aBiography: An Exclusive Blog Feature

Sleep-deprivation is like being high. I know because I was high for a long time, then I started sleeping irregularly. It’s supposed to have something to do with lack of sugar in the brain, which is also the theory of what LSD does to consciousness. Things grow fluid and dreamlike, but at the same time there is a paranoid awareness of motion and a heaviness in the heart. Color and sound become a lot sharper, and time feels totally irrelevant. Normal speed is fast but fast can pass for normal. A moment lasts for days, days can fit in a moment. Talking and laughing are far more involving, especially laughing. The grotesque animal implicit in each person comes out, sometimes messing up the conversation. And then it’s as if you have no body. As in the best music, an uncanny lightness balances the overriding melancholy. There is joy in flying when you don’t need to move. All through this, what’s more, every passing emotion turns into an epic experience.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

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حوار مينا ناجي: الصياغة الأخيرة

٦ نوفمبر ٢٠١٠

هل لابد أن ترتبط هوية الكاتب بمكان جغرافى وتاريخ محدد؟

أرى أنها على العكس لابد أن لا ترتبط، لا يصح أن تكون الكتابة مكبلة بفكرة انتماء لمكان معين أو حتى زمن معين. الانتماء لمكان وزمان يكون حاصلا رغماً عنك. سهل جداً أن تقع فى فخ سياسى أو غير أدبى، غير أدبى بأى معنى، ليس من الضرورى أن يكون سياسياً، لو أنك ربطت بين كونك تنتج أدباً وفكرة أن هذا الأدب له مكان أو له زمن أو له أى نوع من أنواع الانتماء.

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Spaceship Living: Abu Dhabi Fair Grounds, Four Years On


Library of Dreams, The National, February, 2009

Just a few short weeks ago, a scene much like the opening of Kafka’s The Trial marked the beginning of the end of my year-long life in Abu Dhabi: Someone must have been telling lies about Youssef R, for without having done anything wrong he was divested of his belongings one fine evening. His Tamil cleaner, who should have been there to oversee the procedure, failed to appear. That was totally unexpected. R was lounging about with two American friends, watching Barack Obama’s inauguration on TV, when two men, having mysteriously arrived at his apartment, found their way straight into the room without knocking or ringing the door bell, which was out of order anyway.

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Her damask cheek: two visions of Syria

Today is the second anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian revolution on 15 March, 2011

Damask Rose by Vangelis (Blade Runner soundtrack)


Early one morning in the summer of 2011, a good few months after the ouster of Hosny Mubarak, I received an international phone call. It was an unknown number that began with 00963. I could tell this was the country code of some Arab state, though I didn’t know which. After some hesitation I picked up, and I was greeted by a thin voice speaking with inflections that sounded vaguely Iraqi. “Remember Abu Dhabi,” the voice said eventually, with a warm chuckle. “This is Thaer.”

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Remembering The Travels of Ibn Rakha: November, 2008

Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.


The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:

My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.

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The Best of The Sultan’s Seal: Five Articles © Youssef Rakha


1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.

3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.

4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time.
Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.

5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.


Mohammed El Mazrouie: The angels fly


—You were waiting there,

not parting from the threshold.

Neither night after night

nor morning after morning

could wipe off your eyes the elongated picture of a soul,

of the trunk of a soul.

—Did anyone drink from your mouth

except those mood swings

when the moon takes control of your body’s waters?

—You were smiling,

you were happy,

behaving like a child,

trying to stretch your head

to receive something… from me.


ignored you

as if I couldn’t see you.

I did not want to face your eyes

because your eyes asked a lot of questions.

You run

and (what no one sees)

your feet bump into animals

that scurry from your path.

Half of you is covered in wheat straw

and your soul is naked.

Mohammed El Mazrouie

Translated from Arabic by Youssef Rakha

Arabian Ants

Image via Wikipedia

My own private Emirates

Youssef Rakha clicks his heels together three times and says, ’There’s no oasis like home.’

It had been nearly a week since I slept in my apartment – and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary on my return. Enervated by my tour of the Emirates, I resolved to retire for as long as possible. Dream images of my family home in Cairo saw me through; I fell into a deep, regenerative slumber filled with journeys – to Ras al Khaimah, to Alexandria – shorter trips by car which, enabling a brief departure from everyday living quarters, offer a variation on the usual urban domicile, a temporary escape from Abu Dhabi or from Cairo. But by morning, the itching was impossible to ignore.

Some unpleasant sensation in my limbs had momentarily but repeatedly woken me through the night, yet the REM sleep was so absorbing I did not register what it was. Eventually, sitting up in the light of my bedside lamp, I could just make out a familiar creature trudging determinedly from underneath my torso to the edge of the mattress: a tiny brown ant, the kind that, back in Cairo, would be infesting said family home at this time of year if not for regular visits by the exterminator. Yet the ants were never entirely vanquished, especially when the scheduled visit of the exterminator was slightly overdue. They would be practising their infantry drill, individually or in small groups, inside the bath tub or on a door handle, marching alongside invisible tanks across a windowsill, launching minuscule rockets into the ceiling; sometimes they managed to build settlements near the sugar hoards in the kitchen, putting up imperceptible flags.

Amazingly, even as I scratched vigorously now (ensconced in my insulated Abu Dhabi environment) I was overjoyed by the presence of those reviled occupiers. For once my air-conditioned living space – like so much else in the Emirates: cordoned off, polished and seemingly impenetrable to the substance of real life – felt like my idea of a home: a place where, in midsummer, ants have to be dealt with no matter what.

It occurred to me that, even in the perpetual state of transience in which the UAE’s migrant labour force lives (and I too, willy-nilly, am part of that labour force), small details can generate a stable atmosphere, slowly but surely breaking the seal of impermanence. This belated realisation should have come to me earlier – it did not actually require the presence of these arthropod madeleines – had I only given it some thought. It seems that even the most unattached nomad, in the most mercurial quicksand, will of necessity imbue the space he occupies with clues to who he is.

For an actual flat – even a company-procured specimen, in a newly constructed assembly-line building, which looks and feels more like a dorm room than a house – is more than a glorified hotel apartment. Partly to ensure that it would be different from places where I have lived in the past, and partly for the sake of interior-design innovation, but mainly to cut the start-up costs, when I first moved in, I decided to furnish only one room.

The idea was to divide up the space along the lines of UAE territory, mimicking those architectural models you keep bumping into at public venues in a symbolic way. The kitchen and entryway would stand in for the more remote Northern Emirates; the bathroom, being wet (one Arabic word for bathroom – dawrat al miyah – translates as “revolution of the waters”), small and different from anywhere else in the house, would represent the island of Abu Dhabi.

The unfurnished, thus far-unused lounge – designed, or rather left blank, to house parties and punish renegades – is my Empty Quarter, while the Oasis, the hub of my very own miniature Trucial Coast, located as it should be adjacent to the revolution of the waters, is both bedroom and study; it has the TV, the DVD player, the books – everything, really.

At the time, I had not realised that, in so conceiving of the apartment, I was not so much invoking the Emirates as recreating an introverted loner’s archetype of a place to be comfortable in. With few exceptions, I have always occupied a single room, a combination bedroom and study, where the entertainment system would also be installed.

Like Proust, I like to work in bed; like Quentin Crisp, I try to minimise housework. And being cooped up in a manageable space with everything I required in the immediate surroundings must have instinctively felt like the right choice. The Oasis can be depressing when I have stayed there too long, but it answers my needs at every level. Interestingly, the room in its present state has something to say about what it means to live your life as part of a migrant labour force — all the more so in the presence of Cairo-style ants – after a week spent in hotels of widely varying quality.

What the Oasis reveals — in addition to my conscious, ultimately lame map of the Emirates and the subconscious notion of comfortable living space — is the enduring power of subjectivity. Whether they mean to or not, even when they have worked actively against it, transients will unload their baggage wherever they have arrived: their mental, as well as physical baggage; their attitudes and assumptions, their sense of right and wrong, their tastes and, perhaps most tellingly of all, as in my seemingly insane joy on discovering the reason my limbs were itching, their intricately accumulated responses.

In my case, to give a few examples, the kitchen is well-stocked with Turkish coffee, the bedside table has its own, large extension, its drawers equally well-stocked with cigarettes, so as to accommodate ashtrays, coffee cups, books, notebooks, pens, alarm clocks and variously useful trinkets: my life. To the side of the TV table there is a tabla, a walking stick, a traditional Arab flute. A pile of the Arabic books I have published stands beneath the drawing of an Upper Egyptian horse. There is a map of the Ottoman Empire and, next to the pop art case containing my stationary on the desk, a miniature Quran. In the drawers are Egyptian CDs, Lebanese films, Indian incense sticks acquired in the popular Cairo market of Moski.

A hotel cleaner arrives once a week to sort things out; he arranges a load of clean laundry into the wall cupboard and, shaking his head sorrowfully at the ants, says, “I spray now, sir?” To which I am nodding, admittedly with some reluctance.

After six months in Abu Dhabi, something changes in your outlook. It is not that you belong more. Rather, you become more open to experience, more painfully exposed, more willing to engage with people who once seemed irrelevant to you. Most crucially, in this context, your living space — and that includes the public as well as the private — begins to look like you. After six or 60 years, the space forcibly reflects those who reside – however briefly – within.

One of my favourite pastimes in Abu Dhabi is to depart the Oasis in the middle of the night, venture into the Empty Quarter and make a long-distance phone call. “Why is your voice so strange,” my interlocutor will invariably ask. “There is a huge echo, it’s like you’re calling from the middle of the desert.”


على هامش ليل الذئاب


ثمة مطر في مارينا مول

لكنه لا يهطل من السماء

ولا يخرج عن مساحة

محددة مسبقاً

حتى البرق الذي يصحبه

لا يعدو أن يكون

لمبات نيون فاسدة

في قبة سحابها

كالقصص الملون

والرعد أشبه بصوت

دراجة نارية


يأتي المطر في مارينا مول

بمواعيد معلنة

حتى لا تفوت المتسوقين

فرصة التمتع برؤيته

فينظرون في ساعاتهم

ويرفعون أعينهم

إلى السقوف

متمتمين كالعشاق

الآن يجيء المطر

ويقتادون أطفالهم إليه كالهائمين


يتحلق المتسوقون في مارينا مول

حول سياج غير مرئي

تحده حواجز بلاستك

كتلك التي تدل على الحوادث

ومناطق الهدد والعمار

ممسكين بأيدي أطفالهم

في دائرة لا يتغير قطرها

وعيونهم المشدوهة معلقة إلى فوق

إلى حيث البرق لمبات فاسدة

والرعد دراجة نارية


On wasta for The National

Knowing me, knowing you

While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale. The National, 2009

When I joined my last workplace, back in Cairo, it was on the recommendation of an influential acquaintance of my father’s. I had gone to meet him in one office to enquire about an opening in another, but he misunderstood my purpose and introduced me to some of his colleagues at the office where we met.

A month later, I had completed one task to the satisfaction of said colleagues, but it took another two months and maybe five more tasks before I was finally invited to meet the boss, who was so impressed with my work he offered me not just a job but an actual position. Having a position meant that, unlike many of the competent staffers who worked there “on a contract”, I would become, officially, and for life – yes, for life – an employee of the government-affiliated institution of which my new-found workplace was part. Circumstances were forthcoming, I suppose, because once I had crossed a few mountains of red tape, I did become, as people with positions are generally known, a true appointee. Competent staffers did not have such positions for one of two reasons: either they were not Egyptian citizens, a legal prerequisite for employment in the government, or the procedure awaited “approval” (which could take months, years, sometimes decades, depending on the humours of an all-powerful but invisible chairman).

When I say “competent staffers”, I should explain that there was at that office a much larger contingent of true appointees who took up space, time and (some) money though they were completely incompetent. If they were indeed competent, you did not see the vaguest sign of it. This, I figured, must be what economists mean when they talk about hidden unemployment. Anyway, there was evidently nothing anyone could do about the incompetents. The only action ever taken against them was that, unlike the competents, who were appropriately rewarded for doing good (or any) work, they received only the official government salary, unenhanced by a very substantial supplementary “bonus”. Such bonuses are the only thing that makes it viable for qualified professionals to work for the government, considering the absurdly low salary levels that continue to prevail. Incompetents were of course nominally equally qualified, but they had been placed permanently at the office against the better judgment of the boss.

They had been given positions there thanks to wasta, that untranslatable social vice: the sine qua non of all professional dealings in Egypt, a very mild case of which was involved in my introduction. Not that I would dream of absolving myself, but my case really was mild: this man was neither a personal friend nor a relative, and I was not offered a position until I had done some work.

Etymologically based on the root word for “middle”, wasatah – from which the colloquial term wasta is derived – refers to an act of mediation or intervention intended to help someone achieve a specific goal. It is closely related in tone to the word shafa’ah, or intercession, which is what the Prophet Mohammed will do for all Muslims on the Day of Judgment: in short, have a word with God.

Wasta means having a word with the person in charge to make something possible for someone, usually a job, or rather a position. In feudal times, wasta could actually be a positive form of upward mobility within a far more tightly prescribed space. It was more stringently applied and its beneficiaries were bound by a strict code of honour, with an imperative to do their utmost to prove that efforts on their behalf had not been wasted. The more power was decentralised, however, the less of a role honour had to play in anything.

Today wasta is in many instances synonymous with nepotism, but there is so much more to wasta: it would be extremely short-sighted to reduce its scope to nepotism alone. A catastrophe of the highest order: wasta implies waste, mismanagement and financial misconduct. It leads to various modes of corruption, obstructing upward mobility, narrowing the professional outlooks of the vast majority and perpetuating class boundaries.

Wasta is the magic dynamic by which a spoilt fresh graduate with neither credentials nor experience arrives at an office already appointed while a perfectly able candidate who has been working at the same office for five years continues to await appointment in vain. But it is equally the attitude whereby, while discussing professional prospects and the obstacles in their way, people will suddenly turn to each other with a hopeful twinkle of the eye, asking, “You don’t know someone, do you?” It is the crime almost everyone is routinely accused of, but also the quality of which braggarts are by and large most proud: “No, no, no. We would never get arrested. The deputy Minister of the Interior is a good friend of my father’s.” It is what mothers consider when, thinking about solving their children’s professional problems, they reach the end of their tether.

Wasta, over and above nepotism or corruption, is a life form. And it is a life form whose territory is being encroached on. Like smoking, like national identity, wasta is a species increasingly endangered by globalisation. While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate and more and more Egyptians become aware of the dictates of the World Bank, wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale.

Some day soon, privatisation will put an end to hidden unemployment altogether; then something terrible will happen: a bloody revolution, a civil war, collective screaming summoning up the most destructive earthquake in human history. All are possible consequences.

Still, no matter: fresh graduates, however well connected, will have to stop being spoilt. And the introduction I received, mild as it appears to be now, will eventually become the only form of wasta left.

Then we will all gather round, hold hands and celebrate our newly born American-style integrity – that profoundly protestant combination of idealistic morality and dog-eat-dog ambition believed to produce some form of “meritocracy”, which rarely functions as touted – wondering where on earth tonight’s dinner will come from now that we have neither a job nor the wasta to get us one.

Already, with wasta required at every turn, the process is collapsing under its own weight. With virtually everyone enjoying some kind of wasta power over everyone else (without a self-employed valet, for example, you will be unable to find parking outside your workplace), with so many economic and political variables involved (the valet must bribe the relevant traffic policeman, who must in turn accommodate his superior, etc.), wasta is fast turning into a vague promise or a hope, unreal as a prayer in the dark. “I know someone, yes,” you say to your relation. “Let’s hope they will do something about it.” But even as you utter the words, you know the chances are they won’t – because they can’t. And then you think of the good old days when you could actually have helped, and integrity – well, the aforementioned kind of integrity, at least – doesn’t seem all that appealing after all.

The devil may care

Image via Wikipedia

Youssef Rakha wonders whether the whole world is conspiring against his American Dream.

The National, 2009

It is October 6, and I have just found out I am not going to America. Something fell through with a story I was supposed to write; publication schedules changed, events became no longer newsworthy. For the longest timeit made sense for Egyptians not to go to America, and I had never been. But, once told I was going, I became excited about it.

October 6: so many things in Cairo are named after the one military victory against Israel that Arabs have been able to claim – on October 6, 1973 – since their first defeat 60 years ago. Why was my trip cancelled on, of all days, the Eid of Victory?

The obvious answer is coincidence. But the fact that I even asked myself the question is revealing. Could it be that Khomeini’s frequently quoted statement that “while Israel is the Lesser Devil, America is the Greater Devil” lurked in the backwaters of an Arab Muslim mind torn between the prosperity in Abu Dhabi and an increasingly unsettling sense of not belonging in Egypt?

The Egyptian in me clings to opposition to America’s most devilish ways in the region. In the time of Nasser, who presided with an iron fist over the most glorious of all Arab defeats in 1967, Egyptians had a good excuse for being cursed: their government refused to cow to an unjust world order. Since October 6, 1973, ironically, the same powers have flouted popular and intellectual discontent in its attempts to embrace both Devils, so to speak, as long and hard as they could.

After peace with Israel, after laissez-faire, after selling out (as socialist-minded dinosaurs continue to call it), there is no longer any excuse for being cursed. Ergo: every Egyptian born after 1973, myself included, has a birthright to his or her own American dream. It doesn’t matter if they seek to realise it within Egypt, in actual US territory or, like a sizeable number, in Israel. Wherever they go, the drive to pursue unlimited profit through the systematic destruction of the planet while urging others to protect the environment and refrain from nuclear development will always be theirs. So too the reward of a family living in a large suburban house with a huge entertainment system.

I waived such rights long ago, having chosen a career as a writer, where there will never be all that much material wealth to look forward to – no matter where I end up working. My very own American dream turns out to be much simpler: I just want to visit New York.

Notwithstanding the occasional bout of partial sympathy for Khomeini’s logic, through the years I have had many American and American-resident friends, and American books and films have added much to my sense of self. I feel silly having never seen the place with my own eyes. Citing one or two of my favourite American works of art would misrepresent the depth and breadth of my ongoing, practically lifelong experience of the country’s vital cultural history. Let’s just say I could not get rid of the knot in my stomach for hours after my editor told me that David Foster Wallace had hanged himself; all of a sudden this most American of contemporary authors felt like a close friend.

Admittedly, after 2001, in shock and fear of Guantanamo, it did not take much to give up my birthright. At the same time, I realised I had also not properly seen much of the Arab world, and I soon enough set out to explore it. I toured Egypt and made plans to scale the breadths of Sudan. America was out of sight and mind; a visit there, however rightful, felt unnecessary.

Then, one day in 2005, I was offered the chance to spend three months in New York through a writer’s residency programme. There was no per diem, but travel costs were covered and I managed to find a place to stay. Suddenly giddy with anticipation, I set about clearing things with the US embassy in Cairo, the residency providers and my employers, who agreed to give me time off.

In Cairo, the US embassy presides over a cluster of other US institutions that have turned a whole downtown neighbourhood into a practical military zone. Often, walking around there, I have been stopped by Egyptian police officers for impromptu interrogations. Moving through the otherworldly automatic security system that guarded the office I was visiting, I tried to imagine myself not in Guantanamo, but in the world’s must multinational hub – open-hearted, energetic and creatively charged.

A few weeks before I was due for my final interview at the embassy itself, my American accommodation fell through. On the same day, my boss took me aside to explain that, in light of certain major changes, I might lose my job if I left. And so, with the resignation of a true Arab who realises that Jerusalem will not be liberated in his lifetime, I had to go through the weary steps of cancelling the journey.

Shortly afterwards, when the Lebanese prime minister was assassinated, I heard Hizbollah’s secretary Hassan Nasrallah repeating Khomeini’s statement on TV: “America is al shaitan al akbar.” I looked up at the screen and, in the non-committal tone of a British MP seconding a motion that he does not really care about either way, I let out a “Yea!.” How was America responsible for Lebanon’s internal divisions? Who knows …

But having worked up the enthusiasm to go to America once, I was no longer afraid. I reverted from my post-September 11 “No way” to my pre-September 11 “At some point.” When this opportunity presented itself again, this time in Abu Dhabi, I was all too glad.

On the afternoon of October 6, I spent the afternoon trekking around town looking for the appropriate bank branch from which to pay my visa fees; I had to wait for an hour to fork over the requisite Dh500. When I got back to the office, my editor looked up from his computer screen: “We have a problem.” Here we go again!

Now, as I lie back and think of Jerusalem, it occurs to me there might be some kind of cosmic conspiracy designed to prevent me from realising my American dream: first September 11, then the lack of a host in an expensive city – and now adjustments in a publication schedule? Perhaps, as some superstitious Egyptians say to justify unfortunate turns of fate, it was God’s work – to save me – from Guantanamo, from a non-smoking hotel, from the fate of living as an illegal immigrant if I liked the place so much that I decided never to come back. Who knows…

Khomeini was not often right, but perhaps in this case he was on to something. Perhaps, all through my life, God has been conspiring to prevent me from associating with His archenemy after all.


K for kitab

At the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Youssef Rakha wonders if the United Arab Emirates might end up being the Arabs’ answer to an international publishing hub

After turning one of the Arab world’s worst read cities into a vibrant literary venue for five days, the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF, 2-7 March) folded quietly on Monday 7 March. It was followed by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (10-13 March), organised by Magrudy’s Bookshops and any number of sponsors in Dubai – that slightly better read New York of the Gulf where the Arabic language is alas all but completely absent.

The Emirates Festival requires separate coverage, but it is worth mentioning in the context of ADBIF in that it shared with that event a profoundly multicultural atmosphere. By the time ADBIF closed, even the predominance of Arabic books there had not reduced the overriding sense that here, finally, was a international, multilingual publishing event or series of events drawing together variously important figures from the four corners of the global village.

Neither bang nor whimper marked the end of what seemed like a separate and self-contained world within the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), an isolated space of glass and concrete on the outskirts of the city proper – recently completed by the addition of a high-rise corporate-style hotel, ensuring not only accommodation but taxi transportation from the fair grounds. With the vast majority of the fair’s non-resident patrons already gone by Friday, business proceeded as usual until it came gradually to a halt.

Initially the fair had proceeded alongside a major gun show, subjecting unsuspecting bibliophiles who entered by the wrong gate to unnecessary, airport-like security. Deceptively low-key from the outside, ADIBF was at least as busy as the killing carnival next door.

Activity centred on the by now haloed Discussion and Poetry Forums and the Kitab Sofa, where writers (sometimes attended to by television crews) performed to small, inevitably distracted audiences. Interviews, readings, and discussions often involving more than one writer shed light on an enormous motley of subjects, from the history of the translation of Indian literature into Arabic to whether and to what extent contemporary American literature can engage with postmodern tendencies firmly embedded into consumer culture.

Highlight appearances ranged from flash-in-the-pan celebrities (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the Algerian novelist Ahlam Mustaghanmi, for example) to award winners and writers whose relative fame may be better deserved from the literary standpoint (Adam Haslett, Yann Martel, Amit Chaudri, Pankaj Mishra, Alawiyya Sobh, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Sinan Antoon). There was a spaceman advertising new translation technologies, several dozen illuminated manuscripts (Islamic and otherwise) from various Europe-based dealers, and a Show Kitchen Programme featuring the authors of cookbooks demonstrating their recipes live – perhaps the most popular fixture.

For a moment on Saturday, with the Kerala Islamic scholar Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmad drawing a huge crowd to the Kitab Sofa in what seemed like a misplaced Friday prayers sermon, the more palpably Muslim aspects of the UAE’s cultural constituency became apparent, recalling what yearly threatens to turn into an Islamist takeover of the Cairo International Book Fair back home. Yet the atheistic and erotic titles published by the German-based Dar Al-Jamal, for example, were neither torn up nor burned. Islam is not about terrorism, was what Sheikh Aboobacker, in slighly broken Quranic Arabic, continued to reiterate.

Still, people filed through the labyrinth of booths representing various publishers from the Arab world and Europe, occasionally stopping at one or more of the three larger, prominently marked enclosures occupied by the fair’s own organiser, the Abu Dhabi Organisation for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), and its two initiatives, the Qalam series for Emirati writing and the Kalima megaproject of translation into Arabic.

And judging by the multi-ethnic composition of the audience, the broad spectrum of participating institutions, including the Goethe Institut and the British Council, and the currency of topics like the secrets behind the success of best sellers, the impact of literary awards on Arab culture or the state of comics and the graphic novel in the Arab world, it seemed the event was effectively introducing Western publishing norms into the as yet isolated Arab industry. How long will it take for that industry to be fully integrated?

Instead of enthusiasm from Abu Dhabi’s tiny community of Arabic book lovers, anyway, the fair now clearly bases its credentials on KITAB (Arabic for “book”), the joint venture of ADACH and the venerable Frankfurter Buchmesse, forged in 2007 to bring the event up to speed. For three years now ADIBF, founded in 1987 as a conventionally “Arab” fair, has been mutating into a global industry-standard publishing forum. So, at least, is its perception among a growing number of Gulf-culture champions who respect its aspirations. Two main concerns inform Arab cultural interest in the Gulf and the fair suggests answers to both of them.

First, it seems unfair that an oil-rich Emirate with hardly a single celebrated writer to its name should be positing itself as a literary centre of gravity, until you realise that what Western-style benefits Abu Dhabi manages to garner wearing the cultural-capital hat – literary prizes, publishing ventures, translation initiatives, copyright-protection measures – it will garner for beneficiaries across the Arab world.

Secondly, the fact that the UAE has – contentiously, for some – pioneered cultural projects managed by or modelled on Western institutions (the Saadiyat Island Louvre and Guggenheim initiatives, the Sorbonne and New York University campuses, etc.) has endangered cultural identity only within the borders of the UAE, where Arabs coexist with comparably sized non-Arabic speaking Asian and Western communities. In traditional cultural capitals like Cairo, the overwhelming incidence of Arabic language and literature, not to mention Arab mores and morals, makes culture more or less immune to what atrophy or confusion the adoption of a harshly capitalist, foreign (and once colonial) system might subject it to. But that remains a subject for much more involved debate.

With the Frankfurt Book Fair managing and developing it, at least, ADBIF does focus on the process of publishing, not (like the much older and by now proverbially disorganised Cairo International Book Fair, the most populous book-based event on the Arab map) on selling as much as possible regardless of substance or procedure.

At ADBIF there is no censorship, no fear on the part of security forces of an Islamist takeover of the fair grounds, no working-class-family-outing atmosphere, no shoddy infrastructure, no sudden and inexplicable absence of previously announced big names or enforced lack of access to them, no stiff formalities, and no dire shortage of information or facilities.

Property rights across languages and borders and the editor’s role in the writer’s career are just two of the areas where ADACH hopes to make a radical even if wholly imported contribution to the industry. On the basis of that contribution it is attempting to turn Abu Dhabi into “the region’s publishing hub”, as the official press package already puts it (emphasis mine), the region being all of the (Arab) Middle East and North Africa.

And notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in this business, ADACH just may be succeeding. Certainly ADBIF now looks and feels far more like Frankfurt than Cairo. In a relatively small-scale, comparatively relaxed event, just as much emphasis is placed on the profession of publishing and cross-national networking as on book-related amusements and book-buying opportunities for the public.


Established in 2007 in memory of the founder of the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards have since 2008 been overshadowed by the the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, better if less accurately known as the Arabic Booker), a joint venture of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation and the prestigious Booker Foundation (judging by this writer’s taste in recent years, Booker and Man Booker short lists have in fact seldom lived up to the name). Yet occurring within 24 hours of each other at the Emirates Palace and Beach Rotana Hotels, respectively, the awards ceremonies demonstrated just how much more interest the Booker commands at every conceivable level.

The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards this year went to the Lebanese Albert Habib Mutlaq for his translation of The Animal Encyclopedia, the Algerian Hafnaoui Baali for Comparative Cultural Criticism: An Introduction, a contribution to the field of literature, the Emirati Qais Sedki for the children’s book Gold Ring, the Egyptian Ammar Ali Hasan for The Political Establishment of Sufism in Egypt – deemed the Best Contribution to the Development of Nations – and the young Moroccan critic Mohammad Al Mallakh for Time in Arabic Language: Its Linguistic Structure and Significance, as well as His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi as Personality of the Year.

Far more engaging was the awards ceremony and the press conference of the Arabic Booker, which had generated the greatest controversy in its short history this year. Predictably for the vast majority of commentators, the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s She Throws Sparks won the grand prix, whether because it was the least controversial novel on the short list, or the work of the short list’s best respected author, or (according to some views) because books that could have competed with it – notably Alawiyya Sobh’s Its Name Is Love – had not made it that far or had been excluded from the start.

Many had contended that the exclusion of important contributions from the long and (more controversially) the short list was intended to facilitate the emergence as the final winner of a book from the Gulf; and subsequent statements by the head of the jury, the Kuwaiti novelist Talib Al-Rifa’i, to the effect that it was time that novels from the Gulf should be introduced to the Western world seemed to give credence to this theory.

Of course, should this be the case, it would be contrary to the regulations of the prize, and Al-Rifa’i in his eagerness to defend the jury, whose names, also contrary to regulations, were published in Cairo two weeks before the short list, ironically worked against it. All manner of accusations and conspiracy theories had been levelled at the jury and the board of trustees, but the head of the Booker Foundation, Jonathan Taylor, seemed confident of the administration of the prize. There was a leak,پh he responded to the question of how the names of jury members could have been known so early. پgI am sorry there was a leak.پh

More to the point, when asked why the judges of the Arabic Booker (unlike those of the Booker and the Man Booker) are not made known to the public in advance, Taylor said, “We were told that this would make it easier for the jury to do its work.” Once again inadvertently, Taylor seemed to give credence to the notion that the corruption of the Arab literary scene may have seeped into a Booker Foundation-managed institution after all.


The “Arabic Booker” Short List

The London-based Palestinian writer Rabie Al-Madhouns Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”. It tells the triple story of Al-Madhoun himself, his writer-protagonist Walid Dahman, and the hero of Dahman’s own fictional novel-in-progress. On a plane from London back to Gaza to see his mother for the first time in decades, Dahman meets an attractive Israeli actress who is subsequently killed in cold blood as a result of a previous love affair with the son of an Arab leader.

The young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabirs America is a fictional account of early 20th-century Lebanese immigration to the United States, told from the viewpoint of a country woman who follows her husband to New York.

The older Egyptian novelist Mohammad Al-Mansi Qindeels Yawm Ghaim fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side) tells the story of a Muslim woman in late 19th-century Upper Egypt who abandons her young daughter, Aisha, to protect her from the brutality of a merciless stepfather, baptising her as a Christian. This conversion, it later turns out, leads Aisha – who grows up to become a translator – to fall in love with a fictional version of the famous British archaeologist Howard Carter.

The Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji’s Indama Tashkish adh Dhiaab (When Wolves Grow Old) has a wide cast of characters and a plot drawn from detective genre fiction. It depicts the social malaise of contemporary Amman, exposing sexual and political repression, the hunger for power among intellectuals and religious leaders, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The young Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldins Wara al Firdawss (Beyond Paradise) chronicles an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders, but in so doing depicts the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from her small town to Cairo.

Abdu Khals own Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles), set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door to it, shows the brutality  of the owner of that palace, a well-connected, wealthy and powerful if sadistic tycoon who seizes and tortures his enemies. He employs the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.

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A literary prize fight: politics and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Youssef Zeidan, the winner of the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Azazeel (Beelzebub), accepts the grand prize – and a $60,000 award – at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi last March. Andrew Henderson/The National

A fine shortlist of nominees for the third ‘Arabic Booker’ has so far been overshadowed by manufactured controversy, Youssef Rakha writes.

For the third time in as many years, the discussion surrounding the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) has descended into bickering over literary politics. In the Arabic press, where the prize has received considerable attention and attracted equal amounts of controversy, the focus has rarely been on the virtues or demerits of the nominated titles – instead, in the three years since the award was introduced, debate about the politics of the prize has overshadowed discussion of the nominated books.

It seems self-evident that the entirety of any literature cannot be reflected in a single prize, however representative it aims to be – and IPAF does not aim to be representative. Yet since its launch in 2007, writers and publishers have tended to see the “Arabic Booker” as the alpha and omega of literary achievement. Disappointment and distress can hardly be unexpected.

When this year’s longlist of 16 books was released in November, the controversy began with geography: Egyptian authors won the prize in each of its first two years, and when only two Egyptian books turned up on the longlist, a spate of allegations were launched – mostly by disgruntled Egyptians – claiming that the jury had neglected Egyptian fiction to appease the rest of the Arab world.

Complainants like the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim abdul Meguid, who resented the exclusion of his novel Fi kull Usbou’ Yom Jum’ah (Each Week There is a Friday), declared that there was corruption within the IPAF and insisted “a conspiracy against Egypt” was afoot.

Soon thereafter, the conspiratorial consensus shifted to one of the longlisted books, Issmuhu al Gharam (Its Name is Love), by the Lebanese novelist Ulwiyya Subh. Her book, which had been popular and well-reviewed, was regarded by many as the likely winner of the eventual award – some of whom may have concluded that, after two male Egyptian winners, the jury might be inclined to shift its favour to a Lebanese woman.

This speculation took a more sinister turn, however, when interested parties alleged that the book was not merely likely but certain to win. The Lebanese poetry journal Al Ghawoun claimed to have “uncovered a clandestine deal” to fix the results, slinging accusations at Subh herself; at Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese writer and the administrator of the prize; at the Kuwaiti novelist Talib al Rifaie, who sits at the head of this year’s jury; and at the senior Egyptian critic Gaber Asfour, an avowed admirer of Subh.

These conspiracy theories were not dented by the fact that Subh’s book did not make the shortlist of six titles announced in December – instead the critics shifted course, insisting that the uproar over the initial accusations had led the jury, “cowing in to media intimidation”, to deliberately leave Subh off the list.

More controversy ensued with the resignation from the jury of the Egyptian critic Sherine Abu El Naga, who told this newspaper at the time that “the voting method was my main reason for resigning,” protesting that the shortlist decision was made without “dialogue or discussion”. As the gang imagined by Al Ghawoun started bickering among itself – Subh publicly insulting al Rifaie, for example – it became clear how random all the accusations had been.

The prize committee, alas, may have invited some of this speculation: though the members of the jury are supposed to remain secret until the shortlist of finalists is announced, this year the details were leaked and published in a Cairo newspaper two weeks prior to the announcement, more than enough time for speculation about hidden motives and social connections to run wild.

Each member of the jury, it turned out, was a friend or acquaintance of Subh, giving fuel to the conspiracists – and yet such circumstances are partially inevitable: Arab literary circles are small and perilously cliquish.

The public consternation – at least in those same tightly-wound literary circles – over the administration of the prize has served to obscure the grander intentions of the award, the valorisation and promotion of Arabic-language fiction. Instead, the literary community has been polarised into pro- and anti-Booker factions, ensuring that future rounds will continue to be clouded by suspicion, particularly over the nomination of younger writers whose reputations have not yet been established.

A more sensible way of evaluating the prize might be to look at the previous laureates, and to ask what each one signifies as a work of Arabic fiction – and as the book chosen by the prize committee to be sent forth into English translation, where it will represent the impossibly diverse range of literature in Arabic for western readers.

Baha Taher’s Sunset Oasis, which took the first prize in 2008, depicted Egyptian-British relations during colonial times; its translation was funded by a grant from the British philanthropist (and Granta owner) Sigrid Rausing, and published by Sceptre in 2009. Last year’s winner, Azazeel (Beelzebub), by the Egyptian novelist Youssef Zeidan, which tackled religious intolerance in the pre-Islamic Middle East, will be published in English this spring by Atlantic Books.

If there is a common thread that connects the first two winners – each of which, it should be added, was chosen by a separate jury – it is that both stand as affirmations of a pluralistic and liberal value system, one that generally looks positively at the encounters between East and West: in Sunset Oasis, the equality of the races and the right to (national and personal) freedom despite the horrors of colonialism; in Azazeel, the importance of tolerance and understanding in the face of dogma and religious extremism.

Among this year’s shortlisted titles, the London-based Palestinian writer Rabie al Madhoun’s Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) hews closest to this East-West tune, but with a more immediate pitch than the historical fictions of Taher and Zeidan.

The novel, which has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”, tells the triple story of al Madhoun himself, his writer-protagonist Walid Dahman, and the hero of Dahman’s own fictional novel-in-progress. On a plane from London back to Gaza to see his mother for the first time in decades, Dahman meets an attractive Israeli actress. Later, back in London, she is killed in cold blood as a result of her previous amorous involvement with the son of an Arab leader.

The novel has been praised as much for its entertaining narrative as for being among the first Arabic books that deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict undogmatically, showing psychological depth on both sides while accurately portraying the Palestinian tragedy. By prioritising the human over the political, opposing the racism inherent in “nationalist” discourse and siding with human rights, it goes even further than the previous two winners in affirming liberal values.

In the young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabir’s novel America and the older Egyptian novelist Mohammad al Mansi Qindeel’s Yawm Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side), themes of confessional and ethnic intermingling come to the fore in the context of long, multifaceted narratives with heavy historical components. In both cases the encounter between East and West again figures prominently. America is a fictional account of early 20th-century Lebanese immigration to the United States, told from the viewpoint of a country woman who follows her husband to New York.

Yawn Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi opens with the story of a Muslim woman in late 19th-century Upper Egypt who abandons her young daughter, Aisha, to protect her from the brutality of a merciless stepfather – but baptises her as a Christian before doing so. This coincidence of conversion, it later turns out, leads Aisha – who grows up to become a translator – to fall in love with a fictional version of the famous British archaeologist Howard Carter, transcending the boundaries of religious, national and ethnic identity alike.

Once again, the writer speaks for the rights of the individual woman and opens up humane spaces within an otherwise unequal colonial set-up, while showing the flimsy nature of religious identity for what it is.

The remaining three novels on this year’s shortlist give less attention to the crossing of borders and the intermingling of cultures; each zeroes in on the particularities of national or local cultures, delving into local specifics – in one case, with savage satire – to reveal the tensions within changing societies.

’Indama Tashkish adh Dhi’aab (When Wolves Grow Old), by the Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji, employs a wide cast of characters, and a plot drawn from the world of detective genre fiction, to depict the social malaise of contemporary Amman – a panorama of the city that sets out to expose sexual and political repression, the hunger for power among intellectuals and religious leaders, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The young Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Wara’ al Firdawss (Beyond Paradise) steers clear of the explicitly political to chronicle an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta – a period, which concluded in the late 1980s, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders. As in Naji’s book, there are many characters and a complex, if hardly suspenseful, storyline, which follows the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from a small town in the Nile Delta to Cairo.

Though the so-called “Arabic Booker” has not, for obvious reasons, attracted the same attention from gamblers as its British namesake, the smart money this year may be on the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s grotesque satire of power, Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles). Khal is the most established and celebrated writer on the shortlist, and one might be forgiven for expecting the jury to embrace the least contentious choice after so much public acrimony.

But Khal’s book is not without its own potential for controversy, and it has little to offer in the way of cross-cultural pieties or the tolerance afforded by such encounters. The novel is set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door. The owner of the palace is a well-connected, wealthy and powerful man, about whose origins little is known. The owner, a ruthless and sadistic tycoon, seizes and tortures those who have crossed him; he enlists the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.

But the narrator, in Khal’s account, is not just an unthinking instrument in the hands of power: he is a participant in the violence, an agent of political oppression, but also a victim of economic dispossession. Khal’s depiction of the narrator’s extended family and neighbours – particularly his bravely disapproving aunt, from whose eyes the sparks of the title emanate – reflects an entire society caught up in the horror of inequality and the absurdity of power.

Of course, this year’s shortlist does not reflect the entirety of contemporary Arabic literature, but there can be plenty of merit in six books. While the bickering will inevitably continue well beyond the announcement of the winning title on March 2, it is important to note that not one of these books is in any sense unworthy of the award. Reasonable critics can disagree whether they are the absolute best or most innovative on offer. I for one, was surprised to see that the Iraqi novelist Ali Badr, a prolific chronicler of Baghdad who combines engaging plots with a sharp and versatile intellect, failed for the third time to make it from the longlist to the shortlist, this time for Mulouk ar Rimal (Sand Kings).

It was similarly disappointing to see the exclusion of the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gabalawai (Children of Gabalawi), which represents the vanguard of a home-grown Egyptian magical realism that is very different from its Latin American counterpart. But it seems indisputable that these six books are in fact reasonably representative of contemporary Arabic literature. And regardless of the extent to which the “Arabic Booker” remains dogged by ungrounded accusations of favouritism, this year’s shortlist demonstrates that, while writers and publishers may not be entirely immune to such faults, the literature they produce remains a strong statement against them.

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Cast from the Garden

Youssef Rakha on the hotel apartment for The National

From the hotel apartment, you confront the frustrations of a society that is home enough, but will never feel like home – a society that is seemingly modelled on the hotel apartment. Andrew Parsons / The National


With the laundry dangling behind his back, the podgy bell boy slid in. He was fast and noiseless, his arms so laden above his bald head you could barely make out the raven’s wing of hair bobbing in its wake. I had barely closed the door when he finished arranging the laundry in the cupboard. Then, turning dramatically, he placed the flat of his hand on his heart: “This last time, Sir?” Blinking at the badge on his chest – Ramee Garden Hotel Apartments, it said: RG for short – I had to stifle my tears as I realised that, yes, this was the last load of laundry my favourite RG employee would bring in. My term at the hotel apartment, that Emirati speciality, was coming to an end.

So I reclined and recalled my first impressions on moving in there, directly on arrival in Abu Dhabi. Aside from the seemingly seedy all-male gatherings on the pavements outside, the seemingly idle staff populating a very sparsely furnished reception area and the seemingly shoddy aspect of the establishment as whole, the most striking thing was the emptiness. An emptiness compounded by awareness of yourself and others actually living there: in the kitchenette there was a cooker, a flat-screen TV, a bedside lamp. But I had not chosen them and I could not replace or supplement them because I knew I would not be staying for very long.

Still, bidding the bell boy farewell, now, I was truly sorry to be going. Unlike a hotel room, the hotel apartment is a place you grow attached to – however negative your first impressions. Not just because you end up staying there for so much longer (nearly four months, in my case): something about the way you occupy the space strikes a near perfect balance. You use the cooker, but only to make Turkish coffee, for which the small purchase of a coffee pot has proven necessary. But you neither enjoy nor really care about enjoying the privilege.

Unlike an apartment, the hotel apartment does not bog you down with responsibilities; enough of you is there to make it yours – your clothes, your food, your books and DVDs, your bathroom implements – but there is none of the daily upkeep, the self-enclosure, the long-term investment or the sense of belonging associated with your own place.

The hotel apartment is a makeshift home, with a surrogate, changeable family of occasionally-helpful staff to go with it. Like an apartment building, it has neither lobby nor room service. But unlike it, it involves appliances you do not have to pay for, a contactable reception that will send up a bell boy every time you ring, regardless of what you ask for, and a sloppy cleaning service (on demand). It combines the best or worst of both worlds, speaking eloquently to those genes responsible for being on the move, en route, a tireless traveller – or Bedu.

In this way hotel apartments tell a profound truth about the Emirates: that it is essentially a country of nomads. Yet the white-collar Bedu they house – far from the all but extinct local camel herders – are the bourgeois equivalent of migrant labour, requiring shower, satellite TV and many modern life necessities the hotel apartment does not always or adequately provide. In hotel apartments there lives a variously disgruntled range of wage slaves seeking oil-opened opportunities, however unrelated their line of work to oil.

On these bare floors, behind doors with broken handles, in bathrooms where the dirty towels were removed never to be replaced, up and down talking lifts – “Sorry to keep you waiting”, “Going down” – and in conversation with characterful locals (in as much as anyone here is local), people live out the first – sometimes only – few months of their stay. It is here that they discover the language (or lack thereof), the weather, the contents of the corner shops and the attitudes of their keepers. It is here that they develop a cartography of their daily life: the main road, the taxi rank, the office and, further afield, the sea. From the hotel apartment, and in it, they confront the frustrations of a society that is home enough, but will never feel like home – a society that is seemingly modelled on the hotel apartment.

Even when you have moved into a flat, even when you have brought over your family or – a far less frequent occurrence, this – started a family, so long as you are in the Emirates the hotel apartment shadow will hang over you. I have my own living space now, but I do not feel more settled. If anything, the tension between having a home and remaining, to all intents and purposes, under hotel apartment conditions, has generated a sense of confusion. That confusion is two-fold.

On the one hand, I already miss my RG bell boy, the sense of community generated by things breaking down and Maintenance being summoned to fix them, the random encounters on the way in and out, and conversations, notably about The National, with reception staff. I miss the always changing noises that would trickle in from the adjoining room at the weirdest hours: food for all kinds of fantastical scenarios about similarly displaced people living in hotel apartments, the toing and froing between rooms, Indian voices announcing a visitor downstairs. But on the other hand, with a flat to my name, with furniture I chose and TV channels I personally subscribed to, I am being tricked into believing that I really do live in the Emirates.

I would happily give in to the trick – except it undermines the one thing I have come to value about living here: that sense of being indefinitely in transit. This is why I was sorry to leave RG: that state of transience, the wonderfully liberating lack of commitment you experience under hotel-apartment conditions is no longer embodied by my living space.

It is this that sets the Gulf apart, though: it draws in people from all over the world. They are here to work and so forced to stay here, but they feel no genuine attachment to the place. Their relationship with the surroundings, other people, the landscape is rather like mine to my RG kitchenette cooker. And living thus, they become nomads of the future: a globalised workforce constantly hopping about to wherever their professional responsibilities post them, and likely forced to stay in some kind of hotel apartment.

Roots have been planted in the Emirates, but being emphatically foreign, however old they grow, they remain the roots of a nomad: flexible, shallow and incapable of spreading. Homes are but the portable tents of a mind seeking greener pastures – forever. And no matter how much people complain of this, especially Arabs, there is a high value in it. People speak of the insecurity induced by having no citizenship, by dependence on an employment contract and inability, in any genuine sense, to settle down. Certainly few people like to stay in a hotel apartment for too long, whether they are citizens or not.

But there is something it means to be in the Emirates – as a non-citizen, on a contract, knowing that, sooner or later, you will (be made to) leave – and that thing, whatever else it does to you, can invest life with an excitement more abiding and deeper than that of a mere stint abroad, or a journey. People should appreciate their stay in a real hotel apartment both because it prepares them for long-term life in this country and because, predicament or blessing, it remains the most articulate metaphor for being in the Gulf.

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Not just a river in Egypt

originally written for The National

On the flight back from Cairo to Abu Dhabi, I watched a recent Egyptian comedy about a young man who lives in a tin pitcher.

Not literally – but that is the way he describes himself. Because rather than buying all the unaffordable beverages of which he and his little brother keep dreaming, he fills his vessel – the traditional poor man’s drinking cup – with tap water. Then, holding the wide end carefully to his mouth, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and, quaffing, invokes the coveted taste and pretends to relish it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, my colleague would not compromise her integrity.

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

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Denys Johnson-Davies in Abu Dhabi

An Englishman’s life in translation

The Emirates as Denys Johnson-Davies might have seen them in the early 1950s. Courtesy Al Ittihad newspaper

Youssef Rakha enjoys a cup of coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies, one of Arab literature’s chief liaisons with the English language.

Having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies does not seem all that remarkable – until you remember that this silver-haired Englishman shared a table with Tawfik al Hakim three decades before you were born. Hakim may not be as familiar to western readers as Naguib Mahfouz, but he was a much bigger deal in his time. Then again, Johnson-Davies was a literary figure in Cairo long before Mahfouz made his name.

“Can you imagine,” he says, recalling his early days with the BBC in Evesham, where the broadcast company’s headquarters were relocated while London was bombed during the Second World War. “Here was Britain, with this enormous empire, throughout the Arab world – it didn’t have anybody who spoke Arabic. They did have this one Scotsman, Cowen,” he corrects himself, “but when the war came, there was nobody in Cambridge apart from me and Abba Eban,” he smiles, “who later became the Israeli foreign minister. When I started learning Arabic I was 15; they wouldn’t take me at Cambridge so I went to London, and I went to Cambridge when I was 16. The BBC had obviously contacted Cambridge and said, ‘Do you have anyone studying Arabic?’ And so I went to London, and I remember being taken into the studio to listen to a news bulletin in Arabic, and I didn’t even know what the subject was, let alone understand a word. But they took me on.” It was in Evesham, while living with the Arab employees (“mainly they were Egyptians”) in bunks in an army-managed dormitory, that Johnson-Davies began to learn Arabic for real: “It was a third university for me, and very much better than Cambridge or London. Directly I was released, I went to Cairo…”

Nearly six decades and numerous seminal translations later, Johnson-Davies received the inaugural Personality of the Year Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2007, adding incentive to complete his new book of Emirati short stories in translation, a project begun several years ago to be published by the American University in Cairo Press with support from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage in time for the next Abu Dhabi Book Fair. He is here with the final proofs, to revise them with Juma al Qubaisi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, to catch up with the poet Ahmad Rashid Thani and other friends and to reflect on his relationship with the Gulf. On his way to Abu Dhabi, Johnson-Davies stopped in Doha, and was amazed to find absolutely no sign of the city he first knew in 1951. “I would ask about certain things and say, ‘It was here a long time ago.’ And people would say, ‘How long ago? In the time of Sheikh Khalifa?’ No, Sheikh Ali [bin Abdulla Al Thani]. ‘Sheikh Ali!’ It was as if I was talking about prehistoric times.”

Johnson-Davies originally went to Doha to represent an American oil company: “I had signed a two-year contract, but after a year they said there was no oil in the sea – it was a marine company. And then while I was there, somebody came along to me and said that in Dubai, they want a translator to translate for Sheikh Said bin Maktoum, but they have no money, so are you ready to perform this service? And I said yes; I’d love to see Dubai. So, I went by private aeroplane. There was no airport or anything in Doha, and nothing at all in Dubai, no hotels or amenities. They put me up in a place belonging to the sheikh, and I translated for five days or so, but I saw Dubai in 1951. And then,” he goes on in the same breath, “I came here as the head of Sawt al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), which was a radio operated by the English, an Arabic broadcast, and all the employees were Palestinians, poor and cheerful men. The place was headquartered in Sharjah, but I would travel all round, to Ras al Khaimah, to Abu Dhabi. That was in 1969… So,” Johnson-Davies winds down abruptly, “I had experience very early on here.”

And as he gets up to greet the head waiter at the Beach Rotana, who welcomes him as an old friend, it suddenly dawns on you just how remarkable having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies really is.

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Sound and vision

Oud for thought: Moroccan Tariq Banzi travelled from America to play at the Cultural Foundation. Nicole Hill / The National

Time stopped at Cassells hotel in Abu Dhabi on Friday. It was a fleeting impression, but haunting. The photographer had positioned the three musicians in dramatic formation on the stairs to shoot them with their instruments: Tarek Banzi hugging an Iraqi-made oud; Julia Banzi flaunting a stately flamenco guitar; and Charlie Bisharat balancing the smallest instrument yet, a violin, on his shoulder.

Thus arrayed while the camera click-clicked, occasionally pitting its flash against the sunlit window to one side, the three musicians started, reflexively, indolently, to play. It happened without so much as a nod to each other, evidently without thinking: the auditory equivalent of doodling, but with three distinct hands on the same scrap of paper. And while it lasted, in a very real way, time stopped.

Time was to stop for much longer the following night at the Cultural Foundation’s Dhafra Theatre. The trio presented what Julia called “a half programme”. Their concerts are always part heritage, part original composition, she explained, and their repertoire is likewise “50-50”. Saturday evening’s eight pieces included traditional Andalusi and flamenco numbers from Tétouan and Granada, respectively, as well as new compositions and improvisations. Given the lack of publicity and the last-minute confusion as to which troupe was to perform at what time, the auditorium was impressively full.

People were pleasantly jolted by the sound of Arab and European traditions being woven together, seamlessly, right there before their eyes. And it was as if the clash of civilisations had been resolved more than 1,000 years ago. You felt like saying, “Take that, Samuel Huntington!”

Time stopped, you realise now, because different styles working so beautifully together have a disorienting effect. You could hardly associate the almost physical excitement of flamenco with the rhythmic melancholy of the oud. Nor, in the middle of attempting to tell the two apart, would you expect to hear the flowing, nostalgic sound of a kamanjah, the Arabic word for fiddle tuned, like European strings, to omit quarter tones. “What we’re doing,” Julia had announced on the phone, “connects well with people. It’s fresh, it’s exciting. Young people really connect with it. Young people from all over the world.”

But even Julia’s words could not prefigure the experience of contemporary Andalusian – the term the Banzis coined to brand the music of their Al Andalus Ensemble, founded in 1987 – which, even for a few impromptu moments on a hotel stairway in Abu Dhabi, proves deeply unsettling.

On that same day, in the kind of gangsta voice that Arabs who immigrate to America tend to acquire, Tarek explained that he played many instruments. Tétouan, where he grew up, is “the most authentic” centre for Andalusi, the quarter tone-less (hence harmonic) Arab musical tradition which originated in Al Andalus. He grew up immersed in Andalusi and, thanks to his mother being a Darqawi dervish, in the percussive chanting of the Sufis as well. But he never let any of it tie him down. “I just, you know, have to feel it.”

At the concert Tarek would demonstrate just how freely he relates to music and how versatile his technical skill is with ney and darbuka (tabla) solos: the reed flute and the hand-tapped drum, which he played, anachronistically, like a banjo. “Actually the oud I didn’t really study seriously,” he explained, “because I was into western music… Rock, pop – all kinds. Since I was a kid,” he revealed, “I started making my own instruments.” As a fine-arts student, painter and amateur flamenco and jazz musician – today Tarek is also a professional graphic designer – he spent 10 years in Madrid after finishing his education at the Tétouan Fine Arts School, practically the only institution of its kind in Morocco in the early 1970s. By the mid-1980s he had met Julia, one of a handful of female flamenco guitarists worldwide, and they now live in Portland, Oregon.

Like Gibraltar, Tarek is named after the Berber hero Tarek ibn Ziyad, who, servicing the Ummayid government in exile, led the first Muslim army into Spain. The Banzis – a well established Spanish Arab family from Granada – fled the Reconquest back into Morocco. Yet Tarek is adamantly against exclusive cultural allegiances. “I think that I belong to this little globe where we are,” he said, his tone bordering on exasperation. “And there are these huge monotheistic religions and you have to respect all of them because there are so many people in each. You have to respect these people.”

At this point the default De Niro cool comes back, “so the only way we can do something is to try and create this peace between them”. “Music,” he enunciated, “I think it does create understanding.”

The most convincing part of which argument is, of course, the music itself. Contemporary Andalusian works by disrupting expectations, forcing people to realise that legacies overlap. By fusing Andalusi with flamenco (through which the Banzis have pursued the Roma and Indian connections as well), by resuscitating the Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino) tradition – the music played wherever communities of Sephardim survived the Inquisition from the 15th century onwards – as well as the Cantigas of Santa Maria, their music points up what is shared. Where bridges of understanding are concerned, it excavates instead of constructing.

“You might guess that it’s not an easy time to be an Arab in America,” Julia said on the phone. “So that’s part of what we’re trying to do in the group: to break down Arab prejudices in America, and hopefully break down American prejudices in the Arab world.”

Charlie Bisharat, a Grammy award winning violinist whose credits include accompanying Yanni, Elton John and The Rolling Stones, agrees: “If we concentrated more on bringing music to different parts of the world from different cultures we wouldn’t have so much time to think about killing each other.” For Charlie, playing with the Banzis was “a kind of reunion,” but being half-Lebanese – a different kind of Arab American from Tarek – he fully appreciates Al Andalus’s message. Contemporary Andalusian is certainly different but, he said, “I love that stuff.”

The uninitiated might identify it as Arab, Latin or chamber music. Taste and predisposition, or else – to borrow the title of the group’s latest CD – Genetic Memories, will determine which. To the uninitiated, it may seem miraculous that no jarring or discomfort occurs. But the miracle – the Ornament of the World, as Maria Rosa Menocal called it – is medieval Spain, Al Andalus, which from 711 to 1492 pooled Arab, Berber, Sephardi and Castilian genes to constitute an early, long lived and in some sense exemplary multicultural society.

Back in the Arabian Peninsula, between Damascus and Baghdad, the Abbassids had massacred the first Muslim dynasty down to the last man – almost. Thanks to a single escaped emir, Abdurrahman, who managed to establish a power base not far from where Tarek was born, the first continuous eight centuries of all but perfect intermingling of East and West in human history occurred in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. But unlike the meeting of East and West in Malta, for example, language did not mix so well; it takes a linguist to point out the extent of Arabic influence on Spanish. With music it simply takes a receptive pair of ears. And that is why the experience of the music of Al Andalus is a bit like a monolingual Arab or his Italian counterpart hearing Maltese for the first time: it sounds simultaneously foreign and familiar, suggesting something beyond him, and yet he can understand it almost perfectly.

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Chasing rainbows: poets of the Emirates

Seven poets, seven emirates

Youssef Rakha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A nation of words

Youssef Rakha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

الشعر المعاصر في الإمارات






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Strange congress

Taxi in Abu Dhabi / U.A.E.
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Few things can be more humiliating than making your way into a public toilet only to find all the cubicles occupied. You can immediately tell, not by the locks on the doors, but by the small congregation of fellow journeymen in need, waiting their turn in tense silence by the sinks. In such situations — and such situations, I must say, have only ever happened to me in Abu Dhabi Mall and, more recently, at the Abu Dhabi Airport — the urinals will tend to be all free: an additional, frustrating irony, for, when you end up thus helpless and distressed, it is not a urinal that you are looking for. Normally I would just turn around and leave, thinking I would come back at a later time or find an alternartive venue. But then, realising the gravity of my situation — and believe me, I no longer even consider going to the bathroom in Abu Dhabi Mall unless the situation is very, very grave — I am forced to wait, against my will, cursing overcrowding and statistics under my breath.
In the ensuing experience, battling with my ever more terrible urge, I have on many occasions had the opportunity to meditate on the human condition while watching the unsavoury procedure of one man emerging, a wide smile of relief splitting his face in two, and another impatiently disappearing into the folds. Punctatued by the little South Indian cleaning man’s brief entry into each cubicle to quickly wipe the floor, spray air freshener and re-flush the toilet just in case, the cycle is endless. At some point, while he heads for the sink, the man who was just inside looks at the others, perhaps noticing the frangrant memento he has left behind or realising the pain to which he has subjected them, and an expression of intense embarrassment takes over his face. For their part the others will fidget or mumur, making way for that latest champion, almost cheering as they see yet another person just like them successfully concluding his wait, and a sort of shameful complicity spreads through the atmosphere. Against my will, I too am party to that atmosphere.
But it was not until this present long weekend, when I was disappointed to find the airport overcrowded on arriving there at eight in the morning, that it occurred to me that this predicament is very like the predicament of waiting in vain for a taxi on the streets of Abu Dhabi. It must be one of the side effects of speedy development: there are far many more people than you have counted on, and so far fewer taxis — and toilet cubicles — than needed. And looking on the bright side, I concluded, this gives you access to experiences you would never have dreamt of having, whether or not you deem them all that humiliating. Who would have thought I would ever be a member of that strange congress?

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Being Faten Hamama

Omar Sharif- A close up shot from his movie &q...
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I saw Omar Sharif last weekend. Well, I saw a picture of him. But it made him so present I thought I really did see him. Immediately, the images began to foxtrot through my head: Doctor Zhivago, Sharif’s Ali to Peter O’Toole’s TE Lawrence, mustachioed International Star (as the Egyptian media likes to call him), bearded French TV host, bridge champion, exotic heartthrob but most importantly of all, icon of the marriage, in the course of the 20th century, between the Arab world and the West.

It was a recent picture, part of a full-page ad at the front of Emirates Business 24/7: gracing a new resort development, he stands to one side with manicured green in the background, formally dressed, silver haired and bearded. But his charismatic smile has not changed one bit since he starred in Youssef Chahine’s black-and-white films as a clean-shaven young man, both slimmer and more casual, with a conspicuous “beauty mark” to the right of his nose.

Aside from the momentary nostalgia Sharif’s face always evokes – a nostalgia for 1950s Egyptian cinema and the artistically vibrant, multicultural Egypt it stands for – which, on Abu Dhabi’s Airport Road, is prone to turning into a far cruder nostalgia for every old Egypt, cosmopolitan or not, I would not have given that eminently multinational face so much as another wink.

But the reason I spent all afternoon ruminating on Omar Sharif was the coincidence of seeing him on this particular weekend. It was the second day of the Art for Aid charity exhibition (held at the Cultural Foundation under the auspices of Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan to raise funds for the Red Crescent of the UAE), and I was scheduled to attend a “live interview” with the exhibition’s star guest, the Lady of the Arab Screen, Faten Hamama. For those who don’t know, said Lady was Sharif’s wife from 1955 to 1974.

A live interview, as I was to discover, is practically a talk show episode, but more sober and less brief: the perfect opportunity to raise the big, complicated questions and expect to discuss them at length.

Maybe I thought of Chahine first because, before I could remember the fact, it had subconsciously dawned on me that Chahine’s 1954 Struggle in the Valley was the film in which Faten and Sharif famously, fabulously met.

After years of categorically refusing to be kissed on screen Faten gave in to what was, in context, a relative moral compromise, only to turn round and legitimise the act by marrying the man she had compromised herself with. Even Chahine, who had grown jealously attached to both leads, could not guess what was coming. By his own admission, the marriage was so abrupt and devastating it drove him to (probably half-hearted) suicide. I actually remembered the couple more clearly in River of Love, the 1960 Anna Karenina adaptation directed by Faten’s first husband Ezzeddin Zulfuqar, from whom she had separated while Struggle in the Valley was being filmed.

A stately tragedy full of palatial ballrooms and sumptuous trains: the controversial message of River of Love – that a woman will be unfaithful if she is unhappily married – sets the tone for much of Faten’s work. While Sharif was fast relocating to Hollywood and Chahine, more gradually, to Cannes, she consolidated her local career through roles that spoke to the female predicament: a peasant girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock; another who is the victim of an honour killing; a woman of good family unable to divorce the abusive husband who has marred her life; an otherwise happy wife whose marriage suffers from an insufferably meddlesome mother-in-law; a young woman who proves herself in the legal profession against all odds.

The Lady had always managed to safeguard her reputation while mixing in decadent circles, but the mere fact of her doing so pointed to Egypt’s capacity, all through the 1950s and 1960s, for cosmopolitanism. It seems telling that her divorce from Sharif – the very epitome of such decadence – took place within three years of Anwar Sadat, the self-avowed “Believer President”, coming to power in late 1970.

True, Sadat freed political prisoners as well as the economy, making sensibly pragmatic peace with Israel rather than subjecting his people to yet another war. But in being terrified of “the communists” he not only gradually refilled the prisons but also set off wave after wave of religious fundamentalism; fundamentalists, not communists, would eventually assassinate him.

In making money, not worldliness, the standard of chic, Sadat’s reign ushered in an era of relative insularity that continues to this day; and Faten was in a much better position than either Sharif or Chahine to accommodate the new mores without giving up too many of her principles.

By 4.30pm the space set out for the live interview on the first floor of the Foundation had been quietly filled. Faten’s Emirati hostess was already bringing up topics like whether women should dress to impress their men or for themselves, and whether khul’ – the most recent development in the personal status rights of Muslim women in Egypt – was necessarily a good thing.

Being in large part a modern, televised variation on the traditional Emirati unisex gathering, this was an awkward place for a man. A feast of hors d’oeuvres flanked the lush armchairs that stretched from the Lady’s seat at one end of the space to a screen silently playing footage from her 97-strong filmography at the other. The only males allowed in were journalists and organisers; and a tacit determination to assert girl power pervaded the proceedings.

An interesting way for feminism to find expression in middle-class and segregated settings, this: what it served to demonstrate was just how insular and conservative Arabs have become since Struggle in the Valley. Egged on by no less than a hundred Arab women Faten held forth on a range of subjects. But when talking about the social influence her work has exercised, the Arab woman she consistently invoked was the lowest common denominator – a disappointingly monocultural creature who, even as she complains of patriarchal abuses, does not even conceive of questioning the status quo.

Only some mention of Sharif, I decided, could counter such traditionalism.

So when it was finally my turn to race through a question or two, microphone in hand, I plucked up the courage to mention an ad I had seen on the front page of Emirates Business 24/7. “What,” I began to say, “could the coincidence of Omar Sharif –” when I was abruptly cut short.

Not by Faten, mind you: her face had not lost its composure and, while she did not object to the hostess reminding me of the provision against “personal questions”, it was not clear whether she wanted to respond to the question or not. Before I could push my luck, however, I had already lost her.

The women around Faten were suddenly tut-tutting and shaking their heads; and I could not help thinking that, like so many Arabs now, they were all paragons of an increasinly hermetic culture. A culture which, forgetting that it actually produced them, can only tolerate Omar Sharif and Youssef Chahine as the eccentric remnants of a time or a place sufficiently removed not to be threatening.

Faten had looked imposing at the centre, as fresh, sharp and appealing as she was 20 or 40 years ago. But it was the face of Omar Sharif – icon of the marriage not between himself and Faten Hamama, but between the Arab world and the West – that would stay with me; that I missed.

The National, May 9, 2008

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