Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Sounds like literature

Rania Khallaf celebrates the anniversary of an independent literary project

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cu190
Al-Ahram Weekly

On its eighth anniversary, Albawtaka Review — the online English-to-Arabic translation service founded in 2008 by the translator Hala Salaheddin — is taking a promising and unprecedented step. So far, Albawtaka Review has published 42 issues, presenting the biographies of 103 English-speaking writers and 107 short stories in translation. The new project is titled “This is not Chick Lit: Stories by Ordinary Women In and Beyond Turmoil”. It’s supported by the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture, UNESCO, and the British Council in Cairo: the review’s second grant from the council.

According to Salaheddin, the project aims to translate 12 stories from English into Arabic and publish them on Albawtaka Review’s web site, possibly also on the funders’ web sites, then produce an audio book (10,000 copies) for the blind in Egypt and Libya.

“It will be the very first literary audio book in the Arab world. The whole project will be totally free, online and on the ground,” Salaheddin said excitedly. “There are over one million blind people in Egypt, with an increase of 150,000 blind persons yearly. Numbers are conflicting in Libya, though they could easily reach half a million people,” she explained. “Not all the blind in the Arab world know Braille very well, and the planned audio book will be the first literary material dedicated to them. The blind youth in Egypt and Libya will enjoy a rare chance to listen to literary masterpieces for free, ready to be accessed from the same organisations serving their needs...”

There are four organisations cooperating to distribute the audio book: the Egyptian Blind Association, the Taha Hussein Hall at Cairo University, the Association for the Blind – Benghazi (ABB), and the Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture, Libya.

“Taking on the neglected issue of the short story’s relationship to literary modernism, the short story as a genre is preoccupied with transgressing boundaries, and thus offers an ideal platform from which to examine modernism’s engagement women’s rights,” Salaheddin says. The selected stories reflect a sustained collection celebrating women’s struggle against misogyny, prejudice, poverty and oppressive traditions.

“By translating this collection, we open a window onto women exposed to relentless conditions in the 21st century, their worlds and their perspectives. They are viscerally original explorations of contemporary women’s socially-constructed dilemmas, taking you inside the hearts of women going on realistic journeys of fulfillment and self-respect. I am so eager to set an example so that other independent or governmental organisations will take a step to make audio books, normally published with the print publications in Europe and the United States, available for the blind.”

But how does Salaheddin evaluate her eight-year experience? What hardships has she encountered on the way? “Content fluctuates. It can be misleading, even deceiving. I coldly enumerate the accomplishments so I won’t be discouraged by the failures. I worked with three Nobel prize winners and brought African, Asian, European and Canadian literature to the Arabic literati, works that take on humane issues by making the invisible seen, that give voice to the voiceless. It’s a feast of gems, unveiling the power of tolerance and revealing the bright side of the world’s varied communities, previously distorted by political clashes between Arabs and the west,” she said.

“I won five generous grants, printed books, and now I’m adamantly keen on producing audio books for the blind, but my avid self is thinking of all the names I never worked with like E. L. Doctorow and Tobias Wolff, to name only two. It still grates with me that permissions from agents sometimes depend on funding,” Salaheddin adds.

“I dare to pride myself on the fact that Albawtaka Review is the only magazine publishing contemporary English stories in Arabic. Who now wants to read a story by Edgar Allan Poe? Really? I doze off when reading classical short fiction. Those masters’ contributions can’t be denied but their techniques are obsolete,” she explains. “Arabs seem to satisfy themselves with fiction - written in 2014 - in the style of Chekhov and Hemingway, while literature is an active being that keeps witnessing unending stages of metamorphosis. Just like politics, you can’t rule a nation by WWII’s rules, can you?” she smiled.

As for hardships, she says, they have been are countless: financial, technological, managerial, and technical and most of all the tedious, soul-sucking correspondences with copyright holders. But the turning point that made Salaheddin think of on-the-ground projects happened immediately after the 25 January revolution. “It was when emotional patriotism was soaring beyond imagination and everyone was digging for ways – not to topple a regime – but to create an alternative. One always feels this void when demolition takes place, it throws back in our faces our responsibility to re-build,” she said. “However, I’m now extremely disillusioned with the idea of revolution itself. After Muammar Gaddafi went down and Benghazi being so close to the Egyptian border, I felt this mutual destiny of both countries and I squeezed my mind to come up with some socially-oriented project Albawtaka Review could carry out.”

And so — audiobooks. “It was the copyright contracts! I signed a few giving me the rights – without even asking – to print the story in Braille. Envy ate me! Even literary agents have a social responsibility and they don’t flinch from it. I initially had this idea of producing books in Braille but this would have been obscenely expensive,” she smiles. “So when I found out about the UNESCO grant ad, it clicked. Audio books fly easily. People can borrow them and they can be distributed by the same institutions tending to the blind. It’s a bit useless to post material for the blind online. They are able to access the web but only within limits. If you have two pounds in your pocket, you have the option to buy a book...”

And women? “The project is indeed about women but it doesn’t necessarily address only women. As it might be anti-feminist to exaggerate the gravity of women’s issues in literature and art – it easily backfires! – I chose these stories with a humane rather than a feminist eye. They reflect women engaging with the plight of poverty, estrangement, prejudice, oppressive traditions, the Holocaust, a child’s loss, corruption in academia and racism.”

Now a resident of Leeds, UK, Salaheddin underlined one fact. “It’s taken for granted that publishers produce audio books along with printed editions. If you subscribe to a magazine, you will be notified that if you are visually impaired, you will be sent an edition in Braille. It’s seen as one of the various elements contributing to social harmony.”

How does Salaheddin see Albawtaka Review eight years from now? “Well, next year I’ll be distributing Albawtaka Review audio books in Palestine and Tunisia. This will on for five years and then I’ll be adding Lebanon. I’d like to think that in eight years I’ll be able to distribute audio books in North Africa, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine,” she says, adding, “I established an NGO in Cairo this year to integrate the social aspect with the review’s literary mission. Leftists claim that culture is meant to serve society. I’m not pious about forcing social agendas on cultural institutions. However, they supposedly serve the general public and in neglecting the blind, they discriminate against them...”

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