Monthly Archives: November 2010
I have been posting articles using my very poor “iPhone” pictures. Now that the event photographer, Stephan Röhl, has shared and published his photo stream on flickr, I will replace mine on this blog with his much better ones!
A few more posts will follow regarding the last sessions of the Our Shared Europe seminar.
During the seminar, Ahdaf Soueif has been chairing one to one session with all invited authors: I’ve already reported on her conversations with Inaam Kachachi and Jamal Mahjoub, and now you can read about her session with Robin Yassin-Kassab.
Robin Yassin-Kassab was born in west London in 1969 to a Syrian father and an English mother. With the exception of six months in Beirut, he grew up in England and Scotland. He graduated from Oxford University and travelled extensively. He has lived and worked in London, France, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Robin Yassin-Kassab taught English around the Arab world as well as in Turkey and worked as a journalist in Pakistan before moving to Oman. He has recently returned to live in Scotland with his family.
“My literary influences come from both East and West” sayd Yassin-Kassab, citing writers such as Saul Bellow, Naguib Mahfouz and Mahmoud Darwish. His first novel, The Road from Damascus, can be considered as a bildungsroman, “which can be natural for a first novel” says Soueif. “That wasn’t conscious,” says Yassin-Kassab, “I was writing about issues that were interesting me at the time.” He then goes on explaining that he has written three half novels: a Syrian, a Palestinian and an Iraqi. “This sounds like the beginning of a joke…” says Yassin-Kassab jokingly, “They all go into a bar…” Then he explains, more seriously, “I think about Syria at the moment. I’m not very good at plotting. And I don’t think like that, it’s about characters and ideas. I’d like to write a well plotted novel, but can’t do it very well right now.”
When talking about plots and ideas, Yassin-Kassab explains his interest in the intersection of the personal and the political. “I was interested about why the Arab world became more religious in recent times, and I think it comes from disappointment. Before this there were ideas of socialism, pan arabism etc…” “Well,” says Soueif “the big national ideas were not allowed to succeed. We now live with the results of it.” Yassin-Kassab adds that “We now need a story, a narrative, bigger than the individual.” He says about the “Road from Damascus” that “writing about London and Damascus, both cities have huge effect on me.” Robin Yassin-Kassab has lived in so many places but explains that not every place feeds in what one does. “I wrote [The Road from Damascus] when I was in Muscat. I might end up writing about Muscat one day. Some places capture my imagination more than others.
Soueif asks him “Why set your novel in pre 9-11?”
“Everything is building up to an explosion-and here’s one,” says Yassin-Kassab, “I’m not psycholising it, it was a clear political issue. In the novel, I was trying to show the complexities, pressures, frustrations, and a space ready for conflict, and then BAM! it happens. This [pre 9-11] was a period when you had more choices on how you could identify yourself. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. Maybe it has to do with my childhood, the idea of being rooted interests me but it stopped bothering me. I’ve constantly been moving. I wasn’t consciously examining myself when writing.”
Though not directly autobiographical in The Road From Damascus he and his protagonist, Sami, have been on journeys that share parallels. Robin Yassin-Kassab is currently working on his second novel. He is also a co-editor and regular contributor to PULSE, recently listed by Le Monde Diplomatique as one of its five favourite websites.
Jamal Mahjoub is an award winning writer of mixed British/Sudanese heritage. Born in London, he was raised in Khartoum where the family remained until 1990. He was awarded a scholarship to study in England and attended university in Sheffield. He has lived in a number of places, including the UK, Denmark and currently, Spain. He writes in English. In a conversation with Ahdaf Soueif, Mahjoub talks about his knowledge of languages, the difference between writing a short story and a novel, and how he came to write fiction after studying geology.
Ahdaf Soueif starts the conversation with a question about language: “You say ‘I don’t speak any language properly’, how true is that?”
“I’m moderate in seven languages” says Mahjoub, “it hasn’t been planned but rather improvised. As a child I grew in Khartoum, after the 1989 coup, my parents moved to Cairo and I was in England at the time. I ended up in Denmark, I learned Danish,and then I ended up in Spain and now also speak Spanish”.
The first three novels Mahjoub wrote were an investigation about Sudan.
“But you studied geology” asks Soueif, “how come?”
“The father of a friend was geologist” explains Mahjoub, “and would take us out and would stop out of the city and describe each stone and where they came from – ‘the mountains and that this used to be a sea, and so on’ it transformed the whole way you look at things and I thought it was geology, so I went to university and studied it”, he smiles “it wasn’t geology, it was fiction!” Mahjoub goes on explaining he was probably the worst geologist in the world but that he still graduated. After looking for work and not finding any, he realised more and more the need to define what Sudan meant to him and what it was, “So I started doing it through fiction.”
“Do you think novels are born of character and short stories of situations?” asks Soueif.
“A short story is a moment where everything comes together. I suppose, because I don’t want to go deep into a character, I write a short story. I get ideas for novels a lot and then they sit, if they last, then become novels. It can take years before you can start really doing what you want in a novel” says Mahjoub. Then he adds, “You can have a collection of short stories and even that wouldn’t become a novel.” Soueif adds, ” Would you say that the impulse for the short story comes from outside and the novel from within?” “Both can come from inside” says Mahjoub, “but the short story is reflected outside.
Inaam Kachachi writes about her country, Iraq, about the stories of ordinary people, about a grandmother who doesn’t accept that her granddaughter works as a translator for the American army. “I write about how the political situation enters inside the families and divide people,” says Kachachi, “I am trying to explain to myself what has happened, how we lost Iraq,” and adds after a pause, “will I ever go back to this Iraq?” The main character in her novel The American Granddaugther is a grandmother: “there’s always old ladies in my writing, I believe in their memories” says Kachachi, emphasising on the great need to share this memory and write stories. “When you work so many years in journalism” she says,”you always have notes, pieces of paper in your drawer, and they can always find their way into your articles. When you get older you have accumulated a little treasure that can be used in a novel.” Ahdaf Soueif notes that Kachachi was indeed taking notes when they were driving to the seminar venue earlier, “but there were just trees around. Were you inspired by the trees?” Kachachi answers a bit embarrassed that she had cut off her hearing aid to shut herself out of the conversations that were going on in the car, which made Soueif and the whole audience burst into laughter. “The first time I received the hearing aid from my doctor and put it on I thought, oh my god, I can hear all these horrible sounds, cut it off!” The writing in the car had nothing to do with the forest but with Soueif’s noise said Kachachi jokingly. “Well, if I triggered something coming to your next novel, I should be glad” added Soueif, setting a really agreeably informal and warm atmosphere to this already pretty interesting conversation.
The main character of The American Granddaughter, Rahma is a combination of many women: Kachachi’s grandmother, her aunts and other women resembling her. “As a journalist, I got to write about facts, now I write about fiction. The problem in Iraq is that reality is even more than fiction. I need to see somebody when writing so I copy several women to make one.”
Soueif and Kachachi went on in the conversation talking about the state of diversity that existed in the Arab countries until recently. “I grew up [in Iraq] without being asked what I was” says Kachachi, “in Paris, people would ask if you are Shiite or Sunni. I think it isn’t a question to ask in a civil society. Now I feel the need to say I’m Christian because people need to understand the diversity that was in Iraq.” When a participant mentioned that the urge of having rigid lines between religions is very much present in Muslim countries, Soueif responds that it happens now and hasn’t started in Muslim countries, “these are imported ideas that have taken roots. We hope that if the political problem is fixed, we will move back to this diversity” then she adds, “but we’re novelists, not historians.”
Inaam Kachachi explains that she became a novelist out of a frustration: “over thirty years that I lived in Paris, Iraq was and is being shown as a place of conflict, suicide bombings, execution, war… I wanted to write about the civilian society, to say that this country was a place where people would dream to live in. Iraq is an ancient civilisation that has a natural treasures. The destiny of Iraqis wasn’t to become immigrants, Iraqis are attached to their lands, many are farmers. Seeing five million Iraqis living outside is quite dreadful. There is no hope in the future, you can’t see the “nur”, the light at the end of the tunnel. So I want to tell about the people, about their lives, their contradictions,” and she adds “Everybody has a story to tell.”
Over thirty participants have now joined the Our Shared Europe Literary Seminar and we’ve started the day with a session of introductions and readings. Starting with John Whitehead, Director British Council Germany, who gave some information about the Our Shared Europe project and the yearly Walberberg literature seminar that served as a model to build this weekend’s event at the Seehotel near Berlin -a location “away from the city to give participants the time and quiet to fully enjoy the discussion” said Whitehead.
Throughout a wide range of activities (academic, artistic, educational…) Our Shared Europe (OSE) seeks to provide a platform for dialogue between different cultures, looking for narratives, creating awareness of Muslim contribution to Europe. Laeticia Manach, Head of Arts British Council France, has also emphasised the key role of the arts in today’s societies, adding that the British Council’s role goes beyond showcasing UK work overseas, aiming to trigger discussion and engagement through activities like this seminar.
Ahdaf Soueif, writer, political and cultural commentator, is chairing the seminar. She lives in Egypt and in the UK, writes in English and in Arabic, and is the author of bestselling novel “The Map of Love”. She explains to the audience that the first time she was approached about the Our Shared Europe project, she had this automatic thought of leaving because of the nature of the subject. Because of her relationship with the British Council, she listened and, never having once heard the word “tolerance” gave her trust in the project. Ms Soueif said she believes in the potential of the project to create real engagement and agreed to invite three prominent writers to be part of the seminar: Inaam Kachachi, Jamal Mahjoub and Robin Yassin-Kassab.
In this first session of the seminar, all three authors have read from their novels and presented some of their views about the themes of the Our Shared Europe literature seminar. The warm and open atmosphere was set right from the beginning and reinforced by the relaxed attitude of the authors. “I’ll talk for two minutes, read for three and smile for two” says Yassin-Kassab before kicking out about his novel “The Road From Damascus”, published in 2008. “We spoke over lunch about the themes of my novel -what’s the novel about?- well, it’s about life we said (laughs).” He then adds more seriously, “My novel is about religion, all kinds of religions: religion, nationalism, scientific extremism…” (More about the novel will follow in the next sessions Ahdaf Soueif will have with each author).
Inaam Kachachi followed: “I’m not like Jamal or Robin, I have no British mother. I’m Iraqi. But both my children are French” says Kachachi when touching on the theme of identity. She says about her writing fiction that it came late, “I’m an old journalist but a young writer” and goes on “Seeing my books translated into European languages gives me great satisfaction. The old Iraq is no longer there, I feel the necessity to tell the story of Iraq” She then adds before starting to read from her novel “My American Grandmother”, “my reading is not as fluent as Robin’s but I’ll do my best to reach you”. And she did reach us and will more later in her one to one session with Ms Soueif.
Jamal Mahjoub has jumped right into the subject of the seminar: “I think that this seminar is about reclaiming a common ground” linking it to his work as a writer, “My novels are about finding a sense of identity and how that search happens through events and history.” He also explains how this idea of common ground has been taken for granted at a certain point, “Somehow in the last ten years, political factors have made the notion of creating an in-between space increasingly difficult. We see more and more a polarisation of this share ground, and that’s why I wanted to be here today”.
One of the main themes of the seminar is identity, and how globalisation, migration and politics have influenced and affected the hundreds of years old diversity existing in many arab countries, and the way we identify ourselves today across the globe, as citizens, people, writers… “Many Iraqis live in Europe,” says Inaam Kachachi, “Europeans are sharing their Europe with us, but we also do have a lot to share. There is a big tradition of communities living together in Iraq.” When talking about the political reasons that push Muslims to be uncomfortable in Europe, Kachachi adds “You have to keep this beautiful Europe from racism, fanaticism, not to shut the brains.”
Throughout the next couple of days, the seminar will explore these themes further, with one to one sessions between Ahdaf Soueif and each writer, small group workshops with participants and plenaries. Stay tuned!
From 12 to 14 November 2010, I – Canan Marasligil, project manager Benelux region (British Council), will have the privilege to attend the Our Shared Europe Literature seminar and blog here about the sessions throughout the weekend.
The “Our Shared Europe” literature seminar is the British Council’s first event specifically aimed at exploring Muslim European interaction through contemporary literature, as part of the wider project of the same name. Adopting the well-established concept and format of the “Walberberg Seminar on Contemporary Literature from the UK”, colleagues from the British Council Berlin office have organised this exciting three-days seminar entitled “Faultlines, Fictions and Futures”. Chaired by writer Ahdaf Soueif and gathering writers Inaam Kachachi, Jamal Mahjoub and Robin Yassin-Kassab, the seminar will explore the writers’ work, their people, their times and their hometowns, and give the opportunity to a wide range of participants coming from the UK, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, Serbia, Slovenia, Portugal, Turkey, France, Greece and Belgium, to interact and share ideas.