Tractatus Politico-Religiosus

The Second Tractatus: From 25 January to 30 June in four sentences: on Egypt’s two revolutions

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1 Newton’s third law of motion: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.
2 For nearly three years the triumph of the 25 January uprising involved the Egyptian constituency in a series of conflicts, protests and counterprotests in which the action repeatedly pitted the army as the sole remaining representative of the state against political Islam.
2.1 In the period 25 January-11 February 2011, protesters (including Islamists) were credited with bringing down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. They had no leadership or ideology, and their slogan — “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” — could conceivably be grafted onto a communist or fascist system just as well as on the liberal democracy they were demanding.

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The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt

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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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Fuloulophobia: What I talk about when I talk about 30 June

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Nearly a week ago, some little known Kuwaiti newspaper reported that President Mohamed Morsi had negotiated, it wasn’t clear with whom, “a safe exit deal” for himself and 50 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — in anticipation of 30 June.

It was obvious misinformation but it was tempting to believe, partly because it suggested the very implausible prospect of the MB leaving power peacefully, lending credence to the idea that 30 June will be “the end of the MB” anyhow.

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All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad

Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.

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In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?

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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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Spaceship Living: Abu Dhabi Fair Grounds, Four Years On

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Library of Dreams, The National, February, 2009

Just a few short weeks ago, a scene much like the opening of Kafka’s The Trial marked the beginning of the end of my year-long life in Abu Dhabi: Someone must have been telling lies about Youssef R, for without having done anything wrong he was divested of his belongings one fine evening. His Tamil cleaner, who should have been there to oversee the procedure, failed to appear. That was totally unexpected. R was lounging about with two American friends, watching Barack Obama’s inauguration on TV, when two men, having mysteriously arrived at his apartment, found their way straight into the room without knocking or ringing the door bell, which was out of order anyway.

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On Fiction and the Caliphate

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Map of Cairo as tugra or Ottoman sultan’s seal

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

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Nukhba? Who the fuck is Nukhba? – Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution

Eat your words

Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution

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Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.

Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?

Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.

It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.

What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.

But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.

The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.

Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?

As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.

Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.

For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…

As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.

Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)

Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.

Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.

Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.

When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.

Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.

Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.

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Virtual Palestinians: From Sabra and Chatila to Arab Spring

On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries

“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
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For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…

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When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.

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A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?

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I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.

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The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?

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Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.

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Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?

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I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.

Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation

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Tahrir and its discontents

Responding to recent Facebook “notes” by the poet Mohab Nasr — an Alexandrian schoolteacher turned Kuwait-based journalist and, since 25 January, perhaps the most honest critic of the Egyptian human being — Youssef Rakha unpacks the concept of the People

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Back in January, my friend Mohab (b. 1962) was more sceptical than I was about what was then called, without the least hesitation, Revolution. Today, in his own profoundly dusky way, Mohab is more enthusiastic about social-political transformation than I am. He is less shocked by the de facto alliance of the military and political Islam, the marginalization if not the liquidation of true revolutionaries across the country, the way in which the martyrs are betrayed not only by politicians but also by the Silent Majority — hizb al kanabah, or “the Couch Party”, as he and many others have designated the greater number of Egyptians. If people want the Islamists or condone their rise to power, he seems to say, let people have the Islamists. And let everyone, including Intellectuals like you and me, face up to the reality of our collective existence (which is an attribute of the human condition, after all). Let us accept responsibility for being part of this society, confront our historical failure to make a difference, our irrelevance, instead of taking cover in inevitably opportunistic abstractions like Individuality, Culture or Opposition, all the while having a Corrupt Regime to complain about while we do so. Since January, Mohab has come back to Egypt only once, in spring. At no point did he participate in the protests or witness the carnage perpetrated by the police (and later also the army), which partly explains the difference in timing. Now firmly secular, Mohab was once — briefly — a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria: another reason for variation in perspective. Yet there is a sense in which what he has to say about the events of 2011 tallies with my experience of them. Like me he is less interested in the political move than the mind that makes it, and — even more so — the Majority’s response. A lot of what he attributes specifically to Egyptians applies to people anywhere in our times, I feel; yet his remarks about the reasons behind the outcome of the Tahrir protests are so insightful and heartfelt, and his disgust with al muthaqqafin or the intelligentsia so justified, he makes timely sense.


The longest article Mohab has written on the subject, “Society of Hooligans, Hooligan State”, attempts to demarcate the political space in which Egyptians can function, describing a global order, as he puts it, that only lets you “say them and us” so long as saying it remains a variation on the brand-name, multinational theme, or an exotic label therein. You are allowed to set yourself apart, in other words, only in the most vapid (hence harmless) way, “in a metaphorical way, as a sort of cheap compensation for being on a lower rung of the ladder”. Not to condone the foul crimes of a Saddam, a Muammar or a Bashar, the better you understand this the more successful you are, whether you are a government or an oppositional organisation. The Muslim Brothers, Mohab states with astounding accuracy, are in precisely the position of the pragmatic underdog: their identity-mongering has not for a moment prevented them from being “wholly integrated into the greater compound” of world capitalism; the implication, more or less stated later in the article, is that the only possible meaning Islam could have in present-day politics is no meaning at all: “Identity as an idea about the past is a pit… Those who claim that identity [Islam] is the answer cite as their pretext societies that have made achievements on the basis of identity [the West]; they conveniently forget that those societies used identity as mere propaganda, throwing it away once it conflicted with capitalist interests.” In an addendum prompted by one intellectual’s infuriatingly complacent comment on this “note”, Mohab condemns the poeticised (as opposed to poetic) sensibility, which has not only divested the Egyptian intellectual of all moral (as opposed to merely aesthetic) commitment but also confined them to an exclusively discursive and “personal” space, promoting opportunism at the individual level while blocking the way to any possible greater good, let alone an effective social or even political role. In this, he implies, the Islamists — aside from their fundamental moral and historical contradictions — have surpassed the intelligentsia: they formed a sustained group that could reach out to the Majority, because they remained in touch with reality and attuned their discourse to it.

But it is about said Majority that Mohab makes the most interesting points. The currency of religion as the only facet of moral or intellectual activity, for example, is seen as an extension of the evasive, cowardly and criminally selfish values adopted by the middle-class nuclear family whose civil servant patriarch “has brought up his son to bow down, a bow that remains with him for life, marking souls that live in anticipation of a slap,” he writes in “The Corrupt Couch Party”. “That is why their religiosity is but a deep fear [divested of any sense of] a whole Spirit that unifies existence… Those are people who watched the rise of the Nasserist bourgeois without bothering to change their pyjamas, and when they at last replaced them, they put on a galabeya instead. They accepted sycophancy to the boss as respect, silence in the face of injustice as a ‘nature’ they deserved… They were educated because education, not knowledge, could be their means to the job… They understood knowing as having authority, not enjoying discovery; as lionisation, not creativity.” It is only natural, Mohab contends, that the progeny of such people will be at best indifferent to the prospect of social transformation, especially one that involves risk — and, for the most part, they were. In “Can the Revolution Be Against the People?”, the most recent of the “notes” he has written, Mohab points out that the millions who rallied around a hard core of true revolutionaries were not as revolutionary as they; they were merely, manically happy with “the moment of kicking the father out of the house”. That moment, at which otherwise Couch vegetables (or some of them) were possessed by an energy beyond their nature, is no indication of a genuine support base for transformation that works. Much as they seemed to be there, much as it hurts to admit it, the People were not in Tahrir. They were there, as it were, incidentally. The People were in Tahrir as anti-protest thugs and informers and witnesses as well as being there as protesters; they were not always or often or at all in Tahrir. Much like intellectuals who experience reality as aesthetic discourse, the People lived the revolution as momentary release.

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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The National: A civilisation under glass

At Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, Youssef Rakha wonders when ‘Islamic’ came to mean ‘antique’.

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Last week when I went to preview the new Doha Museum of Islamic Art, it did not occur to me to ask why objects and buildings from different cultures, both secular and religious, are referred to collectively as Islamic (this is true even in Muslim countries). Since the galleries were not yet open even to journalists, I took in what I could of the magnificent exhibits from behind glass doors, took pride in the range and the power of my heritage, and eventually took the plane home.

When I returned, a Western colleague asked me: What is it that makes an art object Islamic – even when it is secular? Works of art and architecture in the West are rarely exhibited as “Christian” – even when they are overtly religious. “It’s generic,” I responded, reflexively: a thing is called Islamic to indicate that it was produced under the rubric of a civilisation, a culture, other than the one predominant today – in many ways the only civilisation now, one that happens to be Christian in origin. Modern and contemporary works by Muslim artists are not usually referred to as “Islamic”, even when they have religious connotations, so the use of the term “Islamic” to refer to objects like chandeliers, statuettes, scientific manuscripts, carpets and other artefacts that have no religious content would suggest that the word, in this context, indicates that these are relics of the past.

That night I recalled the chapter of Istanbul: Memories of the City in which Orhan Pamuk remarks that, while growing up in the republican (hence vehemently secular) upper class of 1950s Turkey, it was unclear to him why he was supposed to reject anything Islamic. The only justification he was offered was that religion, and the religion of the Ottomans specifically, impeded progress. As per the essentially authoritarian dictates of the Father of the Turk, Mustafa Kemal – himself, ironically, a native of Salonika in present-day Greece, with no more claim to Turkic ancestry than any Muslim anywhere in the myriad lands formerly comprising the Ottoman Empire – to be modern, intelligent, educated, evolved, even to be benevolent or respectable, you had to be of the West.

Pamuk never poses the question, but I wonder whether, had the European powers defined themselves explicitly as Christian, Ataturk would have ordered a mass conversion to Protestantism.

As it was, he prohibited the broadcast of Eastern music or Quranic recitation on the radio, closed down the dervish lodges, silenced the azan, disinherited men of religion, and effected the irrevocable divorce of the Ottomans’ direct heirs from the great literary traditions of Farsi and Arabic by switching to the Latin alphabet. He abolished all those incredibly sophisticated turbans, and forcibly replaced the fez, that unique trope of Muslim modernity, with the hat of the common white man.

It was all in the name of progress – and nationalism, another European import, perhaps the most destructive of all. But nationalism (irony of ironies) was not a theory anyone could apply without recourse to religious affiliation. When all was said and done, in the Ottoman scheme of things, nothing unified the Sultan’s Muslim subjects apart from the faith. There were those with their own languages, nationalisms and territories newly granted by the British and the French. But the subjects who remained in Constantinople and Anatolia, those who spoke Arabised and Persianised varieties of the ancient Turkic tongues, had no sense of collective identity or a common ethnic root. The only thing that could qualify them to be citizens of that modern republic to which the First World War reduced the devleti aliya, or the Sublime State, was the religion that they were urged not to practice. To be a good (that is, non-Muslim) Turk, by the logic of the Ata, you must first be a real (that is, Muslim) Turk.

So much for nationalism. Turkey had been on my mind in Qatar because the highlight of the museum, for me, was a firman, or royal decree, of Sulaiman the Magnificent, heir to the combined glories of his father Selim the Grim (who took Egypt) and his great grandfather Mehmed the Conqueror (who took Istanbul). As Caliph, Sulaiman was the closest thing to a worldly embodiment of the deeply moving Quranic verse with which Pamuk prefaced My Name is Red: “To God belongs the East and the West”.

That verse becomes doubly moving once you realise, as a Muslim living in the shadow of post-Christian civilisation, that there was once a time when the predominant culture was that of the faith into which you were born. Under Sulaiman, the word “Islamic” could viably lay claim to the world in the way “Western” does today, normatively categorise it, and in so doing produce such jaw-dropping objects as the scroll of that firman, its bottom quarter sealed with one of the most beautiful images I have seen in my life: the tughra, or abstracted calligraphic monogram, of the Sultan, which manages to compress the words “Sulaiman the son of Selim Shah Khan, victorious forever” into a single sign.

The real question raised by the term “Islamic art” is how Muslims in the contemporary world might strive to be part of the predominant, post-Christian civilisation without losing, à la Ataturk, all that is meaningful to them. Islamic is a difficult framework in which to define your make-up precisely because it is so hard to say how, in an increasingly uniform, identically global world, Muslims might nonetheless positively affirm their identity.

It would have to be in a very subtle way, perhaps through a shift in world view, maybe a willingness to be more catholic at a time when the contemporary world is so mechanically narrow, to make room for contradictions, to understand and accommodate the impulses to violence that have more recently stunted Muslim progress, rather than attempting to exterminate them. Islam, and especially its Ottoman incarnation, demonstrated remarkable scope for tolerance, realism and exchange. How might this repository of constructive memory enrich humanity today?

There are as many responses to this question as there are Muslims, from the most secular to the most devout; and the Doha museum, an initiative to preserve heritage and make it globally accessible in the framework of a Western-style institution, is certainly one of them. But the response this Muslim wants to suggest, in the Sufi tradition of speaking through a veil, is a riddle:

Between the East and the West there is an object in common. It exists in both but can be found whole in neither. It is something that people seek. Once you have it, you will have the power to see human beings, lucidly and insightfully, as human beings, to interact with them in a way that is beneficial to all, and to realise that the rifts between them are mere shadows. Once you have the object, you will find a way to transcend without looking down on the day job, the chores of house, finance and family. The pursuit of fun becomes not an escape from reality but a way of engaging with it. But those who are aware of only the East – or only the West – have no chance of finding the object.

A hint: the answer to the riddle is Islamic.

See also: http://www.thenational.ae/article/20081120/ART/513431811

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