A man with nomadic tendencies, Youssef Rakha was born in Cairo in 1976. He studied English and philosophy in England, worked in Cairo, lived in Beirut, and, most recently, in Abu Dhabi as a features writer for the English daily, The National. He has interviewed some of the most compelling and contemporary Arab storytellers of our time for the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly – from helmers and novelists to actors and politicians (who, to me, are also storytellers) – laying bare his writings with such meticulousness, voice, and reason that he gives his audience a chance to draw their own conclusions as they observe the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the speaker.
Youssef is currently finishing his first novel, Kitab At Tughra (Book of the Tugra), which, according to his blog ‘the arabophile’, is an “imaginative evocation of post-2001 Cairo and a meditation on the decline of Muslim civilization.” Here, then, we stroll through the mind of Youssef Rakha exposing, in fragmentation, the man and his machinations.
Poetry, fiction, travel writing, reportage, and essays – you are a multi-faceted writer. Which style limits you the most?
Formal constraints are limiting in every genre or kind of writing, but they are necessary for sustaining tension; the line through which the exchange takes place has to remain taut. The greater challenge is of course to write well, meaning – as Raymond Carver put it I think – not only to express but to communicate, and for me also to strike the right balance between stating what I have to say and making the reader say something through me, something similar but never the same; it’s important to leave that space open inside the text. The idea is always to stretch the form as far as I can – and that applies even to grammatical form: sentence structure and word order etc. – because it’s always as if you’re looking for something, a tone or a rhythm or a standpoint, something entirely subjective but also objective enough to be recognised. So how to be completely insane but at the same time lucid and articulate. In this sense language itself is limiting but the whole point is to argue with its limitations.
Poetry is the most challenging thing and if I had more integrity I would be a dedicated poet. But I think my medium is the Arabic language regardless of form. I recently came across these wonderful words from the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus and they express me perfectly: “Which all goes to say that, for me, the Arabic language is oceanic in nature and can absorb anything into its vast genetic pool… I think the time has finally come to treat Arabic as a great reservoir, a live magnet that can absorb foreign influences today as easily as it did in the past.”
How long have you been writing?
I published my first book, Azhar ash Shams, in 1999. I finished what I consider to be my first accomplished piece, the title short story of that book, in 1997. I was 20 or 21. But I started writing many years before, and then I started writing again when I switched to English more or less fully in 2000. I came back to Arabic with Beirut shi mahal in 2005, with only a few poems produced in Arabic in the meantime.
Virginia Woolf said fiction is more likely to tell truth than fact. Would you agree?
I am not sure what that means. Fiction plays with fact. Sometimes fact is fiction or vice versa. Foucault pointed out that there is no such thing as truth, anyway. There are many truths, and to me the truth to be found in writing is more valid than that to be found in the natural sciences, for example, or at least more relevant. But in writing, I happen to know from experience that fact can be at least as interesting as fiction.
If you could live on an island (let’s say… a pre-colonized Sri Lanka) who would you take? Of course, the indigenous people would be with you.
Jean Genet or Mahmoud Darwish?
Genet, of course. I actually happen to hate Darwish, but that is a long story…
Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx?
Fanon. We would have a lot more to talk about.
Fairouz or Leila Khaled?
That’s a really hard one. Fairuz, assuming she will be singing to me in the dark.
Sonallah Ibrahim or Emile Habiby?
Habiby would be more fun I think. I mean, I know Sonallah personally but Habiby I never met.
David Lynch or Michael Haneke?
Lynch, of course.
Khadija or Arundhati Roy?
Khadija as in the Prophet’s wife? I think I’d rather Arundhati among the natives.
Woody Allen or your unconscious?
Once again, a hard one. I think maybe they’re quite similar. But my unconscious would be Arabic-speaking which is always nice.
Father or Mother?
Oh God. Can I say neither. My father is dead, so I would go for Father simply for that reason.
If you could replace whatever infrastructure you wanted in a city – with your only condition being that reduplicating Gulf-kitsch glamorama is off limits – what would you demolish and what would you build?
With very few exceptions, I would demolish everything built later than 1800. I would build vast, hi-tech tents guarded by pure-bred camels. Tents the size of whole cities. And camels, camels everywhere.
Finally, what do you anticipate from the Beirut39 Festival?
You know there was a lot of so called debate here in Cairo following the announcement of the winners. A lot of non-winners vented their frustration and even older writers who had nothing to do with the whole thing expressed various reservations and grievances. That did not exactly put a damper on things but it made me wonder what a competition amounts to in the long term, especially thinking about some fellow winners whose work I have never respected but who have always, then as now, been present at every event or conference. It makes me curious about the nature of success in Arabic literature, what it really means to be successful and how much of it has to do with quality of writing as opposed to sheer presence of personages. Of course there are on the list also names I am totally honoured to be associated with. But that is one part of what being part of the festival has done to me, to place me face to face with difficult questions about the value of what I do and how this value is actually measured.
I have a very strong four-year-old connection with Beirut so it is very exciting to go there as a recognised writer. My hope however is that the festival will help me on the ongoing and incredibly difficult task of freeing up time to travel and write, whether through residencies or a book deal or whatever