Thursday, May 30, 2013

Moroccan novelist Mahi Binebine's Horses of God explores the path to suicide bombings

Horses of God probes minds of young Islamist suicide bombers
by Susannah Tarbush, London 

Horses of God (Granta Books) translated by Lulu Norman

This month marks the tenth anniversary of Morocco's worst-ever Islamist terror attack, in which 14 young men carried out a series of suicide bombings in the heart of Casablanca. The bombings on the evening of 16 May 2003 killed 45 people - 12 bombers and 33 innocent victims - and wounded more than 100.

Many of the victims were killed when the attackers knifed a guard at the popular and packed Casa de España Spanish-owned restaurant and blew themselves up inside. The other targets were the five-star Hotel Farah, a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish community centre, a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant and the Belgian consulate.

Mahi Binebine

It was found that all the bombers, aged from 16 to 23, had come from the shanty town of Sidi Moumen. The attacks raised profoundly disturbing questions, and in a search for answers the Moroccan writer and painter Mahi Binebine decided to go to Sidi Moumen.

On a visit to the UK last month, supported by English PEN, Binebine said: "We just weren't used to this type of terrorism in Morocco. Most people were very shocked and I wanted to understand what was happening to us."

In Sidi Moumen "I discovered a town of 50,000 inhabitants living in shacks with corrugated iron roofs, without electricity, without light, without water or proper sewerage. I found I was in another country, not Morocco."

The shanty town is hidden behind big walls and is not visible from the motorway: "If you're outside you wouldn't know there are 50,000 people living in this place. And in the middle of it is a rubbish dump. Everybody's working in that rubbish dump - you've got children rummaging around in it, you've got lorries parking up to dump more stuff on it." He witnessed horrendous scenes when people were so keen to be the first get to stuff being dumped that it was deposited virtually on their heads.

"The first picture of Sidi Moumen I had was of kids playing football on top of the rubbish dump, and I said to myself OK, those kids are going to become the heroes of my next novel." That novel, Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen (The Stars of Sidi Moumen), was published by Flammarion in France in 2010 and won the Grand Prix du Roman Arabic 2010.

The novel was made into an acclaimed film Les Chevaux de Dieu directed by Paris-born Moroccan-Tunisian director Nabil Ayouch. Jamal Belmahi's script is based on Binebine's novel, but makes well-judged changes of plot and tone. The young actors in the film are from Sidi Moumen, with one set of actors playing the bombers as boys and another set portraying them as young men. The actors give some remarkably powerful performances. The film won Ayouch the 2012 François Chalais Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Binebine's visit to the UK in April marked the publication by London publisher Granta Books of Lulu Norman's translation of the novel from French under the title Horses of God. The translation won an English PEN Award last November for writing in translation. These Awards help British publishers with  marketing. The six books which received Awards last November were selected by a panel chaired by the renowned literary translator Ros Schwartz. In celebration of Binebine's visit to the UK, English PEN Atlas published his short story Stolen Eyes.

Ros Schwartz and Mahi Binebine

Horses of God is the second of Binebine's novels to be translated to English by Lulu Norman and published by Granta Books. The first, Welcome to Paradise (the original French title is Cannibales), appeared in 2003 (it was reviewed in the Guardian by Maya Jaggi). Welcome to Paradise is about human traffickers; its characters are desperate to get from North Africa to Europe through clandestine and perilous migration across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Horses of God is Binebine's reimagining of the Casablanca suicide bombings. The first-person narrator Yachine, blew himself up in the bombings aged 18. Now a ghost, he looks back over his life and at the events that led him to become a suicide bomber.

"Sometimes I'm overcome by the urge to scream when I find misguided dreamers following in my footsteps.." Yachine muses. "Abu Zoubeir lied when he said we'd go straight to paradise.  He said that we'd suffered our share of Gehenna in Sidi Moumen and therefore nothing worse could happen to us."

Yachine says he didn't hang around in life too long, because there wasn't a lot to do. "And I have to say right now: I'm not sorry to be done with it. I don't have the slightest nostalgia for the eighteen years or so of misery that were my lot." And yet the tone of the novel, narrated from beyond the grave, is serene and rueful with touches of humour.

Yachine has a passion for football, and took his name from that of the legendary Soviet goalie Lev Yashin. As a boy growing up in Sidi Moumen he is in thrall to his dominating and violent older brother Hamid. Life is cheap in the shanty town. Hamid kills a man who had been teasingly coming on to Yachine, and buries his body among the rubbish of the shanty town.

Binebine's prose is spare and poetic, and conveys the texture of the world of Yachine and his friends. Yachine's boyhood comrades include beautiful Nabil who is a prostitute's son, Khalil the shoeshine, Blackie the coalman's son, and Fuad with whose sister Ghizlane Yachine is in love. He at last plucks up the courage to kiss her on what he knows will be his last night on earth.

"We made up our own little family: it was us against the world," Yachine says, remembering his friends. A current of homoeroticism runs through Horses of God.  There is a rape scene set on a drunken evening when Hamid forces himself on a virtually comatose Nabil, and the other boys follow Hamid's lead. Yachine feels shame that he is unable to perform, and he instead quietly comforts Nabil.

from Les Chevaux de Dieu

The boys' drift towards extremism begins after Hamid falls under the spell of an Islamist, Abu Zoubeir, and his clique. Hamid undergoes a radical transformation: he starts praying and going to the mosque,  grows a beard and finds a job in the city. He abandons his wild ways and becomes sober and serious. "He managed to spin a kind of austere web that ensnared us all."

Yachine and his friends fall under the influence of Abu Zoubeir and an Islamist emir and his companions. The TV is tuned to a channel that shows massacres of Muslims on a loop, making the boys' blood boil. They are told Jihad is their salvation. "Abu Zoubeir said we had to react. The Prophet would never have tolerated such humiliation". Not long before the suicide attacks the bombers are taken on what they are told is "a holiday" in mountains far from Casablanca, where they undergo final training and indoctrination. "The time we spent in the mountains will always be one of the happiest memories of my short life," Yachine says. During their time in the mountains Nabil and Yachine find themselves making love.

Binebine's English PEN-supported visit to UK

Binebine was born in Marrakech in 1959. After studying mathematics he worked as a maths teacher in Paris before turning to painting and then writing. He spent many years living and working in Paris, New York and Madrid and then returned to live in the city of his birth. His paintings are in the permanent collection at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and are in many other collections. One of his works is on the cover of the latest issue of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation.

During his April visit to the UK Binebine took part in three events. At the first he was in conversation at St Anne's College, Oxford University; the event was coordinated by Oxford Student PEN, in association with St Anne's Arts and Humanities Discussion Group.

The second event was held in the cinema of the Institut français in South Kensington, London, where a screening of Les Chevaux de Dieu was followed by a discussion with writer and curator Omar Kholeif.

Sarah Ardizzone, Mahi Binebine and Omar Kholeif

The visit concluded with a launch of Horses of God, at the Brunei Suite, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. A discussion between Binebine and Ros Schwartz was followed by a lively Q and A session. The event was organised by the Royal African Society. After the event he signed copies of his book with an individual drawing for each one.

At both London events the interpreter was Sarah Ardizzone, a highly-regarded translator of French literary works including novels by the young writer Faïza Guène, born in France to Algerian parents.

a painting by Mahi Binebine on the cover of Banipal

Binebine's first novel, Le sommeil de l’esclave (The Slave Girl's Sleep) appeared in 1992. A further eight books, fiction and non-fiction, followed, most recently Le Seigneur vous le rendra (The Lord Will Reward You). His novels often focus on the marginalised.

Ros Schwartz asked Binebine him how the two art forms in which he works - writing and painting - are connected. He said he has a "really military discipline", working in his office from 8 am until midday and spending his afternoons until 7 pm in his studio. Asked if the subject matter of  the two art forms is connected, he said that when he is writing a novel the paintings he produces at that time are linked thematically to the theme he is treating in his novel.

In general, the literature comes prior to the painting - except in the case of his most recent novel, where it was the other way round. ."For several years I'd been painting figures of people who are wracked with strain. And I had no idea that I was in fact going to write a novel the central character of which is a baby that is mummified. That was the first time that the painting influenced the novel."

'a suicide bomber is at the same time a victim'

Schwartz said: "In Horses of God you trace the development of kids who go from being carefree and playing football  to being suicide bombers. And I get the sense that, without in any way trying to write an apology for the horrific bombings, you are also showing that these young men are victims: they are  victims of poverty, and in  a way you are asking who is really to blame for this."

Mahi replied that "poverty doesn't necessarily lead to terrorism. But I wanted to show that poverty is like a petri dish, it's an area in which issues can ferment, particularly when you have these Islamist mafias installing themselves within the shanty towns."

Binebine said that if fingers of blame are going to be pointed, they should be pointed at the state, which allow these shanty towns to exist, and at the religious mafia that set itself up within the shanty towns and brainwashes uneducated young people who are easy prey.  "And we can also point at the Moroccan bourgeoisie who underpay the people who work for them: the official wage is 200 Euros a month but you've got the Moroccan bourgeoisie paying 100 Euros a month, half the official wage.

"And so in that sense yes, these young people are victims. Of course, that is a very difficult statement to make in the West - but a suicide bomber is at the same time a victim."

Ros observed that his recent novels appear to have a common theme of escaping poverty and misery. In Welcome to Paradise the protagonists are seeking to leave their country and find paradise in Europe. They want to get away, with fatal results. In Horses of God they seek paradise in martyrdom - again, with tragic results. "And in your most recent novel Le Seigneur vous le rendra the narrator Mamoun seeks and finds escape through literature and education. Would you say that's your message, of the importance of education as a way out of poverty and misery?"

Binebine said "of course the priority of priorities has to be education." In Le Seigneur vous le rendra a child is born with an extraordinary talent for begging. His mother hires him out to beggars, who outbid each other to have him beg on their pitch for the day. But then the child starts growing, which is not good for business. His mother has heard of the Chinese practice of binding feet to stop them growing, and she decides to "mummify" her baby.  "Of course she doesn't entirely mummify him - she stops at the neck. So the body stops growing but the head carries on growing."

'the baby has his own Arab Spring'

In order to remain a baby the child is forbidden to speak. "And of course this is a metaphor for all these Arab societies which stop people growing up and infantilise them." But the baby is given access to culture by a  Spanish person he meets (just as Binebine was very much encouraged early in his artistic endeavours by a Spanish artist who became a friend.) "The baby has his own Arab Spring. He's going to kill the mother - not physically, he's going to cut that umbilical cord - and he's going to do exactly what the Arab people have been doing these past two or three years, they stop being frightened of their dictators . So revolution stems from education, but it also stems from love, because he'll also encounter love." (The novel received a favourable review in Libération).

Schwartz finds the striking thing about Binebine's work to be "the extreme richness of the characters: every character has a story and the stories are humorous, they are unusual, there are stories within stories. Where does the inspiration for this extraordinary range of characters come from?  Do people tell you their stories, are these people that you grew up with?"

"I was born in the heart of the madina in Marrakech and in order to get to school I had to cross the central square of Marrakech, Djemaa el Fn, where you have all the performers and snake charmers," Binebine said. "I spent years crossing that square  witnessing the oral tradition that's so central to our country. On the other hand people never stop telling stories in Morocco so I harvest these stories people tell me and I don't really have to invent anything. It's as if we writers are fighting over who is going to nick which story!" 

Ayouch and Binebine have maintained their links with the young people of Sidi Moumen. Asked by Ros Schwartz about their project in the shanty town, Binebine said that in order to do something for the youngsters, he and Ayouch had organised a major auction of donated art works to be held in Casablanca on 16 May - the 10th anniversary of the suicide attacks. The proceeds would go towards building a cultural centre for children in Sidi Moumen. The auction would be preceded on the previous evening, 15 May, by a screening of  Les Chevaux de Dieu in  Sidi Moumen, bringing together the families of the victims and of the suicide bombers.

Forty-one painters, sculptors, photographers and private collectors donated 66 valuable artworks for the auction which was held in a room offered by the Hyatt Regency hotel and was supported by Hicham Daoudi of Compagnie Marocaine des Oeuvres et Objets d'Art (CMOOA), Binebine posted a euphoric message on Facebook announcing that the auction had raised 2 million dirhams (equivalent to around  $US 233,000.

still from Les Chevaux de Dieu

During the event at the Institut français, which began with a screening of Les Chevaux de Dieu, interviewer Omar Kholeif said that despite the brutalism and poverty "there's a real romanticism to this coming of age story. Was that intentional? There's even a line where one of the characters says they don't necessarily hate living in this particular kind of context."

Binebine said: "That’s precisely why I didn’t write a dark book. It is a very funny book even if Nabil Ayouch the cineaste turned it into a very serious film. The novel itself is not very dark because the children I encountered in Sidi Boumen were light, were fun, they laughed, they played with a sardine tin, there truly was a point when I said they almost seem to be happier than the kids who live in the posh areas."

Binebine started writing the novel in 2004, a  year after the attacks, but stopped writing in 2006 "because it was out of the question to apologise for terrorism, to justify the unjustifiable. And at the same time I said if I was born in that, and I wasn't educated, and I was living in that kind of dirt, I would have been an easy prey for those dream merchants." 

He said the dictators who have ruled Arab countries in past decades have created a kind of void around them. "They've killed, they've imprisoned, they've corrupted all the alternative voices, all those who could have offered something different, which means they've laid down the red carpet for an Islam that actually has nothing to do with Islam. These Islamists are the children of the dictatorships and not the children of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, they've been there for 40,50 years; they won, they are there."

Kholeif asked Binebine whether he had ever been conscious, or worried, that his novel might be instrumentalised or misconstrued as something that could be used to promote those people who are keen to promote Islamic xenophobia.

Binebine said: "There is a risk, because in Sidi Moumen there are Islamists who have installed themselves there and we’ve let them set themselves up there and they’ve emptied, cleared out, the other mafia who are the 'normal' mafia, the almost-nice mafia, who sold hashish, who did little deals – a normal mafia. It was a mafia that didn’t kill as much as these Islamists – they set themselves up and they created order."

When Mahi met people in Sidi Moumen they were "very happy about the Islamists arriving because they said 'these guys cleared out the hash sellers, the wine sellers, they cleaned the place up'. They’ve got money, they help people and are very present in people’s lives. And so in the film in the story these are people who take the kids away from the rubbish dump, they clean them up – if you’re going to be praying 5 times a day you’ve got to clean yourself up 5 times a day – wash – and they separate them from their families. And the group becomes their family.

"They find jobs for them, and what they are given is dignity, a kind of dignity they have never had. And little by little they embark on the work of brainwashing – so they start showing them tapes of Palestinians, Chechens, martyrs, you’re going to save Islam – you are the horses of God – it’s terrible how little by little you start to create human bombs. They are already in hell, that’s what they're told, what have you got to lose? What they are being offered is a direct ticket to paradise – 70 virgins, I don’t know if that’s funny or not – they are offered this and that and little by little they convince them."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

nominations open for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture

 Baroness Helena Kennedy, chair of judges of the Arab British Centre Award for Culture 2013

Applications for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture opened on 20 May. The Award, worth £2,500, celebrates the individual who is judged to have made the most constructive contribution to British understanding of Arab culture in the past two years. It is open to individuals working in any cultural field.

The shortlist will be revealed in mid-September, and the winner  will be announced at the Award Ceremony to be held at Leighton House Museum in London on 26 September. In addition to the prize money, The Arab British Centre is able to provide the winner with opportunities to promote his or her work more widely. Applications are welcome directly from individuals wishing to be considered for the award. Details of the application process are on  For further information contact Ruba Asfahani | 020 7832 1310

Ruba Asfahani recently joined the team at the Arab British Centre as project manager and as a trustee. She told this blog: “We’re extremely excited to announce this award after a two year hiatus: the concept has changed slightly to allow us to celebrate an individual who is making a worthy contribution to British understanding of Arab culture"

She added: "With a strong panel made up of some of the most respected individuals working in Music, Film, Art and other cultural enterprises, we will no doubt see an influx of applicants. These applicants deserve to be recognised with an award like thi,s mainly because in the last few years the Arab arts scene has developed exponentially in the UK, and if it wasn’t for these hardworking individuals, none of it would have been possible.”

The Arab British Centre has been playing an increasing role in promoting cultural and artistic events related to the Arab world. Its role was honoured in April this year when it was named co-winner of the prestigious UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture 2012.

The UNESCO-Sharjah Prize rewards significant contributions to the development, knowledge and spread of Arab culture by means of artistic, intellectual or promotional outreach aimed at enhancing intercultural dialogue and understanding. According to UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture Francesco Bandarin, the Centre has been recognised for "the various activities and events organised, within and outside the Centre, to promote a better understanding of Arab culture and foster intercultural dialogue".

The Arab British Centre Award for Culture is successor to the Arab British Culture and Society Award, which was worth £5,000 to the winner and ran for four years in 2008 - 2011. The Culture and Society Award celebrated organisations and individuals which had made a considerable impact on the British public’s understanding of the life, society and culture of the Arab world. In practice, although open to both organisations and individuals, in each year an organisation won: the four winners were Al Saqi Books, Zaytoun, Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival and Al Jazeera English. A number of individuals were, however, specially commended.

The new Arab British Centre Award for Culture is, unlike its predecssor, open only to individuals rather than to both individuals and organisations. The change will be welcomed by those who felt it was difficult to judge individuals alongside organisations, especially given the greater financial resources of the latter category.

The winner of the 2013 prize will be chosen by a panel of distinguished experts with knowledge of the cultures of the Arab World and the United Kingdom. The panel is chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC who was previously a chair of the judges of the Arab British Culture and Society Award.  Kennedy has served as Chair of the British Council and of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), and is a Trustee of the British Museum and the Booker Prize.

The other panellists are: Maxime Duda, CEO and Founder of Arab New Trends; Rose Issa, a curator, writer and publisher who for the last 30 years has been promoting contemporary art and films from the Arab world and Iran; Deborah Shaw, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Director of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, and Brian Whitaker, journalist and former Middle East Editor of the Guardian newspaper.

Deborah Shaw of the RSC, a judge of the Award

Biographical details of the panel:

Baroness Helena Kennedy is a barrister, broadcaster, and member of the House of Lords, and is  Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. An expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues, she has received many honours for her work. Current chair of Justice - the British arm of the International Commission of Jurists - she was the Chair of the British Council and of the Human Genetics Commission. She recently produced a report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission on Human Trafficking in Scotland and was a member of the Government Commission on a British Bill of Rights. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and Co-Chair of the International Bar Association’s Institute of Human Rights.

Maxime Duda Maxime Duda is CEO and founder of Arab New Trends. In 2007, he was commissioned to build what became the public association called LEOPArts (Lebanese Export Office for Performing Arts). LEOPArts was an Agency of Public Interest, supported by the Lebanese Minister of Culture, H.E Tarek Mitri. After moving to London in 2009, Duda launched Arab New Trends Limited, a UK based company that proposes Arts and Culture consulting services, with a focus on the Middle East and Northern Africa. Since moving to London Duda has collaborated with Al Jazeera, the Jordan Festival and several Universities. He also has worked in curating events for Shubbak Festival, Nour Festival, the V&A, Barbican, Sadler Wells, The Tabernacle, The Scope and Rich Mix.

Rose Issa  is a curator, writer and producer who has championed visual art and film from the Arab world and Iran for nearly 30 years. She has lived in London for the last 25 years where, from her project space in Great Portland Street ,she showcases upcoming and established artists. Rose Issa has been guest curator for numerous private and public institutions in Beirut, Liverpool, London, Moscow, Geneva, Berlin, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels amongst others. She also advises public and private art institutions on their loans and acquisitions of contemporary artworks from the Middle East, including The British Museum, Imperial War Museum, Museum of Mankind, Victoria and Albert Museum; the Written Art Foundation, Wiesbaden; the National Museums of Scotland; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Smithsonian Institution (Sackler/Freer Gallery and National Museum of African Arts); the World Bank, and The National Gallery of Jordan.

Deborah Shaw  has a career in theatre spanning over 20 years, as Associate and Artistic Director in regional theatre, as a producer, director and writer in the UK and USA and most recently as Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Director of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. The World Shakespeare Festival was the centrepiece of the official culture programme of the London Olympics, and included 75 productions and projects (including film commissions, education and online projects). She has commissioned, developed and presented productions and co-productions from Iraq, Tunisia, Kuwait, Germany Czech Republic, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, USA, Canada, India, Poland, China, Japan, Italy, Spain, South Africa and Zimbabwe. She is Executive Producer and the only non-Iraqi founder member of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Theatre Company, which won Best Production of 2012 for their latest production, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, which was seen in the UK, Qatar and Iraq in 2012 and is touring Germany and USA in 2013/14. Later this year she joins Historic Royal Palaces as Head of Creative Programming, with responsibility for a new programme of artistic projects across the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Banqueting House.

Brian Whitaker is a journalist and former Middle East Editor of the Guardian newspaper. He is the author of two books about the region, "What's Really Wrong with the Middle East" and "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East". His website,, is devoted to Arab culture and politics. The Arab British Centre 1 Gough Square London, EC4A 3DE

Brian Whitaker

The Arab British Centre is a registered charity which works to improve the British public’s understanding of the Arab world. It organises and promotes cultural and artistic events relating to the Arab world, and hosts a regular programme of activities including Arabic calligraphy classes and Arabic language classes. It also housse permanent and temporary collections of contemporary Arab art, has a specialised library open to the public, and recognises individuals and organisations working in similar fields through its  award.

In addition to its regular on-site activities the Centre works in partnership with other institutions including the Mayor of London Shubbak Festival and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's Nour Festival. In 2012, it produced ‘Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema’, a week-long series of popular Arab cinema which took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London.
report by Susannah Tarbush

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist is a coup for Nigerian writers

Susannah Tarbush reports from London:

Nigerian writers have done well in the Caine Prize for African Writing in the 14 years of its existence - last year  Rotimi Babatunde became the fourth Nigerian winner, and Nigeria has been well-represented on shortlists - but this year is a real standout for Nigeria with no fewer than four of the five shortlisted stories being by writers from that country. The fifth writer on the shortlist, announced today, is from Sierra Leone which has had one winner so far: Olufemi Terry who won in 2010.

The winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced at the annual celebratory dinner to be held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, on Monday 8 July.

Chair of the judges, the art historian and broadcaster Gus Casely-Hayford , said: “The shortlist was selected from 96 entries from 16 African countries. They are all outstanding African stories that were drawn from an extraordinary body of high quality submissions.”

He  added: “The five contrasting titles interrogate aspects of things that we might feel we know of Africa – violence, religion, corruption, family, community – but these are subjects that are deconstructed and beautifully remade. These are challenging, arresting, provocative stories of a continent and its descendants captured at a time of burgeoning change.”

Yet again there is no author from Arab North Africa on the shortlist. But one of the judges is from the  region: the Egyptian-Sudanese winner of the Caine Prize in its inaugural year, Leila Aboulela. At the time the judges  were announced back in Feburary, the Caine Prize pointed out that Aboulela was the first past winner to judge the prize.

The other judges are award-winning Nigerian-born artist, Sokari Douglas Camp; author, columnist and Lord Northcliffe Emeritus Professor at UCL, John Sutherland; and Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, Nathan Hensley

The 2013 shortlisted authors are:

Elnathan John (Nigeria) shortlisted for ‘Bayan Layi’ from Per Contra, Issue 25 (USA, 2012) ·

 Elnathan John

Tope Folarin (Nigeria) ‘Miracle’ from Transition, Issue 109 (Bloomington, 2012) ·

Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone) ‘Foreign Aid’ from Journal of Progressive Human Services, Vol. 23.3 (Philadelphia, 2012) ·

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria) ‘The Whispering Trees’ from The Whispering Trees, published by Parrésia Publishers (Lagos, 2012) ·

 Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria) ‘America’ from Granta, Issue 118 (London, 2012)

 Chinelo Okparanta

As always the stories will be available to read online on the Caine Prize website and will be published along with the 2013 workshop stories in the forthcoming Caine Prize anthology A Memory This Size to be published in July by New Internationalist and seven African co-publishers: Jacana Media (South Africa), Cassava Republic (Nigeria), Kwani? (Kenya), Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana), FEMRITE (Uganda), Bookworld Publishers (Zambia) and ‘amaBooks (Zimbabwe).

Once again, the Caine Prize winner will be given the opportunity of taking up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. The award will cover all travel and living expenses. The winner will also be invited to take part in the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September.

The  shortlisted writers will be reading from their work at the Royal Over-Seas League on Thursday, 4 July at 7pm and at the Southbank Centre, on Sunday, 7 July at 6.30pm.
On Friday, 5 July at 2-5pm and on Saturday, 6 July at 5pm they will take part in the Africa Writes Festival at The British Library, organised by ASAUK and the Royal African Society.

Last year's winner Rotimi Babatunde has since co-authored a play ‘Feast’ for the Young Vic and the Royal Court theatres in London.

The Caine Prize, awarded annually for African creative writing, is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English (indicative length 3,000 to 10,000 words). An “African writer” is normally taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African.

The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee are Patrons of The Caine Prize.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is President of the Council, Ben Okri OBE is Vice President, Jonathan Taylor CBE is the Chairman and Ellah Allfrey OBE is the Deputy Chairperson.

Previous winners are Sudan’s Leila Aboulela (2000), Nigerian Helon Habila (2001), Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Kenyan Yvonne Owuor (2003), Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava (2004), Nigerian Segun Afolabi (2005), South African Mary Watson (2006), Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007), South African Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), Nigerian EC Osondu (2009), Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry (2010), Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo (2011) and Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde (2012).

The Caine Prize is principally sponsored by The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, the Booker Prize Foundation, Miles Morland, Weatherly International plc, China Africa Resources and CSL Stockbrokers. Other funders include the DOEN Foundation, British Council, The Lennox and Wyfield Foundation, The Beit Trust, Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative from the Commonwealth Foundation, the Royal Overseas League and Kenya Airways.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Labour2Palestine benefits from night of music and food at famous London jazz club

Labour2Palestine co-director Martin Linton (L) and Labour MP Andy Slaughter

The Palestine Night benefit held by Labour2Palestine last Tuesday took place at the legendary 100 Club at 100 Oxford Street, one of the oldest jazz venues in London. The venue proved a most congenial setting for an evening which featured music from Palestinian and other performers, Palestinian food, and sales of CDs and literature. The basement club was packed out and the benefit, which included a collection among audience members, succeeded in raising £2,725.

Labour2Palestine's mission is to increase understand of Palestine in the Labour Party by organising visits there. "Come to the West Bank for one of our visits and help to awaken the sleeping consciousness of the British public, and even many parts of the Labour Party, to what is going on in Palestine," said co-director of Labour2Palestine and compere of the evening Martin Linton, a former Labour MP and Guardian journalist. The audience included 30 to 40 delegates who had been on Labour2Palestine visits and several of the 15 who are to leave on Thursday on the next trip.

Linton recounted how the benefit came to be held at the 100 Club. When activist Elizabeth Dudley was walking to work one morning, a bull terrier sank its teeth into her leg. She needed to go to hospital for stitches and was advised by the doctor to rest for a week. But Elizabeth was due to go the West Bank two days later with a Labour2Palestine delegation, and she insisted on ignoring the doctor's advice and going ahead with her visit.

On Elizabeth's return from Palestine the dog's owner Jeff Horton contacted her and explained that he also owned the 100 Club. He asked whether she would like a free hire of the Club to make amends for his dog's bite. Elizabeth leapt at the chance, and donated her free hire to Labour2Palestine.
(Read here an interview with Jeff Horton in which he talks of his strenuous efforts to keep the iconic venue from closure, with the help of major music artists).

Elizabeth was one of the organisers of the Palestine Night, along with Martin Linton, Sara Apps and Paul Hughes-Smith. Sara Apps, co-director of Labour2Palestine, is a Scottish Londoner and human rights campaigner who works for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and co-founded Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. (Sara also happens to be married to Martin Linton.) Paul Hughes-Smith, who worked for a long time in production at BBC TV and has been involved in encouraging the appreciation in the UK of Palestinian, Yemeni and other Arab music, is a dedicated activist on Palestine. He was instrumental in organising the music content of the benefit.

Raed Jabari

Linton gave a vote of thanks to all those who made the evening possible, including those performers who gave their services free. He also bade farewell to  Palestinian Raed Jabari who, as the first Shaath scholar, had spent three months in the UK as the guest of Labour2Palestine and was about to return to Hebron. The money raised during the benefit evening will partly go towards funding another Palestinian for a three-month visit to London, probably later this year.

During his time in the UK Jabari worked in the office of Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, and Shadow Justice Minister. He also spoke at 25 Labour Party meetings up and down the country.  

In his address to the audience Slaughter said nobody has been as effective as Martin Linton, acting from the grassroots, in bringing the issue of Palestine to the attention of a wider group of people within the Labour movement and beyond. "One thing you can say about Martin is he's action not words: he's a person who just gets on with the job. I'm sorry he isn't in the House of Commons still, but our loss is certainly Palestine's gain."

Slaughter thanked Jabari for his stint working in his office, and said as a fluent English speaker who studied at Manchester University he "probably knows rather more what goes on here than I do. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity to work int he heart of parliament and to find out how we do things here." Jabari had also been a very good ambassador for Palestine: "There's nothing better than hearing from the horse's mouth exactly what is going on from people who know and experience it every day." Slaughter presented Jabari with a pair of House of Commons gold-plated cufflinks, one reading 'Ayes' and the other 'Noes':  "Aye for Palestine and No for occupation" quipped Slaughter. In reply Jabari said he had learnt a lot from his time working in Slaughter's office.

 Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North

In an address later in the evening Islington North Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn praised Martin, Sara and their team for all they are doing "to ensure there is "a really strong lobby in support of Palestine and Palestinian rights, and to make people in this country understand what it's like to live three and four generations under occupation with the inability to travel, lead a normal life, and all the things we take for granted."

Corbyn has visited Gaza, the West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps many times. "Every time I go I feel more depressed, and every time I come back I feel more angry, and ever more determined to do more and more and more until justice arrives for the Palestinian people." Through taking people out to Palestine, Labour2Palestine has helped them understand what life is like there: the Wall, the checkpoints, the theft of water,  the imprisonment of children, the imprisonment of elected parliamentarians from Palestine, and the sheer misery of so many people's lives.

"It has opened things up a lot and also, despite the best efforts of the Home Office, Martin also managed to bring a lot of guests here and they in turn have been able to engage with people throughout this country".

Corbyn added: "We are turning opinion round very very fast on the issue of Palestine and of justice. If we want peace in the Middle East it will only be achieved when there is real justice, a real place in the sun, a real place in the world, real recognition, for the Palestinian people and their heroic struggle."

The music content of the evening began with a performance multicultural collective RAAST which performs music from the Middle East and elsewhere. By the time I arrived at the 100 Club RAAST was coming to the end of its performance. The collective received an enthusiastic response from the audience crowding the venue.

Reem Kelani

A major attraction of Palestine Night was the renowned Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani , rightly introduced by Linton as "incomparable". Kelani performed a captivating set of songs with the classically-trained young jazz pianist Bruno Heinen. Kelani and Heinen have worked together for a number of years, and have developed a remarkably fruitful musical rapport.

Their performance started in a dramatic fashion with Bruno playing an introductory turbulent, clashing series of chords and notes. Reem then intoned: On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the guns of Europe fell silent. Two trainee Muslim clergymen celebrated Armistice Day thinking that Woodrow Wilson would keep his promise and grant Egypt independence. Of course that was never to be." These two Muslim clergymen,  are intoxicated, torn between their faith and their love of life, between East and West." 

She broke into a rousing, jazzy and inventive rendition of The Preachers' Anthem, her arrangement of  the song written in the voice of the two Muslim clergymen by the great Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1823) and lyricist Badi' Khairi. Kelani's forthcoming album, on which she has been working for some nine years, is devoted to the compositions of Darwish. Her arrangement of The Preachers' Anthem was punctuated by playful vocal effects, the lyrics switching between Arabic and English and ending with a snatch of the First World War song "It's a long way to Tipperary!"  Speaking about the challenges of arranging the song, Kelani said she has listened at the British Library's National Sound Archive to recordings of infantry jazz bands, which influenced Darwish's music and her arrangement.

Reem Kelani flags up her musical message
There was a change of mood with Galilean Lullaby, in which Kelani's music is paired with traditional Palestinian lyrics on desertion and loss. The song is from Kelani's debut 2006 album Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora  Though melancholy in tone it ends on an upbeat note with a cameleer riding past the abandoned village and telling the mother that hardship should not last forever for anyone.

The benefit evening marked Kelani's first-ever performance in England of  the strikingly beautiful and haunting Munyati, a song with music by Sayyid Darwish (she and Heinen had previously performed it at Seattle Conservatory of Music). The writer of the lyrics is unknown. Kelani said: "I'm seemingly taking you back to Egypt but also to Muslim Spain where this particular style of singing developed, called muwashshah". The time signature was 14/4. There was laughter when Kelani described the song: "It's Muslim Spain meeting Baroque meeting Jazz musician meeting a Palestinian crazy woman."

This was followed by The Doormen's Anthem, with music by Sayyid Darwish and lyrics by Amin Sidqi. This song on a Nubian theme is an example of Darwish's writing of many songs about marginalised people.

Bruno Heinen
Two of the songs had lyrics by famous Palestinian poets. Samih al-Qasim's Love Poem was delivered in a sultry Palestinian jazz style. Kelani told of how during military rule in Israel  the 1948 Palestinians within the green line spoke to, and about, the beloved as a code for Palestine which could at that time not be mentioned.

Ghayati has lyrics by Ibrahim Touqan. Noting that the song was written almost 100 years ago, Kelani saw it as a riposte to Golda's Meir's assertion that there is no such thing as Palestinians or their identity. She and Heinen rounded off the set with Darwish's The Porters' Anthem with lyrics by Khairi. The audience clapped along, and exploded into applause, calls and whistles at the end, while Kelani was presented with a bouquet.

Heinen is gaining increased recognition as one of Britain's most talented young jazz musicians. Both his parents performed with the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Heinen's new CD Tierkreis (meaning Zodiac), a reinterpretation of  Stockhausen's work of that title, has garnered some excellent reviews (hear some samples here).

To round off the evening there was a session of jazz standards and reggae by the Bruno Heinen Quartet, with Heinen appearing alongside Gary Williams on drums, Larry Bartley on double bass and Michael Winawer on guitar. The music was just right for late evening in a jazz club and people began to dance the rest of the night away.
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Michael Winawer, Larry Bartley and Gary Williams

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Palestinian handicrafts and food on sale at CFAB Spring Fair in Kensington, London

based on an announcement  from the Palestinian Mission UK

The Annual CFAB spring fair: a chance to buy Palestinian handicrafts and food  

The Annual Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB) Spring Fair will be held on the 14th and 15th May at Kensington Town Hall, Hornton Street, London W8 7NX. This is the 54th such International Spring Fair and Food Festival.

VIPs are invited from 5.30pm to 7.30pm on 14th May.

The fair will be open to the public from 7.30pm to 9.30pm on the 14th. and from 11am to 5pm on the 15th.

Eighty diplomatic missions, Palestine being one, take part in this wonderfully colourful and enjoyable event, bringing food, crafts and international entertainment. This splendid event raises money for a good cause.

For details please see Go to the EVENTS page for a full list of raffle prizes, silent auction and entertainment.

Come and support Palestine and stock up on Zaytoun olive oil and on ceramics, limited edition hand made accessories, textiles, bags and jewellery and sample Palestinian food catered by the Palestinian Maramia Cafe. We look forward to seeing you. If you can't make it please do pass on the invite to all your friends. Ps ceramics featured in the picture are examples only. Pps, the event is very busy so no pushchairs are allowed in the main hall. We look forward to seeing you all

Thank you
The Palestine Table Team.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Egyptian fast food outlet 'Koshari Street' opens its doors in London's theatreland

inside the Koshari Street shop

At lunchtime today I made my way to the new London fast food outlet 'Koshari Street', which specialises in the iconic Egyptian street food  - lentils, rice and pasta topped with spicy tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and caramelised onion - from which it takes its name.The The Koshari Street shop was handing out free sample tubs of koshari and bottles of its freshly pressed juices, and was attracting quite a bit of interest from passers-by. Although the shop is aimed primarily at the takeaway trade, there is seating inside for around 10 people. Much thought has gone into the branding and design aspect of the project, with a distinctive purple predominating.

The shop is located at 56 St Martins Lane, Covent Garden.  St Martins Lane  runs from Trafalgar Square, and is in the heart of London's theatreland:  theatregoers are likely to be among those keen to try this novel and exotic fast food.

 a tub of Koshari Street's signature dish

On hand to greet those sampling the shop's fast food were the consultant to the project -  renowned Lebanese-Syrian food writer, blogger and broadcaster Anissa Helou (profiled on this blog here) - and one of Koshari Street's two Egyptian directors, Salah Khalil (the Koshari Street website has a link to bios of the project's team).

Among the books Helou has authored is Mediterranean Street Food (Harper Collins) which includes a recipe for 'Koshari: Rice, Lentils and Vermicelli with Hot Tomato Sauce'. Now Helou has taken this street food to a new level. Koshari Street website says the project was Anissa's brainchild: "She has developed the menu and recipes, adapting the traditional koshari to bring it into the 21st century, using the best ingredients and jazzing up the sauce served with it with specific chillies to offer different degrees of heat. She has also given our koshari a little crunch by adding her own doqqa."

the 3 degrees of Koshari heat: mild, hot and mad

Anissa's Koshari is an intriguing and satisfying mixture of flavours and textures, topped with a layer of  shredded onions fried and caramelised to just the right degree of golden brown. The addition of doqqa is a masterstroke, though Anissa declines to reveal the secrets of her particular doqqa blend of spices, herbs and nuts.

I opted for the highest, "mad", level of hotness which suited me very well. To accompany my tub of koshari I chose beetroot & apple juice, a tasty blend of sweetness and  astringency. I am definitely looking forward to future visits to Koshari Street, and can imagine its Koshari becoming quite an addiction.

The Koshari Street menu includes regular (£4.50) and large (£6.50) tubs of Koshari, white tabbouleh salad, non-bread fattoush salad, and soup of the day. There are two special Meal Combos: regular-size Koshari with either a salad and apple juice (£7.50), or with soup and apple juice (£7.00).  There is a choice of three desserts: Muhallabiyeh (fragrant organic milk pudding), Mishmishiya (apricot leather pudding), and fresh fruit salad. The freshly-pressed juices on offer are apple, apple & beetroot, carrot, blood orange and mango. 
Susannah Tarbush

Monday, May 06, 2013

William Sutcliffe & John McCarthy discuss their books on Palestine-Israel issue

At an event held in the gallery of  Notting Hill Community Church in West London, last Tuesday evening novelist William Sutcliffe and writer, broadcaster and one-time Beirut hostage John McCarthy discussed their latest books, both on Israeli-Palestinian themes. In the chair was William Sieghart, chairman and founder of the conflict resolution NGO Forward Thinking which works with the leaderships of the different sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The event, 'Two Sides of the Wall: Untold Stories from Israel/Palestine', was organised by Lutyens and Rubinstein Bookshop located opposite the church in Kensington Park Road. The bookshop was founded in 2009 by literary agents and former publishers Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubinstein, who in 1993 started the Lutyens and Rubinstein literary agency.

display of the books by William Sutcliffe and John McCarthy at the event

Introducing the evening Felicity Rubinstein recalled that Sutcliffe was "practically my very first client when we started the agency nearly 20 years ago. He'd written an incredibly funny first novel about being in the sixth form at Haberdashers' Aske's, called New Boy and he then went on to publish four more hilarious bestsellers including Are You Experienced which to this day is mandatory gap-year reading.

“Nothing about his career suggested that he would write a book that would be a cornerstone for a serious literary event about the Palestine-Israel debate." But he then produced The Wall (Bloomsbury), “a heartbreaking novel about a teenage boy living in an imaginary community with unmissable similarities to the West Bank - and so the idea for tonight's event started to germinate."

The Wall is a political fable whose 13-year-old first-person narrator Joshua lives in the isolated hilltop town of Amarias. Although the setting is not named, Amarias is clearly an Israeli Jewish settlement of new houses in the West Bank. At its edge it has a high wall to keep out the enemy, and a checkpoint manned  by soldiers. While looking for a lost football Joshua discovers a tunnel under the Wall and cannot resist passing through. On the other side of the Wall he gets to know teenage Leila, and through her and her family he learns about the harsh realities of life for his supposed enemies. Bloomsbury has published the novel in Adult and Young Adult versions with different covers.  

 adult version of The Wall 

Young Adult cover

Lutyens and Rubinstein were keen to have John McCarthy on the platform with Sutcliffe. "John's career as a TV journalist, which in 1986 led him to be captured and held hostage for five years in Lebanon, and the books he has written since his release, have made him a national figure," Rubinstein said. "His most recent book You Can't Hide The Sun: A Journey Through Israel and Palestine (Bantam Press) weaves the testimonies of Palestinians who remained in Israel after its formation in 1948 with John's experience of living under constant threat." [McCarthy's new series on the Middle East, In a Prince's Footsteps, began on BBC Radio 4 on 6 May]

William Sieghart points to the dramatic shrinkage of Palestinian areas since 1947/48

As a prelude to the discussion Sieghart pointed to a series of four maps illustrating the dramatic shrinkage of Palestine since 1947/48 and the establishment of Israel, followed by the 1967 war, and occupation and the settlement process. The Palestinian area is now reduced to “the Gaza Strip and the archipelago of Palestinian islands in which the Palestinians live in the West Bank.” 

Sieghart described McCarthy's You Can't Hide the Sun as a really intriguing book about the story of Israel seen through the eyes of the Arabs who live within its borders. He asked McCarthy about what had drawn him back to the Middle East even after being held hostage in Lebanon. McCarthy said he had not revisited the area for some time after being freed in 1991. His trip to Lebanon in 1986 had been his first-ever trip outside Europe and “I think I got very caught up with the atmosphere of the Middle East and the people in Lebanon that I met and indeed some of the Palestinians I met there. I was very intrigued by this new culture.” In addition his father had served with the British Army at the end of the Second World War in Palestine and had spoken very fondly of the experience. "So when I got the opportunity to revisit the Middle East, in particular Israel and the Palestinian territories, I wanted to go and learn more about the area and got very excited about that."

In 2006 while in Israel on a TV project McCarthy visited a Bedouin Arab family in Lod. They were Israeli citizens and had lived in that place for generations but “the story they told me was very distressing. Half of their neighbourhood was flattened, demolished, it looked like something from a war zone.” And yet this was in the heart of Israel, in a secure area surrounded by Israeli citizens.

“Their story was that these homes of their neighbours and family members, had been demolished. The family were a pharmacist and his wife, who was a nurse, and their three little children. They explained that they had a demolition order against their house. The reason they had a demolition order they explained to me was that they were Arab and the Jewish community wanted them to move. And this continuing threat was extremely difficult for them to live with.” McCarthy found this very interesting: he had not known this was going on in Israel. “And furthermore I hadn't realised how many Palestinian citizens in Israel there were - one in five Israelis is an Arab. That was a surprise to me: although I had visited Israel on many occasions I hadn't realised there was that size of community.”

He worked on his book to understand more about the Palestinian community in Israel and to discover whether the experience of that family in Lod was a general one. He decided to see what had happened from 1947 up to the present day. He met many Palestinian families "who were teenagers at the time and who can speak about the experience of what it was like to be a Palestinian during that civil war period - the fear they experienced, the loss and breakup of communities."

Under the UN partition plan the idea had been that Israel would have about 50 per cent of the land of old Palestine but it ended up with 70 per cent.“The original population should have been about 50-50, there were about half a million Jewish people there at that point and slightly fewer Arabs in what was designated by the UN to be the Israeli state. But by the end of that onflict not only had Israel ended up with about 70 per cent of the land but the vast majority of the Arab population were gone. They'd 'd been forced out or fled during the fighting and they were in the West Bank, in Gaza and further afield in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.” Around 150,000 remained in Israel while 700,000 became refugees in exile.

Israel declared that the Arabs would be full Israeli citizens with all rights as good citizens but tragically the reality became that the Arab citizens were put under what was effectively martial law for the next 20 years, the "military period". This meant that people even living in a village where they might have lived all their lives, and generations before that, were not allowed to move around freely, or to conduct business, without permission from the local military commander. "So this community which had been fractured, and devastated by the civil war, very frightened and demoralised - they had been expecting at least a Palestinian state but they'd been broken up - were trying to basically survive. It was a very difficult period for them.

The most common statement he heard them make about their predicament was that they are "made to feel like strangers in their own home. They see themselves as the remainder of the indigenous population, but they're not allowed to feel that this is their homeland: it is the Jewish homeland and they are guests as it were."

With the discrimination against the Palestinian community in Israel they find it very difficult to see themselves as full citizens. "They recognise that that's on their passports because they can travel with them but it's a kind of internal conflict to say yes I'm an Israeli but I'm also something else. It's a difficult conundrum."

William Sieghart observed that in chronicling the birth of a new state, McCarthy chronicled the destruction of an old way of existing.

McCarthy spoke of the Palestinians, who were a predominantly agricultural community, having a sense that their land was taken away from them. "Their villages, which had thousands of acres around ,them began shrinking and shrinking. because so much land was taken." Those who moved from or fled their homes villagess because of fighting between Jews and Arabs during the civil war period were not allowed to return to their own villages. "They were only allowed to go and stay in another Arab village which had been vacated by people now in exile. So there was this deliberate attempt to sever people from connecting with their home place, as if breaking the spirit as well as breaking the connection with its lands. Which clearly is a terribly important motif for both parties in the conflict."

Turning to William Sutcliffe and The Wall Sieghart asked how he had moved to this subject from writing his comic novels such as Are You Experienced . Sutcliffe said that as a novelist, with every novel you write you are always looking for the big subject. "And I've been thinking for a long time that the big subject of our time is the gap between the haves and the have nots”, which is getting bigger.

At the same time in our culture the "have nots" are increasingly visible. “We know that some of the phones we use and clothes we wear are made by people on a dollar a day but we don't know who they are, we don't know where they are. We've this weird kind of intimate contact with them, yet they are completely invisible.”

Sutcliffe saw some connection between this and the construction of the Wall in the West Bank which began in 2002. He described himself as a secular Jew who keeps one eye on Israel but is not a Zionist. “I thought on the one hand it's a very specific thing in a specific place for a special reason, a concrete structure to stop people moving from place to place , but also a psychological structure, to stop Israelis thinking about what's happening beyond the wall. I thought the wall is this very real concrete thing but it is also on some level a metaphor.

The second main thing that attracted Sutcliffe to the Wall as a subject was that a close friend he really liked, a fellow Jew, an intelligent funny guy with whom he been at school and university, and played with in a band, “suddenly became very religious and spent years in some Yeshiva in the West Bank completely absorbed in Aramaic texts and subsequently became a rabbi got married, had lots of children, but very religious, very orthodox.

“We had both had this very broad liberal education and then he just turned his back on it all. If  you become that religious you're effectively rejecting everything you've learned up to the age of 20, everything you've learnt in your Western liberal education, rejecting every post-enlightenment thought, and devoting yourself to either ancient texts or medieval commentaries on ancient texts.

"I thought that he had made this choice that I couldn't really relate to of just turning his back on the culture he and I grew up with, and chose this completely different path I found unfathomable. And then I felt very sorry for his children and I thought these children are just going to learn this really hardcore religion and for them it's not a choice, they are just not going to see anything else. And I began to think what happens when they're teenagers, when they begin to think for themselves."

Sutcliffe had felt there were two elements of a story taking shape, with a setting and character. "But what you need is a narrative, and there was a third thing that happened... I began to think there's an interesting trope that comes up again and again in children's fiction - which is a character, person, child living a very humdrum existence who discovers a portal to another world of fantasy and wonder - it's Alice in Wonderland.

"Thinking about this religious friend of mine I thought it seemed to me that he's bringing up his child in a world of complete fantasy." With regard to the Wall "I thought here’s an interesting story, an ultra-religious person being brought up next to the Wall, a child in that circumstance brought up in a world of fantasy discovers a sort of portal to reality. You inject a tunnel into that: he can go through this tunnel and suddenly discover for the first time how Palestinians live." He discovers "the sort of real lives he has been brought up to have no idea of: the Wall is a psychological barrier."

Sutcliffe carried two research trips to the West Bank while writing The Wall. He first went there with  the annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). He witnessed how the Israeli occupation affects every aspect of Palestinian lives. "Even though I had done a lot of research and thought I knew the subject, going there was a huge shock - it was a real sort of kick in the stomach." For the PalFest trip he flew first to Amman and then travelled up and down the West Bank on Palestinian roads. On his second trip he travelled with Green Olive Tours - the only Israeli company that takes tourists to the West Ban -  and stayed with families in three West Bank settlements. He found it extraordinary that although his itineraries on  his two research trips overlapped, they never intersected. This was due to the completely separate road systems in the West Bank. The Wall is hidden from the roads and tunnels for cars with yellow Israeli number plates, with earthbanks in some places used to reduce its height from seen from the perspective of the roads for Israelis.

Sieghart read out a passage from The Wall in which Joshua remarks to Leila “You must be very angry” and she responds “if you were angry all the time it would kill you." Sutcliffe said this was the gist of many conversations he had with Palestinians in the West Bank. "Again and again I felt an incredible admiration for what they had to cope with. If you’re under that kind of pressure for decade after decade you find resources that the rest of us don’t have to find. And again and again I felt it came back to that: 'Yes I’m angry but it’s no good being angry all the time, so you have to be able to do something else'...  I felt full of admiration for that mental capacity."
Report and photographs by Susannah Tarbush