The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt


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.

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The four avatars of Hassan Blasim

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.

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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.

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Kenyon Review Essay Out


Cairo Map by Piri Reis, 15th century

An Excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)”

Youssef Rakha



Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:

The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”


The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.

In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.

This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.

Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.

Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.

In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).

Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.

Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.

Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.

. . .

Read the rest of this piece by purchasing the Summer 12 issue of The Kenyon Review.



Megawra talk: Cairo as a lone individual: the geography of self-exploration

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.
In it the hero, Mustafa, who will soon start having historical visitations, notably from the last Ottoman sultan, is propelled into rediscovering those parts of the city in which his life comes to have meaning, by drawing the routes he takes as he actually experiences them, with his eyes closed. The shapes that he ends up with later combine to produce a tugra or sultan’s seal—which comes to be the symbol of the city as one person’s madness, the city as Mustafa: a calligraphic emblem with many non-empirical references to reality. A sort of psychological form of map-making thus became at the centre of the creative process.



I was not as aware when I wrote the novel as I am now that what I had Mustafa do was one form of what might be termed literary cartography. That is: the appropriation of space through an internalization of its subjective and human (as opposed to objective or “scientific”) experience with the purpose of integrating the result into a print context—in this case, by turning it into calligraphy. In my new novel project, I am using the Phoenician letter Waw to a similar end—it is similar to the Latin Y but not the same—comparing it with the shape of the Nile valley in Egypt among other cartographic representations of topics being dealt with, all reached through the very personal experience of the characters.



I will not get into the details of how this works in each book. All I want to say is that literary cartography—so understood—is an interesting mode of engagement that has rarely been explored or practiced in context. Some conceptual artists have no doubt employed cartography in their work in a similar way, perhaps architects and designers and theorists too, which goes to show that maps make up an essentially multidisciplinary approach to the real. But in terms of literature, though the inclusion of cartography forges instant and fascinating connections with illuminated manuscripts and many echelons of the Arabic canon, it remains more or less unknown. So all I will do tonight is talk a little about literary cartography.
I am not much of an artist, but I’ve found photo-based representation—first through the dark room, then digitally—to be invaluable in the process of complementing print with imagery to which a relatively complex idea might be uniquely anchored: post-millennial Cairo as an Ottoman seal, for example, or the Nile valley as a sacred letter. I’ve also always been fascinated by maps as an alternative mode of recording reality in print, and writing places—of which I’ve done more than any other kind—is a less precise but more inclusive form of map-making.
Literary cartography has to do with two quite separate things, I believe: two ideas, two motives, two different activities of the novelist as witness and, principally, as a writer of extended letters to unknown recipients but also as someone who crystallizes human experience into signs (whether letters or drawings) laid out on paper.


First, there is the fact that, for reasons of temperament and drive, writers tend to be self-obsessed no matter how much they endeavor to prove the opposite. This is aesthetically perhaps as it should be, in the sense that it is within a given creative intellect that this intellect is likely to find literary meaning or beauty. The beauty in literature seems to come less from the object being written about—confusingly, this is often referred to as the subject—than from the manner of its transformation into language: how a city like Cairo becomes a calligraphic symbol, to follow through the example. This process belongs with the writer, not the world. Reality is subordinated to a subjective standpoint that makes no attempt at eliminating bias.
I don’t actually necessarily believe that this all that happens, since the subject too—the writer—is part of a greater reality and presumably open to all sorts of currents: I could go on about the writer as convoy or medium, about things like objective coincidence and automatic writing. But still, subjectivity in this sense, however aesthetically perfect, raises moral questions. Nor is it simply that people get upset with you when you write honestly about them, for example. Unlike that of a map drawn to scale, your image of reality is going to be all but private, solipsistic even, the meaningless sounds made by a social outcast humming to himself in the dark.
When that picture is condensed into an objectively articulate image, something everyone can look at and appreciate at least as much as a map—even if it will never be nearly as useful—that sense of moral doubt is significantly reduced. It is almost as if, by constructing your statement logically and enunciating it clearly, you bring it into daylight. You do not turn the subject into an object the way empirical science does, but you produce a subjective object, an object that integrates bias as an essential part of its constitution, an object which—even though it remains an object—could never exist without the subject that brought it into reality: the signs, the letters, the language is utilized to a meaningful end.
Secondly, besides all else that he does, a writer is forced to make a choice between time and space, history and geography, narrative and description. I happen to believe that time or history is more violently peremptory and limiting. It is more prone to meaninglessness, to the exclusionary blindness and manipulative falsification of power (something that can be seen clearly in current, presidential-elections narratives of the revolution). That is partly because, compared to stories or human beings, it is much more difficult to judge places as such. Unless you include the narrative of what it depicts and how, looking at a map, it is impossible to say that its shape is immoral, for example, or that its stance is unfair.
Building on my first point—that a writer’s subject will inevitably be himself—I want to argue that conceiving of the self as inclusive, pluralistic space is far more rewarding and ultimately also more honest than presenting it as a narrative of the triumph of good over evil (or the defeat of good by evil), no matter what kind of good the subject stands for, or how complex, which is what literature is likely to reduce to once it surrenders itself wholly to the idiocies of history. The self as a geography of humanity that is trying, in a desperate but courageous bid, to transcend history: that seems far more meaningful than the self as a the convoy of an inevitably false and ultimately one-dimensional storyline.
However contrived in the context of a given novel, however subjective in fact, literary cartography, it seems to me, is the clearest embodiment of the self as space in language: the map that makes no reference to empirical reality is the salient image of literature as the epistemological exercise of making sense of the world through words or (as they are or should be) through signs inscribed on paper that, looked at, inspire faith in the meaning of life.

Talk at Megawara on Sunday, 27 May, 2012

Sartre, my father and me


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.

Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.

Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.

It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.

I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.

In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.

Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.

But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.

His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.

Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.

I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause. I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.

On wasta for The National

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.

A month later, I had completed one task to the satisfaction of said colleagues, but it took another two months and maybe five more tasks before I was finally invited to meet the boss, who was so impressed with my work he offered me not just a job but an actual position. Having a position meant that, unlike many of the competent staffers who worked there “on a contract”, I would become, officially, and for life – yes, for life – an employee of the government-affiliated institution of which my new-found workplace was part. Circumstances were forthcoming, I suppose, because once I had crossed a few mountains of red tape, I did become, as people with positions are generally known, a true appointee. Competent staffers did not have such positions for one of two reasons: either they were not Egyptian citizens, a legal prerequisite for employment in the government, or the procedure awaited “approval” (which could take months, years, sometimes decades, depending on the humours of an all-powerful but invisible chairman).

When I say “competent staffers”, I should explain that there was at that office a much larger contingent of true appointees who took up space, time and (some) money though they were completely incompetent. If they were indeed competent, you did not see the vaguest sign of it. This, I figured, must be what economists mean when they talk about hidden unemployment. Anyway, there was evidently nothing anyone could do about the incompetents. The only action ever taken against them was that, unlike the competents, who were appropriately rewarded for doing good (or any) work, they received only the official government salary, unenhanced by a very substantial supplementary “bonus”. Such bonuses are the only thing that makes it viable for qualified professionals to work for the government, considering the absurdly low salary levels that continue to prevail. Incompetents were of course nominally equally qualified, but they had been placed permanently at the office against the better judgment of the boss.

They had been given positions there thanks to wasta, that untranslatable social vice: the sine qua non of all professional dealings in Egypt, a very mild case of which was involved in my introduction. Not that I would dream of absolving myself, but my case really was mild: this man was neither a personal friend nor a relative, and I was not offered a position until I had done some work.

Etymologically based on the root word for “middle”, wasatah – from which the colloquial term wasta is derived – refers to an act of mediation or intervention intended to help someone achieve a specific goal. It is closely related in tone to the word shafa’ah, or intercession, which is what the Prophet Mohammed will do for all Muslims on the Day of Judgment: in short, have a word with God.

Wasta means having a word with the person in charge to make something possible for someone, usually a job, or rather a position. In feudal times, wasta could actually be a positive form of upward mobility within a far more tightly prescribed space. It was more stringently applied and its beneficiaries were bound by a strict code of honour, with an imperative to do their utmost to prove that efforts on their behalf had not been wasted. The more power was decentralised, however, the less of a role honour had to play in anything.

Today wasta is in many instances synonymous with nepotism, but there is so much more to wasta: it would be extremely short-sighted to reduce its scope to nepotism alone. A catastrophe of the highest order: wasta implies waste, mismanagement and financial misconduct. It leads to various modes of corruption, obstructing upward mobility, narrowing the professional outlooks of the vast majority and perpetuating class boundaries.

Wasta is the magic dynamic by which a spoilt fresh graduate with neither credentials nor experience arrives at an office already appointed while a perfectly able candidate who has been working at the same office for five years continues to await appointment in vain. But it is equally the attitude whereby, while discussing professional prospects and the obstacles in their way, people will suddenly turn to each other with a hopeful twinkle of the eye, asking, “You don’t know someone, do you?” It is the crime almost everyone is routinely accused of, but also the quality of which braggarts are by and large most proud: “No, no, no. We would never get arrested. The deputy Minister of the Interior is a good friend of my father’s.” It is what mothers consider when, thinking about solving their children’s professional problems, they reach the end of their tether.

Wasta, over and above nepotism or corruption, is a life form. And it is a life form whose territory is being encroached on. Like smoking, like national identity, wasta is a species increasingly endangered by globalisation. While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate and more and more Egyptians become aware of the dictates of the World Bank, wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale.

Some day soon, privatisation will put an end to hidden unemployment altogether; then something terrible will happen: a bloody revolution, a civil war, collective screaming summoning up the most destructive earthquake in human history. All are possible consequences.

Still, no matter: fresh graduates, however well connected, will have to stop being spoilt. And the introduction I received, mild as it appears to be now, will eventually become the only form of wasta left.

Then we will all gather round, hold hands and celebrate our newly born American-style integrity – that profoundly protestant combination of idealistic morality and dog-eat-dog ambition believed to produce some form of “meritocracy”, which rarely functions as touted – wondering where on earth tonight’s dinner will come from now that we have neither a job nor the wasta to get us one.

Already, with wasta required at every turn, the process is collapsing under its own weight. With virtually everyone enjoying some kind of wasta power over everyone else (without a self-employed valet, for example, you will be unable to find parking outside your workplace), with so many economic and political variables involved (the valet must bribe the relevant traffic policeman, who must in turn accommodate his superior, etc.), wasta is fast turning into a vague promise or a hope, unreal as a prayer in the dark. “I know someone, yes,” you say to your relation. “Let’s hope they will do something about it.” But even as you utter the words, you know the chances are they won’t – because they can’t. And then you think of the good old days when you could actually have helped, and integrity – well, the aforementioned kind of integrity, at least – doesn’t seem all that appealing after all.

الثورة والطغرى


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.

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Tea with Mouayed al-Rawi in a Turkish café in Berlin

by Sargon Boulus (translated from Arabic by the author)
Domino tiles

Image via Wikipedia

Our cigarette packs
close to hand (that secret fuel) . . .
The babble of immigrants
slapping dominoes on marbletops:
a noise familiar once,
out of which
a word may flare up amid the smoke –
born there, refusing
to die here.
If we don’t say it, who will?
And who are we
if we don’t?

Not about what came
to pass; how it came, and passed!
But about this spoon buried
in sugar, and this finjan.
Not that Wall whose remains
are sold as souvenirs
at check-point Charlie where
only yesterday
they exchanged spies
and traded secrets of the East
and West, but this
wall painting facing us now,
with a harem from the days
of the Sublime Porte
who recline dreamily
in pleasure boats, on a river
guzzled down, in one
gulp, by history.
Let’s say we have seen
a lot of walls, how they rise
and fall, how the dust
particles dance under the hooves
of the Mongol’s horse,
how “victory” laughs
its idiot’s laugh in the mirror
of loss, before it breaks
and its shards fill the world
where we walk, and meet,
every time.

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أن تغادر المكان

فاصل من مقالي عن الجامعة في العدد الأخير من مجلة أمكنة

واحد = ثلاثة

ممكن أن أخبرك مثلاً أن سنوات الجامعة بالنسبة لي هي أيضاً سنوات تحقق حلم الذهاب إلى المكان الثاني، إلى إنجلترا. لا أتذكر بوضوح متى تكوّن في رأسي مفهوم مكان ثانٍ بمعنى المهرب أو البوابة، غير أن علاقاتي توطدت ببعض مدرسي البريطانيين في المرحلة الثانوية ولابد أن نظرتي لنفسي تغيرت في حضورهم ومن خلال رحلات سابقة إلى أوروبا ومعرفة جيدة بالإنجليزية. منذ عمر السادسة عشر، وربما قبل ذلك، كنت كارهاً لأشياء كثيرة؛ وكانت الأشياء التي أكرهها تجتمع في مكان يمكنك أن تسميه، تجاوزاً، مصر. لعل أول تجليات المكان الثاني، إذن، أنه ليس مصر. اليوم بينما أجد نفسي حائراً في تحديد الأشياء الطاردة التي كانت تجسد مصر أو تُطابِقُها، أو أجدها أعقد وأوسع من أن تُذكر أو يُدلَّل عليها ببساطة، يظل للمكان الثاني في رأسي مواصفات أدق جعلته مرغوباً لذاته وليس فقط لأنه خال من هذه الأشياء. من ضمن تلك المواصفات مثلاً أن المُعلّم هناك يصطحب تلميذه إلى الباب ليشاركه البيرة بعد انقضاء المحاضرة بدلاً من أن يمارس عليه عقده النفسية، أن الشرطي لا يملك على الشخص الماشي في الشارع حق الاحتجاز والإهانة، أن سهرة ختامها الاختلاء بفتاة هي نشاط مشروع لا ضرورة لمداراته أو الانتباه إلى أنه محظور، أن الكتب والعروض والأفلام التي يمكن أن تقرأها وتحضرها وتشاهدها أوفر وأحسن، أو أن حواراً طويلاً وعميقاً بين أكثر من ثلاثة أشخاص يمكن أن يبدأ وينتهي كله دون أن يأتي على ذكر الدين. عندك هنا خمسة نماذج على ما يرغّب واحداً بلغ منتصف عقده الثاني من الحياة في المغادرة. بحساب ما، كانت هذه النماذج الخمسة أكثر أهمية من مواصفات أخرى كالنظام والنظافة واستقلالية الفرد والتطور التكنولوجي، وأظنها – النماذج –  تعطي انطباعاً أصدق عن أسباب سخطي على المكان الأول. لكنها مهما بيّنت من نقائص، ستظل أبعد بكثير من أن تنقل لك إلى أي حد كان الشخص الذي يكبر في مكان يحتقره موهوماً بجدوى الانتقال إلى مكان أرقى، أو كم كان يحمل ذلك المكان الأرقى له من وعد. كنت بإصراري على المغادرة كأنني أتبرّأ من نفسي، النفس المحبوسة في الأشياء التي أرفضها، المحكومة بإعادة إنتاج الرفض سواء أدركت ذلك أو لا. وكانت المفارقة أن مبرر المغادرة – ضرورة الحصول على شهادة جامعية وكون المستقبل كله رهن هذه الشهادة – هو نفسه شرط من شروط المكان الأول، تماماً مثل المعلم الذي يتعالى على تلميذه والشرطي الذي يقطّع (بطاقة) مواطن سيستجوبه بلا وجه حق، ومثل التعاليم والفرائض المقحمة على كل حديث مهما كان موضوعه: شروط مصر. طبعاً كان يمكن أن أكمل تعليمي في كلية السياسة والاقتصاد التي دخلتها بسهولة بعد إتمام الدراسة الثانوية على المنهج البريطاني في مدرسة (أجنبية) ألحقني أهلي بها ليوفرا أفضل تعليم ممكن لابنهما الوحيد؛ كانت نتائجي في الآي-جي-إس-إي تعادل أعلى مجموع محتمل. بشكل ساذج ومدلل، مع ذلك، كنت واثقاً من أنني سأصبح كاتباً. ولا أعرف ماذا كان يدور في رأسي عن احتمالات الكتابة كمهنة علماً بأن الناس وقتها كانوا ما يزالون يمجدون أشياء كالطب والهندسة دون وعي بانحدار مستوى التعليم في هذه التخصصات ولا البطالة التي تنتظر خريجيها. ولم يكن يخطر لأحد أن الكتابة يمكن أن تكون أكثر من هوى أو هواية. أبواي، عن نفسيهما، كانا متفهمين. وعندما قررت أن أستبعد الكليات العلمية مبكراً، طمأنا نفسيهما بأنني فضلاً عن إجادة الإنجليزية ستكون معي شهادة محترمة في مجال أحبه. قيل في ذلك الوقت إن السياسة والاقتصاد تقدم تعليماً رفيع المستوى في الآداب، لكن بعد الخبرة بنظام تعليم يشجع على المبادرة ومدرسين يعاملون النجباء من طلابهم كأنداد أو أصدقاء، لعله كان طبيعياً أن أُحبط في مناهج جامعة القاهرة وأسلوب التلقين المتبع في تدريسها وبالذات أداء أساتذتها الذي لا يختلف جوهرياً عن أداء (أبلة) الحضانة أو (فقي) الكتاب. كان الموضوع من أوله إلى آخره في (الملازم) التي يؤلفها (الدكتور) ويبيعها بطريق غير مباشر: لا كتب ولا مناقشات، لا بحث ولا كتابة. فقط استذكار ببغائي لمحتوى هذه الملازم، ومتى أمكن أيضاً تملق وتمسح في مؤلفها بهدف النجاح في الامتحانات – وهي مهارات كان يجيدها الطلبة الآتون من الأرياف أكثر من غيرهم – لأن نتيجة الامتحانات تعتمد ليس على معرفة الطالب بالمادة أو اجتهاده في مطالعة المراجع وإنما على مزاج الدكتور الذي يدرس له. وكان الدكاترة إجمالاً يقلقون من أي بادرة اهتمام بموادهم خارج حدود الملازم. وكأنك لو قرأت كتاباً، خاصة لو كان إنجليزياً، ستفضح جهلهم وخيابتهم؛ وكأن أي سعي إلى المعرفة لا يحدث من خلالهم شخصياً هو بالضرورة انقلاب فوضوي على نظام حكمهم العتيد. هكذا كانوا فعلاً، أو هكذا أتذكرهم: رجالاً صغاراً خائفين ضيقي الصدر والأفق، مقطوعين لسلطتهم التي بدت لي غير مستحقة. لحد الآن وأنا أتكلم هكذا مجرد كلام، لا تزال في حلقي مرارة القهر والقرف من أستاذين أو ثلاثة كنت احتككت بهم بشكل سطحي قبل أن أكف عن حضور المحاضرات و(السكاشن)، وصدمت في استخفافهم المجاني بأي كلام جاد يمكن أن يقوله طالب سنة أولى عن أي شيء. حالة الانتفاخ التي كانوا يظهرون عليها، كأنهم قبل دخول المدرج يحقنون أصداغهم بالنشاء، تشعرني بأنهم ليسوا معلمين بل ممثلين درجة ثالثة جيء بهم ليمثلوا هذا الدور، وبأنني أنا الآخر علي أن لا أكون طالب علم بل ممثلاً في دور طفل جاهل ومستهتر لا يمكن أن يشفع له سوى الرياء أو وساطة (حد كبير). ذات لحظة بدا لي أن البقاء يعني نهاية العالم، أو أن العالم الحقيقي ليس هنا ولكن في إنجلترا أو أمريكا، هناك. وظللت أسعى بلا جدوى لتدبير منحة أو تنسيق (معونة مالية) حتى أتمكن من السفر دون أن أجهد أبوي. أعتقد، بعد كل هذه السنين، أن ما كنت أبحث عنه هو مكان يمكنني أن أعبّر فيه عن نفسي، بمعنى أن أعيش قناعاتي بشكل يشعرني بالامتلاء. وكانت ضرورة الحصول على تعليم جامعي كهدف مرحلي للحياة كلها في مركز هذه القناعات. ومع كل هذا، ما إن تحقق حلم المكان الثاني حتى خفّت حدة احتياجي للتعبير عن النفس، شيئاً فشيئاً. في السياق الجديد أصبحت أهمية القناعات التي كنت أريد أن أعيش بها أقل فأقل، حتى بدت قناعاتي كلها بلا أهمية على الإطلاق. وحدث هذا بشكل أشعرني، بالتدريج، أن نهاية العالم قد لا تختلف جذرياً عن استمراره. يعني هنا، باختصار، ليس أعظم كل هذه العظمة من هناك. في مصر كان عندي ما أعبر عنه وربما من أعبّر له أيضاً، لكن السعر بدا أعلى من قدرتي الشرائية؛ ولعل التربية على قيم الطبقة المتوسطة هي التي صبغت الحياة بألوان الحذر والترقب. لكي أعيش قناعاتي المعرفية، مبدأياً، كان لابد من تهميش الدراسة الجامعية بالكامل وقضاء ربما عشر سنوات بدل الأربع المقررة لتأمين الشهادة. كما شغلني كيف سأعيش خلال هذه الفترة. أن تفطر في رمضان أو تنام مع امرأة لم تتزوجها: حتى في ذلك العمر، بدا الحصول على هذه الحقوق أخطر من أن تستقيم معه الحياة. أما مناخ جامعي يوفر الحد الأدنى من احترام العقل ومكافأة التفوق، فلم يكن مطروحاً من الأساس. في منتصف التسعينات كان البديل الوحيد عن جامعات الدولة المتفق على ضعف مستواها هو الجامعة الأمريكية في القاهرة. وفضلاً عن أنني كنت واعياً بانخفاض ترتيبها على مقياس الجودة التي تقرره المؤسسة التعليمية الأمريكية، غير مطمئن لاختلافها عن جامعة القاهرة ونافراً من التفرنج السطحي والثراء غير المسئول عند غالبية الملتحقين بها ممن أعرفهم – إلى اليوم تصيبني كلمة “إيوسييان” بالغثيان – لم تكن تكلفتها تقل عملياً عن تكلفة التعليم في أي “يونيفرسيتي كوليج” في إنجلترا أو أي جامعة محترمة في أمريكا. أعتقد أنني بالضغط على أبوي حتى ينفقا كل قرش معهما على دراستي في جامعة هل في شمال شرق إنجلترا، بالفعل وجدت المكان الذي كنت أبحث عنه، مكاناً للتعبير والقناعات. وإلى اليوم لا يراودني شك في أن معضلة التعليم الجامعي لم يكن ليحلها إلا السفر. تراودني الشكوك حول كاختيار – كنت قُبلت كذلك في جامعة بريستول ، لكن تكلفة الحياة في هل أهون قليلاً – وكثيراً ما أتساءل أيضاً إن كانت إنجلترا هي النموذج الأمثل للدنيا الحلوة التي أردت أن أهرب إليها. أتساءل وأتساءل وأتساءل عن جدوى الهرب نفسه، طبعاً. لكن لا أشك لحظة في أن السفر هو الذي جعل للتعليم الجامعي في حياتي معنى، ونجّاني من أمراض اجتماعية و(ثقافية) ما كانت مناعتي التي أضعفتها المدرسة الأجنبية ستتحملها في هذه السنين. المشكلة أنني حين أصبحت في المكان الثاني، كما سبق، فوجئت من فوري بأنني لم يعد عندي ما أعبر عنه أو من أعبر له ويفهم أو يهتم. وكانت صدمة هذا الاكتشاف من القوة بحيث تدخلت في نظرتي لكل شيء لاحق عليها، في ذكريات المكان الأول وتقييم المكان الثاني وطريقة التعامل مع المكان الثالث الذي عدت إليه فور حصولي على بكالوريوس الآداب في الفلسفة والأدب الإنجليزي بتقدير امتياز مع مرتبة الشرف وثلاث جوائز والكثير من الثناء. لأنني حين عدت بعد ثلاث سنين تخللتها إجازات كثيرة، كان طبيعياً أن لا أعود إلى المكان الأول وإنما إلى مكان ثالث لعلني كنت أتصالح معه تدريجياً دون أن أعلن لنفسي عن هذه المصالحة. المكان الثالث – هو الآخر مصر – أصبح اليوم أشبه بالبيت الذي وإن لم تحبه كله تشعر بألفة حقيقية معه وتكون مستعداً للتعود على بلائه، بشكل ما. الآن دون أن أتعمد الاستعادة وأجتهد في ذلك – وهو المهم – لا أكاد أتذكر شيئاً من أهم ثلاث سنين في حياتي. أتذكر ملامح المكان الأول بوضوح تام، كما أستطيع أن أسرد – بالتوازي مع مسار حياتي كشخص حاصل على شهادة جامعية – كل ملامح تطور المكان الثالث ومشاويري عبره منذ 1998، سنة عودتي. أما المكان الثاني الذي وهمت به قبل أن أذهب إليه وزال عني وهمه أثناء وجودي فيه، فلا أكاد أحتفظ لصوته بأي صدى. دون أن أجتهد في الاستعادة لا أكاد أتذكر شيئاً، بالفعل. لكن ربما الأدق أنني أتذكر أكثر بكثير من أن أميز ما يجب أن أتذكره لأتكلم عنه، أو أي وزن يجب أن أعطيه لأي ذكرى في الكلام. أصداء صوت المكان الثاني من هذه الناحية متضاربة وبطيئة، فضلاً عن أن الزمن جعلها مكتومة مثل صوت الطبلة حين تُسد فتحتها بالقماش. ولولا الارتباط الشَرطي بين كوني هناك وكوني أحصّل العلم – الأمر الذي أثقلني على ما أظن، حيث كان هاجس التفوق حاضراً ومختلطاً بالذنب تجاه أهلي حيال ما قررا أن يستثمراه في مشروع ربما لا يأتي عليهما في النهاية بالربح المرجو – لولا هذا الارتباط الشرطي، أقول، ما كانت اقترنت ذكرياتي عن إنجلترا بالدراسة الجامعية أساساً، الأمر الذي كان ليجعل أيام الجامعة ثقباً أسود في فضاء وعيي المبطن بهذه الذكريات. على سيرة الجامعة مع أصدقاء من عمري وأكبر أو أصغر قليلاً، مازلت أشعر أن تلك المرحلة حاضرة في عقولهم أكثر بكثير مما يمكن أن تحضر عندي، أن الحياة التي يعيشونها اليوم وأعيشها معهم وإن كانت نقطة انطلاقي لاحقة على نقاط انطلاقهم هي الامتداد المباشر لخبرتهم بالجامعة: مسافة قطعوها في علاقتهم بمكان واحد ربما غادروه أو عادوا إليه ولكن دون أن تحوله أي رحلة من رحلاتهم إلى مكانين. بالنسبة لي، على العكس، الجامعة خانة خاوية وحدها، أو على أحسن الفروض مشهد من فيلم آخر غير الفيلم الذي أعيشه مع هؤلاء الأصدقاء. محزن بعض الشيء أن أكتشف ذلك الآن، محزن ومحير، لأن الفصلة بيني وبين أصدقائي لا تقتصر على أن خبرة دراستي الجامعية نفسها مختلفة عن خبرتهم: أيام الجامعة في حياتي، بأكثر من معنى هنا، مشوار مبتور. واليوم حيث لا علاقة باقية بين مصر ما قبل ومصر ما بعد إنجلترا، لا تبدو الجامعة أكثر من جب يفصل مكانين دونما يتصل بأيهما بشكل كامل. وكأن ذهابي إلى إنجلترا جعل من الواحد ثلاثة على غرار سر الثالوث في العقيدة المسيحية: خط الذاكرة الأقرب لا يمتد إلى ما قبل عودتي من أصله، ولهذا كثيراً ما أحس كأن وجودي في إنجلترا هو فاصل شارد من ذاكرة شخص غيري وجد طريقه إلى رأسي بالغلط. الغريب – في الحقيقة هذا هو ما أردت أن أتكلم عنه من البداية – هو أن ذلك الشخص الآخر، كاره مصر الظافر بمغادرتها، يبدو بكل تفصيلة من تفاصيل حياته مغلوباً على أمره في المكان الذي غادر إليه. كأنه طوال إقامته في إنجلترا لا يريد أن يكون هناك. عقاب من يصر على مغادرة المكان: في مدينة فقيرة تغرقها رائحة كيميائية على ساحل بحر الشمال، مدينة هي نموذج حي للوضع ما بعد الصناعي… وبالرغم من أن فيها جامعة تحقق له كل تطلعاته، أن يتغلب الملل والقلق على الإنسان

سر المكان

معنى أن تغادر…

موضوع قد يستغرق الأبد.

أن تغادر المكان الذي ألفتَ زواياه كأنها في

خبايا فكرك انعطافات الحلم الذي لا يلوي على شيء –

المكان الذي سره أبداً لم يُستكشف، لأنه صار أليفاً وأنت

لن تقبل إلا بما لا تعرفه، قابلاً لما تعرف لكن عارفاً أن هناك

شيئاً خبيئاً وراء بابك، شيئاً لن تطاله الأضواء التي

لن تعرف سرها ولن تراها…

أن تغادر المكان الذي يلتف سره بالأحاجي

لأنه صار أليفاً، والأليف حين يُستكشف يُطرح جانباً في العادة؛

قد يحدث هذا، ذات يوم، عندما تركب قطاراً

إلى الريف أو المنفى:

أن تجد كل طريق، كل حقل، كل بيت

مغتسلاً برونق بهاء ليس سوى بعضاً من ترنّقه

في مرآة الترف: اللون، والشكل، زوايا التظليل، إطار المتعة

الباذخة في العين – حصان يرعى في المخيلة.

جسر يتجسد فوق ضفتين، ما وراء النظر

لكنك ترى في غفلة

ظله العابر.

وإذ تعبر بالبركة (في أية قرية!)

وتحجز في نظرتك الماء الساكن، وباحات البيوت

والقارب المقيّد بالحبل

إلى رصيف المرفأ، وتفكر، ولا تدري أنك فكرت إلا فيما بعد:

«كم ساكن هذا الظل وأسود في الماء»

فإنك تدرك، في الحال، أن المرأة الملفعة بعباءة

سوداء في الحديقة، تبكي لأن أحدهم أجبرها

على أن تقبل بالحقيقة.

ولستَ متأكداً إن كان هذا جزءً من الحلم، أو شهادة

سمعت تفاصيلها ذات مرة

لكنك تدري أن ما جاهدتَ أن تدريه في تلك اللحظة

شيء يمكن لك الآن، في عمرك هذا، أن تعرفه أكثر

لأن الخليقة وضعتك في هذا الموضع بالذات

حيث ترى، وتمتلك الرؤية.

إنك آنذاك، حين يتقمصك الوضوح، وتكون في

حال من فرط انجلائها، أنك لا تفكر حتى بأن تفكر:

آنذاك قد يحدث أن تحدس السر الذي لم تستكشف طواياه

في المكان الذي غادرته، ذلك الشيء الخبيء ما وراء أستار وأبواب

ذلك الشيء الذي لن تطاله الأنوار التي رأيتها في منامك.

تلك التي لم ترها سوى في منامك.

(نص قصيدة سركون بولص من «عظمة أخرى لكلب القبيلة»، دار الجمل 2008)

سر الإحباط

فيما يخص المغادرة عندي صياغتان إضافيتان لمفهوم الإحباط الكاسر الذي ينتج عن زوال الوهم

ورغم أنهما في الأصل ضمن تعليقات ساخرة تتردد عن المدينة التي كنت أسكنها

أجدهما بليغتين جداً

Hull = Hell                                            Hull is dull

علماً بأن الإحباط المقصود هو ذلك الذي تعبر عنه كلمة


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Ahmad Yamani’s New Book: The Ten Commandments of Displacement

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.


2. I did not show anybody and did not publish a single poem, because my idea was simply to test myself in a new place.

The ambition to start over makes sense despite Yamani’s success: Through a revolution waged in the ghetto – cf. the journals Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra and Al-Garad – he had been among the few who survived the purges. In time his hartalah-streaked genius, demonstrated in two more books by 2001, looked more like what the revolution was about than almost any other work. The vernacular, the individual, the concrete: these were the basic components of a variegated “movement”, but Yamani seemed to embody them more literally. In a way he grabbed what everyone else was girdling. Hartalah or not, his work was gloriously prosaic.

Apart from tighter technical control of his material and a greater openness to drama and narrative, however, no major developments occurred in Yamani’s next two books (Tahta shajarat al-‘a’ilah, self published, 1998; and Wardat fi ar-ra’ss, Miret, 2001). The gifted strive to surpass themselves. Consciously or not, starting a new life must have seemed the perfect chance to re-enter the void. It took Yamani nearly five years to come back out with something to show for himself; and while he shed some qualities in the process, there were others he retained:

Unlike Yasser Abdel-Latif, for example – another survivor whose own debut, also self-published, emerged simultaneously from the same press as Shawari’ – in Amakin Khati’ah Yamani still does not construct his texts, he releases them. Here as in the previous three books, he avoids sentimentality not through restraint but by reinventing the words and their sense. He makes words say not necessarily what he means (he does not necessarily mean anything), but how he experiences their weight.

For a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, then, what does it mean to be in a new place – intent on poetic self examination?


3. My life in the new place was totally different from my life in Egypt, which was surrounded by intellectuals almost for its duration and where friends provided a sense of security.

Only very occasionally in this book does being in a new place mean noticing how foreignness plays out in ideational terms, but in the context of the Nineties the fact that it does at all is remarkable. In “Story of al-Jahidh”, for example (the title is an incidental reference to the great ninth-century author, who was black), the speaker not only describes but also seems to mull over instances of racism – by Nineties standards, an unthinkable concession to “ideology” – the catch-all term for anything which, preceding or external to individual consciousness, could potentially intervene in how it operates, altering or squeezing its contours.

Assess the poem as you will, explicit mention of racism is not something you would expect of Yamani.

Not that it is beyond him to think about such issues, but the Nineties work was conceived partly in reaction to both Sixties engagement and the Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said)-influenced obscurantism of the Seventies: the absurdity of writing about and for abstractions, whether the People, the Nation, or Modernism, Beauty, etc. Any suspicion of the poem championing either cause or concept, however ambiguously, would have been enough for the Tis’iniyyun (or “Ninetiers”) to set up the gallows. And in many ways Yamani was the least susceptible to temptation.

Perhaps out of mere habit, Ninetiers who are otherwise in awe of Amakin Khati’ah still object to the topicality that shows up on its pages. Could topicality nonetheless be one of the ways in which the end of revolution – immigration, in this case – had a liberating effect on the revolutionaries?


4. This sense of security ended totally in Spain. It was not a question of lack of access to my friends, which I had through e-mail or telephone; it was more about cutting yourself off from that security with awareness, even resolve. Besides, the practicalities of life led me into new interactions. Little by little while working as a guard or a barman, you learn to take off the writer’s plume, which you used to rely on in Egypt and which set you apart as someone special, especially in front of your family. Here it didn’t matter at all whether or not you were a writer.

With Abdel-Latif and a host of young Cairo-based poets from working to lower middle class backgrounds, Yamani had inherited a certain Rimbaud-like angst from a more or less small group of staunchly apolitical existentialists who, though were only slightly older, could claim a connection with the Seventies as well as the Nineties: the Alexandria-based Alaa Khalid, the late Osama El-Dainasouri and the Charles Bukowski-loving founder of Al-Garad, Ahmad Taha, for example. It was a complex legacy with disparate influences – Dada-Surrealism (notably through translations from the French by Bashir El-Sebai), Modernism, a range of vaguely Baudelairian non-Europeans from Nicanor Parra to Orhan Veli – and it reacted to and set itself apart from savants of the Seventies not only in their capacity as Marxist politicals and heroes of the 1977-79 Student Movement but, even more importantly, as the false prophets of a new sensibility.

This is the package Yamani presumably carries along in his suitcase. But in exile or the promised land, in the new place, it must seem less relevant by the minute. Here it does not matter how you feel about prose in contrast to (free) verse as a poetic medium; it does not matter whether you are tired of one zeitgeist dictating opinions and alliances, or whether you might be contributing to the emergence of another; it does not matter to what extent you see a Syrian poet’s programme for Arab modernity as meaningless in practice, or how you assess an increasingly pro-government Egyptian critic’s notion of enlightenment. Only the idea of being and then not being surrounded by “intellectuals”, I suspect, remains crucial:

Until he went to live abroad Yamani, who graduated from Cairo University in 1992, had functioned as part of an amorphous Group of literati (or at least one avant-garde wing thereof): normal enough procedure for a writer with any ambition in Egypt. To those who choose to define themselves in opposition to the status quo – the vast majority, in practice – that Group remains an essential element of literary production. By positioning itself outside or against the cultural (formerly also the political) establishment, since the 1970s at least, from its peripheral position the Group has often exercised greater power than the establishment.

For better or worse the Group is both the motor and the bane of the writer’s life: in the capacity of friends (an almost metaphysical affinity implying interpersonal rights but neither moral consistency nor critical rigour), fellow writers-critics cover up the hopelessness of social (including academic) and professional life, doubling as readers in the process. At the expense of a sense of isolation and instability (arguably conducive to the creative act), the reality of a society that has no need even for genre novels, let alone prose poetry, is neutralised or obscured.

In the new place, I imagine, the package itself begins to look context-specific, limited and limiting, or it takes on previously unsuspected meanings. As the Spanish language gradually lodges itself in the system, unrelated discoveries further complicate the picture. For a while, I imagine, the writer no longer knows how to write.


5. In my first year I wrote almost nothing. That was 2001. In 2002 I started writing again.

Here, titled “The Two Houses”, is a moving example of how distance can rarify and distill hartalah once the literary self reemerges isolated:

I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.

The sheer lucidity suggests that “loss of security” does clear up a certain amount of non-poetic debris. Throughout Amakin Khati’ah the tone remains as offhand and the references as private (indeed often as murky) as ever, but the poet’s vision of the world and his place in it seems to have brightened or expanded. Suddenly, his work feels more relevant to more people.

So much that in an exquisitely dreamlike poem about a young man immigrating when the horizon at home begins to look like a dead end, “The Big Escape”, poetry comes close to allegory. And without a whiff of the sociopolitical or the “ideologoical”, neither strays very far from the clearly grounded situation it depicts:

They had sentenced me to execution with two of my friends and it was by what they called euthanasia which had already killed a fourth friend of ours. We did not understand very well what they meant by these statements and so they left us free without guards or cells and sentenced us instead to a kind of death they called a mercy killing which is carried out by a middle aged lady who has a benign face and which is painless but is death anyway. I consulted with my mother and my friends a little while before the execution and I decided to escape. They all agreed I should go while my two friends remained to wait for the lady. As soon as I went out after they gave me all the money they had I met with the merciful lady face to face next to my home. Neither of us looked at the other. She avoided me and went off and I went past her and started to run looking over my shoulder in other countries.


6. When I went back to writing, I wanted to see myself as a poet in isolation from any possible influences. I stopped publishing totally.

For which read, equally, “I stopped having a seat at the cafe in downtown Cairo.” Divested of that position, the writer begins to see his work in the limitless space of what is human as opposed to what is intellectual (or Egyptian), confronting the fact that poetry can only exist in a marginal place far more directly. He might even begin to question the safety that comes of belonging, however tangentially.

In Yamani’s case, I think, that journey has been overwhelmingly positive – partly because the resulting changes meddle with neither content nor style. There is a heightened sense of geography and multiplicity (in the cultural as well as the physical sense); the poet’s inherent, often laugh-out-loud sense of irony responds to a broader range of stimuli; far from the fluid vitality of Shawari’, his modus operandi reflects meticulous reworking of the short piece: a process through which the rawness of the writing nonetheless emerges intact. But here as in older work, subject matter is by and large distorted beyond recognition, language remains informal and corporeal, some sense of hartalah persists.

What is brand new is the vision: the ability to transform one act into another in the impossibly beautiful two-line poem “Tobacco Seller”, for example: “Her hand is on the box, my foot outside the house. Suddenly it grows dark, while she continues rubbing the tobacco on her shiny thigh./She stops a little to move half the tobacco to her other thigh, while I enter the tunnel and start smoking.”

References so private and concealed they are a hair’s breadth away from being meaningless (El-Dainasouri, for example, figures only as “Osama”, without any indication of who he might be) take on the power of electromagnetic signals: an object, a person becomes one of several points around which a field of gravity extends, shaped as much as anything by the distance between Talbiyah and Madrid.


7. I wrote slowly, with a sort of private enjoyment, without any plan to publish a book and without any concern with whether or not I was writing. It seems I wanted to free myself from Writing itself.

At the most basic level displacement has given Yamani’s prosaicness a fresh subtlety. Transported to a context the writer cannot take for granted, as in “The Funeral”, insights that are personal and elusively formulated enough to come across as enigmatic suddenly look breezy, universal and accessible: “Chimo is not my friend. But he died… and here I am no longer a stranger in these lands.”

In “The Book”, about the illiterate mother of a published author, this sense of writing in isolation from Writing, the slowness of rediscovering an intimate process, turns a more or less obvious homesickness into something far more interesting (in folk belief, the number five affords protection against the evil eye):

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

But it is not only a matter of context: displaced, the writer cannot take himself for granted; and not only because he can no longer designate himself a plume-wearing intellectual. In this sense the stage Yamani refers to as “loss of security” might be rephrased “loss of identity”. And indeed counterbalancing a new confidence, a kind of facility in Yamani’s poetic persona following his initial season in hell and the transformations it led to – a confidence just as evident in his real-life persona, as I recently found out – there is a sense of dislocation:

While topical notions of identity never go further than a more or less passing, very subtle remark on the “I” as exotic sex partner (in “My Clothes”), the eye of the poet is, to a far greater extent than in the previous books, unhinged and in motion, in search of its ever elusive socket in the his own transmuting face. It does not seem ludicrous to suggest that this is the deeper quest, as desperate as it is doomed, of the globalised soul seeking salvation in post-post-God times.

Like few other books Amakin Khati’ah presents the world as a place defined by a sort of earthly transmigration, people becoming other people through movement in space, vulnerable egos in intercontinental flux. And it is to Yamani’s credit that, unlike many Arab writers, without once resorting to a self-definition that might help him to do so, he communicates a persuasive sense of being in the contemporary world.


8. The strange thing is that some people saw my not writing as a sign of bankruptcy and decided that what I had already published was the end of my writing career. This made me laugh even as it saddened me. But it was a passing sadness.

Such is the ugly face of the Group or its avant-garde wing, whether or not that has really managed to set itself apart from the Seventies – the subject enacting or being made to enact ridiculously melodramatised glories and downfalls for the benefit of the rest of the crew, turning into Hero, Victim or (in the broadest range of senses, including the literary) Suicide – but however passing the sadness such sickness inspired in Yamani, it is just as well he was made aware of it, the better to appreciate the significance of the new place. Perhaps we would not have known about Yamani if not for the Group; what we should be thankful for is that he has endured in spite of it.

Immigration, as it seems, is remedy enough. The friends remain friends but in a far less proscriptive way. It is possible to relate to the family – part of the hopelessness of the society surrounding an impenetrable circle – in a more open and sympathetic way. It is possible to see the meaning and value of others as others, not equally restricted versions of the self who may also have made the difficult choice of becoming “intellectuals” or of joining the group. A certain amount of open-ended understanding accumulates. The world becomes a handkerchief as well as being small.


9. I did not even think of publishing the book once it was completed. It was Yasser Abdel-Latif and Mohammad Hashim who drove me to do it.

Mohammad Hashim is the writer who, by founding Dar Miret in 1999, absorbed much of the energy of the Nineties and eventually became better-known as the most accomplished independent publisher in the city (the moon of his success has since waned somewhat). And the easy way to interpret what Yamani has to say about the publication of this book is to think of it as (false) modesty. He is shy about the genius that drives him.

It could also be a sign of despair of ever having a significant readership, reflecting what I feel is a healthy awareness of the position of the contemporary Arab writer in the grander scheme of things. While others go crazy over literary prizes or the prospect of being translated – publication being among the easiest tasks facing a writer in Cairo, it is never enough in itself – here is a glowing talent who, expecting neither fame nor fortune, has little or no drive to publish in the first place. Ambitious he might be, but he is silent. There is dignity in that position: an artisan’s deep respect for his noble handiwork regardless of market demand.

Alternatively, however, the statement could be interpreted as a salutary affirmation of the fact that true writers write foremost for themselves, to work through their own sense of being. In this sense Amakin Khati’ah might be read as a journal of expatriation, an inner chronicle of what it means, for a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, to live away from home.

It means that he is still hard-up, that he teaches and translates to make a living: probably factors in the development of his approach to language and meaning. It means that he has become an academic (the only career open to an immigrant educated in the humanities?) and that it is an opportunity for him to set up theoretical grounding for the literary form in which he found himself (the prose poem), and to locate his work in a wide historical context. It also means that he can write free from compulsion, free from the need to establish ultimately prohibitive social or existential credentials; maybe it even means that he has something to write about, too.


10. With rare intelligence, Mohab Nassr, in a letter to me after reading the manuscript, caught the idea that this was my first book. I feel the same way: the first book in a second life.

It is interesting that, of all those who commented on the manuscript, Yamani should cite Mohab Nassr: the one Nineties poet (of Khaled and El-Dainasouri’s generation) who, largely out of repulsion from the Group, its capacity for ruining lives and its failure to see itself as part of the society surrounding it, actually stopped writing altogether. After settling down as a journalist in Kuwait – he had worked as a school teacher in Alexandria – Nassr has only just returned to writing.

It is interesting because Nassr, not only by no longer writing poetry but by socially distancing himself from the Cairo-centred literary circles, is able to see better than others just how far since Wardat fi ar-ra’ss Yamani has come. It is also interesting because, without discrediting Yamani’s three previous books, Nassr is implying that Yamani did not start writing until he had departed, until he was totally free of his Egyptian-intellectual self.

It is interesting too that the poet joyfully agrees – not with any of the implications, necessarily, but with the fact that he has experienced a literary rebirth – adding only the qualification of this being a second life. It means that when he writes, in “Work”, “Any ghost who appears to me will instantly become my friend”, he knows exactly what he is talking about.

“The Two Houses”, “The Big Escape”, “Tobacco Seller” and “The Book” translations copyright: Youssef Rakha

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New Translation of al laji’u yahki

The refugee tells

The refugee absorbed in telling his tale

feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.

He’s absorbed in the awe of being Here

after all those Theres: the stations, and the ports,

the search parties, the forged papers…

He dangles from the chain of circumstance –

his destiny wound like fibre,

in rings as narrow as

those countries on whose chest

the nightmares have piled up.

The smugglers, the mafias, if you asked me,

might not be as bad as that sky of hungry seagulls

above a damaged ship in Nowhere.

If you asked me I would say:

Eternal waiting in immigration offices,

and faces that do not smile back, no matter how much you smile;

who said it was the dearest gift?

If you asked me, I would say: People, everywhere.

I would say: Everywhere,


He tells and he tells and he tells,

because he has arrived but does not taste arrival,

and he feels nothing when the cigarette burns his fingers.

Sargon Boulus (1944-2007)

Translated from the Arabic by Youssef Rakha

Listen to Sargon reading by clicking on the little microphone

A refugee absorbed in talking
Did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Surprised to be here
After being there – stations, harbours,
Visitations, forged papers

Depending on a chain of details
His future was fibre-like
Laid out in small circles
An oppressive country
Afflicted by nightmares

Smugglers, emigration bandits, if you asked me
Commonplace people maybe, hungry sea-gulls
Over a wrecked ship in the middle of nowhere

If you asked me, I would say:
Endless waiting in immigration bureaus
Faces that do not return smiles whatever you do
Who said: the most precious gift

If you asked me, I would say: Human beings are everywhere.
You would say: Everywhere

He talks, talks, talks
He had arrived but did not enjoy the taste of arrival
And did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

© 2007, Sargon Boulus
Publisher: First published on PIW, Rotterdam, 2007
© Translation: 2007, Kees Nijland
Publisher: Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam, 2007

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Strangers in the House

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
Andrew Wheatcroft
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.

Mansel’s anecdotal narrative of the rise and fall of the House of Osman in Europe touches on the Balkans, the Arab world and European colonialism, but it does not concern itself with Muslim-western relations in the present day. Mansel is impressed with the cosmopolitanism and the multicultural norms of the Ottoman polity, but he does not seem to register the connection between the end of Ottoman rule on the one hand and the decline in the unity and authority of Muslims on the other.

Amazingly, it took 10 more years – spanning September 11 and its ongoing, bloody aftermath – for a Turkish-speaking westerner, Caroline Finkel, to produce the first authoritative contemporary history of the Ottoman Empire in English, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. By dispelling misconceptions about the savagery and lethargy of the Turk, by stressing the role of tolerance and pluralism, this long overdue annal of Ottomania made a critical contribution to the popular but ineffectual Arab attempt to “wipe the filth off the face of Islam” after September 11.

Yet for Arabs – at least until the 1990s – the thesis that the Ottomans were abusive colonisers was taken more or less for granted: Ottoman injustice has been a basic tenet of Arab nationalism since the First World War. In the popular Arab imagination, the Ottomans were vain and ruthless autocrats who plundered, tortured and suppressed Arab national aspirations. The post-2001 idea of a Muslim insurgency threatening the supposedly liberal western status quo was enough to invite a revision of the Ottoman era among Arabs – if not westerners. But lately western historians have turned their attention to the Ottomans to make sense of Islam’s encounter with Europe, a dangerous rite practised in a startling range of historical loci from Al Andalus to Israel.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s recently published take on that rite of encounter is neither partisan nor reductive, but it falls slightly short of transcending the very them-and-us approach it sets out to debunk. The author of Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, Wheatcroft is at the cutting edge of an essentially retroactive genre of history writing that has gained momentum since the turn of the millennium. (Not all history is retroactive: it may reinvent the past, but it need not do so directly in response to the present.)

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In The Enemy at the Gate, Wheatcroft focuses on the Ottomans’ second unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683 to analyse not only Europe’s fear of the Turks but also, as Wheatcroft declares, fear itself. Wheatcroft says he wanted to tell this story to show up statements like that of the former European Commissioner, the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, who said that if Turkey joins the EU, the liberation of Vienna will have been in vain.

Bolkestein’s statement follows in the western (and Arab nationalist) convention that saw the Ottomans as foreign invaders. The belief is that, where Ottomans existed in Europe, they did not belong there. Yet it was in present-day Greece that Ottoman power was first consolidated towards the end of the 14th century. On taking Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II proclaimed himself sultan i rum – heir to the Byzantine emperor. His eventual successor Suleiman I had among his titles “Caesar of all the lands of Rome”.

Suleiman was universally regarded as the most pre-eminent of European monarchs, having secured his hold on Rhodes, the Balkans and, by defeating King Louis II of the Order of the Golden Fleece, much of Hungary and Bohemia. He may have been despised as a Muslim, but he was no less western for being so. Though relative upstarts in Europe, Muslims had controlled significant parts of the continent, on and off, for many centuries; the notion of western versus Muslim that we so readily embrace today was neither current nor very tenable.

The House of Hapsburg, to whom members of the Order of the Golden Fleece owed allegiance, were elected Holy Roman Emperors in 1452, less than a year before Mehmet took Constantinople. So it is hardly surprising that the Ottomans should target their capital, Vienna – not only were the Hapsburgs the rival imperial force in central Europe, they were also the 15th-century heirs to a position (instituted by Otto the great in 962) that directly challenged the Ottomans’ claim to be Rome’s successors.

The Ottomans first attacked Vienna in 1529; scholars still debate whether the failed siege was an attempt to expand the empire into Western Europe or simply a gambit to secure the Ottoman hold on Hungary. Unlike the 1683 siege, Suleiman’s failure to take the city was not entirely disastrous – it involved no definitive defeat, and some historians believe he did not seek to take the city in the first place, but simply to demonstrate his supremacy all the way up to its walls. The next few decades demonstrated that Vienna was logistically if not militarily beyond the reach of the Ottomans, and for many years campaigns never went as far.

Mehmet IV, who was crowned at the age of seven and spent most of his reign hunting, was the first Ottoman to hand over power to the Grand Vizier – giving rise to the common error of confusing the Sublime Porte, a reference to the vizierate, with the Sultan. Mehmet’s ascension, though it brought an end to a period of instability within the House of Osman, coincided with military advances among the Ottomans’ rivals; no longer was the devlat i aliye, or Sublime State, at its magnificent peak.

The first of two Viziers under Mehmet IV, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha – founder of the great ethnically Greek Köprülü dynasty of effective rulers – waged successful European campaigns against Poland, Venice and Romania. But his successor, Kara Mustafa Pasha – an adopted son of Köprülüs, to be succeeded by Fazl Mustafa Pasha, a true Köprülü – failed to carry on the good work.

Supporting Imre Thököly’s Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule, Kara Mustafa failed to take into account the alliance between the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and the King of Poland, John III Sobieski (who commanded the imperial forces against Kara Mustafa) and other Catholic leaders; he misjudged the Ottomans’ client states of Moldovia and Wallachia, and crossed the Crimean Khan of the Tatars, whose forces would have been instrumental to an Ottoman victory.

A two-month siege culminated in the routing of Ottoman forces and a weaker position in southern Hungary, and on December 25, 1863, Kara Mustafa was executed in Belgrade on orders from the Janissary commanders. It is said that the croissant was invented in Vienna in the wake of this battle, its distinct shape intended to celebrate the Austrians’ victory over those fearsome bearers of the crescent flag.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Factually, Wheatcroft could have summarised these events in a single chapter which, placed panoramically at the start, would have given him the chance to justify his seemingly arbitrary choice of close-ups and show how they might fit together to support the view that, notwithstanding wars, atrocities, and exclusive claims to the divine, Muslims and Europeans (including Jewish Europeans) remain part of the same, croissant-eating humanity.

But here as in Infidels, his earlier study of Enmity, which covers broader territory, Wheatcroft fails to recognise Muslims as part of the fabric of European history, opting instead for the traditional view that they remained, within European reality, an intrusive and scary other. At the deepest intellectual level, he seems to bolster, rather than undermine, Bolkestein’s statement.

This is not Wheatcroft’s intention, but where Enemy at the Gate is concerned, his task is complicated by the difficulty Finkel so impressively managed to overcome: that the Ottomans were too multifarious, their conflicts and alliances too changeable, their organisational structures too complex, and the causal chains informing any one point in their history too many and interlocking to yield a single well-supported argument.

Unlike Finkel, who walks a consistent tightrope to maintain her grand narrative without compromising ambiguity and detail, Wheatcroft frequently and somewhat fitfully switches his wide-angle lens for a macro. He spends more time on the subsequent Habsburg conquest of Buda, for example, than he does on the glitch in Ottoman-Tatar relations which very possibly perpetuated the Ottomans’ defeat at Vienna on September 12; he gives short shrift to Sultan Mehmet IV’s reign; and fails to present Kara Mustafa’s failure in the wider context of Ottoman decline – a slow process that had only just begun.

One wonders to what extent Wheatcroft’s failure to include Muslims as native agents of the unfolding of European history is typical. In recent years a whole army of historians have applied themselves to the task of advancing western-Muslim comity by retelling episodes of conflict and exchange. Their object seems to be to make events like the Balkan conflict, Turkey’s bid to join the EU and Arab discontent with the West less potentially disturbing.

But in grounding the present in a past previously distorted and neglected, in seeing the past through the often narrow tunnels of the present, few of them have managed to shed the notion of a division essentially separating them from the Muslim world.

In God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (also published in 2008), David Levering Lewis, by contrast, makes the fascinating claim that what we think of as the West would never have emerged as a whole entity had it not been for the influence of, and conflict with, the Arabs and Berbers of Muslim Iberia. This goes beyond the notion – recently reiterated in books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons, Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely, and The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy – that Al Andalus (or, indeed, Ottoman Constantinople) was a haven of religious tolerance, ethnic intermingling, and scientific and humanitarian advance.

Few will question the argument that, if not for the Spanish Muslims’ transmission of learning all the way from Baghdad into Europe, the Renaissance could not have happened. But few ask what – beyond questionable economic benefits – makes the Turks so eager to be Europeans today, or why it is that so many Muslims are oppressed, disinherited, even mass-murdered under the present, western order.

Lewis stands out for proposing a credible integration, as opposed to a curt acknowledgement, of the rite of encounter. Muslims are not simply, as Wheatcroft suggests, Europe’s antagonistic but morally comparable peers. Instead, having been the superior other whom we (Europe) managed in time to outdo, Muslims are us.

The latter argument makes a far more convincing case for the hypothesis of a single civilisation readjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But since the consequent insights are reflected in neither policy nor attitude – look at the various phenomena of Muslim immigration to the West and you will see just how disparate and unequal the alleged two sides remain – perhaps all that the retroactive history is doing is dealing with Western fear of Islam, not as a contestant in the making of civilisation but as an agent of insurgency, retrogress, chaos.

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