REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so on.
This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah
Map of Cairo as tugra or Ottoman sultan’s seal
Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.
Eat your words
Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution
Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.
Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?
Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.
It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.
What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.
But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.
The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.
Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?
As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.
Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.
For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…
As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.
Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)
Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.
Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.
Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.
Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.
When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.
Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.
Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.
… It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state…
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.
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
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.
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
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.
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
Youssef Rakha, Islamophobe
Youssef Rakha thinks about the Brotherhood, the military and the modern state
A long time ago — it must have been 2000 — I was briefly in trouble at work for apparently belittling the achievement of Hezbollah against Israel in an article I had written.
The censure came from a left-wing, thoroughly secular editor; and I wasn’t particularly distressed to have to redraft the paragraphs in question. Perhaps, I thought, I had let my Islamophobia get the better of me. (I should point out that, though steadfastly agnostic, I am still Muslim, as eclectically proud of my heritage as any post-Enlightenment individual can reasonably be; so my self-acknowledged Islamophobia refers neither to the religion nor the historical identity but specifically to the far more recent phenomenon — perhaps I may be allowed to say “catastrophe” — of political Islam.) I was to realise that much of the Arab left’s respect for Hezbollah centred on the concept of resistance and, especially, its perceived triumph over a materially superior power, independently of a quasi-commonwealth of incompletely constructed modern states whose majority’s compromised position had rendered it an ineffective rival to “the Zionist entity”.
In the same context though perhaps not from the same time, I remember having mixed feelings about a Moroccan activist in a demonstration on Al Jazeera crying out repeatedly, “I am secular, but I support the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”
Admittedly, when I wrote that article, what bothered me the most about Hezbollah was its underlying (theocratic) totalitarianism, not its armed struggle per se. But since then, over many years in which I have been exposed to much more historical-political material as well as experiencing regional and local developments first hand — and without losing any of my contempt for Israel or the postcolonial order that sustains it, for which my being an Arab or a Muslim is by no means necessary — I have come to see very major issues with the concept of resistance itself: so much so that, like Jihadism, it sometimes seems to me one of the postcolonial world powers’ less visible instruments.
Notwithstanding how Hezbollah has renounced the moral high ground by supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria — one of the few supposedly uncompromised states whose “resistance” status has allowed it to practice genocide against its own citizens with impunity since the 1980s while in no way improving its situation vis-a-vis Israel — it is of course less about the Arab-Israeli conflict that I am thinking than the confluence of the left (socialist, Arab nationalist or “Nasserist”) and political Islam in the aftermath of January-February 2011 in Egypt: the Arab Spring. I am thinking about how that confluence, perhaps more than any other factor, has emptied “revolution” of any possible import. To what extent did the theory and practice of resistance in what has probably been the most important of the compromised Arab states lead to the perpetuation of both military hegemony and systematic deprivation of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of belief?
The current “transfer of power” to the Muslim Brotherhood is not happening as a result of the protests and sacrifices that made regime change possible over 18 months ago. It is not happening against the will of the postcolonial world order. It is happening as a result of West-blessed, SCAF-mediated “democratic” politicising — facilitated precisely by standing in ideological and practical opposition to the former status quo (an advantage the more or less liberal, as opposed to Islamist, protesters who staged “the revolution” never had).
Unlike agents of the modern state but like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood have helped to provide citizens with services, garnered their tribal loyalty by encouraging their conservatism and fed them an identity-based discourse of heroism, piety or renaissance. Preying on their raw emotions, they have also given them material rewards in return for their votes.
Now, contrary to what the left has been preaching since the start of the presidential elections, the “transfer of power” at hand will keep all the military’s unlawful privileges intact: the enormous military economy will continue to operate unscathed; crimes against humanity committed in the last 18 months will go unpunished; “revolutionaries” who have been subject to military trial will neither be re-tried nor released without high-profile intervention, etc. At the same time, while other beneficiaries of institutionalised corruption may change, the security and judicial apparatus that sustains it will not.
Thus resistance: somewhere in the collective imagination, irrespective of historical fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the capitalist, scheming, dictatorial, corrupt and abusive entity that the Mubarak regime was. It is a force of resistance. Never mind that it is sectarian, misogynistic, totalitarian, irrational and just as postcolonially compromised (hence just as capitalist, scheming etc.): as the de facto custodian of a religion and a culture it has only actually acted to humiliate, the Brotherhood is seen as an alternative, in exactly the same way as Hezbollah was seen as an alternative, to the failed state. What is either not seen or purposely overlooked is that the alternative’s existence depends on the failure of the state and modernity, which to one degree or another political Islam has always encouraged or helped to perpetuate.
So, while Islamophobia in the West is fear of the physically violent monster secretly created to combat communism during the Cold War, my own Islamphobia is fear of the morally violent monster covertly spawned by the failure of the postcolonial nation state and increasingly integrated into the world order at the expense not of Western (or communist) lives but of Muslim minds and souls. My Islamophobia is in fact a profoundly Muslim response to “revolution”.
Yet it is resistance as a concept that seems to hold the key. Not that the Muslim Brotherhood has used the term recently, but it is written into the proposed political formulation of a collective and supposedly efficacious identity that that identity should be against something.
What is required for this is not that the orientation in question should actually be against anything in practice, whether that thing is the world order, Israel or institutionalised corruption in the Egyptian state. It is interesting to note that, while their raison d’être is to be a distinct moral improvement on the corrupt, compromised political status quo, the Muslim Brothers, whether in parliament or beyond, have so far replicated the Mubarak regime’s conduct and mores, from pledging alliance to Washington and guaranteeing Israel’s security to monopolising and abusing power (the Freedom and Justice Party being, in effect, the “Islamic” variation on the now dissolved National Democratic Party).
What is required, rather, is that the resisting entity should espouse a certain degree of (moral if not physical) violence, drawing on both a totalitarian sense of identity and a paranoid conviction of victimhood. This is not to deny that the Muslim Brotherhood had been subject to persecution since its foundation in 1928; it is to say that, in the absence of any holistic vision even for the future of Islam (one that would crucially include ways to eliminate rather than perpetuate those anachronistic and obstructive aspects of the faith that alienate Muslims from the modern world and prevent them from contributing to human civilisation), the victimisation of the Muslim Brotherhood can only mean a justification for getting their own back — not actually changing anything for the majority of Egyptians.
Without any aspiration to reform, let alone revolution, and while they continue to provide cover for less sophisticated Islamists, the Brothers can only remain aspiring Mubaraks.
Even more fascinating, however, is the way in which the apparent triumph of the opposition embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood has automatically resulted in the opposition embodied by the left giving up all that it supposedly stands for in order to be in the seemingly right camp— an ideological paradox resolved with relative ease once what the left actually has in common with political Islam is identified: totalitarian identity, contempt for the modern state, paranoid victimhood, bias for the (class) underdog and, most importantly of all, the resistance imperative.
Egypt’s recent variation on the confluence of the left with political Islam is particularly ludicrous in that, while what the left supported the Muslim Brotherhood in order to resist was SCAF, it was arguably SCAF that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. It occurs to me now that, taking this into account, Islamophobia should really also be understood as opposition to the military — a fight on which the left was willing to give up when it allied itself with the Islamists.
(c) Youssef Rakha
Cairo Map by Piri Reis, 15th century
An Excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)”
Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:
The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”
The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.
In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.
This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.
Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.
Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.
In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).
Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.
Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.
Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.
. . .
My father did not live to see 9/11. I don’t know what he would have thought of the so called war on terror, let alone the equally so called Arab Spring. Though not particularly old, he was frail and muddled by the time he died—flattened out by decades of depression, isolation and inactivity.
I think of him now because the trajectory of his views seems relevant to 25 Jan. From a Marxist intellectual in the fifties and sixties—a member of a group that could transcend its class function to effect change, he became a liberal democrat in the eighties and nineties—an individual who had a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of his beliefs. In retrospect I think the reason for this change of heart had to do with a certain kind of honesty or transparency: at some point he must have realized that to be proactive was to be caught in a lie (the lie of independent nation building, of the dictatorship of the fellahin, of Islamic renaissance…), a lie for which not even an unhappy life was worth risking.
In a sense, while the outbreak of protests on 25 Jan and the collective determination that they should have tangible results amounted to that rare thing—a moment of truth in modern Arab history—events since 11 Feb 2011 have borne evidence of just how much of a lie Arab politics had been since colonial times, and how peripheral the truth must remain to society even after the revolution “triumphed”.
Where history is concerned, truth evidently cannot stand up to the lie. The truth of a predominantly young population with no need for identity-related hangups, who want money, sex, and space in which to express themselves and be productive, for example: such truth will not be articulated politically in the foreseeable future; and likewise the lie of an oppositional Islam with a vision for development or concern for the people: its being exposed, even repeatedly, will not stop society from behaving as if it were true.
A year ago on Tuesday the result of the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by SCAF and embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood—an unequivocal yes—effectively bracketed the “revolution” in time. It shifted the emphasis away from rights gained through protests (including the right to protest) to a reshuffling of the power structure via an indefinite “transition” whose purpose has been to restore and/or sustain a status quo that had—more often than not, by invoking an overriding sense of identity—systematically denied people those same rights.
The vote, however disastrous it is now judged to be, established the population’s willingness to cement the two bulwarks of corrupt—incompetent—conservatism: fascist-flavored religious authority and arbitrary military power; the very culturally articulated nepotism, rarefied inferiority complex, and xenophobia that had reduced the project of an independent nation guarding Arab-Muslim identity under Nasser to a client state riddled by poverty and Wahhabism under Mubarak. With the regime’s logistical powers deployed in Brotherhood-held voting blocs, “democracy” could quickly abort what opportunity for change had been generated, fueled by blood. And it became easy from then on to involve well-meaning political players in endless lost battles of the vote, even as their comrades were being killed at protests and defamed on “pro-25 Jan” TV.
In the wake of 25 Jan, a conscious or unconscious alliance between devout and patriotic sentiments, whether honest or hypocritical, thus became the truest expression of the lie. It not only exiled the truth, it also forced sincere champions of change to adopt more or less peremptory discourses divorced from the reality of “the people” while, consciously or unconsciously, elements of dissidence that had worked to dissipate and obstruct the effort to gain basic rights on the ground were reintroduced:
Once again “politics” is not about the right to live but about the Palestinian cause, the struggle against “American-Israeli empire”, the notion of collective as opposed to individual dignity. In this sense the “revolutionaries” have ended up echoing generations of “the opposition” whose isolation rendered them so ineffective they could be safely ignored and/or co-opted by the regime, themselves eventually becoming part of the lie.
Graffiti showing the pro-yes sign for the 19 March referendum—”say yes for faster stability”—and asking, “Is it stable yet?”
I think of my father now because his change of heart regarding the role of the intellectual in Arab history reflects my own regarding the Arab Spring: from far-fetched faith in improving the world to a form of well-meaning resignation or despair, the stance of an interested but stationary observer.
Thanks in part to the pace of life in the electronic age, the story of four decades of Egyptian politics—from the fifties to the nineties—was reenacted almost in its entirety in the space of a single year, from March 2011 to March 2012: after mass protests generate hope for a freer society, “patriotism” is instantly co-opted by a military junta that proves more repressive than the “fallen regime”; quasi-socialist sloganeering eventually gives way to ruthless capitalism in the garb of “Islamic” quasi-democracy; and the need for development is subordinated to the perpetuation of (religion- and military-based) power…
I wonder if my father’s experience left him as cold as mine has left me; I wonder if, by the end of his life, he felt as existentially disconnected, politically denuded, and socially paralyzed. Somehow, he maintained his compassion: his stoic insistence on dressing like a worker and only using public transport, for example, coupled by a strange delight in engaging working-class people in a debate among peers.
In this and other ways his complete rejection of the role of the patriarch belied his middle-class provincial origins and his aspiring-politician career path as a law graduate of the fifties. Evidently he could be anything but a patriarch—which is particularly interesting because so much of the psychosocial underpinnings of 25 Jan and its aftermath have reflected that very concept.
Perhaps the lie depends on fathers maintaining the semblance of an order: whatever else has been said in his favor, the most effective defense of Mubarak—which, having stood in the way of a pretend trial, will help to absolve SCAF of the very likely crime that he will be acquitted—was the notion that Mubarak has been a father to Egyptians. What this means in practice is of course very different from what it should mean: a true father, the chief of a tribe or the don of a mafia—the endless, intricate web of mafias that is Egypt—will supposedly care for his children, making their enemies offers they cannot refuse…
But, like so much else in the lie—religious commitment, professional efficiency, national pride—the substance of a given discourse had been so thoroughly subverted that only its surface appearance now mattered: that there should be someone in the haloed place of the father, not that there should be a father as such.
And perhaps that is why I am mistaken about Egyptians, most of whom—unlike me—will have had patriarchal fathers variously implicated in the lie. Perhaps the predominantly young population does have a need for psychosocial hangups connected with their Muslim identity, after all. That hunger for money and sex, which Muslim religiosity in practice by no means forbids: perhaps it is not bound up with any desire for self expression or any obligation to contribute quantitatively or qualitatively to human civilization; those things, after all, require some degree of acknowledgement of the truth; why else is it that individuals who have a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of their beliefs—in contrast to venerable sheikhs holding ridiculous keys to paradise, or even Marxist intellectuals playing in the extra time—are so impossibly few?
Watching the news these days, I am often overwhelmed by the sense that my father is communicating with me, reminding me that I should have attempted to a deeper understanding of his change of heart. The lie, he tells me, is much bigger than Mubarak, perhaps even bigger than SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood combined.
Seven years before:
Satre, my father and me (2005)
When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.
Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre’s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.
Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.
It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.
I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.
In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.
Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.
But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.
His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.
Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.
I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause.
I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.
1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.
2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.
3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.
4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time.
Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.
5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days. But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child. My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it. Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places. So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world. That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.
Last week Youssef Rakha lamented the sameness of the cultural press in the wake of revolution; this week he unpacks the role of that press as the morally superior Margin to an alleged establishment Text
It has been less than four months since the interim government of Essam Sharaf took charge and, true to form, intellectuals representing the supposed margin (of dissidence, of freedom, of whatever happens to be unlike or alternative to centres of money and power) are already assessing the performance of Emad Abu-Ghazi’s Ministry of Culture, questioning the presence in its ranks of former members of the NDP or its attempts to accommodate Salafi pressures through censorship, forgetting that the NDP and fundamentalist Islam are far more representative of the society in which they live than they could ever hope to be, and still possessing not a clue on how to achieve what they have always taken to be their raison d’être – transforming that society.
Intellectuals are doing so, for example, in the dedicated publication Akhbar Al-Adab, which, following a drawn-out, post-revolution strike against a corrupt editor more like a pro-government journalist (for which read civil servant) than an intellectual, is now edited by Abla El-Reweini: a triumph for all concerned but a development, ironically, that maintained the pre-revolution status quo of a small-circulation, progressive weekly subsidised by a gargantuan, more or less reactionary establishment (Akhbar Al-Yom). After some 50 years of ineffectuality, abolishing the ministry of culture altogether seemed not only the wiser but also the more revolutionary decision.
Yet the proposition found little support among the universally pro-revolution intellectuals themselves – and cultural circles by extension. It seems the intellectuals, like their counterparts in almost every field of endeavour, were eager to resume their usual role: that of disgruntled observer of official culture, which presupposes the existence of the latter. It seems they too could not wait for life to go “back to normal”. What is strange about this is not their impatience with the prospect of chaos, with temporary or partial unemployment and logistical, financial uncertainty. It is their failure to see the revolution as an opportunity for revising their perspective on culture itself: what it means to be an intellectual, what counts in a political position, what is the point of having or being part of a government-controlled institution…
For a decade following the “first independence” of 1956, big ideas about national consciousness and a state for the people did support cultural practises as part of a totalitarian system whose credibility came into question with the 1967 defeat. However, with the onset of anti-nationalist nationalism and mafia-style capitalism under Sadat, Egyptian culture – for a brief spell, an effective arm of the state – very quickly devolved into sporadic literary and audio-visual phenomena that have existed outside or in spite of corrupt and by now wholly superfluous institutions.
(Superfluous to the point of no longer even serving the regime that squandered public funds on them: from within another small-circulation, relatively progressive weekly subsidised by an even more gargantuan and reactionary institution, the revolution has made it possible to ask whether the decision by the former editor in chief of the daily Al-Ahram Ossama Saraya, a few months before the revolution, to Photoshop the figure of Mubarak from the back to the front of a small group of heads of state in a universally available wire picture before publishing it – the notorious “expressive intervention” scandal – actually served Mubarak’s interests.)
The failure of the Sadat regime to live up to the promise of freedom and its wholesale adoption of the Cold War strategy of endorsing political Islam to fend off the communist threat – just as idiotic, in the end, as Nasser’s non-alignment or pro-Soviet strategies of pan-Arab nationalism – resulted in the phenomenon of the “marginal” intellectual (i.e., the intellectual who did not openly pander to a regime she knew to have no legitimacy) as “the conscience of the nation”.
In the light of the isolation of both culture and power from an ever more underdeveloped society and so in the absence of the nation itself, the conscience of the nation is an interesting concept. The conscience of the nation critiques a construct, and in so doing it enters into a power game with fake representatives of (Arab, or Muslim) identity. Culture turns into an airtight system of shifting alliances and ongoing conflicts, personally driven and materialistically substantiated. The cultural margin becomes a steganographic part of the text of the regime not half as different from the society it rules as Akhbar Al-Adab would have us believe, a text – or a muddle of pious bureaucracy and incompetent profiteering – no longer really being written.
The marginal intellectual’s role before as after the revolution is to cling onto the moral high ground, critiquing the failure of said regime to undertake its national responsibility to a sublime thing called culture. But there can be no moral high ground in the absence of morality, nor does true culture – whether state-supported or spontaneous – emerge in isolation from the flesh-and-blood, dust-and-exhaust fume reality of which it is part. Neither nation nor culture can ever be very clearly defined in a police (or military) state where ideologies and counter ideologies, whether nationalist or Islamist, have eventually revealed themselves to be mere sloganeering.
Under Mubarak, Islamists (Salafis) were systematically unleashed on society in return for staying out of politics. The Ministry, headed for over 25 years by the former intelligence agent and abstract expressionist painter Farouk Hosni, turned culture into mega-project business closely associated with tourism and archaeology, by turns outraging and making outrageous concessions to Salafism.
Under Hosni the ministry totally emasculated an intellect like Gaber Asfour and totally abandoned one like the late Nasr Abu-Zeid, a potential and an actual victim of the “Islamic threat”, respectively. It siphoned money out of the country, like every other stolid ministry under Mubarak. In the systematic attacks on its abuses by the founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, the novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (who has called on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-standing defence minister and the head of the Higher Military Council, to assume the role of absolute ruler for a period of three years following the revolution), it found a shadow ministry with sufficient cover to make intellectuals feel they were active agents of a living culture, up against something they should be up against, owners of the moral high ground.
Yet now as before it is as if what must by definition be creative and organically rooted practise can be judged on the same terms as health care, for example. Now as before even intellectuals who recognise the bankruptcy of slogan-driven and populist consciousness are unable to let go of their role as the mirror image of a monster that does not really exist, or one that exists only insofar as they themselves allow it to.
The socio-cultural critic, which is the closest thing to what the Akhbar Al-Adab intellectual is or should be, is still at the receiving end of an intention emanating from an establishment that has proven, again and definitively, both culturally and morally hollow, paper thin, a vomit bag of un-things. Not only does this arrangement undermine the rebellious individual, it also turns the margin into a cog in the machinery of the very text it sets out to oppose – in the present case, and despite all the noise on both sides of the unreal divide: silence.
It is something of a cliche of contemporary literature to say that Amal Donqol is best known for his worst work: “political” poems which, though he paid lip service to high-art injunctions requiring that their message should be veiled in ancient history or mythology, can only be read as populist propaganda against policies of peace with Israel. Not that there isn’t always room in poetry for political engagement of some kind, but these works have arguably replaced the complex truths of literature with a largely instrumental sense of the real.
In this context it may be said that Donqol’s best known work tends to prostitute poetry to politics. Together with much of the work of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), it has certainly contributed to confirming the popular misconception that (armchair) activism is the principal arena of writers and that its polemical and didactic discourses are more or less indistinguishable from literature. There is no doubt that, as much as Darwish, Donqol is not only capable of writing beautifully but is also at the forefront of the development of free verse (the predominant poetic discourse until the 1990s). But this is just as true of Donqol’s political poems (La Tussalih, Al Bukaa bayn Yaday Zarqaa Al Yamama, Kalimat Spartacus Al Akhirah) as it is of other, less proactive and ultimately more interesting work (the texts collected in Awaraq Al Ghurfah Thamanya, for example, or the early love poems).
The more radical question has to do with the essentially pragmatic approach to (colonial) modernity of the Nahda or Arab renaissance that started in the late 19th century and of which Donqol was a later product. It is that pragmatism of the Nahda that finds renewed expression in Islamists resorting to the ballot box to instate theocracy, for example, or in hijab and niqab being justified as “personal rights”. In its postcolonial declension after the 1960s, it seems the Nahda could reduce and subvert the poetic, mixing canonical, technical ideas about what makes a text poetry with contemporary and vastly unrealistic notions of the poet’s role in a forcefully homogenised “modern” society. The Nahda thus not only produced a neither-here-nor-there poetic discourse that in its attempt to have the best of both worlds ended up in all but the most superficial qualities divorced from both its roots in the Arabic canon and the western modernity that was its direct inspiration, it also made the poet’s readiness to subscribe to that discourse a precondition for his being legitimised as a poet. To what extent could Donqol – or Darwish – afford to write poetry for its own sake?
Even in its non-political incarnations (in the work of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab or Salah Abdel-Sabour, for example), free verse as a “half revolution” (to re-situate the late Youssef Edriss’s expression) remains an example of the very national project to whose utter failure current, presumably transformative unrest throughout the Arab world bears testimony. In its engaged mode, however appealing in context, free verse has contributed to a substitute consciousness that was utterly impotent in the face of either the new world order or political Islam. It would take several treatises to argue that, by responding to the developments of the free verse movement under Sadat – the obscure and/or ideological work of the Seventies Generation – with violent individualism and an aversion to ideology so intense it soon became ideological in its own right, the Nineties Generation were in effect doing precisely what stars of the free verse movement had failed to do with the best intentions: promoting a Nahda of Arab society and art.
Rather than situating itself – also pragmatically – within a centralised political project that soon turned out to be an extension of the colonial status quo (we could argue about this for a long time, but yes, I think even Nasser and the Baath were extensions of the colonial status quo), the predominant poetry since Donqol has sought to recognise the heterogeneity of society, the inevitability of history and the hollowness of activist discourse. Instead of concerning itself with establishing technical credentials, it has drawn on the alternative poetic modernity of earlier prose poets who had long since emigrated like Sargon Boulus and Wadih Saadeh.
At the risk of being unfair to the memory of a great poet, whatever else I think of him, I am tempted to say that Donqol leaves the ongoing Egyptian revolution ultimately bereft. It is one thing to invoke his poem of 1972 about protests on and around the “stone cake” of Tahrir Square. Making sense of his conscious or unconscious position on the what is at stake – and Donqol, by the way, witnessed but did not take part in the student demonstrations about which he wrote the poem – is quite another.
The most persuasive description of current events in the Arab world is that they are our struggle for the Second Independence – something that may imply an increasingly evident clash with American hegemony, not through nationalist or Islamist anti-American rhetoric but through a very real conflict of interests between Washington on the one hand and the self-possessed Arab citizen on the other. Such a clash might have horrific implications. Through the agency of the powers that be, but inevitably at the expense of the independence in question, it might be avoided altogether. Poetry will have nothing to do with it.
Recently the free verse Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef wrote what I can only describe as a stomach-turning quasi-poem called “What Arab Spring”, in which he dismissed current events as an electronic-age charade orchestrated by Washington. More than ever before, and despite its having a greater audience than that of the 1990s, that seems to be the true position of the “political” poetry of the 1960s. I truly wonder what Donqol would have said.
The formalist: a ramble
Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm (A land isolated by sleep), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2007
Manzil al-ukht as-sughra (The little sister’s house), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009
The body confronts the world. It is alive, it comes forth, it has burst into consciousness. That is borne out when the senses operate, the brain processes perception. Instantly, objects take on meaning. Thus “The Truth About My Knee” from Manzil al-ukht as-sughra: It occurs to me at the height of darkness/To jump out of bed and smoke/But instead I place my knee on your back which like you is asleep/And thinks my knee is a dream/Get up/The eyes are more beautiful than the night you lock up in your head/Darkness is one thing/Night is another thing/Get up so you can see my knee in reality/Bent in walking and in the fancy of walking. Hence one of several possible prognoses of the moment of confrontation – the only one that interests me, really – in which the meaning that objects have taken on fits into some narrative of the self (an oversophisticated side-effect of language, arguably: this omnipresence of a self). As in the text just cited, translated from Arabic in full, meaning becomes the subject’s meaning, which the subject can formulate but only within a commonality of experience: a space – like Manzil al-ukht as-sughra, like Fleurs du mal, like The Illiad – where it can be shared, where it works with supposedly similar confrontations of the world: darkness, dream, back, eyes, night, knee. Inevitably – and this is the sad part – so long as it remains in language it will be shared through a finite set of abstractions, generalisations, signs or signals in a system so independent and predetermined it tends, in the act of communicating, to obscure what is being communicated. In the extremely short “Small Words” – Words so small/I can place between them/The fingers of my lover/And all my suspicions. – something complete is communicated but only against all odds. Inevitably – equally sad – meaning is shared in time; to be communicable at all, an experience must also be an occurrence which, however immediate- or recurrent-seeming, has already happened, has entered into some level of history; it has to have become part of the self doing the communicating. That is how it becomes fixed on the page. Even in the most dramatic or epic situation, by the time such fixing can happen, the moment has already passed; in its specificity, what is being talked about is irrevocably gone. The body, once the bearer – whether it has evicted that which it bears or not (yet), is either at rest, in suspension – or it is elsewhere. Nearly always, sleep has intervened; in one sense the perceived is already a monument or a relic, the perceiver dead. And this momentary cycle of birth and death, the bursting into consciousness of the body and the passing of the moment at which the body bursts, is all that an occurrence like the truth about a knee or fingers that may have touched another’s body amounts to in context, whether or not someone decides to talk about it once it has manifested to them. There is another text called “Harvests”, more striking for seeming to emerge directly from the body of the speaker with no “mental” intervention whatsoever: Stretched on my back/On my stomach/On my side/In all the directions that are painful when the floor is. And another (the title may be translated “Interrogating Noon”, but it literally means making noon utter: istintaaq adh-dhahirah), which is perhaps more telling: The world is clear at noon/No sound/No branch/No step/The sun alone wanders the earth/Leaving behind the silence/That follows every perfection/As if noon is its own mask. Nothing in the world can be more straightforward. A dynamic of contact and termination in, as it were, language-ready perception on the verge of becoming language: this could well be a definition for human consciousness itself. So far as poetry is a description or “embodiment” of that dynamic, then – and I am at last revealing what I’ve been thinking of since the start of this ramble: poetry as a very particular kind of utterance – that kind of utterance is ideationally nothing at all: a (non) experience of the world in language, neither cognitive nor emotive, neither information nor opinion (though perhaps, and to varying degrees, all of these things at once). By this definition, which is not only mine and the Lebanese poet Nazem Elsayed’s but, as adopted from mostly English and French writing through the 20th century, also that of the significant majority of Arabs interested in poetry in our times, metre and metaphor are both more or less extraneous to the poetic (with that last, quasi-Zen insertion of a name, I have just made my revelation more specific, incidentally: I am thinking of two short books by a Lebanese poet called Nazem Elsayed, who happens to be the 10th of 11 siblings, born to illiterate parents the year the civil war broke out, only months before I was born; and it is these two books that I am discussing and partially translating here). Along those lines it may not be insane to suggest that the liars, as Plato called poets, have conventionally misled us in at least two ways not in the realm of speech at large but within poetic territory itself as we think of it. They have made us picture things in terms of other things – the homeland in terms of the mother, for example – and they have fobbed our ears with drum beats, our sense of the subtlety of a statement with its in-your-face rhetorical ring; whereas in fact what they should have been doing was to bring the minutiae of perception, of the body’s multifarious connections with the world, into a shared space made possible by language, a language: a way, as Wittgenstein describes it, of picturing the world. Nazem Elsayed commits neither of the two sins in question, or he commits them both but with such originality that it seems as if he does not commit them at all, or else he does something altogether else that transcends them while they are being committed. The central and in more than one sense the eternal reference point for Arabic literature remains the Quran, which Elsayed learned by heart for some time as a child. But the Quran, like Plato, dismisses poets as hustlers followed only by al-ghawoun: the misguided, those who have lost their way (to truth). As perhaps the most classically rooted of his generation of liars, I should therefore point out that Elsayed was nonetheless among the ghawoun almost from birth. At school he performed badly at everything but Arabic; one out-of-touch teacher advised him to pursue higher education in Cairo, a centre of language learning no longer so central, as he eventually discovered from Egyptian newspapers. He started writing traditional verse at secondary school, learning the ‘aroud or metrical compendium of Al-Farahidi initially with help from an elder sister. Elsayed knew the Umawites and the great Abbassids by heart. He remembers picking up shrapnel and empty bullet shells to resell, he remembers showing talent as a footballer, but mostly he remembers his family’s orally transmitted verses and the long pre-Islamic classics known as al-mu’alaqat. The point at which he stopped reciting his work to Syrian migrant labour to whom his father would show him off because it was no longer classical enough to be appreciated marked a major early departure. Elsayed refers often to the zajal and the songs his parents recapitulated and listened to. He distinguishes between a folklore that was solely Lebanese and connected with small communities in Mount Lebanon, and the tarab – an appreciative term sometimes translated as enchantment – associated with the wider Arab world. Tarab is slower and more elaborate, more structurally challenging; he was always more interested in tarab. To arrive at what he calls a modern understanding of poetry, breaking free of the iron grip of the fuhoul (literally, studs) of the past, it took Elsayed some ten years of conflicts, debates and encounters, notably – in person – with the Sidon-based poet Hamza Abboud. He read the Egyptian Romantics and the Lebanese Mahjar poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammad Afifi Matar. He registered the influence, as he wryly points out, of “minority figures” like Youssef Al-Khal (Christian), Adonis (Alawite), Mohammad Al-Maghout (Ismaili). He took in Bassam Hajjar, Paul Chaoul, Wadie Saada, Mohammad Ali Shamseddin. Where Arabic was concerned, he initially thought of Abbas Baydoun and Shawqi Abi Shaqra as the apostate and the ignoramus, respectively, eventually to realise his mistake. Elsayed speaks of interest in language that made structure possible. He speaks of an intensity not of emotion but of cadence, a capacity for building, an awareness of language that is poetry. And this is why poetry is a name we feel justified in giving to the following, very strong passage (No. 3) from Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm, Elsayed’s book-length text about his father, a baker who died, as his son says, before he could overcome his fear of death, about growing up underprivileged in the constantly makeshift circumstances imposed by war, about war and poverty, poverty and knowledge, knowledge and the prospect of plenty, the slow discovery of the physical world, the preternatural wonder of things, but principally about his father. The wall suddenly. And the always smiling entrance to the building. And the pipes that raise the water in their thin frame. And the stairs that count the steps of ascenders. And the darkness of the first floor. And the myth of the last floor. And the circling, wound around like nostalgia. And the pavement that lies panting on both sides of the road. And people for the sake of people. And provincial malice. And they tell of the grandmother who went with her bones to the grave. And the boy who used to hate the night and now loves it. And once he thought night ascended from the head, the way morning comes out of the eyes. And the trees that scurry past like a herd of madmen. And the isolation of corners. And the solitude of pathways. And the frankness of roofs. And patience in the larynx. And the missing step. And the put-off step. And how walking repeats the feet. And the flaccid fist in the chest. And heavy bodies in the imagination. And burnt shadows on the floor. And miracles in the head. And abrupt whiteness. And silly whiteness. And the man progressing and falling down behind him. Land wherever he goes. And the drowned sea being more than one person drowned. And all those who are born suddenly and die at leisure. And his eyes which transport across the air without a face. And people seeing him through them. And they shining cheerfully like new shoes. And dying while open. And dying too late. And coming out of the face like a scream. By we (in the we that calls this passage poetry), I mean Elsayed, his publisher and I – never mind a coterie of appreciative commentators, never mind a readership that must exist – as well as a discursive space shared by, among many other parties, the Egyptian Generation of the Nineties: poets who wrote originally but not as it is sometimes thought unprecedentedly in prose, most of them only slightly older than Elsayed. Their vernacularly nuanced standard Arabic – as Egyptian as it is provocative – could not possibly have influenced him. Within a discursive space that includes them, I am saying, Elsayed stands out for his connection not with the English, French and eventually Arabic writing that informed contemporary practises but with a tradition of Arabic verse (to be distinguished, as such, from our particular kind of utterance) from which the Generation of the Nineties were eager, emphatically, to tear themselves. One cue to Elsayed would be to say he transports the aesthetic intricacies of that tradition into a relevant – urban, living – idiomatic space; but the interesting thing is the way he does that. In hadathah (a word used, confusingly, to denote both modernity and modernism) – in the theorising of Adonis, for example, or in the free verse movement also known as the modern poetry movement also known, by its innovative approach to rhythm, after the metric unit it depended on as the taf’ila poetry movement – tradition is present in undifferentiated chunks: in an overriding theme, in an abundance of references, in a mode of composition. This is both a cause and an effect of hadathah coming across as a compromise or a copout; and while it is counterbalanced by equally whole chunks of the modern or the then contemporary, tradition turns into an obstacle, a burden ideally or eventually to be rid of, like Eliot’s boring hanger-on. In the present two books, by contrast – the one a single poem, the other a collection of very many extremely short poems, reflecting tarab and folklore, respectively – tradition lives in the structure of the composition and the movement of the language, the writer’s understanding of structure as an original possibility inherent to a particular language. Tradition lies low and by so doing it energises and animates what is being uttered, Elsayed’s confrontation with the world; it hosts it in the way the skin hosts muscle and bone. As it turns out, once tradition becomes an organic constituent of the text as world view, as literary style, as mode of perception – this happens with varying degrees of success, of course – it renders hadathah irrelevant. There is no need for either theory or reference. There is no need for an overt position on the poetic, which Elsayed says makes its mark simply by being what it is. There is only poetry, or would-be poetry (a noble enough accomplishment). And there are all the questions that the text itself raises in its capacity as an interaction with the physical, not (like much of the early work of the Generation of the Nineties, for example) in its capacity as a response to the social. That is only one way of showing what Nazem Elsayed stands out for, but stand out – in however subdued and unpretentious a way – I think Nazem Elsayed does.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha
Al Ahram Weekly, December 2001
“He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live”
Writing is a vision. Its value depends on the depth, totality, diversity and richness of that vision. And it is through an assessment of all these elements that one distinguishes between a writer who rushes past, leaving nothing behind, and one who makes history, marking the beginnings and ends of literary epochs and schools through settling on new points of departure, or carrying existing traditions to unprecedented destinations. Naguib Mahfouz (whose 90th birthday we celebrate) is among those with whom writing is transformed, its presence, thanks to their creative contribution, gaining in depth and variety, and reaching out to undiscovered horizons. He is a decisive landmark in the history of Arabic writing, and a luminous point in that of world literature. He belongs to us as much as to humanity at large: his embodiment of our troubles, articulation of our dreams and awareness of our specificity make him triumphantly local; while the universal human paradigms and events he depicts make him a world figure to be reckoned with. He is Egyptian, Arab, human, international: his writing integrates all that connects a human being to a fellow human being through space and time, and across differences of language, religion, ethnicity and nationality.
This is why his readership grows increasingly through the world, the number of his translations, in every language, rising. The tendency is not merely a consequence of his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1988 (for how many writers received the prize over its century-long history, only to sink into obscurity soon afterwards) but, rather, a result of the penetrating power of his writing, which has proven capable of reaching human beings everywhere. That writing questions the human condition with respect to a range of issues relating to its most vital aspects, from the universal to the socio-political, particularly in their multifold connections to values of freedom, equality and progress. These are the values celebrated by Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, which he has not stopped writing for more than half a century. Thus he remains faithful to the art of literature, his vocation of choice, devoted to the toil it requires without once giving in to life’s spurious temptations, unflinching in his dogged exploration of a human consciousness bound by a place and a time. He breaks into terrain filled with land mines, giving voice to those human discourses repressed in the name of politics, society or religion. He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live, unaware of our presence in it.
The beginning of all this is the exceptional talent that accompanies his creative experience, penetrating to the universal root that resides deep within the essence of the local. The result is a human richness that remains inseparable from cultural specificity: thus does the international become an attribute of national identity. It would not be a digression to mention how, while receiving medical treatment in America, my doctor stopped to laud Naguib Mahfouz when he found out that I was an Egyptian teaching literature in the United States. And when I asked why he liked Mahfouz’s books (which he had read in English translation), the doctor replied that the reason was that they provided him with knowledge about Egypt and Arabs, while at the same time deepening his knowledge of himself. A statement to that effect was used as a promotion of Mahfouz’s books (20 of which have so far been translated into English) at Waterstone’s bookshops. Very similar words, in fact, are used to describe Mahfouz on the Nobel web site: his works speak to us all, the site says, as much as they speak to Arabs. So prevalent is this view of Mahfouz, and so often have I encountered it that I feel a distinct sense of pride knowing that I am his compatriot, that I have met him personally, that I have read every one of his works in its original language and that, in my own research, I study “the age of the novel,” the novel he did so much to create.
When I arrived in Cairo at the end of January 1989 the city’s pale winter sunlight was waiting for me. Radiant and sparkling on the surface of a Nile that had regained its full strength after several lean years, it felt like a deliverance from the cold and the persistent rain of Paris and Rabat, as well as an invitation to move. Waiting for my appointment with Naguib Mahfouz, my mind went back to the first time I had seen him on the no. 6 Ataba to Agouza bus when I was in my first year at university studying Literature. I had started reading his novels after seeing an article by Taha Hussein that praised them for their descriptions and for the way in which Mahfouz was able to make his characters live. Mahfouz was wearing dark glasses when I first saw him, but I recognised him because of the prominent mole below his nose. Sometimes I saw him talking with another passenger who had also recognised him, but I did not dare to talk to him myself. Instead, I read what the press had to say about him, and I read his novels and short stories…
From my return to Morocco in 1960 to the beginning of the 1980s, I read all Mahfouz’s novels and short stories as they appeared. As historical events and disappointments piled up, this author always knew how to open up new areas in writing that seemed to collect the echoes of Egyptian life and transform them into an ever more complex fictional world. In the 1950s Mahfouz had often been accused of being unable to push his vision beyond the timid ambitions of the urban petite bourgeoisie; but I found in these new texts a willingness to deal with the new questions that experience was now posing. In so doing, and by rephrasing these social questions in symbolic, imaginative form, he removed them from the realm of simple fantasy to that of disciplined artistic imagination, which would in turn become part of the way in which society saw itself. Perhaps throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad, the young hero of the Trilogy: “What is truth and non-truth? What connection is there between reality and what goes on in our heads? What is the value of history? Myself, what am I?”
Reading Autumn Quail, Adrift on the Nile, Miramar, Karnak, Love under the Rain, Under the Bus Shelter, Stories of our Quarter and Wars’ Song in Rabat, I got used to living with shattered illusions and to questioning what was presented as historical truth. When I met Mahfouz in 1989, I spoke to him about the change I had detected in these novels, which now seemed more willing to go beneath the surface of things. “But this is true of all my novels,” he said. “When I try to read my novels, or rather when I remember them since I never re- read them, I find that I have always had two preoccupations: both a powerful interest in reality and an attempt to get at the forces that that surface reality hides.”
…Of all Mahfouz’s novels, the ones that stay with me are The Beggar, Wedding Song and The Thief and the Dogs. A tight thread connects these three books together, I think, and draws them back to the invisible “secret wound” at the base of all Mahfouz’s writings. It is a thread that is tautly stretched between uncontrollable impulses on the one hand and melancholy abandon on the other, a retreat towards the calm of death the better to observe the world of the living.
In The Beggar, the lawyer Omar El- Hamzaoui breaks the mould of an uneventful life, carrying the reader off into a journey of doubt and emotional anarchy. The framework, conventions and values that have organised his life up to now are suddenly overthrown by an absurd feeling of unease that roots itself deep within him. The doctors are helpless; he seems to be in good health, but he is nevertheless being eaten away by anxiety and a feeling of futility. As a way of escape, he sets out to experience everything that goes against propriety and married life, losing himself in licentiousness and sexual pleasure in the hope of discovering the origin of his deep unease. However, his nightly adventures themselves disappear in the morning light, and he remains absent to the world. Repeating the words of a singer — “If you really want me, why have you abandoned me?” — he seems to have become a dead man among the living. Even when he meets his old friend the militant leftist Osman Khalil as the latter leaves prison, he cannot find himself again. He admires the energy of his friend, whose militant ardour years in prison have done nothing to cool, but he, Omar El-Hamzaoui, is undermined from within, like a body that has neither natural impulses nor desire. A dead beggar among the living, he now calls upon death to give him a taste for living again and the feeling that he belongs in the world.
The value of The Beggar does not lie in the dialogue it contains about the superiority of science over art in the technological age, which is a theme that is in any case exhausted. Instead, it lies in the fact that this novel introduced the Arab reader to the opposition between nihilism, or a life without horizons, and the belief that the world and society are open to change. In this novel, the latter belief is no longer tenable, being neither as full nor as positive as reforming discourse would have it be. Instead, the 1960s citizen has discovered his insignificance in the face of the nationalist State’s repressive machinery. Not even free to be himself, he is forced into evasion, silence and the silencing of his conscience.
In the Beggar, as in other novels by Mahfouz, a sense of metaphysical anguish, of a journey to the ends of the self, of a revolt against the kind of rationality that disciplines and justifies, is added to the writing’s social themes, this attraction to extreme states mixing Mahfouz’s description of the existing social world with the kind of imaginative vision that changes and enlarges that world’s limits. Mahfouz does not shy away from presenting large issues that lie buried in the unconscious… But even beyond this audacious, creative vision, what he is always looking for is ethical renewal. As he once said to me, “art sometimes seems to want to destroy morality, but if one looks at it more closely, one will always find that what it is calling for is a new morality and not morality’s destruction. Take the poetry of Abu Nawas. People call this licentious, but in fact it is a poetry that is calling for a new morality, one that has been freed from the taboos of the past.”
Extracted from (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated) by Mohamed Berrada, translated by David Tresilian.
“His principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch.”
Naguib Mahfouz and I are linked, above all, by friendship. In this capacity, though, I maintain the right to silence. Reflections on a personal relationship, however interesting, are not for public consumption. I will therefore give you my opinion of him as a public figure and a writer, making a few impersonal, though I hope significant, remarks. It is worth adding that these statements are conceived irrespective of his status and his achievement, they are an individual’s observations, as it were, and they no doubt benefit from my association with the Harafish seminar and my keeping up with his work through the years.
I first read Mahfouz in Mansoura, in the late 1940s, coursing through Khan Al- Khalili and Zuqaq Al-Madaq. And to say that the realism and immediacy of these books struck me is to contribute nothing new. I will venture a remark relating to genre, rather, since the form in which a writer constructs his literary edifices can sometimes throw light on that writer’s achievement. Mahfouz, I think, is a much better novelist than a short story writer. Occasionally, no doubt, as in the case of the very memorable short story Al-Khalaa (The Waste Land), he will produce a museum piece, as it were. But more often his stories read like fragments of unfinished novels or stray snapshots of everyday life, inarticulate steps that lead nowhere. He is, foremost, a novelist. And his contribution is best understood in this context.
My second remark concerns Mahfouz’s earliest beginnings as a writer. Up until the early 1940s, when he launched his career in fiction with the ancient Egyptian novels and the early short stories, Mahfouz wrote philosophical articles, pondering purely intellectual questions in an abstract framework. And even though these magazine pieces were already gaining something of a reputation, it is little known that he started out as a writer of non-fiction. This fact is relevant to his entire corpus, since an intellectual, abstract strain runs through it to the end. At university he studied philosophy, you see, and his world view incorporated a significant historical dimension; thus, even in his least intellectually-minded works, he was deeply interested in history and the way it played out in the lives of the individuals, families and larger communities that populate his works, however subtly this interest might be expressed in some instances. History is always on his mind.
This makes of him a thinker. And — here we come to the third, important remark one might make about the man and his work — he is primarily a political thinker, someone with an articulate and integrated vision that takes in the historical moment and its implications for society. Indeed this provides a clue as to why the novel remained his most efficient vehicle, for the scope of the novel affords ample opportunity for the expression and formulation of such a vision. In a novel, Mahfouz has often said, one can combine poetry with philosophy and even science. Narrative, for him, is a mechanism of covert social-political commentary, operating in the framework of the novel, irrespective of the external trappings of the story that it tells.
Mahfouz’s literature deals with three modes of human interaction, three distinct circles encompassed by a single setting, the city of Cairo: the realm of state-employed bureaucrats; the world of the futwat (strongmen who levied a form of tax, itawa, on the inhabitants of certain popular neighbourhoods in return for alleged or actual protection against rival strongmen); and the life of middle-class, urban families. In these three modes he explored the depths and breadths not only of human character but of a number of overriding ideas that went into the making of his vision. Now in everyday life, Mahfouz may have been cautious about voicing his views on politics. But in all three fictional circles his vision turns out to be essentially political. Mahfouz’s principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch; these are his most prevalent themes. Power and its workings, in a social context, over time, is the fundamental precept of Mahfouz’s literary project.
The fourth and last remark I want to make is that no other writer, with the possible exception of Yehya Haqqi, was as eager to spend time with intellectuals and keep up with their affairs. And in the case of Mahfouz this tendency is part and parcel of his literary endeavour: he saw writing principally as a means of communication. He never cut himself off from social life. His friends included artists as well as writers, and his interaction with the likes of Tawfik Saleh and Ahmed Mazhar not only gave him a broad perspective on his social and political surroundings but provided him with what he saw as essential to his writing: immediate feedback. Mahfouz’s social role affords yet another, peculiar insight into his achievement. He was never as interested in the enduring, lasting qualities of literature as he was in the task at hand. In fact he once told me that, so long as a narrative of his was read and its ideas communicated, he didn’t care if it was then used as wrapping paper for vegetables. Literature to him is essentially a social message, and he writes to be read in the here and now, not necessarily for eternity or posterity. It is ironic, therefore, that of his generation of authors — writers like Mohamed Afifi and Adel Kamel, who emerged at the same time, were soon to disappear, never to be heard of again — he is the one who lived on. Single- handedly, and without the slightest illusion of grandeur, his is one of the great achievements of our times.
المركز الثقافي العربي
دار العين للنشر
أمير تاج السر
ابتسام إبراهيم تريسي
المركز الثقافي العربي
شركة رياض الريس للكتب والنشر
خيري أحمد شلبي
المركز الثقافي العربي
مقبول موسى العلوي
رزان نعيم المغربي
- · Seven women make the longlist of 16, the highest number in the Prize’s history
- · Religious extremism, political and social conflict and women’s struggles emerge as key themes
The Judges of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011 today, Thursday 11 November 2010, announce the longlist contenders for the Prize, one of the most prestigious and important literary events of its kind in the Arab world .
The judging panel whittled down the longlist of 16 from a total of 123 entries, from 17 countries across the Arab world. They included for the first time this year, Afghanistan. The highest number of submissions came from Egypt. The number of submissions is up on the previous prize year, when 118 titles were entered from 17 countries. 29% of the works submitted were by female writers, compared with 16% the previous year.
The longlisted titles range from a woman’s account of the underbelly of present day Mecca to a story of Ottoman nationalism at the end of the 19th century and a tale of star-crossed teenage lovers in the Yemen. There are two novels about fathers whose sons join Al-Qaeda, whilst another looks at the ordeal of a prisoner in an American prison in Morocco. The struggle of the Arab expatriate in Western society is the focus of two novels, both in the UK and in America. This year sees solid representation from North Africa.
The list features four authors previously nominated for IPAF, for the 2009 Prize: Fawaz Haddad, shortlisted for The Unfaithful Translator and longlist contenders Renée Hayek, Ali Al-Muqri and Bensalem Himmich for Prayer for the Family, Black Taste, Black Odour and The Man from Andalucia respectively.
The 2011 longlist is, with author names in alphabetical order:
|The Arch and the Butterfly||Mohammed Achaari||Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre)||Moroccan|
|The Doves’ Necklace||Raja Alem||Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre)||Saudi Arabian|
|Turmoil in Jeddah||Maqbul Moussa Al-Alawi||Al-Kawkab
|An Oriental Dance||Khalid Al-Bari||El-Ain Publishing||Egyptian|
|God’s Soldiers||Fawaz Haddad||Riad El-Rayyes Books||Syrian|
|Secret Rope||Maha Hassan||Al-Kawkab||Syrian|
|A Short Life||Renée Hayek||Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre)||Lebanese|
|My Tormentor||Bensalem Himmich||Dar El Shorouk||Moroccan|
|The Andalucian House||Waciny Laredj||Jamal Publications
|Women of Wind||Razan Naim Al-Maghrabi||Thaqafa l-al-Nashr (Cultural Publications)||Libyan|
|The Handsome Jew||Ali Al-Muqri||Dar al-Saqi||Yemeni|
|Common Sins||Fatin Al-Murr||Dar An-Nahar||Lebanon|
|Istasia||Khairy Shalaby||Dar El Shorouk||Egyptian|
|The Hunter of the Chrysalises (or The Head Hunter)||Amir Taj Al-Sir||Thaqafa l-al-Nashr (Cultural Publications)||Sudanese|
|Brooklyn Heights||Miral Al-Tahawy||Dar Merit||Egyptian|
|The Eye of the Sun||Ibtisam Ibrahim Teresa||Arab Scientific Publishers||Syria|
The Chair of Judges commented on the longlist: “This year’s novels were thematically varied, covering the issues of religious extremism, political and social conflict, and women’s struggle to liberate themselves from the obstacles standing in the way of their personal growth and empowerment. We are delighted with the very high percentage of women who reached the longlist compared with previous years.”
The 2011 Panel of Judges will be revealed at the same time as the 2011 shortlist announcement is made on 9 December 2010 in Doha, Qatar, the 2010 Arab Capital of Culture.
Joumana Haddad, Prize Administrator, commented on the longlist: “The Prize in its fourth year has become a critical conscience and a literary reference in all that relates to the modern Arabic novel, in both the Arab and Western worlds. The 2011 longlist is proof of that.”
2011 marks the fourth year of the Prize, the first of its kind in the Arab world in its commitment to the independence, transparency and integrity of its selection process. Its aim is to celebrate the very best of contemporary Arabic fiction and encourage wider international readership of Arabic literature through translation.
To date, the three winners of the Prize have been translated into English, in addition to a range of other languages including Bosnian, French, German, Norwegian and Indonesian. Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (2008) was translated into English by Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton) in 2009, Youssef Ziedan’s Azazel(2009) will be published in the UK by Atlantic Books in August 2011 and news of an English translation of Abdo Khal’s Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles (2010) will be announced shortly. In addition, a number of the shortlisted finalists have also secured translations, the most recent of which is an English translation of Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter through the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation.
Jonathan Taylor, Chair of the Board of Trustees, commented: “The longlist for the fourth International Prize for Arabic Fiction is as varied, talented and powerful as ever and includes writers from seven Arabic countries, a high proportion being women.”
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is awarded for prose fiction in Arabic and each of the six shortlisted finalists receives $10,000, with a further $50,000 going to the winner. It was launched in Abu Dhabi, UAE, in April 2007, and is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.
The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011 will be announced at the awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Monday 14 March 2011, the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
- The Booker prize (guardian.co.uk)
- 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction Shortlist Announced (readersread.com)
As I write this, for perhaps the fifth time this morning, the novelist, essayist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri has updated his Facebook status with the same line of dialogue from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy”; that is how he types the words, without capitals, incessantly repeating them in obsessive typographic experimentation.
It is but one – somewhat unsettling – example of the kind of intellectual engagement afforded by the most popular of all web sites. A kind made possible only by the Arabs’ most recently adopted literary genre: never mind the fact that Zikri happens to quote an English-language source on this occasion; over the last two years or so, the status update has arguably become the best read form of Arabic literature. Far more so than the tweet, which tends to rely on external links and operates in a far less interactive space, the Arabic Facebook status update – together with the “comments” and “likes” it readily engenders – is increasingly the source, the reference and departure point, for all kinds of cultural debate. It can of course be about anything, and in miniature form it reproduces and replaces every kind of writing: the poem, the short story, the review, the opinion piece, even the interview – not to mention the quote and the song lyric. There are those who specialise in the status update, too: whether writers-journalists or not, they tend to affirm and/or parody those discourses whose original place is the café, the podium or the (cultural) pages of newspapers.
Where more space is needed for literary texts or items of journalism often previously published elsewhere, the mechanism of the “note” provides it; you seldom have to depart from the mother of all “social-networking” fora to read and respond to even those things published in print. And you can respond instantly: a white rectangle where you need only click for the cursor to start blinking positively invites you to do so. There are absolutely no limits on what you can say.
Provided you have the right friends, indeed, a quick run-through of your news feed – which comes with all such responses attached – should yield a more or less accurate picture of the culture scene in its totality. It is not so much objectionable as sacry that so much of what is talked about proves contentious. Besides quotes from the lyrics, Fairuz’s new album solicited discussions of whether or not the last surviving diva of Arab singing has retained her appeal, and to what extent the jazz-influenced music by her son, Ziyad Rahbani, has serviced weakening vocal abilities. It is fascinating to see how the vast majority of people will use Facebook not so much to communicate their views as to say what they feel they should say, even though they are under no compunction to say anything in particular: with very few exceptions, Fairuz’s phenomenal status was simply affirmed, again and again, without much argument as to why it should be.
Likewise any number of cultural topics: the evaluation by several fellow writers of a well-known humorist like Bilal Fadl, for example, or – most recently – whether or not prose poets should accept the offer of publication in a supplement of the state-supported magazine Ibdaa, which is edited by the most notorious of their detractors, the establishment figure Ahmad Abdelmotie Hegazi: scuffles over such issues of general and not so general interest abound; and where things get out of hand on the “wall”, people take it outside through the private messaging or chat facility, insulting each other to their heart’s content.
I am hard pressed to understand the implications of this trend, not only for individuals who express their shifting alliances by removing each other from friend lists or – occasionally – by luridly expressing their feelings on each other’s walls and then removing each other from friend lists, but equally for the functioning of culture itself. What is it that changes when the cultural operators, the figures and the stars, cease to see and be seen, turning into lines of text that twinkle, surrounded by no end of pictures and names, against a white background?
I think one thing that happens is that they become images of themselves; they become marketing devices in an ongoing, endless (self) advertisement; in strange and variously subtle ways they become their own brands. And they stand not for what they stand for but for how, through the medium of the status update, they choose to confirm and reconfirm it: the translator and novelist Nael El-Toukhy is the eternal cynic; the journalist and essayist Sayed Mahmoud is the go-to man for what is going on…
That said, it is the content of the culture scene reflected by Facebook that stimulates and disturbs. Last night the young writer Hilal Chouman summed it up beautifullyvin response to my own update asking why it must all remain so deadeningly dull: “The homeland God morality the Woman the past of the Left the present of the Left the future of the Left breaking taboos the young novel the poetic novel epics the novel of generations the relationship with place occupation normalization with Israel dialogue in standard Arabic dialogue in colloquial Arabic the correct idiom he fornicated he took pleasure she has too apples and the box of his penis the secrets of poetry and that which is not poetry poetry poetry modern poetry the static and the dynamic is the city dead a plastic city brutal capitalism the humanization of the murderer those around him weren’t bad but he wasn’t bad the invaders invasion from within etc etc etc…”
When, several years ago, the magazine Hijab Fashion launched in Cairo, few registered the anomaly in its name: Hijab – a veil to reduce visibility; and Fashion – the compulsion to stand out. Only the most cynical amalgam of capitalism and Islam seemed capable of delivering that speedball.
But what amazed me was the un-ironic enthusiasm with which the target market took the shot. Piety and consumerism evidently mixed so freely you could place their glaring buzzwords side by side and no one would even notice.
Less as a title than a frame of mind, “Desert Destination” – the catch-all term now being coined for a host of tourist developments across the Emirates – strikes me similarly (see From Desert to Destination, The National, April 28).
Another incompatible pair of words: barely inhabitable land wedded, improbably, to expensively canned luxury; the quest for the wilderness tightly fenced in by tourism. As is the case with the first pair, one half all but negates the other.
Yet aside from Muslim arguments about commodification and literalism, the DD paradox may have more to say to humanity at large.
For settled Arabs as much as their adventurous colonisers (the Oxbridge traveller Wilfred Thesiger, a proud beacon of the British Empire, being the most relevant), ar Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter, where one of the DDs is to be located, denoted not merely a place, but a state of being. It was the desert of the desert, the deepest kernel of identity by which Arabs defined themselves; simultaneously the hell of teeh (loss in quicksand) and the heaven of guiltless origin; the void without which no fullness is possible.
Notwithstanding the mortal peril of actually being there, its lure, the lure of the desert to the power of infinity, kept even non-Arabs like Thesiger busy for entire lifetimes. Perhaps Thesiger’s greatest achievement was to communicate a sense of that lure. He says, for example, that local tribesmen never knew this vast desert by its literary name but called it, as he too would in his books, simply the Sands. Only Arabs who were far enough away to romanticise the desolation referred to it as ar Rub’ al Khali.
The wryly titled Qasr al Sarab, whose name means Mirage Palace, is rising very tangibly from those Sands as we speak. Five more overblown stars hailing the multinational break-in: once it is complete, both the Empty Quarter and that gung-ho Etonian’s endless dunes will disappear forever. All that they mean for Arabs, not to mention Thesiger’s white-man fetishes (hardship, courage, purity of race and tongue, dodgy attachment to she-camels) will be reduced to a tourist DD.
Empty, in other words, will no longer be empty; after Qasr al Sarab, even the geographic shape of the Quarter will change. And as one logical conclusion to the post-Enlightenment project to divide up and classify the world, the unknown will become known down to the last U-turn. So ends the other side of the Arab looking glass, the id to the Arab ego, the invisible nexus through which Arab relations extended in defiance of space and time. The empty is filled.
Development in the UAE is radical and frighteningly fast. Much like the old-school colonialist deprived of the opportunity to break new ground, the settled Arab will now be divested of a crucial part of his psyche. No longer will it be possible to think of the Empty Quarter and imagine a nothingness of scalding quicksand. Rather than risking his life for a reunion with a more authentic version of himself, the contemporary Arab who can afford it must take out his credit card and put on a fake explorer hat to learn about falconry.
But perhaps this is unnecessarily negative. Perhaps resort developments in the Empty Quarter will make heritage more accessible. But the notion of a palace in the desert – mirage or otherwise – is anathema to the very meaning of the Empty Quarter. Here there is no perhaps.
Many more thousands of visitors may annually contribute to the UAE’s gross GDP, but there is no escaping the enormity of an Empty Quarter no longer empty – increasingly eroded by the agents and implements of a world that can accommodate neither void nor origin; neither heaven, in practice, nor hell.
In the mid-1940s, Thesiger could not have predicted with accuracy what would become of this part of the world, but he did have the foresight to realise what his presence among the Rawashid who accompanied him across the Sands might herald for the region even as he spoke their obscure dialect, rode she-camels as they did, drank brackish water and ate sand-baked bread, all the while armed with the requisite khanjar.
When an ancient, destitute Shahara tribesman approached with the words “I came to see the Christian” laughing, the dismissive Rawashid would insist he was a madman Thesiger did not share their amusement. “I wondered fancifully if he had seen more clearly than they did, had sensed the threat which my presence implied the approaching disintegration of his society and the destruction of his beliefs. Here especially,” the explorer wrote, “it seemed that the evil that comes with change would far outweigh the good.”
An imperialist’s self-fulfilling prophecy? Perhaps the death of the Empty Quarter was a forgone conclusion even then. Not even Thesiger could have guessed that tourism, not oil, would wield the weapon, though. And yet there is nothing fanciful about any of it. Back in Cairo, Hijab Fashion is still selling well.
Seven poets, seven emirates
I arrive in Ras al Khaimah the night before my appointment and, drained by travelling non-stop for 12 hours, barely register the atmosphere before going to bed. When you live in Abu Dhabi, it turns out, waking up in Ras al Khaimah can be surreal.
The city is like the UAE capital through the looking glass. It boasts fewer salwar kameezes, for example, but this is made up for by a strong south Indian contingent, seemingly better integrated than Abu Dhabi’s Pashtun community. Either there are more tourists or the tourists are more visible. Emiratis drive leisurely through the hilly terrain, which keeps tapering into promontories until it suddenly levels out in the desert as flat as the plains of Dhafra – and then, when you are least expecting it, the sand gives way to green.
Echoing the phantasmagoria is the nickname the poet Abdul Aziz Jassim, another Ras al Khaimah native, reportedly gave the emirate, invoking the magic realism of Gabriel-Garcia Marquez: Colombia.
Nor are the historical facts very sobering: its being coextensive with the ancient port town of Julfar; its being the last sheikhdom to join the federation; its being home to the 15th-century navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, credited with finding the route to India, as well as one of two possible birthplaces (the other being Sharjah) for his contemporary al Majdi bin Dhahir, the legendary father of Nabati poetry… But I am here to meet the poet Ahmad al Assam – perhaps the only major Ras al Khaimah writer to continue living in Ras al Khaimah – and it is on his life and work that I should concentrate.
Assam seems to embody the intersection between the Gulf tradition of oral verse and the contemporary prose poem. His work, published sporadically, reads like fragments from an epic of Julfar. Few themes could be differentiated from the setting, which the poet celebrates in Whitmanesque tones, unbridled by form or reason.
He did not know it then, but at the majalis to which he accompanied his father as a child, many of the Nabati texts recited were prose poems.
Born in 1965, he lived “between two freejs”, and a mad neighbour “who kept to himself until he had an episode, during which he would concern himself solely with us children, behaving as an over-attentive father”, who contributed to his understanding of the human condition. Assam would grow up to develop William Faulkner’s knack for reading greatness into modest lives, and Pablo Neruda’s ability to perceive in his homeland a virgin, preternatural world untouched by vice.
With a population of 250,000 (220,000 of whom live in the eponymous city) dispersed over 1,700 sq km, Ras al Khaimah is the northernmost emirate, bordered by Oman as well as Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. In the early 1970s it housed the Trucial comrades of Oman’s Dhufar revolutionaries. Ras al Khaimah territory contains both the Mussandam Peninsula – where the Arab first met the Ajami, or “he who cannot speak [Arabic]”: the oldest, slightly derogatory term for a Farsi – and the Gulf’s closest thing to the Grand Canyon, Wadi Bih. It is the only emirate that has combined fishing and sheep farming with agriculture, and today thrives on reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals used in ceramics manufacture as well as agricultural produce.
“My peers always knew to stop talking once they sensed my presence, even at a distance,” he recalls, “because I had ears that could catch what they said. Now when I think about it, I realise that I saw and looked with my ears. When I write a poem, I do not write it with my eyes, I hear it. All my life, any whisper that presented itself, I felt. And then it wrote me.”
Assam is a short, stocky man in a mustard khandoura, with the demeanour of a performer in the tradition of the early Arabian poets. When he picks me up, his right foot has recently been operated on – diabetes complications, he will explain – but he drives easily, pointing out the problem only when the photographer suggests he should walk up a steep pier. He speaks of his poor health with an equanimity bordering on fatalism, “the sheer stubbornness of my people, not pride,” he repeats, “just stubbornness”.
And stubbornness is less obvious in his work than his refusal to acknowledge that he was ever poor, patriotic or political. Assam participated in the 1974 protests against low wages which, initially triggered by Iran’s occupation of the Greater and Lesser Tumbs Islands, took Ras al Khaimah by storm. He insists it was to impress a sweetheart in the front lines. His relative indifference to travelling highlights all three qualities. Why would you want to leave even for Dubai, he asks, when you have every possible environment – coast, desert, mountain and field – at your doorstep?
Even his stint at the Emirates University in Al Ain, from 1983 to 1985, was cut short by an insurmountable yearning for home. He never graduated. “Were I to live in an apartment in a high-rise building,” he says, “my sense of wonder would flutter out of the window and back to Ras al Khaimah.”
At the Grand Restaurant, a small place where Indians scoop up biryani with their hands, Assam professes gratitude to Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, for making modern education available to a generation of aspiring intellectuals. But it was this grassroots lore of the sea that informed his local radio appearances in the late 1980s – his true debut, coinciding with his joining the intellectual rights department of the Ministry of the Economy at Ras al Khaimah, which he now directs. This was Nabati poetry, and while it metamorphosed through the activities of a short-lived “literary salon” known as The Beggars and the establishment of the Ras al Khaimah branch of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates in 1989, the drive to recite to friends has remained unchanged.
“People in Ras al Khaimah may seem outdated,” Assam confides as he drives me back to the hotel, “but they are the Emirates’ true intellectuals.”
I arrived in Ras al Khaimah after a long drive at night and the same happens again with Ajman, the visually less compelling but intellectually psychedelic hometown of the poet Hashem al Muallim.
The smallest of the seven Emirates, with a population of 40,000 living in 260 sq km, Ajman lies entirely within Sharjah’s territory, recalling West Berlin prior to the unification of Germany – except that, rather than an iron curtain, all that separates the two emirates is freehold property and alcohol, with Ajman following in the footsteps of Dubai by accommodating expatriates and embracing the age of the high-rise. But the two are intertwined; Muallim, who was born in Sharjah in 1970, is himself an example of that. His father’s family lived in Sharjah, his mother’s in Ajman. When he was seven his father decided to join his in-laws. “You take a drag on your cigarette in Sharjah,” as he puts it, “and you blow it out in Ajman.”
The town seems cosier than anywhere I have been in the UAE, including Sharjah. It is framed by an unobtrusive Corniche, which figures extensively in Hashem’s work (one poem is prefixed with “This text was written over an abandoned pavement on the coast of Ajman”).
The stunning waterfront and the neat little bungalows inspire calm, though in the evening, driving back from the Carrefour shopping complex, Muallim and I will witness two traffic accidents within metres of each other on the main road. Ajman has all the luxuries of Dubai, but it retains a predominantly Emirati constituency – judging by Carrefour, at least, which is swarming with bare-headed men in white khandouras. People seem more approachable than in Abu Dhabi.
That morning I instantly recognise him at the Kampinsky terrace cafe: he is an average-looking man with an absurdist sense of humour. He is sipping Turkish coffee with a printout of his last poem in front of him: a homage to Abdul Aziz Jassim. Muallim featured in joint collections (notably with Assam) before publishing his sole book with the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information in 2003, Those Buried in the Air. A civil servant with the Ajman police, he never attended university – the early death of his father obliged him to provide for the family – and he explains with wry humour how he and his family live in a room at his mother’s. Poverty is a point of pride for him.
Muallim never writes about places per se, but his childlike wonder is rooted in the intimately observed settings of his youth; and he was part of a frenzied “search for the unusual” centred here in a period roughly coinciding with The Beggars in Ras al Khaimah. (The same period also saw the short-lived poetry journals Nawariss and Ruaa, published in 1990-91, put out in Sharjah by the present-day director of the Dubai International Film Festival, Masoud Amrallah, and the poets al Hanouf Mohammad and Ibrahim al Mullah.)
He still counts himself among a creative community of young people spanning the two emirates who were revolutionary in the intellectual sense: lovers of Bob Marley who knew nothing about Rasta, or else self-styled Dadaists until they saw a picture of Tristan Tzara, a groomed gentleman, and realised that Jassim or Ahmad Rashed Thani – the Emirates’ two biggest names in prose poetry – had more to say to them than either dreadlocks or gibberish.
Speaking unhurriedly, Muallim traces his loss of innocence to the sudden death of his younger brother in a car accident when he was eight or nine. He was present at the scene but it took him a long time to comprehend it. “I asked where they were taking him,” he recounts, “and they said to the grave. Was he going to sleep at someone else’s house? They said it was the house of God. And from this day on, my reflexive definition of the word grave has been the place where God lives. So I left an orange on our secret tree branch in the house, where I knew he couldn’t fail to find it, and I went to bed thinking that if it stayed where it was till morning, that meant my brother would never come home again.”
More cheerfully, he recalls his Borgesian wonder at “those wholly magical creatures” he saw at the fish market nearby, where he discovered the existence of the wide, wide world beyond.
“One must become a black fish,” he wrote in Those Buried in the Air, “in the midst of lazy fanatics.”
The more I read of Muallim’s poems, the more familiar it feels. I realise with surprise that his texts have an affinity with those Egyptian poets known as the Generation of the Nineties; Muallim has had no contact with those poets (and read very little of their work). It dawns on me that, despite the economic divide separating the urban Gulf from older metropolises of Arabic literature, developments that have transformed poetry were happening everywhere at the same time. And yet, to a far greater extent than anyone in Cairo, Muallim’s conceptual vocabulary is drawn from nature: the tree, the fish, the bird.
“Still,” he says, “you can be a poet without having a word to your name. It has to do with being in tune, being able to see poetry for what it is – in the way the wave laps, in the birds’ wings, in the wind blowing through palm fronds. The poet is simply someone who can be like fronds, someone poetry can move through.”
The journey from Ajman to Sharjah is far briefer than expected. On the way I recall the bigger emirate’s status as “cultural capital”. The third largest emirate, Sharjah has coasts on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and its ports are the country’s busiest. It also has small enclaves separate from the area around Sharjah City (population 800,000). Its rulers, the Qasimis – a branch of which also rule Ras al Khaimah – were among the Gulf’s most invincible seafarers in the 19th century. Besides oil and housing revenues, Sharjah has a buoyant logistics and trucking sector.
It seems oddly appropriate that the office where I am headed – that of Al Ittihad newspaper – should be located across the road from the Kassbah with its iconic ferry wheel, in a building called Babel Towers. Besides shunning media attention, the man I am after, a cultural editor there, has stated ivory-tower views on poetry.
In a sense, the poet Ibrahim al Mullah – author of Baskets of Desert (published with the German based Dar al Jamal in 1997) and I Left my Glance in the Well (privately printed in 2003) as well as a book of film criticism and several short films – is Assam’s diametrical opposite. He sees poetry not as an oral or public exchange, but as a private act “akin to isolation”. Not a bang but rather, in this case, a moving image.
Where Assam sees with his ears, the trajectory of Mullah’s development has followed a strictly cinematic course, with “the great poets” of the screen – Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Nikita Mikhalikov – informing his sensibility. Where the Julfari feels no need to travel, Mullah derives his inspiration from wandering not only around the Arab world, where he is better connected than most Emirati writers, but in Asia and Europe as well. His position in a government institution has enabled him to explore cities like Rome and Bangkok.
When I meet him, Mullah has not written poetry for three years. “When you work as a journalist,” he explains, “it spoils writing for you. The inner light that guides the poem, the pleasure you take in it, begins to fade. ”
True to a notion of freedom that drove him against the verse compositions with which he started, Mullah’s poems evoke all the places he has been to, but they never name them. His Sharjah turns out to be different from the bustling city I have come to see.
I have waited for half an hour at the office when Mullah marches in energetically, a broad-shouldered, tall figure with a light beard. His demeanour immediately strikes me with a remarkable sense of balance – warmth and distance, enthusiasm and caution, melancholy and good cheer.
“Not here,” Mullah waves at the window, lighting another cigarette in the conference room, “but Sharjah remains a horizontal, not a vertical city.” Like most journalists at their offices, he is distracted, in a hurry. “It’s a bit like European cities, not so much in terms of its architecture as its general aspect. I am not talking about this area, which has gone the way of Dubai, but in the places where we grew up and in some cases where we still live, the place retains its character. It doesn’t have buildings that block out the sun and the air and the blue of the sky. Its skyline does not induce that kind of terror about your connection to your own space or how you might live in it.”
Mullah was born in 1966, and he deplores the dog-eat-dog existence to which “a virgin land” has been reduced over the course of his lifetime. People’s relations had been intuitive until “the compulsion to prove oneself in society” supplanted clarity and good will.
“There are break-ups,” he keeps saying. “Even among relatives, there are break-ups, and endless interference. Maybe other people accept it as the normal course of things but for a poet or an emotional person, it takes its toll on you.”
He was reluctant to do the interview. Now, to avoid being photographed without his sunglasses on, he accompanies the photographer and me downstairs as he speaks, describing two kinds of house for each family, located in two different freejs: a summer house built out of palm fronds, and a winter house built out of mud reinforced with rock from the sea.
“The sea was our guest at high tide,” he muses. “It came into the house, and that was fine – we were used to it.
“This openness,” he says, pausing to emit a melancholy laugh. “This openness to the colour blue.”
A nation of words
The writer Tariq Ebeid al Ali began publishing his Nabati verses in 1985. Stephen Lock / The National
A poet in Dubai is like a needle in a haystack. With nearly 1.4 million residents, Dubai is the largest emirate by population, but though it may boast as many Arab men of letters as Abu Dhabi, they are all but evanescent in the multicultural multitude. Despite the scarcity of oil, Dubai’s superlative architecture and embrace of international capitalism make it a worthy experiment in future metropolitanism, but only 40 years ago it was little more than a string of fishing villages on the Arabian Gulf. Today, natives are an even smaller minority than elsewhere in the UAE.
Walking into the Spinney’s shopping complex in Jumeirah – where I am to meet Khaled al Budoor, a respected Dubai poet who maintains a visible profile against the odds – it occurs to me how strange it must be to have been born here in 1961, to have grown up in tandem with such mind-blowing development and, after three years in Ohio obtaining an MA in scriptwriting, to have come back to find your teenage haunts transformed beyond recognition. “Let’s meet at the Starbucks,” he says on the phone. “Jumeirah is where I grew up. You know Jumeirah, don’t you?” And it is as if, asking me, he momentarily doubts how sure he himself is. “One feels a kind of estrangement,” he says now. “The places of childhood are no longer there.”
Budoor is a man of less than average height in a spotless white khandoura, slight but sturdy, with an incredibly trim light moustache going from grey to white. His bearing reflects years of working as a radio and television anchor, notably with Dubai TV, where he settled for early retirement some five years ago. He has written films and for the press and presided over seminars and an all-Dubai sophistication comes through in his conversation: cosmopolitan, aloof, slightly technocratic. “One feels fortunate to live in a city like Dubai,” he intones, “because it offers the writer everything he wants – books, films, equipment, contact with the contemporary world…”
He started out writing in classical verse, quickly making the transition through the modern, modified metres into prose, but he has always written in the Emirati dialect as well as standard Arabic. Some of his vernacular poems have rhyme and rhythm, but the extended metaphors out of which he forges a text are comparable in each case. So far he has published three books: Night (1992), Winter (2002) and (in Emirati Arabic) Ink and Dalliance (1999). Several more volumes, including collected articles on folk literature, are upcoming in the next year.
He seems at home enough in Starbucks, but his poems would never be. They emerge, rather, from “a simple fishing village” where “PE classes at school consisted of swimming in the sea” and old men gathered in the moonlight to listen to each other’s stories and verses, their laughter unencumbered by the absence of a dining table, their knowledge of the outside world all but fantastical. Part of this village may once have occupied the space of the multinational outlet where we are talking, but Budoor does not seem to mind.
And it is precisely the ability not to mind, and the contemporary idiom he writes in, that allow his poems to preserve those nostalgic images as places of beauty to which Arabic readers everywhere can return. Yet his true achievement, paradoxically, remains the way he has managed to depart – from the Emirates, Ohio, even his career – returning, painfully but exultantly, through the creative act. What he feels for the old Jumeirah, far from homesickness in time, is “an escape-return relationship,” as he puts it, “escape and return”. These days he recognises his birthplace only “in the faces of some friends, or else in recorded songs of the sea”; sometimes, he adds, matter-of-factly, “I feel in tune with its spirit”.
But Dubai’s architecture does not help induce this feeling, “even if the human being tries, in his own house, to provide a more merciful space”. Still, Budoor’s principal concern is with “estrangement in language”, a literal reference to the fact that few people in Dubai speak Arabic. It is a fate he seems resigned to as part of the city’s contemporary character, what makes it a great place to live. “But at other times,” he sighs, as if making a delayed confession, “I have the urge to run far into the desert – or the sea.”
The trip to Fujairah never materialises. As is the case with Umm al Qaiwain, for the longest time I am told one of two things: there are no poets; or what poets there are, “classicists”, are not contemporary poets. “There are poets,” the Ras al Khaimah master Ahmad al Assam finally declares. “They may not write in prose, they may use Emirati Arabic. But there are poets.” And he picks up his mobile phone…
After a few days’ worth of toing and froing, one sultry evening I take a taxi to the Shangri-La Hotel, on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, to meet the Nabati poet Khaled al Dhahnani, who shows up a little late at 11.30pm, straight from the studio where he was a guest juror at a teenage Nabati poetry competition. “When you have been a juror on so many competitions,” he explains, “it doesn’t feel right to participate in the Millions Poet.” Within hours, Dhahnani is due at the airport for his summer holiday in Europe, but he has not only made the effort to show up, he also pays for dinner and provides over an hour of engaging conversation.
A tall, dutifully groomed figure with an easy-going, slightly distracted air, Dhahnani was born in 1972 to a family so involved in the politics of Fujairah – and so close to the Al Sharqi family – that he compares them to the Baramikah, viziers to the Abbasids and their empire’s true movers and shakers for hundreds of years after the ninth century. “Except that, unlike them,” he adds, “we do good.” Although he keeps his house in Dubai as well as Fujairah, Dhahnani feels he is wholly a product of this most mountainous of all the emirates, which commands stunning views of the Gulf of Oman. And, at 130,000 people, it is the second least populated emirate, with active mining and tourism industries but high unemployment rates among Emiratis.
A major media official in Fujairah (he organises the bi-annual International Monodrama Festival) Dhahnani stresses his connection with nature and the conscious effort to “reinforce talent with reading”, developing his own instantly recognisable style. He may write in the vernacular, he says, but he uses “a white language” comprehensible to all Arabs. And he is so concerned with the future of Arabic among Emiratis that for months he struggled to rid his speech of the word “OK”, but ironically – in a high-end setting potentially more alienating than Jumeirah – he feels no estrangement whatsoever.
At 67,340 square kilometres – 86 per cent of the country’s land area – Abu Dhabi is too vast to picture all at once. First, there is the coastal city housing most of the emirate’s 1.3 million residents: in itself, a layered amalgam of worlds, as multinational as Dubai, but with more stress on Bedouin heritage. Then there is the original desert spring, Al Ain, population 614,180: the agricultural, educational and camel-racing centre whence settled members of the emirate’s powerful tribes, the Al Nahyan included, invariably hail. Between and beyond the two cities, oil fields, palm forests, luxurious resorts and construction workers’ camps frame the legendary Empty Quarter.
The mythic journey from Al Ain to the city of Abu Dhabi – originally a seasonal fishing and pearl-diving pilgrimage – has come to symbolise the formative years of the UAE, with the centre of gravity shifting from one to the other in the course of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s lifetime, to coincide with the genesis of the federation. It is a journey the director of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates, Hareb al Dhahiri, made at the age of 12, during a historical juncture, he says, “bridging two eras”. Moving from one city to the next was like “replacing the desert with the sea”. Together with Abu Dhabi’s cultural initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s – lectures and exhibits in the Tourist Club, the establishment of the Cultural Foundation, liaisons with Sharjah about founding the Union – it remains a central reference point in his life. “Abu Dhabi,” he says, “was a trail blazer.”
A Romantic poet better known as a short story writer, Dhahiri lives in Battin, an older enclave with one of the lowest skylines in the city, not far from the Old Airport Road. His spacious villa is furnished in the Second Empire style prevalent among the Arab bourgeoisie. Joining him in his salon, I remember that he is not only an intellectual, but also an Adnoc manager, and reportedly an effective juggler of priorities in the vexed arena of Abu Dhabi cultural policy. A critic of “mixing tourism into culture”, he brings the views of Abu Dhabi literary figures, like the poet Ahmad Rashed Thani, and the novelist Ali Abur Rish, the latter originally from RAK, into the public sphere. “Countries work on their artists until they become international,” he declares. “They do not import foreign artists, paying them millions of dollars they wouldn’t dream of earning in their countries.”
Dhahiri’s house bespeaks comfort and safety. And so, in a sense, do his poems: easy expressions of a “philosophy of love” informed by the work of visionaries like Blake and Gibran Khalil Gibran. He has written four books: Mandoline (1997), A Kiss on the Cheek of the Moon (1999) and Puppets’ Night and Soul Pulse (2004). Only two are collections of poems. In the others, narrative plays a smaller role than exploration of the psyche; and the same “philosophical way of writing” produces a layered, sometimes arcane short story similar to a prose poem. Only very subtly do Dhahiri’s social concerns rise to the surface: the disintegration of the fabric of society, dependence on the West, and the receding tide of cultural as opposed to tourist initiative.
A dark, round man with slow gestures and an easy smile, Dhahiri sits gingerly in an armchair to delineate his literary trajectory: from traditional verses through khawatir, or thoughts, to short stories. “For Arabs and especially Bedouins,” he says, “the connection with poetry is born with you when you are born. So it is only natural that even a short story writer should take this course.” Gradually, as he warms to his theme, his back slumps further into the cushion, his arms relax, and what strikes me as a conversational technique peculiar to Abu Dhabi – slow, measured but eventually revealing – begins to operate.
Dhahiri speaks of Scarborough, England, where – at his own initiative, at the age of 15 – he spent three months living with a local family to learn English. He speaks of his three years studying business at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, where his writing teacher – a tremendous support to him – turned out to be a Jewess, and how people had discouraged him from going to America under the impression, gleaned from action movies, that whoever lives there will end up dying in a shooting. He speaks of “the simple and old place”, Al Ain, “that stays with you as you grow up”; and of the inscrutable mysteries of poetic inspiration.
But imperceptibly, deftly, he steers the conversation back to Abu Dhabi. “When I first got here, there was an empty sand lot where we used to play, the present al Rawdha: people would come over and ask after a specific person. We were small then, but we could always tell them where that person lived. That’s how closely knit life was. But these days it reminds me of Scarborough. Now we are big,” he laughs, “but we don’t know the names of our next-door neighbours.”
I have been in Umm al Qaiwain for nearly 24 hours when I realise the person I am here to see is actually in Abu Dhabi. So the interview is postponed till my return, and my observations are promptly recorded before I head back, smoking to my heart’s content in my first unmetered Emirati taxi.
Tariq Ebeid, a member of the Al Ali clan of which the Al Mualla sheikhs are a subsection, is a former police officer currently training as a school teacher. Periodic changes of career, he believes, are necessary for a rounded view of life. Born in 1967, Ebeid started publishing his Nabati verses in 1985; and urban discomfort notwithstanding, he has always worked in Abu Dhabi, spending the weekends and holidays at home, where he still has the greatest audience base, frequently holding poetic evenings in an atmosphere where “everyone is family and friends”.
The least populous emirate, and in some ways the least developed, Umm al Qaiwain recalls the hinterlands of the Sahara and Sinai by turns. It has few public amenities, no real centre, and a vastly spread out miscellany of beach-orientated establishments, among which the garland-dispensing, dancing-girl-on-stage “Indian nightclub” is particularly popular. Patronised mainly by sailors and jet skiers, the emirate “has few resources”, Ebeid says, but “boasts a glorious tradition of learning and the old, affectionate way of life”.
It has contributed much skilled labour to the bigger emirates, he goes on, producing a portfolio of magazine clippings out of which he reads a few samples.
Ebeid is an admirer of the Millions Poet, from which he says he learns a lot, but the opportunity to participate has not presented itself. In reality, he belongs more firmly in a humorist tradition of zajal, less emotional and rhetorical than the kind of work showcased in the programme, and more concerned with everyday life.
A small, dark, eminently hospitable man, Ebeid meets me at his Old Airport Road apartment while it is being packed in preparation for travelling to Umm al Qaiwain, and he repeatedly apologises for nonexistent inconveniences. “This is only a place to stay,” he says, “so that the children who go to school in Abu Dhabi should have a home here too. But the quiet, comfortable life is back there in Umm al Qaiwain, where there is neither traffic nor noise – and we keep travelling back and forth. One day, God willing, you will come and visit me there. And then you will see the difference for yourself.”
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