Link

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

Re Bolaño’s latest novel in English: Woes of the True Policeman

Translating Bolaño: An Interview with Natasha Wimmer

Natasha Wimmer had been working for Farrar, Straus and Giroux for several years when she was presented with the opportunity to translate The Savage Detectives, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s first novel, into English. She hadn’t heard of the author before, but Wimmer read the book in Spanish and was floored. “It was the best book I had read in either Spanish or English in a long time,” she said. Still, Wimmer didn’t think she would get the job: Christopher Andrews, who had already translated Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Distant Star, was the go-to choice. However, in a stroke of luck, Andrews was too busy to tackle the project and Wimmer took it on. After The Savage Detectives was released in the United States, both the book and its late author became literary sensations. That was in 2007.

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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The Infrarealist Manifesto

GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN

first infrarealist manifesto

“It’s four light hours to the confines of the solar system; to the closest star, four light years. A disproportionate ocean of emptiness. But are we really sure there is only a void? We only know that there are no stars shining in that space. If they existed, would they be visible? And if there existed bodies that are neither luminous nor dark? Could it not be that on the celestial maps, the same as on those of Earth, the star-cities are indicated and the star-villages are omitted?”

— Soviet science fiction writers scratching their faces at midnight.

— The infrasuns (Drummond would say the happy proletarian fellows).

Peguero and Boris alone in a lumpen room having premonitions of the wonder behind the door.

— Free money.

*

Who has crossed the city and had, as the only music, the whistles of his fellow man, his own words of wonder and rage?

The handsome guy who didn’t know

that chicks’ orgasms are clitoral

(Look around, shit isn’t just in museums.) (A process of individual museumification.) (Certainty that everything is named, revealed.) (Fear of discovering.) (Fear of unforeseen imbalances.)

*

Our closest relatives:

snipers, country boys who smash up cheap cafés in Latin America, people who fall apart in supermarkets in their tremendous individuo-collective dilemmas; the impotence of action and the search (on individual levels or good and muddy with aesthetic contradictions) for poetic action.

*

Little bright stars eternally winking an eye at us from a place in the universe called Labyrinths.

— Nightclub of misery.

— Pepito Tequila sobbing his love for Lisa Underground.

— I suck it, you suck it, we suck it.

— And the Horror.

*

Curtains of water, cement or tin separate a cultural machinery that serves as the conscience or the ass of the dominant class from a living, annoying cultural happening, in constant death and birth, ignorant of the greater part of history and the fine arts (everyday creator of its insane history and its hallucinatory fine artz), body that suddenly feels new sensations in itself, product of an epoch in which we approach the shithouse or the revolution at 200 kph.

“New forms, strange forms,” as old Bertolt said, half curious, half cheerful.

*

Sensations don’t arise from nothingness (the obvious of obviousnesses) but from conditioned reality, in a thousand ways, as a constant flow.

— Multiple reality, you make us sick!

So it is possible that on the one hand one is born and on the other hand we’re in the front row for the death throes. Forms of life and forms of death pass daily through the retina. The constant crash gives life to infrarealist forms: THE EYE OF TRANSITION

*

They put the whole city in the nuthouse. Sweet sister, tank howls, hermaphrodite songs, diamond deserts, we’ll live only once and the visions, more complicated and slippery every day. Sweet sister, hitchhiking to Monte Albán[i]. Unbuckling their belts to water the corpses. It’s something at least.

*

And the good bourgeois culture? And academia and the arsonists? And the vanguard and its rearguard? And certain conceptions of love, nice scenery, the precise multinational Colt sidearm?

Like Saint-Just[ii] said to me in a dream I had a while ago: Even the heads of aristocrats can be our weapons.

*

— A good part of the world is being born and the other part is dying and we all know that we all have to live and we all die: in this there is no middle road.

Chirico[iii] says: thought needs to move away from everything called logic and common sense, to move away from all human obstacles in such a way that things take on a new look, as though illuminated by a constellation appearing for the first time. The infrarealists say: We’re going to stick our noses into all human obstacles, in such a way that things begin to move inside of us, a hallucinatory vision of mankind.

— The Constellation of the Beautiful Bird.

— The infrarealists propose Indianism to the world: a crazy, timid Indian.

— A new lyricism that’s beginning to grow in Latin America sustains itself in ways that never cease to amaze us. The entrance to the work is the entrance to adventure: the poem as a journey and the poet as a hero who reveals heroes. Tenderness as an exercise in speed. Respiration and heat. Experience shot, structures that devour themselves, insane contradictions.

The poet is interfering, the reader will have to interfere for himself.

“erotic books full of misspellings”

*

The THOUSAND DRAWN-AND-QUARTERED VANGUARDS OF THE SEVENTIES are our ancestors

99 flowers open like an open head

Slaughters, new concentration camps

White subterranean rivers, violet winds

These are hard times for poetry, some say, sipping tea, listening to music in their apartments, talking (listening) to the old masters. These are hard times for mankind, we say, coming back to the barricades after a workday full of shit and tear gas, discovering/creating music even in apartments, spending all day watching the cemeteries-that-expand, where they hopelessly drink a cup of tea or get drunk on pure rage or the inertia of the old masters.

HORA ZERO[iv] are our ancestors

((Raise arsonist kids, get burned))

We’re still in the Quaternary Period. We’re still in the Quaternary Period?

Pepito Tequila kisses the phosphorescent nipples of Lisa Underground and heads off for a beach where black pyramids sprout up.

*

I repeat:

The poet as a hero who reveals heroes, like the fallen red tree that announces the start of a forest.

— Attempts at an ethic-aesthetic are paved with betrayals or pathetic survivals.

— And it is the individual who could walk a thousand kilometers but inevitably the road will eat him.

— Our ethic is the Revolution, our aesthetic is Life: one-and-the-same.

*

For the bourgeoisie and the petite-bourgeoisie, life is a party. They have one every weekend. The proletariat doesn’t have parties. Just funerals with rhythm. That’s going to change. The exploited are going to throw a big party. Memory and guillotines. Sensing it, acting it out on certain nights, inventing edges and humid corners for it, like caressing the acid eyes of the new spirit.

*

Movement of the poem through the seasons of rebellion: poetry producing poets producing poems producing poetry. No electric alley/the poet with his arms separated from his body/the poem moving slowly from his Vision to his Revolution. The alley is a complex point. “We’re going to invent it so as to discover its contradiction, its invisible forms of negation, even to clarify it.” A journey of the act of writing through zones not at all favorable to the act of writing.

Rimbaud, come home!

Subvert the everyday reality of modern poetry. The chains that lead to the poem’s circular reality. A good reference: Kurt Schwitters. Lanke trr gll, or, upa kupa arggg, happens in the official line, phonetic investigators encoding the howl. The bridges of Nova Express are anti-codifying: let him scream, let him scream (please don’t go pulling out pencils or little notebooks, don’t record it, if you want to participate scream along), so let him scream, to see the look on his face when it’s over, what incredible thing happen to us.

Our bridges to unknown seasons. The poem interrelating reality and unreality.

*

Convulsively.

*

What can I ask of present-day Latin American painting? What can I ask of the theater?

It is more revealing and more evocative to stand in a park devastated by smog and watch people cross the avenues in groups (that contract and expand), the avenues, where drivers as much as pedestrians feel the urge to return to their hovels, when the murderers come out and the victims stalk them.

What stories are painters really telling me?

The interesting void, fixed form and color, at best a parody of movement. Canvases that will serve only as bright advertisements in the rooms of engineers and doctors who collect them.

The painter adapts to a society that is every day more of a “painter” than he is, and there he finds himself disarmed and registers as clown.

If painting X is found in some street by Mara, that painting acquires the status of an amusing, communicative thing; in a salon it’s as decorative as bourgeois wrought iron garden chairs/a question of the retina?/yes and no/but it’d be better to find (and systematize according to chance for awhile) the unleashing factor, class-conscious, a one hundred percent deliberate deed, in juxtaposition to the values of “work” which both precede and condition it.

 

The painter gives up his studio and ANY status quo and fills his head with wonder/or takes up chess like Duchamp/a self-taught painting/And a painting of poverty, free or rather cheap, unfinished, collaborative, of questioning participation, physically extended and spiritually unlimited.

The best Latin American painting is that which is still being made at unconscious levels, the game, the party, the experiment that gives us a real vision of what we are and opens us to what we can be; the best Latin American painting is what we paint in the greens, reds, and blues on our faces, to recognize ourselves in the incessant creation of the group.

*

Try daily to leave everything behind.

May architects give up the building of inward-looking scenes and open their hands (or make fists, depending on the place) toward that outer space. A wall and a roof acquire utility not when they’re used just for sleeping or avoiding rain, but rather when they establish, for example, from the everyday act of dreaming, conscious bridges between man and his creations or the momentary impossibility of these.

In architecture and sculpture the infrarealists start from two points: the barricade and the bed.

*

The true imagination is that which destroys, elucidates, injects emerald microbes into other imaginations. In poetry and in whatever else, the entrance into the work has to already be the way into adventure. Create the tools for everyday subversion. The human being’s subjective seasons, with their gigantic, beautiful, obscene trees like experimental laboratories. Watch, glimpse parallel and heart-rending situations as a giant scratch on your chest, on your face. Endless analogy of gestures. There are so many that when new ones appear we don’t even notice, even though we’re making/watching them in front of a mirror. Stormy nights. Perception opens by means of an ethic-aesthetic carried to the limit.

*

— Galaxies of love are appearing in the palms of our hands.

— Poets, let down your hair (if you have any)

— Burn your nonsense and start loving until you come up with priceless poems

— We don’t want kinetic paintings but enormous kinetic sunsets

— Horses running 500 kilometers an hour

— Squirrels of fire hopping through trees of fire

— A bet to see who blinks first, between the nerve and the sleeping pill.

*

Risk is always somewhere else. The true poet is the one who’s always letting go of himself. Never too much time in the same place, like guerrillas, like UFOs, like the white eyes of prisoners serving life sentences.

*

Fusion and explosion from two shores: creation like a decisive and open graffiti by a crazy kid.

Not at all mechanical. Scales of amazement. Somebody, maybe Bosch, smashes the aquarium of love. Free money. Sweet sister. Visions frivolous like corpses. Little boys jerking off from kisses until December.

*

At two in the morning, after having been at Mara’s house, we (Mario Santiago and some of us) heard laughter coming from the penthouse of a 9 story building. They didn’t stop, they kept laughing and laughing while below we slept propped up in various phone booths. There came a moment when only Mario was still paying attention to the laughter (the penthouse is a gay bar or something and Darío Galicia had told us that it’s always watched by the cops). We made phone calls but our coins turned into water. The laughter continued. After we left that neighborhood Mario told me that actually no one had been laughing, that it was recorded laughter, and up there in that penthouse, some stragglers or maybe a single homosexual had silently listened to that record and made us listen to it.

— The death of the swan, the swan song, the last song of the black swan, IS NOT in the Bolshoi but in the intolerable pain and beauty of the streets.

— A rainbow that starts in a grindhouse theater and ends in a factory on strike.

— May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. May it never kiss us.

— We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming.

— A poor lonely cowboy that comes back home, what a wonder.

*

Make new sensations appear—Subvert daily life.

O.K.

GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN

HIT THE ROAD

—Roberto Bolaño, Mexico, 1976

(translation by Tim Pilcher)


[i] A large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.[ii] A French revolutionary and close friend of Robespierre who was heavily involved in the Reign of Terror. Immediately following the Terror he was sentenced to death by guillotine at the hands of the National Convention who feared his fiery rhetoric that led to so much bloodshed.

[iii] Giorgio de Chirico. An Italian painter best known for his early surrealist paintings.

[iv] Hora Zero: An avant-garde poetry movement founded in Peru in the 1970’s.

Source: http://launiversidaddesconocida.wordpress.com/infrarealism/manifesto-english/

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The Three Masks of Yasser Abdellatif



It took Youssef Rakha nearly a decade to reread Yasser Abdellatif’s only novel to date, Qanoun al wirathah (Law of inheritance, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2002, a third edition of which appeared last month), but together with the 41-year-old writer’s second collection of poems, Jawlah layliyah (Night tour, Miret, 2009), that impossibly condensed autobiography prompted a heartfelt exchange



I started writing at a very early age and I don’t know of any motives behind it. I was 15 at most and there was no theoretical background at all in the process. I wrote short stories which only two of my friends read. At university the practise developed. It was a chance to find out about new books, and at the Faculty of Arts I met with a group of student writers from different departments like Ahmad Yamani from Arabic, Mohammad Metwalli from English, Hoda Hussein from French and Sayed Mahmoud from History; I was at the Department of Philosophy where I met a politicised, Marxist friend whose name was Nasser Ismail; he helped to direct my reading even though he did not try to enlist me the way leftist students usually did to newcomers on campus. All of which was in the presence of professors like Hassan Hanafi, Nassr Abuzaid, Mahmoud Ragab, Abdel-Mohsen Badr, Abdel-Moneim Telleimah, Gaber Asfour and Sayed El-Bahrawi: while we differed with and around those figures, a true literary climate formed for a period of time at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first story I wrote with any degree of maturity was published in Rose al Yusif magazine on a double page spread with illustrations by the great artist Tad. I was 20. From then on I started dealing with myself as a “professional” writer, to the point of being too proud to participate in the university’s literary competitions…

Novelist (Chronicler)

I did not move from poetry to narrative, the opposite is what happened. I started with short stories. By the time I met Ahmad Yamani and Mohammad Metwalli, who had covered much ground in the prose poem, I was writing a poetic form of the short story, perhaps under the influence of Yahya El-Tahir Abdallah. Through my relationship with them and under the influence of C P Cavafy in the translations of Bashir El-Seba’i and the Antipoesía of Latin America in those of Ahmad Hassan, I discovered the poetic energy of narrative and so moved onto the prose poem.

According to Qanoun al wirathah, one of only three slim volumes by Yasser Abdellatif, life consists of a series of melancholy “old stories” that manifest momentarily like LSD flashbacks. Abdellatif’s narrator never says this in so many words, but in a sense it is the point of the book. In writing that eschews all but the subtlest emotions, there is something elegiac about the way people come briefly into focus, only to blur back into a backdrop so pointillistic it appears almost clear. They are Nubian immigrants to Cairo, teenage pioneers of the recreational Parkinol craze, or intellectuals-to-be studying humanities. There is no connection between them, no pattern in which they fit, apart from the narrator’s own harshly disciplined consciousness.

An eclectic approach to narrative – and Abdellatif differentiates his work from fiction, insisting that narrative is what it is: Qanoun al wirathah develops a declension of the Sixties legacy represented for him by Ghalib Halassa and Abdel-Hakim Qassim, who are different from each other in subject matter and tone (and not always as Latifian as you would think from the way Abdellatif talks about them) but are perhaps the least two sensational novelists of their time writing in Arabic. In rich, measured prose reflecting an extremely personal sense of the language, each processes the world without artifice, without recourse to drama and with only a modicum of storyline, if that. Each laboriously constructs his passages, devising rather than giving in to spontaneity.

Here too structure emerges directly from words and sentences, from the insane drive to match consciousness to what is being said, and above all the insanely rigorous selection of what is worth saying – to my mind the principal reason Abdellatif has written so little over the years. The “I” of the writer, a Cairo University graduate of Nubian extraction whose formative years involved much recreational drug use – notably in Maadi, a potentially cult setting very different from the upper class-and-expatriate suburb associated with the place name – is identical to that of the narrator.

Is it any surprise that, between the first half of the 20th century (when his family first settled in Cairo) and the 1991 Gulf War (while he was a Cairo University student), past numerous anecdotes and settings and people, what emerges from Qanoun al wirathah is the writer’s own weirdly amorphous self, an ego so truly individual it is not only truly but also very effectively wary of narcissism?

“To look at yourself directly in the mirror,” Abdellatif declaims at one point, “is not to see it. Instead you see your emotion towards it, which lends the picture before you beauty in every case. But to look at yourself in the mirror through another mirror, then you see it in isolation from it[self]… as a subject outside of you… Rest content with this double reflection of your picture, and you will learn not to love yourself with that blind love, to catch it every time it tries to make itself beautiful, and to force it under your whips until you divest it of all that doesn’t belong to it.”

Right after that passage, and without “the flow” being disrupted, three short lines of dialogue between an older French Canadian woman and the narrator make it clear that he is scared of madness and has already tried to kill himself once. A frustrated sexual encounter – and yet another story never told – the anecdote trails off into a series of resonant if inevitably inconclusive reminiscences of desire.

***

Poet (Witness)

I wrote Qanoun al wiratha with a view to completing a “major work” by coming at autobiography from oblique angles; in it I realised all my narrative convictions up until that time, the end of the 1990s. I finished it in 2000 and published it in 2002, and I believe I accomplished in it exactly what I intended. At present I have almost completed a book of short stories – I like that form a lot, and I don’t feel it is done justice at any level – but at the same time I have a project for a new novel that will be completely different from Qanoun al wiratha. Increasingly I believe that my poetry or my poetic project, if I could exaggerate enough to call it that, will neither develop nor have legitimacy except in the light of my narrative writing. I feel that in order to write a good poem, I have to write a lot of narrative first.

Qanoun al wirathah recalls the early work of Paul Auster and (without the sentimentality) the rhythmic flow of Beatnik prose. At times evocative of Haruki Murakami in his naturalist mode, except for chronological consistency, it seems to abide by the rules of the Japanese I-Novel. One thing, however – Abdellatif’s core quality, I think, which he finds sufficiently equivocal to equivocally deny – sets it apart from all possible kinships in the realm of the novel: it reads like poetry.

Far too much in it is far too condensed to be pure (even poetic) narrative, and its stories – old and melancholy or not – are seldom told to the end. The intensity, the abrupt shifts in perspective, the sheer weight of each phrase, and then the relative lack of concern for cognitive as opposed to visceral sense – the way the meaning of a given statement depends on what it evokes, not what it says – all seem far closer to the poetic than the narrative as such. Of course, this is not to equate the Latifian with the lyrical. But it is not necessarily to equate the Latifian with the anti-lyrical, either: the colloquial, physical world-oriented irreverence that defined the prose poetry movement of the Nineties (of which Abdellatif became part).

In Jawlah Layliyah, indeed, many poems are completely free of the Nineties’ subversive strictures, and some come close to song, an austere, unpretentious kind often welded to the need to share the beautiful burden of stories. In “Implicit Agreement”, for example, although Abdellatif seems to be parodying a particular kind of romantic-erotic poem, there is nothing shocking or cynical or ugly and nothing particularly prosaic: “Our eyes did not meet as two caves where the monster of desire sleeps, waking only on confrontation,/nor did our bodies break the rules of respectful contact/in a quiet dance we never performed./Neither of us was bold enough for initiative./She just handed me her large blue comb/and nodded/so I would comb her hair.”

To say that Abdellatif’s novella reads like poetry, then, is to point simply to the fact that, in almost involuntary defiance of form, there is such a thing as a Sentence through which a particular writer constructs an equally particular connection with the real, without fantastical or analytical ambitions, but without much openness to alternative (non-“realist” or non-personal) Sentences, either. And this has not changed since the poetic short stories turned narrative prose poems of his first book, Nass wa ahjar (People and stones, self-published in 1995): Abdellatif insists on his particularity to the point of sitting on top of vast reservoirs of silence, and so the things that happen in poetry end up happening in whatever else he writes: short stories, essays (literary non-fiction), and novels whether or not rightly so called.

Such tip-of-the-iceberg ontology becomes even clearer once the faults of the Latifian are considered. Beyond the obvious difficulty it would present to a reader expecting plot – this is hardly a fault in itself, but still – the problem with Qanoun al wirathah (which by virtue of format and format alone is less of a problem in Jawlah Layliyah) is that it does not tell. In his drive to avoid the confessional and in the stress he places on constructing and creating to the exclusion of the more immediately appealing qualities you might expect from realistic and sincere I-Writing – scandalous or tear-jerking qualities associated with information and overt emotion – Abedellatif sustains a certain reticence that makes him discreet. He insinuates, suggests, remarks; he never brags or exposes. There is not a shade a of self-censorship about what Abdellatif does – quite the opposite – but there is too much modesty in the most admirable sense, too much decency.

Up until the Seventies Generation, the Arab Poet was a testosterone-driven prophet with superhuman pretensions and a sense of responsibility for the world. Abdellatif was a depressive existentialist high on Parkinol.

***

Intellectual (Rebel)

It seems to me that the failure of intellectual work in Egypt is because the idea of individualism has remained incompletely realised. In a culture characterised by totalitarianism at every level, egos ensure that the mechanisms of the larger society that gave rise to an alternative group are reproduced within that group even as it presents itself in terms of being different. Still, it feels right to separate downtown Cairo as a space in my experience from the groups of intellectuals who gather there. Downtown Cairo was never unfamiliar to me, because I spent a good portion of my childhood in my grandfather’s house between Bab Al-Luq and Abdeen, a few metres away from the “Bermuda triangle” of intellectuals’ gathering places. As for intellectuals’ circles, I was part of early on, and I think I have been cured over time, both because I suffered from the idea of the clique and because most of my close friends from the world of writing happened to immigrate early. I think after that I stayed on the margin of those circles, though I was never entirely isolated, until I travelled to Canada in my turn at the end of last year.

It starts, I imagine, with a suicide attempt (figurative as well as literal); it ends with a new life somewhere far, some kind of voluntary death giving way to an afterlife in which the initial impulse looks like an old story. Or at the very least it ends with a book, a book project, something to hold up to the suffocating meaninglessness of existence. It almost certainly does not find resolution among fellow intellectuals however marginal they too claim to be, however particular their predicaments.

The late 1980s are a time when the short story is getting shorter and more lyrical and the metric rules hitherto thought necessary for the poem are finally breaking down for good. It is also a time when dysfunctional capitalism is taking its toll on all but the nouveaux riches of the free-market era. Social and moral values are not so much atrophying as deforming. Nationalism and loyalty to the patriarchs look more and more like cancers of the intellect. Official institutions, which still control society, have reached new heights of corruption; religious fundamentalism, initially abetted by the Sadat regime, is out of control. Far and away to be intellectual means to be politicised, and to be politicised to be Marxist. Never mind the fact that you might not like Marxism: discourse and practise are as dogmatic and limiting as religion itself; there is little if any space for an individual mind to work its way through the labyrinth of consciousness.

Taken together in retrospect, Abdellatif’s three books sound like an exquisitely muffled scream in response to the questions posed by growing up to that, in a place where neither money nor sex is as forthcoming as it might be, nor perhaps as desirable. With various degrees of subversion and cynicism, they touch on only two other subjects, both of which take up more space in Jawlah Layliyah than anywhere else: redemptive (and thus often resented) love; and the inevitability of friendship.

Is it Abdellatif’s modesty that prevents him from telling his old stories in a more explicit way? Is it his sense of right or of futility that stops him from recounting his often disappointing experience of Cairo literary life, whether in his writing or as a veteran of all those ludicrous wars? In the poem with which the new book opens, “The End of Adolescence”, three friends leave the house of “a certain madwoman” drunk, they pretend to be plainclothes policemen to torment lorry drivers on the road, they stomp on a load of neon lamps they happen upon “on the void asphalt of the Cairo dawn”; a week after that, the speaker says, “and the third of us has sold himself to the devil/while I remained with the other,/he not seeing, I not speaking…”

Latifian reticence is characteristic of neither the universal novelist nor the Egyptian Nineties Generation prose poet. Abdellatif seeks the substance of a state of being, not its paraphernalia. His literary objective may be noble but, more importantly, it is a rare and shatteringly urban choice; with the time and effort required for the inner battles that make writing possible or necessary at all, perhaps it is impossible to be any more prolific and still attempt to achieve it.

***

Night Tour

Before he grew familiar with the way to school

the sickly child grew familiar with

the doctor’s place:

the pharmacy below the clinic

with its brown closets

and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades

wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,

which she reeled off a large roll with a metal core,

and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.

On distant mornings

you and your mother would go down to her to buy the medicine.

Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places

in the night,

sliding at least four buildings across?

There is a restaurant at the street corner

whose glass facade which the steam misted over

shows appetising, low-priced food;

it seems very close, over at the curve.

Night after night you will put off having dinner there

and go along with what it takes to stay up and be tired;

the day you make up your mind,

with a strike,

some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place

off the map of existence.

And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city

beyond the street with which you thought the world ended when you were small

is an old traffic post and the ghost of an elderly policeman at the crossroads

with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.

There stands a forgotten variety theatre

where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage

flanked by two tiers of seats on which the onlookers have gathered.

You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,

your viewpoint flits between the two places

from pointers to clamorous lives

and promises of sustained indulgence

to where safety

fares better than regret

which is as light as beer foam.

Translation of the title poem of Abdellatif’s last book and of “Implicit Agreement” © Youssef Rakha

—————————————————————————————————–


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Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

Wheatfield with Crows (1890), Van Gogh Museum,...
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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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Disrupting the Narrative by Sousan Hammad

Arabian nights.
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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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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