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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Thoughts Alluded to Travel (Part 1)

November 29, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Today was an icy day in Dublin. In the dark evening, the city's streets were crowded with Christmas shoppers and the sparkling decorations were - to use an effective cliche - magnificent to behold. People sauntered about but I was in a bit of a hurry, after having purchased a couple of good dictionaries and thesaurus. It's always been the Oxford for me.Which reminds me of how much a creature of habit I am.

I could be seen as the intrepid traveller but nothing could be further from the truth. I would challenge myself with lands unknown but from time to time will return to the cuisine, cafes, bookshops, stores, churches, parks, seasides and even safari companies and tour guides; that and whom I know best and to be warmly welcomed by those who know me. Sometimes, I may remember a lost cd or book and envision longingly of how I would be able to retrieve it somewhere accustomed on the other side of the world. Somewhere beloved, untroubled and kind.

So I probably wouldn't be clever in a technical geographical sense. But I do relish my regional friends. R
eturning to a harmonious environment allows a positive inner energy to be preserved. That bliss can be harnessed to seek out cherished pleasures instead of draining it away in the process of having sought out with some trepidation; the strange and unexpected and sometimes too, the folly. Again, it depends on a traveller's desire and mood.

Travelling constantly over the years makes one easily reflective and philosophical. It happens naturally because perceptions are ever-changing; they widen and progress. Your soul never stays still. From where I was once solely the idealist, I have turned extremely analytical.

And then there are the delightful conversations. From street to street in distant continents, someone whom you haven't visited for ages but who still remembers you, will stop for a hug or to exchange pleasantries. At a cafe, a waitress once a long-term acquaintance will offer a warm chat. Visit an internet cafe whose owner you know with utmost regularity and you may be rewarded with snacks, drinks and discounts with the same measure on which you had placed your earlier friendliness.

I've learnt that if you cling to your blessings as if your life depended on it, you'll be handed more. It really works to observe a glass half-full instead of half-empty.

My Swift Thoughts on Egyptian Literature as Replayed from the Guardian Books Blog

November 29, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

*I wanted to replay my comments from the Guardian Books Blog over here, before I lost these lines for all time.

In the chunky hardback, Chicago, Alaa Al-Aswany, one of Egypt's modern writers wrote an expansive story on the Egyptian diaspora in America...the regrets, lamentations and failed political ambitions of history professors and students, housed in an academic setting in Chicago. He adopted strong-willed characters to competently trace storylines back to the heart of the Egyptian people's disgruntlement over their country'srepressed democracy, for which they would blame their President and be suitably lambasted by secret agents. The educational novel stayed a black comedy.

But while informative, I felt that Aswany drawn from an early bestselling success of The Yacoubian Building, wrote with amusing deliberation for the West. In this sense, he proved the excellent puppet-master, manouvering an assortment of characters back and forth with meticulous ease and armed with a scientific structure, aimed to entertain and please. With several political challenges set in his book - Jew measured against Arab - White against Black - liberal American households pitted against Cairo's gossipy neighbourhoods, the effect signalled a superficial political correctness, laced with neat ready formulas for a final resigned acceptance.

I say this because there is a marked difference with younger Egyptian writers writing for the West against several translated versions of the past, where the raw essence to Arabic fiction would be held as one of brooding instrospection and significantly philosophical. A sharp irony or wry humour is likely to pepper darker remembrances from the ravages of wars and stories of exile, and often used as a key weapon for any character's attempt at survival in painful circumstances.

I find many Arab writers in the Middle-Eastern world overall, guarded in their approach to literature. They write for themselves or their people. In this way, their novels serve as friendly diaries...there is no impression of a set agenda yearning for commercial success. They triumph as raconteurs.

Naguib Mahfouz is easily known but there are others who have lasted the course. Among these the distinguished scholar Taha Hussein who promoted women's liberation through his stories, Egypt's father of the short story, Mahmoud Tehmour (1894-1974) eg. Tales from Egyptian Life and the playwright, Tawfik al Hakim famed for verse dramas.

Yahya Hakki( 1905-92) was especially popular for his humorous short stories. He wrote several little tales for the peasantry in Upper Egypt because he considered those residents 'his beloved.' Hakki was labelled as one of the first writers of 20th century Egypt to lighten a mood through prose. His folklore although pure comedy reflected deep insight. In Story in the Form of a Petition, a man caught in wartime is measured for his wealth through his brand of cigarettes and lighters as he graduates to more expensive tastes.

In The Lamp of Umm Hashim, Ismail returns to Cairo after being trained in England as a doctor and immediately experiences a clash of cultures. For example, architecture of the East and West are critically compared afterwards and is fasting at Ramadan really necessary? Then there is the constant yearning for the Scottish countryside and a renewed longing for a fresh European escape.

Yahya Hakki who was a lawyer and worked in the diplomatic service, was also one of Egypt's first wave of new writers to to have drawn on two diverse cultures through his plots.

All these stories are readily available in English, thanks to perhaps one of the Middle-East 's pioneers of modern Arabic translations,Denys Johnson-Davis, who would in earlier years, use his own funds to help bring Arabic fiction to Western audiences.

One of the most famous publishers bringing Arab stories - including literature from Egypt to the West today has to be The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, Egypt.

Recently, Haus Publishing in London set up a new venture in Arabia Books, a wonderful innovative enterprise that now distributes translated literature once obscure from the Palestinian Territories, Tripoli or Beirut to the UK and Commonwealth countries.

On 11-11-08, Haus Publishing opened a book showroomwhich stocks a vast amount of translated Arabic fiction. (2 minute walk from Sloane Square Tube Station, London)

Egyptian novelist Baha Taher won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2008 - Booker - for Sunset Oasis.

Also, the famous Cafe Riche where Mahfouz met with writers in Cairo, has just reopened.


I forgot to add with regards to what I had written above, that Naquib Mahfouz was an early admirer of Yahya Hakiki's critical writings and of his short stories and for a time chose to work under him. Later, they were to remain close friends.

In fact, it was Mahfouz who wrote the introduction for Yahya Hakiki's collected Letters to his Daughter or which in Arabic meant Rasa'il Yahya Haqqi ila ibnatihi,.

If English novelists must be at all named as a yardstick for comparison to writers of Middle-Eastern literature than Hakiki's own translator Denys, Johnson-Davis has compared him to Kipling simply for their similarities in demonstrating that the East and West could and would never meet in a harmonious blend.

The difference seen between Mahfouz's writings and that of Hakiki's is that the latter loved expounding on colloqial language while Mahfouz had turned his back on the very idea though when his characters replayed themselves on screen, they would inherit once more, their natural voices.

It is also Yahya Hakiki who is acknowledged in Egypt today - as he had been by his fellow writers - as having laid the foundations for an Arabic literary renaissance in Egypt midway through the last century. Taha Hussein, a great man of letters, Yusuf Idris, Mahmoud Teymour and Tawfik al-Hakim all participated in the renaissance.

The writers I mention have all won literary or human rights awards. The prolific novelist and playwright, Yusuf Idris, had been nominated for the Nobel Prize of Literature several times.

Many Arab writers stick to good old-fashioned storytelling as a whole and don't deter from this fact, which reinforces what I said earlier, at the end of the fourth paragraph: They triumph as raconteurs.


2 Middle-Eastern countries intent on producing new literature and translating old ones at a fast pace, currently include Beirut, Lebanon and Tehran, Iran.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (Feb 26 09 - March 1 09)

November 28, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Some wonderful things to expect from the UAE's first ever forthcoming International Festival of Literature, to be held in Dubai from February 26 to March 1 09 :

  1. Bridge-building and child literary between English and Arabic Language authors are set to be key issues at the UAE's first literary festival.

  2. A celebration and enjoyment of literature and reading with adequate translation services already planned.

  3. Several special programmes for children with authors visiting schools throughout Dubai.
  4. 60 Arabic-language and English authors will participate in the festival.

  5. Among the stellar cast, expect Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Adiche, bestselling Egyptian author Khaled Al Khamissi, Rajaa Al Sanea for Girls of Riyadh, Iranian-American writer Anita Amirrezvani for The Blood of Flowers, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood, Jung Chang for Wild Swans, William Dalrymple, Louis de Bernieres, Carol Ann Duffy, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Anthony Horowitz, Frank McCourt, Kate Mosse, Anita Nair from Kerala, India, Guyana poet Grace Nichols, Robin Sharma - one of the world's top experts on personal development, Penny Vincenzi, Tim Butcher and many more.

  6. Fringe performancs for anyone eager to participate with comedy, storytelling, poetry, slapstick, monologues etc. - (Please click on website underneath for application forms.)

EAUFL' s Official Website


Thursday, 27 November 2008

My New Books

November 27, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Since my glorious month in East Africa last June, I have been completely smitten by Middle-Eastern literature as never before. Of course, I have travelled to Africa several times in the last 9 years so I don't understand the reason for this.

This passion has also led me to secure a favourite bookseller in a popular independent bookshop, close to where I live in the city and next door to Trinity College. The staff are wonderful and I will talk about this aspect some other time because I think that for any serious reader of literature, to be unexpectedly blessed with a friendly bookseller who treats you like he would a friend and discusses important aspects of classical and contemporary stories with you... well, that's priceless.

I can turn to this bookshop for earnest recommendations or even knowledge of a specific work of specialist Arabic fiction I'm keen to indulge a happy pursuit with and the staff will readily oblige. Of course, this is a bookshop that serves Trinity College students all day long and are often called upon when renowned writers drop by to give talks and readings. Located at the end of a busy thoroughfare, you'll also find a number of professional executives teeming in at any one time. The bookshop currently holds a vast amount of thoroughly fascinating European classics and modern fiction besides the usual commercial fare.

Having said this, I purchased 6 new books on Arabic fiction and poetry recently, but will probably snuggle a good two in my suitcase for my flight abroad late next week. I have decided on just two as I'll be picking up literature from the country I'm at and also visiting the newly-opened bookHaus showroom in London that specialises in translated Arabic literature.


So here are 4 out of the 6 that I'm very excited about:


The first is called The Lamp of Umm Hashim and other Stories. I'm almost finished with this spruced-up and almost dimunitive decorative book and will probably write a review tomorrow. First of all, the picture's a lot brighter really, than what it looks over here. Frankly, I was seduced by the title which reminds me of an exotic, sensuous beauty that could have slipped straight out of the Arabian Nights. I was bowled over by a beauty regarded by my imagination as to what such an intriguing header could possibly convey. The collection was penned by lawyer/diplomat and later award-winning writer, Yahya Hakki, (1905-92) who was recognised as one of Egypt's important modern writers of the 20th century. This for experimenting with different forms of story-telling from otherwise, predictable classical styles.
Hakki was also one of the first writers to introduce the art of humour in its wider context - a far cry from the usual bleak but stirring prose that often greets Arabic fiction. He was also one of the first new wave of modern writers to explore the clash of eastern and western cultures through his stories' characters.
Mostly, Hakiki wrote folklore for the peasantry in Upper Egypt whom he was said to be terribly affectionate about. Well, at the moment I find Hakki to be a gentle, writer, tender and caressing with his words as well as kind in his teachings of life as he saw it. His stories besides offering deep insights also suggest a ribald humour.


Old Baghdad

I can well see myself slipping The Long Way Back by Fuad al-Takarli into my luggage for a hotel room or sidewalk read. One of my key interests in having selected titles from a catalogue was to have been drawn to stories of the rural middle-eastern heartlands, stories of families and communities, gossipy ladies outside their verandahs or lively talks at colourful bazaars.

I was drawn to this chunky paperback for two reasons. One was definitely the cover. It's elegant, stylish and depicts an art form. I could have stayed enraptured for an age over that intriguing portrait. And what a splash of vibrant ginger red!

The second had to be the setting. How many Baghdad writers do you know? The award-winning Fuad al-Takarli who now lives in Tunis, was once a judge and the head of the Court of Appeal in Baghdad. I am so looking forward to this especially with the tragic Iraq war. The plot spells an almost magical, elusive time as it revolves around 4 generations of an Iraqi family, living in the same house in Bagdad in the 1950s and 60s. How tantalising a moment is that! I think this book has to be one of my favourite coups so far.


The Palestinian Territories

The third book is a Palestinian work of non-fiction. My second Palestinian reading of prose so far. Titled I Saw Ramallah and written by Mourid Barghouti, it talks of how the poet on his way back to his homeland after graduating from the University of Cairo, finds himself unexpectedly caught up in tensions and war. Barghouti is forced into exile and would only return to Palestine 30 years later. Glancing through the pages, I intituitively pick up an array of sad and beautiful emotions.
This book which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, has been described by the Times Literary Supplement as owning nothing short of an eloquent prose. It's a light hardback and with its serene cover featuring an abstract photography is definitely a collector's item.
I Saw Ramallah was recommended to me by my bookseller who on receiving new stock of the translated version had kept it aside, suspecting that I would fall in love with it and yes, I did.



The fourth one is Morocco's famous The Final Bet, the first translated Arabic detective novel in the world to have been recently brought out by Arabia Books London and originally written by the handsome Moroccan screenwriter and novelist Abdelilah Hamdouchi. The story has also been reproduced as a series for Moroccan television. If you scroll further down, you would see that I had talked about this novel in much greater detail earlier.
What a truly smoky-looking atmospheric cover for a start! I still can't get over it. It's the perfect sleuth tale, with the promise of a good bedside read. An elderly french lady is murdered in Casablanca and her young playboy husband who is tangled in a secret love affair, gets the blame. The famous but eccentric and grumpy sleuth Alwaar must work round the clock to prove the young philanderer's innocence.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Penguin Australia to release Malaysian Non-Fiction Title

November 26, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Penguin Australia will release popular Malaysian writer *Heidi Munan's non-fiction title in paperback format called CultureShock! on February 1, 2009, under its category of Travel & Guides. As a result, the book will find easy bookshop distribution throughout Australasia.

CultureShock! which details customs and etiquette protocol commonly followed in Malaysia, was originally published by Marshall Cavendish Singapore.

*Some information on Heidi Munan may be found here.

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November 25, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

My mother once did grace me with a deferment of the self that armed with a slight preoccupation, I would take into my fold; the hallucination of childhood fantasies, abcs, fairies, toyland misgivings, wildlife lost in the sahara and what have you. Then like the unravelling of wool eagerly wound back with a sharp swing into its rectangular ball, I too would reclaim the pleasures of a child's memory circling time long after, like the feel of winding ribbons or sparklers in my hand.

If classics made for the longest bridge of crossovers from spring bud years to the fading summer dusk, then of late in devouring the deep introspection that counts for a thoughtful but labouring effort and one which constitutes for translated Arabic fiction, my spirit has turned masculine; slightly jagged at the edges but rough, restless and running fast, locked only in a pursuit of the unknown.

Now I listen only to the voices of men, the writers, the poets, the philosophers and the scholars.

If their stories could shape my pose, I would have knelt quietly, my head bowed, my soul absorbed in the proclaimations of severe injustices and too, the cleavaged sensual beauty that abounds in the songs of a Middle-East exodus.

These are the voices well-meaning literature teachers forgot about. The voices that mainstream papers failed to carry. Yet, here they are and I have found them finally; devoid of pretension, quiet, guarded and closed to all but themselves. My spirit hearkens to a new sensibility in a way that nothing else may have managed. It feels encased in its hardness...lost in exile and ravaged by wars yet once more, gloriously rescued.

I am exhilarated as my sudden sprouting library offers sunshine for the strange long onslaught of winter years, doggedly sauntering ahead.

News: Sharjah's Unique Book Campaign Launched

November 26, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

The Government of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), has launched its Knowledge without Borders book campaign from where 24,000 Emirati families stand to benefit from a project designed to last all of 2009. The project will ensure that every Emirati family is provided with a free library of 50 Arabic books each. Different genres that include religion, science, novels and stories will be distributed freely and because the Government prides itself on handing out shiny new books, no donations will be accepted from residents.

In the first phase of the drive which starts today at Shais Village along the East Coast, eight families will receive their book packages. The occasion will also be celebrated with several cultural, educational and entertainment activities.
The book project is aimed at increasing the general knowledge of Emiratis, re-inforcing culture and strengthening national identity.

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Monday, 24 November 2008

Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany

November 24, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

The obnoxious prove fitful when sought by the yearnings of their inner selves; full of misgivings, hope and dilemmas and this reconciled to an ambitious future laden by the pandemonium of success.

So command the motley mix of Egyptian and American characters housed in their academic setting, where embattled university professors, secret government agents and ambitious students wearing stubborn agendas like torn badges emblazoned bravely on their shirts; strive in clumsy ways to achieve a flawless political correctness in dentist-turned-novelist Alaa Al Aswany's chunky hardback, Chicago.

All meet with strange episodes and failed notions at the end of the page, not necessarily pleasing ones but funnelled into surreal movements almost as if each character has been caught halfway and summoned to a standstill pose while doing the unthinkable.

For a couple of the book's resigned heroes, tragedy awaits. The reader is left while fingering the last page, to decide and conclude on the plot's own fate and destiny. Otherwise, a host of greedy, purposeful and even temptestuous characters set the stage for this bountiful chunk of fascinating storytelling.

There is the highly-eminent Professor Salah who regrets his move to America and his marriage to an American lady, Chris. This leads him to impotence where he will struggle to fullfill his bliss in a spiritual way. Salah also plans a daring reconciliation with his first Egyptian love, Zeinab, once a fiery and political activist. In younger years, she had felt compelled to label him a coward and reminded of this scene years later, he decides to prove otherwise. There is also the brainy medical student, Shyamaa regarded as a spinster back in Egypt. Her desire for a starry-eyed romance is met with the passionate interests of the volatile Nagi, whose hot temper is so reputed that his doting mother fails to find him a bride back home in Cairo.

Among the other cast which peppers up Aswany's raconteur skills with a series of colourful misdemeanors include Ra'fat who must deal with a supposedly ungrateful daughter, Sarah. Sarah has turned to a drug addict for a live-in boyfriend and Ra'bat angrily blames his misfortune on what he supposes to be America's notorious liberalization . Ra'fat on the other hand, forgets his own songs of America as the land of liberty for every oppressed dream and of how he would have denied his Egyptian roots as a young man if he could. Or the brilliant poet Tariq who is later mistaken for a terrorist simply for his daredevil ideas on demanding Egypt's democracy with a planned vendetta that's destined for a comical backfire, when the Egyptian President visits Chicago.

Aswany blends his characters together like an absorbing jigsaw puzzle. He appears to move tiny crowds in and out of chapters with the same affectionate pleasure that a cheery puppet-master would manouvere his beloved dolls on a string. His genius lies in shaping a number of sub-plots with meticulous ease and in the author's abiding love for these fictitious personalities.

However, he does at times try too hard by having a tendency to preach instead of demonstrating an intent. When the American Professor Graham relaxes with Tariq, over a glass of wine, the reader is treated to a sermon of America's moral and ethical values, rather than a heartfelt conversation. Also, Aswany aspires for too many ideals. He baptizes his characters with different faiths drawing on the peculiar historical and complicated difficulties that bind varied cultures. The drawback lies in Aswany attempting to solve an assortment of social challenges at one go. An Arab with a Jew and a white man with a black woman makes it easy to lay out a tray of prejudices with the usual offering of predictable expectations.

But as in the case of too many cooks spoiling the soup, so too will Aswany's attempt at a big-book story, appear the aspiring ambition that didn't quite succeed especially with its obvious clash of social and political lamentations or much-needed answers. Certain characters and situations may at times appear contrived and wooden thanks to this unfortunate catastrophe.

Still, on hindsight, Chicago commands a straightforward readablity and one deemed as truly entertaining.

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Saturday, 22 November 2008

More on Islam Samhan - the famously banned Jordanian poet

November 22, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

This is the book jacket design of the banned romantic poetry collection Grace Like A Shadow, written and published by Jordanian newspaper journalist
and poet, Islam Samhan.

As regular readers would have already seen the front cover(in blue) earlier on or as otherwise, evident if you scroll further down, here for the first time is the back cover (purple jacket with Samhan's photo).

As you will read from one of my many entries from Oct end to early November, Samhan must stand trial for being accused of having insulted the Islamic faith in his poetry. He gained worldwide fame when he was detained for two weeks before being set suddenly free. Jordanian journalists and writers have protested that this is the first time the natural freedom for an act of expression is being set upon. Up to the present day, he has lived his life amid constant death threats and for a time, lay in hiding.

According to Jordan's top religious mufti, Samhan is purported to have committed this grave act when he mixed Koranic imagery deemed as sacred lines with passionate, romantic lines.
To-date, Islam Samhan has already attended a hearing where the mufti was also present to give his views. Samhan will stand trial on December 3, 2008 in Amman, Jordan.

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Thursday, 20 November 2008

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun

November 21, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

"We live in an ephemeral existence, shouldered by any one number or more of varied transient tragedies that may be soluble and interchangeable in their masquerade to demonstrate the careful balance of ordinary life. We could bubble ourselves up into the fat round sphere of a still moment, engaging in its lively discourses and receiving in its meditative light; but only if we draw away the long evening shadows from curtains of the past. Then remembrances become impossible and time...once more unhurried and newly-born, succumbing to the infancy of the virginal." - suzan abrams -


Originally translated by Linda Coverdale and already a bestseller in France, This Blinding Absence of Light by Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, won the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The novel which establishes a consuming work of piercing Moroccan prison fiction spun from dark legacies of dramatic mental torment, would see Jelloun , a philosopher and scholar and himself a resident of France since 1961, receive 100,000 euros as his celebrated prize.

The plot spells literary fiction drawn from a rare sparkling prose that readily confronts a disturbing fraction of haunting and searching philosophies. Nothing short of Jelloun's luminous poetic eloquence helps the main character; the questioning and terribly despondent Salim; battle life's black failings when a present hope appears to have been eternally crushed and the survivor must quickly crusade for another to cling on with surety to his vain, feeble breaths.

The plot races back with heavy exposition scenes to 1971 when a young cadet and newly-promoted Lieutenant, Salim, takes part in a failed coup to overthrow King Hassan 11 of Morocco.

As punishment for being labelled a traitor - although Salim and his friends had been dressed as scapegoats for disgrunted and ambitious officers higher-up in the bloodthirsty power game, - he is now sentenced to 10-years in jail and subsequently locked in with 22 other comrades from the beleagured army, in the cursed cell block B in a wasteland, somewhere in the forgotten Moroccan desert. Here in no-man's land, they are housed in a secret prison complex.

These are the luckier men as others would be most certainly executed depending on ranks and roles played in the failed coup. Here the shocked, sorrowful band of purported accomplices, would live clouded together by a crowd of dishevelled thoughts, mental blindness and neurotic emotions as gatecrashing cellmates. Only 3 men including the narrator of the story stay alive long enough to be released after 18 years.

Salim will watch his other accomplices slowly drop off the land of living like a tattered pack of cards. This, as they struggle fruitlessly against brutal psychological torment in matchbox cells with no light and only a hole for a toilet. During those long years, they will receive very little exercise, and feast on starch and rationed water for meals. Their prison is nicknamed pit.

Insensitive, uncaring guards make for grim torture with their puffed-up ignorance and disinterest. Besides the usual meal rations, the prisoners are left like withering plants to face silent, insignificant deaths. As a result, they fall victim to malnourishment, illnesses or the magnifying fear of forever languishing in prison. As they lay dying, they would be pounced on by cockroaches and once even a bucket of scorpions that had been left in a cell by a callous guard. In happier moments, they would often get together in the pitch black darkness that made for their space, to engage in political and literary discussions.

Throughout the long years, words revive Salim in its new role as haloed guardian angel. Each prisoner would embark on his own survival plan. Karim for instance would keep vigil for time and be baptised as the talking clock. In the long years ahead, he would inform without hesitation, on the exact second, hour, date, time and year like a calendar that never lost its pages. His fading memory would soon affect the near-end of his mortality by hinting of his death.

Salim on the request of this little group, invents stories and recites plays and poetry to his cellmates and himself to stay alive. He remembers Camus. Later, he would seek absolution and turn to fervent prayer by recalling verses from his beloved Koran. He would at a young age suddenly feel ancient in spirit. Imbued with an unruffled wisdom, he would ready his body and soul for any unwelcoming crisis that may linger, although a dim determination to be released continues to hover.

In the face of pessimism, Salim's love of words, continued to compose optimism to playact a ray of light injecting a stubborn willpower. At times, he leaned on family life, remembering with bitter sweetness, his hardy mother and shiftless father. The reader is pulled slowly into the depths of his own lessons which inspected without flinching; the value of detachment and the drawing of harsh, painful memories with which to stay sane. The narrator would master the flawless ability in the face of enduring suffering, to puncture the darkness with a heightened brand of love and light.

Indeed, Jelloun weaves an incredible genius with his philosophy on spirituality that would command every reader to a deeper sense of the happy self, even in the face of immense tragedy.

The Book of Eccelesiastes in the Old Testament may have approached these horrors with the same knowing tone of resignation, acceptance and enlightenment that lie conjoined with Jelloun's smooth attempt at a paralleled symmetery with which to bless adversity and affliction.

In his story, Jelloun strips the darkness of all its horrors with his studied illumination of its essence and effect on the human soul. The writer's voice is is gentle, tender, kind and accepting.
It is of a man who knows much but will speak only when necessary. To project serenity is Jelloun's gift and it bounces from the pages as the reader follows the prisoner into a hellish abode and finally back again, into what could only be described as the paradise of normality, meaning the land of the living.

Jelloun forces the reader in no uncertain terms, to observe and rejoice at every trivial blessing lived and learned, even with the prospect of death round the corner. This after all, proves the rare gift of melancholy mixed with joy.

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Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Malaysia : Kampung Boy by Lat - (comic Malaysian fare) nominated for 2009 Garden State Teen Book Award (Non-Fiction) in New Jersey, USA

November 20, 2008

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin

*first from Malaysia (including blogs/media) with this news

Malaysia's famous ticklish kampung character in Kampung Boy (2006) by the legendary Malay cartoonist Mohammad Nor bin Khalid or otherwise, better known as Lat, has been nominated for the 2009 *Garden State Teen Book Awards in the non-fiction Grade 5+ category, in a popular honorary tradition, organised annually by the New Jersey Library Association in the United States of America.

This alone spells a monumental accomplishment as the lists of nominations for Easy-to-Read (2 separate lists), fiction and non-fiction categories, stay heavily dominated by Caucasion writers. Qualified entries were selected after being published as American hardcover titles and this year's nominations are from the best 2007 book lists.

Others sharing the list with Lat include The Adventures of Marco Polo by Russell Freedman, Escape: The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman and Living the Poet's Life by Allan Wolf

This is a ballot where children vote for one or more titles they enjoyed and winners are chosen accordingly. Ballots must be returned by January 10, 2009 to Library. Recipients of the respective awards will be announced at the Spring Conference of the New Jersey Library Association.

Winners are chosen by a committee of the Children's Services Section of the New Jersey Library Association. Literary merit and reader popularity are important considerations. A total of 20 books in each category are handed out to children in New Jersey schools and libraries for possible voting. Because children vote for their favourite books, titles are published 3 years beforehand.

As a nominee annotation, Kampung Boy - where its grossly-exaggerated cartoon characters spot varied volatile emotions to depict scenes of Malaysian life -, is officially described by the Library as "a memoir of a growing-up Muslim in a Malaysian kampung (village) in the 1950s. Told in a graphic novel format, this story is at times touching, at times humourous and always entertaining."

Details for voting online are here.

To download and print the ballot, go here.

*Like Elaine Chiew whom I reported 2 days ago, had won first place in the Bridport Prize for International Creative Writing for the Short Story well above the original 10,000 entries, Lat's hometown too is Ipoh in Perak State, Malaysia.

*The Garden State Book Awards was founded in 1977 to honour books for younger readers.

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My book review in The Iranian online magazine

November 19, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

I have had another
book review titled Afsaneh: Short Stories by Iranian Women published in the Iranian online magazine.
Not everything makes it.
I currently make for the 1% of non-arab/Iranian writers contributing to this Persian mag.

In the recent past, there were two other book reviews chosen:
a) The Attack by Yasmina Khadra &
b) Let it be Morning by Sayed Kashua.

The bookHaus Showroom in London Opens!

November 19, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

The impressive bookHaus showroom in London finally opened its doors to the public a week ago.
As you can see from an earlier post here, I had written about this publishing house and of how it had formed an additional new venture called Arabia books to publish as well as import an eclectic choice of translated Arab fiction and non-fiction in both the classical and modern mediums. This as never before available so easily in London and at an easily affordable price to be distributed throughout the UK and Commonwealth countries.

The bookHaus showroom which is a 2 minute walk off Sloane Square Tube Station stocks a number of elegant works of non-fiction for the discerning book buyer and collector as well as a large work of translated Arab fiction by Arabia Books.

Here are details of its address, phone/fax numbers & the showroom's opening hours.
Here is the homepage to Haus Publishing.

(No doubt, I shall be able to write more on my visit to London after my upcoming trip to the Middle-East shortly!)


Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Malaysian Writer Elaine Chiew in London, wins First Place in the Bridport Prize (England)International Creative Writing Competition for Short Stories

November 18, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Congratulations to the ravishing Malaysian writer in London, Elaine PeckLeng Chiew, who has just won herself a thumping £5,000, for coming out tops (first place) in the *Bridport Prize International Creative Writing Short Story Competition, which is also the biggest open creative writing competition in the English Language.

This year alone, it attracted 10,000 entries from 81 countries. There had been separate judging and awards handed out to the poetry category.
The winner was announced during the Bridport Literary Festival on November 8.

In judging a short story winner for the prestigious prize which has famed novelist Fay Weldon as its patron, established short story writer Helen Simpson said that she looked for stories which "showed imaginative pleasure in meeting the demands of the form." Whereas Weldon would say, "Mention the Bridport Prize and the eyes of writers everywhere light up. It's not just the money - it's a prize really worth fighting for in terms of prestige and genuine literary accomplishment.'

Chiew's winning story was titled Face.

Chiew who is from Ipoh in Perak, Malaysia, holds a degree in Political Science from Amherst College, Massachusetts and a JD Law Degree from Standard University. Before starting to take a serious interest in fiction-writing, in 2005, she worked as a corporate securities lawyer for a New York law firm and later for investment banks in both Hong Kong and New York. She is widely-travelled and has also worked in Vietnam and Thailand. Chiew's short stories have also appeared in online literary journals and most recently in Alimentum, Hobart, as Best of the Web 2008. She is now planning a collection of stories.

Chiew lives with her husband and 2 children in London. The second and third prize winners were Joanna Quinn and Sara Levines.

Here are some photos of the literary event where Chiew would have collected her prize.

*The Bridport Prize which has its roots in a small seaside market town was first founded in 1973 and serves as a valuable fund-raiser for the Bridport Arts Centre . To-date, the prize is reputed as a valuable platform for recognising talent. Past winners have included novelist Kate Atkinson, the poet Carol Ann Duffy, Tobias Hill and Helen Dunmore.

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The Costa Book Awards 2008

The Costa Book Awards are among the more prestigous literary awards in the United Kingdom with entries also accepted from the Republic of Ireland. It used to be known as Whitbread and is described as populist in comparison to the Man Booker.

Here are the shortlisted titles in varied categories for the 2008 prize, with the respective winners announced on 6th January 2009 and the overall Costa winner celebrated at a ceremony in London on 27th January 2009. All winners receive generous cash prizes.


Scholarly Malaysian Writer Thor Kah Hoong Writes on Identity

November 18, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Thor Kah Hoong, one of Malaysia's more renowned literary figures, talks about an appreciation for life and places in Kuala Lumpur's The Malay Mail (afternoon paper equivalent to London's Evening Standard), drawn from his association with books and writers. Pretend you're at a masterclass when you read THIS.


Monday, 17 November 2008

Book Diary 2009 for Literary Lovers from Wise Dog Books

November 18, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

How about this fascinating book diary 2009, for you the literary lover, from anywhere in the world. Wise Dog Books from England have thoughtfully created this exquisite personal journal so that the deeply-interested reader may record thoughts and responses to books of any kind, scribble heartfelt reviews, write summaries, make up a next book club date etc.

Exceptional features include:

  1. recommended reads for family and friends
  2. key literary events throughout the UK
  3. elegant photographs on the theme of books/reading
  4. list of classics and fiction inspired by places
  5. literary quotations
  6. specially featured writers for each month
  7. news of literary prizes
  8. dates to remember & so on & so on...
The journal costs £15.99 and comes with a few free gifts if you order directly from the website. It's also available at bookshops.

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Cyberabad Days (India) by Ian McDonald - February 2009 Release (Science Fiction)

November 17,

by Suzan Abrams

With Ian McDonald, it's all about future cultural identities in science fiction. Chaga revolved around the gripping story of alien invasion in Africa while BRASYL looked at a Brazil of the past, present and future.

Now, in his upcoming science fiction novel called Cyberabad Days to be released on February 24, 2009, Ian McDonald whose River of Gods (awarded the BSFA in 2005) was described as a masterpiece by Asimov's Science Fiction; now paints a startling picture of a future India, 100 years after independence.

In this collection of eight stories which includes an original 25,000-word novella, Cyberabad Days turns to an India in the year 2047. It has become a nation of high muscular superpower.

Readers will be treated to extraordinary human genders, water wars, artificial intelligences, genetically modified children, males outnumbering females by four to one and droughts induced by drastic climate change.

From Kerala at the Southern tip to the Ganges near the Himalayas, India herself has broken into a dozen new states.

Pre-orders may be placed for the book here on Amazon while Ian McDonald who will also publish *The Dervish House in August 2010 and who resides in Belfast, blogs here on LiveJournal.

*The Dervish House focuses on Istanbul in the year 2025. With Turkey as an Islamic country tipping over the edge of the West, the novel touches on the lives of families embroiled in the intricate web of Islamic life while eyeing future possibilities in the new century.

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De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage

November 17, 2008

By Suzan Abrams

44-year old Rawi Hage, a Lebanese journalist and an emigrant to Canada once lived through 9 horrifying years of the tragic Beirut war. In later life, the author would rely on a similar tale featuring both discord and enlightenment in his debut novel and world bestseller, De Niro's Game to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for 2008 early this year.

This out of a lengthy nomination list.

No doubt, his is a contemporary novel both experimental in style with its preference for straightforward narration and compressed with rude slick conversational gestures and ease of twists in forms exploited for different episodes.

A man's novel, easily. The conventional woman reader would require the necessary ability to stomach scenes of violence and torture amid the eloquent prose.

In the plot's boldness to seek fresh truths armed only with a crude imagination and the narrator's vision of reaching the elusive promised land, Roma; this reader found Hage's writing engaging, electrifying and sexy in no particular order.

Be warned that Hage expounds on a charismatic writing voice - picture the hot-blooded lover whispering in your ear from start to finish. The story may leave you breathless and panting for more. Hage is the master of his own fictitious manouverings, dressings his many chapters with colourful intolerant personalities and commanding his words to dance and swing to the grand sounds of a tempestuous opera.

Yes, such intellectual drama from any powerful book, may seek out the unsuspecting desired spirit.

No doubt that from the many high-layered blurbs splashed about the paperback, the Boston Globe captures its essence most fittingly when it observes among other things, "... Hollywood noir meets opium dreams in a blasted landscape of war-wasted young lives..."

Indeed, one could easily picture a cigar-smoking villian with a bombshell hanging on his very arm, relating the story of his life. A soothing sigh here and a quarrelsome shout there! A kiss here and a punch there! Such goes the tumultuous lure of the novel.

The theme in De Niro's Game, is the fall and rise and fall and rise again of modern-day cynicism when hope takes a tumble from a faithless ladder of belief and straggling dreams. It is of how survival waking up to its final feeble day, refuses to die.

Two intelligent best friends Bassam and George, in the Christian region of East Beirut where bombs fall from planes with dutiful regularity at any hour of the day or night and secret shelters are a daily pastime, wind down their wasteful routine with volatile temperaments and dull jobs. Each must eventually settle for separate complicated destinies as a tough survival pack. Only one may hold the trump card or none at all.

George chooses the thuggish militia as the materialistic chief Abou-Nahra's right-hand man despite Bassam's warning. The ambitious young rebel will later pay a heavy price for it. Under the guise of loyal political banners, George turns into a drug pusher, addict and killer, engaged in revenge, massacres and ethnic cleansing of a Palestinian camp. Where will it all end?

George comes away the loser, crying over his lost conscience and dignity and thoroughly disgusted with himself. The tragedy is that George will cling only to the remnants of goodness and lose forever, his innocence. He cannot regain what he has lost, his criminal acts are designed to stay with him.

Bassam is the wise narrator, insisting on the odd moral, conscience and respect. Bassam does laborous work, unloading crates at a port but dreams of going abroad. Still with a nifty gun as a security blanket, Bassam also exhibits his fair share of flaws.

Where they once sped about on a rusty motorcyle and - and how convincingly here Hage paints out the aura and childlike idealist of a motorcylist who with wind and speed as faithful companions, may feel the whole world to be his - to symbolise their childhood friendship, the trusty vehicle will later give way to expensive cars, jeeps and guns for George while Bassam will come into unexpected fortune and trailing it, a violent incident that will scar his life.

Bassam has a beauty, Rana, for a part-time girlfriend but is unable to hold on to her fiery demands. In regular angry scenes, the possessive Rana threatens to shoot him, kill him. I'm surprised that Hage did not stretch this plot further but instead chooses to abandon Rana suddenly halfway where she fades with no incident.

Indeed while it is made clear that Beirut seems to have turned out the cynic in everyone, Hage makes no bones in sketching out the pain of a never-fleeing dust, poverty, lame jobs, wailing women and essentially, the waste of life.

At first, Bassam narrates his plot with apt sophistication pertaining to the vein of a comic novel. Irony and humour supports the story of family life. Then the voice changes into an embittered growl even as the novel grows darker with the expansion of senseless violence and killings. The reader is not warned when this happens.

Hage's keyword of ten thousand to puppet Bassam's highly-sarcastic and contemptuous thought patterns, is what cleverly lifts the novel out of the ordinary.

The book opens to Ten thousand bombs had landed and I was waiting for George. Later, it goes on. Ten thousand bombs had dropped like marbles on the kitchen floor and my mother was still cooking. Or even, I laid ten thousand kisses on her body, under a cascade of sweet, falling bombs. So you get the picture. Plus, the fact that Hage never allows the reader to forget that there's a war on.

The major limitation to a narration spoken in the first voice is that the character can only draw on what he sees and hears. When George relates to Bassam all the wrongs he has committed, the plot becomes contrived and slightly misplaced. Hage uses this technique to subtly educate the reader on detailed massacres. But because the novel is spoken in the first person and the information has to come via Bassam, the reader can almost sense Hage's frustration at making the scenes of long historical detailings seem the normal course to any kind of confession or conversation.

Yet, with a surprise and wonderfully-mastered end, the brilliant Rawi Hage easily gets away with it.

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Sunday, 16 November 2008


November 17, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

I have indulged in the sore neglect of my ghost stories. The publishing house is still waiting patiently for me. The in-house editor is wondering where I got to. I will have to finish everything in less then a fortnight since I'll be abroad again. At the moment, the Middle-East or rather the invitation I received to re-visit Jordan is what stays foremost in my mind. I've been recalling the quiet intriguing bookshops with vast amounts of translated Arab fiction and poetry, sidewalk cafes, the beautiful desert sand and heavily-clad but highly decorative Bedouin tribes, The Dead Sea, The Red Sea, Amman, all.

Malaysian Writer Fauzi Osman - My Lovely Omar River

November 17, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

*first blog on the web with this news

The literary agent and herself an author, Anna Olswanger of Liz Dawson Associates, New York City; is currently representing Malaysian writer Fauzi Osman - for a picture book with its heartfelt title: My Lovely Omar River - A Tale from Malaysia.

She describes his passionate story as a sensuous goodnight picture book told in the rich cadences of the author's Asian-flavored English.

Indeed it is. Performed additionally as an MP3 format by the *Shoofly players who present multicultural poetry, songs and storytelling as their forte; Fauzi's poetic rendition is being sold in their catalogue lists for 2008 and 2009.

Listening to the story, the narration appears to weave its way through the listener's heart like a quiet migratory fish intent on its journey. Great yearning lies in each word's gentle simplicity. The voice hides the sadness of a boy pleading for a memory he cannot retrieve in the present time. The gripping episode describes a boy in Muar who one day with his cousin, hastily grabs a notebook and without hesitation, answers the patient alluring call of a nearby river by dashing desperately to it.

It is easy to recognise the picturesque scene with its vivid description of branches and soft lapping sounds of water. The despondent boy holds a song in his heart for soon he must leave the river and go away. In forlorn mood, he promises never to forget it.

A listen catches the soul like an enchanting sonnet or fanciful serenade. I can well understand why Olswanger so aptly describes Osman's poignant, lyrical and tender writing as sensuous. The desperate boy is dramatic in his farewells. He presses his notebook to his chest as a lover would press a rose to the heart. He throws his beloved shirt into the river that it may have a keepsake.

A new age tune mixes the soothing sounds of a xylophone percussion and the gurgling murmurings of the river which altogether lends a strange tribal air to the little plot. In its bemoaning, the recital will surely tug at the heartstrings.

Fauzi says he wrote the book when he was a student at The University of Memphis and homesick for Malaysia. My Lovely Omar River came about when with the ease of a lilting rhythm, Fauzi started to visualise once more, the river near his grandparents' home.

Here is the Shoofly cast for Fauzi Osman's poetic narration of My Lovely Omar River but it also forms for a picture book being represented by Olswanger.

Performed by Karim Sadik and Amy Laird Webb who both take turns to read the tale. Also, directed by Sarah Froeber with music by Greg Decker.

*Shoofly is an award-winning audio magazine for children.

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Book documentary festival in Tehran

November 16, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

*the first English-language blog on the web to present this news, besides official world media agencies.

I would label the Republic of Iran as one of the top countries in the world, to stay solid in its representation of an exacting creativity; that courageously pushes boundaries in book, literary and cinematic formats, so as to rest in its forte as a fascinating art form.

In line with the celebration of the country's 16th nationwide book week, and with the main aims of encouraging reading as well as regaling in the appreciation of the country's writers and publishers, Tehran Municipality is running the first national Book Documentary Festival that stretches across the capital city until November 17.

It is the first time that Iranian documentary makers have united to draw up films that focus solely on books and reading.

Among the 16 films being shown on literature, are Qu'ran manuscripts by Kioumars Derambakhsh, three productions featuring the lives of famed literary figures Allameh Dehkhoda, Seyyed Jafar Shahidi and Badr Al-Zaman, and also Abbas Shahidi, the renowned cartographer and Nima Youshij, the father of modern Iranian poetry.

In addition, viewers enjoy an exhibition on photography displaying the various stages of book publishing and four special workshops on reading, storytelling and communication skills. Students can also expect free programmes.



Overview on Recent Posts

November 16

by Suzan Abrams

My recent posts on modern Middle-Eastern literature peppered by a fair sprinkling of unusual regions relates to the theory of my passion and the eagerness to inform on different stories and people. Cafes, bookshops, literature and films among others form for this mystical glory.

I shy away from rehashed copycat quotes and stale stories that the world may have already read about and which 50 other blogs would have covered. Not unless I get there first or very early on. Otherwise, I prefer to write stories that few know of yet or to post book and cinematic reviews that not many readers/viewers may had access to.

Yes, there is a treasure trove of jewelled reads in the rare unspoken pages of a genius but obscure work of fiction, besides the usual mainstream titles that have been done to death.

The Arab literary world with its sensual classical and modern literature is a beautiful place to be. I would include Turkey, the Persian territories of Iran and sub-saharan Africa in my personal offing. Already, in the last year, the Middle East has fast come into its own. Dozens of newer contemporary writers have been signed on by publishers in the West and this with the exclusion of a vast amount of classical literature at large.

In the next few years, these writers writing in English or with translated works, are likely to be placed on par with writers from the Indian sub-continent in recognition and status. Arab writers have come out of their own worlds to embrace larger ones and will catch up very quickly. I would say give it another 2 to 3 years.

The Arab world is basically made up of 2 categories of literary individuals - the diaspora who live in the West and those settled in their homelands.

The difference between Arab writers and some major nationalities in Asia when it comes to writing stories on the rural heartland is that those mentioned in the former, are widely-travelled. This makes for all the difference. Perspectives broaden immensely. In their stories, poetry, plays and essays, they ask questions but never rant. The Middle-Easterners are also true raconteurs turning this skill into an extraordinary art form.

At this point of time, there are a lot of book events happening in the Arab world on an international platform. But writers in the Middle-East are often quiet and self-contained. The Arabs are a private people and most are reported in Arabic when it comes to book/literary blogs. With writers, all their energies are focussed on their art. They are hardly showy, flashy, flamboyant or boastful . As a result of this, unless you read media news reports, are unlikely to know what's going on although I believe that a few years from now, the limelight will focus on translated fiction from the Arab world among their modern writers as well as Arab writers living in the West and writing in English.


Saturday, 15 November 2008

International Arabic Fiction Prize 2009 (in conjunction with London's Booker Foundation)

November 15

By Suzan Abrams

Kafez is the first English-language blog on the web to present news of the 2009 International Arabic Fiction Prize longlist, aside from world news media agencies 3 days ago.


*Pictured is award-winning Egyptian novelist Baha Taher, in a rare publicity photo shot from ArabicFictionOrg.

A few days ago, the organizers for the *International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2009, held in association with the Booker Prize Foundation in London and helped along by the Emirates Foundation, announced that 16 Arab authors had been selected for the longlist.

They included three from Egypt, two from Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Palestine and Lebanon and one author each from Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Only two women from Iraq and Lebanon had been chosen from a panel comprising five judges from Europe and the Middle-East.

Here are the longlist titles :

The Bottle and the Genie by Mohammad Abu Maatouk
The Tobacco Guard by Ali Badr
Hunger by Mohammad Al Bsati
The Unfaithful Translator by Fawaz Haddad
The Man from Andalucia by Salem Hameesh
Prayer for the Family by Renee Hayek
Confessions by Rabih Jaber
Platoon of Ruin by Abdel Kareem Jouaitlv
The American Granddaugher by Inaam Kachachi
The Tumour by Ibrahim Al Koni
Black Taste, Black Odour by Ali Al Muqri
Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah
The Scents of Marie-Claire by Al Habib Salmi
Intensive Care by Izzedin Shukri
Ma' Al Sama' by Yehya Yekhlef &
Beelzebub by Yussef Zeydan

Lest you lament on the dismal number of women, only 17 entries had been submitted by female writers whereas 104 novels were enthusiastically submitted by men. This should put an even keel on things. Entries came from afar as Oman, Libya, Sudan, Algeria and Kuwait.

The prestigous prize for eloquent Arabic prose is running for the second successful year. A shortlist of 10 authors will be announced on December 10 in London and the prize-giving ceremony held on March 16, 2009 in Abu Dhabi, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Literary Festival - the first of its kind in the Arab world.

Each of the shortlisted authors can be assured of a US10,000 prize each while the winner bags US$50,000.

In a statement sent to **Gulf News by the Board of Trustees, Jonathan Taylor who is its chairman observed that the long list "demonstrates the quality and diversity of contemporary Arabic writing." He wrote that it deserves a wider audience and that the prize should help secure that.

Last year's winner was the once banned but widely-travelled Egyptian writer and United Nations translator, Baha Taher. His fifth prized novel is called Wahat al-Ghuroub meaning Sunset Oasis. The novel which talks about the 19th century cultural, social and political implications on a remote village and oasis on the outskirts of Cairo under British rule, is currently being translated into English for the world.

Here are some pictures from last year's Prize Giving Ceremony.

*The International Prize for Arabic Fiction aims to reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and to encourage wider readership of quality Arabic literature internationally.

**Information partially from Gulf News.

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Friday, 14 November 2008

Iranian Girls Choose Books as a Beauty Makeover

November 14, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

The Los Angeles Times reports today on a truly beautiful and inspirational 2-page human interest story, written by journalist Borzou Daragahi from Tehran. And it involves literature.

Nazanin Gohari (pictured right) was once a hairdresser before playing the role of a community activist. The change of occupation came about in the course of 10 minutes when one of Gohari's friends succumbed to breast cancer, soon after she herself thought a breast examination to be unnecessary. Gohari would never again see things the same way.

As she settled into her new calling in her poor Tehran district, she first ventured into educating her rural neighbours and community on health issues. It was when she saw how young girls were too impecunious to afford books they so badly wanted to read, that Gohari decided on the most unusual thing.

Far away from the hair dryers, this mother -of-two and wife of a civil servant, transformed her somewhat bedraggled apartment into a library for women seeking to better themselves with a higher articulation and sophistication. At first, Gohari lined her lounge with the usual fare that made up for familiar secondhand reads. These included cheap, crummy novels, poetry, self-help and DIY articles.

But her interested visitors were having none of it. So this wife of a civil servant and mother -of-two, turned her variety to cuisine, needlework, college matriculation books as well as literature. This as per popular demand. Overnight, Gohari would become a heroine for Iran's destitute even as she tirelessly pursued the city for all kinds of interesting books, to spill over from her makeshift bookshelves.

Daragahi writes of how in the last three decades, Iranian women of different status have been slowly pushing away the suppresion thrown upon them by diligently manouvering their thirst for knowledge into higher advances of power.

She writes of the library visitors who borrow books from Gohari. For instance, the 18-year old married mother with her sharp desire to infuse knowledge. Or otherwise, the timid and uneducated plumpish housewife who has started to discover new worlds through the pursuit of literature that lights her visions of daily slums in southern Iran. Thanks to Gohari, the lady is now reading
Feodor Dostoevski and Jean-Paul Sartre. Then there are the high school students.

You may read more of this glorious piece over Here.

Credit: Nazanin Gohari was photographed by Newsha Tavakolian for The Times.

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All-Night Poetry Performance on the Persian Gulf Waters next March

November 14,

by Suzan Abrams

It was announced 4 days ago by the international news media in Tehran, Iran, that 50 performing artists from China, France and Greece beginning with the head of the troupe, popular Iranian artiste, Bahram Reihani, will host poetic pantomime performances on a stage built on the famous waters of the Persian Gulf in early March next year.

The pantomimes themed around the sublime worship of life, beauty and humanity, are to be inspired from poetry composed by the likes of William Blake, Nazim Hikmet, Garcia Lorca, Hafez, Rumi, Emily Bronte and Octavio Paz. The perfomance titled "The World's Most Beautiful and Poetic Pantomime on the Water" will start at sunset and continue until the next sunrise.

"I intend to register the play with the Guinness Book of World Records," enthuses Reihani. Because the play demands energy and sustenance, a team of medical doctors will also be on hand to provide assistance if necessary, he finishes.

The performance aims to extend peace, friendship and goodwill relations worldwide. There will be further performances for 45 days with proceeds being handed to hungry children in Utophia, Nigeria and Indonesia.

Reihani has been known to break the boundaries of creativity when he performed a 12-minute pantomime on the summit of Mount Damavand last August 3rd. His actions symbolically connected the two cities of Tehran and Isfahan. Later that same month, Reihani also performed one of the world's largest pantomimes at Tehran's Mellat Park.

Credit: Picture of satellite map from Payvand.com" and picture of clown is official photo for press release regarding the above announcement.

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Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

November 14, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

The Septembers of Shiraz stays on the longlist for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

In silent yet profound lamentation of Iranian novelist Dalia Sofer's 340-page debut novel aptly titled The Septembers of Shiraz - and which for its main character, Isaac Amin spells the inate reminder of poetry and lovers in a time long fled - the reader in return is drawn into a semi-tragic web of a haunting melancholic repose as a fictitious law-abiding family disintegrates with meticulous precision before their very eyes.

The year is 1981 and a painful turn of history has reared its ugly head for many used to the glitter of Iran's past flamboyance. The deposed Shah has fled to Europe and Ayatollah Khomeni is in charge. As is often the case with revolutions- think Mao's China in the 1960s - rules change overnight and new regimes motivated by the grudges of the revengeful working class, turn nasty. The rich are steadfastly punished.

In confronting senseless episodes and the slight frenzied cackle of emotional dishevelment that now rule the once elegantly dressed wives and mothers managing their luxurious swimming pool homes; and in laying bare the torment and torture that often accompanies imprisonment of the innocent, Sofer reveals herself in no uncertain terms, to be an amazing writer.

With deft skill, she lauds her pen with a sensitive air, not at all girlish for one so young in years but preferring contemplation to cynicism; shows the reader with a smooth airing of philosophical renditions over injustices; that there is a reason for everything in the badly shredded nation that threatens evil over good.

Indeed, it is a well mannered plot. One pictures the author's hand to be ladylike and very well behaved as the story narrated almost in a series of whispers, unravels silky spidery threads that shun high drama, racy episodes, aggressive overtones or incidents that would lead to harsh swearing. Instead Sofer focuses on an inspirational hope, tender remembrances and sagacious acceptances, even through the hellish bits.

Isaac Amin is an industrious businessman and popular gemologist. He was raised in a working-class Jewish family in Tehran where most of his father's days were spent in drinking *arrak. In his youth, he bravely sacrificed his pursuit of poetry compositions to receive with an air of sturdy practicality, the scholary study of gemology. As a result in later years, Isaac is rewarded with an easy opulence and wealth. One day, Revolutionary Guards march into this office and arrest the startled man who will later be falsely accused of having been a Zionist spy. He must also explain the weaknesses of a brother - now labelled sinner - who deals in vodka smuggling. Under Ayatollah Khomeni, basic pleasures like alcohol and music have all been prohibited. Anyone seeking the arts or its contemporaries, is looked upon with heavy scorn.

Out of loyalty, Isaac keeps tight-lipped and his fortitude shapes the flow of the tale. His life hangs in the balance where decisions on executions and freedom spin about like a giddy game of roulette.

Sofer traces the feelings of Isaac's shocked, sad wife Farnaz who must rely on her shaky womanly strengths to care for her 9 year old daughter Shirin, her university son Parviz in New York and the dutiful homage paid to close family even in this vulnerable times. The years of married and family life are adequately reflected upon.

Farnaz is all at once infuriating and likeable. She reveals her weaknesses for beautiful things with honest candour and must confront an old servant, Habibeh who suddenly turns hostile against her compassionate master and feels that for being rich alone and this while she has slaved over his family's labour; he may have just received his comeuppance. It doesn't help that Isaac's employers and Habibeh's son, whom Isaac had cared for like his own, takes the opportunity to loot his office and later present a blackmail threat.

The story lies boxed in neat safe categories focussing with easy succession on the upsetting school-life of Shirin, Parviz's youthful anxieties, Farnaz's crucial errands to ensure her husband's safety and other supplementary characters, laid out in thoughtful arrangement.

Towards the end, the plot zooms in on Isaac and Farnaz to close the tale and the rest of the voices appear foggy and shadowed as the characters melt away or stay subdued... permanently resigned to the plot's adventure.

In a way, Sofer was cautious on exercising ambitions and one can't help but wonder how much more grandeur could have been passed on had Sofer wandered out of her safe territory of story-telling. Taken a chance. Killed off an unexpected character. Threw in an eccentrity. Laundry-wrung an otherwise predictable form into a strange twist.

However, Sofer's calm wisdom prevails throughout and this is made sure in her sketching of a brainwashed Habibeh which shows that a collective hysteria of the moment or any sign of religious obsession automatically turns a blind eye to all things loyal, loving and valuable. Then there is Parviz's romantic infactuation with Rachel, his landlord's daughter and a bit of a cold fish. It is an important experience which Sofer executes with easy directness, to exhibit an uncomfortable clash of cultures.

The portrayal of dark moods are also punctured by a quietude of scattered beauty, now and then.

"Here they play solitare and old songs. A 1950s recording spins on the turntable. ... .... A half-full glass is on the table in front of him, the tea inside looking cold. ... on the sofa, concentrates on her game of solitaire. The house smells of simmered onions and camphor oil." - Dalia Sofer, The Septembers of Shiraz .

It is Sofer's brilliant subtle manouverings that makes a reader so used to blockbuster stories wonder how it will all end. With no drama on the horizon, there is no escape plan. Yet far from the story tapering of to a wishy-washy conclusion, there are sudden turns that will reveal unexpected inspiration. A perfectly shaped diamond offers hope for a broken man. Just as Isaac's wealth cursed him, it may just prove his lifeline. Sofer rightfully keeps the reader guessing as to the outcome of the plot until its tight satisfying finish.


*arrak - a liquor distilled in parts of the Middle East from the fermented sap of toddy palms.

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