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