One Flew Over the Mulla’s Ballot

logo@Sultans_Seal wallows in his lack of democratic mettle

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Time and again, since 30 June last year, I’ve come up against the commitment to democracy that I’m supposed to have betrayed by appearing to endorse the army’s intervention in the outcome of Egypt’s second revolution.
Time and again I’ve had to explain what on earth makes Egyptians think that Washington and Tel Aviv are secretly in league with the Muslim Brotherhood to decimate the Arab world along sectarian lines and bring death and destruction upon innocent Egyptians as much as Syrians and Libyans in the name of human rights—presumably to the benefit of that impeccably democratic and profoundly civilized neighbor state where racist, genocidal, militarized sectarianism does not present the world community with a human-rights problem.

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To Wake the People: Egypt’s Interminable Haul to Democracy

“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
He, too,
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…

— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)

Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?

There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…

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Death makes angels of us all: Fragments

Jim Morrison died on 3 July, as young as most of the casualties of the Egyptian revolution of 2011-13 (let’s assume it’s been one string of events for simplicity’s sake). Play a few Doors songs to honour him while you think of bloodied corpses and try as you might not to, at some point you will begin to picture the killers. And going through who they have been — police, military, thugs, honourable citizens, Islamists — you will soon end up blaming everyone and everything. Not without reason. While comforting at first, the discourse of martyrdom (and it has already been sullied in many ways and on various occasions) does not detract from the absolutely unforgivable horror of unnecessary loss of life. And while death of protest may not be exactly murder, it is.

The reason I’ve been thinking of Jim Morrison is that death of protest has been happening again recently, this time at the hands of Islamist militias or quasi-militias: totalitarian theocrats defending democratic legitimacy against Egypt’s second coupvolution in three years. Such Kafkaesque insanity is perfectly normal in Egypt. But second indeed: considering the army’s role in 25 January, there is no sane reason to set 30 June apart from that initial, equally military-facilitated uprising. Death’s made angels of some more young (and old) people — notably in the Cairo neighbourhood of Al Manyal and the Alexandria neighbourhood of Sidi Bishr – but this time it’s made murderous demons of a new and thus far “revolutionary” sect.

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The Hayyani Epistle: What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said after the events of 2011

What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.

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Watermelon republic

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Watermelon republic
Ensconced online, Youssef Rakha plays sportscaster
In the last few weeks cyber politicising has of course centred on the presidential elections. Apart from a few smallish boycott campaigns on Facebook, few have discussed the significance of what—were it not for the Washington-blessed military-and-Islamist pincers holding political reality in place—would have been the most significant event in Egyptian history since 1953. No one has brought up such issues as the absurdity of running in the absence of a constitution (i.e., on a programme that may prove impracticable once the constitution is drafted), the fact that democratic process is untenable under the hegemony of a military junta, or the lack of any difference between rigging and obtaining votes by distributing sacs of rice or bottles of cooking oil or indeed gas cylinders a la Muslim Brotherhood campaign strategy. The politicising has centred, rather, on who to vote for—and activists as much as analysts, both professional and amateur, have displayed disturbing levels of hysteria in championing the cause of their candidate of choice, fuelled either by supposed loyalty to the revolution and its martyrs or by concern for the future of security and economic stability—with the result that the scene looks like a football match in which the players are substandard and the two teams on the field (the Islamists and the Fuloul or “Remnants of the Fallen Regime”) are vying for supporters of a third (the Revolutionaries) that has been disqualified from competing.
Of the 13 candidates, four (2, 3, 7 and 11) remain more or less completely unknown. Three (the Islamist intellectual Mohammed Selim El Awwa-8, the oppositional judge Hisham El Bastawisi-6 and the leftist MP Abul Ezz El Hariri-1) are generally believed to have little or no chance. And one would seem to be running more to demonstrate that he can than to actually win: the young lawyer and activist Khalid Ali (12), perceived by the writers-and-artists ghetto as the revolution’s candidate—”the romantic dreamers’ choice,” as it has been put—comes across as an unintelligent parody of the populist orator, barely adequate for the presidency of the Youth Centre at the working-class neighbourhood-cum-shanty town of Habbaneyya. Five candidates remain, only one of whom—the well-known Nasserist politician Hamdin Sabbahi (10)—remains outside the Islamist-Fuloul polarity. Despite Arab nationalist and centralist hangovers, reported affinities with Saddam and Gaddafi, and occasional statements in support of Al Qaeda, Sabbahi’s programme would seem to be the pragmatic-progressive path of least resistance under the circumstances; and those relatively sensible tweeps and Facebookers who are cured of spasticity have switched to his side. But it is regarding the four polar candidates that most of the cockfights have taken place: the conservative Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed (Spare Tyre) Morsi-13, who ran in place of Khairat El Shater when the latter was legally blocked from running; the reformist Muslim Brotherhood’s Abdel Moneim (Retired Terrorist) Abul Fetouh-5, who had to resign from the Muslim Brotherhood in order to run; the former air force commander, civil aviation minister and last prime minister under Mubarak Ahmad (George W.) Shafik-9; and the former foreign minister and Arab League secretary Amr (Cigar Bey) Moussa-4.
Not to suggest that they are any less likely to win than the other three, Spare Tyre and George W. have elicited more mockery than critique, as they are patently empty dummies of what they stand for: respectively, corrupt quasi-theocracy whose principal achievement thus far has been organising mass female-genital-mutilation bonanzas in the provinces, and the pre-25 Jan status quo. Apart from the latter’s often hilarious verbal blunders (“Unfortunately the revolution succeeded”, or “I fought for my country: I killed and I was killed”), they have done nothing to induce any strong feelings—or change anyone’s mind about anything. So it is to (especially liberal) supporters of Retired Terrorist and their cigar-lighting detractors that much of the frenzied pecking has fallen; who will draw blood first remains to be seen. As it has been repeatedly pointed out, however, the pro-revolution, conscientious and “enlightened” face of the Brotherhood is as fanatical as the best of them: suffice to say that, on air, he broke down in tears over his differences with his comrades in arms more often than over anything else; he expressed respect for the assassins of president Sadat, and never repented being a founding member of the Jamaa Islamiya (who are responsible for the bulk of tourist bombings and assassinations of secular figures during the 1990s), so even if he has renounced violence, Abul Fetouh’s loyalties are clear. Drinkers, unmarried couples, creative people and other believers in personal freedom can look forward to various forms of elimination or refugee status abroad. Amr Bey, on the other hand—though infinitely more sophisticated and articulate than Shafik—is a self-acknowledged pillar of the post-9/11 world order; he tries to curry favour by pretending to have championed the Palestinian cause when in fact he is among the architects of the defunct peace process; he is old and arrogant and unlikely to shy away from heavy-handed suppression of the opposition, probably by now more interested in his cigars and other pleasures than anything else indeed.
Still, when all is said and done, the action is only just beginning. Now that it is watermelon season, watching while we make obscene squishy noises and drip red liquid everywhere should be fun. Needless to say, this writer is boycotting the presidential elections.

Obituary

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Anis Mansour and the Intellect of Consent

With the death of Anis Mansour (1925-2011) of pneumonia last Friday, one significant image of the Egyptian intellectual comes crashing down. It may be crass to speak in any but the most admiring terms of a man just deceased: a lively mind initially devoted to philosophy, which he briefly taught at Ain Shams University after graduating from Fouad I (Cairo) University in 1947. But his fascination is such that a critique of his career, on its folding, gives invaluable and timely insight into what his generation would have called, without irony, the cultural life of the nation.

A confirmed geek from his time at the village kuttab (where provincial toddlers started their education, learning the Quran by heart), he extracted praise all through secondary school and university and had no difficulty finding work and (soon enough) an aristocratic, well-heeled wife.

After 1950, when he started a lifetime career with Al Ahram, he became an extremely prolific producer of journalism (sometimes fictionalised, often in the form of travel writing: fat books on subjects as disparate as the Arab-Israeli conflict and UFOs never prevented him from coming up with a daily column for decades on end). Like his initial employers at Akhbar Al-Yom, the Amin brothers, he managed to ingratiate himself with whoever oversaw his work despite coming into his own at a historical juncture when, it would seem, a writer would have had to take sides. A philosopher-turned-newspaperman, he also became a public figure and a literary and intellectual authority, which no doubt he wanted; his weak protestations regarding a career that forced him away from literature should not be taken seriously. But here is the crux:

As a man of letters who grew famous prior to the audiovisual explosion, Anis Mansour was probably the last true household name in literature. But today few beyond the barely literate and the ultra-mainstream have any interest in Anis Mansour.

This is what makes the example of Mansour interesting in the wake of what was, more than a revolution as such, a collective moment of reckoning and a horribly overdue update of the socio-political software driving “national” hardware. It is a paradox that seems perversely typical, somehow: that the only surviving intellectual known outside intellectual circles should have been, for three or four decades, the least relevant to intellectual life. Perhaps thinking about why that is the case can spotlight an aspect or two of Egyptian culture in the time between June 1953 and January 2011: the first life cycle of the so called independent republic.

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To look at Mansour’s CV is, of course, to trace a trajectory of success: a path of upward mobility crowned, past any number of official and semi-official awards, posts and honours, by a close personal friendship with the third president of the republic, Anwar Sadat. Also known as the Believer President because, in line with CIA policy during the Cold War, he endorsed political Islam as a bulwark against socialism, pan-Arab nationalism and opposition to peace with Israel, Sadat was a kind of early homegrown Neocon operating, especially after the October War of 1973, as absolute autocrat. How an avowed existentialist (a la Sartre) and symbol of secular liberalism could be this man’s advisor, confidante and speech writer is unclear.

For nearly two decades until Nasser died in 1970, past the establishment of the one-party police state and the Six Day War, Mansour had never so much as questioned “Nasserism”; under what was evidently a more sympathetic dictatorship which, without reversing the machinery of centralism and repression, virtually institutionalised corruption and greed, what did he contribute to national consciousness for the next ten years, until Sadat was killed by the very monster he created?

“Nothing” may be harsh and unfair, but it is possible to see the contradiction between Mansour’s principles and his practises as an instance of a much more predominant trope in Egyptian culture: the tendency to confuse pragmatism with opportunism, placing writing and thinking – down to moral questions – outside the frontiers of the real. Except for the kind of dogmatic political affiliation Mansour avoided – arguably in itself a sublimation of religiosity – few intellectuals ever got past the position of the parent who, while encouraging their son to practise his literary or artistic hobby, insisted that he should have a “real job” and, failing that, measured his accomplishment in the arts by the money and kudos said hobby could bring him, not by consistency, rigour or beauty. In a centralised police state money and kudos would always depend on consent.

In a way Mansour was the perfect candidate for a “realistic” career in the arts. Though always solid, by aesthetic and intellectual standards, his writing is seldom compelling. It is derivative and diffuse, lightweight, loquacious; all breadth and no depth. Euphemistically described as “encyclopaedic”, his intellect is in fact noncommittal, which is precisely how he could be, in the same breath, a liberal secularist and an agent of Sadat’s quasi-theocracy. As per the dictates of his modest provincial background, he deferred to older writers like Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad regardless of the substance of their discourse, never daring to open up a discursive space.

Like any number of writers since the mid-20th century, Anis Mansour wanted – and got – access to “the people”, but having paid the price (becoming part of the establishment), he ended up having little to say to them, far less than the intellectually retarded theocrat (and dissident) Sheikh Kishk, another star of the Sadat era, who had a famous scuffle with Mansour over whether or not Egypt Air should serve alcohol. Mansour could only engage those of them who were literate and open-minded enough to read his column in aimlessly rambling conversation, providing what many see as little more than vaguely learned distraction – part of the production line of a media machine which, though not yet as dysfunctional as it would become under Mubarak, was already expert at manufacturing consent in the absence of ideology.

Mansour’s last column for Al Ahram, written in the context of 25 January, seems to recognise or acknowledge the mirror image of success which makes up so much of his contribution, blessing a task he never took upon himself: “There may come a time when you are incapable of staying injustice, but there must come a time to protest that.”

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Mainstream margin

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Last week Youssef Rakha lamented the sameness of the cultural press in the wake of revolution; this week he unpacks the role of that press as the morally superior Margin to an alleged establishment Text
It has been less than four months since the interim government of Essam Sharaf took charge and, true to form, intellectuals representing the supposed margin (of dissidence, of freedom, of whatever happens to be unlike or alternative to centres of money and power) are already assessing the performance of Emad Abu-Ghazi’s Ministry of Culture, questioning the presence in its ranks of former members of the NDP or its attempts to accommodate Salafi pressures through censorship, forgetting that the NDP and fundamentalist Islam are far more representative of the society in which they live than they could ever hope to be, and still possessing not a clue on how to achieve what they have always taken to be their raison d’être – transforming that society.
Intellectuals are doing so, for example, in the dedicated publication Akhbar Al-Adab, which, following a drawn-out, post-revolution strike against a corrupt editor more like a pro-government journalist (for which read civil servant) than an intellectual, is now edited by Abla El-Reweini: a triumph for all concerned but a development, ironically, that maintained the pre-revolution status quo of a small-circulation, progressive weekly subsidised by a gargantuan, more or less reactionary establishment (Akhbar Al-Yom). After some 50 years of ineffectuality, abolishing the ministry of culture altogether seemed not only the wiser but also the more revolutionary decision.
Yet the proposition found little support among the universally pro-revolution intellectuals themselves – and cultural circles by extension. It seems the intellectuals, like their counterparts in almost every field of endeavour, were eager to resume their usual role: that of disgruntled observer of official culture, which presupposes the existence of the latter. It seems they too could not wait for life to go “back to normal”. What is strange about this is not their impatience with the prospect of chaos, with temporary or partial unemployment and logistical, financial uncertainty. It is their failure to see the revolution as an opportunity for revising their perspective on culture itself: what it means to be an intellectual, what counts in a political position, what is the point of having or being part of a government-controlled institution…
For a decade following the “first independence” of 1956, big ideas about national consciousness and a state for the people did support cultural practises as part of a totalitarian system whose credibility came into question with the 1967 defeat. However, with the onset of anti-nationalist nationalism and mafia-style capitalism under Sadat, Egyptian culture – for a brief spell, an effective arm of the state – very quickly devolved into sporadic literary and audio-visual phenomena that have existed outside or in spite of corrupt and by now wholly superfluous institutions.
(Superfluous to the point of no longer even serving the regime that squandered public funds on them: from within another small-circulation, relatively progressive weekly subsidised by an even more gargantuan and reactionary institution, the revolution has made it possible to ask whether the decision by the former editor in chief of the daily Al-Ahram Ossama Saraya, a few months before the revolution, to Photoshop the figure of Mubarak from the back to the front of a small group of heads of state in a universally available wire picture before publishing it – the notorious “expressive intervention” scandal – actually served Mubarak’s interests.)
The failure of the Sadat regime to live up to the promise of freedom and its wholesale adoption of the Cold War strategy of endorsing political Islam to fend off the communist threat – just as idiotic, in the end, as Nasser’s non-alignment or pro-Soviet strategies of pan-Arab nationalism – resulted in the phenomenon of the “marginal” intellectual (i.e., the intellectual who did not openly pander to a regime she knew to have no legitimacy) as “the conscience of the nation”.
In the light of the isolation of both culture and power from an ever more underdeveloped society and so in the absence of the nation itself, the conscience of the nation is an interesting concept. The conscience of the nation critiques a construct, and in so doing it enters into a power game with fake representatives of (Arab, or Muslim) identity. Culture turns into an airtight system of shifting alliances and ongoing conflicts, personally driven and materialistically substantiated. The cultural margin becomes a steganographic part of the text of the regime not half as different from the society it rules as Akhbar Al-Adab would have us believe, a text – or a muddle of pious bureaucracy and incompetent profiteering – no longer really being written.
The marginal intellectual’s role before as after the revolution is to cling onto the moral high ground, critiquing the failure of said regime to undertake its national responsibility to a sublime thing called culture. But there can be no moral high ground in the absence of morality, nor does true culture – whether state-supported or spontaneous – emerge in isolation from the flesh-and-blood, dust-and-exhaust fume reality of which it is part. Neither nation nor culture can ever be very clearly defined in a police (or military) state where ideologies and counter ideologies, whether nationalist or Islamist, have eventually revealed themselves to be mere sloganeering.
Under Mubarak, Islamists (Salafis) were systematically unleashed on society in return for staying out of politics. The Ministry, headed for over 25 years by the former intelligence agent and abstract expressionist painter Farouk Hosni, turned culture into mega-project business closely associated with tourism and archaeology, by turns outraging and making outrageous concessions to Salafism.
Under Hosni the ministry totally emasculated an intellect like Gaber Asfour and totally abandoned one like the late Nasr Abu-Zeid, a potential and an actual victim of the “Islamic threat”, respectively. It siphoned money out of the country, like every other stolid ministry under Mubarak. In the systematic attacks on its abuses by the founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, the novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (who has called on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-standing defence minister and the head of the Higher Military Council, to assume the role of absolute ruler for a period of three years following the revolution), it found a shadow ministry with sufficient cover to make intellectuals feel they were active agents of a living culture, up against something they should be up against, owners of the moral high ground.
Yet now as before it is as if what must by definition be creative and organically rooted practise can be judged on the same terms as health care, for example. Now as before even intellectuals who recognise the bankruptcy of slogan-driven and populist consciousness are unable to let go of their role as the mirror image of a monster that does not really exist, or one that exists only insofar as they themselves allow it to.
The socio-cultural critic, which is the closest thing to what the Akhbar Al-Adab intellectual is or should be, is still at the receiving end of an intention emanating from an establishment that has proven, again and definitively, both culturally and morally hollow, paper thin, a vomit bag of un-things. Not only does this arrangement undermine the rebellious individual, it also turns the margin into a cog in the machinery of the very text it sets out to oppose – in the present case, and despite all the noise on both sides of the unreal divide: silence.

Al-Ahram Weekly

Starting up

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In the cultural if not the mainstream press, revolution might have prompted installing a new OS altogether, writes Youssef Rakha ; it has barely suggested a restart

Once again I am perusing the cultural press and once again I am distressed. It is partly the same old disappointment in frivolous topics being overblown and muthaqqaf (or intellectual) responses to ideas and events being, as if by definition, politicised. It is partly the persisent perception of “the intellectuals” — for which read, very simply, agents of cultural activity of any kind — as something over and above what they do or more often fail to do adequately: the madness of presupposing that, irrespective of the nature or extent of their work, intellectuals are not only producers of discourse but also, and perpetually, agents of transformation, “the role of the muthaqqaf ” — and the Poet in particular — standing in for that of the Sage or the Superman, if not the Ruler then the Prophet. But current distress resulting from perusal of the cultural press is mainly a matter of a revolution having taken place: a predetermined idea, in my own mind, about the positive effects of the events of 25 Jan-11 Feb on “intellectual” consciousness — no such luck!

Whoever came up with the idea that poetry can change the world, I don’t know (God forgive Jean-Paul Sartre for his theory of engagement, though I doubt it has much to do with this in context), but three months on, “revolution” is an occasion to rethink not only the haloed topic of “the relationship of the intellectual to authority” but also modern Arab-Muslim history as a whole: the actual role of the intellectual in its unfolding. In 18 days, no more than one tenth of the population managed to dislogdge an abominable, prehistoric president. Of those, less than a tenth handed over power to the army, admittedly without much resistance from anyone. But it is the remaining nine tenths (who had nothing, factually, to do with either the protests or the intellectual force behind them) who have been crying Revolution ever since.

Counterrevolutionary discourse to the effect that the events were a foreign conspiracy, however absurd, is gaining ground; but it is cooption and subversion that remain the principal lie. People cry Revolution even despite there being no tangible change in the way the country operates or the vision of the powers in charge of it — themselves an extension, however distorted, of a half century-old “nationalist” project which, existing nominally for the People, has tended consistently to sacrifice people to a more or less abstract (if not wholly phony) greater cause. Consciously or not — all things considered, it hardly matters — intellectuals have abetted this process. The real-life narrative of the “indpendent” Arab state has in fact involved fewer intellectuals than figures of authority or picaroons, not to mention preachers; and many intellectuals, whether or not they preached ideologies while they did so, doubled as picaroons or figures of authority.

Now that I have witnessed the cold-blooded murder, with public funds, of a sizable portion of the very People in whose name Arabs and Muslims had endured so much immoral autocracy and mind control, unnecessary backwardness and underdevelopment, indignity and — increasingly — mafia-style corruption, it is easy to see why even with the best intentions, generations of patriotic and “nationalist” intellectuals contributed to perpetuating vicious circles of political untruth: glory and unity meaning defeat in the time of Nasser, victory meaning Cold War-style Islamism and unchecked capitalism in the time of Sadat, development meaning phenomenal nepotism and the systematic syphoning of money out of the country in the time of Mubarak.

Considering that for the longest time patriotism and nationalism have been preconditions of intellectual legitimacy — even well-meaning supporters of peace with Israel were methodically and effortlessly cast out of the intellectual community — it is easy to see how limited the role of the intellectual had to be: an intellectual could only oppose practises, not ideas; she could only criticise actions, not values; however oppositional she sought to be, however many years she spent in prison, an intellectual could only ever exist as part of an overriding national project whose attendant discourse, thanks in part to that intellectual herself, was increasingly, irrevocably divorced from reality.

The issue has less to do with helping Palestinians, for example, than it does with liberating Jerusalem — a task whose failure is as yet a forgone conclusion. It has less to do with improving living standards than replacing a non-alignment strain of nationalism with a socialist or communist one. It has less to do with endorsing freedom of worship than implementing a totalitarian vision of “the Islamic state” (whatever that means, and however much pandering to liberal democracy it requires). By the same token, culture has less to do with engaging the people than speaking in their name, contributing to an ever more discourse-bound narrative of hopes, intentions and abstractions. It has less to do with creativity and the intellect than blocking out and maintaining a meaninglessly politicised group of people — popularly known as “the communists” — who are neither trusted nor popular, and whose work seldom makes it past the block they occupy.

Now that I have witnessed cold-blooded murder on the streets, it is easy to see how maintaining the kind of discourse with which the intellectuals have been identified or allowing it to maintain itself — how speaking, again, of the role of the intellectual, of enlightenment and moderation as opposed to secularism, for example — is an integral part of the problem. And it is distressing to see that, notwithstanding all that happened on the streets of Cairo, notwithstanding all that became clear as a result of it, the discourse of the cultural press has not changed in the slightest.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Unfree verse

It is something of a cliche of contemporary literature to say that Amal Donqol is best known for his worst work: “political” poems which, though he paid lip service to high-art injunctions requiring that their message should be veiled in ancient history or mythology, can only be read as populist propaganda against policies of peace with Israel. Not that there isn’t always room in poetry for political engagement of some kind, but these works have arguably replaced the complex truths of literature with a largely instrumental sense of the real.

In this context it may be said that Donqol’s best known work tends to prostitute poetry to politics. Together with much of the work of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), it has certainly contributed to confirming the popular misconception that (armchair) activism is the principal arena of writers and that its polemical and didactic discourses are more or less indistinguishable from literature. There is no doubt that, as much as Darwish, Donqol is not only capable of writing beautifully but is also at the forefront of the development of free verse (the predominant poetic discourse until the 1990s). But this is just as true of Donqol’s political poems (La Tussalih, Al Bukaa bayn Yaday Zarqaa Al Yamama, Kalimat Spartacus Al Akhirah) as it is of other, less proactive and ultimately more interesting work (the texts collected in Awaraq Al Ghurfah Thamanya, for example, or the early love poems).

The more radical question has to do with the essentially pragmatic approach to (colonial) modernity of the Nahda or Arab renaissance that started in the late 19th century and of which Donqol was a later product. It is that pragmatism of the Nahda that finds renewed expression in Islamists resorting to the ballot box to instate theocracy, for example, or in hijab and niqab being justified as “personal rights”. In its postcolonial declension after the 1960s, it seems the Nahda could reduce and subvert the poetic, mixing canonical, technical ideas about what makes a text poetry with contemporary and vastly unrealistic notions of the poet’s role in a forcefully homogenised “modern” society. The Nahda thus not only produced a neither-here-nor-there poetic discourse that in its attempt to have the best of both worlds ended up in all but the most superficial qualities divorced from both its roots in the Arabic canon and the western modernity that was its direct inspiration, it also made the poet’s readiness to subscribe to that discourse a precondition for his being legitimised as a poet. To what extent could Donqol – or Darwish – afford to write poetry for its own sake?

Even in its non-political incarnations (in the work of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab or Salah Abdel-Sabour, for example), free verse as a “half revolution” (to re-situate the late Youssef Edriss’s expression) remains an example of the very national project to whose utter failure current, presumably transformative unrest throughout the Arab world bears testimony. In its engaged mode, however appealing in context, free verse has contributed to a substitute consciousness that was utterly impotent in the face of either the new world order or political Islam. It would take several treatises to argue that, by responding to the developments of the free verse movement under Sadat – the obscure and/or ideological work of the Seventies Generation – with violent individualism and an aversion to ideology so intense it soon became ideological in its own right, the Nineties Generation were in effect doing precisely what stars of the free verse movement had failed to do with the best intentions: promoting a Nahda of Arab society and art.

Rather than situating itself – also pragmatically – within a centralised political project that soon turned out to be an extension of the colonial status quo (we could argue about this for a long time, but yes, I think even Nasser and the Baath were extensions of the colonial status quo), the predominant poetry since Donqol has sought to recognise the heterogeneity of society, the inevitability of history and the hollowness of activist discourse. Instead of concerning itself with establishing technical credentials, it has drawn on the alternative poetic modernity of earlier prose poets who had long since emigrated like Sargon Boulus and Wadih Saadeh.

At the risk of being unfair to the memory of a great poet, whatever else I think of him, I am tempted to say that Donqol leaves the ongoing Egyptian revolution ultimately bereft. It is one thing to invoke his poem of 1972 about protests on and around the “stone cake” of Tahrir Square. Making sense of his conscious or unconscious position on the what is at stake – and Donqol, by the way, witnessed but did not take part in the student demonstrations about which he wrote the poem – is quite another.

The most persuasive description of current events in the Arab world is that they are our struggle for the Second Independence – something that may imply an increasingly evident clash with American hegemony, not through nationalist or Islamist anti-American rhetoric but through a very real conflict of interests between Washington on the one hand and the self-possessed Arab citizen on the other. Such a clash might have horrific implications. Through the agency of the powers that be, but inevitably at the expense of the independence in question, it might be avoided altogether. Poetry will have nothing to do with it.

Recently the free verse Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef wrote what I can only describe as a stomach-turning quasi-poem called “What Arab Spring”, in which he dismissed current events as an electronic-age charade orchestrated by Washington. More than ever before, and despite its having a greater audience than that of the 1990s, that seems to be the true position of the “political” poetry of the 1960s. I truly wonder what Donqol would have said.

Donqol reading La Tussalih

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Poisoned roses of revolution

Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti, Saqr Abdelwahid and Youssef Rakha

“Writing,” says Hussein bin Hamza in the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar, “that brings back to our minds the eternal question of the danger posed to literature by grand issues and fast-paced events…”

He is reviewing Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti’s Mi’at khutwa minath-thawrah (A Hundred Steps of Revolution, published simultaneously in Cairo and Beirut by Merit and Dar Al-Adab, respectively), and he reiterates the truism that good literature is not of “enthusiastic good intentions” made; it is true. Elshiti cannot be entirely absolved of the charge of bad literature in this book.

Bin Hamza’s remarks echo the incredulity and scepticism with which many received what was presumed to be a high-brow text about the January revolution published within a month of Mubarak stepping down, but reading it I suspect will confirm their doubts. Surely, it would take a little longer for anything vaguely considered to crystallise in the mind of its author.

Even an unadorned diary written while the events unfolded – and the book, presented as just that, is subtitled “Journals from Maidan at-Tahrir” – would take at least two months to edit; a little hindsight never hurt anybody.

If history cannot wait, well, history writing does; and there are brilliant precedents in the difficult art of covering historical events while they happen – the late Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), for example – which show that the incumbent immediacy and intensity of as it were spot history have less to do with time of publication than with technique, vision and revision.

***

Writing, notwithstanding revolution, that reflects all the desperate rush, lack of polish and (in the Merit edition) distressingly inadequate proofing of much that has been published in Egypt by the independent (literary) press for some 30 years…

It is almost a platitude of contemporary Arabic letters to state that, since the Sixties at least, non-fiction has occupied the lowest tier of the genre pyramid. Not only is non-fiction paid attention based solely on what it is about. In this sense it is surprising that Elshiti’s book has not solicited more attention in Egypt, but the literary congregation is still more or less on holiday despite its deacons’ increasingly reactionary stance since Mubarak stepped down, which would imply that revolution is no longer a valid excuse for ignoring literary events. Non-fiction is also something writers of fiction and poetry seem to think they can do with their eyes shut.

On the whole, instead of honing what skills are required or deploying their usual instruments in the service of a different craft, they exert no effort and demonstrate little respect for a text not produced under the rubric of Creation. The result – and I am no longer talking about Elshiti – tends to be a muddled amalgam of old-fashioned journalism and quasi-academic pontificating; literary non-fiction, where it truly exists, is presented as fiction, freed from the factual constraints of travel writing or biography even as it continues to rely on (insufficiently researched) fact.

***

Best known for Wuroud samma li Saqr (Poisoned Roses for Saqr, 1990), an acclaimed novella that was reissued shortly before the revolution in 2010 with an introduction detailing its complex publication history and some of the critical and academic interest it sparked, Elshiti (b. 1961) is among a mere handful of writers who survived the Eighties, a sad and saddening decade for literature; the Seventies and (especially) the Nineties are golden ages by comparison.

Wuroud stands out for combining a politically engaged, rigorously economical aesthetic formalised but rarely practised by the Generation of the Sixties with what might be termed the Pointlessly Tragic Hero (perhaps the clearest feature of Eighties writing). It remains, by Elshiti’s own account, his principal achievement; and from a history-of-literature perspective it is no doubt pivotal. To my mind Wuroud marks the end rather than the beginning of something, however: the grassroots, class-conscious, sexually tormented song of a kind of politically socialised but psychologically alienated subject reflecting a sense of national defeat.

Saqr-like characters perhaps began with the seminal Tilka Al-Ra’iha (1966, translated by Denys Johonson-Davies as The Smell of It) by Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937). Spanning a diverse range of incarnations most clearly through Ibrahim Aslan (b. 1935) and Mahmoud El-Wardany (b. 1950), albeit with less targic force and fewer visual tropes, and without a multiplicity of voices, Saqr Abdelwahid arrives at his zenith in Wuroud, even if writers mostly older than Elshiti will continue to present versions of him.

By the Nineties (with the re-emergence of prose poetry and the overt divorce of literature from collective and ethical injunctions), a different set of rules was emerging in which neither society nor tragedy could figure in the same way, nor language function effectively with the same restraint. The Sixties had come full circle.

***

Not that it would improve the book to know, but it is against a backdrop of disrespect for non-fiction that A Hundred Steps was produced.

And Elshiti has seldom written non-fiction anyway, which partly explains his impromptu approach to documenting the revolution – so different from the meticulously crafted prose of his poem-like very short stories, of which he wrote two collections before the hiatus; the most recent ones, after Daw’un Shaffaf, which he calls Myths, are as yet published only as Facebook notes, and they develop expressionist and fantastical elements of what otherwise remains by and large true-to-life narrative. They are beautiful. But neither they nor anything else in his previous work prepares him for a book-length piece of reportage.

Still, everything in Elshiti’s work and life does encourage a fresh, more prosaic look at the world view presented by his best known piece of writing.

It would be ludicrous to accuse Elshiti, as intellectuals speaking of or for the revolution often have been since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, of coopting the achievement of “the young” to promote his own accomplishments or jumping on the opportunity to immortalise his name, but it is well to ask why, in the absence of that fresh look, he chose to publish a book on the revolution so soon.

***

Saqr remains interesting in the context of revolution nonetheless: he is a by now early example of the martyr of corrupt capitalism and (by extension) the collapse of the national state. The depressive son and principal breadwinner of a working-class family in Domiat (Elshiti’s hometown, which he frequently refers to in the course of A Hundred Steps), Saqr Abdelwahid’s untimely and largely unexplained death is connected with his hopeless love for the upper middle-class Nahed Badr, whom his politicised friend Yehya Khalaf welcomes into the funeral at the opening.

Told from the viewpoints of all three characters as well as Saqr’s sister Tahiya, the story involves the haunting image of a man who has been slaughtered, “his face a mask of yellow pottery, his eyes two crystals of glass”, presenting Saqr with a bouquet of poisoned roses. It is an encounter Elshiti’s “hero in crisis” (to be distinguished from any number of far less iconic anti-heros) repeatedly has in waking life as well as in his dreams; and by all accounts before his death, when he enters his bedroom bearing the bouquet he has finally accepted for the first time, Saqr is convinced that those flowers will kill him.

***

However veiled or poetically encrypted, Saqr’s story is a comment on the decline of national dignity in the face of poverty and dictatorship, the vulnerability of the sensitive individual hurled into a rat race he cannot understand (one objective counterbalance of which is “the political struggle” presented by Yahya) and, most emphatically, the absolute impossibility of love.

In a sense it is this mind set – the identity of consciousness and political consciousness on the one hand, and between the individual and his class on the other – and not only the writing it produced, that reaches a peak in Wuroud.

Due to developments in society itself, in access to other societies and in the reference points of the literary and politicised community, no text after Wuroud could convincingly communicate or argue with the real in this way – and even Elshiti’s own subsequent work (Daw’un shaffaf yantashir bikhiffah was produced after a two-decade hiatus in 2009) bears testimony to the fact.

In his landmark novella Elshiti refers to the January 1977 intifada against President Sadat, to the way in which the Islamisation and commodification of society following the defeat of 1967 and Nasser’s death is said to have aborted all sense of belonging, and it would have been interesting to see how the ghost or memory of Saqr responded to the Mubarak era, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, 9/11, and the emergence, all through this, of mafia-style governance in Egypt.

A non-fiction comment on the revolution of 2011 seems the perfect opportunity for rewriting Saqr, revising his loyalties and convictions, and asking whether or not he really had to die.

***

A Hundred Steps, at one level, is offered as testimony (the witness too being among the writer’s preferred registers since the Sixties); living on Qasr Al-Nil Street in the same building as the office of Merit, which turned into one of several “revolutionary command centres” for the period (28 Jan-11 Feb), Elshiti was – geographically – the perfect witness.

And there is none but the most documentary ambition in the book, which is not only fair but in its own way admirable: Elshiti has no illusions about his position in relation to what is happening; he is guided by his gut alone, and whether observing or reflecting, as a result, he is anything but grandiloquent or pretentious.

“Since five in the evening I have been in the Maidan,” he writes on the first page of the book, a footnote explaining that this opening short piece, on the events of 25 January, was published on Facebook on 26 January. “It was possible to see young men and women whose ages revolved around 20. Their slogans were simple and radical and without calculations, omitting verbosity and excess…”

Elshiti goes on to say that, while “the politics professionals” – older activists and dissidents – thought it was wrong to insist on spending the night in Tahrir, the young protesters wagered on “matching word to deed”. It is precisely institutionalised resistance that they were revolting against, he insists; were the professionals happy to see the Maidan brutally emptied by midnight? “The 25th of January is the day a new eloquence was discovered that could not be institutionalised.”

***

So far, so brilliant; and the wording of the question regarding the traditional opposition being part of the problem has just the right amount of irony. But what does Elshiti – what does Saqr Abdelwahid – really think?

Over 150 pages mostly of observations and anecdotes, very few of which are written with either the concision or emotion of the opening piece, Elshiti fails to give even the hint of an answer to this question. The scheme of presentation is largely chronological, which results in verbosity and excess (the use of baltagiyah or hired strongmen by the regime in attempts to disband the protesters, for example, is dealt with at many different points but in exactly the same way).

Where discussions come up (and they come up notably with Mohammad Hashem, the owner and director of Merit, as when he disagrees with Elshiti on whether or not the police should be brought back to the streets after their wilful disappearance on the evening of 28 January), they are reported as is, without recourse to deeper analysis or supplementary evidence from, as it were, the front. To support his position against Hashem, on this occasion, Elshiti is content to cite his experience of the brutality and corruption of the police as a young man in Domiat, where he lived opposite the police station. Here as elsewhere one feels that his privileged position as a politically aware resident of Tahrir is wasted.

***

Even those who were not in Egypt at the time and followed the news on television, it seems to me, would not be unjustified in complaining that they have gained little from Elshiti’s reports, touted as “moments that are mine, captured with my own eyes, not with the eyes of the camera or even those of live witnesses”; those moments are invested with neither journalistic edge, historical or philosophical reflection, nor poetic insight, all things considered.

At best they evoke an atmosphere by now well-documented anyway. And the best of them, the very best of them, read like Elshiti’s fiction (which makes you wonder what the book would have been like had he taken the time to rigorously select and rewrite entries):

I saw a man in his fifties wearing a smart suit being mobbed by the masses who sought to expel him, for it had been discovered; he was affiliated with the NDP and persuading the young men to stop demonstrating. The man almost fell on the floor, and then he went out through the Qasr Al-Nil gateway. The regime never stopped sending in envoys of every kind. Everyone was convinced that there was not a single supporter of the regime except thieves and baltagiyah. Even were such a person to exist, they could find a place other than Maidan at-Tahrir which had been liberated with the blood of martyrs and the wounded.

Light rain. I saw a group of protesters walking in formation as one having covered their heads with a sheet of clear plastic while they went on chanting, ‘Ash-sha’b yurid isqaat annidham’.

***

Repeatedly, Elshiti distances himself from what is going on in Maidan at-Tahrir, falling back on the supposed generational (and, to a lesser extent, the class) difference between his circle of intellectuals and the young middle-class instigators of protest. His loyalties are clear, his emotion sincere, but he remains more of a spectator than a participant. This is both honest and frustrating – the honesty might have been more effective had the observations been condensed in the manner of the passage quoted above – because what one wants to know from Elshiti has less to do with what he saw than with what it implies for him and in what way he was part of it.

The question of the left-wing or secular intellectual’s position on Islamists participating in the revolution, for example – a hugely stimulating topic demanding precisely the kind of self-confrontation and self-questioning that prompted Elshiti to write in the first place – is hardly touched on at all. To my disappointment, in the same way as he skims over his own role in the revolution, Elshiti places himself at an anecdotal remove from the issue of political Islam in its unfolding.

A Hundred Steps is the most serious of a number of books to have come out of the revolution, none of which really question the term or deal with the aftermath, which is by far the more significant topic. Its brief is to document what happened as the author saw it and in this, at the most basic level, it manages well enough. But as literature, which is what one will expect from Elshiti, it falls short of the moment that inspired it.

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The Three Masks of Yasser Abdellatif



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



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

Novelist (Chronicler)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Poet (Witness)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Intellectual (Rebel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Night Tour

Before he grew familiar with the way to school

the sickly child grew familiar with

the doctor’s place:

the pharmacy below the clinic

with its brown closets

and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades

wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,

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

and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.

On distant mornings

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

Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places

in the night,

sliding at least four buildings across?

There is a restaurant at the street corner

whose glass facade which the steam misted over

shows appetising, low-priced food;

it seems very close, over at the curve.

Night after night you will put off having dinner there

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

the day you make up your mind,

with a strike,

some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place

off the map of existence.

And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city

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

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

with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.

There stands a forgotten variety theatre

where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage

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

You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,

your viewpoint flits between the two places

from pointers to clamorous lives

and promises of sustained indulgence

to where safety

fares better than regret

which is as light as beer foam.

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

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Wikipedia: The is the definite article in English. »

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