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.
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.
Sing, Adaweyah! of the microbus’s wrath
That, rattling death and venom-fuming, a demented sphinx,
Carves through the flesh of traffic like missilery,
And brings car-owning Pasha to his knee.
Sing of the asphalt urchin, creature of the dust
Who in its smoggy wake performs noir rites;
His muffled yelps, as pædocock stretches his child’s asshole,
Transforming into clouds.
Murad came back in two packages. He was hit in the neck, they said. The squall of ammo was such the head wouldn’t stay in place.
After Mama was hauled to Tante Loulou’s I arranged him on a mattress in the living room, then I sat thinking how he hated the army.
I’d hated it too, twelve years before. Even though at that time conscripts weren’t being screwed. But to be in the barracks on July 23…
The Gunmen had timed it to make a point. The army is the state is the infidels is the enemy, they believe. And July 23, 1952? A coup.
It’s the coup you call R that WE call bloody C. How about everyone just calls it RC, I was thinking. Then I remembered.
It kind of grows out of traffic. The staccato hiss of an exhaust pipe begins to sound like record scratching. Skidding and braking, the vehicles resume their car horn concerto. Braying, bawling, crashing, farting, fortissimo hustling cut in. Then comes the imperious vroom of a makana – the Arabic corruption of the Italian word for ‘machine’ – as a motorcycle is called on the streets of Cairo…