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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

Empty Feeling: The Vagaries of the Sixties

The Egyptian writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s cast a long shadow over decades of Arabic fiction. Youssef Rakha considers the vexed legacy of a generation.

Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel
Mohamed el Bisatie, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University in Cairo Press
Dh90

In July 2007, I met the novelist Gamal al Ghitani in Cairo to discuss the Egyptian State Merit Award, which he had just received (too late, he felt). We agreed that the group of writers known in Egypt as the Generation of the Sixties – a politically engaged, predominantly working-class group of poetically-inclined writers who made their names in the late 1960s and early 1970s – remain the principle reference point for much contemporary Arabic literature. Al Ghitani said that the Sixties’ achievement comprises only two kinds of writing. “One draws on the news and other immediate manifestations of history to take realism to its logical conclusion; it is represented by Sonallah Ibrahim. The other, which is inspired by old books and uses the old storytelling to comment on the present, is my own.”

It seemed unnecessary to disagree at the time, but I thought to myself that there was a third Sixties contingent, one typified by Ibrahim Aslan and Mohamed el Bisatie. Their work is even more typical of “the movement” than either Ibrahim’s brand of hyper-realism or al Ghitani’s heritage-orientated approach. It embodies all the qualities that come to mind when you think of the Generation of the Sixties: it focuses on collective rather than individual experience. It works through evocation and insinuation, is often almost too subtle to understand, and prioritises style over storytelling. It asserts the importance of the lower-middle and working classes, which were more visible under the Nasser regime than they had ever been before.

What sets Aslan and el Bisatie – the former a postman-turned-editor, the latter (like Naguib Mahfouz) a lifelong civil servant – apart from their generational cohort is their almost exclusive emphasis on the experience of marginalised groups, rather than all of society or the ebb and flow of history. Their short stories – always short, sometimes rambling – are Faulkneresque in their focus on small communities and their vernaculars. Aslan has the Nile-side Cairo slum of Kitkat, el Bisatie an unnamed small town overlooking Lake Manzalah in the north-eastern Nile Delta. Like Ibrahim, both authors engage broad themes like sex, religion and politics, but only indirectly, only to the extent that they play out in the lives of the disinherited, and generally in a more personal register. Like al Ghitani, they situate their narratives in an explicitly historical context, but only on behalf of the small, poor communities in question.

In addition to his numerous short stories, Aslan has only produced two novels – Malik al Hazin (Heron, 1983) and Asafir al Nil (Nile Sparrows, 2000). Recently, in an unprecedented move for a Sixties Generation writer, he has branched out into literary non-fiction. El Bisatie, on the other hand, has spent the last three decades steadily producing short novels of starkly uneven quality. To a greater extent than Aslan, he has failed to remedy the shortcoming inherent in much of the new writing celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s: a lack of strong characters or gripping storylines. The power of language to convey an intimately observed environment – particularly one where common people live – was thought to be enough for literature. But it rarely is; now that the Sixties’ political points are no longer fresh, their style frequently seems stale as well.

“Hunger” is the idiomatic translation of both Al Ju’ and Ju’: the definite and indefinite forms of the word, respectively. El Bisatie’s choice of the latter as the title of his latest book (since published as Hunger by the American University in Cairo press) reflects a particular humility of the Sixties: the belief that, when the title of a book is a one-word abstraction, the definite article is too presumptuous to include. To call the book Al Ju’ (so goes this absurd argument, advanced by a whole range of Sixties critics) would imply that the author is laying exclusive claim to the concept of hunger (this is the rough opposite of how it works in English).

Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another recent book about poverty in the third world, one that recognises the age-old literary virtues of character and storyline – I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups (all of which Adiga transcends). They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.

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El Bisatie devised his technique of a collective narrative voice in two 1978 novellas, Al Maqha az Zujaji (The Glass Cafe) and Al Ayyam as Sa’bah (Hard Days): simple, sad evocations of the lives of geographically isolated town-dwellers. In these books, as in the bulk of el Bisatie’s subsequent work, the narration is either delivered by an amorphous “we” or by a rapidly shifting blend of individual voices – in both cases, it as if el Bisatie’s small town itself is telling its own tale.

It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat. But none of the collective voice’s potential poetic power (often squandered by sloppiness and repetition) makes up for a lack of absorbing drama or vivid individual characters. This helps explain why Ju’ is such a slow and dreary read.

The book opens with a woman named Sakina sitting by the doorstep of her rough-and-tumble, mostly mud-brick family house, her headscarf in a bundle between her legs. Her perpetually unemployed husband, Zaghloul, uses a piece of straw to clean his teeth – his way of telling her that she had better borrow a reghif or two of bread from the neighbour who baked that morning. Inside the house, their sons (Zaher, 12, and Ragab, 10), barely awake, caress their tummies. Dialogue between husband and wife is intermingled with their respective internal monologues, all rendered in a language somewhere between dialect and standard Arabic. El Bisatie’s usual poetic intensity is replaced by a more true-to-life, mundane idiom that is neither absorbing nor (as the intention sometimes seems to be) comic.

From the start, it is hard not to recall far more powerful depictions of the subjective experience of hunger (in Mohammad Choukri or Knut Hamsen, for example). You race through the next few pages, hoping for some more compelling situation or scene. But having taken in that first image, it turns out you have taken in the whole book: paper-thin characters on the lookout for food, only food, and not thinking much at all.

Ju’ is built around four anecdotes recalled without any indication of when they occur or how (or if) they relate. First, Zaghloul takes to eavesdropping on a group of young men from the town who are studying at university in Cairo. Home for the holiday, they are meeting at the cafe around which Zaghloul hovers (hoping against hope for a free drink, perhaps?). “Oh Sakina,” he later recalls to his wife, “education is so sweet… Sitting on the mastaba by the wall, I hear them talking. And, oh, what talk! I understand bit, I don’t understand a bit… They say that one shouldn’t work everyday like a water buffalo tied to a water wheel, one has to have time to think. But, people, think about what? They did not say. I wanted to ask them but I was silent.”

The encounter, far from influencing Zaghloul one way or the other, acts only to dehumanise him for the reader, to solidify him as a caricature of the sub-proletariat. Likewise, in the second anecdote he blasphemes: “God in His glory created the world and the people and everything, and ordered them to worship Him. I say to myself, if He created all this, what does He need their worshipping for … If He in His glory wants them to worship him, why doesn’t He appear in whatever form He likes and say ‘I created you, worship Me!’ Then nobody will say no.” This is a silly caricature of shallow atheism – neither interesting in its own right nor useful in developing Zaghloul’s character, which remains opaque and stereotyped: the poor man with poor thoughts who invariably ends up being beaten by the imam.

The third anecdote involves Hagg Abdur Rahim – a man who “returned home from foreign countries” to the village with as much new money as new weight, which renders him immobile. Zaghloul works for Hagg Abdur for two months, bringing his family a rare stretch of financial stability. In the fourth – and perhaps the most interesting – anecdote, Sakina is similarly subcontracted as a servant by the two female teenage servants of Hagg Hashem, another affluent member of the community. When she moves into Hashem’s house, she brings along her husband and children, who feast on the household’s supplies. But once again, the protagonists reveal no individuality, enacting their destiny (acquiring what food they can) like shadow puppets, two-dimensional and skin deep.

Ju’ ends with Zaher being beaten up by the father of his relatively affluent friend Abdalla, who has been providing him with much-needed snacks. “His father,” who does not want him to mix with such rabble, “was a teacher at the primary school and he had not one but four galabeyas, he wore an undershirt and had three meals a day.” Zaghloul accepts a few meters of fabric as compensation, but when Abdalla’s father hands Zaher a galabeya to replace the one that was torn during the beating, Zaher throws the garment on the ground and walks away. In The White Tiger, Adiga has his poor man protagonist, Balram, rebel – and transform himself with a brutal murder. In Ju’, el Bisatie has Zaher make a feeble, hackneyed gesture, without the slightest indication of whether or how the rebellion will improve (or worsen) his lot. Perhaps a gesture of this type is in character for Zaher; we never know him well enough to say.

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Perhaps what al Ghitani was getting at (consciously or unconsciously) in our conversation was not that the Sixties produced only two kinds of writing but rather that only two kinds of writing have survived since. Aslan and el Bisatie’s mode, arguably the most characteristic of the Generation, is fast dying out, just like the predominantly deferential, ineffectual characters it depicts. Today, the Zaghlouls of Egyptian fiction are more like Adiga’s Balram: upwardly mobile heroes who at least try to change their lives. The heirs of the Generation of the Sixties (prose poets-turned-novelists some three decades younger, often referred to quite aptly as the Generation of the Nineties) have turned the principles of their forebears upside down. Writers like Mustafa Zikri and Ibrahim Farghali – however else you evaluate their achievement – have traded the collective for the individual, the musical swirl of the “we” for the developed narratives of the “I”. As a vehicle for conveying modern reality, el Bisatie’s collective voice sounds less and less convincing – like the echo of an echo, no longer beautiful twice removed. It is doubtful that the poetic style he perfected in Shakhab al Buhairah will live on much longer.

Early on, partly in response to the Sixties Generation’s obsession with “the people”, the Nineties writers avoided social and political engagement altogether, and edged away from the vernacular towards a dynamic, thoroughly contemporary standard Arabic designed for finding the magic in the quotidien. As a result, they are realists only insofar as they use everyday contemporary life as their starting point. They write about foreigners and rich people with fully developed and convincing personalities – and about ghosts, psychotic breaks, unrealistic and fantastical turns of events. Their styles borrow from across high and low culture. Most importantly, they show at least as much interest in plot and character development as style. They tell stories of love, death, hunger and the full range of specimens who experience them. In doing so, they offer the reader so much more than the Sixties version of reality which, through relentless, obstinate insistence on being true to the grassroots vernacular of its time (and nothing more), already appears unreal.

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أن تغادر المكان



فاصل من مقالي عن الجامعة في العدد الأخير من مجلة أمكنة

واحد = ثلاثة

ممكن أن أخبرك مثلاً أن سنوات الجامعة بالنسبة لي هي أيضاً سنوات تحقق حلم الذهاب إلى المكان الثاني، إلى إنجلترا. لا أتذكر بوضوح متى تكوّن في رأسي مفهوم مكان ثانٍ بمعنى المهرب أو البوابة، غير أن علاقاتي توطدت ببعض مدرسي البريطانيين في المرحلة الثانوية ولابد أن نظرتي لنفسي تغيرت في حضورهم ومن خلال رحلات سابقة إلى أوروبا ومعرفة جيدة بالإنجليزية. منذ عمر السادسة عشر، وربما قبل ذلك، كنت كارهاً لأشياء كثيرة؛ وكانت الأشياء التي أكرهها تجتمع في مكان يمكنك أن تسميه، تجاوزاً، مصر. لعل أول تجليات المكان الثاني، إذن، أنه ليس مصر. اليوم بينما أجد نفسي حائراً في تحديد الأشياء الطاردة التي كانت تجسد مصر أو تُطابِقُها، أو أجدها أعقد وأوسع من أن تُذكر أو يُدلَّل عليها ببساطة، يظل للمكان الثاني في رأسي مواصفات أدق جعلته مرغوباً لذاته وليس فقط لأنه خال من هذه الأشياء. من ضمن تلك المواصفات مثلاً أن المُعلّم هناك يصطحب تلميذه إلى الباب ليشاركه البيرة بعد انقضاء المحاضرة بدلاً من أن يمارس عليه عقده النفسية، أن الشرطي لا يملك على الشخص الماشي في الشارع حق الاحتجاز والإهانة، أن سهرة ختامها الاختلاء بفتاة هي نشاط مشروع لا ضرورة لمداراته أو الانتباه إلى أنه محظور، أن الكتب والعروض والأفلام التي يمكن أن تقرأها وتحضرها وتشاهدها أوفر وأحسن، أو أن حواراً طويلاً وعميقاً بين أكثر من ثلاثة أشخاص يمكن أن يبدأ وينتهي كله دون أن يأتي على ذكر الدين. عندك هنا خمسة نماذج على ما يرغّب واحداً بلغ منتصف عقده الثاني من الحياة في المغادرة. بحساب ما، كانت هذه النماذج الخمسة أكثر أهمية من مواصفات أخرى كالنظام والنظافة واستقلالية الفرد والتطور التكنولوجي، وأظنها – النماذج –  تعطي انطباعاً أصدق عن أسباب سخطي على المكان الأول. لكنها مهما بيّنت من نقائص، ستظل أبعد بكثير من أن تنقل لك إلى أي حد كان الشخص الذي يكبر في مكان يحتقره موهوماً بجدوى الانتقال إلى مكان أرقى، أو كم كان يحمل ذلك المكان الأرقى له من وعد. كنت بإصراري على المغادرة كأنني أتبرّأ من نفسي، النفس المحبوسة في الأشياء التي أرفضها، المحكومة بإعادة إنتاج الرفض سواء أدركت ذلك أو لا. وكانت المفارقة أن مبرر المغادرة – ضرورة الحصول على شهادة جامعية وكون المستقبل كله رهن هذه الشهادة – هو نفسه شرط من شروط المكان الأول، تماماً مثل المعلم الذي يتعالى على تلميذه والشرطي الذي يقطّع (بطاقة) مواطن سيستجوبه بلا وجه حق، ومثل التعاليم والفرائض المقحمة على كل حديث مهما كان موضوعه: شروط مصر. طبعاً كان يمكن أن أكمل تعليمي في كلية السياسة والاقتصاد التي دخلتها بسهولة بعد إتمام الدراسة الثانوية على المنهج البريطاني في مدرسة (أجنبية) ألحقني أهلي بها ليوفرا أفضل تعليم ممكن لابنهما الوحيد؛ كانت نتائجي في الآي-جي-إس-إي تعادل أعلى مجموع محتمل. بشكل ساذج ومدلل، مع ذلك، كنت واثقاً من أنني سأصبح كاتباً. ولا أعرف ماذا كان يدور في رأسي عن احتمالات الكتابة كمهنة علماً بأن الناس وقتها كانوا ما يزالون يمجدون أشياء كالطب والهندسة دون وعي بانحدار مستوى التعليم في هذه التخصصات ولا البطالة التي تنتظر خريجيها. ولم يكن يخطر لأحد أن الكتابة يمكن أن تكون أكثر من هوى أو هواية. أبواي، عن نفسيهما، كانا متفهمين. وعندما قررت أن أستبعد الكليات العلمية مبكراً، طمأنا نفسيهما بأنني فضلاً عن إجادة الإنجليزية ستكون معي شهادة محترمة في مجال أحبه. قيل في ذلك الوقت إن السياسة والاقتصاد تقدم تعليماً رفيع المستوى في الآداب، لكن بعد الخبرة بنظام تعليم يشجع على المبادرة ومدرسين يعاملون النجباء من طلابهم كأنداد أو أصدقاء، لعله كان طبيعياً أن أُحبط في مناهج جامعة القاهرة وأسلوب التلقين المتبع في تدريسها وبالذات أداء أساتذتها الذي لا يختلف جوهرياً عن أداء (أبلة) الحضانة أو (فقي) الكتاب. كان الموضوع من أوله إلى آخره في (الملازم) التي يؤلفها (الدكتور) ويبيعها بطريق غير مباشر: لا كتب ولا مناقشات، لا بحث ولا كتابة. فقط استذكار ببغائي لمحتوى هذه الملازم، ومتى أمكن أيضاً تملق وتمسح في مؤلفها بهدف النجاح في الامتحانات – وهي مهارات كان يجيدها الطلبة الآتون من الأرياف أكثر من غيرهم – لأن نتيجة الامتحانات تعتمد ليس على معرفة الطالب بالمادة أو اجتهاده في مطالعة المراجع وإنما على مزاج الدكتور الذي يدرس له. وكان الدكاترة إجمالاً يقلقون من أي بادرة اهتمام بموادهم خارج حدود الملازم. وكأنك لو قرأت كتاباً، خاصة لو كان إنجليزياً، ستفضح جهلهم وخيابتهم؛ وكأن أي سعي إلى المعرفة لا يحدث من خلالهم شخصياً هو بالضرورة انقلاب فوضوي على نظام حكمهم العتيد. هكذا كانوا فعلاً، أو هكذا أتذكرهم: رجالاً صغاراً خائفين ضيقي الصدر والأفق، مقطوعين لسلطتهم التي بدت لي غير مستحقة. لحد الآن وأنا أتكلم هكذا مجرد كلام، لا تزال في حلقي مرارة القهر والقرف من أستاذين أو ثلاثة كنت احتككت بهم بشكل سطحي قبل أن أكف عن حضور المحاضرات و(السكاشن)، وصدمت في استخفافهم المجاني بأي كلام جاد يمكن أن يقوله طالب سنة أولى عن أي شيء. حالة الانتفاخ التي كانوا يظهرون عليها، كأنهم قبل دخول المدرج يحقنون أصداغهم بالنشاء، تشعرني بأنهم ليسوا معلمين بل ممثلين درجة ثالثة جيء بهم ليمثلوا هذا الدور، وبأنني أنا الآخر علي أن لا أكون طالب علم بل ممثلاً في دور طفل جاهل ومستهتر لا يمكن أن يشفع له سوى الرياء أو وساطة (حد كبير). ذات لحظة بدا لي أن البقاء يعني نهاية العالم، أو أن العالم الحقيقي ليس هنا ولكن في إنجلترا أو أمريكا، هناك. وظللت أسعى بلا جدوى لتدبير منحة أو تنسيق (معونة مالية) حتى أتمكن من السفر دون أن أجهد أبوي. أعتقد، بعد كل هذه السنين، أن ما كنت أبحث عنه هو مكان يمكنني أن أعبّر فيه عن نفسي، بمعنى أن أعيش قناعاتي بشكل يشعرني بالامتلاء. وكانت ضرورة الحصول على تعليم جامعي كهدف مرحلي للحياة كلها في مركز هذه القناعات. ومع كل هذا، ما إن تحقق حلم المكان الثاني حتى خفّت حدة احتياجي للتعبير عن النفس، شيئاً فشيئاً. في السياق الجديد أصبحت أهمية القناعات التي كنت أريد أن أعيش بها أقل فأقل، حتى بدت قناعاتي كلها بلا أهمية على الإطلاق. وحدث هذا بشكل أشعرني، بالتدريج، أن نهاية العالم قد لا تختلف جذرياً عن استمراره. يعني هنا، باختصار، ليس أعظم كل هذه العظمة من هناك. في مصر كان عندي ما أعبر عنه وربما من أعبّر له أيضاً، لكن السعر بدا أعلى من قدرتي الشرائية؛ ولعل التربية على قيم الطبقة المتوسطة هي التي صبغت الحياة بألوان الحذر والترقب. لكي أعيش قناعاتي المعرفية، مبدأياً، كان لابد من تهميش الدراسة الجامعية بالكامل وقضاء ربما عشر سنوات بدل الأربع المقررة لتأمين الشهادة. كما شغلني كيف سأعيش خلال هذه الفترة. أن تفطر في رمضان أو تنام مع امرأة لم تتزوجها: حتى في ذلك العمر، بدا الحصول على هذه الحقوق أخطر من أن تستقيم معه الحياة. أما مناخ جامعي يوفر الحد الأدنى من احترام العقل ومكافأة التفوق، فلم يكن مطروحاً من الأساس. في منتصف التسعينات كان البديل الوحيد عن جامعات الدولة المتفق على ضعف مستواها هو الجامعة الأمريكية في القاهرة. وفضلاً عن أنني كنت واعياً بانخفاض ترتيبها على مقياس الجودة التي تقرره المؤسسة التعليمية الأمريكية، غير مطمئن لاختلافها عن جامعة القاهرة ونافراً من التفرنج السطحي والثراء غير المسئول عند غالبية الملتحقين بها ممن أعرفهم – إلى اليوم تصيبني كلمة “إيوسييان” بالغثيان – لم تكن تكلفتها تقل عملياً عن تكلفة التعليم في أي “يونيفرسيتي كوليج” في إنجلترا أو أي جامعة محترمة في أمريكا. أعتقد أنني بالضغط على أبوي حتى ينفقا كل قرش معهما على دراستي في جامعة هل في شمال شرق إنجلترا، بالفعل وجدت المكان الذي كنت أبحث عنه، مكاناً للتعبير والقناعات. وإلى اليوم لا يراودني شك في أن معضلة التعليم الجامعي لم يكن ليحلها إلا السفر. تراودني الشكوك حول كاختيار – كنت قُبلت كذلك في جامعة بريستول ، لكن تكلفة الحياة في هل أهون قليلاً – وكثيراً ما أتساءل أيضاً إن كانت إنجلترا هي النموذج الأمثل للدنيا الحلوة التي أردت أن أهرب إليها. أتساءل وأتساءل وأتساءل عن جدوى الهرب نفسه، طبعاً. لكن لا أشك لحظة في أن السفر هو الذي جعل للتعليم الجامعي في حياتي معنى، ونجّاني من أمراض اجتماعية و(ثقافية) ما كانت مناعتي التي أضعفتها المدرسة الأجنبية ستتحملها في هذه السنين. المشكلة أنني حين أصبحت في المكان الثاني، كما سبق، فوجئت من فوري بأنني لم يعد عندي ما أعبر عنه أو من أعبر له ويفهم أو يهتم. وكانت صدمة هذا الاكتشاف من القوة بحيث تدخلت في نظرتي لكل شيء لاحق عليها، في ذكريات المكان الأول وتقييم المكان الثاني وطريقة التعامل مع المكان الثالث الذي عدت إليه فور حصولي على بكالوريوس الآداب في الفلسفة والأدب الإنجليزي بتقدير امتياز مع مرتبة الشرف وثلاث جوائز والكثير من الثناء. لأنني حين عدت بعد ثلاث سنين تخللتها إجازات كثيرة، كان طبيعياً أن لا أعود إلى المكان الأول وإنما إلى مكان ثالث لعلني كنت أتصالح معه تدريجياً دون أن أعلن لنفسي عن هذه المصالحة. المكان الثالث – هو الآخر مصر – أصبح اليوم أشبه بالبيت الذي وإن لم تحبه كله تشعر بألفة حقيقية معه وتكون مستعداً للتعود على بلائه، بشكل ما. الآن دون أن أتعمد الاستعادة وأجتهد في ذلك – وهو المهم – لا أكاد أتذكر شيئاً من أهم ثلاث سنين في حياتي. أتذكر ملامح المكان الأول بوضوح تام، كما أستطيع أن أسرد – بالتوازي مع مسار حياتي كشخص حاصل على شهادة جامعية – كل ملامح تطور المكان الثالث ومشاويري عبره منذ 1998، سنة عودتي. أما المكان الثاني الذي وهمت به قبل أن أذهب إليه وزال عني وهمه أثناء وجودي فيه، فلا أكاد أحتفظ لصوته بأي صدى. دون أن أجتهد في الاستعادة لا أكاد أتذكر شيئاً، بالفعل. لكن ربما الأدق أنني أتذكر أكثر بكثير من أن أميز ما يجب أن أتذكره لأتكلم عنه، أو أي وزن يجب أن أعطيه لأي ذكرى في الكلام. أصداء صوت المكان الثاني من هذه الناحية متضاربة وبطيئة، فضلاً عن أن الزمن جعلها مكتومة مثل صوت الطبلة حين تُسد فتحتها بالقماش. ولولا الارتباط الشَرطي بين كوني هناك وكوني أحصّل العلم – الأمر الذي أثقلني على ما أظن، حيث كان هاجس التفوق حاضراً ومختلطاً بالذنب تجاه أهلي حيال ما قررا أن يستثمراه في مشروع ربما لا يأتي عليهما في النهاية بالربح المرجو – لولا هذا الارتباط الشرطي، أقول، ما كانت اقترنت ذكرياتي عن إنجلترا بالدراسة الجامعية أساساً، الأمر الذي كان ليجعل أيام الجامعة ثقباً أسود في فضاء وعيي المبطن بهذه الذكريات. على سيرة الجامعة مع أصدقاء من عمري وأكبر أو أصغر قليلاً، مازلت أشعر أن تلك المرحلة حاضرة في عقولهم أكثر بكثير مما يمكن أن تحضر عندي، أن الحياة التي يعيشونها اليوم وأعيشها معهم وإن كانت نقطة انطلاقي لاحقة على نقاط انطلاقهم هي الامتداد المباشر لخبرتهم بالجامعة: مسافة قطعوها في علاقتهم بمكان واحد ربما غادروه أو عادوا إليه ولكن دون أن تحوله أي رحلة من رحلاتهم إلى مكانين. بالنسبة لي، على العكس، الجامعة خانة خاوية وحدها، أو على أحسن الفروض مشهد من فيلم آخر غير الفيلم الذي أعيشه مع هؤلاء الأصدقاء. محزن بعض الشيء أن أكتشف ذلك الآن، محزن ومحير، لأن الفصلة بيني وبين أصدقائي لا تقتصر على أن خبرة دراستي الجامعية نفسها مختلفة عن خبرتهم: أيام الجامعة في حياتي، بأكثر من معنى هنا، مشوار مبتور. واليوم حيث لا علاقة باقية بين مصر ما قبل ومصر ما بعد إنجلترا، لا تبدو الجامعة أكثر من جب يفصل مكانين دونما يتصل بأيهما بشكل كامل. وكأن ذهابي إلى إنجلترا جعل من الواحد ثلاثة على غرار سر الثالوث في العقيدة المسيحية: خط الذاكرة الأقرب لا يمتد إلى ما قبل عودتي من أصله، ولهذا كثيراً ما أحس كأن وجودي في إنجلترا هو فاصل شارد من ذاكرة شخص غيري وجد طريقه إلى رأسي بالغلط. الغريب – في الحقيقة هذا هو ما أردت أن أتكلم عنه من البداية – هو أن ذلك الشخص الآخر، كاره مصر الظافر بمغادرتها، يبدو بكل تفصيلة من تفاصيل حياته مغلوباً على أمره في المكان الذي غادر إليه. كأنه طوال إقامته في إنجلترا لا يريد أن يكون هناك. عقاب من يصر على مغادرة المكان: في مدينة فقيرة تغرقها رائحة كيميائية على ساحل بحر الشمال، مدينة هي نموذج حي للوضع ما بعد الصناعي… وبالرغم من أن فيها جامعة تحقق له كل تطلعاته، أن يتغلب الملل والقلق على الإنسان


سر المكان

معنى أن تغادر…

موضوع قد يستغرق الأبد.

أن تغادر المكان الذي ألفتَ زواياه كأنها في

خبايا فكرك انعطافات الحلم الذي لا يلوي على شيء –

المكان الذي سره أبداً لم يُستكشف، لأنه صار أليفاً وأنت

لن تقبل إلا بما لا تعرفه، قابلاً لما تعرف لكن عارفاً أن هناك

شيئاً خبيئاً وراء بابك، شيئاً لن تطاله الأضواء التي

لن تعرف سرها ولن تراها…

أن تغادر المكان الذي يلتف سره بالأحاجي

لأنه صار أليفاً، والأليف حين يُستكشف يُطرح جانباً في العادة؛

قد يحدث هذا، ذات يوم، عندما تركب قطاراً

إلى الريف أو المنفى:

أن تجد كل طريق، كل حقل، كل بيت

مغتسلاً برونق بهاء ليس سوى بعضاً من ترنّقه

في مرآة الترف: اللون، والشكل، زوايا التظليل، إطار المتعة

الباذخة في العين – حصان يرعى في المخيلة.

جسر يتجسد فوق ضفتين، ما وراء النظر

لكنك ترى في غفلة

ظله العابر.

وإذ تعبر بالبركة (في أية قرية!)

وتحجز في نظرتك الماء الساكن، وباحات البيوت

والقارب المقيّد بالحبل

إلى رصيف المرفأ، وتفكر، ولا تدري أنك فكرت إلا فيما بعد:

«كم ساكن هذا الظل وأسود في الماء»

فإنك تدرك، في الحال، أن المرأة الملفعة بعباءة

سوداء في الحديقة، تبكي لأن أحدهم أجبرها

على أن تقبل بالحقيقة.

ولستَ متأكداً إن كان هذا جزءً من الحلم، أو شهادة

سمعت تفاصيلها ذات مرة

لكنك تدري أن ما جاهدتَ أن تدريه في تلك اللحظة

شيء يمكن لك الآن، في عمرك هذا، أن تعرفه أكثر

لأن الخليقة وضعتك في هذا الموضع بالذات

حيث ترى، وتمتلك الرؤية.

إنك آنذاك، حين يتقمصك الوضوح، وتكون في

حال من فرط انجلائها، أنك لا تفكر حتى بأن تفكر:

آنذاك قد يحدث أن تحدس السر الذي لم تستكشف طواياه

في المكان الذي غادرته، ذلك الشيء الخبيء ما وراء أستار وأبواب

ذلك الشيء الذي لن تطاله الأنوار التي رأيتها في منامك.

تلك التي لم ترها سوى في منامك.

(نص قصيدة سركون بولص من «عظمة أخرى لكلب القبيلة»، دار الجمل 2008)

سر الإحباط

فيما يخص المغادرة عندي صياغتان إضافيتان لمفهوم الإحباط الكاسر الذي ينتج عن زوال الوهم

ورغم أنهما في الأصل ضمن تعليقات ساخرة تتردد عن المدينة التي كنت أسكنها

أجدهما بليغتين جداً

Hull = Hell                                            Hull is dull

علماً بأن الإحباط المقصود هو ذلك الذي تعبر عنه كلمة

disillusion

Enhanced by Zemanta

حوار‮ ‬منصورة عز الدين

هدفي تحطيم البقرات المقدسة

لا يكف يوسف رخا عن إثارة الشغب‮. ‬

حاجته الدائمة إلي المغادرة وعدم الثبات تدفعه لاختبار أقصي درجات التمرد و(السخط؟‮) ‬في الكتابة‮. ‬لا يعترف بأي فواصل أو حدود بين الأنواع الأدبية،‮ ‬لذا يمعن في التنقل بينها ومزجها ببعضها البعض كأنما تتحول الكلمات معه إلي لعبة ما‮. ‬إلي مكعبات أو قطع ميكانو يرّكبها كل مرة علي نحو مختلف ثم لا يلبث أن يفككها من جديد‮.‬

اللغة من وجهة نظره صديق لا يجب أن نبذل معه كل هذا الجهد‮. ‬صديق يتحول رخا من أجله إلي متآمر أبدي يظل يسهم في تنفيذ مؤامرة محكمة للتأكد من أن اللغة‮ “‬لغته لا تعيش إلا خارج الكتابة‮” ‬كما كتب في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ضمن كتابه الأحدث‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮”. ‬وهو النص الذي يشبه خارطة طريق‮ (‬لن أقول مانيفست‮) ‬لنظرته للّغة،‮ ‬وهي نظرة،‮ ‬ربما تكون بدأت معه منذ بدايته،‮ ‬إذ نجد تجلياً‮ ‬آخر لها في نص من نصوصه الأولي‮ (‬منشور في الكتاب نفسه‮) ‬وعنوانه‮ “‬عبّاس العقاد‮” ‬يكتب فيه‮ “‬تلك القوالب الخرسانية‮/ ‬وقصائد الحديد والصلب‮/ ‬هل كنت تتحدث مع المازني‮/ ‬بلغة سرية؟‮/ ‬أنت لم تترك لي‮/ ‬أكثر مما تركه الإغريق القدامي‮/ ‬أنت ورثتني‮/ ‬قوالب طوب‮/ ‬أنت ممن جعلوني‮/ ‬أكره اللغة العربية‮”.‬

هذه القصيدة أشبه ما تكون بتصفية حسابات مع نظرة معينة للّغة وللفن،‮ ‬وهو أمر لا ينكره رخا،‮ ‬إذ يقول‮: “‬كان هذا مطروحاً‮ ‬في قصيدة التسعينيات‮. ‬تصفية حسابات مع البشر والدنيا بشكل إنساني،‮ ‬تصفية حسابات علي المستويين الجمالي والأدبي‮. ‬لكن يمكنني قول إنه ليس تصفية حسابات بقدر ما هو تمرد أو تكسير للبقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬والعقاد أكبر‮ “‬البقرات المقدسة‮” ‬بدون وجه حق‮! ‬هو من وجهة نظري ليس لديه جديد يقوله،‮ ‬علاقته باللغة مريضة ومختلف تماما عن طه حسين مثلاً‮. ‬موقفي من العقاد ليس موقفاً‮ ‬من عصر ولا توجه سياسي،‮ ‬إنما موقف من كاتب أرفض التعبد في محرابه‮. ‬الآن لن أكتب قصيدة بهذا المنطق‮. ‬لأني مقتنع حاليا أن تصفية الحسابات حتي لو بشكل جمالي ليست هدفاً‮ ‬كافياً‮ ‬للكتابة‮”.‬

‮ ‬تبدو اللغة هنا هي المعيار الأول الذي يقرِّب صاحب‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮” ‬من كاتب أو ينفره منه،‮ ‬يستشهد بطه حسين باعتباره النموذج المغاير للعقاد،‮ ‬لكنه يعود في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ليسخر من صاحب‮ “‬الأيام‮” ‬لأنه شغل نفسه بسؤال‮: “‬أيهما الأصح‮: ‬تخرّج في الجامعة‮ ‬_‮ ‬أم من‮ ‬_‮ ‬الجامعة؟‮”. ‬

من ناحية أخري‮  ‬يبدو يوسف رخا كأنما في صراع دائم مع اللغة للوصول للغته هو،‮ ‬لغة تخصه،‮ ‬وتشبهه،‮ ‬بما يحمله من تمرد وقلق ورغبة دائمة في اخراج لسانه للجميع وتكسير كل الأيقونات والبقرات المقدسة‮. “‬هذا في حد ذاته من الأشياء الأساسية في الكتابة الأدبية‮. ‬درجة من الطزاجة تسعين لها‮. ‬أن تتجاوزي الكليشيهات حتي لو قمتِ‮ ‬بسك كليشيهات خاصة بكِ‮ ‬في المقابل‮.” ‬يقول رخا قبل أن يضيف‮: “‬ثمة سلطات لغوية مزعجة‮. ‬توجد سلطوية كريهة في التعامل مع اللغة‮. ‬هذا شيء ضد الإبداع‮. ‬نحن نتكلم لغة‮ ‬غير التي نكتب بها‮. ‬لدينا لهجات مختلفة،‮ ‬ولغة لم تتطور إلا علي الورق،‮ ‬وأري أن هذا شيء جيد‮. ‬لو حذونا حذو أوروبا لكانت كل لهجة تحولت إلي لغة منفصلة‮. ‬هذا يطرح سؤالاً‮ ‬طوال الوقت هو‮: ‬كيف تكتبين؟ أنتِ‮ ‬مسبقاً‮ ‬اخترتِ‮ ‬الكتابة كامتداد تاريخي لما كُتِب باللغة العربية علي مدي التاريخ،‮ ‬لكن مع لمسة إنسانية تقترب من لغة الكلام‮. ‬في مرحلة من المراحل،‮ ‬عندما كنت أفكر في الكتابة،‮ ‬شعرت أن الأشياء التي من الممكن أن أخسرها والتي لا تعوض هي الصراع بين العامية والفصحي‮. ‬لديكِ‮ ‬لغتان يمكنكِ‮ ‬استنباط شيء مختلف من تصادمهما أو تجاورهما‮. ‬اللغة إضافة لكونها علاقة صريحة مع ما هو الشعر،‮ ‬إنما هي أيضا صراع‮. ‬معظم الكتّاب الذين أحبهم سواء بالعربية أو الإنجليزية يكون عندهم لغة تخصهم‮”.  ‬

‮>>>‬

اختار رخا‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬عنواناً‮ ‬لكتابه الأحدث الصادر عن دار العين،‮ ‬كأنما يؤكد من جديد علي أهمية المكان في كتابته‮. ‬إذ يظهر دائما باعتباره مركز الكتابة والعنصر الأساسي فيها‮. ‬لاحظنا هذا في كتبه في أدب الرحلات من‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮”‬،‮ ‬إلي‮ “‬شمال القاهرة،‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”‬،‮ ‬وها نحن نلاحظه في نصوصه الأحدث المقالات منها والقصائد،‮ ‬بل وحتي في مخطوط روايته التي لم تصدر بعد‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮”. ‬يعترف رخا أنه في الشعر لا يوجد لديه وعي بحضور المكان‮: “‬عندما سافرت إلي أبو ظبي وجدتني أكتب قصائد متتالية عن المكان دونما تخطيط أو قصدية‮. ‬وكان هذا لطيفاً،‮ ‬إنما الكتابة عن المكان في كتب الرحلات تتم عن عمد،‮ ‬أعتقد أن المكان من الأشياء الأساسية عندي،‮ ‬أكثر أهمية من الزمن بالنسبة لي‮. ‬من المفارقات أني عشت في أماكن كثيرة جدا في القاهرة وخارجها،‮ ‬وكنت دائما أعود للشقة التي وُلدت فيها‮. ‬احساس لا علاقة له بالعاطفة أو الحنين‮”. ‬

الزمن في كتابات رخا إما مفكك أو موجود في منظومة محددة سلفاً‮. ‬في كتاب‮ “‬الطغري‮” ‬مثلاً‮ ‬تدور الرواية في ثلاثة أسابيع محددة‮. ‬ويظهر فيها المكان‮ / ‬القاهرة وتغيراته بشكل واضح،‮ ‬بل إنها‮ (‬أي القاهرة‮) ‬العنصر الأساسي في‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮” ‬كما يؤكد رخا‮: “‬وهذا جزء رئيسي من عملية التكوين في الرواية‮. ‬المكان حاضر تماما،‮ ‬ليس فقط القاهرة،‮ ‬إنما نكهات معينة لأماكن معينة‮. ‬قاهرتي أنا‮. ‬شعرت باختلاف كبير حينما أكتب عن مكان ضخم أعرفه جيدا‮. ‬أبو ظبي وبيروت مثلا أصغر من القاهرة،‮ ‬وخبرتي فيهما أقل‮. ‬عندما يكون المكان كبيراً،‮ ‬وخبرتك فيه كبيرة تستطيعين اللجوء لخيارات صعبة‮”.‬

لكن بعيداً‮ ‬عن مركزية المكان،‮ ‬يبدو‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬مربكاً‮ ‬لهواة التصنيف،‮ ‬فالكتاب يحطم الحدود بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬إذ يضم ديوانين قصيرين أحدهما قديم والآخر جديد،‮ ‬ومعهما نصوص ومقالات‮. ‬تجسير الفجوة بين الأجناس له مستوي آخر أيضا فثمة نصوص شعرية في الكتاب أقرب للنثر،‮ ‬ومقالات ونصوص سردية أقرب للشعر‮. ‬لا يبدو يوسف رخا مرتاحاً‮ ‬لفكرة أن يبرر نشره للمقالات مع القصائد،‮ ‬يقول بدرجة من الاستهانة‮: “‬كان لدي ديوانان قصيران،‮ ‬لا يصح أن ينشر كل منهما وحده،‮ ‬كان من الممكن أن يُنشرا مع بعضهما في كتاب أصغر‮. ‬لم أرغب في أن ينشر كل منهما في كتاب أصغر لأن لدي مشكلة مع الكتب الهزيلة حجماً،‮ ‬كما كنت أشعر بضرورة أن تتم قراءتهما معاً‮. ‬أيضا أردت كسر التصنيف الحاد بين النثر والشعر واخترت نصوصا نثرية من الممكن أن تصنع حالة كلية مع الديوانين‮. ‬من الممكن أن تقرأي القصائد علي أنها نثر مطبوع بشكل مختلف،‮ ‬وتقرأي المقالات علي أنها شعر مطبوع كنثر‮”.‬

أسأله‮: ‬تبدو مشغولا بتجسير المسافة بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬ما السبب؟

‮- “‬بالنسبة لما أكتبه،‮ ‬أشعر أن مسألة الأنواع الأدبية مفتعلة‮. ‬ثمة شكل تقني يتطلب أشياء معينة‮. ‬ولديّ‮ ‬دائما تساؤل هو‮: ‬هل لو كتب رامبو روايات لكان أصبح أقل أهمية وتأثيراً؟ وهل لو كتب ديستويفسكي قصائد لكان أقل أهمية؟ فكرة التخصص التي كانت سائدة في السبعينيات لا معني لها من وجهة نظري‮. ‬الكتابة كتابة سواءً‮ ‬أكانت مقالا أو ريبورتاج أو قصة‮. ‬ما يحركني لها دوافع واحدة بغض النظر عن الجنس الأدبي الذي أكتبه‮. ‬في لحظة معينة أجدني أقرأ كتاب‮ “‬ميزان الذهب في شعر العرب‮” ‬من أجل كتابة بيتين من الشعر العمودي أحتاجهما في مكان معين من عمل معين‮. ‬التركيبة الموجودة في‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬لا أعرف إلي أي مدي هي موفقة‮. ‬هي مبنية علي نصوص كانت موجودة مسبقاً‮ ‬عندي‮”.‬

‮>>>‬

رغبة رخا في التمرد وتحطيم البقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬لا توفر شيئاً‮ ‬أو أحداً،‮ ‬إذ تمتد إلي الشعر نفسه‮. ‬نلاحظ رغبة قوية في إنزاله من عليائه واللعب به ومعه‮.‬

يقول‮: “‬لا أري أن أدبية النص لها أي علاقة بتوصيفه‮. ‬عندي ثورة شخصية علي الأدبية الخاصة بتلقي النص الآتية من مكان معين خارجه‮. ‬من جانب آخر هناك الأفكار التي ظهرت في التسعينيات والداعية لكسر نوع معين من البلاغة وتصور معين عن الأديب‮. ‬كان الأهم فيها أنها حطمت المفهوم الخاص بأن من يكتب يلعب دور المعلم أو الأديب أو حتي النبي‮. ‬في عملي لا تزال هناك الرغبة في أن تصدمي أو تكسري‮. ‬رغبة مصدرها التآلف مع ما حدث في التسعينيات رغم أني وقتها لم أكن واعياً‮ ‬بهذا بشكل كافٍ‮. ‬هذا الكتاب أشعر أنه فاصل‮/ ‬حاجز بين مرحلة استنفدت أغراضها وبين مرحلة جديدة‮. ‬بمعني‮  ‬بين مرحلة كتابة المكان بالشكل الذي بدأته‮ ‬2005‮ ‬وبين الرواية التي انتهيت منها مؤخرا‮. ‬الديوان صدر فوراً‮ ‬بعد‮ “‬شمال القاهرة‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”. ‬شعرت أنه يملأ المساحة بين أدب الرحلات والرواية‮. ‬الكتاب كان من المفترض أن يحتوي أيضاً‮ ‬علي اسكتشات وصور فوتوغرافية،‮ ‬لكن لم يحدث هذا لأسباب ربما تكون تقنية،‮ ‬الفكرة تم رفضها من قبل الناشر‮”.

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أكلة لحوم البشر

ذَكَري على الأرض بين قدميها

بعد يومين – تقول لي، راجية أن لا ألفت إليه انتباه الخادمة – ستكون الخادمة نفسها هنا من جديد. لا، لا، لن تكنس ذكرك. فقط لا يجب أن تراه

فجأة يخرج عِرق نافر من جانب ذكري. كدودة مستميتة يشب على كعبها. يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها

سيكون هناك أطفال – تُواصِل، وأنا أحاول أن لا أنظر إليه – وزوج هو أبوهم، وأب صار جداً فخوراً، لم لا؟

وكعادة البيت الذي لا أحسني غريباً عليه رغم كل شيء – فكرت – ستصخب الأركان بأشخاص أفهمتني أنهم أصدقاؤها. أنهم بريئون وضروريون. ومثل إخوتها المدعوين إلى وليمة بدأت الخادمة في تجهيزها، لن يدوسوا على ذَكَري. فقط لا يجب أن يروه

لكنني رغماً عني أرى العِرق النافر. كدودة مصممة على الحياة، يتشبث بالكعب. ببطء مميت يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها

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Boutique battlefield

Samia Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practise (paperback edition), Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010
Recently, in an otherwise casual conversation, a writer friend remarked that the Egyptian culture scene was like an oligarchy with no constituency beyond the oligarchs. As agents of what looks like the Victorian age of Arab arts and letters, she elaborated, Egyptian intellectuals are power mongers by default. Many are in the employ of institutions where the production of knowledge is less of an aim than a pretext – for income and status – or for preserving the political status quo. But even those who are not, in their isolation from society at large, end up developing delicate networks of interest among themselves; consciously or not, they engage in various forms of hypocrisy or corruption, blocking what creative potential exists apart from them. The result is that the cultural sphere reduces to a set of boutiques corresponding to institutions or cliques, mutually beneficial and unduly exclusive. And that – so my writer friend concluded – is because intellectuals rely for their survival  not on consumers of culture but on complex systems of patronage and their attendant discourses.
Of course relying on consumers bespeaks unmediated capitalism and so introduces a new set of issues. But it is the readiness of Egypt’s Culture Wars to pay attention to the commercially oriented and the popular as well as the “high”, the high-brow and the aesthetically pure that justifies its numerous and frequently disparate pursuits. The book respects the cerebral no more than the public or the overtly political, the settings and protagonists of the intellectual fables it presents no less than the hard theoretical plotlines by which they unfold.
Samia Mehrez is aware enough of my friend’s line of thinking not to pretend to stand apart from the constraints and confusions of what she is doing even as she writes: her ceaselessly evolving understanding of her own role as a cultural agent occupying a position of privilege and with a vested interest in her subject matter. But what makes Mehrez’s all but exhaustive statement on the topic compelling is the way it charts the soap opera-like developments of cultural icons and narratives pitted against society -  and especially the intellectual’s vulnerability to dependency and censorship – in a wide variety of contexts. The novelist Sonallah Ibrahim’s life-long refusal to have any dealings with a government-dominated literary establishment, for example – the implications of this stance for his writing, its reception, and the shifts it has undergone – is deployed to flesh out the notion of “the disinterested writer” and, more broadly, the theory and practice of engagement in its local modulations since the 1960s. Mehrez uses not only her own knowledge of Ibrahim and his work but also a newspaper column on Ibrahim by his contemporary the novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani, whose approach to the same goals of writerly “honour” and autonomy is markedly different from Ibrahim’s. What otherwise might have been a dry discussion of an abstract and frankly overdrawn subject suddenly takes on flesh-and-blood edge.
By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit – freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of literary autonomy – Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany’s phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics – the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say – out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or “intellectual” achievement, what makes Egypt’s Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.
I could argue with Mehrez’s claim that “writing in English about the Egyptian cultural field” – a process, as she puts it, of translation – “places this local and localized text alongside a larger global one”, or at least probe the hows, wheres and whys of this premise. But it seems to me that the distance that same process generates is precisely what makes or breaks each interactive exercise the book proposes, that Mehrez’s half-committed standpoint – the heterogeneous and “postcolonial” pluralism of her approach – is precisely what hermeneutically enables her work. Like much interdisciplinary north-south scholarship, as it also seems to me, a certain common-sense rationalism, what I might call a pretend objectivity, belies the essentially subjective nature of this undertaking as a whole.
Discussing the attacks to which the American University in Cairo’s Naguib Mahfouz Award was subjected as a distorting and negative force in Egyptian literary life, for example, Mehrez employs the spot-on metaphor of the writers’ alley: an exclusive space for engagement undermined by foreign – specifically, American – intervention. But in so doing she seems to confuse the critic Sayed El-Bahrawy’s nationalist tirades against the prize itself with very valid criticisms of who the prize went to. The uproar surrounding its award to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi in 1998 has less to do with Mostaghanmi being a stranger to the writer’s alley – her position as an Algerian or a woman or a newcomer to the literary field – than it does with the patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language, whether or not it ended up selling well – something Mehrez neither brings up nor justifies.
Then again – and especially where gender is concerned – Mehrez is unashamedly subjective. “In December 1998 I found myself at the heart of a major crisis surrounding my teaching of the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s controversial autobiographical text Al Khubz al-hafi (For Bread Alone) in one of my literature classes at the American University in Cairo,” she writes. “The crisis that began on campus as part of a debate over academic freedom and freedom of expression soon took on national, regional and international proportions when the parents of two students sent an unsigned letter to the AUC administration calling for my dismissal and threatening to take me and the university to court.” The “khubz crisis”, however, is but one spaciotemporal episode on what, grandiloquently but perhaps also ironically, she takes to be a battlefield where the forces of freedom do battle with those of dictatorship, dispossession, power and power abuse in literary-social relations.
Mehrez’s notion of right seems to be formulated slightly to the left of the liberal status quo of advanced capitalist societies, in line with her common-sense rationalism and the conditions under which she produced her work. But it is her far-fetchedly holistic accomplishment, the sense of a totality of culture and the totality of a specific culture in a specific sociotemporal space that, more than any sense of right, whether subjective or objective, makes an impression on this reader.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama

http://www.hayfestival.com/beirut39/anthology.aspx?skinid=6

Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama[1]

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.[2] 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[3] 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] .[4] 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,[5] 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[6], 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 Mustafaenough, 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[7] – 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,[8] 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[9].  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.

“The leader rode one evening, on one of his night treks… He headed toward Muqattam[AM12] hills, then, he was not seen after that, neither live nor[AM13] dead, his fate unknown, his body

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?”


[1] 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)

[2] The attachment refers to the Kitab Al-Tugra or Book of the Sultan’s Seal, an as yet unpublished novel by the same author.

[3] Muslim spiritual leader (Translator)

[4] 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.

[5] One of the major gates of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)

[6] Darsh is a common and traditional sobriquet for Mustafa.

[7] The north gate of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)

[8] Also called masr al-gadida, or “New Egypt,” a suburb of Cairo. (Translator)

[9] Orthodox Muslim belief holds that Jesus was never crucified but was physically raised into the heavens by God’s invisible hands.


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A literary prize fight: politics and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Youssef Zeidan, the winner of the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Azazeel (Beelzebub), accepts the grand prize – and a $60,000 award – at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi last March. Andrew Henderson/The National

A fine shortlist of nominees for the third ‘Arabic Booker’ has so far been overshadowed by manufactured controversy, Youssef Rakha writes.

For the third time in as many years, the discussion surrounding the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) has descended into bickering over literary politics. In the Arabic press, where the prize has received considerable attention and attracted equal amounts of controversy, the focus has rarely been on the virtues or demerits of the nominated titles – instead, in the three years since the award was introduced, debate about the politics of the prize has overshadowed discussion of the nominated books.

It seems self-evident that the entirety of any literature cannot be reflected in a single prize, however representative it aims to be – and IPAF does not aim to be representative. Yet since its launch in 2007, writers and publishers have tended to see the “Arabic Booker” as the alpha and omega of literary achievement. Disappointment and distress can hardly be unexpected.

When this year’s longlist of 16 books was released in November, the controversy began with geography: Egyptian authors won the prize in each of its first two years, and when only two Egyptian books turned up on the longlist, a spate of allegations were launched – mostly by disgruntled Egyptians – claiming that the jury had neglected Egyptian fiction to appease the rest of the Arab world.

Complainants like the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim abdul Meguid, who resented the exclusion of his novel Fi kull Usbou’ Yom Jum’ah (Each Week There is a Friday), declared that there was corruption within the IPAF and insisted “a conspiracy against Egypt” was afoot.

Soon thereafter, the conspiratorial consensus shifted to one of the longlisted books, Issmuhu al Gharam (Its Name is Love), by the Lebanese novelist Ulwiyya Subh. Her book, which had been popular and well-reviewed, was regarded by many as the likely winner of the eventual award – some of whom may have concluded that, after two male Egyptian winners, the jury might be inclined to shift its favour to a Lebanese woman.

This speculation took a more sinister turn, however, when interested parties alleged that the book was not merely likely but certain to win. The Lebanese poetry journal Al Ghawoun claimed to have “uncovered a clandestine deal” to fix the results, slinging accusations at Subh herself; at Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese writer and the administrator of the prize; at the Kuwaiti novelist Talib al Rifaie, who sits at the head of this year’s jury; and at the senior Egyptian critic Gaber Asfour, an avowed admirer of Subh.

These conspiracy theories were not dented by the fact that Subh’s book did not make the shortlist of six titles announced in December – instead the critics shifted course, insisting that the uproar over the initial accusations had led the jury, “cowing in to media intimidation”, to deliberately leave Subh off the list.

More controversy ensued with the resignation from the jury of the Egyptian critic Sherine Abu El Naga, who told this newspaper at the time that “the voting method was my main reason for resigning,” protesting that the shortlist decision was made without “dialogue or discussion”. As the gang imagined by Al Ghawoun started bickering among itself – Subh publicly insulting al Rifaie, for example – it became clear how random all the accusations had been.

The prize committee, alas, may have invited some of this speculation: though the members of the jury are supposed to remain secret until the shortlist of finalists is announced, this year the details were leaked and published in a Cairo newspaper two weeks prior to the announcement, more than enough time for speculation about hidden motives and social connections to run wild.

Each member of the jury, it turned out, was a friend or acquaintance of Subh, giving fuel to the conspiracists – and yet such circumstances are partially inevitable: Arab literary circles are small and perilously cliquish.

The public consternation – at least in those same tightly-wound literary circles – over the administration of the prize has served to obscure the grander intentions of the award, the valorisation and promotion of Arabic-language fiction. Instead, the literary community has been polarised into pro- and anti-Booker factions, ensuring that future rounds will continue to be clouded by suspicion, particularly over the nomination of younger writers whose reputations have not yet been established.

A more sensible way of evaluating the prize might be to look at the previous laureates, and to ask what each one signifies as a work of Arabic fiction – and as the book chosen by the prize committee to be sent forth into English translation, where it will represent the impossibly diverse range of literature in Arabic for western readers.

Baha Taher’s Sunset Oasis, which took the first prize in 2008, depicted Egyptian-British relations during colonial times; its translation was funded by a grant from the British philanthropist (and Granta owner) Sigrid Rausing, and published by Sceptre in 2009. Last year’s winner, Azazeel (Beelzebub), by the Egyptian novelist Youssef Zeidan, which tackled religious intolerance in the pre-Islamic Middle East, will be published in English this spring by Atlantic Books.

If there is a common thread that connects the first two winners – each of which, it should be added, was chosen by a separate jury – it is that both stand as affirmations of a pluralistic and liberal value system, one that generally looks positively at the encounters between East and West: in Sunset Oasis, the equality of the races and the right to (national and personal) freedom despite the horrors of colonialism; in Azazeel, the importance of tolerance and understanding in the face of dogma and religious extremism.

Among this year’s shortlisted titles, the London-based Palestinian writer Rabie al Madhoun’s Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) hews closest to this East-West tune, but with a more immediate pitch than the historical fictions of Taher and Zeidan.

The novel, which has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”, 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. Later, back in London, she is killed in cold blood as a result of her previous amorous involvement with the son of an Arab leader.

The novel has been praised as much for its entertaining narrative as for being among the first Arabic books that deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict undogmatically, showing psychological depth on both sides while accurately portraying the Palestinian tragedy. By prioritising the human over the political, opposing the racism inherent in “nationalist” discourse and siding with human rights, it goes even further than the previous two winners in affirming liberal values.

In the young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabir’s novel America and the older Egyptian novelist Mohammad al Mansi Qindeel’s Yawm Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side), themes of confessional and ethnic intermingling come to the fore in the context of long, multifaceted narratives with heavy historical components. In both cases the encounter between East and West again figures prominently. 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.

Yawn Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi opens with 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 – but baptises her as a Christian before doing so. This coincidence of 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, transcending the boundaries of religious, national and ethnic identity alike.

Once again, the writer speaks for the rights of the individual woman and opens up humane spaces within an otherwise unequal colonial set-up, while showing the flimsy nature of religious identity for what it is.

The remaining three novels on this year’s shortlist give less attention to the crossing of borders and the intermingling of cultures; each zeroes in on the particularities of national or local cultures, delving into local specifics – in one case, with savage satire – to reveal the tensions within changing societies.

’Indama Tashkish adh Dhi’aab (When Wolves Grow Old), by the Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji, employs a wide cast of characters, and a plot drawn from the world of detective genre fiction, to depict the social malaise of contemporary Amman – a panorama of the city that sets out to expose 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) steers clear of the explicitly political to chronicle an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta – a period, which concluded in the late 1980s, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders. As in Naji’s book, there are many characters and a complex, if hardly suspenseful, storyline, which follows the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from a small town in the Nile Delta to Cairo.

Though the so-called “Arabic Booker” has not, for obvious reasons, attracted the same attention from gamblers as its British namesake, the smart money this year may be on the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s grotesque satire of power, Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles). Khal is the most established and celebrated writer on the shortlist, and one might be forgiven for expecting the jury to embrace the least contentious choice after so much public acrimony.

But Khal’s book is not without its own potential for controversy, and it has little to offer in the way of cross-cultural pieties or the tolerance afforded by such encounters. The novel is set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door. The owner of the palace is a well-connected, wealthy and powerful man, about whose origins little is known. The owner, a ruthless and sadistic tycoon, seizes and tortures those who have crossed him; he enlists 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.

But the narrator, in Khal’s account, is not just an unthinking instrument in the hands of power: he is a participant in the violence, an agent of political oppression, but also a victim of economic dispossession. Khal’s depiction of the narrator’s extended family and neighbours – particularly his bravely disapproving aunt, from whose eyes the sparks of the title emanate – reflects an entire society caught up in the horror of inequality and the absurdity of power.

Of course, this year’s shortlist does not reflect the entirety of contemporary Arabic literature, but there can be plenty of merit in six books. While the bickering will inevitably continue well beyond the announcement of the winning title on March 2, it is important to note that not one of these books is in any sense unworthy of the award. Reasonable critics can disagree whether they are the absolute best or most innovative on offer. I for one, was surprised to see that the Iraqi novelist Ali Badr, a prolific chronicler of Baghdad who combines engaging plots with a sharp and versatile intellect, failed for the third time to make it from the longlist to the shortlist, this time for Mulouk ar Rimal (Sand Kings).

It was similarly disappointing to see the exclusion of the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gabalawai (Children of Gabalawi), which represents the vanguard of a home-grown Egyptian magical realism that is very different from its Latin American counterpart. But it seems indisputable that these six books are in fact reasonably representative of contemporary Arabic literature. And regardless of the extent to which the “Arabic Booker” remains dogged by ungrounded accusations of favouritism, this year’s shortlist demonstrates that, while writers and publishers may not be entirely immune to such faults, the literature they produce remains a strong statement against them.

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On Fawwaz Haddad’s The Unfaithful Translator

The Butterfly Dream

Fawwaz Haddad, The Unfaithful Translator, Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008, 488 pages

In the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly – so vividly that when he wakes, he wonders if he may in fact be one. In that case, he reasons, at this moment I must be dreaming that I am a man, which would make me a butterfly all along.

Zen koan, Sufi riddle, nursery rhyme: the trope has proven particularly popular in the post-modern literary imagination, where the constructed and the factual tend to intersect and overlap at a rudimentary level.

In the case of Al Mutarjim Al Kha’in or The Unfaithful Translator by the Syrian novelist Fawwaz Haddad, improbable events and brazenly forced plot turns – one could draw up a whole inventory of accidents and coincidences – keep the artificial side of the exchange near the surface of consciousness, a la Brecht, but at the same time, intimate descriptions of the cafes and streets of Damascus, true-to-life dialogue between the characters and the way they respond to public events like the fall of Baghdad are historically rooted and empirically tenable – to the point of being exact.

This potentially jarring medley of fact and fancy jazzes up a more or less predictable story line and gives the fundamentally moral message of the book subversive zing. But, more importantly, it manages to do so without upstaging the idea of a dual world in which dreams can be confused with reality:

Carried away by his creation, the writer wonders if the characters in his book might actually be creating him. He wonders if the alternate reality presented to him by literature might not turn out to be the real world, and his own life an invented fiction.

Like Bishop Berkeley’s claim that the tree would cease to exist if there were no one to perceive it, the Butterfly Dream is a quaint, insolvable question of little application. Yet by producing one of the language’s first coherent, full-length meta-novels, Haddad gives that central idea unprecedented and culturally specific edge. Finally the Butterfly Dream has been nationalised.

Zhuangzi, a more or less mythical figure, is now reincarnated as the Damascus-dwelling, post-millennial literary translator-cum-cultural editor-cum-ghost writer Hamid Salim (whose silent doppelgänger is of course Haddad himself): a no less mythical (or at least mythicised) figure. In his own very different way Hamdi recalls the one statement to which the Chinese philosopher’s entire contribution tends to be reduced:

Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

***

As a budding poet Hamid is discouraged by the establishment critic Mohsin Ali Hassan, an autocratic Ustaz who rides the wave of “engagement theory”, making his name and gathering around him an obsequious circle of acolytes by promoting literary engagement as “a life raft to save literature from the communist octopus”. Mohsin advises Hamid to write novels, but instead the young intellectual – unbeknown to the older critic and to his chagrin – turns to the age’s most relevant intellectual endeavour: translation.

Despite his bookish inattention to matters of immediate concern – which results in his wife leaving the house (taking the children with her), and gives him the undeserved reputation of a suspicious snob among his neighbours – by the time the book opens Hamid has had a relatively successful career as a translator of English works of fiction. He is widely believed to be competent, and makes enough to support himself and his family.

The translator spends his time tortuously labouring over every last phrase in the book he happens to be working on. His talent, imagination and sense of cultural, not to say national identity force their way into the process in the form of perilously creative glosses on the original words, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections of the book he is “transporting”, to borrow a traditional Arabic expression for translating.

But no one seems to notice that the results are inaccurate or compromised. (The dual implication is that few critics know enough English to realise, and that they would not care if they did, so long as there was nothing about the realisation to advance their careers or help them promote the party line.)

Then, in a moment of postcolonial fervour, Hamid alters the ending of a novel by an African author that he has been translating. He makes the hero break up with his western partner and return to his country instead of marrying her and staying on in the west (as he does in the original). But even then, it is only by coincidence that his climactic act of betrayal is exposed: the novel happens to win an international prize and it is consequently summarised in the Arabic press, so people notice the discrepancy between the original and the Arabic version they have read.

However cooped up in his ivory tower, Hamid has been unable to avoid the small-mindedness of the establishment, and a few months ago he defended himself against an unprovoked attack on the part of the influential if patently ignorant journalist Sherif Hosni (at some level, the Syrian equivalent of a party hack). This is Sherif’s chance to pounce back.

Sherif sets about discrediting Hamid, and he proves so efficient that in a matter of weeks Hamid can no longer find work anywhere. For a while he goes hungry because he cannot afford to buy food.

And so, through a string of encounters, reunions and recollections, amorous and detective scenarios, assumed names and identities, Hamid embarks on a series of secret jobs under three different pseudonyms (Halafawi, Hafalawi, Halafani), which take on the form of alter egos whose overbearing presence increasingly torments him.

Finally, on the point of throwing the last of his secret employers, the long unproductive author Samir Farout, over a bridge, Hamid is approached by a man who manages to stop him in his tracks. When he asks where that man came from – in the meantime Samir has managed to crawl away – the reply is, simply and shockingly, “Reality”. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that this visitor from outer space is Haddad, the author, but it is tempting to read the ending as if it were.

Now I do not know whether I was then Haddad dreaming of Hamid, or whether I am now Hamid, dreaming of Haddad.

***

And yet there is more to this enormously multifarious book than the Butterfly Dream. The notion of translation is a strong metaphor for what it means to be an intellectual in the Arab world: someone who is able to bring otherwise inaccessible culture or truth into the arena of the everyday.

Perhaps a more effective rendition of the title is Translator Betrayer (Arabic does not differentiate between the adjective and the noun), since the book is less about Hamid’s betrayal of the texts he works on than the Arab intellectual betraying his “historical role”, to borrow an expression from the nationalist rhetoric Haddad targets with his satire.

Irony upon irony: Hamid is betrayed by the Literary Mafia represented by, among others, the critic Jamil Halloum (according to Hamid’s old friend Sami, an uneducated middle-man with connections in criminal and intelligence circles, they are capable of murder in their relentless drive to cut short the rise of any genuine talent that may threaten their position).

But members of that mafia may in turn be betrayed by someone like the university professor Hakim Nafie (a possible ally whose agenda does no always chime with theirs).

Hakim becomes Hamid’s first secret employer when his scheme to improve the grades of one of his female students in return for sexual favours is discovered by Hamid’s deformed friend Mahmoud. So Mahmoud forces Hakim to employ Hamdi in order not to expose him.

Mahmoud is only a beggar- or criminal-turned-Muslim fundamentalist, but he is capable of turning this insane hierarchy on its head (at least for a while, until he is taken in by the police, apparently because another of Hamid’s employers wants him out of the way). He can threaten the personal safety of someone like Nafie.

Mahmoud is a kind of guardian angel who, wandering around the streets of Damascus, his unbearably hideous face wrapped in a scarf, gathers critical information simply by overhearing people speaking to themselves or thinking out load – as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

***

Translation is intrinsically a betrayal whether or not the translator betrays the text, but so is the charge levelled at social and political renegades in the police states of the Arab world: by breaking with the party or the leader, they become khawanah (the plural of kha’in), betrayers of the nation and, more crucially, of their own well-being. They become ostracised and go hungry.

Haddad’s main purpose in this book is to expose, through a self-referential parable sufficiently panoramic to cover the full genus of Arab Intellectual, the corruption and impotence of its full range of species. But hischoice of translation as the profession of his protagonist goes beyond its metaphorical significance. Hamid’s access to English allows Haddad to place his Damascus-bound theatre within a new-world-order context.

He juxtaposes the incredibly pan-Arab biography of Hamid’s childhood love Lailah Shouman with an imagined novel by a fictional American author named Elisabeth Markend:

Laila, also known as the new-wave poetess Lamis Abbas, author of an erotic collection poems, was married to a Palestinian freedom fighter who took her to Beirut and then Tunis, and after he was murdered she returned to take up with an Iraqi sculptor.

Translating Markend’s The Jailed Virgin, a tour de force of global espionage, western-Islamic strife and complicated love that reflects Laila’s “real-life” biography, Hamid is finally defeated by the first of his alter egos, Afif Halafawi, who manages to impose his plan to produce an accurate, almost literal translation against the betrayer’s will.

Before he forges the final plot twist, taking the whole symphony several abrupt octaves up through the paradoxically satisfying anticlimax of someone appearing from reality to prevent a fictional murder, Haddad manages to weave together all three strings of the book:

1) the satirical critique of the Arab Intellectual, a creature unable to translate culture or truth while he attends to his principal task of building petty personal glories by colluding with brute force, whether in the form of dictatorship or crime;

2) the many metonyms for this narrative term, which include Kafkaesque , Joycean and Noir registers, embodied by a cast of archetypes including, poignantly, the ostracised author Samih Hamdi, who is still working on an endlessly gargantuan novel when he dies – the cue for his one remaining heir, his spinster sister, to promptly burn the manuscript; and

3) the idea that reality, especially a reality that revolves around literature, is practically interchangeable with imagination: only through their imaginative capacity for identifying with corruption and oppression, Haddad seems to suggest, do Arab intellectuals become corrupt, oppressed and oppressive, but ultimately powerless to pursue their raison d’etre except at the most hollow rhetorical level.

Considering the size of the undertaking, Haddad’s consistency of tone and the subtle pacing with which he maintains the action, balancing each element against the other, is no mean feat.

***

Since the 1960s, at least, big fat novels like The Unfaithful Translator have been read reluctantly and frowned on for their sheer size. Notwithstanding the popularity of the short story and the novella until the 1990s, the idea is that the full-length novel is a thing of the past, reflecting societies and ways of being – French and Russian if not pre-modern – that are so temporally or geographically distant as to be irrelevant. Whether or not you share this view, there exists a pragmatic argument for not writing them: they do not encourage reading, and so they help to keep the readership small.

This may not be entirely true; the counter argument is that dedicated readers – the only kind who read novels – are unlikely to be put off by a long book; they may even treasure an accomplished intellectual project of this kind once it has captured their attention. The Unfaithful Translator is no breezy read, but the point to be made about it is that it could not have been any shorter: its power resides in the way it weaves together three apparently disparate literary projects, for only against the backdrop of Haddad’s critique of the intellectual community is the Butterfly Dream adequately incorporated into Arabic literature; and only the many intersecting dramas make the critique readable and convincing.

Somehow, despite remaining essentially a work of the mind, The Unfaithful Translator manages to leave a haunting – and naturalistic – impression in the mind. Like many Arab intellectuals in real life, there is something of the Kafkaesque arthropod about its hero, the solitary little man: lacklustre, droning, alienated and alienating. Hamid leads an isolated life, he seems to exist solely within a mental space he carved out for himself, sealed off from physical experience, human contact, and memory. Yet his sheer existence embodies a deep yearning for these very things.


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Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

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Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143
Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

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on TRANSLATION

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My favourite monster

Youssef Rakha

There is something maddening about translation. Perhaps the right word is “eye-opening”: it makes you realise just how ­impossibly separate the mental categories of two languages can be. I speak, in particular, of Arabic and English, that double-headed monster which, staring long and hard into my intellectual looking glass, I sometimes glimpse laughing at me.

Like an invisible friend – or, rather, a ghost whisperer – that bilingual creature sits behind me every time I attempt to translate my own work, one bloated head over each shoulder, sniggering at my futile efforts to make two things into one, ­reminding me that, by working simultaneously in two languages, all I have managed to do is ­internalise some two centuries of chronic misunderstanding and mutual abuse, with the vague promise that some day, maybe, such chronic conflict will have been resolved – enough for my work to make positive, universal sense.

I write in Arabic, one version of which – the Cairo dialect – is my mother tongue. I also write in English, of course, but Arabic is the language in which I produce the poems, stories and essays that I tend to think of as my gift to posterity. And then, remembering that the vast majority of the world’s readership will have access to no such gift, I panic and berate myself for not making it available in English, which is so much more widely ­understood and appreciated.

That is when I sit down to translate my work. “Good luck,” I can almost hear the double-headed monster yelling every time, his giggles just audible enough in the background. “You will not discourage me,” I ­respond. And, armed with a range of dictionaries and the willingness to take a word out here, replace an expression there, reinvent the flow and the rhythm of the text, I sit down and block out every distraction.

Later, when I have shown the results of this exercise to ­English readers whose judgement I trust all the more because they have no Arabic, they have pointed out so many peculiarities, unclear turns of phrase and incomprehensible allusions that I have had to question my knowledge not only of ­English but of Arabic as well.

Yes, I would think, what on earth did I mean by that?

It would eventually come to my attention that, to really present my works of genius to ­English-speaking posterity, I must rewrite them entirely or, to be more precise, I must write them anew – in English. And then what will I achieve? They will have become something profoundly other than what they are, as estranged from themselves as Arabic is from English.

It is then that, glimpsing the double-headed monster in the looking glass, I have been tempted by violence. So far, I have ­resisted the temptation.

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Disrupting the Narrative by Sousan Hammad

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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

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A world of promise

Bianca Brigitte Bonomi
The Hay Festival, which is now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution that is helping to foster a global interest in Arab writing. Richard Stanton

At the London Book Fair two years ago, Arab literature took centre stage. It was the subject of lectures, debates and interactive sessions with authors and publishers. Despite its prevalence over the course of the week, however, we learnt that Arab literature hadn’t made significant inroads into the West. Factors ranging from censorship to an under-developed publishing infrastructure and a paucity of translators were contributing to its status as a largely untapped literary market.
Two years on, and progress is being made. There is an increasing literary awareness within the region and a growing international interest. A number of prestigious awards are being offered to stimulate reading and translation in the Arab world. We have an “Arab Booker” prize, publishing houses including Penguin and Bloomsbury are expanding into the Gulf and authors such as Alaa el Aswany are becoming household names: all paying testament to the serious drive to place Arabic texts alongside writing from more heavily marketed parts of the world on western bookshelves.
Beirut39, a Hay Festival project that aims to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40 as part of the Beirut World Capital festivities 2009/10, is a forerunner in promoting this literature on a global stage.

The Hay Festival’s interest in Arab literature is linked in no small part to the obvious potential of this emerging market. “The statistics speak for themselves,” says Bachar Chebaro, the owner of Arab Scientific Publishers and the secretary general of the Arab Publishers Association. “Twenty-four Arab countries, a population of 340 million and 422 million Arabic speakers living outside of the region.” In the current economic climate, western publishers are increasingly tempted by this huge potential readership and the world’s largest festival of books has taken note.

Hay, now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution. In May, more than 100,000 people braved the rain to head to the sleepy book town on the Welsh border. The festival has hosted ex-presidents, rock stars and Booker prize winners and has extended its global reach in recent years to include offshoots in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, Segovia and Alhambra in Spain and Nairobi, Kenya. Beirut39 follows Bogotá39, which launched in the Colombian city in 2007 and identified many of the most promising rising Latin American talents, including Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Wendy Guerra, Andrés Newman and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

In the past, Arabic texts translated have generally been those produced by established writers. Important new literary awards have increased the profile of Arabic literature in the Arab world and worldwide, but the writers who have benefited have for the most part already enjoyed long careers. In recognition of the fact that the difficulties facing emerging Arab writers are particularly acute, Beirut39 set out to identify writers at the start of their careers struggling to find a wider audience. First or second-generation Arab authors born after 1970 with at least one published work of fiction or poetry were eligible for inclusion and nominations were solicited from publishers and literary critics across the Arab world and internationally. Members of the public were invited to nominate writers online and – controversially – authors could nominate themselves.

Around 500 young authors from across the Arab world as well as the Arab diaspora in Europe and America submitted their works. The vast majority of these texts were written in Arabic.

“England has always struggled to get interested in any literature not written in English,” says Cristina Fuentes La Roche, the Hay Festival project director. “They translate less literature than other countries in Europe. At the moment there are some terrific Arab authors succeeding in the western world, but they all write in English or in French. This project will give Arabic writers a real boost,” she says.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, the entrants were whittled down to the final 39. Members of the committee, headed by the Egyptian literary critic Gaber Asfour, and including the Lebanese novelist Alawiya Sobh, the Omani poet Saif Al Rahbi and the Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, focused on the degree of potential shown by the authors. The winners include the Saudi-born Abdullah Thabit, the Moroccans Abdelaziz Errachidi, Yassin Adnan, Abdelkader Benali and Abderrahim Elkhassar, Lebanon’s Hala Kawtharani, the Egyptoian Youssef Rakha, the Palestinian Adania Shibli and the Iraqi Ahmad Saadawi. Faiza Guene, a young French-Algerian writer whose first novel was published at the age of 19, is on the list, as is the award-winning short-story writer, novelist and translator Randa Jarrar. Her first novel, A Map of Home, was released to critical acclaim in six languages, and won the Hopwood Award, the Gosling Prize and the Arab American Book Award. The Iraqi poet and playwright Bassim Al Ansar was also shortlisted. In 1999, Ansar started a contemporary literature magazine in Denmark, his current home, and has had several books of poetry published.

The 39 authors will travel to Beirut in April for four days of literary talks, debates and recitals. Libraries, bookshops, cafes and universities will welcome visitors to discuss the issues at the heart of Arab contemporary fiction. The festival hopes to attract a diverse audience, reflecting the power of writing to stimulate social cohesion and cultural understanding.

To mark the occasion, Bloomsbury will publish Beirut39, an anthology of fiction and poetry by the selected authors with an introduction by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. The book will be published in English and Arabic in the UK, the US and the Arab world.

“This is one of the most exciting projects Bloomsbury has undertaken in recent years and is entirely in keeping with its commitment to the best writing from all over the world,” says Bill Swainson, the senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury London. “We are hugely appreciative of the judges’ careful work in considering submissions and delighted with the scope, energy and quality of their final selection.”

The backing of the publishing house is a boost to the project and will facilitate the sharing of literature around the globe. For the author and former National staffer Rakha, however, the problem of engagement is about understanding and appreciation as well as infrastructure. “Pessimistically, I think perhaps westerners are not as interested in the contemporary Arab world as we like to think they are, and when something is written in a language so different from French or Spanish and published by a small house with no contacts on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is no reason to expect publishers or readers who might feel culturally superior to pay attention to it,” he says.

“The irony, of course, is that a lot of Arabic writing could actually be very relevant and engaging to westerners at the basic, human, universal level – if only they had the means and inclination to read it. Should the resources become available to translate and publicise the right books in the right contexts, which I feel they increasingly are, I think we can expect the situation to improve. But the most encouraging development is that many Arab publishers are increasingly aware of the global publishing industry and working hard to reach out.”

The National

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January 2000

Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143

Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

Six Posters and Found Poem

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Nailia Kulieva (found poem*)

I am Azery girl.
I am single without children.
I am 22 year old,
born in the 4th Februar
1978 year.

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 live in Azerbaijan
in Baku city.
My profession
operator telephonist.
I know Turkish and Russian.
Now I am learning English
and writing with help of translater.

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.

*Personal ad on site advertising girls from Eastern Europe for marriage