I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.
We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.
I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.
As the Conscience of the Nation, even though it is never clear which Nation, the Arab Intellectual bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Here, transforming his Seven States as photographed in 2005, are Seven of the Qualities that help him survive in a world that remains forever beneath him:
About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.
«تماسيح» يوسف رخا: الصراع الخفىّ والعلنىّ بين الأجيال المختلفة للشعراء المصريين
«التماسيح» ليوسف رخا رواية جديدة فى الشكل والمضمون. أولًا من حيث الشكل أنت كقارئ مشدود من البداية للنهاية، إلى تلك الفقرات المتتالية التى تتكون منها الرواية، وتصل إلى نحو 400 فقرة مرقّمة، بعضها بطول صفحتين وبعضها الآخر بطول سطر واحد. الأحداث تظل تتحرك فى حالة جِيئة وذهاب طوال الرواية، بين الماضى والحاضر، الماضى فى السبعينيات والتسعينيات، والحاضر الذى يقع فى العام الأخير 2012.
تقع أحداث الرواية فى مجموعة من الأماكن التى يتكرر ذكرها فى النص، مثل البيوت التى سكنها أبطال الرواية، والمقاهى التى كانوا يترددون عليها، والشوارع التى كانوا يمشون فيها، حتى نقترب بالتدريج من لحظة ظهور جسم الرواية قرب نهاية العمل.
على فكرة مستحيل بجد وضع الأدب العربي، ولما تشوف تأثير مبادرات النشر والجوايز والمعارض الحاصلة بهدف تنشيط التسويق والترجمة من بعيد شوية أو على المدى الطويل، تلاقي إن اللي المبادرات دي بتعمله في الحقيقة هو إنها بتزيد الوضع استحالة… الأدب العربي عملياً عايش على ذمة آداب تانية، منقوص الحقوق ومجبور يدفع الجزية
لقد رأيت مالك الحزين الأسمر
يتعارك مع النهر
هكذا هي الطريقة التي بها
يحب قلبك قلبي
Artists, Islamists and Politicians
Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
Whenever the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing.
I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.
I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.
- John Berger
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.
Wa Qassa’id Ukhra (And other poems), Ahmad Shafie, Beirut: Dar an-Nahda, 2009
A whole new diwan? Maybe. No, yes. If such a thing exists. In a sort of anti-introduction to the book, his third, the Oman-based Egyptian poet Ahmad (Salih) Shafie (b. 1977) considers an older, colloquial sense of diwan, the contemporary word for a book of poems and the traditional word for a poet’s corpus – which, born of Farsi, can mean: court, cabinet (as in vizirate), compendium – and is, in Latin letters, the name of Egypt’s first quasi-bourgeois bookshop chain. In breadth and in tone, And other poems is the complete life’s work of a poet. In other ways it negates completeness in either work or life. The deadpan title captures an essence more reminiscent of Cortazar than of Ashbery, whose influence the book cites.
Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.