aBiography: An Exclusive Blog Feature

Sleep-deprivation is like being high. I know because I was high for a long time, then I started sleeping irregularly. It’s supposed to have something to do with lack of sugar in the brain, which is also the theory of what LSD does to consciousness. Things grow fluid and dreamlike, but at the same time there is a paranoid awareness of motion and a heaviness in the heart. Color and sound become a lot sharper, and time feels totally irrelevant. Normal speed is fast but fast can pass for normal. A moment lasts for days, days can fit in a moment. Talking and laughing are far more involving, especially laughing. The grotesque animal implicit in each person comes out, sometimes messing up the conversation. And then it’s as if you have no body. As in the best music, an uncanny lightness balances the overriding melancholy. There is joy in flying when you don’t need to move. All through this, what’s more, every passing emotion turns into an epic experience.

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Pathetic Braveheart: 25 January, 30 June — and, very personally, Youssef Rakha

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I had almost reprimanded myself for anticipating civil conflict in the wake of major protests against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) President Mohamed Morsi remaining in office.

After what apparently was the largest demonstration in the history of humankind on Sunday (30 June, 2013), the army’s statement in support of “the people’s demands” this afternoon prompted wild festivity on the streets. But at the time of writing (the evening of Monday, 1 July), “clashes” — some of which had begun yesterday evening — are raging, on and off, in Alexandria, Mahalla, Suez, Assyout and Qena as well as the Cairo suburb of 6 October and the Muqattam Hills, where the Guidance Office of the MB is located in Cairo.

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The Parable of the Riots and the Intellectual: On the Ministry of Culture Protest

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First there was a riot, a kind of street fight with the police. Killings led to a sit-in that led to power changing hands. No one took issue with the hangman’s noose swinging symbolically at the maidan, though the riots were supposed to be silmiyyah. The killers never hanged in the end, and no one took issue with that. Only the rioters vowed to take revenge unless the courts hanged someone, but when the courts said not guilty it was all they could do to start a new fight. And in every new fight more rioters were killed. It became something of a national fetish to riot, and riots sprang up everywhere in the country, sometimes for no reason at all, often because no one was hanged.

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Twittotalitarian

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At about five am this morning (2 May), I woke up to news of people being murdered in and around the site of the Abbassiya (Ministry of Defence) sit-in (#MOF on Twitter, ongoing since late Friday, 27 April). I began following the news online, relying on tweeps who were either already in Abbassiya or on their way there. For the first time since the start of the sit-in, I also paid attention to what the star activists (Alaa Abdel Fattah and Nawara Negm, in this case) had to say about developments—in the vague hope of finding out why, beyond their continued and, to my mind, increasingly irresponsible enthusiasm for “peaceful protests” regardless of the purpose or tenability of the event in question, such cyber-driven “revolutionaries” had sided with the fanatical Salafi supporters of former presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
Following a prolonged sit-in in Tahrir to protest Abu Ismail being disqualified from entering the race for the presidency because his late mother held a US passport, supporters of the lawyer-cum-TV proselytiser, demanding the dissolution of the Higher Committee for Presidential Elections and the instant handover of power to civilians by SCAF, had decided to escalate by moving the sit-in to the ministry headquarters in Abbassiya. (Remarkably, Abu Ismail himself at no point either called on his supporters to stop protesting on his behalf or bothered to join them in person; the Sheikh, as many of them called him in fervent tones, complained of a sprained ankle that kept preventing him from being among his warriors of Islam. Only after people started dying at the hands of thugs widely thought to be deployed by SCAF did Abu Ismail declare that he had nothing to do with the protest in the first place.) Since Friday, however, Salafis had been joined by all manner of protesters including politicised football Ultras rallying around the slogan “Down with military rule”.
The sit in had been subject to periodic attacks by thugs aiming to disband it, but nothing as systematic or as garish as what had been unfolding when I started looking at my Twitter timeline this morning; whether due to a decision by those commanding the thugs to end the sit-in once and for all or because the protesters had managed to irk the local residents sufficiently for the latter to join in the fight against them, the conflict was reaching new and disturbing heights; Negm said she could smell blood everywhere around her on reaching Abbassiya around eight am.
With the majority of tweets discussing an earlier (probably true) report by Abdel Fattah that protesters chasing thugs through the backstreets of a residential area far removed from the sit-in itself had fired live ammunition of their own—it was later reported that, by accidentally killing an unaffiliated young man, either protesters or thugs posing as protesters had incited the whole neighbourhood to declare war on the sit-in—there was not much scope for working out what the self-declared leaders of Egypt’s popular revolution were thinking. Here, translated from Arabic as literally as possible, is the tweet that threw me into a silent rage, however (it was by Abdel Fattah’s sister Mona Seif, addressing fellow Twitter-activists): “Whoever truly wants to help will either join the march that’s gathering in half an hour at Al-Fath Mosque or go to Demerdash [Hospital] and donate blood to the injured. Otherwise no one has the time for you, seriously.”
***
To explain my rage—first to myself—and to try and answer my initial questions about why the “Sons of Abu Ismail” protest was perceived as an episode of “the ongoing revolution” and how the star activists can fail to see that what “the immediate handover of power to civilians” means at the present moment is the immediate transformation of Egypt into an Islamist dictatorship not likely to be any less murderous to dissidents than SCAF (and let me state, again, in no uncertain terms, that I do not condone SCAF remaining in power any more than I ever condoned SCAF taking control of the country in the first place), I want to say a few things about that tweet.
The first thing I want to say is purely factual. Neither did the 9.30 am march to which the tweet referred make it to the sit-in—thugs and/or military forces blocked the way—nor were there any injured protesters at Demerdash Hospital at that time (the latter was soon confirmed by Negm from there). It was subsequent, purely “peaceful” marches—for which read “mired in the crimes of actual and potential wielders of political power, and ones that included deep-in-the-political-process players like the Islamist presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fetouh—that prompted executive power on the ground to take control, eventually, patchily cutting short the fighting. (Abbassiya has since turned into a hub of purely Islamist “peaceful” demonstrations.) Such, of course, are the pitfalls not only of hearsay but also of Twitter-based (and apparently also politically suicidal) revolutionary command strategy. Following Seif’s instructions could not actually have resulted in anyone “helping” anyone or anything at all, whether truly or in any other way. Perhaps her tone actively discouraged a good few people from WANTING to help.
I am also forced to ask—a little more philosophically, if I may in these “revolutionary” (for which read chaotically populist) times—what it is precisely that activists thought they were doing when they headed over to the sit-in last night or this morning, launching their usual bombardments of haphazard, confusing instructions and cryptically brief comments in the usual arrogant and peremptory tone. In what capacity? For nearly 18 months it has been demonstrated time and again that, helpless against thugs, local residents and/or organised security forces both visible and in plain clothes, unarmed protesters end up being killed for nothing even when demonstrations have a clear-cut purpose or cause (the Port Said massacre prompting Ultras and other protesters to rise up against the Ministry of Interior, for example). I am forced to ask whether this self-righteous zeal for protests is actually as moral as it seems considering that it results in innocent people dying. Who do the activists actually represent apart from themselves and their fans? Morally speaking—and there is nothing but a supposedly idealistic moral stance that justifies their attitude—aren’t the activists to blame for the deaths incurred in this endless travesty of regime change?
The third thing I want to say is that, as it seems to me as much from Twitter as from first-hand experience and basic understanding of such mental conditions as temporary collective psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder, for these people “activism”—which as often as not reduces to calling for and/or attending ultimately murderously suppressed protests—is more of a way of life than a political statement. The constant sense of urgency eliminating any rational questions about what’s going on and how we might best relate to it combines with celebrity status and the often downright stupidity of a black-and-white perspective on events to maintain this lifestyle and generate a “revolutionary” reality not only different from—indeed opposed to—the reality of the people but different even from the substance of the revolution itself. I seem to recall Negm tweeting something to the effect of, “Let’s make sure the Muslims Brotherhood takes the reigns of power as soon as possible so we can protest against them while we’re ready”! Does one ask oneself, when one tweets something like that, about what will happen when it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are responsible for the loss of life and there is still no efficient alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood? Does it occur to one that maybe one is simply ENJOYING protests and the rhetoric that goes with them—the bloodier, the more epic—more than making any statement about or contribution to history?

A streetcar named diwan

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Wa Qassa’id Ukhra (And other poems), Ahmad Shafie, Beirut: Dar an-Nahda, 2009

A whole new diwan? Maybe. No, yes. If such a thing exists. In a sort of anti-introduction to the book, his third, the Oman-based Egyptian poet Ahmad (Salih) Shafie (b. 1977) considers an older, colloquial sense of diwan, the contemporary word for a book of poems and the traditional word for a poet’s corpus – which, born of Farsi, can mean: court, cabinet (as in vizirate), compendium – and is, in Latin letters, the name of Egypt’s first quasi-bourgeois bookshop chain. In breadth and in tone, And other poems is the complete life’s work of a poet. In other ways it negates completeness in either work or life. The deadpan title captures an essence more reminiscent of Cortazar than of Ashbery, whose influence the book cites. Shafie is a student of literature with several volumes’ worth of translation from American English on one shoulder. He writes a crisp Arabic less like the poetry than the narrative of the Generation of the Nineties; less like Ahmad Yamani (b. 1970) than Haytham El-Wardany (b. 1972) or Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966). Or so I (b. 1976) am thinking. But language aside, he is in radio contact with the great prose poets of the 20th  century. From Sargon Boulos (1944-2007) and Mohammad Al-Maghout (1934-2006), he takes clever self-indulgence, emotional flair. An even more important thing: He shares the ability of Wadih Saadeh (b. 1948) to make nature or the city self-referential without letting the metaphors, insolent bastards, show off what they stand for with impunity. Nihilism: a proposition of the Nineties seldom followed through. It finds hermeneutical expression in the way a poem about poetry begins to be about something else before it becomes not so much even about poetry as simply about itself, definitively: I didn’t find the poetry where I left it. Nor did it surprise me as a cloud in the atmosphere of the room. Nor even as poems on my desk. But the room. When I came back. Was very much waiting for me. It opened two lashes heavy with drink, it opened two arms heavy with drink. And it said: Imagine me, imagine me please. A whole diwan out of – itself? That was a complete poem, by the way. It varies in length. But how? Like many in the book, including one that explains the fact, it has no title. It does not even have the word “untitled” for a title.

On one shoulder only. The other bears this diwan, or maybe the private journals of its author, an identification he even suggests: I will consider myself successful the day my poetry notebook becomes the notebook of my journals, but I will not know then what it is that I am successful at. And the sense of diwan Shafie considers? Somehow I forgot to mention that. Yes: In old Egyptian films, we find that the diwan contains seats, not poems, and is contained by a train. How beautiful that a library should flit past, carrying all the diwans. Or maybe I got carried away. Shafie introducing his work is Shafie already writing, which is one difference at least between him and other, inevitably older prose poets. He does not style prose into poetry; he pours poetry all over the place. Questions its existence, humiliates it, all but disbelieves its existence. Then it becomes prose. Seriously. But now you will think that Shafie is scatter-brained and verbose, that the lack of propriety and the prosaicness, the scepticism which is the missing finger of nihilism, reflect good old Egyptian lack of rigour. It is not true. This diwan is free of haiku. This diwan is pitiable. Shafie spits on the idol stands of the poetic, yes. But Shafie is cerebral and precise; he is logical. No, he is Borgesian: I was blind in the dream. And in front of me was a wall that changed before me. While I drew cracks into it and filled them with geckos. And I saw the geckos move, breed, and die. I saw their children and they had colours that were unimaginable. And I witnessed their bodies tearing. I was a blind man who saw everything. And here I am as awake as can be in a world where seeing is no longer proof of the abnegation of blindness. That, maybe, is the beauty of Shafie’s nihilism: its purpose is not to cover up lack of effort or of talent. It is authentic. That is the first and the least interesting thing he stands out for. I am not sure why I mention it. I am eager to find reasons to like what I like. Maybe. What I like and am trying to evoke in the way I write about it. I am eager to beef up my respect for Shafie. Without calling him postmodern.

Somehow I forgot to mention something else. Yes. A history-of-literature digression. It is about the Nineties. There was a flowering of poetry then. Shafie – I too – came later. The poetry of the Nineties claimed to be individualistic and pluralistic and subversive. That is why it is a reference point. Or because there is nothing else to refer to. It was not the earliest Arabic poetry in prose, but the literary establishment had the perspective of a wounded dinosaur and in a short-lived anti-establishment journal named The Locusts, prose was proclaimed a revolution. All sorts of things were said: We spit on Ideology; We are the Margin; We are not clones of each other (but really we might as well be); We write as we live. Many did not live in any particular way, however. So lives turned into after-the-fact dramatisations of not-very-original poems, which were before-it-could-happen manuals about the life. Belonging in a ghetto undermined individualism. An ideology grew. The margin became a route back to the establishment. Or an establishment in its right, with all the prehistoric and reptilian qualities of establishments. No, the Nineties are at best a starting point. Shafie’s authenticity may be due to the fact that his personal life, contrary to personal life in the Nineties, is not make-believe. In the diwan I dream of every poem remains a world complete in itself until the next one comes along and drops something on it like a soft rain which brings out plants that do not grow tall and washes walls and makes the eyes happy and so does the next one. And so on until the last poem comes along and it is not the end point but like Ahmad after Salih after Shafie and on the other hand Basho and Pessoa and everyone. Things have changed since the Nineties. The beauty of that poem is proof. It is hard to match a specific discourse to a specific personage. I am thinking of editorials and interviews, quasi-manifestos. I am thinking of many poets and critics who may no longer believe what they were saying then and may never have believed it at all. It sounds cool and that is repulsive. The point being: Shafie transcends it.

Individualistic, pluralistic and subversive: Shafie does occasionally fall into common Nineties traps. These include the tendency to end a text with an abstract or a pithy statement that leaves you feeling as if the writer, through a text he drew you into with the opposite of such things, has imparted wisdom or vision. Not ironically, not in line with an overarching question posed by the book. But not very meaningfully either, since everything that came before the statement points to a climax of confusion and meaninglessness: The rhythm that life moves to in imagination is exquisite, no true dancer can resist it. Then it feels right to snort or, in true Nineties style, spout a stream of half-obscure obscenities and run. Snorting or something like it is very rude in Egypt. Seriously, meaninglessness can be very desirable in poetry. And what on earth could that dancer be or evoke. Life as a dance? Blah. Rhythm! But the pithy finale is hardly an issue with Shafie. Sometimes it works for him. Especially when it is not a finale: “I and the rest” This is the definition of the universe. “My room and what surrounds it” This is not the definition of the world. What other traps, then? There is a sense in which the Nineties is a reaction to the Generation of the Seventies whose poetry was all about Modernist (sic.) aesthetics and/or Marxist (et al) engagement. It was ugly, the Seventies. It was cumbersome and complicated and demagogic and boring. And it left the Nineties infuriated. Snorting and spouting streams of half-obscure obscenities. Hating ideology so much they became ideological. And so thoroughly opposed to Modernism (sic.) they became postmodern before they knew what that meant. Either. Now there is a sense in which Shafie is a reaction to the Nineties. Much milder, admittedly. Perhaps not so much a reaction as a response. He builds on the substance in much Nineties work. The trap is thematic. Shafie writes about himself. His life, whatever that means. He writes about writing. He writes about the world as part of those things. He does not write about society or people or God or time or relationships. I mean he does, but not explicitly or not as much as he might. At a certain point while turning the pages of this diwan you will feel that Shafie is involuntarily paying lip service to Nineties edicts: the importance of unimportant things, the need for euphemism, veiled seriousness, ennui, the horror of anything relevant to more than three people. The false modesty of hiding under the podium when all you want to do is eloquently address the audience. If you are me or like me, you will notice Shafie paying lip service to these edicts. And you will appreciate the fact that he is not following them.

Sometimes it works for him. Most of the time. But the pithy finale works through transcending itself. It works through not being what it is. That is true of a lot of things in this book. Magic or sorcery or both. And Shafie has other tricks that work even better. Out of the work of Yamani and Yasser Abdellatif (b. 1969), for example, he coaxes one very latent but fascinating trope. In the middle of the intimate and minute liquids that suffuse the early texts of those two survivors of the Nineties, you sometimes spot something solid that aspires to epic or myth. They refer to nature or ancestry to place themselves in a grander scheme. It is almost Whitmanseque. The uncharted continent. It recalls One Hundred Years of Solitude and Eduardo Galeano. And Shafie does it more often in more ways. He does it with more humour. Yes, somehow I forgot to mention Shafie’s salutary humour. He does it with the nonchalance of someone who has built an insignificant but imperishable diwan into the iron body of the bibliographic locomotive. After the dust which was very thick settled, there was nothing but a red balloon blown up with tears. Alone on a whole horizon the colour of ice. The dust due to a dinosaur that was running and before it the humans running. And then the humans running and before them a herd of wildebeest running. And then the humans running, nothing before them, nothing behind. And suddenly a paved road and the vehicles that ran and are running and will run, with the dust. This time. Less of it and longer-lasting and suffocating to the poet and the romantic and the provincial… Or again: My ancestors did not know the alphabet. And while on their way they cast their arrows all of them and nonetheless did not catch the sky in the form of a hedgehog. Thus they did not go to war or hunting. And they did not bequeath words on me. And the stones they left me as stones, not coloured or carved. And my ancestors were defeated by everyone but they did not deprive them of the bewilderment in their eyes or anything. Their eldest gouged out his eyes one night and cried “The sky is still blue.” And he threw everything into the Nile except his soul. And they did not write his story for where is the story. Nor did they invent the alphabet. Now I am going to stop writing. I had a lot more to say. There is no need to tell anyone that Shafie’s diwan goes on.

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