Is old Najaf being destroyed?

Kamil Mahdi reports that construction projects around Najaf are destroying the core of the old city:

The destruction of Najaf which is now under way is drastic and irreversible. A statement by the head of the Shia Waqf Diwan dated on 8 September shows clearly that the whole matter was only an idea a month ago, yet a decision was quickly taken and demolition has begun. People should at least be allowed to discuss the rights and wrongs of such decisions.

No such discussion is taking place, not even in the sham, pliant and self-selected National Council. Is this the so-called democracy all these people have died and are dying for? If the destruction continues without open and meaningful public consultation that takes place in a rational atmosphere and in total transparency, it will be nothing short of a criminal assault on Iraq’s heritage and on its history. All over the civilised world, historic cities are protected, preserved and developed in ways that retain the character and identity of the city and the integrity of its physical and social fabric.

Benjelloun and Khoury

Frankfurt International Book Fair

I barely have anytime left before I run to catch the plane, but I wanted to put this down now: Elias Khoury and Tahar Benjelloun — respectively some of Lebanon’s and Morocco’s most respected and best-selling writers — were just discussing Arab pulbishing. Benjelloun launched into a tirade against Syrian publishers especially, calling on Syria to ratify the relevant intellectual property rights international agreements and clamp down on pirate publishers.

“There is this Syrian publisher who loves my books, but in a rather perverse way,” said Benjelloun, who writes in French but is frequently translated into Arabic. “Not only does he steal my books, but he translates them badly and then censors all the sex and politics out of them.”

One example he gave was a character who picked up a newspaper, saw a picture of Saddam Hussein, and exclaims, “Not that bastard again!” In the Syrian Arabic version of that same book, the whole passage was taken out.

“If Syria can’t even respect intellectual rights than it will never respect human rights,” Benjelloun said. “It’s not a question of money, but a question of morality and respect.”

It was an interesting aside from a discussion forum that was still very centered on the information gathered in the Arab Human Development Report — both Khoury and Benjelloun were rather puzzled when they were asked who their readership was (Khoury just said, “I don’t know, I’m not a sociologist.”) But there was this idea that the German moderator was attached to that literature has a certain readership in terms of social class — the elite. I don’t think that’s really true, and the more important criteria may simply be youth and level of education, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with income levels and social class in countries with traditions of free higher education.

More to come on this later.

In Frankfurt

Frankfurt International Book Fair

Because of the peculiarities of air travel in the Middle East, which seems to take place mostly at night, I arrived this morning in Frankfurt from Casablanca at 6am and headed groggily to the book fair for a few hours until I take the plane to Cairo this afternoon. (There will be a long post on Morocco later, when I’ve had time to digest my ten pretty hectic days there.) I am now writing from the press center, where I have been busily looking into the blasts in Sinai mentioned below, and which I will most probably have to work on tonight.

My first impressions, walking around the international area of the fair where the booths for individual Arab countries and publishers are gathered (I haven’t been to the Arab League’s booth yet, which is apparently the main one), is that things are pretty well organized. Some of the booths, especially the ones for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are pretty kitsch — papier-mache renditions of Arabian forts and so on — but these tend also to be the largest (although, as far as literature is concerned, the least interesting. Prominently displayed are such books ‘Human rights and their enforcements in Saudi Arabia,” which turns out to be a rather turgid treatise on how Saudi Arabia recreates various conditions that supposedly existed around the time of the prophet. Syria’s stand, staid and boring in the tradition of that country’s ministry of information, is replete with biographies of the two Assads that served as presidents and books on the philosophy behind their thinking. Perhaps the strangest thing in the Syrian stand is a kind of prayer computer, basically a screen that one places at the head of the prayer mat and which highlights Suras from the Quran. It looks like it is made with computer technology from the mid-1980s, although the manufacturers say it “helps make devout.”

Much more interesting, obviously, are the stands by Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria and even Oman — although I haven’t seen all the Lebanese ones yet (they should be the best) or any Egyptian ones (the ones who produce the most books). There really is everything from cookbooks and technical books to fiction and history available, most often in Arabic but also in French and English. Often publishers will have the Arabic books they are selling next to their translations by other publishers, particularly for big names in Arab fiction like Naguib Mahfouz or Abdel Rahman Munif.

I’m going for another round now that more people are showing up, and will have another post before I head for the airport. In the meantime, I just read a nice article in the Times Literary Supplement on the relationship between Arabic and the Quran (and more). Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the article, but you should read the whole thing.

God chose Arabic. This makes Arabic particularly open to stagnation, mythologization, formalization, kitsch, and demagoguery. It is the fascination and danger of all verbal magic, a theme that has preoccupied thinkers such as Gershom Scholem, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin and Karl Kraus. Anyone who has witnessed a well-phrased, rousing public speech in an Arabic country has felt the effect of the language on the audience. A politician, theologian, or poet who speaks in classical Arabic, provided he is a good orator, is sure to captivate a wide audience. It is difficult to imagine how such a speech might sound in a different language, removed from the constant presence of a 1,400-year-old language with strong sacral overtones in society, its theology, literature and politics. Language operates here as a kind of time machine, effectively transporting all present back to a mythical epoch. Even television broadcasts of a speech by, say, Qaddafi, Yassir Arafat, or Saddam Hussein may have this effect. And how much more impressive were the great speeches by Gamal Abdal Nasser, whose success in leading an uprising in Egypt was due to his extraordinary rhetorical skill.

Since the full article is not on the TLS website (this is all they have), I’ll scan it and post it later today or tomorrow.

Frankfurt Book Fair

Frankfurt International Book Fair

The Frankfurt International Book Fair opened yesterday with “the Arab world” as its guest of honor. If all goes well, I’ll be attending the fair tomorrow morning as I fly from Casablanca to Cairo, via Frankfurt, and have about eight hours to linger. I’ll try to do some reporting on the fair — as much as I can in that short time-span — and post anything worthwhile, hopefully from the fair itself or otherwise later in the day.

In the meantime, here are a few articles culled from the internet on the opening and other pertinent issues:

  • The BBC writes about how Arab authors are “stealing the show” and the difficulties they encounter with censorship.
  • Al-Ahram Weekly reviews press coverage — especially German press — of the Arab role in the fair.
  • The Simon Wiesenthal Center is complaining that some books at the fair “incite hatred” and gives a list of the offending titles. However, while some of the books listed are clearly offensive and racist, others are simply anti-Israeli. For instance, a book about the Israeli destruction of Quneitra (in Syria) doesn’t seem that offensive, since that town was razed to the ground by Israel. That’s not really racism or anti-Semitism, so it’s a shame they include them and only discredits them.
  • IslamOnline has a special book fair file that already has several interesting articles, including:
  • In “Arab Publisher Speaks Out on the Frankfurt Book Fair” the deputy-director of the Arab Publisher’s Association, Mohammed Rashad, speaks out about the obstacles to publishing in the Arab World, reading trends in the Middle East and his preparations for the fair.
  • An interesting note from Rashad’s interview:

    “As an observer of the Arab market, I can tell you that the interests of the Arab reader have followed several trends in the course of my career. In the beginning of the ‘70s literature and modern poetry were the main interest of the Arab reader. Towards the end of the ‘70s, religious and classical religious writings came to the forefront, such as Qur’anic exegesis and Hadith. By the ‘80s books related to IT [information technology] topped all the lists. In the ‘90s literature had a strong comeback. Nowadays, surprisingly, classical and modern works on Islam and modern Islamic thought are topping the sales lists. We find a lack of religious thought and intellectual production when it comes to this field. Also, no one can ignore the strong interest in modern poetry.”

  • In “Dialogue With the President of the Frankfurt Book Fair,” Volker Neumann provides us with a behind-the-scenes impression of the organization of the fair, the negotiations with the guest of honor, and his hopes and expectations for the event.
  • In “Arabic Literature in Translation: A Survey,” Peter Ripken gives a historical overview of the translation of Arabic literature into Western European languages and sheds light on the causes for the lack of translations from Arabic available on the Western book markets today. 
  • In “Translations as Caricatures of the Arab World?” Samir Grees challenges the contention that translations from Arabic are chosen exclusively on the basis of Orientalist stereotypes of the Arab world and political sensationalism while expressing harsh criticism of the Arab League for its perceived lack of support for literary production.
  • In “Authors Without Books: Young Yemeni Literature Is Looking for Its Place,” Arab Literature expert Günther Orth uncovers the hidden pearls of a virtually unknown literature and describes the struggles its authors face in a land where the publishing tradition is only just being born.
  • Shatz on Khadra

    Adam Shatz penned an excellent review piece on Yasmina Khadra’s work in the London Review of Books. Khadra — his real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul — wrote several extremely successful books in French under his wife’s name before being coming out openly to a massive fanfare in the French literary world. In his review, Shatz takes a look at what may have caused his books to be translated into English when so few Arab novelists are. Among the top causes are the current trend for what’s-wrong-with-Islam? books, a category Khadra fits neatly into because he is virurently anti-Islamist. But that, Shatz says, is ignoring the bigger and more complicated picture:

    Khadra is a talented writer, but he isn’t a dissident. (As anyone who has spent time in Algeria knows, everyone there fancies himself a critic of the pouvoir, as they call their political system; the closer one is to the pouvoir, the more loudly one’s dissidence is proclaimed.) Whatever troubles Khadra once had with military censors, they are now a thing of the past. In a recent interview he declared that Algeria has ‘no political exiles’, which will have been news to exiled opponents of the military government such as Mohammed Harbi, a former FLN leader and modern Algeria’s leading historian. Though witheringly critical of Algeria’s Islamists, and of its business and political elites (the ‘political-financial mafia’), Khadra is notably indulgent of the army, which runs the country along with the Sécurité Militaire, the secret police, the regime’s ‘spinal cord’. Khadra’s books are prominently displayed in every Algerian bookshop, while La Sale Guerre (2001), a scathing memoir by Habib Souaidia, a former officer exiled in France, is banned.

    It really is worth reading in full as a quick overview of Algeria’s recent history, and how the tragedy of the civil war has been manipulated by le pouvoir to create a group of anti-Islamist intellectuals who are quite mute when it comes to the military junta. It also applied to Algeria’s myriad feminist movements, which in some cases have been mostly regime apologists. This type of problem is at the core of the tendency in the West to quickly support “cosmetic democratizers” in the Arab and Islamic world — the Ahmed Chalabis and Benazir Bhuttos — or simply pyt up with the military types who say that the only alternative is the Islamists.

    And while you’re at it, revisit this classic Shatz article on Fouad Ajami.

    Spotted via Moorish Girl.

    Language barrier

    The Guardian’s Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker, continues his look at Arab publishing and literature in Language barrier.

    I would only add that the state of affairs that Whitaker describes is not true for French publishers, which do quite often publish Arabic novels, either in translation or those written in French by Arab authors from North Africa or Lebanon. In fact, some very successful publishing houses like Actes Sud have specialized in publishing non-European literature. I can’t really think of anything equivalent in the English-speaking world.

    We linked the previous one here.

    Egyptian culture in crisis?

    Whatever else happened to the Egyptians?The Beirut Review (a literary supplement to the Daily Star) just ran a review I wrote of Galal Amin’s sequel to “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?” (entitled, creatively, “Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians?”). Amin is an economics professor at the American University in Cairo, and he analyzes changes in Egyptian society and culture over the last 50 years or so using concepts of social mobility, productivity and globalization. This second book focuses at some length on what Amin considers Egypt’s cultural decline. As you’ll see from the review, I don’t agree that culture in Egypt is in such dire straits as Amin does (I just saw Ahmed El Attar’s play “Mother I want to be a Millionaire” the other night–a dynamic, original piece that comments on almost every aspect of contemporary Arab culture in a series of fluid, visually captivating, overlapping vignettes–and was very impressed), but he makes some valid points about the mediocrity of mass culture and the negative effects of state-subsidized venues for expression.

    An announcement and a review

    As you can see in the post below, there is a new poster on This website was never meant to be a personal blog, and Ursula Lindsey, who has written about Egypt for various newspapers and magazines, is the first of hopefully many other contributors you will see as the site matures. It is a labor of love and obviously a work in progress that depends largely on how much spare time I have. In the meantime, enjoy Ursula’s posts and do check out her other work, notably over at, where she will be soon be starting a regular column on Cairo. We’ll keep you informed.

    Getting back to her review of Galal Amin’s Whatever else happened to the Egyptians, I thought it may interest readers to take a look at my own review of Whatever happened to the Egyptians, Amin’s first book in this series, which was published in the Cairo Times in December 2000. It’s not online, so click below to view the full post.

    Continue reading An announcement and a review