Friday, April 25, 2014

issue #3 of Beirut urban journal Portal 9 focuses on fiction

Portal 9 Issue #3
With its third issue the Beirut-based journal of stories and critical writing on urbanism and the city  Portal 9 again shows its capacity to surprise and delight in terms of both presentation and content. Whereas the first two issues were each on a particular theme, the third issue focuses on a genre -  Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits

In his editorial the journal's editor-in-chief — the poet, journalist and translator Fadi Tofeili — writes: "With this, our third issue, Portal 9 begins to experiment with form. Whereas the first two issues, 'The Imagined' and 'The Square', revolved around a broad theme, 'Fiction' prompts a nuanced engagement with a literary and artistic genre that enriches the journal’s exploration of culture and urbanism.

English translation of Hassan Daoud's novella As She Once Was

He adds: "Portal 9, which is published twice yearly, will henceforth dedicate the spring issue to a theme and the autumn issue to a genre, its own shape and structure uniquely adapted to the form at hand."

 In Issue #3 "by focusing on fiction – prose, visual, or otherwise – we threw the doors wide open for experimentation with the written word and sheer imagination as we sought to do with 'The Imagined', the inaugural issue, which featured the perspectives of researchers, academics, and writers on the city. The process has been a remarkable and gratifying adventure." 

Tofeili co-founded Portal 9 with Nathalie Elmir, the journal's creative director. She brought to Portal 9 a track record as an award-winning designer of publications for Solidere - the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central DistrictPortal 9 is backed by Solidere, and published by Solidere Management Services.

From its launch the journal was ground-breaking and adventurous. A bilingual publication, the English and Arabic editions of the first two issue came packaged side by side in a durable sleeve. The two language editions were not mirror-image translations of each other. Some of the articles were exclusive to the English or Arabic editions, with the translations found on the Portal 9 website. The copious photographs in the two editions were complementary rather than strictly identical.

  Hassan Daoud (L) and  Fadi Tofeili at Beirut launch of Portal 9 Issue #3

Issue #3 takes the form of two books, six booklets and a foldout, each with stylish covers of strong brown card engraved with intricate gold designs, all packed into a matching box. On one side of the box the contents are listed in Arabic, on the other in English.

The two books in the box are the Arabic original, and the English translation, of a new novella by the distinguished Lebanese fiction writer and journalist Hassan Daoud.

"We commissioned novelist Hassan Daoud to author a novella in Arabic from start to finish, oversaw the translation by Lina Mounzer of the work in tandem with its composition, and are now pleased to share with readers both the Arabic and English editions of Naqqil Fouadaka  (As She Once Was)," writes Tofeili. "All this in a matter of six record-breaking months! Collaborating with Daoud as he was structuring and writing the novella, following his progress step-by-step, truly enriched the experience."

The novella of around 150 pages is a thoroughly engaging read that blends memory and time with the cityscape of a reconstructed Beirut permeated with a pungent smell from new shops "selling outrageously expensive clothing." The 58-year-old first-person narrator Qassem hankers after his Palestinian first love Dalal Abbashi whom  he last saw in 1965.

In present-day Beirut Qassem is fascinated by three brown-skinned Asian girls whom he passes every day on his way to work. He gradually strikes up a rapport with them. The wryly humorous Qassem reflects on the pains and absurdities of ageing and how it impacts on his behaviour with women. There are expertly-observed scenes of social tension and awkardness. Qassem is working on the launch of a magazine, and the novel amusingly depicts his feeling out of place amidst his techno-savvy young colleagues from an internationally mobile generation.

Four of the booklets in #Issue 3 contain the English and Arabic versions of stories written in Russian by Irina Bogatyreva - born in 1982 in Kazan, Tatarstan - and Arslan Khasavov, born in 1988 in Turkmenistan. Khasavov's critically acclaimed  novel Sense was published in Russia and the US. Khasavov's story "Steven Seagal's Personal Assistant" was translated into English by Arch Tait and into Arabic (from English) by Carmel Badr. Irina Bogatyreva's story "Exit" was translated into English by John Freedman and into Arabic (from English) by Fadi Tofeili.

The other two booklets contain the Arabic original, and English translation by Meris Lutz, of Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez-Eldin's story "Al Siqilli Dream". The foldout is a poster of a montage of photos and text  "Robbery in Area A" by Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili. The artist explains on his website that the piece tells the story of a bank robbery that took place in the West Bank city of Ramallah a few years ago. It is based on a police report and the narrative of one of the thieves, and reveals how the thieves were able to use their reading of the geopolitical conditions to get away with the robbery.

the Arabic translation of Irina Bogatyreva's story "Exit"

The choice of contemporary Russian authors is an interesting one. It is true that the Russian literature scene in English translation in the West is still dominated by the 19th century giants of Russian literature. As Tofeili puts it: "A kind of historical amnesia has perpetuated the hegemony of international Russian classics by the likes of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, and this is at the expense of the new, post-Soviet Russia." But in the Arab world "we have become more insistent on reading and learning about contemporary Russia, particularly in light of the convergence of our sociopolitical circumstances." 

Similarly, when Russia was the Market Focus of the London Book Fair in 2011, with more than 70 publishers and 50 writers, British audiences became aware of how much contemporary Russian literature is out there waiting to be explored.

a section of the fold-out poster text and picture story Robbery in Area A by Yazan Khalili 

Portal 9's talent for stimulating literary creativity is shown not only by its commissioning the new novella from Hassan Daoud but also by also by Mansoura Ez-Eldin's expanding of her Issue #3 story "Al Siqilli Dream" into a full-length novel. Like her story, the novel features Cairene urban planner Adam Khalifa,  an obsessive admirer of the Fatimid commander and founder of Cairo Jawhar Al Siqilli.  Khalifa dreams of building another version of Al Siqilli's Cairo.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin

report by Susannah Tarbush

No comments: