Throughout the ten years that Samuel Shimon spent sleeping on the park benches of Paris, he kept just one possession: his typewriter. Living off the good nature of friends he met, Shimon knew that he would one day become a famous Hollywood director, guiding Robert De Niro in a role based on his own father. His conviction was admirable, and whilst it didn’t quite bring him to the glittering lights of the silver screen, it certainly kept him going through what could be considered to be his darkest days.
The Iraqi writer and literary enthusiast left Baghdad in 1979 to pursue his dreams and in 1985 he claimed refugee status in Paris. Having been warned to stay away from Arabs in the French capital if he wanted to be successful, Shimon ended up living on street corners, in friends’ living rooms and relying on the goodwill of the people he met.
Shimon barely survived the tortuous journey through the Middle East to France and eventually he found himself a permanent home in London, where he has lived ever since.
He and his British wife Margaret Obank established their unique journal Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature in 1997, having discussed the idea for more than a year.
‘We established Banipal to introduce the best Arab writers to English readers. We wanted to be an Arabic magazine in the English language. We wanted to open a window onto the Arab literary scene,’ Shimon tells us.
At first ridiculed, the journal has gone from strength to strength, providing a platform for contemporary Arab writers. While the authors write in Arabic, the journal is published in English: this requires a team of expert translators, who have been willing to take the challenge of translating poetry for more than a decade.
Shimon and his wife contacted Arabic-language authors based in London and wider Europe and discovered they already possessed good translations of their work; they simply had nowhere to publish them.
With no budget for the first issue, Shimon worked with his connections to collate high quality, literary translations – including works by the renowned Syrian poet Adonis. Having only asked his contacts for their existing translations, he found he already had enough material for the first issue.
Shimon was born into an Assyrian, Iraqi-Christian family in 1958 and has often caused confusion because his name is seemingly ‘Western’ but he is Iraqi and converses in Arabic. Hence it is important that the journal doesn’t just focus on Arab writing, however, but involves any writers completing their craft in the Arabic language.
‘We’ve had calls from editors and writers looking for Islamic literature – I laugh at them and say there’s no such thing, because we’re Arabic writers publishing Arabic literature. Some are Muslim and some are not and there are also non-Arabs, like myself,’ Shimon says.
Shimon is now an author in his own right, having published An Iraqi in Paris; a semi-autobiographical novel about his time on the streets of the French capita where he captures the ups and downs of life as a homeless, struggling writer in humorous and poignant tales.
He also draws most of his inspiration from literature – Banipal itself takes its name from Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) the last King of Neo-Assyria, who was a passionate collector of scripts and text. The King was said to have sent scribes to every corner of the Kingdom to collect texts for his library: the first systematically organised library in the Middle East, which still partially exists today in the British Museum, London.
When the journal was set-up in 1997, there were very few books published in translation from Arabic to English, but since then Shimon has witnessed dramatic change.
‘When Banipal came out, every issue introduced 20-25 authors of fiction and poetry to the English language,’ Shimon says, adding that European festivals started inviting Banipal authors to speak at their events soon after.
‘Then, another factor pushed Arab literature forward; the September 11, 2001 tragedy. After that day, the demand for works by Arab authors increased and many publishers from different countries wanted to know about works by Arab authors,’ he recalls.
In 1998 there were roughly two works of Arabic literature translated into English and by 2010 there were more than 30, with approximately ten others translated into other languages from Arabic.
The journal has grown so much since its inception, Shimon continues, that he reflects ‘we have difficulty in controlling it. It is more powerful than our small team’.
The establishment of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2007 also contributed to raising the profile of Arabic fiction. Known as the ‘Arabic Booker Prize’ and supported by the Booker Prize Foundation, IPAF also has Obank – publisher and editor of Banipal – as one of its trustees.
‘If we look at the last five years of the Arab literary scene we can see the importance of the role of the IPAF prize, the Arab Booker. I hope that this prize will continue this role,’ he explains. Shimon also judged on the IPAF panel and appeared at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai in 2010, on a number of discursive panels.
‘I can say that communication, dialogue, contact between cultures, happens through translation,’ he says. The next issue of Banipal, the 43rd, will celebrate Denys Johnson-Davies, who has been translating contemporary Arabic literature for 60 years.
Banipal is entirely independent and is run without official or unofficial sponsors and as such, Shimon describes its future as perilous.
‘We are in a very difficult situation; Banipal is facing many problems. In the West people think we are publishing propaganda for the Arab world and many think that we are supported by funds from Arab countries.’
However the public and media increasingly search for knowledge about the Arab world through its writers, so Shimon remains hopeful. ‘We did not think it would become such a big project in the first place,’ he says, ‘of course, this would have been impossible without the great support of our translators.’
Shimon is currently working on his second book, which will either be entitled ‘Underwear Under War’ or ‘The Militant Lingerie’, with a focus on women during the civil war. Next year, Banipal will be celebrating its 15th year and it is now available in electronic format.
Photographer: Celia Topping