Friday, September 27, 2013

an evening of Arab literature at Maida Vale Library

 Maida Vale Library

At Maida Vale Library in West London last Monday evening, the publisher of Arabia Books and Haus Publishing Barbara Schwepcke, the co-founder and publisher of Banipal magazine Margaret Obank, and translator, author and Banipal contributing editor Peter Clark were panellists at an event entitled Arab Literature Today.

Introducing the event, area manager of Westminster City Council libraries Ben Walsh explained that the library has only just returned to its home after having to be relocated in 2012 due to a major problem with the roof. The library moved temporarily down to the basement while the roof repairs were carried out. Since 12th August it has been moving back to its original home on the ground floor.

To mark its return, the library has been holding a series of free Super September events. "This is our largest attended event so far," Walsh said of Arab Literature Today.

Barbara Schwepcke (L) and Margaret Obank

Arabia Books was set up in 2008, as an imprint of London-based Haus Publishing, with the aim of bringing to a British readership the best literature by Arab authors in English translation. To celebrate its fifth anniversary, Arabia Books has teamed up with the Reading Agency to offer sets of the thirty books it has published since 2008 to each of the 200 or so library services in the UK (including two prison libraries). The Reading Agency is a charity with a mission to inspire more people to read more. It work with many partners, but in particular with libraries because they offer everyone equal access to books and reading.

The 30 Arabia Books titles donated to Maida Vale Library were arranged in a colourful display at the Arab Literature Today event. Authors published by the imprint include Rafik Schami, Hoda Barakat, Radwa Ashour, Rashid Boudjedra, Habib Selmi and Samar Yazbek, winner of the 2012 PEN/Pinter Author of Courage Award.

Peter Clark

Peter Clark, who was for a number of years head of the British Council in Damascus, outlined the dramatic changes in Arab literature translation and publishing he has witnessed since his first translation from Arabic was published in 1980. He and Schwepcke both paid tribute to the pivotal role Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature has played in helping transform the availability of Arab literature in English translation over the past 15 years.

Margaret Obank spoke on Banipal's mission to open a window on the literature of the Arab world, and on the changes in the magazine from its first issue published in February 1998 to the current issue, Number 47, which has a special feature on Kuwaiti fiction. She outlined Banipal's other activities including tours by visiting Arab authors, its data base of some 1000 titles, the establishment of the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, and how she and Peter Clark were involved in the setting up of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Banipal has also founded the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature (BALMAL), based, like the magazine's offices, in the Arab British Centre in London.

part of the display of titles from Arabia Books

Barbara Schwepcke recalled how the idea of starting Arabia Books arose from a conversation she had at the 2008 London Book Fair with the late Mark Linz, director of the American University in Cairo Press. In that year the Arab world was the LBF's Market Focus. At that time she was a publisher only of non-fiction, through Haus Publishing, and publishing translated Arab fiction was a new departure. She believes translation helps build bridges between cultures, and as regards Arab fiction "there is a wealth of literature out there that people should read." Her discussions with Linz led to Arabia Books having a co-publishing and distribution with AUC Press, with an initial list of nine titles. In her choice of titles she tried to show the variety of Arab writing in terms of genre (including crime fiction), and geographical spread from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Arabia Books has "not quite an even mix of men and women" writers.

Arabia Books forged a particularly strong link with the Syrian writer Rafik Schami, born in Damascus in 1946, "a firebrand who fell out in rather a spectacular way with Bashar Assad's father." He has lived in Germany since 1971 and writes in German. Haus Publishing published the English translation of his book Damascus: Taste of a City written with the "culinary help" of his sister Marie Fadel. Schami's novel The Dark Side of Love was the first book whose translation Arabia Books itself commissioned. The translation from German, by Anthea Bell, had the distinction of being shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. 
more titles from Arabia Books in Maida Vale Library

This prize is shared between author and translation. Schami had said that if his novel won he would put his share of the prize towards setting up a fund to help emerging writers in the Middle East get published in English. Even though he did not win he still went ahead and set up the imprint Swallow Editions. The first, and so far only, book to be published by Swallow Editions was Sarmada by Syrian writer Fadi Azzam which appeared in 2011 in translation by Adam Talib.

During the Maida Vale Library evening Schwepcke played a recording made at the launch of Sarmada at Haus Publishing's Bookhaus in Cadogan Place, Central London. (The recording is on YouTube). Given the terrible bloodshed Syria has endured for more than two and a half years, it was moving to hear the evocative recording, in which Diwan Foundation's Louai Alhenawi plays nay to a soundtrack of bird song and percussion, recreating the atmosphere of the Syrian village in which the novel is set. The extract from Sarmada read in English translation by an actress tells of a beautiful girl, Hela Mansour,  returning to the village five years after she fled it with her lover, knowing that her five brothers will butcher her to death. Her killing is graphically described.
report and photographs by Susannah Tarbush 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Anissa Helou's 'Levant': a compendium of Middle Eastern recipes and memories

In her prolific career as a cookery writer, the acclaimed Syrian-Lebanese food expert Anissa Helou (of whom this blog published a  profile last year) has written authoritative books on Lebanese cuisine, Mediterranean savoury baking, modern mezze, offal cookery, and the street food of Morocco and of the Mediterranean more generally.

Helou's latest, seventh, book Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East (Harper Collins, in hardback and on Kindle) is a wide-ranging and ambitious work covering an entire region and a lifetime of food memories. Helou draws on her long experience of Middle Eastern food from her early childhood to her recent travels in the region.

The book has an attractive cover design based on patterned classic tiles with the shades of blue so characteristic of the Middle East.  In her introduction Helou explains the term Levant and why for the purposes of her book she defines it as comprising her two home countries, Lebanon and Syria, plus Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Palestine. She acknowledges that some may find the inclusion of Iran controversial. But Iran has had a "sweeping influence" over the cookery of the Middle East and North Africa and she feels justified in including some of its classic northern dishes.

Another possibly controversial choice is the exclusion of Israel. Helou explains: "As everyone knows, Israel is a very young state and many dishes that are now described as Israeli were, and still are, originally Palestinian, Lebanese or Egyptian, and I prefer to give the original rather than the assumed version of a dish where I can."

There are few pictures in the 346 pages of Helou's book. This is unusual in an age when cookery books tend to be ever more lavishly illustrated, but Levant does not suffer as a result. The few photographs in Levant are in black and white. One shows Anissa standing in front of one side of al-Dar in Mashta el-Helou, the ancestral home in Syria of her late father. She and her family would spend their summers there.

Another picture is of Helou's maternal grandmother and aunt in action in their kitchen in Beirut. helou also includes a photo of a "sexy ambulant green grocer in Beirut", his stall groaning with fresh produce.

Anissa's interest in food and cookery began as a child, when she watched her mother and other women of the family preparing dishes. Her mother, Laurice Helou, comes from the lovely Lebanese village of Rechmaya perched above a dramatic valley in the Shouf mountains and is "an invaluable fount of knowledge as far as the country's cooking is concerned."

Levant is a  treasure trove of insights and tips and Helou is refreshingly opinionated. She states: "The Silver Shore in Tripoli is another of my favourite fish restaurants. and Tripoli is my favourite city in Lebanon now because it hasn't lost its character like Beirut has." And she is always open to experimentation. Her recipe for Samkeh Harrah - Spicy Fish - is a hybrid of the recipe of her of mother (with no tahini sauce) and the Silver Shore (which has tahini sauce, and less coriander).

As regards tabbuleh, the iconic parsley, burghul and tomato salad, it may have "gone global" but it is rare to find it made properly in the West with the correct ratio of parsley and herbs to burghul. "Somehow it is not natural for Westerners to regard parsley as an essential ingredient when they are used to it as a garnish." Helou is convinced that the Turkish version of tabbuleh is at the root of how tabbuleh came to be misinterpreted in the West as a grain salad. Whereas it is a herb salad. 

During her culinary travels Helou has made numerous friends, who have offered her hospitality and invited her into their kitchens: the acknowledgements at the end of the book run to three pages. I was pleased to see a couple of recipes from a mutual friend, the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani (on whose traditional Palestinian food Anissa wrote in the Financial Times).   One is Mutabbal Qara' - Pumpkin dip made with tahini, garlic and lemon (both Helou and Kelani have separately concluded that butternut squash is preferable to pumpkin). The other is Mussakhkhan - Sumac Chicken Wraps.

Anissa Helou beside al-Dar in Mashta el-Helou

Levant is organised differently from conventional cookery books which begin with starters, move on to mains and end with desserts. Her six chapters are named after locations and settings: En Famille; On the Farm; In the Souq; At the Restaurant; At the Bakery; and At the Sweet-maker's. This way of organising the book works well.

In the 'At the Restaurant' chapter Helou takes the reader on a tour of favourite restaurants scattered through the Levant.  Although Wild Chicory in Olive Oil with Caremelised Onions - or Hindbeh bil-Zeyt - is on the menu at most Lebanese restaurants Helou only orders it at Chez Sami on the beach north of Beirut "because theirs is almost as good as my mother's".

The book is highly evocative. Helou recalls a wonderful moment near Aleppo at Apamea, a stunning Roman site, where she came across farmers "burning" frikeh, green cracked wheat. "The last time I had seen farmers doing this was back in 1982, near Qalb Lozeh, a fabuouls Byzantine church now surrounded by ugly concrete modern houses". When frikeh is cooked in the broth of the boiled lamb or chicken it is served with, some cooks add a little rice to make the frikeh lighter but "I prefer it without as I love  the distinctive smoky flavour."  

When Helou was growing up, her father took the family only to elegant resaturants. As she grew older and became independent she was free to explore street food and simple cafes/restaurants specialising in one particular dish or a specific meal such as breakfast. One of her favourites is the basic El-Soussi, a simple breakfast cafe in West Beirut which specialises in fatteh. Fatteh is a composite dish made of different layers starting with toasted or fried pita bread and ending with yoghurt mixed with crushed garlic and garnished with toasted pine nuts. When it comes to ful medammes, the breakfast dish of boiled fava beans originally from Egypt, Helou would wait until she as in Alepppo and could go to Hajj Abdo, "a wonderful old man whose ful medammes is the best".

Helou says that although Damascus has many restaurants few of them are good. An exception is Khawali which was until recently the only excellent restaurant in town. Now there is also Naranj "the restaurant of choice for the top echelon of Syrian society", where Bashar  Assad entertained Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Helou used to love going to Naranj until she  realised it was the place of choice of the Syrian regime "who wined and dined their guests there while their army and shabbiha were killing the people." Regardless, the food "was, and I suppose still is, exquisite."

When Anissa wrote her first book Lebanese Cuisine (initially published by Grub Street in 1994), one of her aims was to address the needs of young Lebanese who had been displaced from their country by the civil war and had not had the chance to learn how to cook Lebanese dishes from observing their mothers in the kitchen.

Now it is her father's country, Syria, that is tearing itself apart in civil war. Millions of Syrians have been uprooted, taking refuge outside the country or in different regions of Syria. Cities and cultures are being destroyed.

In the years before the war in Syria erupted Helou used to take small groups to Syria on culinary tours. The members of such tours had the chance to get  intimately acquainted with Syrian cuisine in food markets, restaurants, homes and kitchens. Anissa's book is rich in recipes and food from Syria, and is a precious record of the food culture. It is of course the terrible loss of lives and material destruction that are the main concern in  the Syrian civil war. In the longer term it will become more evident what the toll has also been on culture, including the magnificent culinary traditions of for example Aleppo.
Susannah Tarbush

Monday, September 16, 2013

Arab British Centre announces shortlist for its Culture Award 2013

The London-based Arab British Centre announced today the six-person shortlist for its 2013 Award for Culture, for which nominations were submitted from 20 May. The winner will be announced at an Award Ceremony to be held at Leighton House Museum, London, on Thursday 26 September.

The shortlistees are:

Palestinian visual communicator Danah Abdulla, founder, creative director and editor of Kalimat Magazine

 Iraqi playwright and scientist Dr Hassan Abdulrazzak

Syria-born oud performer of Iraqi descent  Khyam Allami 

Daniel Gorman, a founder of Reel Festivals

Palestinian singer and musicologist Reem Kelani  

Jordan-born filmmaker Amin Matalqa

The Arab British Centre has been playing an increasingly prominent role in promoting Arab culture in Britain, and in April it won the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture,. The Centre's £2,500 Culture Award celebrates the individual who is judged to have made the most constructive contribution to British understanding of Arab culture in the past two years. It is the successor to the £5,000 Arab British Culture and Society Award, which ran from 2008 to 2011.While the Arab British Culture and Society Award was open to both organisations and individuals, the revamped award  has been tailored to celebrate individuals only. This year's shortlist was chosen by a panel of five judges from more than 40 applications from the world of arts and culture - including actors, musicians, curators, authors, playwrights, filmmakers and artists.

The members of the panel are distinguished experts with knowledge of the cultures of the Arab World and of the UK. The panel is chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC who was previously a chair of the judges of the Arab British Culture and Society Award.  Kennedy has served as Chair of the British Council and of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), and is a Trustee of the British Museum and the Booker Prize.

The other panellists are: Maxime Duda, CEO and Founder of Arab New Trends; Rose Issa, a curator, writer and publisher who for the last 30 years has been promoting contemporary art and films from the Arab world and Iran; Deborah Shaw, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Director of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, and Brian Whitaker, journalist and former Middle East Editor of the Guardian newspaper.


DANAH ABDULLA Over the last two years, as both an individual and representing Kalimat, Abdulla has participated in numerous conferecnes, panels, organised events, and exhibitions. As well as this, Abdulla has produced a publication entirely dedicated to providing an open space for Arab creative to showcase their work. Since launching Kalimat in November 2010, the project has grown to incorporate an expanding network of contributors worldwide, and a series of events that seeks innovative ways of bringing the project to wider audiences. A designer by trade, Abdulla is currently enrolled for her PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she focuses on integrating locality in design education in Amman, Jordan, and the development of design policy. In September 2013, Abdulla organised and curated In The City, a graphic design and sound exhibition showing at P21 Gallery, London. The exhibition invites graphic designers and sound artists to reinterpret and reimagine four overlooked cities in the Middle East; Alexandria, Algiers, Baghdad and Nablus. As well as this, the exhibition will feature a number of talks, readings and screenings throughout its run at the gallery.

HASSAN ABDULRAZZAK A playwright of Iraqi origin, the plays Abdulrazzak has written thus far have all been about the Arab world. In 2012, Abdulrazzak’s second full-length play The Prophet premiered at the Gate Theatre, London. The play’s events take place during a single day, January 28th 2011, the start of the Egyptian revolution. The Prophet has been described as “a vivid picture of the way public corruption invades private life”, Michael Billington, The Guardian; “Visceral, verbally dextrous, edgy, exciting, darkly humorous and downright riveting”, What’s On Stage; “Abdulrazzak’s script is laced with witticisms and colourful symmetry”, The New Statesmen; “a gripping non-stop ninety minutes that mixes humour with visceral excitement”, The British Theatre Guide; “bright, sexy, dirty, critical, sarcastic and beautifully wrought. It buzzes with psychological insight and radical references; Abdulrazzak’s confident storytelling is faultless, and this play about betrayal and moral courage comes in the guise of a thriller…[the] play is immensely satisfying”, Alex Sierz, The Arts Desk. Abdulrazzak is currently working on a feature film, a TV film and two plays.

KHYAM ALLAMI Allami’s critically acclaimed 2011 debut album Resonance/Dissonance, was a profound and honest work representing his attempts at the process of “individuation” which was marked by the 2003 US/UK war on Iraq and directly questioned his relationship with himself, his country of origin, his past, present and future. Since its release he has toured across the UK, Europe and the Arab world. Allami was chosen by Scottish director Anthony Nielson to compose new music and re-set all the songs in his revival of Peter Weisse’s seminal play Marat/Sade as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 50 Year Anniversary programming. His 2011 collaboration with the London based acapella trio Voice, was a new work commissioned from British composer Marcus Davidson for three voices, oud and cello, using the poem The Ziggurat Builders by Iraqi-Assyrian poet Sargon Boulus (translated by the author himself). This was the first time ever that Sargon Boulus’s work was set to music. In 2012 Allami dedicated all of his UK based opportunities to creating new projects with contemporary musicians from the Arab world; Double Duo with Ahmad Al Khatib (Palestine), Youssef Hbeisch (Palestine) and Andrea Piccioni (Italy), and the Alif Ensemble with Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (Palestine), Maurice Louca (Egypt), Khaled Yassine (Lebanon), and Bashar Farran (Lebanon).

DANIEL GORMAN Over the past six years, Gorman has developed several large-scale festivals and long-term exchange and translation projects which have focused on his goal of fostering dialogue between communitis in the UK and Arab world. In 2007, Gorman co-founded Reel Festivals which now takes place on an annual basis and in 2012, Reel Syria took place in London and Edinburgh. Artists such as Ali Ferzat and Samih Choukeir were brought to the UK as well as independent documentary films courtesy of DoxBox; The National reported that ‘Reel Syria gives British audiences a look beyond the conflict’. In 2013, Gorman coordinated Reel Iraq, a wide ranging project showcasing a range of contemporary Iraqi arts which included over fifty events in nine cities in the UK. In 2011, Gorman also organised a number of poetry exchange projects involving Arab and British poets which included a workshop where a series of short films by British-Iranian director Roxana Vilk were created. These films led to the development of a six part ‘Poets of Protest’ series which was aired on Al Jazeera.

REEM KELANI For over 20 years, Kelani has been putting herself out into communities across the UK and connecting with people, through her concerts, lectures, workshops and her radio work. In July 2013, Kelani delivered workshops in Egyptian song to some 180 Year 3 and Year 5 children at two schools in Kent. In April 2013, as part of Kelani’s tour in Seattle and Vancouver, she gave a master class at the prestigious Cornish College of the Arts. In May 2011, she gave a master class to over 70 students and tutors at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Closer to home, Kelani has been a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths College for the past decade. In 2012, Radio 4 broadcast ‘Songs for Tahrir’, which was researched, written and presented by Kelani, about her experiences in Cairo from the beginning of the revolution in 2011. BBC figures suggest that over 1 million people will have listened to Kelani’s analysis of the songs and their musical and political components, and the broadcast was in ‘Pick of the week’ for online programmes. Kelani’s work on introducing Arabic music to British listeners took another edge, when she contributed her arrangement of an anthemic Tunisian song as part of the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow.

AMIN MATALQA In 2003, Matalqa quit his successful corporate career to pursue filmmaking fulltime, an act he deems “mad”. Ten years on, Matalqa has graduated from the American Film Institute, directed three feature films, 27 short films and written over twenty screenplays. When Matalqa set out to make Captain Abu Raed in Jordan in 2007, there was no Jordanian film industry and most thought it would be a failed experiment. Matalqa and his team raised $2 million from private Jordanian investors, hired a cast of non-actors (apart from the lead, played by Nadim Sawalha), taught local crews as they went along and ended up making a film that not only had critical and festival success, but went on to play in theatres internationally which is a rare feat for an Arabic language film. Matalqa’s second feature film, The United was due to take place in Egypt pre-revolution, 2010, but when the Egyptian producers failed to deliver their promises, Disney slammed the brakes on the film and stopped the entire plan. Matalqa therefore, rewrote the script, set the film in Jordan but retained the pan-Arab cast led by an Egyptian star and Disney agreed. Although the uprisings in the Middle East pushed Disney to threaten shutting down the production, Matalqa and his team kept convincing everyone to keep going and the film is currently rolling out to 80 countries across the world.

For further information contact: Ruba Asfahani | | 020 7832 1310