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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Books and Literature

EGYPT: Bestselling novelist Alaa Al Aswany reflects on the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak

30353 Egypt's celebrated and bestselling novelist Alaa Al Aswany, author of "The Yacoubian Building" and "Chicago" among other books, says President Hosni Mubarak could be more dangerous now than ever. 

Aswany hosted reporters at his dentist office in central Cairo earlier this week to give his take on the popular uprisings against Mubarak that have rocked Egypt and the Mubarak government to the core for the last 12 days.

Aswany said he was concerned about the apparent unwillingness of Mubarak to call it quits despite the mass popular protests against him, saying it is setting the scene for a dangerous scenario.

"The dictator becomes full of very negative feelings towards the country," he said. "He becomes destructive and these feelings become very dangerous....he thinks he is a national hero but at some point when he wakes up he becomes angry and destructive."

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IRAN: Book reading on the decline in the Islamic Republic, clerics and officials warn

Hp_iran_gallery__470x312 Iran has invested heavily in literacy campaigns over the past 30 years, but some Iranian officials and high-ranking clerics suggest Iranians aren't embracing books after all.

They warned recently that "the culture of reading books" among Iranians is dwindling and, in a string of public speeches during a book event this week, called for the launching of campaigns to increase reading nationwide.

"The society places greater value on sandwiches than it does on books,” Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency quoted the high-ranking cleric Ayatollah Yusef Tabatabainejad as saying in a speech he delivered in Isfahan. "Some only read and study books for financial gain and consider book reading a profession, which is a pity. We need to promote reading in a way to develop logical and rational thinking."

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PAKISTAN: Fatima Bhutto on her memoir, 'Songs of Blood and Sword'

Fatima and her father

We recently interviewed Fatima Bhutto about her new memoir, “Songs of Blood and Sword.”

In the book, Bhutto traces her late father’s life and the history of her political family in Pakistan.

In two podcasts, we talked with her about the book, her research, her late aunt Benazir -- the  first female prime minister of Pakistan -- Muslim women in politics, and the massive flooding that Pakistan faces now.

Check out the full interview here: Fatima Bhutto's love-hate affair with her native Pakistan.

Pacific Time podcastListen to the podcasts here:

Podcast: Fatima Bhutto on "Songs of Blood and Sword"

Podcast: Fatima Bhutto on Pakistan's floods

-- Lori Kozlowski

 Photo (left): Author Fatima Bhutto. Credit: Benjamin Loyseau. Photo (right): Fatima writes, “Papa and I in Geneva.  He had broken his arm and I insisted on being fitted with a cast too, which I wore until his came off.” Credit: Fatima Bhutto.

EGYPT: The beauty and challenge of reciting the Koran

Koran reader

The Koran is for sale at nearly every tram stop in the port city of Alexandria, stacked neatly beside soft drinks and mobile-phone cards. Picking one out, however, can be difficult for a non-Muslim foreigner. Buyers can choose pocket-sized Korans, versions meant as decoration, or study volumes tripled in length with interpretations.

My new color-coded Koran was my best friend while I learned the rules of tajweed, the science of recitation. At first, I was hesitant to concentrate on recitation, preferring to focus more on subject matter, but my professor and tutor insisted that the Koran was meant to be spoken. 

The Koran is arguably the world’s most famous oral poem and certainly the most memorized. What better way to know your own religion than to be able to recite it the same way people sing along to a tune on the radio?

It’s no surprise, then, that a drive in an Alexandrian taxi usually involves listening to tajweed on FM 90.1. Drivers make their rounds throughout the city while reciting along with Sheik Hosary or Sheik Abd Samad. If Egyptian soccer teams aren’t playing, televisions in restaurants air recitations of the Koran with accompanying text. The Koran’s ubiquitous presence is wonderful for those who love to hear it, but sometimes after reciting the story of the Virgin Mary in Arabic for an hour or so, I preferred to listen to something different.

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LEBANON: Some Arab writers lament roles as cultural ambassadors


"If anyone ever comes up and tells me my work is 'responsible,' I will punch him in the face," joked Moroccan-Dutch author Abdel-Kader Benali while discussing whether Arab writers have a duty to serve as cultural ambassadors.

His sentiments were echoed by the other authors present on the panel titled Rock the Casbah: Responsibility, Commitment and Art, one of dozens held over three days in and around Beirut as part of the Beirut39 festival, a subsidiary project of the Hay Festival.

"I don't want my work to be used as a piece of anthropology, a textbook for people who don't know about the Arab world," explained Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, one of 39 Arab authors younger than 40 selected for the Beirut39 book festival.

"I think [Arab literature] is in danger of becoming something else -- something non-literary," he added.

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ISRAEL: Author waits--and waits--for permit to travel to Lebanon for literary award

Literature is supposed to transcend borders, but sometimes it runs up against them. Ala Hlehel-1

Author Ala Hlehel is among the winners of the Beirut39 literary competition, which acknowledges fresh voices in Arab literature in a list of 39 writers under the age of 39. The writers are invited to a four-day festival  in Beirut in April.

Hlehel, a native of the Galilee village of Jish and today a resident of Acre, is an Arab citizen of Israel. Israel prohibits all its citizens and residents from visiting countries defined as "enemy states"-- including Lebanon--without a special permit. 

When he learned he was among the winners,  Hlehel asked authorities for permission to travel to Lebanon to receive his award. A few months went by. Authorities said they were waiting to learn the position of Israel's General Security Services.

The festival is now two weeks away.  Adalah-- the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel-- submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on the author's behalf. Attorneys Haneen Naamnih and Hassan Jabareen argued that the failure of the Minister of Interior and the prime minister to issue a decision on his request "violates his constitutional right to leave the country and his right for freedom of employment and expression, as well as his due process rights for a fair hearing," an Adalah press release said. 

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LEBANON: Professor condemned for scholarly work with Israeli counterparts

Sari Hanafi (1) A politically charged uproar has erupted on the campus of a leafy university over the academic collaboration between a local Arab professor and two Israeli counterparts. 

In a town hall at the American University of Beirut  earlier this month, nearly 300 in the crowd castigated Sari Hanafi, a scholar and Palestinian activist, for his role as co-editor of the book, "The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories." 

Hanafi worked on the book with two Israeli scholars from Tel Aviv University, Adi Ophir and Michal Givoni, both of whom publicly oppose the Israeli military presence in the West Bank.

Lebanese law forbids contact between its nationals and Israel. The two countries remain technically at war. There's also an ongoing effort to isolate Israel called the Palestinian Academic Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which many AUB students and faculty support.

“This open collaboration between an Israeli academic and an AUB academic is unprecedented in my 50 years of service at this university," said Tarif Khalidi, professor of Arab and Middle Eastern studies at AUB, who addressed the audience at the March 8 meeting. "I say 'open' because God knows what might be happening under the table. This is especially disturbing in a country like Lebanon, which is still in a state of war with Israel."

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DUBAI: Martin Amis set to add ‘fireworks’ to upcoming literature festival

Dubai-martin-amis-wikimedia To most outsiders, Dubai appears a town of ludicrously tall towers, bumbling Mossad agents sporting unconvincing tennis gear and leaky aquariums in oversized malls.

But away from the recent headlines, the city has also been trying to position itself as a land of culture and sophisticated debate.

The Festival of Literature (sponsored by Emirates Airlines) kicks off this week at the aptly named Festival City, another of the United Arab Emirates city-state's shopping mall and hotel complexes.

While the venue may not sound the most inspiring for a cultural chin-stroking session, the attendees – one in particular – should ensure some rather lively banter.

Outspoken author and England’s "punching bag" Martin Amis probably hadn’t considered his future travel plans when he made a few comments during a 2006 interview in the English newspaper The Times.

Discussing issues of terrorism and security back then, he suggested “strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan” and “discriminatory stuff” against the Muslim community, “until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

His words, as one might expect, went down like a Hummer at a Greenpeace picnic. UK writer Yasmine Alibhai-Brown described Amis as “with the beasts” with it came to dealing with Islam, along with “the Muslim-baiters and haters,:

Novelist Ronan Bennett described Amis’ views as “symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of otherness."

The director of the Dubai literary festival has been fielding a lot of queries regarding Amis’ involvement. In an interview with Abu Dhabi-based, English language newspaper The National, Isobel Abulhoul said she expected “fireworks” during his talk.

But, she added, “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

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LEBANON: New book attempts to resurrect Beirut's lost Jewish past

2010-02-06-WadiAbuJamilThe neighborhood Wadi Abu Jamil in downtown Beirut is empty and quiet these days. But back in the old days it used to be a bustling place known as Beirut's Jewish neighborhood. 

It is where the Jewish physician Dr. Shams was said to treat patients who suffered economically for free and where, at night, people from the neighborhood gathered at the house of one of the Jewish families to watch television because they were the only ones in the area who had one at the time.

But after multiple Arab-Israeli wars, Israeli invasions and Lebanese Hezbollah's 2006 war with the Jewish state, Dr. Shams and most of the other Jewish families from "The Valley of the Jews," as the neighborhood also was called, are long gone.

In her newly released book of literary journalism, "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about the Jews of Beirut," BBC journalist Nada Abdelsamad has resurrected Dr. Shams and some of the other Jewish personalities who used to live in the neighborhood through the memories of their old neighbors and friends.

The idea for the book came from a series of reports Abdelsamad was commissioned to do by the BBC about some of Lebanon's religious communities, including the Druze and the Shiites, in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel.

At one point she decided to do a report about the Jewish community in Lebanon, which turned out to be a challenge. In the end, she wasn't able to interview people from the small Jewish community in Lebanon but she was nevertheless able to talk to Lebanese Jews who had left the country as well as some of their old neighbors.

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EGYPT: To publish or burn

Farouk hosni The man who once threatened to torch Hebrew-language books now, in a twist of international literary diplomacy, apparently wants to publish them.

Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni is attempting to tidy up his past comments about burning Israeli books by offering a more conciliatory gesture: to print them in Arabic. The change came as writers and artists criticized Hosni’s nomination to head the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“Farouk Hosni is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue and culture, he is a dangerous man who inflames hearts and spirits,” went an open letter signed by filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. “We invite all countries dedicated to liberty and culture to take the initiatives necessary to avert this threat and avoid the disaster that would be his nomination.”

Hosni is trying to untangle himself from comments made last year when asked if there were Hebrew-language books in Egypt’s Alexandria library. He reportedly said: “If there are any, I will burn them myself.”

The quip fit the spirit of the artistic war Egypt has waged against Israel for decades. This nation may have been the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but the Palestinian crisis prompted Egypt’s writers, intellectuals, musicians and artists to boycott the Jewish state. That sentiment may work for a novelist but not for a politician seeking the U.N. post for promoting cultural understanding.

Hosni has apologized. The ministry has announced it will publish in Arabic the works of  Israeli writers David Grossman and Amos Oz. Or will it? A report over the weekend in Daily News Egypt suggests otherwise.

Stay tuned for the next chapter. 
-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Farouk Hosni. Credit: BBC 

IRAN: Alleged female serial killer inspired by Agatha Christie novels

Serial-presstv Iran is all astir over the sensational case of the alleged serial killer inspired to hunt her elderly prey by the mystery novels of Agatha Christie.

According to press accounts, Iranian police arrested the 32-year-old alleged killer in the city of Qazvin, about 60 miles northwest of the capital.

She has been identified only by her first name, Mahin. 

The suspect allegedly confessed to luring into her clutches elderly women by offering them rides in her car after prayers. 

She allegedly lulled her passengers into a sense of security by telling them how much they reminded her of her own mother. 

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EGYPT: Religion and a defiant author

Youssef_ziedan “Cut evil tongues, throw them with their sins into the sea. ... Know that our God, Jesus Christ, was addressing us, His children in all times, when He said: I did not come to bring peace to earth but a sword.”

With this incendiary sermon in his latest novel, Youssef Ziedan drew a portrait of St. Cyril, one of the 5th century's canonized popes of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. By projecting the image of a pope resistant to theological debate, and by shedding light on what the author contended were concealed moments of violence in the early centuries of the Coptic Church, Ziedan’s new novel, “Beelzebub,” has shocked the Coptic community. At first glance, some might conclude the novel targets the church exclusively. A deeper read, however, exposes a controversial Muslim author with  strikingly unconventional views on monotheistic religions in a society steeped in religious conservatism.

Ziedan, in an interview in Alexandria, said in a defiant tone that  his work aimed at challenging the monopoly claimed by different religious institutions over the truth of faith and history. “I don’t deconstruct the text, but I reexamine the religious institution and religious heritage,” said Ziedan. “I analyze religious knowledge and consciousness.”

Yet, this is not the crux of Ziedan’s views. His critique goes beyond the role of religious institutions to the essence of monotheistic religions: “The substance is the same; it is based on the superiority of oneself over others under the pretext of possessing a god who owns the truth. This element of superiority is the same in all three religions, which gives rise to violence. As long as religions last, violence will persist. ”

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