Surat Youssef, 2008


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.

The Infrarealist Manifesto


first infrarealist manifesto

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

— Soviet science fiction writers scratching their faces at midnight.

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

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

— Free money.


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

The handsome guy who didn’t know

that chicks’ orgasms are clitoral

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


Our closest relatives:

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


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

— Nightclub of misery.

— Pepito Tequila sobbing his love for Lisa Underground.

— I suck it, you suck it, we suck it.

— And the Horror.


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

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


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

— Multiple reality, you make us sick!

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


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


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

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


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

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

— The Constellation of the Beautiful Bird.

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

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

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

“erotic books full of misspellings”



99 flowers open like an open head

Slaughters, new concentration camps

White subterranean rivers, violet winds

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

HORA ZERO[iv] are our ancestors

((Raise arsonist kids, get burned))

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

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


I repeat:

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

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

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

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


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


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

Rimbaud, come home!

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

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




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

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

What stories are painters really telling me?

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

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

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


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

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


Try daily to leave everything behind.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

— Horses running 500 kilometers an hour

— Squirrels of fire hopping through trees of fire

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

— We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming.

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


Make new sensations appear—Subvert daily life.




—Roberto Bolaño, Mexico, 1976

(translation by Tim Pilcher)

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

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

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


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View Malta

Knights Hospitaller, Boat People and literary translation: in a strangely Catholic stronghold of the Mediterranean, Youssef Rakha reencounters his own life and work

And then the storm comes. At first we mistake the thunder for celebratory canon fire, the lightning for pyrotechnic pomp. Together with Valetta’s church bells, both have been ongoing for as long as we can remember.


With all that poetry bubbling in my head – and in so many vernaculars of the Mare Nostrum – by then I am convinced of my metaphorical place on the island: it feels like I have been here much longer than is actually the case. The hilly pathways of this, my walled city are preternaturally familiar, the variously textured grey and sandstone surfaces all around, shimmering blue patches of sea at the foot of undulating asphalt-and-cobblestone arches that rear cobra-like off Triq ir-Repubblika (Sicilian Arabic – sorry, I mean Maltese – for Republic Street). So are my curt exchanges with the black-clad waitresses at the café trottoir by the stone gate (on the other side is the fountain encircled by Malta’s bright yellow public buses):

When I sit at my favourite table to order espresso, it is as if I have been seeking out this circle of shade my whole life.

In the day I work with the Others in an antique-filled room on the roof of the same unassuming building with distinctive bright-coloured balconies that turn out to have ancestral roots in the mashrabeyya. But naked now in the cramped hotel bedroom, cigarette case and lighter in hand, I leap from the bed to the window, as I have done so often; I lean out.

The chill night breeze is refreshing. Rain drops wet the cigarette before I can light it.


The Others are writers whose homes dot the same intimate shores and for a day or so – a sizable part of the virtual lifetime we will spend together – it is as if we are castaways stranded on unknown terra firma: in addition to the island-dwellers Pierre Mejlak and Guze Santago, the Fado-singing Valter Hugo Mãe from Porto, the staunchly Catalan-speaking Miquel Desclot from Barcelona, and the proactive and miniscule Nadja Mifsud (also a native islander) from Lyon; the modern-day Sicilian cantautor Biagio Guerrera will arrive later.

We communicate in English, which though Malta’s lingua franca is the only non-Mediterranean tongue heard here. While we go about discussing poems and places, we are vaguely aware of the two forces that conspired to bring us together among the antiques: the UK-based Literature Across Frontiers, run by Alexandra Buchler; and the Mediterranean Literature Festival, Inizjamed, organized by (among many others) Adrian Grima and Clare Azzopardi.

They want us to translate each other. Out of the English approximations of what we have written or sung, they want us to make literature in languages we know even better than English. It is risky business, twice removed from the original. But then the writers are there, you can hear the cadences in their own voices and ask them what the sentence literally meant when it first rolled off the tongue, whether the implications of the word are positive or negative, what the meaning would have been had they used a different phoneme.

It works: Valter’s poems in particular flow incredibly well in the standard Arabic for which I am responsible; he is a Nineties Generation Egyptian poet inexplicably but completely displaced. The English – “my/mother used to say, valter be careful, that’s no/way to play, you’ll break a leg,/you’ll break your head, you’ll break your heart. and/she was right, it was all true” – may well have been translated from Arabic, indeed.

They want us to translate each other and later, when we exit Valletta and walk downhill to the converted seaside cemetery managed by a non-profit organization called Din l’Art Helwa (Maltese for “This Land is Good”), they want us to hold microphones to our mouths before an audience of at least a hundred and, while the wind blows, to read.

It works so well several of us, once the poems are finished, also sing.


The storm takes place on Thursday night. Wednesday is one of five national holidays in Malta: On 8 September 1565, the Ottoman fleet that had laid siege to the island since June finally departed. In the time of Sulaiman the Magnificent, the Great Siege was a glorious moment for European Christendom, and the Maltese – devout Catholics to this day, even though the word for God in their language is Allah and the greeting, until recently, essalam alaik – celebrate it with parades and canon fire, rowboat races and fireworks.

Never mind that the Ottomans were fighting not the local population but the Crusader Order of Saint John, whom they had expelled from Rhodes in 1522: the knight in armour remains a symbol of patriotism on this tiny enclave wedged between Tunisia and Sicily; the Maltese Cross hankers back to Hospitaller iconography; and no one makes a distinction between the Knights and the locals as unlikely victors over the not so invincible Turk. Valletta itself, my fortified city, was built in response to the siege, named after the Grand Master of the Order Jean Parisot de Valette.

Now a few months before landing in Malta I finished my first novel, which evokes a formerly great civilisation and looks up to the Ottomans, the last champions of Islam as such; by the end the hero’s map of post-9/11 Cairo turns into a tugra or sultan’s seal, and the hero himself is convinced he is an agent of the late Mehmed Vahtettin, the last sultan-caliph.

It is as if the celebrations are a historical insult directed at my person; it takes self-control to abandon my plans of running around the cathedral screaming “Long live the Ottoman Empire, long live the Refuge of the World” on the day. Still, I do not feel besieged in Malta. The siege for me has more to do with EU restrictions on smoking which, though condoned by the Maltese, cannot be said to reflect their temperament in particular. It seems wrong to antagonise an entire population just because I cannot light up in bed.


There are closer kin than the sons of Osman (who have long given up their Islamic prerogative anyway). There are Africans like myself stranded on the same terra firma, although in a different and much more serious way. Often Muslim, they are black, and because they arrive on sardine can-like boats from the shores of Libya, they are known as the Boat People. It is hard to see how they represent in the minds of some Maltese the threat of a Muslim takeover of Europe, but they are illegal immigrants and the island is hard pressed to accommodate them. Only the Catholic clergy seem to care for them, ironically. In the early morning they gather outside the Detention Centre in a quarter known as Marsa (Arabic – God, sorry: Maltese) for “harbour”, offering themselves for manual labour. They will do anything rather than return home.

I do not have time for them.


A week is not enough time to explore the island and its little sibling, Gozo – let alone listen to the stories of ID-less young men from my unfortunate continent – especially not when so much of the day is taken up by literary interaction at so many different levels. It is not enough time to prod Maltese intellectuals regarding their complex sense of national identity and how comfortably their unflinching alignment with Europe as opposed to North Africa sits with the Arab (Semitic or Phoenician) side of their heritage.

It is not enough time to discover the history of this simultaneously polyglot and insular place, to engage with its politics and mores, to feel welcome or unwelcome as an English-speaking Arab-Muslim among its by and large affable people, or even to attend Sunday mass in their beautifully mongrel speech. A week is not enough time.

Yet a workshop and a festival do provide opportunities, thankfully. And besides Valter’s poems and Pierre’s warmth, to mention but two causes for gratitude, I will happily recall reading the Lebanese poetess Hyam Yared’s French work in English (my accent notwithstanding), having run into her outside the hotel and spent some time revising the translations with her.

Likewise Nial Griffiths, author of Grits and Sheepshagger: a disarmingly down-to-earth Brit from Liverpool, currently living in Wales. For his 45-minute interview with the Maltese translator Albert Gatt – a beret-wearing beau who speaks English like Prince Charles – Nial carried his wine bottle on stage. Irreverent, funny, passionate about writing and dialect – not to mention, now that I have read his work, brilliant – Nial would have made the perfect mate back in Hull, where I went to university. I would not have met him otherwise.


A week is not enough time to learn Maltese, which having encountered it I know, rightly or wrongly, that I could learn in a month. Perhaps the most remarkable encounter of all, this: theories abound as to the origins of the language, with native speakers traditionally denying any connection with Arabic. Yet aside from philology, as an avid explorer of Arabic dialects, I will readily attest to this being one of them (Italianate though it can sound to Arab ears).

True, a good half of the diction is Latin – no abstract concept seems to occur in Arabic at all, giving rise to astounding phrases like responsibilte kbira (big responsibility) – but the phonetics, the grammar, the rhythms are all Arabic. Elements of Middle Eastern and North African vernaculars are mixed in such a way as to suggest this really does have origins in the Arabic once spoken throughout Sicily. One theory holds that, when the Arabs arrived from Tunisia, they forcefully evacuated the people and relocated them in Sicily. Malta remained uninhabited for at least a century, and when it was repopulated the language of the Sicilian newcomers, ethnically Latin though they may have been, was Sicilian Arabic. This would explain why, while it died out completely where it originated, that once very current dialect lives on in some form in Malta.

The Maltese do not often accept this theory because it seems to break a line of continuity dating back to the time of Saint Paul – the Saint Paul, who wrote the Gospel? But of course! – who is said to have conversed with the people in their own language – presumably some variety of Phoenician – when he arrived on the island during his travels.

Identities are constructed anyway, but perhaps the Maltese are not aware of the extent of variety within spoken  Arabic irrespective of what you call or how you choose to transcribe any one variety of it. Suffice to say it is easier for me to understand Maltese than Moroccan Arabic.


Which is why as I lean out of my hotel room window holding the by now soaking cigarette and looking out over the dome of the cathedral where lightning will strike again, I continue to marvel at one expression for “I thank you” that I heard on first arriving: irringrazzjekom. Irrin is a corruption of or a variation on urid (standard Arabic for “I want”, which in the vernacular becomes arid, nrid and many others), grazzie is the Italian word for thanks, and kom is the objective second-person plural suffix normally attached to the end of a verb in Arabic. Out of these three elements, the Maltese have forged a single, beautifully expressive word.

While I try to light another cigarette, I feel no word in any language can express me better.

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بلا حماس من 2006

رسالة صديقي على شاشة الجوّال: “نحن هنا نستمع إلى الطائرات الإسرائيلية” ــ وباللهجة المصرية التي يحبها ــ “ربنا يستر”.
قالت رفيقتي: “الاحتشاد للدفاع عن نانسي غير بيروت. من يعطينا نانسي؟” كانت تضحك، لكن يأساً في صوتها يجاور البكاء. “حقيقة، ماذا يمكن أن يعبّئ الشعب المصري للدفاع عن لبنان سوى نانسي عجرم؟” أومأت. أمسكت بالهاتف مرة أخرى، ثم أزحته ببرود. ماذا يمكن أن يعبّئ الشعب المصري للدفاع عن الأهرام، مثلاً؟
منتصف ليل الزمالك، شاب خليجي يقيمنا ــ ثلاثتنا ــ حتى يجلس وحده إلى الطاولة التي حجزها. مَن غير فيروز تقول “كيفك إنت” في مطعم “أبو السيد”؟ عشاؤنا “الخفيف” سيحرق صدورنا. من الشباك ــ على صوت أذان الفجر ــ أرى بدراً معوقاً بدلاً من قمر شبه كامل. وعلى الإنترنت ــ لم نسمع بما حدث حتى منتصف الليل لأننا بلا تلفزيون ــ جسر مقسوم كأنه مثلث، حفرة هائلة يملأها سائل بنّي، عجوز وطفلان يعبرون أطلالاً. لا أحد ينام في بيروت… حسن نصر الله يقول “نحن مغامرون” والإسرائيليون يؤكدون أنهم سيفعلون أي شيء للحفاظ على “الحياة الإنسانية”.
قبل أسابيع، لم يتردد مبارك في استقبال رئيس الوزراء الإسرائيلي بعد مقتل مصريين بريئين تماماً برصاص إسرائيلي على الحدود. قال ــ في صدد جندي واحد عند “حماس” ــ: “مأنا كنت حلتها، لكن فيه جهات ضغطت على الحكومة الفلسطينية فانسحبت من التسوية…”.
حين خرج الإسرائيليون من جنوب لبنان، تشاجرت ومدير تحريرنا “اليساري” لرغبته التي رأيتها مبالغة في امتداح حزب الله. أومأت لامرأة منقّبة في لندن. وسلمت أمري لله حين أسفرت الديموقراطية، مؤخراً، عن حماس.
الحقيقة أنني لا أحب الإسلاميين أبداً، ولا أحب نانسي عجرم، ولا أغتاظ بالقدر الكافي من العجرفة الدموية لدولة عنصرية مصابة بالبارانويا تساندها، بلا منطق أو ضمير، أقوى حكومة في العالم.
فقط ــ والدموع تداعب جفني من أن أصدقائي “البيارتة” يشكرون لي سؤالي عنهم ــ تراودني الرغبة في تفجير نفسي، لكن من دون حماس.

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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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The National: A civilisation under glass

At Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, Youssef Rakha wonders when ‘Islamic’ came to mean ‘antique’.


Last week when I went to preview the new Doha Museum of Islamic Art, it did not occur to me to ask why objects and buildings from different cultures, both secular and religious, are referred to collectively as Islamic (this is true even in Muslim countries). Since the galleries were not yet open even to journalists, I took in what I could of the magnificent exhibits from behind glass doors, took pride in the range and the power of my heritage, and eventually took the plane home.

When I returned, a Western colleague asked me: What is it that makes an art object Islamic – even when it is secular? Works of art and architecture in the West are rarely exhibited as “Christian” – even when they are overtly religious. “It’s generic,” I responded, reflexively: a thing is called Islamic to indicate that it was produced under the rubric of a civilisation, a culture, other than the one predominant today – in many ways the only civilisation now, one that happens to be Christian in origin. Modern and contemporary works by Muslim artists are not usually referred to as “Islamic”, even when they have religious connotations, so the use of the term “Islamic” to refer to objects like chandeliers, statuettes, scientific manuscripts, carpets and other artefacts that have no religious content would suggest that the word, in this context, indicates that these are relics of the past.

That night I recalled the chapter of Istanbul: Memories of the City in which Orhan Pamuk remarks that, while growing up in the republican (hence vehemently secular) upper class of 1950s Turkey, it was unclear to him why he was supposed to reject anything Islamic. The only justification he was offered was that religion, and the religion of the Ottomans specifically, impeded progress. As per the essentially authoritarian dictates of the Father of the Turk, Mustafa Kemal – himself, ironically, a native of Salonika in present-day Greece, with no more claim to Turkic ancestry than any Muslim anywhere in the myriad lands formerly comprising the Ottoman Empire – to be modern, intelligent, educated, evolved, even to be benevolent or respectable, you had to be of the West.

Pamuk never poses the question, but I wonder whether, had the European powers defined themselves explicitly as Christian, Ataturk would have ordered a mass conversion to Protestantism.

As it was, he prohibited the broadcast of Eastern music or Quranic recitation on the radio, closed down the dervish lodges, silenced the azan, disinherited men of religion, and effected the irrevocable divorce of the Ottomans’ direct heirs from the great literary traditions of Farsi and Arabic by switching to the Latin alphabet. He abolished all those incredibly sophisticated turbans, and forcibly replaced the fez, that unique trope of Muslim modernity, with the hat of the common white man.

It was all in the name of progress – and nationalism, another European import, perhaps the most destructive of all. But nationalism (irony of ironies) was not a theory anyone could apply without recourse to religious affiliation. When all was said and done, in the Ottoman scheme of things, nothing unified the Sultan’s Muslim subjects apart from the faith. There were those with their own languages, nationalisms and territories newly granted by the British and the French. But the subjects who remained in Constantinople and Anatolia, those who spoke Arabised and Persianised varieties of the ancient Turkic tongues, had no sense of collective identity or a common ethnic root. The only thing that could qualify them to be citizens of that modern republic to which the First World War reduced the devleti aliya, or the Sublime State, was the religion that they were urged not to practice. To be a good (that is, non-Muslim) Turk, by the logic of the Ata, you must first be a real (that is, Muslim) Turk.

So much for nationalism. Turkey had been on my mind in Qatar because the highlight of the museum, for me, was a firman, or royal decree, of Sulaiman the Magnificent, heir to the combined glories of his father Selim the Grim (who took Egypt) and his great grandfather Mehmed the Conqueror (who took Istanbul). As Caliph, Sulaiman was the closest thing to a worldly embodiment of the deeply moving Quranic verse with which Pamuk prefaced My Name is Red: “To God belongs the East and the West”.

That verse becomes doubly moving once you realise, as a Muslim living in the shadow of post-Christian civilisation, that there was once a time when the predominant culture was that of the faith into which you were born. Under Sulaiman, the word “Islamic” could viably lay claim to the world in the way “Western” does today, normatively categorise it, and in so doing produce such jaw-dropping objects as the scroll of that firman, its bottom quarter sealed with one of the most beautiful images I have seen in my life: the tughra, or abstracted calligraphic monogram, of the Sultan, which manages to compress the words “Sulaiman the son of Selim Shah Khan, victorious forever” into a single sign.

The real question raised by the term “Islamic art” is how Muslims in the contemporary world might strive to be part of the predominant, post-Christian civilisation without losing, à la Ataturk, all that is meaningful to them. Islamic is a difficult framework in which to define your make-up precisely because it is so hard to say how, in an increasingly uniform, identically global world, Muslims might nonetheless positively affirm their identity.

It would have to be in a very subtle way, perhaps through a shift in world view, maybe a willingness to be more catholic at a time when the contemporary world is so mechanically narrow, to make room for contradictions, to understand and accommodate the impulses to violence that have more recently stunted Muslim progress, rather than attempting to exterminate them. Islam, and especially its Ottoman incarnation, demonstrated remarkable scope for tolerance, realism and exchange. How might this repository of constructive memory enrich humanity today?

There are as many responses to this question as there are Muslims, from the most secular to the most devout; and the Doha museum, an initiative to preserve heritage and make it globally accessible in the framework of a Western-style institution, is certainly one of them. But the response this Muslim wants to suggest, in the Sufi tradition of speaking through a veil, is a riddle:

Between the East and the West there is an object in common. It exists in both but can be found whole in neither. It is something that people seek. Once you have it, you will have the power to see human beings, lucidly and insightfully, as human beings, to interact with them in a way that is beneficial to all, and to realise that the rifts between them are mere shadows. Once you have the object, you will find a way to transcend without looking down on the day job, the chores of house, finance and family. The pursuit of fun becomes not an escape from reality but a way of engaging with it. But those who are aware of only the East – or only the West – have no chance of finding the object.

A hint: the answer to the riddle is Islamic.

See also:

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تسعة عشر بيتاً من التائية الكبرى

ولا غروَ أن سُدْتُ الألَى سبقوا ، أو قدْ *** تمسَّكتُ ، من طهَ ، بأوثقِ عُروةِ

عليها مجازيُّ سلامي ، فإنَّما *** حقيقتُهُ منِّي إلَّيّ تحيَّتي

وأطيبُ ما فيها وجدتُ بِمبتدا *** غرامي ، وقدْ أبدَى بِهَا كلَّ نذرةِ

ظهوري ، وقدْ أخفيتُ حاليَ مُنشداً *** بها ، طرباً ، والحالُ غيرُ خفيَّةِ

بدتْ ، فرأيتُ الحزمَ في نقضِ توبتي، *** وقامَ بها عندَ النُّهى عُذرُ مِحنتي

فَمنها أماني منْ ضَنى جسدي بِها، *** أمانيُّ آمالٍ سَخَتْ ، ثمَّ شحَّتِ

وفيها تلافي الجسمِ ، بالُّسقمِ صحَّةِ *** له ، وتلافُ الَّنفسِ نفسُ الفتوَّةِ

ومَوتي بِها ، وَجداً ، حياةٌ هنيئةٌ، *** وإنْ لم أمُتْ في الحبِّ عِشتُ بغُصّةِ

فيا مُهجتي ذوبي جَوىً وصبابةً، *** ويا لوعَتي كوني ، كذاكَ ، مُذيبتي

ويا نارَ أحشائي أقيمي ، مِنَ الجوَى، *** حَنايَا ضُلوعي ، فهيَ غيرُ قويمةِ

ويا حُسنَ صبري ، في رِضى من أُحبُّها، *** تجمَّل ، وكن للدَّهرِ بي غيرَ مُشمِتِ

ويا جَلَدي ، في جنبِ طاعةِ حُبِّها، *** تحمَّل ، عَداَكَ الكَلُّ ، كُلَّ عظيمةِ

ويا جسَدي المُضنَى تسَلَّ عن الشِّفَا، *** ويا كبِدي ، مَنْ لي بأنْ تتَفتَّتي

ويا سقَمي لا تُبْقِ لي رَمقاً ، فقدْ *** أبيتُ ، لبُقيا العِزِّ ، ذُلَّ البقيَّةِ

ويا صحَّتي ، ما كانَ من صُحبتي انْقضى، *** ووصلُك في الأحشاءِ ميتاً كهجرَةِ

ويا كُلَّ ما أبقَى الضَّنى منِّي ارتحِلْ، *** فما لَكَ مأوىً في عظامٍ رميمةِ

ويا ما عسَى منِّي أُناجي ، توهُّماً *** بياءِ النّدا ، أُونِستُ منكَ بوحشةِ

وكلُّ الَّذي ترضاهُ ، والموتُ دونَهُ، *** بهِ أنا راضٍ ، والصَّبابةُ أرضَتِ

ونفسيَ لمْ تجزَعْ باتلافهَا أسىً، *** ولو جَزِعَتْ كانت بغيري تأسَّتِ

وفي كُلِّ حيٍّ كلُّ حيٍّ كَميِّتٍ *** بها ، عندَهُ قتْلُ الهوى خيرُ مَوْتَهِ

Ibn al-Farid’s father moved from his native town, Hama in Syria, to Cairowhere he Umar was born. Some sources say that his father was a respected farid (an advocate for women’s causes) and others say that his profession was the allocation of shares (furūḍ) in cases of inheritance. Whichever is the case, Ibn al-Farid’s father was a knowledgeable scholar and gave his son a good foundation in belles lettres.

When he was a young man Ibn al-Farid would go on extended spiritual retreats among the oases, specifically the Oasis of the Wretches (Wadi al-Mustad’afin), outside of Cairo, but he eventually felt that he was not making deep enough spiritual progress. He abandoned his spiritual wanderings and enteredlaw school studying in the shafi’i school of law.

One day Ibn al-Farid saw a greengrocer performing the ritual Muslim ablutions outside the door of the law school, but the man was doing them out of the prescribed order. When Ibn al-Farid tried to correct him, the greengrocer looked at him and said, “Umar! You will not be enlightened in Egypt. You will be enlightened only in the Hijaz, in Mecca…”

Umar Ibn al-Farid was stunned by this statement, seeing that this simple greengrocer was no ordinary man. But he argued that he couldn’t possibly make the trip to Mecca right away. Then the man gave Ibn al-Farid a vision, in that very moment, of Mecca. Ibn al-Farid was so transfixed by this experience that he left immediately for Mecca and, in his own words, “Then as I entered it, enlightenment came to me wave after wave and never left.”

Shaykh Umar Ibn al-Farid stayed in Mecca for fifteen years, but eventually returned to Cairo because he heard the same greengrocer calling him back to attend his funeral. Upon return, he found the greengrocer on the point of death and they wished each other farewell.

Upon Ibn al-Farid’s return to Cairo, he was treated as a Saint. He would hold teaching sessions with judges, viziers and other leaders of the city. While walking down the street, people would come up to him and crowd around him, seeking spiritual blessings (barakah) and try to kiss his hand (he would respond by shaking their hand). Ibn al-Farid became a scholar of Muslim law, a teacher of the hadith (the traditions surrounding the sayings and life of the prophet Muhammad), and a teacher of poetry.

Unlike many other respected poets of the day such as Ibn Sana al-Mulk, Ibn Unayn, Baha al-Din Zuhayr and Ibn Matruh, Ibn al-Farid refused the patronage of wealthy governmental figures which would have required him to produce poetry for propaganda, preferring the relatively humble life of a teacher that allowed him to compose his poetry of enlightenment unhampered. One time al-Malik al-Kamil, who was the Ayubbid sultan at that time, liked sone of his odes so much that he sent the poet an exorbitant amount of money and offered to build a shrine for him. Ibn al-Farid denied both the money and the offer of the shrine, choosing to trust in God to supply for his needs. His position as a teacher at the Azharmosque allowed him to provide for his family, which included three children.

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The Letter Arrived سركون بولص


أنك تكتب والقنابل تتساقط، تُزيلُ تاريخَ السقوف

تَمحقُ وجهَ البيوت.


أكتبُ إليك بينما اللّه

يسمحُ لهؤلاء أن يكتبوا مصيري. هذا ما يجعلني أشكُّ في أنه الله.

كتبتَ تقول:

كلماتي، هذه المخلوقات المهدَّدة بالنار.

لولاها، لما كنتُ أحيا.

بعد أن يذهبوا، سأستعيدها

بكلّ بَهائها كأنها سريري الأبيض في ليل البرابرة.

أسهرُ في قصيدتي حتى الفجر، كلَّ ليلة.

قلتَ: أحتاجُ إلى جبَلٍ، إلى محطّة. أحتاجُ إلى بشَرٍ آخرين.

وبعثتَ بالرسالة.

You said
that you write while the bombs
rain down, erase the history of the roofs,
eradicate the faces of the houses.

You said:
I write to you while God
allows them to write my destiny;
this is what makes me doubt He is God.

You wrote to say:
My words, these creatures threatened
with fire. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to live.

After “they” are gone, I will regain them
with all their purity like my white bed
in the barbarians’ dark night.

I keep vigil in my poem until dawn, every night.

Then you said:
I need a mountain, a sanctuary. I need other humans.

And you sent the letter.