4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.
Revolution gives way to security breakdown. The people vote for the Sheikh. The Israeli Embassy is ringed with protesters, but so—eventually—is its Saudi counterpart. False prophets take over Tahrir Square. Thousands die; millions grow beards. Previously unseen gods of the sect bless the public sphere with fatal ministrations. The traffic is worse and worse. Petrol shortages give way to mortal combat, but not before a president is elected do arbitrary power cuts set in, apparently for the good of Islam. It turns out the General has been in league with the Brother all along. The Dissident preaches self-hatred. Then, electricity allowing, the people gather before the television to see how 18 months of turmoil may have affected the content and style of the sine qua non of their yearly month of devotion: the serial drama. Somehow, in spite of the economic slump, social uncertainty and political depravity, the makers of programmes have been busier than ever. “Revolutionaries” are still in jail, incarcerated murderers of the “Islamic” stripe are being set free by presidential decree—but it is all about thugs and Israel.
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.
It is something of a cliche of contemporary literature to say that Amal Donqol is best known for his worst work: “political” poems which, though he paid lip service to high-art injunctions requiring that their message should be veiled in ancient history or mythology, can only be read as populist propaganda against policies of peace with Israel. Not that there isn’t always room in poetry for political engagement of some kind, but these works have arguably replaced the complex truths of literature with a largely instrumental sense of the real.