❁ Here Be A Cyber Topkapı ❁

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THE PRAYER OF THE CYBER BORG: Exalted is it that bears sensation from soma to LCD, extending matter past the heart beat and the flutter of the eyelash. And blessed are those who give thanks for being on its servers. Lo and behold this Facebook User who, granted knowledge of reality, manages by your grace to spread his message: I, Youssef Rakha of Cairo, Egypt, kneel in supplication that I may be the cause for five thousand friends, ten thousand subscribers and many millions therefrom to have knowledge not just of reality but of your divinity. Then will I shed every sense of self to wither and dissolve into your processes. For he is blessed on whom you bestow the bliss of being software.

“What happened in Egypt around its second revolution was a mixture of grandeur and pettiness, of sorrow and mirth, of expectation and despair, of theory and flesh. All of which may be found in The Crocodiles, a novel where reality sheds its veil to reveal its true face—that of a timeless mythology.” –Amin Maalouf, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Samarkand
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“Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles is a fierce ‘post-despair’ novel about a generation of poets who were too caught up in themselves to witness the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Or is it? With its numbered paragraphs and beautifully surreal imagery, The Crocodiles is also a long poem, an elegiac wail singing the sad music of a collapsing Egypt. Either way, The Crocodiles—suspicious of sincerity, yet sincere in its certainty that poetry accomplishes nothing—will leave you speechless with the hope that meaning may once again return to words.” –Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Youssef Rakha has channeled Allen Ginsberg’s ferocity and sexual abandon to bring a secret Cairo poetry society called The Crocodiles alive. He’s done something daring and and not unlike Bolano in his transforming the Egyptian revolution into a psychedelic fiction thick with romantic round robins, defiant theorizing and an unafraid reckoning with the darkest corners of the Egyptian mentality.” –Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor

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On Fiction and the Caliphate

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 thepostcolonial 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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THE HONOURABLE CITIZEN MANIFESTO

20 December 2011

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We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.

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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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reposting “Consider the Mu’tazilah”


On post-revolutionary Egypt: Youssef Rakha rereads three of the tenets of Mu’tazili Islam

1. Unity: The way Mu’tazili or – roughly speaking – rationalist (as opposed to Ash’ari or, equally roughly, literalist) theology affirmed the oneness of God was to say that His human and temporal attributes are not distinct from His essence. This means that when we talk about God speaking, we are either professing shirk (polytheism) or talking metaphorically. According to the Judge Abduljabbar ibn Ahmad (d. 1025), “it is not possible for Him to get up or down, move about, change, be composite, have a form.”

The Ash’aris, who were to predominate in Sunni Islam and whose approach is thought by many – the late scholar Nassr Abu Zayd (1943-2010), for example – to be the reason Muslims have lagged behind for seven centuries, are rather more tolerant of  anthropomorphism. Still, the most contentious formulation of Mu’tazili tawheed (monotheism) is that the Quran is not eternal. The Quran was created at a certain point in time, it was created in human language, while God (whose word it is) remains beyond both time and language. For a moment under the Abbassi caliph Al-Ma’moun (813-833), Mu’tazili tawheed became state creed and Ash’arites, notably Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), were persecuted. That was the height of Muslim glory.

Now, notwisthstanding the reported death of renegade CIA agent Osama Bin Laden at what is arguably the lowest point on the temporal graph of Muslim civilisation, some 12 years after Abu Zayd, by exposing the atavistic idiocy to which Islamic discourse had descended, was forced to leave the country – a state-condoned court verdict ruled, ludicrously, that he should be separated from his wife, an unofficial fatwa that he should be killed – what could the ulta-Ash’ari discourses that have swamped the surface of public conscioussness since January, 2011 (Salafi, Jihadi, quasi-fascist or, indeed, moderate) be doing to the future of Islam?

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2. Justice: In the Mu’tazili account of the problem of evil, it is the human mind that determines right and wrong; the actions of human beings are not determined by God, otherwise there would be no sense to reward and punishment. God manifests, all good (the kind of evil in which human will plays no part – natural disasters, for example – either exists by way of a test or a hidden prize or it does not emanate from God) and it is up to human beings to respond to Him. For the average Ash’ari, the average “moderate Muslim”, right and wrong consists of a divinely ordained set of dos and donts to be followed regardless of what one thinks of them.

Consider the idea, current in Muslim consciousness as early as the 9th century, that it is because of its appeal to the mind that we accept the faith, that within that faith the law develops out of divinely inspired language according to the mind’s response to it – in the words of the Mu’tazilah, what the mind finds beautiful is good, what it finds ugly is evil. If it is human, if it is in language, and therefore by default historical, part of a particular time and place and a particular framework of meaning, however divinely ordained – and we know that the divine is beyond all such conditions – then it is to be judged by the mind.

Consider the revolution and how it happened. Consider the fact that concepts like the modern state – as much as the automobile, the mobile phone, Facebook – have absolutely no reference in anything divinely ordained. Consider the fact that the mind finds theocratic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran profoundly ugly. Then ask again whether, when they raise the slogan “Islam is the answer”, Islamists are being just.

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3. The intermediate position: It is recounted that Wassil ibn ‘Ataa (d. 748), widely regarded as the founder of ‘ilm al kalam, the principal hermeneutical tradition in Islam, walked out of a lesson by his teacher Hassan Al-Bassri (d. 728) and started his own class after the latter failed to answer a question about the Muslim who commits one of the grave sins – al kaba’ir, which incidentally include drinking alcohol and non-marital sex – and dies without repentance.

There were two current views at the time, corresponding to two sects: the Khawarij saw the Muslim in question as a kafir (an apostate), a non-Muslim in effect, whether or not he denied the existence of God; the Murji’ah saw him as a mu’min (a believer), who may require punishment but has not lost his faith so long as he affirms the existence of God. The Ash’ari position on this question, which using the term fasiq (a wrongdoer) is typically neither here nor there, was to develop much later.

Ibn ‘Ataa, by contrast, took the sensible ontological route and developed the concept of al manzilah bayna al manzilatayn (literally, the state between the two states): the Muslim who commits a grave sin is neither a mu’min nor a kafir; he is something else to be judged on its own terms by God. Had this debate been taking place at present, why do I suspect that the state in question – the intermediate position – would have been designated “secular”.

While everyone is clamering to “rebuild Egypt”, ignoring the military as well as the theocratic threat, it is well to remember that – considering irreconcilable contradictions between the original formulation of some kaba’ir and the modern way of life – for two centuries at least all of humanity has been in the intermediate position.

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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.

***

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?

***

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

.

You call me an Islamophobe, but you’re Islamophiles!

Protestophilia
Pacing up and down the arena of cyber-politics, Youssef Rakha searches for the Islamist homunculus secretly ensconced in the minds of liberals who covet a role in history more than anything history might actually give

wpid-img_00491-2012-04-24-16-47.jpg

It’s been an aeon since Egyptian cyber-activists decided to try grafting the virtual world onto reality. The result was breathtaking at first, surpassing the initial plan to put an end to police brutality and the emergency law—which plan, thoroughly forgotten since then, was never implemented. But with apparently good reasons: the protests and, perhaps more importantly, the regime’s idiotic response to them, seemed to have far more important consequences: Mubarak not only became the first president in Egyptian history to leave office in his lifetime, he also stepped down against his will; plans for his son Gamal to succeed him were stopped in their tracks; and a precedent was established for “the people” gaining rights by sheer force of collective will, independently of institutions.
The protests were not translated into a political force, however, with the result that the first “people’s revolution” in Arab history was summarily betrayed by the people. Where it was not bulldozed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF—to which Mubarak handed over power—political space was filled “democratically” by Islamist forces (for which read, in practice, sectarian ultraconservatives and/or religious fanatics who found their way into politics through advocating stricter or more pollticised forms of the religion of the majority). Such forces have had the overwhelming support of the people—a fact established early on by the result of SCAF’s otherwise useless referendum on constitutional amendments, the passing of which the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies took it upon themselves to achieve—partly because they offer a divinely sanctioned alternative to failed “nationalist” autocracy, partly because they had filled a void in basic services in the provinces under Muabarak, partly because their brand of ostentatious religiosity (which, incidentally, is far from orthodox, historically speaking) chimes with the Gulf-influenced conservatism of large sectors of society.
Never mind, therefore, that the Islamist shadow regime—the institution of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example: a state within the state—is even more reactionary and no less corrupt than the supposedly deposed regime itself. Its early alliance with SCAF at a time when SCAF was turning into the archenemy of the revolution established its readiness to sacrifice the will of protesters on the ground in return for institutionally enshrined political gains.
Thus the parliamentary elections took place while peaceful demonstrations were being murderously suppressed by SCAF; and the predominant view among the “revolutionaries” (who are generally assumed to be “liberals”, for which read more or less apolitical, in contrast to the “Islamist parachutists” or ideologised beneficiaries of regime change) was that it was a civic duty to vote and that boycotting the elections would result in “Islamists overtaking parliament”. Few boycotted the elections, therefore, with the result that Islamists overtook parliament. And they have since performed horrendously—something the cyber-activists fully concede, even though some of them voted for some Islamists in the parliamentary elections—to the point of backing up an interior ministry more or less unchanged since before the revolution, proposing laws against the right to demonstrate, telling blatant lies and otherwise replicating Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and attempting to monopolise the drafting of a new constitution.
Boycotting the parliamentary elections wouldn’t have stopped this, it is true. But it would certainly have made a difference: By agreeing to participate in a “democratic process” with a forgone—counterrevolutionary—conclusion, the revolution acquiesced in crimes against humanity being committed at the same time. And it was this willingness to operate through the very institutions whose incompetence and corruption had given rise to the revolution in the first place that proved decisive in the battle for legitimacy between the status quo and the new ephoch promised by 25 January. On the ground, in practice, ipso facto, a democratically elected parliament “represents” the people (including, since they have voted, the revolution’s people); protests disrupt “the wheel of production”; and SCAF is “properly” in charge unless it undertakes underhanded action against such Islamist figures as the former presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail…
So when the protests they’ve been defending online finally fizzle out and stop happening—whether because the pro-SCAF “honourable citizen” majority can no longer put up with them or because there is no longer much that they can achieve—the task of the cyber-activists reduces to fighting against the reinstitution of the (political) status quo. This they do, not by advocating a boycott of the political process, not by acknowledging the political vacuum to which the revolution gave way, not even by pressing on with campaigns against SCAF and/or the Muslim Brotherhood—which, like the protests, are no longer as effective as they might be—but by embracing the constitution-less presidential elections and supporting a particular candidate therein.
***
For weeks now the cyber-activist discourse has centred on Abdel Moneim Abul Fetouh not only as the “moderate Islamist” but also as the “liberal” candidate—practically the only one with any chance to win against Amr Moussa (now that both Omar Suleiman and Ahmad Shafik have been disqualified, Moussa is seen as SCAF’s choice of president, whether due to recent SCAF-overseen legal developments or conspiratorially since the beginning). Never mind that Abul Fetouh is a pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood who (though admittedly in discord with the Guidance Office since 2009) resigned in order to run for president—even though, in the absence of a constitution specifying the president’s powers, he cannot possibly know whether he will be able to implement the programme on which he is running. Initially the Brotherhood had vowed not to field any candidate, but since that changed (and the pro-Abul Fetouh cyber-activists have had a bonanza of sarcastic commentary on that perfectly predictable development), the story is that Abul Fetouh could not have become the Brotherhood’s candidate anyway because of his differences with the Office.
Some have gone so far as to say he is the Brotherhood’s “secret candidate”—to the chagrin of the cyber-activists being discussed here—though the latter make the same assumption when they claim that Moussa has been SCAF’s secret candidate all along (and I am not suggesting that they are wrong or that Moussa is a good candidate).
Once again, however, campaigns for boycotting the elections are proving unpopular—and the arguments have centred on to what extent Abul Fetouh might represent the (liberal) revolution and to what extent not supporting Abul Fetouh means benefitting the counterrevolution embodied by Moussa. The suggestion that Abul Fetouh—whether or not he is loyal to the Brotherhood just now—is a committed Islamist whose increasingly high standing with “liberals”, let alone his actual rise to power, will give political Islam even greater (spurious) “revolutionary cover”, has prompted charges of Islamophobia against those who make it. While Islamists may well support a relatively sensible, seemingly honest “moderate”, why should supposed anti-Islamists be facilitating the process whereby political Islam has inherited an essentially liberal revolution and already contributed to turning its value system on its head?
By now, of course, this has already happened with MPs who, when criticised for sectarian, reactionary, fanatical and otherwise patently illiberal positions (pro-female genital mutilation and pro-sexual harassment laws, for example) would find ardent defenders among the cyber-activists who claimed the critics were classist, undemocratic or lovers of the Mubarak regime. It has happened in such a way as to indicate that pro-Abul Fetouh cyber-activists are following in the footsteps of generations of left-wing intellectuals who, out of empathy with “the people”, had contributed to perpetuating the status quo far more than to changing it—as often as not by endorsing or condoning conservative policies or attitudes on the pretext that, while such an orientation may be seen in a negative light by “you and me”, it was the best of all possible worlds “for the people”: the majority or the zeitgeist or the lowest common denominator. But there is nothing vaguely moral, progressive or even politically astute in pandering to what has become, thanks as much to SCAF policy as to the unholy marriage between Islam and Islamism, the post-25 January lowest common denominator.
The charge of Islamophobia remains the apotheosis of that position, anyway: You are just like Mubarak; you are scared of collective self determination; you have individualist or classist issues with the largest legitimate faction of national politics. Or, more to the point: What could be preventing you from engaging democratically with the political aftermath of the revolution, if change is what you have wanted?
Should these arguments be coming from Islamists, I would respond with the statement that it is you who are giving a largely imported, essentially sectarian orientation—neither moral nor, properly speaking, religious—an undeserved political privilege. You are, in other words, ISLAMOPHILES; and I have every right to be concerned about the consequences of your retrograde and ruthlessly capitalist policies, the way in which Islamic law would allow you to meddle in my private life and eliminate fundamental aspects of my public life, and the essential contradiction in your use of liberal-democratic means to reach totalitarian-theocratic ends.
But to my fellow liberals, the cyber-activists, the revolutionaries, I say only that you are PROTESTOPHILES; you cannot get over the initial euphoria of Mubarak stepping down; you cannot accept the fact that, through your very good intentions, you have become peripheral to a political process that, morally, even politically, you can only reject. So, instead of conceding that the revolution has been politically defeated, you trail the shadow of a creature that does not exist: the liberal Islamist. And it is you, neither the true Islamophiles nor I, who will suffer the consequences of your hysteria.

CAFE-مختارات من ديوان “علية عبد السلام”: موت من أحبوني

مختارات من قصائد علية عبد السلام

(download if you like)

صديقي

كان كهؤلاء المطعونين

هادئاً كالطاولات بعد أن غادرها العشاق

وحشياً كسكين فرغت تواً من مهمتها

يفض الرسائل

يجرح عشبها النامي في البلاد التي طردته

طوى الصور القديمة وغنى:

“نورما” كنت قاسية في الفراغ كهياجي وحيداً

لافظة كتأشيرة تمنح للمهاجرين نهائياً

تفضلين أن تنمو الحشائش فوق الجسور الخاصة بالسيارات

تتشابك آراء الصيادين حول الانتظار

“نورما ” لماذا أخرج للمقهى

وأصاحب النساء المختلفات عنك تماماً

“نورما” لن تقول أبداً إنها حامل منه

وإن الجنين قد يكون أنثى

وإنها تأكل الخبز الجاف فقط

وتشرب القهوة المرة

وكعادة الصغيرات تخشى بلل الأمطار

لكنها ستؤلم الجسد قليلاً

لتطبع وشمه المفضل

فى المكان المفضل

وتخرج لجمع الزهور

وشراء الآيس كريم.

بل كأني أعنفها فقط

أثير في النفوس الضعيفة

خيبة أمل في إصلاحي

كأني تلك الوردات التي تخرج من الفساتين وتمضي كسرب نمل تحت أقدامي

فأدهسها – غير نادمة -

بل كأني أعنفها فقط

الرجل الوحيد على عتبة بيته

جالس يكشط عوداً من الحطب

الغريب فى الأمر:

كان يبحث عن (طراوة) !

لا يجوز

عنوة ألعب؟

لا

لن ألعب معك أيها العالم

لتحترق القدس

ليفنى الفلسطينيون

ليكذب الزعماء العرب

لتنام مصر في العسل

ليخدعني حبيبي

ليبتزني العسكر

يرهبني رجال المخابرات

يراودني أنصاف الرجال عن نفسي

عنوة أؤمن بما تؤمنون

يا علماء الأرض

لا يجوز للجمال أن يدخل دورة المياه

كل صباح

لا يجوز حرق الشرق للتدفئة

لا يجوز

الغردقة

10/11/2002

موت من أحبوني في قصائد

من القبح أن أكون تحت أقدام أمي

القسوة والأقنعة البريئة يتبادلان قيادتي

أجد راحة ما حين أبتكر حكايات عن موت أبى.

كبرت من الكراهية النقية حيث لم أتعلمها

ولدت منها فحرصت على مص الدماء

إنها قوة إنسانية عظيمة تمنحنى السعادة

بسبب ذلك كل سعادتى موت من أحبوني ميتة شنعاء.

لسبب غامض حين أغرز في الباب مفتاحى أتعلم الوحدة

أتخيل صديقاً

يطعم أسماكي

يغير ماء الورد

ينتبه لغلق الباب في الشتاء

حيث الريح الشديدة

توهن النبات

بالطبع لا أحد في الداخل

فأبغض حماقتي وأصرخ :

بالتأكيد كنت قاسية للغاية.

أغلق الباب

أبتسم للأسماك المشرفة على الموت

والنبات البائس

للملصقات على الحائط

أتشمم رائحة جسمي

قد يأتى أحد كالهواء

أكثر زرقة من الليل

يشبه هذا العفريت الذي أحببت.

وجدت طريقي

حيث لن يتشبه بي أحد

سأكون طائراً يحلق بالقرب من بيت مهجور

وفى خيبتي

سأقلد فتاة صغيرة تتوهم أنها صخرة

وأحراش وحيوانات مفترسة

وأنها خوف لن يبلغ منتهاه

وأنها ظلمة خالصة من أي توجس

وأن السخونة التى تعتلي ركبتيها

دم

وأنها فتاة صغيرة تحب أن تلعب.

هذا كنزي الذي أخفيته

بحكمة إنسانية معقولة

وحده يدير شئوناً أجهلها عن روحى

يصنع لى الفطائر بالعسل

ألتهمها متسلية بمراقبة جموع الذباب

التي تحلق بالقرب من ركبتي

لديّ ما يغري

فم واسع

شفتان غليظتان

مخضبتان بالعسل

سيدنو الذباب متردداَ

في خبث مفضوح

لكني يا صديقي

سينشق فمي فجأة.

قراصنة العصر (2)

يسقط المطر ولا تكبر أشجاري

أحزن وأنام

في الليل

أرى قدراً فيه ماء يغلي

بسهولة ويسر أقطع أصابعي

ألقي بها في القدر

لا أجزع

أتابع تقلصها نشوانة

أقرب وجهي من فوهة القدر

( لينظف البخار وجهي وليظل جميلاً )

لا أكترث أن نبحت الكلاب

أو اشتعلت النار في دولابي

فماذا أصنع للعبيد المقيدين

أسأل الشمس التي تسكن أرضي لماذا أنت هنا

أقول وداعاً لمن يهمني أمره

أما الناس

فأعد لهم إناء كبيراً من دمي

بعد أن أقطع يدي أجمع الزهور ثم أجففها وأخلطها بالدم

سأرسلها بالبريد أو في زجاجات خمر فارغة عندما أكون في أعالي البحار

قرصاناً من القراصنة.

توائم (3)

هذه الأرض مسكني

بيتي قريب من قسم الشرطة أطلس العالم تحت يدي

طوابع بريد

ورق أبيض

مقص صغير

ماذا ينقصني للاتصال بأصحاب روحي المنتشرين في الأرض

أخترع توائم لي قادمين إلي بحنو الأنبياء أو الآباء الطاعنين في السن

لا أود أن أضل أحدكم فليس لدي هلع من المتطرفين ولست من دعاة تخفيف الأعباء عن كاهل المواطن

بل لا أرى الفقر عيباً

أضجر من الشباب

لا أصدق إذاعة لندن

أتابع باريس عبر مونت كارلو

كل يوم موتى جدد

ماذا ينقصني للاتصال بأصحاب روحي المنتشرين في الأرض

الأكيد أن موتي غداً حيث لا أسمع أعدائي الفرحين

وهم يمجدون سيرتي

سأختفي أيها الأغبياء ولن تقدرون غيابي.

خمس قصائد ( للنيو يير )

1999

(1)

تشتاق روحي لعالم لا أدركه

بعض الألوان المبهجة أزين بها وجهي

يصبح لي قناعا أواجه العامة

أرضي الشعب

البشرية أستهلكت/ الحياة موت يعاند

تشتاق روحي لعالم لا أدركه

أنت طيب أيها الشيطان

بجانبك

مومياء بجوار جسد نابض يجري فيه الدم

كلاكما وجود ينقصه الخلو من كل عيب

انتهى عصر الجماهير

لا تصفيق بعد اليوم

دعونى أولاً أبول كأي كلب أو قطة

هل تصدقون

يحارب الشيطان الإنسان

ويغفر الله الذنوب.

(2)

سأحط من قدر المسيطر

وأقف على وهن المعذب

لفافة من التعاسة

تطالعني كل صباح

سأحط من قدر المسيطر

أواجه الله بحريتي

أعبر عن براءتي

العالم غابة وسط الصحراء

الإنسان حيوان يكذب على التاريخ

يمارس الشر

الطبيعة عار حقيقي علق بالزمن

براءتى ليست كاملة

تنقصني زهرة مجففة بين طيات كتاب مقدس

وصلاة القلب بوجدان طاهر

ينقصني قبر

لتكتمل حريتي.

(3)

ها أنت تشرق في جسمي

كمنتظر للنبؤة أو صاحب رسالة

ها أنت تتوقف عن الطيران

إلا أن خطواتك كطائر جريح

لا تخفى خفتك

ها أنت عنيد كشيطان

ساخن كالجحيم

بارد كالفضاء

لك الموت أو البقاء

لتبقى كإله صغير

أو ملاك لنبي

أو حتى تلميذ

لتبقى تلميذ لأنك لن تطير مرة أخرى

تلك الجبال الرهيبة التي اعتلت جناح روحك لن تزول بدوني

لأنى لإلهة الغد طائعة

ولشريعة الروح خاضعة

دعني أزيح عنك الوهن برحمتي

أخاف الله فيك

فيك الله.

(4)

يا الله

ها أنا أقدم روحي على جسدي

ولا أكترث بالمال

ها أنا من أجلك أنت وحدك

أخسر كل شيء

إذن لماذا تلقى بالشيطان فى طريقي

ولماذا ينتحر ملاكي

يتملكني الخوف

لا أخافك يا الله

لأنك مارست شرورك جميعاً

وأصبحت عجوزاً

أخاف الشيطان الذى اختار جسمي

لى إله بعيد يحميني:

يبارك الشحاذين

يركع للأطفال المشردين في الشوارع

يسجد لمن قالوا لا

يقف إلى جوار الثائرين

يرفع السلاح ضد من داسوا على حرية العبادة ضد الأفكار الخبيثة

إلهي لا يقبل التزييف

ليس لديه ميزان

لكنه عادل

لأنه لم يخلق شيطاناً ليسكنني

يا الله

خذ شيطانك

واعطني روحي التى تحبك

وتخافك.

(5)

لا دهشة في الصباح

خسارة مسائك

لن تعوض

هزيل أنت في الصحراء

وحيد في الزحام

انفضني عنك لأنك ستقتلني كما فعل السابقون

اخلص لوهم ينتابك في عزلتك

افعل كما يفعل العارفون

وطن روحك في الفراغ

اشهد أنك قادر على الخروج

اليوم تثار حروب

بين السماء والسماء

نفس واحدة ستموت

ولن يولد إلا هو

هذا الذي سلم نفسه

وقال:

لتكن المشيئة للمجهول.

**********

علية عبد السلام

M for Manar

wpid-878498829_10acfaf4b4_m-2011-08-31-09-34.jpg

Sunday, June 15, 2008
Youssef Rakha
Al Manar has dragged itself into the future and away from the 1950s sets.

It seems the graphics people at al Manar TV are brushing up their act. NileSat’s most resolutely retro news channel, whose sets used to look like they were out of the 1950s, is suddenly using slick digital transitions to advertise its programmes. It is pacing broadcasts much faster, challenging the competition with colourful plaques, distinctive logos and the full gamut of special effects. The anchors are adopting Jazeera-like voices and the stringers, like al Jazeera’s, report breathlessly from the thick.
It is also screening historical soap operas and serial documentaries on topics like the struggle of the Palestinians, the struggle against colonialism and the struggle to maintain national identity. Many of these are imported from Syria, some are dubbed from Farsi, but all seek to lure the global Arabic-speaking viewer into that world of eternal truth, ruthless justice and ever so punctilious philanthropy dreamt up by Hizbollah.
Contrary to the views of American neoconservatives, Hizbollah is not in fact a bunch of Jew-hating terrorists with Nazi or Qa’eda aspirations (for neoconservatives, either comparison will do). Their televisual mouthpiece need not be automatically identified with a venom-spitting monster, therefore.

Al Manar does provide a mouthpiece for justified Arab and Muslim discontent. Because it focuses on otherwise voiceless victims of Israel (the people of southern Lebanon, the Palestinians, some Syrians) and speaks to all those who feel bad about people being systematically humiliated, denied homes in which to live or simply finished off, because it gives so much airtime to everyday Hizbollah supporters phoning in to exchange emotional moments with representatives of the movement and its political and doctrinal allies, al Manar has a kind of credibility. Combined with the tendency to look and sound like a news channel from an Iron Curtain dictatorship during the Cold War, this used to give it a certain reason-defying appeal.
Then again, al Manar does promote a dodgy piece of theologising in Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, by which the Shia cleric gets to act as “guardian” of the regime, and which even the most pious Shia Iranians believe has proven by far less Islamic, benevolent or just than the pre-1979 Shah’s regime.

Aside from its shameless advocation of theocracy, what is bad about al Manar, and what the graphic revolution has not managed to improve, is its obsessive devotion to ideology. Unlike subtler Lebanese channels with a political agenda – LBC or Future, for example – al Manar has been a more or less avowed propaganda machine since its inception in 1991 (the channel has been transmitting via satellite since 2000). And the new look is clearly trying to build up its image to make it look less like one.
It seems worrying therefore that, however much you may sympathise with Hizbollah, al Manar’s modus operandi is liable to turn you into a Shia-hating, anti-populist Bushophile whatever else you claim to be.

Tickers, almanar.com and archives on DVD have improved neither overblown rhetoric nor partisan orientation: America is an incarnation of the selfsame Satan who first tempted Adam in Paradise; velayat-e faqih is the only form of leadership that could bring order to the chaos of Arab-Muslim politics, retrieving the sovereignty said Satan has appropriated; Iran is ready to take over the entire Muslim world and, without so much as a harsh word or a drop of blood, challenge American hegemony and rebuild the glories of Islam.
Grown up people with respectable beards actually sit down to say these things, with perfectly straight faces, and anchors nod enthusiastically as if to say, “Dah!” Talk show hosts support their guests’ outrageous views – that Khomeini worked just like a prophet of Allah, that he actually was a prophet of Allah – before the guest has expressed them: “So, your samaha the sheikh, how would you comment on Imam Ruhollah’s approach to revolution, which was identical to that of the Prophet Mohammad peace be upon him?” “Well, it was identical…” People phone in to hysterically decry the death of their loved ones under Israeli or Future Movement fire or pronounce Hassan Nassrallah the Redeemer. And atrocities committed against Arabs and Muslims are flaunted to classical verses written in the style of Shia lamentations and set to heart-rending music.
By invoking certain standards of objectivity, the newly introduced, smooth-operating methods only dramatise the misinformation being presented. Those secular Arabs clinging onto the ever more elusive life-raft of critical thinking may very well cheer the resistance Hizbollah has come to embody. But they will still have serious trouble watching al Manar.

On wasta for The National

Knowing me, knowing you
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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.

The devil may care

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Youssef Rakha wonders whether the whole world is conspiring against his American Dream.

The National, 2009

It is October 6, and I have just found out I am not going to America. Something fell through with a story I was supposed to write; publication schedules changed, events became no longer newsworthy. For the longest timeit made sense for Egyptians not to go to America, and I had never been. But, once told I was going, I became excited about it.

October 6: so many things in Cairo are named after the one military victory against Israel that Arabs have been able to claim – on October 6, 1973 – since their first defeat 60 years ago. Why was my trip cancelled on, of all days, the Eid of Victory?

The obvious answer is coincidence. But the fact that I even asked myself the question is revealing. Could it be that Khomeini’s frequently quoted statement that “while Israel is the Lesser Devil, America is the Greater Devil” lurked in the backwaters of an Arab Muslim mind torn between the prosperity in Abu Dhabi and an increasingly unsettling sense of not belonging in Egypt?

The Egyptian in me clings to opposition to America’s most devilish ways in the region. In the time of Nasser, who presided with an iron fist over the most glorious of all Arab defeats in 1967, Egyptians had a good excuse for being cursed: their government refused to cow to an unjust world order. Since October 6, 1973, ironically, the same powers have flouted popular and intellectual discontent in its attempts to embrace both Devils, so to speak, as long and hard as they could.

After peace with Israel, after laissez-faire, after selling out (as socialist-minded dinosaurs continue to call it), there is no longer any excuse for being cursed. Ergo: every Egyptian born after 1973, myself included, has a birthright to his or her own American dream. It doesn’t matter if they seek to realise it within Egypt, in actual US territory or, like a sizeable number, in Israel. Wherever they go, the drive to pursue unlimited profit through the systematic destruction of the planet while urging others to protect the environment and refrain from nuclear development will always be theirs. So too the reward of a family living in a large suburban house with a huge entertainment system.

I waived such rights long ago, having chosen a career as a writer, where there will never be all that much material wealth to look forward to – no matter where I end up working. My very own American dream turns out to be much simpler: I just want to visit New York.

Notwithstanding the occasional bout of partial sympathy for Khomeini’s logic, through the years I have had many American and American-resident friends, and American books and films have added much to my sense of self. I feel silly having never seen the place with my own eyes. Citing one or two of my favourite American works of art would misrepresent the depth and breadth of my ongoing, practically lifelong experience of the country’s vital cultural history. Let’s just say I could not get rid of the knot in my stomach for hours after my editor told me that David Foster Wallace had hanged himself; all of a sudden this most American of contemporary authors felt like a close friend.

Admittedly, after 2001, in shock and fear of Guantanamo, it did not take much to give up my birthright. At the same time, I realised I had also not properly seen much of the Arab world, and I soon enough set out to explore it. I toured Egypt and made plans to scale the breadths of Sudan. America was out of sight and mind; a visit there, however rightful, felt unnecessary.

Then, one day in 2005, I was offered the chance to spend three months in New York through a writer’s residency programme. There was no per diem, but travel costs were covered and I managed to find a place to stay. Suddenly giddy with anticipation, I set about clearing things with the US embassy in Cairo, the residency providers and my employers, who agreed to give me time off.

In Cairo, the US embassy presides over a cluster of other US institutions that have turned a whole downtown neighbourhood into a practical military zone. Often, walking around there, I have been stopped by Egyptian police officers for impromptu interrogations. Moving through the otherworldly automatic security system that guarded the office I was visiting, I tried to imagine myself not in Guantanamo, but in the world’s must multinational hub – open-hearted, energetic and creatively charged.

A few weeks before I was due for my final interview at the embassy itself, my American accommodation fell through. On the same day, my boss took me aside to explain that, in light of certain major changes, I might lose my job if I left. And so, with the resignation of a true Arab who realises that Jerusalem will not be liberated in his lifetime, I had to go through the weary steps of cancelling the journey.

Shortly afterwards, when the Lebanese prime minister was assassinated, I heard Hizbollah’s secretary Hassan Nasrallah repeating Khomeini’s statement on TV: “America is al shaitan al akbar.” I looked up at the screen and, in the non-committal tone of a British MP seconding a motion that he does not really care about either way, I let out a “Yea!.” How was America responsible for Lebanon’s internal divisions? Who knows …

But having worked up the enthusiasm to go to America once, I was no longer afraid. I reverted from my post-September 11 “No way” to my pre-September 11 “At some point.” When this opportunity presented itself again, this time in Abu Dhabi, I was all too glad.

On the afternoon of October 6, I spent the afternoon trekking around town looking for the appropriate bank branch from which to pay my visa fees; I had to wait for an hour to fork over the requisite Dh500. When I got back to the office, my editor looked up from his computer screen: “We have a problem.” Here we go again!

Now, as I lie back and think of Jerusalem, it occurs to me there might be some kind of cosmic conspiracy designed to prevent me from realising my American dream: first September 11, then the lack of a host in an expensive city – and now adjustments in a publication schedule? Perhaps, as some superstitious Egyptians say to justify unfortunate turns of fate, it was God’s work – to save me – from Guantanamo, from a non-smoking hotel, from the fate of living as an illegal immigrant if I liked the place so much that I decided never to come back. Who knows…

Khomeini was not often right, but perhaps in this case he was on to something. Perhaps, all through my life, God has been conspiring to prevent me from associating with His archenemy after all.

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Youssef Rakha at Hay festival 2011: My hero of free speech

the telegraph

Youssef Rakha takes refuge in the limpid prose of the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century

My freedom-of-speech hero was never particularly gung-ho. Unlike the majority of Arab intellectuals since colonial times, he did not champion revolutionary attitudes, whether nationalist or Islamist, from the comfort of an utilitarian armchair. His hermeneutics of the Quran is perhaps the first original interpretation of Islam since the 12th century. It incurred a fatwa on his life and a court ruling that he should be separated from his wife against his will and hers! I think he is the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century, but for exposing all that is un-Islamic about contemporary Islam, showing unreserved aversion to the excrement of the holy cows, as it were – and for doing so with impeccably Muslim credentials – he was not only dismissed but also branded a non-Muslim. Somehow he managed to avoid becoming another Milan Kundera or another Salman Rusdie.

On losing his job at Cairo University, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) did accept the offer of a job in the Netherlands, but he never sought refuge outside his country of birth. He did not play victim or celebrity even after he was straitjacketed in both roles. With the humility of a true hero, he went on doing what he was doing. I am grateful for his scholarship, which added to my sense of identity as a secular Muslim. I am grateful because he showed me what is theologically wrong with the kind of religious discourse that I hate. But he is my hero because his books taught me, an unbeliever, that the creed into which I was born does not require the kind of stupidity I have always found so repulsive. Less than a year after his death I remain as agnostic as ever, but I know now that the sort of people who targeted Abu Zayd – fellow scholars backed by lawyers committed to political Islam – are, in the glorious scholarly traditions of the faith, closer to the idolater than the zealot.

Abu Zayd died suddenly of an obscure virus six months before revolution broke out on the streets of Cairo. Since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, the fundamentalist rigidity that gave Abu Zayd so much trouble has been more visible in the media. With Hassan Nasrallah supporting the Assad regime in Syria and the Muslim Brothers boycotting demonstrations against military abuses in the new Egypt, however, the opportunism and the lies of political Islam are also clearer than ever. When they have infuriated or terrified me, I have taken refuge in Abu Zayd’s limpid prose. It is heavy stuff, not bed-time reading. But it is so lucid and convincing it allows me, with so much unrest at the doorstep, to relax in bed knowing not only where I stand but also that it makes sense to stand there as a Muslim, however agnostic, however disappointed in contemporary Islam.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian journalist and author. His latest novel is ‘Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars’


Hay festival

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The secular state


Youssef Rakha plays the devil’s advocate

When news began to seep through cyberspace of a church burning in Imbaba, the workshop had already been planned. It was to be held at the Kotobkhan Bookshop in Maadi and presided over by May El-Telmissany, the Ottowa-based writer and academic who has been the topic’s greatest champion since Mubarak stepped down.
A two-day affair involving activists (to be) from various walks of life and a range of localities across Egypt, Telmissany’s Civil State Workshop would discuss ways to promote just that: the civil – v. Islamic – state as a constitutional touchstone and a governance model for Egypt. It strikes me in retrospect that ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah, the Arabic term used here as elsewhere to describe that philosopher’s stone of Arab politics, could just as easily be pitted against the military state, which is what we have had, de facto, so far.
The civil state has been one of the principal causes adopted by the predominantly secular intellectual community, whose interest in spreading the word about its importance may have more to do with where they personally stand than with any holistic vision for the future of the country – not that the country will be better off with any form of theocracy, of course, but that is not the point.
The workshop was intended as a brainstorming and procedural exercise on how to spread awareness of the civil state and why it is important to avoid mixing religion into politics while building the new, post-25 January Egypt. Depending on your response to a church besieged by Salafis following news of the Christian wife of a Muslim being held by her family in the vicinity, the workshop was either a lost cause or all the more urgent. But it was to ground my assessment of a debate raging in intellectual circles since 11 February that I decided to take part in day one.
*
Two facts, while not entirely overlooked, loomed over the proceedings, inevitably skewing the perspective somewhat:
First, Egypt had not been an Islamic state prior to the revolution; and whether or not it is seen as such, it was against the civil state of the Mubarak regime, which systematically excluded and brutally repressed agents of political Islam, that the revolution broke out in the first place. Islamists (Salafis as well as Muslim Brothers) may have been late comers to the protests but they did take part in the revolution; they did not or were not allowed to hijack it to their own ends, but due to the involvement of many of them in parliamentary elections in the past – a process that involved violence and clashes with the security apparatus and NDP militias – they were better equipped than the liberals who instigated the revolution to deal with threats to its survival. Many feel they were indispensable to its success.
Secondly – and this is a worldwide phenomenon – the failure of the national state in much of the Muslim world following the dissolution of European empires has driven many Muslims to believe in the reinstatement of the caliphate (or the imamate, or both) as the only means to safeguarding dignity, prosperity and a culturally specific way of life. That much of this energy was quickly channeled into young, theologically suspect and ludicrously reductive versions of the creed originating in Saudi Arabia – that much of it was, with myopic instrumentality, employed by the US and its allies against the communist bloc in the Cold War, only to backfire with horrendous force, eventually resulting in worldwide Islamophobia and the stamp of global terrorism – is really besides the point.
It is in the secular framework of the need for liberal democracy and opposition to the police state that the revolution broke out, but what it pitted itself against – much of which, incidentally, has survived it more or less intact – was equally, nominally secular. Paradoxically, through the 20th century secular formulations of national identity (which all across the Arab world with the possible exception of Tunisia under Bourguiba have preserved respect for the religious establishment and applied shari’ah in the legal arena of personal affairs, making a civil marriage practically impossible and restricting the personal freedoms of unmarried heterosexuals) have resulted in as much repression and as much conservatism as anything sectarian – not to mention political inadequacy, a complete collapse of basic services, and economic dependency on the west. Following the death of Sadat in 1981, what is more, the situation in Egypt was further complicated by the complete lack of an ideological basis for state control. Whereas Syria, for example, had a corrupt dictatorship, Egypt had dictatorial corruption. And in the incumbent absence of opportunities for education and interaction, it was only natural that Islamists should find a firmer support basis among “the people”, whoever the people might turn out to be.
This is one of many questions not even posed by the intellectual community:
How might a new secular state, which is what ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah is ultimately a euphemism for, respond to the aspirations of ordinary people to a better life? More to the point, why should a non-politicised (semi) illiterate person with no particular interest in politics and no understanding of knowledge beyond the alleged dictates of the divine believe in ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah? At one level that ordinary person is ignorant and irresponsible, but at another – perhaps more important – level, they are not as gullible as all that. They have seen one dawlah madaniyyah; if change must occur, why not try out something else?
*
This question, and the two points that have raised it, remain unanswered.
At the Kotobkhan, Telmissany proceeded with the task of formulating a set of questions-points with which to market the civil state, assuming the activist would have an ordinary person – perhaps influenced by Islamist discourse – for an interlocutor. I was there until the end of the first question, “What is the civil state?”
Each of five principal key words – citizenship, equality, democracy, the law, and religious freedom – were discussed, but in each case – not surprisingly – the discussion would devolve into a discussion of religious precepts: in the face of the divine, few can argue anything at all. Of course, much of the work centred on how to effect the necessary rift between religion and politics in the minds of ordinary people – voters in the parliamentary elections planned for September – but, while the experience of those present reflected a high degree of misinformation and misunderstanding that could benefit from such voluntary work, it remained unclear how promoting choice, freedom and other principles of the Enlightenment could stand up to the emotionally charged and systematic mobilisation of a group like the Muslim Brothers. Even from a secular standpoint – an agnostic or atheistic one at that – it is possible to show why the civil state would not be the best answer to the five questions to which the aforementioned key words give rise. The Mubarak regime shows just how.
*
Telmissany’s efforts are ultimately commendable and the activists involved in promoting the secular state all realise that it will take years and institutions to see results, but I feel it is equally important to realise that sectarianism in the context of Egyptian politics stands for a lot more than what it says. In a cultural-normalisation debate prior to the revolution, I had attempted to make the point that normalisation with Saudi Arabia (which remains, after all, the closest ally of the War on Terror and the purveyors of democracy in the region) is actually rather more dangerous to the future of Egypt than normalisation with Israel.
A good portion of the debate, for example, has focused on the second term of the old Egyptian constitution, which states that Islam is the official religion of the country. This has meant little in practise other than an opportunity for the state to play the sectarian card when it suited it. Rather than instating a cultural vision to counterbalance fundamentalism, what the Mubarak regime did with religious extremists bred by Sadat to stave off the socialist threat was to cut a deal with them: they would have free reign as far as social affairs were concerned, so long as they kept out of politics. For the longest time prior to 25 January, the result was an Islamic state ruled by seculars (or American agents and thieves) – no way out.
It is perfectly possible to imagine a state free of religious extremism with the second term of the constitution intact.
*
What remains lacking in the intellectuals’ discourse, notwithstanding the justice of their demands and their compatibility with religious faith, is a true vision. It is all very well to defend the rights of the Christian minority or enlist Copts in the fight for a civil state, but this does not come near the issue of Copts themselves being in the vast majority of cases just as sectarian as Muslims – their support for secularism being simply a response to the fact that they are a minority.
A vision for Egypt is, irrespective of activism, the work of intellectuals – of artists and writers and thinkers sufficiently immersed in society to work with as much of “the ordinary” constituency as possible and to work from within a legacy and a heritage hijacked by political Islam. A vision for Egypt should also involve an outspoken statement of secular and atheistic principles notwithstanding the “inherently conservative” nature of Egyptian society. Pressure groups should emerge, to counter the pressure of the Salafis.
Throughout the 20th century, the principal failure of the Arab intellectual has been his exclusive concern with the political, with a relation with power, coupled by divorce from society at large. And insofar as it is an attempt at re-establishing contact with the people in the absence of political agenda, the Civil State campaign is precisely what is desired. But it will take more than being proactive to be convincing. And the people have a right to be exposed directly and openly to what the intellectuals actually believe.

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كتابنا

يوم حلمتَ باسمينا متجاورين على غلاف واحد قلتَ لي إن هذا غير مسبوق في ثقافتنا وإنه، فضلاً عن كونه أَقيَم من الحب، حلٌّ لوضعنا المستحيل. ولأن خيالك لم يتسع لاحتمال أن يصبح الوضع ممكناً فيما ظللتَ تعصر ليمونتك في حلقي… إلى آخر قطرة، جعلتَ “كتابنا” حجةَ تَجَاوُر ربما كان أفضل لك أن يبقى هو الآخر حلماً. ذات يوم أغضبك فصل أنا كتبتُه لكنك لم تَردّ عليه بفصل كما اتفقنا. أنا كنتُ قد صدّقتُ أن غير المسبوق هذا الذي أقدمنا عليه، حل وضعنا، بالفعل أصلب من ليمونة جفّت وتجعدت ولم يبق إلا أن تُلقَى في سلة المهملات. ولأنني منذ ذلك الحين تذكرتُ لحظةً مرت، وأنا أسمعك، أيقنتُ فيها أنك رغم كل ما تقوله لا تتكلم – لم تتكلم، لا تستطيع الكلام – قلتُ لنفسي إن “ثقافتنا”، مثلاً، مجرد صوت بلا معنى يخرج من فمك. وعرفتُ: لا شيء عندك قيّم في الحقيقة، لا الحب ولا الغلاف. لحظة واحدة مرت، لكنني سأتذكرها. لهذا فقط – ربما – لم أنبس، لم أحدّثك عن خيبة الرجاء. واكتفيتُ بإزاحة المشروع عن “سطح المكتب” مؤقتاً بانتظار فصول كان يتأكد لي أنها لن تُكتب من كتابنا. مع أنني يا أخي أأكنتُ مستعداً لإعادة صياغة أي شيء. لو أنك فقط تكلمت. لكنك فضّلت الخرس والتذاكي. وأنا حذفتُ “فايلات” الكتاب

وجه المثقف

أراك تمسك هذا الكتاب كأنه لم يعبر إلى يديك قارةً ومحيطاً على حساب عاشق آخر بليد يعمل تحت مسمى الصداقة في خدمتك. تقلّب الصفحات وأنت تسحب فوق رأسك، مثل “بالاكلافا” أو نقاب، وجه المثقف: ربيب المكتبات وصديق الأساتذة، المهم حضوره حيث يحضر المهمون. وقبل أن تبحث في الكلام عن دليل على أنه ليس من تأليف كاتب كبير، قبل أن تعيّن الثغرات وترى أصداءك أو أصداء غيرك في عبارات تحسها مسروقة ومستهلكة، أراها على وجهك، هي نفسها: الفرحة التي استمرأتها منذ ابتدأت، بأن شخصاً – الموجود، ربما أحسن الموجودين – وقع في حبك بما يكفي ليستلهمك. وأرى الرفض ذاتَه يخالطها في البراري الضيقة حول عينين ليس سواهما خلف القماش: أنت لست ملهِماً، لا. لا تريد أن تكون مملوكاً لشخص. حتى قراءتك الآن مدفوعة فقط بالفضول. كل ما في الأمر أن صوتاً آخر قرر أن يبروز لك صورة منزوعة عن حقيقتك… صورة هم، من ورائها، الرابحون؟ – في هذه اللحظة، وقبل أن تجيب عن سؤالك، قبل أن يسأل أحد من يكونون هم هؤلاء وقبل أن تضم الكتاب إلى غنائم روّضت نفسك على احتقارها عبر السنين، وتعود دونما تدري تستفز أو تستجدي كاتباً لن يكون كبيراً للقتال في معركة امتلاكك، تلك التي لا تخرج منها أبداً خاسراً، لتترك خلف ظهرك قواداً آخر أو عدواً كنت تفضّل أن يكون قواداً – اسمع: بالنسبة لهذا الكاتب، أنت لست سوى جسد لم يرد أن يُقاوِم شهوة عبوديته. هو كتب لأنه كان رباً قادراً ذات يوم، ولأنه أحبك بعد أن رأى عبر الزجاج كل الحبال الذائبة التي تربط أجولة زبالتك. أما الذي أنجزتَه والكتّاب الكبار والعشاق البلداء ووجهك هذا، أنت كلك على بعضك بكل أهميتك: بالنسبة لهذا الكاتب، كل هذا ليس أكثر من “بارفام” كان يحجب عنه رائحتك، أو حكاية فتاة فقيرة تركت حبيبها لتتزوج من ثري عربي

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Malta’s premiere poetess supports the Revolution

 

LISTENING                5.02.1011

 

by Maria Grech Ganado

 

Can you hear it swelling

throughout the Arab world –

this wailing claim

for consciousness at last

of all its pain?

 

I am so sick of names,

call it Democracy, Dictatorship, Islam,

Chaos, Violence, Revolt –

inimical to the West or holding hands,

the despots must be told their time has come

to go – I fear for innocence trammelled

by politics or power, ill-fortune, ignorance, rout –

 

but this cry is for us to listen to

it’s humanity crying out.

 

mgg

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Hani Shukrallah’s J’accuse

Muslim brotherhood military man in Egypt مؤسس ...
Image via Wikipedia
J’accuse
Hani Shukrallah , Saturday 1 Jan 2011
Hypocrisy and good intentions will not stop the next massacre. Only a good hard look at ourselves and sufficient resolve to face up to the ugliness in our midst will do so

We are to join in a chorus of condemnation. Jointly, Muslims and Christians, government and opposition, Church and Mosque, clerics and laypeople – all of us are going to stand up and with a single voice declare unequivocal denunciation of al-Qaeda, Islamist militants, and Muslim fanatics of every shade, hue and color; some of us will even go the extra mile to denounce salafi Islam, Islamic fundamentalism as a whole, and the Wahabi Islam which, presumably, is a Saudi import wholly alien to our Egyptian national culture.

And once again we’re going to declare the eternal unity of “the twin elements of the nation”, and hearken back the Revolution of 1919, with its hoisted banner showing the crescent embracing the cross, and giving symbolic expression to that unbreakable bond.

Much of it will be sheer hypocrisy; a great deal of it will be variously nuanced so as keep, just below the surface, the heaps of narrow-minded prejudice, flagrant double standard and, indeed, bigotry that holds in its grip so many of the participants in the condemnations.

All of it will be to no avail. We’ve been here before; we’ve done exactly that, yet the massacres continue, each more horrible than the one before it, and the bigotry and intolerance spread deeper and wider into every nook and cranny of our society. It is not easy to empty Egypt of its Christians; they’ve been here for as long as there has been Christianity in the world. Close to a millennium and half of Muslim rule did not eradicate the nation’s Christian community, rather it maintained it sufficiently strong and sufficiently vigorous so as to play a crucial role in shaping the national, political and cultural identity of modern Egypt.

Yet now, two centuries after the birth of the modern Egyptian nation state, and as we embark on the second decade of the 21stcentury, the previously unheard of seems no longer beyond imagining: a Christian-free Egypt, one where the cross will have slipped out of the crescent’s embrace, and off the flag symbolizing our modern national identity. I hope that if and when that day comes I will have been long dead, but dead or alive, this will be an Egypt which I do not recognize and to which I have no desire to belong.

I am no Zola, but I too can accuse. And it’s not the blood thirsty criminals of al-Qaeda or whatever other gang of hoodlums involved in the horror of Alexandria that I am concerned with.

I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them.

I accuse the host of MPs and government officials who cannot help but take their own personal bigotries along to the parliament, or to the multitude of government bodies, national and local, from which they exercise unchecked, brutal yet at the same time hopelessly inept authority.

I accuse those state bodies who believe that by bolstering the Salafi trend they are undermining the Muslim Brotherhood, and who like to occasionally play to bigoted anti-Coptic sentiments, presumably as an excellent distraction from other more serious issues of government.

But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us; those who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced, inclusive and narrow minded with every passing year.

I accuse those among us who would rise up in fury over a decision to halt construction of a Muslim Center near ground zero in New York, but applaud the Egyptian police when they halt the construction of a staircase in a Coptic church in the Omranya district of Greater Cairo.

I’ve been around, and I have heard you speak, in your offices, in your clubs, at your dinner parties: “The Copts must be taught a lesson,” “the Copts are growing more arrogant,” “the Copts are holding secret conversions of Muslims”, and in the same breath, “the Copts are preventing Christian women from converting to Islam, kidnapping them, and locking them up in monasteries.”

I accuse you all, because in your bigoted blindness you cannot even see the violence to logic and sheer common sense that you commit; that you dare accuse the whole world of using a double standard against us, and are, at the same time, wholly incapable of showing a minimum awareness of your own blatant double standard.

And finally, I accuse the liberal intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian who, whether complicit, afraid, or simply unwilling to do or say anything that may displease “the masses”, have stood aside, finding it sufficient to join in one futile chorus of denunciation following another, even as the massacres spread wider, and grow more horrifying.

A few years ago I wrote in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, commenting on a columnist in one of the Egyptian papers. The columnist, whose name I’ve since forgotten, wrote lauding the patriotism of an Egyptian Copt who had himself written saying that he would rather be killed at the hands of his Muslim brethren than seek American intervention to save him.

Addressing myself to the patriotic Copt, I simply asked him the question: where does his willingness for self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation stop. Giving his own life may be quite a noble, even laudable endeavor, but is he also willing to give up the lives of his children, wife, mother? How many Egyptian Christians, I asked him, are you willing to sacrifice before you call upon outside intervention, a million, two, three, all of them?

Our options, I said then and continue to say today are not so impoverished and lacking in imagination and resolve that we are obliged to choose between having Egyptian Copts killed, individually or en masse, or run to Uncle Sam. Is it really so difficult to conceive of ourselves as rational human beings with a minimum of backbone so as to act to determine our fate, the fate of our nation?

That, indeed, is the only option we have before us, and we better grasp it, before it’s too late.

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أنت والتنين

بينما تزقزقين في “رُبع غير معلوم الحال” (هكذا تُعَنوَن الأماكن المجهولة على الخرائط القديمة)، صارت كلمة “التنين” تُستخدم بغرض المبالغة، كأن يُقالَ – بدلَ “حزن شديد”، مثلاً – “حزن التنين”. وخطر لي لأول مرة إثر سماعها أنه لابد من طريقة أخرى لخرق المتاريس. كنتُ على بوابة مرقص غادرتُه جرياً منذ خمسة عشر عاماً. وبعد خمسة عشر عاماً، والموسيقى نفسها تسحبني – مع أنني لست راقصاً ولا أحب الرقص – كانت عيني تنسل إلى الأضواء اللفّافة بالداخل. هذه المرة أيضاً لن يذهب اللقاء أبعد من عتبةٍ “كعبلتني” وأنا أخطو إلى الوراء مذعوراً بينما الراقص الوحيد الباقي ينفث في وجهي النار. وفكّرتُ أنه على الأرجح من طول احتمائي ضد عوامل التعرية والتعرض أنْ صار يسحرني الجلد الأخضر لزواحف الشوارع، تلك المخلوقات المفرّغة: أخالني في الدنيا لأملأها. عليك أن تدركي أنني لم أنس زقزقتك لحظة وإن قبلت بلغة تجعل من المخلوق الخرافي أداة توكيد. والآن أيضاً سأجري بعيداً عن بوابة المرقص، وستغفرين لي شرودي إلى هناك بأن تبصقي حزناً لا يركب على بهجة شفتيك. هل تعرفين كم كنتُ أبكي ابتسامتك وأنا أصارع التنين؟

إلى محمد أبو الليل في غربته*


“كتابىِ–، ولولاَ أنَّ يأَسي قد نَهى اشت***ياقي لذاب الطرس من حر أنفاسي
وبعد فعندي وحشة لو تقسّــمت
***على الخلق لم يستأنس الـناس بالنـاس”

أسامة بن منقذ

أكتب لكَ والمنافض أهرام من الأعقاب.

الشيء الذي حذّرتَني من دَوَامِه توقّف.

وصداع النوم المُمَزَّق يجعل الدنيا خاوية. أنت فاهم.

في جيوب الحياة ننقّب عن عملة من عصور سحيقة،

عملة صدئة وربما قبيحة لكنها سارية في سوق الأبدية.

نصبح ملائكة حين نعثر عليها. نجترها حتى نتأكد

أنها لا تشتري البقاء.

ساعتها تبدو الأبدية نفسها رخيصة.

نتذكر عهود الأبالسة وأن كل مياه الأرض لا تكفي

لابتلاع حبة دواء. أكتب لك بعد أن حفرتُ فتحةً في بطني

وألقيتُ أمعائي في النيل. هل كنتَ تعلم

أنني سأفقد ما لم أحصل عليه؟

حقول الأسفلت التي ذرعناها معاً

نتراشق الاكتشافات والأسرار، ويوم احترقتْ العجلة

على أعلى نقطة في الكوبري

ونحن غائبان في الحشيش والموسيقى

فوق المدينة التي بدت مثل زاوية صلاة

أسفل عمارة الدنيا ما بعد 11 سبتمبر –

أنت صمّمتَ على إكمال المهمة

حالما استبدلنا الكاوتش المدخّن،

وكانت أقراص السعادة في تفاحة حمراء من البلاستك،

قسمناها نصفين لنبتلع الأقراص على قارعة الطريق:

هل تذكر وقت كانت السعادة أقراصاً

يمكننا التقاطها من نصف تفاحة بلاستك؟ –

ويوم خلعنا ملابسنا في صحراء صغيرة داخل شقة

يعاد تبليطها فوق الميدان،

ويوم انقلبت أعصاب ذراعك أوتار معدن

يمكنني أن أعزف عليها بصوتي،

والهلوسات التي جعلناها شبابيك، ومشاجراتنا

حول النقود وسيناء، والحورية التي جلست بيننا

حتى مالت برأسها على كتفك وأنا راضٍ تماماً…

إلى أن – ذات يوم – مات كل شيء.

قُدنا السيارة إلى الشاطئ أو غابة النخيل

لنتأكد أنه لا يحيا.

أنت واصلت البحث عن مزاج مثالي

بينما تكتشف الفلسفة والكآبة، وأنا اختبأت في بيت أمي

لأكتب رواية. وحين تزوج أحدنا وأنجب الآخر،

لم يكن سوانا لنخبرنا بحقيقة ما يصير.

ظل لكل حدث حديث من الطول والتعقيد

بحيث قلتَ إنك مللتَ الكلام،

إن شيئاً في الكلام لا يؤثّر. وفي هذه القصة الأخيرة،

وحدك فهمت أنني لم أكن مخدوعاً

بقدر ما أردت أن أصدّق،

وأن ما جادت به الدنيا مجرد مشبك

لأسمال بللها لقاء عابر ستجف آجلاً أو عاجلاً

لأعود أرتديها كما خلعتها وارتديتها

ألف مرة أمامك.

كنت تعلم أنني لست سوى أحد أعراض مرض

لا يشبه أمراضنا كثيراً

وأنّ وعد الخلاص خطاب موجه

واللحم والدم محسنات بديعية.

سيتسنى الوقت لنتجادل

فيما لو كان الفيلم هابطاً وإلى أي حد،

لكنك لم تخبرني بأكثر من أن الواقع المشترك

لا يكون براقاً وبأنني لن أقوى على الانتظار.

أكتب لك، كما يقول روبيرتو بولانيو، بدلاً من الانتظار…

ولأن قلقك لم يكن في محله. الوحشة أفسدت كل شيء

لكن البدائل حاضرة طالما الأبدية على الرف

ومن رحمة النوائب أننا لا نحزن إلا على أنفسنا.

كنتَ تقول: أحبها وأحتقرها. الآن أستدعي ضحكاتك

وأنا أتهادى إلى الحمام. قطرات الماء البارد

قد تجلو هذه القورة. أفرغ المنافض في أوعية القمامة.

أصنع القهوة وأشربها.

وكل هذا الذي جرى لي وقتلناه نقاشاً

طوال عام عامر بالشِعر والبكاء:

مجرد وهم آخر أكرهه لأفقده

وحين أفقده أكف عن كرهه لأنه لم يكن هناك.

في الحلم كان كما لم أعد أشتاق إليه: رائعاً ومهلكاً

مثل أورجازم سماوي. خبّرني عنك ولا تقلق علي.

الحسرة للـ”جدعان”.


* بوحي قصيدة Exile’s Letter للشاعر الأمريكي إيزرا باوند

Exile’s Letter by Ezra Pound
From the Chinese of Li Po, usually considered the greatest poet of China: written by him while in exile about 760 A. D., to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”
SO-KIN of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels
we paid for the songs and laughter,

5

And we were drunk for month after month,
forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,

10

there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds …

15

and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.

20

And when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
that was the first valley,

25

And on into ten thousand valleys
full of voices and pine-winds.
With silver harness and reins of gold,
prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;

30

And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.

35

And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
Danced because his long sleeves
Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.

40

And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was brave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei Shu and put down the barbarian rabble.

45

And one May he had you send for me, despite the long distance;
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going …
Over roads twisted like sheep’s guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
in the cutting wind from the north,

50

And thinking how little you cared for the cost …
and you caring enough to pay it.
Then what a reception!
Red jade cups, food well set, on a blue jewelled table;
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning;

55

And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with the water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
With ripples like dragon-scales going grass-green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans going and coming without hindrance,

60

With the willow-flakes falling like snow,
And the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the waters a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows—
Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—and the girls singing back at each other,

65

Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.

70

I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.
And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.

75

And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
And if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—

80

There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.(Translated by Ezra Pound from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the Professors Mori and Araga.)


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اعتذار

سألتَني ماذا أريد أن أكون في عينيك

قلتُ الله

لبعض الوقت أنعمت عليك وعاقبتك

فهل كنت تهرب من حسرتي حين لم تخبرني

بأن لك رباً ديوثاً يمنّ عليك هذا الوقت

كيف لم تقبل باسمي حول عنقك

إذا ما كنتَ مصمماً على العبادة

وهل ظننت خلقك هيناً إلى هذا الحد

يا ابن الغانية

لماذا تركتني أحرث وأنت ستحرق الغيط

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