The Sultan’s Seal reviews one of Darf Publishers’ recent titles: the Eritrean writer Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, translated from the original Arabic by Charis Bredin
Photo by Alex Majoli, source: magnum photos.com
I immediately began to suss out the reputations of all the local smugglers, remaining in a state of anxious indecision as to which of them I should do business with. There was ‘Fatty’, known for his reliability and the care he took of those who travelled aboard his Titanics. His reputation extended all over Africa and travellers from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana and Liberia would hunt him down as soon as they arrived in [Tripoli]. Other smugglers were known for how swiftly they could arrange crossings. Every week, one of their Titanics would leave for the far shore, completely devoid of safety precautions, and likely to sink a few miles out to sea.
Like Samuel Shimon (An Iraqi in Paris, 2005), and Hamdi Abu Golayyel (A Dog with No Tail, 2009), Abu Bakr Khaal writes reportage with fictional license. Though a Tigré-speaking Eritrean with no apparent connection to the Arab literary scene, he belongs in a recent Arabic tradition of confessional narrative that benefits as much from its authors’ down-and-out credentials as their distinct vernaculars. Whether Khaal’s language is interesting because of influence from his mother tongue, I don’t know.
In Charis Bredin’s decidedly British English, African Titanics is a breezy read, worthwhile for its first-hand take on an essential topic and its pseudo-mythology of pan-African wanderlust.
In the mid-Seventies, Niall Griffiths — aged 11 — left Toxteth, Liverpool with his family to Australia. His mother was too homesick to become a “Ten Pound Pom“, however, and the family went back to Liverpool only three years later. As a teenager who wanted to write, the future author of Sheepshagger (2001) felt constricted and insulted by the “posh” monopoly on education and literature. He left school for Snowdonia in Wales, where he had ancestral connections and developed a feeling for the landscape. Stump (2003) having won both the Welsh Books Council and the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year awards, it is often as a Welsh writer that Griffiths is celebrated, although he equally qualifies as Scouse and, as a writer of “progressive fiction” peopled with the dispossessed and the disaffected, he also belongs in a vernacuar Transatlantic tradition. Griffiths eventually graduated from the University of Aberystwyth, where he now lives, having spent many years working with his hands and hopping from the North of England to Wales, traveling across Britain, or beyond.
Niall Griffiths. Source: natgeotraveller.co.uk
You seem to make a distinction between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, not so much in your work but in the way you describe the English (it’s one of the few things that bind people from the former colonies back here with the Celts: hatred of the English). This might sound like a silly question but in the grander scheme of things, from the global perspective, do you think there remains a true cultural difference over and above class?
In some ways, yes, in others, no. . . I mean, this is a united kingdom supposedly but divide and rule has always been in operation, due largely to the entrenched class system. So in opposition to that, I believe that a docker from Swansea should recognise that he has more in common with a docker from say, Hull, than he does with a middle-class professional from Swansea. That said, England still remains the biggest and by far the most powerful country in the UK, and he fact that Wales and Scotland are ruled by London will always be a source of anger for as long as it lasts. It’s the richest country too, and a certain strata of it tends to see Wales and Scotland as its playground. No attention is paid to the different cultures; they’re simply countries where the rich English can holiday in their second homes. This situation is even worse in Cornwall.
A Kid Came to Me
A kid they marked up down at the Qasr Al Nil police station came to complain to me. (This was what was going on back then, with the April 6th Youth Movement and Kifaya and all of that stuff; and the Brotherhood, too, they were getting it together on the sly, even though, bit by bit, they were starting to get it in the neck: cunts.) A sweet kid and a sissy, a guy could get a hard-on just sitting next to him, who’d been working with me for a while and whose name was Ashraf Bayoumi. They marked him up and he came to my house. The minute I saw him I spat and turned my back. On the 4th of April I’d sent him along to a tiny demonstration whose purpose he didn’t know in Talaat Harb Square, and he was supposed to have reported back to me the same day. He bent and wiped my spittle from the doorstep with his sleeve then threw himself at me smearing his mouth against my brow. Just hear me out, he said. Then he followed me inside and asked for a glass of water.
From Storylines, Iraq 2008, by Benjamin Lowy. Source: benlowy.com
In They Dragged Them Through the Streets, a veteran of the US war in Iraq commits suicide, and his brother joins with four friends in search of ways to protest the war. Together they undertake a series of small-scale bombings, until an explosion claims one of their own: Zechariah, or Z. The novel is structured around these two deaths, the veteran’s and the activist’s.
The four remaining friends—Ford, Vivienne, Sara, and “A”—narrate in turn; the excerpt below includes brief chapters by A and Vivienne. Throughout, the characters’ names often dissolve into initials—their intimate shorthand for one another.
Baba shows up the night Murad’s body arrives. It’s revolution day, he says. How come you’re not celebrating? Ghosts are funny that way.
Murad came back in two packages. He was hit in the neck, they said. The squall of ammo was such the head wouldn’t stay in place.
After Mama was hauled to Tante Loulou’s I arranged him on a mattress in the living room, then I sat thinking how he hated the army.
I’d hated it too, twelve years before. Even though at that time conscripts weren’t being screwed. But to be in the barracks on July 23…
The Gunmen had timed it to make a point. The army is the state is the infidels is the enemy, they believe. And July 23, 1952? A coup.
It’s the coup you call R that WE call bloody C. How about everyone just calls it RC, I was thinking. Then I remembered.
When the bomb-scarred man started undressing, I hadn’t had time to reflect on ending up alone in a shelter pod with him. It occurs to me now that it should’ve disturbed me: a mutant undressing for no apparent reason in what was after all a public space. Perhaps the shock of being caught in the cross-radiation overshadowed the incongruity of the scene. Perhaps the air-base city of Ibra, the capital of Dun, seemed like a place where even stranger things could happen.
I remember thinking there would be no way out of the pod until who knew when but that my communication chip was connected and that I was safe for now. I remember thinking I should’ve heeded the warning not to travel here, even if it was only for an hour. I remember thinking I was lucky not to belong in this part of the world.