Matthew Chovanec: On Its Own Fucked-up Terrain

Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017

Rohan Daniel Eason (copyright One Peace Books), from a children’s illustrated Kafka. Source: wired.com

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”.

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The Fituwa: Salah Eissa’s Raya and Sakina in Robin Moger’s Translation

1928 Print. Source: periodpaper.com

The following excerpt is from Tales from the Nation’s Archive: Raya and Sakina’s Men: A social and political history, the late Salah Eissa’s vast and discursive study of the lives and the worlds of the notorious serial-killers Raya Bint Ali Al Hammam and her sister Sakina, and their husbands Hasballah Saeed Maraei and Mohammed Abdel Aal.

Raya and Sakina and their husbands were arrested in Alexandria in early 1921 on suspicion of murder and it soon became clear that they had been responsible for the disappearance of a number of women in the neighbourhood of Labban where they ran an illegal (unlicensed) brothel. They were thought to be guilty of the robbery and murder of at least seventeen women, many of whom had worked for them as prostitutes. They were hanged in 1921.

Public attention focused on the sisters: the combination of their gender and the violence, sexual promiscuity and general unashamed degradation of their lives generated a fascination which fed into the many films and plays that dealt with their murders.

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Youssef Rakha: Who the Fuck Is Charlie

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

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: The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt

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By Youssef Rakha

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.

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