Thursday, March 19, 2015

ANTIBOOKCLUB "sold out print edition of Amir Tag Elsir's 'French Perfume' in less than a day"!

a cheeky statement from ANTIBOOKCLUB:
ANTIBOOKCLUB goes too far with latest novel...
Shut out by its own industry, ANTIBOOKCLUB rises above The book no one would review just sold out within twelve hours of launching pre-orders... Without any advance reviews, without any money for promotion, without crowdfunding, and without any bookstores even so much as sniffing in their general direction: ANTIBOOKCLUB sold out its print edition of Amir Tag Elsir's disturbing novel French Perfume (in its English-language debut) in less than a day.

"It has been our intention from the start," says publisher Gabriel Levinson, "to prove to the book world that there is a better way to make and sell books. Some view this as arrogance, and perhaps there is a bit, but when every element of the industry we are devoted to shuns us from the playground--all because we choose to operate on our own terms (self-distribution, a sporadic book release schedule, grassroots marketing)--a bit of arrogance might be called for so as not to feel the crush of the Frown from Those On High."

Levinson, who was interviewed by no one and is writing this himself, fondled his sweater for fifteen minutes before hitting 'Send.' He is curious if anyone in the press will read this, but he isn't terribly concerned either.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

a memorable evening in London celebrates Sinan Antoon's winning of Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize

report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

Every year the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature organises an event in London to celebrate the winner of the annual Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The event is timed to coincide with the presence of the winner in London to receive the £3,000 prize at the official ceremony for the awarding of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and other translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors.

Sinan Antoon (R)interviewed by Paul Blezard

This year's event was held at Waterstones Piccadilly - Europe's largest book store - on the evening of 24th February, the eve of the Society of Authors' awards ceremony. It had a unique flavour in that, for the first time in the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize's nine-year history, the winner - Iraqi-born writer, translator and academic Sinan Antoon - was awarded the prize for a translation of his own work, The Corpse Washer. The novel was originally published in Arabic in 2010, as Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman (The Pomegranate Tree Alone) by al-Mu'assasah al-Arabiyya lil-Dirasat of Beirut. Antoon's translation was published in 2013 by Yale University Press, within its Margellos World Republic of Letters series.

 Sinan Antoon
Antoon had travelled to London from the USA where he is an associate professor at the Gallatin School, New York University. He was interviewed at Waterstones as both author and translator, by broadcaster and writer Paul Blezard, one of the prize judges. The other three judges, present in the packed out audience at Waterstones, were literary translator and joint winner of the 2013 prize Jonathan Wright; translator and writer Lulu Norman, and Banipal editor and trustee Samuel Shimon.

Antoon proved an inspiring interviewee in his wide-ranging discussion with Paul Blezard, combining profundity with humour. The evening included a reception with wine and Arabic food, and the ambience was further enhanced by the soulful oud playing of Khyam Allami who was born in Damascus to Iraq parents in 1981. Allami performed an evocative solo as a prelude to the interview,  and his melodies softly accompanied Antoon's three readings from The Corpse Washer.

Khyam Allami
The audience was welcomed by Paul Starkey, chair of the Banipal Trust, who was until his retirement Professor of Arabic at Durham University. Starkey explained that the Banipal Trust oversees the operation of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in conjunction with the Society of Authors, and that the prize is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash and his family in memory of Omar's late father Saif Ghobash, " a diplomat and a man of internationalist leanings, passionate about literature, who died in 1977 while still in his forties."
Paul Starkey
Blezard noted that the list of 17 works entered for the 2014 prize had been very strong. "You should be rightfully proud, not only for yourself as a writer and translator but also proud of the novel you created: it is a hell of a work," he told Antoon.

Edited transcript of interview:

Paul Blezard: A review in Al-Akhbar says this is the first Arab novel to tackle the subject of washing and shrouding the dead. Can I ask you first what you set out to write? And why did you choose this difficult area?

Sinan Antoon: I was actually writing another novel about something else and I just came across a story in the New York Times and then in Al-Hayat about this man who was a corpse washer. He was born into this family, he was in his early 30s, he was making a lot of money because of all the death in Iraq, but he was traumatised and was planning to leave the country so that his son would not inherit the profession. As soon as I read this story I cried; it touched me on so many different levels. It’s a harrowing story but it seemed to me that that person is the one person who deals - in addition to people who work at the morgue of course - with the full impact of violence. But it touched me as a very powerful story and -although I usually ridicule these kind of statements - at that point I realised that that I'm going to write a novel about this person.

I was fascinated by this corpse washing: the story described some of the rituals and they sounded so poetic and beautiful and sad. I went to the library and got out all of these books of Shiite theology and started to read about the details, and it just fascinated me. And later, I realised that it also seemed to be the most perfect structure and theme to deal with so many issues that I and so many other Iraqis have been dealing with. What does it mean when a society disintegrates? What does it mean when there is so much massive violence on a daily basis that defies logic? And what saddens me also in reading the stories of the corpse washers is that they had to deal with new types of death that had not been described in the manuals.

Paul Blezard: you’d read this piece of journalism in the New York Times; were there other stories you could draw on?  

Sinan Antoon: there were a few interviews with corpse washers, primarily in Iraq, who were speaking to some of these issues: how they used to have one or two corpses in the past and now they’re having this flood of corpses, but also how they were dealing with the new, sadly evil, creativity of human beings who are now mutilating the bodies in a new way. There wasn’t that much in terms of details, which was good for me in that I could then invent and add a lot of material.

Paul Blezard: The Corpse Washer is a story about the washing of corpses, and the treating of respect of the dead, as a way of telling a much bigger picture, which is the picture of Baghdad, which is the picture of Iraq. These are big issues to deal with for any novelist: it’s a very slim volume dealing with a massive concept. How did you figure out what you could and couldn’t deal with through the eyes of the corpse washer – and his father of course, this is also a transgenerational story. 

Sinan Antoon: initially I was very excited, because this is a rich subject, and then I had this paranoia because I realised I’d left Baghdad in 199 and grew up in a Christian family. But then I realised that that’s the challenge of the artist, to write about other worlds and not only one’s own. I’ve been haunted, and still am, by the figure of working men and women who every day, everywhere, have to wake up and deal with life and don’t have the option of giving up, it’s a luxury. So that helped me, but it was helpful that Jawad the main character is of my own generation so I had lived some of what he lived. And  frankly - although I always say it raises my blood pressure and has given me an ulcer - I obsessively followed the news since I was a kid. Being away from Iraq, I tried to over-compensate by following the news way too much so that I don’t feel that I’ve lost touch.

Way too many novels in the Arab world deal with intellectuals and with the elite and I was more interested in a lower middle class, or even working class, person, and also to chart this secular space that existed once and that’s eroding, and also to deal with a very important subject which is how does a person who is secular - and there are many people like Jawad in Iraq and elsewhere - deal with increasing sectarianism and the rise of the politicisation of religion. How do they maintain their own sanity, and how do they not themselves become sectarian? So I don’t know if these issues helped me have a more compact approach into the character, and also I think what helped, looking back now, is that most of the thinking and the action takes place within this space of the mghaysil and the corpse washing. So the daily rituals themselves kind of impose a certain order that helped me.  

 Sinan Antoon reads from The Corpse Washer
Paul Blezard: There's a poetic metre and a cadence to the narrative of the story you tell. I’m interested by what you say about telling the story of a person out of the working classes, who in any conflict are the ones who really suffer and whose story is so rarely told. Which makes me want to ask this - which is a bit of a weird question perhaps - what responsibilities did you feel when you were writing this to those working class voices who are so rarely heard? And also as a Christian, or brought up as a Christian, writing about Shia and also about Sunni. 

Sinan Antoon: well that’s the challenge, and I cherish the challenge in a way. The challenge is always - whether it’s race or gender or ethnicity or class - how to get into that world and really live the personalities without exoticising them. So frankly that was my fear. In addition the neighbourhood where most of the events take place, Al- Kazimiyya , is a place that I’ve only been to a few times.  But then thanks to the digital world we live in... for example there in the shrine in Al-Kazimiyya there is a website that has an inside camera that shows you the inside of the shrine. And none of this goes into the novel, but it made me feel secure that I at least know the surroundings and all of that.

And I guess I’m lucky that I lived in a neighbourhood that used to be a middle-class suburb in the 1960s and 70s. In the 80s, because of the social changes in Iraq, it became a mixture of working class and middle class families. So the people I played football with when I was a kid and hung out with were from different classes. So working class background and cultural world is not alien to me. And maybe being a Marxist at heart helps as well.

Paul Blezard: Why? 

Sinan Antoon: this may sound ‘70s, but some things were good in the 70s. Having a sensitivity to material reality and, frankly, social injustice, and economic injustice. And that is one thing that's  inescapable in Iraq and the USA: how class over-determines much - not everything, but much - of one’s world and where one goes, what one imagines, what one can do and what one cannot do.

Paul Blezard: it’s one of the aspects of this book that I particularly enjoyed, the interconnectedness of society

Sinan Antoon: Now I come out as a communist!

Paul Blezard: the communist catholic 

Sinan Antoon: we have a communist pope now, so..!

Paul Blezard: I have this luxurious position that I can talk to you not only as the author but also as the translator. And it is quite an act, to translate your own work. Can you talk us through how you approached that? Did you just go in and think OK, well I can turn this into an English story, into a story told through English, or is it more complicated than that? 

Sinan Antoon: It’s all about being selfish, basically. Two reasons primarily. I was so invested in the characters and in the events, and so when I finished the novel in Arabic, as with most authors I felt this postpartum depression because now there was this void. And naturally I wanted it to be translated and I couldn’t trust anyone else to do the translation, not because I am the best translator but because all of the references to the Qur’an and to things in Iraq itself and in Baghdad and in the poetry and all of that, and having been trained in Arabic and Islamic studies I thought I would be the person.

But it was selfish in that I wanted in a kind of masochistic way to go back to that atmosphere of the novel and to those characters and live with them again, painful as it was. So initially it was just the inability to deal with the void that comes after finishing a book that is very heavy in its subject matter and that - I should have said this about your previous question - was one way for me  to process , or try to process, all of the news that was coming out of Iraq, and that is still coming out every day and is really harrowing for any human being, but particularly for people who are from that country . And the novel was one way of trying to make sense or nonsense of it and the translation is just another act, a repeat in a way.

Paul Blezard: How much time was there between your finishing the Arabic version and then starting on the English translation? 

Sinan Antoon: I started translating it about five months after I finished.

Paul Blezard: so not that big a gap. But isn’t there the urge to update the story? Because I know from my own writing, every time you look at a piece of writing you think “I could do better now”. We only write to the best of our ability at that time but you can’t walk into the same room twice.

Sinan Antoon: definitely. I say in the preface that works ... it’s about poems but I think it applies ... that works are never finished, they’re only abandoned.

Paul Blezard: or published! 

Sinan Antoon: actually it goes back to Ibn al-Muqaffa’, the pre-modern Persian Arab author, who had a great quote about how human beings are never content with the text that they finish. There were certain parts where going back and looking at the text now as a reader and as a translator parts here and there where I thought maybe I overdid it a little bit in terms of description or what not, but of course it’s very difficult and challenging because I couldn’t completely step out of the author and just be a detached reader. But I was surprised that I didn’t change much, and maybe that’s not a good thing, though there were a few sentences in dialogue mostly that I took out. But I didn’t take out any big chunks. 

 Paul Blezard: so you resisted the urge to rewrite, it was actually an act of translation. 

Sinan Antoon: Yes, and not only that, I resisted the assaults of the editor which is a problem that a lot of translators from Arabic and other non-European literatures face, especially in the US.  

Paul Blezard: if you don’t mind, we have some of the Arab world’s finest editors and translators here in this audience. 

Sinan Antoon: yes, so they know, but I think Marilyn Booth has written an article about how US editors try to kind of domesticate the Arabic text so I won’t keep harping on it. But the editor wanted, for example, to take out most of the nightmares I have in the novel, and to my mind that’s the skeleton of the novel. I said well if we take out the nightmares then let’s take out the whole novel and not publish it. So I resisted all of that, not that any text is perfect, but I guess it might sound weird but to me those characters and the events are real, and to my mind they actually happened...  these characters did say these sentences, and to imagine that they didn’t say them would fragment and fracture this wall that I had built.

 Paul Blezard: do you consider it a specifically Iraqi novel?

Sinan Antoon: I do, not in terms of fetishising: I think all good literary texts are immensely tied to the place they’re written in but they also speak to larger issues. It is about a very important period, specifically the civil sectarian war in Iraq but also about these last three decades, that are the most violent in the country’s history and that have changed everything about the country. But there is something that doesn’t come out in English, sadly - that’s the loss, the real loss - I always write the dialogue in the Iraqi spoken dialect and it’s impossible to bring that out in English. So in Arabic it is specifically definitely a very Iraqi novel, because the dialogue is all in the Iraqi colloquial.

Paul Blezard: one of the things the judges liked was the sense of poetry. It’s like a little perfect jewel, a little piece of amber, perfect in form. I wondered how conscious you were - as the writer now, not the translator - about this almost imperceptible sense of atmosphere of the place in which the events happen. Let alone the characters. But this sense of where the water feeds into the pomegranate tree... I’m not going to give anything away here, but we see we have this pomegranate .... of rebirth of renewal and of redemption in a way, but this calmness, this stillness, the dustiness that you describe, were you aware of that as you were writing, was that conscious? Or is that part of the alchemy of authorship, it happens while you are thinking of other things?

Sinan Antoon: I think it is the alchemy, and then I’ll make another confession: as much as I love writing fiction much of my reading is actually poetry, even as I write, and actually the energy I’ve spent in translation was mostly translating poetry from Arabic to English and from English to Arabic. I’ve read a lot of fiction of course but in recent years maybe - I’m just guessing - it’s the effect of reading poetry. In the intense moments, of trauma and suffering I turn to poetry, I don’t turn to novels. So maybe that’s part of it, I don’t know. I’m happy with it but the refrain now in the Arab world is that they criticise novelists who write in a poetic way. And in that sense they agree with the American editors who for example said the title is too poetic; I told them only in America is being poetic a liability - it’s supposedly a good thing to be poetic, right?

So it’s not planned, but retroactively it might be the hegemony of a certain type of reading. And when I think of Iraq frankly and remember, I’m haunted by poets such as Muzaffar al-Nawab and al-Jawhiri... I can’t stop myself from using them in the novels and I think that diction and the atmosphere come back.

Paul Blezard: Can we talk about the brutality? You’re describing the result of brutality; how did you approach that? These corpses are coming into this place, they’re being washed, because of acts of brutality,  it’s a prism into the brutal world outside the doors of this building. 

Sinan Antoon: The challenge is some of us have the luxury of looking away, or even not looking, and what was compelling to me about the figure of the corpse washer, beginning from the newspaper story I read, is that here is a man who cannot look away, he has to look. So this  brutality is happening and there are different approaches. Some people like to leave it unsaid and unspoken. To my mind it had to be all described, but how does one do that without it being too gruesome? So I tried as much as possible to inhabit the persona of someone like Jawad who ....but for him being an artist and also the conflict of being someone who is not a believer, who is doing something because he has to for financial reasons, but he comes to understand the importance of these rituals and he never loses.. he never becomes detached and just a robot that does it mechanically.

Paul Blezard: it’s his compassion and humanity that carries a lot of this novel. 

Sinan Antoon: yes, and not to sound banal but there are so many people like that. I mean you read about them in every society, who have to do these really horrendous jobs in professions from which there is no redemption, there is no pleasure, there is no upward mobility, there is the same every day and they have to make sense out of it and find some kind of meaning. Some people misread it as kind of defeatist but it’s actually about resilience, about someone who’s talented and ambitious but history does not allow him to become an artist. He's forced into this profession, but he realises that fate or chance gave him this responsibility and he then starts to feel a responsibility towards the dead. Which is compassion and a sense of ethical responsibility towards other human beings.

Paul Blezard: Have any of the corpse washers read this do you know? Have you had feeback? 

Sinan Antoon: not yet, I think they’re too busy, but someone from the city of Najaf, where the great majority of Shiites are taken to be buried, read the novel and commended it. He didn’t believe that I wasn’t a Shiite, he said “are you sure you’re not a Shiite?” I said the last time I checked I wasn’t. But it would be of course a great honour, and interesting, to see how they would see it.

Paul Blezard: and how was it received in Iraq in general?

Sinan Antoon: it’s heart-warming and rewarding, I don’t have any complaints. My only complaint is that now everyone is going to expect another The Corpse Washer.

audience QUESTION and ANSWER session

Q:  I think it’s an honour for a Christian to write about a Muslim washing of the dead. It's something so new, I’m sure the Muslim community is indebted to you. Through these three generations, you said, of continuous violence, cycles of torture, I often think about the youth, their hopes and dreams. I left Iraq a long time ago when the time was good. How do the young people endure seeing injustice, brutality, lack of opportunities, the future? 

Sinan Antoon: that’s a very important question. To me one of the few resources of hope are the contacts I have with the young Iraqis who are in Baghdad, who are in their early twenties and are not burdened with history and all of this. They have a desire to live and they have all these initiatives in Baghdad and Iraq under catastrophic conditions of sectarianism and militia culture. They do activities, they write, they have these initiatives for reading, to kind of regenerate a sense of culture, and there are amazing artists and filmmakers and writers coming out. So in the midst of all this, that is the sign of hope, and many of them are unencumbered by the sectarianism and culture of violence of the last three decades. They are very hopeful, which is very important. I always think that despair is a luxury, it can be paralysing; they don’t have the luxury of despair, they have to live, and they have to make do with what they have. And I keep reading about them, not only in the terms of the cultural sense, but the sense of a massive initiative, for example to help all of these people who are displaced. And it crosses all of these lines of sect and ethnicity and religion. So it will take a long time, but that spirit never dies.

And I think the same thing applies to what happened - now I am making the mistake of going into a minefield - but in the 30 years before the Arab revolts we heard time and again from so many so-called intellectuals “oh where are the youth, what are they doing, they’re busy playing video games or watching video clips, they’re not reading” blah, blah - badeyn it turned out that all of these youths were actually inventing and imagining a new world and they actually started revolts. So the challenge for those of us who are outside, or who are of an older generation, is to listen and try to understand and go into the spaces where they go and to understand what they’re going through, and what type of a world they’re imagining. And what kind of victories they will have that some of us couldn’t have.

 Q: I’m halfway through the Arabic novel and it’s fantastic so far. One thing that really struck me, at least in the first half of the book, is that Jawad, the main character, was going to be an artist and then he decided not to be, he went back to his father’s occupation. There are lots of references also to people like Jawad Selim - who incidentally is my great uncle, so I’m glad to see him in the novel. But it was very sad, and also it made me really happy, to see reference to this strong and great history of Iraqi culture and Iraqi art that often gets forgotten, specially here in the West, and that was effectively destroyed. And I wondered if there were some parallels - or whether I’m reading too much into it - with your character Jawad’s decision to return to being a corpse washer. 

Sinan Antoon: No, without being nostalgic or beautifying the past I think a major problem in how many Iraqis look at Iraq is that they conflate Saddam Hussein and the Baath with something called Iraqi society and the Iraqi state. There was a lively Iraqi culture, everyone knows that, before Saddam Hussein appeared and the Iraqi state was a burgeoning state functioning everyone forgets. Modern Arabic poetry was invented in Iraq, and what Jawad Selim and others did in Iraq is something very unique throughout the third world, having this modernity articulated in local forms. So that’s one thing that we cannot afford to forget because a lot of the time this pessimistic look completely cancels out all of the past, as if it’s all just Baathist horror and there was nothing good. We end up erasing our own history.

The other thing that always haunts me is that I consider that I and some of my friends were lucky. There are people from my generation who were, like Jawad, very very talented, and had they had the opportunity they could have been great artists, great writers, great engineers. What I wanted to put forth, which happens so often, is that the structural conditions, the catastrophe of dictatorship and of sanctions and of war, destroyed the potential of people like Jawad. To make ends meet he cannot be an artist and this happened to so many artists and writers specially in the 90s, you could not make a living by being an artist or by being anything, everyone started changing professions. So he has to go back to the only thing that he can do. So it’s not a matter of choice actually, maybe one thing I was unconsciously trying to do.. I hate the term choice that so many people use because it’s ridiculous, thank you for choosing this, thank you for choosing that. Most human beings on this planet have one choice, or two at best and they’re both awful. There's no choice really; of course not to deny human agency, but you have the context that forces you to do certain things.

But to go back to the icons of Iraq, you know international media went to the Firdos Square because they are lazy and because the three 5-star hotels were there. When Iraqis demonstrate they went to Sahat al-Tahrir because that place means something and because that monument, aside from all the politics, is just an amazing work of art. It’s really beautiful. And that’s where people go to restore a sense of a republic with all its problems and attempt at freedom and non-sectarianism and citizenship until today. Even three years ago when there were protests in Iraq after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that's  where people went, to Sahat al-Tahrir, because that place means something and that monument means something and it invokes a history of creativity and of hope. I’m sounding like a very hopeful person but I’m actually very pessimistic.

Q: I was talking via Skype with an Iraqi journalist in Baghdad the other day and my Skype connection died and I called him back and apologised for the crappy internet in London. He said well I’m glad at least we have one good thing in Baghdad. You  mentioned the video of the website of the shrine in Al-Kazimiyya. I was just wondering if you could expand bit more on the research that you did and also how you used sources on the ground, people you know in Iraq, and also how you experienced that as an author living in exile, having your own cultural realities and your own cultural references, both from Iraq but also as in a sense whether you felt as an outsider as well in trying to approach this story.

Paul Blezard: do you see yourself as living in exile?

Sinan Antoon: no, as living abroad. I think it’s disrespectful to real exiles who suffered prison .. exile is sexy, but ..

Paul Blezard: it carries political weight and gravitas also. The wider question is about research, – obviously the website looking at the shrine and so on and so forth.

Sinan Antoon: Yes, I contacted this foundation in America, a Shii charitable foundation, because I knew they did some of this corpse washing but they completely ignored me. I had wanted to go and see it live but they were not helpful at all. I keep thinking, well I left the country in 1991 and I want to write about what’s happening right now. And at every step I - being a critical reader myself - would be crushed if someone reads and says oh, it is obvious that this guy is living abroad. So, I was incessantly reading the news and collecting everything that I could find about these corpse washers. But the good thing about theology books of all monotheisms is that they’re very much into details. There is a description of every possibility, and everything happening if someone dies abroad, if someone dies on a ship,. And I always say as much as I hate Facebook and YouTube, the reality is that we are lucky. You can actually be living in New York but live in Shanghai or Cairo or Baghdad because you can watch the satellite channels and see everything people are seeing over there and then spend time on Facebook and elsewhere and basically almost consume visually everything that is being consumed over there. So that helps. But I believe  - and this might sound too uncritical and unscientific - that it’s also about passion and about the madness of thinking that you can inhabit the body and life of another person and really try to see the world from their perspective. So that was very helpful. And having lived the first 23 years of my life in Baghdad and having roamed the streets a lot helps I think: it’s always surprising what one has in one’s own archive, that one is not aware of.

Paul Blezard: does Google Earth do Street View of Baghdad?

Sinan Antoon: actually it helped in certain parts, it’s not as extensive as Google elsewhere, but a lot of the streets and where they are, just to double check the names on the map

Q: I’m very interested in your experience as the writer of that particular work, and the translator at once. How did that feel? Did you feel that you were creating the exact self same version of your Arabic novel in English? Did you approach it with the aim of just transferring it from one language into another or did you feel that perhaps that you owned the manuscript as the writer and therefore perhaps maybe attempted to take some liberties with it, or slight liberties, and perhaps saw yourself as creating a very similar but parallel and slightly different piece of work in English? 

Sinan Antoon: yes, both of these actually, there aren’t many changes but of course I had much more liberty than someone who’s translating work by someone else, but I’ve also in dealing with this and others also in dealing with this and others I’ve used the metaphor of musical performances and variations. And you know there is always loss because there this question always comes up, why is there this loss. There is always loss, even in speech, even in language, you know it’s OK but it’s not radically different from the original Arabic, as I said, it’s only that the dialogue doesn’t have the resonance it would have in Arabic.

Paul Blezard: what criticisms as the author do you have of your translator? If you could have a conversation with him?

Sinan Antoon: I’ll have to think about it

Paul Blezard: maybe for tomorrow.

Q: can I ask you Sinan, was there a particular sense from the publisher that you were both the author and the translator? Behind that surface question is a deeper one... I mean we have to be deeply thankful to publishers and editors for bringing works to the surface, but at the same time I’m so aware of many wonderful novels that have been denuded of their spirit or their meaning.

Sinan Antoon: I think that perhaps because I was the author and the translator the editor tried to do a double aggression against both!  There is always this sense that he would say “but this doesn’t happen in American novels” and to go back to your question I said “well this is an Iraqi novel being translated to English. I’m really happy to be published in English but I’m not interested in writing an American novel and this is not.”

But there are many examples for example the word Allah is translated into God with a capital G. And he said why don’t we keep it as Allah. I said why keep it unless you want to give this sense of some distance. And he had problems with the erotic scenes, he wanted to cut down on the eroticism. On the one hand you complain that our background is Victorian and we give you the sex and you want to... I should say that the problem we have in the Arab world is that publishing houses don’t have editors. Sometimes I show .. to close friends and they function as editors. There is that problem but I don’t think editors should be too aggressive, especially when it comes to these kinds of decisions about, you know, keeping archaic language and this whole issue. The whole idea of writing it even in Arabic is that this world that seems distant then is so immediate. As someone was saying yesterday, a lot of people who are brought up as Shiites are not familiar with these rituals because unless you go and see them it doesn’t happen. And now in this atmosphere of sectarianism, it’s good for non-Shiites to read about these rituals of this community that’s supposed to be so alien and bizarre and to realise that it’s not that bizarre, it’s just human.

Paul Blezard: Let’s wrap it up like this: first of all, congratulations

Sinan Antoon: thank you

Paul Blezard: I think all the judges would agre that judging this year’s prize was an absolute pleasure, it was such a strong field. This is,  I think, an extraordinary novel. I think it will become the early 21st century Iraqi novel. I think it’s important. I think it’s beautifully written 

Sinan Antoon: ... you are creating a lot of enemies for me...!

Paul Blezard: I don’t care, you have to fight them off, I don’t. But there’s something else that this does. It kind of is perhaps why we judged it the way we judged it. For all that it draws upon a fantastic history and tradition, there is something incredibly approachable about this translation to a Western audience. A Western person who has no knowledge of Baghdad, or Shiism, or you, or Arabic culture really, could pick this up and enjoy it for the richness of the story and get so much.  And I think that’s why it’s a worthy winner and why we should be delighted to celebrate with you as you are given the prize tomorrow. So my question to you is this: you’ve had some fantastic reviews for this, but what does winning the prize mean to you? Because of course it does mean you now will have pressure to write The Corpse Washer 2 or whatever you call it.

Sinan Antoon: I’m really honoured and delighted. What it means is - and now I speak as a translator, and those of us who are literary translators know how literary translation is short-shrifted and how most of our labour is unrecognised and not rewarded - it’s an honour to win this prize, which is the only prize in the world specifically for Arabic literary translation. I’m honoured because it has in the past been honoured by amazingly good translators, so I’m really grateful to you and to the others. In writing, I try to learn from the masters that I admire about how not to keep doing the same thing. So after this novel I wrote a novel about a Christian family and the third novel is about two atheists. The pressure is always for a new one, it’s just to keep going and not to fall just into a mould basically and just do the expected.

Paul Blezard: and would you translate your own work again?

 Sinan Antoon: well this one really drained me emotionally to write and translate, so for Ya Maryam (Hail Mary)I have someone else to translate. Now I’ve regained some of my energy so I will translate my fourth novel.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Saqi Books publishes John McHugo's 'Syria: A Recent History'

British author John McHugo explores the historical roots of the Syrian predicament
by Susannah Tarbush 
(An Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 28 February 2015)

Despite the crucial importance of Syria in today’s turbulent international politics, there is a striking lack of in-depth knowledge of the country and its history in much of the West. In the preface to his book “Syria: A Recent History”, British author John McHugo writes: “To the English-speaking world Syria is a far-off country which relatively few people have made a serious effort to understand.”

The “Arab Spring” aroused great interest and excitement when it began. But when the crackdown on protesters in Syria evolved into civil war and a man-made humanitarian crisis, “disaster fatigue seemed all too often to be the general reaction to what was happening.”

McHugo’s book, published by Saqi Books in London as a paperback in March, makes a valuable contribution towards increasing knowledge and understanding of Syria and of the historical processes that contributed to the dire situation in it is today.

The book will appeal to the specialist and the general reader alike. In addition to McHugo’s lively, clear, and admirably fair-minded and balanced text, the book includes copious notes on each chapter, an extensive bibliography, a nine-page chronology of history, maps and a glossary of terms.

Saqi published the first edition of McHugo’s book in mid-2014 as a hardback entitled “Syria: From the Great War to Civil War”. For the new, paperback, edition under the title “Syria: A Recent History” McHugo has updated his text to take into account changes on the ground since the first edition was published.

The new edition includes high praise for the book from publications such as the Sunday Herald, Jordan Times, Journal of Peace , and Times Literary Supplement, and from experts and scholars including Nikolaus van Dam, Ray Hinnebusch and Andrew Arsan.

The New York publisher The New Press bought the North American publishing rights to the book. It published the book in February this year as a hardback and as an e-book under the title: “Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years.”

McHugo is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University, Scotland, a board member of the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) and a member of the supervisory board of the British Egyptian Society.He read Arabic at Wadham College, Oxford University, and after graduating in 1973 he spent two years at the American University in Cairo studying for an MA in Islamic History.

 John McHugo
While at the American University in Cairo McHugo made his first visit to Syria, taking a walking holiday in November 1974 through the mountains from the Crusader Castle at Crac de Chevaliers to the Assassins’ Castle at Masyaf. He spent every night as the guest of local people, and in his book he describes his various encounters with Syrians, who clearly made a deep impression on him.

From the American University in Cairo McHugo returned to Oxford University and obtained an MLitt degree in Medieval Sufi Literature. He then studied law and qualified as a solicitor, working first in Oman, and then in London for the Bahraini government, and later spending much time in Cairo.

McHugo joined the Liberal Democrats because that party opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he is chairman of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.

Sadly, one way in which he has had to update his book for the new edition is in giving increased figures on the devastating human toll of the civil war. By December 2014 an estimated 200,000 Syrians had been killed. Of the population of almost 22.2 million people, more than 9.6 million had fled their homes: of these, 3.2 million had left Syria, while a further 6.45 million were internally displaced. McHugo has also updated the book in terms of the rise and expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Shaam (ISIS), and its declaration of a Caliphate state in June 2014.

A major recurring theme of the book is the effect of actions of outside powers on Syria over the past 100 years, with France and Britain deciding under the 1916 secret Sykes Picot agreement on how to carve up Greater Syria and neighbouring parts of the former Ottoman Empire after the end of the First World War.

One reason the English-speaking world knows relatively little about Syria is that after the First World War it was the French who got the mandate for Syria and Lebanon while Britain had the mandates for Palestine and Iraq. McHugo is highly critical of French actions in Syria. France had a vision of a permanent presence in Syria, which conflicted with the “sacred trust of civilisation” which the mandate system of the League of Nations was supposed to provide. Another major outside factor has been the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has had “an enormous and deleterious effect on Syria” over the years.

During the Cold War Syria was a pawn between the Soviet Union and USA, and “in fact today’s Syrian civil war could be said to be the last proxy conflict of the Cold War.” Or, even more disturbingly, as “the harbinger of the revival of the Cold War which has now begun in Ukraine.”

Certain Arab states – especially Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – and non-Arab Middle East countries Iran and Turkey have also “played games” in Syria. It is because of the importance of the outside factors that for each of the main periods covered in his book, McHugo first considers the impact of wars and foreign affairs before turning to the developments which took place within Syria.

At each stage “events happening outside Syria circumscribed the freedom of action open to its rulers and foreclosed the options available to them. This does not excuse or justify some of the actions those rulers took, but their actions cannot be examined in isolation from what was going on between Syria and its neighbours.”

McHugo sees one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Syrian politics as being what happened to Ba’thism. Initially a nationalist movement which seemingly cared deeply about social justice and healing the rifts in society throughout the Arab world, it had the added advantage for Syrians of having been born in Damascus. But the way in which Ba’thism degenerated into the dictatorship of the Assads is “an object lesson for other Arab countries at the present time.”

Another salutary example is the chaos of parliamentary life in Syria under the mandate and the years after independence. “The glimpses of that chaos which this book contains are a dire warning. It led to impatience with elected politicians and is part of the story of the descent into dictatorship.”

The importance of religious politics grew as a reaction to the failures of Ba’thists and other Arab nationalists. “Islamism is not well understood in the West. It is ultimately a quest for authenticity and identity” McHugo says. “Many Syrians may well want a form of democracy that acknowledges in some way the Islamic roots of the majority of the population. Such a democracy could not be more different from the kind of rule offered by militant organisations like al-Qa’ida or ISIS, which are infamous for their brutality and intolerance.”

McHugo makes interesting comparisons between the behaviour of the French in crushing the 1925-27 Syrian revolt, and the campaign of violence since 2011 by the Ba’thist regime of Bashar al-Assad. In both cases the regimes resorted to intense violence against civilians, as in al-Assad’s bombardment of civilian areas and his recruitment of militias such as the Shabiha to terrorise rural areas and put down uprisings.

Both the French and Ba’thist regimes demonised their opponents as religious extremists. There was a strong feeling among Syrian protestors that the French in 1925, and Bashar al-Assad today, lacked legitimacy. And in both cases expectations had been raised: before the French arrived, Syrians had expected that their country would become independent, while in the early years of Bashar’s presidency many hoped he would reform the system and bring freedom. The weakness of the economy, and the failure of government to help the population, also helped to fuel both the 1925 rebellion and the uprising which began in 2011.

 Historical comparisons can also be drawn between the harshness of the response of Bashar al-Assad’s regime against the demonstrations that grew into a civil war and that of his father Hafez al-Assad in Hama in 1982.

President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar in his turn demonized their opponents as Islamist fanatics. While Hafez al-Assad found overwhelming force worked against his opponents, the actions of Bashar’s regime against people demonstrating for their freedom helped turn the protests into an Islamist uprising. “It was much easier to fight with tanks and bomber aircraft against a demonised opponent in battles that destroyed half the urban landscape of Syria than to deal with crowds agitating for their human rights and free elections.”

McHugo often wonders what became of those Syrians and their families he met while he was walking in the mountains on his first trip to Syria four decades ago. On that trip he was entertained by Orthodox Christians, Ismaili Muslims and Sunni Muslims, and what struck him most was the great similarity between them all. “Whatever differences their religions might have, the likenesses were far greater.” Whenever he has returned to Syria – most recently in December 2014 – he has observed exactly the same thing.

McHugo writes that although at the moment Syrians are being forced back into their sectarian identities, “I refuse to believe that in Syria the secularism based on mutual respect between members of different faiths has ended. But I also know that many would now call this belief of mine an act of faith. Only time will tell.”