Confines of the Shadow is the first of three volumes written by Alessandro Spina and translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely. The London-based Darf Publishers has produced nonfiction works in English about Libya, the Arab World and the Middle East. Recently it started publishing translations of world literature as well. Confines of the Shadow links these two concentrations in one multi-volume project. Spina is at once a Libyan, an Arab, and an Italian. He spent much of his career writing his family’s history, through which he explored a uniquely tangled web of relations with the Mediterranean world.
Born Basili Shafik Khouzam, he was the son of a Maronite Lebanese merchant who immigrated to Benghazi at the time of the Italian occupation. And he had a life-long fascination with Libya and Italy’s entwined histories since the end of the nineteenth century. Like many insider-outsider families of the post-Ottoman world (Bares in Egypt, Memmi in North Africa, among countless – anonymous – others), Spina’s family did not fare well in the purgative atmosphere of Arab nationalism, and one imagines their descendants would struggle mightily in the even more astringent world proposed by radical Islamicists. Spina spent the years of World War II in Italy but otherwise lived in Libya until he saw the writing on the wall by the Qaddafi regime and moved to Italy permanently in 1980. His work is an extended meditation on the inter-connectedness of his two homes.
Confines of the Shadow contains three novels: The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar, and Nocturnal Visitor. It is distinct from other multi-volume novels/romans a clef in that they are part of a mammoth omnibus in the tradition of accounts of fading empires. His work calls to mind Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, and Canneti. What distinguishes it from these authors’ is his multivocality, his experimentalism, and the shifting perspectives between characters and narrators.
Confines of the Shadow is a house of many mansions. It has sections that are fable-like, others that are more suggestive of a bildungsroman. It is a novel of manners, a drawing room or domestic comedy. It is tragic, and it is polemical.
1-There are at least two good reasons to disqualify jihad – including “the Islamic resistance” – from being a freedom fight (against colonialism/Zionism):
(a) in recent history jihad has been an instrument of these very forces; and
(b) Islam is in essence a religion of conquest.
Global wars were waged by early Muslims, not against them, with little or no regard for the spiritual dimension of the faith or even the nominal dictates of Sharia. To avoid giving them equal rights, for example, Al Hajjaj massacred non-Muslim subjects once they declared their conversion to Islam.
2-Neither difficult living conditions/lack of education nor political oppression can account for jihad.
Jihadis often hail from the upper echelons of society and receive the best (western) education. Jihadis have shown the same propensity for violence, intellectual unreason and ethical duplicity regardless of their social/political position.
Islamists and jihadi-sympathisers have enjoyed the patronage of oil-rich Wahhabis or their western allies not because of their being better representatives of their peoples or nations than military-based or dictatorial regimes but because of their conservatism, sectarianism and a-nationalism. They have adopted the pose of the victim even while in power.
3- While the provincial fifty percent can be induced to “vote for Islam”, no version of Sharia is compatible with the values of modern republican democracy, which have their basis in the Enlightenment and secularism.
In a Muslim-majority country more or less economically dependent on non-constitutional Wahhabi monarchies, to suggest that any political project based on Islam can be integrated into a pluralistic system where power is circulated is to lie through your teeth.
The true purpose of such propaganda is blackmail: “include” the moderates and they will spare you the wrath of the radicals.
In reality the distinction that the Quran makes in the context of political conflict is not between moderates and radicals but between hypocrites who not will fight in the way of Allah and believers who will (Surat at-Tawbah, 167).
I had planned to write a spoof. I was to be a committed Islamist reviewing the first two years after 30 June. I would extoll the virtues of Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood. I would glorify their puppet president Mohamed Morsi (aka the Mandela of the Arabs). Remembering the Rabaa massacre and the number of death sentences issued in its wake, I would underline the extra- and quasi-legal excesses of the fascist junta currently in charge. I would decry xenophobia, leader worship and the coup d’etat status quo. I would cite concepts of revolution and human rights in which I do not actually believe (cf, freedom of belief). I would appeal to shar’iyah – democratic legitimacy and shari’ah – divine law in the same breath. I would accuse the Copts, the infidels and the deep state of such evils as sectarianism, violence and unfreedom, absolving all manner of jihadis, fanatics and fundamentalist lunatics of exploiting the potential for positive change, working with the same deep state and army when it suited them… the moral of the story being that, had there been no military intervention to cut short Egypt’s democratic transformation, we would have been living in prime Garden of Eden real estate.
أن تحل ذكرى ميلادي في الأسبوع نفسه الذي يبلغ فيه ملحق النهار عيده الخمسين ربما أكثر من مصادفة. (أنا أحذرك من الآن يا قارئي، يا صديقي: ستكون رسالتي هذه القصيرة جداً، المدفوعة بقيظ القاهرة شخصية.) ثمة من يذهب إلى أنّ كل صدفة عنوان، إذا ما قصدتَه وصلتَ إلى بيت أو وطن. والحزن الذي يعصرني الآن على عنف ألاقيه متشرداً في الفضاء الافتراضي لا رباط بينه وبين مطبوعة نشأتْ قبل مولدي بأحد عشر عاماً. للأماني خزينة أضيف إليها. صحيح أنه، رغم إحساسي الأعمق بالانتماء إلى الملحق، لا يمكنني ادعاء الصلة بتاريخه أو فهم مكانه من النزاعات. لكن ليس مع الحزن يوم ميلادي إلا الحدس باقترابه من أحزان القائمين على خزينة الأماني. (ألم أقل لك إنها رسالة شخصية؟) ثمة مشكلات تترتب على الولع باللغة والحيد عن قطعان الولاء، النظر إلى الدنيا بعين السؤال. وأنا حيثما استرحت في مدينة أصغر وأوسع من الإسكندرية، وجدت من يشاركني هذه المشكلات. بيروت سحرتني وأفزعتني قبل عشرة أعوام مع أولى بشائر الربيع العربي، واليوم أظنني أكرهها كقطعة حلوة مُرّة مني إثر انفجار الربيع ذاته قنبلةً بدائية الصنع كما تسميها الصحافة المصرية. لا تقتل إلا أبرياء. زهرة في حجم الدنيا والدنيا تحترق. لكن الملحق لدي، وما بقي من ذكريات الأمل والخوف. الأجدى غيابهما. أجلس وسط الرماد أستحضر فرحة الكتابة وخبل الغرام. أتأمل عمري. وأتذكر مقولة روبرتو بولانيو قبل أن يموت في الخمسين: الكتابة بديل عن الانتظار. في أعداد سابقة للملحق ثمة سجل للانتظارات التي هزمناها. وثمة أفراح مؤجلة أيضاً رغم كل شيء. أنا وأنت يا قارئي، على الأقل مازلنا هنا. والأيام التي ألقتنا على قارعة التاريخ نتسول قوتنا ونفرح بالفتات أو نبصق عليه… مازالت تخضّ جسدينا. غداً أو بعد غد – ربما في أمانينا فقط – تتحقق المعجزة ولا نعود نقعي في ظل الحواجز بلا مسدسات. ربما ليس سوى أمانينا فعلاً، إلا أننا ندخر زهداً يا صديقي. وبينما الكذبات تتكالب على الكاذبين وهم عليها – بينما الانفجارات تذكرنا بخيبة أمل الإنسانية سواء أفي القاهرة أو في بيروت، في عرض المتوسط وعلى شواطئ لازوردية سيغرقون بامتدادها وهم بعدُ فقراء – أنا أكتب لك.
“Those who don’t like Katara can start a prize like it in Egypt.”
Thus the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, one of five finalists to receive US $60,000 each in the first round of the Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel, speaking to the television anchor Gaber Al-Qarmouti live last week.
A glib remark, for oil-rich Qatar’s foray into supporting literature is worth US $750,000 in total. A mere pittance this may be in the grander scheme of Qatari spending. But were it available to grant-making institutions in Egypt, the sum would be enough for 100 financially viable awards.
A little girl walking through the woods on her way to her best friend’s house finds a small piece of paper. It is shiny and colorful, ripped from a magazine no doubt, with ragged edges and folded into halves – twice. I still don’t know what makes the little girl take that loose piece of paper into her hands. It is litter, really. But it will never be far from her for the next decade. From that day, she keeps it. Folded as she found it. She gently places it between the pages of The Little Prince or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, perhaps Watership Down. Now and again she takes it out and unfolds it. Over the years, the piece of paper becomes worn and soft, as satin silk or lambskin chamois. Whitened, thin and frayed at the folds until it is too delicate to even open. But the girl keeps it. It has become her confidante.