Three Girls on Mother’s Day ❀ ثلاث بنات في عيد الأم

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الشخص الثالث
“نملية” مطبخها عامرة بالمسلّمات. لكن هناك دُرجاً أعمق من إحساسها بالصواب، مخصصاً لبذرة الرجل الذي ترى في وجهي كيف خيّب رجاءها قبل أن يموت (لولا ضرورة الخروج من بيت أهلها، لماذا كانت ستحمل بذرة هذا الرجل بالذات؟ ولولا أنه يرى الإنجاب جريمة، هل كانت ستكتفي بطفل واحد؟) في شعلة سخان الغاز-مصانع القوات المسلحة، نفس غيظها من “دش” مؤجل منذ أدركتْ أن هذا الرجل، فتى أحلامها الوحيد الممكن، يراوده الانتحار. وبماذا كانت تحس وأنا أستنشق النهد العبقري لحبيبة تكرهها في الغرفة المجاورة؟ حين تكتشف كم من النقود أنفقتُ في ليلة واحدة، وأكون لازلت نائماً في الرابعة مساءً، تغضب على رَجُلِها قبل أن “تلوشني”. ويظل تشنّج نبرتها حتى يذوب القرف على وجهها في حزن يكبرني بثلاثين عاماً. أتذكر أنها فعلاً أحبته، ولا شيء بعده في البيت أكبر منها سناً. فأسترجع التنهيدة التي ترسلها كل ليلة وهي تُخرج الزبالة، متفننة في حماية الأكياس البلاستك من القطط الجائعة حتى لا يتسخ مدخل الشقة التي لم تكن أبداً برجوازية بما يواكب تطلعاتها. وأسأل نفسي بحيرة: هل يقرّبنا أم يبعدنا الميت الواقف وراء الباب؟

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012

“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
***
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
***
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a’iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

***
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Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

Somehow
I was a teacher;
somehow
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
books
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
books
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
books
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.
***

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?
***

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Translation © Youssef Rakha

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E-cards for Mohammad Rabie

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Review and interview by Youssef Rakha


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Empty Feeling: The Vagaries of the Sixties

The Egyptian writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s cast a long shadow over decades of Arabic fiction. Youssef Rakha considers the vexed legacy of a generation.

Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel
Mohamed el Bisatie, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University in Cairo Press
Dh90

In July 2007, I met the novelist Gamal al Ghitani in Cairo to discuss the Egyptian State Merit Award, which he had just received (too late, he felt). We agreed that the group of writers known in Egypt as the Generation of the Sixties – a politically engaged, predominantly working-class group of poetically-inclined writers who made their names in the late 1960s and early 1970s – remain the principle reference point for much contemporary Arabic literature. Al Ghitani said that the Sixties’ achievement comprises only two kinds of writing. “One draws on the news and other immediate manifestations of history to take realism to its logical conclusion; it is represented by Sonallah Ibrahim. The other, which is inspired by old books and uses the old storytelling to comment on the present, is my own.”

It seemed unnecessary to disagree at the time, but I thought to myself that there was a third Sixties contingent, one typified by Ibrahim Aslan and Mohamed el Bisatie. Their work is even more typical of “the movement” than either Ibrahim’s brand of hyper-realism or al Ghitani’s heritage-orientated approach. It embodies all the qualities that come to mind when you think of the Generation of the Sixties: it focuses on collective rather than individual experience. It works through evocation and insinuation, is often almost too subtle to understand, and prioritises style over storytelling. It asserts the importance of the lower-middle and working classes, which were more visible under the Nasser regime than they had ever been before.

What sets Aslan and el Bisatie – the former a postman-turned-editor, the latter (like Naguib Mahfouz) a lifelong civil servant – apart from their generational cohort is their almost exclusive emphasis on the experience of marginalised groups, rather than all of society or the ebb and flow of history. Their short stories – always short, sometimes rambling – are Faulkneresque in their focus on small communities and their vernaculars. Aslan has the Nile-side Cairo slum of Kitkat, el Bisatie an unnamed small town overlooking Lake Manzalah in the north-eastern Nile Delta. Like Ibrahim, both authors engage broad themes like sex, religion and politics, but only indirectly, only to the extent that they play out in the lives of the disinherited, and generally in a more personal register. Like al Ghitani, they situate their narratives in an explicitly historical context, but only on behalf of the small, poor communities in question.

In addition to his numerous short stories, Aslan has only produced two novels – Malik al Hazin (Heron, 1983) and Asafir al Nil (Nile Sparrows, 2000). Recently, in an unprecedented move for a Sixties Generation writer, he has branched out into literary non-fiction. El Bisatie, on the other hand, has spent the last three decades steadily producing short novels of starkly uneven quality. To a greater extent than Aslan, he has failed to remedy the shortcoming inherent in much of the new writing celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s: a lack of strong characters or gripping storylines. The power of language to convey an intimately observed environment – particularly one where common people live – was thought to be enough for literature. But it rarely is; now that the Sixties’ political points are no longer fresh, their style frequently seems stale as well.

“Hunger” is the idiomatic translation of both Al Ju’ and Ju’: the definite and indefinite forms of the word, respectively. El Bisatie’s choice of the latter as the title of his latest book (since published as Hunger by the American University in Cairo press) reflects a particular humility of the Sixties: the belief that, when the title of a book is a one-word abstraction, the definite article is too presumptuous to include. To call the book Al Ju’ (so goes this absurd argument, advanced by a whole range of Sixties critics) would imply that the author is laying exclusive claim to the concept of hunger (this is the rough opposite of how it works in English).

Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another recent book about poverty in the third world, one that recognises the age-old literary virtues of character and storyline – I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups (all of which Adiga transcends). They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.

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El Bisatie devised his technique of a collective narrative voice in two 1978 novellas, Al Maqha az Zujaji (The Glass Cafe) and Al Ayyam as Sa’bah (Hard Days): simple, sad evocations of the lives of geographically isolated town-dwellers. In these books, as in the bulk of el Bisatie’s subsequent work, the narration is either delivered by an amorphous “we” or by a rapidly shifting blend of individual voices – in both cases, it as if el Bisatie’s small town itself is telling its own tale.

It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat. But none of the collective voice’s potential poetic power (often squandered by sloppiness and repetition) makes up for a lack of absorbing drama or vivid individual characters. This helps explain why Ju’ is such a slow and dreary read.

The book opens with a woman named Sakina sitting by the doorstep of her rough-and-tumble, mostly mud-brick family house, her headscarf in a bundle between her legs. Her perpetually unemployed husband, Zaghloul, uses a piece of straw to clean his teeth – his way of telling her that she had better borrow a reghif or two of bread from the neighbour who baked that morning. Inside the house, their sons (Zaher, 12, and Ragab, 10), barely awake, caress their tummies. Dialogue between husband and wife is intermingled with their respective internal monologues, all rendered in a language somewhere between dialect and standard Arabic. El Bisatie’s usual poetic intensity is replaced by a more true-to-life, mundane idiom that is neither absorbing nor (as the intention sometimes seems to be) comic.

From the start, it is hard not to recall far more powerful depictions of the subjective experience of hunger (in Mohammad Choukri or Knut Hamsen, for example). You race through the next few pages, hoping for some more compelling situation or scene. But having taken in that first image, it turns out you have taken in the whole book: paper-thin characters on the lookout for food, only food, and not thinking much at all.

Ju’ is built around four anecdotes recalled without any indication of when they occur or how (or if) they relate. First, Zaghloul takes to eavesdropping on a group of young men from the town who are studying at university in Cairo. Home for the holiday, they are meeting at the cafe around which Zaghloul hovers (hoping against hope for a free drink, perhaps?). “Oh Sakina,” he later recalls to his wife, “education is so sweet… Sitting on the mastaba by the wall, I hear them talking. And, oh, what talk! I understand bit, I don’t understand a bit… They say that one shouldn’t work everyday like a water buffalo tied to a water wheel, one has to have time to think. But, people, think about what? They did not say. I wanted to ask them but I was silent.”

The encounter, far from influencing Zaghloul one way or the other, acts only to dehumanise him for the reader, to solidify him as a caricature of the sub-proletariat. Likewise, in the second anecdote he blasphemes: “God in His glory created the world and the people and everything, and ordered them to worship Him. I say to myself, if He created all this, what does He need their worshipping for … If He in His glory wants them to worship him, why doesn’t He appear in whatever form He likes and say ‘I created you, worship Me!’ Then nobody will say no.” This is a silly caricature of shallow atheism – neither interesting in its own right nor useful in developing Zaghloul’s character, which remains opaque and stereotyped: the poor man with poor thoughts who invariably ends up being beaten by the imam.

The third anecdote involves Hagg Abdur Rahim – a man who “returned home from foreign countries” to the village with as much new money as new weight, which renders him immobile. Zaghloul works for Hagg Abdur for two months, bringing his family a rare stretch of financial stability. In the fourth – and perhaps the most interesting – anecdote, Sakina is similarly subcontracted as a servant by the two female teenage servants of Hagg Hashem, another affluent member of the community. When she moves into Hashem’s house, she brings along her husband and children, who feast on the household’s supplies. But once again, the protagonists reveal no individuality, enacting their destiny (acquiring what food they can) like shadow puppets, two-dimensional and skin deep.

Ju’ ends with Zaher being beaten up by the father of his relatively affluent friend Abdalla, who has been providing him with much-needed snacks. “His father,” who does not want him to mix with such rabble, “was a teacher at the primary school and he had not one but four galabeyas, he wore an undershirt and had three meals a day.” Zaghloul accepts a few meters of fabric as compensation, but when Abdalla’s father hands Zaher a galabeya to replace the one that was torn during the beating, Zaher throws the garment on the ground and walks away. In The White Tiger, Adiga has his poor man protagonist, Balram, rebel – and transform himself with a brutal murder. In Ju’, el Bisatie has Zaher make a feeble, hackneyed gesture, without the slightest indication of whether or how the rebellion will improve (or worsen) his lot. Perhaps a gesture of this type is in character for Zaher; we never know him well enough to say.

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Perhaps what al Ghitani was getting at (consciously or unconsciously) in our conversation was not that the Sixties produced only two kinds of writing but rather that only two kinds of writing have survived since. Aslan and el Bisatie’s mode, arguably the most characteristic of the Generation, is fast dying out, just like the predominantly deferential, ineffectual characters it depicts. Today, the Zaghlouls of Egyptian fiction are more like Adiga’s Balram: upwardly mobile heroes who at least try to change their lives. The heirs of the Generation of the Sixties (prose poets-turned-novelists some three decades younger, often referred to quite aptly as the Generation of the Nineties) have turned the principles of their forebears upside down. Writers like Mustafa Zikri and Ibrahim Farghali – however else you evaluate their achievement – have traded the collective for the individual, the musical swirl of the “we” for the developed narratives of the “I”. As a vehicle for conveying modern reality, el Bisatie’s collective voice sounds less and less convincing – like the echo of an echo, no longer beautiful twice removed. It is doubtful that the poetic style he perfected in Shakhab al Buhairah will live on much longer.

Early on, partly in response to the Sixties Generation’s obsession with “the people”, the Nineties writers avoided social and political engagement altogether, and edged away from the vernacular towards a dynamic, thoroughly contemporary standard Arabic designed for finding the magic in the quotidien. As a result, they are realists only insofar as they use everyday contemporary life as their starting point. They write about foreigners and rich people with fully developed and convincing personalities – and about ghosts, psychotic breaks, unrealistic and fantastical turns of events. Their styles borrow from across high and low culture. Most importantly, they show at least as much interest in plot and character development as style. They tell stories of love, death, hunger and the full range of specimens who experience them. In doing so, they offer the reader so much more than the Sixties version of reality which, through relentless, obstinate insistence on being true to the grassroots vernacular of its time (and nothing more), already appears unreal.

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ثنائي الأبعاد أو المنمنمة، بالفيديو

أنا وأنت، أنتنا، أننت – سركون بولص

الضفدع الغضبان الذي أفتح منه حاوية الملفات

بنقرة لا تحَس على سطح افتراضي

يرغي ويزبد حال يلامسه السهم

السهم الصغير الذي يساير أنملتي مللي بمللي

كأن عصباً يربطهما يَشْغَل أبعاداً

أعقد من أن يدركها استيعابي الهندسي

الآن يتوارى خلف الهَبّة البرمائية

لمخلوق لا يمتد في الفضاء

ولا ترجف أطرافه بالشهوة

ليس في كونه ضفدعاً سوى خدعة منظور

ضوء وظل

ينتفش في وجهي أخضر ثائراً

فأكاد أجاوب الوعيد في عينيه

وأراك مكانه بحجم عقلة إصبع

صوتك متراكم النغمات في دبيب ذراعك

عود ثقاب يقول كل شيء

لكنني أتذكر أن الضفدع نفسه

مجرد «أيقونة» على سطح المكتب

منزوعة الملمس والرائحة

ولا تستطيع أمام طاقة الدفع هذه

أن تصنع أي شيء

*

في غرفتي حين تلجّ الميكروفونات

بصلوات طويلة يسمونها التراويح

فأتذكر أنه بَعد الُمتمّ لشعبان

لا تدخين خارج البيت

ولا ملاذ من قذائف صغيرة

سيطلقها الأطفال في شارعنا

تبدو الشاشة الراجفة بإيكولوجيا الضفادع

عوضاً جديراً عن أي سطح بدونك

يمكنني أن أحفر كوعيّ في عرصاته

وإذا لكمته أشعر بالوجع

في غُرَّة رمضان يوم المغادرة

خلعت الزجاجات الخضر شارات «ستلا»

عن أجساد ستضجر بسوائلها

طوال ثلاثين يوماً لا يُسمح بشم الهواء

أحيت «الكلكسات» موكباً مهرجانياً

نكايةً بالفَسَقَة أمثالنا

لكن مراسم الاحتفال كانت أشبه

بمعركة بذيئة في حي عشوائي

جُبلتُ على الإقامة في جواره

ضاق القمر المدوّر كالفطيرة

ولم يبشّر الزجاج المهشم على العتبات

بسَكينة محتملة

أعرف أنني قبل هذا النهار

اكتملت أعضائي

وكنت صحيحاً ورائعاً

حتى أنني جرؤت على حذف بعض «الملفات»

معلناً بداية هولوكوست في دماغي

لشعب آخر مختار

غيرتُ ألوان القوائم وحجم الحروف

وصرخت في ضفدعي المذعور على شاشته

أن يعمرّها بمفرده لو يشاء

كانت الفرحة برتقالاً رغم أنفك

حين راق ظهري قرب بحر صغير

ورأيت الهرم فوق كتفك بعيداً جداً

لم أجد صعوبة في إغلاق الشيش

ليتصبب ضوء الصباح من مسامه

إلا لأنني نسيت أن أفك الشنكل

الشنكل الذي أشرفتُ على تركيبه شخصياً

ليلة نصبنا سكنانا هنا للأبد

في ذكرى سيتسنّى اختراعها دون جهد

مع شاي يديك حين انقسمنا

لأول مرة في التاريخ ما بعد الاستعماري

كنتُ مضطجعاً على كنبة تخصني

وأنت zigzag ممدد عبر كرسيين

رقاقة ظننت من سمكها أنه يمكن طيها

في جيبي الخلفي

لتكون جوازي إلى هناك

مجرد رقاقة

هي كل ما أطالب به الدنيا

في العتمة ألوانها لم تقل لي

إن الغرفة التي نؤوب من بلكونتها

خيمة غجري

*

لن أخبرك بأنني منذ التقينا

ما عاد لي صبر على ترجمة الحواديت

قرب مقهى ملتبس الهوية في «الزمالك»

كان كَفّي في ذراعك مغارة

لكن عدد «الحرامية» أكثر من أربعين

وأنا لا أريد أن أكون علي بابا

ثمة أمير رافق الموت مدة

ليُخرِج له الموت من بطن الأميرة تنيناً

لم يكن قد شك في وجوده

كل هؤلاء الفقراء سيصبحون ملوكاً

شرط أن يمتثلوا لاختبارات

ليس لله نفسه القدرة على اجتيازها

لن أخبرك بأنه وكَفّي في ذراعك

ثمة مَن يحلم أثناء عرس أخته

بضب أغراضه لبيت الزواج

وإلى أن أترجم حدوتة مليئة

«بالسكربينات» و«الجزادين»

«كلسات» لابد من دفسها في «الشناتي»

و«كبوط» من الفرو أيضاً

خليق بمناخاتك الباردة

سيكون علي أن أتململ أمام الشاشة

لتظهري وحيدة بحجم عقلة إصبع

خطواتك السريعة المثابرة

ووجهك الواشي بجدية المعلمات

لحظة ينفك سحر العجوز القبيح جداً

فيصير شاطراً ليس في حسنه وجماله

يصبح بريق عيني طفلة

تعيد اكتشاف المشي في الممر

قدماها الحافيتان قطرة

في بحر فردتي حذاء

الحواديت تتكرر

وثمة دائرة كالكون

قطرها دمعة ستُذرَف في الشتاء

*

وأنت أول الأمر جلد على عظم

لم يكن لقماش فستانك نفس النعومة

لعلني انتظرت ملمساً مغايراً

ما كدت أقنع أن هذا العضو متناهي الوداعة

الأطرى من فُلة وليس أكبر كثيراً

خرج من طياته طفلان

وإلى أن شعرت به يستميت

ممعناً في عصيان أمرك بالانتظار

دونما يبتعد خجلك عن قوائم السرير

ولا حاجتك هذه التي تميتني

إلى إرادة فوق إرادتك

ثم يغلبك آخر الأمر مخلّفاً عقصة هزيمة

تليق بوجهك الموسيقي

كنت حائراً في تأويل النشيج

وضربات قبضاتك على كتفيّ

ضوء بلا ظل يلمّنا

ذكرني بأسطح المنمنمات

الغائص سحرها في الحزن

ولم أرد شيئاً سوى أن أظل مشتاقاً إلينا

أنا وأنت

في العتمة هذه

يوم نزفت يداي على قماش الفستان

*

الآن مع ضفدعي جلوت الحاوية

عن الطعام المتاح من صور أو نصوص

بالكاد تقيم أود القبائل المشردة وراءنا

مثل رُحّل ما بعد حداثيين ينقّبون في الصحارى

عن ينابيع لا تظل شخصية حتى النهاية

يستدعي طريقنا خطوط الأغاني (أو دروب الأحلام)

أقصد المسارات الموسمية التي يتبعها السكان الأصليون

للقارة الأسترالية

مغنين مثلنا بلغات نصف حية

هكذا مع ضفدعي اعتدت أن أقود جحافل

تتكاثر باطراد ولا تشبع أبداً

دونما تعرف دائماً أي بقعة من «القرص الصلب»

يجب أن تُغير عليها

حريصيَن على رصد معدلات الآبار

ودرجة انحدار الأرض

أن الشَمَال في خرائط الإدريسي أسفل البوصلة

أن الوجه المخبّأ في المنمنمات هو النبي

أن الهلال أصلاً راية سبأية

مؤونة القبائل وحسرة فراقك

كأن الضفدع في ضلوعي يحتضر

كأن حية في السهوب لا تسعى على ترقوة

مبذورة بالشامات

*

لكي أغيّر جواً يغص بالنقيق (هذا المستنقع الآسن)

أجرجر جعبتي على سلالم عمارتنا بعد الإفطار

متناسياً أن للدفتر الأحمر المائل على جدارها

حجم أسودك وماركته

وقبل أن تطوقني كتيبة الانتحاريين

بالرشّاشات البلاستك و«البُنْب» العنقودي

أخط طريقي إلى الجراج على رصيف مكدس

يشبه صالون البدروم المطل عليه

ناوياً أن «أفوّل» في أول محطة

وأشد الحزام على صوت «عدوية»

لعل إنجليزيتك التي يذوبني نطقها تستوطن أذني

في الشوارع الدامسة «للمعادي»

لعل في انعكاسات الفتارين

طيف مخلوق برمائي قابلته تائهاً

وما كدنا نتعارف حتى صرنا صديقين

هناك بالقرب من عمودك الفقري

(ما كان يصح أن يجول بخاطرك أنني لم أنتبه له)

الحبيبات أسماك أو طيور

إما يُمِتنني غرقاً أو يوسّعن رئتي

والآن تحت ماء بركة أتدلى من حافتها

كيف يمكنني التنفس بهذه البساطة

أنت خرافية الجمال بالتأكيد

وإن رأى الناس في بلادنا غير ذلك

أنت الشيء الذي يبصره البدناء غليظو الملامح

حين يتأملون الشروق على الشاطئ

وقد باعوا أرواحهم لشيطان الأمل

*

هسسست الآن واسمعيني

برواز الضحية الذي يثير غثيانك

ليس سوى «شباك دردشة» جنب ضفدع غضبان

بك أو بدونك يفضي إلى أمنيات

الملهمات مَن نستمني على أشباحهن

ولا شيء في الدنيا أقبح

من فريسة لا تحتفل باصطيادها

الملهمات مثل مصاصي الدم يبتن في التوابيت

لكن العشق أنسب موضوع للكتابة

وليس أروح «للكيبورد» من غرام مؤجل

لأن الأثير رمادي بما يناسب

خمسة عشر عاماً من الاحتياج

الملهمات يمُتن مقدماً وأنت ستُقتلين

بدم بارد تحت ناموسية هفهافة

كان لابد أن تتوقي للصفع والسوقية

للإهانة المبللة بالحليب

كان لابد من سلخ هذا الجلد

وسبر ماورائه بسكين المطبخ

وصولاً إلى ثلاث كليات

أعصر أكبرها حتى أنتزع شهقة الولاء المطلق

في تمثيل أوبرالي لامتلاكك

أنت كلك على بعضك هكذا لست إلا

وبيدين داميتين وأسنان قادرة

على قضم أطراف شعرك المعرضة للتقصف

وإيداعها مخازن لا تشبع من عظامك

بيدين ليس أحن منهما خلف المحيط

وسط رشاش أحمر وأسود وoff white

وعرق لا يرد عشقَه هوسُ الإزالة

أثبّت انفلاتك في نقطة واحدة

لأسحبك من أذن لا يجب أن يضيرك

أن طرفها مدى العمر طابع بريد

كان لابد من كل هذه الأشياء

لأعرف في عينيك ذهول المهاجرين

وأسمع في بعض ضحكاتك فقط

مرارة ما ادخرتِه من موت

أسكّن أوجاع ضرس حالم بالانخلاع

في قصائدك

وأمارس أبوة حُرمتُها مرتين

ممزوجة بالشبق المباح

على التواءة وركين لهما ما لبطن الرضيع

من أمومة

لماذا كان لابد أن تروحي أيضاً

لأعود بعد هذا إلى ضفدعي الغضبان

أغريه بقوالب سكر رومانتيكي

لم تكن لتذوب في لعابك

أو بسحبة أنملة تستبطن الحنين

عليه أن يجد معي وسط شتات الجحافل

فتاة أسقطت السماد عن ظهر حمارها

هسسست اسكتي ولا كلمة

فتاة بوجه سارح على «زراعية» كالميناء

هرعت تاركة حملها الثمين حين انتصب الحمار

فأدركت أن في الدنيا أعضاء جنسية

وتعلمت أن تخبئ حياءها في الكتابة

وحده خوفها تلبّس خرائط

مازلت أحبو إلى مكاني في خطوطها

بديع

عادة

عار

شاحب

ملآن

ألفة النعوت شيء بدل لا شيء

لكنها لا تشبه احتضانك

ومن تصرخ أبسط الألفاظ من فمه الدقيق

بأنه جاء من حيث جاء أبي

عليه فعلاً أن يكون لي

أطمئن نفسي بأن كل هؤلاء الصاخبين حولك

ليسوا سوى التطور الانتقائي للسماد ذاته

السماد الذي جلست بجانبه تبكين

ولم يجئ سواي عبر غيط أراه فوسفورياً

ليشد من أزرك بتقبيل يدك

هسسست أرجوك اسمعيني

الألم ليس شرطاً معرفياً ليس ملوى لأوتار الوعي

الألم فقط ضرورة تقنية

لتلاصقنا الآن عبر قارتين

كان لابد أن نتألم كلانا

لكي أصبح بطلاً مجنحاً بالسيبرالكس

وتصبحي امرأة ناضجة وعملية

تلفظها المقاهي في الخامسة صباحاً

*

أحلم الآن أن ينام الضفدع

وأنا أطوي الشاشة حتى النهاية

فأشد الغطاء على كمبيوتر نعسان

وإلى حيث أحصل على منمنمة بديعة

من شاهنامة ضائعة

أنظر إليها وأندهش مثل راشد صديقي

في نهاية الركعة الأخيرة من صلاة الجماعة

حين يسأل

على من يسلم كل هؤلاء

فأخالنا أنا وأنت من شخوصها

رماة السهام والسلاطين

العشاق المطهمون مع ندمائهم

حصان باهر يطارد سحابة

طافياً في نقوش كأنها السجاجيد

داخل برواز لا يدّعي الاستقامة

ألوانه بقع من بشرتينا

ومن حولنا ذبذبات الخط الفارسي

مرتبكة الاتجاهات

فقط حياة لا يستبد بها المنظور

هي كهرباء الحركة الثابتة في المسافة

كأننا نقوش أصابتها طفرة جينية

فهجرنا أندادنا المتشبثين بالسطوح

وقبِلنا بدكنة الألوان في مكان آخر

المهم أن نتذكر

أن وجودنا لا يعتمد على التظليل

ولن يُنقص من شأننا أبداً

أننا ثنائيا الأبعاد

*

لتحميل ديوان “يظهر ملاك” كاملاً

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Poisoned roses of revolution

Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti, Saqr Abdelwahid and Youssef Rakha

“Writing,” says Hussein bin Hamza in the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar, “that brings back to our minds the eternal question of the danger posed to literature by grand issues and fast-paced events…”

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.

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No.3 by Nazem Elsayed

Suddenly (film)
Image via Wikipedia

 

The wall suddenly. And the always smiling entrance to the building. And the pipes that raise the water in their thin frame. And the stairs that count the steps of ascenders. And the darkness of the first floor. And the myth of the last floor. And the circling, wound around like nostalgia. And the pavement that lies panting on both sides of the road. And people for the sake of people. And provincial malice. And they tell of the grandmother who went with her bones to the grave. And the boy who used to hate the night and now loves it. And once he thought night ascended from the head, the way morning comes out of the eyes. And the trees that scurry past like a herd of madmen. And the isolation of corners. And the solitude of pathways. And the frankness of roofs. And patience in the larynx. And the missing step. And the put-off step. And how walking repeats the feet. And the flaccid fist in the chest. And heavy bodies in the imagination. And burnt shadows on the floor. And miracles in the head. And abrupt whiteness. And silly whiteness. And the man progressing and falling down behind him. Land wherever he goes. And the drowned sea being more than one person drowned. And all those who are born suddenly and die at leisure. And his eyes which transport across the air without a face. And people seeing him through them. And they shining cheerfully like new shoes. And dying while open. And dying too late. And coming out of the face like a scream.

Translated by Youssef Rakha

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Centenary of Mahfouz

Al Ahram Weekly, December 2001

Revealing conflicts

Interviews by Youssef Rakha


Gaber Asfour

“He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live”

Writing is a vision. Its value depends on the depth, totality, diversity and richness of that vision. And it is through an assessment of all these elements that one distinguishes between a writer who rushes past, leaving nothing behind, and one who makes history, marking the beginnings and ends of literary epochs and schools through settling on new points of departure, or carrying existing traditions to unprecedented destinations. Naguib Mahfouz (whose 90th birthday we celebrate) is among those with whom writing is transformed, its presence, thanks to their creative contribution, gaining in depth and variety, and reaching out to undiscovered horizons. He is a decisive landmark in the history of Arabic writing, and a luminous point in that of world literature. He belongs to us as much as to humanity at large: his embodiment of our troubles, articulation of our dreams and awareness of our specificity make him triumphantly local; while the universal human paradigms and events he depicts make him a world figure to be reckoned with. He is Egyptian, Arab, human, international: his writing integrates all that connects a human being to a fellow human being through space and time, and across differences of language, religion, ethnicity and nationality.

This is why his readership grows increasingly through the world, the number of his translations, in every language, rising. The tendency is not merely a consequence of his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1988 (for how many writers received the prize over its century-long history, only to sink into obscurity soon afterwards) but, rather, a result of the penetrating power of his writing, which has proven capable of reaching human beings everywhere. That writing questions the human condition with respect to a range of issues relating to its most vital aspects, from the universal to the socio-political, particularly in their multifold connections to values of freedom, equality and progress. These are the values celebrated by Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, which he has not stopped writing for more than half a century. Thus he remains faithful to the art of literature, his vocation of choice, devoted to the toil it requires without once giving in to life’s spurious temptations, unflinching in his dogged exploration of a human consciousness bound by a place and a time. He breaks into terrain filled with land mines, giving voice to those human discourses repressed in the name of politics, society or religion. He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live, unaware of our presence in it.

The beginning of all this is the exceptional talent that accompanies his creative experience, penetrating to the universal root that resides deep within the essence of the local. The result is a human richness that remains inseparable from cultural specificity: thus does the international become an attribute of national identity. It would not be a digression to mention how, while receiving medical treatment in America, my doctor stopped to laud Naguib Mahfouz when he found out that I was an Egyptian teaching literature in the United States. And when I asked why he liked Mahfouz’s books (which he had read in English translation), the doctor replied that the reason was that they provided him with knowledge about Egypt and Arabs, while at the same time deepening his knowledge of himself. A statement to that effect was used as a promotion of Mahfouz’s books (20 of which have so far been translated into English) at Waterstone’s bookshops. Very similar words, in fact, are used to describe Mahfouz on the Nobel web site: his works speak to us all, the site says, as much as they speak to Arabs. So prevalent is this view of Mahfouz, and so often have I encountered it that I feel a distinct sense of pride knowing that I am his compatriot, that I have met him personally, that I have read every one of his works in its original language and that, in my own research, I study “the age of the novel,” the novel he did so much to create.


The abstract quality

Mohamed Berrada

 

“Throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad , young hero of the Trilogy: ‘What is truth and non-truth? What connection is there between reality and what goes on in our heads? What is the value of history?’”

When I arrived in Cairo at the end of January 1989 the city’s pale winter sunlight was waiting for me. Radiant and sparkling on the surface of a Nile that had regained its full strength after several lean years, it felt like a deliverance from the cold and the persistent rain of Paris and Rabat, as well as an invitation to move. Waiting for my appointment with Naguib Mahfouz, my mind went back to the first time I had seen him on the no. 6 Ataba to Agouza bus when I was in my first year at university studying Literature. I had started reading his novels after seeing an article by Taha Hussein that praised them for their descriptions and for the way in which Mahfouz was able to make his characters live. Mahfouz was wearing dark glasses when I first saw him, but I recognised him because of the prominent mole below his nose. Sometimes I saw him talking with another passenger who had also recognised him, but I did not dare to talk to him myself. Instead, I read what the press had to say about him, and I read his novels and short stories…

From my return to Morocco in 1960 to the beginning of the 1980s, I read all Mahfouz’s novels and short stories as they appeared. As historical events and disappointments piled up, this author always knew how to open up new areas in writing that seemed to collect the echoes of Egyptian life and transform them into an ever more complex fictional world. In the 1950s Mahfouz had often been accused of being unable to push his vision beyond the timid ambitions of the urban petite bourgeoisie; but I found in these new texts a willingness to deal with the new questions that experience was now posing. In so doing, and by rephrasing these social questions in symbolic, imaginative form, he removed them from the realm of simple fantasy to that of disciplined artistic imagination, which would in turn become part of the way in which society saw itself. Perhaps throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad, the young hero of the Trilogy: “What is truth and non-truth? What connection is there between reality and what goes on in our heads? What is the value of history? Myself, what am I?”

Reading Autumn Quail, Adrift on the Nile, Miramar, Karnak, Love under the Rain, Under the Bus Shelter, Stories of our Quarter and Wars’ Song in Rabat, I got used to living with shattered illusions and to questioning what was presented as historical truth. When I met Mahfouz in 1989, I spoke to him about the change I had detected in these novels, which now seemed more willing to go beneath the surface of things. “But this is true of all my novels,” he said. “When I try to read my novels, or rather when I remember them since I never re- read them, I find that I have always had two preoccupations: both a powerful interest in reality and an attempt to get at the forces that that surface reality hides.”

…Of all Mahfouz’s novels, the ones that stay with me are The Beggar, Wedding Song and The Thief and the Dogs. A tight thread connects these three books together, I think, and draws them back to the invisible “secret wound” at the base of all Mahfouz’s writings. It is a thread that is tautly stretched between uncontrollable impulses on the one hand and melancholy abandon on the other, a retreat towards the calm of death the better to observe the world of the living.

 



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


In The Beggar, the lawyer Omar El- Hamzaoui breaks the mould of an uneventful life, carrying the reader off into a journey of doubt and emotional anarchy. The framework, conventions and values that have organised his life up to now are suddenly overthrown by an absurd feeling of unease that roots itself deep within him. The doctors are helpless; he seems to be in good health, but he is nevertheless being eaten away by anxiety and a feeling of futility. As a way of escape, he sets out to experience everything that goes against propriety and married life, losing himself in licentiousness and sexual pleasure in the hope of discovering the origin of his deep unease. However, his nightly adventures themselves disappear in the morning light, and he remains absent to the world. Repeating the words of a singer — “If you really want me, why have you abandoned me?” — he seems to have become a dead man among the living. Even when he meets his old friend the militant leftist Osman Khalil as the latter leaves prison, he cannot find himself again. He admires the energy of his friend, whose militant ardour years in prison have done nothing to cool, but he, Omar El-Hamzaoui, is undermined from within, like a body that has neither natural impulses nor desire. A dead beggar among the living, he now calls upon death to give him a taste for living again and the feeling that he belongs in the world.

The value of The Beggar does not lie in the dialogue it contains about the superiority of science over art in the technological age, which is a theme that is in any case exhausted. Instead, it lies in the fact that this novel introduced the Arab reader to the opposition between nihilism, or a life without horizons, and the belief that the world and society are open to change. In this novel, the latter belief is no longer tenable, being neither as full nor as positive as reforming discourse would have it be. Instead, the 1960s citizen has discovered his insignificance in the face of the nationalist State’s repressive machinery. Not even free to be himself, he is forced into evasion, silence and the silencing of his conscience.

In the Beggar, as in other novels by Mahfouz, a sense of metaphysical anguish, of a journey to the ends of the self, of a revolt against the kind of rationality that disciplines and justifies, is added to the writing’s social themes, this attraction to extreme states mixing Mahfouz’s description of the existing social world with the kind of imaginative vision that changes and enlarges that world’s limits. Mahfouz does not shy away from presenting large issues that lie buried in the unconscious… But even beyond this audacious, creative vision, what he is always looking for is ethical renewal. As he once said to me, “art sometimes seems to want to destroy morality, but if one looks at it more closely, one will always find that what it is calling for is a new morality and not morality’s destruction. Take the poetry of Abu Nawas. People call this licentious, but in fact it is a poetry that is calling for a new morality, one that has been freed from the taboos of the past.”

Extracted from (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated) by Mohamed Berrada, translated by David Tresilian.


Persistent questions

Soliman Fayyad

 

“His principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch.”

Naguib Mahfouz and I are linked, above all, by friendship. In this capacity, though, I maintain the right to silence. Reflections on a personal relationship, however interesting, are not for public consumption. I will therefore give you my opinion of him as a public figure and a writer, making a few impersonal, though I hope significant, remarks. It is worth adding that these statements are conceived irrespective of his status and his achievement, they are an individual’s observations, as it were, and they no doubt benefit from my association with the Harafish seminar and my keeping up with his work through the years.

I first read Mahfouz in Mansoura, in the late 1940s, coursing through Khan Al- Khalili and Zuqaq Al-Madaq. And to say that the realism and immediacy of these books struck me is to contribute nothing new. I will venture a remark relating to genre, rather, since the form in which a writer constructs his literary edifices can sometimes throw light on that writer’s achievement. Mahfouz, I think, is a much better novelist than a short story writer. Occasionally, no doubt, as in the case of the very memorable short story Al-Khalaa (The Waste Land), he will produce a museum piece, as it were. But more often his stories read like fragments of unfinished novels or stray snapshots of everyday life, inarticulate steps that lead nowhere. He is, foremost, a novelist. And his contribution is best understood in this context.

My second remark concerns Mahfouz’s earliest beginnings as a writer. Up until the early 1940s, when he launched his career in fiction with the ancient Egyptian novels and the early short stories, Mahfouz wrote philosophical articles, pondering purely intellectual questions in an abstract framework. And even though these magazine pieces were already gaining something of a reputation, it is little known that he started out as a writer of non-fiction. This fact is relevant to his entire corpus, since an intellectual, abstract strain runs through it to the end. At university he studied philosophy, you see, and his world view incorporated a significant historical dimension; thus, even in his least intellectually-minded works, he was deeply interested in history and the way it played out in the lives of the individuals, families and larger communities that populate his works, however subtly this interest might be expressed in some instances. History is always on his mind.

This makes of him a thinker. And — here we come to the third, important remark one might make about the man and his work — he is primarily a political thinker, someone with an articulate and integrated vision that takes in the historical moment and its implications for society. Indeed this provides a clue as to why the novel remained his most efficient vehicle, for the scope of the novel affords ample opportunity for the expression and formulation of such a vision. In a novel, Mahfouz has often said, one can combine poetry with philosophy and even science. Narrative, for him, is a mechanism of covert social-political commentary, operating in the framework of the novel, irrespective of the external trappings of the story that it tells.

Mahfouz’s literature deals with three modes of human interaction, three distinct circles encompassed by a single setting, the city of Cairo: the realm of state-employed bureaucrats; the world of the futwat (strongmen who levied a form of tax, itawa, on the inhabitants of certain popular neighbourhoods in return for alleged or actual protection against rival strongmen); and the life of middle-class, urban families. In these three modes he explored the depths and breadths not only of human character but of a number of overriding ideas that went into the making of his vision. Now in everyday life, Mahfouz may have been cautious about voicing his views on politics. But in all three fictional circles his vision turns out to be essentially political. Mahfouz’s principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch; these are his most prevalent themes. Power and its workings, in a social context, over time, is the fundamental precept of Mahfouz’s literary project.

The fourth and last remark I want to make is that no other writer, with the possible exception of Yehya Haqqi, was as eager to spend time with intellectuals and keep up with their affairs. And in the case of Mahfouz this tendency is part and parcel of his literary endeavour: he saw writing principally as a means of communication. He never cut himself off from social life. His friends included artists as well as writers, and his interaction with the likes of Tawfik Saleh and Ahmed Mazhar not only gave him a broad perspective on his social and political surroundings but provided him with what he saw as essential to his writing: immediate feedback. Mahfouz’s social role affords yet another, peculiar insight into his achievement. He was never as interested in the enduring, lasting qualities of literature as he was in the task at hand. In fact he once told me that, so long as a narrative of his was read and its ideas communicated, he didn’t care if it was then used as wrapping paper for vegetables. Literature to him is essentially a social message, and he writes to be read in the here and now, not necessarily for eternity or posterity. It is ironic, therefore, that of his generation of authors — writers like Mohamed Afifi and Adel Kamel, who emerged at the same time, were soon to disappear, never to be heard of again — he is the one who lived on. Single- handedly, and without the slightest illusion of grandeur, his is one of the great achievements of our times.

 


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Virtually there

Office

Office

As I write this, for perhaps the fifth time this morning, the novelist, essayist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri has updated his Facebook status with the same line of dialogue from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy”; that is how he types the words, without capitals, incessantly repeating them in obsessive typographic experimentation.
It is but one – somewhat unsettling – example of the kind of intellectual engagement afforded by the most popular of all web sites. A kind made possible only by the Arabs’ most recently adopted literary genre: never mind the fact that Zikri happens to quote an English-language source on this occasion; over the last two years or so, the status update has arguably become the best read form of Arabic literature. Far more so than the tweet, which tends to rely on external links and operates in a far less interactive space, the Arabic Facebook status update – together with the “comments” and “likes” it readily engenders – is increasingly the source, the reference and departure point, for all kinds of cultural debate. It can of course be about anything, and in miniature form it reproduces and replaces every kind of writing: the poem, the short story, the review, the opinion piece, even the interview – not to mention the quote and the song lyric. There are those who specialise in the status update, too: whether writers-journalists or not, they tend to affirm and/or parody those discourses whose original place is the café, the podium or the (cultural) pages of newspapers.
Where more space is needed for literary texts or items of journalism often previously published elsewhere, the mechanism of the “note” provides it; you seldom have to depart from the mother of all “social-networking” fora to read and respond to even those things published in print. And you can respond instantly: a white rectangle where you need only click for the cursor to start blinking positively invites you to do so. There are absolutely no limits on what you can say.
Provided you have the right friends, indeed, a quick run-through of your news feed – which comes with all such responses attached – should yield a more or less accurate picture of the culture scene in its totality. It is not so much objectionable as sacry that so much of what is talked about proves contentious. Besides quotes from the lyrics, Fairuz’s new album solicited discussions of whether or not the last surviving diva of Arab singing has retained her appeal, and to what extent the jazz-influenced music by her son, Ziyad Rahbani, has serviced weakening vocal abilities. It is fascinating to see how the vast majority of people will use Facebook not so much to communicate their views as to say what they feel they should say, even though they are under no compunction to say anything in particular: with very few exceptions, Fairuz’s phenomenal status was simply affirmed, again and again, without much argument as to why it should be.
Likewise any number of cultural topics: the evaluation by several fellow writers of a well-known humorist like Bilal Fadl, for example, or – most recently – whether or not prose poets should accept the offer of publication in a supplement of the state-supported magazine Ibdaa, which is edited by the most notorious of their detractors, the establishment figure Ahmad Abdelmotie Hegazi: scuffles over such issues of general and not so general interest abound; and where things get out of hand on the “wall”, people take it outside through the private messaging or chat facility, insulting each other to their heart’s content.
I am hard pressed to understand the implications of this trend, not only for individuals who express their shifting alliances by removing each other from friend lists or – occasionally – by luridly expressing their feelings on each other’s walls and then removing each other from friend lists, but equally for the functioning of culture itself. What is it that changes when the cultural operators, the figures and the stars, cease to see and be seen, turning into lines of text that twinkle, surrounded by no end of pictures and names, against a white background?
I think one thing that happens is that they become images of themselves; they become marketing devices in an ongoing, endless (self) advertisement; in strange and variously subtle ways they become their own brands. And they stand not for what they stand for but for how, through the medium of the status update, they choose to confirm and reconfirm it: the translator and novelist Nael El-Toukhy is the eternal cynic; the journalist and essayist Sayed Mahmoud is the go-to man for what is going on…
That said, it is the content of the culture scene reflected by Facebook that stimulates and disturbs. Last night the young writer Hilal Chouman summed it up beautifullyvin response to my own update asking why it must all remain so deadeningly dull: “The homeland God morality the Woman the past of the Left the present of the Left the future of the Left breaking taboos the young novel the poetic novel epics the novel of generations the relationship with place occupation normalization with Israel dialogue in standard Arabic dialogue in colloquial Arabic the correct idiom he fornicated he took pleasure she has too apples and the box of his penis the secrets of poetry and that which is not poetry poetry poetry modern poetry the static and the dynamic is the city dead a plastic city brutal capitalism the humanization of the murderer those around him weren’t bad but he wasn’t bad the invaders invasion from within etc etc etc…”

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عنبنا الترف

 

ردتك .. ولو كذاب

ردتك .. تطش بعمري صم عتاب

ردتك .. ولو شباك يملي حياتي تراب

 

ردتك ولو صبيًرة حمره .. تفيً وجهي من حكي الغيًاب

كذاب.. كذاب يا ثعلب عِنبنا الترف

ونعزًك ولو كذاب

دكيت بابي .. وعشبت بابي فرح

والخشب عطب وذاب

 

خدي اشتعل .. والروح شبت ورد فلفل

والتراجي ذابن بتيزاب

واصهلت مرجحت .. الكصايب يا حبيبي

يا حبيبي.. يا حبيبي

ومتت مثل الباب

جم دوب .. موكلنه القلب بطًل

ومنك تاب .. كذاب

يا قلبي يا ثعلب .. من قبل كذاب

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The Infrarealist Manifesto

GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN

first infrarealist manifesto

“It’s four light hours to the confines of the solar system; to the closest star, four light years. A disproportionate ocean of emptiness. But are we really sure there is only a void? We only know that there are no stars shining in that space. If they existed, would they be visible? And if there existed bodies that are neither luminous nor dark? Could it not be that on the celestial maps, the same as on those of Earth, the star-cities are indicated and the star-villages are omitted?”

— Soviet science fiction writers scratching their faces at midnight.

— The infrasuns (Drummond would say the happy proletarian fellows).

Peguero and Boris alone in a lumpen room having premonitions of the wonder behind the door.

— Free money.

*

Who has crossed the city and had, as the only music, the whistles of his fellow man, his own words of wonder and rage?

The handsome guy who didn’t know

that chicks’ orgasms are clitoral

(Look around, shit isn’t just in museums.) (A process of individual museumification.) (Certainty that everything is named, revealed.) (Fear of discovering.) (Fear of unforeseen imbalances.)

*

Our closest relatives:

snipers, country boys who smash up cheap cafés in Latin America, people who fall apart in supermarkets in their tremendous individuo-collective dilemmas; the impotence of action and the search (on individual levels or good and muddy with aesthetic contradictions) for poetic action.

*

Little bright stars eternally winking an eye at us from a place in the universe called Labyrinths.

— Nightclub of misery.

— Pepito Tequila sobbing his love for Lisa Underground.

— I suck it, you suck it, we suck it.

— And the Horror.

*

Curtains of water, cement or tin separate a cultural machinery that serves as the conscience or the ass of the dominant class from a living, annoying cultural happening, in constant death and birth, ignorant of the greater part of history and the fine arts (everyday creator of its insane history and its hallucinatory fine artz), body that suddenly feels new sensations in itself, product of an epoch in which we approach the shithouse or the revolution at 200 kph.

“New forms, strange forms,” as old Bertolt said, half curious, half cheerful.

*

Sensations don’t arise from nothingness (the obvious of obviousnesses) but from conditioned reality, in a thousand ways, as a constant flow.

— Multiple reality, you make us sick!

So it is possible that on the one hand one is born and on the other hand we’re in the front row for the death throes. Forms of life and forms of death pass daily through the retina. The constant crash gives life to infrarealist forms: THE EYE OF TRANSITION

*

They put the whole city in the nuthouse. Sweet sister, tank howls, hermaphrodite songs, diamond deserts, we’ll live only once and the visions, more complicated and slippery every day. Sweet sister, hitchhiking to Monte Albán[i]. Unbuckling their belts to water the corpses. It’s something at least.

*

And the good bourgeois culture? And academia and the arsonists? And the vanguard and its rearguard? And certain conceptions of love, nice scenery, the precise multinational Colt sidearm?

Like Saint-Just[ii] said to me in a dream I had a while ago: Even the heads of aristocrats can be our weapons.

*

— A good part of the world is being born and the other part is dying and we all know that we all have to live and we all die: in this there is no middle road.

Chirico[iii] says: thought needs to move away from everything called logic and common sense, to move away from all human obstacles in such a way that things take on a new look, as though illuminated by a constellation appearing for the first time. The infrarealists say: We’re going to stick our noses into all human obstacles, in such a way that things begin to move inside of us, a hallucinatory vision of mankind.

— The Constellation of the Beautiful Bird.

— The infrarealists propose Indianism to the world: a crazy, timid Indian.

— A new lyricism that’s beginning to grow in Latin America sustains itself in ways that never cease to amaze us. The entrance to the work is the entrance to adventure: the poem as a journey and the poet as a hero who reveals heroes. Tenderness as an exercise in speed. Respiration and heat. Experience shot, structures that devour themselves, insane contradictions.

The poet is interfering, the reader will have to interfere for himself.

“erotic books full of misspellings”

*

The THOUSAND DRAWN-AND-QUARTERED VANGUARDS OF THE SEVENTIES are our ancestors

99 flowers open like an open head

Slaughters, new concentration camps

White subterranean rivers, violet winds

These are hard times for poetry, some say, sipping tea, listening to music in their apartments, talking (listening) to the old masters. These are hard times for mankind, we say, coming back to the barricades after a workday full of shit and tear gas, discovering/creating music even in apartments, spending all day watching the cemeteries-that-expand, where they hopelessly drink a cup of tea or get drunk on pure rage or the inertia of the old masters.

HORA ZERO[iv] are our ancestors

((Raise arsonist kids, get burned))

We’re still in the Quaternary Period. We’re still in the Quaternary Period?

Pepito Tequila kisses the phosphorescent nipples of Lisa Underground and heads off for a beach where black pyramids sprout up.

*

I repeat:

The poet as a hero who reveals heroes, like the fallen red tree that announces the start of a forest.

— Attempts at an ethic-aesthetic are paved with betrayals or pathetic survivals.

— And it is the individual who could walk a thousand kilometers but inevitably the road will eat him.

— Our ethic is the Revolution, our aesthetic is Life: one-and-the-same.

*

For the bourgeoisie and the petite-bourgeoisie, life is a party. They have one every weekend. The proletariat doesn’t have parties. Just funerals with rhythm. That’s going to change. The exploited are going to throw a big party. Memory and guillotines. Sensing it, acting it out on certain nights, inventing edges and humid corners for it, like caressing the acid eyes of the new spirit.

*

Movement of the poem through the seasons of rebellion: poetry producing poets producing poems producing poetry. No electric alley/the poet with his arms separated from his body/the poem moving slowly from his Vision to his Revolution. The alley is a complex point. “We’re going to invent it so as to discover its contradiction, its invisible forms of negation, even to clarify it.” A journey of the act of writing through zones not at all favorable to the act of writing.

Rimbaud, come home!

Subvert the everyday reality of modern poetry. The chains that lead to the poem’s circular reality. A good reference: Kurt Schwitters. Lanke trr gll, or, upa kupa arggg, happens in the official line, phonetic investigators encoding the howl. The bridges of Nova Express are anti-codifying: let him scream, let him scream (please don’t go pulling out pencils or little notebooks, don’t record it, if you want to participate scream along), so let him scream, to see the look on his face when it’s over, what incredible thing happen to us.

Our bridges to unknown seasons. The poem interrelating reality and unreality.

*

Convulsively.

*

What can I ask of present-day Latin American painting? What can I ask of the theater?

It is more revealing and more evocative to stand in a park devastated by smog and watch people cross the avenues in groups (that contract and expand), the avenues, where drivers as much as pedestrians feel the urge to return to their hovels, when the murderers come out and the victims stalk them.

What stories are painters really telling me?

The interesting void, fixed form and color, at best a parody of movement. Canvases that will serve only as bright advertisements in the rooms of engineers and doctors who collect them.

The painter adapts to a society that is every day more of a “painter” than he is, and there he finds himself disarmed and registers as clown.

If painting X is found in some street by Mara, that painting acquires the status of an amusing, communicative thing; in a salon it’s as decorative as bourgeois wrought iron garden chairs/a question of the retina?/yes and no/but it’d be better to find (and systematize according to chance for awhile) the unleashing factor, class-conscious, a one hundred percent deliberate deed, in juxtaposition to the values of “work” which both precede and condition it.

 

The painter gives up his studio and ANY status quo and fills his head with wonder/or takes up chess like Duchamp/a self-taught painting/And a painting of poverty, free or rather cheap, unfinished, collaborative, of questioning participation, physically extended and spiritually unlimited.

The best Latin American painting is that which is still being made at unconscious levels, the game, the party, the experiment that gives us a real vision of what we are and opens us to what we can be; the best Latin American painting is what we paint in the greens, reds, and blues on our faces, to recognize ourselves in the incessant creation of the group.

*

Try daily to leave everything behind.

May architects give up the building of inward-looking scenes and open their hands (or make fists, depending on the place) toward that outer space. A wall and a roof acquire utility not when they’re used just for sleeping or avoiding rain, but rather when they establish, for example, from the everyday act of dreaming, conscious bridges between man and his creations or the momentary impossibility of these.

In architecture and sculpture the infrarealists start from two points: the barricade and the bed.

*

The true imagination is that which destroys, elucidates, injects emerald microbes into other imaginations. In poetry and in whatever else, the entrance into the work has to already be the way into adventure. Create the tools for everyday subversion. The human being’s subjective seasons, with their gigantic, beautiful, obscene trees like experimental laboratories. Watch, glimpse parallel and heart-rending situations as a giant scratch on your chest, on your face. Endless analogy of gestures. There are so many that when new ones appear we don’t even notice, even though we’re making/watching them in front of a mirror. Stormy nights. Perception opens by means of an ethic-aesthetic carried to the limit.

*

— Galaxies of love are appearing in the palms of our hands.

— Poets, let down your hair (if you have any)

— Burn your nonsense and start loving until you come up with priceless poems

— We don’t want kinetic paintings but enormous kinetic sunsets

— Horses running 500 kilometers an hour

— Squirrels of fire hopping through trees of fire

— A bet to see who blinks first, between the nerve and the sleeping pill.

*

Risk is always somewhere else. The true poet is the one who’s always letting go of himself. Never too much time in the same place, like guerrillas, like UFOs, like the white eyes of prisoners serving life sentences.

*

Fusion and explosion from two shores: creation like a decisive and open graffiti by a crazy kid.

Not at all mechanical. Scales of amazement. Somebody, maybe Bosch, smashes the aquarium of love. Free money. Sweet sister. Visions frivolous like corpses. Little boys jerking off from kisses until December.

*

At two in the morning, after having been at Mara’s house, we (Mario Santiago and some of us) heard laughter coming from the penthouse of a 9 story building. They didn’t stop, they kept laughing and laughing while below we slept propped up in various phone booths. There came a moment when only Mario was still paying attention to the laughter (the penthouse is a gay bar or something and Darío Galicia had told us that it’s always watched by the cops). We made phone calls but our coins turned into water. The laughter continued. After we left that neighborhood Mario told me that actually no one had been laughing, that it was recorded laughter, and up there in that penthouse, some stragglers or maybe a single homosexual had silently listened to that record and made us listen to it.

— The death of the swan, the swan song, the last song of the black swan, IS NOT in the Bolshoi but in the intolerable pain and beauty of the streets.

— A rainbow that starts in a grindhouse theater and ends in a factory on strike.

— May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. May it never kiss us.

— We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming.

— A poor lonely cowboy that comes back home, what a wonder.

*

Make new sensations appear—Subvert daily life.

O.K.

GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN

HIT THE ROAD

—Roberto Bolaño, Mexico, 1976

(translation by Tim Pilcher)


[i] A large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.[ii] A French revolutionary and close friend of Robespierre who was heavily involved in the Reign of Terror. Immediately following the Terror he was sentenced to death by guillotine at the hands of the National Convention who feared his fiery rhetoric that led to so much bloodshed.

[iii] Giorgio de Chirico. An Italian painter best known for his early surrealist paintings.

[iv] Hora Zero: An avant-garde poetry movement founded in Peru in the 1970’s.

Source: http://launiversidaddesconocida.wordpress.com/infrarealism/manifesto-english/

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from Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dogs

GODZILLA IN MEXICO

Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
Ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Translated by Laura Healy

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الطربوش: قصة

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

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The Three Masks of Yasser Abdellatif



It took Youssef Rakha nearly a decade to reread Yasser Abdellatif’s only novel to date, Qanoun al wirathah (Law of inheritance, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2002, a third edition of which appeared last month), but together with the 41-year-old writer’s second collection of poems, Jawlah layliyah (Night tour, Miret, 2009), that impossibly condensed autobiography prompted a heartfelt exchange



I started writing at a very early age and I don’t know of any motives behind it. I was 15 at most and there was no theoretical background at all in the process. I wrote short stories which only two of my friends read. At university the practise developed. It was a chance to find out about new books, and at the Faculty of Arts I met with a group of student writers from different departments like Ahmad Yamani from Arabic, Mohammad Metwalli from English, Hoda Hussein from French and Sayed Mahmoud from History; I was at the Department of Philosophy where I met a politicised, Marxist friend whose name was Nasser Ismail; he helped to direct my reading even though he did not try to enlist me the way leftist students usually did to newcomers on campus. All of which was in the presence of professors like Hassan Hanafi, Nassr Abuzaid, Mahmoud Ragab, Abdel-Mohsen Badr, Abdel-Moneim Telleimah, Gaber Asfour and Sayed El-Bahrawi: while we differed with and around those figures, a true literary climate formed for a period of time at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first story I wrote with any degree of maturity was published in Rose al Yusif magazine on a double page spread with illustrations by the great artist Tad. I was 20. From then on I started dealing with myself as a “professional” writer, to the point of being too proud to participate in the university’s literary competitions…

Novelist (Chronicler)

I did not move from poetry to narrative, the opposite is what happened. I started with short stories. By the time I met Ahmad Yamani and Mohammad Metwalli, who had covered much ground in the prose poem, I was writing a poetic form of the short story, perhaps under the influence of Yahya El-Tahir Abdallah. Through my relationship with them and under the influence of C P Cavafy in the translations of Bashir El-Seba’i and the Antipoesía of Latin America in those of Ahmad Hassan, I discovered the poetic energy of narrative and so moved onto the prose poem.

According to Qanoun al wirathah, one of only three slim volumes by Yasser Abdellatif, life consists of a series of melancholy “old stories” that manifest momentarily like LSD flashbacks. Abdellatif’s narrator never says this in so many words, but in a sense it is the point of the book. In writing that eschews all but the subtlest emotions, there is something elegiac about the way people come briefly into focus, only to blur back into a backdrop so pointillistic it appears almost clear. They are Nubian immigrants to Cairo, teenage pioneers of the recreational Parkinol craze, or intellectuals-to-be studying humanities. There is no connection between them, no pattern in which they fit, apart from the narrator’s own harshly disciplined consciousness.

An eclectic approach to narrative – and Abdellatif differentiates his work from fiction, insisting that narrative is what it is: Qanoun al wirathah develops a declension of the Sixties legacy represented for him by Ghalib Halassa and Abdel-Hakim Qassim, who are different from each other in subject matter and tone (and not always as Latifian as you would think from the way Abdellatif talks about them) but are perhaps the least two sensational novelists of their time writing in Arabic. In rich, measured prose reflecting an extremely personal sense of the language, each processes the world without artifice, without recourse to drama and with only a modicum of storyline, if that. Each laboriously constructs his passages, devising rather than giving in to spontaneity.

Here too structure emerges directly from words and sentences, from the insane drive to match consciousness to what is being said, and above all the insanely rigorous selection of what is worth saying – to my mind the principal reason Abdellatif has written so little over the years. The “I” of the writer, a Cairo University graduate of Nubian extraction whose formative years involved much recreational drug use – notably in Maadi, a potentially cult setting very different from the upper class-and-expatriate suburb associated with the place name – is identical to that of the narrator.

Is it any surprise that, between the first half of the 20th century (when his family first settled in Cairo) and the 1991 Gulf War (while he was a Cairo University student), past numerous anecdotes and settings and people, what emerges from Qanoun al wirathah is the writer’s own weirdly amorphous self, an ego so truly individual it is not only truly but also very effectively wary of narcissism?

“To look at yourself directly in the mirror,” Abdellatif declaims at one point, “is not to see it. Instead you see your emotion towards it, which lends the picture before you beauty in every case. But to look at yourself in the mirror through another mirror, then you see it in isolation from it[self]… as a subject outside of you… Rest content with this double reflection of your picture, and you will learn not to love yourself with that blind love, to catch it every time it tries to make itself beautiful, and to force it under your whips until you divest it of all that doesn’t belong to it.”

Right after that passage, and without “the flow” being disrupted, three short lines of dialogue between an older French Canadian woman and the narrator make it clear that he is scared of madness and has already tried to kill himself once. A frustrated sexual encounter – and yet another story never told – the anecdote trails off into a series of resonant if inevitably inconclusive reminiscences of desire.

***

Poet (Witness)

I wrote Qanoun al wiratha with a view to completing a “major work” by coming at autobiography from oblique angles; in it I realised all my narrative convictions up until that time, the end of the 1990s. I finished it in 2000 and published it in 2002, and I believe I accomplished in it exactly what I intended. At present I have almost completed a book of short stories – I like that form a lot, and I don’t feel it is done justice at any level – but at the same time I have a project for a new novel that will be completely different from Qanoun al wiratha. Increasingly I believe that my poetry or my poetic project, if I could exaggerate enough to call it that, will neither develop nor have legitimacy except in the light of my narrative writing. I feel that in order to write a good poem, I have to write a lot of narrative first.

Qanoun al wirathah recalls the early work of Paul Auster and (without the sentimentality) the rhythmic flow of Beatnik prose. At times evocative of Haruki Murakami in his naturalist mode, except for chronological consistency, it seems to abide by the rules of the Japanese I-Novel. One thing, however – Abdellatif’s core quality, I think, which he finds sufficiently equivocal to equivocally deny – sets it apart from all possible kinships in the realm of the novel: it reads like poetry.

Far too much in it is far too condensed to be pure (even poetic) narrative, and its stories – old and melancholy or not – are seldom told to the end. The intensity, the abrupt shifts in perspective, the sheer weight of each phrase, and then the relative lack of concern for cognitive as opposed to visceral sense – the way the meaning of a given statement depends on what it evokes, not what it says – all seem far closer to the poetic than the narrative as such. Of course, this is not to equate the Latifian with the lyrical. But it is not necessarily to equate the Latifian with the anti-lyrical, either: the colloquial, physical world-oriented irreverence that defined the prose poetry movement of the Nineties (of which Abdellatif became part).

In Jawlah Layliyah, indeed, many poems are completely free of the Nineties’ subversive strictures, and some come close to song, an austere, unpretentious kind often welded to the need to share the beautiful burden of stories. In “Implicit Agreement”, for example, although Abdellatif seems to be parodying a particular kind of romantic-erotic poem, there is nothing shocking or cynical or ugly and nothing particularly prosaic: “Our eyes did not meet as two caves where the monster of desire sleeps, waking only on confrontation,/nor did our bodies break the rules of respectful contact/in a quiet dance we never performed./Neither of us was bold enough for initiative./She just handed me her large blue comb/and nodded/so I would comb her hair.”

To say that Abdellatif’s novella reads like poetry, then, is to point simply to the fact that, in almost involuntary defiance of form, there is such a thing as a Sentence through which a particular writer constructs an equally particular connection with the real, without fantastical or analytical ambitions, but without much openness to alternative (non-“realist” or non-personal) Sentences, either. And this has not changed since the poetic short stories turned narrative prose poems of his first book, Nass wa ahjar (People and stones, self-published in 1995): Abdellatif insists on his particularity to the point of sitting on top of vast reservoirs of silence, and so the things that happen in poetry end up happening in whatever else he writes: short stories, essays (literary non-fiction), and novels whether or not rightly so called.

Such tip-of-the-iceberg ontology becomes even clearer once the faults of the Latifian are considered. Beyond the obvious difficulty it would present to a reader expecting plot – this is hardly a fault in itself, but still – the problem with Qanoun al wirathah (which by virtue of format and format alone is less of a problem in Jawlah Layliyah) is that it does not tell. In his drive to avoid the confessional and in the stress he places on constructing and creating to the exclusion of the more immediately appealing qualities you might expect from realistic and sincere I-Writing – scandalous or tear-jerking qualities associated with information and overt emotion – Abedellatif sustains a certain reticence that makes him discreet. He insinuates, suggests, remarks; he never brags or exposes. There is not a shade a of self-censorship about what Abdellatif does – quite the opposite – but there is too much modesty in the most admirable sense, too much decency.

Up until the Seventies Generation, the Arab Poet was a testosterone-driven prophet with superhuman pretensions and a sense of responsibility for the world. Abdellatif was a depressive existentialist high on Parkinol.

***

Intellectual (Rebel)

It seems to me that the failure of intellectual work in Egypt is because the idea of individualism has remained incompletely realised. In a culture characterised by totalitarianism at every level, egos ensure that the mechanisms of the larger society that gave rise to an alternative group are reproduced within that group even as it presents itself in terms of being different. Still, it feels right to separate downtown Cairo as a space in my experience from the groups of intellectuals who gather there. Downtown Cairo was never unfamiliar to me, because I spent a good portion of my childhood in my grandfather’s house between Bab Al-Luq and Abdeen, a few metres away from the “Bermuda triangle” of intellectuals’ gathering places. As for intellectuals’ circles, I was part of early on, and I think I have been cured over time, both because I suffered from the idea of the clique and because most of my close friends from the world of writing happened to immigrate early. I think after that I stayed on the margin of those circles, though I was never entirely isolated, until I travelled to Canada in my turn at the end of last year.

It starts, I imagine, with a suicide attempt (figurative as well as literal); it ends with a new life somewhere far, some kind of voluntary death giving way to an afterlife in which the initial impulse looks like an old story. Or at the very least it ends with a book, a book project, something to hold up to the suffocating meaninglessness of existence. It almost certainly does not find resolution among fellow intellectuals however marginal they too claim to be, however particular their predicaments.

The late 1980s are a time when the short story is getting shorter and more lyrical and the metric rules hitherto thought necessary for the poem are finally breaking down for good. It is also a time when dysfunctional capitalism is taking its toll on all but the nouveaux riches of the free-market era. Social and moral values are not so much atrophying as deforming. Nationalism and loyalty to the patriarchs look more and more like cancers of the intellect. Official institutions, which still control society, have reached new heights of corruption; religious fundamentalism, initially abetted by the Sadat regime, is out of control. Far and away to be intellectual means to be politicised, and to be politicised to be Marxist. Never mind the fact that you might not like Marxism: discourse and practise are as dogmatic and limiting as religion itself; there is little if any space for an individual mind to work its way through the labyrinth of consciousness.

Taken together in retrospect, Abdellatif’s three books sound like an exquisitely muffled scream in response to the questions posed by growing up to that, in a place where neither money nor sex is as forthcoming as it might be, nor perhaps as desirable. With various degrees of subversion and cynicism, they touch on only two other subjects, both of which take up more space in Jawlah Layliyah than anywhere else: redemptive (and thus often resented) love; and the inevitability of friendship.

Is it Abdellatif’s modesty that prevents him from telling his old stories in a more explicit way? Is it his sense of right or of futility that stops him from recounting his often disappointing experience of Cairo literary life, whether in his writing or as a veteran of all those ludicrous wars? In the poem with which the new book opens, “The End of Adolescence”, three friends leave the house of “a certain madwoman” drunk, they pretend to be plainclothes policemen to torment lorry drivers on the road, they stomp on a load of neon lamps they happen upon “on the void asphalt of the Cairo dawn”; a week after that, the speaker says, “and the third of us has sold himself to the devil/while I remained with the other,/he not seeing, I not speaking…”

Latifian reticence is characteristic of neither the universal novelist nor the Egyptian Nineties Generation prose poet. Abdellatif seeks the substance of a state of being, not its paraphernalia. His literary objective may be noble but, more importantly, it is a rare and shatteringly urban choice; with the time and effort required for the inner battles that make writing possible or necessary at all, perhaps it is impossible to be any more prolific and still attempt to achieve it.

***

Night Tour

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 Abdellatif’s last book and of “Implicit Agreement” © Youssef Rakha

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حوار‮ ‬منصورة عز الدين

هدفي تحطيم البقرات المقدسة

لا يكف يوسف رخا عن إثارة الشغب‮. ‬

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ماما

الشخص الثالث

“نملية” مطبخها عامرة بالمسلّمات. لكن هناك دُرجاً أعمق من إحساسها بالصواب، مخصصاً لبذرة الرجل الذي ترى في وجهي كيف خيّب رجاءها قبل أن يموت (لولا ضرورة الخروج من بيت أهلها، لماذا كانت ستحمل بذرة هذا الرجل بالذات؟ ولولا أنه يرى الإنجاب جريمة، هل كانت ستكتفي بطفل واحد؟) في شعلة سخان الغاز-مصانع القوات المسلحة، نفس غيظها من “دش” مؤجل منذ أدركتْ أن هذا الرجل، فتى أحلامها الوحيد الممكن، يراوده الانتحار. وبماذا كانت تحس وأنا أستنشق النهد العبقري لحبيبة تكرهها في الغرفة المجاورة؟ حين تكتشف كم من النقود أنفقتُ في ليلة واحدة، وأكون لازلت نائماً في الرابعة مساءً، تغضب على رَجُلِها قبل أن “تلوشني”. ويظل تشنّج نبرتها حتى يذوب القرف على وجهها في حزن يكبرني بثلاثين عاماً. أتذكر أنها فعلاً أحبته، ولا شيء بعده في البيت أكبر منها سناً. فأسترجع التنهيدة التي ترسلها كل ليلة وهي تُخرج الزبالة، متفننة في حماية الأكياس البلاستك من القطط الجائعة حتى لا يتسخ مدخل الشقة التي لم تكن أبداً برجوازية بما يواكب تطلعاتها. وأسأل نفسي بحيرة: هل يقرّبنا أم يبعدنا الميت الواقف وراء الباب؟

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الرغبة

تتذرعين بالمعرفة التي راكمتِها فأتذكر أن في الحياة أشياء لا تعرفينها. وحين أخرج على دائرة حكمتك – من غرفتك إلى غرفتي تبدو الصالة برزخاً بين عالمين – أقول لنفسي إنه من تحت رأس ختان الإناث… الجهل الذي ينفيني في نصيحتك. (وكيف لا تفرق أعوامك الزائدة؟) أنت الأحق بالنصيحة ربما، لكنني كان يجب أن أسديها منذ خمسين عاماً. ولكي أدلل على أنني أيضاً حكيم في دائرتي – والبرزخ بيننا – لن أنسى أن أرد الباب بالرقة المناسبة

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الصنارة

شبيهاتها صرن بلا عدد في المدينة: خط إنتاج أرامل أسقطن شهوتهن تحت دولاب الملابس قبل موت أزواجهن بقرون، ونسين في حموة التنظيف أن يطلبن من الخادمة أن تساعدهن على زحزحة الدولاب. من وراء عباءاتهن-ألق الأزياء الخليجية، ولقب “حاجّة” يرفرف في هبة “الشكمان” مع طرف الحجاب، يردعن جبابرة الشوارع بقادوم الأمومة. هل لهذا يختلن بشيخوخة إما لم تأت بعد أو كان يمكن تأجيلها؟ وهل لكل من الشبيهات أيضاً صورة بالمايكروجوب والشعر “الكاريه” (لابد أن جون لينون يتقافز فوق قبة جامعة القاهرة التي لا تظهر في الصورة، لأن المشهد الثابت يهتز فعلاً على دقة “كانت باي مي لوف”)؟ هل يحيط بكل منهن أكثر من بنطلون “شارلستون” وقميص بياقة عملاقة تبروز عيوناً مقبلة على الحياة؟ كبيضة ضمن فلول البيض الأسود، ألمحها عن بعد بالقرب من البيت. لا نلتقي صدفة إلا وأنا ألتقط أنفاسي بين مشوارين، هنا حيث أقاسمها مستقرها على جسر الحياة. الأكياس العالقة في ذراعها أثقل من مصيري. لذلك لا أهرع لأحمل عنها. لا ألفت انتباهها إلى أنني هناك. تتدحرج وسط ميكروباسين، في جمودها إيحاء سرعة لا تصل إليها خطواتها. وأسأل نفسي كيف، من وسط كل الشبيهات، مازال يمكنني اصطيادها بنظرة واحدة

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عشر ركعات

الليلة أيضاً، مع أذان الفجر، ستتلفنين. وأكون في مكان لا يمكن أن أصطحبك إليه. سأنزوي في ركن خال لأحدّثك (الخجل من أن لي أُمّاً تتلفن، وكيف لم يبرحني منذ الطفولة؟) بلهفة ستسألينني متى أعود. لا طارئ سوى طعام أنت طبختِه ولم آكله. ما يسمونه “تضحية”. وحسب درجة نفاد الصبر في صوتك، أوشوش إما “لا أدري” أو “بعد قليل”. لكن الصمت يطلق استجواباً متهدّجاً من فمك، فينز غضبي مكتوماً في الأثير. حين أعيد المحمول إلى جيبي تلفحني أساطيرك. وماذا كان يجب أن يحدث ليكون في الدنيا شيء سواي؟ مَن كان يجب أن تكوني، لأغفر لك ما يسمونه قلب الأم؟ ولكي أتذكر أنك أنت وأنا المسئول أمامك، بعد الأذان سأنزوي في ركن مظلم لأخلع حذائي: كمن يسجد، بعنف، سأضرب رأسي في الأرض لكل تضحية من تضحياتك ضربة. ولن أغفر لك كل هذا الوجع. ما يسمونه التفاني. والنقودِ التي لا تنفقينها. والحفيدِ الذي لن تقبّليه. والقلق الذي تحقنينني به كل صباح. والمخاطر القاتلة. ويد القدر الحانية عليك بإنقاذي. والصلاة والصوم. ومنفضدة السجائر. وشكواك مني. وكل ما تفعلينه من أجلي. وكل ما كان يمكن أن أفعله بدونك

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ساعدي يوجعني

بموت أحدهما يتعلم الشخص أن الأبوين كالأطراف لا يزول وجعها بالبتر. تتوقف أمي على عتبة غرفتها. ظهرها إلي وهي تسند بكفها على زاوية الباب. أواصل ذرع الصالة جيئة وذهاباً. لا أفكر في احتياجي لساعدي بقدر ما أفكر فيما تعرّض له من أذى، الأمر الذي جعله وزراً غير مرغوب في بقائه. لماذا الآن دوناً عن أي وقت أقبّله بحسرة، ألوي رقبتي حتى تؤلمني لأتفقّد بؤره السقيمة، وأحار كيف كان يمكن أن أجنّبه الكدمات… الساعد الثقيل كحمل أتطلع لإسقاطه، ربما ليس أثقل من هذه العجوز المُضجِرة. (للمرة المليون أنينها المسرحي يذيع على العالم كم هي مظلومة وصامدة، وهل سيشعرني بغير رغبة خابية في صفعها؟) أتذكر أن نقّها يتراوح بين آلام العظام وتشنج العضل. ارتعاش الأصابع، لسع الحروق، صديد مفاجئ على راحة اليد. خدوش قديمة تذكرني بمهمتي، وعلي أن أتحمل إحباط أنني لم أؤدها… لكن ها هي الآن تعبر العتبة كالنسيم. وقبل أن أتوقف عن الحركة، يقلع كفها عن الخشب ويحلّق عالياً في الهواء. ستبدو أخف من كل أوزار الدنيا. وسيمكنني أن أتابعها بفرح، أنا الذي تمنّيتُ أن يموت أبي. وعرفتُ أنني لن أتخلص منه أبداً

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الحياة بعد الموت

يوماً ما سآخذك إلى الصحراء، وأصر أن تبيتي خارج الخيمة. سأظل صاحياً طوال الليل أحرسك من الثعالب والثعابين. وحين يشقشق الصبح سيكون شعرك مكشوفاً للسماء وحبات الرمل عالقة بأطرافك العارية. بلا خوف من هوان الدنيا ولا عذاب الآخرة، ستفتحين عينيك. وستكونين المرأة التي افتقدتها فيك منذ الأبد

أكلة لحوم البشر

ذَكَري على الأرض بين قدميها

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lion for Real



I came home and found a lion in my living room
Rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion! Lion!
Two stenographers pulled their brunnette hair and banged the window shut
I hurried home to Patterson and stayed two days

Called up old Reichian analyst
who'd kicked me out of therapy for smoking marijuana
'It's happened' I panted 'There's a Lion in my living room'
'I'm afraid any discussion would have no value' he hung up

I went to my old boyfriend we got drunk with his girlfriend
I kissed him and announced I had a lion with a mad gleam in my eye
We wound up fighting on the floor I bit his eyebrow he kicked me out
I ended up masturbating in his jeep parked in the street moaning 'Lion.'

Found Joey my novelist friend and roared at him 'Lion!'
He looked at me interested and read me his spontaneous ignu high poetries
I listened for lions all I heard was Elephant Tiglon Hippogriff Unicorn
        Ants
But figured he really understood me when we made it in Ignaz Wisdom's
        bathroom.

But next day he sent me a leaf from his Smoky Mountain retreat
'I love you little Bo-Bo with your delicate golden lions
But there being no Self and No Bars therefore the Zoo of your dear Father
        hath no lion
You said your mother was mad don't expect me to produce the Monster for
        your Bridegroom.'

Confused dazed and exalted bethought me of real lion starved in his stink
        in Harlem
Opened the door the room was filled with the bomb blast of his anger
He roaring hungrily at the plaster walls but nobody could hear outside
        thru the window
My eye caught the edge of the red neighbor apartment building standing in
        deafening stillness
We gazed at each other his implacable yellow eye in the red halo of fur
Waxed rhuemy on my own but he stopped roaring and bared a fang
        greeting.
I turned my back and cooked broccoli for supper on an iron gas stove
boilt water and took a hot bath in the old tup under the sink board.

He didn't eat me, tho I regretted him starving in my presence.
Next week he wasted away a sick rug full of bones wheaten hair falling out
enraged and reddening eye as he lay aching huge hairy head on his paws
by the egg-crate bookcase filled up with thin volumes of Plato, & Buddha.

Sat by his side every night averting my eyes from his hungry motheaten
        face
stopped eating myself he got weaker and roared at night while I had
        nightmares
Eaten by lion in bookstore on Cosmic Campus, a lion myself starved by
        Professor Kandisky, dying in a lion's flophouse circus,
I woke up mornings the lion still added dying on the floor--'Terrible
        Presence!'I cried'Eat me or die!'

It got up that afternoon--walked to the door with its paw on the south wall to
        steady its trembling body
Let out a soul-rending creak from the bottomless roof of his mouth
thundering from my floor to heaven heavier than a volcano at night in
        Mexico
Pushed the door open and said in a gravelly voice "Not this time Baby--
        but I will be back again."

Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your
        Mercy.
Allen Ginsberg

Paris, March 1958

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The long happy life of Ahmad K Mustafa

Five scenes in search of an observer: Reviewing the Pirandello-like drama of daily life at the Weekly, Youssef Rakha steps back to see just how insane

It is early evening on Tuesday – the busiest time of the week – and a stranger has walked into the Weekly offices. Let us say he is in the headquarters of Al Ahram to visit a friend and has been misled to this den of newsroom inequity. The atmosphere will strike him, first, as uncannily quiet. There is no one in the corridors; while he looks for someone to talk to, no sound emanates from the empty-looking rooms on either side of him for a long time. Stranger still, there is a faint smell of seafood wafting uncertainly. Then, suddenly: a laugh; shrill but somewhat muffled, it ricochets out of and back into an as yet hidden doorway, setting off a ripple effect of hearty, all-Egyptian chuckling unbelievable in context. The stranger follows the sound. He proceeds with caution, as if caught in a time warp; as he does so, the fish smell intensifies. Finally he is open-mouthed before the least assuming of the doors. The medium-sized room is dominated by a single polygonal table, and around it sits every member of staff, inluding chief and managing editor, engrossed in a jolly feast. “Come join us,” Ahmad K says.

***

Saturday morning. And aside from the fuul and ta’miya buffet set out in the page layout room while we wait for the editorial meeting – all vice comes from layout – there is something unduly relaxed about the pulse of a seemingly normal workplace at the start of the working week. If they are not eating, exchanging day-to-day news or doing both things at the same time, people are reclining, smoking over mugs of green tea, skulking. They come in all shapes and sizes. Among them is a hefty specimen of remarkably pious appearance, the kind of “Sunni” whose long beard and shaved head – not to mention the prayer “raisin” of dead skin on his forehead – bespeaks sternness and lack of appetite. This is the selfsame Ahmad Kamal Mustafa, better known as Ahmad Kamal, and his appetite is actually phenomenal. Paradoxical though it is for his lifestyle choice, you happen to know that a good half of what comes out of his mouth is intentional hilarity; and you cannot help anticipating his next joke. Yet even so, knowing what he is like, the sight of the office’s resident Wahhabi with a ta’miya sandwich in one hand and a car-cleaning cloth in the other doing a folk dance, unprovoked, is still a disorienting gift.

***

The week begins on Saturday; Thursday and Friday make up the weekend. Work peaks on Monday. Some would contend that work starts on Monday, but let us say Monday is when it peaks. Depending on how various individual duties overlap, Weekly staffers work together in small groups. Each Sunday members of the same group will keep telling each other to arrive early on Monday (official hours start at 11, but since work often goes on till the early hours, official hours seldom apply). The next morning, whoever does turn up at 11 is not surprised to discover that, until 1 or 2 pm, he will remain alone. Later than that, mobile phones start ringing. But no matter which way the convergence happens, by 3 pm the group in question will be gathered around a single desk, with music blaring out of the computer and hot and cold drinks flitting into and out of hands. Everyone has work to do, everyone knows it. But it takes at least another hour before the great Nesmahar S, the petite guardian angel-cum-motherly nag of my group – also the office’s most active chatterbox – stands up to make her no-nonsense announcement: “Time to work now!” Fortunately, before we have even had time to sigh and boo, Ahmad K has entered the room with a little trough of water which he proceeds – reenacting a well-known scene from a classic televised comic play with the song that accompanies it rendered in tandem – to splash water around the office, wetting all surfaces, and clothes.

***

After the madness of Tuesday comes Wednesday. Traditionally the quietest time of the week, with no work pending except finalising the front page of the newspaper and adding what last-minute news might have come up unexpectedly, it is now a long, hectic day with frequent quarrels between staff members, notably the editor in chief and the head of the page layout department, who seem to everyone but themselves to be more interested in quibbling than finishing off. Thanks to this, and to the fact that the moon of efficiency is inexplicably and exponentially on the wane among us, Wednesday is now the closest we generally come to what people think of when they think of a day at the office. At least it would be – if not for the spontaneous drumming and tabla session that starts, sans instruments, between the room with the polygonal table and layout. Ahmad K looks disapprovingly at the drummers. He has been sitting making faces at the computer, completely absorbed in his work, and as well as being religiously suspect the noise has distracted him. He begins to deliver a lecture on the need for employees to show respect at their place of work; he sounds convincing. But before he has completed two sentences – no one stops drumming in response to his admonitions – Ahmad K has stood up and joined in the drumming himself.

***

If anyone actually came in on Sunday, it would be a pleasant enough day with plenty of time for gatherings, drumming and culinary indulgence in addition to work. Could it be precisely for that reason that no one really comes in? The reporters are still finishing off their stories, the editors have nothing to work on. The designers could spend time uselessly pursuing the editors but they would rather loiter. It is actually the designers who come in regularly on Sundays, both because they have additional responsibilities to do with archiving and the web edition and because, well, they can never claim to be working from home. And this is why they end up spending more time with whoever happens to be there from outside their department on Sunday than on any other day. They pitch stories (Weekly designers are all amateur writers); they gossip; they turn into film critics and political analysts and advice columnists. They eat. The office is quiet but not uncannily so. And it is in the middle of such a conversation that you can expect to encounter Ahmad K, all nearly 100 kg of him, standing on top of the desk of one editor or another – for no particular reason – balancing said editor on his  shoulder and back.

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