A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Levantine literature: translated by the enemy.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas Eve to those of you who are celebrating, and for those of you commemorating Ashoura, I hope that it is an opportunity for reflection for you. (And I hope that you are as pleased as I am that Muharram was included in my employer’s “Season’s Greetings” email.)

At the start of the month, I read a very interesting article in Ha’aretz, which I had intended to post immediately. “Immediately” turned into several weeks, but am pasting it in below. The article announces a planned law that would allow Arabic-language works – originals and translations – produced in the confrontation states to be sold in Israel.

Those of you who, like me, are obsessed with the Mandate era, will be fascinated (but probably not surprised) to learn that the current law is a gift of the British. And those of you who, also like me, enjoy following the twists and turns of the cozily hostile Israel-Syria relationship, will be delighted to learn that the Arabic-language translations of well-known Israeli writers like Amos Oz are produced in Syria.

Happy reading!

Books translated in “hostile countries” will soon be allowed to be sold in Israel, after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided yesterday to support a bill overturning a World War II-era law aimed at blocking information from enemy states.

This will allow the Arabic translations of best-selling children’s books like “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as Arabic versions of prominent Israeli authors, to be sold here.

Until now, Arabic translations of popular children’s books and works by authors like Amos Oz, Yoram Kaniuk and Eshkol Nevo were not available in Israel, because they were printed in hostile countries like Syria and Lebanon. This was because a 1939 British-Mandate era law prohibited literature from being imported from enemy states.

Given the relatively low readership of Arabic-language books in Israel, and the resulting low returns on translations, almost none have been produced in Israel.

The present bill, initiated by MKs Yuli Tamir, Yariv Levin and Zeev Bielski, aims to make literature in Arabic more readily available.

Tamir (Labor) said yesterday, “This would be an important law, one that ensures the freedom of literature and culture of all citizens. Every citizen is entitled to read literature in his mother tongue. This law would end the absence of children’s books and belles-lettres for Arabic readers.”

The bill calls for freedom to “import books from any country, and allow translations into any language, in order to ensure exposure to a wide array of literature and to expand citizens’ rights to rich cultural lives in their native tongues.”

The proposal allows security authorities to reject the importation of a certain book or journal for content that could be used for incitement, such as literature denying the Holocaust or encouraging terrorism.

In January, the human rights organization Adalah petitioned the High Court to allow Kol-Bo Sefarim – Israel’s largest supplier of Arabic-language textbooks – to import books from Egypt and Jordan that were published in Syria and Lebanon.

The book supplier has imported books from Egypt for three decades, and since 1993, it has imported books from Jordan as well. Most of the books were printed in Syria or Lebanon, but the company had received permission from the chief military censor to import them.

In August of last year, however, Kol-Bo received a letter from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry stating its permit to import books from enemy countries would not be renewed. The letter said such books could not even be imported through countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, due to the World War II-era law.

Adalah’s petition noted that 80 percent of books intended for Israel’s Arab community, and most Arabic books destined for college and university libraries in Israel, are printed in Syria and Lebanon, where several large publishing houses hold exclusive rights to translate major Western literary works into Arabic.

Lebanese printing houses hold exclusive rights to translate “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as works released by Britain’s Ladybird Books, which publishes a variety of popular children’s books. The Lebanese printing houses also hold exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of classic works by William Shakespeare and Moliere, and modern works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho.

A handful of Syrian printing houses have exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of Hebrew works by Oz, Kaniuk and Nevo.


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, Damascus, Israel | 1 Comment »

Beirut in poetry

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2009

I must be on an artsy kick these days – well, if La dama de Beirut counts as art. (My suspicion is that it falls more into the Levantine definition of “artiste”.) This time, my eye was caught by a new book of poetry, titled Beirut Summer:


How lame, I thought at first. Someone took a 2006 war image and decided to capitalize on Beirut’s reputation without knowing much about the actual city.

Shame on me for being so quick to judge. Apparently the author, a woman named Catherine Evans Latta, does indeed know Beirut – and her time there very much coincided with the city’s war days.

According to the “about me” section of a writers’ website to which she belongs, Catherine Evans Latta is a graduate of Cornell University and the American University of Beirut.  She studied at Stanford as a graduate student with poet Denise Levertov and, later, author Nancy Packer.  Catherine’s poetry has been published in numerous journals: The Beloit Poetry Journal, the Stanford Literary Quarterly, Fresh Hot Bread and elsewhere.  She was a feature columnist for Beirut’s The Daily Star, the largest English language paper in the Middle East.  She taught in the English Dept. of the American University of Beirut where she lived for ten years.  Prior to that, she lived in Cairo for three years.

One day when I have more free time, I’d like to spend a few weeks reading through the old Daily Stars. I understand that its archive is honored somewhat more in the breach than the observance, and that accessing it requires a lot of sweet-talking. But still – it would be interesting both to see the articles and to trace the genealogy of the paper’s many writers. I get the strong impression that most of the foreign writers have been less trained journalists than literate English-speakers who found themselves in Beirut and in need of a job – and that many have gone on to equally interesting post-paper careers.

Back to Latta and her poetry. An account of an interview she gave to a California-based local cable program called “Arab TV” states:

The poems are a series of powerfully disturbing and vivid images detailing the pains of people living under fire in Beirut. She has included poems that cover several wars from 1967 to the present. Written from a woman’s point of view, the poems provide insights into the torn lives of ordinary people.

During the interview, she said that while the events in the poems are told in the first person, they were not all her personal experience “…there is poetic license after all,” but all the people in the poems were friends and it is their experiences and stories, as well as her own, that she drew upon for the collection. One poem tells of the extreme penury of two maids who came from the camps to work for her. She remarked how many had broken lives: — the gardener who moved his family to live in a tent in the garden because it was safer than in his neighborhood; — the friend whose farm was burnt to the ground, but felt obliged to remain to show her commitment to her country; — or the mother whose child could only sleep to a cassette playing the call to prayer.

Latta let her imagination take flight to describe the psychological pain of war. In fact, she sat under fire in 1967, sat out the 1972 War and in 1974 while teaching at AUB had bombs going off in nearby class rooms. She was in Beirut during the beginning of the 1975-1990 Civil War and again in 1983.

I’m not much of a poetry fan: I appreciate poetry, but when looking for a book to read, I prefer novels or biographies or … anything other than poetry, with the possible exception of an economics text. And I’m slightly discomfited by the idea that Latta waited until 2008 to publish her poems on Beirut. To me, this suggests that she or the publisher thought that there might be a larger market for them thanks to the 2006 war, even though (as I understand it) she wasn’t in Beirut then.

The writers’ website includes one brief excerpt:

I saw dawn briefly


in the hills

above Ba’abda,

But now my eyes ache so

I cannot mend

the sound-rent sky

to see the day.

Um. If I were better at literary criticism, I am sure that I would have something interesting to say in response. I remember 2006 skies broken by above-the-sound-barrier fighter jets and bunker buster-i bombs, but I missed the boat, clearly, on wanting to mend them.

In any case, I’m interested to see what she has to say, although I’d like also to put in a plug here for a series of poems about how ordinary life in Beirut is most days. And I’m still cheap: the book is $12.95 on Amazon. I can wait for a used copy :).

Posted in Beirut, books, women, words | 1 Comment »

fun with footnotes: Kenize Mourad’s “Regards from the Dead Princess”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 23, 2009

I spent a good amount of time this past weekend on a series of airplanes, which for me translated into “a good amount of time for reading”. As the unhappy woman next to me on the way home yesterday cursed the airline, the flight attendants, her fellow passengers, and God for collectively conspiring against her and slow arrivals to LaGuardia (could this SERIOUSLY come as a surprise to any regular traveler?), I was happily ensconced in a novel: Kenize Mourad’s “Regards from the Dead Princess”.


Its not the best book – the writing is a bit over-wrought, and riddled with cliches. And I bet you can tell from the cover design just who its target audience might be.

But I’m hooked, just like the 20-million-plus readers who preceded me. Why? Because the story that Mourad tells is that of her mother, Selma, the great-grandaughter of the briefly-reigning Ottoman sultan Murad V. Selma was a young teenager when the sultanate and then the caliphate were abolished, and in the mid-1920s she, her older brother, and her mother were among the many members of the House of Osman forced into exile.

Selma’s mother chose Beirut, since it was close enough to allow the family to return to Istanbul when ‘the people’ asked for their return, as she was sure they would.

I’m about a quarter of my way through the book (its a big one!), and Selma is currently a student at Besancon, where the French girls and the Maronites spurn her, and her only friend is an Atrash. The narrative is definitely worth the pained prose – and made better by some of the textual errors.

One is an oldie but goodie: Hussein, the grandfather of Jordan’s King Abdullah I, is described as the “Sheriff” of Mecca. This is one of the rare English-Arabic faux amis: Hussein was the “Sharif” of Mecca (pronounced “sha-reef”), a title that conveyed the sense of a personal honorific as well as of a governing position. He was NOT the “sheriff”: he did not wear a badge, or spurs, or engage in shoot-outs – well, at least, not of the Wild Western kind, although Mecca does seem to have had its lawless side.

(The English word “sheriff” derives from the same root as “shire”. Think “Hobbit”, not “Hajj”.)

What really made me laugh, though, was the book’s description of the start of the 1925 Druze rebellion against the occupying French. The book describes the Druze leadership as “hurl[ing] their keffiyehs to the ground: from now on they were at war with the French.” (161)

There’s a footnote next to “keffiyehs”, which helpfully explains that “keffiyeh” is “the Lebanese name for a fez”.

My snort of laughter did nothing to improve the mood of my unhappy seatmate, but it sure gave me a lift.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, Lebanon | 3 Comments »

The Ottoman Cage

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 4, 2009

I’ve been a bit under the weather lately – the victim of too many holiday sweets, perhaps, or suppressed endorphin levels due to the horrifying coverage of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. In any case, feeling unwell made the prospect of my flights back to New York less than delightful. Or, it would have had I not had the perfect antidote: a good book.

I am an unabashed Ottomanist – I think that the Ottoman Empire was – for most of its history – a rich space in which multiple ethnicities, languages, religions, and historic influences coexisted and complemented one another. And as an Ottomanist, I am much less interested in Turkey – which seems to me like any other flat, aggressively homogeneous nation-state. I understand perfectly well why Ataturk refocused energies on Turkey – it provided a much-needed fresh start and a chance to break away from the canker that the dying Empire had become – but Turkey doesn’t thrill my heart the way its predecessor does.

So I was prepared not to be that interested in the contemporary part of The Ottoman Cage, the Barbara Nadel mystery I had packed in my carry-on. But I was interested – and more than interested, fascinated. Her characters include middle-class Muslim Turks, upper-class (and former Ottoman aristocrat) Muslim Turks, middle- and upper-class Armenians, and Jews. They are all bound together in some way by the mysterious killing of a young boy, but their interactions together – their friendships and their suspicions – are heavily conditioned by their awareness of one another’s ethnic, religious, and class positions. And all of those have much to do with Turkey’s Ottoman history – a history that apparently still lives on in the behaviors and expectations of Istanbulis today.

The actual mystery was good, too – but what I really loved was the interaction and the depth of the characters. Barbara Nadel has been compared to Donna Leon, one of my aunt’s favorite mystery writers, and the two women do share a tremendous ability to write texture: to bring in the city and its history as a major part of the story-line, and to develop characters who live beyond the page.


Posted in books, Turkey | 7 Comments »

still more from the Green Guides: Lebanese social classes

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 11, 2008

Its a glum Thursday in New York – rainy and cold. So I can’t resist writing a bit more about life in sunnier climes, like … Lebanon.

Here’s another excerpt from The Green Guides: Beirut and the Republic of Lebanon, from which I’ve been stealing shamelessly this past week. This one is a short bit on Lebanon’s social classes:

There are no social classes in Lebanon, in the strict meaning of the term, namely, exclusive segregated groups. The practically equitable distribution of land abolished social distinctions. However, there is still a remnant of feudalism in some regions in Lebanon, but it is less prominent than in other Arab regions, and is disappearing.

The well-to-do class is, on the whole, constituted by businessmen. The absence of distinct classes and the happy distribution of land are the causes of the high social and intellectual standard of the Lebanese people.

To fully understand Jamil’s description of Lebanese social classes, I had to do a bit of research here – thank you, Google Scholar and Google Books. Apparently many scholars define social classes with respect to their residences: in cases of strict social class division, rich people and poor people do not live side by side. This is an important distinction – the inner cities of many American urban areas and the suburbs of many European cities show what happens to the level of city and social services when middle- and upper middle-class residents leave.

I do think that there were social classes in Lebanon in the 1940s, but I can understand that the existence of multi-class neighborhoods helped to even out the financial gaps – both because wealthier neighbors insisted on city services (electricity, street cleaning, police protection, …) and because their proximity to poorer neighbors might have encouraged them to provide gifts of money or food – or to help them get jobs – when times were tough.

Its also very interesting that Jamil describes the wealthiest class as composed largely of “businessmen”, and not the feudal aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t know enough about the politicians of the 1930s and 1940s to be able to answer this question myself, but I am curious: Who was more involved in politics then – the “old” families or the “business” (trade, commerce, import/export – however you call it!) families?

Posted in Beirut, books, citizenship, economics, Lebanon, neighbors, research | 3 Comments »

more from the Green Guides: a guide to the Lebanese woman

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 8, 2008

I can’t resist typing in this gem from Rouhi Jamil’s Green Guides: Beirut and the Republic of Lebanon, which I blogged about over the weekend. Here is his take on “The Lebanese Woman”:

She is no longer the ignorant being so despised formerly. She is as much advanced as the Western woman. On the whole, she is sufficiently educated to be able to shoulder, with the man, the responsibility of life.

Dignified, elegant (without exaggeration), conservative (without excess), she was able to adapt herself easily to modern Civilization. If she is so much interested in learning and to be active, it is because she wants to bring her individuality to yet a higher perfection. Man helps her in this respect by opening education to her. The Lebanese woman exerts a considerable social influence: she has founded many philanthropic and cultural societies, and made her voice heard anywhere. The Moslem as well as the Christian has rendered great services to her country and to its freedom.

And now a few comments – mostly on the first paragraph, which I like less than the second:

1) Please remember that this was written in 1948, when Western women in France and other European countries still lacked the right to vote. And who despised Lebanese women? Historical documents show them to have been active in family and business life, even if they were not the big names of politics and religion. As for shouldering the responsibility of life … I bet that Jamil’s mother, not to mention his grandmothers, would have raised their eyebrows at the suggestion that they played no role in ensuring that he was tended and fed, and that the family home and finances were kept well in order.

2) I’m going to ignore the “without exaggeration” clause, since I find my glitter and accessories tolerance a bit lower than most Lebanese, male and female. But I do agree that Lebanese men and women have each proven themselves highly adaptable – to the demands of modernity and to life generally. And I like that he mentions women’s desite for education and “active” engagement in life, as well as their very important role in volunteering and public service. The importance of women’s philanthropy is often under-estimated – but in terms of social benefit, not to mention the sums of money managed and spent, it has played a major role in many societies.

Finally, I like that he specifically includes Muslim and Christian women in this process, and includes them in the fight for independence – a contribution that people often miss, whether in Lebanon, the United States, or any other formerly colonized power.

So: for all my Lebanese woman friends, and for all my Lebanese guy friends who have Lebanese mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and cousins – in 2008 as in 1948, these ladies are all pretty special.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, books, citizenship, education, family, Lebanon, time, women, words | 4 Comments »

Beirut through vaseline: Season of Betrayal

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 2, 2008

My latest used book purchase arrived in last Tuesday’s mail – just in time for me to stash it in my carry-on when I flew home the next day. I had been wanting to read Margaret Lowrie Robertson’s Season of Betrayal since I had run across a mention of it earlier this fall.

I’m always a sucker for books set in Beirut, and this one, which follows the disintegrating marriage of a journalist and his wife during a stint in Beirut in the early 1980s, seemed promising.


It was a good read, and my thoughts have returned to mull over bits of it several times this week. But two things kept me from liking the book as much as I wanted to.

First, the main character, Lara, is an absolute wet rag. She spends much of the book doing nothing. I understand that this is her character, and it makes the impact of her final denouement action all the stronger, but … I found it hard to relate to her. She did so little to make her situation any better – and so little, period – that it was like watching her through glass smeared with Vaseline.

Second, Robertson’s characterization of the actors in the civil war in the early 1980s was a bit heavy-handed. She takes a very teleological perspective on the Syrians, Hizbullah (whose existence as an organization at this point in time is debated), Islamic Jihad, Amal, and ‘the Druze’ – by which I mean that she describes them much as a Bush Administration official might have in 2006. Its helpful to the reader unfamiliar with Lebanon, because it doesn’t require him/her to stretch him/herself by thinking historically, but it isn’t accurate.

On the other hand, the fact that I am still thinking about the book – and now writing about it – means that these two “flaws” are also precisely the elements that keep me engaged six days after reading it. So: if you have a long plane ride in your future and can be patient with an indecisive woman and a tricky, war-ridden city, you are in for an engrossing read.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, books, espionage, Lebanon, travel, women, words | 2 Comments »

reading when I shouldn’t be: The Return to Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 21, 2008

Last night I had dinner with my friend S, who not only shares a birthday with Owlfish but shares the distinction of being my two oldest (as in “longest-running”, not as in “getting on in years”) friends.

What have you been reading lately? S asked as we waited for our entrees to arrive. (I know: entrees are appetizers in French. But in the US, we use “entree” for the main course.) This is one of the many reasons why we are friends: we both love reading.

I told her about Body of Lies, and she told me about Lonesome Dove, which she has been working her way through each night before bed. And we both admitted to bargaining with ourselves, in exactly the same way we used to bargain with our parents when we were girls.

I tell myself: just five more minutes, S told me. And then 45 minutes later I think: I really need to go to bed.

I do the same! I said. Or I promise to turn the lights off once I reach the end of the chapter. But then I want to know what happens next, so I keep reading.

Of course, I’m proud that each of us recognize the importance of getting good sleep. But the fact that we are reduced to wheedling extra pages out of our better selves does strike me as a bit odd.

My latest reading-when-I-shouldn’t-be book is a short novel originally published in France in the mid 1980s and translated for English publication in the early 1990s: Andree Chedid’s The Return to Beirut:


The novel is not bad: it tells a beautifully elliptical story of a 50-something Lebanese-Egyptian returning to Lebanon in May 1975 to spend two weeks with her American-Swedish granddaughter, marred by a slightly overwrought parallel story-line and a crash-boom-bang ending. Chedid interweaves memory and present deftly, but the story has some very odd bits. For example, Kalya, the woman, has only been to Lebanon once before; and although she does not seem to be estranged from her son, she has never met her granddaughter.

I also suspect that a certain amount of “ethnic” marketing went into the US edition of the book. For one, the French title is La maison sans racines, or “the house without roots” – a fitting title given how much of the book is devoted to Kalya’s memories of various interior spaces. But I imagine that the US publishers felt that a book with “Beirut” in the title would sell better.

And look at the image on the cover. Yes, there are two girls in this novel who wear yellow. And yes, Lebanese men and women come in all shapes and colors. But these young women do not look particularly Lebanese – and nor do they match the description of the girls that the novel gives. Again, I wonder whether the publishers were trying to market the book to a particular type of “world literature”-loving audience.

Despite these quibbles, the book definitely kept me up past my bedtime, and thanks to some very sleight-of-hand finagling with myself I went from “I’ll just read the opening” to “well, I’ve finished” in one night.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Beirut, books, childhood, friends, Lebanon, women, words | 1 Comment »

“The book ends differently than the movie”: Body of Lies

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 28, 2008

Those of you living in the United States have probably heard about the new Ridley Scott movie, Body of Lies. It came out earlier this month: another CIA-in-the-Middle-East adventure flick, starring Matt Damon and Russell Crowe.

You might not have wanted to see it in any case, given what the New York Times called its “grinding tedium”. And you may have been turned off by what even reviewers noted was an improbable romance between Damon’s character and a Jordan-based Iranian refugee nurse (They scoffed at the religious and cultural differences, but readers with experience in the region will be scratching their heads at the thought of Iranians in Jordan. The Iranian refugees I know all live in Damascus.)

Well, guess what? As my AP English literature teacher used to say in high school: the book ends differently than the movie. And in this case, the book begins and middles differently than the movie, too.

You will love this book. The characters are beautifully drawn – they come alive immediately. The region is aptly portrayed, with the minor exception of the one hospital scene, which takes place not in Amman but in Tripoli. (Who goes to Tripoli for non-emergency medical care, when Beirut is only two hours away?)

I’m not going to tell you the plot, but I am going to tell you that it is not only very different, but much better than the movie.

And I will give you a few hints.

First, the main character’s name is Roger Ferris.

Second, his dearly departed grandfather spoke very little and only vaguely about his origins in the “Balkan region” of the Ottoman Empire.

Third, the Jordanian mukhabarat plays a starring role – in a good way. (When asked about torture, the director says: we find torture incredibly ineffective. But we know our reputation, and we make use of it. The sounds of screaming in the prisons? All a recording.)

Fourth, there is romance and a strong woman character (woo hoo!), but she is not Iranian.

This is not an anti-American book, and it is not an anti-CIA book. It is a gripping read, and it offers something that we need to see much more of in contemporary American literature: Muslim heroes.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, books, citizenship, Damascus, espionage, family, home, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, politics, romance, Syria, words | 4 Comments »

weekend reading: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 12, 2008

Last weekend was an utter reading binge for me, thanks to the long flights between New York and Oklahoma City. I indulged shamelessly in mysteries: two Donna Leons, thanks to my aunt’s recommendations and my own fond memories of a stay in Venice with the Abu Owlfishes fourteen years ago (where does the time go?).

And I also read a book that I had ordered several months ago but never quite managed to open: Matt Rees’ The Collaborator of Bethlehem, a mystery involving a Christian man accused of collaborating with the Israelis and an elderly Muslim school-teacher determined to clear the man, his former pupil.

This was a hard book to read. Not because it is badly written or the plot stumbles – on the contrary, it is well written and the plot is gripping, in a quiet, menacing way. For me, it was hard to read because having been to Bethlehem and seen the shuttered shops around the Church of the Manger, as well as the beautiful big houses built when people there were making money in the 1990s (or thanks to remittance from abroad), I can imagine the economic desperation. And it was also hard because having heard Christian residents mourn their declining numbers as the younger generation gets visas to leave the country, I can imagine the sectarian tensions that Rees describes.

What I didn’t see when I was in Bethlehem was the way the town is governed: by the Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade, according to Rees. And much of the tension that seeps into each successive page comes from the control that its za’im-like leaders exert over the population.

The Israelis are a presence in the book, but it is a muted one. They appear directly only twice: once, when a squad of tanks and helicopters arrives one afternoon to tear up the road in front of the school-teacher’s house, destroying water and sewer pipes that leave his family without water and with the neighborhood’s sewage pouring into their basement; and once when they arrive to search a neighbor’s apartment and bring the apartment building’s residents to the school-teacher’s house to wait out the search.

But in a way, they are a non-issue: their existence sets the parameters of life in Bethlehem, but it is the Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade that looms large over political and economic life.

This is a well-written, gripping book, but it is a hard book to read because the innocent are not spared and the guilty are not punished. I recommend it whole-heartedly, but I also warn you: if you are sentimental, read it with a box of kleenex nearby. And if you have hopes for good governance in Palestine, you may end the book with a heavy heart.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, citizenship, espionage, Israel, Palestine, words | Leave a Comment »