November 7, 2011

INTERVIEW: Rafik Schami


Rafik Schami is a Syrian author and critic who has been living in exile in Germany for the past forty years; his last novel, The Dark Side of Love, was called “the first Great Syrian Novel” by The Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English newspaper. Schami recently founded Swallow Editions in order to publish the work of fledgling Arab writers in English.  The nonprofit publisher is run by Arabia Books and Haus Publishing, both based in London. Barbara Schwepcke, Haus’ publisher, kindly translated Schami’s answers from the Arabic.

Moby: What made you start Swallow Editions?

Schami: I started Swallow Editions because I know so many beautiful stories exist in the Arab world which nobody knows in Europe. The latest and most boring book of a well-known Arab author gets translated, but [publishers] are too cowardly to look for new writers.

Moby: What are some of your favorite Middle Eastern writers?

Schami: My favourite Middle Eastern writers are those I haven’t read yet. I never praise those who have been well known all along, but two works, Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist and Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada show the kind of literature I prefer.

Moby: What are some problems you’ve encounter working with novels in Arabic?

Schami: The greatest problem is the emulation of the European narrative style as an expression of submissiveness, of dependency. The second big problem: Arab authors tend [to prefer] poetry to prose.

Moby: What is your hope for the future of Arab writers and writing?

Schami: My hope is that Arab writers will rebel against Arab publishers, who have exploited them, censored them and ganged-up with dictators against them for decades. Arab writers must defend their profession. They have to stop putting up with paying for the printing of their books, for example. That’s dreadful.