To Wake the People: Egypt’s Interminable Haul to Democracy

“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
He, too,
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…

— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)

Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?

There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…

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Mohab Nasr: The people are sleeping-مهاب نصر: الشعب نائم يا حبيبي

The people are sleeping: Two versions

“The people are asleep,

Don’t wake the people, darling,

So she’d tell him

Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,

Whenever his eyes shone behind the door

Like a password,

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012

“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
***
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
***
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a’iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

***
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Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

Somehow
I was a teacher;
somehow
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
books
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
books
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
books
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.
***

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?
***

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Translation © Youssef Rakha

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Tahrir and its discontents

Responding to recent Facebook “notes” by the poet Mohab Nasr — an Alexandrian schoolteacher turned Kuwait-based journalist and, since 25 January, perhaps the most honest critic of the Egyptian human being — Youssef Rakha unpacks the concept of the People

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Back in January, my friend Mohab (b. 1962) was more sceptical than I was about what was then called, without the least hesitation, Revolution. Today, in his own profoundly dusky way, Mohab is more enthusiastic about social-political transformation than I am. He is less shocked by the de facto alliance of the military and political Islam, the marginalization if not the liquidation of true revolutionaries across the country, the way in which the martyrs are betrayed not only by politicians but also by the Silent Majority — hizb al kanabah, or “the Couch Party”, as he and many others have designated the greater number of Egyptians. If people want the Islamists or condone their rise to power, he seems to say, let people have the Islamists. And let everyone, including Intellectuals like you and me, face up to the reality of our collective existence (which is an attribute of the human condition, after all). Let us accept responsibility for being part of this society, confront our historical failure to make a difference, our irrelevance, instead of taking cover in inevitably opportunistic abstractions like Individuality, Culture or Opposition, all the while having a Corrupt Regime to complain about while we do so. Since January, Mohab has come back to Egypt only once, in spring. At no point did he participate in the protests or witness the carnage perpetrated by the police (and later also the army), which partly explains the difference in timing. Now firmly secular, Mohab was once — briefly — a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria: another reason for variation in perspective. Yet there is a sense in which what he has to say about the events of 2011 tallies with my experience of them. Like me he is less interested in the political move than the mind that makes it, and — even more so — the Majority’s response. A lot of what he attributes specifically to Egyptians applies to people anywhere in our times, I feel; yet his remarks about the reasons behind the outcome of the Tahrir protests are so insightful and heartfelt, and his disgust with al muthaqqafin or the intelligentsia so justified, he makes timely sense.


The longest article Mohab has written on the subject, “Society of Hooligans, Hooligan State”, attempts to demarcate the political space in which Egyptians can function, describing a global order, as he puts it, that only lets you “say them and us” so long as saying it remains a variation on the brand-name, multinational theme, or an exotic label therein. You are allowed to set yourself apart, in other words, only in the most vapid (hence harmless) way, “in a metaphorical way, as a sort of cheap compensation for being on a lower rung of the ladder”. Not to condone the foul crimes of a Saddam, a Muammar or a Bashar, the better you understand this the more successful you are, whether you are a government or an oppositional organisation. The Muslim Brothers, Mohab states with astounding accuracy, are in precisely the position of the pragmatic underdog: their identity-mongering has not for a moment prevented them from being “wholly integrated into the greater compound” of world capitalism; the implication, more or less stated later in the article, is that the only possible meaning Islam could have in present-day politics is no meaning at all: “Identity as an idea about the past is a pit… Those who claim that identity [Islam] is the answer cite as their pretext societies that have made achievements on the basis of identity [the West]; they conveniently forget that those societies used identity as mere propaganda, throwing it away once it conflicted with capitalist interests.” In an addendum prompted by one intellectual’s infuriatingly complacent comment on this “note”, Mohab condemns the poeticised (as opposed to poetic) sensibility, which has not only divested the Egyptian intellectual of all moral (as opposed to merely aesthetic) commitment but also confined them to an exclusively discursive and “personal” space, promoting opportunism at the individual level while blocking the way to any possible greater good, let alone an effective social or even political role. In this, he implies, the Islamists — aside from their fundamental moral and historical contradictions — have surpassed the intelligentsia: they formed a sustained group that could reach out to the Majority, because they remained in touch with reality and attuned their discourse to it.

But it is about said Majority that Mohab makes the most interesting points. The currency of religion as the only facet of moral or intellectual activity, for example, is seen as an extension of the evasive, cowardly and criminally selfish values adopted by the middle-class nuclear family whose civil servant patriarch “has brought up his son to bow down, a bow that remains with him for life, marking souls that live in anticipation of a slap,” he writes in “The Corrupt Couch Party”. “That is why their religiosity is but a deep fear [divested of any sense of] a whole Spirit that unifies existence… Those are people who watched the rise of the Nasserist bourgeois without bothering to change their pyjamas, and when they at last replaced them, they put on a galabeya instead. They accepted sycophancy to the boss as respect, silence in the face of injustice as a ‘nature’ they deserved… They were educated because education, not knowledge, could be their means to the job… They understood knowing as having authority, not enjoying discovery; as lionisation, not creativity.” It is only natural, Mohab contends, that the progeny of such people will be at best indifferent to the prospect of social transformation, especially one that involves risk — and, for the most part, they were. In “Can the Revolution Be Against the People?”, the most recent of the “notes” he has written, Mohab points out that the millions who rallied around a hard core of true revolutionaries were not as revolutionary as they; they were merely, manically happy with “the moment of kicking the father out of the house”. That moment, at which otherwise Couch vegetables (or some of them) were possessed by an energy beyond their nature, is no indication of a genuine support base for transformation that works. Much as they seemed to be there, much as it hurts to admit it, the People were not in Tahrir. They were there, as it were, incidentally. The People were in Tahrir as anti-protest thugs and informers and witnesses as well as being there as protesters; they were not always or often or at all in Tahrir. Much like intellectuals who experience reality as aesthetic discourse, the People lived the revolution as momentary release.