What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.
The oblivious body by qisasukhra
A second excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s التماسيح (Dar Al Saqi, 2012) [The Crocodiles].
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…”
195. And this, as I see it, was precisely Moon’s genius. When she came out with abrupt and sudden declarations of this sort it was with a tremendous energy, an intentness that summoned thoughts of the weak standing up to the strong, the revolutionary to his oppressor, and she would make the man before her feel, in consequence, that her words came forth from a deep place: that she’d thought hard about it and that it pained her. Her subtlety in inferring views, which her inner cogency or indifference would not permit her to air more comprehensively, was what gleamed in her eyes as her lips quivered. Meanwhile the truth was that she said things by way of experiment and cared deeply only about their immediate impact; things that sprang from an absolute lack of cogency. Moon would lie, tentatively, without believing herself, and the things she said were clichés even though our admiration of the speaker might mask the fact. This was the genius Nayf fell for, despite his shrewdness, because it was—as I see it—a genius of cliché, while Paulo and I, with the less brains or the greater weakness, hooked the Joke and the Slogan.
196. She was saying, “That’s why I’m telling you,” when Nayf’s palm settled on her cheek. And when the palm slid down to her neck she went on: “You’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward. Am I right or what? When you said that it makes no difference…”
197. It wasn’t a slap precisely, though the arm was raised, the palm stretched rigid and the shoulders a straight line through a circle’s centre. It was like the threat of a slap, which Moon would have returned immediately had she not lost her balance beneath the weight of the slapper, now standing over her head. As he turned to face her she tottered and swayed, until she came to rest cross-legged on the couch, her long summer dress hitched up off a brown and slender thigh. At which point she looked him in his eyes again. She herself did not know if something in her gaze was different but it no longer fazed him that she looked.
198. A thigh, brown and slender, but aglow and suffused, and her long thick hair, numberless streaked chestnut strands gathered in a ponytail, and her, looking at him. Did Nayf recall the lion? Did the recollection affect an energy pulsing in his body, that was like desire and was not desire? A rosy thigh and thick hair and breath of basil with a pulsing energy and her hair and a brown and slender thigh.
199. Moon did not flinch as the palm encircled her nape, the thumb settling on the Adam’s apple, and it did not seem that she was immediately aware of Nayf’s other hand tugging the ponytail down as he returned to his seat beside her, chest-out this time; only, with the thumb’s pressure and her head’s canting back, her voice became strangled till she stopped speaking, then a faint whine was heard followed by panting—her lips clamped tight—as though it did not come from her. And though she did not laugh when he hissed in her ear, “This son of a dog’s religion is your mother’s dad,” it came as no surprise to him that she didn’t resist. “Your mother’s dad… daughter of a whore.” He was bringing his face up to hers so that his forehead settled on her nose, as if to crush it. And she was pressing her lips together ever more violently, her breath was drawing closer while her knees parted little by little, further and further.
200. Recalling a gathering of the Crocodiles which took place weeks before that night I can almost hear Nayf, cackling derisively at a scene of a masked man flogging two pale buttocks, all that showed of a woman straitjacketed in steel and black leather, on the Internet. How, then, was his thumb now on the verge of sinking an Adam’s apple into the throat of a girl kneeling on phosphorescent plush? Later, Moon will tell him that the marks left by his hands and teeth, if she had seen or heard of them on any other girl just a day before that night, would have filled her with disgust.
201. “And yet,” she will go on, with that sour grin of hers which scattered the beauty from her face “it seems I like abuse and caveman stuff. With you, baby, I’ve found what I deserve.”
202. In 2001, and up till now perhaps, in our conception of civilization—Nargis and Saba’s conception, Moon’s conception, of civilization—the sweetness of sex was incompatible with physical violence. Especially when the violence came from a man and was directed towards a woman, we viewed it as nothing more than an unnuanced machismo exercising its unreconstructed masculinity; it never occurred to one of us that it might be probing psychological depths quite unrelated to any worldview blowing in from behind the buffalo. Power, possession and absolute loyalty—unlike “self-development”—were things we distanced ourselves from with all our might. A man beating a woman to arouse himself or her would mean he raped her, subjugated her body, something that repelled us to the utmost degree. Yet we needed violence more than anything. Perhaps this need for violence—our need to feel the power of possession and a desire for an absolute loyalty to justify our lives, for the temptation to recreate some person in the world other than ourselves—perhaps this was what set Nayf in motion and set loose in his body an energy that resembled desire, yet was not, or not just.
203. So it was, that when she did not part her lips as they made contact with his mouth, which had suddenly grown wet, he did not hesitate to lick them then bite them harder and harder until he was barely stopping himself from drawing blood. And after her hands came to rest beneath his shoulders on the pretext of pushing him away—she wasn’t pushing him but pulling him in, planting her fingers through the back of the T-shirt and into his ribs—Nayf was astonished at himself for the savagery with which he bit Moon, cheek and neck, after lowering the dress from her shoulders and, pulling off her bra, likewise on her breast.
204. Her breast, in size and shape: a lemon; but the nipple is black and very large, a charcoal knuckle, and when his teeth encircle it at the root as though to nip it off—I mean the nipple—it’s owner will open wide her lips for the first time and her basil scent will blend with something between pepper and smoke and she will not make a sound. As though the whine that came from her before signified a resistance now broken in the face of a more profound and authentic pain; precisely as though the pain was (and leaving aside what we’d repeat among ourselves, Paulo, Nayf and I, that a person who’d lost pleasure or despaired of it must cling to pain as the only way to feel alive… As I write, in this moment, about myself, I believe that what keeps me alive, confronted by reports of parliamentary elections ongoing since November, is the pain of those twitching on the asphalt after inhaling gas, of those struck by bullets in their eyes, of those stampeding from the scourge of billyclubs and electric cables… The pain, that biting light in whose absence no one perceives a thing); as though the pain was, for Moon, the key to a locked door behind which lay her truth, which she would never confess except in jest or without conviction—all her lies were in the mirror—and which, consequently, she could not express with any sound whatever.
205. I see him slapping her seriously this time then, while circling her until he stands behind her as she kneels, twisting her arms behind her with one hand and with the other pulling off her underwear then lowering his clothes to enter her as though ramming a plank of wood into a wall cavity—all this in a single movement, like lightning—and he finds her wet and easy—as I was not to find her, at first—and leans over her back all overlain with gleaming chestnut hair to breathe in the smoke and pepper and search for a trace of basil, which draws further and further away amidst a throbbing pressure, only to return damply with her panting.
206. Then, as Nayf leans over Moon’s back, he will sink his hands into the curve of her flesh and yank her bunched hair, scour it, then insert his whole thumb into her anus to lift her sex towards him and will reach out his hand to mash her nipple between two fingers then fall to smacking her rump again. And with the resolve of a saint tortured by Romans on the shore of the Red Sea, she will keep holding back from crying out—not a sound except her faint pants broken, despite herself, by eruptions of a lowing or braying she struggles to cut off—until the moment that her small brown body quakes, spasm after spasm, having pulled her arms from his grasp and settled on all fours, writhing in what resembles a fit, a freshly-slaughtered panther, biting the green plush as he looms upright then kneels upon the sofa’s edge, his feet still on the living room floor.
207. The oblivious body. Which solicits a violence it did not know it wanted. Which offers up a sacrifice to something other than what constitutes living in Egyptian society. Far from ideas of sin and transgression, but far, too, from holding to any principle, no matter how straightforward and true the principle might be. The body, which I, Gear Knob, knew as boisterous, tyrannical for all its triviality, and in which I got to know The Crocodiles’ full stink, in one go; maybe Nayf intuited from her silence beneath this pain the truth of its moans. And forgot the lion. As he withdrew from Moon and left her bundled on the couch, still erect himself, yet to come—as he hurried to his bedroom to fetch two scarves and a fat candle in the shape of an apple—perhaps he forgot that a flesh and blood lion had been tormenting him for weeks.
Extract from The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha, published in October by Dar Al Saqi, Beirut
24. Today, I’m convinced we were a room no one managed to enter except three lovers. Of them, it’s Moon who figures in memory or imagination, though the last to reach us: the shade for whose sake we left a door ajar. As if the other two got in by mistake. Is it because we never knew from where she came or where she went after it all came to an end? Was it for the sake of the tomboy traits, which were to lead us to covet one woman above all others in our circle? Moon was the closest to us in age and the only poet. Perhaps for her hyper-insubstantiality and her retention—despite the slightness and small size—of a lion’s charisma, perhaps because she was the most changeable and extreme, the one whose behavior it was impossible to predict from one day to the next, we left a door ajar for Moon.
25. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me from afar. Very far, it seems. Each time I’m made aware of the army’s thuggery then the lies of the military leadership and their political-media cheerleaders, each time I become conscious of people’s readiness to credit lies, I’m ever happier with my remoteness. Here I shall be cut off and secure; allowed to remember. It’s truly pleasant to be spending my time tapping away with a clear head while Egypt burns, and I reflect that the problem—perhaps—is that it doesn’t burn enough; that over there are those that talk about the threat the demonstration poses to productivity and the importance of getting the economy going even as young men are abducted and tortured; that people run for parliament on the grounds of their familiarity with Our Lord, while Al Azhar’s men are murdered with live rounds. Because of this, because these events, in spite of everything, are limited, and because their significance is squandered with people’s readiness to believe in lies, I feel the necessity of remembering and am content with my remoteness.
26. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me and I’m thankful for the file before me on the computer screen as bit by bit it fills with words. I congratulate myself for creating a folder I named The Crocodiles—for this to be its first file—because, since doing so, I’ve lost the urge to descend to the battlefield of Tahrir Square or Qasr El Ainy Street and I feel no guilt. At times—and this is all there is—I am overwhelmed by grief. A biting light flares in my head, blinding and paralyzing me for minutes each time, and I shake and awake to a severe pain in my stomach. An hour later—not a tear shed—comes a burning desire to weep. I know none of those who’ve been killed personally, and though I’ve often put myself in the place of their family and friends—I know some of their friends—I don’t believe I’m grieving on their account. The pain whose light bites into me is a symptom of something else, a thing I don’t know how to formulate. As though you went to sleep in your comfortable home and woke to find yourself naked in the middle of the road. As though we have nothing else but this.
27. I think on Moon and remember that in 12/2010 or 1/2011, following the outbreak of Tunisia’s protests—even as the Tunisian police were killing people in the streets—one of the loyalists of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali’s government appeared on Al Jazeera asking in a tone of disbelief, “Is the solution to burn the country? Is the solution to burn the country?” Now, a year on from the outbreak of protests in Egypt, I repeat his words with differing sentiments, his voice ringing in my ears as the reports reach me: Is the solution to burn the country?
28. And since I think on Moon… It seems to me, objectively, looking back, that she so engineered her life to obtain the maximum possible quantum of love from the maximum possible number of people, even if the love were—given that Moon was full of it and never made any real effort with anyone, inescapably—superficial and short-lived. We alone, and maybe two or three others, knew her well enough to love or hate her from the heart… But this is a tale for later.
29. In her craving for love bought cheap or at no cost at all, and in being—even her—married and quite ready to love someone other than her husband, Moon was much like the other two; only, it seems to me that she surpassed them in one essential respect. Perhaps she was too clever to take on trust the free and constantly fluctuating affection in our circle. I don’t mean that she stopped striving for it with wholehearted devotion for a single day, but I believe that she, unlike Saba and Nargis, realised it would never benefit her so long as she was not prepared to pay the price. Thus, and following the same logic, it seems she did not convert it directly into an evenly-balanced transaction.
30. Saba gathered people around her by tootling a trumpet the sound of which they admired, then used them on a daily basis, as part of her sense of achievement in life. Nargis reeled them in by depicting herself as a victim of poverty, ugliness and backwardness who had managed to triumph over all these things; she’d acquire them like artworks, piece by piece, then in her time of need brandish them like qualifications and titles in the faces of inquisitors… But Moon did something shrewder, immeasurably so. I don’t know how to describe what it is that Moon did, even after reviewing everything I know of her, but I believe it’s firmly linked to ambivalence. The space for ambivalence with Moon—her vanishing and surfacing, her protean appearance, the importance she attached to secretarial work, greater perhaps even than writing—the space for ambivalence with her was wider than anything else; it was what equipped her to find her ease in a closed room composed of us, myself, Nayf and Paulo, it’s walls constructed from the scrutiny of poetry.
31. Around the time the The Crocodiles were founded, Moon’s poems had begun to make a shy appearance in our circle. We conceded they were considerably better than the other works by women, but for all that, up until 2001 when she became part of our lives without our being conscious of the change, we paid her no mind beyond a passing nod of admiration.
32. “Blood” (one of Moon’s first poems): Today, too,/ the vivid red poppies/ open inside clothes,/ unseen by all but you,/ and louder than the swish of speeding cars outside/ Edith Piaf’s voice/ informing me that this pain’s/ your child I never bore.// Why does the music remind me that they’re not roses,/ that their purpose is to prettify the drug,/ that they seem innocent and are evil?// Every month,/ with a joy greater than can be comprehended by your dissection,/ the deception pleases me/ as I moan until you pity me a pain/ that leaves me weak and craving,/and while you lick my tears, within me vicious laughter detonates/ as I kill another/ of your children.
33. Now, it feels like Moon is fundamental and still present, so much so that I can’t believe she had not yet appeared by the end of Millenium Eve; that at dawn on 1/1/2000—while we were on our way back from the huge official party called “Twelve Dreams of the Sun” held on the Giza Plateau, at dawn on 1/1/2000—life still barely held a thing called Moon.
Translation by qisasukhra.wordpress.com
قصائد مسموعة-Video poems
With my late father, Elsaid Elsayed Rakha—lawyer, disillusioned communist, and incredible anti-patriarch, 1981
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned too many technical things to list here, and they’re all the more difficult to list because it happened mostly in Arabic. But I also learned to pool different kinds of writing – journalism, literary nonfiction, poetry, historical research, erotica, and humor – to bring together my first novel, the Book of the Sultan’s Seal (forthcoming in English translation with Interlink). The result is a kind of pastiche, but maybe all novel-writing is pastiche. It’s not so much mixing and matching styles of writing as juxtaposing ways of looking at the world through mimicking the corresponding languages in which that world reveals itself, through people – the challenge being to maintain a unified and presumably compelling whole.
Since the novel was published it’s been called both an achievement and a pointless experiment: I’ve learned to accept that too. Not criticism per se – was it Ingmar Bergman who said that all criticism is poison? – because you can’t take in poison, but the fact that part of the value of a serious book is that some readers won’t like it. It’s always more interesting to ask what someone likes or dislikes about your work than whether or not they value it as such. Sometimes what is wrong with your book is simply that another writer feels superior (or inferior) to you, or that a person you’ve known doesn’t want to be a character, or to be that character. So your purpose in asking is never to change course to suit a wider variety of tastes. It’s to check your intentions against people’s expectations, taking their positions and underlying assumptions into account. I don’t tend to invent characters, I tend to reinvent and change real people; it’s not always possible to cut all relations with people I’ve written about, and I’m sure as hell not going to mess up my work just so that they stay happy with me!
More importantly, perhaps, in the last five years I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to Cairo literary-intellectual circles, which are limited and limiting spaces. While making up a sizable part of the very tiny proportion of Egyptians actually interested in literature, these circles are so incestuous and inward-looking and small-minded they can make writing, let alone being a writer, seem like a hateful exercise – a bad habit, almost. Now even if it is that, writing – even Arabic writing, even writing for oneself, without ambition – should never feel quite so despicable…
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The idea for the piece came up in (online) conversation with my US publisher, Hilary Plum, who being a writer herself is my guardian angel in your part of the world – even though we haven’t met. We were talking about Arabic literature in translation and I’d shown her a bunch of articles I’d written about literature and the Arab Spring for Al Ahram Weekly, which she thought too removed to be worth collecting for publication in America. She suggested writing a longer piece in which things could come together for readers not familiar with my part of the world.
My starting point was that there need not be anything fundamentally different about contemporary literature in the Arab world than in Turkey, Japan, Eastern Europe, Latin America, or anywhere else – which I really think there isn’t. So the challenge was to show that there has been a continuous tradition of sophisticated writing in Arabic even though, for ultimately political reasons, Westerners have not known about it; and to debunk the mythical (and, frankly, rather ugly) narrative of a recent boom in engaging writing that facilitated a corresponding boom in successful translation to English. The Arab Spring, which happened in the wake of the supposed boom, provided a suitable reference point. Western interest in “the Arab novel” as political commentary or anthropological source material can only misrepresent contemporary Arabic literature and misread its context.
The hardest part was bringing in all kinds of relevant details – Islamism, the Egyptian regime’s shifting alliances during the Cold War, the place of literature in society – each of which was complex enough for a separate essay. I also wasn’t always clear about what needed clarification, because naturally I take too many facts for granted – and it was in this department that Hilary’s contribution proved indispensable. It kind of proved my point, though: for someone who is interested in literature, even the most irrelevant and far-away society need not be more than a backdrop. It might require explanation but that doesn’t come in the way of the life-affirming exchange, both intimate and supra-cultural, that is literature.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
I think they are, yes, to some extent. I think they’re especially germane to my writing a poem, which I do most often while I’m working on other things. But they don’t explain why, occasionally, that just doesn’t work and someone who is normally able to set off your poetic devices will be stuck and blame you, even though you’ve treated your new “emotional concept” in the exact same way… I think what matters in the procedure Larkin describes is how much space you leave within the device for someone to actually invent an emotional concept connected with the one that compelled you to construct it, because I doubt if emotional concepts that you become obsessed with can really be reproduced intact; and sometimes when you try to ensure they are reproduced as is that just alienates someone whose environment or ideas or beliefs are different from yours – which is exactly what literature should not do. I mean, the scary thing about Larkin’s procedure is that it sounds like the recipe for giving birth to a new cliche or – the easier thing, by far – finding a relatively new and interesting way of relaying a cliche. I am not necessarily denying that this may be the most any writer can ever do, but there are better and more fun ways of doing it.
My writing process doesn’t always depend on instantaneous obsession with an emotional concept. I mean, sometimes it does. But I have a few emotionally pertinent concepts that I’m obsessed with all the time: what it means to not be alone, for example; how something becomes real depending on whether you perceive it to be real or on how you talk about it; what society and identity mean for an individual… Each piece of writing is a way of indulging these same obsessions. I couldn’t tell you precisely what my concepts are because they are in constant transition and transformation, but it’s always interesting to trace the interests and experiments you are working on now all the way back to something you wrote ten years ago. And then you change: you really are not the person you were even two or three years ago; I don’t mean that metaphorically. How the obsessions carry over from one “I” to the next is something a writer might be aware of. It can be unnerving.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ranson invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for the The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Most of the time I think of writing as a position on the world – a vocation, a lifestyle, an ethics – in the way that scholarship or performance, say, is a position on the world. Writing is the position on the world that’s not a political position, or the closest thing possible to a position that’s not political – even when it deals, on the surface, with political or historical subjects. What I mean by this is that the knowledge literature produces, the pleasures it involves, the seemingly unethical practices it sometimes permits, all want to experience something more than history. (Remember Joyce’s famous statement: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”) They want to say something more about a person or a group of people than where and when they live, what their lives look like, or what predetermined factors make them look that way – the nightmare, which it really is impossible to awake from no matter what. Literature wants to say something DESPITE that nightmare, something about what lives mean or could’ve meant, how beautiful they can be looked at in a certain way, or why they might be worth living. I think when you try honestly to do that, you speak to more people who are different from you than it’s otherwise possible. That’s partly why literature is important: it emphasizes things that are deeper and more consistent and that last longer than most “history”. In this sense, even though it should always be accessible, it’s a very specialized mode of information sharing; I believe it’s comparable to (though no longer part of) those scholarly endeavors we’ve come to group together as the humanities, which are older than but never entirely incompatible with the natural sciences, and which can rarely do without a historical-political frame.
Still, writing is about language, that infinitely imperfect but necessary tool for going about our lives. It’s about the space that lies between reality and the words with which we manage it: our only way of dealing with, creating, changing (or failing to change) what the universe throws at us or throws us into. Language is more consensual than most other reality-molding tools – weapons or borders, for example – even though those other tools still require it, and even though in literature it’s far more fluid than them. So playing with language – often with the many registers of spoken and written Arabic, in my case – will have to be included in my credo. I try not to do this for its own sake because there are more interesting things to be done in literature. But then it’s always fascinating to see how changing the rules of the language you use will ultimately shape the reality you’re summoning up as you use it. Maybe it’s more accurate to say “the alternative reality” since, like that of any information system, however interactive, the reality literature sustains will inevitably be more ordered and finite than actual, perceptual reality.
My credo would also include a couple of sentences about the fact that in Arabic, the word for book is a more recent usage for what used to mean simply “epistle”. All canonical books in Arabic are actually addressed to a friend or a patron, just like letters. That’s a very moving metaphor for me because when I write, it’s always TO someone, usually to my best friend (who lives in a different country and very seldom reads my work), but also to someone I don’t know. So, considering how limited the readership for literature is anywhere in the world, few things make me happier than finding out my letter has reached and moved someone who isn’t a writer or a critic, who doesn’t exist in the same part of space-time as I, and who may not even speak the same language (that is the advantage of translation and, in my case, of having two languages). It’s because, as well as being a specialized mode of producing knowledge, literature is an affirmation of your existence – in some ways, it is the only one. The thing that you communicate to another which tries to beat history is your person, your soul or your neurochemical imprint, which can’t be mass-produced and will always be subjective and at least slightly insane.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
There are a few possibilities here. I want to talk about the late Sargon Boulus (1944-2007), who spent most of his life in San Francisco and had connections with the Beat Generation and City Lights, and whom (perhaps not as sadly as it sometimes feels) I never met. Strangely enough but not – in retrospect – unexpectedly, it was a few months before he died that I first heard of him. I didn’t even hear of him. I walked into a bookshop in Abu Dhabi, where I was living at the time, and picked up a collection of poems; the author’s name was very unusual but vaguely familiar.
I think it’s symptomatic of the catastrophe that was Arab nationalism that this Assyrian-Christian Iraqi, whether because he was an emigre or because he was neither a (Muslim) nationalist nor politicized, remains largely uncelebrated even in literary circles. As far as I’m concerned he is the 20th-century incarnation of the great Abbasid poet al Mutannabi. He has the same incredible inventiveness, the same facility with language, the same combination of intense self-interest and lack of keenness on personal topics. From the time that I found that collection, “The Lantern Bearer in the Night of Wolves”, and until I finished my Book of the Sultan’s Seal, I read all of Sargon’s poems that were published; it is still that first book that I return to most often.
I have no idea what Sargon taught me. Some of my poems are modeled on poems he wrote, some are more or less direct reinterpretations; sometimes I feel that every good poem I’ve written since 2007 is thanks to him. But his “influence” – I guess that’s what you would call it – lies somewhere else entirely. I guess he was what I could never be: a true vagabond (a Beatnik) who had to provide for himself as soon as he started traveling in his teens; a dedicated poet who worked in Assyrian as well as Arabic and English and saw translation as an essential part of his career; a globetrotter with no connection to a city like the one I have with Cairo. But he is perhaps the only contemporary figure who saw the Arabic language exactly as I do:
“There is no pure language in this sense. [Arabic] happened to be the strongest so it pulled around itself, like a magnet, all the dying languages that had seen their day centuries ago. It was a powerful language that absorbed other languages… So, when I write my poetry in Arabic, I tell you this – and it’s a secret between me and myself – sometimes I feel that I am really writing in all these languages, because I believe, finally, that any language contains all the dead memories of the races who contributed to it… it’s like raw material for me. I feel that this language could be extended endlessly into some new idiomatic formulations – which I’m doing all the time.”
Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:
The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”
The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.
In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.
This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.
Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.
Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.
In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).
Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.
Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.
Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.
. . .
Man as map
I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was Mai Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
In it the hero, Mustafa, who will soon start having historical visitations, notably from the last Ottoman sultan, is propelled into rediscovering those parts of the city in which his life comes to have meaning, by drawing the routes he takes as he actually experiences them, with his eyes closed. The shapes that he ends up with later combine to produce a tugra or sultan’s seal—which comes to be the symbol of the city as one person’s madness, the city as Mustafa: a calligraphic emblem with many non-empirical references to reality. A sort of psychological form of map-making thus became at the centre of the creative process.
I was not as aware when I wrote the novel as I am now that what I had Mustafa do was one form of what might be termed literary cartography. That is: the appropriation of space through an internalization of its subjective and human (as opposed to objective or “scientific”) experience with the purpose of integrating the result into a print context—in this case, by turning it into calligraphy. In my new novel project, I am using the Phoenician letter Waw to a similar end—it is similar to the Latin Y but not the same—comparing it with the shape of the Nile valley in Egypt among other cartographic representations of topics being dealt with, all reached through the very personal experience of the characters.
I will not get into the details of how this works in each book. All I want to say is that literary cartography—so understood—is an interesting mode of engagement that has rarely been explored or practiced in context. Some conceptual artists have no doubt employed cartography in their work in a similar way, perhaps architects and designers and theorists too, which goes to show that maps make up an essentially multidisciplinary approach to the real. But in terms of literature, though the inclusion of cartography forges instant and fascinating connections with illuminated manuscripts and many echelons of the Arabic canon, it remains more or less unknown. So all I will do tonight is talk a little about literary cartography.
I am not much of an artist, but I’ve found photo-based representation—first through the dark room, then digitally—to be invaluable in the process of complementing print with imagery to which a relatively complex idea might be uniquely anchored: post-millennial Cairo as an Ottoman seal, for example, or the Nile valley as a sacred letter. I’ve also always been fascinated by maps as an alternative mode of recording reality in print, and writing places—of which I’ve done more than any other kind—is a less precise but more inclusive form of map-making.
Literary cartography has to do with two quite separate things, I believe: two ideas, two motives, two different activities of the novelist as witness and, principally, as a writer of extended letters to unknown recipients but also as someone who crystallizes human experience into signs (whether letters or drawings) laid out on paper.
First, there is the fact that, for reasons of temperament and drive, writers tend to be self-obsessed no matter how much they endeavor to prove the opposite. This is aesthetically perhaps as it should be, in the sense that it is within a given creative intellect that this intellect is likely to find literary meaning or beauty. The beauty in literature seems to come less from the object being written about—confusingly, this is often referred to as the subject—than from the manner of its transformation into language: how a city like Cairo becomes a calligraphic symbol, to follow through the example. This process belongs with the writer, not the world. Reality is subordinated to a subjective standpoint that makes no attempt at eliminating bias.
I don’t actually necessarily believe that this all that happens, since the subject too—the writer—is part of a greater reality and presumably open to all sorts of currents: I could go on about the writer as convoy or medium, about things like objective coincidence and automatic writing. But still, subjectivity in this sense, however aesthetically perfect, raises moral questions. Nor is it simply that people get upset with you when you write honestly about them, for example. Unlike that of a map drawn to scale, your image of reality is going to be all but private, solipsistic even, the meaningless sounds made by a social outcast humming to himself in the dark.
When that picture is condensed into an objectively articulate image, something everyone can look at and appreciate at least as much as a map—even if it will never be nearly as useful—that sense of moral doubt is significantly reduced. It is almost as if, by constructing your statement logically and enunciating it clearly, you bring it into daylight. You do not turn the subject into an object the way empirical science does, but you produce a subjective object, an object that integrates bias as an essential part of its constitution, an object which—even though it remains an object—could never exist without the subject that brought it into reality: the signs, the letters, the language is utilized to a meaningful end.
Secondly, besides all else that he does, a writer is forced to make a choice between time and space, history and geography, narrative and description. I happen to believe that time or history is more violently peremptory and limiting. It is more prone to meaninglessness, to the exclusionary blindness and manipulative falsification of power (something that can be seen clearly in current, presidential-elections narratives of the revolution). That is partly because, compared to stories or human beings, it is much more difficult to judge places as such. Unless you include the narrative of what it depicts and how, looking at a map, it is impossible to say that its shape is immoral, for example, or that its stance is unfair.
Building on my first point—that a writer’s subject will inevitably be himself—I want to argue that conceiving of the self as inclusive, pluralistic space is far more rewarding and ultimately also more honest than presenting it as a narrative of the triumph of good over evil (or the defeat of good by evil), no matter what kind of good the subject stands for, or how complex, which is what literature is likely to reduce to once it surrenders itself wholly to the idiocies of history. The self as a geography of humanity that is trying, in a desperate but courageous bid, to transcend history: that seems far more meaningful than the self as a the convoy of an inevitably false and ultimately one-dimensional storyline.
However contrived in the context of a given novel, however subjective in fact, literary cartography, it seems to me, is the clearest embodiment of the self as space in language: the map that makes no reference to empirical reality is the salient image of literature as the epistemological exercise of making sense of the world through words or (as they are or should be) through signs inscribed on paper that, looked at, inspire faith in the meaning of life.
Talk at Megawara on Sunday, 27 May, 2012
Before he grew familiar with the way to school
the sickly child grew familiar with
the doctor’s place:
the pharmacy below the clinic
with its brown closets
and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades
wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,
which she reeled off a large roll with a metal core,
and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.
On distant mornings
you and your mother would go down to her to buy the medicine.
Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places
in the night,
sliding at least four buildings across?
There is a restaurant at the street corner
whose glass facade which the steam misted over
shows appetising, low-priced food;
it seems very close, over at the curve.
Night after night you will put off having dinner there
and go along with what it takes to stay up and be tired;
the day you make up your mind,
with a strike,
some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place
off the map of existence.
And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city
beyond the street with which you thought the world ended when you were small
is an old traffic post and the ghost of an elderly policeman at the crossroads
with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.
There stands a forgotten variety theatre
where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage
flanked by two tiers of seats on which the onlookers have gathered.
You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,
your viewpoint flits between the two places
from pointers to clamorous lives
and promises of sustained indulgence
to where safety
fares better than regret
which is as light as beer foam.
Translation of the title poem of Yasser Abdellatif’s last book © Youssef Rakha
On New Year’s Eve, one completes another book (yes, the speaker is an author of books). One knows it will probably be published, possibly even translated to a language more literarily alive than Arabic. Yet, though one has wholly lost faith in the so called intellectual community since the so called revolution, one expects little interest on the part of the general public — in itself a contentious construction, “the general public”, but this is not the point. Even in that better world of intellectual vitality, of profit-making publishers and many-storied bookshops, of faces glued to highbrow paperbacks on the Metro, what one has written will at best remain marginal and exotic, a taste of the Third World, an object of anthropological rather than literary interest (could this explain the fact that otherwise intelligent critics in the Anglo-American world have used terms like “great Egyptian author” to describe the barely literate writer of predictably “best-selling” fictionalised tabloid journalism?)
Such peremptory disappointment has nothing to do with the content of the book completed, alas. Never mind the fact that books which sell are usually more stupid than those which don’t — even in the aforementioned better world. It would actually be satisfying to have a space, any space in which, after writing and publishing something, you faced serious censure of ideas expressed or style of expression, a space in which any attention at all was paid literature for its own sake — not as part of the increasingly complex glorified PR that forms the substance of so much “intellectual” activity in the Arab world. As it is no such space exists even in private, where a given “intellectual” will typically have too much to read and too little time beyond that dedicated to the kind of lucrative sucking-up-cum-backstabbing that goes for journalism and/or academia. In this year of our Lord what you have is a minister of culture highly keen on cowing in to “Islamist pressures” before such pressures have even been exerted, a bunch of die-hard pedagogues-to-be choking on the word “revolution”, and a self-sustained, English language-powered fantasy of “the emerging Arab literary scene” in which talentless women, complacent shit-stirrers and prehistoric ideologues, not to mention bland imitators of the writing of past decades, frenziedly elbow each other out of what little shelf space is available for “Arabic literature in translation” outside the mainstream markets, up to and including all manner of prizes awarded if not through nepotism then arbitrarily.
On New Year’s Eve — by facing up to the Lie that is Arabic literature on the Arab bookshelf — one is reminded, again, of the fact that one completes a book neither for an audience nor for a peer nor even a translator but for that rare specimen: the like-minded literate Arabic-speaker eager to be part of that old epistemological exercise, eminently enjoyable but never easy, of trying to make sense of the world through words. One willingly gives up none of the attendant benefits — publication, translation, PR or even awards — but it is for that rare thing, the Arabic reader, that one endeavours to share what one is proud to have accomplished.
THREE POEMS AND A PHOTO
Let us not mention names: Some time before the transformation that almost happened six months ago in Egypt, a Ministry of Culture poetry journal decided to append a booklet of prose poetry to one of its issues. I am not sure when exactly, but this journal was once prestigious. Or so at least the prose poets who were excited to be included in the selection believed.
They spoke of effort and legitimacy, of belated gratitude, of being recognized by the establishment. They accused each other of stealing “ideas for poems”, to maximize their chance of being featured. They reiterated their usual laments about the general public being too ignorant and underdeveloped to appreciate their talent. It sounded as if they were about to achieve all that they had ever lived for.
Like much about the Ministry of Culture, however, by the time it decided to celebrate prose poetry the prestigious journal in question had long fallen into a state of zombification, barely even pretending to act as the high-brow beacon of poetic vitality it was supposed to be.
It pandered to more or less extinct tastes, forwarded the reactionary agenda of its editor in chief (whose foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against the validity of prose as a medium for poetry had made his name synonymous with Last Verse Dinosaur) and, because it eschewed the most successful poetry being written for the last two decades — i.e., prose poetry — it was hardly ever read.
That did not matter much to the poets being featured: those of them who were unduly enthusiastic about the prospect, I mean. What mattered was — this was the prestigious Ministry of Culture poetry journal…
Unlike lowest-common-denominator, low-brow “political” verse, it is true, prose poetry is only popular with a very small, “specialized” readership. That is because technical archaicness combined with ideological polemics has proved to be the only winning brew with the general public — but not archaicness combined with intellectual pretension!
That latter brew, as events would demonstrate, found repulsively unethical expression in the person of the same journal’s managing editor, a younger species of dinosaur, who with much misleading fanfare commissioned the prose-poetry supplement, only to turn around and cry, once the booklet appeared — and in the very same issue’s editorial — What a load of rubbish! Do you now see that I only published it the better to expose it to your subtly sublime sensibilities.
Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti, Saqr Abdelwahid and Youssef Rakha
He is reviewing Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti’s Mi’at khutwa minath-thawrah (A Hundred Steps of Revolution, published simultaneously in Cairo and Beirut by Merit and Dar Al-Adab, respectively), and he reiterates the truism that good literature is not of “enthusiastic good intentions” made; it is true. Elshiti cannot be entirely absolved of the charge of bad literature in this book.
Bin Hamza’s remarks echo the incredulity and scepticism with which many received what was presumed to be a high-brow text about the January revolution published within a month of Mubarak stepping down, but reading it I suspect will confirm their doubts. Surely, it would take a little longer for anything vaguely considered to crystallise in the mind of its author.
Even an unadorned diary written while the events unfolded – and the book, presented as just that, is subtitled “Journals from Maidan at-Tahrir” – would take at least two months to edit; a little hindsight never hurt anybody.
If history cannot wait, well, history writing does; and there are brilliant precedents in the difficult art of covering historical events while they happen – the late Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), for example – which show that the incumbent immediacy and intensity of as it were spot history have less to do with time of publication than with technique, vision and revision.
Writing, notwithstanding revolution, that reflects all the desperate rush, lack of polish and (in the Merit edition) distressingly inadequate proofing of much that has been published in Egypt by the independent (literary) press for some 30 years…
It is almost a platitude of contemporary Arabic letters to state that, since the Sixties at least, non-fiction has occupied the lowest tier of the genre pyramid. Not only is non-fiction paid attention based solely on what it is about. In this sense it is surprising that Elshiti’s book has not solicited more attention in Egypt, but the literary congregation is still more or less on holiday despite its deacons’ increasingly reactionary stance since Mubarak stepped down, which would imply that revolution is no longer a valid excuse for ignoring literary events. Non-fiction is also something writers of fiction and poetry seem to think they can do with their eyes shut.
On the whole, instead of honing what skills are required or deploying their usual instruments in the service of a different craft, they exert no effort and demonstrate little respect for a text not produced under the rubric of Creation. The result – and I am no longer talking about Elshiti – tends to be a muddled amalgam of old-fashioned journalism and quasi-academic pontificating; literary non-fiction, where it truly exists, is presented as fiction, freed from the factual constraints of travel writing or biography even as it continues to rely on (insufficiently researched) fact.
Best known for Wuroud samma li Saqr (Poisoned Roses for Saqr, 1990), an acclaimed novella that was reissued shortly before the revolution in 2010 with an introduction detailing its complex publication history and some of the critical and academic interest it sparked, Elshiti (b. 1961) is among a mere handful of writers who survived the Eighties, a sad and saddening decade for literature; the Seventies and (especially) the Nineties are golden ages by comparison.
Wuroud stands out for combining a politically engaged, rigorously economical aesthetic formalised but rarely practised by the Generation of the Sixties with what might be termed the Pointlessly Tragic Hero (perhaps the clearest feature of Eighties writing). It remains, by Elshiti’s own account, his principal achievement; and from a history-of-literature perspective it is no doubt pivotal. To my mind Wuroud marks the end rather than the beginning of something, however: the grassroots, class-conscious, sexually tormented song of a kind of politically socialised but psychologically alienated subject reflecting a sense of national defeat.
Saqr-like characters perhaps began with the seminal Tilka Al-Ra’iha (1966, translated by Denys Johonson-Davies as The Smell of It) by Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937). Spanning a diverse range of incarnations most clearly through Ibrahim Aslan (b. 1935) and Mahmoud El-Wardany (b. 1950), albeit with less targic force and fewer visual tropes, and without a multiplicity of voices, Saqr Abdelwahid arrives at his zenith in Wuroud, even if writers mostly older than Elshiti will continue to present versions of him.
By the Nineties (with the re-emergence of prose poetry and the overt divorce of literature from collective and ethical injunctions), a different set of rules was emerging in which neither society nor tragedy could figure in the same way, nor language function effectively with the same restraint. The Sixties had come full circle.
Not that it would improve the book to know, but it is against a backdrop of disrespect for non-fiction that A Hundred Steps was produced.
And Elshiti has seldom written non-fiction anyway, which partly explains his impromptu approach to documenting the revolution – so different from the meticulously crafted prose of his poem-like very short stories, of which he wrote two collections before the hiatus; the most recent ones, after Daw’un Shaffaf, which he calls Myths, are as yet published only as Facebook notes, and they develop expressionist and fantastical elements of what otherwise remains by and large true-to-life narrative. They are beautiful. But neither they nor anything else in his previous work prepares him for a book-length piece of reportage.
Still, everything in Elshiti’s work and life does encourage a fresh, more prosaic look at the world view presented by his best known piece of writing.
It would be ludicrous to accuse Elshiti, as intellectuals speaking of or for the revolution often have been since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, of coopting the achievement of “the young” to promote his own accomplishments or jumping on the opportunity to immortalise his name, but it is well to ask why, in the absence of that fresh look, he chose to publish a book on the revolution so soon.
Saqr remains interesting in the context of revolution nonetheless: he is a by now early example of the martyr of corrupt capitalism and (by extension) the collapse of the national state. The depressive son and principal breadwinner of a working-class family in Domiat (Elshiti’s hometown, which he frequently refers to in the course of A Hundred Steps), Saqr Abdelwahid’s untimely and largely unexplained death is connected with his hopeless love for the upper middle-class Nahed Badr, whom his politicised friend Yehya Khalaf welcomes into the funeral at the opening.
Told from the viewpoints of all three characters as well as Saqr’s sister Tahiya, the story involves the haunting image of a man who has been slaughtered, “his face a mask of yellow pottery, his eyes two crystals of glass”, presenting Saqr with a bouquet of poisoned roses. It is an encounter Elshiti’s “hero in crisis” (to be distinguished from any number of far less iconic anti-heros) repeatedly has in waking life as well as in his dreams; and by all accounts before his death, when he enters his bedroom bearing the bouquet he has finally accepted for the first time, Saqr is convinced that those flowers will kill him.
However veiled or poetically encrypted, Saqr’s story is a comment on the decline of national dignity in the face of poverty and dictatorship, the vulnerability of the sensitive individual hurled into a rat race he cannot understand (one objective counterbalance of which is “the political struggle” presented by Yahya) and, most emphatically, the absolute impossibility of love.
In a sense it is this mind set – the identity of consciousness and political consciousness on the one hand, and between the individual and his class on the other – and not only the writing it produced, that reaches a peak in Wuroud.
Due to developments in society itself, in access to other societies and in the reference points of the literary and politicised community, no text after Wuroud could convincingly communicate or argue with the real in this way – and even Elshiti’s own subsequent work (Daw’un shaffaf yantashir bikhiffah was produced after a two-decade hiatus in 2009) bears testimony to the fact.
In his landmark novella Elshiti refers to the January 1977 intifada against President Sadat, to the way in which the Islamisation and commodification of society following the defeat of 1967 and Nasser’s death is said to have aborted all sense of belonging, and it would have been interesting to see how the ghost or memory of Saqr responded to the Mubarak era, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, 9/11, and the emergence, all through this, of mafia-style governance in Egypt.
A non-fiction comment on the revolution of 2011 seems the perfect opportunity for rewriting Saqr, revising his loyalties and convictions, and asking whether or not he really had to die.
A Hundred Steps, at one level, is offered as testimony (the witness too being among the writer’s preferred registers since the Sixties); living on Qasr Al-Nil Street in the same building as the office of Merit, which turned into one of several “revolutionary command centres” for the period (28 Jan-11 Feb), Elshiti was – geographically – the perfect witness.
And there is none but the most documentary ambition in the book, which is not only fair but in its own way admirable: Elshiti has no illusions about his position in relation to what is happening; he is guided by his gut alone, and whether observing or reflecting, as a result, he is anything but grandiloquent or pretentious.
“Since five in the evening I have been in the Maidan,” he writes on the first page of the book, a footnote explaining that this opening short piece, on the events of 25 January, was published on Facebook on 26 January. “It was possible to see young men and women whose ages revolved around 20. Their slogans were simple and radical and without calculations, omitting verbosity and excess…”
Elshiti goes on to say that, while “the politics professionals” – older activists and dissidents – thought it was wrong to insist on spending the night in Tahrir, the young protesters wagered on “matching word to deed”. It is precisely institutionalised resistance that they were revolting against, he insists; were the professionals happy to see the Maidan brutally emptied by midnight? “The 25th of January is the day a new eloquence was discovered that could not be institutionalised.”
So far, so brilliant; and the wording of the question regarding the traditional opposition being part of the problem has just the right amount of irony. But what does Elshiti – what does Saqr Abdelwahid – really think?
Over 150 pages mostly of observations and anecdotes, very few of which are written with either the concision or emotion of the opening piece, Elshiti fails to give even the hint of an answer to this question. The scheme of presentation is largely chronological, which results in verbosity and excess (the use of baltagiyah or hired strongmen by the regime in attempts to disband the protesters, for example, is dealt with at many different points but in exactly the same way).
Where discussions come up (and they come up notably with Mohammad Hashem, the owner and director of Merit, as when he disagrees with Elshiti on whether or not the police should be brought back to the streets after their wilful disappearance on the evening of 28 January), they are reported as is, without recourse to deeper analysis or supplementary evidence from, as it were, the front. To support his position against Hashem, on this occasion, Elshiti is content to cite his experience of the brutality and corruption of the police as a young man in Domiat, where he lived opposite the police station. Here as elsewhere one feels that his privileged position as a politically aware resident of Tahrir is wasted.
Even those who were not in Egypt at the time and followed the news on television, it seems to me, would not be unjustified in complaining that they have gained little from Elshiti’s reports, touted as “moments that are mine, captured with my own eyes, not with the eyes of the camera or even those of live witnesses”; those moments are invested with neither journalistic edge, historical or philosophical reflection, nor poetic insight, all things considered.
At best they evoke an atmosphere by now well-documented anyway. And the best of them, the very best of them, read like Elshiti’s fiction (which makes you wonder what the book would have been like had he taken the time to rigorously select and rewrite entries):
I saw a man in his fifties wearing a smart suit being mobbed by the masses who sought to expel him, for it had been discovered; he was affiliated with the NDP and persuading the young men to stop demonstrating. The man almost fell on the floor, and then he went out through the Qasr Al-Nil gateway. The regime never stopped sending in envoys of every kind. Everyone was convinced that there was not a single supporter of the regime except thieves and baltagiyah. Even were such a person to exist, they could find a place other than Maidan at-Tahrir which had been liberated with the blood of martyrs and the wounded.
Light rain. I saw a group of protesters walking in formation as one having covered their heads with a sheet of clear plastic while they went on chanting, ‘Ash-sha’b yurid isqaat annidham’.
Repeatedly, Elshiti distances himself from what is going on in Maidan at-Tahrir, falling back on the supposed generational (and, to a lesser extent, the class) difference between his circle of intellectuals and the young middle-class instigators of protest. His loyalties are clear, his emotion sincere, but he remains more of a spectator than a participant. This is both honest and frustrating – the honesty might have been more effective had the observations been condensed in the manner of the passage quoted above – because what one wants to know from Elshiti has less to do with what he saw than with what it implies for him and in what way he was part of it.
The question of the left-wing or secular intellectual’s position on Islamists participating in the revolution, for example – a hugely stimulating topic demanding precisely the kind of self-confrontation and self-questioning that prompted Elshiti to write in the first place – is hardly touched on at all. To my disappointment, in the same way as he skims over his own role in the revolution, Elshiti places himself at an anecdotal remove from the issue of political Islam in its unfolding.
A Hundred Steps is the most serious of a number of books to have come out of the revolution, none of which really question the term or deal with the aftermath, which is by far the more significant topic. Its brief is to document what happened as the author saw it and in this, at the most basic level, it manages well enough. But as literature, which is what one will expect from Elshiti, it falls short of the moment that inspired it.
After turning one of the Arab world’s worst read cities into a vibrant literary venue for five days, the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF, 2-7 March) folded quietly on Monday 7 March. It was followed by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (10-13 March), organised by Magrudy’s Bookshops and any number of sponsors in Dubai – that slightly better read New York of the Gulf where the Arabic language is alas all but completely absent.
The Emirates Festival requires separate coverage, but it is worth mentioning in the context of ADBIF in that it shared with that event a profoundly multicultural atmosphere. By the time ADBIF closed, even the predominance of Arabic books there had not reduced the overriding sense that here, finally, was a international, multilingual publishing event or series of events drawing together variously important figures from the four corners of the global village.
Neither bang nor whimper marked the end of what seemed like a separate and self-contained world within the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), an isolated space of glass and concrete on the outskirts of the city proper – recently completed by the addition of a high-rise corporate-style hotel, ensuring not only accommodation but taxi transportation from the fair grounds. With the vast majority of the fair’s non-resident patrons already gone by Friday, business proceeded as usual until it came gradually to a halt.
Initially the fair had proceeded alongside a major gun show, subjecting unsuspecting bibliophiles who entered by the wrong gate to unnecessary, airport-like security. Deceptively low-key from the outside, ADIBF was at least as busy as the killing carnival next door.
Activity centred on the by now haloed Discussion and Poetry Forums and the Kitab Sofa, where writers (sometimes attended to by television crews) performed to small, inevitably distracted audiences. Interviews, readings, and discussions often involving more than one writer shed light on an enormous motley of subjects, from the history of the translation of Indian literature into Arabic to whether and to what extent contemporary American literature can engage with postmodern tendencies firmly embedded into consumer culture.
Highlight appearances ranged from flash-in-the-pan celebrities (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the Algerian novelist Ahlam Mustaghanmi, for example) to award winners and writers whose relative fame may be better deserved from the literary standpoint (Adam Haslett, Yann Martel, Amit Chaudri, Pankaj Mishra, Alawiyya Sobh, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Sinan Antoon). There was a spaceman advertising new translation technologies, several dozen illuminated manuscripts (Islamic and otherwise) from various Europe-based dealers, and a Show Kitchen Programme featuring the authors of cookbooks demonstrating their recipes live – perhaps the most popular fixture.
For a moment on Saturday, with the Kerala Islamic scholar Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmad drawing a huge crowd to the Kitab Sofa in what seemed like a misplaced Friday prayers sermon, the more palpably Muslim aspects of the UAE’s cultural constituency became apparent, recalling what yearly threatens to turn into an Islamist takeover of the Cairo International Book Fair back home. Yet the atheistic and erotic titles published by the German-based Dar Al-Jamal, for example, were neither torn up nor burned. Islam is not about terrorism, was what Sheikh Aboobacker, in slighly broken Quranic Arabic, continued to reiterate.
Still, people filed through the labyrinth of booths representing various publishers from the Arab world and Europe, occasionally stopping at one or more of the three larger, prominently marked enclosures occupied by the fair’s own organiser, the Abu Dhabi Organisation for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), and its two initiatives, the Qalam series for Emirati writing and the Kalima megaproject of translation into Arabic.
And judging by the multi-ethnic composition of the audience, the broad spectrum of participating institutions, including the Goethe Institut and the British Council, and the currency of topics like the secrets behind the success of best sellers, the impact of literary awards on Arab culture or the state of comics and the graphic novel in the Arab world, it seemed the event was effectively introducing Western publishing norms into the as yet isolated Arab industry. How long will it take for that industry to be fully integrated?
Instead of enthusiasm from Abu Dhabi’s tiny community of Arabic book lovers, anyway, the fair now clearly bases its credentials on KITAB (Arabic for “book”), the joint venture of ADACH and the venerable Frankfurter Buchmesse, forged in 2007 to bring the event up to speed. For three years now ADIBF, founded in 1987 as a conventionally “Arab” fair, has been mutating into a global industry-standard publishing forum. So, at least, is its perception among a growing number of Gulf-culture champions who respect its aspirations. Two main concerns inform Arab cultural interest in the Gulf and the fair suggests answers to both of them.
First, it seems unfair that an oil-rich Emirate with hardly a single celebrated writer to its name should be positing itself as a literary centre of gravity, until you realise that what Western-style benefits Abu Dhabi manages to garner wearing the cultural-capital hat – literary prizes, publishing ventures, translation initiatives, copyright-protection measures – it will garner for beneficiaries across the Arab world.
Secondly, the fact that the UAE has – contentiously, for some – pioneered cultural projects managed by or modelled on Western institutions (the Saadiyat Island Louvre and Guggenheim initiatives, the Sorbonne and New York University campuses, etc.) has endangered cultural identity only within the borders of the UAE, where Arabs coexist with comparably sized non-Arabic speaking Asian and Western communities. In traditional cultural capitals like Cairo, the overwhelming incidence of Arabic language and literature, not to mention Arab mores and morals, makes culture more or less immune to what atrophy or confusion the adoption of a harshly capitalist, foreign (and once colonial) system might subject it to. But that remains a subject for much more involved debate.
With the Frankfurt Book Fair managing and developing it, at least, ADBIF does focus on the process of publishing, not (like the much older and by now proverbially disorganised Cairo International Book Fair, the most populous book-based event on the Arab map) on selling as much as possible regardless of substance or procedure.
At ADBIF there is no censorship, no fear on the part of security forces of an Islamist takeover of the fair grounds, no working-class-family-outing atmosphere, no shoddy infrastructure, no sudden and inexplicable absence of previously announced big names or enforced lack of access to them, no stiff formalities, and no dire shortage of information or facilities.
Property rights across languages and borders and the editor’s role in the writer’s career are just two of the areas where ADACH hopes to make a radical even if wholly imported contribution to the industry. On the basis of that contribution it is attempting to turn Abu Dhabi into “the region’s publishing hub”, as the official press package already puts it (emphasis mine), the region being all of the (Arab) Middle East and North Africa.
And notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in this business, ADACH just may be succeeding. Certainly ADBIF now looks and feels far more like Frankfurt than Cairo. In a relatively small-scale, comparatively relaxed event, just as much emphasis is placed on the profession of publishing and cross-national networking as on book-related amusements and book-buying opportunities for the public.
Established in 2007 in memory of the founder of the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards have since 2008 been overshadowed by the the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, better if less accurately known as the Arabic Booker), a joint venture of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation and the prestigious Booker Foundation (judging by this writer’s taste in recent years, Booker and Man Booker short lists have in fact seldom lived up to the name). Yet occurring within 24 hours of each other at the Emirates Palace and Beach Rotana Hotels, respectively, the awards ceremonies demonstrated just how much more interest the Booker commands at every conceivable level.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards this year went to the Lebanese Albert Habib Mutlaq for his translation of The Animal Encyclopedia, the Algerian Hafnaoui Baali for Comparative Cultural Criticism: An Introduction, a contribution to the field of literature, the Emirati Qais Sedki for the children’s book Gold Ring, the Egyptian Ammar Ali Hasan for The Political Establishment of Sufism in Egypt – deemed the Best Contribution to the Development of Nations – and the young Moroccan critic Mohammad Al Mallakh for Time in Arabic Language: Its Linguistic Structure and Significance, as well as His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi as Personality of the Year.
Far more engaging was the awards ceremony and the press conference of the Arabic Booker, which had generated the greatest controversy in its short history this year. Predictably for the vast majority of commentators, the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s She Throws Sparks won the grand prix, whether because it was the least controversial novel on the short list, or the work of the short list’s best respected author, or (according to some views) because books that could have competed with it – notably Alawiyya Sobh’s Its Name Is Love – had not made it that far or had been excluded from the start.
Many had contended that the exclusion of important contributions from the long and (more controversially) the short list was intended to facilitate the emergence as the final winner of a book from the Gulf; and subsequent statements by the head of the jury, the Kuwaiti novelist Talib Al-Rifa’i, to the effect that it was time that novels from the Gulf should be introduced to the Western world seemed to give credence to this theory.
Of course, should this be the case, it would be contrary to the regulations of the prize, and Al-Rifa’i in his eagerness to defend the jury, whose names, also contrary to regulations, were published in Cairo two weeks before the short list, ironically worked against it. All manner of accusations and conspiracy theories had been levelled at the jury and the board of trustees, but the head of the Booker Foundation, Jonathan Taylor, seemed confident of the administration of the prize. There was a leak,پh he responded to the question of how the names of jury members could have been known so early. پgI am sorry there was a leak.پh
More to the point, when asked why the judges of the Arabic Booker (unlike those of the Booker and the Man Booker) are not made known to the public in advance, Taylor said, “We were told that this would make it easier for the jury to do its work.” Once again inadvertently, Taylor seemed to give credence to the notion that the corruption of the Arab literary scene may have seeped into a Booker Foundation-managed institution after all.
The “Arabic Booker” Short List
The London-based Palestinian writer Rabie Al-Madhoun’s Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”. It tells the triple story of Al-Madhoun himself, his writer-protagonist Walid Dahman, and the hero of Dahman’s own fictional novel-in-progress. On a plane from London back to Gaza to see his mother for the first time in decades, Dahman meets an attractive Israeli actress who is subsequently killed in cold blood as a result of a previous love affair with the son of an Arab leader.
The young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabir’s America is a fictional account of early 20th-century Lebanese immigration to the United States, told from the viewpoint of a country woman who follows her husband to New York.
The older Egyptian novelist Mohammad Al-Mansi Qindeel’s Yawm Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side) tells the story of a Muslim woman in late 19th-century Upper Egypt who abandons her young daughter, Aisha, to protect her from the brutality of a merciless stepfather, baptising her as a Christian. This conversion, it later turns out, leads Aisha – who grows up to become a translator – to fall in love with a fictional version of the famous British archaeologist Howard Carter.
The Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji’s ’Indama Tashkish adh Dhi’aab (When Wolves Grow Old) has a wide cast of characters and a plot drawn from detective genre fiction. It depicts the social malaise of contemporary Amman, exposing sexual and political repression, the hunger for power among intellectuals and religious leaders, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
The young Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Wara’ al Firdawss (Beyond Paradise) chronicles an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders, but in so doing depicts the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from her small town to Cairo.
Abdu Khal’s own Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles), set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door to it, shows the brutality of the owner of that palace, a well-connected, wealthy and powerful if sadistic tycoon who seizes and tortures his enemies. He employs the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.
Fawwaz Haddad, The Unfaithful Translator, Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008, 488 pages
In the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly – so vividly that when he wakes, he wonders if he may in fact be one. In that case, he reasons, at this moment I must be dreaming that I am a man, which would make me a butterfly all along.
Zen koan, Sufi riddle, nursery rhyme: the trope has proven particularly popular in the post-modern literary imagination, where the constructed and the factual tend to intersect and overlap at a rudimentary level.
In the case of Al Mutarjim Al Kha’in or The Unfaithful Translator by the Syrian novelist Fawwaz Haddad, improbable events and brazenly forced plot turns – one could draw up a whole inventory of accidents and coincidences – keep the artificial side of the exchange near the surface of consciousness, a la Brecht, but at the same time, intimate descriptions of the cafes and streets of Damascus, true-to-life dialogue between the characters and the way they respond to public events like the fall of Baghdad are historically rooted and empirically tenable – to the point of being exact.
This potentially jarring medley of fact and fancy jazzes up a more or less predictable story line and gives the fundamentally moral message of the book subversive zing. But, more importantly, it manages to do so without upstaging the idea of a dual world in which dreams can be confused with reality:
Carried away by his creation, the writer wonders if the characters in his book might actually be creating him. He wonders if the alternate reality presented to him by literature might not turn out to be the real world, and his own life an invented fiction.
Like Bishop Berkeley’s claim that the tree would cease to exist if there were no one to perceive it, the Butterfly Dream is a quaint, insolvable question of little application. Yet by producing one of the language’s first coherent, full-length meta-novels, Haddad gives that central idea unprecedented and culturally specific edge. Finally the Butterfly Dream has been nationalised.
Zhuangzi, a more or less mythical figure, is now reincarnated as the Damascus-dwelling, post-millennial literary translator-cum-cultural editor-cum-ghost writer Hamid Salim (whose silent doppelgänger is of course Haddad himself): a no less mythical (or at least mythicised) figure. In his own very different way Hamdi recalls the one statement to which the Chinese philosopher’s entire contribution tends to be reduced:
“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”
As a budding poet Hamid is discouraged by the establishment critic Mohsin Ali Hassan, an autocratic Ustaz who rides the wave of “engagement theory”, making his name and gathering around him an obsequious circle of acolytes by promoting literary engagement as “a life raft to save literature from the communist octopus”. Mohsin advises Hamid to write novels, but instead the young intellectual – unbeknown to the older critic and to his chagrin – turns to the age’s most relevant intellectual endeavour: translation.
Despite his bookish inattention to matters of immediate concern – which results in his wife leaving the house (taking the children with her), and gives him the undeserved reputation of a suspicious snob among his neighbours – by the time the book opens Hamid has had a relatively successful career as a translator of English works of fiction. He is widely believed to be competent, and makes enough to support himself and his family.
The translator spends his time tortuously labouring over every last phrase in the book he happens to be working on. His talent, imagination and sense of cultural, not to say national identity force their way into the process in the form of perilously creative glosses on the original words, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections of the book he is “transporting”, to borrow a traditional Arabic expression for translating.
But no one seems to notice that the results are inaccurate or compromised. (The dual implication is that few critics know enough English to realise, and that they would not care if they did, so long as there was nothing about the realisation to advance their careers or help them promote the party line.)
Then, in a moment of postcolonial fervour, Hamid alters the ending of a novel by an African author that he has been translating. He makes the hero break up with his western partner and return to his country instead of marrying her and staying on in the west (as he does in the original). But even then, it is only by coincidence that his climactic act of betrayal is exposed: the novel happens to win an international prize and it is consequently summarised in the Arabic press, so people notice the discrepancy between the original and the Arabic version they have read.
However cooped up in his ivory tower, Hamid has been unable to avoid the small-mindedness of the establishment, and a few months ago he defended himself against an unprovoked attack on the part of the influential if patently ignorant journalist Sherif Hosni (at some level, the Syrian equivalent of a party hack). This is Sherif’s chance to pounce back.
Sherif sets about discrediting Hamid, and he proves so efficient that in a matter of weeks Hamid can no longer find work anywhere. For a while he goes hungry because he cannot afford to buy food.
And so, through a string of encounters, reunions and recollections, amorous and detective scenarios, assumed names and identities, Hamid embarks on a series of secret jobs under three different pseudonyms (Halafawi, Hafalawi, Halafani), which take on the form of alter egos whose overbearing presence increasingly torments him.
Finally, on the point of throwing the last of his secret employers, the long unproductive author Samir Farout, over a bridge, Hamid is approached by a man who manages to stop him in his tracks. When he asks where that man came from – in the meantime Samir has managed to crawl away – the reply is, simply and shockingly, “Reality”. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that this visitor from outer space is Haddad, the author, but it is tempting to read the ending as if it were.
Now I do not know whether I was then Haddad dreaming of Hamid, or whether I am now Hamid, dreaming of Haddad.
And yet there is more to this enormously multifarious book than the Butterfly Dream. The notion of translation is a strong metaphor for what it means to be an intellectual in the Arab world: someone who is able to bring otherwise inaccessible culture or truth into the arena of the everyday.
Perhaps a more effective rendition of the title is Translator Betrayer (Arabic does not differentiate between the adjective and the noun), since the book is less about Hamid’s betrayal of the texts he works on than the Arab intellectual betraying his “historical role”, to borrow an expression from the nationalist rhetoric Haddad targets with his satire.
Irony upon irony: Hamid is betrayed by the Literary Mafia represented by, among others, the critic Jamil Halloum (according to Hamid’s old friend Sami, an uneducated middle-man with connections in criminal and intelligence circles, they are capable of murder in their relentless drive to cut short the rise of any genuine talent that may threaten their position).
But members of that mafia may in turn be betrayed by someone like the university professor Hakim Nafie (a possible ally whose agenda does no always chime with theirs).
Hakim becomes Hamid’s first secret employer when his scheme to improve the grades of one of his female students in return for sexual favours is discovered by Hamid’s deformed friend Mahmoud. So Mahmoud forces Hakim to employ Hamdi in order not to expose him.
Mahmoud is only a beggar- or criminal-turned-Muslim fundamentalist, but he is capable of turning this insane hierarchy on its head (at least for a while, until he is taken in by the police, apparently because another of Hamid’s employers wants him out of the way). He can threaten the personal safety of someone like Nafie.
Mahmoud is a kind of guardian angel who, wandering around the streets of Damascus, his unbearably hideous face wrapped in a scarf, gathers critical information simply by overhearing people speaking to themselves or thinking out load – as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Translation is intrinsically a betrayal whether or not the translator betrays the text, but so is the charge levelled at social and political renegades in the police states of the Arab world: by breaking with the party or the leader, they become khawanah (the plural of kha’in), betrayers of the nation and, more crucially, of their own well-being. They become ostracised and go hungry.
Haddad’s main purpose in this book is to expose, through a self-referential parable sufficiently panoramic to cover the full genus of Arab Intellectual, the corruption and impotence of its full range of species. But hischoice of translation as the profession of his protagonist goes beyond its metaphorical significance. Hamid’s access to English allows Haddad to place his Damascus-bound theatre within a new-world-order context.
He juxtaposes the incredibly pan-Arab biography of Hamid’s childhood love Lailah Shouman with an imagined novel by a fictional American author named Elisabeth Markend:
Laila, also known as the new-wave poetess Lamis Abbas, author of an erotic collection poems, was married to a Palestinian freedom fighter who took her to Beirut and then Tunis, and after he was murdered she returned to take up with an Iraqi sculptor.
Translating Markend’s The Jailed Virgin, a tour de force of global espionage, western-Islamic strife and complicated love that reflects Laila’s “real-life” biography, Hamid is finally defeated by the first of his alter egos, Afif Halafawi, who manages to impose his plan to produce an accurate, almost literal translation against the betrayer’s will.
Before he forges the final plot twist, taking the whole symphony several abrupt octaves up through the paradoxically satisfying anticlimax of someone appearing from reality to prevent a fictional murder, Haddad manages to weave together all three strings of the book:
1) the satirical critique of the Arab Intellectual, a creature unable to translate culture or truth while he attends to his principal task of building petty personal glories by colluding with brute force, whether in the form of dictatorship or crime;
2) the many metonyms for this narrative term, which include Kafkaesque , Joycean and Noir registers, embodied by a cast of archetypes including, poignantly, the ostracised author Samih Hamdi, who is still working on an endlessly gargantuan novel when he dies – the cue for his one remaining heir, his spinster sister, to promptly burn the manuscript; and
3) the idea that reality, especially a reality that revolves around literature, is practically interchangeable with imagination: only through their imaginative capacity for identifying with corruption and oppression, Haddad seems to suggest, do Arab intellectuals become corrupt, oppressed and oppressive, but ultimately powerless to pursue their raison d’etre except at the most hollow rhetorical level.
Considering the size of the undertaking, Haddad’s consistency of tone and the subtle pacing with which he maintains the action, balancing each element against the other, is no mean feat.
Since the 1960s, at least, big fat novels like The Unfaithful Translator have been read reluctantly and frowned on for their sheer size. Notwithstanding the popularity of the short story and the novella until the 1990s, the idea is that the full-length novel is a thing of the past, reflecting societies and ways of being – French and Russian if not pre-modern – that are so temporally or geographically distant as to be irrelevant. Whether or not you share this view, there exists a pragmatic argument for not writing them: they do not encourage reading, and so they help to keep the readership small.
This may not be entirely true; the counter argument is that dedicated readers – the only kind who read novels – are unlikely to be put off by a long book; they may even treasure an accomplished intellectual project of this kind once it has captured their attention. The Unfaithful Translator is no breezy read, but the point to be made about it is that it could not have been any shorter: its power resides in the way it weaves together three apparently disparate literary projects, for only against the backdrop of Haddad’s critique of the intellectual community is the Butterfly Dream adequately incorporated into Arabic literature; and only the many intersecting dramas make the critique readable and convincing.
Somehow, despite remaining essentially a work of the mind, The Unfaithful Translator manages to leave a haunting – and naturalistic – impression in the mind. Like many Arab intellectuals in real life, there is something of the Kafkaesque arthropod about its hero, the solitary little man: lacklustre, droning, alienated and alienating. Hamid leads an isolated life, he seems to exist solely within a mental space he carved out for himself, sealed off from physical experience, human contact, and memory. Yet his sheer existence embodies a deep yearning for these very things.
I arrive in Ras al Khaimah the night before my appointment and, drained by travelling non-stop for 12 hours, barely register the atmosphere before going to bed. When you live in Abu Dhabi, it turns out, waking up in Ras al Khaimah can be surreal.
The city is like the UAE capital through the looking glass. It boasts fewer salwar kameezes, for example, but this is made up for by a strong south Indian contingent, seemingly better integrated than Abu Dhabi’s Pashtun community. Either there are more tourists or the tourists are more visible. Emiratis drive leisurely through the hilly terrain, which keeps tapering into promontories until it suddenly levels out in the desert as flat as the plains of Dhafra – and then, when you are least expecting it, the sand gives way to green.
Echoing the phantasmagoria is the nickname the poet Abdul Aziz Jassim, another Ras al Khaimah native, reportedly gave the emirate, invoking the magic realism of Gabriel-Garcia Marquez: Colombia.
Nor are the historical facts very sobering: its being coextensive with the ancient port town of Julfar; its being the last sheikhdom to join the federation; its being home to the 15th-century navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, credited with finding the route to India, as well as one of two possible birthplaces (the other being Sharjah) for his contemporary al Majdi bin Dhahir, the legendary father of Nabati poetry… But I am here to meet the poet Ahmad al Assam – perhaps the only major Ras al Khaimah writer to continue living in Ras al Khaimah – and it is on his life and work that I should concentrate.
Assam seems to embody the intersection between the Gulf tradition of oral verse and the contemporary prose poem. His work, published sporadically, reads like fragments from an epic of Julfar. Few themes could be differentiated from the setting, which the poet celebrates in Whitmanesque tones, unbridled by form or reason.
He did not know it then, but at the majalis to which he accompanied his father as a child, many of the Nabati texts recited were prose poems.
Born in 1965, he lived “between two freejs”, and a mad neighbour “who kept to himself until he had an episode, during which he would concern himself solely with us children, behaving as an over-attentive father”, who contributed to his understanding of the human condition. Assam would grow up to develop William Faulkner’s knack for reading greatness into modest lives, and Pablo Neruda’s ability to perceive in his homeland a virgin, preternatural world untouched by vice.
With a population of 250,000 (220,000 of whom live in the eponymous city) dispersed over 1,700 sq km, Ras al Khaimah is the northernmost emirate, bordered by Oman as well as Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. In the early 1970s it housed the Trucial comrades of Oman’s Dhufar revolutionaries. Ras al Khaimah territory contains both the Mussandam Peninsula – where the Arab first met the Ajami, or “he who cannot speak [Arabic]”: the oldest, slightly derogatory term for a Farsi – and the Gulf’s closest thing to the Grand Canyon, Wadi Bih. It is the only emirate that has combined fishing and sheep farming with agriculture, and today thrives on reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals used in ceramics manufacture as well as agricultural produce.
“My peers always knew to stop talking once they sensed my presence, even at a distance,” he recalls, “because I had ears that could catch what they said. Now when I think about it, I realise that I saw and looked with my ears. When I write a poem, I do not write it with my eyes, I hear it. All my life, any whisper that presented itself, I felt. And then it wrote me.”
Assam is a short, stocky man in a mustard khandoura, with the demeanour of a performer in the tradition of the early Arabian poets. When he picks me up, his right foot has recently been operated on – diabetes complications, he will explain – but he drives easily, pointing out the problem only when the photographer suggests he should walk up a steep pier. He speaks of his poor health with an equanimity bordering on fatalism, “the sheer stubbornness of my people, not pride,” he repeats, “just stubbornness”.
And stubbornness is less obvious in his work than his refusal to acknowledge that he was ever poor, patriotic or political. Assam participated in the 1974 protests against low wages which, initially triggered by Iran’s occupation of the Greater and Lesser Tumbs Islands, took Ras al Khaimah by storm. He insists it was to impress a sweetheart in the front lines. His relative indifference to travelling highlights all three qualities. Why would you want to leave even for Dubai, he asks, when you have every possible environment – coast, desert, mountain and field – at your doorstep?
Even his stint at the Emirates University in Al Ain, from 1983 to 1985, was cut short by an insurmountable yearning for home. He never graduated. “Were I to live in an apartment in a high-rise building,” he says, “my sense of wonder would flutter out of the window and back to Ras al Khaimah.”
At the Grand Restaurant, a small place where Indians scoop up biryani with their hands, Assam professes gratitude to Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, for making modern education available to a generation of aspiring intellectuals. But it was this grassroots lore of the sea that informed his local radio appearances in the late 1980s – his true debut, coinciding with his joining the intellectual rights department of the Ministry of the Economy at Ras al Khaimah, which he now directs. This was Nabati poetry, and while it metamorphosed through the activities of a short-lived “literary salon” known as The Beggars and the establishment of the Ras al Khaimah branch of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates in 1989, the drive to recite to friends has remained unchanged.
“People in Ras al Khaimah may seem outdated,” Assam confides as he drives me back to the hotel, “but they are the Emirates’ true intellectuals.”
I arrived in Ras al Khaimah after a long drive at night and the same happens again with Ajman, the visually less compelling but intellectually psychedelic hometown of the poet Hashem al Muallim.
The smallest of the seven Emirates, with a population of 40,000 living in 260 sq km, Ajman lies entirely within Sharjah’s territory, recalling West Berlin prior to the unification of Germany – except that, rather than an iron curtain, all that separates the two emirates is freehold property and alcohol, with Ajman following in the footsteps of Dubai by accommodating expatriates and embracing the age of the high-rise. But the two are intertwined; Muallim, who was born in Sharjah in 1970, is himself an example of that. His father’s family lived in Sharjah, his mother’s in Ajman. When he was seven his father decided to join his in-laws. “You take a drag on your cigarette in Sharjah,” as he puts it, “and you blow it out in Ajman.”
The town seems cosier than anywhere I have been in the UAE, including Sharjah. It is framed by an unobtrusive Corniche, which figures extensively in Hashem’s work (one poem is prefixed with “This text was written over an abandoned pavement on the coast of Ajman”).
The stunning waterfront and the neat little bungalows inspire calm, though in the evening, driving back from the Carrefour shopping complex, Muallim and I will witness two traffic accidents within metres of each other on the main road. Ajman has all the luxuries of Dubai, but it retains a predominantly Emirati constituency – judging by Carrefour, at least, which is swarming with bare-headed men in white khandouras. People seem more approachable than in Abu Dhabi.
That morning I instantly recognise him at the Kampinsky terrace cafe: he is an average-looking man with an absurdist sense of humour. He is sipping Turkish coffee with a printout of his last poem in front of him: a homage to Abdul Aziz Jassim. Muallim featured in joint collections (notably with Assam) before publishing his sole book with the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information in 2003, Those Buried in the Air. A civil servant with the Ajman police, he never attended university – the early death of his father obliged him to provide for the family – and he explains with wry humour how he and his family live in a room at his mother’s. Poverty is a point of pride for him.
Muallim never writes about places per se, but his childlike wonder is rooted in the intimately observed settings of his youth; and he was part of a frenzied “search for the unusual” centred here in a period roughly coinciding with The Beggars in Ras al Khaimah. (The same period also saw the short-lived poetry journals Nawariss and Ruaa, published in 1990-91, put out in Sharjah by the present-day director of the Dubai International Film Festival, Masoud Amrallah, and the poets al Hanouf Mohammad and Ibrahim al Mullah.)
He still counts himself among a creative community of young people spanning the two emirates who were revolutionary in the intellectual sense: lovers of Bob Marley who knew nothing about Rasta, or else self-styled Dadaists until they saw a picture of Tristan Tzara, a groomed gentleman, and realised that Jassim or Ahmad Rashed Thani – the Emirates’ two biggest names in prose poetry – had more to say to them than either dreadlocks or gibberish.
Speaking unhurriedly, Muallim traces his loss of innocence to the sudden death of his younger brother in a car accident when he was eight or nine. He was present at the scene but it took him a long time to comprehend it. “I asked where they were taking him,” he recounts, “and they said to the grave. Was he going to sleep at someone else’s house? They said it was the house of God. And from this day on, my reflexive definition of the word grave has been the place where God lives. So I left an orange on our secret tree branch in the house, where I knew he couldn’t fail to find it, and I went to bed thinking that if it stayed where it was till morning, that meant my brother would never come home again.”
More cheerfully, he recalls his Borgesian wonder at “those wholly magical creatures” he saw at the fish market nearby, where he discovered the existence of the wide, wide world beyond.
“One must become a black fish,” he wrote in Those Buried in the Air, “in the midst of lazy fanatics.”
The more I read of Muallim’s poems, the more familiar it feels. I realise with surprise that his texts have an affinity with those Egyptian poets known as the Generation of the Nineties; Muallim has had no contact with those poets (and read very little of their work). It dawns on me that, despite the economic divide separating the urban Gulf from older metropolises of Arabic literature, developments that have transformed poetry were happening everywhere at the same time. And yet, to a far greater extent than anyone in Cairo, Muallim’s conceptual vocabulary is drawn from nature: the tree, the fish, the bird.
“Still,” he says, “you can be a poet without having a word to your name. It has to do with being in tune, being able to see poetry for what it is – in the way the wave laps, in the birds’ wings, in the wind blowing through palm fronds. The poet is simply someone who can be like fronds, someone poetry can move through.”
The journey from Ajman to Sharjah is far briefer than expected. On the way I recall the bigger emirate’s status as “cultural capital”. The third largest emirate, Sharjah has coasts on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and its ports are the country’s busiest. It also has small enclaves separate from the area around Sharjah City (population 800,000). Its rulers, the Qasimis – a branch of which also rule Ras al Khaimah – were among the Gulf’s most invincible seafarers in the 19th century. Besides oil and housing revenues, Sharjah has a buoyant logistics and trucking sector.
It seems oddly appropriate that the office where I am headed – that of Al Ittihad newspaper – should be located across the road from the Kassbah with its iconic ferry wheel, in a building called Babel Towers. Besides shunning media attention, the man I am after, a cultural editor there, has stated ivory-tower views on poetry.
In a sense, the poet Ibrahim al Mullah – author of Baskets of Desert (published with the German based Dar al Jamal in 1997) and I Left my Glance in the Well (privately printed in 2003) as well as a book of film criticism and several short films – is Assam’s diametrical opposite. He sees poetry not as an oral or public exchange, but as a private act “akin to isolation”. Not a bang but rather, in this case, a moving image.
Where Assam sees with his ears, the trajectory of Mullah’s development has followed a strictly cinematic course, with “the great poets” of the screen – Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Nikita Mikhalikov – informing his sensibility. Where the Julfari feels no need to travel, Mullah derives his inspiration from wandering not only around the Arab world, where he is better connected than most Emirati writers, but in Asia and Europe as well. His position in a government institution has enabled him to explore cities like Rome and Bangkok.
When I meet him, Mullah has not written poetry for three years. “When you work as a journalist,” he explains, “it spoils writing for you. The inner light that guides the poem, the pleasure you take in it, begins to fade. ”
True to a notion of freedom that drove him against the verse compositions with which he started, Mullah’s poems evoke all the places he has been to, but they never name them. His Sharjah turns out to be different from the bustling city I have come to see.
I have waited for half an hour at the office when Mullah marches in energetically, a broad-shouldered, tall figure with a light beard. His demeanour immediately strikes me with a remarkable sense of balance – warmth and distance, enthusiasm and caution, melancholy and good cheer.
“Not here,” Mullah waves at the window, lighting another cigarette in the conference room, “but Sharjah remains a horizontal, not a vertical city.” Like most journalists at their offices, he is distracted, in a hurry. “It’s a bit like European cities, not so much in terms of its architecture as its general aspect. I am not talking about this area, which has gone the way of Dubai, but in the places where we grew up and in some cases where we still live, the place retains its character. It doesn’t have buildings that block out the sun and the air and the blue of the sky. Its skyline does not induce that kind of terror about your connection to your own space or how you might live in it.”
Mullah was born in 1966, and he deplores the dog-eat-dog existence to which “a virgin land” has been reduced over the course of his lifetime. People’s relations had been intuitive until “the compulsion to prove oneself in society” supplanted clarity and good will.
“There are break-ups,” he keeps saying. “Even among relatives, there are break-ups, and endless interference. Maybe other people accept it as the normal course of things but for a poet or an emotional person, it takes its toll on you.”
He was reluctant to do the interview. Now, to avoid being photographed without his sunglasses on, he accompanies the photographer and me downstairs as he speaks, describing two kinds of house for each family, located in two different freejs: a summer house built out of palm fronds, and a winter house built out of mud reinforced with rock from the sea.
“The sea was our guest at high tide,” he muses. “It came into the house, and that was fine – we were used to it.
“This openness,” he says, pausing to emit a melancholy laugh. “This openness to the colour blue.”
A poet in Dubai is like a needle in a haystack. With nearly 1.4 million residents, Dubai is the largest emirate by population, but though it may boast as many Arab men of letters as Abu Dhabi, they are all but evanescent in the multicultural multitude. Despite the scarcity of oil, Dubai’s superlative architecture and embrace of international capitalism make it a worthy experiment in future metropolitanism, but only 40 years ago it was little more than a string of fishing villages on the Arabian Gulf. Today, natives are an even smaller minority than elsewhere in the UAE.
Walking into the Spinney’s shopping complex in Jumeirah – where I am to meet Khaled al Budoor, a respected Dubai poet who maintains a visible profile against the odds – it occurs to me how strange it must be to have been born here in 1961, to have grown up in tandem with such mind-blowing development and, after three years in Ohio obtaining an MA in scriptwriting, to have come back to find your teenage haunts transformed beyond recognition. “Let’s meet at the Starbucks,” he says on the phone. “Jumeirah is where I grew up. You know Jumeirah, don’t you?” And it is as if, asking me, he momentarily doubts how sure he himself is. “One feels a kind of estrangement,” he says now. “The places of childhood are no longer there.”
Budoor is a man of less than average height in a spotless white khandoura, slight but sturdy, with an incredibly trim light moustache going from grey to white. His bearing reflects years of working as a radio and television anchor, notably with Dubai TV, where he settled for early retirement some five years ago. He has written films and for the press and presided over seminars and an all-Dubai sophistication comes through in his conversation: cosmopolitan, aloof, slightly technocratic. “One feels fortunate to live in a city like Dubai,” he intones, “because it offers the writer everything he wants – books, films, equipment, contact with the contemporary world…”
He started out writing in classical verse, quickly making the transition through the modern, modified metres into prose, but he has always written in the Emirati dialect as well as standard Arabic. Some of his vernacular poems have rhyme and rhythm, but the extended metaphors out of which he forges a text are comparable in each case. So far he has published three books: Night (1992), Winter (2002) and (in Emirati Arabic) Ink and Dalliance (1999). Several more volumes, including collected articles on folk literature, are upcoming in the next year.
He seems at home enough in Starbucks, but his poems would never be. They emerge, rather, from “a simple fishing village” where “PE classes at school consisted of swimming in the sea” and old men gathered in the moonlight to listen to each other’s stories and verses, their laughter unencumbered by the absence of a dining table, their knowledge of the outside world all but fantastical. Part of this village may once have occupied the space of the multinational outlet where we are talking, but Budoor does not seem to mind.
And it is precisely the ability not to mind, and the contemporary idiom he writes in, that allow his poems to preserve those nostalgic images as places of beauty to which Arabic readers everywhere can return. Yet his true achievement, paradoxically, remains the way he has managed to depart – from the Emirates, Ohio, even his career – returning, painfully but exultantly, through the creative act. What he feels for the old Jumeirah, far from homesickness in time, is “an escape-return relationship,” as he puts it, “escape and return”. These days he recognises his birthplace only “in the faces of some friends, or else in recorded songs of the sea”; sometimes, he adds, matter-of-factly, “I feel in tune with its spirit”.
But Dubai’s architecture does not help induce this feeling, “even if the human being tries, in his own house, to provide a more merciful space”. Still, Budoor’s principal concern is with “estrangement in language”, a literal reference to the fact that few people in Dubai speak Arabic. It is a fate he seems resigned to as part of the city’s contemporary character, what makes it a great place to live. “But at other times,” he sighs, as if making a delayed confession, “I have the urge to run far into the desert – or the sea.”
The trip to Fujairah never materialises. As is the case with Umm al Qaiwain, for the longest time I am told one of two things: there are no poets; or what poets there are, “classicists”, are not contemporary poets. “There are poets,” the Ras al Khaimah master Ahmad al Assam finally declares. “They may not write in prose, they may use Emirati Arabic. But there are poets.” And he picks up his mobile phone…
After a few days’ worth of toing and froing, one sultry evening I take a taxi to the Shangri-La Hotel, on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, to meet the Nabati poet Khaled al Dhahnani, who shows up a little late at 11.30pm, straight from the studio where he was a guest juror at a teenage Nabati poetry competition. “When you have been a juror on so many competitions,” he explains, “it doesn’t feel right to participate in the Millions Poet.” Within hours, Dhahnani is due at the airport for his summer holiday in Europe, but he has not only made the effort to show up, he also pays for dinner and provides over an hour of engaging conversation.
A tall, dutifully groomed figure with an easy-going, slightly distracted air, Dhahnani was born in 1972 to a family so involved in the politics of Fujairah – and so close to the Al Sharqi family – that he compares them to the Baramikah, viziers to the Abbasids and their empire’s true movers and shakers for hundreds of years after the ninth century. “Except that, unlike them,” he adds, “we do good.” Although he keeps his house in Dubai as well as Fujairah, Dhahnani feels he is wholly a product of this most mountainous of all the emirates, which commands stunning views of the Gulf of Oman. And, at 130,000 people, it is the second least populated emirate, with active mining and tourism industries but high unemployment rates among Emiratis.
A major media official in Fujairah (he organises the bi-annual International Monodrama Festival) Dhahnani stresses his connection with nature and the conscious effort to “reinforce talent with reading”, developing his own instantly recognisable style. He may write in the vernacular, he says, but he uses “a white language” comprehensible to all Arabs. And he is so concerned with the future of Arabic among Emiratis that for months he struggled to rid his speech of the word “OK”, but ironically – in a high-end setting potentially more alienating than Jumeirah – he feels no estrangement whatsoever.
At 67,340 square kilometres – 86 per cent of the country’s land area – Abu Dhabi is too vast to picture all at once. First, there is the coastal city housing most of the emirate’s 1.3 million residents: in itself, a layered amalgam of worlds, as multinational as Dubai, but with more stress on Bedouin heritage. Then there is the original desert spring, Al Ain, population 614,180: the agricultural, educational and camel-racing centre whence settled members of the emirate’s powerful tribes, the Al Nahyan included, invariably hail. Between and beyond the two cities, oil fields, palm forests, luxurious resorts and construction workers’ camps frame the legendary Empty Quarter.
The mythic journey from Al Ain to the city of Abu Dhabi – originally a seasonal fishing and pearl-diving pilgrimage – has come to symbolise the formative years of the UAE, with the centre of gravity shifting from one to the other in the course of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s lifetime, to coincide with the genesis of the federation. It is a journey the director of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates, Hareb al Dhahiri, made at the age of 12, during a historical juncture, he says, “bridging two eras”. Moving from one city to the next was like “replacing the desert with the sea”. Together with Abu Dhabi’s cultural initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s – lectures and exhibits in the Tourist Club, the establishment of the Cultural Foundation, liaisons with Sharjah about founding the Union – it remains a central reference point in his life. “Abu Dhabi,” he says, “was a trail blazer.”
A Romantic poet better known as a short story writer, Dhahiri lives in Battin, an older enclave with one of the lowest skylines in the city, not far from the Old Airport Road. His spacious villa is furnished in the Second Empire style prevalent among the Arab bourgeoisie. Joining him in his salon, I remember that he is not only an intellectual, but also an Adnoc manager, and reportedly an effective juggler of priorities in the vexed arena of Abu Dhabi cultural policy. A critic of “mixing tourism into culture”, he brings the views of Abu Dhabi literary figures, like the poet Ahmad Rashed Thani, and the novelist Ali Abur Rish, the latter originally from RAK, into the public sphere. “Countries work on their artists until they become international,” he declares. “They do not import foreign artists, paying them millions of dollars they wouldn’t dream of earning in their countries.”
Dhahiri’s house bespeaks comfort and safety. And so, in a sense, do his poems: easy expressions of a “philosophy of love” informed by the work of visionaries like Blake and Gibran Khalil Gibran. He has written four books: Mandoline (1997), A Kiss on the Cheek of the Moon (1999) and Puppets’ Night and Soul Pulse (2004). Only two are collections of poems. In the others, narrative plays a smaller role than exploration of the psyche; and the same “philosophical way of writing” produces a layered, sometimes arcane short story similar to a prose poem. Only very subtly do Dhahiri’s social concerns rise to the surface: the disintegration of the fabric of society, dependence on the West, and the receding tide of cultural as opposed to tourist initiative.
A dark, round man with slow gestures and an easy smile, Dhahiri sits gingerly in an armchair to delineate his literary trajectory: from traditional verses through khawatir, or thoughts, to short stories. “For Arabs and especially Bedouins,” he says, “the connection with poetry is born with you when you are born. So it is only natural that even a short story writer should take this course.” Gradually, as he warms to his theme, his back slumps further into the cushion, his arms relax, and what strikes me as a conversational technique peculiar to Abu Dhabi – slow, measured but eventually revealing – begins to operate.
Dhahiri speaks of Scarborough, England, where – at his own initiative, at the age of 15 – he spent three months living with a local family to learn English. He speaks of his three years studying business at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, where his writing teacher – a tremendous support to him – turned out to be a Jewess, and how people had discouraged him from going to America under the impression, gleaned from action movies, that whoever lives there will end up dying in a shooting. He speaks of “the simple and old place”, Al Ain, “that stays with you as you grow up”; and of the inscrutable mysteries of poetic inspiration.
But imperceptibly, deftly, he steers the conversation back to Abu Dhabi. “When I first got here, there was an empty sand lot where we used to play, the present al Rawdha: people would come over and ask after a specific person. We were small then, but we could always tell them where that person lived. That’s how closely knit life was. But these days it reminds me of Scarborough. Now we are big,” he laughs, “but we don’t know the names of our next-door neighbours.”
I have been in Umm al Qaiwain for nearly 24 hours when I realise the person I am here to see is actually in Abu Dhabi. So the interview is postponed till my return, and my observations are promptly recorded before I head back, smoking to my heart’s content in my first unmetered Emirati taxi.
Tariq Ebeid, a member of the Al Ali clan of which the Al Mualla sheikhs are a subsection, is a former police officer currently training as a school teacher. Periodic changes of career, he believes, are necessary for a rounded view of life. Born in 1967, Ebeid started publishing his Nabati verses in 1985; and urban discomfort notwithstanding, he has always worked in Abu Dhabi, spending the weekends and holidays at home, where he still has the greatest audience base, frequently holding poetic evenings in an atmosphere where “everyone is family and friends”.
The least populous emirate, and in some ways the least developed, Umm al Qaiwain recalls the hinterlands of the Sahara and Sinai by turns. It has few public amenities, no real centre, and a vastly spread out miscellany of beach-orientated establishments, among which the garland-dispensing, dancing-girl-on-stage “Indian nightclub” is particularly popular. Patronised mainly by sailors and jet skiers, the emirate “has few resources”, Ebeid says, but “boasts a glorious tradition of learning and the old, affectionate way of life”.
It has contributed much skilled labour to the bigger emirates, he goes on, producing a portfolio of magazine clippings out of which he reads a few samples.
Ebeid is an admirer of the Millions Poet, from which he says he learns a lot, but the opportunity to participate has not presented itself. In reality, he belongs more firmly in a humorist tradition of zajal, less emotional and rhetorical than the kind of work showcased in the programme, and more concerned with everyday life.
A small, dark, eminently hospitable man, Ebeid meets me at his Old Airport Road apartment while it is being packed in preparation for travelling to Umm al Qaiwain, and he repeatedly apologises for nonexistent inconveniences. “This is only a place to stay,” he says, “so that the children who go to school in Abu Dhabi should have a home here too. But the quiet, comfortable life is back there in Umm al Qaiwain, where there is neither traffic nor noise – and we keep travelling back and forth. One day, God willing, you will come and visit me there. And then you will see the difference for yourself.”
Bianca Brigitte Bonomi
At the London Book Fair two years ago, Arab literature took centre stage. It was the subject of lectures, debates and interactive sessions with authors and publishers. Despite its prevalence over the course of the week, however, we learnt that Arab literature hadn’t made significant inroads into the West. Factors ranging from censorship to an under-developed publishing infrastructure and a paucity of translators were contributing to its status as a largely untapped literary market.
Two years on, and progress is being made. There is an increasing literary awareness within the region and a growing international interest. A number of prestigious awards are being offered to stimulate reading and translation in the Arab world. We have an “Arab Booker” prize, publishing houses including Penguin and Bloomsbury are expanding into the Gulf and authors such as Alaa el Aswany are becoming household names: all paying testament to the serious drive to place Arabic texts alongside writing from more heavily marketed parts of the world on western bookshelves.
Beirut39, a Hay Festival project that aims to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40 as part of the Beirut World Capital festivities 2009/10, is a forerunner in promoting this literature on a global stage.
The Hay Festival’s interest in Arab literature is linked in no small part to the obvious potential of this emerging market. “The statistics speak for themselves,” says Bachar Chebaro, the owner of Arab Scientific Publishers and the secretary general of the Arab Publishers Association. “Twenty-four Arab countries, a population of 340 million and 422 million Arabic speakers living outside of the region.” In the current economic climate, western publishers are increasingly tempted by this huge potential readership and the world’s largest festival of books has taken note.
Hay, now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution. In May, more than 100,000 people braved the rain to head to the sleepy book town on the Welsh border. The festival has hosted ex-presidents, rock stars and Booker prize winners and has extended its global reach in recent years to include offshoots in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, Segovia and Alhambra in Spain and Nairobi, Kenya. Beirut39 follows Bogotá39, which launched in the Colombian city in 2007 and identified many of the most promising rising Latin American talents, including Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Wendy Guerra, Andrés Newman and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
In the past, Arabic texts translated have generally been those produced by established writers. Important new literary awards have increased the profile of Arabic literature in the Arab world and worldwide, but the writers who have benefited have for the most part already enjoyed long careers. In recognition of the fact that the difficulties facing emerging Arab writers are particularly acute, Beirut39 set out to identify writers at the start of their careers struggling to find a wider audience. First or second-generation Arab authors born after 1970 with at least one published work of fiction or poetry were eligible for inclusion and nominations were solicited from publishers and literary critics across the Arab world and internationally. Members of the public were invited to nominate writers online and – controversially – authors could nominate themselves.
Around 500 young authors from across the Arab world as well as the Arab diaspora in Europe and America submitted their works. The vast majority of these texts were written in Arabic.
“England has always struggled to get interested in any literature not written in English,” says Cristina Fuentes La Roche, the Hay Festival project director. “They translate less literature than other countries in Europe. At the moment there are some terrific Arab authors succeeding in the western world, but they all write in English or in French. This project will give Arabic writers a real boost,” she says.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, the entrants were whittled down to the final 39. Members of the committee, headed by the Egyptian literary critic Gaber Asfour, and including the Lebanese novelist Alawiya Sobh, the Omani poet Saif Al Rahbi and the Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, focused on the degree of potential shown by the authors. The winners include the Saudi-born Abdullah Thabit, the Moroccans Abdelaziz Errachidi, Yassin Adnan, Abdelkader Benali and Abderrahim Elkhassar, Lebanon’s Hala Kawtharani, the Egyptoian Youssef Rakha, the Palestinian Adania Shibli and the Iraqi Ahmad Saadawi. Faiza Guene, a young French-Algerian writer whose first novel was published at the age of 19, is on the list, as is the award-winning short-story writer, novelist and translator Randa Jarrar. Her first novel, A Map of Home, was released to critical acclaim in six languages, and won the Hopwood Award, the Gosling Prize and the Arab American Book Award. The Iraqi poet and playwright Bassim Al Ansar was also shortlisted. In 1999, Ansar started a contemporary literature magazine in Denmark, his current home, and has had several books of poetry published.
The 39 authors will travel to Beirut in April for four days of literary talks, debates and recitals. Libraries, bookshops, cafes and universities will welcome visitors to discuss the issues at the heart of Arab contemporary fiction. The festival hopes to attract a diverse audience, reflecting the power of writing to stimulate social cohesion and cultural understanding.
To mark the occasion, Bloomsbury will publish Beirut39, an anthology of fiction and poetry by the selected authors with an introduction by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. The book will be published in English and Arabic in the UK, the US and the Arab world.
“This is one of the most exciting projects Bloomsbury has undertaken in recent years and is entirely in keeping with its commitment to the best writing from all over the world,” says Bill Swainson, the senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury London. “We are hugely appreciative of the judges’ careful work in considering submissions and delighted with the scope, energy and quality of their final selection.”
The backing of the publishing house is a boost to the project and will facilitate the sharing of literature around the globe. For the author and former National staffer Rakha, however, the problem of engagement is about understanding and appreciation as well as infrastructure. “Pessimistically, I think perhaps westerners are not as interested in the contemporary Arab world as we like to think they are, and when something is written in a language so different from French or Spanish and published by a small house with no contacts on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is no reason to expect publishers or readers who might feel culturally superior to pay attention to it,” he says.
“The irony, of course, is that a lot of Arabic writing could actually be very relevant and engaging to westerners at the basic, human, universal level – if only they had the means and inclination to read it. Should the resources become available to translate and publicise the right books in the right contexts, which I feel they increasingly are, I think we can expect the situation to improve. But the most encouraging development is that many Arab publishers are increasingly aware of the global publishing industry and working hard to reach out.”
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