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

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…


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.


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?


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.


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?


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


The menace of resistance


Youssef Rakha, Islamophobe


Youssef Rakha thinks about the Brotherhood, the military and the modern state

A long time ago — it must have been 2000 — I was briefly in trouble at work for apparently belittling the achievement of Hezbollah against Israel in an article I had written.
The censure came from a left-wing, thoroughly secular editor; and I wasn’t particularly distressed to have to redraft the paragraphs in question. Perhaps, I thought, I had let my Islamophobia get the better of me. (I should point out that, though steadfastly agnostic, I am still Muslim, as eclectically proud of my heritage as any post-Enlightenment individual can reasonably be; so my self-acknowledged Islamophobia refers neither to the religion nor the historical identity but specifically to the far more recent phenomenon — perhaps I may be allowed to say “catastrophe” — of political Islam.) I was to realise that much of the Arab left’s respect for Hezbollah centred on the concept of resistance and, especially, its perceived triumph over a materially superior power, independently of a quasi-commonwealth of incompletely constructed modern states whose majority’s compromised position had rendered it an ineffective rival to “the Zionist entity”.
In the same context though perhaps not from the same time, I remember having mixed feelings about a Moroccan activist in a demonstration on Al Jazeera crying out repeatedly, “I am secular, but I support the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”
Admittedly, when I wrote that article, what bothered me the most about Hezbollah was its underlying (theocratic) totalitarianism, not its armed struggle per se. But since then, over many years in which I have been exposed to much more historical-political material as well as experiencing regional and local developments first hand — and without losing any of my contempt for Israel or the postcolonial order that sustains it, for which my being an Arab or a Muslim is by no means necessary — I have come to see very major issues with the concept of resistance itself: so much so that, like Jihadism, it sometimes seems to me one of the postcolonial world powers’ less visible instruments.
Notwithstanding how Hezbollah has renounced the moral high ground by supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria — one of the few supposedly uncompromised states whose “resistance” status has allowed it to practice genocide against its own citizens with impunity since the 1980s while in no way improving its situation vis-a-vis Israel — it is of course less about the Arab-Israeli conflict that I am thinking than the confluence of the left (socialist, Arab nationalist or “Nasserist”) and political Islam in the aftermath of January-February 2011 in Egypt: the Arab Spring. I am thinking about how that confluence, perhaps more than any other factor, has emptied “revolution” of any possible import. To what extent did the theory and practice of resistance in what has probably been the most important of the compromised Arab states lead to the perpetuation of both military hegemony and systematic deprivation of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of belief?
The current “transfer of power” to the Muslim Brotherhood is not happening as a result of the protests and sacrifices that made regime change possible over 18 months ago. It is not happening against the will of the postcolonial world order. It is happening as a result of West-blessed, SCAF-mediated “democratic” politicising — facilitated precisely by standing in ideological and practical opposition to the former status quo (an advantage the more or less liberal, as opposed to Islamist, protesters who staged “the revolution” never had).
Unlike agents of the modern state but like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood have helped to provide citizens with services, garnered their tribal loyalty by encouraging their conservatism and fed them an identity-based discourse of heroism, piety or renaissance. Preying on their raw emotions, they have also given them material rewards in return for their votes.
Now, contrary to what the left has been preaching since the start of the presidential elections, the “transfer of power” at hand will keep all the military’s unlawful privileges intact: the enormous military economy will continue to operate unscathed; crimes against humanity committed in the last 18 months will go unpunished; “revolutionaries” who have been subject to military trial will neither be re-tried nor released without high-profile intervention, etc. At the same time, while other beneficiaries of institutionalised corruption may change, the security and judicial apparatus that sustains it will not.
Thus resistance: somewhere in the collective imagination, irrespective of historical fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the capitalist, scheming, dictatorial, corrupt and abusive entity that the Mubarak regime was. It is a force of resistance. Never mind that it is sectarian, misogynistic, totalitarian, irrational and just as postcolonially compromised (hence just as capitalist, scheming etc.): as the de facto custodian of a religion and a culture it has only actually acted to humiliate, the Brotherhood is seen as an alternative, in exactly the same way as Hezbollah was seen as an alternative, to the failed state. What is either not seen or purposely overlooked is that the alternative’s existence depends on the failure of the state and modernity, which to one degree or another political Islam has always encouraged or helped to perpetuate.
So, while Islamophobia in the West is fear of the physically violent monster secretly created to combat communism during the Cold War, my own Islamphobia is fear of the morally violent monster covertly spawned by the failure of the postcolonial nation state and increasingly integrated into the world order at the expense not of Western (or communist) lives but of Muslim minds and souls. My Islamophobia is in fact a profoundly Muslim response to “revolution”.
Yet it is resistance as a concept that seems to hold the key. Not that the Muslim Brotherhood has used the term recently, but it is written into the proposed political formulation of a collective and supposedly efficacious identity that that identity should be against something.
What is required for this is not that the orientation in question should actually be against anything in practice, whether that thing is the world order, Israel or institutionalised corruption in the Egyptian state. It is interesting to note that, while their raison d’être is to be a distinct moral improvement on the corrupt, compromised political status quo, the Muslim Brothers, whether in parliament or beyond, have so far replicated the Mubarak regime’s conduct and mores, from pledging alliance to Washington and guaranteeing Israel’s security to monopolising and abusing power (the Freedom and Justice Party being, in effect, the “Islamic” variation on the now dissolved National Democratic Party).
What is required, rather, is that the resisting entity should espouse a certain degree of (moral if not physical) violence, drawing on both a totalitarian sense of identity and a paranoid conviction of victimhood. This is not to deny that the Muslim Brotherhood had been subject to persecution since its foundation in 1928; it is to say that, in the absence of any holistic vision even for the future of Islam (one that would crucially include ways to eliminate rather than perpetuate those anachronistic and obstructive aspects of the faith that alienate Muslims from the modern world and prevent them from contributing to human civilisation), the victimisation of the Muslim Brotherhood can only mean a justification for getting their own back — not actually changing anything for the majority of Egyptians.
Without any aspiration to reform, let alone revolution, and while they continue to provide cover for less sophisticated Islamists, the Brothers can only remain aspiring Mubaraks.
Even more fascinating, however, is the way in which the apparent triumph of the opposition embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood has automatically resulted in the opposition embodied by the left giving up all that it supposedly stands for in order to be in the seemingly right camp— an ideological paradox resolved with relative ease once what the left actually has in common with political Islam is identified: totalitarian identity, contempt for the modern state, paranoid victimhood, bias for the (class) underdog and, most importantly of all, the resistance imperative.
Egypt’s recent variation on the confluence of the left with political Islam is particularly ludicrous in that, while what the left supported the Muslim Brotherhood in order to resist was SCAF, it was arguably SCAF that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. It occurs to me now that, taking this into account, Islamophobia should really also be understood as opposition to the military — a fight on which the left was willing to give up when it allied itself with the Islamists.

(c) Youssef Rakha

FOUR HOURS IN CHATILA: 16 September 1982

by Jean Genet


(This is the complete version. The sentences which have been shamelessly deleted by the cowardly editors of the Revue d’Etudes palestiniennes in Paris, in its number 6 published in 1983, have been restored here. The missing sentences, visible here in TT (typewriter police) have been published in the footnotes of the text in the posthumous volume called L’Ennemi déclaré, Gallimard, 1991, p. 408. The English translation has been done by Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud.)  

“Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.”

Menachem Begin (Knesset, September 1982)

No one, nothing, no narrative technique, can put into words the six months, and especially the first weeks, which the fedayeen spent in the mountains of jerash and Ajloun in Jordan. As for relating the events, establishing the chronology, the successes and failures of the PLO, that has been done by others. The feeling in the air, the color of the sky, of the earth, of the trees, these can be told; but never the faint intoxication, the lightness of footsteps barely touching the earth, the sparkle in the eyes, the openness of relationships not only between the fedayeen but also between them and their leaders. Under the trees, everything, everyone was aquiver, laughing, filled with wonder at this life, so new for all, and in these vibrations there was something strangely immovable, watchful, reserved, protected like someone praying. Everything belonged to everyone. Everyone was alone in himself. And perhaps not. In the end, smiling and haggard. The area in Jordan where they had withdrawn for political reasons extended from the Syrian border to Salt, and was bounded by the Jordan River and the road from Jerash to Irbid. About 60 kilometers long and 20 deep, this mountainous area was covered with holm oaks, little Jordanian villages and sparse crops. Under the trees and the camouflaged tents the fedayeen had set up combat units and emplaced light and semiheavy arms. The artillery in place, directed mainly against possible Jordanian operations, young soldiers would take care of their weapons, disassemble them to clean and grease them, then reassemble them quickly. Some managed this feat of disassembling and reassembling their weapons blindfolded so they could do it at night. Between each soldier and his weapon a loving, magical bond had developed. Since the fedayeen had only recently left adolescence behind, the rifle, as a weapon, was the sign of triumphant virility and gave assurance of being. Aggressiveness disappeared: teeth showed behind the smile. The rest of the time, the fedayeen drank tea, criticized their leaders and the rich, Palestinian and others, insulted Israel, and above all they talked about the revolution, the one they were involved in and the one they were about to enter upon. 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. The extraordinary evidence of what was happening, the intensity of this joy at being alive is also called beauty. Ten years went by, and I heard nothing about them, except that the fedayeen were in Lebanon. The European press spoke offhandedly, even disdainfully, about the Palestinian people. Then suddenly, West Beirut.


A photograph has two dimensions, so does a television screen; neither can be walked through. From one wall of the street to the other, bent or arched, with their feet pushing against one wall and their heads pressing against the other, the black and bloated corpses that I had to step over were all Palestinian and Lebanese. For me, as for what remained of the population, walking through Chatila and Sabra resembled a game of hopscotch. Sometimes a dead child blocked the streets: they were so small, so narrow, and the dead so numerous. The smell is probably familiar to old people; it didn’t bother me. But there were so many flies. If I lifted the handkerchief or the Arab newspaper placed over a head, I disturbed them. Infuriated by my action, they swarmed onto the back of my hand and tried to feed there.

The first corpse I saw was that of a man fifty or sixty years old. He would have had a shock of white hair if a wound (an axe blow, it seemed to me) hadn’t split his skull. Part of the blackened brain was on the ground, next to the the head. The whole body was lying in a pool of black and clotted blood. The belt was unbuckled, a single button held the pants. The dead man’s feet and legs were bare and black, purple and blue; perhaps he had been taken by surprise at night or at dawn. Was he running away? He was lying in a little alley immediately to the right of the entry to Shatfla camp which is across from the Kuwaiti Embassy. Did the Chatila massacre take place in hushed tones or in total silence, if the Israelis, both soldiers and officers, claim to have heard nothing, to have suspected nothing whereas they had been occupying this building since Wednesday afternoon? 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. The body of a man of thirty to thirty-five was lying face down. As if the whole body was nothing but a bladder in the shape of a man, it had become so bloated in the sun and through the chemistry of decomposition that the pants were stretched tight as though they were going to burst open at the buttocks and thighs. The only part of the face that I could see was purple and black. Slightly above the knee you could see a thigh wound under the torn fabric. Cause of the wound: a bayonet, a knife, a dagger? Flies on the wound and around it. His head was larger than a watermelons black watermelon. I asked his name; he was a Muslim.

–”Who is it?” “A Palestinian,” a man about forty answered in French. “See what they’ve done.” He pulled back the blanket covering the feet and part of the legs. The calves were bare, black and swollen. The feet, in black unlaced army boots, and the ankles of both feet were very tightly bound together by the knot of a strong rope-its strength was obvious-about nine feet long, which I arranged so that Mrs. S. (an American) could get a good picture of it. I asked the man of forty if I could see the face.

–”If you want to, but look at it yourself.” — “Would you help me turn his head?” — “No.” — “Did they drag him through the streets with this rope?” — “I don’t know, sir.” — “Who tied him up?” — “I don’t know, sir.” — “Was it Haddad’s men?” — “I don’t know.” — – “The Israelis?” “I don’t know.” — “The Kataeb?” “I don’t know.” — “Did you know him?” “Yes.” — “Did you see him die?” — “Yes.” — “Who killed him?” — “I don’t know.” He hastily walked away from the dead man and me. From afar he looked back at me and disappeared into a side street. Which alley should I take now? I was drawn by men fifty years old, by young men of twenty, by two old Arab women, and I felt as if I were the center of a compass whose quadrants contained hundreds of dead. I jot this down now, not knowing exactly why at this point in my narrative: “The French have a habit of using the insipid expression ‘dirty work.’ Well, just like the Israeli army ordered the Kataeb or the Haddadists to do their’dirty work,’the Labor Party had its’dirty work’done by the Likud, Begin, Sharon, Shamir.” I have just quoted R., a Palestinian journalist who was still in Beirut on Sunday, September 19. 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?

They left very quickly and very early. Israel brags and boasts about its combat efficiency, its battle preparedness, its skill in turning circumstances to its favor, in creating circumstances. Let’s see; the PLO leaves Beirut in triumph, on a Greek ship, with a naval escort. Bashir, hiding as best he can, visits Begin in Israel. The intervention of the three armies (American, French, Italian) comes to an end on Monday. On Tuesday, Bashir is assassinated. Tsahal [Israel Defense Forces] enters West Beirut on Wednesday morning. As if they were coming from the port, Israeli soldiers were advancing on Beirut the morning of Bashir’s funeral. With binoculars, from the eighth floor of my house I saw them coming in single file: one column. I was surprised that nothing else happened, because with a good rifle with a sight they could have been picked off. Their brutality preceded them. The tanks came after them. Then the jeeps. Tired out by such a long early-morning march, they stopped near the French Embassy, letting the tanks go on ahead of them, going right into Hamra. The soldiers sat down on the sidewalk at thirty foot intervals and leaned against the embassy wall, their rifles pointed straight ahead. With their long torsos they looked like boas with two legs stretched out in front of them. “Israel had promised the American representative Habib not to set foot in West Beirut and especially to respect the civilan populations of the Palestinian camps. Arafat still has the letter in which Reagan made the same promise. Habib supposedly promised Arafat that nine thousand prisoners in Israel would be freed. On Thursday the massacres in Chatila and Sabra begin. The ‘bloodbath’ that Israel claimed it would prevent by restoring order to the camps . . .” a Lebanese writer told me.

“It will be very easy for Israel to clear itself of all the accusations. Journalists of all the European press are already at work clearing them: no one will say that on the nights from Thursday to Friday and from Friday to Saturday Hebrew was spoken in Chatila.” That is what another Lebanese told me. The Palestinian woman – for I couldn’t leave Chatila without going from one corpse to another and this jeu de l’oie would inevitably end up at this miracle: Chatila and Sabra razed to the ground and real estate battles to rebuild on this very flat cemetery – the Palestinian woman was probably elderly because her hair was gray. She was stretched out on her back, laid or left there on the rubble, the bricks, the twisted iron rods, without comfort. At first I was surprised by a strange braid made of rope and cloth which went from one wrist to the other, holding the two arms apart horizontally, as if crucified. Her black and swollen face, turned towards the sky, revealed an open mouth, black with flies, and teeth that seemed very white to me, a face that seemed, without moving a muscle, either to grin or smile or else to cry out in a silent and unbroken scream. Her stockings were black wool, and her pink and gray flowered dress, slightly hiked up or too short, I don’t know which, revealed the tops of swollen black calves, again with the delicate mauve tints matched by a similar purple and mauve in the cheeks. Were these bruises or the natural result of rotting in the sun? “Did they strike her with the butt of the rifle?” — “Look, sir, look at her hands.” I hadn’t noticed. The fingers of the two hands were spread out and the ten fingers were cut as if with gardening shears. Soldiers, laughing like kids and gaily singing, had probably had fun discovering and using these shears. “Look, sir.” The ends of the fingers, the top joints, with the nail, lay in the dust. The young man, who was simply and naturally showing me how the dead had been tortured, calmly put a cloth back over the face and hands of the Palestinian woman, and a piece of corrugated cardboard over her legs. All I could distinguish now was a heap of pink and gray cloth, hovered over by flies. Three young men led me down an alley. “Go in, sit, we’ll wait for you outside.” The first room was what remained of a two-story house. The room gave an impression of serenity and even friendliness, of near happiness; perhaps real happiness had been created out of others’ throwaways, with what survives from a destroyed piece of wall, with what I first thought were three armchairs, actually three car seats (perhaps a Mercedes from a junkyard), a couch with cushions covered with gaudy flowered material with stylized designs, a small silent radio, two unlit candelabras. A fairly quiet room, in spite of the carpet of spent shells. The door swung, as if there were a draft. I walked on the spent shells and pushed the door, which opened towards the other room, but I had to push hard: the heel of a boot blocked the way, the heel of a corpse lying on its back, near two other corpses of men lying face down, all of them resting on another carpet of spent shells. I nearly fell several times because of them. At the back of the room another door was open, without lock or latch. I stepped over the bodies as one crosses chasms. The room contained the corpses of four men, piled on top of each other on a single bed, as if each one had taken care to protect the one under him, or as if they had been caught in a decaying orgiastic copulation. This pile of shields smelled strongly, but it didn’t smell bad. The smell and the flies had, so it seemed, gotten used to me. I no longer disturbed anything in these ruins, in this quiet.

During the night from Thursday to Friday, and during those from Friday to Saturday and Saturday to Sunday no one had kept vigil with them, I thought. Yet, it seemed to me that someone had visited these dead men before me and after their death. The three young men were waiting fairly far from the house with handkerchiefs over their noses. It was then, as I was coming out of the house, that I had a sudden attack of slight madness that made me almost smile. I thought to myself that there would never be enough boards or carpenters to make the coffins. But then why would they need coffins? The dead men and women were all Muslims, who are sewn into shrouds. How many yards would it take to enshroud so many corpses? And how many prayers? What was missing here, I realized, was the rhythm of prayers. “Come, sir, come quickly.” It is time to note that this sudden and quite momentary madness which made me count yards of white cloth gave an almost brisk liveliness to my step, and that it may have been caused by a remark I heard a Palestinian womanfriend make the day before. “I was waiting for them to bring me my keys (which keys: to her car, her house, all I know now is the word keys) when an old man went running by. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To get help. I’m the gravedigger. They’ve bombed the cemetery. All the bones are uncovered. I need help gathering the bones’.” This friend is a Christian, I think. She continued: “When the vacuum bomb, a so-called implosion bomb, killed two hundred and fifty people, we had only one box. The men dug a mass grave in the Orthodox Church cemetery. We filled the box, and went to empty it. We back and forth under the bombs, digging out bodies and limbs as best we could.” Over the last three months, hands have had a double function: during the day to grasp and touch, at night, to see. Electricity cuts made this “school for the blind” necessary, as it did the climbing, two or three times a day, of that white marble cliff, the eight-floor stairway. We had to fill all the containers in the house with water. The telephone was cut off when the Israeli soldiers entered West Beirut along with their Hebrew inscriptions. So were the roads around Beirut.The Merkava tanks which never stopped showed they were keeping an eye on the whole city, and at the same time one imagined those inside scared they would become a fixed target. They no doubt feared the activity of the Murabitoun* and the fedayeen who might remain in sections of West Beirut. The day after the entrance of the Israeli army we were prisoners, but it seemed to me that the invaders were less feared than despised, they caused less fear than disgust. No soldier was laughing or smiling. No one was throwing rice or flowers. Bashir’s father, Gemayel, appeared on Lebanese television, thin-faced with eyebrow arches very shallow and full of shadow, and very thin lips. The only expression: naked cruelty. Since the roads had been cut off and the telephone was silent, deprived of contact with the rest of the world, for the first time in my life, I felt myself become Palestinian and hate Israel. At the Sports Stadium, near the Beirut-Damascus highway, which was already nearly completely destroyed by aerial bombardment, the Lebanese deliver piles of weapons, all supposedly voluntarily damaged, to Israeli officers. In the apartment where I am staying, everyone has a radio. We listen to Radio-Kataeb, Radio-Murabitoun, Radio-Amman, Radio-Jerusalem (in French), Radio-Lebanon. They are probably doing the same thing in every apartment. “We are linked to Israel by many currents which bring us bombs, tanks, soldiers, fruit, vegetables; they carry off our soldiers, our children to Palestine, in a continual and unceasing coming and going, because according to them, we have been linked to them since Abraham, in his lineage, in his language, in the same origins. . .” (A Palestinian fedai). “In short,” he adds, “they invade us, they stuff us, suffocate us and would like to hug us. They say they are our cousins. They’re very sad to see us turn away from them. They must be furious with us and with themselves.”


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. They were ready to become both the wives and the mothers of heroes, as they already were for their men. In the woods of Ajloun, the fedayeen were perhaps dreaming of girls though it seems, rather, that each one conjured up or shaped a girl lying against him, hence the particular gracefulness, the strength-with their amused laughter-of the armed fedayeen. We were not only at the dawn of pre-revolution but in a sensual limbo. A cystallizing frost gave a gentleness to every action. Constantly, and every day for a month, always in Ajloun, I saw a skinny but strong woman crouching in the cold, crouching like the Andean Indians or certain Black Africans, the untouchables of Tokyo, the Tziganes at market, ready to take off suddenly in case of danger, under trees in front of the guardhouse, a small, hastily erected permanent structure. She was waiting barefoot in her black dress trimmed with braid at the hem and on the edge of the sleeves. Her face was serious but not ill-tempered, tired but not weary. The commando leader would prepare a nearly empty room, then he would signal her. She would enter the room, closing the door, but not locking it. Then she would come out, without a word or a smile, and barefoot and very erect, would return to Jerash and to Baq’a camp. I found out that in the room reserved for her in the guardhouse she used to take off her two black skirts, remove the envelopes and the letters sewn inside, bundle them together and knock once on the door. Turning the letters over to the leader she would go out and leave without saying a word. She would come back the next day. Other older women would laugh because for a home they had only three blackened stones which, at Jebel Hussein (Amman), they gleefully referred to as “our house.” They showed me the three stones, and sometimes the glowing coals, with such childlike voices, laughing and saying: “darna.” These old women belonged neither to the revolution nor to the Palestinian resistance: they were mirth which has lost all hope. The sun above them continued its journey. An arm or an extended finger created an increasingly thin shadow. But what land? Jordan, through an administrative and political fiction created by France, England, Turkey, America… Mirth which has lost all hope, ” most joyful because it is the most desperate. They still saw a Palestine which no longer existed when they were sixteen, but finally they had a land. They were neither under nor on top of it, but in a disturbing space where any movement was a wrong one. Under the bare feet of these octogenarian and supremely elegant tragediennes was the earth solid? It was less and less true. After having fled Hebron under Israeli threats the earth here seemed solid, everyone was lighthearted and moved sensuously in the Arabic language. As time went by the earth seemed to experience this: the Palestinians were less and less bearable at the same time as these same Palestinians, these peasant-farmers, were discovering movement, walking, running, the pleasure of ideas dealt out nearly every day like playing cards, the weapons assembled, disassembled and used. Each of the women speaks in turn. They are laughing. One of them is reported to have said: “Heroes! What a joke! I gave birth to and spanked five or six of them who are in the jebel. I wiped their bottoms. I know what they’re made of, and I can make some more.” In the ever-blue sky the sun has continued its journey, but it is still warm. These tragediennes remember and imagine at the same time. To emphasize what they say they point their finger at the end of a sentence and stress the emphatic consonants. Should a Jordanian soldier happen by he would be delighted: in the rhythm of the sentences he would rediscover the rhythm of Bedouin dances. Without the sentences, an Israeli soldier, should he see these goddesses, would empty his automatic rifle into their skulls.


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 whole heartedly 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? Almost all the buildings in Beirut have been hit, in what they still call West Beirut. They crumble in different ways: like puff pastry squeezed between the fingers of some indifferent and voracious giant King Kong; other times the top three or four floors lean deliciously in an elegant pleat, giving a sort of Lebanese draping to the building. If one facade is intact, go around the house; the other walls will be shell-pocked. If the four walls are standing with no cracks, the bomb dropped by the airplane fell in the center and made a hole out of what was the staircase and the elevator shaft. In West Beirut, after the Israelis arrived, S – told me: “Night had fallen; it must have been seven o’clock. All of a sudden there was a loud clank, clank, clank. Everybody, my sister, my brother-in-law and I ran out on the balcony. The night was very dark. And every once in a while there was something like lightning less than a hundred yards away. You know that almost across from us there is a kind of Israeli command post: four tanks, a house occupied by soldiers, officers and guards. Night. And the clanking noise is getting closer. The lightning; a few lit torches. And forty or fifty kids about twelve or thirteen years old beating rhythmically on little jerrycans, either with rocks or hammers or something else. They were screaming, chanting: La ilah illa Allah, la Kataeb wa la yahoud (There is no God but Allah; no to the Kataeb; no to the Jews.)” H. said to me: “When you came to Beirut and Damascus in 1928 Damascus was destroyed. General Gouraud and his troops, Moroccan and Tunisian infantry, had been shooting and cleaned out Damascus. Whom did the Syrian people accuse?” Me: “The Syrians blamed France for the massacres and the destruction in Damascus.” He: “We blame Israel for the massacres in Chatila and Sabra. Don’t only blame the Kataeb who replaced them. Israel is guilty of allowing two companies of Kataeb to enter the camps, of giving them orders and of encouraging them for three days and nights, of bringing them food and drink, of lighting the camps at night.” H. again, professor of history: “In 1917 Abraham’s trick was brought up to date, or if you prefer, God was already the prefiguration of Lord Balfour. The Jews used to say and still say that God had promised Abraham and his descendents a land of milk and honey. But this land, which didn’t belong to the God of the Jews (this land was full of gods), this land was inhabited by the Canaanites, who had their own gods, and who fought against Joshua’s troops and ended up stealing the famous Ark of the Covenant, without which the Jews would never have won. And England, in 1917, didn’t yet rule over Palestine (that land of milk and honey) since the treaty giving it a mandate had not yet been signed.” “Begin claims that he came to the country . . . .” “That’s the name of a movie: The Long Absence. Does that Pole strike you as the heir to Solomon?” In the camps, after twenty years of exile, the refugees dreamed of their Palestine, and no one dared to think or say that Israel had destroyed it from top to bottom, that where the barley field had been there was a bank, and a power station where a climbing vine had grown. “Shall we replace the gate to the field?” “We’ll have to rebuild part of the wall next to the fig tree.” “All the pans must be rusted: buy an emery-cloth.” “Maybe we should hook up electricity to the barn.” “Oh no, no more hand-embroidered dresses: you can get me one machine for sewing and one for embroidering.” The old people of the camps were wretched; they may also have been so in Palestine but there nostalgia played a magical role. They may remain prisoners of the camp’s unhappy spell. It is not certain that this Palestinian group will leave the camps with regret. In this sense, extreme destitution makes you yearn for the past. The man who has known this, along with bitterness has known a joy which is extreme, solitary and impossible to communicate. The Jordanian camps perched on the rocky slopes are bare, but around them there is a more desolate barrenness: shanties, tents with holes in them inhabited by families whose pride glows. Anyone who denies that men can become fond and proud of their obvious destitution understands nothing of the human heart; they can be proud because this obvious destitution veils a hidden glory. The solitude of the dead in Chatila camp was even more palpable because they had gestures and poses which they had not planned. Dead any old how. Dead and abandoned. Yet around us, in the camp, all the affection, the tenderness and love floated in search of Palestinians who would never answer. ” What can we say to their families who left with Arafat, trusting in the promises of Reagan, Mitterrand and Perini, who had assured them that the civilian population of the camps would be safe? How can we explain that we allowed children, old people and women to be massacred, and that we are abandoning their bodies without prayers? How can we tell them that we don’t know where they are buried?” The massacres did not take place in silence and darkness. Lit by Israeli flares, the Israelis were listening to Chatila as early as Thursday evening. What partying, what feasting went on there as death seemed to take part in the pranks of soldiers drunk on wine, on hatred, and probably drunk on the joy of entertaining the Israeli army which was listening, looking, giving encouragement, egging them on. I didn’t see this Israeli army listening and watching. I saw what it did. To the argument: What did Israel gain by assassinating Bashir: entering Beirut, reestablishing order and preventing the bloodbath. What did Israel gain in the Chatila massacre? Answer: what did it gain by entering Lebanon? What did it gain by bombing the civilian population for two months; by hunting down and destroying Palestinians? What did it want to gain in Chatila: the destruction of Palestinians. It kills men, it kills corpses. It razes Chatila. It is not uninterested in the real estate speculation on the improved land: it’s worth five million old francs per square yard still in ruins. But “cleaned up” it will be worth … ? I am writing this in Beirut where, perhaps because death is so close, still lying on the ground, everything is truer than in France: everything seems to be happening as if, weary and tired of being an example, of being untouchable, of taking advantage of what it believes it has become – the vengeful saint of the Inquisition – Israel had decided to allow itself to be judged coldly.

The Jewish people, far from being the most miserable on earth – the Indians of the Andes sink deeper in misery and neglect – pretend to be a victim of genocide, while in America, rich and poor Jews have sperm reserves for the procreation and continuity of the “chosen” people. Thanks to a skillful but predictable metamorphosis, it is now what it has long been becoming: a loathsome, temporal power, colonialist in a way which few dare to imitate, having become the Definitive judge which it owes to its longstanding curse as much as to its chosen status. This loathsome power, once more in its history, is pushing so far as to deserve unanimous condemnation; and one wonders if it does not want to recover its destiny of a wandering, humiliated people, with secret power. This time, it is exposed in the terrible light of massacres that it is no longer undergoing, but that it inflicts on others; and it wants to recover its former image to become again the “salt of the earth” – assuming that it ever was. But then, what an approach! The Soviet Union and Arab states, spineless as they were in refusing to interfere in this war, have allowed Israel to finally appear to the world and in a bright light as insane among nations. Many questions remain. If the Israelis merely lit up the camp, listened to it, heard the shots fired by so many guns, whose spent shells I kicked underfoot (tens of thousands), who was actually firing? Who was risking their skin by killing? The Phalangists? The Haddadists? Who? And how many? What happened to the weapons responsible for all these corpses? And what about the weapons of those who defended themselves? In the part of the camp which I visited, I saw only two unused anti-tank weapons. How did the assassins get into the camps? Were the Israelis at all the exits to Chatila? In any case, on Thursday they were already at the Akka Hospital, across from one camp entrance. According to the newspapers, the Israelis entered Chatila camp as soon as they knew about the massacres, and they stopped them immediately, that is, on Saturday. But what did they do with the slayers and where have they gone? After the assassination of Bashir Gemayel and twenty of his friends, after the massacres, Mrs. B., a member of the Beirut upper class, came to see me when she found out I was coming back from Chatila. She climbed the eight floors of the building — no electricity; I suppose she is elderly, elegant but elderly. “Before Bashir’s death, before the massacres, you were right to tell me that the worst was about to happen. I saw it.” “Please don’t tell me what you saw in Chatila. I am too highly strung, and I must keep my strength to face the worst which is still to come.” She lives alone with her husband (seventy years old) and her maid in a large apartment in Ras Beirut. She is very elegant. Very refined. Her furniture is antique, Louis XVI, I think. “We knew that Bashir had gone to Israel. He was wrong. An elected head of state should not associate with people like that. I was sure that something awful would happen to him. But I don’t want to hear about it. I have to save my strength to withstand the terrible blows that are yet to come. Bashir was going to give back that letter in which Mr. Begin calls him my dear friend.” The upper class, with its silent servants, has its own way of resisting. Mrs. B. and her husband “don’t quite believe in metempsychosis.” What will happen if they are reborn as Israelis? The day of Bashir’s burial is also the day the Israeli army enters West Beirut. The explosions get closer to the building where we are; finally everyone goes to the shelter in the basement. Ambassadors, doctors, their wives and daughters, a UN representative to Lebanon, their servants. “Carlos, bring me a pillow.” “Carlos, my glasses.” “Carlos, a little water.” The servants, too, are accepted in the shelter as they also speak French It may be necessary to look after them, their wounds, their transport to the hospital or the cemetery, what a predicament! You have to know that the Palestinian camps of Chatila and Sabra are made up of miles and miles of narrow little alleys – for here, even the alleys are so skinny, so threadlike that sometimes two people cannot walk together unless one walks sideways – strewn with rubbish, cement blocks, bricks, dirty multicolored rags, and that at night, under the light of the Israeli flares which lit up the camps, fifteen or twenty even well-armed fighters would have been unable to carry out this slaughter. The killers worked and they were numerous, and probably accompanied by torture squads who split skulls, slashed thighs, cut off arms, hands and fingers, and dragged the dying at the end of a rope, men and women who were still alive since blood had flowed from the bodies for a long time, so much that I was unable to determine who, in the hall of a house, had left this trickle of dried blood, from the end of the hall where there was a pool as far as the doorstep where it disappeared into the dust. Was it a Palestinian man? A woman? A Phalangist whose body had been removed? From Paris, one can entertain doubts about the whole thing, especially if one knows nothing about the layout of the camps. One can allow Israel to claim that the journalists from Jerusalem were the first to report the massacre. How did they phrase it for the Arab countries and in Arabic? And how in English and French? And exactly when? Just think about the precautions surrounding a suspicious death in the West, fingerprints, ballistics reports, autopsies, testimonies and counter-testimonies! In Beirut, scarcely had the massacre become known than the Lebanese army officially took charge of the camps and immediately eradicated the ruins of the houses and the remains of the bodies. Who ordered this haste? Especially after this statement had swept the world that Christians and Muslims had killed each other, and even after cameras had recorded the brutality of the slayings. Akka Hospital, occupied by the Israelis, and across from an entrance to Chatila, is not two hundred yards from the camp, but forty. They saw nothing, heard nothing, understood nothing? Because that’s just what Begin declared to the Knesset: “Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.” I must conclude my description of Chatila, which was briefly interrupted. Here are the bodies I saw last, on Sunday, about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the International Red Cross came in with its bulldozers. The stench of death was coming neither from a house nor a victim: my body, my being, seemed to emit it. In a narrow street, in the shadow of a wall, I thought I saw a black boxer sitting on the ground, laughing, surprised to have been knocked out. No one had had the heart to close his eyelids, his eyes as white as porcelain and bulging out, were looking at me. He seemed crestfallen, with his arm raised, leaning against this angle of the wall. He was a Palestinian who had been dead two or three days. If I mistook him at first for a black boxer it is because his head was enormous, swollen and black, like all the heads and all the bodies, whether in the sun or in the shadow of the houses. I walked near his feet. I picked up an upper dental plate in the dust and set it on what remained of the window ledge. The palm of his hand open towards the sky, his open mouth, the opening in his pants where the belt was missing: all hives where flies were feeding. I stepped over one corpse, then another. There in the dust, in the space between the two bodies, there was at last a very living object, intact in the carnage, a translucent pink object which could still be used: an artificial leg, apparently in plastic, and wearing a black shoe and a gray sock. As I looked closer, it became clear that it had been brutally wrenched off the amputated leg, because the straps that usually held it to the thigh were all broken. This artificial leg belonged to the second body, the one on which I had noticed only one leg with a foot wearing a black shoe and a gray sock. In the street perpendicular to the one where I left the three bodies, there was another. It was not completely blocking the way, but it was lying at the entrance of the street so that I had to walk by it and turn around to see the sight: seated on a chair, surrounded by fairly young and silent men and women, a woman – in Arab dress – was sobbing; she could have been sixteen or sixty. She was crying over her brother whose body almost blocked the way. I came closer to her. I looked more carefully. She had a scarf tied around her neck. She was crying, mourning the death of her brother next to her. Her face was pink, a baby pink, the same color all over, very soft, tender, but without eyelashes or eyebrows, and what I thought was pink was not the top layer of skin but an under layer edged in gray skin. Her whole face was burned. I don’t know by what, but I understood by whom. With the first bodies, I tried to count them. When I got to twelve or fifteen, surrounded by the smell, the sun, stumbling over each ruin, it was impossible; everything became confused. I have seen lots of crumbling buildings and gutted houses spilling out eiderdown and have not been moved, but when I looked at those in West Beirut and Chatila I saw fear. The dead generally become very familiar, even friendly to me, but when I saw those in the camps I perceived only the hatred and joy of those who had killed them. A barbaric party had taken place there: rage, drunkenness, dances, songs, curses, laments, moans, in honor of the voyeurs who were laughing on the top floor of Akka Hospital. In France, before the Algerian war, the Arabs weren’t beautiful, their gait was awkward, shuffling, they had ugly mugs, and almost suddenly victory made them beautiful; but a little before victory was assured, while more than half a million French soldiers were straining and dying in the Aures and throughout Algeria, a curious thing happened to the faces and bodies of the Arab workers: something like the intimation, the hint of a still fragile beauty which was going to blind us when the scales finally fell from their skin and our eyes. We had to admit it: they had achieved political freedom in order to be seen as they were: very beautiful. In the same way, once they had escaped from the refugee camps, from the morality and the order of the camps, from a morality imposed by the need to survive, once they had at the same time escaped from shame, the fedayeen were very beautiful; and since this beauty was new, shall we say pristine, naive, it was fresh, so alive that it discovered at once what connected it to all the beauties of the world, freeing themselves from shame. Lots of Algerian pimps walking through Pigalle at night used their charms in the service of the Algerian revolution. Virtue was also there. It is Hannah Arendt, I believe, who distinguishes between revolutions according to whether they aspire to freedom or virtue — and therefore work. Perhaps we should also recognize that revolutions or liberations aim — obscurely — at discovering or rediscovering beauty, that is the intangible, unnameable except by this word. But no, on the other hand: let us mean by beauty a laughing insolence goaded by past unhappiness, systems and men responsible for unhappiness and shame, above all a laughing insolence which realizes that, freed of shame, growth is easy. But on this page we should also address the following question: is a revolution a revolution when it has not removed from faces and bodies the dead skin that made them ugly? I am not speaking about academic beauty, but about the intangible – unnameable – joy of bodies, faces, cries, words which are no longer cheerless, I mean a sensual joy so strong that it chases away all eroticism.

* * *

Here I am again in Ajloun, in Jordan, then in Irbid. I remove what I believe is one of my white hairs from my sweater and put it on the knee of Hamza, sitting near me. He takes it between his thumb and middle finger, looks at it, smiles, puts it in the pocket of his black jacket, and pats it saying: “A hair from the Prophet’s beard is worth less than that.” He takes a slightly deeper breath and starts over: “A hair from the Prophet’s beard is not worth more than that.” He was only twenty-two years old, his thoughts leaped easily high above the Palestinians who were forty, but he was already bearing the signs – on himself, on his body, in his actions — which linked him to the older ones. In the old days farmers used to blow their noses in their fingers. Then they flipped the snot into the thorns. They wiped their noses on their corduroy sleeves, which at the end of a month were covered with a pearly luster. So did the fedayeen. They blew their noses the same way noblemen and churchmen took snuff: slightly stooped over. I did the same thing, which they taught me without realizing. And the women? Night and day they embroidered the seven dresses (one for each day of the week) of the engagement trousseau given by a generally older husband chosen by the family, painful awakening. The Palestinian girls became very beautiful when they revolted against their fathers and broke their needles and embroidery scissors. It was on the mountains of Ajloun, Salt and Irbid, in the forests themselves that sensuality had come down, freed by the revolution and by guns, let’s not forget the guns. That was enough, everyone was happy. Without realizing it, the fedayeen — is it true? — were perfecting a new beauty: the liveliness of their actions and their obvious fatigue, the quickness and brightness of their eyes, the clearer tone of voice harmonized with the swiftness and brevity of the reply. With its precision too. They had done away with long sentences, learned and glib rhetoric. 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. 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 had explored, and poorly at that, only a twentieth of Chatila and Sabra, nothing of Bir Hassan, nothing of Bourj al-Barajneh. It’s not because of my leanings that I lived through the Jordanian period as if it were a fairy tale. Europeans and North African Arabs have told me about the spell that kept them there. As I lived through this long span of six months, barely colored by night for twelve or thirteen hours, I discovered the ethereality of what was happening, the exceptional quality of the fedayeen, but I had a premonition of the fragility of the structure. Everywhere in Jordan where the Palestinian army had assembled, near the Jordan River, there were checkpoints where the fedayeen were so sure of their rights and their might that the arrival of a visitor, by night or by day, at one of the checkpoints was a pretext for tea, for talk mixed with bursts of laughter and brotherly kisses (the one they embraced would be leaving that night, cross the Jordan River to plant bombs in Palestine and often would not return). The only islands of silence were the Jordanian villages; they kept their mouths shut. All the fedayeen seemed to be walking slightly above the ground, like the effect of a very light glass of wine or a drag on a little hashish. What was it? Youth, oblivious of death and with Czech and Chinese weapons to fire into the air. Protected by weapons that talked so big, the fedayeen weren’t afraid of anything. Any reader who has seen a map of Palestine and Jordan knows that the land is not like a sheet of paper. Along the Jordan River the land is in high relief. This whole escapade should have been subtitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream in spite of the flare-ups between the forty-year-old leaders. All that was possible because of youth, the joy of being under the trees, of playing with weapons, of being away from women, in other words, of conjuring away a difficult problem, of being the brightest and the most forward point of the revolution, of having the approval of the population of the camps, or being photogenic no matter what, and perhaps of foreseeing that this revolutionary fairy tale might soon be defiled: the fedayeen didn’t want power; they had freedom. At the Damascus airport on my way back from Beirut I met some young fedayeen who had escaped from the Israeli hell. They were sixteen or seventeen. They were laughing; they were like the ones in Ajloun. They will die like them. The struggle for a country can fill a very rich life, but a short one. That was the choice, as we recall, of Achilles in the Iliad.

Translated by Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud

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M for Manar


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, 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.

The devil may care

Image via Wikipedia

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.


Nazem Elsayed in one block


The formalist: a ramble

Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm (A land isolated by sleep), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2007

Manzil al-ukht as-sughra (The little sister’s house), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009

The body confronts the world. It is alive, it comes forth, it has burst into consciousness. That is borne out when the senses operate, the brain processes perception. Instantly, objects take on meaning. Thus “The Truth About My Knee” from Manzil al-ukht as-sughra: It occurs to me at the height of darkness/To jump out of bed and smoke/But instead I place my knee on your back which like you is asleep/And thinks my knee is a dream/Get up/The eyes are more beautiful than the night you lock up in your head/Darkness is one thing/Night is another thing/Get up so you can see my knee in reality/Bent in walking and in the fancy of walking. Hence one of several possible prognoses of the moment of confrontation – the only one that interests me, really – in which the meaning that objects have taken on fits into some narrative of the self (an oversophisticated side-effect of language, arguably: this omnipresence of a self). As in the text just cited, translated from Arabic in full, meaning becomes the subject’s meaning, which the subject can formulate but only within a commonality of experience: a space – like Manzil al-ukht as-sughra, like Fleurs du mal, like The Illiad – where it can be shared, where it works with supposedly similar confrontations of the world: darkness, dream, back, eyes, night, knee. Inevitably – and this is the sad part – so long as it remains in language it will be shared through a finite set of abstractions, generalisations, signs or signals in a system so independent and predetermined it tends, in the act of communicating, to obscure what is being communicated. In the extremely short “Small Words” – Words so small/I can place between them/The fingers of my lover/And all my suspicions. – something complete is communicated but only against all odds. Inevitably – equally sad – meaning is shared in time; to be communicable at all, an experience must also be an occurrence which, however immediate- or recurrent-seeming, has already happened, has entered into some level of history; it has to have become part of the self doing the communicating. That is how it becomes fixed on the page. Even in the most dramatic or epic situation, by the time such fixing can happen, the moment has already passed; in its specificity, what is being talked about is irrevocably gone. The body, once the bearer – whether it has evicted that which it bears or not (yet), is either at rest, in suspension – or it is elsewhere. Nearly always, sleep has intervened; in one sense the perceived is already a monument or a relic, the perceiver dead. And this momentary cycle of birth and death, the bursting into consciousness of the body and the passing of the moment at which the body bursts, is all that an occurrence like the truth about a knee or fingers that may have touched another’s body amounts to in context, whether or not someone decides to talk about it once it has manifested to them. There is another text called “Harvests”, more striking for seeming to emerge directly from the body of the speaker with no “mental” intervention whatsoever: Stretched on my back/On my stomach/On my side/In all the directions that are painful when the floor is. And another (the title may be translated “Interrogating Noon”, but it literally means making noon utter: istintaaq adh-dhahirah), which is perhaps more telling: The world is clear at noon/No sound/No branch/No step/The sun alone wanders the earth/Leaving behind the silence/That follows every perfection/As if noon is its own mask. Nothing in the world can be more straightforward. A dynamic of contact and termination in, as it were, language-ready perception on the verge of becoming language: this could well be a definition for human consciousness itself. So far as poetry is a description or “embodiment” of that dynamic, then – and I am at last revealing what I’ve been thinking of since the start of this ramble: poetry as a very particular kind of utterance – that kind of utterance is ideationally nothing at all: a (non) experience of the world in language, neither cognitive nor emotive, neither information nor opinion (though perhaps, and to varying degrees, all of these things at once). By this definition, which is not only mine and the Lebanese poet Nazem Elsayed’s but, as adopted from mostly English and French writing through the 20th century, also that of the significant majority of Arabs interested in poetry in our times, metre and metaphor are both more or less extraneous to the poetic (with that last, quasi-Zen insertion of a name, I have just made my revelation more specific, incidentally: I am thinking of two short books by a Lebanese poet called Nazem Elsayed, who happens to be the 10th of 11 siblings, born to illiterate parents the year the civil war broke out, only months before I was born; and it is these two books that I am discussing and partially translating here). Along those lines it may not be insane to suggest that the liars, as Plato called poets, have conventionally misled us in at least two ways not in the realm of speech at large but within poetic territory itself as we think of it. They have made us picture things in terms of other things – the homeland in terms of the mother, for example – and they have fobbed our ears with drum beats, our sense of the subtlety of a statement with its in-your-face rhetorical ring; whereas in fact what they should have been doing was to bring the minutiae of perception, of the body’s multifarious connections with the world, into a shared space made possible by language, a language: a way, as Wittgenstein describes it, of picturing the world. Nazem Elsayed commits neither of the two sins in question, or he commits them both but with such originality that it seems as if he does not commit them at all, or else he does something altogether else that transcends them while they are being committed. The central and in more than one sense the eternal reference point for Arabic literature remains the Quran, which Elsayed learned by heart for some time as a child. But the Quran, like Plato, dismisses poets as hustlers followed only by al-ghawoun: the misguided, those who have lost their way (to truth). As perhaps the most classically rooted of his generation of liars, I should therefore point out that Elsayed was nonetheless among the ghawoun almost from birth. At school he performed badly at everything but Arabic; one out-of-touch teacher advised him to pursue higher education in Cairo, a centre of language learning no longer so central, as he eventually discovered from Egyptian newspapers. He started writing traditional verse at secondary school, learning the ‘aroud or metrical compendium of Al-Farahidi initially with help from an elder sister. Elsayed knew the Umawites and the great Abbassids by heart. He remembers picking up shrapnel and empty bullet shells to resell, he remembers showing talent as a footballer, but mostly he remembers his family’s orally transmitted verses and the long pre-Islamic classics known as al-mu’alaqat. The point at which he stopped reciting his work to Syrian migrant labour to whom his father would show him off because it was no longer classical enough to be appreciated marked a major early departure. Elsayed refers often to the zajal and the songs his parents recapitulated and listened to. He distinguishes between a folklore that was solely Lebanese and connected with small communities in Mount Lebanon, and the tarab – an appreciative term sometimes translated as enchantment – associated with the wider Arab world. Tarab is slower and more elaborate, more structurally challenging; he was always more interested in tarab. To arrive at what he calls a modern understanding of poetry, breaking free of the iron grip of the fuhoul (literally, studs) of the past, it took Elsayed some ten years of conflicts, debates and encounters, notably – in person – with the Sidon-based poet Hamza Abboud. He read the Egyptian Romantics and the Lebanese Mahjar poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammad Afifi Matar. He registered the influence, as he wryly points out, of “minority figures” like Youssef Al-Khal (Christian), Adonis (Alawite), Mohammad Al-Maghout (Ismaili). He took in Bassam Hajjar, Paul Chaoul, Wadie Saada, Mohammad Ali Shamseddin. Where Arabic was concerned, he initially thought of Abbas Baydoun and Shawqi Abi Shaqra as the apostate and the ignoramus, respectively, eventually to realise his mistake. Elsayed speaks of interest in language that made structure possible. He speaks of an intensity not of emotion but of cadence, a capacity for building, an awareness of language that is poetry. And this is why poetry is a name we feel justified in giving to the following, very strong passage (No. 3) from Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm, Elsayed’s book-length text about his father, a baker who died, as his son says, before he could overcome his fear of death, about growing up underprivileged in the constantly makeshift circumstances imposed by war, about war and poverty, poverty and knowledge, knowledge and the prospect of plenty, the slow discovery of the physical world, the preternatural wonder of things, but principally about his father. The wall suddenly. And the always smiling entrance to the building. And the pipes that raise the water in their thin frame. And the stairs that count the steps of ascenders. And the darkness of the first floor. And the myth of the last floor. And the circling, wound around like nostalgia. And the pavement that lies panting on both sides of the road. And people for the sake of people. And provincial malice. And they tell of the grandmother who went with her bones to the grave. And the boy who used to hate the night and now loves it. And once he thought night ascended from the head, the way morning comes out of the eyes. And the trees that scurry past like a herd of madmen. And the isolation of corners. And the solitude of pathways. And the frankness of roofs. And patience in the larynx. And the missing step. And the put-off step. And how walking repeats the feet. And the flaccid fist in the chest. And heavy bodies in the imagination. And burnt shadows on the floor. And miracles in the head. And abrupt whiteness. And silly whiteness. And the man progressing and falling down behind him. Land wherever he goes. And the drowned sea being more than one person drowned. And all those who are born suddenly and die at leisure. And his eyes which transport across the air without a face. And people seeing him through them. And they shining cheerfully like new shoes. And dying while open. And dying too late. And coming out of the face like a scream. By we (in the we that calls this passage poetry), I mean Elsayed, his publisher and I – never mind a coterie of appreciative commentators, never mind a readership that must exist – as well as a discursive space shared by, among many other parties, the Egyptian Generation of the Nineties: poets who wrote originally but not as it is sometimes thought unprecedentedly in prose, most of them only slightly older than Elsayed. Their vernacularly nuanced standard Arabic – as Egyptian as it is provocative – could not possibly have influenced him. Within a discursive space that includes them, I am saying, Elsayed stands out for his connection not with the English, French and eventually Arabic writing that informed contemporary practises but with a tradition of Arabic verse (to be distinguished, as such, from our particular kind of utterance) from which the Generation of the Nineties were eager, emphatically, to tear themselves. One cue to Elsayed would be to say he transports the aesthetic intricacies of that tradition into a relevant – urban, living – idiomatic space; but the interesting thing is the way he does that. In hadathah (a word used, confusingly, to denote both modernity and modernism) – in the theorising of Adonis, for example, or in the free verse movement also known as the modern poetry movement also known, by its innovative approach to rhythm, after the metric unit it depended on as the taf’ila poetry movement – tradition is present in undifferentiated chunks: in an overriding theme, in an abundance of references, in a mode of composition. This is both a cause and an effect of hadathah coming across as a compromise or a copout; and while it is counterbalanced by equally whole chunks of the modern or the then contemporary, tradition turns into an obstacle, a burden ideally or eventually to be rid of, like Eliot’s boring hanger-on. In the present two books, by contrast – the one a single poem, the other a collection of very many extremely short poems, reflecting tarab and folklore, respectively – tradition lives in the structure of the composition and the movement of the language, the writer’s understanding of structure as an original possibility inherent to a particular language. Tradition lies low and by so doing it energises and animates what is being uttered, Elsayed’s confrontation with the world; it hosts it in the way the skin hosts muscle and bone. As it turns out, once tradition becomes an organic constituent of the text as world view, as literary style, as mode of perception – this happens with varying degrees of success, of course – it renders hadathah irrelevant. There is no need for either theory or reference. There is no need for an overt position on the poetic, which Elsayed says makes its mark simply by being what it is. There is only poetry, or would-be poetry (a noble enough accomplishment). And there are all the questions that the text itself raises in its capacity as an interaction with the physical, not (like much of the early work of the Generation of the Nineties, for example) in its capacity as a response to the social. That is only one way of showing what Nazem Elsayed stands out for, but stand out – in however subdued and unpretentious a way – I think Nazem Elsayed does.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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الطربوش: قصة

قبلما يمشي “زكريا” من عيادة الأسنان، سيناوله الطبيب شيئاً ملفوفاً في شاش. من غير ما ينطق، سيضع كرة الشاش الصغيرة لـ”زكريا” وسط راحة يده، وبرقّة وحسم يغلق عليها الأصابع – كما لو أنه واحد غني يتصدق على واحد فقير – ثم يربّت على القبضة المقلوبة ويسحب يده.  وسيخرج “زكريا” من العيادة وفي حلقه نصف ضحكة محبوسة منذ أطلق النصف الأول بعدما قبّل كرة الشاش وحكّها في قورته ثم أخفاها في جيبه مثل أي منادي سيارات يأخذ “استفتاحه”.  لأن “زكريا” قبلما يكمل ضحكته، اكتشف على وجه الطبيب تعبيراً عابساً وكأنه ينهره على رد فعله. لم يكن عند “زكريا” تفسير لفعل الطبيب سوى أن يكون تمثيلاً هزلياً يقصد به المزاح بعد جلسة علاج شاقة، الأمر الذي دفعه على أداء دور الشحات لإكمال المشهد. لكن لمّا أشاح الطبيب عنه بعصبية وكأنه يقول له “الحكاية ما تضحكش”، انصرف محبطاً من غير ما يفهم… العيادة قريبة من بيت “زكريا”، في شارع جانبي مظلم على الجهة المقابلة من ميدان واسع. حوالي ألف خطوة كما عدها في الطريق إلى هناك، لأنه يخاف من علاج الأسنان ويريد أن يلهي نفسه عن ما ينتظره. لكن ليلتها، وثقل البنج على فكه، سيبدو طريق العودة طويلاً جداً.  ومن غير ما يفك “زكريا” لفافة الشاش ولا حتى يُخرجها من جيبه، سيسترجع أول مرة فسد فيها الضرس الذي ذهب يعالجه ليلتها (ها هو الضرس – فكّر – يفسد للمرة الثانية): قبل عشر سنين تقريباً حفر نفس هذا الطبيب في ضرس “زكريا”. بخفة نزع العصب وحشا مكانه. ظل يقلّم حتى صار الضرس مدبباً وقصيراً، ثم ركّب فيه طربوشاً من البورسلين.  ولما ثبت الطربوش ابتسم لـ”زكريا” وقال: “سيبقى في فمك سنين طويلة.”  لن يخطر لـ”زكريا” حتى يستلقي على الكنبة، وفي يده كوب شاي مسكّر كأن البنج يذوب في سخونته، أن يمد يده إلى كرة الشاش التي أخرجها من جيبه وألقاها أمامه على الطاولة. سيضع كوب الشاي جانباً ويتناول لفافة الشاش يفكها. وفي ضوء “الأبجورة” يراه لأول مرة: الطربوش الذي زرعه طبيب الأسنان في فمه منذ عشر سنين.  ساعتها فقط تمر برأسه سنة كاملة لكل مئة خطوة قطعها في طريق العودة والبنج يشل نصف وجهه: سنة ما مات أبوه على سرير ضيق، وسنة ما أصابه أول انهيار عصبي جعله يكف عن تدخين الحشيش؛ سنة ما ذهب مع حبيبته في رحلة للتعافي في أصقاع آسيا، وسنة ما ترك حبيبته من أجل أخرى اختلف مع أبيها قبل أن يتزوجها. سنة ما زار لبنان لأول مرة وقرأ عن الحرب الأهلية هناك، وسنة ما تزوج ثالثة لن يستوي له العيش معها؛ سنة ما طلق زوجته ضد رغبتها، وسنة ما ذهب للعمل في إحدى دول الخليج؛ سنة ما عاد إلى وظيفته الحكومية، وسنة ما حصل على براءة أول اختراعاته العلمية.  سيضع “زكريا” الطربوش – بلا شاش – وسط راحة يده، وبرقّة وحسم… لو كان ضرساً مخلوعاً – يفكر – لما كان قد استغرب وجوده معه الآن، إنه – على غلوه المفاجئ – جماد. ولأول مرة، وهو قابض على الجسم الغريب الذي قبع في فمه عشر سنين من غير ما يلتفت له مرة، سيدرك السر فيما فعله الطبيب

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هأسأل عليك إزاي

كنت أذهب إليه في مرسمه بمصر الجديدة فيطردني. لم يكن يطردني بالضبط، وليس كل مرة طبعاً، لكنه لم يكن يتساهل في أي هفوة تنظيمية من جانبي وكان يتعمد معاملتي كصبي معلم بدلاً من زبون. ضخامة جثته واتزانه الوقور يصدّران إحساساً بأنني أقف منه موقف الابن العاق، وهو ما أحسسته على وجه الدقة حين بلغني الخبر بينما أنا على سفر. في المخابرة الهاتفية الأخيرة كان قد قال لي “ابقى اسأل عليَّ”. وكأي شخص مزاجي حقير لم أفعل، تماماً كما تجاهلتُ أبي في أيامه الأخيرة دون أن أعلم أنها الأخيرة أو أسأل نفسي إن كان باقياً لي هذا الأب أو إن كان يمكن أن يعوّض. الآن وقد وصلت إلى حيث كنت ذاهباً، أفكر في كل آبائنا الراحلين، كيف أنهم آجلاً أو عاجلاً يرحلون، وأننا نكون تقاعسنا في السؤال… كل هذه المخابرات المؤجلة وتجاهلي لمن أحب خجلاً أو شوقاً أو خوفاً من وزن لحظات محتملة…تذكرتُ أيضاً يوم قلت له مازحاً إنني لن أتعبه بنفس القدر في مشروعنا التالي المشترك، وكان قد شكا وشكا من ويلات التعامل مع شخص مستهتر ومدلل مثلي حيث اقترح ثم رفض ثم قبل أن يصمم كتاباً عن بيروت يحتوي على نصوصي وصوري التي أرسلتها إليه فور الانتهاء منها بلا توقعات سنة 2005.كان قد عمل في كتابي بلا مقابل، أعطاني اسمه فضلاً عن جهد يديه، ما ساهم ولابد في أنني واصلت الكتابة عن المدن وتمكنت من نشر ما كتبته وربما حتى إثارة شيء من الاهتمام. كان يتحرك من واقع إعجابه بالنص مجرداً من أي اعتبار ولأنه – كما قال لي – تعرّف في الصور على بيروت التي عاش فيها قبل عقود أو سنين. يومها قلت له “عقبال الكتاب اللي جاي يا أستاذ محيي”، وكان رد فعله عكس ما توقعت تماماً، حيث ظننته سيقول شيئاً من قبيل “بعينك”! كان رد فعله فقط أن تنهد تنهيدة قصيرة وابتسم ثم قال ما معناه أنه قد لا يبقى على قيد الحياة ما يكفي من الزمن لإنجاز كتاب. كانت لحظة محيرة. أردت أن أحتضنه أو على الأقل أبكي في حضوره، أن أعبر عن الامتنان والغضب وشيء ثالث يحسه الأبناء حيال هؤلاء الذين يجعلونهم أشخاصاً بحيوات وأسماء. لم أفعل شيئاً بالطبع.وأتذكر أنه كان ينفيني إلى البلكونة كلما أردت أن أشعل سيجارة وقد سد خرماً في صدره كما صار يقول حين أجبره الطبيب على الكف عن التدخين. هناك شيء آسر في أدائه على كل حال، وعندما يأخذه سحر الحكي يتبدى الحنان في صوته بما ينفي آثار ذلك العنف المقطّر. حكاياته شيقة ومتعددة وإن كانت مريرة، في الكثير من الأحيان يتملكه اليأس من هذه البلاد وهؤلاء الناس لكن نبرة التأمل المتفكه لا تبرح صوته. كنت أسترد في حضوره إيماناً بجدوى الثقافة والمثقفين زايلني طوال سنوات كففت أثناءها عن الكتابة بالعربية. والآن أعرف أنه لولا محيي اللباد لما أصدرت كتاباً بعد ذلك الانقطاع.بأحلى المعاني كان مثقفاً مشتبكاً مع الواقع، كان قد تعلم كيف يجنب نفسه ليس فقط الأدلجة والادعاء ولكن أيضاً كل تلك الأشياء المؤسفة والمجهدة التي قد يعاني منها فنان عنده من الشجاعة وحب الغير ما يكفي لاختيار مسار مصمم الجرافيك في زمن لم يكن يعني فيه ذلك سوى شح الموارد والتصادم مع الغباء.أفكر فيه وأقول في عقلي: طيب هأسأل عليك إزاي دلوقتي أنا يا أستاذ محيي؟


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حوار‮ ‬منصورة عز الدين

هدفي تحطيم البقرات المقدسة

لا يكف يوسف رخا عن إثارة الشغب‮. ‬

حاجته الدائمة إلي المغادرة وعدم الثبات تدفعه لاختبار أقصي درجات التمرد و(السخط؟‮) ‬في الكتابة‮. ‬لا يعترف بأي فواصل أو حدود بين الأنواع الأدبية،‮ ‬لذا يمعن في التنقل بينها ومزجها ببعضها البعض كأنما تتحول الكلمات معه إلي لعبة ما‮. ‬إلي مكعبات أو قطع ميكانو يرّكبها كل مرة علي نحو مختلف ثم لا يلبث أن يفككها من جديد‮.‬

اللغة من وجهة نظره صديق لا يجب أن نبذل معه كل هذا الجهد‮. ‬صديق يتحول رخا من أجله إلي متآمر أبدي يظل يسهم في تنفيذ مؤامرة محكمة للتأكد من أن اللغة‮ “‬لغته لا تعيش إلا خارج الكتابة‮” ‬كما كتب في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ضمن كتابه الأحدث‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮”. ‬وهو النص الذي يشبه خارطة طريق‮ (‬لن أقول مانيفست‮) ‬لنظرته للّغة،‮ ‬وهي نظرة،‮ ‬ربما تكون بدأت معه منذ بدايته،‮ ‬إذ نجد تجلياً‮ ‬آخر لها في نص من نصوصه الأولي‮ (‬منشور في الكتاب نفسه‮) ‬وعنوانه‮ “‬عبّاس العقاد‮” ‬يكتب فيه‮ “‬تلك القوالب الخرسانية‮/ ‬وقصائد الحديد والصلب‮/ ‬هل كنت تتحدث مع المازني‮/ ‬بلغة سرية؟‮/ ‬أنت لم تترك لي‮/ ‬أكثر مما تركه الإغريق القدامي‮/ ‬أنت ورثتني‮/ ‬قوالب طوب‮/ ‬أنت ممن جعلوني‮/ ‬أكره اللغة العربية‮”.‬

هذه القصيدة أشبه ما تكون بتصفية حسابات مع نظرة معينة للّغة وللفن،‮ ‬وهو أمر لا ينكره رخا،‮ ‬إذ يقول‮: “‬كان هذا مطروحاً‮ ‬في قصيدة التسعينيات‮. ‬تصفية حسابات مع البشر والدنيا بشكل إنساني،‮ ‬تصفية حسابات علي المستويين الجمالي والأدبي‮. ‬لكن يمكنني قول إنه ليس تصفية حسابات بقدر ما هو تمرد أو تكسير للبقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬والعقاد أكبر‮ “‬البقرات المقدسة‮” ‬بدون وجه حق‮! ‬هو من وجهة نظري ليس لديه جديد يقوله،‮ ‬علاقته باللغة مريضة ومختلف تماما عن طه حسين مثلاً‮. ‬موقفي من العقاد ليس موقفاً‮ ‬من عصر ولا توجه سياسي،‮ ‬إنما موقف من كاتب أرفض التعبد في محرابه‮. ‬الآن لن أكتب قصيدة بهذا المنطق‮. ‬لأني مقتنع حاليا أن تصفية الحسابات حتي لو بشكل جمالي ليست هدفاً‮ ‬كافياً‮ ‬للكتابة‮”.‬

‮ ‬تبدو اللغة هنا هي المعيار الأول الذي يقرِّب صاحب‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮” ‬من كاتب أو ينفره منه،‮ ‬يستشهد بطه حسين باعتباره النموذج المغاير للعقاد،‮ ‬لكنه يعود في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ليسخر من صاحب‮ “‬الأيام‮” ‬لأنه شغل نفسه بسؤال‮: “‬أيهما الأصح‮: ‬تخرّج في الجامعة‮ ‬_‮ ‬أم من‮ ‬_‮ ‬الجامعة؟‮”. ‬

من ناحية أخري‮  ‬يبدو يوسف رخا كأنما في صراع دائم مع اللغة للوصول للغته هو،‮ ‬لغة تخصه،‮ ‬وتشبهه،‮ ‬بما يحمله من تمرد وقلق ورغبة دائمة في اخراج لسانه للجميع وتكسير كل الأيقونات والبقرات المقدسة‮. “‬هذا في حد ذاته من الأشياء الأساسية في الكتابة الأدبية‮. ‬درجة من الطزاجة تسعين لها‮. ‬أن تتجاوزي الكليشيهات حتي لو قمتِ‮ ‬بسك كليشيهات خاصة بكِ‮ ‬في المقابل‮.” ‬يقول رخا قبل أن يضيف‮: “‬ثمة سلطات لغوية مزعجة‮. ‬توجد سلطوية كريهة في التعامل مع اللغة‮. ‬هذا شيء ضد الإبداع‮. ‬نحن نتكلم لغة‮ ‬غير التي نكتب بها‮. ‬لدينا لهجات مختلفة،‮ ‬ولغة لم تتطور إلا علي الورق،‮ ‬وأري أن هذا شيء جيد‮. ‬لو حذونا حذو أوروبا لكانت كل لهجة تحولت إلي لغة منفصلة‮. ‬هذا يطرح سؤالاً‮ ‬طوال الوقت هو‮: ‬كيف تكتبين؟ أنتِ‮ ‬مسبقاً‮ ‬اخترتِ‮ ‬الكتابة كامتداد تاريخي لما كُتِب باللغة العربية علي مدي التاريخ،‮ ‬لكن مع لمسة إنسانية تقترب من لغة الكلام‮. ‬في مرحلة من المراحل،‮ ‬عندما كنت أفكر في الكتابة،‮ ‬شعرت أن الأشياء التي من الممكن أن أخسرها والتي لا تعوض هي الصراع بين العامية والفصحي‮. ‬لديكِ‮ ‬لغتان يمكنكِ‮ ‬استنباط شيء مختلف من تصادمهما أو تجاورهما‮. ‬اللغة إضافة لكونها علاقة صريحة مع ما هو الشعر،‮ ‬إنما هي أيضا صراع‮. ‬معظم الكتّاب الذين أحبهم سواء بالعربية أو الإنجليزية يكون عندهم لغة تخصهم‮”.  ‬


اختار رخا‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬عنواناً‮ ‬لكتابه الأحدث الصادر عن دار العين،‮ ‬كأنما يؤكد من جديد علي أهمية المكان في كتابته‮. ‬إذ يظهر دائما باعتباره مركز الكتابة والعنصر الأساسي فيها‮. ‬لاحظنا هذا في كتبه في أدب الرحلات من‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮”‬،‮ ‬إلي‮ “‬شمال القاهرة،‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”‬،‮ ‬وها نحن نلاحظه في نصوصه الأحدث المقالات منها والقصائد،‮ ‬بل وحتي في مخطوط روايته التي لم تصدر بعد‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮”. ‬يعترف رخا أنه في الشعر لا يوجد لديه وعي بحضور المكان‮: “‬عندما سافرت إلي أبو ظبي وجدتني أكتب قصائد متتالية عن المكان دونما تخطيط أو قصدية‮. ‬وكان هذا لطيفاً،‮ ‬إنما الكتابة عن المكان في كتب الرحلات تتم عن عمد،‮ ‬أعتقد أن المكان من الأشياء الأساسية عندي،‮ ‬أكثر أهمية من الزمن بالنسبة لي‮. ‬من المفارقات أني عشت في أماكن كثيرة جدا في القاهرة وخارجها،‮ ‬وكنت دائما أعود للشقة التي وُلدت فيها‮. ‬احساس لا علاقة له بالعاطفة أو الحنين‮”. ‬

الزمن في كتابات رخا إما مفكك أو موجود في منظومة محددة سلفاً‮. ‬في كتاب‮ “‬الطغري‮” ‬مثلاً‮ ‬تدور الرواية في ثلاثة أسابيع محددة‮. ‬ويظهر فيها المكان‮ / ‬القاهرة وتغيراته بشكل واضح،‮ ‬بل إنها‮ (‬أي القاهرة‮) ‬العنصر الأساسي في‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮” ‬كما يؤكد رخا‮: “‬وهذا جزء رئيسي من عملية التكوين في الرواية‮. ‬المكان حاضر تماما،‮ ‬ليس فقط القاهرة،‮ ‬إنما نكهات معينة لأماكن معينة‮. ‬قاهرتي أنا‮. ‬شعرت باختلاف كبير حينما أكتب عن مكان ضخم أعرفه جيدا‮. ‬أبو ظبي وبيروت مثلا أصغر من القاهرة،‮ ‬وخبرتي فيهما أقل‮. ‬عندما يكون المكان كبيراً،‮ ‬وخبرتك فيه كبيرة تستطيعين اللجوء لخيارات صعبة‮”.‬

لكن بعيداً‮ ‬عن مركزية المكان،‮ ‬يبدو‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬مربكاً‮ ‬لهواة التصنيف،‮ ‬فالكتاب يحطم الحدود بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬إذ يضم ديوانين قصيرين أحدهما قديم والآخر جديد،‮ ‬ومعهما نصوص ومقالات‮. ‬تجسير الفجوة بين الأجناس له مستوي آخر أيضا فثمة نصوص شعرية في الكتاب أقرب للنثر،‮ ‬ومقالات ونصوص سردية أقرب للشعر‮. ‬لا يبدو يوسف رخا مرتاحاً‮ ‬لفكرة أن يبرر نشره للمقالات مع القصائد،‮ ‬يقول بدرجة من الاستهانة‮: “‬كان لدي ديوانان قصيران،‮ ‬لا يصح أن ينشر كل منهما وحده،‮ ‬كان من الممكن أن يُنشرا مع بعضهما في كتاب أصغر‮. ‬لم أرغب في أن ينشر كل منهما في كتاب أصغر لأن لدي مشكلة مع الكتب الهزيلة حجماً،‮ ‬كما كنت أشعر بضرورة أن تتم قراءتهما معاً‮. ‬أيضا أردت كسر التصنيف الحاد بين النثر والشعر واخترت نصوصا نثرية من الممكن أن تصنع حالة كلية مع الديوانين‮. ‬من الممكن أن تقرأي القصائد علي أنها نثر مطبوع بشكل مختلف،‮ ‬وتقرأي المقالات علي أنها شعر مطبوع كنثر‮”.‬

أسأله‮: ‬تبدو مشغولا بتجسير المسافة بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬ما السبب؟

‮- “‬بالنسبة لما أكتبه،‮ ‬أشعر أن مسألة الأنواع الأدبية مفتعلة‮. ‬ثمة شكل تقني يتطلب أشياء معينة‮. ‬ولديّ‮ ‬دائما تساؤل هو‮: ‬هل لو كتب رامبو روايات لكان أصبح أقل أهمية وتأثيراً؟ وهل لو كتب ديستويفسكي قصائد لكان أقل أهمية؟ فكرة التخصص التي كانت سائدة في السبعينيات لا معني لها من وجهة نظري‮. ‬الكتابة كتابة سواءً‮ ‬أكانت مقالا أو ريبورتاج أو قصة‮. ‬ما يحركني لها دوافع واحدة بغض النظر عن الجنس الأدبي الذي أكتبه‮. ‬في لحظة معينة أجدني أقرأ كتاب‮ “‬ميزان الذهب في شعر العرب‮” ‬من أجل كتابة بيتين من الشعر العمودي أحتاجهما في مكان معين من عمل معين‮. ‬التركيبة الموجودة في‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬لا أعرف إلي أي مدي هي موفقة‮. ‬هي مبنية علي نصوص كانت موجودة مسبقاً‮ ‬عندي‮”.‬


رغبة رخا في التمرد وتحطيم البقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬لا توفر شيئاً‮ ‬أو أحداً،‮ ‬إذ تمتد إلي الشعر نفسه‮. ‬نلاحظ رغبة قوية في إنزاله من عليائه واللعب به ومعه‮.‬

يقول‮: “‬لا أري أن أدبية النص لها أي علاقة بتوصيفه‮. ‬عندي ثورة شخصية علي الأدبية الخاصة بتلقي النص الآتية من مكان معين خارجه‮. ‬من جانب آخر هناك الأفكار التي ظهرت في التسعينيات والداعية لكسر نوع معين من البلاغة وتصور معين عن الأديب‮. ‬كان الأهم فيها أنها حطمت المفهوم الخاص بأن من يكتب يلعب دور المعلم أو الأديب أو حتي النبي‮. ‬في عملي لا تزال هناك الرغبة في أن تصدمي أو تكسري‮. ‬رغبة مصدرها التآلف مع ما حدث في التسعينيات رغم أني وقتها لم أكن واعياً‮ ‬بهذا بشكل كافٍ‮. ‬هذا الكتاب أشعر أنه فاصل‮/ ‬حاجز بين مرحلة استنفدت أغراضها وبين مرحلة جديدة‮. ‬بمعني‮  ‬بين مرحلة كتابة المكان بالشكل الذي بدأته‮ ‬2005‮ ‬وبين الرواية التي انتهيت منها مؤخرا‮. ‬الديوان صدر فوراً‮ ‬بعد‮ “‬شمال القاهرة‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”. ‬شعرت أنه يملأ المساحة بين أدب الرحلات والرواية‮. ‬الكتاب كان من المفترض أن يحتوي أيضاً‮ ‬علي اسكتشات وصور فوتوغرافية،‮ ‬لكن لم يحدث هذا لأسباب ربما تكون تقنية،‮ ‬الفكرة تم رفضها من قبل الناشر‮”.

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أكلة لحوم البشر

ذَكَري على الأرض بين قدميها

بعد يومين – تقول لي، راجية أن لا ألفت إليه انتباه الخادمة – ستكون الخادمة نفسها هنا من جديد. لا، لا، لن تكنس ذكرك. فقط لا يجب أن تراه

فجأة يخرج عِرق نافر من جانب ذكري. كدودة مستميتة يشب على كعبها. يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها

سيكون هناك أطفال – تُواصِل، وأنا أحاول أن لا أنظر إليه – وزوج هو أبوهم، وأب صار جداً فخوراً، لم لا؟

وكعادة البيت الذي لا أحسني غريباً عليه رغم كل شيء – فكرت – ستصخب الأركان بأشخاص أفهمتني أنهم أصدقاؤها. أنهم بريئون وضروريون. ومثل إخوتها المدعوين إلى وليمة بدأت الخادمة في تجهيزها، لن يدوسوا على ذَكَري. فقط لا يجب أن يروه

لكنني رغماً عني أرى العِرق النافر. كدودة مصممة على الحياة، يتشبث بالكعب. ببطء مميت يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها

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أخطاء الملاك-عن قصيدة سركون بولص


ماذا ظننتَه سيفعل بعد كل هذا الوقت، الملاك الذي ظهر لك وانتظر أن تتبعه… كيف لم تقدّر عمق ألمه السماوي وأنت تبتعد عن الجبل الملعون كل يوم خطوة، تجرجر حقائبك المثقلة بلحمه على ساعات تجري إلى ما لا نهاية بين ساقيه، وتهزأ إذا ما نهاك تليفونياً عن الكبرياء؟ الآن وقد أصبح الملاك بُخاراً، كسبتَ ما أراد أن يضيّعه عليك. لكن ما الذي فضّلتَه على الخسارة؟ قرية هجرتْها نساؤها؟ خادم يسرق من البيت؟ نجمة مدارها دبلة ستصدأ في إصبعك؟ لعلك ظننته يظهر من جديد، أو نسيت أن في بطنه دمك… يا كافر، كيف ستحلّق الآن؟


قصيدة سركون بولص من ديوان حامل الفانوس في ليل الذئاب

يظهر ملاك إذا تبعته خسرت كل شيء، إلا إذا تبعته حتى النهاية… حتى تلاقيه في كل طريق متلفعاً بأسماله المنسوجة من الأخطاء، يجثم الموت على كتفه مثل عُقاب غير عادي تنقاد فرائسه إليه محمولة على نهر من الساعات، في جبل نهاك عن صعوده كل من لاقيته، في جبل ذهبت تريد ارتقاءه! لكنك صحوت من نومك العميق في سفح من سفوحه، وكم أدهشك أنك ثانية عدت إلى وليمة الدنيا بمزيد من الشهية: الألم أعمق، لكن التحليق أعلى

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ما اقتناه الصعيدي

بدلاً من صوت متعجل على التليفون

قادر أن يعيد الكلب الضائع إلى بيته الخشبي

ذلك السقف الهرمي الطالع من النوم والطفولة

تطمئنك تسجيلات المسرحيات

تلك السخافات المقطّرة كالكحول

تُضحِك مع أنها محفوظة عن ظهر قلب

وتفكر أن طفولتك كانت سعيدة

وإلا ما أمضيتَ هذا الوقت في انتظار صوت

يحتاج إلحاحاً قبل أن ينسل في أذنك

ولا صدمك حماسه للذهاب إلى مكان لستَ فيه

لابد أن في الدنيا أصواتاً كثيرة

ليست متعجلة على التليفون

وربما أحق من هذا الصوت بالترقب

ولأول مرة منذ منتصف عمرك المبكر

تحس أنك مكتمل البلاهة

مثل الصعيدي الذي دفع كل ماله

مقابل صك امتلاك الترامواي

بدلاً من الصوت الآن تعجَب

من فرحة الصعيدي بما اقتناه

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Infinite Requiem: An Old Piece

Al Ahram Weekly 1 – 7 November 2001, Issue No.558

… of all the Palestine-inspired fare, no gesture in the direction of the ongoing Intifada could have hit the nail on the head with greater precision than the Swiss filmmaker Richard Dino’s Genet à Chatila, a Panorama screening.

The film is a long, audiovisual document of Jean Genet’s experience of the Palestinian revolution in Lebanon and Jordan in the early and mid-1970s, and again in 1982, when the aging Genet, already a well- known supporter of the Palestinian cause and now accompanied to Beirut by Leila Shahid (the Palestinian ambassador to France, then a university student in Paris), witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Chatila massacre just outside Beirut. The Lebanese Phalangist militia, under the direction of the Israeli army, had undertaken a “barbaric feast,” and Genet couldn’t help but revel in it in his way: “A photograph can’t capture the flies,” he states, “nor the thick white smell of death, nor can it show how you have to jump when you go from one body to another.”

This was, so Shahid tells us, a phenomenal encounter, which compelled Genet to start writing after almost 20 years of reticence. The pages Genet worked on in silence in Beirut, just after his four-hour stroll through the Chatila camp, were to grow into Prisoner of Love, his last book, from which Dino’s work takes its cue. Reviewing, in merciless detail, the excellent work General Sharon (otherwise known as the current Israeli prime minister) achieved in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, Genet à Chatila moves back in time, into the minds and houses of the feda’iyeen lurking in the Jordanian desert, further away from the facts of the resistance (of which no trace remains at the time of filming), and deeper into the realm of Genet’s poetic genius, to which the book bears ample testimony: “These trees come back to me,” he recalls, referring to his two-year stay with the feda’iyeen, while an empty expanse of desert, punctuated by the trees in question, implants its likeness into the mind of the viewer. The words are more than evocative: their power of suggestion is such they imbue the images with a larger-than-life, not-as-boring-as-it-seems, multi-dimensional reality. “I haven’t said enough of their fragility. Everything was trees.” At the time of writing, Genet listened constantly to Mozart’s (ultimately unfinished) Requiem, which provides a large part of the soundtrack, then he too died while correcting the proofs, Shahid supplies meaningfully.

Chatila Refugee Camp, Beirut 1982

She is standing in a typically nondescript hotel room in Paris, which was Genet’s last home. He died, as he so often described himself, a stranger among strangers, terminally tired of hunting down the superficially trivial memories from which he forged his own mythology. In one of many passages recited, with a dogged repetitiveness, through the journey, Genet wonders offhandedly, “Why talk about this revolution? It too resembles a long drawn out burial, with me following the funeral procession from afar.”

And yet revolution “is the happiest time of life,” the viewer is persuasively informed. “The feda’iyeen didn’t want power, they had freedom,” and “the death of a favourite fada’iye” paradoxically seemed to cheer them up, give them more determination. Their life, “in a Muslim country, where the woman is far away,” was an almost indelible “celebration.” Reflecting on the subsequent fate of his doomed companions, Genet insists, “It must be stated… that hundreds of years are not enough for the final destruction of a people.” In the light of current affairs, this is a salutary assertion indeed.

So much for affirmation: even here, Genet cannot help being subversive; and his position as a lone European among Palestinians is perpetually brought into focus. It was as if, living in a dark dungeon, the feda’iyeen’s heart’s desire was merely to intensify the darkness, to sink deeper and deeper into despair. Helpless and without hope: this is how Genet seems to like his Palestinians; that, in being part of the revolution he felt he was living “in his own memory” is the core of his sympathy, unconditional and ultimately of no use. He was a Frenchman, he says, but he could only find himself “amongst the oppressed risen against the whites.” The struggle of the Palestinians was “right,” not necessarily good or objectively justified. They were right simply because he loved them, and he wonders whether such love would have been possible had injustice not turned them into nomads. It is this distance, his self-awareness, that makes Genet’s account of the revolution so relevant: neither patriotism nor reason is brought into play; only the “incredible fact” of his being among them, like a shadow, colours his awareness of their suffering.

In reenacting his journey — at first she appears to be impersonating the young Shahid, but eventually she seeks out Genet’s surviving friends or their relations, spends a night in the desert with a cheerful band of former feda’iyeen, reads and recites Prisoner of Love, listens to the Requiem and steps pointlessly into the scene of the massacres, the killings, the simple acts of courage and kindness that enthralled Genet — Mounia Raoui, a young Algerian Frenchwoman, seems to be underlining the emptiness to which Genet alludes. It is true that her conversations with survivors and other Palestinians illuminate their plight in an incomparably immediate way — such, many would say, is the mark of a successful documentary — but it is her outrage at the lack of any record, in present-day reality, of what Genet reported, that makes her presence indispensable. Mounia is Dino’s counterpart for Genet’s writing, “the silent face” that makes up his account of the revolution: “So many words to say this is my Palestinian revolution,” which, to Genet at least, is not quite the same thing. Yet no one, “nothing, no narrative [or, by extension, cinematic] technique could ever describe” the real Palestinian revolution.

It has been buried, along with Mozart and Genet; and, like the graves of Chatila’s victims, its burying places have never been marked with tombstones. Genet was right, however, for, even as General- Prime Minister Sharon’s broad grin gives off the thick white smell of death, we know the final destruction of the Palestinian people is not nearly about to take place.

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ليلة أخرى في فندق يونيون

هذه الأبجورة الثقيلة ذات الطرف المدبب

مثل آلة تعذيب من العصور الوسطى

هل رأيتها قاعدة ببراءة بين سريرينا؟

هكذا قال صديقي الساكن معي في الغرفة

حيث للبحر صوت السيارات على الكورنيش

وفي خيوط الملاءة التي أنا نائم عليها

ذاكرة عُمر من القاهرة إلى الإسكندرية على القضبان

سوف أنتظر حتى يغلبك النعاس – واصل

ثم أرفعها عالياً في الهواء، فوق رأسك

مصوباً طرفها نحو المخيخ

مصوباً طرفها نحو المخيخ

ردّد – وحاولتُ أن أتذكر

لماذا كان علينا أن نستقل آخر قطار

بعد ليالٍ من السهرغير المبرر

بحيث ما نكاد نصل إلى غرفتنا

حتى يستلقي كل منا على سريره

وليس في الدنيا ما يستحق اليقظة

سوف أنتظر حتى يغلبك النعاس – قال

وصارخاً صرخة انتحاريّ على وشك أن ينفّذ العملية،

أريح يديّ من ثقل هذه الأبجورة فوق رأسك

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Missed Call: June, 2007

Pondering inter-Arab bloodshed, Youssef Rakha scratches his nose

Click to view caption

Something wakes me at midnight on Saturday. Another sleepless night of Al-Jazeera, and I’ve been unconscious since my return from the office. With an empty stomach and a groggy head, I reach instinctively for my mobile phone. Among the three missed calls listed on the screen, I catch the name of Michel Elefteriades.

It’s been a while since I heard from this most famous of all my friends, the many-facetted Lebanese Civil War veteran-turned-music producer, otherwise known as Emperor Michel I of Nowherestan, and I’m wondering whether or not he might be following up his invitation for me to visit him in Beirut (in recent weeks I’ve had a strong reason to go, so the thought is exciting even despite last night’s overdose of adversity). But since getting this month’s bill, I’ve cancelled the roaming facility on my phone, my only way to call back Michel’s Lebanon number. So I text a brief apology instead, reviewing the next day’s tasks while I stretch, yawn and head for the kitchen. I don’t think he will call back.

Nor does it occur to me that talking to the Emperor might help with the most pressing of said tasks: the writing of a “culturally aware response” to ongoing violence in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories — something I’m sure readers of these pages will appreciate, though I have no idea what, when click comes to save, it might actually entail. Once again I wonder whether to make a bulk e-mail request for reactions, seek out a locally available “source”, or simply scour online news sites afresh.

Bread, cheese and, more essentially, Turkish coffee to the rescue — and I’m sifting through the notes I made in the morning. Before the hour is up, hallelujah, I have a general outline for what I want to say. Ditto: That the Fateh-Hamas conflict need not have devolved into inter-Palestinian war; That armed Palestinian presence in the northern refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared need not be casting the shadow of 1975 on Lebanon all over again; That both conflicts raise the old niggling suspicion of some more benevolently inspired interventions on the part of the global powers that be; And that, at their allegedly secular-Islamist root, there lies, still, that suffocating sense of America versus the Arab-Muslim world.

Suffocating being the operative word, largely because absurd: Neither the Arab genetic constitution nor Islam is inherently at variance with what President Bush has called “the way of life enjoyed by free nations” (Saudi Arabia presumably being one such?) Which is how America is defined, in opposition to the “terrorists” to whose line of thinking — boasting nothing greater than Mohammad Abdel-Wahhab or Sayed Qutb — the entire history of Arab-Muslim civilisation has been reduced.

Up to and including, that is, at least six whole centuries in which, while it occupied a position very like that of the West’s in our times, said civilisation drew in not only Christians, Jews and “Franks” but every facet of its geographic and human extent. For as long as anyone remembers, in fact, among Arab governments, (relative) alliance with Washington has resulted in political oppression, sectarian strife and — indeed I’m very sorry, yes — militant Islam far more than it has reforms.

Finally I read through what I’ve scribbled. Phew! A small triumph. And my tiny new computer on my lap, fingers hovering above the keyboard, a blank document beckoning, I’m poised for ingenuity when the phone rings…It has taken another three days for the present piece to materialise.

Not much has changed in either Gaza or le Liban — except that by now Michel, if all has gone to plan, will have safely left Beirut. I have done much copy editing in the interim, continued reading Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, used Microsoft MSN to chat with Lebanese friends at unworldly hours and thought a lot more about those masked figures bearing big guns in the office of Mahmoud Abbas. I have thankfully avoided Al-Jazeera.

Now, his (proletariat) Highness Emperor Michel I being the exemplar of “a way of life” I am eager to promote in these unfree nations of ours, I’ve decided to take stock of the effect of the violence on his person, rather than develop the argument outlined above — an exercise which, while readily drawing accusations of the conspiracy mentality and generating no end of futile factual arguments, would not come to anything very culturally aware, I decided.

His Highness, by contrast, is all culture: He is the founder of the Music Hall, owner of, among much else, Elefteriades Productions-Elefrecords, holder of the Warner Bros label, and author of some of fusion’s most exciting pairings (Hanin and the Cubans, Wadie El-Safie and Jose Fernandez, Tony Hanna and the Balkan Gypsies, Demis Roussos and the Oriental Takht); He has opened restaurants, designed lines of clothing, produced art, and appeared on satellite television; More recently, with Nowherestan, he drew up an alternative (new) world order that abolishes both national frontiers and democracy, divides the world into two hemispheres and employs scholar-senators in place of politicians; A Greek by blood, Frenchman by education, quasi- Muslim by sociopolitical sympathy, Lebanese nationalist by affiliation with Michel Aoun, Roma Gypsy by musical association, he embodies the possibility of a pluralistic Arabness — one that speaks not of minorities and their rights but of whole, integrated societies that share a language, a sense of the world in its entirety and a productive energy. It is he, of all people, who has had to leave Beirut…

I didn’t get a chance to say much during the 15 minutes I spent on the phone with Michel, a little before two in the morning on Saturday night. I didn’t have much to say on the topic, but I wouldn’t have minded if I had: His Highness is the kind of interlocutor I prefer to listen to. Sounding a little rattled if no less articulate than usual, he started with the declaration that he had was leaving Lebanon — for Belgrade where, as he explained with subdued pride, music has provided him with good friends. He was leaving in much the same way as he had done long ago, towards the end of the war — not to settle down in Beirut again until 2005, when a general amnesty was granted — and he sounded frustrated even as he expressed resignation.

It was pointless, he kept saying, pointless and potentially fatal to stay. When last I saw him, the Emperor had complained of an atmosphere in which, as a businessman, he did not feel secure enough to make a sustained effort. He had spoken of the authorities unaccountably making life difficult, saying it was because of his Aounist sympathies. He had looked thinner and more preoccupied than I remembered him. Now it is easy not to take Elefteriades seriously, given the things he tends to talk about: multinational secret-intelligence schemes; billion-dollar budgets; how PhD holders who arrive in Hummer vehicles can change your life forever by murmuring a few words into a satellite phone.

But the more you find out about him, the more convincing it all becomes — and you have to stop thinking about it before it drives you insane. Whatever the general case, this was clearly no joke. Michel didn’t make it clear until the end of the conversation, but he had received death threats from people who have made attempts on his life in the past. They had called him and promised to kill his children, rape his wife, draw blood from his eyes. And though he knows they were Aoun’s traditional war rivals, the ruthless Lebanese Forces — perpetrators of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, among other, often inter- Christian atrocities — as he also explained, with more exasperation than fear, it is not the Forces that matter. It had been decided that there should be war in Lebanon; within months, he said, there would be war in Lebanon. None of the little players have much to do with it; they are pawns, not chess masters; and, well, it is too late to be optimistic now.

But who on earth decided it?

The Emperor just ranted on about Neocons: how their principal ideologue had been a Jew who contributed to the theory of Nazism; how the Neocon attitude is now openly adopted in France — an unprecedented development; how American gurus were explaining to the public that to be a good Muslim is to be a terrorist, and that believers are therefore faced with a dilemma for as long as they live.

It was clear to him, he said, that even as a Christian in this part of the world, you were bundled together with Muslims. You were more like a Muslim than Westerner, after all. Getting rid of the one, they might as well get rid of the other. A war of civilisations indeed. At this point I remembered something Michel had told me about the divide-and-conquer strategy deployed in the postcolonial world: “Had Americans existed in the time of Saladin, they would have told him, ‘You are a Kurd, those Arabs are out to get you!’ And he wouldn’t have managed to liberate Jerusalem from the Crusaders.” Better let those people kill each other off — he was saying now — so they won’t stand in the way of Empire.

And calming down again, gradually, the Emperor told me he would eventually move to Egypt, where he already has had business deals in the making. “But you understand this is about the entire region,” he added. “In Lebanon it’s going to happen in a couple of months. In Egypt, give it five, six years. Till Mubarak dies. It is still happening…”

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القائمة القصيرة لجائزة الرواية العربية

Image via Wikipedia

الثلثاء 15 كانون الأول 2009

الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية (البوكر العربية) 2010

الإعلان عن اللائحة القصيرة

جمال ناجي، ربعي المدهون، ربيع جابر، عبده خال، محمد المنسي قنديل ومنصورة عز الدين هم الكتّاب الستة الذين اختيروا ضمن اللائحة القصيرة لـِ”الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية” (البوكر العربية) لسنة 2010، وهي الامتياز الادبي المرموق الذي يهدف الى مكافأة التميّز في الكتابة الروائية العربية المعاصرة والى توسيع دائرة قرّاء الأدب العربي في العالم.

وقد أعلن رئيس لجنة التحكيم الكاتب طالب الرفاعي اسماء اللائحة القصيرة خلال مؤتمر صحافي انعقد في إطار معرض بيروت الدولي للكتاب في البيال، يوم الثلثاء 15 كانون الأول 2009.

اختيرت الأعمال الستة من اصل 115 عملاً تأهلت للمشاركة وهي للكتّاب الآتية أسماؤهم، مع جنسياتهم، وعناوين الروايات، وأسماء الناشرين: (بالترتيب الألفبائي):


اسم الكاتب


جنسية الكاتب

عندما تشيخ الذئاب

جمال ناجي

منشورات وزارة الثقافة


السيدة من تل أبيب

ربعي المدهون

المؤسسة العربية للدراسات والنشر



ربيع جابر

المركز الثقافي العربي


ترمي بشرر

عبده خال

منشورات الجمل


يوم غائم في البر الغربي

محمد المنسي قنديل

دار الشروق


وراء الفردوس

منصورة عز الدين

دار العين للنشر


وعلّق رئيس لجنة التحكيم طالب الرفاعي قائلاً: “جرى نقاش حرّ وموضوعي، وكان الهدف الأهم الوصول الى قائمة متوافق عليها من جانب جميع أعضاء لجنة التحكيم. هذه القائمة تمثّل رأي المحكّمين، مع الاحترام والتقدير لجميع الروايات المشاركة في هذه الدورة”.

وقد أذيعت اليوم أيضاً أسماء الأعضاء في لجنة التحكيم المرموقة، الذين ينتمون الى البلدان الآتية: الكويت وتونس وعُمان ومصر وفرنسا. وهم طالب الرفاعي، روائي وقاص كويتي؛ رجاء بن سلامة، أستاذة محاضرة في كليّة الآداب والفنون والإنسانيات في منوبة، من تونس؛ سيف الرحبي، شاعر وكاتب عُماني؛ شيرين أبو النجا، أستاذة أدب انكليزي ومقارن في جامعة القاهرة، من مصر؛ وفريدريك لاغرانج، باحث أكاديمي ومترجم ومدير قسم الدراسات العربية والعبرية في جامعة السوربون (باريس 4) من فرنسا.

تحتفل الجائزة الأدبية المهيبة هذه السنة بعامها الثالث، وتهدف إلى مكافأة الامتياز في الكتابة العربية الإبداعية المعاصرة، إلى جانب توفير أكبر عدد ممكن من القرّاء العالميين للأدب العربي الجيد. أُطلقت الجائزة في أبو ظبي في الإمارات العربية المتحدة، في نيسان 2007، بالتعاون مع جائزة البوكر البريطانية، وبدعم من مؤسسة الإمارات.

خلال المؤتمر الصحافي الذي عقد اليوم، قال جوناثان تايلور الذي يرئس مجلس الأمناء: “الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية هي جائزة رائدة في عالم الأدب العربي. تأثيرها بات لا يقبل الجدال، مع اعتبار الفائزين بها وكتّاب اللائحة القصيرة من أهم الأقلام في الأدب العربي المعاصر. والكثر منهم وصلوا إلى العالم اليوم عبر ترجمة أعمالهم، وذلك بفضل الجائزة”.

أما رئيسة برنامج الثقافة والفنون في مؤسسة الامارات سلوى مقدادي، فأضافت: “مؤسسة الامارات فخورة برعايتها هذه الجائزة المتزايد تأثيرها في الحياة الثقافية العربية. ففي غضون ثلاث سنوات فقط، استطاع نفوذها الثقافي واستقلالية مجلس أمنائها ولجان تحكيمها على السواء، صيرورتها الحائزة الأدبية الأبرز والأهم في العالم العربي”.

تأهل للجائزة هذه السنة 115 كتاباً من 17 بلداً عربياً هي: مصر، سوريا، لبنان، الأردن، فلسطين، العراق، الإمارات العربية المتحدة، الكويت، المملكة العربية السعودية، اليمن، البحرين، عمان، المغرب، ليبيا، السودان، تونس، والجزائر. وكانت أعلنت اللائحة الطويلة من 16 عملاً في القاهرة خلال تشرين الثاني/ نوفمبر الفائت.

وعلّقت المديرة الإدارية للجائزة جمانة حداد قائلةً: “نحن فخورون بأن تساهم الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية في زيادة الاهتمام بالأدب العربي المعاصر قراءةً وترجمة. لم تحظ أي جائزة أدبية عربية بهذا القدر من الانتباه والتأثير من قبل، وقد جاءت البوكر العربية لتلبيّ حاجة ثقافية ملحّة في حياتنا الأدبية”.

يحصل كل من المرشّحين الستة النهائيين على 10000 دولار، أما الرابح فيفوز بـ 50000 دولار إضافية. وينعم كتّابها بالقدرة على الوصول الى جمهور واسع من القرّاء على الصعيدين العربي والعالمي في آن واحد، وعلى تأمين عقود ترجمة لأعمالهم. الفائزان السابقان بالجائزة، بهاء طاهر عن “واحة الغروب”، ويوسف زيدان عن “عزازيل”، لم يُنشر عملاهما بالإنكليزية فحسب في بريطانيا، في داري “سبتر” و”أتلانتيك”، بل حصلا على عدد كبير من عقود الترجمة العالمية جرّاء الجائزة”.

يذكر أخيرا أن هوية الفائز بالجائزة النهائية سوف تعلن خلال حفل رسمي في ابو ظبي، مساء الثلثاء 2 آذار 2010، وهو اليوم الأول من “معرض أبو ظبي الدولي للكتاب”.


عندما تشيخ الذئاب، جمال ناجي

منشورات وزارة الثقافة، عمان، 2008

يختار الروائي الفلسطيني الأردني جمال ناجي تقنية تعدد الوجوه والأصوات، فينسحب الراوي العليم ليفسح المجال أمام شخصيات متعاقبة، تروي أحداثا ومشاهد تتكرر وتختلف وتتنامى من شخصية إلى أخرى. رواية تصور الهشاشة البشرية والتعالق المعقد بين الجنس والدين والسياسة، وتقدم لوحة حية عن عوالم الوعاظ والجمعيات الخيرية والساسة، وأسرار الارتقاء الاجتماعي من الحارات الفقيرة إلى مراكز السلطة والثراء في عمان. الشخصية الرئيسية في الرواية لا تتكلم وتبقى لغزا رغم انكشافها الجزئي: عزمي الوجيه. فهل هو الذئب الوحيد الذي لا يشيخ؟

السيدة من تل أبيب، ربعي المدهون

المؤسسة العربية للدراسات والنشر، بيروت، 2009

يتناول الكاتب الفلسطيني ربعي المدهون في روايته قضية الصراع الفلسطيني/ العربي/ الاسرائيلي ويختار لحظة مشحونة بالهواجس والتوتر والريبة حدَّ الانفجار. البطلان هما وليد دهمان العائد من مغتربه الاوروبي بعد سنين طويلة لزيارة أهله في غزة عبر مطار بن غوريون في تل أبيب، والاسرائيلية دانا أهوفا التي تشاء المصادفات أن تجلس في المقعد المجاور لمقعده. هكذا يبدأ التماس بينهما، وما يشبه الحوار المتقطع الذي يأخذ القارئ الى أصقاع نائية في الذاكرة والتاريخ والذات البشرية. رواية تحاول مقاربة الحقيقة في تعقدها ولبسها وغموضها، ولا تركن الى أحكام ايديولوجية جاهزة.

أميركا، ربيع جابر

المركز الثقافي العربي، بيروت- الرباط، 2009

تستحضر رواية اللبناني ربيع جابر ملحمة هؤلاء الذين دفعهم الفقر وروح المغامرة الى ترك سوريا الكبرى في السنوات الأولى من القرن العشرين ليجربوا حظهم في أميركا الناشئة، حاملين “الكشة” عبر السهول والجبال، يندمجون تدريجيا في نسيجها الاجتماعي ويشاركون في حروبها. يركز السردعلى سيرة مارتا التي تقرر الذهاب وحدها إلى نيويورك من أجل العثور على زوجها بعدما انقطعت عنه الأخبار. تأتي الرواية تحيةً من الباقين إلى الذين رحلوا في أراضي المهجر، متخطين ما كانت ظروفهم تقدّره لهم من مصير، حتى يصنعوا هوياتهم الجديدة بأيديهم وعزيمتهم.

ترمي بشرر، عبده خال

دار الجمل، بغداد – بيروت، 2009

يأتي قص الكاتب السعودي عبده خال حاملا تكملة لعنوان الرواية: ترمي بشرر “كالقصر”. قصر بهيج هو جنة جحيمية، ترمي بشررها على جحيم الحارات البائسة في جدة، فيمتد الحكي جسرا بين عالم سيد القصر ومن تحولوا دمى بشرية وعبيداً، من اجتاحهم القصر وسلبهم بحرهم وقوارب نجاتهم. رواية ساخرة فاجعة تصور فظاعة تدمير البيئة وتدمير النفوس بالمتعة المطلقة بالسلطة والمتعة المطلقة بالثراء، وتقدم البوح الملتاع لمن أغوتهم أنوار القصر الفاحشة فاستسلموا إلى عبودية مختارة من النوع الحديث.

يوم غائم في البر الغربي، محمد المنسي قنديل

دار الشروق، القاهرة، 2009

يحيي الروائي المصري محمد المنسي قنديل فترة الاكتشافات الأثرية والنضال الوطني في مصر، ويضمنها ملحمة فتاة تهرب بها والدتها من زوجها المغتصب، وتودعها ديرا في أسيوط بعد أن تغير اسمها وتدق على ذراعها الصغيرة صليبا. ثم يتداخل مصير الفتاة وقد أضحت مترجمة، مع مسيرة شخصيات تاريخية مثل هوارد كارتر واللورد كرومر وعبد الرحمن الرفاعي. ويتداخل القص الشيق مع التوثيق الدقيق في وصف الأمكنة والأزمنة.

وراء الفردوس، منصورة عز الدين

دار العين للنشر، القاهرة، 2009

تتناول رواية الكاتبة المصرية منصورة عز الدين الطبقة البورجوازية في الريف، وذلك من خلال شخصية سلمى التي تعمل محررة في جريدة أدبية وتحاول أن تتخلص من ماض طويل محمّل ذكريات أليمة وصوراً سلبية عن الذات، مما شجعها على كتابة رواية خاصة بها، تسرد فيها تاريخ العائلة، تاريخ الحب، تاريخ الجسد، تاريخ الحراك الطبقي داخل القرية، تاريخ الجنون، تاريخ الكتابة: وكأن الذات قد انشطرت قسمين، قسماً يراقب ويسرد والآخر ينقب بهستيريا عن مكنونه لتخرج الرواية.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction was officially launched in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in April 2007. It is the result of a collaborative effort by the Booker Prize Foundation, the Emirates Foundation and the Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue, whose aim was to develop a dedicated prize for Arabic fiction.
A steering committee of Arab literary experts, publishers and journalists was established to advise on the set-up of the Prize and its independent Board of Trustees, whose members have been drawn from across the Arab and Anglophone worlds, and are responsible for the overall management of the prize. The Emirates Foundation pledged its financial and substantive support for the initiative.

The Prize is specifically for the novel literary genre, and it awards $10,000 to each of the six shortlisted authors, with an additional $50,000 to the winner.

About the Booker Prize:

The Booker Prize Foundation is a registered charity which, since 2002, has been responsible for the award of the Man Booker Prize (formally the Booker Prize).

Established in 1968, the Man Booker Prize (formally known as ‘The Booker Prize’) is a prestigious literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of either the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

The judges of the Man Booker Prize are selected from leading literary critics, writers, academics and notable public figures. The judging panel changes each year to maintain the consistent excellence of the prize and its integrity.
A Russian version of the prize was created in 1992. And an African version, the “Caine Prize”, was launched in 2000 .
The winner of the Man Booker Prize is generally assured of international renown and success. It is also a mark of distinction for authors to be nominated for the Booker longlist or selected for inclusion in the shortlist.

About the Emirates Foundation:

Established in 2005, the Emirates Foundation is one of the leading philanthropic organizations in the UAE. It is committed to improving the quality of life for all people in the UAE, through a variety of local and international projects that stimulate intellectual and social growth, as well as increase access to cultural, educational and technological resources, and foster increased participation in civic life.

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when the shia invaded lebanon

A war-damaged building in Beirut, still unrepa...
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When a Palestinian school child in Abu Dhabi is asked what the difference is between Israelis and Jews, and he replies that, while the Jew is somewhat of a Muslim, the Israeli remains a fully fledged idolater, you automatically conclude that this child must be a Muslim. But it makes you wonder about the presence of Palestinian Christians in local consciousness, and whether the identification of the resistance with militant Islam over the last few decades has wholly precluded them from global debate (the late Edward Said, Allah have mercy on him, may have been a spokesman for Muslims as well as Arabs, but he was not Muslim).

The more you pay attention to the answers given by grade-four students of the Azhar Palestine Private School, one of Abu Dhabi’s less glamorous co-ed institutions, to questions posed by the Zayed University student-cum-film maker Salma al Darmaki in her 35-minute documentary My Palestine, the more you wonder.
You wonder where these little girls and boys got the idea that it was the Shia who invaded Lebanon, kicking the Palestinians out (could this be a warped reference to that episode of the Lebanese Civil War during which Shia militias of the Amal movement fought the refugee camp-based guerillas of the PLO?) You wonder how Israeli military atrocities against Palestinian civilians came to be symbolised by the mythical act of soldiers cutting open a pregnant woman’s stomach, removing the foetus, killing it, and placing a live cat in its place before sewing the stomach back up – leaving the woman, who is still alive, heavy with cat. You wonder whose mistake it was to forget that the post of Lebanese prime minister is open only to Sunnis, leading to the belief, among many of the students, that the late Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri was assassinated because he was a Palestine-hating Shiite.
You wonder if there could ever be any excuse for a parent to teach their child the second half of the broken rhyme Falastin bladnah welyahud klabnah: “Palestine is our country and the Jews are our dogs”.
With less outrage, you wonder what the Danish cartoon crisis, re which the students chant an anthem calling on Arabs, Muslims and the rightful to boycott Danish products, could really have to do with the Palestinian cause, when all is said and done. And you wonder whether religion class, extensively and beautifully featured so that you hear the bigoted, sexist and dogmatic woman teacher without seeing her, might have a role to play in the washing of palpably innocent brains with such hideously subverted narratives about who they might be. You wonder about this and other questions relating to “the construction of identity and how it is being debated”, as the deceptively quiet Darmaki, a petite, modest, focussed, extremely self-possessed 21-year-old in a abaya, phrases the issue at stake.
An international relations student, by the time she embarked on My Palestine Darmaki had, with her colleague and assistant on My Palestine, Hermeen Adam, co-directed two films – Katkout, about real-life dwarves in Abu Dhabi, and Chained, Stripped and Branded, about women’s prison – as part of a course named Peoples of the World, taught by the humanities professor Nizar Andary, who required, in place of the written word for by way of assessment, visual ethnographies. “But the quality was so bad. We didn’t have experience,” she says.
The outcome of an independent-study class devised by Andary specifically because they loved making films, Darmaki’s better planned project for a documentary on plastic surgery was falling through when, curious about the curriculum taught to stateless expatriates (as opposed to schools servicing communities like the Pakistani, for example, which taught their state curricula), she started spending time at the Azhar School. The subject gradually shifted from school curricula to Palestinian identity, however, and when she eventually found the required rapport with fourth graders, she was all too happy to record their unadorned views in impressively seamless cinema verite. Even on the horribly noisy ground floor of the Marina Mall, where she refuses to drink anything and categorically forbids me from smoking, Darmaki will not comment about what the students have to say. Subtly, she explains, the question of UAE solidarity with the Palestinian people is raised. And subtly, when the students chant a salute from the Emirates to Palestine, it is answered, she says, in part: “I too will support the cause but in a less violent way.”
What she supports is the undifferenciated dynamism of underprivileged members of the Palestinian diaspora in an oil rich Gulf state – something about which she is understandably reticent. Darmaki’s homage to Palestine has less to do with either Palestinians in the UAE or the insane reactions of these children’s evidently uneducated parents to the political situation than with the intensely moving humanity of the children, their energy and sheer good will sharply contrasting with what they have to say. Under better circumstances, you wonder, would they be saying the same things? And then you remember the little boy who, conceding his teacher’s view that, “yes, of course, Shia in itself is bad”, points out that individual Shiites are not all bad, actually. “My father has a friend who is Shia and he comes over sometimes so I sat with him,” he says, with heart-rending earnestness. “He really is totally normal.”

The state of the Arab press


Seeds of a new press

Youssef Rakha

Five months in Abu Dhabi can make the busy pavement of Hamra Street incredibly cheering. Beggars, shoeshine boys and the colourful characters manning news stands turn into angels of a lost paradise – street life – one of whose ritual pleasures is buying the morning papers. Like few places in Lebanon, here they dispense every sect and ideology of newsprint. I refresh my memory as I pick some up: As Safir (Shiite, socialist), An Nahar (Christian, liberal), Al Akhbar (Hizbollah, leftist), Al Mustaqbal (Sunni, conservative) as well as the tabloidish Al Balad (produced by the owners of the all-classifieds, free Al Waseet) and London-based pan-Arab papers like Al Quds Al Arabi, Al Sharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat.

The Lebanese experiment in confessional government, with its origins in the lack of a majority sect at the time of independence in 1943, may have forestalled the autocratic fate suffered in places like Syria and Egypt without eliminating sectarian sentiment. In place of a one-party system, a sect-addled democracy took hold. And the results have ranged from civil war to a chain of freer, stronger papers, the most pluralistic in the Arab world. That is why Beirut has never produced state papers like Al Ahram in Cairo or Teshrin in Damascus. It has, however, capitalised on outside funding – much of it from the Gulf – to sustain a tradition of secular debate, one that attempts to assert the enduring relevance of newsprint in the face of dwindling distribution figures worldwide, and the consequent loss of advertising revenue.

The Arab world would not seem to be immune to these trends, and I have come to Beirut, you might say, just to buy these newspapers, to read them, and to talk to the journalists and editors who produce them. Journalists in the West have become wearily familiar with the endless drumbeat of bad news for their industry and, somewhat masochistically, they can’t seem to stop writing articles about it. While they worry that corporate owners have cut quality to boost profits, the greater concern of their Arab counterparts has been political rather than economic: that owners and investors (in many cases governments themselves) will impose their views; it is the independence of the journalism, rather than its declining quality, that is the source of anxiety.

Lebanon – with its unique tradition of pluralism – is an interesting place to consider the state of the Arab press, but that very pluralism is a side effect of the country’s plentiful sectarian divisions, each with its own platform and point of view. “There is a difference,” notes Hazem Saghieh, a 30-year veteran of the Lebanese press who now serves as political editor of Al Hayat, “between a genuinely liberal or free climate,” where you can say whatever you want, and a place “where you can always get a few words in edgewise because there’s a civil war going on.”


On March 16, 2006, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt appeared on the popular LBC talk show Kalam Alnas, and he seemed unusually agitated over plans for the launch of Beirut’s newest paper. “Who says the Syrians are really gone,” he declaimed. “Together with the Iranians, they are funding a new newspaper called Al Akhbar.”

The new paper, Jumblatt said, was a tool of Hizbollah, the core of the opposition and an ally of Iran and Syria. He repeated rumours that its mandate was to promote Khomeinism, brainwashing readers into supporting the allegedly fanatical militants dragging Lebanon into war with Israel. The paper, he claimed, would take an Islamist position on individual liberties and endorse Baath-style repression.

Outside Lebanon it would seem extraordinary for a major politician to launch a pre-emptive strike against a paper that had not yet appeared – try to imagine Gordon Brown on the BBC, railing against a new paper that sought to claim the legacy of the old Labour Party – but the stakes were evidently high.

Al Akhbar was the brainchild of the widely admired left-wing journalist Joseph Samaha, who quit his job editing As Safir – one of Lebanon’s two leading dailies, which he helped found in 1974 – for the chance to launch his own paper. But months before its debut, Samaha’s vision of a critical, reader-friendly paper was already being overshadowed by his stated sympathies for the opposition and the newspaper’s purported association with Hizbollah.

Al Akhbar, which published its first issue on August 14, 2006, is an interesting case study: it is the youngest, and in some ways the most exciting, serious newspaper in Lebanon. But its support for the Islamist-led opposition has made it particularly vulnerable to the political polarisation of the Lebanese media – the very thing Samaha hoped to transcend.

Lebanese papers have traditionally been family businesses, partly controlled by their financiers, but with political lines shaped by internal debates between editors and investors – and within multi-confessional newsrooms.

The doyen of the Lebanese press, An Nahar – founded in 1933 by Gibran Tueni, whose family still owns the paper – set standards for journalism that seem to have no counterpart in the Egyptian press, an obvious point of comparison. Where each of Lebanon’s papers reflected the shifting and competing views of their investors, editors, and reporters, their Egyptian counterparts have tended since the 1950s to follow a line set by individual editors and executives with an eye toward pleasing the government. By the 1980s, this system had become so corrupt that most reporters were little more than barely literate PR workers for officials.

But an alternative press emerged in Cairo in the 1990s, fuelled by the rise of online activists and American pressure on the Egyptian government for democratic reform. Papers like Al Usbou and Ad Dustour waged lurid battles on government figures, who for the first time in recent memory featured in irreverent cartoons and satires, while less sensationalist papers, notably Al Masri Al Yom (the most widely read today) built a reputation for accurate reporting. Together they raised professional standards and reaffirmed the credibility of the press. They could not afford the lush printing and service-orientated copy the state papers increasingly incorporated, but they created a ripple effect in the state’s three gargantuan institutions (Al Ahram, Akhbar Al Yom and Ag Gumhureya). For the first time since the 1940s, Beirut seemed to lag behind.

Lebanese journalists felt nothing major had happened since An Nahar’s last overhaul in the 1960s. Only Al Balad, a Berliner-format daily founded in 2003, suggested anything new. Designed by Saatchi and Saatchi Beirut (the company behind Independence 05), Al Balad promised sharp and snappy reading for a young millennium. It delivered compelling graphics without substance: an Arab equivalent of The Sun, with risqué covers, competitions to win consumer goods and scandal pieces flaunting sectarian bias.

By 2006, it seemed to many that a new daily was in order, and Samaha – a figure of legendary credibility, as well loved as anyone in the factional atmosphere of post-war Lebanon – hatched plans to launch one before the end of the year (the name was patented on March 21).

Samaha was joined by a colleague from As Safir, Ibrahim al Amin. For months both had been frustrated with the centrist line of Talal Salman, the owner and sometimes de facto editor of As Safir, who had founded the paper with help from Samaha in the build-up to the civil war. A Shiite, Salman was concerned that a pro-Hizbollah stance might be read as sectarianism. Samaha, a Greek Catholic, had no such worries; but it was dawning on him that his hopes for a new kind of press – one that made the citizen its priority – would always clash with conventional attitudes there.

Working out of the small office of a graphic-designer friend, the two cut jarring figures: Samaha – the mustachioed teddy bear, Amin – the clean-shaven detective; both corpulent and bald, Samaha slightly fairer skinned. They were very different journalists: Samaha had spent most of his life in London and Paris (and saw the changes introduced by The Independent and Le Monde in the 1980s as models for a new Arab press). Samaha’s measured columns bore the marks of meticulous research and the weighing of evidence. Amin had only ever worked at As Safir and, much like the iconic Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, he was better known for his exclusive, clandestine sources. (He was unavailable for an interview in Beirut, I was told, for security reasons, as he believed he was being targeted for assassination.)

Amin, like Salman, was interested in a “position press” – journalism that over-interprets the facts to prove a point. In this Amin was tethered to the old Safir tradition, while Samaha was striving to reinvent engagement by producing critical journalism irrespective of an overriding ideology, to make a paper that was a forum rather than one piece in the puzzle of competing sectarian claims. But without Amin’s business acumen, Samaha’s condition for starting a paper – that there should be enough money to run for five years no matter the advertising revenue – would never have been met.

It was shortly after the deal was cut that they watched Jumblatt condemn the unborn baby. But judging by the accompanying chorus, that baby was doomed anyway: critics doubted that Samaha’s vision would survive. Those pre-emptive arguments made sense if you believed Al Akhbar really was funded, via Hizbollah, by Syria and Iran.

But a range of sources inside and outside Al Akhbar say that the paper’s start-up funds were provided by three secular businessmen, Palestinian and Lebanese, who insisted on anonymity for the sake of other financial interests, which might be ill-served by association with a pro-opposition paper. Perhaps they felt the need to stem what they saw as a monolithic pro-American tide. Samaha’s views spoke to their standpoint, and they gave him editorial control.

Al Akhbar is unique in that its editorial board now owns all the shares (with legal provisions that prevent their sale to another proprietor). This arrangement is unprecedented in Lebanon, where, as a report from the World Association of Newspapers phrases it, “Political interests have a strong influence on the media because many of its owners are affiliated to a religious sect or political parties”. No Tuenis or Hariris own Al Akhbar; instead of a Walid bin Talal or a Gaddafi, the seed money came from individuals who would appear to have no agenda in common beyond trust for Samaha. And no one could reasonably doubt Samaha’s integrity.

Samaha and Amin targeted what they saw as American plans for the region, with which March 14 leaders like the prime minister Fouad Siniora and Jumblatt were increasingly identified. To Samaha and Amin, the strength of Israel and the weakness of the Lebanese Army justified the presence of an armed resistance in the form of Hizbollah.

When Hizbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers led to full-scale raids on Lebanon, right-wingers blamed Hizbollah for the destruction, seeing Al Akhbar as its partner in crime. The paper launched the day of the ceasefire, and Samaha’s first editorial in the paper responded wryly to the view that Hizbollah’s taking of Israeli POWs was a reckless miscalculation.

The charge of “miscalculation”, Samaha wrote, “is levelled at anyone who resists or rebels against or violently rejects injustice; and it usually relies on a claim of miscalculation irrespective of timing. For by the conventions of tyranny, rejection is a mistake, a vanity or an adventure; and by the conventions of degraded realism there is no time for accountability.”

But less than six months after the launch, Samaha went to London to be with Hazem Saghieh, whose wife had passed away. On February 25, 2007, while there, he died in his sleep of a heart attack caused, his stunned friends conjectured, by overexertion.


At Cafe Younis – the latest, chic incarnation of Lebanon’s best roaster – I meet Omayma abdel Latif, an Egyptian journalist who has been studying Islamism for the past several years at Beirut’s Carnegie Middle East Centre. She always reads As Safir, An Nahar and Al Akhbar, she says, and her main gripe with Al Akhbar is that the front page can be politically sensationalist. Many inside Lebanon still see it as a more sophisticated front for Hizbollah – though unlike Al Manar, Hizbollah’s TV channel, the paper could not be reasonably accused of propaganda.

Abdel Latif believes the media in Lebanon is still more or less co-opted by political powers, and so she appreciates the presence in Al Akhbar of voices like Nicola Nassif, whose views are more or less pro-government, contrary to the paper’s pro-Opposition line. Even Al Akhbar’s young editor, Khaled Saghieh, often criticises Hizbollah, she says. In a sense, however, it is As Safir that caters most comprehensively to her needs, because “it takes a centrist line, presenting all the different viewpoints on a given topic. The tone is somewhat more level-headed, too, especially on the front page. But unlike An Nahar, for example, As Safir doesn’t have very compelling political writing inside.”

Jamal Ghosn, who reviews the Arabic press on television for a channel called Press TV, agrees. “There is no objectivity,” he says, “though there could be more of an attempt at objectivity; and even though the Lebanese papers are not up to standard, they are still better by comparison to other Arab papers.” His main concern, however, is with financial independence. This is why, he believes, there is still no service orientated press, no consumerism in the papers. “When it is the readers who directly and indirectly fund the newspapers, there will be automatically more of that. Right now there is not enough of a readership to make it possible, so papers continue to depend on other sources.”

Talal Salman, the owner of As Safir, is a trim elderly gentleman with the manners and attitudes of an old-guard socialist. He blames the lack of an all-encompassing Arab political project – and the failure of pan-Arabism – for the decline in both citizens’ rights and the independence of the media. But he has measured praise for Al Akhbar – for its accuracy and professional standards – though he feels its support for the Opposition could incite sectarian strife.

Nicholas Noe, the editor in chief of – which translates selections from the Arabic press into English – says “We find that our clients are particularly interested in alternative points of view, and there are opinions and hard news pieces that they find in Al Akhbar which they are not seeing in their own publications in the West or elsewhere in the Lebanese press. I can’t speak for the whole paper because I read very little Arabic, but my impression is that Al Akhbar is trying to stake out a voice that isn’t reflexively on one side or another.”


Pierre Abi Saab left his job as culture editor of Al Hayat for the same position at Al Akhbar, foregoing the prestige and higher salary of a richer institution for Samaha’s experiment. But like Samaha, he was an unlikely convert to the cause of the Opposition. After Hariri’s murder in 2005, intellectuals like the An Nahar journalist Samir Kassir saw Hizbollah as a local stand-in for the Bashar al Assad regime.

Abi Saab was outraged when both Kassir and the editor of An Nahar, Gibran Tueni (the grandson of its founder), were killed in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. But by 2006 – a Maronite with dandyish tastes, a worldly French citizen, an admirer of André Breton and the Marquis de Sade – he was speaking of Hassan Nasrallah with awe, convinced that his was the truest democratic representation of opposition to an imperial world order.

Like Hamra (so I say to myself, while a bowlegged midget reviews my purchases, sliding a note out of my hand) Abi Saab can live with incompatible drives. And folding four papers under my arm, the way white-collar Arabs, the effendis, have done since 1900, I turn right to begin the short trek uphill to Lina’s where, through the wall-size window, he will eventually show up a little late: a short, groomed figure in a tight sky-blue T-shirt, distractedly touching his moustache as he charges towards Rue Vardan.

Lina’s is opposite the Monoprix mini-mall where, across a car park from As Safir, Al Akhbar shares a building with the supermarket. Whenever you visit, it feels like you are going grocery shopping. When you meet journalists from one paper at Lina’s, you bump into journalists from the other.

Now An Nahar, As Safir, Al Mustaqbal and Al Akhbar lie next to the espresso cup on the table, bathed in light. The news is the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit, the day before, to the newly elected president, Michel Suleiman. Except for As Safir, which uses a slightly different image, the same picture of Suleiman and Rice greeting the US charge d’affaires in Lebanon, Michelle Sisson, appears on all four front pages.

It is biggest in Al Akhbar, the only Berliner among my purchases, but only a caption accompanies it; the visit is dealt with, rather, as part of a longer story about government-opposition clashes in the Bekaa Valley and the failed talks between Suleiman and the perennial presidential candidate Michel Aoun, the key ally of Hizbollah. As Safir’s is by far the wittiest take on the visit, Al Mustaqbal’s the most explicitly pro-American, with the headline “Rice: Israel’s withdrawal from the [Shebaa] Farms” – Hizbollah’s excuse for staying armed – “an American priority.” Only Al Akhbar gives it second place.

As Abi Saab explains between mouthfuls of brioche, Al Akhbar abolished the Arab tradition of setting aside two or more pages to official statements, visits and news (the pretext for turning the front page of Al Ahram into a portrait album of President Hosni Mubarak, though as Al Masri Al Yom has shown the tradition can be upheld in better ways).

What interests the reader, he says, is not Condi’s visit but its implications for the political situation. Where politics are concerned, he goes on, Samaha sought an approach that Abi Saab likened to the criticism practised by Le Monde against Francois Mitterand, the Socialist president whose election it had backed. “You go look at the event,” Abi Saab says, “you analyse it, and you say it as it is even if it goes against your political line.”

Abi Saab concedes that the front page of Al Akhbar has had a tendency to be provocative, but brushes aside the allegations about its allegiance to Hizbollah, raising his voice to state that the paper has championed the rights of Lebanon’s gay community and Syrian political detainees, questioned Iran’s nuclear programme, reviewed Israeli films, published nude paintings, celebrated Paul Elouard and Persepolis.

People came to Al Akhbar, Abi Saab insists, to escape a variety of professional, moral and political frustrations; for the first time in their lives, he says, no one is dictating editorial policy. But before he has had a chance to expand, a text message summons him to the midday conference.

As he leaves, Abi Saab asks Hala Biijani, Al Akhbar’s general manager, who is seated at a nearby table, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to send in another shipment of Shiraz rugs – part of a running joke at the expense of those who accuse the paper of Iranian sponsorship.

Bijjani estimates that in 1998, 150,000 newspapers were sold daily in Lebanon; by now the figure has dropped to 80,000. But Al Balad, which represents 30,000 of those copies, should not count, she says, because it was initially given away for free. “People pick it up the way they pick up a lottery ticket, not the newspaper.” Right now, Bijjani says, As Safir and An Nahar distribute some 15,000 and 12,000 copies; Al Akhbar has a circulation that varies between 8,000 and 11,000.

Neither An Nahar nor As Safir would divulge their own circulation figures, common practice in the Arab world. But Talal Salman, the owner of As Safir, said that today “aggregate circulation for in Lebanon is the lowest in its history, lower than the figure for a single successful newspaper in the past.”

Thanks to the alliance between Aoun and Hizbollah, Biijani says, Al Akhbar is the only Lebanese newspaper with a readership nearly balanced between Muslims and Christians; most have a readership that is more than 90 per cent Muslim or Christian. As Samaha had planned, more than half of Al Akhbar’s readers are female; and unlike An Nahar, which is still bought predominantly by people above the age of 50, some 60 per cent of Al Akhbar’s readers are under 40 years old.

Inside the Monoprix building, multiple prints of the same nearly life-size picture of Samaha, all but beatifically smiling, frame the corridors. The space calls to mind a student paper or party headquarters, with ongoing, friendly arguments and informally dressed, predominantly young journalists moving ceaselessly about to exchange documents and comments.

Khaled Saghieh, a bearded young man who evokes a slightly geeky graduate student, explains that he was doing a PhD in economics when he first met Samaha and started writing for As Safir. He was chosen for his present position partly because he came from outside the press, mainly because he is regarded by his co-workers as Samaha’s faithful disciple, with an eye on a citizen’s press and a critical, rather than ideological, perspective.

The early launch of Al Akhbar, he says, delayed the introduction of new reader-friendly elements –new concept pages, listings, and information-heavy features geared to the daily needs of the reader, which have been put in place since our interview (part of a deal that also includes a Gulf edition in Qatar and a new size).

The paper runs short pieces, big photos and few wires – for many Arab papers, too frequently, an easy substitute for original reporting – and offers opportunities for fresh graduates and a democratic approach to the opinion pages, with Arabs of every background freely expressing their viewpoints. Al Akhbar’s easy to use online edition has become the most popular newspaper site in Lebanon.

Samaha’s vision, in other words, may have been less about politics per se than about exploring the possibility of a new kind of press in Lebanon. Khaled Saghieh points out that the designer responsible for the fresh, clean look of Al Akhbar had also been hired by An Nahar and As Safir, both of which failed to implement the new designs. The crux, he implies, is not the embrace of an oppositional line, but the willingness of journalists at Al Akhbar to promote change.

I am reserving judgement, but Khaled Saghieh’s description of what Al Akhbar aims to be sounds remarkably like Jamal Ghosn’s idea of a press that depends on its readers.


“When we talk about the Arab press, we are being imprecise by default,” Hazem Saghieh says. I have come to see him at the offices of Al Hayat, in the middle of the Hariri-built Downtown area, a plastic consumerist paradise outside Beirut’s traditional city centre. He is a courteous, clean-shaven middle-aged man with a slight twitch in his left eye; and like his writing, his speech reflects mastery of classical Arabic combined with a thoroughly modern way of thinking. “What we have in the way of news dissemination lacks some of the necessary and sufficient conditions to be called a press: a climate of freedom, a middle class that invests in the media. It is not only a question of political power but of social attitudes as well.”

Saghieh has come a long way since he championed Khomeini-ism following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Having lost faith in the revolutionary potential of Islamism, he is now a hardline neoliberal and one of the harshest and most eloquent critics of Syrian intervention, the Iranian regime, and Hizbollah. But he does call Al Akhbar the “most dynamic and innovative” of the Lebanese papers.

His questions reflect what I am beginning to see as the principal question facing the Arab media today: can it contribute to the establishment of a tradition of citizenship over and above confessional and tribal loyalities, and thereby counter corruption, nepotism, and autocratic government?

On the way to the airport, my taxi driver had with him a copy of Al Balad. “Do you read this newspaper regularly?” I asked him. “Do you read other newspapers?”

“Not much,” he said. “I don’t know this one so well but a friend had a copy of it so he thought it might keep me amused. I’m not much for newspapers,” he mumbled, smiling. “They tell you what they want to tell you anyway. You can have this if you want.”

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