E-cards for Mohammad Rabie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review and interview by Youssef Rakha

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Ars Poetica-1


Let us not mention names: Some time before the transformation that almost happened six months ago in Egypt, a Ministry of Culture poetry journal decided to append a booklet of prose poetry to one of its issues. I am not sure when exactly, but this journal was once prestigious. Or so at least the prose poets who were excited to be included in the selection believed.

They spoke of effort and legitimacy, of belated gratitude, of being recognized by the establishment. They accused each other of stealing “ideas for poems”, to maximize their chance of being featured. They reiterated their usual laments about the general public being too ignorant and underdeveloped to appreciate their talent. It sounded as if they were about to achieve all that they had ever lived for.

Like much about the Ministry of Culture, however, by the time it decided to celebrate prose poetry the prestigious journal in question had long fallen into a state of zombification, barely even pretending to act as the high-brow beacon of poetic vitality it was supposed to be.

It pandered to more or less extinct tastes, forwarded the reactionary agenda of its editor in chief (whose foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against the validity of prose as a medium for poetry had made his name synonymous with Last Verse Dinosaur) and, because it eschewed the most successful poetry being written for the last two decades — i.e., prose poetry — it was hardly ever read.

That did not matter much to the poets being featured: those of them who were unduly enthusiastic about the prospect, I mean. What mattered was — this was the prestigious Ministry of Culture poetry journal…

Unlike lowest-common-denominator, low-brow “political” verse, it is true, prose poetry is only popular with a very small, “specialized” readership. That is because technical archaicness combined with ideological polemics has proved to be the only winning brew with the general public — but not archaicness combined with intellectual pretension!

That latter brew, as events would demonstrate, found repulsively unethical expression in the person of the same journal’s managing editor, a younger species of dinosaur, who with much misleading fanfare commissioned the prose-poetry supplement, only to turn around and cry, once the booklet appeared — and in the very same issue’s editorial — What a load of rubbish! Do you now see that I only published it the better to expose it to your subtly sublime sensibilities.

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A streetcar named diwan


Wa Qassa’id Ukhra (And other poems), Ahmad Shafie, Beirut: Dar an-Nahda, 2009

A whole new diwan? Maybe. No, yes. If such a thing exists. In a sort of anti-introduction to the book, his third, the Oman-based Egyptian poet Ahmad (Salih) Shafie (b. 1977) considers an older, colloquial sense of diwan, the contemporary word for a book of poems and the traditional word for a poet’s corpus – which, born of Farsi, can mean: court, cabinet (as in vizirate), compendium – and is, in Latin letters, the name of Egypt’s first quasi-bourgeois bookshop chain. In breadth and in tone, And other poems is the complete life’s work of a poet. In other ways it negates completeness in either work or life. The deadpan title captures an essence more reminiscent of Cortazar than of Ashbery, whose influence the book cites. Shafie is a student of literature with several volumes’ worth of translation from American English on one shoulder. He writes a crisp Arabic less like the poetry than the narrative of the Generation of the Nineties; less like Ahmad Yamani (b. 1970) than Haytham El-Wardany (b. 1972) or Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966). Or so I (b. 1976) am thinking. But language aside, he is in radio contact with the great prose poets of the 20th  century. From Sargon Boulos (1944-2007) and Mohammad Al-Maghout (1934-2006), he takes clever self-indulgence, emotional flair. An even more important thing: He shares the ability of Wadih Saadeh (b. 1948) to make nature or the city self-referential without letting the metaphors, insolent bastards, show off what they stand for with impunity. Nihilism: a proposition of the Nineties seldom followed through. It finds hermeneutical expression in the way a poem about poetry begins to be about something else before it becomes not so much even about poetry as simply about itself, definitively: I didn’t find the poetry where I left it. Nor did it surprise me as a cloud in the atmosphere of the room. Nor even as poems on my desk. But the room. When I came back. Was very much waiting for me. It opened two lashes heavy with drink, it opened two arms heavy with drink. And it said: Imagine me, imagine me please. A whole diwan out of – itself? That was a complete poem, by the way. It varies in length. But how? Like many in the book, including one that explains the fact, it has no title. It does not even have the word “untitled” for a title.

On one shoulder only. The other bears this diwan, or maybe the private journals of its author, an identification he even suggests: I will consider myself successful the day my poetry notebook becomes the notebook of my journals, but I will not know then what it is that I am successful at. And the sense of diwan Shafie considers? Somehow I forgot to mention that. Yes: In old Egyptian films, we find that the diwan contains seats, not poems, and is contained by a train. How beautiful that a library should flit past, carrying all the diwans. Or maybe I got carried away. Shafie introducing his work is Shafie already writing, which is one difference at least between him and other, inevitably older prose poets. He does not style prose into poetry; he pours poetry all over the place. Questions its existence, humiliates it, all but disbelieves its existence. Then it becomes prose. Seriously. But now you will think that Shafie is scatter-brained and verbose, that the lack of propriety and the prosaicness, the scepticism which is the missing finger of nihilism, reflect good old Egyptian lack of rigour. It is not true. This diwan is free of haiku. This diwan is pitiable. Shafie spits on the idol stands of the poetic, yes. But Shafie is cerebral and precise; he is logical. No, he is Borgesian: I was blind in the dream. And in front of me was a wall that changed before me. While I drew cracks into it and filled them with geckos. And I saw the geckos move, breed, and die. I saw their children and they had colours that were unimaginable. And I witnessed their bodies tearing. I was a blind man who saw everything. And here I am as awake as can be in a world where seeing is no longer proof of the abnegation of blindness. That, maybe, is the beauty of Shafie’s nihilism: its purpose is not to cover up lack of effort or of talent. It is authentic. That is the first and the least interesting thing he stands out for. I am not sure why I mention it. I am eager to find reasons to like what I like. Maybe. What I like and am trying to evoke in the way I write about it. I am eager to beef up my respect for Shafie. Without calling him postmodern.

Somehow I forgot to mention something else. Yes. A history-of-literature digression. It is about the Nineties. There was a flowering of poetry then. Shafie – I too – came later. The poetry of the Nineties claimed to be individualistic and pluralistic and subversive. That is why it is a reference point. Or because there is nothing else to refer to. It was not the earliest Arabic poetry in prose, but the literary establishment had the perspective of a wounded dinosaur and in a short-lived anti-establishment journal named The Locusts, prose was proclaimed a revolution. All sorts of things were said: We spit on Ideology; We are the Margin; We are not clones of each other (but really we might as well be); We write as we live. Many did not live in any particular way, however. So lives turned into after-the-fact dramatisations of not-very-original poems, which were before-it-could-happen manuals about the life. Belonging in a ghetto undermined individualism. An ideology grew. The margin became a route back to the establishment. Or an establishment in its right, with all the prehistoric and reptilian qualities of establishments. No, the Nineties are at best a starting point. Shafie’s authenticity may be due to the fact that his personal life, contrary to personal life in the Nineties, is not make-believe. In the diwan I dream of every poem remains a world complete in itself until the next one comes along and drops something on it like a soft rain which brings out plants that do not grow tall and washes walls and makes the eyes happy and so does the next one. And so on until the last poem comes along and it is not the end point but like Ahmad after Salih after Shafie and on the other hand Basho and Pessoa and everyone. Things have changed since the Nineties. The beauty of that poem is proof. It is hard to match a specific discourse to a specific personage. I am thinking of editorials and interviews, quasi-manifestos. I am thinking of many poets and critics who may no longer believe what they were saying then and may never have believed it at all. It sounds cool and that is repulsive. The point being: Shafie transcends it.

Individualistic, pluralistic and subversive: Shafie does occasionally fall into common Nineties traps. These include the tendency to end a text with an abstract or a pithy statement that leaves you feeling as if the writer, through a text he drew you into with the opposite of such things, has imparted wisdom or vision. Not ironically, not in line with an overarching question posed by the book. But not very meaningfully either, since everything that came before the statement points to a climax of confusion and meaninglessness: The rhythm that life moves to in imagination is exquisite, no true dancer can resist it. Then it feels right to snort or, in true Nineties style, spout a stream of half-obscure obscenities and run. Snorting or something like it is very rude in Egypt. Seriously, meaninglessness can be very desirable in poetry. And what on earth could that dancer be or evoke. Life as a dance? Blah. Rhythm! But the pithy finale is hardly an issue with Shafie. Sometimes it works for him. Especially when it is not a finale: “I and the rest” This is the definition of the universe. “My room and what surrounds it” This is not the definition of the world. What other traps, then? There is a sense in which the Nineties is a reaction to the Generation of the Seventies whose poetry was all about Modernist (sic.) aesthetics and/or Marxist (et al) engagement. It was ugly, the Seventies. It was cumbersome and complicated and demagogic and boring. And it left the Nineties infuriated. Snorting and spouting streams of half-obscure obscenities. Hating ideology so much they became ideological. And so thoroughly opposed to Modernism (sic.) they became postmodern before they knew what that meant. Either. Now there is a sense in which Shafie is a reaction to the Nineties. Much milder, admittedly. Perhaps not so much a reaction as a response. He builds on the substance in much Nineties work. The trap is thematic. Shafie writes about himself. His life, whatever that means. He writes about writing. He writes about the world as part of those things. He does not write about society or people or God or time or relationships. I mean he does, but not explicitly or not as much as he might. At a certain point while turning the pages of this diwan you will feel that Shafie is involuntarily paying lip service to Nineties edicts: the importance of unimportant things, the need for euphemism, veiled seriousness, ennui, the horror of anything relevant to more than three people. The false modesty of hiding under the podium when all you want to do is eloquently address the audience. If you are me or like me, you will notice Shafie paying lip service to these edicts. And you will appreciate the fact that he is not following them.

Sometimes it works for him. Most of the time. But the pithy finale works through transcending itself. It works through not being what it is. That is true of a lot of things in this book. Magic or sorcery or both. And Shafie has other tricks that work even better. Out of the work of Yamani and Yasser Abdellatif (b. 1969), for example, he coaxes one very latent but fascinating trope. In the middle of the intimate and minute liquids that suffuse the early texts of those two survivors of the Nineties, you sometimes spot something solid that aspires to epic or myth. They refer to nature or ancestry to place themselves in a grander scheme. It is almost Whitmanseque. The uncharted continent. It recalls One Hundred Years of Solitude and Eduardo Galeano. And Shafie does it more often in more ways. He does it with more humour. Yes, somehow I forgot to mention Shafie’s salutary humour. He does it with the nonchalance of someone who has built an insignificant but imperishable diwan into the iron body of the bibliographic locomotive. After the dust which was very thick settled, there was nothing but a red balloon blown up with tears. Alone on a whole horizon the colour of ice. The dust due to a dinosaur that was running and before it the humans running. And then the humans running and before them a herd of wildebeest running. And then the humans running, nothing before them, nothing behind. And suddenly a paved road and the vehicles that ran and are running and will run, with the dust. This time. Less of it and longer-lasting and suffocating to the poet and the romantic and the provincial… Or again: My ancestors did not know the alphabet. And while on their way they cast their arrows all of them and nonetheless did not catch the sky in the form of a hedgehog. Thus they did not go to war or hunting. And they did not bequeath words on me. And the stones they left me as stones, not coloured or carved. And my ancestors were defeated by everyone but they did not deprive them of the bewilderment in their eyes or anything. Their eldest gouged out his eyes one night and cried “The sky is still blue.” And he threw everything into the Nile except his soul. And they did not write his story for where is the story. Nor did they invent the alphabet. Now I am going to stop writing. I had a lot more to say. There is no need to tell anyone that Shafie’s diwan goes on.

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from Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dogs


Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
Ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Translated by Laura Healy

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Iraq en la corazon

Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab

Youssef Rakha outlines the life course of a modern legend


-Azhar Dhabila
(Withered Flowers, 1947)
-Asatir (Myths, 1950)
-Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong, 1960)
-ï Manzil Al-Aqnan
(House of Slaves, 1963)
-Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi (Al-Chalabi’s Daughter’s
Shanashil, 1964)
-Qitharat Al-Rih
(Wind Zither, 1971)
-A’asir (Storms, 1972)
-Diwan, two volumes
(Beirut 1971-4)

Two images permeate the poetry of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964): the child of six, in the rural environs of Jaykour, a small village near Basra in southern Iraq, calling desperately for his mother who, unbeknown to him, has died; and the grown man, ailing in exile by the shore of the Arabian Gulf, pining nostalgically for his homeland, which seems much further away to him than it really is. Both correspond to real-life experiences of the poet‘s. The eldest child of a date grower and shepherd, Shakir Abdul-Jabbar Al-Sayyab, Badr lost his mother, Shakir’s cousin Karima, in 1932; she died prematurely while giving birth to her fourth child, a girl who did not survive. And it was during his miserable confinement to hospital in Kuwait and elsewhere that the poet’s verses took on the trademark, impassioned — some say excessive — nostalgic tone. Often homeland and mother are evoked in unison, or as two aspects of the same — irrevocable — sense of security. In a belated elegy for Al-Sayyab, Syrian poet Mohamed Al-Maghout referred ironically to this dual obsession of the poet’s in the context of reflecting on Arab cultural and political demise — wrapping the traffic light in a headscarf and calling it “Mother”, building the model of a country out of empty matchboxes and rubbish to call it “Homeland”.

Al-Maghout’s poem is not the only tribute to Al-Sayyab in modern literature. Universally recognised as one of the pioneers of the free poetry movement, Al-Sayyab is also widely credited with being among the most traditional of free poets, displaying a profound command of the metrical rules governing Arabic verse and an easy familiarity with even the most difficult idiosyncrasies of the classical tongue. For a long time he thought of poetry as an aspect of the struggle for national liberation, and whatever innovations were to be introduced should never be allowed to impinge on the essence of the endeavour — the search for a liberated identity governed by equality and justice. The influence of European literature on Al-Sayyab thus remained superficial. His true sources remain the folk songs and fairy tales his later poems increasingly evoked, accompanied by the cadences of the vernacular he grew up speaking and the insurgent energy of national struggle. His virtues go beyond technical facility, however, for the energy and the emotional charge of his poems often transcend their nominal subjects, and his imagery — at times almost Imagist in precision and intensity — ranks among the most powerful in the poetry of any language. Perhaps the tragedy with which his life was beset reflected a genius too pure for the political turmoils in which he was to find himself entangled — a genius not for petty intrigues and power struggles but for grand and transcendent themes.

Soon after Karima’s death, Shakir found another wife and moved out — to the distress of his father. The poet subsequently lived at his grandparents’ — his paternal grandmother, whose affection is said to have replaced his mother’s, figures as the source of imaginative, sometimes frightening fairy tales about epic heros and djinn. Following the first few years of school in the neighbouring village of Bab Soliman, Al-Sayyab was forced to go further, attending the Mahmoudia School in Abul-Khasib, a small town that also figures in many of his poems: it was from a classroom window that he first spied the beautiful, unattainable daughter of Al-Chalabi, a prosperous landowner, beyond the opposite house’s shanashil (a kind of latticework window comparable to a mashrabiya ) — to which the title poem of his last diwan, Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi, refers. This was probably also his earliest encounter with class differences; no sooner had it occurred, at any rate, than Al-Sayyab’s poetic facility began to flower — first in the vernacular, then in standard Arabic. Before settling with his maternal grandparents in Basra to attend secondary school — this difficult move took place in 1938 — Al-Sayyab presided over a literary magazine produced and distributed by his schoolmates. It was named, not surprisingly, after the palm-studded village he was never to forget, and to which he returned periodically throughout the duration of his secondary education. Jaykour was not only his birthplace, but the home of his first love, Wafiqa, one of his many cousins.

In 1941, having paradoxically opted for the science rather than arts pre-university course despite standing out in Arabic language and literature, Al-Sayyab began writing poetry regularly. (Much of this early work, written in the traditional meters of the canonical aroud, was collected and published posthumously). Interaction with fellow students with literary inclinations, notably Khaled Al-Shawwaf, was to contribute to his artistic growth. Al-Sayyab’s insurgent political awareness flowered in the same year, following the execution by the British of the leaders of the anti-colonial Rashid Ali Al-Kilani Movement of April-May. At this point it is worth recalling the nationalist atmosphere in which Al-Sayyab grew up: his uncle Abdel-Qader, the poet’s closest relation and fellow communist activist, had been a member of the underground Al-Hizb Al- Ladini (the Non-Religious Party), and on the walls of his grandparents’ house Abdul-Jabbar hung pictures of Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and other leaders of the liberation struggle. At the same time as Al-Sayyab reacted emotionally to the executions, writing poetry in response, his grandfather was in financial straits, having fallen prey to the usury and exploitation Abdel-Qader denigrated in the newspapers; this gave him an added, personal incentive. In his last year of secondary school, Al-Sayyab’s lyricism began to mature into the expression of an individual response to the world — the emotional and political dimensions of existence. The long-postponed move to Baghdad was preceded by the second major grief in his life: his beloved grandmother’s death.

For the provincial innocent, Baghdad was a world apart, and one for which the young poet had fearfully yearned for a long time before arriving there as an Arabic student at Dar Al- Mu’allimin in 1943; he selected the faculty in question because it provided education free of charge. Literary and political life submerged the emergent talent: after Najui Al-Ubaidi published one of his poems in the newspaper he edited, Al- Ittihad, his poetry spread in literary circles, and before too long he was well-known. Transferring from the Arabic to the English department of Dar Al-Mu’allimin, he made the acquaintance of Nazik Al-Mala’ika, the first Arab poet to free verse from the formulaic rules of aroud, employing the individual taf’ila as the basis for metric composition. By 1946, when this meeting occurred, he was a member of the communist party; his first experience of detention occurred in that year. Despite being a reticent participant in the Allied-Nazi debate then surging through the intellectual life of the capital, he engaged fully with ongoing political turmoils until his graduation in 1948, when his first collection of taf’ila poems, Azhar Dhabila (Withered Flowers), appeared. He was appointed as a secondary-school English teacher, and it was then that he began to feel the brunt of urban isolation — living in a hotel, with few connections (he was one of three communists resident in Baghdad at the time), and leading a frustrated love life, finding solace in his periodic stays in Jaykour — a habit he had not given up since his days as an adolescent in Basra.

Jaykour becomes, for Al-Sayyab, a kind of objective correlative not only for innocence and the first flutters of consciousness but for identity. He returns to it or to the surrounding area constantly in his poems, releasing memories, a sense of history and an infinite string of references with which to comment on subsequent, unrelated stories, anecdotes and events — even the Greek myths from which he sometimes drew inspiration, and which, through the imagery he employed, he transported into the settings of his childhood. The political involvements that were to have a terminally abrasive effect on his body and mind remained, at heart, visions of utopia rooted in the atmosphere of Jaykour, especially of a time prior to his mother’s premature death. He may have displayed obstinacy and even, occasionally, aggressiveness, but his motivation was largely that of the bereft child dreaming of security — financial, political and family security. Likewise Al- Sayyab’s love life was doomed from the start: he returned to Jaykour one day to find Wafiqa married. Subsequent relations with liberated women remained superficial, and Al-Moumis Al-Amya a (The Blind Prostitute), one of his four long poems, bears testimony to the painful revulsion his observation of urban prostitutes induced in him. It was in the late 1940s that such a tragic sense of self was beginning to register, along with a commitment to engaged literature — a subject that was to preoccupy him till the end of his life. Already it was too late to conceive of life along any other lines.

Another change of government, in 1949, saw Al-Sayyab imprisoned again; the Nouri Al-Said regime specifically targeted communists. Al-Sayyab was banned from teaching for the next decade. Among the jobs he undertook in Basra following a quiet few months in Jaykour were date taster and oil company employee. In 1950, the year his second collection, Asatir (Myths), appeared, he moved back to Baghdad, working as a free-lance journalist until he found a job as an employee of the Ministry of Imports. He continued to engage with literary and political life nonetheless, and the many interesting developments surrounding him — persistent calls for the nationalisation of Iraqi oil, Al-Said’s resignation and, following a poem in which Al-Sayyab predicted the event with uncanny precision, the wide-ranging Baghdad protests of 1952 — went on stimulating his writing, albeit in progressively less direct ways. When the army came to power and a new series of political arrests began, Al-Sayyab had the foresight to flee to Iran and onto Kuwait, where homesickness caught up with him, producing, among other poems, Gharibun ala Al-Khalij (Stranger to the Gulf), the poem to which Al-Maghout was to make his ironic references. Al-Sayyab thus arrived in Kuwait in 1953, only to return to Baghdad six months later in the wake of King Faisal’s reinstitution. This time, evidently intent on settling down once and for all, he rented a house and invited one of his aunts to live with him. In 1955 he married the sister of his uncle Abdel-Qader’s wife, a young woman from Abul- Khasib, who bore him a little girl, Ghaidaa, the next year.

With his activism waning — disagreements with the party through the 1950s, the time when he wrote his four long poems, had led to Al-Sayyab absolving himself of political responsibility — his poetry acquired a contemplative tone, his lyricism emerging as a powerful force in its own right, unencumbered by a specific political agenda. Yet he remained sufficiently engaged to be imprisoned for a week following the publication of several of his poetic translations in 1955. He was one of three Iraqi participants at the Conference of Arab Writers held in Damascus in September 1956. He soon became the prophet of the 14 July 1958 Revolution, displaying remarkable prescience — it was in this period that he wrote his best-known poem, Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong) — and following the Revolution resigned from the Ministry of Imports to work as an English teacher once again, this time in the Ministry of Education. He was to lose his job in the communist-nationalist rift, however, in which he sided with the latter faction; so disillusioned had he become with Iraqi communism. Al-Sayyab was reduced to working as a poorly paid translator for the Pakistani Embassy, and he was persecuted and humiliated by his former comrades.

Following attempts to appease Abdul-Karim Qasem, the leader who abolished the monarchy only to pit contending political factions against each other, he retrieved his job in 1960, the year his third collection of poems, named after Unshoudat Al-Matar, appeared. His physical as well as psychological health failing him, Al-Sayyab eventually gave up what little comfort he had attained — evidently at the expense of his peace of mind — and relocated to Basra in search of a quiet life, where, despite another, by now completely ludicrous arrest, he obtained a position in the Iraqi Port Administration almost immediately.

His health went from bad to worse, and following a brief visit to Jaykour Al-Sayyab’s poetry centred increasingly on the theme of death, with the djinn girls of his childhood reappearing before him in frightening form. He attended another literary conference in Rome, and spent some time in Beirut arranging the publication of his work and making the acquaintance of Arab poets he had not met. His magazine allegiances had shifted from Al-Aadab to Shi’r, and now, following a brief stint with Hiwar, he went back to Al-Aadab. Al-Sayyab’s illness eventually took him back to Kuwait, where for six months he suffered from paralysis and intense depression. His friend Ali Al-Sabti conveyed his body back to Basra, where he found Al-Sayyab’s family homeless (the Port Administration had managed to evict them from the house, which was given to Al-Sayyab as one of the job perks, after the poet used up all his holidays). His funeral was a low-key event, and he went almost unnoticed. By 1971, however, a statue of the poet was installed in one of Basra’s main squares.

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On being a journalist in English

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The Golden Rules of British Journalism:

1-If you can’t buy it, it’s not worth writing about

2-So we know the topic? Now let’s get five of them

3-Always remember the reader is a lazy, dyslexic half wit

The Golden Rule of American journalism:

If you give us a draft by Monday, then maybe we can have something to work with by the end of the week. Oh, it’s been three weeks already? Right, don’t get discouraged. See if we manage to truck through this one… What do you mean the piece isn’t actually improving! Once you’ve reworked the thirtieth draft five or six times, then maybe we can start working on the article.

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Running on empty

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Marathon man: It never occurs to you, reading Murakami’s novels, that his characters look Japanese. Courtesy Rex Features

In his new memoir, Haruki Murakami reflects on life as a ‘running novelist’ and ponders the meaning of a marathon. Youssef Rakha logs his discontent with the great storyteller’s descent into pop wisdom.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Harvill Secker

Aug 18, Dubai — Day 1

Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (translated into English by Philip Gabriel), is the only book I have with me on my tour of the Emirates, and so far I am not gripped by it. For the first time since I discovered Murakami, it looks like I will not be enjoying one of his books.

The stated focus of What I Talk About is Murakami’s life as a writer, a runner, a runner who writes and a writer who runs – not inherently boring topics. But however much Murakami labours to present himself in an everyday, informal register, to “just write honestly about what I think and feel about running”, the fact that he is a famous, best-selling novelist remains paramount; everything in the book tells me I am to be interested in his thoughts on life and productivity not for their own sake, but because they have been issued by Haruki Murakami, Famous Author. This will clearly undermine identification.

Even worse, I cannot help fearing that Murakami himself will end up exemplifying a disturbing notion often expressed by the writers in his novels: that, in an “advanced capitalist society” like Japan, producing copy for publication is as ingloriously Sisyphean as an “shovelling snow”.

Aug 19, Ras al Khaimah – Day 2

“Writers should be read,” wrote Daphne du Maurier, “but neither seen nor heard.” As I predicted, I find it hard to appreciate Murakami when he speaks in his own voice. Having declared himself a professional novelist, my favourite shoveller stops producing the (Raymond) Carver Effect (That’s it exactly! And exactly as I might’ve written it myself!).

As Carver himself put it: “Anyone can express himself, or herself, but what writers and poets want to do in their work, more than simply express themselves, is communicate.” And surely this means shedding your professional writerly persona (if you have one) – forgetting for a while whatever status you have acquired since you were young. But in What I Talk About, Murakami remains too conscious of his success to achieve the necessary and expected intimacy.

He takes care to distinguish himself from “legendary figures” like Shakespeare, Dickens and Balzac – whom he takes to have been so prodigiously talented that questions of routine, discipline, running and so on are irrelevant (this is absurd, but a topic for another essay). Instead, he counts himself among “the remaining majority of writers”, the “many who write for a living”. Here he forgets not his own status, but the fact that literary success remains fickle. He forgets that a writer might be talented, work hard, produce good work and still, for arbitrary or circumstantial reasons, not sell – or even be noticed at all. In mental and physical spheres where commercial English-language publishing does not exist, members of the real “remaining majority” of writers live and die with neither access to nor desire for a global market. They write to write, and make their money otherwise. Where does the author of a memoir predestined to sell across the world, no matter how bad it is, get the nerve to speak for them, even indirectly?

Aug 21, Ras al Khaimah – Day 4

Had What I Talk About been an efficient Murakami novel, it probably would have started 27 superfluous pages later than it actually does, and it would go something like this: at exactly 1:30pm on April 1, 1978, while watching a baseball game and sipping beer at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, the young owner-manager of a hip new jazz club was gripped by the sudden urge to write a novel. Over the next few months, working for one hour each night, he wrote his first short novel, Hear The Wind Sing. In 1979, it was published in Japan’s most influential literary magazine. The young man decided to sell his thriving club, move out of Tokyo with his wife and adopt an efficient routine: to get serious about writing. He stopped smoking, took up running and in due course started pounding out phenomenal full-length novels.

Murakami takes running to be the magic ingredient in all this. Chapter Two, Tips on Becoming a Running Novelist, ends on this hyperbolically epic note: “Thirty-three – that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.”
But since this is not an efficient Murakami novel, it goes on. Convinced that his running and writing are so essentially linked that any information about the former will illuminate the latter, Murakami proceeds to essentially share his training logs for marathons, ultra-marathons and triathlons. He observes a bit, reminisces a lot and reveals little. He writes around running, not about it.

Aug 22, Ajman – Day 5

Four chapters in, I am struggling to place What I Talk About in Murakami’s oeuvre.
Platonically speaking, there are two Murakami books. Book A – which occurs in its purest real-world form in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) – is an exercise in universe construction, an otherworldly cerebral puzzle with brilliant dramatisations of complex, abstract intellectual premises. It is off-putting to hear the author of Book A write with overbearingly false modesty, as he does now, “I’m not the brightest person” and “I’m a physical, not intellectual type of person.”
Platonic Murakami Book B – Norwegian Wood being the closest thing – has more to do with character and coming-of age, and is full of references to pop culture. Book B produces the Carver Effect in spades, particularly for young people.

Big, complicated but readable Murakami books like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore and the distich of A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance work by combining the immediate psychological appeal of Book B with Book A’s supernatural /philosophical underpinnings. So do smaller works like South of the Border, West of the Sun and Sputnik Sweetheart. Even Underground, Murakami’s account of the 1995 gas attacks on Tokyo’s subway system, has its magical elements.
What I Talk About is the first Murakami book that bears no traces of Book A. In this sense, it prompts questions about whether or not it is really (as many commentators assume) the Carveresque readability of Murakami’s novels that make them so compelling. Without at least a bit of the deep wacky stuff, it seems, my friend Haruki just doesn’t work.

Aug 24, Abu Dhabi – Day 8

Now that I have finished What I Talk About, I realise that its entire message is simply stated by the title of its fourth chapter: Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I’ve Learned From Running Every Day.
Murakami elaborates on that message with the kind of platitudinous pop wisdom that perennially inspires young would-be writers: “To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm”, etc. But the is either unable or too complacent to articulate the connection between long-distance running and novel writing. “I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist,” he writes, “my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.” Maybe it is this failure that makes the book most disappointing.
“Easy reading is damned hard writing,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. Reversing that logic: for the first time since we met, my good friend Haruki seems to have done some damned easy writing.

Sept 1, Abu Dhabi – Day 16

Leafing back through What I Talk About, I am struck by how American it is. Not that you expect anything particularly Japanese from Murakami. It never even occurs to you, reading his novels, that his characters look Japanese. Nor do you find serious evidence of Japan’s fawning embrace of its erstwhile conqueror’s culture. Sure, Colonel Saunders appears in the flesh in Kafka on the Shore, but that does not undermine or seem out of place with the novel’s engagement with Shintoism. Norwegian Wood may be named after a Beatles song, but it still tells a culturally rooted story of love and loss against the backdrop of Japan’s 1960s student movement.
Murakami’s novels transcend cultural barriers not so much because they are acultural, but because they evoke a sort of universal openness: to the imaginary, the uncanny, the implausible, the out-of-place, the curious – to everything, as long as it is compelling, as long as it works. These are the origins of the Sheep Man of Dance Dance Dance, who plays the music of destiny on a switchboard in an extraterrestrial hotel room; and Toru Okada, the Wind-Up man, sitting quietly in a dry, abandoned well near his house in suburban Tokyo, looking for his lost cat …
What I Talk About leaves us with a different, banal image: a man in his fifties jogging every morning through Cambridge, Massachusetts with Brian Adams’s 18 ‘Til I Die playing through his earphones. It is fine to be that man. But to build a memoir around that image, some attendant facts about muscle pain and training regimens and a sprinkling of gnomic wisdom is not open: it is narrow, a tunnel of suburban triteness.
Writing is a tricky business. It takes talent, focus and endurance – the three qualities Murakami lists, in that order, as necessary for his “manual labour” of completing novels. And it is interesting to hear that (albeit not much about how) running has helped him with the last two of those elements. But writing novels – at least novels like Murakami’s – also takes a sort of subversion: a willingness to obsess over feelings and images ignored by most people in their everyday lives. In his eagerness to underline the importance of discipline and good health to his success, Murakami overlooks this. It’s a shame: surely all that running – all that solitary, self-inflicted pain, itself practice for more of the same – can tell us something interesting about where Murakami is writing from. But he has little to say on this subject.

So why must he upset me now with this otiose memoir, a book that will remain marginal to his achievement? Perhaps Murakami is, for whatever reason, desperate to convince himself that writing is just a job like any other. Perhaps he is just writing honestly, or trying to. But everybody knows that writing honestly is not the same as writing well. Putting away this little hardback, I know I will never pick it up again. I can only compare reading it with Murakami’s own experience of finishing a marathon in less-than-satisfactory time: “I guess I should be proud of what I’ve done, but right now I don’t care. What makes me happy right now is knowing that I don’t have to run another step, Whew! – I don’t have to run anymore.”