We’re delighted to welcome a publishing titan for this week’s instalment of Publisher 1-On-1; welcome to the stage, Margaret Obank, publisher of Banipal!

Margaret is renowned for her contributions to the dissemination of contemporary Arabic literature in English translation. In 1997, she co-founded Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature in translation with her husband, the Iraqi author and journalist Samuel Shimon. 

Some of her other roles include a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arab Fiction (2007) and the founder of her book publishing enterprise, Banipal Books, which has published works by contemporary Arab authors in translation since 2005. That’s quite the CV!

Photo by Ali Ghandtschi

Banipal, published 3 times a year, allows readers to discover the enthralling world of prose and poetry by Arab authors that the magazine opens up in English translation. The rich tapestry of contemporary literature written by hundreds and hundreds of men and women stretches from Syria, Iraq and Palestine, through the Gulf from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudia Arabia to Oman and Yemen, and round the southern Mediterranean to the north African countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and southwards down to Sudan. 

Revista Banipal, a Spanish-language counterpart of the magazine, was also launched in 2020. 

The most recent issues of Banipal (Issue 71  – Summer 2021) & Revista Banipal (№4 Primavera 2021)

Digital subscriptions to both Banipal & Revista Banipal are available through the Exact Editions online shops.

So without further ado, let’s hear from Margaret on the favourite parts of her role, her book fair travel plans, and her vision for the magazine in the future.

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1) What’s your role within Banipal?

I am the co-founder of Banipal, which started off being only the magazine. I was its editor and jack-of-all-trades in the early years to get it on its feet and build its reputation. Now Banipal is regarded as an institution; part of the furniture of Arabic literature in translation. I am now the publisher of Banipal Publishing, responsible for the two magazines publishing contemporary literature from the Arab world in English and in Spanish, and for a growing number of books  – memoir, fiction and poetry.

2) What’s the best thing about working at Banipal?

It is difficult to say what is the best when there are so many great aspects to publishing literature in translation from all over the Arab world. But, I would say that the chance to be in touch with authors and translators all the time and to be able to encourage the translating of Arabic literature into English is amazing and a privilege.

Issues from the Revista Banipal digital archive

3) What impact has the pandemic had on your publication, both short-term and long-term?

Short-term, the pandemic led to delays in print, and reduction in distribution as offices closed and postal services were severely restricted. Arrangements to print and distribute our new Spanish edition in Madrid collapsed due to the impossibility of travel and other factors due to the pandemic, and up until now we have had to keep the print and production in the UK, which is limiting, to say the least. 

We published the three issues (Spring, Summer and Autumn/Winter 2020) with restricted distribution. At the end of 2020 we started talking to Exact Editions about a digital edition and on 15 March 2021, it was successfully launched: a tremendous development!

Long-term, for both our current publications, we expect that the digital side of things will take precedence over the print, even though readers may actually prefer the physical publications.

4) What was your most unusual lockdown hobby?

I didn’t have any unusual ones. Probably what I did most was not a hobby actually  –  but rather the chance to do more work, to publish more books. In fact, we published three books in April 2020, as well as the magazines.

5) How have you found the experience of remote working over the past year?

For me, remote working is not a new experience. Ever since we started Banipal, we have been working mainly remotely, particularly in editorial terms. Our authors live all over the world, as well as our translators, book reviewers, and editors. 

Of course, in the early years, texts travelled in and out by post and fax until most people got computers and set up email addresses, allowing us to retire the fax machine. The change last year was in meeting online via Zoom, when suddenly communicating online and by telephone were virtually the only options. IT has developed so rapidly, it’s difficult to keep pace with everything.

Issues from the Banipal digital archive

6) Where are you most looking forward to travelling to, once restrictions allow?

We are looking forward to travelling to Germany, Morocco, Spain and Canada for book fairs and festivals. We have already been to UAE’s Abu Dhabi Book Fair that took place in the last week of May and it was incredible to meet publishers and authors after such a long time  –  all of us wearing masks and having PCR tests every two days. It was worth all the tests to get there.

7) What is your vision for Banipal in 10 years’ time?

We would like to see digital Banipal subscriptions for both the English and Spanish editions in all schools and universities throughout the UK and around the world, continuing to introduce readers to the riches of literary fiction and poetry from the Arab world. We would also like to see an edition in German translation and are working on that now.

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Thanks so much to Margaret for her time . Exact Editions would definitely like to see digital subscriptions skyrocket too!

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