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Syrian writers appear both live and on the page in Britain
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 16 - 06 - 2008

BY the medieval market town of Ledbury nestling in the Malvern Hills, Herefordshire, has established itself as Britain's largest poetry festival. This year four Syrian poets will perform their work at the festival, to be held on July 4-13. During their time in Britain the poets will not only give public readings of their work but also engage in discussions on censorship and the arts scene in Syria.
The poets invited to the Ledbury Poetry Festival are Hala Mohammad, Monzer Masri, Rasha Omran and Lukman Derky. Each combines a career in poetry with other creative activities.
Hala Mohammad is a filmmaker, with three published poetry collections. Monzer Masri is a painter as well as a poet; his second collection was written with his sister, the poet Maram Masri, and the late Mohammed Sayda. Rasha Omran, who has three collections of poetry to her name, is the director of Al-Sindiyan festival of culture. Journalist and scriptwriter Lukman Derky has published six collections of poetry and writes a daily column in the Syrian paper Baladna. He co-founded the Syrian satirical newspaper Al-Dumery.
On July 5 the four will be the performers in an evening in Ledbury's Market Theatre, exploring poetry, freedom and censorship. The next day the oud player Attab Haddad will join them for an evening of poetry and music in the Barn at Hellens, in the village of Much Marcle.
From Ledbury the poets will travel to London where they will appear on July 8 at the London Review Bookshop to give performances and take part in conversation on writing, publishing and the arts in Syria today. They will read poems newly translated into English for the latest issue of Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature, which includes a major feature on contemporary Syrian literature encompassing the work of 19 poets, short story writers and novelists.
The Banipal feature begins with an excerpt from Khaled Khalifa's novel “Medeeh al-Karahiyah”, or “In Praise of Hatred”, which was among the six books shortlisted earlier this year for the l International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The novel, Khalifa's third, has a female narrator and focuses on the struggle in the 1980s between the Islamists and Syrian security forces, a conflict that the author watched grow steadily more violent while he was growing up in Aleppo. The novel was banned when it was published in Damascus by Emissa in 2006; it was republished in Beirut in 2007.
IPAF is known as the “Arab Booker” because, with financial backing from the Emirates Foundation, it was launched in association with the Booker Foundation of London, which administers the Man Booker prize. Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher was awarded the $50,000 prize for his novel “Sunset Oasis” at a gala dinner in Abu Dhabi in March, and in addition he and the other short-listed authors were each awarded $10,000.
In an interview conducted in Damascus and published in the New York Times, Khalifa told journalist Robert F Worth that if he had won the Arab Booker, the regime would have had “a huge problem... I think the culture minister breathed a big sigh when I lost.”
Khalifa said that banning books “is normal for us here, it's funny, even a little absurd. It's not like Europe – ‘Oooh, I've been censored!'” He added: “Here, we know people in the censorship office. So you might call them: ‘Why the hell did you censor my book?' And he'll respond, ‘Why the hell did you have to write about this?'”
The excerpt of “In Praise of Hatred” published in Banipal was translated by Max Weiss, a postdoctoral fellow in near Eastern Studies at Princeton. Khalifa spent time last year at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program and is currently working on his fourth novel, “A Parallel Life”.
The question of literary censorship in Syria is explored by Dr. Peter Clark in his review in Banipal of Professor Miriam Cooke's book “Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official”, published by Duke University Press. Cooke, who is professor of modern Arabic literature and culture at Duke, conducted research in Syria in the 1990s on the political and social milieu in which writers operate. Clark, at one time cultural attaché at the British Council in Damascus, describes her book as “a fascinating record of the limits of freedom. There were nuances and subtleties that make it difficult to generalize or to see the situation simply in black and white terms.”
In the book Cooke explains the many “strategies for survival” that writers in Syria adopt so as to be careful when they write. On the one hand the country has a repressive regime, but on the other it officially encourages creative writing, and the Ministry of Culture has supported writers and artists and helped with publication. Some writers left Syria for exile, and others stayed silent or faced prison. Those who remained “had to negotiate their position, often with considerable success”, Clark writes.
The celebrated short story writer Zakaria Tamer is one of the writers who left Syria. The new issue of Banipal includes several stories from the collection “Breaking Knees”, written in Tamer's characteristically vivid and condensed satirical style and translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. The English translation of the collection is on the verge of being published by British publisher Garnet. Muhawi notes in a brief article on the collection that its general theme, as in much of Tamer's work, is “repression: of the individual by the institutions of state and religion and of individuals by each other; particularly of women by men.”
Rafik Schami is another Syrian writer who has long lived abroad, in his case in Germany. The latest issue of Banipal has extracts from his novel “Die dunkle Seite der Liebe”, or “The Darker Side of Love”. Among the other works by Syrian writers to appear in the issue are poems by Mohammad al-Maghut, Lina Tibi, Saleh Diab, Nazih Abu Afach and Abed Ismael; short stories by Dima Wannous, Nihad Sirees and Manhal Sarraj, and an extract from Khalil Suwailih's novel “Zuhur, Sarah and Nariman”. __

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