Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Hay Festival Beirut

Arab authors for the summer 2015: 7 beach reads

Marcia Lynx Qualey , Last updated: June 28, 2015

Banner Icon Literature Renowned literature blogger ‘ArabLit’ has compiled a list of seven books you need to read on your summer vacation.

Youssef Rakha’s Crocodiles, trans Robin Moger (2015). This is a very different book from Rakha’s complex and layered debut,Sultan’s Seal. It’s an epic prose poem, or perhaps a novel-in-prose-poems, and it’s not just racy but also fast-paced, which seems a bit odd to say of poetry. Although Rakha insists it’s fictional, it has a tell-all feel about Cairo’s recent poetry scene, and many echoes of Bolaño. An excerpt of Crocodileson Qisasukhra.

Amjad Nasser’s Petra, trans. Fady Joudah (2014). Although the most amazing place to read Petra would be Petra, this world-jarring slim collection — a long poem, a travel journal, a meditation on the construction and re-construction of history — takes us to Petra so vividly that you could sit on a beach in Ohio and find yourself transported. So if you’re going to a beach in Ohio, this is probably a must. Buy it now from Tavern Books.

Alessandro Spina’s The Confines of the Shadow, trans. André Naffis-Sahely (2015). If you want a big, nineteenth-century-style novel, full of witticisms, that feels a cross between Waguih Ghali and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, that follows the early colonial (Italian) history of Libya, then this is your beach read. “Spina’s Shadow,” in The Nation.


Elias Khoury’s Sinalcol, trans. Humphrey Davies (2015). If you love Elias Khoury (as you, as a right-thinking person, should), then it is impossible not to love this book, which spins out many of the themes and stylistic obsessions of his earlier novels, even revisiting some favorite characters. Yes, it takes place during Lebanon’s civil war, but it is maybe his gentlest look at violence. A big, sprawling book that can be lived inside for your whole vacation. Review in the Financial Times.

Amir Tag El Sir’s Ebola ’76 (2015). A novel that takes us into the “mind” of the ebola virus might seem a strange choice for a beach read, but El Sir’s books (you could also take French Perfume, trans. William Hutchins, 2014) are often darkly funny explorations of Sudan in an over-the-top way, and this is no exception. Sample chapter on Jadaliyya.

Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, trans Charis Bredon (2015). This is not a feel-good novel where someone gets their groove back, but it is gripping from first to last, and a book that opens a window onto seeing the world, and oneself, anew. If vacation is a time for self-discovery and self-renewal, this is a good companion. Review on WarscapesReview on ArabLit.

Andrew Bossone‎ shared this year Hay Festival Beirut link

Youssef Rakha’s Crocodiles at the top of the summer reading list.

Youssef Rakha’s Crocodiles, trans Robin Moger (2015).
This is a very different book from Rakha’s complex and layered debut,Sultan’s Seal.

On friendship and feminism?

Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the leading female author of her generation in Lebanon.  Nidal Al Achkar is one of the leading actress and theater director of hers. The pair came together on stage last week at Madina Theater, as part of Hay Festival Beirut, to read stories from Shaykh’s new adaptation of 1001 Nights. The stories remind us of the complexity of humanity that touch on “all aspects of life: justice, injustice, gender issues, strife, the cunning of women, city-dwellers and people from the countryside, hate, love… it also contains very bloody stories, of unbelievable darkness and wickedness, alongside highly charged erotic ones.”

Iante Roach of NOW posted on May 14, 2013

Shaykh and Achkar go back a long way.

Hanan al-Shaykh first became aware of Nidal’s work in the 1960s: her acting talent was attracting the attention of many critics.  Shaykh, the journalist then, interviewed Nidal and followed her career avidly: “she is the person who began real, alive theater in Lebanon, a theater that dealt with Lebanese society and its problems from within, very different from the previous tradition. She was interested in Arabic playwrights and made us realize that theater does not only come from Europe, that there is much more to theater than Shakespeare, comedy, the theater of the absurd… She is an extremely courageous woman, and her play Edrab al-Haramiyeh (The Strike of Robbers in English), was stopped by the government.”

1001 Nights

NOW met with the women to talk about their longstanding friendship, feminism, freedom of expression, and the challenges they have experienced as women in the arts from the 1960s onwards.

In turn, Achkar reveals that she has been a fan of Shaykh’s “for a very long time, both as a woman whose personality fuses femininity and strength to the utmost degree, and as an author, with her modern and sophisticated style – an excellent example of al-sahl al-mumtana (inimitable simplicity in English) – and her stance. When she first wrote, her bold books appalled people.”

Shaykh, whose Shiite family comes from Nabatiyyeh, grew up in the Ras el-Naba’a neighborhood in Beirut. She left Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, eloping with her future husband (a Christian) to Saudi Arabia and later to England, where she has lived ever since. Her family found out about the marriage in the press!

The author dispels common myths about her strict Shiite upbringing and her position as a feminist Arab author. “My father was devout, but not a fanatic – just imagine that he let me go alone to Egypt to pursue my studies at the age of 17! Though he wanted me to wear the hijab, I rebelled and convinced him that it wasn’t for me. I used to think he was strict, but now I realize how much freedom he gave me. He was very loving and a little naïve, he would believe me in everything.

For instance, my father saw me holding hands with a boy, and I convinced him that the boy was simply helping me to cross the road unharmed. Initially, he was upset about my marriage, but he came to love my husband (whereas the rest of my family was happy and relieved, as they feared no one would marry me, with my strong character!). My husband’s family had no qualms whatsoever about our interfaith marriage.”

Asked whether she would define herself a feminist, Shaykh replies forcefully: “they pigeon-hole you! Maybe I am, I don’t know. My novels talk about women, strife, society issues – yet so many male Arab authors do the same and are not called feminists!”

Strong female characters appear in many of Shaykh’s novels – such as Ruhiyya and Asmahan from Beirut Blues. “My female characters come from here, from there, from everywhere. Some are women I met, others are members of my family, some I thought I knew, but I don’t know if they really exist. Ruhiyya from Beirut Blues, for instance, a character I adore, was inspired by Billie Holiday, the nickname of my mother’s dress-maker, who smoked cigarettes and was very outspoken and extremely alive.”

Shaykh reveals that she wished to return to Lebanon in 1982-83, “when the situation was really not very good. However, I thought of my children, who were very young at the time. I wanted them to continue living in a peaceful world, and feared they wouldn’t learn anything but fear from living in a state of war. I believe in secular society, and after a long experience of the UK’s real democracy I don’t think I can live anywhere without similar political conditions.”

Nonetheless, the boundaries of freedom of expression in the Arab world have never stopped her from “writing what I feel like writing: I am daring, I do not censor myself, and luckily I have a Lebanese publisher, who was very interested in my adaptation of the 1001 Nights and did not censor it even though I warned him that it was very daring.”

Achkar is an actress, a theater director, an author and founder of Madina Theater (in 1994). She has been seminal for modern and contemporary Lebanese theater. She announces to NOW that she is currently working on two big projects. She will act in a new play which will be directed by Madina Theater director Nagy Souraty. It will premiere in October 2013.

“All I can tell you about my role is that she’s a timeless woman,” she says with mischievous eyes. She will also be directing a big show in 2014, which she has adapted from ancient Sumerian texts, brought to her attention by her father some 40 years ago. “The play will deal with the Sumerian universe, from its beginning with the creation of the first cities and the search for eternal life to its end. According to Sumerian traditions, the universe was created by a woman.”

On her experience as a woman in the arts in Lebanon from the 1960s onwards, Achkar says “it has been a continuous struggle, yet easy because of my very open family, all my friends, and all the writers have been with me from the start. I had a golden beginning and was able to continue thanks to my confidence and the love my family gave me, even though it is a tough world. I enjoy the struggle and I enjoy succeeding and being the first woman to found an open, civil society theater, which fosters freedom of expression.”

The combined efforts of the seemingly delicate Shaykh and the dramatic and clearly forceful Achkar, who have both contributed immensely to the development of theater, literature, and the condition of women (whether artists or not) in Lebanon, created one of this year’s best and most enchanting theater and storytelling performances in Beirut.

One hopes that they will continue collaborating and achieving such ‘inimitable simplicity,’ the result of constantly striving, and that they will continue to take Beirut audiences along on the journey with them.




December 2021

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