REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so on.
Electronic Poetics by Bruce Andrews
Going electronic. Radical or so-called innovative literary writing faces (& that means faces up to) the facts of life in the digital age. If you have been committed to foregrounding the processes by which language works, to the unsettling & detonation of an established medium — what then? How simpatico is this potential cyberworld as a staging area & as a reading environment? 1 Raw material: if you use language in its ‘unfinished’ (less thoroughly socialized) state or at a molecular level, the project lends itself to the jammed, disjunctive situations of the screen with its striking dispersions or overlaps. Densities of significance can become visibly spatial, programmatically animated or varying or self-mistranslating.
Man as map
I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was Mai Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
In it the hero, Mustafa, who will soon start having historical visitations, notably from the last Ottoman sultan, is propelled into rediscovering those parts of the city in which his life comes to have meaning, by drawing the routes he takes as he actually experiences them, with his eyes closed. The shapes that he ends up with later combine to produce a tugra or sultan’s seal—which comes to be the symbol of the city as one person’s madness, the city as Mustafa: a calligraphic emblem with many non-empirical references to reality. A sort of psychological form of map-making thus became at the centre of the creative process.
I was not as aware when I wrote the novel as I am now that what I had Mustafa do was one form of what might be termed literary cartography. That is: the appropriation of space through an internalization of its subjective and human (as opposed to objective or “scientific”) experience with the purpose of integrating the result into a print context—in this case, by turning it into calligraphy. In my new novel project, I am using the Phoenician letter Waw to a similar end—it is similar to the Latin Y but not the same—comparing it with the shape of the Nile valley in Egypt among other cartographic representations of topics being dealt with, all reached through the very personal experience of the characters.
I will not get into the details of how this works in each book. All I want to say is that literary cartography—so understood—is an interesting mode of engagement that has rarely been explored or practiced in context. Some conceptual artists have no doubt employed cartography in their work in a similar way, perhaps architects and designers and theorists too, which goes to show that maps make up an essentially multidisciplinary approach to the real. But in terms of literature, though the inclusion of cartography forges instant and fascinating connections with illuminated manuscripts and many echelons of the Arabic canon, it remains more or less unknown. So all I will do tonight is talk a little about literary cartography.
I am not much of an artist, but I’ve found photo-based representation—first through the dark room, then digitally—to be invaluable in the process of complementing print with imagery to which a relatively complex idea might be uniquely anchored: post-millennial Cairo as an Ottoman seal, for example, or the Nile valley as a sacred letter. I’ve also always been fascinated by maps as an alternative mode of recording reality in print, and writing places—of which I’ve done more than any other kind—is a less precise but more inclusive form of map-making.
Literary cartography has to do with two quite separate things, I believe: two ideas, two motives, two different activities of the novelist as witness and, principally, as a writer of extended letters to unknown recipients but also as someone who crystallizes human experience into signs (whether letters or drawings) laid out on paper.
First, there is the fact that, for reasons of temperament and drive, writers tend to be self-obsessed no matter how much they endeavor to prove the opposite. This is aesthetically perhaps as it should be, in the sense that it is within a given creative intellect that this intellect is likely to find literary meaning or beauty. The beauty in literature seems to come less from the object being written about—confusingly, this is often referred to as the subject—than from the manner of its transformation into language: how a city like Cairo becomes a calligraphic symbol, to follow through the example. This process belongs with the writer, not the world. Reality is subordinated to a subjective standpoint that makes no attempt at eliminating bias.
I don’t actually necessarily believe that this all that happens, since the subject too—the writer—is part of a greater reality and presumably open to all sorts of currents: I could go on about the writer as convoy or medium, about things like objective coincidence and automatic writing. But still, subjectivity in this sense, however aesthetically perfect, raises moral questions. Nor is it simply that people get upset with you when you write honestly about them, for example. Unlike that of a map drawn to scale, your image of reality is going to be all but private, solipsistic even, the meaningless sounds made by a social outcast humming to himself in the dark.
When that picture is condensed into an objectively articulate image, something everyone can look at and appreciate at least as much as a map—even if it will never be nearly as useful—that sense of moral doubt is significantly reduced. It is almost as if, by constructing your statement logically and enunciating it clearly, you bring it into daylight. You do not turn the subject into an object the way empirical science does, but you produce a subjective object, an object that integrates bias as an essential part of its constitution, an object which—even though it remains an object—could never exist without the subject that brought it into reality: the signs, the letters, the language is utilized to a meaningful end.
Secondly, besides all else that he does, a writer is forced to make a choice between time and space, history and geography, narrative and description. I happen to believe that time or history is more violently peremptory and limiting. It is more prone to meaninglessness, to the exclusionary blindness and manipulative falsification of power (something that can be seen clearly in current, presidential-elections narratives of the revolution). That is partly because, compared to stories or human beings, it is much more difficult to judge places as such. Unless you include the narrative of what it depicts and how, looking at a map, it is impossible to say that its shape is immoral, for example, or that its stance is unfair.
Building on my first point—that a writer’s subject will inevitably be himself—I want to argue that conceiving of the self as inclusive, pluralistic space is far more rewarding and ultimately also more honest than presenting it as a narrative of the triumph of good over evil (or the defeat of good by evil), no matter what kind of good the subject stands for, or how complex, which is what literature is likely to reduce to once it surrenders itself wholly to the idiocies of history. The self as a geography of humanity that is trying, in a desperate but courageous bid, to transcend history: that seems far more meaningful than the self as a the convoy of an inevitably false and ultimately one-dimensional storyline.
However contrived in the context of a given novel, however subjective in fact, literary cartography, it seems to me, is the clearest embodiment of the self as space in language: the map that makes no reference to empirical reality is the salient image of literature as the epistemological exercise of making sense of the world through words or (as they are or should be) through signs inscribed on paper that, looked at, inspire faith in the meaning of life.
Talk at Megawara on Sunday, 27 May, 2012
It took Youssef Rakha nearly a decade to reread Yasser Abdellatif’s only novel to date, Qanoun al wirathah (Law of inheritance, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2002, a third edition of which appeared last month), but together with the 41-year-old writer’s second collection of poems, Jawlah layliyah (Night tour, Miret, 2009), that impossibly condensed autobiography prompted a heartfelt exchange
I started writing at a very early age and I don’t know of any motives behind it. I was 15 at most and there was no theoretical background at all in the process. I wrote short stories which only two of my friends read. At university the practise developed. It was a chance to find out about new books, and at the Faculty of Arts I met with a group of student writers from different departments like Ahmad Yamani from Arabic, Mohammad Metwalli from English, Hoda Hussein from French and Sayed Mahmoud from History; I was at the Department of Philosophy where I met a politicised, Marxist friend whose name was Nasser Ismail; he helped to direct my reading even though he did not try to enlist me the way leftist students usually did to newcomers on campus. All of which was in the presence of professors like Hassan Hanafi, Nassr Abuzaid, Mahmoud Ragab, Abdel-Mohsen Badr, Abdel-Moneim Telleimah, Gaber Asfour and Sayed El-Bahrawi: while we differed with and around those figures, a true literary climate formed for a period of time at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first story I wrote with any degree of maturity was published in Rose al Yusif magazine on a double page spread with illustrations by the great artist Tad. I was 20. From then on I started dealing with myself as a “professional” writer, to the point of being too proud to participate in the university’s literary competitions…
I did not move from poetry to narrative, the opposite is what happened. I started with short stories. By the time I met Ahmad Yamani and Mohammad Metwalli, who had covered much ground in the prose poem, I was writing a poetic form of the short story, perhaps under the influence of Yahya El-Tahir Abdallah. Through my relationship with them and under the influence of C P Cavafy in the translations of Bashir El-Seba’i and the Antipoesía of Latin America in those of Ahmad Hassan, I discovered the poetic energy of narrative and so moved onto the prose poem.
According to Qanoun al wirathah, one of only three slim volumes by Yasser Abdellatif, life consists of a series of melancholy “old stories” that manifest momentarily like LSD flashbacks. Abdellatif’s narrator never says this in so many words, but in a sense it is the point of the book. In writing that eschews all but the subtlest emotions, there is something elegiac about the way people come briefly into focus, only to blur back into a backdrop so pointillistic it appears almost clear. They are Nubian immigrants to Cairo, teenage pioneers of the recreational Parkinol craze, or intellectuals-to-be studying humanities. There is no connection between them, no pattern in which they fit, apart from the narrator’s own harshly disciplined consciousness.
An eclectic approach to narrative – and Abdellatif differentiates his work from fiction, insisting that narrative is what it is: Qanoun al wirathah develops a declension of the Sixties legacy represented for him by Ghalib Halassa and Abdel-Hakim Qassim, who are different from each other in subject matter and tone (and not always as Latifian as you would think from the way Abdellatif talks about them) but are perhaps the least two sensational novelists of their time writing in Arabic. In rich, measured prose reflecting an extremely personal sense of the language, each processes the world without artifice, without recourse to drama and with only a modicum of storyline, if that. Each laboriously constructs his passages, devising rather than giving in to spontaneity.
Here too structure emerges directly from words and sentences, from the insane drive to match consciousness to what is being said, and above all the insanely rigorous selection of what is worth saying – to my mind the principal reason Abdellatif has written so little over the years. The “I” of the writer, a Cairo University graduate of Nubian extraction whose formative years involved much recreational drug use – notably in Maadi, a potentially cult setting very different from the upper class-and-expatriate suburb associated with the place name – is identical to that of the narrator.
Is it any surprise that, between the first half of the 20th century (when his family first settled in Cairo) and the 1991 Gulf War (while he was a Cairo University student), past numerous anecdotes and settings and people, what emerges from Qanoun al wirathah is the writer’s own weirdly amorphous self, an ego so truly individual it is not only truly but also very effectively wary of narcissism?
“To look at yourself directly in the mirror,” Abdellatif declaims at one point, “is not to see it. Instead you see your emotion towards it, which lends the picture before you beauty in every case. But to look at yourself in the mirror through another mirror, then you see it in isolation from it[self]… as a subject outside of you… Rest content with this double reflection of your picture, and you will learn not to love yourself with that blind love, to catch it every time it tries to make itself beautiful, and to force it under your whips until you divest it of all that doesn’t belong to it.”
Right after that passage, and without “the flow” being disrupted, three short lines of dialogue between an older French Canadian woman and the narrator make it clear that he is scared of madness and has already tried to kill himself once. A frustrated sexual encounter – and yet another story never told – the anecdote trails off into a series of resonant if inevitably inconclusive reminiscences of desire.
I wrote Qanoun al wiratha with a view to completing a “major work” by coming at autobiography from oblique angles; in it I realised all my narrative convictions up until that time, the end of the 1990s. I finished it in 2000 and published it in 2002, and I believe I accomplished in it exactly what I intended. At present I have almost completed a book of short stories – I like that form a lot, and I don’t feel it is done justice at any level – but at the same time I have a project for a new novel that will be completely different from Qanoun al wiratha. Increasingly I believe that my poetry or my poetic project, if I could exaggerate enough to call it that, will neither develop nor have legitimacy except in the light of my narrative writing. I feel that in order to write a good poem, I have to write a lot of narrative first.
Qanoun al wirathah recalls the early work of Paul Auster and (without the sentimentality) the rhythmic flow of Beatnik prose. At times evocative of Haruki Murakami in his naturalist mode, except for chronological consistency, it seems to abide by the rules of the Japanese I-Novel. One thing, however – Abdellatif’s core quality, I think, which he finds sufficiently equivocal to equivocally deny – sets it apart from all possible kinships in the realm of the novel: it reads like poetry.
Far too much in it is far too condensed to be pure (even poetic) narrative, and its stories – old and melancholy or not – are seldom told to the end. The intensity, the abrupt shifts in perspective, the sheer weight of each phrase, and then the relative lack of concern for cognitive as opposed to visceral sense – the way the meaning of a given statement depends on what it evokes, not what it says – all seem far closer to the poetic than the narrative as such. Of course, this is not to equate the Latifian with the lyrical. But it is not necessarily to equate the Latifian with the anti-lyrical, either: the colloquial, physical world-oriented irreverence that defined the prose poetry movement of the Nineties (of which Abdellatif became part).
In Jawlah Layliyah, indeed, many poems are completely free of the Nineties’ subversive strictures, and some come close to song, an austere, unpretentious kind often welded to the need to share the beautiful burden of stories. In “Implicit Agreement”, for example, although Abdellatif seems to be parodying a particular kind of romantic-erotic poem, there is nothing shocking or cynical or ugly and nothing particularly prosaic: “Our eyes did not meet as two caves where the monster of desire sleeps, waking only on confrontation,/nor did our bodies break the rules of respectful contact/in a quiet dance we never performed./Neither of us was bold enough for initiative./She just handed me her large blue comb/and nodded/so I would comb her hair.”
To say that Abdellatif’s novella reads like poetry, then, is to point simply to the fact that, in almost involuntary defiance of form, there is such a thing as a Sentence through which a particular writer constructs an equally particular connection with the real, without fantastical or analytical ambitions, but without much openness to alternative (non-“realist” or non-personal) Sentences, either. And this has not changed since the poetic short stories turned narrative prose poems of his first book, Nass wa ahjar (People and stones, self-published in 1995): Abdellatif insists on his particularity to the point of sitting on top of vast reservoirs of silence, and so the things that happen in poetry end up happening in whatever else he writes: short stories, essays (literary non-fiction), and novels whether or not rightly so called.
Such tip-of-the-iceberg ontology becomes even clearer once the faults of the Latifian are considered. Beyond the obvious difficulty it would present to a reader expecting plot – this is hardly a fault in itself, but still – the problem with Qanoun al wirathah (which by virtue of format and format alone is less of a problem in Jawlah Layliyah) is that it does not tell. In his drive to avoid the confessional and in the stress he places on constructing and creating to the exclusion of the more immediately appealing qualities you might expect from realistic and sincere I-Writing – scandalous or tear-jerking qualities associated with information and overt emotion – Abedellatif sustains a certain reticence that makes him discreet. He insinuates, suggests, remarks; he never brags or exposes. There is not a shade a of self-censorship about what Abdellatif does – quite the opposite – but there is too much modesty in the most admirable sense, too much decency.
Up until the Seventies Generation, the Arab Poet was a testosterone-driven prophet with superhuman pretensions and a sense of responsibility for the world. Abdellatif was a depressive existentialist high on Parkinol.
It seems to me that the failure of intellectual work in Egypt is because the idea of individualism has remained incompletely realised. In a culture characterised by totalitarianism at every level, egos ensure that the mechanisms of the larger society that gave rise to an alternative group are reproduced within that group even as it presents itself in terms of being different. Still, it feels right to separate downtown Cairo as a space in my experience from the groups of intellectuals who gather there. Downtown Cairo was never unfamiliar to me, because I spent a good portion of my childhood in my grandfather’s house between Bab Al-Luq and Abdeen, a few metres away from the “Bermuda triangle” of intellectuals’ gathering places. As for intellectuals’ circles, I was part of early on, and I think I have been cured over time, both because I suffered from the idea of the clique and because most of my close friends from the world of writing happened to immigrate early. I think after that I stayed on the margin of those circles, though I was never entirely isolated, until I travelled to Canada in my turn at the end of last year.
It starts, I imagine, with a suicide attempt (figurative as well as literal); it ends with a new life somewhere far, some kind of voluntary death giving way to an afterlife in which the initial impulse looks like an old story. Or at the very least it ends with a book, a book project, something to hold up to the suffocating meaninglessness of existence. It almost certainly does not find resolution among fellow intellectuals however marginal they too claim to be, however particular their predicaments.
The late 1980s are a time when the short story is getting shorter and more lyrical and the metric rules hitherto thought necessary for the poem are finally breaking down for good. It is also a time when dysfunctional capitalism is taking its toll on all but the nouveaux riches of the free-market era. Social and moral values are not so much atrophying as deforming. Nationalism and loyalty to the patriarchs look more and more like cancers of the intellect. Official institutions, which still control society, have reached new heights of corruption; religious fundamentalism, initially abetted by the Sadat regime, is out of control. Far and away to be intellectual means to be politicised, and to be politicised to be Marxist. Never mind the fact that you might not like Marxism: discourse and practise are as dogmatic and limiting as religion itself; there is little if any space for an individual mind to work its way through the labyrinth of consciousness.
Taken together in retrospect, Abdellatif’s three books sound like an exquisitely muffled scream in response to the questions posed by growing up to that, in a place where neither money nor sex is as forthcoming as it might be, nor perhaps as desirable. With various degrees of subversion and cynicism, they touch on only two other subjects, both of which take up more space in Jawlah Layliyah than anywhere else: redemptive (and thus often resented) love; and the inevitability of friendship.
Is it Abdellatif’s modesty that prevents him from telling his old stories in a more explicit way? Is it his sense of right or of futility that stops him from recounting his often disappointing experience of Cairo literary life, whether in his writing or as a veteran of all those ludicrous wars? In the poem with which the new book opens, “The End of Adolescence”, three friends leave the house of “a certain madwoman” drunk, they pretend to be plainclothes policemen to torment lorry drivers on the road, they stomp on a load of neon lamps they happen upon “on the void asphalt of the Cairo dawn”; a week after that, the speaker says, “and the third of us has sold himself to the devil/while I remained with the other,/he not seeing, I not speaking…”
Latifian reticence is characteristic of neither the universal novelist nor the Egyptian Nineties Generation prose poet. Abdellatif seeks the substance of a state of being, not its paraphernalia. His literary objective may be noble but, more importantly, it is a rare and shatteringly urban choice; with the time and effort required for the inner battles that make writing possible or necessary at all, perhaps it is impossible to be any more prolific and still attempt to achieve it.
Before he grew familiar with the way to school
the sickly child grew familiar with
the doctor’s place:
the pharmacy below the clinic
with its brown closets
and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades
wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,
which she reeled off a large roll with a metal core,
and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.
On distant mornings
you and your mother would go down to her to buy the medicine.
Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places
in the night,
sliding at least four buildings across?
There is a restaurant at the street corner
whose glass facade which the steam misted over
shows appetising, low-priced food;
it seems very close, over at the curve.
Night after night you will put off having dinner there
and go along with what it takes to stay up and be tired;
the day you make up your mind,
with a strike,
some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place
off the map of existence.
And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city
beyond the street with which you thought the world ended when you were small
is an old traffic post and the ghost of an elderly policeman at the crossroads
with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.
There stands a forgotten variety theatre
where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage
flanked by two tiers of seats on which the onlookers have gathered.
You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,
your viewpoint flits between the two places
from pointers to clamorous lives
and promises of sustained indulgence
to where safety
fares better than regret
which is as light as beer foam.
Translation of the title poem of Abdellatif’s last book and of “Implicit Agreement” © Youssef Rakha
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