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Salt Houses Review: Making Magic out of Exile

Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been woman-crushing on psychologist, poet and writer Hala Alyan for years now. So I was especially pleased to see the Palestinian-American’s debut novel, Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2017), receive heaps of well-deserved praise from everyone including the LA Review of Books to the National.

The book has garnered so much attention in literary circles, it’s even made it on to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s summer reading list. (Note that I’ve also interviewed Alyan about her book for Al Jazeera English. The Q&A, which I was ridiculously thrilled to put together, is due for publication later this monthwatch this space).

At its core, Salt Houses is a family drama about the multigenerational-trauma triggered by displacement. The novel, which starts in Nablus with the Six-Day War of 1967 and ends in Beirut with the Lebanon War of 2006, tells the story of the Palestinian diaspora through one well-to-do family, the Yacoubs.

Salt Houses takes us on multiple journeys with eight members of the family as Alyan expertly shifts generations and voice with each chapter. We move with the Yacoubs from Kuwait City and Amman to Boston and beyond, experiencing the intricacies of the aftermath of forced (or self-imposed) exile. Continue reading

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UK Elects First MP of Palestinian Descent, Layla Moran

Credit: LibDem Website


There’s much to be pleased about regarding the results of yesterday’s snap election in the UK: the vindication of Jeremy Corbyn, the humiliation of a particularly smug conservative party under Theresa May and the crushing defeat of UKIP.

 

But in all of the ruckus came this important moment: the election of the UK’s first MP of Palestinian descent, Layla Moran. (The fact that the MP is a woman is even more reason to celebrate.) Moran, at just 34, stole the Oxford West and Abingdon seat from the Tories with a swing of about 15 percent.

 

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50 Books by Arab & Muslim Writers to Read This Year

Artwork by Etel Adnan


Earlier this month, I stumbled upon this fantastic, comprehensive list of recently published books by authors and poets of Arab, Middle Eastern and/or Muslim descent put together by Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar (originally posted on Facebook).

Akbar, whose poetry was published in the New Yorker’s special fiction issue, very graciously said I could repost the brilliant list here.

I’d like to think this compilation signals a new nahda in Arab & Muslim writing, with, as a friend recently put, Hisham Matar sitting up top (I tend to agree as I’m biased on Matar & his Pulitzer-prize winning book, THE RETURN.) Continue reading

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Eshtebak (Clash) Film Review on 7iber

JFYI I wrote this review of “Eshtebak” (Clash) for 7iber. (Originally published here on May 6). TL;DR: Watch this film immediately.


In August 2013, Egyptian security forces raided a sit-in camp in Cairo filled with hundreds of protesters supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi. According to Human Rights Watch, the ensuing clashes between the army and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood at Raba’a Square left at least 817 civilians dead.

It’s near-impossible to imagine — let alone depict — the chaos and hatred that must have permeated the air in the weeks that led up to that horrific massacre. And yet, Mohamed Diab, the talented director of “Eshtebak” (“Clash”), somehow manages to do just that, in a superb 97-minute film that’s expertly shot in and from one location: the back of a run-down police van.

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Mirna

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It’s been two years to the day since Mirna passed away.

I was reminded of this painful reality by Facebook’s “On this Day” feature. A sad sign of the times, perhaps, to be reminded of the death of a dear friend by social media. But also an apt one, as I sometimes find myself visiting Mirna’s Facebook profile when I miss her dearly and scramble for memories of the last few times we interacted — both online and in real life.

I do, of course, have Whatsapps, text messages, emails and Instagram likes and comments to remember her by. I have viewed and re-read them countless times over the past 24 months. In each message, post and comment I find an additional sign of her determination to overcome brain cancer — a disease she never gave in to, even though it ultimately claimed her life.

At various points in our friendship, I wasn’t there for Mirna in the way that I should or could have been. The texts also remind me of my shortcomings in that respect. The guilt associated with those shortcomings is something I still struggle to contend with: I could have been more present, more communicative, more supportive. At the same time, Mirna was forgiving and loving and warm, without fail, whenever we communicated or saw each other.

***
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Man of the Orchard


Update: Since I wrote this piece in February, Sukoon, an Arab literary magazine, kindly republished it here. I was also asked to turn the tribute into the below podcast for Black River Press. With thanks to both Rewa and Themba. 

I  first met jeddo (grandpa) in August 1987. I was just three years old, but I have this distinct memory of him hurriedly running down the driveway of his humble orchard-home in Zahrani, barefoot, in the pouring rain, to embrace my mother. He hadn’t seen her since just before the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982; they’d barely communicated in the interim. Tears were streaming down his face as he held her.

Osman “Abu Nasser” Antar was born to Zahra and Mahmoud in Sidon in 1929. He was the fifth of eight other siblings — one sister, and seven brothers. His father was a trader and a landowner who worked between Palestine and South Lebanon; he managed his finances poorly.

When jeddo was barely 11, my great-grandfather unexpectedly passed away, leaving the family of ten with very little to survive on. My grandpa was consequently forced to leave school to provide for himself, his younger siblings, and his mother. Continue reading

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FLOW CHART: How to Respond to a Terrorist Attack


By Zahra Hankir and ND*

There are so many terrorist (or kind-of-terrorist-) attacks out there these days, that it’s hard to keep track.

While we understand terrorism is certainly no laughing matter, we thought we’d put together a flow chart  to help you figure out how to respond to such attacks during these dark times.

Are you a Facebook user? A moderate Muslim? A western media organisation? Vladimir Putin? Or even David Cameron?

Florence of Arabia has got you covered.

(Click on the image to enlarge).

terrorism


* ND is a London-based ultimate frisbee player, flow-chart expert and journalist. She’s also a White Westerner. 

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Mashrou’ Leila Disrupts Narrative on Muslim Women in Stunning New Video

 


Mashrou’ Leila’s latest video, Roman, will offend many.

It features dozens of hijabi women who don’t appear to be oppressed. One of these mesmerising women dances her way through a dilapidated building without the faintest care in the world. There’s nothing exotic or erotic about her dancing: the choreography consists of an amalgam of moves that can only be described as beautifully erratic, and the woman is dressed in a flowy, figure-concealing ‘abaya.

Crucially, there’s no Western gaze on the women. They’re busy peering at themselves, and momentarily, at the (male) members of the Lebanese band. And while some of the women may appear passive, by the end of the video we learn that what they’re actually doing is mobilising (possibly against a deeply-entrenched patriarchy in the Arab world). The oppressive landscape, the band said in a Facebook post when it released the video on Tuesday, is actually a “fertile ground from which resistance can be weaponised.”

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The Jihadi Who Found Jesus, Lebanese Calligraffiti & Palestinian Hunger Strikes: Mideast Media Recs

The Flower Salesman. Pic courtesy of Yazan Halwani

Non-fake news stories on Muslims and the Middle East from around the web, curated by Florence of Arabia

The Economist‘s 1843 magazine ran a wonderful piece on Calligraffiti in the Arab world, featuring the works of French/Tunisian street artist eL Seed and Lebanon’s Yazan Halwani

Patrick Kingsley, now at the New York Times after leaving the Guardian, wrote this staggering Saturday profile on a jihadi who apparently found Jesus

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The Guardian Temporarily ‘Removes’ Story on Palestinian Music Festival


** Updates to reflect that the Guardian has republished the article with editorial changes

The Guardian temporarily pulled a story on a historic expo featuring “trip-hop” and other artists in Palestine without explanation, saying it was “pending review.” The article was off the site for more than 12 hours and then put back up after being heavily edited. The edits, which I run through below, were quite clearly intended to tone down the language of the initial piece.

The newspaper notes the following at the bottom of the revised article:

This article was taken down for review on 12 April 2017, amended to correct and clarify details and republished on 13 April 2017.

Before the story was republished, I asked for an explanation on Twitter, but obviously received no response. The piece is authored by Tom Horan, a fantastic freelance journalist and culture critic who writes the occasional music story for the newspaper. (I reached out to Horan via email and didn’t hear back from him.)

I find the temporary ‘removal’ of the article fascinating on a number of levels, mostly because that sort of move couldn’t have just been a response to an army of trolls. From a journalistic perspective, an editorial decision like this never comes lightly. Continue reading

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Hisham Matar Takes Home Pulitzer for ‘the Return’


YES. The inimitable Hisham Matar just nabbed the Pulitzer Prize in Biography or Autobiography for his exquisite book, the Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Random House).

The writer beat out some tough competition from Susan Faludi for In the Darkroom and the late Paul Kalanithi for When Breath Becomes Air.

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Me and the Muslim Ban

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Not actually me


TL;DR: Not a serious post. Just a short, silly brush with U.S. passport control (first shared on Facebook) that perfectly marries my clumsiness and paranoia.


Finally made it to U.S. passport control in San Francisco after an 11-hour flight. I was feeling frazzled, and particularly nervous, considering the obvious.

As I approached the desk, I started formulating things to say to the customs agent in my head, just in case he decided to ask me any questions.

(‘….Yes, I was born Muslim, but I really don’t like ISIS. Yes, I’m originally from a Muslim-majority country, but it’s not one of *those* Muslim-majority countries. No, I haven‘t visited any of *those* countries in the past six years. Yes, my official name is Fatima al-Zahra, but my Western friends call me Zahra. Yes, yes, like the clothing store! Oh, I work for Facebook. That’s why I’m here. Yes, Fake News is SAD’). Continue reading

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