Thursday, January 31, 2013

new Beirut-based journal Portal 9 digs deep into urbanism and culture

The Beirut-based journal Portal 9 makes an auspicious debut 
Susannah Tarbush

In his first editorial as editor-in-chief of the new Beirut-based journal Portal 9 - which describes itself as "an exploration of the nexus between urbanism and culture by people who care about cities and think rigorously about them" - the Lebanese poet, journalist and translator Fadi Tofeili turns for inspiration not to a renowned architect or city planner but to the great Portuguese poet, author and philosopher Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). This indicates the breadth of vision and multi-disciplinary approach of Portal 9's editor-in-chief, who has three poetry books to his name and has translated many literary works. The full title of the publication whose editorial team he leads is Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing About the City.

Fadi Tofeili

Tofeili introduces his editorial with an extract from Pessoa's acclaimed The Book of Disquiet in the Penguin translation by Richard Zenith. He points out that Pessoa's works include a  guide book to the city the Portuguese poet loved: Lisbon - What the Tourist Should See.

"In a journal about the city, place, and urbanism, we call upon and seek inspiration from Pessoa because his body of work stands as a paragon of how to render the city - its places and spaces - a field for unbridled interplay of the imagination," Tofeili writes.

The theme of Portal 9's first issue is The Imagined. "Does imagination call for the city? Or does the city call for the imagination?" asks Tofeili. "These questions will forever remain open to debate, a debate that will continue to affect our relationship to the city itself - for whenever we believe the city to be complete, we return to the imagined that challenges our presuppositions. And so, the city regains its dynamic, its premise."

Tofeili writes: "'The Imagined' in the city through time is an exploration of the metaphysical and probable realities, as well as the internal unbound logic of the city. It is an open path to unexpected passages and countless gateways. 'The Imagined' has no destination, no boundaries, no port of call. Its meaning eludes conclusions. If 'The Imagined' leads to and reveals a particular place, then that place will embark with 'The Imagined' on a journey of endless self-discovery."

Cities are like socio-economic being, always under construction, forever in formation, Tofeili observes. And cities that witnessed profound change in history, cities like Beirut, despite its troubled history and successive shocks, "have the privilege to deepen and broaden the meaning of urbanism. It is a privilege with the risk of cruelty, but a privilege all the same. For who is to say that cruelty is not intrinsic to the city?"  Tofeili concludes: "This journal aspires to be a new gateway, a new portal, to Beirut. We invite you to enter this portal and to reflect on its many prospects."

Portal 9 is backed by Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District, and is published twice a year by Solidere Management Services. Its  website is at . It is on Facebook and  Twitter and has a  Blog . The printed edition of Issue #1 can be ordered via the Portal 9 website from Antoine Online for $20.

Why the name Portal 9? An explanatory note in the journal explains that in the 19th century there were seven fortified gates, or portals, in the walls around Beirut. The number was considered a symbol of perfection and represented the seven families who guarded those entrances. As the walled town grew, an eighth gate was added. "Portal 9 is an imaginary opening into the city, an intensive exploration of the urban condition from architecture and planning to metropolitan mores and cultural pursuits. It is a gateway to endless possibilities."

While it is regional and international in outlook, the Lebanese origins of Portal 9 are evident. The first article in the English edition of Issue #1 is an excellent, moving piece by Lebanese poet and writer Youssef Bazzi,  entitled  Before With My Father, After for My Son: Three generations live in the shadow of a fractured city. (Bazzi is the author of Yasser Arafat Looked at Me and Smiled: Diary of a Fighter.)

Bazzi meditates on the changes he witnessed to downtown Beirut in 1975-91 during the civil war, and then since 1991. Over the past few years he has come to believe that the city centre is not his city any more. "It is my son's city. But why is it that, so far, he does  not have a real relationship with downtown? I began to imagine him and his generation, writing a life for the city center and for themselves, different from the one that we had lived." Bazzi spins an imaginary journey for his son through Beirut threading "the invisible strings between the city's parts and parcels, making memories on pavements, balconies, entrances, exits, alleys, streets, rooftops, rooms."

Portal 9 is published in the form of a handsome, elegantly-designed journal in separate English and Arabic editions, which fit snugly side by side in a cardboard sleeve open at both sides which serves as the cover. The cover text and illustration is displayed in English on one side of this cover sleeve, and Arabic on the other. The beautiful design is greatly to the credit of Portal 9's creative director Nathalie Elmir, who has been involved with the project from the start.

Nathalie Elmir

The striking cover image of Issue #1 shows a woman in a red summer dress and yellow scarf standing in front of body of water with a building in the distance, her arm waving in the air. The building is in fact the Suez Canal Company in Port Said, and the picture was published in Al Musawwar magazine in 1957. The same image accompanies an article by New York University doctoral candidate Mohamed Elshahed on Port Said 1957: Egyptian Modernism Unfurled.

The English and Arabic editions have cream covers with a minimalist design incorporating just the title and some main highlights from  Issue #1 including South Sudan's new Capital City - Baghdad visionary Kahtan Al-Madfai - Reconstructing Port-au-Prince - Chinese City in the Fast Lane -  Beirut through Three Generations.
Master plan for Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city to be built on the West Bank, from Malu Halasa's article Building Statehood from the Ground Up

The list of contributors includes well-known names from Arabic journalism, culture and the arts, including from Lebanon Rasha Atrash, Hazem Saghieh, Hazem Al Ameen, Waddah Chararah, Mohamed Soueid and Hatem Imam. From Egypt there are Youssef Rakha and Omar Kholeif (who is Portal 9's reviews and critique editor). From Iraq, novelist Shaker Al Anbari interviews Kahtan Al-Madfai: Baghdad Visionary Octogenarian Architect.

Among the non-Arab contributors to Issue #1 are Brian Whitaker of the Guardian newspaper (writing on  Express Delivery of the Arab Revolts ), Pooja Bhatia (who writes on Haiti's capital Port au Prince two years after the earthquake, and Copenhagen-based anthropologist Michael Ulfstjerne. 

 Amman: illustration from Hazem Al Ameen's article No Place to Call Home

The content of the English and Arabic editions is not identical. "The English and Arabic editions have some similarities but they are not mirror images of each other," says the London-based editor-at-large of Portal 9, editor, journalist, and curator Malu Halasa. And in addition, the Portal 9 website carries some online-only articles.

Clearly much thought has gone into the design of this new journal devoted to the interplay of architecture, culture and society in urban environments in the Middle East and elsewhere. The journal has high production values and succeeds in combining readability and wide interest with scholarship. It is  packed with articles, colour and black and white photographs, and graphics.

The content is organised within sections including Narratives; Documents; Photo Essay; Numerology; Urbanography; Conversations; Correspondence; Flaneur; Episodes; Creative Writing; Reviews and Critique; Arabic Inserts. The creative writing content in Issue #1 includes a beautiful story set around a bridge in Isfahan, by Tehran-based writer and critic Alireza Mahmoudi Iranmehr, translated by the Iranian writer, translator, editor, monitor for the BBC Nilou Mobasser who died last year at 52.

And there are detachable inserts, tucked like hidden goodies into the pages. The Arabic inserts include a fold-out of a sketchbook by Beirut visual artist and designer Hatem Imam entitled Where Majnoun Roams. 
Where Majnoun Roams

The English version includes a pamphlet: The Republic of Lebanon at the New York World's Fair 1939 prepared by Portal 9's managing editor Eyad Houssami. And there is an eight-page booklet Reading Gaza Through Dubai, compiled by Joumana Al Jabri and Karim Elgendy, a comparative portrait in facts and figures (for example, the 828-meter height of Dubai's Burj Khalifa tower is slightly greater than the 800-meter length of the Gaza tunnels across the border with Egypt, of which there are more than 1,000). 

As someone interested in Middle Eastern music I was pleased to find Portal 9 has an interview by Manal Nahhas with Kamal Karim Kassar, founder of the Foundation for Arabic Music Archiving and Research which comprises the "largest Middle Eastern music collection in the world".

Portal 9 has made an impressive beginning, executed with real flair. I am enjoying savouring Issue #1 and look forward to seeing Issue #2 later in the year. Malu Halasa tells me the theme is to be The Square.  There could hardly be a more topical Middle Eastern architectural theme these days.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Palestinian poets Marwan Makhoul and Asma'a Azaizeh appear in London

(L to R) Stephen Watts, Marwan Makhoul, Asma's Azaizeh, Agnes Reeve 
'Hebrew is not my enemy and nor are Jews my enemies' 

The appearance of Palestinian poets Marwan Makhoul and Asma'a Azaizeh at the A M Qattan Foundation's Mosaic Rooms in London last Thursday evening provided a rare opportunity for a UK  audience to hear from the younger generation of  '1948 Palestinians', born in Israel where Palestinians are one in five of the population.

The packed-out event was organised by Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation. The latest issue of the magazine,  Banipal 45 , celebrates its 15th anniversary with a special 148-page section - Writers from Palestine - showcasing the work of 24 Palestinian authors including Makhoul and Azaizeh.

During the evening Makhoul and Azaizeh gave insights into the situation of being a Palestinian poet in Israel. When a member of the audience asked Makhoul whether he has read his poems in Hebrew to an Israeli audience, the poet said: "Not only have I read in Hebrew but I insist on reading in Hebrew. First of all because Hebrew is not my enemy, and nor are Jews my enemies, but the occupation is my enemy, and Zionism in all its forms.
"When I read it wasn't out of a desire to normalise relations in a banal way, but on the contrary: while my own people may know my experience, I was very keen to introduce this experience to an Israeli audience, which is I feel, as a poet living inside Israel, to be one of my duties. And for sure the poems I read in Tel Aviv are not love poems - I read the poem I just read to you [An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport] I read about Gaza and so on."

Makhoul's poems are powerful, searing and ironic testaments to the experiences of Palestinian Israelis He is in the tradition of other Palestinian writers who have highlighted the surreal aspects of being a Palestinian in Israel. He read poems including On the Tel Aviv Train; Hello Beit Hanoun; Portrait of the People of Gaza. His long poem An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport  is a tour de force. 

Makhoul believes that the role of the Palestinians inside Israel is "to struggle through culture .. to convince the other of the justice of our cause". Palestinians in other situations may have different roles, "but for me the Palestinian Arab inside Israel has that role of cultural struggle." This requires treading a very fine line: "It does not mean that you normalise and work with official institutions of the state, nor do you go and represent Israel overseas." 
Azaizeh agreed that "Hebrew is not our enemy, and I think Israelis have to know and read Palestinian poetry and literature." But she added that the term  "normalisation" is complicated: it is not black and white, does not have "measurements". Palestinian writers in Israel have to operate in a dangerous context, and tend not to be presented as Palestinian.  "Unfortunately, we are presented as Israeli Arabs in many Israeli events, or Israeli-Arab events  - not considering us as an integral part of the Palestinian nation.

"So yes, it's complicated and each one of us, each poet and intellectual, has his own measurements. We  believe in this exchange of knowledge but we don't agree to be put and pushed into blocs or boxes where we are considered this minority of this Israeli nation.." 

During the evening the two poets read their poetry in Arabic. Sitting alongside them on the platform were the readers of their poems in the English translations done for Banipal 45. The renowned poet and translator Stephen Watts  read Makhoul's poems in translation by Raphael Cohen. Agnes Reeve, who is Banipal publishing assistant and also administrative assistant of the Banipal Trust for Arabic Literature, read  Khaled al-Masri's translations of Azaizeh's poems.

'in the West and even in Arab countries we always talk about the same Palestinian writers'

Banipal's co-founder and editor, the Iraqi novelist Samuel Shimon, introduced the event. Shimon said he had first met Asma'a at the Frankfurt Book Fair some five years ago and had met Marwan last year. Prior to their work appearing in translation in Banipal 45 he published the two poets in Arabic on his cultural website

In order to show how the Palestinian literary landscape has changed in a decade Shimon flourished two issues of the magazine: Banipal 45 containing Writers from Palestine, and Banipal 15/16 , published almost exactly 10 years ago, which includes a  130-page special feature Contemporary Palestinian Literature. A comparison of the names of the authors published in the two issues shows that very few are the same: nearly all the Palestinian authors in Banipal 45 are new.

Samuel Shimon with Banipal issues 45 and 15/16

Shimon said some people have asked him why Banipal has published its Writers from Palestine special section.  "I told them I spoke with the Qattan Foundation two years ago and told them I wanted to bring new writers to our magazine in the English language. I read a lot in newspapers and on websites about the new names on the literary scene in Palestine, but here in the West and even in Arab countries we always talk about the same names of Palestinian writers".  

He gave as examples the names of  Ghassan Kanafani, and Palestinian women writers  Sahar Khalifeh, Liana Badr, or Samira Azzam . "But in the  last 10 or 15 years there are new writers in Palestine, and their writing  is completely different from that of the old generation." 

He noted that in her editorial for Banipal 15/16 Obank had written that that issue celebrated Palestinian literature not primarily out of solidarity but out of "admiration because we love their literature. We love their writing, and then we have solidarity with their case."

In the 1970s Shimon was a member of the PLO in Lebanon. In preparing Writers from Palestine  he was happy to have been invited to Ramallah, where he met many friends. It had been "like a dream" to walk around  Ramallah. He had also gone to Haifa and Acre. "I really can write a book about my love for Palestine and how proud I feel to be engaged in this case, this literature." 

He recalled telling Obank after the launch of Banipal that it was his dream to one day publish a magazine devoted only to Palestinian literature. "I said at least we have to take care of the Palestinian writers in our magazine." After Banipal launched its book publishing arm Banipal Books in 2004, it published books by Palestinian authors. "I published stories by one of the masters of the short story Mahmoud Shukair  and we published also half-Dutch half-Palestinian  Ramsey Nasr , and Issa Boullata.

"And always I mentioned in our magazine the contribution of Palestinian writers in Arab literature. It is immense from Jabra Ibrahim Jabra to Emile Habibi to Mahmoud Darwish, to Taufiq Ziad to Tawfiq Sayegh and Fadwa Touqan."

'a new and refreshing literary map of that forsaken country'

The introductory article to Writers from Palestine, is  by acclaimed Palestinian poet, author and translator Anton Shammas who was born in Israel in 1950. He describes the section as "a very special amalgam of young Palestinian voices, whose writing offers a new and refreshing literary map of that forsaken country, and whose almost unprecedented collective presence realises a long overdue literary dream." 

The main drive behind this initiative was "to open up the English gates for some new waves, some new and young and uncompromising voices from all regions of Palestine (totally ignoring what is euphemistically referred to as the Green Line)." The voices are young and new "not necessarily because of age but, rather, because of a fresh and ingenious look at Palestinian realities, which the older generation was probably unprepared to fathom."

  Anton Shammas

The Mosaic Rooms event was compered by Omar Qattan (pictured left), secretary of the board of the Qattan Foundation. Introducing Azaizeh he said "I am very honoured to say she is one of the laureates of the Qattan Foundation's Young Writer Award, in 2010 for her collection Liwa now published by Dar Al-Ahliya in Amman." Her poetry has been translated into English, German, Farsi, Swedish, Italian and Hebrew."
Azaizeh was born in 1985 in the village of Daborieh, Lower Galilee, and graduated in English Literature and Journalism from the University of Haifa in 2006. A journalist since 2004, she writes for a number of Palestinian and Arab newspapers. She is currently presenter of a Palestinian television programme on culture and art, a lecturer in creative writing and editor of the poetry section of  

Marwan Makhoul was born to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother in 1979 in the village of Boquai'a in Upper Galilee. His first book of poetry Ard al-Bassiflora al-Hazinah (Land of the Sad Passiflora) was published in 2007 by Al-Jamal Publishers. In the same year a second edition was published in Haifa by Maktabat Kul Shai'. A third edition appeared in Cairo in 2012. Makhoul's poetry has been translated into English, Turkish, Italian, German, French, Hebrew and Serbian. In 2009 he won prize for best playwright in the Acre Theatre Festival for his first play.

Makhoul has a degree in Civil Engineering from Al-Mustaqbal College, and is a a civil engineer and director of a construction company.. He lives in the city of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, in Galilee. (In an October 2012 interview with Haaretz he spoke frankly of the difficulties he and his wife have had living in the  mixed Arab-Jewish city of Ma'alot-Tarshiha where they moved in 2004).

Asma'a Azaizeh (L) and Agnes Reeve

'I'm breaking stereotypes, I'm breaking terms, I'm breaking language'

Azaizeh read in a steady, assured voice several poems from her Liwa collection: Mail; I Don't Belong to this Light; Wagner and my Grandmother; A Corpse in Ramallah; Revival. (the last two poems can be read on the Banipal website). She also read two poems that are not yet translated into English: Mustawtanat (Settlements) and Jundiyun min Qassioun.  

Azazieh's poems are enigmatic, mysterious, thoughtful. They are witty and pose riddles, are broad in scope, and intimate. Mail begins: "What shall we do with the addresses of our friends who've passed away? // Perhaps if we send them blank emails, / combat zones and armies would be returned to us." There is a female sensibility: in A Corpse in Ramallah we find the lines: "If only I were a man! // How beautiful it would be, before I go to bed, / to piss on my emotions standing up,"

Azaizeh declined to recite the title poem of  Liwa when requested to do so by a member of the audience, laughing "I don't like it!" Asked to explain how a writer could dislike the poem she had chosen as the title poem, she said:  "My theories in general about poetry are a little bit complicated, and I can't really explain them, especially in English, my third language." She added: "Writing poetry for me is actually an action of creating unpoetic creation." And there was audience laughter when she added jokingly: "Nonsense!"

She continued: "Seriously, poetry in my life is a place: until now I see it as a dark place, a sub-place in my life. I think if I start thinking as a poet, acting as a poet or planning to be a poet, or planning to write poetry, I would destroy my project. That's  why I always feel that poetry is something where you fight poetry where you fight this term, where you fight this stigma of poetry. 

"I don't know what it is, I don't know also what I'm doing but the thing is that I'm breaking something, I'm not really building something. I'm breaking stereotypes, I'm breaking terms, I'm breaking language, I'm breaking things, so that's why I sometimes feel it's  really my enemy and that's why I also don't write a lot. I don't really like it a lot and it's not really in my head, it's not a custom, it's not a regular thing I do in my daily life but it's existing in some place and I'm not searching a lot for it, I'm not trying to bring it from inside .. It's complicated, that's why I really feel sometimes I hate things  that's why I keep writing. If I'm satisfied with everything I write I think I would stop writing."

Makhoul recited the poems On the Tel Aviv Train; Hello Beit Hanoun; Portrait of the People of Gaza; An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport (Hello Beit Hanoun and Daily Poems are on the Banipal website). He read in an engagingly warm, husky voice, accompanying his words with expressive gestures. 

His long poem An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport (English translation below) is a tour de force. Its beginning  "I’m an Arab! / I shouted, at the doorway to departures, / short-cutting the woman soldier’s path to me."
resonates with the opening of Mahmoud Darwish's 1964 poem Identity Card "Write Down! /  I am an Arab". 

The poem alludes also to another late 1948 Palestinian writer, Emile Habibi, whose famous 1974 novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist examines the condition of being a Palestinian who remained in Israel. The Arabic term translated as Pessoptimist - al-Mutasha'il - combines mutasha'im (pessimist) and mutafa'il (optimist). An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport includes: "Pess-optimistic I was in the seventies / but I’m optimistic about the roars of disobedience / right now being raised to you in Gilboa gaol...." (a reference to Palestinian hunger strikes).

In the Q and A session an audience member said when Makhoul read this poem in Arabic "I thought it was kind of surreal the way you were reading it and it made me laugh although you are writing about a bad experience and very sad subject. There was sukhriya [irony]. Whereas when it was read in English it was completely serious and very heart wrenching. How did you write it, what were you trying to portray when you were writing it? Did you want it to be sukhriya?"

'we've surpassed the era of lamentation which I felt was more like a general hysteria'

Makhoul said: "Stephen's read in a much more dramatic way because that is his style. It is also the nature of poetry: whoever reads it will interpret it in his own way. The reason I write ironically is that we have been lamenting for years and years but this enemy seems to be very obstinate and therefore I feel that we've surpassed the era of lamentation which I felt was more like a general hysteria and I'm now trying to capture a new voice which is more ironic. This is my character ,this is my personality." To audience hilarity he said: "For example a man walked in just now looking like Jesus Christ and I said, 'what made him get up?'"

Stephen Watts and Marwan Makhoul

Makhoul added: "If I were to step back a little bit, in the Second World War 36 million people were killed and art and literature and all expressive arts were deeply affected by this, we went into a phase of total arbitrariness, the theatre of the absurd, and so on. And so if you imagine a guy who's in his Phantom jet above Gaza playing Play Station and killing 1444 ... there is really nothing one can say except to be deeply ironic and sarcastic."

Stephen Watts was "very aware when I was reading the English translation that I was missing a lot of irony, I was really striving ... there is great complexity and irony and also yes, any situation of being asked questions at an airport in whatever circumstances - let alone the circumstances of this poem - there's a surreality about it, but I chose to read it in a particular way." 

A member of the audience quoted the Jalal al Din Rumi aphorism "the wailing of broken hearts is the gateway to God" and said he had often felt, and others had observed, that the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust made many Jewish people turn away from God, turn away from faith,  how could God have allowed this to happen. He asked: "Do you feel that the suffering, the contemporary agony of Palestine is driving .. let's say poetry for want of a better term .. away from spiritual revelation or towards it?"

Azaizeh said she doubted whether this is the case in Palestinian poetry: "On the contrary I think Palestinian people think they are suffering because God is examining them. I think religion doesn't have to do with the Palestinian case regarding to suffering and war experiences and stuff like this. But regarding literature and poetry modernity is more engaged with ...   visions  as ideology, not as a response to suffering, and I think it's more mature, more valuable and remarkable.

"I'm not saying that Palestinian literature and poetry is in its  modernity is fantastic, I have also my reservations on everything that has been written and is being written but still you can't see any unreligious views or points of views by Palestinian poets and writers. I think it comes from a more mature angle and not as a reaction of being under occupation or suffering or stuff like this. Yes we did pass this catastrophe the Nakba but religion is not existed in this .. I think".

The poets were asked about the place of Palestinian poetry as an art form within the Israeli and Palestinian educational systems and its role in critical thinking, especially at the secondary level.

Makhoul said the Israelis will not allow Palestinian poetry - and certain not political poetry - onto the curriculum. "When in the early days of Oslo there was an attempt to introduce a Mahmoud Darwish poem into the Israeli curriculum the whole state stood up against it. Occupation tends to start from the cultural sphere and then into the military .."

Asma'a said it was a question not only of poetry, but of the whole curriculum. When she was helping her 11-year-old niece with her geography homework "she had a lesson on Galilee and how people settled in the Galilee as if it was a desert, nobody was there ...  suddenly people came from the sky and settled in the Galilee" in the 20th century. Everything in the curriculum -- history, geography, politics, and literature -- is geared towards  building this Arab Israeli who is inserted "from the sky into this place" and is not seen as a native of the land, part of a  native nation. 

Omar Qattan added that as regards the Palestinian curriculum Palestinian poetry is intensively taught in a kind of traditional way. There are attempts to change this, but it's a long process.

The poets were aksed whether in modern Palestinian poetry is there as much of a divide between academic poetry, performance poetry, and storytelling, as there is perhaps in the West

Makhoul said  "there is the classical Arabic poetry - a lot of that is being regurgitated now - I tend to fall asleep after the first verse  - and then there is modern poetry:  most poetry today is written in the form of free verse." He added: "Some of our classical  poets are more enterprising and more modernising than many of the poets writing today."
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

From the poems by Asma'a Azaizeh translated by Khaled al-Masri for Banipal 45:


Ramallah is arid and I am a fish that must transform its space into a womb.

Who am I now?
Is my foolish old voice turning into a woman?

If only I were a man!

How beautiful it would be, before I go to bed,
to piss on my emotions standing up,

There is no wind here to move my face, so I can smile.
It is the sun that burns my lips.

and Wagner’s ghost
are more merciful than Ramallah
and my ghost.


That was some raven tonight, cawing

at the window
to snatch the laughter from my little death!
And in the morning,
the explosion of dawn woke me
and a feather fell from my ear.


From the poems by Marwan Makhoul translated by Raphael Cohen


I’m an Arab!
 I shouted, at the doorway to departures,
 short-cutting the woman soldier’s path to me.
 I went up to her and said: Interrogate me! But
 quickly, if you don’t mind. I don’t want to miss
 departure time.

She said: Where are you from?

Descended from Ghassassanian kings of Golan is my heroism, I said.
 My neighbour was Rehab the harlot of Jericho
 who gave Joshua the wink on his way to the West Bank
 the day he occupied the land that occupied history after him
 from the very first page.
 My answers are as stony as Hebron granite:
 I was born in the time of the Moabites who came down before you to this submissive ancient land.
 My father a Canaanite
 my mother a Phoenician, from South Lebanon of old.
 My mother, her mother died two months ago
 and she was unable to see her mother off two months ago.
 I wept in her arms so that on-looking from Buqaya might console
 the worst blow of tragedy and fate:
 Lebanon, you see impossible sister,
 and my mother’s mother alone
 to the north!

She asked me: Who packed your bag for you?

I said: Osama Ibn Laden! But hold on,
 take it easy. It’s no more than a joke in poor taste,
 a quip that the realists here like me use professionally
 for the struggle.
 Sixty years I’ve fought with words about peace.
 I don’t attack any settlement
 and I don’t have a tank like you do
 ridden by a soldier to tickle Gaza.
 Dropping a bomb from an Apache isn’t on my CV
 not because I lack qualifications,
  no, but because I see on the horizon a ripple echoing
 enough to the out-of-place revolt of the non-violent
 and to good behaviour.

Did anyone give you something on the way here? she asked.

I said: An exile from Nayrab refugee camp
 gave me memories
 and the key to a house from the fabled past.
 The rust on the key made me edgy, but I’m
 like stainless steel, I compose self with self should I grow nostalgic,
 for the groans of refugees
 spread wings of longing across borders.
 No guard can stop it, nor thousands
 and not you for sure.

She said: Do you have any sharp implements in your possession?

I said: My passion
 my skin, my olive complexion
 my being born here in innocence, but for fate.
 Pess-optimistic I was in the seventies
 but I’m optimistic about the roars of disobedience
 right now being raised to you in Gilboa gaol.
 I’m straight out of the
 tragic novels of history, the end of the story
 a funeral for the past and a wedding
 in the not far-off hall of hope.
 A raisin from the Jordan Valley raised me
 and taught me to speak.
 I have a child whose due date I postponed, so he’ll arrive
 to a morning not made of straw like today, daughter of Ukraine.
 The muezzin’s chanting moves me, even though I’m an atheist.
 I shout to mute the mournful wailing of the flutes,
 to turn pistols into the undying strains of violins.

The soldier took me to search my things
 ordering me to open my bag.
 I do what she wants!
 And from the depths of the bag ooze my heart and my song,
 the meaning of it all slips out eloquently and crudely, within it all that is me.

She asked me: And what’s this?

I said: The sura of the Night Journey ascending the ladder of my veins, the Tafsir of Jalalayn,
 the poetry of Abu Tayyeb al-Mutannabi and my sister Maram,
 as a photograph and real at the same time,
 a silk shawl to enwrap and protect me from the chill exile of relatives,
 tobacco from a kiosk in Arraba that made my head spin until doubts got stoned.
 Inside me a fierce loyalty, the wild thyme of my country,
 the fieriness of pomegranate blossoms, Galilean and sparkling.
 Inside me agate, camphor-wood, incense and my being alive,
 the pearl that is Haifa: scintillating, everlasting, illuminating,
 preposterous, relaxing in the pocket of our return for one reason
 only: we worshipped our good intentions and bound
the nakba to a slip in the past and in me!

The soldier hands me over to a policeman
who pats me down and shouts in surprise:
What’s this!?

The manhood of my nation, I say
 and my progeny, the fold of my family and two dove’s eggs
 to hatch, male and female, from me and for me.
 He searches me
 for anything that could pose a threat
 but this stranger is blind
 forgetting the more destructive and important bombs within:
 my spirit, my defiance, the swoop of the hawk in my breath and my body
 my birthmark and my valour. That is me
 whole and complete in a way this fool
 will never see.

Now, after two hours of psychological grappling
 I lick my wounds for a sufficient five minutes
 then embark on the plane that has taken off. Not to leave
 and not to return
 but to see the soldier below me
 the policeman in the national anthem of my shoes below me
 and below me a big lie of tin-can history
 like Ben Gurion become as always, as always, as always
 below me.


Beit Hanoun?
I heard on the news
that an artisan baker has come
to distribute bread
on the back of fresh artillery,
and I also heard
that one of his loaves feeds at least twenty children
and is so warm it burns, and solid
like a randomly targeted shell.
They said
the children woke up early that day
not to go to school
but to the local youth club
opposite the town’s playground
that in summer is big enough for two massacres
and a certain hope, the hope to live.
I also heard
that when they were on their way they made light of their wounds
and poured blood on the corners
till blood took the colour of the streets
and feelings.
When I saw what I saw on the screen
I thought I was dreaming
or the TV was dreaming the impossible made real.
I never imagined, Beit Hanoun,
that you’d mean anything to me
what with all the fun I’m having
like being busy with friends discussing
whether wine in the bottle
ferments or not.
I never knew you’d mean anything to me,
even something small something small,
Beit Hanoun.
Hello . . . ?
Hello . . . ?
Beit Hanoun?
Can you hear me?
I think the phone’s not working or is perhaps asleep,
it is very late after all.
Never mind, let it go.
I’ve nothing better to do
than catch up with my brothers shading themselves
by the axed trunk of Arab solidarity.
Goodbye, Beit Hanoun.


The homeland having fallen down a well
and after sixty years, it’s up to us
to raise the rope a little, then let it fall again,
 for only thus will hope learn patience.


There are things I don’t understand,
not being an Israeli
and not being entirely Palestinian.


My country is the rape victim
 I will marry.

My grandfather told me: Palestine is an irregular verb in the past.
 My father said: No, it’s in the present tense.
 I say, and a plane has just landed nearby: My grandfather’s right
and my father too.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

High Impact UK tour of Low Countries literature ends with a Gala at the Tabernacle

Ramsey Nasr

The High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries evening at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, West London W11 last Saturday was a rousing finale to the six-day UK tour of Dutch-writing authors from the Netherlands and Belgium. The tour had kicked off in Oxford, and then moved to Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Norwich before ending up in London for a packed-out Gala Gathering at the Tabernacle.

I had been particularly drawn to the event by the presence on the programme of the fine Palestinian-Dutch poet, actor and director Ramsey Nasr. The poet was born in Rotterdam in 1974 to a Dutch mother and a father originally from the West Bank village of Salfit. For the past four years he has been the Netherlands poet laureate - a position which, unlike its British counterpart, is decided by a public vote.

I had previously seen and blogged on Nasr when he appeared at the London Review Bookshop in London in June 2011 in conversation with poet Ruth Padel. That event marked the launch of the  first-ever selection of Nasr’s work in English translation: Heavenly Life: Selected Poems. The anthology was translated by prizewinning Australian translator David Colmer and published by  Banipal Books, with a foreword by Padel. (The book was reviewed in Banipal magazine by Norbert Hirschhorn.) The London Review Bookshop published Nasr’s then latest poem the house of europe in a limited four-page edition of 250 signed copies, in Dutch and in Colmer's English translation. Banipal issue 35 had as its cover story a special feature showcasing the work of Nasr and 10 other Arab writers who write in Dutch,  translated into English.

It was a pleasure at the start of the Tabernacle evening to hear Ramsey recite from the stage. Goldsmith said he was "one of the best poets I've heard", and noted it was his last week as poet laureate. He began with the house of europe, followed by I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together). Much of Nasr's poetry is linked to music, and his third poem was in memory of  his favourite composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-75).  Nasr said  he was so obsessed by the composer that he had visited his widow. The poem he recited was allegretto from the three-poem sequence winter sonata  (without piano and viola) . The allegreto poem is built around a guided tour of a garden "approved and designed by the most supreme leader of the proletarians.."

Although I had originally gone to the Tabernacle mainly out of a wish to see Nasr, I found the evening as a whole a a real eye-opener. The Dutch are renowned for their interest in, and translation of, world literatures. But I had not realised quite how much Dutch literature, fiction and  non-fiction, has been translated and published in English in recent years. The translators whose names cropped up during the evening - sometimes repeatedly - included (with links to profiles by High Impact) David Colmer, Sam Garrett, Liz Waters, Ina Rilke, Nora Mahony and Stacey Knecht. 

The tour was advertised as *6 AUTHORS * 6 CITIES * 6 DAYS. In But , as High Impact artistic director Rosie Goldsmith, pointed out at the Tabernacle the number of writers had been 7,with travel writer Geert Mak joining as a special guest. The other writers, in addition to Ramsey Nasr, were non-fiction literary reportage writer Lieude Joris; comedian, satirist, actor and novelist Herman Koch; novelist Peter Terrin;  short story writer and novelist Chika Unigwe, and illustrator and graphic novelist Judith Vanistendael. The tour was blogged on the High Impact website by Michele Hutchison.

Three prominent UK-based writers who have based famous novels on Dutch themes took part in the Tabernacle evening as Gala Guests - David Mitchell, Deborah Moggach and Tracey Chevalier. They read extracts from their novels, respectively  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Tulip Fever and Girl with a Pearl Earring which was made into an award-winning film (reviewed here by Will Self) starring Scarlett Johnansson and Colin Firth). The three novels are historical. Two are set in the Golden Age of Dutch painting.  Tulip Fever was inspired by a 17th century Dutch painting bought by Moggach,  and Girl with a Pearl Earring weaves a narrative around of the Vermeer painting of that era. Mitchell's prizewinning novel opens at the end of the 18th century in the Dutch East India Company trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki, Japan. Mitchell gave a rollicking read in the voice of his drunken narrator.

 Deborah Moggach
The evening was punctuated by high-spirited performances by a duo of celebrated Low Countries musicians - jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans from the Netherlands and accordionist Tuur Floorizone from Flanders. Beer in distinctively shaped bottles was supplied freely to audience members courtesy of Flemish brewery Duvel, a supporting partner of the tour.

Rosie Goldsmith

Goldsmith, the dynamic compere of the evening, said the tour was the first of its kind. It was instigated and funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands and Flanders House in London. The Dutch Foundation for Literature in Amsterdam and the Flemish Literature Fund in Antwerp were also instrumental in getting the tour on the road.  

accordionist Tuur Floorizone and jazz trumpueter Eric Vloeimans

The theme of the evening was loosely a Golden Age - whether of the past, or of a present Golden Age of Dutch writing. Geert Mak read from his book on Istanbul, The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident (Harvill Secker, 2008) translated by Sam Garrett. The Bridge is one of four books by Mak to have been published by Harvill Secker since 2008. He is a bestselling author with In Europe having sold more than half a million copies. It was adapted into a 35-part TV series and has been translated into 14 languages.

Lieude Joris
Lieude Joris (interviewed here by High Impact) has established herself in the past two decades as an outstanding writer of works combining travel, journalism and fiction, for which she has won several major prizes. She read from the preface of her third book on Congo, The Rebels' Hour (Atlantic Books, 2008) translated by Liz Waters. This is her third book on Congo, which she first visited in  1985.

Herman Koch read from his novel Summerhouse with Swimming Pool, forthcoming from Atlantic Books. There was much black humour in the doctor main character's thoughts as he examines a patient. Koch's novel The Dinner (Atlantic Books, 2012) translated by Sam Garrett was a major international success.

Novelist Peter Terrin writes, according to the High Impact programme, "studies of existential angst written with chilling precision". He read from  The Guard (MacLehose Press, 2012), translated by David Colmer, which won the EU Prize for Literature. MacLehose, the Quercus imprint now celebrating its fifth anniversary,  will also publish the translation of Terrin's novel Post Mortem. The novel won the 2012 AKO Literatuurprijs, worth 50,000 Euros.

Judith Vanistendael talks about her graphic novels

Judith Vanistendael is an acclaimed Brussels-based graphic novelist (she has been dubbed a "Belgian Posy Simmonds"). She screened pages from her first graphic novel Dance by the Light of the Moon (published by SelfMadeHero in 2010) translated by Ina Rilke. This love story is based on her relationship with a political refugee from Togo. She wrote it in response to an autobiographical story on the same subject by her famous writer father Geert Van Istendael. Vanistendael also showed extracts from her graphic novel on cancer When David Lost his Voice published last year by SelfMadeHero in Nora Mahony's translation. Rachel Cooke writing in the Guardian described the book as "amazing...surprisingly tough".

Chika Unigwe

The Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe who lives in Belgium and writes in English and Dutch won the BBC Short Story Award in 2003 and the Commonwealth Short Story Award in 2004 and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004. Her novels are The Phoenix (2005), On Black Sisters' Street (Jonathan Cape, 2009)  and Night Dancer published  by Jonathan Cape in 2012, having been published in Dutch as Nachtdanser in 2011. At the Tabernacle she read some of her new work. Unigwe gives a voice to those immigrants to Belgium whom "you don't hear about because they are not terrorists or footballers." On Black Sisters' Street focuses on the lives of African sex workers in Brussels.
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Monday, January 21, 2013

Unholyland: Aidan Andrew Dun's 264-sonnet Palestinian-Israeli love story

A Palestinian-Israeli love story in 264 sonnets
Susannah Tarbush

On Wednesday 23rd January, at 7pm, London’s oldest radical bookshop Housmans - at 5 Caledonian Road, King's Cross, N1 9DX - hosts poet and psychogeographer Aidan Andrew Dun who will read from and talk about his new book Unholyland –  a Palestinian-Israeli love story in the form of 264 sonnets. The book, published recently in London by Hesperus, is the first part of a trilogy: its full title is Unholyland: Rambam. The sonnets are arranged in 12 chapters on 153 pages and are followed by 20 pages of detailed notes.

Unholyland chronicles the love between Jalilah, a 16-year-old Palestinian rapper from Shatila camp in Beirut, and Moss  (pronounced Mosh, a diminutive of Moshe) Rambam, a Galilee-based Israeli Jewish DJ who is totally alienated by Israel's past and present policies towards the Palestinians.

Aidan Andrew Dun

Moss and Jalilah first meet after Jalilah smuggles herself over the border into Israel in order to perform at an underground Palestinian night club, Transworld. Rap and 'Slingshot' Hiphop are central elements of  Unholyland , woven through the text in its story, characters, rhythms and language. Slingshot was developed by Palestinian rappers, some such as DAM in Israel, others elsewhere such as The Palestinian Rapperz (P.R.) of Gaza. Slingshot derives its name from the biblical story of David fighting Goliath with a sling. In his notes to the sonnets Dun writes: "In spite of the vehemence of the name the fundamental philosophy of Slingshot Hiphop is non-violent, proposing that the way forward for Palestinian freedom-fighters is to "put down the gun and pick up the mic." Part of Dun's creative impetus in writing Unholyland came form learning of the popularity of Slingshot among young Israeli Jews.

The story opens just as Moss turns 18. He was conceived in 1992 on a beach in Goa, where his Israeli parents had like number of other young Israelis gone to get away from Israel and its "state terrorism" and the obligation to serve in the army. Moss was reared in Goa to a background of reggae music until when he was 14 his father became Hasidic and took his family back to Israel. Moss rebelled against his father and "became a DJ in Galilee, / 'MC Rambam' his main tag / sometimes also 'DJ Scallywag'; / struggled from his old man to be free"  . In Moss's view "Israel was not legit;  / Palestine was stolen bit by bit". Moss is a blue-eyed Rastaman with blond dreads.

Moss drives to Nazareth to see his Palestinian friend and hash supplier Rayyan, but an  Israeli attack on Gaza has triggered riots in Nazareth and the city is aflame.  Rayyan's sister Shaza and his mother rescue Moss from his car. Rayyan manages to smuggle a disguised Moss into Transworld to hear Jalilah, and Moss is dragged on stage to join this "half angel, half hot coquette".  Among the other characters in the story  are Jalilah's bodyguard brother Aziz (who gets together with Shaza), non-Israeli entrepreneur Sajjid and African hand-drummer  Laurence. Hashish, with its various origins and forms, is part of the subculture for some. There are references to Romeo and Juliet, and to Leila and Majnoun, in the poetry: "Let's remember that the way to truth / begins with the story of doomed youth."

The sonnets have pacey rhythms and a sense of  urgency. There is much humour and word play. The text is rich with the evocations of the landscape, history, Biblical references, art, mixed in with the contemporary storyline, of modern youth and transgressive love. There are scenes of brutality, and passages of lyrical tenderness and soft sensuality. Two centrepieces are Jalilah's rap on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, and the rap Moss gives in answer after she challenges him to do so. A lot of spliffs and hash, haze. This first part of the Unholyland trilogy ends on a cliffhanger. Moss has told Jalilah that having turned 18 he has soon to enter the army, while Jalilah faces a dangerous journey trying to cross back into Lebanon.

The Northern Irish poet and critic Tom Paulin, Emeritus Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford University, says: "I was deeply moved by Unholyland - it has extraordinary energy, wit, knowledge, and beautifully marries the vernacular with rhyme. It reads beautifully and is like nothing else I've read."

The Palestinian-British writer, journalist and TV producer Karl Sabbagh, former managing director of Hesperus, has championed the work. He describes Dun's verses as "a  mixture of classical structures and free-ranging rap. They are earthy and immediate, and as well as appealing to regular poetry readers, Unholyland will attract a wider range of people who will be drawn along by the rapidly developing story."

Andrew Aidan Dun spent "a fantastical childhood" in the West Indies, and says he knew his calling for poetry from an early age. He returned to London as a teenager to live with his grandmother, the great ballerina and dance teacher Dame Marie Rambert, born Maryam Rambam in Poland. Marie Rambert, known as Mim, founded the Rambert Dance Company in 1926 and was a huge influence on dance in Britain and internationally.

Marie Rambert

In his introduction to Unholyland Dun writes that although his grandmother's ballet company toured the world she would never take the company to Israel, and would not set foot in that country. An older sister had settled in Israel after fleeing Warsaw and the Holocaust, but the sisters did not remain in touch. Even in the middle decades of the 20th century "when the new state of Israel was still riding a wave of world sympathy because of the Nazi scourge, Mim felt for the Palestinian people, dispossessed, cruelly treated. To my certain knowledge Rambert felt about the situation in the Middle East exactly as those courageous men, Daniel Barenboim, Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe feel today."
And "as a direct descendant of Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as The Rambam) Marie Rambert would have doubtless concurred with that philosopher's advice to his people when he asked them not to allow the sufferings of exile to drive a return to the land of memory."

Dun  writes of the profound effect his wise and spiritual grandmother had on his life. At a time when he was almost totally estranged from his father, she became "my guiding-light, my teacher, my guru, my friend."It was from his grandmother that he first heard, in Russian, "the magnificant sonnets of Pushkin, witty, heartbreaking, cynical and tender; the voice of Byron raised to a higher power." Unholyland takes as its model the Onegin sonnet form of Pushkin.

Dun is renowned for his long poetic and psychogeographical works published over the past two decades. After being drawn  back to London after years travelling abroad he explored the psychogeography of the King's Cross area of London, an area which has long attracted visionaries and which is in a process of regeneration. His first published epic poem Vale Royal (Goldmark Books), which took  him 23 years to write, was launched at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. This led to his being called The Poet of Kings Cross.

In this video 'Kings Cross Mysteries' Dun speaks at the British Library about “the psychogeography of mysterious Kings Cross referencing William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and the Old Church of the Pan Cross.” The talk was part of the Library’s event 'Unreal city? London in Writing'.

Vale Royal was followed by a string of Dun's poetry books published by Goldmark, starting with  Universal in 2002. Then came The Uninhabitable City (2005) and Salvia Divinorum (2007). His 283-page verse-novel McCool : A love-triangle set against conflict in the Middle-East appeared in 2010. His poems have also appeared a variety of publications.

Q and As with Aidan Andrew Dun

What inspired you to write Unholyland

I suppose the bottom line about all this, the reason why I came up with the title Unholyland, is because I feel that in Israel the Jews are being untrue to themselves, betraying the fundamental principles of Judaism, which replaces sacrificial mind-sets with ethical codes - and which does not as Abraham sacrifice Palestine as Isaac, which does not return evil for evil, violence for violence, which does not subscribe to a racist ideology, which holds out the hope of the redemption of the whole human family, Jewish, non-Jewish, alike.

As a friend of Jalilah's says in Unholyland 2 ............ "Zion is a state of mind, not a state in the Middle East."

I feel it is the work of artists not only to inoculate the world with disillusion but to remind humanity of the possibility of the Golden Age of cultural unity mediated by visionary art. The conflict in Palestine being certainly the most intractable on the planet seemed the place to engage. I also note that Britain has two outstanding connections with Palestine/Israel, one recent and historical, one 'legendary'. The first is the Mandate/Balfour political complex, and the second is the vast subject of 'The Matter of Britain', where Jesus, in his 'lost years', comes to Britain with his rich uncle Joseph of Arimathea - who trades in Phoenician ships for Cornish silver and tin - and sets up the Celtic Church himself in Glastonbury - and Kings Cross. William Blake believed the truth of this  - 'And did those feet...' -  and so do I. It is central to my philosophy.

I believe, as Blake did, that work is prayer, and without wanting to sound precious I see my work as a long sustained meditation for peace. Everywhere I hear artists these days saying war is ineradicable and that to believe otherwise is fanatical. For me these statements are simply a confession that such art is too frail to face the existential challenge of replacing 'corporeal war' with 'mental fight' and I shall not cease... Insh'allah. Being, through my grandmother Marie Rambert a lineal descendant of Maimonides, I feel the responsibility of this connection very deeply, specially because, as I point out in the preface, a thousand years ago he recommended strongly to his fellow-Jews that they not attempt to return to Palestine.

Where did the rap and hip hop elements in Unholyland and the characters of Jalilah and Moss originate? 

Unholyland really began when I saw the documentary Rap Refugees [video here - the film was part of the 2010 BBC series Syrian School] in which two schoolgirls Shaza and Rahab from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus are shown fighting the school authorities for the right to rap. They face profound opposition from their elders and betters but talk charmingly, poignantly, about their love of rap, their passion for expressing their longing for home, their thirst for justice, through this medium. These two captured my imagination completely.  So Jalilah is based on these two lovely girls struggling for the right to speak in a new way. Though she's based in Shatila Camp in Beirut, not in Damascus. How unbearable to think of the situation in Syria and the predicament of young Shaza and Rahab and so many others trapped in all this turmoil.

Shaza from the film Rap Refugees 

Moss has many roots. I have a friend in Israel who organizes a fairly famous transcultural Arab/Israeli storytelling festival near Nazareth. I also became aware early on of the talented American Hasidic rapper/rootsman, Matisyahu, who, I know has collaborated with Arabic artists. I also detected early on the relative scarcity and poverty of Israeli rap, while observing the paradoxical attraction of Israeli kids to Slingshot Hiphop. I also became interested in Israeli right-wing rapper Subliminal, not because he can rap, he can't, but because he and Tamer Nafer of Dam were friends before the Intifada and Subliminal helped Nafer find fame, so he must be OK deep down. A film exists about their friendship and its implosion called Channels of Rage but I have only seen clips.

Another source of the poem was the tour of Israel in the mid-nineties of Jamaican roots-reggae trio Israel Vibration, probably the hippest and coolest music unit ever. All three guys are on crutches and when I first saw them on film perform to an Arabic/Israeli audience that was a big shift in consciousness for me. So they figure in the poem as prophetic unifying symbols of the golden age returning through music as Plato speculates.

How did publication of Unholyland come about and how did you get to know Karl Sabbagh?

A good friend, a leading literary academic at Oxford, put me in touch with Karl, who at that time was heading Hesperus. He took one look at Unholyland and decided to go for it. We met a few times for lunch in a small Lebanese restaurant near his offices and one of Karl's first questions to me was "How many times have you visited Israel?" When I said I had never been there he was astonished and I remember him saying that the poem reads as if I had been there for years, which pleased me, coming from him, enormously. However, I have lived in various Islamic societies including in Morocco - many times - and magnificent Afghanistan - where I stayed in 1976 for 6 weeks while on the road in my world-travels. Karl gave me his book Palestine: a Personal History' in those early days and we became real friends and remain so now, my wife and I have even stayed with Karl and Su at their home. 

Please say something on the structure of the particular sonnet form you choose here and how it may mirror rap in some way. Have you used this form in your previous books? 

I used the sonnet form of Unholyland first in my first verse-novel McCool which, set in London and Lebanon, seems to have predicted the Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution. I believe this sonnet form, rhyming ababccddeffegg, can be traced back though Pushkin who used it in Onegin, via La Fontaine, to the time of the troubadours, obviously very influenced by Arabic culture. I have made a slight modification to the tetrametric line-structure, allowing myself sometimes a shorter 7-syllable variation to the basic 8-syllable metre. Pushkin allows the 9-syllable line of course and so do I. This 7-syllable variation produces a higher velocity in the poem making it more modern: shorter lines are so in vogue, they are certainly more difficult to write.

Writing Unholyland must have taken a lot of energy. How long did it take to write and how easily did it come or did it vary from day to day? 

 I usually write every day, from early morning until inspiration flags; on a good day this may go on until midnight. I normally don't eat for 4 or 5 hours at first, drinking lots of cold water and breaking for short yoga/breathing sessions to re-center myself physically. Unholyland was written in about 8 months.

Unholyland is the first volume of a trilogy. How far have you got with the subsequent two volumes? 

I have Unholyland: Jalilah very nearly finished. The poem is exactly the same length and format as the first volume: 12 chapters of 22 sonnets each. Unholyland: Jalilah concentrates more on Jalilah's narrative, her feelings, her background in the refugee-camp of Shatila/Beirut. While the first volume sees things through Moshe's eyes, the third volume will bring them together - or possibly tear them apart.

Where have you so far presented Unholyland to audiences, and what was the reaction? 

At the Dragon Cafe, Southwark, at Christmas with an audience of 150, I intro'd with Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry which I played solo on a Spanish guitar, dedicating it to the Palestinian women whose tears have filled the Mediterranean Sea. The room went very quiet. When the audience understood this thing was about reconciliation in the light of truth, non-violence symbolized by romance in the face of war, they got very involved. There is much activist-fatigue about these days: understandably, a 'new' take on the problems of the Middle East is refreshing. I recited about 15 to 20 sonnets from the first half of the poem, little groups of sonnets sometimes, at other times single verses. Lightning intros commented on these so that the audience travelled in a linear way thru the plot with me, most references clear. Then, after a good half an hour, I ended with Jalilah's rap The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine which is very dramatic in performance because I've rapped it myself to my music in the studio and live so many times. But unaccompanied, the effect is devastating. I left it there.

The second reading was at Pentameters, the atmospheric theatre in Hampstead,. at the fest of visionary poetry in late November. My night was called Burning Tyger Revue. I invited Marius Kociejowski author of The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, and a fine poet - and Stephen Watts, another fine poet, to share the stage that night. Same intro, stark moving song from Marley. Then the sonnets marching into rapt silence of a blacked-out auditorium. Same climax, the seven or eight sonnets preceding Jalilah's rap, then the rap itself, authentic, horrifying, lyrical, just like Slingshot.

The third was at Poltroon, a difficult rock-poetry room, very louche and decadent sometimes, very punk-funny often, risky stuff, but always real poets too in an intense house. Here I got deeply into the body-language of performance, miked on a small stage in semi-darkness I let out the whole of Chapter 9 with only the briefest intro, really brief, just explaining what Slingshot is about, truth and non-violence, using my line which goes: Many don't imagine Jewish DJ's falling in love with Palestinian women rappers, but it happens in Unholyland, as in real life.'

This set the whole thing up nicely and it was word-bombs-away. In the first few sonnets I got some cool ad-libs in Arabic from the darkness, I knew and welcomed them, growls of Arabic appreciation from in front. I never saw the guy and can't recall the sayings now, but it was very encouraging. I also got big chuckles at Poltroon; this is a hard-core lit-crowd who get every nuance, light and dark.

I remember near the end at Poltroon climaxing on the sonnets where Jalilah is challenging Moshe to rap in effect: 'He'd spit his wisdom Blam blam blam' I span around in a half-crouch and machine-gunned the audience with that phrase, they loved! Then, after lotsa applause a long silence, most unusual for Poltroon. MC got up well-shaken and said: Can we believe? he said, several times... while making it clear he was quite persuaded himself...

Moved a lot of books on these 3 nights, signed a lot of books. Really hoping for a big one at beloved Housmans.

After your next reading from Unholyland, at Housmans on 23rd January are further gigs planned, and would you hope to have readings in the Middle East at some point?

I'm concentrating this year on launching the poem and the reading at Housmans is part of an ongoing campaign to get the poem noticed and circulated. I have further readings planned; the next is on Feb 14th at Central St Martins in a specially-built wooden theatre. The British Library is interested in a perfomance, and Filthy MacNasty's lit-venue in Islington will be in April on a date to be confirmed. Karl is very keen to help me read in Palestine/Israel at some point this year, I would be so proud to read at Birzeit University, for instance, which is one of the things he has in mind I believe.

How do you view the cultural boycott of Israel? 

I yearn to see Zionism redefined as a cultural movement as proposed by Martin Buber who, as you may know, deeply resented Herzl's political and racial definition of the term. Meanwhile I do support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with the proviso that Ilan Pappe, Daniel Barenboim, Avi Shlaim are the real Israeli voices and should be heard loud and clear. I try to avoid buying Israeli goods including music software and support Palestine by buying Palestinian olive-oil.

 That was ‘48, that was then.
 Now - on our feet again - we throw
 mic on mic-stand. Slingshot hiphop’s
 genocide firsthand, Palestine’s
 the pain of people holding inside
 a whole country, while others in their land
 suntan on stolen beaches of white sand
 eating blood-soaked peaches, ripe and red.
 Underneath the flag of fear
 there’s something very wrong here.
 Israel, to the truth awaken.
 I and I can’t get no satisfaction,
 no, no no, not yet,
 no human rights, no drugs, no medicine
 in the Gaza Strip.

Everything’s been taken,
 I and I forsaken,
 in Palestine.

 [from Jalilah's rap in Unholyland]