Joe Linker: Notes on Youssef Rakha’s “The Crocodiles”

Originally posted on June 30, 2015 on The Coming of the Toads

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  1. Instead of page numbers, “The Crocodiles,” a novel by the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, is marked by 405 numbered, block paragraphs, the whole symmetrically framed by references to Allen Ginsberg, the US Beat poet, to his “The Lion for Real,” signed “Paris, March, 1958.”

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A Kind of Linguistic Caliphate: In Conversation with Hilary Plum

6 Mar 2015 by Hilary Plum

I first learned of Youssef Rakha’s work in June 2011, when Anton Shammas wrote me with an unprecedentedly urgent recommendation. I was an editor with Interlink Publishing, which has been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1987: here was a writer who, as Shammas would later put it, with his debut novel had claimed “an immediate spot at the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” With The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha has, in Shammas’s words, “[realized] at long last, one of the dreams of modern Arabic novelists since the mid nineteenth century: to formulate a seamless style of modern narration that places the novel in the world.” The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Kitab at-Tughra) had been published in February 2011, coincident with the beginning of revolution in Cairo, and over the following years, as I awaited its translation with the impatience the monolingual are doomed to endure, rumors of the novel continually, insistently arrived. I can only suggest that the anticipation I felt then is the anticipation literature in English does not yet know it has been feeling, the lack from which it’s been suffering, and which these two novels will answer in force.
In one of those lucky moments when publishing just gets things right, this winter offers readers in English Rakha’s first two novels at once: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey and published by Interlink, and The Crocodiles, translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories. Sultan’s Seal moves us exhilaratingly through the Cairo of 2007, city of post-9/11 Islam, sweeping through centuries of Arab and Ottoman history and into a future of Rakha’s own invention. The Crocodiles takes us up to the brink of 2011, spinning the history of a secret poetry society in Cairo, gorgeous in its fury, hope, and despair. Rakha’s arrival in English constitutes an event. It’s been my pleasure to speak with Youssef about his work.

Hilary Plum: Let’s start with your first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, just out in English, in Paul Starkey’s wonderful translation. In my work as an editor with Interlink Publishing, I’ve been lucky to be reading and rereading this novel for several years. This was an exceptionally challenging work for Paul Starkey to translate, since the Arabic undertakes a breadth of linguistic experimentation and intertextual references—to diverse works from the Arabic canon, medieval to present-day—that no other language could really reproduce. And yet, here we are, with this book in our hands. I wonder if you could talk to us, your English-language readers, about the experiments you enacted in the Arabic original, creating a style of narration for the novel that you’ve sometimes called “a contemporary equivalent of ‘middle Arabic’.” What drove you toward this endeavor? And what has it been like for you to see this novel come into being in English?

Youssef Rakha: There were two things I wanted to do with The Seal. The first—and maybe it wasn’t the first when I was writing but now that I’m moving into English, kind of the way you move into a house, I like to think it was the first—is that I wanted, from where I was, in post-millennial Cairo, to be part of the larger conversation that is the contemporary novel. By that I mean quite simply world literature today, which though still dominated by a more or less “Eurocentric” ethos is no longer particularly European, and though rife with death-of-the-novel discourse is actually irrevocably novel-bound.

I would argue that the literary conversation that expresses itself in this form was always hybrid and “globalized,” never so far from Arabic as to make it “foreign” to literate Arabs or vice versa, but that is hardly the point.

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Writing the North African Experience


Centre for African Poetry: Let us begin by inviting you to humour our ignorance. The title of your 2011 novel is translated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, but we wonder which of the two names we have seen for it in Arabic is more accurate – khutbat al-kitab, or Kitab at Tughra?

Rakha: Kitab at Tughra is the title. Khutbat al-kitab means, literally, “Address of the book”; it’s a formulaic canonical phrase for “introduction” or “prologue”, which here and in old Arabic books doubles as a kind of table of contents; on the surface the novel is modelled on a medieval historical text. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the original sense of kitab, which is the Arabic word for “book”, means simply “letter” or “epistle”: every canonical book is addressed to a patron or a friend, and that’s an idea that is particularly meaningful to me.

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عيّل علّموا عليه

فصل من رواية “باولو”، الجزء الثاني من حاوية التماسيح

الأحد ٦ أبريل ٢٠٠٨
عيّل علّموا عليه في قسم قصر النيل جاء يشتكي لي. (هو ذا الذي كان يحصل أيام حركة شباب ٦ أبريل وحركة كفاية وكل هذا الكلام. كان يحصل من قبلها طبعاً لكن بدأت أنتبه له في هذا الوقت. والإخوان أيضاً كانوا شادين حيلهم من تحت لتحت مع أنهم يأخذون على دماغهم أول بأول: القحاب.) عيّل حلو ومخنث لدرجة أن الواحد ممكن ينتصب وهو قاعد جنبه، شغال معي من مدة واسمه أشرف بيومي. علّموا عليه فجاء لي البيت. أنا أول ما شفته بصقت وأعطيته ظهري. يوم ٤ أبريل كنت بعثتُه مظاهرة صغيرة لا يَعرف الغرض منها في ميدان طلعت حرب، كان المفروض يرجع لي في نفس اليوم. وطّى يمسح بصقتي عن العتبة بكم قميصه وحدف نفسه علي يحك فمه في قورتي، قال: اسمعني لو سمحت. ثم دخل ورائي وطلب كباية مياه. قال إنه لما كان في المظاهرة جاء واحد يتكلم معه بطريقة لم تعجبه ففتح عليه المطواة. الواحد هذا كان ضابط مباحث وأشرف لا يعرف. في البوكس قال لهم إنه مخبر أمن دولة لكن زوّدوا الضرب. وصف لي بالتفصيل. كانت الكلبشات في يديه وراء ظهره وكان في البوكس مقبوض عليهم آخرون أكثرهم من غير كلبشات، لا يعرف ما جرى لهم بعد ذلك.

استمر في القراءة

An extract from “The Crocodiles”

Extract from The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha



24. Today, I’m convinced we were a room no one managed to enter except three lovers. Of them, it’s Moon who figures in memory or imagination, though the last to reach us: the shade for whose sake we left a door ajar. As if the other two got in by mistake. Is it because we never knew from where she came or where she went after it all came to an end? Was it for the sake of the tomboy traits, which were to lead us to covet one woman above all others in our circle? Moon was the closest to us in age and the only poet. Perhaps for her hyper-insubstantiality and her retention—despite the slightness and small size—of a lion’s charisma, perhaps because she was the most changeable and extreme, the one whose behavior it was impossible to predict from one day to the next, we left a door ajar for Moon.

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