Saturday, December 01, 2012

Banipal Book Club's Story Circles at the V&A

Seven months after it was launched at its first meeting, the London-based monthly Banipal Book Club last night spread its wings beyond its home in the Banipal Library in the Arab British Centre and held three public Short Story Circles at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. To judge by the size of the audiences attracted to the Circles, and the lively discussions of the three stories chosen for the event, the experiment tapped into a considerable interest in reading and talking about Arabic literature in English translation.

a segment of a Banipal Book Club Story Circle audience

The stories chosen for the three sessions had appeared in different issues of  Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature. Their authors are from a broad geographical sweep in the Arab world: from the Maghreb there was The Way to Poppy Street by Tunisian Rachida el-Charni, translated by Piers Amodia; from the Gulf there was Kuya's Little Things by Abdul Hamid Ahmed of the UAE, in translation by Thomas Aplin; and from Palestine there was A Fateful Meal by Nazareth-born 1948 Palestinian Eyad Barghuthy, rendered into English by John Peate. Participants in the circles were able to download PDF versions of the stories from the Banipal website in advance, and staff of the Victoria and Albert had printed out extra copies.

 Tunisian writer Rachida el-Charni (picture: Banipal)

The Circles were held during a 'Friday Late' opening at the Victoria and Albert, held on the last Friday of every month. Last night's  Friday Late with MasterCard: Record, Reframe, Reset, was part of the Nour Festival of Arts: Contemporary Art, Design, Films, Music and Literature from the Middle East and North Africa. The Festival has been held in venues throughout the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea during October and November. The Victoria and Albert collaborated with numerous artists and organisations to put on Record, Reframe, Reset, including Banipal Magazine - which this year celebrates its 15th anniversary of publication - as well as the Sharjah Art Foundation, The Mosaic Rooms, the Febrik platform for participatory art and design research projects, Arabic trip-hop duo Zeid Hamdan and Maryam Saleh, and artists Aya Haidar and  Lawrence Abu Hamdan.

 the latest issue of Banipal, 45, has a special focus on writers from Palestine

The rich programme of events for the evening was scatttered among different locations within the
Museum. The Story Circles, which fell within the 'workshop' category of events, were held in a seminar room in the Sackler Centre - the Victoria and Albert's centre for public learning through creative design and the arts. 

the foyer of the Sackler Centre

The circles were held in three half-hour sessions, separated by 15-minute breaks. Some members of the audience stayed for all three sessions; others came and went. Chairs were arranged in a large circle and the many tea-light candles glowing on tables and other surfaces added to the warm ambience, as did the delicious Arabic sweets offered to participants. As more and more people engaged with the event the audience swelled well beyond the circle of chairs into a standing-room only zone. 

 Amira Abd El-Khalek reads from The Way to Poppy Street

Banipal's co-founder and publisher Margaret Obank told the participants about Banipal magazine and the Banipal Book Club, and noted that the magazine pays attention to to lesser known Arab literatures with its special features on countries including Tunisia, Libya, the UAE and, most recently, Palestine. In fact during the past two years of Arab upheavals and revolutions, issues of Banipal focusing on a particular country have had an uncanny habit of coinciding with a revolutionary upsurge there. Publication of the latest issue, focusing on Palestinian literature, coincided with the Gaza conflict and with the UN General Assembly vote recognising Palestine as a non-member observer state by a vote of 138-9 in favour, with 41 abstensions. 

Obank informed the audience that Banipal is hosting an informal discussion evening with Iraqi novelist and poet Fadhil al-Azzawi on Thursday 6th December at 6.30pm in the Library and Meeting Room of the Arab British Centre. She invited participants to come along.

Each Story Circle was chaired by a member of the Banipal Book Club, while another club member read  extracts from the story under consideration. The three powerful stories tackled some of the most pressing issues in the contemporary Arab world, and each was written in a compact style and lent itself to metphorical interpretations. The discussions were enriched by the way in which Arab and non-Arab members of the audience contributed their diverse perspectives, knowledge and experiences. 

Aurora Tellenbach chaired the first story circle, on The Way to Poppy Street, with readings by Amira Abd El-Khalek. In the story a young woman is attacked and robbed of her gold necklace by a young man who had asked her if she knew the way to Poppy Street. A crowd gathers when the girl chases the thief. She manages to catch hold of him but he produces a knife and brandishes it in her face. No one in the crowd helps her; on the contrary, they are defeatist, advising her to back off. Rather than praising her courage they belittle her and she is accused of being a stubborn woman. 

After the robber beats and kicks her and escapes with an accomplice on a motorbike, the girl starts crying. "A tremor of shame ran through her body, shame at being an inhabitant of that street: the submissiveness of her neighbours was a harder blow than the stranger's aggression." She angrily tells the bystanders that they are "Gutless, spineless cowards! Since when has standing up for yourself ever been something to laugh about?"

The story was  originally published in 2002 under the title Tareeq Dar al-Ajayeb in Rachida El-Charni's collection Saheel al-Asaila. After appearing in Banipal 39 in Winter 2010 the English translation was republished in the Granta Book of the African Short Story (2012) edited by Helon Habila. 

The story first appeared in Arabic some eight years before the Tunisian revolution, and some of the discussion of it examined what the story said about a society where the masses were generally passive observers until a young individual, and his generation, decided they had had enough. They found their voice and rose up against corruption and abuses of power. The discussion also examined the female angle of the story, with women sometimes being abused during the Arab revolutions. During her ordeal, the girl at the centre of the story remembers a girl who was raped by youths in a Cairo streets with no passer-by coming to her aid.

 UAE writer Abdul Hamid Ahmed (picture: Banipal)

The second circle discussed Kuya's Little Things and was chaired by Charis Bredin. The author, Abdul Hamid Ahmed, was born in Dubai in 1957. He is regarded as a pioneer of the short story in the UAE, with three volumes of short stories as well as several collections of essays to his name. He is editor-in-chief of the English-language daily Gulf News.  

The Kuya of the title is a worker who, like many other foreign workers in the Gulf, comes from Kerala, India. The story shines a light on the plight of an immigrant worker  whose wife back home has just given birth to a longed-for son. Kuya's first-born son had been killed in a rail accident 14 years earlier, and he has had four daughters since then. He excitedly buys presents for his wife and new-born son using a 100-dirham short-term loan from his employer, before realising the remainder of his cash will not cover the cost of sending a parcel to Kerala. In desperation he tries to sell in the market the material  he bought for his wife, but finds no buyer. The story ends with Kuya still walking the streets of the big city trying to sell the piece of material. 

Some members of the audience were surprised that an Emirati writer showed such empathy with the harsh realities of life for immigrant labourers. Kuya and his workmates had built "this very pavement, this street" in which he wanders.

 Palestinian writer Eyad Barghuthy

The third circle, chaired by Margaret Obank with readings by Maureen O'Rourke, discussed A Fateful Meal by Eyad Barghuthy. Born in Nazareth in 1980, Barthuthy edits the weekly Fasi Al-Maqaal journal and is project director of the Arab Cultural Association in Nazareth. He lives in the coastal city of Acre, where his story is set. 

The "fateful  meal" takes place in a fish restaurant where a Dr Mufid tells his daughter Samar that he  knows she is seeing a boy, and demands to know who he is. Samar reluctantly reveals that the young man, Khalil, is the son of a "druggie" named Saber, who had been a childhood friend of Dr Mufid. Both men's fathers had fled the same village for Acre after the 1948 nakba. Samar tries to convince her father of the excellent qualities of the "brilliant, moral" Khalil who for example hates drugs, having seen what they did to his father and his family. She begs her father to meet him. The reader learns that when Samar was two Dr Mufid had closed his  clinic in Old Acre - where he had treated the poor, disadvantaged and drug-addicted - in order to go into the more lucrative business of cosmetic surgery. Khalil sees the doctor as something of a role model, remembering how he had tried to get his father off drugs. 

As some participants observed, Samar's mobile phone is almost like a third person at the meal. She rejects Khalil's first call during the meal, but when she does answer a call from him she receives some shattering news. 

The discussion of Barghuthy's story benfited from the presence in the audience of one of the author's fellow Palestinian contributors to Banipal 45: the writer and lawyer Haneen Naamneh, who is currently studying for her Masters degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. Naamneh was able to shed light on the social and cultural context of the story.

Palestinian writer and lawyer Haneen Naamneh

report by Susannah Tarbush

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A very thorough review of the evening, Susannah. Thank you for this! It was a lovely evening and the discussions were very fruitful.