All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

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.

wpid-sargon_boulus2-2011-09-4-12-53.jpg

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?

Continue reading

Open Letter to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

[Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.]
Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.

First posted on 19 June 2012

***

Dear Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei:

Happy 70th and thank you! Truly, thank you: for refusing to be part of this travesty of presidential elections, for rejecting any form of putsch or “revolutionary justice”, for insisting on a sound constitution and political pluralism, for understanding democracy at a time when those fighting military dictatorship have completely missed the point. I’m sure you feel sufficiently vindicated and at peace to enjoy your birthday; and you must realize by now how many Egyptians respect you…

Continue reading

The Hayyani Epistle: What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said after the events of 2011

What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.

wpid-tugramap1_snapseed-2013-03-15-18-49.jpg

Continue reading

On Fiction and the Caliphate

wpid-ysf-2013-01-10-18-54.jpg

.

Map of Cairo as tugra or Ottoman sultan’s seal

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.

Continue reading

Something wrong with the wires

wpid-samsunglcdtv-2012-08-1-13-21.jpg

Youssef Rakha considers revolution and Ramadan
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.
Nor does it have anything to do with the Arab Spring as such. One thing on which Islamists and seculars may agree is that Egypt’s yearly festival of gluttony and comatose staring at screens would arguably look more like the holy month it was intended to be were it not for that unholiest of square monsters: the surface on which the ghosts of a given society tell that society what it is about. But it is interesting to observe how so called drama has developed in the wake of so called democracy. There is more swearing, more acknowledgement of unsavoury phenomena—the drug taking, the bribe receiving, the ballot rigging, the torture using—but none of these things is sufficiently thought through to feel remotely real. Shanty town thugs come across as downtown intellectuals, high-profile female lawyers as expensive prostitutes, activists as actors playing unemployed young men who are themselves playing at being activists. Upper Egyptians have still not mastered their own dialect; and, contrary to any evidence, sectarian tensions are still the rare exception to the rule of “national unity” between Muslims and Christians. Remarking on his failure to extract a confession using electricity, one State Security officer who looks and sounds like an employee of the Ministry of Endowments says, “I thought there might be something wrong with the wires.”
In one of at least two big-budget productions on the ever present fascination with “the Zionist entity”—the copy of a copy of a copy of something that may once have been entertaining or funny— comedy superstar Adel Imam transports the concept of Ocean’s Eleven into the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict (“our brothers in Gaza” notwithstanding): he is an Egyptian diplomat who gathers and commands a band of high-wire artists in various disciplines to rob a bank in Israel. Forget plausibility and deeper implications (how on earth would such a feat benefit the Palestinian cause, for Nasser’s sake?): the stink raised among “the Enemy” by Imam’s absolute ignorance of Israeli society and the callousness with which he is treating Judaism is threatening to develop into a diplomatic crisis in its own right. So, having been mistaken for a hero of secularism earlier in the year, while the president denies writing to Peres and Peres shows the world the president’s letter to him, counterrevolutionary Imam may yet be mistaken for a hero of nationalism.

Tractatus Franco-Arabicus

wpid-murad_bey_by_dutertre_in_description_de_l_egypte_1809-2011-09-2-17-57.jpg

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.

wpid-weekly-2011-09-2-17-57.png
Related articles by Zemanta

wpid-reblog_e-2011-09-2-17-57.png

Unfree verse

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.

In this context it may be said that Donqol’s best known work tends to prostitute poetry to politics. Together with much of the work of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), it has certainly contributed to confirming the popular misconception that (armchair) activism is the principal arena of writers and that its polemical and didactic discourses are more or less indistinguishable from literature. There is no doubt that, as much as Darwish, Donqol is not only capable of writing beautifully but is also at the forefront of the development of free verse (the predominant poetic discourse until the 1990s). But this is just as true of Donqol’s political poems (La Tussalih, Al Bukaa bayn Yaday Zarqaa Al Yamama, Kalimat Spartacus Al Akhirah) as it is of other, less proactive and ultimately more interesting work (the texts collected in Awaraq Al Ghurfah Thamanya, for example, or the early love poems).

The more radical question has to do with the essentially pragmatic approach to (colonial) modernity of the Nahda or Arab renaissance that started in the late 19th century and of which Donqol was a later product. It is that pragmatism of the Nahda that finds renewed expression in Islamists resorting to the ballot box to instate theocracy, for example, or in hijab and niqab being justified as “personal rights”. In its postcolonial declension after the 1960s, it seems the Nahda could reduce and subvert the poetic, mixing canonical, technical ideas about what makes a text poetry with contemporary and vastly unrealistic notions of the poet’s role in a forcefully homogenised “modern” society. The Nahda thus not only produced a neither-here-nor-there poetic discourse that in its attempt to have the best of both worlds ended up in all but the most superficial qualities divorced from both its roots in the Arabic canon and the western modernity that was its direct inspiration, it also made the poet’s readiness to subscribe to that discourse a precondition for his being legitimised as a poet. To what extent could Donqol – or Darwish – afford to write poetry for its own sake?

Even in its non-political incarnations (in the work of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab or Salah Abdel-Sabour, for example), free verse as a “half revolution” (to re-situate the late Youssef Edriss’s expression) remains an example of the very national project to whose utter failure current, presumably transformative unrest throughout the Arab world bears testimony. In its engaged mode, however appealing in context, free verse has contributed to a substitute consciousness that was utterly impotent in the face of either the new world order or political Islam. It would take several treatises to argue that, by responding to the developments of the free verse movement under Sadat – the obscure and/or ideological work of the Seventies Generation – with violent individualism and an aversion to ideology so intense it soon became ideological in its own right, the Nineties Generation were in effect doing precisely what stars of the free verse movement had failed to do with the best intentions: promoting a Nahda of Arab society and art.

Rather than situating itself – also pragmatically – within a centralised political project that soon turned out to be an extension of the colonial status quo (we could argue about this for a long time, but yes, I think even Nasser and the Baath were extensions of the colonial status quo), the predominant poetry since Donqol has sought to recognise the heterogeneity of society, the inevitability of history and the hollowness of activist discourse. Instead of concerning itself with establishing technical credentials, it has drawn on the alternative poetic modernity of earlier prose poets who had long since emigrated like Sargon Boulus and Wadih Saadeh.

At the risk of being unfair to the memory of a great poet, whatever else I think of him, I am tempted to say that Donqol leaves the ongoing Egyptian revolution ultimately bereft. It is one thing to invoke his poem of 1972 about protests on and around the “stone cake” of Tahrir Square. Making sense of his conscious or unconscious position on the what is at stake – and Donqol, by the way, witnessed but did not take part in the student demonstrations about which he wrote the poem – is quite another.

The most persuasive description of current events in the Arab world is that they are our struggle for the Second Independence – something that may imply an increasingly evident clash with American hegemony, not through nationalist or Islamist anti-American rhetoric but through a very real conflict of interests between Washington on the one hand and the self-possessed Arab citizen on the other. Such a clash might have horrific implications. Through the agency of the powers that be, but inevitably at the expense of the independence in question, it might be avoided altogether. Poetry will have nothing to do with it.

Recently the free verse Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef wrote what I can only describe as a stomach-turning quasi-poem called “What Arab Spring”, in which he dismissed current events as an electronic-age charade orchestrated by Washington. More than ever before, and despite its having a greater audience than that of the 1990s, that seems to be the true position of the “political” poetry of the 1960s. I truly wonder what Donqol would have said.

Donqol reading La Tussalih

Enhanced by Zemanta

Cairo, culture, conquer

President Gamal Abd ElNasser, the second presi...
Image via Wikipedia

Letter on status

mother of cities and seat of Pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad regions and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the halting-place of feeble and mighty… — Ibn Battuta (Gibb)


Cairo means ‘conqueror’; it is female. Every night she dreams of being herself, every morning she wakes up alienated. Pondering over the city’s fate I am reminded of canonical Arab and Arabized scholar-writers (examples I’m thinking of range from the 10th to the 15th century), for whom the words for ‘essay’ and ‘epistle’ — also ‘book’— were one and the same. The role of Cairo, a central destination on their frequently Maghreb-to-Mecca itinerary, strikes me as the kind of notion that might interest them. She seems the right subject for a letter, anyway: rather than the inevitably false claim to impartiality, the city elicits a subjectivity both particular and prescribed. An epistolary subjectivity: involuntary postmodernism. A letter is intimate and specific, and yet those writers were encyclopedists and synthesizers: generalists in the most efficacious sense. Aside from their occasionally confessional tone, their object was never private. They saw the world whole, and it was the wholeness of that vision, not the integrity of their texts, that excited them. They were spokesmen for the unity of reality, but they wrote rather like pen pals addressing their patrons, sometimes each other, never unduly concerned with standpoint, seldom self-consciously artistic. They conveyed knowledge geographically, which means that they spread it individually over a collective surface: the Arabic tongue, the Koranic rhetoric that underpinned it and an unyielding commitment to truth. It also means that, while they sustained a classificatory compulsion, their sense of detail remained paramount.
Rather than a temporal, linear arrangement, they assayed a spatial, non-sequential scattering: precisely the mode of progress I am proposing here—a medieval-style ‘letter’ on the status of the City (no longer so) Victorious.

*

For Arabs everywhere Cairo is geographically central—as much in the physical as in that wider, conceptual sense, posited in contrast to the historical, which is not only temporal and linear but makes a more persuasive case for the city’s name—yet since the 20th century, and I take this rightly or wrongly to be the principal historical framework of the present, her significance has derived largely from numbers. (I maintain the affectation of personifying Cairo as a woman; let it evoke a wrinkled whore!) Egypt is significantly smaller than its cartographic representation, due to both the positioning and the density of its human habitation, and within that smallness—since AD 639, at least—seethes the greater smallness of its unequivocal and tyrannical hub. (So much so that, in Arabic, all through post-Arab Conquest history, Egypt and Cairo have often been confused in the reference to masr (misr in standard Arabic), with the more predominant occurrences denoting the city.) Outside of Cairo, Egyptians complain of being marginalized, something that has come to be known in government-supported cultural circles as ‘the predicament of the provinces’; but in perpetuating the conviction that nothing happens anywhere else, in feeling deprived and seeking fortune in her ‘bounty’, it is the alleged victims who contribute more than anyone to the centralism and arrogance of the city.
In this connection it should be stressed that Cairo has been subject to an unrelenting process of de-urbanization since 1956, when the migratory waves began to converge on her following the greater freedom of movement imparted to the fellahin—in a spirit of both ‘nationalism’ (later, and more importantly, nonalignment-style ‘socialism’) and ‘nationalization’—abandoning agriculture, deserting civic fronts: the postcolonial fate which the Arab states, themselves colonial inventions, have one way or another shared with the rest of the so called Third World. It was in those times, paradoxically, that Cairo’s role as Arab capital was fervently emphasized. At one point, with the declaration of the United Arab Republic in 1958, the notion might even have sounded viable; for, of course, it is totally absurd to speak of a capital—however ‘cultural’ its designation, the concept of a capital city is political in essence—when the larger demographic entity in which it occupies a position of prominence is but a loose conglomerate of nations of dubious sovereignty, with very emphatic (and, for the vast majority, largely impenetrable) borders separating one from the other. (Note the ease, the sheer legitimacy with which an Israeli citizen passes into Egypt, compared to the Arab holder of Palestinian papers—for example.) Cairo looks down, muttering cliches about the Palestinians being selfish and unreliable.

*

Most will now claim that Arabness is a myth, shunning it in favor Islam or some other form of pragmatic globalism—whether dominant (like Bushism) or submissive (like Ladenism), so to speak—which will be invariably bound by the atavistic and universalist imperatives of the millennium’s incredibly narrow political spectrum. Certainly, some degree of fragility remains inherent to the concept in the light of political experience; the terms ‘pan-Arabism’ and ‘Arab unity’, at least, are always on the verge of implosion, as if by merely uttering them one is instantly replaying the Lebanese Civil War, recalling the 1967 War, underlining the Gulf nations’ wholesale defection to a mode of pan-Americanism.
Arabness as a cultural condition remains profoundly geographic—as opposed to historical—a trait complicated further by the fact that it is quite simply interesting, especially in the first decade of the millennium, for something to be called Arab. ‘Interesting’ implies, above all, plurality: it means more things to be Arab than it does to be communist, for example, or even modern.
One thing it does not mean is that the subject should consider Cairo her cultural capital. In fact inter-Arab chauvinism—Bedouin vs. Hadar, Mashreq vs. Maghreb, Umawite-Levantine vs. Abbasid-Gulfie: all are as much intellectual as psychological divides—may well be at the root of inter-Arab strife; and in this context the imperialist divide-and-rule volley can travel incredibly far, as has been demonstrated time and again over the decades. (Witness, once more by way of example, the recent history of Sunni-Shia strife in Iraq, the effect of the US ‘liberation’ of the country on the escalation of that strife, and the ideological—for which read, in effect, tribal—substance of its drive.) The fact that, through cinema, then radio and eventually television, Egypt had for a long time dominated the audiovisual media—it is this, and the country’s location, that explain the currency of Egyptian Arabic, compared to other dialects, in both Mashreq and Maghreb—has often made other urban Arabs (Beirutis, for example) deeply resentful of Cairo, eager to point up both contradictions and disappointments as they claim a position of leadership for their cities. Cairo shrugs, laughing shrilly as she thrusts forward her cleavage: she knows that no other girl on the market has been around for longer, none will ever have as many clients.

cairo_1874.jpg

*

Still, Egyptian chauvinism is arguably the worst of all; after the blatant fact of political segregation, it is the complacency and corruption of the Cairenes’ own sense of identity that forms the first obstacle in the way of the city actualizing her potential as Arab cultural median. (Nasser, the first truly Egyptian head of state and Egypt’s only true champion of Arabness, delivered his speeches in a combination of broken standard Arabic and dialect, breaking with a tradition that had maintained a level of linguistic proficiency in formal contexts in the wake of the 19th-century battle against the official imposition of Turkish on Egyptian—also, by general consensus, Arab—life, especially in the military, where Nasser was a corporal.) This chauvinism manifests in an infinity of registers, many of which have only the most contingent connection with other Arabs, some of which have to do with postcolonial self-hatred a la Frantz Fanon, and a few, a very few of which hark back to pre-Conquest times.
One of the latter, I believe, is conservatism, colored by both inflexibility and stasis. Much has been made of the rise of religiosity in Egypt in terms of both (potentially militant) political dissent and (middle-class) social attitudes. The truth is that, while their Wahhabi and consumerist registers may indeed be recent developments, ritual piety, sartorial modesty, ageism, nepotism and classism—the mainstays of Egyptian public life—are as old as the Pharaohs; they do not occur with the same incidence in other Arab states; and they have negative implications for the theory and practice of culture. It is possible to see 20th-century sociopolitical phenomena that have a bearing on cultural life as expressions of this ancient trait.
Nasser’s Soviet influence, for example, has made for a legacy of both police-state security and inefficient bureaucracy. This means that, among many implications for culture, outdoor gatherings are outlawed; it means that writers and artists are often also civil servants, with their loyalty to the establishment, the only available source of money and kudos, overruling the creative impulse. But outdoor gatherings are hardly sanctioned by city-dwellers themselves, unless they have to do with religion; and a place in the official hierarchy, to a far greater extent than artistic accomplishment outside the popular media, is the gauge by which the vast majority—including police personnel—will judge a person they do not know. It also means that, when a young blogger receives a prison sentence for speaking his mind about Islam, his parents are the first to support the move and disown him. State, religion and family suddenly put aside their differences and become one, alienating the individual beyond any hope: this is Egyptian. Together with xenophobia—a condition less of history per se than of cumulative lack of access to information—it makes for an unsafe and inhospitable cultural space. Cairo smiles sheepishly, concerned and slightly ashamed: she gathers her bundle of tatters, adjusts her makeup, and leaves…

*

There are now in Egypt three means to the production of culture: a nepotism-ridden ministry suffering all the symptoms of a formerly socialist dictatorship and inextricably linked with similarly afflicted government and pro-government bodies; a commercial sector prone not only to profit-making constraints but, more importantly, to censorial intervention from the official, the religious and the family establishment—as in the case of the blogger; and an ‘independent’ sector with roots in the NGO scene, frequently subject to the same patterns of conservatism as the other two. Of the three only the latter, however, is eager to maintain links with the rest of the Arab world. But there are indications of the meaning of Arabness in all of them, whether positive or negative. Rather than showing that Cairo is or isn’t cultural capital, two examples of these should give an idea of what is involved in saying that she is:
Ellimbi. Star comedian Mohammad Saad’s cult figure Ellimbi, who first appeared in his late peer Alaa Waleyeddin’s 2000 film vehicle Al-Nazir (Salaheddin) but found fuller expression in Saad’s subsequent, eponymous vehicle of 2002, is among the most eloquent metaphors for urban dispossession in recent Arab culture. Ellimbi is illiterate, a drunk-druggie and a thug—all of which, as well as reflecting socioeconomic deprivation, are occasions for comic interest and laughter: a powerful statement about the contemporary inner-city Arab living in a country of relative stability and struggling with unemployment and official oppression—but his most compelling attribute is the way he speaks. Together with Waleyeddin, Mohammad Heneidi, Ahmad Helmi and, to a lesser extent, Hani Ramzi, Saad is part of the cinematic phenomenon I have tentatively named ‘new-wave comedy’, which, though it remains a wholly commercial development and in the process perpetuates rather than questions sociopolitical norms, has evidenced a comic sensibility distinct from that of the previous generation of Egyptian comedians, like the superstar Adel Imam, whose verbal antics expressed emotional responses to meaningful dramatic situations. In new-wave comedy, by contrast, laughter derives directly from such verbal antics, which in reflecting the development of the vernacular—the latest slang, the influence of satellite TV, the results of urban-rural and inter-Arab interactions—capitalize, rather, on the breakdown of language as a the principal container of meaning.
In Ellimbi such breakdown reaches an apex; though Saad has made a sequel, Elli Bali Balak (2003) and attempted a series of variations since, nothing compares to the power of the original, suggesting that, in Ellibmi, Saad had already exhausted the possibilities of this late-in-the-day figure of fun. In Ellimbi’s mouth, all the major components of the vernacular, both standard and dialect—love poetry, including the lyrics of classic Om Kolthoum songs; everyday sayings, proverbs, idioms and turns of phrase; exclamations and interrogative constructions; the platitudes and comforts of an entire society—are semantically and phonetically distorted, mispronounced, misappropriated, muddled and confused to the point of being meaningless; the situation is understood, and the characters’ position within it, but never through the ordinary (normative) operation of language; and the result, though funny—largely because laughable—can be profoundly unsettling. It is as though, in Ellimbi, the linguistic frailty of Nasser’s speeches reaches its ultimate conclusion, reflecting a parallel process of disintegration that afflicted society in the half century separating the two popular figures (however incompatible they look at first glance): the suicide of the spoken word; the death of collective meaning insofar as it can be verbally communicated.
Amkenah. The flowering of the nineteen sixties, quickly cut short by 1967 and the return of both conservatism and unchecked capitalism under Sadat, gave way to a deep rift in reader-writer relations. Since then serious poetry and fiction have not had the benefit of a readership to speak of, partly because they were increasingly inaccessible, partly because fewer people were interested in books. It wasn’t until the mid nineteen nineties that a new current in prose poetry—subsequently igniting more novel(ette)s than diwans, but also informing a much wider range of scriveners from less self-consciously ‘professional’ novelists to journalists, diarists, humorists and political analysts—opened up the parameters of literature somewhat. In this regard nonfiction seems to promise rather more than ‘literature’ as it is currently understood by the vast majority of creative writers: fiction and poetry; and it is Amkenah (Places), the occasional magazine published from Alexandria since 1999, that demonstrates this. An initiative of Alaa Khaled — himself not only a nineties prose poet but, since he is based in Alexandria, technically also ‘a writer of the provinces’ —the magazine showcases the widest variety of nonfiction texts, sometimes interspersed with or accompanied by monochromatic photographs or archival extracts.
In so doing Amkenah has managed to become financially self-sufficient—a genuinely unprecedented feat; Khaled, refusing to align himself with the so called independent scene, the only funding option available to him, has had to produce the magazine from his own pocket, overseeing its Cairo sales in person. Amkenah—openly defiant of Cairo’s centralism, and thus a modest precursor to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—must be Cairo’s best-selling literary publication—paradoxically enough—which says an amazingly great deal for the appeal of nonfiction in Arabic. Nonfiction, arguably the most lasting consequence of the nineteen nineties’, as it were, breath of fresh air—seems to be freeing literature from the tentacles of obscurantism and ‘sophistication’, finally. It is a slow process, but it is ongoing and gathers advocates by the day. The influence of Amkenah has certainly been felt throughout the literary scene, and it is gradually reaching other Arab countries by way of Cairo…

*

Mixing her (non-alcoholic) cocktail, the old whore listens in silence. She is consumed by a passion of remembrance but will not divulge her grief. At the street corner she gazes at the billboard of Mohammad Saad’s latest film, ignoring a book stall where Amkenah is stacked to one side, dusty and obscured. It is sunset and she must find work: she sniffs after expensive eau de toilet; she listens hard for non-Egyptian cadences of speech. Then she crosses the streets in hurry, paying no attention to traffic lights, strutting her tired stuff.

cairo-metro.jpg
this piece published two years ago in Magaz, the design magazine

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]