Tractatus Politico-Religiosus

The Second Tractatus: From 25 January to 30 June in four sentences: on Egypt’s two revolutions

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1 Newton’s third law of motion: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.
2 For nearly three years the triumph of the 25 January uprising involved the Egyptian constituency in a series of conflicts, protests and counterprotests in which the action repeatedly pitted the army as the sole remaining representative of the state against political Islam.
2.1 In the period 25 January-11 February 2011, protesters (including Islamists) were credited with bringing down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. They had no leadership or ideology, and their slogan — “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” — could conceivably be grafted onto a communist or fascist system just as well as on the liberal democracy they were demanding.

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Fuloulophobia: What I talk about when I talk about 30 June

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Nearly a week ago, some little known Kuwaiti newspaper reported that President Mohamed Morsi had negotiated, it wasn’t clear with whom, “a safe exit deal” for himself and 50 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — in anticipation of 30 June.

It was obvious misinformation but it was tempting to believe, partly because it suggested the very implausible prospect of the MB leaving power peacefully, lending credence to the idea that 30 June will be “the end of the MB” anyhow.

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Download ebook on Egyptian revolution

… It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state…

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

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

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

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. 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

homepage SOLUS solussolus@hotmail.com
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Arabian Ants

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Image via Wikipedia

My own private Emirates

Youssef Rakha clicks his heels together three times and says, ’There’s no oasis like home.’

It had been nearly a week since I slept in my apartment – and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary on my return. Enervated by my tour of the Emirates, I resolved to retire for as long as possible. Dream images of my family home in Cairo saw me through; I fell into a deep, regenerative slumber filled with journeys – to Ras al Khaimah, to Alexandria – shorter trips by car which, enabling a brief departure from everyday living quarters, offer a variation on the usual urban domicile, a temporary escape from Abu Dhabi or from Cairo. But by morning, the itching was impossible to ignore.

Some unpleasant sensation in my limbs had momentarily but repeatedly woken me through the night, yet the REM sleep was so absorbing I did not register what it was. Eventually, sitting up in the light of my bedside lamp, I could just make out a familiar creature trudging determinedly from underneath my torso to the edge of the mattress: a tiny brown ant, the kind that, back in Cairo, would be infesting said family home at this time of year if not for regular visits by the exterminator. Yet the ants were never entirely vanquished, especially when the scheduled visit of the exterminator was slightly overdue. They would be practising their infantry drill, individually or in small groups, inside the bath tub or on a door handle, marching alongside invisible tanks across a windowsill, launching minuscule rockets into the ceiling; sometimes they managed to build settlements near the sugar hoards in the kitchen, putting up imperceptible flags.

Amazingly, even as I scratched vigorously now (ensconced in my insulated Abu Dhabi environment) I was overjoyed by the presence of those reviled occupiers. For once my air-conditioned living space – like so much else in the Emirates: cordoned off, polished and seemingly impenetrable to the substance of real life – felt like my idea of a home: a place where, in midsummer, ants have to be dealt with no matter what.

It occurred to me that, even in the perpetual state of transience in which the UAE’s migrant labour force lives (and I too, willy-nilly, am part of that labour force), small details can generate a stable atmosphere, slowly but surely breaking the seal of impermanence. This belated realisation should have come to me earlier – it did not actually require the presence of these arthropod madeleines – had I only given it some thought. It seems that even the most unattached nomad, in the most mercurial quicksand, will of necessity imbue the space he occupies with clues to who he is.

For an actual flat – even a company-procured specimen, in a newly constructed assembly-line building, which looks and feels more like a dorm room than a house – is more than a glorified hotel apartment. Partly to ensure that it would be different from places where I have lived in the past, and partly for the sake of interior-design innovation, but mainly to cut the start-up costs, when I first moved in, I decided to furnish only one room.

The idea was to divide up the space along the lines of UAE territory, mimicking those architectural models you keep bumping into at public venues in a symbolic way. The kitchen and entryway would stand in for the more remote Northern Emirates; the bathroom, being wet (one Arabic word for bathroom – dawrat al miyah – translates as “revolution of the waters”), small and different from anywhere else in the house, would represent the island of Abu Dhabi.

The unfurnished, thus far-unused lounge – designed, or rather left blank, to house parties and punish renegades – is my Empty Quarter, while the Oasis, the hub of my very own miniature Trucial Coast, located as it should be adjacent to the revolution of the waters, is both bedroom and study; it has the TV, the DVD player, the books – everything, really.

At the time, I had not realised that, in so conceiving of the apartment, I was not so much invoking the Emirates as recreating an introverted loner’s archetype of a place to be comfortable in. With few exceptions, I have always occupied a single room, a combination bedroom and study, where the entertainment system would also be installed.

Like Proust, I like to work in bed; like Quentin Crisp, I try to minimise housework. And being cooped up in a manageable space with everything I required in the immediate surroundings must have instinctively felt like the right choice. The Oasis can be depressing when I have stayed there too long, but it answers my needs at every level. Interestingly, the room in its present state has something to say about what it means to live your life as part of a migrant labour force — all the more so in the presence of Cairo-style ants – after a week spent in hotels of widely varying quality.

What the Oasis reveals — in addition to my conscious, ultimately lame map of the Emirates and the subconscious notion of comfortable living space — is the enduring power of subjectivity. Whether they mean to or not, even when they have worked actively against it, transients will unload their baggage wherever they have arrived: their mental, as well as physical baggage; their attitudes and assumptions, their sense of right and wrong, their tastes and, perhaps most tellingly of all, as in my seemingly insane joy on discovering the reason my limbs were itching, their intricately accumulated responses.

In my case, to give a few examples, the kitchen is well-stocked with Turkish coffee, the bedside table has its own, large extension, its drawers equally well-stocked with cigarettes, so as to accommodate ashtrays, coffee cups, books, notebooks, pens, alarm clocks and variously useful trinkets: my life. To the side of the TV table there is a tabla, a walking stick, a traditional Arab flute. A pile of the Arabic books I have published stands beneath the drawing of an Upper Egyptian horse. There is a map of the Ottoman Empire and, next to the pop art case containing my stationary on the desk, a miniature Quran. In the drawers are Egyptian CDs, Lebanese films, Indian incense sticks acquired in the popular Cairo market of Moski.

A hotel cleaner arrives once a week to sort things out; he arranges a load of clean laundry into the wall cupboard and, shaking his head sorrowfully at the ants, says, “I spray now, sir?” To which I am nodding, admittedly with some reluctance.

After six months in Abu Dhabi, something changes in your outlook. It is not that you belong more. Rather, you become more open to experience, more painfully exposed, more willing to engage with people who once seemed irrelevant to you. Most crucially, in this context, your living space — and that includes the public as well as the private — begins to look like you. After six or 60 years, the space forcibly reflects those who reside – however briefly – within.

One of my favourite pastimes in Abu Dhabi is to depart the Oasis in the middle of the night, venture into the Empty Quarter and make a long-distance phone call. “Why is your voice so strange,” my interlocutor will invariably ask. “There is a huge echo, it’s like you’re calling from the middle of the desert.”

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Tractatus Franco-Arabicus

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Reading Sonallah Ibrahim’s last two books, Youssef Rakha suggests an early Wittgenstein-style formulation of the kind of literary problem Bonaparte’s Campaign to Egypt might present
1. An Arab novel can be written about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801).
1.1. At first sight, this is perfectly self-evident: a novel in Arabic (or by an Arab writer) can be written about anything at all. But an Egyptian novelist writing about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, responding to a particular colonial legacy from the position of the colonised.
1.1.1. Bonaparte’s failed bid to take Egypt and Syria was intended to safeguard French trade in the Middle East and obstruct the British route to India. What it achieved was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the 22-volume Description de l’Egypte, as well as bringing the first print press into the country.
1.2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, a response to both the left-wing idea that the campaign abused Egyptians and the right-wing idea that it propelled Egypt, a nominally Ottoman province ruled by feudal Mamelukes, into the modern age.
1.2.1. It was in the wake of the Campaign, and at least partly as a result of it, that the Ottoman general Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849) founded the modern state of Egypt and Greater Syria, establishing not only a precedent for non-European modernity but also the basis of an Arab commonwealth in the Middle East, one whose energy and foresight initially made it a stronger world power than the Ottoman empire.
1.3. A novelist who has chosen to write about the Campaign will probably have political as well as literary motives.
1.3.1. Whether he agrees with him or not, it is likely that he will seek historical counsel with Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti (1753-1825), whose canonical chronicle, Aja’ib Al-Aathar fil-Tarajim wal Akhbaar (better known in English as Jabarti’s History of Egypt), remains the principal Arabic reference on the topic.
1.4. Already, these conditions moderate the notion of a novel considerably.
1.4.1. However else defined, a novel should remain fictitious, it should present individual characters in the process of change; it should make no concessions to a predetermined view of the forces affecting their lives.
1.4.2. The Arab novel as exemplified by its celebrated practitioner, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), has seldom had a political agenda. Even when it is intended as a statement on a historical period (Al-Karnak, 1974; The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), even when it is generically historical (Rhadopes of Nubia, 1943; The Struggle of Thebes, 1944), Mahfouz’s novel never presents history as a debate in which the writer might take sides (however representative or typical of that writer’s national identity the side he takes).
1.4.3. In this respect, Mahfouz follows in the footsteps of many 19th-century Russian and (ironically in the context of this tractatus) French masters of the novel.
1.4.4. To a greater or a lesser degree, younger (so called Generation of the Sixties) heirs of Mahfouz like Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937) were too morally or intellectually bound by historical grand narratives and political positions to practise novel writing with the same degree of political detachment.
1.4.5. Ideas of and about history affected these writers’ work to varying degrees, transporting much weight from the individual to the collective and from the shifting consciousness of a character in history to the fixed consciousness of the writer as a possible agent of historical change.
1.5. These ideas underpin what modification of the novel has taken place since Mahfouz. Apart from the more universal registers of Marxism, they have tended to converge on the image of an abused nation shedding the tethers of colonialism. Novelists like Ibrahim were, to use a word that did not yet exist when the Generation of the Sixties emerged on the scene, postcolonial.
1.5.1. In contemporary Arabic literature, “the Generation of the Sixties” remains an amorphous term, but with Ibrahim, at least, it is safe to define its significance in terms of a response to (the failure of) Arab nationalism, the earliest reflection in the language on what independence from British rule in 1956 and the emergence of a populist military dictatorship could mean for ordinary Egyptians.
1.6. Ibrahim’s standpoint will automatically favour the idea that the Campaign abused the people over the idea that it facilitated the emergence of Muhammad Ali’s commonwealth.
1.6.1. Its socialist dimension prevents him from sympathising any of the relevant historical parties – Ottomans, Mamelukes, French, British – since none of them can be identified with the people.
1.6.2. Its nationalist dimension precludes a positive view of the cultural intermingling and ethnic multiplicity those three years made possible even as he depicts them, since it prioritises the political significance of the event in them-and-us terms (the “us” in question being an undifferentiated and ultimately mute majority).
2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is likely to be written from a Generation of the Sixties standpoint.
2.1. This is because only a “postcolonial novelist” like Sonallah Ibrahim is likely to write such a novel.
2.1.2. A writer who is interested in neither the position of the colonised in general nor the French colonial legacy in particular – or one who is interested in these topics in a less prescribed way – cannot write such a novel without undermining basic precepts of Arab nationalism (in however sophisticated or watered-down a form these precepts may now be expressed) and in so doing he risks being called a traitor.
2.1.3. Such a writer is unlikely to find the subject of the Egyptian Campaign immediately appealing or directly relevant to the process of pronouncing fictitiously on contemporary Arab life anyway.
2.2. However disinterested in Jabarti per se, Ibrahim will peruse Aja’ib Al-Aathar to corroborate his standpoint. His novel Al-Amamah wal-Qubba’ah (The Turban and the Hat, Dar Al-Mustaqbal,2008) takes the form of a newly discovered manuscript – the secret diary of a fictional 18-year-old student/scribe of Jabarti’s who lives with the historian and works at one of the Campaign’s “scientific” centres in Cairo.
2.2.1. Somewhat too conveniently for comfort, and often sounding a far more modern note than would be expected of a person from Jabarti’s era, this unnamed chronicler has an affair with one of Napoleon’s courtesans, comes in close contact with the Coptic collaborators seeking independence from the Ottoman-Mameluke stronghold, and befriends the Syrian student Suleiman al Halabi – the assassin of Napoleon’s successor in Egypt, General Kléber – who will eventually be impaled on a stake.
2.2.2. Though he achieves a prose very like the 19th-century historian’s – creating a contemporary correlative of the relevant parts of the chronicle – Ibrahim reads Jabarti’s life and work with an agenda.
2.2.3. Jabarti, rather than being a source of inspiration as such, acts to bolster up a predetermined grand narrative in which the Ottomans (including Muhammad Ali) were holding back the people, and the French through a mixture of brute force and immoral guile exploited and abused them.
2.2.3. Jabarti himself becomes party to all manner of political scheming, hiding and replacing versions and/or parts of his own chronicle when he realises the Ottomans will replace the French as the Mamelukes’ conquerors of the day. (This is the moment directly preceding Muhammad Ali’s arrival as part of the Ottoman army.)
2.3. From a historical standpoint, as a student of Jabarti, it seems easy to contest this view of the genesis of the modern Arab nation. Yet it is equally easy to understand it – even, to some extent, sympathise with it – once Ibrahim’s standpoint is taken into account.
2.4. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different or less predetermined standpoint is to demand that he should not write about the Egyptian Campaign.
2.4.1. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different standpoint and still write about the Egyptian Campaign is to demand that Arab intellectual consciousness since the mid-1950s should change radically (that it should shed all vestiges of nationalism, for example).
2.5. Such demands are historically impossible.
3. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign can only say so much.
3.1. This becomes especially clear in Al-Qaanoun Al-Faransi (The French Law, Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2009), a kind of sequel to Ibrahim’s novel Amrikanli (Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2003) in which the Cairo University historian protagonist of the latter, Dr Shukri, travels to France to participate in a conference on the Egyptian Campaign with a newly discovered manuscript by an apprentice of Jabarti’s.
3.1.2. That manuscript is The Turban and the Hat.
3.2. That an Arab novel about the Campaign can only say so much becomes clear in The French Law in a number of different ways.
3.2.1. One of these is that, without the pretence of being an 18th-century history student who happens to be sleeping with a lover of Bonaparte’s, Ibrahim’s political observations are far more resonant.
3.2.2. “The reason for all the problems we suffer in the Arab world,” Dr Shukri tells his colleagues during a meal at one point in the course of his trip, “is that we did not manage to establish an advanced national industry. At the beginning the Ottomans divested us of the kind of human and material resources that go into the accumulation necessary for the move into the age of the machine, and after them came the French and the English. Every attempt we made, the West immediately aborted.”
3.2.3. It is beyond the scope of the tractatus to advance an argument against this line of thinking. Such an argument is not only possible but necessary.
3.2.4. If they are neither Mamelukes nor Ottomans nor quasi-Ottoman proteges of the West, who are the “we” Dr Shukri refers to? Where would that advanced national industry come from, if not through the very colonies he sets out to critique? What might modern Arab consciousness be identified with beyond the peasants who had no role to play in the unfolding of history except through an originally Ottoman army?
3.3. Here as in Amrikanli, Dr Shukri stands in stark contrast to both his morally (for which read politically) compromised Arab colleagues and the more or less racist Westerners he comes in contact with.
3.4. As in The Turban and the Hat, from the aesthetic if not the intellectual point of view, the clash between east and west is most poignantly portrayed in an interracial amorous or erotic encounter.
3.4.1. Dr Shukri’s encounter with Celine, who does community work with the children of immigrants, is a strong expression of that clash. The two characters’ growing closeness is melodramatically and somewhat unconvincingly cut short when on Dr Shukri’s last night in France Celine, who has by then confessed to having breast cancer, gets drunk, becomes increasingly aggressive, and gives in to a seemingly irrational rage directed at Dr Shukri.
3.4.2. Celine not only dismisses Dr Shukri’s statements on postcolonial politics as so much rubbish, she also confesses to hating the children of immigrants with whom she works. (This seems a somewhat crass way of dismissing Western pretensions to equality and the desire to benefit humanity at large, regardless of race or creed, even though one might understand the urge to dismiss such pretensions).
3.5. The Turban and the Hat ends with the image of Dr Shukri waking up at 5 am to prepare for his return to the homeland – only to find that copy of the conference programme on which he had written his address for Celine to have on the floor outside the door to his room.
3.5.1. “I picked it up to find a line in pencil beneath my address… ‘My response is precisely that you are a naive, backward human being.’ I put the programme in my handbag and proceeded to the lift with heavy steps.”
4. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign cannot go beyond that image.

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أين بيروت من دمشق؟ إلياس خوري

 

لم أر بيروت حزينة كما اليوم.

لم أرها عاجزة عن الكلام، وغارقة في الخجل مثلما هي اليوم.

حتى عندما كانت تحت القصف والخوف، لم تكن بيروت خائفة كخوفها اليوم.

لا، هذه ليست بيروت.

هذه مدينة لا تشبه بيروت، مدينة تختنق فيها الكلمات ولا تجد فيها الحرية زاوية تلتجىء اليها.

هذه مدينة مخجلة ومتواطئة مع القاتل.

بيروت تعرف ان الصمت مشاركة في الجريمة، ومع ذلك تصمت.

في الشام يقتل شعب بالرصاص وتداس وجوه الناس بالأحذية، في الشام شعب كامل ينتفض لكرامته وحريته وحقه في الحياة.

والشام ليست بعيدة عن بيروت، ولكن بيروت تبتعد عن نفسها.

صحافتها نصف صامتة، واعلامها اخرس، واذا تكلمت فالخجل يتكلم من خلالها وليس الحرية.

ساحاتها خالية، واذا جرؤ بعض الشبان والشابات على تنظيم اعتصام صغير صامت، كي يضيئوا الشموع تحية لأرواح الشهداء في سورية، يأتي شبيحة النظام الأمني المشترك ويدوسون الشموع، ويزأرون بهتافات تمجد الديكتاتور.

مثقفوها يدارون خجلهم وصمتهم متعللين بالظروف، وان حكى بعض الشجعان فيهم، فان كلامه لا يبرىء الصمت من صمته.

هذه ليست بيروت.

اما السياسيون فيتصرفون كرجال المافيا. يتغرغرون بكلام سمج عن عدم التدخل في الشؤون الداخلية السورية، بينما يعرقل رجال الأمن قدوم اللاجئين السوريين الهاربين من المذبحة.

الأمن الموازي يهدد السوريين في لبنان، ويتم احصاء النازحين، وتوجه الاهانة الى من اثبت انه شعب على استعداد للموت كي لا يهان.

لن اتحدث عن ابطال ‘الممانعة’، لن اسأل المقاومين كيف يغمضون عيونهم. فأنا اعرف ان الطائفية لا تغلق عيون اللبنانيين فقط بل تحولهم الى عنصريين.

كل طائفي عنصري، وكل بنية طائفية هي شكل عنصري.

لن اسأل زعماء الطوائف عن صمتهم، فالأفضل ان يصمتوا، بعدما استمعنا الى ما قالوه عبر فضيحة وثائق ويكيليكس.

والطائفيون يكررون اليوم خطيئتهم الأصلية.

حلفاء النظام السوري مخطئون في حماستهم لنظام يترنح، لأنهم يخافون من ان يكون سقوطه مقدمة لاسقاط هيمنتهم السياسية التي هي الاسم الآخر لفسادهم ونهبهم.

واعداء النظام السوري مخطئون في انتظاريتهم، لأنهم ينتظرون اشارة لم تأت من سيدهم السعودي، وهم متخوفون من اللا قرار الامريكي حول مصير النظام، ومن التعاطف الاسرائيلي مع نظام شرح لنا المليونير رامي مخلوف معانيه.

كل هذه الحثالة من السياسيين تتلوث اليوم بعار الصمت والتواطؤ.

الشعب السوري في انتفاضته البطولية المجيدة، في صبره وتفانيه وشجاعته، يعلن فضيحة مزدوجة: فضيحة النظام السوري بالقمع الوحشي والدم المراق، وفضيحة النظام اللبناني بالجبن والسفاهة.

نستطيع ان نحلل اسباب هذا الصمت المتذاكي، او اسباب الدعم المتغابي للنظام السوري، كما نستطيع ان نفهم ان لبنان الذي استطاعت الطوائف اجهاض استقلاله وتحجيم مقاومته وتصغيرها، بات عاجزا ومشلولا وفاقد الارادة.

لكنني لا استطيع ان افهم لماذا تنتحر بيروت بالصمت.

المدينة التي قاومت الغزاة الاسرائيليين واحتملت القصف والجوع والحصار، تبدو اليوم خائفة من مجموعة من الزعران والبلطجية الذين يصادرون صوتها.

شارع الحمرا، الذي كان عنوانا ثقافياً للحرية تستولي عليه مجموعة من الفاشيين الذين يروعون الناس بأسلحتهم الجاهزة للاستعمال.

هذه البيروت ليست بيروتنا،

وهذه الصورة الخانعة لثقافة الصمت ليست ثقافتنا،

وهذه اللامبالاة الذليلة ليست لا مبالاتنا.

لا اعرف كيف اداري خجلي من نفسي ومنكم ايها الناس.

السوريون والسوريات يواجهون القمع بالموت، اما بيروت التي استقالت من نفسها، وصارت مجرد زواريب للطائفيين والفاشيين فانها تموت من دون ان تواجه، تنتحر ويُنحر صوتها على مذبح الخوف والمهانة.

لا اعرف كيف انهي هذا المقال، فلقد بدأت في كتابته كرسالة اعتذار من بيروت الى دمشق، وكوعد بأن لقاء الحرية لا بد وان يجمع المدينتين اللتين عانتا كثيرا من القمع والترهيب.

كنت اريد ان استعيد صوت سمير قصير الذي كان اول من زرع ياسمين الحرية في الشام، وروى بدمه ربيع العرب قبل ان يبدأ.

لكنني عاجز عن الكلام.

اشعر بالعار والعجز، واحس ان صوتي يختنق، وان بيروت التي كتبتها وكتبتني تتلاشى امام عيني، وانا ارى كيف تغرق المدينة في الخوف وتفترسها اللامبالاة.

لكن رغم القمع والخوف فان لا شيء يستطيع ان يمحو واقعا مشتركا تعيشه المدينتان المسورتان بالتخويف.

سوف يفي الوعد بوعوده، وسيحملنا الحلم صوب الشام وفلسطين.

اما مرحلة هيمنة الخوف فستنطوي كذاكرة لا نريد لها ان تعود.

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فتنة الغضب

تبدأ المسألة بتجنيد الشعب لصالح أغراض النظام، ويتضح أن هناك استعداداً لذلك من جانب قطاع عريض من المعدمين والمجرمين والعاملين في الحكومة سواء رسمياً أو “من تحت لتحت”. لكي تَخرج “مليونيات” على الجانب الآخر من الحائط اللامرئي الذي قام بين “الميدان” وما سواه، يصبح هناك بلطجية يسمونهم “مؤيدي مبارك” إلى أن يعترفوا، وبعد إخفاق المصلحة في مواجهة الإرادة، بأنهم بلطجية وأنهم مسلحون. ليس فقط نتيجة إخفاق المصلحة أمام الإرادة، وبدليل أنهم لا يعترفون بتعاون البلطجية مع أجهزة الأمن ولا يسعون لتمييزهم عن المتظاهرين واللجان الشعبية (المفترض أنها محايدة) حتى بعد أن يُعلن عن سقوط مبارك. بالتدريج يصبح هناك شيء اسمه بلطجية، ويصبح هذا الشيء سبباً ليس فقط في أن يرتعب الناس عامة من “الانفلات الأمني” فينادوا بعودة الشرطة ويحملّوا المتظاهرين مسئولية حدوثه ولكن أيضاً في البطش بالمحتجين ما إن تقل أعدادهم بما يكفي لفعل ذلك في خفاء نسبي. وحتى المثقفون والمسيسون و”شباب الغضب” أنفسهم، لكي لا يغامروا بتحالفهم المفترض مع المجلس العسكري الذي تولى عن نظام مبارك مسئولية حفظ الأمن والاستقرار – لكي لا يعترفوا بأن المجلس العسكري ليس سوى نظام مبارك – يمتنعون عن التظاهر في غير الأوقات المتفق عليها ويتبرأون من خارقي حظر التجوال (علماً بأنه لولا خرق الحظر في الفترة من 28 يناير إلى 11 فبراير، لما “نجحت” الثورة أساساً). يصبح الاحتجاج السلمي مع الوقت بلطجة يعاقب عليها القانون. تتحول الثورة وبعد “نجاحها” إلى فتنة

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Link

كتابنا

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

وجه المثقف

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

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Postmortem




You are miracle workers, Youssef. You will ring forever throughout history; Egypt, of course, was there at the beginning of human civilisation, and it and its people continue to be so. Momentous and magnificent, what you’ve done.” – the British writer Niall Griffiths in a private e-mail, 15 Feb, 2011

Having travelled east from Tunis, the principal slogan of the revolution in Egypt remained, unusually for Cairo demonstrations, in correct standard Arabic (and despite the co-option of the term since 11 Feb by every other guard-puppy of the former regime, every shameless beneficiary, and every lying bastard, I still feel utterly entitled to call my revolution by its true name). Hard to say in retrospect whether the incredible evocative, multi-layered power of the four words was already latent within them or was lent them by events and blood, but incredible evocative, multi-layered power they indubitably have:

ASH-SHA’B YUREED ISQAAT AN-NIDHAM.

Ash-sha’b, a word so completely misappropriated by the military in the 1950s and so often abused since then that, until 25 Jan, it could only be uttered ironically, is finally reclaimed, not in the discourse of the revolutionaries but, meaningfully, in their discursive acts. Overnight, a sha’b really does appear on the streets, ready to sacrifice work, home and comfort, even life, to make a point; it is real, it has flesh and blood, it is even capable of being killed (something the guardians of the status quo, predictably enough, demonstrated in a variety of ways). And it exists in sufficient numbers to suspend and overshadow everything else: terror, apathy, expediency, the machinery of repression. At last the word can be used to mean something real, something that can be confirmed instantly by sight.

Yureed: to want, to wish, to will; to have a will. An army conscript ends up as a police officer’s domestic servant; a physician in training is the Doctor’s errand boy; a journalist reports not from the scene of the event but from the office of the government official responsible; the student’s target is neither epistemological initiative nor professional aptitude but the certificate as a token of entitlement (to class, position, rank, kudos); and certificates too, PhDs in particular, can be bought, obtained by pulling strings: it is not simply a matter of corruption; life is hollow, unreal, drained out. As far as it exists at all, deprived of the right to gather, decide for itself, fight back, to say or to be, the people, which in recent memory has only exited as an abstraction, has absolutely no will.

Once again, miraculously, this changes overnight; and thanks to the machinery of violence and untruth, a nidham that has nothing to count on but fear and ignorance, the change very quickly becomes permanent. Before anyone has had time to think, ash-sha’b yureed is the central reference – amazingly, objectives are agreed on without discussion or premeditation, without leadership as it were, and they are shared by every protester regardless of background or orientation – although many, outside the arena of slogans, insist that the instigators and the agents of the revolution are in the end not so much sha’b as shabab (the young, who make up some 60 percent of the population anyway). I would personally take issue with the accuracy of calling this the revolution of the young, but no matter.

In the past, even when it existed enough to protest – as a trade union, a wannabe party or a brutishly repressed organisation of political Islam - ash-sha’b had focused on needing change or imposing it by force, not willing it. Now, overnight, it can actually will.

And what it wills, unequivocally is isqaat an-nidham:

the bringing down (not the changing or reforming) of the regime, the order, the manner of arrangement of things. There is space within that for willing other, grander and more complicated or conventionally organised things: things Arab, things Islamic, things quasi-Marxist, things civic above all… But the point of the revolution is the freedom in which to will those things and the right, eventually, to institutionalise them, the freedom to expose mechanisms whereby, until its outbreak, they could not be collectively willed: plurality and multiplicity within the scope of what everyone can agree on in their capacity as citizens of a modern, independent, self-respecting state.

As yet I can think of three gargantuan obstacles in the way of these freedoms, to which the revolution has been a revelatory, all but divine response: sicknesses that still glare hideously out of the dead body of an-nidham. Interestingly the one thing they have in common is the way they draw on existing and apparently ancient values which may not be undesirable in themselves but have not been holding up in the electronic age.

UGLY

The postcolonial legacy is similar to that of the Eastern Bloc (centralism, bureaucracy, thought control and Leader worship) – and like the “socialist consumerism” of Party hacks in eastern Europe, since 1970 in Egypt, the police state has lived happily with capitalist excess (since 1981, what is more, and I am not alone in thinking this, the Leader has had neither vision nor charisma).

What this means in practise is that people have to use the technically illegal implements of capitalism (interest and profit) while at the same time pretending to abide by a once meaningful grand notion (if not Free Education then some other benefit of the Virtuous State); hence the informal economy on the one hand (private tuition, to follow through the example) and, on the other, bribery, extortion, wasta, nepotism and the ability of businessmen to monopolise essential products.

Salaries at the state’s invariably overstaffed institutions are kept unrealistically low to provide for the accumulating fortunes of the top five percent of employees in most cases, and perhaps also to keep people busy making ends meet. The last long-standing chairman of the board of Al Ahram, for example, took a cut of advertising revenues for himself while the institution was plunging into debt, not to mention maintaining a private retinue with vehicles and bodyguards at the expense of Al Ahram. That chairman of the board was to Egypt’s strongest “national” press conglomerate precisely what Mubarak was to Egypt: an incompetent promoter of incompetence able to make unthinkable amounts of money in return for being meaninglessly glorified. Controlling the incomes of everyone as if they came out of his own pocket, locked to his position of power with impunity even after he has fallen completely out of touch, for decades on end he rendered his constituency little or no service.

Where interests clash, the law can be invoked arbitrarily by a powerful enough player at any time, interrupting existing modes of interchange but only to a specific, usually personal end. In itself, this generates a self-sustained system of policing where everyone is always by definition wrong and subject to punishment but where everyone is watching everyone else as well, not so much to catch them doing wrong as to catch them doing right: refusing a bribe, performing the task for which they are paid, standing by each other against injustice, telling the truth, daring to challenge state-stamped authority. All such technically legal acts, moving counter to the age-old preference for hierarchy, homogeneity and dependency, actually disrupt the totalitarian order; they delay tasks, they make trouble for individuals; they can ruin lives.

For 15 days among the protesters in Tahrir Square, while order was spontaneously kept from each according to his ability to each according to his need – while security was collectively maintained through ID checks and meticulous searches at entry points – while public services included effective rubbish collection and crime prevention, even the banning of obscenities from slogans and chants – while necessities were transported and distributed, resources divided, space claimed, down to the installing of outdoor bathrooms and the setting up of camps for sleeping in the rain – all that is civic and public and state-operated about life was smoothly undertaken with infinitely more efficiency and conscience than anybody had ever known anywhere in Egypt.

Kafka, as it turns out, is not the price that we have to pay for stability; Kafka is what the problem has been all along.

For Egyptians, I believe, this should be evidence that the sha’b can always get on perfectly without its nidham. There need not be hollow pyramids, doublespeak or universal sameness for Egyptians – Islamists, Copts, seculars, liberals, leftists, even the angry rabble – to be able to live productively and peacefully together; and it is that ability, nothing else, that constitutes the greater good.

OLD

Last night there were fireworks in Tahrir. To see fireworks in Tahrir – and no one has ever seen fireworks in Tahir before – it took 18 days of uninterrupted protesting all over the country, the defeat and sudden disappearance of all security forces and the army taking over the streets on the third day, the deliberate disturbance of the peace and the spreading of rumours about protesters and journalists covering their protests – to maximum reactionary and xenophobic effect, the eventual entry on the scene of ruling-party militias and secret-service snipers attempting to disband protesters, some 350 dead and thousands injured, the very reluctant, silent stepping down of a very old president who has been implausibly in power for 30 years and whose family and private army of sycophants controlled and systematically robbed the economy, the eventual dissolution of the so called parliament and, oh yes, oh yes, a certain amount of constitutional emptiness in the meantime (constitutional emptiness is what the last-minute vice president and other government cronies kept invoking as an excuse to stop the president from stepping down, as if their nidham had ever respected any constitution).

The fireworks were not part of a ceremony as such, but celebrations in Tahrir since 11 Feb have been the closest thing to a true people’s ceremony in Egypt; the reason it occurs to no one to describe the celebrations as a ceremony is that the very notion (as in former communist states) has been hijacked by the state – and the state being what it was, ceremony was totally emptied of meaning. Even outdoor concerts routinely, unnecessarily involved vast numbers of Central Security (and they were not above harassing women in the dark). I would say this about a lot of things in Egypt besides the regime as such: religious experience, intellectual engagement, media discourse; all have been shells thoroughly voided of substance, and they acted to turn a predominantly young country into a little old witch of a lady: conservative, malicious, paralytic – a liar.

Some day soon, I hope, people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.

As yet people are only just discovering rights previously, mercilessly denied them – the right to be addressed politely by members of the police, for one relatively widespread example – rights they have been repeatedly told would undermine personal and public safety and national stability when in fact all they really undermined was illegitimate power. Such discourse, like the president, is very old; it belongs with an age during which, unjustifiable as it remains, state control could be justified by lack of information, populist will, a nationalist (anti-imperialist, or proto-Soviet) scheme.

Until a few days ago, agents of the former regime still had the nerve to call such extremely hard-won political participation sedition, lamenting the alleged necessity of bloodshed to prevent it, and to warn of foreign agendas directing events, when everybody knows that no Egyptian government has made it its business to incite sedition or implement agendas as much as Mubarak’s: evidence has surfaced that the former Ministry of Interior was behind the recent bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, for one thing; in 2006, in the name of the war on terrorism targetting Hamas, Tzipi Livni announced Israeli war crimes to be committed the next day against the people of Gaza from the presidential headquarters in Cairo; and while Gaza was being bombed, the government refused to open the frontier to injured civilians.

***

Of course, one condition for silence before sheer age - and age is venerated for its own sake in Egyptian culture – is the separation and isolation of discursive spaces. A poet, for example, can be a reactionary agent of the regime in one space (some official post at some division of the Ministry of Culture) and a prophet of radicalism in another (the almost never-read text). As a socio-economic being, that poet’s existence is circumscribed, sufficiently policed to make it either a mouthpiece of the status quo (opening up space for upward mobility) or a container of silence; it is rendered an organic part of an-nidham. Elsewhere the poet is left to her own devices, but confined to the space in which she has nothing in common with fellow citizens – the private, unconventional, oppositional, atheistic space in which poets have been locked up – she can only reach out to another poet. She too is afraid for her personal safety and what stability she might benefit from as a lone progressive lamb among the grassroots wolves.

In Tahrir, spaces were opened up and, for the first time in our lifetimes, we could see that once the regime left us alone we had a lot more in common than we had ever thought possible; there is a necessary and beautiful space where we can all be together – and it is nowhere near as narrow or negative as the space in which we reject the nidham, although the latter proved to be the only gateway to it. Slogans also referred to freedom, peace and unity. During the protests, in the open air, there was painting and music and theatre as well as prayers (Muslim and Christian); there were creative and hilarious responses to the oppressor outside and the apathetic onlooker at the doorstep. There was a flowering of graffiti; giant drawings seemed to crawl on the asphalt. Many of the smaller signs were literary gemstones, and video footage was quickly converted into songs. Photos were made into artworks of immediate relevance…

Kites in the colours of the flag were constantly flown high in the sky; and the military helicopters, which the protesters did not always trust, seemed to circle them.

FATHERS

Psycho-socio-historians will have a bonanza in Oedipal readings of the 25 Jan Revolution: a work of art that should generate endless departures in the world of the mind. Egypt being the mother (and it was so called in one slogan drawing on traditional patriotic discourse), the absolute ruler – called an idol, a serial killer, a thief as well as a dog – was the hated father. Among the working classes in particular, patriarchy in the form of feeling sorry for “our president” continues to register. (It is easy enough to point out that, with his family fortune estimated at US$70 billion and so much innocent blood on his hands, our president can go to hell. Even if the patriarch were desirable, surely it would have to be a righteous patriarch who cared for his sons? And with references to filial duty consistently invoked in the context of the dirty fight to keep the regime alive – Goliath posing as David’s wronged begetter – I for one can only see respect for this patriarch as a form of eternal self-hatred, a denial of the true messiah, the vomit of treason.) But – and this remains the more relevant point, by far – 25 Jan was, as well as the defeat of the police, an occasion for patriarchy to vapourise.

Just like hierarchy, just like the false homogeneity imposed by the segregation of discursive spaces, patriarchy eliminating the life impulse completely broke down in Tahrir. Sexual harassment, a chronic illness that has dogged public space for as long as anyone remembers, was instantly and completely cured in Tahrir. Female participation, a supposed objective of both government and Islamists somehow never sufficiently realised, was patent and profound. Counsel was imparted irrespective of age but no viewpoint was imposed; and the stifling, father-headed structures of oppositional bodies of the past – modelled as they were on structures of power – spontaneously broke down. A revolution without leaders: the more precise description is to call it a revolution without fathers; even the fathers inside it were creative agents of freedom, the freedom of children, and their designation as fathers did not blind them to the ugliness that besets age when it is disfigured and corrupted.

The authority of the collective will eliminates fear. While the protests went on in Tahrir, patriarchy lived on in the myopic terror of “the popular committees” who, failing to realise that attacks on homes were orchestrated by the regime with the purpose of aborting the revolution, carried their kitchen knives and broom sticks outside and just stood there. For hours on end they moped, obtuse, at the entrances of streets and buildings; they formed checkpoints to search cars, mimicking the notorious checkpoints of the police. They were concerned about their private property first and foremost, and they often blamed the revolution for the threats to which they were subject. They acted tough, but it would take only a gun shot for them to piss themselves freely.

Patriarchy lived on in the attitude of parents who objected to their children participating in the protests, often out of fear for their safety, but just as often out of complacency and paralysis. Other parents brought their infants to Tahrir, painting their foreheads with the word Irhal – “Go away”. The parents of the martyrs gave speeches, urging the protesters to hold their ground.

One elderly gentleman – the father of three – sat next to me on the pavement at the Front, as we had taken to calling Abdulmoneim Riyad Square where the attacks of Black Wednesday were concentrated. That was on the next day, towards sunset, and it was very quiet on the Front. A young woman wearing a cardboard and tin helmet started chanting, “Down with Mubarak.” People were too tired to join in, but the elderly gentlemen kept staring at her, a smile of awe starting to form on his face.

Suddenly he turned to me and pointed in the direction from which the girl’s voice was coming. “You know,” he said. “When I see the likes of her I feel that I’ve wasted my life.” With a mixture of sorrow and delight he started laughing softly. “If she can do that at this age,” he muttered, “what does that say about people like me? When I see the likes of her,” he enunciated loudly, “I feel like a piece of crap.”

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الثورة والطغرى

تصاوير

لم يمر أسبوع على تنحي مبارك حتى صدر – أخيراً، عن دار الشروق – “كتاب الطغرى”، كأنه هو اﻵخر كان معتصماً في ميدان التحرير ينتظر الفرج: أجندة مندسة ضمن أجندات عمر سليمان التي أشبعناها سخرية بينما المروحيات تحوّم في اﻷسبوع اﻷخير.”الطغرى” هي أولى رواياتي التي ترقبت صدورها طوال عام دونما أعلم بأن ثورة ستحدث أو أتنبأ بتغير جذري في الحياة. وحيث أنني – حتى أنا – لا أعرف بماذا يجب أن أشعر وأنا أقلّب صفحات الكتاب اﻵن، ينتابني شيء من الحرج حيال إعلامكم بصدوره.

لا أخفيكم أن الثورة جعلت نشر “الطغرى”، كما جعلت كل شيء سواها، أقل أهمية بما لا يقاس. واﻵن ليس من عزاء، ولا مبرر لبجاحتي في إرسال هذا البريد، سوى أن الرواية نفسها هي صورة للمدينة التي أنتجت الثورة قبل ثلاثة أعوام من حدوثها (أنا أتممت الكتابة في بداية 2010، وحصرت اﻷحداث في ثلاثة أسابيع من ربيع 2007). هذا، وتلتقي الطغرى مع الشعب – بكل التواضع الواجب – في إرادة تغيير النظام: السخط على الوضع القائم واستبصار مؤامرة ضد الحرية في طياته، والبحث عن هوية تناقضه وتدفع الثمن.

أهنئكم وأهنئ نفسي بالثورة، أتمنى أن يكون لـ”كتاب الطغرى” من بعدها وقت أو مكان. وبرغم المجهود الذي بذلته في إتمامه وأي فائدة قد ينطوي عليها، سيظل الشهداء دائماً أجدى منه باهتمامكم.

دموع الفرح من ميدان التحرير منذ مساء 11 فبراير

This message is to inform you of the publication by Dar El Shorouk of my first novel, Kitab at-Tugra (or Book of the Sultan’s Seal, a portrait of Cairo set in 2007 and completed in 2010) within days of the triumph of the 2011 Revolution. I submitted the book for publication at the start of 2010, and I waited a year to see it in print, but it is hard to be very excited about its appearance with Dar El Shorouk now that something so much more important has happened. My consolation – and where I got the nerve to send this message nonetheless – is that Kitab at-Tugra was a sincere attempt at picturing a city unwittingly poised for revolution, and that – like the people who worked the present miracle, of whom, very humbly, I claim to be one – it too sought to bring down the order. The fate of the martyrs of Tahrir will always be worthier of your attention than my novel.

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آباء من الفضاء الخارجي

ثلاثة جُمَع ولا يبدو أن مبارك قد أدرك ما يحدث من حوله، لا هو ولا العاملون معه ولا قطاع آخذ في التضاؤل من المصريين الذين يفضّلون وهم اﻷمان على فرصة أن يكون لهم ولبلدهم معنى أو يحصلوا أخيراً على حقوق اكتسبوها بانقطاع أحبالهم السُرية. إما هذا أو أن التبجح والتنطّع قد جاوز حد العماء. والخسة  طبعاً، الخسة التي تُحوّل النَفَس، بين شهقة وزفرة، إلى كذبة سافرة. مجرد كذبة مكرورة مفترض من الناس أن يبتلعوها حتى بعد أن ذاقوا طعم الحقيقة وسجدوا على اﻷسفلت. أنا أعدك بذلك. منذ 1967 ونحن لا نصدق اﻷكاذيب بقدر ما نبتلعها خوفاً وبحثاً عن المصلحة المباشرة. في كل جهاز إداري وفي كل المجالات مبارك صغير يفعل ما يفعله مبارك، تحكمه الاعتبارات العائلية واعتبارات تحالف النصابين أكثر ألف مرة من الرغبة في التنمية أو الإنتاج. ومن قبل حتى أن يولد مَن أطلق شرارة اﻷحداث الجارية، كانت الرؤى القومية/ اليسارية قد ذهبت وبقيت، بلا مبرر، الدولة البوليسية. ذهب  الزعيم (على كل ما في فكرة الزعامة من قيد) وبقي الديكتاتور. الحرامي. مجرد صنم أجوف، صدقني. وليس من يمنعه من التصرف وكأنه سلطان يورّث عزبته لابنه بينما تقبّل الوزيرة يدَ امرأته أمام الكاميرات. لكن الدم الذي يجري في عروق مبارك ليس أزرق. ونحن نعلم. لا يمكن أن يظل الناس يصلون لإله عجوة إلى اﻷبد، خاصة وأن نعيمه لم يعد مواتياً. ومنذ سنين وسنين وقد تحولت اﻷشغال والمآرب إلى تمثيليات نبحث ﻷنفسنا بين طياتها عن مساحة مسروقة يمكن أن نكون فيها بشراً: الكتب التي لا يقرأها أحد ﻷن أكثر من نصفنا أمي؛ العمل الذي لا يأتي على أكثرنا بالربح الكافي للعيش ويتلخص إجمالاً في تملق الرؤساء؛ العشق الذي يخصَّص قسم كامل من أحد أقبح أجهزة اﻷمن في العالم لمنعنا من ممارسته؛ الفنون ومباهج الحياة التي يضيّق عليها مشروع سلفي اتضح منذ 25 يناير أنه (وبخلاف مشروع الإخوان المسلمين ) متواطئ بالكامل مع السلطة ويساهم في تحجيم الجماهير لتسهيل استبدادها بالقرار. ولا قرار. التعليم والصحة والزراعة والمواصلات وحتى السياحة، فضلاً عن تجاوزاتالشرطة: كل شيء فاسد وغبي ومزيف. خلاف ضخ اﻷموال العامة في الحسابات الخاصة وتنفيذ ما تأمر به أمريكا حرفياً بلا اعتبار لا للهوية العربية ولا للضمير الإنساني، بالذمة، ماذا فعل نظام مبارك في الثلاثين سنة الماضية؟ ثم لحظة من فضلك. بأي حق يخاطبني اﻵن شخص أثبت لي بالقنابل المسيلة للدموع والذخيرة الحية والتضليل الإعلامي والمسيرات المدبرة والبلطجية المسلحين بل وبالجمال والحمير أنه ليس سوى رئيس عصابة؟ ثم بأي حق يكلمني بوصفه أباً أو حتى جداً مخرّفاً؟ بأي منطق يظنني سأصدق أن الشهداء أوجعوا قلبه أو أنه لن يقبل إملاءات من الخارج؟ ولا يفتأ نائبه الجديد، مهندس عملية السلامالعربي/ﻹسرائيلي  اﻷول – رافعاً المجرور وناصباً المرفوع – يحدثنا بكل هدوء عن اﻷجندات“! إلى مبارك وعمر سليمان وأحمد شفيق وأنس الفقي وسائر المخلوقات الفضائية: بحق  ما يجعلنا نتنفس ويخرج الصوت من حلوقنا، لن يعود أحد إلى بيته حتى تصبح لنا بيوت؛ لن نعود إلى الحياة حتى نشعر أننا أحياء. وأنتم  لستم آباءنا، يا قحابْ

صباح 11 فبراير قبل التنحي

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عن قصيدة “الأسد على حق” لألن جينسبرج

“ليس فردوس رضاك يا زئير الكون كيف اصطفيتني”

*

أرجع من الإسكندرية عبر طنطا لأجد الثورة أسفل سريري

ومَثنيَّ الجذع على ضوء أبجورة الكومودينو، وجهي بمحاذاة المُلّة

أتبين الملايين تركض وتدافع عن نفسها بالحجارة، كل واحد عقب سيجارة لا يزال مشتعلاً

يرفعون لافتات كالطوابع ويحفرون شعارات أكبر من أجسادهم على الباركيه، أتسمّع هتافهم

***

وكأس الفودكا الأخيرة لم تتبخر من جمجمتي منذ واحد سكندري لم يُعمَل في رشدي

عظمي المخمور يقرقع وأنا أغالب البكاء ممزِّقاً ملابسي في الشباك:

الثورة حصلت يا أولاد القحبة، الثورة حصلت بجد!

***

وقد تركتُ حبيبتي في شارع بن الفارض عند بتاع المخلل تستقبل الفلول

مفتقداً لا الواحد ولا البحر، لا وجه أمها المترمل منذ ساعات ولا أباي الميت قبل عشر سنين

ولا خلف مقهى الأحمدية ولياً كان ذَكَرُه – ضمن الكرامات – أكبر من هراوات الشرطة العسكرية

بل أذني التي ابتلت في الأظاريطة لأن دموعها كانت تقطر من سماعة الموبايل

***

ألطّخ ملابسي بالحبر الأحمر وأُسرع إلى العمل لأرقد على عتبة المدير

لم تكن الثورة مع الزملاء ولا في المترو ولا حتى في حناجر شهداءٍ يُبعَثون بلطجيةَ أمنٍ مركزي

هائماً في ملكوت سكك حديد مصر كيف لم أضبطها حتى هربتْ إلى غرفتي؟

***

مضعضعاً بعدما نمت ليلتي في حمام المصلحة أوشوش عامل البوفيه: بلا ثورة، الحياة لا تُحتَمَل

هل تعرف أن ابن الفارض قال إن موت العاشق حياة والقتل أفضل من الهجر

المؤسف أنه كما أن لا تغيير بلا مذابح كذلك لا زمن بلا انتظار، هل تعرف الملائكة…

الملائكة؟ يسألني متهكماً وهو يتحسس صلعة كالجلمود ويطالعني بشفقة، يقرضني خمسة جنيه

***

أسعى إلى إحدى اللبؤات أسداً يحمل كشكولاً لأخبرها بأن الثورة ليست في ميدان التحرير

ومحتسياً فرابيه من مؤخرة سموذي بعد ثالث دابل إسبريسو في أحد فروع سيلانترو

أزعق في كاتوليكي مراهق من فوق شاشة اللابتبوب: لا شيء اسمه الغيرة القضيبية!

***

من الدقي إلى التحرير مرات عديدة صحبة شاعر شاب هو الآخر من طنطا

أتأكد من فشل الجهود حين لا ترد حبيبتي على الموبايل وهي ثكلى

وإذ جلس زيزو مع فتاة أردنية ليلة جاءني التليفون، هل كان مصابها المفاجئ عقد ارتباطنا؟

***

عندما ترد أخيراً أقنع صاحبي الشاعر أن اعتصاماً بجد في غرفتي، ننطلق بلا سلاح

وزاحفاً ورائي على ركبتيه من جنب الكومودينو بشورته البرميودا كمندسّ يتلصّص

جموع المحتجين حول كعكة حجرية هي عبارة عن نعل قديم، مثلما كنا تماماً

الدبابات علب ثقاب والإف-١٦ كالدبابيس وغوغائيون سفلة، بين المُلّة والمرتبة قناصون بالليل

***

نضاجع المخدات بعد أن أقول لصاحبي إن الله في القضبان والثورة بلا واي-فاي

أتخيل حبيبتي راكعة أمامي ببلوزتها السوداء، فجيعتنا الفردوسية وأنا أقذف في حلقها

وحين توقظنا أمي في الصباح لا أقاوم، أرى الخادمة ومكنستها الكهربائية عليها ختم النسر

أرى العَلَم يرفرف في أيدي مخلوقات فضائية وأعرف أننا لن نهزم إسرائيل

يغتاظ صاحبي والقذى في عينه حين يمتد خرطوم المكنسة تحت السرير

مع ظهور الخيش والصابون أمنعه عن الخادمة بصعوبة: لا فائدة من اغتصابها!

الآن ليس سوى صوت المكنسة وهو يبكي، لا دم ولا حديد يعود باركيه الغرفة نظيفاً وخالياً

وحيث كانت الدواوين على الرفوف زجاجات ديتول وبليدج، إسفنجات وخرق منمقة

فجأة يشهق سريري على صوت السرينة، تشتعل الملاءات وتنفجر المرتبة

يتفصد الكومودينو عن أسد هصور يزأر ويختفي صاحبي والكتابة على الحيطان:

سنوري حين يمارس الجنس يقذف كل عشرين دقيقة ولسانه أخشن من ورق الصنفرة

***

أيتها الحبيبة المنتحبة يا مانحتي الأورجازم النهائي لقد انعقدت حياتانا بالموت

لقد رأيتُ الآتين والغادين قبّلت ذوي اللحى وجريت من شاهري السنجة على سلالم المترو

حملتُ سيدي مجاهد إلى ظلمة القبر لأُطمئن أباك ونعست مقرفصاً بين مقصورتين

لقد وجدتُك أسفل سريري وجيش أمي في الغرفة، سلّمت رقبتي لفم الأسد.

لتحميل “يظهر ملاك” – شعر

The Revolution for Real: Cairo, 2011

After Allen Ginsberg’s The Lion for Real

O roar of the universe how am I chosen

I come home from Alexandria via Tanta to find the Revolution beneath my bed
And with bent torso in bedside lamp light, my face level with the mattress boards
I make out millions scurrying and defending themselves with stones, each a cigarette butt still sizzling
They raise placards like stamps and carve slogans bigger than their bodies into the parquet, I hear their chants

The last shot of vodka not yet evaporated from my skull since a possible lay never accomplished in Alexandria
My drunken bones crackle while I resist weeping, tearing off my clothes in the window:
The Revolution has happened, you sons of bitches, the Revolution for real!

I leave the house on Ibn Farid Street above the biggest pickle store in Tanta, my lover letting in condolence-paying Remnants of the Fallen Regime
Missing neither lay nor sea, neither her mother’s face widowed hours before nor my father dead now for ten years
Nor beyond the Shrine Cafe a Saint whose member (among the miracles) was bigger than the batons of the Military Police
But only my ear which got wet in Alexandria because her tears dripped from the mobile earpiece

I splash red ink onto my clothes and rush to work, lie down at the manager’s door
The Revolution was not with my coworkers nor at the Metro nor even in the throats of martyrs resurrected as thugs of Central Security
Drifting through the realm of the Egypt Railway Company, how come I never caught it till it fled to my room?

Ruptured after I sleep my night in the office toilet I whisper to the Tea Boy : Without a Revolution, life is unbearable
Did you know Ibn Farid said the death of lovers is blissful living and murder preferable to abandonment
The sad thing is that as there is no change without massacres so there is no time without waiting, are you familiar with angels?
Angels? the white-haired man sneers, rubbing a bald head like a boulder and staring pityingly, he lends me five pounds

A lion bearing a Moleskine I seek out one of many lionesses (a lioness, where I come from, is another word for slut) to tell her that the Revolution is not in Tahrir Square
And savoring a frappe riding on the back of a smoothie after the third double espresso at a major outlet of Cafe Cilantro
I scream at an adolescent Catholic from behind the screen of my laptop: There is no such thing as penis envy!

From Dokky to Tahrir many times in the company of a young poet also from Tanta
The failure of our efforts confirmed when my lover, bereaved, does not answer the phone
And while Zizo dallied with that Jordanian girl the night my lover called to tell me, was her calamity the convent of our togetherness?
When she picks up at last I convince my poet friend there is a sit-in for real in my own room, we set out unarmed

And in Bermuda shorts he follows me on bare knees past the same bedside table, a snooper planted among the misled young
Throngs of protesters are gathered round Tahrir’s iconic Stone Cake now turned to an old shoe sole, exactly as we were
Matchbox tanks and F-16s like pins — insolent marauders — between the mattress boards and the sheets snipers by night

We copulate with the pillows after I tell my friend God is in the rail tracks: No revolution should have free wifi
I imagine my lover kneeling before me in her black blouse, our heavenly grief as I come in her throat
And when my mother wakes us in the morning I do not resist, I see the maid holding the Hoover with the the republic’s Eagle on it
I see the republic’s flag itself fluttering above the heads of aliens and I know we will not defeat Israel
My friend furious with the sleep in his eyes while the Hoover trunk slips under the bed
When the mops and soap appear I have trouble keeping him off the maid: No point raping her now!
Only the sound of the Hoover while he sobs, no blood or iron, the parquet floor is empty and clean
And where the books of poetry used to be on the shelves are bottles of Dettol and Pledge, sponges and neat trellissed towels
Suddenly my bed exhales to an armored vehicle siren, the sheets catch fire and the mattress burns
The table morphs into a fearsome lion roaring and my friend has disappeared, the writing on the wall:
A PANTHER WHICH DURING SEX EJACULATES EVERY TWENTY MINUTES, ITS TONGUE COARSER THAN SANDPAPER

O mournful lover, giver of the terminal orgasm: Death has knotted our lives
I have seen the comers and the goers, kissed the Wahhabi beards and ran from the blade-wielding Remnants on the Metro steps
I have carried the Saint into the darkness of the grave simply to reassure your father, nodded off between two compartments of the Cairo-wending train
I have found you beneath my bed with the army of my mother in the room, I have surrendered my neck to the mouth of the lion.

Rewritten from Arabic by the author

مازالوا يدفعوننا، الريفييرا والدبابات، الموت فرحاً

25, 28, Postmortem, Exorcism

 

بريق اللافتات. والصاخبون. والذين تركتُهم مطمئناً. وللمرة اﻷولى منذ اجتمعنا. والمخيمات التي يسكنونها. وطعم الهواء خلف الحواجز. والذين تركوا أشغالهم ليجمعوا الزبالة. وبائعو اﻷعلام مع بائعي التسالي. ولينظمونا صفوفاً في الدخول والخروج. والذين عزّلوابعائلاتهم. والنائمون تحت الدبابة. علامة النصر باﻹصبعين. والذين يفتشونك ويعتذرون. والنائمون في العراء. وكذب المحطات الرسمية. وفي أحضان الله. والكلام المقيّئ. والذين يقبّلون الجنود. والخيانة على صفحات الجرائد. والخيانة بلا أجندات. وحاملو اﻷرغفة والفواكه. الشاي في الكوب البلاستك. والسيجارة المشتعلة من سيجارة. وصورة تذكارية مع الدبابة. الذاهب واﻵتي. ومرحباً باﻷبطال“. ومَن راح حسه وهو يهتف. والخوذة المرتجلة في النار. والكوكاكولا لغسيل الوجه. وفي الطوب والحوافر والعصي. الجري ثم الرجوع. وأحضان الثكالى. والمتليف جلده بالشظايا. أوجع قلبه ما حدث لهم. والكوكاكولا بثلاثة جنيهات. ومع علبة كشري صغيرة. ولا يجد حرجاً أو غضاضة. ولن يقبل اﻹملاءات اﻷجنبية. ويقولون إننا مضللون. حاملو الجرحى عبر المداخل. وخراطيم المياه على الساجدين. والساجدون على اﻷسفلت. والذقن والشعر واﻷحذية. ويقولون إنه على كلٍ رئيسنا. سائق التاكسي الخائف. ورافعو الصليب المقدس. وسائق التاكسي الخجول. والذين دهستهم العجلات. صورة الرئيس مع الحذاء. ومشيعو اﻷجساد واحداً بعد واحد. والذي مات قابضاً على الطلقة التي أخرجها من عنقه الطبيب. والذي اختطفوه وأحرقوا وجهه بالسجائر. والذي مات في المرة الثانية. من يهتف لا يمت. والقنص من فوق أسطح الفنادق. والقنص تحت ستار الليل. والشعارات في الرصاص. والذي واجه المضرعة لوحده. والقلق على البلد ككلام المأجورين. وتحت غطاء الليل. أكثر من معنى لجبهة. واستغاثات اﻷطباء. والنازفون على السلالم. وخسّة الشرطي. ومَن حمل القنبلة وقذفها عليهم. ومِن وسط دخان التشنج. ومن حل محلهم وهم يركضون. والذي منع زميله من ضربهم بالحجارة. والنيل ليلاً. والجندي الذي قال لي: كيف أضربكم وأخي بينكم. وضابط الجيش الذي غمرني بذراعه. والشعب يريد إسقاط النظام. ودقات الطبول إيذاناً بشيء. والكارثة. والساحات المدمدمة كالمناحل. ودقات لتنغيم الشعار. الانتظار والذراع مرفوع بالبطاقة. ومن كان شرطياً سيُذبَح. والجلوس على الرصيف. والموت ضرباً. والموت بالنهار. والمطر على الجباه. الشعب يريد محاكمة الرئيس. وعيون الخارجين من المساجد. وأطفال العشوائيات. وما يبقى من السيارة بعد أن تحترق. والانفلات اﻷمني. والرشاش في المرحاض. وأفواج اﻵتين بعد أن يأمنوا. واﻵتون مع أصدقائهم. واﻵتون مع أقاربهم. واﻵتون لوحدهم. ويسقط مبارك

لتحميل “يظهر ملاك” – شعر

25, 28

Youssef Rakha gives testimony of the first two days

I am asked to write about the recent events in Egypt, and my account will be personal whatever else it is. I saw people die, I saw their killers, I saw commentators – some of them close acquaintances or colleagues – lie about it through their teeth. Inevitably, it will be a tiny portion of what I believe will be the main epic of the Egyptian people for decades to come.

As a journalist I have worked for the most powerful pro-government press establishment in Egypt for nearly 12 years. The position has provided a level of social protection against abuses constantly witnessed on the streets; it has acted as a financial and political buffer, replacing citizenship in a society where citizenship grants few if any rights.By restricting my contribution to cultural and intellectual topics and working in English, at the same time, I have managed to avoid direct involvement in the wholesale distortion, misinformation and sheer incompetence that has made up so much of what went for balance and objectivity on the pages of publications printed by this institution, especially since a new team of chief editors were summarily appointed by the Shura Council in the summer of 2005.

Like many Egyptians, until I saw thousands upon thousands of demonstrators gathered in Maidan at-Tahrir on 25 January – saw that they were neither Islamists nor negligible – and totally identified with them – I was largely sceptical about Egypt having much capacity for true dissent. It is something of a media cliche by now to point out that the opposition was already half oppressed, half co-opted, powerless against the airtight alliance of cannibalistic capitalism and corrupt governance. Even the “banned” Muslim Brothers, of whom I am no supporter, were criminally ousted from parliament during the last elections and had since considered taking to the streets in protest.

Then again, no one suspected that the People’s Assembly was ever a representative body anyway (the same is true of the Press Syndicate, membership of which requires an official position at a government-approved institution by law, and provides little beyond installment plans for the purchase of cars and apartments or reduced-price vacations). Among writers – and in the last six years I have been as much a writer in Arabic as a journalist in English – there remained a sense of relief that (since the people failed repeatedly to show revolutionary oomph) the government, if it did nothing else, could at least keep “the Islamist threat” at bay. As much as western regimes, the traditional intelligentsia was for the longest time duped by fear of theocracy; and to this day protesters and their supporters are emphatically rejecting Khamenei’s blessings.

NDP thugs were known to exist long before they attempted to disband protesters on donkey- and camel-back last Wednesday (2 Feb) – the night on which allegedly sincere and peaceful supporters of Mubarak managed somehow to bombard protesters with tear gas (as well as stones and Molotov cocktails), while snipers stationed on the roofs of the highest buildings waited for the cover of darkness to commit murder  in cold blood – but few outside the Muslim Brotherhood felt they had enough of a stake in the electoral process to object to the thugs’ presence. People knew they had the protection of the police, and no one dreamed they could ever be deployed against peaceful protesters on such a scale – partly because no one dreamed there would ever be peaceful protesters on such a scale. Since 25 January other threats have been held up to Tahrir as well: the threat of chaos, the criminal threat, the constitutional-emptiness threat, the foreign-agenda threat. BS! I have not lost touch with the protests since 25 January and I am grateful that I have lived to witness them.

Egypt’s security apparatus is among the largest and best funded institutions of terror in the world today. It has practised torture, extortion and murder systematically for as long as anyone remembers; and I am grateful that I have lived to see it defeated, humiliated and exposed – and to have contributed, however little, to that glory.

***

Tuesday, 25 Jan. Maidan, the Egyptian word for “square” or “circle” – as opposed to the Syrian-Lebanese word saha, for example – originally means arena or battle front; and during the last week of January many of those to whom Maidan at-Tahrir becomes a home or a second home, partly inspired by the lyrics to a well-known song from the 1970s by the oppositional composer-singer Sheikh Imam Eissa, will start referring to the principal hub of modern Cairo simply as the Maidan: “The brave man is brave, the coward is cowardly/Come on, brave man, let us go into the arena.” In the space of a fortnight the spot at which thousands of younger Egyptians have gathered, contrary to all expectations, will have turned irrevocably into a place of memory, a historical site. Passing the square or hearing about it, people start to wonder whether “this is real”; they are already joining in. Faces and voices are incredulous, but it is true: for once at a political event the number of demonstrators is actually greater than the number of Central Security troops restricting their movement and ready to subdue them by force; for once a political event is taking place in the open, in a central space, lasting all day and well into the night. Of course, by Saturday 29 Jan, Tahrir will have turned into a maidan in every sense possible.

Central Security is a branch of the military placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Interior for purposes roughly equivalent to those of the riot police. Best known for their unthinking violence, they tend to be army conscripts from working-class provincial backgrounds (less legally, army conscripts in the form of  guards are also routinely employed in the service of police officer’s families, buying groceries for the madam and using the state-owned police vans popularly known as el box to transport the children to school); directed by loyal commanders, Central Security do what they are told; and along with legal complications regarding the right to peaceful protest, emergency law (which in practise allows any member of the police to arrest and indefinitely detain any member of the public), and possible intervention from the notorious (plainclothes, highly skilled and practically autonomous) State Security, they have been a sufficient disincentive up to this point. Yet none of it stops people, thousands and tens of thousands, from flocking to Tahrir now – all of it in response to a seemingly stray Internet call for solidarity and anger?

The initial demonstration was announced on the popular Facebook Page called “We Are All Khalid Said” (a reference to one young man who died in the process of being brutalised by a low-rank policeman on the streets of Alexandria, without charge, on 6 June 2010). It was started by a young man “of good family”, to translate the classist Egyptian expression ibn nass, well-off and internationally connected, a product of the global economy and the kind of sheltered upbringing that produces conscientious and well-meaning geeks. Born in 1980, Wael Ghoneim is Google’s Middle East  marketing manager. (On Sunday he will be kidnapped by State Security and held, blindfolded, in secret confinement until the next Monday, when he made a powerful appearance on Egyptian satellite television.) For months the Page worked loosely in liaison with four online movements – April 6, Youth for Justice and Freedom, Hshd and the Popular Front for Freedom – as well as the El Baradei Campaign, the Muslim Brothers (who will keep an admirably low profile despite playing a very significant role in the survival of the Tahrir community) and the Democratic Front Party.

The demonstration was planned, with truly poetic irony, to coincide with Police Day, a national holiday commemorating a major act of heroism by Egyptian police troops besieged by British forces in Ismailia on the eve of the coup d’etat-turned-revolution of 1952. I am among the majority who think 25 January will come to nothing, but by evening I too have trouble holding back tears. There are clear signs of life in the long dead body of my true constituency – political participation by sheer force of right – and it is not driven by any (inevitably suspect) political programme. It is sincere, it is civilised, it is tidy, it is – and this too has mattered to me throughout – cool.

That evening I leave Tahrir around 11.30 pm. People are singing, bearing signs, lying in circles on the asphalt. They are predominantly young and secular. Even Central Security guards, with smiles on their faces, are humming the most popular slogan, adopted from the revolution in Tunisia: ash-sha’b yureed isqaat an-nidham (the people want to bring down the regime). A group of protesters surround one young man in what appears to be a standoff; they prevail on him to remove stones from his pockets. “Whoever throws a stone belongs with them,” I hear one of them say, referring to the security forces stationed at one entryway near by, “not us.”

Outside Tahrir the traffic proceeds normally; there is a sense of danger and excitement, the area surrounding the square is sealed off, but traffic proceeds more or less normally. I have barely arrived home when I find out that, desperate to disband protesters intent on spending the night in Tahrir, Central Security has attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, rubber and live pellets, canes and armoured trucks. A friend of mine ends up with 63 pellets lodged in his body; at least five friends of mine – two of them award-winning writers – are mercilessly beaten; in the next two days there will be numerous, more or less brief arrests, notably outside the Supreme Court near the Press and Lawyers syndicates. By 1 am the Maidan is more or less empty, and despite continuing demonstrations in the area and news of extremely violent confrontations in Suez – led by Alexandria and Cairo, the entire country is rising up – things appear to have quietened somewhat for the next two days. They are not over.

***

Tuesday 1 Feb, when a million people under protection of the army establish the virtually independent City of Tahrir – a fully functional and demographically varied community whose population at the time of writing has not dropped below 30,000 for a minute since Saturday 29 Jan – is still a long way off. At the time of writing pro-Mubarak demonstrations, announced repeatedly since then, have fizzled out to nothing after it transpired that they were invariably penetrated by criminal elements and police, directed not by popular will but by official and business interests. In times of need a decades-old dictatorship relies on the poverty, dependency and ignorance it has spent so much on cultivating – but lies can only go so far once the barrier of fear is broken. Already on Tuesday people who have been to the Maidan believe they are inhaling cleaner air, to the point where some of them are wondering whether it is because the numbers of vehicles in the area have significantly dropped.

***

Friday, 28 Jan. Of the many different fumes potent enough to induce a significant state change that I have experienced in my own body, I now have an additional one to give me flashbacks: tear gas. For someone who has never tried it, where a sufficient amount is inhaled, the effect is fiercely disorienting. Stinging sensations all over the face are accompanied by a temporary inability to breathe, and eyes – already clouding over – seem to reflect the death throes of the victim. Soda on the eyes and onion or vinegar soaked fabric on the nose: from that day I can count at least 30 young men crying out, standing or lying prone on their backs, wondering whether they were about to die. Solidarity among the demonstrators was instant and absolute; among the most touching remarks I heard exchanged in the entryways of residential buildings was, “Don’t panic, just don’t panic. It only lasts five minutes.”

It was on Friday 28 January, with both internet connections and mobile phone lines completely cut off all across the country, that I set out to the site of the oldest mosque in Egypt in Misr Al-Qadima, Jami’ ‘Amr, where one of many demonstrations planned for this, Angry Friday (I would personally call it Liberation Friday, but that is not the point), was to set off after the weekly group prayers. There were four of us on the Metro, all writers. Before we arrived at Mar Girgis, the two women put on headscarves and separated from my friend and me. At the entrance we asked a young man where the women’s section was. “I don’t know,” he said, with a strange look in his eyes. “This is my first time here.”

That look, the desperate determination it expressed, the all but suicidal readiness to effect change it communicated silently across classes, cultural backgrounds, even political orientations, will no doubt remain among the most defining experiences of my life.

For close on half an hour we endured a Friday sermon in which we were prevailed on to avoid sedition and, where our just demands were not met on earth, wait for the reward in the hereafter. The ameen that follows each request at the end was all but inaudible when the imam mentioned the name of Mubarak. It was not clear whether calls for protest would be met in sufficient numbers here of all places, particularly in the absence of the ability to confirm them. I am secular, not a practising Muslim, but I performed my prayers devoutly and did all I could to reach out to God. No sooner had the prayers ended than the cheering sound of hundreds chanting in unison emerged from the deepest point in the mosque, with people elsewhere rushing to join the fast forming block of people that would exit the premises as one: Islamists, human rights activists, conscientious geeks. By the time we reached the main street we had lost our female companions, and Central Security were already firing peremptory tear gas. My friend and I ended up in isolation from intellectuals and activists; until we departed Misr Al-Qadima, we were among everyday working-class people for the most part, chanting the slogans adopted all across Egypt, avoiding Central Security violence and occasionally attempting to stay violent responses to it, sharing carbonated beverages with which we splashed our eyes to reduce the effect of the tear gas, sharing water, scarves, what food there was, and cigarettes, as well as helping the injured off the ground calling on the demonstrators not to scatter.

In Misr Al-Qadima I saw uneducated 15-year-old girls brave enough to face Central Security head on, shouting “Down with Mubarak”; I saw a mechanic nudge his friend: “Are you from South Africa, man? Why aren’t you joining in!” I saw elderly women patting the backs of demonstrators and muttering, “God grant you victory.” Then my friend and I, having stopped at a cafe where Al Jazeera was broadcasting reassuring news from all over the city, set out towards downtown. It was 2 pm.

The idea was to walk, through Ain Al-Seerah and Majra Al-‘Uyoun, to Qasr Al-‘Aini Street and whence to Tahrir, where we realised the main battle had already started and where State Security were deploying fire hoses in addition to everything else. Little did we know that the very simple business of traversing this thoroughfare on foot would take up the rest of the day and night. I will cite only two moments from that period of the day: the arrival at the Majra Al-‘Uyoun end of Qasr Al-‘Aini – where we converged with thousands arriving from Maadi – and the point at which, sitting next to me on the steps of one residential building, his face soaked, one little boy who could not have been older than five or six from the near-by neighbourhood of Sayed Zainab said, “I want to go home.” Replaced by others, people would take refuge in the side streets and the buildings, but they always came back out.

Hours and hours. Slogans, attempts to win over Central Security, squabbles with the neighbours. The sight of thousands of unarmed young men taking over the streets together, their heads raised, chanting to the balconies as they passed Enzell, enzell (“Come down, come down!”) and of people throwing apples and bottles of mineral water to them, of other young men taking of their pyjamas and rushing inside to join them: I will die proud of having been part of that sight.

By evening, while still firing pellets and tear gas, Central Security will have fled; some of them returned individually to hunt down stone-throwing protesters on the streets of Garden City one by one, their guns loaded with live ammunition. Violence had broken out after a white car with diplomatic plates ran down some 12 people while it drove past at 120 km per hour, reportedly killing four. Thankfully, before I took refuge in a friend’s house in Garden City, I managed to phone my mother to tell her I was alive and well; I did not tell her that people were being shot point blank while President Mubarak gave his first, vastly disappointing speech, speaking of “the safety and the security of Egypt’s youth”, the very people who were being killed in order for him to stay in power.

Later, not so much later, we will find out about the inexplicable and absolute disappearance of the police; most of us will take it as a sign of our victory in a battle we joined without arms. Friends were hosed down while praying on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, beaten to death, run down by armoured cars. But in the end the Maidan had been completely occupied by the people – for the first time since 1952 there is a truly public space in Cairo, a space with a voice and a will. Equally importantly, the police were humiliatingly defeated. I believe I will always remember the cowardice and brutality of State Security, the hysteria and determination of my fellow Egyptians.

As a writer, as a journalist, Friday 28 January has given me back my public voice. It has confirmed to me the existence of a homeland and a people of which I am part. All I ask of the security apparatus at this point is that, if they are going to bomb us with tear-gas, they should at least use tear-gas that is not older than the expiry date inscribed on the cannisters.

 

Wednesday, 10 February, 2011

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نصان في السفير

الألـــم أعمــــق لكن التحليق أعلى

يوسف رخا

أخطاء الملاك
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 نهــاك تليفــونياً عن الكبرياء؟ الآن وقد أصبح الملاك بُخاراً، كسبتَ ما أراد أن يضيّعه عليك. لكن ما الذي فضّلتَه على الخــسارة؟ قرية هجرتْها نساؤها؟ خادم يسرق من البيــت؟ نجمة مدارها عقد سيصدأ حول رقــبتك؟ لعلــك ظنــنته يظهر من جديد، أو نســيت أن فــي بطــنه دَمَك. يا كــافرْ، كيف ستحلّق الآن؟
[[[
عن قصيدة سركون بولص من ديوان «حامل الفانوس في ليل الذئاب»:
«يظهر ملاك إذا تبعتَه 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.»

القرينتان

كانت إحداهما تكبرني بعشر سنين والثانية أصغر بنفس القدر. ولولا تطابُق عبارات تستخدمانها في وصف أشياء هي الأخرى متطابقة، ربما ما انتبهت إلى أن منشأهما واحد. لي عام أبحث عن شيء لن أجده مع أولهما، ولا أعرف لماذا ظننتها تخبئه خلف نحولها أو في السنين التي وراءها والتي تقضي بأن لا ألحقها على الطريق. لذلك عندما التقيتُ بالثانية، وكانت على نفس درجة النحول، روّعني سماع «ما حصلتش» و«الوسط» و«ماسكات» ثم «أتفرج من فوق»، بالذات وأنا أعلم أنهما لم تلتقيا وربما لن يجمعهما سوى انعكاس شفاههما وهي ترسم الألفاظ نفسها على سطح عيني أنا في الفجر. التي تصغرني بعشر سنين كانت تتطلع إلى الشباك وهي تستعجل السكوت، تماماً مثل قرينتها الأكبر بنفس القدر. وخُيّل لي أنني أرى السنين التي أمامها بكل تفاصيلها الموجعة. «ما حصلتش»، «الوسط»، «ماسكات». «أتفرج من فوق». هي أيضاً لم تتحمل كلاماً حاولتُ أن أنزع منه أي نبرة نصيحة. وفي نقطة تتوسط عشرين عاماً بصدد الوصول إلى المدينة، كان علي أن أسترجع قصة تبدأ بفتاة ريفية متفوقة في المدرسة وتنتهي برجوعي وحيداً إلى البيت. لم أسأل نفسي أصلاً لماذا تتكرر الكارثة.

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10 Years Since The Intifada, 8 Years Ago

Disengagement

Youssef Rakha reviews two years of Intifada-inspired culture


While in no sense dependent on politics, cultural life tends to wait for political upheaval. For many Arabs this is only as it should be: the notion of Sartrian engagement has taken such a hold that it often acts to obscure the very distinction between the two disciplines; the title of “intellectual” covers artists and writers as well as activists and, even, sometimes, politicians. Yet being an intellectual in itself hardly ever implies an involvement in the politics of everyday life — the politics of individual and civil rights, of governmental reform, of autonomous opinion. Rather, and only in times of crisis, it prompts intellectuals to express unevenly strong opinions about regional or international affairs — whether or not this involves direct opposition to government policy. And cultural activities likewise emanate from regional events — so much so that culturally vibrant periods are more often than not defined by the shape and colour of their political backdrop.

One example of this is the surge of political strife that preceded and followed the two-year-old Al-Aqsa Intifada — prompted, in its turn, by Sharon’s visit to the Palestinian holy site, which the Israeli side claimed was more of a cultural than a political act. In the Egyptian context culture was on the wane both generally speaking, and with specific reference to the political forces that drove it. A proposed intellectuals’ tajamu’ (rally), initially focussed on issues of self-expression and creative freedom, instantly dissolved into the more inclusive call to arms that formed around Hizbullah’s widely celebrated victory once Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. The event was soon followed by the Israeli incursion, and while Gaza and the West Bank were being reoccupied intellectuals were not about to miss the chance to voice discontent with government policy. It didn’t matter that the discontent was rooted in unrelated concerns; it didn’t matter that these concerns would remain unvoiced. The Intifada was once again upon us.

During that first year the flare-up of the second Intifada engendered a culture all its own — one whose tendency to forsake any form of true, risk-ridden support in favour of melodramatically impassioned and over-emphatically orchestrated protest lent the exercise even less credibility. Celebrities began to make special appearances, with actors on state-sponsored stages singing the patriotic praises of Arab unity and promising their audiences an inevitable, if never quite determined, triumph. The most expensive singers had already collaborated on El-Quds Haterga’ Lena (Jerusalem Will Return to Us), a song that affirms what remains an impossible goal as if it were a forgone conclusion, without for a moment suggesting how it might be achieved. Blood donations, seminars, demonstrations overpowered the cultural news. “Caravans” of intellectuals carried food and first aid supplies all the way to Rafah — only to wait indefinitely for those responsible to receive them. The Egyptian knack for disorganisation became an increasingly relevant factor, but what lay at the root of the ineffectiveness of most efforts was the fact that the Intifada — the pop theme of street-peddled wares like hats and scarves, T-shirts and mugs — was appropriated as something over and above (political) reality.

Even in the most highbrow circles, cultural manifestations of solidarity were abundant, but more than the reality of the situation or even the Egyptian response to it, they reflected the state of Egyptian culture itself. The most obvious cultural response was to be found in the popular media, however. The urban folk singing phenomenon Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, arguably the Arab world’s first self-made rapper, made his name with the internationally circulated hit Ana Bakrah Israel (I Hate Israel), a “protest” song, which, without making any direct allusion to the political dynamics of the incursion or the Egyptian government’s response to it, managed to crystallise and express the most popular sentiment in raw form. For two years Shaaban would jump from one summit of popularity to the next, largely due to his quasi-political stance on the ever elusive, ever undiscussed Intifada. Amrika ya Amrika is one example of such a song; so is a duet with his son Essam in which they impersonate Mohamed El-Dorra and his father in the last moments of the former’s life. El-Dorra — in the end a Western-mediated icon — became the centre of too many cultural interventions. And intellectuals, turning increasingly away from the nitty-gritty of the conflict, likewise began to tackle Washington.

With films like Fatah min Israel (A Girl from Israel), production companies had already bought into the Palestinian issue, even the most frivolous comedies (Saedi fil Gamaa El-Amrikiya; Abboud ala El-Hudoud) incorporated a major solidarity component. In the former — the film that made the name of contemporary comedy’s brightest star, Mohamed Heniedi — American University in Cairo students undertake the burning of an Israeli flag. Sharon — for a long time the Egyptian cartoonist’s treasure-trove — began to assume central symbolic significance. Comedian Youssef Dawoud, one disillusioned practitioner who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, explained that in Zakeya Zakareya Tathadda Sharon — the second of two plays based on Ibrahim Nasr’s tasteless, completely disengaged candid-camera television programme — he was initially contracted to play the part of the dictatorial and cruel head of an orphanage. However, following the emergence of Sharon as an object of universal hatred, if not universal ridicule, the play’s producer renamed Dawoud’s character and provided the actor with a wig. The play had been in no sense a political statement, but in a desperate attempt to make it more commercially viable its producers were content to exploit regional developments. Even if this is an extreme example of an otherwise many-hued trend, the decision to capitalise on a political development without fully understanding or dealing with it typifies the Intifada’s cultural manifestations.

On the home front, 11 September effectively brought the Intifada to an end. Yet along the infinitely curvaceous corridors of Egyptian culture the struggle doggedly continues. America has naturally solicited a greater degree of enmity, with intellectuals, increasingly of the scholar or pundit designation, discussing American foreign policy in relation to regional affairs. Cultural agents are encouraged to express support for the Palestinians, and even hatred for Israel continues to be permissible to some degree. Yet official Arab policy, the increasingly undermined state of Arabs and Muslims everywhere in the world, the plight of the Afghans and the absence of any indication that the Arab-Israeli conflict will be appropriately resolved remain by and large subjects for occasional meditation. Books are written, talks staged. But the fact remains that had the so-called terrorists, whose prerogative it is to resist the New World Order, been in any way culturally inclined, they would probably have produced the most resonant cultural response not only to the Indifada but to the state of things as they are, articulating rather than voicing how they should be.

Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 September 2002

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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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Banipal piece

An enlargeable satellite image of the lower Ni...
Image via WikipediaThe automotive monologues

The bus is more than half empty when I get on…

An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.

Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?

Not until we’ve reached Almaza Station, the last stop before the Ismailia highway, do the holidaymakers arrive in droves. (Beyond Ismailia itself, you have only to cross a bridge over the Suez Canal to be on your way to Gaza). With permission from the driver, this is my chance for a last-minute cigarette. All my possessions are neatly bundled in a small vinyl “manbag”, so it’s easy enough to take everything along on my smog-infused stroll round the vehicle. I leave only my book, open face down where I was seated: a very common indication that the seat in question is occupied.

Outside, the upper half of the driver has disappeared into the baggage dungeon that makes up the underbelly of the vehicle, where cases are no doubt being cast into the East Delta Company’s shadowy geometry of departure. Passing his contorted rump, I must dodge more bag-bearers in the heat. Finally, back on board, I’ve shoved my way to where the prayer-dispensing woman first materialised. An extended family fills up the aisle like revolving stalactites.

Among them are three stunning female teenagers; only one wears a headscarf: having closed and cast aside the book, she is plonked happily in my stead. I protest weakly, addressing myself to the nearest grown-up man. Immediately he obliges, but, as if in a punitive gesture, he selects the largest of his male children to position firmly by my side.

YOU CAN generally judge your distance from greater Syria by the taste and texture of Turkish coffee: the more satisfying the beverage, the closer you are. We have barely passed Qantara East, the first major stop on what would be the shortest ground route to Palestine — and, thanks to its identity with Qantara West, a vital link between Sinai and the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya — but the coffee is already superior to what you would get at the offices of this newspaper.

The “rest-house” here is more modest than its Alexandrine counterparts, which makes such quality all the more remarkable. Watching the sun dip lower and lower on the horizon, I make phone calls from the edge of the highway, some distance away from the din of the buses and their patrons. Then, determined to chat up the waiter, I walk back to the cafeteria, make my order and sit down.

Back on the bus the prayer pamphlets have already disappeared. Was it the pretty girl in hijab ? The impending darkness renders watching the video a kind of tunnel vision. Now that the dialogue is English, the volume has thankfully been turned down.

But the second film is Speed, the action flick about a bus with a bomb on it. When I start watching, the driver has been shot in the arm; to avoid an explosion, the woman who takes his place must charge ahead at more than 60 miles an hour irrespective of traffic. Under the circumstances, one vehicle will inevitably be confused with the other as we charge ahead in the dark. It is dizzying.

I’VE BARELY broken into a run on the asphalt when the truck swerves violently, braking a few steps away from me. In a typically North Sinai automotive idiosyncrasy, one half of the highway just outside Arish is set aside for pleasure cycles and promenading; the other, where I’m rushing towards the white Mercedes taxi after what feels like a long wait, is consequently a two-way road.

“I was going to die trying to get in next to you.”

“You might as well admit it: you’re in too much of a hurry.”

I am. The brevity of my stay is weighing on me and a plan spontaneously forms in my head — so I gush it out to the red-faced Bilei tribesman at the wheel:

“I have a booking with the Coral Beach but I’m told that’s too far from town. Can you take me somewhere closer? Will there be rooms available, though? Listen. I want to go to Rafah in the morning, come back in a few hours. Can you do it? How much would it cost?”

Arishi Arabic is a surprisingly organic mixture of Bedouin and Delta dialects very much like the Palestinian colloquial spoken in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a result of the same tribal roots stretching across the border or of more recent, politically vexed exchange, it makes a pleasant counterpoint to the Hollywood English of the film. They say a Bedouin lives up to his word. By the time I have settled in my mosquito-infested “chalet room” at the “Ubarwai” (as everyone here refers to the former Oberoi, the venue’s present name being Arish Resort), I feel my plan is truly under way.

Ten minutes later another truck is swerving, but this time I’m out of its collision course. The silent, perfectly metropolitan taxi driver will charge me LE4 instead of the LE3 quoted by the Bilei but I don’t mind. He is silent. As I edge out of the Mercedes, winding an improvised path through a crowd that could have been anywhere urban and poor in Egypt, my concern is rather to find someone to talk to.

It hasn’t occurred to me yet, but in the 36 hours I am away from Cairo, it is drivers who will be my salvation. For half an hour at the café I can’t bring myself to approach anyone without feeling too intrusive. I just observe: young backgammon players with interesting hair-dos; middle-aged civil servants drawing on their shisha as they affectionately exchange news; old sheikhs meditating…

My close-cropped hair can’t be helping, I know. Then again, this is hardly a question of my appearance alone. There has to be a convincing excuse for making conversation — a context both fleeting and intimate as well as, crucially, informal. I finish my Coke and find an Internet café. Phenomenally tired by now, I just stand there, roughly adjacent to the high street, waiting to catch a ride back.

A cigarette is all it takes to engage this driver. He is young, slight and pissed off: had he bought cigarettes in his present state of mind, he says, he would have smoked three packs by now. “When I feel suffocated, I just switch on the Qur’an” — the same Saudi recitations are booming all through the five- minute journey — “and drive along.” He only ever smokes this brand, he says, smiling.

What is bothering him?

“The way things are, no one has the luxury to think of politics or the political situation and so begin to do something about them; no one is in any position to do anything but feed himself and his family. Someone says, ‘Come along to a demonstration,’ and all you can think of is the time you’d be wasting there when you’d rather be doing some lucrative work. So there is no activism, though God knows we need it. There is only this breathless running around, and where does it lead to?”

A TRUE PILGRIMAGE is best preceded by a fast. That way the senses are heightened, the body purified; the soul becomes more receptive to the presence of the (political) sacred.

I forgo breakfast too often to claim that this is my intention when, as per my agreement with the Bilei, I set out for Rafah the next morning. I could hardly have thought of it as a pilgrimage, either. But the fact that my driver, Akhdar — a “relation” of the one I contracted — is quick to say, “I am Palestinian”, and the sight of prickly pear-flanked sand dotted with olive groves… the smell of sea air, entirely distinct from that of the western Mediterranean, which I’m used to, and the vague sense of danger as the checkpoints become more frequent — all imbues the experience with a sense of transcendence, a feeling of crossing over into a space both rightful and forbidden, suddenly too close to ignore.

Akhdar is young and serene, subdued. “I’ve got a passport and everything,” he explains with remarkable calm. “But for years now they won’t let me in. I’ve been many times, of course, to see my family. People want to come in here to see their family; sometimes they’re working in other countries and, stopping over in Gaza, they have to come here to travel back to their work places. More often they just need to go to hospital… No, no, I was born here. My mother is [a Bilei?] from Sharqiya. When you have residence you can go anywhere you like, just like an Egyptian citizen, but in other ways it’s not the same.”

He is about to marry, he tells me, but his wife won’t be a Palestinian. Marrying an Egyptian — a girl from Sharqiya, in his case — can raise your chance of obtaining nationality, according to recently introduced laws; that way you can leave the country if you want to, you can claim social and health care; you can feel, as he puts it, “in one piece”. Turning slightly to identify the local headquarters of the country’s most notoriously influential plain-clothes police force, the State Security, Akhdar switches his 1970s Egyptian pop back on. No one cares any more for the Palestinians, he says.

A string of stories about sneaking family members from the other side in through Rafah’s automotive waterways — once, he reports, he was surrounded by no less than 12 machine guns, their muzzles all over his vehicle — is interrupted by a low-rank policeman gesturing for us to stop.

“What is that you’ve got in there?”

His head half inside the window on Akhdar’s side, the policeman nods accusingly towards me, apparently confident that I can’t understand what he says.

” Essalamu alaykom,” I intervene in perfect Arabic, watching the sheepish smile that forms on his lips gradually dissolve into an expression of welcome while I explain who I am and what I’m there for. He nods knowingly to “the opening of the maabar “; I can see him waving in the side-view mirror.

“When people have hair like that, they tend to be Jews,” for which read “Israelis”. Akhdar smiles apologetically while he removes his seat belt again, now that we’re clear of checkpoints; he accepts yet another cigarette, looking ahead. Had he known what I was after, he says, he would have taken me to his paternal uncle, back in Arish; the old man knows a lot of border-passage stories. As it is, speeding, we will wend our way to the maabar first, seeking what relations we can find later in Rafah.

“So what did you do?” I am sounding increasingly disjointed as I take in the surrounding sights. “When you were stopped by those armed policemen, what did you do?”

By now the landscape is more or less identical with film images of the Gaza Strip stored away in the global memory; that strange, green gateway — not a frontier, not a tollbooth — comes within sight. I expected car-studded crowds raising an energetic cacophony. As we approach, slowing, except for a handful of policeman lounging in the shade, the place is in derelict stillness.

“Nothing,” Akhdar is saying, still perfectly calm. “They got us out and searched every nook and cranny of the car. In the end I just left him standing there on the sand — what else? I headed back.”

SINCE the outbreak of war in Lebanon — Israelis levelling Beirut in response to Hizbullah taking two hostages in the south — I have been tormented by the dilemma of how to support the resistance while opposing political Islam, an ideology I take issue with regardless of creed. Still, while people are resisting the insane excesses of empire, can you really reject their driving force?

Akhdar will take a shortcut before slowing down a narrow lane outside his cousin’s house, explaining that this is one of the roads he has used for people smuggling. The maabar is behind us as we turn. Gesturing derisively in its direction, he will point out, again, that it would be pointless listening to the advice we got there… On seeing my press credentials, one uniformed low-rank policeman had started to explain what it means to work at the maabar, day in, day out, when another, plain-clothes one interrupted the conversation, insisting that, before I can speak to anyone, I must have State Security permission.

“You’re a driver, right?” The uniformed officer said to Akhdar, through a window in the gate itself, feigning a helpful tone for my benefit. “You know where it is.”

If I want information I must go to State Security.

In the shade of a tree on the other side of the road, another uniformed officer was dozing off when the plainclothes policeman who had intercepted me went up to him; he raised his head from the table, he put it back down. His plainclothes companion — himself State Security, I suspect — didn’t bother to remove his leg from the seat on which it was placed when he shook my hand. “Nothing at all happened here,” he said, his tone verging on the intimidating. “Nothing worth reporting on, anyway. Do you see any activity around you?” He looked behind him. “A real pleasure meeting you, though…”

Breathing Palestinian air, now, the Islamic resistance dilemma no longer seems to bother me. We have stopped momentarily by an olive field, and it’s hard to believe that the poles in the distance are actually in Palestine. (“I saw Palestine,” I will keep telling friends on coming back to Cairo. “Yes, the country.”) But as we take our seats on the floor at Akhdar’s cousin’s — an older taxi-driver whose large one-storey house might as well be in a refugee camp — it dawns on me with unprecedented intensity that here are the people on the ground, that their lifestyle and beliefs are in no way undermined by Islamism, and that no one, not a single force except for the militants of political Islam are fighting on their side.

Over 500 families are supported by taxi trips from the maabar to Arish, my gracious host explains — his language is even more like Palestinian than anything I’ve heard so far — making at least 2,000 people dependent on the maabar being open, the only time when “there is work”. The Egyptian authorities have nothing to do with it, he insists. “It is the Jews, the Jews,” he says, over and over, “may God bring down their houses.” (There would be no point opening the maabar while the border is closed, and the border, however indirectly, is controlled by the Israeli authorities). The other day when it was open, he tells Akhdar, sipping the fresh mango-and- guava juice he has offered us, the work flowed “like honey”.

Before we leave — just in time for the camel races, back on the outskirts of Arish — he has made two separate points that bring the resolution of the dilemma to a safe harbour in my head:

“People are too concerned with having enough to eat to think about politics, whether or not they would support Hamas if they did;” and “Egyptians get along with Palestinians in Rafah, of course they do, because they are all Muslims; why should Muslim neighbours have problems with each other?”

After so many years of liberalism and enlightenment, I am born again.

The cousin ends up coming along part of the way to ask at the mechanic’s whether a particular spare part is available; there would be no point bringing the relative who needs it all the way from Arish if it wasn’t. (Many such commodities come straight from Israel; and trading in things like clothes and electronics originating there forms a significant part of North Sinai’s informal economy). At one point we take a sharp turn and he taps my shoulder from the back seat:

“See that building there?” I’m wincing in the sun. “That’s Palestine.”

THAT morning when I woke up, there were so many Arabian head-covers in the Ubarwai lounge I couldn’t help suspecting a Gulfie take-over. Only on speaking to one of their wearers — he turned out to be a camel breeder from Aqaba — did I discover what this was about: the Mahrajan Al-Hijjin, one of several three-day “camel festivals” held annually across the country, which draws together tribal Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa — all of whom wear the Peninsula’s trademark uqaal. (Several sources pointed out that the colour of the headscarf is a matter of personal taste, nothing to do with tribal affiliations: the blue, Tuareg-like varieties are increasingly popular among the young).

Finding out there would be races this afternoon, I’ve been looking forward to attending them all day — a relaxing denouement to the strain of Rafah — grateful that an unexpected gift should crop up just before I go. Arab nationalism aside, camels are among my favourite animals; and what better way to unwind than standing on the dunes watching them accelerate majestically in the sand, with beautifully decked out child jockeys bouncing in rhythm on their backs — or so I think.

They too will have had no breakfast, according to my Aqaba interlocutor, having spent the last two weeks eating and drinking half of their usual diet in preparation — something that intensifies my empathy now that hunger is wringing my stomach. By the time Akhdar puts on a Bedouin tape — also from Jordan — the horrors of “security” have been cast away.

At the rink we must wait; some say for an hour, some for two. One foj — that is how a single group of competing camels is referred to — is finished; the next hasn’t started yet. Akhdar and I consider the possibilities, setting off for the Ubarwai only to retrace our steps five minutes later: the cars are converging on the area, he says; the foj must be about to start.

Back on the sand we bump into Rabi, the brother of the driver who took me to the Ubarwai in the first place; without changing significantly, Akhdar’s speech appears to emphasise Bedouin over Palestinian inflections when he speaks to him. Rabi is in one of the sedans in which he deals, as he informs me, bringing them back and forth from Cairo. He invites me to sit in the back; later, when the action starts, thanks to his brother’s hospitality, I move next to him in the front.

My right arm will go on stinging for many days from exposure to sand bursts while sticking the camera out the window. The way you watch the race is to speed after the camels alongside the rink, mostly in Toyota pickups bearing up to 20 people in the back, taking pictures where you can — camera mobile phones are incredibly plentiful — and egging along your stud.

Afterwards, in the open space adjacent to where the single, circular lap starts and finishes, the onlookers perform car stunts, competing in daring and aptitude.

That the sedan, also a Toyota, was not meant for sand stunts doesn’t stop Rabi from joining in the show, at which point I’ve been in the car for more than three hours and am desperate to get out. For a long, long time before the foj started, he was crawling around making phone calls and looking for friends, never stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. For a traffic-suffocated city dweller it seemed counterintuitive to call this fun; but for everyone else it was a perfectly natural pastime.

No chance of a contemplative time on the dunes, then. Instead, this adrenaline-pumped ride round and round, with only a few moments to stretch my legs every so often. All the while the slow sundown is doing creative things with the sky — and not a single stationary camel to spend time with so far.

When Rabi disappears in the ring of vehicles waiting for their turn at a stunt, leaving the three of us near the rink to watch, I notice the lone figure of an evidently defeated competitor tethered unpleasantly to the wood. He is performing strange movements with his neck, looking like an ostrich and a bloodhound in turn, apparently unsettled by the presence of so many motor vehicles in the same place. He won’t give me a chance to touch him, though he poses for a few pictures willingly enough, from a distance. At least I step over and exchange a few words.

RABI is Arab to the bone; that means he badmouths other Arabs, making fun of the dha sound with which South Sinai tribes replace the more city-like da of the north (something I remember his red-faced brother doing too). It also means he will do anything for a guest — anything but listen carefully enough to realise that that guest would really like to go now, please. Instead he points out people firing guns into the air, carried away by the all- male, sand-and- uqaal excitement.

On a day like this, no guest or policeman will prevent him from driving on and on in circles, racing ahead like a madman to make sure “those water buffalo” don’t get ahead of him alongside the rink, and identifying tribes by facial features — a process that involves the most outrageous statements: “They will sell everything to buy a car for the mahrajan, come over in it, then sell it off once the mahrajan is over”; “The black ones are Arabs too, but they are black; they’re the worst killers, the black ones”; “Those guys you see over there, each of them has three to seven life sentences to his name, but they go on as before and there’s nothing the police can do to stop them; the police are scared of them”…

When he bumps into a group of resident policemen, indeed, he treats their practise of extortion as a given — a way, for him, to assert generosity or withhold favour. For a similarly long time he complains of not having any cannabis on him; the same goes for water. A need, though pressing, is never pressing enough; it just persists. And the concept of solitude doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Always people are coming and going, sometimes summoned by mobile phone, insulted when they fail to answer. Like a true stoner, Rabi has the shortest concentration span.

“The nicest thing is to get high and go round like we’re doing now,” he tells me at one point. And at another: “Do you get high?”

I know I have answered this question before now, so I insist, firmly but gently, that I must go; and following another 15 minutes of pleading on the part of both his brother and Akhdar he finally drives us back to where the taxi is parked.

“You’ve seen enough of this anyway,” he says as I edge out. The real fun is up on the mountain. Over there, there is neither police nor outsiders; people are completely wild…”

FIVE minutes later Rabi phones to say that he is going to Cairo tonight and would I like to go along with him, now that it is too late for a bus. We exchange phone numbers and he promises to phone in an hour. “An hour?” I ask incredulously. He is still at the rink.

“An hour.”

Several hours later — I am at another “rest-house” beyond Ismailia, almost at the end of my journey, and the coffee tastes like excrement — Rabi still hasn’t phoned.

“Why in such a hurry?” I remember him saying.

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آباء غائبون

كنت أحسب المرأة التي حملت مني هي التي أنجبت. ولأن هذا يحدث في المنام نسيت أن هناك أخرى سبقتها في الترتيب. فجأة وجدتني جالساً مع الأخرى هذه وهي لا تشبه نفسها في الواقع. خيل لي أنها هي التي ظنني أصدقائي أتكلم عنها يوم أخبرتهم بأن لي ابناً لا أراه. لكن طوال جلستنا، لم أصدق تماماً أنها أم ابني. عبثاً حاولت أن أتذكر من أي زاوية ولجتها ولم أتعرف على ملامحها بيقين. لذلك عاق فرحتي بتسامحها الخرافي انقباض. لا وعي عندي بأنني أحلم. ورغم أنني بدأت أتلمّس علاقة حميمة ببني آدم يشبهني عنده ثلاث سنين، ممتناً لأن غيابي لم يجعل عند المرأة التي أنجبته ضغينة، ظل الانقباض يشتد. عندما أفقت تذكرت فادي يعلّق على لقاء كارثي بامرأة لم يتخلص من حبها: «حصل الشيء». وحزنت من أجل آباء العالم الغائبين

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