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
On Nael El-Toukhy’s Two Thousand and Six
A spectre is haunting Arabic literature – the spectre of Halssism. All the Powers of old Culture have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Respectable State Cronies and Leftist Dinosaurs, poet Ahmad Abdel-Mo’ti Hegazi and critic Wael El-Semary, Moroccan philosophers and Lebanese novelists. Where is the literary endeavour in true opposition to the status quo that has not been decried as Halss by its opponents in power (halss being the quaint but all too appropriate term for Irreverent Nonsense, Hilarious Noise, Creative Nihilism)? Where is the Literary Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Halssism against the more advanced opposition parties within the same margin, besides hurling it against better established, reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact: Halssism is already acknowledged by Arab literary Powers to be itself a Power; and it is high time that Halssists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Halssism with a Manifesto of the party itself. To this end, Youssef Rakha here provides his reading of Nael El-Toukhi’s Al-Alfain wa Sittah: Qissat Al-Harb Al-Kabira (Two Thousand and Six: The Story of the Big War, Cairo: Merit, 2009), perhaps the millennium’s first openly Halssist novel(la), in which the theme of Revolution serves as the backdrop not only to the kind of meticulously stylised, thoroughly contemporary and cult classic-making Halss few writers have had the courage or the oomph to produce but also to basic values of the Halssist doctrine, to be traced in its present form to a major shift through the Nineties from grand narratives and vaguely moralistic drives, from collectively conceived identities and high-falutin tones, to the individual and the vernacular and the everyday. Here, finally, is pure Halss – or almost.
I. POETS AND NOVELISTS
The history of all hitherto existing literature is the history of genre struggles. Scholar and critic, journalist and blogger, prose- and free verse-champion, in a word, stylist/theorist and counter-stylist/theorist, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of literary discourse, or – more often, to be sure – in the common ruin of contending approaches to literature. And so too is the Philip K Dick-like opening of the present text infused with the urgency and distress of Literary Life (the exclusive butt of Toukhy’s tongue-in-cheek Big War): “One day, some poet sent a message from his e-mail to a number of his friends. He said he had left Cairo, was on his way to the desert: the Western Desert, to be precise. He said he grew bored of life, and was heading there with the purpose of suicide. The poet, whose name is Abdelaziz, added that he took along a can of tuna and a loaf of bread on this journey that would last forever, a journey to the hereafter as he called it. He would die and his corpse would disintegrate, as he said, and in a month from now, everyone would know where he lay.”
Abdelaziz, as it turns out, is the macho, testosterone- as well as theory-driven Leader of the Poetry Revolution, which by the time he leaves for the desert following a breakdown precipitated by his falling out with his main collaborator and close friend, Reda, has been sabotaged into a Novel Revolution. Reda is the new Leader, and as such also the husband of Abdelaziz’s once wife Sayeda, a sort of living monument to the Revolution with whom he has had a peculiar, supernatural love affair since long before the momentous events of 2006. Ultimately the Revolution takes place with Sayeda’s blessings, and it is accomplished by Reda together with Nael (a critic who at times, because of his name, seems to stand in for the author himself) and Magdy (a dodgy character recruited by Nael and Reda to be the henchmen of the revolutionary army of Bald Fat Intellectuals). Abdelaziz, as it turns out, never kills himself in the end: his e-mail is a sort of lie, a device whereby he could escape his Historical Role (embodied in the magazine he founded and edited with the help of Reda). Instead he moved to Helwan where, forever dead to Literary Life, he opened a mobile-phone shop and transformed himself into Mi’allim (Master) Ziza, eventually to discover – to his chagrin – that he himself is in fact a passive homosexual…
II. WRITERS AND JOKERS
In what relation do the Writers stand to the Producers of Halss, the Postmodern Satirists and Jokers whose values differ fundamentally from those of the old Culture, and whose work appeared in the form of blogs if not Facebook statuses long before it made its way into print? The Writers do not form a separate party opposed to other satirical parties who, in a time of endlessly corrupt respectability and absurd political commitments, will not tire of poking fun at the Holy Cows not of Politics and Ideology (those, it would seem, were already slaughtered by the prose poets of the Nineties long before the Jokers came on the scene) but, more importantly, of a Literary Life increasingly and often ludicrously filled with values whose function is to respond to the capitalisation and globalisation to which both life and literature are increasingly – and as inevitably as the Revolution seemed to Marx and Engles, God bless them – succumbing. The Writers have no interests separate and apart from those of the Jokers (whom we might safely identify with their Readers) as a whole. Except for values of sarcasm, irony, nihilism, laughter, pure enjoyment of a purely democratised creative act, which values cannot meaningfully be described as such, they do not set up any literary or cultural principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the inevitable Halss movement in its unstoppable forward march on history.
Here as elsewhere in the work of those who might be termed the post-millennial generation of cultural agents, Literary Life is the perfect target not simply for satire as such – and Toukhy’s book, it should be clear, is among the funniest satires currently on the market, certainly the most hilarious critique of the contemporary Egyptian literary sensibility to date – but also, and especially, for any effective portrait of life in the sprawling, multifaceted city eventually overtaken by the Bald Fat Intellectuals. Reda, Nael, Sayeda – not to mention Abdelaziz, especially in his Ziza avatar – are all deeply religious and pious people, for example, notwithstanding the irresolvable contradictions between the faith they purport to have and their actions and interests (beer drinking, sex, violence, and the cardinal sin of literary endeavour). This (true) fact of (contemporary) life, Toukhy presents, with unrealistic faithfulness to reality, as given. Somewhat problematically for a Reader not familiar with the immediate context in which he has produced this book – and as such problematically, perhaps, for the Halssist project as whole, since Halssism in its ultimate effect should never be context-specific – Toukhy feels no need to clarify whether or not he is poking fun at Wahhabi religiosity, whether or not expressions of religion on the part of his characters is as absurd as the Knowing Reader – au fait with Literary Life, will readily take it to be.
Yet Toukhy does other things with Halss – as Halssists should and will. He uses the language of bloggers and other post-millennial newcomers to the literary sphere, for example, (mis)spelling vernacular words to replicate the way they are pronounced – an involuntary mistake on the part of said bloggers, voluntary on his – in order to bring down the airy castles of the old Culture. He plays with values of manhood, womanhood and everything in between – in order to destroy prevalent (mis)conceptions about the roles people play and the places they occupy. With an intellectual rigour that is necessary for the effective communication of a Halssist message (Halssist messages can say little or nothing, of course, apart from Halss), he places the idea of Revolution before him and looks at it. He looks long and hard at this idea and its connections with a broad range of the ideas and images informing contemporary Arab life. He reviews ways in which the idea has been used, manners in which it has been critiqued, and he gives a more or less realistic account of what Revolution amounts to, in the end. And yet, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls that await the committed Halssist once he approaches political, social or cultural themes, Toukhy does this through the oblique and distorting lens of an extremely narrow and ultimately absolutely impotent community of Citizens: the cafe-going intellectuals who populate downtown Cairo, the drinkers and the smokers, the little-educated, self-obsessed founders of literary magazines.
“We suggest a new and exciting subject to the young researchers among our children: the Revolution’s view of itself, how it expressed itself (in this case, its selves) through different names: Revolution, War, Haifa,” the long cherished Palestinian town the book’s Revolutionaries invoked in their forward-marching slogans, “Beyond Haifa, Beyond Beyond Haifa, ending with Two Thousand and Six, the year of the outbreak of the Revolution: 1 February 2006. How was each one of those titles made to prevail in the press and the media? How did society receive them (sometimes easily, often after resistance)? Sources will be available and plentiful: the newspapers issued in 2006. The researcher who wants to register his thesis will clash with an essential obstacle, however. He will be told that Two Thousand and Six is not yet an event that can be contemplated from afar, it is not yet history. And this is true, for something in Two Thousand and Six made it an ahistorical event, an event forever in present time, an event in which we live. Two Thousand and Seven came and went, then Two Thousand and Eight, even Two Thousand and Twenty. And still, in every year, part of Two Thousand and Six moves along with that year, runs parallel to it, does not overtake or lag behind it. Therefore the crisis that Abdelaziz felt was that he lived in pre-Two Thousand and Six times, before that moment that proved itself eternal…”
III. SATIRICAL AND HALSSIST LITERATURE
As we draw up the outlines and constituents of the Halssist party as a whole, glimpsing the potential of this all-encompassing spectre, which will no doubt beget a wider variety of offspring as the millennium moves ahead heralding the triumph of the Jokers, it is important to set Halssism apart from an increasingly popular mode of quasi-literary writing that has been identified as Humorous or Comic, and which shares with Halss the essential elements of satire and social critique. Humorous writing which has in these recent, commercialised years made the best-seller list as often as anything else may have been a step on the way to the true liberation of the Jokers that Halssism proposes, their prevalence and their ultimate, scientifically ordained triumph. But it is not the same as Halss in that it holds onto various aspects of the real and the moral the presence of which will hamper and potentially kill the transformation now besetting our world. Revolution is indeed afoot, in order once and for all to bring down Revolution.
JOKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!