Davidson

During the dictatorship of the Gaddafi era Libyan writers were certainly marginalised, and at times oppressed. But during the past 20 months of revolution Libyan writers and bloggers have emerged as important voices supporting freedom in Libya and writing and commenting on developments. The panellists at the event were three London-based Libyan writers – Ghazi Gheblawi, Giuma Bukleb and Mohamed Mesrati. They represented a spread of generations, and experiences from different phases of Libyan literature over the past four decades. 

The well-attended event was organised in association with Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature and the Bay Leaf Bangladeshi restaurant. It was held at the Bay Leaf, located in the Custard Factory. Built in Birmingham's Digbeth Quarter to make Bird’s famous custard powder, the factory has been converted to a community of galleries, bars, restaurants and small businesses in the arts and media.

Banipal’s co-founder, publisher and former editor Margaret Obank had looked forward to moderating the event, but the coming together of a number of unexpected factors prevented her from doing so, and she asked me to step in as moderator, an invitation I was very happy to accept.

Mohamed Mesrati

At the beginning of the event Jonathan Davidson held up a copy of  Banipal issue 40, and explained that the event hinged around “the publication by Banipal magazine of this special edition on Libyan fiction, which I show to you because it’s a handsome book and also because it will be available on sale later if any of you want to take away some of the writing that you’ve heard about.” (As well as being Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands,  Jonathan Davidson is joint founder and Associate Director of Birmingham Book Festival, which Writing West Midlands runs.)

Published in Spring 2011, Banipal 40 contains a ground-breaking 135-page special feature on Libyan Fiction – the magazine’s first special feature on Libyan writing in its 15-year existence. The special feature showcases stories or novel excerpts (all but one in translation from Arabic) by 17 Libyan writers. It also has a profile by Margaret Obank of veteran Libyan short story writer Ali Mustafa al-Musrati. (The short stories by Gheblawi, Bukleb, and the novel extract from Mesrati in Banipal 40, plus a short story by Najwa Binshatwan and a novel excerpt from Saleh Snoussi, can be read online via the Banipal website).

The timing of Banipal's special feature on Libyan fiction was extraordinary, coinciding with the start of the uprising in Libya – a development that few could have predicted or even thought possible. To mark the publication of Banipal 40, and the beginning of the Libyan uprising, the London Book Fair in April 2011 held a seminar entitled The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction, chaired by Banipal editor Samuel Shimon. Gheblawi, Mesrati and Bukleb were panellists, along with novelist Hisham Matar. Matar's debut novel In the Country of Men, set in Libya in 1979, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2006. His second novel Anatomy of a Disappearance was published just as the Libyan uprising was gaining momentum. It was clear from the LBF seminar that Libyan fiction was hidden on several levels: inside Libya itself, in the wider Arab literary arena, and internationally. Little Libyan fiction had been translated into English, and what was translated was mostly work by two veteran Libyan writers: Ahmed Fagih and the Tuareg novelist Ibrahim al-Koni. Banipal 40 introduces the reader to a host of other Libyan literary voices in English translation for the first time.

Banipal 40 with its groundbreaking 135-page special feature on Libyan fiction

Not only do Gheblawi, Bukleb and Mohamed Mesrati have pieces of writing in Banipal 40:  they are also mentioned in an essay in the issue by short story writer Omar Alkikli, on the short story in Libya. In the late 1970s Alkikli and Bukleb were among a number of Libyan writers to be tried on trumped-up charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were released under an amnesty 10 years later. Alkikli writes of how the arrests of writers and intellectuals from the mid-1970s greatly reduced the presence of the Libyan short story in the 1980s. Bukleb only resumed his literary career some 20 years after his release. Alkikli names Mesrati and Gheblawi as being among the nine Libyan short story writers who have gained most prominence in the first decade of the new century.

As a prelude to the 'The New Libya: Its Writers and Bloggers', Bukleb and Gheblawi appeared on the morning of 8 October on Birmingham local radio station BBC WM.  "What was your crime?" presenter Adrian Goldberg asked Bukleb of his time in jail. "There was no crime - just being a writer" Bukleb said. He was one of a group of talented young writers who emerged in the mid-1970s. "We started to establish ourselves, and we started publishing our writing also in other Arab countries. The regime and the people around Gaddafi didn't like that."

Asked if he had been writing about political issues Bukleb said:  "No, no, I had been writing short stories but I was an activist at university, at the student union, and that’s why I and others became put under their surveillance. They were monitoring us and looking for us, so once they got the chance they just got hold of us and locked us up for 10 years."

Goldberg wanted to know what it was like living in a Libya where freedom of expression was so ruthlessly clamped down on that Bukleb ended up spending 10 years in jail. "Well, there was no freedom, full stop," Bukleb said. "You are living in a country where you have no margin as an individual, as a writer, as a student: you can’t move, you can’t do anything, you’re always chased, you’re always being put in a corner, your back to the wall. All the time you had to justify yourself to the police, to the revolutionary committees."

Bukleb summed up those days as "a long long nightmare – thank God it’s over."

Referring to recent developments in other "Arab Spring" countries, such as Egypt and Syria, Goldberg asked about concerns  that Libya might end up replacing a tyrant with something just as bad, or even worse. Bukleb said: "Things take time to sort out, the dust needs to settle and people need to relax...we're going to see lots of things but the old nightmare is not going to come back, this is what I assure you." He compared Libyans to horses that have been locked in a stable for a very long time. "Once you open the stable door they don't even know how to walk, let alone run. People want to run, want to change everything...but democracy's a long process. We can't see the future but we have to plan our roadmap to it."

Ghazi Ghebawi (L) and Giuma Bukleb

Goldberg asked Gheblawi about the dismissal of the Libyan prime minister-designate  Mustafa Abushagur through a vote of no confidence. Was this the sign of a vigorous healthy democracy, or of chaos and turmoil?

Gheblawi saw Abushagur's dismissal as part of the learning process under way since the beginning of the revolution. "It's quite amazing to see that we moved on from the policies of a tyrant, just one man, into maybe what some people might argue is the tyranny of 200 people who are now in the parliament. And that’s a big shift I think and it is a way of people learning how to deal with their differences and problems in a very democratic way. It's not something to be negative about: actually, it is a positive thing and it is part of the process."

During the Birmingham Book Festival event each writer was introduced to the audience and then read from his work in English translation. Bukleb read The Good Woman of Turnpike Lane, one of his two short stories translated by Sophia Vasalou for Banipal 40. The narrator rents a flat in the Turnpike Lane area of north London and is puzzled by the animosity of one late middle-aged neighbour, Catherine Smith, for a male neighbour who had been a teacher in Tripoli in the 1960s. The story is marked by a gentle humour as it unfolds, and gives an unusual view of the British as seen through the eyes of a Libyan who befriends them.

Bukleb, born in Tripoli in 1952, has lived in the UK since his release from prison in 1988. His short stories had appeared in Libyan literary magazines from 1976, but during his early years in the UK his main concern was to establish himself in his country of refuge rather then write. He resumed his studies, obtaining a BA from Reading University, and his literary output consisted mainly of poems rather than stories: "I found it easier for me, and it kept me in touch with writing." He also wrote non-fiction and would publish "an article here, a book review there, a poem somewhere."

It was the renowned Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser who encouraged Bukleb to once more write short stories, for London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily newspaper of which Nasser is managing editor and cultural editor. Bukleb contributed weekly stories which were eventually published as the collection Tales from England, from which his two short stories in Banipal 40, The Good Woman of Turnpike Lane and Tarzan of Palmers Green, are taken. A second edition of the collection  was published in Libya, and Bukleb said: "Now I have finished another collection of short stories. Hopefully it is going to be published some time next year. I don't yet know where: I'm looking for a publisher."

Ghazi Gheblawi, born in Tripoli in 1975, studied medicine in Libya. He is an author, blogger, activist and surgeon and has been living and working in the UK since 2002. Two collections of his short stories have been published in Arabic, and some of his poems have appeared in English literary publications.

He has also translated literary works from and into Arabic and English. He recently undertook with Graeme the extensive revising and editing of the English translation of Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih's Maps of the Soul . This 656-page book is due to be published by London-based Libyan-owned Darf Publishers next April. The translated work is the first three volumes of Fagih's hugely ambitious 2009 12-volume historical novel of the same title, intended by Fagih as a Libyan answer to Anthony Powell's 12-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time.
The English translation of Ahmed Fagih's Maps of the Soul

Gheblawi co-founded and worked as cultural editor for the online newspaper Libya Alyoum (Libya Today) online newspaper from 2004 until 2009. Now he has founded, and is the editor of, another online newspaper, El-Kaf, focusing on Libyan current affairs and news reports.

Gheblawi founded his cultural blog and podcast Imtidad in 2006. Just one year later it won the user award for the best Arabic blog in the Deutsche Welle international blog awards, known as the BOBS, which honour blogs promoting human rights and freedom of expression. Imtidad is in both Arabic and English and Gheblawi had done valuable work, starting several years before the uprising, in translating and introducing to English-reading audiences numerous Libyan fiction writers and poets.

Together with Mohamed Mesrati, Gheblawi produces and presents the Imtidad cultural podcast, promoting Libyan and Arabic culture, literature and arts. Ghazi says podcast production is on pause at the moment while he and Mohamed plan new programmes. Imtidad also hosts Giuma Bukleb’s series of 10-minute podcasts under the title Letter from London. So far 60 of these letters in Arabic have been produced. It is hoped they will be collected and published in book or audio form.

Gheblawi has been back to Libya twice since the revolution, most recently after the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival in which he was a participant. He is a Berber and is following closely the re-emergence of Berber culture in Libya as a result of the revolution. Gheblawi's September 2011 essay Libyan Literature: The Impact of Revolution first published in Norwegian translation by the periodical Minerva, and reproduced in English on Ghazi's blog, gives an excellent overview of the Libyan literary scene, historical and current, and includes a section on Berber literature.  

Gheblawi read from his short story A Rosy Dream, translated by Ghenwa Hayek. He explained that the story is set in 1990s when Libya was under UN sanctions because of the Lockerbie bombing. There was an air embargo, and travellers to and from Libya had to travel either via Tunisia and by land, or via Malta and  a ferry to Libya. In the story two young Libyan men  miss their flight to Malta and are not allowed back into Paris. They have to spend three days and nights on plastic chairs in Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for the next flight. The final part of the story finds the narrator aboard a ship to Libya. Like much Libyan fiction the story reflects an acute sense of the absurd.

Mohamed Mesrati was born in Tripoli in 1990 but left Libya with his family in 2005 when his actor father, who'd had trouble with the regime, decided the family must get out. The family eventually received political asylum in the UK. Mesrati started writing short stories as a boy in Libya, and at the age of 16, while living with in the northern English city of Manchester he began publishing stories on the Kikah.com Arabic and English literary website run by Banipal's Iraqi novelist editor Samuel Shimon. 

Mesrati's Arabic blog is entitled  Marciapiede - the Italian for sidewalk, one of many Italian words incorporated into Libyan dialects. Mesrati is very interested in the late Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali and in July he posted on his blog  his translation of a section of Ghali's acclaimed novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

Life as a refugee in Britain was not easy, and Mesrati was at one time a pizza maker and menu deliverer in the  town of Runcorn not far from the northern English port city of Liverpool. Mesrati draws on his Runcorn experiences in his novel-in-progress Mama Pizza, of which a chapter entitled Ali Guevara, translated by Leri Price, appears in Banipal 40. Mesrati moved down to London in 2009 to study, work and pursue his writing dreams. He sometimes works in Queens Park Books, one of the local independent London bookshops owned by the Libyan Fergiani family. (This blog published in October 2011 a lengthy interview with Mesrati).

Mesrati is an essayist as well as a fiction writer. His  memoir-cum-essay Bayou and Leila was well received in July when it was read on the stage of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, West London, by actor Scott Karim.The reading came during a post-performance event held after an evening performance of The Prophet, a play on the Egyptian revolution by London-based Iraqi playwright and scientist Hassan Abdulrazzak. The focal point of the event was an on-stage discussion of the Libyan revolution between Mesrati and the Gate's artistic director Christopher Haydon. Bayou and Leila is due to be published next spring by London publisher I B Tauris in the book Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus. Mesrati's literary agent Nemonie Craven Roderick, of the Jonathan Clowes agency, has been working with the book's editors Matthew Cassel and Layla al-Zubaidi since February 2011. (Jonathan Clowes is also the agency of Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing. With Mesrati aged 22, and Lessing turning 93 this month, it is probable that they are the agency's youngest and oldest clients.

A pizza joint in Runcorn

Always open to new challenges, Mesrati says: "I'm trying to discover other sides inside me. I started planning seriously to write scripts and study filmmaking. I've also started photography."

At the Birmingham Book Fair event Mesrati decided not to read the chapter from Mama Pizza published in Banipal 40, saying he has read it many times before. Instead he read a passage from the first chapter, which is entitled The Infidels of Runcorn, translated by Robin Moger. Mesrati told the audience: "The main character is a liberal and secular person living in Runcorn among the Libyan immigrants. They are very conservative people and he has some troubles getting inside the small Libyan community. He would like to be a playwright, and that's the reason  he came to England, but he finds himself in Runcorn working full time between the shop and distributing menus."

The passage finds the culture-loving Libyan narrator at odds with the conservative God-fearing Libyan fast food workers jammed into the buildings of old Runcorn. His posters of Harold Pinter and Shakespeare have been stripped from the wall, and his CDs have been taken and his books stolen. To survive in this mileu he uses his gift for storytelling. Sitting in a car after work with fellow Libyan workers smoking marijuana he tells them stories of Roman and Second World War Libya, and spins yarns of his own based on Roman myths, cartoons and The Arabian Nights. Mesrati's reading of the  entertaining excerpt confirmed his presence as a fresh, original talent on the literary scene, and boded well for the prospects for his novel once completed. 

Although Mesrati writes in Arabic, his novel will be published first not in Arabic but in English translation. "It's very difficult actually to get an Arab publisher; this a long, another, story," he explained.Moger lives in South Africa, and Mesrati says he and his translator communicate through a lot of e-mailing, and use of Skype. "I'd had some stories translated into English before but I wasn’t always satisfied with the translation. Robin translated my essay Bayou and Leila. That essay has many Libyan idioms, and Libyan words and dialect. He could understand them, and also he could understand 'between the lines', and this encouraged me to ask my agent Nemonie to let him translate my novel as well."

Tripolitan Arabic is a mix of Arabic, Berber and Italian and has its own idioms. "Some words we have in Tripolitan dialect they don't have in east or south Libya...Even people from east Libya listening to  me speaking find it a bit difficult to understand." Earlier in the day, killing time in Birmingham, he had read Bukleb and Gheblawi a chapter of Mama Pizza which includes some 5,000 words in Tripolitan dialect. "We were having a very nice discussion about  the dialect in Libya, and also in the Arab world, and how it is going to  be translated into English." As an example of the successful translation of an Arabic work written in dialect, he cited Jonathan Wright's "very fine" translation of Egyptian writer Khaled AlKhamissi's Taxi, which is written in Egyptian dialect and slang.

The discussions and questions at the Birmingham Book Festival event often returned to censorship, during and after the Gaddafi era. Is post-Gaddafi Libya living up to the writers' hopes and expectations or are other pressures coming in, from for example Islamists?

Gheblawi said there are always pressures, but compared with the situation two or so years ago "we are in a much better situation in terms of freedom of expression, and also publication. Most censorship – at least official censorship – has vanished completely and that's very positive. The only thing is that there is some kind of social, and also self-, censorship." He added: "Old habits die hard I think, especially when you had a towering figure like Gaddafi."  Writing in that kind of atmosphere "you develop a censor by yourself, the censor becomes part of you and you start to try as much as possible to deal with that. But now it's different." He thinks there is a kind of aftershock, in which people are trying to develop different ways of writing, and there is an unofficial social censorship. "Some people are still afraid to say things that are against religion, especially, or against some political figures, or some aspects of society. But so far, other than that, it is much better than before."

Wafa Al-Bueissa, born in Libya in 1973, left the country for political asylum in the Netherlands after her debut novel Hunger Has Other Faces – of which there is an excerpt in Banipal 40 - led to her being  denounced in mosques and declared an unbeliever.

 Wafa Al-Bueissa

For Gheblawi, the exiling of Al-Bueissa exemplifies the way in which dictators such as Gaddafi and in Egypt Mubarak "don't actually care about religious sentiments but use them as a tool to counteract any kind of dissent in society." Al-Bueissa's novel displayed a kind of dissent towards the regime: "There was a metaphor in the form of a building that is collapsing and dilapidated and in which people live in squalor - and that building is painted green, which was a metaphor for Gaddafi's grand Green Theory. The novel also contained themes of religiosity, and criticisms of religion "so that was exploited to get her expelled. She left the country of her own will, but she was forced to do that. And that is how they  used that kind of religious sentiment to push her out without being so blunt about it." They hadn't lacked this bluntness in the late 1970s when they put some of "our best writers in jail for 10 years."

Bukleb said that Libyan writers, like some other Arab writers, were at one time caught between two things: dictatorship and social restrictions. Writers needed to find or build a fine line, and this could be good or bad.  "It could be good because it makes you as a writer more aware of the situation politically, socially and religiously. And that helps you to invent your own style, and language can be disguised - you send messages... and whenever you for example tread on the line here or there you can give explanations such as 'no, I meant this'. The people who are following you know where you are hitting."

As an example of the way in which fear of the long reach of Gaddafi could stifle writers, Bukleb mentioned his short story The Road to N'Djamena on Libya’s war in Chad which he clandestinely wrote in jail in April 1981. As writing materials were banned by the prison authorities, the imprisoned writers resorted to writing on cigarette papers and smuggled their work out. The story was only published more than 30 years after it was written - in the independent Libyan newspaper Al-Masara, just a few days before the Birmingham Book Festival event.

Bukleb said the conflict in Chad was a horrific war in which Libya foolishly became deeply involved and which "caused lots of trouble for us." The story represented his stand against the war. Even after his release from prison and his settling in the UK he was scared to publish the story, despite friends urging him to do so. He would remind them that even though he was out of Libya he still had family and friends there against whom there might be retaliation if he criticised the regime in print. It was only after Gaddafi's overthrow that he felt able to publish the story.

Chadian troops with captured Libyan Arab Republic Air Force (LARAF) helicopter 1987

The years before the uprising did see some loosening of controls on freedom of expression. Bukleb pointed to the importance of the internet, which made it more difficult for the government to control writers. Gheblawi said the internet first came to Libya in 1998 on a small scale, and on a large scale in 2000. "Most of the liberal writers of the time, especially of my generation, used it quite effectively to publish and break that marginalisation that surrounded us even with our neighbours and other writers..".

Although Mohamed Mesrati had been living in Britain since 2005 he felt the long reach of Libyan censorship pressures under Gaddafi. Even with the internet Libyan newspapers to which he sent articles and a stories would remove certain words that "might offend people " or they might remove an entire piece.

One member of the audience asked Mesrati whether, given his young age, he found it easier than older writers to write about what was going on. He explained that his parents had suffered a lot under Gaddafi,  and his father was alert to anything in his writing that could cause problems for the family. For their first two or three years in the UK, while their asylum claim was processed, they lived with the fear that they would be deported back to Libya. "My father always insisted that before I publish anything I had to give it to him." One day Mesrati published something that mentioned Gaddafi, "not saying that he was a bad guy or anything but saying he is president of the country". When his father saw it he said "Oh my God what did you do?" When Mohamed said he had merely mentioned that Gaddafi was the Libyan president, alongside other presidents, his father said "This is a problem because he is not president - what he calls himself is leader." After this experience "I had that fear as well, and for two or three years I didn't write about politics at all. I avoided talking about politics until 2011." 

The panel was asked whether the opening up by Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam had given a margin for some new writers to appear. Gheblawi said that in 2006 the "son of the brother leader" had launched an experiment to open  up the country to more reform, but this was "more of stunt for the regime to come out of the cold and reform itself so that the son becomes the leader with some rigged elections."  Part of the opening up was to open up the media and give it some form of freedom. Saif opened two semi-independent newspapers, bringing in new faces and new writers some of whom had opposed the Gaddafi for a long time from outside the country. In 2007 and 2008 there was a "sense of opening up, that we were starting to experience a new thing." People even believed that the regime might bring a new generation of leadership able to solve Libya's problem and avoid chaos, bloodshed, killing and civil war. People did write some daring things. Saif said for example the only red line was Gaddafi: other than that "you can touch whatever you want, criticise whatever you want."

The reality was that the regime was just buying time. In the end it didn't work out and "during the revolution we saw the true face of Saif al-Islam and the other sons, all of whom came to their father's rescue and were more or less more brutal than him in many ways." But Gheblawi considers that "those years from 2006 ushered in a new kind of people, new writers who came from different backgrounds to write and made people read and found anew voice. And it also gave the possibility for new writers to come up and we ended up now with a new generation of writers that found that opportunity to write, yeah."

Asked whether it would have been possible to publish Banipal 40 earlier than its actual publication year of 2011, Gheblawi joked that it could have been if had there been a Gaddafi in its list of contributing Libyan writers. While oppressing writers and limiting freedom of expression, Gaddafi wrote his own short stories, published in English translation in the collection Escape to Hell and Other Stories. He  held more than one international symposium on his stories. There has been some speculation that Gaddafi did not write the stories himself and that they were ghost-written by a Libyan writer. But the panel of Libyan writers Birmingham considered he had written them, and Mesrati said to much audience laughter: "Unfortunately he was a good writer. I'm sorry to say that - actually I hate Gaddafi - but, at the same time, as a writer I have read one of his stories and I liked it. What can I do? And I'm not shy to say that." 

One member of the audience asked about Libyan women writers. Ghebalwi pointed out that Banipal 40 includes work from a number of Libyan female writers. Some women writers work in poetry, and there are also good short story writers. They include Azza Kamil al-Maghour, whose short story in Banipal 40, The Bicycle, is translated by John Peate. "She is also a human rights activist and her late father was one of the pioneers of the short story - so she inherited that gene from him possibly." 

Bukleb added: "Our Libyan women are quite active in writing and they played a very good role during the uprising - they were there, they were up to it and quite imaginative too." Wafa Al-Bueissa and some other Libyan women writers "dare touch taboos in their writings which really even male writers couldn’t touch. It's amazing in fact that Libyan women in that small very conservative society come out and they do what they did." 

An audience member asked the writers whether for them writing had come before politics. Bukleb said he is "a writer from A to Z - I'm not in politics - politics came through writing. I started writing young,  when I was 16 or 18, and started publishing early also. I came to politics because of the writing, but I am still keeping a distance. I would like to keep as a writer to the writing."

Gheblawi said he was in a similar situation. He was brought up in a house where there were plenty to books around so he read a lot "but I can't separate the politics especially coming from a country that had dictatorship, like us. My father was active during the monarchical time, and was imprisoned because of political activity in 1968, before Gaddafi." While politics will intrude, "we try as much as possible to write it down in literature."

Mesrati said he had "promised myself to be a writer before I understood what dictatorship means, which lets me say I'm a fiction writer more than a politician. And as Mr Giuma said, politics comes to you, you don't go to politics. Unfortunately as a fiction writer I have to see inside a society and society changes with political changes, so I have to be involved, but as a way out of it just to see it try to uondertstand it and write about it, you don't even have to put your opinion, just write a fact, write a history, and politics is part of it.

To judge by the interest in Banipal 40 since its publication, and by the audience engagement at the Birmingham Book Fair event, there would seem to be considerable scope for publishing Libyan writing in English translation.
But when I suggested that it might be time for publication of an anthology of Libyan writing in English, Bukleb said: "Let's have it in Arabic first."
report by Susannah Tarbush
photographs from 'The New Libya: Its Writers and Bloggers' courtesy of Birmingham Book Festival 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Libyan novelist Ahmed Fagih's 'Maps of the Soul' in English translation

English translation of Maps of the Soul, out from Darf Publishers next April  

London-based Darf Publishers has announced via its website the long-awaited publication, in April 2013, of the English translation of Libyan novelist, playwright and essayist Ahmed Fagih's Maps of the Soul. The translated work comprises the first three volumes of Fagih's hugely ambitious 12-volume historical novel of the same title, published in single volumes in Arabic in 2009 by Darf in Libya and al-Kayyal in Beirut. The translated first three volumes, published as one book, run to 656 pages; the full 12-part work is more than 3,000 pages. The three volumes in the translated book are Bread of the City, Sinful Pleasures and Naked Runs the Soul.

The London-based Libyan writer, blogger and surgeon Ghazi Gheblawi wrote a feature on the 12 novel sequence on his blog Imtidad, under the headline The Libyan Dodecalogy (meaning 12-volume sequential work) five years ago, in December 2007. It is Gheblawi who, together with Graeme Estry, has extensively revised and edited - for publication by Darf - Soraya Allam's initial translation of the first three volumes. 

Sinful Pleasures, the third volume of Maps of the Soul 

Maps of the Soul traces the fortunes of Othman al-Sheikh after scandal forces him to leave his desert village of Awlad Al Sheikh for Tripoli. Under the Italian occupation Tripoli is being transformed into an Italian city in which Othman uses his wits and charm to try to improve his prospects, with varying results. As  Darf Publishing puts it: "Othman falls for the city and its temptations, and with a natural instinct for survival, he perseveres on chance and opportunity. Maps of the Soul takes us in a journey into a different Libya, a country that has emerged from resistance wars in the early 1930’s, where the charismatic Italian colonialist Italo Balbo envisioned a new Rome for the fascist dream on what was named The Fourth Shore. It is a story of painful survival in the face of defeated dreams."  

Fagih, born in the Libyan village of Mizda in 1942, celebrates his 70th birthday this year. His literary career took off in 1965 when, at the age of 22, he won first prize in a literary competition with his first book of short stories, The Sea Has Run Dry. Fagih has a doctorate in Arabic literature, focusing  on the Libyan short story, from Edinburgh University. He is a remarkably prolific writer: his works published in  English translation include the trilogy Gardens of the Night (Quartet, 1995), and the novel Valley of Ashes, stage works Gazelles and Other Plays, and the short story collections Charles, Diana and Me and Who’s Afraid of Agatha Christie, all published in 2001 by London-based Kegan Paul International.

Naked Runs the Soul, the third volume of Maps of the Soul,

Fagih told The Tanjara that he sees the 12-volume Maps of the Soul as a series of four trilogies "which deal with the life and soul of Othman Habashy through his ups and downs."  One noticeable feature of the first trilogy is the use throughout of the second person "you". Fagih saysbecause the full novel is so long, over its 12 volumes he has used a variety of viewpoint including  "third person, first person, second person and the all-knowing, god-like authority." 

Fagih hopes that publication of Maps of the Soul will encourage translation and publication in English of the other three trilogies. The second triology is "a trilogy of war, which takes place in the Italian campaign to take over Ethiopia - the second Italo-Abyssinian war - connected in its last part with World War 2 in the Western Desert where Othman is transferred and fights with the Italians. He later fights with the British against the Italians: this is a historic fact, with many Italians changing sides and giving themselves up during the fighting with the Italians and returning to fight them with a Libyan regiment, helping liberate Libya under the British Army".   

The third trilogy "deals mostly with the birth of independent Libya, the birth of a nation." With Libya liberated from the Italians and now under British rule "Othman returns to Tripoli, this time as an officer in a position of power as head of the police. This part of the novel depicts Libya under British mandate and Libyans preparing to get their independence."

The fourth, final, trilogy "takes place in the desert. The country of nomads is depicted with all its multi-colours and flavours and desert traditions, and power structure, arts and folklore, bad and good and ugly and beautiful guys. Othman has been accused of breaking the law in pursuing his duties and feels that the colonial rulers are trying to make a scapegoat of him, so he flees the capital and takes refuge in the desert. It is a period of rehabilitation, of purifying himself in the solitude of the desert, becoming almost a holy man." 
Susannah Tarbush

Ahmed Fagih in a cafe in Whiteleys, London, with his works in English translation published by Kegan Paul International