Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saudi novelist Yousef al-Mohaimeed's 'Where Pigeons Don't Fly' apears in English translation

Saudi writer Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's prizewinning 2009 novel Where Pigeons Don't Fly  is to be published on 4 December by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) in Roger Moger's translation from Arabic to English. Al-Mohaimeed, who was born in Riyadh in 1964, has a reputation for provoking controversy with his novels and short stories set in Saudi Arabia. His work has sometimes been banned, and much of it has been published outside Saudi Arabia.

Where Pigeons Don't Fly continues Al-Mohaimeed's literary interrogation of Saudi society. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the obstacles facing the younger generation, and the stultifying grip of religious extremism. And it depicts many kinds of sexual activity, from sexting and same-sex attraction, to details of passion snatched in cars or in the improvised equivalents of "love  hotels".

Al-Mohaimeed's works have been translated into several  languages, including Russian, Italian, Spanish and German. Two of his novels have previously been published in English translations by Anthony Calderbank. The English version of the 2003 novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon was published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, and by Penguin, in 2007, and the 2004 work Munira's Bottle  by AUC Press in 2010.

Where Pigeons Don't Fly was originally published in Arabic in 2009 by the Arab Cultural Centre in Beirut, under the title Alhamam La Yatiru Fi Buraida (Pigeons Don't Fly in Buraida), and became a bestseller. It won the Abu al-Qasim Ashabbi Prize for the Arabic Novel in 2011. The original title alludes to Fahd's childhood memory of "velvety" pigeons in his uncle's yard in Buraida, scuttling on red legs while pursued by his boy cousins. "They dashed about, flapping their clipped wings..."  Pigeons and feathers recur as symbols in the narrative. 

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

The novel is written in a flowing poetic style, rendered pleasingly into English by Robin Moger's lively translation. Though dealing with urgent, serious issues, it is an absorbing and entertaining read, full of humanity and often touched with humour.

The novel opens with its central character, Fahd al-Safeelawi, on a train travelling from London to the coastal town of Great Yarmouth in the county of Norfolk. It is July 2007 and the young Saudi has been taking a two-day break in London from his exhausting job at a print and copy shop in Great Yarmouth.

Fahd is a talented artist, whose paintings were exhibited in Saudi Arabia. The novel he has chosen to read on his  train journey is Elizabeth Hickey's The Painted Kiss on the relationship between the Viennese painter Gustave Klimt and his young lover Emilie, whose name he uttered as he died.

Fahd turns his attention to his mobile phone and on a whim dials the phone number in Saudi Arabic of Saeed, his closest friend from his childhood and "shameless, wild youth" in Riyadh. He hears not a dialling tone but a song that seems to wipe away his new life in Great Yarmouth. "At the same instant he was possessed by fear, a terror of the sheikhs - the fat men with long black beards he always saw at night, advancing with sharpened lances with which they pierced his pillow and riddled it with holes, the white feathers flying out until he couldn't breathe, and he would awake in a panic, feeling that he was choking."  Fahd starts to cry, his slender body shaking with a strange hysteria; the elderly Englishwoman sitting opposite him in the train touches his arm and asks if he is all right.

The sheikhs who fill Fahd with such dread are members of the Committee for Virtue and Prevention of Vice who police the lives of young unmarried Saudi men and women. In July 2006 Fahd and his divorcee lover Tarifah were detained by members of the Committee for the "sin" of being together in the family section of a coffee shop.

Robin Moger

During his train journey Fahd travels through his memories and the reasons for his abandoning Saudi Arabia for exile in the UK some 11 months earlier. Al-Mohaimeed gives a compelling account of the life of this liberal-minded, artistic and politically aware young man, chafing under the constraints of Saudi society and the oppressive activities of the Committee and other religious fundamentalists.

In one memorable scene, set in an auditorium during a literary festival, extremist students mutter their disapproval during a poetry reading in front of a segregated audience of males and females. They try to mount the stage and "hand out advice to what they see as the sinning, misguided poets and guide them to the path of righteousness." During the play that follows, entitled A Moderate Without Moderation, they hurl sandals and and smash up the set. A punch-up erupts, ending only when a security guard shoots in the air. A bemused American critic, invited to the festival to speak about American poetry, records proceedings with the camera of his mobile phone.

The novel loops through time, cumulatively filling in the picture and revealing the interlocking stories of numerous characters. Meanwhile the fates of Fahd and Tarfah at the hands of the Committee hang in the balance. Fahd looks back to his childhood, and to the four-year imprisonment of his father Suleiman for distributing underground pamphlets. Suleiman had at the time been working on behalf of the Salafist movement whose adherents, led by Juhayman al-Otabibi, seized the Great Mosque in Mecca in November 1979. The novel vividly depicts the siege of the Great Mosque, which lasted for days.

Great Yarmouth

After his release, Suleiman had been anxious that his son should not engage in extremist activities or turn to violence. He entrusts his wife Soha with a bag containing his old religious books, prison journals and words of wisdom, and the prayer beads he had fashioned from olive stones while in prison. The bag is to be given to Fahd when he has grown up. It as if Suleiman has a premonition of his death in a traffic accident when Fahd is 15.

Fahd's mother is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, and his accent, fair skin and reddish blond hair and moustache set him somewhat apart from other Saudis. After Suleiman's death Soha is married off to Suleiman's brother Saleh, who already has two wives. Saleh is a conservative-minded bully, and bans satellite TV and all pictures from the house. Fahd clashes with Saleh, and finally moves out to live with his friend Saeed after Saleh gets Fahd's sister Lulua to tear up a precious album of family photographs. When Soha falls seriously ill Saleh fails to get her the medical treatment she needs, relying instead on traditional Islamic remedies and quacks.

Freed from Saleh's efforts at control, Fahd follows his destiny as an artist. He recalls how when he was a child  Suleiman had taken him to an art exhibition where a Sudanese artist had been struck by the way in which the boy responded to the works on display. The Sudanese had told Suleiman: "The soul of a great artist sleeps in his depths and it must be awoken."

The novel is unrestrained in its depiction of its characters' love lives and sexual activities. The pursuit of romance by the young in a strictly segregated society, under the eyes of the Committee, is facilitated by the deployment of such tools of modernity as the automobile, internet, mobile phone and shopping mall. Fahd and his girlfriends seek out dark places, or empty apartments, for their encounters, and sometimes pretend to be married.

While it was his relationship with Tarfah, a divorced mother who studies at the Academy for Health Scienes, that led to his detention by the Committee, Fahd also has memories of two other lovers. The first is young, mischievous Noha with whom he had a short liaison. The other is the predatory, older Thuraya, a mother of six in a now sexless marriage. She revels in her carnal adventures with Fahd.  But she eventually starts to pester and virtually stalk him to the point where he wonders if she reported him and Tarfah to the Committee, precipitating their detention.
Susannah Tarbush

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hurst publishes Prof Jean-Pierre Filiu's definitive history of Gaza in English translation

During the prolonged Israeli assault on Gaza this summer, the  presenter of the BBC Radio 4 weekday news programme The World At One Ed Stourton interviewed Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po in Paris about his book Gaza: A History (C Hurst and Co Publishers Ltd). The French original of the book was published in France by Fayard in 2012 as Histoire de Gaza . John King has done an excellent job of translating the book into English for the the Hurst edition.

Stourton asked Professor Filiu about the importance of tunnels to besieged Gaza. The tunnels Stourton had in mind were not those constructed by Hamas, but the tunnels used at various times in history, beginning with Alexander the Great's siege and destruction of the city of Gaza in 332 BC.

"The tunnels were one of the main features of Gaza at that time", Filiu said. In his book he describes the tunnels and counter-tunnels of Alexander's Greeks and of the locals under the leadership of Batis, known as "the King of Gaza". After Gaza fell, all those suspected of having fought were slaughtered and their families sold into slavery. "Batis, who refused to kneel before the conqueror, was bound to Alexander's chariot after having his legs broken, and his body was then dragged in agony below the ramparts of the defeated city. The sack of Gaza filled six ships with booty to be send back to Macedon."

Jean-Pierre Filiu

Ed Stourton observed that Gaza has had "a very warlike history" with all "sorts of people going through there, fighting, from Alexander to Boneparte, to the British including General Allenby in the First World War, Ariel Sharon, President Nasser ...."

Filiu said the historical pattern has changed dramatically since 1948. "Until 1948, Gaza was a crossroads that any empire in the Middle East who wanted to conquer Egypt had to gain, or that any empire controlling Egypt had to take over in order to open and break through to the Middle East."

But after 1948, when the Egyptians took what is now called the Gaza Strip under their protection and administration, "Gaza became a dead end where basically Israel and the Palestinians started to fight the war they are still fighting today. And so it has to be reopened, this space, to give a horizon for peace and for the people." In 1948 the 80,000 people in Gaza, were joined by 200,000 refugees. The  proportion of refugees is roughly similar today: "Among the 1,800,000 inhabitants of Gaza today, two thirds are refugees."

Although Gaza has become a powerful symbol for Palestinians, while writing his history Filiu was "quite puzzled to discover how little some Palestinians know about the history of Gaza; they’ve been focused on Jerusalem, on the diaspora, on the refugee camps." 

Filiu writes in his foreword of the many difficulties and methodological problems he faced in writing a history of Gaza. Parts of the local archives have been destroyed during numerous conflicts, while other parts have been moved out of Gaza and are the object of wrangling between Fatah and Hamas. Filiu sought to overcome the deficiency of local information by conducting a series of interviews, and by gaining access to a substantial number of unpublished documents. Security constraints were also a problem.

A further constraint is Hamas's policy of promulgating an "official history" of Gaza. This "spuriously credits the Muslim Brotherhood with a continuous existence in a position of pre-eminence over the last seventy years, which suggests that the Brothers had always been in the vanguard and at the heart of the Palestinian national struggle." Such claims tend to withhold credit from the other Palestinian factions, and in particular from Fatah.

"The perspective of history provides the ability to reinterpret these often tenuous and biased accounts of Gaza's history: and as Hamas's intention is to reinforce its dominant position now and in the longer term, much is at stake."

...also by Professor Filiu

In addition to his position at Sciences Po, Professor Filiu has held visiting professorships at both Columbia University and Georgetown University. His book The Apocalypse in Islam (University of California Press, 2012) was awarded the main prize by the French History Association. His books and articles on the Arab world have been published in a dozen languages. His book on Gaza is claimed to be the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language.

The book's jacket well describes its contents: "Through its millennium–long existence, Gaza has often been bitterly disputed while simultaneously and paradoxically enduring prolonged neglect. Squeezed between the Negev and Sinai deserts on the one hand and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, Gaza was contested by the Pharaohs, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Fatimids, the Mamluks, the Crusaders and the Ottomans. Napoleon had to secure it in 1799 to launch his failed campaign on Palestine. In 1917, the British Empire fought for months to conquer Gaza, before establishing its mandate on Palestine.

the late Haydar Abdel Shafi: medical doctor, and a key figure in Gaza's modern political history

"In 1948, 200,000 Palestinians sought refuge in Gaza, a marginal area neither Israel nor Egypt wanted. Palestinian nationalism grew there, and Gaza has since found itself at the heart of Palestinian history. It is in Gaza that the fedayeen movement arose from the ruins of Arab nationalism. It is in Gaza that the 1967 Israeli occupation was repeatedly challenged, until the outbreak of the 1987 intifada. And it is in Gaza, in 2007, that the dream of Palestinian statehood appeared to have been shattered by the split between Fatah and Hamas. The endurance of Gaza and the Palestinians make the publication of this history both timely and significant."

Although Filiu's book reaches far back in Gaza's history, his main emphasis is on the modern era. The book's first section, "Gaza Before the Strip", comprises three chapters. The first examines its position as the crossroads of empires, the second the Islamic Era, and the third the British Mandate.

The book's remaining three main sections each covers a 20-year period:  "1947-67: The Generation of Mourning"; "1967-87: The Generation of Dispossession", and "1987-2007: the Generation of  the Intifadas". Filiu ends his history with "Conclusion: The Generation of Impasses?"

Filiu's history is written with admirable clarity and draws on a wide variety of sources, including Gaza rap group Palestinian Rapperz (PR) The author provides numerous references and an extensive bibliography. In addition, he helpfully provides 16 pages of biographies of many of the protagonists in the modern history of Gaza. All in all, Gaza: A History merits a prominent place in any library of works on Palestine.
Susannah Tarbush, London

Britain faces rising domestic terror threat related to Islamic State

لندن في قلب الحرب على الإرهاب قد تغيـّر عدداً من قوانينها below is the original English text of article published in Al-Hayat newspaper on 18 November 2012 in Arabic translation

by Susannah Tarbush, London

The rise of ISIL (known also by the Arabic acronym Dai’ish) in Iraq and Syria, and its declaration of a caliphate state in the area it controls, has added an alarming new dimension to the long-standing problem of Islamist extremism and terror in the UK.

There is anxiety both over the direct participation of young British Muslims who have joined Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, and over the radicalising impact on some young British Muslims of its massive propaganda effort on the social media to publicise its gains and attract recruits to its cause. IS has urged its followers to carry out attacks wherever, and in whatever way, they can.

The police and the security service MI5 have warned senior British ministers that the scale of terrorist activity within the UK is now so big that a terror attack is “almost inevitable”. This follows the increase in the terror level in the UK at the end of August to “severe” because of the threat associated with Da’ish.

Theresa May

An estimated 500 to 600 British Muslims have been out to Syria to fight with IS  and other Islamist groups. About half of them are thought to have returned to the UK. But as they return, others travel out to Syria.

The passports of some Britons seen as Islamist extremists have been confiscated to prevent them travelling to Syria or elsewhere. Home Secretary Theresa May has used the “royal prerogative” to withdraw passports 23 times in the 12 months to August 2014.

But there was intense embarrassment for the government authorities when it was revealed on 11 November that one of the most outspoken public supporters of Da’ish in the UK, Abu Rumaysah, had fled the UK with his family 24 hours after being ordered by a court to surrender his passport as a bail condition. He failed to surrender his passport, and is thought to be in Syria in the area controlled by IS.

Abu Rumaysah (a Hindu convert to Islam, originally named Siddhartha Dhar), had been arrested on 25 September along with eight other men including the notorious Anjem Choudary. Choudary jointly led Al-Muhajiroun with Syrian Omar Bakri Mohammad before it was banned in 2005, and he remains an influence on certain young Muslims. Individuals associated with Choudary have been involved in several terror plots over the years, but although he continually makes inflammatory statements in support of terror, and has been arrested several times, he remains at liberty.

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe

The head of Scotland Yard, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said recently that at least five Britons a week are travelling to Iraq and Syria to join Da’ish. He added that so far this year, 218 arrests for terrorist offences have been made, an increase of about 70 per cent on three years ago. “A large part of this increased arrest rate is due to terrorist activities, plots and planning linked to Syria. The trend is, I think, set to continue.”

 So far around 30 British jihadists are known to have been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq; the true figure is likely to be higher than this. In addition to the young men going out to fight in Syria and Iraq, British Muslim teenagers and young women are going out, often to marry jihadi fighters.

Because of the heightened threat from terrorism, security was extremely high on the annual Remembrance Sunday, this year on 9 November, at the military parade during which the Queen and politicians laid wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, near parliament.

In the three days before Remembrance Sunday four young Muslim men were arrested in West London and the town of High Wycombe. There were newspaper reports that they had plotted attack the Remembrance Sunday event and to kill the Queen herself.

In a separate alleged plot, four young Muslim men from West London were charged in mid-October with intending to commit acts of terrorism. They were said to have sworn allegiance to Da’ish and to have plotted a terror attack on soldiers or police in London. A fifth man was charged with transferring a Baikal handgun and ammunition.

Britain has already experienced the devastating effects of Islamist terrorism. On 7 July 2005 four suicide bombers killed 52 innocent people in attacks on the London underground system and a bus. Three of the four suicide bombers were British-born Muslims of Pakistani origin. And on 22 May 2013 British soldier Lee Rigby was killed in broad daylight in a London street by two young Nigerian men who had been brought up as Christians but converted to Islam. They ran him over in a car and tried to cut his head off.

 Anjem Choudary

The widespread use of beheading in Syria and Iraq is characteristic of Da’ish’s terror, and some Britons have played a part in this. A tall hooded man dressed in black and speaking English with a London accent has been has been seen in videos on different occasions since August beheading American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff, then Britons David Haines, and Alan Henning, and most recently American Muslim convert Abdul Rahman – or Peter – Kassig. This apparently British beheader has been nicknamed by the media “Jihadi John”.

Kabir Ahmed

The first suicide bombing by a Briton in Iraq was recently carried out by Kabir Ahmed, known as Abu Sumayyah al-Britani, from the northern English city of Derby. He had served a jail term in the UK for saying gays should be put to death. Ahmed carried out a suicide attack on behalf of Da’ish in the town of Biaji, killing a senior Iraqi police official and seven other police officers. Abdul Waheed Majeed, the first British suicide bomber in Syria, blew himself up in February when he drove a lorry packed with explosives into a jail in Aleppo.

 In trying to deal with the threat of terror related to Islamic State the government has to decide what to do about those jihdais who have returned or want to return, as well as trying to deter those who plan to go out to join IS.

David Cameron

After Da’ish’s beheading of the American hostage James Foley on around 19 August, and the raising of the UK’s terror threat, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to MPs to introduce tough new anti-terror laws. 

On 13 November, during a speech to the Australian parliament in Canberra, Cameron unveiled the measures that will be included in a new anti-terror bill. The government intended to publish the bill by the end of November and to rush it through parliament so that it becomes law by the end of January.

Under the proposed new anti-terror law, suspected jihadis returning from Syria or Iraq will be prevented - under new “Temporary Exclusion Orders” - from returning to Britain for at least two years - unless they agree to face a court trial, home detention, or police monitoring, or to go on a “deradicalisation” course.

If they do not agree to these conditions, their passports will be cancelled and their names will be put on a “no fly” list to prevent them returning. “Airlines that don’t comply with our no-fly lists or security screening measures will be prevented from landing in the UK,” Cameron declared. Jihadis who try to enter Britain in secret will face a five-year jail term under a new criminal offence.

The police will also have the power to seize for 30 days the passports of those people it suspects of intending to travel abroad to fight in Syria or Iraq. But these proposed measures in the anti-terrorism bill are highly controversial, and there are concerns that they are not compatible with existing laws on human rights, immigration and citizenship. For example, refusing to allow British jihadis to return to the UK could be seen as making them stateless, which is illegal under British and international law.

The Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper says “much more” needs to be done to prevent radicalisation and said the government should force all returning jihadis to go through a deradicalisation process.

Deradicalisation programmes are designed to prevent or reverse radicalisation but there are doubts over how effective they really are. One main deradicalisation programme is the Channel programme which is part of the Preventing Violent Extremism strategy, known as “Prevent”, introduced by the Labour government after the London suicide bombings of July 2005.

The Channel programme aims to identifying those at risk of engaging in violent extremism and to support them, primarily through community-based interventions, challenging their extremist beliefs. But it is under-funded and can hardly cope with the growing demand on its resources. Between April 2007 and March this year nearly 4,000 people were referred to Channel. Currently, around 50 people a week are being referred to deradicalisation programmes.

The uncertainly in recent weeks over how jihadis will be treated when they return to the UK is making some of them reluctant to come back. It was reported recently that up to 100 British jihadis who had left Syria were stranded in Turkey, scared to come home. Dai’ish had apparently taken the passports of some.

Peter Neumann

Some observers are adamant that jihadis should never be allowed back into Britain. On a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 series The World Tonight, Colonel Richard Kemp a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan said: “We have to assume that having got blood on their hands they could well come and carry out acts of terrorism against us. The best thing is that they don’t get a chance.

Kemp adds: “Why should we spend our taxes on putting them in front of a court and putting them in prison, or spending vast amounts of money on deradicalisation, or on surveillance? The best thing is they don’t come back.”

But Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) disagrees. “We need to consider the lessons of history. What happened after [the war against the Soviets] in Afghanistan in the 1980s was that people were not allowed to go back to their own countries. A lot of Middle Eastern countries were taking passports away, and threatening really severe repression to the ‘Afghan Arabs’ who fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan.”

These 'Afghan Arabs' were trapped in Afghanistan, and “they went on to other battle fronts, they formed international networks out of which eventually Al-Qaeda emerged.”

Sunday, November 02, 2014

open evening at BALMAL - the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature

 Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature - BALMAL

On Thursday evening Banipal magazine of modern Arabic literature and the Arab British Centre jointly held the first-ever open evening of BALMAL - the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature. BALMAL is located in the Arab British Centre at 1 Gough Square - just off Fleet Street, and next door to the historic Dr Johnson's House.

The Arab British Centre's Communications Manager Ruba Asfahani said it was great to see so  many people eager to use the library. She and a trustee of the Centre, Palestinian-British filmmaker Said Taji Farouky, signed up new BALMAL members in the course of the evening. Life membership is £10, which is ploughed back into  maintenance and development of the library. The evening included a book sale, with prices ranging from £1 to £12.

The guests were invited to give their feedback on the event. Asfahani explained that the idea behind the  open evening was to find out whether people would like the opportunity to use the library outside of the Arab British Centre's office hours. If this proved to be the case, such evenings could become a regular event.

The guest speaker of the evening was the translator and journalist Jonathan Wright, who this year won both of the major translation prizes open to translators of Arabic literature. In January he was joint winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan's novel Azazeel (Atlantic Books, 2012). In May, Wright and Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Wright's translation of Blasim's short story collection The Iraqi Christ (Comma Press, 2013).

 Jonathan Wright guest speaker at the BALMAL open evening

Wright is currently one of the four judges of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize 2014: the books, all of them novels, in contention for this year's prize are on display in the BALMAL library. The judges are currently drawing up individual shortlists in preparation for their meeting later this month to agree a winner. The winner will be announced in February.

books entered for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arab Literary Translation 2014

BALMAL's roots go back to the 2008 London Book Fair when, for the first-time ever, the Fair had the Arab World as its Market Focus. During the Fair Banipal collaborated with LBF organisers over a display of books donated by publishers. This display became the foundation stone of BALMAL, which was formally opened at a reception in January 2010 - the day after the award ceremony of the 2009 Saif Ghobash Banipal Arabic Literary Translation Prize (won by Samah Selim for her translation of The Collar and the Bracelet by the late Egyptian author Yahya Taher Abdullah).

Margaret Obank

The evening was introduced by Banipal's publisher and cofounder Margaret Obank. She described Jonathan Wright as "a fantastic translator of a very wide range of Arabic literature, from Taxi [by Egyptian writer Khaled Al Khamissi] to Azazeel, to Judgement Day [by Lebanese author Rasha al Ameer]."

Jonathan Wright praised BALMAL as a great resource, with 600 works of Arabic literature in translation within its total collection of 2,000 works on the Middle East. BALMAL's literary collection comes via Banipal, "the magazine which has been at the forefront of promoting Arabic literature in English since  1998, 16 years now. Margaret Obank and her husband Samuel Shimon have been introducing Arabic writers to the world and introducing the world to Arabic authors ever since then, and the literary scene would be very much the poorer without them."

Ruba Asfahani

Wright noted that over the period Banipal has been publishing there have been big changes in the world of Arabic literary translation. "There has been a steady increase in the flow. In the 1990s only two to eight literary works a year were coming into English from Arabic. That rose to between 10 and 16 in the first decade of this millennium and then up to 26 in 2009. This time the Banipal prize, which I'm judging, has 17 works of fiction - that's just from one year's publication - which is a very impressive number. I wouldn't say it's the tip of an iceberg - I wouldn't go quite that far - but it's certainly not the whole picture, there are plenty more that didn't make that list."

Wright added that there is a similar pattern in the USA. "In 2013, out of 500 new works of translated literary fiction 30 were from Arabic, which means that Arabic ranked fourth in the world's languages, after French, German and Spanish. So Arabic really is way ahead of other languages, way ahead of Italian, for example, and Russian, languages that you might expect to be much higher."

 Arab British Centre Executive Director Noreen Abu Oun

Wright said there are all sorts of reasons why this matters of course, including cultural exchange, common  humanity, learning about each other, finding out about other countries and so on. But there is also the malign side: "It's often noted that some books are chosen maybe to reinforce prejudices, and many of the books have veiled women on the covers, or scary looking men. In parallel there has been a massive increase in the teaching of Arabic in Western universities but there is of course also a malign side to that because a lot of people who learn Arabic end up listening to your phone calls."

Referring to his personal experiences, Wright presented an eloquent case for the reading and translation of Arab literature. "I was a journalist for 30 years mainly in the Middle East for Reuters news agency and I travelled widely: I think the only Arab country I never went to was Mauritania.  I met thousands of people, interviewed them, sat in their homes, drank tea, heard them make speeches in public and so on, and I really thought that I was quite knowledgeable and that I was familiar with the fabric of society, and of course I read the newspapers, and I watched television.

Jonathan Wright

"Eventually I became somewhat dissatisfied with the journalistic way of life because it is a little superficial and you're very much driven by deadlines, you don't have time to dig very deep. Then I gradually discovered literature, and I realised that literature was a very good channel for discovering more about other countries and the way people live. Of course it's subjective, and not the whole truth, but in a way that's its strength because it is a very intimate and a very authentic immediate voice that sticks in your mind in a way that other forms of information do not. And if it's coupled with alternative representations of reality from other authors then it really does build up a picture that is very rounded and quite deep.

"For the last couple of years I've been dealing with quite a few Iraqi authors.  I used to go to Iraq occasionally, not for long periods of time,  but I really feel that now I have a much better feeling for Iraq than I ever had from visiting and walking around and speaking to people, because the literature that I've discovered is highly condensed, it's distilled experience, people have put their whole lives into these pages. So after reading people like Hasssan Blasim and Ahmed Saadawi and Sinan Antoon and so on I feel that I know Iraq much better than I would have done by reading the New York Times or the Guardian or watching Al Jazeera.

 doorway of the Arab British Centre

Wright added: "I mentioned this to some of my journalistic colleagues and many of them agreed with me and said that, yes, they find reading literature does add another dimension. Of course I'm not suggesting that we should stop reading newspapers - and if you want to find out what Iraqi oil production was in 1960 probably literature is not the place to go. But I was reminded of literature as a source of socioeconomic data when I was reading Thomas Picketty's book on capitalism, and he starts off by talking about Jane Austen novels and Balzac, and  how their characters perceived the social structure around them, and socioeconomic reality that they lived. No amount of graphs or economic statistics could give you the same sense that you get when you read Jane Austen or Balzac on how their characters saw their place in society. And there are plenty of other examples of people who've used literature as a means for analysing social attitudes and so on - Edward Said for example, and even Max Weber. So that's how I see the value of literature: may it thrive, and may you go on reading."

report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

sign off Fleet Street to Dr Johnson's  House - and the Arab British Centre