Three Versions of Copt: Sept 2011/Doors: April 2013

This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah

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In the Name of the Father

My father did not live to see 9/11. I don’t know what he would have thought of the so called war on terror, let alone the equally so called Arab Spring. Though not particularly old, he was frail and muddled by the time he died—flattened out by decades of depression, isolation and inactivity.
I think of him now because the trajectory of his views seems relevant to 25 Jan. From a Marxist intellectual in the fifties and sixties—a member of a group that could transcend its class function to effect change, he became a liberal democrat in the eighties and nineties—an individual who had a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of his beliefs. In retrospect I think the reason for this change of heart had to do with a certain kind of honesty or transparency: at some point he must have realized that to be proactive was to be caught in a lie (the lie of independent nation building, of the dictatorship of the fellahin, of Islamic renaissance…), a lie for which not even an unhappy life was worth risking.
In a sense, while the outbreak of protests on 25 Jan and the collective determination that they should have tangible results amounted to that rare thing—a moment of truth in modern Arab history—events since 11 Feb 2011 have borne evidence of just how much of a lie Arab politics had been since colonial times, and how peripheral the truth must remain to society even after the revolution “triumphed”.
Where history is concerned, truth evidently cannot stand up to the lie. The truth of a predominantly young population with no need for identity-related hangups, who want money, sex, and space in which to express themselves and be productive, for example: such truth will not be articulated politically in the foreseeable future; and likewise the lie of an oppositional Islam with a vision for development or concern for the people: its being exposed, even repeatedly, will not stop society from behaving as if it were true.
A year ago on Tuesday the result of the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by SCAF and embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood—an unequivocal yes—effectively bracketed the “revolution” in time. It shifted the emphasis away from rights gained through protests (including the right to protest) to a reshuffling of the power structure via an indefinite “transition” whose purpose has been to restore and/or sustain a status quo that had—more often than not, by invoking an overriding sense of identity—systematically denied people those same rights.
The vote, however disastrous it is now judged to be, established the population’s willingness to cement the two bulwarks of corrupt—incompetent—conservatism: fascist-flavored religious authority and arbitrary military power; the very culturally articulated nepotism, rarefied inferiority complex, and xenophobia that had reduced the project of an independent nation guarding Arab-Muslim identity under Nasser to a client state riddled by poverty and Wahhabism under Mubarak. With the regime’s logistical powers deployed in Brotherhood-held voting blocs, “democracy” could quickly abort what opportunity for change had been generated, fueled by blood. And it became easy from then on to involve well-meaning political players in endless lost battles of the vote, even as their comrades were being killed at protests and defamed on “pro-25 Jan” TV.
In the wake of 25 Jan, a conscious or unconscious alliance between devout and patriotic sentiments, whether honest or hypocritical, thus became the truest expression of the lie. It not only exiled the truth, it also forced sincere champions of change to adopt more or less peremptory discourses divorced from the reality of “the people” while, consciously or unconsciously, elements of dissidence that had worked to dissipate and obstruct the effort to gain basic rights on the ground were reintroduced:
Once again “politics” is not about the right to live but about the Palestinian cause, the struggle against “American-Israeli empire”, the notion of collective as opposed to individual dignity. In this sense the “revolutionaries” have ended up echoing generations of “the opposition” whose isolation rendered them so ineffective they could be safely ignored and/or co-opted by the regime, themselves eventually becoming part of the lie.



Graffiti showing the pro-yes sign for the 19 March referendum—”say yes for faster stability”—and asking, “Is it stable yet?”

I think of my father now because his change of heart regarding the role of the intellectual in Arab history reflects my own regarding the Arab Spring: from far-fetched faith in improving the world to a form of well-meaning resignation or despair, the stance of an interested but stationary observer.
Thanks in part to the pace of life in the electronic age, the story of four decades of Egyptian politics—from the fifties to the nineties—was reenacted almost in its entirety in the space of a single year, from March 2011 to March 2012: after mass protests generate hope for a freer society, “patriotism” is instantly co-opted by a military junta that proves more repressive than the “fallen regime”; quasi-socialist sloganeering eventually gives way to ruthless capitalism in the garb of “Islamic” quasi-democracy; and the need for development is subordinated to the perpetuation of (religion- and military-based) power…
I wonder if my father’s experience left him as cold as mine has left me; I wonder if, by the end of his life, he felt as existentially disconnected, politically denuded, and socially paralyzed. Somehow, he maintained his compassion: his stoic insistence on dressing like a worker and only using public transport, for example, coupled by a strange delight in engaging working-class people in a debate among peers.
In this and other ways his complete rejection of the role of the patriarch belied his middle-class provincial origins and his aspiring-politician career path as a law graduate of the fifties. Evidently he could be anything but a patriarch—which is particularly interesting because so much of the psychosocial underpinnings of 25 Jan and its aftermath have reflected that very concept.
Perhaps the lie depends on fathers maintaining the semblance of an order: whatever else has been said in his favor, the most effective defense of Mubarak—which, having stood in the way of a pretend trial, will help to absolve SCAF of the very likely crime that he will be acquitted—was the notion that Mubarak has been a father to Egyptians. What this means in practice is of course very different from what it should mean: a true father, the chief of a tribe or the don of a mafia—the endless, intricate web of mafias that is Egypt—will supposedly care for his children, making their enemies offers they cannot refuse…
But, like so much else in the lie—religious commitment, professional efficiency, national pride—the substance of a given discourse had been so thoroughly subverted that only its surface appearance now mattered: that there should be someone in the haloed place of the father, not that there should be a father as such.
And perhaps that is why I am mistaken about Egyptians, most of whom—unlike me—will have had patriarchal fathers variously implicated in the lie. Perhaps the predominantly young population does have a need for psychosocial hangups connected with their Muslim identity, after all. That hunger for money and sex, which Muslim religiosity in practice by no means forbids: perhaps it is not bound up with any desire for self expression or any obligation to contribute quantitatively or qualitatively to human civilization; those things, after all, require some degree of acknowledgement of the truth; why else is it that individuals who have a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of their beliefs—in contrast to venerable sheikhs holding ridiculous keys to paradise, or even Marxist intellectuals playing in the extra time—are so impossibly few?
Watching the news these days, I am often overwhelmed by the sense that my father is communicating with me, reminding me that I should have attempted to a deeper understanding of his change of heart. The lie, he tells me, is much bigger than Mubarak, perhaps even bigger than SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood combined.


Seven years before:


Satre, my father and me (2005)

When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.

Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre’s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.

Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.

It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.

I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.

In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.

Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.

But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.

His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.

Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.

I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause.

I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.

The salient majority


First there was Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, then the agonised song to Moloch in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl… It strikes me now that, long before 9/11, speaking from within the culture entirely, another Beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, called America the Roman Empire of today. It strikes me because this is precisely the conclusion to which Islamists and Arab nationalists had already come by other means, exterior to America itself and seemingly less sensible to boot. The difference is – what Islamists and Arab nationalists want is to replace the Roman Empire with their own vision of imperium. Even when they do not admit it in so many words, they object not to what is there – an empire, but to who owns it – white, more or less secular Protestants and, by extension, to what it is like. And indeed, with Americans as much as Islamists and Arab nationalists, the lure of totalitarianism is such, few since the 20th century have managed to escape it at all. Whether in religion- or race-based, military, technological, theocratic, egalitarian, Marxist or (a form of totalitarianism seldom perceived as such) even psychoanalytic guise, the drive to make everyone the same, to place everyone within the same theoretical scaffolding and see everything through the same ideational glasses, lives on past what just may be the terminal apex of western civilisation. It dogs both visions of utopia and the individual’s sense of moral fulfillment. Long after reason and science turned empires back into republics, realms into constitutional monarchies, and God (with few, always universally damned exceptions) into various kinds of more or less consumer-friendly, more or less vacuous discourse and practise, humanity seeks sameness still; it identifies Good and Right, if not directly then through the faulty mechanism of a salient majority, with All. And it is to that faulty mechanism, to totalitarianism within a professedly non-totalitarian global order, that we should perhaps look for Evil, Wrong and the errant minority – not by pitting ourselves against the identity of its administrators, many aspects of which we share or would like to share – but through a true, humble and consistent, honest understanding of our place on earth. On this side of the line dividing the unipolar world not only by wealth and its attendant power but also by the capacity, the will, ability or initiative to produce civilisation, the salient majority turns into a blind and infinitely pliant force which, in the hands of anti-democratic Islamists, for example, becomes an opportunistic means to power through “democratic process”, in the hands of a corrupt quasi-state a brutal instrument of repression. Either the Roman Empire does not know this, or it does not care. And whether or not we are going to let it know, not to oppose its supposed plans for the region, we should begin to ask what it means by democracy.


In all my barbarity

Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa (Writings of the security shift): the Letters of Abdelhakim Qassim, ed. Mohammad Shoair, Cairo: Merit, 2010
Abdelhakim Qassim (1935-1994) is among the least talked about Egyptian writers belonging to the so called Generation of the Sixties – and not only because he is dead. By now Qassim is as established as he can be; his long-term influence on the literary imagination is undeniable. But unlike, for example, the poet Amal Donqol (1940-1983) or the short story writer Yahya El-Taher Abdalla (1938-1981), both of whom died during his lifetime, Qassim is hardly ever celebrated. Along with other Sixties writers, Dar Al Shurouk has bought the rights to his oeuvre, but to this day it remains out of print. The only exception is his first novel, Ayyam al-inssan ass-sab’ah (The seven days of man, 1969); and it is this book that his name tends to invoke, obscuring the bulk of what he considered his true achievement.
Set in and around the village where he was born some three weeks before his official date of birth, near Tanta, Ayyam al-inssan is an ode to provincial life and its spiritual core – centred on a seven-day mini-pilgrimage to the shrine of the local saint for the moulid or anniversary festival – and it has cast Qassim more or less exclusively in the role of writer of the provinces. This role, he would variably engage with and reject throughout his life; what is clear is that he did not think of  Ayyam al-inssan as his greatest accomplishment.
Later writing is different in subject matter and structure if not so much in language, a rich, occasionally laboured language in which the author invents as well as searching for the right words, drawing on vernacular diction in oblique and intensely personal ways. Some of it is set in Berlin, where he spent the period 1974-1985; much of it was written there. It includes four novels besides Ayyam al-inssan, five books of short stories, four novellas and a play as well as much else not intended for publication. All of it remains virtually unknown.
Such neglect could have to do with the rift created by what Mohammad Shoair, the editor of the present book and Qassim’s as yet potential biographer, describes as Qassim’s “return to his village to defend social traditions and artistic values he had often attacked”. At this point in his life, profoundly disillusioned with the West and increasingly nationalistic in outlook, Qassim censured even his closest writer-friends (those, as Shoair notes, whose work his never-completed PhD was to be about); pointlessly but perhaps understandably he began to seek self-realisation beyond the literary sphere. Two years after his return from Germany he ran for parliamentary elections, representing the left-wing Tagammu’ Party; it was a forgone conclusion that he would lose. Immediately afterwards, he contracted a brain haemorrhage that paralysed the right side of his body and for the last four years of his life was able to write only by dictating to his wife.
It was a time, I imagine, of profound alienation and bitterness; Shoair dwells on the effects of immigration on Qassim’s connection with his homeland in order to explain why he suddenly turned against everyone and everything. And the neglect that his work has suffered is due, if not to its aftermath, then to his sojourn in Berlin, during which he maintained only spotty contact with literary centres in Cairo. As a law student at Alexandria University – his course was interrupted by five years in the Wahat Detention Camp, where he was sent on charges of communism – Qassim, a renegade Muslim Brother and a temperamental Marxist, had managed to establish himself in intellectual circles. He travelled to Berlin initially to attend a literary conference, invited by Nagui Naguib, one of the earliest champions of his writing and the correspondent to whom the first two letters in the book – the only two written from Egypt – are addressed. It is unclear how long Qassim initially intended to stay, but it seems he saw the invitation as an opportunity for starting afresh; apparently on a whim, he simply went on living in Germany. The Berlin sojourn, a difficult one by all accounts, served as an occasion or a pretext for writing letters to family and friends. In one such, to the novelist (and once Al-Ahram Weekly critic) Mahmoud El-Wardani, Qassim dwells on the reason behind his departure, the one theme his letters keep coming back to:
“In my youth I was unable to accomplish anything new. I grew up, earned a degree and started working. I became someone with a home and a job to go to every morning, a wife and a daughter and then a son. Gradually society started to rid me of all that set me apart, driving me to crush the old Abdelhakim and construct, under my skin, another Abdelhakim who is diligent at his work and attentive to his home and careful about his clothing.
“It was driving me to another terrifying thing: success. And success is only one thing once all values have been mired in the mud. Success is to be well-off, to have contacts with the powers that be, to have an important position, to have an image that is seen and a voice that is heard. Society was warning me: If I did not do this it would turn me into a deformed cripple to be crushed without mercy.” Successful acquaintances would meet up with him, discuss petty issues of concern. “And I would see the terrifying emptiness in which they lived. I read their work and saw their absolute debility. I recognised their torment and their inability to turn back, and I also recognised by own inability to go on and write what I wanted to… There had to be a new beginning in a new land…”
Shoair, who might as well have written a partial if not a complete biography of Qassim, began to collect Qassim’s letters in 2004: “It started with a small press file on… Yahya El-Taher Abdalla… The critic friend Mohammad Badawi suggested that I should likewise put together a file on Abdelhakim Qassim.” Shoair contacted Abdelmoneim Qassim, the writer’s brother and one of his principal correspondents. He obtained copies not only of Qassim’s letters to Abdelmoneim and others but also of never-published poems, the incomplete doctoral thesis, abandoned novel projects and the Berlin diaries. “I found that the letters could form a text parallel to and revealing of his works, his cultural constitution and choices. And I started contacting his friends to ask if they might have letters from him.”
The title Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa is a reference to Qassim’s longest lasting job in Berlin, as a night watchman at the Charlottenborg Palace, when he would frequently pass the time by writing letters. The book contains letters to 11 correspondents including some of the most active writers of the period: besides Wardani, the short story writer Said El-Kafrawi, the poet Mohammad Saleh (Qassim’s brother-in-law, who passed away last year), the critic Sami Khashabah, and (another universally acclaimed writer of the provinces who by then had stopped writing) Mohammad Roumaish. It excludes letters to Qassim’s wife, deemed by his daughter “too private” for publication, letters “hidden” by their owners and letters that have been lost. Shoair gives his introduction the title Writing Without Makeup, and it is this spirit of abandon, the intensely personal tone in which Qassim discusses all manner of subjects from the procedural to the philosophical, often on the same page, that gives the book its immediate appeal. One amazing fact is that, whenever he begins to write in dialect – as people often do in personal correspondence – Qassim always seemingly involuntarily reverts back to standard Arabic. Before you have had a chance to catch your breath the language has already taken on that heavy, fluid eloquence that characterises all his writing.
He writes while on the job, while drunk, while briefly ill or in the grip of melancholy. The text, which Shoair is careful to reproduce accurately, preserving grammatical errors and idiosyncrasies of punctuation (footnotes would have made for a smoother read), affords fascinating insights not only into the life of which it was part – Qassim’s propensity for mythologising even the simplest events: the way he remembers his journeys on foot from one village to another to see friends back in the Nile Delta, for example, or his tirades against the so called Zionist entity and Sadat – but also into the rhetorical techniques that went into his more polished compositions. Still, there is a sense in which these letters can be read as chapters in an epistolary novel, albeit an unsettlingly postmodern one, about estrangement and homeland but also about the shifting and often tragic fortunes of Egyptian intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century.
Strangely Qassim seems to say very little about his immediate surroundings in Berlin. Often he will recount what he has been doing or where he is going next, his often difficult financial situation can be discerned in various ways, but Berlin itself – the place he occupies while writing – remains something of a mystery, repeatedly mentioned but only very occasionally dwelled on. In one 1974 passage to Saleh Qassim, with typical quasi-epic emotion, speaks of his awareness of the city with Whitmanesque frenzy: “Berlin seeps into my heart from peculiar pores… Berlin, softly! In my heart is Cairo still. Will you come to me in words whose meanings I do not understand on the lips, in cigarette smoke puffs, in a few sadnesses that I know. For I, Berlin, lived a long life before I came here… Berlin, I am your loving young one. I throw my leg away from the bar seat. When she smiles to me I dissolve. I feel the taste of glittering saliva on her teeth. I tap the rim of my glass out of shyness. I wish it never filled and you will ever fill it. But it is only a moment that barely is before it is gone…”
Apart from its historical value, of all its virtues, the most remarkable thing about this book is that it contains a wealth of apparently passing remarks that will prove of value not only to the student of contemporary Arabic literature but to the literary theorist and the writer concerned with the nature of the creative process and what it means to write. “Dreaming of writing is more beautiful than writing itself,” Qassim writes to Wardani in 1982. “Dreaming of writing is me in all my barbarity, my limitlessness and power.” And it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, in these letters, Qassim did not so much write as dream of writing.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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Ahmad Yamani’s New Book: The Ten Commandments of Displacement

When Youssef Rakha asked the Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani how his latest book, Amakin Khati’ah (Wrong Places, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2009) came about, the latter sent him a numbered list of observations

1. All the poems of this diwan were written in Spain between 2002 and 2006.

More than other “Nineties” prose poets working in standard Arabic, Ahmad Yamani was accused of hartalah, contemporaneous slang for prattle or drivel. That was when he lived in Talbiyah, the semi-provincial suburb of the Pyramids where he was born in 1970. No one doubted his talent, but even the quasi-Beatniks of Cairo were not ready for the irreverent lack of polish in his first book, Shawari’ al-abyad wal-asswad (The Streets of Black and White, 1995), particularly clear in the long, epoch-making poem whose title translates to Air that stopped in front of the House.

Here at last, romantic and Kafkaesque by turns, was a rage-free Howl of Cairo in the post-Soviet era. The madness went on. By the turn of the millennium Yamani was as well-known as he could be. He was writing, he was working (mostly at cultural magazines), but like many others he was also fed up with life on the margin and disgusted with the social, economic and literary mainstream. One day in 2001, he left the country for good.


2. I did not show anybody and did not publish a single poem, because my idea was simply to test myself in a new place.

The ambition to start over makes sense despite Yamani’s success: Through a revolution waged in the ghetto – cf. the journals Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra and Al-Garad – he had been among the few who survived the purges. In time his hartalah-streaked genius, demonstrated in two more books by 2001, looked more like what the revolution was about than almost any other work. The vernacular, the individual, the concrete: these were the basic components of a variegated “movement”, but Yamani seemed to embody them more literally. In a way he grabbed what everyone else was girdling. Hartalah or not, his work was gloriously prosaic.

Apart from tighter technical control of his material and a greater openness to drama and narrative, however, no major developments occurred in Yamani’s next two books (Tahta shajarat al-‘a’ilah, self published, 1998; and Wardat fi ar-ra’ss, Miret, 2001). The gifted strive to surpass themselves. Consciously or not, starting a new life must have seemed the perfect chance to re-enter the void. It took Yamani nearly five years to come back out with something to show for himself; and while he shed some qualities in the process, there were others he retained:

Unlike Yasser Abdel-Latif, for example – another survivor whose own debut, also self-published, emerged simultaneously from the same press as Shawari’ – in Amakin Khati’ah Yamani still does not construct his texts, he releases them. Here as in the previous three books, he avoids sentimentality not through restraint but by reinventing the words and their sense. He makes words say not necessarily what he means (he does not necessarily mean anything), but how he experiences their weight.

For a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, then, what does it mean to be in a new place – intent on poetic self examination?


3. My life in the new place was totally different from my life in Egypt, which was surrounded by intellectuals almost for its duration and where friends provided a sense of security.

Only very occasionally in this book does being in a new place mean noticing how foreignness plays out in ideational terms, but in the context of the Nineties the fact that it does at all is remarkable. In “Story of al-Jahidh”, for example (the title is an incidental reference to the great ninth-century author, who was black), the speaker not only describes but also seems to mull over instances of racism – by Nineties standards, an unthinkable concession to “ideology” – the catch-all term for anything which, preceding or external to individual consciousness, could potentially intervene in how it operates, altering or squeezing its contours.

Assess the poem as you will, explicit mention of racism is not something you would expect of Yamani.

Not that it is beyond him to think about such issues, but the Nineties work was conceived partly in reaction to both Sixties engagement and the Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said)-influenced obscurantism of the Seventies: the absurdity of writing about and for abstractions, whether the People, the Nation, or Modernism, Beauty, etc. Any suspicion of the poem championing either cause or concept, however ambiguously, would have been enough for the Tis’iniyyun (or “Ninetiers”) to set up the gallows. And in many ways Yamani was the least susceptible to temptation.

Perhaps out of mere habit, Ninetiers who are otherwise in awe of Amakin Khati’ah still object to the topicality that shows up on its pages. Could topicality nonetheless be one of the ways in which the end of revolution – immigration, in this case – had a liberating effect on the revolutionaries?


4. This sense of security ended totally in Spain. It was not a question of lack of access to my friends, which I had through e-mail or telephone; it was more about cutting yourself off from that security with awareness, even resolve. Besides, the practicalities of life led me into new interactions. Little by little while working as a guard or a barman, you learn to take off the writer’s plume, which you used to rely on in Egypt and which set you apart as someone special, especially in front of your family. Here it didn’t matter at all whether or not you were a writer.

With Abdel-Latif and a host of young Cairo-based poets from working to lower middle class backgrounds, Yamani had inherited a certain Rimbaud-like angst from a more or less small group of staunchly apolitical existentialists who, though were only slightly older, could claim a connection with the Seventies as well as the Nineties: the Alexandria-based Alaa Khalid, the late Osama El-Dainasouri and the Charles Bukowski-loving founder of Al-Garad, Ahmad Taha, for example. It was a complex legacy with disparate influences – Dada-Surrealism (notably through translations from the French by Bashir El-Sebai), Modernism, a range of vaguely Baudelairian non-Europeans from Nicanor Parra to Orhan Veli – and it reacted to and set itself apart from savants of the Seventies not only in their capacity as Marxist politicals and heroes of the 1977-79 Student Movement but, even more importantly, as the false prophets of a new sensibility.

This is the package Yamani presumably carries along in his suitcase. But in exile or the promised land, in the new place, it must seem less relevant by the minute. Here it does not matter how you feel about prose in contrast to (free) verse as a poetic medium; it does not matter whether you are tired of one zeitgeist dictating opinions and alliances, or whether you might be contributing to the emergence of another; it does not matter to what extent you see a Syrian poet’s programme for Arab modernity as meaningless in practice, or how you assess an increasingly pro-government Egyptian critic’s notion of enlightenment. Only the idea of being and then not being surrounded by “intellectuals”, I suspect, remains crucial:

Until he went to live abroad Yamani, who graduated from Cairo University in 1992, had functioned as part of an amorphous Group of literati (or at least one avant-garde wing thereof): normal enough procedure for a writer with any ambition in Egypt. To those who choose to define themselves in opposition to the status quo – the vast majority, in practice – that Group remains an essential element of literary production. By positioning itself outside or against the cultural (formerly also the political) establishment, since the 1970s at least, from its peripheral position the Group has often exercised greater power than the establishment.

For better or worse the Group is both the motor and the bane of the writer’s life: in the capacity of friends (an almost metaphysical affinity implying interpersonal rights but neither moral consistency nor critical rigour), fellow writers-critics cover up the hopelessness of social (including academic) and professional life, doubling as readers in the process. At the expense of a sense of isolation and instability (arguably conducive to the creative act), the reality of a society that has no need even for genre novels, let alone prose poetry, is neutralised or obscured.

In the new place, I imagine, the package itself begins to look context-specific, limited and limiting, or it takes on previously unsuspected meanings. As the Spanish language gradually lodges itself in the system, unrelated discoveries further complicate the picture. For a while, I imagine, the writer no longer knows how to write.


5. In my first year I wrote almost nothing. That was 2001. In 2002 I started writing again.

Here, titled “The Two Houses”, is a moving example of how distance can rarify and distill hartalah once the literary self reemerges isolated:

I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.

The sheer lucidity suggests that “loss of security” does clear up a certain amount of non-poetic debris. Throughout Amakin Khati’ah the tone remains as offhand and the references as private (indeed often as murky) as ever, but the poet’s vision of the world and his place in it seems to have brightened or expanded. Suddenly, his work feels more relevant to more people.

So much that in an exquisitely dreamlike poem about a young man immigrating when the horizon at home begins to look like a dead end, “The Big Escape”, poetry comes close to allegory. And without a whiff of the sociopolitical or the “ideologoical”, neither strays very far from the clearly grounded situation it depicts:

They had sentenced me to execution with two of my friends and it was by what they called euthanasia which had already killed a fourth friend of ours. We did not understand very well what they meant by these statements and so they left us free without guards or cells and sentenced us instead to a kind of death they called a mercy killing which is carried out by a middle aged lady who has a benign face and which is painless but is death anyway. I consulted with my mother and my friends a little while before the execution and I decided to escape. They all agreed I should go while my two friends remained to wait for the lady. As soon as I went out after they gave me all the money they had I met with the merciful lady face to face next to my home. Neither of us looked at the other. She avoided me and went off and I went past her and started to run looking over my shoulder in other countries.


6. When I went back to writing, I wanted to see myself as a poet in isolation from any possible influences. I stopped publishing totally.

For which read, equally, “I stopped having a seat at the cafe in downtown Cairo.” Divested of that position, the writer begins to see his work in the limitless space of what is human as opposed to what is intellectual (or Egyptian), confronting the fact that poetry can only exist in a marginal place far more directly. He might even begin to question the safety that comes of belonging, however tangentially.

In Yamani’s case, I think, that journey has been overwhelmingly positive – partly because the resulting changes meddle with neither content nor style. There is a heightened sense of geography and multiplicity (in the cultural as well as the physical sense); the poet’s inherent, often laugh-out-loud sense of irony responds to a broader range of stimuli; far from the fluid vitality of Shawari’, his modus operandi reflects meticulous reworking of the short piece: a process through which the rawness of the writing nonetheless emerges intact. But here as in older work, subject matter is by and large distorted beyond recognition, language remains informal and corporeal, some sense of hartalah persists.

What is brand new is the vision: the ability to transform one act into another in the impossibly beautiful two-line poem “Tobacco Seller”, for example: “Her hand is on the box, my foot outside the house. Suddenly it grows dark, while she continues rubbing the tobacco on her shiny thigh./She stops a little to move half the tobacco to her other thigh, while I enter the tunnel and start smoking.”

References so private and concealed they are a hair’s breadth away from being meaningless (El-Dainasouri, for example, figures only as “Osama”, without any indication of who he might be) take on the power of electromagnetic signals: an object, a person becomes one of several points around which a field of gravity extends, shaped as much as anything by the distance between Talbiyah and Madrid.


7. I wrote slowly, with a sort of private enjoyment, without any plan to publish a book and without any concern with whether or not I was writing. It seems I wanted to free myself from Writing itself.

At the most basic level displacement has given Yamani’s prosaicness a fresh subtlety. Transported to a context the writer cannot take for granted, as in “The Funeral”, insights that are personal and elusively formulated enough to come across as enigmatic suddenly look breezy, universal and accessible: “Chimo is not my friend. But he died… and here I am no longer a stranger in these lands.”

In “The Book”, about the illiterate mother of a published author, this sense of writing in isolation from Writing, the slowness of rediscovering an intimate process, turns a more or less obvious homesickness into something far more interesting (in folk belief, the number five affords protection against the evil eye):

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

But it is not only a matter of context: displaced, the writer cannot take himself for granted; and not only because he can no longer designate himself a plume-wearing intellectual. In this sense the stage Yamani refers to as “loss of security” might be rephrased “loss of identity”. And indeed counterbalancing a new confidence, a kind of facility in Yamani’s poetic persona following his initial season in hell and the transformations it led to – a confidence just as evident in his real-life persona, as I recently found out – there is a sense of dislocation:

While topical notions of identity never go further than a more or less passing, very subtle remark on the “I” as exotic sex partner (in “My Clothes”), the eye of the poet is, to a far greater extent than in the previous books, unhinged and in motion, in search of its ever elusive socket in the his own transmuting face. It does not seem ludicrous to suggest that this is the deeper quest, as desperate as it is doomed, of the globalised soul seeking salvation in post-post-God times.

Like few other books Amakin Khati’ah presents the world as a place defined by a sort of earthly transmigration, people becoming other people through movement in space, vulnerable egos in intercontinental flux. And it is to Yamani’s credit that, unlike many Arab writers, without once resorting to a self-definition that might help him to do so, he communicates a persuasive sense of being in the contemporary world.


8. The strange thing is that some people saw my not writing as a sign of bankruptcy and decided that what I had already published was the end of my writing career. This made me laugh even as it saddened me. But it was a passing sadness.

Such is the ugly face of the Group or its avant-garde wing, whether or not that has really managed to set itself apart from the Seventies – the subject enacting or being made to enact ridiculously melodramatised glories and downfalls for the benefit of the rest of the crew, turning into Hero, Victim or (in the broadest range of senses, including the literary) Suicide – but however passing the sadness such sickness inspired in Yamani, it is just as well he was made aware of it, the better to appreciate the significance of the new place. Perhaps we would not have known about Yamani if not for the Group; what we should be thankful for is that he has endured in spite of it.

Immigration, as it seems, is remedy enough. The friends remain friends but in a far less proscriptive way. It is possible to relate to the family – part of the hopelessness of the society surrounding an impenetrable circle – in a more open and sympathetic way. It is possible to see the meaning and value of others as others, not equally restricted versions of the self who may also have made the difficult choice of becoming “intellectuals” or of joining the group. A certain amount of open-ended understanding accumulates. The world becomes a handkerchief as well as being small.


9. I did not even think of publishing the book once it was completed. It was Yasser Abdel-Latif and Mohammad Hashim who drove me to do it.

Mohammad Hashim is the writer who, by founding Dar Miret in 1999, absorbed much of the energy of the Nineties and eventually became better-known as the most accomplished independent publisher in the city (the moon of his success has since waned somewhat). And the easy way to interpret what Yamani has to say about the publication of this book is to think of it as (false) modesty. He is shy about the genius that drives him.

It could also be a sign of despair of ever having a significant readership, reflecting what I feel is a healthy awareness of the position of the contemporary Arab writer in the grander scheme of things. While others go crazy over literary prizes or the prospect of being translated – publication being among the easiest tasks facing a writer in Cairo, it is never enough in itself – here is a glowing talent who, expecting neither fame nor fortune, has little or no drive to publish in the first place. Ambitious he might be, but he is silent. There is dignity in that position: an artisan’s deep respect for his noble handiwork regardless of market demand.

Alternatively, however, the statement could be interpreted as a salutary affirmation of the fact that true writers write foremost for themselves, to work through their own sense of being. In this sense Amakin Khati’ah might be read as a journal of expatriation, an inner chronicle of what it means, for a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, to live away from home.

It means that he is still hard-up, that he teaches and translates to make a living: probably factors in the development of his approach to language and meaning. It means that he has become an academic (the only career open to an immigrant educated in the humanities?) and that it is an opportunity for him to set up theoretical grounding for the literary form in which he found himself (the prose poem), and to locate his work in a wide historical context. It also means that he can write free from compulsion, free from the need to establish ultimately prohibitive social or existential credentials; maybe it even means that he has something to write about, too.


10. With rare intelligence, Mohab Nassr, in a letter to me after reading the manuscript, caught the idea that this was my first book. I feel the same way: the first book in a second life.

It is interesting that, of all those who commented on the manuscript, Yamani should cite Mohab Nassr: the one Nineties poet (of Khaled and El-Dainasouri’s generation) who, largely out of repulsion from the Group, its capacity for ruining lives and its failure to see itself as part of the society surrounding it, actually stopped writing altogether. After settling down as a journalist in Kuwait – he had worked as a school teacher in Alexandria – Nassr has only just returned to writing.

It is interesting because Nassr, not only by no longer writing poetry but by socially distancing himself from the Cairo-centred literary circles, is able to see better than others just how far since Wardat fi ar-ra’ss Yamani has come. It is also interesting because, without discrediting Yamani’s three previous books, Nassr is implying that Yamani did not start writing until he had departed, until he was totally free of his Egyptian-intellectual self.

It is interesting too that the poet joyfully agrees – not with any of the implications, necessarily, but with the fact that he has experienced a literary rebirth – adding only the qualification of this being a second life. It means that when he writes, in “Work”, “Any ghost who appears to me will instantly become my friend”, he knows exactly what he is talking about.

“The Two Houses”, “The Big Escape”, “Tobacco Seller” and “The Book” translations copyright: Youssef Rakha

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