Cairo by Piri Reis, 16th century

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Los Angeles Review of Books Essay

ISIS, Hollywood, Islam by Youssef Rakha: March 28th, 2015


I AM a horror film connoisseur. Monsters and murders speak to my understanding of the human condition. The macabre and the moribund reflect my interest in extremes. Even torture inspires me, not as a pastime (Hostel) or a punishment (Se7en), but through and beyond these and other nightmares as an analogy for mortality, for the limit both of life and of meaning.

That is why I sat through A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Crosswith bated breath:

A quiet shore somewhere on the North African coast. A group of men are being marched to the edge of the lapping water by figures of such stature they make them look like dwarfs. As it advances the checkered line appears and disappears in flashes, cutting through a scenic frame of the sea. Their hands tied behind their backs, the condemned are orange-clad, Guantanamo-style, while the masked giants towering above them are all in black except for the one in the middle, also masked. He is the Chorus in this weird travesty of Sophocles.

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أحمد الحادقة: كلهم أحد

Bieke Depoorter. EGYPT. Cairo. 2012. From the series "In Between". Source:

Bieke Depoorter. Cairo. 2012. From the series “In Between”. Source:

أن تجلس في هذه البقعة، نعم هي ليست خارج المدينة، لكن أن تجلس فيها وترى السيارات عن بُعد، ليس من أعلى مكعب كملايين المكعبات لكن من أُفُق  السيارات نفسها، إحساس جديد في هذه المدينة. أن تشعر أن نسبة من يراقبونك أقل من المعتاد ولو لفترة وجيزة، إحساس طالما افتقدته في المدينة المخصية هذه: مدينة بلا خصوصية على الإطلاق.

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A Kind of Linguistic Caliphate: In Conversation with Hilary Plum


I first learned of Youssef Rakha’s work in June 2011, when Anton Shammas wrote me with an unprecedentedly urgent recommendation. I was an editor with Interlink Publishing, which has been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1987: here was a writer who, as Shammas would later put it, with his debut novel had claimed “an immediate spot at the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” With The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha has, in Shammas’s words, “[realized] at long last, one of the dreams of modern Arabic novelists since the mid nineteenth century: to formulate a seamless style of modern narration that places the novel in the world.” The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Kitab at-Tughra) had been published in February 2011, coincident with the beginning of revolution in Cairo, and over the following years, as I awaited its translation with the impatience the monolingual are doomed to endure, rumors of the novel continually, insistently arrived. I can only suggest that the anticipation I felt then is the anticipation literature in English does not yet know it has been feeling, the lack from which it’s been suffering, and which these two novels will answer in force.   In one of those lucky moments when publishing just gets things right, this winter offers readers in English Rakha’s first two novels at once: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey and published by Interlink, and The Crocodiles, translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories. Sultan’s Seal moves us exhilaratingly through the Cairo of 2007, city of post-9/11 Islam, sweeping through centuries of Arab and Ottoman history and into a future of Rakha’s own invention. The Crocodiles takes us up to the brink of 2011, spinning the history of a secret poetry society in Cairo, gorgeous in its fury, hope, and despair. Rakha’s arrival in English constitutes an event. It’s been my pleasure to speak with Youssef about his work.

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مو مصراتي: وحش الفاك يو


Kossommak (“Your Mama’s Cunt”), digital art. By Youssef Rakha.

لا يعتبر ريكي نفسه عنصرياً. بالطبع، أنتم تعرفون معنى مصطلح العنصرية، وبطبيعة الحال، سنضعها في قاموسنا الدماغي تحت خانة الشر أو المصطلحات العيبية كما يحدث في الجملة التي تلي جملة وضعت فيها هذه الكلمة في وسائل الميديا. ريكي لم يكن يعتبر نفسه عنصرياً، وما يدفعنا للجزم بذلك، أنه مثلي ومثلك ومثل الكثيرين أيضاً، حين يقرأ هذا المصطلح أو يسمعه، يسارع بوضعه مباشرة تحت خانة الشر والمصطلحات العيبية.

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Roma, February 2015 ● روما، فبراير ٢٠١٥



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أن تشم البرتقال: جواب من كارول صنصور


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It seems I have disrupted your version of things: Jennifer Coard addresses her train conductor

On (a small group of) men (who are very unhappy), on (the) racism, misogyny (which they visit daily upon women in their sights), in which I shouldn’t have to say that I am a woman of colour

I should, no one should, have to dress, act, or speak in a manner which pleases ‘You’ in order to be treated equitably by you as you perform your job.

Those that are anti-respectability politics need not be against respectful. That is what I am. For respect. I was raised to be so. And time and time again it seems to be perceived by others as soft, until it’s not. I’m not supposed to disagree with you. Ever. Time and again it is perceived as disrespecting your desire to project a very monolithic angry persona of ‘all black people.’

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