Egyptian History X


Al-Ahram Weekly: Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Youssef Rakha and Egypt’s new culture of violence

As of 28 January, 2011, the protests in and around Tahrir Square were never quite as peaceful as people would in later months reflexively claim they were. But no one thought that what had started on 25 January as a call for rights and freedoms, and on 11 February forced Hosny Mubarak (Egypt’s president for 31 years) to step down, would turn into a kind of hopeless vendetta against the police and, later, albeit to a mitigated extent, also against the army—to a point where people could no longer credibly make that claim.

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Anis Mansour and the Intellect of Consent

With the death of Anis Mansour (1925-2011) of pneumonia last Friday, one significant image of the Egyptian intellectual comes crashing down. It may be crass to speak in any but the most admiring terms of a man just deceased: a lively mind initially devoted to philosophy, which he briefly taught at Ain Shams University after graduating from Fouad I (Cairo) University in 1947. But his fascination is such that a critique of his career, on its folding, gives invaluable and timely insight into what his generation would have called, without irony, the cultural life of the nation.

A confirmed geek from his time at the village kuttab (where provincial toddlers started their education, learning the Quran by heart), he extracted praise all through secondary school and university and had no difficulty finding work and (soon enough) an aristocratic, well-heeled wife.

After 1950, when he started a lifetime career with Al Ahram, he became an extremely prolific producer of journalism (sometimes fictionalised, often in the form of travel writing: fat books on subjects as disparate as the Arab-Israeli conflict and UFOs never prevented him from coming up with a daily column for decades on end). Like his initial employers at Akhbar Al-Yom, the Amin brothers, he managed to ingratiate himself with whoever oversaw his work despite coming into his own at a historical juncture when, it would seem, a writer would have had to take sides. A philosopher-turned-newspaperman, he also became a public figure and a literary and intellectual authority, which no doubt he wanted; his weak protestations regarding a career that forced him away from literature should not be taken seriously. But here is the crux:

As a man of letters who grew famous prior to the audiovisual explosion, Anis Mansour was probably the last true household name in literature. But today few beyond the barely literate and the ultra-mainstream have any interest in Anis Mansour.

This is what makes the example of Mansour interesting in the wake of what was, more than a revolution as such, a collective moment of reckoning and a horribly overdue update of the socio-political software driving “national” hardware. It is a paradox that seems perversely typical, somehow: that the only surviving intellectual known outside intellectual circles should have been, for three or four decades, the least relevant to intellectual life. Perhaps thinking about why that is the case can spotlight an aspect or two of Egyptian culture in the time between June 1953 and January 2011: the first life cycle of the so called independent republic.


To look at Mansour’s CV is, of course, to trace a trajectory of success: a path of upward mobility crowned, past any number of official and semi-official awards, posts and honours, by a close personal friendship with the third president of the republic, Anwar Sadat. Also known as the Believer President because, in line with CIA policy during the Cold War, he endorsed political Islam as a bulwark against socialism, pan-Arab nationalism and opposition to peace with Israel, Sadat was a kind of early homegrown Neocon operating, especially after the October War of 1973, as absolute autocrat. How an avowed existentialist (a la Sartre) and symbol of secular liberalism could be this man’s advisor, confidante and speech writer is unclear.

For nearly two decades until Nasser died in 1970, past the establishment of the one-party police state and the Six Day War, Mansour had never so much as questioned “Nasserism”; under what was evidently a more sympathetic dictatorship which, without reversing the machinery of centralism and repression, virtually institutionalised corruption and greed, what did he contribute to national consciousness for the next ten years, until Sadat was killed by the very monster he created?

“Nothing” may be harsh and unfair, but it is possible to see the contradiction between Mansour’s principles and his practises as an instance of a much more predominant trope in Egyptian culture: the tendency to confuse pragmatism with opportunism, placing writing and thinking – down to moral questions – outside the frontiers of the real. Except for the kind of dogmatic political affiliation Mansour avoided – arguably in itself a sublimation of religiosity – few intellectuals ever got past the position of the parent who, while encouraging their son to practise his literary or artistic hobby, insisted that he should have a “real job” and, failing that, measured his accomplishment in the arts by the money and kudos said hobby could bring him, not by consistency, rigour or beauty. In a centralised police state money and kudos would always depend on consent.

In a way Mansour was the perfect candidate for a “realistic” career in the arts. Though always solid, by aesthetic and intellectual standards, his writing is seldom compelling. It is derivative and diffuse, lightweight, loquacious; all breadth and no depth. Euphemistically described as “encyclopaedic”, his intellect is in fact noncommittal, which is precisely how he could be, in the same breath, a liberal secularist and an agent of Sadat’s quasi-theocracy. As per the dictates of his modest provincial background, he deferred to older writers like Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad regardless of the substance of their discourse, never daring to open up a discursive space.

Like any number of writers since the mid-20th century, Anis Mansour wanted – and got – access to “the people”, but having paid the price (becoming part of the establishment), he ended up having little to say to them, far less than the intellectually retarded theocrat (and dissident) Sheikh Kishk, another star of the Sadat era, who had a famous scuffle with Mansour over whether or not Egypt Air should serve alcohol. Mansour could only engage those of them who were literate and open-minded enough to read his column in aimlessly rambling conversation, providing what many see as little more than vaguely learned distraction – part of the production line of a media machine which, though not yet as dysfunctional as it would become under Mubarak, was already expert at manufacturing consent in the absence of ideology.

Mansour’s last column for Al Ahram, written in the context of 25 January, seems to recognise or acknowledge the mirror image of success which makes up so much of his contribution, blessing a task he never took upon himself: “There may come a time when you are incapable of staying injustice, but there must come a time to protest that.”


Youssef Rakha at Hay festival 2011: My hero of free speech

the telegraph

Youssef Rakha takes refuge in the limpid prose of the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century

My freedom-of-speech hero was never particularly gung-ho. Unlike the majority of Arab intellectuals since colonial times, he did not champion revolutionary attitudes, whether nationalist or Islamist, from the comfort of an utilitarian armchair. His hermeneutics of the Quran is perhaps the first original interpretation of Islam since the 12th century. It incurred a fatwa on his life and a court ruling that he should be separated from his wife against his will and hers! I think he is the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century, but for exposing all that is un-Islamic about contemporary Islam, showing unreserved aversion to the excrement of the holy cows, as it were – and for doing so with impeccably Muslim credentials – he was not only dismissed but also branded a non-Muslim. Somehow he managed to avoid becoming another Milan Kundera or another Salman Rusdie.

On losing his job at Cairo University, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) did accept the offer of a job in the Netherlands, but he never sought refuge outside his country of birth. He did not play victim or celebrity even after he was straitjacketed in both roles. With the humility of a true hero, he went on doing what he was doing. I am grateful for his scholarship, which added to my sense of identity as a secular Muslim. I am grateful because he showed me what is theologically wrong with the kind of religious discourse that I hate. But he is my hero because his books taught me, an unbeliever, that the creed into which I was born does not require the kind of stupidity I have always found so repulsive. Less than a year after his death I remain as agnostic as ever, but I know now that the sort of people who targeted Abu Zayd – fellow scholars backed by lawyers committed to political Islam – are, in the glorious scholarly traditions of the faith, closer to the idolater than the zealot.

Abu Zayd died suddenly of an obscure virus six months before revolution broke out on the streets of Cairo. Since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, the fundamentalist rigidity that gave Abu Zayd so much trouble has been more visible in the media. With Hassan Nasrallah supporting the Assad regime in Syria and the Muslim Brothers boycotting demonstrations against military abuses in the new Egypt, however, the opportunism and the lies of political Islam are also clearer than ever. When they have infuriated or terrified me, I have taken refuge in Abu Zayd’s limpid prose. It is heavy stuff, not bed-time reading. But it is so lucid and convincing it allows me, with so much unrest at the doorstep, to relax in bed knowing not only where I stand but also that it makes sense to stand there as a Muslim, however agnostic, however disappointed in contemporary Islam.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian journalist and author. His latest novel is ‘Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars’

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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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