Commentary

Pandemic Journal: Sweet and Sour

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21/04/2020

Durham, UK
During my daily walks I pass by fields, which are part of Durham’s Green Belt, and farms. I stand by the dry stone wall of Elvet Moor Farm watching nature at peace with itself unlike us. The large open spaces and meadows highlight how constrained we are under the coronavirus lockdown. All you can hear is the rustling of leaves and the singing of birds, punctuated by ambulance sirens. The tranquillity of the countryside is in sharp contrast with a boisterous and unruly virus, racing in the air, looking for a angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor to colonise and destroy.
Spring has sprung unnoticed. In one of the fields the sheep and blackbirds share the feed and eat together in harmony; seagulls land on the freshly ploughed fields, white upon brown, then fly off; and the sunset turns the tops of beach, birch and oak trees into gold. Families cycle together. People wearing masks wave and thank each other for observing social distancing. We inhale the fresh air, which thankfully we still can do, and resisting our primal need for closeness we step away from each other.
When I got home, I sat in the garden sipping tea with fresh mint. I know I am in trouble when I start listening to the Egyptian diva Um-Kulthum and reminiscing about a youth misspent in Amman’s cafes and restaurants. A friend said, ‘You get intoxicated and become amorous and stupid listening to her songs. You could fall in love with the leg of this table.’ We laughed and filled our nostrils with the smell of Turkish coffee with cardamom, jasmine and freshly watered oleanders. We were young and life and oyster were close to each other.
During the 1970’s gender roles were defined and strict, and women should know their place, but we didn’t. We connived to be able to go out for a walk, or a cup of coffee somewhere. In exchange for the coveted permission to leave The House of Bernarda Alba, we did all the chores. These outings were such a treat and a break from our daily routine: dusting, mopping floors, scrubbing bathrooms, preparing breakfast and dinner, cooking lunch sometimes, ironing, and then studying. All had to be done to perfection and elders appeased so we could reach our destination, Jabal Amman, and live it up.
From our kitchen’s window above the sink, I could see the Hejaz Railway winding its way on hillsides, and watch aeroplanes take off and land at Marka Airport. Washing the suds off plates, I wondered where did trains go and aeroplanes fly? What lay beyond the hills? Birds migrated, but to where? Were there other worlds beyond the horizon?
I was a nomad like my aunt and my feet were always itchy. She has style and liked to try new restaurants, so when in 1975 the Chinese expatriate Peter Kwai (Abu-Khalil) opened the first Chinese restaurant, just off Rainbow Street, overlooking the Ahliyyah School for Girls. we were there in a shot. Then I was young and troubled, but sitting in the old stone house, with red lanterns dangling above my head, enveloped by foreign aromas: the smell of chicken cooked in soy sauce, ginger, fried rice, provided a much needed respite. It was a mental escape from the harsh reality. Surrounded mainly by diplomatic core and businessmen we tried chopsticks, sweet and sour chicken, and shredded beef for the first time. Abu Khalil knew that we liked chicken with cashew nuts, and he always served complementary extra portion. It was as close as we could get to a holiday outside the country.
It is now post-coronavirus and the other day I played the gang’s favourite song, Amal Hayati: the hope of my life. I found the lyrics sentimental, even sickly. ‘Take my whole life but let me live through today! Let me stay in the embrace of your heart!’ Seriously?
We lived on a staple of romantic fiction, false premises and promises, and a culture that objectified women. You were a burden and life was a hunting ground. Your raison de d’être was to catch an eligible bachelor. Wearing glasses, having bad posture, and reading all the time, which I did, was frowned upon. ‘You are destroying your looks and you will not get married.’ I ignored the warning and continued to consume my uncle’s library like a woodworm. Fashion had to be followed religiously and time must be spent perfecting your hair, make up, clothes. As for your mind you must leave it be because the more ignorant you are the better. Men do not like clever women. We were high on the ‘happiness ever after myth’ while most of our rights were either non-existent, being eroded or inactivated. We were second-class citizens and big brother was watching us all the time. We got used to being policed and created strategies to get out of the male family members’ curfews.
Having no other option but to survive, we did. Women supported each other in real time and terms, and ‘sisterhood’ then was not incubated in an ivory tower, but the grass-root grew it organically. In our neighbourhood the women’s subculture was that of solidarity. We rallied round the weakest and most vulnerable among us: those who were ill, were beaten by their husbands, or in financial need. We shopped for them, sent them food, took care of their children until they got back from health clinics.
The equivalent of a ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘put the kettle on’ were endless cups of Turkish coffee. You put some ground coffee with cardamom in a dallah, bring it to the boil, skim the surface, boil it again then pour it in demitasses. But before that, like red Indian smoke signals, you spill some on the cooker hob, so the aroma fills the air, travels in the breeze to the women’s noses, inviting them to your courtyard. Then the daily group therapy begins, chats about the price of lemons, exchange of recipes, recommendations of Indian films that really make you weep, description of the dreams you had the night before. ‘All will be alright at the end,’ we say and drink a glass of water, indicating that we are ready to leave. There was cooking, cleaning, laundry, teaching of children, and gardening to do.
Cliché alert! We cannot walk by, above, or below the coronavirus. The only way is through it. There will be loss, pain, and questions to be asked. Will the shift in our priorities remain unchanged? Will our identities metamorphose? How will we evolve as a human race? Will we respect nature and harmonise with it? All will be clearer in the fullness of time to those who remain alive. However, if you are born a woman in a male-dominated society, and you survive that and even prosper, your life skills are robust, and a pandemic is passable.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

 

Pandemic Journal: Basil and Jasmine

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11/04/2020 – Durham, UK

Some days are bad. According to the Department of Heath and Social Care and Public Health England 9875 people have died of coronavirus in the UK. The figure does not cover those who died at home or in care homes so some argue that it should be doubled. I try to get my head round it, let it sink in. 9875 grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandsons, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles have died and most probably buried unceremoniously. There is stillness at the beginning as the neurotransmitters in my brain start sending excitatory messages, a drawing of breath, with fortunately I can still do, followed by anger.
Having witnessed and survived so many wars civil and otherwise, pandemics and epidemics, I despair about being a member of such an idiotic and short-sighted human race. This feeling makes death seem like a reprieve. As my late friend Elizabeth Anderson once said, ‘If death is oblivion, bring it on.’
We obviously learnt very little since 1346, when the black death swept many parts of the world. And despite all the pandemics and epidemics inflicted on us: cholera, the plague, Spanish flue, HIV/Aids, Ebola, Sars, we still prioritise amassing arms and protecting ourselves against mostly illusive enemies over our health and that of other species.
Arms manufacturers and dealers have thrived on wars in so many parts of the world from Korea and Vietnam all the way to Iraq. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the arms industry sales of the top 100 manufacturers reached $420 billion, a rise of 109% between 2002-2018.
That shows that we invested heavily not in science that cures, but in science that kills: the atomic bomb, stealth and precision guided weapons, drones. With billions of dollars at their dispense, arms manufacturers created weapons that can find you, follow you down an alleyway, dance the waltz over your head, and then explode, killing you and those around you.
I read somewhere that the Muslims in medieval Spain (722-1492) were defeated because they made a conscious decision to stop destructive scientific experimentation in its tracks. Whether that is true on or not the war machine, devouring people and capital, must be stopped and funds diverted to a ‘peace dividend’ to be spent on education, improving the infrastructure, providing health for all, and foreign aid. The UK alone spent $50 billion on arms in 2018. How many universities, hospitals, care homes, social housing, playgrounds could have been built with that amount? How many respirators, oxygen cylinders, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for NHS staff could have been resourced? How many lives could have been saved?
Some days are worse. Fear, distilled and pure, for myself and others, races through my veins, sapping my energy. I feel depleted and struggle to go down to have breakfast. I try to keep it together, but the slightest challenge unravels me like failing to open a milk carton. I keep forgetting my rituals, routines and rhythms and start again. Do I normally go for a walk before or after breakfast? Perhaps after lunch? Then lunch comes and goes with me still lying on the sofa watching television and trying to make sense of the random images. They seemed alien as if beamed from Jupiter. On days like this a phone call could drain me, tip me over. I take the phone off the hook, keep my mobile on silent, switch off my PC and iPad and block all contact with the outside world. Do not disturb!
It is a solitude in disquietude rather than tranquillity. Bad thoughts rush in tripping over each other. How would I cope if I lost a loved one in one of many the countries they are in: Jordan, USA, Bahrain, Germany? Would I be able to reach them, attend their funerals, grief with other members of my family? Will I be allowed to see them lowered into their graves, so I could in the fullness of time have a sense of closure. Would I forgive myself for the decisions I made such as making Britain my home, and not travelling to Amman when the airport was open. What about remorse and contrition? Have I loved enough?
Other days are bearable. I wake up fine and can go about my daily tasks. During such respites, death seems distant and, for some reason, I am immune to it, my blood stream is full of antibodies that can fight all diseases including Covid-19. Delusional, I convince myself that this crisis will be over soon, and normal life will resume, whatever that was. My family like going out occasionally to The South Causey Inn in Stanley – the name triggers an eruption of nostalgia – to have Sunday lunch, roast turkey, with all the trimmings, potatoes, sautéed carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. We reminisce about such simple pleasures, which now belong to the pre-coronavirus era and console ourselves by saying, ‘maybe soon we will be able to go out for a meal again.’ We sit in the garden, thinking of our loved ones in Amman as we listen to the Lebanese singer Fairuz croon, ‘Ba’dak ‘ala bali: you are still on my mind, oh young and proud, oh fragrant basil scattered on rooftops!’
Oblivious to our hopes, fears and nostalgia, the circles of coronavirus on the pandemic meters’ maps are getting bigger, denser and angrier. Death is driving up the highway and will arrive at our neighbourhood soon. I apologise to the grim reaper because despite all his warnings, grey hair, dimming eyesight, and stiff joints, I am still unprepared. What about what I still intended to do? What about the heart’s unfulfilled desires? What about unfinished businesses? There are projects to carry out, books to write, places to visit, words to say, and love yet to be expressed.
My friend G tells me that she group-calls her sisters in London every Sunday. I suggest that we do the same. Few days ago, my sisters and I arranged a group video call with my parents in Amman. When my father saw his four daughters together on one screen, he was overwhelmed. We spoke about the lockdowns and curfews, about being careful, and how far saliva droplets teaming with Covid-19 viruses can travel. My mother said, ‘I stopped going out to the garden. Sometimes children play in the street outside.’
My mother’s ‘game’, as my father once said, is her garden. With the help of my sister E, an agricultural engineer, they created a beautiful oasis in east Amman: lemon and mulberry trees, bougainvillea where sparrows nested, and jasmine vines. Every morning she would feed the tortoises in the flowerbed, water the plants, and fill the small pool so stray cats don’t go thirsty.
‘How about if you wear a mask when you go out to the garden.’ My brother looked for masks in all Amman’s pharmacies but couldn’t find any. My sister W created a mask at home that had two layers of cotton, which could be stuffed with crunched paper towels. ‘You could dispose of the paper towels and wash it in high temperatures after use.’ Amman has many seamstresses and probably most are without income now. We decided to ask one of them to make masks for my parents. Perhaps we can get them certified and then fundraise to make many more and donate them to the old and vulnerable.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.
 

Pandemic Journal: Stars Realignment

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30/03/2020

Durham, UK

Whenever I meditate in the evening, I watch out for Sirius, the largest and brightest star in the galaxy. Last time I noticed it I was on holiday in Tenerife in January. The sky was clear, and the star twinkled like that diamond in the nursery rhyme. It was twenty degrees and the distant sounds were that of a typical summer night: cutlery on crockery, clinking of glasses, chatter, laughter and a singer in the bar on the other side of the garden and lit swimming pool attempting an aria. The manicured garden had palm trees, with leaves braided like hair, orchid trees, flame vines, bougainvillea trimmed and used as a hedge, cape honeysuckle, hibiscus, freesias and birds of paradise. That evening their scent rose to the balcony and filled the air. I breathed in and exhaled. Then the glasses were still rose-tinted: life was good. Death was a distant eventuality rather than an imminent reality. Romance, love, happiness, recognition, and even immortality were on the cards. As Shakespeare wrote, ‘Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.’

That was before the pandemic threw all the cards and oysters up in the air and then broke the table they were on. Our lives now are divided into two periods: pre and post Covid-19 pandemic.

Yesterday in Durham I spotted the brightest star in the sky again. What was it called? Sirius A and B? It looked nothing like the one I saw in Tenerife three months ago, which seems like decades ago. It was smaller, less bright and like a tear in the dark fabric of the sky. The virus scrubbed the rosiness and other growths off the lenses. The world lost its sheen, became clearer and less safe. Sirius matured to what it is: a mass of hot gas. It was burning hydrogen into helium in its core to shine and was not the largest start in the galaxy, but it appeared so because of its proximity to earth.

I sat in the darkness looking at the silhouettes of trees and plants. Will it run out of fuel and die? The pre-Covid-19-me would have said at least it was shining bright and when it dies the heavier elements it releases will form new stars. But the post-Covid-19-me rejects that optimism. No romance, clichés, assigning objects with sentimental value, or seeing individuals and relationship not as they are, but as I wish them to be. No more artificial insemination of relationships or friendships via social media. No more self-deception.

After the pandemic is under control there will be a realignment of relationships too for some will get stronger and others will weaken or fizzle out. Covid-19 is a litmus test of people around you. Those who are genuinely concerned are blue and alkaline, and those who are not are acidic and red. You will see it in blue and red and you will not be able to deceive yourself, misinterpret it, or explain it away. This tempest will separate the wheat from the chaff, and then blow away the husks. You will be standing alone, but your loved ones and genuine friends will be standing by you albeit at a safe distance.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

Pandemic Journal: Navigating in the Dark

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25/03/2020

Durham, UK
I am back after spending weeks reading and digesting the news about the corona virus and coming to terms with a new reality. The novel I was working on seems irrelevant, and even self-indulgent now. Life has changed drastically and what was important before Covid-19 seems trivial now and visa versa. It is like installing a new GPS system that you know nothing about and then using it to navigate a new path. Every direction or decision has repercussions: when to tighten the mask, where to walk, when to turn and go back, how to act when face to face with other unwise homo sapiens, and what to do when someone directs a cough at you and the virus itself races towards you?
Before my morning and evening walks, I wear a hat, mask, jacket with hood, and gloves then venture out, stepping into a hostile environment – please bring back that of the Home Office –  that could kill me instantly.
Skilled at self-deception we denigrated death to a distant eventuality, something that happens to others, but the virus turned it into an imminent reality. We have to get ready for departure, pack our suitcases, tidy up, clean the slat, and reconnect with loved ones. Every Skype conversation could be our last so which words to select that could be our last. Will they linger in their memories?
Then resentment builds up because there is so much you want to achieve, loose ends to tie up, projects to carry out, places to visit? How could this journey end prematurely? It is absurd. And all the things you accumulated: books, photographs, paintings, heirlooms, and objects that have sentimental value, which you didn’t have enough time to explain to your children or grandchildren to instil your personal history into their memory. Could you and your story vanish just like that? Puff.
Counting steps, I breath in the fresh air. With the numbers of death rising, it tastes of salt and is laden with grief. Although no one can see or touch the deceased we feel the pain of their families and loved ones. This is bereavement at a global scale that could wrench the heart and unsettle the mind if we are not careful.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

Pandemic Journal: Mother’s Day

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21/03/2020

Durham, UK
The magnitude of the corona virus pandemic did not hit me until I saw a picture of my hometown Amman, ‘masqat ra’si: where my head landed when I was born’, empty. The boisterous city that rarely sleeps was deserted as if the country was at war.  Shops, restaurants and cafes were shut, and there were no pedlars, pedestrians or cars in the streets.
When I go to Jordan in the spring and autumn of every year, I normally stay with my parents in Jabal Al Taj in East Amman if I were travelling without my husband. Having no access to a gym or a swimming pool, I walk everywhere to keep my fitness levels up. Durham is hilly, and I am used to walking to the city centre here too. Early in the morning, before it got hot, I would walk to Al Mahatta: which was named because of it position next to the Ottoman Hejaz Railway station, through the Roman Amphitheatre, by the Roman Nymphaeum, by the Vegetable Market, to the city centre. When I arrive at ar-Rida street, I would hear the call of the fresh juice seller ‘Ahlan doctora, welcome, you’re back.’ Then we exchange niceties that are hard to translate into English.
‘You lit up the country,’ he would say.
‘The country is already bright with your presence.’
He would prepare my usual, a cocktail of orange, mango and carrot juice.’
‘This one is on me.’
‘No. Please. I wouldn’t have it if you don’t accept my payment.’
So reluctantly he takes the money. We would talk about his Egyptian helper who went back to Cairo, about the weather and  how well he is doing considering the challenges the country is facing.
Then I go to Abu Ali’s Book Kiosk to see which books are on display and to occasionally buy some. This is followed with either a visit to Jafra Cafe or having a Habiba Sweets’ kunafa, a stringy pastry layered with cheese and soaked in sugar syrup, which Ammanis have for breakfast sometimes. We eat it sitting on the pavements outside the shop.
Jordan’s measures to combat Covid-19 are strict and commendable. The lockdown began early, when the country had few cases. The virus turned Amman into a ghost town. When I saw the photograph of the empty streets, the magnitude of the tsunami we are facing hit me.
Will I be able to go back?
On 12 March I had to make a difficult decision: to travel or not to travel back to Amman. I had a few concerns among them the possibility of contracting the virus on the two taxi rides, two flights or in the three airports that I had to cross and then passing it to my elderly parents. If that happened, I would never be able to forgive myself. So, I decided to stay in Durham. Post Covid-19 every decision has repercussions, ramifications and might be the wrong one. Will I regret not going back to Amman when the airport was still open?
Mother’s Day in Jordan is on 21 March and on that morning my heart was tilting east so I wept into my porridge. I badly needed to see my mother, hug her, reassure her and make her laugh. Will I ever see her again? When will we be reunited? How long will we remain in a lockdown, under corona house arrests? Suddenly the world which seemed like a village in January split into separate continents. My parent, who seemed so near before Covid-19, are distant now, overseas, unreachable.
After composing myself, I rang my mother. We were emotional, but I didn’t want her to get distressed so I spoke of daffodils in the garden, which bloomed suddenly, of the jasmine my late fried Gwyneth had given me and how it survived another winter, of the Earley Ornamentals flowers’ catalogue, which I intend to send her in the post. ‘Hopefully we will meet again soon, mama.’ Our voices were strained, tears checked, and hearts heavy.
I washed my face with icy water and looked at the sky. The birds were still there and singing. Then I heard the click of the letterbox, after the postman had pushed a fat envelop through it. I opened it, got rid of the packing, washed my hands and inspected its contents: a card from my son and daughter-in-law, another from my grandson, and another from my granddaughter. ‘Happy Mother’s Day grandma.’ I caressed them, read their contents again and again and then displayed them on the side table, where I could see them.
The next day letterbox flowers arrived from my son and his family. I unpacked the roses, pink snapdragons, alstroemeria and foliage carefully, cut their ends, put them in a vase, filled it with water, stirred in the feed to help the flowers survive for as long as possible, then tied the ribbon around the vase. At least the flowers have arrived in perfect condition. Love will sustain us through this crisis, will carry us to the other shore and will heal us when the crisis is over.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

Introducing Iraqi Author Ali Bader

To counter the rise of racism and xenophobia, I began thinking about a project that could be an antidote to the toxic culture of hate prevailing all over the world. A fellowship in the west for Arab authors seemed a fitting way of challenging preconceptions and creating dialogue between civilisations.

During my travels over the past two years, I spoke to academics, writers, intellectuals, journalist both Arab and non-Arab about my dream.

In 2013 I had an author’s round table and a book signing at the Fourth Annual Translation Conference, held at the Hamad bin Khalifa University, and co-sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. Iraqi author and journalist Samuel Shimon, the London-based editor and co-founder of Banipal, a renowned international magazine of contemporary Arab literature published in English, gave a keynote speech in which he said that in his experience of publishing from Arabic into English, Western publishers needed to move beyond narrow stereotypes of Arabic novels and writers. Listening to him, the idea of cooperation with Banipal began germinating.

I went back to Durham and had a meeting with Dr Susan Frenk, the principal of St Aidan’s College, Durham University, where I hold a Creative Writing Fellowship, and this distinguished scholar and amazing woman welcomed the idea.

On 27 April, 2016, at the Abu Dhabi International Bookfair, I had a meeting with Margaret Obank, trustee of Banipal Publishing, and discussed the idea with her. The outcome was positive and we agreed to hold a meeting in Durham to discuss it further.

On 26 September Dr Sudan Frenk, Margaret Obank, Samuel Shimon, and I met and we agreed to set up the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship (BVWF) for published authors writing in Arabic. History was made for the fellowship is the first of its kind. I have nothing but gratitude and praise for the Banipal team and St Aidan’s College.

Margaret kindly offered to conduct negotiations with the British Council. After a number of conversations and a meeting they agreed to support us.

We publicised the fellowship in November, 2016, and we received 198 applications. Some of the best Arab writers have applied. In December, in a meeting at the American University of Kuwait we chose the shortlist. Then the committee selected the Iraqi author Ali Bader as the first Fellow and he arrived in Durham on 23 January, 2017.

Truly, a dream come true.

*****

Ali Bader is a well-known Iraqi novelist and essayist, whose work is making an important contribution to contemporary Arabic literature. He is the author of thirteen works of fiction, two of which were long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (aka Arabic Booker), and several works of non-fiction.

He was born 1979 in Baghdad, where he studied Western Philosophy and French Literature. His first novel,Papa Sartre: بابا سارتر, which was published in 2001, focuses on the legacy of the 1960s generation, and criticises their negative impact on their culture. Following its critical acclaim in the Arab world, he was awarded the State Prize for Literature in Baghdad in 2002, and the Tunisian Abu Al-Qassem Al-Shabi Award, and the novel was translated into English.

In 2002, his novel The Family’s Winter: شتاء العائلة revisits the of theme of the decline of the Iraq’s elite, but this time focusing on the aristocracy during the 1950s. That same year, he received the Literary Creativity Prize.

His third novel The Road to Mutran Hill, published in 2003, focuses on Iraqi’s social problems and the increasing division between different segments, denominations, and ethnicities, and it prophesies the disintegration of Iraq.

His novel Jerusalem Lantern is a fictional rendering of the life of the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said.

In his novel The Tobacco Keeper, which was short listed for the international prize for Arabic Fiction, he uses reportage, memoir, historical documents, etc. to constructs the life of Kamal Medhat, an Iraqi Jewish musician, whose body was found floating on the River Tigris. The novel follows his struggle to integrate into Iraqi society. The rich tapestry is layered skilfully and the distance between observer and observed is carefully orchestrated to create maximum impact. The narrative zooms in and out on the life of the composer, which mirrors the modern history of Iraq. Larger questions about identity, nationalism, and freedom both individual and otherwise are also raised.

His latest work, Crime, Art, and a Dictionary of Baghdad, is a novel about the sacramental and philosophical schools during the Abbasid era.

He is working on his new novel Liar takes All.

Ali Bader also wrote non-fiction:  Massion in Baghdad (2005), Sleeping Prince and Waiting Campaign (2006), Shahadat: Witnessing Iraq’s Transformation after 2003 (2007), and MNSG: Navigation between Home and Exile (2008), which won the Every Human Has Rights Media Award of 2008.

He is also a seasoned publisher and recently he took the reins of Alca Books. In addition, he contributes regularly to  the Arabic newspapers such as Al-Hayat, Al-Mada, Al-Dustour, and Al-Riyadh. He was also a war correspondent.

We are fortunate to have such a prolific and prominent Arab writer among us.

Reflections on my Experience as a Judge of a Literary Prize

I was delighted to accept Kuwaiti author Taleb al-Rifai’s invitation to join the judging panel of Al-Multaqa Short Story Competition 2016, sponsored by the American University in Kuwait and Al-Multaqa al-Thaqafi: Cultural Circle, found and managed by Dr al- Rifai.

Prominent Moroccan author Ahmad Al-Madini was appointed as a chair of the panel. My colleagues on the judging panel were: Egyptian author Ezzat al-Kamhawi, Iraqi writer and critic Salima Salih, and Kuwaiti writer and critic Ali Al Enazzi.

On 27 April, 2016 in Abu Dhabi the panel met in the presence of Dr Taleb al Riai, founder of the prize, to set the criteria for the selection. We agreed that on the following yardsticks: content and creativity in presenting it, language (accuracy, beauty etc.), use of imagination, impact (emotional and otherwise), and overall vision.

What made the process successful is that both the chairman and members of the judging paned observed total confidentiality, and never disclosed the procedure or discussed participants and their works with any outside parties. This resulted in a first round free of xenophobia, cliquism, preferential treatment and immune to outside influences.

As an academic and writer of fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading one hundred and eighty-four collections of Arabic short stories and exploring the literary map of the Arab world farther.

However, the amount of simple and simplistic works that get published in the Arab world is staggering and perhaps one reasons behind that is the way the publishing industry functions and publications processed. In many cases, authors pay publishers to get published not the other way round, which eschews standards and corrupts the measures commissioning editors apply when selecting a work. Alas most works that see the light should have been left in the dark. Another symptom of the lack of professionalism in publishing is the number of language and typographical mistakes. So, the author pays to be published and the publishing house spends very little on copyediting and/or printing the text and the result is poor indeed.

Most of the collections are either reportage, autobiography, memories, or confessional writing thinly disguised as fiction. They are hurried, shallow, crude and single-layered with little dramatisation and riddled with clichés without any plot or structure. In a few cases pornography is superimposed on the text and sexual scenes are not justified within the text or the context.

The description in most collections is stilted and the characters one-dimensional and static. And in many cases, you encounter sentimentality and emotions that are not justified within the text, therefore, could not be evoked in the recipient reader, a lack of what T.S. Eliot called the ‘objective correlative.’ Most collections fail at both form and content levels, which are interconnected of course.

There is a confusion concerning literary genres for prose is not poetry and no matter how beautifully-written a paragraph is that does not turn into a short story. Some writers use the twist or the surprising ending of poetry in prose. But poetic prose does not turn a text into a short story, which is a specific literary genre with its own prerequisites. There is also some over-writing and flexing of linguistic muscles without much success.

There is a marked difference in the levels of works considered for the prize and unevenness within the collections themselves. Many authors are full of good intentions, but they rarely realise them. Many authors suffer from shortness of breath and sloppiness where the movement of the hand is not completed. A disjointed literary work can be classified as ‘trauma literature’, where there are absences, but the text is normally complete and realises its full potential. But that does not apply to some of the collections I have read. Writers, in some cases, are not distant enough from their material so the they could turn them into resonant and meaningful literary texts and many use writing as exorcism or a way to vent out anger

Luckily a few authors master the art of writing fiction and in control of their tools. They use a multitude of techniques: the interior monologue, steam of consciousness, different perspectives, unreliable narrators, mixing of registers and voices, operatic corals, intertwining between fantasy and reality, intertextuality, and mythology. Some can be classified as modernist and others as postmodernists and very few are feminist. Some texts are original, creative and the imagination of their writer soars high.

In his multi-media collection “مصحة الدمى” Doll’s Infirmity”, Moroccan author Anis Arafai challenges the boundaries between fiction, essay writing, reportage and photography and the result is a tour de force. The collection cannot be classified as a photoessay or under graphic literature for that would be a reduction. Some of the prose rises to the level of poetry. Arafai uses the second person, which readers don’t encounter very often, adding to the uniqueness of his narrative. Overall his work is original, tightly-plotted, beautifully-written with a surprising ending.

It is a no mean feat for Arab authors to produce such works under the present circumstances. Some tackled political issues, such as how corruption permeates and destroys the societal fabric of a country with grace and lightness of touch. For example, in his collection “نكات للمسلحين” Jokes for Gunmen” Palestinian writer Mazen Maarouf, who unanimously won al-Multaqa Short Story Competition 2016, writes from a child’s point of view most of the time about oppression, lack of control over surroundings and other issues. This collection, in which each story is mature and complete, reminds us of the writings of the late Emil Habibi, but Maarouf takes Habibi’s writing to another level and a touch of surrealism is added to the combination of tragedy and comedy. The unusual and bizarre is mixed with the mundane to produce texts that are deceptively simple, but raise existential questions. The brutality of the occupier is always present in the background and presented indirectly or metaphorically without any mention of the political realities against which Maarouf’s texts are set or were produced.

Very few writers succeed in transposing us to their unique world, where reality is not only presented, but also reshaped. Some create rich multi-layered texts with a unique vision, which might help readers understand the complex realities of the region. In an Arab world riddled with wars, civil and uncivil, and conflicts, to pick up the pen and write is a triumph in itself. Furthermore, to produce unique and original texts that would stand any scrutiny whether local or international is a victory for Arabic literature and culture.

Published in Banipal 58, Spring 2017

عدد الأعمال السطحيّة التي تنشر في العالم العربي مفجع

أسعدني أن أوافق على الانضمام إلى لجنة تحكيم جائزة الملتقى للقصة العربية القصيرة لعام 2016 التي تمولها الجامعة الأمريكية والملتقى الثقافي في الكويت. ولقد استمتعت بقراءة مئة وتسع وثمانين مجموعة قصصية ضمن المجموعات التي تم ترشيحها للجائزة وباكتشاف جزءٍ من الخارطة الأدبية للعالم العربي

ويمكنني أن أقول بأنّه وللأسف فإنّ عدد الأعمال السطحيّة التي تنشر في العالم العربي مفجع، ولعل  أهم سبب وراء ذلك أنه في كثير من الحالات يدفع الكاتب للناشر مقابل النشر مما أخلّ المعايير التي يطبقها المحررون لاختيار العمل والسماح له برؤية النور. وسبب آخر أيضا، هو شح الروح المهنية لدى دور النشر المتمثل في تفشي الأخطاء اللغوية والمطبعية في النصوص.  فكما هو معلوم  في بعض الدول العربية، يدفع المؤلف لدار النشر، وهي بدورها تحتفظ بمعظم المبلغ وتنفق القليل منه فقط على تحرير وطباعة وتدقيق النص

حقيقىة، يمكن تصنيف معظم المجموعات التي اطلعت عليها تحت بند السرد الصحفي أوالتقرير النثري أوالسيرة الذاتية أوالمذكرات أوالخواطر أو أدب الاعتراف، وذلك دون  أدنى استخدام للأسلوب القصصي الدرامي. وربما كتب كثير من النصوص بسرعة، ولهذا نجد أنّ معظمها ضحل وفج وأحادي الطبقة ومليء بالتعابير المستهلكة دون أي حبكة أوبنية مدروسة. وفي حالات قليلة يتم إسقاط المشاهد الجنسية دون حاجة الى ذلك أو دون توظيف حقيقي لها في النص ودلالته مما جعلها تبدو دخيلة

وقد ظهر الوصف في معظم الأعمال جامدا، واللغة ركيكة ، والشخصيات مسطّحة. وفي كثير من الحالات تم استعمال الرومانسية التي عفى عليها الزمن، حيث نجد فيضا من العواطف والمشاعر غير المبررة في النص، وبالتالي؛ لا تستحضر في القارئ المتلقي أي ردود فعل نفسية لعدم وجود ما سماه إليوت بالمعادل الموضوعي*. وهكذا فشلت مجموعات كثيرة على مستويي الشكل والمضمون. وتجدر الإشارة إلى أن هنالك التباس بشأن الأنواع الأدبية، فالنثر ليس شعرا ومهما كانت الفقرة مكتوبة بشكل جميل فإنّ هذا لا يحولها إلى قصة قصيرة. ومن الملحوظ أيضا وجود حالة مفارقة شعرية إدهاشية في نهاية كثير من النصوص، وبالرغم من ذلك تبقى نثرا أو نثرا شعريا ولا تنطبق عليها معايير القصة القصيرة. وبعض الكتاب قد “أفرط في الكتابة*”  محاولا استعراض العضلات اللغوية بلا طائل، حيث بقي النص ضحلا

وهنالك تفاوت كبير في مستويات الأعمال المرشحة للجائزة وضمن المجموعات نفسها. ولا تكفي أن تكون نية الكاتب حسنة ليتحقق نجاح العمل الأدبي

وكثير من الكتاب هم من ذوي النفس القصير حيث لم يستطيعوا إتمام إبراز جمال القصة. ومن الأعمال ماهو مفكك، ولكن لا يمكن أن نصنفه تحت بند أدب الصدمة*، الذي يتميز بوجود فجوات في السرد  القصصي، مع اكتمال العمل وتحقيقه لأهدافه. وكان جليا أنه في كثير من النصوص تم إستعمال الكتابة للتنفيس عن الضغط النفسي وتطهير الذات

ولحسن الحظ هنالك قلة من الكتاب المرشحين للجائزة بدو متمكنين من تقنيات الكتابة القصصية وأدواتها، اذ استخدموا المونولوج الداخلي والأبعاد المتعددة والرواة غير الموثوق بهم وتيار الوعي وخلط اللهجات الاجتماعية والأصوات المتعددة، والتحول اللغوي والمزج بين الواقع والفانتازيا، واستخدام التناص والموروث الثقافي والأساطير. ويمكن تصنيف بعض النصوص بأنها حداثية أو ما بعد الحداثة، والقلة القليلة منها نسوية. وهنالك نصوص أصيلة وخلاقة يحلق فيها خيال الكاتب عاليا

وعند القليل من الكتاب، كما في حالة أنيس الرافعي، كان المزج بين الاجناس المختلفة كالقصة القصيرة، والسرد الصحفي، والتصوير الفوتوغرافي خلاقا. والنص هنا أصيل والبناء محكم والحبكة متينة ولغة النص شعرية أحيانا والنهاية مفاجئة. الخطوج الروائية تمزج بمهارة فائقة ويتم جمعها ببراعة. وقد استخدم الكاتب ضمير المخاطب وهذا ما لا نراه في كثيرا من النصوص القصصية

ومما يدعو للتفاؤل أن الكتاب استطاعوا إنتاج مثل بعض هذه الأعمال في ظل الظروف الحالية الصعبة التي يمر بها العالم العربي. حيث عالج بعضهم القضايا السياسية ببراعة؛ مثل كيفية تسرب الفساد ببطء إلى أن يتدمر النسيج الاجتماعي. وعلى سبيل المثال هنا، مجموعة الكاتب الفلسطيني مازن معروف “نكات للمسلحين” التي فازت بالجائزة بالإجماع. كتبت  هذه المجموعة على خلفية الاحتلال الإسرائيلي لفلسطين وهوما يتناوله الكاتب في بعض القصص فعليا وبعضها الآخر مجازيا. وذكرتني بكتابات الكاتب الفلسطيني الراحل إيميل حبيبي إلا أن معروف تميز عن حبيبي بقدرته على خلق عالم سوريالي يتوازن فيه ويتساوى الخوف والمرح والسخرية والكابوسية. ويتعامل معروف مع هذا الموضوع الجاد بسخرية وفكاهة أحيانا لينتج نصا مضحكا ومبكيا في آن واحد . وقد نجح في تعرية وحشية ودموية المحتل بسلاسة وخفة في هذه المجموعة دون أي ذكر للأحداث السياسية التي اسهمت في إنتاج هذه النصوص

ويمكن القول أن القلة القليلة من الكتاب قد نجحت في نقلنا إلى عالمهم الغرائبي الخاص وقدمت لنا قصصا قصيرة فريدة لا تصور الواقع فقط بل تعيد تشكيله. وخلق البعض نصوصا غنية متعددة الدلالات ذات رؤية خاصة قد تساعدنا على فهم حاضرنا واستشراف مستقبلنا، وهذا يشكل انتصارا لنا وللغتنا وأدبنا بالرغم من كل التحديات

 

 

 

“*objective correlative”

“*Over-writing”

“*Trauma Literature

Behind the Façade in Amman

Statements attributed to the son of the Minister of Labour and Tourism in Jordan, Nidal Katamine, caused an uproar on social networking sites few weeks ago. He posted a tirade against a motorist driving a Kia, who started an argument with him on a traffic light. The minister’s son posted the following on his Facebook page: ‘People are angry with me because I drive an S-Class Mercedes . . . He is what my people call a ‘hater’. But you don’t seem to understand the psychology of sick minded backward cunts in this country.’ Katamine apologized for his remarks, saying that he did not intend to cause any offence, he also expressed surprise at the scale of the reaction to the incident.

Despite his apology his comments, which were translated into Arabic and circulated, caused a storm on social media. Under the hash tag ‘son-of-the-minster’ activists and tweeters posted comments, which were either deprecating or critical. Some suspected the government of stirring class conflict. Others were angry because his father’s salary is paid by the taxpayers. Although this incident is not important in itself it points to a malaise in Jordanian society: the way the rich and powerful treat the underprivileged. And a large number of poor Jordanians have been at the receiving end of unequal treatment.

Amman is divided into two parallel universes one on the west, mostly affluent, and one on the east, mostly poor. This is how I experienced the so called ‘Arab Spring’ which began in December 2010. One Christmas three years ago a fight between Transjordanian Tafilis and Palestinian Mahsirys erupted in Jabal al-Taj, a crowded poor area in East Amman, and instantly the riot police surrounded the neighbourhood with their armoured vehicles and mobile prisons. The mostly young men charged, shouting abuse, and hurling stones. They attacked stationary vehicles and burnt tyres. What started as a quarrel between rival groups turned political and towards the end the demonstrators shouted slogans calling for reform. Things have escalated since in what used to be a peaceful neighbourhood and incidents of stabbing and shooting are reported recently.

When the riot police began using tear gas we closed all the windows and curtains, wore scarves and wrapped them like masks around our faces. We were worried about my mother who has a chest condition. I went outside to see what was happening. I could not film the attacks because it was dark and smoky and the photos I took were blurred. The morning after there was no trace of the night before. Street cleaners were brought in before dawn and they swept the rubbish and carted all evidence away. The only evidence that what I saw actually happened was a canister of tear gas made in Brazil, which fell in one of the neighbour’s gardens.

The next day my meeting was at the Grand Hayatt Regency hotel, where a room costs up to 365 JOD, higher than the average monthly income of many Jordanians. You could also pay 4365 JOD for a suite. I walked into an oasis of calm, imported expensive flowers, open fires and an amazing Christmas tree. Its reflection on the glass was against a lit minaret on the distant hill. The sound of classical music, clinking of glasses, and laughter, and the scent of expensive cigars lingered in the air. Hayatt Regency often organise wine tasting for the uber wealthy. The body and luggage searches before you get in, and security guards protect foreign businessmen, tourist and those who can afford a drink for about 5 JOD. The ugliness of poor neighbourhoods, refugee camps and shanty towns is out of sight and mind. This part of the city knew little about that other part of the city few miles away, which was on fire the night before especially when such riots merit few lines in an on line newspaper.

I remember sitting in one of the cafés in west Amman having coffee with a friend. The son of a rich and influential family joined us. When I said the gap between rich and poor is getting wider and more visible and this will lead to instability and lawlessness. He said, ‘the poor should find jobs and start working.’ I excused myself and took a taxi to East Amman, where my parents live. The driver told me that the gap between what he earns and spends is about 300 JOD. According to the Word Bank 12% of Jordanians are under the poverty line.

Most East Ammanis take any job going: mending clothes, selling cheap merchandise, fixing utensils, couriering groceries to houses. But over the years the number of young men gathering in street corners rose. According to the World Bank Report unemployment is officially pegged at about 15%, but actually may be in the range of 25-30%. The unemployment rate for those between the ages of 20-24 is almost 40% and is 36% for those between ages 25 and 39. Living with no job prospects and few urban recreational centres or spaces, the youth are frustrated and their anger comes to the surface at the least provocation.

The son of minister’s comments hit a raw nerve because corruption and nepotism are rife. I went to one of the departments to renew my Identity Card. The trip to the Mahatta branch of the Passport Office reminded me of something I saw in Bogotá, Columbia, where I was a Guest of Honour at the 74th World Congress of International Pen in 2008. When I arrived at the hotel I was welcomed by three different groups of guards and sniffer dogs. Crime was wide-spread and foreigners could not leave the hotel or travel unescorted. In a mini bus we drove through a dark street with no lighting and the sight seemed like a figment of my own imagination. I was suddenly in a post-apocalypse film where crowds gathered to buy or barter goods, a black economy literally. Vendors spread their knick-knacks on the ground on both sides of the street. There were camp fires and music, and the smell of street food filled the air. People haggled, sang, danced in the darkness and the driver had to drive carefully to get through the makeshift stalls.

Unlike Bogotá, it was morning and the sun was shining in Amman. I took a taxi to Mahatta. The final leg of our journey was slow. The place looked like a flea market and was full of makeshift stalls selling clothes and shoes, old furniture, bead bracelets and necklaces. Most of the used goods and low quality items were spread on the floor and infringed on the main road itself. The driver had to navigate carefully so as not to run over peddlers or their merchandise.

When we arrived to the local branch of the Passport Office all seemed humble, but orderly. The only nod to the past was the old man, sitting on a straw chair and selling stamps outside. I applied, paid and joined the queue. There was no preferential treatment and the only thing that you might encounter in any other county was that one of the female civil servants was in a bad mood. A high ranking official rang me and asked me where I was. I explained that I was waiting for my new ID card. He said, ‘Why? I will take you to the head of the Passport Office. It will be renewed while you enjoy a cup of tea.’ I politely refused his offer.

So some of the affluent and powerful get their affairs done without filing a form or waiting in queues. It is all handled for them by others. Sometimes their applications are processed without even visiting the relevant department or ministry. Nepotism and preferential treatment is wide spread. If you don’t have a wasta: an influential intermediary you don’t go far. Certain jobs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, go to sons and daughters of certain families and one of the demands of Thalmtouna Campaign and Hirak, Jordanian Reform Movement, is transparency about job allocation.

When the residents of the two parts of Amman met, the rich and poor, at that traffic light, they didn’t like each other and an argument ensued. The reaction to the row of the Minister’s Son with an ordinary Jordanian citizen and his Facebook status is not personal, or can be easily classified under the politics of envy, or as spite and class war. It shows simmering resentment at nepotism, pandemic corruption, and economic deprivation.

Marginalised, Demonised Revolutionaries

Adam Shatz concludes his article in the LRB by saying ‘if the Egyptian movement to be crushed it will be, in part, because of the conviction that ‘we are not them’.’ Egyptian men and women, Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed as other and inferior for so long that their uprising took the world by surprise. Neither the think tanks in Israel or USA predicted the spread of mass civil unrests in different parts of the Arab world. The lack of respect for Arabs and Muslims in the corridors of power and the way they are daily reduced and deformed on the pages of newspapers are some of the reasons behind that.

In 2007 The Guardian’s research into one week’s news coverage showed that 91% of articles in national newspapers about Muslims were negative. The London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who commissioned the study, said that the findings were a ‘damning indictment’ of the media and urged editors and programme makers to review the way they portray Muslims. Livingstone said. ‘I think there is a demonisation of Islam going on which damages community relations and creates alarm among Muslims.’

According to Sander Gilman ‘such images both result from and result in action. Our fantasies about difference, our anxieties about our status, can result in medical theories about the Other which relegate human being to the status of laboratory animals (in Auschwitz or in the America South); in racial theories that reduce the other to the status of exotic, either dangerous . . . or benign.’ Writing of stereotypes and pseudoscientific theories that were commonly used in colonial discourse turned ‘Muslims’ regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture or language into laboratory animals and made places like Camp X possible, where the suspects, who were never put on trail and found guilty, are treated like animals.

Muslims are perceived as either ignorant and rich or bloody thirsty terrorists. Arabs, marginalised, demonised, racially abused in the West, treated as backward by many of the Israelis revolted against their oppressors. Egyptians got sick of their corrupt, brute dictator who doesn’t allow free speech, elections and tortures and imprisons and even ‘disappears’ his political opponents

The initial reaction by the BBC was to ignore the news in Cairo, concentrate on Sharm el-Sheikh and British tourists and the whole ‘Egypt conflict’, as they called it, would go away. Many western commentators and journalists stated that the Egyptians and are not ready for and/or deserve democracy. The arguments can be summarised as such: democracy is for white people, Christians, Jews and Israelis and Muslims and Arabs do not deserve it. Cohen, cited by Adam Shatz, and some websites like Israel National News referred to the people in Tahrir Square as ‘mob’ conjuring up images of the dangerous and unruly Ottoman savage outside the walls of Vienna in 1529. Richard Cohen argued in the Washington Post that the west had to choose between two alternatives: human rights or history:

Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly. Egypt and the entire Middle East are on the verge of convulsing. America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.

If 9/11 hardened the Muslim Christian binaries and turned Arab dark features into triggers for alarms everywhere, at shopping centres, trains stations and airport 25/1 in Egypt softened those binaries and blow up static, ahistorical and clichéd representations of the Arab. The cracks between western propaganda and reductionism, for most of the reports in the British press were found ‘inaccurate and alarmist’, and flesh and blood Arabs and Muslims began to show. Egyptians, who have similar dark features to Mohammed Atta, proved to be genial, peace loving, press savvy, able to use social networks for maximum effect and steer media representations of their civil disobedience. Aljazeera’s live coverage is punctuated by the crowds shouting silmiyyeh ‘peaceful revolution’. Suddenly a shift in paradigms occurred and was reflected in the tone and content of the coverage. The fossilised image of the evil Muslim that can be traced back to the defeat of Moors in Spain and beyond was shaken. For the first time in a hundred years or more Arabs began to respect themselves and make their own history not Cohen’s. As a result some of the writing in the press on the revolt was tinged with admiration on this side of the divide. New formations are evolving in the western mind and psyche as we speak. This is one of the many triumphs of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. It also shows that peaceful resistance and dialogue are far more superior weapons to violence and terrorism.