On his last visit to Cairo, the German translator Hartmut Fähndrich was despondent about the lack of interest in contemporary Arabic writing, and he offered this interesting explanation of Western reluctance to engage with Arabic literature: “I think [readers] fear that it will destroy the Thousand and One Nights image they have in their minds.” One might argue with Fähndrich about the number of potential German book buyers who have the timeless classic lodged in their minds, but from a modern point of view, it seems clear that no one writing today can live up to The Thousand and One Nights’ lack of sophistication, unadorned sensuality, or aimless fantasizing.
When the young writer Ahmed Naje was referred to a criminal court over sexually explicit fiction this Saturday, gongs sounded for the literary community. The news was an unpleasant reminder that, while creative writers in Egypt are by and large left to their own devices, this is only because their work is seldom scrutinised outside literary circles.
As a writer in Egypt you can only be torn between frustration over your work remaining obscure and concern with the trouble “success” could bring to your life. If you want to keep writing “against public morality” – this is the message of Naje’s case – then you’d better be quiet about it.
But in whose interest is such a state of affairs except the Wahhabi “terrorists” with whom the regime is at war and the corrupt, fascism-touting sycophants it periodically claims to be purging?
Originally posted on June 30, 2015 on The Coming of the Toads
Instead of page numbers, “The Crocodiles,” a novel by the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, is marked by 405 numbered, block paragraphs, the whole symmetrically framed by references to Allen Ginsberg, the US Beat poet, to his “The Lion for Real,” signed “Paris, March, 1958.”
Originally posted on Grand Hotel Abyss
Nothing’s truer than fiction, and the crazier the fiction, the closer to truth it sometimes is.
The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, by Youssef Rakha (published in Egypt in early 2011, just after the Arab Spring brought down the Mubarak regime, and released in English this month by Interlink Books) is a fever journey through the streets of Cairo, with mad detours into the history of the Ottoman Empire, the grand heritage of Arab literature, and the nature of failed relationships. At once a love story (Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı leaves his wife and finds true love – and great sex, though it might only be in his mind – in the following 3 weeks) and a story of crackpot religious fervor (during the same period, Çorbacı, a Western-educated quasi-believer – the book never has him praying or embracing any particular religious positions – has a series of dreams and visions and transforms himself into a zombie with the mission of reconstituting the Ottoman caliphate), this is a work of zealotry that offers a vision of Islam that is broad and inclusive and lusty and fun.
6 Mar 2015 by Hilary Plum
I first learned of Youssef Rakha’s work in June 2011, when Anton Shammas wrote me with an unprecedentedly urgent recommendation. I was an editor with Interlink Publishing, which has been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1987: here was a writer who, as Shammas would later put it, with his debut novel had claimed “an immediate spot at the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” With The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha has, in Shammas’s words, “[realized] at long last, one of the dreams of modern Arabic novelists since the mid nineteenth century: to formulate a seamless style of modern narration that places the novel in the world.” The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Kitab at-Tughra) had been published in February 2011, coincident with the beginning of revolution in Cairo, and over the following years, as I awaited its translation with the impatience the monolingual are doomed to endure, rumors of the novel continually, insistently arrived. I can only suggest that the anticipation I felt then is the anticipation literature in English does not yet know it has been feeling, the lack from which it’s been suffering, and which these two novels will answer in force.
In one of those lucky moments when publishing just gets things right, this winter offers readers in English Rakha’s first two novels at once: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey and published by Interlink, and The Crocodiles, translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories. Sultan’s Seal moves us exhilaratingly through the Cairo of 2007, city of post-9/11 Islam, sweeping through centuries of Arab and Ottoman history and into a future of Rakha’s own invention. The Crocodiles takes us up to the brink of 2011, spinning the history of a secret poetry society in Cairo, gorgeous in its fury, hope, and despair. Rakha’s arrival in English constitutes an event. It’s been my pleasure to speak with Youssef about his work.
Hilary Plum: Let’s start with your first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, just out in English, in Paul Starkey’s wonderful translation. In my work as an editor with Interlink Publishing, I’ve been lucky to be reading and rereading this novel for several years. This was an exceptionally challenging work for Paul Starkey to translate, since the Arabic undertakes a breadth of linguistic experimentation and intertextual references—to diverse works from the Arabic canon, medieval to present-day—that no other language could really reproduce. And yet, here we are, with this book in our hands. I wonder if you could talk to us, your English-language readers, about the experiments you enacted in the Arabic original, creating a style of narration for the novel that you’ve sometimes called “a contemporary equivalent of ‘middle Arabic’.” What drove you toward this endeavor? And what has it been like for you to see this novel come into being in English?
Youssef Rakha: There were two things I wanted to do with The Seal. The first—and maybe it wasn’t the first when I was writing but now that I’m moving into English, kind of the way you move into a house, I like to think it was the first—is that I wanted, from where I was, in post-millennial Cairo, to be part of the larger conversation that is the contemporary novel. By that I mean quite simply world literature today, which though still dominated by a more or less “Eurocentric” ethos is no longer particularly European, and though rife with death-of-the-novel discourse is actually irrevocably novel-bound.
I would argue that the literary conversation that expresses itself in this form was always hybrid and “globalized,” never so far from Arabic as to make it “foreign” to literate Arabs or vice versa, but that is hardly the point.
In an age when video journalism is increasinly paramount and printing is arguably no longer necessary, how do you feel the still image is still pertinent to documentary or news work?
Video journalism serves its purpose and is growing as it is easier to create and distribute, but photos haven’t lost their power in this new environment. A single strong image can be viewed and summarize a situation in seconds. In our fast paced world there will always be a place for the still frame.
Do you think documentary and art photography are important for the development of photo journalism? Is there enough of that going on in Egypt (with the Cairo Image Collective, for example) to create a photographic culture?
As a photojournalist I often steal style from art and commercial photography. We must be aware of their modern visual language in our work to stay relevant and interesting. But even though the internet has broken down barriers it can be impossible to find many documentary or art photo books in Cairo. While in the west you can pick up a thick fashion magazine at almost any store and get inspired by the commercial portraiture it takes conscious effort for photographers to suss out inspiration in Egypt.