Postcard from my bookshelf #1

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Wow. What a fantastic response there’s been to my pledge to send a translated book to a stranger each month throughout 2017.

To date, nearly 170 people have applied to be part of the project, which marks the fifth anniversary of my year of reading the world. I have heard from fellow literary explorers – among them 13-year-old Aisha in Pakistan and Sally in Maine, US, who is cooking her children meals from the countries she reads books from. There have also been comments left by physical adventurers, such as Michelletrinh9, who is cycling around the globe with her boyfriend.

Teachers and students, librarians and booksellers, bloggers and writers, and teenagers and retired people have all been in touch.

Many have shared powerful accounts of the importance of books in their lives and the difficulty of accessing literature in some parts of the globe. And I have read moving personal accounts from people facing enormous challenges.

Just as in 2012, I have been amazed and humbled by the enthusiasm of booklovers. The experience has reminded me that sharing stories is a universal human activity. It has shown me again the enormous potential of storytelling to connect us across political, social, religious and geographical divides.

Choosing my first recipient has been tricky. For a while, I had no idea how to begin deciding who would get a book. Reading the comments, I wished I could pick out something for everyone.

Then it struck me that many of the messages were from people who represented groups that were essential to the success of my original quest. As Postcards from my bookshelf  is about giving back and saying thank you for the kindness of so many strangers who helped me read the world in 2012, it seemed to make sense to pick an individual from each of these categories to send a book to throughout the year.

And so this is what I have decided to do. There will be a few entirely random selections along the way, so everyone who entered has a chance of winning a book. For the most part, however, the postcards will be sent to people who in some way stand for groups that proved essential in my project to read a book from every country.

As such, my first book goes to a person from a profession that is vital for stories to cross borders: a translator.

I have chosen Laimpresionista, who translates prose and poetry from Spanish, English and occasionally French into Greek, to represent this group. She told me:

I think I would go for a nice thick novel of a Turkish, Syrian or Egyptian writer. I live on a greek island and during these past two or three years, our life has been changing rapidly. War refugees keep arriving in Greece on a daily basis and I feel I should somehow get to know them a bit better. I don’t mean to get political or anything but my daily contact with people from Pakistan or Syria or Afganistan sometimes makes me think that the only thing I know about my new neighbours is the capital city of their country and, maybe, part of their cuisine.

This got me thinking about a lot of the Arabic and Turkish literature I have read in recent years. There are, of course, many marvellous long novels in English and English translation by Turkish and Egyptian writers who are household names in many parts of the world. Authors such as Naguib Mahfouz, Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk need little introduction to many people.

However, I was pretty certain that Laimpresionista would already have heard of these writers. I also felt that, while their books are wonderful – as is the work of Rafik Schami, whose Damascus Nights I read as my Syrian choice back in 2012 – they would not necessarily provide insight into the issues she mentioned.

For a while, I thought I might send Khaled Khalifa’s hard-hitting novel In Praise of Hatred. I read this book a couple of years back and, although it is set several decades ago, it was banned in Syria after it was published in 2006 and is felt by many to bear on contemporary events.

But, in truth, the most powerful work I have read about the horrific situation that has displaced millions of Syrians is not fiction, but a non-fiction book: A Woman in the Crossfire by Samar Yazbek (translated by Max Weiss). The journalist and novelist’s account of the collapse of normal society in her home town of Jableh haunts me many months after I read it.

When I looked Yazbek up, I found that another of her more recent works has since made it into English. The Crossing (translated by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) draws on a number of secret journeys that the now-exiled Yazbek has made back into Syria to document the ongoing devastation and arrival of ISIS.

I knew it was the book I had to send. And so, hoping that my recipient wouldn’t mind a non-fiction book in place of the novel she asked for, I picked up two copies from the picturesque Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly – one to send and one for me.

Laimpresionista, I’ll be reading it with you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be chosen on February 15.

Why reader Faizah Shaheen’s detention should outrage us all

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At a time of great turbulence and uncertainty in many parts of the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of alarming news stories flooding our airwaves, newspapers and screens. Nevertheless, yesterday I came across a story that shocked me profoundly.

According to the Independent, Faizah Shaheen, a British Muslim woman, was detained at a UK airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act after an air steward reported her for suspicious behaviour last month.

And the suspicious behaviour in question? The 27-year-old National Health Service worker had been reading Syria Speaks, an award-winning art and culture anthology showcasing the work of more than 50 writers and artists challenging violence in their war-torn nation.

Far from an extremist text promoting radicalisation, the book had actually been supported by English PEN, the charity on whose translation funding panel I often sit. Yet, because an air steward thought it suspicious, Shaheen returned from her honeymoon to face 15 minutes of distressing questions from UK police.

This may not sound like much in the face of the extreme hardships and atrocities affecting many others around the globe. However, it points to something deeply disturbing and intimately connected to the cruelty being inflicted on millions by extremists, despots and inhumane policies.

As I discovered during my quest, a sure way to increase our understanding and appreciation of one another’s humanity – and thereby to promote peace – is to share our stories. By imagining the world through other people’s eyes in the extraordinary way that stories enable us to do, we enlarge and enrich our vision, and become better able to respect, value and talk meaningfully with one another.

To do this, people need to be able to read without looking over their shoulders, without fear of penalties or reprimands. When a person picks up a book, their focus should be on whether they will enjoy it and what they might get from it, on how it could broaden their horizons, rather than on how being associated with it might limit or threaten them.

Without this freedom, the world shrinks and fragments. Frightened to venture beyond the bounds of sanctioned subject matter, we find ourselves locked in an echo chamber, where the same ideas and perspectives reverberate at us time and again, and the Other becomes ever more inscrutable and strange.

Living in that sort of bubble, our appreciation of the humanity, complexity and dignity of those who do not conform to our mores quickly dulls and fades. And when that happens, discrimination, violence and persecution of those others ceases to seem unacceptable, because they are increasingly hard to imagine as people at all.

That is why Faizah Shaheen’s detention enrages me and should enrage all those who value and believe in the free circulation of literature. That is why I join English PEN in condemning what happened. Because, on a fundamental level, the cruellest things human beings do to one another stem from precisely this: preventing people sharing ideas and stories.

Picture by Konrad Förstner on Flickr.com.

Syria: the power of words

 

‘Don’t squander your precious words… Words are responsibility’

I had my doubts about this one. Having picked it up on a whim in Foyle’s (which makes it one of the handful of books I’ll be reading this year that are easily available on the UK high street), I began to question its authenticity as an example of Syrian literature when I realised it had been written in German.

After all, I’d had so many intriguing recommendations for literature written in Arabic that it seemed hard to justify deviating from those for the sake of what may turn out to be a sort of hybrid fiction, caught between the Arab and Western worlds.

In fact award-winning author Rafik Schami, who emigrated from Syria to Germany at the age of 25 and holds dual nationality, makes the difficulty of telling stories across cultures one of the themes of this book. Incorporating the tales told by the seven friends of Salim the coachman, Damascus’s best storyteller, in an effort to lift an enchantment that has struck him dumb, his witty and engrossing narrative includes a discourse from Tuma the emigrant, who, having lived in America for 10 years, attempts to explain his time in the West to his friends.

Describing how he found it difficult to speak in the US (‘How are you going to talk to people who don’t have the faintest idea about the things that really matter to you?’), he then goes on to discover similar difficulties in trying to interpret Western culture for his friends. In the end, frustrated by their repeated dismissal of his words as ‘fairytales’, he decides to lie instead.

At this point, it’s hard not to picture Schami smirking at his typewriter (he wrote this in 1989), and to wonder how much of the colour of the Damascus he describes, ‘a city where legends and pistachio pastries are but two of a thousand and one delights’, is shaded in for the benefit of his European readers.

But what cuts through this playful jousting with truth is a sense of the crucial importance of communication. Storytelling is a vital force in the novel: it’s the way that cafe owners keep their customers coming back each day, how deals are done and friendships cemented and, in many of the stories, a matter of life and death. What matters is not the truth or otherwise of what is related but that it is related.

Set in 1959 against the uneasy backdrop of the United Arab Republic, a union between Syria and Nasser’s Egypt, which saw the region awash with secret police and transistor radios designed to allow the government ‘to proclaim the one and only valid truth’ because ‘governments in Syria, without exception, made a habit of proclaiming peace and order just when they were on the verge of collapse’, the novel’s presentation of the need for a plurality of voices and accounts is deeply moving. It finds its echo in the events of today and deserves to be read in the West, the Middle East and throughout the world.

Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami (translated from the German by Philip Boehm). Publisher (this edition): Arabia Books (2011)