Catch 25

The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion

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At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.

        Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.

        Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.

        So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.

        Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.

        The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.

        If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”

        Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.

***

October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.

***

At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.

        One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.

        The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.

        It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.

        Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.

        Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.

        By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.

        With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.

***

Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.

***

Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.

        Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.

        As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.

        The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…

        Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.

        B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.

        Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.

        Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.

        For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.

        That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.

***

It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.

***

Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.

        Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.

        This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.

        It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.

Three Short Pieces from last October © Youssef Rakha

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“We never used to have sectarian tension”
Posted on October 20, 2011        
That being, of course, a lie. And lies, however well meaning, just may be the crux of the problem.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism is part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship? As I wondered whether the Maspero protest of 9 Oct might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since March, I tweeted, “They are shooting at the Copts.” I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet – they presumably do not follow the same people – berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones as well as security personnel in the building were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them. Lying through their teeth, pro-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported Armed Forces casualties.
As a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I feel this is an occasion to say how I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they were the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!” Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
With the rise of Islamism since the Nineties this has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma may suggest that, simply by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons). But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” – a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding and discriminating against Copts, encouraging both Coptic deference and Muslim complacency – fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution.
***

Of homogeneity and bakshish
Posted on October 15, 2011        
Long before a “revolution” could have been anticipated, people – especially urban Arabs – noticed something about Cairo. In a roundabout way, the title of a book of poems by the Lebanese globe-trotter Suzanne Alaywan, All Roads Lead to Salah Salem (a reference to one major road linking northern and southern ends of the megalopolis) accurately expresses that sentiment: Of all the world’s cities, Cairo seems to have the capacity to absorb people into its folds, to make them – in appearance and attitude if not in thinking or values – like other people already established inside it; it has the capacity, brutishly but somehow peaceably, to iron out difference.
The poet was not at cross purpose with the fact. I tend to think she, like others within and without, saw it as inevitable but positive, a possible answer to otherwise intractable inter-issue dilemmas which liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, could only solve with the help of economic and institutional hardware not available to the Arab or the third world. The more or less forced homogeneity of course has its roots in a culture of compromise and hypocrisy, in people’s willingness to lie about how they feel in order to benefit from other people, whose difference – in looks, tongue, dress code, income level – offers further justification for practically robbing them.
Yet, as the aftermath of events has demonstrated, there is more to that proverbial Rome of the mind than simple untruth. Decades of corruption were also decades of voluntary repression, in which excessive panhandling just might have been a sublimation of mugging, and pay-for-your-difference an ameliorated form of the marauding mob. The difference-eliminating software is after all as evident in Arab nationalism as it is in political Islam, and perhaps even Mubarak’s client government sought to accommodate the interests of global liberalism only insofar as the world order, up to and including Saudi Arabia (which as far as I am concerned is a greater threat to Egypt than Israel) could provide that government with the required alms.
That is over now, despite the military and its supporters, backed by said world order, doing all they can – hitting below as well as above the belt, even idiotically risking sectarian war in the process – to reinstate the beggar-mentality status quo. Egyptians should be thankful for the “revolution” not because it proved successful or achieved its goal, but because it will make elimination of difference by begging increasingly impossible. People can no longer pretend to be safe from their compatriots, the myth of “national unity” is no longer viable, not all those who are different can pay.
Whether they like it or not, the Other will assert themselves at last, bringing forth even through catastrophe all the many beautiful Egypts that have been squeaking for dear life.
***

Side effects of Revolution
Posted on October 6, 2011        
I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Dozens of them from before the Arab Spring are freely available on YouTube – the Nakba, Hezbollah, torture, hijab, George W, Iraq, Iran, Sudan – many as relevant to Tahrir Square as anything. Sidling into bed of an evening, high on Revolution, I would select a topic that suited my mood, listen with mounting suspense to Faisal’s retro rhetorical intro, and lick my lips over the promised discursive violence, not to say deranged bawling. That, at least, is how it started.
All very civilised and edifying. Each head-butting match has a compelling topic, a thought-out script and, seemingly, the right pair of contestants ready to express two sides of an issue. Ah, objectivity! Yet as with so much else on Al Jazeera, something somehow remains askew.
I do not mean the channel’s populist bias, the systematic and directionless manner in which it incites viewers (often to embrace political Islam), nor the unspeakable hypocrisy it sustains by doing so while it remains an organ of the Qatar government.
I do not mean Faisal’s brand of impartiality, which is to argue each case with vehemence irrespective of whether he might actually be spreading misinformation, never taking into account the implications of a given argument for the larger picture. It is okay, for example, to present Saddam Hussein as the wronged hero of Arab glory and call him the Martyr, so long as you are pointing up dependency, corruption and sectarianism in the current Iraqi regime; you only get to describe Saddam as he was if you happen to be bestowing blessings upon Iraq’s US Army-controlled experiment with democracy…
Yet what I mean is something, slightly, else: the obscene polarisation, the rhetorical opportunism, the insolent lies; the ultimate vapidity of a good 40 out of each 45 minutes, which forms the substance of my addiction. If al Ittijah al Mu’akiss is what it means to be politically engaged, I must say that political engagement is not a good thing. Just below the surface, it is very uncivilised and profoundly delusional. And it is a condition of which I have not been cured since I went out to chant slogans and endure tear gas.
It wrings my heart to think that, in six months, Tahrir Square has turned into something not all that different from al Ittijah al Mu’akiss.

Escape into politics

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On revolution and intellectual life: Youssef Rakha again
There is a scene recounted by a young writer, Talal Faisal, in his as yet uncompleted novel about the late playwright and poet Naguib Surour: Barefoot and in tatters, holding a twig, Surour is spotted on the street by the journalist-critic Ragaa El-Naqqash, who takes him along in his taxi, offering him money for food. In the ensuing conversation, the vernacular poet and cartoonist Salah Jahine, perhaps the most successful intellectual of his generation, comes up. This is in the wake of the 1967 War; and Jahine, who was an unflinching mouthpiece of Nasser’s regime, is depressed about the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies. With mock concern, Surour asks Naqqash after Jahine, embarrassing yet another fellow left-wing intellectual who, unlike him, has managed to survive the worst of the totalitarian state with his shoes on. Talal Faisal captures the wry bitterness of Surour’s tone exactly.
Due to his immense populist talent and his eventual suicide, Jahine is seldom remembered as an instrument of totalitarianism; much as Nasser is regarded as a hero of the people despite his tyranny and the disastrous effects of his rule, so is Jahine sought out as the people’s voice – ultimately defeated. The power of the scene recounted by Talal Faisal, apparently based on a real-life incident, is that suddenly it presents Jahine not as a patriot and an innocent victim of the triumph of imperialism-Zionism (which triumph was later institutionalised by the next president-for-life, the “peace hero” Anwar Sadat), but as the agent of a rotten dictatorship. In this Jahine is rather like Sadat himself, whose reversal of Nasser’s foreign policy reduced neither the autocracy nor the corruption and short-sightedness of the military order he had taken part in establishing by coup d’etat in July 1952. By contrast Surour, an alcoholic diagnosed with schizophrenia and the author of a landmark series of obscene verses, was the self-dramatised outcast of the Arab nationalist patriarchate (whose only surviving archbishop, it should be remembered, is Colonel Gaddafi). If there is a true patriot and victim of imperialism-Zionism, it is Surour.
I have had occasion, following Egypt’s post-25 January return to an “emergency” status quo – also, and always, by way of the Israeli Embassy – to reread some of Surour’s more controversial work; and despite his obsession with Zionist conspiracy and the metaphorical as well as literal threat of being sodomised, I have been astonished by his madman’s prophetic power – a clarity of vision completely absent from Jahine’s technically far superior verses, many of which must be seen in the context of willful self-delusion if not downright lying – and the way in which, unlike most Marxists and leftists since, Surour could categorically reject July without subscribing to either liberal capitalism or political Islam. Long before Mubarak appeared on the scene, he spoke of such socioeconomic staples of the Mubarak regime as the brain drain, oil money, sexual tourism, male prostitutes, illegal immigration, policing and torture. Long before the collapse of the Soviet Union exposed the futility of the concept of the Leader, the absolute demigod, he could see that the problem was in that concept, not in ideological differences, pointing out that an autocrat could liquidate an Islamist like Sayyid Qutb and a communist like Shohdi Attiya El-Shafie, a close friend of his own, in the same breath. Far more than any of the penny-a-head rhetoric-mongers, some of whom sadly were of Jahine’s aesthetic calibre, Surour’s life reflected an awareness of the responsibility of the engaged intellectual, whose role in public life remained paramount in public consciousness; he was truly and honestly involved in politics, not in political discourse, and as the aforementioned scene demonstrates, he paid the price.
Despite the clarity of his vision and his strange ability to see into the future, Surour is of course of little relevance to the present moment. Yet his position as victim, the very price he paid, is indicative of the ambiguous position of the intellectual vis-a-vis political power. It is as if, in order to play any public role at all, an intellectual must in some sense be ready, the way Jahine was ready, to tell lies (the fact that he may have been telling them to himself as much as his audience is irrelevant). And it has been fascinating – perhaps what initially drove me to reread Surour at this point in time – to watch the range and complexity of the lies intellectuals have been telling in the wake of 25 January regarding the full gamut of the issues at stake from the nature of what happened to the intentions of the powers that be, up to and including which parties are relevant, which more powerful, which real.
I will not get into the lies themselves here. Suffice to say that they are similar in orientation and structure to the kind of untruths that informed public and cultural discourse in the early Seventies, when Surour produced his verses. It is business that involves abstractions and fallacies, opportunism veiled as pragmatism, lack of rigour (or conscience) and – inevitably, whatever else besides – a certain amount of self-delusion. But perhaps its most catastrophic side, now that populism is as dead as the all-powerful demigod, is its capacity for channelling insurgent energy away from the space in which it could yield political results on the ground and into larger issues that turn out to be merely rhetorical.
Perhaps art for art’s sake is a better idea, after all.

Sartre, my father and me

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When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.

Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.

Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.

It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.

I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.

In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.

Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.

But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.

His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.

Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.

I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause. I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.
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Anticipating 23 July

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Second, and third. Why not? Arab revolutions, as Al Jazeera anchors took to saying when things first flared up, have become a piece of cake. The drift of which would suggest that we’ve had at least two since January. Well, what we’ve had is the beginning of one – then something else, then protests – and that is all there is to say. Interesting that the Facebook page calling for demonstrations on 23 July is trying to replicate the logic of the initial uprising by protesting military abuses on the anniversary of the military coup that was to institute a supposedly independent Egypt, the way police abuses were protested on Police Day (25 Jan). Will it work? Maybe. But what on earth would that mean in practise? The fact that the page in question has for its logo a modified version of the Arab nationalist flag that was adopted by the Free Officers and an oversize eagle – symbol not only of state control but of bureaucracy, dictatorship, corruption, ignorance, poverty, defeat, economic and military, yes, military dependency – does not bode well for the third revolution.

And that, in a nutshell, is what I have to say: that, when all is said and done, if the current unrest does not reflect a clear-cut break with the military-dominated ideologies of Arab nationalism (not to mention those of Islamism and messed-up variations on socialism or communism), the martyrs will have died in vain. One feature of the 20th century to which the Arab world has remained hostage is the idea that there exist a small number of people who know better, whose understanding of human history or the human soul – the Marxist or Freudian correlates being, respectively, dialectical materialism and the unconscious – is scientific as opposed to ideological, and whose representatives on the ground should be given more or less absolute power in the interest of the greater good. Sadly the way this idea has played out in the Arab world has restricted those people – most of whom were, in effect, agents of the very subservience they professed to battle with – generals or mullas. Surely it was precisely July 1952 that we rose up against in January. July 1952 and its eventual disintegration, via corrupt and bloodied, Cold War-mired capitalism – also and eternally military – into Jihad and/or Salafism, no? If the July order of governance and consciousness up to and including oppositional politics is not what we rose up against, prompted by Facebook, then maybe there will be a fourth and a fifth “revolution”, each of which will see greater erosion of the values the previous one held up. Until we end up exactly where we started. Eternal recurrence, or Ground’s Hog Day. Or let us say we will remain nearer the anus of the anthropomorphic globe than any other organ. Long live the eagle that feeds on our limbs. Amen!

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ما زالوا يدفعوننا على سلالم العمارات


المستقبل – الاحد 8 أيار 2011 – العدد 3990 – نوافذ – صفحة 11

القاهرة ـ يوسف رخا
لماذا أفكر الآن أكثر من أي وقت مضى في ما تعنيه كلمة مثقف؟ في كونها أشبه بوظيفة أو مرض. كأن تقول: سبّاك؛ أو: بعيد عنك عنده الكلى. وفي أن الأقرب إلى معناها كما تُستخدم هو متعلم. إنها حتى بهذا المعنى زائفة لأن المثقفين الذين تصفهم لم يتعلموا جيداً نتيجة استيلاء النظام على المدارس والجامعات منذ الخمسينيات؟ وأفكر في السر وراء إخفاق من تصفهم هذه الكلمة في تحمل ولو جزء تافه من المسؤولية التي اضطلعوا بها دون أن يطالبهم أحد بذلك. إخفاقهم المتكرر على المستوى العام والخاص، وحتى على مستوى إنجازهم الشخصي: لماذا يقع سهم المثقفين دائماً بين أقدامهم، ولماذا دائماً يوجهونه إلى هدف خارج المساحة التي يشغلونها؟
لعلها الغباوة ببساطة، أفكر: إن الخيال محدود فعلاً، والعلاقة بالكتب وأنماط الحياة “المتحضرة” مفتعلة ومستحدثة. لكن هناك شيئاً حقيراً في اليأس أو عدم الثقة اللذين يجعلانك تشكّك في تحقّق الأهداف بينما الأهداف تتحقق أمام عينيك: لم يكن المستحيل هو محاكمة آل مبارك وحل أمن الدولة. لم تكن المشكلة في “الالتفاف” على شيء من ذلك من جانب عملاء محددين وواعين بدورهم للثورة المضادة. المستحيل والمشكلة كان في القدرة على تخيل عالم بلا مؤامرات أو في الإصرار على محاولة تخيل ذلك العالم، كما في الإصرار على أن مصر دولة مدنية، بلا اعتبار للمحيط الأوسع. المستحيل والمشكلة في شخص ينظر إلى مواطنيه من ارتفاع دون أن يختلف عنهم في شيء أكثر من هذه النظرة. لعلها الغباوة، أقول.
هناك كراهية ذات تتجاوز الوعي بها. كما عند السلفيين كذلك عند المسلمين من كارهي الإسلام. كان حقيراً مثلاً أن يتصرف “اليساريون” الأكبر سناً بما يفضح رغبتهم في تولي وزارة الثقافة، وفي الوقت الذي تبدت فيه لأول مرة فرصة حقيقية لتحرير النشاط الثقافي من وصاية الدولة بإلغائها، وإن على المستوى الذهني: لماذا نطلق أجيالاً أخرى تظن الثقافة شيئاً مرتبطاً بالدولة وصلاحها في كنفها؟ لم يصمم أحد على أن وزارة الثقافة مثلها مثل الإعلام التي أُلغيت بالفعل هي إحدى صور الدولة البوليسية. كان السؤال الرائج هو من سيتولاها. وكأنك وهو ما لاحظته بطول وعرض الجماعة “الثورية” بعد أن تأكدت من ذيوعه خارجها لا تعترض على الفتوة الظالم إلا لتسبتدله بفتوة “أجدع” منه… كأنك ورغم كل كلامك عن حياة تجاوزت الفتوة أو كان يجب أن تتجاوزها لست مستعداً لأن تتحمل مسؤولية نفسك أو تفترض في أهل حارتك القدرة على أن يتركوك في سلام. حتى وأنت مثقف تقدمي إلى الأمام ثورة ثورة حتى وأنت امرأة مستقلة مثلاً لابد من فتوة يسرقك ليضمن سلامتك مثل رب عائلة يبقيك حيث أنت ليصرف عليك.
يخطر لي الآن أن المثقفين في تمسكهم بفكرة الثورة المضادة إنما كانوا يدافعون عن أنفسهم هم، عن المكان الذي استمدوا منه طاقة وجودهم منذ انقلاب 1952 و”الاستقلال الوطني” مع كل تداعياته التي بررت جهلهم وتعالمهم والتفافهم على القيم التي يدعون الحياة بها، ثم كون خطابهم مطابقاً للخطاب “الإسلامي” في شموليته وكونه في جوهره طريقة لممارسة السلطة على من سواهم والتنافس على أمجاد صغيرة في ما بينهم.
منذ السبعينيات أو في أعقابها انعزل الخطاب “المثقفيني” عن “السياسة” فعلاً، ما جعل السياسة حكراً على “الإسلاميين”، لكنه ورغم التباهي بالخاص على حساب العام والمبالغة في الترويج لفكرة الفرد في غياب مجتمع يسمح بالحد الأدنى من الفردية، لم يتجاوز نهم الوصاية والسعي إلى تمايز مستبد، إن لم يكن عن طريق “المركز” الاجتماعي صريحاً فعن طريق الحرمان من ذلك المركز والتظاهر برفضه… لحظة يتحول الوضع القائم بالفعل أو يكون على وشك التحول، لو لم يظهر في المتون “تحول مضاد” يتمرد عليه المثقفون من مواقعهم في الهوامش لو لم يصبح الواقع الجديد مؤامرة لا يقدر على كشفها إلا وعيهم ماذا يبرر وجود “مثقفين” أصلاً؟ وما الفرق بين انحياز المثقفين للجيش – عملياً – ومنطق “اللجان الشعبية”؟
يخطر لي الآن أن الناس انقسمت منذ أول يوم وإن بدا أن الشعب الذي يمكن أن نسميه شعباً كله في ميدان التحرير. وقبل حتى إثارة البلبلة وتكثيف الخطابات الموجهة إلى عقليات جاهزة للارتعاب والانتماء القبلي، تقديس الرموز وتصديق الخرافات، عقب الهزيمة المنكرة للشرطة والتي لم يعلن فرد واحد من أفرادها انضمامه للمتظاهرين بالمناسبة، ولا فرد كان أول رد فعل للنظام هو الترويج للفوضى والجريمة قولاً وفعلاً وجعل اشتراكك في الاعتصام يمثل تهديداً (حقيقياً أو متخيلاً) على بيتك بما ومن فيه، الأمر الذي أدى إلى انطلاق شعارات مثل: يا أهالينا ضموا علينا. يخطر لي أن اللجان الشعبية بغض النظر عن “تجاوزاتها” كانت التعبير الأصدق عن الأبوية البوليسية نفسها التي قامت الثورة ضدها، ورغم أن الانشغال بحماية الممتلكات والأرواح لم يكن حكراً على المعادين للتحرك: القيم التي مثلتها اللجان الشعبية كانت بحذافيرها قيم الثورة المضادة. يخطر لي ذلك وأشعر بانقباض، كلما حدست أن البلد أقرب من معتصمي التحرير إجمالاً إلى اللجان الشعبية. وإلى الآن كلما تأكد الحدس أذكّر نفسي بأنه عبر أنحاء مصر في الثامن والعشرين من يناير 2011، ظهر الله. وإلى أن ينجر الخائفون إلى كلام يشبه كلام النظام الذي سقط عن أن هناك مصالح استراتيجية لدول تستهدف أمننا وسلامتنا أو “أجندات” نحن طبعاً فل الفل دائماً، وعلى اعتبار أن حكومتنا لم تنفذ أبداً، وضد رغبة شعبها، أجندات دولة لا تزال تُعرّف في الأدبيات الرسمية بكلمة “العدو”، لا يمكن أن يحدث عندنا شيء سيء إلا لو كانت هناك مؤامرة لإيذائنا من جانب جهات خارجية تستغل سذاجة المتحمسين، وعلى اعتبار أن الانفلات الأمني وتعطُّل “عجلة الإنتاج” شيء سيء، بل وعلى اعتبار أن القمع مقبول طالما أنه يأتي من الجيش الذي حمى الثورة سيخطر لي أنه الجنون ذاته الذي يصيب أباً فقيراً ليس في بيته شيء ذو قيمة وهو يبالغ في تأمين البيت خوفاً من الحرامية، وعندما يضج أبناؤه بالحياة التي يعيشونها معه لا يتردد في الاستعانة بصديقه أمين الشرطة ليبيتهم ليلة في الحجز حتى يقدّروا النعمة التي هم فيها فيكون قد لقنهم درساً يعينهم على صعوبات الحياة.
ومع ذلك فإن المثقفين والمسيسين حين يتحدثون عن الدولة المدنية، لا يضعونها على نقيض الدولة العسكرية القائم تهديدها بشكل مباشر؛ المدنية التي يقصدونها هي اللا-دينية (أليس مضحكاً أن يحدث تحالف بين الجيش والإخوان المسلمين بل وبين الإخوان المسلمين وبقايا الحزب الوطني من أجل تمرير التعديلات الدستورية؟) وهو ما كان المثقفون والمسيسون مشغولين به دون النظر إلى المجتمع المحيط بهم من قبل حتى أن يتنحى مبارك: المادة الثانية من الدستور، والدولة اللا-دينية. ومدفوعاً بتضامني الصادق معهم، أنا، وجدتُني أتساءل: عندما تصبح مصر دولة مدنية بحذف المادة الثانية من الدستور، هل يعني ذلك أنه لن يكون فيها ذقون ولا مخابيل ولا جيران يحشرون أنوفهم في شؤون جيرانهم أو بوليس آداب؟ هل أن مصر ستكون خالية من حاملي “السنج” المكشوفة صدورهم وقد “ضربوا” برشاماً تحت أعين آباء متقيحين من واجبنا احترامهم وهم يدفعوننا على سلالم العمارات مفضّلين أن نموت على أن نستمتع بمباهج الحياة؟ هل يضمن الدستور حق الاعتراض على التفاهة والغباوة في الأوساط والعياذ بالله الفكرية؟ وماذا عن أمي وغيرها من المتدينين العاديين جداً في الحياة؟ (أمي نفسها التي كانت ترفض وبشدة إلغاء المادة الثانية من الدستور ستقود فيلقاً كاملاً من أصدقائها وأقاربها مع الخادمات والبوابين إلى صندوق الاقتراع ليصوّتوا جميعاً بـ “لا” للتعديلات الدستورية، وفي يوم هكذا سيخبرني الجميع إثر عودتي فاقت فيه سعادة “الناس العاديين” سعادتهم بالثورة، لأنهم ولأول مرة في حياتهم ظنوا أنفسهم يشتركون فعلاً في تقرير المصير… والمصير لا يقرره إلا المضطلعون الذين لهم سنوات طويلة بـ”العملية الانتخابية” من ذقون وفلول وأناس يحملون الهراوات.) مصر دولة مدنية؟ طيب! بين يوم وليلة إذن سيكف البنات عن التحجب من تلقاء أنفسهن، وستكف القوادة باسم التحضر في المقابل بين طلائع لن يكونوا جهلة ومستهترين ولن يضحوا برغباتهم الأصدق من أجل المناظر والمكاسب. سيمكنك أن تقبّل حبيبتك على النيل دون أن تكون من مُلّاك السيارات ودون أن يظهر لك مخبر أو واحد يعرض عليك، بسعر ابتزازي، “قعدة عائلية”. وستتخذ الصلة بالغرب أشكالاً غير نموذج “الخرتي” الراغب في الهجرة بأي ثمن، مؤجّر جسده في سبيل “الحرية”. وحتى العلاقات المثلية عابرة الثقافات أو الطبقات ستكون بين ندين فعلاً بدلاً من أن تظل بين غني عجوز وفقير شاب ليس بالضرورة مثلياً… هكذا بين يوم وليلة… بمجرد حذف المادة الثانية من الدستور، لأن مصر الآن دولة مدنية. لا للتخلف. لا لقمع الحريات. لا للدولة الدينية. وقّعنا البيان الألف وخمسمائة ومليون وخرجنا نبحث عن خمرة ونسوان بينما زوجاتنا يُرضعن العيال في البيوت هيييييييييييييييييييييه! مصر دولة مدنية. ليس عن تعاطف مع الفكر أو النشاط الإسلامي أبداً، خمس مرات في اليوم كنت أردد: اللهم إني أبرأ إليك من الثقافة والمثقفين. وعلى “الفيسبوك”، من الكويت، انتبهتُ إلى “إبراهيم” يقول إن هناك الكثير من ضباط البوليس الشرفاء ومثلهم في المجالات كلها التي كان يسيطر عليها النظام. كتبت لإبراهيم رداً على ذلك أنه في بلد من العادي فيه أن يتحول المجند إلى خادم منزلي لدى ضابط شرطة هو نفسه بالكاد يجد قوت يومه، من الصعب الكلام عن مواطنين شرفاء؛ لم أكتب أنني لا أعرف، في السياق، ماذا يمكن أن تعني كلمة شرفاء. ومن ينطق بكلمة وعي أمامي، من الآن فصاعداً، سوف ألكمه في وجهه بلا تحذير.

Ahmad Yamani’s New Book: The Ten Commandments of Displacement

When Youssef Rakha asked the Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani how his latest book, Amakin Khati’ah (Wrong Places, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2009) came about, the latter sent him a numbered list of observations

1. All the poems of this diwan were written in Spain between 2002 and 2006.

More than other “Nineties” prose poets working in standard Arabic, Ahmad Yamani was accused of hartalah, contemporaneous slang for prattle or drivel. That was when he lived in Talbiyah, the semi-provincial suburb of the Pyramids where he was born in 1970. No one doubted his talent, but even the quasi-Beatniks of Cairo were not ready for the irreverent lack of polish in his first book, Shawari’ al-abyad wal-asswad (The Streets of Black and White, 1995), particularly clear in the long, epoch-making poem whose title translates to Air that stopped in front of the House.

Here at last, romantic and Kafkaesque by turns, was a rage-free Howl of Cairo in the post-Soviet era. The madness went on. By the turn of the millennium Yamani was as well-known as he could be. He was writing, he was working (mostly at cultural magazines), but like many others he was also fed up with life on the margin and disgusted with the social, economic and literary mainstream. One day in 2001, he left the country for good.

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2. I did not show anybody and did not publish a single poem, because my idea was simply to test myself in a new place.

The ambition to start over makes sense despite Yamani’s success: Through a revolution waged in the ghetto – cf. the journals Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra and Al-Garad – he had been among the few who survived the purges. In time his hartalah-streaked genius, demonstrated in two more books by 2001, looked more like what the revolution was about than almost any other work. The vernacular, the individual, the concrete: these were the basic components of a variegated “movement”, but Yamani seemed to embody them more literally. In a way he grabbed what everyone else was girdling. Hartalah or not, his work was gloriously prosaic.

Apart from tighter technical control of his material and a greater openness to drama and narrative, however, no major developments occurred in Yamani’s next two books (Tahta shajarat al-‘a’ilah, self published, 1998; and Wardat fi ar-ra’ss, Miret, 2001). The gifted strive to surpass themselves. Consciously or not, starting a new life must have seemed the perfect chance to re-enter the void. It took Yamani nearly five years to come back out with something to show for himself; and while he shed some qualities in the process, there were others he retained:

Unlike Yasser Abdel-Latif, for example – another survivor whose own debut, also self-published, emerged simultaneously from the same press as Shawari’ – in Amakin Khati’ah Yamani still does not construct his texts, he releases them. Here as in the previous three books, he avoids sentimentality not through restraint but by reinventing the words and their sense. He makes words say not necessarily what he means (he does not necessarily mean anything), but how he experiences their weight.

For a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, then, what does it mean to be in a new place – intent on poetic self examination?

***

3. My life in the new place was totally different from my life in Egypt, which was surrounded by intellectuals almost for its duration and where friends provided a sense of security.

Only very occasionally in this book does being in a new place mean noticing how foreignness plays out in ideational terms, but in the context of the Nineties the fact that it does at all is remarkable. In “Story of al-Jahidh”, for example (the title is an incidental reference to the great ninth-century author, who was black), the speaker not only describes but also seems to mull over instances of racism – by Nineties standards, an unthinkable concession to “ideology” – the catch-all term for anything which, preceding or external to individual consciousness, could potentially intervene in how it operates, altering or squeezing its contours.

Assess the poem as you will, explicit mention of racism is not something you would expect of Yamani.

Not that it is beyond him to think about such issues, but the Nineties work was conceived partly in reaction to both Sixties engagement and the Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said)-influenced obscurantism of the Seventies: the absurdity of writing about and for abstractions, whether the People, the Nation, or Modernism, Beauty, etc. Any suspicion of the poem championing either cause or concept, however ambiguously, would have been enough for the Tis’iniyyun (or “Ninetiers”) to set up the gallows. And in many ways Yamani was the least susceptible to temptation.

Perhaps out of mere habit, Ninetiers who are otherwise in awe of Amakin Khati’ah still object to the topicality that shows up on its pages. Could topicality nonetheless be one of the ways in which the end of revolution – immigration, in this case – had a liberating effect on the revolutionaries?

***

4. This sense of security ended totally in Spain. It was not a question of lack of access to my friends, which I had through e-mail or telephone; it was more about cutting yourself off from that security with awareness, even resolve. Besides, the practicalities of life led me into new interactions. Little by little while working as a guard or a barman, you learn to take off the writer’s plume, which you used to rely on in Egypt and which set you apart as someone special, especially in front of your family. Here it didn’t matter at all whether or not you were a writer.

With Abdel-Latif and a host of young Cairo-based poets from working to lower middle class backgrounds, Yamani had inherited a certain Rimbaud-like angst from a more or less small group of staunchly apolitical existentialists who, though were only slightly older, could claim a connection with the Seventies as well as the Nineties: the Alexandria-based Alaa Khalid, the late Osama El-Dainasouri and the Charles Bukowski-loving founder of Al-Garad, Ahmad Taha, for example. It was a complex legacy with disparate influences – Dada-Surrealism (notably through translations from the French by Bashir El-Sebai), Modernism, a range of vaguely Baudelairian non-Europeans from Nicanor Parra to Orhan Veli – and it reacted to and set itself apart from savants of the Seventies not only in their capacity as Marxist politicals and heroes of the 1977-79 Student Movement but, even more importantly, as the false prophets of a new sensibility.

This is the package Yamani presumably carries along in his suitcase. But in exile or the promised land, in the new place, it must seem less relevant by the minute. Here it does not matter how you feel about prose in contrast to (free) verse as a poetic medium; it does not matter whether you are tired of one zeitgeist dictating opinions and alliances, or whether you might be contributing to the emergence of another; it does not matter to what extent you see a Syrian poet’s programme for Arab modernity as meaningless in practice, or how you assess an increasingly pro-government Egyptian critic’s notion of enlightenment. Only the idea of being and then not being surrounded by “intellectuals”, I suspect, remains crucial:

Until he went to live abroad Yamani, who graduated from Cairo University in 1992, had functioned as part of an amorphous Group of literati (or at least one avant-garde wing thereof): normal enough procedure for a writer with any ambition in Egypt. To those who choose to define themselves in opposition to the status quo – the vast majority, in practice – that Group remains an essential element of literary production. By positioning itself outside or against the cultural (formerly also the political) establishment, since the 1970s at least, from its peripheral position the Group has often exercised greater power than the establishment.

For better or worse the Group is both the motor and the bane of the writer’s life: in the capacity of friends (an almost metaphysical affinity implying interpersonal rights but neither moral consistency nor critical rigour), fellow writers-critics cover up the hopelessness of social (including academic) and professional life, doubling as readers in the process. At the expense of a sense of isolation and instability (arguably conducive to the creative act), the reality of a society that has no need even for genre novels, let alone prose poetry, is neutralised or obscured.

In the new place, I imagine, the package itself begins to look context-specific, limited and limiting, or it takes on previously unsuspected meanings. As the Spanish language gradually lodges itself in the system, unrelated discoveries further complicate the picture. For a while, I imagine, the writer no longer knows how to write.

***

5. In my first year I wrote almost nothing. That was 2001. In 2002 I started writing again.

Here, titled “The Two Houses”, is a moving example of how distance can rarify and distill hartalah once the literary self reemerges isolated:

I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.

The sheer lucidity suggests that “loss of security” does clear up a certain amount of non-poetic debris. Throughout Amakin Khati’ah the tone remains as offhand and the references as private (indeed often as murky) as ever, but the poet’s vision of the world and his place in it seems to have brightened or expanded. Suddenly, his work feels more relevant to more people.

So much that in an exquisitely dreamlike poem about a young man immigrating when the horizon at home begins to look like a dead end, “The Big Escape”, poetry comes close to allegory. And without a whiff of the sociopolitical or the “ideologoical”, neither strays very far from the clearly grounded situation it depicts:

They had sentenced me to execution with two of my friends and it was by what they called euthanasia which had already killed a fourth friend of ours. We did not understand very well what they meant by these statements and so they left us free without guards or cells and sentenced us instead to a kind of death they called a mercy killing which is carried out by a middle aged lady who has a benign face and which is painless but is death anyway. I consulted with my mother and my friends a little while before the execution and I decided to escape. They all agreed I should go while my two friends remained to wait for the lady. As soon as I went out after they gave me all the money they had I met with the merciful lady face to face next to my home. Neither of us looked at the other. She avoided me and went off and I went past her and started to run looking over my shoulder in other countries.

***

6. When I went back to writing, I wanted to see myself as a poet in isolation from any possible influences. I stopped publishing totally.

For which read, equally, “I stopped having a seat at the cafe in downtown Cairo.” Divested of that position, the writer begins to see his work in the limitless space of what is human as opposed to what is intellectual (or Egyptian), confronting the fact that poetry can only exist in a marginal place far more directly. He might even begin to question the safety that comes of belonging, however tangentially.

In Yamani’s case, I think, that journey has been overwhelmingly positive – partly because the resulting changes meddle with neither content nor style. There is a heightened sense of geography and multiplicity (in the cultural as well as the physical sense); the poet’s inherent, often laugh-out-loud sense of irony responds to a broader range of stimuli; far from the fluid vitality of Shawari’, his modus operandi reflects meticulous reworking of the short piece: a process through which the rawness of the writing nonetheless emerges intact. But here as in older work, subject matter is by and large distorted beyond recognition, language remains informal and corporeal, some sense of hartalah persists.

What is brand new is the vision: the ability to transform one act into another in the impossibly beautiful two-line poem “Tobacco Seller”, for example: “Her hand is on the box, my foot outside the house. Suddenly it grows dark, while she continues rubbing the tobacco on her shiny thigh./She stops a little to move half the tobacco to her other thigh, while I enter the tunnel and start smoking.”

References so private and concealed they are a hair’s breadth away from being meaningless (El-Dainasouri, for example, figures only as “Osama”, without any indication of who he might be) take on the power of electromagnetic signals: an object, a person becomes one of several points around which a field of gravity extends, shaped as much as anything by the distance between Talbiyah and Madrid.

***

7. I wrote slowly, with a sort of private enjoyment, without any plan to publish a book and without any concern with whether or not I was writing. It seems I wanted to free myself from Writing itself.

At the most basic level displacement has given Yamani’s prosaicness a fresh subtlety. Transported to a context the writer cannot take for granted, as in “The Funeral”, insights that are personal and elusively formulated enough to come across as enigmatic suddenly look breezy, universal and accessible: “Chimo is not my friend. But he died… and here I am no longer a stranger in these lands.”

In “The Book”, about the illiterate mother of a published author, this sense of writing in isolation from Writing, the slowness of rediscovering an intimate process, turns a more or less obvious homesickness into something far more interesting (in folk belief, the number five affords protection against the evil eye):

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

But it is not only a matter of context: displaced, the writer cannot take himself for granted; and not only because he can no longer designate himself a plume-wearing intellectual. In this sense the stage Yamani refers to as “loss of security” might be rephrased “loss of identity”. And indeed counterbalancing a new confidence, a kind of facility in Yamani’s poetic persona following his initial season in hell and the transformations it led to – a confidence just as evident in his real-life persona, as I recently found out – there is a sense of dislocation:

While topical notions of identity never go further than a more or less passing, very subtle remark on the “I” as exotic sex partner (in “My Clothes”), the eye of the poet is, to a far greater extent than in the previous books, unhinged and in motion, in search of its ever elusive socket in the his own transmuting face. It does not seem ludicrous to suggest that this is the deeper quest, as desperate as it is doomed, of the globalised soul seeking salvation in post-post-God times.

Like few other books Amakin Khati’ah presents the world as a place defined by a sort of earthly transmigration, people becoming other people through movement in space, vulnerable egos in intercontinental flux. And it is to Yamani’s credit that, unlike many Arab writers, without once resorting to a self-definition that might help him to do so, he communicates a persuasive sense of being in the contemporary world.

***

8. The strange thing is that some people saw my not writing as a sign of bankruptcy and decided that what I had already published was the end of my writing career. This made me laugh even as it saddened me. But it was a passing sadness.

Such is the ugly face of the Group or its avant-garde wing, whether or not that has really managed to set itself apart from the Seventies – the subject enacting or being made to enact ridiculously melodramatised glories and downfalls for the benefit of the rest of the crew, turning into Hero, Victim or (in the broadest range of senses, including the literary) Suicide – but however passing the sadness such sickness inspired in Yamani, it is just as well he was made aware of it, the better to appreciate the significance of the new place. Perhaps we would not have known about Yamani if not for the Group; what we should be thankful for is that he has endured in spite of it.

Immigration, as it seems, is remedy enough. The friends remain friends but in a far less proscriptive way. It is possible to relate to the family – part of the hopelessness of the society surrounding an impenetrable circle – in a more open and sympathetic way. It is possible to see the meaning and value of others as others, not equally restricted versions of the self who may also have made the difficult choice of becoming “intellectuals” or of joining the group. A certain amount of open-ended understanding accumulates. The world becomes a handkerchief as well as being small.

***

9. I did not even think of publishing the book once it was completed. It was Yasser Abdel-Latif and Mohammad Hashim who drove me to do it.

Mohammad Hashim is the writer who, by founding Dar Miret in 1999, absorbed much of the energy of the Nineties and eventually became better-known as the most accomplished independent publisher in the city (the moon of his success has since waned somewhat). And the easy way to interpret what Yamani has to say about the publication of this book is to think of it as (false) modesty. He is shy about the genius that drives him.

It could also be a sign of despair of ever having a significant readership, reflecting what I feel is a healthy awareness of the position of the contemporary Arab writer in the grander scheme of things. While others go crazy over literary prizes or the prospect of being translated – publication being among the easiest tasks facing a writer in Cairo, it is never enough in itself – here is a glowing talent who, expecting neither fame nor fortune, has little or no drive to publish in the first place. Ambitious he might be, but he is silent. There is dignity in that position: an artisan’s deep respect for his noble handiwork regardless of market demand.

Alternatively, however, the statement could be interpreted as a salutary affirmation of the fact that true writers write foremost for themselves, to work through their own sense of being. In this sense Amakin Khati’ah might be read as a journal of expatriation, an inner chronicle of what it means, for a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, to live away from home.

It means that he is still hard-up, that he teaches and translates to make a living: probably factors in the development of his approach to language and meaning. It means that he has become an academic (the only career open to an immigrant educated in the humanities?) and that it is an opportunity for him to set up theoretical grounding for the literary form in which he found himself (the prose poem), and to locate his work in a wide historical context. It also means that he can write free from compulsion, free from the need to establish ultimately prohibitive social or existential credentials; maybe it even means that he has something to write about, too.

***

10. With rare intelligence, Mohab Nassr, in a letter to me after reading the manuscript, caught the idea that this was my first book. I feel the same way: the first book in a second life.

It is interesting that, of all those who commented on the manuscript, Yamani should cite Mohab Nassr: the one Nineties poet (of Khaled and El-Dainasouri’s generation) who, largely out of repulsion from the Group, its capacity for ruining lives and its failure to see itself as part of the society surrounding it, actually stopped writing altogether. After settling down as a journalist in Kuwait – he had worked as a school teacher in Alexandria – Nassr has only just returned to writing.

It is interesting because Nassr, not only by no longer writing poetry but by socially distancing himself from the Cairo-centred literary circles, is able to see better than others just how far since Wardat fi ar-ra’ss Yamani has come. It is also interesting because, without discrediting Yamani’s three previous books, Nassr is implying that Yamani did not start writing until he had departed, until he was totally free of his Egyptian-intellectual self.

It is interesting too that the poet joyfully agrees – not with any of the implications, necessarily, but with the fact that he has experienced a literary rebirth – adding only the qualification of this being a second life. It means that when he writes, in “Work”, “Any ghost who appears to me will instantly become my friend”, he knows exactly what he is talking about.

“The Two Houses”, “The Big Escape”, “Tobacco Seller” and “The Book” translations copyright: Youssef Rakha

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