Resist the Bans: Support Writers from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen

Because ArabLit serves both as magazine and workspace, please consider these as tentative suggestions:

Nottingham resisted Egypt's travel ban for poet and novelist Omar Hazek by making him their festival's virtual writer-in-residence.
Nottingham Festival of Literature resisted Egypt’s travel ban for poet and novelist Omar Hazek by making him their virtual writer-in-residence.

Yesterday, US Pres. Donald Trump signed the executive order that has been called the “Muslim ban.” The finalized text was as of this writing not  released, although drafts were published by several news outlets, titled “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.”

Through this executive order, the Trump regime apparently plans to “temporarily suspend the entry of foreign nationals” from seven countries the US has recently attacked via drones, troops, occupation, or sanctions.

The order would suspend entry into the U.S. from select countries for an apparently indefinite time period. The countries in question were, in the draft: Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Some on twitter have shortened the list to #LIISSSY.

Book festivals, universities, bookshops, librarians, writers, and readers have faced limited access to Arab authors and artists — and vice versa — for years. Jordanian short-story writer Hisham Bustani was unable to make 2015 tour dates in the US because his visa was held up for extra scrutiny. Jordanian novelist and poet Amjad Nasser was denied entry for a reading in the US in 2014. In 2012, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan was denied entry. After an organized uproar, Zaqtan received a visa and his tour was rescheduled. This is aside from the many writers not invited because the process is simply too time-consuming, as the New York Times discussed in 2012.

The violence of such an executive act cannot be countered solely with art, or translation. Still, as Samah Selim notes, translation can be “a form of radical knowledge production.” We can also collaborate with, and listen to, literary voices, as well as forging supportive, enriching, properly compensated connections between writers and literary communities, thus resisiting the ban.

A few suggestions:

Virtual Writers in Residence

omarIn 2016, the Nottingham Festival of Literature named Omar Hazek their “Virtual Writer in Residence” and raised funds to support his residency, including for a stipend to Hazek. While Egyptians aren’t banned from Nottingham (so far as we know) the virtual-ness of the residency was in response to the travel ban Egypt has imposed on Hazek, a novelist and poet who served more than a year in prison for contravening Egypt’s anti-protest laws.

Hazek did “digital live events” across the festival.

Writers in the Classroom

videolinkWhen Ghassan Zaqtan wasn’t allowed into the US for a series of events built around the release of his Like a Straw Bird it Follows Me, trans. Fady Joudah, Joudah helped organize a series of live video talks. Other authors have also appeared in bookshops and classroom via videolink software.

Certainly this works best where the writer is offered an honorarium for their time and efforts.

Readings and Discussions

Buy “book club bags” filled with works by writers who live in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen or who have these citizenships and will thus be excluded from visiting the US.

Book club suggestions:

(L) Banipal 40: Libyan Fiction. The best-known Libyan writers are Ibrahim al-Koni (a finalist for the Man Booker International in 2015) and Libyan-British author Hisham Matar, whose 2016 The Return deservedly netted a number of awards. Banipal 40 collects work by a wide range of Libyan writers, mostly in translation, including Ghazi Gheblawi, Wafa al-Bueissa, Hisham Matar, Ibrahim al-Koni, Mohammed Mesrati, Razan Naim Moghrabi, Mohammed al-Asfar, Ahmed Fagih, Giuma Bukleb, Omar el-Kiddi, Saleh Snoussi, Najwa Binshatwan, Omar Abulqasim Alkikli, Azza Kamil al-Maghour, Ibrahim Ahmidan, Redwan Abushwesha, Mohammed al-Arishiya, and Mohammed al-Anaizi.

(I) Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, translated by Jonathan Wright, is forthcoming in English in early 2018. This novel, about a “whatsitsname” assembled from body parts in Baghdad, won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and Saadawi still lives in Baghdad. Also: Iraq + 100 (2016), ed. Hassan Blasim, a collection of science-fiction stories from ten different Iraqi writers, including Blasim, who lives in Finland, although the order would, at least in its draft form, also affect authors with dual (non-US) citizenships.

(I) There are many fantastic Iranian novels that could be book-club ready, and this is certainly outside ArabLit’s remit, but you might start with Women Without Men by  Shahrnush Parsipur, translated by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet (2004), which has also been adapted to film by the brilliant Sherin Neshat.

(S) Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa’s There Are No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, trans. Leri Price, was chosen as one of the “best books of 2016” by the Financial Times, and was also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It’s an excellent discussion book, as is Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, trans. Paul Starkey (2017).

(S) Two collections: Book of Khartoum (2016), ed. Raph Cormack & Max Shmookler, showcases a wide range of moving, human, and startling stories from the capital of Sudan. Or read Literary Sudans (2016), ed. Bhakti Shringarpure, which includes work that ranges over Sudan and South.

(S) Somali writing is also outside the ArabLit remit, but short-story collections often make interesting discussions, and British-Somali author Diriye Osman  won the Polari First Book Prize for his short story collection, Fairytales for Lost Children.

(Y) Yemeni writer Ali al-Muqri is, like Yemeni work in general, under-translated. Only his Hurma, translated by Thomas Aplin (2015), is available in English. A novel of frustrated desire, it follows a woman who travels to Afghanistan to fight behind her pitiful husband, but quickly finds she’s just a money-and-explosives mule, and is immediately sent away from the front and taken into Iran, where she’s arrested and briefly jailed.

Children’s literature and literary events

There isn’t children’s literature has been brought over from Arabic and Somali into English, although there have been serious efforts from the Farsi, where there is a flowering children’s-book community, particularly thanks in particular to the UK-based press Tiny Owl Publishing. You might start with their Little Black Fish, by Samed Behrangi, translated by Azita Rassi, shortlisted for the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation.

Tiny Owl has blogged about the difficulties of bringing their authors in for events, yet they clearly remain persistent.

There’s also the Syrian picture book, Jasmine Sneeze, by Syrian author-illustrator Nadine Kaadan, who is currently living in the UK, where she does events with both English and refugee children. On Book Riot, Kaadan talks about the importance of truly diverse books for children and reading with refugees. You can support her crowdrise for a weekend of events Feb 4 and 5, stories and songs for Syrians.

Literary events for existing refugee communities

Existing refugee communities may now be cut off from their families and from a larger support network that would’ve otherwise arrived.

As inspiration: Nadine Kaadan and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp have gotten together to hold “stories and songs for Syrians,” a weekend of storytelling, writing and illustrating workshops, and music-and-movement for English and Syrian children. They would surely be happy to share what they learn from the events with organizers hoping to do the same.

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