The Devastation of Iraq's Past

"What is currently taking place in southern Iraq," Gil Stein, the director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, writes in the catalog to "Catastrophe!," the institute's disturbing new exhibition on the subject, "is nothing less than the eradication of the material record of the world's first urban, literate civilization."

The New York Review of Books has a long article on the looting and destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage.

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Sacred Objects

I quite liked this short essay by Sophia Al Maria in the last issue of Bidoun, about the proliferation of miraculous appearances of Allah's name spelled in baby's ears, fishes scales, etc. (sort of reminds me of the many appearances of Jesus in the vegetables and washing machines of suburban American moms, as reported by the News of the World). I haven't gotten my hands on a hard copy of the magazine, and only a few essays are available online, but this issue--full of short essay about various "objects" in the Middle East--looks good.
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AUC's new campus: a mirage in the desert?

First off, apologies for the slow posting (traveling outside Egypt at the moment). I meant to link to a story I did before I took off on AUC's new campus. In September, the American University in Cairo is leaving its location on central Tahrir Square and moving to a brand new campus in the desert suburb of New Cairo.  The AUC is quite an institution in Egyptian cultural and intellectual life, and in the life of Downtown Cairo. The move is a dramatic change for the university, which is basically suddenly going from being an urban to a suburban university. What I find particularly interesting about the move is how it fits into a broader pattern of (not to sound alarmist) the abandonment of Downtown in favour of sprawling desert suburbs.  Living in Cairo, it's impossible not to understand the desire to move to less congested, less polluted areas. But personally I fear that this move (of the elites) to the edges of the city is yet another sign of the total lack of foresight and vision that is so endemic to the administration and planning of Cairo. And the role of real estate speculation--the fact that the construction of new suburbs is much more profitable than the upkeep of central neighborhoods--can't be underestimated. Anyway, here's what I wrote:
Last month, students and faculty at the American University in Cairo bade farewell not only to each other but to their campus. Over the summer, the university is abandoning its historical downtown location and moving to a new campus on the outskirts of the city. The offices of professors and administrators are cluttered with packed boxes. The library shelves are empty. And workers are toiling day and night in the desert outside Cairo to have the new campus – which will be 29 times bigger than the old one – ready by the time classes start in September. “It’s a very rare opportunity for a university to rebuild itself and upgrade to extraordinary levels all at one time,” says Phil Donoghue, vice president for planning and administration, of the move to the new state-of-the-art campus. But others are concerned that by leaving Cairo’s downtown and moving to the suburbs, the university will lose an important connection to the city and a cornerstone of its identity. You can read the rest of the piece here.
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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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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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