Written by William Dobson
For it’s a jolly good website, for it’s a jolly good website, for it’s a jolly good website site, and so say some of you! (To be sung to the tune of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow)
So, Sugar Street Review has now been online for a week, and I thought this would be an appropriate time to mark this momentous event and, as such, I will be treating myself to a kebab this evening. Don’t worry, this isn’t something we’re going to make a habit of doing (celebrating minor milestones, rather than eating kebabs – I’ve already made a habit of doing that) as much for our own sake as for our many readers’. Indeed, it can be a dangerous precedent to set. Pity the poor man who makes a concerted and ‘romantic’ effort early in a relationship – flowers, dinner and candles perhaps to mark one month together – only to regret it 198 days later after his now ex-girlfriend has callously dumped him for failing to remember it was their seven and a half month ‘anniversary.’
Having said that, I think this is as good a time as any to outline our philosophy in more detail. As you have probably worked out, the site is focused on promoting the culture of the Middle East. In light of the turmoil that has so consumed the region throughout history, this is oft forgotten. 2012, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, seems like a fairly pertinent time to remind people that the Middle East is not just home to despots, revolutions and fundamentalism. People tend to get so wrapped up in the news coming out of the region, that they fail to take heed of the incredibly vibrant art, literature, music and food scenes that the Middle East is also home to.
In 2008 The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was launched, in association with The Booker Foundation, with the aim of promoting the growth of the Arabic novel. Here is a region where the political culture has stifled creativity and the aim of the competition was to give authors a chance to find their voice. I was lucky enough to listen to a recent talk by Raja Aleem, joint-winner of the 2011 award for her Mecca based novel, ‘The Doves’ Necklace.’
She expressed her concern that, while the events of 2011 had suddenly created a ‘ready made interest’ in the Arab world, this interest was only limited to the overthrowing of tyrannical dictators and distracted from anything else that might be going on around them. Instead of bringing light to the region’s cultural significance and creating understanding and dialogue, there is instead a danger of merely reinforcing stereotypes and shifting focus away from all that is good and great in the Middle East. She was bored of answering the question ‘were you in Tahrir Square?’ The answer was ‘no, I live in Paris and I’m from Saudi Arabia anyway.’
So let’s not lose focus on all the positives which have occurred since the start of the Arab Spring, but let’s also remember that the Middle East is about so much more (I think the picture above of Byblos, a small fishing village in Lebanon, expresses that sentiment better than I ever could). To paraphrase Robert Irwin, English literature is influenced to such a great extent by the Arabian Nights that it would be easier to list those that aren’t influenced by it than those that are. We will continue to chart the best books, both fiction and non-fiction, to come out of the region.
Then there is the food, my own particular passion. People say that love is the international language. This is palpably untrue. No, football is the international language, followed closely by food. It has a wonderful ability to be shared and enjoyed equally by everyone, regardless of culture, background, religion or political affiliation. So while we will be showcasing some of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the UK and further afield, we will also be celebrating, especially with our own recipes, the shared food heritage that transcends the region and brings different cultures together. I love the Moorish influence on Spanish food, which is so bold and brash, the culinary symbiosis between Greece, Turkey and the Levant or the North African impact on Sicily’s cuisine – the latter so expertly detailed in Matthew Fort’s wonderful book, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, the journey of his epicurean travels around the island on a Vespa. And of course, there is India and the vast impact the Sub-continent has had on Middle Eastern culinary heritage and vice versa.
I also just wanted to say thank you to all those who have, thus far, said such positives things about the site. But the biggest thanks must go to my brother, Rik, who designed it. I think it looks great and, there is that old adage which we certainly adhere to: ‘always judge a book by its cover.’ It also proved, despite what so-called ‘experts’ and human rights lawyers might claim, the value of locking someone with OCD in a room for a week, furnished only with a computer and a kettle, and spurring them on with the occasional promise of scrambled eggs.
If you would like to get involved, we are always looking for people to contribute. As long as it’s vaguely relevant, we will consider any ideas so, if you have something you’d like to pitch, just email me on will(at)sugarstreetreview(dot)com.