Wednesday, November 28, 2012

British Museum's Cyrus Cylinder to tour 5 US museum venues

the Cyrus Cylinder 

British Museum Press Release:

The Cyrus Cylinder travels to the US

‘First declaration of human rights’ to tour five cities in the United States

The British Museum today announced that one of its most iconic objects, the Cyrus Cylinder, will tour to five major museum venues in the United States in 2013. This will be the first time this object has been seen in the US and the tour is supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. The Cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform (cuneiform is the earliest form of writing) on the orders of the Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530BC) after he captured Babylon in 539BC. It is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands. It was found in Babylon in modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation and has been on display ever since.

The Cyrus Cylinder is truly an object of world heritage, produced for a Persian king in Iraq and seen and studied for over 130 years in the British Museum. It is valued by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and different faiths, so much so that a copy of the cylinder is on display in the United Nations building in New York. The Museum has previously lent the Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran in 2010 - 2011 where it was seen by over one million people. This tour will provide the first opportunity for a wide US audience to engage with this unique object of world importance.

The Cylinder will travel with an exhibition of sixteen objects under the title ‘The Cyrus Cylinder in Ancient Persia’. The exhibition shows the innovations initiated by Persian rule in the Ancient Near East (550 BC-331 BC). The Persian Empire was then the largest the world had known. It had a huge impact on the ancient world, introducing changes in terms of ethical behaviour as witnessed in the proclamation on the Cyrus Cylinder. A gold plaque from the Oxus Treasure with the representation of a priest shows the spread of the Zoroastrian religion at this time. Persian kings also introduced a new writing system, Old Persian cuneiform, as seen on part of a column base from Hamadan, and on the famous seal of Darius (522-486 BC). They also developed new forms of luxury goods including beautifully decorated gold and silver bowls and sumptuous gold bracelets featuring fantastic animal shapes, some of them from the Oxus Treasure.

The tour will debut at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC in March 2013 before travelling to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco and will conclude at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa Los Angeles in October. The exhibition is curated by John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum and curatorial colleagues at each of the venues.

 Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said, “You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is A History of the Middle East in one object and it is a link to a past which we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us. Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space and this object must be shared as widely as possible. I am delighted that it will travel to the US and am hugely grateful to both our US partners and the Iran Heritage Foundation for making this possible.”

John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum said “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East. The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not just a change of dynasty but a time of change in the ancient world. Some of these changes and innovations are highlighted in the exhibition.”

Alireza Rastegar, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Iran Heritage Foundation America, said "Iran Heritage Foundation is proud to be partners with the British Museum and leading US venues in bringing this magnificent exhibition to the United States. The Cyrus Cylinder and its message of respect for diversity and universal human rights carries a timely message about tolerance for all of us today. We are very grateful to the Iranian American community who have supported us in this endeavour and are looking forward to a positive reception as the Cylinder tours the US.”

 Julian Raby

Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art said "For thousands of years, philosophers viewed Cyrus the Great as the paragon of the 'Virtuous Ruler,' and the Bible refers to him as 'the anointed' of the Lord, crediting him with permitting Jews to rebuild their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This magnanimous image inspired even the Founding Fathers of the United States. One of the goals of this exhibition is to encourage us to reflect that relations between Persians and Jews have not always been marked by the discord that disfigures the political map of the Near East today."

Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston said “The Cyrus Cylinder tells a great story of human history. We are thrilled to be able to bring this touchstone of ancient civilization to Houston, and to present the Cyrus Cylinder and related objects in the context of our collections.”

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: “The new world view enshrined by the Cyrus Cylinder and the objects in this exhibition remains as relevant today as it did several millennia ago. The tolerance embraced by the Cylinder’s text has been applauded throughout history and we at The Metropolitan Museum of Art are proud to share this message with our diverse international audience.”

 Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, said, "The San Francisco Bay Area is home to both the signing of the United Nations Charter and the birth of the Free Speech Movement, major pillars supporting human rights and civil liberties. The Asian Art Museum is proud to partner with the British Museum and our US museum partners to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco. This important object not only provides a foundation for understanding the ancient world, but also a touchstone for continued efforts to strive for common human freedoms."

Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said, “The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most important artefacts to have survived from the ancient world and we are delighted that it will be on view next fall to visitors at the Getty Villa, where it will be shown in the context of other artefacts and inscriptions from the period of the Achaemenian empire. More than any other document from the ancient world, this declaration by King Cyrus of the return of conquered nations to their settlements, has a continuing relevance to the peoples of the Middle East and indeed throughout the world. As home to the largest community of Iranian Americans in the United States, I have no doubt that Los Angeles will thrilled by this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Tour Dates

Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 9th March – 28th April 2013

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston  

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 3rd May – 14th June 2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 20th June – 4th August 2013

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 9th August – 22nd September 2013

J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles, 2nd October – 2nd December 2013

Iran Heritage Foundation is the leading supporter of Iranian studies in the UK. It promotes academic research through fellowships, grants, scholarships and publications. In association with museums and leading institutions, the IHF organises exhibitions and convenes conferences on the history and contemporary culture of Iran. IHF America, launched in 2012 as a US based non-profit organisation, administers a number of grants to North American institutions and is the core funder of the tour of the Cyrus Cylinder.

The Cyrus Cylinder:
The Cylinder is 22.86cm in length, is barrel-shaped and is made of baked clay. It is inscribed all the way round with a proclamation in cuneiform script. Originally it was inscribed and buried in the foundations of a wall after Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, captured Babylon in 539 BC. The cylinder is written in Babylonian cuneiform by a Babylonian scribe. It records that aided by the god Marduk Cyrus captured Babylon without a struggle, restored shrines dedicated to different gods, and repatriated deported peoples who had been brought to Babylon. The text does not mention specific religious groups but it is thought that the Jews were amongst the peoples deported by Nebuchadnezzar (the previous ruler of Babylon) who were now allowed to return home. The Bible reports that the deported Jews returned from Babylon at this time and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Indeed Cyrus is revered in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect enshrined in the cylinder proclamation. These were enlightened acts, rare in antiquity.

In 2010 the British Museum discovered two fragments of tablet in its extensive collection of cuneiform tablets which had also been found in 19th century British Museum excavations in or near Babylon. These fragments were identified by experts at the Museum as being inscribed with parts of the same text as the Cylinder but do not belong to it. They show that the text of the Cylinder was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed across the Persian Empire.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

new film highlights role of Afghanistan National Institute of Music

ANIM students (picture from ANIM website)

In mid-2001 Dr John Baily, Professor of Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College, London University, wrote a report on music censorship in Afghanistan entitled Can You Stop the Birds Singing? The report was commissioned by the Danish NGO Freemuse, which campaigns for freedom of musical expression. The report, Freemuse's first-ever published study, was highly topical as it appeared at a time when the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had imposed an extreme form of music censorship. The report  traced the various types of music censorship imposed by different regimes in Afghanistan from 1978. It was accompanied by a CD with 10 examples of music and religious singing.

Now Professor Baily has made a film whose title -  Return of the Nightingales - partially answers the question posed by the title of his Freemuse report. It focuses on a bold initiative to rebuild music culture among the younger generation in Afghanistan - the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). This vocational music school is the brainchild of its Afghan-Australian founder and director, musicologist Dr Ahmed Sarmast. The film was recently premiered at Goldsmiths College in the Music Department's Graduate Forum. At the premiere Baily described Sarmast as "a very gifted educationalist" whose ambition was to make music in Afghanistan part of the school curriculum, which it never had been in the past.

Dr Ahmed Sarmast 

In Return of the Nightingales Afghan boys and girls, singly or in groups, work enthusiastically with tutors from various countries learning how to play western, Afghan and Indian instruments including violin, trumpet, piano, rubab, guitar, cello, sitar, xylophone, tabla, sitar, oud, flute and clarinet. The children also teach each other. When the Swedish ambassador to Afghanistan visits ANIM the children perform Ravel's Bolero for the smiling diplomat, led by their animated conductor. At the end of the performance the ambassador kindly says "this is the best Bolero I have heard for a very long time - I think Ravel would have been surprised." Some of the young musicians, especially those playing with skill traditional Afghan instruments such as rubab, presumably come from families of hereditary musicians such as those found in the Kabul musicians' quarter of Kucheh Kharabat

Dr Sarmast is from Kabul and is the son of the late Ustad Salim Sarmast, a well-known Afghan composer, conductor and musician. He received his basic training in western music in Kabul, and then studied music in Moscow at the time of communist governments in Afghanistan. After migrating to Australia he gained his MMus and PhD at Monash University, Victoria. Baily describes Dr Sarmast's 2004 PhD as "a very important survey of music in Afghanistan, a work I have used extensively in my own writings."

Dr Sarmast founded the Revival of Afghan Music (ROAM) project while a post-doctoral fellow in the Monash Asia Institute. With generous funding from the World Bank and many other donors, particularly in Germany and the USA, Dr Sarmast was able to implement the ROAM project and in 2010 ANIM was official inaugurated.

Baily, who is now Emeritus Professor at Goldsmiths, is a world authority on the music of Afghanistan. He and his wife Veronica Doubleday (who wrote the book Three Women of Herat) began researching and recording music in Afghanistan in 1973 and later extended their research to Afghan communities in exile. They are accomplished performers of Afghan music, and frequently perform in public, often at charity events.

In the 11 years since publication of Can You Stop the Birds Singing?, and the ousting of the Taliban, Baily has endeavoured to document and help re-establish traditional Afghan musical life inside and outside Afghanistan. As part of these efforts he set up the Afghanistan Music Unit at Goldsmiths in 2002. His activities have included making films including A Kabul Music Diary shot during a trip to Afghanistan in 2002, and Scenes of Afghan Music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin (2007).

ANIM students (from ANIM website)

Baily visited ANIM in October 2011 as the "cultural ambassador to Afghanistan" of the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE), based in the Institute of Education, London University. SEMPRE is one of the financial backers of the school, specifically for staff development. Baily did not visit ANIM with the specific intention of making a film but while there  he shot five hours of video which was edited by Evangelos Himonides in the Institute of Education into the 30-minute film Return of the Nightingales. Baily studied ethnographic filmmaking at the National Film and Television School in the 1980s, and at the premiere he explained he was trained in the "observational" style, showing rather than telling and, as far as possible, avoiding voice-over commentary. "The film is intended to give you 'the feeling of being there', to enter into the spirit of visiting ANIM." The film has a structure, "but it was our intention to make this as lyrical an experience as possible, lyrical in the sense of expressing deep personal emotion or observations, highly enthusiastic, rhapsodic."

ANIM offers coeducational education (picture from ANIM website)

ANIM teaches Afghan, Indian and western music, but particularly emphasises western music, both classical and popular. Baily noted in his introductory remarks at the film screening that people often ask "why does Afghanistan need western art music?" and "is this not an example of cultural neo-imperialism?" He explained that the history of the presence of Western music in Afghanistan, goes back to the military music "imported from British India, along with British armaments for the new army of Amir Abdur Rehman" in the 19th century. A school of military music was established in the 1920s. There were Turkish bandmasters and through them connections with Germany.
When Radio Afghanistan was established in the 1940s it had three resident ensembles: Kabuli art music, with strong Indian roots; Afghan folk music from Logar, a mixed Pushtun-Tajik music; and a western ensemble with musicians from the military-municipal background. and "Arkestar Jaz". In 1970 the three ensembles, while continuing to have their own identifies, combined in the Arkestar-e Bozorg Radio Afghanistan (Big Orchestra of Radio Afghanistan) which brought together Afghan, Indian and Western instruments. The leader of the Big Orchestra, as well as its composer and arranger, was Dr Sarmast's father, Ustad Salim Sarmast.

A Vocational School of Music was opened in 1974 by the Ministry for Education, providing tuition in western music theory, and in various instruments, under the tutelage of Ustad Sarmast and others. In 1987 training in Afghan instruments was introduced. Among the Afghan musicians working in the western musical idiom who were trained at the Vocational School of Music was Dr Ahmad Sarmast. But all this was lost after the Islamists came to power in 1992. ANIM is a recreation of the old Vocational School, in the same buildings but vastly refurbished. Sarmast has raised millions of dollars and is now building a concert hall and a dormitory for some of the children.
school photograph (from the ANIM website)

The film is not designed to be shown on TV or publicly distributed, but is primarily intended to be seen by music graduates who might be interested in going to Kabul to work as interns at ANIM where there is already a considerable amount of teaching by western music educators.

ANIM is clearly a ground-breaking project in a number of ways. ANIM is an Afghan initiative, rather than implanted by a Western NGO. And it is coeducational with boys and headscarved girls mixing. In addition, the children are encouraged to have a say in the running of the school through the election of student representatives to the management committee.

ANIM has made a promising start in  helping nurture and develop Afghan musical talent. ROAM's 2008 statement Rebuilding Vocational Music Education in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan said: "To establish a vocational school of music it is important to identify and assist Afghan children with special musical gifts, regardless of their gender, personal and social circumstances.

"Such children, especially orphans, can benefit greatly from receiving specialist music training as part of their general education. Such training will enable them to proceed towards careers in music, and in this manner also promote job creation in Afghanistan."
report by Susannah Tarbush

Friday, November 23, 2012

a brief video clip from Reem Kelani's Nour Festival concert at the Tabernacle

This brief video clip is a sample of the atmosphere at Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani's wonderful concert held at the Tabernacle, West London, last night as part of the Nour Festival. In the clip Kelani initiates a musical "fight" between Palestinian oud player Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Cornish double bass player Ryan Trebilcock, to great effect, and invites Trebilcock to challenge the beatifically smiling drummer Antonio Fusco. Bruno Heinen, in top form, is on piano. I plan to write more on the concert, which was received with wild enthusiasm by the audience and ended with a standing ovation. I have another, longer, video clip of Reem singing after the interval but unfortunately Blogger seemed unable to cope with its size when it came to uploading it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

collection of 70 Arabic-English titles launched at RBKC libraries

Selma Dabbbagh opens the launch event 
picture credit: Mike Massaro / Double Negative

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in London hosts a substantial Arab presence and Arabic is the borough's second most spoken language after English. Now libraries across the borough are stocking 70 new Arabic-English titles, thanks to a partnership between RBKC Council, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) and Nour Festival of Arts from the Middle East and North Africa which has been running in venues in the borough through October and November.

The new collection of books includes fiction, non-fiction, biography, arts and children's books. It  was launched at an event held at North Kensington Library on Ladbroke Grove last Thursday, opened by Palestinian-British writer Selma Dabbagh, Nour Festival's Writer in Residence. Dabbagh's debut novel Out of It, set in Gaza, the West Bank, London and the Gulf, was published late last year by BQFP, and has been translated by Samer Abouhawwach for publication by BQFP under the title Kharij Ghazze.

Councillor Elizabeth Campbell, Cabinet Member for Libraries, said: ‘We pride ourselves on having excellent libraries at the heart of our community and always want to make sure that our book stock is relevant and up-to-date. I'm very pleased that a new range of Arabic-English titles is now available.’

books from the collection on display 
picture credit: Mike Massaro / Double Negative

The Nour Festival appointed Sophia Blackwell, marketing manager at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, and the publishing consultant Nahla El Geyoushi, to source new, up-to-date stock. Nahla El Geyoushi's involvement was particularly important for Kensington and Chelsea as she is the Heritage and Culture Project Consultant at Al-Manaar, The Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in North Kensington, and has expert knowledge of what local people are looking to read. Sophia and Nahla worked in partnership with Alan Kirwan, curator, Nour Festival of Arts, and Andrew Norton of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries. At the launch, Nahla El Geyoushi took guests through the new selection.

Julia Donaldson's children's book The Gruffalo is among the books in the collection 
picture credit: Mike Massaro /Double Negative

It was after receiving feedback from local residents at last year’s Nour Festival that local librarians decided they wanted to provide more high-quality children’s literature in Arabic or dual language Arabic-English editions at their local library. Kensington and Chelsea Libraries will arrange a number of events and activities to help promote the collection. Library members can also use their library card in neighbouring Westminster’s libraries, where Paddington Library has a large collection of Arabic books.

North Kensington Library in Ladbroke Grove
picture credit: Mike Massaro / Double Negative

The books featured in the photographs in this report include:

The Kite Runner (Arabic edition) by Khaled Hosseini
Out of It (English edition) by Selma Dabbagh, Nour Writer-in-Residence
Mowlana (Arabic) by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere
Burnt Shadows (Arabic edition) by Kamila Shamsie
Little Secrets (Arabic) by Rita Khoury
The Gruffalo (Arabic edition) by Julia Donaldson
Hamda and Fisaikra (Arabic, also available in English) by Kaltham al-Ghanem
Victory over Abu Derya (English, also available in Arabic) by Mohammed Ali

BQFP publishes 1st official Arabic version of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing announced today publication of the first official Arabic version of The Kite Runner, the phenomenally successful bestselling debut novel by US-based Afghan author Khaled Hosseini, in translation by Ehab Abdel Hamid. The Arabic title transliterates as Ada Al Taera Al Waraqeya.

Hosseini was born in the Afghan capital Kabul in 1965. After his family sought political asylum in US, he wrote The Kite Runner while practising medicine in Los Angeles. The Kite Runner was first published in 2003 by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Books USA. Riverhead is due to publish Hosseini's third novel, And the Mountains Echoed on 21 May 2013. Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns was published by Riverhead in 2007.

Although Hosseini describes Farsi as his native tongue, he wrote The Kite Runner in English. He explains: "I invariably think in English when I sit down at the computer- these things just come naturally." The Kite Runner has been published in over seventy countries and was made into a critically acclaimed film directed by Marc Forster.

Set in Afghanistan in the 1970s, The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir, a well-to-do boy, and Hassan, his best friend and the son of his father’s servant. When Amir enters the local kite-flying tournament, he knows Hassan will do anything to help him win, but neither of the boys knows what will happen that day, or how it will change their lives forever. The Kite Runner has sold over twenty million copies and in 2011 it was adapted into a graphic novel, published in English and Arabic by Bloomsbury and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. The Arabic translation was carried out by bestselling Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Towfik, whose novel Utopia was published by BQFP in English translation.

Previously The Kite Runner itself has only  ever been published in Arabic in unofficial, unapproved editions. BQFP says that this new translation by Ehab Abdel Hamid marks "a new chapter in the book’s history by bringing it to a new, alert and eager audience."

Following its publication of the official Arabic edition of  The Kite Runner, BQFP is due in March 2013 to publish Ehab Abdel Hamid's translation of A Thousand Splendid Suns, which was a New York Times bestseller.
Susannah Tarbush

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Palestinian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah begins UK tour at the Mosaic Rooms

Ibrahim Nasrallah at the Mosaic Rooms 
(the art in the background is part of an exhibition of work by Moroccan artist Yamou)

The Jordan-born Palestinian novelist, poet, painter and photographer Ibrahim Nasrallah appeared at the Mosaic Rooms in London last night at the start of a five-event one-week UK tour. The tour takes him to the University of Manchester for events today and tomorrow (tomorrow's event is a keynote address entitled 'Women, Culture, and the 25th January 2011 Egyptian Revolution'), and to the University of Sheffield on Friday. On Monday 19th November he gives a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, on the theme of History, Orality and Narrative: Writing the Palestinian Nakba.  

Last night's event was the UK launch of the English translation of Nasrallah's epic novel Time of White Horses,  published recently by the American University in Cairo (AUC) University Press in translation by Nancy Roberts. The Arabic original of the novel was shortlisted  for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, often known as the Arabic Booker Prize). 

The Mosaic Rooms evening was Nasrallah's first-ever "solo" literary event in the UK. It featured Nasrallah in conversation with Omar Qattan, the Palestinian filmmaker who is secretary of the board of the A M Qattan Foundation, which established the Mosaic Rooms. Qattan noted lightheartedly at the beginning of the event that he had "to declare an interest" in that he and Nasrallah are married into the same family.

Nasrallah's ambitious book, 646 pages in translation, tells the story of  three generations of a Palestinian family in the fictional village of Hadiya from Ottoman days, through the British Mandate, to the Nakba - catastrophe - of 1948. The novel has received much praise since its publication in Arabic in 2007 by Beirut-based Arab Scientific Publishers. The distinguished Palestinian literary scholar, researcher and poet Dr Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Founder and Director of East-West Nexus for Studies and Research and of PROTA, Project of Translation from Arabic, wrote in  her review: "I have been constantly asked by Western critics and readers: 'When will the Palestinian epic appear?' The Time of White Horses has now answered their question. It is truly the novel that the Palestinian catastrophe has awaited for a long time..."

The translated novel receives a three-page review by poet and doctor Norbert Hirshhorn in the latest, 45th, issue of Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature.

Omar Qattan 

Nasrallah was born in 1954 in the Wihdat Palestinian refugee camp near the Jordanian capital Amman to a family from a village near Jerusalem. He attended UNRWA schools in the camp and then went to teachers training college before teaching for a couple of years in Saudi Arabia. He worked on and off in Darat al Funun in the Khalid Shoman Foundation in Amman as its artistic director. His writing career started with poetry: his first poetry collection was published in 1980. His first novel Prairies of Fever was published in 1985.  From 2006 he decided to dedicate all his time to writing. In all he has published 15 collections of poetry and 15 novels. 

One theme of the conversation between Qattan and Nasrallah was the relation between Nasrallah's poetry and his prose, and how each fertilises the other. Nasrallah's dual writing career in poetry and fiction was marked at the begining and end of the event by readings by him and Qattan of his work in Arabic and English. The event started with readings from  'Another way of Looking', a chapter at the beginning of Time of White Horses. It tells of the project by a group of Christian monks and religious men to build a monastery in the predominantly Muslim village of Hadiya. The evening ended with readings in Arabic and English of Nasrallah's poem Survivors.

Nasrallah said he had been thinking about writing the novel from 1985, but although it was 23 years before it was actually published the name of the village, Hadiya, remained constant throughout the various revisions of the work. Time of White Horses is the sixth of seven novels in Nasrallah's sequence of novels entitled 'Palestinian Comedy' (or 'Palestinian Tragi-comedy' as Nasrallah put it at the Mosaic Rooms).
the author reads from his novel Time of White Horses  

Nasrallah started the sequence after the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut.  While preparing to write a novel on Palestine he interviewed many older people who had experienced the period covered by the novel, and recorded some 72 hours of interviews. The oral testimonies were not in themselves sufficient so he had to do much more research in reference books and so on. "Despite all this research I was still left with a sense that I was missing something so I started a project to write seven novels about Palestine, each one in a different style and about a different period. "He started with a novel based on something he had lived though: life in Wihdat Camp and the story of his parents' exit from Palestine.  That novel, Birds of Caution, was published in 1996. 

Time of White Horses starts in 1875 and goes up to 1948. Nasrallah said: "Central to this novel is the horse. The novel could not have come about without the metaphor of the horse. The horse is more than a living animal, it has symbolic dimensions. I can say that the main characters really reflect their horses' characters as much as they reflect their own." He said he had been "quite daunted, because I knew this was going to be a long and voluminous novel and I'd never written anything so big." It was received with a lot of enthusiasm, and several nominations for awards. It has sold 25,000 copies in Arabic and is now in its seventh edition.

Report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, November 03, 2012

1st-ever substantial study of Joseph Pitts: An English slave and Muslim convert in 17th C Algiers and Mecca

Paul Auchterlonie delivers his SOAS lecture

Paul Auchterlonie, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, gave a highly enjoyable and informative lecture in the Khalili Lecture Theatre at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, last Wednesday on his fascinating book Encountering Islam: Joseph Pitts: An English Slave in 17th Century Algiers and Mecca: A critical edition, with biographical introduction and notes, of Joseph Pitts of Exeter's A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mahometans, 1731 . The book is the first-ever substantial study of Joseph Pitts, the first Englishman known to have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The lecture was entitled 'Joseph Pitts: An English Slave in Algiers and Arabia and his contribution to our knowledge of the Muslim World'.
Auchterlonie has had a distinguished career as a librarian specialising in the Middle East and served for many years as Chair of the Middle East Libraries Committee (MELCOM-UK) and was founding secretary of MELCOM International.. He read Arabic at Oxford in the late 1960s and then trained as a librarian at the University of London. He worked for 40 years as a librarian in the field of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, first at SOAS, and then at the University of Lancaster. From 1981 to 2011 he was librarian in charge of the Middle East collections at the University of Exeter.

Auchterlonie was introduced to the audience by William Facey, the director of London-based Arabian Publishing which published the 354-page book earlier this year in association with the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia (BFSA). BFSA was created in 2010 by the merger of the Society for Arabian Studies and the Seminar for Arabian Studies, and the lecture was formally part of BFSA's lecture series as well as being a book launch.

Facey said the book project originated in 2009 when he and Auchterlonie were at a British Muslim conference in Exeter. "We found ourselves talking about Joseph Pitts after a lecture about him. I said wasn't it high time someone produced a definitive edition of Pitt's wonderful little book which came out in its definitive form in 1731. It's probably the best - or at least one of the three best - of the captivity narratives written by Europeans enslaved in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries."

Auchterlonie explained that captivity narratives are the autobiographies of Europeans who had been captured and enslaved by the Barbary pirates. "There were slaves in  North Africa, from Morocco through to Tripolitania who had by escape, or by ransoming, or by exchange of prisoners, returned to their homeland and decided to describe their experiences." There are about 35  published captivity narratives originally written in English, ranging in date from 1589 from John Fox, a slave in Alexandria, to the American sailors Robert Adams and James Riley who separately in 1816 and 1817 published narratives of their captivities in Morocco: "Interestingly, they were both taken to Timbuktu in modern day Mali."   

Joseph Pitts was born in the city of Exeter in south-west England in around 1663, when Exeter was a major industrial and trading centre; in the early 17th century it was the busiest English port outside London, apart from Hull in the north. Pitts became a sailor in his mid-teens and in 1678, at the age of 16 or so, was captured by Algerian pirates. He was sold as a slave, first to Mustapha and then to Dilberre Ibrahim in whose service he was forced to convert to Islam. After he was sold yet again his kindly third master Eumer took him on the hajj to Mecca: Pitts is the first Englishman known to have visited the Muslim Holy Places, and certainly the first Englishman to write about the hajj and Muslim Holy Places, in A Faithful Account of the Religion and the Manners of the Mahometans. 

In Mecca Eumer granted Pitts his freedom and he subsequently became a soldier in the Algiers army. He took part in campaigns against the Moroccans and the Spanish before escaping while serving with the Algerian fleet. He crossed much of Italy and Germany on foot and finally reached his home city of Exeter 17 years after leaving. 

Pitts's book A Faithful Account of the Religion and the Manners of the Mahometans was fiirst published in 1704. Following its success unauthorised editions appeared in Exeter in 1717 and London in 1719. Pitts eventually decided to produce a revised edition, which was published in 1731 and it is this edition that is at the core of Encountering Islam. It is thought that Pitts died in 1739. 

Facey describes Pitts's book as "a work of supreme importance - not only in itself, but because it gave its readership an authentic picture of life in the Muslim world for the first time." Facey asked Auchterlonie to come up with an introduction to the reprint, and the result, Encountering Islam, is "two books in one - not just a reprint. Paul's introduction on Pitts tells us about Pitts's life and puts it in the context of his time and puts his book in the context of captivity narratives. There is a lot in it about the nature of the Corsair states in the Mediterranean."

The introduction to Encountering Islam describes Pitts's book as "an intriguing and, as far as is known, unique combination of three distinct genres: captivity narrative, travel account, and description of Islam." There are 17th and 18th century books combining two of these three elements, but it seems that no author but Pitts combines all three strands within a single work. Auchterlonie comprehensively covered the three strands in his lecture, and provided members of the audience with copies of two maps from his book. One  traces  Pitts's Arabian journey in 1685 or 1686; the other shows his various travels in the Mediterranean and Europe between 1678 and 1695. 

Encountering Islam is divided into two main parts. In the first part, covering 96 pages, Auchterlonie puts Pitts' life and book in context. In his first chapter, 'Algiers as a Corsair State', Auchterlonie writes on Algiers and the Ottoman Empire; the political, social and economic organization of Algiers; the corsair economy; and the condition of slavery. Auchterlonie then gives an account of  'Joseph Pitts: The Man and his Background'. This is followed by a chapter on A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mahometans, 1731, looking at it as a captivity narrative, as a travel account and as a description of Islam, and then recounting its publishing history. 

The second part of Encountering Islam reproduces A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mahometans, 1731, with the addition of Auchterlonie's footnotes. The remaining 85 pages of Encountering Islam contain copious footnotes to the first and second parts of the book, an extensive bibliography, and separate indexes for each. The book also has a three-page foldout reproduction of an engraving of the Haram and Ka'bah entitled 'The most sacred and antient Temple of the Mahometans at Mecca'. This is one of two plates that Pitts added to the 1731 edition of his book, both of them copied without acknowledgement from Muhammad Rabadan's Mahometism Fully Explained.
report by Susannah Tarbush