Fiction · German · Translation

Apple Cake and Baklava

I’m currently working on what might be my dream book project, and it’s definitely one you’re going to hear me go on about a lot. Apple Cake and Baklava, by Kathrin Rohmann, is a novel for late primary kids and early secondary, dealing with asylum, how it feels to be a refugee, parallels between WWII and Syria, grandmas, recipes, a lost walnut that means the world and a budding friendship between Max and Leila. I love this book and can’t wait to see it in UK schools and libraries from summer 2018. I’m even already planning a German-Syrian-English baking class at a local cafe for a Gloucestershire launch event!

My translation will be published by Darf Publishers in 2018, with support for the translation costs from the Goethe Institut, UK. There are more details about the book here on the New Books in German website.

‘Apple Cake and Baklava is a story about otherness, openness and the willingness to come to know one another. Many children will be aware of the latest surge of refugees and their plight. Leila’s is a sadly universal and timeless story of leaving behind a home country forever. While set in rural Northern Germany, it could equally take place in most European countries.

This is an absorbing book for older primary and younger middle-school children, and Franziska Harvey’s lovely black-and-white illustrations – some small, some full page – enrich the story.’ (New Books in German)

Fiction · German

Sacrifice – a German crime thriller

I’m reading a lot of crime fiction but this book stands out among them all. The narration is so rich that even when the novel is at is most gruesome I did not dare put it down. I just learned Hanna Winter has 5 other novels published in German and can’t wait until they are all translated as well!” Amazon review

“It will be interesting to see where this series goes. Lena shows great deal of potential as a character and I love the setting of Berlin. I was drawn to her and her side kick. This is definitely worth a read, if you are in the mood for a serial killer thriller. Amazon review

Title: Sacrifice

Author: Hanna Winter

Translator: Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Publisher: Manilla Books (Bonnier Zaffre)

Publication date: e-book 30 June 2016, paperback 17 November 2016

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 · 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 · Fiction

The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer

the shell Review of Al-Qawqa’a (The Shell), by Mustafa Khalifa

Spoiler alert: this report contains a detailed outline of the plot. The is one of three Syrian books being considered for translation by the And Other Stories Arabic reading group and this is my case for why it should indeed be translated!

Update, summer 2015: my extracts of this book were published in The Massachusetts Review vol 55, issue 4, and my tireless efforts to pitch this book to an English-language publisher were not in vain! The translation rights have been bought by a US publisher, but sadly due to financial and time constraints I was unable to take on the commission to translate it. Here’s looking forward to what I hope will be a strong translation of an important historical book which sets the context for the dreadful war in Syria.

This compelling memoir takes the form of the diary of a Syrian prisoner of conscience, locked up for 14 years without trial in one of the Middle East’s most notorious jails. There are conflicting reports about whether it is indeed fiction or autobiography, but as far as I understand it is a semi-fictionalised account based on the Khalifa’s real life experience of being imprisoned for unsubstantiated political offences from 1982 to 1994 under the previous president, Hafez al-Assad. The narrator, Musa, composes the diary in his head while in prison and only writes it down upon his release, embellishing it with only the occasional retrospective comment.

Musa returns to Damascus for the first time after several years studying film in Paris and is arrested at the airport. He is accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a charge he denies – after all, he’s Christian and an atheist, an admission for which he is severely beaten, ironically, by his interrogators. Making the same mistake in the first prison where he is held, where up to 80 men are crammed into an unimaginably small cell, he is shunned by fellow inmates, mainly MB hardliners, as an apostate and presumed government spy, a curse which will remain with him throughout his many years in jail. (See first extract, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.)

He’s transferred to the infamous Tadmur high security prison in the desert, where he languishes for over a decade without charge. Trials, or military tribunals, are held in an office on site but the verdict seems always to be guilty and the sentence is death by hanging. Not that an inmate needs to be tried to face arbitrary death at the hands of the bloodthirsty wardens. No one is ever acquitted or seems to leave the prison alive. Arriving at the prison, he and the other new inmates are severely beaten and humiliated, including being made to drink from the cesspit. Musa nearly dies from injuries inflicted in this initiation ‘reception’ ceremony and indeed the body count is high. (See the 2nd extract, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.)

Musa spends years on end in a huge dormitory, where 300 men are crammed into beds just 25 cm apart. The only movement is to the latrines at the end of the room and into the yard outside every few days for a ‘breather’ – a humiliating parade which regularly involves torture and beatings. On New Year’s Eve, for example, they are made to stand naked in the freezing cold until many perish.

Treated as a pariah, Musa endures literally years without speaking or being spoken to, without making eye contact with any of the men around him. Instead, he becomes a detached observer and listener, documenting the other men’s lives and relationships, hearing news from other prison cells communicated by Morse code tapped out on the walls, and learning to memorise the Quran and Hadith from hearing the words recited so often by his fellow inmates. Without pen or paper, he hones the skill of committing his diary to memory and records minute details of their surreal life, inspired by the other inmates who actively keep a mental record of the unspeakable goings on within the prison, to honour the memory of those who are killed there.

His ‘voyeurism’ reaches another level when he discovers a hole one day in the wall looking on to the courtyard outside. Taking cue from a mentally disturbed prisoner who sits for hours on end huddled beneath his blanket, Musa starts to do the same, secretly watching the suffering inflicted on prisoners in the yard and the regular executions.

The text does, of course, contain horrendous and shocking violence, but mercifully such episodes do not overload the narrative and are all the more powerful for their infrequency. (Or perhaps it just seemed that way to me, as I fully expected the book to be page after page of hideous torture.) The narrator establishes a background of fear and pain, but stoically focuses on other details of life between those walls: the bitter cold, the unbearable heat and dust in the summer sandstorms, starvation, outbreaks of highly infectious diseases, visits paid for with bribes at astonishingly high prices (kilos of gold), disputes and vendetta killings…

The style of narration is simple and concise, but not without emotional reflection, and perhaps the most compelling aspect of the narrative is the psychological depth to the characters – something that is achieved in a film-like way through minimal description. We are drawn ever deeper into Musa’s complex psychology as well as that of the inmates and the jailors, as Musa reflects on the relationships around him and the shifting tensions. He himself, very gradually, develops relationships and starts to emerge from his shell. Inevitably, he comes to identify with the institutionalised prisoner community, a mental state of being from which he will probably never be able to extricate himself, a trauma from which a survivor of such an ordeal can perhaps never fully recover.

Things do gradually improve for Musa after several years when he offers his watch to be fashioned into a scalpel for an operation, performed in secret, on an inmate left to die of appendicitis by the prison authorities. (See the 3rd extract, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.) Still, no one speaks to him, but he is at least treated with a little more warmth. The real turning point comes when a new intake of prisoners includes a group of Islamic extremists and Musa’s life is again at risk: moderates among the prisoners intervene to protect him. Vicious fights break out, but in a dramatic showdown, Musa finally breaks his decade-long silence and speaks out publicly in defence of his personal choice to have or not to have a faith. His bravery and honesty open up new friendships as a small group of liberal doctors begin to speak to him and when he shares the secret of the spyhole he gains more trust, especially that of the representative among the inmates, the ‘barracks chief’, Abu Hussein.

If you would like to read more of my synopsis of the book and read how it ends, please download my full report here.

For all its stark, documentary-style narration, this is a deeply moving psychological story of a noble attempt at personal resistance, and yet an eventual crushing defeat at the hands of a brutal impersonal power. It is a forceful indictment of the Assad regime in Syria, but stands equally strongly as a universal rallying cry for justice and freedom from political persecution and arbitrary military rule. Incidentally, Tadmur Prison was closed in 2001 but reopened in 2011.

The book is something of a symbol of the Syrian opposition in the current bloody civil war and is the focus of many Facebook groups and online discussions aimed at exposing acts of violence and brutality committed by the state. With its political impact and its universal literary beauty, it is not an exaggeration to call it the work of a modern-day Solzhenitsyn. With the recent publication of extensive photographic evidence of horrendous killings in Syrian prisons, this book provides an essential perspective on the tragedy the Syrian people are living through.

The author, Mustafa Khalifa, lives in exile from Syria. Besides writing The Shell, he is an eloquent and insightful political commentator on the situation in his native country. (See his 2012 editorial ‘What if Bashar Assad Wins?’) The book has been translated into French as La Coquille and I believe it would find an avid readership if translated into English. The publisher of the original Arabic is Dar al-Adab, Beirut.