Monday, December 24, 2012

The Lebanese-Syrian food writer & expert Anissa Helou: A Profile

Anissa Helou puts Mediterranean cookery on the world's table
Susannah Tarbush
[the original of an article that appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat daily newspaper on 23 December 2012] 

Anissa Helou gives a cookery class in her loft in Shoreditch, East London

The Lebanese-Syrian cookery writer, journalist and broadcaster Anissa Helou has had an extraordinary rise in the world of international cookery writing in the years since her first book Lebanese Cuisine was published by Grub Street in London in 1994. The book recieved many accolades and was shorlisted for the prestigious André Simon award.

Helou, who has lived in London for many years, is today one of the world’s leading experts on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. She has six books to her name and her articles frequently appear in publications such as the Financial Times and an array of food magazines.

She often appears on radio and TV, and is much in demand at food and book festivals and other events around the world. She also has a widely-read blog on food and on her many travels, illustrated with her own high quality photographs.(In a typically humorous vein the blog also features videos, often in black and white, of Anissa's choice of "bellydancer of the month".)

Now Helou is preparing her seventh book, Levant, which is due to be published by Harper Collins in mid-2013. (The full title of the book on Amazon is currently  Going Home: A Taste of the Levant and Beyond).

 paperback edition of Lebanese Cuisine

Helou was born to a Lebanese mother, and a Syrian father from the beautifully-situated town of Mashta el-Helou which lies in mountains about 233 km north of Damascus and 45 km from Tartous. She told Al-Hayat in an interview that her forthcoming book is “more personal than the previous ones, in that I reminisce a little more about my life in Syria and Lebanon when young and how I ate or shopped with my mother or watched my Syrian aunt prepare everything on the farm."

She adds that the new book has “recipes from Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, as well as a few from Iran. They are mainly favourite recipes with stories from the past and others from my travels in the region.” The recipes are “grouped by type of eating: on the farm, at the sweet-maker's, in the souk and so on, with a glossary at the end explaining about essential ingredients.”

Anissa’s aunt ‘Ammto Zahiyeh lived in Mashta el-Helou “in a lovely old stone house that was built by her husband in the late 19th century.” Anissa’s family used to stay with her when they were visiting from Lebanon.

“We spent our summers there, picking fruit - such as figs, pomegranates and jujube - off the tree and helping her dry or preserve them." Helou's forthcoming book also describes how her aunt made malban - ropes of thick grape jelly in which walnuts are embedded. In addition, "'Ammto Zayhiyeh made tannur bread every few days for us, and my mother taught her to make manaqish tannur. To this day I cannot pass by a tannur bakery without wanting to buy a bread. If I tell the baker about my aunt, he - or she, it is often women bakers by the roadside - will give me a loaf.” Anissa adds: “ I just love Syrian and other Arab as well as Turkish and Iranian hospitality and generosity.

"From my uncle’s wife 'Ammto Jamileh, who was very fat, we learned to love grilled kibbeh balls, and maqlubeh. In fact, she taught my mother to do it and I included it in my Lebanese Cuisine book, and will do so in the forthcoming one."

Anissa Helou in Mashta Al-Helou in the early 1980s on the rooftop of her Aunt's Zahiyeh's house where figs etc were dried

Some years ago Helou began to organise and lead food and cookery tours of certain countries, including tours to Syria entitled “Culinary delights in Damascus and Aleppo.” But for now her programme of tours has been halted.

Helou explains: “The events in Syria have quite naturally put a stop to my Syrian tours which were very successful - with all those who came on the tours loving Syrian and Syrian people, and of course the food. But I have to say, I have been so affected by what is going on there and the horror of it that I decided not to do any more culinary tours for a while. However, I will be starting again in autumn 2013, hopefully to Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco.”

Helou is “deeply touched by what is going on in Syria and I follow the news and what activists are posting very closely.” She appears in the mainstream media, such as BBC Radio, and on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, following and spreading news of the situation in Syria and expressing her views on the war.

Helou says: “The people who are being killed, arrested, tortured in Syria are like the people I met, worked with or ate with on my travels there.” She gives the example of a woman named Bessbuss “who is the kindest woman ever, and who I met because she chops parsley for a living which she sells to a shop in Souk el-Tanabel in Damascus.“

Anissa visited Bessbuss when she was writing an article on markets for Saveur magazine. “Bessbuss had two young boys who were 9 and 11 when I met them. They must be young teenagers now. They live in Kafar Sousseh in a modest house with the breeze bocks exposed like many of the houses that are being bombed on a daily basis.”

She adds: “I always think of them, or the bakers I have been to, or the taxi drivers I have been with, or the butchers I have spoken with or photographed. All these people are like the demonstrators when the revolution was peaceful, and many are like the Free Syrian Army. I think also of the women I have cooked with and their children when I watch the horrifying videos from activists, or the tragic news”.

Helou says: “The situation now is disastrous. The desolation in areas the regime is attacking is totally shocking. I can’t get over how a government can attack and kill its own population the way that this monstrous regime is doing and I can’t get over their brutality and lack of humanity."

She hopes the regime falls soon and that, after a possible period of chaos, “Syrians will be able to steer their country towards democracy and fair representation. As for those who I know there, I prefer not to be too closely in touch with them because of my activism and not wanting to get them into trouble, but I also know many people who have left and I am in touch with them.”

Although Helou is now a major figure in Middle Eastern cuisine, her first career was not in food writing but in art and art consultancy. She left Lebanon at the age of 21 to study interior design in London. She did the Works of Art course at the famous London auction house Sotheby’s, and became Sotheby’s Middle East representative. In the 1970s she divided her time between an antiques shop she owned in Paris, and an art and antiques consultancy in London. Between 1978 and 1986 she lived in Kuwait, advising members of the ruling family on building up their collections of Islamic art. She also became a collector of art and antiques herself.

 Anissa Helou: constantly on the move in the culinary world

Did Helou have some game plan to conquer the world of cookery writing when her first book was published 18 years ago? Helou says she had no big plan at the time. “My main aim in writing Lebanese Cuisine was to record my mother’s recipes - she is a fabulous cook - for myself and for all those young Lebanese who had been displaced by the civil war and who had not had my luck when I was growing up to see my mother and grandmother and my Syrian aunt cook traditional dishes everyday, and preserve or pickle bountiful produce.” She had also wanted to write "a book that Europeans could easily use to cook Lebanese dishes.”

The success of the book “came as a nice and welcome surprise. I had worked really hard at it - and because I had enjoyed researching and writing it and testing the recipes and I had met so many lovely people in the food world, I decided to continue and write more cookbooks."

Helou’s second book, Street Cafe Morocco, was published in 1998, and was followed by Mediterranean Street Food in 2002. In 2004 came her fourth book The Fifth Quarter: An Offal Cookbook (the title comes from the fact that the French refer to offal as “the fifth quarter” of an animal). An updated and expanded edition of this book, Offal: The Fifth Quarter, was published in 2011. Helou’s fifth book Modern Mezze, and sixth, Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, both appeared in 2007.

Helou is keen on offal for two main reasons. “The first is that I come from a culture where no food is wasted”. The second is that offal organs are in many cases the most delicate cuts of meat, with very interesting textures. She has said her favourite types of offal are testicles, brains and sweetbreads. 

Helou is well-known for her adventurousness in eating unusual foods: she writes on her blog about the experience. She has eaten zebu hump in Brazil, live ants at Noma’s temporary restaurant at London hotel Claridges, and animal penises at a restaurant in Beijing that specialises in serving the male organ of animals such as ox, lamb, monkey and deer. Asked what strange foods she hopes to try in the future, she says she is “definitely expecting to eat weird stuff if I make it to Mongolia next year – it is one of my travel dreams, together with Peru.”

 Helou has lived for the past decade in a two-storey building which used to be a factory, in the Shoreditch area of East London. The top floor is a wonderful open-plan large well-equipped kitchen area in which she gives cookery classes and demonstrations and holds supper clubs. In 2011 she was “cook in residence” at Leighton House during the Nour Festival of North African and Middle Eastern Arts in London. During the Shubbak Festival in London in summer 2011 she held several supper clubs at her home, each one featuring food from a different Arab country. She says these ventures were “a great success”, and notes that this year’s Nour Festival again had supper club nights. “It’s great to see that I have initiated the inclusion of food in this festival and possibly others.”

She also does special meals by request to go with the launch of a book – for example she cooked a lunch for the widow and mother of the late New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid for the posthumous publication of his memoirs by Granta.

Helou has for the past 20 years attended the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an international conference on food history held annually since 1981 in the famous university city. “I always enjoy seeing everybody and listening to the lectures and finding out what my friends from abroad are up to.” At last year’s symposium she and a friend presented a compilation of clips and slide shows of people stuffing and wrapping various foods.

Since the Symposium became a charity, “I have been more involved, having become a trustee. I am on the meals sub-committee and every year we design the meals to go with the theme.” The theme of the 2013 Oxford Symposium will be Food and Material Culture: “I have suggested inviting a quite amazing chef from Sao Paolo, Helena Rizzo, to do our Saturday night dinner.”

 the three degrees of Koshari Street spicing: mild, hot and "mad"

Anisaa is sometimes asked to act as an adviser or consultant on food-related projects. She is currently helping some Egyptians develop a street food concept in London for the traditional Egyptian street food koshari. Helou developed the menu and recipes for Koshari Street and helped find premises in central London. After some pilot events in recent weeks, Koshari Street will open by March as a “kind of smart hole-in-the-wall place. We will also do events.”

Asked to predict future international food trends, Helou says: “Street food made chic is definitely on the up as is the ‘casualization’ of fine dining. As for ingredients, chefs will go on scouring the globe for new and exciting ingredients to incorporate into their repertoire. Both fine and regular dining are becoming more and more globalised as far as ingredients are concerned.”

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Iraqi novelist and poet Fadhil Al-Azzawi in conversation at Arab British Centre in London

 Fadhil Al-Azzawi

When the acclaimed 72-year-old Iraqi novelist, poet, critic and journalist Fadhil Al-Azzawi dropped by the Arab British Centre in London earlier this month to meet a group of individuals interested in hearing  about his work and life, among the topics discussed was his classic prison novel al-Qal'a al-khamisa.  The novel begins with the wrongful arrest of its first-person narrator, who is rounded up with political activists after of a confusion over his name. The English translation by William M Hutchins was published under the title Cell Block Five in 2008 by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, and by Arabia Books in London. It was warmly reviewed by, among others, The Complete Review.

the enduring relevance of the prison novel Cell Block Five

Cell Block Five - Al-Azzawi's second book - draws on the two years he spent as a political prisoner after the 1963 coup in Iraq. In the novel "I wrote about my experience as a victim in prison. I tried to speak about my cellmates, about torture, about police, about dictatorship. I consider it one of the leading Arab books about  prison." Censors banned the book from publication in Iraq and it was first published in Damascus in 1972. Al-Azzawi pointed out that his prison novel appeared well before publication of Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif's famous 1977 novel Sharq Al-Motawasset (East of the Mediterranean) which tells of an activist tortured in prison.
 Bilal al-Sabouni

Syrian film director Bilal al-Sabouni made Cell Block Five into a 1979 film, the English title of which is the literal translation of the novel's title,  The Fifth Castle. The film won the silver award at the Damascus Film Festival in 1979. Al-Azzawi said the film was shown at many festivals and on TV, and won various prizes. But he does not have a copy of the film himself. There was much interest among those who met Al-Azzawi at the Arab British Centre in finding out how they could see the film in its entirety. The video clip below, from the website of the Syrian Culture Ministry's National Film Organisation, shows the film's opening scenes.

a clip from the film The Fifth Castle 

Al-Azzawi's prison novel has a universal significance. The horrendous accounts that have emerged of torture in Arab countries including Syria during the past two years of uprisings and revolutions have given Cell Block Five a fresh relevance.

a judge of Saif Ghobash Banipal Arabic literary translation prize 

It was at the invitation of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature that Al-Azzawi visited the Arab British Centre in which the magazine is based. Banipal's publisher and co-founder Margaret Obank chaired the discussion meeting with him. Al-Azzawi was in London in his capacity as one of the four judges of the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation . This year 22 titles translated into English by 17 translators were submitted for the prize; for the first time in the prize's six-year history the titles of the entries were released.

During their meeting in London the judges decided on the winner, with an official announcement due in the second week of January. The prize will be formally awarded on Monday 4 February at King's Place in London during the annual awards ceremony for the translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors. Al-Azzawi's co-judges are British poet and critic Ruth Padel, British novelist Esther Freud, and Arabic translator John Peate.

The 2011 prize was won by Libyan translator, poet and scholar Khaled Mattawa for his translation of Adonis: Selected Poems (Yale University Press). It is a sign of Al-Azzawi's standing within Arabic literature that he has previously been chair of the judges for another major international Arab literature prize - the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF- often known as the Arabic Booker).

Al-Azzawi is a leading figure in contemporary Arab literature, and when he talks about his his eventful life and work he recreates an exciting chapter in Arabic literary history from the 1960s in which he has played  a significant role in experimentalism and the avant garde. Al-Azzawi is delightful company: he has a kind of eternal youthfulness of spirit combined with humour and the wisdom of age and experience.

Born in the northern Iraq oil city of Kirkuk in 1940, Al-Azzawi has a degrees in English literature from Baghdad University and a postgraduate degree in journalism from Leipzig University. He is the author of many poetry collections, six novels, a book of short stories, numerous articles, and critical works. He is also a translator from English and German to Arabic.

Miracle Maker

In addition to Cell Block Five two other translated works by  Al-Azzawi were on sale at the Arab British Centre event. One was the novel The Last of the Angels - reviewed, with Cell Block Five, by James Dalglish in Banipal - translated by William M Hutchins. The other was the poetry collection Miracle Maker: The Selected Poems of Fadhil al-Azzawi (BOA Editions, 2003) translated by Khaled Mattawa. Miracle Maker includes poems from Al-Azzawi's six previous collections. In a review for Banipal, Richard McKane described Miracle Maker as "a wonderful book of poems, poems of defiance, of prophecy, a rewriting of tales in modern fables."

Obank noted that as a founding contributing editor of Banipal, Al-Azzawi has made many contributions to the magazine: she had printed out a list of them. His contributions include a memoir published in Banipal 23 under the title I Lived a Magical Feast . In this memoir he depicts his  literary life while growing up in Kirkuk.

Obank read a section from Khaled Mattawa's  introduction to Miracle Maker. He comes from a "multiethnic, multisectarian, multilingual city in northern Iraq." There were many different languages: Turkoman and Assyrian, Arabic and Kurdish and Turkish.

"After the 1963 coup in Iraq Fadhil al-Azzawi was among the thousands of intellectuals and political activists thrown into the notorious Al-Hilla prison. The facility became quickly over-crowded and the administrators decided to make the gallows room their sorting house. And  many stories began to circulate about the fate of prisoners who were ushered into that ominous room and it was whispered that it had been the recent site of execution of 20 men and women. Fadhil was 24 at the time and recounts a quiet sense of panic that began to spread among the prisoners."

Al-Azzawi has written on the various torturers and tortures that he and his fellow prisoners endured while the torturer sang and told jokes while doing what they did. Mattawa writes that Al-Azzawi's disturbing  memories of imprisonment drive a good share of his poetic investigation: "The torturer is as pitiful as his victim, and the line between heroism and delusion is thinner than we are willing to admit."

Obank said: "We are talking with Fadhil and Khaled Mattawa, the translator, to see how we can get Banipal Books to produce a book of Fadhil's works for the UK market."


 moving between poetry and prose

Obank noted that for Al-Azzawi, "writing prose is to you as important as writing poetry".Al-Azzawi said: "I'm known in the Arab world as a poet, but I write also novels, short stories, articles, critique: for me what is important is the text." If there is something he wants to write about, "I write it in this form or that form."

He said: "My first published book, in 1969, was a book between poetry and prose called by the very strange title The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil al-Azzawi. It is a well-known book in the Arab world, a sort of meta-fiction. I speak about myself, the hero speaks about me, criticises me. Some academics wrote research on this book and they consider it one of the avant garde works in modern Arab literature". Al-Azzawi said he "tried to reflect the idea of modernity with the Arabic heritage, and to give it a certain form and to create a book which is different to other books." 

Al-Azzawi spoke on the links between the genres in which  he writes, and which he combines in his first novel and other novels. "In The Last of the Angels for example I think you can find a lot of poetic moments. Not poetry as genre, but the soul of poetry. The whole novel is built poetically. And in my poems you can find stories - I try to speak about persons, about myself. I have said and written that in every  poem is a story." He added: "I like all these genres."

The Palestinian novelist Rabai al-Madhoun (his novel The Lady from Tel Aviv is due out in translation by Elliott Colla from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing - BQFP - in 2013) said he had read The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil al-Azzawi in Baghdad when he was 26 or 27 years old and "I think it was   a turning point in Arabic writing. I like it very much" He wanted to know how Al-Azzawi moves from prose to poetry. Al-Madhoun gave the example of the Jordanian poet Ajmad Nasser who has recently turned to novel writing, and the Palestinian-Jordanian Ibrahim Nasrallah, and "many others who turned suddenly from poetry to novel. What made you move to that side, and where do you find yourself exactly?"

the playful child inside every artist

Al-Azzawi replied by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writing he very much likes. "Nietzsche wrote once that in every artist is a child that wants to play. The playing child within the artist is for me very important and I think the whole of modernity is built on the idea of playing in art.

"Playing in art opens all the horizons for you as an artist.  I am not like Amjad Nasser or others who were known as poets. As I said, from the  beginning my first book The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil Al-Azzawi, was something between prose and poetry and I try to unite them.

"My second book was also a novel. But at the same time I wrote poems and  I was I think known at that time, maybe more than now, as a poet in the Arab world. The most important magazines in the Arab world published my poems - very long poems - for example Adonis published many of my long poems." And Elias Khoury had at that time written an article about one of his poems which was considered particularly important. So he was well known in Arab countries as a poet, but at the same time had published two novels. In 1970-71 it was very important for him to write about dictatorship and prison in Cell Block Five, but "at the same time I never stopped publishing my poems. I published them everywhere, in all the magazines, and people considered me a poet more than a novelist."

Fadhil talked about the circumstances which led  him to move to  Germany in 1976. He was well known, but intellectuals and writers were under huge pressure to follow the Baath Party line. He was invited by the artist Dia al-Azzawi (who moved in 1976 to London where he has lived ever since) to read his poetry to the society of arts. At the poetry reading "there were more than 700 people in the garden of the society". He read a long poem, "I am the cry which throat will free me", which was banned in Iraq but which he had sent secretly to his friend the Syrian poet Adonis who had published it. The audience was very interested in the poem, but "on the second day the police came to my office and took me off in chains to investigate me."

escape to East Germany

Some intellectuals within the regime including the minister of culture, Shafiq al-Kamali (the writer, poet and Baath Party activist, who would be executed by Saddam in 1984) lobbied on behalf of Al-Azzawi and secured his freedom. But he knew that to be a free writer he would have to leave Iraq, and looked for a way out. At the time there was a contract between the union of Iraqi journalists and its counterpart in the German Democratic Republic under which he was awarded a scholarship to enrol at Leipzig University to do a PhD. So rather than finding refuge in London or Paris, as he had hoped, he found himself in East Germany. He joked that he had gone to East Germany because he wanted to be a free writer,  "and now you can ask me, how are you going to be a free writer in such a country!" The East Germans, pressured by the Iraqi embassy, tried to send him back  "many times". When he finished his studies he was told to leave the country and he went to Cyprus for a year before managing to arrange to work as a foreign journalist in East and West Germany. And then in 1989 the Berlin wall came down.  At that time he wrote in Arabic and was published in Beirut, Cairo, in Syria. His books continued to be published, but not in German: he had nothing to do with the German language and did not give readings in Germany. Now he is invited to read at universities and festivals in Germany.

As a journalist working in Germany he wrote for the Arab press "not only about Germany but about Europe, about England, about France. I was in many countries, I travelled and wrote it". His journalism included cultural and literary subjects, interviews with writers and articles about cities. He stopped working as a journalist around 20 years ago.

Asked if he thought of collecting his articles and interviews he said: "That is a dream but it is impossible. Do you know how many articles and interviews I made in my life? Thousands." He also wrote hundreds of articles in Iraq where he worked for some years as a cultural editor.

Obank asked him about his participation in the International Istanbul Poetry Festival in May 2011 when he was one of 40 poets from 17 countries. Al-Azzawi said the festival was fantastic, and that his poems were read in Arabic, English and German. Growing up in Kirkuk Al-Azzawi, who has Turkoman roots, learnt to speak Turkish, as his hosts at the poetry festival in Istanbul were delighted to discover. He read some of his poems in Turkish and was interviewed on Turkish TV.

Obank also asked him about his visit to London in 1970. He said he had met Adonis in Paris and had arranged to meet  him a few days later in London.  "He came and we spent many days together. The BBC did an interview with me. I met [the Sudanese writer] Tayeb Salih there, and many Iraqis and Arabs." he also met his friend the Iraqi poet and critic Salah Niaza whom he had known in Baghdad. Al-Azzawi added that Baath Party people back in Iraq alleged that the British government had paid for him to travel to London.

currently working on five books

Fadhl Al-Azzawi continues to be a productive writer. Banipal 44 earlier this year published a chapter from the English translation of his novel Comedy of Ghosts which was first published in Arabic by Dar al-Jama, Cologne, in 1996. Asked what he is writing now, he said he is working on several books. One is  The Man Who Sees in the Darkness.  Another is a new poetry collection: "many of the poems are written, but I have to write more." He is also writing what he described as "the novel of my life, about my life. I want this novel to be my best work, the best I can do. It is about my life but also about the whole world: it is a big theme, not a memoir."

In addition he is working on a memoir, dealing with the moments in his life when he faced death. "I have already written part of it." And he is writing a travel book about his many visits to different countries in the Arab World, in Europe, in Latin America and so on. He published part of this in, under the title "Everything is Different in Cartagena." In it he writes of his visit to the Colombian city where Gabriel García Márquez lived for part of his life.

When asked about his writing habits, Al-Azzawi said: "You won't believe me, I am full-time writer 24 hours a day. Even when I go to sleep: once, it was a very strange experience for me, I wrote a poem in my sleep. And I tried to remember every line."

Fadhil has lost substantial amounts of his writing in the course of his life. While in prison he managed to smuggle poems out via family members and other who visited him. He published many of his poems in this way, without it being said he was in prison. But when he was released from prison he left behind writings in the form of memoirs, short stories and poems and on returning to pick them up some weeks later he was told that someone had taken them. "It doesn't really matter; I've lost many times my works." When he left Kirkuk for his university studies in Baghdad he told his mother to burn many of his poems. "You have to renew yourself," he explained.

He also destroys some of his texts himself in order to create another text. He has done this for example done this with The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil al-Azzawi. Years after his book The Last Dinosaur was published he wrote another, as yet unpublished, version of it. When he translated poems from the book The Eastern Tree he changed them in order to try and improve them. Why do we think when we write a text that it is "holy" and cannot be changed, he asked. "Only the Qur'an is holy." You can change a text and why not - it is after all your text.

During Al-Azzawi's appearance at the Arab British Centre he read in Arabic and in English translation his poem The Lion and the Apostle from Miracle Maker. Margaret Obank read the poem Toasts from the same collection.
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

Friday, December 14, 2012

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim takes The Iraqi Christ to the Mosaic Rooms

Hassan Blasim in conversation with English PEN director Jo Glanville

"His stories are mainly set in Iraq and they are very deeply rooted in often brutal social reality - there's a lot of violence and many of the stories are extremely shocking, but they are shot through with irony, with a very black comedy, and they frequently tip over into the fantastic and a magical. But because the stories are so grounded in social detail - whether it's in friendship or the detail of everyday life - as a reader you just adopt the magical as if it is the everyday and that's part of the great success of the stories. "

This was English PEN's director Jo Glanville talking about Iraqi writer, poet and filmmaker Hassan Blasim's translated collection The Iraqi Christ when she chaired an event marking the launch of the book at the Mosaic Rooms in London on Wednesday night. 

Glanville said The Iraqi Christ is "really a remarkable book: I'd like to congratulate Hassan, his translator Jonathan and his publisher Comma Press. Hassan is a writer who is a true storyteller and he clearly revels not only in the telling of the story but in the art of game playing that telling stories can involve."   

Blasim's appearance at the Mosaic Rooms - podcast here - was the third and last stop on a UK tour which began on Monday. The tour included events at the Lit and Phil Library in Newcastle and the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, the city in which Comma Press is based. 

The Iraqi Christ is Blasim's second short-story collection to appear in English translation. The first, The Madman of Freedom Square, was published by Comma in 2009. Although The Iraqi Christ is not officially published until the New Year, hot-off-the-press copies were on sale at the event. Publication is timely, with the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq just three months away.  

Both collections were translated by Jonathan Wright, who appeared at the event alongside Blasim and Glanville. The Iraqi Christ is supported by an English PEN Writers in Translation Award, as was The Madman of Freedom Square. The awards, funded by Arts Council England, help with marketing and promotion including Blasim's UK tour.

Translating Blasim

The translator's name is displayed on the front cover of The Iraqi Christ - which is too seldom the case with literary Arabic translations. Wright is a British journalist and literary translator who studied Arabic, Turkish and Islamic Civilisation at St John's College, Oxford University. He worked for Reuters as a Middle East-based correspondent for most of the past three decades. For two years from late 2009 he was the managing editor of Arab Media and Society.

Some five years ago Wright embarked on a career as a translator of literary Arabic. In addition to the two collections of Blasim's short stories, the works he has translated include Rasha al Ameer's Judgment Day, Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel, Khaled Alkhamissi’s Taxi, Fahd al-Atiq's Life on Hold, and Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany's essays On the State of Egypt. Wright's translation of Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser's first novel Land of No Rain is to be published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) next June. He is also due to translate Alaa al-Aswany's new novel.

Glanville said Jonathan's translations of Blasim's work have been "absolutely essential in having made Hassan's work available to wider audiences - exactly what we want to encourage at PEN." What challenges were there in translating Hassan's stories?

"Hassan writes in a very unusual style for a writer in Arabic because it's very direct and he doesn't try to be literary at all, he says it very straight," Wright said. The sentences very short as can be seen from the English translation, in which "most of the sentences in English are the same length as they were in the original Arabic."

Wright said this is very unusual for an Arab author: "There is a tendency for people to take a much more kind of relaxed discursive approach to writing. And there's a tradition of showing off your linguistic knowledge or erudition in writing." This is however "diminishing to some extent with time - quite rapidly actually; there are more writers around now who write in a sharp and strictly narrative style." 

Wright said in a sense it is Hassan's style that produces the difficulties that arise in translating him. "I think sometimes he runs ahead of himself to some extent and sometimes the references get lost - you're not quite sure who's speaking or who did this or who did that." Glanville suggested this might be "part of the style as well".  

Wright clarified to Blasim that he hadn't said Blasim wasn't interested in literature, but "I said that you didn't deliberately try to be literary in your approach." Hassan said he didn't care about Arabic literariness in terms of the beauty of language, and a kind of language "muscle-flexing".  

In a 2009 joint appearance with Wright at an event in Liverpool to discuss The Madman of Freedom Square Blasim spoke in Arabic with Wright interpreting. But at the Mosaic Rooms Blasim said he started learning English last year, and he spoke mainly in English, with Wright translating certain phrases or questions from the audience. Blasim has a vivid way of expressing himself and - as with his stories -  while the discussion touched on much dark material the event was charged with the author's robust humour.
The cover of The Iraqi Christ bears the legend: 'Perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive', from the Guardian newspaper. This judgment came in 2010 from Syrian-British fiction writer, essayist and blogger Robin Yassin-Kassab in his review of Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World (Bloomsbury 2010), an anthology which did not include Blasim. When Glanville cited the Guardian quote Blasim laughed "don't say that!" and joked that it has caused  him a lot of problems.  

           Jonathan Wright with Hassan Blasim

Blasim's language: shocking, funny, very explicit

Glanville noted that Blasim has criticised the style of writing about Iraq's terrible history that takes the form of lamentation, of breast-beating. She wondered how Blasim's very different style, "which is deeply shocking but funny and uses very explicit language", goes down with his Arab readers. 

Hassan said "I write what I know". He can't understand how, when bombs are going off and people are dying in the street, some Iraqi writers are preoccupied with the beauty of the Arabic language. They use sentimental, tear-jerking language, while criticising "small mistakes, or the use of street language" by a  writer like Blasim. He uses much street language, particularly in his poetry which sometimes sounds like a kind of "rap, with dirty language. Of course, they don't like that."

Glanville asked him the reasons for the censorship of the Arabic version of The Madman of Freedom Square and its banning in Jordan. Blasim said "publishers don't like my books... " because of "how I use the language". He said if people read his book they will find he doesn't write about politics and "I'm not against religion; I don't believe in religion but I don't tell people to forget religion". It is his use of "dirty" language that causes him problems.

In his story The Song of the Goats a boy drowns in his family's septic tank. After hours of rescue efforts "they brought him out - a dead child, shrouded in shit." There are copious references to shit in the story and the grief-stricken mother feeds her dead son's three-year old brother shit mixed with food, blaming him for his brother's death.

Of objections to his language, Hassan said: "It's as if in the Arab countries we don't say shit: we say shit all the time. And we shit all the time." His stories also contain considerable sexual explicitness and obscenities.

Blasim ridiculed objections to jokes about religion in literature. "Arab people every day in the street joke about many things" but if you joke about such things in literature or newspapers you risk being branded as an enemy who is against religion and who may be receiving money from the West. 

Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973, but when he was five the family moved to the northern oil city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a highly mixed city whose population includes Arabs (Sunni and Shia), Kurds,Turkmen, and Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and one imagines this rich brew helped fire the imagination of the nascent writer. The central figure in the title story of The Iraqi Christ is Daniel, a Christian former soldier.

Blasim's family moved back to Baghdad when he reached college age. He studied  at the Academy of Cinematic Arts. Two of his films -  Gardenia (screenplay) and White Clay (screenplay and director) - won the Academy's Festival Award for Best Work.

In 1998 Blasim left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he continued to make films, including Wounded Camera, using a Kurdish pseudonym as he feared for his family's safety in Baghdad under Saddam's dictatorship. Perhaps this adoption of a new identity helped trigger his interest in playing with identity in his stories. 

The scanty biographical details of Blasim on the internet often state that he left Iraq for Finland in 2004. In fact, he pointed out, he had left Iraq four years before. It took him all that time, with illicit border crossings and jobs as an illegal immigrant, at the mercy of people traffickers, to reach Finland in 2004 where he has lived ever since.  

He has made numerous short films and documentaries for Finnish television. His stories have been published on the internet, including on the website of which he is a co-editor. His essays on cinema have been published in the UAE.

Although Blasim has lived in Finland since 2004, "it is clear that it is Iraq that feeds your imagination as a writer," Glanville said. "I just wanted to ask you about that dislocation for a writer. You're in Finland, which perhaps couldn't be further removed in culture and climate from Iraq, and I'm wondering how that works for you as a writer - there you are, as a writer in exile, but the imagination is fed by Iraq."

Blasim said: "I live in Finland of course but still now there are many things happening in Iraq. When I left Iraq Saddam was there; the problems continue and we don't find the right solution to what happened in Iraq. So of course I'm interested still in writing about Iraq -  my memory is full. When I was a kid the Iran-Iraq war started, and when I went to college the war started after Saddam went into Kuwait. War continued all the time and affected all the Iraqi people, so as a writer it's important to talk about all this war."

He said many people wonder when he will write about Finnish culture, "mainly because I love the countryside, I am all the time in Finland in the countryside - so they ask 'when will you write about sauna? ... And I say, just wait, maybe later!"

'I love all these different forms'

 One theme that ran through the Mosaic Rooms event was Blasim's working in different art forms: film, poetry, short stories, writing plays for the theatre. Glanville said filmmaking is obviously as important to Blasim as writing short stories; she asked what it is about the form of writing short stories that draws him.

Blasim said  "I love all these different forms  -  I  like films, I like poems." Many people have urged him to focus on one thing- in particular on the writing of short stories so as to build himself in the world of literature - "but I get bored easily, so I want all the time to change. The short story form for me is near to a short film, a form I feel good with."  In response to a member of the audience who asked whether he will ever turn some of his written work into film, Blasim confirmed that he said he plans to do that. He already filmed some short stories when in Iraq. He thought that if the questioner read the short stories in The Iraqi Christ, he would find they were already like film-like and should be easy to film.  

To another  member of the audience, who asked why he likes short stories so much and what's so special about them, he responded: "I say I like short story, I don't say I love short story too much. I like all the different forms - I don't have any special liking for the short story really." Each form has "a different power, a different language." 

Asked which individuals who, like him, combine writing and filmmaking have most impressed him he named Pasolini, as writer and film director, and then said his favourite has been the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky whose work he studied at college, and whose "poem in film" subsequently very much interested him.  He also named Lars Von Trier and Ingmar Bergman. 

Why Don't You Write a Novel Instead of Talking About All These Characters?

Glanville asked him about the story Why Don't You Write a Novel Instead of Talking About All These Characters? "I ask myself this all the time!" Blasim said. Publishers in London and Germany are encouraging him to write a novel: "You can't make money with short stories" and that the market is geared to novels. When they ask him to write a novel, "I say why? What?"

Glanville said: "One of the great pleasures of your stories is that there they are, these  very shocking, brutal, violent stories, but there is a lot of game playing in the art of storytelling." In  Why Don't You Write a Novel and other stories "you give clues here and there to your influences on your thinking about why stories, why writing is important."

She read a passage from Why Don't You Write a Novel in which a character asks the narrator: "Why don’t you write a novel, instead of talking about all these characters – Arabs, Kurds, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Bangladeshis and Africans? They would make for mysterious, traditional stories. Why do you cram all these names into one short story? Let the truth come to light in all its simplicity. Why  not enjoy your life?"  

The narrator responds: "Maybe you’ve heard of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the Sufi Muslim who died in 1273. Rumi says, 'The truth was once a mirror in the hands of God. Then it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Everybody has a very small piece of it, but each one believes he has the whole truth.”’ Blasim said: "Maybe it's also about short stories."


The Song of the Goats

Blasim read in Arabic The Song of the Goats, the first story in The Iraqi Christ. Wright's translation was projected on the screen behind him, and paper copies of the story were also available. This simultaneous Arabic and English arrangement worked well. 

Glanville said The Song of the Goats gives a great idea of Hassan's talents and of his exploration of storytelling. It begins as a story about stories: "People were waiting in queues to tell their stories". They want to tell their stories to "Memory Radio ... set up after the fall of the dictator" which has a new programme called Their Stories in Their Own Voices. Listeners will choose the top three stories; there are valuable prizes. The story begins in the voice of a contestant; the main story of The Song of the Goats is a story he hears from another contestant.

Glanville said the story "then it goes into this very vivid and engaging account of this boy's tragic story, details of his family, and then has this fantastic and absurd ending. What runs through it all the way, and with all your stories, is war, and the series of wars - so there's the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf war, and then of course the invasion of you would have known nothing but Saddam's dictatorship and nothing but war really, war would have been a constant presence through your life."

Hassan said the story "is about war - and the story happens in Kirkuk. Kirkuk is the richest city in the world - they have a  lot of oil  there - but poor people don't have clean water, they live like this, poor people in a rich country, and all the time you have war - about what? About oil." When he was growing up in Kirkuk such accidental drownings of children in  septic tanks was a common occurrence.

When the family was living in Kirkuk, the city was a target of Iran's Scud missiles during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war from 1980. "It's like war around you all the time," Blasim said. "You have many different wars - you have war with the neighbour, you have war with the dictator, you have war with the society, you have different levels of war.

"You have all the time to survive from different dangers, and that makes many of my stories like nightmares because you feel you are in a nightmare - you are against the dictator and all the time some bomb comes from America, or Iran,'s never finished, this...but all the time I use some humour because it is not easy to destroy humour, so of course we laugh."

The discovery of reading

Glanville asked whether his expectation when he was growing up was that he would have to go to war. Hassan said: "All the time I felt I wanted to disappear, to go." His family was poor and when he used to read books in the summertime they would ask "What are you doing?...I said I want to read." 

Jo found it interesting that "in more than one of your stories there's a reference to the discovery of literature, of reading." Hassan said that in many of his stories people are trying to find solutions in books. His father was a communist and he remembers how in the family house there were Russian novels and stories by the likes of Dostoevsky and Chekov.

He started writing poems when he was 12. As a teenager he compiled crosswords for a newspaper, which pleased his family as the newspaper paid him. Glanville noted that there's a "great story Crosswords in The Iraqi Christ." He began to write short fiction. And it was because he wanted to be a writer that he studied film at college. He had asked friend which college would help him to be a writer, and the friend advised him to study film, which Blasim thinks was a good choice. 

Do you read Kafka in Arabic? Yes ... and do you read Kafka in Finnish?

Jo Glanville said people have compared him to Kafka, and that there's a very nice exchange in his story The Dung Beetle when "you or the narrator" gets very irritated:

"A young Finnish novelist once asked me, with a genuine look of astonishment and curiosity, ‘How did you read Kafka? Did you read him in Arabic? How could you discover Kafka that way?’ I felt as I were a suspect in a crime and the Finnish novelist was the detective, and that Kafka was a Western treasure that Ali Baba, the Iraqi, had stolen. In the same way, I might have asked, ‘Did you read Kafka in Finnish?’"

Glanville says that while the narrator of the story angrily makes references to Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights "I have to say that although there are elements of Kafka, of Gogol, because there is that surrealism, your stories did make me think of the Arabian Nights because there's that grounding in social reality that tips us into the fantastic - because the Arabian Nights are incredibly modern and they have been credited with inspiriting magic realism."

On the question of influences on him when he writes, Hassan said he reads widely, but films are his major inspiration.

the four-year trek to Finland

Finland, Blasim's adopted country - at least for now  

When Glanville asked Blasim about his life in Iraq he explained that he started having problems with the authorities when he was a film student. His film Gardenia was about "some poor guy", and the secret police started questioning him. They were also suspicious of his project to bring a group of people to work together in film. At the time one of his brothers was in prison for political reasons - and then there was the fact his father was a communist.

The regime looked at him as if he was trying to do something against the government, so he went north to Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan and did start to work against the regime. He changed his name to the Kurdish name Ouazad Osma and made a long feature film on Saddam's attacks on the Kurdish people.
"I taught film and wrote many articles against the regime, but I felt Kurdistan was not really safe. There was civil war between the Kurds," and he was aware of being seen as Arab rather than Kurdish. So he left for Iran in around 2000, and then walked across the border to Turkey, and from there worked  his way to Bulgaria. He was travelling illegally, without papers and needed to work because he did not have enough money to  pay the "mafia people" who cross the borders with illegal immigrants.
He worked for a year and a half in restaurants and factories in Istanbul to get  him the money to cross into Bulgaria where he again worked in a restaurant. The work in the black economy was all poorly paid. It took him around four years to arrive in Finland.

When a member of the audience asked whether he had perhaps chosen Finland because it was a socialist country, given his father's communist background, Blasim admitted that it had been a girl and an "old love story" that first drew him to Finland. He had ended up there more or less by accident, having previously planned to to go to France. He has now been there eight years. He said it is difficult to stay in Finland; it is cold, and dark for six months of the year. 

Asked whether there is interest in his work in Finland, Blasim said: "Yes, they translated  me into Finnish and they are really interested, and all the time I am on the radio, I'm a star!" He added: "It's not because I'm good, it's because it's a small country!" The population of Finland is around 5 million, and there are some 5,000 Iraqis there. He said he was going to say something that might shock the audience: "they say in Finland I bring the Nobel Prize to Finland!"

Asked if he has been back to Iraq since Saddam's overthrow, Hassan said he has been to the north of Iraq but not to Baghdad. It is still dangerous: a friend from Holland who worked in radio had been killed. He might be able to work in film there, but the opportunities are limited. A man with a big company who makes TV dramas offered him a blank cheque to write a drama about Hussein. "If you go to Iraq there is a circle of corruption, you buy people."  

Hassan continues to write and finds that through the internet his stories attract many Arab readers. He seems not to be particularly bothered about the difficulties he faces in being published in book form in Arabic, saying: "In the Arab world people don't buy books." But Arabs are on Facebook and all over the internet. 

Hassan said he has many readers in Iraq, especially among the young. In a development that sounds like a twist in one of  his short stories, he said  some  young people in the South of Iraq, who like his writing, want to start a magazine with the title  "Hassan Blasim". 
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Monday, December 10, 2012

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim tours UK & publicises new story collection The Iraqi Christ

The Iraqi short story writer, poet and filmmaker Hassan Blasim begins a three-day UK tour tonight with an appearance at the Lit and Phil Library in Newcastle Upon Tyne at 7pm. Blasim's tour marks the imminent publication by Manchester-based Comma Press of The Iraqi Christ, his second short story collection in English, translated by Jonathan Wright. The tour, on which Blasim is accompanied by Wright, is supported by English PEN which earlier this year awarded The Iraqi Christ a 2012 English PEN Writers in Translation Award to help with the book's marketing and promotion. (The book is officially published in the New Year, but can be ordered in advance online.)

On Tuesday 11th December Blasim will be in Manchester, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation  at 7pm. On Wednesday 12th he appears with both Wright and English PEN Jo Glanville at 7pm at the Mosaic Rooms of the A M Qattan Foundation in central London. All three events in Newcastle, Manchester and London are free.

Hassan Blasim (©Tomas Whitehouse, who writes about his photo session with Blasim here)

The fortchcoming publication of The Iraqi Christ will be highly timely, with the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq just three months away. Blasim's short stories take as their subject matter the repercussions on individuals of the decades of violence and suffering to which Iraqis have been subjected in recent decades, in which the 2003 invasion and its aftermath is the latest chapter.

Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973 and studied at the city's  Academy of Cinematic Arts where two of his films - Gardenia (screenplay) and White Clay (screenplay and director) - won the Academy's Festival Award for Best Work. In 1998 he left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he continued to make films, including Wounded Camera. He worked using the pseudonym 'Ouazad Osman', as he feared for this family's safety in Baghdad under Saddam's dictatorship.
In 2004 Blasim moved to Finland as a refugee. His stories have been published on the website, of which he is a co-editor, and his essays on cinema have been published in the UAE. He has made numerous short films and documentaries for Finnish television.

Blasim has developed a fruitful relationship with Comma Press, a not-for-profit publisher promoting new fiction and poetry, with an emphasis on the short story. His short story The Reality and the Record was published in Comma's 2008 anthology Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East edited by Lebanese poet, translator and journalist Joumana Haddad.

Comma published Blasim's first collection of stories in English translation The Madman of Freedom Square , translated by Jonathan Wright, in 2009. The collection attracted considerable critical attention and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. It has been translated into Finnish, Spanish, Polish and Italian. A heavily-edited version was finally published in Arabic in 2012, only to be immediately banned in Jordan.

The 14 stories in The Iraqi Christ are written with Blasim's characteristic blend of reality, satire, fantasy and surrealism . Blasim brings home the barbarity of a society in which suicide bombings, massacres and assassinations are part of the fabric of life. His characters struggle to survive in the face of violence and sectarianism. The barbarity at the state and political level is mirrored by cruelties and aggression at the domestic level.

The unflinching stories are original, inventive and savagely funny, though at times gruelling, and have an urgency about them. Jonathan Wright has produced a fine translation, skilfully handling the changes in register from the lyrical to the slangy and obscene.

The stories are full of incident and characters, often ranging widely over geography and time yet they are also remarkably compact, almost mini-novels. The author's talents in filmmaking seem to be reflected in his writing skills. In the story Why Don't You Write a Novel, Instead of Talking About All These Characters? the narrator is asked: "Why do you cram all these names into one short story?" He answers by quoting Rumi: "The truth was once a mirror in the hands of God. Then it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Everybody has a very small piece of it, but each one believes he has the whole truth".

This story opens with a group of refugees of various nationalities with a people trafficker in the last forest before the Romanian-Hungarian border. The narrator and his long-time Iraqi friend carry the body of a dead Afghan with them for three nights: the friend is later imprisoned in Hungary, for having strangled the Afghan. The narrator works as a translator in a refugee camp under the name Salem Hussein. His  imprisoned friend tells him "You're an arsehole and a fraud. Your name's Hassan Blasim and you claim to be Salem Hussein."

The titular story features Daniel, a Christian soldier nicknamed by his comrades the Chewgum Christ. He has an astonishing ability to predict events, a gift that often saves fellow Iraqi soldiers under attack during the war in Kuwait. But back in civilian life he is forced into becoming a suicide bomber so as to save his elderly mother's life. The narrator of this story encounters Daniel "in the next world";  with    death a constant presence, several stories drift between this world and the next. A crucifixion does occur in the collection - not in the story The Iraqi Christ but in A Thousand and One Knives, in a scene the gruesomeness of which makes reading hard to bear. 

The stories are told in the first person: in some cases, the story is in quotes as it is being told to someone else in the story. Blasim plays with ideas of storytelling and identity. At the end of  A Wolf,  in which an immigrant to Finland tells of what happened when he found a wolf in his city flat, the person to whom the story has been told introduces himself as "Hassan Blasim, pleased to meet you." 

Another story with a Finnish setting is Dear Beto, which takes place in a forest. Blasim seems to have found an affinity with the forests of Finland in the eight years he has lived in that country, and the story has some soulful, meditative writing, in which creativity and violence combine.

There are frequent references in the stories to the pleasures of reading. In A Thousand and One Knives four friends find they can make knives disappear: the wife of the narrator is the only person who can make them reappear. Through reading, the narrator concludes that the knives are "just a metaphor for all the terror, the killing and the brutality in the country."  He moves into the world of Mutanabbi Street, famed for its bookshops, and  in order to try and understand the mystery of the knives the group of friends buys more and more books. "The magic of words was like rain that quenched the thirst in my soul, and for me life became an idea and a dream: the idea was a ball and the dream was two tennis racquets." 

A ward in the Baghdad Medical City hospital is the location of The Fifth Floor Window, a darkly comic story told by a narrator who has lung cancer and is sharing a ward with two men suffering from colon cancer. Unfortunately for the cancer sufferers, the doctors are constantly diverted to the stream of casualties in the emergency department caused by suicide bombings and massacres.

One of the cancer patients, Salwan, has two wives who "would sit on the end of the bed like squabbling crows. Salwan shared his insults between them, all without understanding a word of what they said." He persecutes the other colon cancer sufferer, a pilot, for his groans of pain. The narrator longs to be back on the university campus where he is preparing a master's on fantasy literature. "I was interested in why the country's literature did not include this distinctive genre".

In The Hole a shopkeeper revisiting the shop that he had to abandon because of the violence flees runs from armed robbers and  finds himself falling into a hole. His companion in the hole is a crazy old man claiming to be a djinni who had been a scholar in Baghdad in the Abbasid era. The other occupant of the hole is a dead Russian soldier from the "winter war between Russian and Finland."

There is a hallucinatory quality to many of scenes in Blasim's stories. In Crosswords  a prize-winning compiler of crossword puzzles is injured in an explosion of vehicles and when he is recovering in hospital he finds a policeman who was burnt to death in the attack has taken over his mind.

The situation in Iraq is in danger of being sidelined, a forgotten conflict pushed to the margins of the international news agenda by the uprisings and revolutions in other Arab states. Almost every day brings news of car bombings and other violence, but such news is so commonplace is barely makes an impact outside Iraq. The Iraqi Christ is a potent reminder of the legacy and ongoing impact of war and civil strife in Iraq, and it deserves a wide readership. Following the publication of Blasim's two collections by Comma Press in the UK, Comma has sold Blasim's short story collection The Corpse Exhibition to Penguin USA.  The Corpse Exhibition, due to be published in autumn 2013,  will comprise both Madman of Freedom Square, and The Iraqi Christ  
Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, December 08, 2012

PalFest celebrates 5th anniversary with premiere of the film 'PalFest Gaza 2012'

The short film PalFest Gaza 2012, made during the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) visit to Gaza in May, received its premiere on the night of 5th December at the Free Word Centre in London, during PalFest's 5th birthday celebrations.

PalFest, established in 2008, aims to support cultural life in Palestine, break the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation and strengthen cultural links between Palestine and the rest of the world. It reaffirms, in the words of Edward Said, "the power of culture over the culture of power". PalFest's annual literary festival in Palestine is at the heart of its activities. PalFest has taken to Palestine many influential literary figures from the UK, US, Arab world and elsewhere to teach workshops and perform in free public events. Every year PalFest partners with many cultural and educational Palestinian organizations.

The PalFest producer Omar Robert Hamilton, an independent filmmaker, explained before the screening of PalFest Gaza 2012 that PalFest had tried for years to get into Gaza "because obviously we insisted on the unity of the Palestinian state, and the division of the West Bank and Gaza is one of the key means of Israeli control."

But PalFest was unable to enter Gaza until May this year when "because of the Egyptian revolution we decided that this was the time to pressure the Egyptian government and to take a delegation of people in through Rafah, through Egypt." This first Gaza visit of PalFest to Gaza was "a tremendous success", as demonstrated in the film PalFest Gaza 2012 which was  directed, filmed and edited by Murat Gökmen. (The PalFest Gaza programme can be found at Global Voices Online ; a "Sleepless in Gaza" blog post recounts some of the difficulties that were encountered.)

Omar Robert Hamilton

The film is a moving tribute to the value of the Gaza Palfest as seen from the point of view of Gazans  and of four visiting PalFest delegates: PalFest's chair and founder, Egyptian-British novelist, author and activist Ahdaf Soueif;  Egyptian novelists Sahar Elmougy and Khaled Al Khamissi, and Sudanese-British novelist Jamal Mahjoub.

The film shows the damage from the Israeli offensive of 2008/09 and the impact of the siege, including on the livelihood of Gaza's fishermen. It conveys the tremendous energy and enthusiasm for reading literature and writing among the Gazans involved in PalFest events, who eloquently explain the value of writing and literature in helping them transcend their situation.

PalFest organised workshops and seminars in Gaza schools and universities.  The  programme also included a concert performance by the Egyptian group Eskenderella. In the film Soueif is seen addressing a workshop of some 130 young women in a packed hall at Al Aqsa University, "all of whom were well read, and had a lot of questions, and wanted to work". The students work in difficult conditions and during the event the electricity "went off every 10 minutes".

Al Khamissi said the reactions of the Gaza students taking part in PalFest "were amazing;  they were glowing, their questions were glowing, their ideas were glowing." One girl asks Al Khamissi: "In terms of political and literary maturity, where does the Arab world rank for you? Because hardly any Arabic books are translated into other languages. Very little of what goes on inside ourselves is translated to the outside world."

The guests at PalFest's 5th birthday party included many who have been involved with PalFest as founders, board members, partners, and as participants have been on the journey to Palestine with the Festival. Some participants have a continuing involvement with Palestine - for example returning for writing workshops or, like Alexandra Pringle of publisher Bloomsbury, offering internships. At the beginning of the festivities it was announced that PalFest has become an associate member of the Free Word Centre.

Speaking from the platform Soueif said: "We are in the heart of a big collaborative effort that people undertake out of love and out of commitment, because really the Palestine issue has become  an issue of conscience for people across the world," as was the case with apartheid South Africa. "We see individuals and groups all over the world taking matters into their own hands because they are dissatisfied with what their governments do for the Palestine issue."

 Ahdaf Soueif

Soueif said it might seem very little to go to Palestine and read poetry, or run a translation workshop, at at a time when people there are being dispossessed or killed, or having their homes pulled down around their ears.  However, those who follow events in Palestine, and those who have been there, know the degree to which occupation and dispossession inform and affects the texture of daily life "every minute of every person's day". An intervention at the level of PalFest is of value  in "changing of the texture of the day, and what somebody can feel or can look forward to or can talk about - as indeed you heard the young students in Gaza saying."

One of the 500 or so young Egyptian activists who crossed into Gaza during the recent Israeli attacks in order to give blood at Al-Shifa hospital told Ahdaf that she was asked by Gazans whether it was  her first time there. When she said she had been there before, for Gaza Palfest, she was told that people in Gaza are still talking about the Festival, and habout how it made a difference to them.

Soueif said PalFest is a commitment, but that it is also "an enormous privilege to be able to do this and be part of this And every year that we do it, and more people join this group, this community, it feels like more and more of a privilege." She stated that BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is necessary, with conditions for the Palestinians deteriorating. Conditions for the Palestinians in Jerusalem for example have noticeably worsened in the five years PalFest has been going there.

The speakers included publisher turned author Carmen Callil who read from the diary she had kept during her first visit to Palestine, for PalFest 2009. She said that before PalFest 2009 she had spent  nine years writing a book, Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland, about Vichy France: "In other words I spent many years living in close quarters with the history and actions of a rogue state." She describes in her diary similarites she found between Vichy France and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians: photographs of the Wall covered with barbed wire resemble photos of the French concentration camp at Gurs. Callil vividly depicted the way in which checkpoints, passport controls, permits, roads for Jews only and so on constrain the movement of Palestinians.

 Carmen Callil

Palestinians may have to walk for mile and pass through a checkpoint to see a neighbour who lives only a stone's throw away.  "The intricacies of who can go where formed the black spider's web through every conversation I had in Palestine." She spoke also about the endless illegal Israeli settlements and the way in which Israel controls water and sells it back to Palestinians in the camps.

She wrote in her diary of how children and students resist all this with their Palestinian culture, "one of their few and best weapons. This is why PalFest is so important: it honours their culture." Before travelling to Palestine she had written about evil and cruelty and the death of innocent children, and had written about Jewish children, "but until I went to Palestine I'd never seen such things for myself. I saw things in Palestine that cracked my heart. Three years later, my heart remains cracked." Far too many people in Europe ignore the injustice done to the Palestinians and their plight as a result of the evils of the rogue state of Israel. "In so doing, grave injustice is done to the Jewish people too. Accepting injustice requires us to lose our own humanity. It's for our own sakes as well as the Palestinians' that we must fight for them. We owe a great debt to PalFest for teaching us this lesson."

The editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing, Alexandra Pringle, took part with Callil in PalFest  2009. She said: "When I went to Palestine I knew what I thought about Palestine, but I didn't know what I felt about it. And literally from the moment we were all at that border waiting in the hot sunshine for those of us who had gone through very quickly, and the Arab writers who were kept back all those hours, that's when the feeling about Palestine began. And every moment of every day it accumulated and  accumulated"

Pringle recalled the Festival as a mixture of things that were desperate and terrible, and things that were wonderful: "There were, I have to say, a lot of good times". She added: "When you think of literary festivals you think of having fun and you think about literature - you don't think that a literary festival is going to change your life. This is what this literary festival did. We were completely overturned, we were all absolutely changed by what we saw, and what we heard, and what we felt."

During the visit to Palestine there had come a moment when Callil turned to her and said: "Darling, we writers can't do very much, but you are a publisher and you can do something." And that is what Pringle has done. At the time she went to PalFest, Bloomsbury had already  published books by Edward Said and Mourid Barghouthi, and she had just bought for Bloomsbury the multi-generational novel Mornings in Jenin by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa. "I went back absolutely determined to publish the hell out of that book."

Since then, Bloomsbury has published other works by Palestinians. "Our sister company BQFP (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) publishes Suad Amiry who had us hooting with laughter in PalFest. We also published Izzeldin Abuelaish's I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity which is the most horrifying and anguishing book to read." Bloomsbury has also published the novel  Out of It - by Selma Dabbagh, a guest at the evening. The novel is  "her incredible account of what it's like to live in Gaza right now.

Alexandra Pringle

Pringle said she was very proud that Bloomsbury will next year publish a novel by PalFest alumnus, William Sutcliffe, who is Jewish . His novel,  The Wall , is aimed at adults and young adults. It takes the reader into Palestine from the point of view of a 13-year old Israeli Jewish settler boy "who finds his way onto the other side of the wall, and finds out what the truth is."

Pringle said she thinks it is "so courageous of him to write this book.  I had an incredible email last week from Raja Shehadeh who said this is an important novel that he will do everything for, and that we must do everything for." Pringle added: "What has  happened to me is that I want to publish everything that I can on the Palestinian cause, but in the most imaginative way. And for me there is nothing quite like reading a novel that takes you out of your world and puts you into that other world and helps you emotionally understand and feel what it is that has happened in that place at that time."

During the evening there were performances by two leading Palestinian poet activists. Rafeef Ziadah gave a compelling, impassioned recitation of her poem 'We Teach Life, Sir' - She was just off the plane from the World Social Forum Free Palestine held in Brazil. (This video is from an earlier performance of Ziadah's poem ).

Rafeef Ziadah

Remi Kanazi 

New York-based Palestinian poet  Remi Kanazi was among the participants in PalFest 2010 and took part in a writing workshop.  "For me it was really an honour to be able to go over, to connect, to build with different communities." He performed  Normalize This during the PalFest anniversary evening. He strongly criticised US military support for Israel and its "preferential trade agreements with an apartheid regime. It's up to us, the global community, to stand against that." He also noted the way in which Israel uses culture and art for state propaganda, or for normalization projects. "When culture and art and bringing dialogue together is used to service propaganda, we have to challenge it."

 Jeremy Harding

Writer and journalist Jeremy Harding took part in PalFest 2009 and has since then been involved in workshops under PalFest's auspices. More funding is needed for the workshops: "I think it would be a really good thing if more writers were able to get out but there is a financial issue." In order to bring alive the sense of what a workshop can be, he read out a striking text in the form of a profile of a Palestinian grandmother,  produced by a participant in an editing course in Nablus in which Harding took part last year.

At the conclusion of the speeches Soueif said: "We are at that point now where really we either grow or we vanish. And PalFest is straining to grow - so the workshops happen without our having planned them and they're being carried on by people in quite hard circumstances in Ramallah. We've been given a beautiful house in Birzeit but we can't afford the heating of it and so it can only be used briefly." She added: "We're finding it very hard to get core funding for a director who will take responsibility for the running of the Festival. So far we have been doing this on a voluntary and semi-voluntary basis for a long time. A full-time director is needed if PalFest is to be able to follow up all the leads and gestures of goodwill that come its way. 

Soueif confirmed that PalFest will return to Palestinian cities on the West Bank in late May 2013. 
"We feel that we should continue to be involved in Gaza, but we believe that Gaza does not need us to drop in once a  year. The West Bank is fine for that because there is a lot going on there, but in Gaza what is needed is a more ongoing and possibly lower-profile engagement, with one or two people going in maybe every three weeks to do something for a few days."

The guests were given cotton party bags on their way out, bearing the original PalFest logo designed by Jeff Fisher, and printed in Egypt. The contents included books donated by Bloomsbury, Garnet Publishing and Profile Books, literature from the Palestiine Solidarity Campaign (PSC)  - and bottles of Zaytoun organic extra-virgin Palestinian olive oil.
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush