واستبقا الباب وقدت قميصه من دبر
Five Hipstamatic images make up Behzad’s 1488 miniature of a Quranic scene
(c) Youssef Rakha
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.
At Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, Youssef Rakha wonders when ‘Islamic’ came to mean ‘antique’.
Last week when I went to preview the new Doha Museum of Islamic Art, it did not occur to me to ask why objects and buildings from different cultures, both secular and religious, are referred to collectively as Islamic (this is true even in Muslim countries). Since the galleries were not yet open even to journalists, I took in what I could of the magnificent exhibits from behind glass doors, took pride in the range and the power of my heritage, and eventually took the plane home.
When I returned, a Western colleague asked me: What is it that makes an art object Islamic – even when it is secular? Works of art and architecture in the West are rarely exhibited as “Christian” – even when they are overtly religious. “It’s generic,” I responded, reflexively: a thing is called Islamic to indicate that it was produced under the rubric of a civilisation, a culture, other than the one predominant today – in many ways the only civilisation now, one that happens to be Christian in origin. Modern and contemporary works by Muslim artists are not usually referred to as “Islamic”, even when they have religious connotations, so the use of the term “Islamic” to refer to objects like chandeliers, statuettes, scientific manuscripts, carpets and other artefacts that have no religious content would suggest that the word, in this context, indicates that these are relics of the past.
That night I recalled the chapter of Istanbul: Memories of the City in which Orhan Pamuk remarks that, while growing up in the republican (hence vehemently secular) upper class of 1950s Turkey, it was unclear to him why he was supposed to reject anything Islamic. The only justification he was offered was that religion, and the religion of the Ottomans specifically, impeded progress. As per the essentially authoritarian dictates of the Father of the Turk, Mustafa Kemal – himself, ironically, a native of Salonika in present-day Greece, with no more claim to Turkic ancestry than any Muslim anywhere in the myriad lands formerly comprising the Ottoman Empire – to be modern, intelligent, educated, evolved, even to be benevolent or respectable, you had to be of the West.
Pamuk never poses the question, but I wonder whether, had the European powers defined themselves explicitly as Christian, Ataturk would have ordered a mass conversion to Protestantism.
As it was, he prohibited the broadcast of Eastern music or Quranic recitation on the radio, closed down the dervish lodges, silenced the azan, disinherited men of religion, and effected the irrevocable divorce of the Ottomans’ direct heirs from the great literary traditions of Farsi and Arabic by switching to the Latin alphabet. He abolished all those incredibly sophisticated turbans, and forcibly replaced the fez, that unique trope of Muslim modernity, with the hat of the common white man.
It was all in the name of progress – and nationalism, another European import, perhaps the most destructive of all. But nationalism (irony of ironies) was not a theory anyone could apply without recourse to religious affiliation. When all was said and done, in the Ottoman scheme of things, nothing unified the Sultan’s Muslim subjects apart from the faith. There were those with their own languages, nationalisms and territories newly granted by the British and the French. But the subjects who remained in Constantinople and Anatolia, those who spoke Arabised and Persianised varieties of the ancient Turkic tongues, had no sense of collective identity or a common ethnic root. The only thing that could qualify them to be citizens of that modern republic to which the First World War reduced the devleti aliya, or the Sublime State, was the religion that they were urged not to practice. To be a good (that is, non-Muslim) Turk, by the logic of the Ata, you must first be a real (that is, Muslim) Turk.
So much for nationalism. Turkey had been on my mind in Qatar because the highlight of the museum, for me, was a firman, or royal decree, of Sulaiman the Magnificent, heir to the combined glories of his father Selim the Grim (who took Egypt) and his great grandfather Mehmed the Conqueror (who took Istanbul). As Caliph, Sulaiman was the closest thing to a worldly embodiment of the deeply moving Quranic verse with which Pamuk prefaced My Name is Red: “To God belongs the East and the West”.
That verse becomes doubly moving once you realise, as a Muslim living in the shadow of post-Christian civilisation, that there was once a time when the predominant culture was that of the faith into which you were born. Under Sulaiman, the word “Islamic” could viably lay claim to the world in the way “Western” does today, normatively categorise it, and in so doing produce such jaw-dropping objects as the scroll of that firman, its bottom quarter sealed with one of the most beautiful images I have seen in my life: the tughra, or abstracted calligraphic monogram, of the Sultan, which manages to compress the words “Sulaiman the son of Selim Shah Khan, victorious forever” into a single sign.
The real question raised by the term “Islamic art” is how Muslims in the contemporary world might strive to be part of the predominant, post-Christian civilisation without losing, à la Ataturk, all that is meaningful to them. Islamic is a difficult framework in which to define your make-up precisely because it is so hard to say how, in an increasingly uniform, identically global world, Muslims might nonetheless positively affirm their identity.
It would have to be in a very subtle way, perhaps through a shift in world view, maybe a willingness to be more catholic at a time when the contemporary world is so mechanically narrow, to make room for contradictions, to understand and accommodate the impulses to violence that have more recently stunted Muslim progress, rather than attempting to exterminate them. Islam, and especially its Ottoman incarnation, demonstrated remarkable scope for tolerance, realism and exchange. How might this repository of constructive memory enrich humanity today?
There are as many responses to this question as there are Muslims, from the most secular to the most devout; and the Doha museum, an initiative to preserve heritage and make it globally accessible in the framework of a Western-style institution, is certainly one of them. But the response this Muslim wants to suggest, in the Sufi tradition of speaking through a veil, is a riddle:
Between the East and the West there is an object in common. It exists in both but can be found whole in neither. It is something that people seek. Once you have it, you will have the power to see human beings, lucidly and insightfully, as human beings, to interact with them in a way that is beneficial to all, and to realise that the rifts between them are mere shadows. Once you have the object, you will find a way to transcend without looking down on the day job, the chores of house, finance and family. The pursuit of fun becomes not an escape from reality but a way of engaging with it. But those who are aware of only the East – or only the West – have no chance of finding the object.
A hint: the answer to the riddle is Islamic.