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

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