John McHugo

John McHugo to appear at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

John McHugo, author of Syria: A Recent History and the critically-acclaimed A Concise History of the Arabs, will be appearing at the 2016 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to give a talk entitled ’14 Centuries of Arab History’.

John McHugo is an Arabist, international lawyer and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University. His writing has featured in History Today, The World Today, Jewish Quarterly and on the BBC News website.

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is a programme of literary debates, readings and workshops bringing authors and readers together to celebrate education and debate. It runs from 28 February to 12 March 2016.

Event 95: 14 Centuries of Arab History
Saturday 12 March at 11.30am
Venue TBA
Tickets £13

For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

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Al Saqi Bookshop is Book Combined’s Bookshop of the Month

We are pleased to announce that Al Saqi Bookshop has been featured as Books Combined’s Bookshop of the Month.

In an interview with Books Combined, the director of Al Saqi Bookshop, Salwa Gaspard, explained how the bookshop and its publishing arm – Saqi Books – were established.  The bookshop has been “the beating heart of the Arab community in London” since 1979 and has always been committed to promoting a better understanding of Arab society as a whole. It is a place where people from all walks of life and backgrounds can browse, side by side, exploring an eclectic selection of books in both Arabic and English.

The shops stocks books on a range of subjects and has particularly large sections on art, fiction, poetry, cookery, and an increasing number of children’s books. The staff are knowledgeable, friendly and helpful, and will always go the extra mile to track down  books for customers, old and new.

To find out more and to read the full interview, click here.

John McHugo

Interview with John McHugo on Syria

Is there a more tragic country in the world today than Syria ?  How did it descend into chaos, conflict, and crisis?

In an interview with Joseph Richard Preville and Julie Poucher Harbini on ISLAMiCommentary, John McHugo, author of Syria: A Recent History, offers insights into the complexities of the country’s past, present and future.

Here is an excerpt of the interview:


What was the long-term impact of the post-World War I redrawing of borders on Syria’s future?

The partition of Greater Syria by Britain and France was a fatal mistake that underlies so much of today’s instability. The arbitrary borders the two European powers imposed were just one of the causes. Another was that this Balkanisation of the area created brittle and insecure states that were set against each other by the pressures of the Cold War. Ultimately, the partition opened the door to religious militancy (although the causes of that are complex) and also hindered economic and social progress. Nevertheless, there is now a strong sense of Syrian national identity.  That is why I am still optimistic that, despite the horrors of today, all will come right in Syria in the end.

Syria gained its independence as a parliamentary republic — a democracy — in 1945. Was this French-imposed system a bad fit for Syria? What is it about Syria’s foundations as a nation that has proven to be so fragile?

I don’t think the parliamentary republic was a bad fit for Syria in itself (Syrians had drafted the constitution – although subject to a French veto on its contents). The French fought tooth and nail against anything more than local autonomy and conceded independence with extremely bad grace. This made it difficult for post-independence governments to tackle the monumental difficulties they faced: overcoming vested interests; tackling local and sectarian divisions -such as Damascus against Aleppo, town against country, Christian against Muslim; spreading education; and building a modern society generally. It is now too easily forgotten that Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan were once all part of the area known as “Greater Syria” (bilad al-shaam, in Arabic) that was ripped apart and denied the right to decide its own destiny.

How much do you attribute the ensuing conflict, and Syria’s history for that matter, to outside interference by Western and regional powers?

The conflict has been stoked by outsiders fighting for their own interests in Syria. Interference by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been tied up with Sunni Muslim identity politics as well as specific goals such as control of the Kurds (Turkey) and rolling back Iranian influence (Saudi Arabia). They have sometimes supported opposition factions that have been fighting each other as well as the regime. On the other side, Iran is concerned with maintaining strategic depth for Hizbullah and combating Sunni hegemony in the Arab world. They are all prepared to shed Syrian blood for the sake of their own interests.

As regards the USA, Britain and France, we forget how toxic their role has been in past episodes of Syrian history. This explains why Daesh, al Qa’idah and others can use their narrative about Crusaders so effectively. Western powers are hamstrung by their failure to acknowledge their own past acts, such as the arbitrary partition of Greater Syria and their connivance in the ongoing injustices to the Palestinians. I could give other examples.

One word answer — Are you optimistic about Syria’s future or pessimistic?


Click here to read the full interview. 


Fatema Mernissi, 1940–2015

It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of iconic Moroccan sociologist, feminist and writer, Professor Fatema Mernissi, aged 75.

Seen by many around the world to be one of Morocco’s most prominent cultural and intellectual icons, Professor Mernissi was a leading advocate for women’s rights in the Muslim world. She was one of the first female academics to take up various themes considered taboo around the interpretation of the Qur’an and texts of Islamic tradition, arguing that women’s oppression is not due to Islam as this religion in fact celebrates women’s power. Her best known work, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society, was published by Saqi Books in 1985 and it remains one of the most pertinent analyses of the position of women in contemporary Islamic society today.

Her writings have been translated into more than thirty languages and other works such as Political Harem, Dreams of Trespass, The Veil and the Male Elite, and Women in Islam, have cemented her position as an authoritative voice for sociological and anthropological work on women in the Middle East. In 2003, she was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature and remained committed to advocating gender equality and women’s rights through numerous workshops and meetings across the world.

It was an honour and a privilege to have worked with Professor Mernissi over the last four decades – she was an inspirational and dedicated scholar whose work reached people of all ages, political backgrounds and schools of thoughts.

Photo credit: Claude Truong Ngoc

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Novel Awarded English PEN Translates Grant

We are pleased to announce that About My Mother, a forthcoming novel by award-winning Moroccan novelist, essayist and poet, Tahar Ben Jelloun, has been awarded the English PEN Translates grant.

This year’s list includes writers such as Han Kang, Karmele Jaio and Lydie Salvayre and is the first time that women and men have shared the grants equally. Samantha Schnee, a trustee of English PEN and Chair of the Writers in Translation Committee, said : “We had more submissions than ever from independent publishers. The PEN Promotes grants include two collections of stories from Sudan and Bangladesh, a Korean novel, and a Kurdish epic and, as a whole, these 19 titles provide an excellent window onto the world.”

First published to critical acclaim in 2008 in France by Gallimard, About My Mother is a delicate portrait of a son and his ailing mother, whose slow descent into Alzheimer’s causes her lose her grasp on reality, blending the past and the present.

Written in tender and compelling prose, About My Mother is a heartfelt tribute to Ben Jelloun’s own mother, tackling the personal realities of living with Alzheimer’s and is a powerful account of the subjugation of women in post-war Morocco.

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman, the novel will be published by Telegram in July 2016.

Sara Khan

The Battle for British Islam by Sara Khan

We are delighted to announce the acquisition of The Battle for British Islam by human rights campaigner Sara Khan.

Selected as one of BBC Woman’s Hour Top 10 Influencers in 2015, Sara Khan is the co-founder of Inspire, a woman’s rights and counter-extremism organisation. She has spent the last twenty years campaigning for tolerance and equal rights within Muslim communities, and is now fighting one of the key fronts in the battle against Islamist inspired extremism – the war of ideas.

This urgent and courageous book will uncover how IS has lured British teenagers from all walks of life and allow us to hear directly from the young men and women who have been radicalised.

Offering new approaches in areas from education to the courts and youth engagement, Sara Khan will outline how to break the cycle of extremism without alienating British Muslims, and will also challenge the responses of the establishment and its failure to engage with British Muslims effectively in order to make our communities more resilient.

Lynn Gaspard, publisher at Saqi, acquired world rights from FRA literary agency.

Gaspard said:

“Sara is a brave, selfless campaigner. In this book, she speaks to some of the men and women who make up Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims and offers a forensic examination of the state of Islam in the country today. At a time when we are left mystified by the departure of hundreds of Britons to join IS in Syria and Iraq, Sara Khan offers much needed clarity. This book will be essential reading for anybody trying to understand the current crisis facing British Islam.”

The Battle for British Islam by Sara Khan, with Tony McMahon will be published in the UK in September 2016.


**Read the Guardian longread, ‘It’s up to us to stop these Muslim girls making the worst mistake of their lives’, to find out more about Sara Khan and her work over the past few years.