A Kind of Linguistic Caliphate: In Conversation with Hilary Plum

A CONVERSATION WITH YOUSSEF RAKHA

I first learned of Youssef Rakha’s work in June 2011, when Anton Shammas wrote me with an unprecedentedly urgent recommendation. I was an editor with Interlink Publishing, which has been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1987: here was a writer who, as Shammas would later put it, with his debut novel had claimed “an immediate spot at the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” With The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha has, in Shammas’s words, “[realized] at long last, one of the dreams of modern Arabic novelists since the mid nineteenth century: to formulate a seamless style of modern narration that places the novel in the world.” The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Kitab at-Tughra) had been published in February 2011, coincident with the beginning of revolution in Cairo, and over the following years, as I awaited its translation with the impatience the monolingual are doomed to endure, rumors of the novel continually, insistently arrived. I can only suggest that the anticipation I felt then is the anticipation literature in English does not yet know it has been feeling, the lack from which it’s been suffering, and which these two novels will answer in force.
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In one of those lucky moments when publishing just gets things right, this winter offers readers in English Rakha’s first two novels at once: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey and published by Interlink, and The Crocodiles, translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories. Sultan’s Seal moves us exhilaratingly through the Cairo of 2007, city of post-9/11 Islam, sweeping through centuries of Arab and Ottoman history and into a future of Rakha’s own invention. The Crocodiles takes us up to the brink of 2011, spinning the history of a secret poetry society in Cairo, gorgeous in its fury, hope, and despair. Rakha’s arrival in English constitutes an event. It’s been my pleasure to speak with Youssef about his work.

Two Extracts from “Paulo” (The Crocodiles II), Translated by Robin Moger

A Kid Came to Me

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A kid they marked up down at the Qasr Al Nil police station came to complain to me. (This was what was going on back then, with the April 6th Youth Movement and Kifaya and all of that stuff; and the Brotherhood, too, they were getting it together on the sly, even though, bit by bit, they were starting to get it in the neck: cunts.) A sweet kid and a sissy, a guy could get a hard-on just sitting next to him, who’d been working with me for a while and whose name was Ashraf Bayoumi. They marked him up and he came to my house. The minute I saw him I spat and turned my back. On the 4th of April I’d sent him along to a tiny demonstration whose purpose he didn’t know in Talaat Harb Square, and he was supposed to have reported back to me the same day. He bent and wiped my spittle from the doorstep with his sleeve then threw himself at me smearing his mouth against my brow. Just hear me out, he said. Then he followed me inside and asked for a glass of water.

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Marcia Lynx Qualey: A Review of the Newest Arabic Novel (Remix)

Arab Muscle Dancers . Half of a stereoview, 1898, B. W. Kilburn
Arab Muscle Dancers, 1898, by B. W. Kilburn

Insert Title Here, by Our Arab Author, translated by So-and-so. Such-and-such publisher. $12.99.

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? We in the West hear about the Middle East all the time, but for most of us it remains unknown and unknowable. More complicated still is that, as I learnt at the weekend, forms like the novel and short story were alien to Arabic culture before the first decade of the 20th century: the genres are, themselves, imports.

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Mahmoud El Maniarwi: Howling-محمود المنيراوي: نباح

English below

في كفيّ ثديكِ، اقبضهُ
كأني خائفٌ عليهِ أن يهرب ونحنُ نيام
أنا الذي أعرفُ أن رحيلك “جريمة مغرمة بالحدوث”
استيقظُ من نومي على كابوسِ الغياب
ولا حيلة لي سوى أن لا أصدق الحيل
لا ثدي في كفي
لا أنتِ هنا
لا شيء غيري

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“A Kid Came to Me”-عيّل علّموا عليه

A chapter from the novel “Paulo”, Part II of The Crocodiles Trilogy-فصل من رواية “باولو”، الجزء الثاني من حاوية التماسيح

English below

الأحد ٦ أبريل ٢٠٠٨

عيّل علّموا عليه في قسم قصر النيل جاء يشتكي لي. (هو ذا الذي كان يحصل أيام حركة شباب ٦ أبريل وحركة كفاية وكل هذا الكلام. كان يحصل من قبلها طبعاً لكن بدأت أنتبه له في هذا الوقت. والإخوان أيضاً كانوا شادين حيلهم من تحت لتحت مع أنهم يأخذون على دماغهم أول بأول: القحاب.) عيّل حلو ومخنث لدرجة أن الواحد ممكن ينتصب وهو قاعد جنبه، شغال معي من مدة واسمه أشرف بيومي. علّموا عليه فجاء لي البيت. أنا أول ما شفته بصقت وأعطيته ظهري. يوم ٤ أبريل كنت بعثتُه مظاهرة صغيرة لا يَعرف الغرض منها في ميدان طلعت حرب، كان المفروض يرجع لي في نفس اليوم. وطّى يمسح بصقتي عن العتبة بكم قميصه وحدف نفسه علي يحك فمه في قورتي، قال: اسمعني لو سمحت. ثم دخل ورائي وطلب كباية مياه. قال إنه لما كان في المظاهرة جاء واحد يتكلم معه بطريقة لم تعجبه ففتح عليه المطواة. الواحد هذا كان ضابط مباحث وأشرف لا يعرف. في البوكس قال لهم إنه مخبر أمن دولة لكن زوّدوا الضرب. وصف لي بالتفصيل. كانت الكلبشات في يديه وراء ظهره وكان في البوكس مقبوض عليهم آخرون أكثرهم من غير كلبشات، لا يعرف ما جرى لهم بعد ذلك.

استمر في القراءة

Mohab Nasr: The people are sleeping-مهاب نصر: الشعب نائم يا حبيبي

The people are sleeping: Two versions

“The people are asleep,

Don’t wake the people, darling,

So she’d tell him

Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,

Whenever his eyes shone behind the door

Like a password,

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A second excerpt from “The Crocodiles”

rakha_youssef_

Peter Sengl, Peeping cat

194. “You know you’re a coward?” she said, for the first time staring into his eyes without confusion or uncertainty. She hadn’t completely finished tying the ponytail when she looked at him and he couldn’t believe it. “I’m the first to tell you?” Not a flicker; just the first signs of a smile upon her lips. “You really are a son of a dog’s religion of a coward.” And before he could give expression to his astonishment he found his arm in motion, as if of its own accord. “A coward,” she was saying, “because you’re not prepared to exchange your position for another, even in your imagination. You’re scared to put yourself in a woman’s place because you’re scared to ask yourself whether, in those circumstances, you would marry. This isn’t a fear like the human sentiment with which to varying degrees we’re all familiar: it carries a moral presumption and a glib satisfaction with your own circumstances. That’s why I’m telling you you’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward…”

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