Los Angeles Review of Books Essay

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

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

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

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

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Who the F*** Is Charlie

The mere idea of contributing to the Charlie Hebdo colloquy is a problem. It’s a problem because, whether as a public tragedy or a defense of creative freedom, the incident was blown out of all proportion. It’s a problem because it’s been a moralistic free-for-all: to express solidarity is to omit context, to forego the meaning of your relation to the “slain” object of consensus, to become a hashtag. It’s a problem above all because it turns a small-scale crime of little significance outside France into a cultural trope.

Charlie Hebdo is not about the senseless (or else the political) killing of one party by another. It’s about a Platonic evil called Islam encroaching on the  peaceful, beneficent world order created and maintained by the post-Christian west. Defending the latter against the former, commentators not only presume what will sooner or later reduce to the racial superiority of the victim. They also misrepresent the perpetrator as an alien force independent of that order.

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Remembrance: Neither Eric Clapton nor Omm Kulthoum but Yassin al Tohami

Fes, 2006. By Youssef Rakha.

Fes, 2006. By Youssef Rakha.

When I was in my late teens, I surprised the gathering at an older writer’s house here in Cairo by insisting that we should play neither Eric Clapton nor Omm Kulthoum but Yassin al Tohami, the star munshid (or performer of devotional chanting, called inshad).

Not that I was aware of it at the time, but as an irreligious whippersnapper studying in England, it must have seemed strange for me to be interested in what is, roughly speaking, Islam’s liturgical music, which in the case of Sheikh Yassin, what is more, relies on grass roots Upper Egyptian melodies.

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Back to the Future: The Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema

Cairo International Film Festival Essay

The Black Sunglasses, 1963

The Black Sunglasses, 1963

The golden age of Egyptian cinema survived the fall of the monarchy, the departure of the British, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and three wars with Israel — but not Cold War-era capitalism.

“Golden age” in this context is of course an amorphous term, but it does point to a palpable phenomenon which, in the form of roll film, remains testable for efficacy. Over roughly three decades from the beginning of the 1940s to the end of the 1960s, a certain balance of quantity and quality was maintained. Art remained a meaningful business proposition even after capital was monopolized by the state and a centralized economy established.

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Marcia Lynx Qualey: A Review of the Newest Arabic Novel (Remix)

Arab Muscle Dancers . Half of a stereoview, 1898, B. W. Kilburn
Arab Muscle Dancers, 1898, by B. W. Kilburn

Insert Title Here, by Our Arab Author, translated by So-and-so. Such-and-such publisher. $12.99.

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? We in the West hear about the Middle East all the time, but for most of us it remains unknown and unknowable. More complicated still is that, as I learnt at the weekend, forms like the novel and short story were alien to Arabic culture before the first decade of the 20th century: the genres are, themselves, imports.

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Angelus Novus: A Letter from Hilary Plum

Dear Youssef,

A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.

The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.

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Joe Linker: Waiting for Marjane

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I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.

We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.

I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.

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