Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.
About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.
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?
I’ve always lived as if there were no end in sight. What I mean is, I’m continually destroying things and building them back up again. It’s never occurred to me that I might end up crazy or suicidal.
– Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy
I was hanging around the restaurant Floridita, spending time in the red light district, roulette in all the hotels, slot machines spilling rivers of silver dollars, the Shanghai Theatre, where for a dollar twenty-five you could take in an extremely filthy stripshow, and in the intermission see the most pornographic x-rated films in the world. And suddenly it occurred to me that this extraordinary city, where all the vices were tolerated and all deals were possible, was the real backdrop for my novel.
– Graham Greene on Our Man in Havana (1958)
Parque Central, Circa Hotel Ingelterra: 29 August 2012, 4 pm
I am lounging on a stone bench facing the central monument in Parque Central. The city is buzzing and the humidity and heat are overbearing. Nabokov’s Lolita is on my lap. I started reading it, devouring it, on the bus from Santiago de Chile to St. Pedro de Atacama; a 24 hour ride the only remaining memory of which – apart from Lolita – is a lingering and intensely unpleasant scent that I still am unable to identify. I have only two pages left, and I am beginning to experience that feeling of satisfaction which accompanies the end of a book you have savoured, when a Cuban man interrupts me. He appears to be in his early forties, and approaches me with buoyancy – he reminds me of those toys that spring out of a box and only cease moving once the lid is closed. “Que es su pais?” he asks in a question that I have already heard at least ten times today, and it’s only my first day. “Egipto” I reply. I notice that he is wearing a white skull-cap, and my hunch is correct. There are only five-thousand Muslims in Cuba, he begins, and an Islamic centre. It was complicated getting the communist government to approve the mosque. He mentions Ramadan, which has just concluded recently, and the difficulty of fasting in the tropical Havana heat. Upon learning that I too am Muslim, (yes I am, well .. sort of), and my name is Mohammed, his heart gives that jump of joy that for some reason Muslims of all nationalities and ethnicities seem to feel towards each other, especially when they meet in unexpected circumstances. I am now his brother – hermano.
I begin the ascent at 4p.m. After leaving my personal details at the Tourist Police Office and convincing the officer that no, thank you very much, but I do not need a Bedouin guide, I set off on the dusty road to St. Katherine’s monastery. The monastery lies at the foot of a winding path that leads after a two to three hour strenuous walk and hike to the summit of Mt. Sinai, or Moses as the locals call it. A strange mood has taken hold of me the past hour or so; a vague paranoia, a slightly heightened self-awareness. Perhaps it is the alienation of passing through a dozen checkpoints on my way here from Cairo, or the Army conscript and Police detective who requested a hike and whom I had taken on board at a checkpoint a hundred kilometres before St. Katherine’s. Maybe it is my botched sleep the past couple of nights, or the unsettling bizarreness of returning to Egypt while most of my family are elsewhere for the first time in my life. I don’t know, but I feel ill at ease. So it is with a sense of relief that I leave the Monastery behind and take the first steps to the summit. I really want to be alone. To tell you the truth this is the reason I am here. I have compulsively and hurriedly left our home in Cairo and drove 500 kilometres into the middle of the Sinai Mountains because I need to be alone. Since arriving to Cairo on the 24th of December, I have been avoiding answering the phone or talking to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. I am starved of my own company; I am hungry for loneliness.