معراج الموت لممدوح عزام / Ascension to Death by Mamdouh Azzam

In November we’re reading معراج الموت لممدوح عزام / Ascension to Death by Syrian author Mamdouh Azzam, the third book in And Other Stories’ Arabic Reading Group. From And Other Stories:

6.-Ascension-to-Death-300x435Ascension to Death (Dar al-Mada lil Thaqafa wal-Nashr, 2003) is set in a village in the south of Syria. It tells the story of an orphan girl named Salma, in love with a boy from her village but trapped in a forced marriage. Her predicament is enforced by Salma’s tyrannical uncle and guardian, who was all too pleased to unload the burden of his brother’s daughter on to the first man who proposed. Salma’s uncle is a local community leader with connections to the government, and a true modern-day tragedy unfolds. The novel follows Salma’s attempt to escape with her lover, her family’s collusion with the authorities against her, and the ordeal of imprisonment, torture and abandonment that follows.

Mamdouh Azzam - photo by Imtithal TammimiMamdouh Azzam is a Syrian novelist, whose social and political critique paints a vivid and condemning portrait of life under dictatorship in Syria. Much of Azzam’s work is set in his native southern Syria among the Druze community. His most celebrated and controversial novel is The Palace of Rain (1998), a powerful and daring treatment of taboos in the conservative Druze religion. The novel sparked political and social controversy over Azzam’s treatment of the Druze belief in reincarnation, and was banned in Syria by the Ministry of Culture. His novel Ascension to Death (1989) was turned into the award winning film Al Lajat in 1996, directed by Riyad Shayya.  His most recent work is Women of the Imagination (2011), an epic story of love and politics in 1960s -1990s Syria that follows a book-obsessed teacher living under the regime. In 2008, Sabry Hafez mentioned Azzam in a list of under-translated Arab writers for The Guardian.”

Azzam’s novel was adapted as the film al-Lajat in 1996, directed by Riyad Shayya. You can read an extract of Ascension to Death, translated into English by Max Weiss, here.

To get involved, email reading@andotherstories.org. We’ll meet to discuss on December 4th at 7:30pm.

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القوقعة لمصطفى خليفة / The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

In October we’re reading القوقعة لمصطفى خليفة / The Shell by Syrian author Mustafa Khalifa, the second book in And Other Stories’ Arabic Reading Group. From And Other Stories:

4.-The-Shell“The Shell (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2008) is a gripping memoir, written in spare, stripped-down prose punctuated by introspective, poetic reflection. In it, the first-person narrator describes being apprehended by state security and the twelve years in prison that follow. He details the brutal torture at the hands of the prison guards and military police, as well as the social fabric of prison life. Early on, Khalifa tells the guards that he is a Christian, hoping they will understand that their accusation that he is working with the Muslim Brotherhood is clearly false. Yet with true catch-22 logic and a belief in the infallibility of Syria’s state intelligence, the guards tell him that if he has been arrested, it must be for good reason, and as a Christian accused of working for the Brotherhood, he is doubly a traitor. As a professed atheist, Khalifa is ostracized by his fellow inmates, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who suspect he may be a spy planted among them by the state. Tortured by the guards and shunned by the other prisoners, he retreats further into himself, forming a protective shell around himself for which the book is named.

3.-Mustafa-KhalifaMustafa Khalifa (b.1948) is a Syrian author. He went to university in France, where he studied art and film direction, and was arrested at the Damascus airport when he returned from Paris. From 1982-1994, Khalifa was held without trial at various state security prisons, including the infamous Tadmur Military Prison, a detention center described as a “kingdom of death and madness” by poet Faraj Bayraqdar and the “absolute prison” by dissident Yassin al-Haj Salih. The Shell is his first and only book, and has been lauded as one of the finest examples of Arabic prison literature. Read Mustafa Khalifa’s 2012 editorial: ‘What if Bashar Assad Wins?

For more, read Shareah Taleghani’s review in the Syrian Studies Association Bulletin, or Anne-Marie McManus’ review in Jadaliyya.”

To get involved, email reading@andotherstories.org. We’ll meet to discuss on Sunday, November 3rd at 7:30pm.

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الوباء لهاني الراهب / The Epidemic, by Hani al-Rahib

This autumn, the Cairo Book Club will be joining with UK publisher And Other Stories for their first-ever Arabic reading group. For September we’re reading The Epidemic, by Hani al-Rahib, from which Bassam Frangieh has translated an excerpt into English.

From And Other Stories: “The Arabic group is the second in a series of special reading groups in collaboration with the European Society of Authors and kindly funded by the Michalski Foundation. We’re selecting books from the European Society of Authors’ Finnegan’s List, a list of under-translated, under-recognized works recommended by prominent writers from around the world. Lebanese author Hoda Barakat and Syrian author Samar Yazbek have both suggested Arabic titles for the list in the past two years.

2. The EpidemicThe Epidemic is al-Rahib’s fourth novel, and it was listed as one of the best 105 Arabic books of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union.

The Epidemic is a rich epic of a novel, weighty and ambitious. It spans three generations and covers over one hundred years of modern Syrian history, including historical figures as well as actual people from al-Rahib’s village and social circles. Characters in Al-Rahib’s novel are alienated and marginalized, unable to confront the political powers that have stamped out creativity and freedom of expression. The novel poses unanswered questions about the nature of democracy and the role of the intellectual in society, commenting openly on the government at the time, and laying bare Syria’s social and political struggles.

Translator Bassam Frangieh writes that The Epidemic was received by Syrian political prisoners like a bible. Al-Rahib owned a torn copy of the novel that had been sent to him after being passed around a prison, filled with more than a hundred comments and signatures of the inmates.

1. Hani al-RahibHani al-Rahib was born in 1939 in the coastal Syrian city of Lattakia. He published his first novel The Defeated (1961) while still a student at the University of Damascus, launching his career to early acclaim. The novel won a prestigious literary award from the Lebanese magazine Al-Adab, and al-Rahib was lauded as one of Syria’s leading novelists.

Al-Rahib’s writing is rich with themes of protest and rebellion and sharply critical of the problems he saw in Arab society, among them corruption and lack of social justice. His professional life was marked by confrontations over his political views – he was twice expelled from the Union of Arab Writers, and fired from teaching positions at the University of Damascus and the University of Kuwait on the grounds that he incited students to rebel.

Al-Rahib is the author of eight novels and three collections of short stories, and is considered one of the pioneers of the Syrian novel. He died in 2000 of cancer.”

On the And Other Stories author page for Hani al-Rahib, you can download and read Bassam Frangieh’s translation of an extract from The Epidemic, originally published in Banipal 9. You can also read Bassam Frangieh’s profile, ‘Hani al-Rahib and Writing in the Sands,’ also published in Banipal 9.

To get involved, email reading@andotherstories.org. We’ll meet to discuss on September 29th at 7:30pm at Dar al Tanweer publishing house – 8 Qasr el Nil Street, Downtown Cairo.

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الصمت والصخب لنهاد سيريس / The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees

For July we’re reading الصمت والصخب لنهاد سيريس / The Silence and the Roar by Syrian author Nihad Sirees. The English translation is by Max Weiss, and won a 2013 English PEN Award.

A brief summary of the book from the publisher, Other Press:

Silence Roar“The Silence and the Roar is a funny, sexy, dystopian novel about the struggle of an individual over tyranny. It follows a day in the life of Fathi Sheen, an author banned from publishing because he refuses to write propaganda for the ruling government. The entire populace has mobilized to celebrate the twenty-year anniversary of the reigning despot in this unnamed Middle eastern country. The heat is oppressive and loudspeakers blare as an endless parade takes over the streets. Desperate to get away from the noise and the zombie-like masses, Fathi leaves his house to visit his mother and his girlfriend, but en route stops to help a student who is being beaten by the police. Fathi’s ID papers are confiscated and he is told to report to the police station before night falls.

Silence Roar ArabicWhen Fathi turns himself in, he is led from one department to another in an ever-widening bureaucratic labyrinth. His only weapon against the irrationality of the government employees is his sense of irony. Tinged with a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd, The Silence and the Roar explores what it means to be truly free in mind and body.”

You can read the first three chapters of the book in Arabic online at Nihad Sirees’ website.

For more on the novel, take a look at Frederick Deknatel’s review in Newsweek, Malcolm Forbes’ review in The National, or listen to interviews Sirees has done with NPR and WNYC. You can also read Siress’ blog post on Other Press upon the book’s English publication, or a Q&A with him on Publishing Perspectives.

Nihad Sirees will be joining our discussion; you can read more about him here. We’ll meet to discuss on Sunday, July 28th, 2013.

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Our first podcast is live :: Humphrey Davies on Mourid Barghouti’s ‘I Was Born There, I Was Born Here’

CBCPYou can now listen to our first podcast – a recording of our discussion of Mourid Barghouti’s ‘I Was Born There, I Was Born Here’ with its translator, Humphrey Davies.

Davies was named runner-up for the 2012 Banipal Prize for his translation, and he joined us for our discussion in May 2013. Thank you to Humphrey, to everyone who participated in the discussion, and to Ganzeer for the awesome album artwork.

Listen to the podcast at Rolling Bulb.

UPDATE: M. Lynx Qualey listened to the podcast and has a great summary here, on her excellent blog, ArabLit (in English). Thanks for listening.

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حجر الضحك لهدى بركات / The Stone of Laughter by Hoda Barakat

For June we’re reading حجر الضحك لهدى بركات / The Stone of Laughter, by Lebanese author Hoda Barakat, which won the Al-Naqid Literary Prize in 1990. The English translation is by Sophie Bennett.

حجر الضحك

A brief summary of the book from Goodreads:
“The Stone of Laughter is a virile novel which brings forth the contradictory history of a city under fire through the life and dilemmas of a gay man. It is a bold and radical novel, full of black humor and cynical observations about life in war-torn Beirut. In 1990, when it first appeared in Arabic, it was hailed by critics throughout the Arab world as the best novel set against the background of the Lebanese civil war.

The fractured narrative is woven around Khalil, a gay man who tried to avoid ideological or military affiliations as he finds himself confronted with the collapse of his civil society. His only contact with the world at large is through his friends at a newspaper, for whom falling bombs meant great stories rather than tragedy and destruction. Khalil struggles to keep himself away from the war but is inevitably drawn in as he realizes that in a city of war, no one can remain neutral.

Stone of LaughterWritten sensitively, without a trace of sentimentality or political propaganda, The Stone of Laughter shook readers’ preconceptions about women’s writing and questioned the necessity of political affiliation for Arab authors.”

For more on the book, take a look at Read Kutub‘s discussion. For more about Barakat, take a look at this profile with Youssef Rakha in Al-Ahram Weekly from 1999, or this interview in Jadaliyya from 2012.

We’ll meet to discuss on Wednesday, June 26th 2013.

*UPDATE: Thoughts from our discussion after the jump.

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ولدت هناك ولدت هنا، مريد البرغوثي / I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, by Mourid Barghouti

For May we’re reading ولدت هناك ولدت هنا، مريد البرغوثي / I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, by Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti, a sequel to his much-lauded memoir I Saw Ramallah. The English translation by Humphrey Davies was named runner-up for the 2012 Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

barghoutiA brief summary of the book from Bloomsbury:
“In 2000 Mourid Barghouti published I Saw Ramallah, the acclaimed memoir that told of returning in 1996 to his Palestinian home for the first time since exile following the Six-Day War in 1967. I Was Born There, I Was Born Here takes up the story in 1998 when Barghouti returned to the Occupied Territories to introduce his Cairo-born son, Tamim, to his Palestinian family. Ironically, a few years later Tamim had himself been arrested for taking part in a demonstration against the impending Iraq War. He was held in the very same Cairo prison from which his father had been expelled from Egypt to begin a second exile in Budapest when Tamim was only a few months old.

barghouti2Ranging freely back and forth in time between the 1990s and the present day, Barghouti weaves into his account of exile poignant evocations of Palestinian history and daily life – the pleasure of coffee arriving at just the right moment, the challenge of a car journey through the Occupied Territories, the meaning of home and the importance of being able to say, standing in a small village in Palestine, ‘I was born here’, rather than saying from exile, ‘I was born there’.  Full of life and humour in the face of a culture of death, ‘I Was Born There, I Was Born Here’ is destined, like its predecessor, to become a classic.”

For more, take a look at this review on The Economist, Sarah Irving’s review on the Electronic Intifada, or Mourid Barghouti’s video interview with Bloomsbury.

Humphrey Davies will be joining our discussion; you can read more about him in this profile on Banipal. We’ll meet to discuss on Monday, May 27th 2013.

*UPDATE: You can listen to a podcast of our discussion with Humphrey on Rolling Bulb.

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الطابور، لبسمة عبد العزيز / The Queue by Basma Abdel-Aziz

For April we’re switching things up again and reading a book available only in Arabic: الطابور، لبسمة عبد العزيز (The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz).

TaboorA brief summary of the book from Ahram Online:

“The novel by Abdel-Aziz mixes fantasy and realism in a weave that uses sarcasm and lightness, while describing Egyptians queuing in an extended unending queue for an obscure ‘gate’ that gives strict orders. However, the ‘gate’ never opens, symbolising an ‘authority’ that is hidden and untouchable, but has enormous power over people.

The first novel by psychiatrist, writer and visual artist, Basma Abdel-Aziz, is among the first books to be printed by the Cairo office of the Arab publishing house, Dar al-Tanweer.”

You can read Elisabeth Jaquette’s review of the novel in Mada Masr, or a summary (in Arabic) of a discussion about the book held at the Supreme Council of Culture here.

UPDATE: Basma Abdel Aziz will be joining our discussion; you can read more about her in this interview with Al-Akhbar.

We’ll meet to discuss on Sunday, April 21th 2013.

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مترو، لمجدي الشافعي / Metro by Magdy El Shafee

For March we’re switching things up and reading a graphic novel: مترو، لمجدي الشافعي / Metro by Magdy el-Shafee, translated by Chip Rossetti.

A brief summary of the book from Goodreads:

metro“A brilliant portrait of a bank robbery and two friends’ breakneck escape through an edgy, pulsing Cairo on the brink of explosion. When Shehab runs afoul of a loan shark, all avenues of salvation in Mubarak’s corrupt, oppressive Egypt are closed to him but one: robbing a bank. Things go wrong: In their blow against their crumbling society, Shihab and his friend Mustafa happen on evidence of vice that points to the upper reaches of the regime. On a wild chase through Cairo’s metro system, Shehab and Mustafa turn to family and friends for refuge, which is offered only by Dina, a muckraking journalist who, for Shehab, will take the greatest of risks. In art as alive and immediate as Cairo itself, Magdy El Shafee has delivered an arresting and prescient portrait of a crumbling society and Egypt’s coming eruption. A powerful story of comrades on the lam and an impossible love, Metro also sounds the cry for a better, freer future.”

metro1Metro is Egypt’s first graphic novel and a vivid portrait of poverty and corruption under Mubarak’s rule. When it was first published in January 2008, it was quickly banned on the ground of “offending public morals”: the police raided the Malameh publishing house, confiscated all copies of the book, and banned Malameh from printing further copies. Al-Shafee as well as his publisher, Mohammed al-Sharkawi, were charged under article 178 of the Egyptian penal code (which criminalizes the printing or distribution of publications that “infringe upon public decency”) and ultimately each fined 5,000 LE.

We’ve picked this book now because it has recently been republished in Arabic and made available in Egypt, for the first time in five years – more on its republication in Arabic on ArabLit. Additionally, here is a preview of the English edition, translated by Humphrey Davies, on Words Without Borders.

Magdy el-Shafee will be joining us for our discussion on Sunday, March 17th 2013.

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الحرب في بر مصر، يوسف القعيد‎ / War in the Land of Egypt by Yusuf al-Qa’id

warinthelandofegypt2For February we’re reading الحرب في بر مصر، يوسف القعيد‎ / War in the Land of Egypt by Egyptian author Yusuf al-Qa’id, which ranks at #4 on the Arab Writers Union’s list of the best 105 Arabic novels of the 20th century. It was translated by Lorne Kenny and Christopher Tingley.

A brief summary of the book from Goodreads:
“Egypt on the eve of the 1973 October war. A young man has been drafted into the army. His father, the village elder, persuades a poor night-watchman to send his own son as a stand-in. But the impersonation plan goes horribly wrong, with tragicomic results. Qa’id’s tale of the fiasco–steeped in irony and black humor–parodies outrageous corruption and ludicrous bureaucracy. A skillfully crafted mosaic of life in modern Egypt.”

warinthelandofegypt1The book was published in 1978 in Lebanon and banned in Egypt until 1985. It was also adapted as a film starring Omar Sharif in 1991: المواطن: مصري (An Egyptian Citizen). For more, here is a review by M. Lynx Qualey in Egypt Independent.

We’ll meet to discuss on Sunday, February 17th 2013.

*UPDATE: Thoughts from our discussion after the jump.

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