etched in steel(e) Dr. Suzanne M. Steele — editor analyst writer researcher

MonthAugust 2019

On Editing: the Middle East Connection

I often get asked how it is that my work as an editor includes a Middle East/Islamic studies specialty, given that I’ve only been to Dubai and Afghanistan briefly, and speak neither Arabic, Farsi, nor Pashtun, Dari etc. Additionally, I am patently not an Islamic or Middle East scholar. While I have worked as a writer and editor for management consulting companies for over two decades, I’ve developed this sub-specialty. A brief perusal of the work I’ve edited in the field reveals a wide range of topics: Islam and democracy; Saudi feminism; the use of the conditional in modern Arabic; several studies on various aspects of Sufism, historical and contemporary; Kurdish studies; undocumented labour in Saudi; Indonesian pedagogy; Egyptian EFL teacher training, and much more, including the geopolitical. Each editing job has provided fascinating and contemporary insight into cutting-edge research, and has allowed me to see the many facets of the complex Arab and Islamic world, a world seldom examined outside the conflict narrative. So how did my Middle East editing practice start?

A few years ago, while doing my PhD research at the University of Exeter, I discovered the beautiful Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (IAIS) on my way home to our apartment on campus. The Institute is housed in a building one can truly describe as serene, and was one that I gravitated to particularly because of its gorgeous architectural lines, its honey-coloured stone, and the lovely light from its oversize windows. Rather a nice break from my own faculty’s modernist architecture, one replete with 1960s aluminum-cased windows that whistle with winter winds off Dartmoor, and that always seemed to have a sense of over-crowdedness.

Interior of the beautiful Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter
Image © University of Exeter

Soon I began working in the common room of the IAIS, which led to attending lectures on contemporary or historic issues, all of them dedicated to Middle East and/or Islamic subjects. I also attended art exhibitions and openings. The lectures on contemporary Middle Eastern or Islamic subjects were by world experts, and for the most part, provided me a welcome respite from my own subject—war and the complexities of personal war narrative. Sometimes the topics at the Institute were quirky, such as Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul’s fascinating lecture on the history of indigo. Other times they were deeply complex lectures on some aspect of Arabic syntax. No matter what the subject, I learned so much, and mused at how I’d love to take the elementary Farsi or Arabic courses. But I had enough on my plate already.

Often I’d meet my neighbours at the institute. My 14-year-old daughter and I lived in the wonderful apartments set out by the university for international families where we had the great fortune to be surrounded by post graduates and their families from Korea, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi, Turkey, Iraq, the UAE, Libya, and other countries. The apartments are built around a playground over which we looked, and from the beginning of our residency my daughter and I were welcomed by the women who often sat outside watching over their children (a few were the post grads, but most were wives of post grads). Over the two years we lived there, we became good friends with the families and frequently were invited to share meals, or tea and goodies. More than once I’d come home from a day’s work and find a bag of delicious food hanging on the door. The children were often messengers sent to invite! We reciprocated by hosting Easter egg colouring (by request from the mothers and children I must add) and Canada Day cupcakes and celebrations.

Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter
©University of Exeter

The friendships we made included invitations to meet extended family visiting from Kuwait, e.g., and, joyfully, new babies born into our little community while we were there. I will always remember sitting on blankets and sharing tea and food, and especially our farewell gathering, at midnight during Ramadan when all we women feasted together in the semi-moonlight while the children slept. Even our Saudi neighbour, a very busy Master degree candidate with a sick child, came out that night and enjoyed our companionship. I’ll always remember a knock on the door and a beautiful pearl necklace delivered by a child, a gift to me from his mother. We shared a lot there, not the least being the stress of doctoral research and raising children in a foreign country, especially for those whose countries were at war (sometimes a regime change eradicated years of research).

family residences
University of Exeter
©copyright University of Exeter

Over the course of a few years I began to be recommended through word-of-mouth and have rarely advertised. I learned a lot, and continue to do so. One of the things I’ve learned to do is to communicate up front to non-native-English writers: English is an extremely complex language, even for native-English speakers. Indeed, I remind my clients that even editors need editors, not the least because one is too close to the subject often, and, in the case of large research projects, too often all the writer wants to do is FINISH IT! But as I recently reminded a Dutch client, it’s the last 5% that makes all the difference in the final work.

Another major challenge for my authors, I believe, is that at home in their respective countries they are amongst the most fluent English speakers and writers; they are top academics or functionaries accepted into a first class university. And for some it is difficult to accept that their English is not perfect. I counsel these writers and reassure them that their English is VERY GOOD, but that it is a notoriously challenging language, and that there are some inexplicable grammatical conventions learned by ear at a young age. A colleague of mine and I discuss this quite often. And so there is some ego involved in having one’s work edited. (Personally, I like to have a good edit of my work—I’m often too close to it to really hear or see its imperfections.)

Once in awhile I was asked to help edit some of my neighbours’ papers. Soon I was asked if I could edit dissertations, frequently being recommended by supervisors. And I loved it, and continue to love editing in the subject (and others). What I find when I edit non-native English writers’ work is that I learn not only a lot about the subject, but also a bit of how the culture intellectualizes, lays out a formal argument. For example, through editing for syntax and flow I found that many Arabic writers use long, very complex sentence structures. Frequently the argument comes at the end of the paragraph(s); interestingly, I found this while editing native-German writers’ work as well. When I queried one of my Arabic- speaking clients about this they referred to certain classical Arabic writers whose sentences often flow on for one or two full pages!

Ultimately, I believe it is my job to be a cheerleader as well as an editor for my clients. Writing a major work such as a PhD dissertation, a Master thesis, a book, or even an article, is a lonely business, one fraught with self-doubt. I love working with these fascinating people who teach me so much. My clients benefit from the fact I know the PhD trajectory well, having just completed mine in 2017. They also benefit from my Master of Library Science, and my genuine interest in their world. I love this work, I really do, and I am so glad I entered the institute years ago, it continues to feed my curiosity for a world I’ve known so little about, outside conflict and oil. There is so much, much more.

ArtsWells: or how to do a festival right

HQ, ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art

It’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Last thing I heard, the anniversary edition was canned, revived, moved, canned, and possibly revived yet again. Lazarus never rose so many times. But I’ve never been much for festivals and can count on one hand the number of them I’ve been to. Even then, I was on stage performing for most of them. Too many people, too much garbage or mud, just too much of too much. An introvert’s nightmare. But in early August I had a chance to see the beautifully run festival, ArtsWells, in the sweet little town, Wells, B.C., in the centre of the province.

You learn a lot about a village by counting the number of churches it has. Or bars. Or churches AND bars. But what about a village bursting with performance venues? I’ve travelled this world a whole lot over my lifetime and I’ve never seen such a charming little village with so many perfect, human-size venues, as the tiny village of Wells, population 245 (or 300, depending upon who has guests over). Invited to appear there as a poet and speaker, I was one of the significantly larger, temporary population of festival-goers, one I can only guess swells to maybe 10 times the usual population number.

The Sunset Theatre, Wells, BC

In its 16th year, this celebration of ‘all things art’ is run by Julie Fowler, Paul Crawford, and an amazing ArtsWells team (thanks Sam for the 1001 responses to my emails). This was one festival I’d wanted to see for years, most of all because I’m a longtime fan of Jeff Andrew, one of the most original voices of his generation – think Woody Guthrie of the digital age. To catch Jeff is a rarity and ArtsWells is one of his haunts, so for me to be invited as an artist in order to get me up there at long last, well, that was a very fine thing. Thanks Julie and Paul.

Paul Crawford announcing the rules of the 1 Minute Play competition

On the August long weekend we packed up early and headed north from Vancouver. Off we went through the Fraser Canyon, [Sto:lo (in Halqemeylem), Lhtakoh (in Dakelh), ʔElhdaqox (in Tsilhqot’in)] up to the Cariboo, places I’d adored as a child, entirely enamoured of the geography – I mean who doesn’t love a river and a canyon and valleys? And it was the Cariboo that kickstarted my love of history – Indigenous and post-contact. I admit, as a kid I had gold fever. Our 9 1/2 hour drive morphed into a 13 hour drive due to bad weather, and a truly terrible accident that closed the highway.

Sto:lo (in Halqemeylem), Lhtakoh (in Dakelh), ʔElhdaqox (in Tsilhqot’in)
aka The Mighty Fraser River

We arrived in the early evening and the festivities were well on their way with a parade of giant puppets, slightly drenched, and the fab Queen, Ms. Fondle, as Parade Marshall. What a welcome sight after our arduous journey on back roads (and sobering too, as a woman had lost her life on the highway and two seriously injured). Forgoing the evening’s multiple events we headed to our cabin at Barkerville and rested til morning.

Up early to a still-sleeping village, we ate and then went to shake the road from our bones at Dance Church with Grampa Groove. Seriously fun way to start the day. Then for the next three days a truly fun and intelligent program made such a great festival. It got me thinking of what made it different from other festivals I’ve observed (mostly from afar). I think it is ArtsWells modesty and its programming brilliance. We’re not talking brand names such as at the big festivals, we’re talking talent, pure talent that works its a$$ off while on stage, and better yet, clearly loves their art form. Every single act I caught, every workshop I attended, was compelling, original, and thoughtful – and yes, the music on every single stage was fabulous. The people in attendance – a huge proportion of them are artists – all so colourful and interesting. Outbreaks of music and theatrics were frequent and seriously delightful.

For my Sunday session I gave a reading, showed video footage (with actors’ voiceovers of my war poetry) and dispelled as many Myths of the Poet as I could. Apparently I did. Even the sound crew were wide-eyed; one of them came up to me afterward and said “I didn’t think I liked poetry until now”. We wandered and watched, ate, and enjoyed the acts, and especially Jeff Andrew, whose rock-out session in the pub left me even more amazed at his talent than ever before, his use of guitar effects tasteful and intricate. (Generally I’m no fan of guitar effects because most people overuse them.)

On Monday, I hosted a session, Becoming, a storytelling with Quinton and Darren of the Snotty Nose Rez Kids currently on their wildly successful Trapline Tour. Dialling it back, waaaay back from hype and crowds and expectations, we had a chance to be people together, people telling our stories. I began with the session by inviting everyone to relax, close their eyes and listen to the Becoming story I’ve written for the overture to my new opera. That I heard a few zzzzzzzzs coming from the crowd was a great reward to me as that’s exactly what I had in mind.

Quinton, SMS, Darren, aka The Snotty Nose Rez Kids

I invited those in attendance to take this chance to be still, to listen and settle, to begin to hear the soothing voices of these men tell their truths. Because in this noisy age of keyboard strokes and opinion, listening is really such a balm. The young men took over, each taking half of the large group, and spoke softly for over an hour and a half – so different from their hip hop delivery of their truths – and not a person stirred. I am so grateful to these men for showing up to tell the Becoming stories of two Haisla boys from the tiny coastal village of Kitamaat and how they became Hip Hop artists. They told much more. It was a profound experience for the listeners, and I wish them well. Fame, fast fame carries a lot of stress.

The final performance we caught was Bruce Horik’s Assassinating Thomson. This one-hander has won numerous awards and deserves to be, as cited, a Canadian classic and much more. Horik, legally blind, manages to juggle a triple narrative of the mysterious death of painter Tom Thomson with his own narrative of going blind at age 9 as a result of a genetic blastoma (with poignant reference to his father’s own struggle and sense of guilt with the same thing), with an onstage demonstration of his painting skills. To say it is a tour de force sounds cliché, but it is a tour de force. Horak’s acting, writing, and painting on stage is a triple threat. It was a fitting end to the first festival I’ve been to in years. We left Wells early on Tuesday morning, satisfied, grateful, and inspired. Thank you Julie and team.