Saturday, February 13, 2016

18 February London event celebrates Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize winner Paul Starkey

Event to celebrate and congratulate Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize 2015 winner Paul Starkey 
@ Waterstones Piccadilly
Thursday 18 February
* This is a free event, but please reserve your place by emailing *

“The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, published at the height of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, is one of the most adventurous and innovative novels to have appeared in Arabic in recent years and its English version is a tour de force of translation.” 

Paul Starkey - winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Egyptian writerYoussef Rakha's novel The Book of the Sultan's Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars - will be in conversation with Rakha - who blogs at The Sultan's Seal ("Cairo's coolest cosmopolitan hotel. General Manager: Youssef Rakha.") - and with Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation and former head of books at the Telegraph. The evening includes readings, audience Q and As, a book signing and a reception.
The event is hosted jointly by the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature and Waterstones Piccadilly.

from 6.30pm, for 7.00pm start

Waterstones Piccadilly Bookstore 203/206 Piccadilly, London W1J 9HD

Friday, February 12, 2016

Palestinian Ambassador to UK objects to Foreign Secretary Hammond's comment

The Palestinian Mission in the UK issued today the following statement on Palestinian Ambassador Manuel Hassassian's response to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's lecture at the Conservative Middle East Council's Policy Meeting earlier this week: 

Ambassador Hassassian at the Annual Policy Meeting of the Conservative Middle East Council.

The Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Manuel Hassassian attended the Annual Policy Lecture of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) on Wednesday evening, 10th February. The event enjoyed a packed audience of ministers, MPs, Peers and the Arab diplomatic corps in London.

The Foreign Secretary, The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP delivered the 2016 Annual Policy Lecture and spoke about the current security situation in the Middle East and the lack of stability. He emphasised that all efforts are now being exerted to find a solution to the conflict in Syria. Towards the end of his speech, he touched on the critical situation in Palestine, assigning the stalemate in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians to the intransigence of ‘elites on both sides’ leading to suffering among ordinary people.

H.E. Manuel Hassassian was the first to take the floor after the Foreign Secretary and re-joined that although he sincerely agreed with what The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP had said about Syria, he had to disagree, in absolute terms, with him in relation to Israel and Palestine.

He strongly questioned the fact that the Foreign Secretary had framed the issue by putting the Israelis and the Palestinians on an equal footing. This was an unacceptable assertion as they are not equal at all. Israel is the occupier and the Palestinians are occupied and the impasse in the peace process is directly due to Israeli policies. The Ambassador highlighted, in particular, the fact that Israel is building more and more illegal settlements on expropriated territory which amounts to a creeping annexation of Palestinian land. This, he emphasised, is the chief obstacle to any meaningful dialogue at the current time.

The Foreign Secretary thanked Ambassador Hassassian for his valuable contribution and said he was of the same view when it came to illegal Israeli settlement building which he agreed was definitely an impediment to peace.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Saqi to publish Sayed Kashua's essay collection Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Saqi to publish Native by Sayed Kashua

London-based publisher Saqi Books anounced today that it is delighted to have acquired UK and Commonwealth rights to Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life by Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua. It will be publishing the book in April 2016, as a paperback.

Sayed Kashua is the author of the novels Dancing Arabs; Let It Be Morning, which was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and Second Person Singular, winner of the prestigious Bernstein Prize. He is a columnist for Haaretz and the creator of the popular, prizewinning sitcom, Arab Labor. Now living in the United States with his family, he teaches at the University of Illinois.

Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life gathers together for the first time a selection of Kashua's personal essays, first published by Haaretz between 2006 and 2014. The essays explore questions of identity, cultural divides and the deeply-rooted complexities of a tragic conflict, alongside witty and intimate depictions from Kashua's personal life as both a father and husband.

Kashua writes with poignancy and candour about his children’s upbringing and encounters with racism, as well as the rising social and political tensions that led him to emigrate from Jerusalem to the United States in 2014.

Sarah Cleave, publishing manager of Saqi Books, who acquired rights from Abner Stein in association with the Deborah Harris Agency, said: ‘Native is a wickedly sardonic, moving and hugely entertaining collection that offers real insight into the lived experiences of Palestinians in Israel. Written by one of the true masters of the form, this ostensibly light-hearted book is a nuanced and enlightening critique of Israeli society that exposes the difficulties of living as a Palestinian in the Jewish state."

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist unveiled in Oman

the six titles shortlisted for IPAF 2016

International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2016 shortlist
Tareq Bakari (of Morocco), Rabai al-Madhoun (Palestine), Mohamed Rabie (Egypt), Mahmoud Shukair (Palestine), Shahla Ujayli (Syria) and George Yaraq (Lebanon) were today announced as the six authors shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), widely known as the Arabic Booker Prize. The shortlist is dominated by writers from the Mashreq, among them two prominent Palestinian authors.

The prize is worth a total of $60,000 to the winner: $50,000 plus the $10,000 that goes to each shortlisted author. In addition, the winner is guaranteed translation into English. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 26 April 2016, the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The six shortlisted titles were chosen from 159 entries from 18 countries, all published between July 2014and June 2015. They are:
Numedia by Tareq Bakari (Dar al-Adab)
Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba by Rabai al-Madhoun  (Maktabat Kul Shee)
Mercury by Mohamed Rabie (Dar Tanweer, Lebanon)
Praise for the Women of the Family by Mahmoud Shukair (Palestine) - Hachette Antoine  
A Sky Close to Our House by Shahla Ujayli (Syria) - Difaf Publications
The Guard of the Dead  by George Yaraq (Lebanon) - Difaf Publications

The 16-title longlist was announced on 12 January, though one of the books - Kuwaiti author  Taleb Alrefai's novel Here - was subsequently disqualified , as per the rules of submission, because it was found an earlier edition had been published before July 2014. 

This is the ninth year of the Prize, recognised as the leading prize for literary fiction in the Arab world. It is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). It also enjoys supported from Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Etihad Airways.

The shortlist was revealed by a judging panel chaired by Emirati poet and academic Amina Thiban at a press conference hosted by The Cultural Club in Muscat, Oman. "The process of choosing the shortlist was a pleasure and a challenge in equal measure," Thiban said. "This year’s list features a number of experimental works, which try out new ground as they explore the experiences of the individual and the larger concerns of the Arab world, from personal issues to social, political and historical ones. The shortlisted novels are characterised by their innovative narrative forms and styles, which both question the heritage of the Arabic novel and address the tragedy of the present day Middle East.”

Professor Yasir Suleiman CBE, Chair of IPAF's Board of Trustees, added: “This is a strong list, one that reflects the energy of the Arab literary scene as it marches forward to reach an ever-expanding readership. Through their subjects, well-crafted characters and technical ingenuity, these novels transcend their local sources to reach distant shores where the human spirit is the ultimate champion.” 

As always, the identity of the five IPAF judges had been kept secret until the shortlist was announced.. Thiban's co-judges are Egyptian journalist, poet and editor of Al-Qahira newspaper Sayyed Mahmoud; Moroccan academic and critic Mohammed Mechbal; Bosnian academic, translator and researcher Munir Mujić, and Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, who edits Al-Hayat newspaper's cultural pages.

the IPAF judges announce the 2016 shortlist

A statement from IPAF said: "The six novels are wide-ranging in subject matter, setting and style. They include the story of a Moroccan intellectual searching for identity through a series of relationships (Numedia); a pioneering novel, written in four parts – each representing a concerto movement – on the subject of Palestinian life both in occupation and exile (Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba); a dystopian imagining of “the counter revolution" in Egypt, set in a nightmarish future where the police battle against a mysterious occupying power (Mercury); the story of the Al-Abd al-Lat tribe, former Bedouins whose women play a vital role in integrating the family into urban Palestinian society during the 1950s (Praise for the Women of the Family); memories of Syria’s past and times of tolerance and simple pleasures from the viewpoint of a Syrian woman now living in exile in Amman after her town, Raqqa, is occupied by ISIS (A Sky Close to Our House) and, finally, a new perspective on the Lebanese Civil War through the eyes of a hospital undertaker, whose former life as a mercenary puts his life in danger (The Guard of the Dead)."

IPAF has been making efforts to increase the representation of women and young authors on its submissions, longlists and shortlists. Some eyebrows are bound to be raised at the fact that that there is only one woman, Syrian Shahla Ujayli, on the shortlist. The ages of the authors range from 28 (debut novelist Moroccan Tareq Bakari) to 75 (Palestinian Mahmoud Shukair), with an average of 52 years.

One previously shortlisted author, Rabai al-Madhoun, makes the list. His novel The Lady of Tel Aviv was shortlisted in 2010 and has been translated into English by the Saqi imprint Telegram Books. One first novel, Numedia, also makes the list. Two of the shortlisted authors have participated in the annual IPAF Nadwa (workshop): Mohamed Rabie in 2012 and Shahla Ujayli in 2014. Ujayli worked on what is now the fifth chapter of her shortlisted book, A Sky Close to Our House, during the workshop and credits the experience with helping her move forward with the novel.

IPAF Shortlist 2016 – biographies and synopses 

 Tareq Bakari

Tareq Bakari was born in Missour, eastern Morocco, in 1988. He graduated with a BA in Arabic Literature from Mohamed Bin Abdullah University, Fes, in 2010 and obtained a diploma from the Meknes Teacher Training College in 2011. Since then, he has worked as an Arabic language teacher in Meknes. He has published numerous articles and pieces of creative writing, both in print and online, but Numedia (2015) is his first novel.

Numedia tells the life story of Murad, as written by his French former girlfriend Julia. An orphan, Murad is cursed by the people of his village. Ostracised, insulted and beaten, he turns to love in an attempt to take revenge on fate: first with Khoula, who becomes pregnant; then Nidal, his classmate and fellow comrade in resistance; then Julia, seen as the French coloniser, and with his final love Numedia, the mute Berber. The rich story of Numedia unfolds against the backdrop of the real-life historical, political and religious landscape of Morocco. 


Rabai al-Madhoun

Rabai al-Madhoun is a Palestinian writer, born in al-Majdal, Ashkelon, southern Palestine (now Israel), in 1945. During the 1948 Nakba exodus, his family emigrated to Khan Younis in the Gaza strip. He studied at Cairo and Alexandria Universities in Egypt, but was expelled from Egypt in 1970 before graduating, because of his political activities. He has worked at the Palestinian Centre for Research Studies and as a journalist and editor for many newspapers and magazines, including Al-Horria, Al-Ufuq, Sawt al-Bilad, Al-Quds al-Arabi, Al-Hayat, WTN (an American TV news network), and APTN-Associated Press. His published works include The Lady from Tel Aviv (2010), a novel shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and his second novel Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba (2015). The Lady from Tel Aviv was translated into English by Elliot Colla and published by the Saqi imprint Telegram Books. The book won the English PEN Writers in Translation award. He currently works as an editor for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London.

Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba is a pioneering Palestinian novel written in four parts. Each part representing a concerto movement, the novel looks at the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948 (known as the ‘nakba’), the holocaust and the Palestinian right to return. Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba is a novel of Palestine from outside and from within. It examines the tragedy of everyday Palestinian life, telling the story of Palestinians living under occupation and forced to assume Israeli nationality, as well as exiled Palestinians trying to return to their now-occupied home country.


Mohamed Rabie

Mohamed Rabie is an Egyptian writer, born in 1978. He graduated from the Cairo faculty of engineering in 2002 and his first novel, Kawkab Anbar (2010), won first prize in the emerging writers' category of the Sawiris Cultural Award in 2012. His second novel, Year of the Dragon, was published in 2012, followed by Mercury in 2014. In 2012, he took part in the IPAF Nadwa (writers' workshop) for promising young writers.

Mercury is a dark fantasy which imagines “the counter revolution" in Egypt as a reality in a nightmarish future. The eponymous hero of this fantasy novel is an officer who witnessed the defeat of the police in Cairo on the 28 January 2011. Over a decade later, Egypt is occupied by a mysterious power and the remnants of the old police force are leading the popular resistance, fighting among the ruins of a shattered Cairo. It is a daily hell of arbitrary killing, an intensified version of the sporadic massacres witnessed since the famous revolution in January.

Mahmoud Shukair

Mahmoud Shukair is a Palestinian writer, born in Jabal al-Mukabbar, Jerusalem, in 1941. He writes short stories and novels for adults and teenagers. He is the author of forty-five books, six television series, and four plays. His stories have been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Chinese, Mongolian and Czech. He has occupied leadership positions within the Jordanian Writers' Union and the Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists. In 2011, he was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression. He has spent his life between Beirut, Amman and Prague and now lives in Jerusalem.

Praise for the Women of the Family is a history of the women of the Al-Abd al-Lat clan, which has left the desert and is preparing to leave its Bedouin customs behind. The women of the clan struggle with these changes and many scorn those embracing modern life: when Rasmia accompanies her husband to a party, Najma wears a dress and Sana gets a tan on her white legs, they set malicious tongues wagging; meanwhile, Wadha, the sixth wife of Mannan, the chief of the clan, still believes that the washing machine and television are inhabited by evil spirits. Set after the nakba (the Palestinian exodus from what is now Israel) in a time of political and social change, the novel witnesses the rapid advance of modernity and the seeds of conflict beginning to grow in 1950s Palestine.

Shahla Ujayli

Shahla Ujayli is a Syrian writer, born in 1976. She holds a doctorate in Modern Arabic Literature and Cultural Studies from Aleppo University in Syria and currently teaches Modern Arabic Literature at the University of Aleppo and the American University in Madaba, Jordan. She is the author of a short story collection entitled The Mashrabiyya (2005) and two novels: The Cat's Eye (2006), which won the Jordan State Award for Literature in 2009, and Persian Carpet (2013). She has also published a number of critical studies, including The Syrian Novel: Experimentalism and Theoretical Categories (2009), Cultural Particularity in the Arabic Novel (2011) and Mirror of Strangeness: Articles on Cultural Criticism (2006). In 2014, she took part in the IPAF nadwa (writers' workshop) for promising young writers, where she worked on a passage from her 2016 longlisted novel, A Sky Close to Our House.

A Sky Close to Our House spans the second half of the 19th century to the present, featuring characters from different backgrounds who meet in Amman, Jordan, the city at the heart of the story. It is here that Jaman Badran, a Syrian immigrant, gets to know Nasr Al-Amiri, a Palestinian-Syrian who has come to Amman for his mother’s funeral. They soon discover that their grandparents were neighbours in Aleppo. Through the dramatic fall of families in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Serbia and Vietnam, A Sky Close to Our House shows how wars can change concepts of identity and nation, and create new destinies for large numbers of people; it also underlines that mass tragedy does not in any way negate the significance of individual suffering. 

George Yaraq

George Yaraq is a Lebanese novelist, born in 1958. He has worked as an editor and freelance writer for several Lebanese newspapers and magazines, such as Al-Nahar, Al-Liwa', Al-Hayat, Al-Sayyad, and Jasad. His first novel, Night, was published in 2013. 

The Guard of the Dead is the story of Aabir, a hospital undertaker. Working in the morgue by day and the operating theatre by night, he learns to pluck out and sell the gold teeth he finds in the corpses’ mouths. However, he lives in a state of constant dread and apprehension, his past working for a political party and as a sniper during the Lebanese Civil War hanging over him. One day, Aabir is kidnapped from the morgue. With no idea about where he is, who has taken him or why, he finds himself searching for clues about his kidnapping in his past.

The Judging Panel

Amina Thiban (Chair) is an Emirati poet and academic specialising in literature and forms of narrative, in particular the modern Arabic novel, who has also worked in journalism. She has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and a PhD in Modern Arabic Literature, both from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. After graduation, she studied English at Cambridge and Comparative Political Poetry in Cyprus and America. She is the author of Transformation and Modernity in the Desert: Tribal Saga in "Cities of Salt" (2005), The Discourse of Contrast and Irony in the Works of Emile Habibi (1993) and Flower of Blood (2013), as well as numerous studies focusing upon the Arabic novel, modern Arabic feminist discourse and academic criticism.

Sayyed Mahmoud is an Egyptian journalist and poet, born in 1969. He is currently editor of Al-Qahira newspaper, issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, and has edited the cultural sections of a number of publications including Mu'asasa al-Ahram al-Masriyya and several independent Egyptian papers. In 2001, he won a prize awarded by the Union of Egyptian Journalists for the best literary coverage, and he has worked as a literary editor and freelance correspondent for several Arab newspapers, such as Al-Hayat (London), Al-Akhbar (Beirut), and Reuters. He has served as a judge on the Egyptian Sawiris Cultural Award and the Arab Journalism Award in Dubai (in the Cultural Journalism category), and was honoured for his media work at a conference for Egyptian writers in 2013. He has written several documentary films and is a founding member of the Arab Group for Cultural Politics. He is the author of a volume of poetry, Recitation of the Shadow (2014), and editor of a book of interviews with literary figures by Bahraini poet Qasim Haddad, titled The Temptation of Questioning (2008), as well as A New Page: the young Arab writers' workshop (2005). 

Mohammed Mechbal is a Moroccan academic and critic. He is head of the Rhetoric and Discourse Analysis team in the College of Arts of the Abdul-Malik al-Saadi University, Tetouan, Morocco. He has written the following works: Rhetorical Utterances in Poetry Analysis (1993), The Rhetoric of the Anecdote (1997), Secrets of Literary Criticism (2002), Rhetoric and Origins: a study in the foundations of Arab rhetorical thought - Ibn Jani as a case study (2007), Rhetoric and Narration: the controversy of argumentation and imagery in "Akhbar Al-Jahiz" (2010), Rhetoric and Literature: from imagery in language to imagery in discourse (2010), Egypt through Moroccan Eyes (2014), and The Discourse of Morality and Identity in the Letters of Al-Jahiz: a rhetorical argumentational approach (2015). He has also translated The Image of the Other in Literary Imagination (2009), co-translated The Image in the Novel (1995) and Argumentation in Communication (2013), and was one of a team of translators who translated the Oxford Dictionary of Rhetoric (2015).

Munir Mujić is a Bosnian academic, translator and researcher. He received his PhD in Literature from The Sarajevo University. He lectures in Arabic literature and Arabic rhetoric at the Sarajevo University, in the Department for Oriental Languages and Literatures at the Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences. He has published three books and numerous articles on both classical and modern Arabic literature as well as Arabic rhetoric. His literary translations from Arabic into Bosnian include works by Ghassan Kanafani, Salah Abdel Sabour and the poetry of Khalil Mutran. His scope of interests also includes Arabic manuscripts and he translated a manuscript of Arabic rhetoric by Bosnian author al-Aqhisari. He is a member of the Bosnian Philological Society and of the editorial board for publications of the Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences.

Abdo Wazen is a Lebanese poet and critic, born in 1957. He is editor-in-chief of the cultural pages of Al-Hayat newspaper. He won the Dubai Press Club's 2005 Cultural Journalism Award, and the 2012 Sheikh Zayyed Children's Literature Award for his novel The Young Man who Saw the Colour of the Air (2011). He has published seven volumes of poetry and two novels as well as works of criticism and translation. His poetic works include: The Closed Wood (1982), The Eye and the Air (1985), Another Reason for the Night (1986), Garden of the Senses (1993), Doors of Sleep (1996), Lantern of Temptation (2000), Fire of Return (2003), A Broken Life (2007) and The Days Are Not for Bidding Them Farewell (2014). His other works include: My Father's Room (2003), Open Heart (2009), Mahmoud Darwish: the Stranger Falls Upon Himself (2006), Poets of the World (2010), An Introduction to Novels of the Lebanese War (2010), and Amin Maaluf, Breaking Boundaries (2012). His poetry has been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. His novel Open Heart was published in French as À Coeur Ouvert (2016) and his poetry volume Garden of the Senses was the subject of an MA thesis at Toulouse Le-Mirail University, France.

Delivering on its aim to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction, the Prize has guaranteed English translations for all its winners.The first eight winners are:
2008: Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher (Egypt); 2009: Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan (Egypt); 2010: Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles by Abdo Khal (Saudi Arabia); 2011: The Arch and the Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari (Morocco) and The Doves' Necklace by Raja Alem (Saudi Arabia); 2012: The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber (Lebanon); 2013: The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (Kuwait); 2014: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq); 2015: The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout (Tunisia).

The English translation of Raja Alem’s novel will be published by Duckworth on 2 June. Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk was published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) in 2015. Other  winners translated into English include Sunset Oasis (Sceptre), Azazeel (Atlantic Books)  Throwing Sparks and The Arch and the Butterfly (both published by BQFP). The 2014 winner, Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, in English translation by Jonathan Wright, has secured publication by Oneworld in the UK and Penguin Books in the US.
In late February Saoud Alsanousi will take part in the Muscat International Book Fair and an event with students at Sultan Qaboos University.

In addition to the annual Prize, IPAF supports an annual nadwa (writers’ workshop) for emerging writers from across the Arab world. The inaugural nadwa took place in November 2009 and included eight writers, who had been recommended by IPAF Judges as writers of exceptional promise.A number of former nadwa participants have gone on to be shortlisted and even win the Prize, including Lina Hawyan Elhassan from the 2015 longlist, 2014 winner Ahmed Saadawi, and Mohamed Rabie and Shahla Ujayli from this year’s shortlist.
Susannah Tarbush - London

Friday, February 05, 2016

Darf Publishers issues new edition of trailblazing book 'Translating Libya'

When Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story by Ethan Chorin was first published in 2008  by London publisher Saqi, in association with the London Middle East Institute at SOAS, it was hailed as a welcome addition to the bafflingly small corpus of Libyan literature in English translation. And the book was most timely, produced just as Libya was “coming in from the cold” after years of international isolation and sanctions. Chorin was himself a member of the small team of US diplomats which went out to Tripoli after US-Libyan relations were restored in July 2004. (I reviewed the book for in September 2008).

The book comprised sixteen stories by fifteen Libyan authors, translated by Chorin (in three cases jointly with Basem Tulti), together with Chorin’s engaging essays and jottings on Libyan short stories and his adventures while searching for them. The stories were selected and organised on a geographical basis: to be considered for inclusion the stories should be descriptive and should mention specific places. The authors ranged from pioneers of the Libyan short story such as Wahbi Bouri, Kamel Hassan Maghur, Ali Mustapha Misrati, Sadiq Neihoum and Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih to writers from a later generation, including Abdullah Ali Al-Ghazal and Meftah Genaw, and emerging women writers Najwa Ben Shatwan, Maryam Ahmed Salama and Lamia El-Makki.

Now Darf Publishers of London has published a revamped and updated edition of the book. It is appropriate that Darf should be the publisher of the new edition. Founded in 1980, it is the English-language imprint of Libyan publisher and bookseller Dar Fergiani, which dates back to 1952. In Translating Libya Chorin describes his fruitful visits to one of Fergiani’s two bookstores in Tripoli and his discussions with Hisham Fergiani, who suggested various possible avenues in his quest for short stories.  

The publication of the new edition comes at a time when the situation in Libya is drastically different from that when the first edition appeared. In 2008 “many believed Libya, with a nudge and a kick from the West, could morph from brutal dictatorship to something approaching the ‘kinder, gentler’ oligarchic models of the Gulf and East Asia,” recalls Chorin.

Few could have foreseen the 2011 revolution that would violently overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The situation today is ever more fraught, with two rival governments, and Islamic State gaining a foothold in certain places and perhaps posing a future threat to Europe. 

Ethan Chorin

There was a literary renaissance in Libya during and immediately after the 17 February revolution, and new publications burgeoned. But within two years the stranglehold of militias and Islamism imposed a kind of censorship.

The new edition of Translating Libya includes both Chorin’s introduction to the first edition, and a new introduction in which Chorin asks: “Why a revised Translating Libya?” He explains that the changes in Libya since the first edition gave him the opportunity in the second edition to say some things he couldn’t while the old regime was in place, lest he put the authors in a difficult position. “Post-revolution I could make explicit some of the more ‘subtle aspects’ of the original, and add some additional content to a literary history that is experiencing shifts and mutations in Gaddafi’s wake.”

Throughout Libya’s modern history the literary scene has been bound up with tumultuous developments in the country’s politics and economics. Some of the stories in Translating Libya deal with the impact of oil wealth, and the influx of foreign influences. Ramadan Abdalla Bukheit’s “The Quay and the Rain” features a dock worker trying to survive with his family in wretched circumstances amidst an alienating urbanisation. He is haunted by the harshness and danger of his former work in oil drilling in the desert.

Libya was under an often brutal Italian occupation from 1911 to 1943, and was a major theatre of fighting during the Second World War. The constitutional monarchy installed in 1951 was overthrown by Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution, and his unpredictable dictatorship ruled for the next 42 years.

During Gaddafi’s four-decade rule some writers left the country, others stopped writing or took refuge in allegory and metaphor. Some wrote in private, with their works surfacing in public only years later. The writer and critic Mohammed Fagih Salih called the 1970s in Libya “the age in which people before it wrote, and people after it wrote.”

'a lesson in how writers communicate in a repressive regime'

The second edition of Translating Libya has a new foreword, by the veteran Libyan novelist, short story writer and dramatist Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih. In a sense this brings the book full circle, for it was reading Fagih’s story “The Locusts” when he first went to Libya that triggered the idea of preparing an anthology of Libyan stories in English translation. Chroin was introduced to “The Locusts” by his Libyan assistant Basem Tulti after he asked for suggestions of Libyan literature he might read. Chorin loved the story and translated it, and then he and Tulti embarked on the project to collect and translate stories which culminated in the publication of Translating Libya.

In his foreword, Fagih writes: “Translating Libya is an expression of Libyan culture, but also a lesson in how writers communicate in a repressive regime, where heavy censorship, and random, severe punishment are common.” The stories reflect society past and present. “They even give voice to the sufferings and psychic disturbances of the dictator, living in constant tension with the people.”

Fagih observes that the idea of “searching for a place” committed Chorin to visiting the very towns and sites mentioned in the pieces. “Libya is a vast country of 1,760,000 square kilometres. It has a number of very different environments, colours and flavours. Libya encompasses rich coastal areas, oases, mountains: its people are Bedouin, urban dwellers and rural folk. The reader of this book will gain, both from the stories and Chorin’s commentary, a sense of this geographical and cultural variation in Technicolour.”

Translating Libya is divided into three main parts. The first part sets the scene, tracing the short story from Benghazi in the 1960s, through the decades to the 21st century. It also tells of how Chorin set about finding and collecting stories, through scouring bookshops, newspapers, magazines and the internet, and picking the brains of Libyan acquaintances.

Azza Kamel Maghur

The second part of the book contains the translated short stories, divided into three geographical sections:  East, West and South of Libya. These correspond roughly to the old provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. To the sixteen stories in the first edition Chorin  has added one new story, by human rights lawyer and author Azza Kamel Maghur, daughter of the short-story pioneer Kamel Hassan Maghur (1935-2002.

 Azza Kamel Maghur: a leader in 'realist-fiction'

Chorin reckons that Maghur’s short story “The Olive Tree” establishes her as a leading figure in modern Libyan ‘realist-fiction’. The story is set in Zintan during the 2011 revolution and is dedicated to its real-life central figure “the Martyr Sheikh Mohammed al-Madani and the heroes of Zintan”. The story is taken from Maghur’s collection of stories on the revolution, Fashloum: Qisas Februaee. Chorin sees “The Olive Tree” as marking “the passing of the baton to a new literary generation.”

The third part of the book, "Interpreting the Stories", includes Chorin's essays on such aspects of the stories as Three Generations of Economic Shock, Migration, Minorities (including Jews, Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans), Between Depression and Elation (on the mix of despair and humour in Libyan stories), and Women in the Stories. Chorin has kept these essays largely as they were in the first edition. "One reason is that I wish to highlight the ways in which the stories foreshadowed the revolution, and may explain what will happen to Libya in the future". The books's third part concludes with three new sections, the first examining the contemporary revolutionary context of Libyan literature. The final two sections reproduce two of Chorin’s articles: “The Graffiti of Benghazi”, published in Words Without Borders on 17 August 2011 and “Benghazi Blues” from Foreign Policy, 5 August 2011.

Chorin left Libya in 2006 and departed the diplomatic service two years later to work for a multinational in Dubai. His two years working as a diplomat in Libya left him with an abiding interest in the country and an affection for its people. His book Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution was published in 2012 by Public Affairs in the US and (as Exit Gaddafi : The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution) by Saqi in the UK. He is Founding Partner and CEO of Perim Associates LLC which provides economic analysis and strategic advice to companies and governments.

In the new edition of  Translating Libya Chorin recounts how in autumn 2010 he was contacted by someone who had read the first edition of the book and had gained insight into a country he had left 35 years before. Chorin discovered that he and this person had a common interest in medical logistics and they discussed projects they might do in Libya. They set up the framework for a partnership between a US teaching hospital and the Benghazi Medical Centre (BMC).

On 10 September 2012 Chorin and this colleague witnessed in Benghazi the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding that had the potential to improve the city’s emergency care capacity. On the afternoon of the following day the US Ambassador Christopher Stevens told Chorin and his colleague he was thrilled at this, but a few hours later came the attack on the US compound in Benghazi in which Stevens was killed.

 Libyan artist Mohammad Bin Lamin

After the trauma of the killing of Ambassador Stevens, a number of the late ambassador’s friends and former colleagues worked to bring the prominent Libyan artist Mohammad Bin Lamin to California for a memorial art show, carrying with him the work of several other Libyan artists.

Chorin's friendship with Bin Lamin goes back to when Chorin was living in Libya. Chorin recalls that at the time he was preparing the first edition of the book he had discussed with Bin Lamin a particularly striking group of the artist’s paintings entitled “Yellow Beings”. Later on, Chorin was despairing of finding for inclusion in the book a story referring to Derna, “the most beautiful place in all of Libya”. His problem was solved when Bin Lamin asked him to look at some stories by a friend of his: “With its timely and detailed descriptions of Derna and its environs, Abdullah Ali Al-Ghazal’s ‘The Mute’ would constitute the final piece of our geographic jigsaw puzzle.”

Looking to the future, despite Libya's grave problems, Chorin refuses to give up hope that things will eventually improve. "If insulated from outside influence, I believe Libya may ultimately sort itself out, as it has in the past, during times of great pressure and turmoil. It will be interesting to see what literature emerges from the post-Revolutionary high, and subsequent lows."

Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih says that since February 2011, Libyans have been forced to answer dark questions, such as "was 'freedom' worth the costs associated with the current harsh reality?" Libya's past provides evidence of similar periods of fragmentation, chaos and re-integration. "The key is to make sure that the processes established now incorporate lessons from the past, so that we do not repeat the same old stories."
- Susannah Tarbush, London