On Nael El-Toukhy’s Two Thousand and Six
A spectre is haunting Arabic literature – the spectre of Halssism. All the Powers of old Culture have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Respectable State Cronies and Leftist Dinosaurs, poet Ahmad Abdel-Mo’ti Hegazi and critic Wael El-Semary, Moroccan philosophers and Lebanese novelists. Where is the literary endeavour in true opposition to the status quo that has not been decried as Halss by its opponents in power (halss being the quaint but all too appropriate term for Irreverent Nonsense, Hilarious Noise, Creative Nihilism)? Where is the Literary Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Halssism against the more advanced opposition parties within the same margin, besides hurling it against better established, reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact: Halssism is already acknowledged by Arab literary Powers to be itself a Power; and it is high time that Halssists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Halssism with a Manifesto of the party itself. To this end, Youssef Rakha here provides his reading of Nael El-Toukhi’s Al-Alfain wa Sittah: Qissat Al-Harb Al-Kabira (Two Thousand and Six: The Story of the Big War, Cairo: Merit, 2009), perhaps the millennium’s first openly Halssist novel(la), in which the theme of Revolution serves as the backdrop not only to the kind of meticulously stylised, thoroughly contemporary and cult classic-making Halss few writers have had the courage or the oomph to produce but also to basic values of the Halssist doctrine, to be traced in its present form to a major shift through the Nineties from grand narratives and vaguely moralistic drives, from collectively conceived identities and high-falutin tones, to the individual and the vernacular and the everyday. Here, finally, is pure Halss – or almost.
I. POETS AND NOVELISTS
The history of all hitherto existing literature is the history of genre struggles. Scholar and critic, journalist and blogger, prose- and free verse-champion, in a word, stylist/theorist and counter-stylist/theorist, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of literary discourse, or – more often, to be sure – in the common ruin of contending approaches to literature. And so too is the Philip K Dick-like opening of the present text infused with the urgency and distress of Literary Life (the exclusive butt of Toukhy’s tongue-in-cheek Big War): “One day, some poet sent a message from his e-mail to a number of his friends. He said he had left Cairo, was on his way to the desert: the Western Desert, to be precise. He said he grew bored of life, and was heading there with the purpose of suicide. The poet, whose name is Abdelaziz, added that he took along a can of tuna and a loaf of bread on this journey that would last forever, a journey to the hereafter as he called it. He would die and his corpse would disintegrate, as he said, and in a month from now, everyone would know where he lay.”
Abdelaziz, as it turns out, is the macho, testosterone- as well as theory-driven Leader of the Poetry Revolution, which by the time he leaves for the desert following a breakdown precipitated by his falling out with his main collaborator and close friend, Reda, has been sabotaged into a Novel Revolution. Reda is the new Leader, and as such also the husband of Abdelaziz’s once wife Sayeda, a sort of living monument to the Revolution with whom he has had a peculiar, supernatural love affair since long before the momentous events of 2006. Ultimately the Revolution takes place with Sayeda’s blessings, and it is accomplished by Reda together with Nael (a critic who at times, because of his name, seems to stand in for the author himself) and Magdy (a dodgy character recruited by Nael and Reda to be the henchmen of the revolutionary army of Bald Fat Intellectuals). Abdelaziz, as it turns out, never kills himself in the end: his e-mail is a sort of lie, a device whereby he could escape his Historical Role (embodied in the magazine he founded and edited with the help of Reda). Instead he moved to Helwan where, forever dead to Literary Life, he opened a mobile-phone shop and transformed himself into Mi’allim (Master) Ziza, eventually to discover – to his chagrin – that he himself is in fact a passive homosexual…
II. WRITERS AND JOKERS
In what relation do the Writers stand to the Producers of Halss, the Postmodern Satirists and Jokers whose values differ fundamentally from those of the old Culture, and whose work appeared in the form of blogs if not Facebook statuses long before it made its way into print? The Writers do not form a separate party opposed to other satirical parties who, in a time of endlessly corrupt respectability and absurd political commitments, will not tire of poking fun at the Holy Cows not of Politics and Ideology (those, it would seem, were already slaughtered by the prose poets of the Nineties long before the Jokers came on the scene) but, more importantly, of a Literary Life increasingly and often ludicrously filled with values whose function is to respond to the capitalisation and globalisation to which both life and literature are increasingly – and as inevitably as the Revolution seemed to Marx and Engles, God bless them – succumbing. The Writers have no interests separate and apart from those of the Jokers (whom we might safely identify with their Readers) as a whole. Except for values of sarcasm, irony, nihilism, laughter, pure enjoyment of a purely democratised creative act, which values cannot meaningfully be described as such, they do not set up any literary or cultural principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the inevitable Halss movement in its unstoppable forward march on history.
Here as elsewhere in the work of those who might be termed the post-millennial generation of cultural agents, Literary Life is the perfect target not simply for satire as such – and Toukhy’s book, it should be clear, is among the funniest satires currently on the market, certainly the most hilarious critique of the contemporary Egyptian literary sensibility to date – but also, and especially, for any effective portrait of life in the sprawling, multifaceted city eventually overtaken by the Bald Fat Intellectuals. Reda, Nael, Sayeda – not to mention Abdelaziz, especially in his Ziza avatar – are all deeply religious and pious people, for example, notwithstanding the irresolvable contradictions between the faith they purport to have and their actions and interests (beer drinking, sex, violence, and the cardinal sin of literary endeavour). This (true) fact of (contemporary) life, Toukhy presents, with unrealistic faithfulness to reality, as given. Somewhat problematically for a Reader not familiar with the immediate context in which he has produced this book – and as such problematically, perhaps, for the Halssist project as whole, since Halssism in its ultimate effect should never be context-specific – Toukhy feels no need to clarify whether or not he is poking fun at Wahhabi religiosity, whether or not expressions of religion on the part of his characters is as absurd as the Knowing Reader – au fait with Literary Life, will readily take it to be.
Yet Toukhy does other things with Halss – as Halssists should and will. He uses the language of bloggers and other post-millennial newcomers to the literary sphere, for example, (mis)spelling vernacular words to replicate the way they are pronounced – an involuntary mistake on the part of said bloggers, voluntary on his – in order to bring down the airy castles of the old Culture. He plays with values of manhood, womanhood and everything in between – in order to destroy prevalent (mis)conceptions about the roles people play and the places they occupy. With an intellectual rigour that is necessary for the effective communication of a Halssist message (Halssist messages can say little or nothing, of course, apart from Halss), he places the idea of Revolution before him and looks at it. He looks long and hard at this idea and its connections with a broad range of the ideas and images informing contemporary Arab life. He reviews ways in which the idea has been used, manners in which it has been critiqued, and he gives a more or less realistic account of what Revolution amounts to, in the end. And yet, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls that await the committed Halssist once he approaches political, social or cultural themes, Toukhy does this through the oblique and distorting lens of an extremely narrow and ultimately absolutely impotent community of Citizens: the cafe-going intellectuals who populate downtown Cairo, the drinkers and the smokers, the little-educated, self-obsessed founders of literary magazines.
“We suggest a new and exciting subject to the young researchers among our children: the Revolution’s view of itself, how it expressed itself (in this case, its selves) through different names: Revolution, War, Haifa,” the long cherished Palestinian town the book’s Revolutionaries invoked in their forward-marching slogans, “Beyond Haifa, Beyond Beyond Haifa, ending with Two Thousand and Six, the year of the outbreak of the Revolution: 1 February 2006. How was each one of those titles made to prevail in the press and the media? How did society receive them (sometimes easily, often after resistance)? Sources will be available and plentiful: the newspapers issued in 2006. The researcher who wants to register his thesis will clash with an essential obstacle, however. He will be told that Two Thousand and Six is not yet an event that can be contemplated from afar, it is not yet history. And this is true, for something in Two Thousand and Six made it an ahistorical event, an event forever in present time, an event in which we live. Two Thousand and Seven came and went, then Two Thousand and Eight, even Two Thousand and Twenty. And still, in every year, part of Two Thousand and Six moves along with that year, runs parallel to it, does not overtake or lag behind it. Therefore the crisis that Abdelaziz felt was that he lived in pre-Two Thousand and Six times, before that moment that proved itself eternal…”
III. SATIRICAL AND HALSSIST LITERATURE
As we draw up the outlines and constituents of the Halssist party as a whole, glimpsing the potential of this all-encompassing spectre, which will no doubt beget a wider variety of offspring as the millennium moves ahead heralding the triumph of the Jokers, it is important to set Halssism apart from an increasingly popular mode of quasi-literary writing that has been identified as Humorous or Comic, and which shares with Halss the essential elements of satire and social critique. Humorous writing which has in these recent, commercialised years made the best-seller list as often as anything else may have been a step on the way to the true liberation of the Jokers that Halssism proposes, their prevalence and their ultimate, scientifically ordained triumph. But it is not the same as Halss in that it holds onto various aspects of the real and the moral the presence of which will hamper and potentially kill the transformation now besetting our world. Revolution is indeed afoot, in order once and for all to bring down Revolution.
JOKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
For some 24 hours now, every time I switch on my television, a message takes up three quarters of the screen: my Showtime subscription has expired. If I do not renew it immediately – so the white-on-grey writing tells me, in no uncertain terms – the service will be discontinued in five days. Five days, I cogitate: Why should this be happening exactly 45 days before I am due to leave the country? It is as if some incredibly ironic force is timing things so that, having decided to leave Abu Dhabi, I must go through the traditional Egyptian mourning period of 40 days, whether I like it or not.
It does not matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, so long as you are Egyptian: the Arbaein (or, literally: the Fortieth) is strictly observed. When someone dies, that person’s family and friends are supposed to grieve for 40 days, after which a ceremony marks the point when they finally let go of their loved one. Afterwards, instead of “May your life give you solace,” people start saying “May you live and remember.” But in the meantime, no festivities can take place; if a wedding has been scheduled, the wedding has to be postponed. Often – whether out of respect, ill humour or moroseness – people also refrain from switching on their TVs.
I am thinking that perhaps, by depriving me of Showtime, Abu Dhabi is asking me to mourn it – or, more precisely, to mourn the person I have been while living here. After all, in the course of the last 24 hours, during which I kick-started the pre-departure procedures at work and at my bank, that person (my Abu Dhabi avatar) more or less officially died. And my finances and professional schedules being what they are – among other things, I have a lot of reading to do for outstanding books reviews – I will not renew my subscription. Mourning, then, my last 40 days shall be.
Yet there is a cheerier way of reading the situation: I have been released of my bondage to the screen. For nearly a year now the television has been on in my living quarters far more frequently than I ever thought possible. I am hard pressed to say whether this is directly related to Abu Dhabi, but the person I was before I came here (my Cairo avatar) hated television. AD-me is a TV addict; C-me is not. So it startled me to hear my Ethiopian cleaning woman remark, on meeting AD-me at the beginning of the end of his lifetime, that I do not watch enough TV. She didn’t seem to appreciate that I spend more time with Jerry Seinfeld, John Stewart, Mitchell and Webb and the cast of Married with Children than with real people.
Elena entered my life through my preferred Ethiopian Jebena coffee shop, a few steps away from my apartment. This was several weeks after the great Senthil – my podgy Tamil bellboy from the Ramee Garden who, after I found my apartment, I hired to be my indispensable purveyor of general order – went home to Madras, where he has ended up staying far longer than he said he would. (Will he ever come back? I doubt it.)
I did what I could in his absence, “could” being a euphemism for “could be bothered to do”. When the disorder became unbearable, I began to ask my Ethiopian waitress friends over Jebena if they could introduce me to someone who would “sawwi tandhif,” as I said in pidgin Arabic: do cleaning. Enter – eventually – Elena the Eritrean:
Reticent, efficient, spick-and-span and outwardly severe, Elena comes and goes under the cover of an Emirati abaya heavily scented with Arabian aromatic oil, which she takes off to work, revealing a T-shirt and sweat pants. Sometimes, if she is not in too much of a hurry and I have asked her enough times, she takes a TV break, drinking Nescafé while I sip my Turkish coffee (which she deems so inferior to Jebena that she brings her own instant coffee along) and telling me a little about her life and TV preferences.
I suppose it is only natural, given how the television is always on at Ethiopian cafes and homes, that Elena finds my television watching insufficient. But she also takes issue with my preference for comedy channels, regards Family Guy as just another children’s cartoon and once told me that she sees action and horror as the only genres worth exploring. This suggested to me that she was far less severe than she seemed, and I rushed for the remote control, but Fox Movies had neither Alien vs. Predator nor I, Robot – two films that channel seems to show on a loop and I thought she would like – and ShowMovies Action was showing a mawkish 1970s number in which the monster, as Elena pointed out with a pitying smile, looked like a blow-up toy.
In the end, AD-me switched back to Family Guy, and Elena left the room.
That night, C-me appeared in my dream. He was a sort of superhero hunting down his double, whom he identified simply as “my TV twin” (as in “where is that renegade TV twin of mine?”). The chase was like an action film and a horror film in one, complete with video-game sound effects and sudden shifts of viewpoint. The double, whom I knew to be AD-me, never appeared until the very end when he fought C-me in a laser-beam duel on what looked like the roof of the Hilton Baynunah. AD-me was about to lose irrevocably when he leapt from the roof, held onto the rampart and cried out: “Eleeenaaaa!”
An Ethiopian-looking, black-clad superwoman flew onto the scene holding a silver shield that kept C-me’s beams in check while AD-me recovered to fight another day (or, more accurately, another five days); “I told you,” the superwoman kept telling the panting, all-but-vanquished, cartoon-loving survivor. “I told you to watch more action movies.”