Monday, February 18, 2013

review of courttia newland's novel 'the gospel according to cane'

The Gospel According to Cane
by Courttia Newland
Telegram, London
367pp, pbk, £7.99
review by Susannah Tarbush

It is often said there is nothing more agonising for a parent than the death of their child. But for Beverley Cottrell, first-person narrator of the novel The Gospel According to Cane by black British writer Courttia Newland, there is one thing even more agonising, and that is "being uncertain whether your child is alive or dead.”

Beverley has lived with this agony for 20 years, ever since her eight-month-old son Malakay was snatched from a locked car. Her husband Patrick had left the car outside a Chinese takeaway while he went inside to order food. Malakay disappeared without trace, and despite intensive police investigations, a blaze of media publicity and the offer of a reward there has been no clue as to his fate.

But now a young man claiming to be Malakay has appeared on the scene. 

The arrival of Wills, as the young man is called, throws Beverley's life into turmoil and raises many questions. Is he indeed her long lost son or an imposter? And if he really is the missing Malakay, why is he adamant that the police should not be told of his reappearance? And how does a mother reconnect emotionally with a child she has not seen for two decades?

Beverley's circumstances have changed in many ways since Malakay disappeared. "That person, the woman I was, is not exactly gone as much as she has faded into the background, distant like a stationery object viewed from a speeding train" she says. Her marriage collapsed and her ex-husband Patrick has remarried and gone to live in the USA. The beautiful family house was sold, and she now lives in a flat on a tough council estate near Portobello Road, in the Notting Hill area of West London.

Beverley has a Bachelor of Education and at the time of Malakay's disappearance she was teaching English in a prestigious private secondary school. After her son vanished she gave up her job and went through a period of incapacitating grief and depression. Once she was better she volunteered to start holding writing classes for young people in a back room of a youth centre For the past 12 years she has now been running this After-School Club. At least she is not under pressure to find paid work: she benefited from the sale of the family house, and her late father provided well for her. 

One of the strengths of The Gospel According to Cane is that Newland develops not only his central but also  his secondary characters, fleshing them out with their complexities and ambivalences. Seth, a policeman Beverley first met when he was one of the team investigating Malakay's disappearance, is a close friend and sometimes lover.

Another support is Beverley's therapist Sue who helped her with her grief over Malakay's disappearance and whom she still sees. And Beverley has a long-standing friendship with an elderly white neighbour, Ida who frequently bakes sweet pies for Beverley or plays cards with her. Through Ida we see an older generation anxious about the challenging groups of youths hanging around the estate.

The Gospel According to Cane purports to be Beverley's written account of the turbulent chain of events set in train by the arrival in her life of Wills. Interwoven with the strong storyline are Beverley's memories of her childhood and youth, as well as disturbing dream sequences in which she and her parents and sister are in Barbados in slavery days, and her thoughts on matters including life, time and pain.

Beverley says "I write, but I am not a writer". Her concern is not narrative, character or chronological structure, but "the rearing of children in modern society, the ills a lack of proper parenting can produce - and "the strange phenomena of pain". People write because they want to make sense of their pain, she tells her After-School writing class.

Beverley also includes in her narrative short sections on neurophysiology, the structure of the brain and the manifestations of pain. For example the pia mater works with the other meningeal layers to protect and cushion the brain: the Latin means "tender mother".

a leading black fiction writer

The Gospel According to Cane is the fourth novel by Newland, one of Britain's leading black fiction writers. Newland was born in 1973 in West London to a father whose roots lie in Jamaica and a mother of Barbadian origin.  He grew up in Shepherd's Bush, not far from the Notting Hill area in which The Gospel According to Cane is set.

Newland's acclaimed novels, short stories and dramas draw on the experiences of black Britons. His first novel The Scholar, published in 1997 when he was only 23, and the second, Society Within (2000), are set among young blacks on the fictional Greenside Estate in West London. His third novel Snakeskin (2002), a detective thriller in which a black MP's daughter is murdered, is also set in London. These three novels were published in the UK by Abacus.

The Gospel According to Cane is published in London by the Saqi fiction imprint Telegram and in New York by Akashic Books. Publishers Weekly contributing editor Calvin Reid has named the novel as one of the seven Notable African-American fiction titles 2012-13.   Newland today begins a five-day visit to New York and Baltimore for four events to promote his new novel.

Over the years Newland has been nominated for several major literary awards and his short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies. He co-edited with Kadija George the 1991 anthology  IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, and was co-editor, with  Monique Roffey, of   The Global Village: Tell Tales Volume 4 (Peepal Tree Press, 2009).

Courttia Newland

Newland's fourth novel looks set to further cement his reputation as a powerful chronicler of the life of black Britons, particularly the marginalised young living on estates. The Notting Hill area is one of the most mixed parts of London in terms of race and wealth. Some of the richest people in London live in multi-million mansions at some of the capital's most sought-after addresses, just metres away from deprived estates.

Notting Hill's multiculturalism is for many one of the most attractive features of the  area. The annual Notting Hill carnival is a huge draw for Britons and tourists. But life in the area can be a long way from that portrayed in Notting Hill -  the film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, in which hardly any  black characters appear. As Deborah Orr wrote in the Independent newspaper at the time of the film's release: It's Notting Hill, but not as I know it. The ethnic minorities of the area suffer problems of high unemployment, discrimination and sometimes disproportionate police actions. There are gangs, knife and drug crime, and shootings.

Newland deftly builds the tension in this absorbing psychological thriller that arrests the attention throughout (I read the novel in virtually one sitting). The book is disquieting from the start, with Beverley noticing a tall boy with a sneer and lazy walk, clad in a black hoodie, who is staring at her and seems to be following her as she strolls the stalls of the Portobello Road outdoor market.

an old newspaper cutting

Beverley has an immediate sense of the significance of this boy. In the small hours of the night someone rattles her letterbox and knocks loudly on her front door. She thinks it is him, but does not answer the door. Some nights later he again knocks on her front door. He shouts through the letterbox that Beverley knows who he is, and as proof of his identity he feeds an old newspaper cutting through the letterbox. Beverley finds that the cutting dates from 20 April 1991: it is a report with photograph on the police press conference at which she and Patrick pleaded for help in finding their son.

As Wills speaks to Beverley through the letter box she cringes at his coarse, deep voice and his pronunciation and accent - "more like the kids I taught in the club than the one I imagined for years."  She tells him he can't come in until morning and passes a blanket to him through letter box so he can try to sleep outside her door. Seeing him standing up, "he's huge, like his long-lost grandfather, like everyone on our side".

When she lets him in for breakfast she feels "nothing. No sensation, familiarity. We searched each other's features." But she soon grows euphoric, with sensations similar to those of falling in love.

Wills tells her about the person he says abducted him and brought him up. But he makes her promise not to tell the police about him. He tells her he's had been having trouble at the place where he has been living with a girl who is an old schoolfriend, and her boyfriend, and that he has recently been sleeping rough.

Beverley feels she can only confide in her closest family and friends that a young man claiming to be Malakay has turned up. Others are in the dark as to why this respected and much-liked teacher in her mid-40s suddenly has a male stranger less than half her age living with her.

Beverley's sole sibling, her sister Jackie, and her brother-in-law Frank are concerned. Sue is supportive but sceptical that Will is Malakay and encourages Beverley to arrange a DNA test. She points out that even if Wills is Beverley's son, he is probably psychologically damaged by his upbringing and may have mental health issues and could even be dangerous. At one point she asks Beverley whether she is more worried that a DNA test would be positive than negative.

Beverley is not a wholly reliable narrator, prone to omissions and contradictions in her account of events. As the story unfolds there are signs that Wills can be violent - but is this just an understandable reaction from a young man who feels cornered and misunderstood, or is she too prepared to make excuses?

race and class

Newland explores questions of race and class in the novel, but in a far from heavy-handed way. Beverley's father was upwardly mobile: he drove a Mercedes and sent Beverley to a private school. He tells her he developed a process involved in the manfuacture of edible fat, and that this is the foundation of the family he has worked so hard to support. Beverley's sister Jackie and brother-in-law Frank are both university lecturers. Their encounters with Beverley and Wills are cringe-inducing, Jackie telling Beverley that Wills is not family but "a feral child, just like those kids you teach."

Beverley's dreams about her family's roots in Barbados seem to carry guilt. She recounts these vivid, often horrific, dreams to Sue. She feels that her family were freed slaves and helped plantation owners maintain the slavery system by selling them shackles, chains and so on, leading to the family being hated by fellow Africans. In one dream Beverley gets caught up in a terrifying fire deliberately started in a  cane field.

Beverley tells Sue that when hearing the youths at her After-School club talk about their lives she realises how much her parents shielded her, in emphasising books and sport and education and in being there for their daughters. When Sue points out that Beverley has no evidence her family was involved in the slave trade Beverley says her family has been wealthy for generations, and its other members are, like Beverley, light-skinned: "You don't get either way in the Caribbean without a bit of dabbling."

Those around Beverley are wary and suspicious of the young man who has inveigled himself into her life and flat and she becomes somewhat isolated. The presence of Wills drives a wedge between Ida and Beverley.

The members of Beverley's After-School Club are particularly wary of this "brudda" who has moved into Beverley's flat. Newland draws these youngsters well, capturing their slang and banter with the authenticity of an insider. Beverley, clearly a dedicated teacher, describes perceptively their different personalities and the group dynamics. She gets them to write: they express themselves fluently and often with real talent in language influenced by rap and hip hop. She encourages them to read authors such as Raymond Carver, and George Pelecanos.

They have a protectiveness and affection towards Beverley, while keeping her on  her toes with their liveliness and humour, but their respect for her is at risk as they grow to suspect there is a sexual element to her relationship with Wills. "Tell the truth, you're pipin that yout, innit?" one of them says. 

Given the subject matter and setting of The Gospel According to Cane and the skill with which it is written, it would not be surprising if it was adapted into a film or TV drama. And there is a precedent: the TV drama West 10 LDN broadcast as a pilot on BBC 3 was based on the interconnected stories in Newland's second novel Society Within. The drama can be viewed in instalments on YouTube.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

judges of 2013 caine prize for african writing announced

The judges of the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing were announced today. The chair of the judges' panel is art historian and broadcaster Dr Gus Casely-Hayford.

 Dr Gus Casely-Hayford

The judges include the Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela, who won the Caine Prize in its inaugural year, 2000. "This is the first time that a past winner of the £10,000 Caine Prize will take part in the judging" a statement from The Caine Prize notes.  Aboulela went on to have a distinguished literary, broadcasting and creative writing teaching career; her third novel Lyrics Alley appeared in 2011.

Leila Aboulela

The other judges are the Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp; author, columnist and the Lord Northcliffe Emeritus Professor at University Collge London, John Sutherland, and Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, Nathan Hensley

This year 96 qualifying stories have been submitted from 16 African countries. This is a decrease in number of entries, from 122 in the 2012 shortlist, but the number of countries is up from 14. In 2011 there were 126 entries from 17 countries. The judges will meet in early May to decide on the shortlisted stories, which will be announced shortly thereafter. The winning story will be announced at a dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University,  on Monday 8 July.

The five shortlisted stories, together with stories written at the Caine Prize workshops are published annually by New Internationalist (UK), Jacana Media (South Africa), Cassava Republic (Nigeria), Kwani? (Kenya), Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana), FEMRITE (Uganda), Bookworld Publishers (Zambia) and ‘amaBooks (Zimbabwe).

Included in the 2012 anthology, African Violet, are the stories by last year’s winner, Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde and the four other shortlisted authors. Rotimi Babatunde won for Bombay's Republic; Billy Kahora of Kenya was shortlisted for Urban Zoning; Stanley Kenani of Malawi for  Love on Trial; Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe for  La Salle de Départ; and Constance Myburgh (the pen name of Jenna Bass) of South Africa for Hunter Emmanuel.

Chair of judges Bernardine Evaristo said of the winning story “Bombay's Republic vividly describes the story of a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma campaign of World War Two. It is ambitious, darkly humorous and in soaring, scorching prose exposes the exploitative nature of the colonial project and the psychology of Independence.”

The Caine Prize is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English of 3,000 to 10,000 words. An “African writer” is normally taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African.

The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee, are Patrons of The Caine Prize, as is Chinua Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is President of the Council, Ben Okri OBE is Vice President, Jonathan Taylor CBE is the Chairman and Ellah Allfrey OBE is the Deputy Chairperson.

The Caine Prize is sponsored principally by The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, the Booker Prize Foundation, Weatherly International plc, China Africa Resources, CSL Stockbrokers and Miles Morland. Other funders include the British Council, The Beit Trust, The Thistle Trust, the Royal Overseas League and Kenya Airways.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Alan Mackie's book The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt

British journalist Alan Mackie’s book The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt
Susannah Tarbush
[an Arabic version appears in Al-Hayat Arabic daily newspaper ]

The British financial journalist and consultant Alan Mackie has specialised in the Middle East, and particularly Egypt, for most of his journalistic career. He has written on Egypt for a variety of publications including the Financial Times, Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), and the Economist magazine.

Now Mackie’s highly–enjoyable book The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt has been published in London by Muswell Press. In his book Mackie writes of his five decades of experiences in, and views on, Egypt from his first brief visit in 1965 to his most recent trip there in 2012.

Mackie was living in Cairo at the time of the 1973 October war. He feels there are certain similarities between the 1973 war and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. “In facing down Mubarak’s intimidating security machine Egyptians overcame their fear as they had done in the October war when they challenged Israel’s vaunted invincibility and stormed the Bar Lev line,” he says. And “just as in 1973 they experienced for a few exhilarating days what it was like to control their destiny.”

He writes that the Revolution marks “a profound turning point for Egypt. Most importantly in redeems the promise of 1973 when Egyptian briefly took control of their destiny only to see it snatched from them by force of circumstance and their own lack of readiness to assume, in Sadat’s words, responsibility for themselves.” This time it is different. Tahrir Square was an act of national bonding that touched all Egyptians, whether they supported the Revolution or not: “2011 introduced an entirely new dynamic”.

Mackie first visited Egypt in 1965 when he was a university student travelling in his summer vacation. He had travelled from Turkey to Aleppo and Damascus and arrived in Beirut, where he got to know a glamorous young American woman called Linda Kanelous. She had been involved in Beirut with a small-time gangster named Farid who had given her a flat and a chauffeur-driven car. But she ended the relationship when she found Farid too controlling.

One day, sitting by the swimming pool of the St George’s Hotel in Beirut, she quoted to Alan from Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and suggested she and Alan go by boat to Alexandria, and from there to Athens.

Alan spent only a day and a half with Linda in Egypt, and by then they had already started to quarrel. After they arrived in Athens they separated and he never saw nor heard of her again. But “something happened in that 36-hour shore leave in Alexandria that was to change my life.” He explains that he was born in the East - in Sri Lanka – and as a child went to boarding school in England, returning to the East by air in the holidays. “These trips by air had the quality of being transported by a magic carpet to another world.” in Egypt he found “unmistakable whiffs of the East: the smell of slaked dust, donkey cars, water buffaloes, palms and mangoes.” His trip through Asia Minor and then to the shores of the Sahara had “covered the dead ground between these two worlds and united them.”

In the several following years Mackie worked as a journalist in London, but his sense of nostalgia about Egypt remained with him. And when he found an opportunity to live In Egypt he took it, arriving in Cairo in 27 January 1973. He remained there until early June 1974, so was in Cairo during the October 1973 war with Israel. The war made a deep impact on him. Although disillusionment had followed the initial Egyptian success in the 1973 war, Egyptians “came out of the war knowing they had it in themselves to change their circumstances...”
Alan Mackie with Buzeina El-Gamal and her mother Fatheya

Before going to Egypt in 1973 Mackie had learned some basic Arabic at evening classes One goal of his living in Egypt was to learn Arabic. At first he stayed in the Lotus Hotel, before moving to the legendary Golden Hotel whose proprietor was Fares Sarofim. Sarofim still used to visit the family estates in Al Minya, Upper Egypt.

Mackie wanted to totally immerse himself in Egypt and to understand it from the point of view of Egyptians. On the acknowledgments page of his book he pays tribute to the two wise old men who were his “gurus" in Egypt. One was Fares Sarofim, who died in 1982. The other was Hassan Fahmi, a retired engineering professor from Cairo University. Mackie writes that “Hassan Fahmi provided the “lateral dimension to my understanding of Egypt and Sarofim as a Copt provided the vertical dimension.”

Fahmi’s wife was English, and he was the father of the famous dancer Farida Fahmi . Mackie was taken to meet him several times in his flat in Zamalek, and in his book he records some of their conversations.

The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt has three main sections. In the first section Mackie presents his wide-ranging analysis of the Egyptian revolution. The middle section consists of the detailed personal diary that Mackie kept during his 18 months in Egypt in 1973 and 197.

In the final section of the book Mackie writes about his trips back to Egypt since 1974, and what became of the people and places he had known. He assesses what went wrong with the Sadat presidency between the 1973 war and his assassination in 1981, and then the factors that led to the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

Mackie’s book is difficult to categorise within any one genre. It is part memoir, part diary, part travel book, part political analysis – and in some places it reads like a novel, with some stunning passages of description, and skilfully-drawn characters who come alive in the pages. As well as writing about Egypt, Mackie vividly records a visit he made to Yemen.

Photos of Groppi, Cairo
photo of Groppi courtesy of TripAdvisor

Mackie frequented cafes such as Groppi’s, Lappas and Cafe Liberté. It was at the Lappas cafe that he met a young man called Maher who had lived in London and was the son of the actress Malak el-Gamal. Maher invited Mackie to a party where all the guests were actors and actresses, and also to a hashish den. When Maher heard how much Mackie was paying for his room at the Golden Hotel he said he was shocked, and suggested that Mackie move to live with Maher’s uncle Am Mohammed in the district of Shobra. A quarter of Cairo’s population lived in Shobra, nearly half of them Copts.

This was how Mackie came to live with the El-Gamal family for much of his time in Cairo. Am Mohammad and his wife had a son, Atar, and two daughters Buzeina and Malak. A Palestinian, Ibrahim, had the room next to Alan’s.

Mackie continued to visit the Golden Hotel where one of his best friends was the manager, a young Copt named Amin Simaika who was the nephew of Fares Sarofim and came from Alexandria. He invited Alan to visit Alexandria with him, and the chapter on Alexandria is one of the most beautifully descriptive in the book. Mackie succumbed to the charms of Alexandria, and those of Agami a bus ride away, where he lay on the beach and let the sun and the warmth wash over his mind “till it was scoured and smoothed in the ebb and flow of the sea cleansing the sands”.

As a tall blond man Mackie had some problems during the war after Al Ahram published a picture of a smiling Egyptian soldier with a tall blond Israeli prisoner of war. He became a figure of some suspicion and was twice forced to go to a police station to be questioned, Am Mohammed coming to his rescue. The mukabarat were suspicious of the notebook in which he wrote Arabic words he did not know, and the fact that he underlined certain words in newspapers, although as Am Moahmmed explained to them, this was because he was learning Arabic. Later, when spies were arrested, it became even more dangerous for Mackie for a time.

After Mackie left Egypt in 1974 he continued to work as a Middle East financial journalist. He worked in Cairo as a journalist throughout the latter Sadat years and returned periodically in the 1980s and early 1990s but then for around 10 years he did not visit at all. When preparing his book he visited, most recently in June 2012.

When he revisited Alexandria in 2002 he was sorry to find that a six-line highway had been constructed along the cornice, cutting the city off from the sea. And he was saddened by the changes in Agami. “The half mile walk to the beach through what used to be walled lanes and fig orchards was now more reminiscent of Gaza, a slum of crumbling algae-stained tenements, pools of fetid groundwater between them.” But the changes in Shobra were more positive, especially with the building of the Metro line.

In assessing the Revolution, Mackie stresses its grass roots nature, and how the revolutionary experience brought Egyptians together across traditional alliances, “turning established structures on their head and pitting friend and foe of the ancient regime against new forces, that occupy the middle ground.” It has “energized political debate at all levels of society.” He is hopeful that a regenerated and reformed Islam, rather than Islamist extremism, may emerge.

Alan Mackie in Agami

He observes that neighbourhoods set up community centres and organised their own social and security networks just as they had done in the October War, “which accounted for the extraordinary self discipline with which the demonstrations were organised.” Mackie is very concerned about Egypt’s always fraught relations with the West and examines the neo-colonialist dimension and the West’s support for Israel.

“Popular anger at the way the Palestinians have been treated, and the West’s collusion in their oppression, colours the political discourse in the new Egypt” he writes. Palestine “defines the Arab world’s relations with the Israel and Israel defines the West’s relations with the Arab world.” Israel was “a colonial enterprise a century too late. .. now it survives by force of arms”.

The transitional government had to rein in its initial open embrace of Palestinian resistance, as it did approaches to Iran, and President Morsi has declared Egypt will honour existing peace agreements. But future relations with the Jewish state will be on a different footing and there has even been talk of a referendum on the Peace Treaty at some point “to give the authorities diplomatic cover for a tougher policy.”

Mackie condemns the way in which the West has tended to engage with other cultures through its own stereotypes, with alien cultures being demonised if they are considered hostile. “Resisting America’s view of reality has been one of the most daunting challenges Egypt and other Arabs have had to face....” he writes “so overbearing and ruthless is the juggernaut of military and economic power deployed to impose it, and unnervingthe faith Americans place in their democracy to ‘do right’.”

He slams the West’s antipathy and prejudice towards, and ignorance of, Islam, and its tendency to meddle in the region’s affairs, which give oxygen to extremist elements. He left Egypt in 1974 with the sense that the West is not very good at “listening”. Instead, it tends to “talk down” to other cultures, assuming that its values are a universal good. But the Arab and Muslim world has proved extraordinarily impervious to western cultural imperialism.

On 9/11 the West woke up to the fact that a large part of the world, if not actively “hating us” wanted to be taken into consideration and heard. “Since then a profound shift in economic power eastwards is forcing the West to adapt to different ways of seeing things, whether it likes it or not.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Moroccan novelist Bensalem Himmich in discussion with his prizewinning translator Roger Allen

(L to R): Bensalem Himmich; interpreter Mohamed-Salah Omri; Roger Allen; Paul Starkey (portraits in the background are of South Shields Yemenis in the Last of the Dictionary Men exhibition)

When Roger Allen stepped onto the stage of Kings Place in London last Monday to receive the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich's novel A Muslim Suicide (Syracuse University Press, 2011), he spoke of the relevance today of the novel's central figure, 13th century Sufi thinker Ibn Sab'in (1217-1269).

Allen said the novel is "the story of one of Islam's most radical thinkers, Sufi philosopher, theologian and physician, and perhaps there is a contemporary aspect in that: precisely because of the radical nature of his thought he is hounded out of basically every place he tries to settle down, from Spain to North Africa to Egypt, and finishes in Mecca."

The contemporary relevance of Ibn Sab'in was also a main theme of a discussion between Allen and Himmich, held on Tuesday evening at the Mosaic Rooms and chaired by Paul Starkey, chair of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. Starkey retired in September 2012 from Durham University where he had been Head of the Arabic Department.

Introducing the event, Starkey said A Muslim Suicide has "some relationship to the kind of debates that go on in the Islamic world at the moment, the sort of things people see in our newspapers day by day. It's so modern."

Ibn Sab'in's career "exemplified many of the debates and the clashes of civilisation - if one can use a cliché - that were evident at the time. This was after all the century when the Mongols came from the East and sacked Baghdad .. . And it was also a period when relations between the Muslim world and the Western world were going through an interesting phase."

Allen had travelled from Philadelphia to receive the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. The discussion at the Mosaic Rooms was one of two events organised by the Banipal Trust to celebrate his presence in London: the first event was a three-hour translation masterclass given by Allen on Tuesday morning at the Arab-British Centre.

Allen, who was born in England in 1942, recently retired from his position as Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He had served as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for 43 years and has translated numerous works of modern Arabic literature.

Himmich, born in Meknes in 1949, is a novelist, poet and philosopher. He earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris for a thesis on Ibn Khaldun. He has been a Professor of Philosophy at Mohammad V University in Rabat, and served as Moroccan Culture Minister in 2009-12.

Himmich's 11 novels include several historical novels. A Muslim Suicide - which was longlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, often dubbed the Arabic Booker) is the third of Himmich's historical novels that Allen has translated. And Allen has also translated a fourth of Himmich's novels - Mu'adhdhibati (Dar El Shorouk) - which is set in the 21st century's "War on Terror", and for which Himmich was shortlisted for IPAF 2011 (see below).

Himmich is one of the most distinguished contemporary Arab novelists, and has won numerous prizes. He received the 2002 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his 1997 novel Al-Allamah, on Ibn Khaldun's later years in Cairo, translated by Allen as The Polymath (American University in Cairo Press, 2004).

His 1989 novel Majnun al-Hukm won the London-based Al-Naqid Prize, and was translated by Allen under the title The Theocrat  (AUC Press 2005).  The novel is an account of the controversial Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah  In 2009 Himmich received the Naguib Mahfouz Award for Literature from the Union of Egyptian Writers for the whole corpus of his work.

Roger Allen said one of the amazing things about A Muslim Suicide is the very good impression it gives about an era in relations between two cultures "which is utterly different from our conception about the relationship between the West, and what we'll call the Middle East, now." Andalus was the place where one would go to seek knowledge and enlightenment. It was gradually losing that status, "but still you had the Christian King of Sicily, the Holy Roman Emperor King Frederic, writing to a Muslim intellectual asking him profound questions about existence, reality, the spirit, and everything else."

This correspondence between Frederic and Ibn Sab'in took place when Ibn Sab'in was living in the Moroccan town Sabta (Ceuta), the first place he settled when forced to leave Andalus. "If you want some contemporary relevance, it is not  irrelevant that King Frederic of Sicily was excommunicated by the Pope," Allen said. "Perhaps some of the greatest penseurs of any particular generation go through that particular process as a necessary part of maintaining their intellectual honesty when it comes to matters of theology and spirituality."

Allen raised the question of Arab novels after the watershed of the Naksa (Setback) of 1967 and the role of the past, and what novelists are to make of the past, use the past, what is the relationship with the past. The texts written in the wake of the Naksa had two prevalent trends. The first was Turath (legacy), and the second was Asala - ie the quest for authenticity. "And what we see is an enormous and pleasurable variety of ways of negotiating with the past, using the past."

Allen described Ibn Sab'in as a brilliant intellectual scholar, a wonderful human being, a superb doctor and psychologist. Allen said  he is constantly struck by the qualities of the scholars of the Andalusian period - for example Ibn Hassan, one of the great controversialists of Islam who was determined to negotiate meaning with adherents of other religions communities in Spain, and was also a  great poet. Or Ibn Quzman, a wazir who wrote some of the dirtiest zajals in the whole history of Arabic poetry.

Allen spoke of "this enormous variety of intellects and talents represented by this particular culture, this particular moment in the cultural history of Europe which still needs to be rediscovered. And here is Ibn Sab'in writing about the demise of this culture."

One of the most telling things in the novel for Allen is Ibn Sab'in sitting in Sabta, from where one can see Spain, and talking to his students about the demise of Spain, which had led to his expulsion, and the fact that Granada is the only place left, "and we all know of course that Granada is eventually going to fall as well. And a great period in European cultures had come to an end".

'at every turn Salafi belief and politics interfered'

This description of the period of demise is "not only a historical event, it is something which has profound implications and Ibn Sab'in, this radical thinker in Islam - and yes we are thinking about Mali today - who wishes to communicate with a variety of different religious communities, but who wishes to think of Islam as a dynamic force which adapts and changes, and which takes the best of other cultures into itself.

"And yet at every turn Salafi belief and politics interfere to expel him from wherever he is until he lands up in the centre of Islam itself where he confronts the great hero of the defence of the Middle East, Sultan Baybars - who turns out himself to be extremely Salafian in his beliefs and demands the head of Ibn Sab'in."

The novel perhaps suggests that the version of history in which the great battle of Ain Jalut - at which the army of Egypt led by Baybars in 1260 defeated the Mongols - is seen as a tremendous turning point in the Middle East, and that "everything suddenly got happy",  is not quite the right way to look at things. Ibn Sab'in eventually emerges and decides that the only thing he can do is to end his own life. 

Allen said there is a great deal written about historical novels and what they are and what they might be – there is a great deal of theoretical literature – and now also about the parlous relationship between history and fiction – even the fact that history is very often fiction itself, in other words fiction being something which is written by somebody in which somebody puts something in and leaves other things out.

"Any work of this kind which makes use of history in this way seems to me to have things to say to contemporary readers even though it may not be about family life in some Arab capital and problems of women in society or whatever it may be – valuable though those contributions to modern Arab fiction may be.

"This type of work is representative of a strand of novel fiction writing which asks more profound questions, that are concerned about – yes, as Paul said, in Huntington’s dreadful phrase, the clash of civilisations..."

'I am a prisoner of this category, the historical novel' 

Despite the acclaim for his novels set in the past, Himmich said he disagreed with the categorisation "historical novel". He said: "I am a prisoner of this category historical novels" when he actually has "a diversity in my production". He has written novels on present-day issues, for example clandestine immigration, and he is currently writing "a new novel about a very new subject - a businesswoman. But after one decade it will be a historical novel! Indeed history is all, we cannot escape.

"I think the best manner is to consider the past like the present, and this present maybe after all will be a past, this is history, but this label 'historical novel' I don't agree with. I can't put barriers between the past and the present and the future, because at the moment, tomorrow, after tomorow is a past - which is very interesting for a novelist."

He described himself as being "a little iconoclastic" and distinguished between "easy" and "difficult" historical novels. In the "easy" category he put Jurji Zaidan's historical novels. Himmich claimed that Zaidan (1861-1914) had "a deficit of imagination and invention" and that "the historian for me has more credibility than I can find in the novels of Jurji Zaidan." 

Himmich also maintained that Nobel prizewinning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz's trilogy on Pharaonic Egypt, which were published at the beginning of Mahfouz's writing career, was of only "middling" quality, and that Mahfouz's writing only really started to take off with his 1945 novel Al-Qahira al-Jadida (Cairo Modern). (Mahfouz's Pharaonic trilogy consists of Khufu's Wisdom  (1939), Rhadopis of Nubia (1943) and  Thebes at War (1944).) Himmich also made fleeting criticisms of works by two contemporary Arab writers of historical novels.

Himmich said he respected Zaidan and Mahfouz, but he contrasted their "easy" type of historical novels with "difficult" historical fiction such as The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and  Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert. He said historical fiction needs to have a clash - such as is seen in Albert Camus's play Caligula. He gave further examples of the importance of history to great writers: Balzac's novels are like historical novels. And central to all Shakespeare's theatre was a historical dimension.

Himmich described the many difficulties facing the writer of his kind of novel. The author must thoroughly research the information from historians and historiography, and after that the work of creation, of invention, begins. But with some novelists there is not this depth of research and "it’s very superficial".

The writing of novels with real significance, raises existential questions. When he was working on A Muslim Suicide or The Polymath he thought endlessly about the character of  Ibn Sab’in or Ibn Khaldun, and "it is for me an obsession, all the time I think about him. The first thing is to know all about this person – it’s necessary – and after that I think what this person was confronted with." In the case of Ibn Sab'in, why did he constantly need to move from place to place? Himmich feels a sense of responsibility in writing about characters who are outsiders, or marginal, and to "recuperate persons out of history."

how 'this man from Spain' metamorphosed into 'a muslim sucide

Starkey asked Allen why the title of the Arabic novel Hadha al-Andalusi (literally 'this Andalusian') became in the English translation A Muslim Suicide. Allen said that while he was translating The Polymath he had met Himmich at a conference - ("one of the  many conferences held in what now appears to be a different era in the cultural life of Egypt, when Gaber Asfour organised a conference on the Arabic novel and indeed there was a Cairo prize for the Arabic novel" - the Arabic Novel Award given by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.)

Himmich had told him he was writing a new novel on the very controversial Andalusian figure, Ibn Sab'in, and had decided its title would be Al-Intihar bi jiwar al-Ka'ba (Suicide inside the Ka'ba).Allen had said  he wasn't sure this was a good idea;  "certain people might perhaps not be too happy" about that title.

When Allen  received his copy of the new novel he found the title was Hadha al-Andalusi. "And I thought to myself well, that's slightly tilting in the opposite direction from the title which I had originally discouraged."

When Allen translated the novel he gave it the title This Man from Spain, but then received an email from Himmich saying that with the English translation "we're going back to my original intentions." Himmich suggested a number of titles, one of which was A Muslim Suicide.

Thus, the English title is "not a massive reinterpretation of everything the text is about but it is a reflection of the original intentions of the author." Allen said it was interesting that certain people who have read the Arabic now regard the Arabic title as supremely good -  and various people who read the English translation also regard that title as extremely good.

"In a sense it involves two quite different readings of the text itself. In my role as a teacher of literary theory the whole notion of Beginnings and of Titles - and the way that impacts on the reception of text - is a very interesting topic."

Himmich said Ibn Sab'in's committing suicide in the sacred space around the Kabba by slitting his wrists was "an act of sacrilege if ever there was one, which in all probability was not motivated by personal considerations but more likely sprang out of an ineradicable desire ... to hasten his union with God which ... was too slow to happen."

who will have the courage to publish 'my torturess'?

In addition to his translations of The Theocrat, The Polymath and A Muslim Suicide Allen has produced an as-yet unpublished translation of Himmich's post-9/11 novel Mu'adhdhibati (Dar El Shorouk) for which Himmich was shortlisted for IPAF 2011. The title means my female torturer, or tormenter. Allen said  "I coined the non-existent British term My Torturess" for the title.

My Torturess is about extraordinary rendition. It tells of a Moroccan who is extraordinarily rendered, and of his sufferings inside a dreadful anonymous camp.  "I’m hoping that it will be published," Allen said. "But there seems to be a rather cagey element amongst the publishing industry about publishing a work about this extraordinary terrible criminal activity which took place during the George W Bush administration in America.

"Insha'Allah eventually someone is going to have the courage to publish this: the translation’s complete and ready." He added "Stand by for the title:  I'm calling it My Torturess but we'll see what comes out, who decides what." Laughter erupted when Himmich said: "If he is afraid about this title, I have another." 

IPAF said of the novel at the time it was shortlisted for IPAF 2011: "In a gripping novel, whose narrative style is a blend of Kafka and One Thousand and One Nights, Himmich imagines an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison. During his captivity, the protagonist is subjected to interrogation and torture by both Arabs and foreigners and yet, against all odds, the author manages to find some hope in an otherwise desperate situation."

Allen said the historical novel itself has a history. "Many people believe that Sir Walter Scott is the origin of the historical novel, certainly Tolstoy – there are some major figures – but the historical novel is not a static entity – nor is it a unified entity - there is a large variety of novels called historical.

"Now the relationship between the writing of fiction and history is an incredibly varied subject – particularly in our current times when we live in a world of spin. I’ve just been through an American election where people have been paying out millions of dollars to lie.

"And so the question I often ask my students is what do we do in a world where fiction has no opposite? And in this particular environment the works of Hayden White and most recently David Shields and his wonderful manifesto Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, talking about the dilemmas of writing different kinds of texts.

"The word ‘historical novel’ covers a multitude of sins and perhaps the best way of going about it might be simply to talk in terms of narrative. And Arabic in fact is using terms such as sarid to try and avoid these problems of generic definition. Genre invites definition but as soon as you define a genre, it makes a habit of breaking those definitions."

Allen expressed a markedly more sympathetic view of Jurji Zaidan than Himmich had. "I would stick up for Jurji Zaidan – Jurji Zaidan is writing in the 1890s and he’s absolutely trying to educate, that’s what he’s doing – he’s educating a people and he’s developing a sense of Arab nationalism in a group who are in a society where people are facing foreign occupation from European colonial powers.

"But I would certainly be in favour of not  trying to nail down anything called historical novels,  that’s not what current literary theory’s all about."

(Jurji Zaidan - 1861-1914 - wrote 22 novels on Arab history. In the more than 100 years since they were published more than 100 translations into over nine languages have been published - but unitl recently none in English. The Zaidan Foundation has now sponsored the English translation and publication of five of the novels. Roger Allen translated The Conquest of Andalusia, and Paul Starkey Saladin and the Assassin.)

In the introduction to his book The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Development of its Genres and Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1998) Allen says he is not going to use the word history, because I am trying to write a version of what Arabs wrote about that is not based on historical and dynastic criteria. Instead his emphasis is on genres. "You know,  I often think when Abu Nawas woke up in the morning, he didn’t say to himself 'I’m an Abbasid poet!'".  

Allen was asked, as someone who has translated many Arab fiction writers, about his experience of translating Bensalem Himmich. How did he deal with his intertextuality and how did he convey in English the different registers in Himmich's Arabic text?

Allen began his answer by recalling how he first started to translate Himmich. Someone at a conference complained to him that the Modern Arabic Literature volume of the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature - to which he contributed two chapters - contained very little on the Maghreb.

Allen went back to the volume and found the complaint was well-founded, and he decided to spend his next sabbatical in the Maghreb. This he did, and that was when he met Bensalem Himmich. It was a conscious choice on his part to introduce to the Anglophone world novels written by Maghrebi writers, and he has mostly concentrated on Morocco - and especially on Himmich and on Ahmed Toufiq (Allen's translation of Moon and Henna Tree by Toufiq is to be published in May by University of Texas Press - following his translation of Toufiq's Abu Musa's Women Neighbors: A Historical Novel from Morocco - Post Appollo Pr, 2005 ).

Allen told the questioner "you’re absolutely right that these particular texts immediately present you as a translator with a number of issues, the first of which is the extraordinary level of erudition which is implicit in the text itself.

"The publication of The Theocrat raised a very fascinating issue of translation, and this is partially reflected in all the texts, which is that Bensalem regularly puts somewhere in the text what his sources are. I point out of course that Jurji Zaidan does exactly the same thing.

"But I put into the text of The Theocrat the footnotes which Himmich had kindly provided to the various historical sources which he was using, or the accounts of the peculiar behaviour of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah - and believe me, his behaviour was frequently very peculiar indeed – such as banning the hajj, and banning molokhia in Egypt – can you imagine that? And everybody had to work at night and sleep during the day – I mean this is interesting stuff,  but the point is it was all footnoted to actual historical accounts, and the AUC Press wrote to me and said 'we don’t do footnotes' so I had to point out, Iwe are talking about TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and the footnotes and the fact that TS Eliot put notes to the complexities of language.

"Anyway, that aside, I had to explain that the footnotes are part of the novel, they are an intrinsic part of the process of writing this text and its use of source material.

"But this is just part and parcel – particularly trying to convey here the difference between the description of travel and as it were the more habitual things which go on in the life of Ibn Sab’in. And than discussing Ibn Sab’in arguing about the accuracy of Ibn Rushd’s version of Aristotle and then meeting Shushtari and listening to Shushtari’s poetry and of course including some of Shushtari’s poetry. This was extremely complicated as a translation exercise, one of the more complicated ones I’ve done.

"But I just point out that there’s a recently-published collection from Columbia University Press [ed Salma Khadra Jayyusi] called Classical Arabic Stories : An Anthology which you may have seen in which I translated six of the Al-Maqamat (The Assemblies). So I have a sort of yardstick about complexity of text.

"But this (A Muslim Suicide) is a modern text, and all of these three texts are, and because Bensalem is such an enormously erudite scholar of pre-modern Arabic texts of a particular kind, the novels that he writes, which include references, are very challenging to translate."

When a member of the audience asked Himmich how his books are received in Morocco he said: "I can't speak about me: I detest autobiography  because autobiography is impossible. Freud was right,  is it possible to write about when I was a child, my problems with my mother, my sexual problems? No no it is not possible. All autobiography is impossible because there are secret gardens - for example if someone has an accident in his life - a sexual relation with his sister - he can't write this.

"For this reason I am against all autobiography except when we have a foolish person, an outsider, a person who has problems with everybody, like Jean Genet for example. But when I am very very old perhaps I will write like an au revoir to my life, the life in the world. Basit".
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Last of the Dictionary Men: a Mosaic Rooms exhibition on the Yemenis of South Shields

Saeed Mohamed Aklan Ghaleb (R) and Adnan Sayyadi in front of Saeed's portrait

Over the decades Arabs of various nationalities have settled in Britain, and there are now sizeable communities of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Egyptians, Libyans and others. In the summer Britain hosts a large number of visitors from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.

But the oldest Arab (and Muslim) community in Britain is one of the least known - that of the Yemenis, whose presence goes back well over a century. Many first came as merchant seamen sailors who settled in ports such as Hull, Liverpool and the Welsh capital, Cardiff. Others were drawn by industry, including the Yemenis of Sheffield who worked in often dangerous conditions in the steel industry for which Sheffield used to be famed.

Leyla Seyyadi in front of the portrait of her grandfather Mohammed Al-Sayyadi

Leyla's brother Adnan Sayyadi

The exhibition Last of the Dictionary Men, which opened at the Mosaic Rooms at the Qattan Foundation in London a week ago and runs until 22 March, pays tribute through portraits and video to the Yemeni community in the port town of South Shields in the north-east of England. The town is located at the mouth of the River Tyne and is some five miles from the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The maritime and industrial heritage of the North East along the River Tyne was a magnet to Yemenis looking for employment away from their impoverished country. Thousands of seamen from Yemen settled in the small town and made it home. The region's industrial and shipping tradition is  now in sharp decline.

'our land is the dictionary of our people'

The exhibition's title is inspired by the blind Yemeni poet and writer Abdullah al-Baradduni (b 1929 - this 1999 obituary appeared in the Guardian). In 1995 Al-Baradduni wrote: "Our land is the dictionary of our people - this land of far horizons where the graves of our ancestors sleep, this earth trodden by processions of sons and sons of sons."

The exhibition is the brainchild of Iranian film director Tina Gharavi, a Lecturer in English (Digital Media) at the University of Newcastle who was educated in the US and France. She is founder and creative director of independent media production company Bridge + Tunnel whose project the exhibition is.

 Tina Gharavi

The exhibition takes the form of interviews with, and portraits of, 14 men who are the last survivors of the first generation of Yemenis to settle in South Shields. The striking large photographic portraits around the walls of the ground floor exhibition space of the Mosaic Rooms are by the renowned Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil. He uses hand-colouring, an old-fashioned technique which was popular in Cairo. As his website puts it, this technique "removes the blemishes of reality, and recalls the heyday of Egyptian film." It gives his photographs of the Yemeni men an ageless, nostalgic and poignant quality.

Visitors to the private show of the exhibition on 2 February were able to meet one of the Dictionary Men - Saeed Mohamed Aklan Ghaleb, originally from the Yemeni city of Taiz. He chatted about his 38 years as a seaman during which he travelled to many destinations including Japan, Argentina, Ghana, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, the USA. He had vivid recollections of how difficult it was for the sailors when they arrived in East German ports during the Cold War. 

Also present at the private view were Adnan Sayyadi and his sister Leyla. They are grandchildren of Dictionary Man Mohammed Al-Sayyadi, now 99 years old, a former Sheikh of the South Shields Al Azhar Mosque who came originally from the town of Ibb. The mosque is one of the first purpose-built mosques in Britain. The MP of the solidly Labour South Shields  constituency is former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who visits the Mosque from time to time to connect with the town's Yemeni and Muslim community.

Fadia Faqir

The Jordanian-British novelist Fadia Faqir had also travelled down from the North-east of England for the private view of the exhibition. Faqir, who is Writing Fellow at St Aidan's College, Durham University, is a trustee of Bridge + Tunnel Productions, a charity.

She said of the exhibition "We are so excited that we managed to bring it here. We worked really hard with the Qattan Foundation - and they were wonderful." Asked about the development of culture in the North-east of England, Faqir said "I think because we are not in London we are growing in our own ways."  She says the North-east has never before been presented the way it is in the Bridge + Tunnel feature film I Am Nasrine.  The film, set in the North-east, is "about an Iranian woman who had to leave her country, and comes here with her brother, and then the journey she and her brother make through this society - an initiation into Britain."

Gharavi was recently nominated for a BAFTA for the film, in the category ‘Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer’. It won the Best Screenplay Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival last year. The film is set in modern day Tehran and the UK.

Faqir said Bridge + Tunnel has another project "brewing", Video-Pal. "We are going to teach kids in the North-east and Palestine to use cameras and then document their lives, and Tina Gharavi is going to turn it into a documentary film. And then we have another documentary film brewing and another feature film". 

video installation on old-model TV sets 

In the downstairs space of the Mosaic Rooms is a video installation with multiple screens, each on a TV set which is a domestic model commonly seen in British homes from the 1950s to 1980s. Each TV stands on a plinth, at the real-life height of the individual subject. Each of the 14 Dictionary Men tells the story of his life and his journey towards becoming settled in South Shields, while visitors listen over headphones. 

The exhibition also includes the official trailer of the film The King of South Shields, made by Gharavi.
The film is an experimental documentary looking at the day in 1977 (the year of  the Queen's Silver Jubilee) that boxing champion Mohammad Ali came to Tyneside and had his marriage blessed at the town's Al-Azhar Mosque. The film explores the effect this event had on the young Yemeni-British men who attended the Mosque. It examines the emerging Arab/British identity, and briefly introduces the historic Yemeni community. The BBC website has this article on the film. A DVD of the film is on sale in the Mosaic Rooms shop.

The Mosaic Rooms has commissioned a new short video to be developed by Bridge + Tunnel, to be screened during the latter part of the exhibition. This video will capture oral histories recorded from a range of participants from the Yemeni community in London. An oral histories workshop with Gharavi is to be held on the weekend of 2-3 March (Yemenis who would like to participate and share their stories are invited to email for more information, or to call 020 7370 9990. Places are limited to a maximum of 15 people).  

Gharavi initiated the Last of the Dictionary Men project in 2005. The exhibition was first shown in 2008, initially at the BALTIC arts centre at Gateshead and then in Yemen at the Al-Saeed Cultural Centre in Taiz and the National Museum in Sana'a.

On Saturday 2 March at the Mosaic Rooms at 12pm Gharavi will be in conversation about Last of the Dictionary Men and The King of South Shields with Venetia Porter, Assistant Keeper of the Islamic and Contemporary Middle East at the British Museum.

Several other events at the Mosaic Rooms this month and next also relate to the exhibition. For example in Qat, Coffee and Qambus to be held at 7pm on 28 February DJ and record collector Chris Menist is to play rare Yemeni vinyl singles from the ‘60s and ‘70s, featuring vintage oud and vocal music. In a 2012 article in the Guardian Chris described record-hunting in Yemen.
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

from the video installation: caption reads "I was brought up as an Arab, but I have lived in Britain all my life." 

Friday, February 08, 2013

ARK and UCL invitation to meeting of Iraqi artists

ARK: A Space in Ealing

Top Flat / Acton Town Hall / High Street / London W3 6NE
Tel: 0208 75 207 75 email:,

 Art, war and peace: responses to Iraq

Saturday 9/2/2013 ( 2 - 4pm )

How have artists and art institutions in the UK and beyond responded to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq? How we might think about the entanglement of art, war and peace in light of these responses?

We would like to invite you to join a discussion of Iraqi artists who will discuss these issues at the Ark on 2-4pm Saturday 9th February, in preparation for a day-long set of talks, workshops and panels at the Mosaic Rooms in London, in which you are also invited to participate. The event, which will take place on Friday 22nd March 2013, will provide a platform for artists to talk about their own practice, and for artists, curators and writers to reflect on the broader issues raised by the responses of artists and art institutions to the war.

What themes and topics could this event address and develop? What kinds of workshops would allow a wider audience to explore these themes? Which curators, writers and commentators might be involved in the discussions? We would like the discussion group to consider these and other questions and to help formulate the programme. Attached is a short paper that provides some background for the discussions.

We suggest meeting to discuss and develop these issues in advance of the event at Mosaic Rooms, which will form part of the Reel Iraq festival of film, literature and music running from 21st-24th March. Previous Reel Festivals have highlighted the culture of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon and have received national press coverage. The discussions of the group and on the day itself will be reflected in a short report, and we will explore possibilities for publishing a roundtable discussion in an online forum such as the Arab Review, Jadaliyya or Ibraaz.

The project is supported by the Ark Artist Space, Mosaic Rooms, the Reel Iraq festival and University College London (UCL), which is contributing funding to facilitate public engagement in these issues in the period surrounding the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Please let us know if you are interested in taking part and, if you wish, your initial thoughts on the above questions. We look forward to hearing from you.

Dr Alan Ingram (UCL) and Yousif Naser (the Ark)

The event will take place at the ARK premises : Top Flat / Acton Town Hall / High Street / London W3 6NE Buses : 7, E3 ,70 , 207 , 266 , 427 , 607 . Over ground Acton Central . Under ground : Acton Town For more information you can call : 0208 7520775 or 07943785223

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Roger Allen presented with Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation at London ceremony

 Professor Roger Allen (R) and Bensalem Himmich at the awards ceremony

The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation was awarded last night to Roger Allen during the Society of Authors' Translation Prizes 2012 awards ceremony held at Kings Place, central London. Allen won the prize for his translation of  Moroccan author (and Culture Minister from 2009-2012) Bensalem Himmich's novel A Muslim Suicide. The £3,000 award was presented by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement Sir Peter Stothard.

When Allen ascended the stage to receive the award, he thanked the Saif Ghobash Foundation, the Society of Authors and the Banipal Trust. And then, to much applause, he announced: "Above all I have the honour tonight to tell you that the author himself is in the audience." (It appears that Himmich was the only author whose work in translation had won a prize to be present at the ceremony).

Allen's 414-page translation was published by Syracuse University Press in 2011. The central character  is the Sufi philosopher Iban Sab'in (1217-1269 CE) who was born in Murcia in Al-Andalus, southern Spain but was forced to migrate to Africa because of his controversial views. He was later expelled from Egypt and spent his final years in Mecca.

The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize, first awarded in 2006, is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash of the UAE and his family in memory of his late father Saif Ghobash.

The runner-up was Humphrey Davies, commended for his translation of  Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouti's I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, published by Bloomsbury.

Allen recently retired from his position as Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, having served as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for 43 years.

Allen, whose native city is Bristol in south west England,  obtained a D Phil in modern Arabic literature from Oxford University: he was the first student to obtain a doctorate in that field at Oxford, under the supervision of the late Dr Mustafa Badawi. In 1968 he moved to the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Allen had travelled from Philadelphia for the awards ceremony. This morning he gave a three-hour Masterclass on Arabic Literary Translation in the Meeting Room and Library of the Arab British Centre. This evening he and Bensalem Himmich are in conversation at the Mosaic Rooms at an event chaired by Professor Paul Starkey, chair of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. The event will be followed by a reception.

In all, eight of the language prizes administered by the Society of Authors were awarded during the evening (not all the ten prizes it administers are annual awards). The ceremony was introduced by Paula Johnson of the Society of Authors. She co-hosted the event with Sir Peter Stothard, who presented each award.

Himmich signs a copy of  A Muslim Suicide for poet Ruth Padel, a judge of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize 2012 

The judges of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize were poet Ruth Padel, novelist Esther Freud, Iraqi poet, novelist critic and translator Fadhil al-Azzawi and translator and university teacher John Peate.

Presenting the prize to Roger Allen, Sir Peter Stothard said: "In the view of the judges the most important aspect of this historical novel that takes the 13th century Sufi philosopher Ibn Sab'in as its hero, is its language. The Arabic original is written in a language not only related to its heritage, but also full of contemplations and Sufi ideas, they accompany the main hero on his long journey across different cities and countries, from Spain to Mecca. And  this also opens up remarkable historical, cultural and religious perspectives of the Islamic heritage."

In the judges' opinion "it's hard to imagine anyone in the world besides Roger Allen capable of bringing this serious book to English readers. He has succeeded with his wonderful style not only to turn Himmich's text into brilliant English prose but also to create a real piece of literature." 

Allen read to the audience a passage from A Muslim Suicide. He introduced it by saying "we have just heard  this novel described: it is the story of one of Islam's most radical thinkers, Sufi philosopher, theologian and physician, and perhaps there is a contemporary aspect in that - precisely because of the radical  nature of his thought he is hounded out of basically every place he tries to settle down, from Spain to North Africa to Egypt and finishes in Mecca. And it's in Mecca that I choose to read a passage about something which is quite familiar to us yet  is told in Hammich's unique style."

Allen read a dramatic passage towards the end of the novel  in which Ibn Sab'in witnesses a crush of hajj pilgrims in which people are being trampled and killed. "I suddenly spotted the head of a young girl screaming beneath the pile of rigid, expiring bodies. Rolling up my sleeve, I plunged into the fray, grabbed her by the hands and started pulling her out as though she were some poor animal ensnared in the fangs of a ravenous beast."

Ibn Sabi'in saves the life of the young girl. The next day the warden tells him that the girl is from Khurasan and has been reunited with her father and aunt, but that her mother had been crushed to death. the previous day. "He told me that tragedies such as this happened every year during the pilgrimage season, something that caused us both to seek refuge in God from such calamities."

Professor Roger Allen at Kings Place last  night

In announcing the commendation of Humphrey Davies, Stothard observed that he is a former winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and that judge al-Azzawi had described him as "one of the masters of translation from Arabic into English. For the judges, "what Humphrey Davies has done once again is to adopt exactly the right palette of both vocabulary and tone in his translation all the way through."

The judges had added: "The great skill in his translation is not just in the sophisticated understanding of the original, which should be beyond doubt, it is also in the rendering of an apparently effortless yet deeply nuanced English prose, beyond which - translators will know - undoubtedly lies long, long hours of intense reflection and research. Davies is a true exemplar to translators in work such as this."

Davies lives in Cairo and was unable to be present. In his absence Senior Commissioning Editor of Bloomsbury Bill Swainson stepped forward to receive the commendation on his behalf.

Davies won the inaugural Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize prize in 2006 for his translation of Elias Khoury's novel The Gate of the Sun (Harvill Secker 2005). In 2010 he won the prize for his translation of Khoury's Yalo (MacLehose, 2009) as well as being joint runner up with his translation of Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis (Sceptre 2009).

A Muslim Suicide first appeared in Arabic as Hadha Al-Andaluisi published in Beirut by Dar al-Adab in 2007. The Arabic original was longlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF - often known as the Arabic Booker Prize).

Allen explains in his illuminating translator's afterword how the choice of title for the  translation was made. He had happened to meet Himmich when the latter was writing the novel, which the author originally proposed to call Al-Intihar bi jiwar al-Ka'ba (Suicide Inside the Ka'ba). Allen had suggested that while the title was exciting and reflected historical accounts, it was also "not a little provocative and even controversial in contemporary terms."

Allen does not know what happened in the intervening period, but he thought the title under which the novel was eventually published Hadha Al-Andaluisi (literally, This Andalusian) went too far perhaps in the other direction. "I can report that is it at the author's specific request that this translation into English reverts to his original ideas concerning the title of this novel". (In addition to his afterword Allen provides an invaluable 14-page glossary.)

A Muslim Suicide is the third of Himmich's novels that Roger Allen has translated. First came his translation of Himmich's 1989 novel Majnoun al-Hukm, which won the London-based Al-Naqid prize for fiction. Allen's translation of this account of the reign of the controversial (and probably schizophrenic) Fatimi caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (d 1021) was published in 2005 by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press under the title The Theocrat.

Himmich's 1997 novel Al-'Allamah on the latter years in Cairo of the great Arab historian and historiographer Ibn Khaldun (died 1406), was translated by Allen as The Polymath  (AUC Press 2004) The Arabic original of the novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for fiction.

Allen has now translated a fourth Himmich novel - Mu'adhdhibati (Dar El Shorouk) which was shortlisted for IPAF 2011. With its theme of "extraordinary rendition" in the post-9/11 era, this novel is a major shift from Himmich's past emphasis on historical fiction. The noun in the title is the feminine of Tormenter or Torturer.

It is surely only a matter for time before the book finds a publisher. IPAF says of it: "In a gripping novel, whose narrative style is a blend of Kafka and One Thousand and One Nights, Himmich imagines an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison.

"During his captivity, the protagonist is subjected to interrogation and torture by both Arabs and foreigners and yet, against all odds, the author manages to find some hope in an otherwise desperate situation.". 

The eight Translation Prizes went to six novels and two poetry books. In his lengthy article on the prizes in the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Adrian Tahourdin (the TLS's French Editor) leads with Allen's translation: "Most challenging among the novels is undoubtedly Bensalem Himmich's A Muslim Suicide."

The novel is set in "turbulent times - the Crusades and the Mongol advance are in the background - but this is very much a personal quest. Poetry, philosophy and Sufism, with its goal of the transcendent, the  'Necessary Existent', are constant presences in this dense and complex novel." Tahourdin adds: "And the many women who cross Ibn Sab'in's path are presented in a style that seems appropriate to the time and place: 'her diaphanous dress was set and showed every details of her luxuriant body'." 

 (L to R) Professor Paul Starkey, Bensalem Himmich, Banipal publisher Margaret Obank

As always, the awards ceremony was followed by the annual Sebald lecture, named in memory of the late W G Sebald, founder of the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). The lecture, entitled Paradise Lost: Confessions of an Apostate Translator, was delivered by the Russian author and translator Boris Akunin. Akunin is one of the most widely read authors in Russia, and has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His best-selling detective novels are translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.

But Boris Akunin is actually the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a translator particularly from Japanese into Russian. Akunin's revealing and entertaining lecture was a fascinating account of the interplay of translating and writing in his life in the Soviet era and now. In accordance with his habit of dividing everything into chapters, Akunin divided his lecture into three chapters: ‘The 2nd cleanest profession in the USSR’ (according to his mother translation, after medicine, but definitely not writing);‘The bliss of translation’; and ‘Shadows mutiny’ (how after the age of 40 he lost the urge to translate, and how his writing fountain ‘started to gush’ when a middle of the road readership sprang up).

The annual Society of Authors' Translation Prizes ceremony is an occasion for translators, whose role is all too often overlooked, to step forward to receive prizes and commendations. The winners have the chance to talk briefly about, and read from, their winning translations. The ceremony is an excellent opportunity to get an idea of what is being translated in different languages and to break out of literature-in-translation language ghettoes.

Once again the acclaimed translator from Spanish and Portuguese Margaret Jull Costa featured in the list of those honoured. She was both winner and runner up for the £3,000 Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for translation from Portuguese. Her winning translation was that of Teolinda Gersão's novel The Word Tree set in Mozambique. The novel is published by Dedalus which has a sample chapter on its website.

One of the founders of Dedalus was Robert Irwin, the Arabic and Middle Eastern history scholar, author of several novels and many works of non-fiction. He is the commissioning editor for the Middle East of the TLS. Dedalus says that "in The Word Tree Teolinda Gersão paints an extraordinarily evocative picture of childhood in Africa and the stark contrast between warm, lush, ebullient Mozambique and the bleak, poor, priggish Portugal of Salazar." Certainly the extract read by Jull Costa made me want to hear or read more.

Jull Costa was commended for her translation from Portuguese of The Land at the End of the World (Norton) by Antonio Lobo Antunes. She was also commended in another prize: the £2,000 Premio Velle Inclán for translation from Spanish, for her translation of Seven Houses in France by Bernado Atxaga (Harvill Secker).

The winner of the Premio Velle Inclán was Peter Bush for his translation of Exiled from Almost Everywhere (Dalkey Archive Press) by Juan Goytisolo. Bush spoke of the surprise there had been that Goytisolo had in his late 70s written a novel on cyberspace, "though he doesn't know one end of a mouse from the other."

Born in Barcelona in 1931, Goytisolo went into voluntary exile in 1956 and has never returned to live in Spain. Goytisolo lives much of the time in Marrakesh: Himmish recalled warmly last night how Goytisolo wrote the introduction to the Arabic original of his novel Majnoun al-Hukm (The Theocrat in Allen's translation).

The Hellenic Foundation for Culture Translation Prize for translation from Greek, awarded every three years, was won by Avi Sharon, a classicist from Boston University who works in finance in New York City. He won the prize for his translation of The Selected Poems of Cavafy (Penguin Modern Classics). Constantine P Cavafy is of course very much associated with Alexandria, the Egyptian city where he was born to Greek parents and lived for most of his life. Sharon's translation of Selected Poems has been widely praised and won the 2009 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, a $1,000 award by the Academy of American Poets for volume of poetry translated from any language.

The other poetry collection to receive an award was Robin Fulton's translation of Chickweed Wintergreen: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books) by the Swedish poet Harry Martinson, which won the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from Swedish. Although Martinson jointly won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974 with fellow Swede Eyvind Johnson, Fulton noted that few of his poems have previously been translated.

I found poems such as Evening Inland read by Fulton powerful and haunting. The judges of the prize, Andrew Brown and Dr BJ Epstein said: "Martinson is a writer who uses rhythms and rhymes of Swedish in ways that cannot be reproduced, but only at best recreated in English. This Robin Fulton has triumphantly accomplished." 

report and pictures from Kings Place by Susannah Tarbush