Participants at the first Banipal Book Club gathered at the Arab British Centre in London last week to discuss Arabic literature in translation.
Arabic literature lovers unite in London
On a rainy evening in London last week, a group of 11 women gathered in an 18th-century building in Gough Square, off Fleet Street. This is the home of the Arab British Centre (ABC), a non-profit, non-denominational organisation that aims to foster understanding of the Arab world among the British public, and the women were here to take part in the first ever Banipal Book Club.
The book club has been organised by Margaret Obank who, with her husband, the Iraqi author Samuel Shimon, founded Banipal magazine in 1998 to share, explore and promote English translations of Arabic literature. Now on its 43rd issue, with a translating prize to its name and a lending library at the ABC, Banipal wields considerable literary heft, even more so now that mainstream publishers such as Bloomsbury are publishing translations and Arabic literature is having a moment in the limelight, thanks to the International Prize for Arabic Fiction - nicknamed the Arabic Booker.
This book club was a long time coming. Obank was inspired by the defunct Kutub, which ran book clubs covering Arabic literature at Dubai's Third Line Gallery for five years, and when she noticed an increase in students reading Arabic literature and then interning at Banipal, she decided the moment was right.
"We thought we needed to do something to really promote literature more," she says. "We sent out feelers to people we know, people who [the Banipal editorial assistant] Charis Bredin knows from her doing an MA at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies], so we're expecting a few people who are interested in or working in the field of Arab world literature. And we have a page on the website, so if anyone who's not involved already wants to get to know it, they can. In fact, somebody did yesterday."
That is one reason why the Banipal Book Club is not exactly in Richard & Judy or Oprah territory: a number of the attendees are intimidatingly erudite and well-read, with a couple of filmmakers, a smattering of people with PhDs and a bundle of people already working in the field - and this on one of the rainiest nights of the year so far.
The book, chosen from this year's publication lists, is Ali Bader's The Tobacco Keeper, an intriguing novel about the multi-stranded Arab cultures, and their development from peaceful cohabitation to fractured disintegration during the 20th century. Bader, an Iraqi, tells the tale of a journalist commissioned to investigate the life of a musician, Kamal Medhat, who has died under mysterious circumstances. The book is Medhat's tale, of his shape-shifting life in Iraq, Iran, Israel and Syria, and the divisions of his three sons' lives.
"We looked for something that's going to hold your attention, that's giving you a new idea or a different structure," says Obank of choosing a book-club read. "This novelist has written a lot, though it's only the second one in translation. It's looking at identity and country and physically what's going on but also taking a more nuanced view of the current situation and politics.
"He actually does cover a lot of the recent history of Iraq in the book, which is fascinating, and very resonant, and I think it gives a lot of information for people who don't know a lot about Iraq as a country." When everyone has arrived, 15 or so minutes late, Bredin, just 22, baby-voiced and already well ensconced in this subject and the world of Banipal, leads the discussion - a brave thing to do in a room of women, many of whom have met tonight for the first time (though some men had been expected, too). She suggests an extract, and Maureen O'Rourke, who is currently translating an astrological manuscript from Arabic, quickly offers to start from page 301: Return of the Sons.
"The most important chapter of Kamal's life in those days was the return of his three sons at the same time after the US invasion ..." she begins.
Fifteen minutes later, the room is already in peals of laughter. They've gone through ideologies, philosophy, music and the difficulties of a journalist's life in Damascus; now they're on to man-bashing. Ashtar Al Khirsan, a British-Iraqi filmmaker, has pointed out, laughing, that the "sketchily drawn" female characters "have all got these exotic French names ..." and gender politics takes over.
It's an interesting dynamic here: being a somewhat academic gathering, the participants quickly get over that self-consciousness that troubles others when called upon to dissect literature among strangers. And though only the first group, these are real enthusiasts of the genre, already well-read and well-travelled. Most importantly, they're eager to read more.
The next book club will be held on May 24, at the Library and Meeting Room, 1st floor of the Arab British Centre, 1 Gough Square, London EC4A 3DE. Visit www.banipaltrust.org.uk for more information