Cairo Airport, 18 Feb ’14
Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.
2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.
3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.
4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time.
Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.
5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days. But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child. My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it. Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places. So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world. That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.
After turning one of the Arab world’s worst read cities into a vibrant literary venue for five days, the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF, 2-7 March) folded quietly on Monday 7 March. It was followed by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (10-13 March), organised by Magrudy’s Bookshops and any number of sponsors in Dubai – that slightly better read New York of the Gulf where the Arabic language is alas all but completely absent.
The Emirates Festival requires separate coverage, but it is worth mentioning in the context of ADBIF in that it shared with that event a profoundly multicultural atmosphere. By the time ADBIF closed, even the predominance of Arabic books there had not reduced the overriding sense that here, finally, was a international, multilingual publishing event or series of events drawing together variously important figures from the four corners of the global village.
Neither bang nor whimper marked the end of what seemed like a separate and self-contained world within the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), an isolated space of glass and concrete on the outskirts of the city proper – recently completed by the addition of a high-rise corporate-style hotel, ensuring not only accommodation but taxi transportation from the fair grounds. With the vast majority of the fair’s non-resident patrons already gone by Friday, business proceeded as usual until it came gradually to a halt.
Initially the fair had proceeded alongside a major gun show, subjecting unsuspecting bibliophiles who entered by the wrong gate to unnecessary, airport-like security. Deceptively low-key from the outside, ADIBF was at least as busy as the killing carnival next door.
Activity centred on the by now haloed Discussion and Poetry Forums and the Kitab Sofa, where writers (sometimes attended to by television crews) performed to small, inevitably distracted audiences. Interviews, readings, and discussions often involving more than one writer shed light on an enormous motley of subjects, from the history of the translation of Indian literature into Arabic to whether and to what extent contemporary American literature can engage with postmodern tendencies firmly embedded into consumer culture.
Highlight appearances ranged from flash-in-the-pan celebrities (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the Algerian novelist Ahlam Mustaghanmi, for example) to award winners and writers whose relative fame may be better deserved from the literary standpoint (Adam Haslett, Yann Martel, Amit Chaudri, Pankaj Mishra, Alawiyya Sobh, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Sinan Antoon). There was a spaceman advertising new translation technologies, several dozen illuminated manuscripts (Islamic and otherwise) from various Europe-based dealers, and a Show Kitchen Programme featuring the authors of cookbooks demonstrating their recipes live – perhaps the most popular fixture.
For a moment on Saturday, with the Kerala Islamic scholar Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmad drawing a huge crowd to the Kitab Sofa in what seemed like a misplaced Friday prayers sermon, the more palpably Muslim aspects of the UAE’s cultural constituency became apparent, recalling what yearly threatens to turn into an Islamist takeover of the Cairo International Book Fair back home. Yet the atheistic and erotic titles published by the German-based Dar Al-Jamal, for example, were neither torn up nor burned. Islam is not about terrorism, was what Sheikh Aboobacker, in slighly broken Quranic Arabic, continued to reiterate.
Still, people filed through the labyrinth of booths representing various publishers from the Arab world and Europe, occasionally stopping at one or more of the three larger, prominently marked enclosures occupied by the fair’s own organiser, the Abu Dhabi Organisation for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), and its two initiatives, the Qalam series for Emirati writing and the Kalima megaproject of translation into Arabic.
And judging by the multi-ethnic composition of the audience, the broad spectrum of participating institutions, including the Goethe Institut and the British Council, and the currency of topics like the secrets behind the success of best sellers, the impact of literary awards on Arab culture or the state of comics and the graphic novel in the Arab world, it seemed the event was effectively introducing Western publishing norms into the as yet isolated Arab industry. How long will it take for that industry to be fully integrated?
Instead of enthusiasm from Abu Dhabi’s tiny community of Arabic book lovers, anyway, the fair now clearly bases its credentials on KITAB (Arabic for “book”), the joint venture of ADACH and the venerable Frankfurter Buchmesse, forged in 2007 to bring the event up to speed. For three years now ADIBF, founded in 1987 as a conventionally “Arab” fair, has been mutating into a global industry-standard publishing forum. So, at least, is its perception among a growing number of Gulf-culture champions who respect its aspirations. Two main concerns inform Arab cultural interest in the Gulf and the fair suggests answers to both of them.
First, it seems unfair that an oil-rich Emirate with hardly a single celebrated writer to its name should be positing itself as a literary centre of gravity, until you realise that what Western-style benefits Abu Dhabi manages to garner wearing the cultural-capital hat – literary prizes, publishing ventures, translation initiatives, copyright-protection measures – it will garner for beneficiaries across the Arab world.
Secondly, the fact that the UAE has – contentiously, for some – pioneered cultural projects managed by or modelled on Western institutions (the Saadiyat Island Louvre and Guggenheim initiatives, the Sorbonne and New York University campuses, etc.) has endangered cultural identity only within the borders of the UAE, where Arabs coexist with comparably sized non-Arabic speaking Asian and Western communities. In traditional cultural capitals like Cairo, the overwhelming incidence of Arabic language and literature, not to mention Arab mores and morals, makes culture more or less immune to what atrophy or confusion the adoption of a harshly capitalist, foreign (and once colonial) system might subject it to. But that remains a subject for much more involved debate.
With the Frankfurt Book Fair managing and developing it, at least, ADBIF does focus on the process of publishing, not (like the much older and by now proverbially disorganised Cairo International Book Fair, the most populous book-based event on the Arab map) on selling as much as possible regardless of substance or procedure.
At ADBIF there is no censorship, no fear on the part of security forces of an Islamist takeover of the fair grounds, no working-class-family-outing atmosphere, no shoddy infrastructure, no sudden and inexplicable absence of previously announced big names or enforced lack of access to them, no stiff formalities, and no dire shortage of information or facilities.
Property rights across languages and borders and the editor’s role in the writer’s career are just two of the areas where ADACH hopes to make a radical even if wholly imported contribution to the industry. On the basis of that contribution it is attempting to turn Abu Dhabi into “the region’s publishing hub”, as the official press package already puts it (emphasis mine), the region being all of the (Arab) Middle East and North Africa.
And notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in this business, ADACH just may be succeeding. Certainly ADBIF now looks and feels far more like Frankfurt than Cairo. In a relatively small-scale, comparatively relaxed event, just as much emphasis is placed on the profession of publishing and cross-national networking as on book-related amusements and book-buying opportunities for the public.
Established in 2007 in memory of the founder of the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards have since 2008 been overshadowed by the the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, better if less accurately known as the Arabic Booker), a joint venture of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation and the prestigious Booker Foundation (judging by this writer’s taste in recent years, Booker and Man Booker short lists have in fact seldom lived up to the name). Yet occurring within 24 hours of each other at the Emirates Palace and Beach Rotana Hotels, respectively, the awards ceremonies demonstrated just how much more interest the Booker commands at every conceivable level.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards this year went to the Lebanese Albert Habib Mutlaq for his translation of The Animal Encyclopedia, the Algerian Hafnaoui Baali for Comparative Cultural Criticism: An Introduction, a contribution to the field of literature, the Emirati Qais Sedki for the children’s book Gold Ring, the Egyptian Ammar Ali Hasan for The Political Establishment of Sufism in Egypt – deemed the Best Contribution to the Development of Nations – and the young Moroccan critic Mohammad Al Mallakh for Time in Arabic Language: Its Linguistic Structure and Significance, as well as His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi as Personality of the Year.
Far more engaging was the awards ceremony and the press conference of the Arabic Booker, which had generated the greatest controversy in its short history this year. Predictably for the vast majority of commentators, the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s She Throws Sparks won the grand prix, whether because it was the least controversial novel on the short list, or the work of the short list’s best respected author, or (according to some views) because books that could have competed with it – notably Alawiyya Sobh’s Its Name Is Love – had not made it that far or had been excluded from the start.
Many had contended that the exclusion of important contributions from the long and (more controversially) the short list was intended to facilitate the emergence as the final winner of a book from the Gulf; and subsequent statements by the head of the jury, the Kuwaiti novelist Talib Al-Rifa’i, to the effect that it was time that novels from the Gulf should be introduced to the Western world seemed to give credence to this theory.
Of course, should this be the case, it would be contrary to the regulations of the prize, and Al-Rifa’i in his eagerness to defend the jury, whose names, also contrary to regulations, were published in Cairo two weeks before the short list, ironically worked against it. All manner of accusations and conspiracy theories had been levelled at the jury and the board of trustees, but the head of the Booker Foundation, Jonathan Taylor, seemed confident of the administration of the prize. There was a leak,پh he responded to the question of how the names of jury members could have been known so early. پgI am sorry there was a leak.پh
More to the point, when asked why the judges of the Arabic Booker (unlike those of the Booker and the Man Booker) are not made known to the public in advance, Taylor said, “We were told that this would make it easier for the jury to do its work.” Once again inadvertently, Taylor seemed to give credence to the notion that the corruption of the Arab literary scene may have seeped into a Booker Foundation-managed institution after all.
The “Arabic Booker” Short List
The London-based Palestinian writer Rabie Al-Madhoun’s Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”. It tells the triple story of Al-Madhoun himself, his writer-protagonist Walid Dahman, and the hero of Dahman’s own fictional novel-in-progress. On a plane from London back to Gaza to see his mother for the first time in decades, Dahman meets an attractive Israeli actress who is subsequently killed in cold blood as a result of a previous love affair with the son of an Arab leader.
The young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabir’s America is a fictional account of early 20th-century Lebanese immigration to the United States, told from the viewpoint of a country woman who follows her husband to New York.
The older Egyptian novelist Mohammad Al-Mansi Qindeel’s Yawm Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side) tells the story of a Muslim woman in late 19th-century Upper Egypt who abandons her young daughter, Aisha, to protect her from the brutality of a merciless stepfather, baptising her as a Christian. This conversion, it later turns out, leads Aisha – who grows up to become a translator – to fall in love with a fictional version of the famous British archaeologist Howard Carter.
The Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji’s ’Indama Tashkish adh Dhi’aab (When Wolves Grow Old) has a wide cast of characters and a plot drawn from detective genre fiction. It depicts the social malaise of contemporary Amman, exposing sexual and political repression, the hunger for power among intellectuals and religious leaders, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
The young Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Wara’ al Firdawss (Beyond Paradise) chronicles an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders, but in so doing depicts the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from her small town to Cairo.
Abdu Khal’s own Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles), set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door to it, shows the brutality of the owner of that palace, a well-connected, wealthy and powerful if sadistic tycoon who seizes and tortures his enemies. He employs the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.
An Englishman’s life in translation
Youssef Rakha enjoys a cup of coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies, one of Arab literature’s chief liaisons with the English language.
Having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies does not seem all that remarkable – until you remember that this silver-haired Englishman shared a table with Tawfik al Hakim three decades before you were born. Hakim may not be as familiar to western readers as Naguib Mahfouz, but he was a much bigger deal in his time. Then again, Johnson-Davies was a literary figure in Cairo long before Mahfouz made his name.
“Can you imagine,” he says, recalling his early days with the BBC in Evesham, where the broadcast company’s headquarters were relocated while London was bombed during the Second World War. “Here was Britain, with this enormous empire, throughout the Arab world – it didn’t have anybody who spoke Arabic. They did have this one Scotsman, Cowen,” he corrects himself, “but when the war came, there was nobody in Cambridge apart from me and Abba Eban,” he smiles, “who later became the Israeli foreign minister. When I started learning Arabic I was 15; they wouldn’t take me at Cambridge so I went to London, and I went to Cambridge when I was 16. The BBC had obviously contacted Cambridge and said, ‘Do you have anyone studying Arabic?’ And so I went to London, and I remember being taken into the studio to listen to a news bulletin in Arabic, and I didn’t even know what the subject was, let alone understand a word. But they took me on.” It was in Evesham, while living with the Arab employees (“mainly they were Egyptians”) in bunks in an army-managed dormitory, that Johnson-Davies began to learn Arabic for real: “It was a third university for me, and very much better than Cambridge or London. Directly I was released, I went to Cairo…”
Nearly six decades and numerous seminal translations later, Johnson-Davies received the inaugural Personality of the Year Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2007, adding incentive to complete his new book of Emirati short stories in translation, a project begun several years ago to be published by the American University in Cairo Press with support from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage in time for the next Abu Dhabi Book Fair. He is here with the final proofs, to revise them with Juma al Qubaisi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, to catch up with the poet Ahmad Rashid Thani and other friends and to reflect on his relationship with the Gulf. On his way to Abu Dhabi, Johnson-Davies stopped in Doha, and was amazed to find absolutely no sign of the city he first knew in 1951. “I would ask about certain things and say, ‘It was here a long time ago.’ And people would say, ‘How long ago? In the time of Sheikh Khalifa?’ No, Sheikh Ali [bin Abdulla Al Thani]. ‘Sheikh Ali!’ It was as if I was talking about prehistoric times.”
Johnson-Davies originally went to Doha to represent an American oil company: “I had signed a two-year contract, but after a year they said there was no oil in the sea – it was a marine company. And then while I was there, somebody came along to me and said that in Dubai, they want a translator to translate for Sheikh Said bin Maktoum, but they have no money, so are you ready to perform this service? And I said yes; I’d love to see Dubai. So, I went by private aeroplane. There was no airport or anything in Doha, and nothing at all in Dubai, no hotels or amenities. They put me up in a place belonging to the sheikh, and I translated for five days or so, but I saw Dubai in 1951. And then,” he goes on in the same breath, “I came here as the head of Sawt al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), which was a radio operated by the English, an Arabic broadcast, and all the employees were Palestinians, poor and cheerful men. The place was headquartered in Sharjah, but I would travel all round, to Ras al Khaimah, to Abu Dhabi. That was in 1969… So,” Johnson-Davies winds down abruptly, “I had experience very early on here.”
And as he gets up to greet the head waiter at the Beach Rotana, who welcomes him as an old friend, it suddenly dawns on you just how remarkable having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies really is.
Seven poets, seven emirates
I arrive in Ras al Khaimah the night before my appointment and, drained by travelling non-stop for 12 hours, barely register the atmosphere before going to bed. When you live in Abu Dhabi, it turns out, waking up in Ras al Khaimah can be surreal.
The city is like the UAE capital through the looking glass. It boasts fewer salwar kameezes, for example, but this is made up for by a strong south Indian contingent, seemingly better integrated than Abu Dhabi’s Pashtun community. Either there are more tourists or the tourists are more visible. Emiratis drive leisurely through the hilly terrain, which keeps tapering into promontories until it suddenly levels out in the desert as flat as the plains of Dhafra – and then, when you are least expecting it, the sand gives way to green.
Echoing the phantasmagoria is the nickname the poet Abdul Aziz Jassim, another Ras al Khaimah native, reportedly gave the emirate, invoking the magic realism of Gabriel-Garcia Marquez: Colombia.
Nor are the historical facts very sobering: its being coextensive with the ancient port town of Julfar; its being the last sheikhdom to join the federation; its being home to the 15th-century navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, credited with finding the route to India, as well as one of two possible birthplaces (the other being Sharjah) for his contemporary al Majdi bin Dhahir, the legendary father of Nabati poetry… But I am here to meet the poet Ahmad al Assam – perhaps the only major Ras al Khaimah writer to continue living in Ras al Khaimah – and it is on his life and work that I should concentrate.
Assam seems to embody the intersection between the Gulf tradition of oral verse and the contemporary prose poem. His work, published sporadically, reads like fragments from an epic of Julfar. Few themes could be differentiated from the setting, which the poet celebrates in Whitmanesque tones, unbridled by form or reason.
He did not know it then, but at the majalis to which he accompanied his father as a child, many of the Nabati texts recited were prose poems.
Born in 1965, he lived “between two freejs”, and a mad neighbour “who kept to himself until he had an episode, during which he would concern himself solely with us children, behaving as an over-attentive father”, who contributed to his understanding of the human condition. Assam would grow up to develop William Faulkner’s knack for reading greatness into modest lives, and Pablo Neruda’s ability to perceive in his homeland a virgin, preternatural world untouched by vice.
With a population of 250,000 (220,000 of whom live in the eponymous city) dispersed over 1,700 sq km, Ras al Khaimah is the northernmost emirate, bordered by Oman as well as Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. In the early 1970s it housed the Trucial comrades of Oman’s Dhufar revolutionaries. Ras al Khaimah territory contains both the Mussandam Peninsula – where the Arab first met the Ajami, or “he who cannot speak [Arabic]”: the oldest, slightly derogatory term for a Farsi – and the Gulf’s closest thing to the Grand Canyon, Wadi Bih. It is the only emirate that has combined fishing and sheep farming with agriculture, and today thrives on reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals used in ceramics manufacture as well as agricultural produce.
“My peers always knew to stop talking once they sensed my presence, even at a distance,” he recalls, “because I had ears that could catch what they said. Now when I think about it, I realise that I saw and looked with my ears. When I write a poem, I do not write it with my eyes, I hear it. All my life, any whisper that presented itself, I felt. And then it wrote me.”
Assam is a short, stocky man in a mustard khandoura, with the demeanour of a performer in the tradition of the early Arabian poets. When he picks me up, his right foot has recently been operated on – diabetes complications, he will explain – but he drives easily, pointing out the problem only when the photographer suggests he should walk up a steep pier. He speaks of his poor health with an equanimity bordering on fatalism, “the sheer stubbornness of my people, not pride,” he repeats, “just stubbornness”.
And stubbornness is less obvious in his work than his refusal to acknowledge that he was ever poor, patriotic or political. Assam participated in the 1974 protests against low wages which, initially triggered by Iran’s occupation of the Greater and Lesser Tumbs Islands, took Ras al Khaimah by storm. He insists it was to impress a sweetheart in the front lines. His relative indifference to travelling highlights all three qualities. Why would you want to leave even for Dubai, he asks, when you have every possible environment – coast, desert, mountain and field – at your doorstep?
Even his stint at the Emirates University in Al Ain, from 1983 to 1985, was cut short by an insurmountable yearning for home. He never graduated. “Were I to live in an apartment in a high-rise building,” he says, “my sense of wonder would flutter out of the window and back to Ras al Khaimah.”
At the Grand Restaurant, a small place where Indians scoop up biryani with their hands, Assam professes gratitude to Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, for making modern education available to a generation of aspiring intellectuals. But it was this grassroots lore of the sea that informed his local radio appearances in the late 1980s – his true debut, coinciding with his joining the intellectual rights department of the Ministry of the Economy at Ras al Khaimah, which he now directs. This was Nabati poetry, and while it metamorphosed through the activities of a short-lived “literary salon” known as The Beggars and the establishment of the Ras al Khaimah branch of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates in 1989, the drive to recite to friends has remained unchanged.
“People in Ras al Khaimah may seem outdated,” Assam confides as he drives me back to the hotel, “but they are the Emirates’ true intellectuals.”
I arrived in Ras al Khaimah after a long drive at night and the same happens again with Ajman, the visually less compelling but intellectually psychedelic hometown of the poet Hashem al Muallim.
The smallest of the seven Emirates, with a population of 40,000 living in 260 sq km, Ajman lies entirely within Sharjah’s territory, recalling West Berlin prior to the unification of Germany – except that, rather than an iron curtain, all that separates the two emirates is freehold property and alcohol, with Ajman following in the footsteps of Dubai by accommodating expatriates and embracing the age of the high-rise. But the two are intertwined; Muallim, who was born in Sharjah in 1970, is himself an example of that. His father’s family lived in Sharjah, his mother’s in Ajman. When he was seven his father decided to join his in-laws. “You take a drag on your cigarette in Sharjah,” as he puts it, “and you blow it out in Ajman.”
The town seems cosier than anywhere I have been in the UAE, including Sharjah. It is framed by an unobtrusive Corniche, which figures extensively in Hashem’s work (one poem is prefixed with “This text was written over an abandoned pavement on the coast of Ajman”).
The stunning waterfront and the neat little bungalows inspire calm, though in the evening, driving back from the Carrefour shopping complex, Muallim and I will witness two traffic accidents within metres of each other on the main road. Ajman has all the luxuries of Dubai, but it retains a predominantly Emirati constituency – judging by Carrefour, at least, which is swarming with bare-headed men in white khandouras. People seem more approachable than in Abu Dhabi.
That morning I instantly recognise him at the Kampinsky terrace cafe: he is an average-looking man with an absurdist sense of humour. He is sipping Turkish coffee with a printout of his last poem in front of him: a homage to Abdul Aziz Jassim. Muallim featured in joint collections (notably with Assam) before publishing his sole book with the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information in 2003, Those Buried in the Air. A civil servant with the Ajman police, he never attended university – the early death of his father obliged him to provide for the family – and he explains with wry humour how he and his family live in a room at his mother’s. Poverty is a point of pride for him.
Muallim never writes about places per se, but his childlike wonder is rooted in the intimately observed settings of his youth; and he was part of a frenzied “search for the unusual” centred here in a period roughly coinciding with The Beggars in Ras al Khaimah. (The same period also saw the short-lived poetry journals Nawariss and Ruaa, published in 1990-91, put out in Sharjah by the present-day director of the Dubai International Film Festival, Masoud Amrallah, and the poets al Hanouf Mohammad and Ibrahim al Mullah.)
He still counts himself among a creative community of young people spanning the two emirates who were revolutionary in the intellectual sense: lovers of Bob Marley who knew nothing about Rasta, or else self-styled Dadaists until they saw a picture of Tristan Tzara, a groomed gentleman, and realised that Jassim or Ahmad Rashed Thani – the Emirates’ two biggest names in prose poetry – had more to say to them than either dreadlocks or gibberish.
Speaking unhurriedly, Muallim traces his loss of innocence to the sudden death of his younger brother in a car accident when he was eight or nine. He was present at the scene but it took him a long time to comprehend it. “I asked where they were taking him,” he recounts, “and they said to the grave. Was he going to sleep at someone else’s house? They said it was the house of God. And from this day on, my reflexive definition of the word grave has been the place where God lives. So I left an orange on our secret tree branch in the house, where I knew he couldn’t fail to find it, and I went to bed thinking that if it stayed where it was till morning, that meant my brother would never come home again.”
More cheerfully, he recalls his Borgesian wonder at “those wholly magical creatures” he saw at the fish market nearby, where he discovered the existence of the wide, wide world beyond.
“One must become a black fish,” he wrote in Those Buried in the Air, “in the midst of lazy fanatics.”
The more I read of Muallim’s poems, the more familiar it feels. I realise with surprise that his texts have an affinity with those Egyptian poets known as the Generation of the Nineties; Muallim has had no contact with those poets (and read very little of their work). It dawns on me that, despite the economic divide separating the urban Gulf from older metropolises of Arabic literature, developments that have transformed poetry were happening everywhere at the same time. And yet, to a far greater extent than anyone in Cairo, Muallim’s conceptual vocabulary is drawn from nature: the tree, the fish, the bird.
“Still,” he says, “you can be a poet without having a word to your name. It has to do with being in tune, being able to see poetry for what it is – in the way the wave laps, in the birds’ wings, in the wind blowing through palm fronds. The poet is simply someone who can be like fronds, someone poetry can move through.”
The journey from Ajman to Sharjah is far briefer than expected. On the way I recall the bigger emirate’s status as “cultural capital”. The third largest emirate, Sharjah has coasts on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and its ports are the country’s busiest. It also has small enclaves separate from the area around Sharjah City (population 800,000). Its rulers, the Qasimis – a branch of which also rule Ras al Khaimah – were among the Gulf’s most invincible seafarers in the 19th century. Besides oil and housing revenues, Sharjah has a buoyant logistics and trucking sector.
It seems oddly appropriate that the office where I am headed – that of Al Ittihad newspaper – should be located across the road from the Kassbah with its iconic ferry wheel, in a building called Babel Towers. Besides shunning media attention, the man I am after, a cultural editor there, has stated ivory-tower views on poetry.
In a sense, the poet Ibrahim al Mullah – author of Baskets of Desert (published with the German based Dar al Jamal in 1997) and I Left my Glance in the Well (privately printed in 2003) as well as a book of film criticism and several short films – is Assam’s diametrical opposite. He sees poetry not as an oral or public exchange, but as a private act “akin to isolation”. Not a bang but rather, in this case, a moving image.
Where Assam sees with his ears, the trajectory of Mullah’s development has followed a strictly cinematic course, with “the great poets” of the screen – Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Nikita Mikhalikov – informing his sensibility. Where the Julfari feels no need to travel, Mullah derives his inspiration from wandering not only around the Arab world, where he is better connected than most Emirati writers, but in Asia and Europe as well. His position in a government institution has enabled him to explore cities like Rome and Bangkok.
When I meet him, Mullah has not written poetry for three years. “When you work as a journalist,” he explains, “it spoils writing for you. The inner light that guides the poem, the pleasure you take in it, begins to fade. ”
True to a notion of freedom that drove him against the verse compositions with which he started, Mullah’s poems evoke all the places he has been to, but they never name them. His Sharjah turns out to be different from the bustling city I have come to see.
I have waited for half an hour at the office when Mullah marches in energetically, a broad-shouldered, tall figure with a light beard. His demeanour immediately strikes me with a remarkable sense of balance – warmth and distance, enthusiasm and caution, melancholy and good cheer.
“Not here,” Mullah waves at the window, lighting another cigarette in the conference room, “but Sharjah remains a horizontal, not a vertical city.” Like most journalists at their offices, he is distracted, in a hurry. “It’s a bit like European cities, not so much in terms of its architecture as its general aspect. I am not talking about this area, which has gone the way of Dubai, but in the places where we grew up and in some cases where we still live, the place retains its character. It doesn’t have buildings that block out the sun and the air and the blue of the sky. Its skyline does not induce that kind of terror about your connection to your own space or how you might live in it.”
Mullah was born in 1966, and he deplores the dog-eat-dog existence to which “a virgin land” has been reduced over the course of his lifetime. People’s relations had been intuitive until “the compulsion to prove oneself in society” supplanted clarity and good will.
“There are break-ups,” he keeps saying. “Even among relatives, there are break-ups, and endless interference. Maybe other people accept it as the normal course of things but for a poet or an emotional person, it takes its toll on you.”
He was reluctant to do the interview. Now, to avoid being photographed without his sunglasses on, he accompanies the photographer and me downstairs as he speaks, describing two kinds of house for each family, located in two different freejs: a summer house built out of palm fronds, and a winter house built out of mud reinforced with rock from the sea.
“The sea was our guest at high tide,” he muses. “It came into the house, and that was fine – we were used to it.
“This openness,” he says, pausing to emit a melancholy laugh. “This openness to the colour blue.”
A nation of words
The writer Tariq Ebeid al Ali began publishing his Nabati verses in 1985. Stephen Lock / The National
A poet in Dubai is like a needle in a haystack. With nearly 1.4 million residents, Dubai is the largest emirate by population, but though it may boast as many Arab men of letters as Abu Dhabi, they are all but evanescent in the multicultural multitude. Despite the scarcity of oil, Dubai’s superlative architecture and embrace of international capitalism make it a worthy experiment in future metropolitanism, but only 40 years ago it was little more than a string of fishing villages on the Arabian Gulf. Today, natives are an even smaller minority than elsewhere in the UAE.
Walking into the Spinney’s shopping complex in Jumeirah – where I am to meet Khaled al Budoor, a respected Dubai poet who maintains a visible profile against the odds – it occurs to me how strange it must be to have been born here in 1961, to have grown up in tandem with such mind-blowing development and, after three years in Ohio obtaining an MA in scriptwriting, to have come back to find your teenage haunts transformed beyond recognition. “Let’s meet at the Starbucks,” he says on the phone. “Jumeirah is where I grew up. You know Jumeirah, don’t you?” And it is as if, asking me, he momentarily doubts how sure he himself is. “One feels a kind of estrangement,” he says now. “The places of childhood are no longer there.”
Budoor is a man of less than average height in a spotless white khandoura, slight but sturdy, with an incredibly trim light moustache going from grey to white. His bearing reflects years of working as a radio and television anchor, notably with Dubai TV, where he settled for early retirement some five years ago. He has written films and for the press and presided over seminars and an all-Dubai sophistication comes through in his conversation: cosmopolitan, aloof, slightly technocratic. “One feels fortunate to live in a city like Dubai,” he intones, “because it offers the writer everything he wants – books, films, equipment, contact with the contemporary world…”
He started out writing in classical verse, quickly making the transition through the modern, modified metres into prose, but he has always written in the Emirati dialect as well as standard Arabic. Some of his vernacular poems have rhyme and rhythm, but the extended metaphors out of which he forges a text are comparable in each case. So far he has published three books: Night (1992), Winter (2002) and (in Emirati Arabic) Ink and Dalliance (1999). Several more volumes, including collected articles on folk literature, are upcoming in the next year.
He seems at home enough in Starbucks, but his poems would never be. They emerge, rather, from “a simple fishing village” where “PE classes at school consisted of swimming in the sea” and old men gathered in the moonlight to listen to each other’s stories and verses, their laughter unencumbered by the absence of a dining table, their knowledge of the outside world all but fantastical. Part of this village may once have occupied the space of the multinational outlet where we are talking, but Budoor does not seem to mind.
And it is precisely the ability not to mind, and the contemporary idiom he writes in, that allow his poems to preserve those nostalgic images as places of beauty to which Arabic readers everywhere can return. Yet his true achievement, paradoxically, remains the way he has managed to depart – from the Emirates, Ohio, even his career – returning, painfully but exultantly, through the creative act. What he feels for the old Jumeirah, far from homesickness in time, is “an escape-return relationship,” as he puts it, “escape and return”. These days he recognises his birthplace only “in the faces of some friends, or else in recorded songs of the sea”; sometimes, he adds, matter-of-factly, “I feel in tune with its spirit”.
But Dubai’s architecture does not help induce this feeling, “even if the human being tries, in his own house, to provide a more merciful space”. Still, Budoor’s principal concern is with “estrangement in language”, a literal reference to the fact that few people in Dubai speak Arabic. It is a fate he seems resigned to as part of the city’s contemporary character, what makes it a great place to live. “But at other times,” he sighs, as if making a delayed confession, “I have the urge to run far into the desert – or the sea.”
The trip to Fujairah never materialises. As is the case with Umm al Qaiwain, for the longest time I am told one of two things: there are no poets; or what poets there are, “classicists”, are not contemporary poets. “There are poets,” the Ras al Khaimah master Ahmad al Assam finally declares. “They may not write in prose, they may use Emirati Arabic. But there are poets.” And he picks up his mobile phone…
After a few days’ worth of toing and froing, one sultry evening I take a taxi to the Shangri-La Hotel, on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, to meet the Nabati poet Khaled al Dhahnani, who shows up a little late at 11.30pm, straight from the studio where he was a guest juror at a teenage Nabati poetry competition. “When you have been a juror on so many competitions,” he explains, “it doesn’t feel right to participate in the Millions Poet.” Within hours, Dhahnani is due at the airport for his summer holiday in Europe, but he has not only made the effort to show up, he also pays for dinner and provides over an hour of engaging conversation.
A tall, dutifully groomed figure with an easy-going, slightly distracted air, Dhahnani was born in 1972 to a family so involved in the politics of Fujairah – and so close to the Al Sharqi family – that he compares them to the Baramikah, viziers to the Abbasids and their empire’s true movers and shakers for hundreds of years after the ninth century. “Except that, unlike them,” he adds, “we do good.” Although he keeps his house in Dubai as well as Fujairah, Dhahnani feels he is wholly a product of this most mountainous of all the emirates, which commands stunning views of the Gulf of Oman. And, at 130,000 people, it is the second least populated emirate, with active mining and tourism industries but high unemployment rates among Emiratis.
A major media official in Fujairah (he organises the bi-annual International Monodrama Festival) Dhahnani stresses his connection with nature and the conscious effort to “reinforce talent with reading”, developing his own instantly recognisable style. He may write in the vernacular, he says, but he uses “a white language” comprehensible to all Arabs. And he is so concerned with the future of Arabic among Emiratis that for months he struggled to rid his speech of the word “OK”, but ironically – in a high-end setting potentially more alienating than Jumeirah – he feels no estrangement whatsoever.
At 67,340 square kilometres – 86 per cent of the country’s land area – Abu Dhabi is too vast to picture all at once. First, there is the coastal city housing most of the emirate’s 1.3 million residents: in itself, a layered amalgam of worlds, as multinational as Dubai, but with more stress on Bedouin heritage. Then there is the original desert spring, Al Ain, population 614,180: the agricultural, educational and camel-racing centre whence settled members of the emirate’s powerful tribes, the Al Nahyan included, invariably hail. Between and beyond the two cities, oil fields, palm forests, luxurious resorts and construction workers’ camps frame the legendary Empty Quarter.
The mythic journey from Al Ain to the city of Abu Dhabi – originally a seasonal fishing and pearl-diving pilgrimage – has come to symbolise the formative years of the UAE, with the centre of gravity shifting from one to the other in the course of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s lifetime, to coincide with the genesis of the federation. It is a journey the director of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates, Hareb al Dhahiri, made at the age of 12, during a historical juncture, he says, “bridging two eras”. Moving from one city to the next was like “replacing the desert with the sea”. Together with Abu Dhabi’s cultural initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s – lectures and exhibits in the Tourist Club, the establishment of the Cultural Foundation, liaisons with Sharjah about founding the Union – it remains a central reference point in his life. “Abu Dhabi,” he says, “was a trail blazer.”
A Romantic poet better known as a short story writer, Dhahiri lives in Battin, an older enclave with one of the lowest skylines in the city, not far from the Old Airport Road. His spacious villa is furnished in the Second Empire style prevalent among the Arab bourgeoisie. Joining him in his salon, I remember that he is not only an intellectual, but also an Adnoc manager, and reportedly an effective juggler of priorities in the vexed arena of Abu Dhabi cultural policy. A critic of “mixing tourism into culture”, he brings the views of Abu Dhabi literary figures, like the poet Ahmad Rashed Thani, and the novelist Ali Abur Rish, the latter originally from RAK, into the public sphere. “Countries work on their artists until they become international,” he declares. “They do not import foreign artists, paying them millions of dollars they wouldn’t dream of earning in their countries.”
Dhahiri’s house bespeaks comfort and safety. And so, in a sense, do his poems: easy expressions of a “philosophy of love” informed by the work of visionaries like Blake and Gibran Khalil Gibran. He has written four books: Mandoline (1997), A Kiss on the Cheek of the Moon (1999) and Puppets’ Night and Soul Pulse (2004). Only two are collections of poems. In the others, narrative plays a smaller role than exploration of the psyche; and the same “philosophical way of writing” produces a layered, sometimes arcane short story similar to a prose poem. Only very subtly do Dhahiri’s social concerns rise to the surface: the disintegration of the fabric of society, dependence on the West, and the receding tide of cultural as opposed to tourist initiative.
A dark, round man with slow gestures and an easy smile, Dhahiri sits gingerly in an armchair to delineate his literary trajectory: from traditional verses through khawatir, or thoughts, to short stories. “For Arabs and especially Bedouins,” he says, “the connection with poetry is born with you when you are born. So it is only natural that even a short story writer should take this course.” Gradually, as he warms to his theme, his back slumps further into the cushion, his arms relax, and what strikes me as a conversational technique peculiar to Abu Dhabi – slow, measured but eventually revealing – begins to operate.
Dhahiri speaks of Scarborough, England, where – at his own initiative, at the age of 15 – he spent three months living with a local family to learn English. He speaks of his three years studying business at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, where his writing teacher – a tremendous support to him – turned out to be a Jewess, and how people had discouraged him from going to America under the impression, gleaned from action movies, that whoever lives there will end up dying in a shooting. He speaks of “the simple and old place”, Al Ain, “that stays with you as you grow up”; and of the inscrutable mysteries of poetic inspiration.
But imperceptibly, deftly, he steers the conversation back to Abu Dhabi. “When I first got here, there was an empty sand lot where we used to play, the present al Rawdha: people would come over and ask after a specific person. We were small then, but we could always tell them where that person lived. That’s how closely knit life was. But these days it reminds me of Scarborough. Now we are big,” he laughs, “but we don’t know the names of our next-door neighbours.”
I have been in Umm al Qaiwain for nearly 24 hours when I realise the person I am here to see is actually in Abu Dhabi. So the interview is postponed till my return, and my observations are promptly recorded before I head back, smoking to my heart’s content in my first unmetered Emirati taxi.
Tariq Ebeid, a member of the Al Ali clan of which the Al Mualla sheikhs are a subsection, is a former police officer currently training as a school teacher. Periodic changes of career, he believes, are necessary for a rounded view of life. Born in 1967, Ebeid started publishing his Nabati verses in 1985; and urban discomfort notwithstanding, he has always worked in Abu Dhabi, spending the weekends and holidays at home, where he still has the greatest audience base, frequently holding poetic evenings in an atmosphere where “everyone is family and friends”.
The least populous emirate, and in some ways the least developed, Umm al Qaiwain recalls the hinterlands of the Sahara and Sinai by turns. It has few public amenities, no real centre, and a vastly spread out miscellany of beach-orientated establishments, among which the garland-dispensing, dancing-girl-on-stage “Indian nightclub” is particularly popular. Patronised mainly by sailors and jet skiers, the emirate “has few resources”, Ebeid says, but “boasts a glorious tradition of learning and the old, affectionate way of life”.
It has contributed much skilled labour to the bigger emirates, he goes on, producing a portfolio of magazine clippings out of which he reads a few samples.
Ebeid is an admirer of the Millions Poet, from which he says he learns a lot, but the opportunity to participate has not presented itself. In reality, he belongs more firmly in a humorist tradition of zajal, less emotional and rhetorical than the kind of work showcased in the programme, and more concerned with everyday life.
A small, dark, eminently hospitable man, Ebeid meets me at his Old Airport Road apartment while it is being packed in preparation for travelling to Umm al Qaiwain, and he repeatedly apologises for nonexistent inconveniences. “This is only a place to stay,” he says, “so that the children who go to school in Abu Dhabi should have a home here too. But the quiet, comfortable life is back there in Umm al Qaiwain, where there is neither traffic nor noise – and we keep travelling back and forth. One day, God willing, you will come and visit me there. And then you will see the difference for yourself.”
الشعر المعاصر في الإمارات
Nailia Kulieva (found poem*)
I am Azery girl.
I am single without children.
I am 22 year old,
born in the 4th Februar
I have a small height: 1.46,
I am looking for the man
not higher then 1.70.
My weight is 48 kilo g.
I am romantic, tender, kind,
sometimes a bit capricious,
sometimes a bit shy.
But always very faithful girl
to my dear man.
I like housekeeping very much.
My proposal is marriage.
I want to meet the man
from 27 till 40 year.