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

Friday, January 13, 2017

Roger Hardy's book 'The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East'

[an Arabic version of this article was published in Al-Hayat on 12 January 2017]

How Western imperialism in the Middle East left a “poisonous well” 
Susannah Tarbush

The growing furore over the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 2017 is a striking example of how Britain’s imperial past in the Middle East continues to have consequences. For Israel the centenary of the Declaration will be a time of huge celebration, for which it is already making preparations. But among Palestinians it is provoking anger and bitterness, and a petition has been launched demanding that Britain formally apologise for the Declaration. Meanwhile Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to sue Britain over the Declaration.

As the British broadcaster, journalist and writer Roger Hardy writes in his new book The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East, even after the European powers left the area “the memory and folk-memory of their rule remains. In the Middle East, events of a century ago such as the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration are remembered as if they happened yesterday, and in the blackest terms.”

The 2 November 1917 letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the British Jewish Zionist leader Lord Rothschild said the British government “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this.” However, it added: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. This is an obvious reference to the Palestinian Arab majority.

In her recent speech to Conservative Friends of Israel, British Prime Minister Theresa May described the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history” and pledged her government to celebrate its centenary “with pride”.

She was full of praise for Israel, “a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance, an engine of enterprise and an example to the rest of the world”. In contrast she scarcely mentioned the Palestinians, although she admitted that “people are correct when they say that securing the rights of Palestinians and Palestinian statehood have not yet been achieved. But we know they can be achieved. We in Britain stand very firmly for a two-state solution.”

Hardy writes: “Of all the problems bequeathed from the colonial era, the Palestine issue has proved the most enduring and the most toxic. By sponsoring Zionist settlement in Palestine and then failing to resolve the conflict between Arab and Jew which this provoked, Britain bears a direct and inescapable responsibility for creating the Palestine problem – which, despite claims to the contrary, remains one of the principal root causes of the region’s malaise.”

Hardy’s book is published in London by C. Hurst and Co, which also published his 2010 book “The Muslim Revolt: A Journey Through Political Islam”. The grim photograph on the book’s cover shows British soldiers in Jerusalem during the 1920-48 mandate period searching Palestinian Arabs for weapons.

"Western imperialism is not responsible for the ills of the modern Middle East,” Hardy writes. “But the Western world has played a significant role in shaping the region and its destiny.” His book” tells the story of how it did so, and how the Middle East emerged from the shadow of empire.”

The First World War of 1914-18 and the Peace Settlement that followed gave birth to the modern Middle East. During the First World War Britain made no fewer than four sets of promises on the future of the region. In the McMahon-Hussein letters of 1915 it promised Hussein bin Ali, the Sherif of Mecca, that if he joined the war and helped defeat the Turks he would become leader of an independent Arab state.

But in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 Britain and France decided to divide the Middle East between them. In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, and then in the Anglo-French declaration of November 1918 Britain and France promised “the complete and final liberation of those peoples who have been so long oppressed by the Turks”.

Hardy asks, “How, if at all, could these contradictory and ill-defined promises be honoured?” In fact, victorious Britain and France divided the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire between them in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In the Peace Settlement, the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to govern Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, and the French the mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The mandatory power was supposed to groom the people it ruled for eventual independence. But Arab nationalists saw the mandates as a cover for colonial rule, and felt betrayed. “The ghost of the Peace Settlement has haunted Arab politics ever since,” wrote the British historian of Lebanese descent, Albert Hourani.

Hardy was a Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service for more than 20 years and is currently a Research Associate at Oxford University’s Centre for International Studies. The origins of his latest book go back to the ten-part radio series “The Making of the Middle East” that he made for the BBC World Service in the early 1990s.

Hardy interviewed a variety of people for the series: “In Ankara I was lucky enough to meet people who had known Ataturk; and in Cairo, two of the surviving Free Officers who had overthrown the British-backed monarchy in 1952.” Many of those he interviewed are no longer alive, “but their voices live on in the unedited tapes of their interviews.”

Roger Hardy

In writing his book Hardy has drawn on eyewitness accounts wherever possible: “Oral history tells us not just what happened but what it felt like to be there.” As well as his using stories from his interviews he has drawn on photographs, letters, memoirs and diaries, and on novels and poetry. Hardy succeeds admirably in bringing history vividly to life. His book is full of fascinating details and extraordinary characters, from the famous to the little-known.

In addition to the main index, the author provides a biographical index with short biographies of more than 100 of the personalities in the book. They include “nationalists and colonial administrators, soldiers and spies, consuls and courtesans, oilmen and missionaries, journalists and schoolteachers. Some played a role in the struggle for independence, others simply observed it.”

Hardy was keen to include the perspectives of women. The first eyewitness in the book is the Turkish writer, nationalist and feminist Halidé Edib, the only woman in Ataturk’s inner circle. She wrote two volumes of memoirs depicting the Turkish struggle for independence and its transition from empire to republic.

Among the other women depicted are the Palestinian poet and feminist Fadwa Tuqan; Lebanese-born Anbara Salam Khalidi (wife of Palestinian scholar and educationalist Ahmed Samih al-Khalid)i; British writer, traveller, and colonial official Gertrude Bell (who helped install Faisal as king of Iraq in 1921); the Syrian Druze princess and singer Amal al-Atrash, known as Asmahan; the British traveller and writer Dorothy Ingrams, wife of the colonial administrator Harold Ingram and author of “A Time in Arabia” and the British journalist Monica Dehn who worked in Palestine in 1944-48.

The book has ten main chapters, each telling of the struggle for independence in a particular country, starting with the emergence of modern Turkey in the 1920s and moving on to Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, Syria, Israel and Jordan in the 1940s, Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s and Algeria and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the 1960s.

Muhammad Mossadeq (Wikimedia Commons) 

There is also a chapter on Iran chronicling the rise and fall of Muhammad Mossadeq, the elected prime minister who nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. The British and US intelligence agencies MI6 and the CIA conspired to get him overthrown in a 1953 coup. Hardy comments that neither Britain nor the US understood “that by removing a popular nationalist and restoring an unpopular monarch they were sowing the seeds of hostility to the West which, two and half decades later, exploded in the Islamic revolution of 1979.”

The Suez crisis three years later was an unsuccessful attempt at another regime change, engineered secretly by Britain, France and Israeli to try and get rid of the troublesome President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Hardy notes that the five great disasters of British foreign policy in the last 70 years were all in the Middle East. They were Palestine (in 1948), Iran (1953), Egypt (1956), Aden (1967) and Iraq (2003).

In two of these disasters – Palestine and Aden – Britain withdrew from situations it was unable to manage and they are “painful imperial humiliations”. Three were fateful interventions – the overthrow of Mossadeq, the attempted overthrow of Nasser, and the overthrow through invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Hardy endeavours to give eyewitness accounts from the sides both of the imperial rulers, and of those they ruled. The distinguished Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani told Hardy how on 14 July 1958 she had returned from Cambridge University to Baghdad for the summer vacation and was sleeping with her family on the roof. Suddenly she heard shots ring out and she remarked to her brother it must be some quarrel between two tribes. “This is Cambridge education,” he retorted angrily. “The idea that there are tribes on the streets of Baghdad!” In reality, she had heard the first shots of the revolution that toppled the British-backed monarchy.

When she realised what was happening, Al-Gailani rushed down to the street in her nightdress. “For many Iraqis, it was a moment of exultation and unity: a coming-of-age,” Hardy writes. “For Britain, it was something more sombre.”

Hardy stresses there is no single uniform legacy of empire in the Middle East. At one extreme are Palestine and Algeria, where “colonialism is a raw wound”. In a number of other countries the imperial period left problems which persist until today, through for example favouring certain sects or ethnicities.

After independence the new Middle Eastern states failed to live up to hopes and expectations, and there is a general “crisis of the state”, at the heart of which is an absence of legitimacy. During the regional turmoil of the past six years, some commentators and political actors – including Daesh – have claimed that the Sykes Picot agreement under which the imperial powers drew up Middle Eastern borders “has been torn up, leaving a scarred landscape of failed and failing states.”

But Hardy disagrees. He  does not see these “lines in the sand” as at the heart of the problems of the Middle East but, rather, what goes on within these lines. In fact, the most striking thing about these lines is how durable they have proved to be. “It is not self-evident that the new jihadists – or insurgent minorities such as the Kurds – will succeed in permanently redrawing the map.”

While criticising Middle Eastern governments, Hardy is also highly critical of Western actions since the direct imperial era ended. The West has failed to understand the depth of anti-Western feeling: “Hostility to Western power and influence is not baseless, but rooted in a shared historical experience.”

The West is deeply implicated in the region’s failures, Hardy concludes. Western policy has locked the region “into a web of interests which the West feels a constant need to protect, either through proxies or through direct intervention.” Western intervention in various forms thus seems destined to continue. It is to be hoped that while doing so, Western governments will learn some of the lessons from their history in the Middle East.

Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih's new book 'Lady Hayatt's Husbands and other erotic tales'

Readers familiar with Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih’s works in English translation may be surprised by his latest book: a collection of erotica entitled Lady Hayatt’s Husbands and other erotic talesThe slender 127-page volume contains seven stories by Fagih and a story from The Thousand and One Nights.

The collection is published by London-based Quartet Books. Fagih has enjoyed a long association with Quartet. It published his Gardens of the Night: A Trilogy in 1995 and the novel Homeless Rats in 2011.

In terms of length, there could hardly be a greater contrast between the new book and Fagih's previous most recent work in English translation, the mammoth 656-page trilogy Maps of the Soul produced by London-based Darf Publishers in 2012. The trilogy comprises the first three books of Fagih’s monumental Maps of the Soul sequence of 12 historical novels set in Libya and Abyssinia. 

In terms of design, Quartet has done Fagih proud. The inviting red cover of Lady Hayatt's Husbands carries an illustration by the famous English illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). Beardsley was a member of the decadent Aesthetic Movement. His distinctive erotic illustrations and decorative elements, influenced by Japanese woodcuts, appear throughout the book.   

Fagih was born in the Libyan village of Mizda in 1942 and in a literary career of more than 50 years has produced numerous novels, short stories, plays, articles and columns. His fiction frequently includes love affairs, sexual fantasies and fairly explicit erotic scenes. However, a work falling specifically within the erotic genre faces particular challenges. On the one hand there is a large  appetite for such works, as shown by the continuing publication of the Erotic Review magazine, the extraordinary success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy - which has earned author E L James a fortune - and the great interest in the recent publication of a new collection of lost stories, Auletris: Erotica, by that legend of erotic literature Anaïs Nin. 

On the other hand the field of erotica is riven by controversy, and the question of what distinguishes the erotic from the pornographic is still very much alive. In the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement the prizewinning novelist Eimear McBride, in a lengthy article entitled "The problems with erotica", rails against the new anthology Desire: 100 of Literature's Sexiest Stories chosen by Mariella Frostrup and the Erotic Review. McBride does however admit that some of the 100 stories "raise a smile and offer a reminder that one of the distinctions between erotica and pornography is probably the former's ability to laugh at its indecorous self." Fagih's stories could be seen as sharing this quality, for one of the things for which his writing is most known is its strong sense of comedy alongside the tragedies of life. 

Ahmed Fagih

During his writing career Fagih has often drawn on the classic text One Thousand and One Nights for inspiration. We first meet the protagonist of Gardens of the Night while he is at  Edinburgh University writing a thesis on sex and violence in One Thousand and One Nights, and that text's influence runs through the trilogy

Fagih has chosen the story "The Tale of Ghanem bin Ayyb, the Distraught, the Thrall o' Love" from One Thousand and One Nights  for inclusion in Lady Hayatt's Husbands. In an introduction to the tale he explains that he selected a story "from the heritage of our ancient Arabic erotic literature, One Thousand and One Nights, to add an authentic touch, combining both modern and traditional erotica."

Fagih writes that while many people give credit to the West for pioneering sexual and erotic literature, "the dawn of Arabic literature since pre-Islamic times witnessed all kind of eroticism in a way which intrigued and fascinated the rest of the world. Evidence even indicate that the West may have derived many erotic practices and knowledge from ancient civilizations emerged from the Arab lands."

He adds: "Back then, prostitution was an ever-present part of Arabic social life ... it often assumed different shapes and forms, the most prominent of which include those which were practiced with slaves, maids and serfs, and played a prominent role in a way that could be clearly seen in the stories of the time." It must be said that the stories in Lady Hayatt's Husbands  do mainly involve women who are being paid or otherwise rewarded for sex.

Fagih's imaginative powers and his talents for storytelling and description are in evidence in the stories. They are replete with lush descriptions of women, lovemaking and scenery, although some words are overused, for example "beautiful". The majority of the stories are written in the first person, often in the present tense, and the narrator tends to be a somewhat naïve and romantic man, wide-eyed about his experiences.

The narrator of “An Encounter on the Island of Mykonos”, is the author of three published story collections. He has travelled from London for a literature course on the Greek island of Mykonos and is startled to find that his roommate is a  woman "unlike anything I have ever seen...She has beautiful blond hair and a golden complexion that makes her look like one of those ancient Greek beauties, perhaps Helen of Troy."

In assessing the situation he muses: “Yet, after all, I am only a modest boy from the Libyan countryside, with an ideology that hasn't surpassed that of the Bedouin society which lived at the dawn of the Islamic era.” He is overcome by an "uncontrollable fever of lust" but she tells him "Well, you have seen the commodity, and we can set the price." The starting point is a thousand dollars. Following this transaction, the narrator, who "didn't know that the Island is famous for public nudity"  is astounded to see "crowds of naked bodies furnishing the beach like royal carpets."

The larger-than-life Lady Hayatt of the collection's title story is an Iraqi former singing star of nearly 50  who entertains and shocks the narrator and a crowd of men in a lobby of a Baghdad hotel as she tells them of the 79 men she has married and the marriage contracts that she keeps locked in a box in her house. Much of the conversation revolves around her claim to have had a short marriage to the highly popular Iraqi singer Nazem al-Ghazali, who was famously married to the Jewish singer Selima Murad.  

The narrator, a Libyan journalist, encounters Lady Hayatt during one of numerous visits he made to Iraq in the early 1970s. He is introduced to her by Fagih's real life friend  Khalid Kishtainy, the renowned Iraqi satirist, author and columnist. "The presence of a writer like Kishtainy was essential in such a sitting: a writer who would pay tribute to her beauty using a verse of fine poetry". (It so happens that in 2011 Quartet published a book of spicy stories by Kishtainy, Arabian Tales: Baghdad-on-Thames ).

In the collection's opening story,“Doctor Sharma’s Health Farm”. the narrator checks into a centre of alternative therapies in the Kent countryside for his annual check-ups. After a swim in a sulphurous pool, a vigorous massage and a herbal lunch "when I return to the ward at the end of my first relaxing day I find a woman sharing the ward with me." An inevitable night of passion ensues, which "boosts my libido in a way I've never experienced before, forcing every cell of my body to savour and enjoy this overwhelming amount of pleasure".

But the dark spectre of HIV/AIDS hangs over the story, which appears to be set in the early days of the epidemic when HIV infection was virtually tantamount to a death sentence. "'This is not a health farm' I scream and break down. 'There is nothing healthy about this place. This is a "death farm"! '"

"One Night in Bangkok" finds the narrator in a luxury hotel on the outskirts of the Thai capital en route to China where he is to represent a Libyan association for Arab and Chinese businessmen at a conference. He revels in the sensuality of the landscape and food and succumbs to the attentions of a masseuse on a vibrating bed covered with rose petals.He compares the allure of  the masseuse's skin to "the dazzling light recalled by the Al-Mutanabi in his poems when describing beautiful women." The masseuse takes the narrator through various Buddhist and Zen sexual rituals, and he decides to cancel his forward booking to China and to blow his Libyan credit card on a week of further sexual exploration. "One week then turns into an annual habit."

“Thirty Naked Women in One Room” is a tale of sexual and other excess narrated by a  cultural attaché at an embassy in London. His hugely rich friend Noman Al-Zahaby, head of a Libyan and international business empire, is a major gambler in London casinos. Despite his wealth, Al-Zahaby is a character who retains “a kind of rural simplicity that sometimes borders on foolishness.” After being stuck in Tripoli for a year, deprived of his passport while his financial affairs are investigated by the regime Al-Zahaby returns to London determined to make up for lost time. He books into a royal suite in a hotel and asks the narrator to buy him a bottle of whisky for every week he has been away and to order as  many female escorts as possible to spend the night with him. A doctor is summoned to inject him with "some kind of sexual booster." There is a full description of the orgy that ensues in which several friends, including the narrator, are invited to participate. The orgy was a last dissolute splurge by Al-Zahaby whose business empire has been nationalised and who is forced to take a modest job as an employee of one of his now nationalised companies.  .

The nostalgic story “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” tells of is a brief encounter in Cairo between the narrator and a man in a café in Mohandeseen. When the eponymous Beatles song plays on the café's TV the narrator recalls his student days in London, but the other man bursts into tears. He tells the narrator how the song brings back his first love Lucy, a Jewish prostitute with whom he had spent five years from the age of 17.

Although Quartet has presented the stories in a physically beautiful edition, the same cannot be said of the quality of editing. Unusually for a book in translation, the translator's name is not revealed. Some of the sentences read awkwardly, even ungrammatically, and basic errors go uncorrected. For example Kishtainy's name is first spelt as al-Kashtainy and then two pages later as Al-Kasheity. The use of apostrophes is careless. Such details do matter to the reader!
by Susannah Tarbush, London