Three Girls on Mother’s Day ❀ ثلاث بنات في عيد الأم

2013-02-16 18.57.36

الشخص الثالث
“نملية” مطبخها عامرة بالمسلّمات. لكن هناك دُرجاً أعمق من إحساسها بالصواب، مخصصاً لبذرة الرجل الذي ترى في وجهي كيف خيّب رجاءها قبل أن يموت (لولا ضرورة الخروج من بيت أهلها، لماذا كانت ستحمل بذرة هذا الرجل بالذات؟ ولولا أنه يرى الإنجاب جريمة، هل كانت ستكتفي بطفل واحد؟) في شعلة سخان الغاز-مصانع القوات المسلحة، نفس غيظها من “دش” مؤجل منذ أدركتْ أن هذا الرجل، فتى أحلامها الوحيد الممكن، يراوده الانتحار. وبماذا كانت تحس وأنا أستنشق النهد العبقري لحبيبة تكرهها في الغرفة المجاورة؟ حين تكتشف كم من النقود أنفقتُ في ليلة واحدة، وأكون لازلت نائماً في الرابعة مساءً، تغضب على رَجُلِها قبل أن “تلوشني”. ويظل تشنّج نبرتها حتى يذوب القرف على وجهها في حزن يكبرني بثلاثين عاماً. أتذكر أنها فعلاً أحبته، ولا شيء بعده في البيت أكبر منها سناً. فأسترجع التنهيدة التي ترسلها كل ليلة وهي تُخرج الزبالة، متفننة في حماية الأكياس البلاستك من القطط الجائعة حتى لا يتسخ مدخل الشقة التي لم تكن أبداً برجوازية بما يواكب تطلعاتها. وأسأل نفسي بحيرة: هل يقرّبنا أم يبعدنا الميت الواقف وراء الباب؟

Continue reading

E-cards for Mohammad Rabie

Mohammad Rabie, Kawkab ‘Anbar, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2010

BOOKSHOP: When a book signing ends up feeling like an engineers’ reunion, it makes you think not of structure but of paranoia. There is the architectural analogy, that is true (and in Arabic an architect is literally an “architectural engineer”). But by now it is something of a cliché: the stringing together of narrative is, anyway, nothing like the construction of buildings; character, dialogue and pacing, the poetry of scene and sentence, have little to do with design. Of course, engineers deal with electric circuits as well as building plans, pistons and pulleys, drills, computers, equations, frames and frameworks, all kinds of objects that can have metaphorical relevance to the writing process. But metaphors only go so far most of the time, and for many of us writing is a profession in its own right – in danger of being taken over! A month or so ago, a shortish novel longish by recent young-writer standards, Kawkab ‘Anbar (the name means “Amber Planet”), drew into the Kotob Khan Bookshop, where it emerged during a workshop with Yasser Abdel-Latif, what seemed like a range of people interested in new writing. The main speaker was a critic but apart from one dentist (the promising young poet Ahmad Nada), almost everyone turned out to be an engineer – civil, mechanical, hydraulic, electrical. For a moment it seemed as though a mafia of those lever-wielding un-poets were ambushing the literary sphere, infiltrating writerly circles all across the city, befriending with a view to replacing true writers and eventually, well – eliminating them. I would not stand for it! Thus I directed my malicious glances to the person at the centre of all this, the author of the book, Mohammad Rabie: born in 1978, a practising, yes – practising civil engineer since his graduation from university in 2001, to his friends he is actually known as Rabie, since there are too many Mohammads in this part of the world. For a moment Rabie did look like the don of some magic realist mafia. The beauty of paranoia is that it impounds reason. It was only a moment, but for its duration I was convinced there really was a mafia who gathered at construction sites to draw up plans of attack for literary world domination. I seemed to forget that Rabie was among the most personable people of his generation I had met, a writer with talent regardless of what else he does, totally innocuous.

I spend a lot of time in bookshops. I read the blurbs on the back covers, sometimes the introductions as well. I think hard before I buy. I hate crowded bookshops where I feel no sense of privacy. That’s why Kotob Khan is the perfect place for me. I also hate bookshops where attendants materialise the moment you walk in asking you what you want. It’s insolent. But as I say Kotob Khan was a perfect place to do this. Yasser Abdel-Latif did not interfere very much at all. Since the beginning he was careful about giving the participants just as much autonomy as they needed. Still, I think he managed to slip in ideas and sentences. There were parts he was largely dissatisfied with and I worked on those. What he insisted on was that there should be a dramatic line linking the events in the book, which is what I set out to do from the beginning. All of which was of course very helpful to me; and I think the fact that the participants thought alike and had a similar orientation was the main factor behind the success of the workshop. I think that any text with dramatic lines is a novel, but that is not why I set out to write one. The novel isn’t always the ideal format. The short story is another appropriate format. The novel is appropriate for multiple characters and many events. It is also a genre that suits chatter and gossip. The characters allow the writer to say all that they want indirectly, and there is space for imagination: to create cities and documents and languages, perhaps an alternative history. But the short story is extremely enjoyable for me. Concision and economy of means are two things I particularly enjoy; and the story is appropriate for describing a moment or a situation or a day in the life if its hero. The decision to write a novel is made after a few pages, perhaps before you start writing, but I think the time frame remains the principal factor. That is why this book is a novel, in the end, because that is the way the idea developed and the way I imagined it would spread over time. Sometimes I imagine a new form even more economical than the short story, through which to condense events that are spread out over long periods of time to the greatest extent possible. But all my attempts at achieving this form have been miserable.


CYBERSPACE: Until March 2008, there was in fact another Mohammad Rabie who was not an engineer: the author of outrageous novels about sex and religion in contemporary Cairo which he Xeroxed and handed out by hand. That other Rabie died in a Camus-ian accident at the age of 33. This Rabie, by contrast, is actually a blogger; he started out on the internet – a consequence, perhaps, of his background being non-literary. But the existence of another novelist born in the same year with the exact same name seems if nothing else pertinent to the kind of writing the author of Kawkab ‘Anbar is interested in practising. Unlike his namesake, Rabie is less interested in the immediate affects of language as he is in its ability to create a sustainable world. Unlike so many Arab writers – the vast majority, in fact, from the Sixties until recently – he wants to tell a story. He wants to use his imagination, engage with a concept or an idea, breathe life into a calculated structure. He does not want to evoke, imply, explore the possibilities of language as such. He does not want to wax lyrical, much less rhetorical. He does not want to wax. His object is a tale, and the function of reality – language as well as people who emerge through its use – is to flesh out that tale. In this as much as his cyber presence as a blogger and a micro-blogger (many were saddened when Rabie, shortly after the aforementioned signing, deactivated his Facebook account), Rabie is representative of the closest thing to a generation or a movement since the prose poets of the Nineties: writers who might be called the Twothousanders but not only because they started publishing after 2000. People like Nael El-Toukhy, Ahmad Nagui and (to a lesser extent) Mohammad Kheir and Mohammad Abdelnaby also share something more profound. They are all internet-savvy, down-to-earth agents of subversion as interested in things as they are in people and as closely connected to pop culture, communications technology and the global media as they are to literary history. Kundera is their Balzak, Mahfouz their Greek tragedy. They are cynics and jokers and glorifiers of what they refer to (admittedly often with ignorance) as kitsch. By and large they eschew poetry; and until the Egyptian quasi-literary blogging craze fizzled out, many of them professed to eschew print publication. They may not always have as much access to non-Arabic culture as they claim or desire, but their position is truly postmodern in the sense that they own and disown many histories at once; they don’t have a problem revolving around the commodity as a mode of being; they don’t have a problem with commodification. In short, they live mentally in our times – and they try to do it unselfconsciously.

I think the appropriate literary climate is one that is free of groups, schools and especially this concept of generations. Anyway it is the critics’ job to classify, I cannot claim to belong to a particular generation myself. As for my link with technology, I write directly onto the computer, but the initial ideas I jot down by hand, on a piece of paper, in a pocket notebook – that doesn’t matter, but it has to be on paper. I read the news online, I think the internet is a more efficient medium for news and short articles. But it can be a disastrous medium as far as literature is concerned. Paper will live on for a long time yet. Now there are e-book readers and I don’t see a difference between them and books, they have the advantage of taking up less space and weight. But visually they are very like books and they don’t have the distractions of the computer especially when it is connected to the internet. On the whole the only reason you would resort to electronic publishing is if you are unable to publish on paper. But the internet is completely inappropriate for a novel. A short story, a poem may work on the internet but nothing longer. My blog was an experiment that lasted for a long time. I had wanted to write a large text and the blog was my training ground. I thought I would use to train until it was time to write that large text. I had no preconceptions about what would happen to the novel after it was published. I didn’t think much of sales but I wanted it to be translated into other languages – imagine the translator’s predicament when they work on a text that finds fault with the very act of translation! Otherwise I was worried about the responses to it but those have been mostly encouraging. A few months after I completed it I already feel the novel has wrenched itself away from me and acquired its own being. It’s like a child of mine who’s grown up and leads their own life. My presence online was very important, it worked as indirect publicity for the novel. Many were waiting for it after I announced several times that it would be coming out. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I was present on the net, frankly, because I was used to being there. But my friend Marwa Rakha eventually drew my attention to the fact that it was good publicity.

LIBRARY: Kawkab ‘Anbar is the story of the eponymous, little known library (named after its original owner’s wife), a public endowment in Abbassiya on the verge of being demolished to make way for a new underground Metro line. It is told by Shahir, the endowments official who is sent there on a month-long assignment to put together a report on the library – a perfunctory, routine procedure intended to facilitate the forgone conclusion of its demolition by establishing that, all things considered, there is no reason for it to remain standing. Shahir is a young intellectual who, aware of the Kafkaesque futility of his task, is nonetheless quickly caught up in the mystery and madness of what turns out to be a Borgesian space of astounding quirkiness, initially through the existential endeavour of giving his task the semblance of credibility by searching in the library for anything of value. since he is “an old reader”, as his boss describes him in the opening, he looks – a little too earnestly for comfort – among the library’s uncannily surprising collection, eclectic as it is obscure. A string of clues leads Shahir to the two impossible ideas at the centre of the story (impossible, I mean, in the Borgesian sense, although Rabie does not delve as deeply into philosophy). First, there is a book written in a private or a nonexistent language, Luij al Sayrafini’s Creatures, translations of which have nonetheless been produced. Secondly, there is a device or a machine – invented and installed here by the owner – which is capable of producing a perfect translation of any and every book, including even Sayrafini’s, into any and every language. Rabie’s point is that, while it is possible to imagine these two things, their existence would anyway be pointless if not downright evil. He does not say it in so many words, but translation is a form of multiplying knowledge, and as such it is essentially an abomination, like Borges’s mirror, a curse. The story is also told by Dr Sayed: an arguably unnecessary complication, this, since Shahir’s voice alone would have made the essentially plot-driven, murder mystery-like narrative easier to follow. Dr Sayed is an older scholar, a cryptologist from the age of Nasser whose presence justifies all kinds of forays back into the Sixties, with passages on the real-life culture minister Tharwat Okashah, for example: an encyclopedic intellectual enamoured of both translation and classification. He is an obsessive and venomous, Dr Sayed, a quaint old cynic who enjoys watching others suffer. He knows Kawkab Anbar’s secrets but does not reveal them to Shahir. His voice gives a grotesque impression of the characters Shahir must tamper with on the way: among others, the library director, an old bureaucratic rival of Shahir’s boss; and the elderly translator who for many years has been reproducing, at first by hand, his own copies of the strange tomes that live here …

I meant the idea of translation itself, it is not a metaphor for anything else. I imagine that a complete, perfect translation is nonexistent. It is not something that people disagree much about that translation is always faulty to some extent, or that some translations are injurious to the original text. I don’t mean to imply that the text is holy. I mean simply that the ideas in a given text, which are easily understood and habitual if not stereotypical in their own language, might come across as something completely different or offensive once they have been rendered in a different language. Cultural interaction will happen anyway, but I think it happens in a more effective way through interaction with the other language without the medium of translation. That is not of course to say that translation is unnecessary, but it can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness. In translation it is much easier to stumble. This is of course the central tenet that I wanted to play with in the novel. There was no particular reason to use two voices, although I would not have wanted an omniscient narrator. But it just happened that way. First it flowed in the voice of Shahir, for weeks I worked on it in that voice. But then the voice of Sayed arrived and it forced me to work it in and give up on Shahir temporarily. But it was not technically necessary, there are ways to introduce perspectives into the texts – you add discourses or digressions, even footnotes as in the case of Mohammad Mustagab. Perhaps it is simply that writing the characters in their own voices, in as many of them as you can, makes them more alive. I do not have a clearly defined project as such because my ideas are always changing. Some ideas dog me for a long time but then they evaporate and seem naïve. Other ideas do not evaporate, and they may be just as naïve and laughable but if you think long and hard enough about anything it makes that thing highly valuable to me. I was surprised when friends told me about influences they thought they could see in the book: Naguib Mahfouz, for example, and then Saramago in All the Names, Eco in The Name of the Rose. All three are among my favourite authors in fact so it makes me proud for people to liken my work to theirs. Mahfouz was well organised and very patient which are things that I lack and would benefit from a great deal. Eco has encyclopedic erudition that is obviously beyond me but his writing is also extremely professional and I doubt if I will ever attain that level. I would also mention Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Gamal El-Ghitani in Khutat Al-Ghitani and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in Virgo. It amazes me how much the Iraqi writer Ali Badr and I can think alike, which is why I try to read everything to find out if it’s been done before. For a while now I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the historian: if the translator falsifies unwittingly, the historian does it on purpose, more or less and, well – just imagine the possible implications of that fact for fiction.

Review and interview by Youssef Rakha


Enhanced by Zemanta

Empty Feeling: The Vagaries of the Sixties

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
Dh90

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.

the-national-logo1.jpg

Ars Poetica-1

prometheus-2011-06-18-20-14.jpg

Let us not mention names: Some time before the transformation that almost happened six months ago in Egypt, a Ministry of Culture poetry journal decided to append a booklet of prose poetry to one of its issues. I am not sure when exactly, but this journal was once prestigious. Or so at least the prose poets who were excited to be included in the selection believed.

They spoke of effort and legitimacy, of belated gratitude, of being recognized by the establishment. They accused each other of stealing “ideas for poems”, to maximize their chance of being featured. They reiterated their usual laments about the general public being too ignorant and underdeveloped to appreciate their talent. It sounded as if they were about to achieve all that they had ever lived for.

Like much about the Ministry of Culture, however, by the time it decided to celebrate prose poetry the prestigious journal in question had long fallen into a state of zombification, barely even pretending to act as the high-brow beacon of poetic vitality it was supposed to be.

It pandered to more or less extinct tastes, forwarded the reactionary agenda of its editor in chief (whose foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against the validity of prose as a medium for poetry had made his name synonymous with Last Verse Dinosaur) and, because it eschewed the most successful poetry being written for the last two decades — i.e., prose poetry — it was hardly ever read.

That did not matter much to the poets being featured: those of them who were unduly enthusiastic about the prospect, I mean. What mattered was — this was the prestigious Ministry of Culture poetry journal…

Unlike lowest-common-denominator, low-brow “political” verse, it is true, prose poetry is only popular with a very small, “specialized” readership. That is because technical archaicness combined with ideological polemics has proved to be the only winning brew with the general public — but not archaicness combined with intellectual pretension!

That latter brew, as events would demonstrate, found repulsively unethical expression in the person of the same journal’s managing editor, a younger species of dinosaur, who with much misleading fanfare commissioned the prose-poetry supplement, only to turn around and cry, once the booklet appeared — and in the very same issue’s editorial — What a load of rubbish! Do you now see that I only published it the better to expose it to your subtly sublime sensibilities.
screen-capture-2011-06-18-20-14.png

Enhanced by Zemanta

A streetcar named diwan

Status

Wa Qassa’id Ukhra (And other poems), Ahmad Shafie, Beirut: Dar an-Nahda, 2009

A whole new diwan? Maybe. No, yes. If such a thing exists. In a sort of anti-introduction to the book, his third, the Oman-based Egyptian poet Ahmad (Salih) Shafie (b. 1977) considers an older, colloquial sense of diwan, the contemporary word for a book of poems and the traditional word for a poet’s corpus – which, born of Farsi, can mean: court, cabinet (as in vizirate), compendium – and is, in Latin letters, the name of Egypt’s first quasi-bourgeois bookshop chain. In breadth and in tone, And other poems is the complete life’s work of a poet. In other ways it negates completeness in either work or life. The deadpan title captures an essence more reminiscent of Cortazar than of Ashbery, whose influence the book cites. Shafie is a student of literature with several volumes’ worth of translation from American English on one shoulder. He writes a crisp Arabic less like the poetry than the narrative of the Generation of the Nineties; less like Ahmad Yamani (b. 1970) than Haytham El-Wardany (b. 1972) or Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966). Or so I (b. 1976) am thinking. But language aside, he is in radio contact with the great prose poets of the 20th  century. From Sargon Boulos (1944-2007) and Mohammad Al-Maghout (1934-2006), he takes clever self-indulgence, emotional flair. An even more important thing: He shares the ability of Wadih Saadeh (b. 1948) to make nature or the city self-referential without letting the metaphors, insolent bastards, show off what they stand for with impunity. Nihilism: a proposition of the Nineties seldom followed through. It finds hermeneutical expression in the way a poem about poetry begins to be about something else before it becomes not so much even about poetry as simply about itself, definitively: I didn’t find the poetry where I left it. Nor did it surprise me as a cloud in the atmosphere of the room. Nor even as poems on my desk. But the room. When I came back. Was very much waiting for me. It opened two lashes heavy with drink, it opened two arms heavy with drink. And it said: Imagine me, imagine me please. A whole diwan out of – itself? That was a complete poem, by the way. It varies in length. But how? Like many in the book, including one that explains the fact, it has no title. It does not even have the word “untitled” for a title.

On one shoulder only. The other bears this diwan, or maybe the private journals of its author, an identification he even suggests: I will consider myself successful the day my poetry notebook becomes the notebook of my journals, but I will not know then what it is that I am successful at. And the sense of diwan Shafie considers? Somehow I forgot to mention that. Yes: In old Egyptian films, we find that the diwan contains seats, not poems, and is contained by a train. How beautiful that a library should flit past, carrying all the diwans. Or maybe I got carried away. Shafie introducing his work is Shafie already writing, which is one difference at least between him and other, inevitably older prose poets. He does not style prose into poetry; he pours poetry all over the place. Questions its existence, humiliates it, all but disbelieves its existence. Then it becomes prose. Seriously. But now you will think that Shafie is scatter-brained and verbose, that the lack of propriety and the prosaicness, the scepticism which is the missing finger of nihilism, reflect good old Egyptian lack of rigour. It is not true. This diwan is free of haiku. This diwan is pitiable. Shafie spits on the idol stands of the poetic, yes. But Shafie is cerebral and precise; he is logical. No, he is Borgesian: I was blind in the dream. And in front of me was a wall that changed before me. While I drew cracks into it and filled them with geckos. And I saw the geckos move, breed, and die. I saw their children and they had colours that were unimaginable. And I witnessed their bodies tearing. I was a blind man who saw everything. And here I am as awake as can be in a world where seeing is no longer proof of the abnegation of blindness. That, maybe, is the beauty of Shafie’s nihilism: its purpose is not to cover up lack of effort or of talent. It is authentic. That is the first and the least interesting thing he stands out for. I am not sure why I mention it. I am eager to find reasons to like what I like. Maybe. What I like and am trying to evoke in the way I write about it. I am eager to beef up my respect for Shafie. Without calling him postmodern.

Somehow I forgot to mention something else. Yes. A history-of-literature digression. It is about the Nineties. There was a flowering of poetry then. Shafie – I too – came later. The poetry of the Nineties claimed to be individualistic and pluralistic and subversive. That is why it is a reference point. Or because there is nothing else to refer to. It was not the earliest Arabic poetry in prose, but the literary establishment had the perspective of a wounded dinosaur and in a short-lived anti-establishment journal named The Locusts, prose was proclaimed a revolution. All sorts of things were said: We spit on Ideology; We are the Margin; We are not clones of each other (but really we might as well be); We write as we live. Many did not live in any particular way, however. So lives turned into after-the-fact dramatisations of not-very-original poems, which were before-it-could-happen manuals about the life. Belonging in a ghetto undermined individualism. An ideology grew. The margin became a route back to the establishment. Or an establishment in its right, with all the prehistoric and reptilian qualities of establishments. No, the Nineties are at best a starting point. Shafie’s authenticity may be due to the fact that his personal life, contrary to personal life in the Nineties, is not make-believe. In the diwan I dream of every poem remains a world complete in itself until the next one comes along and drops something on it like a soft rain which brings out plants that do not grow tall and washes walls and makes the eyes happy and so does the next one. And so on until the last poem comes along and it is not the end point but like Ahmad after Salih after Shafie and on the other hand Basho and Pessoa and everyone. Things have changed since the Nineties. The beauty of that poem is proof. It is hard to match a specific discourse to a specific personage. I am thinking of editorials and interviews, quasi-manifestos. I am thinking of many poets and critics who may no longer believe what they were saying then and may never have believed it at all. It sounds cool and that is repulsive. The point being: Shafie transcends it.

Individualistic, pluralistic and subversive: Shafie does occasionally fall into common Nineties traps. These include the tendency to end a text with an abstract or a pithy statement that leaves you feeling as if the writer, through a text he drew you into with the opposite of such things, has imparted wisdom or vision. Not ironically, not in line with an overarching question posed by the book. But not very meaningfully either, since everything that came before the statement points to a climax of confusion and meaninglessness: The rhythm that life moves to in imagination is exquisite, no true dancer can resist it. Then it feels right to snort or, in true Nineties style, spout a stream of half-obscure obscenities and run. Snorting or something like it is very rude in Egypt. Seriously, meaninglessness can be very desirable in poetry. And what on earth could that dancer be or evoke. Life as a dance? Blah. Rhythm! But the pithy finale is hardly an issue with Shafie. Sometimes it works for him. Especially when it is not a finale: “I and the rest” This is the definition of the universe. “My room and what surrounds it” This is not the definition of the world. What other traps, then? There is a sense in which the Nineties is a reaction to the Generation of the Seventies whose poetry was all about Modernist (sic.) aesthetics and/or Marxist (et al) engagement. It was ugly, the Seventies. It was cumbersome and complicated and demagogic and boring. And it left the Nineties infuriated. Snorting and spouting streams of half-obscure obscenities. Hating ideology so much they became ideological. And so thoroughly opposed to Modernism (sic.) they became postmodern before they knew what that meant. Either. Now there is a sense in which Shafie is a reaction to the Nineties. Much milder, admittedly. Perhaps not so much a reaction as a response. He builds on the substance in much Nineties work. The trap is thematic. Shafie writes about himself. His life, whatever that means. He writes about writing. He writes about the world as part of those things. He does not write about society or people or God or time or relationships. I mean he does, but not explicitly or not as much as he might. At a certain point while turning the pages of this diwan you will feel that Shafie is involuntarily paying lip service to Nineties edicts: the importance of unimportant things, the need for euphemism, veiled seriousness, ennui, the horror of anything relevant to more than three people. The false modesty of hiding under the podium when all you want to do is eloquently address the audience. If you are me or like me, you will notice Shafie paying lip service to these edicts. And you will appreciate the fact that he is not following them.

Sometimes it works for him. Most of the time. But the pithy finale works through transcending itself. It works through not being what it is. That is true of a lot of things in this book. Magic or sorcery or both. And Shafie has other tricks that work even better. Out of the work of Yamani and Yasser Abdellatif (b. 1969), for example, he coaxes one very latent but fascinating trope. In the middle of the intimate and minute liquids that suffuse the early texts of those two survivors of the Nineties, you sometimes spot something solid that aspires to epic or myth. They refer to nature or ancestry to place themselves in a grander scheme. It is almost Whitmanseque. The uncharted continent. It recalls One Hundred Years of Solitude and Eduardo Galeano. And Shafie does it more often in more ways. He does it with more humour. Yes, somehow I forgot to mention Shafie’s salutary humour. He does it with the nonchalance of someone who has built an insignificant but imperishable diwan into the iron body of the bibliographic locomotive. After the dust which was very thick settled, there was nothing but a red balloon blown up with tears. Alone on a whole horizon the colour of ice. The dust due to a dinosaur that was running and before it the humans running. And then the humans running and before them a herd of wildebeest running. And then the humans running, nothing before them, nothing behind. And suddenly a paved road and the vehicles that ran and are running and will run, with the dust. This time. Less of it and longer-lasting and suffocating to the poet and the romantic and the provincial… Or again: My ancestors did not know the alphabet. And while on their way they cast their arrows all of them and nonetheless did not catch the sky in the form of a hedgehog. Thus they did not go to war or hunting. And they did not bequeath words on me. And the stones they left me as stones, not coloured or carved. And my ancestors were defeated by everyone but they did not deprive them of the bewilderment in their eyes or anything. Their eldest gouged out his eyes one night and cried “The sky is still blue.” And he threw everything into the Nile except his soul. And they did not write his story for where is the story. Nor did they invent the alphabet. Now I am going to stop writing. I had a lot more to say. There is no need to tell anyone that Shafie’s diwan goes on.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Infrarealist Manifesto

GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN

first infrarealist manifesto

“It’s four light hours to the confines of the solar system; to the closest star, four light years. A disproportionate ocean of emptiness. But are we really sure there is only a void? We only know that there are no stars shining in that space. If they existed, would they be visible? And if there existed bodies that are neither luminous nor dark? Could it not be that on the celestial maps, the same as on those of Earth, the star-cities are indicated and the star-villages are omitted?”

— Soviet science fiction writers scratching their faces at midnight.

— The infrasuns (Drummond would say the happy proletarian fellows).

Peguero and Boris alone in a lumpen room having premonitions of the wonder behind the door.

— Free money.

*

Who has crossed the city and had, as the only music, the whistles of his fellow man, his own words of wonder and rage?

The handsome guy who didn’t know

that chicks’ orgasms are clitoral

(Look around, shit isn’t just in museums.) (A process of individual museumification.) (Certainty that everything is named, revealed.) (Fear of discovering.) (Fear of unforeseen imbalances.)

*

Our closest relatives:

snipers, country boys who smash up cheap cafés in Latin America, people who fall apart in supermarkets in their tremendous individuo-collective dilemmas; the impotence of action and the search (on individual levels or good and muddy with aesthetic contradictions) for poetic action.

*

Little bright stars eternally winking an eye at us from a place in the universe called Labyrinths.

— Nightclub of misery.

— Pepito Tequila sobbing his love for Lisa Underground.

— I suck it, you suck it, we suck it.

— And the Horror.

*

Curtains of water, cement or tin separate a cultural machinery that serves as the conscience or the ass of the dominant class from a living, annoying cultural happening, in constant death and birth, ignorant of the greater part of history and the fine arts (everyday creator of its insane history and its hallucinatory fine artz), body that suddenly feels new sensations in itself, product of an epoch in which we approach the shithouse or the revolution at 200 kph.

“New forms, strange forms,” as old Bertolt said, half curious, half cheerful.

*

Sensations don’t arise from nothingness (the obvious of obviousnesses) but from conditioned reality, in a thousand ways, as a constant flow.

— Multiple reality, you make us sick!

So it is possible that on the one hand one is born and on the other hand we’re in the front row for the death throes. Forms of life and forms of death pass daily through the retina. The constant crash gives life to infrarealist forms: THE EYE OF TRANSITION

*

They put the whole city in the nuthouse. Sweet sister, tank howls, hermaphrodite songs, diamond deserts, we’ll live only once and the visions, more complicated and slippery every day. Sweet sister, hitchhiking to Monte Albán[i]. Unbuckling their belts to water the corpses. It’s something at least.

*

And the good bourgeois culture? And academia and the arsonists? And the vanguard and its rearguard? And certain conceptions of love, nice scenery, the precise multinational Colt sidearm?

Like Saint-Just[ii] said to me in a dream I had a while ago: Even the heads of aristocrats can be our weapons.

*

— A good part of the world is being born and the other part is dying and we all know that we all have to live and we all die: in this there is no middle road.

Chirico[iii] says: thought needs to move away from everything called logic and common sense, to move away from all human obstacles in such a way that things take on a new look, as though illuminated by a constellation appearing for the first time. The infrarealists say: We’re going to stick our noses into all human obstacles, in such a way that things begin to move inside of us, a hallucinatory vision of mankind.

— The Constellation of the Beautiful Bird.

— The infrarealists propose Indianism to the world: a crazy, timid Indian.

— A new lyricism that’s beginning to grow in Latin America sustains itself in ways that never cease to amaze us. The entrance to the work is the entrance to adventure: the poem as a journey and the poet as a hero who reveals heroes. Tenderness as an exercise in speed. Respiration and heat. Experience shot, structures that devour themselves, insane contradictions.

The poet is interfering, the reader will have to interfere for himself.

“erotic books full of misspellings”

*

The THOUSAND DRAWN-AND-QUARTERED VANGUARDS OF THE SEVENTIES are our ancestors

99 flowers open like an open head

Slaughters, new concentration camps

White subterranean rivers, violet winds

These are hard times for poetry, some say, sipping tea, listening to music in their apartments, talking (listening) to the old masters. These are hard times for mankind, we say, coming back to the barricades after a workday full of shit and tear gas, discovering/creating music even in apartments, spending all day watching the cemeteries-that-expand, where they hopelessly drink a cup of tea or get drunk on pure rage or the inertia of the old masters.

HORA ZERO[iv] are our ancestors

((Raise arsonist kids, get burned))

We’re still in the Quaternary Period. We’re still in the Quaternary Period?

Pepito Tequila kisses the phosphorescent nipples of Lisa Underground and heads off for a beach where black pyramids sprout up.

*

I repeat:

The poet as a hero who reveals heroes, like the fallen red tree that announces the start of a forest.

— Attempts at an ethic-aesthetic are paved with betrayals or pathetic survivals.

— And it is the individual who could walk a thousand kilometers but inevitably the road will eat him.

— Our ethic is the Revolution, our aesthetic is Life: one-and-the-same.

*

For the bourgeoisie and the petite-bourgeoisie, life is a party. They have one every weekend. The proletariat doesn’t have parties. Just funerals with rhythm. That’s going to change. The exploited are going to throw a big party. Memory and guillotines. Sensing it, acting it out on certain nights, inventing edges and humid corners for it, like caressing the acid eyes of the new spirit.

*

Movement of the poem through the seasons of rebellion: poetry producing poets producing poems producing poetry. No electric alley/the poet with his arms separated from his body/the poem moving slowly from his Vision to his Revolution. The alley is a complex point. “We’re going to invent it so as to discover its contradiction, its invisible forms of negation, even to clarify it.” A journey of the act of writing through zones not at all favorable to the act of writing.

Rimbaud, come home!

Subvert the everyday reality of modern poetry. The chains that lead to the poem’s circular reality. A good reference: Kurt Schwitters. Lanke trr gll, or, upa kupa arggg, happens in the official line, phonetic investigators encoding the howl. The bridges of Nova Express are anti-codifying: let him scream, let him scream (please don’t go pulling out pencils or little notebooks, don’t record it, if you want to participate scream along), so let him scream, to see the look on his face when it’s over, what incredible thing happen to us.

Our bridges to unknown seasons. The poem interrelating reality and unreality.

*

Convulsively.

*

What can I ask of present-day Latin American painting? What can I ask of the theater?

It is more revealing and more evocative to stand in a park devastated by smog and watch people cross the avenues in groups (that contract and expand), the avenues, where drivers as much as pedestrians feel the urge to return to their hovels, when the murderers come out and the victims stalk them.

What stories are painters really telling me?

The interesting void, fixed form and color, at best a parody of movement. Canvases that will serve only as bright advertisements in the rooms of engineers and doctors who collect them.

The painter adapts to a society that is every day more of a “painter” than he is, and there he finds himself disarmed and registers as clown.

If painting X is found in some street by Mara, that painting acquires the status of an amusing, communicative thing; in a salon it’s as decorative as bourgeois wrought iron garden chairs/a question of the retina?/yes and no/but it’d be better to find (and systematize according to chance for awhile) the unleashing factor, class-conscious, a one hundred percent deliberate deed, in juxtaposition to the values of “work” which both precede and condition it.

 

The painter gives up his studio and ANY status quo and fills his head with wonder/or takes up chess like Duchamp/a self-taught painting/And a painting of poverty, free or rather cheap, unfinished, collaborative, of questioning participation, physically extended and spiritually unlimited.

The best Latin American painting is that which is still being made at unconscious levels, the game, the party, the experiment that gives us a real vision of what we are and opens us to what we can be; the best Latin American painting is what we paint in the greens, reds, and blues on our faces, to recognize ourselves in the incessant creation of the group.

*

Try daily to leave everything behind.

May architects give up the building of inward-looking scenes and open their hands (or make fists, depending on the place) toward that outer space. A wall and a roof acquire utility not when they’re used just for sleeping or avoiding rain, but rather when they establish, for example, from the everyday act of dreaming, conscious bridges between man and his creations or the momentary impossibility of these.

In architecture and sculpture the infrarealists start from two points: the barricade and the bed.

*

The true imagination is that which destroys, elucidates, injects emerald microbes into other imaginations. In poetry and in whatever else, the entrance into the work has to already be the way into adventure. Create the tools for everyday subversion. The human being’s subjective seasons, with their gigantic, beautiful, obscene trees like experimental laboratories. Watch, glimpse parallel and heart-rending situations as a giant scratch on your chest, on your face. Endless analogy of gestures. There are so many that when new ones appear we don’t even notice, even though we’re making/watching them in front of a mirror. Stormy nights. Perception opens by means of an ethic-aesthetic carried to the limit.

*

— Galaxies of love are appearing in the palms of our hands.

— Poets, let down your hair (if you have any)

— Burn your nonsense and start loving until you come up with priceless poems

— We don’t want kinetic paintings but enormous kinetic sunsets

— Horses running 500 kilometers an hour

— Squirrels of fire hopping through trees of fire

— A bet to see who blinks first, between the nerve and the sleeping pill.

*

Risk is always somewhere else. The true poet is the one who’s always letting go of himself. Never too much time in the same place, like guerrillas, like UFOs, like the white eyes of prisoners serving life sentences.

*

Fusion and explosion from two shores: creation like a decisive and open graffiti by a crazy kid.

Not at all mechanical. Scales of amazement. Somebody, maybe Bosch, smashes the aquarium of love. Free money. Sweet sister. Visions frivolous like corpses. Little boys jerking off from kisses until December.

*

At two in the morning, after having been at Mara’s house, we (Mario Santiago and some of us) heard laughter coming from the penthouse of a 9 story building. They didn’t stop, they kept laughing and laughing while below we slept propped up in various phone booths. There came a moment when only Mario was still paying attention to the laughter (the penthouse is a gay bar or something and Darío Galicia had told us that it’s always watched by the cops). We made phone calls but our coins turned into water. The laughter continued. After we left that neighborhood Mario told me that actually no one had been laughing, that it was recorded laughter, and up there in that penthouse, some stragglers or maybe a single homosexual had silently listened to that record and made us listen to it.

— The death of the swan, the swan song, the last song of the black swan, IS NOT in the Bolshoi but in the intolerable pain and beauty of the streets.

— A rainbow that starts in a grindhouse theater and ends in a factory on strike.

— May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. May it never kiss us.

— We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming.

— A poor lonely cowboy that comes back home, what a wonder.

*

Make new sensations appear—Subvert daily life.

O.K.

GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN

HIT THE ROAD

—Roberto Bolaño, Mexico, 1976

(translation by Tim Pilcher)


[i] A large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.[ii] A French revolutionary and close friend of Robespierre who was heavily involved in the Reign of Terror. Immediately following the Terror he was sentenced to death by guillotine at the hands of the National Convention who feared his fiery rhetoric that led to so much bloodshed.

[iii] Giorgio de Chirico. An Italian painter best known for his early surrealist paintings.

[iv] Hora Zero: An avant-garde poetry movement founded in Peru in the 1970’s.

Source: http://launiversidaddesconocida.wordpress.com/infrarealism/manifesto-english/

Enhanced by Zemanta

from Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dogs

GODZILLA IN MEXICO

Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
Ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Translated by Laura Healy

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Three Masks of Yasser Abdellatif



It took Youssef Rakha nearly a decade to reread Yasser Abdellatif’s only novel to date, Qanoun al wirathah (Law of inheritance, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2002, a third edition of which appeared last month), but together with the 41-year-old writer’s second collection of poems, Jawlah layliyah (Night tour, Miret, 2009), that impossibly condensed autobiography prompted a heartfelt exchange



I started writing at a very early age and I don’t know of any motives behind it. I was 15 at most and there was no theoretical background at all in the process. I wrote short stories which only two of my friends read. At university the practise developed. It was a chance to find out about new books, and at the Faculty of Arts I met with a group of student writers from different departments like Ahmad Yamani from Arabic, Mohammad Metwalli from English, Hoda Hussein from French and Sayed Mahmoud from History; I was at the Department of Philosophy where I met a politicised, Marxist friend whose name was Nasser Ismail; he helped to direct my reading even though he did not try to enlist me the way leftist students usually did to newcomers on campus. All of which was in the presence of professors like Hassan Hanafi, Nassr Abuzaid, Mahmoud Ragab, Abdel-Mohsen Badr, Abdel-Moneim Telleimah, Gaber Asfour and Sayed El-Bahrawi: while we differed with and around those figures, a true literary climate formed for a period of time at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first story I wrote with any degree of maturity was published in Rose al Yusif magazine on a double page spread with illustrations by the great artist Tad. I was 20. From then on I started dealing with myself as a “professional” writer, to the point of being too proud to participate in the university’s literary competitions…

Novelist (Chronicler)

I did not move from poetry to narrative, the opposite is what happened. I started with short stories. By the time I met Ahmad Yamani and Mohammad Metwalli, who had covered much ground in the prose poem, I was writing a poetic form of the short story, perhaps under the influence of Yahya El-Tahir Abdallah. Through my relationship with them and under the influence of C P Cavafy in the translations of Bashir El-Seba’i and the Antipoesía of Latin America in those of Ahmad Hassan, I discovered the poetic energy of narrative and so moved onto the prose poem.

According to Qanoun al wirathah, one of only three slim volumes by Yasser Abdellatif, life consists of a series of melancholy “old stories” that manifest momentarily like LSD flashbacks. Abdellatif’s narrator never says this in so many words, but in a sense it is the point of the book. In writing that eschews all but the subtlest emotions, there is something elegiac about the way people come briefly into focus, only to blur back into a backdrop so pointillistic it appears almost clear. They are Nubian immigrants to Cairo, teenage pioneers of the recreational Parkinol craze, or intellectuals-to-be studying humanities. There is no connection between them, no pattern in which they fit, apart from the narrator’s own harshly disciplined consciousness.

An eclectic approach to narrative – and Abdellatif differentiates his work from fiction, insisting that narrative is what it is: Qanoun al wirathah develops a declension of the Sixties legacy represented for him by Ghalib Halassa and Abdel-Hakim Qassim, who are different from each other in subject matter and tone (and not always as Latifian as you would think from the way Abdellatif talks about them) but are perhaps the least two sensational novelists of their time writing in Arabic. In rich, measured prose reflecting an extremely personal sense of the language, each processes the world without artifice, without recourse to drama and with only a modicum of storyline, if that. Each laboriously constructs his passages, devising rather than giving in to spontaneity.

Here too structure emerges directly from words and sentences, from the insane drive to match consciousness to what is being said, and above all the insanely rigorous selection of what is worth saying – to my mind the principal reason Abdellatif has written so little over the years. The “I” of the writer, a Cairo University graduate of Nubian extraction whose formative years involved much recreational drug use – notably in Maadi, a potentially cult setting very different from the upper class-and-expatriate suburb associated with the place name – is identical to that of the narrator.

Is it any surprise that, between the first half of the 20th century (when his family first settled in Cairo) and the 1991 Gulf War (while he was a Cairo University student), past numerous anecdotes and settings and people, what emerges from Qanoun al wirathah is the writer’s own weirdly amorphous self, an ego so truly individual it is not only truly but also very effectively wary of narcissism?

“To look at yourself directly in the mirror,” Abdellatif declaims at one point, “is not to see it. Instead you see your emotion towards it, which lends the picture before you beauty in every case. But to look at yourself in the mirror through another mirror, then you see it in isolation from it[self]… as a subject outside of you… Rest content with this double reflection of your picture, and you will learn not to love yourself with that blind love, to catch it every time it tries to make itself beautiful, and to force it under your whips until you divest it of all that doesn’t belong to it.”

Right after that passage, and without “the flow” being disrupted, three short lines of dialogue between an older French Canadian woman and the narrator make it clear that he is scared of madness and has already tried to kill himself once. A frustrated sexual encounter – and yet another story never told – the anecdote trails off into a series of resonant if inevitably inconclusive reminiscences of desire.

***

Poet (Witness)

I wrote Qanoun al wiratha with a view to completing a “major work” by coming at autobiography from oblique angles; in it I realised all my narrative convictions up until that time, the end of the 1990s. I finished it in 2000 and published it in 2002, and I believe I accomplished in it exactly what I intended. At present I have almost completed a book of short stories – I like that form a lot, and I don’t feel it is done justice at any level – but at the same time I have a project for a new novel that will be completely different from Qanoun al wiratha. Increasingly I believe that my poetry or my poetic project, if I could exaggerate enough to call it that, will neither develop nor have legitimacy except in the light of my narrative writing. I feel that in order to write a good poem, I have to write a lot of narrative first.

Qanoun al wirathah recalls the early work of Paul Auster and (without the sentimentality) the rhythmic flow of Beatnik prose. At times evocative of Haruki Murakami in his naturalist mode, except for chronological consistency, it seems to abide by the rules of the Japanese I-Novel. One thing, however – Abdellatif’s core quality, I think, which he finds sufficiently equivocal to equivocally deny – sets it apart from all possible kinships in the realm of the novel: it reads like poetry.

Far too much in it is far too condensed to be pure (even poetic) narrative, and its stories – old and melancholy or not – are seldom told to the end. The intensity, the abrupt shifts in perspective, the sheer weight of each phrase, and then the relative lack of concern for cognitive as opposed to visceral sense – the way the meaning of a given statement depends on what it evokes, not what it says – all seem far closer to the poetic than the narrative as such. Of course, this is not to equate the Latifian with the lyrical. But it is not necessarily to equate the Latifian with the anti-lyrical, either: the colloquial, physical world-oriented irreverence that defined the prose poetry movement of the Nineties (of which Abdellatif became part).

In Jawlah Layliyah, indeed, many poems are completely free of the Nineties’ subversive strictures, and some come close to song, an austere, unpretentious kind often welded to the need to share the beautiful burden of stories. In “Implicit Agreement”, for example, although Abdellatif seems to be parodying a particular kind of romantic-erotic poem, there is nothing shocking or cynical or ugly and nothing particularly prosaic: “Our eyes did not meet as two caves where the monster of desire sleeps, waking only on confrontation,/nor did our bodies break the rules of respectful contact/in a quiet dance we never performed./Neither of us was bold enough for initiative./She just handed me her large blue comb/and nodded/so I would comb her hair.”

To say that Abdellatif’s novella reads like poetry, then, is to point simply to the fact that, in almost involuntary defiance of form, there is such a thing as a Sentence through which a particular writer constructs an equally particular connection with the real, without fantastical or analytical ambitions, but without much openness to alternative (non-“realist” or non-personal) Sentences, either. And this has not changed since the poetic short stories turned narrative prose poems of his first book, Nass wa ahjar (People and stones, self-published in 1995): Abdellatif insists on his particularity to the point of sitting on top of vast reservoirs of silence, and so the things that happen in poetry end up happening in whatever else he writes: short stories, essays (literary non-fiction), and novels whether or not rightly so called.

Such tip-of-the-iceberg ontology becomes even clearer once the faults of the Latifian are considered. Beyond the obvious difficulty it would present to a reader expecting plot – this is hardly a fault in itself, but still – the problem with Qanoun al wirathah (which by virtue of format and format alone is less of a problem in Jawlah Layliyah) is that it does not tell. In his drive to avoid the confessional and in the stress he places on constructing and creating to the exclusion of the more immediately appealing qualities you might expect from realistic and sincere I-Writing – scandalous or tear-jerking qualities associated with information and overt emotion – Abedellatif sustains a certain reticence that makes him discreet. He insinuates, suggests, remarks; he never brags or exposes. There is not a shade a of self-censorship about what Abdellatif does – quite the opposite – but there is too much modesty in the most admirable sense, too much decency.

Up until the Seventies Generation, the Arab Poet was a testosterone-driven prophet with superhuman pretensions and a sense of responsibility for the world. Abdellatif was a depressive existentialist high on Parkinol.

***

Intellectual (Rebel)

It seems to me that the failure of intellectual work in Egypt is because the idea of individualism has remained incompletely realised. In a culture characterised by totalitarianism at every level, egos ensure that the mechanisms of the larger society that gave rise to an alternative group are reproduced within that group even as it presents itself in terms of being different. Still, it feels right to separate downtown Cairo as a space in my experience from the groups of intellectuals who gather there. Downtown Cairo was never unfamiliar to me, because I spent a good portion of my childhood in my grandfather’s house between Bab Al-Luq and Abdeen, a few metres away from the “Bermuda triangle” of intellectuals’ gathering places. As for intellectuals’ circles, I was part of early on, and I think I have been cured over time, both because I suffered from the idea of the clique and because most of my close friends from the world of writing happened to immigrate early. I think after that I stayed on the margin of those circles, though I was never entirely isolated, until I travelled to Canada in my turn at the end of last year.

It starts, I imagine, with a suicide attempt (figurative as well as literal); it ends with a new life somewhere far, some kind of voluntary death giving way to an afterlife in which the initial impulse looks like an old story. Or at the very least it ends with a book, a book project, something to hold up to the suffocating meaninglessness of existence. It almost certainly does not find resolution among fellow intellectuals however marginal they too claim to be, however particular their predicaments.

The late 1980s are a time when the short story is getting shorter and more lyrical and the metric rules hitherto thought necessary for the poem are finally breaking down for good. It is also a time when dysfunctional capitalism is taking its toll on all but the nouveaux riches of the free-market era. Social and moral values are not so much atrophying as deforming. Nationalism and loyalty to the patriarchs look more and more like cancers of the intellect. Official institutions, which still control society, have reached new heights of corruption; religious fundamentalism, initially abetted by the Sadat regime, is out of control. Far and away to be intellectual means to be politicised, and to be politicised to be Marxist. Never mind the fact that you might not like Marxism: discourse and practise are as dogmatic and limiting as religion itself; there is little if any space for an individual mind to work its way through the labyrinth of consciousness.

Taken together in retrospect, Abdellatif’s three books sound like an exquisitely muffled scream in response to the questions posed by growing up to that, in a place where neither money nor sex is as forthcoming as it might be, nor perhaps as desirable. With various degrees of subversion and cynicism, they touch on only two other subjects, both of which take up more space in Jawlah Layliyah than anywhere else: redemptive (and thus often resented) love; and the inevitability of friendship.

Is it Abdellatif’s modesty that prevents him from telling his old stories in a more explicit way? Is it his sense of right or of futility that stops him from recounting his often disappointing experience of Cairo literary life, whether in his writing or as a veteran of all those ludicrous wars? In the poem with which the new book opens, “The End of Adolescence”, three friends leave the house of “a certain madwoman” drunk, they pretend to be plainclothes policemen to torment lorry drivers on the road, they stomp on a load of neon lamps they happen upon “on the void asphalt of the Cairo dawn”; a week after that, the speaker says, “and the third of us has sold himself to the devil/while I remained with the other,/he not seeing, I not speaking…”

Latifian reticence is characteristic of neither the universal novelist nor the Egyptian Nineties Generation prose poet. Abdellatif seeks the substance of a state of being, not its paraphernalia. His literary objective may be noble but, more importantly, it is a rare and shatteringly urban choice; with the time and effort required for the inner battles that make writing possible or necessary at all, perhaps it is impossible to be any more prolific and still attempt to achieve it.

***

Night Tour

Before he grew familiar with the way to school

the sickly child grew familiar with

the doctor’s place:

the pharmacy below the clinic

with its brown closets

and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades

wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,

which she reeled off a large roll with a metal core,

and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.

On distant mornings

you and your mother would go down to her to buy the medicine.

Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places

in the night,

sliding at least four buildings across?

There is a restaurant at the street corner

whose glass facade which the steam misted over

shows appetising, low-priced food;

it seems very close, over at the curve.

Night after night you will put off having dinner there

and go along with what it takes to stay up and be tired;

the day you make up your mind,

with a strike,

some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place

off the map of existence.

And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city

beyond the street with which you thought the world ended when you were small

is an old traffic post and the ghost of an elderly policeman at the crossroads

with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.

There stands a forgotten variety theatre

where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage

flanked by two tiers of seats on which the onlookers have gathered.

You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,

your viewpoint flits between the two places

from pointers to clamorous lives

and promises of sustained indulgence

to where safety

fares better than regret

which is as light as beer foam.

Translation of the title poem of Abdellatif’s last book and of “Implicit Agreement” © Youssef Rakha

—————————————————————————————————–


Wikipedia: The is the definite article in English. »

Enhanced by Zemanta

ماما

الشخص الثالث

“نملية” مطبخها عامرة بالمسلّمات. لكن هناك دُرجاً أعمق من إحساسها بالصواب، مخصصاً لبذرة الرجل الذي ترى في وجهي كيف خيّب رجاءها قبل أن يموت (لولا ضرورة الخروج من بيت أهلها، لماذا كانت ستحمل بذرة هذا الرجل بالذات؟ ولولا أنه يرى الإنجاب جريمة، هل كانت ستكتفي بطفل واحد؟) في شعلة سخان الغاز-مصانع القوات المسلحة، نفس غيظها من “دش” مؤجل منذ أدركتْ أن هذا الرجل، فتى أحلامها الوحيد الممكن، يراوده الانتحار. وبماذا كانت تحس وأنا أستنشق النهد العبقري لحبيبة تكرهها في الغرفة المجاورة؟ حين تكتشف كم من النقود أنفقتُ في ليلة واحدة، وأكون لازلت نائماً في الرابعة مساءً، تغضب على رَجُلِها قبل أن “تلوشني”. ويظل تشنّج نبرتها حتى يذوب القرف على وجهها في حزن يكبرني بثلاثين عاماً. أتذكر أنها فعلاً أحبته، ولا شيء بعده في البيت أكبر منها سناً. فأسترجع التنهيدة التي ترسلها كل ليلة وهي تُخرج الزبالة، متفننة في حماية الأكياس البلاستك من القطط الجائعة حتى لا يتسخ مدخل الشقة التي لم تكن أبداً برجوازية بما يواكب تطلعاتها. وأسأل نفسي بحيرة: هل يقرّبنا أم يبعدنا الميت الواقف وراء الباب؟

*

الرغبة

تتذرعين بالمعرفة التي راكمتِها فأتذكر أن في الحياة أشياء لا تعرفينها. وحين أخرج على دائرة حكمتك – من غرفتك إلى غرفتي تبدو الصالة برزخاً بين عالمين – أقول لنفسي إنه من تحت رأس ختان الإناث… الجهل الذي ينفيني في نصيحتك. (وكيف لا تفرق أعوامك الزائدة؟) أنت الأحق بالنصيحة ربما، لكنني كان يجب أن أسديها منذ خمسين عاماً. ولكي أدلل على أنني أيضاً حكيم في دائرتي – والبرزخ بيننا – لن أنسى أن أرد الباب بالرقة المناسبة

*

 

الصنارة

شبيهاتها صرن بلا عدد في المدينة: خط إنتاج أرامل أسقطن شهوتهن تحت دولاب الملابس قبل موت أزواجهن بقرون، ونسين في حموة التنظيف أن يطلبن من الخادمة أن تساعدهن على زحزحة الدولاب. من وراء عباءاتهن-ألق الأزياء الخليجية، ولقب “حاجّة” يرفرف في هبة “الشكمان” مع طرف الحجاب، يردعن جبابرة الشوارع بقادوم الأمومة. هل لهذا يختلن بشيخوخة إما لم تأت بعد أو كان يمكن تأجيلها؟ وهل لكل من الشبيهات أيضاً صورة بالمايكروجوب والشعر “الكاريه” (لابد أن جون لينون يتقافز فوق قبة جامعة القاهرة التي لا تظهر في الصورة، لأن المشهد الثابت يهتز فعلاً على دقة “كانت باي مي لوف”)؟ هل يحيط بكل منهن أكثر من بنطلون “شارلستون” وقميص بياقة عملاقة تبروز عيوناً مقبلة على الحياة؟ كبيضة ضمن فلول البيض الأسود، ألمحها عن بعد بالقرب من البيت. لا نلتقي صدفة إلا وأنا ألتقط أنفاسي بين مشوارين، هنا حيث أقاسمها مستقرها على جسر الحياة. الأكياس العالقة في ذراعها أثقل من مصيري. لذلك لا أهرع لأحمل عنها. لا ألفت انتباهها إلى أنني هناك. تتدحرج وسط ميكروباسين، في جمودها إيحاء سرعة لا تصل إليها خطواتها. وأسأل نفسي كيف، من وسط كل الشبيهات، مازال يمكنني اصطيادها بنظرة واحدة

*

عشر ركعات

الليلة أيضاً، مع أذان الفجر، ستتلفنين. وأكون في مكان لا يمكن أن أصطحبك إليه. سأنزوي في ركن خال لأحدّثك (الخجل من أن لي أُمّاً تتلفن، وكيف لم يبرحني منذ الطفولة؟) بلهفة ستسألينني متى أعود. لا طارئ سوى طعام أنت طبختِه ولم آكله. ما يسمونه “تضحية”. وحسب درجة نفاد الصبر في صوتك، أوشوش إما “لا أدري” أو “بعد قليل”. لكن الصمت يطلق استجواباً متهدّجاً من فمك، فينز غضبي مكتوماً في الأثير. حين أعيد المحمول إلى جيبي تلفحني أساطيرك. وماذا كان يجب أن يحدث ليكون في الدنيا شيء سواي؟ مَن كان يجب أن تكوني، لأغفر لك ما يسمونه قلب الأم؟ ولكي أتذكر أنك أنت وأنا المسئول أمامك، بعد الأذان سأنزوي في ركن مظلم لأخلع حذائي: كمن يسجد، بعنف، سأضرب رأسي في الأرض لكل تضحية من تضحياتك ضربة. ولن أغفر لك كل هذا الوجع. ما يسمونه التفاني. والنقودِ التي لا تنفقينها. والحفيدِ الذي لن تقبّليه. والقلق الذي تحقنينني به كل صباح. والمخاطر القاتلة. ويد القدر الحانية عليك بإنقاذي. والصلاة والصوم. ومنفضدة السجائر. وشكواك مني. وكل ما تفعلينه من أجلي. وكل ما كان يمكن أن أفعله بدونك

*

ساعدي يوجعني

بموت أحدهما يتعلم الشخص أن الأبوين كالأطراف لا يزول وجعها بالبتر. تتوقف أمي على عتبة غرفتها. ظهرها إلي وهي تسند بكفها على زاوية الباب. أواصل ذرع الصالة جيئة وذهاباً. لا أفكر في احتياجي لساعدي بقدر ما أفكر فيما تعرّض له من أذى، الأمر الذي جعله وزراً غير مرغوب في بقائه. لماذا الآن دوناً عن أي وقت أقبّله بحسرة، ألوي رقبتي حتى تؤلمني لأتفقّد بؤره السقيمة، وأحار كيف كان يمكن أن أجنّبه الكدمات… الساعد الثقيل كحمل أتطلع لإسقاطه، ربما ليس أثقل من هذه العجوز المُضجِرة. (للمرة المليون أنينها المسرحي يذيع على العالم كم هي مظلومة وصامدة، وهل سيشعرني بغير رغبة خابية في صفعها؟) أتذكر أن نقّها يتراوح بين آلام العظام وتشنج العضل. ارتعاش الأصابع، لسع الحروق، صديد مفاجئ على راحة اليد. خدوش قديمة تذكرني بمهمتي، وعلي أن أتحمل إحباط أنني لم أؤدها… لكن ها هي الآن تعبر العتبة كالنسيم. وقبل أن أتوقف عن الحركة، يقلع كفها عن الخشب ويحلّق عالياً في الهواء. ستبدو أخف من كل أوزار الدنيا. وسيمكنني أن أتابعها بفرح، أنا الذي تمنّيتُ أن يموت أبي. وعرفتُ أنني لن أتخلص منه أبداً

*

الحياة بعد الموت

يوماً ما سآخذك إلى الصحراء، وأصر أن تبيتي خارج الخيمة. سأظل صاحياً طوال الليل أحرسك من الثعالب والثعابين. وحين يشقشق الصبح سيكون شعرك مكشوفاً للسماء وحبات الرمل عالقة بأطرافك العارية. بلا خوف من هوان الدنيا ولا عذاب الآخرة، ستفتحين عينيك. وستكونين المرأة التي افتقدتها فيك منذ الأبد

Iraq en la corazon

Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab

Youssef Rakha outlines the life course of a modern legend

Bibliography

-Azhar Dhabila
(Withered Flowers, 1947)
-Asatir (Myths, 1950)
-Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong, 1960)
-ï Manzil Al-Aqnan
(House of Slaves, 1963)
-Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi (Al-Chalabi’s Daughter’s
Shanashil, 1964)
-Qitharat Al-Rih
(Wind Zither, 1971)
-A’asir (Storms, 1972)
-Diwan, two volumes
(Beirut 1971-4)


Two images permeate the poetry of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964): the child of six, in the rural environs of Jaykour, a small village near Basra in southern Iraq, calling desperately for his mother who, unbeknown to him, has died; and the grown man, ailing in exile by the shore of the Arabian Gulf, pining nostalgically for his homeland, which seems much further away to him than it really is. Both correspond to real-life experiences of the poet‘s. The eldest child of a date grower and shepherd, Shakir Abdul-Jabbar Al-Sayyab, Badr lost his mother, Shakir’s cousin Karima, in 1932; she died prematurely while giving birth to her fourth child, a girl who did not survive. And it was during his miserable confinement to hospital in Kuwait and elsewhere that the poet’s verses took on the trademark, impassioned — some say excessive — nostalgic tone. Often homeland and mother are evoked in unison, or as two aspects of the same — irrevocable — sense of security. In a belated elegy for Al-Sayyab, Syrian poet Mohamed Al-Maghout referred ironically to this dual obsession of the poet’s in the context of reflecting on Arab cultural and political demise — wrapping the traffic light in a headscarf and calling it “Mother”, building the model of a country out of empty matchboxes and rubbish to call it “Homeland”.

Al-Maghout’s poem is not the only tribute to Al-Sayyab in modern literature. Universally recognised as one of the pioneers of the free poetry movement, Al-Sayyab is also widely credited with being among the most traditional of free poets, displaying a profound command of the metrical rules governing Arabic verse and an easy familiarity with even the most difficult idiosyncrasies of the classical tongue. For a long time he thought of poetry as an aspect of the struggle for national liberation, and whatever innovations were to be introduced should never be allowed to impinge on the essence of the endeavour — the search for a liberated identity governed by equality and justice. The influence of European literature on Al-Sayyab thus remained superficial. His true sources remain the folk songs and fairy tales his later poems increasingly evoked, accompanied by the cadences of the vernacular he grew up speaking and the insurgent energy of national struggle. His virtues go beyond technical facility, however, for the energy and the emotional charge of his poems often transcend their nominal subjects, and his imagery — at times almost Imagist in precision and intensity — ranks among the most powerful in the poetry of any language. Perhaps the tragedy with which his life was beset reflected a genius too pure for the political turmoils in which he was to find himself entangled — a genius not for petty intrigues and power struggles but for grand and transcendent themes.

Soon after Karima’s death, Shakir found another wife and moved out — to the distress of his father. The poet subsequently lived at his grandparents’ — his paternal grandmother, whose affection is said to have replaced his mother’s, figures as the source of imaginative, sometimes frightening fairy tales about epic heros and djinn. Following the first few years of school in the neighbouring village of Bab Soliman, Al-Sayyab was forced to go further, attending the Mahmoudia School in Abul-Khasib, a small town that also figures in many of his poems: it was from a classroom window that he first spied the beautiful, unattainable daughter of Al-Chalabi, a prosperous landowner, beyond the opposite house’s shanashil (a kind of latticework window comparable to a mashrabiya ) — to which the title poem of his last diwan, Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi, refers. This was probably also his earliest encounter with class differences; no sooner had it occurred, at any rate, than Al-Sayyab’s poetic facility began to flower — first in the vernacular, then in standard Arabic. Before settling with his maternal grandparents in Basra to attend secondary school — this difficult move took place in 1938 — Al-Sayyab presided over a literary magazine produced and distributed by his schoolmates. It was named, not surprisingly, after the palm-studded village he was never to forget, and to which he returned periodically throughout the duration of his secondary education. Jaykour was not only his birthplace, but the home of his first love, Wafiqa, one of his many cousins.

In 1941, having paradoxically opted for the science rather than arts pre-university course despite standing out in Arabic language and literature, Al-Sayyab began writing poetry regularly. (Much of this early work, written in the traditional meters of the canonical aroud, was collected and published posthumously). Interaction with fellow students with literary inclinations, notably Khaled Al-Shawwaf, was to contribute to his artistic growth. Al-Sayyab’s insurgent political awareness flowered in the same year, following the execution by the British of the leaders of the anti-colonial Rashid Ali Al-Kilani Movement of April-May. At this point it is worth recalling the nationalist atmosphere in which Al-Sayyab grew up: his uncle Abdel-Qader, the poet’s closest relation and fellow communist activist, had been a member of the underground Al-Hizb Al- Ladini (the Non-Religious Party), and on the walls of his grandparents’ house Abdul-Jabbar hung pictures of Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and other leaders of the liberation struggle. At the same time as Al-Sayyab reacted emotionally to the executions, writing poetry in response, his grandfather was in financial straits, having fallen prey to the usury and exploitation Abdel-Qader denigrated in the newspapers; this gave him an added, personal incentive. In his last year of secondary school, Al-Sayyab’s lyricism began to mature into the expression of an individual response to the world — the emotional and political dimensions of existence. The long-postponed move to Baghdad was preceded by the second major grief in his life: his beloved grandmother’s death.

For the provincial innocent, Baghdad was a world apart, and one for which the young poet had fearfully yearned for a long time before arriving there as an Arabic student at Dar Al- Mu’allimin in 1943; he selected the faculty in question because it provided education free of charge. Literary and political life submerged the emergent talent: after Najui Al-Ubaidi published one of his poems in the newspaper he edited, Al- Ittihad, his poetry spread in literary circles, and before too long he was well-known. Transferring from the Arabic to the English department of Dar Al-Mu’allimin, he made the acquaintance of Nazik Al-Mala’ika, the first Arab poet to free verse from the formulaic rules of aroud, employing the individual taf’ila as the basis for metric composition. By 1946, when this meeting occurred, he was a member of the communist party; his first experience of detention occurred in that year. Despite being a reticent participant in the Allied-Nazi debate then surging through the intellectual life of the capital, he engaged fully with ongoing political turmoils until his graduation in 1948, when his first collection of taf’ila poems, Azhar Dhabila (Withered Flowers), appeared. He was appointed as a secondary-school English teacher, and it was then that he began to feel the brunt of urban isolation — living in a hotel, with few connections (he was one of three communists resident in Baghdad at the time), and leading a frustrated love life, finding solace in his periodic stays in Jaykour — a habit he had not given up since his days as an adolescent in Basra.

Jaykour becomes, for Al-Sayyab, a kind of objective correlative not only for innocence and the first flutters of consciousness but for identity. He returns to it or to the surrounding area constantly in his poems, releasing memories, a sense of history and an infinite string of references with which to comment on subsequent, unrelated stories, anecdotes and events — even the Greek myths from which he sometimes drew inspiration, and which, through the imagery he employed, he transported into the settings of his childhood. The political involvements that were to have a terminally abrasive effect on his body and mind remained, at heart, visions of utopia rooted in the atmosphere of Jaykour, especially of a time prior to his mother’s premature death. He may have displayed obstinacy and even, occasionally, aggressiveness, but his motivation was largely that of the bereft child dreaming of security — financial, political and family security. Likewise Al- Sayyab’s love life was doomed from the start: he returned to Jaykour one day to find Wafiqa married. Subsequent relations with liberated women remained superficial, and Al-Moumis Al-Amya a (The Blind Prostitute), one of his four long poems, bears testimony to the painful revulsion his observation of urban prostitutes induced in him. It was in the late 1940s that such a tragic sense of self was beginning to register, along with a commitment to engaged literature — a subject that was to preoccupy him till the end of his life. Already it was too late to conceive of life along any other lines.

Another change of government, in 1949, saw Al-Sayyab imprisoned again; the Nouri Al-Said regime specifically targeted communists. Al-Sayyab was banned from teaching for the next decade. Among the jobs he undertook in Basra following a quiet few months in Jaykour were date taster and oil company employee. In 1950, the year his second collection, Asatir (Myths), appeared, he moved back to Baghdad, working as a free-lance journalist until he found a job as an employee of the Ministry of Imports. He continued to engage with literary and political life nonetheless, and the many interesting developments surrounding him — persistent calls for the nationalisation of Iraqi oil, Al-Said’s resignation and, following a poem in which Al-Sayyab predicted the event with uncanny precision, the wide-ranging Baghdad protests of 1952 — went on stimulating his writing, albeit in progressively less direct ways. When the army came to power and a new series of political arrests began, Al-Sayyab had the foresight to flee to Iran and onto Kuwait, where homesickness caught up with him, producing, among other poems, Gharibun ala Al-Khalij (Stranger to the Gulf), the poem to which Al-Maghout was to make his ironic references. Al-Sayyab thus arrived in Kuwait in 1953, only to return to Baghdad six months later in the wake of King Faisal’s reinstitution. This time, evidently intent on settling down once and for all, he rented a house and invited one of his aunts to live with him. In 1955 he married the sister of his uncle Abdel-Qader’s wife, a young woman from Abul- Khasib, who bore him a little girl, Ghaidaa, the next year.

With his activism waning — disagreements with the party through the 1950s, the time when he wrote his four long poems, had led to Al-Sayyab absolving himself of political responsibility — his poetry acquired a contemplative tone, his lyricism emerging as a powerful force in its own right, unencumbered by a specific political agenda. Yet he remained sufficiently engaged to be imprisoned for a week following the publication of several of his poetic translations in 1955. He was one of three Iraqi participants at the Conference of Arab Writers held in Damascus in September 1956. He soon became the prophet of the 14 July 1958 Revolution, displaying remarkable prescience — it was in this period that he wrote his best-known poem, Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong) — and following the Revolution resigned from the Ministry of Imports to work as an English teacher once again, this time in the Ministry of Education. He was to lose his job in the communist-nationalist rift, however, in which he sided with the latter faction; so disillusioned had he become with Iraqi communism. Al-Sayyab was reduced to working as a poorly paid translator for the Pakistani Embassy, and he was persecuted and humiliated by his former comrades.

Following attempts to appease Abdul-Karim Qasem, the leader who abolished the monarchy only to pit contending political factions against each other, he retrieved his job in 1960, the year his third collection of poems, named after Unshoudat Al-Matar, appeared. His physical as well as psychological health failing him, Al-Sayyab eventually gave up what little comfort he had attained — evidently at the expense of his peace of mind — and relocated to Basra in search of a quiet life, where, despite another, by now completely ludicrous arrest, he obtained a position in the Iraqi Port Administration almost immediately.

His health went from bad to worse, and following a brief visit to Jaykour Al-Sayyab’s poetry centred increasingly on the theme of death, with the djinn girls of his childhood reappearing before him in frightening form. He attended another literary conference in Rome, and spent some time in Beirut arranging the publication of his work and making the acquaintance of Arab poets he had not met. His magazine allegiances had shifted from Al-Aadab to Shi’r, and now, following a brief stint with Hiwar, he went back to Al-Aadab. Al-Sayyab’s illness eventually took him back to Kuwait, where for six months he suffered from paralysis and intense depression. His friend Ali Al-Sabti conveyed his body back to Basra, where he found Al-Sayyab’s family homeless (the Port Administration had managed to evict them from the house, which was given to Al-Sayyab as one of the job perks, after the poet used up all his holidays). His funeral was a low-key event, and he went almost unnoticed. By 1971, however, a statue of the poet was installed in one of Basra’s main squares.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

Wheatfield with Crows (1890), Van Gogh Museum,...
Image via Wikipedia

Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143
Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

January 2000

Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143

Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi