Banthology: Stories From Unwanted Nations

Using resentful rhetoric to justify his executive order made early last year – to ban the entry of people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries into the United States – President Donald Trump was indicating that America needs to be protected from these ‘other’ people on the count of their religion. A religion that is a personal faith to over 1.8 billion worldwide which he simply reduces to an enemy of ‘his’ great nation, using the language of fear and dangerously manipulating the historical context.

In a creative response to what can only be described as a hysterical political measure, Comma Press, the champions of the short story form, commissioned seven writers from the original countries in Executive Order 13769 – Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Iran, Libya, Iraq and Yemen – to contribute to an anthology that would be published in the UK and the US. Five of the entries were penned in the native languages and have been translated into English.

“The idea for this book was born amid the chaos of that first ban, and sought to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are populated entirely by terrorists. As publishers, we are acutely aware of the importance of cultural exchange between communities, and have also seen first-hand the damage caused by tightened visa controls and existing travel restrictions…” Sarah Cleave, Editor.

Opening with Rania Mamoun’s ‘Bird of Paradise’, a young Sudanese woman finds herself lost, alone and bewildered at an airport. She is psychologically frozen and unable to board the scheduled flight even though her dream had always been to run away from her oppressive life in the town of Wad Madani. Standing in the queue with the ticket ready in hand, she is held back by an emotional force and paralysed at the prospect of getting onto the plane.

Showing the mental resilience required of the refugee from a dark comic perspective, author Zaher Moareen’s ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ is about a Syrian man still in transit in Paris, France with a plan to get to Sweden to seek final asylum. At the mercy of smugglers who have no care as to his survival and who can never offer a guarantee of safe passage, his story reflects on what compels one to escape one’s country of origin and the myriad justifications one has to come up with to be granted entry at some borders. We sense his unease, anxiety and panic at the prospect of an uncertain future as he is beyond the point of return.

In Iranian writer Fereshteh Molaui’s ‘Phantom Limb’, we are presented with an unusual psychic connection that occurs between loved ones when they are separated and become physically thousands of miles apart. A troubled Kurdish-Iranian male refugee in Toronto, Canada experiences a pain that has no medical explanation, except that it happens to correspond directly with an injury endured by his mother back home in Iran, an amputated right leg.

Taking a swipe at Trump is Libyan writer Najwa Benshwatwan’s ‘Return Ticket’ that pokes fun at the preposterousness of what can happen at immigration controls and the pretexts offered when one is being screened purely based on their colour, sex, race, religion or nationality. She initially creates an imaginary village named Schrodinger that has the extraordinary powers to be able to move through time and space and where people are judged purely on good deeds and acts of piety.

But one very odd thing about Schrodinger is the grave of six Americans who came to it and never left: “not out of love, but because the walls of their own nation never stopped rising, day after day, until it was cut off from the world and the world cut off from it. Each attempt by an American tourist to scale the towering walls and return home proved fatal!”

The grandmother then narrates the endless humiliations she encounters as a woman traveller when once she tried to step outside the village in search of her husband and needing to visit some real and imagined places. In one instance, she is forced to take off all of her clothes because it is ‘a crime to feel embarrassed’, but in another, she is faced with the religious fundamentalists who tell her off for not wearing the hijab and threaten her with the punishment of hell.

Carrying us to an ancient time, Yemeni Wajdi al-Ahdal’s ‘The Slow Man’ begins at ‘The Year 100 According to the Babylonian Calendar’ and then moves us right up to the ‘400 Babylonians Era’. Highlighting confrontations and the war between the Egyptians and Babylonians, the tale alludes to how every great and mighty empire sooner or later comes to pass and is replaced by another. In the end, the narrator foresees the total annihilation of the human race as it devours itself for the sake of dominance, power and control.

Last but not least are Iraqi Anoud’s ‘Storyteller’ and Somali Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s ‘Jujube’ that are similar in many ways but written in unique styles. Told by two young females, they both speak of the lived realities of war, its consequent tragedies, the incurred losses of dear ones, the clinging on to false hope and the nightmares that continue even when one is eventually outside of the conflict zone due to the irreversible damage and the invisible scarring.

Bringing to light the incredulity that was felt by many people at Trump’s original order, this powerful anthology offers, in the fictional short story format, all of the associated states of anger, upset, sadness, frustration, and even hilarity at this new added travel stigma. In terms of international borders and the movement of people, it relays the stories of those who end up paying the heaviest price when discriminatory and unfair laws are put into practice. It also, very effectively, turns upside down the President’s Islamophobia, especially as you enter the minds of the whose who have been forced to risk the migrant journey and come to appreciate the complex dynamics that are at play, wherein their religion is in no way of an aggressive nature.

Note: This article was first published circa April 2018

I Still Hide to Smoke, Rayhana Obermeyer

Screened as part of Film Africa 2017

Set against the backdrop of the Algerian la sale guerre, ‘I Still Hide to Smoke’ is a heady cocktail mix of people and events that reflects on how the personal and the sexual can come to hold heavy political import, with the added dangerous ingredient of religion too.

As the bombs explode and the struggles between government forces and rebel Islamist groups are playing out on the streets, French-Algerian director Rayhana Obermeyer invites one to enter the private world of women, as they bathe for a day in the traditional hammam in the city of Algiers.

A very disturbing sex scene quickly assaults the senses and creates unusual suspense as to its outcome. But, before long, another helpless female enters the stage, seeking refuge for fear of her life having been caught out as an adulteress. Putting head masseuse and manager of the bathhouse Fatima in a precarious position, she wants to protect the pregnant Meriem but is not sure who to trust with the secret of her hiding.

By 11am, all the other local ladies are clamouring to get inside the building; and, as they are let in, each of them cheerily discards her outer garment or hijab and seems happy to be free in the nude or underwear, ready to start with the beauty and cleansing rituals. Falling into easy female banter as they swap and share shampoos and soaps, they begin to exchange intimate stories about their sex lives and relationships, exploring what it means to be an Algerian woman circa 1995.

The entangled tales reveal a harsh patriarchal societal structure that punishes them both in their homes and in the public space. Pointing at a dark reality, most have experienced some form of abuse; be it at the hands of husbands, male relatives or other misogynists. ‘Princess’ Louisa, for example, was married off at the age of 11 to her father’s friend who sexually violates her; but, in rebellion, she does have an affair with his brother, begetting the latter’s children without the knowledge of the former.

Or in the case of the liberally outspoken Nadia, she suffered an acid attack for being a political activist and reproached for wanting a divorce and taking the pill not to have children. She unwittingly finds herself face to face with Zahia, who is the widow of a self-proclaimed Emir religious fundamentalist and constantly preaching about Allah and the benefits of the veil and jihad.

Not to downplay the other moving #MeToo stories you will encounter, including that of naïve Samia, whose only wish and desire is to experience love and marriage; but, being a 29 year-old masseuse, nobody wants her, even with the promise of ‘a certificate of virginity upon delivery’.

The plot is carried forward with frequent returns by Fatima on the progress of the expectant woman sheltered upstairs whose waters are breaking fast; and, it all ends in spectacular fashion with the intrusion by the men who barge their way into the hamman seeking blood and revenge, led by Meriem’s brother. Whilst the script, that contains plenty of raw humour, provides countless gem quotes that mirror the contradictory arguments wreaking havoc on everyone.

When Zahia admonishes Nadia in one instance for not wearing the veil, she says: “We only fear god and the veil protects us from temptation… The bearded ones protect us from despots”. Nadia then replies with: “You don’t fear god. You want to be god. Behind your veils and beards, all murderers!.. I will fight against your Islamic Republic, even if I have to ally with the devil… Your Islam is not our Islam.”

One is therefore left to contemplate a frightening status of Algerian women in their cultural environment and what seems to be a direct indictment of the men in general. It begs one to consider not just the troubling dynamics between the sexes but also those between the competing interpretations of Islam. There is a danger when the faith is monopolised in the hands of the radicals, as opposed to the more modern, liberal and secular parties and individuals.

Utilising female nudity and hinting at erotic sensibilities, one doubts if this film will make it to the public screens in Algeria or other conservative Arab countries – the bathing scenes had to be shot in Greece. But laying bare the vulnerability of the naked female body in such a cinematic style – and in her choice of casting Arab actresses who all deliver fantastic performances – is perhaps Rayhana’s way of causing an artistic ripple movement towards the liberation of Arab-Muslim women and their right to be heard and protected.

Not for the faint hearted, I highly recommend ‘I Still Hide to Smoke’ to everyone, male and female, Arab or non-Arab. I do also advise, though somewhat hesitantly, that you prepare to light up and enjoy a cigarette after the show!

More information can be found here:

Note: This article was first published circa November 2017

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:

‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ The Play, Hassan Abdulrazzak

Better late than never. I finally managed to attend and was truly blown away by Hassan Abdulrazzak’s latest play ‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ that was showing at the Arcola Theatre last week. Although the London run has finished, I have been informed that the production will soon be touring York, Bradford, Liverpool, Cumbria and Oldham from 29 June until 22 July, 2016.

Very punchy and dark in its fantastic humour, Abdulrazzak’s script raises many of the sore global political issues facing our time. Being a distinguished award-winning playwright, this time he effortlessly engages the audience with the very different stories of four male characters living in various parts of the world, but whom are all connected by an interesting philosophic thread.

All performed by the same versatile thespian, Asif Khan, he effortlessly takes on the role of a Palestinian actor with a strong Arabic accent, to becoming the introverted Pakistani amateur author, to emulating a British Bradford born gangster-type adolescent; and, finally, turning into a Jewish New Yorker. There is truly no mistaking which individual he is in the four-parts, so adept were the character transformations.

One of the most memorable scenes is in ‘Love in the Time of Barriers’, when the actor from Ramallah decides to have a sexual experience with an English girl against the Separation Wall even under the spotlight of the Israeli guards. Inspired by a true story told to Abdulrazzak, it highlights the resilience of the Palestinians in the face of oppression and their right to love even whilst being held hostage. He says to her: “This is a moment where we can make a stand. Defy them. Show them that no matter what walls they build, what towers they erect, they can’t stop us form living.”

Another important scene is in ‘The Apple’ segment, when the young yob from Bradford talks about the seduction of being a jihadi and joining ISIS. It reveals how simple, uninformed and misguided his logic in wanting to join the violent group. He says: “What’s in Bradford? Why stay? Zero hour contracts. No, thanks. Loading shelves in the Ikea. No way, bro. Why waste my life here when I could be spreading Islam with an iPhone and a tank? I want the hot desert air in my face. I want to wave the black flag from the top of the tank, I want my choice of jihadi brides, you know what I am saying? I want the cool black uniform. I love that uniform.”

In a third tale titled ‘The Landing Strip’, we also meet the Jewish American named Issac. He starts out as nervous and anxious to be asking his girlfriend to fulfill just one of his sexual fantasies to spice up their intimate life. However, her unexpected response forces him to question and challenge his father’s Zionist politics and being a member of the AIPAC aka America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.

Last but by no means least – and, in fact, my favourite monologue as it made me laugh so much! – was the odd story of the shy British-Pakistani aspiring novelist Sajid. His undesired fate is to be is taken into police custody and be kept in a UK prison for terrorism-related charges because of having developed a frightening book plot. It was so totally harmless in his eyes but which didn’t seem so innocent to them. His tragic predicament, mixed with his self-deprecating personality, leads to very funny moments indeed.

One common theme that I could pick out was perhaps how our private lives are inextricably linked to the big public concerns of our age and the festering issues in our collective consciousness. I felt a hint towards this urgent need for people to take their responsibility as world citizens more seriously and to utilise their wills more strategically; so that we do not fall into the trap of relying on the shallow or false arguments fed to us via the mainstream media or any propaganda literature when it comes to politics.

More specifically, the four are all plausible examples of how an individual can get unwittingly embroiled in the unavoidable issues of ISIS, anti-terror laws in the UK or the unjust Israeli occupation of Palestine. Whether we are in the East or the West, there is a suggestion that we must all be fully awake to current affairs and to educate ourselves in the history in order to not repeat similar mistakes. For example, the big reference to the Holocaust is measured against the injustices currently being committed by the Israeli state.

I do highly recommend this play and especially if it continues to be performed by its wonderful star Asif Khan and directed by Rosamunde Hutt. I do also hope that it goes on an international tour soon as it is so timely and has so much to offer its audience: making them chuckle but also seriously think and possibly even cry. It is a very strong theatrical piece and definitely one worth seeing if you get the chance.

‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ was first commissioned and produced by AIK productions. Its world premiere was at the Arcola Theatre, London as part of the Shubbak Festival in July 2015. This current UK national tour is co-produced by AIK Productions and Turtle Key Arts.

Note: This article was first published circa July 2016

Under the Copper Covers, Sherine Ben Halim Jafar

How Middle Eastern Food Became Jafar’s Most Powerful Healer

The personal story that precedes the recipes in Sherine Ben Halim Jafar’s new culinary book – ‘Under the Copper Covers’ – is so highly moving and inspirational that I would advise immediate purchase. Offering a beautifully compiled printed edition – with valuable historical and family-related photo-illustrations – this author draws upon strong memories for each dish mentioned and every recipe lovingly included. Jafar takes the reader on a wonderful gastronomic journey that will urge you to get into the kitchen as soon as possible and start cooking or baking.

Sherine Ben Halim Jafar candidly explores two things: her private experience of living in exile as an Arab in the West and the unexpected triumph of food to cure much of the associated heart-pains and the psychological hurts of displacement. Coming from a very high profile political Libyan family – her father Mustafa Ben Halim was a Prime Minister under King Idris’s reign – she tells of how her once carefree and privileged childhood was suddenly interrupted in September 1969 on the occasion of Gaddafi’s coup and overthrow of the monarchy.

“The only place where I was to find solace was within the walls of the kitchen, with the comfort of my mother’s cooking and familiar smells: caramelized onions, fragrant cumin and rose water. It didn’t matter what ingredients she was using, which cuisine, culture or style – comfort was Mum and her food. My sense of belonging was measured by her cooking. Whatever Mum cooked was who we were, what we were and where we belonged.” P. 29, Under the Copper Covers

Just for having been a part of the monarchical framework, her father became an assassination target and the Ben Halim family were unable to go home and disabled from returning to Libya. Although they were granted Saudi Arabian citizenship and offered international diplomatic protection, the fear of attack became a constant threatening shadow. Due to the uncertainty of where their life was heading and worry for her father’s safety, little five-year old Sherine developed severe anxiety and depressive symptoms that unfortunately went untreated for many years.

In time however the family settled in London, where Sherine – the youngest of six siblings – studied at an International school and completed a bachelor’s in English Literature followed by a master’s at King’s College. Being the sensitive soul, she continued grappling with the troubling issues of a lost identity and the family’s cultural heritage now gone missing. It seemed very pertinent for her to address these. In the book, she says: “The skin could not, and would not, fit; the Arab inside conflicted with the West outside.”

Luckily she found out that there was a way of comfort available and that would be to connect with other exiled Middle Eastern youngsters who were able to understand and shared her condition; and, in doing so, she also discovered the great power of food as a method of sharing her soul’s desire for belonging and to make herself and others happy. It would also lead to the forming of strong friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

Now aged 51 and settled in Dubai, as well as being married with four children, Jafar has lived in so many different countries and been exposed to so many fascinating cuisines that hail not just from Libya; but, also, from Palestine (her mother’s country of origin), Iraq (her husband’s country of origin), Syria (her maternal grandmother’s country of origin), Iran (many of her friends are Persian), the Emirates (where she has been residing in Dubai for over twenty years), Saudi Arabia as well as England (she loves traditional fish and chips as well as steak and kidney pie) and Europe (Italy and France in particular).

The Food: Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran

In the cooking sections of the book, Jafar shares the magic of what happens in her kitchen. She has selected six countries to include some of the national signature dishes and desserts. With the help of her female friends and family members, her goal was to nail down the authenticity of each sweet or savoury item and offer the best of tried and tested recipes. It is truly a showcase of some appetising menus and ideas for hosting extraordinary feasts.

From Palestine, she offers her mother’s family flue remedy of chicken noodle soup, molokhiyeh (mallow stew), sfiha (authentic Palestinian meat pastries), msakhan (a feast of chicken sumac onion and bread), kidra (rice and meat cooked in clay) and plenty more main meals. If you have also ever tasted and wondered on how to recreate the heavenly Palestinian katayef (pancakes), tamriyyeh (semolina in phyllo) or the halawet al smeed (semolina in syrup), then you need to buy this book.

In terms of Lebanon and Syria, we are introduced to the recipes of Zahiya (who is Jafar’s friend Dana’s cook) and Rania from Damascus. Here you will find the perfect way of making the tasty Lebanese sayyadiyeh (fish with rice), the kibbeh bil siniyeh (double-layered cracked wheat with meat) and the Syrian horrak usbao (hot fingers), mhammara (crushed walnuts and red pepper dip), fatet makdous (stuffed eggplants in yogurt). For dessert, you have the Levantine basboosa (semolina cake) and goulash (phyllo stuffed with cheese).

From Iraq and Iran, we also get an insight into their eating habits, with the dolma (stuffed onions) to die for, the kubbat hamod shalgham (classic Iraqi dish), the kabab tawa (thin lamb burgers) and the Iranian’s ability to create a hundred different types of rice polow presentations, including with beans, cherries, nuts, barberries, fish and vegetables.

It is the Libyan food section however that I believe will be the most appreciated, as it is almost impossible to find a Libyan restaurant anywhere outside of the country and as Libyans tend to be very nervous about giving out their family kitchen secrets. So, thankfully, Jafar has given us clear direct instructions on how to make the shorba hassa and shorba hamra (traditional soups), mbattan (stuffed potatoes), shakshooka (eggs in spicy red sauce with dried meat), couscouy (how the Libyans do their couscous) and the spicy macaroni mbakbaka. Just in case you are a newlywed to a Libyan man, you’ll now be able to impress that difficult mother-in-law!

‘Under the Copper Covers’ is published by Rimal Publications.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2016

The Bride of Amman, Fadi Zaghmout

Includes: Insight from the Jordanian Author

It was still early days for blogging in 2006 but the then 28-year-old Jordanian Fadi Zaghmout decided to experiment with the new world of online publication and with that also the possibility of freely sharing ideas without censorship. At first not revealing his true identity, Zaghmout’s goal was to explore what it meant for him to be an ‘Arab’ beyond stereotypes and also what it would entail for him to be the self-designated ‘Observer’ of his society and culture.

‘The Arab Observer’ blog was thus born on 7 March, 20006, when the first post titled ‘Driving Home’ was written in English, which made it slightly more accessible to the liberal-leaning youth of Zaghmout’s hometown of West Amman, Jordan; and, by extension, other Arabs of a similar educational, economic and social background placed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and also outside of it.

His musings developed organically into an anthropological examining of the norms and behaviours of the 20s-to-30s age group and finding out their individual and common struggles. He said: “At the beginning I wasn’t sure how people would perceive the content I wanted to publish; but, a few months down the line, I wanted more readers for my blog, so I started promoting it amongst my friends and then building relations with other bloggers and attending bloggers meetings and becoming more visible.

“I also realised that when addressing the particular issues of body rights and sexual freedoms in Jordan, that the magazines and newspapers published in English were always better articulated than those in the Arabic. I thought this content needs to be in our language; and, thus, I chose to post in Arabic and found out that I can actually express myself even better!”

Conveying Real Experience Into Story Form

Soon Zaghmout’s artistic energy flowed into how best to convey what he was encountering in real life and the incredible stories that were showing up and pointing towards a very high emotional cost being endured by the Arab youngsters. Even doing their best to conform to a social, cultural and religious model that neither allowed for the expression of autonomous body rights nor accepted the concept of alternative sexual orientation, many of them continued to suffer in silence.

Realising the best way would be to put it in story form, he created the first of the fictional characters that would become altogether the five subjects in his first book, ‘The Bride of Amman’. Through them, he has indeed been able to bravely and courageously approach many of the taboo subjects that are not easy to talk about within modern or current Arabic public discourse.

Highly controversial when it was published in Arabic in 2012, the novel has recently been wonderfully translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp in order to extend its readership potential and go global. Just this past month of November, 2015 Zaghmout and Kemp undertook their successful United Kingdom launch tour where I was fortunate to meet them in London and get a signed copy.

In terms of now having the book in both languages, Zaghmout said: “I wrote the book in Arabic to address a Jordanian audience in specific and an Arabic audience in general. I wanted it to be a shout, a wake up call and a book that calls things as they are; and, hopefully, to help others going though such hard times as of the characters in the book.

“Whereas for the English translation, meant to bring in a foreign audience, it should be a reminder of the importance of feminism since many Westerners take gender equality issues for granted, unaware of how easy it is to slip down the patriarchy path.”

What ‘The Bride of Amman’ offers is an artistic voice – that sounds almost sweet, naïve and innocent in some of its passages – to the major dilemma faced by many Arab youth across the MENA world. It is the question of how – and whether or not it is even possible – to begin to criticise from within the strict rules imposed when it comes to the forming of any type of adult relationship. It does seem also that those who suffer the most are invariably the girls rather than the boys, but still including the latter.

Even though the tale is firmly set in the internet age with easy access to the knowledge and experience of different ways of social constructs, the pressure to obey the only one acceptable option of a relationship – that of the heterosexual marriage between two people of the exact same religion – is real and with it also the threat of social ostracism should one dare to push the boundaries or to challenge the status quo.

Through the lives of Hayat, Ali, Leila, Salma and Rana, we witness the heavy burdens of shame, fear, guilt, paranoia and stigma that are forced upon them and that lead to the compromise of their significant life decisions and all for the dire sake of fitting in. Grappling with how to circumvent the impossible ideals of a rigid patriarchy that is obsessed with the concepts of family honour, the imperative of virginity before marriage and even as to the religious confusion when it comes to different sexual orientations, it can seem that there is no happy way out.

How Fiction Transforms Into Social Activism

Sadly there are some tragic outcomes of a suicide and also of one of the girls who doesn’t get any justice whatsoever for being sexually abused by a close male relative. Zaghmout explained: “These are very important questions. The suicide scene is meant to shock the reader and raise discussion outside the book. Hayat and Layla’s ending were also meant to portray real stories that show the extent of injustice that some women endure because of cultural and social factors.”

Genuinely akin to a feminist piece of literature, the book reveals the stark inequalities towards the female gender, the lowly expectations regarding their future – where success is measured by when they become a wife or a mother – and the obvious lack of sexual freedom or ‘body rights’. But Zaghmout goes further and opens the lid onto a subject which is even more controversial, that of the unfair discrimination against and the misunderstandings towards homosexuality in the Arab world and the broader subject of LGBT rights.

Zaghmout, who now considers himself a ‘social activist’ and can boast around 370,000 Twitter followers, said: “I have been addressing these issues mainly through my writings. I believe that we are in severe need for liberal voices in the Arab world that are not afraid of talking about body and sexual rights. These voices have been marginalised and suppressed for a long time and we need more and more people to speak up so that social change can take place.”

He offers ideas that might lead to reform: “I think it is about education in schools, through literature and media. There is currently no sex education in Arab schools and people still don’t understand the difference between gender as a social construct and sex as biologically defined. There is ignorance of gender identity, sexual orientation, gender expression and sexual practices. What we have now is a rigid two templates that we want to fit all men and women in.”

Highlighting the LGBT Community in Amman

I had to ask Zaghmout about Ali, the gay character in the ‘The Bride of Amman’, who feels very confused and troubled about his innate desire for men; and, also, if he could tell me a bit about the situation for the LGBT community in Amman. He said: “There is a growing LGBT community in Jordan and many young members are becoming more courageous about coming out to their parents and friends, yet it is still dangerous to be publicly out.

“There are no laws that protect the community from any potential abuse or discrimination that is gender based. In a way the community is more mature now than years before as they are more confident and accepting of their own sexuality; but, on the other hand, there are many people who live in denial and who reject their sexuality and are still struggling to come to terms with it.

“It is usually those who don’t follow the expected gender expression in public who are subjected to rejection, such as the effeminate gay men or masculine lesbian women or members of the transsexual community. Risk can vary from potential beating and harassment in the street, to family abuse and in rare cases killings.”

As to whether or not Zaghmout himself has received any serious threats or reproach for being so outspoken, he said: “I always got negative comments on the blog and sometimes direct personal attacks, but my strategy was to not respond in kind. There was always some other reader who would step up and defend me.

“With the book, I have received so much support since its release and I have been interviewed by many different magazines and appeared on TV stations to talk about it. The only bad experience was within a local book club in Jordan, where the discussion got very heated and people became aggressive in their approach. I think the book provoked them, but that is understandable”.

This leaves one big question up for debate: Now that we can and have talked about the issues, how long and what more will it take to see a real shift in the popular Arab attitudes towards women’s rights in particular; but, also, towards the rights of everyone else to experience their sexuality without any more cultural, religious or socially imposed punishment or stigma? And what would be the necessary next step to begin such a transformation?

Zaghmout is optimistic: “There is a movement of young feminist activists that is growing all over the Arab world. It started a few years ago and needs time to mature. We still need more feminist voices in the media, in literature, and in politics. Social change doesn’t happen overnight, but we can perhaps witness its fruits in less than a decade’s time.”

You can purchase ‘The Bride of Amman’ by Fadi Zaghmout in both Arabic and English as an e-book or paperback at:

‘The Arab Observer’ blog is still active and you can read it at:

Note: This article was first published circa December 2015

Headscarves and Hymens, Mona Eltahawy

Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

Charged with feminist arguments and emotional pleas, Egyptian author Mona Eltahawy’s debut book ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ tackles the explosive subject of what she frames as the ‘misogyny’ of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Filled with harrowing statistics on the fate of Arab women at the hands of men, the state, culture and religion, she proceeds to prescribe no less than a sexual revolution for the masses, but especially for women.

Without this, she believes that the political uprisings circa 2011 against state dictatorships cannot claim themselves to be true successes. In her self-styled manifesto, Eltahawy is calling on all Arab girls to stand up for their rights, rid themselves of the injustices that are conspiring against them and to demand fair and equal treatment to men, both in the private and the public domains.

She is also suggesting – if I have read the book properly – that they all take off their headscarves and begin the exercise of sexual autonomy outside of the culturally and religiously imposed boundaries; so that, somehow, they actively and directly claim ownership of their very own hymens. Her general advice for MENA girls: “Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free.”

Throughout the book, an insightful link is made between the public uprisings on the streets of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – that were to topple the political tyrants – with another revolt that needs to happen against the patriarchs at home, where the fathers, husbands and brothers are guilty of mistreating the other half of the population. It also notes that the Arab women who fought alongside their male comrades within the former movements deserve their freedom also within the latter.

Sharing her terrible experience of being sexually assaulted and detained by the Egyptian state forces in November 2011, Eltahawy offers it as part of the bigger proof and evidence of the rife sexual abuses happening against women in MENA. These include the deplorable acts of virginity testing that took place against female demonstrators in Tahrir Square as well as the high incidences of rape that occurred in Libya but were never addressed nor properly punished by incoming authorities.

Sparing no Arab country however, she blames a ‘toxic mix of culture and religion’ to be working against women and a ‘triangle of misogyny’ that exists at the state, the street and the home levels. She provides plenty of disturbing statistics that have been compiled by international and local human rights organisation as well as media research, that indicate unacceptably high levels of not just street sexual harassment of women; but, also, of domestic violence and every other type of gender abuse.

Indeed it is of tremendous concern, as the book points out, that the majority of Arab countries do not offer women what should be necessary legal protection against the following practices as, when and where they occur: female genital mutilation (FGM), honour-based violence, rape, domestic violence, underage marriage as well as unfair personal laws – justified by Sharia – that disadvantage them further in the areas of inheritance, divorce and child-custody provisions.

Worse again admittedly is the societal collusion that prevents female victims from reporting crimes or challenging the stark gender inequalities. Many times led and backed by an increasingly radical religious dogma, it seems to want to take women’s rights away from them, adding to a dynamite blend that restrains their freedom. Putting a ghostly fear in their hearts and minds, they suffer in silence, for fear of bringing shame and stigma to themselves and their families, because of the concept of keeping the family or the tribal honour.

Reserving her biggest attack against Saudi Arabia, she rightly labels it ‘gender-apartheid’ led by Salafi clerics and applied by a morality police. In Saudi women still cannot drive cars nor independently get jobs without male-guardian approval. Giving the preposterous true story of how fifteen young female students were left to die in a fire, because the morality police stopped the fire fighters from rescuing them as they were not wearing their veils and abayas.

Reviewing ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ as an Arab woman, I am more than happy to support Eltahawy for tackling all of the above real and sore issues, as well as to agree the desperate need in our culture to recognise our big failings when it comes to the unfair treatment of girls and women. Certainly, we need individuals like her to open up the subject and keep up the pressure against all the societal, religious and legal systems that are being manipulated to take away women’s empowerment. This can be done by more activism and a collective responsibility to start creating the changes towards better safety, respect and equality for women; perhaps, also, by employing public engagement campaigns as well as by providing good sex and relationship education for youngsters.

Where I don’t fully agree with her is the idea that all Arab men hate women and want to suppress them. Eltahawy’s loud advice for every Arab-Muslim girl to directly challenge her family and status quo by taking off her veil and claiming sexual freedom outside of marriage is not one-hundred-per-cent convincing. If she hopes to convert them, she must be aware that each is entitled the right to choose how to experience her body and sexuality as she deems fit and also has the right to exercise her religion, should she wish to put on a veil or not.

It is very brave of Eltahawy to share with the world her intimate sexual journey and particular feminist progression, but she fails by confusing her story for that of every other Arab girl or woman. Yes, the laws need to be changed to give women freedom and protection – in both criminal and personal provisions – and all the scope to choose how to live and conduct their personal and public lives; but, to suggest, that uninhibited sexuality is the panacea for all the evils against women doesn’t exactly add up.

I do recommend reading ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ as it does deserve its hard-won flaming-hot position on the important bookshelf of Arab feminist literature. It is a sure one to get everyone fired up; and, at the very least, it will urge every woman, Arab or non-Arab, to look inwards and outwards to see whether or not there is injustice being committed against her. Whether this be at home, at work or in another environment – that can happen in any country around the world – she can at least take courage to speak up for herself and know that she has the weight of many others, like Eltahawy, behind her.

Note: This article was first published circa May 2015

African Titanics, Abu Bakr Khaal

+ Paintings By Libyan Artist Matug Aborawi

19, April 2015 – A 20-metre long fishing boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, carrying over 900 migrants, all of whom were hoping to reach the European shores all in one piece, literally. They all took the long and arduous journey – with all of its known dangers – in chasing the illusive dream of a newer and better life; far away from the poverty, the displacement and the negative impact of the wars plaguing their home countries, from all over Africa – North and Sub-Saharan – as well as the Middle East.

Tragically, only 28 passengers on this boat were rescued alive and only 24 bodies were recovered with all of the rest lost and forever disappeared at the bottom of the sea. Buried in Malta, the coffins of the dead didn’t even bear their names. Rather, numbers were scrawled on the boxes that refer only to DNA samples taken, just in case relatives come forward in the future wanting to identify whether or not their loved ones had made it to at least a decent burial.

Ironically, this one incident got all of the national and international newspapers across the world to go manic whilst the truth is that these migrants have been dying every day and have been dying every day for many years. If anything, because of the recent high surge due to an unstable Libya – and up to a million ready to attempt the suicidal trip this Summer! – Europe can no longer sweep the issue under the carpet and must open its eyes and deal with it in a humane and compassionate way.

But this piece is neither to analyse the dreadful politics nor the harrowing economics of the situation. It is to review a wonderful book that has landed in my hands at such a timely conjecture. To this, on Nahla Ink, I have also added some of the incredible paintings of the Libyan artist Matug Aborawi with kind permission. Aborawi has himself dedicated a lot of time and effort over the years on this subject. It culminated in an exhibition titled ‘The South and The Dream’ that took place last December 2014 at Casa Arabe in Madrid, Spain.







African Titanics, Abu Bakr Khaal – The Book Review

Originally written and published in Arabic in 2008, ‘African Titanics’ by Abu Bakr Khaal, is a short novel that offers a quasi-personal perspective on the Africa-Europe migration route via desert, land and sea. Recently translated into English by Charis Bredin, it is about the lives of a group of African individuals – from Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia, Ghana and Sudan – who embark on this modern day exodus and what happens to them along the way.

Narrated by Abdar, a young man from Eritrea, we follow him from the minute of desperate departure from his homeland – as he succumbs to the ‘migration-pandemic’ – and setting off towards the unknown. With barely any belongings, he has only enough cash for the journey northwards and the significant amount of $1,000 that he will need for the ultimate boat passage via the Mediterranean Sea towards the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Initially, the reader thinks this could be an exciting adventure tale with a happy ending for Abdar; until, that is, the first proper leg of the journey begins in the Sudan and towards Libya. We begin to realise just how cruel and gruelling the conditions are going to be. Quickly, he has to learn to improvise to find the right smugglers to get him out and accept that his fate will of this moment become that of an illegal nomad.

On the run from the deadly ‘Hambata’ highway robbers, Abdar and his fellow travellers must endure fifteen days of driving through the desert. With 23 people all forced into one range rover, the ill-equipped driver repeatedly gets lost with only the stars to guide him out. Thrown off course by sand storms and punished by the sun, the vermin and severe dehydration; the group is overcome with a bout of collective hysteria, as some even attempt to jump out of the car for death seems to be an easier alternative.

Surviving the desert however was just the start because they still have to reach Tripoli and live underground there in anticipation and preparation for the final stretch. Forced into and stuck in miserable hideouts, much painful evidence becomes clear of the hundreds of thousands of lives of the migrants who have gone before them. Worse, all reasonable knowledge, debates and the television and radio news indicate a total lack of positive tidings should one get onto the promised boats.

It is in Tripoli however where Abdar meets some of the characters that would impact on him dearly and powerfully. It is during this mad state of limbo that they begin to share their hopes and dreams; as well as reveal the inner and outer demons that have placed them all on such a god-forsaken path. Now as they are closer to the sea with the doomed ‘titanics’ not giving any guarantee of a safe passage, it is time to negotiate the ultimate ticket out of Africa or take the last opportunity to reconsider. But who is going to take the gamble?

Offering some insight, the narrator contemplates what goes through the mind and what happens to the body should one choose to step onto one of these vessels: “When confronted by the unhappy vessels themselves, their faces would be contorted by abject terror. No one can easily stomach the prospect of boarding a boat he knows is likely destined to founder… It is hard to describe the fear that grips you at the hour of departure. You approach the boats in darkness as they rock violently on the water.

“At that moment, you truly understand the meaning of terror. People lose control of their bowels. Damp patches spread across trousers. Many jump overboard before the boat has even left the harbour. Others are swept to sea without ever having resolved whether to stay or go.” (page 61)

Although we don’t much about Abdar’s directly, we can imagine what he is like from the little revealed. We know, for example, that he has a wicked sense of humour and is prone to acquiring nicknames. He’s been affectionately called ‘the Sniffer’, ‘the Tiger’, ‘Antar’, ‘Mr Chatterbox‘; and, most tellingly, ‘the Awacs’ – meaning ‘the Airborne Warning and Control System’ – due to his obsession with travel and weather reports that hint at a cautious nature.

Throughout the journey, also, Abdar carries with him a pocket dictionary to look up English words to understand the poetry of Shelley – that too indicates a highly romantic disposition. At one point, he even confesses to a strange penchant for fortune-telling rituals and witches as well as making reference to his sexual self so that we know he is a passionate hot-blooded male.

Without spoiling its many surprises, I’ve read this fictional account as a poetic homage to the African migrants, for both the survivors and those who simply disappear en route towards the seductive mirage. Khaal gives us the names, the human faces, the tender voices and the colourful personalities so that we don’t’ forget about them. Showing as well the courage, faith and strength required of the human spirit when faced with insurmountable odds, he poses the many questions that need a serious answering to.

Briefly I spoke to the 53 year-old Khaal on the phone because his true life slightly mirrors the tale. He left a war-torn Eritrea circa 1990 and ended up in Tripoli where he stayed for over 20 years; that he began to consider it his new home and the Libyans his people. Not foreseeing the scene after the February Revolution struck in 2011, again he was forced to flee and ended up in a refugee camp in Tunisia for two months, until he was able to move to Denmark, where he is currently based.

Fortunately with a happy ending for him, the author is now working on two new novels about Eritrea and Africa; with one having a historical perspective and the other having a romantic twist. But, I had to ask him, what is – or could be – the right solution to the migrant situation. He said it to me very simply: “We need peace!”

PS Note: This English edition of ‘African Titanics’ has been published by Darf Publishers. Established in 1980 and currently based in London with two retail shops, they focus on books about Libya, the Middle East and the Arab world. Most recently, with the emergence of literature written by Middle Eastern and North African writers, they have been translating and publishing fiction and literary works from new talents as well as from established Arab writers, to introduce them to a wider audience and shed light on work that hasn’t been seen nor read for generations.

For more information:

Note: This article was first published circa Arpil

‘The Wanted 18’: How 18 Israeli-Palestinian Cows Experienced the First Intifada!

If you mention to people that there is a new film about the Palestinian struggle showing at a nearby cinema, you will immediately get either weary or awkward sighs; for all the reasons we think we’ve seen it all and heard it all before. However, when you say that the film is actually about Israeli-Palestinian cows, people will stop to think again and ask if it really is about cows. And, so, yes, it is really about cows but so much more besides.

‘The Wanted 18’ is an incredible new documentary and stop-motion animation film that sheds new light on the Palestinian cause. It premiered in the UK yesterday as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015 with two more screenings taking place this week. Created by the Palestinian artist Amer Shomali and Canadian director Paul Cowan, it goes back to the days of the first Intifada circa 1987-1993 and set in the town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, where Shomali’s family originally come from.

The ingenuity of this artistic piece, that brightly and warmly captures the heart and the imagination of the viewer, is not only in the re-enactment of a true story through first hand interviews with the survivors or in bringing important archive materials to surface; but, also, in creating human personalities for some of the cows that were at the heart of the tale. You will get to meet and feel for them as they too endure the experience of oppression and the devious ways of the occupiers.

When the Israelis took over the West Bank, it was the small Christian population of Beit Sahour that gathered to brainstorm on how to best respond to their practical situation by organising various neighbourhood committees; that would firstly administer themselves and that would also plot or plan for non-violent resistance or civil disobedience, including at one point their refusal to pay taxes. But, in order to be as self-sufficient and independent as possible, one of the creative ideas was for the town to invest in buying eighteen cows as a cooperative venture to produce their own milk and be able to proudly boycott the Israeli brand.

And, so, the cows were bought from a kibbutz and brought to the town and were soon providing the milk and becoming local celebrities! Everyone came to love the cows and the cows eventually came round to accepting their new owners and life under occupation. However, when the Israeli authorities realised what was going on, they declared the farm an illegal security threat; after which began a crazy and surreal chase against the cows that had at this point gone into hiding, but to still be able to produce the milk that was secretly being distributed underground at great risk to those making the deliveries.

What eventually happens to the cows and the people of the town is well worth watching the film for as well as offering an insightful history lesson whose consequences are still being felt today. So not only are you guaranteed laughter and tears as you get to respect and admire the fighting spirit of the people of Beit Sahour and their herd, but you will also go away with a sobering realisation for the need for both sides to re-engage to end the conflict through non-violent means.

‘The Wanted 18’ is being screened in London and will continue to tour the world in the coming weeks and months in collaboration with ‘Just Vision’. This is an organisation that highlights the power and potential of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity, equality and human security using non-violent means. Just Vision drives attention to compelling local role models in unarmed movement-building and demonstrates to journalists, community leaders, public intellectuals and students – in the US, Israel, Palestine and beyond – what is possible when leaders at the grassroots choose to act.

For more information on Just Vision:

For more information about the HRW FF:

Note: This article was first published circa March 2015

Chewing Gum, Mansour Bushnaf

To chew on gum is a mindless activity that doesn’t usually bring profound personal or philosophic insight. It is a nervous habit that distracts from engaging with one’s immediate – and usually social – environment. In fact, to chew on gum is rude in lots of ways, if say you make extra-loud the irritating mastication sounds or immaturely pop the elastic in your mouth that will terribly offend everyone.

“The gum forced its philosophy onto every aspect of life.” (Chewing Gum)

And so it is in this Libyan novel by Mansour Bushnaf set circa 1980s where all of a sudden the chewing of gum – and the obsession with acquiring it – becomes the only act not punished for expressing political resistance, individual defiance and even of sexual pleasure and desire. It acquires farcical proportions as a de rigueur unconscious escape to avoid the gruesome backdrop of a repressed societal environment where eerily, surreally and frustratingly nothing is quite as it should be.

Bushnaf cleverly wraps up the allegorical tale in a doomed love triangle between a young anti-hero Mukhtar, his father and an anti-heroine Fatma. Whilst the jilted Mukhtar is fixated in his obsessive amour for Fatma and becomes tragically immobilised for ten years in a park – waiting for her to return – she and the father, as well as the other characters in the book, move forwards in time but in negative, foreboding and tragic action.

The once innocent, pretty and petite Fatma abandons her lover, family and university studies to become a prostitute – oddly to advance her social status – whilst the father Omar Effendi, a retired Royal Police Officer, gets unknowingly involved with her in his penchant for easy girls. This then sets the scene for Bushnaf to address the reader in a direct style akin to that of the ‘Existential’ genre of European literature inspired by the works of Jean Paul Sartre, Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Herman Hess and Milan Kundera.

“Fatma doesn’t really enjoy being with men. What she really loved were those moments of highly charged, expansive chewing… Gum is the only thing that allowed her to feel her femininity.” (Chewing Gum)

Bushnaf utilises some real existing props and locations in central Tripoli – the park near the Dakheliyyah Arches, the Red Palace Museum and a 19th Century female stone statue – to reflect and ponder on the different historical stages Libya and its people have been through; from Ottoman rule to Italian Occupation, a British Mandate towards an Independent Monarchy, to the 1969 Revolutionary Coup and the eventual descent into Gaddafi’s terror state circa 1980s.

As Mukhtar is left bizarrely stuck in the rain for a decade in the park standing motionless, he becomes the focus of curious analysis and his predicament a cause for popular debate in newspapers, journals and television. Led by several professors and students of economics, philosophy, archaeology, as well as by a theatre director, a painter and a journalist, they each offer up theories and creative proposals to help but none manage to realise the genius ideas.

The park itself deteriorates over the years and becomes the centre for idle men, drug addicts, drunks, dealers and prostitutes, crowded by ghosts and dead souls from times past. With litter strewn everywhere, an ‘Environmental Committee’ is formed to address its filthy state with all of the academic heads involved. But, in the end, the only ideas implemented are those of the undercover security guards.

It dawns on the reader that the characters in the book – who ought to represent a society’s academic, cultural, intellectual and artistic potential – are in fact impotent men and women because of a hidden but ever-present intelligence apparatus and a sinister government that follows every human coordinate and derails any attempts at progress. Nobody is able to exercise the rhetorically promised – but not really existing – civil freedoms and liberties.

“The Professor of Philosophy was attracted to blooming roses but felt disdain for the crowds queuing up for gum in the candy section. This was when he saw Rahma, a blooming rose from a beautiful past that had been nurtured under the right temperature and climate. He knew the roses were not real. In his philosophical optimism, however, they represented a way of creating beauty out of ugliness, of having flowers bloom from oil.” (Chewing Gum)

Bushnaf knows only too well what happens when you defy an oppressive regime or try to criticise it in writing. He paid the price with ten years of imprisonment for penning a satirical play titled ‘When the Rats Govern’ in the 1970s. And, in this novel, there is this mysterious reference to every ten years being markers to develop and advance the plot.

I highly recommend ‘Chewing Gum’ as a truly valuable, wonderful and a surprise Libyan contribution to the ‘Existential’ school of literature, as Bushnaf bravely considers what happens when there is no room for self-determination to even just validate the usual choices of being human.

He takes us on an intense journey straight into the heart of the Libyan psyche as it suffered through the worst of Gaddafi’s rule whose aim then was to stifle the creative spirit of the Libyan people. So, quite ironically, it had to be a dark tale indeed to make light of what was then endured and by giving us a new appreciation for chewing gum and its many unusual flavours.

‘Chewing Gum’ is published by DARF Publishers, 2014.

For more information:

Note: This article was first published circa September 2014