Welcome to a World of Literature

Everything you need to know about the world's great writers and emerging voices is being collected and shared on the English PEN Online World Atlas. Head over to the Atlas to create (or edit) a profile for your favourite author or book, leave a comment or contact another user, and discover your next great read. We believe that great writing has the power to change your life and change the world, one book at a time.

The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gaza: Voices from the Arab Blogosphere (and beyond)

It's undeniable that the internet has changed the face of global politics. Not only does it allow rapid mobilisation of protests and fundraising, but it provides a source of alternative, informed perspectives and on-the-ground accounts by citizen journalists, photojournalists and bloggers. The Arab blogosphere, as aggregated everyday on toot reads and Global Voices, and as charted in The Blogging Revolution, has responded to the attacks on Gaza with not only opinion and emotion, but by using blogging technology to share and aggregate information, and to organise the online community. We are now not only spectators, as John Berger writes in a letter to today's Guardian, but correspondents.

Updated 30/12/08:

Saying, "I haven't used this blog for activism before, and I may not again. But for now, there is information below on how to demonstrate, donate, and write letters," Qunfuz posts a list of London-based demonstrations, charities and NGOs accepting donations, and details of political actions and contacts for politicians. He also reproduces a letter from today's Guardian, written by the critic, novelist and humanitarian John Berger:
"We are now spectators of the latest - and perhaps penultimate - chapter of the 60 year old conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. About the complexities of this tragic conflict billions of words have been pronounced, defending one side or the other.

Today, in face of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the essential calculation, which was always covertly there, behind this conflict, has been blatantly revealed. The death of one Israeli victim justifies the killing of a hundred Palestinians. One Israeli life is worth a hundred Palestinian lives.

This is what the Israeli State and the world media more or less - with marginal questioning - mindlessly repeat. And this claim, which has accompanied and justified the longest Occupation of foreign territories in 20th C. European history, is viscerally racist. That the Jewish people should accept this, that the world should concur, that the Palestinians should submit to it - is one of history's ironic jokes. There's no laughter anywhere. We can, however, refute it, more and more vocally.

Let's do so."

John Berger
27 December 2008

William Bowen's Creative-I Palestine page offers an excellent, and constantly updated, digest of non-mainstream online sources on the attacks on Gaza, including casualty reports, humanitarian and protest appeals, articles, photoblogs, and more.

Blogger Sameh Habeeb -- interviewed on CNN yesterday -- is using crowd-powered news site Now Public to flag articles as and when he has internet access.

Palestine Blogs feed aggregator gathers posts from enrolled blogs around the world, including Mounadil al-Djazaïri and Umkahlil.

Human Rights Tools gathers posts from nasrawi, From Gaza With Love, and Live From Palestine.

Ayesha Saldanha at Global Voices has a round-up of vivid and moving accounts by Palestinian bloggers, while the site also collects messages of solidarity from Lebanese bloggers and Egyptian bloggers.



Global Voices has a round-up of Syrian posts (and of Israeli posts), as well as posts from Palestinian bloggers in Gaza and elsewhere. GV also has a fascinating Twitter round-up.

Meanwhile the BBC gathers op-ed from Middle East newspapers. Kabobfest has Al-Jazeera videos and solidarity from the Zapatistas. Jordanian blogger Jad Madi has suggestions and links on fundraising for Gaza. Body on the Line and The Other Side, Westerners currently on the ground, both offer eye-witness reports, as does photojournalist and peace activist Sameh Habeeb. Robin Yassin-Kassab (qunfuz) entitles his post "Besieged", and links to Sara Roy's essay "If Gaza Falls..." (London Review of Books). And the Guardian post that, Ramzy, a young teacher in Gaza, has made a podcast on an independent student website, MideastYouth.com

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Arabic as a Sacred Language

From BBC News:
The highest authority of Sunni Islam, al-Azhar University in Cairo, says it has approved the first interpretation of the Koran by a woman. Sheikh Ali Abdelbaqi Mitwali told the daily al-Masri al-Youm that al-Azhar has approved the interpretation (tafseer) submitted by Kariman Hamza, a former broadcaster. Books in Egypt dealing with the Koran or Islamic tradition have to secure the approval of al-Azhar before publication,
which is a pretty big publishing hurdle. Hamza, a religious broadcaster, has been subject to criticism from religious conservatives for her previous work Rifqan bil-Qawarir, a religious guide for women, as Fedwa Malti-Douglas discusses in "Female Body, Male Gaze" in her book Medicines of the Soul: Female Bodies and Sacred Geographies in a Transnational Islam. But she is also famous as one of the few -- and possibly the first -- veiled woman television presenter. Refreshingly (given the Pope's view of the fixity of binary gender)
Sheikh Mitwali said there was no such thing as a "male" or "female" reading of the holy book and that "what mattered for us was that the interpretation was in line with the text of the sacred Koran and that it did not contradict the rulings of Sharia".

Blogger Bint Battuta in Bahrain picks up a Pakistani blog from Global Voices that has an entertaining take on how Arabic's sacred status as the language of the Quran informs behaviour in Muslim communities outside the Arabic world. As S
ub Corollary of 4-II: Everything has an ‘Al’ behind it. It is ‘Al-Mc Donalds’ and ‘Al Basmati Rice’. If you want, you can call your children ‘Al-Children’ and you would be a better person for it.
demonstrates, this doesn't necessarily relate to fluency in Arabic or a deeper religious or cultural understanding...

So happy al-holidays (and good reading) to all PEN Atlas readers!

Calling All Scheherazades

Abebooks UK is running a 1,001 Nights competition: the prize is one of the 3,000 special limited edition box-sets of The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights, just released by Penguin. The three-volume set is a new translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons and has a recommended retail price of £125. This translation is the first into English from Arabic since Richard Burton’s seminal translation in the 1880s. The box-set also includes new translations from 18th century French of the so-called ‘orphan stories’, for which no original Arabic text remains.

To enter, write a beguiling, bewitching, brilliant story of exactly 1001 words (excluding the title), fiction or non-fiction. Jan 12th is the deadline!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

World Routes in Nazareth (and a poem)

BBC Radio's World Routes has a fantastic broadcast from Nazareth, with exclusive recordings of a performance by Dalal Abu Amneh at the Jerusalem International Oud Festival. Presenter Moshe Morad travels to the predominantly Arab-Israeli city to speak with innovative oud players Wisam Gibran, Khaled Joubran and Nazir Raduan, and singer Dalal Abu Amneh, about "tradition and the individual talent," as they blend modernity and classical heritage in their music. Gibran describes his oud playing as "cosmopolitan," connecting back through flamenco to the sounds of al-Andalus, Joubran -- whose father is an oud-maker -- talks about the Persian origins of the oud. Abu Amneh gives voice to the differing singing accents of Lebanon, Egypt and the Galilee, and describes how performing internationally allows her at once to make visible in Europe the rich Arab culture that is suppressed in Israel, and to claim her Arab identity in the Arab world, where she feels she has been rendered invisible by staying in her homeland. The organiser of the Jerusalem festival suggests that the oud offers a familiar sound and a rallying point for the commonalities in Palestinian and Mizrahi (North African/Mediterranean) Jewish culture, and that the festival has drawn together the communities. You can listen again to a dazzling and seductive range of music from Nazareth until December 27th.

Speaking of dazzling and seductive, Marci Newman has posted a spine-tingling poem by Palestinian-American writer Suheir Hammad at Body on the Line. Like the Nazarene musicians in conversation with Morad, Hammad balances and interweaves her artistic integrity and heritage with her observation of, and anger at, the political situation in Palestine, asking the reader to
please excuse my state of disappearance
. But the central line of the poem is the single word: heart.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Make 'Em Laugh: Cinema Returns to Saudi Arabia

Updated 23.12.08

Global Voices offers a selection of opinions on Menahi from Saudi bloggers.


Qatar Happenings comments that Menahi, the first film to be produced and screened in Saudi Arabia for many years, is "helmed by Ayman Makram, is the first bigscreen incarnation of popular Saudi actor Fayez Al-Maliki's TV persona Menahi, a naive, humble Saudi farmer who often finds himself involved in comic escapades beyond his control." In Variety, the cinema industry magazine, Ali Jafaar adds that the film features "Menahi getting involved in a get-rich-quick scheme and traveling from his tribal homeland in the conservative kingdom to the booming metropolis of Dubai. Once there, he finds himself unwittingly embraced, a la Peter Sellers in “Being There,” as a financial guru.

Variety's headline -- "Saudi Business Beats the Odds" -- tells the story behind the film, which is the second feature from billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's media company Rotana. Reuters' article (widely syndicated) highlights the difficulty of making -- and larger difficulty of screening -- films in Saudi Arabia. The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice argue that cinema is evil, and mixed gender public screenings are not allowed. But Rotana got permission to screen the film from the Ministry of Information; King Abdullah has been pushing for some modernisation.

The film's evident success (much more so than many US and UK productions adapted from TV shows) -- the audiences were so extensive, it was played eight times a day over a 10-day period, at cultural centres in Jeddah and Taif -- speaks to a public and pervasive appreciation for culture and entertainment. Samaa TV quotes a young viewer excited to see his own culture on screen: "We, as Saudi youths, we need to see such films. Instead of going abroad to see films, it's better to watch them here in Saudi cinemas," Jameel Khalawi said. ITN Source has more video of audiences cracking up (and groaning) at the film, and interviews with enthusiastic audience members (in Arabic).

And Menahi seems to be a sign of things to come. In Variety, Jaafar adds that:
[Saudi] Sheik Waleed Al-Ibrahim's TV net MBC Group is in production on "2The Circle," the first feature launched under its film division. Gulf pic is being produced by Kuwaiti Abdullah Boushahri and helmed by Emirati filmmaker Nawaf Al-Janahi.

Execs at Saudi-owned paybox ART are also ramping up their investment in the Arab film biz. In addition to inking a three-picture financing deal with Egyptian shingle Misr Intl. Films, ART execs are set to go into production on "The Kid," helmed by well-known Syrian TV director Hatem Ali. "The Kid," which will be Ali's first Egyptian feature, is about a successful businessman whose son dies. The man immerses himself in his late son's private life only to discover he never really knew him at all.

Queer Arabs blog adds that: "In May this year, the Dammam Literary Club held the the conservative kingdom's first official film fest," screening selected short films.

Beyond the big business of financing deals and well-known directors, digital technology and the internet are giving those with access the ability to express the realities of their daily lives, without asking permission in advance. As Jafaar notes:
It's not just on the bigscreen that Saudis are expressing their cinematic talent. Some citizens are using video as a tool of social protest. Wajeha Al-Huwaider has posted a video of herself at the wheel of a car on the popular vidclip site in defiance of official restrictions on women driving in the country.

"For women to drive is not a political issue," says Wajeha as she drives. "It is not a religious issue. It is a social issue, and we know that many women of our society are capable of driving cars."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

World Literature In Between

Not being in Istanbul, I missed my chance to attend this excellent symposium, organized jointly by the English and Comparative Literature Department at Columbia University and the city of Istanbul. I'd particularly like to have heard yesterday's panel: Literature after Orientalism, with speakers Aamir Mufti, Sabry Hafez and Sait Aykut. The Literary Saloon links to Turkish coverage of Orhan Pamuk's involvement. No other reports are forthcoming -- anyone out there in the blogosphere hear what was said?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Freedom of Expression: Who Are Your Heroes?

Index on Censorship's Free Speech blog announces that they are gathering nominations for their 2009 Freedom of Expression Awards, which celebrate our right to know and tell, and to recognise that this, of all human rights, is the one so often in the balance in democracies, so often the first victim of intolerance and poor legislation. You can read about previous winners here, including Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer, Being Arab by Samir Kassir, and Sihem Bensedrine, editor of the banned and now secretly published (online) magazine Kalima. Nominations close on 26 February, and you can find more details here, or by emailing awards [at] indexoncensorship [dot] org.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Season's Listings & Winter Treats

If you're still mulling over gifts for friends and family (or, like me, building up a pile of your own reading to keep the winter from the door), there are many lists out there to help you -- perhaps none as idiosyncratic, considered and exciting as Three Percent's Best Translated Book of 2008. The shortlist of 25 includes one Arabic title, Yalo by Elias Khoury. They're posting daily reviews of the titles, with the winner to be revealed on Jan 26.

They're also developing databases of all the translations published in the US in 2008 (and 2009): check them out for reading recommendations, and email chad [dot] post [at] rochester [dot] edu if you're a publisher or translator and have books to add.

Words Without Borders staff make their picks (all works in translation), appealingly, around the "fireplace with our mugs of hot toddy", and the list glows with that spirit. Equally thoughtful, although reading more as if conceived during pedeconferences along the corridors of power, the Slate best of 2008.

Ian Irvine at the New Statesman begins his list with the assertion that: "As English has increasingly become the world's default language, more and more non-traditional and non-anglophone areas of experience have begun to find expression in the English novel." His first two titles defy that claim, in some sense, taking the default language and hybridising, blending and turning English inside out, into what Evelyn Ch'ien calls "weird English."

Either way, it gets Irvine out of listing -- or reading? -- anything in translation. But this may be "house style" as in the same issue, Jonathan Derbyshire sets out the "Rise of the new Anglo-world order," in which he claims for the "Anglosphere" (English-speaking countries, and English speakers in former British colonies) the role that Goethe foresaw for German in his conception of "world literature." Derbyshire's argument is contradictory: on the one hand, English achieved dominance through empire, and so is English-language literature is enriched by writers and speakers of multiple, changing Englishes (with Salman Rushdie, as ever, as the case in point); on the other, English is globally dominant and therefore everyone, not only former colonial subjects, has to use English to be heard. Given that, as Derbyshire points out, Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish are equally *numerically* dominant (along with French and Turkish), the missing connection, of course, is the power of the marketplace, and English as the language of economic, as well as cultural, globalisation.

Which is somewhere more political than I intended to arrive in this seasonal round-up -- although I did also want to flag up the case of Omid Reza Mirsyafi, an Iranian blogger jailed (the thirtieth blogger so far) for 2 1/2 years. If you can find time (away from reading? shock!), then Amnesty's Greeting Cards campaign makes it easy to send messages of support online to human rights organisations around the world. And if you still have room on your reading list, there a new online issue of Transcript with a focus on Turkish literature.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Syracuse University Press Named Publisher of the Year

Syracuse, who publish the Middle East Literature in Translation series and the Arab American literature series, have been named Publisher of the Year by the Bloomsbury Review, according to Three Percent, who quotes Bloomsbury Review's Jeff Biggers: A
t a time with bookstores are overwhelmed by superficial cut-and-paste portraits of the Middle East that provide little insight into the cultures and experiences in the war-torn region, Syracuse University Press serves as a beacon of light for the publishing industry. These books deserve the widest distribution and attention possible in our country.

Congratulations to an excellent press, who have long been translating both fiction and non-fiction from Arabic-speaking countries, including titles such as Fugitive Light (Mohamed Berrada), My Thousand and One Nights: A Novel of Mecca (Raja Alem), The Journals of Sarab Affan (Jabra Ibrahim Jabra), Blood Test (Abbas Beydoun), Granada: A Novel (Radwa Ashour), Disciples of Passion Huda Barakat), The Author and His Doubles: Essays on Classical Arabic Culture ((Abdelfattah Kilito), and the classic Adonis collection A Time Between Ashes and Roses.

“Everything melted because of the fire”: Saad Eskander on the reopening of the Iraqi National Library and Archive

Dr. Eskander started his acceptance speech at the British Library on Monday 8th December by describing libraries as “sites of rationalisation, dialogue, creativity, and democracy.” That, he said, is why dictators and invaders destroy them. He specifically talked about the “dehumanising, derationalising and machinising of Iraqi society” that took place under Saddam Hussein, whose political control of academic and cultural institutions compounded the damage to Iraqi national heritage wrought by physical violence in wars and uprisings. As Dr. Eskander explained, the INLA was already compromised as a library before the invasion. Marxist, liberal, Shia and Kurdish publications were moved into a closed room, with no access permitted to researchers. Secret police were planted among the library staff to observe and inform on reading habits. The regime even removed air conditioning and ventilation from the building to dissuade researchers, damaging both papers and people. Librarians’ salaries were set at $2-3 US per month, which encouraged bribery and corruption, as librarians charged researchers for access.

The US army’s solution to the libraries many problems was, as Dr. Eskander pointed out, similar to their solution to Iraq overall: “they destroyed the statue of Saddam [that had stood outside the library], and that solved the problem of Iraq.” By the time the US army was on the scene, the library had been hit by three waves of internal devastation: first, desperate people looking for things to sell, like chairs and electronic equipment; next, professional looters who removed valuable texts that have since, in some cases, reappeared on the international market; and lastly and most devastatingly, arsonists whose use of chemicals that completely destroyed the specific paper archives they targeted indicated that they must have been professional, and probably in the pay of the previous regime.

“Everything melted because of the fire,” including the central staircases. Everything in the library was covered with a thick layer of ash and chemical residue. It had no water, no working equipment and no furniture. The prevailing attitude held that they should destroy the building, and start again with funding from the US. But Dr. Eskander was determined to seize the initiative and reopen the building – without US assistance, as the donors wanted a new building that could be labelled as an American success.

He began by educating his staff, and by asking what they needed, beginning with paper, pens, and basic furniture. He described himself as being like Ali Baba, looting other government buildings for chairs so that they could reopen the main reading room, which happened on 8th July 2004, six months after Dr. Eskander had taken on the job. He sought assistance from European governments, including Italy and the Czech Republic, to get funds to begin the work of reconstruction.

That work began with 65 elderly staff sorting papers, with a focus on the records of the Ba’athist regime, which had been deposited at the library when it was state-controlled. These were declassified and made available to all readers, so that Iraq “could understand its past in a very objective way.” 600-900 readers a year have been making their way to the library, where everything is provided free (including photocopying!), to consult the collections, and the doors remained open as renovations were in progress, and even though the institution was targeted by both sides fighting in Baghdad. “Attacking the National Library is the one thing both sides can agree on.”

No wonder: it sits opposite the Ministry of Defence, where the US and Iraqi armies are now based, and Apaches whir above the building every day. The Iraqi defence force occupied the building in 2007 as a strategic base against insurgents. Dr. Eskander appealed to the government, and his international partners: the soldiers were ordered out, but went with bad grace, smashing up windows. Despite this, and despite disapproval and threats, the INLA has become one of the country’s models of democratic process and equality, including employing a significant majority of trained female staff, who have a significant voice in the union. Not that it was easy: even staff struggled to accept the shift “from a culture of taking orders to a culture of taking initiative,” but Dr. Eskander is committed to providing an institutional model of democracy for the nation.

They are also empowered, through training in contemporary techniques of preservation and conservation, to train other staff, So far, they have – one example – saved and are restoring 836 texts from the collection of Hebrew books seized from the Iraqi Jewish community after denaturalisation orders were issued against the Jews in 1952. The books were subsequently scattered to locations across Iraq, but several were placed in the INLA in the 1990s. Staff were too afraid to look at them, and placed them in a basement, where some were destroyed. Others were burned in 2003, and others still shipped to the US from the basement of the Iraqi Intelligence Agency – the only books that the Americans shipped out.

Controversially, however, the US did also remove Ba’athist archival documents, and Iraqi citizens wanting to know about the fate of family members took others. Political operatives removed yet others to protect their own interests or provide blackmail opportunities: Dr. Eskander has been negotiating for their return, emphasizing that the looters include members of the current Iraqi government, and that he would like to “look after our own house” before pursuing the US. He describes his only power in negotiations as “blackmail, the power to name names,” and the US, he points out they are creating immunity for the Ba’athists. “We need to come to terms with the past, to make reparations.”

The library has assumed the function of a cultural, as well as research centre: while images of Mesopotamian culture are exhibited in the foyer to remind a fragmented society of its shared roots, more contemporary material is exhibited in the gallery in event space, and there is a radio station playing Iraqi music. Dr. Eskander describes his work as not only coming to terms with the past, but reconnecting with a “cultural heritage that includes the liberal Iraq of the 1960s and 1970s. He concludes by saying: “We did not restore the old INLA: we modernised it and democratised it.” As he told Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian in an interview this summer,
"I want to make the library a democratic model of how Iraq should be. From the start I hired Sunnis, Kurds, Shias, women, men. The national library must be a place - perhaps even the most important place - where Iraqis from many different groups come together."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraqi National Library & Archives

Last week, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals made Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archive since 2003, an Honorary Fellow in a moving ceremony at the British Library. The Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals usually awards its Honorary Fellowships in October, but Dr. Eskander could not attend – and it seems appropriate that he received the award during the Taking Liberties exhibition at the BL, celebrating the 60th anniversary of UDHR. It was particularly appropriate that the ceremony took place at the BL.

The British Library have been working with the Iraqi National Library and Archive since 2004 (when it seemed like stabilisation might occur quickly). They provided surrogate copies, from their own collections, of documents and books that had been destroyed, including India Office records for 1914-21, which covered the creation of the Iraqi state, and rare books and manuscripts of national significance. In 2007, the BL spearheaded an appeal for donations of university textbooks in social sciences, receiving an overwhelming response. Aided by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, the BL has digitised 20,000 pages of India Office records and 300 maps of Iraq from its collection to add to the INLA’s digitisation project. The INLA’s digitisation work is so advanced that it has recently signed an agreement with the Library of Congress to participate in a global digitisation project.

In 2003, the INLA was the most damaged cultural institution in Iraq. Even before the invasion, its collections were 30 years out of date due to heavy censorship and a lack of an accession policy. During and just after the invasion, 60% of the archives, 25% of ordinary collections and almost all rare books were looted. In 2004, the library had re-opened its doors despite having few facilities and with the collections still in disarray. In 2006-07, it remained open under direct bombing, sniper fire and even occupation by the Iraqi army. Five library staff have been unlawfully killed since 2003, as have 69 of their relatives; four staff have been kidnapped, and they have faced over 120 threats of death and displacement. And yet the staff numbers have continued to grow, from 95 in 2003 up to 425, with increasing numbers of qualified staff, who have training opportunities within the library and with international partners. They are unionised within a democratised internal structure.

Saad Eskander, who implements these changes, was appointed director of the INLA in 2003. From November 2006 to July 2007, he wrote a blog about the reconstruction of the library and archive, and about providing access to the collections while under attack. Email, Dr. Eskander said, acted as a connection to the outside world, while the president of CILIP described the blogs as “powerful, independent and courageous witness.” For Dr. Eskander, he added work of the library is deeply involved in “the formation of national identity and civil society, and in the dissemination of democratic and humanistic values.”

Read more about the Archive's amazing survival in The Nation, about its collections in the Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy, about documents removed from Iraq in WITNESS Media Archive and in an essay by Dr. Eskander, and a full report on Iraqi libraries from the University of Chicago. And you can join the INLA's Facebook group for news updates.

Tomorrow: Dr. Eskander's speech at the British Library. Later in the week: a q&a with Dr. Eskander -- post your questions for him in the comments!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Adania Shibli: Q & A

Adania Shibli is one of the most exciting voices in Arabic literature at the moment. She currently lives in London, so I had an opportunity to talk to her how she started writing, what language and literature mean to her, and what it means (and feels like) to write from and about Palestine. Here are her considered answers:

Q: What was the first thing that you wrote?

A: I started to hate school, since the first day I entered school. The only class though I somehow liked was Composition (well, I should confess that I also liked Mathematics). I remember the first time that I had a composition class. It was in fourth grade. I was nine. The teacher gave us a piece of homework, to write a ‘composition’ but I didn’t understand this word means. So I went home and asked one of my elder sisters, who I always asked “What does this mean?”. She told me, they want you to write a story. I’d read stories and heard even more, but I did not know how to go about writing one. That sister took me through it step by step: she asked me what I liked most, and what I wanted to tell others about. I told her I liked watching my father shaving: I was so fascinated by that since I was a child, it’s so soft, the white foam, and how the shaver just in one stroke removes it all, but then, despite all these strokes there remains little tiny stripes of foam which the shaver would leave behind. And I knew that as a girl I could never shave (well, at least my face). So there my father sat down to shave, and my sister and me with a notebook sat down nearby, setting up a sort of case study around him. My sister asked me to look and describe what I could see. The shape of his jaw in fact always seemed to me like the mountain behind our house, and so the foam looked like a cloud. When I read that in class, the teacher and the kids really liked it and praised it, but I felt not so comfortable with that praise given to me, because I did not come to that on my own, it was my sister who led me through it. Until now I believe that that sister is the real writer, not me.

Q: What are your (other) influences?

A: I’m always fascinated by how people use language; when they leave a note to a friend or when they just talk in the street even, especially in Arabic. I can never resist listening to or reading what all other people say or write, whether writers or not. It is fascinating to see how this language which is out there like air, offered to everyone, becomes so personal once is used. In fact it is amazing, it just occurred to me, that there is no existence of language as such; it exists only when used by someone. And then, everyone becomes the author of their own words, even though they are not the ones who created them.

Q: What kinds of new writing are emerging from Palestine at the moment? With the sad loss of Mahmoud Darwish, and the first full-length collection from Mourid Barghouti in English, there’s been some attention to Palestinian poetry in the UK press, and there’s a strong emphasis on how their poetry is bound up with national identity – is that true of younger writers as well?

A: New poets aren’t really discussing or reflecting questions of national identity. Such questions in my view had to do with a time when it was possible for Palestinian to have more or less a common experience; such as the Nakba and then less than two decades later, the Naksa, or the 1967 War, when all of Palestine became under full Israeli occupation . Now, with 450 checkpoints, walls, cutting movement between cities and areas and not only to the outside world, everything is so fragmented, so shattered. So the poems reflect this fragmentation and shattering. I read one poem by poet Anas Al-Aili, that had been written during the long period of curfew in 2002 over Ramallah. The narrator is laying in bed, while bombs are being fired outside; and he is staring at a nude painting that is in front of his bed. As the painting tilts with each explosion, while the narrator awaits for the next bomb to shake up the walls, so the woman in the painting to fall into his bed.

Q: Both “Little Girls of Jenin” and “Out of Time” are full of the kind of observations that you describe. Through very small things, they convey how dislocating and disturbing it is for you to go back to Palestine, and hint at some of the things that you have seen.

A: It’s impossible to describe; I’m not even interested, and when I try I literaly feel pain in my body. It is how the news as well can never convey that. For the news is mainly are able to show something - torture, occupation, horror… name it whatever you like, which at its core is not destined to be shown, represented or talked about it. Rather it is designed to be inflicted on one’s body and self, but not everyone; merely the Palestinians. The Israeli system, from political to social to economic, treats Palestinians as if they were not human beings. You experience this occupation and racism constantly on your body, no matter what you say to yourself. While in Palestine, I often worked with cultural organisations, which attempt to make life less dark and helpless. But things that usually should take five minutes, they would take two weeks. I’ve seen how hard we work to resist, to make more hopeful and more bearable than it is in reality. But now we have been turned also into agents in what has been a long process of dehumanization, with the infighting between Fateh and Hamas. It’s not surprising though, when a society has been fragmented and imprisoned for years over years. I myself if I stay with the man I love most for more than two days, I start to hate him and he also, and we get into these mad and illogical fights. But me living here in London, moving around easily and freely compared to my other writer colleges in Gaza for instance, I also try to keep my eyes wide open, and not to get blind and forgetful. Them and me, it seems we only have writing to keep awake and human.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Contemporary Art in the Middle East: Symposium at the Tate

Fikret Atay
Rebels of the Dance 2002
Tate © Fikret Atay

This two-day symposium looks like a fantastic event for artists, academics, writers, critics, gallery-goers, and anyone interested in arts. It boasts a great balance of academic speakers, curators, journalists and artists -- and there's a specific session on translation:

Session Two: Writing and Translation

How does the interpretation and contextualisation of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East effect its understanding at home and abroad? What is lost in the process of translation and how can it be reclaimed to encourage deeper and more nuanced readings? This session explores writing on art and translation as well as broader issues of access and interpretation.

Keynote Talk: Mourid Barghouti (poet and author, I Saw Ramallah)

Panel Discussion with Mourid Barghouti, Negar Azimi (senior editor, Bidoun), Pat Binder (artist, curator, publisher, Nafas Art Magazine), Gerhard Haupt (art-historian, curator and publisher, Nafas Art Magazine), Nada Shabout (Associate Professor Art History, University North Texas), and Anas Al-Shaikh (artist and curator). Chaired by Salah Hassan (Professor, Cornell University and editor, nka)

The event takes place Thursday 22 January 2009, 14.00–18.00 (Tate Britain) and Friday 23 January 2009, 10.30–18.00 (Tate Modern). Tickets are £40 (£30 concessions) and can be booked online.

A History of the Arab Body: The Prophet's Wife, Jasad and Mourid Barghouti Make the News.

The New York Times finally has a review of Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, the historical romance about Ai'sha, the third and youngest wife of the Prophet Mohammed. The novel has been pursued by controversy, including a pre-publication dismissal from a senior American academic, Denise Spellberg, and - more seriously - a firebombing of the novel's British publishers. While Lorraine Adams' review is a considered response, discussing the context and difficult careers of the both the novel and its historical protagonist, and couching the novel's reception by comparison to Salman Rushdie's The Satantic Verses, it ends on an odd note. Granted, as her citations show, the novel's prose as well as its research leave something to be desired, but she claims that the novel's literary failings remove it from protection for freedom of expression.
An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument.… Should free-speech advocates champion “The Jewel of Medina”? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them. If Jones’s work doesn’t reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this novel. Their stance seems just about right.
But English PEN actively supported the publication of the novel as a case of freedom of expression, using their online network to flag up the attack on British publisher Martin Rynja. They also co-ordinated a widely-editorialised petition by leading British writers. In a note on the petition, Hari Kunzru wrote that:
Calling for books such as these to be banned or censored shows a lack of confidence over the subject matter. The only response to freedom of speech is more freedom of speech and the right to criticise and produce better books. Let pen fight with pen. Artistic licence is required to explore perceived wisdoms and ask new questions from different angles to reveal new insights. These insights are stunted if artistic licence is limited by the intimidation of extremists.
Black Iris has a thoughtful response about how this case illuminates the "volatile nature [of freedom of expression]. The unpredictable (and sometimes predictable) nature of where and how a discussion will evolve."

Providing further context and consideration to the charges laid against Jewel comes an excellent interview in The Guardian with Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad, who has launched Jasad, "a quarterly magazine specialising in the body's arts, sciences, and literatures."

On sale in Lebanon in sealed plastic envelopes (and by couriered subscription elsewhere), Jasad is, as Haddad points out, a continuation of a rich tradition in Arabic literature; she tells Ian Black,
"I'm not trying to introduce something alien. We have wonderful erotic texts in Arabic like the Scented Garden or the non-censored texts of a Thousand and One Nights. These are all part of our heritage and we have come to deny it."
The first issue has a plethora of contributors, whom Haddad insists write under their given names. They are a distinguished bunch, including French writer Catherine Millet (whose memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. caused shockwaves), prize-winning novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, Egyptian poet Emad Fouad, and Abbas Beydoun, who is the Cultural Editor of Lebanese newspaper As-Safir as well as a novelist and poet.

There's an essay on lesbian life in Syria and France by Kurdish-Syrian journalist Maha Hassan, author of the excellent article "Female Arabic Writers: Neither Mannish nor Scheherazadian." She critiques Moroccan novelist Said Benkrad's assertion, made in August 2008, in Damascus (the 2008 Capital of Arabic culture), during a debate about female writing,
that the female Arab novel carried within itself only the body and temptation and that female writers put their desires above their words. He thus made a very clear distinction between novels written by men and those that are written by women.
As the erotic writing by Ben Jelloun, Fouad and Beydoun included in Jasad shows, the erotic body is not the provenance of women writers -- but nor are they excluded from writing about it. Cannily, the magazine's website has a forum where issues of gender, sexuality, censorship, cultural heritage and so on can be discussed by readers and browsers, as the magazine provides a forum for writers to present their intellectual and erotic fantasies. The magazine is currently only available in Arabic, and in print, but excerpts are readable online, in English and Arabic.

It's great to see a full-page article about Arabic literature in the Saturday Guardian (dominated by a picture of the very beautiful Haddad and featuring a box entitled "World of Contradictions" summarising the double standards around the erotic in the Arab world), but appearing on the same day as the NYT Jewel review, it makes me wonder whether it's not so much about Arabic literature as the still-tantalising Orientalist myth of the erotic East, at once sternly veiled and sybaritically laid bare. While Jasad itself explores sensually, sparkily and thoughtfully a diverse world of sexuality, including cannibalism, fetishism, cinematic voyeurism, gender difference and body theory, the article presents it simply as a controversial "culture clash" of Western values (its "articles and illustrations are of a quality that would not be out of place in Paris, New York or London") and Arabic social mores. Jewel is being read through a similar narrow focus. But each carries with it, for Western readers and editors, a whiff of Burtonesque jasmine, a seduction -- into easy arguments as well as erotic reveries.

Haddad is a bold and talented writer and editor, and her magazine showcases a selection of the most exciting writers and artists from the region. But is this really all the coverage the Guardian can afford to the Beirut Book Fair and to Arabic literature? In fairness, the Review section's "A Life In Writing" interview this week is with Mourid Barghouti.

It's a detailed and considerable piece, and (after looking at the Jasad article) what springs out for me are Barghouti's bodily metaphors for his writing process: he describes the protagonist of his 2005 long poem Midnight as
"left with this attack of time on his heart and mind and solitary body… I find I always imagine myself in the place of the victim," he says. "When the twin towers were hit, I felt I was thrown from windows, running from the fire - I lived it. In Abu Ghraib I was the hooded prisoner with electrodes on his fingers."

Interviewer Maya Jaggi quotes Zuhair Abu Shayeb, a poet and editor at the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing in Amman, who says Barghouti "abandoned the heroic tone and slogans that plague modern Arabic poetry. His is a poetry of coughs and headaches - the daily pains of the individual". Barghouti agrees passionately; of his sequel to the memoir I Saw Ramallah, he says:
"It's to make every trivial detail into a chronicle of history. Everything starts from the individual - the body's pleasures and pains. If you don't see that, you misunderstand history."

Friday, December 12, 2008

And the 2nd Arabic "Booker" goes to...

Well, we won’t know until 16 March 2009, when the winner will be announced in Abu Dhabi one day before the start of the city’s International Book Fair.

Out of 131 submissions from 15 countries, six literary works have been shortlisted by the international panel of experts of Arabic literature coming from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Germany:

Hunger by Egyptian novelist Mohammed Al Bisatie

The Unfaithful Translator by Syrian author Fawwaz Haddad

The American Granddaughter by Iraqi writer Inaam Kachachi

Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah from Jordan

The Scents of Marie-Claire by Tunisian author Al-Habib Al-Salmi

Beelzebub by Egyptian writer Yusuf Zeydan

While these six great writers have to wait for three months for the ceremony at which the prestigious literary prize will be awarded together with $60,000, international readers have already won. The shortlisted candidates can expect their works to be translated and thus gain a wider readership, just like the winner of the inaugural prize „Sunset Oasis“ by Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher, which is currently being translated into English and six other languages.

"I think this shows we are succeeding in bringing Arabic writers to a wider readership, and perhaps in a way [the prize] contributes a bit to understanding that the Arabic world isn't just Islamic fundamentalists, but is a culture and civilisation which goes back for centuries and centuries," said Jonathan Taylor, chair of the prize's board of trustees. And gaining international appeal is what the prize funded by the Emirates Foundation together with the Booker Prize Foundation is all about. The shortlist has been announced in London and covered by international media. "The purpose of the prize is to recognise and reward high quality Arabic fiction, and to bring it to a wider audience through securing translations," he said.

But where are all the outstanding female authors that the Arab world has to offer? Only 17 submissions came from women, a lower proportion than last year, and Inaam Kachachi is the only one of them who made it onto the shortlist. Let’s hope that we will get closer to Taylor’s optimistic figure, “We want to get 50/50“, next year.

Have your say! Follow the links above to tell us what you think about the shortlisted books. Have you read anything by Ibrahim Nasrallah, whose writing is frequently challenged by censorship in Jordan? Do you want to know more about Inaam Kachachi or Yusuf Zeydan?

And don’t forget to read about the other 10 longlisted novels:

The Bottle and the Genie, Mohammad Abu Maatouk

The Tobacco Guard, Ali Badr

The Man From Andalucia, Salem Hameesh

Prayer For The Family, Renée Hayek

Confessions, Rabih Jaber

Platoon Of Ruin, Abdel Kareem Jouaitly

The Tumour, Ibrahim Al Koni

Black Taste, Black Odour, Ali Al Muqri

Intensive Care, Izzedin Shukri

Ma’ Al Sama’, Yehya Yekhlef

And for some insight into the reality of publishing in the Arab world, don't miss this article by Rasheed El-Nany, one of the judges for the 2009 Arabic "Booker", in the National (UAE).

Damascus: Capital of Culture (& Censorship)

Poetry night at a Damascus hotel, part of a thriving bohemian scene in Syria

BBC journalist Martin Asser has a lively report on the arts scene living "life on the edge" in Damascus, which is this year's Arab Capital of Culture, thriving and testing the "red lines" in a rigidly-controlled state. Asser buys a banned book: In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa, whom he talks to about the knife-edge situation for outspoken artists in Syria.

Khaled Khalifa

Looking back over events such as the 2007 conviction handed down to Michel Kilo, Khalifa says:
"It's a grey area now. No one knows whether freedom is coming or on the retreat. The authorities are restricting the internet for example, but on the plus side they are not detaining people who speak out."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lost in Translation Reading Challenge

Looking for a New Year's resolution? What about Nonsuch Books' 2009 "Lost in Translation" reading challenge: read six books in translation, and share your thoughts with other challenge participants on the Nonsuch blog. Email Frances on francesevangelista [at] yahoo [dot] com to be added to the list, and include a link to your blog or site if you'll be posting your thoughts on the book. Chad Post at Three Percent is offering a shipping costs refund to participants who order and read any title from the excellent Open Letter catalog of contemporary fiction in translation.

Nonsuch is also taking suggestions for titles, but mine is more of a wish list -- a desire to be surprised by writers that I don't yet know about (Arabic riot grrrl poetry from Saudi Arabia following in the wake of The Accolade?), and the hope that some of the Arabic books I've come across this year will be translated into English. Like Adania Shibli's novels, Kamal Rohaym's The Muslim Jew, the rest of Magdy Al-Shafei's graphic novelMetro, novels by Abdourahman Waberi, more from the poets featured in Modern Poetry in Translation's Palestine issue, more from the writers included in Farafina 15's focus on North African literature...

If you join the challenge, post a link to your blog or reading journal in the comments.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Adania Shibli, "Out of Time"

"Out of Time" is the PEN Atlas' second selection from the work of Adania Shibli, novelist, playwright, journalist and essayist. Look out for an interview with Adania on the blog later in the week: you can put your questions to her via comments on the blog.

Adania Shibli presented the text “Out of Time” during the workshop “The Politics of Images: Practices and Approaches to Art in the Middle East and North Africa” organized by documenta 12, on November 20th, 2006, in Bruno Kreisky Forum, Vienna. Thanks for their permission to reproduce it here.

Out of Time

My little watch is the first to sense the change going in to and out of Palestine. On the way there I notice it on my wrist, counting the time down to the second, waiting for the moment when the wheels of the plane touch the airport runway, and I set it to local time so it goes on counting it with an infinite familiarity. And as soon as I go out of Palestine it advances listlessly, taking its time parting with the local time there, which ends once the plane touches down in a foreign land.

It may seem to some I’m slightly exaggerating in what I’m telling about my watch, especially as it is a very little watch. People often are amazed how it can tell me the time at all, being so small. I myself could have yet shared their doubts had I not found out about watches and their secret powers.

It goes back to primary school, during one of the Arabic literature classes. The curriculum back then was, and it still is, subject to the approval of the Israeli Censorship Bureau, which embraced texts from various Arab countries, except for Palestine, fearing that these would contain references or even hints that could raise the pupils’ awareness of the Palestinian question. Hence, Palestinian literature was considered unlawful, if not a taboo, similar to pornography—except for one text, ‘The Time and Man’, a short story by Samira Azzam, which the Censorship Bureau found “harmless.”

The story, published in 1963, tells of a young man preparing himself before he turns in, the night ahead of his very first day of work. He sets his alarm clock for four o’clock in the morning so as to catch the train in time to go to work. No sooner had the alarm clock gone off the next morning than there came a knocking at his front door. When he opens it, he finds before him an old man. He has no clue who this man is and he does not get the chance to ask him, as the latter turns and walks away, disappearing into the darkness. The same is repeated day after day so that the young man no longer sets his alarm clock. It is only after several months that he discovers who that old man is, after a colleague tells him this man goes knocking on the doors of all the employees in the company. He wakes them up on time in order for them not to be late for their train and meet their destiny as his own son did, who had one morning arrived late at the station, while the train was leaving. He held on to its door, but his hand betrayed him and he slipped down, falling underneath its wheels.

At first glance, the story may seem simple and “safe,” especially before the censor’s eyes. Yet it actually contributed towards shaping my consciousness regarding the question of Palestine as no other text I have ever read in my life has done. Were there one day Palestinian employees who commuted to work by train? Was there a train station? Was there a train honking? Was there one day a normal life in Palestine? And where is it now and why has it gone?

The text, in turn, had engraved in my soul a deep sense of yearning for all that was—including the tragic—normal and banal, to a degree that I could no longer accept the marginalized, minor life to which we’ve been exiled since 1948, during which our existence turned into a “problem.”

Against this story and the multiple modes of existence it revealed to me, stands my little watch. And my watch is more similar to that old man in Azzam’s story than it is to a Swiss watch whose primary concern is to count time with precision. Rather, just as that old man turned from a human being into a watch in order for life to become bearable, my watch decided to turn from a watch into a human being.

In Palestine, it often stops moving. It suddenly enters into a coma, with which it becomes unable to count the time. On my last visit there, I set it as usual to local time the minute the plane touched down on the Lydd airport runway. It was ten to two in the afternoon. I headed to passport control. There weren’t many travelers and the line I stood in was proceeding quickly. I handed my passport over to the police officer, and she took her time looking at it. Then more time. Suddenly, two men and a woman appeared, who were a mix of police, security and secret service, and they took me out of the line, so as to begin a long process of interrogation and searches. Everything proceeded as usual in such situations- an exhaustive interrogation into the smallest details of my life and a thorough search of my belongings. Afterwards I was led into a room to run a body search on me. And while a woman walked away with my shoes and belt to examine them by X-ray, another stayed with my watch, which she held inside her palms and went on contemplating with intent and sincerity. A few minutes later she looked at her watch, then back at my watch. Then again at her watch, then at my watch. When the first lady came back with the rest of my belongings, she hurried over to her to tell her that there was something strange about my watch. It was not moving. Five minutes had passed according to her watch, whereas according to mine none had passed. They called the security chief and my heart beat started to bang violently on my chest.

I didn’t know how much time had passed before my watch, and then I were cleared of all suspicions and let go. But I discovered when I reached home that it was nine o‘clock in the evening, while my watch was still pointing to ten to two in the afternoon. Maybe my watch was only trying to comfort me by making me believe that all that search and delay had lasted zero minutes. As if nothing had happened. Or perhaps it simply refuses to count the time that is seized from my life, a time whose only purpose is to humiliate me and send me into despair. A kind of time suspension, so as to obscure the time of pain.

Opposite to this malfunctioning in Palestine, my watch has not once stopped moving outside Palestine. It is never late to count every second of the other timeof the other time. In fact, it many times moves slightly faster than it should, to a point where it seems to lose track of time. So fast it moves as if wanting to shake off this other time from it, one second after the other, so to catch up with the time in Palestine.

Thus, had it been seven hours or zero that distance my little watch from Palestine, it remains the same for it, and only to comfort me; it leads me out of time, no matter where I am.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Introducing Adania Shibli

The PEN Atlas blog is thrilled to be publishing two new pieces by Adania Shibli. Hovering between memoir, essay and meditation, "Little Girls of Jenin" and "Out of Time" are investigations into the unreal realities of Palestine, the strange place of the border and the complex, bruising state of exile. Later in the week, I'll post an interview with Adania -- if you have questions for her, you can leave them in the comments box on the blog.

Adania Shibli is "the most talked-about writer on the West Bank," says Ahdaf Soueif. Her works have been published in literary magazines in the Middle East and Europe and she has been awarded twice the Young Writer’s Award of Palestine by the A. M. Qattan Foundation. She is the author of two novels: Masas and We Are All Equally Far From Love, both published by Al-Adab in Beirut.

Her writing has been translated into many languages (including French), with English translations of her stories appearing in the anthology Qissat, and in the magazines Words Without Borders, Documenta (where "Out of Time" originally appeared), and Banipal. She contributed an essay to a book on Palestinian artist Emily Jacir.

Adania Shibli is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, researching media coverage of the "War on Terror".
"Little Girls of Jenin"

I feel happiness, like a light, dubious pressure on the bones of my chest, while the rest of my body has vanished into languor. I don’t find it foolish, as happiness usually is, but rather, strong and persistent; a happiness that doesn’t doubt itself, not even for a second.

And the reason for this happiness is that I’m going to give a reading in Jenin refugee camp. My happiness is certain that—and because—its source is the desire to put an end to pain; preventing it from going on like that, monopolizing my soul, for some years now, after my first and last visit to Jenin camp in the spring of 2002, even though Jenin itself is the city of my childhood.

As a little girl, I used to accompany my father on his weekly visit there every Friday. I watch the shops and their colorful items dangling from their ceilings. The scene dearest to my heart was watching a shop-owner bringing down one of those items hanging from the ceiling of his shop. With the light-handedness of a magician, while still engaged in a conversation with a client, he’d bring down the ball or the money box from above with the help of a stick that had a hook at its end. And I, the little person down at the other end, used to think until that moment that birds alone could touch those items dangling from Jenin’s sky.

When I grew up, my cities grew up with me, while Jenin remained little, and I didn’t visit it except in transit, on my way from Jerusalem or Ramallah to my village, near Jenin, traveling to visit my family. However, since the year 2000, as a result of closing and blocking the roads and the spread of checkpoints, it has become impossible for Palestinian cars to use that road, so I no longer could take it. And now, in this spring, seven years later, I will take it as a passenger in a German diplomatic car.

I try to recall the sections of that road that are dearest to my eyes. And the choice is very difficult. As a final compromise I choose a section between Nablus and Jenin, where the road while bending right it slopes down. There some almond trees are hiding, overlooking, in turn, vast fields of wheat. But suddenly I’m struck by a filthy fear which I don’t know how it found its way to me- What if those trees are no longer there? Seven years are a very long time, during which thousands of lives were terminated, and thousands of homes were destroyed, and thousands of acres were confiscated, and thousands of trees were uprooted. A slight pain is back, dismantling the pressure in my chest and denying a measure of my happiness. So I cajole a feeling of indifference into brushing aside the feeling of pain and happiness as well. And, clutching at my indifference, I tell myself that those three or four almond trees might still be there, or might not.

I then turn to thinking about what I should wear. A black shirt I love a great deal, given to me as a gift from my brother, and new pants I bought recently, in light brown. Now the shoes. I try to imagine the ground that I’ll step on. The only time I was in the camp the ground consisted of rubble. I remember the shoes I put on during that visit, in the spring of 2002. I hate those shoes immensely. After that visit I threw them away, along with all the destruction they stepped on. I never talk about that visit. I can’t and I wouldn’t and I don’t care to do so or maybe it tires me or ruins me to talk about that or even to write about how I can’t talk about that. Briefly put, I call the whole matter: “Pain.” But I remind myself one more time that I’m going this time to the camp as a guest writer and not in the company of blood-sucking journalists. I choose a pair of elegant, black shoes. But in no time I become the prey of a new fear. What if the road to Jenin is still flanked by destruction. I imagine myself being forced to climb mountains in order to avoid the checkpoints or roadblocks that will stand in my way. I even imagine the bullet that will puncture my body. I assign its place. It will be either in my leg or in my chest. And though I prefer it to be in my leg, I say that if it hits my chest and I die, there’s nothing to it. There’s nothing to loose in this filthy world, except for entering Jenin camp today. Then, in anticipation of all the perils and hardships I imagine standing in my way, I put in my bag a shoe brush and black shoe polish. I want to stand in front of the audience of Jenin camp, while wearing a clean, shining pair of shoes even over my dead body.

We arrive at the camp. I don’t recognize anything in it or in its alleys. The death that prevailed all over it five years ago to the day, was lifted by a quotidian, languid afternoon. Two men sit outside a poultry shop, while a little kid pushes a pink pram into the street. Suddenly I scream loudly as I imagine the wheels of the car we are riding running over him. Death smell still hits my nose. It’s nested forever in this square.

The reading will start shortly in the “Freedom Theater” that has been opened recently in the camp. Young people fill the yard outside the theater. At the entrance I bump into a group of little girls, arms crossed, fury in their eyes. I ask, “What’s wrong, pretty ones?” And they answer that the man at the door wouldn’t let them in. In their furious eyes I suddenly glimpse my childhood in Jenin. They want to go in and I’m the little girl with them, to where the adults, including me, are. I talk to the director of the theater, begging him to let the girls outside be allowed entrance, and he insists, “No”. He says the event isn’t meant for their age group, and so they would only cause a commotion. The girls and I promise him that we would keep the order and would sit quietly in the back of the theater, but he still declines.

I go back to the little girls and promise them, from the bottom of my heart, that I would come back to Jenin just for them, and that we wouldn’t admit any adults. But they keep looking at me with eyes that have no patience nor belief; for how many promises have been showered on them and at their parents and grandparents before. Before I enter the theater I hear them screaming in the direction of the door keeper from a distance, “We shall enter, means we shall!”

They do not know that they have, instead, entered my weary soul and breathed new life into it, true life.

Jenin, spring 2007

"Out of Time" will appear on the blog tomorrow.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Speaking Freely: 60th Anniversary of the UNHCR

It's the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this week, which is being marked by many celebrations -- and, in the blogosphere and media, a number of astute calls to recognise that the Declaration's work is far from done.

As ever, there are also stories that mark the challenges to, and successes of, one of Roosevelt's "four freedoms" enshrined in the UDHR, that of "freedom of speech." Rex Bloomstein's documentary "True Stories: An Independent Mind" screens on More4 on Tuesday 9, the eve of the anniversary (you can watch it online on a PC from Wednesday morning onwards). Bloomstein's interviewees include Burmese comedians the Moustache Brothers, Chinese sex blogger Mu Zimei and Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar, all of whom have been persecuted for expressing their opinions and who engage with Bloomstein in a lively and inspiring conversation about what we are permitted to say, how, and by whom.

In the Egyptian blogosphere, an equally lively conversation tackles the topic from a different angle, as Wikipedia have just launched a version of the site in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. The site has raised both hopes and hackles: Global Voices has a translation of the debate about local and national identity vs. the region's mutual linguistic heritage, about what counts as 'correct' usage, and how languages evolve despite, rather than because of, imposed rules. As it often does, the blogosphere provides space for a debate about the freedom of speech -- and for realisations as to how that space is limited by technology, access, censorship and political will.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Events, Awards, etc.: What's Going On...

Top sellers from the first week of the 52nd Beirut Book Fair, as reported in Lebanon's Daily Star, according to preliminary statistics from the Arab Cultural Club:

Islam and religion: "Umdat al-Raghib," Al-Shaykh Abdullah al-Hirari

Politics: "From Hasan Nasrallah to Michel Aoun," Fayez Qazzi

Science: "Encyclopedia of Family Health," Dar al-Ilm al-Malayin

Art: "International Cooking Series," Dar al-Ilm al-Malayin

Autobiography: "Jass al-Nabad (Taking the Pulse)," Riad al-Rayyes Publishing

The fair is back in business after a two-year hiatus, due to political and security tensions in Lebanon. With an emphasis on younger readers, and reading in education,
Beirut is attempting to reclaim its status as the "international book capital."
210 exhibitors are taking part, with 192 private and 18 government exhibitors are on hand from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine and Oman and Lebanon. There is a week-long series of more than 40 seminars and lectures by publishers and prominent figures from the Arab publishing and literature scene.


Words Without Borders posts two exciting ventures: 2009 Fellowships in Applied Translation with Dalkey Archive Press (application deadline 1 March, 2009); and Amazon UK have launched a Literature in Translation store.

"Give Me the Pavement!" The Bombing and the Brink Part VI

The final part of Guy Mannes-Abbott's conversation with Mourid Barghouti about the "poetry of the pavement," Palestinian writers, and the internationality of literature.

VI. Midnight & Other Poems allows Barghouti to emerge as a “poet of the pavement”; repeatedly banished and permanently looking awry at things. Poems of the Pavement is actually the name of his fifth collection published in 1980. “This is the real start of my voice” he once told me before explaining the context -court poets and political rhetoricians- with figurative argumentation. “So, okay: you occupy the autostrat with your poetry, your bombastic tone, but give me the pavement! Poems of the pavement? I am not in the mainstream -I need the pavement. You take the street -you’ve already taken it, it isn’t mine. I’ll be confined to this. I’m happy with this” -happy enough to produce six further poetry collections, a 700-page Collected Works, the memoir and book-length poem Midnight -published just after his sixtieth birthday.
This selection from those poems, which includes several from the ‘pavement’, also finally allows I Saw Ramallah to be read as the memoir of a great poet. After the jolt of Mahmoud Darwish’s recent death, Mourid wrote of his friend that he “was at the centre of Arab culture in the 20th century because he was a poet, and a Palestinian.” While Darwish was widely considered the greatest living Arab poet, it’s a burdensome mantle that Barghouti will be reluctant to assume.
Once, when talking of his admiration for Darwish, he pointed to a shared creative restlessness. “Do you know what the title of his seventh collection was? - when he was, by now, a legend. Attempt No. 7. Just that,” he chuckled delightedly, “the number 7 not the word. It is the same with me, poetry should be this attempt.”
Meanwhile, nothing should blind us to the depth and range of Palestinian literature, exemplified today in the levity of Randa Jarrar and soul of Adania Shibli. While Jarrar writes in English, Shibli’s work is translated into French and Italian though not yet English -excepting a couple of very fine short stories.
Exactly four years since appearing on the Southbank, Mourid’s first collection of poems in English was published on the day he returned to read at the Poetry International Festival. Finally, readers of his memoir and stunned listeners to his reading were able to pick up his poems too. Each of them knew they were plucking flowers from the brink of being bombed.
You can read the complete article in a single document here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Solution of Night and Day: The Bombing and the Brink Part V

V. Four years on from 2004, a first proper collection of Barghouti’s poems is due in English. Midnight & Other Poems includes the first full version of the long title poem, written during 2004 and published in Arabic as the year turned into 2005. It’s a poem about a man in a room with an open window through which visions, stories, memories pour in, refusing him any rest. It’s not just any midnight either, but the very cusp of New Year. Nor is it an English midnight. In Arabic, Mourid tells me, the word means ‘half night’ - a solution of day and night- a much more ambiguous notion than a pivotal or starting moment.
Rooms with windows like this recur in I Saw Ramallah. On his long awaited ‘return’ to Ramallah, Barghouti stays in the home of a family friend. The window in his room opens on the familiar sight of olive groves not seen for exactly thirty years and an Israeli settlement on top of the hill. An insistent rush of memories and “countless questions” deprive him of sleep on his last night there.
Mourid’s Midnight is the product of a world gone mad, thrown headlong into a nightmare of barbaric appetites. Nothing is as it should be or even appears any more. For Palestinians the early 1990 agreements at Oslo offered limited hopes but also made promises and commitments to them. By the Millennium, settlement building on the Occupied ‘West Bank’ had continued at a terrible pace, promises of every sort had been broken, and their own leadership was fatally compromised by strategic errors. Used to chronic injustice and having survived acute injustices they were now thrown into another round of both at the same time, crimes against humanity of a specific unimaginable order.
In I Saw Ramallah Barghouti wrote “I am a child of mountains and stability” who has “tamed” himself “to the feeling that the coffee pot is not mine.” Here, in Midnight, Mourid writes of “hills that follow each other like rhymes/ hills that you shield, instead of being shielded by them” -a grotesque inversion. Certainly this is poetry of human extremity, the world’s madness concentrated in the Palestinians existential torment, further gathered in the ferocious gusts of unending nocturnal distress. It is a day like no other in human history, and just another day in an endless night.
However, whilst Midnight renders the world at an end, the poet also delivers a “message of doubt” for “the victorious”. Every time I read its closing lines I recall Mourid talking of the hope he has found on the ‘West Bank" and Gaza, lessons learnt from '48, '67, '87 and 2000.
“It’s really amazing, little acts of resistance. They demolish the house, and they cut the trees and people stay where they are, in the rubble! A temporary is raised, and the neighbours bring some help and the family life is resumed in some way or another in their place!”
It would be wrong to describe Midnight as a poem of hope, it is not. Not even hope against hope. Instead it expresses the resistance of a people to ongoing attempts to erase them in a work that embodies poetry’s constitutive resistance to closure. It contains a highly potent claim on the future: for new life, here, on this earth, and now, in this same dust.
VI. Midnight & Other Poems allows Barghouti to emerge as a “poet of the pavement”; repeatedly banished and permanently looking awry at things.

The sixth and final part of our exclusive serialisation of Guy Mannes-Abbott's introduction to Mourid Barghouti's Midnight, celebrating the book's publication by Arc, appears tomorrow.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Victory for Freedom of Expression in Egypt: Ibrahim Essa wins 2008 Gebran Tueni award

Ibrahim Essa, Editor-in-Chief of Al Dustour, the daily newspaper in Egypt, has been awarded the 2008 Gebran Tueni Award, the annual prize of the World Association of Newspapers that honours an editor or publisher in the Arab region.

The prize is made in memory of Gebran Tueni, the Lebanese publisher who was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in December 2005, a unique figure in WAN affairs for almost 20 years, as a leading member of its Press Freedom Committee, a Board member for more than a decade, a regular participant in missions to press freedom "hot spots" and a constant advisor and support to the leadership of the organisation on Arab and press freedom issues. WAN and the Tueni family created the award to encourage other courageous and independent publishers, editors and newspapers in the Arab world.

The inaugural Gebran Tueni Award, presented in 2006, was made to Nadia al-Saqqaf, Editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times. Last year's prize went to Michel Hajji Georgiou, a senior political analyst at the French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour in Lebanon. The award carries a 10,000 Euros scholarship to enable Mr Essa to undertake advanced newspaper leadership training.

Mr Essa will receive the award during the 3rd Arab Free Press Forum, to be held in Beirut, Lebanon, next week, which will explore how the independent Arab press defies restrictive governments.

The 2008 award recognises Mr Essa's commitment to freedom of the press, his courage, leadership, ambition and high managerial and professional standards. Mr Essa said, "the award gives a kiss of life to writers in Arab countries, where the press is suffocated," he said.

Al Dustour, founded in 1995, was closed by the Egyptian authorities from 1998 to 2005 after it published a letter from the militant group Gamaa Islamiya. Its circulation has grown from 50,000 when it resumed publishing, to 120,000 today, in large part because of Mr Essa's leadership. About 30 journalists work for Al Dustour. Most of them are young and committed to independent journalism.

Mr Essa remains determined to provide professional and quality coverage of events, despite censorship, indictments and court cases. He was sentenced to two months in prison in September 2008 for "propagating false news and rumours causing a general security disturbance and harming the public interest" in connection with articles concerning the health of President Mubarak. He was pardoned by the President in October.

Mr Essa is currently appealing another conviction and is free on bail pending the outcome. In September 2007, Mr Essa, along with Adel Hammouda of the weekly al-Fagr, Wael al-Abrashi of the weekly Soat al-Ommah, and Abdel Halim Kandeel of the weekly al-Karama, each received one-year jail sentences for "defaming the president".

Mr Essa and Al Dustour journalist Sahar Zaki had earlier been sentenced to a year in prison for "insulting the president" and "spreading false rumours" for their April 2005 coverage of a legal case against President Mubarak. The prison sentence was dismissed on appeal in February 2007 and the two were fined 22,500 Egyptian Pounds (3,200 Euros).

"There Are Many Mohammeds": The Bombing and the Brink Part IV

In which Guy Mannes-Abbott and Mourid Barghouti discuss the implications, ramifications and emotions of Barghouti's poem, "A Night Unlike Others"

IV. Despite being the most declamatory of Barghouti’s poems in translation, there is no accusation, nothing that must be withdrawn under certain circumstances, no contentiousness and, even here, no stage directions. Yet this is a poem written in the wake of the gratuitous killing of a young boy by the Israeli Defence Forces right in front of the world in September 2000. It was followed by Israel reinvading illegally Occupied Territories as the second intifada took off. Mohammed al-Durra became an icon of injustice, a symbol, an idea, wrapped in flourishes of rhetoric -the kind that Mourid refuses.
I asked him about it, knowing that there had been a memorial edition of an occasional publication in Cairo, renamed Durra, to which writers gave work. Something about my question touched him: the fact that I would ask it, that my own son was ‘due’ on the very same day. Perhaps even that his late arrival by two weeks had made for a singularly naked concentration on the human. The point, quickly established, was that yes, it was Mohammed al-Durra, in a sense, but “Mohammed is not a name, even!”
There are many Mohammeds, I suggest.
“Yeh yeh yes.”
He then told me how he’d been invited to go on a kind of memorial tour of north African capitals with the father of this particular Mohammed, whose long face we all saw yanked into animal terror. There were posters everywhere, everyone was saying this, chanting that; “I went on the tour, but I never read this poem!” He said this with pride; proud of a characteristic, principled clarity.
So we have a poem about a grotesque crime, which was a trigger for the slide back into hell for Palestinians, a historically significant moment. The poem does not name, nor does it blame. Even agreeing to a memorial tour in support of the family, the poem that does not name is not read! This, in a heightened way, exemplifies Mourid Barghouti's work. The particular here, unnamed, has graduated to the universal. If this is literature in bondage -as J.M. Coetzee described his own writing during the apartheid era- the bindings are our little humanity, the prison our planetary bauble.
V. Four years on from 2004, a first proper collection of Barghouti’s poems is due in English. Midnight & Other Poems includes the first full version of the long title poem, written during 2004 and published in Arabic as the year turned into 2005.
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