Tractatus Politico-Religiosus

The Second Tractatus: From 25 January to 30 June in four sentences: on Egypt’s two revolutions

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1 Newton’s third law of motion: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.
2 For nearly three years the triumph of the 25 January uprising involved the Egyptian constituency in a series of conflicts, protests and counterprotests in which the action repeatedly pitted the army as the sole remaining representative of the state against political Islam.
2.1 In the period 25 January-11 February 2011, protesters (including Islamists) were credited with bringing down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. They had no leadership or ideology, and their slogan — “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” — could conceivably be grafted onto a communist or fascist system just as well as on the liberal democracy they were demanding.

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Nukhba? Who the fuck is Nukhba? – Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution

Eat your words

Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution

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Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.

Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?

Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.

It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.

What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.

But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.

The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.

Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?

As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.

Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.

For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…

As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.

Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)

Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.

Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.

Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.

When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.

Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.

Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.

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Virtual Palestinians: From Sabra and Chatila to Arab Spring

On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries

“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
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For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…

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When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.

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A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?

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I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.

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The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?

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Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.

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Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?

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I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.

Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation

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The menace of resistance

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Youssef Rakha, Islamophobe


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Youssef Rakha thinks about the Brotherhood, the military and the modern state

A long time ago — it must have been 2000 — I was briefly in trouble at work for apparently belittling the achievement of Hezbollah against Israel in an article I had written.
The censure came from a left-wing, thoroughly secular editor; and I wasn’t particularly distressed to have to redraft the paragraphs in question. Perhaps, I thought, I had let my Islamophobia get the better of me. (I should point out that, though steadfastly agnostic, I am still Muslim, as eclectically proud of my heritage as any post-Enlightenment individual can reasonably be; so my self-acknowledged Islamophobia refers neither to the religion nor the historical identity but specifically to the far more recent phenomenon — perhaps I may be allowed to say “catastrophe” — of political Islam.) I was to realise that much of the Arab left’s respect for Hezbollah centred on the concept of resistance and, especially, its perceived triumph over a materially superior power, independently of a quasi-commonwealth of incompletely constructed modern states whose majority’s compromised position had rendered it an ineffective rival to “the Zionist entity”.
In the same context though perhaps not from the same time, I remember having mixed feelings about a Moroccan activist in a demonstration on Al Jazeera crying out repeatedly, “I am secular, but I support the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”
Admittedly, when I wrote that article, what bothered me the most about Hezbollah was its underlying (theocratic) totalitarianism, not its armed struggle per se. But since then, over many years in which I have been exposed to much more historical-political material as well as experiencing regional and local developments first hand — and without losing any of my contempt for Israel or the postcolonial order that sustains it, for which my being an Arab or a Muslim is by no means necessary — I have come to see very major issues with the concept of resistance itself: so much so that, like Jihadism, it sometimes seems to me one of the postcolonial world powers’ less visible instruments.
Notwithstanding how Hezbollah has renounced the moral high ground by supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria — one of the few supposedly uncompromised states whose “resistance” status has allowed it to practice genocide against its own citizens with impunity since the 1980s while in no way improving its situation vis-a-vis Israel — it is of course less about the Arab-Israeli conflict that I am thinking than the confluence of the left (socialist, Arab nationalist or “Nasserist”) and political Islam in the aftermath of January-February 2011 in Egypt: the Arab Spring. I am thinking about how that confluence, perhaps more than any other factor, has emptied “revolution” of any possible import. To what extent did the theory and practice of resistance in what has probably been the most important of the compromised Arab states lead to the perpetuation of both military hegemony and systematic deprivation of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of belief?
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The current “transfer of power” to the Muslim Brotherhood is not happening as a result of the protests and sacrifices that made regime change possible over 18 months ago. It is not happening against the will of the postcolonial world order. It is happening as a result of West-blessed, SCAF-mediated “democratic” politicising — facilitated precisely by standing in ideological and practical opposition to the former status quo (an advantage the more or less liberal, as opposed to Islamist, protesters who staged “the revolution” never had).
Unlike agents of the modern state but like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood have helped to provide citizens with services, garnered their tribal loyalty by encouraging their conservatism and fed them an identity-based discourse of heroism, piety or renaissance. Preying on their raw emotions, they have also given them material rewards in return for their votes.
Now, contrary to what the left has been preaching since the start of the presidential elections, the “transfer of power” at hand will keep all the military’s unlawful privileges intact: the enormous military economy will continue to operate unscathed; crimes against humanity committed in the last 18 months will go unpunished; “revolutionaries” who have been subject to military trial will neither be re-tried nor released without high-profile intervention, etc. At the same time, while other beneficiaries of institutionalised corruption may change, the security and judicial apparatus that sustains it will not.
Thus resistance: somewhere in the collective imagination, irrespective of historical fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the capitalist, scheming, dictatorial, corrupt and abusive entity that the Mubarak regime was. It is a force of resistance. Never mind that it is sectarian, misogynistic, totalitarian, irrational and just as postcolonially compromised (hence just as capitalist, scheming etc.): as the de facto custodian of a religion and a culture it has only actually acted to humiliate, the Brotherhood is seen as an alternative, in exactly the same way as Hezbollah was seen as an alternative, to the failed state. What is either not seen or purposely overlooked is that the alternative’s existence depends on the failure of the state and modernity, which to one degree or another political Islam has always encouraged or helped to perpetuate.
So, while Islamophobia in the West is fear of the physically violent monster secretly created to combat communism during the Cold War, my own Islamphobia is fear of the morally violent monster covertly spawned by the failure of the postcolonial nation state and increasingly integrated into the world order at the expense not of Western (or communist) lives but of Muslim minds and souls. My Islamophobia is in fact a profoundly Muslim response to “revolution”.
***
Yet it is resistance as a concept that seems to hold the key. Not that the Muslim Brotherhood has used the term recently, but it is written into the proposed political formulation of a collective and supposedly efficacious identity that that identity should be against something.
What is required for this is not that the orientation in question should actually be against anything in practice, whether that thing is the world order, Israel or institutionalised corruption in the Egyptian state. It is interesting to note that, while their raison d’être is to be a distinct moral improvement on the corrupt, compromised political status quo, the Muslim Brothers, whether in parliament or beyond, have so far replicated the Mubarak regime’s conduct and mores, from pledging alliance to Washington and guaranteeing Israel’s security to monopolising and abusing power (the Freedom and Justice Party being, in effect, the “Islamic” variation on the now dissolved National Democratic Party).
What is required, rather, is that the resisting entity should espouse a certain degree of (moral if not physical) violence, drawing on both a totalitarian sense of identity and a paranoid conviction of victimhood. This is not to deny that the Muslim Brotherhood had been subject to persecution since its foundation in 1928; it is to say that, in the absence of any holistic vision even for the future of Islam (one that would crucially include ways to eliminate rather than perpetuate those anachronistic and obstructive aspects of the faith that alienate Muslims from the modern world and prevent them from contributing to human civilisation), the victimisation of the Muslim Brotherhood can only mean a justification for getting their own back — not actually changing anything for the majority of Egyptians.
Without any aspiration to reform, let alone revolution, and while they continue to provide cover for less sophisticated Islamists, the Brothers can only remain aspiring Mubaraks.
Even more fascinating, however, is the way in which the apparent triumph of the opposition embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood has automatically resulted in the opposition embodied by the left giving up all that it supposedly stands for in order to be in the seemingly right camp— an ideological paradox resolved with relative ease once what the left actually has in common with political Islam is identified: totalitarian identity, contempt for the modern state, paranoid victimhood, bias for the (class) underdog and, most importantly of all, the resistance imperative.
***
Egypt’s recent variation on the confluence of the left with political Islam is particularly ludicrous in that, while what the left supported the Muslim Brotherhood in order to resist was SCAF, it was arguably SCAF that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. It occurs to me now that, taking this into account, Islamophobia should really also be understood as opposition to the military — a fight on which the left was willing to give up when it allied itself with the Islamists.

(c) Youssef Rakha

Manifesto of the Halssist Party

On Nael El-Toukhy’s Two Thousand and Six

A spectre is haunting Arabic literature – the spectre of Halssism. All the Powers of old Culture have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Respectable State Cronies and Leftist Dinosaurs, poet Ahmad Abdel-Mo’ti Hegazi and critic Wael El-Semary, Moroccan philosophers and Lebanese novelists. Where is the literary endeavour in true opposition to the status quo that has not been decried as Halss by its opponents in power (halss being the quaint but all too appropriate term for Irreverent Nonsense, Hilarious Noise, Creative Nihilism)? Where is the Literary Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Halssism against the more advanced opposition parties within the same margin, besides hurling it against better established, reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact: Halssism is already acknowledged by Arab literary Powers to be itself a Power; and it is high time that Halssists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Halssism with a Manifesto of the party itself. To this end, Youssef Rakha here provides his reading of Nael El-Toukhi’s Al-Alfain wa Sittah: Qissat Al-Harb Al-Kabira (Two Thousand and Six: The Story of the Big War, Cairo: Merit, 2009), perhaps the millennium’s first openly Halssist novel(la), in which the theme of Revolution serves as the backdrop not only to the kind of meticulously stylised, thoroughly contemporary and cult classic-making Halss few writers have had the courage or the oomph to produce but also to basic values of the Halssist doctrine, to be traced in its present form to a major shift through the Nineties from grand narratives and vaguely moralistic drives, from collectively conceived identities and high-falutin tones, to the individual and the vernacular and the everyday. Here, finally, is pure Halss – or almost.

I.  POETS AND NOVELISTS
The history of all hitherto existing literature is the history of genre struggles. Scholar and critic, journalist and blogger, prose- and free verse-champion, in a word, stylist/theorist and counter-stylist/theorist, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of literary discourse, or – more often, to be sure – in the common ruin of contending approaches to literature. And so too is the Philip K Dick-like  opening of the present text infused with the urgency and distress of Literary Life (the exclusive butt of Toukhy’s tongue-in-cheek Big War): “One day, some poet sent a message from his e-mail to a number of his friends. He said he had left Cairo, was on his way to the desert: the Western Desert, to be precise. He said he grew bored of life, and was heading there with the purpose of suicide. The poet, whose name is Abdelaziz, added that he took along a can of tuna and a loaf of bread on this journey that would last forever, a journey to the hereafter as he called it. He would die and his corpse would disintegrate, as he said, and in a month from now, everyone would know where he lay.”
Abdelaziz, as it turns out, is the macho, testosterone- as well as theory-driven Leader of the Poetry Revolution, which by the time he leaves for the desert following a breakdown precipitated by his falling out with his main collaborator and close friend, Reda, has been sabotaged into a Novel Revolution. Reda is the new Leader, and as such also the husband of Abdelaziz’s once wife Sayeda, a sort of living monument to the Revolution with whom he has had a peculiar, supernatural love affair since long before the momentous events of 2006. Ultimately the Revolution takes place with Sayeda’s blessings, and it is accomplished by Reda together with Nael (a critic who at times, because of his name, seems to stand in for the author himself) and Magdy (a dodgy character recruited by Nael and Reda to be the henchmen of the revolutionary army of Bald Fat Intellectuals). Abdelaziz, as it turns out, never kills himself in the end: his e-mail is a sort of lie, a device whereby he could escape his Historical Role (embodied in the magazine he founded and edited with the help of Reda). Instead he moved to Helwan where, forever dead to Literary Life, he opened a mobile-phone shop and transformed himself into Mi’allim (Master) Ziza, eventually to discover – to his chagrin – that he himself is in fact a passive homosexual…

II.  WRITERS AND JOKERS
In what relation do the Writers stand to the Producers of Halss, the Postmodern Satirists and Jokers whose values differ fundamentally from those of the old Culture, and whose work appeared in the form of blogs if not Facebook statuses long before it made its way into print? The Writers do not form a separate party opposed to other satirical parties who, in a time of endlessly corrupt respectability and absurd political commitments, will not tire of poking fun at the Holy Cows not of Politics and Ideology (those, it would seem, were already slaughtered by the prose poets of the Nineties long before the Jokers came on the scene) but, more importantly, of a Literary Life increasingly and often ludicrously filled with values whose function is to respond to the capitalisation and globalisation to which both life and literature are increasingly – and as inevitably as the Revolution seemed to Marx and Engles, God bless them –  succumbing. The Writers have no interests separate and apart from those of the Jokers (whom we might safely identify with their Readers) as a whole. Except for values of sarcasm, irony, nihilism, laughter, pure enjoyment of a purely democratised creative act, which values cannot meaningfully be described as such, they do not set up any literary or cultural principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the inevitable Halss movement in its unstoppable forward march on history.
Here as elsewhere in the work of those who might be termed the post-millennial generation of cultural agents, Literary Life is the perfect target not simply for satire as such – and Toukhy’s book, it should be clear, is among the funniest satires currently on the market, certainly the most hilarious critique of the contemporary Egyptian literary sensibility to date – but also, and especially, for any effective portrait of life in the sprawling, multifaceted city eventually overtaken by the Bald Fat Intellectuals. Reda, Nael, Sayeda – not to mention Abdelaziz, especially in his Ziza avatar – are all deeply religious and pious people, for example, notwithstanding the irresolvable contradictions between the faith they purport to have and their actions and interests (beer drinking, sex, violence, and the cardinal sin of literary endeavour). This (true) fact of (contemporary) life, Toukhy presents, with unrealistic faithfulness to reality, as given. Somewhat problematically for a Reader not familiar with the immediate context in which he has produced this book – and as such problematically, perhaps, for the Halssist project as whole, since Halssism in its ultimate effect should never be context-specific – Toukhy feels no need to clarify whether or not he is poking fun at Wahhabi religiosity, whether or not expressions of religion on the part of his characters is as absurd as the Knowing Reader – au fait with Literary Life, will readily take it to be.
Yet Toukhy does other things with Halss – as Halssists should and will. He uses the language of bloggers and other post-millennial newcomers to the literary sphere, for example, (mis)spelling vernacular words to replicate the way they are pronounced – an involuntary mistake on the part of said bloggers, voluntary on his – in order to bring down the airy castles of the old Culture. He plays with values of manhood, womanhood and everything in between – in order to destroy prevalent (mis)conceptions about the roles people play and the places they occupy. With an intellectual rigour that is necessary for the effective communication of a Halssist message (Halssist messages can say little or nothing, of course, apart from Halss), he places the idea of Revolution before him and looks at it. He looks long and hard at this idea and its connections with a broad range of the ideas and images informing contemporary Arab life. He reviews ways in which the idea has been used, manners in which it has been critiqued, and he gives a more or less realistic account of what Revolution amounts to, in the end. And yet, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls that await the committed Halssist once he approaches political, social or cultural themes, Toukhy does this through the oblique and distorting lens of an extremely narrow and ultimately absolutely impotent community of Citizens: the cafe-going intellectuals who populate downtown Cairo, the drinkers and the smokers, the little-educated, self-obsessed founders of literary magazines.
“We suggest a new and exciting subject to the young researchers among our children: the Revolution’s view of itself, how it expressed itself (in this case, its selves) through different names: Revolution, War, Haifa,” the long cherished Palestinian town the book’s Revolutionaries invoked in their forward-marching slogans, “Beyond Haifa, Beyond Beyond Haifa, ending with Two Thousand and Six, the year of the outbreak of the Revolution: 1 February 2006. How was each one of those titles made to prevail in the press and the media? How did society receive them (sometimes easily, often after resistance)? Sources will be available and plentiful: the newspapers issued in 2006. The researcher who wants to register his thesis will clash with an essential obstacle, however. He will be told that Two Thousand and Six is not yet an event that can be contemplated from afar, it is not yet history. And this is true, for something in Two Thousand and Six made it an ahistorical event, an event forever in present time, an event in which we live. Two Thousand and Seven came and went, then Two Thousand and Eight, even Two Thousand and Twenty. And still, in every year, part of Two Thousand and Six moves along with that year, runs parallel to it, does not overtake or lag behind it. Therefore the crisis that Abdelaziz felt was that he lived in pre-Two Thousand and Six times, before that moment that proved itself eternal…”

III.  SATIRICAL AND HALSSIST LITERATURE
As we draw up the outlines and constituents of the Halssist party as a whole, glimpsing the potential of this all-encompassing spectre, which will no doubt beget a wider variety of offspring as the millennium moves ahead heralding the triumph of the Jokers, it is important to set Halssism apart from an increasingly popular mode of quasi-literary writing that has been identified as Humorous or Comic, and which shares with Halss the essential elements of satire and social critique. Humorous writing which has in these recent, commercialised years made the best-seller list as often as anything else may have been a step on the way to the true liberation of the Jokers that Halssism proposes, their prevalence and their ultimate, scientifically ordained triumph. But it is not the same as Halss in that it holds onto various aspects of the real and the moral the presence of which will hamper and potentially kill the transformation now besetting our world. Revolution is indeed afoot, in order once and for all to bring down Revolution.

JOKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

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This Is Not Literature, My Love

Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2008

The wall is further than it needs to be

and there is nothing to support me.

An ordinary fall

and bumping into edges

that change places in the dark…

How could I let myself

be so lonely before thirty? (A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons, 1995)

You are on your way home to Faisal from downtown Cairo, to the flat where this fall might actually have happened: “There is no alarm clock/and there are empty cups under the table”; there are corpses, too, apparently: casualties of the dangerous games you’ve been playing with your mind. It is very late at night. Your companion, who is due to exit at a later stop, offers to walk you to your building. You know it will be a scary walk, you need the company; but you say no. He has been your friend long enough to realise arguing is pointless; anyway, he is probably too mellow a character to insist.

Faisal in the early 1990s is a sort of Islamist favela: a giant molehill of partly built-up streets, unplanned and untended, hideous amalgams of exposed red brick and concrete growing laterally out of what must be the world’s narrowest road. Residents may not be as violent as their Brazilian counterparts, but there is a similar drug-addled hopelessness about them. The majority are lower middle-class immigrants from the Nile Delta just like you; except that they are not intellectual socialites in the making. While you struggle with your poems, they are rediscovering Islam along corrupt Wahhabi lines. All around you conservatism reduces to meddling, religious observance to noise pollution, modesty to headscarves if not face veils. You live here because the rent is affordable, because murderous drivers operate a cheap “microbus” service to town around the clock, because many of your friends live in the vicinity. (A curious fact about the Egyptian poetry movement of the Nineties is that many of its champions, e.g. the late poet Osama El-Daynasouri, the now Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani, and the poet Ahmad Taha, who was the founding editor of its principal mouthpiece, Al-Garad or “The Locusts”, lived in Faisal.)

But late at night the unlit streets look menacing. You are light-headed, maybe a little drunk or under the influence – and your self-awareness as a bare-headed 20-something-old woman who lives alone, a breaker of the code, now takes the form of impending doom. In the dark, angry memories dance with flashbacks from a bad trip; they nearly paralyse you. Walking on, you sense a presence, a voice, what looks like the glint of a knife. A bald puppy is suddenly pawing at your knee; its parents, hyena-like, watch intently as you pass. Then another pack is barking hysterically…

The walk to your flat takes five minutes exactly, but the humid stillness and your played-with mind make it feel like eternal wading in adrenaline. How much easier it would be if you accepted the offer of company – it would have been no trouble to your friend – and how silly the heroism of rejecting it! The next day, you laugh at yourself, at the heroism and at the fear. But like a politician refusing to break with the party line, you do not rescind your stance.

***

Being walked home, like being bought a drink, is a womanly concession. You do not make any. Since settling in Cairo as a graduate student, most of your time is spent with men: at the workplace, at the literary gathering, at the ahwah or coffeehouse, at the bar. All are patriarchal spaces, more or less; all take in few if any women. Men have preyed on you, too, folding exploitative agendas into kindnesses. Your real friends, the mellower, the closer, know that special treatment upsets you.

You hate the role of victim. So even when it brings you sincere sympathy or solidarity – from women feminists, for example – you still refuse to play it.

The notion that only you own your body comes with the ideological territory: as a budding Marxist, back in the Delta town of Mansoura, you learned to resist the status quo. You know that religion and morality can be ways of turning people into objects or currencies. You also know that women are equal to men. But even as you literally act out that knowledge, you can see the illiberal potential of “gender” or “class” struggle, the way people abuse grand narratives. You may be convinced by the cause – in some sense, you embody it – but there are visceral impulses that make more sense to you than fighting on its behalf. You are not promiscuous, for example (not because it is immoral but because you are too busy changing the world). Rationally it is the bourgeois aspect of promiscuity that should turn you off, but what keeps you chaste is the fact that loveless encounters have left you empty and inexplicably bereft. Self-indulgence is less noble than productivity, but as a scholar, a left-wing literary magazine editor, a teacher of Arabic, not a wannabe poet but a wannabe great poet, it is your almost antisocial ambition, a geeky sense of drive – self-indulgence of a different order? – that makes you work hard.

Slowly you’re summoning up the courage to admit that, though the class prejudice and misogyny you suffer have a broader context, it is your suffering of them that counts; in a world of disembodied values individual experience is more meaningful. It will take you many years to embrace the woman’s core hidden inside you, your interest in softer and more feminine things, what love might look like if not for history. Still, on top of the move here from Mansoura, a mental immigration has occurred.

True, in recent years you’ve had a boyfriend, a fiancé; you were even briefly married. But you haven’t yetlearned to live as part of a couple or family. Notwithstanding estrangement from womanhood, this may have to do with your mother dying when you were eight: the desperate gregariousness of a fundamentally lonely person, which suspends or delays one-on-one contact. It may have to do with your sensibility; a writer’s career rarely chimes with domestic life. But probably, more than any other thing, your unsentimental singleness has to do with the drive to be financially-socially-politically-existentially, totally independent. You’d rather go hungry than accept perfectly well-meaning help from your father or uncle. In a given situation, you’d rather be terrified than rely momentarily on a (male) friend.

That is why, at your Faisal stop tonight, you get off alone.

***

It is possible to approach the work of Iman Mersal (b.1966) from a standpoint of literary criticism. It is not advisable, but possible. The fact that she has maintained a strong presence on the literary scene for the last 15 years encourages an assessment of what might be called her contribution, although it seems to me that she is far more interesting as someone who engages with the meaning and purpose of the poem – the only definition she proffers being “that which cannot be said otherwise… which, when it is good, changes us once it’s written” – almost as if her writing is merely a byproduct of living with a certain kind of self awareness, a lasting, systematically protected connection with solitude or pain.

Arabic poetry has tended to emphasise rhetoric at the expense of meaning, which makes its quality hard to judge, particularly in another language. This is true even of the recent developments Mersal belongs with, which purposely eschew the by now more or less hackneyed eloquence of free-verse masters like Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964), Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) or Adonis (b.1930), who had their heyday against a backdrop of (often left-wing) nationalist politics through the Sixties. The surface beauty and relative lack of substance in Arabic verse – including much free verse – had made it read like repetitive drivel once taken out of context; and the comparative ease with which more recent work written in prose makes the journey to English, for example, was initially, ludicrously, a sign that it might not be as good. Ironically (though this does not show as much in translation) the Nineties’ prose poetry, produced in an atmosphere of post-Soviet disillusion and discontent with the rise of Islamism, has proven just as prone to rhetorical emptiness, derivation, monotony.

Fresh attempts to subvert “poetic” language, showcased in Cairo’s two low-key but truly epochal literary journals of the period, Al-Garad and Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, have been widely imitated. In their early poems, for example, Ahmad Yamani (b.1970) and Yasser Abdel-Latif (b.1969) – in markedly different ways – devised an “aesthetics of the ugly” (critic Gabir Asfour’s expression, I think) which they have since gone beyond. But the rhetorical registers they came up with have showed up in others’ “prose poetry” so often that, despite their originality, they already read like platitudes. It is this that makes Mersal’s appearance in English alongside Fernando Pessoa and Umberto Saba a vindication for that small, heterogeneous group who forged the new poetic discourse (as opposed to a much larger group of beneficiaries).

***

Since the publication of A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons to remarkable local acclaim in 1995, my friend Iman’s poems have been variously drawn on, mimicked or paraphrased. If it were the case that Arabic prose poetry reads well in English regardless of quality – or if publication with a reputable house were just a matter of female representation, as it often is with Arabic literature in translation – the Sheep Meadow Press would not favour her over the numerous better connected poetesses dealing with the same subjects in the same style (whether or not they consciously plagiarised her).

Still, what isn’t clear in another language is that, while you can confidently speak of the Mersalesque as a distinct (and, yes, great) gift to the development of Arabic poetry – a way of using words to deal with personal difficulties that are or seem to be relevant to a lot of people besides yourself (one which, however unintentionally, I for one will readily admit to assimilating) – by now you can also speak of the Mersalesque, and the Mersalesque of A Dark Alley in particular, as something of a literary cliché.

The Marxist casting a wry glance at the link between her politics and her sex life, the Father- or God-bashing voice in (as yet unconscious) affinity with Sylvia Plath; the irreverent ahwah-goer, angst- and ennui-ridden, humorous but clinically suicidal; the grassroots hyper-social being who ignores her detractors while character-assassinating her close friends: my friend Iman introduced all of this to Arabic poetry. But since she did so, perhaps inevitably, all of this has been done and redone to shreds, with only the least original voices, ironically, conforming to Locust stereotypes (“the Nineties Generation” is routinely bundled under labels like Everyday Poetics and Writing of the Body, the latter so meaningless when applied to Iman it tends, more than others, to incense her).

In fact, by 1997, when her next book came out, my friend Iman had in many ways left the Mersalesque behind. Some elements of the Nineties’ discourse will inevitably persist: eagerness to shock the middle-class reader, for example, is still occasionally in evidence even now. But the young belle “dressed as a sixteenth-century French princess” (as the amorphous “I” in my friend Iman’s poems begins, implausibly, to imagine itself in dreams: an abiding and enigmatic image) has already razed one or two conceptions of how to live. It is as if Iman kills one self so that another can mourn it, yet miraculously, as it seems – not a shade of nostalgia in the ensuing elegy.

***

A University of Alberta assistant professor in Edmonton, Canada, is remembering her lover of the late Nineties – “the young novelist” we will see in the leukemia ward in his death throes before 30, before what she implies in A Dark Alley should be the official age of loneliness – when suddenly he is supplanted by the image of another, a pianist she is walking next to in Boston: the man she lives with now, whom she has married and had a child by (later she will have another child). The images roll as if in an antique peepshow she is trying out at her clean, un-Third World-like, non-smoking office. There, a student whose voice she is drawn to touches “the head of a Cleopatra strung up on a chain around her neck”, a pendant bought for her by the same dead lover, the young novelist, and immediately (later she will find out the same student has actually killed himself), the assistant professor is asking questions:

The soul rises to the sky,

and they say the body is mortal.

Where does the voice go? [...]

Why did I not write about you?

Because I never loved you, is that why I cannot believe your death?

Because I love you and so it is fair that you die?

Because you do not deserve my elegy [...]

Because I am not worthy of elegizing you as long as I am alive?

Because the pianist in the upstairs room is hitting the black keys? (Alternative Geography, 2006)

***

Mersal’s first book, Ittisafat or “Characterisations”, published in 1990, was written in free verse; the stylistic departure of A Dark Alley was already a bold step: With the debate at its height on whether or not Arabic poetry could or should be written in prose, she had to overcome resistance to take it. Yet within two years, she is once again migrating, imperceptibly but surely, into newer territory. In the mostly longer texts of Walking As Long As Possible – in some ways Mersal’s own favourite, though it was not received with the same enthusiasm as A Dark Alley – the “I” seems to be mulling over “shocking” ideas and images – confessions of infidelity, morbid fixations, nihilistic retorts – that were more articulately constructed but somehow less inward-looking, less “experimental”, in the previous book:

My friends’ pores are open to writing new poems

about the freedom of dying without warning,

and about the relief that fills us

when learning that someone

we did not have time to love

has died. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)

Not having time to love: it may be presumptuous to think that, when she writes this, the poetess means it in a literal way. She is fond of dismissing her interest in metaphor, to her mind no more significant to what poetry isthan the metric structures she rid herself of early on. Again and again the child geek returns, with all the insurgent energy of the munadilah, theactivist committed to the Struggle and the Poor, now directed not at the campus demonstration or the communist-Islamist scuffle at the Mansoura Literature Club but at the apartment door, the office desk, the bed in the bedroom. Exhibitionism tempered by almost sapient observation breaks the boundaries of the world, destroys it, but holds on plaintively to the ruins. Perhaps there is no wisdom in the Struggle (that much Comrade Iman already knew), none but the most hollow wisdom in the heroism of refusing to be walked home; but old habits die hard. By the time she returns to writing (or publishing: I think she was writing all along, she just happens to be pathologically timorous about showing her work), Professor Mersal seems to be saying there is not much wisdom in marriage or motherhood either. At the closest she has come to a true break with solitude and pain, something very like herself is betraying her again. And again, in “Sex”, for example, she is, with a magnificent effortlessness, channelling the weight of that thing into words:

The world wears a nightgown cut above the knee,

and for a whole night the world doesn’t check the time

as if it has nothing to wait for.

The old tragedy

will end here to start behind another window. (Alternative Geography, 1997)

[translation partly altered based on the original Arabic]

***

To her distress, when Alternative Geography appeared, critics on the whole failed to notice just how far Mersal had come. But already, in Walking, you can see language taking on (literal) depth as the impulses become more explicit; only, since they are also more humorous and wrapped up in miniature epics of the self, it is their mystery that comes through.

In “To Cross Between Two Rooms”, an elegy for a Mother never so named, the Father-God is openly mocked in a way He has not been before, but the passage is surrounded by so much else – the insect-extermination session with which the poem opens, leaving the speaker “the only living soul in the house”, apparitions of “the scrawny woman” who lived (or died) with Him, His job as a schoolteacher correcting the grammar of the proletariat – that it strikes an ambiguous, not a shocking chord:

When the house next door burns down

it means He has exhaled a blessing upon it.

His caress of the scrawny woman

led to her death from the joy in His fingers.

His perfection… His glory… His omnipotence…

I know all His old attributes. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)

Mersal is no longer scandalising her newly discovered individual self, whether or not “to hide behind it” (as she says in one Dark Alley poem). In austere but never discordant tones, she is humming a dolorous song of periodic self destruction, collecting the debris rather than celebrating beginnings. She is paying homage to a treadmill of solitude in which she seems paradoxically comfortable while neither Friend nor Lover can give solace. Much later, in Alternative Geography, her most recent book, that treadmill takes her to a striking moment in which – now an immigrant in an asylum room in Edmonton after some kind of breakdown – Mersal sees herself as a museum piece:

Why did she come to the New World, this mummy, this subject of spectacle

sleeping in her full ornament of gray gauze,

an imaginary life in a museum display case? (Alternative Geography, 2006)

I read and reread this question. The more I think about Mersal’s immigration, the more I am convinced it cannot be said otherwise.

***

Introducing These Are Not Oranges, My Love, Mersal’s translator the poet Khaled Mattaw says the nine-year gap between Walking and Alternative Geography “saw her through marriage, relocation to North America, and parenthood”. While the gap did make time for all this, I suspect what it actually saw her through was the painful construction of a world and a self unlike anything she had known prior to her departure in 1999. Less significantly for her writing than for her sense of identity – a state of being I like to imagine, with un-Mersalesque whimsy, as the troubled surface of a Delta village canal – this new world included not only snow-marked native Americans, émigrés and refugees, literary celebrities, good-looking Frenchmen, even Slovenian poets but also, at the centre – and contentiously for a large part of the Faisal-like world she left behind – Jews: an absurd contention, but contention enough.

The day she first presented her doctoral thesis on images of America in Arab travel writing – it happened to coincide with the invasion of Baghdad in April 2003; and Cairo University, where she chose to work, was abuzz with Arab nationalist sentiment – Mersal walked home crying. Such was the hostility she met with for not railing – off-point, from the academic perspective – against the crimes of the Greater Devil (as Khomeini called the US, comparing it with the Lesser Devil of Israel). After North America, she could no longer speak that language. Specifically, she could not crassly take the moral high ground in the usual, more or less racist tones of fellow grassroots hyper-social beings. Just why should the cost in loss of personal sympathy and understanding still be high enough for tears? There were unrelated dislocations, of course: moments of absolute alienation with her new life; one abortive attempt at returning to live in Egypt; an unpredictable and untimely death; the elderly therapist with whom she valued her “exercises in solitude” enough to call one poem “Dr Levy”. Perhaps Mersal invested more this time, perhaps she cannot bring down the life she is now living as resolutely as she did her previous lives?

I suspect she has embarked on the task.

***

For a while it seems a person is gone. I don’t mean just “a person”: a figure, a presence, the idea of a friend who exists in a particular way at a particular place or time. When that returns, it is still recognisable, but different enough to make recognition a creative process, not quite an effort of will but definitely an exercise of trust. Something like this cycle defines the work of Iman Mersal, which as a result seems a little apart from the small eternities we call Literature, those stylised subjects of spectacle that, aiming for immortality, end up immodestly omnipresent. When at a difficult moment, Iman Mersal said “I have something to say to the world,” the statement might have sounded narcissistic. In her voice it rung true. The rule is that you need to hear it as much as she needs to say it, and have as much difficulty coming to terms with the fact. That is the game Iman Mersal is playing, less with writing than with life. She speaks to people, not to language, not to “gender”, not to history. What she says is what she is, and for this she must continue to become. Being someone else is a wish she never tires of expressing. She won’t succeed, but her writing is the attempt: the game she plays with herself in order to give meaning to something or someone.

The notion of Writing as Game is making the rounds of Cairo literary circles. Many young novelists point out that, instead of expressing the political commitments and grand narratives of the Sixties, what they are doing is enjoying the game of literature, the sport of testing out ideas and emotions and seeing what happens. They speak of their work, of course: what they do on the computer screen or the page, not how they exist apart from them. I doubt if they realise this game can also be played with life itself, or that, when it is, it produces writing of an entirely different kind.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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