All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

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

Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.

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In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?

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Virtual Palestinians: From Sabra and Chatila to Arab Spring

On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries

“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
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For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…

***

When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.

***

A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?

***

I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.

***

The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?

***

Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.

***

Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?

***

I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.

Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation

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Tawfik Okasha and the Amazingly Appalling Atrociousness of the Fellahin

Through the hyperlinks in the text, this piece can turn into an interactive book about life and literature in Egypt

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Since 25 Jan we have had, in addition to the Islamist and official media, Al Fara’een: a satellite political-commentary channel of such irrational and duplicitous orientation I believe it is worse for the health of the average Egyptian than cholesterol. (By the average Egyptian, I mean the relatively sane, minimally rational follower of the news — including those who, out of fear or despair, might actually be opposed to the revolution.)

Initially, few understood what Al Fara’een was about, other than the fact that it was the mouthpiece of unreservedly counterrevolutionary sentiment, purporting to represent the so called Silent Majority: perhaps the greatest lie of all, that silent majority, since while a majority might possibly be against change, silence would make its position irrelevant. Al Fara’een does share many of the views of the Honourable Citizen as SCAF must imagine him, expressing — first and foremost — concern over the Stability of the State, the catchword of the Mubarak regime and all that it stands for: besides culturally articulated incompetence and corruption, in other words, not only stupidity and ignorance but also an astounding capacity to defecate from the mouth. In this sense Al Fara’een is the patron channel of a particularly spurious and/or deluded version of the social as well as the political status quo; in such modes of discourse, where anything we don’t know is suspect though we hardly know anything, and where anyone in any way different from the speaker however otherwise similar deserves instant elimination, whether a statement is spurious or deluded matters little.

Fara’een is the less literate term for the plural of “pharaoh”; and the channel’s owner and principal anchor, former National Democratic Party MP Tawfik Okasha, is the “nationalist” grand Pharaoh of the political landscape Al Fara’een portrays.

Though founded prior to the stepping down of Mubarak, the channel’s sole purpose, as it turns out, is to promote the Okasha for the presidency: a not only implausible but also very insolent ambition, even by pre-25 Jan standards. Patently obvious to anyone with an ounce of anything brain-like, the Okasha is unqualified as president of a reactionary news channel. The Okasha was also one of Mubarak’s least sophisticated and most fawning defenders — which, since 11 Feb, has not prevented it from literally, passionately cursing the father of Mubarak’s mother on air (I say “it” because there are serious questions about whether the Okasha is fully human, or at all). Otherwise it is best known for bending over double to kiss the hand of former information minister Safwat El-Sharif — not only a pillar of the Mubarak regime but also, for decades on end, perhaps the one most notorious for corruption. In the context of the very provincial conventions by which the Okasha itself purports to abide, kissing the hand of another man is of course a sign of extreme submission — unequivocal loss of dignity; aside from a loyal son showing deference to some venerable patriarch, it is something only a grovelling beggar might conceivably do.

Most of Al Fara’een’s air time, aside from Fox News-like patriotism and first-anti-25 Jan-then-pro-SCAF propaganda, consists of the Okasha addressing its nonexistent constituency in the informal and (to use its own word) “mastaba” manner of a well-to-do fellah dictating opinions to a loving, presumably equally non-human gathering of villagers (there is evidence that such creatures do exist, but let’s hope they are no majority). Unlike its oily, accent-less pre-25 Jan image — the one in which it is known to have said, to the word, “I hold President Mubarak sacred” — the Okasha’s present, mastaba-bound demeanour is so utterly like that of a wicked old peasant woman, one with neither the upbringing nor the intelligence to maintain even a veneer of respectability, that it tends to induce laughter more than any other response. But aside from the Okasha being a comic diversion — people laugh at faeces, after all, precisely because it is nauseating — the Okasha poses distressing questions about dignity, reality and the fellahin.

***

I first heard of Al Fara’een from a taxi driver with a Limbi-like speech impediment (El Limbi being comedian Mohammad Saad’s alterego, a slum-residing criminal retard). He was explaining to me how it had been proven that Wael Ghoneim, the earliest hero of the revolution, was an American agent bent on destroying the country. Not only was Ghoneim Palestinian-Lebanese and Iranian (i.e. Islamist), he was also Communist, Zionist and Masonic; the so called revolution he and his fellow agents had started was nothing but a global conspiracy to spread chaos, bring over the Americans (as in Iraq), split up the country… “Where did you find out about this?” I asked. “But where else,” he coughed, with a worryingly self-assured grin. “Al Fara’een Channel!”

After this chance encounter I saw Tawfik Okasha on screen for the first time: clip after clip of infuriating and absurd things it had said on Al Fara’een would turn up on Facebook or Twitter; for the longest time, knowing what to expect, I would avoid listening to anything longer than a few minutes — and it always made me physically uncomfortable — an illness. But for some reason the other night I decided to seek the Okasha out, enduring some three hours of it talking on YouTube. I may have developed an immunity, but it was a very edifying exercise.

To some extent, among dishonest quasi-politicians, the Okasha’s “fellahi” attitudes had all been seen under Mubarak: political participation reducing to kissing the right hands the better to be allowed to accumulate assets; political discourse reducing to the occasional, gusty expression of xenophobia, sectarianism or conspiracy theory inconsistent with actual policy-making, the better to play on Honourable Citizen sentiments… But, aside from the fact that they were a byproduct of the complete absence of any but the weakest semblance of political life, such attitudes were considerably more polished; more often than not, they were alloyed with something, anything vaguely recognisable as human. You could dismiss them as part of the institutionalised practice of seeking out private interests at the expense of morality and public welfare, or you could accept them as diehard residues of Nasserist discourse (perhaps even present-day aspects of Islamist discourse). Never and nowhere has dishonest fellahi identity politics taken so clear and concentrated a form as it does in “presidential hopeful” Tawfik Okasha.

I will mention only three of the Okasha’s maneuvers by way of example: based on his Yemeni ancestry, the way in which it took issue with Bilal Fadl, a pro-25 Jan political commentator of impeccable integrity, for being non-Egyptian; its tendency to respond to criticism by a woman with statements to the effect that that woman is a slut; and the fact that it challenged Mohammad ElBaradei — who is a constant reminder to the Okasha of its own dire inadequacy — to tell it how ducks are fed in the Nile Delta before he could qualify as a plausible presidential candidate.

It is always interesting to try and work out the truth in the lie, what motivates an Okasha to tell or be it; and perhaps this is the reason I succumbed to my three hours of exposure to this Okasha. Sadly, while even Mubarak could occasionally muster the appearance of a head of state, for example — the truth of his de facto place in the world, an aspect however ugly of his humanity — the Okasha’s only truth is inferiority. The Okasha does not even have the wherewithal to work its insecurities into anything resembling an ideology (Islamist, Arab nationalist, grassroots essentialist, even straightforward fascist…) Its inconsistency is such it ends up saying nothing beyond, “I am a cowardly, snivelling opportunist of the lowest order, but you will support me because, being a fellah, I am who you are; and we, you and I, are such cowardly, snivelling opportunists we cannot abide change unless we can, in the meanest, least truthful way imaginable, benefit from it — if someone else says we are appalling and atrocious, they are obviously not enough of a cowardly, snivelling opportunist to be a fellah and they must be eliminated. Long live the fellahin!”

It is this, I realise now, that makes the Okasha and its version of fellahi politics so amazing; and it is this that Al Fara’een is about: one looks for a sign of humanity, any indication of the capacity for rationality, pride or fellow feeling. But one finds only it.

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