The four avatars of Hassan Blasim

REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so on.

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SHORT STORY: Foxes and Birds by Mehis Heinsaar

Transcript, a Literature Across Frontiers publication

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(c) Youssef Rakha

SHORT STORY: Foxes and Birds by Mehis Heinsaar

Foxes and birds (Rebased ja linnud)

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(c) Jüri J Dubov

Translated from Estonian by Adam Cullen

Sitting at home drinking coffee alone on a Thursday morning and absentmindedly looking out the window, small-family-home designer Rein Vihalemm felt he was starting to slowly turn into a fox. It was a strange feeling. The architect’s moods became vigilantly alert, his nostrils awoke to sense new and interesting aromas and Rein’s gaze would unexpectedly, even to him, focus on the neighbor’s yard – where chickens strutted about, one meatier than the next. Rein Vihalemm could then feel the spittle already dripping from the corner of his mouth. The man sprung up instinctively, only to sit back down in his chair.

“What the hell – am I going crazy or something?” he thought in terror, poured himself another mug of coffee and sat back down to eye the plum trees watchfully.

Yet in the next moment, Rein charged up once again, ran out the door and ducked down behind the neighbors’ fence. Thirteen beautiful, plump chickens walked around on the other side of the currant bush and a mesh wire enclosure. Rein watched the birds with his eyes opened wide and his tongue lolling from his mouth, feeling something – that could not have been there – begin to wag from side to side near his bottom.

Sweet tension grew higher and higher within the man and finally, unable to resist the temptation, he jumped across the fence, right into the middle of the flock. A second later, three chickens had their necks wrung twice over and Rein Vihalemm’s heart was at peace. The man was even amazed at his own adroitness in retrospect. With the chickens clutched under his arm, the architect was already planning to climb back across the fence when someone’s light voice forced him to halt.

“Excuse me, but what are you doing here right now!?” someone shouted from behind him. This “someone” was the neighbor’s wife, Inge Teder.

In any other situation, Rein Vihalemm would have jumped out of his skin; yet now – brimming with vulpine cunning and human intelligence – he turned around calmly and smiled at his neighbor.

“Instead of thanking me, you become angry. That’s not nice, Inge!”

“My question was: what are you doing in our yard with chickens under your arm?” intoned the neighbor’s wife, repeating the question more demandingly.

“Fine. If you so wish to know, then I suppose I’ll explain,” Rein Vihalemm gave in. “What happened was actually that I’m sitting in my kitchen having my morning cup of coffee and trying to ease into the work day, about to begin, when all of a sudden I see from the window – a fox! The kind with fluffy fur and a long tail. And it’s slinking right across my yard towards your chicken pen, when – bam! – over the fence and straight to snapping necks. “Oh, what horror!” I shout, jump up and go right after him! As luck had it, I made it here right at the last second; or else the fucker would have killed off every single one.”

“Your story is strange and hard to believe, dear neighbor; I’ve never seen a single fox here!” The neighbor woman replied suspiciously, even placing her hands on her hips in a menacing stance.

“You hadn’t before, but now you have,” said Rein, not refraining from a retort. “One time is always the first.”

“So, so. Interesting: where is that fox, then?”

“Huh?”

“I said that it’s interesting – where is your fox, then? I would also like to see this miracle animal!” the woman demanded.

“Why don’t you believe me, Inge?” Rein sighed in such despair that a tear even glinted in the corner of his eye. “I said I drove him away! You see, the piece of crap even managed to bite my leg first. I truly don’t know where he could be right now.”

The neighbor woman’s expression now became more hesitant. It seemed that she was starting to so much as soften.

“Have you really then not heard on the radio or read in the papers that foxes have taken over all the suburbs of London and Berlin as of late?” Rein the architect continued on with even greater gusto, sensing how something in the area of his rear was once again starting to wiggle back and forth. “They don’t even fear hunters or the police any longer, not to mention ordinary people; and now, this scourge has apparently reached our little town as well. Isn’t it crazy!”

When Inge Teder nodded at the man upon hearing this, wearing an expression of complete confusion, Rein Vihalemm instantly felt something new within him: an even more feral fervor for the hunt awakening, a zeal of such dimensions that it shocked even himself … and brimming with vulpine cunning and human intelligence, he found it was the proper time to start closing in on a new prey.

Rein now stepped towards the neighbor’s young wife, took her by the hand and looked deep into her eyes.

“So you believe that I acted wrongly?” he inquired softly. “I should have just witnessed that vicious animal slaughtering all of your chickens one by one, holding a bloodbath, right? If this is so, then I apologize, of course. I will never, ever again go into battle with a single fox that invades your chicken pen, you can believe me!”

Two sad tears fell from his eyes onto Inge Teder’s hand, and then Rein Vihalemm turned to walk home.

“Wait just a second!” the neighbor woman soon called after him. “Don’t go like that, leaving me standing here as the culprit! If your story is indeed true, then… Come in, I’ll at least offer you a cup of coffee in repayment.”

Smiling sheepishly, the architect followed the woman inside. Rein carried along the three slaughtered chickens, dangling by their necks from his left hand.

After Inge Teder had brewed a full pot of coffee and prepared a few sandwiches on the side, the pair sat down at the table. A categorically more cheerful conversation soon began to sound in the house. It was definitely something to laugh at, as Rein Vihalemm began to describe the fox hunt that had only just taken place from a much more humorous perspective than before. With glowing eyes and flourishing hands, the man detailed how he had just grabbed the chicken thief by the scruff  of its neck when the beast broke free and started going for the coop once again. Rein Vihalemm moved smoothly onwards to speak of previous occurrences in his life, and it turned out he had likewise loved to hunt during his youth – that he had tracked down foxes earlier and everywhere, even on several occasions, and had caught them from time to time as well.

“But haven’t you been an architect your whole life?” Inge Teder remarked in surprise upon hearing this.

“Ah, that’s all stuff and nonsense: the most important thing in my life has nonetheless been hunting,” replied Rein Vihalemm, a wild glint in his eyes.

The architect’s hunting tales incited an ever-greater thrill within the young neighbor woman’s soul. Since her two small children – Mirjam and Mihkel – were only supposed to arrive home from their grandmother’s with their father just before evening, she also had time to listen on and on to her neighbor’s interesting stories. Spring had just arrived outdoors, the scent of flowers wafted throughout the garden and a mild breeze meandered around the house.

Inge soon couldn’t help but laugh with tears in her eyes and be amazed at her neighbor Rein’s hunting accounts. These stories spoke for the most part about tracking foxes, setting all sorts of traps for them and running them down with dogs. However, Inge especially enjoyed the fact that the foxes in these tales frequently outsmarted both the hunter and the dogs, escaping with their lives. Since such tales became ever more adventurous and incredible to the point that they could soon no longer be recounted while sitting in place, Rein the architect began walking around the table – sometimes slinking, sometimes on tip-toe –,going as far as to kneel before the woman and seize her by the hands while at the same time explaining something rapidly and incoherently.

Rein thereafter jumped onto a chair and continued recalling his adventures from this vantage point. No matter whether the enrapturing hunting stories or the strange, wild glimmer that flashed at her from Rein Vihalemm’s eyes was to blame; but at one moment, the neighbor woman even unfastened a couple of buttons around the neck of her dress so that the man could get slightly nearer to her with his unbelievable stories, given that all of the woman’s other visible body parts were already covered in narrative. When even her exposed breasts became coated by Rein’s storytelling mixed with kisses, Inge finally undid the entire front of her dress so that the man could now gain access to the full length of the woman’s body to tell his vivid hunting tales …

Rein recounted at length the daring stories of his life that might not have really happened, but which seemed much more believable than those that had truly occurred in his lifetime, and which therefore were not worth recalling in the least.

It was only when the man had finally made his way between the woman’s thighs with his regaling and brushed the pink door to her bodily love chamber with his clever tongue that Inge Teder suddenly came to her senses and noticed that her neighbor Rein hadn’t spoken to her in human speech for already quite some time; rather, he had communicated in some indecipherable language comprising a mixture of growls, yips and purrs … How could she have let everything unfold in this way? How did this cunning dog manage to put her virtue to the test with his slippery speech like that, when after all she was actually still a decent married woman and mother of two? Inge couldn’t understand.

Yet while she was racking her brain over this mystery in sweet astonishment, Rein had already slipped behind the woman’s back and driven his small lustful friend into Inge’s love chamber, where he cheerfully thrust himself in and out while continuing to captivate with his hunter’s stories. Growling, barking and snapping at the woman’s hair with his teeth, Rein now shoved Inge Teder forwards onto the table between the three chickens, taking his next-door neighbor so far with his unusual story that she now followed along no longer laughing or gasping in wonder; but rather moaning and baying until hot semen finally invaded her vagina and both of them slumped exhausted to the floor …

In the meantime, plum and cherry trees were blooming all around the house and bees flew from blossom to blossom beneath a light-colored sky. The warm spring day began to reach afternoon there in the small town.

When Rein Vihalemm at last rose up from the kitchen floor, he felt like a sensible, honest architect again. Then, seeing the nude neighbor woman lying next to him on the kitchen floor, Rein was overwhelmed with embarrassment and shame. The sly animal that had danced and reveled in the joy of the hunt within him just a moment before had acquired its prey and fled off into the forest, now leaving the unhappy man in this rather uncomfortable situation. No longer feeling the slightest bit of interest in the chickens laid across the strange table, Rein dressed furtively and disappeared from his neighbors’ house, mumbling apologies.

Inge Teder, however, lay on the floor, staring at the kitchen ceiling with an absentminded expression, still not comprehending how all that had just occurred could have occurred at all. Inge’s gaze then fell upon the wall clock, and the sensible housewife awoke once more within her. Having quickly dressed and adjusted her hair momentarily in front of the mirror, she dropped the chickens into a large soup pot to boil them and began waiting for her husband and children to come home while dusting and humming some dreamy melody.

The lives of the two neighboring families carried on as such, just as if nothing had ever happened. Rein Vihalemm continued dutifully designing small family houses and caring for his ailing father, while the Teder family continued to raise their darling children and take fantastic trips into the wilderness on weekends. When the Vihalemms and Teders happened to see each other across the fence, they spoke a few words as usual about the weather or about how the cucumbers or radishes were growing, just as is customary for neighbors to do.

Only rarely, sometimes, on some languid morning with the sense of spring in the air, when the plums and cherries have burst into bloom once more and the April breeze meanders around the house, does Rein Vihalemm find himself surreptitiously leaning towards the neighbor’s chicken coop anew. Yet the fox no longer awakens within him. Sighing, Rein will then stare off across the yards into the distance, standing for a time eyeing the plum blossoms hovering in the spring breeze, and then dolefully continue to work on his half-finished project.

Inge Teder similarly finds herself watching from the window at about the same time, an agitated disquiet in her breast. The woman peeks to see whether her neighbor hasn’t just invaded their chicken coop again by chance. And – breathing a sigh of relief – she reassures herself that everything there is peaceful.

E-cards for Mohammad Rabie

Mohammad Rabie, Kawkab ‘Anbar, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2010

BOOKSHOP: When a book signing ends up feeling like an engineers’ reunion, it makes you think not of structure but of paranoia. There is the architectural analogy, that is true (and in Arabic an architect is literally an “architectural engineer”). But by now it is something of a cliché: the stringing together of narrative is, anyway, nothing like the construction of buildings; character, dialogue and pacing, the poetry of scene and sentence, have little to do with design. Of course, engineers deal with electric circuits as well as building plans, pistons and pulleys, drills, computers, equations, frames and frameworks, all kinds of objects that can have metaphorical relevance to the writing process. But metaphors only go so far most of the time, and for many of us writing is a profession in its own right – in danger of being taken over! A month or so ago, a shortish novel longish by recent young-writer standards, Kawkab ‘Anbar (the name means “Amber Planet”), drew into the Kotob Khan Bookshop, where it emerged during a workshop with Yasser Abdel-Latif, what seemed like a range of people interested in new writing. The main speaker was a critic but apart from one dentist (the promising young poet Ahmad Nada), almost everyone turned out to be an engineer – civil, mechanical, hydraulic, electrical. For a moment it seemed as though a mafia of those lever-wielding un-poets were ambushing the literary sphere, infiltrating writerly circles all across the city, befriending with a view to replacing true writers and eventually, well – eliminating them. I would not stand for it! Thus I directed my malicious glances to the person at the centre of all this, the author of the book, Mohammad Rabie: born in 1978, a practising, yes – practising civil engineer since his graduation from university in 2001, to his friends he is actually known as Rabie, since there are too many Mohammads in this part of the world. For a moment Rabie did look like the don of some magic realist mafia. The beauty of paranoia is that it impounds reason. It was only a moment, but for its duration I was convinced there really was a mafia who gathered at construction sites to draw up plans of attack for literary world domination. I seemed to forget that Rabie was among the most personable people of his generation I had met, a writer with talent regardless of what else he does, totally innocuous.

I spend a lot of time in bookshops. I read the blurbs on the back covers, sometimes the introductions as well. I think hard before I buy. I hate crowded bookshops where I feel no sense of privacy. That’s why Kotob Khan is the perfect place for me. I also hate bookshops where attendants materialise the moment you walk in asking you what you want. It’s insolent. But as I say Kotob Khan was a perfect place to do this. Yasser Abdel-Latif did not interfere very much at all. Since the beginning he was careful about giving the participants just as much autonomy as they needed. Still, I think he managed to slip in ideas and sentences. There were parts he was largely dissatisfied with and I worked on those. What he insisted on was that there should be a dramatic line linking the events in the book, which is what I set out to do from the beginning. All of which was of course very helpful to me; and I think the fact that the participants thought alike and had a similar orientation was the main factor behind the success of the workshop. I think that any text with dramatic lines is a novel, but that is not why I set out to write one. The novel isn’t always the ideal format. The short story is another appropriate format. The novel is appropriate for multiple characters and many events. It is also a genre that suits chatter and gossip. The characters allow the writer to say all that they want indirectly, and there is space for imagination: to create cities and documents and languages, perhaps an alternative history. But the short story is extremely enjoyable for me. Concision and economy of means are two things I particularly enjoy; and the story is appropriate for describing a moment or a situation or a day in the life if its hero. The decision to write a novel is made after a few pages, perhaps before you start writing, but I think the time frame remains the principal factor. That is why this book is a novel, in the end, because that is the way the idea developed and the way I imagined it would spread over time. Sometimes I imagine a new form even more economical than the short story, through which to condense events that are spread out over long periods of time to the greatest extent possible. But all my attempts at achieving this form have been miserable.


CYBERSPACE: Until March 2008, there was in fact another Mohammad Rabie who was not an engineer: the author of outrageous novels about sex and religion in contemporary Cairo which he Xeroxed and handed out by hand. That other Rabie died in a Camus-ian accident at the age of 33. This Rabie, by contrast, is actually a blogger; he started out on the internet – a consequence, perhaps, of his background being non-literary. But the existence of another novelist born in the same year with the exact same name seems if nothing else pertinent to the kind of writing the author of Kawkab ‘Anbar is interested in practising. Unlike his namesake, Rabie is less interested in the immediate affects of language as he is in its ability to create a sustainable world. Unlike so many Arab writers – the vast majority, in fact, from the Sixties until recently – he wants to tell a story. He wants to use his imagination, engage with a concept or an idea, breathe life into a calculated structure. He does not want to evoke, imply, explore the possibilities of language as such. He does not want to wax lyrical, much less rhetorical. He does not want to wax. His object is a tale, and the function of reality – language as well as people who emerge through its use – is to flesh out that tale. In this as much as his cyber presence as a blogger and a micro-blogger (many were saddened when Rabie, shortly after the aforementioned signing, deactivated his Facebook account), Rabie is representative of the closest thing to a generation or a movement since the prose poets of the Nineties: writers who might be called the Twothousanders but not only because they started publishing after 2000. People like Nael El-Toukhy, Ahmad Nagui and (to a lesser extent) Mohammad Kheir and Mohammad Abdelnaby also share something more profound. They are all internet-savvy, down-to-earth agents of subversion as interested in things as they are in people and as closely connected to pop culture, communications technology and the global media as they are to literary history. Kundera is their Balzak, Mahfouz their Greek tragedy. They are cynics and jokers and glorifiers of what they refer to (admittedly often with ignorance) as kitsch. By and large they eschew poetry; and until the Egyptian quasi-literary blogging craze fizzled out, many of them professed to eschew print publication. They may not always have as much access to non-Arabic culture as they claim or desire, but their position is truly postmodern in the sense that they own and disown many histories at once; they don’t have a problem revolving around the commodity as a mode of being; they don’t have a problem with commodification. In short, they live mentally in our times – and they try to do it unselfconsciously.

I think the appropriate literary climate is one that is free of groups, schools and especially this concept of generations. Anyway it is the critics’ job to classify, I cannot claim to belong to a particular generation myself. As for my link with technology, I write directly onto the computer, but the initial ideas I jot down by hand, on a piece of paper, in a pocket notebook – that doesn’t matter, but it has to be on paper. I read the news online, I think the internet is a more efficient medium for news and short articles. But it can be a disastrous medium as far as literature is concerned. Paper will live on for a long time yet. Now there are e-book readers and I don’t see a difference between them and books, they have the advantage of taking up less space and weight. But visually they are very like books and they don’t have the distractions of the computer especially when it is connected to the internet. On the whole the only reason you would resort to electronic publishing is if you are unable to publish on paper. But the internet is completely inappropriate for a novel. A short story, a poem may work on the internet but nothing longer. My blog was an experiment that lasted for a long time. I had wanted to write a large text and the blog was my training ground. I thought I would use to train until it was time to write that large text. I had no preconceptions about what would happen to the novel after it was published. I didn’t think much of sales but I wanted it to be translated into other languages – imagine the translator’s predicament when they work on a text that finds fault with the very act of translation! Otherwise I was worried about the responses to it but those have been mostly encouraging. A few months after I completed it I already feel the novel has wrenched itself away from me and acquired its own being. It’s like a child of mine who’s grown up and leads their own life. My presence online was very important, it worked as indirect publicity for the novel. Many were waiting for it after I announced several times that it would be coming out. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I was present on the net, frankly, because I was used to being there. But my friend Marwa Rakha eventually drew my attention to the fact that it was good publicity.

LIBRARY: Kawkab ‘Anbar is the story of the eponymous, little known library (named after its original owner’s wife), a public endowment in Abbassiya on the verge of being demolished to make way for a new underground Metro line. It is told by Shahir, the endowments official who is sent there on a month-long assignment to put together a report on the library – a perfunctory, routine procedure intended to facilitate the forgone conclusion of its demolition by establishing that, all things considered, there is no reason for it to remain standing. Shahir is a young intellectual who, aware of the Kafkaesque futility of his task, is nonetheless quickly caught up in the mystery and madness of what turns out to be a Borgesian space of astounding quirkiness, initially through the existential endeavour of giving his task the semblance of credibility by searching in the library for anything of value. since he is “an old reader”, as his boss describes him in the opening, he looks – a little too earnestly for comfort – among the library’s uncannily surprising collection, eclectic as it is obscure. A string of clues leads Shahir to the two impossible ideas at the centre of the story (impossible, I mean, in the Borgesian sense, although Rabie does not delve as deeply into philosophy). First, there is a book written in a private or a nonexistent language, Luij al Sayrafini’s Creatures, translations of which have nonetheless been produced. Secondly, there is a device or a machine – invented and installed here by the owner – which is capable of producing a perfect translation of any and every book, including even Sayrafini’s, into any and every language. Rabie’s point is that, while it is possible to imagine these two things, their existence would anyway be pointless if not downright evil. He does not say it in so many words, but translation is a form of multiplying knowledge, and as such it is essentially an abomination, like Borges’s mirror, a curse. The story is also told by Dr Sayed: an arguably unnecessary complication, this, since Shahir’s voice alone would have made the essentially plot-driven, murder mystery-like narrative easier to follow. Dr Sayed is an older scholar, a cryptologist from the age of Nasser whose presence justifies all kinds of forays back into the Sixties, with passages on the real-life culture minister Tharwat Okashah, for example: an encyclopedic intellectual enamoured of both translation and classification. He is an obsessive and venomous, Dr Sayed, a quaint old cynic who enjoys watching others suffer. He knows Kawkab Anbar’s secrets but does not reveal them to Shahir. His voice gives a grotesque impression of the characters Shahir must tamper with on the way: among others, the library director, an old bureaucratic rival of Shahir’s boss; and the elderly translator who for many years has been reproducing, at first by hand, his own copies of the strange tomes that live here …

I meant the idea of translation itself, it is not a metaphor for anything else. I imagine that a complete, perfect translation is nonexistent. It is not something that people disagree much about that translation is always faulty to some extent, or that some translations are injurious to the original text. I don’t mean to imply that the text is holy. I mean simply that the ideas in a given text, which are easily understood and habitual if not stereotypical in their own language, might come across as something completely different or offensive once they have been rendered in a different language. Cultural interaction will happen anyway, but I think it happens in a more effective way through interaction with the other language without the medium of translation. That is not of course to say that translation is unnecessary, but it can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness. In translation it is much easier to stumble. This is of course the central tenet that I wanted to play with in the novel. There was no particular reason to use two voices, although I would not have wanted an omniscient narrator. But it just happened that way. First it flowed in the voice of Shahir, for weeks I worked on it in that voice. But then the voice of Sayed arrived and it forced me to work it in and give up on Shahir temporarily. But it was not technically necessary, there are ways to introduce perspectives into the texts – you add discourses or digressions, even footnotes as in the case of Mohammad Mustagab. Perhaps it is simply that writing the characters in their own voices, in as many of them as you can, makes them more alive. I do not have a clearly defined project as such because my ideas are always changing. Some ideas dog me for a long time but then they evaporate and seem naïve. Other ideas do not evaporate, and they may be just as naïve and laughable but if you think long and hard enough about anything it makes that thing highly valuable to me. I was surprised when friends told me about influences they thought they could see in the book: Naguib Mahfouz, for example, and then Saramago in All the Names, Eco in The Name of the Rose. All three are among my favourite authors in fact so it makes me proud for people to liken my work to theirs. Mahfouz was well organised and very patient which are things that I lack and would benefit from a great deal. Eco has encyclopedic erudition that is obviously beyond me but his writing is also extremely professional and I doubt if I will ever attain that level. I would also mention Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Gamal El-Ghitani in Khutat Al-Ghitani and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in Virgo. It amazes me how much the Iraqi writer Ali Badr and I can think alike, which is why I try to read everything to find out if it’s been done before. For a while now I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the historian: if the translator falsifies unwittingly, the historian does it on purpose, more or less and, well – just imagine the possible implications of that fact for fiction.

Review and interview by Youssef Rakha


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Empty Feeling: The Vagaries of the Sixties

The Egyptian writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s cast a long shadow over decades of Arabic fiction. Youssef Rakha considers the vexed legacy of a generation.

Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel
Mohamed el Bisatie, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University in Cairo Press
Dh90

In July 2007, I met the novelist Gamal al Ghitani in Cairo to discuss the Egyptian State Merit Award, which he had just received (too late, he felt). We agreed that the group of writers known in Egypt as the Generation of the Sixties – a politically engaged, predominantly working-class group of poetically-inclined writers who made their names in the late 1960s and early 1970s – remain the principle reference point for much contemporary Arabic literature. Al Ghitani said that the Sixties’ achievement comprises only two kinds of writing. “One draws on the news and other immediate manifestations of history to take realism to its logical conclusion; it is represented by Sonallah Ibrahim. The other, which is inspired by old books and uses the old storytelling to comment on the present, is my own.”

It seemed unnecessary to disagree at the time, but I thought to myself that there was a third Sixties contingent, one typified by Ibrahim Aslan and Mohamed el Bisatie. Their work is even more typical of “the movement” than either Ibrahim’s brand of hyper-realism or al Ghitani’s heritage-orientated approach. It embodies all the qualities that come to mind when you think of the Generation of the Sixties: it focuses on collective rather than individual experience. It works through evocation and insinuation, is often almost too subtle to understand, and prioritises style over storytelling. It asserts the importance of the lower-middle and working classes, which were more visible under the Nasser regime than they had ever been before.

What sets Aslan and el Bisatie – the former a postman-turned-editor, the latter (like Naguib Mahfouz) a lifelong civil servant – apart from their generational cohort is their almost exclusive emphasis on the experience of marginalised groups, rather than all of society or the ebb and flow of history. Their short stories – always short, sometimes rambling – are Faulkneresque in their focus on small communities and their vernaculars. Aslan has the Nile-side Cairo slum of Kitkat, el Bisatie an unnamed small town overlooking Lake Manzalah in the north-eastern Nile Delta. Like Ibrahim, both authors engage broad themes like sex, religion and politics, but only indirectly, only to the extent that they play out in the lives of the disinherited, and generally in a more personal register. Like al Ghitani, they situate their narratives in an explicitly historical context, but only on behalf of the small, poor communities in question.

In addition to his numerous short stories, Aslan has only produced two novels – Malik al Hazin (Heron, 1983) and Asafir al Nil (Nile Sparrows, 2000). Recently, in an unprecedented move for a Sixties Generation writer, he has branched out into literary non-fiction. El Bisatie, on the other hand, has spent the last three decades steadily producing short novels of starkly uneven quality. To a greater extent than Aslan, he has failed to remedy the shortcoming inherent in much of the new writing celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s: a lack of strong characters or gripping storylines. The power of language to convey an intimately observed environment – particularly one where common people live – was thought to be enough for literature. But it rarely is; now that the Sixties’ political points are no longer fresh, their style frequently seems stale as well.

“Hunger” is the idiomatic translation of both Al Ju’ and Ju’: the definite and indefinite forms of the word, respectively. El Bisatie’s choice of the latter as the title of his latest book (since published as Hunger by the American University in Cairo press) reflects a particular humility of the Sixties: the belief that, when the title of a book is a one-word abstraction, the definite article is too presumptuous to include. To call the book Al Ju’ (so goes this absurd argument, advanced by a whole range of Sixties critics) would imply that the author is laying exclusive claim to the concept of hunger (this is the rough opposite of how it works in English).

Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another recent book about poverty in the third world, one that recognises the age-old literary virtues of character and storyline – I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups (all of which Adiga transcends). They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.

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El Bisatie devised his technique of a collective narrative voice in two 1978 novellas, Al Maqha az Zujaji (The Glass Cafe) and Al Ayyam as Sa’bah (Hard Days): simple, sad evocations of the lives of geographically isolated town-dwellers. In these books, as in the bulk of el Bisatie’s subsequent work, the narration is either delivered by an amorphous “we” or by a rapidly shifting blend of individual voices – in both cases, it as if el Bisatie’s small town itself is telling its own tale.

It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat. But none of the collective voice’s potential poetic power (often squandered by sloppiness and repetition) makes up for a lack of absorbing drama or vivid individual characters. This helps explain why Ju’ is such a slow and dreary read.

The book opens with a woman named Sakina sitting by the doorstep of her rough-and-tumble, mostly mud-brick family house, her headscarf in a bundle between her legs. Her perpetually unemployed husband, Zaghloul, uses a piece of straw to clean his teeth – his way of telling her that she had better borrow a reghif or two of bread from the neighbour who baked that morning. Inside the house, their sons (Zaher, 12, and Ragab, 10), barely awake, caress their tummies. Dialogue between husband and wife is intermingled with their respective internal monologues, all rendered in a language somewhere between dialect and standard Arabic. El Bisatie’s usual poetic intensity is replaced by a more true-to-life, mundane idiom that is neither absorbing nor (as the intention sometimes seems to be) comic.

From the start, it is hard not to recall far more powerful depictions of the subjective experience of hunger (in Mohammad Choukri or Knut Hamsen, for example). You race through the next few pages, hoping for some more compelling situation or scene. But having taken in that first image, it turns out you have taken in the whole book: paper-thin characters on the lookout for food, only food, and not thinking much at all.

Ju’ is built around four anecdotes recalled without any indication of when they occur or how (or if) they relate. First, Zaghloul takes to eavesdropping on a group of young men from the town who are studying at university in Cairo. Home for the holiday, they are meeting at the cafe around which Zaghloul hovers (hoping against hope for a free drink, perhaps?). “Oh Sakina,” he later recalls to his wife, “education is so sweet… Sitting on the mastaba by the wall, I hear them talking. And, oh, what talk! I understand bit, I don’t understand a bit… They say that one shouldn’t work everyday like a water buffalo tied to a water wheel, one has to have time to think. But, people, think about what? They did not say. I wanted to ask them but I was silent.”

The encounter, far from influencing Zaghloul one way or the other, acts only to dehumanise him for the reader, to solidify him as a caricature of the sub-proletariat. Likewise, in the second anecdote he blasphemes: “God in His glory created the world and the people and everything, and ordered them to worship Him. I say to myself, if He created all this, what does He need their worshipping for … If He in His glory wants them to worship him, why doesn’t He appear in whatever form He likes and say ‘I created you, worship Me!’ Then nobody will say no.” This is a silly caricature of shallow atheism – neither interesting in its own right nor useful in developing Zaghloul’s character, which remains opaque and stereotyped: the poor man with poor thoughts who invariably ends up being beaten by the imam.

The third anecdote involves Hagg Abdur Rahim – a man who “returned home from foreign countries” to the village with as much new money as new weight, which renders him immobile. Zaghloul works for Hagg Abdur for two months, bringing his family a rare stretch of financial stability. In the fourth – and perhaps the most interesting – anecdote, Sakina is similarly subcontracted as a servant by the two female teenage servants of Hagg Hashem, another affluent member of the community. When she moves into Hashem’s house, she brings along her husband and children, who feast on the household’s supplies. But once again, the protagonists reveal no individuality, enacting their destiny (acquiring what food they can) like shadow puppets, two-dimensional and skin deep.

Ju’ ends with Zaher being beaten up by the father of his relatively affluent friend Abdalla, who has been providing him with much-needed snacks. “His father,” who does not want him to mix with such rabble, “was a teacher at the primary school and he had not one but four galabeyas, he wore an undershirt and had three meals a day.” Zaghloul accepts a few meters of fabric as compensation, but when Abdalla’s father hands Zaher a galabeya to replace the one that was torn during the beating, Zaher throws the garment on the ground and walks away. In The White Tiger, Adiga has his poor man protagonist, Balram, rebel – and transform himself with a brutal murder. In Ju’, el Bisatie has Zaher make a feeble, hackneyed gesture, without the slightest indication of whether or how the rebellion will improve (or worsen) his lot. Perhaps a gesture of this type is in character for Zaher; we never know him well enough to say.

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Perhaps what al Ghitani was getting at (consciously or unconsciously) in our conversation was not that the Sixties produced only two kinds of writing but rather that only two kinds of writing have survived since. Aslan and el Bisatie’s mode, arguably the most characteristic of the Generation, is fast dying out, just like the predominantly deferential, ineffectual characters it depicts. Today, the Zaghlouls of Egyptian fiction are more like Adiga’s Balram: upwardly mobile heroes who at least try to change their lives. The heirs of the Generation of the Sixties (prose poets-turned-novelists some three decades younger, often referred to quite aptly as the Generation of the Nineties) have turned the principles of their forebears upside down. Writers like Mustafa Zikri and Ibrahim Farghali – however else you evaluate their achievement – have traded the collective for the individual, the musical swirl of the “we” for the developed narratives of the “I”. As a vehicle for conveying modern reality, el Bisatie’s collective voice sounds less and less convincing – like the echo of an echo, no longer beautiful twice removed. It is doubtful that the poetic style he perfected in Shakhab al Buhairah will live on much longer.

Early on, partly in response to the Sixties Generation’s obsession with “the people”, the Nineties writers avoided social and political engagement altogether, and edged away from the vernacular towards a dynamic, thoroughly contemporary standard Arabic designed for finding the magic in the quotidien. As a result, they are realists only insofar as they use everyday contemporary life as their starting point. They write about foreigners and rich people with fully developed and convincing personalities – and about ghosts, psychotic breaks, unrealistic and fantastical turns of events. Their styles borrow from across high and low culture. Most importantly, they show at least as much interest in plot and character development as style. They tell stories of love, death, hunger and the full range of specimens who experience them. In doing so, they offer the reader so much more than the Sixties version of reality which, through relentless, obstinate insistence on being true to the grassroots vernacular of its time (and nothing more), already appears unreal.

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In all my barbarity


Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa (Writings of the security shift): the Letters of Abdelhakim Qassim, ed. Mohammad Shoair, Cairo: Merit, 2010
Abdelhakim Qassim (1935-1994) is among the least talked about Egyptian writers belonging to the so called Generation of the Sixties – and not only because he is dead. By now Qassim is as established as he can be; his long-term influence on the literary imagination is undeniable. But unlike, for example, the poet Amal Donqol (1940-1983) or the short story writer Yahya El-Taher Abdalla (1938-1981), both of whom died during his lifetime, Qassim is hardly ever celebrated. Along with other Sixties writers, Dar Al Shurouk has bought the rights to his oeuvre, but to this day it remains out of print. The only exception is his first novel, Ayyam al-inssan ass-sab’ah (The seven days of man, 1969); and it is this book that his name tends to invoke, obscuring the bulk of what he considered his true achievement.
Set in and around the village where he was born some three weeks before his official date of birth, near Tanta, Ayyam al-inssan is an ode to provincial life and its spiritual core – centred on a seven-day mini-pilgrimage to the shrine of the local saint for the moulid or anniversary festival – and it has cast Qassim more or less exclusively in the role of writer of the provinces. This role, he would variably engage with and reject throughout his life; what is clear is that he did not think of  Ayyam al-inssan as his greatest accomplishment.
Later writing is different in subject matter and structure if not so much in language, a rich, occasionally laboured language in which the author invents as well as searching for the right words, drawing on vernacular diction in oblique and intensely personal ways. Some of it is set in Berlin, where he spent the period 1974-1985; much of it was written there. It includes four novels besides Ayyam al-inssan, five books of short stories, four novellas and a play as well as much else not intended for publication. All of it remains virtually unknown.
Such neglect could have to do with the rift created by what Mohammad Shoair, the editor of the present book and Qassim’s as yet potential biographer, describes as Qassim’s “return to his village to defend social traditions and artistic values he had often attacked”. At this point in his life, profoundly disillusioned with the West and increasingly nationalistic in outlook, Qassim censured even his closest writer-friends (those, as Shoair notes, whose work his never-completed PhD was to be about); pointlessly but perhaps understandably he began to seek self-realisation beyond the literary sphere. Two years after his return from Germany he ran for parliamentary elections, representing the left-wing Tagammu’ Party; it was a forgone conclusion that he would lose. Immediately afterwards, he contracted a brain haemorrhage that paralysed the right side of his body and for the last four years of his life was able to write only by dictating to his wife.
It was a time, I imagine, of profound alienation and bitterness; Shoair dwells on the effects of immigration on Qassim’s connection with his homeland in order to explain why he suddenly turned against everyone and everything. And the neglect that his work has suffered is due, if not to its aftermath, then to his sojourn in Berlin, during which he maintained only spotty contact with literary centres in Cairo. As a law student at Alexandria University – his course was interrupted by five years in the Wahat Detention Camp, where he was sent on charges of communism – Qassim, a renegade Muslim Brother and a temperamental Marxist, had managed to establish himself in intellectual circles. He travelled to Berlin initially to attend a literary conference, invited by Nagui Naguib, one of the earliest champions of his writing and the correspondent to whom the first two letters in the book – the only two written from Egypt – are addressed. It is unclear how long Qassim initially intended to stay, but it seems he saw the invitation as an opportunity for starting afresh; apparently on a whim, he simply went on living in Germany. The Berlin sojourn, a difficult one by all accounts, served as an occasion or a pretext for writing letters to family and friends. In one such, to the novelist (and once Al-Ahram Weekly critic) Mahmoud El-Wardani, Qassim dwells on the reason behind his departure, the one theme his letters keep coming back to:
“In my youth I was unable to accomplish anything new. I grew up, earned a degree and started working. I became someone with a home and a job to go to every morning, a wife and a daughter and then a son. Gradually society started to rid me of all that set me apart, driving me to crush the old Abdelhakim and construct, under my skin, another Abdelhakim who is diligent at his work and attentive to his home and careful about his clothing.
“It was driving me to another terrifying thing: success. And success is only one thing once all values have been mired in the mud. Success is to be well-off, to have contacts with the powers that be, to have an important position, to have an image that is seen and a voice that is heard. Society was warning me: If I did not do this it would turn me into a deformed cripple to be crushed without mercy.” Successful acquaintances would meet up with him, discuss petty issues of concern. “And I would see the terrifying emptiness in which they lived. I read their work and saw their absolute debility. I recognised their torment and their inability to turn back, and I also recognised by own inability to go on and write what I wanted to… There had to be a new beginning in a new land…”
***
Shoair, who might as well have written a partial if not a complete biography of Qassim, began to collect Qassim’s letters in 2004: “It started with a small press file on… Yahya El-Taher Abdalla… The critic friend Mohammad Badawi suggested that I should likewise put together a file on Abdelhakim Qassim.” Shoair contacted Abdelmoneim Qassim, the writer’s brother and one of his principal correspondents. He obtained copies not only of Qassim’s letters to Abdelmoneim and others but also of never-published poems, the incomplete doctoral thesis, abandoned novel projects and the Berlin diaries. “I found that the letters could form a text parallel to and revealing of his works, his cultural constitution and choices. And I started contacting his friends to ask if they might have letters from him.”
The title Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa is a reference to Qassim’s longest lasting job in Berlin, as a night watchman at the Charlottenborg Palace, when he would frequently pass the time by writing letters. The book contains letters to 11 correspondents including some of the most active writers of the period: besides Wardani, the short story writer Said El-Kafrawi, the poet Mohammad Saleh (Qassim’s brother-in-law, who passed away last year), the critic Sami Khashabah, and (another universally acclaimed writer of the provinces who by then had stopped writing) Mohammad Roumaish. It excludes letters to Qassim’s wife, deemed by his daughter “too private” for publication, letters “hidden” by their owners and letters that have been lost. Shoair gives his introduction the title Writing Without Makeup, and it is this spirit of abandon, the intensely personal tone in which Qassim discusses all manner of subjects from the procedural to the philosophical, often on the same page, that gives the book its immediate appeal. One amazing fact is that, whenever he begins to write in dialect – as people often do in personal correspondence – Qassim always seemingly involuntarily reverts back to standard Arabic. Before you have had a chance to catch your breath the language has already taken on that heavy, fluid eloquence that characterises all his writing.
He writes while on the job, while drunk, while briefly ill or in the grip of melancholy. The text, which Shoair is careful to reproduce accurately, preserving grammatical errors and idiosyncrasies of punctuation (footnotes would have made for a smoother read), affords fascinating insights not only into the life of which it was part – Qassim’s propensity for mythologising even the simplest events: the way he remembers his journeys on foot from one village to another to see friends back in the Nile Delta, for example, or his tirades against the so called Zionist entity and Sadat – but also into the rhetorical techniques that went into his more polished compositions. Still, there is a sense in which these letters can be read as chapters in an epistolary novel, albeit an unsettlingly postmodern one, about estrangement and homeland but also about the shifting and often tragic fortunes of Egyptian intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century.
Strangely Qassim seems to say very little about his immediate surroundings in Berlin. Often he will recount what he has been doing or where he is going next, his often difficult financial situation can be discerned in various ways, but Berlin itself – the place he occupies while writing – remains something of a mystery, repeatedly mentioned but only very occasionally dwelled on. In one 1974 passage to Saleh Qassim, with typical quasi-epic emotion, speaks of his awareness of the city with Whitmanesque frenzy: “Berlin seeps into my heart from peculiar pores… Berlin, softly! In my heart is Cairo still. Will you come to me in words whose meanings I do not understand on the lips, in cigarette smoke puffs, in a few sadnesses that I know. For I, Berlin, lived a long life before I came here… Berlin, I am your loving young one. I throw my leg away from the bar seat. When she smiles to me I dissolve. I feel the taste of glittering saliva on her teeth. I tap the rim of my glass out of shyness. I wish it never filled and you will ever fill it. But it is only a moment that barely is before it is gone…”
***
Apart from its historical value, of all its virtues, the most remarkable thing about this book is that it contains a wealth of apparently passing remarks that will prove of value not only to the student of contemporary Arabic literature but to the literary theorist and the writer concerned with the nature of the creative process and what it means to write. “Dreaming of writing is more beautiful than writing itself,” Qassim writes to Wardani in 1982. “Dreaming of writing is me in all my barbarity, my limitlessness and power.” And it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, in these letters, Qassim did not so much write as dream of writing.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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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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Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

Wheatfield with Crows (1890), Van Gogh Museum,...
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Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143
Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

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Disrupting the Narrative by Sousan Hammad

Arabian nights.
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A man with nomadic tendencies, Youssef Rakha was born in Cairo in 1976. He studied English and philosophy in England, worked in Cairo, lived in Beirut, and, most recently, in Abu Dhabi as a features writer for the English daily, The National. He has interviewed some of the most compelling and contemporary Arab storytellers of our time for the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly – from helmers and novelists to actors and politicians (who, to me, are also storytellers) – laying bare his writings with such meticulousness, voice, and reason that he gives his audience a chance to draw their own conclusions as they observe the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the speaker.

Youssef is currently finishing his first novel, Kitab At Tughra (Book of the Tugra), which, according to his blog ‘the arabophile’, is an “imaginative evocation of post-2001 Cairo and a meditation on the decline of Muslim civilization.” Here, then, we stroll through the mind of Youssef Rakha exposing, in fragmentation, the man and his machinations.

Poetry, fiction, travel writing, reportage, and essays – you are a multi-faceted writer. Which style limits you the most?

Formal constraints are limiting in every genre or kind of writing, but they are necessary for sustaining tension; the line through which the exchange takes place has to remain taut. The greater challenge is of course to write well, meaning – as Raymond Carver put it I think – not only to express but to communicate, and for me also to strike the right balance between stating what I have to say and making the reader say something through me, something similar but never the same; it’s important to leave that space open inside the text. The idea is always to stretch the form as far as I can – and that applies even to grammatical form: sentence structure and word order etc. – because it’s always as if you’re looking for something, a tone or a rhythm or a standpoint, something entirely subjective but also objective enough to be recognised. So how to be completely insane but at the same time lucid and articulate. In this sense language itself is limiting but the whole point is to argue with its limitations.

Poetry is the most challenging thing and if I had more integrity I would be a dedicated poet. But I think my medium is the Arabic language regardless of form. I recently came across these wonderful words from the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus and they express me perfectly: “Which all goes to say that, for me, the Arabic language is oceanic in nature and can absorb anything into its vast genetic pool… I think the time has finally come to treat Arabic as a great reservoir, a live magnet that can absorb foreign influences today as easily as it did in the past.”

How long have you been writing?

I published my first book, Azhar ash Shams, in 1999. I finished what I consider to be my first accomplished piece, the title short story of that book, in 1997. I was 20 or 21. But I started writing many years before, and then I started writing again when I switched to English more or less fully in 2000. I came back to Arabic with Beirut shi mahal in 2005, with only a few poems produced in Arabic in the meantime.

Virginia Woolf said fiction is more likely to tell truth than fact. Would you agree?

I am not sure what that means. Fiction plays with fact. Sometimes fact is fiction or vice versa. Foucault pointed out that there is no such thing as truth, anyway. There are many truths, and to me the truth to be found in writing is more valid than that to be found in the natural sciences, for example, or at least more relevant. But in writing, I happen to know from experience that fact can be at least as interesting as fiction.

If you could live on an island (let’s say… a pre-colonized Sri Lanka) who would you take? Of course, the indigenous people would be with you.

Jean Genet or Mahmoud Darwish?
Genet, of course. I actually happen to hate Darwish, but that is a long story…

Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx?
Fanon. We would have a lot more to talk about.

Fairouz or Leila Khaled?
That’s a really hard one. Fairuz, assuming she will be singing to me in the dark.

Sonallah Ibrahim or Emile Habiby?
Habiby would be more fun I think. I mean, I know Sonallah personally but Habiby I never met.

David Lynch or Michael Haneke?
Lynch, of course.

Khadija or Arundhati Roy?
Khadija as in the Prophet’s wife? I think I’d rather Arundhati among the natives.

Woody Allen or your unconscious?
Once again, a hard one. I think maybe they’re quite similar. But my unconscious would be Arabic-speaking which is always nice.

Father or Mother?
Oh God. Can I say neither. My father is dead, so I would go for Father simply for that reason.

If you could replace whatever infrastructure you wanted in a city – with your only condition being that reduplicating Gulf-kitsch glamorama is off limits – what would you demolish and what would you build?

With very few exceptions, I would demolish everything built later than 1800. I would build vast, hi-tech tents guarded by pure-bred camels. Tents the size of whole cities. And camels, camels everywhere.
Finally, what do you anticipate from the Beirut39 Festival?

You know there was a lot of so called debate here in Cairo following the announcement of the winners. A lot of non-winners vented their frustration and even older writers who had nothing to do with the whole thing expressed various reservations and grievances. That did not exactly put a damper on things but it made me wonder what a competition amounts to in the long term, especially thinking about some fellow winners whose work I have never respected but who have always, then as now, been present at every event or conference. It makes me curious about the nature of success in Arabic literature, what it really means to be successful and how much of it has to do with quality of writing as opposed to sheer presence of personages. Of course there are on the list also names I am totally honoured to be associated with. But that is one part of what being part of the festival has done to me, to place me face to face with difficult questions about the value of what I do and how this value is actually measured.

I have a very strong four-year-old connection with Beirut so it is very exciting to go there as a recognised writer. My hope however is that the festival will help me on the ongoing and incredibly difficult task of freeing up time to travel and write, whether through residencies or a book deal or whatever

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A world of promise

Bianca Brigitte Bonomi
The Hay Festival, which is now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution that is helping to foster a global interest in Arab writing. Richard Stanton

At the London Book Fair two years ago, Arab literature took centre stage. It was the subject of lectures, debates and interactive sessions with authors and publishers. Despite its prevalence over the course of the week, however, we learnt that Arab literature hadn’t made significant inroads into the West. Factors ranging from censorship to an under-developed publishing infrastructure and a paucity of translators were contributing to its status as a largely untapped literary market.
Two years on, and progress is being made. There is an increasing literary awareness within the region and a growing international interest. A number of prestigious awards are being offered to stimulate reading and translation in the Arab world. We have an “Arab Booker” prize, publishing houses including Penguin and Bloomsbury are expanding into the Gulf and authors such as Alaa el Aswany are becoming household names: all paying testament to the serious drive to place Arabic texts alongside writing from more heavily marketed parts of the world on western bookshelves.
Beirut39, a Hay Festival project that aims to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40 as part of the Beirut World Capital festivities 2009/10, is a forerunner in promoting this literature on a global stage.

The Hay Festival’s interest in Arab literature is linked in no small part to the obvious potential of this emerging market. “The statistics speak for themselves,” says Bachar Chebaro, the owner of Arab Scientific Publishers and the secretary general of the Arab Publishers Association. “Twenty-four Arab countries, a population of 340 million and 422 million Arabic speakers living outside of the region.” In the current economic climate, western publishers are increasingly tempted by this huge potential readership and the world’s largest festival of books has taken note.

Hay, now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution. In May, more than 100,000 people braved the rain to head to the sleepy book town on the Welsh border. The festival has hosted ex-presidents, rock stars and Booker prize winners and has extended its global reach in recent years to include offshoots in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, Segovia and Alhambra in Spain and Nairobi, Kenya. Beirut39 follows Bogotá39, which launched in the Colombian city in 2007 and identified many of the most promising rising Latin American talents, including Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Wendy Guerra, Andrés Newman and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

In the past, Arabic texts translated have generally been those produced by established writers. Important new literary awards have increased the profile of Arabic literature in the Arab world and worldwide, but the writers who have benefited have for the most part already enjoyed long careers. In recognition of the fact that the difficulties facing emerging Arab writers are particularly acute, Beirut39 set out to identify writers at the start of their careers struggling to find a wider audience. First or second-generation Arab authors born after 1970 with at least one published work of fiction or poetry were eligible for inclusion and nominations were solicited from publishers and literary critics across the Arab world and internationally. Members of the public were invited to nominate writers online and – controversially – authors could nominate themselves.

Around 500 young authors from across the Arab world as well as the Arab diaspora in Europe and America submitted their works. The vast majority of these texts were written in Arabic.

“England has always struggled to get interested in any literature not written in English,” says Cristina Fuentes La Roche, the Hay Festival project director. “They translate less literature than other countries in Europe. At the moment there are some terrific Arab authors succeeding in the western world, but they all write in English or in French. This project will give Arabic writers a real boost,” she says.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, the entrants were whittled down to the final 39. Members of the committee, headed by the Egyptian literary critic Gaber Asfour, and including the Lebanese novelist Alawiya Sobh, the Omani poet Saif Al Rahbi and the Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, focused on the degree of potential shown by the authors. The winners include the Saudi-born Abdullah Thabit, the Moroccans Abdelaziz Errachidi, Yassin Adnan, Abdelkader Benali and Abderrahim Elkhassar, Lebanon’s Hala Kawtharani, the Egyptoian Youssef Rakha, the Palestinian Adania Shibli and the Iraqi Ahmad Saadawi. Faiza Guene, a young French-Algerian writer whose first novel was published at the age of 19, is on the list, as is the award-winning short-story writer, novelist and translator Randa Jarrar. Her first novel, A Map of Home, was released to critical acclaim in six languages, and won the Hopwood Award, the Gosling Prize and the Arab American Book Award. The Iraqi poet and playwright Bassim Al Ansar was also shortlisted. In 1999, Ansar started a contemporary literature magazine in Denmark, his current home, and has had several books of poetry published.

The 39 authors will travel to Beirut in April for four days of literary talks, debates and recitals. Libraries, bookshops, cafes and universities will welcome visitors to discuss the issues at the heart of Arab contemporary fiction. The festival hopes to attract a diverse audience, reflecting the power of writing to stimulate social cohesion and cultural understanding.

To mark the occasion, Bloomsbury will publish Beirut39, an anthology of fiction and poetry by the selected authors with an introduction by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. The book will be published in English and Arabic in the UK, the US and the Arab world.

“This is one of the most exciting projects Bloomsbury has undertaken in recent years and is entirely in keeping with its commitment to the best writing from all over the world,” says Bill Swainson, the senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury London. “We are hugely appreciative of the judges’ careful work in considering submissions and delighted with the scope, energy and quality of their final selection.”

The backing of the publishing house is a boost to the project and will facilitate the sharing of literature around the globe. For the author and former National staffer Rakha, however, the problem of engagement is about understanding and appreciation as well as infrastructure. “Pessimistically, I think perhaps westerners are not as interested in the contemporary Arab world as we like to think they are, and when something is written in a language so different from French or Spanish and published by a small house with no contacts on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is no reason to expect publishers or readers who might feel culturally superior to pay attention to it,” he says.

“The irony, of course, is that a lot of Arabic writing could actually be very relevant and engaging to westerners at the basic, human, universal level – if only they had the means and inclination to read it. Should the resources become available to translate and publicise the right books in the right contexts, which I feel they increasingly are, I think we can expect the situation to improve. But the most encouraging development is that many Arab publishers are increasingly aware of the global publishing industry and working hard to reach out.”

The National

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Cry my beloved poetry

Cover of "Lynch (One)"
Cover of Lynch (One)

Spring brought poetry from the inaugural round of the Dubai International Poetry Festival (4-10 March) to this week’s issue of Cairo’s most popular literary publication, Akhbar Al Adab, which dedicated its Bustan (Orchard) department to poetry criticism and poets’ testimonies: Youssef Rakha considers a maligned genre

In a video interview about Lost Highway, the American director David Lynch describes his ideal film as an abstract composition, a sort of audiovisual symphony. Then again, Lynch says that a film seldom works for the viewer without the benefit of a compelling narrative. In his own work he would rather do away with the narrative side of film-making, he says, but he endeavours to have enough story-line to keep people watching.
Lynch suggests there is a chasm between imagery and storytelling – which seems particularly relevant to contemporary Arabic writing in Egypt. Since the establishment critic Gabir Asfour made his millennial declaration that we are living in “the Age of the Novel” (zaman arruwayah), the idea of a contest between poets and novelists in which the latter are beating the former has sparked much ludicrous debate.
No reliable statistics have established that more novels are being sold now than a decade or two ago, or more novels than “diwans” of poems. But this is the prevailing belief; and the response of poets has ranged from publishing novels to holding a personal grudge against Asfour.
***
At the JW Marriott, Kuwait, attendance of the annual Alarabi Magazine Symposium (held on 2-4 March to mark the Kuwaiti institution’s 51st anniversary) was embarrassingly low until the final session – devoted to poetry. Prodded perhaps by embarrassment, perhaps by the presence at the podium of the south Lebanon poet Mohammad Ali Shamseddin – together with the Kuwaiti poets Saadiyah Mifrih and Salah Dabshah – previously m.i.a. invitees now nearly filled the hall.
Ironically it was Asfour of all people who replaced the co-ordinator of the session, the poet and patron of literature Abdulaziz Al-Babbatin, who could not make it to the seminar. Asfour was joined at the podium by another establishment critic, Salah Fadl – speaking in his capacity as head of the jury of the Abu Dhabi-based television programme Amir Ashshu’ara’ (Prince of Poets).
Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is the standard-Arabic edition of the pan-Arab Nabati (or Bedouin Colloquial) verse competition programme Sha’ir Al-Milyon (Millions’ Poet) – phenomenally popular in the Gulf – in which millions are awarded to the best poems written in free verse (ashshi’r alhorr, also known as shi’r attaf’ilah). Free verse breaks up and intermingles different metric schemes from ‘Aroud Al-Khalil (the compendium of metrical rules put together by Ibn Ahmad Al-Farahidi in the eighth century), partly or wholly doing away with rhyme. The taf’ilah – as this form’s rhythmic unit came to be called – may have emerged as early as the 1930s, but it did not achieve recognition until the 1960s.
Though some Sixties Generation poets wrote prose (Mohammad Al-Maghout and Sargon Boulos), the last generation of household-name poets (Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani) wrote free verse. After its heyday towards the end of the 1960s, free verse continued to appear, without making much of an impact, until the emergence in the 1990s of a new kind of prose poem showed up its anachronism more clearly than ever before.
***
Fadl did not cite the pre-eminance of the prose poem as a reason to reject the Age of the Novel, but he did point out that rejecting it is not unjustified. The prose poem remains the one original and definable form to have cohered and stood out since the 1990s, when said Age is supposed to have dawned. The novel, on the other hand, has fluctuated considerably, defined and redefined itself, and dithered at many crossroads without moving very far in any direction.
Whatever you think about this, ferocious exchanges will probably continue to take place. What is missing is a responsible discussion of what each genre actually constitutes.
The case for Arabic poetry in prose is resolved in practise; in recent memory hardly a single self-respecting talent has produced any verse. Yet it remains officially on the table, while “novel” – the youngest genre in the language, barely 100 years old, as opposed to the 1,400-year-old verse tradition – has become the catch-all term for almost any literary writing typeset in paragraphs rather than lines.
Memoir, autobiography, travel writing, sequence of short stories or essays, reportage, erotica, and of course extended poem: all are unthinkingly stamped NOVEL (by writers and publishers alike). In the absence of corrective classification, this makes Asfour’s epochal declaration redundant.
With the gradual emergence of popular non-fiction books like Khalid Al-Khamisi’s Taxi, classification is slowly improving. But the prose poem is still at best ignored. At worst it is subjected to a notoriously retarded attack by the poet Ahmad Abdelmo’ti Higazi, a didactic figure whose authority rests less on either enduring significance or sales figures than short-lived critical acclaim in the 1960s and a career in government institutions since.
***
Had Fadl mentioned the prose poem by name, however, he would have underlined the fact that, in restricting its scope to free verse, Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is in effect ignoring the most interesting poetry being written in Arabic today. Even within the Gulf, where verse traditions are more alive and tastes more conservative than elsewhere, only prose poets (Ibrahim Al-Mulla and Khalid Al-Budour in the UAE, for example) have achieved pan-Arab recognition.
Instead, Fadl stressed the role of TV – and, implicitly, of course, cash – in spreading the word about the Arabs’ trademark legacy at a time of relative decline. He did not touch on the absurdity inherent in quantifying “the success of the poem” compared to another poem. He did not deal with the implications of evaluating poetry through a system of points awarded by s.m.s., among other means. And he did not suggest that there may be better ways to financially serve poetry (which there are: the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which funds both programmes, still does not have a single publishing house to its name). Only Shamseddin, the most cogent speaker by far, made any reference to the difference between poetry and verse.


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Perhaps inevitably, in the presence of Asfour, the proceedings centred on poetry during the Age of the Novel – whether or not, and how (if not through television) poetry can “extend” into an Age other than its own. But the to-and-fro between Fadl and Asfour failed to show how, while the prose poem is attacked or ignored, the novel which is not a novel acts to obscure the meaning of narrative. On the one hand there is the perception that novels may be selling because they tell stories; on the other, the fact that, whether or not they are selling, the books called novels are by and large un-story-like.
***
Egypt has an emergent, as yet vaguely articulated magic realist movement. Its authors – Hamdi Abugolail, Ibrahim Farghali, Mustafa Zikri, and, more recently, Tarek Imam, among others – are more or less atypically un-poetic. But aside from the new fictional realms intimated – or, rather, promised – by their work, the novel per se has contributed little to Arabic literature since the 1990s. Its function has been to transport the achievements of the prose poem to a place where they are safe from being attacked for making a clean break with the ‘Aroud. Higazi suffered censure for his pre-modern stand.
But someone has yet to attack the novel for identity theft.
In retrospect, notwithstanding the Age, extensions across or within, many have come to see free verse as an involuntary stopgap. It was the means for a verse-dominated culture to ease itself away from the ancient drum beats of the desert and the twinkle-twinkle cadences of a love song by Om Kulthoum – past the 1960s countless affirmations of and arguments with the aptly named ‘amoud (pillar) of traditional verse – and into an image-driven, down-to-earth music all its own.
Like many facets of Arab modernity, it seems, the free verse revolution was half-hearted and timorous. It could not be effective until the liberation of language and emotion that it implied was carried to its logical conclusion. But when eventually, at last, it came time for people to realise their poetic modernity in full, they ended up going on stage to an all but empty auditorium. Still, they performed anyway.
***
By the 1990s, in occasional publications like Al-Kitabah Al-Ukhrah and Al-Garad, incandescent talents like Iman Mersal and Ahmad Yamani were reinventing language. They de-ideologised discourse, de-nationalised human concerns, and acknowledged their (post) modern identity in genuine rather than authentic registers.
Accepting bare-headed status, they no longer wore the fez of free verse, much less the turban of the ‘Aroud. But it was hard to prove that, in taking these off, they had not slipped on Ataturk’s self-hating hat behind Higazi’s back. What can only be described as ancestor worship came in the way of Nineties Generation poets being immediately recognised or celebrated.
So did the insecurity of taf’ilah gurus suddenly realising that their role had not been quite as “historical” as they had thought, and that their insurgent energy may in fact have been reactionary.
Anyway, by then talented Sixties Generation writers like Ibrahim Aslan and Mohammad Al-Bisati – precisely by debasing narrative – had contributed to the loss of what little readership existed when they emerged on the scene. Themselves arguably frustrated prose poets, they excelled at short stories but caught the germ of obsessive novel disorder.
Now that the readership seems to be regrouping (around them as much as younger so called novelists), the Nineties prose poem – the only true agent of change – is the farthest from being a beneficiary of the good fortune.

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January 2000

Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143

Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi