Exploring the World of Modern Arab Literature: Interview with Margaret Obank, Editor of Banipal
by anna battista
Once upon a time in Assyria there was a king, Ashurbanipal, who was a patron of the arts: he sent his scribes around the country and ordered them to bring back tablets of the different languages that were used across it. He then brought them all into a library that became the first organised library in the ancient Middle East. The tablets featured Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian writings and included the famous Mesopotamian epics of the Creation, the Flood, and Gilgamesh, but also folk tales, fables, proverbs, prayers and so on.
Fast forward to our times: part of Ashurbanipal’s Library is in the British Museum, another part in Iraq, yet the heritage of this scholar king is not exclusively stored in museums, his inspirations and passion for literature have been indeed adopted by a magazine. Founded in 1998 by Margaret Obank and Iraqi author Samuel Shimon, London-based Banipal, published three times a year, is the first magazine in English dedicated to modern authors from all over the Arab world. The magazine features new and established authors through poems, short stories or excerpts of novels, author interviews, profiles and a series on authors writing about their literary influences.
“Banipal is a name that encompasses the past, the present and the different languages people write in,” Margaret Obank, Banipal’s editor, states, “I had the idea to start the magazine since I always had friends coming from all over the Arab world, and I had learnt Arabic at a certain level, though I wasn’t really able to read literature in Arabic, I used to just reading it in translation and I loved the poetry. Then I married an Iraqi author and I discovered all his friends and acquaintances were authors and poets from all over the Arab world. When I went to see if any of them were published in translation, I realised they weren’t since they were very modern authors. Both my husband and I worked in publishing, so we just decided to start a magazine. We searched quite a while for a name, then we realised what we were doing was very similar to what Ashurbanipal had done, only we were collecting writings from the modern Arab world.”
Each issue of Banipal contains extracts from authors coming from very different parts of the Arab world, such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia, but it must be underlined that the magazine is not aimed at an audience of academics, it is basically for readers who love world literatures, or who want to know more about other cultures, “The magazine is highly readable,” Obank says, “as we concentrate on the actual writings themselves. Most of the magazine is translated writings with profiles and we also have a literary influences column or feature in which Arab authors tell the reader how they got into writing and who were the writers who inspired them.”
The magazine has gone through some changes throughout the years, such as its size that was reduced from an A4 to a smaller size to allow readers to comfortably store the volumes on bookshelves, yet there is one thing that hasn’t changed and that’s the quality of the writings featured in its pages. Banipal now enjoys an excellent reputation: Issue 21, featuring works by Saadi Youssef, Mahmoud Shukair, Mohammed Al-Harthi, Rabia’a al-Ossaimi, Ahmed El-Madini, Ibrahim Saadi, Ali Bader and Aziz Azrhai among the others, plus an extensive feature on the novel in Saudi Arabia and book reviews, celebrated seven years of publishing. For the occasion the magazine included feedback from authors, translators, literary critics and linguists: Fadhil al-Azzawi stated that what Banipal has achieved with its issues is “more important than all the work of all the Arab ministries of culture, which have almost completely failed to do anything for Arab culture.” While Saadi Youssef added, “Arab contemporary literature was suffocating, decades ago. With Banipal, we are a resistance movement!” “We asked people we knew ‘can you just tell us something about what the role of Banipal is?’ and the response was simply overwhelming,” Obank claims, “we have such fantastic support from editors in the Arab world, but also from translators based in the UK, the US or the rest of Europe. Up to now we have published about 360 different Arab authors in a total of nearly 500, and we are still going since we never have a lack of authors to publish.”
One of the things Margaret Obank loves most about literature from the Arab world is the style of novels or short stories. “The style is very modern: the novels go into history, then into the past and come back,“ she explains, “some of the short stories are very sharp and cutting, some others are very angry and emotional. You can get somebody such as Mohamed Zefzaf from Morocco or Hassouna Mosbahi from Tunisia: both write about their childhood, their families, growing up, poverty or the troubles they went through, and their tales are fascinating. Often the stories are tales of difficulties and problems which reflect the society the authors are coming from: indeed, often many authors have struggled to get where they are. I think these features are quite attractive and I think many people read Banipal because they like to read about what is going on in the various countries of the Arab world.”
There is a difficult aspect though in directing Banipal, and that’s the lack of funding: it is difficult for a literary magazine to break even financially some sales, especially when there is also the cost and time for translation and copy editing involved, as it is the case with this magazine. Yet Banipal keeps on going, also thanks to its vital mission, “We’re always trying to break through stereotypes, as there’s so much ignorance in the West about contemporary Arab feelings and emotions. What we know, what we hear through the media is politics or economics, so the knowledge of the Arab world is this or we simply see it as a place for terrorists and war or for holidays and tourism. It is therefore difficult to imagine for many of us that there is an ordinary life for the people living over there. We recently did a three part series feature on Iraqi authors because we thought that the media are focusing so much on the war and not enough on the vast number of Iraqi intellectuals out there, some of whom stayed in Iraq and wrote for years but had to keep their writings hidden away because of Saddam Hussein, some others who had to flee their country and now leave abroad yet are keeping on writing. We wanted to give them a platform to show people that there is a vast amount of literature in Iraq. We try to be pro-active and bring up the issue of literature, but we don’t really try to interpret the current situation through literature. We reflect the current situation in the literary scene in the Arab world, but we don’t pick and choose particular authors because they say a particular thing, we take what is there. We founded Banipal because we wanted to state that the literature from the Arab world is an essential part of human culture and human civilisation and we wanted to increase the literary dialogue, we wanted people to just enjoy great poetry and writing.”
Apart from directing Banipal, Margaret Obank also directs the publishing house connected to the magazine, Banipal Books, that published in 2005 Samuel Shimon’s An Iraqi in Paris and the anthology Sardines and Oranges, Short Stories from North Africa. Shimon’s novel was the first novel by an Iraqi contemporary author published in English, and now Banipal Books is planning to publish a book of short stories from Iraq, but also a series of small poetry books by some of the poets who aren’t yet translated into English, such as Lebanese poets Abbas Beydhoun and Inaya Jaber. Another project Obank is working on at present is establishing a translation prize for Arabic contemporary literature translated and published in English. In the meantime, she’s also busy working on the next Banipal tour, follow-up to last year’s first-ever tour of Arab authors that featured Saadi Youssef, Hoda Barakat, Mourid Barghouti and Samuel Shimon. ”It was a great tour,“ Obank states, “and it showed that people don’t usually have the opportunity to meet Arab author and, when they do, there is so much sympathy and understanding between the audience and the authors.”
Banipal and Banipal Books are the voices (in English translation) of Arab authors, but they are also a way to learn more about the Arab world and to build, in the same way as Ashurbanipal, a beautiful library and to store, directly on your bookshelves, an essential source of culture.