Link

I finished your magnum opus [Kitab at Tugra] two days ago, with tears in my eyes, and I’ve been intoxicated since, in the most Faridian sense of the word. Among other things, no one (REPEAT: NO ONE) has ever written so wondrously about love and sex in Arabic the way you did in the last two chapters of the novel, i.e. — making the Arabic language make love as it has never done before. Ibn al Farid should feel so comfortable, and so privileged, and so sexy in your company. But that’s not your major achievement, No Sir. You managed to write a perfect (REPEAT: PERFECT) Arabic novel, on so many levels. Very few writers have done that, and to enter the Hall of Fame with a first novel is nothing short of miraculous. Your meticulous attention to what turns a text into a stunning novel is absolutely amazing, and your masterful control of all the aspects of your text is something that should be taught in writing programs. But above all, I think, your major achievement is in being what Foucault would call “a discourse initiator” — someone who single handedly changes a discipline, and in this case the discipline of the Arabic novel. You are my al Jabarti of the Arabic novel. — Anton Shammas in a private e-mail Continue reading

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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Some of Sylvia Plath’s Last Poems

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Sheep in Fog

The hills step off into whiteness.

People or stars

Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.

O slow

Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells -

All morning the

Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.

My bones hold a stillness, the far

Fields melt my heart.

They threaten

To let me through to a heaven

Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

Child

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with color and ducks,

The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate —

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,

Little

Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

Wringing of hands, this dark

Ceiling without a star.

Kindness

Kindness glides about my house.

Dame Kindness, she is so nice!

The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke

In the windows, the mirrors

Are filling with smiles.

What is so real as the cry of a child?

A rabbit’s cry may be wilder

But it has no soul.

Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.

Sugar is a necessary fluid,

Its crystals a little poultice.

O kindness, kindness

Sweetly picking up pieces!

My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,

May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea

Wreathed in steam.

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it.

You hand me two children, two roses.

Words

Axes

After whose stroke the wood rings,

And the echoes!

Echoes traveling

Off from the center like horses.

The sap

Wells like tears, like the

Water striving

To re-establish its mirror

Over the rock

That drops and turns,

A white skull,

Eaten by weedy greens.

Years later I

Encounter them on the road—

Words dry and riderless,

The indefatigable hoof-taps.

While

From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars

Govern a life.

Contusion

Color floods to the spot, dull purple.

The rest of the body is all washed out,

The color of pearl.

In a pit of rock

The sea sucks obsessively,

One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

The size of a fly,

The doom mark

Crawls down the wall.

The heart shuts,

The sea slides back,

The mirrors are sheeted.

Edge

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:

We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,

One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed

From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,

Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.

Her blacks crackle and drag.

***

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Three of Sylvia Plath’s Last Poems

 

 

 

 

 

Sheep in Fog

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells -
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

Contusion

Color floods to the spot, dull purple.
The rest of the body is all washed out,
The color of pearl.

In a pit of rock
The sea sucks obsessively,
One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

The size of a fly,
The doom mark
Crawls down the wall.

The heart shuts,
The sea slides back,
The mirrors are sheeted.

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

Sacred genitalia: my graduation essay

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Sacred genitalia: the metaphysical inflections of Bataille’s surrealist voice
(Madame Edwarda, 1941; Story of the Eye, 1928)

Man is more than a creature limited to its genitals. But they, those inavowable parts of him, teach him his secret.

This essay will attempt to identify a specific (if arguably minor) aspect of surrealism, and trace its aesthetic and intellectual resonances in Bataille’s major works. The desire to come in contact with the sacred informed not only Bataille but Artaud, who envisaged in the theatre a potential for realizing it, and (despite ‘ideological’ admonitions and the struggle ‘against those who would maintain surrealism at a purely speculative level and treasonably transfer it onto an artistic and literary plane’, a struggle which, among other things, frequently cast Bataille and Artaud in the role of renegade surrealists) this selfsame yearning for the sacred can be deduced from Breton’s quasi-metaphysical pronouncements throughout the vital period of surrealist activity in France. As early as 1922 Breton was defining surrealism in terms of ‘the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association’, and twenty years later he still felt obliged to deny the charge of ‘mysticism’. While the sacred remains at best only a sub-stratum of metaphysics (‘most generally’ defined as ‘the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality’), it is not difficult nonetheless to recognise a quasi-religious strain running through the surrealist project from its very inception. In Breton’s demand for a ‘monotonous metaphysic’ that ‘never speaks except of the one being, in which God, the soul, and the world come together, of the one which is the deepest essence of all multiplicity’, there is a clear potential for a form of art—a poetics, dramatics or even erotics of the sacred—whose aim it would be to develop new conceptions of the Ultimate and the Absolute, and ways of experiencing their presence. This potential was taken up by both Bataille and Artaud (the latter choosing a dramatics, the former an erotics of the sacred) and leaves its definitive mark in their concern with the negative, the horrifying, the terrible and the obscene (which constitutes an awareness of mortality that we do not encounter with the same intensity in the work of Breton, whose fundamental priority was the marvellous). Artaud himself alludes to the route chosen by Bataille in quest of the same destination when he says that ‘bringing together two impassioned revelations on stage [...] is just as complete, as true, even as decisive as bringing together two bodies in short-lived debauchery’. His Theatre of Cruelty works ‘like the plague, by intoxication, by infection, by analogy, by magic’; it works like war, in the public ‘ferment of great, agitated crowds hurled against one another’; it is a form of ‘soul therapy’ inflicting on an audience the ‘laceration’ and ‘cruelty’ of the sacred, whose essential function is to teach us that ‘[we] are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads’; and its foremost subjects are ‘love, crime, war and madness’. For Bataille, by contrast, it is the very private anguish of ‘little death’ that tells us our secret: that ‘[nudity] is only death, and the most tender kisses have the after-taste of the rat’; the function of philosophy and literature is to forge the age-old link between eroticism and death; and only at the supreme point of convergence where, correspondingly, pleasure and pain resolve their perpetual dialectic in a terrifying excess, do we catch a glimpse of our spiritual predicament. In either case there is a stress on emptiness and negation that somewhat transcends the surrealist imperative of unlimited ‘marvellous subversion’, and explains Breton’s distaste with Bataille’s particular strand of madness, ‘that he reasons like someone with a fly on his nose (i.e. a corpse)’. But Bataille’s literary endeavours remain profoundly surrealist, and the following will undertake to show this in two stages: first, by exploring Bataille’s metaphysics of the sacred (which finds its clearest, most compressed expression in Madame Edwarda); and second, by looking at his aesthetics of eroticism, the kind of pornographic imagination—in Susan Sontag’s words—that aims ‘at disorientation, at psychic dislocation’ (triumphantly exemplified in Story of the Eye).

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Beautiful violence

The Minotaur

The mahogany table-top you smashed
Had been the broad plank top
Of my mother’s heirloom sideboard-
Mapped with the scars of my whole life.

That came under the hammer.
That high stool you swung that day
Demented by my being
Twenty minutes late for baby-minding.

‘Marvellous!’ I shouted, ‘Go on,
Smash it into kindling.
That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems!’
And later, considered and calmer,

‘Get that shoulder under your stanzas
And we’ll be away.’ Deep in the cave of your ear
The goblin snapped his fingers.
So what had I given him?

The bloody end of the skein
That unravelled your marriage,
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth.

Left your mother a dead-end,
Brought you to the horned, bellowing
Grave of your risen father
And your own corpse in it.

Ted Hughes

http://www.poemhunter.com/

 

 


The Minotaur

The mahogany table-top you smashed
Had been the broad plank top
Of my mother’s heirloom sideboard-
Mapped with the scars of my whole life.

That came under the hammer.
That high stool you swung that day
Demented by my being
Twenty minutes late for baby-minding.

‘Marvellous!’ I shouted, ‘Go on,
Smash it into kindling.
That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems!’
And later, considered and calmer,

‘Get that shoulder under your stanzas
And we’ll be away.’ Deep in the cave of your ear
The goblin snapped his fingers.
So what had I given him?

The bloody end of the skein
That unravelled your marriage,
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth.

Left your mother a dead-end,
Brought you to the horned, bellowing
Grave of your risen father
And your own corpse in it.

Ted Hughes

http://www.poemhunter.com/

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‘Plain old untrendy troubles and emotions’

David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Museum in L...
Image via Wikipedia

 

David Foster Wallace, who died last week, was the most brilliant American writer of his generation. In a speech, published here for the first time, he reflects on the difficulties of daily life and ‘making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head’

 

 

* David Foster Wallace

* The Guardian, Saturday 20 September 2008

 

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

 

If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete …

 

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real – you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues”. This is not a matter of virtue – it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

 

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job – and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

 

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.

 

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

 

Or if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks …

 

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do – except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am – it is actually I who am in his way.

 

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

 

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

 

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

 

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

 

Adapted from the commencement speech the author gave to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio

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Bolano on pain

Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held up as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.

from 2666

64-22-Arts-Q-Antichrist

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Ahmad Yamani’s New Book: The Ten Commandments of Displacement

When Youssef Rakha asked the Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani how his latest book, Amakin Khati’ah (Wrong Places, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2009) came about, the latter sent him a numbered list of observations

1. All the poems of this diwan were written in Spain between 2002 and 2006.

More than other “Nineties” prose poets working in standard Arabic, Ahmad Yamani was accused of hartalah, contemporaneous slang for prattle or drivel. That was when he lived in Talbiyah, the semi-provincial suburb of the Pyramids where he was born in 1970. No one doubted his talent, but even the quasi-Beatniks of Cairo were not ready for the irreverent lack of polish in his first book, Shawari’ al-abyad wal-asswad (The Streets of Black and White, 1995), particularly clear in the long, epoch-making poem whose title translates to Air that stopped in front of the House.

Here at last, romantic and Kafkaesque by turns, was a rage-free Howl of Cairo in the post-Soviet era. The madness went on. By the turn of the millennium Yamani was as well-known as he could be. He was writing, he was working (mostly at cultural magazines), but like many others he was also fed up with life on the margin and disgusted with the social, economic and literary mainstream. One day in 2001, he left the country for good.

***

2. I did not show anybody and did not publish a single poem, because my idea was simply to test myself in a new place.

The ambition to start over makes sense despite Yamani’s success: Through a revolution waged in the ghetto – cf. the journals Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra and Al-Garad – he had been among the few who survived the purges. In time his hartalah-streaked genius, demonstrated in two more books by 2001, looked more like what the revolution was about than almost any other work. The vernacular, the individual, the concrete: these were the basic components of a variegated “movement”, but Yamani seemed to embody them more literally. In a way he grabbed what everyone else was girdling. Hartalah or not, his work was gloriously prosaic.

Apart from tighter technical control of his material and a greater openness to drama and narrative, however, no major developments occurred in Yamani’s next two books (Tahta shajarat al-‘a’ilah, self published, 1998; and Wardat fi ar-ra’ss, Miret, 2001). The gifted strive to surpass themselves. Consciously or not, starting a new life must have seemed the perfect chance to re-enter the void. It took Yamani nearly five years to come back out with something to show for himself; and while he shed some qualities in the process, there were others he retained:

Unlike Yasser Abdel-Latif, for example – another survivor whose own debut, also self-published, emerged simultaneously from the same press as Shawari’ – in Amakin Khati’ah Yamani still does not construct his texts, he releases them. Here as in the previous three books, he avoids sentimentality not through restraint but by reinventing the words and their sense. He makes words say not necessarily what he means (he does not necessarily mean anything), but how he experiences their weight.

For a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, then, what does it mean to be in a new place – intent on poetic self examination?

***

3. My life in the new place was totally different from my life in Egypt, which was surrounded by intellectuals almost for its duration and where friends provided a sense of security.

Only very occasionally in this book does being in a new place mean noticing how foreignness plays out in ideational terms, but in the context of the Nineties the fact that it does at all is remarkable. In “Story of al-Jahidh”, for example (the title is an incidental reference to the great ninth-century author, who was black), the speaker not only describes but also seems to mull over instances of racism – by Nineties standards, an unthinkable concession to “ideology” – the catch-all term for anything which, preceding or external to individual consciousness, could potentially intervene in how it operates, altering or squeezing its contours.

Assess the poem as you will, explicit mention of racism is not something you would expect of Yamani.

Not that it is beyond him to think about such issues, but the Nineties work was conceived partly in reaction to both Sixties engagement and the Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said)-influenced obscurantism of the Seventies: the absurdity of writing about and for abstractions, whether the People, the Nation, or Modernism, Beauty, etc. Any suspicion of the poem championing either cause or concept, however ambiguously, would have been enough for the Tis’iniyyun (or “Ninetiers”) to set up the gallows. And in many ways Yamani was the least susceptible to temptation.

Perhaps out of mere habit, Ninetiers who are otherwise in awe of Amakin Khati’ah still object to the topicality that shows up on its pages. Could topicality nonetheless be one of the ways in which the end of revolution – immigration, in this case – had a liberating effect on the revolutionaries?

***

4. This sense of security ended totally in Spain. It was not a question of lack of access to my friends, which I had through e-mail or telephone; it was more about cutting yourself off from that security with awareness, even resolve. Besides, the practicalities of life led me into new interactions. Little by little while working as a guard or a barman, you learn to take off the writer’s plume, which you used to rely on in Egypt and which set you apart as someone special, especially in front of your family. Here it didn’t matter at all whether or not you were a writer.

With Abdel-Latif and a host of young Cairo-based poets from working to lower middle class backgrounds, Yamani had inherited a certain Rimbaud-like angst from a more or less small group of staunchly apolitical existentialists who, though were only slightly older, could claim a connection with the Seventies as well as the Nineties: the Alexandria-based Alaa Khalid, the late Osama El-Dainasouri and the Charles Bukowski-loving founder of Al-Garad, Ahmad Taha, for example. It was a complex legacy with disparate influences – Dada-Surrealism (notably through translations from the French by Bashir El-Sebai), Modernism, a range of vaguely Baudelairian non-Europeans from Nicanor Parra to Orhan Veli – and it reacted to and set itself apart from savants of the Seventies not only in their capacity as Marxist politicals and heroes of the 1977-79 Student Movement but, even more importantly, as the false prophets of a new sensibility.

This is the package Yamani presumably carries along in his suitcase. But in exile or the promised land, in the new place, it must seem less relevant by the minute. Here it does not matter how you feel about prose in contrast to (free) verse as a poetic medium; it does not matter whether you are tired of one zeitgeist dictating opinions and alliances, or whether you might be contributing to the emergence of another; it does not matter to what extent you see a Syrian poet’s programme for Arab modernity as meaningless in practice, or how you assess an increasingly pro-government Egyptian critic’s notion of enlightenment. Only the idea of being and then not being surrounded by “intellectuals”, I suspect, remains crucial:

Until he went to live abroad Yamani, who graduated from Cairo University in 1992, had functioned as part of an amorphous Group of literati (or at least one avant-garde wing thereof): normal enough procedure for a writer with any ambition in Egypt. To those who choose to define themselves in opposition to the status quo – the vast majority, in practice – that Group remains an essential element of literary production. By positioning itself outside or against the cultural (formerly also the political) establishment, since the 1970s at least, from its peripheral position the Group has often exercised greater power than the establishment.

For better or worse the Group is both the motor and the bane of the writer’s life: in the capacity of friends (an almost metaphysical affinity implying interpersonal rights but neither moral consistency nor critical rigour), fellow writers-critics cover up the hopelessness of social (including academic) and professional life, doubling as readers in the process. At the expense of a sense of isolation and instability (arguably conducive to the creative act), the reality of a society that has no need even for genre novels, let alone prose poetry, is neutralised or obscured.

In the new place, I imagine, the package itself begins to look context-specific, limited and limiting, or it takes on previously unsuspected meanings. As the Spanish language gradually lodges itself in the system, unrelated discoveries further complicate the picture. For a while, I imagine, the writer no longer knows how to write.

***

5. In my first year I wrote almost nothing. That was 2001. In 2002 I started writing again.

Here, titled “The Two Houses”, is a moving example of how distance can rarify and distill hartalah once the literary self reemerges isolated:

I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.

The sheer lucidity suggests that “loss of security” does clear up a certain amount of non-poetic debris. Throughout Amakin Khati’ah the tone remains as offhand and the references as private (indeed often as murky) as ever, but the poet’s vision of the world and his place in it seems to have brightened or expanded. Suddenly, his work feels more relevant to more people.

So much that in an exquisitely dreamlike poem about a young man immigrating when the horizon at home begins to look like a dead end, “The Big Escape”, poetry comes close to allegory. And without a whiff of the sociopolitical or the “ideologoical”, neither strays very far from the clearly grounded situation it depicts:

They had sentenced me to execution with two of my friends and it was by what they called euthanasia which had already killed a fourth friend of ours. We did not understand very well what they meant by these statements and so they left us free without guards or cells and sentenced us instead to a kind of death they called a mercy killing which is carried out by a middle aged lady who has a benign face and which is painless but is death anyway. I consulted with my mother and my friends a little while before the execution and I decided to escape. They all agreed I should go while my two friends remained to wait for the lady. As soon as I went out after they gave me all the money they had I met with the merciful lady face to face next to my home. Neither of us looked at the other. She avoided me and went off and I went past her and started to run looking over my shoulder in other countries.

***

6. When I went back to writing, I wanted to see myself as a poet in isolation from any possible influences. I stopped publishing totally.

For which read, equally, “I stopped having a seat at the cafe in downtown Cairo.” Divested of that position, the writer begins to see his work in the limitless space of what is human as opposed to what is intellectual (or Egyptian), confronting the fact that poetry can only exist in a marginal place far more directly. He might even begin to question the safety that comes of belonging, however tangentially.

In Yamani’s case, I think, that journey has been overwhelmingly positive – partly because the resulting changes meddle with neither content nor style. There is a heightened sense of geography and multiplicity (in the cultural as well as the physical sense); the poet’s inherent, often laugh-out-loud sense of irony responds to a broader range of stimuli; far from the fluid vitality of Shawari’, his modus operandi reflects meticulous reworking of the short piece: a process through which the rawness of the writing nonetheless emerges intact. But here as in older work, subject matter is by and large distorted beyond recognition, language remains informal and corporeal, some sense of hartalah persists.

What is brand new is the vision: the ability to transform one act into another in the impossibly beautiful two-line poem “Tobacco Seller”, for example: “Her hand is on the box, my foot outside the house. Suddenly it grows dark, while she continues rubbing the tobacco on her shiny thigh./She stops a little to move half the tobacco to her other thigh, while I enter the tunnel and start smoking.”

References so private and concealed they are a hair’s breadth away from being meaningless (El-Dainasouri, for example, figures only as “Osama”, without any indication of who he might be) take on the power of electromagnetic signals: an object, a person becomes one of several points around which a field of gravity extends, shaped as much as anything by the distance between Talbiyah and Madrid.

***

7. I wrote slowly, with a sort of private enjoyment, without any plan to publish a book and without any concern with whether or not I was writing. It seems I wanted to free myself from Writing itself.

At the most basic level displacement has given Yamani’s prosaicness a fresh subtlety. Transported to a context the writer cannot take for granted, as in “The Funeral”, insights that are personal and elusively formulated enough to come across as enigmatic suddenly look breezy, universal and accessible: “Chimo is not my friend. But he died… and here I am no longer a stranger in these lands.”

In “The Book”, about the illiterate mother of a published author, this sense of writing in isolation from Writing, the slowness of rediscovering an intimate process, turns a more or less obvious homesickness into something far more interesting (in folk belief, the number five affords protection against the evil eye):

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

But it is not only a matter of context: displaced, the writer cannot take himself for granted; and not only because he can no longer designate himself a plume-wearing intellectual. In this sense the stage Yamani refers to as “loss of security” might be rephrased “loss of identity”. And indeed counterbalancing a new confidence, a kind of facility in Yamani’s poetic persona following his initial season in hell and the transformations it led to – a confidence just as evident in his real-life persona, as I recently found out – there is a sense of dislocation:

While topical notions of identity never go further than a more or less passing, very subtle remark on the “I” as exotic sex partner (in “My Clothes”), the eye of the poet is, to a far greater extent than in the previous books, unhinged and in motion, in search of its ever elusive socket in the his own transmuting face. It does not seem ludicrous to suggest that this is the deeper quest, as desperate as it is doomed, of the globalised soul seeking salvation in post-post-God times.

Like few other books Amakin Khati’ah presents the world as a place defined by a sort of earthly transmigration, people becoming other people through movement in space, vulnerable egos in intercontinental flux. And it is to Yamani’s credit that, unlike many Arab writers, without once resorting to a self-definition that might help him to do so, he communicates a persuasive sense of being in the contemporary world.

***

8. The strange thing is that some people saw my not writing as a sign of bankruptcy and decided that what I had already published was the end of my writing career. This made me laugh even as it saddened me. But it was a passing sadness.

Such is the ugly face of the Group or its avant-garde wing, whether or not that has really managed to set itself apart from the Seventies – the subject enacting or being made to enact ridiculously melodramatised glories and downfalls for the benefit of the rest of the crew, turning into Hero, Victim or (in the broadest range of senses, including the literary) Suicide – but however passing the sadness such sickness inspired in Yamani, it is just as well he was made aware of it, the better to appreciate the significance of the new place. Perhaps we would not have known about Yamani if not for the Group; what we should be thankful for is that he has endured in spite of it.

Immigration, as it seems, is remedy enough. The friends remain friends but in a far less proscriptive way. It is possible to relate to the family – part of the hopelessness of the society surrounding an impenetrable circle – in a more open and sympathetic way. It is possible to see the meaning and value of others as others, not equally restricted versions of the self who may also have made the difficult choice of becoming “intellectuals” or of joining the group. A certain amount of open-ended understanding accumulates. The world becomes a handkerchief as well as being small.

***

9. I did not even think of publishing the book once it was completed. It was Yasser Abdel-Latif and Mohammad Hashim who drove me to do it.

Mohammad Hashim is the writer who, by founding Dar Miret in 1999, absorbed much of the energy of the Nineties and eventually became better-known as the most accomplished independent publisher in the city (the moon of his success has since waned somewhat). And the easy way to interpret what Yamani has to say about the publication of this book is to think of it as (false) modesty. He is shy about the genius that drives him.

It could also be a sign of despair of ever having a significant readership, reflecting what I feel is a healthy awareness of the position of the contemporary Arab writer in the grander scheme of things. While others go crazy over literary prizes or the prospect of being translated – publication being among the easiest tasks facing a writer in Cairo, it is never enough in itself – here is a glowing talent who, expecting neither fame nor fortune, has little or no drive to publish in the first place. Ambitious he might be, but he is silent. There is dignity in that position: an artisan’s deep respect for his noble handiwork regardless of market demand.

Alternatively, however, the statement could be interpreted as a salutary affirmation of the fact that true writers write foremost for themselves, to work through their own sense of being. In this sense Amakin Khati’ah might be read as a journal of expatriation, an inner chronicle of what it means, for a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, to live away from home.

It means that he is still hard-up, that he teaches and translates to make a living: probably factors in the development of his approach to language and meaning. It means that he has become an academic (the only career open to an immigrant educated in the humanities?) and that it is an opportunity for him to set up theoretical grounding for the literary form in which he found himself (the prose poem), and to locate his work in a wide historical context. It also means that he can write free from compulsion, free from the need to establish ultimately prohibitive social or existential credentials; maybe it even means that he has something to write about, too.

***

10. With rare intelligence, Mohab Nassr, in a letter to me after reading the manuscript, caught the idea that this was my first book. I feel the same way: the first book in a second life.

It is interesting that, of all those who commented on the manuscript, Yamani should cite Mohab Nassr: the one Nineties poet (of Khaled and El-Dainasouri’s generation) who, largely out of repulsion from the Group, its capacity for ruining lives and its failure to see itself as part of the society surrounding it, actually stopped writing altogether. After settling down as a journalist in Kuwait – he had worked as a school teacher in Alexandria – Nassr has only just returned to writing.

It is interesting because Nassr, not only by no longer writing poetry but by socially distancing himself from the Cairo-centred literary circles, is able to see better than others just how far since Wardat fi ar-ra’ss Yamani has come. It is also interesting because, without discrediting Yamani’s three previous books, Nassr is implying that Yamani did not start writing until he had departed, until he was totally free of his Egyptian-intellectual self.

It is interesting too that the poet joyfully agrees – not with any of the implications, necessarily, but with the fact that he has experienced a literary rebirth – adding only the qualification of this being a second life. It means that when he writes, in “Work”, “Any ghost who appears to me will instantly become my friend”, he knows exactly what he is talking about.

“The Two Houses”, “The Big Escape”, “Tobacco Seller” and “The Book” translations copyright: Youssef Rakha

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From Fernando Pessoa’s…

… The Book of Disquiet

My life: a tragedy booed off the stage by the gods, never getting beyond the first act.

Friends: not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.

The logical reward of my detachment from life is the incapacity I’ve created in others to feel anything for me. There’s an aureole of indifference, an icy halo, that surrounds me and repels others. I still haven’t succeeded in not suffering from my solitude. It’s hard to achieve that distinction of spirit whereby isolation becomes a repose without anguish.

[...]

It takes a certain intellectual courage for a man to frankly recognize that he’s nothing more than a human tatter, an abortion that survived, a madman not mad enough to be committed; and once he recognizes this, it takes even more moral courage to devise a way of adapting to his destiny, to accept without protest and without resignation, without any gesture or hint of a gesture, the organic curse imposed on him by Nature. To want not to suffer from this is to want too much, for it’s beyond human capacity to accept what’s obviously bad as if it were something good; and if we accept it as the bad thing it is, then we can’t help but suffer.

[...]

I’ve never seen suicide as a solution, because my hatred of life is due to my love of life. It took me a long time to be convinced of this unfortunate mistake in how I live with myself. Convinced of it, I felt frustrated, which is what I always feel when I convince myself of something, since for me each new conviction means another lost illusion.

[...]

When one of my Japanese teacups is broken, I imagine that the real cause was not the careless hand of a maid but the anxieties of the figures inhabiting the curves of that porcelain. Their grim decision to commit suicide doesn’t shock me: they used the maid as one of us might use a gun.

[...]

My life is so sad, and I don’t even think of weeping over it; my days are so false, and I don’t even dream of trying to change them.

[...]

There are inner sufferings so subtle and so diffuse that we can’t tell whether they belong to the body or the soul, whether they’re an anxiety that comes from our feeling that life is futile or an indisposition originating in some organic abyss such as the stomach, liver or brain. How often my normal self-awareness becomes turbid with the stirred dregs of an anguished staganation! How often it hurts me to exist, with a nausea so indefinite I’m not sure if it’s tedium or a warning that I’m about to vomit!

[...]

Tedium is not the disease of being bored because there’s nothing to do, but the more serious disease of feeling that there’s nothing worth doing. This means that the more there is to do, the more tedium one will feel.

[...]

In one of those spells of sleepless somnolence when we intelligently amuse ourselves without the intelligence, I reread some of the pages that together will form my book of random impressions. And they give off, like a familiar smell, an arid impression of monotony. Even while saying that I’m always different, I feel that I’ve always said the same thing; that I resemble myself more than I’d like to admit; that, when the books are balanced, I’ve had neither the joy of winning or the emotion of losing. I’m the absence of a balance of myself, the lack of a natural equilibrium, and this weakens and distresses me.

[...]

Everything, all that I’ve written, is grey. My life, even my mental life, has been like a drizzly day in which everything is non-occurrence and haziness, empty privilege and forgotten purpose. I agonize in tattered silks. In the light and in tedium I see but don’t know myself.

[...]

My humble attempt to say at least who I am, to record like a machine of nerves the slightest impressions of my subjective and ultra-sensitive life – this was all emptied like a bucket that got knocked over, and it poured across the ground like the water of everything. I fashioned myself out of false colors, and the result is an attic made out to be an empire. My heart, out of which I spun the great events of prose I lived, seems to me today – in these pages written long ago and reread now with a different soul – like a water pump on a homestead, instinctively installed and pressed into service. I shipwrecked on an unstormy sea where my feet could have touched bottom.

[...]

Even writing has lost its appeal. To express emotions in words and to produce well-wrought sentences has become so banal it’s like eating or drinking, something I do with greater or lesser interest but always with a certain detachment, and without real enthusiasm or billiance.

[...]

Once we’re able to see this world as an illusion and a phantasm, then we can see everything that happens to us as a dream, as something that pretended to exist while we were sleeping. And we will become subtly and profoundly indifferent towards all of life’s setbacks and calamities. Those who die turned a corner, which is why we’ve stopped seeing them; those who suffer pass before us like a nightmare, if we feel, or like an unpleasant daydream, if we think. And even our own suffering won’t be more than this nothingness.

[...]

Revolutionary or reformer – the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair.

A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.

[...]

I don’t distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I’m sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children.

[...]

If I carefully consider the life men lead, I find nothing to distinguish it from the life of animals. Both man and animal are hurled unconsciously through things and the world; both have their leisure moments; both complete the same organic cycle day after day; both think nothing beyond what they think, nor live beyond what they live. A cat wallows in the sun and goes to sleep. Man wallows in life, with all of its complexities, and goes to sleep. Neither one escapes the fatal law of being what he is. Neither one tries to shake off the weight of being.

[...]

These considerations, which occur to me frequently, prompt an admiration in me for a kind of person that by nature I abhor. I mean the mystics and ascetics – the recluses of all Tibets, the Simeon Stylites of all columns. These men, albeit by absurd means, do indeed try to escape the animal law. These men, althought they act madly, do indeed reject the law of life by which others wallow in the sun and for death without thinking about it. They really seek, even if on top of a column; they yearn, even if in an unlit cell; they long for what they don’t know, even if in the suffering and martyrdom they’re condemned to.

[...]

On the face of it, the monotony of ordinary lives is horrifying. In this simple restaurant where I’m eating lunch, I look at the figure of the cook behind the counter and at the old waiter, near my table, who serves me and who I believe has been a waiter here for thirty years. What kind of lives do these men lead? For forty years that figure of a man has spent most of every day in a kitchen; he doesn’t get much time off; he sleeps relatively little; he occasionally goes to his home town, returning without hesitation or regret; he slowly saves his slowly earned money, which he has no plans to spend; he would get ill if he had to retire for good from his kitchen to the piece of land he bought in Galicia; he has been in Lisbon for forty years and has never yet gone to the Rotunda or to a theatre, and just once to the curcus at the Coliseum, whose clowns still inhabit his life’s inner vestiges. He married – I don’t know how or why – and has four sons and a daughter, and his smile, as he leans over the counter in my direction, expresses a termendous, solumn, satisfied happiness. And he’s not pretending, nor would he have reason to pretend. If he feels happy, it’s because he really is.

And what of the old waiter who serves me and who has just set before me what must be the millionth coffee he’s set on a customer’s table? He has the same life as the cook, the only difference being the fifteen or twenty feet between the dining area and the kitchen, where they carry out their respective functions. As for the rest, the waiter has only two sons, goes more often to galicia, has seen more of Lisbon than the book, knows Oporto, where he spent four years, and is equally happy.

It shocks me to consider the panorama of these lives, but before I can feel horror, pity and indignation on their account, it occurs to me that those who feel no horror or pity or indignation are the very ones who would have every right to – namely, the people who live these lives. It’s the central error of the literary imagination: to suppose that others are like us and must feel as we do.

[...]

What’s given, in fact, always depends on the person or thing it’s given to. A minor incident in the street brings the cook to the door and entertains him more than I would be entertained by contemplating the most original idea, by reading the greatest book, or by having the most gratifying of useless dreams. If life is basically monotony, he has escaped it more than I. And he escapes it more easily than I. The truth isn’t with him or with me, because it isn’t with anyone, but happiness does belong to him.

Translation: Richard Zenith

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Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama

http://www.hayfestival.com/beirut39/anthology.aspx?skinid=6

Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama[1]

by Youssef Rakha, Egypt

English translation by Nader K. Uthman (2009)

Rashid Celal Siyouti recounted as follows:

Imagine! You open the hood of your car after it breaks down on you in the middle of the street, and where the engine should be you find a corpse folded in the fetal position! That’s not exactly what happened to me, but considering that this was my first visit to Cairo in three years, what happened was almost as strange.

Afterwards, when I found out what my lifelong friend Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı had been through, what had made him leave Cairo a week before I arrived, things would fall into place. I was not to know Mustafa’s story until after I resumed my normal life as a backup doctor at Bethnal Green Hospital in East London, when I received an email[AM1] with a huge PDF file attached, containing the manuscrpt in which Mustafa wrote about his separation from his wife and what followed. There was a single line in the message window wondering whether, after reading the attachment, I would think he had gone crazy.[2] The PDF would prove to me that I didn’t make up that night on the way to Salah Salim Street under the stress of my matrimonial plans, thinking too much about the largest obstacle ahead. I live next to my job in Bethnal Green, and since I moved there in 2005, about two years ago, I’ve been living with a Druze co-worker whom I love. I would have married her long ago, if not for the fact that her family would never let her marry a non-Druze. So, when a ghost appeared to me in the flesh, saying that he was the nineteenth incarnation of God’s Anointed Ruler, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, whom the Druze worship, I wondered if it was a hallucination brought on by reading about that obscure religion, and thinking about getting married, or the reason why I was forbidden from starting a family with my girlfriend. For a few hours I panicked, doubting that in having a relationship with this girl, I might really be desecrating something.

Although the contents of the PDF in Mustafa’s letter could not have crossed my mind during my time in Cairo, I remembered after my second phone call to his mother (the only person remaining there with a genuine connection to Mustafa) that what happened to him might resemble what I saw with my own eyes on that night.

“He who acknowledges that there is no god to worship in the sky,

nor imam[3] to worship on earth save for our Lord Al-Hakim, may

he be exalted, is one of the Monotheists.”

From The Covenant of the Druze Faith, by Hamza bin Ali, known as The Covenant of Induction into the Religion of the Ruler of the Age.)

That night I discovered that the imams of the line of Ubaydallah (the dynasty we know as the Fatimids) knew of a sixth and stranger disappearance. Al-Hakim, their most famous representative, was an austere tyrant who forbade people from eating the popular stew made from Jews Mallow named mulukhiyya and prohibited women from leaving the house, then committed a minor genocide in the first Muslim city in Egypt known after the country itself as (Old) Misr; he would liquidate anyone who came near him. The disappearance of this inspired madman, as I discovered that night, was nothing but a suicide, which followed by the appearance of the Druze faith, which claimed that he was the human embodiment of the One. “If you’re convinced that you’re God,” – this is what the man who killed himself told me – “this must necessarily lead to suicide. For how is God to live among the people, even if He was their Lord?” “This suicide,” – he explained to me – “is repeated once every fifty years, dating from the first time it happened in 1021: the soul of Al-Hakim will have been incarnated in the body of an ordinary person with roots in Al-Mui’zz’s Cairo[AM2] .[4] And after he kills himself in his turn, he appears to his heir – precisely fifty years having passed since he killed himself – to inform him that he is next in line.” At the time, I remembered that up until they married, my mom and dad were born and lived their lives not far from the Mosque of Al-Hakim, the one with the minaret that resembles an erect, circumcised penis, looking out over a wall that spreads out like a sheet. I remembered also that my grandfather used to claim to my father that he was a descendant of the shaykh of Borgwan Alley (that place named after the most famous of Al-Hakim’s eunuchs, and one of his victims). My grandfather used to say, half jokingly, that our history in the neighborhood goes back to the days of the Mamelukes. This was the way it went on my first trip, after an absence of three years, to my birthplace and my sweetest days, the subject now having fallen in love a Druze woman. Now I had to imagine killing myself by the Sword of Al-Imam Al-Aziz Billah, the father of Al-Hakim, given that I was (woe is me!) suicide number 20.

Rashid Celal Siyouti digressed, speaking in the voice of the ghost:

“He who dies alone, does not know. He does not quiver in surprise nor does the bright flash blind him.” (This is what suicide number 19 said to me on the way back, when my car stalled in the Qarafa parallel, as if it lost power. It was a dark place, yet I pulled the handbrake and went out to open the hood, and then suddenly the light in the sky changed for an instant, as if the morning had dawned or as if morning could dawn for only a moment, only to vanish. Meanwhile, the rocks from the[AM3] Muqattam hills flashed above me as though fluorescent, while something like the palm of a hand bore into my shoulder. When I looked around me, there was no trace of him left. Had he left no trace? Eventually I returned to the driver’s seat, trying desperately to start the car, when a neatly-groomed young man appeared next to me in a retro-style, three-piece suit, holding prayer beads in one hand.

He started speaking immediately: “He who dies without having control over his death will never know the fabulous rapture of departing this life.” Then[AM4] :

Only he who kills himself is the Immortal, the Everlasting, and who else can ever have the joy of certainty? I speak to you from experience, believe me: you will not die like other people. You will kill yourself with your own hands at the decisive moment, and the decisive moment always includes others. I tell you this, despite the fact that I didn’t make preparations for it, since I died in the presence of my father and sister and best friend, in the courtyard containing my mother’s tomb, also behind Bab Al-Nasr,[5] where the Cairo of Al-Mu‘izz was located a long time ago. Now, of course, there is nothing called time, yet there is no way to make you understand me except that language of yours. My sister thought I was going to kill her with the Sword, while my father lay ill. Yet I was to call him too, so that he emerged one minute before my death. All those itinerant spirits around my soul, I tell you, witnessed me pass. By your measure, my age was twenty-four at the time, and if not for the fact that I – exalted be my name – was of divine lineage, I would not have realized the magnificence of disappearing early on, or learned that all that happened, happened in order to lead up (in however illogical or murky a way that does not make it any less inevitable) to a single moment in the year 1958, the moment I plunged the Sword’s tip into the spot my previous incarnation had precisely marked for me: under my left breast, about a thumbnail’s length to the right. My arms were outstretched, as were my hands gripping the handle. It was as if my thin torso, in its black robe, had become a taut arc. And bracing my bare feet on the sandy ground, all at once, I held firm, I, the Perfect One, whose death comes by His own hand – and from that time onward, the One who carries the Sword of Al-Aziz Billah. Listen to my tale.

And mimicking the great maqama masters Al-Hamadhani and Al-Hariri (in rhymed prose with two traditional bayts of verse in the middle, as per the tradition of the maqama), Rashid returned to the beginning of his tale:

(underlining indicate rhyming words in original[AM5] )

I came to Cairo, so to speak, for a visit. And in the company of my true friend Mustafa, I intended to walk from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. With him, that’s what I agreed: to see what is left of the Islamic heritage in Cairo, its glory and deeds. It had been seven years for me in England, during which I had cut the nerve of nostalgia. That was a long time ago, when I agreed to meet with Darsh[6], and like a Sultan returning to the throne, you should see what happened to me then. I was appalling not to find him in the land, as if my city had been bereft of human dwellings. Our agreement, the bastard had erased; and because of the resulting shock, awesome sorrows I was made to face. Nostalgically, I imagined us among dusty and dirty alleywas, in Al-Mu‘izz’s Cairo going from gate to gate. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I said, “Damn Mustafaenough, I’ll replace his company with that of cigarettes and camera. And I took my father’s car, heading out one night, when no sooner did I set out than I returned contrite. Were it to be revealed – what I saw in Bab Al-Futouh[7] – it would give the Sphinx himself a fright. And if Mustafa has his own excuse in madness, I realised then that it was my turn to be mad. (You will not understand what happened to Mustafa until you have read the PDF and its fiction[AM6] .) As my limbs are struck with apathy and dread, without prior arrangement or scrutiny I say to you:

He who suffers the spectre of death

Is on the path of resurrection

The purpose behind killing myself

Is to quicken my crossing over

After the event, I spent only five days in Cairo; the encounter shook me to the core, the shock and horror of it. I fell into visits and family gatherings; at the tables I would stay, bottling up my hardship all the way. The whole time, nothing hidden nor revealed could stop me thinking about Mustafa and how he disappeared. Since I found his mobile phone switched off the night of my arrival, there was no one but his mother onto whom I could unload; I called her at once, late one night, and in her voice there was a shade of confusion and despair. Then, I called her again after the heir of the Imam showed up, when it was only three days before I was to go back to England. And so the thought has often returned to me: how in April, Mustafa suddenly left, three weeks after he found his way to his mother’s house. He had gone back to live with her after separating from his wife whom he hastened to divorce as an expression of his indignation. After his departure, as she told me, he only called one time – to reassure her that he was safe and to confirm that he would not die. “She senses that she has lost him for all eternity,” I thought, as she spoke to me, weary with agony. His suspicious disappearance was confirmed by this matter and the fact that my e-mails to him remained unanswered, to the letter.

And then Rashid returned to what the suicide said to him:

My name and my lineage will not matter. The important thing is that my corpse disappeared at the time of my death by the Sword of Al-Aziz. So that you know that the Sword will reach you too, and when you plunge it into its place, there will be no trace of you left. Eighteen suicides and I prove it to you. You can find out if you ask, since something that happens every fifty years does not attract a passing glance. You’re afraid because you are not yet certain that you are Immortal, the Everlasting One, nor are you sure of everything that happens in that narrow room you think to be your life, including the likes of me, with your disbelief in my being here, and your bewilderment at the sight of the mountain in the light of your eyes. The light will not be reflected again until you die, when your divine vision begins to take over. Everything that happens takes place in order to lead up to one moment in the year 2008 . . .

The suicide kept on in this way, talking to me – as terror shook my being, then paralyzed me. I was still in denial that he was right there next to me, so I didn’t look at him as I insistently kept turning the ignition to start the motor. The suicide chuckled briefly – one, short laugh – then stretched out his hand to indicate the spot in which to plunge my Sword. Right after the touch of his finger on my chest, I felt a tingle I had never experienced before in my whole life. There was pleasure in that touch – effortless, without instigation, endless, like an orgasm. “You must take the studded gold handle in both your hands. You will have pointed the edge of the blade to your chest, under your right breast but a thumbnail’s length to the right. You must then bend over like a bow, brace your feet on the ground – and then all at once, thrust!”

As soon as he withdrew his hand, he began to sing, saying:

I did not begin to understand until I thought I already understood,

then I saw things as if with the eyes of the Buddha:

that childish drawing of large forms, gazing out

from the frontiers of buildings,

which sees everything in everything.

Maybe my sister and my friend thought I was stunned at the sight of them, since my posture with the Sword followed my discovery the two of them precisely one night before, in the dark of the courtyard. I had come in barefoot, the gas lamp in my hand, only to find my sister’s thighs propped up as if on something low, underneath her hiked-up robe. It was impossible to see her top half from afar: she was lying on her back on the floor, moaning heatedly, as if sobbing. I recognised the two of them, my sister’s thighs.

And so continued the suicide, after he ordered me – with a lukewarm smile – to start the motor. Now the car did take off – on Salah Salim Street, which did not seem to end. I was driving very fast in order to get out of this dark area, but however much I drove I did not get a centimeter further. When he finished speaking, without my knowing it, Salah Salim would go back to normal, and I would now know that I truly escaped from the spot in which I met him. And without my knowing, too, that he had disappeared.

I[AM7] didn’t make out what was propping them up from underneath until I got close and kneeled down. My friend was slithering on his belly like a snake as his head was buried between the two of them, his shoulders under her thighs. When I gasped, he lifted her up and I saw my sister’s shaved sex, swollen and red in the light of the gas lamp, as my friend’s saliva clung to the hair[AM8] and leaked down around it. I screamed at them, “Get married! Go get married!” and then turned around. They actually did get married without my father finding out what happened, but they had to wait seven years after my unexpected suicide. Until they die, they will wonder if their buried secret was the reason for that wait.

Then, returning to the beginning of his story, Rashid said:

From the first day, I had decided to put off family matters that awaited me with each visit, so I would make excuses, saying that since I have not seen them for so long, I prefer to spend time alone with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers. In truth I spent a week going from bar to bar in Zamalek and from café to café downtown. I would use my father’s Renault – parked most of the time – but only after the mechanic had inspected it, tried it out for a week and guaranteed its performance… until I felt like going on my own to Bab Al-Futouh and what happened happened.

We live in Heliopolis,[8] in a building built at the end of the fifties, when suicide number 19 lived in Bab Al-Futouh, right next to my father, who turned seventy-five years old [AM9] last year. Yes, that’s what I thought of at first, until I remembered a story that was repeated in different forms on both sides of the family, without my knowing if it was true. My mother would deny it angrily every time the subject was raised, while my father would deny any knowledge of it with a curtness unusual for him. My mother’s brother, Uncle Fathi: the only one of my parents’ siblings whom I never saw even once[AM10] . He died young; he is supposed to have died [AM11] in a car accident, yet there is a level of mystery surrounding his death, the kind of mystery that evokes a scandal or something frightening. There is nothing decisive to refute that he had taken his own life. My uncle had spied my mother and father together in an awkward position while they were still young and not committed in a relationship; meanwhile, my uncle and my father were friends and soulmates. There are those who say that he died in anguish after he learned of his friend’s betrayal and his little sister’s wantonness. And there are those who say that he fought with my father, who killed him, and the two families covered it up, since they were close to one another and keen to avoid scandal. I’m not one-hundred percent sure of the memory, but I thought I heard someone say that my Uncle Fathi was a blessed man, and that when he died, his body evaporated and directly soared up to the sky. And so God had raised him up as he raised up the prophet Jesus[9].  What confirmed my suspicion was that my maternal grandmother died when she was a young girl, and that her grave was on land my grandfather owned in Bab Al-Futouh. (During my trek, I wasn’t able to reach my maternal grandmother’s grave.) Honestly: I was afraid. And the fear grew in my heart to the point where I didn’t dare to mention anything to my father or mother during my last five days in Cairo. We live in Heliopolis, I’m saying. One of the things I miss most in England is the atmosphere of Salah Salim Street – which I have to traverse, even if just on a part of it, on any trip I make from or to our house. You’re truly on the body of a serpent that slithers on Cairo’s entire back – from the north, where we live, to Roda Island in the south, parallel to Old Cairo. It’s like a spine susceptible to dislocation. I parked quite far, on the opposite side of the street, near Zizo’s, the restaurant famous for its sausages. Then I crossed cautiously, taking bigger and bigger steps; and I didn’t return for three hours. I was gazing at the ancient buildings as If I had lived in them in their glory days. I felt a violent familiarity for a place I only vaguely knew.

“The leader rode one evening, on one of his night treks… He headed toward Muqattam[AM12] hills, then, he was not seen after that, neither live nor[AM13] dead, his fate unknown, his body

never found. Nor did any modern nor contemporary story come to us – no decisive story on his death nor on his disappearance”

From Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah and the Secrets of the Fatimid Call, by Muhammad Abdallah Anan (1983).

Three months have passed now, and there is more joy in my relationship with my girlfriend than ever.

That night in Bab Al-Fotouh I had thought about her for a long time as my hand came into contact with the walls she has dreamed of seeing since she was a girl in Suwayda, Syria, and even after she came to Manchester with her family at the age of fifteen. (She had never visited Egypt, even though the story of Al-Hakim was of course present – specifically, his end: he departed on his donkey, looking up at the stars in Muqattam hills and never came back. Later, they found no trace of him, except for the seven capes he wore; the buttons, caked with blood, could not be unbuttoned. (They were dumped in the open air[AM14] , and some claim they were found wet in Helwan.) Yet, until now, I still avoid talking to her about my last visit to Cairo. At first, it didn’t occur to me that the emergence of the suicide could be more important to me than our marriage, yet as time passed – after I finished reading Mustafa’s PDF, to be precise – I became almost convinced that it truly was more important.  What didn’t please me – after recalling one or two memories of things that didn’t happen to me in the first place – was to find myself increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of killing myself, just as the suicide had predicted. The day before yesterday – the second anniversary of our decision to live together without her family’s knowledge – my girlfriend brought me an unexpected gift which I also never expected to make me this happy. I was busy on the computer when she entered the apartment, so I said hello without lifting my eyes from the screen, only to end up with a rectangular piece of metal sparkling before my eyes. She had snuck up behind my back and snared my head between her two arms. And in her hands was what almost made me faint as I uttered its name: the Sword of Al-Aziz. Then, she put it on the table, saying that her father actually believed that it belonged to Al-Aziz bi-Allah. She added that it couldn’t possibly have been made over a thousand years ago, it was in too good a condition to be the imam’s. She had found it in her father’s large safe and kept begging until he gave it to her. She hid it in the trunk of her car until the day of our anniversary. Slowly, I reached out and lifted it by its studded gold handle; it looked new, as if it had been crafted yesterday. I looked closer at the edge the blade; it appeared sharper than anything made by human hands. I grew distracted for a bit. And bringing me back to reality, the angelic beauty of my girlfriend’s face appeared, asking “Do you like it?”


[1] The maqama is a medieval literary genre featuring rhymed prose – a stylistic device employed in some sections of this piece. Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah – Abu Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim (996–1021) – was the 6th Fatimid caliph, the 16th Ismaili imam and the inspiration of Tawhid (“monotheism”) – the Druze name for their faith. (Translator)

[2] The attachment refers to the Kitab Al-Tugra or Book of the Sultan’s Seal, an as yet unpublished novel by the same author.

[3] Muslim spiritual leader (Translator)

[4] Al-Mu‘izz, or Ma‘dh Abu Tamim al-Mu‘izz li-Dinallah (ca. 930 – 975) was the first Fatimid caliph to rule from Egypt, and his reign was the most remarkable. His armies conquered Egypt and defeated the Abbasids; he founded Cairo and made it his capital in 972-973. He ruled over much of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Sicily.

[5] One of the major gates of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)

[6] Darsh is a common and traditional sobriquet for Mustafa.

[7] The north gate of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)

[8] Also called masr al-gadida, or “New Egypt,” a suburb of Cairo. (Translator)

[9] Orthodox Muslim belief holds that Jesus was never crucified but was physically raised into the heavens by God’s invisible hands.


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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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