Reading the senior journalist Hisham Melhem’s recent obituary of Arab civilization, one is compelled to ask when it was ever alive. Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 September
The Nowhere, Cairo 2014. By Youssef Rakha
“No one paradigm or one theory can explain” the jihadi barbarians, not at, but within the Arabs’ gates. So says Hisham Melhem, an older writer, in Politico magazine this week, summing up the failure of modern “Arab civilization” with admirable level-headedness. His point would be too obvious if it wasn’t so uniformly lost on neoliberal analysts and apologists for religious identity: the Islamic State did not fall from the sky. It grew out of the “rotting, empty hulk” of societies routed no less by the “stagnant, repressive and patriarchal” authoritarianism of military regimes than the politicized religiosity seeking to replace them. Like its ideological archenemy, namely political Islam, Arab nationalism too expresses “atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past”.
But who’s to say these two ideologies do not accurately reflect all that the Arab masses hold dear, i.e., what world community leaders would call “the Arab peoples’ legitimate aspirations”? As a younger observer, I cannot help seeing that, since the end of Ottoman times, only a negative sense of collective identity has mobilized a given Arab people at a given point in history. Embodied in revolutionary leaders like Nasser or resistance movements like Hezbollah, such rallying cries rarely pointed to a positive or constructive cause that did not turn out to be part of a propaganda campaign (Hamas’s August “victory” over Israel is a case in point). What Melhem does not say is that, in as much as it exists at all, post-Ottoman Arabic-speaking civilization has only ever operated against others, if not the occupier then non-Muslim or non-Sunni citizens of its own states, if not “Zionists and imperial Crusaders” then infidels at large.
The Second Tractatus: From 25 January to 30 June in four sentences: on Egypt’s two revolutions
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.
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.
What I talk about when I talk about 30 June
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution
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?
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
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.