The house sat on stilts. These were the marshlands of South Carolina, where even the birds slept on tall, lanky wooden sticks to keep their plumage dry. When mama wasn’t looking, Tito and I snuck down to wade knee deep in the muck. We terrorized the egrets out of their stroll. We trapped in buckets the legged tadpoles that were not yet grown enough to jump. They drowned each other while we watched. With gummy feet they stepped on each other’s open eyes and threw their bodies against the high, plastic walls for hours. When mama finally came looking for us, we let the live ones go. But even back upstairs it was not quite an inside. The wood hummed with mites. There were spiders knitting in the cupboards. There were ants in the bathroom, lizards blinking from the walls, and once, out of a bag of rice, there bloomed a cloud of baby moths. The kitchen spun with their dizzy dust-magic until the first one fried itself on the bulb. It fell dreamily. I was six when mama found my first diary, filled with pencil drawings of all my animal friends. I gave each of them small droopy genitals like mine.
أتمرن على ركوب الموج في صحراء
أعاند المد والجزر
فلا أتوه ولا أصِل
والرمال التي تحملني تبدل غربتي بألفة
حتى أصير أشبهها
وتجعل أمواجها أرضاً لي
تدفعني بقوة فأقول
The Quixote Code
Remembering Borges, Youssef Rakha courts sedition
He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original… – Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
As a literary exercise – or novel – to imagine a diary composed 1,500 years ago: what could be more challenging to a contemporary writer? Few would think to accomplish the task as literally as Pierre Menard, the author imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his first short story, who rewrites Cervantes’ Don Quixote, word for word, without ever reading it. An author about to produce a 1,500-year-old fictional diary would certainly affirm the kind of human connection that makes characters in books interesting regardless of when the books were written and when the characters lived, but they might also be curious as to how different the world was so long ago, and the ways in which its difference necessarily affected the people they deal with. In the fifth century, for example, the earth was still flat, there was no such thing as penicillin, demons (whether Christian or pagan) had far more physical presence, and slavery was the norm.
Azazeel, Beezlebub, Youssef Zeidan, Cairo: Dar Al Shurouk, April 2009 (seventh edition)
Last month, at a symposium in Kuwait, I bumped into the Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, head of the jury of the first round of the Abu Dhabi-based International Prize for Arabic Fiction (better known as the Arabic Booker because it is administered by the Booker Foundation). While bitterly complaining of lack of alcohol, which is illegal in Kuwait, Shimon told me the story of his visit to Wadi An Natroun, the site of some of the world’s oldest monasteries in Egypt, and how he argued with the monks there for still holding a grudge against a man who died over 1500 years ago. I asked him who he meant.