Seth Messinger on Alessandro Spina: Bordello Continent, Missione Civilizzatrice

“Marble Arch Built by Italians to Commemorate then victory in Libya”. Photo by Joe Willis. Source: joewillis.co.uk

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Seth Messigner reviews The Confines of the Shadow by Alessandro Spina, translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely, a 2015 title by Darf Publishers, London

Confines of the Shadow is the first of three volumes written by Alessandro Spina and translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely. The London-based Darf Publishers has produced nonfiction works in English about Libya, the Arab World and the Middle East. Recently it started publishing translations of world literature as well. Confines of the Shadow links these two concentrations in one multi-volume project. Spina is at once a Libyan, an Arab, and an Italian. He spent much of his career writing his family’s history, through which he explored a uniquely tangled web of relations with the Mediterranean world.

Born Basili Shafik Khouzam, he was the son of a Maronite Lebanese merchant who immigrated to Benghazi at the time of the Italian occupation. And he had a life-long fascination with Libya and Italy’s entwined histories since the end of the nineteenth century. Like many insider-outsider families of the post-Ottoman world (Bares in Egypt, Memmi in North Africa, among countless – anonymous – others), Spina’s family did not fare well in the purgative atmosphere of Arab nationalism, and one imagines their descendants would struggle mightily in the even more astringent world proposed by radical Islamicists. Spina spent the years of World War II in Italy but otherwise lived in Libya until he saw the writing on the wall by the Qaddafi regime and moved to Italy permanently in 1980. His work is an extended meditation on the inter-connectedness of his two homes.

Confines of the Shadow contains three novels: The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar, and Nocturnal Visitor. It is distinct from other multi-volume novels/romans a clef in that they are part of a mammoth omnibus in the tradition of accounts of fading empires. His work calls to mind Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, and Canneti. What distinguishes it from these authors’ is his multivocality, his experimentalism, and the shifting perspectives between characters and narrators.

Confines of the Shadow is a house of many mansions. It has sections that are fable-like, others that are more suggestive of a bildungsroman. It is a novel of manners, a drawing room or domestic comedy. It is tragic, and it is polemical.

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The menace of resistance

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”.

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FOUR HOURS IN CHATILA: 16 September 1982

by Jean Genet

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(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.

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M for Manar

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.

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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).

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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.

استمر في القراءة

Infinite Requiem: An Old Piece

… 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.”

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