All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad

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?

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Sartre, my father and me


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite Requiem: An Old Piece

Al Ahram Weekly 1 – 7 November 2001, Issue No.558

… of all the Palestine-inspired fare, no gesture in the direction of the ongoing Intifada could have hit the nail on the head with greater precision than the Swiss filmmaker Richard Dino’s Genet à Chatila, a Panorama screening.

The film is a long, audiovisual document of Jean Genet’s experience of the Palestinian revolution in Lebanon and Jordan in the early and mid-1970s, and again in 1982, when the aging Genet, already a well- known supporter of the Palestinian cause and now accompanied to Beirut by Leila Shahid (the Palestinian ambassador to France, then a university student in Paris), witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Chatila massacre just outside Beirut. The Lebanese Phalangist militia, under the direction of the Israeli army, had undertaken a “barbaric feast,” and Genet couldn’t help but revel in it in his way: “A photograph can’t capture the flies,” he states, “nor the thick white smell of death, nor can it show how you have to jump when you go from one body to another.”

This was, so Shahid tells us, a phenomenal encounter, which compelled Genet to start writing after almost 20 years of reticence. The pages Genet worked on in silence in Beirut, just after his four-hour stroll through the Chatila camp, were to grow into Prisoner of Love, his last book, from which Dino’s work takes its cue. Reviewing, in merciless detail, the excellent work General Sharon (otherwise known as the current Israeli prime minister) achieved in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, Genet à Chatila moves back in time, into the minds and houses of the feda’iyeen lurking in the Jordanian desert, further away from the facts of the resistance (of which no trace remains at the time of filming), and deeper into the realm of Genet’s poetic genius, to which the book bears ample testimony: “These trees come back to me,” he recalls, referring to his two-year stay with the feda’iyeen, while an empty expanse of desert, punctuated by the trees in question, implants its likeness into the mind of the viewer. The words are more than evocative: their power of suggestion is such they imbue the images with a larger-than-life, not-as-boring-as-it-seems, multi-dimensional reality. “I haven’t said enough of their fragility. Everything was trees.” At the time of writing, Genet listened constantly to Mozart’s (ultimately unfinished) Requiem, which provides a large part of the soundtrack, then he too died while correcting the proofs, Shahid supplies meaningfully.

Chatila Refugee Camp, Beirut 1982

She is standing in a typically nondescript hotel room in Paris, which was Genet’s last home. He died, as he so often described himself, a stranger among strangers, terminally tired of hunting down the superficially trivial memories from which he forged his own mythology. In one of many passages recited, with a dogged repetitiveness, through the journey, Genet wonders offhandedly, “Why talk about this revolution? It too resembles a long drawn out burial, with me following the funeral procession from afar.”

And yet revolution “is the happiest time of life,” the viewer is persuasively informed. “The feda’iyeen didn’t want power, they had freedom,” and “the death of a favourite fada’iye” paradoxically seemed to cheer them up, give them more determination. Their life, “in a Muslim country, where the woman is far away,” was an almost indelible “celebration.” Reflecting on the subsequent fate of his doomed companions, Genet insists, “It must be stated… that hundreds of years are not enough for the final destruction of a people.” In the light of current affairs, this is a salutary assertion indeed.

So much for affirmation: even here, Genet cannot help being subversive; and his position as a lone European among Palestinians is perpetually brought into focus. It was as if, living in a dark dungeon, the feda’iyeen’s heart’s desire was merely to intensify the darkness, to sink deeper and deeper into despair. Helpless and without hope: this is how Genet seems to like his Palestinians; that, in being part of the revolution he felt he was living “in his own memory” is the core of his sympathy, unconditional and ultimately of no use. He was a Frenchman, he says, but he could only find himself “amongst the oppressed risen against the whites.” The struggle of the Palestinians was “right,” not necessarily good or objectively justified. They were right simply because he loved them, and he wonders whether such love would have been possible had injustice not turned them into nomads. It is this distance, his self-awareness, that makes Genet’s account of the revolution so relevant: neither patriotism nor reason is brought into play; only the “incredible fact” of his being among them, like a shadow, colours his awareness of their suffering.

In reenacting his journey — at first she appears to be impersonating the young Shahid, but eventually she seeks out Genet’s surviving friends or their relations, spends a night in the desert with a cheerful band of former feda’iyeen, reads and recites Prisoner of Love, listens to the Requiem and steps pointlessly into the scene of the massacres, the killings, the simple acts of courage and kindness that enthralled Genet — Mounia Raoui, a young Algerian Frenchwoman, seems to be underlining the emptiness to which Genet alludes. It is true that her conversations with survivors and other Palestinians illuminate their plight in an incomparably immediate way — such, many would say, is the mark of a successful documentary — but it is her outrage at the lack of any record, in present-day reality, of what Genet reported, that makes her presence indispensable. Mounia is Dino’s counterpart for Genet’s writing, “the silent face” that makes up his account of the revolution: “So many words to say this is my Palestinian revolution,” which, to Genet at least, is not quite the same thing. Yet no one, “nothing, no narrative [or, by extension, cinematic] technique could ever describe” the real Palestinian revolution.

It has been buried, along with Mozart and Genet; and, like the graves of Chatila’s victims, its burying places have never been marked with tombstones. Genet was right, however, for, even as General- Prime Minister Sharon’s broad grin gives off the thick white smell of death, we know the final destruction of the Palestinian people is not nearly about to take place.

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Missed Call: June, 2007

Pondering inter-Arab bloodshed, Youssef Rakha scratches his nose

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Something wakes me at midnight on Saturday. Another sleepless night of Al-Jazeera, and I’ve been unconscious since my return from the office. With an empty stomach and a groggy head, I reach instinctively for my mobile phone. Among the three missed calls listed on the screen, I catch the name of Michel Elefteriades.

It’s been a while since I heard from this most famous of all my friends, the many-facetted Lebanese Civil War veteran-turned-music producer, otherwise known as Emperor Michel I of Nowherestan, and I’m wondering whether or not he might be following up his invitation for me to visit him in Beirut (in recent weeks I’ve had a strong reason to go, so the thought is exciting even despite last night’s overdose of adversity). But since getting this month’s bill, I’ve cancelled the roaming facility on my phone, my only way to call back Michel’s Lebanon number. So I text a brief apology instead, reviewing the next day’s tasks while I stretch, yawn and head for the kitchen. I don’t think he will call back.

Nor does it occur to me that talking to the Emperor might help with the most pressing of said tasks: the writing of a “culturally aware response” to ongoing violence in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories — something I’m sure readers of these pages will appreciate, though I have no idea what, when click comes to save, it might actually entail. Once again I wonder whether to make a bulk e-mail request for reactions, seek out a locally available “source”, or simply scour online news sites afresh.

Bread, cheese and, more essentially, Turkish coffee to the rescue — and I’m sifting through the notes I made in the morning. Before the hour is up, hallelujah, I have a general outline for what I want to say. Ditto: That the Fateh-Hamas conflict need not have devolved into inter-Palestinian war; That armed Palestinian presence in the northern refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared need not be casting the shadow of 1975 on Lebanon all over again; That both conflicts raise the old niggling suspicion of some more benevolently inspired interventions on the part of the global powers that be; And that, at their allegedly secular-Islamist root, there lies, still, that suffocating sense of America versus the Arab-Muslim world.

Suffocating being the operative word, largely because absurd: Neither the Arab genetic constitution nor Islam is inherently at variance with what President Bush has called “the way of life enjoyed by free nations” (Saudi Arabia presumably being one such?) Which is how America is defined, in opposition to the “terrorists” to whose line of thinking — boasting nothing greater than Mohammad Abdel-Wahhab or Sayed Qutb — the entire history of Arab-Muslim civilisation has been reduced.

Up to and including, that is, at least six whole centuries in which, while it occupied a position very like that of the West’s in our times, said civilisation drew in not only Christians, Jews and “Franks” but every facet of its geographic and human extent. For as long as anyone remembers, in fact, among Arab governments, (relative) alliance with Washington has resulted in political oppression, sectarian strife and — indeed I’m very sorry, yes — militant Islam far more than it has reforms.

Finally I read through what I’ve scribbled. Phew! A small triumph. And my tiny new computer on my lap, fingers hovering above the keyboard, a blank document beckoning, I’m poised for ingenuity when the phone rings…It has taken another three days for the present piece to materialise.

Not much has changed in either Gaza or le Liban — except that by now Michel, if all has gone to plan, will have safely left Beirut. I have done much copy editing in the interim, continued reading Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, used Microsoft MSN to chat with Lebanese friends at unworldly hours and thought a lot more about those masked figures bearing big guns in the office of Mahmoud Abbas. I have thankfully avoided Al-Jazeera.

Now, his (proletariat) Highness Emperor Michel I being the exemplar of “a way of life” I am eager to promote in these unfree nations of ours, I’ve decided to take stock of the effect of the violence on his person, rather than develop the argument outlined above — an exercise which, while readily drawing accusations of the conspiracy mentality and generating no end of futile factual arguments, would not come to anything very culturally aware, I decided.

His Highness, by contrast, is all culture: He is the founder of the Music Hall, owner of, among much else, Elefteriades Productions-Elefrecords, holder of the Warner Bros label, and author of some of fusion’s most exciting pairings (Hanin and the Cubans, Wadie El-Safie and Jose Fernandez, Tony Hanna and the Balkan Gypsies, Demis Roussos and the Oriental Takht); He has opened restaurants, designed lines of clothing, produced art, and appeared on satellite television; More recently, with Nowherestan, he drew up an alternative (new) world order that abolishes both national frontiers and democracy, divides the world into two hemispheres and employs scholar-senators in place of politicians; A Greek by blood, Frenchman by education, quasi- Muslim by sociopolitical sympathy, Lebanese nationalist by affiliation with Michel Aoun, Roma Gypsy by musical association, he embodies the possibility of a pluralistic Arabness — one that speaks not of minorities and their rights but of whole, integrated societies that share a language, a sense of the world in its entirety and a productive energy. It is he, of all people, who has had to leave Beirut…

I didn’t get a chance to say much during the 15 minutes I spent on the phone with Michel, a little before two in the morning on Saturday night. I didn’t have much to say on the topic, but I wouldn’t have minded if I had: His Highness is the kind of interlocutor I prefer to listen to. Sounding a little rattled if no less articulate than usual, he started with the declaration that he had was leaving Lebanon — for Belgrade where, as he explained with subdued pride, music has provided him with good friends. He was leaving in much the same way as he had done long ago, towards the end of the war — not to settle down in Beirut again until 2005, when a general amnesty was granted — and he sounded frustrated even as he expressed resignation.

It was pointless, he kept saying, pointless and potentially fatal to stay. When last I saw him, the Emperor had complained of an atmosphere in which, as a businessman, he did not feel secure enough to make a sustained effort. He had spoken of the authorities unaccountably making life difficult, saying it was because of his Aounist sympathies. He had looked thinner and more preoccupied than I remembered him. Now it is easy not to take Elefteriades seriously, given the things he tends to talk about: multinational secret-intelligence schemes; billion-dollar budgets; how PhD holders who arrive in Hummer vehicles can change your life forever by murmuring a few words into a satellite phone.

But the more you find out about him, the more convincing it all becomes — and you have to stop thinking about it before it drives you insane. Whatever the general case, this was clearly no joke. Michel didn’t make it clear until the end of the conversation, but he had received death threats from people who have made attempts on his life in the past. They had called him and promised to kill his children, rape his wife, draw blood from his eyes. And though he knows they were Aoun’s traditional war rivals, the ruthless Lebanese Forces — perpetrators of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, among other, often inter- Christian atrocities — as he also explained, with more exasperation than fear, it is not the Forces that matter. It had been decided that there should be war in Lebanon; within months, he said, there would be war in Lebanon. None of the little players have much to do with it; they are pawns, not chess masters; and, well, it is too late to be optimistic now.

But who on earth decided it?

The Emperor just ranted on about Neocons: how their principal ideologue had been a Jew who contributed to the theory of Nazism; how the Neocon attitude is now openly adopted in France — an unprecedented development; how American gurus were explaining to the public that to be a good Muslim is to be a terrorist, and that believers are therefore faced with a dilemma for as long as they live.

It was clear to him, he said, that even as a Christian in this part of the world, you were bundled together with Muslims. You were more like a Muslim than Westerner, after all. Getting rid of the one, they might as well get rid of the other. A war of civilisations indeed. At this point I remembered something Michel had told me about the divide-and-conquer strategy deployed in the postcolonial world: “Had Americans existed in the time of Saladin, they would have told him, ‘You are a Kurd, those Arabs are out to get you!’ And he wouldn’t have managed to liberate Jerusalem from the Crusaders.” Better let those people kill each other off — he was saying now — so they won’t stand in the way of Empire.

And calming down again, gradually, the Emperor told me he would eventually move to Egypt, where he already has had business deals in the making. “But you understand this is about the entire region,” he added. “In Lebanon it’s going to happen in a couple of months. In Egypt, give it five, six years. Till Mubarak dies. It is still happening…”

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Suicide note (as in journalistic, or so they say by way of justifying not publishing)

Journalists in the Radio-Canada/CBC newsroom i...
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There is something too easy about being an Arab journalist. The Arab is inherently a babbler, as loquacious as (s)he is indiscrete. All you need to do is hang around a few potential sources. And within minutes you will have all the data you could possibly want. Permission to quote may not be as forthcoming, but the lure of the limelight is usually a sufficient incentive; and if you are not putting anybody in trouble, the chances are your interlocutor will be more than happy to pose for a front-page portrait. True, politics can be trickier, but who can afford to talk politics these days? In matters relating to art and life –– more to the point –– no job is simpler than the Arab journalist’s.

Not so in the UAE!

For three months now I have been trying to wrap my ghutra-less head around this Trucial oddity, and for three months it has been all I could do not to bash said head against the wall.

Time and again I think of stories to write: innocuous, apolitical and absolutely harmless stories. Time and again I hit the same inexplicable roadblock. Forget interesting or provocative commentary. You would not believe what it takes to obtain someone’s phone number. Irrespective, that is, of whether they might actually answer the phone. Say they do, then you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting a brief answer to maybe one of five questions. More probably they will offer you someone else’s number, and then that other person will prove to be even less positively disposed. And to think that all you set out to do is cover an exhibition or a screening!

In three months I have coaxed, yelled and pulled strings. On the one occasion when plans did not fall through, the person vanished before I could organise the indispensable photo shoot. I have since learned that this can happen. When you are least expecting it, mobile phones are switched off, secretaries fail to reveal their bosses’ whereabouts under waterboarding, and e-mails continually bounce back.

It all adds to the mystery, of course; and indeed I had almost got used to it.

Until, asking a source’s permission for an anonymous and perfectly pro powers that be quote, I found myself reeling under a string of hysterical protestations. A strange, almost tearful moment: it was at this point that I conceived of my theory about Arab journalists in the UAE being the targets of a secret, nation-wide conspiracy to make them feel as far away from familiar, shoot-the-breeze territory as possible. And perhaps the intention is for them to hone their craft, the better to raise the standards of Arab journalism. I can live with that.

Recalling my easy-going former life as a cultural editor, my concern, rather, is that one day I will give in to the temptation, already strong, to put words into the mouths of those perpetually elusive sources. If they will not talk for fear of losing their jobs, perhaps they will lose them anyway.

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المقامة الحاكمية أو المنتحر 20

حدّث راشد جلال السيوطي قال:

أن تفتح كبّوت عربتك بعدما تقف منك على الطريق، فتجد جثَّةً منطويةً في وضع جنيني مكان الموتور، تخيل! ليس هذا ما حصل بالضبط، لكنْ قياسًا إلى أن هذه أول زيارة أعملها للقاهرة من ثلاث سنين، ما حصل كان على نفس درجة الغرابة.

بعد ذلك، بعدما أعرف بالذي مرَّ به صديق عمري مصطفى نايف الشوربجي، وجعله يغادر القاهرة قبل وصولي بأسبوع – أنا لن أعرف حكاية مصطفى لحد ما أرجع لحياتي الطبيعية كطبيب احتياط في مستشفى بيثنال غرين، شرق لندن، حين يبعث لي بالإيميل “پي-دي-إف” مخطوطة ضخمة دوّن فيها انفصاله عن امرأته وما تلاه، مع سطر واحد في شبّاك الرسالة يتساءل إن كنت بعدما أقرأ المرفقات سأظنُّه مجنونًا*، سيتأكد لي أني لم أخترع تلك الليلة على طريق صلاح سالم، تحت ضغط مشروع زواجي أنا، والإكثار من التفكير في أكبر عقبة أمامه. يعني أنا أسكن جوار عملي في بيثنال گرين، ومن وقت انتقلت إلى هناك سنة 2005، قبل سنتين تقريبًا، وأنا أعيش مع زميلة درزية أحبّها وكان زماني تزوجتها لولا أن أهلها مستحيل أن يخلّوها تتزوج غير درزي، فلما طلع لي شبح المنتحر لحمًا ودمًا يقول إنه التجسًد رقم 19 لروح الإمام الحاكم بأمر الله الذي يؤلّهه الدروز، شككت بأني أهلوس نتيجة التفكير في ذلك والقراءة عن تلك الديانة المجهولة،  وأن هذا سبب حرماني من تأسيس أسرة مع حبيبتي. أصلًا ساعات ينتابني الفزع من أن أكون، بعلاقتي مع البنت هذه، فعلًا تعديت على حرمة ما أو قداسة. ومع أن المكتوب في “پي-دي-إف” مصطفى ما كان يمكن أن يخطر لي أثناء وجودي في القاهرة، فطنت بعد مكالمتي الثانية لوالدته – الشخص الوحيد الباقي لمصطفى صلة حقيقية به هناك – إلى أن ما جرى له قد يشبه ما رأيته أنا في الليلة تلك.

“ومن أقرّ أن ليس له في السماء إله معبود، ولا  في الأرض إمام موجود، إلا  مولانا الحاكم جلّ ذكره، كان من الموحدين، الفائزين”.
من نص عهد الدعوة الدرزية لحمزة بن علي المعروف بـ”ميثاق ولي الزمان”.

ليلتها عرفت أن اختفاء سادس وأغرب أئمة بني عبيد الله (الفاطميين) – ذلك الطاغية المتقشّف الذي حرّم على الناس أكل الملوخية، وألزم النساء البيوت، ثم عمل “جينوسايد” صغير في مدينة مصر القديمة (كان يقوم بتصفية كلِّ من تقرَّب إليه) – اختفاء هذا المجنون الملهم لم يكن إلا انتحارًا تلى ظهور الدعوة الدرزية، التي قالت إنه التجسُّد البشري للإله الواحد. أن توقن بأنك أنت الله – هكذا قال لي المنتحر – لا بد أن يؤدي ذلك إلى الانتحار، فكيف يعيش الله بين الناس حتى لو كان إمامهم؟ والانتحار هذا – شرح لي – يتكرّر مرّةً كلَّ خمسين عامًا منذ حدوثه الأول سنة 1021 تكون روح الحاكم حلَّت بشخص عادي له جذور في القاهرة المعزِّيَّة، وبعد أن ينتحر بدوره يتجلى لوريثه، ويكون مرَّ على انتحاره خمسون سنة بالتمام، ليخبر ذلك الوريث أنَّه التالي في الترتيب. تذكَّرْت ساعتها أن أبي وأمي ولدا وعاشا عمرهما كلَّه إلى أن تزوَّجا غير بعيد من جامع الحاكم، ذي المئذنة التي تشبه ذَكَرًا مختونًا منتصبًا يطل وراء حائط مفرود كالملاءة، وأن جدي لأبي كان يدَّعي أنه من نسل شيخ حارة برجوان (ذلك المكان المسمى على اسم أشهر خصيان الحاكم، وأحد ضحاياه) فيقول الرجل العجوز نصف مازح إن تاريخنا في المنطقة يعود لأيام المماليك.. هكذا في أول زيارة بعد غياب ثلاث سنين إلى مسقط رأسي وأحلى أيَّامي – وأنا عاشق درزيَّة – كان علي أن أتخيَّل نفسي أموّت نفسي بسيف الإمام العزيز بالله، أبي الحاكم، بصفتي (ويا خرابي) المنتحر 20.

ثم استطرد راشد السيوطي يتذكر حديث المنتحر:

الذي يموت وحده، لا يعرف، لا يرجف بالمفاجأة أو يعميه البريق. (هذا ما قاله لي المنتحر 19 في طريق الرجوع، لما وقفت العربة، كأن كهرباءها فصلت على طرف الطريق بموازاة القرافة، وكان مكانًا مظلمًا، لكني شددت الفرامل وخرجت أفتح الكبوت فإذا بضوء السماء يتغير لحظيًا، كأن الصبح طلع لمدة ثانية ثم غاب، برقت خلالها حجارة جبل المقطَّم من فوقي كأنها أصبحت فوسفورية، وشيء ككفِّ اليد يخزني في كتفي، لما نظرت حولي لم أجد له أثرًا. حين عدت إلى مقعد القيادة، أحاول أن أدير المحرِّك يائسًا، فإذا إلى جواري شاب مهندم في بدلة كاملة موديل ريترو وفي يده مسبحة… بدأ يتكلَّم على الفور.) الذي يموت دون أن يملك موته في يده، لا تهزّه البهجة الخرافية لمغادرة الحياة. وحده المنتحر هو الخالد الباقي، ومن أين لغيره بفرحة اليقين؟!.. أنا أكلِّمك عن خبرة، صدّقني: أنت لن تموت ككافة الناس. ستُموّت نفسك بنفسك في اللحظة الحاسمة، واللحظة الحاسمة دائمًا فيها الآخرون. أكلِّمك، مع أني لم أدبّر لذلك، لأنّي متُّ بحضور أبي وأختي وخليلي، في الحوش الحاوي قبر أمي أيضًا وراء باب النصر، حيث كانت القاهرة المعزِّيَّة قبل وقت طويل – الآن هنا طبعًا لا شيء اسمه وقت، لكن ليس غير لغتكم للتفاهم – وكانت أختي تظنني أقتلها بالسيف وأبي مريضًا بالداخل، لكني سأناديه حتى يخرج قبل موتي بدقيقة واحدة. كلُّ الأرواح السائحة على روحي، أقول لك، شهدتني أعبر. بحسابكم كان عمري وقتها أربعة وعشرين، ولولا أني جل ذكري من النسل المقدس، ما كنت فطنت لروعة الذهاب مبكرًا، أو علمت أن كلَّ شيء حدث، حدث لكي يؤدي بشكل لا يقلِّل من حتميته أنه غير واضح وغير منطقي، إلى لحظة واحدة فقط من سنة 1958، لحظة ثبّتُّ رأس السيف في النقطة التي حدَّدها لي سلفي بدقَّة، تحت ثديي الأيسر وعلى بعد عقلة إبهام إلى اليمين. كانت يداي حول المقبض وذراعاي ممدودتين، كأن جذعي النحيل في الجلباب الأسود أصبح قوسًا مشدودًا، ومتشبثًا بقدمي الحافيتين في الأرض الرملية، مرّة واحدة، شددت. أنا الكامل الذي يجيء موته منه، الحامل من ساعتها سيف العزيز بالله، اسمع حكايتي.
ومحاكيًا الهمذاني والحريري، قال:

جئت القاهرة في زيارة. وصحبة صديقي الحقيقي مصطفى، نويت أمشي من حارة لحارة. كان هذا ما اتفقت عليه وإياه: أن نشاهد ما بقي في القاهرة من مجد إسلامي وجاه. وأنا لي في إنكلترا سبع سنين، نزعت أثناءها عصب الحنين. “إنه من زمان أول لقاء بدرش، تقولش سلطان راجع إلى العرش”. فراعني أن لا أجده في الديار، وكأن مدينتي زايلها العمار. نقض اتفاقنا ابن القديمة، فأسلمتني الدهشة لأحزان عظيمة. بحنين تخيَّلتنا في غبرة وتراب، وسط قاهرة المعز بين باب وباب. حتى قلت في عقل بالي: ملعون أبو مصطفى، سأستأنس بالكاميرا والسجائر وكفى. وأخذت عربة أبي ذات ليلة ذاهبًا، فما كدت أذهب حتى رجعت تائبًا. فإن ما رأيته في زيارة باب الفتوح، يخيف أبا الهول نفسه لو يبوح. وحتى أكتشف أن مصطفى  هو الآخر معذور، إذ له مع الجنون قبل دوري دور… (لكن شيئًا لا يدفع على حكي الحكاية، إلى أن تتسنى قراءة الپي-دي-إف/الرواية.) من غير ترتيب ولا تمحيص أقول، وقد أصاب أعضائي، من الرهبة، الخمول:
مَنْ بِطَيْفِ الْمَوْتِ يَشْقَى          كَاْنَ فِيْ دَرْبِ الْنُشُـوْرِ
مِنْ دَوَاْعِيْ قَـتْلِ نَفْـسِي        أَنْ أُعَـجِّـلْ بِالْعُبُـورِ

أمضيت خمسة أيام فقط بعد الحدث في القاهرة، ومهجتي بصدمة اللقاء ورهبته حائرة. وانتظمت في جلسات الأقارب على الموائد، مداريًا كلَّ ما ألم بزيارتي من شدائد. طَوال  الوقت لم يلهني شيء ظهر أو خفى، عن مواصلة التفكير في غيبة مصطفى. ومنذ وجدت موبايله مقفولًا ليلة وصولي، ليس سوى والدته أرمي عليها حمولي. كلَّّمتها على الفور في وقت متأخِّر من الليل، فإذا في صوتها إلى البؤس والحيرة ميل. ثم عدت وكلَّمتها بعد ظهور وريث الإمام، وقد بقي على عودتي إلى إنكلترا ثلاثة أيام. فكررتْ علي كيف غادر مصطفى فجأة في إبريل، بعد ثلاثة أسابيع منذ أن وجد إلى بيتها السبيل. وكان رجع يعيش معها بعد انفصاله عن زوجته، ثم سارع بالطلاق تعبيرًا عن نقمته. بعد مغادرته – هكذا روت لي – لم يتَّصل سوى مرّة من بيروت، يطمئنها على حاله، ويؤكد لها أنه لن يموت. وفكَّرت وأنا أسمعها تحكي معي بكَبَد: إحساسها أنها فقدته إلى الأبد. الأمر الذي أكده اختفاؤه المريب، وأنه على “إيميلاتي” ظل لا يجيب.

حتّى عاد مجددًا إلى حديث المنتحر:

لن يهمَّ اسمي أو نسبي. المهم أن جثماني اختفى حال موتي بسيف العزيز. لتعلم أن السيف سيصلك أنت أيضًا، وحال تغرسه في مكانه لا يُعثر لك على أثر. أنا وثمانية عشر منتحرًا قبلي نثبت لك ذلك بالدليل. بوسعك أن تعرف إن سألت، فحدث واحد كلّ خمسين سنة لا يلفت إليه الأنظار الفانية. أنت خائف لأنك لم توقن بعد أنك الخالد الباقي، ولا أنّ كلّ شيء يحدث في تلك الغرفة الضيقة التي تظنُّها حياتك، بما فيه تماثلي أمامك وشكَّك في وجودي وارتباكك من مشهد الجبل في ضوء عينيك – لن يتجلَّى الضوء ثانيةً، حتى تموت، فيصير بصرك القدسي – كلّ شيء يحدث، يحدث لكي يؤدي إلى لحظة واحدة من سنة 2008 (هكذا مضى المنتحر يحدثني فيما كنت، برعب يرجُّ جسدي ويشلُّه تباعًا، لا زلت أنكر وجوده إلى جواري فلا أنظر إليه وأعافر بلهْوَجة مع الكونتاكت حتى يدورَ المحرك. ضحك المنتحر ضحكةً واحدةً قصيرةً ثم مدّ يده، ليريني البقعة التي يجب أن أغرس فيها سيف انتحاري. وشعرت إثر ملامسة إصبعه صدري بدغدغة لم أجرِّب شيئًا مثلها طول حياتي. في الملامسة متعة، دون أن تنطوي على جهد أو غريزة أو تكون معرَّضة للانتهاء، كأنها الأورجازم.) عليك أن تمسك المقبض الذهبي المرصَّع بكلتا يديك، وتكون صوّبت طرف النصل إلى صدرك، تحت ثديك الأيمن مباشرة ولكن على بعد مسافة عقلة إبهامك إلى اليمين. عليك أن تميل كالقوس وتثبّت قدميك في الأرض ثم، مرّة واحدة، تشد. (وما كاد يسحب يده حتى أنشد يقول:

لم أبدأ أفهم حتى اعتقدت أني فهمت
وصرت أرى الأشياء كأنما بعيني بوذا
تلك الرسمة الطفولية الشاخصة بأحجام ضخمة
على الجدران الخارجية للمباني
ترى من كلِّ شيء كلَّ شيء).

لعلهما ظنَّاني مصدومًا فيهما، أختي وخليلي، لأن موقفي بالسيف تلى اكتشافي لهما في ظلام الحوش قبل ليلة واحدة بالتمام، حين دخلت حافيًا وكلوب الگاز في يدي لأجدَ ساقيْ أختي كأنهما مرفوعتان على شيء واطئ تحت جلبابها المنحسر، وكانت ممدَّدة على ظهرها في الأرض، فلا أثر لنصفها الأعلى من بعيد، تتأوه بحرقة كأنها تنتحب. عرفتهما، ساقيها. (هكذا واصل المنتحر بعدما أمرني بابتسامة فاترة أن أدير المحرك، فانطلقت العربة فعلًا وإذا بصلاح سالم كأنه يقول: أنا أسوق بسرعة عالية كي أخرجَ من هذه المنطقة المظلمة ، لكنِّي أظل سائقًا ولا أتقدم سنتمترًا. حين ينتهي من كلامه، دون أن أدري، سيعود صلاح سالم إلى طبيعته، وأعرف أني خرجت فعلًا من البقعة التي التقيته فيها… ودون أن أدري أيضًا سيكون قد اختفى) فلم أتبين ما يسندهما من أسفل حتى اقتربت وانحنيت: كان خليلي يزحف على بطنه كالحيَّة ورأسه مدفون بينهما، كتفاه تحت الفخذين. ولمَّا شهقتُ فرفعها، رأيت فرج أختي الحليق محمرًًّا ومنتفشًا في ضوء الكلوب، ولعاب خليلي يقطر من حوله، وقد علق بجذور الشعر. صرخت فيهما: تزوَّجا، تزوَّجا! ثم استدرت. لقد تزوَّجا فعلًا دون أن يعرف أبي بالواقعة… لكن كان عليهما أن ينتظرا سبع سنين بعد انتحاري المفاجئ. وسيظلُّ في قلبيهما شكٌّ حتى يموتا بأن السبب هو سرُّهما الدفين.

ثم مرتدًًّا إلى بداية حكايته، حدّث قال:

من أول يوم كنت قررت أن أؤجل الأوضاع العائلية التي تنتظرني مع كلّ زيارة، فتحجّجت بأنّي أفضّل الانفراد بأمّي وأبي وإخوتي بعد الفراق. وأمضيت أسبوعًا أتنقل بين بارات الزمالك وقهاوي وسط البلد، أستعمل عربة أبي “الرينو” المركونة معظم الوقت، بعدما كشف عليها الميكانيكي – وكان أداؤها يُعتمد عليه بشهادته وتجربة أسبوع – حتى جاء في بالي أن أذهب وحدي إلى باب الفتوح فحدث ما حدث.
نسكن في مصر الجديدة، في عمارة بنيت أواخر الخمسينات، أيام عاش المنتحر 19 في باب الفتوح، جنبًا إلى جنب مع أبي الذي بلغ الخامسة والسبعين قبل سنة. نعم، هذا ما خطر لي أولًا، حتى تذكّرت حكاية كانت تتردد بتنويعات مختلفة في العائلتين دون أن أتأكَّد من صحِّتها، حكاية كانت أمي تنفيها بغضب كلَّّما فتحت معها الموضوع، وأبي ينفي معرفته بها باقتضاب غريب عليه: أن خالي فتحي، الوحيد بين إخوة أبوي الذي لم أره ولا مرة، لأنه مات شابًّا، والمفروض أنه مات في حادثة سيَّارة، رغم أن الغموض المحيط بموته من النوع الذي يقترن بجرسة أو شيء يخيف، وليس ثم ما ينفي بشكلٍ قاطع أنه انتحر. كان خالي فتحي ضبط أبي وأمِّي معًا في وضع مخلّ وهما بعد شابان لا تربطهما معرفة معلنة، بينما أبي صديقه الروح بالروح. هناك من يقول إنه مات كمدًا بعد أن تأكَّد من خيانة صديقه وفجر أخته الصغرى، وهناك من يقول إنهما تخانقا فقتله أبي وعتَّمت العائلتان على الجريمة لأنهما قريبتان وحريصتان على تجنُّب الفضائح. لم أكن متأكِّدًا من الذكرى مئة في المئة، لكن تهيَّأ لي أيضًا أني سمعت من يقول إن خالي فتحي رجل مبارك وإنه حين مات تبخَّرت جثَّته، فصعدت مباشرة إلى السموات، فقد رفعها الله إليه كما رفع عيسى النبيَّ. ما أكد شكِّي أن جدَّتي لأمي فعلًا ماتت حين كانت أمِّي لا تزال طفلةً صغيرةً، وأن قبرها في الأرض التي كان يملكها جدي بباب الفتوح. (لم أفلح خلال جولتي في الوصول إلى قبر جدتي لأمي.) الصراحة: خفت. وزاد الخوف في قلبي لدرجة أني لم أجرؤ على ذكر أي شيء لأبي أو أمِّي، خلال أيامي الخمسة الأخيرة في القاهرة.

نسكن في مصر الجديدة، أقول، ومن أكثر الأشياء التي كنت أفتقدها في إنكلترا إحساس طريق صلاح سالم الذي لا بدَّ من المرور ولو على جزء منه في أي رحلة أعملها من أو إلى بيتنا بالعربة: أنك فوق جسم الثعبان الذي يسعى على ظهر القاهرة كلِّها – من الشّمال حيث نسكن إلى جزيرة الروضة المحاذية لمصر القديمة في الجنوب – وكأنّه عمود فقري قابل للانخلاع… أنا ركنت بعيدًا على الجانب المقابل من الشارع ناحية مطعم زيزو المشهور بالسجق، ثم عدَّيت بحذر، ومددت الخطى فلم أعد إلا بعد ثلاث ساعات. كنت أتفرَّج على المباني القديمة كأني عشت فيها أيام عزِّها، وأحسست بألفة عنيفة مع مكان لم أعرفه إلا لمامًا.

“ركب الحاكم ذات مساء في بعض جولاته الليلية، وقصد إلى جبل المقطَّم، ثم لم يُر بعد ذلك قط لا حيًا ولا ميتًا، ولم يعرف مصيره قط، ولم يوجد جثمانه قط، ولم تقدم إلينا الروايات المعاصرة أو المتأخرة، أيَّة رواية حاسمة عن مصرعه أو اختفائه”
“الحاكم بأمر الله وأسرار الدعوة الفاطمية”، محمد عبد الله عنان1983

مرّت الآن ثلاثة أشهر وهناك ابتهاج زائد في علاقتي بحبيبتي. كنت فكّرت فيها طويلًا ويدي تحتك بالجدران التي حلمتْ برؤيتها منذ كانت طفلة في مدينة السويداء، سوريا، وحتى بعدما جاءت إلى مانشستر مع أسرتها في الخامسة عشرة (هي لم تزر مصر أبدًا مع أن حكاية الحاكم طبعًا حاضرة عندها، بالذات نهايته: أنه خرج بحماره يتطلّع في النجوم على المقطَّم ولم يعد، ثم لم يجدوا له أثرًا إلا الجباب السبع التي كان يلبسها، أزرارها لم تفك ومعكوكة بالدم. كانت ملقاة في الخلاء وقيل تحت ماء بركة في حلوان). لكن إلى الآن ما زلت أتجنب أي حديث معها عن زيارتي الأخيرة إلى القاهرة. في البداية ما كان يخطر لي أن طلوع المنتحر ممكن أن يكون أهمَّ عندي من زواجنا، لكن مع الوقت – وبعد أن انتهيت من قراءة پي-دي-إف مصطفى، بالذات – بقيت شبه متأكد أنه صار فعلًا أهم. ما هالني – بعد ذكرى أو اثنتين لأشياء لم تحدث لي أصلًا – أن أجدني مطمئنًا، إن لم أكن متحمسًا، لفكرة قتل نفسي، بالضبط كما تنبأ المنتحر. أول من أمس، في الذكرى السنوية الثانية لقرارنا أن نسكن سويًا من وراء أهلها، جاءتني حبيبتي بهديَّة لم أتوقعها منها بالذات ولم أتوقع أبدًا أن تفرحني إلى هذا الحد. كنت مشغولًا أمام الكمبيوتر حين دخلت الشقة، فرحبت بها دونما أرفع عيني عن الشاشة وإذا بقطعة معدن مستطيل تلمع أمام عيني. هي تسحّبت من وراء ظهري وطوَّقت رأسي بذراعيها وفي يديها ما كاد يغمى علي حين نطقت اسمه: سيف العزيز. ثم وضعته على الطاولة تقول إن أباها مصدق أنه كان ملك العزيز بالله بالفعل، مردفة أن عمره لا يمكن أن يكون أكثر من ألف عام بالقياس على الحالة الجيدة التي هو عليها. كانت عثرت عليه في خزينة أبيها وتوسّلت إليه حتى أعطاه لها، فخبأته في كبوت عربتها حتى يوم عيدنا. ببطء مددت يدي أرفعه من المقبض الذهبي المرصع وبدا جديدًا كأنما صنع أمس. وقرّبت نظري من النصل فظهر لي أنه أمضى من أن يكون صنعه بشر. سرحت قليلًا وبدا وجه حبيبتي ملائكي الجمال حين أفاقتني سائلة: أعجبك؟

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حديث محمد فرج في السفير

Ibn Arabi (Arabic: ابن عربي) (July 28, 1165-No...
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محمد فرج: ما يكتبه ليس أدب رحلات ولكنه سياحة روحية في الأماكن

يوسف رخا: ما يسمّونه الانفجار الروائي أنتج كتابات لا تمتّ للجنس الروائي

استطاع يوسف رخا أن يصنع شكلاً جديداً ومغايراً لأدب الرحلات عبر ثلاثة كتب، صدر أحدثها مؤخراً تحت عنوان «شمال القاهرة، غرب الفلبين.. أسفار في العالم العربي» عن دار رياض الريس للكتب والنشر. بدأ مشروع يوسف رخا مع بيروت عندما قام بزيارتها في الذكرى الثلاثين للحرب الأهلية وكتب كتابه الاول «بيروت شي محل» 2006، بعد بيروت كانت رحلته إلى تونس ثم كتابه «بورقيبة على مضض..عشرة أيام في تونس» 2008 ثم الكتاب الأخير الذي شمل رحلات عدة الى المغرب وتونس ولبنان والامارات وايضاً القاهرة. عبر لغة متوترة ذات جمل قصيرة تلغرافية، تقدّم قراءة للمكان ولتاريخه القديم وحالته الآنية وايضاً ترصد حالة الرواي الذي هو مصري او عربي يلتقي بعرب آخرين لتظهر من خلال هذا اللقاء أسئلة كثيرة تشغل يوسف عبر كتبه الثلاثة أسئلة متعلقة بالهوية والقومية والشتات العربي والتاريخ وكيفية رؤيتنا الحالية له وايضاً كيفية تعاملنا اليومي معه.
يوسف لجأ الى هذا الشكل الكتابي مللاً من حصر أدبية الكتابة في الرواية والقصة والشعر واعتبار أي كتابة غير روائية هي كتابة غير أدبية، وبالتالي أقل شأناً، ولكنه يعكف الآن على كتابة رواية. وقرر أن «شمال القاهرة، غرب الفلبين» هو آخر ما سيكتبه بهذا الشكل فقد استنفده ولن يأتي فيه بجديد.
بداية.. ماذا تعني لك كتابة المكان؟
لا أحب استعمال تعبير «كتابة مكان» فهو تعبير نقدي وليس تصنيفاً أدبياً، بالنسبة لي ليس الامر في الكتابة عن المكان قدر. هو تجاوز على قدسية «النص الادبي». فما أكتبه ليس قصة ولا شعراً وليس رواية. نص لا يحمل إدعاء روائياً أو قصصياً ولكن في الوقت ذاته أدباً.
وربما تكون تجربتي مختلفة بعض الشيء. ففي البداية كنت اكتب قصصاً ونُشرت في كتاب «أزهار الشمس» 1999 ولكن لم أكن أعرف ساعتها أني لا بد ان أكون خادماً لكتابي وأحمله وأطوف به على الصحف وعلى النقاد والكتاب كي أعرفهم بنفسي، كنت أتصوّر ان النشر كفيل بأن يجعل المهتمين يقرأون ويتفاعلون. وقد تزامن هذا مع الوقت الذي بدأت فيه العمل في الصحافة وتحديداً في «الاهرام ويكلي» في وقت ضمت الجريدة عدداً من الشخصيات خلقت مناخاً مغايراً للعمل وفتحت فيه مساحات جديدة للكتابة وإمكانيات للظهور.
ولم أكن أتعامل مع الصحافة كمجرد «أكل عيش» أو كعمل تافه. كنت أمارسها بشيء من الحب والاهتمام ولم أكن أضع ذلك الفارق بين «الأدبي» المهم و«الصحفي» الأقل أهمية. فانشغلت بذلك لفترة طويلة تقريباً ست سنوات. ولما كنت أيضاً أعمل في الصحافة الثقافية، وبالتالى كنت متابعاً للحياة الثقافية وكنت أشعر بالملل من فكرة الانفجار الروائي التي بدأت في تلك الفترة، كنت أشعر ان هذا الحديث كله كان يجب أن يدور حول حركة التسعينيات الشعرية التي حققت منجزاً بالفعل.
ثم جاء «بيروت شي محل»؟
خلال الفترة التي أتحدث عنها بدأت مجلة «أمكنة» في الصدور. التي تقوم بالأساس على الاعتماد على كتابة خارجة عن التصنيف الادبي، وعندما ذهبت إلى بيروت في الذكرى الثلاثين للحرب الاهلية في 2005 كان من المفترض أني سأكتب مقالاً صغيراً لأمكنة»، ولكن وجدت المقال ينمو معي اذ فتح معي طرقاً جديدة تحمل أسئلة كثيرة لها علاقة بالكتابة من ناحية وبفكرة «الهوية» من ناحية أخرى. فكان «بيروت.. شي محل» ثم «بورقيبة على مضض» 2008 والكتاب الصادر مؤخراً «شمال القاهرة غرب الفلبين»، والذي ضم مجموعة رحلات حدثت خلال فترة الكتابين السابقين.
كتابتك من الصعب تصنيفها كأدب رحلات تقليدي أو سيرة ذاتية او رواية كيف تراها أنت وكيف ترى كيفية استقبال القارئ لها؟؟
في البداية كنت أصنف ما أكتبه أنه أدب رحلات، وبعد كتاب تونس وجدت أيضاً أنه خارج تصنيف أدب الرحلات بشكل ما. بالنسبة للقارئ هناك شكل ما من الخدعة فأنا أقدم هذا على أنه أدب رحلات وللقارئ حر في كيفية التعامل معه.
ابراهيم فرغلي عندما تناول كتابي الأخير ذكر ان ما أكتبه ليس أدب رحلات فهو لا يضيف الى معلومات القارئ شيئاً جديداً عن المكان، ولكنه نوع من السياحة الروحية في الاماكن!! وهو تقريباً عكس ما أقصد تماماً. لقد كنت سعيداً بكلمة الغلاف الخلفي لـ «شرق القاهرة غرب الفلبين»، لأنه يذكر ببساطة انه كتاب عن رحلات الى عدة مدن عربية.
الطرح الذي تقدّمه كتابتي بالأساس هو طرح يبتعد عن فكرة انك تكتب قصة قصيرة او رواية ولا تودّ حتى الاقتراب من هذا العالم. انت تكتب كتابة أدبية بعيدة عن المفاهيم الميتافيزيقية لسياحة الروح من ناحية وأيضاً عن الانواع الادبية المعروفة. ما اريد ان اقوله ان هذه الكتابة تتجاوز وترفض فكرة ان الادب او النص الادبي اعلى من النص الصحفي على سبيل المثال او الرسالة التي يمكن ان يتبادلها الاصدقاء. فالأدب ليس تعالياً او مجرد شكل من أشكال التصنيف تضفي قداسة على شكل وتلغيها عن أشكال أخرى.
لقد دفعت نقوداً من اجل ان انشر قصصي ولكن لم يهتم بها أحد. بينما في الصحافة تم الاحتفاء بي وتقدير ما أكتبه بشكل لم يصنعه النشر التقليدي. وانا لا أعرف كيف ستكون شكل الحياة بعد خمسين سنة هل ستبقى الناس تقرأ كتباً مثلاً أم ستتوقف هذه العادة. لا أحبّ فكرة الخلود الادبي.
فأنا أريد ان يتم الاحتفاء بعملي وانا على قيد الحياة وان اشعر ان هناك من يهتم بعملي بالدرجة التي ترضيني.
وبالنسبة لي اظن هناك ثلاثة مستويات عندما أتعامل مع ما أكتب المستوى السياحي او المفهوم الغربي لأدب الرحلات كمشاهدات وهناك مستوى آخر يرتبط بفكرة الهوية الذي يطرح نفسه بقوة طوال الوقت.. سؤال أن تكون عربياً؟؟ فهل نحن عرب، لأننا نتكلم في هذا الفضاء الواسع المسمّى اللغة العربية؟
وايضاً هناك المستوى التاريخي وهو المستوى الاهم والتاريخ هنا بمعنى ما يروى عن المكان، وهو ما يفرض الكتابة عن المكان، فكلمة «يُروى عن» يأتي بعدها مكان أو شخص أو سرد عنك؟
أعتقد ان دخول السيرة الذاتية ليست شيئاً مقصوداً بقدر ما هو جزء من طريقتي في الكتابة، وليس محركاً لي للكتابة. ولم أسع حتى الآن الى التخلص منها.
الفكرة بالأساس هي بمنهج الصحافة نفسها. يوجد حدث ثقافي وأنا كصحافي ذاهب لتغطيته فتسافر وتشاهد وتتأثر وتتحدث مع أكبر عدد ممكن من الناس وتجمع مشاهداتك وأحاديثك وتكتب عن كل هذا. وحقق ذلك بالنسبة لي توازناً بعيداً عن المناخ الأدبي الذي كنت أراه قاتماً وسخيفاً. وكانت «أمكنة» بالنسبة لي تفتح طريقاً مبشراً للخروج من هذا السخف والقتامة.
بيروت ـ تونس
كيــف كانــت تجربــة الكتابــة عــن تونــس بعد «بيروت شي محل»؟
كتاب بيروت بالطبع كان أكثر انطلاقاً أو فطرية. «بورقيبة على مضض» كان يحمل خبرة عملية أكثر بهذا الشكل الكتابي. فعلى حد تعبير كل من ايمان مرسال وعلاء خالد أن كتاب تونس فيه تعمّد في الكتابة. وانا أظن ان قراءة الكتابين معا مهمة فهناك الكثير من خطوط التشابه والارتباط كما هو حاصل ايضاً من وجهة نظري بين بيروت وتونس على مستوى انتقال الفلسطينيين من بيروت الى تونس. وانتقال الفينيقيين من بيروت الى تونس. وانتقالي شخصياً بين المدينتين.
وقد استغرقت عملية كتابة «بورقيبة على مضض» وقتاً أطول حيث استعملت أساليب متعددة واستخدمت وسائل أكثر.
ومن ناحية أخرى لم تكن مادة تونس مثيرة مثل مادة و«كتابة بيروت شي محل» بيروت بالفعل حركت أشياء كثيرة بداخلي. تونس أيضاً وضعتني أمام أسئلة كثيرة متعلقة بالعروبة وباللغة وعلى مستوى التدين أيضاً فهناك في تونس تدين أكثر من مصر، ولكن الأقل هو مظاهر هذا التدين التي تغلب في مصر.
على الرغم من التشابه بين تاريخي مصر وتونس. فالتاريخ التونسي هو تاريخ مصغر لمصر باستثناء أن ناصر مات وبورقيبة تمّ عزله وهذا كان أمراً مثيراً. بالنسبة لي هذه المقارنة بين مشاريع ناصر وبورقيبة وأيها لا زال يعمل وأيها توقف عن العمل وعن إنتاج النتائج. لكن لبنان حالة أكثر عنفاً وتعقيداً. وكان لدي في رحلة بيروت هدف واضح وهو أن أفهم «الحرب الأهلية» بالتأكيد لم أفهمها ولكن هذا الهدف كان موجوداً وهو ما سهّل الكتابة، رحلة تونس جعلتني أكثر حيرة.
لكن سفرك لبيروت لم يكن هو الأول، فدراستك الجامعية كانت في إنكلترا… لماذا لم تكتب عن هذه الفترة؟
اعتقد ان الكتابة عن المكان مرتبطة بقرب المساحة الزمنية لرؤية المكان، لان الامر يتحول الى ذاكرة للمكان. وهنا تتحول الى كتابة ذكرياتك عن المكان… الأمر الذي يجعل الكتابة عن الذاكرة وليس عن المكان. ولكني لم أحاول ان أكتب من قبل عن فترة إقامتي بانكلترا وهو ما يلفت انتباهي هذه الأيام، ربما لأني لست مشغولا منذ البداية بالغرب. لكن العدد المقبل من «أمكنة» سيكون حول الجامعة وسأشترك به بمقال عن هذه الفترة وهذا سيكون أول كتابة عن هذه الفترة.
ما اقصده بالمساحة الزمنية هو الابتعاد الزمني عن زمن الرحلة فرحلتي إلى انكلترا كانت من 1995 الى 1998 مر تقريباً عشر سنين. وهو الامر الذي سيجعل كتابتي عنها مختلفة بالتأكيد عن كتابة رحلتي بيروت وتونس فالإقامة الطويلة في المكان تصنع شيئاً مختلفاً وتحتاج إلى صياغة مختلفة. فالنص الوحيد عندي الذي يحمل إقامة طويلة بالمكان هو نص الإمارات – في الكتاب الأخير وكتبته بعد إقامة ثلاثة أشهر – فاذا كتب نص بيروت بعد سنتين من الإقامة مثلاً فلن يحمل هذا الدرجة من الاحتفاء بالمكان وهذا البريق الذي يحمله المكان الجديد، بالتأكيد سيخرج كتابة أخرى، ولكنها مختلفة تماماً.
تحدثت عن «الهوية» فما الذي تقصده؟
منذ ان تولد وانت تحمل هاجس المكان الآخر، فأنت تعرف انك في الجزء الأقل من العالم فهناك بلاد أجمل وأحسن من مصر. وأعتقد أن الهدف الاهم الذي أسعى اليه هو ان تشعر بأنك ند لأي «آخر»، فلن تكون انساناً وانت تحمل احساساً بالدونية. وعقب احداث مباراة «أم درمان» بين مصر والجزائر برز هذا الإحساس بالدونية إلى السطح على سبيل المثال.
فموضوع الهوية ضاغط وحاضر عندي واعتقد انه سيكون موجوداً في أي كتابة عندي. ربما لو كنت انكليزياً او اميركياً لم اكن سأنشغل بمسألة الهوية هذه اظن ان هناك ظرفاً تاريخياً يجعل موضوع الهوية مطروحاً عليك طوال الوقت فأنت مواجه بانك في مزبلة العالم.
ومن ناحية أخرى خلال كتبي الثلاثة ثمة مصري يقارن نفسه كعربي بعربي آخر. وليس المصري بشكل عام في أي مكان. ويكتشف أننا لسنا متشابهين ولا نتكلم جميعاً اللغة نفسها. فالموضوع في احد مستوياته متعلق بدحض الشوفينية المصرية – الغريبة أحياناً – فثمة فكرة عند المصريين أنهم مفهومون في حين بقية اللهجات غير مفهومة. مع ان الواقعي ان بقية العرب لا يفهمون كل العامية المصرية بالضبط كما لا نفهم نحن المصريين كل العامية التونسية او اللبنانية. أجل ثمة حالة من التعايش مع العامية المصرية الشبيهة «بالتلفزيون»، ولكن في الحقيقة انت غير مفهوم بالشكل الذي تتصوره.
ولكن هذا الهاجس لم يتواجد في فترة الدراسة في انكلترا؟
أنا غير مشغول بالغرب على الإطلاق كموضوع كتابة. وهذا ما جعلتني رحلة بيروت وما تلاها اكتشفه. فتصور الحياة في العالم «الافضل» انكسر عندي مبكراً فلقد سافرت الى اوروبا وأنا في السابعة عشرة. فتفكك عندي هذا الوهم منذ البداية بالإضافة إلى عدم فضولي لمشاهدة اوروبا. بالنسبة لي أفضل الذهاب الى بورما او نامبيا أفضل من فينا بالنسبة لي. هذا السياق يثيرني أكثر وأجد أشياء كثيرة لأقولها مرتبطة بهذا السياق.
وبالتالي البحث الذي أجده أكثر فائدة بالنسبة لي وعلى المستوى الاجتماعي المعاصر هو البحث في معنى كونك عربياً أو مسلماً معاصراً.
الهوية بالايجاب وليس بالسلب ان ترى نفسك مساوياً للآخرين لست أقل ولست أعلى. ليس بالتغني بجمال الآخر او بمهاجمته بدون معنى. ان تتعاطى مع الشروط المعاصرة التي هي بالضرورة ناشئة نتيجة علاقاتك المتعددة المستويات بهذا الآخر. وان تنشغل بأسئلتك الخاصة وليس بمقارنات مع الآخرين.
هل لديك خطط جديدة للكتابة عن مدن أخرى؟
لا اريد التوقف عن المدن العربية، ولكن أشعر أني اكتفيت من الكتابة بهذا الشكل وتحديداً في نص أبو ظبي. لن أقدم فيه جديداً بعد ذلك. ستتحول بعد ذلك الى تكرار وتعمّد بدون أي إضافة لا يعــني ذلك اني سأتوقف عن الكتابة عن المدن، ولكن ليس بهذا الـــشكل ولا أعــرف أيضا بأي شكل.
وأشعر أن نصوص «شمال القاهرة غرب الفلبين» ربما لم تحمل الحالة نفسها التي كتب بها الكتابان السابقان فهي نصوص كتبت لأسباب مختلفة وبشروط مختلفة لكتبي السابقة. والغريب بالنسبة لي أن أكثر ما كتب كان عن الكتاب الأخير، ربما لانه جاء بعد تراكم جذب الانتباه إلى هذا الشكل الكتابي. الآن هناك عملية كتابة جديدة تحدث ولكن على مستوى خيالى في الرواية التي أعكف الآن على كتابتها تحت عنوان «الطغري»، وهي حكاية خيالية غير واقعية او غير عقلانية وتدور أيضاً داخل مدينة هي القاهرة. والفرق بينه وبين كتبي السابقة هو وجود حدوتة لا معقولة تتركب عليها الأحداث.
الانفجار الروائي
كنت تريد الخروج من فكرة التجنيس الأدبي، والآن تكتب رواية. ولكن ألم تفكر بعد «بيروت شي محل» كتابة رواية؟
لا لم أفكر.. وأكثر ما يسبب لي ألفة في كتابة «الطغري»، هو أنها ايضاً خارجة عن الرواية الكلاسيكية، ومرتبطة أكثر بالكتب التجمعية الشهيرة في التراث العربي مثل «المستطرف». بالتأكيد ليس بهذا الحجم ولكنها تحمل بشكل ما هذه الصفة «الموسوعية»، محاولة كم وضع كبير من المعلومات حول شخص في سياق أدبي ما. وأيضاً لها علاقة بطريقة كتابة التاريخ عند الجبرتي وأبن أياس. وهذا يشعرني بشكل ما بعلاقة مع هذا التراث العربي – الذي لم يكن يضم الرواية بالمناسبة – أكثر من علاقتي بالكثير مما يكتب تحت اسم الرواية العربية الجديدة.
تحدثت عن الانفجارالروائي والرواية الجديدة… كيف ترى هذه المقولات؟
أكثر ما يكتب على انه «رواية» قد خلقت بالتالي هذه الحالة من «الانفجار الروائي» الذي يتحدثون عنه منذ سنين لا تمتّ للجنس الروائي بصلة. ما أقصده أن الجنس الروائي في العالم له علاقة بالحكي واللاواقعية.
فالروية بشكل ما هي نتاج البرجوازية الاوروبية في القرن التاسع عشر والتي كانت تكتب في كتب كبيرة الحجم لطبقة معينة عن طبقة أخرى. في ظل عدم وجود وسائل تسلية أخرى مثل التلفزيون. الا استثناءات يكون فيها الكاتب مخبولاً مثل ديستويفسكي على سبيل المثال.
فلكي تخلق علاقة بهذا الجنس الأدبي بالتأكيد ان تحتاج الى هو اكثر واعمق من أن تكتب قصة قصيرة طويلة بعض الشيء ثم تضع على غلافها كلمة رواية. او ان تكتب سيرتك الذاتية او اعترافاتك وتضع عليها رواية أيضاً.
انا مع تسمية كتابة مثل «عزازيل» او «عمارة يعقوبيان» رواية بغض النظر عن رأيك في هذه الكتابة. ولكن كتاب علاء خالد الأخير على سبيل المثال وهو كتاب جميل وأمتعني كثيراً ولكنه ليس رواية.
ولا يوجد أي مجهود حقيقي نقدي أو غير نقدي في تعريف ما هي «الرواية العربية» على الإطلاق، لو لدينا خطاب نقدي مسؤول لوجه اهتمامه لحركة الشعر في التسعينيات.
الانفجار لم يكن روائياً ولكن في كتابات أطلق عليها روايات، والرواية مجرد شكل من اشكال النشر. مع وجود حقيقة عالمية تؤكد ان الرواية تحقق حالة من المتابعة والاكتفاء والتشبع بالنسبة للقارئ، ولذلك مبيعات الرواية في العالم كله أكثر من الشعر او القصة القصيرة.
والنقد الغائب…
جزء من كوني ضد فكرة تسامي النص الأدبي على بقية ايضاً كوني لست مشغولا بالبكاء على النقد فلديّ الكثير من المصائب ولا احب الكتابة الاكاديمية بشكل عام. واعتقد ان النقاد لدينا الذين يملتكون ادوات نقدية تمكنهم من ممارسة هذا الفعل توقفت أذهانهم عند الستينيات.
ولا توجد متابعة تفاعلية حقيقة لما يكتب. فجزء من النقد ومن القراءة الحقيقية ان تتـفاعل مع ما تقرأ، وهذا لا يحدث.
لكن لماذا لا يفرز كل جيل نقاده كما يخرج مبدعينه؟
يمكن تفسير ذلك باسباب أكثر ابرزها ان النظام التعليمي السائد في مصر لا يساعد على خلق هذه العقلية النقدية. في النهاية المبدع قادر على ان يعلم نفسه. اعتقد النقد يحتاج بشكل ما او بآخر الى منهجية معينة بعيداً عن استقرارك على هذه المنهجية ام لا ولكن بالأساس يجب أن توجد هذه الآلية. هذا يعني بشكل آخر نظاماً تعليمياً وهذا ما اعرف انه يجري في جامعات أوروبية واميركية حيث ينتجون نقداً وليس مجرد متابعات.
الى جانب سؤال آخر هو كم الكتابات الموجود حالياً من اجل من ومن يقرأها؟؟ وهو سؤال له مستويات كثيرة ولكن يبقى المستوى الأهم هو مستوى العلاقة مع المجتمع بمفهومه الواسع فأنت في النهاية ومع كل هذا الضجيج أشبه بمن يطبع منشورات سرية

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Restaurant review from July 2004


On the psychosis of extravagant ripples

photo: Youssef Rakha
photo: Youssef Rakha

Informed psychiatric opinion would have it that the extrovert-introvert conundrum is really all about acousticophobia. In a public setting, place the subject at progressively closer distances to blaring speakers and observe signs of latent or externalised fear of noise. The more restive the response, the more introverted your case, and the more alarming should be the diagnosis.

Now I had actually taken the trouble to book a table, inadvertently making it clear to the maitre de Pool at the swish swish swish Four Seasons Hotel that I was interested in the belly dancing performance. We were consequently placed at the closest possible distance to the speakers, with the result that my obviously diseased psyche got the better of me, almost.

I say “almost” because the adrenaline, coloured by the flowing, chic, marbly, gold studded hotel interior and the mercifully non-Muzak music wafting through the corridors, then momentarily exacerbated by the somewhat over-emphatic attentiveness of the staff, now gradually took the form of mild, drawn out undulations that seemed to reverberate with the muted rippling manoeuvres of the man-made, bright lilac body of water which, flanked by similarly billowing arches against the artificial magnificence of one side of the building, dominated the prospect.

I initially envied those who had found a niche inside the segmented Bedouin-style tent which extended along one side of the pool as far as the eye could see. But the regular pool seating, besides affording a better view of the promised performance, seemed particularly comfortable to me. A candle burned inside a minimalist, opaque holder and the majestic full moon could only rarefy the romance as the staff, impeccably decked out in lilac beach shirts, hovered endlessly.

And the volume wasn’t exceptionally high to begin with, truth be told. So even a case as chronic as I could settle into reasonably relaxed conversation as my companion and I nibbled on an exquisite selection of breads and sipped mineral water. It has to be said at this point that the menu, rich as it is in the mezzah department, is really largely restricted to regular pool fare, with a limited selection of salads, burgers and grills, and even fewer Italian and French wines to choose from.

The food arrived minutes before the greatest adrenaline surge of the evening, when the volume was abruptly pumped up to presage the arrival of Nesma — a level of amplification that was to persist for as long as she kept on performing. So primordial an image of brazenly undulating flesh will inevitably upstage grilled calamari, however elaborately salted and seasoned. I tried to lose myself in the just-right portion of grouper, which, along with the absorbingly aromatic “Oriental rice”, dominated my oblong plate, but the movements kept insinuating an interminably awaited relief, the beat usurping every last sign of the patriarchal paradigm in my body.

All in all the food turned out to be almost as satisfactory as the belly dancer, notwithstanding the subject’s divided self. My companion’s rather more plentiful platter of grilled meat proved excellent, and the succulent brownies with vanilla ice cream, their chocolaty precision punctuated by shredded hazelnuts, were worth every last piaster of the bill.

Nesma would insist on coming dangerously close to my seat, however, and my income being what it is, I doubt if I will be able to keep my promise to the friendliest of the waiters, who followed us all the way to the exit, murmuring, repeatedly, “Hope to see you again soon.”

The Pool Bar and Grill, 4th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel at the Cairo First Residence, 35 Giza Road, tel. 02 573 1212, open daily 11am-6pm and 7pm-12.30pm, with live music every day and belly dancing performance from 9pm-10pm on Thursdays and Fridays. Dinner for two, sans alcohol, came to LE408, a not unexpected if still rather excessive plight.


On the psychosis of extravagant ripples

photo: Youssef Rakha
photo: Youssef Rakha

Informed psychiatric opinion would have it that the extrovert-introvert conundrum is really all about acousticophobia. In a public setting, place the subject at progressively closer distances to blaring speakers and observe signs of latent or externalised fear of noise. The more restive the response, the more introverted your case, and the more alarming should be the diagnosis.

Now I had actually taken the trouble to book a table, inadvertently making it clear to the maitre de Pool at the swish swish swish Four Seasons Hotel that I was interested in the belly dancing performance. We were consequently placed at the closest possible distance to the speakers, with the result that my obviously diseased psyche got the better of me, almost.

I say “almost” because the adrenaline, coloured by the flowing, chic, marbly, gold studded hotel interior and the mercifully non-Muzak music wafting through the corridors, then momentarily exacerbated by the somewhat over-emphatic attentiveness of the staff, now gradually took the form of mild, drawn out undulations that seemed to reverberate with the muted rippling manoeuvres of the man-made, bright lilac body of water which, flanked by similarly billowing arches against the artificial magnificence of one side of the building, dominated the prospect.

I initially envied those who had found a niche inside the segmented Bedouin-style tent which extended along one side of the pool as far as the eye could see. But the regular pool seating, besides affording a better view of the promised performance, seemed particularly comfortable to me. A candle burned inside a minimalist, opaque holder and the majestic full moon could only rarefy the romance as the staff, impeccably decked out in lilac beach shirts, hovered endlessly.

And the volume wasn’t exceptionally high to begin with, truth be told. So even a case as chronic as I could settle into reasonably relaxed conversation as my companion and I nibbled on an exquisite selection of breads and sipped mineral water. It has to be said at this point that the menu, rich as it is in the mezzah department, is really largely restricted to regular pool fare, with a limited selection of salads, burgers and grills, and even fewer Italian and French wines to choose from.

The food arrived minutes before the greatest adrenaline surge of the evening, when the volume was abruptly pumped up to presage the arrival of Nesma — a level of amplification that was to persist for as long as she kept on performing. So primordial an image of brazenly undulating flesh will inevitably upstage grilled calamari, however elaborately salted and seasoned. I tried to lose myself in the just-right portion of grouper, which, along with the absorbingly aromatic “Oriental rice”, dominated my oblong plate, but the movements kept insinuating an interminably awaited relief, the beat usurping every last sign of the patriarchal paradigm in my body.

All in all the food turned out to be almost as satisfactory as the belly dancer, notwithstanding the subject’s divided self. My companion’s rather more plentiful platter of grilled meat proved excellent, and the succulent brownies with vanilla ice cream, their chocolaty precision punctuated by shredded hazelnuts, were worth every last piaster of the bill.

Nesma would insist on coming dangerously close to my seat, however, and my income being what it is, I doubt if I will be able to keep my promise to the friendliest of the waiters, who followed us all the way to the exit, murmuring, repeatedly, “Hope to see you again soon.”

The Pool Bar and Grill, 4th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel at the Cairo First Residence, 35 Giza Road, tel. 02 573 1212, open daily 11am-6pm and 7pm-12.30pm, with live music every day and belly dancing performance from 9pm-10pm on Thursdays and Fridays. Dinner for two, sans alcohol, came to LE408, a not unexpected if still rather excessive plight.

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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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Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

Wheatfield with Crows (1890), Van Gogh Museum,...
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Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143
Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

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Soliman the symbol

Cairo‘s cannabis-smoking literati relied during the 1990s on an African bango supplier named Soliman. When Soliman was finally arrested, confusion reigned, frustrated “owners of the high humour” (as the Arabic expression has it) scouring the lengths and breadths of the city for a suitable alternative. The terminology of the politically committed 1960s — during which hashish was both widely available and affordable — was used to describe the predicament of cannabis deprivation in the apolitical 1990s. It was said, in the most tragic of tones, that “Soliman the symbol has fallen,” the implication being that with his disappearance an entire way of life had vanished, inducing a sense of loss comparable to that felt upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soliman had been one of the few remaining expressions of sixties consciousness, and now he too was gone.

But in reality, of course, even in Soliman’s time a bango gathering was regarded as an inadequate alternative to the older practices of Egyptian hashish culture. In contrast to the widely felt nostalgia for the goza, the Egyptian waterpipe in which hashish burns atop a screen of me’assel tobacco, and for the ghorza, the now nearly extinct clandestine cafe-type establishment in which people smoked, the Western-style joint smoked in a private apartment was looked down upon as the makeshift of a culture in exile. Yet it is to this culture that the veteran Egyptian novelist Khairi Shalabi has often turned, and in his new novel Saleh Heisa he has endeavoured to give literary shape to it. In so doing, he has taken on board the task of documenting one of the most stimulating periods of Egyptian cultural, social and even of political history, that which extends from the 1950s through to the 1970s, choosing, however, to approach events from below and to focus not on the official history but rather on the events of individual lives.

Thus, Saleh Heisa, the subject of Shalabi’s novel, is a symbol of a more significant sort than was Soliman for the 1990s demi-monde. For the nationalist left of the 1960s, he would have been an authentic expression of the proletariat, and the novel skillfully describes the Cairo neighbourhood of Ma’rouf, where he lives, in writing that no doubt owes much to actual experience. Saleh’s father, Amm Abdel-Barr, is a Nubian belonging to the haggana camel corps, soldiers who had answered to the British occupation forces before decolonisation. Armed with whips, they were charged with the task of dispersing anti-British demonstrations, and, as a result, Abdel-Barr was away most of the time when Saleh was a boy, neglecting his sprawling family. Shalabi describes this milieu particularly effectively:

“[When Saleh was only seven years old], Khala Montaha, Saleh’s mother, found herself more and more exposed: Amm Abdel-Barr’s salary was not even enough to buy bread. She had a relation married to the bawwab of a large building in Garden City… acquainted with an important lawyer from the town of Shebin Al-Qanater. Discovering that he is over 60, his wife dead, his children all married and living away,… he needs an honest, clean, well-spoken and well-mannered woman [to clean his villa], and he will send his chauffeur to pick her up from the building every Thursday morning, taking her back Friday evening or Saturday at sunrise… in return for a monthly salary of LE10. Khala Montaha danced for joy, calling on God to protect her relation against poverty or need. They agreed that this business would remain a secret and that Amm Abdel-Barr must never catch wind of it.

Every Thursday she took her son Saleh along, and they returned on Friday evening, visibly better off … For the first time in his life Saleh wore a shirt and trousers, taking off his single, grimy and tattered galabiya… The lawyer had taken to him like a son, buying him clothes. Saleh loved that man to the point of worship, saying that God had given him a new father, a noble pasha… This lawyer was in reality the greatest and most important man in Saleh Heisa’s life, his one and only tutor. He planted in him an awareness, a knowledge, a set of morals and traits he would not have known even if he had attended university… And he inspired him with the realisation that he was a human being, no less worthy of pride and dignity than any other creature. And Saleh told these things to the children in the alleyways…

The lawyer [the Ustaz] was… an important member of the Wafd Party, well-known throughout the land… That was at the beginning of the 1940s, when the world was upside down as a result of the Second World War, and Egypt had quite a headache due to its decision to fight on the British side… Demonstrations increased and became violent. Judges and lawyers in Shebin Al-Qanater went on strike… The police tried to disperse [the demonstrators] peacefully and failed, so started beating them… A telegram was sent for the haggana…

The haggana descended on the town centre vengefully with their whips… Saleh tried to shield the Ustaz against the whips with his own body… But the whip strung a belt of fire across his back… And at that instant, when he looked away from the Ustaz and up at the brutal soldier, the whip had already lashed the Ustaz’s face.”

Déjeuner sur l’herbe Egyptian fashion (Photo from Egypt’s Side-shows, Nicolaas Biegman, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992)     Khairi Shalabi
Khairi Shalabi
In a melodramatic twist, Saleh glimpses the face of his father, the soldier who is holding the whip and lashing out at the Ustaz. “No one denies that haggana soldiers are kind-hearted,” Shalabi points out, “except when they use their whips on government orders.” Though he had experienced his father’s neglect and had witnessed the man’s mistreatment of Khala Montaha, Saleh had known nothing of his father’s brutal work. But now a struggle breaks out between father and son, revealing Saleh’s resourcefulness and setting him on course for a life beyond the family’s confines. Amm Abdel-Barr is imprisoned for six years, the family breaks up and Saleh wanders aimlessly until ending up supplying hashish.

Saleh, however, is no mere supplier. Rather, he is a permanent fixture of the characters’ day-to-day lives. His job at the supplier Hakim’s ghorza, housed in the former house of Saleh’s family that now serves as the setting of Shalabi’s novel, is to clean out and refill a daily load of 3,000 hashish bowls. A kind of modest expert at the task, a man of immense aptitude and rare pride, he displays a peculiar heisa (clamour, or commotion), often induced by drinking half a litre of meths mixed with Pepsi. This allows him to put in their place those whom he suspects of arrogance.

“During such periods of heisa, which never go on for more than two hours, Saleh Heisa would assert himself and impose respect,” Shalabi writes. The next day, he continues, Saleh was as charming and as obliging as ever, to the point where he was embarrassed at the mere mention of the previous night’s heisa. “Listen, Sir,” Saleh explains in one of the novel’s most memorable episodes, “the world is heisa. Human beings are heisa; everybody in it is either heisa, making heisa, or trying to catch up with heisa. They are all beggars, but each is a beggar in his own way, and I am the king of the beggars because I am a beggar in every way.” Qamar El-Mahrouqi, another of the hashish den’s habitués, comments that Saleh’s “logic may not connect with people. Those who listen to him may think him mad. But if you probe his words, examining them one by one and truly understanding them, you’ll find that it is our logic that is bent and his that is straight.”

Saleh is at the centre of a whole community, unlike his 1990s alter ego Soliman, and events in this community flesh out the novel. The narrator, for example, a younger version of Shalabi himself, can easily spend 20 pages on cameo parts, such as the story of Tal’at El-Imbabi, a graduate student, and his marriage to a left-wing Italian girl, Matilda, following her divorce from another member of the community. There are risks to this procedure, of course, the reader having to follow consecutive stories that are often only tenuously related to each other. However, since the next paragraphs almost invariably turn out to be as fascinating as were the previous ones, whatever their bewildering changes in subject matter, Shalabi’s narrative, sometimes going backwards, sometimes forwards, never loses pace, and it is, in any case, always linked back to the central character of Saleh. Everything and everyone revolves around him, while he fulfills his duties at the ghorza presided over by the shrewd Upper Egyptian, Hakim:

“We all went to Hakim’s ghorza individually at first, some of us in flight from another depressing or risky ghorza… some from debts that can’t be paid, some in search of old places in a crumbling world, some looking for a cheaper price … or for serious hash smoking… Thanks to Hakim we became a friendly, homogeneous group… He would pick a client [and introduce you ]… and if you came on your own, he would make a point of telling you that so-and-so was here, asked after you, being eager to see you… There was never any gossip or backstabbing… We, [who had not even heard of each other before becoming regulars at the ghorza], entered each other’s houses, visited each other at work, invited each other to parties and stood by each other in times of crisis.”

The story, then, unfolds in myriad directions, but by the end we find Saleh Heisa, an active witness first of the British occupation, then of the Revolution, then of the 1967 defeat and finally of President Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, where he always is, at the ghorza, his laughter crazier than ever, his heisa more extreme, his bitter insights into politics sounding remarkably like those of Khairi Shalabi himself, or like those of other writers of Shalabi’s generation.

Yet at the end of the novel Saleh finally oversteps the mark. After borrowing 50 piastres and leaving the ghorza for a moment, he is beaten up by the police, packed into a van and driven off. He then disappears without a trace, but is finally found in the rubbish-strewn backyard where he had always slept, lying in his age-old position, dead. The book ends with a clampdown on the hashish trade, the closure of innumerable ghoraz and the effective end of this culture to which one should be grateful, if only for its having inspired the present novel.

Like Soliman some years later, Saleh had fallen.

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The National: A civilisation under glass

At Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, Youssef Rakha wonders when ‘Islamic’ came to mean ‘antique’.


Last week when I went to preview the new Doha Museum of Islamic Art, it did not occur to me to ask why objects and buildings from different cultures, both secular and religious, are referred to collectively as Islamic (this is true even in Muslim countries). Since the galleries were not yet open even to journalists, I took in what I could of the magnificent exhibits from behind glass doors, took pride in the range and the power of my heritage, and eventually took the plane home.

When I returned, a Western colleague asked me: What is it that makes an art object Islamic – even when it is secular? Works of art and architecture in the West are rarely exhibited as “Christian” – even when they are overtly religious. “It’s generic,” I responded, reflexively: a thing is called Islamic to indicate that it was produced under the rubric of a civilisation, a culture, other than the one predominant today – in many ways the only civilisation now, one that happens to be Christian in origin. Modern and contemporary works by Muslim artists are not usually referred to as “Islamic”, even when they have religious connotations, so the use of the term “Islamic” to refer to objects like chandeliers, statuettes, scientific manuscripts, carpets and other artefacts that have no religious content would suggest that the word, in this context, indicates that these are relics of the past.

That night I recalled the chapter of Istanbul: Memories of the City in which Orhan Pamuk remarks that, while growing up in the republican (hence vehemently secular) upper class of 1950s Turkey, it was unclear to him why he was supposed to reject anything Islamic. The only justification he was offered was that religion, and the religion of the Ottomans specifically, impeded progress. As per the essentially authoritarian dictates of the Father of the Turk, Mustafa Kemal – himself, ironically, a native of Salonika in present-day Greece, with no more claim to Turkic ancestry than any Muslim anywhere in the myriad lands formerly comprising the Ottoman Empire – to be modern, intelligent, educated, evolved, even to be benevolent or respectable, you had to be of the West.

Pamuk never poses the question, but I wonder whether, had the European powers defined themselves explicitly as Christian, Ataturk would have ordered a mass conversion to Protestantism.

As it was, he prohibited the broadcast of Eastern music or Quranic recitation on the radio, closed down the dervish lodges, silenced the azan, disinherited men of religion, and effected the irrevocable divorce of the Ottomans’ direct heirs from the great literary traditions of Farsi and Arabic by switching to the Latin alphabet. He abolished all those incredibly sophisticated turbans, and forcibly replaced the fez, that unique trope of Muslim modernity, with the hat of the common white man.

It was all in the name of progress – and nationalism, another European import, perhaps the most destructive of all. But nationalism (irony of ironies) was not a theory anyone could apply without recourse to religious affiliation. When all was said and done, in the Ottoman scheme of things, nothing unified the Sultan’s Muslim subjects apart from the faith. There were those with their own languages, nationalisms and territories newly granted by the British and the French. But the subjects who remained in Constantinople and Anatolia, those who spoke Arabised and Persianised varieties of the ancient Turkic tongues, had no sense of collective identity or a common ethnic root. The only thing that could qualify them to be citizens of that modern republic to which the First World War reduced the devleti aliya, or the Sublime State, was the religion that they were urged not to practice. To be a good (that is, non-Muslim) Turk, by the logic of the Ata, you must first be a real (that is, Muslim) Turk.

So much for nationalism. Turkey had been on my mind in Qatar because the highlight of the museum, for me, was a firman, or royal decree, of Sulaiman the Magnificent, heir to the combined glories of his father Selim the Grim (who took Egypt) and his great grandfather Mehmed the Conqueror (who took Istanbul). As Caliph, Sulaiman was the closest thing to a worldly embodiment of the deeply moving Quranic verse with which Pamuk prefaced My Name is Red: “To God belongs the East and the West”.

That verse becomes doubly moving once you realise, as a Muslim living in the shadow of post-Christian civilisation, that there was once a time when the predominant culture was that of the faith into which you were born. Under Sulaiman, the word “Islamic” could viably lay claim to the world in the way “Western” does today, normatively categorise it, and in so doing produce such jaw-dropping objects as the scroll of that firman, its bottom quarter sealed with one of the most beautiful images I have seen in my life: the tughra, or abstracted calligraphic monogram, of the Sultan, which manages to compress the words “Sulaiman the son of Selim Shah Khan, victorious forever” into a single sign.

The real question raised by the term “Islamic art” is how Muslims in the contemporary world might strive to be part of the predominant, post-Christian civilisation without losing, à la Ataturk, all that is meaningful to them. Islamic is a difficult framework in which to define your make-up precisely because it is so hard to say how, in an increasingly uniform, identically global world, Muslims might nonetheless positively affirm their identity.

It would have to be in a very subtle way, perhaps through a shift in world view, maybe a willingness to be more catholic at a time when the contemporary world is so mechanically narrow, to make room for contradictions, to understand and accommodate the impulses to violence that have more recently stunted Muslim progress, rather than attempting to exterminate them. Islam, and especially its Ottoman incarnation, demonstrated remarkable scope for tolerance, realism and exchange. How might this repository of constructive memory enrich humanity today?

There are as many responses to this question as there are Muslims, from the most secular to the most devout; and the Doha museum, an initiative to preserve heritage and make it globally accessible in the framework of a Western-style institution, is certainly one of them. But the response this Muslim wants to suggest, in the Sufi tradition of speaking through a veil, is a riddle:

Between the East and the West there is an object in common. It exists in both but can be found whole in neither. It is something that people seek. Once you have it, you will have the power to see human beings, lucidly and insightfully, as human beings, to interact with them in a way that is beneficial to all, and to realise that the rifts between them are mere shadows. Once you have the object, you will find a way to transcend without looking down on the day job, the chores of house, finance and family. The pursuit of fun becomes not an escape from reality but a way of engaging with it. But those who are aware of only the East – or only the West – have no chance of finding the object.

A hint: the answer to the riddle is Islamic.

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An alphabet page from Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dict...
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My favourite monster

Youssef Rakha

There is something maddening about translation. Perhaps the right word is “eye-opening”: it makes you realise just how ­impossibly separate the mental categories of two languages can be. I speak, in particular, of Arabic and English, that double-headed monster which, staring long and hard into my intellectual looking glass, I sometimes glimpse laughing at me.

Like an invisible friend – or, rather, a ghost whisperer – that bilingual creature sits behind me every time I attempt to translate my own work, one bloated head over each shoulder, sniggering at my futile efforts to make two things into one, ­reminding me that, by working simultaneously in two languages, all I have managed to do is ­internalise some two centuries of chronic misunderstanding and mutual abuse, with the vague promise that some day, maybe, such chronic conflict will have been resolved – enough for my work to make positive, universal sense.

I write in Arabic, one version of which – the Cairo dialect – is my mother tongue. I also write in English, of course, but Arabic is the language in which I produce the poems, stories and essays that I tend to think of as my gift to posterity. And then, remembering that the vast majority of the world’s readership will have access to no such gift, I panic and berate myself for not making it available in English, which is so much more widely ­understood and appreciated.

That is when I sit down to translate my work. “Good luck,” I can almost hear the double-headed monster yelling every time, his giggles just audible enough in the background. “You will not discourage me,” I ­respond. And, armed with a range of dictionaries and the willingness to take a word out here, replace an expression there, reinvent the flow and the rhythm of the text, I sit down and block out every distraction.

Later, when I have shown the results of this exercise to ­English readers whose judgement I trust all the more because they have no Arabic, they have pointed out so many peculiarities, unclear turns of phrase and incomprehensible allusions that I have had to question my knowledge not only of ­English but of Arabic as well.

Yes, I would think, what on earth did I mean by that?

It would eventually come to my attention that, to really present my works of genius to ­English-speaking posterity, I must rewrite them entirely or, to be more precise, I must write them anew – in English. And then what will I achieve? They will have become something profoundly other than what they are, as estranged from themselves as Arabic is from English.

It is then that, glimpsing the double-headed monster in the looking glass, I have been tempted by violence. So far, I have ­resisted the temptation.

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Disrupting the Narrative by Sousan Hammad

Arabian nights.
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A man with nomadic tendencies, Youssef Rakha was born in Cairo in 1976. He studied English and philosophy in England, worked in Cairo, lived in Beirut, and, most recently, in Abu Dhabi as a features writer for the English daily, The National. He has interviewed some of the most compelling and contemporary Arab storytellers of our time for the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly – from helmers and novelists to actors and politicians (who, to me, are also storytellers) – laying bare his writings with such meticulousness, voice, and reason that he gives his audience a chance to draw their own conclusions as they observe the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the speaker.

Youssef is currently finishing his first novel, Kitab At Tughra (Book of the Tugra), which, according to his blog ‘the arabophile’, is an “imaginative evocation of post-2001 Cairo and a meditation on the decline of Muslim civilization.” Here, then, we stroll through the mind of Youssef Rakha exposing, in fragmentation, the man and his machinations.

Poetry, fiction, travel writing, reportage, and essays – you are a multi-faceted writer. Which style limits you the most?

Formal constraints are limiting in every genre or kind of writing, but they are necessary for sustaining tension; the line through which the exchange takes place has to remain taut. The greater challenge is of course to write well, meaning – as Raymond Carver put it I think – not only to express but to communicate, and for me also to strike the right balance between stating what I have to say and making the reader say something through me, something similar but never the same; it’s important to leave that space open inside the text. The idea is always to stretch the form as far as I can – and that applies even to grammatical form: sentence structure and word order etc. – because it’s always as if you’re looking for something, a tone or a rhythm or a standpoint, something entirely subjective but also objective enough to be recognised. So how to be completely insane but at the same time lucid and articulate. In this sense language itself is limiting but the whole point is to argue with its limitations.

Poetry is the most challenging thing and if I had more integrity I would be a dedicated poet. But I think my medium is the Arabic language regardless of form. I recently came across these wonderful words from the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus and they express me perfectly: “Which all goes to say that, for me, the Arabic language is oceanic in nature and can absorb anything into its vast genetic pool… I think the time has finally come to treat Arabic as a great reservoir, a live magnet that can absorb foreign influences today as easily as it did in the past.”

How long have you been writing?

I published my first book, Azhar ash Shams, in 1999. I finished what I consider to be my first accomplished piece, the title short story of that book, in 1997. I was 20 or 21. But I started writing many years before, and then I started writing again when I switched to English more or less fully in 2000. I came back to Arabic with Beirut shi mahal in 2005, with only a few poems produced in Arabic in the meantime.

Virginia Woolf said fiction is more likely to tell truth than fact. Would you agree?

I am not sure what that means. Fiction plays with fact. Sometimes fact is fiction or vice versa. Foucault pointed out that there is no such thing as truth, anyway. There are many truths, and to me the truth to be found in writing is more valid than that to be found in the natural sciences, for example, or at least more relevant. But in writing, I happen to know from experience that fact can be at least as interesting as fiction.

If you could live on an island (let’s say… a pre-colonized Sri Lanka) who would you take? Of course, the indigenous people would be with you.

Jean Genet or Mahmoud Darwish?
Genet, of course. I actually happen to hate Darwish, but that is a long story…

Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx?
Fanon. We would have a lot more to talk about.

Fairouz or Leila Khaled?
That’s a really hard one. Fairuz, assuming she will be singing to me in the dark.

Sonallah Ibrahim or Emile Habiby?
Habiby would be more fun I think. I mean, I know Sonallah personally but Habiby I never met.

David Lynch or Michael Haneke?
Lynch, of course.

Khadija or Arundhati Roy?
Khadija as in the Prophet’s wife? I think I’d rather Arundhati among the natives.

Woody Allen or your unconscious?
Once again, a hard one. I think maybe they’re quite similar. But my unconscious would be Arabic-speaking which is always nice.

Father or Mother?
Oh God. Can I say neither. My father is dead, so I would go for Father simply for that reason.

If you could replace whatever infrastructure you wanted in a city – with your only condition being that reduplicating Gulf-kitsch glamorama is off limits – what would you demolish and what would you build?

With very few exceptions, I would demolish everything built later than 1800. I would build vast, hi-tech tents guarded by pure-bred camels. Tents the size of whole cities. And camels, camels everywhere.
Finally, what do you anticipate from the Beirut39 Festival?

You know there was a lot of so called debate here in Cairo following the announcement of the winners. A lot of non-winners vented their frustration and even older writers who had nothing to do with the whole thing expressed various reservations and grievances. That did not exactly put a damper on things but it made me wonder what a competition amounts to in the long term, especially thinking about some fellow winners whose work I have never respected but who have always, then as now, been present at every event or conference. It makes me curious about the nature of success in Arabic literature, what it really means to be successful and how much of it has to do with quality of writing as opposed to sheer presence of personages. Of course there are on the list also names I am totally honoured to be associated with. But that is one part of what being part of the festival has done to me, to place me face to face with difficult questions about the value of what I do and how this value is actually measured.

I have a very strong four-year-old connection with Beirut so it is very exciting to go there as a recognised writer. My hope however is that the festival will help me on the ongoing and incredibly difficult task of freeing up time to travel and write, whether through residencies or a book deal or whatever

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Strange congress

Taxi in Abu Dhabi / U.A.E.
Image via Wikipedia

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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Cry my beloved poetry

Cover of "Lynch (One)"
Cover of Lynch (One)

Spring brought poetry from the inaugural round of the Dubai International Poetry Festival (4-10 March) to this week’s issue of Cairo’s most popular literary publication, Akhbar Al Adab, which dedicated its Bustan (Orchard) department to poetry criticism and poets’ testimonies: Youssef Rakha considers a maligned genre

In a video interview about Lost Highway, the American director David Lynch describes his ideal film as an abstract composition, a sort of audiovisual symphony. Then again, Lynch says that a film seldom works for the viewer without the benefit of a compelling narrative. In his own work he would rather do away with the narrative side of film-making, he says, but he endeavours to have enough story-line to keep people watching.
Lynch suggests there is a chasm between imagery and storytelling – which seems particularly relevant to contemporary Arabic writing in Egypt. Since the establishment critic Gabir Asfour made his millennial declaration that we are living in “the Age of the Novel” (zaman arruwayah), the idea of a contest between poets and novelists in which the latter are beating the former has sparked much ludicrous debate.
No reliable statistics have established that more novels are being sold now than a decade or two ago, or more novels than “diwans” of poems. But this is the prevailing belief; and the response of poets has ranged from publishing novels to holding a personal grudge against Asfour.
At the JW Marriott, Kuwait, attendance of the annual Alarabi Magazine Symposium (held on 2-4 March to mark the Kuwaiti institution’s 51st anniversary) was embarrassingly low until the final session – devoted to poetry. Prodded perhaps by embarrassment, perhaps by the presence at the podium of the south Lebanon poet Mohammad Ali Shamseddin – together with the Kuwaiti poets Saadiyah Mifrih and Salah Dabshah – previously m.i.a. invitees now nearly filled the hall.
Ironically it was Asfour of all people who replaced the co-ordinator of the session, the poet and patron of literature Abdulaziz Al-Babbatin, who could not make it to the seminar. Asfour was joined at the podium by another establishment critic, Salah Fadl – speaking in his capacity as head of the jury of the Abu Dhabi-based television programme Amir Ashshu’ara’ (Prince of Poets).
Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is the standard-Arabic edition of the pan-Arab Nabati (or Bedouin Colloquial) verse competition programme Sha’ir Al-Milyon (Millions’ Poet) – phenomenally popular in the Gulf – in which millions are awarded to the best poems written in free verse (ashshi’r alhorr, also known as shi’r attaf’ilah). Free verse breaks up and intermingles different metric schemes from ‘Aroud Al-Khalil (the compendium of metrical rules put together by Ibn Ahmad Al-Farahidi in the eighth century), partly or wholly doing away with rhyme. The taf’ilah – as this form’s rhythmic unit came to be called – may have emerged as early as the 1930s, but it did not achieve recognition until the 1960s.
Though some Sixties Generation poets wrote prose (Mohammad Al-Maghout and Sargon Boulos), the last generation of household-name poets (Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani) wrote free verse. After its heyday towards the end of the 1960s, free verse continued to appear, without making much of an impact, until the emergence in the 1990s of a new kind of prose poem showed up its anachronism more clearly than ever before.
Fadl did not cite the pre-eminance of the prose poem as a reason to reject the Age of the Novel, but he did point out that rejecting it is not unjustified. The prose poem remains the one original and definable form to have cohered and stood out since the 1990s, when said Age is supposed to have dawned. The novel, on the other hand, has fluctuated considerably, defined and redefined itself, and dithered at many crossroads without moving very far in any direction.
Whatever you think about this, ferocious exchanges will probably continue to take place. What is missing is a responsible discussion of what each genre actually constitutes.
The case for Arabic poetry in prose is resolved in practise; in recent memory hardly a single self-respecting talent has produced any verse. Yet it remains officially on the table, while “novel” – the youngest genre in the language, barely 100 years old, as opposed to the 1,400-year-old verse tradition – has become the catch-all term for almost any literary writing typeset in paragraphs rather than lines.
Memoir, autobiography, travel writing, sequence of short stories or essays, reportage, erotica, and of course extended poem: all are unthinkingly stamped NOVEL (by writers and publishers alike). In the absence of corrective classification, this makes Asfour’s epochal declaration redundant.
With the gradual emergence of popular non-fiction books like Khalid Al-Khamisi’s Taxi, classification is slowly improving. But the prose poem is still at best ignored. At worst it is subjected to a notoriously retarded attack by the poet Ahmad Abdelmo’ti Higazi, a didactic figure whose authority rests less on either enduring significance or sales figures than short-lived critical acclaim in the 1960s and a career in government institutions since.
Had Fadl mentioned the prose poem by name, however, he would have underlined the fact that, in restricting its scope to free verse, Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is in effect ignoring the most interesting poetry being written in Arabic today. Even within the Gulf, where verse traditions are more alive and tastes more conservative than elsewhere, only prose poets (Ibrahim Al-Mulla and Khalid Al-Budour in the UAE, for example) have achieved pan-Arab recognition.
Instead, Fadl stressed the role of TV – and, implicitly, of course, cash – in spreading the word about the Arabs’ trademark legacy at a time of relative decline. He did not touch on the absurdity inherent in quantifying “the success of the poem” compared to another poem. He did not deal with the implications of evaluating poetry through a system of points awarded by s.m.s., among other means. And he did not suggest that there may be better ways to financially serve poetry (which there are: the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which funds both programmes, still does not have a single publishing house to its name). Only Shamseddin, the most cogent speaker by far, made any reference to the difference between poetry and verse.


Perhaps inevitably, in the presence of Asfour, the proceedings centred on poetry during the Age of the Novel – whether or not, and how (if not through television) poetry can “extend” into an Age other than its own. But the to-and-fro between Fadl and Asfour failed to show how, while the prose poem is attacked or ignored, the novel which is not a novel acts to obscure the meaning of narrative. On the one hand there is the perception that novels may be selling because they tell stories; on the other, the fact that, whether or not they are selling, the books called novels are by and large un-story-like.
Egypt has an emergent, as yet vaguely articulated magic realist movement. Its authors – Hamdi Abugolail, Ibrahim Farghali, Mustafa Zikri, and, more recently, Tarek Imam, among others – are more or less atypically un-poetic. But aside from the new fictional realms intimated – or, rather, promised – by their work, the novel per se has contributed little to Arabic literature since the 1990s. Its function has been to transport the achievements of the prose poem to a place where they are safe from being attacked for making a clean break with the ‘Aroud. Higazi suffered censure for his pre-modern stand.
But someone has yet to attack the novel for identity theft.
In retrospect, notwithstanding the Age, extensions across or within, many have come to see free verse as an involuntary stopgap. It was the means for a verse-dominated culture to ease itself away from the ancient drum beats of the desert and the twinkle-twinkle cadences of a love song by Om Kulthoum – past the 1960s countless affirmations of and arguments with the aptly named ‘amoud (pillar) of traditional verse – and into an image-driven, down-to-earth music all its own.
Like many facets of Arab modernity, it seems, the free verse revolution was half-hearted and timorous. It could not be effective until the liberation of language and emotion that it implied was carried to its logical conclusion. But when eventually, at last, it came time for people to realise their poetic modernity in full, they ended up going on stage to an all but empty auditorium. Still, they performed anyway.
By the 1990s, in occasional publications like Al-Kitabah Al-Ukhrah and Al-Garad, incandescent talents like Iman Mersal and Ahmad Yamani were reinventing language. They de-ideologised discourse, de-nationalised human concerns, and acknowledged their (post) modern identity in genuine rather than authentic registers.
Accepting bare-headed status, they no longer wore the fez of free verse, much less the turban of the ‘Aroud. But it was hard to prove that, in taking these off, they had not slipped on Ataturk’s self-hating hat behind Higazi’s back. What can only be described as ancestor worship came in the way of Nineties Generation poets being immediately recognised or celebrated.
So did the insecurity of taf’ilah gurus suddenly realising that their role had not been quite as “historical” as they had thought, and that their insurgent energy may in fact have been reactionary.
Anyway, by then talented Sixties Generation writers like Ibrahim Aslan and Mohammad Al-Bisati – precisely by debasing narrative – had contributed to the loss of what little readership existed when they emerged on the scene. Themselves arguably frustrated prose poets, they excelled at short stories but caught the germ of obsessive novel disorder.
Now that the readership seems to be regrouping (around them as much as younger so called novelists), the Nineties prose poem – the only true agent of change – is the farthest from being a beneficiary of the good fortune.


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Cairo, culture, conquer

President Gamal Abd ElNasser, the second presi...
Image via Wikipedia

Letter on status

mother of cities and seat of Pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad regions and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the halting-place of feeble and mighty… — Ibn Battuta (Gibb)

Cairo means ‘conqueror’; it is female. Every night she dreams of being herself, every morning she wakes up alienated. Pondering over the city’s fate I am reminded of canonical Arab and Arabized scholar-writers (examples I’m thinking of range from the 10th to the 15th century), for whom the words for ‘essay’ and ‘epistle’ — also ‘book’— were one and the same. The role of Cairo, a central destination on their frequently Maghreb-to-Mecca itinerary, strikes me as the kind of notion that might interest them. She seems the right subject for a letter, anyway: rather than the inevitably false claim to impartiality, the city elicits a subjectivity both particular and prescribed. An epistolary subjectivity: involuntary postmodernism. A letter is intimate and specific, and yet those writers were encyclopedists and synthesizers: generalists in the most efficacious sense. Aside from their occasionally confessional tone, their object was never private. They saw the world whole, and it was the wholeness of that vision, not the integrity of their texts, that excited them. They were spokesmen for the unity of reality, but they wrote rather like pen pals addressing their patrons, sometimes each other, never unduly concerned with standpoint, seldom self-consciously artistic. They conveyed knowledge geographically, which means that they spread it individually over a collective surface: the Arabic tongue, the Koranic rhetoric that underpinned it and an unyielding commitment to truth. It also means that, while they sustained a classificatory compulsion, their sense of detail remained paramount.
Rather than a temporal, linear arrangement, they assayed a spatial, non-sequential scattering: precisely the mode of progress I am proposing here—a medieval-style ‘letter’ on the status of the City (no longer so) Victorious.


For Arabs everywhere Cairo is geographically central—as much in the physical as in that wider, conceptual sense, posited in contrast to the historical, which is not only temporal and linear but makes a more persuasive case for the city’s name—yet since the 20th century, and I take this rightly or wrongly to be the principal historical framework of the present, her significance has derived largely from numbers. (I maintain the affectation of personifying Cairo as a woman; let it evoke a wrinkled whore!) Egypt is significantly smaller than its cartographic representation, due to both the positioning and the density of its human habitation, and within that smallness—since AD 639, at least—seethes the greater smallness of its unequivocal and tyrannical hub. (So much so that, in Arabic, all through post-Arab Conquest history, Egypt and Cairo have often been confused in the reference to masr (misr in standard Arabic), with the more predominant occurrences denoting the city.) Outside of Cairo, Egyptians complain of being marginalized, something that has come to be known in government-supported cultural circles as ‘the predicament of the provinces’; but in perpetuating the conviction that nothing happens anywhere else, in feeling deprived and seeking fortune in her ‘bounty’, it is the alleged victims who contribute more than anyone to the centralism and arrogance of the city.
In this connection it should be stressed that Cairo has been subject to an unrelenting process of de-urbanization since 1956, when the migratory waves began to converge on her following the greater freedom of movement imparted to the fellahin—in a spirit of both ‘nationalism’ (later, and more importantly, nonalignment-style ‘socialism’) and ‘nationalization’—abandoning agriculture, deserting civic fronts: the postcolonial fate which the Arab states, themselves colonial inventions, have one way or another shared with the rest of the so called Third World. It was in those times, paradoxically, that Cairo’s role as Arab capital was fervently emphasized. At one point, with the declaration of the United Arab Republic in 1958, the notion might even have sounded viable; for, of course, it is totally absurd to speak of a capital—however ‘cultural’ its designation, the concept of a capital city is political in essence—when the larger demographic entity in which it occupies a position of prominence is but a loose conglomerate of nations of dubious sovereignty, with very emphatic (and, for the vast majority, largely impenetrable) borders separating one from the other. (Note the ease, the sheer legitimacy with which an Israeli citizen passes into Egypt, compared to the Arab holder of Palestinian papers—for example.) Cairo looks down, muttering cliches about the Palestinians being selfish and unreliable.


Most will now claim that Arabness is a myth, shunning it in favor Islam or some other form of pragmatic globalism—whether dominant (like Bushism) or submissive (like Ladenism), so to speak—which will be invariably bound by the atavistic and universalist imperatives of the millennium’s incredibly narrow political spectrum. Certainly, some degree of fragility remains inherent to the concept in the light of political experience; the terms ‘pan-Arabism’ and ‘Arab unity’, at least, are always on the verge of implosion, as if by merely uttering them one is instantly replaying the Lebanese Civil War, recalling the 1967 War, underlining the Gulf nations’ wholesale defection to a mode of pan-Americanism.
Arabness as a cultural condition remains profoundly geographic—as opposed to historical—a trait complicated further by the fact that it is quite simply interesting, especially in the first decade of the millennium, for something to be called Arab. ‘Interesting’ implies, above all, plurality: it means more things to be Arab than it does to be communist, for example, or even modern.
One thing it does not mean is that the subject should consider Cairo her cultural capital. In fact inter-Arab chauvinism—Bedouin vs. Hadar, Mashreq vs. Maghreb, Umawite-Levantine vs. Abbasid-Gulfie: all are as much intellectual as psychological divides—may well be at the root of inter-Arab strife; and in this context the imperialist divide-and-rule volley can travel incredibly far, as has been demonstrated time and again over the decades. (Witness, once more by way of example, the recent history of Sunni-Shia strife in Iraq, the effect of the US ‘liberation’ of the country on the escalation of that strife, and the ideological—for which read, in effect, tribal—substance of its drive.) The fact that, through cinema, then radio and eventually television, Egypt had for a long time dominated the audiovisual media—it is this, and the country’s location, that explain the currency of Egyptian Arabic, compared to other dialects, in both Mashreq and Maghreb—has often made other urban Arabs (Beirutis, for example) deeply resentful of Cairo, eager to point up both contradictions and disappointments as they claim a position of leadership for their cities. Cairo shrugs, laughing shrilly as she thrusts forward her cleavage: she knows that no other girl on the market has been around for longer, none will ever have as many clients.



Still, Egyptian chauvinism is arguably the worst of all; after the blatant fact of political segregation, it is the complacency and corruption of the Cairenes’ own sense of identity that forms the first obstacle in the way of the city actualizing her potential as Arab cultural median. (Nasser, the first truly Egyptian head of state and Egypt’s only true champion of Arabness, delivered his speeches in a combination of broken standard Arabic and dialect, breaking with a tradition that had maintained a level of linguistic proficiency in formal contexts in the wake of the 19th-century battle against the official imposition of Turkish on Egyptian—also, by general consensus, Arab—life, especially in the military, where Nasser was a corporal.) This chauvinism manifests in an infinity of registers, many of which have only the most contingent connection with other Arabs, some of which have to do with postcolonial self-hatred a la Frantz Fanon, and a few, a very few of which hark back to pre-Conquest times.
One of the latter, I believe, is conservatism, colored by both inflexibility and stasis. Much has been made of the rise of religiosity in Egypt in terms of both (potentially militant) political dissent and (middle-class) social attitudes. The truth is that, while their Wahhabi and consumerist registers may indeed be recent developments, ritual piety, sartorial modesty, ageism, nepotism and classism—the mainstays of Egyptian public life—are as old as the Pharaohs; they do not occur with the same incidence in other Arab states; and they have negative implications for the theory and practice of culture. It is possible to see 20th-century sociopolitical phenomena that have a bearing on cultural life as expressions of this ancient trait.
Nasser’s Soviet influence, for example, has made for a legacy of both police-state security and inefficient bureaucracy. This means that, among many implications for culture, outdoor gatherings are outlawed; it means that writers and artists are often also civil servants, with their loyalty to the establishment, the only available source of money and kudos, overruling the creative impulse. But outdoor gatherings are hardly sanctioned by city-dwellers themselves, unless they have to do with religion; and a place in the official hierarchy, to a far greater extent than artistic accomplishment outside the popular media, is the gauge by which the vast majority—including police personnel—will judge a person they do not know. It also means that, when a young blogger receives a prison sentence for speaking his mind about Islam, his parents are the first to support the move and disown him. State, religion and family suddenly put aside their differences and become one, alienating the individual beyond any hope: this is Egyptian. Together with xenophobia—a condition less of history per se than of cumulative lack of access to information—it makes for an unsafe and inhospitable cultural space. Cairo smiles sheepishly, concerned and slightly ashamed: she gathers her bundle of tatters, adjusts her makeup, and leaves…


There are now in Egypt three means to the production of culture: a nepotism-ridden ministry suffering all the symptoms of a formerly socialist dictatorship and inextricably linked with similarly afflicted government and pro-government bodies; a commercial sector prone not only to profit-making constraints but, more importantly, to censorial intervention from the official, the religious and the family establishment—as in the case of the blogger; and an ‘independent’ sector with roots in the NGO scene, frequently subject to the same patterns of conservatism as the other two. Of the three only the latter, however, is eager to maintain links with the rest of the Arab world. But there are indications of the meaning of Arabness in all of them, whether positive or negative. Rather than showing that Cairo is or isn’t cultural capital, two examples of these should give an idea of what is involved in saying that she is:
Ellimbi. Star comedian Mohammad Saad’s cult figure Ellimbi, who first appeared in his late peer Alaa Waleyeddin’s 2000 film vehicle Al-Nazir (Salaheddin) but found fuller expression in Saad’s subsequent, eponymous vehicle of 2002, is among the most eloquent metaphors for urban dispossession in recent Arab culture. Ellimbi is illiterate, a drunk-druggie and a thug—all of which, as well as reflecting socioeconomic deprivation, are occasions for comic interest and laughter: a powerful statement about the contemporary inner-city Arab living in a country of relative stability and struggling with unemployment and official oppression—but his most compelling attribute is the way he speaks. Together with Waleyeddin, Mohammad Heneidi, Ahmad Helmi and, to a lesser extent, Hani Ramzi, Saad is part of the cinematic phenomenon I have tentatively named ‘new-wave comedy’, which, though it remains a wholly commercial development and in the process perpetuates rather than questions sociopolitical norms, has evidenced a comic sensibility distinct from that of the previous generation of Egyptian comedians, like the superstar Adel Imam, whose verbal antics expressed emotional responses to meaningful dramatic situations. In new-wave comedy, by contrast, laughter derives directly from such verbal antics, which in reflecting the development of the vernacular—the latest slang, the influence of satellite TV, the results of urban-rural and inter-Arab interactions—capitalize, rather, on the breakdown of language as a the principal container of meaning.
In Ellimbi such breakdown reaches an apex; though Saad has made a sequel, Elli Bali Balak (2003) and attempted a series of variations since, nothing compares to the power of the original, suggesting that, in Ellibmi, Saad had already exhausted the possibilities of this late-in-the-day figure of fun. In Ellimbi’s mouth, all the major components of the vernacular, both standard and dialect—love poetry, including the lyrics of classic Om Kolthoum songs; everyday sayings, proverbs, idioms and turns of phrase; exclamations and interrogative constructions; the platitudes and comforts of an entire society—are semantically and phonetically distorted, mispronounced, misappropriated, muddled and confused to the point of being meaningless; the situation is understood, and the characters’ position within it, but never through the ordinary (normative) operation of language; and the result, though funny—largely because laughable—can be profoundly unsettling. It is as though, in Ellimbi, the linguistic frailty of Nasser’s speeches reaches its ultimate conclusion, reflecting a parallel process of disintegration that afflicted society in the half century separating the two popular figures (however incompatible they look at first glance): the suicide of the spoken word; the death of collective meaning insofar as it can be verbally communicated.
Amkenah. The flowering of the nineteen sixties, quickly cut short by 1967 and the return of both conservatism and unchecked capitalism under Sadat, gave way to a deep rift in reader-writer relations. Since then serious poetry and fiction have not had the benefit of a readership to speak of, partly because they were increasingly inaccessible, partly because fewer people were interested in books. It wasn’t until the mid nineteen nineties that a new current in prose poetry—subsequently igniting more novel(ette)s than diwans, but also informing a much wider range of scriveners from less self-consciously ‘professional’ novelists to journalists, diarists, humorists and political analysts—opened up the parameters of literature somewhat. In this regard nonfiction seems to promise rather more than ‘literature’ as it is currently understood by the vast majority of creative writers: fiction and poetry; and it is Amkenah (Places), the occasional magazine published from Alexandria since 1999, that demonstrates this. An initiative of Alaa Khaled — himself not only a nineties prose poet but, since he is based in Alexandria, technically also ‘a writer of the provinces’ —the magazine showcases the widest variety of nonfiction texts, sometimes interspersed with or accompanied by monochromatic photographs or archival extracts.
In so doing Amkenah has managed to become financially self-sufficient—a genuinely unprecedented feat; Khaled, refusing to align himself with the so called independent scene, the only funding option available to him, has had to produce the magazine from his own pocket, overseeing its Cairo sales in person. Amkenah—openly defiant of Cairo’s centralism, and thus a modest precursor to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—must be Cairo’s best-selling literary publication—paradoxically enough—which says an amazingly great deal for the appeal of nonfiction in Arabic. Nonfiction, arguably the most lasting consequence of the nineteen nineties’, as it were, breath of fresh air—seems to be freeing literature from the tentacles of obscurantism and ‘sophistication’, finally. It is a slow process, but it is ongoing and gathers advocates by the day. The influence of Amkenah has certainly been felt throughout the literary scene, and it is gradually reaching other Arab countries by way of Cairo…


Mixing her (non-alcoholic) cocktail, the old whore listens in silence. She is consumed by a passion of remembrance but will not divulge her grief. At the street corner she gazes at the billboard of Mohammad Saad’s latest film, ignoring a book stall where Amkenah is stacked to one side, dusty and obscured. It is sunset and she must find work: she sniffs after expensive eau de toilet; she listens hard for non-Egyptian cadences of speech. Then she crosses the streets in hurry, paying no attention to traffic lights, strutting her tired stuff.

this piece published two years ago in Magaz, the design magazine

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Booker in The National

Zaki Nusseibeh in his library
Image via Wikipedia

Contenders for ‘Arabic Booker’ aim for shortlist

Alison McMeans

ABU DHABI // Sixteen books are in the running to make the shortlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2010, it was announced yesterday.

Works by authors from 17 countries including the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman were submitted for the competition. However, no UAE piece is among the 16 books up for consideration for the final shortlist.

The award, founded in 2007 and often referred to as “the Arabic Booker”, showcases the best of contemporary Arabic literature.

Zaki Nusseibeh, an IPAF trustee and the vice chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, said: “The previous two winners – Bahaa Taher [2008], and Youssef Ziedan [this year’s winner] – have joined a long list of Arabic literary greats.”

Joumana Haddad, the IPAF administrator, said: “It is so rewarding to see how the prize is already changing our cultural scene, by increasing book sales and encouraging translations.”

The final shortlist and the judges will be announced on December 15.

Each of the six authors on the shortlist will receive US$10,000 (Dh36,700), with the winner getting an additional $50,000.

Six Posters and Found Poem








Nailia Kulieva (found poem*)

I am Azery girl.
I am single without children.
I am 22 year old,
born in the 4th Februar
1978 year.

I have a small height: 1.46,
I am looking for the man
not higher then 1.70.

My weight is 48 kilo g.

I live in Azerbaijan
in Baku city.
My profession
operator telephonist.
I know Turkish and Russian.
Now I am learning English
and writing with help of translater.

I am romantic, tender, kind,
sometimes a bit capricious,
sometimes a bit shy.
But always very faithful girl
to my dear man.

I like housekeeping very much.

My proposal is marriage.
I want to meet the man
from 27 till 40 year.

*Personal ad on site advertising girls from Eastern Europe for marriage

Strangers in the House

A growing body of literature attempts to transcend the antagonistic narrative of Muslim encounters with the West. But these revisionist histories, Youssef Rakha writes, still pit ’us’ against ’them’.

The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
Andrew Wheatcroft
The Bodley Head

When Philip Mansel’s delightful portrait of Ottoman Istanbul, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924, was published in 1995, the Serbian genocide of Muslim Bosnians had reached a new pinnacle in Srebrenica, the Iraq disarmament crisis was escalating after Saddam’s son-in-law, who ran the country’s weapons development programme, defected to Jordan, and the EU signed a Customs Union with Turkey, which was already a candidate for membership.

Here were three apparently unrelated examples of the interface between East and West, each saying something different about the possibility of a clash or a dialogue or a marriage of civilisations: they were like grandiose Muslim rumblings in the stomach of the post-Christian order.

Mansel’s anecdotal narrative of the rise and fall of the House of Osman in Europe touches on the Balkans, the Arab world and European colonialism, but it does not concern itself with Muslim-western relations in the present day. Mansel is impressed with the cosmopolitanism and the multicultural norms of the Ottoman polity, but he does not seem to register the connection between the end of Ottoman rule on the one hand and the decline in the unity and authority of Muslims on the other.

Amazingly, it took 10 more years – spanning September 11 and its ongoing, bloody aftermath – for a Turkish-speaking westerner, Caroline Finkel, to produce the first authoritative contemporary history of the Ottoman Empire in English, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. By dispelling misconceptions about the savagery and lethargy of the Turk, by stressing the role of tolerance and pluralism, this long overdue annal of Ottomania made a critical contribution to the popular but ineffectual Arab attempt to “wipe the filth off the face of Islam” after September 11.

Yet for Arabs – at least until the 1990s – the thesis that the Ottomans were abusive colonisers was taken more or less for granted: Ottoman injustice has been a basic tenet of Arab nationalism since the First World War. In the popular Arab imagination, the Ottomans were vain and ruthless autocrats who plundered, tortured and suppressed Arab national aspirations. The post-2001 idea of a Muslim insurgency threatening the supposedly liberal western status quo was enough to invite a revision of the Ottoman era among Arabs – if not westerners. But lately western historians have turned their attention to the Ottomans to make sense of Islam’s encounter with Europe, a dangerous rite practised in a startling range of historical loci from Al Andalus to Israel.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s recently published take on that rite of encounter is neither partisan nor reductive, but it falls slightly short of transcending the very them-and-us approach it sets out to debunk. The author of Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, Wheatcroft is at the cutting edge of an essentially retroactive genre of history writing that has gained momentum since the turn of the millennium. (Not all history is retroactive: it may reinvent the past, but it need not do so directly in response to the present.)

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In The Enemy at the Gate, Wheatcroft focuses on the Ottomans’ second unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683 to analyse not only Europe’s fear of the Turks but also, as Wheatcroft declares, fear itself. Wheatcroft says he wanted to tell this story to show up statements like that of the former European Commissioner, the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, who said that if Turkey joins the EU, the liberation of Vienna will have been in vain.

Bolkestein’s statement follows in the western (and Arab nationalist) convention that saw the Ottomans as foreign invaders. The belief is that, where Ottomans existed in Europe, they did not belong there. Yet it was in present-day Greece that Ottoman power was first consolidated towards the end of the 14th century. On taking Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II proclaimed himself sultan i rum – heir to the Byzantine emperor. His eventual successor Suleiman I had among his titles “Caesar of all the lands of Rome”.

Suleiman was universally regarded as the most pre-eminent of European monarchs, having secured his hold on Rhodes, the Balkans and, by defeating King Louis II of the Order of the Golden Fleece, much of Hungary and Bohemia. He may have been despised as a Muslim, but he was no less western for being so. Though relative upstarts in Europe, Muslims had controlled significant parts of the continent, on and off, for many centuries; the notion of western versus Muslim that we so readily embrace today was neither current nor very tenable.

The House of Hapsburg, to whom members of the Order of the Golden Fleece owed allegiance, were elected Holy Roman Emperors in 1452, less than a year before Mehmet took Constantinople. So it is hardly surprising that the Ottomans should target their capital, Vienna – not only were the Hapsburgs the rival imperial force in central Europe, they were also the 15th-century heirs to a position (instituted by Otto the great in 962) that directly challenged the Ottomans’ claim to be Rome’s successors.

The Ottomans first attacked Vienna in 1529; scholars still debate whether the failed siege was an attempt to expand the empire into Western Europe or simply a gambit to secure the Ottoman hold on Hungary. Unlike the 1683 siege, Suleiman’s failure to take the city was not entirely disastrous – it involved no definitive defeat, and some historians believe he did not seek to take the city in the first place, but simply to demonstrate his supremacy all the way up to its walls. The next few decades demonstrated that Vienna was logistically if not militarily beyond the reach of the Ottomans, and for many years campaigns never went as far.

Mehmet IV, who was crowned at the age of seven and spent most of his reign hunting, was the first Ottoman to hand over power to the Grand Vizier – giving rise to the common error of confusing the Sublime Porte, a reference to the vizierate, with the Sultan. Mehmet’s ascension, though it brought an end to a period of instability within the House of Osman, coincided with military advances among the Ottomans’ rivals; no longer was the devlat i aliye, or Sublime State, at its magnificent peak.

The first of two Viziers under Mehmet IV, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha – founder of the great ethnically Greek Köprülü dynasty of effective rulers – waged successful European campaigns against Poland, Venice and Romania. But his successor, Kara Mustafa Pasha – an adopted son of Köprülüs, to be succeeded by Fazl Mustafa Pasha, a true Köprülü – failed to carry on the good work.

Supporting Imre Thököly’s Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule, Kara Mustafa failed to take into account the alliance between the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and the King of Poland, John III Sobieski (who commanded the imperial forces against Kara Mustafa) and other Catholic leaders; he misjudged the Ottomans’ client states of Moldovia and Wallachia, and crossed the Crimean Khan of the Tatars, whose forces would have been instrumental to an Ottoman victory.

A two-month siege culminated in the routing of Ottoman forces and a weaker position in southern Hungary, and on December 25, 1863, Kara Mustafa was executed in Belgrade on orders from the Janissary commanders. It is said that the croissant was invented in Vienna in the wake of this battle, its distinct shape intended to celebrate the Austrians’ victory over those fearsome bearers of the crescent flag.

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Factually, Wheatcroft could have summarised these events in a single chapter which, placed panoramically at the start, would have given him the chance to justify his seemingly arbitrary choice of close-ups and show how they might fit together to support the view that, notwithstanding wars, atrocities, and exclusive claims to the divine, Muslims and Europeans (including Jewish Europeans) remain part of the same, croissant-eating humanity.

But here as in Infidels, his earlier study of Enmity, which covers broader territory, Wheatcroft fails to recognise Muslims as part of the fabric of European history, opting instead for the traditional view that they remained, within European reality, an intrusive and scary other. At the deepest intellectual level, he seems to bolster, rather than undermine, Bolkestein’s statement.

This is not Wheatcroft’s intention, but where Enemy at the Gate is concerned, his task is complicated by the difficulty Finkel so impressively managed to overcome: that the Ottomans were too multifarious, their conflicts and alliances too changeable, their organisational structures too complex, and the causal chains informing any one point in their history too many and interlocking to yield a single well-supported argument.

Unlike Finkel, who walks a consistent tightrope to maintain her grand narrative without compromising ambiguity and detail, Wheatcroft frequently and somewhat fitfully switches his wide-angle lens for a macro. He spends more time on the subsequent Habsburg conquest of Buda, for example, than he does on the glitch in Ottoman-Tatar relations which very possibly perpetuated the Ottomans’ defeat at Vienna on September 12; he gives short shrift to Sultan Mehmet IV’s reign; and fails to present Kara Mustafa’s failure in the wider context of Ottoman decline – a slow process that had only just begun.

One wonders to what extent Wheatcroft’s failure to include Muslims as native agents of the unfolding of European history is typical. In recent years a whole army of historians have applied themselves to the task of advancing western-Muslim comity by retelling episodes of conflict and exchange. Their object seems to be to make events like the Balkan conflict, Turkey’s bid to join the EU and Arab discontent with the West less potentially disturbing.

But in grounding the present in a past previously distorted and neglected, in seeing the past through the often narrow tunnels of the present, few of them have managed to shed the notion of a division essentially separating them from the Muslim world.

In God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (also published in 2008), David Levering Lewis, by contrast, makes the fascinating claim that what we think of as the West would never have emerged as a whole entity had it not been for the influence of, and conflict with, the Arabs and Berbers of Muslim Iberia. This goes beyond the notion – recently reiterated in books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons, Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely, and The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy – that Al Andalus (or, indeed, Ottoman Constantinople) was a haven of religious tolerance, ethnic intermingling, and scientific and humanitarian advance.

Few will question the argument that, if not for the Spanish Muslims’ transmission of learning all the way from Baghdad into Europe, the Renaissance could not have happened. But few ask what – beyond questionable economic benefits – makes the Turks so eager to be Europeans today, or why it is that so many Muslims are oppressed, disinherited, even mass-murdered under the present, western order.

Lewis stands out for proposing a credible integration, as opposed to a curt acknowledgement, of the rite of encounter. Muslims are not simply, as Wheatcroft suggests, Europe’s antagonistic but morally comparable peers. Instead, having been the superior other whom we (Europe) managed in time to outdo, Muslims are us.

The latter argument makes a far more convincing case for the hypothesis of a single civilisation readjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But since the consequent insights are reflected in neither policy nor attitude – look at the various phenomena of Muslim immigration to the West and you will see just how disparate and unequal the alleged two sides remain – perhaps all that the retroactive history is doing is dealing with Western fear of Islam, not as a contestant in the making of civilisation but as an agent of insurgency, retrogress, chaos.

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