By Youssef Rakha and other authors. Literature, photography, and contemporary Ottomania.
Cairo by Piri Reis, 16th century
In They Dragged Them Through the Streets, a veteran of the US war in Iraq commits suicide, and his brother joins with four friends in search of ways to protest the war. Together they undertake a series of small-scale bombings, until an explosion claims one of their own: Zechariah, or Z. The novel is structured around these two deaths, the veteran’s and the activist’s.
The four remaining friends—Ford, Vivienne, Sara, and “A”—narrate in turn; the excerpt below includes brief chapters by A and Vivienne. Throughout, the characters’ names often dissolve into initials—their intimate shorthand for one another.
Sing, Adaweyah! of the microbus’s wrath
That, rattling death and venom-fuming, a demented sphinx,
Carves through the flesh of traffic like missilery,
And brings car-owning Pasha to his knee.
Sing of the asphalt urchin, creature of the dust
Who in its smoggy wake performs noir rites;
His muffled yelps, as pædocock stretches his child’s asshole,
Transforming into clouds.
On Friday 1 August, the blog of the Jerusalem-based news site The Times of Israel published and then quickly removed a post entitled “When Genocide Is Permissible”.
A barely literate homily in the Israel’s-right-to-defend-itself genre by a New York accountant named Yochanan Gordon, it casually suggested that, if the cost of “peace and quiet” is the wholesale elimination of Palestinians who disturb it, then perhaps it is a cost that should be shouldered. It was exactly like saying, “But if you were in unbearable anguish and torturing Yochanan Gordon to death was the only way to recover your peace of mind, what would you do?”
حين انتحرت المثقفة اليسارية المصرية أروى صالح، أحد رموز الحركة الطلابية في السبعينات، بعد أن ألقت نفسها من شباك البيت، كان هناك ثلاثة شعراء مغمورين قرروا تأسيس جماعتهم الشعرية السرية التي اسموها “التماسيح“. ولكنهم لن يعرفوا بأمر انتحار أروى إلا في اليوم التالي، وسوف يستقبلون الخبر كعادة جيل التسعينات، بنوع من البرود، على حد وصف الراوي المدعو يوسف، أو “الفتيس”.
Murad came back in two packages. He was hit in the neck, they said. The squall of ammo was such the head wouldn’t stay in place.
After Mama was hauled to Tante Loulou’s I arranged him on a mattress in the living room, then I sat thinking how he hated the army.
I’d hated it too, twelve years before. Even though at that time conscripts weren’t being screwed. But to be in the barracks on July 23…
The Gunmen had timed it to make a point. The army is the state is the infidels is the enemy, they believe. And July 23, 1952? A coup.
It’s the coup you call R that WE call bloody C. How about everyone just calls it RC, I was thinking. Then I remembered.
I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.
We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.
I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.
ابنة خالتك أولى.
ابنة عمك أولى.
تقول نسوة في المدينة:
وراودته التي هو في عرينها
أصبحتُ راهبًا ونباتيًّا بلا معاناة.
دُلّنا على الفيل
دُلّنا على الجمل
دُلّنا على اللبؤة.
Even as it ages, a corpse shows no sign of decay. People start having visions of the dead man. He gives them advice in their dreams. When miracles begin to occur through his apparent intercession, he is declared a wali or vassal (of God). A shrine is built over his grave, and those who tend to it command kudos among his devotees…
It would be wrong to reduce the multifarious phenomena of Sufism to such a story. But in the Egyptian popular imagination, at least, that story remains the quintessential narrative of Sufism.
Sufi doctrine is impossible to sum up with any clarity anyway. Claimants range from the ninth-century Malamatiyya of Khorassan to “the Proof of Islam” Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). The first group actively sought ill repute by flaunting sinfulness and making themselves worthy of malamah (or blame), the better to reject piety, which they saw as a worldly value and a factor in distance from God. The second is arguably the central figure in Sunni orthodoxy.
So the beatification of the wali is as good a way as any to set the dervish apart from the ordinary believer: the gnostic secrets he has access to (sometimes enabling him to perform miracles), the higher states of consciousness he experiences as a result of those secrets, his sheer unmediated joy (making him willing to give up all worldly powers and possessions), and his often strained relations with the Umma’s sober patriarchs.
الحياة بشعار شانيل
لو كنت مديري كنتُ خلعتُ ‘كندرتي‘ واشتريتُ لكَ ورداً يبتسمُ ابتسامةً صناعيّةً وأهمس من وراء ظهرك أنكَ كتلةٌ من الخراء. لكنكَ مُفلسٌ كيومِ أحد في كنيسة بشمال أوروبا: رسومات عذبة من الماضي لا تعني الآن سوي هزل. الحياة علبة مغلقة فارغة كانت تنتمي لشخص أحمق فتحها وجعلني هنا – الذنب كاثوليكي المنشأ؛ القديس بطرس صخرة الكنيسة ومارشاربل بحق جاه النبي – دس وجهك بين الورق بلا صياعة! هل قلتُ لكَ كم شعرة بيضاء في رأسي عددتها هذا الصباح كتعويذة ضد ما ينتزعني للخلف، وضدك أنت؟ جسدي بلا وطن، بلا قلب، لكنه يقولون سليم وكبد وكليتين يعملان بكفاءة ويرتدي السكاربينات ويقود السيارة ويجلس في الاجتماعات طيلة اليوم. في الليل يتحوَّل إلي فراشة فأحرقه بولاعتي وأنام. بالنهار يشرب سوائل أجعله يصدق أنها خمر. جسدي عالق وسط صحراء صناعيّة حيث الأساطير لم تعد شيطاناً يلهم الشعر ولا حيواناً بأجنحةٍ يفترس البشر، بل كلمات مثل ‘مقاومة‘. ‘حب‘. ‘حياة بسيطة‘. ‘ثورات عربيّة‘. الحياةُ مثل علبة مغلقة فيها جسدي ومرسوم عليها شعار ‘شانيل‘. أخزنها تحت الفِراش، وأنام.
When the bomb-scarred man started undressing, I hadn’t had time to reflect on ending up alone in a shelter pod with him. It occurs to me now that it should’ve disturbed me: a mutant undressing for no apparent reason in what was after all a public space. Perhaps the shock of being caught in the cross-radiation overshadowed the incongruity of the scene. Perhaps the air-base city of Ibra, the capital of Dun, seemed like a place where even stranger things could happen.
I remember thinking there would be no way out of the pod until who knew when but that my communication chip was connected and that I was safe for now. I remember thinking I should’ve heeded the warning not to travel here, even if it was only for an hour. I remember thinking I was lucky not to belong in this part of the world.
As the Conscience of the Nation, even though it is never clear which Nation, the Arab Intellectual bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Here, transforming his Seven States as photographed in 2005, are Seven of the Qualities that help him survive in a world that remains forever beneath him:
الفشل هو زيارة المنطقة السوداء داخل رأسك، أين رميت كل ما هو منبوذ ومستبعد حدوثه، الأشياء المشوهة والمؤلمة والتي لم تفكر يوما في مواجهتها.
الفشل أن تكتب هذا (عشرون عاما – وحدة مبكرة تؤنسها كتب وعلب سجائر متزايدة – روح في مركب أشخاص رحلوا – مؤخرات مدورة – عمل مؤقت لحلم مؤجل وأوهام كثيرة لتقبل الحياة) قبل حدوثه بعام،
تكتشف أن سقف خيالك سقوط مؤجل ولاشيء غير ذلك.
As an Arab you’re probably expecting me to lay into Nymphomaniac. It’s a film that must seem, if not offensive to my cultural sensibility, then irritatingly irrelevant to the poverty, underdevelopment, and upheaval that surround my life.
In most cases dropping the word “white” in the same paragraph as “Islam’s respect for women” is all it would take to slam Lars von Trier in this context. It would be a politically correct slur, too. I could even draw on Edward Said’s hallowed legacy to point out that the only time non-Europeans appear in over four hours of action, they’re portrayed as dumb sex tools. Not only self-indulgent and obscene but also Orientalist, etc..
But the truth is I actively delighted in Nymphomaniac, and I didn’t have to stop being an Arab for that to happen. To be accurate I should say I would’ve welcomed a von Trier film anyway, but this one showed up when it was needed—and it duly exploded on arrival.