Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Arab authors at Suhbbak Festival probe Writing Against the Grain

L to R: Robin Yassin-Kassab; Mona Kareem; Ali Bader,  Ghazi Gheblawi

'Writing Against the Grain' was the title of the opening session of the Shubbak Festival weekend min-festival at The British Library. The weekend - 'Two days of inspirational Arab literature' - was organised with Daniel Löwe, who is in charge of the British Library's Arabic collections, and the translator Alice Guthrie, literary programmer for Shubbak. Guthrie said it had taken nearly a year to put the weekend programme together "with the wonderful help of Daniel Lowe and the British Library team."

'Writing Against the Grain' was a great start to the two days. Chaired by Syrian-British writer and  activist Robin Yassin-Kassab the panel comprised Kuwaiti-born poet, writer, blogger and activist Mona Kareem Iraqi novelist and poet Ali Bader علي بدر and Libyan writer, blogger, activist and medical doctor Ghazi Gheblawi.

Ali Bader read in Arabic and then in English translation from his new novel Liars Get Everything. The excerpt's entertaining slant on a serious subject features an asylum seeker and smuggler, under constant threat of deportation, who fabricates sayings from Marx, keeping himself in disguise through using fake documents and false identities He goes under the name Amin although his real name is George - known to his friends as the Teacher. When he wants to assert the truth of anything, he says "Marx said that, I swear on my sister's honour Marx said it." (excerpt from the novel in English translation by Farah Sharaf here ).

Robin said he has so far read only one of Ali's 21 books, the novel Papa Sartre (AUC Press 2009, translated into English by Aida Bamia). "I strongly recommend it - I hadn't laughed out loud like that for a long time. It's a brilliant satire of one kind of false intellectual, somebody who goes from Iraq to Paris and sees Jean- Paul Sartre in the distance and then returns home and becomes Baghdad's chief existentialist. And he pursues Nausea by drinking a lot.  It's a  brilliant, very funny but also quite serious, novel."

Asked by Robin about the use of irony in his 21 books, Ali described how he uses it "as a political instrument in order to destroy the authorities," who - as in the case of Saddam Hussein - take themselves seriously. He added "I believe in culture, and I believe that we can change society by irony." Irony can also "violate the sacred things" such as religion and authority. From another angle, in his novels he constantly explores "the difficult relationship between the Arab world and the West."

Mona Kareem read in Arabic and English her witty and thoughtful poem "My body is my vehicle'. Robin asked her about a line in another of her poems, "I want to walk in a demonstration against myself." She said it is from her poem "I'm not myself". She had "noticed that I was always asked to define myself in a certain way and I would always answer in negation - I'm not this and I'm not that and not this and not that - and then I arrive at this conclusion of, well I should just like demonstrate against myself. I guess like the characters in Ali's novels, I recreate myself, I fabricate myself, because I find much liberation in this." She thinks one could see "the phantom" of the line "I want to walk in a demonstration against myself" all over the poetry collection it came from. "I'm always haunted by my body and that's why my next collection is about this, how can I explore my body, as a woman - but not necessarily in a sexualised way, the only way in which our bodies are dealt with - and on another level the immobility of this body, that no matter how light you are, you feel heavy."

Robin said this reminded him "of what Ali said in our conversation just outside, that he thinks the political focus of campaigning in the Arab world at the moment should just be on protection of the body - stop torture and stop execution. And if we can get the idea of the sacredness of the body, protecting the human body, everything else will come from that, and what you've just said fits back to that. Robin also discussed with Mona her poem "Kumari", her response to killings by maids in the Gulf of members of the families employing them, which had unleashed much racist discourse against Ethiopians and other nationalities. "There's much more work to do to debunk a whole culture that allows for this master versus servant relation to exist," Mona said. Her poem begins:

Dear Kumari,
I, of course, do not know if Kumari was really your name
It became a custom in the Gulf to change the name of the servant upon arrival,
The mama says to you, “Your name is Maryam/Fatima/Kumari/Chandra,”
Even before she gives you your cotton apron,
The same apron that the previous Kumari used...

Ghazi Gheblawi had replaced at short notice the Libyan playwright and novelist Mansour Bushnaf who had been unable to travel from Libya "because of some visa confusion". Gheblawi paid tribute to Bushnaf, telling the audience of his life -including years in prison from the 1970s with other Libyan writers held as political prisoners on trumped up charges - and of his work, and in particular the novel Chewing Gum ( Chewing Gum - Mansour Bushnaf ). The novel was published in Mona Zaki 's English translation by Darf Publishers in 2014. Gheblawi worked closely with Bushnaf on the English edition.

Bushnaf wrote many plays for the theatre, before and after his imprisonment. Chewing Gum was published in Arabic in Cairo but was confiscated inside Libya. "We got a copy and with the help of Ghassan M Fergiani who's the publisher of Darf Publishers we translated it into English.It's an interesting novel that talks about a guy who stands for 10 years as a statue waiting for his lover to come by and find him. There are lots of metaphors and anecdotes in it and it talks about the history and background of the country. It is very satirical, and very journalistic."

Robin Yassin-Kassab said he had recently read Chewing Gum: a remarkable book that he had much enjoyed, "funny and yet serious, and with really striking images."

Regarding Gheblawi's own writing, he read in Arabic, and the Iraqi-Ukrainian actress Dina Mousawi, read in English translation, an extract from his short story "A Rosy Dream". Robin also referred to Ghazi's short story "The Cave" and its similarity to Chewing Gum in that "you have this prose which is 'all that' - there are elements of post-modernism, and it's self-referential and it's inter-textual and so on, but it's more kind of meaningful and serious than a lot of post-modern experiments in the West." He asked "where does this come from? Because it looks like something that's got a huge tradition behind it."

Ghazi said: "It could be that there's a tradition behind it. I think that the short story specifically in Libya, short fiction, has a long tradition and a lot of writers, whether they were journalists or intellectuals in general, or even poets, dabbled a little in short fiction. There are according to my estimate about 150 short story writers in Libya who have published short story fiction, whether in one collection or several collections.

"The novelists that came later - there were two or three of them that worked on novels in the beginning, now there are more - the new generation who are tackling lots of problems in the country after 2011, and even before, are more or less abandoning the tradition of starting as poets and moving on to short fiction and then maybe moving on to becoming novelists and working in journalism at the same time. They go straight to writing short fiction but it has more attachment to reality and more attachment to the problems that are going on in society."

He said that Mansour Bushnaf once wrote a critique of what short fiction in Libya is, calling it "the prose of the city", in the sense that "because Libya was a rural society before independence in 1951 and then later on before the emergence of oil wealth in the 1960s 80 percent of people were living in small villages and towns. That was why fiction wasn't available at the time but then that social movement of migration to the city produced what he called ''the prose of the city'. So fiction is a product of urbanisation, and that's why you have that coming in the 1960s, 70s and so on."

With reference to the title of the session, Ghazi said that in Libya the act of writing itself is "against the grain". He has recently been involved in producing an anthology of 25 young Libyan writers. "They all wrote these amazing poems, and prose and short fiction after 2011, and all of them are young up-and- coming writers. Most of what is written is something that not only goes against the political atmosphere but also the whole narrative of a society.

"There are a lot of myths that are built in a society... When the writers confront these myths - through an absurdist novel like Bushnaf's Chewing Gum, or in other ways - actually they're writing a new narrative, they're trying to regain control of the narrative that has been taken from the writers or from the society itself. So in itself writing - in this moment of history - is writing against the grain."

report from London by Susannah Tarbush

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Two books by dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappe mark 50th anniversary of 1967 war


Ilan Pappe′s latest publications

Israel′s mega-prison

The dissident Israeli historian and activist Ilan Pappe is known for his challenging and meticulously researched books on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. His two latest books are in keeping with this reputation. By Susannah Tarbush

Ten Myths About Israel (Verso) is a paperback intended to be accessible to the general reader. The hefty hardback The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories (Oneworld Publications) drills into the 50-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It is rich in recently declassified material from the Israel State Archives.

The publication of the books coincides with two key anniversaries this year: the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the fiftieth anniversary of the June 1967 six-day Arab-Israeli war. At the launch of Ten Myths About Israel at the Mosaic Rooms in London, Pappe said the idea of the book had come to him during a visit to Australia. At the National Press Club in Canberra he had discussed Israel and Palestine with politicians, diplomats and journalists. ″I was surprised how they repeated one Israeli myth after another.″

Distortions with global resonance

 He has had similar experiences at the Houses of Parliament in London and with U.S. politicians. ″Basic historical facts about the reality of Israel and Palestine are not known to people who impact and affect the lives of those who live in Israel and Palestine,″ he said.

″This might have been forgiven 20 or 30 years ago when there was very little new research on Israel and Palestine, but in the last 25 years so much new stuff has been written about Israel and Palestine, a lot of it by critical Israeli scholars.″ He thinks the distorted historical picture ″may help explain our difficulty in changing European, American and Western policy towards the question of Israel and Palestine.″......

article continues at Qantara.de

Friday, July 07, 2017

'Brexodus! The Musical' opens at The Other Palace

 Donald Trump (James Sanderson) waltzes with Theresa May (Airlie Scott) 

James Sanderson as Boris Johnson 

Brexiteers vs Remainers in the final song: Heseltine (Paul Croft) and Mandelson (Scott Jones): "It's time, it's time, it's time, to stop exchanging oaths,
And say the empress has no clothes, the empress has no clothes."

Brexodus! The Musical, which opens at The Other Palace in Westminster on 11 July, is a highly amusing and thought-provoking satire on Brexit in song, dialogue and dance. The five-evening run at comes on the heels of the musical’s successful run to packed-out audiences at the Canal Café Theatre in Little Venice on 27-30 June.

The show has a richly talented cast of five versatile actors - James Sanderson, Airlie Scott, Paul Croft, Mike Duran and Scott Jones - playing some 46 roles. It is an updated, expanded and renamed version of Brexit! The Musical, which debuted at the Canal Café Theatre in November 2016 and was performed at the Waterloo East Theatre in January and at OSO Arts Centre in Barnes in February. On 1 February, there was a performance by special invitation in the Press Gallery of the Houses of Parliament.

Much has happened on the Brexit front since Brexit! The Musical was staged. Writer David Shirreff and composer Russell Sarre have added half an hour of fresh material and many new characters to the original hour-long musical, to create Brexodus! The Musical.  The show's musical director Frederick Appleby (deputised by John West) plays the songs and incidental music on an on-stage piano.  The production is directed by Lucy Appleby (no relation).

Brexit! The Musical had several changes of cast in its various stagings, and the cast of Brexodus! The Musical is largely new, though James Sanderson is a constant. Dressed in a blond wig and bicycle helmet, he reprises the role of Boris Johnson which he made hilariously his own.He also plays the new role of Donald Trump, along with Lords Pannick and Newby, First Eurocrat and civil servant Philpot.

Actor Paul Croft, a great comic presence, plays no fewer than 13 roles - from a tipsy Jean-Claude Juncker to Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, Liam Fox, President Erdogan and, clad as Tarzan, Lord Heseltine. Airlie Scott in silvery wig is a glamorous Theresa May waltzing with Trump; her other roles include Michael Gove's ambitious wife Sarah Vine, Jeremy Corbyn's wife Laura, Angela Merkel and Karen, a rare Remainer from Sunderland.

Scott Jones plays inter alia a creepy Michael Gove and Lord Mandelson. A rap between Jones' Putin and Sanderson's Boris Johnson is a highlight of the show. Mike Duran is a journalist (who interviewed many ministers) as well as an actor. As the then Prime Minister David Cameron, his song "I took the train to Brussels" opens the musical. His other roles include Andrea Leadsom, Iain Duncan Smith, Tony Blair, David Davis and Lord Tebbit, Shirref even manages to squeeze on stage Theresa May's powerful ex-political advisers, the "terrible twins" Nick Timothy (Duran) and Fiona Hill (a bewigged Jones)

Brexodus! The Musical is the fourth musical on political and financial crises to be written by financial journalist Shirreff in collaboration with composer Sarre. The series began with Broke Britannia in 2009, followed by EuroCrash! (2011) and Barack and the Beanstalk (2013).

Shirreff says of the revamped show: “We’re chasing a moving target. Every passing week the goal of Brexit seems to get further away. Exodus took 40 years. How long do we think Brexodus will take? Yet we've managed to compress this huge subject into a mere 90 minutes of wicked words and great songs. Among the fresh highlights are Theresa’s waltz with Donald Trump, Blair’s not-so-secret anti-Brexit plan, Corbyn as rock star, dodgy batsmanship from Boris, and the conspiracies of Tarzan and the Prince of Darkness.”

Shirreff has reported on finance since the early 1980s, and was with The Economist in London, Frankfurt and Berlin from 2001 to 2014. He is the author of several books including Dealing with Financial Risk (Profile Books, 2004) and Don’t Start from Here: We Need a Banking Revolution (Crunch Books, 2014), and Break Up the Banks! : A Practical Guide to Stopping the Next Global Financial Meltdown (Melville House Publishing, 2016).

Interview with David Shirreff 

David Shirreff 

Where did you find such a fine ensembles of actors? 
There is a huge pool of young professional actors/singers who are keen to keep in front of their public, even if the pay is minimal. Most of them have other jobs – run bars, sing jazz, do stand-up. I’m lucky that if they love the play they’ll take the risk that they won’t make much money.

Please say a bit about the writing process by you, composer Russell Sarre and musical director and pianist Frederick Appleby: how did you first meet? Does your work have any particular influences? 
I write a draft of the whole libretto before I involve the composer. The writing process can be quite fast, if I’m suitably inspired. And it can happen in strange places. I’ve written chunks of my musicals on holiday in Italy, Greece, Austria, Germany in between bouts of physical immersion in things like skiing, sailing, swimming etc. That seems to keep the brain fresh.

The influences are everything that has made me laugh since I was a child: the Goons, Flanders and Swann, Gilbert and Sullivan, Tom Lehrer, Monty Python, Richard Stilgoe (a less famous but very clever song-writer). I would say Gilbert and Sullivan are the strongest because their characters, however ridiculous, take themselves extremely seriously. I try to follow that model.

I met Russell Sarre in Germany – he was a mate, Goon-show addict, and fellow card-player long before I came to write my first musical in 2009. As I was desperately thinking of someone who could write tunes to my songs I remembered, wasn’t Russell supposed to be a composer? His sense of humour is probably more acute than mine. Frederick Appleby goes to the same church in Barnes, where he occasionally plays the piano. He joined the show as our musical director, then wrote two wonderful songs for it when Russell was overloaded.

after the show: David Shirreff (L) with James Sanderson, who plays inter alia Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Lord Pannick and a Eurocrat

What are the main differences between ‘Brexit! The Musical’ and ‘Brexodus! The Musical?’
Just as Brexit has morphed into an all-consuming saga, more like an Exodus than an exit, so too has the show. Part 1 is more or less the same as in the original, starting in February 2016 and ending with Theresa May’s first attempt to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament.

Part 2 starts in the High Court and follows the chaotic course of May’s premiership so far: her visit to Trump, her battles with Brussels and the House of Lords, and the ill-fated election. Meanwhile Boris charges around like a loose cannon; the anti-Brexit conspirators (Blair, Heseltine, Mandelson) gather; and Jeremy Corbyn achieves rock-star status. Just as the Brexit process has become more serious, and looks deeply damaging to the country, so the show is darker, the comedy perhaps not so much of a romp, more ringing alarm bells, in I hope still an amusing way.

Are future runs planned?
We have a week planned in October (2nd to 7th) at the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes. We would love to do more shows around the UK and perhaps in Brussels, Berlin and even Paris. But this needs private money, or state subsidy, and I’m running out of funds.

Will other recincarnations of the show come along as things develop Brexit-wise? 
There might be room for a part 3 if something dramatic happens – if Boris or Jeremy Corbyn become PM, if there’s a Breversal and Brexit never happens.

What are your views and feelings about Brexit one year on from the referendum? Have they changed since the first staging of the show in its original form?
As I said, Brexit might once have been a bit of a joke, but it certainly isn’t now. Just arguing about the process seems to be tearing our country apart. Surely there are far more important things to be concerned about than going through with such unnecessary self-harm. I blame the so-called Remainers almost as much as I blame the Brexiteers, because if they stood together they could stop this nonsense in its tracks. There’s no cohesion in the Remain camp.

Paul Croft as Jeremy Corbyn, Airlie Scott as Laura Corbyn 

How did the performance in the House of Commons Press Gallery go?
It was a tremendous experience, playing in such a place on the day of the vote on triggering Article 50 (1 February). The MPs, of both persuasions, who turned up, seemed to love the show. We were royally hosted by the Press Corps. I think a good time was had by all. Did we exert any influence on those political minds? I don’t think so, but they had a laugh.

What audience reactions did you have to the Canal Café Theatre run? The night I was there the responses were very positive.
Interestingly, I think the audiences were less inclined to belly-laugh than they were in the runs in November and January. We, the cast and I, think that is because the nature of Brexit has changed. We’re no longer so gleeful about the mess our political leaders have created. As the final song says:

It’s time, it’s time, it’s time,
To call a spade a spade,
And end this wild escapade,
This wild escapade.

 It’s time, it’s time, it’s time,
To stop exchanging oaths
And say the empress has no clothes,
The empress has no clothes.

I think most audiences have liked the show, but one or two people have commented that the subject-matter is now a bit serious for sheer comedy. We’re trying to play it less for laughs, more as a tragi-comedy. It will also benefit from an interval at The Other Palace. 90 minutes in one go was a bit long, for both audience and cast, I feel.

In addition to their being thoroughly entertained, do you hope that audiences take away some kind of“message” or deeper understanding of Brexit and the characters involved? 
I hope so. Although I love see that we’re entertaining people, I would hate to think that there is no more to the show than just laughs. I’ve written my musicals not just to have fun but to vent my frustration with the mess that our political/economic leadership have created. Serious journalism didn’t do that for me. I’m not cut out to work political change in any other way apart from writing. And comedy is a good mirror, I think.
interview conducted by Susannah Tarbush in London 

The Lords' risk abolition: "But we'll never crumble, though governments tumble" 
Fierce debate in the House of Lords over triggering Article 50

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Weapons of Mass Hilarity - Part II" brings together comedians of MENA origin

WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY- PART II ... The Road Map to comedy...

Hosted by LSESU Middle East Society: Students at LSE dedicated to raising awareness about human rights issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sat 29 April 19:30–21:30 (doors open at 19.30 show starts at 20.00)

 Upstairs at The Savoy Tup,
2 Savoy St, WC2R 0BA
nearest tube station; Covent Garden 

Tickets: £5 available online HERE

After a sell out premiere show held on 18 March, join us for the sequel comedy night of all comedy nights where comedians of Jewish, North African, Muslim, Christian, Arab, Non-Arab heritage from the Middle East unite to raise money for the AMAR International Charitable Foundation

 Hosting the night David Lewis will be returning... as delightful as ever describing himself as the "Super Jew" and head honcho of the comedy institution that is Big Nose Comedy inc.

The line up includes.

Victoria Howden
Back for a sequel, Victoria is a musical comedian with a dream of turning her life into a musical, she finds a tune for every occasion... get yourselves ready for an absolute treat!

Laila Alj
Laila is a Moroccan stand up with a very different insight into being North African in a Western climate

Ben Cohen
Prepare to be dazzled by this comedy GIANT...

Jenan Younis
London based comedian of Iraqi and Palestinian origin, be prepared to be terror-risingly amused...

Fatiha El-Ghorri
Fatiha is constantly getting lost on her way to the mosque and ending up in various comedy clubs instead! This gal smashed the Muslim stereotype!

Aaron Simmonds
Aaron has been trying to stand up for 27. years. Luckily he can do comedy even if he can't do the standing up...

Janine Harouni 
Janine is a Lebanese-American stand up and sketch comedian, winner of the Leicester Square Theatre's Sketch Off 2017; we've got star quality from across the pond...

Yazz Fetto
Yazz is a comedy writer and performer; he has written for BBC Radio 4s "Dead Ringers" and is one half of Christian comedy duo The Monks

below: group photo from WEAPONS OF MASS HILARITY - PART I 
left to right; Mo Saffaf, Nicole Harris, David Lewis, Jenan Younis, Fatiha El-Ghorri, Victoria Howden

Monday, March 20, 2017

Omar Saif Ghobash's eloquent 'Letters to a Young Muslim'

UAE Ambassaor to Russia Omar Saif Ghobash addresses 'Letters to a Young Muslim' to his son Saif 
by Susannah Tarbush, London
[an Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 20 March 2017]

The book Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, has received much acclaim in the weeks since it was published. The book takes the form of 27 letters written by Omar to his elder son Saif, who is 17 this year. But the intended readership is much wider: “I write these letters to both of my sons and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them.”

The book, written in English, is published in the UK and US by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. There is also a digital audio version read by the author himself. The book is being translated for publication in German, Spanish, Turkish, and Complex Chinese for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ghobash hopes it will also be translated into Arabic.

Omar Saif Ghobash studied law at the University of Oxford and mathematics at the University of London. His letters to Saif are eloquent and beautifully written, their prose crystal clear. They can be seen as an antidote to the propaganda messages of ISIS (Daesh) and other organisations that use violence and destruction in the name of religion.

Ghobash aims to “reaffirm the duty to think and question and engage constructively with the world. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity.”

And he urges them “to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we need to make.”

Ghobash launched his book at a tour of four venues in the USA, and has been interviewed on leading US TV and radio shows. The book has received many highly favourable reviews. The author  and his book have also been making made a considerable impact in the UAE. On the evening of 8 March Ghobash appeared at an event at the Emirates Airline Festival in Dubai, discussing his book with another prominent Emirati intellectual and promoter of the arts, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. The event was a highlight of the Festival and many positive comments about it were posted on Twitter.

The festival’s director Isobel Abulhoul, who founded the festival in 2008, tweeted to Ghobash and Al-Qassemi: “You two made me so proud tonight. I had been waiting 9 years for this. The best session!” And the prominent British arts journalist and interviewer Rosie Goldsmith tweeted “Listen to this man: one of the most open, honest and important speakers I’ve ever heard on UAE, Islam.” Many other members of the audience issued similarly enthusiastic tweets - such as “Interesting (and funny!) talk by Omar Saif Ghobash”. “inspiring and vivid”, “amazing talk”. There were similar reactions to his appearance at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYAD) Institute. The internet magazine “The Dubai 100” featured him in its “local hero” series.

Ghobash was born in Ras Al Khaimah in 1971, “the same year the United Arab Emirates was founded, which has always been, to a certain degree, a point of pride and symbolic of my sense of self.” One thing that makes his book so compelling is that it is in part an autobiography. He writes with remarkable frankness about his experiences and struggles when he was growing up.

 In 1977 when Omar was only six years old political violence entered his life in a terrible way: his father Saif Ghobash was assassinated. Saif Ghobash, then 43 years old, was the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He was saying farewell to a Syrian delegation at the airport when a 19-year-old Palestinian shot him dead, mistaking him for a Syrian minister.

“The violence that destroyed your grandfather in 1977 continues to warp relationships and emotions in our family today,” Ghobash tells his son. “The effects of that violence continue to motivate me and color my view of the world.” Omar's father met his Russian wife when they were both studying engineering in Moscow. A Russian cousin of Omar’s recently told him via Facebook that “many of our male relatives had been Orthodox priests who had been killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.” The fact of being half Russian is very important to Omar. For example his mother introduced him to the great Russian writers, and in his book Omar mentions the internal turmoil of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky. But growing up half Russian also caused him some difficulties when he was a boy.

Ghobash is very aware of the pressures on young Muslims these days, especially given the rapid change to which they are subjected, including in means of communication. “In today’s world, you have access to all the information you could want about the most obscure ideas, events, and movements”, he tells his son. “You, and I, are overwhelmed by the media coverage of Islam and Muslims, intertwined with the constant linkage with terrorism and religiously inspired violence. You find that it is difficult to be a Muslim and live in societies that seem to be made up of lonely, sullen, and isolated individuals.”

Omar Saif Ghobash (credit Sigrid Estrada)

He urges against “black and white thinking” saying “there is much more gray in between the black and white than the ulema and other scholars present us. And the gray is where you develop intellectually and morally.”

He adds: “Certain dominant strains of Islam demand that it be placed at the centre of world politics. And supposedly you are obliged to be its servant. Why? Well, because we have a series of well-funded and persuasive voices who tell us daily that Islam is under attack and that we need to be on the offensive. Is this really the case? I do not believe so. These are shrill voices that have a warped view of the world and have managed to acquire finances and credibility.”

He criticises the education to which some young Muslim are exposed, which can lead to an atmosphere in which there is hatred towards those of different sects or religions. He gives advice on how to counter hatred, and live a worthwhile life. “You should know that for every action, there is a reaction. Your perseverance, kindness, or humour creates a ripple effect in our culture just as much as your indifference, violence or negativity.”

Ghobash  constantly stresses the need for individuals to take responsibility; he writes “Saif, I think you have noticed by now that I see the world through the prism of responsibility.”

When crimes are “committed by lunatics who claim they are acting for Islam” he often hears it said that “those people have nothing to with Islam”. But he has a different perspective. Though he does not like what the terrorists do, “I realise that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. We can take responsibility for demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can take responsibility for making it clear, to Muslim and non-Muslim, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary.” Young Muslims should “take back the definition of responsibility from those who would claim that responsibility is demonstrated by declaring violent jihad, or by carrying out suicide bombings.”

Omar repeatedly stresses the need to uphold the rights of women. In a letter entitled ‘Men and Women’ he reminds his son that has been brought up in a household where women are “strong, educated, focused and work hard”. All around him Saif sees women taking the lead, pushing on, striving to better themselves, and contributing to society in multiple ways. “We cannot claim women in Islam are unable to face the big, wild world out there if it is us who have deprived them of the basic rights and skills to do so…Our women need to be trusted and respected.”

Omar Ghobash is known not only as a diplomat but as a lover of, and promoter of, Arab arts and especially literature and the visual arts. In the preface to his book he explains how the shock of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 had a major impact on his thinking. Just weeks earlier he had been with Saif in Manhattan, carrying him in a baby sling. After the attacks “I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility towards this child. I decided that the time had come for me to take action in the limited ways that I could.”

He therefore involved himself in the arts, in literature and education. “My overwhelming desire was to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show myself and my fellow Muslims that our world has so much more to offer than the limited fantasies of deeply unhappy people.”

His work in diplomacy came later, “and I have approached it with the same attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. Through travel and interaction with all kinds of people, from the deeply religious to the highly knowledgeable, from the deeply uneducated to the hyperconnected, I see the common humanity that we all share.” He began his career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat at the UAE Mission to the United Nations and was then appointed ambassador to Russia in 2008.

Prior to becoming an ambassador, Ghobash founded The Third Line, Dubai’s first international contemporary art gallery showcasing artists from the Middle East. In the field of literature, Ghobash and his family sponsor the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, named in memory of Omar’s late father. This prize, awarded annually since 2006 was established by Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab literature and is the first prize in the world dedicated to rewarding translations of Arabic literature to English. The Ghobash family’s sponsorship of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize was last year extended to include an Annual Lecture.

Omar was a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – often known as “the Arabic Booker prize” - when it was launched in Abu Dhabi in 2007 with support from the Booker Prize Foundation in London. It was hoped that the prize would encourage recognition of high quality Arabic fiction, reward Arab writers and lead to increased international readership through translation. In the field of education Ghobash was instrumental in bringing New York University to Abu Dhabi. New York University Abu Dhabi admitted its first students in 2010.

The many warm responses Letters to a Young Muslim has received suggest that there is a thirst among Arab and Muslim youth, and Western audiences for positive and hopeful, yet challenging, ideas such as those contained in Ghobash’s book. At the end of his final letter to Saif, on the theme of ‘The Muslim Individual’, Omar writes: “In ending these letters to you, Saif, I want you to promise yourself that you will always maintain your dignity, your individuality, and your independence of mind… Now go and write your own letters.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Omar Sabbagh's new collection 'To the Middle of Love'

Omar Sabbagh's fourth collection: a reflection of different kinds of love
Susannah Tarbush, London 

Since his first poetry collection My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint was published by Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press in 2010, the British-Lebanese poet, author, essayist and academic Dr Omar Sabbagh has produced a stream of published poems and prose works. His writing has appeared in book form and in numerous literary journals. His first poetry collection was followed by the collections The Square Root of Beirut (Cinnamon Press, 2012) and Waxed Mahogany (Agenda Editions, 2012).

His first long-form prose work, the novella Via Negativa: A Parable Of Exile, appeared last year under the then new Cinnamon imprint Liquorice Fish, set up to encourage “innovative and idiosyncratic” writing.

Now Sabbagh has returned to poetry with publication by Cinnamon Press of his fourth collection, To the Middle of Love. Some of the poems, or earlier versions of them, have appeared in the journals or edited volumes Agenda, Agenda Online, CAPITALS, Peloton, Rusted Radishes, The Moth, The Warwick Review and The Wolf. To coincide with publication of the new collection, online publication The Punch Magazine published five poems from it, plus one of Sabbagh's hitherto unpublished poems.

To the Middle of Love carries praise on its back cover from one of Sabbagh’s main mentors, the distinguished multiple-award-winning British poet Fiona Sampson, Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton. she was awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List. 

"Omar Sabbagh writes with rare intensity and generosity," says Sampson. "Ideas and images overflow the lines of his verse, as well as their own boundaries, in a Shelleyian helter-skelter. Like Shelly, Sabbagh believes in the transformative power of poetry; unlike Shelley, he is also in love with language itself.”

Sabbagh was born in London in 1981 to Lebanese parents. He passed through the British school and university system and writes in English, although Lebanon is ever-present in his writing - at times overtly so, as in the poem "The Cedar Never Dies" in his new collection. The poem begins:

My country, my love,
Let me speak to you now in a foreign tongue,
Quipping against the flaming madness
Now begun.
The language in which I body my caress,
My missive in Dove...

Omar Sabbagh

Sabbagh has a BA from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE),  three MAs from London University - in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy - and a PhD in English Literature from King's College, London University.

A revised version of his doctoral thesis was published in 2014 as From Sight through to In-Sight: Time, Narrative and Subjectivity in Conrad and Ford by the Brill imprint Costerus New Series.

Sabbagh's literary career runs alongside his professional life as a university teacher. He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 2011-13 and is currently Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD). A first launch of To the Middle of Love was held at AUD at the end of January. It was followed by a 10 February London launch at the Big Green Bookshop, Wood Green.Sabbagh appeared alongside fellow Cinnamon Press poet Edward Ragg who was launching his new collection Holding Unfailing.

Omar Sabbagh at the Big Green Bookshop with Cinnamon Press founder Dr Jan Fortune 

Interview with Omar Sabbagh:

How would you compare To the Middle of Love with your three previous collections; for example has there been a change in your style over time?

First thing to say is, as well as being paraphrasably ‘romantic’ (this book is after all a reflection of different kinds of love), my working-method is just as romantic: which is to say, I generally write poems within the space of half-an-hour, and rarely revisit them to touch them up; if they work, they do, if they don’t, which is much of the time, then it’s just dross to be thrown away. Like a lot of poets, rarely do I know the full brief of a poem until I’m started; in fact the first line or 2 usually guide me to where I am going, or at least, where I was always meant to go.

The collection is eminently responsive to relations of love and care (caritas). For me love and death are the root/route of wisdom: that is, coming to terms with what these two terms really mean is to come to terms with what it is to be human. In one sense’ love is the solution, the salve, the tonic for our mortality (and any suffering or pain in life that is death’s precursor). But at the same time love is death…as against ‘onanism’, real love leaves us vulnerable, mortal, delimited. Death is merely the extreme on that spectrum. Thus, though I don’t practice or dub myself one there is a very basic buried Christian theme to the collection.

The book starts, black-comically, with a reference to self-love and progresses to more integral kinds of love. Many of the poems were occasioned by events in the lives of loved-ones, or near-loved ones. The book is dedicated, looping past into future, to my previous carers, parents, and my future one, Faten, my wife.

This is, evidently very much a ‘confessional’ collection. I am a neo-romantic and unashamedly confessional in this collection, which is to say, highly lyrical in the main and self-expressive and this: even though my critical wisdom has many tics against a romanticist approach to experience. None the less, the singing mode comes most naturally to me, so for all my other principles, I don’t fight it. As ever, sound in poetry is essential to how I express myself. I am not a sound-poet, but apart from rhyme, the discipline as it were in my poems are the way intravenous sounds play-out in my verse.

There is an Augustinian beeline through the book. It’s not only the three Augustine sonnets (first published a few years ago in the 2013 Templar Anthology Peloton), but also a reference in the villanelle “On His 75th Birthday” (dedicated to my father Mohamad Sabbagh). And also in the first segment of the book's Coda, the trinity as it were of ‘loving’ ‘understanding’ and ‘doing’ is deliberately invoked. This in-forming notion of ‘trinity’ also closes said Coda.

Something happened, subliminally, to me a year or two ago: I began to write nearly wholly in rhyme, or near-total rhyme. The vast majority of this collection involves rhyme – it’s a kind of discipline for me, and for the poem.

I think my voice remains the same or similar to my earlier poetic works, namely, in the main, emotive and unctuous. But also playful. Though I try for a kind of poetry that is universally accessible, my style (and its ear) remain very much rooted in the Englishness of English. I don’t think my work differs hugely from my first collection, both in discursive content or in mode or method, but I do think the one way in which I may have matured as a poet is in knowing where I stand in relation to my poetry; i.e. knowing my gifts and shortcomings, which only make me more sure of the work when I do deem it good, but also knowing in a more thorough way when a poem fails.

I do feel that it is indeed, if not my best book, which it may well be, it is definitely my best poetry collection.

Why are a few of the poems such as the beautiful "La Veuve" reprinted from your third collection Waxed Mahogany?

A few of the poems are taken from my third collection which was, in my view, a mistake. I rushed it. The editor of Agenda Editions is NOT was not responsible for this; she simply placed too much trust in MY judgement, which, at the time, unbeknownst, was a little warped. I have reprinted two or three poems from that collection merely to salvage them.

But Waxed Mahogany was well received, got some great comments and reviews. Why do you now seek to distance yourself from it?

 Because, simply put, the work, on the whole, was ill-judged in my view.

Your first published long-form fiction work, Via Negativa, appeared last year. In the light of that, and the fact that prose works being at the beginning and at the end of To the Middle of Love, please say something on the relation between your poetry and prose and how this has evolved. How much interplay is there between them: didn’t the St Augustine sequence in To the Middle of Love start off as a prose work?  

The Saint Augustine prose work is a different project, remaining something I plan to develop and work on. I would say this though: as a poet, I’m quite conventional; as in I’m not really trying to be aesthetically new/challenging; I just want to move people as I am moved; however as a prose stylist I am very much more experimental, or able to manumit effects which are more radical. Both forms are poetic of course, at least in my view, and I take just as much poetic satisfaction and care with a critical essay as I do a poem. Without claiming to be on a par with Joyce (obviously), I do relate to his sentiment quite early in his career when he decided that verse forms weren’t wholly for him, that prose would be where he’d do his impactful poetry. Now, I don’t wholly subscribe to this, but I do feel that in terms of consistency, at least, I’m a far better prose writer than poet.

Omar Sabbagh reads from To the Middle of Love at the Big Green Bookshop 

Eyewear is going to be publishing your Dubai sequel to Via Negativa. Do you yet have a title and date of publication of the sequel? Please say something about it, and how it relates to VN 

The Eyewear book is to be (creative) non-fiction; merely a snazzily-written cultural guide to Dubai in the context of today’s world; as planned: places, people, ethos, history and so on, but all directed and grounded in today’s evident cultural and political tumult. It is a sequel to VN merely in being shortish book that reflects (upon) a different city, what it’s like to negotiate one’s way around there, and what at a symbolic level said operative city represents.

It is evident from some of the poems in To the Middle of Love that Dubai has been quite an inspiration for you. It is a very different environment from other cities that feature in your work, such as London, Beirut, Marbella and so on. It would be interesting to know something of the Dubai effect on your work. 

Well, as ever, I’ve been both loonily manic and peaceful in Dubai, as elsewhere. I would say there is no more or less inspiration here than elsewhere; apart from a few different themes to do with Dubai in particular. In fact being a (semi-and-unfortunately-unavoidably-aesthete) in my writing, to certain extent I’m independent of my environment as a writer. I write from the English I carry in my head, and bones of course… I should say that I published the opening salvos of a projected creative non-fiction, a Dubai Diary, to follow my previous, ‘Beirut Cadenzas,’ in (the same) T&F Journal, Poem. However, this memoir, beyond the just-mentioned first 5000 words, has proven abortive as yet. From Bourbon to Scotch: Extracts from a Dubai Diary, were published in POEM, in 2016. Said chunk of Dubai-pertinent prose eponymously leads, though, a current manuscript of short narratives, being considered for publication by 3 publishers presently… My Eyewear Dubai-book, contracted-and-commissioned, is to be, rather, a book-length reflective thought-piece on Dubai, provisionally-titled: Minutes from The Miracle City: An Essay on Dubai in Today’s World. It will reflect the success story of Dubai, in the world of Trump, Trumpmania and Brexit, and so on…

You are remarkably frank and self-exposing in your poems. From where do you get this courage? 

I think it’s because in my context, I have suffered tremendously in an emotional, spiritual and psychological sense. When you hit ground-zero as I have, you learn to accept and well, you’ve nothing to lose. Also, it’s the way I’m rigged; to be affectionate and demonstrative of affection; all that, apart that is from an element of exhibitionism!

Did you decide the ordering of the poems in the new collection, and if so, on what basis?

No, this was done by my editor/publisher, Dr. Jan Fortune. And I trust her judgment. I think the ordering works wonderfully here, and there are some quite noticeable clusterings and patterns.

What question would you most like to be asked?

That would be: "Why is love such a significant theme for you?"
Well, love allows one to be both inside and outside the world at the same time. When faced by fear/anxiety or dread, avatars of our mortality, we realise after suffering that love just is the only salve or tonic. So one becomes a hippy! More pressingly, though, and especially regarding the Christian themes in this book, love in its truest, halest sense (as opposed to the opening notes on self-love) is a recognition of one’s mortality, in so far as to love is to be vulnerable to being hurt, de-limited. Which is one of the reasons, at a symbolic level, it would make sense that if God is Love, or, if you prefer, if the Meaning or Purpose of existence is love, that he’d have to die to fulfil his nature. I could wax on this for ages…

Thursday, February 09, 2017

'Calligraphies of Love' marries Hassan Massoudy's art to inspirational quotes

If you pass by Al Saqi bookshop in London's Westbourne Grove and glance at its windows your attention is likely to be arrested by a large display in which the word Love appears repeatedly. Get closer and you will see that the display comprises multiple copies of a book entitled Calligraphies of Love. The book carries on its cover a striking calligraphic illustration and the name of the Iraqi artist Hassan Massoudy.

Al Saqi's window (pic courtesy of Saqi)

Publication of this new title by Saqi Books could hardly be more timely, not only because Valentine's Day is fast approaching but also because, with so much hate in the world at the moment, love seems in short supply.

Your eyes, two dark palm groves just before dawn.
Or two balconies, under a distant moon

Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab (1927-1964) 

The book marries Massoudy's sublime calligraphy-based art with inspirational quotes on many aspects of love. The quotes come from poems and proverbs, ancient and  modern, from around the world: sources include Rumi, Gibran, Ibn Zaydoun, Donne, Majnoun Leyla, Gide, Keats and The Thousand and One Nights.  Elisabeth Jaquette translated the quotes from Arabic, and Sophie Lewis the quotes from French. The attractive design of the 128-page book is by Somar Kawkabi. The format is relatively small at 18cm by 16cm,  just the right size to fit into a handbag or generous pocket.

Where there is love there is life 

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) 

The book's introduction is by Austrian national Saeb Eigner, a banker and financial expert with a deep interest in the arts and education.  He was the British Museum’s Senior Advisor to the books accompanying the ‘Word into Art’ exhibitions  (London, 2006 and Dubai 2008 ) and is the author of Art of the Middle East (Merrell, London 2010, expanded edition 2015) and its French edition L’Art du Moyen-Orient  (Éditions du Toucan,2010).

 Hassan Massoudy 

Hassan Massoudy was born in Najaf, Iraq in 1944, He moved in 1969 to France, where he studied at L'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He still has his studio in Paris. His work has been widely exhibited in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and is to be found in several permanent collections including those of the British Museum and the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts. Nineteen books of his calligraphy have been published in France, as has his autobiography Si loin de l'Euphrate: Une jeunesse d'artiste en Irak.

The beauty you see in me is a 
reflection of you.

Rumi (13th century)

In his introduction Eigner writes of the lasting impact that Massoudy's childhood experiences of calligraphy and colour in Najaf has had on his work. "Anyone who has visited Hassan's studio, along Paris' river Seine on the Quai de la Marne, cannot but sense the influence those early years have had on him. The walls of his atelier are adorned with beautiful calligraphic compositions, in colour and in black and white, based on short phrases that he has collected from around the world.

"The words are in Arabic and often translated into French, and include poetry, quotes by celebrated literary figures as well as proverbs and words of popular wisdom as his mother might have used. One word is picked out, and sits at the centre of each composition, while the phrase in its entirety is beautifully written below, mainly in a script reminiscent of traditional Kufic. The studio is clean and orderly, and the overall atmosphere is one of serenity, installing a sense of calm in all those who visit."

Where there is love, there is no
room for darkness

Mediterranean proverb

review by Susannah Tarbush, London 

Monday, January 16, 2017

four Iraqi novelists and only two women on IPAF 2017 longlist

Longlist and judges of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction announced

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) today revealed the longlist of 16 novels in contention for the 2017 Prize - four of them by Iraqi authors. There are only two women on the longlist: Libyan Najwa Binshatwan and Lebanese Renée Hayek. The novels were chosen from 186 entries from 19 countries, all published within the last 12 months. They were was chosen by a panel of five judges chaired by Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifa.

This year, the tenth anniversary of the prize, marked a break with IPAF tradition in that the judges were identified alongside the longlist, rather than their names being kept secret until the shortlist was announced. Perhaps this reflects a sort of maturation and a growing confidence in the IPAF judging process by the Arab literary scene.

IPAF is awarded annually for prose fiction in Arabic. It is worth a total of $60,000 to the winner - the  $50,000 prize plus the   $10,000 awarded to each of the six shortlisted authors. In addition - in fulfilment of IPAF's ambition to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction -  the Prize provides funding for the English translation of the winning title. This is the tenth year of the Prize, which is recognised as the leading prize for literary fiction in the Arab world.

IPAF is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London - which is why IPAF is often referred to as the Arabic Booker Prize -  and is funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) in the UAE. It  is also supported by Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) and Etihad Airways

The longlistees represent 10 countries across the Arab world and range in age from 37 to 76. Iraq accounts for a quarter of the authors, ie four.  It is followed by Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt with two authors apiece, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, Kuwait and Syria with one author teach.

Renée Hayek

The shortlist will be announced at the Palace of Culture in Algiers on Thursday 16 February. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 25 April, the eve of ADIBF.

The 16 authors chosen include many recognised literary names. Three have been shortlisted for IPAF  in previous years – Mohammed Hasan Alwan, Sinan Antoon and Amir Tag Elsir­ – and a further five longlisted:  Renée Hayek, Ismail Fahd Ismail, Abdul-Kareem Jouaity, Elias Khoury and Mohammed Abdel Nabi. These authors' repeated recognition by the Prize demonstrates the enduring quality of their writing.

The well-known Moroccan poet Yassin Adnan makes his first appearance on the list with his debut novel, Hot Maroc. The Emirati writer Sultan Al Ameemi began writing his longlisted book, One Room Is Not Enough, at the 2014 Nadwa – the annual writing workshop for talented, emerging writers that is supported by the Prize. Other Nadwa attendees on the list include Ali Ghadeer and Mohammed Hasan Alwan, who is the youngest writer to be selected.

The IPAF 2017 Longlist:

Hot Maroc
by Yassin Adnan (Morocco)
Dar al-Ain

One Room Is Not Enough
by Sultan Al Ameemi (UAE)
Difaf Publishing

A Small Death 
by Mohammed Hasan Alwan (Saudi Arabia)
Dar Al Saqi

by Sinan Antoon (Iraq)

The Slaves' Pens 
by Najwa Binshatwan (Libya)
Dar Al Saqi

The Resort of the Enchantress 
by Amir Tag Elsir (Sudan)
Dar Al Saqi

by Ali Ghadeer (Iraq)
Dar wa Maktabat Sutur

The Year of the Radio
by Renée Hayek (Lebanon)
Dar Tanweer, Lebanon

Zuheir al-Hiti 
Days of Dust 
by Zuheir al-Hiti (Iraq)
Dar Tanweer, Tunis

by Ismail Fahd Ismail (Kuwait)

The North Africans 
by Abdul-Kareem Jouaity (Morocco)
Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi

The Slaughter of the Philosophers 
by Tayseer Khalf (Syria)
Arabic Scientific Institute for Research and Publishing

Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam 
Elias Khoury (Lebanon)
Dar al-Adab

In the Spider's Chamber 
by Mohammed Abdel Nabi (Egypt)
Dar al-Ain

The Bookseller's Murder 
by Saad Mohammed Rahim (Iraq)
Dar wa Maktabat Sutur

by Youssef Rakha (Egypt)
 Dar Tanweer, Egypt

The 2017 judges are: Sahar Khalifa (Chair), a Palestinian novelist; Saleh Almani, a Palestinian translator; Fatima al-Haji, a Libyan academic, novelist and broadcaster; Sahar ElMougy, an Egyptian novelist and academic; and Sophia Vasalou, a Greek academic and translator.

Chair of Judges Sahar Khalifa comments: ‘We chose the longlist of 16 from 186 novels submitted. The longlisted novels are hugely varied in their subject matter and imagined worlds, embracing history, political and social themes and fantasy. As a whole they express the interactions, struggles and defeats, as well as the hopes and dreams, of the Arab world today.’

Professor Yasir Suleiman CBE, Chair of the Board of Trustees, says:‘This tenth anniversary longlist presents new writers and established ones who have reached the longlist before. This combination is testimony to the Prize in its search for creative voices whose provenance extends from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf. The longlisted novels for this year speak to the pressing concerns of the Arab World, doing so in different voices and styles that give texture and nuance to their narrative material.’

IPAF Longlist 2017 – biographies and synopses

Yassin Adnan is a Moroccan writer and broadcaster, born in Safi, Morocco, in 1970. Since his early childhood he has lived in Marrakech and for more than two decades has worked in cultural journalism. In 1991, he published the Contemporary Voices magazine and then Poetry Raid, which embodied the new poetic sensibility prevalent in Morocco in the early 1990s. Since 2006, he has researched and presented the weekly cultural television programme "Masharif". He is the author of four books of poetry, three short story collections, a book (with Saad Sarhan) about Marrakech, Marrakech: Open Secrets (2008) and The Moroccan Sheherazade: Testimonies and Studies of Fatima Mernissi (2016). Hot Maroc (2016) is his first novel.

Hot Maroc is a novel about the changing face of Morocco: about Marrakech and the effects of ruralisation and deforestation, the university and its student movement, internet cafés and hackers, politics and journalism. It is about the coward who becomes a hero in both dreams and online but Hot Maroc is bigger than any online space and hotter than any title might suggest.

Sultan Al Ameemi is an Emirati writer born in Al Dhaid, the UAE, in 1974. He has published 19 books: 14 studies of popular culture in the UAE, three collections of short stories and two novels: P.O. Box 1003 (2014) and One Room Is Not Enough (2016). For the past seven seasons, he has been a judge of the Million's Poet contest. In 2014, he took part in the Nadwa workshop for talented young writers run by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, where he began work on One Room Is Not Enough. He is currently director of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Poetry Academy and writes a weekly column on cultural matters in the Al-Emarat Al-Youm newspaper.
One Room is Not Enough 

One Room Is Not Enough sees the hero of the novel wake alone in a strange room. He doesn't know how he got there and there is no way out. Through the keyhole of the door, he discovers someone else is living a normal life in the adjoining room. This person looks like him, behaves like him and has the same hobbies, but he is unable to communicate with him. In the room he finds a book entitled Sole Choices, with his name on the cover as the author. It contains a strange introduction, but the remaining pages are blank. In an attempt to escape his isolation, he fills the blank pages with the peculiar history of his family, followed by the account of his experiences in the room and what he sees as he spies upon his neighbour through the keyhole.

Mohammed Hasan Alwan is a Saudi Arabian novelist, born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1979. He graduated with a doctorate in International Marketing from the University of Carleton, Canada. Alwan has published five novels to date: The Ceiling of Sufficiency (2002), Sophia (2004), The Collar of Purity (2007), The Beaver (2011), and A Small Death (2016), as well as a non-fiction work, Migration: Theories and Key Factors (2014). His work has appeared in translation in Banipal magazine ("Blonde Grass and Statistic"s, translated by Ali Azeriah), in the  Guardian ("Oil Field", translated by Peter Clark), and in Words Without Borders ("Mukhtar" translated by William M. Hutchins). In 2009-10, Alwan was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and his work was published in the Beirut39 anthology. He was also a participant in the first IPAF Nadwa in 2009 and a mentor on the Nadwa in 2016. In 2013, The Beaver was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and in 2015, its French edition (translated by Stéphanie Dujols) won the Prix de la Littérature Arabe awarded in Paris for the best Arabic novel translated into French for that year.

A Small Death is the fictionalised account of the life of a Sufi saint, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, from his birth in Muslim Spain in the 12th century until his death in Damascus. It follows his mystic Sufi experience and heroic travels from Andalusia to Azerbaijan, via Morocco, Egypt, the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Of a sensitive and anxious nature, Muhyiddin struggles with inner turmoil throughout the course of his travels. Witnessing fictitious events including savage military conflicts, he attempts to fulfil his mission against a backdrop of states and numerous cities where he meets countless people.

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist and translator born in Iraq in 1967. He has published four novels, I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (2004), The Pomegranate Alone (2010), Hail Mary (2012) and Index (2016), as well as a volume of poetry entitled A Night in Every Town (2007, published in English as The Baghdad Blues). His writings have been translated into eight languages. In 2003, he returned to Iraq to direct a documentary film called About Baghdad (2004), which dealt with Baghdad after dictatorship and occupation. He has translated the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Sargon Boulos, Saadi Youssef and others into English, and his English translation of his novel The Pomegranate Alone (published in English as The Corpse Washer in 2013) was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014. Hail Mary was shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and published in Spanish as Fragmentos de Bagdad (2014). Antoon has taught Arabic literature at the University of New York since 2005.


Index tells the story of Namir, who meets Wadoud, an eccentric bookseller in Al-Mutanabbi Street during a brief visit to Baghdad after the 2003 occupation. Wadoud is working on a vast project, an index detailing the minute by minute history of the war from the perspective of rocks, trees and animals as well as humans themselves. Taken with the bookseller and his index, Namir tries to contact him to find out more, with the aim of writing a novel about him after his return to the US. Influenced by Wadoud’s ideas, Namir begins to observe his own nation as it fragments, collecting newspaper clippings, images and everything relating to Iraq. Meanwhile, Wadoud is on the edge of insanity and trying to gather the broken splinters, sounds and ghosts of his surroundings. Will he succeed in rescuing them from oblivion?

Najwa Binshatwan
Najwa Binshatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist, born in 1970. She is the author of two novels: The Horses' Hair (2007) and Orange Content (2008), three collections of short stories and a play. In 2005, The Horses' Hair won the inaugural Sudanese al-Begrawiya Festival prize, in the same year that Sudan was Capital of Arab Culture. She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and her story "The Pool and the Piano" was included in the Beirut39 anthology.

The Slaves' Pens lifts the lid on the dark, untold history of slavery in Libya, of which the effects can still be felt today. Slave owner Mohammed and his slave Ta'awidha have fallen in love, but their relationship is considered taboo. Living in a community where masters take female slaves as lovers as they please, Mohammed's father sends him on a trading mission in an attempt to distance him from Ta'awidha. During his absence, his mother forces her to miscarry by serving her a spiked drink, and she is married off to another slave. On his return from his trip, Mohammed learns of his family’s activities and he begins searching for his beloved.

Amir Tag Elsir is a Sudanese writer, born in Sudan in 1960, who now works as a doctor in Qatar. At an early age he wrote poetry and in the 1980s began to write novels. He has published 23 books, including novels, biographies and poetry. His most important works are: The Dowry of Cries, The Copt’s Worries and French Perfume (all 2009) and The Crawling of the Ants (2010). His novel The Grub Hunter (2010) was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011 before being translated into English and Italian, and his novel 366 (2013) was longlisted for the prize in 2014 and was among the winners of the 2015 Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel.

The Resort of the Enchantress

The Resort of the Enchantress follows Ababa Tsfay, who gets off a bus coming from the Eritrean border, fleeing war in her country. She is a striking beauty who has ended up in the wrong place, friendless and penniless, without a place of refuge. Abdel Quyum Dalil Jum’a is a practised thief who lives on the streets. After noticing her, he elects himself as her protector and his love for her changes his life. However, fate has other plans in store for them.

Ali Ghadeer is a writer and journalist, born in Kirkuk province, Iraq in 1971. He obtained a BA in military science from Baghdad in 1993 and taught at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Since 2003, he has worked as a journalist and founded several newspapers and magazines. He has published two collections of short stories, a prose volume, a collection of poetry and two novels. He has won a number of prizes, including the 2008 Najla Muharram Short Story Award (3rd place) for his story "Don't Press the Button", the 2013 Egyptian Short Story Club Prize (2nd place) for his story "Woman in a Cup", and the 2016 Baghdad Prize for the Arabic Novel for his novel Swastika (2016). Ali Ghadeer took part in the Nadwa workshop for talented young writers run by IPAF in 2011.


Swastika is a novel about Hawas, who is born poor but dreams of visiting a prostitute in Baghdad after hearing about her, and the cost of a night in her company, from the son of the village Sheikh. After stealing his mother's golden ankle bracelet, he boards a train to the capital city and his adventure begins. On his train journey he is joined by a strange character who shares not only his delicious food but also his theory of good luck and the means of attracting it. ‘Swastika’ is a Sanskrit word meaning "leading to luxury” and an ancient symbol of prosperity and regarded as good luck by Iraqis, the red Indians of America and Hindus. Denying the common belief that man is born either happy or unfortunate, ‘Swastika’ affirms a person’s capacity to make their own good fortune.

Renée Hayek is a Lebanese novelist, born in southern Lebanon in 1959. She studied Philosophy at the Lebanese University before embarking on a career in journalism, literary translation and teaching. She has published two collections of short stories and ten novels including: The Well and the Sky (1997), The Land of the Snows (2001), Days of Paris (2004), Prayer for the Family (2007), longlisted for the 2009 IPAF, and A Short Life (2010), longlisted for the 2011 Prize.

The Year of the Radio is set in contemporary Beirut and is the story of a young female speech therapist working in a school on a short term contract. At the end of the school year, this contract is terminated and she tries different things before finding a job for a year at a radio station. Here she works as a psychologist, presenting live programmes in which she offers advice to the parents of children with speech and psychological problems. Over the course of a year, we follow her experiences of love, loss, work, illness and unemployment.

Zuheir al-Hiti is an Iraqi writer and journalist, born in 1957 and currently living in Germany. He has published three novels: My Distant Day (2002), American Dust (2009) and Days of Dust (2016) as well as an academic study, The Image of the Iraqi in the Arabic Novel (2006).

Days of Dust 

Days of Dust is set after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of American occupying forces, when Iraq descended into chaos. With acts of murder committed in an attempt to purify the country of its former regime, mobs sow fear in the hearts of people across Iraqi society, most notably within the Christian community. Ghusn al-Ban's family had built its fortune and reputation in the days of the monarchy. Using her relationships with various Christians and the great art collection of her grandfather, Ghusn al-Ban follows the transformation of Iraqi society in this novel.

Ismail Fahd Ismail is a Kuwaiti writer and novelist. Born in 1940, he has worked as a full-time writer since 1985. He graduated with a BA in Literature and Criticism from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, Kuwait, and has worked as both a teacher and in the administration of educational resources. He also managed an artistic production company. Ismail is regarded as the founder of the art of the novel in Kuwait. Since the appearance of his first novel, The Sky Was Blue, in 1970, he has published 27 novels as well as three short story collections, two plays and several critical studies. His novel The Phoenix and the Faithful Friend (2012) was longlisted for IPAF in 2014. His support for a large number of short story writers and novelists and his encouragement of new creative talent had a significant impact on the Kuwaiti and Arab literary scene.


Al-Sabiliat explores the reason behind the existence of a green artery in the midst of a vast wasteland in Iraq following the longest war of the 20th century, between Iraq and Iran. Iraqi forces blocked the entry points of the tributary rivers and streams of the Shatt al-Arab river. This prevented water flowing to the forests of palm trees situated on the western side. Years passed and the palms dried up, no longer bearing fruit. Eventually, all the trees, vegetation and fruit died apart from one green strip of land stretching from the Shatt to the edge of the desert to the west, in an area called "Al-Sabiliat". One old woman is responsible for this green lifeline, which supplies the village and the soldiers living in it.

Abdul-Kareem Jouaity was born in Beni Mellal, capital of the Tadla-Azilal province of Morocco, in 1962 and currently works as director of the Ministry of Culture for this region. He is the author of six novels: Night of the Sun (1992) winner of the Moroccan Writers’ Union Prize for Young Authors, Pomegranate of the Insane (1998), City of Brass (2004), Celebrations of Death (1996) translated into French, Yellow Morella (2002) and Platoon of Ruin (2007), IPAF-longlisted in 2009. He has also published other books and translations.

The North Africans

The North Africans follows the central character, Mohammed al-Ghafaqi and his relationships with his grandfather, the Pasha, his military brother and the neighbours' servant girl whom he loves. It tells of how he is struck by blindness and of the broker who betrays him and steals his wife. Interwoven with this central narrative are the stories of the grandfather, the graveyard of skulls and other tales interlinked with political and social resonance.

Tayseer Khalf is a Syrian writer, researcher and novelist born in 1967. He is the author of more than 30 books of literary criticism, historical research, and travel writing. His novels include: Moviola (2013) and The Slaughter of the Philosophers (2016).

The Slaughter of the Philosophers 

The Slaughter of the Philosophers follows the final years of the city of Palmyra, which had become the capital of Eastern Europe under the rule of its king, Odaenathus. Narrated by Palmyra’s Grand Priest during the reign of Queen Zenobia, the novel sheds light on obscure parts of the city’s history, including Zenobia's plans to turn it into a Utopian city. This was a vision that went unrealised. Attacked by the Roman Emperor Aurelianus' forces who were aided by some of the Arab tribes, Zenobia’s reign was brought to an end in the year 275. The Queen and her council of wise philosophers were escorted to Homs where a court condemned the philosophers to death and sentenced the Queen to imprisonment in Hadrian's Villa near Rome.

Elias Khoury was born in Beirut in 1948. He worked as an assistant editor on Palestinian Affairs magazine (1975-1997) and was editor of the cultural section of Al-Safir newspaper (1981-1991), Al-Karmel magazine (1981-83) and the literary supplement of Al-Nhar newspaper (1992-2008). Since 2001, he has edited Palestinian Studies magazine. He has previously been a visiting professor at Columbia University, New York (1980-82), global distinguished professor at the University of New York (2001-2014) and visiting professor at the Lebanese American University (2015). He is the author of 13 novels including Little Mountain (1977), The Journey of Little Ghandi (1989) and Sinalkul (2012), which was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as three plays and four critical works on the theatre. His work has been translated into 15 languages.

Children of the Ghetto - My Name is Adam 

Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam tells the story of Palestinian Adam Danun and his attempt to write a novel after immigrating to New York. A retelling of his own personal story, the novel recounts his childhood in Lud, Palestine, where in 1948 the city fell to occupying forces who drove out the majority of its inhabitants. Adam's mother remained in the city with her baby and his story is that of the barbed wire encircled Palestinian ghetto created by the occupying army. It is a tale of remaining and an attempt to interpret the victims' silence.

Mohammed Abdel Nabi is an Egyptian writer, born in 1977. He obtained a BA in Languages and Translation from the English and Simultaneous Translation Department of Al-Azhar University and currently works as a freelance translator. He has published five short story collections, a novella titled Imprisoned Phantoms (2000) and two novels: The Return of the Sheikh (2011), which was longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and The Spider's Room (2016). In 2010, his short story collection, The Ghost of Anton Chekhov, won the Sawiris Literature Prize, and his latest collection, As the Flood Passes the Sleeping Village, won the prize for best short story collection at the 2015 Cairo Book Fair. He publishes creative writing, criticism and translations in a number of newspapers and websites, and since 2009 he has taught creative writing in a workshop called The Story and What Is In It. He recently published a book on narrative techniques with the same title.

In the Spider's Chamber is the tale of Hany Mahfouz, a fictional character who shares the real-life experience of more than fifty men arrested in the notorious "Queen Boat" incident in Cairo in 2001, who were either declared innocent or sentenced to prison terms of two or three years. Hany is declared innocent but emerges from the experience a broken man. Having lost the faculty of speech during the trial process, he finds that writing is the best way of healing his soul.

Saad Mohammed Rahim
Saad Mohammed Rahim is an Iraqi writer, born in Diyala province, Eastern Iraq in 1957. He has worked as a teacher and journalist and his articles have been published in Iraqi and Arab newspapers and periodicals. He is the author of six collections of short stories, a number of political and literary studies and three novels: Twilight of the Wader (2000), winner of the 2000 Iraqi Creativity Award for Fiction, The Song of a Woman, Twilight of the Sea (2012) and The Bookseller's Murder (2016). In 2005, he won the Iraqi Award for Best Investigative Journalism for that year, and was also awarded the 2010 Creativity Prize for the Short Story, for his collection Almond Blossom (2009).

The Bookseller's Murder follows Magid Baghdadi, an experienced journalist, who arrives in Baaquba, 60 km north of Baghdad, to conduct a two-month investigation commissioned by a rich and influential anonymous person. He must write a book about the life and mysterious death of 70-year-old Mahmoud al-Marzouq, a bookseller and artist. Magid forms relationships with friends and acquaintances of the deceased and comes across a notebook containing some of his diaries. These record his life in the city since the first day of the US occupation. He also discovers letters between al-Marzouq and Jeanette, a Frenchwoman who worked as a model for artists, with whom he had a relationship when he was a refugee in Paris. From these and other sources, the personality of al-Marzouq comes to life and various chapters of his interesting and complex life are revealed. What will remain obscure is the reason for his death.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in 1976. He obtained a BA in Literature from Hull University in the UK, and has worked for Al-Ahram Weekly since 1997. He co-founded the English language paper The National in Abu Dhabi in 2007-8 and in 2009 he was selected as one of the best Arab writers under 40, for the Beirut 39 project. He writes in English and Arabic and his work has been translated into Italian, French, German, Spanish and Polish. His first two novels were The Book of the Sultan's Seal (2011) and The Crocodiles (2013), both published in English in 2014. His third novel, Paolo (part 2 of The Crocodiles) was published in 2016.

Paolo is the eye-witness account of a man involved in the Egyptian "revolutionary movement" since 2011 who shares his experiences of the period before the election of Morsi and the struggles going on behind the scenes. But the revolutionary activist is not all he appears to be. He is more than a photographer or a bookshop manager – one of the intellectuals of downtown Cairo. Paolo is also an agent for the security services and a Don Juan, whose female lovers all end up dead. He sees himself as the covert manipulator of the revolution, who carries a message of ultimate defeat to the revolutionaries.

IPAF 2017 Judging panel

Sahar Khalifa (Chair) (Palestine) is one of the most important living Palestinian novelists. Her writing focuses on Palestinians' daily life under occupation and on the lives of Arabic women and the discrimination and oppression which hinders their progress in society and participation in the Arab renaissance. She has published 11 novels as well as many articles and studies. Her novels and non-fiction writing have been translated into several languages, including Hebrew, and she has been the recipient of many Arab and international awards, including the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in Egypt, the Mohamed Zafzaf Prize in Morocco, the Simone de Beauvoir Prize (the French readers' prize), the Dubai Al-Thaqafiya magazine Prize, the Alberto Moravia Award for International Fiction and the Cervantes Prize for literature translated into Spanish.

Saleh Almani (Palestine) is a translator, born in Homs, Syria, in 1949. Since the late 1970s, he has completed translations of over 100 works of Latin American literature into Arabic, including dozens of books by the most prominent names in Latin American writing. His translations have been published across the Arab world and he has participated in numerous Arab and international conferences, seminars and research groups working on translation as well as overseeing literary translation workshops at the Cervantes Institute, Damascus. He has received numerous awards and honours for his work from the School of Translators in Toledo (part of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, 2013); the Order of Culture, Science and Arts (for Creative Writing), the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, (2014); the Arab Writers Union in Tangiers, Morocco, and Abu Dhabi (2015); the International Gerard of Cremona Translation Prize (2015); and the Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Award for Translation (in the individual achievement category, 2016).

Fatima al-Haji (Libya) is an academic and novelist, and member of the teaching faculty at Tripoli University, currently living in Tunis. She has studied in the UK and Canada and is the author of three books of literary criticism: New Literary Criticism (1998), The Concept of Time in the Libyan Novel (1999), Fictional Discourse (2007, written in English and later published in Arabic) and a novel The Scream of the Ground Floor (2015). She has presented papers at a number of academic and literary conferences and is a former assessor of the pieces appearing in Al-Hikma magazine, published by the philosophy department of the University of Al-Fatih, and the Al-Jil magazine for literary and intellectual studies published by the Jil Centre for Academic Research, Lebanon. From 1996 until 2000, she was on the judging panel assessing works published by the Libyan Writers' Union. She is former head of the translation department at the General Foundation for Culture and is a member of the Libyan Writers' Union and Institute of Journalists.

Sahar ElMougy (Egypt) is a novelist and academic. She has published two short story collections and two novels: Noon (2007, winner of the 2007 Cavafis Award) and Daria (1999, winner - as an unpublished manuscript - of the 1998 Sharjah Girls' Clubs Prize for Women's Creative Writing). She teaches English Literature and American Studies at the English Department, the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. Since 2012, she has been running a creative writing workshop ("Seshat", after the Ancient Egyptian goddess of writing) at the Doum Cultural Foundation. She also facilitates psychodrama workshops and directs the "Doum Storytelling" theatre group, which gave three performances from 2014-16.

Sophia Vasalou (Greece) studied Arabic and Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and obtained her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 2006 with a thesis on Mu'tazilite ethical thought. Since then, she has occupied a number of teaching and research posts in different universities and academic institutions, including the University of Cambridge, the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, the Orient-Institut in Beirut, and New York University Abu Dhabi. She is currently a senior lecturer in philosophical theology in the Department of Theology and Religion at Birmingham University. Her research focuses on Islamic ethical thought, particularly ethical theories appealing to reason. She is also the author of studies on Western philosophical thought. Her published works include Moral Agents and Their Deserts: the Character of Mu'tazilite Ethics (2008, winner of the Albert Hourani Book Award for Middle Eastern Studies in 2009), Schopenhauer and the Aesthetic Standpoint: Philosophy as a Practice of the Sublime (2013) and Ibn Taymiyya's Theological Ethics (2015). She is also a translator of classical and modern Arabic literature.
Susannah Tarbush, London