Youssef Rakha: Revolution’s Residue

I had my camera when I went out to demonstrate on Friday, January 28, the climax of the Egyptian revolution (January 25-February 11, 2011). I was on the streets for over twelve hours but I took only two pictures; they were to sit for years on my hard drive, unedited and undisplayed: my only trophies from the revolution. Unlike the majority of “Arab Spring revolutionaries”, from the moment Tahrir Square was occupied in the small hours of Saturday, January 29 and until the long-time president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, I felt that I couldn’t photograph and protest at the same time, that to be photographing would render my presence in the protests insincere and that the protests were about more important things than photography.

At the same time the figures and the faces that I saw daily in and around the protests, and which belonged to both “revolutionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries”, imprinted themselves on my mind more forcefully than ever before: sullen and despairing men, slim women in high heels and children everywhere.

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جمهورية صماء: إيليا كامينسكي ترجمة يوسف رخا

Jerome Sessini, Kiev, 2014. Source:


هي ذي الحكاية، شُغل عناد مع هواء قليل،
حكاية يغنيها الذين رقصوا أمام الرب على الهادئ.
الذين دوّموا ووثبوا، وأنطقوا حروفا صامتة تتصاعد
بلا حماية سوى آذان بعضهم.
نحن على بطوننا في هذا الصمت يا رب.
لنغسل وجوهنا في الريح وننسى الأشكال الصارمة للمودة.
لتمسك المرأة الحبلى شيئا من صلصال في يدها.
فسر الصبر هو صبر الزوجة
ليركع رَجُلها على السطح متنحنحا،
هو الذي يحب السطوح، الليلة والليلة أيضا، يضاجعها وهي تنسى،
رجل بدَقّة قلب سريعة، امرأة ترقص بالمقشة، تنفُّس غير منتظم.
ليستعيروا نورا من العميان.
ليقبّلوا جبينك، مشْرفا من كل الزوايا.
ماذا يكون الصمت؟ قطعة سماء داخلنا.
ستتوفر الأدلة، الأدلة ستتوفر.
دعهم يتكلموا عن الهواء ومسوغاته. أي شيء يفتحونه سينفتح.

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Youssef Rakha: Three Times Cairo

One: Instagram Dreams

Sleep-deprivation is like being high. I know because I was high for a long time, then I started sleeping irregularly. It’s supposed to have something to do with lack of sugar in the brain, which is also the theory of what LSD does to consciousness. Things grow fluid and dreamlike, but at the same time there is a paranoid awareness of motion and a heaviness in the heart. Colour and sound become a lot sharper, and time feels totally irrelevant. Normal speed is fast but fast can pass for normal. A moment lasts for days, days can fit in a moment. Talking and laughing are far more involving, especially laughing. The grotesque animal implicit in each person comes out, sometimes messing up the conversation. And then it’s as if you have no body. As in the best music, an uncanny lightness balances the overriding melancholy. There is joy in flying when you don’t need to move. All through this, what’s more, every passing emotion turns into an epic experience.

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دعاء المؤلف لإيليا كامينسكي، ترجمة يوسف رخا

Pre-1905 Odessa “Town Scenes” postcard. Source: eBay

إذا تكلمت باسم الموتى، فلابد من ترك
حيوان جسدي،
لابد من كتابة القصيدة نفسها مرة بعد مرة،
لأن الصفحة الفارغة هي الراية البيضاء لاستسلامهم.
إذا تكلمت باسمهم، لابد أن أمشي على حافة
نفسي، لابد أن أعيش كرجل أعمى
يجري في الحجرات ولا
يلمس الأثاث.

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Youssef Rakha: Who the Fuck Is Charlie


From the Miraj Nama of Shah Rukh, 15th century, showing the Prophet Muhammad astride his Buraq. Source:

The mere idea of contributing to the Charlie Hebdo colloquy is a problem. It’s a problem because, whether as a public tragedy or a defense of creative freedom, the incident was blown out of all proportion. It’s a problem because it’s been a moralistic free-for-all: to express solidarity is to omit context, to forego the meaning of your relation to the “slain” object of consensus, to become a hashtag. It’s a problem above all because it turns a small-scale crime of little significance outside France into a cultural trope.

Charlie Hebdo is not about the senseless (or else the political) killing of one party by another. It’s about a Platonic evil called Islam encroaching on the  peaceful, beneficent world order created and maintained by the post-Christian west. Defending the latter against the former, commentators not only presume what will sooner or later reduce to the racial superiority of the victim. They also misrepresent the perpetrator as an alien force independent of that order.

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Youssef Rakha: He Threw Himself into the Sea

The Sultan’s Seal reviews one of Darf Publishers’ recent titles: the Eritrean writer Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, translated from the original Arabic by Charis Bredin

Photo by Alex Majoli, source: magnum

I immediately began to suss out the reputations of all the local smugglers, remaining in a state of anxious indecision as to which of them I should do business with. There was ‘Fatty’, known for his reliability and the care he took of those who travelled aboard his Titanics. His reputation extended all over Africa and travellers from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana and Liberia would hunt him down as soon as they arrived in [Tripoli]. Other smugglers were known for how swiftly they could arrange crossings. Every week, one of their Titanics would leave for the far shore, completely devoid of safety precautions, and likely to sink a few miles out to sea.

Like Samuel Shimon (An Iraqi in Paris, 2005), and Hamdi Abu Golayyel (A Dog with No Tail, 2009), Abu Bakr Khaal writes reportage with fictional license. Though a Tigré-speaking Eritrean with no apparent connection to the Arab literary scene, he belongs in a recent Arabic tradition of confessional narrative that benefits as much from its authors’ down-and-out credentials as their distinct vernaculars. Whether Khaal’s language is interesting because of influence from his mother tongue, I don’t know.

In Charis Bredin’s decidedly British English, African Titanics is a breezy read, worthwhile for its first-hand take on an essential topic and its pseudo-mythology of pan-African wanderlust.

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Cover Art for FLICK, the Cairo International Film Festival 2014 Bulletin by Youssef Rakha

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