في رحيل حافظ وشوقي… من يذكر عبد الحميد الديب؟

١٩ دسيمبر ٢٠٠٧

كان من دواعي عبقرية أمير الشعراء أحمد شوقي (1867-1932)، بحسب كتاب المطالعة المقرر، عيناه الحالمتان .الأمر الذي أعطاني سبباً إضافياً لأكره الشِعر العربي. ليس فقط لأن صلةً مفترضة بين عين الإنسان وإبداعه محض عَبَط ولكن، بالأكثر، لأن عيني شوقي بدتا – في الصور التي تسنّى لي رؤيتها أيام ثانوي – أقرب إلى ثبات وسُبات أبي الهول من أي حلم . إلى أن اكتشفتُ محمد عبد الوهاب، حقيقة – وتعطلت لغة الكلام وخاطبت عيني، في لغة الهوى، عيناك/لا أمس من عمر الزمان ولا غد، جُمع الزمان فكان يوم رضاك – لم أصغ مرة لشوقي.

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Mainstream margin

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Last week Youssef Rakha lamented the sameness of the cultural press in the wake of revolution; this week he unpacks the role of that press as the morally superior Margin to an alleged establishment Text
It has been less than four months since the interim government of Essam Sharaf took charge and, true to form, intellectuals representing the supposed margin (of dissidence, of freedom, of whatever happens to be unlike or alternative to centres of money and power) are already assessing the performance of Emad Abu-Ghazi’s Ministry of Culture, questioning the presence in its ranks of former members of the NDP or its attempts to accommodate Salafi pressures through censorship, forgetting that the NDP and fundamentalist Islam are far more representative of the society in which they live than they could ever hope to be, and still possessing not a clue on how to achieve what they have always taken to be their raison d’être – transforming that society.
Intellectuals are doing so, for example, in the dedicated publication Akhbar Al-Adab, which, following a drawn-out, post-revolution strike against a corrupt editor more like a pro-government journalist (for which read civil servant) than an intellectual, is now edited by Abla El-Reweini: a triumph for all concerned but a development, ironically, that maintained the pre-revolution status quo of a small-circulation, progressive weekly subsidised by a gargantuan, more or less reactionary establishment (Akhbar Al-Yom). After some 50 years of ineffectuality, abolishing the ministry of culture altogether seemed not only the wiser but also the more revolutionary decision.
Yet the proposition found little support among the universally pro-revolution intellectuals themselves – and cultural circles by extension. It seems the intellectuals, like their counterparts in almost every field of endeavour, were eager to resume their usual role: that of disgruntled observer of official culture, which presupposes the existence of the latter. It seems they too could not wait for life to go “back to normal”. What is strange about this is not their impatience with the prospect of chaos, with temporary or partial unemployment and logistical, financial uncertainty. It is their failure to see the revolution as an opportunity for revising their perspective on culture itself: what it means to be an intellectual, what counts in a political position, what is the point of having or being part of a government-controlled institution…
For a decade following the “first independence” of 1956, big ideas about national consciousness and a state for the people did support cultural practises as part of a totalitarian system whose credibility came into question with the 1967 defeat. However, with the onset of anti-nationalist nationalism and mafia-style capitalism under Sadat, Egyptian culture – for a brief spell, an effective arm of the state – very quickly devolved into sporadic literary and audio-visual phenomena that have existed outside or in spite of corrupt and by now wholly superfluous institutions.
(Superfluous to the point of no longer even serving the regime that squandered public funds on them: from within another small-circulation, relatively progressive weekly subsidised by an even more gargantuan and reactionary institution, the revolution has made it possible to ask whether the decision by the former editor in chief of the daily Al-Ahram Ossama Saraya, a few months before the revolution, to Photoshop the figure of Mubarak from the back to the front of a small group of heads of state in a universally available wire picture before publishing it – the notorious “expressive intervention” scandal – actually served Mubarak’s interests.)
The failure of the Sadat regime to live up to the promise of freedom and its wholesale adoption of the Cold War strategy of endorsing political Islam to fend off the communist threat – just as idiotic, in the end, as Nasser’s non-alignment or pro-Soviet strategies of pan-Arab nationalism – resulted in the phenomenon of the “marginal” intellectual (i.e., the intellectual who did not openly pander to a regime she knew to have no legitimacy) as “the conscience of the nation”.
In the light of the isolation of both culture and power from an ever more underdeveloped society and so in the absence of the nation itself, the conscience of the nation is an interesting concept. The conscience of the nation critiques a construct, and in so doing it enters into a power game with fake representatives of (Arab, or Muslim) identity. Culture turns into an airtight system of shifting alliances and ongoing conflicts, personally driven and materialistically substantiated. The cultural margin becomes a steganographic part of the text of the regime not half as different from the society it rules as Akhbar Al-Adab would have us believe, a text – or a muddle of pious bureaucracy and incompetent profiteering – no longer really being written.
The marginal intellectual’s role before as after the revolution is to cling onto the moral high ground, critiquing the failure of said regime to undertake its national responsibility to a sublime thing called culture. But there can be no moral high ground in the absence of morality, nor does true culture – whether state-supported or spontaneous – emerge in isolation from the flesh-and-blood, dust-and-exhaust fume reality of which it is part. Neither nation nor culture can ever be very clearly defined in a police (or military) state where ideologies and counter ideologies, whether nationalist or Islamist, have eventually revealed themselves to be mere sloganeering.
Under Mubarak, Islamists (Salafis) were systematically unleashed on society in return for staying out of politics. The Ministry, headed for over 25 years by the former intelligence agent and abstract expressionist painter Farouk Hosni, turned culture into mega-project business closely associated with tourism and archaeology, by turns outraging and making outrageous concessions to Salafism.
Under Hosni the ministry totally emasculated an intellect like Gaber Asfour and totally abandoned one like the late Nasr Abu-Zeid, a potential and an actual victim of the “Islamic threat”, respectively. It siphoned money out of the country, like every other stolid ministry under Mubarak. In the systematic attacks on its abuses by the founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, the novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (who has called on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-standing defence minister and the head of the Higher Military Council, to assume the role of absolute ruler for a period of three years following the revolution), it found a shadow ministry with sufficient cover to make intellectuals feel they were active agents of a living culture, up against something they should be up against, owners of the moral high ground.
Yet now as before it is as if what must by definition be creative and organically rooted practise can be judged on the same terms as health care, for example. Now as before even intellectuals who recognise the bankruptcy of slogan-driven and populist consciousness are unable to let go of their role as the mirror image of a monster that does not really exist, or one that exists only insofar as they themselves allow it to.
The socio-cultural critic, which is the closest thing to what the Akhbar Al-Adab intellectual is or should be, is still at the receiving end of an intention emanating from an establishment that has proven, again and definitively, both culturally and morally hollow, paper thin, a vomit bag of un-things. Not only does this arrangement undermine the rebellious individual, it also turns the margin into a cog in the machinery of the very text it sets out to oppose – in the present case, and despite all the noise on both sides of the unreal divide: silence.

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ars Poetica-1

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Let us not mention names: Some time before the transformation that almost happened six months ago in Egypt, a Ministry of Culture poetry journal decided to append a booklet of prose poetry to one of its issues. I am not sure when exactly, but this journal was once prestigious. Or so at least the prose poets who were excited to be included in the selection believed.

They spoke of effort and legitimacy, of belated gratitude, of being recognized by the establishment. They accused each other of stealing “ideas for poems”, to maximize their chance of being featured. They reiterated their usual laments about the general public being too ignorant and underdeveloped to appreciate their talent. It sounded as if they were about to achieve all that they had ever lived for.

Like much about the Ministry of Culture, however, by the time it decided to celebrate prose poetry the prestigious journal in question had long fallen into a state of zombification, barely even pretending to act as the high-brow beacon of poetic vitality it was supposed to be.

It pandered to more or less extinct tastes, forwarded the reactionary agenda of its editor in chief (whose foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against the validity of prose as a medium for poetry had made his name synonymous with Last Verse Dinosaur) and, because it eschewed the most successful poetry being written for the last two decades — i.e., prose poetry — it was hardly ever read.

That did not matter much to the poets being featured: those of them who were unduly enthusiastic about the prospect, I mean. What mattered was — this was the prestigious Ministry of Culture poetry journal…

Unlike lowest-common-denominator, low-brow “political” verse, it is true, prose poetry is only popular with a very small, “specialized” readership. That is because technical archaicness combined with ideological polemics has proved to be the only winning brew with the general public — but not archaicness combined with intellectual pretension!

That latter brew, as events would demonstrate, found repulsively unethical expression in the person of the same journal’s managing editor, a younger species of dinosaur, who with much misleading fanfare commissioned the prose-poetry supplement, only to turn around and cry, once the booklet appeared — and in the very same issue’s editorial — What a load of rubbish! Do you now see that I only published it the better to expose it to your subtly sublime sensibilities.
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Starting up

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In the cultural if not the mainstream press, revolution might have prompted installing a new OS altogether, writes Youssef Rakha ; it has barely suggested a restart

Once again I am perusing the cultural press and once again I am distressed. It is partly the same old disappointment in frivolous topics being overblown and muthaqqaf (or intellectual) responses to ideas and events being, as if by definition, politicised. It is partly the persisent perception of “the intellectuals” — for which read, very simply, agents of cultural activity of any kind — as something over and above what they do or more often fail to do adequately: the madness of presupposing that, irrespective of the nature or extent of their work, intellectuals are not only producers of discourse but also, and perpetually, agents of transformation, “the role of the muthaqqaf ” — and the Poet in particular — standing in for that of the Sage or the Superman, if not the Ruler then the Prophet. But current distress resulting from perusal of the cultural press is mainly a matter of a revolution having taken place: a predetermined idea, in my own mind, about the positive effects of the events of 25 Jan-11 Feb on “intellectual” consciousness — no such luck!

Whoever came up with the idea that poetry can change the world, I don’t know (God forgive Jean-Paul Sartre for his theory of engagement, though I doubt it has much to do with this in context), but three months on, “revolution” is an occasion to rethink not only the haloed topic of “the relationship of the intellectual to authority” but also modern Arab-Muslim history as a whole: the actual role of the intellectual in its unfolding. In 18 days, no more than one tenth of the population managed to dislogdge an abominable, prehistoric president. Of those, less than a tenth handed over power to the army, admittedly without much resistance from anyone. But it is the remaining nine tenths (who had nothing, factually, to do with either the protests or the intellectual force behind them) who have been crying Revolution ever since.

Counterrevolutionary discourse to the effect that the events were a foreign conspiracy, however absurd, is gaining ground; but it is cooption and subversion that remain the principal lie. People cry Revolution even despite there being no tangible change in the way the country operates or the vision of the powers in charge of it — themselves an extension, however distorted, of a half century-old “nationalist” project which, existing nominally for the People, has tended consistently to sacrifice people to a more or less abstract (if not wholly phony) greater cause. Consciously or not — all things considered, it hardly matters — intellectuals have abetted this process. The real-life narrative of the “indpendent” Arab state has in fact involved fewer intellectuals than figures of authority or picaroons, not to mention preachers; and many intellectuals, whether or not they preached ideologies while they did so, doubled as picaroons or figures of authority.

Now that I have witnessed the cold-blooded murder, with public funds, of a sizable portion of the very People in whose name Arabs and Muslims had endured so much immoral autocracy and mind control, unnecessary backwardness and underdevelopment, indignity and — increasingly — mafia-style corruption, it is easy to see why even with the best intentions, generations of patriotic and “nationalist” intellectuals contributed to perpetuating vicious circles of political untruth: glory and unity meaning defeat in the time of Nasser, victory meaning Cold War-style Islamism and unchecked capitalism in the time of Sadat, development meaning phenomenal nepotism and the systematic syphoning of money out of the country in the time of Mubarak.

Considering that for the longest time patriotism and nationalism have been preconditions of intellectual legitimacy — even well-meaning supporters of peace with Israel were methodically and effortlessly cast out of the intellectual community — it is easy to see how limited the role of the intellectual had to be: an intellectual could only oppose practises, not ideas; she could only criticise actions, not values; however oppositional she sought to be, however many years she spent in prison, an intellectual could only ever exist as part of an overriding national project whose attendant discourse, thanks in part to that intellectual herself, was increasingly, irrevocably divorced from reality.

The issue has less to do with helping Palestinians, for example, than it does with liberating Jerusalem — a task whose failure is as yet a forgone conclusion. It has less to do with improving living standards than replacing a non-alignment strain of nationalism with a socialist or communist one. It has less to do with endorsing freedom of worship than implementing a totalitarian vision of “the Islamic state” (whatever that means, and however much pandering to liberal democracy it requires). By the same token, culture has less to do with engaging the people than speaking in their name, contributing to an ever more discourse-bound narrative of hopes, intentions and abstractions. It has less to do with creativity and the intellect than blocking out and maintaining a meaninglessly politicised group of people — popularly known as “the communists” — who are neither trusted nor popular, and whose work seldom makes it past the block they occupy.

Now that I have witnessed cold-blooded murder on the streets, it is easy to see how maintaining the kind of discourse with which the intellectuals have been identified or allowing it to maintain itself — how speaking, again, of the role of the intellectual, of enlightenment and moderation as opposed to secularism, for example — is an integral part of the problem. And it is distressing to see that, notwithstanding all that happened on the streets of Cairo, notwithstanding all that became clear as a result of it, the discourse of the cultural press has not changed in the slightest.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Suicide note (as in journalistic, or so they say by way of justifying not publishing)

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There is something too easy about being an Arab journalist. The Arab is inherently a babbler, as loquacious as (s)he is indiscrete. All you need to do is hang around a few potential sources. And within minutes you will have all the data you could possibly want. Permission to quote may not be as forthcoming, but the lure of the limelight is usually a sufficient incentive; and if you are not putting anybody in trouble, the chances are your interlocutor will be more than happy to pose for a front-page portrait. True, politics can be trickier, but who can afford to talk politics these days? In matters relating to art and life –– more to the point –– no job is simpler than the Arab journalist’s.

Not so in the UAE!

For three months now I have been trying to wrap my ghutra-less head around this Trucial oddity, and for three months it has been all I could do not to bash said head against the wall.

Time and again I think of stories to write: innocuous, apolitical and absolutely harmless stories. Time and again I hit the same inexplicable roadblock. Forget interesting or provocative commentary. You would not believe what it takes to obtain someone’s phone number. Irrespective, that is, of whether they might actually answer the phone. Say they do, then you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting a brief answer to maybe one of five questions. More probably they will offer you someone else’s number, and then that other person will prove to be even less positively disposed. And to think that all you set out to do is cover an exhibition or a screening!

In three months I have coaxed, yelled and pulled strings. On the one occasion when plans did not fall through, the person vanished before I could organise the indispensable photo shoot. I have since learned that this can happen. When you are least expecting it, mobile phones are switched off, secretaries fail to reveal their bosses’ whereabouts under waterboarding, and e-mails continually bounce back.

It all adds to the mystery, of course; and indeed I had almost got used to it.

Until, asking a source’s permission for an anonymous and perfectly pro powers that be quote, I found myself reeling under a string of hysterical protestations. A strange, almost tearful moment: it was at this point that I conceived of my theory about Arab journalists in the UAE being the targets of a secret, nation-wide conspiracy to make them feel as far away from familiar, shoot-the-breeze territory as possible. And perhaps the intention is for them to hone their craft, the better to raise the standards of Arab journalism. I can live with that.

Recalling my easy-going former life as a cultural editor, my concern, rather, is that one day I will give in to the temptation, already strong, to put words into the mouths of those perpetually elusive sources. If they will not talk for fear of losing their jobs, perhaps they will lose them anyway.

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on TRANSLATION

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My favourite monster

Youssef Rakha

There is something maddening about translation. Perhaps the right word is “eye-opening”: it makes you realise just how ­impossibly separate the mental categories of two languages can be. I speak, in particular, of Arabic and English, that double-headed monster which, staring long and hard into my intellectual looking glass, I sometimes glimpse laughing at me.

Like an invisible friend – or, rather, a ghost whisperer – that bilingual creature sits behind me every time I attempt to translate my own work, one bloated head over each shoulder, sniggering at my futile efforts to make two things into one, ­reminding me that, by working simultaneously in two languages, all I have managed to do is ­internalise some two centuries of chronic misunderstanding and mutual abuse, with the vague promise that some day, maybe, such chronic conflict will have been resolved – enough for my work to make positive, universal sense.

I write in Arabic, one version of which – the Cairo dialect – is my mother tongue. I also write in English, of course, but Arabic is the language in which I produce the poems, stories and essays that I tend to think of as my gift to posterity. And then, remembering that the vast majority of the world’s readership will have access to no such gift, I panic and berate myself for not making it available in English, which is so much more widely ­understood and appreciated.

That is when I sit down to translate my work. “Good luck,” I can almost hear the double-headed monster yelling every time, his giggles just audible enough in the background. “You will not discourage me,” I ­respond. And, armed with a range of dictionaries and the willingness to take a word out here, replace an expression there, reinvent the flow and the rhythm of the text, I sit down and block out every distraction.

Later, when I have shown the results of this exercise to ­English readers whose judgement I trust all the more because they have no Arabic, they have pointed out so many peculiarities, unclear turns of phrase and incomprehensible allusions that I have had to question my knowledge not only of ­English but of Arabic as well.

Yes, I would think, what on earth did I mean by that?

It would eventually come to my attention that, to really present my works of genius to ­English-speaking posterity, I must rewrite them entirely or, to be more precise, I must write them anew – in English. And then what will I achieve? They will have become something profoundly other than what they are, as estranged from themselves as Arabic is from English.

It is then that, glimpsing the double-headed monster in the looking glass, I have been tempted by violence. So far, I have ­resisted the temptation.

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Chasing rainbows: poets of the Emirates

Seven poets, seven emirates

Youssef Rakha

Hashem al Muallim, a cultural editor for a newspaper in Ajman, has not written poetry for three years. Randi Sokoloff / The National

I arrive in Ras al Khaimah the night before my appointment and, drained by travelling non-stop for 12 hours, barely register the atmosphere before going to bed. When you live in Abu Dhabi, it turns out, waking up in Ras al Khaimah can be surreal.

The city is like the UAE capital through the looking glass. It boasts fewer salwar kameezes, for example, but this is made up for by a strong south Indian contingent, seemingly better integrated than Abu Dhabi’s Pashtun community. Either there are more tourists or the tourists are more visible. Emiratis drive leisurely through the hilly terrain, which keeps tapering into promontories until it suddenly levels out in the desert as flat as the plains of Dhafra – and then, when you are least expecting it, the sand gives way to green.

Echoing the phantasmagoria is the nickname the poet Abdul Aziz Jassim, another Ras al Khaimah native, reportedly gave the emirate, invoking the magic realism of Gabriel-Garcia Marquez: Colombia.

Nor are the historical facts very sobering: its being coextensive with the ancient port town of Julfar; its being the last sheikhdom to join the federation; its being home to the 15th-century navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, credited with finding the route to India, as well as one of two possible birthplaces (the other being Sharjah) for his contemporary al Majdi bin Dhahir, the legendary father of Nabati poetry… But I am here to meet the poet Ahmad al Assam – perhaps the only major Ras al Khaimah writer to continue living in Ras al Khaimah – and it is on his life and work that I should concentrate.

Assam seems to embody the intersection between the Gulf tradition of oral verse and the contemporary prose poem. His work, published sporadically, reads like fragments from an epic of Julfar. Few themes could be differentiated from the setting, which the poet celebrates in Whitmanesque tones, unbridled by form or reason.

He did not know it then, but at the majalis to which he accompanied his father as a child, many of the Nabati texts recited were prose poems.

Born in 1965, he lived “between two freejs”, and a mad neighbour “who kept to himself until he had an episode, during which he would concern himself solely with us children, behaving as an over-attentive father”, who contributed to his understanding of the human condition. Assam would grow up to develop William Faulkner’s knack for reading greatness into modest lives, and Pablo Neruda’s ability to perceive in his homeland a virgin, preternatural world untouched by vice.

With a population of 250,000 (220,000 of whom live in the eponymous city) dispersed over 1,700 sq km, Ras al Khaimah is the northernmost emirate, bordered by Oman as well as Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. In the early 1970s it housed the Trucial comrades of Oman’s Dhufar revolutionaries. Ras al Khaimah territory contains both the Mussandam Peninsula – where the Arab first met the Ajami, or “he who cannot speak [Arabic]”: the oldest, slightly derogatory term for a Farsi – and the Gulf’s closest thing to the Grand Canyon, Wadi Bih. It is the only emirate that has combined fishing and sheep farming with agriculture, and today thrives on reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals used in ceramics manufacture as well as agricultural produce.

“My peers always knew to stop talking once they sensed my presence, even at a distance,” he recalls, “because I had ears that could catch what they said. Now when I think about it, I realise that I saw and looked with my ears. When I write a poem, I do not write it with my eyes, I hear it. All my life, any whisper that presented itself, I felt. And then it wrote me.”

Assam is a short, stocky man in a mustard khandoura, with the demeanour of a performer in the tradition of the early Arabian poets. When he picks me up, his right foot has recently been operated on – diabetes complications, he will explain – but he drives easily, pointing out the problem only when the photographer suggests he should walk up a steep pier. He speaks of his poor health with an equanimity bordering on fatalism, “the sheer stubbornness of my people, not pride,” he repeats, “just stubbornness”.

And stubbornness is less obvious in his work than his refusal to acknowledge that he was ever poor, patriotic or political. Assam participated in the 1974 protests against low wages which, initially triggered by Iran’s occupation of the Greater and Lesser Tumbs Islands, took Ras al Khaimah by storm. He insists it was to impress a sweetheart in the front lines. His relative indifference to travelling highlights all three qualities. Why would you want to leave even for Dubai, he asks, when you have every possible environment – coast, desert, mountain and field – at your doorstep?

Even his stint at the Emirates University in Al Ain, from 1983 to 1985, was cut short by an insurmountable yearning for home. He never graduated. “Were I to live in an apartment in a high-rise building,” he says, “my sense of wonder would flutter out of the window and back to Ras al Khaimah.”

At the Grand Restaurant, a small place where Indians scoop up biryani with their hands, Assam professes gratitude to Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, for making modern education available to a generation of aspiring intellectuals. But it was this grassroots lore of the sea that informed his local radio appearances in the late 1980s – his true debut, coinciding with his joining the intellectual rights department of the Ministry of the Economy at Ras al Khaimah, which he now directs. This was Nabati poetry, and while it metamorphosed through the activities of a short-lived “literary salon” known as The Beggars and the establishment of the Ras al Khaimah branch of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates in 1989, the drive to recite to friends has remained unchanged.

“People in Ras al Khaimah may seem outdated,” Assam confides as he drives me back to the hotel, “but they are the Emirates’ true intellectuals.”

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I arrived in Ras al Khaimah after a long drive at night and the same happens again with Ajman, the visually less compelling but intellectually psychedelic hometown of the poet Hashem al Muallim.

The smallest of the seven Emirates, with a population of 40,000 living in 260 sq km, Ajman lies entirely within Sharjah’s territory, recalling West Berlin prior to the unification of Germany – except that, rather than an iron curtain, all that separates the two emirates is freehold property and alcohol, with Ajman following in the footsteps of Dubai by accommodating expatriates and embracing the age of the high-rise. But the two are intertwined; Muallim, who was born in Sharjah in 1970, is himself an example of that. His father’s family lived in Sharjah, his mother’s in Ajman. When he was seven his father decided to join his in-laws. “You take a drag on your cigarette in Sharjah,” as he puts it, “and you blow it out in Ajman.”

The town seems cosier than anywhere I have been in the UAE, including Sharjah. It is framed by an unobtrusive Corniche, which figures extensively in Hashem’s work (one poem is prefixed with “This text was written over an abandoned pavement on the coast of Ajman”).

The stunning waterfront and the neat little bungalows inspire calm, though in the evening, driving back from the Carrefour shopping complex, Muallim and I will witness two traffic accidents within metres of each other on the main road. Ajman has all the luxuries of Dubai, but it retains a predominantly Emirati constituency – judging by Carrefour, at least, which is swarming with bare-headed men in white khandouras. People seem more approachable than in Abu Dhabi.

That morning I instantly recognise him at the Kampinsky terrace cafe: he is an average-looking man with an absurdist sense of humour. He is sipping Turkish coffee with a printout of his last poem in front of him: a homage to Abdul Aziz Jassim. Muallim featured in joint collections (notably with Assam) before publishing his sole book with the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information in 2003, Those Buried in the Air. A civil servant with the Ajman police, he never attended university – the early death of his father obliged him to provide for the family – and he explains with wry humour how he and his family live in a room at his mother’s. Poverty is a point of pride for him.

Muallim never writes about places per se, but his childlike wonder is rooted in the intimately observed settings of his youth; and he was part of a frenzied “search for the unusual” centred here in a period roughly coinciding with The Beggars in Ras al Khaimah. (The same period also saw the short-lived poetry journals Nawariss and Ruaa, published in 1990-91, put out in Sharjah by the present-day director of the Dubai International Film Festival, Masoud Amrallah, and the poets al Hanouf Mohammad and Ibrahim al Mullah.)

He still counts himself among a creative community of young people spanning the two emirates who were revolutionary in the intellectual sense: lovers of Bob Marley who knew nothing about Rasta, or else self-styled Dadaists until they saw a picture of Tristan Tzara, a groomed gentleman, and realised that Jassim or Ahmad Rashed Thani – the Emirates’ two biggest names in prose poetry – had more to say to them than either dreadlocks or gibberish.

Speaking unhurriedly, Muallim traces his loss of innocence to the sudden death of his younger brother in a car accident when he was eight or nine. He was present at the scene but it took him a long time to comprehend it. “I asked where they were taking him,” he recounts, “and they said to the grave. Was he going to sleep at someone else’s house? They said it was the house of God. And from this day on, my reflexive definition of the word grave has been the place where God lives. So I left an orange on our secret tree branch in the house, where I knew he couldn’t fail to find it, and I went to bed thinking that if it stayed where it was till morning, that meant my brother would never come home again.”

More cheerfully, he recalls his Borgesian wonder at “those wholly magical creatures” he saw at the fish market nearby, where he discovered the existence of the wide, wide world beyond.

“One must become a black fish,” he wrote in Those Buried in the Air, “in the midst of lazy fanatics.”

The more I read of Muallim’s poems, the more familiar it feels. I realise with surprise that his texts have an affinity with those Egyptian poets known as the Generation of the Nineties; Muallim has had no contact with those poets (and read very little of their work). It dawns on me that, despite the economic divide separating the urban Gulf from older metropolises of Arabic literature, developments that have transformed poetry were happening everywhere at the same time. And yet, to a far greater extent than anyone in Cairo, Muallim’s conceptual vocabulary is drawn from nature: the tree, the fish, the bird.

“Still,” he says, “you can be a poet without having a word to your name. It has to do with being in tune, being able to see poetry for what it is – in the way the wave laps, in the birds’ wings, in the wind blowing through palm fronds. The poet is simply someone who can be like fronds, someone poetry can move through.”

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The journey from Ajman to Sharjah is far briefer than expected. On the way I recall the bigger emirate’s status as “cultural capital”. The third largest emirate, Sharjah has coasts on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and its ports are the country’s busiest. It also has small enclaves separate from the area around Sharjah City (population 800,000). Its rulers, the Qasimis – a branch of which also rule Ras al Khaimah – were among the Gulf’s most invincible seafarers in the 19th century. Besides oil and housing revenues, Sharjah has a buoyant logistics and trucking sector.

It seems oddly appropriate that the office where I am headed – that of Al Ittihad newspaper – should be located across the road from the Kassbah with its iconic ferry wheel, in a building called Babel Towers. Besides shunning media attention, the man I am after, a cultural editor there, has stated ivory-tower views on poetry.

In a sense, the poet Ibrahim al Mullah – author of Baskets of Desert (published with the German based Dar al Jamal in 1997) and I Left my Glance in the Well (privately printed in 2003) as well as a book of film criticism and several short films – is Assam’s diametrical opposite. He sees poetry not as an oral or public exchange, but as a private act “akin to isolation”. Not a bang but rather, in this case, a moving image.

Where Assam sees with his ears, the trajectory of Mullah’s development has followed a strictly cinematic course, with “the great poets” of the screen – Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Nikita Mikhalikov – informing his sensibility. Where the Julfari feels no need to travel, Mullah derives his inspiration from wandering not only around the Arab world, where he is better connected than most Emirati writers, but in Asia and Europe as well. His position in a government institution has enabled him to explore cities like Rome and Bangkok.

When I meet him, Mullah has not written poetry for three years. “When you work as a journalist,” he explains, “it spoils writing for you. The inner light that guides the poem, the pleasure you take in it, begins to fade. ”

True to a notion of freedom that drove him against the verse compositions with which he started, Mullah’s poems evoke all the places he has been to, but they never name them. His Sharjah turns out to be different from the bustling city I have come to see.

I have waited for half an hour at the office when Mullah marches in energetically, a broad-shouldered, tall figure with a light beard. His demeanour immediately strikes me with a remarkable sense of balance – warmth and distance, enthusiasm and caution, melancholy and good cheer.

“Not here,” Mullah waves at the window, lighting another cigarette in the conference room, “but Sharjah remains a horizontal, not a vertical city.” Like most journalists at their offices, he is distracted, in a hurry. “It’s a bit like European cities, not so much in terms of its architecture as its general aspect. I am not talking about this area, which has gone the way of Dubai, but in the places where we grew up and in some cases where we still live, the place retains its character. It doesn’t have buildings that block out the sun and the air and the blue of the sky. Its skyline does not induce that kind of terror about your connection to your own space or how you might live in it.”

Mullah was born in 1966, and he deplores the dog-eat-dog existence to which “a virgin land” has been reduced over the course of his lifetime. People’s relations had been intuitive until “the compulsion to prove oneself in society” supplanted clarity and good will.

“There are break-ups,” he keeps saying. “Even among relatives, there are break-ups, and endless interference. Maybe other people accept it as the normal course of things but for a poet or an emotional person, it takes its toll on you.”

He was reluctant to do the interview. Now, to avoid being photographed without his sunglasses on, he accompanies the photographer and me downstairs as he speaks, describing two kinds of house for each family, located in two different freejs: a summer house built out of palm fronds, and a winter house built out of mud reinforced with rock from the sea.

“The sea was our guest at high tide,” he muses. “It came into the house, and that was fine – we were used to it.

“This openness,” he says, pausing to emit a melancholy laugh. “This openness to the colour blue.”

A nation of words

Youssef Rakha


The writer Tariq Ebeid al Ali began publishing his Nabati verses in 1985. Stephen Lock / The National

A poet in Dubai is like a needle in a haystack. With nearly 1.4 million residents, Dubai is the largest emirate by population, but though it may boast as many Arab men of letters as Abu Dhabi, they are all but evanescent in the multicultural multitude. Despite the scarcity of oil, Dubai’s superlative architecture and embrace of international capitalism make it a worthy experiment in future metropolitanism, but only 40 years ago it was little more than a string of fishing villages on the Arabian Gulf. Today, natives are an even smaller minority than elsewhere in the UAE.

Walking into the Spinney’s shopping complex in Jumeirah – where I am to meet Khaled al Budoor, a respected Dubai poet who maintains a visible profile against the odds – it occurs to me how strange it must be to have been born here in 1961, to have grown up in tandem with such mind-blowing development and, after three years in Ohio obtaining an MA in scriptwriting, to have come back to find your teenage haunts transformed beyond recognition. “Let’s meet at the Starbucks,” he says on the phone. “Jumeirah is where I grew up. You know Jumeirah, don’t you?” And it is as if, asking me, he momentarily doubts how sure he himself is. “One feels a kind of estrangement,” he says now. “The places of childhood are no longer there.”

Budoor is a man of less than average height in a spotless white khandoura, slight but sturdy, with an incredibly trim light moustache going from grey to white. His bearing reflects years of working as a radio and television anchor, notably with Dubai TV, where he settled for early retirement some five years ago. He has written films and for the press and presided over seminars and an all-Dubai sophistication comes through in his conversation: cosmopolitan, aloof, slightly technocratic. “One feels fortunate to live in a city like Dubai,” he intones, “because it offers the writer everything he wants – books, films, equipment, contact with the contemporary world…”

He started out writing in classical verse, quickly making the transition through the modern, modified metres into prose, but he has always written in the Emirati dialect as well as standard Arabic. Some of his vernacular poems have rhyme and rhythm, but the extended metaphors out of which he forges a text are comparable in each case. So far he has published three books: Night (1992), Winter (2002) and (in Emirati Arabic) Ink and Dalliance (1999). Several more volumes, including collected articles on folk literature, are upcoming in the next year.

He seems at home enough in Starbucks, but his poems would never be. They emerge, rather, from “a simple fishing village” where “PE classes at school consisted of swimming in the sea” and old men gathered in the moonlight to listen to each other’s stories and verses, their laughter unencumbered by the absence of a dining table, their knowledge of the outside world all but fantastical. Part of this village may once have occupied the space of the multinational outlet where we are talking, but Budoor does not seem to mind.

And it is precisely the ability not to mind, and the contemporary idiom he writes in, that allow his poems to preserve those nostalgic images as places of beauty to which Arabic readers everywhere can return. Yet his true achievement, paradoxically, remains the way he has managed to depart – from the Emirates, Ohio, even his career – returning, painfully but exultantly, through the creative act. What he feels for the old Jumeirah, far from homesickness in time, is “an escape-return relationship,” as he puts it, “escape and return”. These days he recognises his birthplace only “in the faces of some friends, or else in recorded songs of the sea”; sometimes, he adds, matter-of-factly, “I feel in tune with its spirit”.

But Dubai’s architecture does not help induce this feeling, “even if the human being tries, in his own house, to provide a more merciful space”. Still, Budoor’s principal concern is with “estrangement in language”, a literal reference to the fact that few people in Dubai speak Arabic. It is a fate he seems resigned to as part of the city’s contemporary character, what makes it a great place to live. “But at other times,” he sighs, as if making a delayed confession, “I have the urge to run far into the desert – or the sea.”

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The trip to Fujairah never materialises. As is the case with Umm al Qaiwain, for the longest time I am told one of two things: there are no poets; or what poets there are, “classicists”, are not contemporary poets. “There are poets,” the Ras al Khaimah master Ahmad al Assam finally declares. “They may not write in prose, they may use Emirati Arabic. But there are poets.” And he picks up his mobile phone…

After a few days’ worth of toing and froing, one sultry evening I take a taxi to the Shangri-La Hotel, on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, to meet the Nabati poet Khaled al Dhahnani, who shows up a little late at 11.30pm, straight from the studio where he was a guest juror at a teenage Nabati poetry competition. “When you have been a juror on so many competitions,” he explains, “it doesn’t feel right to participate in the Millions Poet.” Within hours, Dhahnani is due at the airport for his summer holiday in Europe, but he has not only made the effort to show up, he also pays for dinner and provides over an hour of engaging conversation.

A tall, dutifully groomed figure with an easy-going, slightly distracted air, Dhahnani was born in 1972 to a family so involved in the politics of Fujairah – and so close to the Al Sharqi family – that he compares them to the Baramikah, viziers to the Abbasids and their empire’s true movers and shakers for hundreds of years after the ninth century. “Except that, unlike them,” he adds, “we do good.” Although he keeps his house in Dubai as well as Fujairah, Dhahnani feels he is wholly a product of this most mountainous of all the emirates, which commands stunning views of the Gulf of Oman. And, at 130,000 people, it is the second least populated emirate, with active mining and tourism industries but high unemployment rates among Emiratis.

A major media official in Fujairah (he organises the bi-annual International Monodrama Festival) Dhahnani stresses his connection with nature and the conscious effort to “reinforce talent with reading”, developing his own instantly recognisable style. He may write in the vernacular, he says, but he uses “a white language” comprehensible to all Arabs. And he is so concerned with the future of Arabic among Emiratis that for months he struggled to rid his speech of the word “OK”, but ironically – in a high-end setting potentially more alienating than Jumeirah – he feels no estrangement whatsoever.

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At 67,340 square kilometres – 86 per cent of the country’s land area – Abu Dhabi is too vast to picture all at once. First, there is the coastal city housing most of the emirate’s 1.3 million residents: in itself, a layered amalgam of worlds, as multinational as Dubai, but with more stress on Bedouin heritage. Then there is the original desert spring, Al Ain, population 614,180: the agricultural, educational and camel-racing centre whence settled members of the emirate’s powerful tribes, the Al Nahyan included, invariably hail. Between and beyond the two cities, oil fields, palm forests, luxurious resorts and construction workers’ camps frame the legendary Empty Quarter.

The mythic journey from Al Ain to the city of Abu Dhabi – originally a seasonal fishing and pearl-diving pilgrimage – has come to symbolise the formative years of the UAE, with the centre of gravity shifting from one to the other in the course of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s lifetime, to coincide with the genesis of the federation. It is a journey the director of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates, Hareb al Dhahiri, made at the age of 12, during a historical juncture, he says, “bridging two eras”. Moving from one city to the next was like “replacing the desert with the sea”. Together with Abu Dhabi’s cultural initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s – lectures and exhibits in the Tourist Club, the establishment of the Cultural Foundation, liaisons with Sharjah about founding the Union – it remains a central reference point in his life. “Abu Dhabi,” he says, “was a trail blazer.”

A Romantic poet better known as a short story writer, Dhahiri lives in Battin, an older enclave with one of the lowest skylines in the city, not far from the Old Airport Road. His spacious villa is furnished in the Second Empire style prevalent among the Arab bourgeoisie. Joining him in his salon, I remember that he is not only an intellectual, but also an Adnoc manager, and reportedly an effective juggler of priorities in the vexed arena of Abu Dhabi cultural policy. A critic of “mixing tourism into culture”, he brings the views of Abu Dhabi literary figures, like the poet Ahmad Rashed Thani, and the novelist Ali Abur Rish, the latter originally from RAK, into the public sphere. “Countries work on their artists until they become international,” he declares. “They do not import foreign artists, paying them millions of dollars they wouldn’t dream of earning in their countries.”

Dhahiri’s house bespeaks comfort and safety. And so, in a sense, do his poems: easy expressions of a “philosophy of love” informed by the work of visionaries like Blake and Gibran Khalil Gibran. He has written four books: Mandoline (1997), A Kiss on the Cheek of the Moon (1999) and Puppets’ Night and Soul Pulse (2004). Only two are collections of poems. In the others, narrative plays a smaller role than exploration of the psyche; and the same “philosophical way of writing” produces a layered, sometimes arcane short story similar to a prose poem. Only very subtly do Dhahiri’s social concerns rise to the surface: the disintegration of the fabric of society, dependence on the West, and the receding tide of cultural as opposed to tourist initiative.

A dark, round man with slow gestures and an easy smile, Dhahiri sits gingerly in an armchair to delineate his literary trajectory: from traditional verses through khawatir, or thoughts, to short stories. “For Arabs and especially Bedouins,” he says, “the connection with poetry is born with you when you are born. So it is only natural that even a short story writer should take this course.” Gradually, as he warms to his theme, his back slumps further into the cushion, his arms relax, and what strikes me as a conversational technique peculiar to Abu Dhabi – slow, measured but eventually revealing – begins to operate.

Dhahiri speaks of Scarborough, England, where – at his own initiative, at the age of 15 – he spent three months living with a local family to learn English. He speaks of his three years studying business at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, where his writing teacher – a tremendous support to him – turned out to be a Jewess, and how people had discouraged him from going to America under the impression, gleaned from action movies, that whoever lives there will end up dying in a shooting. He speaks of “the simple and old place”, Al Ain, “that stays with you as you grow up”; and of the inscrutable mysteries of poetic inspiration.

But imperceptibly, deftly, he steers the conversation back to Abu Dhabi. “When I first got here, there was an empty sand lot where we used to play, the present al Rawdha: people would come over and ask after a specific person. We were small then, but we could always tell them where that person lived. That’s how closely knit life was. But these days it reminds me of Scarborough. Now we are big,” he laughs, “but we don’t know the names of our next-door neighbours.”

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I have been in Umm al Qaiwain for nearly 24 hours when I realise the person I am here to see is actually in Abu Dhabi. So the interview is postponed till my return, and my observations are promptly recorded before I head back, smoking to my heart’s content in my first unmetered Emirati taxi.

Tariq Ebeid, a member of the Al Ali clan of which the Al Mualla sheikhs are a subsection, is a former police officer currently training as a school teacher. Periodic changes of career, he believes, are necessary for a rounded view of life. Born in 1967, Ebeid started publishing his Nabati verses in 1985; and urban discomfort notwithstanding, he has always worked in Abu Dhabi, spending the weekends and holidays at home, where he still has the greatest audience base, frequently holding poetic evenings in an atmosphere where “everyone is family and friends”.

The least populous emirate, and in some ways the least developed, Umm al Qaiwain recalls the hinterlands of the Sahara and Sinai by turns. It has few public amenities, no real centre, and a vastly spread out miscellany of beach-orientated establishments, among which the garland-dispensing, dancing-girl-on-stage “Indian nightclub” is particularly popular. Patronised mainly by sailors and jet skiers, the emirate “has few resources”, Ebeid says, but “boasts a glorious tradition of learning and the old, affectionate way of life”.

It has contributed much skilled labour to the bigger emirates, he goes on, producing a portfolio of magazine clippings out of which he reads a few samples.

Ebeid is an admirer of the Millions Poet, from which he says he learns a lot, but the opportunity to participate has not presented itself. In reality, he belongs more firmly in a humorist tradition of zajal, less emotional and rhetorical than the kind of work showcased in the programme, and more concerned with everyday life.
A small, dark, eminently hospitable man, Ebeid meets me at his Old Airport Road apartment while it is being packed in preparation for travelling to Umm al Qaiwain, and he repeatedly apologises for nonexistent inconveniences. “This is only a place to stay,” he says, “so that the children who go to school in Abu Dhabi should have a home here too. But the quiet, comfortable life is back there in Umm al Qaiwain, where there is neither traffic nor noise – and we keep travelling back and forth. One day, God willing, you will come and visit me there. And then you will see the difference for yourself.”

الشعر المعاصر في الإمارات

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http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080824/ART/682973072/1007

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080826/ART/575817412/1007

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080824/ONLINESPECIAL/893373589

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رواية علاء خالد

ريشة طائر

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لم يكن ممكناً أن يكتب علاء خالد كتابه الأخير (ألم خفيف كريشة طائر تنتقل بهدوء من مكان لآخر) في أقل من ٣٧٨ صفحة، ولعله لم يكن ممكناً أن يقصّر حتى العنوان. هذه هي قصة العائلة، أو سيرة ذاتية تتعدى موضوعها – الفرد – إلى مَن أحاط بتكوينه من أقارب وأصدقاء: غرابة أطوار الأخوال وتفاوت نجاحات رفاق (ثانوي) في اكتشاف عالم النساء وأحلام الأم التي تخفيها على أبنائها لأنه ثبت بالدليل الدامغ أنها تتحقق. هذه السيرة الانتقائية – وهو التجنيس الأقرب إلى (ألم خفيف) من الرواية – تبدّي مكامن الشعر والحكمة العفوية على موضوعية البناء أو التخييل (الروائي) كما على نوازع الانتقاد. والأبدع أنه في كلمات العنوان التسع فعلاً ما يختزل حنان علاء خالد الأعمق وأصالة ما يرصده في هذا البيت-الوطن، القدرة التي اكتسبها منذ (خطوط الضعف، ١٩٩٥) على تجاوز الوله بالذات وغذائها إلى محبة الآخرين، بينما يعرض لنفس الصورة الفريدة عن وجود الإنسان في الدنيا التي سعى إلى التعبير عنها وصفاً أو غناء في القصيدة والحوار، ثم سرداً وحكياً في المقال الأطول الذي يمكن إدراجه في باب أدب الرحلة أو السيرة الانتقائية. ولن يكون علينا، من أجل أن ندحض هذه الصورة للوجود، إلا الإشارة إلى احتمال أو جدوى آلام أثقل وانتقالات أسرع أو أكثر ارتباكاً في الحياة.

غير أن علاء خالد في أطول أعماله لم يقترف ما يشجع على الدحض أو الإحالة. ليس سوى بضع عثرات تحريرية – في ترتيب بعض الفصول، في تكرار كلمة (كان) كمفتتح لكل جملة بامتداد فقرة كاملة، في إضغام عبارات رؤيوية رائعة كانت لتبرق لو أُحسن تأطيرها – تؤخذ على عمل سائغ بدرجة غير عادية بمقاييس (الكتابة الجادة)، ممتع على أبسط مستويات القراءة وأقربها إلى سطح الوعي: ككلام عادي عن ناس عاديين، ربما، ولكن أيضاً كسلة حواديت (واقعية) تبدأ بعودة الجد المهاجر مهزوماً إلى الإسكندرية من هيام في صحراء شمال أفريقيا وتنتهي بالزواج أو موت الأم أو ربما فقط هذه الكتابة. المتعة حاصلة على الرغم من عمق ما يؤديه علاء خالد من مهام مع طرح شخوص مقنعة ومتعددة الدلالة والتأريخ لمجتمع الإسكندرية في ثمانينيات القرن العشرين بالذات. ولا شك أن حجم (ألم خفيف) الضخم مقارنة بالغالبية العظمى مما أقام أود (الانفجار الروائي) في السنين الأخيرة يفضح مَرَضيّة هاجس التكثيف الموروث وما بات يقترن به من ضحالة واستسهال، كما يجب اتهاماً وجه إلى الروائيين المصريين الجدد بأنهم عداؤون قصيرو النفس. إنه النص المستفيض الماثل أمام (القارئ العادي)، وهو من هذه الزاوية أيضاً الانعكاس الأبهى لصورة علاء خالد عن الوضع الإنساني.

إنها صورة تعكس هشاشة وتناقض وربما نرجسية الطبقة المتوسطة – حرصها البادي على بقاء الحال، وحالها هي بالتحديد، على ما هو عليه – لكنها في الوقت نفسه صورة تتجاوز الشرط التاريخي إلى تعدد إنساني وانفتاح على فضاءات روحية ونفسية من شأنها أن تجعل للحياة، وحياة الطبقة المتوسطة بالذات، معنى يعيننا كتاباً وقراء على أن نعيشها.

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Khemir

One step at a time

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Youssef Rakha
Last Updated: October 09. 2008 7:00PM UAE / October 9. 2008 3:00PM GMT

Nacer Khemir has come to Abu Dhabi for the first time to attend the Middle East International Film Festival and receive a lifetime achievement award for his groundbreaking films. Nicole Hill / The National

The sky looks stunning when I set out to meet Nacer Khemir at the Shangri-La Hotel Abu Dhabi, which bodes well for my second encounter with this iconoclast of the Arab film industry. The Paris-based Tunisian is being honoured in a special tribute for his lifetime’s achievement to coincide with his 60th birthday at the Middle East Film Festival (MEIFF) this year, with a screening of his best known film, the 1990 Touaq al Hammama al Mafqoud (better known across the world as Le Collier Perdu de la Colombe, which won the Locarno Film Festival Special Jury Award) yesterday at the Emirates Palace.

I first encountered Khemir during a programme of screenings of his films at the American University in Cairo in April, 2005 – a rare occasion for Egyptian film buffs to interact with the filmmaker, who, despite making only three full-length features since 1984, has managed to make a name by winning four major awards: the Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film’s Golden Bayard for Le Collier in 1991, the Nantes Three Continents Festival’s Golden Montgolfiere for Les Baliseurs du Desert, or Desert Wanderers, in 1984, and Valencia Festival of Mediterranean Cinema’s Golden Palm for the same film in 1985, while also being nominated for many others and exercising great influence among younger Arab filmmakers throughout the world.

His films, which he describes as “beyond any local Arab sphere”, are celebrated for their interest in Arab cultural heritage and their unique imagery. Khemir is an interesting choice of honoree in a festival seeking to bolster Arab cinema since, though he is hardly representative of Tunisian – much less Arab film – he is probably the most pan-Arab artist working in the medium today. Unlike Youssef Chahine or the Egyptian school of filmmakers, he has never paid attention to society or politics, but sought, rather, an allegorical and spiritual connection with the civilisation to which he belongs. Khemir started out as a painter, he has performed in his own theatre shows as a storyteller (at, among many prestigious French-speaking venues, the Theatre National de Chaillot), worked in TV and published four books (notably Le Chant des Genies, or The Genies’ Song, in 2001 with Acte Sud).

My memory of Khemir is of a cosmopolitan, secular artist with a sharp sense of irony, but as the sunset azan sounds on the way to the Shangri-La, I cannot help recalling that this Francophone Tunisian, contrary to all appearances, is also a devout Muslim, a seeker on a Sufi path of his own.

The glittering edge of a Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque minaret against the Photoshop-perfect backdrop looks like something out of one of his films. So, especially, does the desert in the distance, which could have worked well as the setting for Les Baliseurs, which is about an anonymous oasis town in the Sahara where the entire male population is routinely possessed by a collective trance forcing them to move aimlessly in ever wider circles in the wilderness for months on end: a metaphor for the centuries-long state of slumber into which Arab civilisation, once a beacon of knowledge for the entire world, had steadily descended by the time Khemir was born in 1948, the year Palestine was irrevocably lost and, properly speaking, the start of a more or less disastrous experiment in postcolonial nationalism and pan-Arab unity.

Hailed by a fetching woman in an abaya who has mysteriously emerged from another taxi heading in the opposite direction, my own taxi driver abandons me at the foot of the ramp leading up to the hotel. But the oud music swirling through the gilded dome of the lobby is reward enough for the brisk climb, in the end, which also gives me time to switch into Tunisian Arabic mode – after French, Khemir’s preferred language of communication (though he often switches to classical Arabic, too, seeking out the appropriate translation for the proverbial mot juste). When the receptionist finally locates his room, Khemir answers the phone just as I have expected: “Oui!”

Ten minutes later, in the company of his Syrian-French producer, this kindred spirit of the Maghreb (not only filmmaker, but also visual artist, storyteller and writer) can be seen sauntering down the hallway, his long grey hair – a little whiter than I remember it from Cairo, back in 2005 – fanning sharp, avian features, his blazer and glasses tempering the subdued burst of colour that is his shirt. While he disappears with the photographer – I imagine he will be sympathetic to her search for the best available light– I quiz out the producer on what Khemir has been doing in the last three years, how his filmography developed after 2005’s Bab’ Aziz (Father Aziz), the epic of a Sufi master who travels from the Atlantic coast to Iran), which he had waited 10 years before he could find the funding to make and of which he now conceived as a response to the denigration of Arab-Muslim civilisation the world over following September 11. As I discover while scanning the lobby for a quiet spot, Bab’ Aziz remains his last full-length feature.

“This is my first time in Abu Dhabi,” Khemir, 60, declares when we have settled down to talk, willing to evaluate neither MEIFF nor any ideas associated with its location. “I have just arrived,” he insists. “If you want to talk about Arabs and Gulf Arabs, let’s start with Abdel Nasser.” He refers to the leader of the 1952 revolution in Egypt, with whom pan-Arab nationalism is largely identified. “Write down my opinion of Abdel Nasser, and then I can tell you what I think of the Gulf.” Out of his blazer pockets, Khemir produces a tiny notebook and what looks like a recording device (a precaution to make sure he would not be misquoted?) The pen he uses, I notice, is a streamlined implement with a tip approximating an artist’s brush.

“Right now I have eight screenplays. I wrote them all, yes,” Khemir says. “People think the problem of Arab cinema is a problem of image making. In my opinion, it is a problem of ideas, the kind of idea, the kind of screenplay. There are screen- writers for example in Egypt, in Syria and in Lebanon – those who write musalsalat and others – but the kind of screenplay that they write is a kind that does not open out onto anything new, and can never drag the image out of its old alter.” He feels that, with the philosophy, anthropology and experience of art that goes into his make-up, the kind of screenwriter with whom he could work is simply “not there”.

Born into “an aristocratic but poor family” in the village of Korba, near Tunis, Khemir was educated in France, where, exasperated with bureaucratic attitudes in the Tunisian capital and bereaved of his father following his return on graduation, he eventually settled down. His best known film, and the one selected for screening at MEIFF, is the Le Collier Perdu de la Colombe, or The Lost Dove’s Necklace, the story of a calligrapher’s apprentice who having found a single, partially burnt page of the Andalusian writer Ibn Hazm’s famous tract on love, The Dove’s Necklace, sets out looking for the book. But the journey thus depicted, set against the backdrop of impending civil war and cultural decline, is more inward than outward.

Ironically for a film so bound up with Arab heritage, the only extant 35mm copy – and consequently the one being screened, with subtitles newly produced in Lebanon from the original script – is dubbed into French. “This is among the aspects of damnation,” Khemir remarks with a laugh, beginning a humorous, woeful history of the feature. “The Lost Dove’s Necklace, yes, which is wronged at every turn. What does it mean to be wronged? The critics for example express their opinions of it as a film about Ibn Hazm’s Dove’s Necklace.

“One of two things: either they did not read Ibn Hazm, or they did not see The Lost Dove’s Necklace. Because whoever read the book and saw the film realises that there is no connection. There is only one sentence” – perhaps the most famous in the book – “which is ‘Love, may God strengthen you, begins lightly and ends gravely.’ This, I took from Ibn Hazm – that’s it. Yet they still insist that the film is about Ibn Hazm.

“The second issue: when I presented the film for funding in Tunis, there were those who said since it is about Andalusia, it should seek funding there. Tunis has nothing to do with it.

“The third thing: the film was produced with money from Canal Plus, and Canal Plus forces you to make a copy in France. Now this film has a very important linguistic experiment, which is that I collected all the different Arab accents and put them in the film. What does that mean? It means that when you listen to the classical Arabic in which the film is made, you feel that it is variegated with the colours of the dialects. There is for example Zein, who speaks in Baghdadi classical Arabic, the calligrapher in Moroccan classical Arabic, Hassan – the calligrapher’s apprentice – in Palestinian classical Arabic. You feel, you listen to these colours of the language, and you sense that classical Arabic can be a living vernacular. There is an important experiment, a legacy…

“And now the film is lost. Why? Because, when you make a film, in order to preserve it, you make an internegative, which is a copy of the original negative to make sure it’s there. For financial reasons, we did not make an internegative of that film.” Khemir describes his failed attempts, in both Tunis and France, at finding the $50,000 (Dh183,000) necessary for the process – hardly a huge amount in the film industry – expressing his dismay with the people in charge. “So that now the only copy fit for screening is the French copy, and the Arabic copy has withered. A film in classical Arabic, addressed to all Arabs, and the only copy of it is in French.”

Still, the auteur presses on. His last film, My Mother’s Dictionary, one of three shorts making up a Korean-funded triptych on waiting, was screened at the Locarno Film Festival in August to much acclaim, “as always”, he says, chuckling. The problem is not the response, he implies, but the context in which he works, where he feels he is alone on an ever steeper upwards slope. Television “brokers of the image” fail to understand his calling, Arab ministries let him down, and in France he remains a foreigner. This state of being orphaned, as he puts it, inspires not only his personal melancholy but his work, which seeks to create as well as contribute to an Arab context.

With 23 countries like the branches of a tree each working on itself, mistaking itself for the root, the flora of Arab civilisation cannot regenerate, which is why, he says, “my greater concern in cinema is to give classical values, the values of Arab civilisation which has all the necessary qualifications, but whose common root, whose spirit, is not being regenerated… The question is present, but you do not find a party answering it: how to fortify the references of classical Arab civilisation, develop them and inserting them into the image, because the image is the future face of civilisation”, a commodity you can import only at the expense of creating a bottomless glitch between your grandfathers and your grandchildren, and losing your sense of self in the process.

“This,” Khemir adds, the business of bringing the references back into the image, “is my work… And it is possible that the Gulf can do this work, because they do not have the problems of other Arab countries, economic problems and architectural problems and demographic problems. It is possible that their vision will be directed towards the fundamental reference.” Khemir’s award at MEIFF, as it turns out, is the first Arab honour he has received, even though he has won numerous awards outside the Arab world, but not one prize in Tunis.

“It is cheering,” he says of the present honour, delicately painting his e-mail onto a page of my notebook, “when someone who does not know you, whom you don’t know, comes up and says to you, ‘I feel you.’ There is still goodness in the world, as you say in Tunisian.”

When I walk back out of the Shangri-La, it is dark; yet despite the absence of light, despite the scene of melancholy Khemir has communicated, the effect of talking to him is one of joy. The rhythms and cadences of Tunisian Arabic ringing in my ears, I recall the image of Hassan, his eyes glinting in a darkened roomc, poring over the burnt manuscript page with such intent concentration that he looks like a man fighting death.

yrakha@thenational.ae

Mughal Lapis Lazuli Sculpture of an Elephant

Origin: India
Circa: 16 th Century AD to 19 th Century AD
Dimensions: 14.25" (36.2cm) high
Medium: Lapis Lazuli

The elephant is one of the most sacred animals in the Subcontinent. This majestic creature is featured in the earliest extant cave paintings discovered in South Asia, indicating their importance. Elephants feature prominently in Indian mythology and religion. Buddha’s mother was said to have dreamt of a white elephant before she gave birth to her son. The legendary story of an elephant named Ashvatthama is detailed in the epic poem Mahabharata. The elephant is also regarded as the vahana, or “carriage of the gods.” Likewise, Kings on earth often imitated their divine counterparts and rode on the backs of elephants. This practice is documented as early as the fourth century B.C. when Alexander the Great battled with the Indian King Porus. Elephants also served an active, prominent role in war, both for their imposing presence as well as their strength, durability, and mobility. Throughout the history of the Subcontinent, elephants have been revered as represented in painting, sculpture, and textiles. Today, Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of prosperity and well-being, remains one of the most popular deities in the Hindu pantheon. This gorgeous sculpture of an elephant, carved from luxurious lapis lazuli, a stone surely fitting for this sacred creature, reveals the love and admiration that Indian culture holds for this amazing animal. Even under the rule of the Muslim Mughal Dynasty, the elephant retained its sacred status, as this sculpture clearly reflects. Both a gorgeous work of art and a historically significant artifact, this sculpture captures the majesty and strength of the elephant, rendered in one of the most valuable stones known to mankind. – (PF.6147)

MughalLapisLazuliElephantPF6147

The Habit

Last man smoking ScreenShot001

There is something old fashioned about smoking. Call it fatalism, obstinacy, wilful blindness to the consequences. Or you might choose to call it, as I do, a mixture of de mode existential ennui and rosy – or rather hazy – nostalgia. As a diehard consumer of this most consumable of poisons – actually, to be honest with you, a die-never inhaler of noxious gas – I can vouch for the abiding lure of a world view in which lighting up was neither offensive nor really very wrong.

A world view, you might be shocked to realise, that lives happily on in much of the Arab world, and to which – despite my better, bronchial judgement – I have every intention of continuing to subscribe. It changes nothing that warnings are now printed on even the one fil packets of premium tobacco-flavoured congealed dust and wood shaving mix wrapped in low-grade writing paper better known as Cleopatra Supers; horrible, matter-of-fact sentences that sound like decoded alien messages: “Smoking is a principal cause of lung cancer and death.” No, it changes absolutely nothing.

Nor does the growing awareness – among a growing community of reformed smokers, mainly: sorry health freaks with nothing better to do than complain about pollution, if you ask me – of the benefits of relatively clean, nicotine-free indoor air. In the Qahirah Sahirah, or Magical Cairo it is sometimes called, people are still sucking on their Supers as frantically as ever, and for most real-world men, at least, the expression “a glass of tea and a cigarette”, the tea referring to a strong, sweet brew of tea flavoured congealed dust and wood shavings, remains a defining and recurrent feature of the day. Let them predict our death as they will, I say. There is no way on earth we are giving that up.

Not until you have left Egypt, really, do you realise that such an approach to smoking is but an aspect of your own blissful backwardness. (Not that the realisation changes anything, mind you.) Since my first visit to Dubai some five months ago, I now have repeatedly caught myself sweating uncontrollably, and cursing under my breath, as I took my second-class citizen place in the blindingly hot open air wondering, who on earth should ever want to leave the third world? It is a rhetorical question, of course. But there is depth to it.

As per any sensible standpoint of the post-empirical world, I will readily concede that smoking is among the most futile and obstructing habits ever adopted by humanity. Smoking kills, indeed, but who wants to live in the absence of the opportunity to do it?

“What are you going to do, though,” my editor asked, pointing out that, sooner or later, anti-smoking attitudes and laws would sweep the Arab world, too. “Are you going to be the last man standing?”

“Yes,” I said, reflexively. And it was true, too.

Cigarette, anyone?

حوار

منذ اللحظة الأولى اكتشفت فيك شيطانا يفوق شيطاني وصعلوكا يقود روحي نحو الخرائب البعيدة، واكتشفت بأننا (مجنون وسكران) ترى من يقود هؤلاء الحمير نحو الخلاص لولا الشيطان الذي يقف خلف حواسنا، يوسف ايها الصديق كم بئر ينتظرك فلا تلتفت …….

هاشم المعلم

لم أحسب الوصول ممكناً بعد ستة أشهر “إقامة”، لكن الشعر – كما قلت أنت – يحيا في الحمير رغماً عن أنوفهم الواسعة. يا هاشم لقد خبأت غربتي في كندورتك، فما وسعت ضحكاتنا دموعك الخبيئة، ولا خلدت الحواس للنوم في أحضان شياطينها النهمة. البئر يبرق في الهجيرة فلنسقط سوياً…….

يوسف رخا

حبيبي إبراهيم

في نص ( قلبي على الترابيزة) تتداعى رغبات يوسف رخا في السقوط نحو الغيوم، سقوط يتدلى بخفة
عالية، ويتجول في التفاصيل المتبخرة، يصطدم الجسد بما ينفيه، ويتداخل شوك الألفة مع زمن
مقبور، زمن من الذكريات التالفة والحنين المهشم على الجدران، هناك وفي داخل هذا الجحيم المبدد
، يقيم يوسف رخا كرنفالات لغوية دون أن يتشبث بالبلاغة أو اليوتوبيا، جسد مكتوب أو كتابة
جسدية، لا فرق، فوسط هذا الغثيان الروحي، تتحول التفصيلة المهملة إلى ملحمة من الغبار المعتنى
به جيدا، غبار البلد الذي كان، وغبار الحارة التي احتارت في عشاقها، كتابة مجنونة ومروضة في
آن، وكأني بيوسف رخا وهو يقيم في مشهد عبثي من فيلم (كلب أندلسي) للإسباني (بونويل) فلا الحلم ولا الكابوس
قادران على ردم البئر اللانهائية التي أسمها ( القلق)، قلق الكتابة وقلق العيش، ثم القفز فوق
كل هذا الهذيان من أجل الظفر بالمتعة المحرمة مع الورق، يكتب يوسف رخا سيرة البياض، كي يؤثث
الخراب بوردة مسروقة من الضريح، ضريحه هو، وضريح الأيام التي تركته عاريا من اليأس !
إبراهيم الملا

The Angel

من هذه النافذة ظهر الملاك الذي أثناني عن الصلاة والصوم. متعدد الأشكال. من صوته المعدني فقط كنت أعرفه، وكونه يدخل من النافذة ببساطة على قدميه. مرة يكون بروس لي، مرة مادونا. أتذكر يوم جاء وكان فيلاً برياً ملأ الغرفة. رفع خرطومه وقال: يلّا! صوته الرنان. في أثر الملاك كنت أنسل من خلف شجرة التوت نصف الميتة بعد أذان الفجر – بدل ما أنام في موعدي لأصحو في موعد أتوبيس المدرسة – ولم يكن يزعجني أنه ما يلبث أن يختفي في الشارع. صوته في أذني يوجهني. أعتقد أن الملاك هو الذي أثناني أيضاً عن المستقبل. مستقبلك يابني ومستقبل الإنسانية سواء. جعل المغادرة السرية أسلوب حياة. بعد أذان الفجر. لا تعرقلني الخسارة. وظللت أتبعه أبعد فأبعد حتى خلّفت البلد والحياة. أودعته ثقتي كلها. ومازلت أخسر.

Not Just A River in Egypt: On the Culture of Denial

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On the flight back from Cairo to Abu Dhabi, I watched a recent Egyptian comedy about a young man who lives in a tin pitcher.
Not literally – but that is the way he describes himself. Because rather than buying all the unaffordable beverages of which he and his little brother keep dreaming, he fills his vessel – the traditional poor man’s drinking cup – with tap water. Then, holding the wide end carefully to his mouth, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and, quaffing, invokes the coveted taste and pretends to relish it.

The scene is a metaphor for the life of the hero, Zaza, played by the comedian Hany Ramzy as a variation on his trademark role: the young Egyptian everyman who, through some implausible accident, ends up brushing shoulders with the powers that be, has irresistible temptations in the process, and ultimately chooses good over evil. Dispossessed but tenaciously contented, almost masochistic in his capacity to embrace misfortune, Zaza , like many real-life Egyptians, resolutely refuses despair. These limitations seem inherent to the Egyptian psyche, and while Egyptians are sufficiently aware of the problem to joke about it, they seldom attempt to transcend it.

One Egyptian legend tells of a poor man who missed meat so much that he bought a loaf of bread and stood by the kebab seller, next to the grill. Before each bite of bread, he would inhale the aroma, filling his lungs with kebab, allowing the flavour to seep into the bread as he chewed it.

It was the next best thing. And it worked (so people will tell you, a wry expression on their faces, barely concealing their bitterness).

But Zaza’s kouz, the aforementioned tin pitcher, takes the idea even further: instead of making any such attempt at approximating the experience of which he has been deprived, the subject stays systematically clear of it. He chooses to depend solely on the power of his mind. So the link between dispossession and contentment begins to seem deliberate.

This disavowal of fulfilment is not confined to the hungry, and in the case of those who don’t lack for food and beverages, we could just as easily illustrate the condition by reference to citizenship rights, financial means or political participation.

The film Zaza is no different from dozens of star-comedian vehicles which, having introduced a good idea in the opening sequence, fail to develop it in any meaningful way. Though the hapless young man goes on to run for president in a wildly doctored election, winning voters’ hearts by speaking truly as one of the people, his preference for passivity – the tendency to favour the kouz over the struggle to obtain mango juice – is nevertheless depicted entirely as a consequence of his poverty.

No action or reaction gets to the bottom of the pitcher, where dishonesty and inertia have been brewing for centuries to deliver a debilitating draught. So it was ironic that I should watch Zaza on the way back from my first visit to Egypt in six months, with an overdose of that potion still coursing through my veins.

Homecomings are always difficult, but this one was particularly unsettling; for the first time I saw Egypt with a clarity I can only describe as disturbing.

After a week of driving through the streets and catching up with friends, reading the newspapers and debating regional affairs, settling legal matters and spending time in cafes, offices and the houses of relations, I spent a day at my former workplace. And that was enough to convince me that the country’s inviolable problems, which I saw anew at every step, in every possible form, were not merely the result of either unfortunate circumstances or moral and material corruption. They had Zaza’s kouz written all over them.

It was not so much the palpable dilapidation of the place, its broken machinery and cracking furniture, nor the idle atmosphere, the absence of so many employees in the middle of the day, nor the profusion of evidence that the quality of the work being produced was irrevocably in decline.

What struck me far more than any of these things was the sense of utter complacency with which the concerned parties accepted them, together with the realisation that, were I still among them, I too would be complacent. Knowing in my heart that there was little to be done, I would whip up the kouz in which the office appeared, magically, as a perpetually busy and adequately equipped workplace. (“As busy and as adequately as one could reasonably expect!” I would have reassured myself, adding: “under the circumstances”). And quaffing, I would do what I had to do, for as long as I had to do it, feeling inefficient, disengaged and worst of all, content – as content as Zaza.

Evidently, all it takes to appreciate kouz theory is six months away. Then the fragile scaffolding holding together the fiction of an alternative to advanced capitalism suddenly collapses. You understand that dispossession, contentment, dishonesty, inertia, Zaza’s tin pitcher and the inviolable problems of Egypt – once seen as the inconvenient side effects of a beloved and particular Egyptian uniqueness – all come back to the kouz.

The secret thread that weaves the fabric of society, the alpha and the omega of present-day Egyptianness, that is what they are about: denial.

Even now it is hard to understand how Zaza could put up with this situation, but once you consider the power of denial – over and above intellectual weakness, moral flaccidity, general laziness and openness to dependency at every level – the process makes perfect sense. It also becomes clear, sadly, why there is no way out of the Egypt’s current political and economic dilemmas. The nation of Zazas is happily ensconced in their kouzes.

This cold reality became painfully clear only a few hours before I departed. One of my former colleagues, an intellectual and former left-wing activist, had devoted her life until age 45 to opposing the regime. At that point she began her present job, a move not without some considerable compromise, as my former workplace is a department of that regime.

When I saw her at the office, she explained that while she had just been offered a desirable job in the private sector, she had refused.

She had refused, in spite of her dissatisfaction with the present situation, in spite of the sizeable pay raise.

Why? She had rejected the job offer, she said, because she had moral integrity. She was too old to compromise her clear oppositional record now. After all, she explained, invoking a Nasserist paradigm that can only turn your stomach if you are Egyptian, she was working for the country – the same country on whose behalf she opposed the regime. That working for the country necessarily entailed working for that same regime seemed not to trouble her conscience.

Never mind that the government was systematically selling out to the private sector, never mind that it was infinitely more corrupt and inefficient than any private-sector company. Never mind that the prejudice against the private sector had emerged in part because of the profitable alliance its leaders forged with the government.

No, my colleague would not compromise her integrity.

Towards the end of the flight to Abu Dhabi I fell asleep and had a dream. In it Zaza appeared in my colleague’s office holding his kouz. She was lying back in her chair sipping hot chocolate and exclaiming in praise of the cocoa that went into it. He was telling her that the cocoa he had in his kouz tasted even better.

First published in The National

“this,” he wrote,”is observation from afar”

There is something destabilising about chance encounters. At least there can be in places where they don’t happen as a rule. Among Arabs in the cities, of course, they happen all the time. You walk into a cafe completely (and sometimes happily) alone; and you come out, on average, with five new loyal friends. One could not make the same claims about the ladies, although the process of getting to know them, compared to other cultures, is similarly fluid once you have found an appropriate context. Nor am I talking about the very short-lived, slightly manic friendliness of some Americans. What I mean is true, five-phone-calls-a-day friendships, friendships which, as a Westerner, a loner or a busy person, you may well want to avoid altogether and which, sooner or later, will incite you to murder.
People – Arab people – are talkative, responsive, engaged with each other in every imaginable way (negative – as in gossip and other forms of unkindness, as well as negative – as in pretending they care when they really don’t). They may not be conscious of it but they rely less on actual than on potential friends for a sense of security. In some sense, they are constantly losing friends, too, because they are present in each others’ lives to the point of suffocation, and cut-off points are always in the process of being generated in spite of constant references to a long outdated behavioural code whereby no one can be oneself unless it means wanting to be with everyone at all times.
It is actually terrible.
But then you come to the UAE – an, um, Arab country – and by the time you have had a single chance encounter of any magnitude, you are so unused to it, your Egyptian thick skin feels so raw and exposed, it goes straight to the bottom of who you are, burns you up inside, and forces you to question not the meaning of being in a new country – new both to you and of itself – but the meaning of your own existence. Are you in this world to be so deeply unsettled by strangers? For the first time in your life it occurs to you that, yes, encounters with another Arab – however different a kind of Arab – can actually be destabilising, they can lead to something outside the usual vicious circle of making new friends, reach a cut-off point, feeling mutually upset and looking for other new friends to make.
Perhaps the apparent isolation of the UAE is more constructive, after all.

The state of the Arab press

alakhbar1

Seeds of a new press

Youssef Rakha

Five months in Abu Dhabi can make the busy pavement of Hamra Street incredibly cheering. Beggars, shoeshine boys and the colourful characters manning news stands turn into angels of a lost paradise – street life – one of whose ritual pleasures is buying the morning papers. Like few places in Lebanon, here they dispense every sect and ideology of newsprint. I refresh my memory as I pick some up: As Safir (Shiite, socialist), An Nahar (Christian, liberal), Al Akhbar (Hizbollah, leftist), Al Mustaqbal (Sunni, conservative) as well as the tabloidish Al Balad (produced by the owners of the all-classifieds, free Al Waseet) and London-based pan-Arab papers like Al Quds Al Arabi, Al Sharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat.

The Lebanese experiment in confessional government, with its origins in the lack of a majority sect at the time of independence in 1943, may have forestalled the autocratic fate suffered in places like Syria and Egypt without eliminating sectarian sentiment. In place of a one-party system, a sect-addled democracy took hold. And the results have ranged from civil war to a chain of freer, stronger papers, the most pluralistic in the Arab world. That is why Beirut has never produced state papers like Al Ahram in Cairo or Teshrin in Damascus. It has, however, capitalised on outside funding – much of it from the Gulf – to sustain a tradition of secular debate, one that attempts to assert the enduring relevance of newsprint in the face of dwindling distribution figures worldwide, and the consequent loss of advertising revenue.

The Arab world would not seem to be immune to these trends, and I have come to Beirut, you might say, just to buy these newspapers, to read them, and to talk to the journalists and editors who produce them. Journalists in the West have become wearily familiar with the endless drumbeat of bad news for their industry and, somewhat masochistically, they can’t seem to stop writing articles about it. While they worry that corporate owners have cut quality to boost profits, the greater concern of their Arab counterparts has been political rather than economic: that owners and investors (in many cases governments themselves) will impose their views; it is the independence of the journalism, rather than its declining quality, that is the source of anxiety.

Lebanon – with its unique tradition of pluralism – is an interesting place to consider the state of the Arab press, but that very pluralism is a side effect of the country’s plentiful sectarian divisions, each with its own platform and point of view. “There is a difference,” notes Hazem Saghieh, a 30-year veteran of the Lebanese press who now serves as political editor of Al Hayat, “between a genuinely liberal or free climate,” where you can say whatever you want, and a place “where you can always get a few words in edgewise because there’s a civil war going on.”

*************************************

On March 16, 2006, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt appeared on the popular LBC talk show Kalam Alnas, and he seemed unusually agitated over plans for the launch of Beirut’s newest paper. “Who says the Syrians are really gone,” he declaimed. “Together with the Iranians, they are funding a new newspaper called Al Akhbar.”

The new paper, Jumblatt said, was a tool of Hizbollah, the core of the opposition and an ally of Iran and Syria. He repeated rumours that its mandate was to promote Khomeinism, brainwashing readers into supporting the allegedly fanatical militants dragging Lebanon into war with Israel. The paper, he claimed, would take an Islamist position on individual liberties and endorse Baath-style repression.

Outside Lebanon it would seem extraordinary for a major politician to launch a pre-emptive strike against a paper that had not yet appeared – try to imagine Gordon Brown on the BBC, railing against a new paper that sought to claim the legacy of the old Labour Party – but the stakes were evidently high.

Al Akhbar was the brainchild of the widely admired left-wing journalist Joseph Samaha, who quit his job editing As Safir – one of Lebanon’s two leading dailies, which he helped found in 1974 – for the chance to launch his own paper. But months before its debut, Samaha’s vision of a critical, reader-friendly paper was already being overshadowed by his stated sympathies for the opposition and the newspaper’s purported association with Hizbollah.

Al Akhbar, which published its first issue on August 14, 2006, is an interesting case study: it is the youngest, and in some ways the most exciting, serious newspaper in Lebanon. But its support for the Islamist-led opposition has made it particularly vulnerable to the political polarisation of the Lebanese media – the very thing Samaha hoped to transcend.

Lebanese papers have traditionally been family businesses, partly controlled by their financiers, but with political lines shaped by internal debates between editors and investors – and within multi-confessional newsrooms.

The doyen of the Lebanese press, An Nahar – founded in 1933 by Gibran Tueni, whose family still owns the paper – set standards for journalism that seem to have no counterpart in the Egyptian press, an obvious point of comparison. Where each of Lebanon’s papers reflected the shifting and competing views of their investors, editors, and reporters, their Egyptian counterparts have tended since the 1950s to follow a line set by individual editors and executives with an eye toward pleasing the government. By the 1980s, this system had become so corrupt that most reporters were little more than barely literate PR workers for officials.

But an alternative press emerged in Cairo in the 1990s, fuelled by the rise of online activists and American pressure on the Egyptian government for democratic reform. Papers like Al Usbou and Ad Dustour waged lurid battles on government figures, who for the first time in recent memory featured in irreverent cartoons and satires, while less sensationalist papers, notably Al Masri Al Yom (the most widely read today) built a reputation for accurate reporting. Together they raised professional standards and reaffirmed the credibility of the press. They could not afford the lush printing and service-orientated copy the state papers increasingly incorporated, but they created a ripple effect in the state’s three gargantuan institutions (Al Ahram, Akhbar Al Yom and Ag Gumhureya). For the first time since the 1940s, Beirut seemed to lag behind.

Lebanese journalists felt nothing major had happened since An Nahar’s last overhaul in the 1960s. Only Al Balad, a Berliner-format daily founded in 2003, suggested anything new. Designed by Saatchi and Saatchi Beirut (the company behind Independence 05), Al Balad promised sharp and snappy reading for a young millennium. It delivered compelling graphics without substance: an Arab equivalent of The Sun, with risqué covers, competitions to win consumer goods and scandal pieces flaunting sectarian bias.

By 2006, it seemed to many that a new daily was in order, and Samaha – a figure of legendary credibility, as well loved as anyone in the factional atmosphere of post-war Lebanon – hatched plans to launch one before the end of the year (the name was patented on March 21).

Samaha was joined by a colleague from As Safir, Ibrahim al Amin. For months both had been frustrated with the centrist line of Talal Salman, the owner and sometimes de facto editor of As Safir, who had founded the paper with help from Samaha in the build-up to the civil war. A Shiite, Salman was concerned that a pro-Hizbollah stance might be read as sectarianism. Samaha, a Greek Catholic, had no such worries; but it was dawning on him that his hopes for a new kind of press – one that made the citizen its priority – would always clash with conventional attitudes there.

Working out of the small office of a graphic-designer friend, the two cut jarring figures: Samaha – the mustachioed teddy bear, Amin – the clean-shaven detective; both corpulent and bald, Samaha slightly fairer skinned. They were very different journalists: Samaha had spent most of his life in London and Paris (and saw the changes introduced by The Independent and Le Monde in the 1980s as models for a new Arab press). Samaha’s measured columns bore the marks of meticulous research and the weighing of evidence. Amin had only ever worked at As Safir and, much like the iconic Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, he was better known for his exclusive, clandestine sources. (He was unavailable for an interview in Beirut, I was told, for security reasons, as he believed he was being targeted for assassination.)

Amin, like Salman, was interested in a “position press” – journalism that over-interprets the facts to prove a point. In this Amin was tethered to the old Safir tradition, while Samaha was striving to reinvent engagement by producing critical journalism irrespective of an overriding ideology, to make a paper that was a forum rather than one piece in the puzzle of competing sectarian claims. But without Amin’s business acumen, Samaha’s condition for starting a paper – that there should be enough money to run for five years no matter the advertising revenue – would never have been met.

It was shortly after the deal was cut that they watched Jumblatt condemn the unborn baby. But judging by the accompanying chorus, that baby was doomed anyway: critics doubted that Samaha’s vision would survive. Those pre-emptive arguments made sense if you believed Al Akhbar really was funded, via Hizbollah, by Syria and Iran.

But a range of sources inside and outside Al Akhbar say that the paper’s start-up funds were provided by three secular businessmen, Palestinian and Lebanese, who insisted on anonymity for the sake of other financial interests, which might be ill-served by association with a pro-opposition paper. Perhaps they felt the need to stem what they saw as a monolithic pro-American tide. Samaha’s views spoke to their standpoint, and they gave him editorial control.

Al Akhbar is unique in that its editorial board now owns all the shares (with legal provisions that prevent their sale to another proprietor). This arrangement is unprecedented in Lebanon, where, as a report from the World Association of Newspapers phrases it, “Political interests have a strong influence on the media because many of its owners are affiliated to a religious sect or political parties”. No Tuenis or Hariris own Al Akhbar; instead of a Walid bin Talal or a Gaddafi, the seed money came from individuals who would appear to have no agenda in common beyond trust for Samaha. And no one could reasonably doubt Samaha’s integrity.

Samaha and Amin targeted what they saw as American plans for the region, with which March 14 leaders like the prime minister Fouad Siniora and Jumblatt were increasingly identified. To Samaha and Amin, the strength of Israel and the weakness of the Lebanese Army justified the presence of an armed resistance in the form of Hizbollah.

When Hizbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers led to full-scale raids on Lebanon, right-wingers blamed Hizbollah for the destruction, seeing Al Akhbar as its partner in crime. The paper launched the day of the ceasefire, and Samaha’s first editorial in the paper responded wryly to the view that Hizbollah’s taking of Israeli POWs was a reckless miscalculation.

The charge of “miscalculation”, Samaha wrote, “is levelled at anyone who resists or rebels against or violently rejects injustice; and it usually relies on a claim of miscalculation irrespective of timing. For by the conventions of tyranny, rejection is a mistake, a vanity or an adventure; and by the conventions of degraded realism there is no time for accountability.”

But less than six months after the launch, Samaha went to London to be with Hazem Saghieh, whose wife had passed away. On February 25, 2007, while there, he died in his sleep of a heart attack caused, his stunned friends conjectured, by overexertion.

*************************************

At Cafe Younis – the latest, chic incarnation of Lebanon’s best roaster – I meet Omayma abdel Latif, an Egyptian journalist who has been studying Islamism for the past several years at Beirut’s Carnegie Middle East Centre. She always reads As Safir, An Nahar and Al Akhbar, she says, and her main gripe with Al Akhbar is that the front page can be politically sensationalist. Many inside Lebanon still see it as a more sophisticated front for Hizbollah – though unlike Al Manar, Hizbollah’s TV channel, the paper could not be reasonably accused of propaganda.

Abdel Latif believes the media in Lebanon is still more or less co-opted by political powers, and so she appreciates the presence in Al Akhbar of voices like Nicola Nassif, whose views are more or less pro-government, contrary to the paper’s pro-Opposition line. Even Al Akhbar’s young editor, Khaled Saghieh, often criticises Hizbollah, she says. In a sense, however, it is As Safir that caters most comprehensively to her needs, because “it takes a centrist line, presenting all the different viewpoints on a given topic. The tone is somewhat more level-headed, too, especially on the front page. But unlike An Nahar, for example, As Safir doesn’t have very compelling political writing inside.”

Jamal Ghosn, who reviews the Arabic press on television for a channel called Press TV, agrees. “There is no objectivity,” he says, “though there could be more of an attempt at objectivity; and even though the Lebanese papers are not up to standard, they are still better by comparison to other Arab papers.” His main concern, however, is with financial independence. This is why, he believes, there is still no service orientated press, no consumerism in the papers. “When it is the readers who directly and indirectly fund the newspapers, there will be automatically more of that. Right now there is not enough of a readership to make it possible, so papers continue to depend on other sources.”

Talal Salman, the owner of As Safir, is a trim elderly gentleman with the manners and attitudes of an old-guard socialist. He blames the lack of an all-encompassing Arab political project – and the failure of pan-Arabism – for the decline in both citizens’ rights and the independence of the media. But he has measured praise for Al Akhbar – for its accuracy and professional standards – though he feels its support for the Opposition could incite sectarian strife.

Nicholas Noe, the editor in chief of mideastwire.com – which translates selections from the Arabic press into English – says “We find that our clients are particularly interested in alternative points of view, and there are opinions and hard news pieces that they find in Al Akhbar which they are not seeing in their own publications in the West or elsewhere in the Lebanese press. I can’t speak for the whole paper because I read very little Arabic, but my impression is that Al Akhbar is trying to stake out a voice that isn’t reflexively on one side or another.”

*************************************

Pierre Abi Saab left his job as culture editor of Al Hayat for the same position at Al Akhbar, foregoing the prestige and higher salary of a richer institution for Samaha’s experiment. But like Samaha, he was an unlikely convert to the cause of the Opposition. After Hariri’s murder in 2005, intellectuals like the An Nahar journalist Samir Kassir saw Hizbollah as a local stand-in for the Bashar al Assad regime.

Abi Saab was outraged when both Kassir and the editor of An Nahar, Gibran Tueni (the grandson of its founder), were killed in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. But by 2006 – a Maronite with dandyish tastes, a worldly French citizen, an admirer of André Breton and the Marquis de Sade – he was speaking of Hassan Nasrallah with awe, convinced that his was the truest democratic representation of opposition to an imperial world order.

Like Hamra (so I say to myself, while a bowlegged midget reviews my purchases, sliding a note out of my hand) Abi Saab can live with incompatible drives. And folding four papers under my arm, the way white-collar Arabs, the effendis, have done since 1900, I turn right to begin the short trek uphill to Lina’s where, through the wall-size window, he will eventually show up a little late: a short, groomed figure in a tight sky-blue T-shirt, distractedly touching his moustache as he charges towards Rue Vardan.

Lina’s is opposite the Monoprix mini-mall where, across a car park from As Safir, Al Akhbar shares a building with the supermarket. Whenever you visit, it feels like you are going grocery shopping. When you meet journalists from one paper at Lina’s, you bump into journalists from the other.

Now An Nahar, As Safir, Al Mustaqbal and Al Akhbar lie next to the espresso cup on the table, bathed in light. The news is the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit, the day before, to the newly elected president, Michel Suleiman. Except for As Safir, which uses a slightly different image, the same picture of Suleiman and Rice greeting the US charge d’affaires in Lebanon, Michelle Sisson, appears on all four front pages.

It is biggest in Al Akhbar, the only Berliner among my purchases, but only a caption accompanies it; the visit is dealt with, rather, as part of a longer story about government-opposition clashes in the Bekaa Valley and the failed talks between Suleiman and the perennial presidential candidate Michel Aoun, the key ally of Hizbollah. As Safir’s is by far the wittiest take on the visit, Al Mustaqbal’s the most explicitly pro-American, with the headline “Rice: Israel’s withdrawal from the [Shebaa] Farms” – Hizbollah’s excuse for staying armed – “an American priority.” Only Al Akhbar gives it second place.

As Abi Saab explains between mouthfuls of brioche, Al Akhbar abolished the Arab tradition of setting aside two or more pages to official statements, visits and news (the pretext for turning the front page of Al Ahram into a portrait album of President Hosni Mubarak, though as Al Masri Al Yom has shown the tradition can be upheld in better ways).

What interests the reader, he says, is not Condi’s visit but its implications for the political situation. Where politics are concerned, he goes on, Samaha sought an approach that Abi Saab likened to the criticism practised by Le Monde against Francois Mitterand, the Socialist president whose election it had backed. “You go look at the event,” Abi Saab says, “you analyse it, and you say it as it is even if it goes against your political line.”

Abi Saab concedes that the front page of Al Akhbar has had a tendency to be provocative, but brushes aside the allegations about its allegiance to Hizbollah, raising his voice to state that the paper has championed the rights of Lebanon’s gay community and Syrian political detainees, questioned Iran’s nuclear programme, reviewed Israeli films, published nude paintings, celebrated Paul Elouard and Persepolis.

People came to Al Akhbar, Abi Saab insists, to escape a variety of professional, moral and political frustrations; for the first time in their lives, he says, no one is dictating editorial policy. But before he has had a chance to expand, a text message summons him to the midday conference.

As he leaves, Abi Saab asks Hala Biijani, Al Akhbar’s general manager, who is seated at a nearby table, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to send in another shipment of Shiraz rugs – part of a running joke at the expense of those who accuse the paper of Iranian sponsorship.

Bijjani estimates that in 1998, 150,000 newspapers were sold daily in Lebanon; by now the figure has dropped to 80,000. But Al Balad, which represents 30,000 of those copies, should not count, she says, because it was initially given away for free. “People pick it up the way they pick up a lottery ticket, not the newspaper.” Right now, Bijjani says, As Safir and An Nahar distribute some 15,000 and 12,000 copies; Al Akhbar has a circulation that varies between 8,000 and 11,000.

Neither An Nahar nor As Safir would divulge their own circulation figures, common practice in the Arab world. But Talal Salman, the owner of As Safir, said that today “aggregate circulation for in Lebanon is the lowest in its history, lower than the figure for a single successful newspaper in the past.”

Thanks to the alliance between Aoun and Hizbollah, Biijani says, Al Akhbar is the only Lebanese newspaper with a readership nearly balanced between Muslims and Christians; most have a readership that is more than 90 per cent Muslim or Christian. As Samaha had planned, more than half of Al Akhbar’s readers are female; and unlike An Nahar, which is still bought predominantly by people above the age of 50, some 60 per cent of Al Akhbar’s readers are under 40 years old.

Inside the Monoprix building, multiple prints of the same nearly life-size picture of Samaha, all but beatifically smiling, frame the corridors. The space calls to mind a student paper or party headquarters, with ongoing, friendly arguments and informally dressed, predominantly young journalists moving ceaselessly about to exchange documents and comments.

Khaled Saghieh, a bearded young man who evokes a slightly geeky graduate student, explains that he was doing a PhD in economics when he first met Samaha and started writing for As Safir. He was chosen for his present position partly because he came from outside the press, mainly because he is regarded by his co-workers as Samaha’s faithful disciple, with an eye on a citizen’s press and a critical, rather than ideological, perspective.

The early launch of Al Akhbar, he says, delayed the introduction of new reader-friendly elements –new concept pages, listings, and information-heavy features geared to the daily needs of the reader, which have been put in place since our interview (part of a deal that also includes a Gulf edition in Qatar and a new size).

The paper runs short pieces, big photos and few wires – for many Arab papers, too frequently, an easy substitute for original reporting – and offers opportunities for fresh graduates and a democratic approach to the opinion pages, with Arabs of every background freely expressing their viewpoints. Al Akhbar’s easy to use online edition has become the most popular newspaper site in Lebanon.

Samaha’s vision, in other words, may have been less about politics per se than about exploring the possibility of a new kind of press in Lebanon. Khaled Saghieh points out that the designer responsible for the fresh, clean look of Al Akhbar had also been hired by An Nahar and As Safir, both of which failed to implement the new designs. The crux, he implies, is not the embrace of an oppositional line, but the willingness of journalists at Al Akhbar to promote change.

I am reserving judgement, but Khaled Saghieh’s description of what Al Akhbar aims to be sounds remarkably like Jamal Ghosn’s idea of a press that depends on its readers.

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“When we talk about the Arab press, we are being imprecise by default,” Hazem Saghieh says. I have come to see him at the offices of Al Hayat, in the middle of the Hariri-built Downtown area, a plastic consumerist paradise outside Beirut’s traditional city centre. He is a courteous, clean-shaven middle-aged man with a slight twitch in his left eye; and like his writing, his speech reflects mastery of classical Arabic combined with a thoroughly modern way of thinking. “What we have in the way of news dissemination lacks some of the necessary and sufficient conditions to be called a press: a climate of freedom, a middle class that invests in the media. It is not only a question of political power but of social attitudes as well.”

Saghieh has come a long way since he championed Khomeini-ism following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Having lost faith in the revolutionary potential of Islamism, he is now a hardline neoliberal and one of the harshest and most eloquent critics of Syrian intervention, the Iranian regime, and Hizbollah. But he does call Al Akhbar the “most dynamic and innovative” of the Lebanese papers.

His questions reflect what I am beginning to see as the principal question facing the Arab media today: can it contribute to the establishment of a tradition of citizenship over and above confessional and tribal loyalities, and thereby counter corruption, nepotism, and autocratic government?

On the way to the airport, my taxi driver had with him a copy of Al Balad. “Do you read this newspaper regularly?” I asked him. “Do you read other newspapers?”

“Not much,” he said. “I don’t know this one so well but a friend had a copy of it so he thought it might keep me amused. I’m not much for newspapers,” he mumbled, smiling. “They tell you what they want to tell you anyway. You can have this if you want.”

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How much longer will it take for Arabs to admit that nationalism was literally part of imperialism?

There is something infuriating about Arab nationalism. I suppose my holiday in Cairo acted to expose me anew to the many faces of that insidious disease, pumping up the rage.
It has been six decades since anyone in any viable sense adopted Arab nationalism, an ideology that perceives in one or more concepts of Arabness – ethnic, linguistic, cultural or geographical – the potential for a triumph of humanity on a grand scale. For the longest time reduced to more or less impotent support for the Palestinians against the establishment, continued existence and eventually atrocious behaviour of Israel, Arab nationalism was irrevocably discredited in the wake of the 1967 War, when neither the rhetoric of Gamal abden Nasser in Egypt and the Baath Party in Syria and Iraq – its principal exponents – nor their supposed alliance with the Soviet Union (soon to become, ironically, the world’s greatest exporter of Israeli settlers) could save the tiny coastal strip known as Gaza, let alone the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
That is when, partly as a result of pro-American regimes doing their bit in the Cold War, political Islam took hold, eventually monopolising every possible form of anti-colonial resistance. And yet there are still those who, having aligned themselves with the other side of the Iron Curtain when it was possible to do so, sit back and berate you for not being a patriot. The political equivalent of blow-up dolls, if they haven’t reinvented themselves as Neocon-style liberals by now – a seemingly more dignified thing to do – they either hold onto their mouldy copies of Das Kapital or pretend to embrace Islamism as the only available route to patriotism: Hizbollah and Hamas, they tell you, are gaining ground. For God’s sake…
Evidently Arab nationalism dies hard, but insofar as it continues to exist at all it seems to find expression only on the most retarded psychological plane. When they speak of a warlike nation as opposed to a cultural identity, Arabs contribute to one of the most criminal lies in modern history. Because, whatever else they tell you in the Arab world, no one will ever tell you the simple truth that nationalism was a byproduct of a British and French imperial project cut short by the Second World War.
Arab nationalism is no older, in reality, than six decades. It is exactly as old as Israel, in other words, which unlike Middle Eastern Jews did not come into being until Britain and France chopped up the geographical expanse in question into little, futile dictatorships, using the nationalists as pawns to defeat the Ottomans who controlled them and handing the Zionists the bit of land they had coveted in an attempt to make up for the Holocaust, then quickly packed their steamers – never to be seen again.
How much longer will it take for Arabs to admit that nationalism was literally part of imperialism?