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

All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

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

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


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

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E-cards for Mohammad Rabie

Mohammad Rabie, Kawkab ‘Anbar, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2010

BOOKSHOP: When a book signing ends up feeling like an engineers’ reunion, it makes you think not of structure but of paranoia. There is the architectural analogy, that is true (and in Arabic an architect is literally an “architectural engineer”). But by now it is something of a cliché: the stringing together of narrative is, anyway, nothing like the construction of buildings; character, dialogue and pacing, the poetry of scene and sentence, have little to do with design. Of course, engineers deal with electric circuits as well as building plans, pistons and pulleys, drills, computers, equations, frames and frameworks, all kinds of objects that can have metaphorical relevance to the writing process. But metaphors only go so far most of the time, and for many of us writing is a profession in its own right – in danger of being taken over! A month or so ago, a shortish novel longish by recent young-writer standards, Kawkab ‘Anbar (the name means “Amber Planet”), drew into the Kotob Khan Bookshop, where it emerged during a workshop with Yasser Abdel-Latif, what seemed like a range of people interested in new writing. The main speaker was a critic but apart from one dentist (the promising young poet Ahmad Nada), almost everyone turned out to be an engineer – civil, mechanical, hydraulic, electrical. For a moment it seemed as though a mafia of those lever-wielding un-poets were ambushing the literary sphere, infiltrating writerly circles all across the city, befriending with a view to replacing true writers and eventually, well – eliminating them. I would not stand for it! Thus I directed my malicious glances to the person at the centre of all this, the author of the book, Mohammad Rabie: born in 1978, a practising, yes – practising civil engineer since his graduation from university in 2001, to his friends he is actually known as Rabie, since there are too many Mohammads in this part of the world. For a moment Rabie did look like the don of some magic realist mafia. The beauty of paranoia is that it impounds reason. It was only a moment, but for its duration I was convinced there really was a mafia who gathered at construction sites to draw up plans of attack for literary world domination. I seemed to forget that Rabie was among the most personable people of his generation I had met, a writer with talent regardless of what else he does, totally innocuous.

I spend a lot of time in bookshops. I read the blurbs on the back covers, sometimes the introductions as well. I think hard before I buy. I hate crowded bookshops where I feel no sense of privacy. That’s why Kotob Khan is the perfect place for me. I also hate bookshops where attendants materialise the moment you walk in asking you what you want. It’s insolent. But as I say Kotob Khan was a perfect place to do this. Yasser Abdel-Latif did not interfere very much at all. Since the beginning he was careful about giving the participants just as much autonomy as they needed. Still, I think he managed to slip in ideas and sentences. There were parts he was largely dissatisfied with and I worked on those. What he insisted on was that there should be a dramatic line linking the events in the book, which is what I set out to do from the beginning. All of which was of course very helpful to me; and I think the fact that the participants thought alike and had a similar orientation was the main factor behind the success of the workshop. I think that any text with dramatic lines is a novel, but that is not why I set out to write one. The novel isn’t always the ideal format. The short story is another appropriate format. The novel is appropriate for multiple characters and many events. It is also a genre that suits chatter and gossip. The characters allow the writer to say all that they want indirectly, and there is space for imagination: to create cities and documents and languages, perhaps an alternative history. But the short story is extremely enjoyable for me. Concision and economy of means are two things I particularly enjoy; and the story is appropriate for describing a moment or a situation or a day in the life if its hero. The decision to write a novel is made after a few pages, perhaps before you start writing, but I think the time frame remains the principal factor. That is why this book is a novel, in the end, because that is the way the idea developed and the way I imagined it would spread over time. Sometimes I imagine a new form even more economical than the short story, through which to condense events that are spread out over long periods of time to the greatest extent possible. But all my attempts at achieving this form have been miserable.

CYBERSPACE: Until March 2008, there was in fact another Mohammad Rabie who was not an engineer: the author of outrageous novels about sex and religion in contemporary Cairo which he Xeroxed and handed out by hand. That other Rabie died in a Camus-ian accident at the age of 33. This Rabie, by contrast, is actually a blogger; he started out on the internet – a consequence, perhaps, of his background being non-literary. But the existence of another novelist born in the same year with the exact same name seems if nothing else pertinent to the kind of writing the author of Kawkab ‘Anbar is interested in practising. Unlike his namesake, Rabie is less interested in the immediate affects of language as he is in its ability to create a sustainable world. Unlike so many Arab writers – the vast majority, in fact, from the Sixties until recently – he wants to tell a story. He wants to use his imagination, engage with a concept or an idea, breathe life into a calculated structure. He does not want to evoke, imply, explore the possibilities of language as such. He does not want to wax lyrical, much less rhetorical. He does not want to wax. His object is a tale, and the function of reality – language as well as people who emerge through its use – is to flesh out that tale. In this as much as his cyber presence as a blogger and a micro-blogger (many were saddened when Rabie, shortly after the aforementioned signing, deactivated his Facebook account), Rabie is representative of the closest thing to a generation or a movement since the prose poets of the Nineties: writers who might be called the Twothousanders but not only because they started publishing after 2000. People like Nael El-Toukhy, Ahmad Nagui and (to a lesser extent) Mohammad Kheir and Mohammad Abdelnaby also share something more profound. They are all internet-savvy, down-to-earth agents of subversion as interested in things as they are in people and as closely connected to pop culture, communications technology and the global media as they are to literary history. Kundera is their Balzak, Mahfouz their Greek tragedy. They are cynics and jokers and glorifiers of what they refer to (admittedly often with ignorance) as kitsch. By and large they eschew poetry; and until the Egyptian quasi-literary blogging craze fizzled out, many of them professed to eschew print publication. They may not always have as much access to non-Arabic culture as they claim or desire, but their position is truly postmodern in the sense that they own and disown many histories at once; they don’t have a problem revolving around the commodity as a mode of being; they don’t have a problem with commodification. In short, they live mentally in our times – and they try to do it unselfconsciously.

I think the appropriate literary climate is one that is free of groups, schools and especially this concept of generations. Anyway it is the critics’ job to classify, I cannot claim to belong to a particular generation myself. As for my link with technology, I write directly onto the computer, but the initial ideas I jot down by hand, on a piece of paper, in a pocket notebook – that doesn’t matter, but it has to be on paper. I read the news online, I think the internet is a more efficient medium for news and short articles. But it can be a disastrous medium as far as literature is concerned. Paper will live on for a long time yet. Now there are e-book readers and I don’t see a difference between them and books, they have the advantage of taking up less space and weight. But visually they are very like books and they don’t have the distractions of the computer especially when it is connected to the internet. On the whole the only reason you would resort to electronic publishing is if you are unable to publish on paper. But the internet is completely inappropriate for a novel. A short story, a poem may work on the internet but nothing longer. My blog was an experiment that lasted for a long time. I had wanted to write a large text and the blog was my training ground. I thought I would use to train until it was time to write that large text. I had no preconceptions about what would happen to the novel after it was published. I didn’t think much of sales but I wanted it to be translated into other languages – imagine the translator’s predicament when they work on a text that finds fault with the very act of translation! Otherwise I was worried about the responses to it but those have been mostly encouraging. A few months after I completed it I already feel the novel has wrenched itself away from me and acquired its own being. It’s like a child of mine who’s grown up and leads their own life. My presence online was very important, it worked as indirect publicity for the novel. Many were waiting for it after I announced several times that it would be coming out. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I was present on the net, frankly, because I was used to being there. But my friend Marwa Rakha eventually drew my attention to the fact that it was good publicity.

LIBRARY: Kawkab ‘Anbar is the story of the eponymous, little known library (named after its original owner’s wife), a public endowment in Abbassiya on the verge of being demolished to make way for a new underground Metro line. It is told by Shahir, the endowments official who is sent there on a month-long assignment to put together a report on the library – a perfunctory, routine procedure intended to facilitate the forgone conclusion of its demolition by establishing that, all things considered, there is no reason for it to remain standing. Shahir is a young intellectual who, aware of the Kafkaesque futility of his task, is nonetheless quickly caught up in the mystery and madness of what turns out to be a Borgesian space of astounding quirkiness, initially through the existential endeavour of giving his task the semblance of credibility by searching in the library for anything of value. since he is “an old reader”, as his boss describes him in the opening, he looks – a little too earnestly for comfort – among the library’s uncannily surprising collection, eclectic as it is obscure. A string of clues leads Shahir to the two impossible ideas at the centre of the story (impossible, I mean, in the Borgesian sense, although Rabie does not delve as deeply into philosophy). First, there is a book written in a private or a nonexistent language, Luij al Sayrafini’s Creatures, translations of which have nonetheless been produced. Secondly, there is a device or a machine – invented and installed here by the owner – which is capable of producing a perfect translation of any and every book, including even Sayrafini’s, into any and every language. Rabie’s point is that, while it is possible to imagine these two things, their existence would anyway be pointless if not downright evil. He does not say it in so many words, but translation is a form of multiplying knowledge, and as such it is essentially an abomination, like Borges’s mirror, a curse. The story is also told by Dr Sayed: an arguably unnecessary complication, this, since Shahir’s voice alone would have made the essentially plot-driven, murder mystery-like narrative easier to follow. Dr Sayed is an older scholar, a cryptologist from the age of Nasser whose presence justifies all kinds of forays back into the Sixties, with passages on the real-life culture minister Tharwat Okashah, for example: an encyclopedic intellectual enamoured of both translation and classification. He is an obsessive and venomous, Dr Sayed, a quaint old cynic who enjoys watching others suffer. He knows Kawkab Anbar’s secrets but does not reveal them to Shahir. His voice gives a grotesque impression of the characters Shahir must tamper with on the way: among others, the library director, an old bureaucratic rival of Shahir’s boss; and the elderly translator who for many years has been reproducing, at first by hand, his own copies of the strange tomes that live here …

I meant the idea of translation itself, it is not a metaphor for anything else. I imagine that a complete, perfect translation is nonexistent. It is not something that people disagree much about that translation is always faulty to some extent, or that some translations are injurious to the original text. I don’t mean to imply that the text is holy. I mean simply that the ideas in a given text, which are easily understood and habitual if not stereotypical in their own language, might come across as something completely different or offensive once they have been rendered in a different language. Cultural interaction will happen anyway, but I think it happens in a more effective way through interaction with the other language without the medium of translation. That is not of course to say that translation is unnecessary, but it can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness. In translation it is much easier to stumble. This is of course the central tenet that I wanted to play with in the novel. There was no particular reason to use two voices, although I would not have wanted an omniscient narrator. But it just happened that way. First it flowed in the voice of Shahir, for weeks I worked on it in that voice. But then the voice of Sayed arrived and it forced me to work it in and give up on Shahir temporarily. But it was not technically necessary, there are ways to introduce perspectives into the texts – you add discourses or digressions, even footnotes as in the case of Mohammad Mustagab. Perhaps it is simply that writing the characters in their own voices, in as many of them as you can, makes them more alive. I do not have a clearly defined project as such because my ideas are always changing. Some ideas dog me for a long time but then they evaporate and seem naïve. Other ideas do not evaporate, and they may be just as naïve and laughable but if you think long and hard enough about anything it makes that thing highly valuable to me. I was surprised when friends told me about influences they thought they could see in the book: Naguib Mahfouz, for example, and then Saramago in All the Names, Eco in The Name of the Rose. All three are among my favourite authors in fact so it makes me proud for people to liken my work to theirs. Mahfouz was well organised and very patient which are things that I lack and would benefit from a great deal. Eco has encyclopedic erudition that is obviously beyond me but his writing is also extremely professional and I doubt if I will ever attain that level. I would also mention Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Gamal El-Ghitani in Khutat Al-Ghitani and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in Virgo. It amazes me how much the Iraqi writer Ali Badr and I can think alike, which is why I try to read everything to find out if it’s been done before. For a while now I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the historian: if the translator falsifies unwittingly, the historian does it on purpose, more or less and, well – just imagine the possible implications of that fact for fiction.

Review and interview by Youssef Rakha

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Arabian Ants

Image via Wikipedia

My own private Emirates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


M for Manar


Sunday, June 15, 2008
Youssef Rakha
Al Manar has dragged itself into the future and away from the 1950s sets.

It seems the graphics people at al Manar TV are brushing up their act. NileSat’s most resolutely retro news channel, whose sets used to look like they were out of the 1950s, is suddenly using slick digital transitions to advertise its programmes. It is pacing broadcasts much faster, challenging the competition with colourful plaques, distinctive logos and the full gamut of special effects. The anchors are adopting Jazeera-like voices and the stringers, like al Jazeera’s, report breathlessly from the thick.
It is also screening historical soap operas and serial documentaries on topics like the struggle of the Palestinians, the struggle against colonialism and the struggle to maintain national identity. Many of these are imported from Syria, some are dubbed from Farsi, but all seek to lure the global Arabic-speaking viewer into that world of eternal truth, ruthless justice and ever so punctilious philanthropy dreamt up by Hizbollah.
Contrary to the views of American neoconservatives, Hizbollah is not in fact a bunch of Jew-hating terrorists with Nazi or Qa’eda aspirations (for neoconservatives, either comparison will do). Their televisual mouthpiece need not be automatically identified with a venom-spitting monster, therefore.

Al Manar does provide a mouthpiece for justified Arab and Muslim discontent. Because it focuses on otherwise voiceless victims of Israel (the people of southern Lebanon, the Palestinians, some Syrians) and speaks to all those who feel bad about people being systematically humiliated, denied homes in which to live or simply finished off, because it gives so much airtime to everyday Hizbollah supporters phoning in to exchange emotional moments with representatives of the movement and its political and doctrinal allies, al Manar has a kind of credibility. Combined with the tendency to look and sound like a news channel from an Iron Curtain dictatorship during the Cold War, this used to give it a certain reason-defying appeal.
Then again, al Manar does promote a dodgy piece of theologising in Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, by which the Shia cleric gets to act as “guardian” of the regime, and which even the most pious Shia Iranians believe has proven by far less Islamic, benevolent or just than the pre-1979 Shah’s regime.

Aside from its shameless advocation of theocracy, what is bad about al Manar, and what the graphic revolution has not managed to improve, is its obsessive devotion to ideology. Unlike subtler Lebanese channels with a political agenda – LBC or Future, for example – al Manar has been a more or less avowed propaganda machine since its inception in 1991 (the channel has been transmitting via satellite since 2000). And the new look is clearly trying to build up its image to make it look less like one.
It seems worrying therefore that, however much you may sympathise with Hizbollah, al Manar’s modus operandi is liable to turn you into a Shia-hating, anti-populist Bushophile whatever else you claim to be.

Tickers, and archives on DVD have improved neither overblown rhetoric nor partisan orientation: America is an incarnation of the selfsame Satan who first tempted Adam in Paradise; velayat-e faqih is the only form of leadership that could bring order to the chaos of Arab-Muslim politics, retrieving the sovereignty said Satan has appropriated; Iran is ready to take over the entire Muslim world and, without so much as a harsh word or a drop of blood, challenge American hegemony and rebuild the glories of Islam.
Grown up people with respectable beards actually sit down to say these things, with perfectly straight faces, and anchors nod enthusiastically as if to say, “Dah!” Talk show hosts support their guests’ outrageous views – that Khomeini worked just like a prophet of Allah, that he actually was a prophet of Allah – before the guest has expressed them: “So, your samaha the sheikh, how would you comment on Imam Ruhollah’s approach to revolution, which was identical to that of the Prophet Mohammad peace be upon him?” “Well, it was identical…” People phone in to hysterically decry the death of their loved ones under Israeli or Future Movement fire or pronounce Hassan Nassrallah the Redeemer. And atrocities committed against Arabs and Muslims are flaunted to classical verses written in the style of Shia lamentations and set to heart-rending music.
By invoking certain standards of objectivity, the newly introduced, smooth-operating methods only dramatise the misinformation being presented. Those secular Arabs clinging onto the ever more elusive life-raft of critical thinking may very well cheer the resistance Hizbollah has come to embody. But they will still have serious trouble watching al Manar.



يوم حلمتَ باسمينا متجاورين على غلاف واحد قلتَ لي إن هذا غير مسبوق في ثقافتنا وإنه، فضلاً عن كونه أَقيَم من الحب، حلٌّ لوضعنا المستحيل. ولأن خيالك لم يتسع لاحتمال أن يصبح الوضع ممكناً فيما ظللتَ تعصر ليمونتك في حلقي… إلى آخر قطرة، جعلتَ “كتابنا” حجةَ تَجَاوُر ربما كان أفضل لك أن يبقى هو الآخر حلماً. ذات يوم أغضبك فصل أنا كتبتُه لكنك لم تَردّ عليه بفصل كما اتفقنا. أنا كنتُ قد صدّقتُ أن غير المسبوق هذا الذي أقدمنا عليه، حل وضعنا، بالفعل أصلب من ليمونة جفّت وتجعدت ولم يبق إلا أن تُلقَى في سلة المهملات. ولأنني منذ ذلك الحين تذكرتُ لحظةً مرت، وأنا أسمعك، أيقنتُ فيها أنك رغم كل ما تقوله لا تتكلم – لم تتكلم، لا تستطيع الكلام – قلتُ لنفسي إن “ثقافتنا”، مثلاً، مجرد صوت بلا معنى يخرج من فمك. وعرفتُ: لا شيء عندك قيّم في الحقيقة، لا الحب ولا الغلاف. لحظة واحدة مرت، لكنني سأتذكرها. لهذا فقط – ربما – لم أنبس، لم أحدّثك عن خيبة الرجاء. واكتفيتُ بإزاحة المشروع عن “سطح المكتب” مؤقتاً بانتظار فصول كان يتأكد لي أنها لن تُكتب من كتابنا. مع أنني يا أخي أأكنتُ مستعداً لإعادة صياغة أي شيء. لو أنك فقط تكلمت. لكنك فضّلت الخرس والتذاكي. وأنا حذفتُ “فايلات” الكتاب

وجه المثقف

أراك تمسك هذا الكتاب كأنه لم يعبر إلى يديك قارةً ومحيطاً على حساب عاشق آخر بليد يعمل تحت مسمى الصداقة في خدمتك. تقلّب الصفحات وأنت تسحب فوق رأسك، مثل “بالاكلافا” أو نقاب، وجه المثقف: ربيب المكتبات وصديق الأساتذة، المهم حضوره حيث يحضر المهمون. وقبل أن تبحث في الكلام عن دليل على أنه ليس من تأليف كاتب كبير، قبل أن تعيّن الثغرات وترى أصداءك أو أصداء غيرك في عبارات تحسها مسروقة ومستهلكة، أراها على وجهك، هي نفسها: الفرحة التي استمرأتها منذ ابتدأت، بأن شخصاً – الموجود، ربما أحسن الموجودين – وقع في حبك بما يكفي ليستلهمك. وأرى الرفض ذاتَه يخالطها في البراري الضيقة حول عينين ليس سواهما خلف القماش: أنت لست ملهِماً، لا. لا تريد أن تكون مملوكاً لشخص. حتى قراءتك الآن مدفوعة فقط بالفضول. كل ما في الأمر أن صوتاً آخر قرر أن يبروز لك صورة منزوعة عن حقيقتك… صورة هم، من ورائها، الرابحون؟ – في هذه اللحظة، وقبل أن تجيب عن سؤالك، قبل أن يسأل أحد من يكونون هم هؤلاء وقبل أن تضم الكتاب إلى غنائم روّضت نفسك على احتقارها عبر السنين، وتعود دونما تدري تستفز أو تستجدي كاتباً لن يكون كبيراً للقتال في معركة امتلاكك، تلك التي لا تخرج منها أبداً خاسراً، لتترك خلف ظهرك قواداً آخر أو عدواً كنت تفضّل أن يكون قواداً – اسمع: بالنسبة لهذا الكاتب، أنت لست سوى جسد لم يرد أن يُقاوِم شهوة عبوديته. هو كتب لأنه كان رباً قادراً ذات يوم، ولأنه أحبك بعد أن رأى عبر الزجاج كل الحبال الذائبة التي تربط أجولة زبالتك. أما الذي أنجزتَه والكتّاب الكبار والعشاق البلداء ووجهك هذا، أنت كلك على بعضك بكل أهميتك: بالنسبة لهذا الكاتب، كل هذا ليس أكثر من “بارفام” كان يحجب عنه رائحتك، أو حكاية فتاة فقيرة تركت حبيبها لتتزوج من ثري عربي

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Centenary of Mahfouz

Al Ahram Weekly, December 2001

Revealing conflicts

Interviews by Youssef Rakha

Gaber Asfour

“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.

The abstract quality

Mohamed Berrada


“Throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad , 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?’”

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.


50th birthday celebration at Al-Ahram: Mahfouz seated between Um Kulthoum and Tawfik El-Hakim

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.

Persistent questions

Soliman Fayyad


“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.


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How far is Mahmoud Abdelghani

A book picked up by coincidence leaves Youssef Rakha aquiver

How far is Don Quixote: the title reads much better in Arabic, but this – more or less – is what it means. The latest book by one of Morocco’s best respected prose poets, Mahmoud Abdelghani (b. 1967), Kam yab’ud Don Kishot (Beirut: Dar Al-Nahda, 2007) builds on three previous collections of poetry and a number of translations and critical theses (Abdelghani is a professor of Arabic literature in Rabat). But does the Don Quixote in the title have anything to do with Cervantes’ hero?

In common with the work of like-minded contemporaries across the Arab world – in Egypt the best known (amorphous) group is known as the Generation of the Nineties – it is a safe bet that the subject of Abdelghani’s poems is the poet himself: a central tenet of this decadent form in its Nineties incarnation is that it is, by however subtle or indirect a means, autobiographical; and Abdelghani seems to think of himself as Quixotic. Still, Abdelghani is too sophisticated to present himself directly as such; he relies, rather, on transference, and in so doing offers his own appropriately wispy take on what the Don might stand for in a poem from post-millennial north Africa: “Don Quixote slept… I saw him,/I thought I was the best to negotiate with him,/and cut deals…”

There is plenty of beauty in this work, but it is the ego-exploring dimension of a vaguely cyclical sequence of texts in a broader context of contemporary poetic discourse that makes it interesting. Here as elsewhere in the “impure” Arabic poem, the poet – a once heroic and exemplary figure who until recently spoke for more or less grand abstractions in more or less grandly rhythmic tones – reduces to self-revealing poetic matter: porous, unpretentious, subversive. In many cases this implies confession, hatred, the impassioned rejection of what status quo the poem might pit itself against or what remnants of the self might choose to align with a status quo.

When the poem sheds its surface musicality and ceases to exercise a sentimental pull, it falls prone not only to the “destructive” compulsions of confessional decadence but equally to the drive to exercise a certain kind of sapience.

In some Nineties work, the economy of means to which poets as a rule resort gives way to a fake pithiness, as if the poem’s function is not so much to distill experience as to pronounce on it. By placing the poet back on some kind of podium, however apparently low-key, this tendency immediately undermines both the poetic substance of the text itself and the central tenet of “impure” aesthetics.

In Abdelghani, somewhat atypically, what “impurity” implies is a loosely stylised sense of the real communicating not so much an emotion as an emotional charge: a mood or a perspective. This makes him very vulnerable to a position in which he might assume a wise or knowledgeable stance; what is surprising is how he avoids this entirely.

In “After a star or a thread” (translated here in full), for example, there is not a whiff of that kind of pithiness:

You followed me to the palace.

Did you follow me to the palace?

You were at the bottom of the pit,

did you read the novelists?

All their characters find guidance

in a star or a thread.

The ability of the star and the thread

regarding the lost thing

which they look for

in cities.

I will make the voice witness

when you follow me.

Of course, the question that then emerges is what such a poem means – perhaps semantic emptiness is the pitfall diametrically opposed to pithiness in Arabic prose poetry, even though it is rightly said that the poem does not have to mean anything – and, insofar as lack of meaning is a crime, Abdelghani is certainly guilty.

A more sympathetic reading would turn the palace and the pit, the star and the thread and the voice to be made witness, into a quasi-metaphorical system of (self) references where the speaker is really talking about the process of speech (one definition of poetry I like, which is applicable in particular to contemporary poetry, is that it is a mode of rediscovering language in intensely personal registers, of learning to speak). Together with the occasional Surrealist stroke – “and the imprisoned man/who waits for the dawn of things/is swept up by the sun/to my head,” for example – it is simply (but never exclusively) the process of writing, poetry being itself, that makes this book meaningful.

In “The Plum Tree”, Abdelghani comes close to expressing what his book attempts constantly to perform:

Poems are fair weapons,

said Jean Sénac.

But I don’t see people

baring them

even a little.


all poems

do not have the appearance

of a tree branch

that a woodpecker only just left.

And so, perhaps the most Quixotic thing about Kam yab’ud Don Kishot is the way it shows just how Quixotic – but also how Quixotically inevitable – writing poetry is. Surely (and this, if anything, is what Abdelghani is saying) these poems at this time and in this place are as idealistic and unrealistic as the proverbial hero, but perhaps also as impassioned. Abdelghani demonstrates this at the deepest levels not only brilliantly but also very poignantly, and as he does he suggests that there are many ways of exploring the ego, many ways of recounting one’s own life. I would have liked to learn more about Abdelghani from this exquisite “autobiography” of his. But perhaps it has already told me enough:

Abdelghani writes.


Translation copyright: Youssef Rakha

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Virtually there



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…”

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نصان في السفير

الألـــم أعمــــق لكن التحليق أعلى

يوسف رخا

أخطاء الملاك
ماذا ظننتَه سيفعل بعد كل هذا الوقت، الملاك الذي ظهر لك وانتظر أن تتبعه… كيف لم تقدّر عمق ألمه السماوي وأنت تبتعد عن الجبل الملعون كل يوم خطوة، تجرجر حقائبك المثقلة بلحمه على ساعات تجري إلى ما لا نهاية بين ساقيه، وتهزأ إذا ما نهــاك تليفــونياً عن الكبرياء؟ الآن وقد أصبح الملاك بُخاراً، كسبتَ ما أراد أن يضيّعه عليك. لكن ما الذي فضّلتَه على الخــسارة؟ قرية هجرتْها نساؤها؟ خادم يسرق من البيــت؟ نجمة مدارها عقد سيصدأ حول رقــبتك؟ لعلــك ظنــنته يظهر من جديد، أو نســيت أن فــي بطــنه دَمَك. يا كــافرْ، كيف ستحلّق الآن؟
عن قصيدة سركون بولص من ديوان «حامل الفانوس في ليل الذئاب»:
«يظهر ملاك إذا تبعتَه خسرت كل شيء، إلا إذا تبعته حتى النهاية… حتى تلاقيه في كل طريق متلفعاً بأسماله المنسوجة من الأخطاء، يجثم الموت على كتفه مثل عُقاب غير عادي تنقاد فرائسه إليه محمولة على نهر من الساعات، في جبل نهاك عن صعوده كل من لاقيته، في جبل ذهبت تريد ارتقاءه! لكنك صحوت من نومك العميق في سفح من سفوحه، وكم أدهشك أنك ثانية عدت إلى وليمة الدنيا بمزيد من الشهية: الألم أعمق، لكن التحليق أعلى.»


كانت إحداهما تكبرني بعشر سنين والثانية أصغر بنفس القدر. ولولا تطابُق عبارات تستخدمانها في وصف أشياء هي الأخرى متطابقة، ربما ما انتبهت إلى أن منشأهما واحد. لي عام أبحث عن شيء لن أجده مع أولهما، ولا أعرف لماذا ظننتها تخبئه خلف نحولها أو في السنين التي وراءها والتي تقضي بأن لا ألحقها على الطريق. لذلك عندما التقيتُ بالثانية، وكانت على نفس درجة النحول، روّعني سماع «ما حصلتش» و«الوسط» و«ماسكات» ثم «أتفرج من فوق»، بالذات وأنا أعلم أنهما لم تلتقيا وربما لن يجمعهما سوى انعكاس شفاههما وهي ترسم الألفاظ نفسها على سطح عيني أنا في الفجر. التي تصغرني بعشر سنين كانت تتطلع إلى الشباك وهي تستعجل السكوت، تماماً مثل قرينتها الأكبر بنفس القدر. وخُيّل لي أنني أرى السنين التي أمامها بكل تفاصيلها الموجعة. «ما حصلتش»، «الوسط»، «ماسكات». «أتفرج من فوق». هي أيضاً لم تتحمل كلاماً حاولتُ أن أنزع منه أي نبرة نصيحة. وفي نقطة تتوسط عشرين عاماً بصدد الوصول إلى المدينة، كان علي أن أسترجع قصة تبدأ بفتاة ريفية متفوقة في المدرسة وتنتهي برجوعي وحيداً إلى البيت. لم أسأل نفسي أصلاً لماذا تتكرر الكارثة.

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الطربوش: قصة

قبلما يمشي “زكريا” من عيادة الأسنان، سيناوله الطبيب شيئاً ملفوفاً في شاش. من غير ما ينطق، سيضع كرة الشاش الصغيرة لـ”زكريا” وسط راحة يده، وبرقّة وحسم يغلق عليها الأصابع – كما لو أنه واحد غني يتصدق على واحد فقير – ثم يربّت على القبضة المقلوبة ويسحب يده.  وسيخرج “زكريا” من العيادة وفي حلقه نصف ضحكة محبوسة منذ أطلق النصف الأول بعدما قبّل كرة الشاش وحكّها في قورته ثم أخفاها في جيبه مثل أي منادي سيارات يأخذ “استفتاحه”.  لأن “زكريا” قبلما يكمل ضحكته، اكتشف على وجه الطبيب تعبيراً عابساً وكأنه ينهره على رد فعله. لم يكن عند “زكريا” تفسير لفعل الطبيب سوى أن يكون تمثيلاً هزلياً يقصد به المزاح بعد جلسة علاج شاقة، الأمر الذي دفعه على أداء دور الشحات لإكمال المشهد. لكن لمّا أشاح الطبيب عنه بعصبية وكأنه يقول له “الحكاية ما تضحكش”، انصرف محبطاً من غير ما يفهم… العيادة قريبة من بيت “زكريا”، في شارع جانبي مظلم على الجهة المقابلة من ميدان واسع. حوالي ألف خطوة كما عدها في الطريق إلى هناك، لأنه يخاف من علاج الأسنان ويريد أن يلهي نفسه عن ما ينتظره. لكن ليلتها، وثقل البنج على فكه، سيبدو طريق العودة طويلاً جداً.  ومن غير ما يفك “زكريا” لفافة الشاش ولا حتى يُخرجها من جيبه، سيسترجع أول مرة فسد فيها الضرس الذي ذهب يعالجه ليلتها (ها هو الضرس – فكّر – يفسد للمرة الثانية): قبل عشر سنين تقريباً حفر نفس هذا الطبيب في ضرس “زكريا”. بخفة نزع العصب وحشا مكانه. ظل يقلّم حتى صار الضرس مدبباً وقصيراً، ثم ركّب فيه طربوشاً من البورسلين.  ولما ثبت الطربوش ابتسم لـ”زكريا” وقال: “سيبقى في فمك سنين طويلة.”  لن يخطر لـ”زكريا” حتى يستلقي على الكنبة، وفي يده كوب شاي مسكّر كأن البنج يذوب في سخونته، أن يمد يده إلى كرة الشاش التي أخرجها من جيبه وألقاها أمامه على الطاولة. سيضع كوب الشاي جانباً ويتناول لفافة الشاش يفكها. وفي ضوء “الأبجورة” يراه لأول مرة: الطربوش الذي زرعه طبيب الأسنان في فمه منذ عشر سنين.  ساعتها فقط تمر برأسه سنة كاملة لكل مئة خطوة قطعها في طريق العودة والبنج يشل نصف وجهه: سنة ما مات أبوه على سرير ضيق، وسنة ما أصابه أول انهيار عصبي جعله يكف عن تدخين الحشيش؛ سنة ما ذهب مع حبيبته في رحلة للتعافي في أصقاع آسيا، وسنة ما ترك حبيبته من أجل أخرى اختلف مع أبيها قبل أن يتزوجها. سنة ما زار لبنان لأول مرة وقرأ عن الحرب الأهلية هناك، وسنة ما تزوج ثالثة لن يستوي له العيش معها؛ سنة ما طلق زوجته ضد رغبتها، وسنة ما ذهب للعمل في إحدى دول الخليج؛ سنة ما عاد إلى وظيفته الحكومية، وسنة ما حصل على براءة أول اختراعاته العلمية.  سيضع “زكريا” الطربوش – بلا شاش – وسط راحة يده، وبرقّة وحسم… لو كان ضرساً مخلوعاً – يفكر – لما كان قد استغرب وجوده معه الآن، إنه – على غلوه المفاجئ – جماد. ولأول مرة، وهو قابض على الجسم الغريب الذي قبع في فمه عشر سنين من غير ما يلتفت له مرة، سيدرك السر فيما فعله الطبيب

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هأسأل عليك إزاي

كنت أذهب إليه في مرسمه بمصر الجديدة فيطردني. لم يكن يطردني بالضبط، وليس كل مرة طبعاً، لكنه لم يكن يتساهل في أي هفوة تنظيمية من جانبي وكان يتعمد معاملتي كصبي معلم بدلاً من زبون. ضخامة جثته واتزانه الوقور يصدّران إحساساً بأنني أقف منه موقف الابن العاق، وهو ما أحسسته على وجه الدقة حين بلغني الخبر بينما أنا على سفر. في المخابرة الهاتفية الأخيرة كان قد قال لي “ابقى اسأل عليَّ”. وكأي شخص مزاجي حقير لم أفعل، تماماً كما تجاهلتُ أبي في أيامه الأخيرة دون أن أعلم أنها الأخيرة أو أسأل نفسي إن كان باقياً لي هذا الأب أو إن كان يمكن أن يعوّض. الآن وقد وصلت إلى حيث كنت ذاهباً، أفكر في كل آبائنا الراحلين، كيف أنهم آجلاً أو عاجلاً يرحلون، وأننا نكون تقاعسنا في السؤال… كل هذه المخابرات المؤجلة وتجاهلي لمن أحب خجلاً أو شوقاً أو خوفاً من وزن لحظات محتملة…تذكرتُ أيضاً يوم قلت له مازحاً إنني لن أتعبه بنفس القدر في مشروعنا التالي المشترك، وكان قد شكا وشكا من ويلات التعامل مع شخص مستهتر ومدلل مثلي حيث اقترح ثم رفض ثم قبل أن يصمم كتاباً عن بيروت يحتوي على نصوصي وصوري التي أرسلتها إليه فور الانتهاء منها بلا توقعات سنة 2005.كان قد عمل في كتابي بلا مقابل، أعطاني اسمه فضلاً عن جهد يديه، ما ساهم ولابد في أنني واصلت الكتابة عن المدن وتمكنت من نشر ما كتبته وربما حتى إثارة شيء من الاهتمام. كان يتحرك من واقع إعجابه بالنص مجرداً من أي اعتبار ولأنه – كما قال لي – تعرّف في الصور على بيروت التي عاش فيها قبل عقود أو سنين. يومها قلت له “عقبال الكتاب اللي جاي يا أستاذ محيي”، وكان رد فعله عكس ما توقعت تماماً، حيث ظننته سيقول شيئاً من قبيل “بعينك”! كان رد فعله فقط أن تنهد تنهيدة قصيرة وابتسم ثم قال ما معناه أنه قد لا يبقى على قيد الحياة ما يكفي من الزمن لإنجاز كتاب. كانت لحظة محيرة. أردت أن أحتضنه أو على الأقل أبكي في حضوره، أن أعبر عن الامتنان والغضب وشيء ثالث يحسه الأبناء حيال هؤلاء الذين يجعلونهم أشخاصاً بحيوات وأسماء. لم أفعل شيئاً بالطبع.وأتذكر أنه كان ينفيني إلى البلكونة كلما أردت أن أشعل سيجارة وقد سد خرماً في صدره كما صار يقول حين أجبره الطبيب على الكف عن التدخين. هناك شيء آسر في أدائه على كل حال، وعندما يأخذه سحر الحكي يتبدى الحنان في صوته بما ينفي آثار ذلك العنف المقطّر. حكاياته شيقة ومتعددة وإن كانت مريرة، في الكثير من الأحيان يتملكه اليأس من هذه البلاد وهؤلاء الناس لكن نبرة التأمل المتفكه لا تبرح صوته. كنت أسترد في حضوره إيماناً بجدوى الثقافة والمثقفين زايلني طوال سنوات كففت أثناءها عن الكتابة بالعربية. والآن أعرف أنه لولا محيي اللباد لما أصدرت كتاباً بعد ذلك الانقطاع.بأحلى المعاني كان مثقفاً مشتبكاً مع الواقع، كان قد تعلم كيف يجنب نفسه ليس فقط الأدلجة والادعاء ولكن أيضاً كل تلك الأشياء المؤسفة والمجهدة التي قد يعاني منها فنان عنده من الشجاعة وحب الغير ما يكفي لاختيار مسار مصمم الجرافيك في زمن لم يكن يعني فيه ذلك سوى شح الموارد والتصادم مع الغباء.أفكر فيه وأقول في عقلي: طيب هأسأل عليك إزاي دلوقتي أنا يا أستاذ محيي؟


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أن تغادر المكان

فاصل من مقالي عن الجامعة في العدد الأخير من مجلة أمكنة

واحد = ثلاثة

ممكن أن أخبرك مثلاً أن سنوات الجامعة بالنسبة لي هي أيضاً سنوات تحقق حلم الذهاب إلى المكان الثاني، إلى إنجلترا. لا أتذكر بوضوح متى تكوّن في رأسي مفهوم مكان ثانٍ بمعنى المهرب أو البوابة، غير أن علاقاتي توطدت ببعض مدرسي البريطانيين في المرحلة الثانوية ولابد أن نظرتي لنفسي تغيرت في حضورهم ومن خلال رحلات سابقة إلى أوروبا ومعرفة جيدة بالإنجليزية. منذ عمر السادسة عشر، وربما قبل ذلك، كنت كارهاً لأشياء كثيرة؛ وكانت الأشياء التي أكرهها تجتمع في مكان يمكنك أن تسميه، تجاوزاً، مصر. لعل أول تجليات المكان الثاني، إذن، أنه ليس مصر. اليوم بينما أجد نفسي حائراً في تحديد الأشياء الطاردة التي كانت تجسد مصر أو تُطابِقُها، أو أجدها أعقد وأوسع من أن تُذكر أو يُدلَّل عليها ببساطة، يظل للمكان الثاني في رأسي مواصفات أدق جعلته مرغوباً لذاته وليس فقط لأنه خال من هذه الأشياء. من ضمن تلك المواصفات مثلاً أن المُعلّم هناك يصطحب تلميذه إلى الباب ليشاركه البيرة بعد انقضاء المحاضرة بدلاً من أن يمارس عليه عقده النفسية، أن الشرطي لا يملك على الشخص الماشي في الشارع حق الاحتجاز والإهانة، أن سهرة ختامها الاختلاء بفتاة هي نشاط مشروع لا ضرورة لمداراته أو الانتباه إلى أنه محظور، أن الكتب والعروض والأفلام التي يمكن أن تقرأها وتحضرها وتشاهدها أوفر وأحسن، أو أن حواراً طويلاً وعميقاً بين أكثر من ثلاثة أشخاص يمكن أن يبدأ وينتهي كله دون أن يأتي على ذكر الدين. عندك هنا خمسة نماذج على ما يرغّب واحداً بلغ منتصف عقده الثاني من الحياة في المغادرة. بحساب ما، كانت هذه النماذج الخمسة أكثر أهمية من مواصفات أخرى كالنظام والنظافة واستقلالية الفرد والتطور التكنولوجي، وأظنها – النماذج –  تعطي انطباعاً أصدق عن أسباب سخطي على المكان الأول. لكنها مهما بيّنت من نقائص، ستظل أبعد بكثير من أن تنقل لك إلى أي حد كان الشخص الذي يكبر في مكان يحتقره موهوماً بجدوى الانتقال إلى مكان أرقى، أو كم كان يحمل ذلك المكان الأرقى له من وعد. كنت بإصراري على المغادرة كأنني أتبرّأ من نفسي، النفس المحبوسة في الأشياء التي أرفضها، المحكومة بإعادة إنتاج الرفض سواء أدركت ذلك أو لا. وكانت المفارقة أن مبرر المغادرة – ضرورة الحصول على شهادة جامعية وكون المستقبل كله رهن هذه الشهادة – هو نفسه شرط من شروط المكان الأول، تماماً مثل المعلم الذي يتعالى على تلميذه والشرطي الذي يقطّع (بطاقة) مواطن سيستجوبه بلا وجه حق، ومثل التعاليم والفرائض المقحمة على كل حديث مهما كان موضوعه: شروط مصر. طبعاً كان يمكن أن أكمل تعليمي في كلية السياسة والاقتصاد التي دخلتها بسهولة بعد إتمام الدراسة الثانوية على المنهج البريطاني في مدرسة (أجنبية) ألحقني أهلي بها ليوفرا أفضل تعليم ممكن لابنهما الوحيد؛ كانت نتائجي في الآي-جي-إس-إي تعادل أعلى مجموع محتمل. بشكل ساذج ومدلل، مع ذلك، كنت واثقاً من أنني سأصبح كاتباً. ولا أعرف ماذا كان يدور في رأسي عن احتمالات الكتابة كمهنة علماً بأن الناس وقتها كانوا ما يزالون يمجدون أشياء كالطب والهندسة دون وعي بانحدار مستوى التعليم في هذه التخصصات ولا البطالة التي تنتظر خريجيها. ولم يكن يخطر لأحد أن الكتابة يمكن أن تكون أكثر من هوى أو هواية. أبواي، عن نفسيهما، كانا متفهمين. وعندما قررت أن أستبعد الكليات العلمية مبكراً، طمأنا نفسيهما بأنني فضلاً عن إجادة الإنجليزية ستكون معي شهادة محترمة في مجال أحبه. قيل في ذلك الوقت إن السياسة والاقتصاد تقدم تعليماً رفيع المستوى في الآداب، لكن بعد الخبرة بنظام تعليم يشجع على المبادرة ومدرسين يعاملون النجباء من طلابهم كأنداد أو أصدقاء، لعله كان طبيعياً أن أُحبط في مناهج جامعة القاهرة وأسلوب التلقين المتبع في تدريسها وبالذات أداء أساتذتها الذي لا يختلف جوهرياً عن أداء (أبلة) الحضانة أو (فقي) الكتاب. كان الموضوع من أوله إلى آخره في (الملازم) التي يؤلفها (الدكتور) ويبيعها بطريق غير مباشر: لا كتب ولا مناقشات، لا بحث ولا كتابة. فقط استذكار ببغائي لمحتوى هذه الملازم، ومتى أمكن أيضاً تملق وتمسح في مؤلفها بهدف النجاح في الامتحانات – وهي مهارات كان يجيدها الطلبة الآتون من الأرياف أكثر من غيرهم – لأن نتيجة الامتحانات تعتمد ليس على معرفة الطالب بالمادة أو اجتهاده في مطالعة المراجع وإنما على مزاج الدكتور الذي يدرس له. وكان الدكاترة إجمالاً يقلقون من أي بادرة اهتمام بموادهم خارج حدود الملازم. وكأنك لو قرأت كتاباً، خاصة لو كان إنجليزياً، ستفضح جهلهم وخيابتهم؛ وكأن أي سعي إلى المعرفة لا يحدث من خلالهم شخصياً هو بالضرورة انقلاب فوضوي على نظام حكمهم العتيد. هكذا كانوا فعلاً، أو هكذا أتذكرهم: رجالاً صغاراً خائفين ضيقي الصدر والأفق، مقطوعين لسلطتهم التي بدت لي غير مستحقة. لحد الآن وأنا أتكلم هكذا مجرد كلام، لا تزال في حلقي مرارة القهر والقرف من أستاذين أو ثلاثة كنت احتككت بهم بشكل سطحي قبل أن أكف عن حضور المحاضرات و(السكاشن)، وصدمت في استخفافهم المجاني بأي كلام جاد يمكن أن يقوله طالب سنة أولى عن أي شيء. حالة الانتفاخ التي كانوا يظهرون عليها، كأنهم قبل دخول المدرج يحقنون أصداغهم بالنشاء، تشعرني بأنهم ليسوا معلمين بل ممثلين درجة ثالثة جيء بهم ليمثلوا هذا الدور، وبأنني أنا الآخر علي أن لا أكون طالب علم بل ممثلاً في دور طفل جاهل ومستهتر لا يمكن أن يشفع له سوى الرياء أو وساطة (حد كبير). ذات لحظة بدا لي أن البقاء يعني نهاية العالم، أو أن العالم الحقيقي ليس هنا ولكن في إنجلترا أو أمريكا، هناك. وظللت أسعى بلا جدوى لتدبير منحة أو تنسيق (معونة مالية) حتى أتمكن من السفر دون أن أجهد أبوي. أعتقد، بعد كل هذه السنين، أن ما كنت أبحث عنه هو مكان يمكنني أن أعبّر فيه عن نفسي، بمعنى أن أعيش قناعاتي بشكل يشعرني بالامتلاء. وكانت ضرورة الحصول على تعليم جامعي كهدف مرحلي للحياة كلها في مركز هذه القناعات. ومع كل هذا، ما إن تحقق حلم المكان الثاني حتى خفّت حدة احتياجي للتعبير عن النفس، شيئاً فشيئاً. في السياق الجديد أصبحت أهمية القناعات التي كنت أريد أن أعيش بها أقل فأقل، حتى بدت قناعاتي كلها بلا أهمية على الإطلاق. وحدث هذا بشكل أشعرني، بالتدريج، أن نهاية العالم قد لا تختلف جذرياً عن استمراره. يعني هنا، باختصار، ليس أعظم كل هذه العظمة من هناك. في مصر كان عندي ما أعبر عنه وربما من أعبّر له أيضاً، لكن السعر بدا أعلى من قدرتي الشرائية؛ ولعل التربية على قيم الطبقة المتوسطة هي التي صبغت الحياة بألوان الحذر والترقب. لكي أعيش قناعاتي المعرفية، مبدأياً، كان لابد من تهميش الدراسة الجامعية بالكامل وقضاء ربما عشر سنوات بدل الأربع المقررة لتأمين الشهادة. كما شغلني كيف سأعيش خلال هذه الفترة. أن تفطر في رمضان أو تنام مع امرأة لم تتزوجها: حتى في ذلك العمر، بدا الحصول على هذه الحقوق أخطر من أن تستقيم معه الحياة. أما مناخ جامعي يوفر الحد الأدنى من احترام العقل ومكافأة التفوق، فلم يكن مطروحاً من الأساس. في منتصف التسعينات كان البديل الوحيد عن جامعات الدولة المتفق على ضعف مستواها هو الجامعة الأمريكية في القاهرة. وفضلاً عن أنني كنت واعياً بانخفاض ترتيبها على مقياس الجودة التي تقرره المؤسسة التعليمية الأمريكية، غير مطمئن لاختلافها عن جامعة القاهرة ونافراً من التفرنج السطحي والثراء غير المسئول عند غالبية الملتحقين بها ممن أعرفهم – إلى اليوم تصيبني كلمة “إيوسييان” بالغثيان – لم تكن تكلفتها تقل عملياً عن تكلفة التعليم في أي “يونيفرسيتي كوليج” في إنجلترا أو أي جامعة محترمة في أمريكا. أعتقد أنني بالضغط على أبوي حتى ينفقا كل قرش معهما على دراستي في جامعة هل في شمال شرق إنجلترا، بالفعل وجدت المكان الذي كنت أبحث عنه، مكاناً للتعبير والقناعات. وإلى اليوم لا يراودني شك في أن معضلة التعليم الجامعي لم يكن ليحلها إلا السفر. تراودني الشكوك حول كاختيار – كنت قُبلت كذلك في جامعة بريستول ، لكن تكلفة الحياة في هل أهون قليلاً – وكثيراً ما أتساءل أيضاً إن كانت إنجلترا هي النموذج الأمثل للدنيا الحلوة التي أردت أن أهرب إليها. أتساءل وأتساءل وأتساءل عن جدوى الهرب نفسه، طبعاً. لكن لا أشك لحظة في أن السفر هو الذي جعل للتعليم الجامعي في حياتي معنى، ونجّاني من أمراض اجتماعية و(ثقافية) ما كانت مناعتي التي أضعفتها المدرسة الأجنبية ستتحملها في هذه السنين. المشكلة أنني حين أصبحت في المكان الثاني، كما سبق، فوجئت من فوري بأنني لم يعد عندي ما أعبر عنه أو من أعبر له ويفهم أو يهتم. وكانت صدمة هذا الاكتشاف من القوة بحيث تدخلت في نظرتي لكل شيء لاحق عليها، في ذكريات المكان الأول وتقييم المكان الثاني وطريقة التعامل مع المكان الثالث الذي عدت إليه فور حصولي على بكالوريوس الآداب في الفلسفة والأدب الإنجليزي بتقدير امتياز مع مرتبة الشرف وثلاث جوائز والكثير من الثناء. لأنني حين عدت بعد ثلاث سنين تخللتها إجازات كثيرة، كان طبيعياً أن لا أعود إلى المكان الأول وإنما إلى مكان ثالث لعلني كنت أتصالح معه تدريجياً دون أن أعلن لنفسي عن هذه المصالحة. المكان الثالث – هو الآخر مصر – أصبح اليوم أشبه بالبيت الذي وإن لم تحبه كله تشعر بألفة حقيقية معه وتكون مستعداً للتعود على بلائه، بشكل ما. الآن دون أن أتعمد الاستعادة وأجتهد في ذلك – وهو المهم – لا أكاد أتذكر شيئاً من أهم ثلاث سنين في حياتي. أتذكر ملامح المكان الأول بوضوح تام، كما أستطيع أن أسرد – بالتوازي مع مسار حياتي كشخص حاصل على شهادة جامعية – كل ملامح تطور المكان الثالث ومشاويري عبره منذ 1998، سنة عودتي. أما المكان الثاني الذي وهمت به قبل أن أذهب إليه وزال عني وهمه أثناء وجودي فيه، فلا أكاد أحتفظ لصوته بأي صدى. دون أن أجتهد في الاستعادة لا أكاد أتذكر شيئاً، بالفعل. لكن ربما الأدق أنني أتذكر أكثر بكثير من أن أميز ما يجب أن أتذكره لأتكلم عنه، أو أي وزن يجب أن أعطيه لأي ذكرى في الكلام. أصداء صوت المكان الثاني من هذه الناحية متضاربة وبطيئة، فضلاً عن أن الزمن جعلها مكتومة مثل صوت الطبلة حين تُسد فتحتها بالقماش. ولولا الارتباط الشَرطي بين كوني هناك وكوني أحصّل العلم – الأمر الذي أثقلني على ما أظن، حيث كان هاجس التفوق حاضراً ومختلطاً بالذنب تجاه أهلي حيال ما قررا أن يستثمراه في مشروع ربما لا يأتي عليهما في النهاية بالربح المرجو – لولا هذا الارتباط الشرطي، أقول، ما كانت اقترنت ذكرياتي عن إنجلترا بالدراسة الجامعية أساساً، الأمر الذي كان ليجعل أيام الجامعة ثقباً أسود في فضاء وعيي المبطن بهذه الذكريات. على سيرة الجامعة مع أصدقاء من عمري وأكبر أو أصغر قليلاً، مازلت أشعر أن تلك المرحلة حاضرة في عقولهم أكثر بكثير مما يمكن أن تحضر عندي، أن الحياة التي يعيشونها اليوم وأعيشها معهم وإن كانت نقطة انطلاقي لاحقة على نقاط انطلاقهم هي الامتداد المباشر لخبرتهم بالجامعة: مسافة قطعوها في علاقتهم بمكان واحد ربما غادروه أو عادوا إليه ولكن دون أن تحوله أي رحلة من رحلاتهم إلى مكانين. بالنسبة لي، على العكس، الجامعة خانة خاوية وحدها، أو على أحسن الفروض مشهد من فيلم آخر غير الفيلم الذي أعيشه مع هؤلاء الأصدقاء. محزن بعض الشيء أن أكتشف ذلك الآن، محزن ومحير، لأن الفصلة بيني وبين أصدقائي لا تقتصر على أن خبرة دراستي الجامعية نفسها مختلفة عن خبرتهم: أيام الجامعة في حياتي، بأكثر من معنى هنا، مشوار مبتور. واليوم حيث لا علاقة باقية بين مصر ما قبل ومصر ما بعد إنجلترا، لا تبدو الجامعة أكثر من جب يفصل مكانين دونما يتصل بأيهما بشكل كامل. وكأن ذهابي إلى إنجلترا جعل من الواحد ثلاثة على غرار سر الثالوث في العقيدة المسيحية: خط الذاكرة الأقرب لا يمتد إلى ما قبل عودتي من أصله، ولهذا كثيراً ما أحس كأن وجودي في إنجلترا هو فاصل شارد من ذاكرة شخص غيري وجد طريقه إلى رأسي بالغلط. الغريب – في الحقيقة هذا هو ما أردت أن أتكلم عنه من البداية – هو أن ذلك الشخص الآخر، كاره مصر الظافر بمغادرتها، يبدو بكل تفصيلة من تفاصيل حياته مغلوباً على أمره في المكان الذي غادر إليه. كأنه طوال إقامته في إنجلترا لا يريد أن يكون هناك. عقاب من يصر على مغادرة المكان: في مدينة فقيرة تغرقها رائحة كيميائية على ساحل بحر الشمال، مدينة هي نموذج حي للوضع ما بعد الصناعي… وبالرغم من أن فيها جامعة تحقق له كل تطلعاته، أن يتغلب الملل والقلق على الإنسان

سر المكان

معنى أن تغادر…

موضوع قد يستغرق الأبد.

أن تغادر المكان الذي ألفتَ زواياه كأنها في

خبايا فكرك انعطافات الحلم الذي لا يلوي على شيء –

المكان الذي سره أبداً لم يُستكشف، لأنه صار أليفاً وأنت

لن تقبل إلا بما لا تعرفه، قابلاً لما تعرف لكن عارفاً أن هناك

شيئاً خبيئاً وراء بابك، شيئاً لن تطاله الأضواء التي

لن تعرف سرها ولن تراها…

أن تغادر المكان الذي يلتف سره بالأحاجي

لأنه صار أليفاً، والأليف حين يُستكشف يُطرح جانباً في العادة؛

قد يحدث هذا، ذات يوم، عندما تركب قطاراً

إلى الريف أو المنفى:

أن تجد كل طريق، كل حقل، كل بيت

مغتسلاً برونق بهاء ليس سوى بعضاً من ترنّقه

في مرآة الترف: اللون، والشكل، زوايا التظليل، إطار المتعة

الباذخة في العين – حصان يرعى في المخيلة.

جسر يتجسد فوق ضفتين، ما وراء النظر

لكنك ترى في غفلة

ظله العابر.

وإذ تعبر بالبركة (في أية قرية!)

وتحجز في نظرتك الماء الساكن، وباحات البيوت

والقارب المقيّد بالحبل

إلى رصيف المرفأ، وتفكر، ولا تدري أنك فكرت إلا فيما بعد:

«كم ساكن هذا الظل وأسود في الماء»

فإنك تدرك، في الحال، أن المرأة الملفعة بعباءة

سوداء في الحديقة، تبكي لأن أحدهم أجبرها

على أن تقبل بالحقيقة.

ولستَ متأكداً إن كان هذا جزءً من الحلم، أو شهادة

سمعت تفاصيلها ذات مرة

لكنك تدري أن ما جاهدتَ أن تدريه في تلك اللحظة

شيء يمكن لك الآن، في عمرك هذا، أن تعرفه أكثر

لأن الخليقة وضعتك في هذا الموضع بالذات

حيث ترى، وتمتلك الرؤية.

إنك آنذاك، حين يتقمصك الوضوح، وتكون في

حال من فرط انجلائها، أنك لا تفكر حتى بأن تفكر:

آنذاك قد يحدث أن تحدس السر الذي لم تستكشف طواياه

في المكان الذي غادرته، ذلك الشيء الخبيء ما وراء أستار وأبواب

ذلك الشيء الذي لن تطاله الأنوار التي رأيتها في منامك.

تلك التي لم ترها سوى في منامك.

(نص قصيدة سركون بولص من «عظمة أخرى لكلب القبيلة»، دار الجمل 2008)

سر الإحباط

فيما يخص المغادرة عندي صياغتان إضافيتان لمفهوم الإحباط الكاسر الذي ينتج عن زوال الوهم

ورغم أنهما في الأصل ضمن تعليقات ساخرة تتردد عن المدينة التي كنت أسكنها

أجدهما بليغتين جداً

Hull = Hell                                            Hull is dull

علماً بأن الإحباط المقصود هو ذلك الذي تعبر عنه كلمة


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هدفي تحطيم البقرات المقدسة

لا يكف يوسف رخا عن إثارة الشغب‮. ‬

حاجته الدائمة إلي المغادرة وعدم الثبات تدفعه لاختبار أقصي درجات التمرد و(السخط؟‮) ‬في الكتابة‮. ‬لا يعترف بأي فواصل أو حدود بين الأنواع الأدبية،‮ ‬لذا يمعن في التنقل بينها ومزجها ببعضها البعض كأنما تتحول الكلمات معه إلي لعبة ما‮. ‬إلي مكعبات أو قطع ميكانو يرّكبها كل مرة علي نحو مختلف ثم لا يلبث أن يفككها من جديد‮.‬

اللغة من وجهة نظره صديق لا يجب أن نبذل معه كل هذا الجهد‮. ‬صديق يتحول رخا من أجله إلي متآمر أبدي يظل يسهم في تنفيذ مؤامرة محكمة للتأكد من أن اللغة‮ “‬لغته لا تعيش إلا خارج الكتابة‮” ‬كما كتب في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ضمن كتابه الأحدث‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮”. ‬وهو النص الذي يشبه خارطة طريق‮ (‬لن أقول مانيفست‮) ‬لنظرته للّغة،‮ ‬وهي نظرة،‮ ‬ربما تكون بدأت معه منذ بدايته،‮ ‬إذ نجد تجلياً‮ ‬آخر لها في نص من نصوصه الأولي‮ (‬منشور في الكتاب نفسه‮) ‬وعنوانه‮ “‬عبّاس العقاد‮” ‬يكتب فيه‮ “‬تلك القوالب الخرسانية‮/ ‬وقصائد الحديد والصلب‮/ ‬هل كنت تتحدث مع المازني‮/ ‬بلغة سرية؟‮/ ‬أنت لم تترك لي‮/ ‬أكثر مما تركه الإغريق القدامي‮/ ‬أنت ورثتني‮/ ‬قوالب طوب‮/ ‬أنت ممن جعلوني‮/ ‬أكره اللغة العربية‮”.‬

هذه القصيدة أشبه ما تكون بتصفية حسابات مع نظرة معينة للّغة وللفن،‮ ‬وهو أمر لا ينكره رخا،‮ ‬إذ يقول‮: “‬كان هذا مطروحاً‮ ‬في قصيدة التسعينيات‮. ‬تصفية حسابات مع البشر والدنيا بشكل إنساني،‮ ‬تصفية حسابات علي المستويين الجمالي والأدبي‮. ‬لكن يمكنني قول إنه ليس تصفية حسابات بقدر ما هو تمرد أو تكسير للبقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬والعقاد أكبر‮ “‬البقرات المقدسة‮” ‬بدون وجه حق‮! ‬هو من وجهة نظري ليس لديه جديد يقوله،‮ ‬علاقته باللغة مريضة ومختلف تماما عن طه حسين مثلاً‮. ‬موقفي من العقاد ليس موقفاً‮ ‬من عصر ولا توجه سياسي،‮ ‬إنما موقف من كاتب أرفض التعبد في محرابه‮. ‬الآن لن أكتب قصيدة بهذا المنطق‮. ‬لأني مقتنع حاليا أن تصفية الحسابات حتي لو بشكل جمالي ليست هدفاً‮ ‬كافياً‮ ‬للكتابة‮”.‬

‮ ‬تبدو اللغة هنا هي المعيار الأول الذي يقرِّب صاحب‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮” ‬من كاتب أو ينفره منه،‮ ‬يستشهد بطه حسين باعتباره النموذج المغاير للعقاد،‮ ‬لكنه يعود في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ليسخر من صاحب‮ “‬الأيام‮” ‬لأنه شغل نفسه بسؤال‮: “‬أيهما الأصح‮: ‬تخرّج في الجامعة‮ ‬_‮ ‬أم من‮ ‬_‮ ‬الجامعة؟‮”. ‬

من ناحية أخري‮  ‬يبدو يوسف رخا كأنما في صراع دائم مع اللغة للوصول للغته هو،‮ ‬لغة تخصه،‮ ‬وتشبهه،‮ ‬بما يحمله من تمرد وقلق ورغبة دائمة في اخراج لسانه للجميع وتكسير كل الأيقونات والبقرات المقدسة‮. “‬هذا في حد ذاته من الأشياء الأساسية في الكتابة الأدبية‮. ‬درجة من الطزاجة تسعين لها‮. ‬أن تتجاوزي الكليشيهات حتي لو قمتِ‮ ‬بسك كليشيهات خاصة بكِ‮ ‬في المقابل‮.” ‬يقول رخا قبل أن يضيف‮: “‬ثمة سلطات لغوية مزعجة‮. ‬توجد سلطوية كريهة في التعامل مع اللغة‮. ‬هذا شيء ضد الإبداع‮. ‬نحن نتكلم لغة‮ ‬غير التي نكتب بها‮. ‬لدينا لهجات مختلفة،‮ ‬ولغة لم تتطور إلا علي الورق،‮ ‬وأري أن هذا شيء جيد‮. ‬لو حذونا حذو أوروبا لكانت كل لهجة تحولت إلي لغة منفصلة‮. ‬هذا يطرح سؤالاً‮ ‬طوال الوقت هو‮: ‬كيف تكتبين؟ أنتِ‮ ‬مسبقاً‮ ‬اخترتِ‮ ‬الكتابة كامتداد تاريخي لما كُتِب باللغة العربية علي مدي التاريخ،‮ ‬لكن مع لمسة إنسانية تقترب من لغة الكلام‮. ‬في مرحلة من المراحل،‮ ‬عندما كنت أفكر في الكتابة،‮ ‬شعرت أن الأشياء التي من الممكن أن أخسرها والتي لا تعوض هي الصراع بين العامية والفصحي‮. ‬لديكِ‮ ‬لغتان يمكنكِ‮ ‬استنباط شيء مختلف من تصادمهما أو تجاورهما‮. ‬اللغة إضافة لكونها علاقة صريحة مع ما هو الشعر،‮ ‬إنما هي أيضا صراع‮. ‬معظم الكتّاب الذين أحبهم سواء بالعربية أو الإنجليزية يكون عندهم لغة تخصهم‮”.  ‬


اختار رخا‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬عنواناً‮ ‬لكتابه الأحدث الصادر عن دار العين،‮ ‬كأنما يؤكد من جديد علي أهمية المكان في كتابته‮. ‬إذ يظهر دائما باعتباره مركز الكتابة والعنصر الأساسي فيها‮. ‬لاحظنا هذا في كتبه في أدب الرحلات من‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮”‬،‮ ‬إلي‮ “‬شمال القاهرة،‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”‬،‮ ‬وها نحن نلاحظه في نصوصه الأحدث المقالات منها والقصائد،‮ ‬بل وحتي في مخطوط روايته التي لم تصدر بعد‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮”. ‬يعترف رخا أنه في الشعر لا يوجد لديه وعي بحضور المكان‮: “‬عندما سافرت إلي أبو ظبي وجدتني أكتب قصائد متتالية عن المكان دونما تخطيط أو قصدية‮. ‬وكان هذا لطيفاً،‮ ‬إنما الكتابة عن المكان في كتب الرحلات تتم عن عمد،‮ ‬أعتقد أن المكان من الأشياء الأساسية عندي،‮ ‬أكثر أهمية من الزمن بالنسبة لي‮. ‬من المفارقات أني عشت في أماكن كثيرة جدا في القاهرة وخارجها،‮ ‬وكنت دائما أعود للشقة التي وُلدت فيها‮. ‬احساس لا علاقة له بالعاطفة أو الحنين‮”. ‬

الزمن في كتابات رخا إما مفكك أو موجود في منظومة محددة سلفاً‮. ‬في كتاب‮ “‬الطغري‮” ‬مثلاً‮ ‬تدور الرواية في ثلاثة أسابيع محددة‮. ‬ويظهر فيها المكان‮ / ‬القاهرة وتغيراته بشكل واضح،‮ ‬بل إنها‮ (‬أي القاهرة‮) ‬العنصر الأساسي في‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮” ‬كما يؤكد رخا‮: “‬وهذا جزء رئيسي من عملية التكوين في الرواية‮. ‬المكان حاضر تماما،‮ ‬ليس فقط القاهرة،‮ ‬إنما نكهات معينة لأماكن معينة‮. ‬قاهرتي أنا‮. ‬شعرت باختلاف كبير حينما أكتب عن مكان ضخم أعرفه جيدا‮. ‬أبو ظبي وبيروت مثلا أصغر من القاهرة،‮ ‬وخبرتي فيهما أقل‮. ‬عندما يكون المكان كبيراً،‮ ‬وخبرتك فيه كبيرة تستطيعين اللجوء لخيارات صعبة‮”.‬

لكن بعيداً‮ ‬عن مركزية المكان،‮ ‬يبدو‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬مربكاً‮ ‬لهواة التصنيف،‮ ‬فالكتاب يحطم الحدود بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬إذ يضم ديوانين قصيرين أحدهما قديم والآخر جديد،‮ ‬ومعهما نصوص ومقالات‮. ‬تجسير الفجوة بين الأجناس له مستوي آخر أيضا فثمة نصوص شعرية في الكتاب أقرب للنثر،‮ ‬ومقالات ونصوص سردية أقرب للشعر‮. ‬لا يبدو يوسف رخا مرتاحاً‮ ‬لفكرة أن يبرر نشره للمقالات مع القصائد،‮ ‬يقول بدرجة من الاستهانة‮: “‬كان لدي ديوانان قصيران،‮ ‬لا يصح أن ينشر كل منهما وحده،‮ ‬كان من الممكن أن يُنشرا مع بعضهما في كتاب أصغر‮. ‬لم أرغب في أن ينشر كل منهما في كتاب أصغر لأن لدي مشكلة مع الكتب الهزيلة حجماً،‮ ‬كما كنت أشعر بضرورة أن تتم قراءتهما معاً‮. ‬أيضا أردت كسر التصنيف الحاد بين النثر والشعر واخترت نصوصا نثرية من الممكن أن تصنع حالة كلية مع الديوانين‮. ‬من الممكن أن تقرأي القصائد علي أنها نثر مطبوع بشكل مختلف،‮ ‬وتقرأي المقالات علي أنها شعر مطبوع كنثر‮”.‬

أسأله‮: ‬تبدو مشغولا بتجسير المسافة بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬ما السبب؟

‮- “‬بالنسبة لما أكتبه،‮ ‬أشعر أن مسألة الأنواع الأدبية مفتعلة‮. ‬ثمة شكل تقني يتطلب أشياء معينة‮. ‬ولديّ‮ ‬دائما تساؤل هو‮: ‬هل لو كتب رامبو روايات لكان أصبح أقل أهمية وتأثيراً؟ وهل لو كتب ديستويفسكي قصائد لكان أقل أهمية؟ فكرة التخصص التي كانت سائدة في السبعينيات لا معني لها من وجهة نظري‮. ‬الكتابة كتابة سواءً‮ ‬أكانت مقالا أو ريبورتاج أو قصة‮. ‬ما يحركني لها دوافع واحدة بغض النظر عن الجنس الأدبي الذي أكتبه‮. ‬في لحظة معينة أجدني أقرأ كتاب‮ “‬ميزان الذهب في شعر العرب‮” ‬من أجل كتابة بيتين من الشعر العمودي أحتاجهما في مكان معين من عمل معين‮. ‬التركيبة الموجودة في‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬لا أعرف إلي أي مدي هي موفقة‮. ‬هي مبنية علي نصوص كانت موجودة مسبقاً‮ ‬عندي‮”.‬


رغبة رخا في التمرد وتحطيم البقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬لا توفر شيئاً‮ ‬أو أحداً،‮ ‬إذ تمتد إلي الشعر نفسه‮. ‬نلاحظ رغبة قوية في إنزاله من عليائه واللعب به ومعه‮.‬

يقول‮: “‬لا أري أن أدبية النص لها أي علاقة بتوصيفه‮. ‬عندي ثورة شخصية علي الأدبية الخاصة بتلقي النص الآتية من مكان معين خارجه‮. ‬من جانب آخر هناك الأفكار التي ظهرت في التسعينيات والداعية لكسر نوع معين من البلاغة وتصور معين عن الأديب‮. ‬كان الأهم فيها أنها حطمت المفهوم الخاص بأن من يكتب يلعب دور المعلم أو الأديب أو حتي النبي‮. ‬في عملي لا تزال هناك الرغبة في أن تصدمي أو تكسري‮. ‬رغبة مصدرها التآلف مع ما حدث في التسعينيات رغم أني وقتها لم أكن واعياً‮ ‬بهذا بشكل كافٍ‮. ‬هذا الكتاب أشعر أنه فاصل‮/ ‬حاجز بين مرحلة استنفدت أغراضها وبين مرحلة جديدة‮. ‬بمعني‮  ‬بين مرحلة كتابة المكان بالشكل الذي بدأته‮ ‬2005‮ ‬وبين الرواية التي انتهيت منها مؤخرا‮. ‬الديوان صدر فوراً‮ ‬بعد‮ “‬شمال القاهرة‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”. ‬شعرت أنه يملأ المساحة بين أدب الرحلات والرواية‮. ‬الكتاب كان من المفترض أن يحتوي أيضاً‮ ‬علي اسكتشات وصور فوتوغرافية،‮ ‬لكن لم يحدث هذا لأسباب ربما تكون تقنية،‮ ‬الفكرة تم رفضها من قبل الناشر‮”.

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أكلة لحوم البشر

ذَكَري على الأرض بين قدميها

بعد يومين – تقول لي، راجية أن لا ألفت إليه انتباه الخادمة – ستكون الخادمة نفسها هنا من جديد. لا، لا، لن تكنس ذكرك. فقط لا يجب أن تراه

فجأة يخرج عِرق نافر من جانب ذكري. كدودة مستميتة يشب على كعبها. يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها

سيكون هناك أطفال – تُواصِل، وأنا أحاول أن لا أنظر إليه – وزوج هو أبوهم، وأب صار جداً فخوراً، لم لا؟

وكعادة البيت الذي لا أحسني غريباً عليه رغم كل شيء – فكرت – ستصخب الأركان بأشخاص أفهمتني أنهم أصدقاؤها. أنهم بريئون وضروريون. ومثل إخوتها المدعوين إلى وليمة بدأت الخادمة في تجهيزها، لن يدوسوا على ذَكَري. فقط لا يجب أن يروه

لكنني رغماً عني أرى العِرق النافر. كدودة مصممة على الحياة، يتشبث بالكعب. ببطء مميت يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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أخطاء الملاك-عن قصيدة سركون بولص


ماذا ظننتَه سيفعل بعد كل هذا الوقت، الملاك الذي ظهر لك وانتظر أن تتبعه… كيف لم تقدّر عمق ألمه السماوي وأنت تبتعد عن الجبل الملعون كل يوم خطوة، تجرجر حقائبك المثقلة بلحمه على ساعات تجري إلى ما لا نهاية بين ساقيه، وتهزأ إذا ما نهاك تليفونياً عن الكبرياء؟ الآن وقد أصبح الملاك بُخاراً، كسبتَ ما أراد أن يضيّعه عليك. لكن ما الذي فضّلتَه على الخسارة؟ قرية هجرتْها نساؤها؟ خادم يسرق من البيت؟ نجمة مدارها دبلة ستصدأ في إصبعك؟ لعلك ظننته يظهر من جديد، أو نسيت أن في بطنه دمك… يا كافر، كيف ستحلّق الآن؟


قصيدة سركون بولص من ديوان حامل الفانوس في ليل الذئاب

يظهر ملاك إذا تبعته خسرت كل شيء، إلا إذا تبعته حتى النهاية… حتى تلاقيه في كل طريق متلفعاً بأسماله المنسوجة من الأخطاء، يجثم الموت على كتفه مثل عُقاب غير عادي تنقاد فرائسه إليه محمولة على نهر من الساعات، في جبل نهاك عن صعوده كل من لاقيته، في جبل ذهبت تريد ارتقاءه! لكنك صحوت من نومك العميق في سفح من سفوحه، وكم أدهشك أنك ثانية عدت إلى وليمة الدنيا بمزيد من الشهية: الألم أعمق، لكن التحليق أعلى

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New Translation of al laji’u yahki

The refugee tells

The refugee absorbed in telling his tale

feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.

He’s absorbed in the awe of being Here

after all those Theres: the stations, and the ports,

the search parties, the forged papers…

He dangles from the chain of circumstance –

his destiny wound like fibre,

in rings as narrow as

those countries on whose chest

the nightmares have piled up.

The smugglers, the mafias, if you asked me,

might not be as bad as that sky of hungry seagulls

above a damaged ship in Nowhere.

If you asked me I would say:

Eternal waiting in immigration offices,

and faces that do not smile back, no matter how much you smile;

who said it was the dearest gift?

If you asked me, I would say: People, everywhere.

I would say: Everywhere,


He tells and he tells and he tells,

because he has arrived but does not taste arrival,

and he feels nothing when the cigarette burns his fingers.

Sargon Boulus (1944-2007)

Translated from the Arabic by Youssef Rakha

Listen to Sargon reading by clicking on the little microphone

A refugee absorbed in talking
Did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Surprised to be here
After being there – stations, harbours,
Visitations, forged papers

Depending on a chain of details
His future was fibre-like
Laid out in small circles
An oppressive country
Afflicted by nightmares

Smugglers, emigration bandits, if you asked me
Commonplace people maybe, hungry sea-gulls
Over a wrecked ship in the middle of nowhere

If you asked me, I would say:
Endless waiting in immigration bureaus
Faces that do not return smiles whatever you do
Who said: the most precious gift

If you asked me, I would say: Human beings are everywhere.
You would say: Everywhere

He talks, talks, talks
He had arrived but did not enjoy the taste of arrival
And did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

© 2007, Sargon Boulus
Publisher: First published on PIW, Rotterdam, 2007
© Translation: 2007, Kees Nijland
Publisher: Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam, 2007

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Iraq en la corazon

Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab

Youssef Rakha outlines the life course of a modern legend


-Azhar Dhabila
(Withered Flowers, 1947)
-Asatir (Myths, 1950)
-Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong, 1960)
-ï Manzil Al-Aqnan
(House of Slaves, 1963)
-Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi (Al-Chalabi’s Daughter’s
Shanashil, 1964)
-Qitharat Al-Rih
(Wind Zither, 1971)
-A’asir (Storms, 1972)
-Diwan, two volumes
(Beirut 1971-4)

Two images permeate the poetry of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964): the child of six, in the rural environs of Jaykour, a small village near Basra in southern Iraq, calling desperately for his mother who, unbeknown to him, has died; and the grown man, ailing in exile by the shore of the Arabian Gulf, pining nostalgically for his homeland, which seems much further away to him than it really is. Both correspond to real-life experiences of the poet‘s. The eldest child of a date grower and shepherd, Shakir Abdul-Jabbar Al-Sayyab, Badr lost his mother, Shakir’s cousin Karima, in 1932; she died prematurely while giving birth to her fourth child, a girl who did not survive. And it was during his miserable confinement to hospital in Kuwait and elsewhere that the poet’s verses took on the trademark, impassioned — some say excessive — nostalgic tone. Often homeland and mother are evoked in unison, or as two aspects of the same — irrevocable — sense of security. In a belated elegy for Al-Sayyab, Syrian poet Mohamed Al-Maghout referred ironically to this dual obsession of the poet’s in the context of reflecting on Arab cultural and political demise — wrapping the traffic light in a headscarf and calling it “Mother”, building the model of a country out of empty matchboxes and rubbish to call it “Homeland”.

Al-Maghout’s poem is not the only tribute to Al-Sayyab in modern literature. Universally recognised as one of the pioneers of the free poetry movement, Al-Sayyab is also widely credited with being among the most traditional of free poets, displaying a profound command of the metrical rules governing Arabic verse and an easy familiarity with even the most difficult idiosyncrasies of the classical tongue. For a long time he thought of poetry as an aspect of the struggle for national liberation, and whatever innovations were to be introduced should never be allowed to impinge on the essence of the endeavour — the search for a liberated identity governed by equality and justice. The influence of European literature on Al-Sayyab thus remained superficial. His true sources remain the folk songs and fairy tales his later poems increasingly evoked, accompanied by the cadences of the vernacular he grew up speaking and the insurgent energy of national struggle. His virtues go beyond technical facility, however, for the energy and the emotional charge of his poems often transcend their nominal subjects, and his imagery — at times almost Imagist in precision and intensity — ranks among the most powerful in the poetry of any language. Perhaps the tragedy with which his life was beset reflected a genius too pure for the political turmoils in which he was to find himself entangled — a genius not for petty intrigues and power struggles but for grand and transcendent themes.

Soon after Karima’s death, Shakir found another wife and moved out — to the distress of his father. The poet subsequently lived at his grandparents’ — his paternal grandmother, whose affection is said to have replaced his mother’s, figures as the source of imaginative, sometimes frightening fairy tales about epic heros and djinn. Following the first few years of school in the neighbouring village of Bab Soliman, Al-Sayyab was forced to go further, attending the Mahmoudia School in Abul-Khasib, a small town that also figures in many of his poems: it was from a classroom window that he first spied the beautiful, unattainable daughter of Al-Chalabi, a prosperous landowner, beyond the opposite house’s shanashil (a kind of latticework window comparable to a mashrabiya ) — to which the title poem of his last diwan, Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi, refers. This was probably also his earliest encounter with class differences; no sooner had it occurred, at any rate, than Al-Sayyab’s poetic facility began to flower — first in the vernacular, then in standard Arabic. Before settling with his maternal grandparents in Basra to attend secondary school — this difficult move took place in 1938 — Al-Sayyab presided over a literary magazine produced and distributed by his schoolmates. It was named, not surprisingly, after the palm-studded village he was never to forget, and to which he returned periodically throughout the duration of his secondary education. Jaykour was not only his birthplace, but the home of his first love, Wafiqa, one of his many cousins.

In 1941, having paradoxically opted for the science rather than arts pre-university course despite standing out in Arabic language and literature, Al-Sayyab began writing poetry regularly. (Much of this early work, written in the traditional meters of the canonical aroud, was collected and published posthumously). Interaction with fellow students with literary inclinations, notably Khaled Al-Shawwaf, was to contribute to his artistic growth. Al-Sayyab’s insurgent political awareness flowered in the same year, following the execution by the British of the leaders of the anti-colonial Rashid Ali Al-Kilani Movement of April-May. At this point it is worth recalling the nationalist atmosphere in which Al-Sayyab grew up: his uncle Abdel-Qader, the poet’s closest relation and fellow communist activist, had been a member of the underground Al-Hizb Al- Ladini (the Non-Religious Party), and on the walls of his grandparents’ house Abdul-Jabbar hung pictures of Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and other leaders of the liberation struggle. At the same time as Al-Sayyab reacted emotionally to the executions, writing poetry in response, his grandfather was in financial straits, having fallen prey to the usury and exploitation Abdel-Qader denigrated in the newspapers; this gave him an added, personal incentive. In his last year of secondary school, Al-Sayyab’s lyricism began to mature into the expression of an individual response to the world — the emotional and political dimensions of existence. The long-postponed move to Baghdad was preceded by the second major grief in his life: his beloved grandmother’s death.

For the provincial innocent, Baghdad was a world apart, and one for which the young poet had fearfully yearned for a long time before arriving there as an Arabic student at Dar Al- Mu’allimin in 1943; he selected the faculty in question because it provided education free of charge. Literary and political life submerged the emergent talent: after Najui Al-Ubaidi published one of his poems in the newspaper he edited, Al- Ittihad, his poetry spread in literary circles, and before too long he was well-known. Transferring from the Arabic to the English department of Dar Al-Mu’allimin, he made the acquaintance of Nazik Al-Mala’ika, the first Arab poet to free verse from the formulaic rules of aroud, employing the individual taf’ila as the basis for metric composition. By 1946, when this meeting occurred, he was a member of the communist party; his first experience of detention occurred in that year. Despite being a reticent participant in the Allied-Nazi debate then surging through the intellectual life of the capital, he engaged fully with ongoing political turmoils until his graduation in 1948, when his first collection of taf’ila poems, Azhar Dhabila (Withered Flowers), appeared. He was appointed as a secondary-school English teacher, and it was then that he began to feel the brunt of urban isolation — living in a hotel, with few connections (he was one of three communists resident in Baghdad at the time), and leading a frustrated love life, finding solace in his periodic stays in Jaykour — a habit he had not given up since his days as an adolescent in Basra.

Jaykour becomes, for Al-Sayyab, a kind of objective correlative not only for innocence and the first flutters of consciousness but for identity. He returns to it or to the surrounding area constantly in his poems, releasing memories, a sense of history and an infinite string of references with which to comment on subsequent, unrelated stories, anecdotes and events — even the Greek myths from which he sometimes drew inspiration, and which, through the imagery he employed, he transported into the settings of his childhood. The political involvements that were to have a terminally abrasive effect on his body and mind remained, at heart, visions of utopia rooted in the atmosphere of Jaykour, especially of a time prior to his mother’s premature death. He may have displayed obstinacy and even, occasionally, aggressiveness, but his motivation was largely that of the bereft child dreaming of security — financial, political and family security. Likewise Al- Sayyab’s love life was doomed from the start: he returned to Jaykour one day to find Wafiqa married. Subsequent relations with liberated women remained superficial, and Al-Moumis Al-Amya a (The Blind Prostitute), one of his four long poems, bears testimony to the painful revulsion his observation of urban prostitutes induced in him. It was in the late 1940s that such a tragic sense of self was beginning to register, along with a commitment to engaged literature — a subject that was to preoccupy him till the end of his life. Already it was too late to conceive of life along any other lines.

Another change of government, in 1949, saw Al-Sayyab imprisoned again; the Nouri Al-Said regime specifically targeted communists. Al-Sayyab was banned from teaching for the next decade. Among the jobs he undertook in Basra following a quiet few months in Jaykour were date taster and oil company employee. In 1950, the year his second collection, Asatir (Myths), appeared, he moved back to Baghdad, working as a free-lance journalist until he found a job as an employee of the Ministry of Imports. He continued to engage with literary and political life nonetheless, and the many interesting developments surrounding him — persistent calls for the nationalisation of Iraqi oil, Al-Said’s resignation and, following a poem in which Al-Sayyab predicted the event with uncanny precision, the wide-ranging Baghdad protests of 1952 — went on stimulating his writing, albeit in progressively less direct ways. When the army came to power and a new series of political arrests began, Al-Sayyab had the foresight to flee to Iran and onto Kuwait, where homesickness caught up with him, producing, among other poems, Gharibun ala Al-Khalij (Stranger to the Gulf), the poem to which Al-Maghout was to make his ironic references. Al-Sayyab thus arrived in Kuwait in 1953, only to return to Baghdad six months later in the wake of King Faisal’s reinstitution. This time, evidently intent on settling down once and for all, he rented a house and invited one of his aunts to live with him. In 1955 he married the sister of his uncle Abdel-Qader’s wife, a young woman from Abul- Khasib, who bore him a little girl, Ghaidaa, the next year.

With his activism waning — disagreements with the party through the 1950s, the time when he wrote his four long poems, had led to Al-Sayyab absolving himself of political responsibility — his poetry acquired a contemplative tone, his lyricism emerging as a powerful force in its own right, unencumbered by a specific political agenda. Yet he remained sufficiently engaged to be imprisoned for a week following the publication of several of his poetic translations in 1955. He was one of three Iraqi participants at the Conference of Arab Writers held in Damascus in September 1956. He soon became the prophet of the 14 July 1958 Revolution, displaying remarkable prescience — it was in this period that he wrote his best-known poem, Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong) — and following the Revolution resigned from the Ministry of Imports to work as an English teacher once again, this time in the Ministry of Education. He was to lose his job in the communist-nationalist rift, however, in which he sided with the latter faction; so disillusioned had he become with Iraqi communism. Al-Sayyab was reduced to working as a poorly paid translator for the Pakistani Embassy, and he was persecuted and humiliated by his former comrades.

Following attempts to appease Abdul-Karim Qasem, the leader who abolished the monarchy only to pit contending political factions against each other, he retrieved his job in 1960, the year his third collection of poems, named after Unshoudat Al-Matar, appeared. His physical as well as psychological health failing him, Al-Sayyab eventually gave up what little comfort he had attained — evidently at the expense of his peace of mind — and relocated to Basra in search of a quiet life, where, despite another, by now completely ludicrous arrest, he obtained a position in the Iraqi Port Administration almost immediately.

His health went from bad to worse, and following a brief visit to Jaykour Al-Sayyab’s poetry centred increasingly on the theme of death, with the djinn girls of his childhood reappearing before him in frightening form. He attended another literary conference in Rome, and spent some time in Beirut arranging the publication of his work and making the acquaintance of Arab poets he had not met. His magazine allegiances had shifted from Al-Aadab to Shi’r, and now, following a brief stint with Hiwar, he went back to Al-Aadab. Al-Sayyab’s illness eventually took him back to Kuwait, where for six months he suffered from paralysis and intense depression. His friend Ali Al-Sabti conveyed his body back to Basra, where he found Al-Sayyab’s family homeless (the Port Administration had managed to evict them from the house, which was given to Al-Sayyab as one of the job perks, after the poet used up all his holidays). His funeral was a low-key event, and he went almost unnoticed. By 1971, however, a statue of the poet was installed in one of Basra’s main squares.

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Manifesto of the Halssist Party

On Nael El-Toukhy’s Two Thousand and Six

A spectre is haunting Arabic literature – the spectre of Halssism. All the Powers of old Culture have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Respectable State Cronies and Leftist Dinosaurs, poet Ahmad Abdel-Mo’ti Hegazi and critic Wael El-Semary, Moroccan philosophers and Lebanese novelists. Where is the literary endeavour in true opposition to the status quo that has not been decried as Halss by its opponents in power (halss being the quaint but all too appropriate term for Irreverent Nonsense, Hilarious Noise, Creative Nihilism)? Where is the Literary Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Halssism against the more advanced opposition parties within the same margin, besides hurling it against better established, reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact: Halssism is already acknowledged by Arab literary Powers to be itself a Power; and it is high time that Halssists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Halssism with a Manifesto of the party itself. To this end, Youssef Rakha here provides his reading of Nael El-Toukhi’s Al-Alfain wa Sittah: Qissat Al-Harb Al-Kabira (Two Thousand and Six: The Story of the Big War, Cairo: Merit, 2009), perhaps the millennium’s first openly Halssist novel(la), in which the theme of Revolution serves as the backdrop not only to the kind of meticulously stylised, thoroughly contemporary and cult classic-making Halss few writers have had the courage or the oomph to produce but also to basic values of the Halssist doctrine, to be traced in its present form to a major shift through the Nineties from grand narratives and vaguely moralistic drives, from collectively conceived identities and high-falutin tones, to the individual and the vernacular and the everyday. Here, finally, is pure Halss – or almost.

The history of all hitherto existing literature is the history of genre struggles. Scholar and critic, journalist and blogger, prose- and free verse-champion, in a word, stylist/theorist and counter-stylist/theorist, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of literary discourse, or – more often, to be sure – in the common ruin of contending approaches to literature. And so too is the Philip K Dick-like  opening of the present text infused with the urgency and distress of Literary Life (the exclusive butt of Toukhy’s tongue-in-cheek Big War): “One day, some poet sent a message from his e-mail to a number of his friends. He said he had left Cairo, was on his way to the desert: the Western Desert, to be precise. He said he grew bored of life, and was heading there with the purpose of suicide. The poet, whose name is Abdelaziz, added that he took along a can of tuna and a loaf of bread on this journey that would last forever, a journey to the hereafter as he called it. He would die and his corpse would disintegrate, as he said, and in a month from now, everyone would know where he lay.”
Abdelaziz, as it turns out, is the macho, testosterone- as well as theory-driven Leader of the Poetry Revolution, which by the time he leaves for the desert following a breakdown precipitated by his falling out with his main collaborator and close friend, Reda, has been sabotaged into a Novel Revolution. Reda is the new Leader, and as such also the husband of Abdelaziz’s once wife Sayeda, a sort of living monument to the Revolution with whom he has had a peculiar, supernatural love affair since long before the momentous events of 2006. Ultimately the Revolution takes place with Sayeda’s blessings, and it is accomplished by Reda together with Nael (a critic who at times, because of his name, seems to stand in for the author himself) and Magdy (a dodgy character recruited by Nael and Reda to be the henchmen of the revolutionary army of Bald Fat Intellectuals). Abdelaziz, as it turns out, never kills himself in the end: his e-mail is a sort of lie, a device whereby he could escape his Historical Role (embodied in the magazine he founded and edited with the help of Reda). Instead he moved to Helwan where, forever dead to Literary Life, he opened a mobile-phone shop and transformed himself into Mi’allim (Master) Ziza, eventually to discover – to his chagrin – that he himself is in fact a passive homosexual…

In what relation do the Writers stand to the Producers of Halss, the Postmodern Satirists and Jokers whose values differ fundamentally from those of the old Culture, and whose work appeared in the form of blogs if not Facebook statuses long before it made its way into print? The Writers do not form a separate party opposed to other satirical parties who, in a time of endlessly corrupt respectability and absurd political commitments, will not tire of poking fun at the Holy Cows not of Politics and Ideology (those, it would seem, were already slaughtered by the prose poets of the Nineties long before the Jokers came on the scene) but, more importantly, of a Literary Life increasingly and often ludicrously filled with values whose function is to respond to the capitalisation and globalisation to which both life and literature are increasingly – and as inevitably as the Revolution seemed to Marx and Engles, God bless them –  succumbing. The Writers have no interests separate and apart from those of the Jokers (whom we might safely identify with their Readers) as a whole. Except for values of sarcasm, irony, nihilism, laughter, pure enjoyment of a purely democratised creative act, which values cannot meaningfully be described as such, they do not set up any literary or cultural principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the inevitable Halss movement in its unstoppable forward march on history.
Here as elsewhere in the work of those who might be termed the post-millennial generation of cultural agents, Literary Life is the perfect target not simply for satire as such – and Toukhy’s book, it should be clear, is among the funniest satires currently on the market, certainly the most hilarious critique of the contemporary Egyptian literary sensibility to date – but also, and especially, for any effective portrait of life in the sprawling, multifaceted city eventually overtaken by the Bald Fat Intellectuals. Reda, Nael, Sayeda – not to mention Abdelaziz, especially in his Ziza avatar – are all deeply religious and pious people, for example, notwithstanding the irresolvable contradictions between the faith they purport to have and their actions and interests (beer drinking, sex, violence, and the cardinal sin of literary endeavour). This (true) fact of (contemporary) life, Toukhy presents, with unrealistic faithfulness to reality, as given. Somewhat problematically for a Reader not familiar with the immediate context in which he has produced this book – and as such problematically, perhaps, for the Halssist project as whole, since Halssism in its ultimate effect should never be context-specific – Toukhy feels no need to clarify whether or not he is poking fun at Wahhabi religiosity, whether or not expressions of religion on the part of his characters is as absurd as the Knowing Reader – au fait with Literary Life, will readily take it to be.
Yet Toukhy does other things with Halss – as Halssists should and will. He uses the language of bloggers and other post-millennial newcomers to the literary sphere, for example, (mis)spelling vernacular words to replicate the way they are pronounced – an involuntary mistake on the part of said bloggers, voluntary on his – in order to bring down the airy castles of the old Culture. He plays with values of manhood, womanhood and everything in between – in order to destroy prevalent (mis)conceptions about the roles people play and the places they occupy. With an intellectual rigour that is necessary for the effective communication of a Halssist message (Halssist messages can say little or nothing, of course, apart from Halss), he places the idea of Revolution before him and looks at it. He looks long and hard at this idea and its connections with a broad range of the ideas and images informing contemporary Arab life. He reviews ways in which the idea has been used, manners in which it has been critiqued, and he gives a more or less realistic account of what Revolution amounts to, in the end. And yet, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls that await the committed Halssist once he approaches political, social or cultural themes, Toukhy does this through the oblique and distorting lens of an extremely narrow and ultimately absolutely impotent community of Citizens: the cafe-going intellectuals who populate downtown Cairo, the drinkers and the smokers, the little-educated, self-obsessed founders of literary magazines.
“We suggest a new and exciting subject to the young researchers among our children: the Revolution’s view of itself, how it expressed itself (in this case, its selves) through different names: Revolution, War, Haifa,” the long cherished Palestinian town the book’s Revolutionaries invoked in their forward-marching slogans, “Beyond Haifa, Beyond Beyond Haifa, ending with Two Thousand and Six, the year of the outbreak of the Revolution: 1 February 2006. How was each one of those titles made to prevail in the press and the media? How did society receive them (sometimes easily, often after resistance)? Sources will be available and plentiful: the newspapers issued in 2006. The researcher who wants to register his thesis will clash with an essential obstacle, however. He will be told that Two Thousand and Six is not yet an event that can be contemplated from afar, it is not yet history. And this is true, for something in Two Thousand and Six made it an ahistorical event, an event forever in present time, an event in which we live. Two Thousand and Seven came and went, then Two Thousand and Eight, even Two Thousand and Twenty. And still, in every year, part of Two Thousand and Six moves along with that year, runs parallel to it, does not overtake or lag behind it. Therefore the crisis that Abdelaziz felt was that he lived in pre-Two Thousand and Six times, before that moment that proved itself eternal…”

As we draw up the outlines and constituents of the Halssist party as a whole, glimpsing the potential of this all-encompassing spectre, which will no doubt beget a wider variety of offspring as the millennium moves ahead heralding the triumph of the Jokers, it is important to set Halssism apart from an increasingly popular mode of quasi-literary writing that has been identified as Humorous or Comic, and which shares with Halss the essential elements of satire and social critique. Humorous writing which has in these recent, commercialised years made the best-seller list as often as anything else may have been a step on the way to the true liberation of the Jokers that Halssism proposes, their prevalence and their ultimate, scientifically ordained triumph. But it is not the same as Halss in that it holds onto various aspects of the real and the moral the presence of which will hamper and potentially kill the transformation now besetting our world. Revolution is indeed afoot, in order once and for all to bring down Revolution.


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