Youssef Rakha: You Will Still Hear the Scream

Reading “Correction” in Cairo

Thomas Bernhard by Michael Horowitz, 1976. Source: revistacaliban.net

“If one disregards the money that goes with them,” says the narrator in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, a more or less real-life avatar of the writer Thomas Bernhard, “there is nothing in the world more intolerable than award ceremonies.” Berhard goes on to describe his experience with literary awards and how they “do nothing to enhance one’s standing”—also the subject of a dedicated little book of his, My Prizes: An Accounting—revealing the depth of his contempt for the institution, for Vienna’s “literary coffee houses”, which have a “deadly effect on the writer”, and for the compromises and dishonesties required by the writerly life:

I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms, for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him. And to receive a prize is no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on, because one is being paid for it. I have always felt that being awarded a prize was not an honor but the greatest indignity imaginable. For a prize is always awarded by incompetents who want to piss on the recipient. And they have a perfect right to do so, because he is base and despicable enough to receive it.

For a Third World writer inevitably enraged by the tastes, biases and ulterior, including politically correct motives of Third World award juries, the effect is one of liberation. So even in grand old Austria this happens! It is also one of recognition. Here, dead since 1989, is someone who not only knew the truth but wasn’t afraid to say it, going so far as to integrate it into the fabric of his art.

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Aashish Kaul: Phantom Days

Cian Dayrit, from Spectacles of the Third World, 2015. Source: tin-aw.com


in this world, beauty is so common

— Jorge Luis Borges


Again I wake up with the sound of drums in my ears, the mattress hard under me. I bury my face in the crook of my arm that is on the pillow, while with the other hand I search for the watch. The drums seem nearer now; their beats ruffle the hair on the back of my head and slide down into my ears, but sleep has not left me entirely and it is with difficulty that I lift my head to check the time. It is not yet eight and I have already twice repeated these movements in the last twenty minutes, which could well be three hours. Then all at once the beating of drums ceases. The company has concluded its morning march. A bugle is heard three times. After that all is silent, though I now become aware of another sound, that of the old fan rotating above. Fighting the urge to fall back to sleep I turn around and rub my eye with a finger. I can think of nothing as I follow the movements of the fan through the mosquito net that closes on me from all sides – like a room within a room. In my sleep I recall feeling the warmth of a body. But here I lie alone, ignoring the discomfort of a full bladder. I see the road that passes through the forest, its trees yellowish-brown skeletons, their branches bare and rising willy-nilly towards a sky which is white with heat; the earth as far as you can look is covered with dead leaves. It is a landscape at the end of time.

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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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