All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad

Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.


In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?

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Three Versions of Copt: Sept 2011/Doors: April 2013

This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah

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Three Short Pieces from last October © Youssef Rakha


“We never used to have sectarian tension”
Posted on October 20, 2011        
That being, of course, a lie. And lies, however well meaning, just may be the crux of the problem.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism is part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship? As I wondered whether the Maspero protest of 9 Oct might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since March, I tweeted, “They are shooting at the Copts.” I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet – they presumably do not follow the same people – berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones as well as security personnel in the building were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them. Lying through their teeth, pro-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported Armed Forces casualties.
As a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I feel this is an occasion to say how I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they were the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!” Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
With the rise of Islamism since the Nineties this has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma may suggest that, simply by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons). But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” – a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding and discriminating against Copts, encouraging both Coptic deference and Muslim complacency – fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution.

Of homogeneity and bakshish
Posted on October 15, 2011        
Long before a “revolution” could have been anticipated, people – especially urban Arabs – noticed something about Cairo. In a roundabout way, the title of a book of poems by the Lebanese globe-trotter Suzanne Alaywan, All Roads Lead to Salah Salem (a reference to one major road linking northern and southern ends of the megalopolis) accurately expresses that sentiment: Of all the world’s cities, Cairo seems to have the capacity to absorb people into its folds, to make them – in appearance and attitude if not in thinking or values – like other people already established inside it; it has the capacity, brutishly but somehow peaceably, to iron out difference.
The poet was not at cross purpose with the fact. I tend to think she, like others within and without, saw it as inevitable but positive, a possible answer to otherwise intractable inter-issue dilemmas which liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, could only solve with the help of economic and institutional hardware not available to the Arab or the third world. The more or less forced homogeneity of course has its roots in a culture of compromise and hypocrisy, in people’s willingness to lie about how they feel in order to benefit from other people, whose difference – in looks, tongue, dress code, income level – offers further justification for practically robbing them.
Yet, as the aftermath of events has demonstrated, there is more to that proverbial Rome of the mind than simple untruth. Decades of corruption were also decades of voluntary repression, in which excessive panhandling just might have been a sublimation of mugging, and pay-for-your-difference an ameliorated form of the marauding mob. The difference-eliminating software is after all as evident in Arab nationalism as it is in political Islam, and perhaps even Mubarak’s client government sought to accommodate the interests of global liberalism only insofar as the world order, up to and including Saudi Arabia (which as far as I am concerned is a greater threat to Egypt than Israel) could provide that government with the required alms.
That is over now, despite the military and its supporters, backed by said world order, doing all they can – hitting below as well as above the belt, even idiotically risking sectarian war in the process – to reinstate the beggar-mentality status quo. Egyptians should be thankful for the “revolution” not because it proved successful or achieved its goal, but because it will make elimination of difference by begging increasingly impossible. People can no longer pretend to be safe from their compatriots, the myth of “national unity” is no longer viable, not all those who are different can pay.
Whether they like it or not, the Other will assert themselves at last, bringing forth even through catastrophe all the many beautiful Egypts that have been squeaking for dear life.

Side effects of Revolution
Posted on October 6, 2011        
I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Dozens of them from before the Arab Spring are freely available on YouTube – the Nakba, Hezbollah, torture, hijab, George W, Iraq, Iran, Sudan – many as relevant to Tahrir Square as anything. Sidling into bed of an evening, high on Revolution, I would select a topic that suited my mood, listen with mounting suspense to Faisal’s retro rhetorical intro, and lick my lips over the promised discursive violence, not to say deranged bawling. That, at least, is how it started.
All very civilised and edifying. Each head-butting match has a compelling topic, a thought-out script and, seemingly, the right pair of contestants ready to express two sides of an issue. Ah, objectivity! Yet as with so much else on Al Jazeera, something somehow remains askew.
I do not mean the channel’s populist bias, the systematic and directionless manner in which it incites viewers (often to embrace political Islam), nor the unspeakable hypocrisy it sustains by doing so while it remains an organ of the Qatar government.
I do not mean Faisal’s brand of impartiality, which is to argue each case with vehemence irrespective of whether he might actually be spreading misinformation, never taking into account the implications of a given argument for the larger picture. It is okay, for example, to present Saddam Hussein as the wronged hero of Arab glory and call him the Martyr, so long as you are pointing up dependency, corruption and sectarianism in the current Iraqi regime; you only get to describe Saddam as he was if you happen to be bestowing blessings upon Iraq’s US Army-controlled experiment with democracy…
Yet what I mean is something, slightly, else: the obscene polarisation, the rhetorical opportunism, the insolent lies; the ultimate vapidity of a good 40 out of each 45 minutes, which forms the substance of my addiction. If al Ittijah al Mu’akiss is what it means to be politically engaged, I must say that political engagement is not a good thing. Just below the surface, it is very uncivilised and profoundly delusional. And it is a condition of which I have not been cured since I went out to chant slogans and endure tear gas.
It wrings my heart to think that, in six months, Tahrir Square has turned into something not all that different from al Ittijah al Mu’akiss.

Iraq en la corazon

Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab

Youssef Rakha outlines the life course of a modern legend


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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