Pandemic Journal: Stars Realignment



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.

A Wild Patience has Brought my Sister so Far

Eman book

In 1999 I began writing an article about women’s psychological health in Jordan. Finding data in a conservative society was extremely hard. One of the top psychiatrists in the country agreed to be interviewed and he said, ‘To be brief: about 40% of men are schizophrenic and 50%of women are depressed.’ But to find case studies and write a robust academic paper was impossible.
Like American women in the 1950’s, when the number of housewives on tranquillisers was on the rise, many Jordanian women are unhappy or even depressed. They are finding it difficult to be ‘perfect housewives’ and conform to assigned gender roles. Many are trying to break out of the constraints of an unbalanced domestic life within a male-dominated society. Due to their dissatisfaction divorce rates are rising in changing society. Power structures are shifting.
The Black Jasmine: my Journey with Depression, written by my sister Eman Faqir, is ground-breaking because it tackles these issue head on with extreme honesty. It is an autobiographical text about suffering from depression most of her adult life. She briefly describes her journey from diagnosis, to taking a cocktail of different antidepressants and tranquillisers, to submitting to electric shock therapy. Admitting to having depression and seeking treatment for it is mundane in western societies but is an act of bravery in the duplicitous and hypocritical Jordanian society.
In one of the chapters she talks about her list of phobias: speaking in public, agoraphobia, claustrophobia etc. This develops into finding communication with other people draining. The life of the depressed person is a lonely one. ‘I sit on the sofa folding the laundry, which I waited so long for it to dry on the balcony because autumn has started. The sky is cloudy, and the cold wind carried distant barking to my ears and tossed dry yellow and red leaves into the sitting room. I don’t like this season with all its yellowness and dryness. When I was young, in my twenties, I used to love autumn and winter, and consider them the seasons of romance. I played songs about autumn leaves, rain, snow, small cafes. I would listen to Julio Iglesias’ song ‘Autumn Leaves’ sitting by the window and gazing at the sky. Life was full of promise then. Regrettably events knocked all romance out of me and replaced it with realism and depression.’
One poignant chapter is about people’s reaction to her depression. She lists the types of reactions she gets, which were mostly negative and accusatory. Many told her that her depression is due to her lack of belief and piety. Some said that she should exercise more and eat healthy food, others used stronger terms like ‘pill-popper’ and ‘self-inflicted’. Many stopped communicating with her afraid of catching her depression as if it were contagious. This reminded me of Susan Sontag’s book Illness as a Metaphor, which deals with the stigma surrounding illness. The ill deserve their illness because they are not passionate enough or for some reason brought upon themselves.
The book is simple, honest, and does not expose all the causes behind her depression, apart from her son’s diabetes and the collapse of her business, yet it is pioneering. Although it is a summery it is an act of bravery in a society that oppresses and terrorises women. Jordanian women must remain sweet and silent, but Eman Faqir is one of the few who spoke out. This is the tremor before the earthquake. Watch out for her next book.
•  Title echoes Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far’

الصبر(الجامح – الوحشي) قد أوصل أختي إلى هنا

في عام 1999 بدأت في كتابة مقالٍ عن الصحة النفسية للمرأة في الأردن. وقد كان العثور على بياناتٍ في مجتمعٍ محافظٍ لأمراً في غاية الصعوبة. في حينها، وافق أحد كبار الأطباء النفسيين في البلاد على إجراء مقابلةٍ وقال: “باختصار”  حوالي (40%) من الرجال مصابون بالفُصام، و (50%) من النساء مصاباتٍ بالإكتئئاب. ولكن العثور على حالاتٍ للدراسة للتمكّن من كتابةِ تقريرٍ أكاديميّ متين كان أمراً مستحيلاً

مثل النساء الأمريكيات  في خمسينات القرن الماضي، عندما كان يتزايد عدد “ربات البيوت” اللاتي يستخدمن المهدئات، فإن العديد من النساء الأردنيات تعيساتٍ ومكتئبات. حيث يجدن صعوبة في أن يكونوا ” ربات بيوتٍ مثالياتٍ” يلتزمن بأدوار جندريّة كرّسها المجتمع. يحاول الكثير منهنّ الخروج من قيود الحياة المنزلية الغير متوازنة في مجتمعٍ يهيمن عليه الذكور. لذلك سترتفع عدلات الطلاق بسبب عدم الرضا مما سيعمل على تغيير المجتمع لأن هياكل السلطة تتغير

تعتبر رواية “الياسمينة السوداء: رحلتي مع الإكتئاب” التي كتبتها أختي إيمان الفقيروالتي صدرت عن الآن ناشرون وموزعون، رائدة لأنها تعالج هذه القضية في أمانة قصوى.إنه نص للسيرة الذاتية حول معاناتها معظم حياتها من الإكتئاب. حيث تصف بإختصاررحلتها من التشخيص الى تناول كوكتيل من مضادات الإكتئاب والمهدئات العصبية الى الخضوع للعلاج بالصدمات الكهربائية. إن الإعتراف بالإكتئاب والسعي للعلاج لأمر شائع فيالمجتمعات الغربية، ولكنه لعمل شجاع في مجتمع  تسود به المعايير المزدوجة و يعم به النفاق

تتحدث في أحد الفصول عن قائمة الهلع  (الفوبيا) الخاصة بها: التحدث في الأماكن العامة، اضطرابات القلق والخوف من الأماكن المغلقة…. الخ. ويتطور هذا الى حد تجد به التواصل مع اشخاص أخرين مرهق ومتعب. إن حياة الشخص المكتئب تتسم بالوحدة. “أجلس على الكنبة، أرتب الغسيل الذي انتظرته مطوّلاً ليجف على الشرفة، لأن الخريف قد بدأ. السماء ملبدة بالغيوم، وقد حملت الرياح الباردة نباح كلبٍ أسمعه من بعيد  وقذفت أوراق الخريف الصفراء والحمراء الجافة الى غرفة الجلوس. أنا لا أحب هذا الموسم بكل لونه الأصفر وجفافه. عندما كنت صغيرة, في عمري العشرينيّ، كنت أحب فصليّ الخريف والشتاء واللذان طالما اعتبرتهما موسميّ الرومانسية. كنت أبحث عن الأغاني التي تتعلق بأوراق الخريف والشتاءِ والثلج والمقاهي الصغيرة. حيث كنت أجلس بجانب النافذة و أستمع الى أغنية  “أوراق الخريف” لخوليو اغليسياس وأحدق في السماء.عندها كانت الحياة مليئة بالوعود. مع الأسف الحياة قتلت كل الرومانسية في داخلى واستبدلتها بالواقعية والإكتئاب

ومن أحد الفصول المؤثرة هو حول ردود فعل الأشخاص الاخرين على إكتئابها، فقد سردت فيه أنواع ردود الأفعال التي تلقتها، والتي كانت أغلبها سلبية وتوجيه الإتهام إليها. فقد اخبرها الكثيرون أن سبب اكتئابها يعود إلى إفتقارها للإيمان والتقوى، وقال البعض أنها يجب أن  تقوي إيمانها وتزيد من ممارستها للرياضة وبأن تتناول طعاماً صحياً. بينما استخدم البعض الآخر وصفٍ أكثر شدّةً مثل ” مدمنة الأدوية” و”المحبحبة” و “المسبّبةُ ذلك لنفسها”. لقد توقف الكثيرون من التواصل معها خشية الإصابة بالإكتئاب كما لو أنه مرض معدي. وقد ذكرني هذا بكتاب “المرض كمجاز” لسوزان سونتاج، الذي يتعامل مع وصمة العار المحيطة بالمرض. حيث أن المرضى يستحقون مرضهم لأنهم ليسوا أصحاب إرادةٍ أو شغوفين بما فيه الكفاية، أو لسببٍ ما كانوا قد جلبوا المرض لأنفسهم

الكتاب بسيط وصادق، ولا يكشف جميع الأسباب الكامنة وراء إكتئابها، بإستثناء إصابة ابنها بمرض السكري وهو صغير وإنهيار أعمالها، إلا أنه رائد. وعلى الرغم من أنه موجز/ مختصر إلا أنه عمل شجاع في مجتمع يتم فيه قمع كثير من النساء وترويعهنّ. يجب أن تبقى المرأة لطيفة وصامتة ولكنّ إيمان الفقير هي واحدة من القلّة اللاتي تحدّثن

هذا الكتاب هو الهزة ماقبل الزلزال. إنتظروا كتابها القادم

Alta’ir Durham-Jordan Exchange 2019 no hi


Alta’ir is a partnership project between the Durham Book Festival/New Writing North (co-founder), the British Institute in Amman/Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) (co-founder), St Aidan’s College, Durham University (co-founder), and Dr Fadia Faqir (initiator and co-founder).

The project aims to encourage dialogue with Jordan and the Arab world through literature. The cultural exchange and dialogue that it will enable and create, will open windows for non-Arab audiences in the UK onto the realities of Arab cultures in all their diversity and vibrancy, enabling fruitful discourse to develop. It is hoped that this will lead to further exchange, to mutual respect, to new writings, and deeper understanding.


“We live in dark times and are witnessing the return of fascism. As an Arab woman I go to sleep and wake up the next morning criminalised although completely innocent. Constantly misrepresented and deformed by the British Media, I started to feel insignificant and helpless. To empower myself and marginalised others like me and 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. An exchange programme between Jordan and Durham seemed a fitting way of challenging preconceptions and creating spaces for conversations and meaningful dialogues between civilisations, peoples and writers.
“I was born in Amman and spent the first third of my life there, then I studied and taught at different universities in the UK, but 25 years ago I settled in Durham. It was time to give back to my hometown Amman and to Durham, the city that adopted me, and what better way of doing that than shining a light on the writings of Jordanian authors and poets and their counterparts based in the North East of England. So, as a Jordanian/British writer I initiated the exchange programme to give back to both cities, which are part of mental landscape and fiction.”  _ Fadia Faqir, initiator and co-founder of Alta’ir.

British Author Who Went to Jordan
Andrew Michael Hurley (born 1975) is a British writer whose debut novel, The Loney, was published under Hodder and Stoughton’s John Murray imprint in 2015. It is the winner of the 2015 Costa Book Awards First Novel Award as well as the British Book Industry award for best debut fiction and book of the year 2016. His second novel, Devil’s Day, was published on 19 October 2017 by John Murray and Tartarus Press and was joint winner of the Royal Society of Literature’s 2018 Encore Award for the best second novel. Hurley has previously had two volumes of short stories published by the Lime Tree Press (Cages and Other Stories, 2006, and The Unusual Death of Julie Christie and Other Stories, 2008). He lives in Lancashire, where he teaches English literature and creative writing.
Andrew Michael Hurley began his stay in Jordan with a welcome lunch at the British Institute in Amman/CBRL. The lunch was hosted by: Dr Carol Palmer, the director of the institute, and Mr Firas Bqa’en, Operations Manager for CBRL, and was attended by author Fadia Faqir, the initiator of Alta’ir exchange program, HE Haza’a Albarari, first secretary of the Ministry of Culture, authors Kafa Al-Zoubi, Mofleh Aladwan, and Jalal Bargas, and architect and artist Ammar Khammash. The delicious lunch was cooked to perfection by Um-Mohamad.
Andrew then visited The House of Poetry in Amman on 3 September 2019. Located in Jabal al-Jofeh, the house, which is a fine example of 1930’s architecture, is now a home to poetry recitals, cultural activities and a database of Jordanian poets and poetry.  From its large veranda and garden, you can see the Citadel on the opposite hill and the Roman Amphitheatre in the valley, at the heart of Amman’s city centre. The visit was kindly organised by writer Mofleh Aladwan, director of the Royal Cultural Centre, and Ms Shima Al Tall, head of Dept of Culture at Amman Municipality.
Andrew spent a few days in Wadi Fynan, Wadi Rum and Petra and went back to Amman through the King’s Highway passing by Tafilah, Kerk and Madaba. Mr Ammar Khammash took him on a tour of the Eastern Desert. He also visited Bethany, the Dead Sea, and Madaba.
The Narrative Lab in Amman organised a meeting for him with Jordanian writers at the Shoman Foundation. It was chaired by Mofleh Aladwan and attend by Carol Palmer, director of the British Institute in Amman and co-founder of Alta’ir, Firas Bqa’in, Operations Manager for CBRL’s British Institute in Amman, Fadia Faqir, writing fellow at St Aidan’s College, Durham University, and initiator and cofounder of Alta’ir, and Rachel Telfer,  UK executive officer at CBRL, and the following Jordanian writers: Fida’ Al Hadidi, Kafa Al Zoubi, Muhammad Jamil Khader, Khairi Al-Dhabi, Kawthar al-Jondi, As’ad Khalifa Mekhled Barakat, Kawthar Khalid al-Zoubi and Hashim Gharaibeh.
Andrew spoke about visiting Wadi Fynan, ‘This valley was one of the routes our distant ancestors took during their migration from Africa to Europe and so to touch the water here is to touch what binds us all. And now the name of the project that’s brought me to Jordan – Alta’ir, the bird, the flying one – makes complete sense. It’s a reminder of our shared aspiration for freedom and flow. From the sky, the bird sees nothing but an open world.’ Read the full text here

Writer Who Came to Durham
Kafa Al-Zoubi is a Jordanian writer, born in 1965. She obtained a BA in Civil Engineering from Saint Petersburg University, Russia, where she remained until 2006. She is the author of six novels. Her second book, Laila, the Snow and Ludmilla (2007) dealt with the collapse of the Soviet Union and questions of Arab and Russian identities and was published in Russian in Moscow in 2010. Her fourth novel Go Back Home, Khalil (2009) was published only in Russia. Her fifth novel S was translated into Spanish in 2018. Her sixth novel, Cold White Sun, a multi-layered, modernist novel, with a trace of post-modernity, in which the social realism of great Russian literature is mixed with absurdism and existential philosophy, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019 (OKA Arabic Booker). Kafa Al-Zoubi writes for the Jordanian and Arab press and lives in Amman, Jordan.
Kafa stayed at St Aidan’s College, Durham University between 3-17 October 2019. New Writing North/Durham Book Festival invited her to a welcome dinner at Indigo Hotel on 4 October. Then she met Leila Aboulela, who was speaking at the festival. Kafa attended the Gordon Burn Prize Ceremony at the Gala Theatre and the private view of Mr Ammar Khammash’s exhibition and the following special dinner.
Al-Zoubi and Hurley spoke at the Durham Book Festival on 12 October 2019 about their writing and their impressions of the countries, cities and the towns they had visited. Andrew read an extract from his novel Devil’s Day and Kafa read a few lines in Arabic and then Ouissal Harize, translator and interpreter, read her full testimony. Issues related to colonialism, orientalism, misrepresentation, and inclusion were also discussed.
A talk at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures was jointly organised for Kafa before her departure by the Arabic and Russian departments.

Artist Who Came to Durham
To accompany the writers’ exchange an exhibition of Jordanian artist Ammar Khammash’s work will open to the public between 11-17 October at St Aidan’s College, Durham University. Ammar Khammash is one of the more prominent artists to come out of the Middle East in the 21st century and is a multi-talented Jordanian who has made his mark in several disciplines. He held eighteen solo and participated in over 20 group exhibitions since 1978. His paintings are multi-layered and transmit the richness of Jordanian landscape and his deep knowledge of the terrain, its geology and history.
Mr Ammar Khammash arrived in Durham to attend the private view of his solo exhibition at St Aidan’s College, Durham University and the following special dinner on 11 October. He attended the Gordon Burn Prize Ceremony and Alta’ir event at the Durham Book Festival.
On October 13 he went with Kafa Al Zoubi on a tour of Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall, and Roman Vindolanda Fort and Museum. Then attended an Art Tour organised by the Curator of Western Art at Durham University.
On October 14 poet Linda France, Alta’ir fellow 2018, led a creative writing workshop entitled ‘Ancient Landscape’ on Ammar Khammash’s art. The workshop was a rare opportunity to explore these dramatic landscape paintings at close hand and consider the poetry of place. It experimented with the rich possibilities of ekphrastic writing – giving words to our in-the-moment sense of the artist’s vision – transported to Jordan’s spectacular terrain.

Farewell Lunch
On October 15 a farewell lunch was organised for Kafa Al-Zoubi and Ammar Khammash and was attended by Andrew Michael Hurley. Dr Susan Frenk, principle of St Aidan’s college, welcomed the guests and presented them with gifts. Fadia Faqir, writing fellow at St Aidan’s college and initiator and co-founder of Alta’ir, described how the exchange has blossomed and how a seed, which was planted in 2016, grew into a beautiful tree with a bird ‘Alta’ir’ perched on it. She also thanked all partners, supporters, and sponsors.

It is important to acknowledge the help and support Alta’ir Durham-Jordan:
Creative Collaboration programme has received from the following amazing people:
On the Jordanian side:
Carol Palmer and Firas Bqa’in at the CBRL for their kind hospitality
Writer and playwright HE Haza’ Albarai, first secretary of the Ministry of Culture
Writer and playwright Mofleh Aladwan for his continual help and support of this project
Ammar Khammash for his generous support
Writer Jalal Barjas at the Jordanian Narrative Lab
Valentina Kassisieh, CEO of the Shoman Foundation, and her amazing staff
Shima Al Tal and her amazing staff
Kafa Al-Zoubi and her husband Salam Qubailat for their generous hospitality
On the British side:
St Aidan’s College, Durham UniversityMy colleagues Dr Susan Frenk, principal; Sukanya Miles-Watson, assistant senior tutor; and Emma Wilson, college office coordinator
Rebecca Wilkie, senior programmes manager, Durham Book Festival
Claire Malcolm, CEO of New Writing North
Adam Talib, Director of Studies at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Durham University
Ouissal Harize, School of Modern Language and Cultures for carrying out all the translation and interpretation for the exchange.
Eman Al Assa, DPET scholar, School of Modern Language and Cultures, for helping out with instant interpretation.

This year’s exchange wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of Durham Book Festival/ New Writing North, The British Institute in Amman/CBRL, St Aidan’s College, Durham University, and Mr Ammar Khammash.

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

Arabs Writing in English

The full text of Hani Bargouthi’s interview for

1. Could you walk me through the process of deciding to write your novels?

The creative process is complex and has a mystery to it. You do not ‘decide’ to write your novels. They come to life on their own volition. Issues germinate and at one point it becomes necessary to express your enthusiasms through the medium of fiction. Each novel tackled questions that I was grappling with or exposes an injustice through a medium that hopefully humanizes and beautifies.

2. Where did choosing to write in English fit into the process? Why did you decide to write in English, despite the subject matter mostly being Arab countries, characters and storylines?

I didn’t choose to write in English. The British Council gave me a scholarship to do an MA in Britain, and as a freelance journalist then the idea of doing a creative writing degree was appealing. I wrote my first novel in English and then went back to Jordan, studied Fusha Arabic and was determined to write in my mother tongue. But in the 1980s oppression was the order of the day at every level whether political or personal. I could not breathe let alone write.  Let me quote Sartre, ‘The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.’ One of the prerequisites for writing is freedom. So I decided to go back to the UK and do a Ph.D. in creative writing. After that – as Conrad said – English became a capability.

3. How did writing in English affect the publication process, and was it easier to find a publisher in English than it would have been to find an Arab one? Did this contribute to writing in English?

Actually it is very easy to find a publisher in Arabic. All you have to do is pay them and you get published. This is how most publishing houses in the Arab world function: authors pay publication costs.

In Britain the story is different. Publishing is on merit only and you cannot buy your way into it. I wrote because I was silenced by my society and finding a voice in whatever language was essential for my survival. I honestly didn’t expect to be published or catered for an audience.

4. Did you find it easier to write in English considering some of the subject matter being taboo?

Yes, at the beginning. In Nisanit I was free to write whatever I wanted and because of that newly-found freedom the text is full of four-letter words. Fusha Arabic, which is a product of a male-dominated culture, is masculine and riddled with taboos. So I took refuge in another language and wrote about sensitive issues. But after writing in English for a while I discovered its own restrictions so each language has a cultural residue that comes with prohibitions and etiquettes. A skilled writer navigates through all of that.

5. How do you feel the work’s publication in English has affected the size and type of audience?

There is no doubt that if you write in English your audience is international. My books were published in eighteen countries and sold well in Australia, the USA, India etc. That wouldn’t have been possible if I wrote in Arabic. However more and more Arabs read and the audience in the Arab world now is considerable.

6. Would you be open to your work being translated to Arabic? How involved would you like to be in the process?

I was translated into Arabic. The Arabic translation of My Name is Salma went into a third edition, which I am really pleased about. I was completely engaged in the translation process and oversaw every word, every sentence.  By the way the translation is faithful to the English original and not a single word was omitted or idea censored. Willow Trees Don’t Weep is being considered for translation into Arabic.

7. Given the subject matter, how do you think people would have received the work had it been written in Arabic instead?

Judging from the reviews and my engagement with readers of the Arabic translation the reaction is overall positive despite the controversial subject matter. The Arab world is in turmoil and readers are eager for literary works that tackle taboos and sensitive issues.

8. Do you feel that the Arabic language is equipped to cover all the topics discussed in your work?

Now I think it is. Language is just a tool and if you master it you can create whatever you want: feminist, dystopian or magic realist novels. But women, for example, have to expose its misogyny and purge it first.

9. Will you continue to write in English?

I don’t know where the journey will take me after finishing Petra Mon Amour, the novel I am working on. Will it take me back to writing in Arabic, my mother tongue? Who knows? Watch this space.


1. More than any other novel I can think of, The Cry of the Dove is suffused with the tastes and scents of food, herbs, trees, and flowers—often overlooked aspects of the natural world that affect us on a day-to-day basis. In the novel, all of the most poignant moments and many of the descriptions of women are focused around specific foods, beverages, and landscape elements, rendered in wonderfully evocative language: lavender, ripe olives, orange blossoms, jasmine, sage tea, lentils, frozen fish sticks, biscuits, spicy ghee butter sandwiches, cardamom, fresh coffee beans ground in a sandalwood pestle and mortar, fish & chips, orange juice, French strawberry jam, English cream tea, falafel, grapes, goat’s cheese, tomatoes, peaches, melons. Most of the chapter titles also refer to foods, scents, and flavours: Vines and Fig Trees; Lilac or Jasmine; Peaches and Snakes; Butter, Honey and Coconuts; English Tea; Milk and Honey; Dal and Willow Trees; Turkish Delights and Coconuts; Lemons and Monkeys; Musk Roses and Dogwood Trees. Was this done consciously? Why? What does this tell us about Salma? About England? About Hima? About being a stranger in a country? What do these beautiful sensory details add to the progression of the story and to the development of the themes?

It was done consciously to create a clear sense of Hima. It also tells us that Salma is in harmony with the natural world. Growing up a Bedouin farmer in Hima, she was always very aware of her natural surroundings. This richness is not reflected in the urban environment in which she finds herself in in England, and the lack intensifies her sense of loneliness. Also, the chapter headings were meant to draw the reader’s attention to specific points in the narrative and evoke a sensory reaction that would give a certain flavour to each chapter.

2. One chapter is titled Milk and Honey. The Levant has been known as “the land of milk and honey” for around two thousand years. Salma says that she “expected to find milk and honey streaming down the streets.” What is the significance of “milk and honey” in The Cry of the Dove?

This image is taken from the Qur’an and is used to describe Muslim paradise, where rivers of milk and honey flow. So Salma is pursuing not only material gain, but a dream of happiness, wholeness and access to paradise. It is a tall order, of course, and life takes Salma in a tragically different direction.

3. While many of your Western readers have some knowledge of Muslims and the Middle-East, many of us do not know much about the Bedouin in particular. Can you tell us about them? Why did you decide to make Salma Bedouin?

I spent part of my childhood with the Bedouin, who were semi-nomadic then, herding the goats and sheep, reaping crops and traveling to the wheat-threshing floor. My second novel, Pillars of Salt, was written to document that magical landscape and to preserve the Bedouins’ noble way of life, which is fast disappearing. The Bedouin live a simple, pure, yet regal life and because I lived with them they are part of my mental landscape. Salma embodies all the characteristics of the Bedouin—on the one hand, the landscape and the people are wonderful, and on the other, traditions like honour crimes are widespread. This paradoxical setting keeps the novel from becoming a one-sided Orientalist narrative.

4.I think I can say that being a shepherdess is also quite an unfamiliar concept to Western readers. Are many women in the Levant or among the Bedouin shepherdesses, or is Salma a rare case and thus an outsider not only in the Western world but even in some parts of the Middle East?

I lived with the Bedouin when I was young and women shepherdesses were quite common. At that time, the Bedouin were still primarily nomadic, taking their herds to meadows. They are mostly settled now and it is harder to find shepherdesses unless you travel deep into the desert.

5. In effect, Salma’s desperate last actions negate all the time, money and emotion many people have exerted to save her from an honour killing and help her make a new life—Miss Nailah, Khairiyya, Miss Asher and the Little Sisters, Minister Mahoney, Mrs. Henderson, Parvin, Max, Gwen and John. Some of these people even risked their own lives to help her escape. What does Salma’s decision to return to Hima alone mean? Was saving her in the first place interfering? Or was not enough done to make her forget her past and fully embrace her new life? Or was it “fate” and the call of her lost daughter that she couldn’t ignore?

Salma had to go back to save her daughter. The tug of the past was so strong that all the investment in giving her a better life could not combat it. Salma took one step forward and two steps back. She wanted to look for her lost daughter. Call it “fate” if you like, or Bedouin justice.

6. Is it common for women who have been saved by outsiders from an honour killing to return voluntarily to the place where their lives are in danger?

Women who are victims of honour killings simply die. It is rare for women who are accused of tarnishing the honour of their community to leave their countries. Most Western countries, for example, still do not give asylum to victims. So the second part of the question is irrelevant. I created Salma and sent her back to show how entrenched concepts of honour are in some societies.

7. In the UK The Cry of the Dove is published as My Name Is Salma. What is the difference in the significance of the two titles?

“The Cry of the Dove” was born because I used the lyrics of Prince’s song When Doves Cry. Then I had to take them out because of copyright rules. “My Name is Salma” is closer to what I intended to say. Salma uses different names, but when she is being truthful and closer to herself, she says, “my name is Salma.” Elsewhere I wrote:
Today, victims of honour crimes are dumped in unmarked graves without any funeral services. Their families bury their life histories with them and repress any acts of remembrance. This novel celebrates the life of one of the faceless victims of honour crimes and is a humble attempt to give her a name, a voice and a life. One day the civil code which allows such crimes to be committed will be replaced by a humane and egalitarian law. We shall call it Salma’s Law, to commemorate the innocent victims of honour crimes. One day we shall build a mausoleum in the centre of many capitals and inscribe on it the names of the women who were senselessly murdered. One day the spirits of the unknown victims shall return home, to where they belong, shall return to our hearts and minds.

In the meantime . . . whenever the Jordanian breeze hits my face, a sudden chill runs from the roots to the ends of each hair on my body and my chest collapses as if I were drowning. I can hear all the innocent victims calling me; their cries of pain rend Bedouin garments. This one died of three shots in the head; that one of twelve stab wounds—and she was left for four hours, bleeding to death before her father called an ambulance; this one was pushed off a high cliff by her aunt; that one set fire to herself in the bathroom, it was “suicide.” The sound of keening fills the deserts, plains and hills of Jordan. Wherever black iris grows you will find the victims. I shall kneel down to mark their graves and name their names.

8. Parvin seems to have a much easier time adjusting and integrating. Why is this?

Parvin is a second generation immigrant who is familiar with the rules of British society. Salma arrives late in life and tries hard to understand her alien environment. So Parvin guides Salma into the maze of British society. It was important to show the contrast between different immigrant groups.

9. Although Liz and Salma are very different in many ways, they both suffered tragedy in love at a young age—tragedies caused by their own families. Did you intend this parallel? Did you intend a general comment about the destructive effects of strong family or cultural traditions clashing with passionate young love?

Yes, I wanted to show that traditions, whether they are in England or the Arab world, are a straitjacket and can cripple the individual. The parallels between Liz and Salma were intentional and also an attempt to humanize Liz so the reader is not quick to condemn her. This novel is an attempt to humanize both the Arabs and the British.

10. Salma is brought to life so vividly in The Cry of the Dove. I’m just the reader and I find it hard to believe she’s “gone” (and the book finished!). How do you create your characters? How do you relate to them? Do you miss them once you’ve finished a novel?

It is similar to childbirth—painful, emotional and a sort of exorcism. As Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, “Salma, c’est moi.” She is part of me, yet not me. We have two things in common: our sense of loneliness in an alien society and a deep sense of loss and yearning for our child. I lost custody of my son when he was thirteen months old. So, like Salma, I thought of him, pined for him, looked for him everywhere. That is where the similarity ends. However, I miss Salma terribly.

I am writing a new novel entitled At the Midnight Kitchen. In it, a group of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions live next to one another in a block of flats in Hammersmith, London. There is violence, self-hatred, guilt, pursuit of redemption, compassion, humour and forgiveness. I am reluctant to finish it. I don’t want to say goodbye to my characters. It is a strange feeling. You want to keep the baby inside you rather than give birth to it and leave it fending for itself.