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.

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حديث محمد فرج في السفير

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 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.

استمر في القراءة

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.

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Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

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.

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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.

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Disrupting the Narrative by Sousan Hammad

Arabian nights.
Image via Wikipedia

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.

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