Writing the North African Experience: Interview with Youssef Rakha

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Centre for African Poetry: Let us begin by inviting you to humour our ignorance. The title of your 2011 novel is translated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, but we wonder which of the two names we have seen for it in Arabic is more accurate – khutbat al-kitab, or Kitab at Tughra?

Rakha: Kitab at Tughra is the title. Khutbat al-kitab means, literally, “Address of the book”; it’s a formulaic canonical phrase for “introduction” or “prologue”, which here and in old Arabic books doubles as a kind of table of contents; on the surface the novel is modelled on a medieval historical text. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the original sense of kitab, which is the Arabic word for “book”, means simply “letter” or “epistle”: every canonical book is addressed to a patron or a friend, and that’s an idea that is particularly meaningful to me.

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Imogen Lambert: “They tweeted martyrdom with lattes”

Tower of Babel

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined…

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Photo: @sultans_seal

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Night bites my shoulder. I turn to you, through a nylon window
To a state of limbo, there on a map
Under rivers of paper
We never drown, gazing on bridges
Night hugged my waist, like my mother, wailing
Where are our parents?

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Mahmoud El Maniarwi: Howling-محمود المنيراوي: نباح

English below

في كفيّ ثديكِ، اقبضهُ
كأني خائفٌ عليهِ أن يهرب ونحنُ نيام
أنا الذي أعرفُ أن رحيلك “جريمة مغرمة بالحدوث”
استيقظُ من نومي على كابوسِ الغياب
ولا حيلة لي سوى أن لا أصدق الحيل
لا ثدي في كفي
لا أنتِ هنا
لا شيء غيري
عيني في فوّهة الزمنِ، ابحث عن رصاصة الحنين
اقلبُ صوركِ في الموبايل
اسمعُ أغنية سمعناها سوياً
أحاول أن اكتب لكِ
ماذا يمكن أن أقول؟
سؤال العاشقِ الوجودي الذي لا يموت
حسرة العجز الأليفة
لرجلٍ ينبح ليلاً
من على جبلِ المسافةِ في وجهِ القمر

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Mohab Nasr: The people are sleeping-مهاب نصر: الشعب نائم يا حبيبي

The people are sleeping: Two versions

“The people are asleep,

Don’t wake the people, darling,

So she’d tell him

Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,

Whenever his eyes shone behind the door

Like a password,

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Please, God, give us books to read

A poem by Mohab Nasr

 

Somehow
I was a teacher;
somehow
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.

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One arm left

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MY ARM HURTS

When one of them dies you realize

Parents are like limbs:

They don’t stop hurting amputated.

Moaning theatrically to tell the world

How long suffering she has been,

The one who hasn’t died draws up

At the threshold to her chamber,

One hand on the peeling door frame

Apparently to keep standing.

I can only see the back of her

As I go on pacing the hall.

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