Writing the North African Experience

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Centre for African Poetry: Let us begin by inviting you to humour our ignorance. The title of your 2011 novel is translated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, but we wonder which of the two names we have seen for it in Arabic is more accurate – khutbat al-kitab, or Kitab at Tughra?

Rakha: Kitab at Tughra is the title. Khutbat al-kitab means, literally, “Address of the book”; it’s a formulaic canonical phrase for “introduction” or “prologue”, which here and in old Arabic books doubles as a kind of table of contents; on the surface the novel is modelled on a medieval historical text. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the original sense of kitab, which is the Arabic word for “book”, means simply “letter” or “epistle”: every canonical book is addressed to a patron or a friend, and that’s an idea that is particularly meaningful to me.

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I finished your magnum opus [Kitab at Tugra] two days ago, with tears in my eyes, and I’ve been intoxicated since, in the most Faridian sense of the word. Among other things, no one (REPEAT: NO ONE) has ever written so wondrously about love and sex in Arabic the way you did in the last two chapters of the novel, i.e. — making the Arabic language make love as it has never done before. Ibn al Farid should feel so comfortable, and so privileged, and so sexy in your company. But that’s not your major achievement, No Sir. You managed to write a perfect (REPEAT: PERFECT) Arabic novel, on so many levels. Very few writers have done that, and to enter the Hall of Fame with a first novel is nothing short of miraculous. Your meticulous attention to what turns a text into a stunning novel is absolutely amazing, and your masterful control of all the aspects of your text is something that should be taught in writing programs. But above all, I think, your major achievement is in being what Foucault would call “a discourse initiator” — someone who single handedly changes a discipline, and in this case the discipline of the Arabic novel. You are my al Jabarti of the Arabic novel. — Anton Shammas in a private e-mail Continue reading

Tractatus Franco-Arabicus

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Reading Sonallah Ibrahim’s last two books, Youssef Rakha suggests an early Wittgenstein-style formulation of the kind of literary problem Bonaparte’s Campaign to Egypt might present
1. An Arab novel can be written about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801).
1.1. At first sight, this is perfectly self-evident: a novel in Arabic (or by an Arab writer) can be written about anything at all. But an Egyptian novelist writing about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, responding to a particular colonial legacy from the position of the colonised.
1.1.1. Bonaparte’s failed bid to take Egypt and Syria was intended to safeguard French trade in the Middle East and obstruct the British route to India. What it achieved was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the 22-volume Description de l’Egypte, as well as bringing the first print press into the country.
1.2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, a response to both the left-wing idea that the campaign abused Egyptians and the right-wing idea that it propelled Egypt, a nominally Ottoman province ruled by feudal Mamelukes, into the modern age.
1.2.1. It was in the wake of the Campaign, and at least partly as a result of it, that the Ottoman general Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849) founded the modern state of Egypt and Greater Syria, establishing not only a precedent for non-European modernity but also the basis of an Arab commonwealth in the Middle East, one whose energy and foresight initially made it a stronger world power than the Ottoman empire.
1.3. A novelist who has chosen to write about the Campaign will probably have political as well as literary motives.
1.3.1. Whether he agrees with him or not, it is likely that he will seek historical counsel with Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti (1753-1825), whose canonical chronicle, Aja’ib Al-Aathar fil-Tarajim wal Akhbaar (better known in English as Jabarti’s History of Egypt), remains the principal Arabic reference on the topic.
1.4. Already, these conditions moderate the notion of a novel considerably.
1.4.1. However else defined, a novel should remain fictitious, it should present individual characters in the process of change; it should make no concessions to a predetermined view of the forces affecting their lives.
1.4.2. The Arab novel as exemplified by its celebrated practitioner, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), has seldom had a political agenda. Even when it is intended as a statement on a historical period (Al-Karnak, 1974; The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), even when it is generically historical (Rhadopes of Nubia, 1943; The Struggle of Thebes, 1944), Mahfouz’s novel never presents history as a debate in which the writer might take sides (however representative or typical of that writer’s national identity the side he takes).
1.4.3. In this respect, Mahfouz follows in the footsteps of many 19th-century Russian and (ironically in the context of this tractatus) French masters of the novel.
1.4.4. To a greater or a lesser degree, younger (so called Generation of the Sixties) heirs of Mahfouz like Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937) were too morally or intellectually bound by historical grand narratives and political positions to practise novel writing with the same degree of political detachment.
1.4.5. Ideas of and about history affected these writers’ work to varying degrees, transporting much weight from the individual to the collective and from the shifting consciousness of a character in history to the fixed consciousness of the writer as a possible agent of historical change.
1.5. These ideas underpin what modification of the novel has taken place since Mahfouz. Apart from the more universal registers of Marxism, they have tended to converge on the image of an abused nation shedding the tethers of colonialism. Novelists like Ibrahim were, to use a word that did not yet exist when the Generation of the Sixties emerged on the scene, postcolonial.
1.5.1. In contemporary Arabic literature, “the Generation of the Sixties” remains an amorphous term, but with Ibrahim, at least, it is safe to define its significance in terms of a response to (the failure of) Arab nationalism, the earliest reflection in the language on what independence from British rule in 1956 and the emergence of a populist military dictatorship could mean for ordinary Egyptians.
1.6. Ibrahim’s standpoint will automatically favour the idea that the Campaign abused the people over the idea that it facilitated the emergence of Muhammad Ali’s commonwealth.
1.6.1. Its socialist dimension prevents him from sympathising any of the relevant historical parties – Ottomans, Mamelukes, French, British – since none of them can be identified with the people.
1.6.2. Its nationalist dimension precludes a positive view of the cultural intermingling and ethnic multiplicity those three years made possible even as he depicts them, since it prioritises the political significance of the event in them-and-us terms (the “us” in question being an undifferentiated and ultimately mute majority).
2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is likely to be written from a Generation of the Sixties standpoint.
2.1. This is because only a “postcolonial novelist” like Sonallah Ibrahim is likely to write such a novel.
2.1.2. A writer who is interested in neither the position of the colonised in general nor the French colonial legacy in particular – or one who is interested in these topics in a less prescribed way – cannot write such a novel without undermining basic precepts of Arab nationalism (in however sophisticated or watered-down a form these precepts may now be expressed) and in so doing he risks being called a traitor.
2.1.3. Such a writer is unlikely to find the subject of the Egyptian Campaign immediately appealing or directly relevant to the process of pronouncing fictitiously on contemporary Arab life anyway.
2.2. However disinterested in Jabarti per se, Ibrahim will peruse Aja’ib Al-Aathar to corroborate his standpoint. His novel Al-Amamah wal-Qubba’ah (The Turban and the Hat, Dar Al-Mustaqbal,2008) takes the form of a newly discovered manuscript – the secret diary of a fictional 18-year-old student/scribe of Jabarti’s who lives with the historian and works at one of the Campaign’s “scientific” centres in Cairo.
2.2.1. Somewhat too conveniently for comfort, and often sounding a far more modern note than would be expected of a person from Jabarti’s era, this unnamed chronicler has an affair with one of Napoleon’s courtesans, comes in close contact with the Coptic collaborators seeking independence from the Ottoman-Mameluke stronghold, and befriends the Syrian student Suleiman al Halabi – the assassin of Napoleon’s successor in Egypt, General Kléber – who will eventually be impaled on a stake.
2.2.2. Though he achieves a prose very like the 19th-century historian’s – creating a contemporary correlative of the relevant parts of the chronicle – Ibrahim reads Jabarti’s life and work with an agenda.
2.2.3. Jabarti, rather than being a source of inspiration as such, acts to bolster up a predetermined grand narrative in which the Ottomans (including Muhammad Ali) were holding back the people, and the French through a mixture of brute force and immoral guile exploited and abused them.
2.2.3. Jabarti himself becomes party to all manner of political scheming, hiding and replacing versions and/or parts of his own chronicle when he realises the Ottomans will replace the French as the Mamelukes’ conquerors of the day. (This is the moment directly preceding Muhammad Ali’s arrival as part of the Ottoman army.)
2.3. From a historical standpoint, as a student of Jabarti, it seems easy to contest this view of the genesis of the modern Arab nation. Yet it is equally easy to understand it – even, to some extent, sympathise with it – once Ibrahim’s standpoint is taken into account.
2.4. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different or less predetermined standpoint is to demand that he should not write about the Egyptian Campaign.
2.4.1. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different standpoint and still write about the Egyptian Campaign is to demand that Arab intellectual consciousness since the mid-1950s should change radically (that it should shed all vestiges of nationalism, for example).
2.5. Such demands are historically impossible.
3. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign can only say so much.
3.1. This becomes especially clear in Al-Qaanoun Al-Faransi (The French Law, Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2009), a kind of sequel to Ibrahim’s novel Amrikanli (Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2003) in which the Cairo University historian protagonist of the latter, Dr Shukri, travels to France to participate in a conference on the Egyptian Campaign with a newly discovered manuscript by an apprentice of Jabarti’s.
3.1.2. That manuscript is The Turban and the Hat.
3.2. That an Arab novel about the Campaign can only say so much becomes clear in The French Law in a number of different ways.
3.2.1. One of these is that, without the pretence of being an 18th-century history student who happens to be sleeping with a lover of Bonaparte’s, Ibrahim’s political observations are far more resonant.
3.2.2. “The reason for all the problems we suffer in the Arab world,” Dr Shukri tells his colleagues during a meal at one point in the course of his trip, “is that we did not manage to establish an advanced national industry. At the beginning the Ottomans divested us of the kind of human and material resources that go into the accumulation necessary for the move into the age of the machine, and after them came the French and the English. Every attempt we made, the West immediately aborted.”
3.2.3. It is beyond the scope of the tractatus to advance an argument against this line of thinking. Such an argument is not only possible but necessary.
3.2.4. If they are neither Mamelukes nor Ottomans nor quasi-Ottoman proteges of the West, who are the “we” Dr Shukri refers to? Where would that advanced national industry come from, if not through the very colonies he sets out to critique? What might modern Arab consciousness be identified with beyond the peasants who had no role to play in the unfolding of history except through an originally Ottoman army?
3.3. Here as in Amrikanli, Dr Shukri stands in stark contrast to both his morally (for which read politically) compromised Arab colleagues and the more or less racist Westerners he comes in contact with.
3.4. As in The Turban and the Hat, from the aesthetic if not the intellectual point of view, the clash between east and west is most poignantly portrayed in an interracial amorous or erotic encounter.
3.4.1. Dr Shukri’s encounter with Celine, who does community work with the children of immigrants, is a strong expression of that clash. The two characters’ growing closeness is melodramatically and somewhat unconvincingly cut short when on Dr Shukri’s last night in France Celine, who has by then confessed to having breast cancer, gets drunk, becomes increasingly aggressive, and gives in to a seemingly irrational rage directed at Dr Shukri.
3.4.2. Celine not only dismisses Dr Shukri’s statements on postcolonial politics as so much rubbish, she also confesses to hating the children of immigrants with whom she works. (This seems a somewhat crass way of dismissing Western pretensions to equality and the desire to benefit humanity at large, regardless of race or creed, even though one might understand the urge to dismiss such pretensions).
3.5. The Turban and the Hat ends with the image of Dr Shukri waking up at 5 am to prepare for his return to the homeland – only to find that copy of the conference programme on which he had written his address for Celine to have on the floor outside the door to his room.
3.5.1. “I picked it up to find a line in pencil beneath my address… ‘My response is precisely that you are a naive, backward human being.’ I put the programme in my handbag and proceeded to the lift with heavy steps.”
4. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign cannot go beyond that image.

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On wasta for The National

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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One flew over the Dhakla oasis

THE NATIONAL

After a few hours, Youssef Rakha writes, the presence of djinns seemed wholly unremarkable

Eight months ago, my London-based Egyptian friend came home to carry out the field-work component of his doctoral thesis, which explores the assumptions involved in treating the mentally ill. All he needed was an isolated, relatively self-contained spot where there was no modern psychiatric care. So, rather than learning a new language on top of everything else (the endless required literature reviews, etc), he decided to return to his home country.

For posterity’s sake I should say I am speaking of Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: frustrated astronaut turned orthopaedic surgeon-in-training turned disgruntled psychiatrist turned, finally, philosopher and doctoral candidate. Mohammed had always liked the Western Desert. And so, like the old caricature of the Colonialist desperately in search of nutty Natives, he set off from Cairo to research all five of its oases. Eventually he settled on Mut, the capital of Dakhla – according to him “the most baseline”, the most typical and unremarkable of all, and of course without a single psychiatrist to its name. The idea was to live there on and off for six months, researching how the local approaches to madness – exorcism, for example – measured up to the western status quo.

I wanted to fly out to see him, but only return tickets were available, and the flights were a week apart. I couldn’t be away that long. In time I accepted that a 12-hour bus journey was my only option. Which is how my story begins …

Madness is fascinating. But so was Mohammed’s description of Mut – named after the ancient mother goddess, but otherwise devoid of links to ancient Egypt. He described it to me in paradoxical terms: an urban community of subsistence farmers; its people of neither Nile Valley fellahin ancestry nor Bedouin stock. Many of the city’s residents, Mohammed told me, trace their ancestors to Suez, an origin so unexpected it might as well be Mars. Others claim Arabian, even Ottoman descent. They share a distinct lack of interest in the world beyond their little city, along with an encompassing belief in the power of djinns.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but these details must have gone straight to the exoticism antennae on my head. An insular community where the supernatural enjoys a stronger-than-average presence in the collective psyche: my voyeuristic, rationalist neurons were buzzing, informing me of my superiority, readying me for some kind of exotic encounter extraordinaire. By the time I arrived at the newfangled Cairo Land Port, I was feeling slightly guilty. Surely I should be suffering the 12 hours in solidarity with Mohammed, who complained of isolation and boredom every time he called me – not looking forward to indulging in some complicated Orientalism.

I had barely made it to the platform when I noticed a podgy midget in a Mao suit eyeing me with an unsettling mixture of curiosity and contempt. Though I already knew the answer, I walked over and asked him how long it takes to get to Dakhla. After answering non-committally, he launched into a sort of cross-examination: where was I from, where exactly was I going, what for, who with, for how long, why? Finally he stepped abruptly away with forced politeness – only to go on giving me sidelong glances for as long as I remained in his sight.

Over three days at the town’s central cafe – Mohammed’s centre of operations – I saw for myself that it was exactly as he told me: everyone did in fact believe in invisible, fire-based djinns who wander the town speaking Syriac, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that has been extinct for centuries. These djinns, it seemed, could do anything: from snidely controlling your thoughts (paranoid schizophrenia) to shrinking themselves down and lodging themselves in your prostrate (erectile dysfunction). Within a few hours of my first day, I had heard enough about them that their presence felt perfectly ordinary, mundane, unremarkable. It did not strike me as particularly strange that bachelors live in fear of wedding-night impotence caused by a supernatural “knot” commissioned by their enemies, tied by some evil “sheikh” who knows all the fail-proof hexes by heart.

Other, less mystical things perplexed me more. Why did people in Mut, unlike most anyone else in millennial Egypt, love Bollywood films so much? How did they not realise that the childish violence broadcast by World Wrestling Entertainment is all staged? And why did everyone I met apart from Mohammed’s few friends give me the same look I got from the midget in the Mao suit at the bus station? Divine retribution, perhaps: for the three-day duration of my stay, the remote Orientals taught the Cairene Orientalist that they distrusted and despised him more than he could ever mystify or objectify them.

The look trailed me everywhere, from the cigarette kiosk to the town’s sole kebab restaurant, in the dark, empty internet cafe with straw seats so shaky and uncomfortable you could barely sit on them, on sleepy street corners and in bustling corner shops. It identified me as precisely what I was: a westernised Cairene dissatisfied with bland Egyptian food, the discomforts of my filthy one-star hotel, the lack of activities beyond worship and shisha, the absence of women from social space, the hopelessness of culture and art, the insularity – the terrible, terrible ordinariness of life.

In the end only the Asian-looking straw hats on the heads of farmers – utterly unlike anything traditional anywhere in Egypt – struck me as in any way noteworthy. The landscape was no doubt distinct (even in autumn, daytime heat was unbearable), but the streets themselves looked so indistinguishable from a Nile Delta town that whenever I went out for a walk I headed reflexively for the nonexistent corniche. And talking expansively with Mohammed (there was nothing else to do), I came to see just how badly he had been disillusioned as well.

Mohammed hoped that spirit possession might turn out to be a partially viable alternative or supplement to the increasingly prevalent biomedical model of mental illness. Then the “sheikh” who was providing him with information, a Tramadol addict continually using needles on his own arms, came up with a new method of exorcism, one inspired by Mohammed’s modern medical presence: instead of beating his patients up, splashing them with water blessed by the Quran or simply breathing the verses onto their head, he would henceforth write the relevant verses on paper in gazelle’s blood, then soak that paper in tap water, then inject the possessed with the resulting solution.

A handful of madmen roamed the city freely – well fed, muttering about djinns, occasionally solicited for sex. But the truly memorable characters in Mut were the same ones you might encounter anywhere. On my last day, one of Mohammed’s case studies, a lost soul in his mid-fifties, approached our table at the cafe, looking more or less presentable. Everyone invited him to join in for a drink, but he did not oblige. Instead he stood there with a tortured expression on his face. “You want me to sit with you, do you?” he said. “How many cockroaches are you?”

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Not just a river in Egypt

originally written for The National

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, my colleague would not compromise her integrity.

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

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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؟

http://www.scribd.com/doc/25761835/Youssef-Rakha

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حوار سوسن حماد على مدونة بيروت 39: ترجمة

Dialects in the Arab World
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تعطيل سرد القصة او دقائق من وقت القاص: مقابلة مع الكاتب يوسف رخا

ولد يوسف رخا في مصر في العام 1976. بدوي مرتحل بطبعه, درس الإنجليزية و الفلسفة في بريطانيا, عمل في مصر و عاش في بيروت, و أخيرا إستقر في أبو ظبي ككاتب في اليومية الإنجليزية “ذي ناشونال”. بدوره قام بإجراء مقابلات مع بعض أهم الكتاب و الصحافيين العرب المعاصرين للطبعة الإنجليزية من الأهرام الأسبوعي: منهم رواة و ممثلون و سياسيون لا يقلون حنكة في رواياتهم. قدم الكاتب أعماله بتأن و دقة و منطقية حيث يعطي القارئ فرصة التوصل الى إستنتاجه الخاص بعيدا عن انحيازات الكاتب.

ينهي يوسف حاليا روايته الأولى “كتاب الطغراء”, و التي قال عنها في مدونته بأنها “إستحضار خيالي للقاهرة بعد عام 2001 و تأملات في إنحدار الحضارة الإسلامية”. دعونا إذا نخوض في عقل يوسف رخا فنستكشف عالمه.

كتبت في الشعر و القصة و ادب الرحلات كما كتبت التقارير الإخبارية و المقالات: تعد إذا كاتبا ذا اوجه متعددة. ماذا يحدّ من مقدرتك حسب رأيك؟

أسس الكتابة هي ما يقيد الكاتب, و لكنها رغم ذلك مهمة للتمكن من الكتابة, هي بمثابة الاوتار التي يجب ان تبقى مشدودة للتحكم بتغير نغمات النص. و لكن اكبر التحديات هي بالطبع أن تكون كاتبا جيدا, كما قال ريموند كارفر على ما أظن: ليس ان تحكي ما يهم فحسب, بل عليك ان تتواصل. بالنسبة لي كذلك أن اوازن بين ما أريد قوله و بين ما يريد القارئ قوله من خلالي: شئ مشابه لما أقوله و مختلق في آن. من الضروري حفظ تلك المساحة في النص. الفكرة هي مط ما نكتبه حتى أبعد الحدود الممكنة بما في ذلك الاسلوب الإنشائي للجمل و إختيار الكلمات. و كاننا ببحث دؤوب عن شئ ما, نغمة ما أو إيقاع ما او وجهة نظر ما, شئ ما يخصنا و لكنه هادف في نفس الوقت. جنوني و لكنه معبر و بليغ, و هو ما ياخذنا الى إكتشاف محدودية اللغة و بيت الصيد هو كيفية التعامل مع محدوديتها.

بالنسبة لي فالشعر هو أكبر تحد لي و لو انني كنت أشد حزما لكرست نفسي له. كون اللغة العربية هي محيطي تجدني غير مكترث بجنس الكتابة. منذ مدة قريبة إكتشفت كلمات رائعة للشاعر العراقي سركون بولص تعبر عني تماما <بما معناه: أنه بالنسبة له فاللغة العربية تحاكي البحر بطبيعتها و تستطيع الإتحاد مع أي عناصر أخرى في محيطها الواسع, لذا فقد حان الوقت لنعامل اللغة العربية ككونها إحتياطي قومي او مغناطيس يشد بإتجاهه التأثيرات الأجنبية تماما كما فعلت في الماضي.>

منذ متى و أنت تكتب؟

نشرت اول كتبي في العام 1999 تحت عنوان “أزهار الشمس”, أنهيت يومها ما إعتبرته اول أعمالي المتكاملة و هو عنوان لقصة قصيرة كنت قد كتبتها عام 1997 و حمل الكتاب إسمها. كنت في العشرين أو الحادي و العشرين من العمر, و لكنني بدأت أكتب قبل ذلك بكثير. بدأت الكتابة باللغة الإنجليزية بشكل شبه حصري في العام 2000 ثم عدت للغة العربية في العام 2005 في كتابي “بيروت شي محل” و حاليا كتابة بعض القصائد باللغة العربية.

تقول فيرجينيا وولف بأن للرواية المقدرة على قول الحقيقة اكثر من إمكانية سرد الواقع. هل توافقها في الرأي؟

لا أعلم تمام ما المقصود بهذا القول. الخيال يدغدغ الواقع, أحيانا الواقع هو الخيال و الخيال هو الواقع. فوكو أشار الى انه ليس هنالك ما يعتبر الصدق\ الحقيقة المطلق\ة باي حال. هنالك العديد من الحقائق, و الحقيقة التي نجدها في الكتابة أهم من تلك التي نجدها في العلوم على سبيل المثال, او على الاقل أكثر صلة به. و من تجربتي الشخصية في الكتابة أرى بان الواقع يمكن ان يكون شائقا تماما كالخيال.

سأسرد لك بعض الأسامي و لك أن تقول لي من مِن هؤلاء ستفضل أن يرافقك إن كنت لتسكن على جزيرة نائية (سيريلانكا ما قبل الكولونيالية) على فرض بأن سكان الجزيرة الأصليون سيرافقونك.

جان جينيه أم محمود درويش؟

جينيه بطبيعة الحال لانني بالحقيقة اكره درويش, و لهذه قصة طويلة..

فرانتز فانون ام كارل ماركس؟

فانون. حيث سيكون لدينا الكثير لنتحدث حوله.

فيروز أم ليلى خالد؟

هذا خيار صعب. فيروز, إن كانت ستغني لي وحدي بالعتمة.

صنع الله إبراهيم أم إميل حبيبي؟

أتخيل بأن (حبيبي) سيكون ممتعا اكثر, إنني أعرف (صنع الله) شخصيا و لكنني لم أقابل حبيبي مرة في حياتي.

دافيد لينش أم مايكل هينيكي؟

لينش بالطبع.

خديجة أم أروندهاتي روي؟

تعنين بـ (خديجة) زوجة النبي محمد؟ أظن بأنني سأفضل وجود أروندهاتي بين السكان الأصليين.

وودي آلن أم لاوعيك؟

مرة أخرى, سيكون خيارا صعبا. أظنهما متشابهان الى حد كبير و لكن لاوعيي يتحدث العربية, و هو ما أفضل.

ابوك ام أمك؟

يا الهي! هل أستطيع ألّا آخذ أي منهما؟ أبي ميت, سأختاره لهذا السبب فقط.

إن إستطعت تغيير ما شئت في مدينة ما (بشرط إستبعاد و عدم إستنساخ السحر المصطنع لدول الخليج), ماذا كنت ستبني و ماذا كنت ستهدم؟

بإستثناءات بسيطة, سأهدم كل ما بني بعد عام 1800. و لكنني سابني خيما مستحدثة بتكنولوجيا عالية تحميها جمال أصيلة. ستكون الخيام بحجم مدن باكملها. و ستسرح الجمال في كل مكان.

أخيرا, ما هي توقعاتك بخصوص مهرجان بيروت39؟

تعلمين بأن جدلا واسعا وقع هنا في القاهرة عقب إعلان أسماء الرابحين. العديد من غير الرابحين أبرزوا إمتعاظهم و كذلك العديد من الكتاب كبار السن أعلنوا تحفظهم و تأسفهم (و هم ليسوا طرفا في المعادلة أصلا). لم تثبط هذه الأحداث من عزمي و لكنها جعلتني اتسائل عمّا تؤول اليه المنافسة في نهاية المطاف, خصوصا إذا ما فكرت في أسماء بعض الرابحين الذين لا أكن الإحترام لاعمالهم و مع ذلك فهم تواجدوا و يتواجدون في كل حدث او مؤتمر. هذا ما جعلني افكر جديا بمستوى النجاح الأدبي العربي. ماذا يعني النجاح الحقيقي و كم منه يعود بالنتيجة على نوعية الكتابة و كم منه يعود على تواجد شخصية ما؟ بالطبع هنالك على القائمة من الأسماء ما يملؤني فخرا بكوني مصنفا معها. هذا جزء مما أشعرني به تواجدي بالمهرجان, فقد وضعني وجها لوجه مع السؤال الصعب حول قيمة ما أكتب و تساؤلي حول كيفية قياس هذه القيمة.

بيني و بين بيروت رابطة قوية ربطتني بها لمدة أربعة أعوام, لذا فإنني متحمس لذهابي اليوم هناك ككاتب معترف بي. املي هو أن يساعدني المهرجان بأن اتخطى العقبة الدائمة و المهمة بالغة الصعوبة في تفريغ بعض الوقت للسفر و للكتابة من خلال صفقات إقامة أو نشر كتاب أو ما شابه.

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حوار إيمان علي في روز اليوسف اليوم

يوسف رخا: الكتابة طريقة حياة و… مهنة أيضاً

معجون يوسف رخا بالجنون الأدبي،‮ ‬يكتب شعرا،‮ ‬ونثرا،‮ ‬ويرسم أعماله،‮ ‬ويصمم أغلفة كتبه،‮ ‬ويعمل في الصحافة باللغة الإنجليزية،‮ ‬في كتابه الجديد‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬دعوة شمولية هذه المرة للتجوّل بعيني رخا في المدن التي زارها وأقام فيها،‮ ‬كان قد صرّح عن عزمه بإنهاء الكتابة في هذا المجال،‮ ‬يصحح بأنه لن يترك الكتابة عن المكان،‮ ‬لكنه سيغير طريقته في التناول‮: “‬انتهيت من الكتابة بتقنية تكرار العناوين والصوت الواحد المتحدث بأكثر من نبرة،‮ ‬لا لشيء سوي لأنها انتهت فعلا،‮ ‬و”مش هتجيب‮” ‬أكثر من ذلك‮”.‬

الكتاب الصادر عن دار العين،‮ ‬هو تجميع لديوانين وتنويعات علي نصوص شاردة بحسب وصفه،‮ ‬يكتب رخا في المكان عن علاقة العربي بالعربي‮: “‬ما يعنيني هو العالم العربي،‮ ‬لكن الغرب بشكل عام فهو حاضر رغما عني،‮ ‬أعني حضوره الثقافي المسيطر،‮ ‬لكن ما أطرحه هو فكرة العروبة كهوية ثقافية بكل تعددها،‮ ‬وليست العروبة بمنطق سياسي،‮ ‬أما في روايتي القادمة‮ “‬الطغري‮” ‬اتحدث بالأساس عن الهوية الإسلامية‮”.‬

يشرح رخا أن ما أراد تأكيده من خلال‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮”‬،‮ ‬هو كسر الحاجز بين الشعر والنثر،‮ ‬أو السرد كما يفضل أن يطلق عليه،‮ ‬والمراهنة علي التنويع في الأشكال والأجناس بدون إحداث ترهّل،‮ ‬بل علي العكس بإمكانه أن يكون متماسكا ويحقق التطلعات المرغوبة،‮ ‬بغض النظر عن القواعد الشكلية‮: “‬لا أشعر بمسافة بين النوعين في كتاباتي علي الأقل،‮ ‬لما لا نجرب أن نضع الأشياء التي تبدو متناقضة بجوار بعضها،‮ ‬وننتظر النتيجة،‮ ‬التي قد تكون في صالحنا،‮ ‬النص بإمكانه أن يكون متماسكا‮ “‬،‮ ‬من هنا يؤكد رخا أن التمسك والاتفاق عربيا علي قدم وأصالة الرواية العربية أمر‮ ‬غريب،‮ ‬رغم أن وجودها كشكل أدبي‮ ‬غير متأصل في التاريخ العربي،‮ ‬فالرواية في العالم العربي وفق رخا عمرها أقل من مائة سنة،‮ ‬وعلاقتنا بها مازالت في طور التكوين‮: “‬كثيرون لا يستوعبون أن الرواية كشكل ارتبطت بشرط تاريخي،‮ ‬فقد نشأت الرواية الكلاسيكية في روسيا وفرنسا القرن الـ19بمنطق التسلية،‮ ‬مثلها مثل التليفزيون،‮ ‬كان ينظر للرواية علي أنها متعة رخيصة‮”.‬

يقول رخا إن ما مكّنه من الكتابة عن مدن مثل بيروت وتونس أنها مدن صغيرة بالمقارنة بالقاهرة،‮ ‬بدليل أنه عندما قرر الكتابة عن تاريخ القاهرة جاءت الرواية القادمة ضخمة،‮ ‬وعموما هو يشعر بطمأنينة حسب قوله في ظل‮ ‬غياب مرجعيات كبري بخصوص المكان،‮ ‬مما يعني‮ ‬غياب الفكرة الكبيرة المؤرقة دائما‮: “‬ليس في‮ ‬غيابها مصيبة،‮ ‬أحيانا يحتاج المرء إلي التماس ولو حتي فكرة تافهة أو صغيرة‮”.‬

نرجع للحديث عن المشروع القادم،‮ ‬فيخبرنا صاحب‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮” ‬بأنها عبارة عن رحلات داخل القاهرة،‮ ‬وفيها تلامس مع الفترة العثمانية،‮ ‬وأنه اكتشف أن عدد الكلمات في أحد فصول تلك الرواية يتجاوز مجموع صفحات آخر كتابين له‮ “‬بورقيبة علي مضض‮” ‬و”شمال القاهرة شرق الفلبين‮”‬،‮ ‬والأهم من ذلك أنه اشتغل فيها علي درجة عالية من التخيل،‮ ‬صحيح أنها رواية عن التاريخ،‮ ‬لكنها‮ – ‬كما يري‮ – ‬ليست بحثا تاريخيا بالمفهوم الذي يتبعه جمال الغيطاني مثلا‮.

‬في هذه الرواية أيضا كعادته لا يتخلي يوسف رخا عن لغته المحيرة،‮ ‬المراوغة‮ ‬والموسوعية،‮ ‬يعترف رخا أنه خائف من ردود الفعل تجاه لغة الكتاب خصوصا في العواصم العربية المتأثرة بالثقافة الفقهية،‮ ‬وبالتالي تنزعج من العامية المصرية،‮ ‬والتي تسرد في الرواية كما يوضّح حكاية خيالية‮ ‬غير واقعية وغير عقلانية بالمرة،‮ ‬وتحيلنا تقنية الأسلوب الذي يستخدمه فيها‮ – ‬أتيح التعرّف علي أجواء الرواية من إيميل كان رخا قد أرسله عبر مقتطف من الرواية ليقرأه الأصدقاء‮ – ‬إلي الكتابات التراثية التاريخية لدي الجبرتي بالتحديد وابن إياس،‮ ‬يقول‮: “‬استوحيت من هذه مثل الكتابات تكنيك تركيب الجمل والتدفق وروح الشفاهية الأسلوبية وليست اللفظية،‮ ‬خاصة أن كتابات الجبرتي مثيرة بالنسبة لي،‮ ‬لا أحاكيها ولا أتناص معها،‮ ‬بل بإمكان القول أنني استحضرها وأعيد إنتاجها‮”‬،‮ ‬إلي جانب ذلك يذكّر رخا بفترة ابن إياس بالتحديد والتي كانت متهمّة بتراجع الأدب فيها،‮ ‬وهو ما لا يراه رخا ويناقضه‮: “‬كانوا يكتبون بأسلوب الصحفيين مع‮ ‬غياب مفهوم الصحافة وقتها‮”.

‬ بعد إدراج اسمه ضمن قائمة أدباء مسابقة بيروت‮ ‬39‮ ‬صرّح رخا بأنه يعيش مرحلة انتقالية في مساره،‮ ‬جعلته يلتفت إلي الأدب أكثر من ذي قبل،‮ ‬أسأله عن السبب،‮ ‬يحكي لي أنه إلي حد ما شعر بالتحقق علي المستوي الصحفي‮ – ‬التحق بهذا المجال منذ‮ ‬1998‮- ‬وقد شغله عن الكتابة الإبداعية لاعتبارات أكل العيش،‮ ‬أما بعد ذلك فيعتقد أنه انفتحت له مجالات للكتابة،‮ ‬لها علاقة بإحساس انتظار الناس لما سوف يصدره،‮ ‬يقول‮: “‬الكتابة طريقة حياة،‮ ‬ثم هي بالأساس مهنة،‮ ‬وبالنسبة لي كان مهما أن تمنحني شغلة الكتابة في الصحافة عائدا ماديا‮”.‬

c.v

مواليد‮ ‬1976

يعمل صحفيا بالأهرام ويكلي

يكتب الشعر

نشر له‮ “‬بيروت شيء محل‮” ‬2006‮- “‬بورقيبة علي مضض‮” ‬2008

‮”‬شمال القاهرة‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮” ‬2009

وكتابه الأخير‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬صادر عن دار العين

يعمل حاليا علي رواية بعنوان‮ “‬الطغري‮”‬

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Sky colours: Al Ahram Weekly, 2005

Youssef Rakha attends a disappearing funeral

photo: Youssef Rakha
photo: Youssef Rakha


The day Ahmed Zaki’s body finally gave in, there were several, simultaneous demonstrations downtown. For the entire morning and much of the afternoon, Central Security forces besieged the city centre.

It seemed peculiarly fortuitous that an actor’s funeral should be preceded by so much political angst, yet it was equally peculiarly apt. His phenomenal talent notwithstanding, a significant portion of the media and popular attention paid to Ahmed Zaki’s illness — and the ubiquitously sentimental anticipation of his death — was due to the place he occupied in the collective imagination, a place reinforced all the more by his decision to die playing the singing legend Abdel-Halim Hafez in the incomplete film biography Al- Andalib.

Abdel-Halim’s own funeral was an event of immense national import. The mouthpiece of both post-revolutionary middle-class romanticism and the nationalist-cum-socialist Nasser regime, he embodied qualities with which the vast majority of ordinary people could identify — dispossessed background, spontaneous warmth, personal dignity and, most importantly, a newfound sense of self worth.

And Ahmed Zaki’s had been a similar story, his most celebrated accomplishment being the ability to attain stellar status without possessing the looks (or incumbent associations of wealth and class) on which it tended to depend. Nor was he a comedian like Adel Imam, whose ability to induce laughter made up for lack of sophistication. He was rather an intuitive genius, and like both Abdel-Halim and Souad Hosni, his social-cultural identity (much as his dark skin, rough hair, Negroid lips and large, intimately melancholy eyes) made him a figure of speech — the irrevocably broken Arab dream of freedom and justice, by turns streetwise and dignified, powerful and scared to death, delightful and intimidating, but always attractive, heroic, frustrated — an image ordinary people could hold up to both lofty and quotidian oppressions.

Too bad that Central Security made it impossible for the said ordinary people to participate in bidding him a last farewell. If not for their intervention, perhaps the funeral would have been reminiscent of Nasser’s own — a swooping, all-encompassing multitude moving through the city as one body. (In the 1990s Ahmed Zaki had chosen to play his favourite president — a belated and partial embodiment of an identification that had perhaps been subliminally made — one confirmed, if also subverted, by both his subsequent performance of the role of Anwar Sadat and President Mubarak‘s personal interest in his cancer treatment).

Sadly political angst — or else the Ministry of Interior‘s typically terrified response to it — would have things otherwise. Once again, the sight of olive-green armoured vehicles and the interlocking arms of countless guards imbued the event with unsuspected irony. Rather than the loving expression of grief one would have expected, an angry stampede. Rather than a civil, star-studded march, a demonstration. And worst of all, no funereal procession whatever.

Throughout the area surrounding the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque — with every street blocked, guards venting sadism, officers by turns frenzied and in a stupor — it was individual gestures that gave the event form. True, people cried out in unison, initially demanding that they should be allowed to perform funereal prayers (a request that, out of fear for the safety and comfort of officials and film stars alike, fell on deaf ears).

They would later chant the ritual statement of the faith that always accompanies processions dispatching the dead, La Ilaha illa Allah, in a tone too furious, too determined to suggest grief. Some even took off their footwear and started hurling it at the guards, who had been shooing them away from the flower-wreathed vehicle bearing the body with fists and belts.

But one remembers, rather, the old, balding man in a worn striped suit, silver hair slicked down with Vaseline, importantly bearing a small, patched-up poster with pictures of both Ahmed Zaki and Abdel-Halim.

Likewise the irreverent old woman who, in response to the statement “The people want to pray” — made an innumerable number of times in the course of arguments with the guards — commented, “The people want aspirin.” Or else the renegade guard who vowed to his colleague, even as he stood sentinel, that he would let everyone pass, the quiet-looking girl who suddenly burst out crying, the small female voices that could be heard yelping as the car passed, speaking as though to a loved one, with genuine, precisely dramatised emotion, oblivious to everything: Ma’a esalama ya’Hmad (farewell, Ahmed).

The feeling was one of having been cheated out of a lifetime’s opportunity as the crowd changed direction, following the vehicle down Al-Batal Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Street, Mohandessin, and fast turning into a stampede.

Body parts and faces in close up, constantly changing. All you could do was look up, to the sky, the colour of which was kept changing as people gathered and dispersed, sweat mixing with dust, Central Security quickly regrouping, their job done. Not to sound too lyrical, the sky seemed to hold all the secrets, only the sky.

Yet it was with a heavy heart that one noted, much later in the day, how the people had again been dispossessed of one of their basic rights — to say goodbye to a symbol of their very dispossession.

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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.

cairo_1874.jpg

*

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.

cairo-metro.jpg
this piece published two years ago in Magaz, the design magazine

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