Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 January 2003
Issue No. 621
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Arabic into English

Banipal: Magazine of Arab Literature, Spring, Summer & Autumn/Winter 2002 (3 Issues), eds. Margaret Obank & Samuel Shimon, London, 2002

Until recently, the reading of Arabic literature in the West remained confined to the classics within strict academic practice. However, with the growing interest in contemporary Arabic literature, Banipal: Magazine of Arab Literature was launched in 1998. Issued in London, it is edited and published by Margaret Obank and co-edited by Iraqi expatriate writer Samuel Shimon.

Every issue of Banipal includes a variety of contemporary Arabic writings in verse and prose, as well as specimens of visual art, and works that resist any classification. A great part of Arabic literature may be characterised as intercultural, not being produced within the historical or geographical borders of the Arab world, and being in some way or other counter- hegemonic to the dominant cultures.

Three issues of Banipal were released in 2002, each having a variety of features. The Spring issue celebrates Amman as 2002 Arab Cultural Capital. Fakhri Saleh writes that the growth of Jordanian literature was fostered by the flow of intellectuals from Syria and Palestine during and after the Israeli occupation. This transformed Jerusalem into a cultural capital, later transferred to Amman in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab- Israeli war. Jordanian creative writing has also been consolidated by efforts to establish a mature critical reception for published literary works. Mohammad Shaheen introduces Al- Ufuq Al-Jadeed, a Jordanian literary journal that has played a major role in creating literary taste among readers since its appearance in 1961. The journal's liberal stand has also encouraged writers from different streams of opinion to write.

The Spring 2002 edition of Banipal also includes a profile of Jordanian poet 'Arrar (1899-1949) and five of his poems, translated and introduced by Noel Abdulahad. The selection reveals the soul of a Bohemian and a philosopher, not unusual for a judge in the court of the former Emirate of Jordan, who was inspired by the gypsies. Poets of the newer generations are more overt, even if their verses are not so explicit. When they write under pressure in "incomplete homelands", they manage to break out from their prison gates, to "stop the time" and distill "desire ... from trembling fingers". (Taher Riadh, "Almost without Me", translated by Sargon Boulus).

Amjad Nasser's (b.1955) prose poems included here represent passages in time and place. Unlike his contemporaries, Zuhayr Abu Shayeb and Ibrahim Nasrallah (1954), who experience dislocation, Nasser accommodates as he tramples ancient sites, both East and West. At times, he succeeds in disentangling the present from past memories, like those coming at him from the "green eye" of an old Philips radio whose needle has stopped at Radio Damascus. At other times, the guilt of damaging "Saadi's ring" by restoring its antique stone, a relic from the past, haunts him incessantly.

Jordanian fiction has also ripened, notably in the works of the late Mu'nis Al-Razzaz (1951-2002), the first Jordanian writer to abandon linearity and dry realism for interwoven narrative. In his attempts to give voice to the repressed, Razzaz represents a nightmarish quotidian life verging on the fantastic. Introduced by Fakhri Saleh, an excerpt of his novel Confessions of a Silencer has been translated by Samira Kawar for this issue of Banipal.

Galib Halsa (1923-89), who lived in Egypt for some time, is not perturbed by problems of dislocation. His short story "Fear", translated by Paul Starkey, represents existential dilemma, not political confrontation. The triumph of the protagonist's masculinity involves unfettered submission to the wiles of women, paradoxically revealing his vulnerability. Being subject to his masculinity, the narrator becomes a victim of unjustified fears and enmeshed in a web of suspicions. Jameelh Amirah (b.1964) is also haunted by fear of the "other". In her short story, "Things Chaotic", translated by Lily Al- Tai, the sleepless protagonist imagines a male pursuer trying to shoot her; he eventually does so, and she sleeps forever.

An excerpt from Elias Farkouh's (1948) novel Columns of Dust, translated by Issa Boullata, represents the edgy relations that can sometimes exist among members of small communities. The common denominator of most of the Jordanian narratives represented here is the urban setting, focusing on concealed animosities in closed relationships, a sign of failed communication, or on utter dislocation, as in Yahya Al-Qaisi's "The Lonely Supper", translated by Omina Amin. Conversely, the Jordanian poetry represented borrows from the ecological, the poet yearning for a location against which (s)he may be identified.

Though including much Jordanian material, the Spring 2002 issue of the magazine opens with five poems by the Syrian poet, playwright and columnist Mohammad Al-Maghut (b.1934), translated and introduced by Abdul-Qader Al- Janabi. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Al-Maghut grapples with a murky present and future, devoid of any claims to a glorious past. He puts aside all notions of connoisseurship, exchanging an emir's outworn mask for that of a stooped old man, "the identity card for the river in the desert".

The second feature of this issue is a section on Egyptian novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani (b.1945). In his interview with Nabil Sharaf, Al-Ghitani discloses his existential and political anxieties. Included are excerpts from Hikayat Al-Mu'asasah (Accounts from the Establishment, 1999), translated and introduced by Mona Zaki, as well as "Majhula" (Mystery Woman), a short story translated by Paul Starkey. Both excerpts deal with quotidian events that unveil pernicious intentions. Faisal Draj's critical essay "The Aesthetics of Experimental Narrative", evaluates Al-Ghitani's contribution to Arabic literature.

Six poems by the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun (1945) are also included, each marked by "steps", "stairs", "stations", and "roads", all signs of departure, loss and anguish that open up "hazy sidewalks" or uncover "ancient stains" and all voicing repressions and silences. Further inhibitions are revealed in an excerpt from Yasmine Klat's novel Despair is a Sin, awarded the Francophone Five Continents Prize for 2002 and translated from the French by Angela Brewer. The novel makes use of a cinematic technique of short shots, not unusual for an author who has taken part in the shooting of several films.

Writers' contributions may be realised either in vertical or in horizontal dimensions. An excerpt from Abdul-Qader Al Janabi's (b.1944) Horizon Vertical (1998), translated from the French by James Kirkup, for example, revolves around scenes from a childhood spent in different districts of Baghdad, where the boy's growing perceptions are related to the sense of place. The excerpts included from Al-Janabi's poetry, on the other hand, are characterised by a surrealist approach, condensing the feel of life.

Literary critic Ferial J Ghazoul introduces the feature on Iraqi writers in the Summer 2002 issue of Banipal. In her view, the local or global displacement of Iraqi writers has encouraged them to improvise imaginative oases on their nomadic trajectories. Mohammed Khodayyir thus fuses the imaginary and the real, past and present, in his work, stringing stories together, whether in a short-story collection such as Ru'yat Kharif (Autumnal Vision, 1995), or in a novel such as Basriyatha (1996). According to Shakir Mustafa, who translates and introduces excerpts from both works, the interchangeability between the utopian and the real in Khodayyir's work is enhanced by the changing roles of narrator and narrative. This allows for alternative visions of the past, foreseeing new possibilities for the future.

Although Jabbar Yassin Hussein's (b.1954) Wada'an Ayuha Al-Tufl (Farewell Childhood, 1994) suggests a distance from the child's world, reading the excerpts, translated here by Elizabeth Whitehouse, is to experience not distance but an adult re-living childhood, borrowing the child's fresh vision to re-capture things that have previously hampered understanding. The novel does not suggest a nostalgia for the past; rather, it looks for re-location in a present that would be unidentifiable without reference to the past.

Conversely, Mahdi Issa Al-Saqr (b.1927) is frankly nostalgic for bygone days. In his short story "Breaking Away" (2001), translated and introduced by Shakir Mustafa, the protagonist is torn between material and immaterial desires. The deferral of desire in the story does not represent an escape, but rather represents the continuous urge for living, a force that refuses to be controlled. In "The Returnee", a short story about the revisiting of a dead wife by a bereaved husband, the story's theme is not the sign of an obsession, but rather represents possibilities of keeping a continuous relationship with departed loved ones.

Mayselun Hadi's (b.1954) short story "Her Realm of the Real", also translated by Shakir Mustafa, focuses on the dilemma ensuing from the interchangeable roles of narrator and narratee. Each party strives for authority in the narrative domain, both losing in the attempt, the story's threads remaining unstrung. The excerpt included from Fuad Al- Takarli's Khatam Al-Raml (Ring of Sand, 1995), translated by Issa Boullata, brings to the surface varieties of power often hidden under social relations. The protagonist is crushed by patriarchal power, his energy burnt out by scorching maternal emotions. He is also haunted by past memories and disappointed by flimsy efforts for present adjustments. In sum, the Iraqi section of the magazine represents the resistance of subjectivity as an open-ended project for survival.

The condition of exile is also featured in the Summer 2002 issue by work from the Lebanese poet Paul Chaoul, translated and introduced by Abdul-Qader Al-Janabi, and by Kurdish poet and novelist Salim Barakat, translated and introduced by Subhi Hadidi, Mona Zaki, Tetz Rooke, Noel Abdulahad, Salma K Jayyusi, Nasir Mu'nis, Salah Abdel- Latif, and James Kirkup. Both poets write in the space between body and shadow, constantly alternating the thresholds between them. Excerpts from Barakat's Siratan (1980, 1982), two autobiographical novels of childhood, and from three translated poems, represent two interchangeable domains that resist rigid demarcations between nature and culture. While his verse relates to the realm of flora and fauna, and his prose is set in an urban environment, the focus of Barakat's vision is always made through an intermediary optic.

The opening chapter of Egyptian writer Miral Al-Tahawi's (b.1967) novel Al-Bazingana Al-Zarqa' (Blue Aubergine, 2002), translated by Anthony Calderbank, is also included in the same issue. By narrating the past as oral history, the narrator alternates between the fictive and the real, as a child playing on a swing alternates between self-doubt and self- esteem. Similarly, Habib Tengour (b.1947), a Francophone poet translated and introduced by Pierre Joris, seeks to push verse to the borders of narrative and to identify beyond the Maghreb. In Le Vieux de la Montagne (The Old Man of the Mountain, 1983) he models his "elsewhere" by experimenting with local narrative traditions and with Sufi lyricism. Ulla Kasten also introduces and translates two short stories by Rafik Schami, a Syrian immigrant to Germany; a writer for children and adults, Schami's writings straddle both realms.

The double issue of Banipal for Autumn 2002 and Spring 2003 includes an 130- page feature on contemporary Palestinian writers. In addition, several other poets are featured, among them Yemeni poet Abdel-Azia Al-Maqali, translated and introduced by Amjad Nasser, Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef (b.1934), translated and introduced by Sargon Boulus, and Iraqi poet Samuel Shimon (b.1956), translated from the French and Arabic by James Kirkup and Samia Akl Boustani. Both Iraqi poets living in exile celebrate life on a platform where "the wind mingles with the sea/ the sea mingles with the wind", or find refuge in "the nearest cinema" to get over the condition of exile. Their interstitial position refuses archival or genealogical classification.

The feature on Palestinian literature opens with poems by Mahmoud Darwish (b.1941), translated by Sharif Elmusa. There are also works from different generations of poets, representing figures such as Murid Al-Barghouti, Walid Khazendar, Izzidin Al-Manasrah, Seema Atalla and Sammer Abu Hawwash. Three poems by Zakaria Mohammad (b.1951), translated by Sharif Elmusa, treat birth as accidental and life as indeterminate. A house is a temporary stop on the way to the graveyard, where sooner or later silence prevails, the poet indicates. In contrast to the bleak atmosphere evoked by poets still retaining links with their homeland, emigrants to the West are concerned to unbind their roots. Sharif Elmusa, for example, yearns for a homeland without fixed boundaries, and a name not reduced to that on identity documents, needing to relate to that which secures his independence.

Faisal Draj writes about the "Disparities of the Palestinian Novel" from 1948 until the present in the same issue. In his view, the only Palestinian novelists of merit are Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920--1994), Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972) and Emile Habibi (1921-1996). Two short stories by Ghassan Kanafani are translated by Mohammad Shaheen. "The Slippery Slope" represents conflicting relations between the privileged and the underprivileged, and between father and son and teacher and pupil. At a certain point, one may overpower the other, but there is a shared anxiety as to how to break away from constraints. Bassam Frangieh writes about Emile Habibi, another major novelist who lived in Palestine all his life, writing about the ordeal of Palestinians living in Israel and partly laying the blame on the Palestinians for the loss of their homeland. Sahar Khalifa (b.1941) is also included, with two excerpts from her works translated and introduced by Aida Bamia.

The younger writers included in the same issue deal with the political factors that are debilitating the Palestinian cause. In Ziad Barakat's (b.1963) "Bygone Beauties", translated by Fiona Collins, the romantic era of the 1960s is celebrated, with the vinyl record as its sign. However, the old love songs and the aesthetic values they stand for have now been repressed by local forces standing for a reductive morality. Love and music have been deprived of their vital energy to become an element of fantasy.

An excerpt from Samir Al-Youssef's (b.1965) novel The Day the Beast got Thirsty (2002) represents the murky future of a younger generation caught between impostors selling fraudulent visas with promises of escape to the West, and activists selling the cause using political jingoism. The protagonist is not represented as an oppressed victim, but as an accomplice who has perhaps suffered from the ongoing corruption in Palestine but who is equally guilty for giving in to deception and contriving to escape by fraud.

Joe Sacco has unfolded the game of power that is going on in Palestine in the form of a comic strip, and Omar Al-Qattan reviews Sacco's Palestine, a visual and verbal text representing the quotidian toil the Palestinians undergo under occupation with biting humour. The social landscape is devoid of human dignity, intruders exploiting the chaotic situation for their own ends.

In the first issue of Banipal, the editor stated that its aim was to "deepen dialogue between different cultures". One should add that Banipal has become a space of encounter, where writing and translation can interchange creative practice. In such an intercultural space we can foresee Arabic literature becoming an active element in world culture, and the translator's role overlapping with that of the writer in representing a cosmopolitan citizen.

Reviewed by Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih

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