Cairo Map by Piri Reis, 15th century
An Excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)”
Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:
The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”
The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.
In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.
This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.
Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.
Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.
In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).
Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.
Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.
Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.
. . .