Between Two Rivers, Dorothy Al Khafajji

With its bright yellow cover and a back page that reads very much like the synopsis of a great romance, I thought this book was some kind of chick-literature. However, opening the front page and reading the introduction, it is clear that the book is based on the true memoirs of the English Dorothy Al Khafaji, who was born and bred in Somerset, England but through extraordinary fate, had to travel to and live almost two decades in Baghdad, Iraq between 1962 to 1980.

The tale begins when Dorothy, an impressionable young girl who hasn’t even finished her A-Level education, falls in love with the handsome and dark Iraqi engineering student Zane in a London club. Soon after, they are married with a little daughter and on their way to Baghdad with no questions asked.

Their adventure starts in a fancy Mercedes picked up from Germany (for Zane’s brother) and they drive all the way through Europe and Asia to get to Iraq; passing Holland, Austria, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Jordan and Syria. When they finally arrive, the young family live with the in-laws in a pretty suburb of Baghdad near to the Tigris River.

Al Khafaji is quickly thrown into the very different patriarchal and conservative culture and has no option but to adapt. She writes in detail of her life then as a young mother away from all that was once familiar to her in England. With almost zero contact with the Western world and so far away, she learns the Arabic language and picks up on the local habits in order to personally survive.

We get a wonderful insight into life of the ordinary but dignified Iraqis during the 1960s and a country full of hope. We come to witness through Dorothy the lifestyle as well as the passionate temper and irrational family traditions they follow. She tells of her new living arrangements and how safe and friendly their neighborhood was like, with people of all backgrounds living in peace together, without any conflict based on religious, ethnic or political grounds.

She even becomes one of the extended family members and refers to the in-laws as Mum and Dad throughout the story; but, this is not to cover up the dramas and the heated arguments that take place between the brothers, sisters and parents which test her patience and diplomacy skills to the limit in order to keep things under control.

Dorothy and Zane go on to have more children and face lots of obstacles in getting to a state of financial independence, as they relocate on several occasions and have to mix with different families. But the central relationship does comes across a little strained and difficult with plenty of complaint from Dorothy, albeit restrained, regarding Zane.

We do get a great glimpse also of the popular Arabic culture in those days and the various phases that impact on the lives of everyone over an eighteen-year period. But, of course, it is in the politics of the Middle East and the situation of Iraq in particular that begins just as background information to events, but later comes to affect and colour the personal lives of all characters involved.

It was this part of the book most enjoyed as Khafaji writes it so well; although, it could not have been easy to live through the terror, horror and injustices that were caused by the Baathist government that took hold. Ending with the sadistic regime of Saddam Hussein, we understand just how mercilessly it threatened the life of every single person who either lived in or originated from Iraq.

I do recommend reading this book, as it weaves the personal with the political in a fluent and measured fashion. It does shine a light on a time in Iraqi history that tested the nerve and steel of ordinary people. With so many crimes committed against the innocent, Dorothy herself is a survivor who has lived it and can now tell the tale for others to contemplate any lessons that might help to heal today’s post-Wars Iraq.

Between Two Rivers will soon be available on paperback, priced at £8.99. ISBN 9781908946874

Note: Note: This article was first published circa June 2013

The Bussy Monologues

Modest World Premiere in Brighton, UK

You don’t expect to attend the world premiere of a very important, culturally significant and fascinating anthropological film experiment in a medium-sized lecture hall in the city of Brighton, UK. In a room of about forty tops, a group of international women were attending the Women in Art, Science and Research Conference and pleasantly surprised to be the very first audience to see the film adaptation of the scandal causing and goose-pumps’ creating BuSSy Monologues.

Khalid Abol Naga, the multi-award winning Egyptian director of the film adaptation, and Sondos Shabayek and Mona El-Shimi, two of the creative members of the BuSSy Project, were personally present and super nervous and excited to gage our response.

The BuSSy Monologues

What defines the BuSSy Monologues film as original is not that the stories told haven’t been visualized or known before in Arabic fiction film or novel art-making, but that these are honest and truthful first-hand accounts of real people, without any censorship of the details.

Acted out by a small dedicated team of young Egyptian actors and actresses and filmed as they preformed the original plays at various University venues in Cairo, some of the tales remain anonymous to protect the sources of truly horrendous confessions, but others do carry the brave names of those who came forwards.

The themes of the clips are controversial and deliberately challenge an Arabic and predominantly Muslim society that is very much scared of taboos and social stigmas, with the youngsters portrayed afraid to act outside the culture’s conservative mores and restrictive gender segregation.

What we see is they are all struggling not just for being young, but also having to live in a politically volatile landscape with high levels of poverty, unemployment and uncertainty about the future. Some characters are also from the unfortunate underground classes who are not even able to access a decent or standard level of education; but here are stories across the poor, middle and rich levels of Egypt to expose the realities of their existence.

The Clips

Some of these are quite shocking and made worse by the fact that there seems to be little or no redress for the tellers of the stories in their societal environment. It is only through the writing of the confessions that there is hope for some personal relief.

In Farha, a simple poor woman is forced to marry an older man who infects her with AIDS and makes abnormal sexual demands on her. Innocently not even knowing how the disease is carried, her family and neighbours ostracize her when they find out and she spends years looking after him until he dies. She remains oblivious as to how her husband and she too caught the virus.

In My Son and Daughter, an uneducated housemaid inadvertently tells her wealthy female employer that her daughter is being married off to her brother with the complicity of the father and local sheik in order to save money on rent and living expenses. The incestuous sex is hinted at, also when the woman comments that she is worried her daughter might otherwise get pregnant from other male family members.

Again, in Salwa, an impressionable young girl is confused about having sexual experience and worried that her purity has been taken away. Naively, she believes that sleeping around might result in at least one man who will truly love her. Also, she talks about putting on the veil as a way to make her seem decent and good in the eyes of society.

In The Autobus, a young man tells of how the public transport buses in the city are a way for him to get glimpses of girls and so he can touch them up and flirt with them for a bit of secret sexual pleasure. Commenting that his humble job offers him only 400LE, there is no way he can afford a bride and marriage.

Another is The Wedding Night, where a young bride is told not to tell her husband of any previous romantic experience, because he may well badly judge her and this would cause problems in the marriage. There is a sad memorable quote here: “The perfect bride (or wife) is the perfect corpse.”

All the others are just as engaging from start to finish, with the acting done as individual monologues or of little two-way dialogues set in a simple theatrical background with very few props.

Collectively, they explore the deep anxieties and frustrations of an angry, unhappy, miserable and yet still humorous generation of young men and women in today’s Egypt. It is clear that the BuSSy project does not judge its very own content, but allows for a catharsis through the power of Art in relaying the most difficult of societal truths.

I highly recommend you view the film adaptation of the original plays, whichever clips are selected for later screenings. Hopefully, the artistic team will be able to find bigger audiences as they may now plan to embark on an international world tour. So watch out, it may soon be coming to a cinema near you.

The BuSSy Project

The BuSSy Project started in 2007, when in the spirit of artistic research, two students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) began to collect stories from young women about their personal memories and experiences of life and gender issues to turn them into a stage show. Their simple flyer read: “If you have a story about yourself or a woman you know, please pick up a submission form and share it.”

Five years into the project, and backed by a team of student actors and actresses, they were able to compile over 500 stories, from both male and female Egyptians and went to put on the plays. Receiving mainly negative and critical reviews in the local media, the Monologues spoke about the problems of the cultural and social pressures youngsters face but are too afraid to openly challenge.

In July 2010, when the BuSSy Project used a café to set up a stage and a section of a parking lot for a two-night performance, even the Egyptian government censors were informed and wanted to cut out some of the lines and scenes.

In defiance, the actors and actresses mimed the parts as a political statement that nothing will stop them, now that they were under way and gaining an interested and packed audience.

On that very night, Khaled Abol Naga, a very popular Egyptian actor, producer and director, was invited. He took an immediate interest in the project and offered to re-produce the stories for film with Mohamed Hefzy. Abol Naga is not just an artist, but also a passionate human rights and social activist, as well as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Egypt.

Currently, two young Egyptian ladies are also heavily involved with the project and to make the film a reality. Sondos Shabayek is a young writer, theatre director and actress who got on board in 2007 and is fully involved with the Monologues. The other is Mona El-Shimi, who is a psychologist, actress and “traveller”. She has also acted in the plays, co-directed the clips, coached and coordinated the Project since 2008.

For more information about the BuSSy Project:

Also note: The Brighton screening was hosted by the support of Ethics in Performance, an art initiative that is part of the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. They organize and host a regular calendar of public events in collaboration with a variety of artists throughout the year. For more information:

Note: Note: This article was first published circa February 2013

Halim Al-Karim: Witness from Baghdad 2013

Hailing a cab in a hurry to get to my scheduled interview with the Iraqi artist Halim Al-Karim, I thought I’d need to apologise. However when I arrived at the Artspace London Gallery, he was busy with another journalist, offering me some time to look around and survey the exhibition.

Immediately, I was taken aback by what I can only describe as a contemplative yet ambiguous beauty present in his pieces and I understood why so many of his images have been so celebrated and repeatedly showcased at exhibitions all around the world.

They are of a larger scale than I had somehow anticipated, ranging from 220 cm x 130 cm at the largest and 90 cm x 60 cm at the smallest. Whilst many of the pieces are politically provocative, others are based more on female beauty and sexual seduction. In particular, the Goddess Series, the New Orientalism 6 and the Untitled 10, from the King’s Hareem Series.

Al-Karim’s muse is always in a blur, out-of-focus and never identified, though he uses real life models – it is one of his rules to never disclose their identities. Then there is his play with the light and shadows, which gives the pieces different visual interpretations from various angles with unusual optical effect.

Above all, one is compelled to engage with the recurring themes of Al-Karim’s personal life and how they intertwine with those of his home country Iraq, which he had to flee in 1991 in order to survive and physically stay alive.

In emotional and psychological exile since, his art tries to make sense of the awful tragedies that have befallen him and his countrymen. Al-Karim has indeed suffered greatly, having lost four brothers and one sister because of multiple Iraq wars and it is still hard for him to contemplate ever going back.

His style takes on a subtle imaginative form, but always rooted in the enduring horrors of fighting and the influence it has on the psychology of its victims, as well as for the artist himself to get away from the violence through love and the creative process. His work also challenges the hidden or secret nature of certain human behavior.

One of Al-Karim’s techniques is to put a veil of silk or other light fabric on top of the pieces, to indicate the thin line between reality and illusion, as well as to project the distant lands of the artist’s memory, fantasy, dreams as well as terror and nightmares.

He also addresses the potential power of collective memory versus individual awareness, of the close relationship between love and hate, women and politics. His Schizophrenia piece is especially powerful as it represents a split in the psychology of a people and the deceptive nature of governments.

Currently showing at Artspace London Gallery for the first time are three pieces entitled the Eternal Love Series, originally completed in 2010, which the artist expands upon in the Interview transcript.

Another set of images, the Seclusion in Pigalle Series, are of a purely sexual nature and show women in intimate naked contact; but they are a little difficult to locate in the Gallery. Placed right at the back of the lower level, one has to wonder whether they were deliberately hidden at the last minute to not affront some of the more conservative Arab viewers.

Witness from Baghdad 2013 at Artspace London Galley is Al-Karim’s first solo exhibition in London, UK, organized to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. A small percentage of sales will go towards the charity The Young Mesopotamians, which is an educational initiative to foster the next generation of young artists in Iraq. Their Facebook page: Young Mesopotamians.

I do highly recommend a visit before it ends on 23 February 2013. More information:Witness from Baghdad.

Halim Al-Karim: Artist Biography

Halim Al-Karim was born in Najaf, Iraq in 1963 and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He had to endure much hardship under Saddam Hussein and at one point, lived in hole for three years to escape military service for war. He has lost a number of family relatives over the years, including four brothers and a sister.

Able to flee in 1991, he sought asylum in the Netherlands, where he studied Photography at the Gerrit Rietueld Academy from 1996 to 2000, which is now his preferred medium of work.

Today, he lives between Denver, Colorado in the Unites States and in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. His work has already been exhibited all around the world, including the United State, the Gulf, Middle East and Europe. Most notably, his work was a part of an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2009 and in October 2011, a solo exhibition in New York.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2013

Made in Makkah, Exhibition at Artspace London Gallery

One has to wonder what kind of Art would come today from the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Indeed, would there even be room for it in a place reserved just for Muslim pilgrims who arrive at least once in their lifetime to pray, face God and do the necessary rituals to get closer to the Divine.

It is to the inhabitants who live permanently so close and near to this place of worship that we can search for the answer because their artistic sentiments give rise to the issue of Islamic Art in general. Although Western academics would have us believe that it all ended in the 19th Century, this new exhibition at Artspace London Gallery offers a challenge.

In collaboration with Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Made in Makkah brings the work of three living Meccan artists, who have taken the classical forms of Islamic calligraphy and sculpture and given them a modern twist. Overall, the exhibition brings a fresh insight and perspective into what can be done artistically without crossing the religious restrictions.

Nasser Al-Salem, born in 1984, is the calligraphist who has created a signature modern form that extends the Arabesque style. Drawing on the names of Allah and verses from the Quran, his work is poetically geometric with various movements created within the texts, to symbolize the transcendent perfection of God through the word.

For example, the piece entitled “Whoever obeys Allah, he will make for him a way out” is the verse transformed into a labyrinth or maze to represent the meaning of the injunction. His “Kul I” and “Kul II” are also beautiful, in black and white; and, by using mirrors, his “God shall not Die” again creates a spatial infinity.

The second artist is the 32–year-old sculptress Noha Al-Sharif, who has two related pieces exhibited. Working with clay, marble aggregate and polyester resin, she has created at least 100 black female figurines for each piece that stand together in Islamic prayer or deep contemplation. They exude the sense of being together or alone in worship, as well as the peace in religious posturing.

Last but not least is the incredible and most impressive work of Saddek Wasil, who creates sculptures from dark steel, iron and discarded metal. His unusual subjects that include “Barbed”, “Windows” and “They bear their weights”, have an uncanny leaden heaviness, pain and almost torture about them.

As well-put by Artspace: “His sculptures exuberate a rejection of binding stereotypes and an iron will to defeat material subjugation for the sake of spiritual freedom. He equates metal, with strength, and his patience and ability to break down its intransigence and to manipulate it to his will, is what gives him his sense of empowerment and achievement.”

This exhibition proves that Islamic art is alive and well in the birthplace of the religion. Yes, it has changed and adapted to be new, modern and provocative, but its original spiritual dimension remains, with the process of the Art being an act of adoration and worship in itself.

Artspace was first created in Dubai in 2003, to bring the very best of new and well-established Middle Eastern artists’ works to the world stage. Now in London as well, it endeavors to provide the best selection for Western and Eastern collectors.

Already, Artspace has brought forward the works of well-known artists and helped launch several artistic careers, including, Zakaria Ramhani, Ahmed Mater, Mohammed Taman, Shadi Al Zaqzouq and Monif Ajaj.

Made In Makkah can be viewed until 27 October 2012 at the elegant Artspace London Gallery, located very near to Knightsbridge tube station. For more information,

Note: This article was first published circa October 2012

The Gaddafi Archives

Libya Before the Arab Spring

The Gaddafi Archives is a controversial new exhibition taking place at the Slade Research Centre as part of the London Festival of Photography 2012. It draws upon original archives unearthed by a team of Human Rights Watch during the Revolution in Libya. The material is mainly photographs of originals discovered and therefore, they are not in any way of an artistic bent taken to humanise Gaddafi.

Still for the Libyan this exhibition is hard to stomach because Gaddafi was the great tormentor, abuser and grand narcissist, who derived great pleasure in displaying his prowess. The material only evokes feelings of loss, grief and shame about the wasted years and what could have been achieved but wasn’t.

None of the photos comes as a surprise, as the Libyans have already seen most of them on billboards for 42 years. We know of all his various outfits, from the military dress with false medals of honors, to the African robes and Armani suits. But perhaps for the foreign observer, the exhibition offers an insight into the years of horror endured.

Spread over five rooms, it starts with Libya’s independence in 1951. We see King Idris I and his former Prime Ministers, Mustafa Ben-Halim and Hussein Maziq, as well as his close Adviser Abdul-Aziz Shelhi. One shows HM Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to Libya in 1954 and another with the King opening Parliament, as well as photos of him with US and British Military attaches.

The Gaddafi era then follows, with Room Two focusing on the first year after the 1969 coup and anniversary celebrations, when the US and British had evacuated their air bases. Also, there is the major visit to President Gamal Abdul-Nasser in Cairo in 1969; and how, when the latter died, photos of the memorial parade with thousands of Libyans out in public mourning.

Room Three is material circa 1980s, when Gaddafi began to implement his Green Book theories, by abolishing parliament and the party system, rejecting communism and capitalism and the abolition of personal property. There are photos of a state visit to the Soviet Union President Leonid Brezhnev and a picture of Saif Il-Islam with his mother Safia Farkesk, in a Great Man Made River Project tunnel.

It is Room Four that looks at Gaddafi’s descent into hell, with photos and videos proving some of the public hangings that took place in the 1980s. In particular, one disturbing photo is of two men hanging at the Benghazi sea port and a video of the public execution of Sadiq Hamed Shwehdi. Also, in this room, are copies of letters from the CIA, dated in March 2004, coordinating with Gaddafi for the secret rendition of Abdullah Al-Sadiq (real name Abdelhakim Belhadj) from Malaysia.

Room Five is miscellaneous material, with portraits of Libyan military graduates, photos regarding the war in Chad and ‘Al-Fateh’ celebrations in 1977. It also includes cartoons and a recent video of Misrata militias terrorizing residents of nearby Tawergha accusing them of pro-Gaddafi atrocities.

Although there are no pictures of the recent Revolution, there is a tribute area to the photojournalists who were killed in April 2011: Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros and Anton Hammerl. And mention of Michael Christopher Brown and Guy Martin who were also wounded. HRW has made it clear that this exhibition is not meant to be a Gaddafi freak show, but to respect the memory of all those who have died or suffered under the regime.

Like any historic proof, it is for a nation’s benefit to preserve all original material for future educational reference. As Libyans, 42 years of history cannot be wiped out and the evidence must not be destroyed, no matter how much anger or shame we feel towards it. Archives remind us of what and how things went wrong and will help us to unravel the thousands of mysteries yet to be unraveled.

As Libyans, yes, we’d prefer to put images of a smiling Gaddafi aside, at least until our hurt and wounds properly heal. Perhaps in years, we can look dispassionately at these archives and gain much needed closure. Gaddafi laughed at us and we were scared of him. But, now it turns out, he was the Emperor with no clothes.

The Gaddafi Archives will be open until 29 June and include four panel discussions next week. For more information: Gaddafi Archives.

Note: This article was first published circa June 2012

Libya – The Years of Hope, Mustafa Ben-Halim

I owe my dear friend Magda a big thank you for letting me borrow her treasured copy of Mustafa Ben-Halims’s ‘Libya – The Years of Hope’, for it is not easy to come by. Although dense and heavy at 343 pages, it does add an extra dimension to the recent February 17 Libyan Revolution with Ben Halim’s heartfelt recommendations, especially for the younger Libyan generation, when he wrote the book.

Ben-Halim, former Prime Minister of Libya during the Senussi led constitutional monarchy, published the memoirs in 1990, when he was still living in exile under diplomatic protection in the United Kingdom. Written in both Arabic and English, it documents his ten years’ worth of experience in public office and sets the record straight on the Years of Hope – as he describes them.

His goal then was to expose the Gaddafi regime’s “falsification and fabrication of history” and to fill a thirty-year vacuum of information; as well as to answer some of the severe accusations directed at him after the 1969 coup. He was brave and courageous to write this material as Gaddafi was still in power; but, considering last year’s events, Ben Halim must be very glad. He the only surviving ex-premier who witnessed the downfall of the dictatorial regime and it must for him feel like the completion of a full circle.

Not being able in 1990 to rely on important official documents for his time in office – as all were confiscated and locked up – he sets and jogs his memory on British and American official documents published after 30 years from the day of events and on newspaper archives. The former exclude other scripts which need a fifty-year-cut-off before becoming available.

Part personal biography detailing his Derna merchant family background, the childhood influences and education he received in Alexandria, Egypt and qualifying as an Engineer, the greater focus is on his time first as Minister of Public Works (1953-1954), second as Prime Minister (1953-1957), third as Private Councillor to the King (1957-1958) and last as Ambassador to France (1958-1960).

Incidentally, the memoirs offer a wonderful look at the historical dynamics some decades prior to 1951. From the day the Italians landed on the coast in October 1911, to their harsh occupation and punishing military tribunals versus the heroic local resistance movement, to the World Wars, the UN Mandate granting Libya independence, to recognition of the Senussi monarchy; and, finally, to the massive challenges faced by a virgin country that was divided, poor and in need of international political and economic support.

The entries detail the constitutional set-up, the federal institutional system imposed – and the challenges this created – as well as the big constitutional crisis faced by the Mahmoud Muntasir and Muhammad governments. We also read the specific diplomatic problems Ben-Halim had to face and the role he played in extracting and negotiating for financial aid and support from Britain and the US, in helping resolve the border problem of the French in the Fezzan, to proposing reforms to the King which never came into effect and a chapter on the story of oil.

I mostly enjoyed the part on the personality and political inclinations of King Idriss and the dangerous competitive drama that existed between his family members and the Head of the Royal Household, Ibrahim Shelhi. We also read on the assassination of the latter by the former and the awful results of that too. The King is portrayed in an affectionate way as a friend but Ben-Halim also expresses frustration with him for being too easily influenced by his entourage on matters of state and wavering at critical junctures.

There is more on the general political landscape of the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, the power and position of Egypt and President Jamal Nasser’s hold on popular nationalist Arab sentiments, the question of Israel and the handling of the Suez crisis. Other pages include Libya’s role in the Algerian uprising, the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt and its repercussions, the last years of the Royalist regime and finally the 1969 coup with the false promises then made.

Throughout, Ben Halim’s woes regarding that period are evident when he writes: “The nucleus of a democratic system began to appear. Many deputies performed their patriotic duty in giving direction to the government and calling it to strict account. Anyone who looks fairly at the House records will only feel a deep sadness and regret at the loss of freedom, at the strangling of that nascent democratic experiment, its destruction, repression, despotism and wrongdoing.”

Yet describing the situation a few years later: “I could see the beginnings of the deterioration of the monarchal system, and the spread of corruption which was becoming so overwhelming that it was damaging the props of constitutional rule and the integrity of public servants.”

Ben- Halim ends up paying a heavy price with the fall of the constitutional monarchy. Although he escaped imprisonment and execution by the Gaddafi regime, he was still put on trial in absentia for “corrupting political life by rigging the 1956 elections”. And, after refusing to become a Revolutionary Committee member, he was kidnapped in Beirut, Lebanon in 1973.

Had that attempt succeeded, he would have been forced back to Libya and brutally punished. Luckily, he was saved when the car had an accident and the kidnappers, hired from the Ahmed Jibril Palestinian Group, ran off. There were also several assassination attempts foiled by British Intelligence in the years that followed.

Eventually, Ben-Halim had to accept exile and so sought support and protection from his friend Prince Fahd and the King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. He describes the day when he pledged allegiance: “My raised right hand trembled. I quivered with emotion and could barely hold back the tears. I felt great pain and sadness as I gave up the nationality of my fathers for that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, even though this is the homeland of the true Arab spirit, the refuge for free Arabs and Muslims, and the site of the Holy sanctuaries. The pain of severance I felt then I would not wish it on my worst enemy.”

Although Ben-Halim book doesn’t answer – and doesn’t claim to answer – all the questions we may have about our country’s history between independence in 1951 to September 1969, they do offer a sincere account of the years when he was Prime Minister and his own assessment and analysis of the political, social and economic forces at play.

Plus, the book should really serve as a reminder of the injustices forced upon those who chose not to sell their souls to the Gaddafi regime post-1969. Today, more than ever, it is essential to study the past in detail, so as not to repeat some mistakes and to ensure we never end up being hostage in our own country without our deserved freedoms.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2012

Anatomy of A Disappearance, Hisham Matar

This novel is about an author’s incredible restraint. Hisham Matar, who has in real life suffered a publicly documented tragedy – the loss and disappearance of his father – doesn’t in 246 pages mention the word Libya, the true source of his grief and misery. Easily, he can blame, accuse and point the finger; but rather, Matar in this novel reclaims the personal, ignores the current political and rises above the sordid history.

Insisting his work is fictional, an adolescent Nuri loses his mother first and after experiences the unusual vanishing of his father. Alongside, there is a racy and competitive love triangle interwoven in the tale – between father, son and the amorous interest Mona.

Though one is transported to the background cities of Alexandria, Egypt, Geneva, Switzerland, Paris, France and London, England, the protagonist’s country of origin is only referred to as a place of waterfalls, pomegranates and palm trees. Matar also cleverly fabricates the political tale: “Our King was dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot in the head.”

Throughout, Nuri struggles to make sense of his life, his young sexuality and unusual family circumstances. Living at first in exile with his father, he is clearly in the shadows of the man who holds incredible charm and intellect, wealth and a certain political persuasion. But after there is also a great betrayal.

After the father’s disappearance, there is even more anguish, confusion, loss and the sense of unrequited grief: “Relatives and neighbours who might have filled the chairs in the hall if father had died were silent in the face of his disappearance.”

Not to spoil the intricate plot that is well paced and engaging, I recommend this book over Matar’s first – “In the Country of Men.” This one flows much better and reads as a stream of poetic consciousness. But the fine line between fact and fiction is taken to the limits once more. Maybe Matar wants to be timeless. But, as the voice of the father, Kamal Pasha el-Alfi, says: “You can’t live outside history. We have nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary!”

Note: This article was first published circa March 2012

Hurma, Ali Al-Muqri

A childhood memory urged me to pick up the novel titled ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri. I first heard the Arabic word ‘hurma’ being used when I was a young girl on a mini-pilgrimage to Mecca circa 1995. It was being shouted out by an ugly old male guard who was holding a long wooden stick in his hand to usher the women as to where they can stand and pray around the Kabaa. I didn’t know the meaning of the word; but, whatever its definition, I sensed it held negative and oppressive connotations due to the guard’s aggressive physical stance towards us.

Curious to open the book to enter the world of a so-called female protagonist, I had hoped for an enlightening read into the character, the reality and psychology behind such a woman. I also wanted an insight into the cultural beliefs and attitudes that manifest in the society she inhabits. And, for sure, I was not at all disappointed. In truth, I was so astonished by the tale that I had to read it twice just to make sure that my eyes were not deceiving my mind.

Hurma the character is not even identified by a proper legal name to distinguish her from others as an individual human being. Even when all this young girl desires is to please her father, brother, husband and culture, she ends up pleasing nobody. From the age of eight, she is given the burka to wear with only two small slits for the eyes and is ordered about by everyone. She is also forcibly made to live in the shadows of existence and moves about only as an invisible black blob. Even so, without having any autonomous personal agency, she manages to find herself in very odd and dangerous predicaments.

Starting out in Sana’a, Yemen sometime circa Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Guantanamo and the war in Chechnya, Hurma is subject to extreme religious indoctrination that she cannot but blindly follow. Her brainwashing is complete when she is a student at the Islamic Scientific Academy, where she comes to naïvely dream of becoming a female warrior to fight in jihad against ‘the heathen crusaders, the communists, the Jews in Palestine and infidels in general’.

It is during her time there that we are introduced to some of the preposterous religious arguments proposed by her Islamic lecturers and noting their general obsession with sex and how to limit and deny the female any known freedoms. With straight faces, they debate whether or not it is a sin for a woman to see dogs and chicken copulate or if it is halal for a woman to handle bananas and cucumbers! All the while, of course, they don’t question themselves as men nor do they admit to their own evident impotence and sexual perversions.

“We know that a woman remains a hurma even in death. She is mentioned by name only when this is unavoidable, because to mention her is an act of immodesty, and modesty is a part of faith. A man without faith is a man without modesty. A man who talks about his hurma has lost his modesty and therefore his faith.” (Page 80, a quote from Hurma’s Islamic professor).

Being so manipulated, Hurma is predictably married off to her brother’s friend. An extreme political-religious character, he carelessly takes her with him to the ends of the earth in his own longing for martyrdom and jihad. Making her a member of a mujahedeen cell in Yemen, eventually he uses her as a mule to carry gold, cash and explosive ingredients. Again, unwittingly, she ends up travelling through Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and Iran and being exposed to the reality of holy war on the frontline.

All the while, however, we know as readers that Hurma carries a deep guilty secret and a sincere longing for something else that is rather different from the jihad that her husband offers her. But I won’t spoil that great surprise for you.

I also won’t spoil the incredible ways in which Al-Muqri reveals the deeply set contradictions of the irrational and violent ideology that not only oppresses women in the name of Islam, but also tends to lead the men to pursue goals of self-annihilation and suicidal missions. For the author is denouncing, ridiculing and exposing all the weaknesses of their arguments and turning them on their ugly head to expose the faults and sorry end results through one gullible person’s experience. It is no wonder that Al-Muqri received threats to his safety after publication of this book and had to go into hiding.

Some of the scenes will actually have you laugh in utter and absolute disbelief and do be prepared for the liberal use of sexually explicit content throughout the story. Just to mention one of the most memorable scenes, we find Hurma alone in a room in Saudi Arabia and watching an Islamic television programme, where the show is debating a notorious fatwa that was issued by an Egyptian Sheik who had belonged to the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. This was a true event where the fatwa was publicly brought to light; although, eventually, it was rejected and thrown out.

The Sheik had ruled that if a woman must, for some unavoidable reason, spend time in the presence of a man who is neither her husband nor a close relative – which is of course prohibited by Sharia – then it’s possible for her to suckle this man, thereby creating a kinship bond between them and making it permissible for them to mix! There is a whole passage following this in which the details of how to manage such a fatwa are discussed and the reader is left in hysterics.

I won’t say much else about the plot’s development nor will I elaborate on the other highly colourful personalities in the tale whose personal journeys closely intersect with Hurma’s but that are also so very different. I highly recommend this book as it addresses the inherently insane psychology that masquerades as religious dogma; and, also, because it artistically explores the controlled belief system that ultimately negatively impacts on both of the sexes.

Al-Muqri not only plays on the irony of what the word ‘hurma’ means in Arabic – it means ‘sanctity’ – and how that has come into use, misuse and abuse; he, also, fully delves into the crazy world where such logic is imposed and showing us all the inevitable disturbing consequences. He is also leading us as observers to consider our individual and collective responsibility when it comes mainly to the treatment of women.

If you are, like me, ready to read with an open mind, then by the end you will be dying for Al-Muqri’s other works to be translated into English.

You can purchase ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri at:

Note: This review was first published circa September 2015

I Killed Scheherazade, Joumana Haddad

If Jasad, the erotic magazine published by Joumana Haddad was “to create a cultural body for our Arab bodies and to inquire intellectually into the consciousness of the body and into its unconsciousness”, then the book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman is purposefully about the freedom and the liberation of the Arab mind that is “in crisis” – or, at least, according to Haddad.

In fact, she does not waste time on pleasantries or niceties, beginning the first chapter by the strong indictment and condemnation of the Arab culture, psychologically diagnosing it and its people with a core schizophrenia and an advanced level of hypocrisy, all down to the religious and political elements that repress and oppress any form of novel expression or creativity, that she herself won’t suffer.

But I would, playing devil’s advocate, go as far as to extend her metaphor and challenge that if, truly the general Arab is schizophrenic, then the Middle East must be the bigger or greater asylum, where the insane happen to rule and the sane can easily go mad. Are we Arabs then all committed in this way? I believe that Haddad would very happily reply yes to this question.

To further quote: “The Arab majority depends upon a web of comforting lies and illusions. It means that your life and your stories must be repressed, clamped down and encoded; rewritten to suit the vestal guardians of Arab chastity, so that the latter can rest assured that the delicate Arab ‘hymen’ has been protected from sin, shame, dishonour or flaw.”

For Haddad is not just “angry,” but “livid” I would say, at not just the Arab man and his total but by the Arab woman herself (and her total) who is often times “her own best adversary, often a conspirator against her sex. . and (who) is excellent at innovating ways to humiliate the woman, to frustrate her and annul her own identity and role.” And why should the artistic voice be silenced, whichever sex? – “Is there a more whorish act than depriving an Author of his or her words?” Haddad herself won’t bow down to any censor or pressure.

The book is then structured parallel to Haddad’s journey, from childhood days – when at the age of twelve she first began her love affair with Literature, reading all of the philosophic Western texts in French – to her love-hate relationship with Beirut, Lebanon and its war days, onto becoming a poet, a woman and her provocation of Allah, as well as the real reasons for starting and continuing with Jasad.

The writing itself is very raw and passionate and, of course, seductively confessional. Her main upset though – and to reiterate – is on the subject of being an Arab woman and on being an Arab writer and intellect, living and breathing within the confines of an Arab country, where there is still – I would say – the incidental philosophic pleasure and the circumstance of having to undergo an adventure to remain true to one’s authentic self and to realise one’s existential potential.

But that is where I felt that Haddad perhaps doesn’t acknowledge how privileged an entity she really is and that she would never be the norm in any culture. For to have come to her autonomous position, one must have already had access to and interest in the complicated texts that permeate her verse and the ideas, theories and concepts that to a general Arab audience are still most likely to fall on deaf or dumb ears, purely for the fact that they are of a Western disposition and of a politically liberal and secular temperament.

Not that I don’t applaud her efforts to call for change or her attempts to come clean with very brave private admissions. Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! For your copy, you can contact Saqi book publishers.

Note: Article first published circa September 2010

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.

There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that still persist in the culture.

Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.

Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ‘The Slave Pens’ has yet to be translated into English. Already, Benshatwan is being courted to turn it into different languages and to adapt it into a TV series or a film. This new positive intrigue by the literary world has been unexpected – as she has already successfully published two other novels and collections of short stories – but very much welcome.

For the Shubbak Festival 2017, I spoke with Benshatwan via Skype and we conversed in the Libyan dialect. She opened up not just about the book that will undoubtedly transform her artistic destiny; but, also, on the challenges she faced as a budding intellectual during the oppressive Gaddafi regime, how she managed to overcome obstacles put in her way and how she is now content to be in Rome, Italy where she can pursue her work without complications.

Najwa: “For a long time, I felt buried in Libya. Born in 1969, I was of the generations that were denied the right to learn European languages at school and it is still a source of anger for me that I don’t’ speak except very basic English. When I was young, my talent as a writer would be denied as my homework at the age of 11 became a source of suspicion amongst teachers, who could not believe that it was my work and not that of an adult.

“Later on when I went on to university in Benghazi, it was my beautiful handwriting in Arabic that was a problem. To trick my examiners not to recognise my paper, I forced myself to write with my left hand so they wouldn’t know it was me. I did also learn braille and sign language for a brief period when I specialised in working with deaf and blind children.

“In terms of my literary ambitions, under Gaddafi there was no intellectual freedom and I was always worried about not just the state control but family and societal controls too. It is only now in ‘The Slave Pens’ that I am much older and more confident that I can safely explore things like love and sex for example.

“So I turned to short story fiction and utilised symbolism when dealing with Libya as the essence and background of my tales. But I was careful to enter only competitions judged abroad and they were one way to gain recognition. But my work came to the scrutiny of the Libyan authorities who tried to lure me to write about the regime and its ideology which I refused to do.

“The situation worsened when I got arrested and charged for writing against the state with the publication my short story ‘His Excellency, the Eminence of the Void’. Afraid and terrified to spend a night in prison with criminals, I travelled all the way to Tripoli where I spent four hours under interrogation knowing that the maximum sentence could be execution.

“Although I was not convicted, they wouldn’t leave me in peace, making my life hell and sending spies at the university where I was teaching and forcing me to attend political events. It was like cat and mouse that I stopped publishing my work and planned to save up enough money to be able to make an escape.

“But things changed with the February Revolution. I had naively believed in the rebel fighters and the struggle so much that I gave them my savings. Then sadly realising that there would be no security in Libya, my next chance to leave came when I got accepted to study in Italy where I have been for the past four years.

“My time in Italy has not been easy. I have been lonely and had to face dire economic circumstances and the psychological turmoil that entails. I had to take all sorts of jobs to survive and it took time to learn Italian before I could complete my doctoral degree at La Piensa University in Rome.

“I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the slavery and human trafficking under the Ottoman period and the Islamic Empire because I was haunted by a black and white picture that I had seen in an Englishman’s traveller book… although I cannot remember the name of the book or the Italian photographer who must have captured the image around early 1900s.

“It was of two black women slaves with a boy and a child. When I asked about the scene, I was told that the quarters where they used to live were commonly referred to in the local dialect as ‘pens’ in the way of an animal’s pen. I had the photo scanned and put as my screensaver since 2006.

“For years I couldn’t steal myself away from the characters and my imagination became immersed in contemplating their lives… that is what urged me to write and finish the novel. My hope for it is to be a wake up call for Libyans to learn from past mistakes and acknowledge how black slavery – both past and present – has impacted on our society, from the economic to the social, political, cultural, psychological and mental aspects.

“Overall I am happy to have explored this subject and I am proud to be the first Libyan woman to be shortlisted for the IPAF. I can now finally be able to dedicate more and more of my time to just being a writer.”

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library.

This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017. 

You can see the full Shubbak Festival programme at: