A Kind of Linguistic Caliphate: In Conversation with Hilary Plum

A CONVERSATION WITH YOUSSEF RAKHA

I first learned of Youssef Rakha’s work in June 2011, when Anton Shammas wrote me with an unprecedentedly urgent recommendation. I was an editor with Interlink Publishing, which has been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1987: here was a writer who, as Shammas would later put it, with his debut novel had claimed “an immediate spot at the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” With The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha has, in Shammas’s words, “[realized] at long last, one of the dreams of modern Arabic novelists since the mid nineteenth century: to formulate a seamless style of modern narration that places the novel in the world.” The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Kitab at-Tughra) had been published in February 2011, coincident with the beginning of revolution in Cairo, and over the following years, as I awaited its translation with the impatience the monolingual are doomed to endure, rumors of the novel continually, insistently arrived. I can only suggest that the anticipation I felt then is the anticipation literature in English does not yet know it has been feeling, the lack from which it’s been suffering, and which these two novels will answer in force.
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In one of those lucky moments when publishing just gets things right, this winter offers readers in English Rakha’s first two novels at once: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey and published by Interlink, and The Crocodiles, translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories. Sultan’s Seal moves us exhilaratingly through the Cairo of 2007, city of post-9/11 Islam, sweeping through centuries of Arab and Ottoman history and into a future of Rakha’s own invention. The Crocodiles takes us up to the brink of 2011, spinning the history of a secret poetry society in Cairo, gorgeous in its fury, hope, and despair. Rakha’s arrival in English constitutes an event. It’s been my pleasure to speak with Youssef about his work.

Always a Place for the Still Frame: David Degner on Practice, Vision, and the Future of Photojournalism

David Degner is a Cairo-based freelance photographer represented by Getty Reportage and the
co-editor of the Egyptian photo story magazine, Panorama by Mada Masr

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In an age when video journalism is increasinly paramount and printing is arguably no longer necessary, how do you feel the still image is still pertinent to documentary or news work?

Video journalism serves its purpose and is growing as it is easier to create and distribute, but photos haven’t lost their power in this new environment. A single strong image can be viewed and summarize a situation in seconds. In our fast paced world there will always be a place for the still frame.

Do you think documentary and art photography are important for the development of photo journalism? Is there enough of that going on in Egypt (with the Cairo Image Collective, for example) to create a photographic culture?

As a photojournalist I often steal style from art and commercial photography.  We must be aware of their modern visual language in our work to stay relevant and interesting.  But even though the internet has broken down barriers it can be impossible to find many documentary or art photo books in Cairo.  While in the west you can pick up a thick fashion magazine at almost any store and get inspired by the commercial portraiture it takes conscious effort for photographers to suss out inspiration in Egypt.

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Two Extracts from “Paulo” (The Crocodiles II), Translated by Robin Moger

A Kid Came to Me

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A kid they marked up down at the Qasr Al Nil police station came to complain to me. (This was what was going on back then, with the April 6th Youth Movement and Kifaya and all of that stuff; and the Brotherhood, too, they were getting it together on the sly, even though, bit by bit, they were starting to get it in the neck: cunts.) A sweet kid and a sissy, a guy could get a hard-on just sitting next to him, who’d been working with me for a while and whose name was Ashraf Bayoumi. They marked him up and he came to my house. The minute I saw him I spat and turned my back. On the 4th of April I’d sent him along to a tiny demonstration whose purpose he didn’t know in Talaat Harb Square, and he was supposed to have reported back to me the same day. He bent and wiped my spittle from the doorstep with his sleeve then threw himself at me smearing his mouth against my brow. Just hear me out, he said. Then he followed me inside and asked for a glass of water.

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“Egypt before the Revolution”: Per Munther’s Leica

Cairo, 15 January 1850

[…] Here we are then, in Egypt, the land of the Pharoahs, the land of the Ptolemies, the kingdom of Cleopatra (as they say in the grand style). Here we are, and here we abide, with our heads shaven as clean as your knee, smoking long pipes and drinking our coffee lying on divans. What can I say? How can I write to you about it? I have scarcely recovered from my initial astonishment.

 

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Cover Art for FLICK, the Cairo International Film Festival 2014 Bulletin, Issues #1-10

Marcia Lynx Qualey: A Review of the Newest Arabic Novel (Remix)

Arab Muscle Dancers . Half of a stereoview, 1898, B. W. Kilburn
Arab Muscle Dancers, 1898, by B. W. Kilburn

Insert Title Here, by Our Arab Author, translated by So-and-so. Such-and-such publisher. $12.99.

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? We in the West hear about the Middle East all the time, but for most of us it remains unknown and unknowable. More complicated still is that, as I learnt at the weekend, forms like the novel and short story were alien to Arabic culture before the first decade of the 20th century: the genres are, themselves, imports.

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Angelus Novus: A Letter from Hilary Plum

Dear Youssef,

A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.

The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.

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