Muscat: Born in an Iraqi Assyrian family, Samuel Shimon became a filmmaker in Hollywood, and travelled all across the Middle East and North Africa before settling down in Paris as a refugee.
In 1996, he moved to London where he stays now. He co-founded Banipal, the renowned international magazine of contemporary Arabic literature in English translation. In 2000, he and Margaret Obank, publisher of the magazine, edited A Crack in the Wall, poems by 60 contemporary Arab poets. He is also founder and editor of popular Arabic literary website Kikah.com.
In 2005, he published his best selling autobiographical novel An Iraqi in Paris, first in Arabic then in English. In 2010, he edited Beirut39, an anthology of new Arabic writing, published by Bloomsbury in the UK and the USA. Samuel Shimon was the chair of judges for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as Arabic Booker Prize, in 2008.
His new novel about the civil war in Lebanon is expected to be released this summer.
Times of Oman talked to him about Arab and Omani literature, their positioning in the world, challenges in translations and achievements of Banipal magazine in taking Arab literature to the world as it is.
Where do you see Omani fiction and poetry writers among others from the Gulf region?
For me, who works in literature, whose job it is to know the literary scene and as an expert in Arabic literature today, Omani literature — fiction and poetry — has a very good reputation. Writers started writing fiction only a few years ago and I expect it to flourish in coming years and I expect to hear more about fiction writers.
Why haven't Omani literature writers made the impact as others in the region?
On the contrary, Omani poets, for example, are very strong in the region, as well as in the wider Arab world. Last week I received an e-mail from the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival asking how to contact Mohamed Al Harthi, whose poems in English translation they had read in Banipal, and had liked and so they want to invite him.
I know a young Omani woman author who sent me a manuscript to read. I found it a brilliant novel, and immediately passed it to a big publisher in Beirut, one of the main publishers. They loved it and published it immediately. I was surprised that this novel was not entered for the Arab Booker Prize and I discovered later that the publisher did not nominate it. Let me tell you the truth, sometimes a publisher will nominate their friends and this Omani writer was a victim of this unhealthy situation. I am sure her novel deserved to be short-listed for that prize.
Who are the Omani writers who impressed you and why?
I am known to have been a fan of three Omani poets for many years. I love Saif Al Rahbi's poetry, we have been friends for 30 years and I know all his life and works. I am so glad that this year he was awarded the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Poetry. I am also a fan of Zaher Al Ghaferi and Mohamed Al Harthi. I enjoy reading the fiction of Jokha Al Harthi, Hussein Al Ibri, Abdul Aziz Al Farsi, Hoda Jowahiri and Ghalya Al Said.
They are all fine writers, they write in very beautiful Arabic, beautiful style. I like their subjects. They are very modern writers. Some authors need more publicity and promotion for their works. Omani literature needs more promotion. And, I am sure I will discover many other names on my visit.
How are Omani writers different from other Arabic writers? What are the areas where they need to focus on while reaching out to the readers in the Arab world?
Oman authors need good publishing houses and good distribution. They are good in their writing, they don't need to change their focus. They just need good publishers and good distribution.
Arabic fiction is now getting some sort of international promotional support. Is it enough? Would the introduction of some recent international awards for Arabic fiction help prom