Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Stories from the Middle East

Lord Mayor's Parlour, Manchester Town Hall, 21 October 2008

Comma Press encourages and promotes new writing in poetry and prose, with an emphasis on short stories. Their latest book is 'Madinah', a collection of short stories from ten cities in the Middle East.

In her introduction to 'Madinah', editor Joumana Haddad writes about the difficulty in choosing just ten writers and ten stories. 'I tried to combine my desire to introduce new talented voices, with the importance of including firmly established writers . . . I also favoured cities that are not much talked about - like Dubai, Latakia, Alexandria and Akka - alongside others that have forever enjoyed a high profile . . . ' She also writes about how Western publishers often choose to translate 'notorious names or works that have been censored in their own country' but asks 'what about the excellent, yet uncensored, 'non sensationalist' works?'

The event, which takes place in the grand setting of the Lord Mayor's Parlour, begins with an introduction from Comma Press. The speaker talks about the themes of exile and political infringement which run throughout the book. He talks of the blogger who faces the electric chair for criticising the Saudi government and of the writers (some are present at the event) who have been refused publication in their own countries.

Then it is the turn of the writers and translators. Alice Guthrie speaks first. She reads an extract from 'The Passport' by Ala Hlehel, which is set in Akka and is a story about a man's frantic attempts to sort out his expired passport.

Next Joumana Haddad reads from her own work, 'Living it Up (and Down) in Beirut'. This is an interesting and slightly humorous piece and is read in two voices.

And lastly it is the turn of Yousef Al-Mohaimeed who reads from his 'There's no Room for a Lover in this City'. Interestingly he reads in Arabic and non-Arabic speakers read from the translation on the projector screen.

After the readings there is a short question and answer session. The first question is for Yousef and asks how he exists as a writer and manages to perceive his audience when his works are not published in his own country. Yousef talks about the difficulties in getting a book published in Saudi Arabia and explains that all books are censored for content that is considered to be taboo. Instead writers often look to Lebanon or Egypt for publication.

Joumana picks up the theme of censorship and explains that for her it is her own 'personal censor' that she struggles with. This internal censor she attributes to her own upbringing but suggests that it is something that many writers have to grapple with.

It is a relatively short event, lasting for about an hour but it gives an interesting insight, not just to the book but to a whole new window of writing.

'Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East', ed. Joumana Haddad, (Comma Press, 2008) is available to buy now.

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