There is no escaping the fact. Since 2011, I haven’t been in downtown Cairo except twice, heavily sedated and only for as long as it took to run my unavoidable errand. With the help of medication, my condition had improved enough for me to go there frequently when the protests started in January that year, instead of being confined to Heliopolis as usual. After I was shot with a pellet gun and had to run away from hospital on the first day of protests, for a few weeks I returned to the hotspots of the revolution, but tear gas, shooting and all kinds of attacks often forced me (along with everyone else) to run for my life. This fucked it all up again, in time. Protest hotspots became indistinguishable from vast, crowded spaces too far from home. And, succumbing to my terror of both, I confined myself to Heliopolis.
Rajasthan in four cities
My great-grandfather, a feudal landowner in West Bengal, had a troubled marriage with my great-grandmother, who finally left him in 1927 and came to live with her mother in Jaisalmer. Her mother, my great-great-grandmother was one of the few female doctors in the country at the time and was employed with the royal family of Jaisalmer. My grandfather grew up in the royal household but left home one unsettled morning. He left just a note: my heart doesn’t want.
He wanted to be a classical musician. Failure meant that my mother and uncle grew up in dire poverty in the dirty back alleys of the blue city. No one knows what happened to my great-grandfather or the house or the land. I have never seen a photograph, only an image narrated to me by a distant relative: a man on horseback with leather boots and the eyes of a snake.
One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.
Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017
Arabic novels are so frequently described as Kafkaesque or Orwellian that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the two authors were themselves Arab. It is a small wonder that noone has yet tried to uncover their secret Arab origins by etymologizing their names (قفقاء and الروال) in the way that the Turks have for Shakespeare. It is true that both of their names have become literary shorthand for a type of writing dealing with dystopia, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. It is also true that Arab societies have continued unabated to live through dystopias, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. But the label flattens out what is particular and new about so much excellent Arabic writing, and suggests that everything you need to know about the daily experience of living in a dysfunctional and cruel system can be captured by the term “nightmarish”.
who are you and who am I
he stayed me
and he said to me Who are you and who am I and I saw the sun and the moon and the stars and all the lights ashine and he said to me There is no light in my sea shines on without I have seen it and each thing came to me until no thing was left and kissed me between my eyes and saluted me and stood in shadow and he said to me You know me and I do not know you and I saw all of him clung to my robe and not to me and my robe leant and I did not and my robe leant and he said to me Who am I and the sun went down and the moon and the stars fell and the lights were put out and the dark covered all things but him and my eye did not see and my ear did not hear my senses ceased and each thing spoke it said Allahu Akbar and each thing came to me a spear in its hand it said to me Flee and I said Where to and it said Fall into darkness and into darkness I fell and I saw myself and he said to me See none but yourself ever Come out from darkness never And should I bring you out from it I would show you myself You would see me and should you see me you would be most distant of all
he stayed me
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.