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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Secrets & Highs

Or the Beatification of the False Wali: Sufism, Suspense, and the Possibility of Sufi Realism

Even as it ages, a corpse shows no sign of decay. People start having visions of the dead man. He gives them advice in their dreams. When miracles begin to occur through his apparent intercession, he is declared a wali or vassal (of God). A shrine is built over his grave, and those who tend to it command kudos among his devotees…

It would be wrong to reduce the multifarious phenomena of Sufism to such a story. But in the Egyptian popular imagination, at least, that story remains the quintessential narrative of Sufism.

Sufi doctrine is impossible to sum up with any clarity anyway. Claimants range from the ninth-century Malamatiyya of Khorassan to “the Proof of Islam” Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). The first group actively sought ill repute by flaunting sinfulness and making themselves worthy of malamah (or blame), the better to reject piety, which they saw as a worldly value and a factor in distance from God. The second is arguably the central figure in Sunni orthodoxy.

So the beatification of the wali is as good a way as any to set the dervish apart from the ordinary believer: the gnostic secrets he has access to (sometimes enabling him to perform miracles), the higher states of consciousness he experiences as a result of those secrets, his sheer unmediated joy (making him willing to give up all worldly powers and possessions), and his often strained relations with the Umma’s sober patriarchs.

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