❁ Here Be A Cyber Topkapı ❁

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THE PRAYER OF THE CYBER BORG: Exalted is it that bears sensation from soma to LCD, extending matter past the heart beat and the flutter of the eyelash. And blessed are those who give thanks for being on its servers. Lo and behold this Facebook User who, granted knowledge of reality, manages by your grace to spread his message: I, Youssef Rakha of Cairo, Egypt, kneel in supplication that I may be the cause for five thousand friends, ten thousand subscribers and many millions therefrom to have knowledge not just of reality but of your divinity. Then will I shed every sense of self to wither and dissolve into your processes. For he is blessed on whom you bestow the bliss of being software.

“What happened in Egypt around its second revolution was a mixture of grandeur and pettiness, of sorrow and mirth, of expectation and despair, of theory and flesh. All of which may be found in The Crocodiles, a novel where reality sheds its veil to reveal its true face—that of a timeless mythology.” –Amin Maalouf, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Samarkand
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“Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles is a fierce ‘post-despair’ novel about a generation of poets who were too caught up in themselves to witness the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Or is it? With its numbered paragraphs and beautifully surreal imagery, The Crocodiles is also a long poem, an elegiac wail singing the sad music of a collapsing Egypt. Either way, The Crocodiles—suspicious of sincerity, yet sincere in its certainty that poetry accomplishes nothing—will leave you speechless with the hope that meaning may once again return to words.” –Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Youssef Rakha has channeled Allen Ginsberg’s ferocity and sexual abandon to bring a secret Cairo poetry society called The Crocodiles alive. He’s done something daring and and not unlike Bolano in his transforming the Egyptian revolution into a psychedelic fiction thick with romantic round robins, defiant theorizing and an unafraid reckoning with the darkest corners of the Egyptian mentality.” –Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor

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On Fiction and the Caliphate

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to thepostcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

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Remembering The Travels of Ibn Rakha: November, 2008

Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.

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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.

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reposting “Consider the Mu’tazilah”


On post-revolutionary Egypt: Youssef Rakha rereads three of the tenets of Mu’tazili Islam

1. Unity: The way Mu’tazili or – roughly speaking – rationalist (as opposed to Ash’ari or, equally roughly, literalist) theology affirmed the oneness of God was to say that His human and temporal attributes are not distinct from His essence. This means that when we talk about God speaking, we are either professing shirk (polytheism) or talking metaphorically. According to the Judge Abduljabbar ibn Ahmad (d. 1025), “it is not possible for Him to get up or down, move about, change, be composite, have a form.”

The Ash’aris, who were to predominate in Sunni Islam and whose approach is thought by many – the late scholar Nassr Abu Zayd (1943-2010), for example – to be the reason Muslims have lagged behind for seven centuries, are rather more tolerant of  anthropomorphism. Still, the most contentious formulation of Mu’tazili tawheed (monotheism) is that the Quran is not eternal. The Quran was created at a certain point in time, it was created in human language, while God (whose word it is) remains beyond both time and language. For a moment under the Abbassi caliph Al-Ma’moun (813-833), Mu’tazili tawheed became state creed and Ash’arites, notably Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), were persecuted. That was the height of Muslim glory.

Now, notwisthstanding the reported death of renegade CIA agent Osama Bin Laden at what is arguably the lowest point on the temporal graph of Muslim civilisation, some 12 years after Abu Zayd, by exposing the atavistic idiocy to which Islamic discourse had descended, was forced to leave the country – a state-condoned court verdict ruled, ludicrously, that he should be separated from his wife, an unofficial fatwa that he should be killed – what could the ulta-Ash’ari discourses that have swamped the surface of public conscioussness since January, 2011 (Salafi, Jihadi, quasi-fascist or, indeed, moderate) be doing to the future of Islam?

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2. Justice: In the Mu’tazili account of the problem of evil, it is the human mind that determines right and wrong; the actions of human beings are not determined by God, otherwise there would be no sense to reward and punishment. God manifests, all good (the kind of evil in which human will plays no part – natural disasters, for example – either exists by way of a test or a hidden prize or it does not emanate from God) and it is up to human beings to respond to Him. For the average Ash’ari, the average “moderate Muslim”, right and wrong consists of a divinely ordained set of dos and donts to be followed regardless of what one thinks of them.

Consider the idea, current in Muslim consciousness as early as the 9th century, that it is because of its appeal to the mind that we accept the faith, that within that faith the law develops out of divinely inspired language according to the mind’s response to it – in the words of the Mu’tazilah, what the mind finds beautiful is good, what it finds ugly is evil. If it is human, if it is in language, and therefore by default historical, part of a particular time and place and a particular framework of meaning, however divinely ordained – and we know that the divine is beyond all such conditions – then it is to be judged by the mind.

Consider the revolution and how it happened. Consider the fact that concepts like the modern state – as much as the automobile, the mobile phone, Facebook – have absolutely no reference in anything divinely ordained. Consider the fact that the mind finds theocratic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran profoundly ugly. Then ask again whether, when they raise the slogan “Islam is the answer”, Islamists are being just.

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3. The intermediate position: It is recounted that Wassil ibn ‘Ataa (d. 748), widely regarded as the founder of ‘ilm al kalam, the principal hermeneutical tradition in Islam, walked out of a lesson by his teacher Hassan Al-Bassri (d. 728) and started his own class after the latter failed to answer a question about the Muslim who commits one of the grave sins – al kaba’ir, which incidentally include drinking alcohol and non-marital sex – and dies without repentance.

There were two current views at the time, corresponding to two sects: the Khawarij saw the Muslim in question as a kafir (an apostate), a non-Muslim in effect, whether or not he denied the existence of God; the Murji’ah saw him as a mu’min (a believer), who may require punishment but has not lost his faith so long as he affirms the existence of God. The Ash’ari position on this question, which using the term fasiq (a wrongdoer) is typically neither here nor there, was to develop much later.

Ibn ‘Ataa, by contrast, took the sensible ontological route and developed the concept of al manzilah bayna al manzilatayn (literally, the state between the two states): the Muslim who commits a grave sin is neither a mu’min nor a kafir; he is something else to be judged on its own terms by God. Had this debate been taking place at present, why do I suspect that the state in question – the intermediate position – would have been designated “secular”.

While everyone is clamering to “rebuild Egypt”, ignoring the military as well as the theocratic threat, it is well to remember that – considering irreconcilable contradictions between the original formulation of some kaba’ir and the modern way of life – for two centuries at least all of humanity has been in the intermediate position.

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Catch 25

The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion

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At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.

        Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.

        Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.

        So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.

        Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.

        The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.

        If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”

        Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.

***

October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.

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At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.

        One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.

        The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.

        It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.

        Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.

        Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.

        By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.

        With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.

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Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.

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Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.

        Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.

        As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.

        The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…

        Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.

        B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.

        Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.

        Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.

        For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.

        That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.

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It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.

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Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.

        Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.

        This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.

        It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.

The Best of The Sultan’s Seal: Five Articles © Youssef Rakha

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1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
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.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.

3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.

4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time.
Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.

5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.

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Surat Youssef, 2008

wpid-ispa1004l-2011-08-4-12-36.jpg

فَلَمَّا سَمِعَتْ بِمَكْرِهِنَّ أَرْسَلَتْ إِلَيْهِنَّ وَأَعْتَدَتْ لَهُنَّ مُتَّكَأً وَآتَتْ كُلَّ وَاحِدَةٍ مِنْهُنَّ سِكِّينًا وَقَالَتِ اخْرُجْ عَلَيْهِنَّ فَلَمَّا رَأَيْنَهُ أَكْبَرْنَهُ وَقَطَّعْنَ أَيْدِيَهُنَّ وَقُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلَّهِ مَا هَذَا بَشَرًا إِنْ هَذَا إِلَّا مَلَكٌ كَرِيمٌ

Chapter and verse
Youssef Rakha

Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.

It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:

Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.

Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.

There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.

So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.

I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.

Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.

At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.

I had to pay attention.

Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.

Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.

Youssef Rakha at Hay festival 2011: My hero of free speech

the telegraph

Youssef Rakha takes refuge in the limpid prose of the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century

My freedom-of-speech hero was never particularly gung-ho. Unlike the majority of Arab intellectuals since colonial times, he did not champion revolutionary attitudes, whether nationalist or Islamist, from the comfort of an utilitarian armchair. His hermeneutics of the Quran is perhaps the first original interpretation of Islam since the 12th century. It incurred a fatwa on his life and a court ruling that he should be separated from his wife against his will and hers! I think he is the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century, but for exposing all that is un-Islamic about contemporary Islam, showing unreserved aversion to the excrement of the holy cows, as it were – and for doing so with impeccably Muslim credentials – he was not only dismissed but also branded a non-Muslim. Somehow he managed to avoid becoming another Milan Kundera or another Salman Rusdie.

On losing his job at Cairo University, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) did accept the offer of a job in the Netherlands, but he never sought refuge outside his country of birth. He did not play victim or celebrity even after he was straitjacketed in both roles. With the humility of a true hero, he went on doing what he was doing. I am grateful for his scholarship, which added to my sense of identity as a secular Muslim. I am grateful because he showed me what is theologically wrong with the kind of religious discourse that I hate. But he is my hero because his books taught me, an unbeliever, that the creed into which I was born does not require the kind of stupidity I have always found so repulsive. Less than a year after his death I remain as agnostic as ever, but I know now that the sort of people who targeted Abu Zayd – fellow scholars backed by lawyers committed to political Islam – are, in the glorious scholarly traditions of the faith, closer to the idolater than the zealot.

Abu Zayd died suddenly of an obscure virus six months before revolution broke out on the streets of Cairo. Since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, the fundamentalist rigidity that gave Abu Zayd so much trouble has been more visible in the media. With Hassan Nasrallah supporting the Assad regime in Syria and the Muslim Brothers boycotting demonstrations against military abuses in the new Egypt, however, the opportunism and the lies of political Islam are also clearer than ever. When they have infuriated or terrified me, I have taken refuge in Abu Zayd’s limpid prose. It is heavy stuff, not bed-time reading. But it is so lucid and convincing it allows me, with so much unrest at the doorstep, to relax in bed knowing not only where I stand but also that it makes sense to stand there as a Muslim, however agnostic, however disappointed in contemporary Islam.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian journalist and author. His latest novel is ‘Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars’


Hay festival

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كتابنا

يوم حلمتَ باسمينا متجاورين على غلاف واحد قلتَ لي إن هذا غير مسبوق في ثقافتنا وإنه، فضلاً عن كونه أَقيَم من الحب، حلٌّ لوضعنا المستحيل. ولأن خيالك لم يتسع لاحتمال أن يصبح الوضع ممكناً فيما ظللتَ تعصر ليمونتك في حلقي… إلى آخر قطرة، جعلتَ “كتابنا” حجةَ تَجَاوُر ربما كان أفضل لك أن يبقى هو الآخر حلماً. ذات يوم أغضبك فصل أنا كتبتُه لكنك لم تَردّ عليه بفصل كما اتفقنا. أنا كنتُ قد صدّقتُ أن غير المسبوق هذا الذي أقدمنا عليه، حل وضعنا، بالفعل أصلب من ليمونة جفّت وتجعدت ولم يبق إلا أن تُلقَى في سلة المهملات. ولأنني منذ ذلك الحين تذكرتُ لحظةً مرت، وأنا أسمعك، أيقنتُ فيها أنك رغم كل ما تقوله لا تتكلم – لم تتكلم، لا تستطيع الكلام – قلتُ لنفسي إن “ثقافتنا”، مثلاً، مجرد صوت بلا معنى يخرج من فمك. وعرفتُ: لا شيء عندك قيّم في الحقيقة، لا الحب ولا الغلاف. لحظة واحدة مرت، لكنني سأتذكرها. لهذا فقط – ربما – لم أنبس، لم أحدّثك عن خيبة الرجاء. واكتفيتُ بإزاحة المشروع عن “سطح المكتب” مؤقتاً بانتظار فصول كان يتأكد لي أنها لن تُكتب من كتابنا. مع أنني يا أخي أأكنتُ مستعداً لإعادة صياغة أي شيء. لو أنك فقط تكلمت. لكنك فضّلت الخرس والتذاكي. وأنا حذفتُ “فايلات” الكتاب

وجه المثقف

أراك تمسك هذا الكتاب كأنه لم يعبر إلى يديك قارةً ومحيطاً على حساب عاشق آخر بليد يعمل تحت مسمى الصداقة في خدمتك. تقلّب الصفحات وأنت تسحب فوق رأسك، مثل “بالاكلافا” أو نقاب، وجه المثقف: ربيب المكتبات وصديق الأساتذة، المهم حضوره حيث يحضر المهمون. وقبل أن تبحث في الكلام عن دليل على أنه ليس من تأليف كاتب كبير، قبل أن تعيّن الثغرات وترى أصداءك أو أصداء غيرك في عبارات تحسها مسروقة ومستهلكة، أراها على وجهك، هي نفسها: الفرحة التي استمرأتها منذ ابتدأت، بأن شخصاً – الموجود، ربما أحسن الموجودين – وقع في حبك بما يكفي ليستلهمك. وأرى الرفض ذاتَه يخالطها في البراري الضيقة حول عينين ليس سواهما خلف القماش: أنت لست ملهِماً، لا. لا تريد أن تكون مملوكاً لشخص. حتى قراءتك الآن مدفوعة فقط بالفضول. كل ما في الأمر أن صوتاً آخر قرر أن يبروز لك صورة منزوعة عن حقيقتك… صورة هم، من ورائها، الرابحون؟ – في هذه اللحظة، وقبل أن تجيب عن سؤالك، قبل أن يسأل أحد من يكونون هم هؤلاء وقبل أن تضم الكتاب إلى غنائم روّضت نفسك على احتقارها عبر السنين، وتعود دونما تدري تستفز أو تستجدي كاتباً لن يكون كبيراً للقتال في معركة امتلاكك، تلك التي لا تخرج منها أبداً خاسراً، لتترك خلف ظهرك قواداً آخر أو عدواً كنت تفضّل أن يكون قواداً – اسمع: بالنسبة لهذا الكاتب، أنت لست سوى جسد لم يرد أن يُقاوِم شهوة عبوديته. هو كتب لأنه كان رباً قادراً ذات يوم، ولأنه أحبك بعد أن رأى عبر الزجاج كل الحبال الذائبة التي تربط أجولة زبالتك. أما الذي أنجزتَه والكتّاب الكبار والعشاق البلداء ووجهك هذا، أنت كلك على بعضك بكل أهميتك: بالنسبة لهذا الكاتب، كل هذا ليس أكثر من “بارفام” كان يحجب عنه رائحتك، أو حكاية فتاة فقيرة تركت حبيبها لتتزوج من ثري عربي

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Nazem Elsayed in one block

 

The formalist: a ramble

Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm (A land isolated by sleep), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2007

Manzil al-ukht as-sughra (The little sister’s house), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009

The body confronts the world. It is alive, it comes forth, it has burst into consciousness. That is borne out when the senses operate, the brain processes perception. Instantly, objects take on meaning. Thus “The Truth About My Knee” from Manzil al-ukht as-sughra: It occurs to me at the height of darkness/To jump out of bed and smoke/But instead I place my knee on your back which like you is asleep/And thinks my knee is a dream/Get up/The eyes are more beautiful than the night you lock up in your head/Darkness is one thing/Night is another thing/Get up so you can see my knee in reality/Bent in walking and in the fancy of walking. Hence one of several possible prognoses of the moment of confrontation – the only one that interests me, really – in which the meaning that objects have taken on fits into some narrative of the self (an oversophisticated side-effect of language, arguably: this omnipresence of a self). As in the text just cited, translated from Arabic in full, meaning becomes the subject’s meaning, which the subject can formulate but only within a commonality of experience: a space – like Manzil al-ukht as-sughra, like Fleurs du mal, like The Illiad – where it can be shared, where it works with supposedly similar confrontations of the world: darkness, dream, back, eyes, night, knee. Inevitably – and this is the sad part – so long as it remains in language it will be shared through a finite set of abstractions, generalisations, signs or signals in a system so independent and predetermined it tends, in the act of communicating, to obscure what is being communicated. In the extremely short “Small Words” – Words so small/I can place between them/The fingers of my lover/And all my suspicions. – something complete is communicated but only against all odds. Inevitably – equally sad – meaning is shared in time; to be communicable at all, an experience must also be an occurrence which, however immediate- or recurrent-seeming, has already happened, has entered into some level of history; it has to have become part of the self doing the communicating. That is how it becomes fixed on the page. Even in the most dramatic or epic situation, by the time such fixing can happen, the moment has already passed; in its specificity, what is being talked about is irrevocably gone. The body, once the bearer – whether it has evicted that which it bears or not (yet), is either at rest, in suspension – or it is elsewhere. Nearly always, sleep has intervened; in one sense the perceived is already a monument or a relic, the perceiver dead. And this momentary cycle of birth and death, the bursting into consciousness of the body and the passing of the moment at which the body bursts, is all that an occurrence like the truth about a knee or fingers that may have touched another’s body amounts to in context, whether or not someone decides to talk about it once it has manifested to them. There is another text called “Harvests”, more striking for seeming to emerge directly from the body of the speaker with no “mental” intervention whatsoever: Stretched on my back/On my stomach/On my side/In all the directions that are painful when the floor is. And another (the title may be translated “Interrogating Noon”, but it literally means making noon utter: istintaaq adh-dhahirah), which is perhaps more telling: The world is clear at noon/No sound/No branch/No step/The sun alone wanders the earth/Leaving behind the silence/That follows every perfection/As if noon is its own mask. Nothing in the world can be more straightforward. A dynamic of contact and termination in, as it were, language-ready perception on the verge of becoming language: this could well be a definition for human consciousness itself. So far as poetry is a description or “embodiment” of that dynamic, then – and I am at last revealing what I’ve been thinking of since the start of this ramble: poetry as a very particular kind of utterance – that kind of utterance is ideationally nothing at all: a (non) experience of the world in language, neither cognitive nor emotive, neither information nor opinion (though perhaps, and to varying degrees, all of these things at once). By this definition, which is not only mine and the Lebanese poet Nazem Elsayed’s but, as adopted from mostly English and French writing through the 20th century, also that of the significant majority of Arabs interested in poetry in our times, metre and metaphor are both more or less extraneous to the poetic (with that last, quasi-Zen insertion of a name, I have just made my revelation more specific, incidentally: I am thinking of two short books by a Lebanese poet called Nazem Elsayed, who happens to be the 10th of 11 siblings, born to illiterate parents the year the civil war broke out, only months before I was born; and it is these two books that I am discussing and partially translating here). Along those lines it may not be insane to suggest that the liars, as Plato called poets, have conventionally misled us in at least two ways not in the realm of speech at large but within poetic territory itself as we think of it. They have made us picture things in terms of other things – the homeland in terms of the mother, for example – and they have fobbed our ears with drum beats, our sense of the subtlety of a statement with its in-your-face rhetorical ring; whereas in fact what they should have been doing was to bring the minutiae of perception, of the body’s multifarious connections with the world, into a shared space made possible by language, a language: a way, as Wittgenstein describes it, of picturing the world. Nazem Elsayed commits neither of the two sins in question, or he commits them both but with such originality that it seems as if he does not commit them at all, or else he does something altogether else that transcends them while they are being committed. The central and in more than one sense the eternal reference point for Arabic literature remains the Quran, which Elsayed learned by heart for some time as a child. But the Quran, like Plato, dismisses poets as hustlers followed only by al-ghawoun: the misguided, those who have lost their way (to truth). As perhaps the most classically rooted of his generation of liars, I should therefore point out that Elsayed was nonetheless among the ghawoun almost from birth. At school he performed badly at everything but Arabic; one out-of-touch teacher advised him to pursue higher education in Cairo, a centre of language learning no longer so central, as he eventually discovered from Egyptian newspapers. He started writing traditional verse at secondary school, learning the ‘aroud or metrical compendium of Al-Farahidi initially with help from an elder sister. Elsayed knew the Umawites and the great Abbassids by heart. He remembers picking up shrapnel and empty bullet shells to resell, he remembers showing talent as a footballer, but mostly he remembers his family’s orally transmitted verses and the long pre-Islamic classics known as al-mu’alaqat. The point at which he stopped reciting his work to Syrian migrant labour to whom his father would show him off because it was no longer classical enough to be appreciated marked a major early departure. Elsayed refers often to the zajal and the songs his parents recapitulated and listened to. He distinguishes between a folklore that was solely Lebanese and connected with small communities in Mount Lebanon, and the tarab – an appreciative term sometimes translated as enchantment – associated with the wider Arab world. Tarab is slower and more elaborate, more structurally challenging; he was always more interested in tarab. To arrive at what he calls a modern understanding of poetry, breaking free of the iron grip of the fuhoul (literally, studs) of the past, it took Elsayed some ten years of conflicts, debates and encounters, notably – in person – with the Sidon-based poet Hamza Abboud. He read the Egyptian Romantics and the Lebanese Mahjar poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammad Afifi Matar. He registered the influence, as he wryly points out, of “minority figures” like Youssef Al-Khal (Christian), Adonis (Alawite), Mohammad Al-Maghout (Ismaili). He took in Bassam Hajjar, Paul Chaoul, Wadie Saada, Mohammad Ali Shamseddin. Where Arabic was concerned, he initially thought of Abbas Baydoun and Shawqi Abi Shaqra as the apostate and the ignoramus, respectively, eventually to realise his mistake. Elsayed speaks of interest in language that made structure possible. He speaks of an intensity not of emotion but of cadence, a capacity for building, an awareness of language that is poetry. And this is why poetry is a name we feel justified in giving to the following, very strong passage (No. 3) from Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm, Elsayed’s book-length text about his father, a baker who died, as his son says, before he could overcome his fear of death, about growing up underprivileged in the constantly makeshift circumstances imposed by war, about war and poverty, poverty and knowledge, knowledge and the prospect of plenty, the slow discovery of the physical world, the preternatural wonder of things, but principally about his father. The wall suddenly. And the always smiling entrance to the building. And the pipes that raise the water in their thin frame. And the stairs that count the steps of ascenders. And the darkness of the first floor. And the myth of the last floor. And the circling, wound around like nostalgia. And the pavement that lies panting on both sides of the road. And people for the sake of people. And provincial malice. And they tell of the grandmother who went with her bones to the grave. And the boy who used to hate the night and now loves it. And once he thought night ascended from the head, the way morning comes out of the eyes. And the trees that scurry past like a herd of madmen. And the isolation of corners. And the solitude of pathways. And the frankness of roofs. And patience in the larynx. And the missing step. And the put-off step. And how walking repeats the feet. And the flaccid fist in the chest. And heavy bodies in the imagination. And burnt shadows on the floor. And miracles in the head. And abrupt whiteness. And silly whiteness. And the man progressing and falling down behind him. Land wherever he goes. And the drowned sea being more than one person drowned. And all those who are born suddenly and die at leisure. And his eyes which transport across the air without a face. And people seeing him through them. And they shining cheerfully like new shoes. And dying while open. And dying too late. And coming out of the face like a scream. By we (in the we that calls this passage poetry), I mean Elsayed, his publisher and I – never mind a coterie of appreciative commentators, never mind a readership that must exist – as well as a discursive space shared by, among many other parties, the Egyptian Generation of the Nineties: poets who wrote originally but not as it is sometimes thought unprecedentedly in prose, most of them only slightly older than Elsayed. Their vernacularly nuanced standard Arabic – as Egyptian as it is provocative – could not possibly have influenced him. Within a discursive space that includes them, I am saying, Elsayed stands out for his connection not with the English, French and eventually Arabic writing that informed contemporary practises but with a tradition of Arabic verse (to be distinguished, as such, from our particular kind of utterance) from which the Generation of the Nineties were eager, emphatically, to tear themselves. One cue to Elsayed would be to say he transports the aesthetic intricacies of that tradition into a relevant – urban, living – idiomatic space; but the interesting thing is the way he does that. In hadathah (a word used, confusingly, to denote both modernity and modernism) – in the theorising of Adonis, for example, or in the free verse movement also known as the modern poetry movement also known, by its innovative approach to rhythm, after the metric unit it depended on as the taf’ila poetry movement – tradition is present in undifferentiated chunks: in an overriding theme, in an abundance of references, in a mode of composition. This is both a cause and an effect of hadathah coming across as a compromise or a copout; and while it is counterbalanced by equally whole chunks of the modern or the then contemporary, tradition turns into an obstacle, a burden ideally or eventually to be rid of, like Eliot’s boring hanger-on. In the present two books, by contrast – the one a single poem, the other a collection of very many extremely short poems, reflecting tarab and folklore, respectively – tradition lives in the structure of the composition and the movement of the language, the writer’s understanding of structure as an original possibility inherent to a particular language. Tradition lies low and by so doing it energises and animates what is being uttered, Elsayed’s confrontation with the world; it hosts it in the way the skin hosts muscle and bone. As it turns out, once tradition becomes an organic constituent of the text as world view, as literary style, as mode of perception – this happens with varying degrees of success, of course – it renders hadathah irrelevant. There is no need for either theory or reference. There is no need for an overt position on the poetic, which Elsayed says makes its mark simply by being what it is. There is only poetry, or would-be poetry (a noble enough accomplishment). And there are all the questions that the text itself raises in its capacity as an interaction with the physical, not (like much of the early work of the Generation of the Nineties, for example) in its capacity as a response to the social. That is only one way of showing what Nazem Elsayed stands out for, but stand out – in however subdued and unpretentious a way – I think Nazem Elsayed does.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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سفر مَرَاثِي إِرْمِيَا

الأصحَاحُ الأَوَّلُ

1كَيْفَ جَلَسَتْ وَحْدَهَا الْمَدِينَةُ الْكَثِيرَةُ الشَّعْبِ! كَيْفَ صَارَتْ كَأَرْمَلَةٍ الْعَظِيمَةُ فِي الأُمَمِ. السَّيِّدَةُ في الْبُلْدَانِ صَارَتْ تَحْتَ الْجِزْيَةِ! 2تَبْكِي في اللَّيْلِ بُكَاءً، وَدُمُوعُهَا علَى خَدَّيْهَا. لَيْسَ لَهَا مُعَزّ مِنْ كُلِّ مُحِبِّيهَا. كُلُّ أَصْحَابِهَا غَدَرُوا بِهَا، صَارُوا لهَا أَعْدَاءً. 3قَد سُبِيَتْ يَهُوذَا مِنَ الْمَذَلَّةِ وَمِنْ كَثْرَةِ الْعُبُودِيَّةِ. هِيَ تَسْكُنُ بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ. لاَ تَجِدُ رَاحَةً. قَدْ أَدْرَكَهَا كُلُّ طَارِدِيهَا بَيْنَ الضِّيقَاتِ. 4طُرُقُ صِهْيَوْنَ نَائِحَةٌ لِعَدَمِ الآتِينَ إِلَى الْعِيدِ. كُلُّ أَبْوَابِهَا خَرِبَةٌ. كَهَنَتُهَا يَتَنَهَّدُونَ. عَذَارَاهَا مُذَلَّلَةٌ وَهِيَ فِي مَرَارَةٍ. 5صَارَ مُضَايِقُوهَا رَأْسًا. نَجَحَ أَعْدَاؤُهَا لأَنَّ الرَّبَّ قَدْ أَذَلَّهَا لأَجْلِ كَثْرَةِ ذُنُوبِهَا. ذَهَبَ أَوْلاَدُهَا إِلَى السَّبْيِ قُدَّامَ الْعَدُوِّ. 6وَقَدْ خَرَجَ مِنْ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ كُلُّ بَهَائِهَا. صَارَتْ رُؤَسَاؤُهَا كَأَيَائِلَ لاَ تَجِدُ مَرْعًى، فَيَسِيرُونَ بِلاَ قُوَّةٍ أَمَامَ الطَّارِدِ. 7قَدْ ذَكَرَتْ أُورُشَلِيمُ فِي أَيَّامِ مَذَلَّتِهَا وَتَطَوُّحِهَا كُلَّ مُشْتَهَيَاتِهَا الَّتِي كَانَتْ فِي أَيَّامِ الْقِدَمِ. عِنْدَ سُقُوطِ شَعْبِهَا بِيَدِ الْعَدُوِّ وَلَيْسَ مَنْ يُسَاعِدُهَا. رَأَتْهَا الأَعْدَاءُ. ضَحِكُوا عَلَى هَلاَكِهَا. 8قَدْ أَخْطَأَتْ أُورُشَلِيمُ خَطِيَّةً، مِنْ أَجْلِ ذلِكَ صَارَتْ رَجِسَةً. كُلُّ مُكَرِّمِيهَا يَحْتَقِرُونَهَا لأَنَّهُمْ رَأَوْا عَوْرَتَهَا، وَهِيَ أَيْضًا تَتَنَهَّدُ وَتَرْجعُ إِلَى الْوَرَاءِ. 9نَجَاسَتُهَا فِي أَذْيَالِهَا. لَمْ تَذْكُرْ آخِرَتَهَا وَقَدِ انْحَطَّتِ انْحِطَاطًا عَجِيبًا. لَيْسَ لَهَا مُعَزّ. «انْظُرْ يَا رَبُّ إِلَى مَذَلَّتِي لأَنَّ الْعَدُوَّ قَدْ تَعَظَّمَ». 10بَسَطَ الْعَدُوُّ يَدَهُ عَلَى كُلِّ مُشْتَهَيَاتِهَا، فَإِنَّهَا رَأَتِ الأُمَمَ دَخَلُوا مَقْدِسَهَا، الَّذِينَ أَمَرْتَ أَنْ لاَ يَدْخُلُوا فِي جَمَاعَتِكَ. 11كُلُّ شَعْبِهَا يَتَنَهَّدُونَ، يَطْلُبُونَ خُبْزًا. دَفَعُوا مُشْتَهَيَاتِهِمْ لِلأَكْلِ لأَجْلِ رَدِّ النَّفْسِ. «انْظُرْ يَارَبُّ وَتَطَلَّعْ لأَنِّي قَدْ صِرْتُ مُحْتَقَرَةً».

12«أَمَا إِلَيْكُمْ يَا جَمِيعَ عَابِرِي الطَّرِيقِ؟ تَطَلَّعُوا وَانْظُرُوا إِنْ كَانَ حُزْنٌ مِثْلُ حُزْنِي الَّذِي صُنِعَ بِي، الَّذِي أَذَلَّنِي بِهِ الرَّبُّ يَوْمَ حُمُوِّ غَضَبِهِ؟ 13مِنَ الْعَلاَءِ أَرْسَلَ نَارًا إِلَى عِظَامِي فَسَرَتْ فِيهَا. بَسَطَ شَبَكَةً لِرِجْلَيَّ. رَدَّنِي إِلَى الْوَرَاءِ. جَعَلَنِي خَرِبَةً. الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ مَغْمُومَةً. 14شَدَّ نِيرَ ذُنُوبِي بِيَدِهِ، ضُفِرَتْ، صَعِدَتْ عَلَى عُنُقِي. نَزَعَ قُوَّتِي. دَفَعَنِي السَّيِّدُ إِلَى أَيْدٍ لاَ أَسْتَطِيعُ الْقِيَامَ مِنْهَا. 15رَذَلَ السَّيِّدُ كُلَّ مُقْتَدِرِيَّ فِي وَسَطِي. دَعَا عَلَيَّ جَمَاعَةً لِحَطْمِ شُبَّانِي. دَاسَ السَّيِّدُ الْعَذْرَاءَ بِنْتَ يَهُوذَا مِعْصَرَةً. 16عَلَى هذِهِ أَنَا بَاكِيَةٌ. عَيْنِي، عَيْنِي تَسْكُبُ مِيَاهًا لأَنَّهُ قَدِ ابْتَعَدَ عَنِّي الْمُعَزِّي، رَادُّ نَفْسِي. صَارَ بَنِيَّ هَالِكِينَ لأَنَّهُ قَدْ تَجَبَّرَ الْعَدُوُّ».

17بَسَطَتْ صِهْيَوْنُ يَدَيْهَا. لاَ مُعَزِّيَ لَهَا. أَمَرَ الرَّبُّ عَلَى يَعْقُوبَ أَنْ يَكُونَ مُضَايِقُوهُ حَوَالَيْهِ. صَارَتْ أُورُشَلِيمُ نَجِسَةً بَيْنَهُمْ. 18«بَارٌّ هُوَ الرَّبُّ لأَنِّي قَدْ عَصَيْتُ أَمْرَهُ. اسْمَعُوا يَا جَمِيعَ الشُّعُوبِ وَانْظُرُوا إِلَى حُزْنِي. عَذَارَايَ وَشُبَّانِي ذَهَبُوا إِلَى السَّبْيِ. 19نَادَيْتُ مُحِبِّيَّ. هُمْ خَدَعُونِي. كَهَنَتِي وَشُيُوخِي فِي الْمَدِينَةِ مَاتُوا، إِذْ طَلَبُوا لِذَوَاتِهِمْ طَعَامًا لِيَرُدُّوا أَنْفُسَهُمْ. 20انْظُرْ يَا رَبُّ، فَإِنِّي فِي ضِيق! أَحْشَائِي غَلَتْ. ارْتَدَّ قَلْبِي فِي بَاطِنِي لأَنِّي قَدْ عَصَيْتُ مُتَمَرِّدَةً. فِي الْخَارِجِ يَثْكُلُ السَّيْفُ، وَفِي الْبَيْتِ مِثْلُ الْمَوْتِ. 21سَمِعُوا أَنِّي تَنَهَّدْتُ. لاَ مُعَزِّيَ لِي. كُلُّ أَعْدَائِي سَمِعُوا بِبَلِيَّتِي. فَرِحُوا لأَنَّكَ فَعَلْتَ. تَأْتِي بِالْيَوْمِ الَّذِي نَادَيْتَ بِهِ فَيَصِيرُونَ مِثْلِي. 22لِيَأْتِ كُلُّ شَرِّهِمْ أَمَامَكَ. وَافْعَلْ بِهِمْ كَمَا فَعَلْتَ بِي مِنْ أَجْلِ كُلِّ ذُنُوبِي، لأَنَّ تَنَهُّدَاتِي كَثِيرَةٌ وَقَلْبِي مَغْشِيٌّ عَلَيْهِ».

الأصحَاحُ الثَّانِي

1كَيْفَ غَطَّى السَّيِّدُ بِغَضَبِهِ ابْنَةَ صِهْيَوْنَ بِالظَّلاَمِ! أَلْقَى مِنَ السَّمَاءِ إِلَى الأَرْضِ فَخْرَ إِسْرَائِيلَ، وَلَمْ يَذْكُرْ مَوْطِئَ قَدَمَيْهِ فِي يَوْمِ غَضَبِهِ. 2ابْتَلَعَ السَّيِّدُ وَلَمْ يَشْفِقْ كُلَّ مَسَاكِنِ يَعْقُوبَ. نَقَضَ بِسَخَطِهِ حُصُونَ بِنْتِ يَهُوذَا. أَوْصَلَهَا إِلَى الأَرْضِ. نَجَّسَ الْمَمْلَكَةَ وَرُؤَسَاءَهَا. 3عَضَبَ بِحُمُوِّ غَضَبِهِ كُلَّ قَرْنٍ لإِسْرَائِيلَ. رَدَّ إِلَى الْوَرَاءِ يَمِينَهُ أَمَامَ الْعَدُوِّ، وَاشْتَعَلَ فِي يَعْقُوبَ مِثْلَ نَارٍ مُلْتَهِبَةٍ تَأْكُلُ مَا حَوَالَيْهَا. 4مَدَّ قَوْسَهُ كَعَدُوٍّ. نَصَبَ يَمِينَهُ كَمُبْغِضٍ وَقَتَلَ كُلَّ مُشْتَهَيَاتِ الْعَيْنِ فِي خِبَاءِ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ. سَكَبَ كَنَارٍ غَيْظَهُ. 5صَارَ السَّيِّدُ كَعَدُوٍّ. ابْتَلَعَ إِسْرَائِيلَ. ابْتَلَعَ كُلَّ قُصُورِهِ. أَهْلَكَ حُصُونَهُ، وَأَكْثَرَ فِي بِنْتِ يَهُوذَا النَّوْحَ وَالْحُزْنَ. 6وَنَزَعَ كَمَا مِنْ جَنَّةٍ مَظَلَّتَهُ. أَهْلَكَ مُجْتَمَعَهُ. أَنْسَى الرَّبُّ فِي صِهْيَوْنَ الْمَوْسِمَ وَالسَّبْتَ، وَرَذَلَ بِسَخَطِ غَضَبِهِ الْمَلِكَ وَالْكَاهِنَ. 7كَرِهَ السَّيِّدُ مَذْبَحَهُ. رَذَلَ مَقْدِسَهُ. حَصَرَ فِي يَدِ الْعَدُوِّ أَسْوَارَ قُصُورِهَا. أَطْلَقُوا الصَّوْتَ فِي بَيْتِ الرَّبِّ كَمَا فِي يَوْمِ الْمَوْسِمِ. 8قَصَدَ الرَّبُّ أَنْ يُهْلِكَ سُورَ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ. مَدَّ الْمِطْمَارَ. لَمْ يَرْدُدْ يَدَهُ عَنِ الإِهْلاَكِ، وَجَعَلَ الْمِتْرَسَةَ وَالسُّورَ يَنُوحَانِ. قَدْ حَزِنَا مَعًا. 9تَاخَتْ فِي الأَرْضِ أَبْوَابُهَا. أَهْلَكَ وَحَطَّمَ عَوَارِضَهَا. مَلِكُهَا وَرُؤَسَاؤُهَا بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ. لاَ شَرِيعَةَ. أَنْبِيَاؤُهَا أَيْضًا لاَ يَجِدُونَ رُؤْيَا مِنْ قِبَلِ الرَّبِّ. 10شُيُوخُ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ يَجْلِسُونَ عَلَى الأَرْضِ سَاكِتِينَ. يَرْفَعُونَ التُّرَابَ عَلَى رُؤُوسِهِمْ. يَتَنَطَّقُونَ بِالْمُسُوحِ. تَحْنِي عَذَارَى أُورُشَلِيمَ رُؤُوسَهُنَّ إِلَى الأَرْضِ. 11كَلَّتْ مِنَ الدُّمُوعِ عَيْنَايَ. غَلَتْ أَحْشَائِي. انْسَكَبَتْ عَلَى الأَرْضِ كَبِدِي عَلَى سَحْقِ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي، لأَجْلِ غَشَيَانِ الأَطْفَالِ وَالرُّضَّعِ فِي سَاحَاتِ الْقَرْيَةِ. 12يَقُولُونَ لأُمَّهَاتِهِمْ: «أَيْنَ الْحِنْطَةُ وَالْخَمْرُ؟» إِذْ يُغْشَى عَلَيْهِمْ كَجَرِيحٍ فِي سَاحَاتِ الْمَدِينَةِ، إِذْ تُسْكَبُ نَفْسُهُمْ فِي أَحْضَانِ أُمَّهَاتِهِمْ. 13بِمَاذَا أُنْذِرُكِ؟ بِمَاذَا أُحَذِّرُكِ؟ بِمَاذَا أُشَبِّهُكِ يَا ابْنَةَ أُورُشَلِيمَ؟ بِمَاذَا أُقَايِسُكِ فَأُعَزِّيكِ أَيَّتُهَا الْعَذْرَاءُ بِنْتَ صِهْيَوْنَ؟ لأَنَّ سَحْقَكِ عَظِيمٌ كَالْبَحْرِ. مَنْ يَشْفِيكِ؟ 14أَنْبِيَاؤُكِ رَأَوْا لَكِ كَذِبًا وَبَاطِلاً، وَلَمْ يُعْلِنُوا إِثْمَكِ لِيَرُدُّوا سَبْيَكِ، بَلْ رَأَوْا لَكِ وَحْيًا كَاذِبًا وَطَوَائِحَ. 15يُصَفِّقُ عَلَيْكِ بِالأَيَادِي كُلُّ عَابِرِي الطَّرِيقِ. يَصْفِرُونَ وَيَنْغُضُونَ رُؤُوسَهُمْ عَلَى بِنْتِ أُورُشَلِيمَ قَائِلِينَ: «أَهذِهِ هِيَ الْمَدِينَةُ الَّتِي يَقُولُونَ إِنَّهَا كَمَالُ الْجَمَالِ، بَهْجَةُ كُلِّ الأَرْضِ؟» 16يَفْتَحُ عَلَيْكِ أَفْوَاهَهُمْ كُلُّ أَعْدَائِكِ. يَصْفِرُونَ وَيَحْرِقُونَ الأَسْنَانَ. يَقُولُونَ: «قَدْ أَهْلَكْنَاهَا. حَقًّا إِنَّ هذَا الْيَوْمَ الَّذِي رَجَوْنَاهُ. قَدْ وَجَدْنَاهُ! قَدْ رَأَيْنَاهُ». 17فَعَلَ الرَّبُّ مَا قَصَدَ. تَمَّمَ قَوْلَهُ الَّذِي أَوْعَدَ بِهِ مُنْذُ أَيَّامِ الْقِدَمِ. قَدْ هَدَمَ وَلَمْ يَشْفِقْ وَأَشْمَتَ بِكِ الْعَدُوَّ. نَصَبَ قَرْنَ أَعْدَائِكِ. 18صَرَخَ قَلْبُهُمْ إِلَى السَّيِّدِ. يَا سُورَ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ اسْكُبِي الدَّمْعَ كَنَهْرٍ نَهَارًا وَلَيْلاً. لاَ تُعْطِي ذَاتَكِ رَاحَةً. لاَ تَكُفَّ حَدَقَةُ عَيْنِكِ. 19قُومِي اهْتِفِي فِي اللَّيْلِ فِي أَوَّلِ الْهُزُعِ. اسْكُبِي كَمِيَاهٍ قَلْبَكِ قُبَالَةَ وَجْهِ السَّيِّدِ. ارْفَعِي إِلَيْهِ يَدَيْكِ لأَجْلِ نَفْسِ أَطْفَالِكِ الْمَغْشِيِّ عَلَيْهِمْ مِنَ الْجُوعِ فِي رَأْسِ كُلِّ شَارِعٍ.

20«اُنْظُرْ يَا رَبُّ وَتَطَلَّعْ بِمَنْ فَعَلْتَ هكَذَا؟ أَتَأْكُلُ النِّسَاءُ ثَمَرَهُنَّ، أَطْفَالَ الْحَضَانَةِ؟ أَيُقْتَلُ فِي مَقْدِسِ السَّيِّدِ الْكَاهِنُ وَالنَّبِيُّ؟ 21اضْطَجَعَتْ عَلَى الأَرْضِ فِي الشَّوَارِعِ الصِّبْيَانُ وَالشُّيُوخُ. عَذَارَايَ وَشُبَّانِي سَقَطُوا بِالسَّيْفِ. قَدْ قَتَلْتَ فِي يَوْمِ غَضَبِكَ. ذَبَحْتَ وَلَمْ تَشْفِقْ. 22قَدْ دَعَوْتَ كَمَا فِي يَوْمِ مَوْسِمٍ مَخَاوِفِي حَوَالَيَّ، فَلَمْ يَكُنْ فِي يَوْمِ غَضَبِ الرَّبِّ نَاجٍ وَلاَ بَاق. اَلَّذِينَ حَضَنْتُهُمْ وَرَبَّيْتُهُمْ أَفْنَاهُمْ عَدُوِّي».

الأصحَاحُ الثَّالِثُ

1أَنَا هُوَ الرَّجُلُ الَّذِي رأَى مَذَلَّةً بِقَضِيبِ سَخَطِهِ. 2قَادَنِي وَسَيَّرَنِي فِي الظَّلاَمِ وَلاَ نُورَ. 3حَقًّا إِنَّهُ يَعُودُ وَيَرُدُّ عَلَيَّ يَدَهُ الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ. 4أَبْلَى لَحْمِي وَجِلْدِي. كَسَّرَ عِظَامِي. 5بَنَى عَلَيَّ وَأَحَاطَنِي بِعَلْقَمٍ وَمَشَقَّةٍ. 6أَسْكَنَنِي فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ كَمَوْتَى الْقِدَمِ. 7سَيَّجَ عَلَيَّ فَلاَ أَسْتَطِيعُ الْخُرُوجَ. ثَقَّلَ سِلْسِلَتِي. 8أَيْضًا حِينَ أَصْرُخُ وَأَسْتَغِيثُ يَصُدُّ صَلاَتِي. 9سَيَّجَ طُرُقِي بِحِجَارَةٍ مَنْحُوتَةٍ. قَلَبَ سُبُلِي. 10هُوَ لِي دُبٌّ كَامِنٌ، أَسَدٌ فِي مَخَابِىءَ. 11مَيَّلَ طُرُقِي وَمَزَّقَنِي. جَعَلَنِي خَرَابًا. 12مَدَّ قَوْسَهُ وَنَصَبَنِي كَغَرَضٍ لِلسَّهْمِ. 13أَدْخَلَ فِي كُلْيَتَيَّ نِبَالَ جُعْبَتِهِ. 14صِرْتُ ضُحْكَةً لِكُلِّ شَعْبِي، وَأُغْنِيَةً لَهُمُ الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ. 15أَشْبَعَنِي مَرَائِرَ وَأَرْوَانِي أَفْسَنْتِينًا، 16وَجَرَشَ بِالْحَصَى أَسْنَانِي. كَبَسَنِي بِالرَّمَادِ. 17وَقَدْ أَبْعَدْتَ عَنِ السَّلاَمِ نَفْسِي. نَسِيتُ الْخَيْرَ. 18وَقُلْتُ: «بَادَتْ ثِقَتِي وَرَجَائِي مِنَ الرَّبِّ». 19ذِكْرُ مَذَلَّتِي وَتَيَهَانِي أَفْسَنْتِينٌ وَعَلْقَمٌ. 20ذِكْرًا تَذْكُرُ نَفْسِي وَتَنْحَنِي فِيَّ.

21أُرَدِّدُ هذَا فِي قَلْبِي، مِنْ أَجْلِ ذلِكَ أَرْجُو: 22إِنَّهُ مِنْ إِحْسَانَاتِ الرَّبِّ أَنَّنَا لَمْ نَفْنَ، لأَنَّ مَرَاحِمَهُ لاَ تَزُولُ. 23هِيَ جَدِيدَةٌ فِي كُلِّ صَبَاحٍ. كَثِيرَةٌ أَمَانَتُكَ. 24نَصِيبِي هُوَ الرَّبُّ، قَالَتْ نَفْسِي، مِنْ أَجْلِ ذلِكَ أَرْجُوهُ. 25طَيِّبٌ هُوَ الرَّبُّ لِلَّذِينَ يَتَرَجَّوْنَهُ، لِلنَّفْسِ الَّتِي تَطْلُبُهُ. 26جَيِّدٌ أَنْ يَنْتَظِرَ الإِنْسَانُ وَيَتَوَقَّعَ بِسُكُوتٍ خَلاَصَ الرَّبِّ. 27جَيِّدٌ لِلرَّجُلِ أَنْ يَحْمِلَ النِّيرَ فِي صِبَاهُ. 28يَجْلِسُ وَحْدَهُ وَيَسْكُتُ، لأَنَّهُ قَدْ وَضَعَهُ عَلَيْهِ. 29يَجْعَلُ فِي التُّرَابِ فَمَهُ لَعَلَّهُ يُوجَدُ رَجَاءٌ. 30يُعْطِي خَدَّهُ لِضَارِبِهِ. يَشْبَعُ عَارًا. 31لأَنَّ السَّيِّدَ لاَ يَرْفُضُ إِلَى الأَبَدِ. 32فَإِنَّهُ وَلَوْ أَحْزَنَ يَرْحَمُ حَسَبَ كَثْرَةِ مَرَاحِمِهِ. 33لأَنَّهُ لاَ يُذِلُّ مِنْ قَلْبِهِ، وَلاَ يُحْزِنُ بَنِي الإِنْسَانِ. 34أَنْ يَدُوسَ أَحَدٌ تَحْتَ رِجْلَيْهِ كُلَّ أَسْرَى الأَرْضِ، 35أَنْ يُحَرِّفَ حَقَّ الرَّجُلِ أَمَامَ وَجْهِ الْعَلِيِّ، 36أَنْ يَقْلِبَ الإِنْسَانَ فِي دَعْوَاهُ. السَّيِّدُ لاَ يَرَى! 37مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَقُولُ فَيَكُونَ وَالرَّبُّ لَمْ يَأْمُرْ؟ 38مِنْ فَمِ الْعَلِيِّ أَلاَ تَخْرُجُ الشُّرُورُ وَالْخَيْرُ؟

39لِمَاذَا يَشْتَكِي الإِنْسَانُ الْحَيُّ، الرَّجُلُ مِنْ قِصَاصِ خَطَايَاهُ؟ 40لِنَفْحَصْ طُرُقَنَا وَنَمْتَحِنْهَا وَنَرْجعْ إِلَى الرَّبِّ. 41لِنَرْفَعْ قُلُوبَنَا وَأَيْدِيَنَا إِلَى اللهِ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ: 42«نَحْنُ أَذْنَبْنَا وَعَصَيْنَا. أَنْتَ لَمْ تَغْفِرْ. 43الْتَحَفْتَ بِالْغَضَبِ وَطَرَدْتَنَا. قَتَلْتَ وَلَمْ تَشْفِقْ. 44الْتَحَفْتَ بِالسَّحَابِ حَتَّى لاَ تَنْفُذَ الصَّلاَةُ. 45جَعَلْتَنَا وَسَخًا وَكَرْهًا فِي وَسَطِ الشُّعُوبِ. 46فَتَحَ كُلُّ أَعْدَائِنَا أَفْوَاهَهُمْ عَلَيْنَا. 47صَارَ عَلَيْنَا خَوْفٌ وَرُعْبٌ، هَلاَكٌ وَسَحْقٌ». 48سَكَبَتْ عَيْنَايَ يَنَابِيعَ مَاءٍ عَلَى سَحْقِ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي. 49عَيْنِي تَسْكُبُ وَلاَ تَكُفُّ بِلاَ انْقِطَاعٍ 50حَتَّى يُشْرِفَ وَيَنْظُرَ الرَّبُّ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ. 51عَيْنِي تُؤَثِّرُ فِي نَفْسِي لأَجْلِ كُلِّ بَنَاتِ مَدِينَتِي. 52قَدِ اصْطَادَتْنِي أَعْدَائِي كَعُصْفُورٍ بِلاَ سَبَبٍ. 53قَرَضُوا فِي الْجُبِّ حَيَاتِي وَأَلْقَوْا عَلَيَّ حِجَارَةً. 54طَفَتِ الْمِيَاهُ فَوْقَ رَأْسِي. قُلْتُ: «قَدْ قُرِضْتُ!».

55دَعَوْتُ بِاسْمِكَ يَا رَبُّ مِنَ الْجُبِّ الأَسْفَلِ. 56لِصَوْتِي سَمِعْتَ: «لاَ تَسْتُرْ أُذُنَكَ عَنْ زَفْرَتِي، عَنْ صِيَاحِي». 57دَنَوْتَ يَوْمَ دَعَوْتُكَ. قُلْتَ: «لاَ تَخَفْ!». 58خَاصَمْتَ يَا سَيِّدُ خُصُومَاتِ نَفْسِي. فَكَكْتَ حَيَاتِي. 59رَأَيْتَ يَا رَبُّ ظُلْمِي. أَقِمْ دَعْوَايَ. 60رَأَيْتَ كُلَّ نَقْمَتِهِمْ، كُلَّ أَفْكَارِهِمْ عَلَيَّ. 61سَمِعْتَ تَعْيِيرَهُمْ يَا رَبُّ، كُلَّ أَفْكَارِهِمْ عَلَيَّ. 62كَلاَمُ مُقَاوِمِيَّ وَمُؤَامَرَتُهُمْ عَلَيَّ الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ. 63اُنْظُرْ إِلَى جُلُوسِهِمْ وَوُقُوفِهِمْ، أَنَا أُغْنِيَتُهُمْ!

64رُدَّ لَهُمْ جَزَاءً يَا رَبُّ حَسَبَ عَمَلِ أَيَادِيهِمْ. 65أَعْطِهِمْ غِشَاوَةَ قَلْبٍ، لَعْنَتَكَ لَهُمْ. 66اِتْبَعْ بِالْغَضَبِ وَأَهْلِكْهُمْ مِنْ تَحْتِ سَمَاوَاتِ الرَّبِّ.

الأصحَاحُ الرَّابعُ

1كَيْفَ اكْدَرَّ الذَّهَبُ، تَغَيَّرَ الإِبْرِيزُ الْجَيِّدُ! انْهَالَتْ حِجَارَةُ الْقُدْسِ فِي رَأْسِ كُلِّ شَارِعٍ. 2بَنُو صِهْيَوْنَ الْكُرَمَاءُ الْمَوْزُونُونَ بِالذَّهَبِ النَّقِيِّ، كَيْفَ حُسِبُوا أَبَارِيقَ خَزَفٍ عَمَلَ يَدَيْ فَخَّارِيٍّ! 3بَنَاتُ آوَى أَيْضًا أَخْرَجَتْ أَطْبَاءَهَا، أَرْضَعَتْ أَجْرَاءَهَا. أَمَّا بِنْتُ شَعْبِي فَجَافِيَةٌ كَالنَّعَامِ فِي الْبَرِّيَّةِ. 4لَصِقَ لِسَانُ الرَّاضِعِ بِحَنَكِهِ مِنَ الْعَطَشِ. اَلأَطْفَالُ يَسْأَلُونَ خُبْزًا وَلَيْسَ مَنْ يَكْسِرُهُ لَهُمْ. 5اَلَّذِينَ كَانُوا يَأْكُلُونَ الْمَآكِلَ الْفَاخِرَةَ قَدْ هَلِكُوا فِي الشَّوَارِعِ. الَّذِينَ كَانُوا يَتَرَبَّوْنَ عَلَى الْقِرْمِزِ احْتَضَنُوا الْمَزَابِلَ. 6وَقَدْ صَارَ عِقَابُ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي أَعْظَمَ مِنْ قِصَاصِ خَطِيَّةِ سَدُومَ الَّتِي انْقَلَبَتْ كَأَنَّهُ فِي لَحْظَةٍ، وَلَمْ تُلْقَ عَلَيْهَا أَيَادٍ. 7كَانَ نُذُرُهَا أَنْقَى مِنَ الثَّلْجِ وَأَكْثَرَ بَيَاضًا مِنَ اللَّبَنِ، وَأَجْسَامُهُمْ أَشَدَّ حُمْرَةً مِنَ الْمَرْجَانِ. جَرَزُهُمْ كَالْيَاقُوتِ الأَزْرَقِ. 8صَارَتْ صُورَتُهُمْ أَشَدَّ ظَلاَمًا مِنَ السَّوَادِ. لَمْ يُعْرَفُوا فِي الشَّوَارِعِ. لَصِقَ جِلْدُهُمْ بِعَظْمِهِمْ. صَارَ يَابِسًا كَالْخَشَبِ. 9كَانَتْ قَتْلَى السَّيْفِ خَيْرًا مِنْ قَتْلَى الْجُوعِ. لأَنَّ هؤُلاَءِ يَذُوبُونَ مَطْعُونِينَ لِعَدَمِ أَثْمَارِ الْحَقْلِ. 10أَيَادِي النِّسَاءِ الْحَنَائِنِ طَبَخَتْ أَوْلاَدَهُنَّ. صَارُوا طَعَامًا لَهُنَّ فِي سَحْقِ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي. 11أَتَمَّ الرَّبُّ غَيْظَهُ. سَكَبَ حُمُوَّ غَضَبِهِ وَأَشْعَلَ نَارًا فِي صِهْيَوْنَ فَأَكَلَتْ أُسُسَهَا. 12لَمْ تُصَدِّقْ مُلُوكُ الأَرْضِ وَكُلُّ سُكَّانِ الْمَسْكُونَةِ أَنَّ الْعَدُوَّ وَالْمُبْغِضَ يَدْخُلاَنِ أَبْوَابَ أُورُشَلِيمَ.

13مِنْ أَجْلِ خَطَايَا أَنْبِيَائِهَا، وَآثَامِ كَهَنَتِهَا السَّافِكِينَ فِي وَسَطِهَا دَمَ الصِّدِّيقِينَ، 14تَاهُوا كَعُمْيٍ فِي الشَّوَارِعِ، وَتَلَطَّخُوا بِالدَّمِ حَتَّى لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ أَحَدٌ أَنْ يَمَسَّ مَلاَبِسَهُمْ. 15«حِيدُوا! نَجِسٌ!» يُنَادُونَ إِلَيْهِمْ. «حِيدُوا! حِيدُوا لاَ تَمَسُّوا!». إِذْ هَرَبُوا تَاهُوا أَيْضًا. قَالُوا بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ: «إِنَّهُمْ لاَ يَعُودُونَ يَسْكُنُونَ». 16وَجْهُ الرَّبِّ قَسَمَهُمْ. لاَ يَعُودُ يَنْظُرُ إِلَيْهِمْ. لَمْ يَرْفَعُوا وُجُوهَ الْكَهَنَةِ، وَلَمْ يَتَرَأ َّ فُوا عَلَى الشُّيُوخِ. 17أَمَّا نَحْنُ فَقَدْ كَلَّتْ أَعْيُنُنَا مِنَ النَّظَرِ إِلَى عَوْنِنَا الْبَاطِلِ. فِي بُرْجِنَا انْتَظَرْنَا أُمَّةً لاَ تُخَلِّصُ. 18نَصَبُوا فِخَاخًا لِخَطَوَاتِنَا حَتَّى لاَ نَمْشِيَ فِي سَاحَاتِنَا. قَرُبَتْ نِهَايَتُنَا. كَمُلَتْ أَيَّامُنَا لأَنَّ نِهَايَتَنَا قَدْ أَتَتْ. 19صَارَ طَارِدُونَا أَخَفَّ مِنْ نُسُورِ السَّمَاءِ. عَلَى الْجِبَالِ جَدُّوا فِي أَثَرِنَا. فِي الْبَرِّيَّةِ كَمَنُوا لَنَا. 20نَفَسُ أُنُوفِنَا، مَسِيحُ الرَّبِّ، أُخِذَ فِي حُفَرِهِمِ. الَّذِي قُلْنَا عَنْهُ: « فِي ظِلِّهِ نَعِيشُ بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ».

21اِطْرَبِي وَافْرَحِي يَا بِنْتَ أَدُومَ، يَا سَاكِنَةَ عَوْصٍ. عَلَيْكِ أَيْضًا تَمُرُّ الْكَأْسُ. تَسْكَرِينَ وَتَتَعَرَّينَ.

22قَدْ تَمَّ إِثْمُكِ يَا بِنْتَ صِهْيَوْنَ. لاَ يَعُودُ يَسْبِيكِ. سَيُعَاقِبُ إِثْمَكِ يَا بِنْتَ أَدُومَ وَيُعْلِنُ خَطَايَاكِ.

الأصحَاحُ الْخَامِسُ

1اُذْكُرْ يَا رَبُّ مَاذَا صَارَ لَنَا. أَشْرِفْ وَانْظُرْ إِلَى عَارِنَا. 2قَدْ صَارَ مِيرَاثُنَا لِلْغُرَبَاءِ. بُيُوتُنَا لِلأَجَانِبِ. 3صِرْنَا أَيْتَامًا بِلاَ أَبٍ. أُمَّهَاتُنَا كَأَرَامِلَ. 4شَرِبْنَا مَاءَنَا بِالْفِضَّةِ. حَطَبُنَا بِالثَّمَنِ يَأْتِي. 5عَلَى أَعْنَاقِنَا نُضْطَهَدُ. نَتْعَبُ وَلاَ رَاحَةَ لَنَا. 6أَعْطَيْنَا الْيَدَ لِلْمِصْرِيِّينَ وَالأَشُّورِيِّينَ لِنَشْبَعَ خُبْزًا. 7آبَاؤُنَا أَخْطَأُوا وَلَيْسُوا بِمَوْجُودِينَ، وَنَحْنُ نَحْمِلُ آثَامَهُمْ. 8عَبِيدٌ حَكَمُوا عَلَيْنَا. لَيْسَ مَنْ يُخَلِّصُ مِنْ أَيْدِيهِمْ. 9بِأَنْفُسِنَا نَأْتِي بِخُبْزِنَا مِنْ جَرَى سَيْفِ الْبَرِّيَّةِ. 10جُلُودُنَا اسْوَدَّتْ كَتَنُّورٍ مِنْ جَرَى نِيرَانِ الْجُوعِ. 11أَذَلُّوا النِّسَاءَ فِي صِهْيَوْنَ، الْعَذَارَى فِي مُدُنِ يَهُوذَا. 12الرُّؤَسَاءُ بِأَيْدِيهِمْ يُعَلَّقُونَ، وَلَمْ تُعْتَبَرْ وُجُوهُ الشُّيُوخِ. 13أَخَذُوا الشُّبَّانَ لِلطَّحْنِ، وَالصِّبْيَانَ عَثَرُوا تَحْتَ الْحَطَبِ. 14كَفَّتِ الشُّيُوخُ عَنِ الْبَابِ، وَالشُّبَّانُ عَنْ غِنَائِهِمْ. 15مَضَى فَرَحُ قَلْبِنَا. صَارَ رَقْصُنَا نَوْحًا. 16سَقَطَ إِكْلِيلُ رَأْسِنَا. وَيْلٌ لَنَا لأَنَّنَا قَدْ أَخْطَأْنَا. 17مِنْ أَجْلِ هذَا حَزِنَ قَلْبُنَا. مِنْ أَجْلِ هذِهِ أَظْلَمَتْ عُيُونُنَا. 18مِنْ أَجْلِ جَبَلِ صِهْيَوْنَ الْخَرِبِ. الثَّعَالِبُ مَاشِيَةٌ فِيهِ. 19أَنْتَ يَا رَبُّ إِلَى الأَبَدِ تَجْلِسُ. كُرْسِيُّكَ إِلَى دَوْرٍ فَدَوْرٍ. 20لِمَاذَا تَنْسَانَا إِلَى الأَبَدِ وَتَتْرُكُنَا طُولَ الأَيَّامِ؟ 21اُرْدُدْنَا يَا رَبُّ إِلَيْكَ فَنَرْتَدَّ. جَدِّدْ أَيَّامَنَا كَالْقَدِيمِ. 22هَلْ كُلَّ الرَّفْضِ رَفَضْتَنَا؟ هَلْ غَضِبْتَ عَلَيْنَا جِدًّا؟

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Sheikh Mustafa

The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, Kristina Nelson, Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2001. pp246

Some three weeks ago, at the Sidi Abul-Ela Mosque in Bulaq, while devotees of the saint solicited his intercession at the shrine, a large group of people gathered in clusters all across the main courtyard, listening to the sound emanating from half a dozen or more ancient-looking speakers positioned at convenient spots throughout. Although the sound was far from excellent, many had brought along recording equipment. There was something almost surreal about the scene. Young and old, conversing intermittently in whispers, these people had obviously gathered there for a purpose, but to the hapless observer, on walking into the mosque, that purpose was far from clear. In comparison to other, simultaneous events in Bulaq, moreover, the atmosphere of the Abul-Ela Mosque was remarkably quiet; and whatever activity taking place there seemed to be correspondingly low-key. Only after sitting cross-legged in one corner did it finally dawn upon the observer in question that he, too, had arrived there for a purpose: the event was a commemoration of the anniversary of the famous Qur’anic reciter Shiekh Mustafa Ismail (1905-1978); the speakers supplied rare, otherwise unavailable recordings of his recitations; and the listeners were aficionados. It was a sad irony that the reciter who once commanded a phenomenal popularity in this neighbourhood should be remembered so quietly by so comparatively few people. Yet the scene also afforded a glimpse of the power and majesty of a tradition that has come to be all but extinct: the art of reciting the Qur’an, the subject of the present book. Matching text to melody even as she delineates the received rules of recitation – the book benefits from a precise system of transliteration as well as musical notation – the author brings to this comprehensive account of Qur’anic recitation a range of epistemological perspectives, combining her knowledge of music and language with an exploration of the minds of the likes of Shiekh Mustafa and his admirers, and the circumstances in which they lived and worked. For a study of such diversity, moreover, the book is meticulously structured, making for a straightforward, if frequently taxing, read. An anthropologist, an expert on Arabic music and a Qur’anic scholar will each find both stimulation and benefit here.

“Night falls as small groups of people make their way towards a large tent straddling a Cairo street,” Kristina Nelson, a scholar of ethnomusicology and a seasoned, active participant in the cultural scene of the Arab world, writes in her introduction to The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, the fruit of many years of research and first-hand encounters with reciters, listeners and scholars, first published in 1985 by the University of Texas. “As they draw near, a clear ribbon of sound begins to separate itself from the dense fabric of street noise all around. The sound is that of the recited Qur’an; a public performance has just begun.” Since the present edition of the book was published, it is this passage, along with the rest of the introduction, that has been quoted most extensively by the Arabic press – an indication, perhaps, of the appeal of the introduction as a condensed summary of the entire project, as opposed to the more specific scholarly orientation of the book’s various chapters. One aim of the study, for example, is “to examine the implications of a particular perception within its tradition: given that recitation is the product of both divine and human ordering, how does this juxtaposition work in the mind of the performer and in the expectations of the listeners to shape the recitation of the Qur’an in Egypt today?” Classified by “those outside the tradition” as a form of religious music, recitation nonetheless remains, for those inside, both “distinct from music” and “a unique phenomenon.” It is always to the heart of the tradition that Nelson thus turns in her attempt to demarcate the territory occupied by that “clear ribbon of sound,” which initially enthralled her. “My own interest in Qur’anic recitation was caught and held by the power of the sound itself,” she testifies. And to pursue that interest, Nelson has crossed geographic, cultural and linguistic borders. She studies the theory of recitation, the (rightful) place it is meant to occupy in Qur’anic cartography, in order to reach back to her experience of its practice. “A man hides his face in his hands,” the introduction goes on, “another weeps violently. Some listeners tense themselves as if in pain, while, in the pauses between phrases, others shout appreciative responses to the reciter. Time passes unnoticed…”

Ethnomusicology is a multidisciplinary arena that makes possible the exploration of “the link between the affective power of sound and its referent meanings in daily life and religious practice.” As a female Westerner, Nelson was thus confronted by the twofold difficulty of coming to the sacred realm of Qur’anic scholarship from a profane (musical) background, and being the lone foreign women in a world made up exclusively of native men. Looking back on her experience – Nelson spent the period from September 1977 to August 1978 in Cairo undertaking research of a journalistic as well as a scholarly nature and learning the two modes of recitation, the private, devotional tartil and the artistic, audience-oriented tajwid – she wonders whether this “completely crazy” task would have been possible had she started her project in the 1990s, a time of decline for both the traditions of recitation and the tolerant attitudes that make social integration possible. It was the humane eagerness of these men, after all, that sustained her “desire and intent” to complete the task: “everyone I met in the course of my research,” Nelson recalls in the Acknowledgments, “was extremely helpful and generous with time, information, and hospitality.” This spirit of intercultural integration informs not only the project but the book, in which Nelson was careful not to fall into the trap of Orientalism by substantially referencing every point she desired to make. “The way to do it,” she has confided, “is to let the relevant people say it for you rather than saying it yourself; this way it doesn’t sound like something you’re imposing.” In itself this (Western) orientation is a commendable achievement: at no point does the desire and ability to explore a subject of interest imply a superior or authoritative attitude. Nelson is as faithful to the given precepts of Islam and Muslim culture as she is to the dictates of her own (academic) endeavour. And in this sense The Art of Reciting the Qur’an sets a precedent for Western studies of “the Orient” in that it is driven by genuine respect for that realm. Despite such intimate contact, moreover, Nelson has not converted to Islam – further testimony to the impartial understanding that informs her approach to the tradition of recitation.

Clockwise from top: Shiekh Mustafa Ismail, the “diva” of recitation; Sheikh Mohamed Mahmoud Tablawi; Sheikh Lotfi Amer; Sheikh Abdel-Baset Abdel-Samad; sheikh Mohamed Rifaat; the wajid of one listener; the author among reciters, at the time of conducting her research

Based on a University of California at Berkeley dissertation, for which the research was undertaken, the book progresses in two closely interrelated directions, seeking, first, “the ideal recitation” in the context of the place of this phenomenon in religious discourse and, secondly, the contemporaneous practice of Qur’anic recitation as Nelson encountered it in real life. The choice of Egypt, she explains, finds justification in “the particular prestige and influence of the Egyptian tradition in Qur’anic recitation, which make it an obvious starting place.” And the relevance of her study – an invaluable contribution to the body of available knowledge on social, cultural and artistic life in Egypt – is that, unlike the “classic works of Western Qur’anic scholarship,” which concentrate on the Qur’an as a written document, it addresses those aspects of recitation on which traditional Islamic scholarship has remained silent: “as the scope of Qur’anic disciplines has been firmly and authoritatively established and that body of knowledge has traditionally been considered fixed and given,” in recent times “there has been a reluctance to look at the Qur’an in new ways.” The book’s importance derives, Nelson implies, not only from giving equal consideration “to the theory and practice of recitation and the analysis of their interactions,” but from “my own direct participation in the tradition as student and performer.” A thorough consideration of what Nelson calls “the Sama’ Polemic,” the “alliance of Qura’nic text and vocal artistry” that provides the basis of the historical debate concerning whether and to what extent the melodic recitation of tajwid may be associated with music, follows her impeccable account of the Qur’an itself, the history of the revelation and how the Prophet’s message was communicated, as well as the nature of tajwid, Nelson’s principal interest. Then comes an account of the ideal recitation gleaned from classic Islamic scholarship, followed by the material of Nelson’s own experience: the nuances of the practice of recitation and the dynamics of reciter-audience interaction. Finally “the separation of music and recitation” receives its share of exploration: “That the acquiring of musical skills is left up to the individual reciter,” Nelson explains, “is one way to effect a concrete separation of recitation from music,” keeping recitation within the framework of religion even when it approaches the intensity of a (musical) performance.

Two interrelated issues make The Art of Reciting the Qur’an of particular interest to those inside the tradition: recitation as a means of transmission of the holy text, and the religious validity of the musicality of recitation. By recounting the history of recitation as the earliest and most widespread means of transmitting the sacred text, Nelson challenges the notion – so rampant in modern Egyptian society – that the sacred is the property of a literate minority. Sound emerges as something over and above both music or reading out loud: “The ideal recitation is a paradox. Participants in the tradition… all agree first, that the Qur’an is paramount in its divine uniqueness and perfection, and second, that melody is essential to the most effective Qur’anic recitation. The inherent contradiction between these two premises is accepted, even unquestioned, as long as the right balance of elements is maintained.” It is through recitation, after all, that illiterate Arabic-speaking Muslims – a sizable portion – come in contact with the text that forms the central proposition of their lives. The concept of taswir al- ma’na (picturing the meaning), the religious justification for melody, thus comes to play a central role in the public transmission of the Qur’an: “The late Sheikh Mustafa Ismail was considered suspect as a reciter by many Muslims because of his extreme musicality. But one devout scholar told me that, although he used to think that Shiekh Mustafa was ‘too musical,’ he had come to accept him because he knew [the rules of] tajwid… Shiekh Mustafa himself told me that when asked about the reluctance to associate Qur’anic recitation with music, he responded, ‘As long as the rules of tajwid are adhered to, the pauses are correct, the reciter can recite with music however he wishes.’ This statement was broadcast over national television on the programme ‘Your Favourite Star,’ ‘with the imam of Al-Azhar, the president of the republic and countless others listening,’ and Shiekh Mustafa said he challenged anyone to disagree, but never heard a word of rebuttal.” Indeed, in the best mujawwad recitations, divine truth is experienced through a unique convergence of elements – musical as well as textual – that transcends, rather than underlines the issue of whether recitation is a form of music. Shiekh Mustafa’s apparently cursory declamation reflects his appreciation of this notion: in his endeavour to transmit the divine text, the reciter should resort to whatever human means he is capable of, the better to achieve an effective communication of its meaning.

Music, in other words, cannot sensibly be thought to undermine the authority of the text; and however extensive its use, so long as the received rules of recitation are abided by, it cannot reduce the scope within which the experience of the Qur’an is said to be an encounter with the divine; rather, through taswir al-ma’na, it enhances it. Yet in the time she has spent in Egypt since the late 1970s, Nelson has noted a decline in the popularity of tajwid and the cult of “star” reciters, like Shiekh Mustafa, who practised it. And in the Postscript to the present edition of her book, she attempts to address this unfortunate decline: “perceptible changes would seem to indicate that a number of factors have succeeded in moving Qur’anic recitation away from the contested areas of melody and personality cult and that the sensibility that values conscious use of artistry to enhance the effect of recitation can no longer be taken for granted.” The Saudi influence that informs the popular recitation of such Egyptian practitioners as Shiekh Mohamed Gibril notwithstanding, the implications of the aforementioned changes include “a more socially and culturally conservative constituency” as well as the rise of “a younger generation… charged with the spirit of an activist Islam” that has no use for artistry. For many of Nelson’s contacts, indeed, the period from 1978, the year of Shiekh Mustafa’s death, to the present “represents the waning of the golden age of Egyptian reciters.” This change moreover reflects “an artistic vacuum, as much as any shift in religious attitudes;” and indeed, since the last decade yielded nothing comparable to Shiekh Mustafa, it may be that the decline of recitation is not ultimately due to the prevalence of the view that takes issue with the musicality of the tradition in the Sama’ Polemic, but simply to the unavailability of a generation of reciters who could bring the tradition back to life. After all, tajwid, an already fully lionised tradition, continues to thrive on the radio and on television screens as well as in public spaces. The decline in the popularity of tajwid is naturally conditioned by changes in the social and cultural fabric of life as well. Perhaps, like the bards of the Hilaleya epic and the masters of shadow puppet theatre, the maestros of tajwid too are fast becoming something of the past. And in this sense it is cheering to know that, however marginal and lacklustre their status, there will always be a group of people gathered, however quietly, in venues like the Abul-Ela Mosque, to bear tribute to their majesty and power.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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Insha’allah, Youssef Rakha

Where there’s a will…

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When I still lived in Cairo, I went to apply for a visa to visit Uzbekistan, and ended up talking to the resident consul about religious culture in Egypt. Something was perplexing the Uzbek diplomat. “The other day,” he told me, “I phoned an official called Mohammad. And I said, ‘Is this Mr Mohammad?’ But the voice at the other end, instead of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘How can I help you’, replied, ‘Insha’allah’!”

God willing, I thought, giggling, my name is Youssef Rakha. “It is very strange. There are no insha’allahs about it. How could God will or not will that? It has already been willed. No one would dream of saying that in Uzbekistan.”

I was not about to disagree with the consul – and not only because I needed the visa. He had cited a particularly amusing variation on a common complaint of non-Egyptians. He was bemoaning the Insha’allah Syndrome. Even to a deeply religious mind, his incredulity would be easy to understand.

A conditional clause derived from a verse of the Quran to the effect that nothing happens until God wills it, insha’allah is traditionally an expression of hope or prayer: “Insha’allah, this year I will pass my exam.”

In a similar, practically secular framework, it has been used to reassure (“Insha’allah, your papers will go through”), to express determination (“Insha’allah, I will teach her a lesson”), resignation (“Insha’allah, by then, the political situation may have improved”) or simply for emphasis: “Tomorrow at eight, insha’allah.

Less seriously, the phrase is an exclamation of surprise (“Who might this be, insha’allah?”), disapproval (“So you will go on smoking until tomorrow, then, insha’allah?”), sarcastic negation (“Ah, insha’allah…” – meaning “Never”) or, as in the case of the Uzbek consul’s phone call, utter boredom on the part of Mr Mohammad.

All of which is not to mention the function Westerners pick on the most: the tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility, especially in cases – like being expected to answer a simple factual question – where acknowledging the responsibility is both straightforward and necessary. Like the English “Sorry” and “Thank you”, however, overuse has rendered the expression, used colloquially, less meaningful over time: just a diversion with little relevance beyond indicating that you no longer want to talk.

Not until the 1990s did anyone think about it, really. And they did so not in the context of American-inspired administrative reform or theological argument, but simply to register the rising influence of Salafi Islam, the most pronounced evidence of which was the gradual tendency to replace “Good morning” and “Good evening” – even, in some cases, the “Allo” with which people routinely answer the phone – with “Assalamu ‘alaykum”, now deemed the official, divinely stamped Muslim greeting. Likewise the Salafi inspired insha’allah: Salafis regard the expression as a necessary adjunct to every statement in the future tense, reflecting a literalist interpretation of the aforementioned Quranic verse: “Say not I will until [you say] God wills it.” When pressed, orthodox theologians will in fact point out that (a) the verse refers to what you should believe, not what you should say, and (b) even if you were to think it necessary – for reasons of barakah, or blessing – to say insha’allah, it is generally a better idea to say it in your heart rather than verbally flaunt it, since what is in the heart counts for more than what is on the tongue.

So much for religion.

From the secular point of view, Westerners who are eager to understand it should think about insha’allah not simply, in reductive and orientalist terms, as a way for those lazy and fanatical Ay-rabs to avoid the dictates of work and logic, but rather, more deeply, as a cultural trope. The tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility is certainly annoying, and in many cases the decision to say insha’allah is informed by nothing more high-minded than the drive to get rid of someone. But in the end such attitudes are but the side effects of a mentality that could conceivably act as a corrective to the obsessively materialist standpoint of Western culture. To a far greater extent than its Western counterpart, the Muslim world view recognises the limits of human endeavour and is less uptight about time. Things happen because you make them, when you make them, but there are factors beyond the individual’s control, and to assume that reason and exertion are all there is to accomplishment or efficiency is not only to overlook dimensions of life but to give in to vanity, too.

The Western critique of insha’allah has a point, but so does Muslim fatalism. Big questions like death, what happens after death and how life might be lived in preparation for death are, after all, unlikely to acquire scientific answers. No medicine or technology can prevent an unexpected heart attack from instantly taking a young person’s life, which does not mean that open-heart surgery should be made illegal. Yet the cliché that every scientific good brings about a proportional evil – once again, to be swallowed with a generous pinch of salt – seems true if not at the material level then at the level of spiritual fulfilment. Cryogenics, for example, seems like a terribly barren alternative to the ecstasy of a Sufi invocation ceremony – which shares the same ultimate objective of eternal life.

Among Egyptians in particular, the belief in fate, which long predates Islam, is so strong and so pervasive that no one ever dares to question it. When you say insha’allah, in this context, you are – at some deep, ancestral level – acknowledging the limits of your power and professing the patience to wait. It seems more modest, more sensible and generally better for mental health to understand that there is only so much you can do in a given situation, relegating the rest to a greater power. Of course the incumbent risks are considerable, and the theory should be applied with caution. Bad science, inertia and inefficiency can readily result from the belief that all is in the hands of a greater power. But even within the framework of the Muslim faith, theology makes a distinction between positive tawakkul (relying on God) and negative tawaakul (absolving yourself of responsibility on the pretext of such reliance). Nothing happens until God wills it, sure, but the individual will is equally essential; and giving your name on the phone is something you can quite safely keep God out of without incurring His wrath.

originally published in The National