Anna Iltnere: Sea Library

Childhood drawing by Anna Iltnere. A house by the river with blooming water lilies.

Before going to sleep I walk down to the river for a swim. With my nostrils slightly above water, I watch the ducks moving among the water lilies. The lips of invisible fish blow circles into the surface on the other side. Cut grass and cold dew stick to my bare feet as I walk back. I wash them away, kiss my boys goodnight and climb into bed to read and to dream.

If I wake up before the others, I push my bike out of the garage and cycle to the morning sea, three miles away. It’s a gulf, to be honest, but we still call it the sea, the Baltic Sea, a tiny inner pocket of the Atlantic Ocean — where it hides what’s dearest, I imagine. There’s almost no salt in the Baltic Sea, they say, but my tongue still tastes it on my lips and my skin  when I leave gravity behind with my clothes on the shore and surrender my body to the waves. When I’m dressed again, I explore the white sand with my fingertips and put a couple of stranded splinters, tiny dark brown pieces of driftwood, in my pocket, stamp souvenirs from my own little journeys traversing same paths every day. I am a sea librarian now.

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They Killed for Love: Michael Lesslie in Conversation with Maan Abu Taleb

José Luis Cuevas, Macbeth, 1987. Source: 1stdibs.com

One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.

The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.

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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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Robin Moger Translates Ahmad Yamani

Tomorrow the village market day

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By Youssef Rakha. Leukerbad, Switzerland

I will go to the spring

where you slip away to fill your jar

everyone at the market and me by the tree

we maintain twenty metres no more no less

and this before you catch on a stone or two

and before a foot slips and a jar slips

leaving me ahead

on our way to the spring again

by twenty metres and a slight smile.

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Backgammon in the Ruins of an Old Palace of Saddam Hussein’s: Bezav Mahmod and the Image of Kurdistan

Once, long ago, my mother fled a genocide (the Al Anfal campaign). She fled on foot over massive Kurdish mountains carrying me on her back and my little brother in her stomach.

My grandparents, Kurdish villagers/farmers, were faced with brutal oppression. They were forced into the Kurdish struggle, taking up arms to resist the annihilation of their identity. For 50 years they lived with war and the struggle of the Kurds. My grandfather Selman Mahmod Bamernî became a peshmerga at an early age. He was involved in many bloody battles and lost many comrades in the process. He was seriously injured twice, and twice placed in Iraqi prisons. He was often separated from his family, once for over five years, so long that, when he came back, his youngest children did not recognize their own father. He has devoted his life to the Kurdish struggle. A humble person with honor, compassion and an absolutely wonderful sense of humor. He has made many laugh heartily in his day.

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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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