The Imitator

picture by Ali Farzat

He copies phrases from foreign newspapers into a notebook. Then he copies his notes into a larger notebook with a flag and a band of gold on the front.

His mouth imitates the words of the state TV channel, and the words of undead clerics, and the words of puff-eyed men who sit in cafés.

He curses his country’s backwardness. At the same time he proclaims that the world was brighter when his grandfather was still a rheum-eyed boy.

At school he wrote poems praising his teacher. At work he writes letters praising his boss. When the time is right he writes reports denouncing his colleagues.

He is embarrassed by his social station. In the presence of his inferiors he imitates his superiors. He swings his belly like a wealthy businessman, preens his moustache like a tribal chief, avoids eye contact like a distracted poet or professor, or establishes it, beneath beetling brows, like a policeman. He aims to provoke fear. He is scared of everything.

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His father used to work at the refinery, which was a good job. His father brought home a new toy every evening, that’s what Bilal remembers. Many of the toys are still at home, stuffed under his mother’s bed: speaking animals, racing cars, things that work if you have batteries.

Bilal thought his father had a round and jolly face, but this thought contradicted the stern, gaunt photograph framed on the living room wall. The photograph was a fact – unlike Bilal’s thought, which was only a thought, as vague and blurry at the edges as thoughts tend to be.

A couple of years ago, a long time now, his father had been arrested and taken away. This happened to a lot of people and was nothing much to cry about.

There was some confusion as to his father’s exact location. One aunt said he was in the local prison. One said he was in prison in the capital. His uncles squeezed his shoulder and said nothing at all.

One aunt said he was in heaven. When Bilal heard her he thought his father had been killed and he began to cry inconsolably. But his mother told him that that aunt was just upset and raving, that his father was in prison in the capital, and that Bilal would meet him again one day when he’d grown up and done something that his father could be really proud of. She said people don’t die in any case. And Bilal was consoled.

He was the oldest child, the only son, in a way the head of the household now. He bossed around his two sisters who were too little to obey him. He knew he bore responsibility for them and for his mother whose wages paid the rent on their flat but didn’t put food on the table. That was his job. But what he suffered in responsibility he regained in freedom.

Continue reading “Petrol”

Boycott Israel? Amitav Ghosh & the Dan David Prize

The call for academic and cultural boycott is clearly a way to encourage civil society to play a broader political role—that is why it has the support of wide sections of Palestinian civil society. One of the most significant questions that call poses to us is simply this: How could those of us who oppose apartheid, occupation, and colonialism not support such a call?

Dear Amitav Ghosh,

We wish to express our deep disappointment in your decision to accept the Dan David prize, administered by Tel Aviv University and to be awarded by the President of Israel. As a writer whose work has dwelled consistently on histories of colonialism and displacement, your refusal to take stance on the colonial question in the case of Israel and the occupation of Palestine has provoked deep dismay, frustration, and puzzlement among readers and fans of your work around the world. Many admired your principled stand, and respected your decision not to accept the Commonwealth Writers Prize in rejection of the colonialist framework it represented.

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The Screen

Polizeiposten by Wilna Marianne Werefkin

There were no classes. Instead we marched down to the square and began to shout slogans. At first the teachers led us but soon we got into a group with no teachers and we could shout what we wanted.

Ya Blair Ya haqeer

dumak min dum al-khanzeer

O Blair, you are mud

Your blood is swine’s blood

It was hard to say the words because I was laughing so loud. Muhannad squashed his nose with his finger and oinked like a pig. 

Ya Clinton Rooh Amreeka

Hal mushkiltak ma’ Moneeka

 O Clinton Get to America

Solve your problem with Monica

That was the funniest one. Muhannad screamed in my ear about Clinton’s cigar and the Jewish woman, which was bad because a girl was next to me. He told me the story almost every day, but it was funnier this time, or maybe it felt like that because the tall girl was there and such a crowd was in the square. The sky was bright, although it was a cloudy day.

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Mohammed Omer denied from entering US (updated)

UPDATE: Success! See Haymarket Books Press Release (appended below in full): International Pressure Campaign Brings Award-winning Palestinian Journalist Allowed Entry to the U.S.

I’m late posting this.  But nevertheless, it’s still important.

Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer is being denied from entering the US.  The US consulate in the Netherlands is holding his visa application for an extended period of time and has led to a cancellation of his US speaking tour. Omer was scheduled to speak with Ali Abunimah in Chicago on April 5.  Abunimah has more on the story at his Web site Electronic Intifada. The US Consulate did not provide an explanation as to why they denied his visa and the only American media source (that I know of ) that’s raising a concern is The Progressive.

Omer was to visit Houston, Santa Fe and Chicago, where local publisher Haymarket Books was to host his Newberry Library event, “Reflections on Life and War in Gaza,” alongside a broad set of interfaith religious, community and political organizations.

Rather than cancel the meeting, organizers are calling on supporters to write letters and emails calling for the US consulate’s approval of Omer’s visa.

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Lest We Forget

Fann alQalam - the Art of the Pen - by Soraya Syed

by Tam Hussain

On 4th of December, a rainy Friday evening, I visited Al-Khair school in Croydon. The school together with the Muslim Writers Awards were hosting a talk entitled ‘Creativity within Multi-Cultural Britain’. It had attracted me because of its absurdly ambitious vision: To jump start the creative processes which produced the likes of Iqbal, Ghalib and Al-Mutanabbi. The event was opened by Ms. Aisha Choudhry, head of Al-Khair, followed by Irfan Akram, Project Coordinator for Muslim Writers Award, Sufiya Ahmed, author of the Khadijah Academy series, Moazzam Begg, author and spokesperson for Cageprisoners, Zahid Hussain, author of The Curry Mile and Andrew Pelling, MP. The event was chaired by Abdul Fattah Hussain, organiser of the event.

Irfan Akram set the tone by pointing out that whilst Muslims in Britain are facing immense challenges, the positives outweighed the negatives. He brushed aside suggestions that publishers didn’t want to hear the voice of the Muslims; rather he suggested that Muslims should not expect automatic publication just because they have penned something. “If it is good enough it will get published and MWA is here to help.”

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The danger of a single story

This is a superb presentation by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. Also see Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to write about Africa“, and Uzodinma Iweala’s “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa“. (thanks Rabee’ah)

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

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Islam in the Writing Process

enjoin the good
photo by Rehan Jamil

If all goes well I will be at Notre Dame University in the US later this month for a conference on the role of Islam in contemporary European literature. I wrote the piece below for the conference.

Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages.

Although the Arabic novel is generally considered to have developed in the early twentieth century from the experience of industrial urbanisation and the penetration of European genres and philosophies, Ibn Tufail’s 12th Century “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, an inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, can reasonably stake a claim to being the world’s first novel. The Arabian Nights (via Don Quixote) is surely another source of the European novel tradition. And Islam the religion – as opposed to the even more nebulous ‘civilisation’ – is a text-based faith. The Qur’an is the religion’s only official miracle; the first word revealed to the Prophet was ‘iqra’ – ‘read’. Those who attempt to draw a distinction between literalist scripture and free and playful literature should pay attention to verse 26 of the Qur’an’s second chapter which, immediately after the first description of heaven and hell, proclaims: “Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something even less than that.” In other words, the Qur’an is a text unashamed to use metaphor, symbol and a whole range of literary devices in order to point to ineffable realities.
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Sabra and Shatila

Genre-specific readers be alerted: this is first draft fiction, not reportage – though its material is entirely factual. Twenty seven years ago today.

sabra shatila 1The militia were Arabs, brother Arabs.

The Phalangists were already baying from east Beirut, howling revenge. Now Israel flew Haddad’s militia, la crème de la crème, up from the south. Both groups assembled at the airport, for General Sharon to ensure all were properly kitted out: with weapons, military rations, medical supplies; Israeli cocaine and Lebanese hashish; Mediterranean testosterone, bad breath.

Then he uncaged them.

At six on Thursday evening. In the first penetration, three hundred and twenty men were brought on thirty trucks. Four gangs invading from four approaches. These were the most blood-addicted, rape-happy, battle-addled of militiamen, men long ago surfeited on outrage, men who required ever more extreme atrocities to stir their glutted senses. Ever wilder, ever sharper.

Israel lit the sky for them. White phosphorus flares trailing and dancing. Fire above like a terrible sun in the ceiling, a sun switched on in anger, while the children are sleeping.

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