Seagull Books’ Arab List: A conversation among equals

Friday 18/09/2015

Dubai - The Arabic heritage is one of stories. Stories drawn from memories as in­tensely personal as they are shared. Stories of a glorious past throbbingly alive in the recesses of the collective con­sciousness of a people. Stories tainted by decades of wars and mass uprisings — and haunted by a pervading sense of displacement that mark the region’s modern his­tory. Vital stories that need to be told, heard, written about and read.
These stories, and the memories they delve into, are what Seagull Books’ Arab List is about.
Listed by New York Times as the third biggest publisher of trans­lated books, Seagull Books is an independent India-based publish­ing house highly regarded for its exceptionally well-produced Eng­lish translations of world litera­ture. Seagull’s publishing list fea­tures books by some of the greatest names in European and Asian liter­ature, along with a growing number of African authors. Seagull Books’ first Arab List is to be launched in spring 2016.
Seagull Books founder Naveen Kishore says the company’s foray into Arabic literature is about in­tense, investigative conversations and encounters across cultures. “It’s about wanting to know,” he said. “You cannot simply call this ‘discovering a culture’ so differ­ent from yours. It must take on the shape of a conversation among equals.”
Seagull Books is seeking to ex­pand its Arab List by reaching out to authors and translators from the region. Kishore said the quest is to create “a new series of books that will allow women and men of intel­lectual rigour to engage with each other in the real world and create a corpus of contemporary political, philosophical, literary and socially concerned texts. From the Arab world and for the Arab world.”
The idea is also to change percep­tions of the outside world on Ara­bic literature. Hosam Aboul-Ela, series editor for the Arab List and associate professor of English at the University of Houston, said: “Too many publishers in the US and the UK have not been able to transcend a limited idea of what ‘Arab writing’ is or should be. You can get a lot of ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’ sort of responses when you pitch translations here. It is rare to see editors with a real interest in engaging the variety of what’s out there, in all its contra­dictions and audacity. Seagull has that openness.”
Seagull’s ethos for choosing its literature is simple: Look for “the human condition”. As a result, the pilot Arab List features some of the most powerful voices in the re­gion’s literature. Ghassan Zaqtan, Palestinian poet, novelist and edi­tor short-listed for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2016; Alawiya Sobh, one of the most important women novelists in Lebanon; former Moroccan minis­ter Abdallah Saaf; and Arwa Saleh, a radical activist from Egypt, are a few of the names in the list.
Aboul-Ela points out the impor­tance of a good translator-editor-publisher relationship in its con­text. “Translated literature can’t really work without a level of com­mitment and artistry on the part of the translator,” he said. “You can’t expect that unless the press and its editors respect the translator’s worth. At this point, most of our ti­tles have come to us on the transla­tor’s initiative and I hope this trend will continue.”
Arab List, 2016:
Describing the Past, by Ghassan Zaqtan. Translator: Samuel Wilder.
Zaqtan’s first prose work in English translation is set in Karameh refugee camp east of the Jordan river where he moved with his family as a 7-year-old boy.
The camp became a centre of Palestinian resistance after the six-day war and, in the Battle of Karameh in 1968, was razed when Israel invaded Jordan and the set­ting of Zaqtan’s childhood became a ghost. While history serves as a backdrop to this dream narrative, Describing the Past is primarily “the story of a childhood whose domain is between the living and the dead, a coming of age story that ends as soon as it begins in desire”.
Samuel Wilder, winner of Lucius Lyon Prize for poetry translation and a doctoral candidate in Ara­bic studies at Cambridge Univer­sity, has captured the lyricism in Zaqtan’s writing with finesse.
“The question of memory in his­tory is so important for the Arab postcolonial experience, and that question is central to the novella. This is especially true for Palestin­ians and we really wanted to have a Palestinian author early on because the Palestinian experience of loss is so pervasive, especially cultur­ally, for all Arabs,” Aboul-Ela said.
Maryam: Keeper of Sto­ries (Maryam al-Hakaya) by Alawiya Sobh. Translator: Nirvana Tanoukhi.
Sobh’s acclaimed novel of the Lebanese civil war is a rare depiction of women’s experiences across class, sect and generation. Rich with everyday detail, Sobh’s work is not only an illumination of an important period at a new scale but also a unique meditation on the nature of storytelling.
In Maryam: Keeper of Stories, sto­ries struggle to survive the erasures of war and to rescue the sweetness of living and connect the tellers and their audience in sometimes welcome, sometimes maddening ways. The transformation of pain and love into art is both the subject and substance of the book, sensi­tively translated into English by US-based Nirvana Tanoukhi, a transla­tor and critic of world literature.
Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyp­tian Revolution, editors: Moham­med Albakry and Rebekah Maggor. Translators: Mohammed Albakry, Rebekah Maggor, Mona Ragab, Dahlia Sabbour, Amor Eletrebi and Jonathan Wright.
Ten Egyptian plays come togeth­er in Tahrir Tales, offering grass-roots perspectives on the jubila­tion, terror, hope and heartbreak of the uprising. Collectively, they sketch events unfolding in Egypt from the twilight of Hosni Mubarak’s regime to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ascendance to the presidency.
A comprehensive introduction situates the plays within their so­cial, political and economic con­text, while an in-depth translator’s note delves into the challenges of translating Arabic for English-speaking audiences.
Other titles in the list include Ali al-Muqri’s Black Taste, Black Scent, translated by Tanoukhi; Arwa Saleh’s The Stillborn, translated by Samah Selim; and Abdallah Saaf’s A Momentous Year, translated by David Alvarez.
These are scheduled for publica­tion in autumn 2016.
Seagull Books’ earlier English translations from the region in­clude Kamal Jann and Kite by Dominique Eddé (translated from French by Ros Schwartz); Conversa­tions with My Father, Adonis by Ni­nar Esber, (translated from French by Lorna Scott Fox) as well as Con­versations with Edward Said, edited by Tariq Ali.