A few days ago, the winners of this year’s Man Booker International Prize were announced. In an unconventional and surprising move, the judges awarded the honor to two authors, who shared the ₤50,000 prize: Margaret Atwood, for The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and Bernardine Evaristo, for her eighth work of fiction, Girl, Woman, Other. The prize has been split only twice in its history: in 1974, between Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton; and in 1992, between Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth. In the same year, the rules were changed so the prize “may not be divided or withheld,” yet this year the judges chose to break them.
The second major literary award to cause a stir over the past week, the Booker results were criticized by several figures in British and international literary circles, who believe the judges could have made history by awarding the prize to a black woman for the first time. Now, as many have written, the news of the tie itself is overshadowing Evaristo’s significant achievement. On stage, while receiving the award, Atwood herself told Evaristo: “I kind of don’t need the attention, so I’m very glad that you’re getting some.”
Meanwhile, the debate surrounding Peter Handke’s Nobel win last week is still in full swing, opening up a layered discussion about the age-old question of “separating the art from the artist.” Handke was a supporter of late Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milošević’s policies, and read a eulogy at his funeral in 2006. The only potential silver lining in this otherwise unfortunate situation is that this controversy might drive cultural institutions to reconsider their criteria, understanding that while readers are free to read whomever they want, institutions have a moral and political responsibility that they cannot afford to ignore.
Arabic readers are currently anticipating the translation of Handke’s Don Juan (by Samir Greiss for Adwan Publishing, originally published in 2004), as well as Ihab Abdel Hamid’s translation of Flights (2007) by Olga Tokarczuk — winner of the 2018 Nobel and Booker prizes — for Dar al-Tanweer. Both translations were already in progress when the Nobel prize results were announced.
—“It’s My Craft” is the headline of an interview with iconic 90s singer Hossam Hosni, published in Ma3azef, in which he recounts: “My father had promised that if I finished top of my class he would buy me something, so I asked him for an electronic keyboard. I was fascinated of course with Magdi al-Husseini, the famous keyboardist — our entire generation wanted to meet him, to be like him. I was in high school and we didn’t have a school band, so I created one with my buddies from the neighborhood. I played the keyboards, the neighbor’s son bought a set of drums, another bought a guitar, another a bass, and we somehow made it happen…” Hosni recalls his childhood years in Kuwait; his first band, The Giants; and his study of music and how he applied it to his early practice, simulating the singing style of the famous sheikhs — from Zakariya Ahmad to Sayid Darwish — and infusing it with the contemporary spirit of the new wave of pop at the time. He also touches on the experiment of reviving Franco-Arabe lyrics, which Simone, another 90s icon, initiated back then, as well as the reason behind Amr Diab’s lasting success.
—On Handke’s Nobel win, Ahmed al-Khamisi writes: “The Nobel Prize was born biased, but no one imagined it would ever be awarded to someone who instigates racial sentiments and defends massacres…In 1901, the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the French poet Sully Prudhomme. Back then, literary giant Leo Tolstoy was still alive and practicing, and yet the academy overlooked him in favor of a poet that no one remembers today, not even in France. With time, the Nobel Prize has come to resemble a chamber of operations monitoring the movement of the literary world by offering what appears to be a literary model that ought to be followed by authors, and certain visions that ought to be embraced.”
—On October 14, American literary critic Harold Bloom passed away. Here, Yazan al-Hajj writes about Bloom’s final book, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, published earlier this year.
—On the occasion of her shared Booker win, read Margaret Atwood’s piece on the suppression of journalists in a bona-fide moment of dystopia, published upon the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. You can also read a recently published Arabic translation by Asmaa Yassin on Medina.
—Ahmed Wael recommends Gamal al-Ghitani’s Naguib Mahfouz Remembers (1980):
In this small book, Gamal al-Ghitani, who passed away four years ago today, writes that in 1944 Naguib Mahfouz was a government employee with a salary of eight Egyptian pounds. In the words of the Nobel laureate: “It was the most financially strained time of my life, I had a meager salary, and I was responsible for the household after the death of my mother.”
Mahfouz was told by one of his relatives that editor and journalist Mostafa Amin wanted him to write two short stories a month in Akhbar al-Yom (a weekly magazine back then, still owned by Amin and his brother, Ali), for 15 pounds. Mahfouz, however, rejected the offer: “It was going to keep me from writing a novel. All the short stories I’d written until then were summaries of old novels I’d never published. I never wrote short stories out of a real desire to write them until the 60s,” he said. “Mr. Mostafa Amin, however, would not believe that I rejected his offer because I wanted to devote my time to writing novels. He decided I was a Wafdist and that I didn’t want to work with him because the magazine criticized al-Nahas back then.”
The story doesn’t end there. Ghitani adds another piece of information, the source of which is Amin himself. When Ghitani asked him about the incident, he said that he actually offered Mahfouz 40 pounds, not 15. Ghitani writes: “Had Naguib Mahfouz forgotten the number with the passage of time? Or had the mediator not communicated the correct amount with him?”
The book is an insightful look into Mahfouz’s persona, the places where he grew up and the most significant milestones of his career. Mahfouz himself, in an introduction he wrote to a later edition of the book, says: “Because of this book, I don’t need to consider writing a memoir, for all the essential facts it includes about me. Not to mention that its author is himself a cornerstone in the story of my life.”
—Ahmed Wael recommends A Man in Our House (1961):
I read many works by Ihsan Abdel Quddous. The first was the short story collection Lost Between Right and Wrong, which I read amid the confusion of my teenage years, but then I was drawn further into his world with each novel I read. Ihsan had a rich, unparalleled career: he was a renowned author, his works published in the most prestigious magazines and adapted into films; a respected political commentator; an editor-in-chief in a time of relative freedom, where journalism still shaped events. He was critical and intelligent, and of course he spent time in military prison in 1954, after he wrote an article about the “secret group governing Egypt,” in reference to the Free Officers.
Because his work was so accessible and widely read — what you might call “mainstream” — intellectuals often avoid talking about their experience with his work, even though most of them definitely went through that phase at some point in their lives. Yet he was a shrewd writer, a true product of his time. His novel A Man in Our House, for example, focused on political assassinations in the years that preceded 1952, one of the most politically violent eras in Egyptian history (Fathy Ghanem’s Those Days is another important novel partially set in that period, for readers interested in knowing more about it).
Yet aside from its insights about the political moment in which it takes place, the true edge of the novel lies in the fact that Ihsan chose to tell it through the lens of anxiety, particularly the anxiety brought on by the presence of the protagonist in the titular house, and it is that lens as well that director Henri Barakat adopted in his film, an adaptation of the novel which was in turn based on the true story of Hussein Tawfiq, an activist involved in armed struggle against Egyptian politicians who collaborated with the British occupation.
Only one of the missions that Tawfiq was part of succeeded: the assassination of Amin Othman, a minister in the government of Mostafa al-Nahas, in 1946. Two years later, he had escaped and managed to send a letter to the journalist Ihsan Abdel Quddous, telling him he’d gone to fight in Palestine. Perhaps this was how the first features of A Man in Our House started to take shape in Ihsan’s head.
Opening today and running until November 1, Zawya presents a retrospective of films adapted from the works of Ihsan Abdel Quddous, on the occasion of the centennial of this iconic writer’s birth. In addition to A Man in Our House and a host of other classics, the program will also include panel discussions and an exhibition of original film posters. You can take a look at the schedule here.
—Salma Hegab* recommends Fleabag (2016 – 2019):
At this year’s Emmys, Fleabag won six awards, half of which went to the creator/lead actress of the series, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The show is adapted from Waller-Bridge’s play of the same name, and below are four reasons why you need to watch it.
1) Waller-Bridge is an absolute creative genius — top-notch dialogue and honest acting. A character so well written that, in her sheer vulnerability, you can’t help but feel immensely connected to her. I guarantee you won’t stop at Fleabag: There’s also Killing Eve (which she wrote and produced) and Crashing (which she wrote and and also stars in) to binge after you’re done.
2) Andrew Scott a.k.a Hot Priest: The main reason why I started watching! Andrew Scott plays the “cool, sweary priest” in season two, and I cannot stress enough how his chemistry with Phoebe’s character will take you on a rollercoaster of emotions throughout their relationship.
3) Brilliant storytelling: The show tackles family, grief, love, womanhood, feminism, religion, sisterhood and more, all with brutal honesty and punchy dialogue that is equally capable of making you burst into laughter or sob like a baby.
4) Breaking the Fourth Wall: As soon as Fleabag delivers her witty, one-liner confessionals straight to the camera, you’ll know you’ve been captured by her genuine truth. She exposes you to the inner thoughts of her character, no matter how uncomfortable it gets, and this vulnerability is what makes her so relatable.
There are way more reasons to watch Fleabag, including the outstanding performances of Olivia Colman and Sian Clifford — both of whom were nominated for Emmys in the best supporting actress in a comedy series category — as the lead character’s godmother and sister. We can also talk about the show’s sensitive approach to mental health and even breast cancer awareness. In all cases, you can rest assured that you will find loads to ponder over once you’re done watching.
Both seasons of the show are available to stream on Amazon Prime.
—Season 5: Peaky Blinders
Last weekend marked the release of the fifth season of Peaky Blinders on Netflix. The series, co-produced by BBC, began airing in 2013. It takes place in England —1920s Birmingham, to be specific — and tells the story of a family-turned-mob and its rise within society.
The series has the ambience of a historical drama combined with the suspense, thrill, and violent twists and turns of gangster films. If you’ve already watched its previous seasons you will definitely love to binge watch the new season on Netflix, and if you haven’t watched it before, you might want to give it a try — especially since it’s been signed for two more seasons.
This week, we select some of our favorite film music for your listening pleasure:
Andre Ryder: The Dark Glasses (Hossam El-Din Mustafa, 1963 — showing as part of the Ihsan Abdel Quddous retrospective at Zawya)
Nino Rota: Theme from Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963).
Cheb Khaled: “Al Babour,” from Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb, 2006).
Rachel Portman: Two tracks from Chocolat (Lasse Hallström, 2000).
Sting: “Shape of My Heart,” featured in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994).
Elton John: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King (1994).
George Gershwin: “Rhapsody in Blue,” featured in the iconic opening of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), along with two other Gershwin masterpieces used in the film.
Mohsen Mohie El-Din: “Haddoutet Hettetna” (The Story of Our Neighborhood), from Youssef Chahine’s The Sixth Day (1986).
Two lively songs from Khairy Bishara’s Caboria (1990):
This mahragan from Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim (2016):
“Al Sharea Lena” (The Street is Ours) and “Moftaraa al-Tareea” (Crossroads) from Return of the Prodigal Son (Youssef Chahine, 1976):
Mohamed al-Ezabi’s “Hatshepsut,” from Love in Karnak (1965):
Laurent Petitgand: “Genesis,” from the original soundtrack of The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders, 2014).
“The Moon Song” from Her (Spike Jonze, 2013):
Amin Bouhafa: Music from Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014).
Songs from Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) by the Coen Brothers:
Terrence Blanchard: Main theme from Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman (2018).
Ali Ismail: Title credits from Youssef Chahine’s The Choice (1971).
Amr Diab: “Dana” and “Platform No.5” from Ice-cream in Gleem (Khairy Bishara, 1992).
What do you write? And for whom? And does language sometimes elude you?
Well, I consider myself a jack of many trades. I dabble in poetry, short stories, drama, journalism, digital content, “see-more” Facebook posts, humorous elegies, sorrowful jokes, and I now make a living off of screenwriting. As for the “for whom” part of your question, I write for anyone interested in Arabic content. Who knows, maybe I’ll be writing for the whole world if God ever sends me any foreigners interested in translating my writings.
Language always eludes me; every time I’m faced with a blank page (either an actual page of a notebook or a new Word document) I feel like I’m in a test. As if there is a teacher hovering over me, making sure I’m not looking around or cheating, counting the minutes until the time is up and they can take away my paper and correct it — and the wait for the results is, unfortunately, never-ending.
In spite of that, I feel that the elusiveness of language is part of the joy of writing itself. The effort to chase it makes the triumph of reading your final draft 10 times more enjoyable, especially when it comes to literary writing. What really gives me trouble, though, is the struggle of settling on a literary form — it’s a very difficult artistic choice for me, and it runs much deeper than just mere laziness. Anyway, I’m doing my best.
What about writing the political?
Theoretically, I’m always crying out about how much of a crime it is to include politics in a text — how it’s a violation of literature and a tarnishing of its purity. In reality, though, I cannot get politics out of my system. I do everything I can to try to fool the readers into believing it’s purely a matter of humanity, to the point that I’ve now found myself living by this quote that says “Writing is a necessary political act, and choosing not to be political in writing is in itself a political stance.”
The explanation to this is that all of this is nothing but the ramifications of the questions and qualms we have as human beings. We live in a world where politics can’t not have an effect on your daily life, and even if you try to stay away from politics, politics will never leave you alone. When I say politics here I do not mean just the authorities; I mean your relationships and the economics of living, and what governs them within your social circle that simply cannot be isolated from the global scene as a whole. We live in a time in which one fed-up street vendor from Tunisia set himself on fire and created a domino effect that led millions of Syrians to homelessness and despair and a staggering rise of xenophobia and support for the right wing in Europe against the same farmer who set himself on fire nine years ago. How, then, do you expect me to write – in Arabic — and not be political? I’d be a liar if I say I’m not.
Speaking of literature, let’s talk about Nobel.
Oh, beautiful, pure, lily-white Nobel! Purer than the white Scandinavian snow, protector of political correctness, cultural diversity, and feminism. What a great thing to do after the infamous sex scandal: refusing to give prizes to two people from the same region, thus dividing its generous offerings between East Prussia and the south of the Austro-Hungarian empire; between a woman who has reached peak glory (winning both a Nobel and a Booker prize in the same year) and a man whose most valued contribution to humanity was his eulogy for his Serbian dictator friend at his funeral.
What do you love the most? What do you like writing about?
I love writing about what I know; the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met (and either loved or hated), the nightmares that plague me, all our attempts to look for a meaning or a point to all of this, the small instances of pleasure that intersperse all of this, the apocalypse we will bring upon ourselves without divine intervention, and the sprout that – if you still have with you when this day comes — you have to plant. We write to leave a mark behind us on this world after we’re gone.
What about fear?
I still haven’t had enough of this life, I feel there is so much left to do. That’s why I don’t exactly know what I’m afraid of. You know, ironically, I had a lot of freedom in Khartoum. I was able to write whatever I wanted and that is for two main reasons: my anonymity (as far as the authorities were concerned), and the fact that the Sudanese government did not really have that much of an iron fist to use against anyone who talks. Now, though, I can easily say I’ve become a very ordinary person when it comes to my fears, which have unfortunately become totally bourgeois, and that in turn makes me refrain from writing anything that could affect my livelihood.
I’ve never known. I was born and raised, have belonged, in many places. From Riyadh, to Jeddah, to Cairo, to Khartoum; I don’t know what home means.
When did the past end? And how do you see the future?
For some weird reason, to me, the past has always been related to numbers. When someone says “So and so happened in 1995”, still, at this moment, that’s five years ago in my mind. To me, the past is any time before 2000. The future, on the other hand, doesn’t concern me — more so since all the indications are worrying.
Is it true that the world never changes but we do?
Well, when people change they affect everyone and everything around them, and this happens all the time with everyone. So when seven billion people change the final result is that the world changes which subsequently causes people to change, and so on…
O, Time, why have you taken our innocence…Let’s conclude our chit-chat with a bit about time.
What is time? I had never been able to answer this question until I started reading Hawking. Time is a mere background to the flux of events and to existence, so I think Sayid Hegab (the poet who wrote the song from which the question is inspired) was a bit biased when he said that. We are bound to sin, and time is actually innocent!
If you haven’t had the time to follow #Inktober, the annual event in which artists all around the world post their ink drawings online, make sure you do now, before the month is over, for a daily dose of artistic spontaneity. The first challenge to post 31 different drawings for the 31 days of the month was initiated by concept artist and illustrator Jake Parker.