An Iraqi in Paris: a lifetime of movement, forced and long-dreamt

Samuel Shimon talks about his book, An Iraqi in Paris, and the role of his magazine, Banipal, in championing Arab literature.

Samuel Shimon, author of an An Iraqi in Paris and editor of Banipal magazine, which is devoting an issue to Emirati literature. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National
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Iraq in the early months of 1979. Saddam Hussein is circling endlessly around Baghdad, building his influence, tightening his grip on the mechanisms of power, ready to seize complete control of the country within a matter of months. Indeed, tomorrow (July 16), marks the 32nd unhappy anniversary of the occasion when he became the nation's leader.

Meanwhile, in Al-Habbaniyah, a short distance west of Baghdad, Samuel Shimon is dreaming of Hollywood. Shimon is in his early twenties, a frustrated filmmaker desperate to escape the prospect of life under Saddam. To do so, he has a breathtakingly simple plan. He will make his way to the US, where he will carve out his fortune as a movie director.

Three decades later, he has yet to make good on that plan.

Instead, his flight from Iraq took him first to Damascus, then onwards to Amman, Beirut, Nicosia, Cairo and Tunis before, in 1985, he found himself as a refugee in Paris. He would stay there for more than a decade, before upping sticks once again, this time to London in 1996, where he has since settled.

What he experienced in the French capital would provide all the material Shimon needed to write and later publish An Iraqi in Paris, his somewhat autobiographical novel.

It is a work that was almost overwhelmingly well-received when first published six years ago in both Arabic and English and was later nominated for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Literary Reportage in 2006 and longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award the following year. It is also a funny, charming, episodic work that has recently been repackaged and republished in English by Bloomsbury Qatar.

Shimon, who I meet in an Abu Dhabi hotel, says this new edition is far more faithful to the Arabic original than the previous English-language version, which had been the handiwork of six different translators.

"It is only one now and I am very happy," he says, referring to the collaborative efforts of Piers Amodia and Christina Phillips, who share translation credits on the Bloomsbury Qatar version.

"I used to write chapters for the book and then would publish them periodically in newspapers. These were printed over a period of 10 years and, consequently, there were many different translators. This new translation is exactly like the Arabic. It is more consistent."

He is an engaging and charismatic figure, a natural if rapid-fire raconteur. A conversation with Shimon moves quickly from place to place, zigzagging in an instant from Iraq to Beirut to London to Hollywood. His mind brimming with ideas, his speech ready to break off at a tangent, as another thought springs up almost magically in front of him. You struggle to keep up with him, but regardless, you have fun trying to hang onto his coat-tails.

He is many things then, but not remotely sentimental - at least not for the country he left behind all those years ago.

When I ask him if he would like to go back to Iraq, he says, without pause, that "I've never been back. I don't have nostalgia. I don't feel like I need to go back. Many people want to go home, but I don't. The Iraq I left is not the same country that it is today." This is the romantic turned realist.

But where is home? He does not answer. In a sense he doesn't need to, home is London and has been since the mid-Nineties. Instead, his imagination is moving again, his words heading west to the land of opportunity.

"I was telling my wife I would like to go to Los Angeles. I said to her the other day: 'I am 55 now, I really want to live in LA for a few months.' I am dying for movies. I have to go. I learnt at six years old how to tell stories. When you are that young and you watch American films, you become a dreamer." This is the realist reverting to the romantic once more.

His wife is Margaret Obank, the publisher of Banipal, an independent magazine devoted to modern Arab literature, on which Shimon serves as editor. He jokes that working with his partner is a "big problem", before opening up his heart. "She is a wonderful person. I always like to show her I love her more and more," he says. "We are very good friends. She works too much. In that way we are similar."

First published in 1998, Banipal marked its 40th edition this year with an extremely topical issue entirely devoted to Libyan fiction. The edition, which had been in preparation for months, arrived just as crisis deepened in the North African country, demonstrating Banipal's knack for being a relevant and timely voice on the Arabic literary scene.

But it has not been without a struggle to make that voice heard. Shimon wrote of this in his revealing introduction to the Libyan fiction issue: "I remember some mean Arab intellectuals spreading a few rumours here and there, saying that publishing a second issue would not be possible. When the second issue was published, they said the third issue would not be. But the magazine continued on its journey." He is nothing if not determined.

He enlarges on this during our interview. "I came from the street. When we started Banipal they said I was a dreamer. They said: 'How are you going to make money from it?' People said we cannot continue. But we have been doing it for 14 years non-stop."

They won't be stopping anytime soon, either. Next up, in October, is an issue on Emirati literature, supported by the Emirates Foundation, which explains his presence in the capital in the heat of the summer. "I tell you the truth," he says, "I like the Emirates; I feel happy here, I feel quiet."

Quiet maybe, but always alive to possibility. By his own admission he works 24 hours a day. He does so, because "I don't have anything else. Only making magazines, reading in Arabic. When I am doing these things I am very happy. I feel I am mixing literature with cinema in my mind. I like that and I cannot separate it anymore. I have many stories you see, I can tell you hundreds of stories."

His next story will be his next book, The Militant Lingerie. "It will be funny, interesting and dangerous," he says, another autobiographical novel that, this time, will lean heavily on the period the author spent in Lebanon.

"It is about this young Iraqi guy who comes to Beirut during the civil war. He meets this young lady and he falls in love. It is a beautiful story about relationships and revolution," and with that, Shimon the film director, the dreamer, the author starts to map out another scene in his mind.