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 to promote Arab culture that had been so long ignored in the West. Historically the Arabs of ancient times contributed to the fields of science, medicine, mathematics and the arts. The eclipse of their contribution was largely due to the colonizing powers, which for centuries suppressed knowledge of their cultural evolution and almost destroyed the resulting heritage. Tribal strife was another key factor, impeding progress and diverting attention to more mundane pursuits which stifled learning and higher ideals. There remained, however, a rich crop of emerging writers whose work deserved recognition in the West, and especially in the English-speaking world.
I was determined to do my part in having the output translated into English to stand alongside Quartet’s international list, which was made up of sometimes obscure or newly discovered talent together with established writers. Although, from the commercial perspective, it was unrealistic to expect good financial returns in the short term, the inclusion of books emanating from or relating to the Middle East enabled Quartet to extend its frontiers to a readership in areas hitherto unknown to it. Leaving politics on one side, our Arab contribution in fiction was substantial. While Zelfa Hourani took charge of the Arab fiction list and developed it to great effect, I remained in direct control of what we published under the headings of non-fiction and politics.
A title of particular importance was Najib Alamuddin’s The Flying Sheikh, published in 1987, which chronicled the whole story of the founding and establishment of Middle East Airlines, of which he was chairman and president for twenty-five years. Sheikh Najib, who came from an eminent Druze family in Lebanon and became known as ‘The Flying Sheikh’, had a more detailed understanding than most of the complexities of Lebanese politics. He steered the airline through the stormy passages of Arab–Israeli conflict and sectarian strife in Lebanon, and ultimately ensured its survival in the face of formidable intrigues that had both internal and international origins. In 1993, Quartet went on to publish Turmoil: The Druzes, Lebanon and the Arab–Israeli Conflict, in which, with a vivid sense of history, Sheikh Najib traced the origins of the Druzes, of their relationships with other Islamic and Christian groups and of their position in Lebanon’s modern times of strife. He had many insights on the influence of the oil wars and the disastrous effects of the international arms trade in the region as a whole.
Dina Abdel Hamid told a more personal story in Duet for Freedom, published in 1988, with an introduction by John Le Carré. As a member of the Hashemite dynasty, Princess Dina had been briefly married to King Hussein of Jordan, but her book gave an epic account of events following the capture of her second husband, Salah Ta’amari, a spokesman for the PLO, during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. By an extraordinary chance, her attempts to contact Salah and free him from the hidden labyrinth of the notorious prison camp of Ansar, opened up the chance of negotiating with the Israelis for the release of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese in exchange for six captured Israeli soldiers. Duet for Freedom was a true love story with many wider implications. Princess Dina is honorary godmother to our son Ramsay – honorary because of our religious differences, she being of Islamic descent while we belong to the Greek Catholic church.
In 1993 Quartet published Pamela Cooper’s lively and readable memoir, A Cloud of Forgetting. Pamela’s first husband was Patrick Hore-Ruthven, the son of the first Earl of Gowrie, who died on a commando mission in the Western Desert during the Second World War. She was the mother of Grey Gowrie and the Islamic scholar Malise Ruthven and had a long-standing connection with the Middle East from the time when she worked with Freya Stark in Cairo on her Brotherhood of Freedom project, designed to promote ideas of democracy among influential Arabs. With her second husband, Major Derek Cooper, she became active in the post-war years in humanitarian relief work. They were instrumental in founding the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and in 1976 dramatically got themselves expelled from Israel for their outspoken expressions of indignation at the treatment they saw being meted out to Palestinians in the country. For six weeks in 1982 they were trapped in Beirut during the Israeli siege and bombardment in the events leading up to the massacres of Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila. Derek’s side of the story of their adventurous life together was told in a biography by John Baynes, For Love or Justice: The Life of a Quixotic Soldier, which Quartet also published three years later.
It was a sign of the mark being made by Quartet that in 1994 Peter Lewis made us the focus of an article in a double issue of a prestigious literary journal, Panurge, entitled ‘Quartet & Arab Women’. He selected four Quartet titles: Djura’s The Veil of Silence, Aïcha Lemsine’s The Chrysalis, Sabiha Khemir’s Waiting in the Future for the Past to Come and Hanan al-Shaykh’s Women of Sand and Myrrh; but first he assessed the situation in British publishing for translations intended for the domestic market. The situation in general, he concluded, was dire, John Calder’s departure in despair for Paris having said much about the ‘closed, reactionary intellectual climate in Britain’. Calder and Marion Boyars had previously made great efforts, together and under their separate imprints, to introduce into Britain new writing from abroad, but now silver linings were hard to find. Quartet Books, on the other hand, had ‘been pursuing what may be called the Calder–Boyars enterprise with considerable imagination’.
In 1993, for example, Quartet published fiction and non-fiction titles translated from a number of European languages, including Romanian and Swedish as well as French, Spanish and Russian. In spite of having high reputations in their own countries, most of these authors are unknown in Britain, although the list does include Julien Green, translations of whose fiction first appeared decades ago.
Even more unusual and enterprising, however, has been Quartet’s commitment to what it calls the ‘Middle East’, but which includes most of the Arab world.
The evidence indicated that writing in such countries as Morocco and Algeria was ‘flourishing as never before’. The French ‘colonial connection and its francophone legacy’ meant there was a significantly better situation in France for the publishing of this new literature, but recognition in Britain was still ‘barely perceptible’. The common thread in the four books he had under consideration was that their authors’ primary purpose was to ‘explore and give voice to the experience of women in their cultures’, though none of them could be said to be writing feminist polemics. The lack of educational opportunities would have made such attempts at writing impossible for even the preceding generation. Djura, in telling the story of the violence against herself encountered within her own family in The Veil of Silence (translated by Dorothy S. Blair), was speaking for all those women ‘who keep silent out of fear, who seek a decent life while they are forbidden even to exist’. Yet she still tried to hold on to those positive elements in her heritage that she could identify with, her song troupe, Djurdjura, having the aim of singing ‘out loud what their mothers would only murmur under their breath’.
In The Chrysalis, Aïcha Lemsine gave a historic sweep to these cultural changes in Algerian society over two generations, where a young woman who has broken free to become a doctor is sucked back into and almost destroyed by the old ways, the situation only being redeemed by her stepmother’s defiance of convention and show of womanly solidarity. Sabiha Khemir’s Waiting in the Future for the Past to Come was unusual in that it was written in English in the first place. It reached out for a more mythic, storytelling way of giving an account of the changes in women’s experiences and expectations in post-independence Tunisia. The collision between tradition and modernity was there, but with ‘a sense of new life emerging from the old without a radical severing of connections with the past’.
Hanan al-Shaykh’s Women of Sand and Myrrh was a follow-up to her first translated novel, The Story of Zahra, that Quartet published with success in 1986. Women of Sand and Myrrh (translated by Catherine Cobham) interwove the stories of four women living in an unnamed Arab country in the Arabian Gulf. Two of them belong to the country itself, the other two are Lebanese and American respectively. Al-Shaykh, said Lewis, ‘is primarily a psychological novelist, exploring the inner lives of her main characters as they try to define themselves through their relationships with women and men . . . in a social context that inhibits their potential for development and fulfilment’.
In Lewis’s view, only one of the four books he had listed would have been available in Britain had there not been a publisher in London committed to issuing ‘a substantial number of books in translation’. On the continent most countries – including a large one like Germany with no shortage of writers of its own – had an abundant supply of books translated from English.
The reverse is not true. To its credit, Quartet has been doing a great deal to rectify this state of affairs, and its advocacy of writers from the Arab world is particularly to be applauded. Very little normally reaches us from these countries, and this is most regrettable when literary activity there is flourishing as never before. Perhaps the next time an Arab writer is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Brits will not look totally mystified and resort to snideries about positive discrimination being exercised in favour of unheard-of second-raters from the Third World.
The following summaries of other selected fiction that we published in this area will help to give the reader a flavour of what was certainly expanding into a major list worthy of close attention. My Grandmother’s Cactus: Stories by Egyptian Women (translated and introduced by Marilyn Booth) was an anthology of stories by the latest generation of women writers in Egypt. Like some of the others already mentioned, they often featured experiments with new narrative patterns that drew on legend and myth. Beneath a Sky of Porphyry (translated by Dorothy S. Blair) was a second novel from Aïcha Lemsine, this one being set at the time of Algeria’s war of liberation from the French, telling of the effects of the conflict on the lives of a group of villagers. In much the same vein was Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar (translated by Dorothy S. Blair), which set the life of a young girl against the same background of conflict, based in part on eyewitness accounts of ruthless acts of barbarism by the French colonial forces. Return to Jerusalem by Hassan Jamal Husseini, a leading Palestinian diplomat and businessman, was a novel (written in English) that told the story of a Palestinian journalist arrested in Kafkaesque circumstances in Jerusalem by the Israeli security forces and absorbed into Israel’s prison system to suffer the authorities’ interrogation techniques alternating between brutality and cajolery.
The genre of historical novel was also represented, including an international bestseller, Leo the African by Amin Maalouf (translated by Peter Sluglett), based on the colourful life of the sixteenth-century geographer and traveller Leo Africanus, author of the renowned Description of Africa, written in Italy after he had been captured by a Sicilian pirate. Elissa by a Tunisian author, Fawzi Mellah (translated by Howard Curtis), was set between the eighth century bc and the present, and concerns a scholar who purports to be translating a letter from a collection of Punic tablets that tells of Elissa’s fabulous voyage after fleeing Tyre, which leads to her becoming Queen of Carthage (aka Dido); though he loses track of what he has translated and what he has invented.
Another novel set in Alexandria by Edwar al-Kharrat, City of Saffron (translated by Frances Liardet), centred on the growing up of a boy who slowly gains an awareness of the nature of the lives of the adult men and women around him. Behind Closed Doors: Tales of Tunisian Women by Monia Hejaiej described the importance of oral storytelling in the lives of three women of Tunis, their views competing and contradictory, in preserving a conservative, moralistic attitude to set against the rebellious and subversive. From Libya there came a distinguished trilogy, Gardens of the Night by Ahmed Faqih (translated by Russell Harris, Amin al-’Ayouti and Suraya ‘Allam), published in one volume. It began with I Shall Present You with Another City, where the narrator is in Edinburgh as a student, writing a thesis on sex and violence in the Arabian Nights; the second title in the sequence, These Are the Borders of My Kingdom, found him back in Libya in a loveless marriage, suffering a breakdown which brings on trances that make him think he is a prince in the Arabian Nights, falling in love with a beautiful princess; and the third was A Tunnel Lit by One Woman, in which a female colleague seems to embody the princess of his visions, though the reality gradually evolves towards disillusion.
The theme of North African migrant workers in France was the subject of Solitaire by a Moroccan author living in France, Tahar Ben Jelloun. Ben Jelloun had a powerful imagination, as Solitaire (translated by Gareth Stanton and Nick Hindley) showed. His twenty-six-year-old central character is condemned by emigration and exile to be trapped in both internal and outward isolation – his own thoughts and the hatred and racism on the streets. Another novel by Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child, was the story of a family where the father can produce only daughters, and when the eighth arrives vows that she must be brought up as a boy; with the result that her/his future is marked by the deceptions and hypocrisies that dissect Arab society. The sequel to this, The Sacred Night (translated by Alan Sheridan), took up the story of the boy becoming a woman after the father’s death, struggling to be reborn in a corrupt, enslaving society through suffering and mutilation. The Sacred Night was winner of the 1987 Prix Goncourt.