“A Kid Came to Me”-عيّل علّموا عليه

A chapter from the novel “Paulo”, Part II of The Crocodiles Trilogy-فصل من رواية “باولو”، الجزء الثاني من حاوية التماسيح

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الأحد ٦ أبريل ٢٠٠٨

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

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

The Hayyani Epistle: What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said after the events of 2011

What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.

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Currents, Twitter, and the Page

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My “content”, both material you can find here and other, “exclusive” material, is now available on three new “platforms” for your convenience. So, while I am no longer available on Facebook as a “friend” — everybody knows I’m nobody’s friend really — you can “like” my Page to see both links to new Sultan Seal posts and texts, both old and new, accompanied by or accompanying works of iPhoneography. The news is that now you can also enjoy (or throw up at) such material on Google Currents (listed under Entertainment as The Sultan’s Seal); Currents is a seriously convenient “reader” for iPads and Androids and the like. As for my Twitter account, which I’m embracing with renewed gusto now that I’ve given up the art of the Facebook status, I was appalled to realize that I have less than 1K followers when every other worthless shit has at least 15K, so… The Sultan’s Seal (which used to be called the arabophile until, in the wake of the blessed Arab Spring, I developed a near-fatal allergy) is all over the ether. Go follow.

Download ebook on Egyptian revolution

… It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state…

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Kenyon Review Essay Out

 

Cairo Map by Piri Reis, 15th century

An Excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)”

Youssef Rakha

 

Theorem

Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:

The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”

 

The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.

In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.

This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.

Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.

Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.

In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).

Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.

Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.

Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.

. . .

Read the rest of this piece by purchasing the Summer 12 issue of The Kenyon Review.

 

 

Megawra talk: Cairo as a lone individual: the geography of self-exploration

Man as map

I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was Mai Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
In it the hero, Mustafa, who will soon start having historical visitations, notably from the last Ottoman sultan, is propelled into rediscovering those parts of the city in which his life comes to have meaning, by drawing the routes he takes as he actually experiences them, with his eyes closed. The shapes that he ends up with later combine to produce a tugra or sultan’s seal—which comes to be the symbol of the city as one person’s madness, the city as Mustafa: a calligraphic emblem with many non-empirical references to reality. A sort of psychological form of map-making thus became at the centre of the creative process.

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I was not as aware when I wrote the novel as I am now that what I had Mustafa do was one form of what might be termed literary cartography. That is: the appropriation of space through an internalization of its subjective and human (as opposed to objective or “scientific”) experience with the purpose of integrating the result into a print context—in this case, by turning it into calligraphy. In my new novel project, I am using the Phoenician letter Waw to a similar end—it is similar to the Latin Y but not the same—comparing it with the shape of the Nile valley in Egypt among other cartographic representations of topics being dealt with, all reached through the very personal experience of the characters.

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I will not get into the details of how this works in each book. All I want to say is that literary cartography—so understood—is an interesting mode of engagement that has rarely been explored or practiced in context. Some conceptual artists have no doubt employed cartography in their work in a similar way, perhaps architects and designers and theorists too, which goes to show that maps make up an essentially multidisciplinary approach to the real. But in terms of literature, though the inclusion of cartography forges instant and fascinating connections with illuminated manuscripts and many echelons of the Arabic canon, it remains more or less unknown. So all I will do tonight is talk a little about literary cartography.
I am not much of an artist, but I’ve found photo-based representation—first through the dark room, then digitally—to be invaluable in the process of complementing print with imagery to which a relatively complex idea might be uniquely anchored: post-millennial Cairo as an Ottoman seal, for example, or the Nile valley as a sacred letter. I’ve also always been fascinated by maps as an alternative mode of recording reality in print, and writing places—of which I’ve done more than any other kind—is a less precise but more inclusive form of map-making.
Literary cartography has to do with two quite separate things, I believe: two ideas, two motives, two different activities of the novelist as witness and, principally, as a writer of extended letters to unknown recipients but also as someone who crystallizes human experience into signs (whether letters or drawings) laid out on paper.

***

First, there is the fact that, for reasons of temperament and drive, writers tend to be self-obsessed no matter how much they endeavor to prove the opposite. This is aesthetically perhaps as it should be, in the sense that it is within a given creative intellect that this intellect is likely to find literary meaning or beauty. The beauty in literature seems to come less from the object being written about—confusingly, this is often referred to as the subject—than from the manner of its transformation into language: how a city like Cairo becomes a calligraphic symbol, to follow through the example. This process belongs with the writer, not the world. Reality is subordinated to a subjective standpoint that makes no attempt at eliminating bias.
I don’t actually necessarily believe that this all that happens, since the subject too—the writer—is part of a greater reality and presumably open to all sorts of currents: I could go on about the writer as convoy or medium, about things like objective coincidence and automatic writing. But still, subjectivity in this sense, however aesthetically perfect, raises moral questions. Nor is it simply that people get upset with you when you write honestly about them, for example. Unlike that of a map drawn to scale, your image of reality is going to be all but private, solipsistic even, the meaningless sounds made by a social outcast humming to himself in the dark.
When that picture is condensed into an objectively articulate image, something everyone can look at and appreciate at least as much as a map—even if it will never be nearly as useful—that sense of moral doubt is significantly reduced. It is almost as if, by constructing your statement logically and enunciating it clearly, you bring it into daylight. You do not turn the subject into an object the way empirical science does, but you produce a subjective object, an object that integrates bias as an essential part of its constitution, an object which—even though it remains an object—could never exist without the subject that brought it into reality: the signs, the letters, the language is utilized to a meaningful end.
Secondly, besides all else that he does, a writer is forced to make a choice between time and space, history and geography, narrative and description. I happen to believe that time or history is more violently peremptory and limiting. It is more prone to meaninglessness, to the exclusionary blindness and manipulative falsification of power (something that can be seen clearly in current, presidential-elections narratives of the revolution). That is partly because, compared to stories or human beings, it is much more difficult to judge places as such. Unless you include the narrative of what it depicts and how, looking at a map, it is impossible to say that its shape is immoral, for example, or that its stance is unfair.
Building on my first point—that a writer’s subject will inevitably be himself—I want to argue that conceiving of the self as inclusive, pluralistic space is far more rewarding and ultimately also more honest than presenting it as a narrative of the triumph of good over evil (or the defeat of good by evil), no matter what kind of good the subject stands for, or how complex, which is what literature is likely to reduce to once it surrenders itself wholly to the idiocies of history. The self as a geography of humanity that is trying, in a desperate but courageous bid, to transcend history: that seems far more meaningful than the self as a the convoy of an inevitably false and ultimately one-dimensional storyline.
However contrived in the context of a given novel, however subjective in fact, literary cartography, it seems to me, is the clearest embodiment of the self as space in language: the map that makes no reference to empirical reality is the salient image of literature as the epistemological exercise of making sense of the world through words or (as they are or should be) through signs inscribed on paper that, looked at, inspire faith in the meaning of life.

Talk at Megawara on Sunday, 27 May, 2012

“Raisin” and Self-portrait


It was after he got his raisin that Khaled gave me the prostitute’s number.
I imagined a multiple-orgasm lolita dressed to extract hard currency. Sixteen, he said she was. Brace yourself for the three thousandth-degree burns of hellfire. He’s big and hairy, Khaled. When you know him the bulging looks less like flesh than alluvial semen.
Repentance or no, I felt I could trust him.
Raisins grow on the foreheads of the pious, evidencing decades of contact with the ground. You can cheat one into being by intensifying friction. Which is how Khaled got his in a month. He botched it, too – it was higher than it should be, there were extra bits on the nose – but it worked. Since his flat burned down he had been praying too hard, not smoking or drinking, watching out for charred apparitions of his family.
This was my first ever prostitute and she was sixteen all right. But she seemed like one of a million – hijab, small voice and facial acne. It was the bright red swimsuit that eventually summoned an erection. Except, being marriage matter, she taught me how to brush. You skim the surface, drenching pubic hair. Hymens remain intact.
And devoutly kissing the hundred-pound note, she passed it on the spot where Khaled’s raisin was. It disappeared in the swimsuit.
I was grateful she would be out of the house now. Then thinking of Khaled, spent, I felt a sudden compulsion to start working on a raisin of my own.

The Best of The Sultan’s Seal: Five Articles © Youssef Rakha

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1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.

3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.

4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
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?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.

5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.

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A streetcar named diwan

Status

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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Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama

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

Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama[1]

by Youssef Rakha, Egypt

English translation by Nader K. Uthman (2009)

Rashid Celal Siyouti recounted as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

he be exalted, is one of the Monotheists.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(underlining indicate rhyming words in original[AM5] )

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

He who suffers the spectre of death

Is on the path of resurrection

The purpose behind killing myself

Is to quicken my crossing over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

that childish drawing of large forms, gazing out

from the frontiers of buildings,

which sees everything in everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Muslim spiritual leader (Translator)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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New Translation of al laji’u yahki

The refugee tells

The refugee absorbed in telling his tale

feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.

He’s absorbed in the awe of being Here

after all those Theres: the stations, and the ports,

the search parties, the forged papers…

He dangles from the chain of circumstance –

his destiny wound like fibre,

in rings as narrow as

those countries on whose chest

the nightmares have piled up.

The smugglers, the mafias, if you asked me,

might not be as bad as that sky of hungry seagulls

above a damaged ship in Nowhere.

If you asked me I would say:

Eternal waiting in immigration offices,

and faces that do not smile back, no matter how much you smile;

who said it was the dearest gift?

If you asked me, I would say: People, everywhere.

I would say: Everywhere,

stones.

He tells and he tells and he tells,

because he has arrived but does not taste arrival,

and he feels nothing when the cigarette burns his fingers.

Sargon Boulus (1944-2007)

Translated from the Arabic by Youssef Rakha

Listen to Sargon reading by clicking on the little microphone

A REFUGEE TALKING
A refugee absorbed in talking
Did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Surprised to be here
After being there – stations, harbours,
Visitations, forged papers

Depending on a chain of details
His future was fibre-like
Laid out in small circles
An oppressive country
Afflicted by nightmares

Smugglers, emigration bandits, if you asked me
Commonplace people maybe, hungry sea-gulls
Over a wrecked ship in the middle of nowhere

If you asked me, I would say:
Endless waiting in immigration bureaus
Faces that do not return smiles whatever you do
Who said: the most precious gift

If you asked me, I would say: Human beings are everywhere.
You would say: Everywhere
Stones

He talks, talks, talks
He had arrived but did not enjoy the taste of arrival
And did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

© 2007, Sargon Boulus
Publisher: First published on PIW, Rotterdam, 2007
© Translation: 2007, Kees Nijland
Publisher: Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam, 2007

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Manifesto of the Halssist Party

On Nael El-Toukhy’s Two Thousand and Six

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

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

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

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

JOKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

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Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

Wheatfield with Crows (1890), Van Gogh Museum,...
Image via Wikipedia

Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143
Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

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A world of promise

Bianca Brigitte Bonomi
The Hay Festival, which is now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution that is helping to foster a global interest in Arab writing. Richard Stanton

At the London Book Fair two years ago, Arab literature took centre stage. It was the subject of lectures, debates and interactive sessions with authors and publishers. Despite its prevalence over the course of the week, however, we learnt that Arab literature hadn’t made significant inroads into the West. Factors ranging from censorship to an under-developed publishing infrastructure and a paucity of translators were contributing to its status as a largely untapped literary market.
Two years on, and progress is being made. There is an increasing literary awareness within the region and a growing international interest. A number of prestigious awards are being offered to stimulate reading and translation in the Arab world. We have an “Arab Booker” prize, publishing houses including Penguin and Bloomsbury are expanding into the Gulf and authors such as Alaa el Aswany are becoming household names: all paying testament to the serious drive to place Arabic texts alongside writing from more heavily marketed parts of the world on western bookshelves.
Beirut39, a Hay Festival project that aims to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40 as part of the Beirut World Capital festivities 2009/10, is a forerunner in promoting this literature on a global stage.

The Hay Festival’s interest in Arab literature is linked in no small part to the obvious potential of this emerging market. “The statistics speak for themselves,” says Bachar Chebaro, the owner of Arab Scientific Publishers and the secretary general of the Arab Publishers Association. “Twenty-four Arab countries, a population of 340 million and 422 million Arabic speakers living outside of the region.” In the current economic climate, western publishers are increasingly tempted by this huge potential readership and the world’s largest festival of books has taken note.

Hay, now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution. In May, more than 100,000 people braved the rain to head to the sleepy book town on the Welsh border. The festival has hosted ex-presidents, rock stars and Booker prize winners and has extended its global reach in recent years to include offshoots in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, Segovia and Alhambra in Spain and Nairobi, Kenya. Beirut39 follows Bogotá39, which launched in the Colombian city in 2007 and identified many of the most promising rising Latin American talents, including Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Wendy Guerra, Andrés Newman and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

In the past, Arabic texts translated have generally been those produced by established writers. Important new literary awards have increased the profile of Arabic literature in the Arab world and worldwide, but the writers who have benefited have for the most part already enjoyed long careers. In recognition of the fact that the difficulties facing emerging Arab writers are particularly acute, Beirut39 set out to identify writers at the start of their careers struggling to find a wider audience. First or second-generation Arab authors born after 1970 with at least one published work of fiction or poetry were eligible for inclusion and nominations were solicited from publishers and literary critics across the Arab world and internationally. Members of the public were invited to nominate writers online and – controversially – authors could nominate themselves.

Around 500 young authors from across the Arab world as well as the Arab diaspora in Europe and America submitted their works. The vast majority of these texts were written in Arabic.

“England has always struggled to get interested in any literature not written in English,” says Cristina Fuentes La Roche, the Hay Festival project director. “They translate less literature than other countries in Europe. At the moment there are some terrific Arab authors succeeding in the western world, but they all write in English or in French. This project will give Arabic writers a real boost,” she says.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, the entrants were whittled down to the final 39. Members of the committee, headed by the Egyptian literary critic Gaber Asfour, and including the Lebanese novelist Alawiya Sobh, the Omani poet Saif Al Rahbi and the Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, focused on the degree of potential shown by the authors. The winners include the Saudi-born Abdullah Thabit, the Moroccans Abdelaziz Errachidi, Yassin Adnan, Abdelkader Benali and Abderrahim Elkhassar, Lebanon’s Hala Kawtharani, the Egyptoian Youssef Rakha, the Palestinian Adania Shibli and the Iraqi Ahmad Saadawi. Faiza Guene, a young French-Algerian writer whose first novel was published at the age of 19, is on the list, as is the award-winning short-story writer, novelist and translator Randa Jarrar. Her first novel, A Map of Home, was released to critical acclaim in six languages, and won the Hopwood Award, the Gosling Prize and the Arab American Book Award. The Iraqi poet and playwright Bassim Al Ansar was also shortlisted. In 1999, Ansar started a contemporary literature magazine in Denmark, his current home, and has had several books of poetry published.

The 39 authors will travel to Beirut in April for four days of literary talks, debates and recitals. Libraries, bookshops, cafes and universities will welcome visitors to discuss the issues at the heart of Arab contemporary fiction. The festival hopes to attract a diverse audience, reflecting the power of writing to stimulate social cohesion and cultural understanding.

To mark the occasion, Bloomsbury will publish Beirut39, an anthology of fiction and poetry by the selected authors with an introduction by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. The book will be published in English and Arabic in the UK, the US and the Arab world.

“This is one of the most exciting projects Bloomsbury has undertaken in recent years and is entirely in keeping with its commitment to the best writing from all over the world,” says Bill Swainson, the senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury London. “We are hugely appreciative of the judges’ careful work in considering submissions and delighted with the scope, energy and quality of their final selection.”

The backing of the publishing house is a boost to the project and will facilitate the sharing of literature around the globe. For the author and former National staffer Rakha, however, the problem of engagement is about understanding and appreciation as well as infrastructure. “Pessimistically, I think perhaps westerners are not as interested in the contemporary Arab world as we like to think they are, and when something is written in a language so different from French or Spanish and published by a small house with no contacts on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is no reason to expect publishers or readers who might feel culturally superior to pay attention to it,” he says.

“The irony, of course, is that a lot of Arabic writing could actually be very relevant and engaging to westerners at the basic, human, universal level – if only they had the means and inclination to read it. Should the resources become available to translate and publicise the right books in the right contexts, which I feel they increasingly are, I think we can expect the situation to improve. But the most encouraging development is that many Arab publishers are increasingly aware of the global publishing industry and working hard to reach out.”

The National

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January 2000

Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143

Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi