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 

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