“I said to Cartier-Bresson I’m really not interested and I’m not going to read The Decisive Moment”: Interview with Joseph Koudelka

Legendary photographer Josef Koudelka packed the house at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph over the weekend, and the audience greeted him with a standing ovation after master of ceremonies, photographer Vince Musi, announced that Koudelka had been reluctant to participate. Koudelka, who has a reputation as a lone wolf among a group of peers known for their independence, has rarely granted interviews during a career that spans more than 40 years.

“Of course I don’t feel very comfortable to be here. I am not a good speaker,” said Koudelka, who was nevertheless gracious to Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, who was also on stage to interview him. “I don’t know what she’s going to ask me, [but] I gave her assurance I would answer everything…I will try to be as honest as possible.”

Koudelka also told the audience at the outset that he “never listened much to what [other] photographers say,” and recounted how Henri Cartier-Bresson had asked him to read and comment on the text of The Decisive Moment before that book was published. “I said to Bresson I’m really not interested and I’m not going to read it.” Koudelka added, “I think the best portrait of a photographer are his photographs, so please judge me on my photographs.”

The audience cheered, and the program got under way with a projection of a sampling of Koudelka’s earliest work–a documentary of stage actors during performances, followed by a series of abstract images that stemmed from his work as a theater photographer. The program alternated between silent projections of Koudelka’s major bodies of work, presented chronologically, followed by several minutes of Q&A conversation between Tucker and Koudelka about that work.

Here’s an edited version of the conversation. The headings indicate the subjects of the major bodies of Koudelka’s work, and when it appeared during the program.


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All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

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

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


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

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M for Manar


Sunday, June 15, 2008
Youssef Rakha
Al Manar has dragged itself into the future and away from the 1950s sets.

It seems the graphics people at al Manar TV are brushing up their act. NileSat’s most resolutely retro news channel, whose sets used to look like they were out of the 1950s, is suddenly using slick digital transitions to advertise its programmes. It is pacing broadcasts much faster, challenging the competition with colourful plaques, distinctive logos and the full gamut of special effects. The anchors are adopting Jazeera-like voices and the stringers, like al Jazeera’s, report breathlessly from the thick.
It is also screening historical soap operas and serial documentaries on topics like the struggle of the Palestinians, the struggle against colonialism and the struggle to maintain national identity. Many of these are imported from Syria, some are dubbed from Farsi, but all seek to lure the global Arabic-speaking viewer into that world of eternal truth, ruthless justice and ever so punctilious philanthropy dreamt up by Hizbollah.
Contrary to the views of American neoconservatives, Hizbollah is not in fact a bunch of Jew-hating terrorists with Nazi or Qa’eda aspirations (for neoconservatives, either comparison will do). Their televisual mouthpiece need not be automatically identified with a venom-spitting monster, therefore.

Al Manar does provide a mouthpiece for justified Arab and Muslim discontent. Because it focuses on otherwise voiceless victims of Israel (the people of southern Lebanon, the Palestinians, some Syrians) and speaks to all those who feel bad about people being systematically humiliated, denied homes in which to live or simply finished off, because it gives so much airtime to everyday Hizbollah supporters phoning in to exchange emotional moments with representatives of the movement and its political and doctrinal allies, al Manar has a kind of credibility. Combined with the tendency to look and sound like a news channel from an Iron Curtain dictatorship during the Cold War, this used to give it a certain reason-defying appeal.
Then again, al Manar does promote a dodgy piece of theologising in Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, by which the Shia cleric gets to act as “guardian” of the regime, and which even the most pious Shia Iranians believe has proven by far less Islamic, benevolent or just than the pre-1979 Shah’s regime.

Aside from its shameless advocation of theocracy, what is bad about al Manar, and what the graphic revolution has not managed to improve, is its obsessive devotion to ideology. Unlike subtler Lebanese channels with a political agenda – LBC or Future, for example – al Manar has been a more or less avowed propaganda machine since its inception in 1991 (the channel has been transmitting via satellite since 2000). And the new look is clearly trying to build up its image to make it look less like one.
It seems worrying therefore that, however much you may sympathise with Hizbollah, al Manar’s modus operandi is liable to turn you into a Shia-hating, anti-populist Bushophile whatever else you claim to be.

Tickers, almanar.com and archives on DVD have improved neither overblown rhetoric nor partisan orientation: America is an incarnation of the selfsame Satan who first tempted Adam in Paradise; velayat-e faqih is the only form of leadership that could bring order to the chaos of Arab-Muslim politics, retrieving the sovereignty said Satan has appropriated; Iran is ready to take over the entire Muslim world and, without so much as a harsh word or a drop of blood, challenge American hegemony and rebuild the glories of Islam.
Grown up people with respectable beards actually sit down to say these things, with perfectly straight faces, and anchors nod enthusiastically as if to say, “Dah!” Talk show hosts support their guests’ outrageous views – that Khomeini worked just like a prophet of Allah, that he actually was a prophet of Allah – before the guest has expressed them: “So, your samaha the sheikh, how would you comment on Imam Ruhollah’s approach to revolution, which was identical to that of the Prophet Mohammad peace be upon him?” “Well, it was identical…” People phone in to hysterically decry the death of their loved ones under Israeli or Future Movement fire or pronounce Hassan Nassrallah the Redeemer. And atrocities committed against Arabs and Muslims are flaunted to classical verses written in the style of Shia lamentations and set to heart-rending music.
By invoking certain standards of objectivity, the newly introduced, smooth-operating methods only dramatise the misinformation being presented. Those secular Arabs clinging onto the ever more elusive life-raft of critical thinking may very well cheer the resistance Hizbollah has come to embody. But they will still have serious trouble watching al Manar.

The devil may care

Image via Wikipedia

Youssef Rakha wonders whether the whole world is conspiring against his American Dream.

The National, 2009

It is October 6, and I have just found out I am not going to America. Something fell through with a story I was supposed to write; publication schedules changed, events became no longer newsworthy. For the longest timeit made sense for Egyptians not to go to America, and I had never been. But, once told I was going, I became excited about it.

October 6: so many things in Cairo are named after the one military victory against Israel that Arabs have been able to claim – on October 6, 1973 – since their first defeat 60 years ago. Why was my trip cancelled on, of all days, the Eid of Victory?

The obvious answer is coincidence. But the fact that I even asked myself the question is revealing. Could it be that Khomeini’s frequently quoted statement that “while Israel is the Lesser Devil, America is the Greater Devil” lurked in the backwaters of an Arab Muslim mind torn between the prosperity in Abu Dhabi and an increasingly unsettling sense of not belonging in Egypt?

The Egyptian in me clings to opposition to America’s most devilish ways in the region. In the time of Nasser, who presided with an iron fist over the most glorious of all Arab defeats in 1967, Egyptians had a good excuse for being cursed: their government refused to cow to an unjust world order. Since October 6, 1973, ironically, the same powers have flouted popular and intellectual discontent in its attempts to embrace both Devils, so to speak, as long and hard as they could.

After peace with Israel, after laissez-faire, after selling out (as socialist-minded dinosaurs continue to call it), there is no longer any excuse for being cursed. Ergo: every Egyptian born after 1973, myself included, has a birthright to his or her own American dream. It doesn’t matter if they seek to realise it within Egypt, in actual US territory or, like a sizeable number, in Israel. Wherever they go, the drive to pursue unlimited profit through the systematic destruction of the planet while urging others to protect the environment and refrain from nuclear development will always be theirs. So too the reward of a family living in a large suburban house with a huge entertainment system.

I waived such rights long ago, having chosen a career as a writer, where there will never be all that much material wealth to look forward to – no matter where I end up working. My very own American dream turns out to be much simpler: I just want to visit New York.

Notwithstanding the occasional bout of partial sympathy for Khomeini’s logic, through the years I have had many American and American-resident friends, and American books and films have added much to my sense of self. I feel silly having never seen the place with my own eyes. Citing one or two of my favourite American works of art would misrepresent the depth and breadth of my ongoing, practically lifelong experience of the country’s vital cultural history. Let’s just say I could not get rid of the knot in my stomach for hours after my editor told me that David Foster Wallace had hanged himself; all of a sudden this most American of contemporary authors felt like a close friend.

Admittedly, after 2001, in shock and fear of Guantanamo, it did not take much to give up my birthright. At the same time, I realised I had also not properly seen much of the Arab world, and I soon enough set out to explore it. I toured Egypt and made plans to scale the breadths of Sudan. America was out of sight and mind; a visit there, however rightful, felt unnecessary.

Then, one day in 2005, I was offered the chance to spend three months in New York through a writer’s residency programme. There was no per diem, but travel costs were covered and I managed to find a place to stay. Suddenly giddy with anticipation, I set about clearing things with the US embassy in Cairo, the residency providers and my employers, who agreed to give me time off.

In Cairo, the US embassy presides over a cluster of other US institutions that have turned a whole downtown neighbourhood into a practical military zone. Often, walking around there, I have been stopped by Egyptian police officers for impromptu interrogations. Moving through the otherworldly automatic security system that guarded the office I was visiting, I tried to imagine myself not in Guantanamo, but in the world’s must multinational hub – open-hearted, energetic and creatively charged.

A few weeks before I was due for my final interview at the embassy itself, my American accommodation fell through. On the same day, my boss took me aside to explain that, in light of certain major changes, I might lose my job if I left. And so, with the resignation of a true Arab who realises that Jerusalem will not be liberated in his lifetime, I had to go through the weary steps of cancelling the journey.

Shortly afterwards, when the Lebanese prime minister was assassinated, I heard Hizbollah’s secretary Hassan Nasrallah repeating Khomeini’s statement on TV: “America is al shaitan al akbar.” I looked up at the screen and, in the non-committal tone of a British MP seconding a motion that he does not really care about either way, I let out a “Yea!.” How was America responsible for Lebanon’s internal divisions? Who knows …

But having worked up the enthusiasm to go to America once, I was no longer afraid. I reverted from my post-September 11 “No way” to my pre-September 11 “At some point.” When this opportunity presented itself again, this time in Abu Dhabi, I was all too glad.

On the afternoon of October 6, I spent the afternoon trekking around town looking for the appropriate bank branch from which to pay my visa fees; I had to wait for an hour to fork over the requisite Dh500. When I got back to the office, my editor looked up from his computer screen: “We have a problem.” Here we go again!

Now, as I lie back and think of Jerusalem, it occurs to me there might be some kind of cosmic conspiracy designed to prevent me from realising my American dream: first September 11, then the lack of a host in an expensive city – and now adjustments in a publication schedule? Perhaps, as some superstitious Egyptians say to justify unfortunate turns of fate, it was God’s work – to save me – from Guantanamo, from a non-smoking hotel, from the fate of living as an illegal immigrant if I liked the place so much that I decided never to come back. Who knows…

Khomeini was not often right, but perhaps in this case he was on to something. Perhaps, all through my life, God has been conspiring to prevent me from associating with His archenemy after all.


Five cases of exorcism

Facing each others’ shadows but not actually facing each other, seculars and Islamists were at daggers drawn, writes Youssef Rakha. Then came the Revolution



Once upon a time there was an ancient house and it was haunted by two families of ghosts, let us call them the Fundies and the Drunks; by the time this happens, all the inhabitants of the house are long dead; the house is in perpetual darkness. Each ghost family thinks it is alive and being haunted by the other family; each dreams of moving out to a warmer house. Scared of the dead, they are the dead; and they are kept apart by the lie that they are alive. The Drunks died much earlier; it is their attachment to physical and perishable things that makes them think they are alive, but they show fewer signs of vitality. The Fundies, a seamless block of the more recently deceased, draw their delusional breath from things supposedly eternal. They are aggressive and noisy, the Fundies; sometimes they even seem convincingly human, for ghosts. For the longest time the house stands immovable. Everyone is dead, but there remains in both families something perhaps truly eternal even as it remains physical and perishable and, for the longest time, completely hidden from view. That thing is shared by every member of every family; no one knows yet, but it can turn each back into a living human being. Perhaps no one has been quite so dead after all; perhaps death itself is reversible. One day the house begins to rock, softly, barely perceptibly at first. A shaft of sunlight penetrates to the centre and for the first time in their memory the Drunks, suddenly energetic in the light, feel the warmth on their skin. They cherish the blood pumping in their newly taut veins and, while their pupils dilate, realise that they have been dead. At this moment it dawns on them that, if they were dead, it cannot be that they were haunted by the Fundies, that the Fundies too may be alive by now, and that everyone has an equal claim to the house. While the house leaves the ground, the Fundies join the Drunks and, resuscitated likewise, they are unexpectedly peaceful and calm. Eventually the two families grow so friendly and secure in company that, by the time the house flies, no one is sacred of anyone.



The original meaning of exorcism is “binding by oath”; in this sense the former Egyptian regime was worse than a demon. No oath could bind it, and people were too aware of this to be affected by the intimidation and manipulation to which they were subjected. During the last few days before Mubarak’s stepping down, the Tahrir protesters were creative enough to stage a zar, the most popular form of exorcism in grassroots culture, to drive the stubborn, by then clearly blood-stained president from the country. In reality a zar is an African-rooted, indoor and female-only rite, in which a particular drum beat and collective circular movement, gaining in velocity as time passes, force a demon out of the body of a possessed woman, who will normally pass out at the end; but in the popular imagination the procedure is synonymous with irrational desperation, and for the protesters it was a theatrical expression of just that: Mubarak had proved so impervious to the demands of the unequivocal majority, so blind to reality, so steeped in fabricated consent, it took him longer than anyone to give in to the inevitable. By the time the zar took place, the mafia of the so called authorities had already tried everything (I think the events of 25 Jan-11 Feb establish beyond any doubt that the authorities were just that: a mafia; and it is well to remember that elements of that mafia continue to operate freely – to what end, no one knows for sure). Police, thugs, snipers on the one hand and, on the other, rumours, fear- and xenophobia-mongering as well as systematic misinformation: nothing could put an end to the revolution. Yet, like a mulish djinn of apostate ancestry (the worst kind), Mubarak continued to use the term “I will” to Thursday 10 Feb. But whether or not the zar had any part in it, that will of his was duly exorcised.



The Revolution goes beyond what just may be a sustainable rapprochement between secular and Islamist components of the unarmed constituency. It goes beyond the tendency to draw on spiritual references like the zar for moral sustenance under attack – and the indefinite and gruelling wait for Mubarak to see the light which sparked it. By Friday 28 Jan the government already had blood on its hands; and the security forces, after committing atrocious crimes against protesters and then abandoning their posts – who emptied the prisons? who attacked the police stations? who if not the police is ultimately responsible? – were no longer visible. One strong response to government cronies objecting to Mubarak stepping down on the grounds that it was not in “our culture” to humiliate elders and leaders was to point out that, in that same culture of ours, the spilling of blood does not go unpunished. (To this day neither Mubarak nor those under and around him have been forgiven; they are unlikely to ever be until they are brought to justice.) References to the martyrs – another grassroots religious concept – quickly became central to the protests – and the lineage of the Revolution as a whole; its patience stretched, the mafia in charge of Egypt – is it still in charge of Egypt? – had been exposed. By the second Friday of the Revolution, following the horrendous Battle of the Camel featuring NDP militias and the coldblooded murder of protesters by as yet unidentified (but very probably State Security) operatives on Wednesday 2 Feb, non-Islamist Muslims among the protesters were reclaiming a legacy that had for the longest time been appropriated by political Islam but that should in all fairness be shared by all Muslims, including secular Muslims as well as fundamentalists: the legacy of jihad, which means not blowing yourself up to bring down America but simply fighting the good fight where and when you are able to. We all undertook jihad during the Revolution, many Muslim Brothers and some Salafis were with us not in their capacity as Islamists but as Egyptians fighting the good fight. We all practised jihad in Tahrir, but none of us were jihadis.



Already underway is the debate about the second term of the constitution, which states that legislation should be derived from the Shari’a, that Islam is the official religion of Egypt and Arabic its official language. (Apart from personal-affairs laws which restrict private lives and have arguably contributed to sexual violence and frustration, legislation is not actually derived from Shari’a and, barring the emergence of a theocracy, is not likely to be. In the light of this and the fact that Arabic is the first language of nearly every Egyptian, I am not sure what the second term actually means.) The seculars – writers, artists, intellectuals, activists and a few enlightened men of religion – are calling for its removal in the course of ongoing or later amendments; they see the Revolution as an opportunity to build a truly non-sectarian state, cutting off political from spiritual affairs once and for all and respecting the rights of a citizen like myself to profess no religion at all while remaining fully Egyptian. Many (including, paradoxically, the Coptic clergy) feel that Islam and the language of the Quran are an essential facet of national identity and that their inclusion in the country’s  document of self-definition is a necessary shield against loss of direction, cultural (and other) invasion, and moral erosion of every kind. As late as the 1990s Islamists were actively killing seculars and seculars condoning a government they knew to be corrupt and illegitimate from the liberal-democratic standpoint simply because it actively terrorised (thereby also strengthening) Islamists. It is a credit to the Egyptian people that, while this debate goes on, while both sides feel strongly about it, no clashes have occurred at any level. The majority seems rightly aware that the priority is to establish a representative, participatory political system; and many are willing to put off resolving this particular point of contention for now. I think it is fair to say that if the majority of Egyptians want an Islamic state (whatever that means), an Islamic state is what the majority of Egyptians should get; but it is also important to remember that the second term has been used to control the religious establishment and manipulate both Islamists and seculars far more often than to uphold religious, let alone national identity. The second term should not become yet another evil spirit to be cast out, at least not yet. The second term is an opportunity for democratic interaction, for binding by oath the infinitely more evil spirit of Islamist-secular hatred and suspicion, whose only beneficiary since the 1970s has been an abusive regime despoiling the country in perpetuity.



I do not remember which of the many arrivals at Tahrir this was. We waited a very long time on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge. Arms raised, identity cards in hand, we were searched and given a loud hero’s welcome. It did not even register then, but those who checked our identities, those who apologised as they felt our pockets while others, clapping, chanted essawra bte-k-bar, “the Revolution is growing”, came in all shapes and sizes. Some had what were evidently religious beards, different kinds denoting different affiliations (Azharite, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi). Others had pony tails or fros, or neat, military-like crew cuts. The most “westernised” worked hand in hand with the most “fundamentalist” and you did not even notice. That time a little old man who as I later found out had a communist background told us a story; he had been camping out in Tahrir for a week and last night he had had a dream. The Prophet Muhammad appeared to him, he said, in the company of unidentified Companions. There were injured protesters in the vicinity, one of whom was in his death throes, and the Prophet – bathed in light – placed his hand on the dying young man’s forehead and smiled. As is almost always the case in a dream of this kind, regarded by Muslims as the closest thing in this lifetime to an actual encounter with their Messenger, the dreamer could not see the Prophet’s face, but he watched, awe-struck, as the young man’s health visibly improved and heard the Prophet’s voice advising him and other protesters not to give up. “Victory is near,” the Prophet said, before the little old communist woke up with a smile of hope and gratitude imprinted on his face: the same smile he presented us with while we shuffled towards the statue of Omar Makram, near the Qasr Al-Nil entry point. “You look like progressive young men and I can tell you I never used to pray,” he said. “I never thought the Prophet would ever visit me in my sleep. Maybe I was not even a believer,” he muttered, eventually raising his voice with such conviction it was all I could do not to break down in tears: “Rest assured, however. We will win this battle. The Prophet Muhammad told me so.”

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Centenary of Mahfouz

Al Ahram Weekly, December 2001

Revealing conflicts

Interviews by Youssef Rakha

Gaber Asfour

“He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live”

Writing is a vision. Its value depends on the depth, totality, diversity and richness of that vision. And it is through an assessment of all these elements that one distinguishes between a writer who rushes past, leaving nothing behind, and one who makes history, marking the beginnings and ends of literary epochs and schools through settling on new points of departure, or carrying existing traditions to unprecedented destinations. Naguib Mahfouz (whose 90th birthday we celebrate) is among those with whom writing is transformed, its presence, thanks to their creative contribution, gaining in depth and variety, and reaching out to undiscovered horizons. He is a decisive landmark in the history of Arabic writing, and a luminous point in that of world literature. He belongs to us as much as to humanity at large: his embodiment of our troubles, articulation of our dreams and awareness of our specificity make him triumphantly local; while the universal human paradigms and events he depicts make him a world figure to be reckoned with. He is Egyptian, Arab, human, international: his writing integrates all that connects a human being to a fellow human being through space and time, and across differences of language, religion, ethnicity and nationality.

This is why his readership grows increasingly through the world, the number of his translations, in every language, rising. The tendency is not merely a consequence of his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1988 (for how many writers received the prize over its century-long history, only to sink into obscurity soon afterwards) but, rather, a result of the penetrating power of his writing, which has proven capable of reaching human beings everywhere. That writing questions the human condition with respect to a range of issues relating to its most vital aspects, from the universal to the socio-political, particularly in their multifold connections to values of freedom, equality and progress. These are the values celebrated by Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, which he has not stopped writing for more than half a century. Thus he remains faithful to the art of literature, his vocation of choice, devoted to the toil it requires without once giving in to life’s spurious temptations, unflinching in his dogged exploration of a human consciousness bound by a place and a time. He breaks into terrain filled with land mines, giving voice to those human discourses repressed in the name of politics, society or religion. He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live, unaware of our presence in it.

The beginning of all this is the exceptional talent that accompanies his creative experience, penetrating to the universal root that resides deep within the essence of the local. The result is a human richness that remains inseparable from cultural specificity: thus does the international become an attribute of national identity. It would not be a digression to mention how, while receiving medical treatment in America, my doctor stopped to laud Naguib Mahfouz when he found out that I was an Egyptian teaching literature in the United States. And when I asked why he liked Mahfouz’s books (which he had read in English translation), the doctor replied that the reason was that they provided him with knowledge about Egypt and Arabs, while at the same time deepening his knowledge of himself. A statement to that effect was used as a promotion of Mahfouz’s books (20 of which have so far been translated into English) at Waterstone’s bookshops. Very similar words, in fact, are used to describe Mahfouz on the Nobel web site: his works speak to us all, the site says, as much as they speak to Arabs. So prevalent is this view of Mahfouz, and so often have I encountered it that I feel a distinct sense of pride knowing that I am his compatriot, that I have met him personally, that I have read every one of his works in its original language and that, in my own research, I study “the age of the novel,” the novel he did so much to create.

The abstract quality

Mohamed Berrada


“Throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad , young hero of the Trilogy: ‘What is truth and non-truth? What connection is there between reality and what goes on in our heads? What is the value of history?’”

When I arrived in Cairo at the end of January 1989 the city’s pale winter sunlight was waiting for me. Radiant and sparkling on the surface of a Nile that had regained its full strength after several lean years, it felt like a deliverance from the cold and the persistent rain of Paris and Rabat, as well as an invitation to move. Waiting for my appointment with Naguib Mahfouz, my mind went back to the first time I had seen him on the no. 6 Ataba to Agouza bus when I was in my first year at university studying Literature. I had started reading his novels after seeing an article by Taha Hussein that praised them for their descriptions and for the way in which Mahfouz was able to make his characters live. Mahfouz was wearing dark glasses when I first saw him, but I recognised him because of the prominent mole below his nose. Sometimes I saw him talking with another passenger who had also recognised him, but I did not dare to talk to him myself. Instead, I read what the press had to say about him, and I read his novels and short stories…

From my return to Morocco in 1960 to the beginning of the 1980s, I read all Mahfouz’s novels and short stories as they appeared. As historical events and disappointments piled up, this author always knew how to open up new areas in writing that seemed to collect the echoes of Egyptian life and transform them into an ever more complex fictional world. In the 1950s Mahfouz had often been accused of being unable to push his vision beyond the timid ambitions of the urban petite bourgeoisie; but I found in these new texts a willingness to deal with the new questions that experience was now posing. In so doing, and by rephrasing these social questions in symbolic, imaginative form, he removed them from the realm of simple fantasy to that of disciplined artistic imagination, which would in turn become part of the way in which society saw itself. Perhaps throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad, the young hero of the Trilogy: “What is truth and non-truth? What connection is there between reality and what goes on in our heads? What is the value of history? Myself, what am I?”

Reading Autumn Quail, Adrift on the Nile, Miramar, Karnak, Love under the Rain, Under the Bus Shelter, Stories of our Quarter and Wars’ Song in Rabat, I got used to living with shattered illusions and to questioning what was presented as historical truth. When I met Mahfouz in 1989, I spoke to him about the change I had detected in these novels, which now seemed more willing to go beneath the surface of things. “But this is true of all my novels,” he said. “When I try to read my novels, or rather when I remember them since I never re- read them, I find that I have always had two preoccupations: both a powerful interest in reality and an attempt to get at the forces that that surface reality hides.”

…Of all Mahfouz’s novels, the ones that stay with me are The Beggar, Wedding Song and The Thief and the Dogs. A tight thread connects these three books together, I think, and draws them back to the invisible “secret wound” at the base of all Mahfouz’s writings. It is a thread that is tautly stretched between uncontrollable impulses on the one hand and melancholy abandon on the other, a retreat towards the calm of death the better to observe the world of the living.


50th birthday celebration at Al-Ahram: Mahfouz seated between Um Kulthoum and Tawfik El-Hakim

In The Beggar, the lawyer Omar El- Hamzaoui breaks the mould of an uneventful life, carrying the reader off into a journey of doubt and emotional anarchy. The framework, conventions and values that have organised his life up to now are suddenly overthrown by an absurd feeling of unease that roots itself deep within him. The doctors are helpless; he seems to be in good health, but he is nevertheless being eaten away by anxiety and a feeling of futility. As a way of escape, he sets out to experience everything that goes against propriety and married life, losing himself in licentiousness and sexual pleasure in the hope of discovering the origin of his deep unease. However, his nightly adventures themselves disappear in the morning light, and he remains absent to the world. Repeating the words of a singer — “If you really want me, why have you abandoned me?” — he seems to have become a dead man among the living. Even when he meets his old friend the militant leftist Osman Khalil as the latter leaves prison, he cannot find himself again. He admires the energy of his friend, whose militant ardour years in prison have done nothing to cool, but he, Omar El-Hamzaoui, is undermined from within, like a body that has neither natural impulses nor desire. A dead beggar among the living, he now calls upon death to give him a taste for living again and the feeling that he belongs in the world.

The value of The Beggar does not lie in the dialogue it contains about the superiority of science over art in the technological age, which is a theme that is in any case exhausted. Instead, it lies in the fact that this novel introduced the Arab reader to the opposition between nihilism, or a life without horizons, and the belief that the world and society are open to change. In this novel, the latter belief is no longer tenable, being neither as full nor as positive as reforming discourse would have it be. Instead, the 1960s citizen has discovered his insignificance in the face of the nationalist State’s repressive machinery. Not even free to be himself, he is forced into evasion, silence and the silencing of his conscience.

In the Beggar, as in other novels by Mahfouz, a sense of metaphysical anguish, of a journey to the ends of the self, of a revolt against the kind of rationality that disciplines and justifies, is added to the writing’s social themes, this attraction to extreme states mixing Mahfouz’s description of the existing social world with the kind of imaginative vision that changes and enlarges that world’s limits. Mahfouz does not shy away from presenting large issues that lie buried in the unconscious… But even beyond this audacious, creative vision, what he is always looking for is ethical renewal. As he once said to me, “art sometimes seems to want to destroy morality, but if one looks at it more closely, one will always find that what it is calling for is a new morality and not morality’s destruction. Take the poetry of Abu Nawas. People call this licentious, but in fact it is a poetry that is calling for a new morality, one that has been freed from the taboos of the past.”

Extracted from (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated) by Mohamed Berrada, translated by David Tresilian.

Persistent questions

Soliman Fayyad


“His principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch.”

Naguib Mahfouz and I are linked, above all, by friendship. In this capacity, though, I maintain the right to silence. Reflections on a personal relationship, however interesting, are not for public consumption. I will therefore give you my opinion of him as a public figure and a writer, making a few impersonal, though I hope significant, remarks. It is worth adding that these statements are conceived irrespective of his status and his achievement, they are an individual’s observations, as it were, and they no doubt benefit from my association with the Harafish seminar and my keeping up with his work through the years.

I first read Mahfouz in Mansoura, in the late 1940s, coursing through Khan Al- Khalili and Zuqaq Al-Madaq. And to say that the realism and immediacy of these books struck me is to contribute nothing new. I will venture a remark relating to genre, rather, since the form in which a writer constructs his literary edifices can sometimes throw light on that writer’s achievement. Mahfouz, I think, is a much better novelist than a short story writer. Occasionally, no doubt, as in the case of the very memorable short story Al-Khalaa (The Waste Land), he will produce a museum piece, as it were. But more often his stories read like fragments of unfinished novels or stray snapshots of everyday life, inarticulate steps that lead nowhere. He is, foremost, a novelist. And his contribution is best understood in this context.

My second remark concerns Mahfouz’s earliest beginnings as a writer. Up until the early 1940s, when he launched his career in fiction with the ancient Egyptian novels and the early short stories, Mahfouz wrote philosophical articles, pondering purely intellectual questions in an abstract framework. And even though these magazine pieces were already gaining something of a reputation, it is little known that he started out as a writer of non-fiction. This fact is relevant to his entire corpus, since an intellectual, abstract strain runs through it to the end. At university he studied philosophy, you see, and his world view incorporated a significant historical dimension; thus, even in his least intellectually-minded works, he was deeply interested in history and the way it played out in the lives of the individuals, families and larger communities that populate his works, however subtly this interest might be expressed in some instances. History is always on his mind.

This makes of him a thinker. And — here we come to the third, important remark one might make about the man and his work — he is primarily a political thinker, someone with an articulate and integrated vision that takes in the historical moment and its implications for society. Indeed this provides a clue as to why the novel remained his most efficient vehicle, for the scope of the novel affords ample opportunity for the expression and formulation of such a vision. In a novel, Mahfouz has often said, one can combine poetry with philosophy and even science. Narrative, for him, is a mechanism of covert social-political commentary, operating in the framework of the novel, irrespective of the external trappings of the story that it tells.

Mahfouz’s literature deals with three modes of human interaction, three distinct circles encompassed by a single setting, the city of Cairo: the realm of state-employed bureaucrats; the world of the futwat (strongmen who levied a form of tax, itawa, on the inhabitants of certain popular neighbourhoods in return for alleged or actual protection against rival strongmen); and the life of middle-class, urban families. In these three modes he explored the depths and breadths not only of human character but of a number of overriding ideas that went into the making of his vision. Now in everyday life, Mahfouz may have been cautious about voicing his views on politics. But in all three fictional circles his vision turns out to be essentially political. Mahfouz’s principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch; these are his most prevalent themes. Power and its workings, in a social context, over time, is the fundamental precept of Mahfouz’s literary project.

The fourth and last remark I want to make is that no other writer, with the possible exception of Yehya Haqqi, was as eager to spend time with intellectuals and keep up with their affairs. And in the case of Mahfouz this tendency is part and parcel of his literary endeavour: he saw writing principally as a means of communication. He never cut himself off from social life. His friends included artists as well as writers, and his interaction with the likes of Tawfik Saleh and Ahmed Mazhar not only gave him a broad perspective on his social and political surroundings but provided him with what he saw as essential to his writing: immediate feedback. Mahfouz’s social role affords yet another, peculiar insight into his achievement. He was never as interested in the enduring, lasting qualities of literature as he was in the task at hand. In fact he once told me that, so long as a narrative of his was read and its ideas communicated, he didn’t care if it was then used as wrapping paper for vegetables. Literature to him is essentially a social message, and he writes to be read in the here and now, not necessarily for eternity or posterity. It is ironic, therefore, that of his generation of authors — writers like Mohamed Afifi and Adel Kamel, who emerged at the same time, were soon to disappear, never to be heard of again — he is the one who lived on. Single- handedly, and without the slightest illusion of grandeur, his is one of the great achievements of our times.


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أنور براهم

لكي تكون لحظةٌ كهذه

برغم كل أوجاعنا المستلبة

واللعاب دهان سحري

من قارورة الفم إلى تجويف الأذن

على طرف إصبع واثق

كأنه يُداوي جرحاً نابضاً هناك

كان على سيدة البئر أن تأتي

حدباء في ردائها

تجر جوال الموسيقى

ضحكتها شق من صديد

والبرد مخبوء في شَعرها

بينما الأشياء منفلتة

مثل فوانيس السيارات

هي التي لم تستطع أن تكون أُماً

بعد أن أنجبت شعباً كثيراً

كما يفعل أنبياء اليهود

في الكتاب المقدس

بعد أن دسّت الآذان في الجوال

وأدمت الأسفلت رقصاً

مَن كان يظنها ستضربنا بيأس

يسع كل هذا الجمال؟

لنكن في اللحظة وحدها

بكل ما بقي في جوفنا

ولتكن مضاجعاتنا حزينة

على أقصى ما يكون الحزن

لتكن شهوتنا فجيعةً يا حبيبتي

كالحرب وأبناء السِفاح

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The Shot


Ted Hughes


Your worship needed a god.

Where it lacked one, it found one.

Ordinary jocks became gods –

Deified by your infatuation

That seemed to have been designed at birth for a god.

It was a god-seeker. A god-finder.

Your Daddy had been aiming you at God

When his death touched the trigger.

In that flash

You saw your whole life. You richocheted

The length of your Alpha career

With the fury

Of a high-velocity bullet

That cannot shed one foot-pound

Of kinetic energy. The elect

More or less died on impact –

They were too mortal to take it. They were mind-stuff,

Provisional, speculative, mere auras.

Sound-barrier events along your flightpath.

But inside your sob-sodden Kleenex

And your Saturday night panics,

Under your hair done this way and that way,

Behind what looked like rebounds

And the cascade of cries diminuendo,

You were undeflected.

You were gold-jacketed, solid silver,

Nickel-tipped. Trajectory perfect

As through ether. Even the cheek-scar,

Where you seemed to have side-swiped concrete,

Served as a rifling groove

To keep you true.

Till your real target

Hid behind me. Your Daddy,

The god with the smoking gun. For a long time

Vague as mist, I did not even know

I had been hit,

Or that you had gone clean through me –

To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.

In my position, the right witchdoctor

Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,

Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,

Godless, happy, quieted.

I managed

A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.

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أنت والتنين

بينما تزقزقين في “رُبع غير معلوم الحال” (هكذا تُعَنوَن الأماكن المجهولة على الخرائط القديمة)، صارت كلمة “التنين” تُستخدم بغرض المبالغة، كأن يُقالَ – بدلَ “حزن شديد”، مثلاً – “حزن التنين”. وخطر لي لأول مرة إثر سماعها أنه لابد من طريقة أخرى لخرق المتاريس. كنتُ على بوابة مرقص غادرتُه جرياً منذ خمسة عشر عاماً. وبعد خمسة عشر عاماً، والموسيقى نفسها تسحبني – مع أنني لست راقصاً ولا أحب الرقص – كانت عيني تنسل إلى الأضواء اللفّافة بالداخل. هذه المرة أيضاً لن يذهب اللقاء أبعد من عتبةٍ “كعبلتني” وأنا أخطو إلى الوراء مذعوراً بينما الراقص الوحيد الباقي ينفث في وجهي النار. وفكّرتُ أنه على الأرجح من طول احتمائي ضد عوامل التعرية والتعرض أنْ صار يسحرني الجلد الأخضر لزواحف الشوارع، تلك المخلوقات المفرّغة: أخالني في الدنيا لأملأها. عليك أن تدركي أنني لم أنس زقزقتك لحظة وإن قبلت بلغة تجعل من المخلوق الخرافي أداة توكيد. والآن أيضاً سأجري بعيداً عن بوابة المرقص، وستغفرين لي شرودي إلى هناك بأن تبصقي حزناً لا يركب على بهجة شفتيك. هل تعرفين كم كنتُ أبكي ابتسامتك وأنا أصارع التنين؟

Longlist Announced for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011


عنوان الرواية

إسم المؤلف



القوس والفراشة

محمد الأشعري

المركز الثقافي العربي


البيت الأندلسي

واسيني الأعرج

منشورات الجمل


رقصة شرقية

خالد البري

دار العين للنشر


صائد اليرقات

أمير تاج السر

ثقافة للنشر


عين الشمس

ابتسام إبراهيم تريسي

دار مسعى


حياة قصيرة

رينيه الحايك

المركز الثقافي العربي


جنود الله

فواز حداد

شركة رياض الريس للكتب والنشر


حبل سري

مها حسن




بنسالم حميش

دار الشروق



خيري أحمد شلبي

دار الشروق


بروكلين هايتس

ميرال الطحاوي

دار ميريت


طوق الحمام

رجاء عالم

المركز الثقافي العربي


فتنة جدة

مقبول موسى العلوي



الخطايا الشائعة

فاتن المر

دار النهار


نساء الريح

رزان نعيم المغربي

ثقافة للنشر


اليهودي الحالي

علي المقري

دار الساقي




  • · Seven women make the longlist of 16, the highest number in the Prize’s history
  • · Religious extremism, political and social conflict and women’s struggles emerge as key themes

The Judges of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011 today, Thursday 11 November 2010, announce the longlist contenders for the Prize, one of the most prestigious and important literary events of its kind in the Arab world .

The judging panel whittled down the longlist of 16 from a total of 123 entries, from 17 countries across the Arab world. They included for the first time this year, Afghanistan. The highest number of submissions came from Egypt. The number of submissions is up on the previous prize year, when 118 titles were entered from 17 countries. 29% of the works submitted were by female writers, compared with 16% the previous year.

The longlisted titles range from a woman’s account of the underbelly of present day Mecca to a story of Ottoman nationalism at the end of the 19th century and a tale of star-crossed teenage lovers in the Yemen. There are two novels about fathers whose sons join Al-Qaeda, whilst another looks at the ordeal of a prisoner in an American prison in Morocco. The struggle of the Arab expatriate in Western society is the focus of two novels, both in the UK and in America. This year sees solid representation from North Africa.

The list features four authors previously nominated for IPAF, for the 2009 Prize: Fawaz Haddad, shortlisted for The Unfaithful Translator and longlist contenders Renée Hayek, Ali Al-Muqri and Bensalem Himmich for Prayer for the Family, Black Taste, Black Odour and The Man from Andalucia respectively.

The 2011 longlist is, with author names in alphabetical order:

Title Author Publisher Nationality
The Arch and the Butterfly Mohammed Achaari Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre) Moroccan
The Doves’ Necklace Raja Alem Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre) Saudi Arabian
Turmoil in Jeddah Maqbul Moussa Al-Alawi Al-Kawkab 

Saudi Arabian
An Oriental Dance Khalid Al-Bari El-Ain Publishing Egyptian
God’s Soldiers Fawaz Haddad Riad El-Rayyes Books Syrian
Secret Rope Maha Hassan Al-Kawkab Syrian
A Short Life Renée Hayek Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre) Lebanese
My Tormentor Bensalem Himmich Dar El Shorouk Moroccan
The Andalucian House Waciny Laredj Jamal Publications 

Women of Wind Razan Naim Al-Maghrabi Thaqafa l-al-Nashr (Cultural Publications) Libyan
The Handsome Jew Ali Al-Muqri Dar al-Saqi Yemeni
Common Sins Fatin Al-Murr Dar An-Nahar Lebanon
Istasia Khairy Shalaby Dar El Shorouk Egyptian
The Hunter of the Chrysalises (or The Head Hunter) Amir Taj Al-Sir Thaqafa l-al-Nashr (Cultural Publications) Sudanese
Brooklyn Heights Miral Al-Tahawy Dar Merit Egyptian
The Eye of the Sun Ibtisam Ibrahim Teresa Arab Scientific Publishers Syria

The Chair of Judges commented on the longlist: “This year’s novels were thematically varied, covering the issues of religious extremism, political and social conflict, and women’s struggle to liberate themselves from the obstacles standing in the way of their personal growth and empowerment. We are delighted with the very high percentage of women who reached the longlist compared with previous years.”

The 2011 Panel of Judges will be revealed at the same time as the 2011 shortlist announcement is made on 9 December 2010 in Doha, Qatar, the 2010 Arab Capital of Culture.

Joumana Haddad, Prize Administrator, commented on the longlist: “The Prize in its fourth year has become a critical conscience and a literary reference in all that relates to the modern Arabic novel, in both the Arab and Western worlds. The 2011 longlist is proof of that.”

2011 marks the fourth year of the Prize, the first of its kind in the Arab world in its commitment to the independence, transparency and integrity of its selection process. Its aim is to celebrate the very best of contemporary Arabic fiction and encourage wider international readership of Arabic literature through translation.

To date, the three winners of the Prize have been translated into English, in addition to a range of other languages including Bosnian, French, German, Norwegian and Indonesian. Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (2008) was translated into English by Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton) in 2009, Youssef Ziedan’s Azazel(2009) will be published in the UK by Atlantic Books in August 2011 and news of an English translation of Abdo Khal’s Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles (2010) will be announced shortly. In addition, a number of the shortlisted finalists have also secured translations, the most recent of which is an English translation of Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter through the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation.

Jonathan Taylor, Chair of the Board of Trustees, commented: “The longlist for the fourth International Prize for Arabic Fiction is as varied, talented and powerful as ever and includes writers from seven Arabic countries, a high proportion being women.”

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is awarded for prose fiction in Arabic and each of the six shortlisted finalists receives $10,000, with a further $50,000 going to the winner.  It was launched in Abu Dhabi, UAE, in April 2007, and is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.

The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011 will be announced at the awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Monday 14 March 2011, the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

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إلى محمد أبو الليل في غربته*

“كتابىِ–، ولولاَ أنَّ يأَسي قد نَهى اشت***ياقي لذاب الطرس من حر أنفاسي
وبعد فعندي وحشة لو تقسّــمت
***على الخلق لم يستأنس الـناس بالنـاس”

أسامة بن منقذ

أكتب لكَ والمنافض أهرام من الأعقاب.

الشيء الذي حذّرتَني من دَوَامِه توقّف.

وصداع النوم المُمَزَّق يجعل الدنيا خاوية. أنت فاهم.

في جيوب الحياة ننقّب عن عملة من عصور سحيقة،

عملة صدئة وربما قبيحة لكنها سارية في سوق الأبدية.

نصبح ملائكة حين نعثر عليها. نجترها حتى نتأكد

أنها لا تشتري البقاء.

ساعتها تبدو الأبدية نفسها رخيصة.

نتذكر عهود الأبالسة وأن كل مياه الأرض لا تكفي

لابتلاع حبة دواء. أكتب لك بعد أن حفرتُ فتحةً في بطني

وألقيتُ أمعائي في النيل. هل كنتَ تعلم

أنني سأفقد ما لم أحصل عليه؟

حقول الأسفلت التي ذرعناها معاً

نتراشق الاكتشافات والأسرار، ويوم احترقتْ العجلة

على أعلى نقطة في الكوبري

ونحن غائبان في الحشيش والموسيقى

فوق المدينة التي بدت مثل زاوية صلاة

أسفل عمارة الدنيا ما بعد 11 سبتمبر –

أنت صمّمتَ على إكمال المهمة

حالما استبدلنا الكاوتش المدخّن،

وكانت أقراص السعادة في تفاحة حمراء من البلاستك،

قسمناها نصفين لنبتلع الأقراص على قارعة الطريق:

هل تذكر وقت كانت السعادة أقراصاً

يمكننا التقاطها من نصف تفاحة بلاستك؟ –

ويوم خلعنا ملابسنا في صحراء صغيرة داخل شقة

يعاد تبليطها فوق الميدان،

ويوم انقلبت أعصاب ذراعك أوتار معدن

يمكنني أن أعزف عليها بصوتي،

والهلوسات التي جعلناها شبابيك، ومشاجراتنا

حول النقود وسيناء، والحورية التي جلست بيننا

حتى مالت برأسها على كتفك وأنا راضٍ تماماً…

إلى أن – ذات يوم – مات كل شيء.

قُدنا السيارة إلى الشاطئ أو غابة النخيل

لنتأكد أنه لا يحيا.

أنت واصلت البحث عن مزاج مثالي

بينما تكتشف الفلسفة والكآبة، وأنا اختبأت في بيت أمي

لأكتب رواية. وحين تزوج أحدنا وأنجب الآخر،

لم يكن سوانا لنخبرنا بحقيقة ما يصير.

ظل لكل حدث حديث من الطول والتعقيد

بحيث قلتَ إنك مللتَ الكلام،

إن شيئاً في الكلام لا يؤثّر. وفي هذه القصة الأخيرة،

وحدك فهمت أنني لم أكن مخدوعاً

بقدر ما أردت أن أصدّق،

وأن ما جادت به الدنيا مجرد مشبك

لأسمال بللها لقاء عابر ستجف آجلاً أو عاجلاً

لأعود أرتديها كما خلعتها وارتديتها

ألف مرة أمامك.

كنت تعلم أنني لست سوى أحد أعراض مرض

لا يشبه أمراضنا كثيراً

وأنّ وعد الخلاص خطاب موجه

واللحم والدم محسنات بديعية.

سيتسنى الوقت لنتجادل

فيما لو كان الفيلم هابطاً وإلى أي حد،

لكنك لم تخبرني بأكثر من أن الواقع المشترك

لا يكون براقاً وبأنني لن أقوى على الانتظار.

أكتب لك، كما يقول روبيرتو بولانيو، بدلاً من الانتظار…

ولأن قلقك لم يكن في محله. الوحشة أفسدت كل شيء

لكن البدائل حاضرة طالما الأبدية على الرف

ومن رحمة النوائب أننا لا نحزن إلا على أنفسنا.

كنتَ تقول: أحبها وأحتقرها. الآن أستدعي ضحكاتك

وأنا أتهادى إلى الحمام. قطرات الماء البارد

قد تجلو هذه القورة. أفرغ المنافض في أوعية القمامة.

أصنع القهوة وأشربها.

وكل هذا الذي جرى لي وقتلناه نقاشاً

طوال عام عامر بالشِعر والبكاء:

مجرد وهم آخر أكرهه لأفقده

وحين أفقده أكف عن كرهه لأنه لم يكن هناك.

في الحلم كان كما لم أعد أشتاق إليه: رائعاً ومهلكاً

مثل أورجازم سماوي. خبّرني عنك ولا تقلق علي.

الحسرة للـ”جدعان”.

* بوحي قصيدة Exile’s Letter للشاعر الأمريكي إيزرا باوند

Exile’s Letter by Ezra Pound
From the Chinese of Li Po, usually considered the greatest poet of China: written by him while in exile about 760 A. D., to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”
SO-KIN of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels
we paid for the songs and laughter,


And we were drunk for month after month,
forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,


there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds …


and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.


And when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
that was the first valley,


And on into ten thousand valleys
full of voices and pine-winds.
With silver harness and reins of gold,
prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;


And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.


And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
Danced because his long sleeves
Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.


And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was brave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei Shu and put down the barbarian rabble.


And one May he had you send for me, despite the long distance;
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going …
Over roads twisted like sheep’s guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
in the cutting wind from the north,


And thinking how little you cared for the cost …
and you caring enough to pay it.
Then what a reception!
Red jade cups, food well set, on a blue jewelled table;
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning;


And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with the water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
With ripples like dragon-scales going grass-green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans going and coming without hindrance,


With the willow-flakes falling like snow,
And the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the waters a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows—
Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—and the girls singing back at each other,


Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.


I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.
And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.


And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
And if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—


There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.(Translated by Ezra Pound from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the Professors Mori and Araga.)

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نصان في السفير

الألـــم أعمــــق لكن التحليق أعلى

يوسف رخا

أخطاء الملاك
ماذا ظننتَه سيفعل بعد كل هذا الوقت، الملاك الذي ظهر لك وانتظر أن تتبعه… كيف لم تقدّر عمق ألمه السماوي وأنت تبتعد عن الجبل الملعون كل يوم خطوة، تجرجر حقائبك المثقلة بلحمه على ساعات تجري إلى ما لا نهاية بين ساقيه، وتهزأ إذا ما نهــاك تليفــونياً عن الكبرياء؟ الآن وقد أصبح الملاك بُخاراً، كسبتَ ما أراد أن يضيّعه عليك. لكن ما الذي فضّلتَه على الخــسارة؟ قرية هجرتْها نساؤها؟ خادم يسرق من البيــت؟ نجمة مدارها عقد سيصدأ حول رقــبتك؟ لعلــك ظنــنته يظهر من جديد، أو نســيت أن فــي بطــنه دَمَك. يا كــافرْ، كيف ستحلّق الآن؟
عن قصيدة سركون بولص من ديوان «حامل الفانوس في ليل الذئاب»:
«يظهر ملاك إذا تبعتَه خسرت كل شيء، إلا إذا تبعته حتى النهاية… حتى تلاقيه في كل طريق متلفعاً بأسماله المنسوجة من الأخطاء، يجثم الموت على كتفه مثل عُقاب غير عادي تنقاد فرائسه إليه محمولة على نهر من الساعات، في جبل نهاك عن صعوده كل من لاقيته، في جبل ذهبت تريد ارتقاءه! لكنك صحوت من نومك العميق في سفح من سفوحه، وكم أدهشك أنك ثانية عدت إلى وليمة الدنيا بمزيد من الشهية: الألم أعمق، لكن التحليق أعلى.»


كانت إحداهما تكبرني بعشر سنين والثانية أصغر بنفس القدر. ولولا تطابُق عبارات تستخدمانها في وصف أشياء هي الأخرى متطابقة، ربما ما انتبهت إلى أن منشأهما واحد. لي عام أبحث عن شيء لن أجده مع أولهما، ولا أعرف لماذا ظننتها تخبئه خلف نحولها أو في السنين التي وراءها والتي تقضي بأن لا ألحقها على الطريق. لذلك عندما التقيتُ بالثانية، وكانت على نفس درجة النحول، روّعني سماع «ما حصلتش» و«الوسط» و«ماسكات» ثم «أتفرج من فوق»، بالذات وأنا أعلم أنهما لم تلتقيا وربما لن يجمعهما سوى انعكاس شفاههما وهي ترسم الألفاظ نفسها على سطح عيني أنا في الفجر. التي تصغرني بعشر سنين كانت تتطلع إلى الشباك وهي تستعجل السكوت، تماماً مثل قرينتها الأكبر بنفس القدر. وخُيّل لي أنني أرى السنين التي أمامها بكل تفاصيلها الموجعة. «ما حصلتش»، «الوسط»، «ماسكات». «أتفرج من فوق». هي أيضاً لم تتحمل كلاماً حاولتُ أن أنزع منه أي نبرة نصيحة. وفي نقطة تتوسط عشرين عاماً بصدد الوصول إلى المدينة، كان علي أن أسترجع قصة تبدأ بفتاة ريفية متفوقة في المدرسة وتنتهي برجوعي وحيداً إلى البيت. لم أسأل نفسي أصلاً لماذا تتكرر الكارثة.

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‘Plain old untrendy troubles and emotions’

David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Museum in L...
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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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10 Years Since The Intifada, 8 Years Ago


Youssef Rakha reviews two years of Intifada-inspired culture

While in no sense dependent on politics, cultural life tends to wait for political upheaval. For many Arabs this is only as it should be: the notion of Sartrian engagement has taken such a hold that it often acts to obscure the very distinction between the two disciplines; the title of “intellectual” covers artists and writers as well as activists and, even, sometimes, politicians. Yet being an intellectual in itself hardly ever implies an involvement in the politics of everyday life — the politics of individual and civil rights, of governmental reform, of autonomous opinion. Rather, and only in times of crisis, it prompts intellectuals to express unevenly strong opinions about regional or international affairs — whether or not this involves direct opposition to government policy. And cultural activities likewise emanate from regional events — so much so that culturally vibrant periods are more often than not defined by the shape and colour of their political backdrop.

One example of this is the surge of political strife that preceded and followed the two-year-old Al-Aqsa Intifada — prompted, in its turn, by Sharon’s visit to the Palestinian holy site, which the Israeli side claimed was more of a cultural than a political act. In the Egyptian context culture was on the wane both generally speaking, and with specific reference to the political forces that drove it. A proposed intellectuals’ tajamu’ (rally), initially focussed on issues of self-expression and creative freedom, instantly dissolved into the more inclusive call to arms that formed around Hizbullah’s widely celebrated victory once Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. The event was soon followed by the Israeli incursion, and while Gaza and the West Bank were being reoccupied intellectuals were not about to miss the chance to voice discontent with government policy. It didn’t matter that the discontent was rooted in unrelated concerns; it didn’t matter that these concerns would remain unvoiced. The Intifada was once again upon us.

During that first year the flare-up of the second Intifada engendered a culture all its own — one whose tendency to forsake any form of true, risk-ridden support in favour of melodramatically impassioned and over-emphatically orchestrated protest lent the exercise even less credibility. Celebrities began to make special appearances, with actors on state-sponsored stages singing the patriotic praises of Arab unity and promising their audiences an inevitable, if never quite determined, triumph. The most expensive singers had already collaborated on El-Quds Haterga’ Lena (Jerusalem Will Return to Us), a song that affirms what remains an impossible goal as if it were a forgone conclusion, without for a moment suggesting how it might be achieved. Blood donations, seminars, demonstrations overpowered the cultural news. “Caravans” of intellectuals carried food and first aid supplies all the way to Rafah — only to wait indefinitely for those responsible to receive them. The Egyptian knack for disorganisation became an increasingly relevant factor, but what lay at the root of the ineffectiveness of most efforts was the fact that the Intifada — the pop theme of street-peddled wares like hats and scarves, T-shirts and mugs — was appropriated as something over and above (political) reality.

Even in the most highbrow circles, cultural manifestations of solidarity were abundant, but more than the reality of the situation or even the Egyptian response to it, they reflected the state of Egyptian culture itself. The most obvious cultural response was to be found in the popular media, however. The urban folk singing phenomenon Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, arguably the Arab world’s first self-made rapper, made his name with the internationally circulated hit Ana Bakrah Israel (I Hate Israel), a “protest” song, which, without making any direct allusion to the political dynamics of the incursion or the Egyptian government’s response to it, managed to crystallise and express the most popular sentiment in raw form. For two years Shaaban would jump from one summit of popularity to the next, largely due to his quasi-political stance on the ever elusive, ever undiscussed Intifada. Amrika ya Amrika is one example of such a song; so is a duet with his son Essam in which they impersonate Mohamed El-Dorra and his father in the last moments of the former’s life. El-Dorra — in the end a Western-mediated icon — became the centre of too many cultural interventions. And intellectuals, turning increasingly away from the nitty-gritty of the conflict, likewise began to tackle Washington.

With films like Fatah min Israel (A Girl from Israel), production companies had already bought into the Palestinian issue, even the most frivolous comedies (Saedi fil Gamaa El-Amrikiya; Abboud ala El-Hudoud) incorporated a major solidarity component. In the former — the film that made the name of contemporary comedy’s brightest star, Mohamed Heniedi — American University in Cairo students undertake the burning of an Israeli flag. Sharon — for a long time the Egyptian cartoonist’s treasure-trove — began to assume central symbolic significance. Comedian Youssef Dawoud, one disillusioned practitioner who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, explained that in Zakeya Zakareya Tathadda Sharon — the second of two plays based on Ibrahim Nasr’s tasteless, completely disengaged candid-camera television programme — he was initially contracted to play the part of the dictatorial and cruel head of an orphanage. However, following the emergence of Sharon as an object of universal hatred, if not universal ridicule, the play’s producer renamed Dawoud’s character and provided the actor with a wig. The play had been in no sense a political statement, but in a desperate attempt to make it more commercially viable its producers were content to exploit regional developments. Even if this is an extreme example of an otherwise many-hued trend, the decision to capitalise on a political development without fully understanding or dealing with it typifies the Intifada’s cultural manifestations.

On the home front, 11 September effectively brought the Intifada to an end. Yet along the infinitely curvaceous corridors of Egyptian culture the struggle doggedly continues. America has naturally solicited a greater degree of enmity, with intellectuals, increasingly of the scholar or pundit designation, discussing American foreign policy in relation to regional affairs. Cultural agents are encouraged to express support for the Palestinians, and even hatred for Israel continues to be permissible to some degree. Yet official Arab policy, the increasingly undermined state of Arabs and Muslims everywhere in the world, the plight of the Afghans and the absence of any indication that the Arab-Israeli conflict will be appropriately resolved remain by and large subjects for occasional meditation. Books are written, talks staged. But the fact remains that had the so-called terrorists, whose prerogative it is to resist the New World Order, been in any way culturally inclined, they would probably have produced the most resonant cultural response not only to the Indifada but to the state of things as they are, articulating rather than voicing how they should be.

Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 September 2002

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The Lion for Real

I came home and found a lion in my living room
Rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion! Lion!
Two stenographers pulled their brunnette hair and banged the window shut
I hurried home to Patterson and stayed two days

Called up old Reichian analyst
who'd kicked me out of therapy for smoking marijuana
'It's happened' I panted 'There's a Lion in my living room'
'I'm afraid any discussion would have no value' he hung up

I went to my old boyfriend we got drunk with his girlfriend
I kissed him and announced I had a lion with a mad gleam in my eye
We wound up fighting on the floor I bit his eyebrow he kicked me out
I ended up masturbating in his jeep parked in the street moaning 'Lion.'

Found Joey my novelist friend and roared at him 'Lion!'
He looked at me interested and read me his spontaneous ignu high poetries
I listened for lions all I heard was Elephant Tiglon Hippogriff Unicorn
But figured he really understood me when we made it in Ignaz Wisdom's

But next day he sent me a leaf from his Smoky Mountain retreat
'I love you little Bo-Bo with your delicate golden lions
But there being no Self and No Bars therefore the Zoo of your dear Father
        hath no lion
You said your mother was mad don't expect me to produce the Monster for
        your Bridegroom.'

Confused dazed and exalted bethought me of real lion starved in his stink
        in Harlem
Opened the door the room was filled with the bomb blast of his anger
He roaring hungrily at the plaster walls but nobody could hear outside
        thru the window
My eye caught the edge of the red neighbor apartment building standing in
        deafening stillness
We gazed at each other his implacable yellow eye in the red halo of fur
Waxed rhuemy on my own but he stopped roaring and bared a fang
I turned my back and cooked broccoli for supper on an iron gas stove
boilt water and took a hot bath in the old tup under the sink board.

He didn't eat me, tho I regretted him starving in my presence.
Next week he wasted away a sick rug full of bones wheaten hair falling out
enraged and reddening eye as he lay aching huge hairy head on his paws
by the egg-crate bookcase filled up with thin volumes of Plato, & Buddha.

Sat by his side every night averting my eyes from his hungry motheaten
stopped eating myself he got weaker and roared at night while I had
Eaten by lion in bookstore on Cosmic Campus, a lion myself starved by
        Professor Kandisky, dying in a lion's flophouse circus,
I woke up mornings the lion still added dying on the floor--'Terrible
        Presence!'I cried'Eat me or die!'

It got up that afternoon--walked to the door with its paw on the south wall to
        steady its trembling body
Let out a soul-rending creak from the bottomless roof of his mouth
thundering from my floor to heaven heavier than a volcano at night in
Pushed the door open and said in a gravelly voice "Not this time Baby--
        but I will be back again."

Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your
Allen Ginsberg

Paris, March 1958

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آباء غائبون

كنت أحسب المرأة التي حملت مني هي التي أنجبت. ولأن هذا يحدث في المنام نسيت أن هناك أخرى سبقتها في الترتيب. فجأة وجدتني جالساً مع الأخرى هذه وهي لا تشبه نفسها في الواقع. خيل لي أنها هي التي ظنني أصدقائي أتكلم عنها يوم أخبرتهم بأن لي ابناً لا أراه. لكن طوال جلستنا، لم أصدق تماماً أنها أم ابني. عبثاً حاولت أن أتذكر من أي زاوية ولجتها ولم أتعرف على ملامحها بيقين. لذلك عاق فرحتي بتسامحها الخرافي انقباض. لا وعي عندي بأنني أحلم. ورغم أنني بدأت أتلمّس علاقة حميمة ببني آدم يشبهني عنده ثلاث سنين، ممتناً لأن غيابي لم يجعل عند المرأة التي أنجبته ضغينة، ظل الانقباض يشتد. عندما أفقت تذكرت فادي يعلّق على لقاء كارثي بامرأة لم يتخلص من حبها: «حصل الشيء». وحزنت من أجل آباء العالم الغائبين

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كيف سيمكن لكل منهم أن يتعرف على وجه الآخر، هؤلاء الثابتين على قواعدهم باختلاف درجات الململة؟ الأنكى أن عليهم أن يتذكروا الأسماء. بين وصلات النحيب ستفتش الثكالى عن زوجات لأبنائهن. سيسترق الصغار نظرات إلى بدلاتهم المنعكسة في الزجاج. سيتردد المدخنون لحظة إشعال السيجارة. ربما ينسى واحد ويسأل عن الفقيد: ما الذي أخّره عن أداء الواجب معنا هنا؟ وقبل أن ينفض الجمع تقرقع القبلات على الخدود، ولا أثر للموت على وجوه العائلة

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Labor and Capital


The softness of this motel bed

On which we made love

Demonstrates to me in an impressive manner

The superiority of capitalism.


At the mattress factory, I imagine,

The employees are happy today.

It’s Sunday and they are working

Extra hours, like us, for no pay.


Still, the way you open your legs

And reach for me with your hand

Makes me think of the Revolution,

Red banners, crowd charging.


Someone stepping on a soapbox

As the flames engulf the palace,

And the old prince in full view

Steps to his death from a balcony.


Charles Simic

from That Little Something, 2008

Mariner Books, New York-Boston




Picture: ‘I’ll tell you a story. Years ago, after a workshop, I got very powerfully involved with somebody who left at the end of the week, while I stayed on. I took one photograph in the room where we had been, just moments after he left. I was emotionally shaken, I had no tripod there, and made the picture at a quarter of a second, hand-held. A couple of days later I saw on the contacts that, not surprisingly, the image was “soft”. So, in a much calmer state of mind, I went back to the same room with my tripod. Everything was the same, the light, the things in the room. The picture I made that day is perfectly sharp – and totally sterile. I have shown both versions to people without saying any of this, and they have invariably preferred the “soft” one. Surely because the sharp one is emotionally empty, there was nothing going on in me except trying to “get it right”.’

Eva Rubinstein


In memory: Baghdad Falls, 2003

Saddam Hussein detained several Westerners, wi...
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A view from nowhere

Youssef Rakha recalls a country he has never seen

The writer of this piece was barely 16 when the first Gulf War broke out. One (televised) image that lives on in memory is that of Mrs Thatcher, a late-in-the-day political analyst, commending President Mubarak’s stance. Some of the raw resentment brought on by the notion of Egyptians fighting Iraqis is summoned up, too. Up until then Iraq had existed only in situ, as it were. Suddenly, and for what sounded like the wrong reasons, it was all over the place. From then on what one recognised as the centre of the Abbasid dynasty, the Mashriq’s most notable patrons of the arts, became synonymous alternately with sanctions and Saddam. Already in 1991 one realised Iraq was a police state; at millennium’s end it became, in addition, a rogue state. American Middle East policy was infuriating and Iraq was a case in point. The saddest part was that this diverted attention even further away from its role in Arab culture, in the glories and triumphs of an imagined identity.

Arabs of my generation have seldom had occasion to visit Arab countries, a paradox that reflects exactly how imagined that identity is. Of Baghdad, as much as of Damascus or Sanaa, what one likes and relates to has little to do with present-day reality. Such, at least, is the assumption: associations of political corruption, arbitrary justice and economic disinheritance are paramount; history and culture figure less prominently. Or else they figure, in a variety of contexts, at an abstract level. Prior to the start of the war, the terra incognita of contemporary Iraq consisted largely of the reports of Egyptian acquaintances who had sought employment in an oil-rich Gulf country, impressions of Iraqi literati and academics one had met and the contents of books of history and literature. Connections between the latter, prior or unreal knowledge, and information gleaned from the media or through hearsay were few and far between; to register fully or evolve into a holistic picture of the country, they required some degree of creative intervention.

Baghdad was, for example, home to the Thousand and One Nights Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, whose reputation for sensual excess was tentatively backed up by reports of a subdued but unequivocal focus on the simple pleasures of life. Hard as they worked — and, compared to Egyptians, it was said, they worked really hard — Iraqis had a tremendous capacity for fun; no feelings of guilt or obligation could hamper their enjoyment of what life had to offer. Others who had encountered trouble supplied similar, individual glosses on the general precepts of life under Saddam. Ex cathedra interference in the lives of ordinary residents was ruthless and demeaning; there existed, in many social arrangements, what amounted to a caste system in which those not affiliated with government bodies were repeatedly put in their place. The wielding of power was, in general, far more reckless and vainglorious than in Egypt. More reassuringly people also referred to a stricter moral code governing human interactions; a man’s word was honoured beyond all else; an Iraqi employer, so long as you did not betray or attempt to deceive him, was eminently reliable. Such, it would seem, was the Abbasid strain.

Encounters with Iraqis proved equally heterogenous. By the time they occurred, the sanctions had taken their toll on those of them who lived there. Others, like the great poet Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati, were confident and irritable. The latter was an icon of the contemporary poetic movement — lyrical, romantic, thoroughly modern. As an aspiring author who knew many of his lines by heart, I had expected a soft-spoken, gentle old man. The person who met me, a few months before his death in Amman, seemed gruff and reluctant. His welcome was far from warm, but neither did he know me. I have retained, along with the disorientation induced by the perception of such a difference between the man and his work, only his inattentive gestures, his gutteral voice, the rare, sarcastic smile. Before Al-Bayati, I had discovered Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab; and after him, Saadi Youssef. The felicity, power and innovation of modern Iraqi poets convinced me that in spite of everything the Arabs’ literary heritage, the essence of which is poetry (some of the best remembered lines were produced during the reign of the aforementioned dynasty), was alive and well only in Baghdad — or among a Baghdadi diaspora scattered, sadly and perhaps irrevocably, across the whole world.

I also recalled, however, that during that era the vanity and sophistication of the literary capital could cast Al- Ma’arri — a relatively simple, blind Syrian even as he remains a formidable poet and thinker — out of it, keeping him in his small hometown of Ma’arra till the end of his life. Something of this duality appeared in all my dealings with Iraq. Hearty and intense, the Iraqis I met were nonetheless too proud to give up, even for a moment, that impenetrable veneer of confident civility. Their cinema, what little of it I saw, may have been slack and rudimentary, but their literature evidenced a corresponding combination of confessional fluidity and linguistic polish. The Baghdadi maqam, a distinct musical form which I discovered through the fortunate coincidence of being given a French-produced CD, was the closest I came to the sound of Abbasid music — an intuition that finds support in historical fact. Unlike anything I had heard, and full of the refinement of a culture at its height, it was a real awakening.

Walking across Tahrir Square the day after the arrival of the American and British forces in Iraq, I could think of nothing but the unmediated sense of identity so many Egyptians felt. Anti-American sentiment was inflated, but it was justified and real, far more real than resentment of the Saddam regime. No one cheered when the dictator’s statue toppled over; and subsequent images of looting and plunder could only inspire shame and a sense of having been betrayed. Everyone sympathised with Iraq, but what did Iraq mean to people? It was at this point that I thought of making a mental list of all those things Iraq, a country I had never seen, meant to me. I thought of a man who sold donner kebab near Hull University campus, an exile whose perpetual homesickness had metamorphosed into a painful quietude. The solitude, the desolation on his face drove me to inquire about his personal history, but he would have nothing to do with me. One night, following an intense evening at the Union Bar, I happened to drop the name of Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab. Slowly, pensively, in a voice more like its author’s, this little educated man recited Al-Sayyab’s most famous poem, Unshoudat Al-Mattar (Rainsong). By the end he was on the verge of tears; he never shed any.

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K for kitab

At the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Youssef Rakha wonders if the United Arab Emirates might end up being the Arabs’ answer to an international publishing hub

After turning one of the Arab world’s worst read cities into a vibrant literary venue for five days, the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF, 2-7 March) folded quietly on Monday 7 March. It was followed by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (10-13 March), organised by Magrudy’s Bookshops and any number of sponsors in Dubai – that slightly better read New York of the Gulf where the Arabic language is alas all but completely absent.

The Emirates Festival requires separate coverage, but it is worth mentioning in the context of ADBIF in that it shared with that event a profoundly multicultural atmosphere. By the time ADBIF closed, even the predominance of Arabic books there had not reduced the overriding sense that here, finally, was a international, multilingual publishing event or series of events drawing together variously important figures from the four corners of the global village.

Neither bang nor whimper marked the end of what seemed like a separate and self-contained world within the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), an isolated space of glass and concrete on the outskirts of the city proper – recently completed by the addition of a high-rise corporate-style hotel, ensuring not only accommodation but taxi transportation from the fair grounds. With the vast majority of the fair’s non-resident patrons already gone by Friday, business proceeded as usual until it came gradually to a halt.

Initially the fair had proceeded alongside a major gun show, subjecting unsuspecting bibliophiles who entered by the wrong gate to unnecessary, airport-like security. Deceptively low-key from the outside, ADIBF was at least as busy as the killing carnival next door.

Activity centred on the by now haloed Discussion and Poetry Forums and the Kitab Sofa, where writers (sometimes attended to by television crews) performed to small, inevitably distracted audiences. Interviews, readings, and discussions often involving more than one writer shed light on an enormous motley of subjects, from the history of the translation of Indian literature into Arabic to whether and to what extent contemporary American literature can engage with postmodern tendencies firmly embedded into consumer culture.

Highlight appearances ranged from flash-in-the-pan celebrities (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the Algerian novelist Ahlam Mustaghanmi, for example) to award winners and writers whose relative fame may be better deserved from the literary standpoint (Adam Haslett, Yann Martel, Amit Chaudri, Pankaj Mishra, Alawiyya Sobh, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Sinan Antoon). There was a spaceman advertising new translation technologies, several dozen illuminated manuscripts (Islamic and otherwise) from various Europe-based dealers, and a Show Kitchen Programme featuring the authors of cookbooks demonstrating their recipes live – perhaps the most popular fixture.

For a moment on Saturday, with the Kerala Islamic scholar Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmad drawing a huge crowd to the Kitab Sofa in what seemed like a misplaced Friday prayers sermon, the more palpably Muslim aspects of the UAE’s cultural constituency became apparent, recalling what yearly threatens to turn into an Islamist takeover of the Cairo International Book Fair back home. Yet the atheistic and erotic titles published by the German-based Dar Al-Jamal, for example, were neither torn up nor burned. Islam is not about terrorism, was what Sheikh Aboobacker, in slighly broken Quranic Arabic, continued to reiterate.

Still, people filed through the labyrinth of booths representing various publishers from the Arab world and Europe, occasionally stopping at one or more of the three larger, prominently marked enclosures occupied by the fair’s own organiser, the Abu Dhabi Organisation for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), and its two initiatives, the Qalam series for Emirati writing and the Kalima megaproject of translation into Arabic.

And judging by the multi-ethnic composition of the audience, the broad spectrum of participating institutions, including the Goethe Institut and the British Council, and the currency of topics like the secrets behind the success of best sellers, the impact of literary awards on Arab culture or the state of comics and the graphic novel in the Arab world, it seemed the event was effectively introducing Western publishing norms into the as yet isolated Arab industry. How long will it take for that industry to be fully integrated?

Instead of enthusiasm from Abu Dhabi’s tiny community of Arabic book lovers, anyway, the fair now clearly bases its credentials on KITAB (Arabic for “book”), the joint venture of ADACH and the venerable Frankfurter Buchmesse, forged in 2007 to bring the event up to speed. For three years now ADIBF, founded in 1987 as a conventionally “Arab” fair, has been mutating into a global industry-standard publishing forum. So, at least, is its perception among a growing number of Gulf-culture champions who respect its aspirations. Two main concerns inform Arab cultural interest in the Gulf and the fair suggests answers to both of them.

First, it seems unfair that an oil-rich Emirate with hardly a single celebrated writer to its name should be positing itself as a literary centre of gravity, until you realise that what Western-style benefits Abu Dhabi manages to garner wearing the cultural-capital hat – literary prizes, publishing ventures, translation initiatives, copyright-protection measures – it will garner for beneficiaries across the Arab world.

Secondly, the fact that the UAE has – contentiously, for some – pioneered cultural projects managed by or modelled on Western institutions (the Saadiyat Island Louvre and Guggenheim initiatives, the Sorbonne and New York University campuses, etc.) has endangered cultural identity only within the borders of the UAE, where Arabs coexist with comparably sized non-Arabic speaking Asian and Western communities. In traditional cultural capitals like Cairo, the overwhelming incidence of Arabic language and literature, not to mention Arab mores and morals, makes culture more or less immune to what atrophy or confusion the adoption of a harshly capitalist, foreign (and once colonial) system might subject it to. But that remains a subject for much more involved debate.

With the Frankfurt Book Fair managing and developing it, at least, ADBIF does focus on the process of publishing, not (like the much older and by now proverbially disorganised Cairo International Book Fair, the most populous book-based event on the Arab map) on selling as much as possible regardless of substance or procedure.

At ADBIF there is no censorship, no fear on the part of security forces of an Islamist takeover of the fair grounds, no working-class-family-outing atmosphere, no shoddy infrastructure, no sudden and inexplicable absence of previously announced big names or enforced lack of access to them, no stiff formalities, and no dire shortage of information or facilities.

Property rights across languages and borders and the editor’s role in the writer’s career are just two of the areas where ADACH hopes to make a radical even if wholly imported contribution to the industry. On the basis of that contribution it is attempting to turn Abu Dhabi into “the region’s publishing hub”, as the official press package already puts it (emphasis mine), the region being all of the (Arab) Middle East and North Africa.

And notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in this business, ADACH just may be succeeding. Certainly ADBIF now looks and feels far more like Frankfurt than Cairo. In a relatively small-scale, comparatively relaxed event, just as much emphasis is placed on the profession of publishing and cross-national networking as on book-related amusements and book-buying opportunities for the public.


Established in 2007 in memory of the founder of the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards have since 2008 been overshadowed by the the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, better if less accurately known as the Arabic Booker), a joint venture of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation and the prestigious Booker Foundation (judging by this writer’s taste in recent years, Booker and Man Booker short lists have in fact seldom lived up to the name). Yet occurring within 24 hours of each other at the Emirates Palace and Beach Rotana Hotels, respectively, the awards ceremonies demonstrated just how much more interest the Booker commands at every conceivable level.

The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards this year went to the Lebanese Albert Habib Mutlaq for his translation of The Animal Encyclopedia, the Algerian Hafnaoui Baali for Comparative Cultural Criticism: An Introduction, a contribution to the field of literature, the Emirati Qais Sedki for the children’s book Gold Ring, the Egyptian Ammar Ali Hasan for The Political Establishment of Sufism in Egypt – deemed the Best Contribution to the Development of Nations – and the young Moroccan critic Mohammad Al Mallakh for Time in Arabic Language: Its Linguistic Structure and Significance, as well as His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi as Personality of the Year.

Far more engaging was the awards ceremony and the press conference of the Arabic Booker, which had generated the greatest controversy in its short history this year. Predictably for the vast majority of commentators, the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s She Throws Sparks won the grand prix, whether because it was the least controversial novel on the short list, or the work of the short list’s best respected author, or (according to some views) because books that could have competed with it – notably Alawiyya Sobh’s Its Name Is Love – had not made it that far or had been excluded from the start.

Many had contended that the exclusion of important contributions from the long and (more controversially) the short list was intended to facilitate the emergence as the final winner of a book from the Gulf; and subsequent statements by the head of the jury, the Kuwaiti novelist Talib Al-Rifa’i, to the effect that it was time that novels from the Gulf should be introduced to the Western world seemed to give credence to this theory.

Of course, should this be the case, it would be contrary to the regulations of the prize, and Al-Rifa’i in his eagerness to defend the jury, whose names, also contrary to regulations, were published in Cairo two weeks before the short list, ironically worked against it. All manner of accusations and conspiracy theories had been levelled at the jury and the board of trustees, but the head of the Booker Foundation, Jonathan Taylor, seemed confident of the administration of the prize. There was a leak,پh he responded to the question of how the names of jury members could have been known so early. پgI am sorry there was a leak.پh

More to the point, when asked why the judges of the Arabic Booker (unlike those of the Booker and the Man Booker) are not made known to the public in advance, Taylor said, “We were told that this would make it easier for the jury to do its work.” Once again inadvertently, Taylor seemed to give credence to the notion that the corruption of the Arab literary scene may have seeped into a Booker Foundation-managed institution after all.


The “Arabic Booker” Short List

The London-based Palestinian writer Rabie Al-Madhouns Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”. It tells the triple story of Al-Madhoun himself, his writer-protagonist Walid Dahman, and the hero of Dahman’s own fictional novel-in-progress. On a plane from London back to Gaza to see his mother for the first time in decades, Dahman meets an attractive Israeli actress who is subsequently killed in cold blood as a result of a previous love affair with the son of an Arab leader.

The young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabirs America is a fictional account of early 20th-century Lebanese immigration to the United States, told from the viewpoint of a country woman who follows her husband to New York.

The older Egyptian novelist Mohammad Al-Mansi Qindeels Yawm Ghaim fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side) tells the story of a Muslim woman in late 19th-century Upper Egypt who abandons her young daughter, Aisha, to protect her from the brutality of a merciless stepfather, baptising her as a Christian. This conversion, it later turns out, leads Aisha – who grows up to become a translator – to fall in love with a fictional version of the famous British archaeologist Howard Carter.

The Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji’s Indama Tashkish adh Dhiaab (When Wolves Grow Old) has a wide cast of characters and a plot drawn from detective genre fiction. It depicts the social malaise of contemporary Amman, exposing sexual and political repression, the hunger for power among intellectuals and religious leaders, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The young Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldins Wara al Firdawss (Beyond Paradise) chronicles an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders, but in so doing depicts the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from her small town to Cairo.

Abdu Khals own Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles), set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door to it, shows the brutality  of the owner of that palace, a well-connected, wealthy and powerful if sadistic tycoon who seizes and tortures his enemies. He employs the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.

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