A Kind of Linguistic Caliphate: In Conversation with Hilary Plum

6 Mar 2015 by Hilary Plum

I first learned of Youssef Rakha’s work in June 2011, when Anton Shammas wrote me with an unprecedentedly urgent recommendation. I was an editor with Interlink Publishing, which has been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1987: here was a writer who, as Shammas would later put it, with his debut novel had claimed “an immediate spot at the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” With The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha has, in Shammas’s words, “[realized] at long last, one of the dreams of modern Arabic novelists since the mid nineteenth century: to formulate a seamless style of modern narration that places the novel in the world.” The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Kitab at-Tughra) had been published in February 2011, coincident with the beginning of revolution in Cairo, and over the following years, as I awaited its translation with the impatience the monolingual are doomed to endure, rumors of the novel continually, insistently arrived. I can only suggest that the anticipation I felt then is the anticipation literature in English does not yet know it has been feeling, the lack from which it’s been suffering, and which these two novels will answer in force.
In one of those lucky moments when publishing just gets things right, this winter offers readers in English Rakha’s first two novels at once: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey and published by Interlink, and The Crocodiles, translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories. Sultan’s Seal moves us exhilaratingly through the Cairo of 2007, city of post-9/11 Islam, sweeping through centuries of Arab and Ottoman history and into a future of Rakha’s own invention. The Crocodiles takes us up to the brink of 2011, spinning the history of a secret poetry society in Cairo, gorgeous in its fury, hope, and despair. Rakha’s arrival in English constitutes an event. It’s been my pleasure to speak with Youssef about his work.

Hilary Plum: Let’s start with your first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, just out in English, in Paul Starkey’s wonderful translation. In my work as an editor with Interlink Publishing, I’ve been lucky to be reading and rereading this novel for several years. This was an exceptionally challenging work for Paul Starkey to translate, since the Arabic undertakes a breadth of linguistic experimentation and intertextual references—to diverse works from the Arabic canon, medieval to present-day—that no other language could really reproduce. And yet, here we are, with this book in our hands. I wonder if you could talk to us, your English-language readers, about the experiments you enacted in the Arabic original, creating a style of narration for the novel that you’ve sometimes called “a contemporary equivalent of ‘middle Arabic’.” What drove you toward this endeavor? And what has it been like for you to see this novel come into being in English?

Youssef Rakha: There were two things I wanted to do with The Seal. The first—and maybe it wasn’t the first when I was writing but now that I’m moving into English, kind of the way you move into a house, I like to think it was the first—is that I wanted, from where I was, in post-millennial Cairo, to be part of the larger conversation that is the contemporary novel. By that I mean quite simply world literature today, which though still dominated by a more or less “Eurocentric” ethos is no longer particularly European, and though rife with death-of-the-novel discourse is actually irrevocably novel-bound.

I would argue that the literary conversation that expresses itself in this form was always hybrid and “globalized,” never so far from Arabic as to make it “foreign” to literate Arabs or vice versa, but that is hardly the point.

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Kali: A Poem

“Oh, the fire of my guts…”

Umar Ibn Al Farid


The Hindus have a goddess who vomits snakes
Who’s wreathed in severed heads (her hair oil:
Brain paste) and lays down mass graves
For fun.
They believe that all that checks her evil
Is waterfalls of blood.

If you approached this goddess,
If you entered her circle,
If you knelt before the sundered limbs,
Hanging at her chin,
You’d see the opening of her mouth beneath her eyes,
two quarries of fire:
A well lined with knives.

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