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Book review: The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (translated by Jonathan Wright)

Reviewed by Krishnasruthi Srivalsan

The Bamboo Stalk

Title: The Bamboo Stalk
Author: Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
Pages: 384
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The protagonist of Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk is a deeply conflicted man. Jose Mendoza is raised in his mother’s country as a god fearing Catholic who was baptised in the church at the age of ten. Yet, his mother prepares him for a life in the promised ‘paradise’, his father’s country, Kuwait. Jose has a Kuwaiti passport, a Kuwaiti name – Isa al Tarouf – but as the son of his father’s Filipino maid, he’ll never be accepted by his father’s family, despite being the only male heir to carry forward the family name.

Expertly translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, this is an immensely moving novel, weighing heavily on metaphors, that explores multiple themes like race and religion, identity and class, and highlights the often humiliating immigrant experience overseas, especially in the Gulf.

Alsanousi, a Kuwaiti journalist and novelist whose earlier work includes the novel The Prisoner of Mirrors, explores the concept of ‘the other’ in this book. Often the underdog, the ‘other’ is viewed negatively by the majority. Not being able to fit into clear boxes, the ‘other’ find themselves in a murky marshland of mixed up identities, rootless and unwanted. Blinded by one’s own prejudices, society fails to acknowledge and empathise with the ‘other’ and it is precisely for this reason that al Sanousi modelled Jose as his protagonist.

Jose’s story begins with his mother, Josephine, who leaves the squalor of poverty back home in the Philippines and goes to Kuwait in search of a better paying job. She lands at the house of the illustrious al Tarouf family whose matriarch, Ghanima, is as superstitious as she is stubborn. Joza, as Ghanima refers to the Filipino servant girl, arrives on the day a bomb explodes near the Kuwaiti Emir’s motorcade, narrowly missing him. Ever since, Ghanima has viewed Joza’s arrival as a sign of bad luck. Rashid, Ghanima’s only son, an aspiring idealistic writer, is taken by Joza’s good looks, and she agrees to a ‘temporary marriage’ which ends the day Jose is born. Josephine returns home and her son is raised with the promise that he will one day go back to Kuwait.

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Dispatches from the Land of Erasure


Over the past year, a group of Arab American writers—Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema K. Shehabi, and I—began a group text, sharing stories about our own lives and the predicament of being Arab in America. This group text often touched on matters regarding the state of literary arts, though it was equally a space full of photos of our kids and lives. We had the sense of wanting to archive these conversations for future Arab American writers and somewhere along the line, the idea of a group essay emerged. I proposed that it would catalog the erasures we’d witnessed or experienced, but that it also would celebrate the liberatory work happening in our community, the poems and stories and art that hold us together and raise us up. In that group text we were after an asylum, a safe space, where we could explore and share inchoate thoughts, half-dreams, and the rough edges of our feelings.

These dispatches emerge from the inspiration of that space, though they lack the rough and informal improvisatory quality of a community talking with itself. Three other recent essays are also points of departure for these “Dispatches”—all of which were informed by the group text. Fady Joudah’s “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” Randa Jarrar’s “Ask Auntie Randa” pieces, and my “Same as It Ever Was: Orientalism Forty Years Later” confront the poison of white supremacy and Orientalism in American politics, literature, and culture, while offering antidotes: reclaiming beauty, liberation, and community.

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Israel convicts a Palestinian poet, NYC writers gather in solidarity

On Thursday Palestinian poet and photographer Dareen Tatour was convicted by an Israeli court of incitement to violence and support for a terror organization, ending a years-long legal battle that began with Tatour posting a poem on Facebook entitled “Resist, my people, resist them.”

First arrested in October of 2015, Tatour was one of the earliest targets of Israel’s cybercrime unit, and its controversial predictive policing strategy of scanning social media posts for language perceived to be a threat against the state. In the years since, a rapidly increasing number of Palestinians–many of them teenagers–have been arrested over statements made online, often for little more than using the word “martyr” on Facebook.

In Tatour’s case, she spent much of the past three years on house arrest, as Israeli prosecutors argued that her calls to “resist the settlers’ robbery” and “not succumb to the ‘peaceful solution’” amounted to a violent threat against the state. That position has been condemned by free speech advocates like PEN International, and by over 300 writers, including Alice Walker, Claudia Rankine, and Naomi Klein, in an online petition circulated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

While prohibited from accessing the internet or using a cell phone, Tatour has maintained a line to the outside world through letters and her poetry. “Despite all this I have continued to write and I have touched the meaning of freedom,” she wrote, days before the verdict, in a letter addressed to JVP members. “Ideas have wings that no one can bind . . . My words have been able to cross distances and traverse borders until they reached to you.”

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Stockholm librarian Elisabet Risberg on Arabic books in Sweden

Just over six months ago, Publishing Perspectives reported that the United Arab Emirates’ Kalimat Foundation for Children’s Empowerment provided 2,000 Arabic books for presentation during Sweden’s Göteborg Book Fair—a gesture of solidarity with Sweden’s Arab community.

The foundation’s creator, Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, had learned that Arabic is the second or third most-spoken language in Sweden today because of the diaspora of Arabic speakers to the Scandinavian nation.

The Arabic-language books from Sharjah,” she told us at the time, “are to be distributed to 25 libraries in various parts of Sweden.”

With the distribution of that donation now complete, Publishing Perspectives has been in touch with Elisabet Risberg, who leads the Internationella biblioteket, the International Library of Stockholm, to find out how the outreach from Sharjah to Sweden’s Arabic-speaking children has gone.

The International Library in central Stockholm feeds the national network of libraries with multilingual content, and its website can be read in Swedish, in Arabic, in Englishin FrenchChinesePersianRussian and Spanish.

All told, the international library is working in more than 100 languages and it can dispatch content in a requested language to the entire library system in Sweden.

We began by asking Risberg about the concept of the Kalimat provision of Arabic books for children in Sweden.

Elisabet Risberg: When I first heard about the donation, I was confused. Why should we in a rich country accept donations of  Arabic children’s books?

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New translation funding for Arabic Literature from the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

This year, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is offering translation funding for literary and children’s titles that have won the award, with the goal of increasing the readership for Arabic books.

Along with the recent announcement of its 2018 winners, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) is also launching a new translation funding initiative to encourage more publishers to translate Arabic literature.

Organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism- Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award recognizes writers and academics writing in Arabic and those promoting Arab culture in other languages.

Literary and children’s titles that have won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award are eligible for translation grants of up to approximately US$19,000. (See a list of eligible titles.) Additional grants for certain types of production and promotion are also available. Priority will be given to publishers translating into English, German, and French, though other languages will also be considered.

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It was or it was not: Femininity in Arabic folktales

The folktales in Pearls on a Branch, oral survivors from a preliterate era, resemble a quilt made with the fabrics of well-loved clothes. Just as patches of cloth in a quilt are arranged in different combinations to form a design, traditional folk motifs appear and reappear in a variety of settings and plots to shape the stories. One prince falls in love with the grocer’s daughter next door, another can’t take his eyes off the Bedouin girl he sees on his way to the hunt, all to the horror of the royal mothers. Here a golden anklet, and there a voice heard out of an open window, inspire obsessive love for their unknown owners. A songbird with green feathers reveals one crime and a speaking nightingale another. In the stories, love conquers all, but inevitably there are obstacles on the way to the happy ending. These are tales told by women to women so, not surprisingly, the main characters often are young women with remarkable courage, wit, and endurance. Whatever their unfortunate circumstances at the beginning, whether poverty or oppression, they are the heroines in the end.

The thirty texts gathered in Pearls on a Branch have been chosen from a hundred tales, recorded and transcribed by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and published in Beirut in 2014. Captured on tape, these are verbatim renderings of the storytellers speaking. The translation, like the transcriptions, adheres word for word to the Arabic original. The aim is to allow the English reader to listen in as the storytellers, older women living in Lebanon in the last quarter of the twentieth century, pass on the stories they had heard in childhood. Only in the verses that ornament many of the stories does the English sometimes need a few added words to be comprehensible.

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Sheikh Zayed Book Award announces 2018 winners

Now in its 12th year, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award announced on April 2 its 2018 winners across seven categories. Worth US$1.9 million in annual prizes, this award—organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism- Abu Dhabi—aims to bring global attention to Arabic-language writers and to celebrate academics writing about Arabic culture in other languages.

Syrian author Khalil Sweileh is the 2018 winner in the Literature category for his latest novel, Remorse Test, published by Nofal-Hachette Antoine. This timely novel takes the reader inside the Syrian civil war and its devastating consequences on the country’s people and places.

The jury statement reads, “The novel portrays an inward view of the Syrian Civil War tragedy; the author takes the reader on a trip around Damascus, trudging down the memory lanes and presenting the psychological conflicts amid the shattered reality of place and society—marking an important addition to the Syrian literature, with a unique use of narrative tools and vocabulary construction.”

Sweileh won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2009 for his novel, The Scribe of Love, which was translated into English by Alexa Firat and published by The American University in Cairo Press.

In the Children’s Literature category, this year’s winner is Emirati author Hessa Al Muhairi for her book, The Dinoraf, published by Al Hudhud Publishing and Distribution. In this picture book, Al Huhairi teaches children about tolerance and acceptance.

Of its decision to award this year’s prize to The Dinoraf, the prize jury wrote, “The story is set in the Animal Kingdom, where a dinosaur is out on a mission to find his parallel among the rest of animals. Throughout his journey, he gets to know the differences between the animals, which finally lead him to find his connection with the giraffe, hence becoming the ‘Dinoraf,’ in a unique portrayal of the contemporary case of peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance of cultural differences within the global society.”

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How women are collaborating to tell stories that break through the noise on Syria

Between the news coverage, reportage and statistics around the ongoing Syrian civil war and the battle against Islamic State the firsthand experiences of ordinary civilians on the frontlines are difficult to source and expose. Yet these are often the very stories that can often provide crucial wartime evidence, chronicle social and historic shifts, or unearth true narratives that can counter official ones. And these stories are increasingly found on our bookshelves rather than on the newsstands.

From testimonies to short stories, graphic novels to memoirs, female writers, journalists and survivors are currently fronting the literatures of war, conflict and exile. The past two years have seen a surge of books and memoirs authored by women that capture the far-reaching human consequences of the Syrian civil war. Amid the fatigued reportage on its increasingly more complex escalations – and the cynical moves of other nations vested in opposing outcomes – these are compelling testaments to what befalls ordinary people as a consequence of fanaticism and powerful interests.

A remarkable example is Farida Khalaf’s 2016 memoir The Girl Who Beat ISIS. Khalaf and her family are Yazidis, members of a Kurdish-speaking minority who follow an ancient, pre-Islamic faith. The book recounts how Islamic State crossed the border into their mountainside village in northern Iraq, killing the men, recruiting the boys, and taking women and girls to slave markets in Raqqa.

Through testimonies of those such as Khalaf, the genocide against the Yazidis was officially recognised by the UN. Khalaf, in collaboration with German journalist Andrea C. Hoffmann, shaped their series of detailed interviews into a first-person narrative. Despite the indiscriminate violence visited on whole communities and towns, her memoir reminds that what women have suffered at the hands of IS, and what they continue to endure in refugee camps, is further devastating still.

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Lebanese Novelist Emily Nasrallah, 86

The quiet, firm Lebanese feminist author and activist Emily Nasrallah (1931-2018) — celebrated for her debut novel Birds of September — has died.

Born in the summer of 1931, Emily Nasrallah grew up in Al Kfeir, a village in southern Lebanon, before moving to Beirut to study and work as a journalist and teacher. Her debut novel, Birds of Septembercame out in 1962 and was later listed as one of the Arab Writers Union’s 105 best books of the twentieth century. It has been translated into German as Septembervogel by Veronika Theis, but not into English.

Journalist, translator, and author Olivia Snaije, in her brief tribute Wednesday, wrote that Nasrallah was “one of the first to write short stories, to write both about her village in the south and Beirut, during the civil war” and was “a real feminist, gracious, quiet, firm.”

Nasrallah’s other widely known work is Yawmiyyat Hirr (1997), a book for children that was translated into English as What Happened to Zeeko (2001), as well as into Thai, Dutch, and German. It describes everyday life during Civil War-era Beirut from the perspective of a tomcat.

Two other books by Nasrallah have translated to English. The first by Issa Boullata, as  Flight Against Time, and the second a collection of short stories, House Not Her Own, translated by Thuraya Khalil-Khouri.

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Fictional writing as Western resistance: How two writers challenged Western Orientalist depictions of the Arab “other”

The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 led to a deluge of writing on Western representations of the Orient. Of the recent scholarship that deals with nineteenth and early twentieth-century Orientalism, most either focus on the works of Western scholars of the Orient, or on cultural and literary productions from the time. Said’s scholarship cast new light on past writings by Arab academics, such as Anouar Abdel-MalikA.L. Tibawi, and Abdallah Laroui, who had already critiqued Western tropes of the Orient. The tropes Said and others were criticizing had several things in common: they depicted Arabs as less moral and intelligent, and often less human than the Westerner. Although Said’s argument in Orientalism was perceived as groundbreaking, he was not the first to write such criticism, nor was his research necessarily unique. While Arab intellectuals from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are rarely considered critics of Orientalist narratives, when studying texts from this period it becomes apparent that many were critical of the Western projects in the region.

Two Nahḍa[1] Writers’ Responses to European Orientalism: Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq and Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī

Two Arab intellectuals that wrote works that were highly critical of Europe’s interference in the region were Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq and Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī. Their responses to the West were complex, as they were not only critical of the military or political aspects of the colonial encounter, but also the problematic language used in Europe to discuss the people and cultures of the Middle East.

The focus on Arab intellectuals’ responses to Orientalist tropes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is important, as such investigations are sorely lacking from the existing literature that examines the wide-ranging use of such tropes. This is particularly problematic as it has the effect of further silencing the subjects of Orientalism, while intentionally or unintentionally portraying them as unable to speak up about the treatment they were receiving. The relationships between Orientalist scholars and Arab intellectuals took many different forms, and although I am highlighting two intellectuals who were highly critical of the West, this is of course not the case with all of their peers.

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