The Best of The Sultan’s Seal: Five Articles © Youssef Rakha

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1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.

3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.

4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time.
Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.

5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.

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THE NUDE AND THE MARTYR

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Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.

Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.

The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.

And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:

The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].

It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.

Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.

Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:

A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.

And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.

Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…

The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

A streetcar named diwan

Status

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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Poisoned roses of revolution

Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti, Saqr Abdelwahid and Youssef Rakha

“Writing,” says Hussein bin Hamza in the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar, “that brings back to our minds the eternal question of the danger posed to literature by grand issues and fast-paced events…”

He is reviewing Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti’s Mi’at khutwa minath-thawrah (A Hundred Steps of Revolution, published simultaneously in Cairo and Beirut by Merit and Dar Al-Adab, respectively), and he reiterates the truism that good literature is not of “enthusiastic good intentions” made; it is true. Elshiti cannot be entirely absolved of the charge of bad literature in this book.

Bin Hamza’s remarks echo the incredulity and scepticism with which many received what was presumed to be a high-brow text about the January revolution published within a month of Mubarak stepping down, but reading it I suspect will confirm their doubts. Surely, it would take a little longer for anything vaguely considered to crystallise in the mind of its author.

Even an unadorned diary written while the events unfolded – and the book, presented as just that, is subtitled “Journals from Maidan at-Tahrir” – would take at least two months to edit; a little hindsight never hurt anybody.

If history cannot wait, well, history writing does; and there are brilliant precedents in the difficult art of covering historical events while they happen – the late Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), for example – which show that the incumbent immediacy and intensity of as it were spot history have less to do with time of publication than with technique, vision and revision.

***

Writing, notwithstanding revolution, that reflects all the desperate rush, lack of polish and (in the Merit edition) distressingly inadequate proofing of much that has been published in Egypt by the independent (literary) press for some 30 years…

It is almost a platitude of contemporary Arabic letters to state that, since the Sixties at least, non-fiction has occupied the lowest tier of the genre pyramid. Not only is non-fiction paid attention based solely on what it is about. In this sense it is surprising that Elshiti’s book has not solicited more attention in Egypt, but the literary congregation is still more or less on holiday despite its deacons’ increasingly reactionary stance since Mubarak stepped down, which would imply that revolution is no longer a valid excuse for ignoring literary events. Non-fiction is also something writers of fiction and poetry seem to think they can do with their eyes shut.

On the whole, instead of honing what skills are required or deploying their usual instruments in the service of a different craft, they exert no effort and demonstrate little respect for a text not produced under the rubric of Creation. The result – and I am no longer talking about Elshiti – tends to be a muddled amalgam of old-fashioned journalism and quasi-academic pontificating; literary non-fiction, where it truly exists, is presented as fiction, freed from the factual constraints of travel writing or biography even as it continues to rely on (insufficiently researched) fact.

***

Best known for Wuroud samma li Saqr (Poisoned Roses for Saqr, 1990), an acclaimed novella that was reissued shortly before the revolution in 2010 with an introduction detailing its complex publication history and some of the critical and academic interest it sparked, Elshiti (b. 1961) is among a mere handful of writers who survived the Eighties, a sad and saddening decade for literature; the Seventies and (especially) the Nineties are golden ages by comparison.

Wuroud stands out for combining a politically engaged, rigorously economical aesthetic formalised but rarely practised by the Generation of the Sixties with what might be termed the Pointlessly Tragic Hero (perhaps the clearest feature of Eighties writing). It remains, by Elshiti’s own account, his principal achievement; and from a history-of-literature perspective it is no doubt pivotal. To my mind Wuroud marks the end rather than the beginning of something, however: the grassroots, class-conscious, sexually tormented song of a kind of politically socialised but psychologically alienated subject reflecting a sense of national defeat.

Saqr-like characters perhaps began with the seminal Tilka Al-Ra’iha (1966, translated by Denys Johonson-Davies as The Smell of It) by Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937). Spanning a diverse range of incarnations most clearly through Ibrahim Aslan (b. 1935) and Mahmoud El-Wardany (b. 1950), albeit with less targic force and fewer visual tropes, and without a multiplicity of voices, Saqr Abdelwahid arrives at his zenith in Wuroud, even if writers mostly older than Elshiti will continue to present versions of him.

By the Nineties (with the re-emergence of prose poetry and the overt divorce of literature from collective and ethical injunctions), a different set of rules was emerging in which neither society nor tragedy could figure in the same way, nor language function effectively with the same restraint. The Sixties had come full circle.

***

Not that it would improve the book to know, but it is against a backdrop of disrespect for non-fiction that A Hundred Steps was produced.

And Elshiti has seldom written non-fiction anyway, which partly explains his impromptu approach to documenting the revolution – so different from the meticulously crafted prose of his poem-like very short stories, of which he wrote two collections before the hiatus; the most recent ones, after Daw’un Shaffaf, which he calls Myths, are as yet published only as Facebook notes, and they develop expressionist and fantastical elements of what otherwise remains by and large true-to-life narrative. They are beautiful. But neither they nor anything else in his previous work prepares him for a book-length piece of reportage.

Still, everything in Elshiti’s work and life does encourage a fresh, more prosaic look at the world view presented by his best known piece of writing.

It would be ludicrous to accuse Elshiti, as intellectuals speaking of or for the revolution often have been since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, of coopting the achievement of “the young” to promote his own accomplishments or jumping on the opportunity to immortalise his name, but it is well to ask why, in the absence of that fresh look, he chose to publish a book on the revolution so soon.

***

Saqr remains interesting in the context of revolution nonetheless: he is a by now early example of the martyr of corrupt capitalism and (by extension) the collapse of the national state. The depressive son and principal breadwinner of a working-class family in Domiat (Elshiti’s hometown, which he frequently refers to in the course of A Hundred Steps), Saqr Abdelwahid’s untimely and largely unexplained death is connected with his hopeless love for the upper middle-class Nahed Badr, whom his politicised friend Yehya Khalaf welcomes into the funeral at the opening.

Told from the viewpoints of all three characters as well as Saqr’s sister Tahiya, the story involves the haunting image of a man who has been slaughtered, “his face a mask of yellow pottery, his eyes two crystals of glass”, presenting Saqr with a bouquet of poisoned roses. It is an encounter Elshiti’s “hero in crisis” (to be distinguished from any number of far less iconic anti-heros) repeatedly has in waking life as well as in his dreams; and by all accounts before his death, when he enters his bedroom bearing the bouquet he has finally accepted for the first time, Saqr is convinced that those flowers will kill him.

***

However veiled or poetically encrypted, Saqr’s story is a comment on the decline of national dignity in the face of poverty and dictatorship, the vulnerability of the sensitive individual hurled into a rat race he cannot understand (one objective counterbalance of which is “the political struggle” presented by Yahya) and, most emphatically, the absolute impossibility of love.

In a sense it is this mind set – the identity of consciousness and political consciousness on the one hand, and between the individual and his class on the other – and not only the writing it produced, that reaches a peak in Wuroud.

Due to developments in society itself, in access to other societies and in the reference points of the literary and politicised community, no text after Wuroud could convincingly communicate or argue with the real in this way – and even Elshiti’s own subsequent work (Daw’un shaffaf yantashir bikhiffah was produced after a two-decade hiatus in 2009) bears testimony to the fact.

In his landmark novella Elshiti refers to the January 1977 intifada against President Sadat, to the way in which the Islamisation and commodification of society following the defeat of 1967 and Nasser’s death is said to have aborted all sense of belonging, and it would have been interesting to see how the ghost or memory of Saqr responded to the Mubarak era, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, 9/11, and the emergence, all through this, of mafia-style governance in Egypt.

A non-fiction comment on the revolution of 2011 seems the perfect opportunity for rewriting Saqr, revising his loyalties and convictions, and asking whether or not he really had to die.

***

A Hundred Steps, at one level, is offered as testimony (the witness too being among the writer’s preferred registers since the Sixties); living on Qasr Al-Nil Street in the same building as the office of Merit, which turned into one of several “revolutionary command centres” for the period (28 Jan-11 Feb), Elshiti was – geographically – the perfect witness.

And there is none but the most documentary ambition in the book, which is not only fair but in its own way admirable: Elshiti has no illusions about his position in relation to what is happening; he is guided by his gut alone, and whether observing or reflecting, as a result, he is anything but grandiloquent or pretentious.

“Since five in the evening I have been in the Maidan,” he writes on the first page of the book, a footnote explaining that this opening short piece, on the events of 25 January, was published on Facebook on 26 January. “It was possible to see young men and women whose ages revolved around 20. Their slogans were simple and radical and without calculations, omitting verbosity and excess…”

Elshiti goes on to say that, while “the politics professionals” – older activists and dissidents – thought it was wrong to insist on spending the night in Tahrir, the young protesters wagered on “matching word to deed”. It is precisely institutionalised resistance that they were revolting against, he insists; were the professionals happy to see the Maidan brutally emptied by midnight? “The 25th of January is the day a new eloquence was discovered that could not be institutionalised.”

***

So far, so brilliant; and the wording of the question regarding the traditional opposition being part of the problem has just the right amount of irony. But what does Elshiti – what does Saqr Abdelwahid – really think?

Over 150 pages mostly of observations and anecdotes, very few of which are written with either the concision or emotion of the opening piece, Elshiti fails to give even the hint of an answer to this question. The scheme of presentation is largely chronological, which results in verbosity and excess (the use of baltagiyah or hired strongmen by the regime in attempts to disband the protesters, for example, is dealt with at many different points but in exactly the same way).

Where discussions come up (and they come up notably with Mohammad Hashem, the owner and director of Merit, as when he disagrees with Elshiti on whether or not the police should be brought back to the streets after their wilful disappearance on the evening of 28 January), they are reported as is, without recourse to deeper analysis or supplementary evidence from, as it were, the front. To support his position against Hashem, on this occasion, Elshiti is content to cite his experience of the brutality and corruption of the police as a young man in Domiat, where he lived opposite the police station. Here as elsewhere one feels that his privileged position as a politically aware resident of Tahrir is wasted.

***

Even those who were not in Egypt at the time and followed the news on television, it seems to me, would not be unjustified in complaining that they have gained little from Elshiti’s reports, touted as “moments that are mine, captured with my own eyes, not with the eyes of the camera or even those of live witnesses”; those moments are invested with neither journalistic edge, historical or philosophical reflection, nor poetic insight, all things considered.

At best they evoke an atmosphere by now well-documented anyway. And the best of them, the very best of them, read like Elshiti’s fiction (which makes you wonder what the book would have been like had he taken the time to rigorously select and rewrite entries):

I saw a man in his fifties wearing a smart suit being mobbed by the masses who sought to expel him, for it had been discovered; he was affiliated with the NDP and persuading the young men to stop demonstrating. The man almost fell on the floor, and then he went out through the Qasr Al-Nil gateway. The regime never stopped sending in envoys of every kind. Everyone was convinced that there was not a single supporter of the regime except thieves and baltagiyah. Even were such a person to exist, they could find a place other than Maidan at-Tahrir which had been liberated with the blood of martyrs and the wounded.

Light rain. I saw a group of protesters walking in formation as one having covered their heads with a sheet of clear plastic while they went on chanting, ‘Ash-sha’b yurid isqaat annidham’.

***

Repeatedly, Elshiti distances himself from what is going on in Maidan at-Tahrir, falling back on the supposed generational (and, to a lesser extent, the class) difference between his circle of intellectuals and the young middle-class instigators of protest. His loyalties are clear, his emotion sincere, but he remains more of a spectator than a participant. This is both honest and frustrating – the honesty might have been more effective had the observations been condensed in the manner of the passage quoted above – because what one wants to know from Elshiti has less to do with what he saw than with what it implies for him and in what way he was part of it.

The question of the left-wing or secular intellectual’s position on Islamists participating in the revolution, for example – a hugely stimulating topic demanding precisely the kind of self-confrontation and self-questioning that prompted Elshiti to write in the first place – is hardly touched on at all. To my disappointment, in the same way as he skims over his own role in the revolution, Elshiti places himself at an anecdotal remove from the issue of political Islam in its unfolding.

A Hundred Steps is the most serious of a number of books to have come out of the revolution, none of which really question the term or deal with the aftermath, which is by far the more significant topic. Its brief is to document what happened as the author saw it and in this, at the most basic level, it manages well enough. But as literature, which is what one will expect from Elshiti, it falls short of the moment that inspired it.

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Nazem Elsayed in one block

 

The formalist: a ramble

Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm (A land isolated by sleep), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2007

Manzil al-ukht as-sughra (The little sister’s house), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009

The body confronts the world. It is alive, it comes forth, it has burst into consciousness. That is borne out when the senses operate, the brain processes perception. Instantly, objects take on meaning. Thus “The Truth About My Knee” from Manzil al-ukht as-sughra: It occurs to me at the height of darkness/To jump out of bed and smoke/But instead I place my knee on your back which like you is asleep/And thinks my knee is a dream/Get up/The eyes are more beautiful than the night you lock up in your head/Darkness is one thing/Night is another thing/Get up so you can see my knee in reality/Bent in walking and in the fancy of walking. Hence one of several possible prognoses of the moment of confrontation – the only one that interests me, really – in which the meaning that objects have taken on fits into some narrative of the self (an oversophisticated side-effect of language, arguably: this omnipresence of a self). As in the text just cited, translated from Arabic in full, meaning becomes the subject’s meaning, which the subject can formulate but only within a commonality of experience: a space – like Manzil al-ukht as-sughra, like Fleurs du mal, like The Illiad – where it can be shared, where it works with supposedly similar confrontations of the world: darkness, dream, back, eyes, night, knee. Inevitably – and this is the sad part – so long as it remains in language it will be shared through a finite set of abstractions, generalisations, signs or signals in a system so independent and predetermined it tends, in the act of communicating, to obscure what is being communicated. In the extremely short “Small Words” – Words so small/I can place between them/The fingers of my lover/And all my suspicions. – something complete is communicated but only against all odds. Inevitably – equally sad – meaning is shared in time; to be communicable at all, an experience must also be an occurrence which, however immediate- or recurrent-seeming, has already happened, has entered into some level of history; it has to have become part of the self doing the communicating. That is how it becomes fixed on the page. Even in the most dramatic or epic situation, by the time such fixing can happen, the moment has already passed; in its specificity, what is being talked about is irrevocably gone. The body, once the bearer – whether it has evicted that which it bears or not (yet), is either at rest, in suspension – or it is elsewhere. Nearly always, sleep has intervened; in one sense the perceived is already a monument or a relic, the perceiver dead. And this momentary cycle of birth and death, the bursting into consciousness of the body and the passing of the moment at which the body bursts, is all that an occurrence like the truth about a knee or fingers that may have touched another’s body amounts to in context, whether or not someone decides to talk about it once it has manifested to them. There is another text called “Harvests”, more striking for seeming to emerge directly from the body of the speaker with no “mental” intervention whatsoever: Stretched on my back/On my stomach/On my side/In all the directions that are painful when the floor is. And another (the title may be translated “Interrogating Noon”, but it literally means making noon utter: istintaaq adh-dhahirah), which is perhaps more telling: The world is clear at noon/No sound/No branch/No step/The sun alone wanders the earth/Leaving behind the silence/That follows every perfection/As if noon is its own mask. Nothing in the world can be more straightforward. A dynamic of contact and termination in, as it were, language-ready perception on the verge of becoming language: this could well be a definition for human consciousness itself. So far as poetry is a description or “embodiment” of that dynamic, then – and I am at last revealing what I’ve been thinking of since the start of this ramble: poetry as a very particular kind of utterance – that kind of utterance is ideationally nothing at all: a (non) experience of the world in language, neither cognitive nor emotive, neither information nor opinion (though perhaps, and to varying degrees, all of these things at once). By this definition, which is not only mine and the Lebanese poet Nazem Elsayed’s but, as adopted from mostly English and French writing through the 20th century, also that of the significant majority of Arabs interested in poetry in our times, metre and metaphor are both more or less extraneous to the poetic (with that last, quasi-Zen insertion of a name, I have just made my revelation more specific, incidentally: I am thinking of two short books by a Lebanese poet called Nazem Elsayed, who happens to be the 10th of 11 siblings, born to illiterate parents the year the civil war broke out, only months before I was born; and it is these two books that I am discussing and partially translating here). Along those lines it may not be insane to suggest that the liars, as Plato called poets, have conventionally misled us in at least two ways not in the realm of speech at large but within poetic territory itself as we think of it. They have made us picture things in terms of other things – the homeland in terms of the mother, for example – and they have fobbed our ears with drum beats, our sense of the subtlety of a statement with its in-your-face rhetorical ring; whereas in fact what they should have been doing was to bring the minutiae of perception, of the body’s multifarious connections with the world, into a shared space made possible by language, a language: a way, as Wittgenstein describes it, of picturing the world. Nazem Elsayed commits neither of the two sins in question, or he commits them both but with such originality that it seems as if he does not commit them at all, or else he does something altogether else that transcends them while they are being committed. The central and in more than one sense the eternal reference point for Arabic literature remains the Quran, which Elsayed learned by heart for some time as a child. But the Quran, like Plato, dismisses poets as hustlers followed only by al-ghawoun: the misguided, those who have lost their way (to truth). As perhaps the most classically rooted of his generation of liars, I should therefore point out that Elsayed was nonetheless among the ghawoun almost from birth. At school he performed badly at everything but Arabic; one out-of-touch teacher advised him to pursue higher education in Cairo, a centre of language learning no longer so central, as he eventually discovered from Egyptian newspapers. He started writing traditional verse at secondary school, learning the ‘aroud or metrical compendium of Al-Farahidi initially with help from an elder sister. Elsayed knew the Umawites and the great Abbassids by heart. He remembers picking up shrapnel and empty bullet shells to resell, he remembers showing talent as a footballer, but mostly he remembers his family’s orally transmitted verses and the long pre-Islamic classics known as al-mu’alaqat. The point at which he stopped reciting his work to Syrian migrant labour to whom his father would show him off because it was no longer classical enough to be appreciated marked a major early departure. Elsayed refers often to the zajal and the songs his parents recapitulated and listened to. He distinguishes between a folklore that was solely Lebanese and connected with small communities in Mount Lebanon, and the tarab – an appreciative term sometimes translated as enchantment – associated with the wider Arab world. Tarab is slower and more elaborate, more structurally challenging; he was always more interested in tarab. To arrive at what he calls a modern understanding of poetry, breaking free of the iron grip of the fuhoul (literally, studs) of the past, it took Elsayed some ten years of conflicts, debates and encounters, notably – in person – with the Sidon-based poet Hamza Abboud. He read the Egyptian Romantics and the Lebanese Mahjar poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammad Afifi Matar. He registered the influence, as he wryly points out, of “minority figures” like Youssef Al-Khal (Christian), Adonis (Alawite), Mohammad Al-Maghout (Ismaili). He took in Bassam Hajjar, Paul Chaoul, Wadie Saada, Mohammad Ali Shamseddin. Where Arabic was concerned, he initially thought of Abbas Baydoun and Shawqi Abi Shaqra as the apostate and the ignoramus, respectively, eventually to realise his mistake. Elsayed speaks of interest in language that made structure possible. He speaks of an intensity not of emotion but of cadence, a capacity for building, an awareness of language that is poetry. And this is why poetry is a name we feel justified in giving to the following, very strong passage (No. 3) from Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm, Elsayed’s book-length text about his father, a baker who died, as his son says, before he could overcome his fear of death, about growing up underprivileged in the constantly makeshift circumstances imposed by war, about war and poverty, poverty and knowledge, knowledge and the prospect of plenty, the slow discovery of the physical world, the preternatural wonder of things, but principally about his father. The wall suddenly. And the always smiling entrance to the building. And the pipes that raise the water in their thin frame. And the stairs that count the steps of ascenders. And the darkness of the first floor. And the myth of the last floor. And the circling, wound around like nostalgia. And the pavement that lies panting on both sides of the road. And people for the sake of people. And provincial malice. And they tell of the grandmother who went with her bones to the grave. And the boy who used to hate the night and now loves it. And once he thought night ascended from the head, the way morning comes out of the eyes. And the trees that scurry past like a herd of madmen. And the isolation of corners. And the solitude of pathways. And the frankness of roofs. And patience in the larynx. And the missing step. And the put-off step. And how walking repeats the feet. And the flaccid fist in the chest. And heavy bodies in the imagination. And burnt shadows on the floor. And miracles in the head. And abrupt whiteness. And silly whiteness. And the man progressing and falling down behind him. Land wherever he goes. And the drowned sea being more than one person drowned. And all those who are born suddenly and die at leisure. And his eyes which transport across the air without a face. And people seeing him through them. And they shining cheerfully like new shoes. And dying while open. And dying too late. And coming out of the face like a scream. By we (in the we that calls this passage poetry), I mean Elsayed, his publisher and I – never mind a coterie of appreciative commentators, never mind a readership that must exist – as well as a discursive space shared by, among many other parties, the Egyptian Generation of the Nineties: poets who wrote originally but not as it is sometimes thought unprecedentedly in prose, most of them only slightly older than Elsayed. Their vernacularly nuanced standard Arabic – as Egyptian as it is provocative – could not possibly have influenced him. Within a discursive space that includes them, I am saying, Elsayed stands out for his connection not with the English, French and eventually Arabic writing that informed contemporary practises but with a tradition of Arabic verse (to be distinguished, as such, from our particular kind of utterance) from which the Generation of the Nineties were eager, emphatically, to tear themselves. One cue to Elsayed would be to say he transports the aesthetic intricacies of that tradition into a relevant – urban, living – idiomatic space; but the interesting thing is the way he does that. In hadathah (a word used, confusingly, to denote both modernity and modernism) – in the theorising of Adonis, for example, or in the free verse movement also known as the modern poetry movement also known, by its innovative approach to rhythm, after the metric unit it depended on as the taf’ila poetry movement – tradition is present in undifferentiated chunks: in an overriding theme, in an abundance of references, in a mode of composition. This is both a cause and an effect of hadathah coming across as a compromise or a copout; and while it is counterbalanced by equally whole chunks of the modern or the then contemporary, tradition turns into an obstacle, a burden ideally or eventually to be rid of, like Eliot’s boring hanger-on. In the present two books, by contrast – the one a single poem, the other a collection of very many extremely short poems, reflecting tarab and folklore, respectively – tradition lives in the structure of the composition and the movement of the language, the writer’s understanding of structure as an original possibility inherent to a particular language. Tradition lies low and by so doing it energises and animates what is being uttered, Elsayed’s confrontation with the world; it hosts it in the way the skin hosts muscle and bone. As it turns out, once tradition becomes an organic constituent of the text as world view, as literary style, as mode of perception – this happens with varying degrees of success, of course – it renders hadathah irrelevant. There is no need for either theory or reference. There is no need for an overt position on the poetic, which Elsayed says makes its mark simply by being what it is. There is only poetry, or would-be poetry (a noble enough accomplishment). And there are all the questions that the text itself raises in its capacity as an interaction with the physical, not (like much of the early work of the Generation of the Nineties, for example) in its capacity as a response to the social. That is only one way of showing what Nazem Elsayed stands out for, but stand out – in however subdued and unpretentious a way – I think Nazem Elsayed does.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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