Mainstream margin

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Last week Youssef Rakha lamented the sameness of the cultural press in the wake of revolution; this week he unpacks the role of that press as the morally superior Margin to an alleged establishment Text
It has been less than four months since the interim government of Essam Sharaf took charge and, true to form, intellectuals representing the supposed margin (of dissidence, of freedom, of whatever happens to be unlike or alternative to centres of money and power) are already assessing the performance of Emad Abu-Ghazi’s Ministry of Culture, questioning the presence in its ranks of former members of the NDP or its attempts to accommodate Salafi pressures through censorship, forgetting that the NDP and fundamentalist Islam are far more representative of the society in which they live than they could ever hope to be, and still possessing not a clue on how to achieve what they have always taken to be their raison d’être – transforming that society.
Intellectuals are doing so, for example, in the dedicated publication Akhbar Al-Adab, which, following a drawn-out, post-revolution strike against a corrupt editor more like a pro-government journalist (for which read civil servant) than an intellectual, is now edited by Abla El-Reweini: a triumph for all concerned but a development, ironically, that maintained the pre-revolution status quo of a small-circulation, progressive weekly subsidised by a gargantuan, more or less reactionary establishment (Akhbar Al-Yom). After some 50 years of ineffectuality, abolishing the ministry of culture altogether seemed not only the wiser but also the more revolutionary decision.
Yet the proposition found little support among the universally pro-revolution intellectuals themselves – and cultural circles by extension. It seems the intellectuals, like their counterparts in almost every field of endeavour, were eager to resume their usual role: that of disgruntled observer of official culture, which presupposes the existence of the latter. It seems they too could not wait for life to go “back to normal”. What is strange about this is not their impatience with the prospect of chaos, with temporary or partial unemployment and logistical, financial uncertainty. It is their failure to see the revolution as an opportunity for revising their perspective on culture itself: what it means to be an intellectual, what counts in a political position, what is the point of having or being part of a government-controlled institution…
For a decade following the “first independence” of 1956, big ideas about national consciousness and a state for the people did support cultural practises as part of a totalitarian system whose credibility came into question with the 1967 defeat. However, with the onset of anti-nationalist nationalism and mafia-style capitalism under Sadat, Egyptian culture – for a brief spell, an effective arm of the state – very quickly devolved into sporadic literary and audio-visual phenomena that have existed outside or in spite of corrupt and by now wholly superfluous institutions.
(Superfluous to the point of no longer even serving the regime that squandered public funds on them: from within another small-circulation, relatively progressive weekly subsidised by an even more gargantuan and reactionary institution, the revolution has made it possible to ask whether the decision by the former editor in chief of the daily Al-Ahram Ossama Saraya, a few months before the revolution, to Photoshop the figure of Mubarak from the back to the front of a small group of heads of state in a universally available wire picture before publishing it – the notorious “expressive intervention” scandal – actually served Mubarak’s interests.)
The failure of the Sadat regime to live up to the promise of freedom and its wholesale adoption of the Cold War strategy of endorsing political Islam to fend off the communist threat – just as idiotic, in the end, as Nasser’s non-alignment or pro-Soviet strategies of pan-Arab nationalism – resulted in the phenomenon of the “marginal” intellectual (i.e., the intellectual who did not openly pander to a regime she knew to have no legitimacy) as “the conscience of the nation”.
In the light of the isolation of both culture and power from an ever more underdeveloped society and so in the absence of the nation itself, the conscience of the nation is an interesting concept. The conscience of the nation critiques a construct, and in so doing it enters into a power game with fake representatives of (Arab, or Muslim) identity. Culture turns into an airtight system of shifting alliances and ongoing conflicts, personally driven and materialistically substantiated. The cultural margin becomes a steganographic part of the text of the regime not half as different from the society it rules as Akhbar Al-Adab would have us believe, a text – or a muddle of pious bureaucracy and incompetent profiteering – no longer really being written.
The marginal intellectual’s role before as after the revolution is to cling onto the moral high ground, critiquing the failure of said regime to undertake its national responsibility to a sublime thing called culture. But there can be no moral high ground in the absence of morality, nor does true culture – whether state-supported or spontaneous – emerge in isolation from the flesh-and-blood, dust-and-exhaust fume reality of which it is part. Neither nation nor culture can ever be very clearly defined in a police (or military) state where ideologies and counter ideologies, whether nationalist or Islamist, have eventually revealed themselves to be mere sloganeering.
Under Mubarak, Islamists (Salafis) were systematically unleashed on society in return for staying out of politics. The Ministry, headed for over 25 years by the former intelligence agent and abstract expressionist painter Farouk Hosni, turned culture into mega-project business closely associated with tourism and archaeology, by turns outraging and making outrageous concessions to Salafism.
Under Hosni the ministry totally emasculated an intellect like Gaber Asfour and totally abandoned one like the late Nasr Abu-Zeid, a potential and an actual victim of the “Islamic threat”, respectively. It siphoned money out of the country, like every other stolid ministry under Mubarak. In the systematic attacks on its abuses by the founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, the novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (who has called on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-standing defence minister and the head of the Higher Military Council, to assume the role of absolute ruler for a period of three years following the revolution), it found a shadow ministry with sufficient cover to make intellectuals feel they were active agents of a living culture, up against something they should be up against, owners of the moral high ground.
Yet now as before it is as if what must by definition be creative and organically rooted practise can be judged on the same terms as health care, for example. Now as before even intellectuals who recognise the bankruptcy of slogan-driven and populist consciousness are unable to let go of their role as the mirror image of a monster that does not really exist, or one that exists only insofar as they themselves allow it to.
The socio-cultural critic, which is the closest thing to what the Akhbar Al-Adab intellectual is or should be, is still at the receiving end of an intention emanating from an establishment that has proven, again and definitively, both culturally and morally hollow, paper thin, a vomit bag of un-things. Not only does this arrangement undermine the rebellious individual, it also turns the margin into a cog in the machinery of the very text it sets out to oppose – in the present case, and despite all the noise on both sides of the unreal divide: silence.

Al-Ahram Weekly

Cry my beloved poetry

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

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

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


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

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Sharh Diwan Zikri

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شرح ديوان ذكري

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Sharh Diwan Zikri

Reading novelist Mustafa Zikri’s new collection of essays, Youssef Rakha follows the example of several canonical works on the great 10th-century poet Abu Al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, all titled Sharh Diwan Al-Mutanabbi or The Elucidation of the Diwan of Mutanabbi

Yawmiyyat (A diary)

At first, this sounds like a misnomer for the numbered pieces making up the latest book by the novelist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966), Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’: Yawmiyyat (On Tiptoe: A Diary), published by Dar Al-Ain last month. Though initially circulated on Facebook as entries in an ongoing diary of some sort, the pieces comprising Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ read less like the pages of a journal than the occasional work of a cultural columnist. Zikri’s stated formal ambition was to eschew if not actively attack the predominant, established genres, notably the novel-cum-novella that has been his preferred medium (in recent years, as he points out, the novel has increasingly become the alpha and the omega of literary endeavour in Arabic). He also wanted to relax the iron fist with which he maintains the “literary purity” of his work, guarding the gold of true art from possible intrusions by the lead of politics or society (both the metaphor and the subsequent quotes, unless otherwise stated, come from a recent interview by Mohammad Shoair).

Yet the more you think about Zikri’s work, while you read, the more sense the subtitle yawmiyyat makes. By the time you turn the last page you are convinced. This book offers precisely the kind of material you would expect to find in the diary of a writer like Zikri: fragmentary meditations on literature and film, ambiguous encounters only marginally connected with whatever real-life experiences they recount, philosophical formulations of no clear import. Entries are as carefully constructed, often as open to interpretation, as poems. And – most important of all: what sets Zikri apart from almost every other Arab writer, in fact – the texts are truly self-referential, with the movement of a passage tracing an expression or a word, not what that expression or word refers to. Narrative reduces to a sort of semantic aesthetics, the protagonist to an idea suggested by a particular turn of phrase. Ironically this tendency is clearer than ever now that Zikri is no longer consciously exercising control. Could anyone expect anything more tangible or intimate from the yawmiyyat of Mustafa Zikri?

***

I thought I was the kind of writer who, measured against his writings, lives a life of paucity at the level of the body and the soul. I think of Borges and Pesão and Dostoevsky… (1.)

While Zikri regards any link between literature and reality as a threat to the purity of his art, it is in fact references like this one – and the sweeping statements tending to go with them – that take away from his credibility. There is definitely room in the world of Arabic writing for quasi-postmodern theorising, however self-centred or contemplatively indulgent. But surely in the context of a novella like Hura’ Mataha Qoutiyyah (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth, 1997), it actually undermines “purity” far more than the hypothetical inclusion of social-political commentary, properly contextualised, when the narrator consciously compares himself to Borges: a celebrated genius from a decidedly different culture and one, it might be added, whose relevance to what that narrator is doing is at best obscure. The problem is not that Zikri may be a lesser writer than Dostoevsky. It is in the directed-ness, the apparent artificiality of the kind of westward looking elitism he endeavours to cultivate – the classicism of his ambition constantly in contradiction with his essentially deconstructionist approach. His slim volumes are invariably fragmentary; insanely reworked and polished, but inconclusive.

They are also practically solipsistic – in their failure to engage with the world (a failure for which the attempt to substitute the world for Great Literature, i.e., in effect, modernism and art-house cinema, does not make up). Only on reading Zikri’s yawmiyyat, in which he condescends to discuss his likes and dislikes, to engage with the politics of culture or mention a fellow Egyptian writer like the dentist and best-selling author Alaa El-Aswany or his own former mentor Edwar El-Kharrat, do you begin to appreciate what kind of writer Zikri is. Others – most, I would say – openly seek context and connection, communication. He claims to seek the least contact possible, the smallest number of readers, the company of gods – like Kafka, like Kawabata – who according to him never mix with the rabble. The irony is that it is the rabble-like qualities of his standpoint as a Third World writer that form the substance of his work, informing even the way he interprets Great Literature. Hence the deconstructionism, hence the aversion to politics (a quality Zikri shares with his generation of literati, who are still reacting to the excessive politicisation of literature all through the 1960s and 1970s); hence also the preemptive despair of ever having a readership of his own beyond “the professional reader, the writer and the half-writer”. (It strikes me now that in his systematic self-assuredness, Zikri does recall Al-Mutanabbi, not only arguably the greatest Arab poet of all time but also, famously or notoriously, the most conceited.)

***

I have always been… subject to the signal to start working… which requires me to be completely devoted and constantly ready to receive [it] whenever it might come… (17.)

Few writers have dedicated as much attention or energy as Zikri to analysing the discontents of their creative process – the nature and magnitude of the emptiness just beneath the surface of their texts. Here as elsewhere in his writing – notably in his last work of fiction, Al-Rasa’il (The Messages, 2006) – Zikri spends time on what might be termed negative productivity: the writing that has not happened, or is yet to happen, but will perhaps never happen. He narrates and describes the state of being idle and homebound in anticipation of (and in deference to) literature.

As piece 34 in Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ demonstrates, Zikri’s negative productivity makes perhaps the most convincing case for an existential perspective on the human condition in contemporary Arabic literature. Contrary to his own, noncommittal claims, it resonates far beyond what he recently described to the journalist Ola El-Saket as “those little things which the other writing,” the engaged, energetic writing that aims to change the world, “assumes to be of no consequence, the small details that recur every day and which some of us take for granted”. Zikri’s dilemma has universal relevance: “34. Preparing and arranging, creating an atmosphere, took me a long time, and though I was unemployed on the pretext of waiting for the appropriate moment, that waiting itself was fuelled only by a long time wasted, which I mostly described, with much effort and work, as an inappropriate moment, or at least an inappropriate moment on the way to becoming an appropriate moment.”

This kind of thinking generates much needed humour in an otherwise cerebral and dry book. It also goes to show that Zikri is not as solipsistic as he might seem. At least he is aware of the irony inherent to his own narcissism, and not too scared to apply it to himself. We write about what we know best, and all that Zikri knows is sitting in his home thinking about writing; that, along with whatever else his literary anxiety happens to latch onto, is what he will write about.

***

At the start of the film The Sacrifice by the director Andrie Tarkovsky, Alexander, the hero of the film, asks his son to help him plant a dead tree on the shore of a lake… (27.)

In piece 27 as in numerous other pieces, Zikri – who, working with the filmmaker Osama Fawzi, wrote two of the best Egyptian films of the 1990s – endeavours to rewrite world cinema. Not that the novel/novella format prevented him from indulging his love of film in the past – his 1998 novella is entitled, after Fassbinder’s celebrated film, Fear Eats the Soul – but the greater opportunities presented by an “absolutely flexible medium” like yawmiyyat gives him more scope for focusing on particular scenes or techniques – in Hitchcock, in the work of the French New Wave directors, in Tarantino, Bergman – not so much to discuss this or that aspect of a film or a director as simply to see a given cinematic moment from a new and one might say literary angle.

The influence of film on fiction is a huge topic beyond the scope of this Elucidation, but Zikri’s screenwriter’s insights and his intensely individualist taste act to highlight the way words on a page can recreate and totally alter a scene already lodged in the reader’s memory. These pieces seem to reverse the tendency, suggesting new writing that can influence the way we see film. It is as if Zikri, by reference to another medium, is actively showing his reader that the strength of literature is no longer about telling a story but rather about a particular way of seeing or engaging the senses, different from but just as effective as the more predominant audiovisual medium.

Later on in the book, in the course of his bitterly sarcastic critique of Aswany’s Yaqoubian Building (2002), piece 45, Zikri says almost as much: “Yet it is enough for the physician Alaa El-Aswany that a reader with no connection to the novel genre can easily read The Yaqoubian Building, relying on his experience of newspaper reading and oral tale-telling that everyone possesses by virtue of birth, community and homeland. It may seem to the reader that watching the novel through the medium of cinema does not deprive him of penetrating to whatever is deepest in Yaqoubian. Since the novel has irrevocably divorced the tradition of style, there is then no need for reading.”

***

While the pastime appeared to have to do with free time, it actually had to do with the meaning of life. (39.)

Zikri is ostensibly speaking of “the satellite and the computer and the telephone”, initially “promises of something else, more serious” which he approaches as pastimes “within the frontiers of the house”. But here as elsewhere in this remarkably diverse book, he is also intimating a holistic world view, an idea of human existence as a totality of experience only usually available through philosophy or poetry. It is in this sense perhaps that Zikri might be compared to Borges, despite the incomparably more articulate demeanour and learned background of the latter. Though unlike Zikri Borges has a healthy awareness of context, he remains one of a handful of modern writers the world over who communicate such a sense of the totality of existence with the utmost economy of means. In many of the pieces in this book, Zikri’s tight, profoundly thought out constructions evoke the connection between the short, quasi-narrative text and the prose poem – another thing Borges manages to do, even though the great Argentine, once again unlike Zikri, wrote poems which he presented as such.

The one major difference between Zikri and Borges – between Zikri and most writers of Borges’s – is the latter’s capacity for antagonising his readers, often by overwhelming with unnecessary references. Borges in particular was known to say that, unless one is writing a scholarly monograph or a work of science, a text should always be appealing enough for the reader not to have to exert any effort reading it. More Joycean than Borgesian in this respect, Zikri cares little for the enjoyment of the reader. In fact he sets out to antagonise “the reader with whom I have no connection”, the rabble representative for whom there is no room among the gods, or so he says. And yet in most instances – in spite of himself? – Zikri produces an eminently enjoyable text. Is this yet another intractable contradiction presented by his work?

***

And in this world in which all truths stand against each other on an equal footing, meaning becomes an adventure, an endless game of mix and match. (49.)

Nowhere else is Zikri’s idea of literature more eloquently expressed (literature being an inclusive term that also covers philosophy and film, the two subjects in which he earned degrees, as well as the life of the writer, the writer’s “style” or way of using words, and perhaps also the human condition). It is not as eccentric an idea as he makes it out to be. Romantic and postmodern in equal parts, the notion of writing as a sublime but ultimately meaningless game echoes in the widest variety of contexts, from Wittgenstein to Orientalism. The fact that Zikri refrains from formulating it, never saying more by way of justifying his chosen profession than that it is “a private pleasure”, is hardly surprising.

The disorienting combination of Third World postmodernism and puritanical Great Literature reflects the contradiction between Zikri’s thoroughly fragmentary, deconstructionist method and his all but classical outlook. Far from undermining the credibility of his work, it is perhaps this very contradiction, negative productivity – and the incumbent rejection of any possibility of popular recognition or “success” – that makes Zikri, all things considered, among the most important writers working in Arabic today.

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منصورة عز الدين

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من يعرف سر الفردوس

“ترجل أربعة رجال من العربة مرتدين عباءات سوداء فوق جلابيبهم الكشمير، وفتحوا الباب الخلفي. أخرجوا منه جسداً مغطى بملاءة بيضاء، وحملوه صاعدين السلالم.”

بتماسك يستحضر المشاهد الأقوى من ثلاثية “الأب الروحي” لفرانسيس فورد كوبولا، استثمرت منصورة عز الدين – منذ “متاهة مريم” (2004) – تراثها العائلي في إعادة اختراع العالم: فجرت علاقة بنت الريف بالمدينة بعيداً عن أي فرضيات مستهلكة حول “الأقاليم” أو “المرأة”. وبإلغاز لا يستتبع ضعفاً في التركيز، عرّت كل شيء – الجنون، الموت، الأنوثة – دون أن تكشف سراً واحداً من أسرار نصوص أشبه “باللاڤا لامپ”، ذلك الفانوس البيضاوي الذي يسخر الكهرباء، لا للإنارة، بل للتلاعب بالضوء الملون.

هذه هي “كتابة السر”، كما سماها الناقد محمد بدوي إثر قراءة قصص كتابها الأول، “ضوء مهتز”.

واليوم، على خلفية الأقدار المتقلبة لصناعة الطوب وما استتبعته من تجريف الأرض الزراعية في دلتا الثمانينيات، يتسع مجال التداعي من منامات قاهرية مستجدة إلى ذاكرة كاتبة محبطة لطفولتها في العزبة والبندر، من جرائم القتل الحلمية إلى الفجيعة الواقعة وفقدان البراءة وعفاريت الأحباب الغائبين: في “وراء الفردوس” تتبلور قدرة منصورة عز الدين على بناء شخصيات حية ورسم الخطوط العريضة لمجتمع متمايز، مقترحة معاني غير تنويرية للوعي التاريخي وأسطورة القرين.

وبرغم المبالغة في الانضباط الأسلوبي (على حساب خصوصية صوت الراوية، أحياناً)، برغم التعدد المربك (أحياناً أيضاً) للشخصيات والحواديت، وبرغم أن تجاوُر مختلف المآرب الأدبية لا يبلغ دائماً غاية الامتزاج العضوي، تنتج منصورة عز الدين كتابة محبوكة، عميقة، سائغة، خالية ليس فقط من شوائب الذات (النسوية) وإنما كذلك من تهويمات المحيط (الريفي). بلا تعقيد مجهد أو ادعاءات “علمية”، تتجاوز “وراء الفردوس” القرية “الإدريسية” وإنسان “الأيام السبعة”، “حكاية” حنان الشيخ ومثلية صبا الحرز.

تتجاوز حتى الهوية الوطنية والجنسية، وتهمش بطلتيها حاملتي تلك الهوية، لتجوب فضاءات – مثل كاتبتها – تكشف دون أن تبوح.

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يوسف رخا

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Maryam and the Minotaur

Last week at the headquarters of her new Cairo publishers, Dar Al-Ain, Mansoura Ezzeddin read from and signed copies of her second novel, Wara’ Al-Firdaws (Beyond Paradise), a sort of psychological thriller and Bildungsroman rolled into one. Comparing the new book to Maryam’s Maze, her 2004 novel, translated by Paul Starkey, Youssef Rakha spoke to Ezzeddin about her work, her life and the overlap between the two
Though she published only three books in nearly a decade, Mansoura Ezzeddin (b. 22 March 1976) has maintained a high profile on the literary scene since she graduated from Cairo University in 1998. She is the books editor at the most popular cultural weekly in the country, Akhbar Al-Adab, where she got a job in the same year. By 2001, though already married to a fellow young writer whom she also met there, her first book, a collection of short stories titled Daw’ Muhtazz (Trembling Light), was published to acclaim from a battalion of former teachers, mentors and admirers, including well-known figures like critic Mohammad Badawi, novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (the editor of Akhbar Al-Adab), even the late philosopher Mahmoud Amin El-Alim. In the next two years Ezzeddin would go through both pregnancy-birth and the death and dying of her mother, experiences she would lugubriously internalise and eventually, from 2002 to 2009, transform. Working every day, however little the time left her after both job and small family are paid their dues, she draws up character sketches, composes dream studies, and occasionally develops a text into a short story – which she might subsequently use as a chapter in a novel.
Correspondences are frequent and at least once, in the course of writing Maryam’s Maze, Ezzeddin had all but given up on resolving one particular complication when she realised that one of her early short stories provided her with exactly the narrative development she needed; she simply had to insert that short story unaltered for the novel, apparently unrelated, to flow exactly as she had envisaged it. Correspondences could also occur between literature and life, in equally unexpected ways. Ezzeddin recounts that, during her mother’s last days at the hospital, the woman “to whom I owe absolutely everything” often asked about her writing. “The idea of me writing pleased her,” and so, despite the mayhem that consciously prevented her from doing it, at the hospital she would take out her old notes and exercises and pretend to be working on those texts that had made her mother proud of her when they appeared in well-known newspapers and magazines. “After a while I realised that these short stories were actually developing into Maryam.” The slim volume, which makes up in intensity for what it lacks in extent, concerns a young woman, her close friend or double, and the large house of a provincial patriarch which, following the young woman’s move to Cairo, appears to her as a Labyrinth, its large and deeply intermingled cast of occupants – ghosts, dream figures, real people? – constituting a sort of Minotaur of the mind. And so there seems to be yet a third level of correspondence: paradoxically, while she consciously rejected myth, justifying Maryam’s visions with recourse to psychology, Ezzeddin was in fact producing a grassroots version of one of the world’s best celebrated myths, and feminising its hero.
Whatever else you say about it – and Wara’ Al-Firdaws could conceivably make you say something different – Ezzeddin’s writing emerges out of a place both mysterious and dark. For seven years now, while advancing her journalistic career and creating a home life sufficiently different from her family background for her to be at peace with, Ezzeddin has also been working through “existential questions, anxiety, discomfort, fear” – personality traits, she says, that have been with her at least since the unexpected, seemingly absurd death of her father when she was aged nine (which also explains her reading Camus and other adult books at an extremely early age). “They are basically to do with the idea of death,” these questions, “the idea of dissolution, breakdown. Not breakdown in the psychological sense, but the idea of this human constitution being on the verge of ceasing, at any moment. Termination,” she muses. “The whole thing coming to an abrupt end. A somewhat strange imagination,” she interrupts herself to chuckle. And it is at this point, no matter how much I object that her imagination is actually in no way strange, that Ezzeddin and her work finally come together for me. I have known her for many years and she has never struck me as capable of anything more disturbing than a whimper. Of all the fiction writers and poets who emerged in the 1990s, she comes across as perhaps the most psychologically balanced – quiet, hardworking, focussed. There is a kind of no-nonsense conservatism about her, a kind of respectability. This might explain the fact that, from an early age until eight years ago, she wore hijab – a fact she seldom mentions, and then only to say that it was an outward shift to do with her pilgrim’s progress from the countryside to the city, not with the substance of her relationship to God.
This, on the one hand; and on the other hand, her work: Never mind that the very premise of the Maze is a dream in which the protagonist seems to be knifed to death by her Doppelganger: a weird rite in which the latter dies equally graphically. In Wara’ Al-Firdaws a similar duo, Salma and Gamila, play out a puzzling relationship implying anything from schizophrenia in one or both of them to lesbianism; frighteningly rather than bafflingly, the precise nature of their connection is never stated. Aside from the two of them, however, there is at least one gory death, a series of encounters with the ghost of the dead man (notably sexual encounters with his as yet young attractive wife), and beatings. Despite her attempt to depict a whole world, her conscious marginalisation of Salma and Gamila, the sense of mystery, of the paranormal, of unaccountable powers interfering with irrational drives, is still there. Ezzeddin tells me that Badawi, whose lectures she attended at the time, coined a term for her earliest short stories: “writing the secret” (kitabat al-sirr). Each text seems to be a secret, a clockwork mini information system that, however multifarious, remains self-contained. Ezzeddin mentions, in this context, her debt to the horror film and her interest in the therapeutic effect of writing (Salma, who edits short stories for publication in a newspaper, starts writing a novel on the advice of her psychiatrist); she identifies imagination with fear. This is not everyday, realistic fear, which – in line with the impression Ezzeddin gives of herself – seems to be well under control. The fear that is at odds with Ezzeddin’s poise, which nonetheless comes through with amazing intensity in her books, is something far more primal. In her mind, she explains, fear of the dark (the childhood experience par excellence) takes on the deepest metaphysical dimensions. “You’d be surprised,” she says, “how basic my fears are.”

Set against the backdrop of the shifting fortunes of the brick making industry in the Delta in the mid-1980s – perhaps the first mention in contemporary Arabic literature of the otherwise oft-cited phenomenon of tagrif, which eroded agricultural land before the shift to concrete – Wara’ Al-Firdaws draws a much sharper distinction between the two settings informing Ezzeddin’s experience. First, there is the tiny village where, in the absence of basic public amenities, Ezzeddin enjoyed a nonetheless unusually prosperous upbringing as the spoilt but remarkably successful school child at the heart of an extended family so large and close knit, so conservative and so rich that her husband, on first being introduced to it, could not help comparing it to the mob in The Godfather. Secondly, there is Cairo, the infinitely larger place to which Ezzeddin’s passage – a hitherto unthinkable breach of tradition facilitated by her mother – gradually allows for a clear perspective on “just how strange and unusual this experience of the countryside really was”. The book began as an account of her mother’s life, a fictionalised biography not unlike Hanan Al-Shaykh’s Hikayati Sharh Yatoul (My Life, A Long Story) – whose publication in 2005 discouraged Ezzeddin from doing the same thing again – so she quickly gave up on this side of what she was already envisaging as a larger, intergenerational variation on Maryam, one that replaced the paranormal with “the mythology of the setting” and in which the central (dual) character had less of a role to play. “As always,” Ezzeddin says with conviction, “the work imposed its own logic.”

Partly because it contains more comedy and juxtaposes a greater number of stylistic registers, partly because it has a more definite social-historical reference point, Wara’ Al-Firdaws has already been hailed as more accessible than Maryam. Aside from widening the scope of her work without making concessions to the market, however, Ezzeddin had no intention of compromising her notion of what writing actually involves: a process of imagining, primarily out of that primal fear of sudden dissolution, people and places that resemble the world rather than referring to it per se. Here as in Maryam, consequently, almost every character in the book is imagined. “If people back in the village read Wara’ Al-Firdaws,” she insists, “no one would recognise anyone.” The process seems integral to Ezzeddin’s way of dealing with a suffocating environment, which has been very different from straightforward rebellion or insurgency, and reflects her view of herself not as woman writer but as a writer who happens to be a woman. She behaves like a virus, she says, working from the inside; she instils herself in the host – “the mafia” of her extended family – precisely in order to transcend it. And though outwardly her own life has been more or less conservative, she is careful to point out that she instituted a nuclear family (usrah), not an extended family or tribe (‘a’ilah). Like few writers of her generation, rebellion and transcendence have been matters of the mind; and she still dislikes any predetermined idea, however positive, being imposed on what she does: the Woman, the Body, the Provinces are all candidates; she rejects them all. At the most obvious level it is madness that she is really interested in, (in)sanity, “but it is not as if I studied psychology or apply it in any systematic way”. Even the Novel does not bind Ezzeddin.

It is something of a cliché by now to speak, borrowing critic Gaber Asfour’s expression, of the Age of the Novel, which has driven many an excellent short story writer and poet to switch genres. Having published Wara’ Al-Firdaws, by contrast, Ezzeddin is in the process of putting together a new collection of short stories. It is a form she loves, she says, a form both difficult and rewarding, and never separate from or in contradiction to the literary project her two novels have pursued. She has no doubt that her readership will engage with her stories just as enthusiastically, and though she would be hard pressed to identify the constituency of that readership, unlike many contemporary young writers, she distances herself totally from the discourses and debates of sales, popularity and what makes for a successful book. “People accuse serious writers of obscurity,” she says, “of looking down on readers. But who is to say that readers are less intelligent or less complicated than the writers? Who is to say that it is making assumptions about how much readers can understand that means looking down on them?”
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