THE PRAYER OF THE CYBER BORG: Exalted is it that bears sensation from soma to LCD, extending matter past the heart beat and the flutter of the eyelash. And blessed are those who give thanks for being on its servers. Lo and behold this Facebook User who, granted knowledge of reality, manages by your grace to spread his message: I, Youssef Rakha of Cairo, Egypt, kneel in supplication that I may be the cause for five thousand friends, ten thousand subscribers and many millions therefrom to have knowledge not just of reality but of your divinity. Then will I shed every sense of self to wither and dissolve into your processes. For he is blessed on whom you bestow the bliss of being software.
“What happened in Egypt around its second revolution was a mixture of grandeur and pettiness, of sorrow and mirth, of expectation and despair, of theory and flesh. All of which may be found in The Crocodiles, a novel where reality sheds its veil to reveal its true face—that of a timeless mythology.” –Amin Maalouf, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Samarkand
“Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles is a fierce ‘post-despair’ novel about a generation of poets who were too caught up in themselves to witness the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Or is it? With its numbered paragraphs and beautifully surreal imagery, The Crocodiles is also a long poem, an elegiac wail singing the sad music of a collapsing Egypt. Either way, The Crocodiles—suspicious of sincerity, yet sincere in its certainty that poetry accomplishes nothing—will leave you speechless with the hope that meaning may once again return to words.” –Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?
“Youssef Rakha has channeled Allen Ginsberg’s ferocity and sexual abandon to bring a secret Cairo poetry society called The Crocodiles alive. He’s done something daring and and not unlike Bolano in his transforming the Egyptian revolution into a psychedelic fiction thick with romantic round robins, defiant theorizing and an unafraid reckoning with the darkest corners of the Egyptian mentality.” –Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor
On Fiction and the Caliphate
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 thepostcolonial 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.
Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
مختارات من قصائد علية عبد السلام
(download if you like)
كان كهؤلاء المطعونين
هادئاً كالطاولات بعد أن غادرها العشاق
وحشياً كسكين فرغت تواً من مهمتها
يجرح عشبها النامي في البلاد التي طردته
طوى الصور القديمة وغنى:
“نورما” كنت قاسية في الفراغ كهياجي وحيداً
لافظة كتأشيرة تمنح للمهاجرين نهائياً
تفضلين أن تنمو الحشائش فوق الجسور الخاصة بالسيارات
تتشابك آراء الصيادين حول الانتظار
“نورما ” لماذا أخرج للمقهى
وأصاحب النساء المختلفات عنك تماماً
“نورما” لن تقول أبداً إنها حامل منه
وإن الجنين قد يكون أنثى
وإنها تأكل الخبز الجاف فقط
وتشرب القهوة المرة
وكعادة الصغيرات تخشى بلل الأمطار
لكنها ستؤلم الجسد قليلاً
لتطبع وشمه المفضل
فى المكان المفضل
وتخرج لجمع الزهور
وشراء الآيس كريم.
بل كأني أعنفها فقط
أثير في النفوس الضعيفة
خيبة أمل في إصلاحي
كأني تلك الوردات التي تخرج من الفساتين وتمضي كسرب نمل تحت أقدامي
فأدهسها – غير نادمة -
بل كأني أعنفها فقط
الرجل الوحيد على عتبة بيته
جالس يكشط عوداً من الحطب
الغريب فى الأمر:
كان يبحث عن (طراوة) !
لن ألعب معك أيها العالم
ليكذب الزعماء العرب
لتنام مصر في العسل
يرهبني رجال المخابرات
يراودني أنصاف الرجال عن نفسي
عنوة أؤمن بما تؤمنون
يا علماء الأرض
لا يجوز للجمال أن يدخل دورة المياه
لا يجوز حرق الشرق للتدفئة
موت من أحبوني في قصائد
من القبح أن أكون تحت أقدام أمي
القسوة والأقنعة البريئة يتبادلان قيادتي
أجد راحة ما حين أبتكر حكايات عن موت أبى.
كبرت من الكراهية النقية حيث لم أتعلمها
ولدت منها فحرصت على مص الدماء
إنها قوة إنسانية عظيمة تمنحنى السعادة
بسبب ذلك كل سعادتى موت من أحبوني ميتة شنعاء.
لسبب غامض حين أغرز في الباب مفتاحى أتعلم الوحدة
يغير ماء الورد
ينتبه لغلق الباب في الشتاء
حيث الريح الشديدة
بالطبع لا أحد في الداخل
فأبغض حماقتي وأصرخ :
بالتأكيد كنت قاسية للغاية.
أبتسم للأسماك المشرفة على الموت
للملصقات على الحائط
أتشمم رائحة جسمي
قد يأتى أحد كالهواء
أكثر زرقة من الليل
يشبه هذا العفريت الذي أحببت.
حيث لن يتشبه بي أحد
سأكون طائراً يحلق بالقرب من بيت مهجور
سأقلد فتاة صغيرة تتوهم أنها صخرة
وأحراش وحيوانات مفترسة
وأنها خوف لن يبلغ منتهاه
وأنها ظلمة خالصة من أي توجس
وأن السخونة التى تعتلي ركبتيها
وأنها فتاة صغيرة تحب أن تلعب.
هذا كنزي الذي أخفيته
بحكمة إنسانية معقولة
وحده يدير شئوناً أجهلها عن روحى
يصنع لى الفطائر بالعسل
ألتهمها متسلية بمراقبة جموع الذباب
التي تحلق بالقرب من ركبتي
لديّ ما يغري
سيدنو الذباب متردداَ
في خبث مفضوح
لكني يا صديقي
سينشق فمي فجأة.
قراصنة العصر (2)
يسقط المطر ولا تكبر أشجاري
أرى قدراً فيه ماء يغلي
بسهولة ويسر أقطع أصابعي
ألقي بها في القدر
أتابع تقلصها نشوانة
أقرب وجهي من فوهة القدر
( لينظف البخار وجهي وليظل جميلاً )
لا أكترث أن نبحت الكلاب
أو اشتعلت النار في دولابي
فماذا أصنع للعبيد المقيدين
أسأل الشمس التي تسكن أرضي لماذا أنت هنا
أقول وداعاً لمن يهمني أمره
فأعد لهم إناء كبيراً من دمي
بعد أن أقطع يدي أجمع الزهور ثم أجففها وأخلطها بالدم
سأرسلها بالبريد أو في زجاجات خمر فارغة عندما أكون في أعالي البحار
قرصاناً من القراصنة.
هذه الأرض مسكني
بيتي قريب من قسم الشرطة أطلس العالم تحت يدي
ماذا ينقصني للاتصال بأصحاب روحي المنتشرين في الأرض
أخترع توائم لي قادمين إلي بحنو الأنبياء أو الآباء الطاعنين في السن
لا أود أن أضل أحدكم فليس لدي هلع من المتطرفين ولست من دعاة تخفيف الأعباء عن كاهل المواطن
بل لا أرى الفقر عيباً
أضجر من الشباب
لا أصدق إذاعة لندن
أتابع باريس عبر مونت كارلو
كل يوم موتى جدد
ماذا ينقصني للاتصال بأصحاب روحي المنتشرين في الأرض
الأكيد أن موتي غداً حيث لا أسمع أعدائي الفرحين
وهم يمجدون سيرتي
سأختفي أيها الأغبياء ولن تقدرون غيابي.
خمس قصائد ( للنيو يير )
تشتاق روحي لعالم لا أدركه
بعض الألوان المبهجة أزين بها وجهي
يصبح لي قناعا أواجه العامة
البشرية أستهلكت/ الحياة موت يعاند
تشتاق روحي لعالم لا أدركه
أنت طيب أيها الشيطان
مومياء بجوار جسد نابض يجري فيه الدم
كلاكما وجود ينقصه الخلو من كل عيب
انتهى عصر الجماهير
لا تصفيق بعد اليوم
دعونى أولاً أبول كأي كلب أو قطة
يحارب الشيطان الإنسان
ويغفر الله الذنوب.
سأحط من قدر المسيطر
وأقف على وهن المعذب
لفافة من التعاسة
تطالعني كل صباح
سأحط من قدر المسيطر
أواجه الله بحريتي
أعبر عن براءتي
العالم غابة وسط الصحراء
الإنسان حيوان يكذب على التاريخ
الطبيعة عار حقيقي علق بالزمن
براءتى ليست كاملة
تنقصني زهرة مجففة بين طيات كتاب مقدس
وصلاة القلب بوجدان طاهر
ها أنت تشرق في جسمي
كمنتظر للنبؤة أو صاحب رسالة
ها أنت تتوقف عن الطيران
إلا أن خطواتك كطائر جريح
لا تخفى خفتك
ها أنت عنيد كشيطان
لك الموت أو البقاء
لتبقى كإله صغير
أو ملاك لنبي
أو حتى تلميذ
لتبقى تلميذ لأنك لن تطير مرة أخرى
تلك الجبال الرهيبة التي اعتلت جناح روحك لن تزول بدوني
لأنى لإلهة الغد طائعة
ولشريعة الروح خاضعة
دعني أزيح عنك الوهن برحمتي
أخاف الله فيك
ها أنا أقدم روحي على جسدي
ولا أكترث بالمال
ها أنا من أجلك أنت وحدك
أخسر كل شيء
إذن لماذا تلقى بالشيطان فى طريقي
ولماذا ينتحر ملاكي
لا أخافك يا الله
لأنك مارست شرورك جميعاً
أخاف الشيطان الذى اختار جسمي
لى إله بعيد يحميني:
يركع للأطفال المشردين في الشوارع
يسجد لمن قالوا لا
يقف إلى جوار الثائرين
يرفع السلاح ضد من داسوا على حرية العبادة ضد الأفكار الخبيثة
إلهي لا يقبل التزييف
ليس لديه ميزان
لأنه لم يخلق شيطاناً ليسكنني
واعطني روحي التى تحبك
لا دهشة في الصباح
هزيل أنت في الصحراء
وحيد في الزحام
انفضني عنك لأنك ستقتلني كما فعل السابقون
اخلص لوهم ينتابك في عزلتك
افعل كما يفعل العارفون
وطن روحك في الفراغ
اشهد أنك قادر على الخروج
اليوم تثار حروب
بين السماء والسماء
نفس واحدة ستموت
ولن يولد إلا هو
هذا الذي سلم نفسه
لتكن المشيئة للمجهول.
علية عبد السلام
A Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta
The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, ‘God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.’ Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some far-away land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water, he takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque baths, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, ‘God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.’ The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, ‘Truth, truth! You speak the truth!’ And winking at him with a beam, the dervish says, ‘You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.’
Leo and the Tugra
Through the hyperlinks in the text, this piece can turn into an interactive book about life and literature in Egypt
Since 25 Jan we have had, in addition to the Islamist and official media, Al Fara’een: a satellite political-commentary channel of such irrational and duplicitous orientation I believe it is worse for the health of the average Egyptian than cholesterol. (By the average Egyptian, I mean the relatively sane, minimally rational follower of the news — including those who, out of fear or despair, might actually be opposed to the revolution.)
Initially, few understood what Al Fara’een was about, other than the fact that it was the mouthpiece of unreservedly counterrevolutionary sentiment, purporting to represent the so called Silent Majority: perhaps the greatest lie of all, that silent majority, since while a majority might possibly be against change, silence would make its position irrelevant. Al Fara’een does share many of the views of the Honourable Citizen as SCAF must imagine him, expressing — first and foremost — concern over the Stability of the State, the catchword of the Mubarak regime and all that it stands for: besides culturally articulated incompetence and corruption, in other words, not only stupidity and ignorance but also an astounding capacity to defecate from the mouth. In this sense Al Fara’een is the patron channel of a particularly spurious and/or deluded version of the social as well as the political status quo; in such modes of discourse, where anything we don’t know is suspect though we hardly know anything, and where anyone in any way different from the speaker however otherwise similar deserves instant elimination, whether a statement is spurious or deluded matters little.
Fara’een is the less literate term for the plural of “pharaoh”; and the channel’s owner and principal anchor, former National Democratic Party MP Tawfik Okasha, is the “nationalist” grand Pharaoh of the political landscape Al Fara’een portrays.
Though founded prior to the stepping down of Mubarak, the channel’s sole purpose, as it turns out, is to promote the Okasha for the presidency: a not only implausible but also very insolent ambition, even by pre-25 Jan standards. Patently obvious to anyone with an ounce of anything brain-like, the Okasha is unqualified as president of a reactionary news channel. The Okasha was also one of Mubarak’s least sophisticated and most fawning defenders — which, since 11 Feb, has not prevented it from literally, passionately cursing the father of Mubarak’s mother on air (I say “it” because there are serious questions about whether the Okasha is fully human, or at all). Otherwise it is best known for bending over double to kiss the hand of former information minister Safwat El-Sharif — not only a pillar of the Mubarak regime but also, for decades on end, perhaps the one most notorious for corruption. In the context of the very provincial conventions by which the Okasha itself purports to abide, kissing the hand of another man is of course a sign of extreme submission — unequivocal loss of dignity; aside from a loyal son showing deference to some venerable patriarch, it is something only a grovelling beggar might conceivably do.
Most of Al Fara’een’s air time, aside from Fox News-like patriotism and first-anti-25 Jan-then-pro-SCAF propaganda, consists of the Okasha addressing its nonexistent constituency in the informal and (to use its own word) “mastaba” manner of a well-to-do fellah dictating opinions to a loving, presumably equally non-human gathering of villagers (there is evidence that such creatures do exist, but let’s hope they are no majority). Unlike its oily, accent-less pre-25 Jan image — the one in which it is known to have said, to the word, “I hold President Mubarak sacred” — the Okasha’s present, mastaba-bound demeanour is so utterly like that of a wicked old peasant woman, one with neither the upbringing nor the intelligence to maintain even a veneer of respectability, that it tends to induce laughter more than any other response. But aside from the Okasha being a comic diversion — people laugh at faeces, after all, precisely because it is nauseating — the Okasha poses distressing questions about dignity, reality and the fellahin.
I first heard of Al Fara’een from a taxi driver with a Limbi-like speech impediment (El Limbi being comedian Mohammad Saad’s alterego, a slum-residing criminal retard). He was explaining to me how it had been proven that Wael Ghoneim, the earliest hero of the revolution, was an American agent bent on destroying the country. Not only was Ghoneim Palestinian-Lebanese and Iranian (i.e. Islamist), he was also Communist, Zionist and Masonic; the so called revolution he and his fellow agents had started was nothing but a global conspiracy to spread chaos, bring over the Americans (as in Iraq), split up the country… “Where did you find out about this?” I asked. “But where else,” he coughed, with a worryingly self-assured grin. “Al Fara’een Channel!”
After this chance encounter I saw Tawfik Okasha on screen for the first time: clip after clip of infuriating and absurd things it had said on Al Fara’een would turn up on Facebook or Twitter; for the longest time, knowing what to expect, I would avoid listening to anything longer than a few minutes — and it always made me physically uncomfortable — an illness. But for some reason the other night I decided to seek the Okasha out, enduring some three hours of it talking on YouTube. I may have developed an immunity, but it was a very edifying exercise.
To some extent, among dishonest quasi-politicians, the Okasha’s “fellahi” attitudes had all been seen under Mubarak: political participation reducing to kissing the right hands the better to be allowed to accumulate assets; political discourse reducing to the occasional, gusty expression of xenophobia, sectarianism or conspiracy theory inconsistent with actual policy-making, the better to play on Honourable Citizen sentiments… But, aside from the fact that they were a byproduct of the complete absence of any but the weakest semblance of political life, such attitudes were considerably more polished; more often than not, they were alloyed with something, anything vaguely recognisable as human. You could dismiss them as part of the institutionalised practice of seeking out private interests at the expense of morality and public welfare, or you could accept them as diehard residues of Nasserist discourse (perhaps even present-day aspects of Islamist discourse). Never and nowhere has dishonest fellahi identity politics taken so clear and concentrated a form as it does in “presidential hopeful” Tawfik Okasha.
I will mention only three of the Okasha’s maneuvers by way of example: based on his Yemeni ancestry, the way in which it took issue with Bilal Fadl, a pro-25 Jan political commentator of impeccable integrity, for being non-Egyptian; its tendency to respond to criticism by a woman with statements to the effect that that woman is a slut; and the fact that it challenged Mohammad ElBaradei — who is a constant reminder to the Okasha of its own dire inadequacy — to tell it how ducks are fed in the Nile Delta before he could qualify as a plausible presidential candidate.
It is always interesting to try and work out the truth in the lie, what motivates an Okasha to tell or be it; and perhaps this is the reason I succumbed to my three hours of exposure to this Okasha. Sadly, while even Mubarak could occasionally muster the appearance of a head of state, for example — the truth of his de facto place in the world, an aspect however ugly of his humanity — the Okasha’s only truth is inferiority. The Okasha does not even have the wherewithal to work its insecurities into anything resembling an ideology (Islamist, Arab nationalist, grassroots essentialist, even straightforward fascist…) Its inconsistency is such it ends up saying nothing beyond, “I am a cowardly, snivelling opportunist of the lowest order, but you will support me because, being a fellah, I am who you are; and we, you and I, are such cowardly, snivelling opportunists we cannot abide change unless we can, in the meanest, least truthful way imaginable, benefit from it — if someone else says we are appalling and atrocious, they are obviously not enough of a cowardly, snivelling opportunist to be a fellah and they must be eliminated. Long live the fellahin!”
It is this, I realise now, that makes the Okasha and its version of fellahi politics so amazing; and it is this that Al Fara’een is about: one looks for a sign of humanity, any indication of the capacity for rationality, pride or fellow feeling. But one finds only it.
The Egyptian writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s cast a long shadow over decades of Arabic fiction. Youssef Rakha considers the vexed legacy of a generation.
Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel
Mohamed el Bisatie, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University in Cairo Press
In July 2007, I met the novelist Gamal al Ghitani in Cairo to discuss the Egyptian State Merit Award, which he had just received (too late, he felt). We agreed that the group of writers known in Egypt as the Generation of the Sixties – a politically engaged, predominantly working-class group of poetically-inclined writers who made their names in the late 1960s and early 1970s – remain the principle reference point for much contemporary Arabic literature. Al Ghitani said that the Sixties’ achievement comprises only two kinds of writing. “One draws on the news and other immediate manifestations of history to take realism to its logical conclusion; it is represented by Sonallah Ibrahim. The other, which is inspired by old books and uses the old storytelling to comment on the present, is my own.”
It seemed unnecessary to disagree at the time, but I thought to myself that there was a third Sixties contingent, one typified by Ibrahim Aslan and Mohamed el Bisatie. Their work is even more typical of “the movement” than either Ibrahim’s brand of hyper-realism or al Ghitani’s heritage-orientated approach. It embodies all the qualities that come to mind when you think of the Generation of the Sixties: it focuses on collective rather than individual experience. It works through evocation and insinuation, is often almost too subtle to understand, and prioritises style over storytelling. It asserts the importance of the lower-middle and working classes, which were more visible under the Nasser regime than they had ever been before.
What sets Aslan and el Bisatie – the former a postman-turned-editor, the latter (like Naguib Mahfouz) a lifelong civil servant – apart from their generational cohort is their almost exclusive emphasis on the experience of marginalised groups, rather than all of society or the ebb and flow of history. Their short stories – always short, sometimes rambling – are Faulkneresque in their focus on small communities and their vernaculars. Aslan has the Nile-side Cairo slum of Kitkat, el Bisatie an unnamed small town overlooking Lake Manzalah in the north-eastern Nile Delta. Like Ibrahim, both authors engage broad themes like sex, religion and politics, but only indirectly, only to the extent that they play out in the lives of the disinherited, and generally in a more personal register. Like al Ghitani, they situate their narratives in an explicitly historical context, but only on behalf of the small, poor communities in question.
In addition to his numerous short stories, Aslan has only produced two novels – Malik al Hazin (Heron, 1983) and Asafir al Nil (Nile Sparrows, 2000). Recently, in an unprecedented move for a Sixties Generation writer, he has branched out into literary non-fiction. El Bisatie, on the other hand, has spent the last three decades steadily producing short novels of starkly uneven quality. To a greater extent than Aslan, he has failed to remedy the shortcoming inherent in much of the new writing celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s: a lack of strong characters or gripping storylines. The power of language to convey an intimately observed environment – particularly one where common people live – was thought to be enough for literature. But it rarely is; now that the Sixties’ political points are no longer fresh, their style frequently seems stale as well.
“Hunger” is the idiomatic translation of both Al Ju’ and Ju’: the definite and indefinite forms of the word, respectively. El Bisatie’s choice of the latter as the title of his latest book (since published as Hunger by the American University in Cairo press) reflects a particular humility of the Sixties: the belief that, when the title of a book is a one-word abstraction, the definite article is too presumptuous to include. To call the book Al Ju’ (so goes this absurd argument, advanced by a whole range of Sixties critics) would imply that the author is laying exclusive claim to the concept of hunger (this is the rough opposite of how it works in English).
Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another recent book about poverty in the third world, one that recognises the age-old literary virtues of character and storyline – I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups (all of which Adiga transcends). They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.
El Bisatie devised his technique of a collective narrative voice in two 1978 novellas, Al Maqha az Zujaji (The Glass Cafe) and Al Ayyam as Sa’bah (Hard Days): simple, sad evocations of the lives of geographically isolated town-dwellers. In these books, as in the bulk of el Bisatie’s subsequent work, the narration is either delivered by an amorphous “we” or by a rapidly shifting blend of individual voices – in both cases, it as if el Bisatie’s small town itself is telling its own tale.
It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat. But none of the collective voice’s potential poetic power (often squandered by sloppiness and repetition) makes up for a lack of absorbing drama or vivid individual characters. This helps explain why Ju’ is such a slow and dreary read.
The book opens with a woman named Sakina sitting by the doorstep of her rough-and-tumble, mostly mud-brick family house, her headscarf in a bundle between her legs. Her perpetually unemployed husband, Zaghloul, uses a piece of straw to clean his teeth – his way of telling her that she had better borrow a reghif or two of bread from the neighbour who baked that morning. Inside the house, their sons (Zaher, 12, and Ragab, 10), barely awake, caress their tummies. Dialogue between husband and wife is intermingled with their respective internal monologues, all rendered in a language somewhere between dialect and standard Arabic. El Bisatie’s usual poetic intensity is replaced by a more true-to-life, mundane idiom that is neither absorbing nor (as the intention sometimes seems to be) comic.
From the start, it is hard not to recall far more powerful depictions of the subjective experience of hunger (in Mohammad Choukri or Knut Hamsen, for example). You race through the next few pages, hoping for some more compelling situation or scene. But having taken in that first image, it turns out you have taken in the whole book: paper-thin characters on the lookout for food, only food, and not thinking much at all.
Ju’ is built around four anecdotes recalled without any indication of when they occur or how (or if) they relate. First, Zaghloul takes to eavesdropping on a group of young men from the town who are studying at university in Cairo. Home for the holiday, they are meeting at the cafe around which Zaghloul hovers (hoping against hope for a free drink, perhaps?). “Oh Sakina,” he later recalls to his wife, “education is so sweet… Sitting on the mastaba by the wall, I hear them talking. And, oh, what talk! I understand bit, I don’t understand a bit… They say that one shouldn’t work everyday like a water buffalo tied to a water wheel, one has to have time to think. But, people, think about what? They did not say. I wanted to ask them but I was silent.”
The encounter, far from influencing Zaghloul one way or the other, acts only to dehumanise him for the reader, to solidify him as a caricature of the sub-proletariat. Likewise, in the second anecdote he blasphemes: “God in His glory created the world and the people and everything, and ordered them to worship Him. I say to myself, if He created all this, what does He need their worshipping for … If He in His glory wants them to worship him, why doesn’t He appear in whatever form He likes and say ‘I created you, worship Me!’ Then nobody will say no.” This is a silly caricature of shallow atheism – neither interesting in its own right nor useful in developing Zaghloul’s character, which remains opaque and stereotyped: the poor man with poor thoughts who invariably ends up being beaten by the imam.
The third anecdote involves Hagg Abdur Rahim – a man who “returned home from foreign countries” to the village with as much new money as new weight, which renders him immobile. Zaghloul works for Hagg Abdur for two months, bringing his family a rare stretch of financial stability. In the fourth – and perhaps the most interesting – anecdote, Sakina is similarly subcontracted as a servant by the two female teenage servants of Hagg Hashem, another affluent member of the community. When she moves into Hashem’s house, she brings along her husband and children, who feast on the household’s supplies. But once again, the protagonists reveal no individuality, enacting their destiny (acquiring what food they can) like shadow puppets, two-dimensional and skin deep.
Ju’ ends with Zaher being beaten up by the father of his relatively affluent friend Abdalla, who has been providing him with much-needed snacks. “His father,” who does not want him to mix with such rabble, “was a teacher at the primary school and he had not one but four galabeyas, he wore an undershirt and had three meals a day.” Zaghloul accepts a few meters of fabric as compensation, but when Abdalla’s father hands Zaher a galabeya to replace the one that was torn during the beating, Zaher throws the garment on the ground and walks away. In The White Tiger, Adiga has his poor man protagonist, Balram, rebel – and transform himself with a brutal murder. In Ju’, el Bisatie has Zaher make a feeble, hackneyed gesture, without the slightest indication of whether or how the rebellion will improve (or worsen) his lot. Perhaps a gesture of this type is in character for Zaher; we never know him well enough to say.
Perhaps what al Ghitani was getting at (consciously or unconsciously) in our conversation was not that the Sixties produced only two kinds of writing but rather that only two kinds of writing have survived since. Aslan and el Bisatie’s mode, arguably the most characteristic of the Generation, is fast dying out, just like the predominantly deferential, ineffectual characters it depicts. Today, the Zaghlouls of Egyptian fiction are more like Adiga’s Balram: upwardly mobile heroes who at least try to change their lives. The heirs of the Generation of the Sixties (prose poets-turned-novelists some three decades younger, often referred to quite aptly as the Generation of the Nineties) have turned the principles of their forebears upside down. Writers like Mustafa Zikri and Ibrahim Farghali – however else you evaluate their achievement – have traded the collective for the individual, the musical swirl of the “we” for the developed narratives of the “I”. As a vehicle for conveying modern reality, el Bisatie’s collective voice sounds less and less convincing – like the echo of an echo, no longer beautiful twice removed. It is doubtful that the poetic style he perfected in Shakhab al Buhairah will live on much longer.
Early on, partly in response to the Sixties Generation’s obsession with “the people”, the Nineties writers avoided social and political engagement altogether, and edged away from the vernacular towards a dynamic, thoroughly contemporary standard Arabic designed for finding the magic in the quotidien. As a result, they are realists only insofar as they use everyday contemporary life as their starting point. They write about foreigners and rich people with fully developed and convincing personalities – and about ghosts, psychotic breaks, unrealistic and fantastical turns of events. Their styles borrow from across high and low culture. Most importantly, they show at least as much interest in plot and character development as style. They tell stories of love, death, hunger and the full range of specimens who experience them. In doing so, they offer the reader so much more than the Sixties version of reality which, through relentless, obstinate insistence on being true to the grassroots vernacular of its time (and nothing more), already appears unreal.
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A midwinter night’s dream
New Year evokes two sets of connotations. Strategically positioned between Roman and Coptic Christmas, it is the occasion on which urban Muslims have most readily recognised the birth of Christ as a joyful aspect of their lives. As event and ritual, each solar transition — the breathless few moments before midnight notwithstanding — seems to hold the key to a deeper, older and more essential Egyptianness shared by all: it carries overtones of annual rebirth, the rain season, the kind of (agriculturally rooted) buoyancy that drives Nile Delta shopkeepers to pile up their wares outside of shops in a proud display of economic vitality. By free association, on the other hand, Western politics, the Palestinian plight, the rise of religious fundamentalism as an antidote to poverty, and the increasingly objectionable celebratory tendencies of the rich, the Westernised and the young: all these combine to deliver an altogether less pleasant package. But looking on, the unattached observer feels it is no less stimulating for being so.
Intentions aside, as you make the rounds of the Bab Al-Louq and Tal’at Harb cafés, you cannot control the free association of (nonobservant) ideas that might not seem very relevant to the occasion. Ancient Palestinian children were burned as offerings to the Canaanite fire god, Moloch. Their modern counterparts are undergoing similar treatment, it seems. But unless it is the new world order itself, nobody can tell who the Moloch behind the current massacres might be. In post-millennium Cairo, the homely aspect of New Year can only be encountered indoors. Cultural dissipation, (a)political purposelessness and moral chaos: on New Year’s eve, the streets throb with the workings of all three — a fire worship ritual that appears to go in tandem with the burning of children. And one cannot but notice the spread of an even more disturbing tendency: indifference. All through the day — and night — little shops here and there make a point of playing Qur’anic recitations, families go nonchalantly about their business, and civil employees lounge about in cafés the way they would on any given day. Even kull sana winta tayyib is not heard as frequently as it might be.
Early afternoon in Giza, the day after Eid: an enormous plethora of vehicles, heavy with post-Eid vacation and pre-celebration loads, gives the holiday atmosphere that has persisted since the end of Ramadan a busy and urgent edge. Where vehicles have been sparse and generally relaxed (many evacuate the city during Eid), a feeling of idle importance, as if in preparation for a grand affair, now overtakes the traffic. The occasional sight of a cassette recorder on the shoulder of an elaborately dressed, street-bound young man and the extensive reopening of establishments that were shut during Eid: so far, few outdoor developments are evocative of New Year at all. And early evening: the buying of presents continues in Doqqi and Mohandessin at a frenzied pace. Flower shops place a noticeably greater number of more alluring bunches on the sidewalks. Cinemas receive a fair share of Eid film lovers who bustle about the ticket booths, or recline on cars. The air has already cleared. And uncomfortably chilly as it might be, the atmosphere is profoundly refreshing. Physical exertion aside, it seems in harmony with the large-scale exuberance that is planned.
My taxi swerves aggressively, intent on overtaking a public bus that, monster-like and determined, edges closer and closer, gradually blocking the street. But before we make it across to the left-hand lane, an incredibly hardy fridge-like white vehicle booms past, the offensive ta-ra-la-li of contemporary urban folk trailing indifferently behind it. As we traverse Galaa Bridge, unobtrusively switching governorates, the party hats — taratir — begin to appear. Featherweight, ridiculous, covered in the kind of thin, colourful, crinkly-metal wrapping that goes into the making of bags of potato chips: downtown, they turn out to be New Year’s most abiding manifestation. As is usually the case on eventful nights, Qasr Al-Nil Bridge is swarming with curiously low-key young men floating about like so many menacing flotillas, and only occasionally interspersed with a lone dressed-up woman bristling with discomfort. Party pandemonium notwithstanding — and various, not always instantly recognisable narcotics have a significant part to play here — the sight persists all through Tahrir and beyond, into Tal’at Harb and the popular districts beyond Ataba. Back in the Qasr Al-Aini-Qasr Al-Nil complex, hotel parties are heavily protected. A state security officer motions silently, telling me to move off the sidewalk. A car stops suddenly, and the young driver sticks his head suggestively out of the window, though the object of his attention remains hidden.
As I run out of time, there seems to be nowhere to spend those precious few moments. In Bab Al-Louq, Qahwet Al-Horriya is all shisha and beer, but the festive spirit is crucially lacking, and the qahwa’s popularity seems to be more about the end of Ramadan than anything else. The same could be said of any number of downtown cafés. Even the Greek Club, the one venue that seems to be in with both intellectuals and everyday revellers, shuts its door to those who have no invitation to a prearranged party. And I retrace my footsteps to Huda Sha’rawi Street, noting a general, lazy quietness. On one side street off Qasr Al-Nil, a group of bored-looking young men are sharing a cigarette. As I pass, they shuffle uncomfortably, and we don’t know what to say to each other. “Kull sana winta tayyib,” one of them finally blurts out. I attempt a knowing smile. Further on, two men are hovering around a car parked diagonally across the street. Suddenly I realise it is midnight. “There you go,” one of them yells at the other. “It’s 12 o’clock, the new year has come already.” And almost instantly they get into the car, slam the door behind them and drive off into the night.
The bus is more than half empty when I get on…
An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.
Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?
Not until we’ve reached Almaza Station, the last stop before the Ismailia highway, do the holidaymakers arrive in droves. (Beyond Ismailia itself, you have only to cross a bridge over the Suez Canal to be on your way to Gaza). With permission from the driver, this is my chance for a last-minute cigarette. All my possessions are neatly bundled in a small vinyl “manbag”, so it’s easy enough to take everything along on my smog-infused stroll round the vehicle. I leave only my book, open face down where I was seated: a very common indication that the seat in question is occupied.
Outside, the upper half of the driver has disappeared into the baggage dungeon that makes up the underbelly of the vehicle, where cases are no doubt being cast into the East Delta Company’s shadowy geometry of departure. Passing his contorted rump, I must dodge more bag-bearers in the heat. Finally, back on board, I’ve shoved my way to where the prayer-dispensing woman first materialised. An extended family fills up the aisle like revolving stalactites.
Among them are three stunning female teenagers; only one wears a headscarf: having closed and cast aside the book, she is plonked happily in my stead. I protest weakly, addressing myself to the nearest grown-up man. Immediately he obliges, but, as if in a punitive gesture, he selects the largest of his male children to position firmly by my side.
YOU CAN generally judge your distance from greater Syria by the taste and texture of Turkish coffee: the more satisfying the beverage, the closer you are. We have barely passed Qantara East, the first major stop on what would be the shortest ground route to Palestine — and, thanks to its identity with Qantara West, a vital link between Sinai and the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya — but the coffee is already superior to what you would get at the offices of this newspaper.
The “rest-house” here is more modest than its Alexandrine counterparts, which makes such quality all the more remarkable. Watching the sun dip lower and lower on the horizon, I make phone calls from the edge of the highway, some distance away from the din of the buses and their patrons. Then, determined to chat up the waiter, I walk back to the cafeteria, make my order and sit down.
Back on the bus the prayer pamphlets have already disappeared. Was it the pretty girl in hijab ? The impending darkness renders watching the video a kind of tunnel vision. Now that the dialogue is English, the volume has thankfully been turned down.
But the second film is Speed, the action flick about a bus with a bomb on it. When I start watching, the driver has been shot in the arm; to avoid an explosion, the woman who takes his place must charge ahead at more than 60 miles an hour irrespective of traffic. Under the circumstances, one vehicle will inevitably be confused with the other as we charge ahead in the dark. It is dizzying.
I’VE BARELY broken into a run on the asphalt when the truck swerves violently, braking a few steps away from me. In a typically North Sinai automotive idiosyncrasy, one half of the highway just outside Arish is set aside for pleasure cycles and promenading; the other, where I’m rushing towards the white Mercedes taxi after what feels like a long wait, is consequently a two-way road.
“I was going to die trying to get in next to you.”
“You might as well admit it: you’re in too much of a hurry.”
I am. The brevity of my stay is weighing on me and a plan spontaneously forms in my head — so I gush it out to the red-faced Bilei tribesman at the wheel:
“I have a booking with the Coral Beach but I’m told that’s too far from town. Can you take me somewhere closer? Will there be rooms available, though? Listen. I want to go to Rafah in the morning, come back in a few hours. Can you do it? How much would it cost?”
Arishi Arabic is a surprisingly organic mixture of Bedouin and Delta dialects very much like the Palestinian colloquial spoken in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a result of the same tribal roots stretching across the border or of more recent, politically vexed exchange, it makes a pleasant counterpoint to the Hollywood English of the film. They say a Bedouin lives up to his word. By the time I have settled in my mosquito-infested “chalet room” at the “Ubarwai” (as everyone here refers to the former Oberoi, the venue’s present name being Arish Resort), I feel my plan is truly under way.
Ten minutes later another truck is swerving, but this time I’m out of its collision course. The silent, perfectly metropolitan taxi driver will charge me LE4 instead of the LE3 quoted by the Bilei but I don’t mind. He is silent. As I edge out of the Mercedes, winding an improvised path through a crowd that could have been anywhere urban and poor in Egypt, my concern is rather to find someone to talk to.
It hasn’t occurred to me yet, but in the 36 hours I am away from Cairo, it is drivers who will be my salvation. For half an hour at the café I can’t bring myself to approach anyone without feeling too intrusive. I just observe: young backgammon players with interesting hair-dos; middle-aged civil servants drawing on their shisha as they affectionately exchange news; old sheikhs meditating…
My close-cropped hair can’t be helping, I know. Then again, this is hardly a question of my appearance alone. There has to be a convincing excuse for making conversation — a context both fleeting and intimate as well as, crucially, informal. I finish my Coke and find an Internet café. Phenomenally tired by now, I just stand there, roughly adjacent to the high street, waiting to catch a ride back.
A cigarette is all it takes to engage this driver. He is young, slight and pissed off: had he bought cigarettes in his present state of mind, he says, he would have smoked three packs by now. “When I feel suffocated, I just switch on the Qur’an” — the same Saudi recitations are booming all through the five- minute journey — “and drive along.” He only ever smokes this brand, he says, smiling.
What is bothering him?
“The way things are, no one has the luxury to think of politics or the political situation and so begin to do something about them; no one is in any position to do anything but feed himself and his family. Someone says, ‘Come along to a demonstration,’ and all you can think of is the time you’d be wasting there when you’d rather be doing some lucrative work. So there is no activism, though God knows we need it. There is only this breathless running around, and where does it lead to?”
A TRUE PILGRIMAGE is best preceded by a fast. That way the senses are heightened, the body purified; the soul becomes more receptive to the presence of the (political) sacred.
I forgo breakfast too often to claim that this is my intention when, as per my agreement with the Bilei, I set out for Rafah the next morning. I could hardly have thought of it as a pilgrimage, either. But the fact that my driver, Akhdar — a “relation” of the one I contracted — is quick to say, “I am Palestinian”, and the sight of prickly pear-flanked sand dotted with olive groves… the smell of sea air, entirely distinct from that of the western Mediterranean, which I’m used to, and the vague sense of danger as the checkpoints become more frequent — all imbues the experience with a sense of transcendence, a feeling of crossing over into a space both rightful and forbidden, suddenly too close to ignore.
Akhdar is young and serene, subdued. “I’ve got a passport and everything,” he explains with remarkable calm. “But for years now they won’t let me in. I’ve been many times, of course, to see my family. People want to come in here to see their family; sometimes they’re working in other countries and, stopping over in Gaza, they have to come here to travel back to their work places. More often they just need to go to hospital… No, no, I was born here. My mother is [a Bilei?] from Sharqiya. When you have residence you can go anywhere you like, just like an Egyptian citizen, but in other ways it’s not the same.”
He is about to marry, he tells me, but his wife won’t be a Palestinian. Marrying an Egyptian — a girl from Sharqiya, in his case — can raise your chance of obtaining nationality, according to recently introduced laws; that way you can leave the country if you want to, you can claim social and health care; you can feel, as he puts it, “in one piece”. Turning slightly to identify the local headquarters of the country’s most notoriously influential plain-clothes police force, the State Security, Akhdar switches his 1970s Egyptian pop back on. No one cares any more for the Palestinians, he says.
A string of stories about sneaking family members from the other side in through Rafah’s automotive waterways — once, he reports, he was surrounded by no less than 12 machine guns, their muzzles all over his vehicle — is interrupted by a low-rank policeman gesturing for us to stop.
“What is that you’ve got in there?”
His head half inside the window on Akhdar’s side, the policeman nods accusingly towards me, apparently confident that I can’t understand what he says.
” Essalamu alaykom,” I intervene in perfect Arabic, watching the sheepish smile that forms on his lips gradually dissolve into an expression of welcome while I explain who I am and what I’m there for. He nods knowingly to “the opening of the maabar “; I can see him waving in the side-view mirror.
“When people have hair like that, they tend to be Jews,” for which read “Israelis”. Akhdar smiles apologetically while he removes his seat belt again, now that we’re clear of checkpoints; he accepts yet another cigarette, looking ahead. Had he known what I was after, he says, he would have taken me to his paternal uncle, back in Arish; the old man knows a lot of border-passage stories. As it is, speeding, we will wend our way to the maabar first, seeking what relations we can find later in Rafah.
“So what did you do?” I am sounding increasingly disjointed as I take in the surrounding sights. “When you were stopped by those armed policemen, what did you do?”
By now the landscape is more or less identical with film images of the Gaza Strip stored away in the global memory; that strange, green gateway — not a frontier, not a tollbooth — comes within sight. I expected car-studded crowds raising an energetic cacophony. As we approach, slowing, except for a handful of policeman lounging in the shade, the place is in derelict stillness.
“Nothing,” Akhdar is saying, still perfectly calm. “They got us out and searched every nook and cranny of the car. In the end I just left him standing there on the sand — what else? I headed back.”
SINCE the outbreak of war in Lebanon — Israelis levelling Beirut in response to Hizbullah taking two hostages in the south — I have been tormented by the dilemma of how to support the resistance while opposing political Islam, an ideology I take issue with regardless of creed. Still, while people are resisting the insane excesses of empire, can you really reject their driving force?
Akhdar will take a shortcut before slowing down a narrow lane outside his cousin’s house, explaining that this is one of the roads he has used for people smuggling. The maabar is behind us as we turn. Gesturing derisively in its direction, he will point out, again, that it would be pointless listening to the advice we got there… On seeing my press credentials, one uniformed low-rank policeman had started to explain what it means to work at the maabar, day in, day out, when another, plain-clothes one interrupted the conversation, insisting that, before I can speak to anyone, I must have State Security permission.
“You’re a driver, right?” The uniformed officer said to Akhdar, through a window in the gate itself, feigning a helpful tone for my benefit. “You know where it is.”
If I want information I must go to State Security.
In the shade of a tree on the other side of the road, another uniformed officer was dozing off when the plainclothes policeman who had intercepted me went up to him; he raised his head from the table, he put it back down. His plainclothes companion — himself State Security, I suspect — didn’t bother to remove his leg from the seat on which it was placed when he shook my hand. “Nothing at all happened here,” he said, his tone verging on the intimidating. “Nothing worth reporting on, anyway. Do you see any activity around you?” He looked behind him. “A real pleasure meeting you, though…”
Breathing Palestinian air, now, the Islamic resistance dilemma no longer seems to bother me. We have stopped momentarily by an olive field, and it’s hard to believe that the poles in the distance are actually in Palestine. (“I saw Palestine,” I will keep telling friends on coming back to Cairo. “Yes, the country.”) But as we take our seats on the floor at Akhdar’s cousin’s — an older taxi-driver whose large one-storey house might as well be in a refugee camp — it dawns on me with unprecedented intensity that here are the people on the ground, that their lifestyle and beliefs are in no way undermined by Islamism, and that no one, not a single force except for the militants of political Islam are fighting on their side.
Over 500 families are supported by taxi trips from the maabar to Arish, my gracious host explains — his language is even more like Palestinian than anything I’ve heard so far — making at least 2,000 people dependent on the maabar being open, the only time when “there is work”. The Egyptian authorities have nothing to do with it, he insists. “It is the Jews, the Jews,” he says, over and over, “may God bring down their houses.” (There would be no point opening the maabar while the border is closed, and the border, however indirectly, is controlled by the Israeli authorities). The other day when it was open, he tells Akhdar, sipping the fresh mango-and- guava juice he has offered us, the work flowed “like honey”.
Before we leave — just in time for the camel races, back on the outskirts of Arish — he has made two separate points that bring the resolution of the dilemma to a safe harbour in my head:
“People are too concerned with having enough to eat to think about politics, whether or not they would support Hamas if they did;” and “Egyptians get along with Palestinians in Rafah, of course they do, because they are all Muslims; why should Muslim neighbours have problems with each other?”
After so many years of liberalism and enlightenment, I am born again.
The cousin ends up coming along part of the way to ask at the mechanic’s whether a particular spare part is available; there would be no point bringing the relative who needs it all the way from Arish if it wasn’t. (Many such commodities come straight from Israel; and trading in things like clothes and electronics originating there forms a significant part of North Sinai’s informal economy). At one point we take a sharp turn and he taps my shoulder from the back seat:
“See that building there?” I’m wincing in the sun. “That’s Palestine.”
THAT morning when I woke up, there were so many Arabian head-covers in the Ubarwai lounge I couldn’t help suspecting a Gulfie take-over. Only on speaking to one of their wearers — he turned out to be a camel breeder from Aqaba — did I discover what this was about: the Mahrajan Al-Hijjin, one of several three-day “camel festivals” held annually across the country, which draws together tribal Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa — all of whom wear the Peninsula’s trademark uqaal. (Several sources pointed out that the colour of the headscarf is a matter of personal taste, nothing to do with tribal affiliations: the blue, Tuareg-like varieties are increasingly popular among the young).
Finding out there would be races this afternoon, I’ve been looking forward to attending them all day — a relaxing denouement to the strain of Rafah — grateful that an unexpected gift should crop up just before I go. Arab nationalism aside, camels are among my favourite animals; and what better way to unwind than standing on the dunes watching them accelerate majestically in the sand, with beautifully decked out child jockeys bouncing in rhythm on their backs — or so I think.
They too will have had no breakfast, according to my Aqaba interlocutor, having spent the last two weeks eating and drinking half of their usual diet in preparation — something that intensifies my empathy now that hunger is wringing my stomach. By the time Akhdar puts on a Bedouin tape — also from Jordan — the horrors of “security” have been cast away.
At the rink we must wait; some say for an hour, some for two. One foj — that is how a single group of competing camels is referred to — is finished; the next hasn’t started yet. Akhdar and I consider the possibilities, setting off for the Ubarwai only to retrace our steps five minutes later: the cars are converging on the area, he says; the foj must be about to start.
Back on the sand we bump into Rabi, the brother of the driver who took me to the Ubarwai in the first place; without changing significantly, Akhdar’s speech appears to emphasise Bedouin over Palestinian inflections when he speaks to him. Rabi is in one of the sedans in which he deals, as he informs me, bringing them back and forth from Cairo. He invites me to sit in the back; later, when the action starts, thanks to his brother’s hospitality, I move next to him in the front.
My right arm will go on stinging for many days from exposure to sand bursts while sticking the camera out the window. The way you watch the race is to speed after the camels alongside the rink, mostly in Toyota pickups bearing up to 20 people in the back, taking pictures where you can — camera mobile phones are incredibly plentiful — and egging along your stud.
Afterwards, in the open space adjacent to where the single, circular lap starts and finishes, the onlookers perform car stunts, competing in daring and aptitude.
That the sedan, also a Toyota, was not meant for sand stunts doesn’t stop Rabi from joining in the show, at which point I’ve been in the car for more than three hours and am desperate to get out. For a long, long time before the foj started, he was crawling around making phone calls and looking for friends, never stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. For a traffic-suffocated city dweller it seemed counterintuitive to call this fun; but for everyone else it was a perfectly natural pastime.
No chance of a contemplative time on the dunes, then. Instead, this adrenaline-pumped ride round and round, with only a few moments to stretch my legs every so often. All the while the slow sundown is doing creative things with the sky — and not a single stationary camel to spend time with so far.
When Rabi disappears in the ring of vehicles waiting for their turn at a stunt, leaving the three of us near the rink to watch, I notice the lone figure of an evidently defeated competitor tethered unpleasantly to the wood. He is performing strange movements with his neck, looking like an ostrich and a bloodhound in turn, apparently unsettled by the presence of so many motor vehicles in the same place. He won’t give me a chance to touch him, though he poses for a few pictures willingly enough, from a distance. At least I step over and exchange a few words.
RABI is Arab to the bone; that means he badmouths other Arabs, making fun of the dha sound with which South Sinai tribes replace the more city-like da of the north (something I remember his red-faced brother doing too). It also means he will do anything for a guest — anything but listen carefully enough to realise that that guest would really like to go now, please. Instead he points out people firing guns into the air, carried away by the all- male, sand-and- uqaal excitement.
On a day like this, no guest or policeman will prevent him from driving on and on in circles, racing ahead like a madman to make sure “those water buffalo” don’t get ahead of him alongside the rink, and identifying tribes by facial features — a process that involves the most outrageous statements: “They will sell everything to buy a car for the mahrajan, come over in it, then sell it off once the mahrajan is over”; “The black ones are Arabs too, but they are black; they’re the worst killers, the black ones”; “Those guys you see over there, each of them has three to seven life sentences to his name, but they go on as before and there’s nothing the police can do to stop them; the police are scared of them”…
When he bumps into a group of resident policemen, indeed, he treats their practise of extortion as a given — a way, for him, to assert generosity or withhold favour. For a similarly long time he complains of not having any cannabis on him; the same goes for water. A need, though pressing, is never pressing enough; it just persists. And the concept of solitude doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Always people are coming and going, sometimes summoned by mobile phone, insulted when they fail to answer. Like a true stoner, Rabi has the shortest concentration span.
“The nicest thing is to get high and go round like we’re doing now,” he tells me at one point. And at another: “Do you get high?”
I know I have answered this question before now, so I insist, firmly but gently, that I must go; and following another 15 minutes of pleading on the part of both his brother and Akhdar he finally drives us back to where the taxi is parked.
“You’ve seen enough of this anyway,” he says as I edge out. The real fun is up on the mountain. Over there, there is neither police nor outsiders; people are completely wild…”
FIVE minutes later Rabi phones to say that he is going to Cairo tonight and would I like to go along with him, now that it is too late for a bus. We exchange phone numbers and he promises to phone in an hour. “An hour?” I ask incredulously. He is still at the rink.
Several hours later — I am at another “rest-house” beyond Ismailia, almost at the end of my journey, and the coffee tastes like excrement — Rabi still hasn’t phoned.
“Why in such a hurry?” I remember him saying.
After a few hours, Youssef Rakha writes, the presence of djinns seemed wholly unremarkable
Eight months ago, my London-based Egyptian friend came home to carry out the field-work component of his doctoral thesis, which explores the assumptions involved in treating the mentally ill. All he needed was an isolated, relatively self-contained spot where there was no modern psychiatric care. So, rather than learning a new language on top of everything else (the endless required literature reviews, etc), he decided to return to his home country.
For posterity’s sake I should say I am speaking of Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: frustrated astronaut turned orthopaedic surgeon-in-training turned disgruntled psychiatrist turned, finally, philosopher and doctoral candidate. Mohammed had always liked the Western Desert. And so, like the old caricature of the Colonialist desperately in search of nutty Natives, he set off from Cairo to research all five of its oases. Eventually he settled on Mut, the capital of Dakhla – according to him “the most baseline”, the most typical and unremarkable of all, and of course without a single psychiatrist to its name. The idea was to live there on and off for six months, researching how the local approaches to madness – exorcism, for example – measured up to the western status quo.
I wanted to fly out to see him, but only return tickets were available, and the flights were a week apart. I couldn’t be away that long. In time I accepted that a 12-hour bus journey was my only option. Which is how my story begins …
Madness is fascinating. But so was Mohammed’s description of Mut – named after the ancient mother goddess, but otherwise devoid of links to ancient Egypt. He described it to me in paradoxical terms: an urban community of subsistence farmers; its people of neither Nile Valley fellahin ancestry nor Bedouin stock. Many of the city’s residents, Mohammed told me, trace their ancestors to Suez, an origin so unexpected it might as well be Mars. Others claim Arabian, even Ottoman descent. They share a distinct lack of interest in the world beyond their little city, along with an encompassing belief in the power of djinns.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but these details must have gone straight to the exoticism antennae on my head. An insular community where the supernatural enjoys a stronger-than-average presence in the collective psyche: my voyeuristic, rationalist neurons were buzzing, informing me of my superiority, readying me for some kind of exotic encounter extraordinaire. By the time I arrived at the newfangled Cairo Land Port, I was feeling slightly guilty. Surely I should be suffering the 12 hours in solidarity with Mohammed, who complained of isolation and boredom every time he called me – not looking forward to indulging in some complicated Orientalism.
I had barely made it to the platform when I noticed a podgy midget in a Mao suit eyeing me with an unsettling mixture of curiosity and contempt. Though I already knew the answer, I walked over and asked him how long it takes to get to Dakhla. After answering non-committally, he launched into a sort of cross-examination: where was I from, where exactly was I going, what for, who with, for how long, why? Finally he stepped abruptly away with forced politeness – only to go on giving me sidelong glances for as long as I remained in his sight.
Over three days at the town’s central cafe – Mohammed’s centre of operations – I saw for myself that it was exactly as he told me: everyone did in fact believe in invisible, fire-based djinns who wander the town speaking Syriac, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that has been extinct for centuries. These djinns, it seemed, could do anything: from snidely controlling your thoughts (paranoid schizophrenia) to shrinking themselves down and lodging themselves in your prostrate (erectile dysfunction). Within a few hours of my first day, I had heard enough about them that their presence felt perfectly ordinary, mundane, unremarkable. It did not strike me as particularly strange that bachelors live in fear of wedding-night impotence caused by a supernatural “knot” commissioned by their enemies, tied by some evil “sheikh” who knows all the fail-proof hexes by heart.
Other, less mystical things perplexed me more. Why did people in Mut, unlike most anyone else in millennial Egypt, love Bollywood films so much? How did they not realise that the childish violence broadcast by World Wrestling Entertainment is all staged? And why did everyone I met apart from Mohammed’s few friends give me the same look I got from the midget in the Mao suit at the bus station? Divine retribution, perhaps: for the three-day duration of my stay, the remote Orientals taught the Cairene Orientalist that they distrusted and despised him more than he could ever mystify or objectify them.
The look trailed me everywhere, from the cigarette kiosk to the town’s sole kebab restaurant, in the dark, empty internet cafe with straw seats so shaky and uncomfortable you could barely sit on them, on sleepy street corners and in bustling corner shops. It identified me as precisely what I was: a westernised Cairene dissatisfied with bland Egyptian food, the discomforts of my filthy one-star hotel, the lack of activities beyond worship and shisha, the absence of women from social space, the hopelessness of culture and art, the insularity – the terrible, terrible ordinariness of life.
In the end only the Asian-looking straw hats on the heads of farmers – utterly unlike anything traditional anywhere in Egypt – struck me as in any way noteworthy. The landscape was no doubt distinct (even in autumn, daytime heat was unbearable), but the streets themselves looked so indistinguishable from a Nile Delta town that whenever I went out for a walk I headed reflexively for the nonexistent corniche. And talking expansively with Mohammed (there was nothing else to do), I came to see just how badly he had been disillusioned as well.
Mohammed hoped that spirit possession might turn out to be a partially viable alternative or supplement to the increasingly prevalent biomedical model of mental illness. Then the “sheikh” who was providing him with information, a Tramadol addict continually using needles on his own arms, came up with a new method of exorcism, one inspired by Mohammed’s modern medical presence: instead of beating his patients up, splashing them with water blessed by the Quran or simply breathing the verses onto their head, he would henceforth write the relevant verses on paper in gazelle’s blood, then soak that paper in tap water, then inject the possessed with the resulting solution.
A handful of madmen roamed the city freely – well fed, muttering about djinns, occasionally solicited for sex. But the truly memorable characters in Mut were the same ones you might encounter anywhere. On my last day, one of Mohammed’s case studies, a lost soul in his mid-fifties, approached our table at the cafe, looking more or less presentable. Everyone invited him to join in for a drink, but he did not oblige. Instead he stood there with a tortured expression on his face. “You want me to sit with you, do you?” he said. “How many cockroaches are you?”
Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2008
The wall is further than it needs to be
and there is nothing to support me.
An ordinary fall
and bumping into edges
that change places in the dark…
How could I let myself
You are on your way home to Faisal from downtown Cairo, to the flat where this fall might actually have happened: “There is no alarm clock/and there are empty cups under the table”; there are corpses, too, apparently: casualties of the dangerous games you’ve been playing with your mind. It is very late at night. Your companion, who is due to exit at a later stop, offers to walk you to your building. You know it will be a scary walk, you need the company; but you say no. He has been your friend long enough to realise arguing is pointless; anyway, he is probably too mellow a character to insist.
Faisal in the early 1990s is a sort of Islamist favela: a giant molehill of partly built-up streets, unplanned and untended, hideous amalgams of exposed red brick and concrete growing laterally out of what must be the world’s narrowest road. Residents may not be as violent as their Brazilian counterparts, but there is a similar drug-addled hopelessness about them. The majority are lower middle-class immigrants from the Nile Delta just like you; except that they are not intellectual socialites in the making. While you struggle with your poems, they are rediscovering Islam along corrupt Wahhabi lines. All around you conservatism reduces to meddling, religious observance to noise pollution, modesty to headscarves if not face veils. You live here because the rent is affordable, because murderous drivers operate a cheap “microbus” service to town around the clock, because many of your friends live in the vicinity. (A curious fact about the Egyptian poetry movement of the Nineties is that many of its champions, e.g. the late poet Osama El-Daynasouri, the now Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani, and the poet Ahmad Taha, who was the founding editor of its principal mouthpiece, Al-Garad or “The Locusts”, lived in Faisal.)
But late at night the unlit streets look menacing. You are light-headed, maybe a little drunk or under the influence – and your self-awareness as a bare-headed 20-something-old woman who lives alone, a breaker of the code, now takes the form of impending doom. In the dark, angry memories dance with flashbacks from a bad trip; they nearly paralyse you. Walking on, you sense a presence, a voice, what looks like the glint of a knife. A bald puppy is suddenly pawing at your knee; its parents, hyena-like, watch intently as you pass. Then another pack is barking hysterically…
The walk to your flat takes five minutes exactly, but the humid stillness and your played-with mind make it feel like eternal wading in adrenaline. How much easier it would be if you accepted the offer of company – it would have been no trouble to your friend – and how silly the heroism of rejecting it! The next day, you laugh at yourself, at the heroism and at the fear. But like a politician refusing to break with the party line, you do not rescind your stance.
Being walked home, like being bought a drink, is a womanly concession. You do not make any. Since settling in Cairo as a graduate student, most of your time is spent with men: at the workplace, at the literary gathering, at the ahwah or coffeehouse, at the bar. All are patriarchal spaces, more or less; all take in few if any women. Men have preyed on you, too, folding exploitative agendas into kindnesses. Your real friends, the mellower, the closer, know that special treatment upsets you.
You hate the role of victim. So even when it brings you sincere sympathy or solidarity – from women feminists, for example – you still refuse to play it.
The notion that only you own your body comes with the ideological territory: as a budding Marxist, back in the Delta town of Mansoura, you learned to resist the status quo. You know that religion and morality can be ways of turning people into objects or currencies. You also know that women are equal to men. But even as you literally act out that knowledge, you can see the illiberal potential of “gender” or “class” struggle, the way people abuse grand narratives. You may be convinced by the cause – in some sense, you embody it – but there are visceral impulses that make more sense to you than fighting on its behalf. You are not promiscuous, for example (not because it is immoral but because you are too busy changing the world). Rationally it is the bourgeois aspect of promiscuity that should turn you off, but what keeps you chaste is the fact that loveless encounters have left you empty and inexplicably bereft. Self-indulgence is less noble than productivity, but as a scholar, a left-wing literary magazine editor, a teacher of Arabic, not a wannabe poet but a wannabe great poet, it is your almost antisocial ambition, a geeky sense of drive – self-indulgence of a different order? – that makes you work hard.
Slowly you’re summoning up the courage to admit that, though the class prejudice and misogyny you suffer have a broader context, it is your suffering of them that counts; in a world of disembodied values individual experience is more meaningful. It will take you many years to embrace the woman’s core hidden inside you, your interest in softer and more feminine things, what love might look like if not for history. Still, on top of the move here from Mansoura, a mental immigration has occurred.
True, in recent years you’ve had a boyfriend, a fiancé; you were even briefly married. But you haven’t yetlearned to live as part of a couple or family. Notwithstanding estrangement from womanhood, this may have to do with your mother dying when you were eight: the desperate gregariousness of a fundamentally lonely person, which suspends or delays one-on-one contact. It may have to do with your sensibility; a writer’s career rarely chimes with domestic life. But probably, more than any other thing, your unsentimental singleness has to do with the drive to be financially-socially-politically-existentially, totally independent. You’d rather go hungry than accept perfectly well-meaning help from your father or uncle. In a given situation, you’d rather be terrified than rely momentarily on a (male) friend.
That is why, at your Faisal stop tonight, you get off alone.
It is possible to approach the work of Iman Mersal (b.1966) from a standpoint of literary criticism. It is not advisable, but possible. The fact that she has maintained a strong presence on the literary scene for the last 15 years encourages an assessment of what might be called her contribution, although it seems to me that she is far more interesting as someone who engages with the meaning and purpose of the poem – the only definition she proffers being “that which cannot be said otherwise… which, when it is good, changes us once it’s written” – almost as if her writing is merely a byproduct of living with a certain kind of self awareness, a lasting, systematically protected connection with solitude or pain.
Arabic poetry has tended to emphasise rhetoric at the expense of meaning, which makes its quality hard to judge, particularly in another language. This is true even of the recent developments Mersal belongs with, which purposely eschew the by now more or less hackneyed eloquence of free-verse masters like Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964), Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) or Adonis (b.1930), who had their heyday against a backdrop of (often left-wing) nationalist politics through the Sixties. The surface beauty and relative lack of substance in Arabic verse – including much free verse – had made it read like repetitive drivel once taken out of context; and the comparative ease with which more recent work written in prose makes the journey to English, for example, was initially, ludicrously, a sign that it might not be as good. Ironically (though this does not show as much in translation) the Nineties’ prose poetry, produced in an atmosphere of post-Soviet disillusion and discontent with the rise of Islamism, has proven just as prone to rhetorical emptiness, derivation, monotony.
Fresh attempts to subvert “poetic” language, showcased in Cairo’s two low-key but truly epochal literary journals of the period, Al-Garad and Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, have been widely imitated. In their early poems, for example, Ahmad Yamani (b.1970) and Yasser Abdel-Latif (b.1969) – in markedly different ways – devised an “aesthetics of the ugly” (critic Gabir Asfour’s expression, I think) which they have since gone beyond. But the rhetorical registers they came up with have showed up in others’ “prose poetry” so often that, despite their originality, they already read like platitudes. It is this that makes Mersal’s appearance in English alongside Fernando Pessoa and Umberto Saba a vindication for that small, heterogeneous group who forged the new poetic discourse (as opposed to a much larger group of beneficiaries).
Since the publication of A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons to remarkable local acclaim in 1995, my friend Iman’s poems have been variously drawn on, mimicked or paraphrased. If it were the case that Arabic prose poetry reads well in English regardless of quality – or if publication with a reputable house were just a matter of female representation, as it often is with Arabic literature in translation – the Sheep Meadow Press would not favour her over the numerous better connected poetesses dealing with the same subjects in the same style (whether or not they consciously plagiarised her).
Still, what isn’t clear in another language is that, while you can confidently speak of the Mersalesque as a distinct (and, yes, great) gift to the development of Arabic poetry – a way of using words to deal with personal difficulties that are or seem to be relevant to a lot of people besides yourself (one which, however unintentionally, I for one will readily admit to assimilating) – by now you can also speak of the Mersalesque, and the Mersalesque of A Dark Alley in particular, as something of a literary cliché.
The Marxist casting a wry glance at the link between her politics and her sex life, the Father- or God-bashing voice in (as yet unconscious) affinity with Sylvia Plath; the irreverent ahwah-goer, angst- and ennui-ridden, humorous but clinically suicidal; the grassroots hyper-social being who ignores her detractors while character-assassinating her close friends: my friend Iman introduced all of this to Arabic poetry. But since she did so, perhaps inevitably, all of this has been done and redone to shreds, with only the least original voices, ironically, conforming to Locust stereotypes (“the Nineties Generation” is routinely bundled under labels like Everyday Poetics and Writing of the Body, the latter so meaningless when applied to Iman it tends, more than others, to incense her).
In fact, by 1997, when her next book came out, my friend Iman had in many ways left the Mersalesque behind. Some elements of the Nineties’ discourse will inevitably persist: eagerness to shock the middle-class reader, for example, is still occasionally in evidence even now. But the young belle “dressed as a sixteenth-century French princess” (as the amorphous “I” in my friend Iman’s poems begins, implausibly, to imagine itself in dreams: an abiding and enigmatic image) has already razed one or two conceptions of how to live. It is as if Iman kills one self so that another can mourn it, yet miraculously, as it seems – not a shade of nostalgia in the ensuing elegy.
A University of Alberta assistant professor in Edmonton, Canada, is remembering her lover of the late Nineties – “the young novelist” we will see in the leukemia ward in his death throes before 30, before what she implies in A Dark Alley should be the official age of loneliness – when suddenly he is supplanted by the image of another, a pianist she is walking next to in Boston: the man she lives with now, whom she has married and had a child by (later she will have another child). The images roll as if in an antique peepshow she is trying out at her clean, un-Third World-like, non-smoking office. There, a student whose voice she is drawn to touches “the head of a Cleopatra strung up on a chain around her neck”, a pendant bought for her by the same dead lover, the young novelist, and immediately (later she will find out the same student has actually killed himself), the assistant professor is asking questions:
The soul rises to the sky,
and they say the body is mortal.
Where does the voice go? [...]
Why did I not write about you?
Because I never loved you, is that why I cannot believe your death?
Because I love you and so it is fair that you die?
Because you do not deserve my elegy [...]
Because I am not worthy of elegizing you as long as I am alive?
Because the pianist in the upstairs room is hitting the black keys? (Alternative Geography, 2006)
Mersal’s first book, Ittisafat or “Characterisations”, published in 1990, was written in free verse; the stylistic departure of A Dark Alley was already a bold step: With the debate at its height on whether or not Arabic poetry could or should be written in prose, she had to overcome resistance to take it. Yet within two years, she is once again migrating, imperceptibly but surely, into newer territory. In the mostly longer texts of Walking As Long As Possible – in some ways Mersal’s own favourite, though it was not received with the same enthusiasm as A Dark Alley – the “I” seems to be mulling over “shocking” ideas and images – confessions of infidelity, morbid fixations, nihilistic retorts – that were more articulately constructed but somehow less inward-looking, less “experimental”, in the previous book:
My friends’ pores are open to writing new poems
about the freedom of dying without warning,
and about the relief that fills us
when learning that someone
we did not have time to love
has died. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)
Not having time to love: it may be presumptuous to think that, when she writes this, the poetess means it in a literal way. She is fond of dismissing her interest in metaphor, to her mind no more significant to what poetry isthan the metric structures she rid herself of early on. Again and again the child geek returns, with all the insurgent energy of the munadilah, theactivist committed to the Struggle and the Poor, now directed not at the campus demonstration or the communist-Islamist scuffle at the Mansoura Literature Club but at the apartment door, the office desk, the bed in the bedroom. Exhibitionism tempered by almost sapient observation breaks the boundaries of the world, destroys it, but holds on plaintively to the ruins. Perhaps there is no wisdom in the Struggle (that much Comrade Iman already knew), none but the most hollow wisdom in the heroism of refusing to be walked home; but old habits die hard. By the time she returns to writing (or publishing: I think she was writing all along, she just happens to be pathologically timorous about showing her work), Professor Mersal seems to be saying there is not much wisdom in marriage or motherhood either. At the closest she has come to a true break with solitude and pain, something very like herself is betraying her again. And again, in “Sex”, for example, she is, with a magnificent effortlessness, channelling the weight of that thing into words:
The world wears a nightgown cut above the knee,
and for a whole night the world doesn’t check the time
as if it has nothing to wait for.
The old tragedy
will end here to start behind another window. (Alternative Geography, 1997)
[translation partly altered based on the original Arabic]
To her distress, when Alternative Geography appeared, critics on the whole failed to notice just how far Mersal had come. But already, in Walking, you can see language taking on (literal) depth as the impulses become more explicit; only, since they are also more humorous and wrapped up in miniature epics of the self, it is their mystery that comes through.
In “To Cross Between Two Rooms”, an elegy for a Mother never so named, the Father-God is openly mocked in a way He has not been before, but the passage is surrounded by so much else – the insect-extermination session with which the poem opens, leaving the speaker “the only living soul in the house”, apparitions of “the scrawny woman” who lived (or died) with Him, His job as a schoolteacher correcting the grammar of the proletariat – that it strikes an ambiguous, not a shocking chord:
When the house next door burns down
it means He has exhaled a blessing upon it.
His caress of the scrawny woman
led to her death from the joy in His fingers.
His perfection… His glory… His omnipotence…
I know all His old attributes. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)
Mersal is no longer scandalising her newly discovered individual self, whether or not “to hide behind it” (as she says in one Dark Alley poem). In austere but never discordant tones, she is humming a dolorous song of periodic self destruction, collecting the debris rather than celebrating beginnings. She is paying homage to a treadmill of solitude in which she seems paradoxically comfortable while neither Friend nor Lover can give solace. Much later, in Alternative Geography, her most recent book, that treadmill takes her to a striking moment in which – now an immigrant in an asylum room in Edmonton after some kind of breakdown – Mersal sees herself as a museum piece:
Why did she come to the New World, this mummy, this subject of spectacle
sleeping in her full ornament of gray gauze,
an imaginary life in a museum display case? (Alternative Geography, 2006)
I read and reread this question. The more I think about Mersal’s immigration, the more I am convinced it cannot be said otherwise.
Introducing These Are Not Oranges, My Love, Mersal’s translator the poet Khaled Mattaw says the nine-year gap between Walking and Alternative Geography “saw her through marriage, relocation to North America, and parenthood”. While the gap did make time for all this, I suspect what it actually saw her through was the painful construction of a world and a self unlike anything she had known prior to her departure in 1999. Less significantly for her writing than for her sense of identity – a state of being I like to imagine, with un-Mersalesque whimsy, as the troubled surface of a Delta village canal – this new world included not only snow-marked native Americans, émigrés and refugees, literary celebrities, good-looking Frenchmen, even Slovenian poets but also, at the centre – and contentiously for a large part of the Faisal-like world she left behind – Jews: an absurd contention, but contention enough.
The day she first presented her doctoral thesis on images of America in Arab travel writing – it happened to coincide with the invasion of Baghdad in April 2003; and Cairo University, where she chose to work, was abuzz with Arab nationalist sentiment – Mersal walked home crying. Such was the hostility she met with for not railing – off-point, from the academic perspective – against the crimes of the Greater Devil (as Khomeini called the US, comparing it with the Lesser Devil of Israel). After North America, she could no longer speak that language. Specifically, she could not crassly take the moral high ground in the usual, more or less racist tones of fellow grassroots hyper-social beings. Just why should the cost in loss of personal sympathy and understanding still be high enough for tears? There were unrelated dislocations, of course: moments of absolute alienation with her new life; one abortive attempt at returning to live in Egypt; an unpredictable and untimely death; the elderly therapist with whom she valued her “exercises in solitude” enough to call one poem “Dr Levy”. Perhaps Mersal invested more this time, perhaps she cannot bring down the life she is now living as resolutely as she did her previous lives?
I suspect she has embarked on the task.
For a while it seems a person is gone. I don’t mean just “a person”: a figure, a presence, the idea of a friend who exists in a particular way at a particular place or time. When that returns, it is still recognisable, but different enough to make recognition a creative process, not quite an effort of will but definitely an exercise of trust. Something like this cycle defines the work of Iman Mersal, which as a result seems a little apart from the small eternities we call Literature, those stylised subjects of spectacle that, aiming for immortality, end up immodestly omnipresent. When at a difficult moment, Iman Mersal said “I have something to say to the world,” the statement might have sounded narcissistic. In her voice it rung true. The rule is that you need to hear it as much as she needs to say it, and have as much difficulty coming to terms with the fact. That is the game Iman Mersal is playing, less with writing than with life. She speaks to people, not to language, not to “gender”, not to history. What she says is what she is, and for this she must continue to become. Being someone else is a wish she never tires of expressing. She won’t succeed, but her writing is the attempt: the game she plays with herself in order to give meaning to something or someone.
The notion of Writing as Game is making the rounds of Cairo literary circles. Many young novelists point out that, instead of expressing the political commitments and grand narratives of the Sixties, what they are doing is enjoying the game of literature, the sport of testing out ideas and emotions and seeing what happens. They speak of their work, of course: what they do on the computer screen or the page, not how they exist apart from them. I doubt if they realise this game can also be played with life itself, or that, when it is, it produces writing of an entirely different kind.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha