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MEMO recognises Palestinian literature

Middle East Monitor organised an evening with four of the seven shortlisted authors for the 2015 Palestine Book Awards last night at the P21 Gallery in London. An annual project now in its fourth year, the MEMO Palestine Book Awards seeks to highlight and honour the best books written in English about Palestine by authors from across the world and from both the fiction and non-fiction genres.

“There is no doubt that the Palestine Book Awards has become an essential feature of not only MEMO’s annual calendar, but also the cultural calendar of London,” Dr Daud Abdullah, MEMO director, asserted. With an unprecedented 45 submissions this year, Abdullah said the project opens up huge avenues for Palestinian writers to showcase their work and also to generate interest amongst publishers.

The evening’s opening remarks were given by author and journalist, Victoria Brittain, followed by a panel discussion chaired by Professor Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford. The panel included shortlisted authors Elias Sanbar, Hatim Kanaaneh, Ahmed Masoud and Leila Abdelrazaq.

“Forty-five books were submitted, covering everything from cuisine to the graphic novel and everything in between. The diversity of the shortlist is itself quite spectacular,” Rogan said. “The thing that really strikes me is that regardless of whatever we are looking at – memoirs, photographs, diaries, histories – we are dealing with works that are of the very highest calibre.”

The authors spoke about their motives and visited the different themes permeating such a wide-ranging collection of works. Each one of them went on to depict, in their own words and through the prism of their characters, photographs and commentaries, the image of Palestine and of Palestinian life that they felt was important to bring to light. It was evident that aspects of those depictions and themes often overlapped, and parts of the Palestinian life were touched upon by the authors, powerfully consolidating the essence of their unique experiences.

The complete shortlist comprises:

Baddawi – Leila Abdelrazaq, published by Just World Books
What began as a web comic project visualising the childhood stories of Leila Abdelrazaq’s father growing up in the Baddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon turned into an exceptional graphic novel, sharing slices of Palestinian life in the camp. As many of these stories were “common in most Palestinian households,” the personal story of Abdelrazaq’s father reflects the persistence and defiance of Palestinian refugees in the face of adversities.

Chief Complaint – Hatim Kanaaneh, published by Just World Books

As a physician in the village of Arrabeh in the Galilee, Dr Hatim Kanaaneh chronicles the lives of his patients in a fictionalised collection of vignettes, painting a picture of what it has been like for Israeli Arabs and their “will to endure and thrive in the face of oppression”.

Gaza: A History – Jean-Pierre Filiu, published by Hurst Publishers

A history of the struggle to control Gaza, from the mid-19th century to the present day, considered the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language.

Jerusalem Interrupted – Lena Jayyusi, published by Olive Branch Press

A volume of essays, which follow the history of Jerusalem from the Mandate period through its transformation into a largely Jewish city.

The Drone Eats With Me – Atef Abu Saif, published by Comma Press

A personal diary in which Atef Abu Saif chronicles the 51-day Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, meticulously describing his experiences as a young father, fearing for his family’s safety.

The Palestinians – Elias Sanbar, published by Yale University Press

A collection of photos of Palestine and its people from 1939 to the present day, complemented with commentary by Elias Sanbar and at times juxtaposing images taken by foreign and Palestinian photographers in order to reflect the dichotomy of the portrayals put forward by each, and to point out preconceived notions of Palestine and its people.

Vanished – Ahmed Masoud, published by Rimal Publications

Set against the conflict in Palestine, Vanished is a fictional mystery thriller, wherein a young boy, Omar, tries to find his father and has his loyalty to his country and family tested along the way.

Paul Scott, who attended the event at P21 Gallery, said he was very impressed with the authors. “They were all very clear and very insightful, and there was nobody in there that was fully academic, or abstruse. They certainly deserve a very wide audience and I am very pleased I came today.”

Dr Hatim Kanaaneh, the shortlisted author of “Chief Complaint”, said the evening was one of the best book events he had participated in. “Although we were talking about several books and not about mine alone, my interest in this group of authors is such that I value this more than a lot of things that I did elsewhere.”

“No one has any illusions that books are going to satisfy Palestinian aspirations, but they are clearly a very important vehicle for getting the message out and I think all of our authors are committed to that,” Rogan reiterated. “We had a really fruitful exchange about what it means to be a Palestinian writer, how one carries the Palestinian narrative to the rest of the world, and where we go from here.”

The winners of the 2015 Palestine Book Awards will be revealed at the awards evening tonight to be held at the London Hilton.

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