Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa (Writings of the security shift): the Letters of Abdelhakim Qassim, ed. Mohammad Shoair, Cairo: Merit, 2010
Abdelhakim Qassim (1935-1994) is among the least talked about Egyptian writers belonging to the so called Generation of the Sixties – and not only because he is dead. By now Qassim is as established as he can be; his long-term influence on the literary imagination is undeniable. But unlike, for example, the poet Amal Donqol (1940-1983) or the short story writer Yahya El-Taher Abdalla (1938-1981), both of whom died during his lifetime, Qassim is hardly ever celebrated. Along with other Sixties writers, Dar Al Shurouk has bought the rights to his oeuvre, but to this day it remains out of print. The only exception is his first novel, Ayyam al-inssan ass-sab’ah (The seven days of man, 1969); and it is this book that his name tends to invoke, obscuring the bulk of what he considered his true achievement.
Set in and around the village where he was born some three weeks before his official date of birth, near Tanta, Ayyam al-inssan is an ode to provincial life and its spiritual core – centred on a seven-day mini-pilgrimage to the shrine of the local saint for the moulid or anniversary festival – and it has cast Qassim more or less exclusively in the role of writer of the provinces. This role, he would variably engage with and reject throughout his life; what is clear is that he did not think of Ayyam al-inssan as his greatest accomplishment.
Later writing is different in subject matter and structure if not so much in language, a rich, occasionally laboured language in which the author invents as well as searching for the right words, drawing on vernacular diction in oblique and intensely personal ways. Some of it is set in Berlin, where he spent the period 1974-1985; much of it was written there. It includes four novels besides Ayyam al-inssan, five books of short stories, four novellas and a play as well as much else not intended for publication. All of it remains virtually unknown.
Such neglect could have to do with the rift created by what Mohammad Shoair, the editor of the present book and Qassim’s as yet potential biographer, describes as Qassim’s “return to his village to defend social traditions and artistic values he had often attacked”. At this point in his life, profoundly disillusioned with the West and increasingly nationalistic in outlook, Qassim censured even his closest writer-friends (those, as Shoair notes, whose work his never-completed PhD was to be about); pointlessly but perhaps understandably he began to seek self-realisation beyond the literary sphere. Two years after his return from Germany he ran for parliamentary elections, representing the left-wing Tagammu’ Party; it was a forgone conclusion that he would lose. Immediately afterwards, he contracted a brain haemorrhage that paralysed the right side of his body and for the last four years of his life was able to write only by dictating to his wife.
It was a time, I imagine, of profound alienation and bitterness; Shoair dwells on the effects of immigration on Qassim’s connection with his homeland in order to explain why he suddenly turned against everyone and everything. And the neglect that his work has suffered is due, if not to its aftermath, then to his sojourn in Berlin, during which he maintained only spotty contact with literary centres in Cairo. As a law student at Alexandria University – his course was interrupted by five years in the Wahat Detention Camp, where he was sent on charges of communism – Qassim, a renegade Muslim Brother and a temperamental Marxist, had managed to establish himself in intellectual circles. He travelled to Berlin initially to attend a literary conference, invited by Nagui Naguib, one of the earliest champions of his writing and the correspondent to whom the first two letters in the book – the only two written from Egypt – are addressed. It is unclear how long Qassim initially intended to stay, but it seems he saw the invitation as an opportunity for starting afresh; apparently on a whim, he simply went on living in Germany. The Berlin sojourn, a difficult one by all accounts, served as an occasion or a pretext for writing letters to family and friends. In one such, to the novelist (and once Al-Ahram Weekly critic) Mahmoud El-Wardani, Qassim dwells on the reason behind his departure, the one theme his letters keep coming back to:
“In my youth I was unable to accomplish anything new. I grew up, earned a degree and started working. I became someone with a home and a job to go to every morning, a wife and a daughter and then a son. Gradually society started to rid me of all that set me apart, driving me to crush the old Abdelhakim and construct, under my skin, another Abdelhakim who is diligent at his work and attentive to his home and careful about his clothing.
“It was driving me to another terrifying thing: success. And success is only one thing once all values have been mired in the mud. Success is to be well-off, to have contacts with the powers that be, to have an important position, to have an image that is seen and a voice that is heard. Society was warning me: If I did not do this it would turn me into a deformed cripple to be crushed without mercy.” Successful acquaintances would meet up with him, discuss petty issues of concern. “And I would see the terrifying emptiness in which they lived. I read their work and saw their absolute debility. I recognised their torment and their inability to turn back, and I also recognised by own inability to go on and write what I wanted to… There had to be a new beginning in a new land…”
Shoair, who might as well have written a partial if not a complete biography of Qassim, began to collect Qassim’s letters in 2004: “It started with a small press file on… Yahya El-Taher Abdalla… The critic friend Mohammad Badawi suggested that I should likewise put together a file on Abdelhakim Qassim.” Shoair contacted Abdelmoneim Qassim, the writer’s brother and one of his principal correspondents. He obtained copies not only of Qassim’s letters to Abdelmoneim and others but also of never-published poems, the incomplete doctoral thesis, abandoned novel projects and the Berlin diaries. “I found that the letters could form a text parallel to and revealing of his works, his cultural constitution and choices. And I started contacting his friends to ask if they might have letters from him.”
The title Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa is a reference to Qassim’s longest lasting job in Berlin, as a night watchman at the Charlottenborg Palace, when he would frequently pass the time by writing letters. The book contains letters to 11 correspondents including some of the most active writers of the period: besides Wardani, the short story writer Said El-Kafrawi, the poet Mohammad Saleh (Qassim’s brother-in-law, who passed away last year), the critic Sami Khashabah, and (another universally acclaimed writer of the provinces who by then had stopped writing) Mohammad Roumaish. It excludes letters to Qassim’s wife, deemed by his daughter “too private” for publication, letters “hidden” by their owners and letters that have been lost. Shoair gives his introduction the title Writing Without Makeup, and it is this spirit of abandon, the intensely personal tone in which Qassim discusses all manner of subjects from the procedural to the philosophical, often on the same page, that gives the book its immediate appeal. One amazing fact is that, whenever he begins to write in dialect – as people often do in personal correspondence – Qassim always seemingly involuntarily reverts back to standard Arabic. Before you have had a chance to catch your breath the language has already taken on that heavy, fluid eloquence that characterises all his writing.
He writes while on the job, while drunk, while briefly ill or in the grip of melancholy. The text, which Shoair is careful to reproduce accurately, preserving grammatical errors and idiosyncrasies of punctuation (footnotes would have made for a smoother read), affords fascinating insights not only into the life of which it was part – Qassim’s propensity for mythologising even the simplest events: the way he remembers his journeys on foot from one village to another to see friends back in the Nile Delta, for example, or his tirades against the so called Zionist entity and Sadat – but also into the rhetorical techniques that went into his more polished compositions. Still, there is a sense in which these letters can be read as chapters in an epistolary novel, albeit an unsettlingly postmodern one, about estrangement and homeland but also about the shifting and often tragic fortunes of Egyptian intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century.
Strangely Qassim seems to say very little about his immediate surroundings in Berlin. Often he will recount what he has been doing or where he is going next, his often difficult financial situation can be discerned in various ways, but Berlin itself – the place he occupies while writing – remains something of a mystery, repeatedly mentioned but only very occasionally dwelled on. In one 1974 passage to Saleh Qassim, with typical quasi-epic emotion, speaks of his awareness of the city with Whitmanesque frenzy: “Berlin seeps into my heart from peculiar pores… Berlin, softly! In my heart is Cairo still. Will you come to me in words whose meanings I do not understand on the lips, in cigarette smoke puffs, in a few sadnesses that I know. For I, Berlin, lived a long life before I came here… Berlin, I am your loving young one. I throw my leg away from the bar seat. When she smiles to me I dissolve. I feel the taste of glittering saliva on her teeth. I tap the rim of my glass out of shyness. I wish it never filled and you will ever fill it. But it is only a moment that barely is before it is gone…”
Apart from its historical value, of all its virtues, the most remarkable thing about this book is that it contains a wealth of apparently passing remarks that will prove of value not only to the student of contemporary Arabic literature but to the literary theorist and the writer concerned with the nature of the creative process and what it means to write. “Dreaming of writing is more beautiful than writing itself,” Qassim writes to Wardani in 1982. “Dreaming of writing is me in all my barbarity, my limitlessness and power.” And it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, in these letters, Qassim did not so much write as dream of writing.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha
شرح ديوان ذكري
Sharh Diwan Zikri
Reading novelist Mustafa Zikri’s new collection of essays, Youssef Rakha follows the example of several canonical works on the great 10th-century poet Abu Al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, all titled Sharh Diwan Al-Mutanabbi or The Elucidation of the Diwan of Mutanabbi
Yawmiyyat (A diary)
At first, this sounds like a misnomer for the numbered pieces making up the latest book by the novelist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966), Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’: Yawmiyyat (On Tiptoe: A Diary), published by Dar Al-Ain last month. Though initially circulated on Facebook as entries in an ongoing diary of some sort, the pieces comprising Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ read less like the pages of a journal than the occasional work of a cultural columnist. Zikri’s stated formal ambition was to eschew if not actively attack the predominant, established genres, notably the novel-cum-novella that has been his preferred medium (in recent years, as he points out, the novel has increasingly become the alpha and the omega of literary endeavour in Arabic). He also wanted to relax the iron fist with which he maintains the “literary purity” of his work, guarding the gold of true art from possible intrusions by the lead of politics or society (both the metaphor and the subsequent quotes, unless otherwise stated, come from a recent interview by Mohammad Shoair).
Yet the more you think about Zikri’s work, while you read, the more sense the subtitle yawmiyyat makes. By the time you turn the last page you are convinced. This book offers precisely the kind of material you would expect to find in the diary of a writer like Zikri: fragmentary meditations on literature and film, ambiguous encounters only marginally connected with whatever real-life experiences they recount, philosophical formulations of no clear import. Entries are as carefully constructed, often as open to interpretation, as poems. And – most important of all: what sets Zikri apart from almost every other Arab writer, in fact – the texts are truly self-referential, with the movement of a passage tracing an expression or a word, not what that expression or word refers to. Narrative reduces to a sort of semantic aesthetics, the protagonist to an idea suggested by a particular turn of phrase. Ironically this tendency is clearer than ever now that Zikri is no longer consciously exercising control. Could anyone expect anything more tangible or intimate from the yawmiyyat of Mustafa Zikri?
I thought I was the kind of writer who, measured against his writings, lives a life of paucity at the level of the body and the soul. I think of Borges and Pesão and Dostoevsky… (1.)
While Zikri regards any link between literature and reality as a threat to the purity of his art, it is in fact references like this one – and the sweeping statements tending to go with them – that take away from his credibility. There is definitely room in the world of Arabic writing for quasi-postmodern theorising, however self-centred or contemplatively indulgent. But surely in the context of a novella like Hura’ Mataha Qoutiyyah (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth, 1997), it actually undermines “purity” far more than the hypothetical inclusion of social-political commentary, properly contextualised, when the narrator consciously compares himself to Borges: a celebrated genius from a decidedly different culture and one, it might be added, whose relevance to what that narrator is doing is at best obscure. The problem is not that Zikri may be a lesser writer than Dostoevsky. It is in the directed-ness, the apparent artificiality of the kind of westward looking elitism he endeavours to cultivate – the classicism of his ambition constantly in contradiction with his essentially deconstructionist approach. His slim volumes are invariably fragmentary; insanely reworked and polished, but inconclusive.
They are also practically solipsistic – in their failure to engage with the world (a failure for which the attempt to substitute the world for Great Literature, i.e., in effect, modernism and art-house cinema, does not make up). Only on reading Zikri’s yawmiyyat, in which he condescends to discuss his likes and dislikes, to engage with the politics of culture or mention a fellow Egyptian writer like the dentist and best-selling author Alaa El-Aswany or his own former mentor Edwar El-Kharrat, do you begin to appreciate what kind of writer Zikri is. Others – most, I would say – openly seek context and connection, communication. He claims to seek the least contact possible, the smallest number of readers, the company of gods – like Kafka, like Kawabata – who according to him never mix with the rabble. The irony is that it is the rabble-like qualities of his standpoint as a Third World writer that form the substance of his work, informing even the way he interprets Great Literature. Hence the deconstructionism, hence the aversion to politics (a quality Zikri shares with his generation of literati, who are still reacting to the excessive politicisation of literature all through the 1960s and 1970s); hence also the preemptive despair of ever having a readership of his own beyond “the professional reader, the writer and the half-writer”. (It strikes me now that in his systematic self-assuredness, Zikri does recall Al-Mutanabbi, not only arguably the greatest Arab poet of all time but also, famously or notoriously, the most conceited.)
I have always been… subject to the signal to start working… which requires me to be completely devoted and constantly ready to receive [it] whenever it might come… (17.)
Few writers have dedicated as much attention or energy as Zikri to analysing the discontents of their creative process – the nature and magnitude of the emptiness just beneath the surface of their texts. Here as elsewhere in his writing – notably in his last work of fiction, Al-Rasa’il (The Messages, 2006) – Zikri spends time on what might be termed negative productivity: the writing that has not happened, or is yet to happen, but will perhaps never happen. He narrates and describes the state of being idle and homebound in anticipation of (and in deference to) literature.
As piece 34 in Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ demonstrates, Zikri’s negative productivity makes perhaps the most convincing case for an existential perspective on the human condition in contemporary Arabic literature. Contrary to his own, noncommittal claims, it resonates far beyond what he recently described to the journalist Ola El-Saket as “those little things which the other writing,” the engaged, energetic writing that aims to change the world, “assumes to be of no consequence, the small details that recur every day and which some of us take for granted”. Zikri’s dilemma has universal relevance: “34. Preparing and arranging, creating an atmosphere, took me a long time, and though I was unemployed on the pretext of waiting for the appropriate moment, that waiting itself was fuelled only by a long time wasted, which I mostly described, with much effort and work, as an inappropriate moment, or at least an inappropriate moment on the way to becoming an appropriate moment.”
This kind of thinking generates much needed humour in an otherwise cerebral and dry book. It also goes to show that Zikri is not as solipsistic as he might seem. At least he is aware of the irony inherent to his own narcissism, and not too scared to apply it to himself. We write about what we know best, and all that Zikri knows is sitting in his home thinking about writing; that, along with whatever else his literary anxiety happens to latch onto, is what he will write about.
At the start of the film The Sacrifice by the director Andrie Tarkovsky, Alexander, the hero of the film, asks his son to help him plant a dead tree on the shore of a lake… (27.)
In piece 27 as in numerous other pieces, Zikri – who, working with the filmmaker Osama Fawzi, wrote two of the best Egyptian films of the 1990s – endeavours to rewrite world cinema. Not that the novel/novella format prevented him from indulging his love of film in the past – his 1998 novella is entitled, after Fassbinder’s celebrated film, Fear Eats the Soul – but the greater opportunities presented by an “absolutely flexible medium” like yawmiyyat gives him more scope for focusing on particular scenes or techniques – in Hitchcock, in the work of the French New Wave directors, in Tarantino, Bergman – not so much to discuss this or that aspect of a film or a director as simply to see a given cinematic moment from a new and one might say literary angle.
The influence of film on fiction is a huge topic beyond the scope of this Elucidation, but Zikri’s screenwriter’s insights and his intensely individualist taste act to highlight the way words on a page can recreate and totally alter a scene already lodged in the reader’s memory. These pieces seem to reverse the tendency, suggesting new writing that can influence the way we see film. It is as if Zikri, by reference to another medium, is actively showing his reader that the strength of literature is no longer about telling a story but rather about a particular way of seeing or engaging the senses, different from but just as effective as the more predominant audiovisual medium.
Later on in the book, in the course of his bitterly sarcastic critique of Aswany’s Yaqoubian Building (2002), piece 45, Zikri says almost as much: “Yet it is enough for the physician Alaa El-Aswany that a reader with no connection to the novel genre can easily read The Yaqoubian Building, relying on his experience of newspaper reading and oral tale-telling that everyone possesses by virtue of birth, community and homeland. It may seem to the reader that watching the novel through the medium of cinema does not deprive him of penetrating to whatever is deepest in Yaqoubian. Since the novel has irrevocably divorced the tradition of style, there is then no need for reading.”
While the pastime appeared to have to do with free time, it actually had to do with the meaning of life. (39.)
Zikri is ostensibly speaking of “the satellite and the computer and the telephone”, initially “promises of something else, more serious” which he approaches as pastimes “within the frontiers of the house”. But here as elsewhere in this remarkably diverse book, he is also intimating a holistic world view, an idea of human existence as a totality of experience only usually available through philosophy or poetry. It is in this sense perhaps that Zikri might be compared to Borges, despite the incomparably more articulate demeanour and learned background of the latter. Though unlike Zikri Borges has a healthy awareness of context, he remains one of a handful of modern writers the world over who communicate such a sense of the totality of existence with the utmost economy of means. In many of the pieces in this book, Zikri’s tight, profoundly thought out constructions evoke the connection between the short, quasi-narrative text and the prose poem – another thing Borges manages to do, even though the great Argentine, once again unlike Zikri, wrote poems which he presented as such.
The one major difference between Zikri and Borges – between Zikri and most writers of Borges’s – is the latter’s capacity for antagonising his readers, often by overwhelming with unnecessary references. Borges in particular was known to say that, unless one is writing a scholarly monograph or a work of science, a text should always be appealing enough for the reader not to have to exert any effort reading it. More Joycean than Borgesian in this respect, Zikri cares little for the enjoyment of the reader. In fact he sets out to antagonise “the reader with whom I have no connection”, the rabble representative for whom there is no room among the gods, or so he says. And yet in most instances – in spite of himself? – Zikri produces an eminently enjoyable text. Is this yet another intractable contradiction presented by his work?
And in this world in which all truths stand against each other on an equal footing, meaning becomes an adventure, an endless game of mix and match. (49.)
Nowhere else is Zikri’s idea of literature more eloquently expressed (literature being an inclusive term that also covers philosophy and film, the two subjects in which he earned degrees, as well as the life of the writer, the writer’s “style” or way of using words, and perhaps also the human condition). It is not as eccentric an idea as he makes it out to be. Romantic and postmodern in equal parts, the notion of writing as a sublime but ultimately meaningless game echoes in the widest variety of contexts, from Wittgenstein to Orientalism. The fact that Zikri refrains from formulating it, never saying more by way of justifying his chosen profession than that it is “a private pleasure”, is hardly surprising.
The disorienting combination of Third World postmodernism and puritanical Great Literature reflects the contradiction between Zikri’s thoroughly fragmentary, deconstructionist method and his all but classical outlook. Far from undermining the credibility of his work, it is perhaps this very contradiction, negative productivity – and the incumbent rejection of any possibility of popular recognition or “success” – that makes Zikri, all things considered, among the most important writers working in Arabic today.