Susannah Tarbush reviews my recent publication Memories for the latest
issue of BANIPAL magazine. You can read the full review below…
Memories: The charms and follies of a lifetime’s publishing by Naim Attallah
Quartet Books, London,
PbK, 278, £15.00
“ Hallowed be thy Naim ”
The Palestine-born publisher and businessman Naim Attallah, long-time chairman of Quartet Books, has had an extraordinary career since arriving in Britain in 1948 from Haifa, where he was born in 1931. In his early years in the UK he worked as a fitter in an electrical components factory, a steeplejack, a hospital porter and a nightclub bouncer.
He then entered the world of banking and business and prospered. In 1976 he bought Quartet Books from its founders. Later,he added feminist publisher The Women’s Press to his Namara Group. He also expanded into magazine publishing, owning Literary Review, The Oldie and the jazz and contemporary music magazine The Wire.
His talents as a cultural entrepreneur took him into film, theatre and TV production. In addition, he was for some years the chief executive of Asprey, the luxury goods business based around the iconic Bond Street store.
Attallah became known as one of the most colourful characters on the British publishing and literary scene, known for his lavish publishing parties, and the succession of beautiful young women, widely known as ‘Naim’s harem’, who worked at Quartet and in other parts of his empire headquartered at 27/29 Goodge Street, in the Fitzrovia area of central London.
Attallah’s publishing parties were star- studded extravagant affairs.
When he decided to become a perfumier in 1985, the party to launch his perfumes Avant l’Amour and Après l’Amour featured girls from Quartet in rubber dresses.
In the mid-1980s, Attallah started writing books based on extensive interviews, with the 1115 – page tome Women – for which he interviewed around 300 women – appearing in 1987. This was followed by Singular Encounters for which he interviewed some 25 men.
In all, Attallah has 17 books to his name.They include four volumes of autobiography, starting with the charming novella The Old Ladies of Nazareth (2004), followed by The Boy in England (2005), In Touch with his Roots (2006) and Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975-95 (2007). On top of his published books,he is an avid blogger through his lively blog Naim Attallah Online.
Attallah has succeeded in keeping Quartet Books as an independent publisher of notable titles at a time when conglomerates have gobbled up many other publishers. His lifetime of achievement received official recognition when he was made a CBE ( Commander of The Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire) in the 2017 New Year Honour List, for services to literature and the arts.
Now,as Attallah approaches his ninth decade, Quartet has published his new book Memories: The charms and follies of a lifetime’s publishing. Attallah writes in the foreword: “ What follows is a pot-pourri of vignettes selected from those books and blogs which convey the varied and many moments in my life which both amuse and console in my old age. Hopefully they may also amuse and interest my readers.”
The pages of Memories teem with personalities from Attallah’s life -friends, authors,interviewees and the occasional adversary. He was particularly close to the gifted and notorious comic writer Auberon Waugh, whom he appointed as editor of the Literary Review in 1986. In 1993, the magazine launched the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the worst description of a sex scene in a novel.
Attallah was hit hard by the death Waugh in 2001 at the age of 61. Last year Quartet published, to critical acclaim, A Scribbler in Soho: A Celebration of Auberon Waugh, edited by Attallah.
Memories includes reminiscences of Attallah by people who worked for him, including former members of his ‘harem’, many whom have become prominent in the fields of literature, journalism and academia. Among them is the Syrian scholar and author Rana Kabbani who was headhunted by Attallah after he heard of her abilities and beauty. She amusingly describes like in the Goodge Street offices: “ The buildings were Dickensian in their ramshackle mess; everyone working there looked like a character from a novel – lush,mad,exotic and highly strung, with a hilarious sense of humour.”
In section of Memories headed “ Why I publish what I publish”, Attallah writes: “ One of my initial objectives in becoming a publisher was to publish books of Middle Eastern interest, covering not only the Palestinian conflict and the suffering of the Palestinian people – which we did comprehensively – but also promote Arab culture that had been so long ignored in the West.
“ While Zelfa Hourani took charge of the Arab fiction list and developed it to great effect, I reminded in direct control of what we published under the headings of non-fiction and politics.”
Quartet became a pioneer in the publication of works of fiction by Arab writers in English translation, many of which have been reviewed or excerpted in Banipal. In the second issue, published in June 1998, editor Margaret Obank interviewed Zelfa Hounari. The headline was “ Short stories by men a kiss of death”, reflecting Hourani’s observation that it was mainly women who were being published “ because that is what the market wants at this moment”, particularly in the US.
Quartet’s Arab authors include Hanan al- Shaykh, Fadia Faquir, Edward al- Kharrat, Amin Maalouf, Ahmed Fagih,,Aicha Lemsine, Leila Marouane, Latifa al-Zayyat, Zakaria Tamer, Rashid al-Daif, Jad El Hage, Sabiha al-Khemir, Khalid Kishtainy and Riad Nourallah.
Attalah was courageous in publishing books related to Palestine at a time when the Palestine- Israel issue was little understood in the UK. The book The Palestinians by the distinguished journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, published by Quartet in 1979, has pictures by ace war photographer Don McCullin. It gave an all-too-rare human dimension to the Palestinians and their predicament.
Memories opens with Attallah’s eulogy for the fascinating Princess Dina Abdul-Hamid. who died last August aged 91. Princess Dina was briefly married to King Hussein of Jordan. Her second husband was PLO spokesman Asad Sulayman Abd al-Qadir, known by the nom de guerre Salah Ta’ amari. He was captured during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and her attempts to free him opened the way for the release of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese in exchange for six captured Israeli soldiers. She recorded the saga in her book Duet for Freedom (Quartet,1988) which has an introduction by John Le Carre.
Another Quartet author to whom Attallah pays tributes is the journalist and author Said K. Aburish, who died in August 2018. Quartet published his book The Forgotten Faithful in 1993: Attallah describes him as “ a true Palestinian patriot”.
A particularly controversial episode in Quartet’s history came when it published God Cried, a book on the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut by war reporter Tony Clifton, with photographs by Catharine Leroy. Attallah suggested that the famous author Roald Dahl review the book for the Literary Review. When he read the review before publication, he realised it “ would send the influential pro-Zionist lobby into a frenzy of rage”. He and the editor of the Literary Review consulted the company’s lawyer, who was himself Jewish. He approved it for publication, with the omission of “ a few of the more intemperate expressions”.
The reaction to the review “ was far more extreme than we had anticipated”, Attallah recalls. “ Apart from the overreaction of the Jewish lobby, the friends of Israel in the media became virulent in their onslaught on Dahl, myself and the Literary Review.”
Memories is full of interesting characters and incidents and provides a vivid and absorbing overview of Attallah’s long and varied career.
With its evocation of an earlier era, it was particularly nostalgic to read it during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, it has neither a table of contents nor an index, making navigation through the author’s intoxicating “potpourri” somewhat tricky.
To read more, get a copy of Memories here today: