Reading the senior journalist Hisham Melhem’s recent obituary of Arab civilization, one is compelled to ask when it was ever alive. Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 September
The Nowhere, Cairo 2014. By Youssef Rakha
“No one paradigm or one theory can explain” the jihadi barbarians, not at, but within the Arabs’ gates. So says Hisham Melhem, an older writer, in Politico magazine this week, summing up the failure of modern “Arab civilization” with admirable level-headedness. His point would be too obvious if it wasn’t so uniformly lost on neoliberal analysts and apologists for religious identity: the Islamic State did not fall from the sky. It grew out of the “rotting, empty hulk” of societies routed no less by the “stagnant, repressive and patriarchal” authoritarianism of military regimes than the politicized religiosity seeking to replace them. Like its ideological archenemy, namely political Islam, Arab nationalism too expresses “atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past”.
But who’s to say these two ideologies do not accurately reflect all that the Arab masses hold dear, i.e., what world community leaders would call “the Arab peoples’ legitimate aspirations”? As a younger observer, I cannot help seeing that, since the end of Ottoman times, only a negative sense of collective identity has mobilized a given Arab people at a given point in history. Embodied in revolutionary leaders like Nasser or resistance movements like Hezbollah, such rallying cries rarely pointed to a positive or constructive cause that did not turn out to be part of a propaganda campaign (Hamas’s August “victory” over Israel is a case in point). What Melhem does not say is that, in as much as it exists at all, post-Ottoman Arabic-speaking civilization has only ever operated against others, if not the occupier then non-Muslim or non-Sunni citizens of its own states, if not “Zionists and imperial Crusaders” then infidels at large.
A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.
The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.
Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.
Man as map
I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was Mai Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
Knights Hospitaller, Boat People and literary translation: in a strangely Catholic stronghold of the Mediterranean, Youssef Rakha reencounters his own life and work
And then the storm comes. At first we mistake the thunder for celebratory canon fire, the lightning for pyrotechnic pomp. Together with Valetta’s church bells, both have been ongoing for as long as we can remember.
With all that poetry bubbling in my head – and in so many vernaculars of the Mare Nostrum – by then I am convinced of my metaphorical place on the island: it feels like I have been here much longer than is actually the case. The hilly pathways of this, my walled city are preternaturally familiar, the variously textured grey and sandstone surfaces all around, shimmering blue patches of sea at the foot of undulating asphalt-and-cobblestone arches that rear cobra-like off Triq ir-Repubblika (Sicilian Arabic – sorry, I mean Maltese – for Republic Street). So are my curt exchanges with the black-clad waitresses at the café trottoir by the stone gate (on the other side is the fountain encircled by Malta’s bright yellow public buses):
When I sit at my favourite table to order espresso, it is as if I have been seeking out this circle of shade my whole life.