The missing "Metro"

My article about the confiscated graphic novel "Metro" came out in The Review, the weekend cultural supplement of The National, a new English daily based in Abu Dhabi. Below is the opening paragraph. You can see translated panels from the novel at Words Without Borders.  

In a pivotal scene in the Egyptian graphic novel “Metro,” a blind old shoe-shiner stumbles upon an anti-government demonstration in the streets of Cairo. “Where can the oppressed find justice? Where can the hungry find food?” chant the demonstrators. The old man, almost without realizing it, starts mumbling along. A few frames later, he’s being carried on the shoulders of the demonstrators, having improvised a choice slogan of his own. A few frames further on, he’s being beaten by a gang of those young thugs routinely employed by the authorities to break up demonstrations. In two pages, the author of “Metro” has suggested the appeal and hopefulness of recent democracy movement in Egypt, as well as the severe consequences of any political activism.



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Egypt recently passed a new Child's Law. One of the most controversial parts of the law was the criminalization of female circumcision, or FGM. I just did a story on this for yesterday's edition of The World. One things I discovered is that while the figure that's commonly mentioned is that 96% of women in Egypt are circumcised, the figure for teenage girls is about 80% and they project (from government health surveys in which they ask mothers whether they plan to circumcise their daughters) that the rate for young girls will be 60% by 2015. The Muslim Brotherhood made a big fuss over this law when it was discussed in parliament. One MP brought his circumcised daughters and wife to parliament as an argument for FGM. I had read about this and went to interview Saad Katatni, the head of the Brotherhood's parliamentary block. He was much more diplomatic with me than his MPs had been in parliament. He actually said he recognizes that FGM isn't required by Sharia. But he said it shouldn't be banned because in some "exceptional cases" it's needed. Pressed on what those exceptional cases might be, he said they were when the organ (he meant clitoris) "طويل طولا شاذا", meaning "is perversely/abnormally long." This harks back to the popular belief that female circumcision is necessary for some women whose clitorises otherwise would grow to a monstruous size. When I asked Katatni about the death of Budur (the schoolgirl who died last summer while undergoing FGM), he said isolated cases shouldn't lead us to condemn the practice completely. He said: "If I as a doctor makes a mistake during a given operation, and the patient dies, do I discard this branch of medicine, do I erase this branch of science?”
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No thanks

Al Akhbar Al Adab is reporting that Baha' Taher, the winner of the recently established Arabic Booker Prize for his novel واحة الغروب  ("Sunset Oasis"), has declined to be among the candidates for the annual Mubarak Literature Prize, an official literary prize that comes with some serious cash. I think this may the same prize that novelist Sonallah Ibrahim famously rejected in 2003, with a dramatic speech from the podium. 
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Goodbye to Albert Cossery

The French-Egyptian author Albert Cossery passed away on June 22. We are great fans of the Cossery oeuvre here at Arabist, and if you haven't read any of his darkly funny books I highly recommend that you do so (I'm a big fan of "Mendiants et Orgueilleux," or "Proud Beggars" (1955) an of "La violence et la dérision"). He left Egypt in 1945 but continued to write about it for the rest of his life. He had a wonderful grasp of the graciousness and cynicism of Egyptian street life, and of the hashish-smoker's lifestyle; and he was a great political satirist whose plots are still perfectly relevant. 
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Those girls of Riyadh!

A few weeks ago Gamal Al Ghitany (the novelist and editor of Akhbar Al Adab) wrote a column about Arabic best-sellers. He was talking about a general trend, but he focused on the novel "Banaat Riyadh" ("Girls of Riyadh") which has been a best-seller in the Arab world and has recently come out in English. Al Ghitany talks about how Arabic literature, after 9/11, has become of interest to the West, and how Arab writers have (consciously or unconsciously) met a prospective Western audience's particular demands. "What is required?" he writes. "What's required is a peek into this society which seems closed to Westerners, and in which women occupy a particular place..." Al Ghitany describes "Banaat Riyadh" as "a modest, ordinary work from an artistic point of view" but he says, according to the "new literary standards" it's a "treasure trove, starting with the title." Al Ghitany wouldn't mind the work's commercial success if it weren't taken for a direct indication of its literary value so that, he writes, a British newspaper mentioned the work among a list of "six essential works to understanding Arabic literature."    While I share Al Ghitany's frustration with voyeurism and sensationalism, and with the generally quite superficial and misinformed Western coverage of Arab culture, I've actually heard some pretty good things about "Banaat Riyadh." No one says it's a masterpiece, but three women friends whose taste in books I trust have told me they greatly enjoyed it. I haven't read it yet (it's part of a big pile of books on my shelf that I often eye with guilt) but based on what I've read about it, it sounds like the author exploits the desire to see into the life of women in Saudi Arabia in conscious, funny and perhaps subversive ways. And she seems to use different dialects, registers, and languages to great effect.    Anyway, this column reminded me of the controversy that has surrounded Marilyn Booth's translation of "Banaat Riyadh" into English. Booth has written at length about the ways the author and publisher changed her translation without consulting her. She gives many examples in this article in Translation Studies (unfortunately not free to the public) of the kinds of changes that were made. I have to say that based on the examples she gives it certainly looks as if the changes flattened the narrative voice she'd created into something more formal and less charming. For example, here is the opening passage as Booth translated and as it was eventually published:  
Ladies, Girls, and Gentlemen: Get ready, because you are about to rendezvous with some of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around. Your correspondent - and that's moi - is going to lead you into a world that's closer to you than any of your minds can imagine. It really exists. We all inhabit it but we are not really livingit. After all, we all tend to believe in whatever we find easy to swallow and refuse to accept the rest.4  
The published version is as follows:   
Ladies and Gentlemen: You are invited to join me in one of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around. Your personal tour guide - and that's moi - will reveal to you a new world, a world closer to you than you might imagine. We all live in this world but do not really experience it, seeing only what we can tolerate and ignoring the rest. (Alsanea 2007, 1)  
Booth says she favoured keeping the flavour of the Arabic voices over creating a text that might be more accessible to a Western audience. Characters in the novel use English words in the midst of their Arabic; Booth had kept this by writing, for example, "soo falguur," to show how a character might throw the expression "so vulgar," with an Arab accent, into a sentence in Arabic. In the final text it was just spelled "so vulgar," giving no sense that in the original it was actually a borrowed expression from English. She also kept Arabic idioms and translated them literally, rather than looking for English approximations; this was also changed. And certain references that were considered too culturally specific were omitted alltogether.   Booth advocates keeping the text "strange" enough to challenge the reader to learn more, on his or her own, about the culture it comes from. She also is clearly an advocate for greater appreciation and understanding of the creative work of the translator. It would make for an interesting debate if the author of "Banaat Riyadh", Raja' Al Sani', would respond. 
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Links for June 19th

Links from my account for June 19th:

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Links for June 18th

Links from my account for June 18th:

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Egyptian anti-smoking warning labels

Egyptian health officials have been gearing up for anti-smoking campaign for a few months, and a few weeks ago new warning labels appeared on the humble Masri pack of Cleopatras and other local and international brands. It's a big marketing shift in a country of permanent smokers where the state-owned monopoly cigarette manufacturer, Oriental Tobacco, has never had to deal with any real pressure on public health issues and the price of cigarettes is almost as politically strategic as the price of baladi bread, and where illnesses that can be caused or exarcebated by smoking, such as heart disease, are a major cause of deaths. The AP has a story out on the new labels, and the gory labels themselves are after the jump.
CAIRO, Egypt - Offering a cigarette is as common as a handshake in Egypt, where the culture of smoking is so entrenched that patients and friends sometimes light up in hospital rooms. But now, the government is finally getting serious about the health risks, launching a new campaign of stark visual warnings about tobacco's dangers. Starting Aug. 1, cigarette labels in Egypt will be required to carry images of the effects of smoking: a dying man in an oxygen mask, a coughing child, and a limp cigarette symbolizing impotence. It's a major step in Egypt's fledgling anti-smoking campaign and a dramatic change in a country where public discussion of smoking's health risks is nearly nonexistent. . . . For the new label requirements, authorities field-tested a variety of images. They found that warnings linking tobacco with death were not particularly effective with Egyptians, since dying is perceived as inevitable anyway. Also, images of diseased lungs left people confused about what was being shown. Instead, the new warnings focus on threats to health and, particularly, to family, like the effect on children and pregnant women and the risk of impotence. Numerous studies, including a 2003 report by Tulane University researchers, have found that smoking can be a major cause of erectile disfunction, in part because it constricts veins and arteries, reducing blood flow. "We need something to give the smokers a shock that they are in great danger," said Dr. Mohammed Mehrez, head of the tobacco control department. There are many myths to overcome. Some Egyptians are convinced only light cigarettes lead to impotence. Earlier this year, the state-owned manufacturer Eastern Tobacco Company voluntarily put pictures of diseased lungs on some packs — but smokers just figured those packs were the ones that were harmful and switched to others, which some shopowners promptly started selling at a higher price. [From Egypt's new tools in war on smoking: Stark warnings on impotence, disease]
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Thoughts on "Taxi"

Khaled Al Khamissi's book "Taxi" came out in English a few months ago (the Arabic original has been very successful since it was published in 2006). I really enjoyed this book. I read it in Morocco last summer and it made me homesick for Cairo and its rickety taxis--maybe not the long sweaty rides in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but certainly the surprising and amusing conversations you sometime have. Below is a review I wrote. 

There are an estimated 80,000 taxis circling the streets of Cairo today. That means about one in every 200 residents of the Egyptian capital sits behind the wheel of a cab. And the proportion of the population that finds itself regularly in the passenger seat may be much higher. That taking a taxi has become an essential ritual of life in Cairo—that taxis are one of the spaces in which Cairenes most commonly meet—is an intuition fundamental to Khaled Al Khamissi’s “Taxi.”


“Taxi” has been a great hit in Egypt and the Arab world, selling tens of thousands of copies. It’s difficult to know how to categorize this book--it has been described as a work of ethnography, of politically analysis, of social commentary, and of non-fiction. Al Khamissi, a screenwriter and political analyst, presents 58 dialogues with Cairo taxi drivers—dialogues that aren’t exact transcriptions but rather creative reconstruction based on hundreds of conversations the author had inside the capital’s black-and-white cabs.


This overlapping of fiction and non-fiction isn’t new in Egyptian art. It seems to be a common strategy of those attempting to describe Egypt’s social, political and economic malaise—perhaps because treating the country’s widespread ills requires the full resources of both genres. We find it in Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1992 novel “Zaat” (with its extensive use of newspaper clippings) as well as Youssef Chahine’s latest film, “Heyya Fauda” (which opens with documentary footage of recent altercations between police and demonstrators in the streets of Cairo).


Whatever his methods, Al Khamissi succeeds in creating characters and interactions whose vividness and specificity make up the greater part of the book’s charm. Every word the semi-fictional cabbies utter rings with aggrieved authenticity. “Taxis” is written in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, and to read it is to be thrilled, amused and moved by the dialect’s rhetorical powers. (It will be interesting to see how Jonathan Wright, who has translated the work for an upcoming English edition from Aflame Books, has rendered this highly idiomatic language into English).


The conversations that “Taxi” is based on took place in 2005 and 2006, making the book a unique portrait of a turbulent time in Egyptian political life—when demonstrations took place every week, elections were approaching, and the word “democracy” was on everyone’s lips. While most of the drivers Al Khalissi speaks to view politics with justified cynicism, they are still incensed by the daily injustices that befall them. One driver describes Cairo as “a jungle” and a “hell.” Another, after having his driving permit confiscated arbitrarily, explodes in the following masterful diatribe against the traffic police, the Ministry of Interior, and the entire government: “I just don’t understand, the Minister of Interior, before he goes to bed, does he think about what he’s doing to us? Does he realize that we are educated people, of good family, [does he realize] how much our families exhausted themselves to give us educations? Does he realize how much his men humiliate [us] in the street? Does he think as he lays his head down on his pillow that we can’t take it, that we’ll explode? We really can’t take it anymore…We kill ourselves to make a living…And the Ministry treats us like criminals…and of course, like liars. We’re all liars in the eyes of any officer […] liars and sons of dogs that need to be hit with old shoes; I tell you, I don’t feel like a human being…I’m an old shoe. What do you think, sir, am I a human being or an old shoe?”


Yet some of Al Khalissi’s other interlocutors view the world with unexpected hopefulness, like the old driver who has been circling the streets of Cairo since 1948 and who opens an account of how he earned a providentially high fare by saying: “A black ant on a black boulder in a night of pitch-black shadows, God will provide for him.” Or the driver who explains his philosophy of life thusly: “Everything in the world has its beauty…you just have to open your eyes to see the beauty around us…but if you’re like most people and your heart is closed, how can you see the light that shines on us? We in Egypt are blessed. Egypt is the most beautiful and greatest country, and you live in it, when you open your heart you’ll see things without end in Egypt. Just the Nile…The Nile gives us to drink and to eat and cleanses our souls, to look at it purifies your heart.”


One of “Taxi”’s strengths is exactly how many surprisingly different voices it contains. Some drivers are bigots (like the one who asserts that all the young women in Cairo “are turning into prostitutes”); some are burning with desperation (like the one who says he’d like nothing better than to blow himself up in the streets of Cairo, as a recent suicide bomber did); and some are dreamers (like the young man who plans to drive his taxi from Cairo to South Africa in time for the 2008 World Cup).


The one theme that emerges most consistently is the monstruous economic burden these men struggle to shoulder, the abysses of destitution that—by working 14 hours a day, by counting every penny—they narrowly manage to skirt. If anything, the books’ deft sketches of economic injustice and frustration have become even more relevant today, with Egypt witnessing spiralling inflation, an unprecedented wave of labour strikes, and unrest (including massive demonstrations) over the cost of living.


The book’s success may be partly explained by its documentary (one might even say voyeuristic) appeal: the desire to see if others are truly as miserable as one suspects them to be. Critics of the regime have taken “Taxi” as further evidence of the average citizen’s desolation and disillusionment. In this view, the book gives voice to the oft-invoked Egyptian street. Yet if it does so, the voice’s originality lies in its tone rather than its content. It’s hardly a revelation that Egypt is a country in slow crisis, and that many Egyptians are deeply dissatisfied with their lives. “Taxi” takes this as a shared assumption rather than a point to belabour. And Khalissi’s selection of pieces is more varied, subtle—even whimsical—than a political diatribe would ever entail.


In general, Al Khalissi keeps his own presence and judgement to a minimum, and lets his characters speak for themselves. In his introduction, he calls taxi drivers the “barometers of the Egyptian street.” I doubt that by this he means that each driver is an exemplar, a representative from whose words facile conclusions about Egypt can be drawn. The meaning and value of the book’s near-sixty dialogues is cumulative, and the fact that they express various and contradictory point of view is a great part of it. Reading “Taxi” is a little like taking a year’s worth of cab rides in Cairo—it offers the same opportunities for enjoyment, frustration, discovery and insight. 

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Links June 12th to June 14th

Links from my account for June 12th through June 14th:

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$$ Egyptian Art $$

The cover story of the latest issue of Egypt Today is all about Egyptian artists who are making it big in the world art market. The story quotes some of the (rapidly rising) prices for which contemporary Egyptian art is selling, and suggests that both Western galleries and local collectors are increasingly interested in buying it. The discussion of the art itself isn't particularly insightful--I didn't get much of a sense of what distinguished the work of the artists featured, other than the fact that they all could be sold internationally. And I was left wondering how Egypt compares to other countries in the Middle East, like Lebanon and Iran, and to Abu Dhabi--where the art market is by all accounts booming and the Louvre is opening a franchise. But it's nice to see that there's some hope of financial support for Egyptian visual artists.  
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Confiscated books

In what I'm afraid will be a regular feature, I'd like to mention a few books that were recently confiscated from Cairo book stores. The Arabist has already mentioned Egypt's first graphic novel, by Magdy Al Shafaa'ee (a selection from which was published at Words Without Borders). The reason for this confiscation is officially a charge of "offending public morality" but it most likely has to do with the identity of the publisher, Mohammed Sharqawy (an activist whose torture in 2006 by police became a cause célèbre). The other is a little book called "عشان ما تنضربش علي قفاك," or "So As Not To Be Hit On the Back of Your Neck". (To hit someone on the back of the neck is a gesture of deep disrespect--a big "fuck you"--in Egyptian culture.) It's a manual, in Colloquial Egyptian Arabic, by a former police officer and lawyer, explaining their rights to Egyptian citizens and giving them advice on how to deal with the police. It's written in question and answer format, and addresses questions such as when the police have the right to search you, when they have the right to take you to the station, etc. Of course it's terribly revealing that the Egyptian authorities have confiscated a book that does nothing but inform citizens of their legal rights (the tone of the book is carefully respectful of the police).  Also, let me just explain that these books were confiscated, not banned. Al Azhar has the authority to censure books that deal with religious topics, but other than that In Egypt there is no agency with the mandate to ban books. What happens, though, is that if a book is charged with "disturbing the public order," "defaming Egypt," or some such nonsense, then state security confiscates the book from the market while the investigation and eventual court case takes place. I'm not sure if this confiscation is legal or not. What I do know is that "confiscated" books are often still available--book sellers and newspaper vendors hide them away, then sell them ("Psst, I have a hot book for you!") at a slightly inflated price. It's actually often a boost to the book's sales.   
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Links for June 12th

Links from my account for June 12th:

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Father of nation cares about the little people

Gotta love it:

CAIRO (AFP) — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered an extension to exam time at a school south of Cairo after his convoy brought traffic to a standstill causing students to show up late, according to Thursday's press.
"A humanitarian gesture by Father Mubarak to high school students of Six October," read a headline in the French-language Progres Egyptien.
On Wednesday, Mubarak took a tour of Six October City, a southern suburb of Cairo, to inspect housing projects close to Al-Nasr School where high students were due to sit their "thanawiyya amma" exams, the national test taken by all graduating high school seniors.
But the president's convoy, which often causes serious traffic disruptions as major roads are sealed off for long periods to clear the route for the fleet of about a dozen cars, caused many students to show up late for the exam.
When news of panicked students reached the president, he instructed Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif "to visit the school and make sure the students do not complain about any time shortage," ordering an exceptional half-hour extension to the exam duration.

[From AFP: Egypt's Mubarak turns back time for late students]
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Just went to see the Egyptian movie "Cabaret" last night. Came out of it less than impressed, and with shaabi pop music ringing in my ears for hours. The movie tells the story of one night in a cabaret (an establishment that features belly dancers and singers) in Giza, and of the lives of nine characters from among the staff, the entertainers, and the customers. The movie suffers from faults common in the current crop of Egyptian films: too many characters, poor editing, over-the-top drama, "social issues" (like prostitution) shoe-horned into the plot. Then again, there are some funny scenes, some good acting, and a few plot lines which would have born great fruit if they'd been properly developed. But it's a bit troubling how much the film titillated the audience with endless shots of female booty, joint-smoking and beer-swilling--thus making the film "edgy" and above all marketable--but swathed all this voyeurism in a thin layer of moral condemnation. 
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"Salata Baladi" screening

Nadia Kamal's documentary "Salata Baladi" is playing at the Cairo Jesuit Cinema Club this Friday at 6pm. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend you check it out. It's not perfect (a common criticism is that it should have been edited a bit more tightly), but it's definitely good, and the multi-ethnic, multi-faith Egyptian family it focuses on is incredibly captivating. The story of an Egyptian woman of Jewish/Italian origins who (among other things) ends up visiting long-lost Israeli cousins, the film has been accused of having a "pro-normalization" agenda and  has stirred quite a bit of debate in this regard. 
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