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The legendary Iranian poet who gives me hope

(From Lit Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

I grew up in a house with very few books, but there was one that came with my family from Iran and never let me go: a slender, battered book of poetry my mother displayed on the mantle, next to photographs of our family and the country we’d been forced to flee. The cover showed a woman with kohl-lined eyes and bobbed hair, and the Persian script slanted upwards, as if in flight from the page. That book wasn’t an object or even an artifact but an atmosphere. Parting the pages released a sharp, acrid scent that was the very scent of Iran, which was also the scent of time, love, and loss.

I wouldn’t know this for a long time, but Forugh Farrokhzad, the author of that book, died in a car crash eleven years before my family left Iran for America. She was just 32 and when she died she was the country’s most notorious woman. Her poems were revolutionary: a radical bid for self-expression and democracy written in a time and place which showed little tolerance for either, particularly when women voiced the desire for them.

Like the thousands of other Iranians who left Iran in the late 1970s, my family escaped the country in a hurry. It was 1978, a year on the edge of political upheaval. Soon there would be gunfire and tanks and dead bodies heaped in the streets. In 1978 no one could know that, but many people—especially the poets and artists—sensed it.

That was almost 40 years ago. I was five, and yet the details are strangely vivid: my grandmother sitting me on her lap to watch the pop diva Googoosh on television while my mother packed our suitcases. It was winter, and the snow was falling fast that night in Tehran. “We’ll be back soon,” my mother kept saying, but something in her made her walk over to the bookshelf and pick up her favorite book—a book of poems by Forugh. Something in her must have known she would need it.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here

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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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Ayelet Gundar-Goshen recommends the best of Contemporary Israeli Fiction

Do you think Israel’s fiction must engage with her politics?

I think Israel is a very political country. We are in the middle of a huge conflict zone and we have two thousand years of history of very difficult politics. I don’t think it is possible to write anything in Israel without referring to politics, and if you were to decide to write something without referring to politics, then that in itself is a political decision. I don’t mean to say that fiction has to limit itself only to the current conflict. Writing is a political act, but it’s much wider than everyday politics: it’s a political act because it deals with morals, with people, with power and knowledge.

It goes without saying that the political situation is immensely complex. Have you found that Israeli fiction engages with all sides of the debate?

Most of the writers I know are left-wing, while the majority of people in Israel vote for the right-wing Netanyahu. So there is a gap here between literature and the political map.

Where does that gap come from?

I think literature is a humanistic act. While writing a novel, you have to put yourself into the shoes of ‘the other’. Once you try to write from a different perspective, you cannot remain blind to the needs of other people or other nations.

So writing literature is fundamentally a left-wing activity?

I’m not saying that all writers are left-wing, but I do think there is something humanistic about the very idea that human life is important enough for us to sit down and write about it for pages and pages. Of course there are fascist novels in the history of literature, but I think there’s something in writing fiction that forces you to look where you don’t usually look – otherwise it would make bad literature. Maybe that’s why, if you write about the conflict, you can’t just say: ok we’re right and that’s it, you have to start asking questions. I see myself as an Israeli patriot—I believe Israel has every right to exist—but I can’t ignore Palestinian rights as well.

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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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Same as it ever was: Orientalism 40 years later

…..

In addition to reading the classics like Edward Said and Jack Shaheen, I recommend exploring contemporary Arab and Arab American writers and scholars. There is no shortage of them, of us. For one place to start, check out the list of Arab American Book Award winners. In terms of scholarship, Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 (2012) updates Said to explore how contemporary media often deploy a “good Arab” to create the illusion of complex representation, what she calls a “simplified complex representation.” In terms of literature, Khaled Mattawa’s lyrical poems and translations have brought into English so much beauty and wisdom. Likewise the work of the indefatigable Marilyn Hacker, in her poems and translations. Marcia Lynx Qualey’s blog called Arabic Literature in English provides a constant reading list. Interlink Books deserves special mention, and there are at least three literary magazines devoted to Arab literature: MiznaBanipal, and Sukoon. For me, the existence of RAWI (the Radius of Arab American Writers) has made me feel a little more at home in the world, and at home in myself. RAWI is home to many prominent Arab American writers, including a core group with whom I regularly group-text: Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema Shehabi.

In poetry, Hayan Charara is the master of dread, whose poems tip the earth beneath us, sliding into the unspeakable; on text, he shares goofy photos of his kids, usually dressed up in hilarious outfits. In poetry, Marwa Helal invented a new kind of poem, the Arabic, which reads right to left; on text, she’s the one who hearts us most, and keeps us hip to slang and people like DJ Khaled, whose embrace of the good life is equal parts hip hop and Arab. In her essays, stories, and Tweets, Jarrar’s drawn to the funny and provocative; one troll called her novel “a handbook on masturbation.” In group-text, she alternates between hilarity and sweetness. Fady Joudah’s just another award-winning poet and translator, whose surprising response to the Levinson affair and other grotesqueries, “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” ought to be read by everyone, vibrating as it is with the birth-pangs of something new. Farid Matuk’s baby girl pops up in group-text, as she does in his new and highly experimental poems, when he’s not going high-theory in voluminous and impeccable texts. Deema Shehabi’s two boys, and her kindness, radiating always, rhymes with her jasmine-scented and fierce poems. What does it mean to know her grandfather was once the mayor of Gaza?

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The man who remade Arabic poetry

Adonis’s poems reflect a lifelong argument with his culture.

In March, 2011, when civil protests broke out in cities and towns across Syria, the country’s most famous poet, Adonis—who is in his eighties and has lived in exile since the mid-nineteen-fifties—hesitated to support the demonstrators. Although he had welcomed earlier uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, he flinched when Syria’s turn came. In an editorial published in al-Hayat, a leading Arabic newspaper, in May, 2011, by which time more than a thousand protesters were dead and government tanks had shelled several towns, Adonis wrote, “I will never agree to participate in a demonstration that comes out of a mosque.” He portrayed the opposition as young naïfs, easily coöpted by canny Islamists who dreamed of establishing a religious authoritarianism that would be even worse than the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Adonis’s assessment of the demonstrators echoed the rhetoric coming from the regime, and many readers were dismayed. For the past sixty years, he has tirelessly called for radical change in every sphere of Arab life, and he is the author of some of the most revolutionary poems in Arabic. Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm, an eminent philosopher at the University of Damascus, was bewildered that Adonis, “the man of freedom, transformation, revolution, progress, and modernity,” should “disparage if not condemn the Syrian revolution from its outset.” But for Adonis the Syrian uprising was no revolution. In a recent interview in French (he has lived in Paris since the mid-nineteen-eighties), he claimed, “It is impossible, in a society like Arab society, to make a revolution unless it is founded on the principle of laïcité ”—the French term for a stringent secularism. Long before the emergence of the Islamic State’s caliphate, Adonis warned that the alliance of theology with state power was the region’s most deep-rooted danger.

Adonis’s long poem “Concerto al-Quds,” published in Arabic in 2012 and now available in an English translation by Khaled Mattawa (Yale), is the poet’s secularist summa, a condemnation of monotheism couched in the form of a surrealist montage. Its subject is Jerusalem—al-Quds, in Arabic—the spiritual center for all three monotheistic faiths and the site of their most apocalyptic imaginings. In the Islamic tradition, Jerusalem was the first qibla (the direction faced in prayer), the starting point of the Prophet Muhammad’s trip to the heavens (al-mi‘raj), and also the place where the archangel Israfil will blow his trumpet on the Day of Resurrection. In Judaism, the city is the site of the First and Second Temples, both destroyed, and the envisaged site of a third. In the Book of Revelation, John beholds a “new Jerusalem” descending from the heavens and hears a voice describing the life to come: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

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The best contemporary Iraqi writing about war

As I write this, I am reeling from the latest immigration announcement from our ricocheting president saying he wants to restrict “certain” Iraqis from coming to our shores. He has promised to ban many other refugees outright, including desperate and suffering Syrians, but this one cuts me particularly deep because of the war we inflicted on Iraq, the Iraqis I have met, and the Iraqis I have read.

Seven years ago, I began work on two novels about the Iraq War and its aftermath from the point of view of both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. As part of my research, I sought Iraqi refugees to interview, as well as all the books and poems by Iraqis I could read. That was when I discovered how difficult it is to find Iraqi literature in translation, at least in America—a fact I consider shameful, given that our war killed some half a million Iraqis and displaced a fifth of the country. That said, I did discover a few books of prose and poetry that have managed to filter through the barriers of American suspicion and indifference, mostly thanks to independent and university presses. These are a few of my favorites.

The first contemporary Iraqi writings I found in English were on a blog written by someone calling herself Riverbend, a 24-year-old woman who began sending dispatches from Baghdad during our “shock and awe” bombing campaign in March of 2003. A computer programmer fluent in English, she reminded me of my students: smart, articulate, funny, irreverent, and full of heart. Her voice was the most potent antidote I could find at the time to the growing Western view of Iraqis as incomprehensible religious extremists. One of the delights of reading a daily blog is that, like the diaries of Samuel Pepys, it chronicles life in real time. Riverbend describes how the quotidian grows increasingly more difficult in Baghdad as power outages multiply, people disappear, and the US disbanding of civil servants and police allows looters and kidnappers to rampage unchecked. She shows readers how her sympathy for American soldiers broiling in their body armor under the blistering Iraqi sun turns into a bitter anger against those same soldiers as they kill and maim. She describes the increasing cynicism among Iraqis as the US puts in one puppet government after another. When Riverbend and her family were eventually driven from Baghdad to Syria, she stopped writing (with the exception one farewell post in 2013, when the war was a decade old). But her entries were eventually collected into the book Baghdad Burning, published by the Feminist Press in 2005, so they remain available to all.

Sinan Antoon, I’jaam, an Iraqi Rhapsody
(trans. Rebecca Johnson and Sinan Antoon)

By 2007, a handful of other Iraqi writers had finally found their way to translation in the US. Although they had fled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship or earlier wars and were not yet writing about the current war, their voices were essential to my research. One of these writers was Sinan Antoon, a poet, novelist, and filmmaker who left Iraq in 1991 and now teaches at New York University. I’jaam, an Iraqi Rhapsody, his first novel, was published by City Lights in 2007 and reads as much like a surrealist parable as a satire. Dreamlike, chilling, and ironic, the story follows a student who is thrown into an Abu Ghraib-like prison for no reason, where he is brutalized and subjected to an irrational set of interrogations straight out of Kafka, and where his nightmares and reality uncannily converge. Antoon, who opposed the US invasion of his country in 2003, has tackled the current war since, publishing more novels and several books of heartbreaking poetry, my favorite being The Baghdad Blues (Harbor Mountain Press, Vermont, 2007).

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Five Essential Works of Arabic Literature

There’s a lot of news coming out of the Arab world these days, mainly grim stuff in the press or online, painting a depressing and very much one-sided picture of this vast geographical and culturally diverse area. If you want to delve a little deeper into the Arab world and see another side of its rich heritage and culture, it’s well worth taking the time to sample some of the delights of Arabic literature.

Here are five suggestions to give you an idea of what’s on offer. They are all available in English translation, so you don’t have to learn Arabic to read them, though you may be tempted to once you have.

The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri

This celebrated freethinker, ascetic, humanist and committed vegetarian lived in Syria during the 11th century. The head of his statue in his home town of Ma’arrat al Numan was recently chopped off, possibly because he challenged accepted doctrine with a passion. He was the Voltaire of his time.

‘All religions err’, he says. In fact, there are only two sects in the whole world: ‘One, man intelligent without religion, the second, religious without intellect’. In the epistle, al Maarri considers the works and thoughts of some of the great poets and thinkers who preceded him. With his great erudition and mastery of language, coupled with a biting sense of irony, he challenges and refutes their views and is critical of many aspects of accepted orthodox belief. At one point, in what is a clear precursor of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he makes a journey to paradise where he meets the wine-drinking, womanising pagan poets of the pre-Islamic period, and then to hell where he encounters the religious scholars.

Once banned in Algeria and decapitated almost a thousand years after his birth in his home town, Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri is widely read in the Arab world, and many Arabs acknowledge him as one of their greatest literary figures. His influence has been enormous, but so little known in the modern West that we have little idea how far ahead of his time he really was.

The latest English version of The Epistle of Forgiveness has just won the Sheikh Hamad Translation Prize.

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10 MUST-READ HISTORIES OF THE PALESTINE-ISRAEL CONFLICT

November 2 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when the British government famously promised to establish a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. A century of conflict in Palestine/Israel has produced a vast and ever growing historical literature in English, as well as in Arabic and Hebrew. Conflicting or irreconcilable narratives mean that works which tell the story of, and from, both sides, are rare. Views of fundamental issues like the legitimacy of Zionism or the Palestinians’ right to resistance inevitably color the interpretation of key events from Balfour to the 2014 war over the Gaza Strip. Perceptions can still be polarized about Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, the 1967 war, and the character of the occupation that persists 50 years later. Well-known books, especially by Israel’s “new” historians, have made a big impact on knowledge of the formative pre-state period. Here are ten others which in different ways and at different times have made a significant contribution to illuminating this unending story.

Ronald Storrs, Orientations

Storrs was the first British military governor of Jerusalem after the Ottoman surrender in December 1917. His memoir is elegantly if pretentiously written. It reflects contemporary colonialist assumptions about Arabs and Jews, the innate authority and arrogance of the world’s largest empire and the author’s mounting frustration as the confrontation unfolded in its earliest days. Storrs was in Palestine at the time of the Balfour Declaration and in the early Mandate years. Perhaps his most memorable line, as resentment and tensions mounted, was how “two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”

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