Arabic · Fiction · Translation

Bottled up by Basma Abdel Aziz

‘I could wander aimlessly from one colleague’s office to another, stopping here and there for a chat, maybe a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. I’d sit back with a carefree yawn, my notebooks and files piled up in front fo me, gnawing on a pencil that splinters between my teeth. I wouldn’t bother with any correspondence or with responding to any queries, no matter how pressing. Instead I’d gaze on idly as the people wait, crushed by their exasperation. But why should I feel the need to do anything about it?’ Extract from Bottled Up, published in Index on Censorship magazine, September 2016

‘In a new short story, published here in English for the first time, a woman trapped in a glass bottle is able to see, but unable to influence, the world around her. By failing to resist, she views the women, who are concerned only with the superficial details of life, as complict in the regime. Her inspiration was a pivotal moment of understanding that “we have given away our transient victory to such a totalitarian authority and that we keep turning int he same vicious closed circle, without an end.”‘ Interview with Basma Abdel Aziz by Charlotte Bailey, in the same edition of Index on Censorship magazine, September 2016

Short story title: Bottled Up

Author: Basma Abdel Aziz

Translator: Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

First published: The Unnamed: Does anonymity need to be defended? Index on Censorship, vol 45, issue 3, September 2016

Arabic · Fiction · Translation

Tajdeed: Contemporary Arabic Stories in Translation

Long awaited, the Arabic short story special of The Common journal is now out!

‘The issue was co-edited by Jennifer Acker and Jordanian short-story writer Hisham Bustani, with an eye not just to bringing new Arabic literature into translation, but into joyous, sharp translation — with work by some of the best emerging Arabic-English translators. This collection is not for Arabists, but for English-language fictionophiles.’ (ArabLit blog)

The Common issue 11, entitled Tajdeed: Contemporary Arabic Fiction, features the work of 31 contributors from 15 Middle Eastern countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Translated for contemporary English-speaking audiences, the issue presents a diverse group of emerging and established literary stars.

The anthology is available to buy at You can also read several of the short stories online, including the one I translated – the surreal Minouche by Moroccan author Anis Arrafai – but I’d urge you to buy a copy of this stunning publication. One to treasure.

Arabic · Fiction · German · non-fiction · Russian · Translation

Shortlisted for an Arts Foundation fellowship 2016

My head is still reeling after attending one of the most exciting arts events I’ve ever been invited to. There were children’s theatre entrepreneurs, people who stage symphonies in unusual locations, innovative jewellery designers and the creator of the world’s first sustainable fabric made from pineapple leaves, Pinatex. A truly inspiring celebration of young people in the arts. And not only was I wined and fed with delicious canapés, I came home with a cheque for £1000, as a shortlisted candidate for the Arts Foundation 2016 fellowship in literary translation. I’m delighted that the fellowship was awarded to, IMHO, the most deserving of the 5 of us on the shortlist, the amazing Deborah Smith: scholar of Korean literature, award-winning translator and founder of the radical publishing house Tilted Axis Press. Thank you to the Arts Foundation and to Alexandra who nominated me.

Arabic · non-fiction

The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria

By: Samar Yazbek
Translated by: Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Published: Rider Books 2015
‘The Crossing is not simply reportage or political analysis. It bears comparison with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a work of literature. Yazbek is a superb narrator who knows how to pace her text, craft dialogue and convey a universal sense of grief; this is how she crosses the line from journalism to high literary art.
Although it is probably not be what she intended, it may be that Samar Yazbek has written one of the first political classics of the 21st century.’
Andrew Hussey, The Observer
Michael Palin
‘It was insanely dangerous: a friend told Yazbek she was “showing off”, but there is little bravado in The Crossing.’
Margarette Driscoll, The Sunday Times
More reviews in The EconomistThe Financial Times, The Irish TimesThe Daily Mail and The Sunday Times; interviews with Samar Yazbek about The Crossing in World Literature Today, Qantara and Middle East Monitor
Published extracts

‘The barbed wire mauled my back as I crawled between the two countries. Then I ran…’ The Observer, June 2015

Arabic · Fiction · Translation

The Bride of Amman by Fadi Zaghmout

The Bride of Amman, a huge and controversial bestseller when first published in Arabic, takes a sharp-eyed look at the intersecting lives of four women and one gay man in Jordan’s historic capital, Amman-a city deeply imbued with its nation’s traditions and taboos.

When Rana finds herself not only falling for a man of the wrong faith, but also getting into trouble with him, where can they go to escape? Can Hayat’s secret liaisons really suppress the memories of her abusive father? When Ali is pressured by society’s homophobia into a fake heterosexual marriage, how long can he maintain the illusion? And when spinsterhood and divorce spell social catastrophe, is living a lie truly the best option for Leila? What must she do to avoid reaching her ‘expiry date’ at the age thirty like her sister Salma, Jordan’s secret blogger and a self-confessed spinster with a plot up her sleeve to defy her city’s prejudices?

These five young lives come together and come apart in ways that are distinctly modern yet as unique and timeless as Amman itself.

Title: The Bride of Amman

Author: Fadi Zaghmout

Translated by: Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp from Arabic (original title: عروس عمان)

Published by: Signal 8 Press (21 July 2015)

November 2015 launch tour

Fadi Zaghmout and I had a busy, exhausting but exhilerating week in November, touring the south of England to launch The Bride of Amman. We had such a great time and I’m very proud especially of our conversation with students at the Middle East Centre at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, our radio interview with Ivan Jackson on Bristol Community FM’s ShoutOut show, and our packed launch event with Brian Whitaker at Gay’s the Word – probably the world’s first Arabic book launch in an LGBTQ bookshop? Huge thanks to Brian for his support and to everyone who came along, tweeted and shared their #bookface selfies on Pinterest! Fadi shared a very thorough write-up of the week on his blog, The Arab Observer.
More about The Bride of Amman:
Arabic · Teaching

Arabic: more accessible than you think (British Council blog)

“It is the rather stiff-sounding fus-ha, aka Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), that is the starting point for most students of Arabic as a foreign language. You need it to develop academically, to read, to write and to use a dictionary. But if you want to speak Arabic on holiday or do business beyond simple pleasantries, you also need to learn a local dialect. If you try speaking fusha in the souq, unless you can throw in the odd bit of colloquial Arabic to pitch yourself at the right register, you risk coming across as the old Etonian spy in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in Greece, who tries chatting to the locals in Ancient Greek. Your haggling will get you a much better bargain, and probably make you a friend for life, if you can show that you’ve tried to learn at least a smattering of the local lingo.”

I had a lot of fun writing this article for the British Council blog about why it’s really worth having a go at learning Arabic. It might turn out to be easier than you imagined. More likely, it’s much harder than you imagined, but once you get started you might just get hooked.

Arabic: more accessible than you think, by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

The other articles in the series are also worth a read:

Arabic · Teaching

Al-Birka: a new beginners’ Arabic textbook

This was a very enjoyable editing job which combined my proofreading pedantry with my experience as an Arabic teacher. I was the editor of the English edition of a new textbook for beginner learners of Arabic, Al-Birka A1-, Introduction to Arabic letters. It has been published alongside the original Spanish-language edition by Arabic textbook specialists Albujayra. Focused exclusively on the basics of Arabic script, it’s a welcome addition to the market and is a very user-friendly and attractive text.

Title: Al-birka A1-, Introduction to Arabic letters

Authors: J. David Aguilar Cobos, Alejandro García Castillo, Sergio Palas Sánchez

English language editor: Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Published by: Editorial Albujayra, 25 Sep 2014