I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.
We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.
I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.
About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.
REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so on.
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.
Man as map
I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was Mai Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.
Knowing me, knowing you
While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale. The National, 2009
When I joined my last workplace, back in Cairo, it was on the recommendation of an influential acquaintance of my father’s. I had gone to meet him in one office to enquire about an opening in another, but he misunderstood my purpose and introduced me to some of his colleagues at the office where we met.
لم يمر أسبوع على تنحي مبارك حتى صدر – أخيراً، عن دار الشروق – “كتاب الطغرى”، كأنه هو اﻵخر كان معتصماً في ميدان التحرير ينتظر الفرج: أجندة مندسة ضمن أجندات عمر سليمان التي أشبعناها سخرية بينما المروحيات تحوّم في اﻷسبوع اﻷخير.”الطغرى” هي أولى رواياتي التي ترقبت صدورها طوال عام دونما أعلم بأن ثورة ستحدث أو أتنبأ بتغير جذري في الحياة. وحيث أنني – حتى أنا – لا أعرف بماذا يجب أن أشعر وأنا أقلّب صفحات الكتاب اﻵن، ينتابني شيء من الحرج حيال إعلامكم بصدوره.
لا أخفيكم أن الثورة جعلت نشر “الطغرى”، كما جعلت كل شيء سواها، أقل أهمية بما لا يقاس. واﻵن ليس من عزاء، ولا مبرر لبجاحتي في إرسال هذا البريد، سوى أن الرواية نفسها هي صورة للمدينة التي أنتجت الثورة قبل ثلاثة أعوام من حدوثها (أنا أتممت الكتابة في بداية 2010، وحصرت اﻷحداث في ثلاثة أسابيع من ربيع 2007). هذا، وتلتقي الطغرى مع الشعب – بكل التواضع الواجب – في إرادة تغيير النظام: السخط على الوضع القائم واستبصار مؤامرة ضد الحرية في طياته، والبحث عن هوية تناقضه وتدفع الثمن.
أهنئكم وأهنئ نفسي بالثورة، أتمنى أن يكون لـ”كتاب الطغرى” من بعدها وقت أو مكان. وبرغم المجهود الذي بذلته في إتمامه وأي فائدة قد ينطوي عليها، سيظل الشهداء دائماً أجدى منه باهتمامكم.
دموع الفرح من ميدان التحرير منذ مساء 11 فبراير
This message is to inform you of the publication by Dar El Shorouk of my first novel, Kitab at-Tugra (or Book of the Sultan’s Seal, a portrait of Cairo set in 2007 and completed in 2010) within days of the triumph of the 2011 Revolution. I submitted the book for publication at the start of 2010, and I waited a year to see it in print, but it is hard to be very excited about its appearance with Dar El Shorouk now that something so much more important has happened. My consolation – and where I got the nerve to send this message nonetheless – is that Kitab at-Tugra was a sincere attempt at picturing a city unwittingly poised for revolution, and that – like the people who worked the present miracle, of whom, very humbly, I claim to be one – it too sought to bring down the order. The fate of the martyrs of Tahrir will always be worthier of your attention than my novel.
When Youssef Rakha asked the Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani how his latest book, Amakin Khati’ah (Wrong Places, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2009) came about, the latter sent him a numbered list of observations
1. All the poems of this diwan were written in Spain between 2002 and 2006.
More than other “Nineties” prose poets working in standard Arabic, Ahmad Yamani was accused of hartalah, contemporaneous slang for prattle or drivel. That was when he lived in Talbiyah, the semi-provincial suburb of the Pyramids where he was born in 1970. No one doubted his talent, but even the quasi-Beatniks of Cairo were not ready for the irreverent lack of polish in his first book, Shawari’ al-abyad wal-asswad (The Streets of Black and White, 1995), particularly clear in the long, epoch-making poem whose title translates to Air that stopped in front of the House.
Here at last, romantic and Kafkaesque by turns, was a rage-free Howl of Cairo in the post-Soviet era. The madness went on. By the turn of the millennium Yamani was as well-known as he could be. He was writing, he was working (mostly at cultural magazines), but like many others he was also fed up with life on the margin and disgusted with the social, economic and literary mainstream. One day in 2001, he left the country for good.
The refugee tells
The refugee absorbed in telling his tale
feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.
A growing body of literature attempts to transcend the antagonistic narrative of Muslim encounters with the West. But these revisionist histories, Youssef Rakha writes, still pit ’us’ against ’them’.
The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
The Bodley Head
When Philip Mansel’s delightful portrait of Ottoman Istanbul, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924, was published in 1995, the Serbian genocide of Muslim Bosnians had reached a new pinnacle in Srebrenica, the Iraq disarmament crisis was escalating after Saddam’s son-in-law, who ran the country’s weapons development programme, defected to Jordan, and the EU signed a Customs Union with Turkey, which was already a candidate for membership.
Here were three apparently unrelated examples of the interface between East and West, each saying something different about the possibility of a clash or a dialogue or a marriage of civilisations: they were like grandiose Muslim rumblings in the stomach of the post-Christian order.