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.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Writing from Gaza: A Portfolio

Over the last few weeks, protest songs for Gaza -- by Michael Heart and Invincible, among others -- have been flying around the blogosphere, giving a voice to the anguish and anger of Gazans, who were almost silenced by Israel's media blockade, and by damage to infrastructure. Journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens, resilient and determined, posted when they could, via SMS to friends if they had to, and have made known the stories that didn't appear on the news.

These observations from the moment, on the ground, are thrilling, moving and necessary. They counter media bias, alert us to action, and give us a glimpse of what it feels like to be in Gaza. How much more so, then, might a poem or story, honed by a brilliant writer until it is dense with image and meaning? As the outpouring of grief at Mahmoud Darwish's death last year showed, literature, and poetry in particular, has a particular place in Palestinian culture -- and has had a particular place in reaching out from Palestine to the rest of the world, from Ghassan Kanafani's "Letter from Gaza" to Mourid Barghouti's Midnight.

But only a few Palestinian writers are being translated. In Palestine, the Khalil Sakakini Centre and the House of Poetry have both fostered new writers and new magazines. In the UK, Banipal and Modern Poetry in Translation have both had special Palestine issues in recent years, which have shown the depth and range of work being produced. Telegram's Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women, edited by Jo Glanville, introduced a number of new voices, such as Adania Shibli.

When I interviewed Adania in early December 2008, she spoke passionately about the writers she knew in Gaza, about the intensity of their work and the way that Palestinian poetry was changing in response to the conditions of siege. That was before the invasion. When the news and images of Gaza (not from Gaza) began to appear, I emailed Adania and offered to host a selection of writing on the blog: her choice of writers, immediate and new voices with essential things to say and powerful styles in which to say them.

Over the next month, we'll be publishing the work that she selected on the blog, as it arrives from Gaza. The first group of writers to arrive is diverse in age, background, experience, and style, but I find all of their voices compelling. On Monday, there will be a selection of short pieces by novelist, playwright and political scientist Atef Abu Saif, who lives and teaches in Gaza.

Following Abu Saif, whose stories will appear over three days, the blog will feature work from:
Soumaya Susi
Khaled Jum'a
Nasr Jamil Shaath
Fatena al-Gharra
Yousef Alqedra
Naser Rabah
Najah Awadallah
posted as it arrives from the Arabic translators have very graciously given time and support to this project, excited by its urgency and by discovering new work. Each writer presents translators with a different challenge and promise, and each will be translated differently. Excitingly, translator Isis Nusair is working on Khaled Jumaa's work with Michael Rosen and Shaun Levin, two anti-Zionist Jewish writers, whose acts of translation demonstrate how literature can build community and solidarity.

Abu Saif's pieces have been translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, who also translated Mahmoud Darwish's Memory for Forgetfulness, a sequence of prose poems framed by the August 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Abu Saif's pieces - microstories, fragments - are dateless, although filled with precise detail of season and place. Minutely focused on a gesture, a piece of graffiti, on the author's own act of seeing, they are both like news stories - in their brevity, their concrete detail - and utterly unlike anything the media can offer.

In a 2008 Guardian article about the Poetry Translation Centre's ambitious tour and chapbook series, Sarah Maguire, who is translating Faten al-Gharra's work for us, wrote:
Poetry in this country is our favourite minority artform, largely greeted with bafflement, often with dismay. And yet we live alongside people for whom poetry is a central, essential passion. My hope is that by attempting to make their poems at home in our language, we can also translate a little of their enthusiasm. Poetry thrives through translation.
With this selection, we hope to show not only that poetry thrives through translation, but that people thrive through poetry, not only being written but being heard. The act of translation -- whether literally between languages, or metaphorically from the page onto a blog -- is a catalyst, a helping hand, to bring readers to the writing, and through that writing to resonant emotions and truths.

As Adania says: we are "trying to make the words of Gaza louder than those of the bullets and the bombings." Please come back to listen over the next month.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mourid Barghouti on BBC World Service

An interview at last week's Tate conference was the second item on Monday's The Strand. Lawrence Pollard speaks to Mourid Barghouti about translation and how it can imprison a culture or liberate a writer. Listen here.

TLS plays Shahrzad

The new Arabian Nights translation has sent the TLS into a frenzy of attention over the Arabic-speaking world. This week's issue (5521), has a review of the luscious 3-volume set, while Robert Irwin reviews Rasheed El-Enany's Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt's Nobel Laureate (also reviewed by Ziad Elmarsafy last year in the THE) and William M. Hutchin's translation of Mahfouz's major early novel Cairo Modern.

Architecture, History & Social Studies, and Religion & Politics are all occupied with books about the Middle East, its culture and relation to the Western world, including Doris Behrens-Abouseif's Cairo of the Mamluks, which would make an interesting companion read to Mahfouz. In Fiction, acclaimed translator Marilyn Booth reviews Arabic Booker-winner Bahaa Taher's Love in Exile, as translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab, and Anita Sethi reviews Ashes of the Amazon, by the Brazilian Lebanese writer Milton Hatoum and transalted by John Gledson.

There's also a curious entry in Bibliography: Fernando Báez's A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, whose historical and geographical spread suggestively identifies book-burning with the Middle East. In his review, Felix Pryor is dismissive of the books haphazard catalogue, but doesn't comment on the implications of the title. At the very least, it's not in keeping with the issue, which celebrates new(ish) publications from and about the long history of Arab culture.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Translation Conference & Ghazal Workshop @ Queens CUNY

From Words Without Borders

The Queens College MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation hosts a translation conference from March 26-March 28, 2009, with panels on translation pedagogy, Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures, translation in performance, translation as profession, and translation of cultures. Keynote reader: Li-Young Lee. Kimiko Hahn and Roger Sedarat offer a Saturday afternoon workshop on the zuihitsu and ghazal.

contact: Roger.Sedarat [at] qc [dot] cuny [dot] edu

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Contemporary Art in the Middle East II

Day 2 in the Tate conference, and I decided to focus on the Tradition and Modernity panel, as I thought its insights would be the most cross-applicable to literature and publishing. Another packed house -- so packed that there was an overflow with a live video feed -- rocked up to the Tate (Modern this time) to listen to a wide range of speakers. The panel was not a disappointment: in their reflections on recovering specific histories, redefining the terms of reception and criticism, and refusing to conform to Western expectations the panelists could have been speaking about literary fiction and poetry as much as visual art.

Not least because -- as a questioner from the floor remarked -- the panel was remarkably devoid of visuality. No slides, no PowerPoint. Not even any Turner paintings, unlike the walls that surrounded the speakers on Thursday. But Professor Salah Hassan's textually-driven presentation (a conscious choice he admitted to at the beginning of the paper) drew attention to two crucial points: first, that, as many speakers pointed out, visual art is received in a verbal context, from the political language excoriated by Mourid Barghouti, to the conventions of explanatory panels, catalogue notes and artists' statements. This relation of text and art is itself a key part of the modernism that was under discussion. The second point made by the absence of images was that it blocked the audience's ability to consume, making us reflect on our relationship to art, particularly art objects from outside dominant culture, as being something offered up for our pleasure.

Hassan explicitly geared his talk towards theoretical concerns that needs to be fleshed out before images could be viewed contextually. He arguing that in exhibition contexts, it’s rare to find the term modernity defined outside Western narratives, in which non-Western modernities are cast as belated and derivative. This exclusionary narrative of modernism was the focus of his talk, modified by the facts that modernity occurs across the Middle East unevenly, given that the area is both a diverse historical entity, and also political construct coloured by imperialism and Orientalism, complicated by neo-con project of “democratising” the Middle East. He repeated his idea from Friday’s panel that the neo-con with us/against us binary has produced a seemingly paradoxical response of museums and galleries apparently countering this with an eagerness to exhibit, but actually seeking to define and present “good” Muslim and Arab artists, and treating the Middle East as the “new frontier to be conquered” by collectors.

He pointed to a recent essay by Barry Flood (NYU) that draws parallels between the dominant discourse on Middle Eastern art and of the war on terror, both of which seek to reconcile universalist assumptions about humanity with a desire to build bridges that demands the “other” culture must be conceived as different. Hassan quoted Flood to the effect that
What is new and particularly disturbing is the way that the object of Islam is increasingly co-opted into a model of peaceful existence, but would like to provide a model for Islamic life itself.
Hassan quoted another critic, Ramdani, who commented that culture or modernity is now said to be the dividing line between those who favour a civic existence and those who favour terror, rather than the market or democracy). In the dichotomy, Islam has no agency; it erases Muslims’ agency, subjectivity, and the spectrum of identities. It also glosses over the colonial struggle (in which West could be seen as bad guys), and the post-colonial democratic struggles for civil and human rights in individual countries. This approach extends to the field of art history and Islamic art (which is the reference point even today in the Arab world), which covers over complex history of secularist and modernist movements in the Arab world.

It also glosses over – Hassan’s main point – the constant struggle in Arab culture between conformity and creativity – from the religious to political, from ideological to artistic aspect. There has been a modernistic trend in every generation towards new forms of literary expression, through a process of self-critique and reinvestigation of traditions. The focus from West has been on/to cast Arab culture as static and traditional. This is a commonality between Muslim fundamentalists and Western Islamicists – they both use textual orthodoxy as a reference point, refusing to look at adaptive pragmatic and empirical experiences in living societies. As the panel chair later pointed out, Islam conceived of itself -- and can be conceived of -- as a modernising project from its initiation.

To support his implied sympathy with the reconcilers, who reach into tradition to find ways to create change, Hassan quoted the Syrian poet Adonis insists that modernity is borne out of the struggle between the static religious order and the dynamic or desire to change the static order. This trend, combined with maintaining opennss to other cultures and modernity, the integration of rationality, an incorporation of Arab heritage, move towards diffusion of cultural values among masses, and desire to improve human life as a whole is visible in Arab art from 19th century.

Modernity and modernism have been contested terms in Europe since their first use, complicated by the acknowledgement of non-European modernities. Postcolonial theory offers a powerful critique of modernity by shoing how terms of the debate are inevitably Eurocentric, characterising artistic developments in other regions as necessarily belated and secondary. But, said Hassan, this narrative has been erased in two ways: it's been said to mirror the development of European modernity (belated and secondary); and, in turn, the idea of belatedness obscures European modernity's dependence on other cultures, from the effects of Orientalism to Picasso's use of African art.

Gwendolyn Wright has pointed out that
modernism came into being in a world framed by colonialism, where visions for improvement and innovation in imperialism and in cultural practices often overlapped and caused brutal destruction. Likewise, resistance to these forces has always been a part of modern life.
This complicates things, because anti-colonialism can be anti-modernist, or can incorporate modernism while being anti-Western.

Edward Said points out that it has taken a long time and a remarkable shift of perspective to take account of anti-colonialist writing as modernist, and as what Hassan calls the "darker side of modernity." WTJ Mitchell has suggested that translation is key in this process, arguing that we attend to the staging of the modern, through successive acts of translation. This stabilises the definition of modernism, but simultaneously undermines it as it becomes plural.

To demonstrate how modernism played out, Hassan looked at the particular example of the Lettrist movement in Iraq. Panelist Wassan al-Khudairi later described how Iraqi artists educated in Europe returned home and looked within their culture for inspiration (unlike Western artists who looked outside). Hassan described their work as situated within what they perceived as authentic, and within what they saw as contemporary; they adopted abstraction as meditative and spiritual, but others took it to secular extremes. These artists also wrote manifestoes, disproving claims about a lack of discursive literature in Middle Eastern visual arts.

This specific case could have been analysed further in its particular relation to conceptions of nationalism, relationships to colonial power and regional traditions, but it made the point that the concept of universalist and static Islamic art remains specific to the West, an Orientalist perception that delegitimises the art. For Hassan, what is most vital is the shift to relocate Islamic tradition as living tradition.

He ended with a hopeful view from Stuart Hall:
The world is moving towards and can no longer be structured in terms of centre/periphery relations. It has to be defined in terms of a series of interesting centres in relation to one another… the most interesting artists are those who live in centre and periphery. We are moving into a hundred ideas of the modern.

The chair, curator Vasif Kortun, asked the panelists to reflect on the recovery of tradition Hassan had mooted, as well as the way they were approached and seen by the West in the present moment. The most interesting of the responses came from Dina Ramadan, currently completing a Ph.D. looking at archival sources on how modernity and modernism were conceived and implemented in Egypt (Ph.D.). She criticised the discourse of lack that posits that there’s no art history in Arab world, that we need to find a language with which to talk about modern art, which assumes there were no discussions happening from late C19th. By looking at letters, documents, journals, magazines and other textual sources, Ramadan is considering how questions of aesthetics were addressed; how audiences were imagined and created; and looking at the role institutions played. Visual arts appear as a site where conversations overlap with larger intellectual discourses of the period, and the historicisation of discourse helps us to understand what continuities add to the present scene, where the discourse of lack drives an urgency to produce, so that the Middle East is not "lacking" in a Western context. Ramadan said that she's interested in how the scene narrates itself, something that blogging is contributing to in the literary world.

A question from the floor alluded to a new book by artist Kamal Bulatta, Palestinian Art, 1850-Present, whose account weaves modernity and tradition, including pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, tradition of textiles, mid-1800s influence of Russian and Armenian churches into his description of Palestinian art's modernity. She referred to Said's term “contrapuntal” as a model for thinking about the relation between modernity and tradition. Alluding to a different rhythm, David Elliott pointed out that the Middle East traditionally looked at the West as belated; as far back as the 6-8th century, there was a dynamism picking up off the ancient worlds (Egypt, Greece) and creating socially dynamic and tolerant society. Only recently does the ME “slip behind”, towards the end of 18th century under the force of colonialism. But the notion of a great culture of the region is still expressed in how nationalisms in the region present a sense of a very long tradition in which the West appears backward. Hassan concluded by agreeing with both of these points, and arguing for a re-reading of Western modernism through its dependence on other contributions and cultures, including the context of colonialism and technological advantages that depended on slavery and the colonies.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Cairo Book Fair -- or Cairo Blook Fair?

Marwa Rakha at Global Voices highlights a trend at the Cairo Book Fair, quoting a post from blogger Mohamed Hamdy highlighting the 15+ titles by bloggers available at the Fair, supported by CBF's first-ever seminar to discuss the growing phenomenon of bloggers getting published. The seminar is organized by the renowned writer Youssef Al Ka'eed and bloggers Ghada Abdel Aal, Shady Aslan, and Mayada Medhat. This is definitely a particularly Egyptian phenomenon, of bloggers publishing *novels* based on blogs, as opposed to essayistic or memoiristic texts...

__Updated 28/01/09__

Marwa Rakha posts more news: traditional writers have called these Egyptian blooks "Kleenex" (because they see them as over-intimate and disposable, I guess). Blogger Ahmed Al Sabbagh hits back with a link to Ghada Abdel Aal's video, where she quotes Tawfiq El-Hakim describing the essence of real literature:
It is the open air literature; the literary expression of freedom and passion; words that reach out from one heart to another exposing the depth of the human psyche in freedom, honesty, and sincerity. Tawfiq El-Hakim also said that our share of such kind of literature is minimal just as much as our share of honesty and openness is minimal - This is exactly what we as bloggers do.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Infrastructure and Ideas: Contemporary Art in the Middle East

In Gallery 9, surrounded by Turner's pictures of naval battles, the great and good, the provocative and perceptive, of the Middle Eastern/Arab/Islamic art world gathered for the Tate and Nafas-sponsored conference, Infrastructures and Ideas: Contemporary Art in the Middle East -- not least to discuss the problematic geographical terms and visualisations of the area. Derek Gregory's keynote talk about mapping drew attention to the manipulation of national and political identity in the maps used by the media (for example, maps showing areas in Baghdad as "targets" versus showing them as populated neighbourhoods).

The subsequent discussion extends outwards towards the mapping done by the terms "Middle East," "Arab" and "Islamic," with the panel concluding that Middle East as a “convenient” term, one with a heritage but that is problematic. The panel chair David Elliott describes the speakers moving in their definitions from biopolitical power to the fuzzy power of culture, “which is very much where we stand,” which I thought was a somewhat naïve discounting of the imbrication of biopower and culture, as biopower delimits and defines culture from large-scale politics (wars, national boundaries, genocide) through pragmatics (money, publishing, censorship) to unconscious ideologies and artists’ identities.

The next speaker, Mourid Barghouti, addressed *exactly* this imbrication in his superlative discussion of the impossibility of translation without contextualisation, and the political pollution of poetic language. The session was introduced as concerning a complex mesh of ideas around translation: the act of translating visual arts into descriptive and/or critical language; the act of linguistic translation; and the processes of cultural translation, asking "what slips and is lost, what is enriched by that process."

In his talk, Barghouti started from, encircled, investigated and dismantled an essay by Linda Sue Grimes that appeared on Suite101.com on 1 January, 2009. Entitled "Barghouti's 'It's also Fine' But Martyrdom is Better, the essay reads Barghouti's poem "It's Also Fine" against itself. While Suite101.com is manifestly not a recognised literary critical publication, it claims 12 million readers per month, so articles on the site could, and do, reach many readers.

Barghouti read the poem
It’s also fine to die in our beds
on a clean pillow
and among our friends.

It’s fine to die, once,
our hands crossed on our chests
empty and pale
with no scratches, no chains, no banners,
and no petitions.

It’s fine to have an undustful death,
no holes in our shirts,
and no evidence in our ribs.

It’s fine to die
with a white pillow, not the pavement, under our cheeks,
our hands resting in those of our loved ones
surrounded by desperate doctors and nurses,
with nothing left but a graceful farewell,
paying no attention to history,
leaving this world as it is,
hoping that, someday, someone else
will change it.
and then the first paragraph of Grimes' essay:
“It’s also Fine” seems to suggest that not all deaths need to be violent. Barghouti’s poem features four verse paragraphs, each apparently dramatizing opposition to Islamofascism’s glorification of violent jihad for the institution of a world-wide caliphate and the production of martyrs. But the speaker never quite closes the door on that jihadist impulse.
Grimes' concluding paragraph continues the rhetoric: B
ut then the speaker adds a jab at his own idea and leaves his claims to be interpreted ironically by the youthful jihadist whose brain has been carefully laundered by power-grabbing, Islamofascist madrasa instructors.
This is where Barghouti began his intervention: madrasah, he pointed out, simply is school in Arabic; it can be used to indicate a school of ballet, of literature, of mathematics, high school.

From the careful reading - as a poet - of this word, he demonstrated that Grimes' reading is to her -- and a more generalised --
ignorance of Palestinian and Arab history, and a blindness to the cultural substance which gives the poem's images meaning. It’s fine to die in our beds because for generations the Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians and Syrians have struggled to end the occupation of their lands, the breaking of bones, the demolition of houses and uprooting of orchards. In such a context, to pass away from age or illness becomes a kind of privilege.
Barghouti quoted Edward Said's description of Arab literature as "embargoed literature" in the West (in The Nation in 1990); this embargo means that Western readers have little access, so Ms Grimes projects onto the text her own perceptions of Islam and Muslims: to her, a poem written by a Palesitnian should ineveitably be written by a jihadist, to a jihadist, glorifying jihad. [See, by contrast, Guy Mannes-Abbott's nuanced and contextualised discussion of Barghouti's work, which appeared on the blog in December].

Barghouti then asked whether a work of art face down the mentality created by the media and dominant culture in Europe and the West, as
those who don’t know the history and the colonial wound would not get to know them from a translated poem and a novel. When we read European literature translated into Arabic, we do it through the knowledge eof Euro civilisation, fed to us through university curricula and Coca-Cola. In Europe what is missing more than the nuances of the language, or the translator’s lack of command of the target language, is the absence of translated books of Arab history and the Arabic canon.
He suggested that the revision of an outlook that refuses non-Western thought and literature its hearing unless it conforms to Western norms, is the necessary preliminary to begin to receive translation. Translation from Arabic into English is in real trouble for several reasons, the most significant of which comes from outside the field of translation: victimisation of Arabis in media by stereotypes and generalisations, demonisation or romantic and Orientalist glorification. So it's naïve, Barghouti said, to expect a novel or collection of poems translated from Arabic to find public or publisher; "the small exceptions do not change the chilling facts."

"I often think there are whole groups who face the traumatic experience of a blocked scream," he said, of this enforced silencing by the dominant culture. He concluded that
Literature-with-a-capital-L controls the diversity of literatures, because of the Western concept of universality that no Western writer questions; African, Asian, Arab writers are epect to become universal through translation which is extended as a badge, a prize. Western culture is the main obstacle to intercultural dialogue with non Western cultures, with the idea of translation is all about.

Salah Hassan, the panel chair, commented that Barghouti's talk highlighted that translation always involves two cultures and two languages; but it’s always the West and the rest. But he pointed out that many of the conference speakers work between cultures and cross borders, and he asked the panelists to reflect on being caught in this bind as cultural brokers.

Negar Azimi, the editor of Bidoun, described the genesis of the magazine in 2004, in response to interesting expression happening in Arab capitals, that needed a repository for debate and critique. She described the "paranoia and sensitivity about representing the Middle East, which cuts across our editorial roles as cultural brokers." Bidoun's solution is to publish a mandate in the front, which, Azimi commented, "sounds like UN document, a humanitarian gesture." Four years later, Bidoun has evolved in line with the art scene, towards more sophisticated discussions, in which there’s less essentialism. She remarked that:
Translation to me implies there’s a problem in communication, need for mediators. We’ve always felt that responsibility – there wasn’t a Bidoun, although there have been many exciting magazines in middle East. But we’re losing that mandate, want to rearticulate our relationship to the Middle East.
Other magazines have been founded since Bidoun (Canvas, Brown Book, good cultural supplements in Arabic newspapers) – taken pressure of us to be privileged cultural arbiters, but they are still working with a diverse range of writers around the world to translate and connect East and West.

Gerhard Haupt, the editor of Universes in Universe agreed that translation was a practice of mediation, and said he started his site because in 1997 the internet was dominated byEnglish language, UScentric culture. UinU extended its project with an online magazine project, Nafas, to represent and support what Haupt referred to as the “so-called Islamic world,” after 9/11. They saw it as a tool to destroy preconceptions, and to represent the diversity of individual artists. Making the site multilingual has been very difficult practically and technically, but in 2006, they launched an Arabic version, and at that moment, the magazine became a tool in classrooms in Arab world, reaching a much broader audience. Haupt recently presented Nafas in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, where the cultural translation was between (in his words) “East and more East.” The communication took place through images, which proverbially say more than words for intercultural understanding, so that it would be possible to destroy conception of homogenous Islamic world by collating images from different countries.

Art historian Nada Shabout had
problems with the historical proverb that images are worth a thousand words. Actually, they’re problematic and very constructed. In the art world, there’s the same problem Mourid talked about – the contextualisation is completely lacking.
As an example, she pointed to the Western journalists who "stumbled upon Iraqi contemporary art," in 2003, and wrote "that the oppression of Saddam forced artists into abstraction." In 2006, they discovered a surrealist artist who was sanctioned by Saddam but produced figurative works, but had no idea how to approach this because as far as the West is concerned Iraq is arrested in modernism. Shabout also pointed out that curators, art historians and scholars are not really talking to each other, so research is not being collated, and that a more thorough discussion of methodologies is needed. She described her own struggle to see outside or beyong her Western training, conditioned by Orientalism or neo-Orientalism.

Bahraini artist Anas Al-Shaikh countered with pragmatic concerns from the other direction: not the development of an Arabic critical language, but the lack of access to the vast majority of writing about art that is not translated into Arabic. What is translated reached little consensus: there are 7 different terms for "installation art," for example. Artists in Bahrain lack the contextualisation and concepts for what they want to achieve. Bidoun, which is only published in English, sells very few copies in Bahrain. This blocks communication and discussion in international contexts. In response to a later question, Azimi announced that Bidoun is about to publish its first Arabic issue, with articles translated into Arabic and commissioned in Arabic and Farsi. But she commented that it had taken three years to build a group of artists and writers whose thinking was in line with the magazine. Her comments supported Al-Shaikh's counter to Shabout's claim, as he suggested that more artists engage with modernism than contemporary art, because they can appreciate and contextualise it.

Barghouti remarked that issues such as the translation of terms are not "technical, everything is part of the formation of knowledge." He went on to illustrate this powerfully:
The pollution of political language in modern times has reached a level that the name of movements, peoples or countries are polluted. You say for instance war, and you should use just murder. What happened in Gaza is not war, it’s murder. The F16s are moving as if they are Air France or Swissair, unchallenged. No-one would imagine to acquire anti-aircraft missiles; you can’t smuggle it or even think about having it. We have reached a moment in verbal abuse that an honest writer or critic or journalist would really have to rethink language to restore the freshness of political vocabulary. When the fourth-most armed country on earth is destroying buildings day and night, and people are speaking of victory, of winning and losing... And then they will tell you about the “vicious circle of violence.” A circle has no beginning. The most repeated expression in the Middle East conflict is this: this never tells you who started what when, as if people in Ramallah went to Germany or France or the Ukraine to kill the Jews. Such mis-usages can never be technical inaccuracy. Without trying to restore the accuracy of language that you are using as artists and critics, you are getting nowhere with the common understanding that supposedly comes of globalisation – it’s achieving its opposite: war, discrimination, lack of movement, lack of freedom, a killing field. The images are polluted, the words are polluted.

Hassan pointed out that neo-con language, in its perversions, has shaped the art world. Bush's “you are with us, or with the terrorists,” created the categories of good Muslims and bad Muslims; with museums and galleries becoming interested in presenting good Muslims through art, as part of universal humanist mission, creating certain expectations - like an emphasis on women artists. Some artists are complicit in the process, he said, partly because they don’t have the access and want it, but also because they reproduce the images from Arabian Nights that are part of continuation of Orientalist fantasies.

Haupt rejected the idea of the "good Muslim" as a false criterion imposed by Western thought; he argued that holding up the West as arbiter of taste omitted to recognise that modernist and contemporary art from the West had often been misunderstood and maltreated in Western galleries.Shabout pointed out that it took the Tate to arrange the conference; the West remains the power whether we like it or not. The West's obsessions - such as veiling - therefore dictate what art accedes to the global market, which has nothing to do with what appears in local galleries, but it does create a dichotomy. She also dismissed as expedient all rhetoric about art as bridging the gap between cultures, despite the goodwill that wanted to use art to try to humanise the people of Iraq. For Shabout, this still comes from a superior position taken by curators.

A question from the floor asked Shabout if she was interested in creating a terminology to replace the one she was rejecting. She replied that she was, and is, but by historicising the production and reception of Arab art rather than coining a term. The second questioner from the floor wondered whether too much interpretation had been foisted onto Middle Eastern art by Western arbiters using the artworks as "communication." Shabout agreed that too much interpretation actively deprived the viewer from looking, because the framework of the political discourse turned the artwork into an object for political communication only.

Nervously (because public speaking always makes me nervous), I asked whether a poem or novel or artwork could prompt its reader or viewer, through its artistry, cut through received images from the media and prompt research into its context? Perhaps due to my nervousness, the chair thought I was asking whether a novel *should* be working to counter media stereotypes and educate its reader. Barghouti, understandably, responded that:
A novel should be a pleasant work to read, and if this is translated into a better understanding this is a plus. First of all, it has to be good. If this is achieved, anything else is open to the formation of the reader. If you want to reach, write an article or give a speech, don’t write a novel.
It was a necessary comment, a delayed response in a way to Hassan's point about the expectations created by Western publishers and exhibitors looking to use art to meet certain criteria and needs, in response to funders and media interests, rather than researching and contextualising aesthetic practices. That contextualisation is, of course, part of the remit of the Atlas, a way of offering the individual reader a different place to discover literature that moves and excites them than the homogenous and expedient critical discourse of the day.

Tomorrow, sessions on Tradition and Modernity (highly relevant to poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing from the Arabic-speaking world, as it is to visual arts) and on The Politics of Space, which I was hoping would fall under the "Ideas" aspect of the conference, but is very much about infrastructure. Given that it's book fair season, perhaps it's well worth thinking about the physical architectures and infrastructures of publishing in the Middle East...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poets for Palestine: US Anthology

Featuring spoken word, hip-hop, and classical poetry, with contributions from Amiri Baraka and from a 10 year old Muslim girl living in London, Poets for Palestine is a ground-breaking, world-shaking, fund-raising anthology, with all profits going to support initiatives by Arab artists in the US. Work from acclaimed poets Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal, Fady Joudah, Lisa Suhair Majaj, Naomi Shihab Nye and Tahani Salah attest to the vibrancy, diversity, and new visibility, of the Palestinian-American literary community.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sheikh Zayed Book Awards: Find Out More

From Atlas user KA:

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s renovated website was launched last week in its Arabic and English versions. The website has been renovated in response to the growing interest in Sheikh Zayed Book Award during the past two years on both regional and international levels. The award "is presented every year to outstanding Arab writers, intellectuals, publishers as well as young talent whose writings and translations of humanities have scholarly and objectively enriched Arab cultural, literary and social life.
The award was established under the patronage and support of Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage." Previous winners include Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni (2008). The judging process for the 2009 nominations is currently in progress. The winners will be announced early February while the Award Ceremony will be held during Abu Dhabi International Book Award (17-22 February 2009).
New sections were added to the website of the Award which include a Calendar that lists the cultural and literary events -- including several on translation and multilingual publishing -- around the world that the Award has hosted and participated in. “The Award is making use of technology to reach out for its audience in the region and the rest of the world. The new website opens a channel for the Award to communicate and interact with the reader, the scholar, the literary and the public in the easiest and simplest way possible” the Secretary General of the Award, Mr. Rashed Al Oraimi, commented.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Great Arabic Love Stories

As part of The Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read bonanza, Ahdaf Soueif has selected five Arabic novels as part of today's "Love" issue. Soueif's punchy pull-out section is brilliant, claiming that "you could argue that the first narrative to emerge from what has come to be called the Middle East was the first love story of all time: the story of Isis and Osiris" and providing a swift history of writing about love in Arabic: most of it is excluded from the Guardian's selection because "the art form of record for the Arabs has always been poetry, and Arabic love poetry runs in an unbroken tradition from the 7th century until this day." On the other hand, the "novel form entered Arabic in the early 20th century and, as with most western imports of the time, it took root first in Egypt and greater Syria (now Syria, Palestine and Lebanon) - then in the rest of the Arab world," becoming "the art form of choice for depictions and critiques of societal norms and explorations of the great questions of the age."

Romantic love, argues Soueif, resonates in the novels she has chosen as it reveals questions of tradition vs. modernity, gendered and generational conflictions, ethnicity and sexuality, concluding that "the Arab novel is concerned with love, but cannot see it or deal with it independently of society." Her selections bear this out:

Latifa al-Zayyat: al-Bab al-Maftouh (1960)
Naguib Mahfouz: Cairo trilogy (1956-57)
Colette Khoury: Ayyam Ma'ah (1959)
Enayat el-Zayyat: Al-Hubb w'al-Samt (1967)
Layla al-Juhani: Jahiliyya (2006)

Bearing out the confluence of romance and politics, Khoury -- whose breakthrough novel shocked Syrian society with its depiction of female sexuality, in a semi-autobiographical account of her affair with Nizar Qabbani -- was last week announced as Syria's first ambassador to Lebanon, having served for a year as President Assad's literary advisor.

Mahfouz aside, Soueif emphasises the achievements of Arab women writers in using love and the erotic as prisms through which to consider social and political questions, particularly as conceptions of love have direct impact on their lives and imaginative possibilities. The "Love" issue is rich with women writers from around the world; it will be interesting to see if this gender parity is maintained in future issues (including Science Fiction and Fantasy). And The Cairo Trilogy aside, only Al-Bab Al-Maftouh has been translated into English (published by AUC). Al-Zayyat's novel is so influential that it has spurred a "We Are All Laila," a collective blog by young Egyptian feminists still fighting the same battles to open doors that confronted Laila, Al-Zayyat's protagonist, in 1960.

Also striking is that, apart from Amin Maalouf's Samarkand, no Arabic novels make the grade in the wider selection. Will Woman at Point Zero be selected for the "Family & Self" issue? And what Arabic novels do you think the panel could have considered for inclusion in their top 1000?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Salam Dunk: The Pax is Back!

The blogger who shook the world with his posts from Baghdad, and whose posts became one of the first (and most successful) blooks, has returned to Iraq after a postgraduate journalism degree in London. In this article for the Guardian (who hosted his blog on their site way back when), he talks about where he's been, what life was like in exile, and why he's decided to go back.

And his blog is back as well, with a 12 Jan 2009 post celebrating Al-Jazeera's Creative Commons license on their Gaza footage, allowing bloggers to host and remix for free.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Poems for Palestine: From the Internet

Michael Smith's 2008 Free Verse supplement, featuring selections from Mahmoud Darwish's "A State of Siege (fragments)", with its beautiful, compelling observation:
This siege will last until we teach our enemy
selections of pre-Islamic poetry.
Other poets featured are Ghassan Zaqatan, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Samih Al-Qasim, Sharif S. Elmusa, Fadwa Tuqan, Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih, Samer Abu Hawwash, Naomi Shihab Nye, Seema Atalla, Saud el-Asadi, Izzidin al-Manasrah, Jihad Hudaib, Omar Shabbanah, Ahmad Dahbour, Anas al-Ayla, Mohammad H Ghanaiem, Nathalie Handal, Khaled Abdallah, Walid Khazendar, Youssef Abd al-Aziz, Ghazi al-Theeba, Khairi Mansour, and Mourid Barghouti.

John Berger reads from Mahmoud Darwish's "Mural."

And Ghassan Kanafani's "Letter from Gaza", written more than 50 years ago:
"In the middle of the year, that year, the Jews bombarded the central district of Sabha and attacked Gaza, our Gaza, with bombs and flame-throwers. That event might have made some change in my routine, but there was nothing for me to take much notice of; I was going to leave. this Gaza behind me and go to California where I would live for myself, my own self which had suffered so long. I hated Gaza and its inhabitants. Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in grey by a sick man. Yes, I would send my mother and my brother's widow and her children a meagre sum to help them to live, but I would liberate myself from this last tie too, there in green California, far from the reek of defeat which for seven years had filled my nostrils. The sympathy which bound me to my brother's children, their mother and mine would never be enough to justify my tragedy in taking this perpendicular dive. It mustn't drag me any further down than it already had. I must flee!"
Read the full letter on the tanjara.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Salwa Al Neimi's Proof of the Honey

The Complete Review's most recent addition to its ambitious catalogue is Salwa Al Neimi's The Proof of Honey, which will be published by Europa Editions in Spring 2009. CR finds the tale of an Arab woman whose scholarly devotion to erotica is matched by her passionate affair with the Thinker both overdone, linguistically, and underdone, in that it is riven with contradiction, concluding that
one wonders if she'd find all this anywhere nearly as arousing if all the Arabic sexual hang-ups suddenly disappeared.
But in the reviewer's reference to the nameless female narrator's "harping on," I can't help but hear a (symptomatic) misogyny that undercuts the novel's ambitious interplay of textual and sexual pleasures. While Al Neimi is not criticized for writing about sex, and writing sexually, the reviewer appears to want less talk and more bodice-ripping; or perhaps more talk (the narrator fails to husband all of her quotations and arguments into a scholarly thesis) and less sex. Al Neimi is expected to summarize, interconnect and improve Orientalism, feminism, Arab/Islamic gender relations, sex writing, European Islamophobia... all in one novel.

Surely that's an interlocking puzzle that would benefit not only from debate, but from a conversation within and across poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Joumana Haddad has created such an arena with her magazine Jasad (blogged about earlier); like Al Neimi, Haddad is outspoken both about rich traditions of Arabic erotic literature and contemporary Arab women's multiple solutions to, and arguments about, the interlocking puzzle created by a double bind of Orientalism and hardline Islamic interpretation.

It's a double bind as pressing as the one that Peter Ripken observes, in a long and thoughtful essay for Qantara.de on the under-representation of Arabic literature in translation in Europe and America. He points out that, despite few writers achieving the "Mahfouz effect" of a crossover appeal, a certain type of writing continues to attract publishers: books by and about Arabic women. He divides these into two categories, "veil" novels about women's oppression in Islamic societies, and "erotic" writing that is perceived as representing liberation.
There are, however, strong indications that European publishers, and also readers, have fairly strong convictions and pre-conceived ideas of what Arab creative writing should be all about. Titles with the word "veil" are selling better than titles which do not have direct connotations with things thought to be "oriental".

Autobiographies of e.g. women singers, although of a dubious literary quality, find more (women) readers than e.g. the autobiography of Latifa az-Zayyat (published in an interesting series of autobiographies translated into several European languages).

"Women in Islamic societies" is one of the cliché-ridden sales-oriented themes in publishing in Europe which of course also knows fads and fashions. For many years the "veil" has been instrumental in creating a certain interest, also "violence against women" (including novels written by men).

Of late there is a new trend: Arab women writing erotic stories. In some cases the author's identity is being mystified for marketing and other reasons (a recent case is a novel written in French by an unknown North African woman author with the name of "Nedjma", an interesting reference to the title of the famous novel by the late Kateb Yacine) and it is fairly likely that some of these books were not even written by Arab women.
Al Neimi's success bears out this trend: as Qantara reports elsewhere, no Arab book has ever been sold for so much money to foreign publishing houses (in German the book is called Honey Kiss, which leaves a different trace in the reader's mind). The novel's French publisher reports that "Not only did her novel break sales records since its publication (several weeks at #1 on arabicebook.com), it was hailed by dozens of critics all over Arab countries, even including newspapers with ties to Islamic factions (e.g. Al Akhbar, a Lebanese daily linked to Hezbollah)."

It's a sales tactic that reproduces the misconceptions of the Arab world's attitude to the erotic body that the novel claims to set right -- yet the novel makes clear that its narrator is exceptional in her dedication to cataloguing Eros. As Ripken goes on to observe, the veil and the houri, as two clichés of Arab female identity, are flipsides of the Orientalist coin. The dual image of the submissive/sexual woman in the harem is a conjoined fantasy that one could argue continues to appeal to Western readers, perhaps because feminism has complicated gender relations and drawn attention to these clichés. Even the narrator of The Proof of the Honey, an outspoken woman, draws on this appeal; in case a male audience should find the idea of an empowered and desiring woman (in the words of her love, "whose face proclaimed her 'erection' ") threatening, the narrator claims that a feminist "would damn [her] as a slave to male ideology and declare all out war on [her]."

Yet the combination of reverie and essay that Al Neimi presents is squarely in the tradition of l'écriture au féminin, the non-linear and genre-bending writing practice of French feminists seeking ways for women to speak differently. Al Neimi's meditation suggests that the source of that speaking might lie in re-evaluating history -- one's own, and that of the relationships between cultures. Readers going to the book for stimulation may want to open themselves to this intellectual, rather than solely sensual, pleasure.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Arabic: Ornament of the World

The Tanjara beats me to it with a great post about Professor Jim Al-Khalili's Science and Islam. I'm just finishing viewing Episode Two as I write this; Episode One can be seen on the BBC iPlayer if you live in the UK.

Last week's ep is entitled The Language of Science, and -- as Susannah points out -- at the heart of Islamic scientific development was the adoption of Arabic as the sole language of governmental business in 679 CE, and subsequently across the Islamic world.
Caliph Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan needed to find a way of administering the vast empire with its mish-mash of languages, and he decided that it should have a uniform language – Arabic. The adoption of Arabic throughout the empire boosted intellectual life, as it meant scholars and scientists from different lands could exchange ideas and debate with one another in a common language.

In addition, a huge “translation movement” was launched, in which scholars made strenuous efforts to find and translate ancient texts. They scoured far-flung libraries for scientific and philosophical manuscripts in languages including Greek, Syriac, Persian and Sanskrit and brought them back for translation into Arabic.
BBC Radio 4's In Our Time broadcast a programme in 2007 (you can listen online here) that offers more detail on this translation movement.

What becomes clear is that while the history of Arabic is absolutely bound up with the trajectories of Islam, but also with cultures of science, philosophy and poetry encountered along the way. Famous centres of translation, in Baghdad, Toledo and Sicily not only brought together scholars for intellectual exchanges in multiple disciplines, but pioneered the study and practice of translation itself as a science. It also gave rise to some wonderful paradoxical encounters, like Christian missionary Raymond Llull creating the circumstances for the translation of the Quran into Latin and Catalan. The influence of the heady encounters in the translation schools of medieval Islam on the beginnings of European science, philosophy and poetry are discussed gorgeously by María Menocal in Ornament of the World.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Michael Rosen's poem, "In Gaza, children"

Thanks to Susana Tarbush of the Tanjara for posting this poem, which Michael Rosen, the British Children's Laureate, read at Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, yesterday (Sat 10 Jan, 2009) during the rally that marked the start of the Stop the Massacre:Israel out of Gaza demonstration.

In Gaza, children,
you learn that the sky kills
and that houses hurt.
You learn that your blanket is smoke
and breakfast is dirt.

You learn that cars do somersaults
clothes turn red,
friends become statues,
bakers don’t sell bread.

You learn that the night is a gun,
that toys burn
breath can stop,
it could be your turn.

You learn:
if they send you fire
they couldn’t guess:
not just the soldier dies -
it’s you and the rest.

Nowhere to run,
nowhere to go,
nowhere to hide
in the home you know.

You learn that death isn’t life,
the air isn’t bread.

The land is for all - you have the right to be
not dead.
The land is for all - you have the right to be
not dead.
The land is for all - you have the right to be
not dead.
The land is for all -you have the right to be
not dead.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What Can Literature Do?

Two answers today, with reference to the current situation in Gaza, from the Guardian: Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Review, argues that we should listen to authors when they speak about politics, if they are speaking from within -- and with deep knowledge -- of the situation that they speak about. His examples are Arundhati Roy (which is a little disingenuous, as Roy was a distinguished campaigner before she was a novelist, and said explicitly after publishing The God of Small Things that she would capitalise on her success not with another novel, but by using her sudden fame to bring attention to the plight of India's poor) and the more curious and compelling example of David Grossman, who has been active in using his influence as one of Israel's most highly regarded novelists to plead for peace and dialogue with political leaders. Mishra could go further, and include writers and artists who have formed, one to one or through organisations, the kind of bonds that Grossman asks his government to seek. He could have mentioned Etgar Keret, who co-authored Gaza Blues with Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef.

Naomi Klein, in an op-ed piece arguing for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, draws attention to such important cross-cultural project in her answer to the counter-charge "Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less." She responds with
a personal story. For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published The Shock Doctrine, I wanted to respect the boycott. On the advice of BDS activists, including the wonderful writer John Berger, I contacted a small publisher called Andalus. Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus's work, and none to me. I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis.
The Andalus website offers astonishing facts about Arabic-Hebrew cultural exchange (or lack thereof): Since the 1930's just over 30 Arabic language fiction titles have been translated into Hebrew, most of them authored by E
gyptians and Palestinians (before Andalus Publishing began operating, not a single Syrian, Iraqi, or North African writer was translated to Hebrew from Arabic - the Moroccan Taher Ben Jaloun was translated from French as were a number of others). Of these, only three are women: the Palestinians Sahar Khalife and Fadwa Tuqan, and the Egyptian Nawal al-Sa'adawi.

Contemporary Arabic writers who have been translated into many languages, and, needless to say, are well known to every literate Arab, remain unknown to the Hebrew reader, save for the Egyptian Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfouz. The names of authors such as the Egyptian Sunallah Ibrahim, the Syrian Zakaria Tamer, the Lebanese Hanan al-Sheikh and Elias Khoury, not to mention the Iraqi Jew Samir Naqqash who writes and publishes in Arabic from his home in Petach Tiqva, Israel are not familiar to the Israeli public, nor is their extensive body of literary work.
Naqqash's neglect in Israel - as one of the few Mizrahi writers to continue using Arabic while living in Israel - points to the profound disconnect that Israel has effected from its Arab eighbourhood and citizens, including its according of lower status to Mizrahis (Jews from the Middle East and Maghreb). Initiatives like Andalus - named for the medieval Islamic state in the Iberian peninsula in which both Muslim and Jewish literature flourished and interconnected - are slowly rectifying this, and working to encourage an exchange of views through literary culture, and to integrate Israel into the geographical and historical Arab community in which it is located.
To date Andalus has published six titles (the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish's Why Have You Left the Horse Alone and State of Siege, the Moroccan Muhammad Choukri's For Bread Alone, the Sudanese Al-Tayyeb Saleh's The Wedding of Zein and the Lebanese Elias Khoury's Bab al-Shams), and a catalog of work by nine Palestinian women artists titled Self Portrait; translated five titles (Mahmoud Darwish, Mural, the Lebanese Hoda Barakat's The Stone of Laughter, Hanan al-Shaykh's The Story of Zahra, Al-Tayyeb Saleh's Bandar Sah, and the Palestinian Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's The First Well); and acquired the rights to translate and publish works by the Palestinian Taha Muhammad `Ali (poetry anthology translated by Anton Shammas), Muhammad Choukri's Streetwise, and more.
Klein found a way for her important book to reach Hebrew readers, and in doing so, to support a publisher committed to dialogue, allowing Andalus to publish further voices and bringing attention to them globally.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Literature of Immigration

FLYP, an American magazine with a rare internationalist outlook, has an online discussion, organised by Words Without Borders, on the Literature of Immigration, including this interview with Algerian-born novelist Amara Lakhous, who now lives and writes in Italy. Lakhous describes the opportunities presented by immigrant literature in terms of a broadening of the world, and as a commonality: "I think immigrants or the experience of being an immigrant is the kind of experience that touches humanity, that touches all of us in one way or another.”

Thursday, January 8, 2009

“In Gaza, we are subject to news but cannot see TVs.”

That's how Ayesha Saldanha titles her round-up of Palestinian bloggers today on Global Voices (who also have fascinating and necessary round ups from Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, as well as round-ups focused on reactions to the Gaza bombings from Chile and Taiwan). Tel Aviv-based blogger Lisa Goldman is using her access to technology to gather voices, events and stories from the "other side," documenting protest marches in Israel, calling friends in Gaza and reporting their stories, and linking to blogs and video from across the web. Saldanha's moving pull-quote attests to two ways in which the internet can offer a space for alternative voices: first of all, it allows those who "cannot see TVs" (and are not often invited to speak on them) to see the news, and moreover to make it; second of all, it builds global community, where those who can see the TVs a) get an alternative perspective that may balance media bias; b) can offer support to those blogging (in various ways, for example Saldanha is posting SMS messages from her friend Hasan in Rafah who has no internet access); and c) can shift perspective from seeing certain populations or individuals as "subject to news" to seeing them as agents, and as full members of the human community.

Blogs, of course, extend what literature has been doing for millennia -- through narratives that touch on commonalities (whether it's the sense that "we're all bloggers -- I could be blogging from Rafah, what would that be like?" or details of daily life lived differently) that can encourage us to walk in another's shoes. Social networking, again like literature, can also be used as propaganda -- bloggers are alternately (cynically) impressed by and outraged at the Israeli government's use of Twitter to hold press conferences and dominate news cycles. Whatever the reaction, it's an example of governments recognising the power of the medium: Anthony Lowenstein of The Blogging Revolution has a great story today about the Iraqi Revolutionary Guards Corp setting up 10, 000 blogs to counter the perceived liberalism of the Iraqi blogosphere.

It's a truism but here goes: the internet moves faster than literature. That's its advantage -- for example, this Gaza care package campaign organised through Facebook -- and its disadvantage, as misinformation spreads wildly and the source with the fastest broadband (or any power and phone lines at all) wins. History has always been written by the victors, but now the victors can write it from their mobile phones in the midst of the battle, shaping global response as well as posterity. So blogs that emerge from communities that have less access to technology (and to power in both the political and electrical senses) stand as an important bulwark against the complete eradication of their side of the story. Sites like Global Voices and toot perform a critical function in gathering these voices into a shout, focused and centralised.

In doing so, they act like old-fashioned publishers, selecting and honing the voices that surround us. Novels and poetry, too, are an important bulwark, a record of diverse voices. Some would argue that they are more accessible (to writers) and influential (to readers) than the internet, as a poem can be passed from hand to hand, and mouth to mouth, a novel smuggled out in sections if it has to be. Books are seen as custoded, collected, polished: a longer-lasting, more penetrating, and more effective representation of a situation, narrative, identity, image. And yet the gatekeepers are many, not least the gatekeeper of translation which means that many voices who are celebrated in their own linguistic culture don't reach ears beyond it. For English-language readers, that makes the value of books such as I Saw Ramallah, The Butterfly's Burden, and the novels of Elias Khoury invaluable, along with the promotion and support offered by PEN's Writers in Translation programme and the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature.

I Saw Ramallah, with its announcement of witnessing as direct action and reclaiming the narrative voice, directly addresses the panic and powerlessness captured in Saldanha's quotation from Professor Said Abdelwahed, as reported in the Moments in Gaza blog. But its author Mourid Barghouti has also recently joined Facebook, posting poems old and new (in Arabic) as well as more diary-like entries that amplify his poetry's connection to, and influence on, his readers.

Digital technology offers dizzying possibilities to move from subject to storyteller, for those who can access them. The waves of rage, love, hate, anguish, activism and emotion pouring forth in the blogosphere can't, and don't aim to, replace poetry, but they uphold the spirit of art: "KEEP MAKING THINGS WITH WHATEVER YOU HAVE."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Translation, Transliteration, Treason?

We're back, and the year begins with exciting news. The Literary Saloon's sleuthwork uncovered the winner of the 2008 Naguib Mahfouz medal: it's Hamdi Abu Galil -- at least according to Al-Ahram Weekly. Other sources spell the author's name in other ways. The Salooner comments:
We've often complained about the lack of uniform transliteration of author-names from the Korean, but this is pretty bad too. Come on ! -- just settle on one spelling and stick to it! Please!

Abu Galil's success is reported in an interesting and considered round-up of Egypt's year in literature in 2008, covering obituaries, prizes, censorship, and litigation, including the controversy around Arabic Booker-nominated Azazel. The article portrays a vibrant literary culture, which was also in evidence at the Egyptian Writers' Union meeting last week, where translation was on the agenda. Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Egyptian Writers’ Union, said in his opening speech that, “Without translation, there is no dialogue between cultures.”

Each prizewinner honoured by the conference expressed a different concern about translationadn publishing in general. Bahaa Taher, a prizewinner for his “Hob fel Manfa” (Love in Exile), said that: “I wish the number of translations were smaller in quantity but greater in quality," while journalist and novelist Gamal Al-Ghitany pointed to the effective censorship produced by the recent shutdown of The Center for Eastern and Arabic Tendencies (“Ma’ahad Al-Asteshraq wal-Earab”) and by what he called "literary terrorism" practiced by law courts against writers by means of large monetary fines. Mohamed Afifi Mattar raised the pertinent question of translation as intercultural dialogue.
In their eyes, we are the world of Arabian Nights, we are a quirky tale of folklore. Europe translates its own image of us. I wish that the ones who translate our literature are our own people and our writers and not those barbarians.

It's timely, then, that Kanishk Tharoor, writing in The Nation, reviews Abdelfattah Kilito's Thou Shall Not Speak My Language: a history of translation from Arabic, recently translated into English by Waïl S. Hassan. It's an essay well worth reading, touching as it does on the unbroken history of written Arabic literature, the difference in translation non-fiction, fiction and poetry, the colonial context for contemporary translation from Arabic, and the particularities of Kilito's situation in Rabat.


From Literary Saloon, a few days later: a plea for an international council on Arabic transliteration. Not sure how serious this is (given the colonialist implications), but as LS points out it is pragmatic. In the age of Google spelling is a person's USP. And it does seem a little unreasonable that Mohamed El-Bisatie's name is spelled in three different variants on the Arab Booker's shortlist page.
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