Death makes angels of us all: Fragments

Jim Morrison died on 3 July, as young as most of the casualties of the Egyptian revolution of 2011-13 (let’s assume it’s been one string of events for simplicity’s sake). Play a few Doors songs to honour him while you think of bloodied corpses and try as you might not to, at some point you will begin to picture the killers. And going through who they have been — police, military, thugs, honourable citizens, Islamists — you will soon end up blaming everyone and everything. Not without reason. While comforting at first, the discourse of martyrdom (and it has already been sullied in many ways and on various occasions) does not detract from the absolutely unforgivable horror of unnecessary loss of life. And while death of protest may not be exactly murder, it is.

The reason I’ve been thinking of Jim Morrison is that death of protest has been happening again recently, this time at the hands of Islamist militias or quasi-militias: totalitarian theocrats defending democratic legitimacy against Egypt’s second coupvolution in three years. Such Kafkaesque insanity is perfectly normal in Egypt. But second indeed: considering the army’s role in 25 January, there is no sane reason to set 30 June apart from that initial, equally military-facilitated uprising. Death’s made angels of some more young (and old) people — notably in the Cairo neighbourhood of Al Manyal and the Alexandria neighbourhood of Sidi Bishr – but this time it’s made murderous demons of a new and thus far “revolutionary” sect.

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The Hayyani Epistle: What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said after the events of 2011

What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.


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Indoors: Hipstamatic Tintotypes with a Poem

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For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?

Trans. Qisasukhra

Nine Poems in English, Illustrated

Out of the blue, which is occasionally a beautiful blue, a reader of Kitab at Tughra gave me an unexpected and very dear gift: nine of my poems in English, beautifully translated. By way of gratitude and to celebrate, I spent the evening making black and white, square format pictures with the poems at the back of my mind – with the intention of producing one picture for each poem. I think of Sargon Boulus as, truly moved, I post these texts with thanks and acknowledgements to qisasukhra


The Angel of Death gives counsel to a bereaved parent


Barely a minute and you tread with dimmed eyes:

Is your patience exhausted in a minute?


There is nothing in all the universe that will show you mercy

Nothing that will halt the saw’s stroke through your bones.

Sit a while

And do not tax me,

Don’t make your misfortune a plea to me

When you know

That I am under orders:

I bear on my shoulders Earth’s lamentations

A thousand times redoubled.

Do not assume that I possess the meaning of anything,

For when blood stains the asphalt

I see a dark blotch, nothing more,

Though I feel all that’s felt by you plus

All those like you.

I’m the one who keeps you company, moment by moment,

Unable to delight in your delight

Because I know your pain entire,

Even in your moments of acutest pleasure.

All I can promise you now

Is that when you look

You shall not find a trace of the dead one in the bed

And as a supplementary service from me,

You shall not find a bed in the room,

Indeed, there’ll be no room there,

And you will stand with nothing before you,

Nothing at all,

And all I ask in return?


That life is nothing but waiting for me,

Me, who grinds hearts utterly,

Not for a single moment spared

The sound of their beat.





For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?


The Angel (A god who renounced his faith)


You asked me what I would like to be in your eyes,

I said: God.

For a time I granted you favours and punished you.

Were you fleeing my grief, when you failed to tell me

That you had a cuckold Lord bestowing gifts upon you all the while?

How you could not accept my seal stamped on your brow

When you were so set on veneration?

And did you think creating you was such a little thing?

Son of a bitch,

Why let me plow when you meant to burn the fields?



The Angel (Your picture)


Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,

As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,

As though they had not arranged cuttings that float

In an inch of water which you made a sea.

Not your crooked leg among the runners

Nor your teeth clamped on the shoulder that carries you,

Nor a victim, naturally: You’ve never in your life been a victim.

Sleep, despising those you call “coherent”,

Believing that your feet tread a path you forged.

Don’t for one moment ask about the handful of dust

You are wont to throw in the faces of those that call you to account,

Staggered by the abuse; how vulgar it was.

Forget that your air is not your own, that you breathe

With an army of respirators, that you

Are like the moneymen: every step calculated.

You are a beast in your strength; you’re in demand…

Your contemporaries really are spiteful: you are resplendent with tragedy

A pioneering presence on every screen.

Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty

That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.

Pay no mind to the frame you put around your picture

Nor that once you thought it ugly. Pay no mind

To the fact your picture was ugly, ugly

Enough—once you’d framed it—to burn.



Coffee on the way back from the airport


When the light blinded us, I said to you: Morning’s taken us by storm

And you were muttering, your eye to the glass.

You said: The day’s come much quicker than I expected.

You said: Here is bad, but there is worse;

No. Here is worse than there.

You said: Although I… Although she… Although all these things…

I’m optimistic, then noticed that your coffee

Was no longer crowned with steam.

You were muttering, like I was a mirror or tape recorder,

Just an old container

That traversed the distance with you

Your eye to the glass, from which the night departed

With sudden harshness.

In the 24-hour café:

Another departure hall? The seats on their heads

Legs in the air and your strained face giving out

The same feel as the empty furniture,

The furniture they flip to wash the floor.

You were exactly like the airport:

You did not want to be up at this hour

Where the chairs are flipped and the officers yawn, disgruntled

As they stamp the passports.

You said: How do places get smaller!

You said: How many stamps and visas in my passport?

How many meaningful journeys?

You said: Perhaps life’s more fun south of the equator.

This is how you were muttering when the light blinded us.

I said to you: Morning’s taken us by surprise it seems

And you said: The day’s come quicker than I expected,

Much quicker than I expected.



A homicide


This heavy lamp with the tapered rim

Like a medieval instrument of torture.

Have you seen it squatting innocently between our beds?

(Thus spoke my friend who is staying with me in the room

Where the sea sounds like cars on the Corniche

And in the weave of the blanket I’m sleeping on

The memory of a lifetime spent between Cairo and Alexandria

On the rails.)

I will wait until sleep overtakes you (he went on)

Then raise it high in the air above your head

(And I tried remembering

Why it was we had to take the last train

After nights of unjustified sleeplessness

So that no sooner did we reach our room

Than each lay down on his bed

And there was nothing in the world to warrant waking.)

I’ll wait until sleep overtakes you (he repeated)

And screaming the scream of a suicide bomber on the brink of the deed

Will relieve my hand of the lamp’s weight, over your head.





For Ahmed Yamaani


A little before dawn I come out of the 24-hour café looking for a newspaper stand where I might find the magazine with my picture in it. I walk a long way through the pitch-dark streets and pass kiosks whose occupants I question, but I don’t find what I want. No one’s with me at the café: I left my laptop open on the table and in my bag hanging from the back of the chair are my house-keys and ID card. Even so, when a white taxi stops for me I get in next to the driver straight away and he drives the car down streets ablaze as if with daylight, though it’s nothing but the orange street lights that have proliferated to a terrifying extent. An hour or more goes by with neither of us speaking, then he stops in a place not pitch-black or ablaze and when I hand him the fare he opens his zipper and takes out his erect black cock. As though I had returned to the 24-hour café, I find myself in the midst of a group of young people, huddled in sixes or sevens around cars from which comes trance music, either talking to one another or standing silent. I feel they’re my friends, or that I’m one of them, but I’m surprised that we’re all males—not a girl or woman among us—and I recall that I haven’t seen a single woman, not in the café, not in the street, not even in my imagination. Then I catch sight of my bag, which has my house-keys and ID in it, on the shoulder of a munaqqaba who’s striding along on the other side of the street and the corner of the laptop’s poking out of the bag’s opening. I try catching up with the munaqqaba but she gets into a white taxi that stops for her and takes off and where I expect to see my picture in the magazine I find a picture of a naked girl who in no time is lying on the café’s table sighing, caressing my forehead, her cunt growing wet, as she says: “Isn’t it awful to be a man in this town?”


The claim


My thinnest girlfriends always complain

Of gaining weight, which confuses me

When I think of fat girls.

But then I remember

That I’ve never suffered from loving my lover,

Except when it provides a good excuse to leave her,

And I reflect that things are less important

Than they seem, if we look at them


Which eases my terror a little.

So I say to myself that the world is really like this:

The thin fear fat,

The fat love food,

Lovers never suffer for the right reasons

And everything does not ride

On everything.


Love (Marriage)


But you did not endure all this only to hear the terrible rap of a door closing and know how much you yearn to hide the thing before you, the awful thing that you don’t want to see. At this point, that which gives the world meaning becomes just part of the world, terror takes its own life and the same story ends or begins.


Poems by Youssef Rakha

Translations by (The text may vary slightly on qisasukhra, but there is no such thing as a final draft)

God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire


God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012

“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a’iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha


Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

I was a teacher;
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?

Translation © Youssef Rakha


The perils of commitment



Pending trial, the case of three “Salafis” who killed an engineering student in Suez reportedly after warning him against meeting his fiancée in public prompted the head of security of the Canal city to further—involuntarily—expose the Ministry of Interior. Early in 2011, following the stepping down of Mubarak, his former counterpart in Behaira had been filmed giving a pep talk to his team in which he said, “He whose hand is raised against his master gets his hand chopped off; and we [the police] are their [the protesters'] masters.” Outrage resulted in him being removed from Behaira—only to be promoted to a higher post elsewhere in the country. As a result of incredibly frequent cabinet reshuffles since then, the ministry has been through several different heads; although it had been the principal motive behind the uprising, it has seen almost no reform. Yet the present Suez incident—the first of its kind following President Mohamed Mursi taking office—reveals an altogether different facet of corruption within the ministry.
In his statements to the media, the official in question explained that it had not been the intention of the attackers to take the student’s life but only to injure him. He said words to the effect that, being “committed young men” (commitment being the catch-all term for religious fanaticism and, what is worse, the use of religion as a cover for all manner of physical let alone moral violence against citizens), the “Salafis” had spoken kindly to the victim. Had he apologised and desisted, he went on to say, the situation would have been effortlessly resolved.
What is revealing about this response is not the fact that the rise to the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood has given such “Salafis” (whoever on earth they may be) the political cover to commit such crimes with relative impunity—a predictable development anyway—but the fact that it has resulted in Ministry of Interior officials showing willingness to accommodate such “committed young men” to the point of expressing sympathy with their actions in open defiance of the law (after all, it is neither illegal nor socially unacceptable for a man to go out with his fiancée, whereas murder in cold blood would seem to be rather on the wrong side of the law). Two years ago under Mubarak such an incident (even if it were staged by the secret police) would have prompted mass arrests and vile mistreatment of “committed young men” all over the place (following the New Year’s Eve bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, which was probably staged by the ministry, at least one innocent suspect, Sayed Belal, died under torture without trial). Now that the president is an Islamist, however loose his connection with the kind of fanatic who would do this, the highest authority responsible is willing to practically apologise for a Sayed Belal who has been proven guilty.
Commitment, it would seem, has less to do with belief systems than with who happens to be in charge. Did I hear anybody talk about reforming the interior ministry?


نصان لآية نبيه: تمارين عامة لتطوير مهارات الأرق، ١٤-١٥

(c) Youssef Rakha

أتمرن على ركوب الموج في صحراء
أعاند المد والجزر
فلا أتوه ولا أصِل
والرمال التي تحملني تبدل غربتي بألفة
حتى أصير أشبهها
وتجعل أمواجها أرضاً لي
تدفعني بقوة فأقول
“اللا جدوى هي اللا جدوى”
بلا يقين أكثر من أني لا أعرف معنى هذه الجملة
غير أني حين أكررها
أفر لأسكن أمنيتي البرتقالية
يغمرني سكرها المالح
أن حزني القديم
هو مُبدعي
لكنه لا يمكن أن يكون زهوي

ليس ثمة طريق يكسو الأخضر جانبيه حتى النهاية
أم ليس ثمة نهاية لطريق؟
أعرف أن صحرائي بعيدة
لكني لا أمل عد زجاجات المياه بعد كل خطوة
لأضمن أني سأتجاوزها
ما لا يمنع من مواصلة المشي
ساحبة طريقي ورائي
خفيفًا ومرتاحًا
ينتفض من النسيم
كستارة نافذتي

آية نبيه
مارس – 2012

The Colours of Places – ألوان الأماكن

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The Revolution for Real: Cairo, 2011

After Allen Ginsberg’s “The Lion for Real”

O roar of the universe how am I chosen

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Arabian Ants

Image via Wikipedia

My own private Emirates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Miranda Literary Magazine: Nawwah

And verily We had empowered them with that wherewith We have not empowered you, and had assigned them ears and eyes and hearts—Koran, xlvi, 26

My instructions are to deliver the corpse to Nastassja Kinsky. We are to meet at nine tomorrow morning in the lobby of the Cecil Hotel, just off the seashore in downtown Alexandria. The corpse is a lightweight microelectronic bolt that looks like a miniature coffin; Nastassja Kinsky is an agent of the Plant. If I revealed what the Plant is, I would die.

Five weeks ago, a bearded boy came into my office and took his clothes off. Later that night I told my wife we had to be separated by the end of the year. She mouthed the word divorce interrogatively and cried. I stayed in the office until I found an apartment, seeing the boy every day. He tasted of sand and vine leaves, groaned like a reed flute, and made me so happy it didn’t even register that I was sleeping with a man.

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Cairo, culture, conquer

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

Letter on status

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

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


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


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



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


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


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

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

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Two cellphone SIM cards (bottom and top)
Image via Wikipedia

And verily We had empowered them with that wherewith We have not empowered you, and had assigned them ears and eyes and hearts—Koran, xlvi, 26


My instructions are to deliver the corpse to Nastassja Kinsky. We are to meet at nine tomorrow morning in the lobby of the Cecil Hotel, just off the seashore in downtown Alexandria. The corpse is a lightweight microelectronic bolt that looks like a miniature coffin; Nastassja Kinsky is an agent of the Plant. If I revealed what the Plant is, I would die.

Five weeks ago, a bearded boy came into my office and took his clothes off. Later that night I told my wife we had to be separated by the end of the year. She mouthed the word divorce interrogatively and cried. I stayed in the office until I found an apartment, seeing the boy every day. He tasted of sand and vine leaves, groaned like a reed flute, and made me so happy it didn’t even register that I was sleeping with a man.

Since then I’ve learned many things. One: that sexuality is a silly mental construct, but so is almost everything else in this world; who would have thought a thing like the Plant was possible? And two: that the Plant is so powerful and fair, no one would have to kill me if I was to die; I would just contract an illness, have a car accident, something. The Plant can make things happen so only you are responsible; it can alter the constitution of the air.

The boy proved lithe and tender, a divine sensualist, but it turned out he was on a mission to recruit me. His name was Allen Ginsberg, he said; mine was to be Joseph Koudelka. My post would involve making weekend trips to deliver microelectronic parts around the region. He explained to me what the Plant is doing to change the world, why I was chosen for the vacancy, and how those deliveries matter.

The term of the contract was unspecified, but he assured me about the Plant’s employment philosophy: No one will serve for longer than a very small portion of their lifetime. In that brief period people have what he called adventurous skill accumulation. Payment is made only once at the end; it never involves money but, Believe me, he said, it is worth it.

You’re not serious, I scoffed.

It’s like the trip of a lifetime, he ignored me, except you learn a lot too. And you get a very valuable present at the end, something to treasure forever.

Learn about what, you howling faggot?

He was crouched on the floor tying up his shoelace; I couldn’t help ogling his perfect buttocks, barely believing they were in my hands just a few minutes ago.

I already said—no questions!

Okay, I drawled. Whatever. So, what do you say, he looked up. Will it be yes or no?

Something made me nod, vigorously, though I knew it meant I would never see him again.

Later on the thought of psychosis repeatedly crossed my mind. Had things failed to correspond with people’s testimonies or gone wrong, I would’ve given in to it, too. As it is, everything is consistent: my work as an attorney, down to the bearded teenage client whom I met with so intensively for a few days last month; my monthly visit to my mother in Damietta; weekly drinking binge with two school friends; the divorce proceedings; moving house; everything.

The third thing I learned is that it happens to everyone, at least once or twice in the first week of work: you think you’ve gone mad, that all you’ve been experiencing is a string of hallucinations. The thought still dogs me, a temporary comfort, because what’s actually frightening is it’s real. The way things happen, they happen by order of the Plant.

And so I’ve made four journeys on the job, all safe, straightforward transactions, with the opportunity for a little sightseeing on the side.

Tonight, switching off my cell phone the way I’m supposed to for the duration of every assignment, I board the train to my favorite weekend destination for the first time.

It is more complicated because I haven’t been in Alexandria for months; and it always stirs up difficult emotions when I go. Not once did I board this train with any goal but to relax, usually after a big case or another extramarital affair: with a woman. Before Allen Ginsberg—believe it if you will—I had never touched a man in my life.

So far it seems no different from any other time, though: the stiff-backed seat, neon lights, chug-chug of iron-clad progress as we pass a sequence of empty sandlots, slowing at the dimly lit crossroads of some outlying shanty town before we pick up speed.

Only, after the bedlam of Ramses Station, the coach feels eerily quiet. I’m thinking of Allen Ginsberg: the way his spine would curve to pre-empt a particular caress; his biceps stiffening while one hand cradled his balls, the other pushing his face down. Suddenly it strikes me that we’ve passed both Cairo stations and I’m still alone on the coach.

I get up and scale the entire iron horse, hand on corpse in my asbestos-padded pant pocket while I cross from one coach to the next. Maybe it’s the Nawwah, a kind of mini hurricane that ruffles the coast once or twice a winter, but there are fewer passengers on the Cairo-Alexandria line tonight than I’ve ever seen. I must dismiss the idea that this is the work of the Plant.

Frequently, on performing a task — that’s what the guidelines said to the word, as far as I can recall them: instructions are transmitted through a packet-switching information grid like the internet but without hard drives or cache; all files are self-deleting, they appear for three minutes at a time, and you’re expected to commit their contents to memory — you will notice that particular events develop in an unusual or salient manner, generally in such a manner as to facilitate or conceal elements of your undertaking. You will not stop to think about such developments… At certain, higher branches of the Plant, it is possible to control the range of eventualities in a very limited portion of the space-time continuum; in your experience, however, it may or may not be the case that such control has been exercised. It is pointless and marginally less efficient to attempt to find out if it has…

The corpse writhing and beaming imperceptibly on my groin, I take the book out of my rucksack and start reading. It’s an eleventh-century Sufi text, an interest I’ve kept up since doing my MA in Islamic Law; it talks about the unity of existence.

Every number is reducible to the one, it says; and in like manner, all things are reducible to their oneness, however much they multiply, or differ. No thing can exist without a sense of its value, but no value can be sensed without a unit: all, in the ultimate exhalation of the holy breath, is one…

But a passenger just came into the coach and the sight of him is distracting me. He is young and brawny, the passenger, the shape and color of Allen Ginsberg, but broader shouldered and clean shaven. If you multiply one by one you will obtain one, the book says, but if you multiply it by any other value you will obtain no other but that value. From my seat I can only see the back of his head, but I know he is inwardly staring at me.

There was eye contact when he passed: I made a note of the tiny fish-shaped scar above his eyebrow, how abruptly the fuzz behind his ears gives way to curls, his nebulous grin.

I haven’t had eye contact since. Somehow I just know he is staring at this bald, fast aging lecher, following the fingers with chewed cuticles as they turn the pages, reveling in the sheer libidinal need contorting the chapped lips. I do know, because the moment I get up, he turns his head and signals with his eyes, that same grin promising my deliverance.

Excuse me, he breathes; his voice is higher than I want it, but his jawline is chiseled, spare stubble glittering in the fluorescence like some black-green savannah in miniature.


I was wondering if you might know what this is. He holds up a piece of card, black, whittled into an immaculate octagon: an item I’m familiar with. I just found it in my pocket, he laughs diffidently, shrugging. No idea where it’s come from.

Oh? Now I remember that, when he came in, the train had not stopped since my tour of the coaches, nor had I seen anything like him while my eyes scoured the seats, freaked out by the inexplicable scarcity of passengers.

Maybe you can help me? Oh to trace the fish with the tip of my tongue, to lie back and feel the savannah punishing my plains. I know it sounds whacky, but there has to be an explanation.

Is it just me, he adds suddenly, or is this train empty like mad? It is, I mumble, trying to steady myself. Empty… yes. I was… just thinking that.

Then I’m striding ahead, balancing with difficulty, his breath on my shoulder and nothing else in the world, until we are face to face in the toilet cubicle and the door is locked.

Let’s see, I hiss, clutching at the soma that torments me.

Before I realize it, I’m not sure where he’s gone. The cubicle door is ajar and I’m crouched in the corner gathering together my clothes. I do it fast, wiping the semen off my thighs and picking wet hairs from my face, even though it’s clear there’s no one around to watch me. In half an hour or so the only thing he said is his name, panting and grinding: Jim Morrison.

Straightening, at last, I slip my hand in my pocket to make sure the corpse is there, but what stands out against the cold, packed grain of the asbestos is warmer and more angular, wider on one side; it is perfectly stationary, too: it doesn’t give off waves or beams.

I take it out: the black octagon. Must be a message from the Plant, I decide, hoping it will explain. Can’t wait to get to the hotel, though: in the room, I can bring its edge into contact with a naked wire and absorb what it says before it bursts into flames.

No point worrying, I know, but how can I be sure Jim Morrison really works for the Plant? If he doesn’t—no joke—I will probably be maimed.

The fourth thing I learned: plans change spontaneously as often as not; sometimes the least expected thing is the thing that’s supposed to happen. And the fifth: only end result, not intention, is judged; say I managed to hold onto the corpse, and it turns out this guy is supposed to have it, then I’d still suffer the consequences alone.

Masr Station is as busy as Ramses. I file along toward the exit, steadily gathering speed as I picture the message in a haze of light. Dodging clusters of baggage and refreshment stalls, I can’t help wondering where all these people came from. Intimacy is such a fickle thing, it only takes a quiet train ride for the perfectly familiar prospect of a busy station to look strange.

Already I’m having to block out thoughts of my wife now I’m in Alexandria: I’ve always come after the end of something; a whiff of sea air is all it takes for reflections to start trickling through my head. The only reason they’re relatively at bay is I need to know what the Plant has to say to me. Then there is this sudden, unexplained hunger and I just know the best way to ignite the octagon has to do with food. Should I stop and eat on the way to the hotel?

At the exit the grubby-green polystyrene prayer mats have been rolled into columns and stored upright to one side. I recall how much it used to bother me when the faithful would block the way out, microphones blaring above their heads. Until five weeks ago I never understood why anyone believed it was necessary to pray.

Lesson number six: there are only two things in life—your body, and the possibility of something else. Without that possibility, your body might as well just wither away and die, which it will in either case, sooner than later. The possibility rather turns it into an instrument or a tool, something to work with in a slightly more meaningful setup. That’s why it’s necessary to pray, unless your something else doesn’t require prayers, or you have a post with the Plant.

Only one mat is still spread out on the floor. On the edge of it sits an old peasant woman smiling charmingly into the void. Legs crossed, back bent forward, she mutters in the same level tone, unperturbed by lack of attention; for some reason neither police nor station staff are making any effort to remove her, even though she is clearly a beggar woman and, by order of a widely publicized campaign, they have to excise street characters from public space.

You will eat in a minute, she happens to be saying as I pass. Give me something to eat with.

I bend over and hand her a note, much bigger than I intended. Something about her face is drawing me to her; I realize it is this, not benevolence, that made me stop. Crouching down there, beyond layers of tattered black muslin, beyond the haggard female form, I can make out the contours of my father’s face. It’s a fleeting impression, but haunting.

May He give you without calculation, her tone doesn’t change as she slips the money into her bosom, with frightening alacrity, nor her smile.

It’s hard to tear my eyes off that dark, sculptured visage, familiar and far away at the same time, but my legs are starting to hurt and I’m confirmed in the decision to drop by Andrew’s on the way. Out of habit, not for a logical reason, I ignore the middle-aged men yelling Taxi as I charge ahead. A taxi would save time. Except that I want to walk toward the sea, not seeing it, just knowing it’s there: in fifteen minutes I’ll be inside my Greek client’s fish restaurant sipping beer.

The thought of beer preoccupies me while I slip into Prophet Daniel Lane, where Alexander the Macedonian is thought to be buried, past the used book stands and the used camera store, all closed; and it starts, softly, then ferociously, to rain.

Three minutes from the station, emptiness has already gripped the streets, but it’s less freaky now because the Nawwah is raging. The rain keeps people indoors; actually it’s so absorbing I’ve almost forgotten my troubles: Allen Ginsberg, my wife, the corpse, whether I’m on the right side of the Plant. By the time I push the glass door and head for the table I always take, I’m drenched. A pretty young woman comes up with the menu.

Andrew isn’t here? No, he is away in Matrouh, she says confidently. You are his friend? I nod: And you? I’m seeking out her eyes, the way I used to do it with my wife, before we got married. When you’re a man addressing a woman you don’t know, this is the cruelest, sweetest way of saying: I like you; or so my wife used to say.

His little sister. She looks down. I used to study in Athens…

I wonder if I still have an appetite for women, though. Deliberately, I’m picturing my client’s sister naked in the toilet on a train.

Suddenly the thought of beer brings on this searing need to urinate. I can barely stay still while I blurt out my order: Grilled mullet and a plate of squid. Salad and bread, no rice. You can decide on the sauces, but can you get me a beer while I’m indisposed?

The chances are she’s still nodding uncomprehendingly while I lock the bathroom door. It’s like a ground-floor apartment, this restaurant; its bathroom is spacious and homey, unisex, without cubicles or peepholes. It’s not until I’ve relieved myself that I notice a slight break in the electric circuit of the sink light. Then I realize what brought me here.

I look closer: a tiny length of wire is exposed. I ply it out with my Biro. Holding the octagon in both hands, I take a deep breath before I let the current run through it.

JIM MORRISON CLEAR, it says, the letters shimmering in a subdued glow, like the last few embers of a charcoal fire about to die. NK: RECEIPT. REWARD FOR FIFTH SUCCESS TONIGHT. And in smaller type: enjoy grilled mullet, squid.

Before I have time to gape, I’ve managed to burn my finger. No matter how amazing what an octagon has to say, it’s always more amazing the way it disappears: a clear blue flame and nothing, absolutely nothing else. Once it’s gone out, your hand is slightly wet; that’s all. You never have the luxury to mull over the message. I sometimes think it’s this that makes it stick.

After the second beer I practically run to the Cecil Hotel. I want to look at the sea but I’m dying for legitimate privacy; and I promise myself I’ll be back in good time.

The fish seeping gently into my bloodstream, egged on by alcohol, I’m warm and tired and I need to sit still. The rain has gotten harder and the wind whistles through my pores, as if in counterpoint to the fish settling in there, quietly, calmly, a musical expression of arrival at the sea.

It takes a little while before, rushing alongside the seashore, inhaling the sea air in long gulps, I realize this is nothing but relief: knowing that I didn’t get it wrong on the train, that in five weeks I’ve been good enough to be rewarded; but I’m not at all impatient to find out about my prize. I’ve played guessing games with the Plant before now.

Checking in feels that tiny bit smoother than I’m used to. Finally I’m on my back, revising the contents of the message one last time. I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her. I am to expect more madness tonight, happy madness.

I close my eyes and repeat what I have to do, a habit I’ve acquired since the third week. The rain rap-rapping against the panes, delayed and overpowered by the cawing of the wind, I rest my arm on the pillow and just go on repeating the words in the dark.

I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky… I am to receive something… I am… Kinsky…

When I wake up there is cold coffee by my bedside: a room service order. It’s been years since I fell involuntarily asleep. Overjoyed, I sit up and light a cigarette, remembering the promise I made to myself. For a while I savor the intermittent sound of the rain. Gradually trouble is returning, though: the sad story with my wife; so long as I can turn it to melancholy I’ll be fine. I exert myself to turn it to melancholy while I shower, shave, change my clothes. It’s not working.

I prop myself up in bed and take out the book, a grim attempt to get distracted; I don’t know why it never occurs to me to switch on the TV. From the unity of existence, though, we’ve moved abruptly onto the afterlife; and something about the business of death is taking my mind off it all.

When religious people tell you that life on earth is temporary, a brief sojourn and never the dwelling place, it’s normally to scare you into practicing their rituals or repeating what they say; as far as I can make it out, this guy is not about that at all, even though he’s using the same language. He’s simply drawing your attention to lesson number six.

When you die it’s just like being alive, he’s saying: the difference is mere detail. All that stuff about heaven and hell, eternity and judgement, it’s all already here. Life and the afterlife, in other words—they’re practically the same thing. I put the book down and close my eyes.

Lesson number seven—a memory of words shimmering in a subdued glow, or was it one of those fleeting text files on my computer screen?—The Plant is both factory and flora. It manufactures, it grows. It holds the copyright to being as well as life, for being is intervention while life is merely flow. It is the sight that startles, the sound that soothes, the odor that induces nostalgia. As of your release from service you will think of the Plant repeatedly on having such hitherto ordinary encounters; and dying, you will be grateful for having been of service to the Plant… The funny thing is, it works. However momentarily, I’ve forgotten my wife. But I’ve ordered two more coffees before I step out onto the wet asphalt, and the words are already fading on my memory plane.

Dawn is descending on Unknown Soldier Circle when I run into my father. He is huddled at the bus stop with his back to the shore, squinting at tomorrow’s paper in the streetlight. It is still windy, an indeterminate respite from the rain. The sea spray reaches all the way to the curb, where I’m bracing my calves when I catch sight of him.

In Alexandria on a weekend, I’ve always waited to watch the sun rise out of the water. That’s why I’ve been tramping downtown, but I couldn’t go back to sleep if I tried. Aside from the usual anxiety of being on the job, I am still brooding over leaving my wife. No amount of Sufi literature is going to put an end to that. I see the backs of her sneakers bouncing effortlessly away under the great bulk of her parka, farther and farther away on the asphalt, such tiny things so effortlessly daring gravity, and it is the saddest image in the world.

When I become aware of an indistinct figure at the bus stop, it’s been a long while since I’ve taken anything in. All I know is I’m crossing the road to the esplanade, where that bus stop happens to be in front of me. The azan for the dawn prayers just sounded. Any minute now, the sun will slice its way through that black-and-white quilt with a monster tossing under it; and when it does, it will hand things back their shape and color, as gradually as my wife’s ankles stepping away. Whatever I do, I don’t want to miss that. Everything else is a blank.

At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t seen a soul since I stepped out of the hotel; and if not for the little man sitting there, the bus stop would’ve been a blank too. I stand back and jiggle my head before I cross over.

I don’t recognize him right away—for some unknown reason, still, nothing could be further from my mind than my father—but before I know it I’m dithering, edging closer. I want to know what kind of street character could brave both Nawaah and esplanade; at night the shore is policed even in the best of weathers, to root out beggars and madmen. What kind of desperado, I want to know, managed to intercept my brooding?

When I first catch sight of his face, I think of the beggar woman I ran into at the station—how come he looks so like her; she too looked like someone, didn’t she… but, for the same unknown reason, probably, I can’t for the life of me remember who.

Involuntarily, almost, I’m sitting next to him on the bench. It is supposed to have three wood planks but the middle one is dislodged and my buttocks sink uncomfortably into the gap; I want to readjust my position but I’m mesmerized by his clothes.

In the house Baba always wore what used to be known in Egypt as a robe de chambre: the same brownish garment, shrunken by years of washing, threadbare at the seams. In summer it covered his underwear, in winter two layers of pajamas. As he grew older he took to going out late at night for tomorrow’s paper in his house wear, something that genuinely saddened Mama.

Now as he looks up, coughing, I recognize the spluttering, elongated, slightly exaggerated squeal that punctuated so many of our evenings.

Then I make out everything at once: the Kastor fabric of his winter pajamas, filthy cuffs giving way to hands barely thicker than the blue veins they contain; ancient sandals exposing a similarly emaciated pair of feet, their incredibly meaty, sharp-edged toenails taking on a whole spectrum of hues as they jut out, looking healthier than everything, and the base of his legs a mesh of diabetic scars and damaged tissue; then the tight, hard rump like roots to the permanently curving spine, dandruff overtaking the wrinkles on the back of his neck; smooth bald spot flanked by willowy silver hair; and the face, my father’s face, toothless, coffee-stained lips and heavy, pinhead stubble, all white, like the loose, leathery skin on some long dead monster; and his reddened nose looking enormous. Somehow his eyeglasses make it even more enormous than it is: the glasses?

Only now, gazing into the blotched enamel of his glasses, do I remember that my father is dead. Some two weeks after I got married, five years ago almost to the day, Mama had phoned from Damietta with the news. She sounded unusually calm, I remember. I didn’t want to spoil your honeymoon, she said, but I didn’t have a choice. When I asked her if she was alright she said, May He make this the last of the sorrows; not, she added, the first.

All through my time with my wife I was battling against that enigmatic premonition, pondering over the fact that he hadn’t liked her, and my ever growing doubts about the possibility of happiness in marriage. Somehow grief over my father became linked with the conviction, however secret, that I would one day leave my wife. It was harrowing in other ways, of course. I had never suspected his death could shake me so hard. But it was this that I thought about the most…

Baba? He looks up; instantly, it becomes hard not to burst into tears. Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, he intones his usual welcome: a very commonplace expression that,

through sheer warmth, he managed to make entirely his own. Looking delighted, the way he did every time I called him, he grabs my hand and touches his lips to it: a reversal of the patriarchal convention that he alone championed; I can’t think of any other father who did that.

What on earth are you doing here?

Just reading the newspaper. I glance down to make sure it really is tomorrow’s paper—and it is—but I have to raise my hands to my eyes. Can you believe they’re redrafting the constitution again, those sons of a horny woman? Hysterical laughter muffles my tears. He won’t stop ranting about the government even now. It’s like the country is the ranch of their grandfather, the filthy pimps. Then he takes off his glasses. His eyes are clouded. They are round and very small; and it’s as if I peered into them only yesterday. How much more do they want to pilfer?

But, Baba, no one is paying any attention.

Naturally not.

How will the corruption stop if all we do is sit and complain?

You’re beginning to sound like them, Fouad. Listen, what’s all this business about classes?

Classes? My name sounds strange now that I’ve learned to think of myself as Joseph Koudelka.

I’m told you’re taking classes. Deep beneath the murk, I can make out a subdued twinkle: the one I saw when he first caught me masturbating, and again when he smelled my reefers. That twinkle was the extent of his disapproval; it always gave an impression of complicity, as if he was telling me that he knew and didn’t mind, but that we could both get into trouble for it. It made him incredibly lovable. Schoolboys, and such. You know what I mean.

Busted, your Honor.

At least you’re free of the stick insect—that’s how the old man referred to my wife, because he found her very tall and very thin but mainly, he said, because she had perfect camouflage: She always appears where you didn’t know she was there, you understand, he would say—and that’s always a good thing. Naturally there will be happiness in your life from now on.

You don’t disapprove? Dis-what, he bawls, easing into his favorite insult: Curse your father, son of a shoe! Destroying the family, and all that. We were trying for a baby, you know. None of this

bothers you at all? To tell you the truth, Baba, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty. Fuck off, he says. Naturally, the twinkle comes across in his tone now, there’s reason to feel

guilty if all there is to it is the classes. That, maybe, you should think about. Not that it makes you any less of a donkey to feel guilty at all. What’s there to feel guilty about in this world?

Botching my secret work?

If you did that, you would be instantly dispatched to where you can’t feel a thing. At least, he adds equivocally, not in the way you’d expect to feel it.


You mean—right, I stutter… but… how do you know what would happen to me if I fucked

Same way I know about the stick insect and the classes.

I almost say: Is it true you can’t feel anything once you’re dead?

There are certain questions I’m not allowed to answer, he stops me just in time. And one thing you mustn’t mention while you’re with me whatever you do, you understand?

Okay, I nod. I think I know what that thing is.


Shall we have a little walk then?

As far as I know that’s allowed—hands on knees, he is heaving himself up with a mighty sigh, the way he did every time he had to get up in his lifetime, as if there was nothing more difficult in the world—so long as we both act normal. It’s very exaggerated, but that’s what makes it touching. At some point I will just go, you understand, and you act as if nothing happened.

There is no rain still; even the wind has let up. Only, as we move along the shoreline at his excruciating pace—it always used to annoy me how deliberately slow the old man walked—sea spray keeps splashing our faces. He has the same old tendency to lag a step or two behind, head bent slightly to one side, hands clasped together over the small of his back. As I slow down and stop to keep pace with him, it surprises me how little death changes in a man.

You remember Tante Faiza, Baba?

Whatever became of the midget? She must be ninety this year.

Ninety-two, in fact. But she’s alive and kicking. Mama says she’s got a suitor.

Didn’t I tell you she would see everyone to the grave, the witch?

Eventually I put my arm round his shoulders and leave it up to him. Humming and laughing, we plod along the seashore, my father and I, and it’s as if we haven’t stopped doing it since I was three. In Alexandria, all through my childhood, we would often have this same walk in the evening while I drank my carton of milk: the prerequisite for getting a new matchbox car. His hand on my head, Baba’s pace was too slow even for my tiny steps.

Barely perceptibly, the black water is taking on color. In the distance, a faint orange tint infusing the blue gray turning gray white, the outline of the citadel begins to appear. Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, my father greets the red disk coming up behind the minaret, beaming at me. Naturally, he adds, daybreak makes no difference at all. I can barely stop myself from laughing.

Fouad, he sounds devastated. You must kiss your mother for me. You’re not serious?

Believe it or not, I miss the old bitch.

How I wish Mama was with us, I suddenly think, out loud.

You can never tell your mother of this—

Naturally?— Any more than of your secret work. Curse your father, he begins— Son of a shoe! The oddest part of this is there’s nothing uncanny about it. It’s as if I never married, as if he never died, as if I really was in Alexandria on a weekend. Birds, white and streamlined, are circling the stone hedge and fluttering out to sea. Their calls seem to echo the Nawwah; a car or two whizz past and, before I appreciate the fact, it’s light. We walk on a little. The streets have filled up when I suggest we have a breakfast of coffee and croissant at the Trianon Café. The rain has returned and my father is slowing down even more, oohing and ahing all along the esplanade. He stops to light a cigarette, but every time the wind blows out his match; when he finally manages to bring the tip of the cigarette in contact with the flame, a fat drop of rain lands right on top of it.

I glance at him impatiently, but he keeps trying. You’re a good boy, Fouad, he suddenly turns to me, mumbling. I am your reward. What? But it’s as if he didn’t say anything; he just struggles on with the matches. So are we going for croissant or what? Always impatient, he says, like that fat mother of yours! Then we’re sitting opposite each other by the rain-splattered window, there is bright sunlight outside, and the aroma of coffee fills my nostrils. The croissants are hot and crisp, but my father is smoking. I am about to tell him that I love him when he winks, nodding toward the waitress. So I look up: she is beautiful; for the first time since Allen Ginsberg, though I don’t realize it yet, something stirs in my groin while I look at a woman.

Yours if you want her, he says, naturally. Baba, I scowl. Please! Anyway I am going to go to the toilet, he mutters to himself, getting up. Curse the father of your mother, my good man. It is barely audible. The son of a bitch is going to discipline me… Baba! He looks back.

Are you sure it’s okay to up and leave the stick insect? Yes, Fouad, he smiles suddenly, my little donkey. I’m sure.

The waitress smiles back very sweetly, anyway. Later, when I slip her a scrap of paper with my number, she will even blow me a kiss. Now my watch says eight thirty and Baba is not back from the toilet. I get up and follow inside to look for him. All the cubicle doors are open. There is no one there. Back in the Cecil Hotel lobby, I’ve barely wiped the tears off my face when my coffee arrives. I sip it slowly, grazing the place with my eyes. For once the anxiety of being on the job is overpowered by a different emotion—grief. I feel exactly the way I felt in the second two weeks of my marriage, but somehow I know it is temporary. There’s a tremendous sense of gratitude, too, which helps, but where on earth is Nastassja Kinsky?

When I open the door to my room at nine thirty, exasperated, there is an elderly woman on the edge of my bed. She is dressed very elegantly in an auburn three-piece, her long, snow-white hair tied back in a bun. In the way she sits and especially after she starts talking, I appreciate her regal bearing. She has the well-heeled composure of a princess, haughty and upright.

Strange, I’m thinking, that she looks so incredibly familiar: I am sure I know this face; and her voice, I know I’ve heard it before. These recognition games are getting tiring—I mean: maybe I’m just projecting—but I can’t help noticing a resemblance between her and my father.

Nastassja Kinsky?

I dare say you mispronounce my name, Monsieur Koudelka. She grins. I have brought you a small gift, rather valuable I may add. I do hope I haven’t kept you waiting for long. You were generous with your money last night, I didn’t think you would begrudge me your time today.

While she stares squarely into my eyes—is it my imagination or is she snickering?—I realize she is the beggar woman from Masr Station.

Oh my God, I begin.

You will excuse me, Monsieur Koudelka, but I must catch a train in half an hour. Here, she hands me what looks like a giant termite. It is the isoptera, she enunciates. It will instruct you as to what you should do with it on your return to Cairo.

Only now she gets up, striding straight to the door. Monsieur Koudelka, she stops and turns, her hand on the doorknob. Yes? This will be your last assignment. My… for the— Safe journey, Monsieur Koudelka.

While she shuts the door behind her I let myself flop onto the bed. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that it’s over, that there will no longer be a Plant in my life. Neither wife nor Plant, I mumble, getting comfortable and peeling off my clothes. Before I fall asleep it also registers that the prospect of another boy is vague and mildly repulsive. Memories of Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and all those in between seem to come from a different world, alien and isolated. Without wanting to, I am picturing the eyes of Andrew’s sister: the way they glistened in the tungsten light, and when she averted them, looking down…

I wake to the sound of the rain, the isoptera describing a perfect circle next to my head on the pillow. For a while I simply watch it, wondering, with relative calm, what it might be saying to me. Then, just to see if I can make anything of the faint buzz that accompanies its motion, I place it on the bedside table and bring my ear in contact with the wood, pressing hard. At first I can only hear static, but gradually something else is coming through.

What are you doing, you donkey? I can make out my father’s voice, weak, barely audible, but undeniably his. You are to keep this peculiar mouthpiece for when you have a real situation, classes and such. Then you can consult me. If you try and listen to it all the time you’ll wear it out. And no, he adds, as if he could hear me thinking, we can’t have a conversation through it. Now switch off the tiny button at the back and keep it safe. At that the voice fades; there is nothing but static.

I am naturally spellbound for a few minutes, then find the button he mentioned, hidden where the last segment of a termite’s abdomen would be, I get ready for departure. On the way out, my assignment over, I switch my cell phone back on. I don’t notice it at first but gradually, insidiously, an unbearable joy is taking hold of me. I don’t think downtown Alexandria has ever looked so beautiful in the early evening.

Once again I will walk to Masr Station: I want to take in the streets.

I am reading about the straight path—the one that, mimicking divine oneness, connects life with the afterlife and back again—when my cellphone startles me. There’s a young man eying me but I haven’t been paying much attention. I guess that, in five weeks, I’ve developed a particular look; not all my male lovers have been agents of the Plant, and Egypt is full of young men seeking out middle-aged lechers like me: they get a useful connection if not money; they get a desperate, consuming passion. There’s some desire—I won’t deny that—but I can’t be bothered to act on it at all. I’m far more interested in the characteristics of the path.

Hello? Hi. The voice is soft and coquettish; I put the book down. I just thought I’d get your name. Who is this? Forgotten already? We met this morning at the Trianon Caf?— Alright, I exclaim, grinning from ear to ear in spite of myself. Well, I didn’t get your name either, did I? I’m so happy you called. My name is Mohgah, the waitress says. You may not be aware of it yet, she giggles—as I am picturing her—irresistibly. But I am your destiny.


Youssef Rakha

Published in Miranda Literary Magazine

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Azazeel: Disillusionment

The Quixote Code
Remembering Borges, Youssef Rakha courts sedition
He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original… – Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
As a literary exercise – or novel – to imagine a diary composed 1,500 years ago: what could be more challenging to a contemporary writer? Few would think to accomplish the task as literally as Pierre Menard, the author imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his first short story, who rewrites Cervantes’ Don Quixote, word for word, without ever reading it. An author about to produce a 1,500-year-old fictional diary would certainly affirm the kind of human connection that makes characters in books interesting regardless of when the books were written and when the characters lived, but they might also be curious as to how different the world was so long ago, and the ways in which its difference necessarily affected the people they deal with. In the fifth century, for example, the earth was still flat, there was no such thing as penicillin, demons (whether Christian or pagan) had far more physical presence, and slavery was the norm.
But for Youssef Zeidan, author of the year’s most talked-about Arabic novel, Azazeel (or Beezlebub: winner of the 2009 Arabic Booker, upsetter of the Coptic Orthodox Church and, in Arabic-translation-of-Syriac-diary format, resuscitator of the fifth-century Levant), none of these things or the myriad others that separate us from medieval times have any part to play in the action or in thought processes of the characters. Zeidan treats the time gap simply as a technical obstacle, which he overcomes through the device of impersonating the present-day translator, into modern Arabic, of a fictional manuscript. This works for a while – even though at many points, Zeidan’s modern world view seems to burst out of the veneer of the manuscript – but eventually you realise that there is little if any engagement with the otherness or mystery of the past. The author makes no attempt to demonstrate the difference in people’s experience of time, in their sense of authority, in their capacity for spiritual transcendence or thier greater tolerance for bloodshed, sectarian bias, or material hardship. It is almost as if Zeidan is writing generic fiction, the early Christian setting no more than one among many possible palettes to paint the same, atemporal picture.
Still, Azazeel makes a compelling read, which is more than can be said for most Arabic novels published today; then again, generic fiction is by definition compelling. What sets Azazeel apart, in addition to the convincing impression Zeidan gives of an edited manuscript in translation, is the historical accuracy of the major events he covers and the accessible way in which he charts, in outline, the Christological debate between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople, the latter condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 451. Not far into the book, however, Zeidan’s engagement with the universe he depicts begins to feel skin deep. Hipa, the protagonist, is less and less convincing – especially as regards his interactions with the Beezlebub of the title: an all-too-innocuous devil whose medieval identity, presumably different from that of the better known Satan or his Muslim cousin, Iblis, does not come through.
Hipa is a Coptic monk doctor who, on leaving Alexandria as it were in a huff, decides to take this name out of guilt over failing to stop (or indeed object to) the massacre by his fellow Christians of the Pagan philosopher Hipatia of Alexandria (AD 355-416), whom he admires – an event for which Zeidan blames Cyril I and which Hipa helplessly witnesses before he leaves the Alexandrine Church of Saint Mark monastery, travelling first to Jerusalem, where he meets an even less lifelike apparition of Cyril I’s archenemy, Nestorius and, on the advice of the latter, moves onto the minor monastery in which he composes this diary in his third language – after Coptic and Greek – north west of Aleppo on the way to Antioch. When you wind down and reflect after turning the last page, you feel Hipa might as well have been a present-day Muslim medical student at the Qasr El-Eini university hospital who, repelled by secular corruption and/or fundamentalist excess, decides (against the dictates of Islam) to live the life of a recluse treating men of religion at an out-of-the-way mosque clinic somewhere in northern Syria; so indistinct are the ancient dimensions of Hipa’s constitution, both material and mental – and so disinterested Zeidan in them.
It is in this context that you are tempted to ask why Zeidan, an Islamic studies scholar and a Muslim, apparently a believer, should choose to express his views on religious tolerance in the framework of the pre-Islamic past. The motivation behind Azazeel seems to have little to do with the world in which this precursor of Satan’s existed; and while the book testifies to immersion in texts and ideas of the period, it does not demonstrate a deep interest in the daily life of its people on the part of Zeidan (at least not to this reader). The motif of Christian brutality towards non-Christians – by far the most recurrent – can be read as a general statement on sectarianism (applicable, even, to Muslims); but why side so wholeheartedly with the one man the entire Eastern Orthodox world considers a heretic? Cyril I (a saint to Zeidan’s former friends at the Coptic Church of Mar Murqus, where Hipa supposedly lived so many centuries ago) may well have been capable of violence and dogmatism, but other than his being the underdog in the relentless march of history, there is no reason to believe that Nestorius, whether or not one agrees with his views, did not have it in him to commit the same crimes. The one line of thought that could justify Zeidan’s bias is the fact that the Muslim account of Jesus’ nature is significantly closer to the Nestorian.
Could it be that Zeidan is making a very roundabout statement about Islam’s theological difference with the Coptic Orthodox Church? Surely, then, in the Egyptian context, he is neither siding with the underdog nor – as the Booker jurors claimed he was – promoting tolerance. Perhaps the ultimate book of this learned and readable book is no greater than mud raking, after all.



Syriac book, late fifth century

Azazeel, Beezlebub, Youssef Zeidan, Cairo: Dar Al Shurouk, April 2009 (seventh edition)

Last month, at a symposium in Kuwait, I bumped into the Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, head of the jury of the first round of the Abu Dhabi-based International Prize for Arabic Fiction (better known as the Arabic Booker because it is administered by the Booker Foundation). While bitterly complaining of lack of alcohol, which is illegal in Kuwait, Shimon told me the story of his visit to Wadi An Natroun, the site of some of the world’s oldest monasteries in Egypt, and how he argued with the monks there for still holding a grudge against a man who died over 1500 years ago. I asked him who he meant.

Of course I knew that, like the late poet Sargon Boulus, Shimon was born Syriac Christian; what I did not know was that, while the Coptic Christians of Egypt (along with all other Eastern Orthodox denominations) reject the teachings of Nestorius (AD 386-451) – the Archbishop of Constantinople, about whom the contemporary Archbishop of Alexandria, Cyril I wrote the Twelve Anathemas – Assyrians belonging to the Oriental Orthodox rite of Syria, Iraq and Turkey are Nestorian. It did not seem to matter what the ecumenical dispute was about – not that Shimon, a secular who has spent practically all of his adult life outside the Middle East, would have been able to explain it to me had I asked. It just struck me how he was able to give something so weird and arcane the necessary relevance, talking about a recent experience.

Did the Virgin give birth to God, a human being, both, or something in between? All Nestorius had done when he was declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in AD 451 – his would-be supporters, notably the Archbishop of Antioch, John I, were tricked into arriving too late – was reject the term Theotokos (Mother of God) in favour of Christotokos (Mother of Christ). The question sounds absurdly disproportionate to the amount of bloodshed it caused, especially considering that the Virgin’s conception was, anyway, immaculate. But in his novel Azazeel, or Beezlebub – just like Shimon in Kuwait – the head of the Alexandria Library Manuscripts Department, an Islamic studies scholar, Youssef Zeidan manages to communicate a sense of how relevant such issues can still be, and how horrific their consequences.

While reading Azazeel, I spoke to a devoutly Coptic work-mate about Nestorius. “But of course he’s a heretic,” my work-mate said, as if he had had coffee with the Archbishop only yesterday. “He denies that Marium is the Mother of God!” In a slightly lower voice, my work-mate continued, “You know it was a follower of Nestorius who taught Muhammad.” Muhammad? “Yes, your Muhammad. And that’s why Muslims share in the heresy that Jesus was not divine,” he hissed; it occurred to me that he must be thinking, “So the greater heresy, the ecumenical disaster that is Islam is all Nestorius’s fault.”

It is in the context of Zeidan being Muslim that Nestorianism should be nuanced. As he presents it, the claim was that, unlike that of God the Father, the divinity of Christ was not an intrinsic, everlasting attribute but something that happened to him after he was born and grew up to be a human being like any other. Zeidan uses Nestorius to suggest, for example, that in Egypt the Mother and Child was but an extension of the ancient tradition of Isis and Horus – a lesser break with paganism than Nestorius’s (or indeed Islam’s). Azazeel is unequivocally on the side of “the heretics” – how much does this reflect a bias for Muslim theology? Much, I think. With ruefully sectarian irony, while thinking it, I have been listening to Sheikh Mustafa Ismail’s beautiful recitation of a verse in the fourth chapter of the Quran, An Nisa (The Women) which, amazingly, says practically as much: “the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only a messenger of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him…” So much for Islam.

Azazeel purports to be the Arabic translation, completed in April 2004 (some four years before the book was published) of seven rolls of parchment discovered ten years earlier in the vicinity of Aleppo, near the Turkish border – “on the ancient road linking Aleppo with Antioch,” the fictional Translator tells us. Written originally in late Aramaic (Syriac), the seven rolls making up the book’s seven chapters recount, in the first person, the life of a Coptic-speaking monk doctor from Upper Egypt named, even more confusingly, after the pagan woman philosopher Hipatia of Alexandria (AD 355-416), Hipa.

Hipa adopted this name in honour of the woman whom he met on his arrival in Alexandria, and whose lynching by the Christian mob – initiated by Cyril I – he later witnessed on the streets of “the Greatest City”. As a frustrated student of medicine at the Monastery of the Church of Saint Mark, Hipa is repelled by the dogmatism and violence of Cyril I, but he does not return to his homeland near present-day Akhmim where, as a child, he witnessed the equally barbaric lynching of his father, a pagan fisherman – a crime his mother incited in order to marry a Christian. Instead, Hipa travels, eventually reaching Jerusalem, where he settles down as a monk-physician, meets Nestorius, and on his advice moves not to Antioch, where Nestorius is a bishop at the time, but to the monastery north of Aleppo where – encouraged by Beezlebub, as the devil is called throughout, without explanation – he records his life story in the present text.

Zeidan carries out the task of mimicking manuscript editing brilliantly, and his message – that Beezlebub’s truest evil, far from heresy or even sin, is his capacity for getting people to excommunicate, massacre and otherwise do wicked things to each other in the conviction that they are doing good – comes through beautifully. And though extremely classical in language and style, the novel makes for an engaging and intelligent read. You are inclined to overlook the more obviously modern interpolations: when Octavia, the woman with whom Hipa sins on his arrival in Alexandria, calls Aristotle “backward” for his classification of women and slaves as below men, for example; or when Hipa, whose rationality chimes with Nestorius’s, begins to sound like an agent of the Enlightenment. But it is with the same sectarian irony, perhaps, that the book should be appreciated as a comment on contemporary political Islam and sectarian strife both within the Umma and between Muslims and Christians. In a beautifully roundabout way what Zeidan seems to be telling the West is, “Dogmatism and violence existed, you know, long before Islam came into being.”

Copyright: Bidoun Magazine