‘Arabic literature needs support’

by Staff Reporter
Samuel Shimon, Arabic Author, Publisher and Editor
Muscat: Born in an Iraqi Assyrian family, Samuel Shimon became a filmmaker in Hollywood, and travelled all across the Middle East and North Africa before settling down in Paris as a refugee.

In 1996, he moved to London where he stays now. He co-founded Banipal, the renowned international magazine of contemporary Arabic literature in English translation. In 2000, he and Margaret Obank, publisher of the magazine, edited A Crack in the Wall, poems by 60 contemporary Arab poets. He is also founder and editor of popular Arabic literary website Kikah.com.

In 2005, he published his best selling autobiographical novel An Iraqi in Paris, first in Arabic then in English. In 2010, he edited Beirut39, an anthology of new Arabic writing, published by Bloomsbury in the UK and the USA. Samuel Shimon was the chair of judges for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as Arabic Booker Prize, in 2008.

His new novel about the civil war in Lebanon is expected to be released this summer.

Times of Oman talked to him about Arab and Omani literature, their positioning in the world, challenges in translations and achievements of Banipal magazine in taking Arab literature to the world as it is.

Where do you see Omani fiction and poetry writers among others from the Gulf region?
For me, who works in literature, whose job it is to know the literary scene and as an expert in Arabic literature today, Omani literature — fiction and poetry — has a very good reputation. Writers started writing fiction only a few years ago and I expect it to flourish in coming years and I expect to hear more about fiction writers.

Why haven’t Omani literature writers made the impact as others in the region?
On the contrary, Omani poets, for example, are very strong in the region, as well as in the wider Arab world. Last week I received an e-mail from the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival asking how to contact Mohamed Al Harthi, whose poems in English translation they had read in Banipal, and had liked and so they want to invite him.

I know a young Omani woman author who sent me a manuscript to read. I found it a brilliant novel, and immediately passed it to a big publisher in Beirut, one of the main publishers. They loved it and published it immediately. I was surprised that this novel was not entered for the Arab Booker Prize and I discovered later that the publisher did not nominate it. Let me tell you the truth, sometimes a publisher will nominate their friends and this Omani writer was a victim of this unhealthy situation. I am sure her novel deserved to be short-listed for that prize.

Who are the Omani writers who impressed you and why?
I am known to have been a fan of three Omani poets for many years. I love Saif Al Rahbi’s poetry, we have been friends for 30 years and I know all his life and works. I am so glad that this year he was awarded the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Poetry. I am also a fan of Zaher Al Ghaferi and Mohamed Al Harthi. I enjoy reading the fiction of Jokha Al Harthi, Hussein Al Ibri, Abdul Aziz Al Farsi, Hoda Jowahiri and Ghalya Al Said.

They are all fine writers, they write in very beautiful Arabic, beautiful style. I like their subjects. They are very modern writers. Some authors need more publicity and promotion for their works. Omani literature needs more promotion. And, I am sure I will discover many other names on my visit.

How are Omani writers different from other Arabic writers? What are the areas where they need to focus on while reaching out to the readers in the Arab world?
Oman authors need good publishing houses and good distribution. They are good in their writing, they don’t need to change their focus. They just need good publishers and good distribution.

Arabic fiction is now getting some sort of international promotional support. Is it enough? Would the introduction of some recent international awards for Arabic fiction help promote the literature globally?
I think, yes. I think Arabic fiction is getting more international attention and in my point of view, there are three factors behind this: First, Banipal magazine has played a huge role in promoting Arabic literature since 1998. Some academics talk about ‘Before Banipal’ and ‘After Banipal’ in terms of publishing translations.

Secondly, after the catastrophe of September 11, the West started to ask about Arab literature, and so translation was hugely increased, from perhaps, five a year to 35 or 40 a year. Even more if we count Arab authors who write in French, Dutch, German or languages other than Arabic.

The third factor is the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arab Booker prize. Since it was established in 2007, the prize attracted Arab authors, Arab publishers, and now this prize has become a magic for Arab literature. I can say I was proud to be chosen as the inaugural chair of judges in the first year of the prize.

Arabic literature, barring a few including Khalil Gibran and Naguib Mahfouz, still could not make it to the world literature. Reason?
There are many more, who are translated into many languages, and some are better known than Khalil Gibran and Naguib Mahfouz. There is also Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Saadi Youssef, Amin Maalouf, Taher Ben Jelloun, Alaa Al Aswany, Elias Khoury, Assia Djebar, Rawi Hage, Rabih Alameddine, Abdelrahman Munif, Emile Habiby, Sonallah Ibrahim.

Why is the reach of Arabic literature to the world limited and too slow? Is there substantial support — government or private sector — in promoting literary endeavours?
In Europe, including Scandinavia, there are many foundations to support and promote the translation and publishing of the authors in their countries. If I want to publish a European author, into English or into Arabic, I know there is a fund for that.

But this does not exist in the Arab world. If a western publisher wants now to publish an Omani novel, there is no Omani organisation to apply for funding for the translation.
There should be foundations in Arab countries to support translations from Arabic into other languages. Banipal has been translating Arabic literature for 16 years, and in all that time there has been virtually no support from Arab countries for any translation, except that sometimes, we have done a special issue.

What are the challenges that translation of Arabic literature is facing today?
There are many beautiful novels of Arabic literature not yet translated into English. Most of them were written by authors who are now dead, and most western publishers want living authors, not to mention authors who speak English themselves to help with promotion.

Ninety per cent of publishers still have preconceptions and stereotypes about the Arab world which prevent them from presenting the best of Arab literary creativity in fiction and poetry, unlike Banipal. The corruption in cultural establishments is also taking its toll. One country of the Arab world established a grand project to translate and promote Arab novels.

However, the project director chose six or seven novels by a personal friend. They were translated and printed and they are still there in the warehouse, unsold. I heard that about $10 million was spent, and then the project stopped. A terrible shame.

Is the role played by Banipal to take the Arab literature to the world sufficient?
Through Banipal, we have tried to focus that Arab literature is an essential part of the world culture and human civilisation. It is an Arab literary magazine published in English and it comes from the heart of the Arab literary world. This was a magazine that was appreciated by many Arab international writers including Adonis, Fadhil Al Azzawi and Abbas Beydoun.