The Ruins by Josh Calvo

“The Ruins” is Josh Calvo’s monthly dirge for sundry Aleppos of memory—all real, all lost, all his. “The Ruins” is a term borrowed from pre-Islamic poetry, in which “weeping over the ruins” is a favorite gharad; the word gharad, which literally means “purpose” and roughly corresponds to genre, is used to indicate not so much a poem’s theme as the driving force behind its utterance. “The Ruins” is the title of both the series and the first piece in the series. Josh Calvo, who is first and foremost a true writer though he also translates from  Hebrew and Arabic, among other languages dead and alive, can be reached at this email.

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Entrance to Aleppo Castle, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, 1898. Source: loc.gov

Then the rains washed over the ruins, like a book whose text is written and rewritten….

— Labid (d. 661)[1]

For reasons he has kept to himself, Hakham Abraham Yeshaya Dayan–—born around the turn of the nineteenth century in Aleppo, and risen to become a rabbinic leader in its Jewish community, authoring several religious and scholarly books which have now become obscure, the world to which they are addressed having disappeared and the city in which they were to be read and applied having become in the hundred years since he lived unfathomably and irreversibly unrecognizable—decided suddenly, with the dawning of what would be the decade before his death, that the time had come for him to walk along the walls of his ancient city in search of signs from its long history. For want of some sense of his inner motivations, of what he beheld in his mind whenever he tried to see Aleppo in times he cannot have known, of what image of the city as he knew it over his own lifetime had been building itself in his memory, I can discover little more than he himself has admitted—or that has, by chance or by force, admitted itself—into his words. The nineteenth-century Hakham would not have needed to describe the impression left in mind by what he could still see outside: like the feeling of what remained of what once was: or the music of the undead voices of those who lived before: the cold stone of a synagogue surviving in the walls of a mosques: or the distant echoing of King David’s cavalry and Mongol horses heard faintly, aloft the wind from faraway mountains. And now that the Aleppo he knew has smoldered and will never again be seen, what remains are only these silent words by which it will never be described.

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Youssef Rakha: On Fiction and the Caliphate

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Youssef Rakha, Palavas-les-Flots, near Montpellier, France, 2017

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.

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