All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

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

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


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

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The Best of The Sultan’s Seal: Five Articles © Youssef Rakha


1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.

3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.

4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time.
Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.

5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.


إلى محمد أبو الليل في غربته*

“كتابىِ–، ولولاَ أنَّ يأَسي قد نَهى اشت***ياقي لذاب الطرس من حر أنفاسي
وبعد فعندي وحشة لو تقسّــمت
***على الخلق لم يستأنس الـناس بالنـاس”

أسامة بن منقذ

أكتب لكَ والمنافض أهرام من الأعقاب.

الشيء الذي حذّرتَني من دَوَامِه توقّف.

وصداع النوم المُمَزَّق يجعل الدنيا خاوية. أنت فاهم.

في جيوب الحياة ننقّب عن عملة من عصور سحيقة،

عملة صدئة وربما قبيحة لكنها سارية في سوق الأبدية.

نصبح ملائكة حين نعثر عليها. نجترها حتى نتأكد

أنها لا تشتري البقاء.

ساعتها تبدو الأبدية نفسها رخيصة.

نتذكر عهود الأبالسة وأن كل مياه الأرض لا تكفي

لابتلاع حبة دواء. أكتب لك بعد أن حفرتُ فتحةً في بطني

وألقيتُ أمعائي في النيل. هل كنتَ تعلم

أنني سأفقد ما لم أحصل عليه؟

حقول الأسفلت التي ذرعناها معاً

نتراشق الاكتشافات والأسرار، ويوم احترقتْ العجلة

على أعلى نقطة في الكوبري

ونحن غائبان في الحشيش والموسيقى

فوق المدينة التي بدت مثل زاوية صلاة

أسفل عمارة الدنيا ما بعد 11 سبتمبر –

أنت صمّمتَ على إكمال المهمة

حالما استبدلنا الكاوتش المدخّن،

وكانت أقراص السعادة في تفاحة حمراء من البلاستك،

قسمناها نصفين لنبتلع الأقراص على قارعة الطريق:

هل تذكر وقت كانت السعادة أقراصاً

يمكننا التقاطها من نصف تفاحة بلاستك؟ –

ويوم خلعنا ملابسنا في صحراء صغيرة داخل شقة

يعاد تبليطها فوق الميدان،

ويوم انقلبت أعصاب ذراعك أوتار معدن

يمكنني أن أعزف عليها بصوتي،

والهلوسات التي جعلناها شبابيك، ومشاجراتنا

حول النقود وسيناء، والحورية التي جلست بيننا

حتى مالت برأسها على كتفك وأنا راضٍ تماماً…

إلى أن – ذات يوم – مات كل شيء.

قُدنا السيارة إلى الشاطئ أو غابة النخيل

لنتأكد أنه لا يحيا.

أنت واصلت البحث عن مزاج مثالي

بينما تكتشف الفلسفة والكآبة، وأنا اختبأت في بيت أمي

لأكتب رواية. وحين تزوج أحدنا وأنجب الآخر،

لم يكن سوانا لنخبرنا بحقيقة ما يصير.

ظل لكل حدث حديث من الطول والتعقيد

بحيث قلتَ إنك مللتَ الكلام،

إن شيئاً في الكلام لا يؤثّر. وفي هذه القصة الأخيرة،

وحدك فهمت أنني لم أكن مخدوعاً

بقدر ما أردت أن أصدّق،

وأن ما جادت به الدنيا مجرد مشبك

لأسمال بللها لقاء عابر ستجف آجلاً أو عاجلاً

لأعود أرتديها كما خلعتها وارتديتها

ألف مرة أمامك.

كنت تعلم أنني لست سوى أحد أعراض مرض

لا يشبه أمراضنا كثيراً

وأنّ وعد الخلاص خطاب موجه

واللحم والدم محسنات بديعية.

سيتسنى الوقت لنتجادل

فيما لو كان الفيلم هابطاً وإلى أي حد،

لكنك لم تخبرني بأكثر من أن الواقع المشترك

لا يكون براقاً وبأنني لن أقوى على الانتظار.

أكتب لك، كما يقول روبيرتو بولانيو، بدلاً من الانتظار…

ولأن قلقك لم يكن في محله. الوحشة أفسدت كل شيء

لكن البدائل حاضرة طالما الأبدية على الرف

ومن رحمة النوائب أننا لا نحزن إلا على أنفسنا.

كنتَ تقول: أحبها وأحتقرها. الآن أستدعي ضحكاتك

وأنا أتهادى إلى الحمام. قطرات الماء البارد

قد تجلو هذه القورة. أفرغ المنافض في أوعية القمامة.

أصنع القهوة وأشربها.

وكل هذا الذي جرى لي وقتلناه نقاشاً

طوال عام عامر بالشِعر والبكاء:

مجرد وهم آخر أكرهه لأفقده

وحين أفقده أكف عن كرهه لأنه لم يكن هناك.

في الحلم كان كما لم أعد أشتاق إليه: رائعاً ومهلكاً

مثل أورجازم سماوي. خبّرني عنك ولا تقلق علي.

الحسرة للـ”جدعان”.

* بوحي قصيدة Exile’s Letter للشاعر الأمريكي إيزرا باوند

Exile’s Letter by Ezra Pound
From the Chinese of Li Po, usually considered the greatest poet of China: written by him while in exile about 760 A. D., to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”
SO-KIN of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels
we paid for the songs and laughter,


And we were drunk for month after month,
forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,


there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds …


and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.


And when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
that was the first valley,


And on into ten thousand valleys
full of voices and pine-winds.
With silver harness and reins of gold,
prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;


And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.


And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
Danced because his long sleeves
Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.


And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was brave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei Shu and put down the barbarian rabble.


And one May he had you send for me, despite the long distance;
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going …
Over roads twisted like sheep’s guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
in the cutting wind from the north,


And thinking how little you cared for the cost …
and you caring enough to pay it.
Then what a reception!
Red jade cups, food well set, on a blue jewelled table;
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning;


And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with the water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
With ripples like dragon-scales going grass-green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans going and coming without hindrance,


With the willow-flakes falling like snow,
And the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the waters a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows—
Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—and the girls singing back at each other,


Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.


I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.
And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.


And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
And if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—


There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.(Translated by Ezra Pound from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the Professors Mori and Araga.)

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In memory: Baghdad Falls, 2003

Saddam Hussein detained several Westerners, wi...
Image via Wikipedia

A view from nowhere

Youssef Rakha recalls a country he has never seen

The writer of this piece was barely 16 when the first Gulf War broke out. One (televised) image that lives on in memory is that of Mrs Thatcher, a late-in-the-day political analyst, commending President Mubarak’s stance. Some of the raw resentment brought on by the notion of Egyptians fighting Iraqis is summoned up, too. Up until then Iraq had existed only in situ, as it were. Suddenly, and for what sounded like the wrong reasons, it was all over the place. From then on what one recognised as the centre of the Abbasid dynasty, the Mashriq’s most notable patrons of the arts, became synonymous alternately with sanctions and Saddam. Already in 1991 one realised Iraq was a police state; at millennium’s end it became, in addition, a rogue state. American Middle East policy was infuriating and Iraq was a case in point. The saddest part was that this diverted attention even further away from its role in Arab culture, in the glories and triumphs of an imagined identity.

Arabs of my generation have seldom had occasion to visit Arab countries, a paradox that reflects exactly how imagined that identity is. Of Baghdad, as much as of Damascus or Sanaa, what one likes and relates to has little to do with present-day reality. Such, at least, is the assumption: associations of political corruption, arbitrary justice and economic disinheritance are paramount; history and culture figure less prominently. Or else they figure, in a variety of contexts, at an abstract level. Prior to the start of the war, the terra incognita of contemporary Iraq consisted largely of the reports of Egyptian acquaintances who had sought employment in an oil-rich Gulf country, impressions of Iraqi literati and academics one had met and the contents of books of history and literature. Connections between the latter, prior or unreal knowledge, and information gleaned from the media or through hearsay were few and far between; to register fully or evolve into a holistic picture of the country, they required some degree of creative intervention.

Baghdad was, for example, home to the Thousand and One Nights Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, whose reputation for sensual excess was tentatively backed up by reports of a subdued but unequivocal focus on the simple pleasures of life. Hard as they worked — and, compared to Egyptians, it was said, they worked really hard — Iraqis had a tremendous capacity for fun; no feelings of guilt or obligation could hamper their enjoyment of what life had to offer. Others who had encountered trouble supplied similar, individual glosses on the general precepts of life under Saddam. Ex cathedra interference in the lives of ordinary residents was ruthless and demeaning; there existed, in many social arrangements, what amounted to a caste system in which those not affiliated with government bodies were repeatedly put in their place. The wielding of power was, in general, far more reckless and vainglorious than in Egypt. More reassuringly people also referred to a stricter moral code governing human interactions; a man’s word was honoured beyond all else; an Iraqi employer, so long as you did not betray or attempt to deceive him, was eminently reliable. Such, it would seem, was the Abbasid strain.

Encounters with Iraqis proved equally heterogenous. By the time they occurred, the sanctions had taken their toll on those of them who lived there. Others, like the great poet Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati, were confident and irritable. The latter was an icon of the contemporary poetic movement — lyrical, romantic, thoroughly modern. As an aspiring author who knew many of his lines by heart, I had expected a soft-spoken, gentle old man. The person who met me, a few months before his death in Amman, seemed gruff and reluctant. His welcome was far from warm, but neither did he know me. I have retained, along with the disorientation induced by the perception of such a difference between the man and his work, only his inattentive gestures, his gutteral voice, the rare, sarcastic smile. Before Al-Bayati, I had discovered Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab; and after him, Saadi Youssef. The felicity, power and innovation of modern Iraqi poets convinced me that in spite of everything the Arabs’ literary heritage, the essence of which is poetry (some of the best remembered lines were produced during the reign of the aforementioned dynasty), was alive and well only in Baghdad — or among a Baghdadi diaspora scattered, sadly and perhaps irrevocably, across the whole world.

I also recalled, however, that during that era the vanity and sophistication of the literary capital could cast Al- Ma’arri — a relatively simple, blind Syrian even as he remains a formidable poet and thinker — out of it, keeping him in his small hometown of Ma’arra till the end of his life. Something of this duality appeared in all my dealings with Iraq. Hearty and intense, the Iraqis I met were nonetheless too proud to give up, even for a moment, that impenetrable veneer of confident civility. Their cinema, what little of it I saw, may have been slack and rudimentary, but their literature evidenced a corresponding combination of confessional fluidity and linguistic polish. The Baghdadi maqam, a distinct musical form which I discovered through the fortunate coincidence of being given a French-produced CD, was the closest I came to the sound of Abbasid music — an intuition that finds support in historical fact. Unlike anything I had heard, and full of the refinement of a culture at its height, it was a real awakening.

Walking across Tahrir Square the day after the arrival of the American and British forces in Iraq, I could think of nothing but the unmediated sense of identity so many Egyptians felt. Anti-American sentiment was inflated, but it was justified and real, far more real than resentment of the Saddam regime. No one cheered when the dictator’s statue toppled over; and subsequent images of looting and plunder could only inspire shame and a sense of having been betrayed. Everyone sympathised with Iraq, but what did Iraq mean to people? It was at this point that I thought of making a mental list of all those things Iraq, a country I had never seen, meant to me. I thought of a man who sold donner kebab near Hull University campus, an exile whose perpetual homesickness had metamorphosed into a painful quietude. The solitude, the desolation on his face drove me to inquire about his personal history, but he would have nothing to do with me. One night, following an intense evening at the Union Bar, I happened to drop the name of Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab. Slowly, pensively, in a voice more like its author’s, this little educated man recited Al-Sayyab’s most famous poem, Unshoudat Al-Mattar (Rainsong). By the end he was on the verge of tears; he never shed any.

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On Fawwaz Haddad’s The Unfaithful Translator

The Butterfly Dream

Fawwaz Haddad, The Unfaithful Translator, Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008, 488 pages

In the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly – so vividly that when he wakes, he wonders if he may in fact be one. In that case, he reasons, at this moment I must be dreaming that I am a man, which would make me a butterfly all along.

Zen koan, Sufi riddle, nursery rhyme: the trope has proven particularly popular in the post-modern literary imagination, where the constructed and the factual tend to intersect and overlap at a rudimentary level.

In the case of Al Mutarjim Al Kha’in or The Unfaithful Translator by the Syrian novelist Fawwaz Haddad, improbable events and brazenly forced plot turns – one could draw up a whole inventory of accidents and coincidences – keep the artificial side of the exchange near the surface of consciousness, a la Brecht, but at the same time, intimate descriptions of the cafes and streets of Damascus, true-to-life dialogue between the characters and the way they respond to public events like the fall of Baghdad are historically rooted and empirically tenable – to the point of being exact.

This potentially jarring medley of fact and fancy jazzes up a more or less predictable story line and gives the fundamentally moral message of the book subversive zing. But, more importantly, it manages to do so without upstaging the idea of a dual world in which dreams can be confused with reality:

Carried away by his creation, the writer wonders if the characters in his book might actually be creating him. He wonders if the alternate reality presented to him by literature might not turn out to be the real world, and his own life an invented fiction.

Like Bishop Berkeley’s claim that the tree would cease to exist if there were no one to perceive it, the Butterfly Dream is a quaint, insolvable question of little application. Yet by producing one of the language’s first coherent, full-length meta-novels, Haddad gives that central idea unprecedented and culturally specific edge. Finally the Butterfly Dream has been nationalised.

Zhuangzi, a more or less mythical figure, is now reincarnated as the Damascus-dwelling, post-millennial literary translator-cum-cultural editor-cum-ghost writer Hamid Salim (whose silent doppelgänger is of course Haddad himself): a no less mythical (or at least mythicised) figure. In his own very different way Hamdi recalls the one statement to which the Chinese philosopher’s entire contribution tends to be reduced:

Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”


As a budding poet Hamid is discouraged by the establishment critic Mohsin Ali Hassan, an autocratic Ustaz who rides the wave of “engagement theory”, making his name and gathering around him an obsequious circle of acolytes by promoting literary engagement as “a life raft to save literature from the communist octopus”. Mohsin advises Hamid to write novels, but instead the young intellectual – unbeknown to the older critic and to his chagrin – turns to the age’s most relevant intellectual endeavour: translation.

Despite his bookish inattention to matters of immediate concern – which results in his wife leaving the house (taking the children with her), and gives him the undeserved reputation of a suspicious snob among his neighbours – by the time the book opens Hamid has had a relatively successful career as a translator of English works of fiction. He is widely believed to be competent, and makes enough to support himself and his family.

The translator spends his time tortuously labouring over every last phrase in the book he happens to be working on. His talent, imagination and sense of cultural, not to say national identity force their way into the process in the form of perilously creative glosses on the original words, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections of the book he is “transporting”, to borrow a traditional Arabic expression for translating.

But no one seems to notice that the results are inaccurate or compromised. (The dual implication is that few critics know enough English to realise, and that they would not care if they did, so long as there was nothing about the realisation to advance their careers or help them promote the party line.)

Then, in a moment of postcolonial fervour, Hamid alters the ending of a novel by an African author that he has been translating. He makes the hero break up with his western partner and return to his country instead of marrying her and staying on in the west (as he does in the original). But even then, it is only by coincidence that his climactic act of betrayal is exposed: the novel happens to win an international prize and it is consequently summarised in the Arabic press, so people notice the discrepancy between the original and the Arabic version they have read.

However cooped up in his ivory tower, Hamid has been unable to avoid the small-mindedness of the establishment, and a few months ago he defended himself against an unprovoked attack on the part of the influential if patently ignorant journalist Sherif Hosni (at some level, the Syrian equivalent of a party hack). This is Sherif’s chance to pounce back.

Sherif sets about discrediting Hamid, and he proves so efficient that in a matter of weeks Hamid can no longer find work anywhere. For a while he goes hungry because he cannot afford to buy food.

And so, through a string of encounters, reunions and recollections, amorous and detective scenarios, assumed names and identities, Hamid embarks on a series of secret jobs under three different pseudonyms (Halafawi, Hafalawi, Halafani), which take on the form of alter egos whose overbearing presence increasingly torments him.

Finally, on the point of throwing the last of his secret employers, the long unproductive author Samir Farout, over a bridge, Hamid is approached by a man who manages to stop him in his tracks. When he asks where that man came from – in the meantime Samir has managed to crawl away – the reply is, simply and shockingly, “Reality”. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that this visitor from outer space is Haddad, the author, but it is tempting to read the ending as if it were.

Now I do not know whether I was then Haddad dreaming of Hamid, or whether I am now Hamid, dreaming of Haddad.


And yet there is more to this enormously multifarious book than the Butterfly Dream. The notion of translation is a strong metaphor for what it means to be an intellectual in the Arab world: someone who is able to bring otherwise inaccessible culture or truth into the arena of the everyday.

Perhaps a more effective rendition of the title is Translator Betrayer (Arabic does not differentiate between the adjective and the noun), since the book is less about Hamid’s betrayal of the texts he works on than the Arab intellectual betraying his “historical role”, to borrow an expression from the nationalist rhetoric Haddad targets with his satire.

Irony upon irony: Hamid is betrayed by the Literary Mafia represented by, among others, the critic Jamil Halloum (according to Hamid’s old friend Sami, an uneducated middle-man with connections in criminal and intelligence circles, they are capable of murder in their relentless drive to cut short the rise of any genuine talent that may threaten their position).

But members of that mafia may in turn be betrayed by someone like the university professor Hakim Nafie (a possible ally whose agenda does no always chime with theirs).

Hakim becomes Hamid’s first secret employer when his scheme to improve the grades of one of his female students in return for sexual favours is discovered by Hamid’s deformed friend Mahmoud. So Mahmoud forces Hakim to employ Hamdi in order not to expose him.

Mahmoud is only a beggar- or criminal-turned-Muslim fundamentalist, but he is capable of turning this insane hierarchy on its head (at least for a while, until he is taken in by the police, apparently because another of Hamid’s employers wants him out of the way). He can threaten the personal safety of someone like Nafie.

Mahmoud is a kind of guardian angel who, wandering around the streets of Damascus, his unbearably hideous face wrapped in a scarf, gathers critical information simply by overhearing people speaking to themselves or thinking out load – as if it were the most natural thing in the world.


Translation is intrinsically a betrayal whether or not the translator betrays the text, but so is the charge levelled at social and political renegades in the police states of the Arab world: by breaking with the party or the leader, they become khawanah (the plural of kha’in), betrayers of the nation and, more crucially, of their own well-being. They become ostracised and go hungry.

Haddad’s main purpose in this book is to expose, through a self-referential parable sufficiently panoramic to cover the full genus of Arab Intellectual, the corruption and impotence of its full range of species. But hischoice of translation as the profession of his protagonist goes beyond its metaphorical significance. Hamid’s access to English allows Haddad to place his Damascus-bound theatre within a new-world-order context.

He juxtaposes the incredibly pan-Arab biography of Hamid’s childhood love Lailah Shouman with an imagined novel by a fictional American author named Elisabeth Markend:

Laila, also known as the new-wave poetess Lamis Abbas, author of an erotic collection poems, was married to a Palestinian freedom fighter who took her to Beirut and then Tunis, and after he was murdered she returned to take up with an Iraqi sculptor.

Translating Markend’s The Jailed Virgin, a tour de force of global espionage, western-Islamic strife and complicated love that reflects Laila’s “real-life” biography, Hamid is finally defeated by the first of his alter egos, Afif Halafawi, who manages to impose his plan to produce an accurate, almost literal translation against the betrayer’s will.

Before he forges the final plot twist, taking the whole symphony several abrupt octaves up through the paradoxically satisfying anticlimax of someone appearing from reality to prevent a fictional murder, Haddad manages to weave together all three strings of the book:

1) the satirical critique of the Arab Intellectual, a creature unable to translate culture or truth while he attends to his principal task of building petty personal glories by colluding with brute force, whether in the form of dictatorship or crime;

2) the many metonyms for this narrative term, which include Kafkaesque , Joycean and Noir registers, embodied by a cast of archetypes including, poignantly, the ostracised author Samih Hamdi, who is still working on an endlessly gargantuan novel when he dies – the cue for his one remaining heir, his spinster sister, to promptly burn the manuscript; and

3) the idea that reality, especially a reality that revolves around literature, is practically interchangeable with imagination: only through their imaginative capacity for identifying with corruption and oppression, Haddad seems to suggest, do Arab intellectuals become corrupt, oppressed and oppressive, but ultimately powerless to pursue their raison d’etre except at the most hollow rhetorical level.

Considering the size of the undertaking, Haddad’s consistency of tone and the subtle pacing with which he maintains the action, balancing each element against the other, is no mean feat.


Since the 1960s, at least, big fat novels like The Unfaithful Translator have been read reluctantly and frowned on for their sheer size. Notwithstanding the popularity of the short story and the novella until the 1990s, the idea is that the full-length novel is a thing of the past, reflecting societies and ways of being – French and Russian if not pre-modern – that are so temporally or geographically distant as to be irrelevant. Whether or not you share this view, there exists a pragmatic argument for not writing them: they do not encourage reading, and so they help to keep the readership small.

This may not be entirely true; the counter argument is that dedicated readers – the only kind who read novels – are unlikely to be put off by a long book; they may even treasure an accomplished intellectual project of this kind once it has captured their attention. The Unfaithful Translator is no breezy read, but the point to be made about it is that it could not have been any shorter: its power resides in the way it weaves together three apparently disparate literary projects, for only against the backdrop of Haddad’s critique of the intellectual community is the Butterfly Dream adequately incorporated into Arabic literature; and only the many intersecting dramas make the critique readable and convincing.

Somehow, despite remaining essentially a work of the mind, The Unfaithful Translator manages to leave a haunting – and naturalistic – impression in the mind. Like many Arab intellectuals in real life, there is something of the Kafkaesque arthropod about its hero, the solitary little man: lacklustre, droning, alienated and alienating. Hamid leads an isolated life, he seems to exist solely within a mental space he carved out for himself, sealed off from physical experience, human contact, and memory. Yet his sheer existence embodies a deep yearning for these very things.

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