I finished your magnum opus [Kitab at Tugra] two days ago, with tears in my eyes, and I’ve been intoxicated since, in the most Faridian sense of the word. Among other things, no one (REPEAT: NO ONE) has ever written so wondrously about love and sex in Arabic the way you did in the last two chapters of the novel, i.e. — making the Arabic language make love as it has never done before. Ibn al Farid should feel so comfortable, and so privileged, and so sexy in your company. But that’s not your major achievement, No Sir. You managed to write a perfect (REPEAT: PERFECT) Arabic novel, on so many levels. Very few writers have done that, and to enter the Hall of Fame with a first novel is nothing short of miraculous. Your meticulous attention to what turns a text into a stunning novel is absolutely amazing, and your masterful control of all the aspects of your text is something that should be taught in writing programs. But above all, I think, your major achievement is in being what Foucault would call “a discourse initiator” — someone who single handedly changes a discipline, and in this case the discipline of the Arabic novel. You are my al Jabarti of the Arabic novel. — Anton Shammas in a private e-mail Continue reading
For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…
Out of the blue, which is occasionally a beautiful blue, a reader of Kitab at Tughra gave me an unexpected and very dear gift: nine of my poems in English, beautifully translated. By way of gratitude and to celebrate, I spent the evening making black and white, square format pictures with the poems at the back of my mind – with the intention of producing one picture for each poem. I think of Sargon Boulus as, truly moved, I post these texts with thanks and acknowledgements to qisasukhra
The Angel of Death gives counsel to a bereaved parent
Barely a minute and you tread with dimmed eyes:
Is your patience exhausted in a minute?
There is nothing in all the universe that will show you mercy
Nothing that will halt the saw’s stroke through your bones.
Sit a while
And do not tax me,
Don’t make your misfortune a plea to me
When you know
That I am under orders:
I bear on my shoulders Earth’s lamentations
A thousand times redoubled.
Do not assume that I possess the meaning of anything,
For when blood stains the asphalt
I see a dark blotch, nothing more,
Though I feel all that’s felt by you plus
All those like you.
I’m the one who keeps you company, moment by moment,
Unable to delight in your delight
Because I know your pain entire,
Even in your moments of acutest pleasure.
All I can promise you now
Is that when you look
You shall not find a trace of the dead one in the bed
And as a supplementary service from me,
You shall not find a bed in the room,
Indeed, there’ll be no room there,
And you will stand with nothing before you,
Nothing at all,
And all I ask in return?
That life is nothing but waiting for me,
Me, who grinds hearts utterly,
Not for a single moment spared
The sound of their beat.
For Mohab Nasr
All these years my friend
As though we’re here by mistake
Waiting until the roads clear
To drive unlicensed trucks
And face the border guards
With forced laughter and cash.
We dream of places that were they found
We’d be no good for, my friend,
Forced to mix with the statues
To swap their talk with them
To be jammed in among them
With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,
Our heads bowed down at home
We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries
That we might try reproducing in secret,
Mourning our endangered line.
All these years plucking up the courage
To declare we are not statues
And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,
Dead with flattened heads,
With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,
With holes in our bones.
How is it, my friend, after all these years
All we can utter is croaking?
The Angel (A god who renounced his faith)
You asked me what I would like to be in your eyes,
I said: God.
For a time I granted you favours and punished you.
Were you fleeing my grief, when you failed to tell me
That you had a cuckold Lord bestowing gifts upon you all the while?
How you could not accept my seal stamped on your brow
When you were so set on veneration?
And did you think creating you was such a little thing?
Son of a bitch,
Why let me plow when you meant to burn the fields?
The Angel (Your picture)
Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,
As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,
As though they had not arranged cuttings that float
In an inch of water which you made a sea.
Not your crooked leg among the runners
Nor your teeth clamped on the shoulder that carries you,
Nor a victim, naturally: You’ve never in your life been a victim.
Sleep, despising those you call “coherent”,
Believing that your feet tread a path you forged.
Don’t for one moment ask about the handful of dust
You are wont to throw in the faces of those that call you to account,
Staggered by the abuse; how vulgar it was.
Forget that your air is not your own, that you breathe
With an army of respirators, that you
Are like the moneymen: every step calculated.
You are a beast in your strength; you’re in demand…
Your contemporaries really are spiteful: you are resplendent with tragedy
A pioneering presence on every screen.
Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty
That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.
Pay no mind to the frame you put around your picture
Nor that once you thought it ugly. Pay no mind
To the fact your picture was ugly, ugly
Enough—once you’d framed it—to burn.
Coffee on the way back from the airport
When the light blinded us, I said to you: Morning’s taken us by storm
And you were muttering, your eye to the glass.
You said: The day’s come much quicker than I expected.
You said: Here is bad, but there is worse;
No. Here is worse than there.
You said: Although I… Although she… Although all these things…
I’m optimistic, then noticed that your coffee
Was no longer crowned with steam.
You were muttering, like I was a mirror or tape recorder,
Just an old container
That traversed the distance with you
Your eye to the glass, from which the night departed
With sudden harshness.
In the 24-hour café:
Another departure hall? The seats on their heads
Legs in the air and your strained face giving out
The same feel as the empty furniture,
The furniture they flip to wash the floor.
You were exactly like the airport:
You did not want to be up at this hour
Where the chairs are flipped and the officers yawn, disgruntled
As they stamp the passports.
You said: How do places get smaller!
You said: How many stamps and visas in my passport?
How many meaningful journeys?
You said: Perhaps life’s more fun south of the equator.
This is how you were muttering when the light blinded us.
I said to you: Morning’s taken us by surprise it seems
And you said: The day’s come quicker than I expected,
Much quicker than I expected.
This heavy lamp with the tapered rim
Like a medieval instrument of torture.
Have you seen it squatting innocently between our beds?
(Thus spoke my friend who is staying with me in the room
Where the sea sounds like cars on the Corniche
And in the weave of the blanket I’m sleeping on
The memory of a lifetime spent between Cairo and Alexandria
On the rails.)
I will wait until sleep overtakes you (he went on)
Then raise it high in the air above your head
(And I tried remembering
Why it was we had to take the last train
After nights of unjustified sleeplessness
So that no sooner did we reach our room
Than each lay down on his bed
And there was nothing in the world to warrant waking.)
I’ll wait until sleep overtakes you (he repeated)
And screaming the scream of a suicide bomber on the brink of the deed
Will relieve my hand of the lamp’s weight, over your head.
For Ahmed Yamaani
A little before dawn I come out of the 24-hour café looking for a newspaper stand where I might find the magazine with my picture in it. I walk a long way through the pitch-dark streets and pass kiosks whose occupants I question, but I don’t find what I want. No one’s with me at the café: I left my laptop open on the table and in my bag hanging from the back of the chair are my house-keys and ID card. Even so, when a white taxi stops for me I get in next to the driver straight away and he drives the car down streets ablaze as if with daylight, though it’s nothing but the orange street lights that have proliferated to a terrifying extent. An hour or more goes by with neither of us speaking, then he stops in a place not pitch-black or ablaze and when I hand him the fare he opens his zipper and takes out his erect black cock. As though I had returned to the 24-hour café, I find myself in the midst of a group of young people, huddled in sixes or sevens around cars from which comes trance music, either talking to one another or standing silent. I feel they’re my friends, or that I’m one of them, but I’m surprised that we’re all males—not a girl or woman among us—and I recall that I haven’t seen a single woman, not in the café, not in the street, not even in my imagination. Then I catch sight of my bag, which has my house-keys and ID in it, on the shoulder of a munaqqaba who’s striding along on the other side of the street and the corner of the laptop’s poking out of the bag’s opening. I try catching up with the munaqqaba but she gets into a white taxi that stops for her and takes off and where I expect to see my picture in the magazine I find a picture of a naked girl who in no time is lying on the café’s table sighing, caressing my forehead, her cunt growing wet, as she says: “Isn’t it awful to be a man in this town?”
My thinnest girlfriends always complain
Of gaining weight, which confuses me
When I think of fat girls.
But then I remember
That I’ve never suffered from loving my lover,
Except when it provides a good excuse to leave her,
And I reflect that things are less important
Than they seem, if we look at them
Which eases my terror a little.
So I say to myself that the world is really like this:
The thin fear fat,
The fat love food,
Lovers never suffer for the right reasons
And everything does not ride
But you did not endure all this only to hear the terrible rap of a door closing and know how much you yearn to hide the thing before you, the awful thing that you don’t want to see. At this point, that which gives the world meaning becomes just part of the world, terror takes its own life and the same story ends or begins.
Poems by Youssef Rakha
Translations by qisasukhra.wordpress.com (The text may vary slightly on qisasukhra, but there is no such thing as a final draft)
On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries
“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…
When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.
A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?
I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.
The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?
Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.
Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?
I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.
Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation
William S. Burroughs
When I lived in Mexico City at the end of the 1940s, it was a city of one million people, with clear sparkling air and the sky that special shade of blue that goes so well with circling vultures, blood and sand–the raw menacing pitiless Mexican blue. I liked Mexico City from the first day of my first visit there. In 1949, it was a cheap place to live, with a large foreign colony, fabulous whorehouses and restaurants, cockfights and bullfights, and every conceivable diversion. A single man could live well there for two dollars a day. My New Orleans case for heroin and marijuana possession looked so unpromising that I decided not to show up for the court date, and I rented an apartment in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City.
I knew that under the statute of limitations I could not return to the United States for five years, so I applied for Mexican citizenship and enrolled in some courses in Mayan and Mexican archaeology at Mexico City College. The G.I. Bill paid for my books and tuition, and a seventy-five-dollar-per-month living allowance. I thought I might go into farming, or perhaps open a bar on the American border.
The City appealed to me. The slum areas compared favorably with anything in Asia for sheer filth and poverty. People would shit all over the street, then lie down and sleep in it with the flies crawling in and out of their mouths. Entrepreneurs, not infrequently lepers, built fires on street corners and cooked up hideous, stinking, nameless messes of food, which they dispensed to passersby. Drunks slept right on the sidewalks of the main drag, and no cops bothered them. It seemed to me that everyone in Mexico had mastered the art of minding his own business. If a man wanted to wear a monocle or carry a cane, he did not hesitate to do it, and no one gave him a second glance. Boys and young men walked down the street arm in arm and no one paid them any mind. It wasn’t that people didn’t care what others thought; it simply would not occur to a Mexican to expect criticism from a stranger, nor to criticize the behavior of others.
Mexico was basically an Oriental culture that reflected two thousand years of disease and poverty and degradation and stupidity and slavery and brutality and psychic and physical terrorism. It was sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream. No Mexican really knew any other Mexican, and when a Mexican killed someone (which happened often), it was usually his best friend. Anyone who felt like it carried a gun, and I read of several occasions where drunken cops, shooting at the habitués of a bar, were themselves shot by armed civilians. As authority figures, Mexican cops ranked with streetcar conductors.
All officials were corruptible, income tax was very low, and medical treatment was extremely reasonable, because the doctors advertised and cut their prices. You could get a clap cured for $2.40, or buy the penicillin and shoot it yourself. There were no regulations curtailing self-medication, and needles and syringes could be bought anywhere. This was in the time of Alemá¡n, when the mordida was king, and a pyramid of bribes reached from the cop on the beat up to the Presidente. Mexico City was also the murder capital of the world, with the highest per-capita homicide rate. I remember newspaper stories every day, like these:
A campesino is in from the country, waiting for a bus: linen pants, sandals made from a tire, a wide sombrero, a machete at his belt. Another man is also waiting, dressed in a suit, looking at his wrist watch, muttering angrily. The campesino whips out his machete and cuts the man’s head clean off. He later told police: “He was giving me looks muy feo and finally I could not contain myself.” Obviously the man was annoyed because the bus was late, and was looking down the road for the bus, when the campesino misinterpreted his action, and the next thing a head rolls in the gutter, grimacing horribly and showing gold teeth.
Two campesinos are sitting disconsolate by the roadside. They have no money for breakfast. But look: a boy leading several goats. One campesino picks up a rock and bashes the boy’s brains out. They take the goats to the nearest village and sell them. They are eating breakfast when they are apprehended by the police.
A man lives in a little house. A stranger asks him how to find the road for Ayahuasca. “Ah, this way, señor.” He is leading the man around and around: “The road is right here.” Suddenly he realizes he hasn’t any idea where the road is, and why should he be bothered? So he picks up a rock and kills his tormentor.
Campesinos took their toll with rock and machete. More murderous were the politicians and off-duty cops, each with his .45 automatic. One learned to hit the deck. Here is another actual story: A gun-toting politico hears his girl is cheating, meeting someone in this cocktail lounge. Some American kid just happens in and sits next to her, when the macho bursts in: “¡CHINGOA!” Hauls out his .45 and blasts the kid right off his bar stool. They drag the body outside and down the street a ways. When the cops arrive, the bartender shrugs and mops his bloody bar, and says only: “Malos, esos muchachos!” (“Those bad boys!”)
Every country has its own special Shits, like the Southern law-man counting his Nigger notches, and the sneering Mexican macho is certainly up there when it comes to sheer ugliness. And many of the Mexican middle class are about as awful as any bourgeoisie in the world. I remember that in Mexico the narcotic scripts were bright yellow, like a thousand-dollar bill, or a dishonorable discharge from the Army. One time Old Dave and I tried to fill such a script, which he had obtained quite legitimately from the Mexican government. The first pharmacist we hit jerked back snarling from such a sight: “¡No prestamos servicio a los viciosos!” (“We do not serve dope fiends!”)
From one farmacìa to another we walked, getting sicker with every step: “No, señor. . . .” We must have walked for miles.
“Never been in this neighborhood before.”
“Well, let’s try one more.”
Finally we entered a tiny hole-in-the-wall farmacìa. I pulled out the receta, and a gray-haired lady smiled at me. The pharmacist looked at the script, and said, “Two minutes, señor.”
We sat down to wait. There were geraniums in the window. A small boy brought me a glass of water, and a cat rubbed against my leg. After awhile the pharmacist returned with our morphine.
Outside, the neighborhood now seemed enchanted: Little farmacìas in a market, crates and stalls outside, a pulquerìa on the corner. Kiosks selling fried grasshoppers and peppermint candy black with flies. Boys in from the country in spotless white linen and rope sandals, with faces of burnished copper and fierce innocent black eyes, like exotic animals, of a dazzling sexless beauty. Here is a boy with sharp features and black skin, smelling of vanilla, a gardenia behind his ear. Yes, you found a Johnson, but you waded through Shitville to find him. You always do. Just when you think the earth is exclusively populated by Shits, you meet a Johnson.
One day there was a knock on my door at eight in the morning. I went to the door in my pyjamas, and there was an inspector from Immigration.
“Get your clothes on. You’re under arrest.” It seemed the woman next door had turned in a long report on my drunk and disorderly behavior, and also there was something wrong with my papers and where was the Mexican wife I was supposed to have? The Immigration officers were all set to throw me in jail to await deportation as an undesirable alien. Of course, everything could be straightened out with some money, but my interviewer was the head of the deporting department and he wouldn’t go for peanuts. I finally had to get up off of two hundred dollars. As I walked home from the Immigration Office, I imagined what I might have had to pay if I had really had an investment in Mexico City.
I thought of the constant problems the three American owners of the Ship Ahoy encountered. The cops came in all the time for a mordida, and then came the sanitary inspectors, then more cops trying to get something on the joint so they could take a real bite. They took the waiter downtown and beat the shit out of him. They wanted to know where was Kelly’s body stashed? How many women been raped in the joint? Who brought in the weed? And so on. Kelly was an American hipster who had been shot in the Ship Ahoy six months before, had recovered, and was now in the U.S. Army. No woman was ever raped there, and no one ever smoked weed there. By now I had entirely abandoned my plans to open a bar in Mexico.
An addict has little regard for his image. He wears the dirtiest, shabbiest clothes, and feels no need to call attention to himself. During my period of addiction in Tangiers, I was known as “El Hombre Invisible,” The Invisible Man. This disintegration of self-image often results in an indiscriminate image hunger. Billie Holliday said she knew she was off junk when she stopped watching TV. In my first novel, Junky, the protagonist “Lee” comes across as integrated and self-contained, sure of himself and where he is going. In Queer he is disintegrated, desperately in need of contact, completely unsure of himself and of his purpose.
The difference of course is simple: Lee on junk is covered, protected and also severely limited. Not only does junk short-circuit the sex drive, it also blunts emotional reactions to the vanishing point, depending on the dosage. Looking back over the action of Queer, that hallucinated month of acute withdrawal takes on a hellish glow of menace and evil drifting out of neon-lit cocktail bars, the ugly violence, the .45 always just under the surface. On junk I was insulated, didn’t drink, didn’t go out much, just shot up and waited for the next shot.
When the cover is removed, everything that has been held in check by junk spills out. The withdrawing addict is subject to the emotional excesses of a child or an adolescent, regardless of his actual age. And the sex drive returns in full force. Men of sixty experience wet dreams and spontaneous orgasms (an extremely unpleasant experience, agaçant as the French say, putting the teeth on edge). Unless the reader keeps this in mind, the metamorphosis of Lee’s character will appear as inexplicable or psychotic. Also bear in mind that the withdrawal syndrome is self-limiting, lasting no more than a month. And Lee has a phase of excessive drinking, which exacerbates all the worst and most dangerous aspects of the withdrawal sickness: reckless, unseemly, outrageous, maudlin–in a word, appalling–behavior.
After withdrawal, the organism readjusts and stabilizes at a pre-junk level. In the narrative, this stabilization is finally reached during the South American trip. No junk is available, nor any other drug, after the paregoric of Panama. Lee’s drinking has dwindled to several good stiff ones at sundown. Not so different from the Lee of the later Yage Letters, except for the phantom presence of Allerton.
So I had written Junky, and the motivation for that was comparatively simple: to put down in the most accurate and simple terms my experiences as an addict. I was hoping for publication, money, recognition. Kerouac had published The Town and the City at the time I started writing Junky. I remember writing in a letter to him, when his book was published, that money and fame were now assured. As you can see, I knew nothing about the writing business at the time.
My motivations to write Queer were more complex, and are not clear to me at the present time. Why should I wish to chronicle so carefully these extremely painful and unpleasant and lacerating memories? While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous ventures along these lines by writing my experience down.
At the beginning of the Queer manuscript fragment, having returned from the insulation of junk to the land of the living like a frantic inept Lazarus, Lee seems determined to score, in the sexual sense of the word. There is something curiously systematic and unsexual about his quest for a suitable sex object, crossing one prospect after another off a list which seems compiled with ultimate failure in mind. On some very deep level he does not want to succeed, but will go to any length to avoid the realization that he is not really looking for sex contact.
But Allerton was definitely some sort of contact. And what was the contact that Lee was looking for? Seen from here, a very confused concept that had nothing to do with Allerton as a character. While the addict is indifferent to the impression he creates in others, during withdrawal he may feel the compulsive need for an audience, and this is clearly what Lee seeks in Allerton: an audience, the acknowledgement of his performance, which of course is a mask, to cover a shocking disintegration. So he invents a frantic attention-getting format which he calls the Routine: shocking, funny, riveting. “It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. . . .”
The performance takes the form of routines: fantasies about Chess Players, the Texas Oilman, Corn Hole Gus’s Used-Slave Lot. In Queer, Lee addresses these routines to an actual audience. Later, as he develops as a writer, the audience becomes internalized. But the same mechanism that produced A.J. and Doctor Benway, the same creative impulse, is dedicated to Allerton, who is forced into the role of approving Muse, in which he feels understandably uncomfortable.
What Lee is looking for is contact or recognition, like a photon emerging from the haze of insubstantiality to leave an indelible recording in Allerton’s consciousness. Failing to find an adequate observer, he is threatened by painful dispersal, like an unobserved photon. Lee does not know that he is already committed to writing, since this is the only way he has of making an indelible record, whether Allerton is inclined to observe or not. Lee is being inexorably pressed into the world of fiction. He has already made the choice between his life and his work.
The manuscript trails off in Puyo, End of the Road town. . . . The search for Yage has failed. The mysterious Doctor Cotter wants only to be rid of his unwelcome guests. He suspects them to be agents of his treacherous partner Gill, intent on stealing his genius work of isolating curare from the composite arrow poison. I heard later that the chemical companies decided simply to buy up the arrow poison in quantity and extract the curare in their American laboratories. The drug was soon synthesized, and is now a standard substance found in many muscle-relaxing preparations. So it would seem that Cotter really had nothing to lose: his efforts were already superseded.
Dead end. And Puyo can serve as a model for the Place of Dead Roads: a dead, meaningless conglomerate of tin-roofed houses under a continual downpour of rain. Shell has pulled out, leaving prefabricated bungalows and rusting machinery behind. And Lee has reached the end of his line, an end implicit in the beginning. He is left with the impact of unbridgeable distances, the defeat and weariness of a long, painful journey made for nothing, wrong turnings, the track lost, a bus waiting in the rain . . . back to Ambato, Quito, Panama, Mexico City.
When I started to write this companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket: “I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded. –Painful to an extent I find it difficult to read, let alone to write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.” The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.
While I was writing The Place of Dead Roads, I felt in spiritual contact with the late English writer Denton Welch, and modelled the novel’s hero, Kim Carson, directly on him. Whole sections came to me as if dictated, like table-tapping. I have written about the fateful morning of Denton’s accident, which left him an invalid for the remainder of his short life. If he had stayed a little longer here, not so long there, he would have missed his appointment with the female motorist who hit his bicycle from behind for no apparent reason. At one point Denton had stopped to have coffee, and looking at the brass hinges on the café’s window shutters, some of them broken, he was hit by a feeling of universal desolation and loss. So every event of that morning is charged with special significance, as if it were underlined. This portentous second sight permeates Welch’s writing: a scone, a cup of tea, an inkwell purchased for a few shillings, become charged with a special and often sinister significance.
I get exactly the same feeling to an almost unbearable degree as I read the manuscript of Queer.
The event towards which Lee feels himself inexorably driven is the death of his wife by his own hand, the knowledge of possession, a dead hand waiting to slip over his like a glove. So a smog of menace and evil rises from the pages, an evil that Lee, knowing and yet not knowing, tries to escape with frantic flights of fantasy: his routines, which set one’s teeth on edge because of the ugly menace just behind or to one side of them, a presence palpable as a haze.
Brion Gysin said to me in Paris: “For ugly spirit shot Joan because . . .” A bit of mediumistic message that was not completed–or was it? It doesn’t need to be completed, if you read it: “ugly spirit shot Joan to be cause,” that is, to maintain a hateful parasitic occupation. My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without. (As if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer.) I mean a definite possessing entity. And indeed, the psychological concept might well have been devised by the possessing entities, since nothing is more dangerous to a possessor than being seen as a separate invading creature by the host it has invaded. And for this reason the possessor shows itself only when absolutely necessary.
In 1939, I became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and went out to see someone in the Department of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. And something was screaming in my ear: “YOU DONT BELONG HERE!” Yes, the hieroglyphics provided one key to the mechanism of possession. Like a virus, the possessing entity must find a port of entry.
This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under my control. I remember a dream from this period: I worked as an exterminator in Chicago, in the late 1930s, and lived in a rooming house on the near North Side. In the dream I am floating up near the ceiling with a feeling of utter death and despair, and looking down I see my body walking out the door with deadly purpose.
One wonders if Yage could have saved the day by a blinding revelation. I remember a cut-up I made in Paris years later: “Raw peeled winds of hate and mischance blew the shot.” And for years I thought this referred to blowing a shot of junk, when the junk squirts out the side of the syringe or dropper owing to an obstruction. Brion Gysin pointed out the actual meaning: the shot that killed Joan.
I had bought a Scout knife in Quito. It had a metal handle and a curious tarnished old look, like something from a turn-of-the-century junk shop. I can see it in a tray of old knives and rings, with the silver plate flaking off. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon, a few days after I came back to Mexico City, and I decided to have the knife sharpened. The knife-sharpener had a little whistle and a fixed route, and as I walked down the street towards his cart a feeling of loss and sadness that had weighed on me all day so I could hardly breathe intensified to such an extent that I found tears streaming down my face.
“What on earth is wrong?” I wondered.
This heavy depression and a feeling of doom occurs again and again in the text. Lee usually attributes it to his failures with Allerton: “A heavy drag slowed movement and thought. Lee’s face was rigid, his voice toneless.” Allerton has just refused a dinner invitation and left abruptly: “Lee stared at the table, his thoughts slow, as if he were very cold.” (Reading this I am cold and depressed.)
Here is a precognitive dream from Cotter’s shack in Ecuador: “He was standing in front of the Ship Ahoy. The place looked deserted. He could hear someone crying. He saw his little son, and knelt down and took the child in his arms. The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness. … He held little Willy close against his chest. A group of people were standing there in Convict suits. Lee wondered what they were doing there and why he was crying.”
I have constrained myself to remember the day of Joan’s death, the overwhelming feeling of doom and loss . . . walking down the street I suddenly found tears streaming down my face. “What is wrong with me?” The small Scout knife with a metal handle, the plating peeling off, a smell of old coins, the knife-sharpener’s whistle. Whatever happened to this knife I never reclaimed?
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
I have constrained myself to escape death. Denton Welch is almost my face. Smell of old coins. Whatever happened to this knife called Allerton, back to the appalling Margaras Inc. The realization is basic formulated doing? The day of Joan’s doom and loss. Found tears streaming down from Allerton peeling off the same person as a Western shootist. What are you rewriting? A lifelong preoccupation with Control and Virus. Having gained access the virus uses the host’s energy, blood, flesh and bones to make copies of itself. Model of dogmatic insistence never never from without was screaming in my ear, “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”
A straitjacket notation carefully paralyzed with heavy reluctance. To escape their prewritten lines years after the events recorded. A writers block avoided Joans death. Denton Welch is Kim Carson’s voice through a cloud underlined broken table tapping.
William S. Burroughs, February 1985
My father did not live to see 9/11. I don’t know what he would have thought of the so called war on terror, let alone the equally so called Arab Spring. Though not particularly old, he was frail and muddled by the time he died—flattened out by decades of depression, isolation and inactivity.
I think of him now because the trajectory of his views seems relevant to 25 Jan. From a Marxist intellectual in the fifties and sixties—a member of a group that could transcend its class function to effect change, he became a liberal democrat in the eighties and nineties—an individual who had a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of his beliefs. In retrospect I think the reason for this change of heart had to do with a certain kind of honesty or transparency: at some point he must have realized that to be proactive was to be caught in a lie (the lie of independent nation building, of the dictatorship of the fellahin, of Islamic renaissance…), a lie for which not even an unhappy life was worth risking.
In a sense, while the outbreak of protests on 25 Jan and the collective determination that they should have tangible results amounted to that rare thing—a moment of truth in modern Arab history—events since 11 Feb 2011 have borne evidence of just how much of a lie Arab politics had been since colonial times, and how peripheral the truth must remain to society even after the revolution “triumphed”.
Where history is concerned, truth evidently cannot stand up to the lie. The truth of a predominantly young population with no need for identity-related hangups, who want money, sex, and space in which to express themselves and be productive, for example: such truth will not be articulated politically in the foreseeable future; and likewise the lie of an oppositional Islam with a vision for development or concern for the people: its being exposed, even repeatedly, will not stop society from behaving as if it were true.
A year ago on Tuesday the result of the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by SCAF and embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood—an unequivocal yes—effectively bracketed the “revolution” in time. It shifted the emphasis away from rights gained through protests (including the right to protest) to a reshuffling of the power structure via an indefinite “transition” whose purpose has been to restore and/or sustain a status quo that had—more often than not, by invoking an overriding sense of identity—systematically denied people those same rights.
The vote, however disastrous it is now judged to be, established the population’s willingness to cement the two bulwarks of corrupt—incompetent—conservatism: fascist-flavored religious authority and arbitrary military power; the very culturally articulated nepotism, rarefied inferiority complex, and xenophobia that had reduced the project of an independent nation guarding Arab-Muslim identity under Nasser to a client state riddled by poverty and Wahhabism under Mubarak. With the regime’s logistical powers deployed in Brotherhood-held voting blocs, “democracy” could quickly abort what opportunity for change had been generated, fueled by blood. And it became easy from then on to involve well-meaning political players in endless lost battles of the vote, even as their comrades were being killed at protests and defamed on “pro-25 Jan” TV.
In the wake of 25 Jan, a conscious or unconscious alliance between devout and patriotic sentiments, whether honest or hypocritical, thus became the truest expression of the lie. It not only exiled the truth, it also forced sincere champions of change to adopt more or less peremptory discourses divorced from the reality of “the people” while, consciously or unconsciously, elements of dissidence that had worked to dissipate and obstruct the effort to gain basic rights on the ground were reintroduced:
Once again “politics” is not about the right to live but about the Palestinian cause, the struggle against “American-Israeli empire”, the notion of collective as opposed to individual dignity. In this sense the “revolutionaries” have ended up echoing generations of “the opposition” whose isolation rendered them so ineffective they could be safely ignored and/or co-opted by the regime, themselves eventually becoming part of the lie.
Graffiti showing the pro-yes sign for the 19 March referendum—”say yes for faster stability”—and asking, “Is it stable yet?”
I think of my father now because his change of heart regarding the role of the intellectual in Arab history reflects my own regarding the Arab Spring: from far-fetched faith in improving the world to a form of well-meaning resignation or despair, the stance of an interested but stationary observer.
Thanks in part to the pace of life in the electronic age, the story of four decades of Egyptian politics—from the fifties to the nineties—was reenacted almost in its entirety in the space of a single year, from March 2011 to March 2012: after mass protests generate hope for a freer society, “patriotism” is instantly co-opted by a military junta that proves more repressive than the “fallen regime”; quasi-socialist sloganeering eventually gives way to ruthless capitalism in the garb of “Islamic” quasi-democracy; and the need for development is subordinated to the perpetuation of (religion- and military-based) power…
I wonder if my father’s experience left him as cold as mine has left me; I wonder if, by the end of his life, he felt as existentially disconnected, politically denuded, and socially paralyzed. Somehow, he maintained his compassion: his stoic insistence on dressing like a worker and only using public transport, for example, coupled by a strange delight in engaging working-class people in a debate among peers.
In this and other ways his complete rejection of the role of the patriarch belied his middle-class provincial origins and his aspiring-politician career path as a law graduate of the fifties. Evidently he could be anything but a patriarch—which is particularly interesting because so much of the psychosocial underpinnings of 25 Jan and its aftermath have reflected that very concept.
Perhaps the lie depends on fathers maintaining the semblance of an order: whatever else has been said in his favor, the most effective defense of Mubarak—which, having stood in the way of a pretend trial, will help to absolve SCAF of the very likely crime that he will be acquitted—was the notion that Mubarak has been a father to Egyptians. What this means in practice is of course very different from what it should mean: a true father, the chief of a tribe or the don of a mafia—the endless, intricate web of mafias that is Egypt—will supposedly care for his children, making their enemies offers they cannot refuse…
But, like so much else in the lie—religious commitment, professional efficiency, national pride—the substance of a given discourse had been so thoroughly subverted that only its surface appearance now mattered: that there should be someone in the haloed place of the father, not that there should be a father as such.
And perhaps that is why I am mistaken about Egyptians, most of whom—unlike me—will have had patriarchal fathers variously implicated in the lie. Perhaps the predominantly young population does have a need for psychosocial hangups connected with their Muslim identity, after all. That hunger for money and sex, which Muslim religiosity in practice by no means forbids: perhaps it is not bound up with any desire for self expression or any obligation to contribute quantitatively or qualitatively to human civilization; those things, after all, require some degree of acknowledgement of the truth; why else is it that individuals who have a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of their beliefs—in contrast to venerable sheikhs holding ridiculous keys to paradise, or even Marxist intellectuals playing in the extra time—are so impossibly few?
Watching the news these days, I am often overwhelmed by the sense that my father is communicating with me, reminding me that I should have attempted to a deeper understanding of his change of heart. The lie, he tells me, is much bigger than Mubarak, perhaps even bigger than SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood combined.
Seven years before:
Satre, my father and me (2005)
When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.
Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre’s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.
Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.
It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.
I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.
In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.
Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.
But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.
His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.
Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.
I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause.
I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.
|The world is a beautiful place
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time
The world is a beautiful place
Oh the world is a beautiful place
and its various segregations
Yes the world is the best place of all
MY ARM HURTS
When one of them dies you realize
Parents are like limbs:
They don’t stop hurting amputated.
Moaning theatrically to tell the world
How long suffering she has been,
The one who hasn’t died draws up
At the threshold to her chamber,
One hand on the peeling door frame
Apparently to keep standing.
I can only see the back of her
As I go on pacing the hall.
Cramps, burns, festering lacerations…
How could I have saved my arm from
The battering of the years?
It is not that I like the old crutch;
I just feel sorry for all that it has suffered
Which makes it a terrible burden,
Unwanted and perpetually distressed.
That must be why I tend to it,
Crank my neck till it hurts
To excavate the knots of pain
In its furrows of tired sinew.
Suddenly my mother crosses over,
No longer moaning. And before I stop,
I see her hand hovering to the ceiling.
Lighter than all the burdens in the world,
She reminds me: I, who wished him dead,
Will never be rid of my father.
© Youssef Rakha
Rewritten from Arabic by the author
by Jean Genet
(This is the complete version. The sentences which have been shamelessly deleted by the cowardly editors of the Revue d’Etudes palestiniennes in Paris, in its number 6 published in 1983, have been restored here. The missing sentences, visible here in TT (typewriter police) have been published in the footnotes of the text in the posthumous volume called L’Ennemi déclaré, Gallimard, 1991, p. 408. The English translation has been done by Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud.)
“Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.”
Menachem Begin (Knesset, September 1982)
No one, nothing, no narrative technique, can put into words the six months, and especially the first weeks, which the fedayeen spent in the mountains of jerash and Ajloun in Jordan. As for relating the events, establishing the chronology, the successes and failures of the PLO, that has been done by others. The feeling in the air, the color of the sky, of the earth, of the trees, these can be told; but never the faint intoxication, the lightness of footsteps barely touching the earth, the sparkle in the eyes, the openness of relationships not only between the fedayeen but also between them and their leaders. Under the trees, everything, everyone was aquiver, laughing, filled with wonder at this life, so new for all, and in these vibrations there was something strangely immovable, watchful, reserved, protected like someone praying. Everything belonged to everyone. Everyone was alone in himself. And perhaps not. In the end, smiling and haggard. The area in Jordan where they had withdrawn for political reasons extended from the Syrian border to Salt, and was bounded by the Jordan River and the road from Jerash to Irbid. About 60 kilometers long and 20 deep, this mountainous area was covered with holm oaks, little Jordanian villages and sparse crops. Under the trees and the camouflaged tents the fedayeen had set up combat units and emplaced light and semiheavy arms. The artillery in place, directed mainly against possible Jordanian operations, young soldiers would take care of their weapons, disassemble them to clean and grease them, then reassemble them quickly. Some managed this feat of disassembling and reassembling their weapons blindfolded so they could do it at night. Between each soldier and his weapon a loving, magical bond had developed. Since the fedayeen had only recently left adolescence behind, the rifle, as a weapon, was the sign of triumphant virility and gave assurance of being. Aggressiveness disappeared: teeth showed behind the smile. The rest of the time, the fedayeen drank tea, criticized their leaders and the rich, Palestinian and others, insulted Israel, and above all they talked about the revolution, the one they were involved in and the one they were about to enter upon. For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot – jordan – and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution. The extraordinary evidence of what was happening, the intensity of this joy at being alive is also called beauty. Ten years went by, and I heard nothing about them, except that the fedayeen were in Lebanon. The European press spoke offhandedly, even disdainfully, about the Palestinian people. Then suddenly, West Beirut.
A photograph has two dimensions, so does a television screen; neither can be walked through. From one wall of the street to the other, bent or arched, with their feet pushing against one wall and their heads pressing against the other, the black and bloated corpses that I had to step over were all Palestinian and Lebanese. For me, as for what remained of the population, walking through Chatila and Sabra resembled a game of hopscotch. Sometimes a dead child blocked the streets: they were so small, so narrow, and the dead so numerous. The smell is probably familiar to old people; it didn’t bother me. But there were so many flies. If I lifted the handkerchief or the Arab newspaper placed over a head, I disturbed them. Infuriated by my action, they swarmed onto the back of my hand and tried to feed there.
The first corpse I saw was that of a man fifty or sixty years old. He would have had a shock of white hair if a wound (an axe blow, it seemed to me) hadn’t split his skull. Part of the blackened brain was on the ground, next to the the head. The whole body was lying in a pool of black and clotted blood. The belt was unbuckled, a single button held the pants. The dead man’s feet and legs were bare and black, purple and blue; perhaps he had been taken by surprise at night or at dawn. Was he running away? He was lying in a little alley immediately to the right of the entry to Shatfla camp which is across from the Kuwaiti Embassy. Did the Chatila massacre take place in hushed tones or in total silence, if the Israelis, both soldiers and officers, claim to have heard nothing, to have suspected nothing whereas they had been occupying this building since Wednesday afternoon? A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other. The body of a man of thirty to thirty-five was lying face down. As if the whole body was nothing but a bladder in the shape of a man, it had become so bloated in the sun and through the chemistry of decomposition that the pants were stretched tight as though they were going to burst open at the buttocks and thighs. The only part of the face that I could see was purple and black. Slightly above the knee you could see a thigh wound under the torn fabric. Cause of the wound: a bayonet, a knife, a dagger? Flies on the wound and around it. His head was larger than a watermelons black watermelon. I asked his name; he was a Muslim.
–”Who is it?” “A Palestinian,” a man about forty answered in French. “See what they’ve done.” He pulled back the blanket covering the feet and part of the legs. The calves were bare, black and swollen. The feet, in black unlaced army boots, and the ankles of both feet were very tightly bound together by the knot of a strong rope-its strength was obvious-about nine feet long, which I arranged so that Mrs. S. (an American) could get a good picture of it. I asked the man of forty if I could see the face.
–”If you want to, but look at it yourself.” — “Would you help me turn his head?” — “No.” — “Did they drag him through the streets with this rope?” — “I don’t know, sir.” — “Who tied him up?” — “I don’t know, sir.” — “Was it Haddad’s men?” — “I don’t know.” — – “The Israelis?” “I don’t know.” — “The Kataeb?” “I don’t know.” — “Did you know him?” “Yes.” — “Did you see him die?” — “Yes.” — “Who killed him?” — “I don’t know.” He hastily walked away from the dead man and me. From afar he looked back at me and disappeared into a side street. Which alley should I take now? I was drawn by men fifty years old, by young men of twenty, by two old Arab women, and I felt as if I were the center of a compass whose quadrants contained hundreds of dead. I jot this down now, not knowing exactly why at this point in my narrative: “The French have a habit of using the insipid expression ‘dirty work.’ Well, just like the Israeli army ordered the Kataeb or the Haddadists to do their’dirty work,’the Labor Party had its’dirty work’done by the Likud, Begin, Sharon, Shamir.” I have just quoted R., a Palestinian journalist who was still in Beirut on Sunday, September 19. In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?
They left very quickly and very early. Israel brags and boasts about its combat efficiency, its battle preparedness, its skill in turning circumstances to its favor, in creating circumstances. Let’s see; the PLO leaves Beirut in triumph, on a Greek ship, with a naval escort. Bashir, hiding as best he can, visits Begin in Israel. The intervention of the three armies (American, French, Italian) comes to an end on Monday. On Tuesday, Bashir is assassinated. Tsahal [Israel Defense Forces] enters West Beirut on Wednesday morning. As if they were coming from the port, Israeli soldiers were advancing on Beirut the morning of Bashir’s funeral. With binoculars, from the eighth floor of my house I saw them coming in single file: one column. I was surprised that nothing else happened, because with a good rifle with a sight they could have been picked off. Their brutality preceded them. The tanks came after them. Then the jeeps. Tired out by such a long early-morning march, they stopped near the French Embassy, letting the tanks go on ahead of them, going right into Hamra. The soldiers sat down on the sidewalk at thirty foot intervals and leaned against the embassy wall, their rifles pointed straight ahead. With their long torsos they looked like boas with two legs stretched out in front of them. “Israel had promised the American representative Habib not to set foot in West Beirut and especially to respect the civilan populations of the Palestinian camps. Arafat still has the letter in which Reagan made the same promise. Habib supposedly promised Arafat that nine thousand prisoners in Israel would be freed. On Thursday the massacres in Chatila and Sabra begin. The ‘bloodbath’ that Israel claimed it would prevent by restoring order to the camps . . .” a Lebanese writer told me.
“It will be very easy for Israel to clear itself of all the accusations. Journalists of all the European press are already at work clearing them: no one will say that on the nights from Thursday to Friday and from Friday to Saturday Hebrew was spoken in Chatila.” That is what another Lebanese told me. The Palestinian woman – for I couldn’t leave Chatila without going from one corpse to another and this jeu de l’oie would inevitably end up at this miracle: Chatila and Sabra razed to the ground and real estate battles to rebuild on this very flat cemetery – the Palestinian woman was probably elderly because her hair was gray. She was stretched out on her back, laid or left there on the rubble, the bricks, the twisted iron rods, without comfort. At first I was surprised by a strange braid made of rope and cloth which went from one wrist to the other, holding the two arms apart horizontally, as if crucified. Her black and swollen face, turned towards the sky, revealed an open mouth, black with flies, and teeth that seemed very white to me, a face that seemed, without moving a muscle, either to grin or smile or else to cry out in a silent and unbroken scream. Her stockings were black wool, and her pink and gray flowered dress, slightly hiked up or too short, I don’t know which, revealed the tops of swollen black calves, again with the delicate mauve tints matched by a similar purple and mauve in the cheeks. Were these bruises or the natural result of rotting in the sun? “Did they strike her with the butt of the rifle?” — “Look, sir, look at her hands.” I hadn’t noticed. The fingers of the two hands were spread out and the ten fingers were cut as if with gardening shears. Soldiers, laughing like kids and gaily singing, had probably had fun discovering and using these shears. “Look, sir.” The ends of the fingers, the top joints, with the nail, lay in the dust. The young man, who was simply and naturally showing me how the dead had been tortured, calmly put a cloth back over the face and hands of the Palestinian woman, and a piece of corrugated cardboard over her legs. All I could distinguish now was a heap of pink and gray cloth, hovered over by flies. Three young men led me down an alley. “Go in, sit, we’ll wait for you outside.” The first room was what remained of a two-story house. The room gave an impression of serenity and even friendliness, of near happiness; perhaps real happiness had been created out of others’ throwaways, with what survives from a destroyed piece of wall, with what I first thought were three armchairs, actually three car seats (perhaps a Mercedes from a junkyard), a couch with cushions covered with gaudy flowered material with stylized designs, a small silent radio, two unlit candelabras. A fairly quiet room, in spite of the carpet of spent shells. The door swung, as if there were a draft. I walked on the spent shells and pushed the door, which opened towards the other room, but I had to push hard: the heel of a boot blocked the way, the heel of a corpse lying on its back, near two other corpses of men lying face down, all of them resting on another carpet of spent shells. I nearly fell several times because of them. At the back of the room another door was open, without lock or latch. I stepped over the bodies as one crosses chasms. The room contained the corpses of four men, piled on top of each other on a single bed, as if each one had taken care to protect the one under him, or as if they had been caught in a decaying orgiastic copulation. This pile of shields smelled strongly, but it didn’t smell bad. The smell and the flies had, so it seemed, gotten used to me. I no longer disturbed anything in these ruins, in this quiet.
During the night from Thursday to Friday, and during those from Friday to Saturday and Saturday to Sunday no one had kept vigil with them, I thought. Yet, it seemed to me that someone had visited these dead men before me and after their death. The three young men were waiting fairly far from the house with handkerchiefs over their noses. It was then, as I was coming out of the house, that I had a sudden attack of slight madness that made me almost smile. I thought to myself that there would never be enough boards or carpenters to make the coffins. But then why would they need coffins? The dead men and women were all Muslims, who are sewn into shrouds. How many yards would it take to enshroud so many corpses? And how many prayers? What was missing here, I realized, was the rhythm of prayers. “Come, sir, come quickly.” It is time to note that this sudden and quite momentary madness which made me count yards of white cloth gave an almost brisk liveliness to my step, and that it may have been caused by a remark I heard a Palestinian womanfriend make the day before. “I was waiting for them to bring me my keys (which keys: to her car, her house, all I know now is the word keys) when an old man went running by. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To get help. I’m the gravedigger. They’ve bombed the cemetery. All the bones are uncovered. I need help gathering the bones’.” This friend is a Christian, I think. She continued: “When the vacuum bomb, a so-called implosion bomb, killed two hundred and fifty people, we had only one box. The men dug a mass grave in the Orthodox Church cemetery. We filled the box, and went to empty it. We back and forth under the bombs, digging out bodies and limbs as best we could.” Over the last three months, hands have had a double function: during the day to grasp and touch, at night, to see. Electricity cuts made this “school for the blind” necessary, as it did the climbing, two or three times a day, of that white marble cliff, the eight-floor stairway. We had to fill all the containers in the house with water. The telephone was cut off when the Israeli soldiers entered West Beirut along with their Hebrew inscriptions. So were the roads around Beirut.The Merkava tanks which never stopped showed they were keeping an eye on the whole city, and at the same time one imagined those inside scared they would become a fixed target. They no doubt feared the activity of the Murabitoun* and the fedayeen who might remain in sections of West Beirut. The day after the entrance of the Israeli army we were prisoners, but it seemed to me that the invaders were less feared than despised, they caused less fear than disgust. No soldier was laughing or smiling. No one was throwing rice or flowers. Bashir’s father, Gemayel, appeared on Lebanese television, thin-faced with eyebrow arches very shallow and full of shadow, and very thin lips. The only expression: naked cruelty. Since the roads had been cut off and the telephone was silent, deprived of contact with the rest of the world, for the first time in my life, I felt myself become Palestinian and hate Israel. At the Sports Stadium, near the Beirut-Damascus highway, which was already nearly completely destroyed by aerial bombardment, the Lebanese deliver piles of weapons, all supposedly voluntarily damaged, to Israeli officers. In the apartment where I am staying, everyone has a radio. We listen to Radio-Kataeb, Radio-Murabitoun, Radio-Amman, Radio-Jerusalem (in French), Radio-Lebanon. They are probably doing the same thing in every apartment. “We are linked to Israel by many currents which bring us bombs, tanks, soldiers, fruit, vegetables; they carry off our soldiers, our children to Palestine, in a continual and unceasing coming and going, because according to them, we have been linked to them since Abraham, in his lineage, in his language, in the same origins. . .” (A Palestinian fedai). “In short,” he adds, “they invade us, they stuff us, suffocate us and would like to hug us. They say they are our cousins. They’re very sad to see us turn away from them. They must be furious with us and with themselves.”
The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men. They were ready to become both the wives and the mothers of heroes, as they already were for their men. In the woods of Ajloun, the fedayeen were perhaps dreaming of girls though it seems, rather, that each one conjured up or shaped a girl lying against him, hence the particular gracefulness, the strength-with their amused laughter-of the armed fedayeen. We were not only at the dawn of pre-revolution but in a sensual limbo. A cystallizing frost gave a gentleness to every action. Constantly, and every day for a month, always in Ajloun, I saw a skinny but strong woman crouching in the cold, crouching like the Andean Indians or certain Black Africans, the untouchables of Tokyo, the Tziganes at market, ready to take off suddenly in case of danger, under trees in front of the guardhouse, a small, hastily erected permanent structure. She was waiting barefoot in her black dress trimmed with braid at the hem and on the edge of the sleeves. Her face was serious but not ill-tempered, tired but not weary. The commando leader would prepare a nearly empty room, then he would signal her. She would enter the room, closing the door, but not locking it. Then she would come out, without a word or a smile, and barefoot and very erect, would return to Jerash and to Baq’a camp. I found out that in the room reserved for her in the guardhouse she used to take off her two black skirts, remove the envelopes and the letters sewn inside, bundle them together and knock once on the door. Turning the letters over to the leader she would go out and leave without saying a word. She would come back the next day. Other older women would laugh because for a home they had only three blackened stones which, at Jebel Hussein (Amman), they gleefully referred to as “our house.” They showed me the three stones, and sometimes the glowing coals, with such childlike voices, laughing and saying: “darna.” These old women belonged neither to the revolution nor to the Palestinian resistance: they were mirth which has lost all hope. The sun above them continued its journey. An arm or an extended finger created an increasingly thin shadow. But what land? Jordan, through an administrative and political fiction created by France, England, Turkey, America… Mirth which has lost all hope, ” most joyful because it is the most desperate. They still saw a Palestine which no longer existed when they were sixteen, but finally they had a land. They were neither under nor on top of it, but in a disturbing space where any movement was a wrong one. Under the bare feet of these octogenarian and supremely elegant tragediennes was the earth solid? It was less and less true. After having fled Hebron under Israeli threats the earth here seemed solid, everyone was lighthearted and moved sensuously in the Arabic language. As time went by the earth seemed to experience this: the Palestinians were less and less bearable at the same time as these same Palestinians, these peasant-farmers, were discovering movement, walking, running, the pleasure of ideas dealt out nearly every day like playing cards, the weapons assembled, disassembled and used. Each of the women speaks in turn. They are laughing. One of them is reported to have said: “Heroes! What a joke! I gave birth to and spanked five or six of them who are in the jebel. I wiped their bottoms. I know what they’re made of, and I can make some more.” In the ever-blue sky the sun has continued its journey, but it is still warm. These tragediennes remember and imagine at the same time. To emphasize what they say they point their finger at the end of a sentence and stress the emphatic consonants. Should a Jordanian soldier happen by he would be delighted: in the rhythm of the sentences he would rediscover the rhythm of Bedouin dances. Without the sentences, an Israeli soldier, should he see these goddesses, would empty his automatic rifle into their skulls.
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians whole heartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people? Almost all the buildings in Beirut have been hit, in what they still call West Beirut. They crumble in different ways: like puff pastry squeezed between the fingers of some indifferent and voracious giant King Kong; other times the top three or four floors lean deliciously in an elegant pleat, giving a sort of Lebanese draping to the building. If one facade is intact, go around the house; the other walls will be shell-pocked. If the four walls are standing with no cracks, the bomb dropped by the airplane fell in the center and made a hole out of what was the staircase and the elevator shaft. In West Beirut, after the Israelis arrived, S – told me: “Night had fallen; it must have been seven o’clock. All of a sudden there was a loud clank, clank, clank. Everybody, my sister, my brother-in-law and I ran out on the balcony. The night was very dark. And every once in a while there was something like lightning less than a hundred yards away. You know that almost across from us there is a kind of Israeli command post: four tanks, a house occupied by soldiers, officers and guards. Night. And the clanking noise is getting closer. The lightning; a few lit torches. And forty or fifty kids about twelve or thirteen years old beating rhythmically on little jerrycans, either with rocks or hammers or something else. They were screaming, chanting: La ilah illa Allah, la Kataeb wa la yahoud (There is no God but Allah; no to the Kataeb; no to the Jews.)” H. said to me: “When you came to Beirut and Damascus in 1928 Damascus was destroyed. General Gouraud and his troops, Moroccan and Tunisian infantry, had been shooting and cleaned out Damascus. Whom did the Syrian people accuse?” Me: “The Syrians blamed France for the massacres and the destruction in Damascus.” He: “We blame Israel for the massacres in Chatila and Sabra. Don’t only blame the Kataeb who replaced them. Israel is guilty of allowing two companies of Kataeb to enter the camps, of giving them orders and of encouraging them for three days and nights, of bringing them food and drink, of lighting the camps at night.” H. again, professor of history: “In 1917 Abraham’s trick was brought up to date, or if you prefer, God was already the prefiguration of Lord Balfour. The Jews used to say and still say that God had promised Abraham and his descendents a land of milk and honey. But this land, which didn’t belong to the God of the Jews (this land was full of gods), this land was inhabited by the Canaanites, who had their own gods, and who fought against Joshua’s troops and ended up stealing the famous Ark of the Covenant, without which the Jews would never have won. And England, in 1917, didn’t yet rule over Palestine (that land of milk and honey) since the treaty giving it a mandate had not yet been signed.” “Begin claims that he came to the country . . . .” “That’s the name of a movie: The Long Absence. Does that Pole strike you as the heir to Solomon?” In the camps, after twenty years of exile, the refugees dreamed of their Palestine, and no one dared to think or say that Israel had destroyed it from top to bottom, that where the barley field had been there was a bank, and a power station where a climbing vine had grown. “Shall we replace the gate to the field?” “We’ll have to rebuild part of the wall next to the fig tree.” “All the pans must be rusted: buy an emery-cloth.” “Maybe we should hook up electricity to the barn.” “Oh no, no more hand-embroidered dresses: you can get me one machine for sewing and one for embroidering.” The old people of the camps were wretched; they may also have been so in Palestine but there nostalgia played a magical role. They may remain prisoners of the camp’s unhappy spell. It is not certain that this Palestinian group will leave the camps with regret. In this sense, extreme destitution makes you yearn for the past. The man who has known this, along with bitterness has known a joy which is extreme, solitary and impossible to communicate. The Jordanian camps perched on the rocky slopes are bare, but around them there is a more desolate barrenness: shanties, tents with holes in them inhabited by families whose pride glows. Anyone who denies that men can become fond and proud of their obvious destitution understands nothing of the human heart; they can be proud because this obvious destitution veils a hidden glory. The solitude of the dead in Chatila camp was even more palpable because they had gestures and poses which they had not planned. Dead any old how. Dead and abandoned. Yet around us, in the camp, all the affection, the tenderness and love floated in search of Palestinians who would never answer. ” What can we say to their families who left with Arafat, trusting in the promises of Reagan, Mitterrand and Perini, who had assured them that the civilian population of the camps would be safe? How can we explain that we allowed children, old people and women to be massacred, and that we are abandoning their bodies without prayers? How can we tell them that we don’t know where they are buried?” The massacres did not take place in silence and darkness. Lit by Israeli flares, the Israelis were listening to Chatila as early as Thursday evening. What partying, what feasting went on there as death seemed to take part in the pranks of soldiers drunk on wine, on hatred, and probably drunk on the joy of entertaining the Israeli army which was listening, looking, giving encouragement, egging them on. I didn’t see this Israeli army listening and watching. I saw what it did. To the argument: What did Israel gain by assassinating Bashir: entering Beirut, reestablishing order and preventing the bloodbath. What did Israel gain in the Chatila massacre? Answer: what did it gain by entering Lebanon? What did it gain by bombing the civilian population for two months; by hunting down and destroying Palestinians? What did it want to gain in Chatila: the destruction of Palestinians. It kills men, it kills corpses. It razes Chatila. It is not uninterested in the real estate speculation on the improved land: it’s worth five million old francs per square yard still in ruins. But “cleaned up” it will be worth … ? I am writing this in Beirut where, perhaps because death is so close, still lying on the ground, everything is truer than in France: everything seems to be happening as if, weary and tired of being an example, of being untouchable, of taking advantage of what it believes it has become – the vengeful saint of the Inquisition – Israel had decided to allow itself to be judged coldly.
The Jewish people, far from being the most miserable on earth – the Indians of the Andes sink deeper in misery and neglect – pretend to be a victim of genocide, while in America, rich and poor Jews have sperm reserves for the procreation and continuity of the “chosen” people. Thanks to a skillful but predictable metamorphosis, it is now what it has long been becoming: a loathsome, temporal power, colonialist in a way which few dare to imitate, having become the Definitive judge which it owes to its longstanding curse as much as to its chosen status. This loathsome power, once more in its history, is pushing so far as to deserve unanimous condemnation; and one wonders if it does not want to recover its destiny of a wandering, humiliated people, with secret power. This time, it is exposed in the terrible light of massacres that it is no longer undergoing, but that it inflicts on others; and it wants to recover its former image to become again the “salt of the earth” – assuming that it ever was. But then, what an approach! The Soviet Union and Arab states, spineless as they were in refusing to interfere in this war, have allowed Israel to finally appear to the world and in a bright light as insane among nations. Many questions remain. If the Israelis merely lit up the camp, listened to it, heard the shots fired by so many guns, whose spent shells I kicked underfoot (tens of thousands), who was actually firing? Who was risking their skin by killing? The Phalangists? The Haddadists? Who? And how many? What happened to the weapons responsible for all these corpses? And what about the weapons of those who defended themselves? In the part of the camp which I visited, I saw only two unused anti-tank weapons. How did the assassins get into the camps? Were the Israelis at all the exits to Chatila? In any case, on Thursday they were already at the Akka Hospital, across from one camp entrance. According to the newspapers, the Israelis entered Chatila camp as soon as they knew about the massacres, and they stopped them immediately, that is, on Saturday. But what did they do with the slayers and where have they gone? After the assassination of Bashir Gemayel and twenty of his friends, after the massacres, Mrs. B., a member of the Beirut upper class, came to see me when she found out I was coming back from Chatila. She climbed the eight floors of the building — no electricity; I suppose she is elderly, elegant but elderly. “Before Bashir’s death, before the massacres, you were right to tell me that the worst was about to happen. I saw it.” “Please don’t tell me what you saw in Chatila. I am too highly strung, and I must keep my strength to face the worst which is still to come.” She lives alone with her husband (seventy years old) and her maid in a large apartment in Ras Beirut. She is very elegant. Very refined. Her furniture is antique, Louis XVI, I think. “We knew that Bashir had gone to Israel. He was wrong. An elected head of state should not associate with people like that. I was sure that something awful would happen to him. But I don’t want to hear about it. I have to save my strength to withstand the terrible blows that are yet to come. Bashir was going to give back that letter in which Mr. Begin calls him my dear friend.” The upper class, with its silent servants, has its own way of resisting. Mrs. B. and her husband “don’t quite believe in metempsychosis.” What will happen if they are reborn as Israelis? The day of Bashir’s burial is also the day the Israeli army enters West Beirut. The explosions get closer to the building where we are; finally everyone goes to the shelter in the basement. Ambassadors, doctors, their wives and daughters, a UN representative to Lebanon, their servants. “Carlos, bring me a pillow.” “Carlos, my glasses.” “Carlos, a little water.” The servants, too, are accepted in the shelter as they also speak French It may be necessary to look after them, their wounds, their transport to the hospital or the cemetery, what a predicament! You have to know that the Palestinian camps of Chatila and Sabra are made up of miles and miles of narrow little alleys – for here, even the alleys are so skinny, so threadlike that sometimes two people cannot walk together unless one walks sideways – strewn with rubbish, cement blocks, bricks, dirty multicolored rags, and that at night, under the light of the Israeli flares which lit up the camps, fifteen or twenty even well-armed fighters would have been unable to carry out this slaughter. The killers worked and they were numerous, and probably accompanied by torture squads who split skulls, slashed thighs, cut off arms, hands and fingers, and dragged the dying at the end of a rope, men and women who were still alive since blood had flowed from the bodies for a long time, so much that I was unable to determine who, in the hall of a house, had left this trickle of dried blood, from the end of the hall where there was a pool as far as the doorstep where it disappeared into the dust. Was it a Palestinian man? A woman? A Phalangist whose body had been removed? From Paris, one can entertain doubts about the whole thing, especially if one knows nothing about the layout of the camps. One can allow Israel to claim that the journalists from Jerusalem were the first to report the massacre. How did they phrase it for the Arab countries and in Arabic? And how in English and French? And exactly when? Just think about the precautions surrounding a suspicious death in the West, fingerprints, ballistics reports, autopsies, testimonies and counter-testimonies! In Beirut, scarcely had the massacre become known than the Lebanese army officially took charge of the camps and immediately eradicated the ruins of the houses and the remains of the bodies. Who ordered this haste? Especially after this statement had swept the world that Christians and Muslims had killed each other, and even after cameras had recorded the brutality of the slayings. Akka Hospital, occupied by the Israelis, and across from an entrance to Chatila, is not two hundred yards from the camp, but forty. They saw nothing, heard nothing, understood nothing? Because that’s just what Begin declared to the Knesset: “Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.” I must conclude my description of Chatila, which was briefly interrupted. Here are the bodies I saw last, on Sunday, about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the International Red Cross came in with its bulldozers. The stench of death was coming neither from a house nor a victim: my body, my being, seemed to emit it. In a narrow street, in the shadow of a wall, I thought I saw a black boxer sitting on the ground, laughing, surprised to have been knocked out. No one had had the heart to close his eyelids, his eyes as white as porcelain and bulging out, were looking at me. He seemed crestfallen, with his arm raised, leaning against this angle of the wall. He was a Palestinian who had been dead two or three days. If I mistook him at first for a black boxer it is because his head was enormous, swollen and black, like all the heads and all the bodies, whether in the sun or in the shadow of the houses. I walked near his feet. I picked up an upper dental plate in the dust and set it on what remained of the window ledge. The palm of his hand open towards the sky, his open mouth, the opening in his pants where the belt was missing: all hives where flies were feeding. I stepped over one corpse, then another. There in the dust, in the space between the two bodies, there was at last a very living object, intact in the carnage, a translucent pink object which could still be used: an artificial leg, apparently in plastic, and wearing a black shoe and a gray sock. As I looked closer, it became clear that it had been brutally wrenched off the amputated leg, because the straps that usually held it to the thigh were all broken. This artificial leg belonged to the second body, the one on which I had noticed only one leg with a foot wearing a black shoe and a gray sock. In the street perpendicular to the one where I left the three bodies, there was another. It was not completely blocking the way, but it was lying at the entrance of the street so that I had to walk by it and turn around to see the sight: seated on a chair, surrounded by fairly young and silent men and women, a woman – in Arab dress – was sobbing; she could have been sixteen or sixty. She was crying over her brother whose body almost blocked the way. I came closer to her. I looked more carefully. She had a scarf tied around her neck. She was crying, mourning the death of her brother next to her. Her face was pink, a baby pink, the same color all over, very soft, tender, but without eyelashes or eyebrows, and what I thought was pink was not the top layer of skin but an under layer edged in gray skin. Her whole face was burned. I don’t know by what, but I understood by whom. With the first bodies, I tried to count them. When I got to twelve or fifteen, surrounded by the smell, the sun, stumbling over each ruin, it was impossible; everything became confused. I have seen lots of crumbling buildings and gutted houses spilling out eiderdown and have not been moved, but when I looked at those in West Beirut and Chatila I saw fear. The dead generally become very familiar, even friendly to me, but when I saw those in the camps I perceived only the hatred and joy of those who had killed them. A barbaric party had taken place there: rage, drunkenness, dances, songs, curses, laments, moans, in honor of the voyeurs who were laughing on the top floor of Akka Hospital. In France, before the Algerian war, the Arabs weren’t beautiful, their gait was awkward, shuffling, they had ugly mugs, and almost suddenly victory made them beautiful; but a little before victory was assured, while more than half a million French soldiers were straining and dying in the Aures and throughout Algeria, a curious thing happened to the faces and bodies of the Arab workers: something like the intimation, the hint of a still fragile beauty which was going to blind us when the scales finally fell from their skin and our eyes. We had to admit it: they had achieved political freedom in order to be seen as they were: very beautiful. In the same way, once they had escaped from the refugee camps, from the morality and the order of the camps, from a morality imposed by the need to survive, once they had at the same time escaped from shame, the fedayeen were very beautiful; and since this beauty was new, shall we say pristine, naive, it was fresh, so alive that it discovered at once what connected it to all the beauties of the world, freeing themselves from shame. Lots of Algerian pimps walking through Pigalle at night used their charms in the service of the Algerian revolution. Virtue was also there. It is Hannah Arendt, I believe, who distinguishes between revolutions according to whether they aspire to freedom or virtue — and therefore work. Perhaps we should also recognize that revolutions or liberations aim — obscurely — at discovering or rediscovering beauty, that is the intangible, unnameable except by this word. But no, on the other hand: let us mean by beauty a laughing insolence goaded by past unhappiness, systems and men responsible for unhappiness and shame, above all a laughing insolence which realizes that, freed of shame, growth is easy. But on this page we should also address the following question: is a revolution a revolution when it has not removed from faces and bodies the dead skin that made them ugly? I am not speaking about academic beauty, but about the intangible – unnameable – joy of bodies, faces, cries, words which are no longer cheerless, I mean a sensual joy so strong that it chases away all eroticism.
* * *
Here I am again in Ajloun, in Jordan, then in Irbid. I remove what I believe is one of my white hairs from my sweater and put it on the knee of Hamza, sitting near me. He takes it between his thumb and middle finger, looks at it, smiles, puts it in the pocket of his black jacket, and pats it saying: “A hair from the Prophet’s beard is worth less than that.” He takes a slightly deeper breath and starts over: “A hair from the Prophet’s beard is not worth more than that.” He was only twenty-two years old, his thoughts leaped easily high above the Palestinians who were forty, but he was already bearing the signs – on himself, on his body, in his actions — which linked him to the older ones. In the old days farmers used to blow their noses in their fingers. Then they flipped the snot into the thorns. They wiped their noses on their corduroy sleeves, which at the end of a month were covered with a pearly luster. So did the fedayeen. They blew their noses the same way noblemen and churchmen took snuff: slightly stooped over. I did the same thing, which they taught me without realizing. And the women? Night and day they embroidered the seven dresses (one for each day of the week) of the engagement trousseau given by a generally older husband chosen by the family, painful awakening. The Palestinian girls became very beautiful when they revolted against their fathers and broke their needles and embroidery scissors. It was on the mountains of Ajloun, Salt and Irbid, in the forests themselves that sensuality had come down, freed by the revolution and by guns, let’s not forget the guns. That was enough, everyone was happy. Without realizing it, the fedayeen — is it true? — were perfecting a new beauty: the liveliness of their actions and their obvious fatigue, the quickness and brightness of their eyes, the clearer tone of voice harmonized with the swiftness and brevity of the reply. With its precision too. They had done away with long sentences, learned and glib rhetoric. Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them – and I mean all – had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place? I had explored, and poorly at that, only a twentieth of Chatila and Sabra, nothing of Bir Hassan, nothing of Bourj al-Barajneh. It’s not because of my leanings that I lived through the Jordanian period as if it were a fairy tale. Europeans and North African Arabs have told me about the spell that kept them there. As I lived through this long span of six months, barely colored by night for twelve or thirteen hours, I discovered the ethereality of what was happening, the exceptional quality of the fedayeen, but I had a premonition of the fragility of the structure. Everywhere in Jordan where the Palestinian army had assembled, near the Jordan River, there were checkpoints where the fedayeen were so sure of their rights and their might that the arrival of a visitor, by night or by day, at one of the checkpoints was a pretext for tea, for talk mixed with bursts of laughter and brotherly kisses (the one they embraced would be leaving that night, cross the Jordan River to plant bombs in Palestine and often would not return). The only islands of silence were the Jordanian villages; they kept their mouths shut. All the fedayeen seemed to be walking slightly above the ground, like the effect of a very light glass of wine or a drag on a little hashish. What was it? Youth, oblivious of death and with Czech and Chinese weapons to fire into the air. Protected by weapons that talked so big, the fedayeen weren’t afraid of anything. Any reader who has seen a map of Palestine and Jordan knows that the land is not like a sheet of paper. Along the Jordan River the land is in high relief. This whole escapade should have been subtitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream in spite of the flare-ups between the forty-year-old leaders. All that was possible because of youth, the joy of being under the trees, of playing with weapons, of being away from women, in other words, of conjuring away a difficult problem, of being the brightest and the most forward point of the revolution, of having the approval of the population of the camps, or being photogenic no matter what, and perhaps of foreseeing that this revolutionary fairy tale might soon be defiled: the fedayeen didn’t want power; they had freedom. At the Damascus airport on my way back from Beirut I met some young fedayeen who had escaped from the Israeli hell. They were sixteen or seventeen. They were laughing; they were like the ones in Ajloun. They will die like them. The struggle for a country can fill a very rich life, but a short one. That was the choice, as we recall, of Achilles in the Iliad.
Translated by Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud
Sheep in Fog
The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.
The train leaves a line of breath.
Horse the colour of rust,
Hooves, dolorous bells -
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,
A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.
Color floods to the spot, dull purple.
The rest of the body is all washed out,
The color of pearl.
In a pit of rock
The sea sucks obsessively,
One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.
The size of a fly,
The doom mark
Crawls down the wall.
The heart shuts,
The sea slides back,
The mirrors are sheeted.
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
After Allen Ginsberg’s “The Lion for Real”
O roar of the universe how am I chosen
And verily We had empowered them with that wherewith We have not empowered you, and had assigned them ears and eyes and hearts—Koran, xlvi, 26
My instructions are to deliver the corpse to Nastassja Kinsky. We are to meet at nine tomorrow morning in the lobby of the Cecil Hotel, just off the seashore in downtown Alexandria. The corpse is a lightweight microelectronic bolt that looks like a miniature coffin; Nastassja Kinsky is an agent of the Plant. If I revealed what the Plant is, I would die.
Five weeks ago, a bearded boy came into my office and took his clothes off. Later that night I told my wife we had to be separated by the end of the year. She mouthed the word divorce interrogatively and cried. I stayed in the office until I found an apartment, seeing the boy every day. He tasted of sand and vine leaves, groaned like a reed flute, and made me so happy it didn’t even register that I was sleeping with a man.
Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held up as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.
The Two Houses
I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.
The Big Escape
They had sentenced me to execution with two of my friends and it was by what they called euthanasia which had already killed a fourth friend of ours. We did not understand very well what they meant by these statements and so they left us free without guards or cells and sentenced us instead to a kind of death they called a mercy killing which is carried out by a middle aged lady who has a benign face and which is painless but is death anyway. I consulted with my mother and my friends a little while before the execution and I decided to escape. They all agreed I should go while my two friends remained to wait for the lady. As soon as I went out after they gave me all the money they had I met with the merciful lady face to face next to my home. Neither of us looked at the other. She avoided me and went off and I went past her and started to run looking over my shoulder in other countries.
Her hand is on the box, my foot outside the house. Suddenly it grows dark, while she continues rubbing the tobacco on her shiny thigh.
She stops a little to move half the tobacco to her other thigh, while I enter the tunnel and start smoking.”
How can she not
read what I write
How come she waits by the door
until someone passing
gives her a few words
those strange obscure words
Yet she listens and smiles
as if she was there with me
at five in the morning
as if her hand
relocated some of the words
moved them from the wrong places
moved them and went to sleep
But how can she not
read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday
How come she cannot open the balcony
in the morning
to receive the sun
with a copy of the book in her left hand
that she reads slowly
winking at the neighbours
pointing to her son the wordsmith
waving the book in their faces
while she mutters
strange and obscure words.
… The Book of Disquiet
My life: a tragedy booed off the stage by the gods, never getting beyond the first act.
Friends: not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.
The logical reward of my detachment from life is the incapacity I’ve created in others to feel anything for me. There’s an aureole of indifference, an icy halo, that surrounds me and repels others. I still haven’t succeeded in not suffering from my solitude. It’s hard to achieve that distinction of spirit whereby isolation becomes a repose without anguish.
It takes a certain intellectual courage for a man to frankly recognize that he’s nothing more than a human tatter, an abortion that survived, a madman not mad enough to be committed; and once he recognizes this, it takes even more moral courage to devise a way of adapting to his destiny, to accept without protest and without resignation, without any gesture or hint of a gesture, the organic curse imposed on him by Nature. To want not to suffer from this is to want too much, for it’s beyond human capacity to accept what’s obviously bad as if it were something good; and if we accept it as the bad thing it is, then we can’t help but suffer.
I’ve never seen suicide as a solution, because my hatred of life is due to my love of life. It took me a long time to be convinced of this unfortunate mistake in how I live with myself. Convinced of it, I felt frustrated, which is what I always feel when I convince myself of something, since for me each new conviction means another lost illusion.
When one of my Japanese teacups is broken, I imagine that the real cause was not the careless hand of a maid but the anxieties of the figures inhabiting the curves of that porcelain. Their grim decision to commit suicide doesn’t shock me: they used the maid as one of us might use a gun.
My life is so sad, and I don’t even think of weeping over it; my days are so false, and I don’t even dream of trying to change them.
There are inner sufferings so subtle and so diffuse that we can’t tell whether they belong to the body or the soul, whether they’re an anxiety that comes from our feeling that life is futile or an indisposition originating in some organic abyss such as the stomach, liver or brain. How often my normal self-awareness becomes turbid with the stirred dregs of an anguished staganation! How often it hurts me to exist, with a nausea so indefinite I’m not sure if it’s tedium or a warning that I’m about to vomit!
Tedium is not the disease of being bored because there’s nothing to do, but the more serious disease of feeling that there’s nothing worth doing. This means that the more there is to do, the more tedium one will feel.
In one of those spells of sleepless somnolence when we intelligently amuse ourselves without the intelligence, I reread some of the pages that together will form my book of random impressions. And they give off, like a familiar smell, an arid impression of monotony. Even while saying that I’m always different, I feel that I’ve always said the same thing; that I resemble myself more than I’d like to admit; that, when the books are balanced, I’ve had neither the joy of winning or the emotion of losing. I’m the absence of a balance of myself, the lack of a natural equilibrium, and this weakens and distresses me.
Everything, all that I’ve written, is grey. My life, even my mental life, has been like a drizzly day in which everything is non-occurrence and haziness, empty privilege and forgotten purpose. I agonize in tattered silks. In the light and in tedium I see but don’t know myself.
My humble attempt to say at least who I am, to record like a machine of nerves the slightest impressions of my subjective and ultra-sensitive life – this was all emptied like a bucket that got knocked over, and it poured across the ground like the water of everything. I fashioned myself out of false colors, and the result is an attic made out to be an empire. My heart, out of which I spun the great events of prose I lived, seems to me today – in these pages written long ago and reread now with a different soul – like a water pump on a homestead, instinctively installed and pressed into service. I shipwrecked on an unstormy sea where my feet could have touched bottom.
Even writing has lost its appeal. To express emotions in words and to produce well-wrought sentences has become so banal it’s like eating or drinking, something I do with greater or lesser interest but always with a certain detachment, and without real enthusiasm or billiance.
Once we’re able to see this world as an illusion and a phantasm, then we can see everything that happens to us as a dream, as something that pretended to exist while we were sleeping. And we will become subtly and profoundly indifferent towards all of life’s setbacks and calamities. Those who die turned a corner, which is why we’ve stopped seeing them; those who suffer pass before us like a nightmare, if we feel, or like an unpleasant daydream, if we think. And even our own suffering won’t be more than this nothingness.
Revolutionary or reformer – the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair.
A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.
I don’t distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I’m sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children.
If I carefully consider the life men lead, I find nothing to distinguish it from the life of animals. Both man and animal are hurled unconsciously through things and the world; both have their leisure moments; both complete the same organic cycle day after day; both think nothing beyond what they think, nor live beyond what they live. A cat wallows in the sun and goes to sleep. Man wallows in life, with all of its complexities, and goes to sleep. Neither one escapes the fatal law of being what he is. Neither one tries to shake off the weight of being.
These considerations, which occur to me frequently, prompt an admiration in me for a kind of person that by nature I abhor. I mean the mystics and ascetics – the recluses of all Tibets, the Simeon Stylites of all columns. These men, albeit by absurd means, do indeed try to escape the animal law. These men, althought they act madly, do indeed reject the law of life by which others wallow in the sun and for death without thinking about it. They really seek, even if on top of a column; they yearn, even if in an unlit cell; they long for what they don’t know, even if in the suffering and martyrdom they’re condemned to.
On the face of it, the monotony of ordinary lives is horrifying. In this simple restaurant where I’m eating lunch, I look at the figure of the cook behind the counter and at the old waiter, near my table, who serves me and who I believe has been a waiter here for thirty years. What kind of lives do these men lead? For forty years that figure of a man has spent most of every day in a kitchen; he doesn’t get much time off; he sleeps relatively little; he occasionally goes to his home town, returning without hesitation or regret; he slowly saves his slowly earned money, which he has no plans to spend; he would get ill if he had to retire for good from his kitchen to the piece of land he bought in Galicia; he has been in Lisbon for forty years and has never yet gone to the Rotunda or to a theatre, and just once to the curcus at the Coliseum, whose clowns still inhabit his life’s inner vestiges. He married – I don’t know how or why – and has four sons and a daughter, and his smile, as he leans over the counter in my direction, expresses a termendous, solumn, satisfied happiness. And he’s not pretending, nor would he have reason to pretend. If he feels happy, it’s because he really is.
And what of the old waiter who serves me and who has just set before me what must be the millionth coffee he’s set on a customer’s table? He has the same life as the cook, the only difference being the fifteen or twenty feet between the dining area and the kitchen, where they carry out their respective functions. As for the rest, the waiter has only two sons, goes more often to galicia, has seen more of Lisbon than the book, knows Oporto, where he spent four years, and is equally happy.
It shocks me to consider the panorama of these lives, but before I can feel horror, pity and indignation on their account, it occurs to me that those who feel no horror or pity or indignation are the very ones who would have every right to – namely, the people who live these lives. It’s the central error of the literary imagination: to suppose that others are like us and must feel as we do.
What’s given, in fact, always depends on the person or thing it’s given to. A minor incident in the street brings the cook to the door and entertains him more than I would be entertained by contemplating the most original idea, by reading the greatest book, or by having the most gratifying of useless dreams. If life is basically monotony, he has escaped it more than I. And he escapes it more easily than I. The truth isn’t with him or with me, because it isn’t with anyone, but happiness does belong to him.
Translation: Richard Zenith
Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama
by Youssef Rakha, Egypt
English translation by Nader K. Uthman (2009)
Rashid Celal Siyouti recounted as follows:
Imagine! You open the hood of your car after it breaks down on you in the middle of the street, and where the engine should be you find a corpse folded in the fetal position! That’s not exactly what happened to me, but considering that this was my first visit to Cairo in three years, what happened was almost as strange.
Afterwards, when I found out what my lifelong friend Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı had been through, what had made him leave Cairo a week before I arrived, things would fall into place. I was not to know Mustafa’s story until after I resumed my normal life as a backup doctor at Bethnal Green Hospital in East London, when I received an email[AM1] with a huge PDF file attached, containing the manuscrpt in which Mustafa wrote about his separation from his wife and what followed. There was a single line in the message window wondering whether, after reading the attachment, I would think he had gone crazy. The PDF would prove to me that I didn’t make up that night on the way to Salah Salim Street under the stress of my matrimonial plans, thinking too much about the largest obstacle ahead. I live next to my job in Bethnal Green, and since I moved there in 2005, about two years ago, I’ve been living with a Druze co-worker whom I love. I would have married her long ago, if not for the fact that her family would never let her marry a non-Druze. So, when a ghost appeared to me in the flesh, saying that he was the nineteenth incarnation of God’s Anointed Ruler, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, whom the Druze worship, I wondered if it was a hallucination brought on by reading about that obscure religion, and thinking about getting married, or the reason why I was forbidden from starting a family with my girlfriend. For a few hours I panicked, doubting that in having a relationship with this girl, I might really be desecrating something.
Although the contents of the PDF in Mustafa’s letter could not have crossed my mind during my time in Cairo, I remembered after my second phone call to his mother (the only person remaining there with a genuine connection to Mustafa) that what happened to him might resemble what I saw with my own eyes on that night.
“He who acknowledges that there is no god to worship in the sky,
nor imam to worship on earth save for our Lord Al-Hakim, may
he be exalted, is one of the Monotheists.”
From The Covenant of the Druze Faith, by Hamza bin Ali, known as The Covenant of Induction into the Religion of the Ruler of the Age.)
That night I discovered that the imams of the line of Ubaydallah (the dynasty we know as the Fatimids) knew of a sixth and stranger disappearance. Al-Hakim, their most famous representative, was an austere tyrant who forbade people from eating the popular stew made from Jews Mallow named mulukhiyya and prohibited women from leaving the house, then committed a minor genocide in the first Muslim city in Egypt known after the country itself as (Old) Misr; he would liquidate anyone who came near him. The disappearance of this inspired madman, as I discovered that night, was nothing but a suicide, which followed by the appearance of the Druze faith, which claimed that he was the human embodiment of the One. “If you’re convinced that you’re God,” – this is what the man who killed himself told me – “this must necessarily lead to suicide. For how is God to live among the people, even if He was their Lord?” “This suicide,” – he explained to me – “is repeated once every fifty years, dating from the first time it happened in 1021: the soul of Al-Hakim will have been incarnated in the body of an ordinary person with roots in Al-Mui’zz’s Cairo[AM2] . And after he kills himself in his turn, he appears to his heir – precisely fifty years having passed since he killed himself – to inform him that he is next in line.” At the time, I remembered that up until they married, my mom and dad were born and lived their lives not far from the Mosque of Al-Hakim, the one with the minaret that resembles an erect, circumcised penis, looking out over a wall that spreads out like a sheet. I remembered also that my grandfather used to claim to my father that he was a descendant of the shaykh of Borgwan Alley (that place named after the most famous of Al-Hakim’s eunuchs, and one of his victims). My grandfather used to say, half jokingly, that our history in the neighborhood goes back to the days of the Mamelukes. This was the way it went on my first trip, after an absence of three years, to my birthplace and my sweetest days, the subject now having fallen in love a Druze woman. Now I had to imagine killing myself by the Sword of Al-Imam Al-Aziz Billah, the father of Al-Hakim, given that I was (woe is me!) suicide number 20.
Rashid Celal Siyouti digressed, speaking in the voice of the ghost:
“He who dies alone, does not know. He does not quiver in surprise nor does the bright flash blind him.” (This is what suicide number 19 said to me on the way back, when my car stalled in the Qarafa parallel, as if it lost power. It was a dark place, yet I pulled the handbrake and went out to open the hood, and then suddenly the light in the sky changed for an instant, as if the morning had dawned or as if morning could dawn for only a moment, only to vanish. Meanwhile, the rocks from the[AM3] Muqattam hills flashed above me as though fluorescent, while something like the palm of a hand bore into my shoulder. When I looked around me, there was no trace of him left. Had he left no trace? Eventually I returned to the driver’s seat, trying desperately to start the car, when a neatly-groomed young man appeared next to me in a retro-style, three-piece suit, holding prayer beads in one hand.
He started speaking immediately: “He who dies without having control over his death will never know the fabulous rapture of departing this life.” Then[AM4] :
Only he who kills himself is the Immortal, the Everlasting, and who else can ever have the joy of certainty? I speak to you from experience, believe me: you will not die like other people. You will kill yourself with your own hands at the decisive moment, and the decisive moment always includes others. I tell you this, despite the fact that I didn’t make preparations for it, since I died in the presence of my father and sister and best friend, in the courtyard containing my mother’s tomb, also behind Bab Al-Nasr, where the Cairo of Al-Mu‘izz was located a long time ago. Now, of course, there is nothing called time, yet there is no way to make you understand me except that language of yours. My sister thought I was going to kill her with the Sword, while my father lay ill. Yet I was to call him too, so that he emerged one minute before my death. All those itinerant spirits around my soul, I tell you, witnessed me pass. By your measure, my age was twenty-four at the time, and if not for the fact that I – exalted be my name – was of divine lineage, I would not have realized the magnificence of disappearing early on, or learned that all that happened, happened in order to lead up (in however illogical or murky a way that does not make it any less inevitable) to a single moment in the year 1958, the moment I plunged the Sword’s tip into the spot my previous incarnation had precisely marked for me: under my left breast, about a thumbnail’s length to the right. My arms were outstretched, as were my hands gripping the handle. It was as if my thin torso, in its black robe, had become a taut arc. And bracing my bare feet on the sandy ground, all at once, I held firm, I, the Perfect One, whose death comes by His own hand – and from that time onward, the One who carries the Sword of Al-Aziz Billah. Listen to my tale.
And mimicking the great maqama masters Al-Hamadhani and Al-Hariri (in rhymed prose with two traditional bayts of verse in the middle, as per the tradition of the maqama), Rashid returned to the beginning of his tale:
(underlining indicate rhyming words in original[AM5] )
I came to Cairo, so to speak, for a visit. And in the company of my true friend Mustafa, I intended to walk from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. With him, that’s what I agreed: to see what is left of the Islamic heritage in Cairo, its glory and deeds. It had been seven years for me in England, during which I had cut the nerve of nostalgia. That was a long time ago, when I agreed to meet with Darsh, and like a Sultan returning to the throne, you should see what happened to me then. I was appalling not to find him in the land, as if my city had been bereft of human dwellings. Our agreement, the bastard had erased; and because of the resulting shock, awesome sorrows I was made to face. Nostalgically, I imagined us among dusty and dirty alleywas, in Al-Mu‘izz’s Cairo going from gate to gate. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I said, “Damn Mustafa – enough, I’ll replace his company with that of cigarettes and camera. And I took my father’s car, heading out one night, when no sooner did I set out than I returned contrite. Were it to be revealed – what I saw in Bab Al-Futouh – it would give the Sphinx himself a fright. And if Mustafa has his own excuse in madness, I realised then that it was my turn to be mad. (You will not understand what happened to Mustafa until you have read the PDF and its fiction[AM6] .) As my limbs are struck with apathy and dread, without prior arrangement or scrutiny I say to you:
He who suffers the spectre of death
Is on the path of resurrection
The purpose behind killing myself
Is to quicken my crossing over
After the event, I spent only five days in Cairo; the encounter shook me to the core, the shock and horror of it. I fell into visits and family gatherings; at the tables I would stay, bottling up my hardship all the way. The whole time, nothing hidden nor revealed could stop me thinking about Mustafa and how he disappeared. Since I found his mobile phone switched off the night of my arrival, there was no one but his mother onto whom I could unload; I called her at once, late one night, and in her voice there was a shade of confusion and despair. Then, I called her again after the heir of the Imam showed up, when it was only three days before I was to go back to England. And so the thought has often returned to me: how in April, Mustafa suddenly left, three weeks after he found his way to his mother’s house. He had gone back to live with her after separating from his wife whom he hastened to divorce as an expression of his indignation. After his departure, as she told me, he only called one time – to reassure her that he was safe and to confirm that he would not die. “She senses that she has lost him for all eternity,” I thought, as she spoke to me, weary with agony. His suspicious disappearance was confirmed by this matter and the fact that my e-mails to him remained unanswered, to the letter.
And then Rashid returned to what the suicide said to him:
My name and my lineage will not matter. The important thing is that my corpse disappeared at the time of my death by the Sword of Al-Aziz. So that you know that the Sword will reach you too, and when you plunge it into its place, there will be no trace of you left. Eighteen suicides and I prove it to you. You can find out if you ask, since something that happens every fifty years does not attract a passing glance. You’re afraid because you are not yet certain that you are Immortal, the Everlasting One, nor are you sure of everything that happens in that narrow room you think to be your life, including the likes of me, with your disbelief in my being here, and your bewilderment at the sight of the mountain in the light of your eyes. The light will not be reflected again until you die, when your divine vision begins to take over. Everything that happens takes place in order to lead up to one moment in the year 2008 . . .
The suicide kept on in this way, talking to me – as terror shook my being, then paralyzed me. I was still in denial that he was right there next to me, so I didn’t look at him as I insistently kept turning the ignition to start the motor. The suicide chuckled briefly – one, short laugh – then stretched out his hand to indicate the spot in which to plunge my Sword. Right after the touch of his finger on my chest, I felt a tingle I had never experienced before in my whole life. There was pleasure in that touch – effortless, without instigation, endless, like an orgasm. “You must take the studded gold handle in both your hands. You will have pointed the edge of the blade to your chest, under your right breast but a thumbnail’s length to the right. You must then bend over like a bow, brace your feet on the ground – and then all at once, thrust!”
As soon as he withdrew his hand, he began to sing, saying:
I did not begin to understand until I thought I already understood,
then I saw things as if with the eyes of the Buddha:
that childish drawing of large forms, gazing out
from the frontiers of buildings,
which sees everything in everything.
Maybe my sister and my friend thought I was stunned at the sight of them, since my posture with the Sword followed my discovery the two of them precisely one night before, in the dark of the courtyard. I had come in barefoot, the gas lamp in my hand, only to find my sister’s thighs propped up as if on something low, underneath her hiked-up robe. It was impossible to see her top half from afar: she was lying on her back on the floor, moaning heatedly, as if sobbing. I recognised the two of them, my sister’s thighs.
And so continued the suicide, after he ordered me – with a lukewarm smile – to start the motor. Now the car did take off – on Salah Salim Street, which did not seem to end. I was driving very fast in order to get out of this dark area, but however much I drove I did not get a centimeter further. When he finished speaking, without my knowing it, Salah Salim would go back to normal, and I would now know that I truly escaped from the spot in which I met him. And without my knowing, too, that he had disappeared.
I[AM7] didn’t make out what was propping them up from underneath until I got close and kneeled down. My friend was slithering on his belly like a snake as his head was buried between the two of them, his shoulders under her thighs. When I gasped, he lifted her up and I saw my sister’s shaved sex, swollen and red in the light of the gas lamp, as my friend’s saliva clung to the hair[AM8] and leaked down around it. I screamed at them, “Get married! Go get married!” and then turned around. They actually did get married without my father finding out what happened, but they had to wait seven years after my unexpected suicide. Until they die, they will wonder if their buried secret was the reason for that wait.
Then, returning to the beginning of his story, Rashid said:
From the first day, I had decided to put off family matters that awaited me with each visit, so I would make excuses, saying that since I have not seen them for so long, I prefer to spend time alone with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers. In truth I spent a week going from bar to bar in Zamalek and from café to café downtown. I would use my father’s Renault – parked most of the time – but only after the mechanic had inspected it, tried it out for a week and guaranteed its performance… until I felt like going on my own to Bab Al-Futouh and what happened happened.
We live in Heliopolis, in a building built at the end of the fifties, when suicide number 19 lived in Bab Al-Futouh, right next to my father, who turned seventy-five years old [AM9] last year. Yes, that’s what I thought of at first, until I remembered a story that was repeated in different forms on both sides of the family, without my knowing if it was true. My mother would deny it angrily every time the subject was raised, while my father would deny any knowledge of it with a curtness unusual for him. My mother’s brother, Uncle Fathi: the only one of my parents’ siblings whom I never saw even once[AM10] . He died young; he is supposed to have died [AM11] in a car accident, yet there is a level of mystery surrounding his death, the kind of mystery that evokes a scandal or something frightening. There is nothing decisive to refute that he had taken his own life. My uncle had spied my mother and father together in an awkward position while they were still young and not committed in a relationship; meanwhile, my uncle and my father were friends and soulmates. There are those who say that he died in anguish after he learned of his friend’s betrayal and his little sister’s wantonness. And there are those who say that he fought with my father, who killed him, and the two families covered it up, since they were close to one another and keen to avoid scandal. I’m not one-hundred percent sure of the memory, but I thought I heard someone say that my Uncle Fathi was a blessed man, and that when he died, his body evaporated and directly soared up to the sky. And so God had raised him up as he raised up the prophet Jesus. What confirmed my suspicion was that my maternal grandmother died when she was a young girl, and that her grave was on land my grandfather owned in Bab Al-Futouh. (During my trek, I wasn’t able to reach my maternal grandmother’s grave.) Honestly: I was afraid. And the fear grew in my heart to the point where I didn’t dare to mention anything to my father or mother during my last five days in Cairo. We live in Heliopolis, I’m saying. One of the things I miss most in England is the atmosphere of Salah Salim Street – which I have to traverse, even if just on a part of it, on any trip I make from or to our house. You’re truly on the body of a serpent that slithers on Cairo’s entire back – from the north, where we live, to Roda Island in the south, parallel to Old Cairo. It’s like a spine susceptible to dislocation. I parked quite far, on the opposite side of the street, near Zizo’s, the restaurant famous for its sausages. Then I crossed cautiously, taking bigger and bigger steps; and I didn’t return for three hours. I was gazing at the ancient buildings as If I had lived in them in their glory days. I felt a violent familiarity for a place I only vaguely knew.
never found. Nor did any modern nor contemporary story come to us – no decisive story on his death nor on his disappearance”
From Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah and the Secrets of the Fatimid Call, by Muhammad Abdallah Anan (1983).
Three months have passed now, and there is more joy in my relationship with my girlfriend than ever.
That night in Bab Al-Fotouh I had thought about her for a long time as my hand came into contact with the walls she has dreamed of seeing since she was a girl in Suwayda, Syria, and even after she came to Manchester with her family at the age of fifteen. (She had never visited Egypt, even though the story of Al-Hakim was of course present – specifically, his end: he departed on his donkey, looking up at the stars in Muqattam hills and never came back. Later, they found no trace of him, except for the seven capes he wore; the buttons, caked with blood, could not be unbuttoned. (They were dumped in the open air[AM14] , and some claim they were found wet in Helwan.) Yet, until now, I still avoid talking to her about my last visit to Cairo. At first, it didn’t occur to me that the emergence of the suicide could be more important to me than our marriage, yet as time passed – after I finished reading Mustafa’s PDF, to be precise – I became almost convinced that it truly was more important. What didn’t please me – after recalling one or two memories of things that didn’t happen to me in the first place – was to find myself increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of killing myself, just as the suicide had predicted. The day before yesterday – the second anniversary of our decision to live together without her family’s knowledge – my girlfriend brought me an unexpected gift which I also never expected to make me this happy. I was busy on the computer when she entered the apartment, so I said hello without lifting my eyes from the screen, only to end up with a rectangular piece of metal sparkling before my eyes. She had snuck up behind my back and snared my head between her two arms. And in her hands was what almost made me faint as I uttered its name: the Sword of Al-Aziz. Then, she put it on the table, saying that her father actually believed that it belonged to Al-Aziz bi-Allah. She added that it couldn’t possibly have been made over a thousand years ago, it was in too good a condition to be the imam’s. She had found it in her father’s large safe and kept begging until he gave it to her. She hid it in the trunk of her car until the day of our anniversary. Slowly, I reached out and lifted it by its studded gold handle; it looked new, as if it had been crafted yesterday. I looked closer at the edge the blade; it appeared sharper than anything made by human hands. I grew distracted for a bit. And bringing me back to reality, the angelic beauty of my girlfriend’s face appeared, asking “Do you like it?”
 The maqama is a medieval literary genre featuring rhymed prose – a stylistic device employed in some sections of this piece. Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah – Abu Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim (996–1021) – was the 6th Fatimid caliph, the 16th Ismaili imam and the inspiration of Tawhid (“monotheism”) – the Druze name for their faith. (Translator)
 The attachment refers to the Kitab Al-Tugra or Book of the Sultan’s Seal, an as yet unpublished novel by the same author.
 Muslim spiritual leader (Translator)
 Al-Mu‘izz, or Ma‘dh Abu Tamim al-Mu‘izz li-Dinallah (ca. 930 – 975) was the first Fatimid caliph to rule from Egypt, and his reign was the most remarkable. His armies conquered Egypt and defeated the Abbasids; he founded Cairo and made it his capital in 972-973. He ruled over much of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Sicily.
 One of the major gates of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)
 Darsh is a common and traditional sobriquet for Mustafa.
 The north gate of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)
 Also called masr al-gadida, or “New Egypt,” a suburb of Cairo. (Translator)
 Orthodox Muslim belief holds that Jesus was never crucified but was physically raised into the heavens by God’s invisible hands.
Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2008
The wall is further than it needs to be
and there is nothing to support me.
An ordinary fall
and bumping into edges
that change places in the dark…
How could I let myself
You are on your way home to Faisal from downtown Cairo, to the flat where this fall might actually have happened: “There is no alarm clock/and there are empty cups under the table”; there are corpses, too, apparently: casualties of the dangerous games you’ve been playing with your mind. It is very late at night. Your companion, who is due to exit at a later stop, offers to walk you to your building. You know it will be a scary walk, you need the company; but you say no. He has been your friend long enough to realise arguing is pointless; anyway, he is probably too mellow a character to insist.
Faisal in the early 1990s is a sort of Islamist favela: a giant molehill of partly built-up streets, unplanned and untended, hideous amalgams of exposed red brick and concrete growing laterally out of what must be the world’s narrowest road. Residents may not be as violent as their Brazilian counterparts, but there is a similar drug-addled hopelessness about them. The majority are lower middle-class immigrants from the Nile Delta just like you; except that they are not intellectual socialites in the making. While you struggle with your poems, they are rediscovering Islam along corrupt Wahhabi lines. All around you conservatism reduces to meddling, religious observance to noise pollution, modesty to headscarves if not face veils. You live here because the rent is affordable, because murderous drivers operate a cheap “microbus” service to town around the clock, because many of your friends live in the vicinity. (A curious fact about the Egyptian poetry movement of the Nineties is that many of its champions, e.g. the late poet Osama El-Daynasouri, the now Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani, and the poet Ahmad Taha, who was the founding editor of its principal mouthpiece, Al-Garad or “The Locusts”, lived in Faisal.)
But late at night the unlit streets look menacing. You are light-headed, maybe a little drunk or under the influence – and your self-awareness as a bare-headed 20-something-old woman who lives alone, a breaker of the code, now takes the form of impending doom. In the dark, angry memories dance with flashbacks from a bad trip; they nearly paralyse you. Walking on, you sense a presence, a voice, what looks like the glint of a knife. A bald puppy is suddenly pawing at your knee; its parents, hyena-like, watch intently as you pass. Then another pack is barking hysterically…
The walk to your flat takes five minutes exactly, but the humid stillness and your played-with mind make it feel like eternal wading in adrenaline. How much easier it would be if you accepted the offer of company – it would have been no trouble to your friend – and how silly the heroism of rejecting it! The next day, you laugh at yourself, at the heroism and at the fear. But like a politician refusing to break with the party line, you do not rescind your stance.
Being walked home, like being bought a drink, is a womanly concession. You do not make any. Since settling in Cairo as a graduate student, most of your time is spent with men: at the workplace, at the literary gathering, at the ahwah or coffeehouse, at the bar. All are patriarchal spaces, more or less; all take in few if any women. Men have preyed on you, too, folding exploitative agendas into kindnesses. Your real friends, the mellower, the closer, know that special treatment upsets you.
You hate the role of victim. So even when it brings you sincere sympathy or solidarity – from women feminists, for example – you still refuse to play it.
The notion that only you own your body comes with the ideological territory: as a budding Marxist, back in the Delta town of Mansoura, you learned to resist the status quo. You know that religion and morality can be ways of turning people into objects or currencies. You also know that women are equal to men. But even as you literally act out that knowledge, you can see the illiberal potential of “gender” or “class” struggle, the way people abuse grand narratives. You may be convinced by the cause – in some sense, you embody it – but there are visceral impulses that make more sense to you than fighting on its behalf. You are not promiscuous, for example (not because it is immoral but because you are too busy changing the world). Rationally it is the bourgeois aspect of promiscuity that should turn you off, but what keeps you chaste is the fact that loveless encounters have left you empty and inexplicably bereft. Self-indulgence is less noble than productivity, but as a scholar, a left-wing literary magazine editor, a teacher of Arabic, not a wannabe poet but a wannabe great poet, it is your almost antisocial ambition, a geeky sense of drive – self-indulgence of a different order? – that makes you work hard.
Slowly you’re summoning up the courage to admit that, though the class prejudice and misogyny you suffer have a broader context, it is your suffering of them that counts; in a world of disembodied values individual experience is more meaningful. It will take you many years to embrace the woman’s core hidden inside you, your interest in softer and more feminine things, what love might look like if not for history. Still, on top of the move here from Mansoura, a mental immigration has occurred.
True, in recent years you’ve had a boyfriend, a fiancé; you were even briefly married. But you haven’t yetlearned to live as part of a couple or family. Notwithstanding estrangement from womanhood, this may have to do with your mother dying when you were eight: the desperate gregariousness of a fundamentally lonely person, which suspends or delays one-on-one contact. It may have to do with your sensibility; a writer’s career rarely chimes with domestic life. But probably, more than any other thing, your unsentimental singleness has to do with the drive to be financially-socially-politically-existentially, totally independent. You’d rather go hungry than accept perfectly well-meaning help from your father or uncle. In a given situation, you’d rather be terrified than rely momentarily on a (male) friend.
That is why, at your Faisal stop tonight, you get off alone.
It is possible to approach the work of Iman Mersal (b.1966) from a standpoint of literary criticism. It is not advisable, but possible. The fact that she has maintained a strong presence on the literary scene for the last 15 years encourages an assessment of what might be called her contribution, although it seems to me that she is far more interesting as someone who engages with the meaning and purpose of the poem – the only definition she proffers being “that which cannot be said otherwise… which, when it is good, changes us once it’s written” – almost as if her writing is merely a byproduct of living with a certain kind of self awareness, a lasting, systematically protected connection with solitude or pain.
Arabic poetry has tended to emphasise rhetoric at the expense of meaning, which makes its quality hard to judge, particularly in another language. This is true even of the recent developments Mersal belongs with, which purposely eschew the by now more or less hackneyed eloquence of free-verse masters like Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964), Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) or Adonis (b.1930), who had their heyday against a backdrop of (often left-wing) nationalist politics through the Sixties. The surface beauty and relative lack of substance in Arabic verse – including much free verse – had made it read like repetitive drivel once taken out of context; and the comparative ease with which more recent work written in prose makes the journey to English, for example, was initially, ludicrously, a sign that it might not be as good. Ironically (though this does not show as much in translation) the Nineties’ prose poetry, produced in an atmosphere of post-Soviet disillusion and discontent with the rise of Islamism, has proven just as prone to rhetorical emptiness, derivation, monotony.
Fresh attempts to subvert “poetic” language, showcased in Cairo’s two low-key but truly epochal literary journals of the period, Al-Garad and Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, have been widely imitated. In their early poems, for example, Ahmad Yamani (b.1970) and Yasser Abdel-Latif (b.1969) – in markedly different ways – devised an “aesthetics of the ugly” (critic Gabir Asfour’s expression, I think) which they have since gone beyond. But the rhetorical registers they came up with have showed up in others’ “prose poetry” so often that, despite their originality, they already read like platitudes. It is this that makes Mersal’s appearance in English alongside Fernando Pessoa and Umberto Saba a vindication for that small, heterogeneous group who forged the new poetic discourse (as opposed to a much larger group of beneficiaries).
Since the publication of A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons to remarkable local acclaim in 1995, my friend Iman’s poems have been variously drawn on, mimicked or paraphrased. If it were the case that Arabic prose poetry reads well in English regardless of quality – or if publication with a reputable house were just a matter of female representation, as it often is with Arabic literature in translation – the Sheep Meadow Press would not favour her over the numerous better connected poetesses dealing with the same subjects in the same style (whether or not they consciously plagiarised her).
Still, what isn’t clear in another language is that, while you can confidently speak of the Mersalesque as a distinct (and, yes, great) gift to the development of Arabic poetry – a way of using words to deal with personal difficulties that are or seem to be relevant to a lot of people besides yourself (one which, however unintentionally, I for one will readily admit to assimilating) – by now you can also speak of the Mersalesque, and the Mersalesque of A Dark Alley in particular, as something of a literary cliché.
The Marxist casting a wry glance at the link between her politics and her sex life, the Father- or God-bashing voice in (as yet unconscious) affinity with Sylvia Plath; the irreverent ahwah-goer, angst- and ennui-ridden, humorous but clinically suicidal; the grassroots hyper-social being who ignores her detractors while character-assassinating her close friends: my friend Iman introduced all of this to Arabic poetry. But since she did so, perhaps inevitably, all of this has been done and redone to shreds, with only the least original voices, ironically, conforming to Locust stereotypes (“the Nineties Generation” is routinely bundled under labels like Everyday Poetics and Writing of the Body, the latter so meaningless when applied to Iman it tends, more than others, to incense her).
In fact, by 1997, when her next book came out, my friend Iman had in many ways left the Mersalesque behind. Some elements of the Nineties’ discourse will inevitably persist: eagerness to shock the middle-class reader, for example, is still occasionally in evidence even now. But the young belle “dressed as a sixteenth-century French princess” (as the amorphous “I” in my friend Iman’s poems begins, implausibly, to imagine itself in dreams: an abiding and enigmatic image) has already razed one or two conceptions of how to live. It is as if Iman kills one self so that another can mourn it, yet miraculously, as it seems – not a shade of nostalgia in the ensuing elegy.
A University of Alberta assistant professor in Edmonton, Canada, is remembering her lover of the late Nineties – “the young novelist” we will see in the leukemia ward in his death throes before 30, before what she implies in A Dark Alley should be the official age of loneliness – when suddenly he is supplanted by the image of another, a pianist she is walking next to in Boston: the man she lives with now, whom she has married and had a child by (later she will have another child). The images roll as if in an antique peepshow she is trying out at her clean, un-Third World-like, non-smoking office. There, a student whose voice she is drawn to touches “the head of a Cleopatra strung up on a chain around her neck”, a pendant bought for her by the same dead lover, the young novelist, and immediately (later she will find out the same student has actually killed himself), the assistant professor is asking questions:
The soul rises to the sky,
and they say the body is mortal.
Where does the voice go? [...]
Why did I not write about you?
Because I never loved you, is that why I cannot believe your death?
Because I love you and so it is fair that you die?
Because you do not deserve my elegy [...]
Because I am not worthy of elegizing you as long as I am alive?
Because the pianist in the upstairs room is hitting the black keys? (Alternative Geography, 2006)
Mersal’s first book, Ittisafat or “Characterisations”, published in 1990, was written in free verse; the stylistic departure of A Dark Alley was already a bold step: With the debate at its height on whether or not Arabic poetry could or should be written in prose, she had to overcome resistance to take it. Yet within two years, she is once again migrating, imperceptibly but surely, into newer territory. In the mostly longer texts of Walking As Long As Possible – in some ways Mersal’s own favourite, though it was not received with the same enthusiasm as A Dark Alley – the “I” seems to be mulling over “shocking” ideas and images – confessions of infidelity, morbid fixations, nihilistic retorts – that were more articulately constructed but somehow less inward-looking, less “experimental”, in the previous book:
My friends’ pores are open to writing new poems
about the freedom of dying without warning,
and about the relief that fills us
when learning that someone
we did not have time to love
has died. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)
Not having time to love: it may be presumptuous to think that, when she writes this, the poetess means it in a literal way. She is fond of dismissing her interest in metaphor, to her mind no more significant to what poetry isthan the metric structures she rid herself of early on. Again and again the child geek returns, with all the insurgent energy of the munadilah, theactivist committed to the Struggle and the Poor, now directed not at the campus demonstration or the communist-Islamist scuffle at the Mansoura Literature Club but at the apartment door, the office desk, the bed in the bedroom. Exhibitionism tempered by almost sapient observation breaks the boundaries of the world, destroys it, but holds on plaintively to the ruins. Perhaps there is no wisdom in the Struggle (that much Comrade Iman already knew), none but the most hollow wisdom in the heroism of refusing to be walked home; but old habits die hard. By the time she returns to writing (or publishing: I think she was writing all along, she just happens to be pathologically timorous about showing her work), Professor Mersal seems to be saying there is not much wisdom in marriage or motherhood either. At the closest she has come to a true break with solitude and pain, something very like herself is betraying her again. And again, in “Sex”, for example, she is, with a magnificent effortlessness, channelling the weight of that thing into words:
The world wears a nightgown cut above the knee,
and for a whole night the world doesn’t check the time
as if it has nothing to wait for.
The old tragedy
will end here to start behind another window. (Alternative Geography, 1997)
[translation partly altered based on the original Arabic]
To her distress, when Alternative Geography appeared, critics on the whole failed to notice just how far Mersal had come. But already, in Walking, you can see language taking on (literal) depth as the impulses become more explicit; only, since they are also more humorous and wrapped up in miniature epics of the self, it is their mystery that comes through.
In “To Cross Between Two Rooms”, an elegy for a Mother never so named, the Father-God is openly mocked in a way He has not been before, but the passage is surrounded by so much else – the insect-extermination session with which the poem opens, leaving the speaker “the only living soul in the house”, apparitions of “the scrawny woman” who lived (or died) with Him, His job as a schoolteacher correcting the grammar of the proletariat – that it strikes an ambiguous, not a shocking chord:
When the house next door burns down
it means He has exhaled a blessing upon it.
His caress of the scrawny woman
led to her death from the joy in His fingers.
His perfection… His glory… His omnipotence…
I know all His old attributes. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)
Mersal is no longer scandalising her newly discovered individual self, whether or not “to hide behind it” (as she says in one Dark Alley poem). In austere but never discordant tones, she is humming a dolorous song of periodic self destruction, collecting the debris rather than celebrating beginnings. She is paying homage to a treadmill of solitude in which she seems paradoxically comfortable while neither Friend nor Lover can give solace. Much later, in Alternative Geography, her most recent book, that treadmill takes her to a striking moment in which – now an immigrant in an asylum room in Edmonton after some kind of breakdown – Mersal sees herself as a museum piece:
Why did she come to the New World, this mummy, this subject of spectacle
sleeping in her full ornament of gray gauze,
an imaginary life in a museum display case? (Alternative Geography, 2006)
I read and reread this question. The more I think about Mersal’s immigration, the more I am convinced it cannot be said otherwise.
Introducing These Are Not Oranges, My Love, Mersal’s translator the poet Khaled Mattaw says the nine-year gap between Walking and Alternative Geography “saw her through marriage, relocation to North America, and parenthood”. While the gap did make time for all this, I suspect what it actually saw her through was the painful construction of a world and a self unlike anything she had known prior to her departure in 1999. Less significantly for her writing than for her sense of identity – a state of being I like to imagine, with un-Mersalesque whimsy, as the troubled surface of a Delta village canal – this new world included not only snow-marked native Americans, émigrés and refugees, literary celebrities, good-looking Frenchmen, even Slovenian poets but also, at the centre – and contentiously for a large part of the Faisal-like world she left behind – Jews: an absurd contention, but contention enough.
The day she first presented her doctoral thesis on images of America in Arab travel writing – it happened to coincide with the invasion of Baghdad in April 2003; and Cairo University, where she chose to work, was abuzz with Arab nationalist sentiment – Mersal walked home crying. Such was the hostility she met with for not railing – off-point, from the academic perspective – against the crimes of the Greater Devil (as Khomeini called the US, comparing it with the Lesser Devil of Israel). After North America, she could no longer speak that language. Specifically, she could not crassly take the moral high ground in the usual, more or less racist tones of fellow grassroots hyper-social beings. Just why should the cost in loss of personal sympathy and understanding still be high enough for tears? There were unrelated dislocations, of course: moments of absolute alienation with her new life; one abortive attempt at returning to live in Egypt; an unpredictable and untimely death; the elderly therapist with whom she valued her “exercises in solitude” enough to call one poem “Dr Levy”. Perhaps Mersal invested more this time, perhaps she cannot bring down the life she is now living as resolutely as she did her previous lives?
I suspect she has embarked on the task.
For a while it seems a person is gone. I don’t mean just “a person”: a figure, a presence, the idea of a friend who exists in a particular way at a particular place or time. When that returns, it is still recognisable, but different enough to make recognition a creative process, not quite an effort of will but definitely an exercise of trust. Something like this cycle defines the work of Iman Mersal, which as a result seems a little apart from the small eternities we call Literature, those stylised subjects of spectacle that, aiming for immortality, end up immodestly omnipresent. When at a difficult moment, Iman Mersal said “I have something to say to the world,” the statement might have sounded narcissistic. In her voice it rung true. The rule is that you need to hear it as much as she needs to say it, and have as much difficulty coming to terms with the fact. That is the game Iman Mersal is playing, less with writing than with life. She speaks to people, not to language, not to “gender”, not to history. What she says is what she is, and for this she must continue to become. Being someone else is a wish she never tires of expressing. She won’t succeed, but her writing is the attempt: the game she plays with herself in order to give meaning to something or someone.
The notion of Writing as Game is making the rounds of Cairo literary circles. Many young novelists point out that, instead of expressing the political commitments and grand narratives of the Sixties, what they are doing is enjoying the game of literature, the sport of testing out ideas and emotions and seeing what happens. They speak of their work, of course: what they do on the computer screen or the page, not how they exist apart from them. I doubt if they realise this game can also be played with life itself, or that, when it is, it produces writing of an entirely different kind.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha
شرح ديوان ذكري
Sharh Diwan Zikri
Reading novelist Mustafa Zikri’s new collection of essays, Youssef Rakha follows the example of several canonical works on the great 10th-century poet Abu Al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, all titled Sharh Diwan Al-Mutanabbi or The Elucidation of the Diwan of Mutanabbi
Yawmiyyat (A diary)
At first, this sounds like a misnomer for the numbered pieces making up the latest book by the novelist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966), Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’: Yawmiyyat (On Tiptoe: A Diary), published by Dar Al-Ain last month. Though initially circulated on Facebook as entries in an ongoing diary of some sort, the pieces comprising Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ read less like the pages of a journal than the occasional work of a cultural columnist. Zikri’s stated formal ambition was to eschew if not actively attack the predominant, established genres, notably the novel-cum-novella that has been his preferred medium (in recent years, as he points out, the novel has increasingly become the alpha and the omega of literary endeavour in Arabic). He also wanted to relax the iron fist with which he maintains the “literary purity” of his work, guarding the gold of true art from possible intrusions by the lead of politics or society (both the metaphor and the subsequent quotes, unless otherwise stated, come from a recent interview by Mohammad Shoair).
Yet the more you think about Zikri’s work, while you read, the more sense the subtitle yawmiyyat makes. By the time you turn the last page you are convinced. This book offers precisely the kind of material you would expect to find in the diary of a writer like Zikri: fragmentary meditations on literature and film, ambiguous encounters only marginally connected with whatever real-life experiences they recount, philosophical formulations of no clear import. Entries are as carefully constructed, often as open to interpretation, as poems. And – most important of all: what sets Zikri apart from almost every other Arab writer, in fact – the texts are truly self-referential, with the movement of a passage tracing an expression or a word, not what that expression or word refers to. Narrative reduces to a sort of semantic aesthetics, the protagonist to an idea suggested by a particular turn of phrase. Ironically this tendency is clearer than ever now that Zikri is no longer consciously exercising control. Could anyone expect anything more tangible or intimate from the yawmiyyat of Mustafa Zikri?
I thought I was the kind of writer who, measured against his writings, lives a life of paucity at the level of the body and the soul. I think of Borges and Pesão and Dostoevsky… (1.)
While Zikri regards any link between literature and reality as a threat to the purity of his art, it is in fact references like this one – and the sweeping statements tending to go with them – that take away from his credibility. There is definitely room in the world of Arabic writing for quasi-postmodern theorising, however self-centred or contemplatively indulgent. But surely in the context of a novella like Hura’ Mataha Qoutiyyah (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth, 1997), it actually undermines “purity” far more than the hypothetical inclusion of social-political commentary, properly contextualised, when the narrator consciously compares himself to Borges: a celebrated genius from a decidedly different culture and one, it might be added, whose relevance to what that narrator is doing is at best obscure. The problem is not that Zikri may be a lesser writer than Dostoevsky. It is in the directed-ness, the apparent artificiality of the kind of westward looking elitism he endeavours to cultivate – the classicism of his ambition constantly in contradiction with his essentially deconstructionist approach. His slim volumes are invariably fragmentary; insanely reworked and polished, but inconclusive.
They are also practically solipsistic – in their failure to engage with the world (a failure for which the attempt to substitute the world for Great Literature, i.e., in effect, modernism and art-house cinema, does not make up). Only on reading Zikri’s yawmiyyat, in which he condescends to discuss his likes and dislikes, to engage with the politics of culture or mention a fellow Egyptian writer like the dentist and best-selling author Alaa El-Aswany or his own former mentor Edwar El-Kharrat, do you begin to appreciate what kind of writer Zikri is. Others – most, I would say – openly seek context and connection, communication. He claims to seek the least contact possible, the smallest number of readers, the company of gods – like Kafka, like Kawabata – who according to him never mix with the rabble. The irony is that it is the rabble-like qualities of his standpoint as a Third World writer that form the substance of his work, informing even the way he interprets Great Literature. Hence the deconstructionism, hence the aversion to politics (a quality Zikri shares with his generation of literati, who are still reacting to the excessive politicisation of literature all through the 1960s and 1970s); hence also the preemptive despair of ever having a readership of his own beyond “the professional reader, the writer and the half-writer”. (It strikes me now that in his systematic self-assuredness, Zikri does recall Al-Mutanabbi, not only arguably the greatest Arab poet of all time but also, famously or notoriously, the most conceited.)
I have always been… subject to the signal to start working… which requires me to be completely devoted and constantly ready to receive [it] whenever it might come… (17.)
Few writers have dedicated as much attention or energy as Zikri to analysing the discontents of their creative process – the nature and magnitude of the emptiness just beneath the surface of their texts. Here as elsewhere in his writing – notably in his last work of fiction, Al-Rasa’il (The Messages, 2006) – Zikri spends time on what might be termed negative productivity: the writing that has not happened, or is yet to happen, but will perhaps never happen. He narrates and describes the state of being idle and homebound in anticipation of (and in deference to) literature.
As piece 34 in Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ demonstrates, Zikri’s negative productivity makes perhaps the most convincing case for an existential perspective on the human condition in contemporary Arabic literature. Contrary to his own, noncommittal claims, it resonates far beyond what he recently described to the journalist Ola El-Saket as “those little things which the other writing,” the engaged, energetic writing that aims to change the world, “assumes to be of no consequence, the small details that recur every day and which some of us take for granted”. Zikri’s dilemma has universal relevance: “34. Preparing and arranging, creating an atmosphere, took me a long time, and though I was unemployed on the pretext of waiting for the appropriate moment, that waiting itself was fuelled only by a long time wasted, which I mostly described, with much effort and work, as an inappropriate moment, or at least an inappropriate moment on the way to becoming an appropriate moment.”
This kind of thinking generates much needed humour in an otherwise cerebral and dry book. It also goes to show that Zikri is not as solipsistic as he might seem. At least he is aware of the irony inherent to his own narcissism, and not too scared to apply it to himself. We write about what we know best, and all that Zikri knows is sitting in his home thinking about writing; that, along with whatever else his literary anxiety happens to latch onto, is what he will write about.
At the start of the film The Sacrifice by the director Andrie Tarkovsky, Alexander, the hero of the film, asks his son to help him plant a dead tree on the shore of a lake… (27.)
In piece 27 as in numerous other pieces, Zikri – who, working with the filmmaker Osama Fawzi, wrote two of the best Egyptian films of the 1990s – endeavours to rewrite world cinema. Not that the novel/novella format prevented him from indulging his love of film in the past – his 1998 novella is entitled, after Fassbinder’s celebrated film, Fear Eats the Soul – but the greater opportunities presented by an “absolutely flexible medium” like yawmiyyat gives him more scope for focusing on particular scenes or techniques – in Hitchcock, in the work of the French New Wave directors, in Tarantino, Bergman – not so much to discuss this or that aspect of a film or a director as simply to see a given cinematic moment from a new and one might say literary angle.
The influence of film on fiction is a huge topic beyond the scope of this Elucidation, but Zikri’s screenwriter’s insights and his intensely individualist taste act to highlight the way words on a page can recreate and totally alter a scene already lodged in the reader’s memory. These pieces seem to reverse the tendency, suggesting new writing that can influence the way we see film. It is as if Zikri, by reference to another medium, is actively showing his reader that the strength of literature is no longer about telling a story but rather about a particular way of seeing or engaging the senses, different from but just as effective as the more predominant audiovisual medium.
Later on in the book, in the course of his bitterly sarcastic critique of Aswany’s Yaqoubian Building (2002), piece 45, Zikri says almost as much: “Yet it is enough for the physician Alaa El-Aswany that a reader with no connection to the novel genre can easily read The Yaqoubian Building, relying on his experience of newspaper reading and oral tale-telling that everyone possesses by virtue of birth, community and homeland. It may seem to the reader that watching the novel through the medium of cinema does not deprive him of penetrating to whatever is deepest in Yaqoubian. Since the novel has irrevocably divorced the tradition of style, there is then no need for reading.”
While the pastime appeared to have to do with free time, it actually had to do with the meaning of life. (39.)
Zikri is ostensibly speaking of “the satellite and the computer and the telephone”, initially “promises of something else, more serious” which he approaches as pastimes “within the frontiers of the house”. But here as elsewhere in this remarkably diverse book, he is also intimating a holistic world view, an idea of human existence as a totality of experience only usually available through philosophy or poetry. It is in this sense perhaps that Zikri might be compared to Borges, despite the incomparably more articulate demeanour and learned background of the latter. Though unlike Zikri Borges has a healthy awareness of context, he remains one of a handful of modern writers the world over who communicate such a sense of the totality of existence with the utmost economy of means. In many of the pieces in this book, Zikri’s tight, profoundly thought out constructions evoke the connection between the short, quasi-narrative text and the prose poem – another thing Borges manages to do, even though the great Argentine, once again unlike Zikri, wrote poems which he presented as such.
The one major difference between Zikri and Borges – between Zikri and most writers of Borges’s – is the latter’s capacity for antagonising his readers, often by overwhelming with unnecessary references. Borges in particular was known to say that, unless one is writing a scholarly monograph or a work of science, a text should always be appealing enough for the reader not to have to exert any effort reading it. More Joycean than Borgesian in this respect, Zikri cares little for the enjoyment of the reader. In fact he sets out to antagonise “the reader with whom I have no connection”, the rabble representative for whom there is no room among the gods, or so he says. And yet in most instances – in spite of himself? – Zikri produces an eminently enjoyable text. Is this yet another intractable contradiction presented by his work?
And in this world in which all truths stand against each other on an equal footing, meaning becomes an adventure, an endless game of mix and match. (49.)
Nowhere else is Zikri’s idea of literature more eloquently expressed (literature being an inclusive term that also covers philosophy and film, the two subjects in which he earned degrees, as well as the life of the writer, the writer’s “style” or way of using words, and perhaps also the human condition). It is not as eccentric an idea as he makes it out to be. Romantic and postmodern in equal parts, the notion of writing as a sublime but ultimately meaningless game echoes in the widest variety of contexts, from Wittgenstein to Orientalism. The fact that Zikri refrains from formulating it, never saying more by way of justifying his chosen profession than that it is “a private pleasure”, is hardly surprising.
The disorienting combination of Third World postmodernism and puritanical Great Literature reflects the contradiction between Zikri’s thoroughly fragmentary, deconstructionist method and his all but classical outlook. Far from undermining the credibility of his work, it is perhaps this very contradiction, negative productivity – and the incumbent rejection of any possibility of popular recognition or “success” – that makes Zikri, all things considered, among the most important writers working in Arabic today.