Weekend read: Kamel Daoud's counter-investigation

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud's Meursault, contre-enquete is one of the best books I've read in a while. Inspired by Camus' The Stranger, it is a brilliantly written, sharp, sad, angry look at colonialism, religion, and the limits of "liberation." It is narrated by the brother of the unnamed Arab killed and quickly forgotten in Camus' novel. Adam Shatz has a great profile of Daoud, the city of Oran, where he lives, and the Algerian literary scene in the New York Times magazine.

After college, Daoud took a job as a crime reporter for a monthly tabloid called Detective. (“What made ‘The Wire’ so great,” he told me, “is that it’s a collaboration between a writer and a policeman, the dogs of the world.”) It was through traveling to small, remote towns, where he wrote about murder trials and sex crimes, that Daoud discovered what he calls “the real Algeria.” When Detective folded in 1996, he went to work for Le Quotidien d’Oran. While other journalists complained of the danger they faced from Islamist rebels, Daoud rented a donkey and went out to interview them. He reported on some of the worst massacres of the civil war, including the 1998 killings in the village of Had Chekala, where more than 800 people were slaughtered. His work as a reporter, Daoud told me, left him suspicious of “hardened positions and grand analyses,” and that sensibility infused the column he began writing for Le Quotidien. Daoud upheld no ideology, spoke in no one’s name but his own. To his new admirers, this was something to celebrate: the emergence of an authentically Algerian free spirit. To his adversaries, Daoud became the face of an Algerian Me-Generation: selfish, hollow, un-Algerian.

The New Yorker has also just published a short interview with Daoud and more importantly an excerpt from the forthcoming translation of his novel. 

Musa was my older brother. His head seemed to strike the clouds. He was quite tall, yes, and his body was thin and knotty from hunger and the strength that comes from anger. He had an angular face, big hands that protected me, and hard eyes, because our ancestors had lost their land. But when I think about it I believe that he already loved us then the way the dead do, with no useless words and a look in his eyes that came from the hereafter. I have only a few pictures of him in my head, but I want to describe them to you carefully. For example, the day he came home early from the neighborhood market, or maybe from the port, where he worked as a handyman and a porter, toting, dragging, lifting, sweating. Anyway, that day he came upon me while I was playing with an old tire, and he put me on his shoulders and told me to hold on to his ears, as if his head were a steering wheel. I remember the joy I felt as he rolled the tire along and made a sound like a motor. His smell comes back to me, too, a persistent mingling of rotten vegetables, sweat, and breath. Another picture in my memory is from the day of Eid one year. Musa had given me a hiding the day before for some stupid thing I’d done, and now we were both embarrassed. It was a day of forgiveness and he was supposed to kiss me, but I didn’t want him to lose face and lower himself by apologizing to me, not even in God’s name. I also remember his gift for immobility, the way he could stand stock still on the threshold of our house, facing the neighbors’ wall, holding a cigarette and the cup of black coffee our mother brought him.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Two very good books

The finalists for the International Man Booker prize have been announced. Two names on the list have written wonderful books that have meant a lot to me. Amitav Gosh's In An Antique Land is a book I would place on my Ideal Egypt Reading List. I have just been searching my shelves for it and am distressed not to find it. This is a work of creative historical research and reconstruction and of deft and very amusing sociological observation. Gosh did doctoral research in two Nile Delta villages in the early 1980s (and then returned for a visit at the end of the decade). He memorably sketches the personalities of his hosts; his interactions with the villagers -- who mock him for his Hindu beliefs but call on him to fix their Indian-made water pumps -- are deeply funny. In his book he also imagines the life of a 12th century Jewish trader based in Egypt and his Indian slaves. He uses the Geniza documents, an incredible trove found in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo (since throwing away paper with God's name on it is forbidden, the Jewish community there had been using the space between two walls in the synagogue as a giant waste paper basket for centuries). To me In An Antique Land was a lovely, personal reflection on Egypt's layered, multi-cultural past and on its submersion (some would say erasure) by the modern nation state. It's told  by a writer with great empathy, insight and intellectual curiosity about folks around him and ones who lived centuries ago. 

The Libyan writer Ibrahim Al Koni is also one of this year's list. I read Al Koni's نزيف الحجر The Bleeding of the Stone when I was studying Arabic in Cairo in the Spring of 2008. A wonderful literature professor from Cairo University assigned it to us and it electrified the class. I have read a few more books of his in translation since, but none have struck me as much as this one. Like so many of al-Koni's books it takes place in the Libyan desert, where the writer is from. 

Elliott Colla, who has translated and written some of the best commentary I've found on Al Koni, writes:

Taking the Twareg aspect of Al-Koni’s writing seriously allows us to recognize a radically redrawn map of the world—one in which the Sahara is a full, rather than empty space; one in which the Twareg lie not at the edges, but the center of history. Al-Koni’s novels take place in a desert world that is, despite its desolation, surprisingly rich in the sense that everywhere there are living beings struggling to live. In Al-Koni’s fiction, the meaning of life is always tied to struggle. Thus, Al-Koni’s novels paradoxically suggest that only here—in the harshest corners of the desert waste—does life emerge in its richest sense.
While each of Al-Koni’s novels has a different focus, they invariably sketch a richly detailed Twareg landscape whose heart is located somewhere between Aïr and the Hamada Hamra, Ghadamès and Agadez, Sebha and Tamenrasset. Indeed, it is the Acacus range, Al-Koni’s birthplace, which forms the geographical center of this fictional universe. The inbetweenness of this geography is not accidental, for center of this world is deliberately situated between two diametrically opposing social and philosophical forces. To the South lies a world of myth, magic and superstition. It is the place where the caravans carrying blue cloth, slaves and gold originate. To the North lie the distant Arab cities of the coast and after that the sea—a place associated with mechanized technology and warfare. Truth emanates from neither—rather, it is in the struggle between them, the struggle in the Twareg center, that meaning is to be found.

The protagonist is the lone, simple Asouf, a herdsman who lives deep in the desert, in precarious and often dangerous balance with nature. Then evil hunters -- who have already wiped out the gazelles of the area -- arrive, on a hunt for the waddan, a nearly mythical mouflon (a horned wild sheep) with whom Asouf has already had run-ins. Everything about the book is strange and unique: the setting (the Arabic novel is generally extremely urban, just think of the relationship between Mahfouz and Cairo); the agency given to animals (when a late chapter is told from the point of view of a gazelle we are hardly surprised); the unique spiritual universe in which imagery and symbolism from many different religions is combined. This is a world in which nature is cruel, but human are much crueler. The original Arabic is also beautiful. I can only speak to the laborious pleasure I got, sentence by sentence (the labour added to the pleasure -- reading in a second language is often very close reading), but Colla points out how it harks directly back to early Arabic literary tradition. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Writing and reading about Qatar

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I profiled a young literature professor, writing instructor and novelist, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who works in Qatar and finds the emirate a great setting for fiction -- even though her own last book was banned. The article is behind our paywall but here is an excerpt:

A daughter of Indian academics who emigrated to the United States, Ms. Rajakumar, 36, arrived in Doha in 2005, to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A few years later, while working at Bloomsbury Qatar, a branch of the British publisher, she decided to try her hand at writing. "I thought: Wait a minute, I’m as good as some of these authors," she says.
While pursuing her literary goals, she also encouraged others to do the same. She started teaching writing and founded the Doha Writers’ Workshop, the first group of its kind in the country. Its meetings made her aware of the many stories Qataris were interested in telling.
With support from the U.S. State Department and from Qatar University, she established the Qatar Narrative Series, with an open call for essays by female residents of Qatar. At the time, says Ms. Rajakumar, "People said, ‘It’s such a private culture, they value anonymity, they don’t want to lose face. You’ll never get them to sign their name.’" But the series was a success. From 2008 to 2011, Ms. Rajakumar co-edited four anthologies of Qatari writing.
She uses the collections in the writing classes she teaches. It helps to show students "a book of published essays by people they can relate to," says Ms. Rajakumar, who has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus.
Ms. Rajakumar herself has written half a dozen books, published on Amazon. In the spring of 2014, she released Love Comes Later, the novel about young Qataris trying to find the right partner.
"All of my books are built around a question," explains Ms. Rajakumar. A major one for the young Qatari would-be writers she’d spent time with was: "Who are we going to marry? Is there any chance for love?" With Love Comes Later she imagined an answer.
When her distributor’s agent let her know the book was banned in Qatar, Ms. Rajakumar was surprised. She had anticipated being asked to make some changes for the Qatari edition (a common requirement for local publication and distribution), and was prepared to do so. "As a writer," she says, "if you don’t have readers, you might as well not be writing."
Neither Virginia Commonwealth, where Ms. Rajakumar was working at the time, nor any of the other Western universities publicly questioned the ban. Responses from faculty colleagues varied, she says, with some giving her "high fives" and others asking, "How are you still here?"
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Book review: The Iraqi Christ

A few months ago I finally got around to reading a short story collection by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. I was impressed by the wit, originality and punch of his writing, their well-balanced mix of very dark humor, brutality and pathos. 

Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’.
Blasim’s book was published in 2013, when Iraq had already suffered a decade of violence after the US invasion. Since then, the country’s very existence has been called into question by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. How to hold the pieces of one’s identity and humanity together is, unsurprisingly, a major theme of contemporary Iraqi fiction.

You can read the whole review here

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Iraq: The Outlaw State

An excellent essay by Max Rodenbeck on recent writing about Iraq. 

In short, the country that is now Iraq—although alas not, perhaps, for much longer in its current shape—is no stranger to the ghoulish and macabre. The Mongols, famously, built pyramids of skulls when they pillaged and razed Baghdad in 1258 and again in 1401. It was in Iraq in the 1920s that Britain introduced newer, cheaper methods for keeping unruly natives under control, such as chemical weapons and aerial “terror” bombings. Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-long Republic of Fear, with its gassing of Kurdish villagers, grotesque tortures, and mass slaughter of dissidents, made the later American jailers of Abu Ghraib look downright amateur.

[…]

Against this background it is not surprising to find contemporary Iraqi writers responding, like others before them in countries fated to prolonged periods of extreme stress, with a mix of black humor and gloomily whimsical fantasy.

Max mentions the novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, which I wrote about earlier here

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Palfest, part two

The second installment of my diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature went up at Bookforum over the weekend:

The daily life of Palestinians is constrained by an intricate complex of physical and bureaucratic barriers. Nowhere are the divisions and inequalities more dramatic than in Hebron. In 1994, after a far-right Israeli named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque that surrounds the patriarch Abraham’s tomb and killed twenty-nine Palestinians, the holy site was divided into a mosque and a synagogue. Muslims and Jews look at the same tomb from separate barred windows, bullet-proof partitions between them. Four hundred ultra-Orthodox settlers live in the city proper, alongside nearly 200,000 Palestinians. To accommodate and protect them, the government has shut down the main commercial thoroughfare, putting thousands of people out of work. Billboards explain that the street was closed due to the violence of the Second Intifada. Fifteen years on, settlers harass Palestinians, throwing bleach on the wares of shops and attacking children on their way to school. While we holders of foreign passports make our way past checkpoints down the ghostly street, Palestinians must take a much longer and more circuitous route to get from one side of the city to the other.

In a place this segregated, one is forced take sides. (The Jewish or the Muslim entrance? The settler road or the one open to Palestinians?) By the end of the week everyone at Palfest is overwhelmed, not just by the touring schedule and the flow of dispiriting details, but by the constant effort of positioning oneself—one’s work, one’s words—in relation to this terrible, lopsided fight.

The first installment is here. I also wrote something on all the lines that criss-cross Israel-Palestine (segregating Israelis and Palestinians, but also dividing Palestinians from each other, and from their Arab neighbors) for Mada Masr. 

Below is a performance by the very talented British-Egyptian playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz, who composed this after a visit to Hebron and performed it two days later in Ramallah:



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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Palestine

I'm a very honored guest of the Palestine Literary Festival this year. The festival brings writers from around the world for a week of readings and events in Palestine. Here is the festival's program and here is its Flickr account. And below are some pics. 

Ramallah

Ramallah

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

The crossing

The crossing

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

A novel about political exile, and the brutal passage of time

I've just reviewed a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel, by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain. The story, which seems to be quite autobiographical but has none of the self-indulgence that can mar that genre, concerns a middle-aged writer returning to the fictional Arab dictatorship he fled as a young poet and revolutionary. The protagonist, Adham, has lost the sharp convictions of his youth. 

Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"

Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:

"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

I recently wrote something for the New Yorker's site about the last winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a pretty riveting Iraqi novel.

In the opening pages of Ahmed Saadawi’s novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a suicide bombing shakes a neighborhood in the Iraqi capital:

They all turned towards the explosion at the moment a mass of flame and smoke ate up the cars and human bodies surrounding them, cut several electricity lines and perhaps killed a number of birds—with the shattering of glass, the caving in of doors, the cracking of nearby walls, the sinking of some old roofs in the Bataween neighborhood, and other unforeseen damages that all burst forth at once, in the same instant.

Eruptions of violence, as unavoidable and mysterious as storms, are part of the atmosphere of the book, which just won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Matter-of-factly, Saadawi sets out a reality—Baghdad in 2005—so gothic in its details (a man is troubled after seeing “a blood stain and bits of hair from a scalp”; after another explosion, a man dies alongside his donkey, “their flesh mixed”) that, when the novel makes a turn to the supernatural, it barely shocks.

In the explosion’s aftermath, a man named Hadi al-Attag, a middle-aged, hard-drinking scavenger and antiquities seller, loiters at the scene, smoking a cigarette. As firemen hose away the last human remains, he reaches down and picks up a nose, the last thing he needs to complete a body, made up entirely of discarded parts of bombing victims, that he has been assembling in secret. A storm hits the city and the body disappears. Following a strange chain of events, the creature comes to life and starts taking revenge on its killers. It learns that its body parts belong to criminals as well as innocents; its vigilantism is complicated by a need to continue killing simply to replenish itself.

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

‘Zaat’ and her bathroom – and television

On Mada Masr, Dina Hussein reviews the television adaptation of Zaat, Sonallah Ibrahim's great novel about rising consumerism of Intifah Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s:

Watching “Zaat” on television today subjects viewers to this alternative representation of history. The series interrupts Egyptian lives to provide the historical background to their struggle today. One could say that Zaat’s story is the historical preamble to Egypt’s revolution. In the novel, Ibrahim describes the transmissions that surround Zaat as the “march of destruction and construction.” And I honestly do not see a better description of Egypt today other than a continuation of this march of destruction and construction. But there is another more basic reason for why the series succeeded in grabbing people’s attention today: empathy.

Ibrahim’s choice of Zaat as the name of his protagonist is not accidental. In her 1994 book, “Egyptian Writers Between History and Fiction,” Professor of modern Arabic literature Samia Mehrez tells us how “Zaat” is Ibrahim’s “ultimate objectification of the self.” She explains how Zaat in Arabic means an indefinite self; it can mean multiple selves and/or one self. This “objectification of the self”, she adds, is a strategy that Ibrahim uses to break the boundary between the private/individual and the public/collective. Zaat resembles the ordinary; her life reflects the mundane in Egyptians’ everyday life. Ibrahim succeeds in making Zaat’s private life a representation of the collective identity of the nation. This is precisely why her story, especially when televised, has grabbed people’s attention. Watching “Zaat,” particularly the episodes taking place in the 1980s, triggers an intense sense of empathy from viewers who see her as a reflection of themselves.

The serial went beyond the timeframe of the novel and into the 1990s and 2000s, ending just before the 25 January 2011 uprising.

Naguib Mahfouz: an appreciation

On December 11 it was the centenary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth.  

Mahfouz was dragged into the news recently when Salafi parliamentary candidate (and reliable crackpot) Abdel-Moneim Shahat said the great novelist and Nobel Laureate “encouraged atheism and debauchery.”

Mahfouz nearly paid with his life for such views of his work. In 1994, a young religious fundamentalist approached him as he was getting into a car, pretended to want to shake his hand and instead slashed his throat.  He just barely missed the writer’s carotid artery. The man had never read Mahfouz’s novels but had been told his work Children of our Alley (also known as Childen of Gabalawy) was blasphemous. 

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Book review: The Puppet

I just reviewed The Puppet, by Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni (recently translated by University of Texas Press). I'm a great admirer of Al-Koni's work but was not particularly impressed with this book:

Perhaps one of the reasons The Puppet disappoints is that, for the most part, it doesn't take place in the desert. The novel is the middle instalment of a three-part trilogy al-Koni penned in the late 1990s, charting the decline and moral corruption of a nomadic tribe after its settlement in an oasis and the subsequent shift towards more sedentary and commercial ways. The puppet of the title is the would-be leader Aghulli, who is manipulated and betrayed by the tribe's noblemen and traders.

In his introduction, the translator William M Hutchins (who has translated al-Koni's Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth, as well as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy) connects al-Koni's work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun's theory of cyclical social expansion and disintegration. The book is also reminiscent of the Saudi writer Abdul-Rahman Munif's masterful Cities of Salt trilogy, which charts - with much greater nuance and historical specificity - the disorienting transformation of a nomadic population into a sedentary work force.

The rot of society, the temptations of settled and "civilised" life - as opposed to the purity of the traditional nomadic existence - is a recurring theme in al-Koni's work. In The Bleeding of the Stone, the shepherd Asouf lives as a hermit in the mountains. The arrival of two modern hunters represents the eruption of human evil into his innocent natural world. In Gold Dust, the hero chooses his camel companion over his family and reputation. The opposition between the corrupting demands of society and nomadic freedom is romantic and sometimes simplistic, but al-Koni imbues his characters' longing for the desert as a spiritual homeland with pathos and urgency.

The Puppet unfortunately retreads this familiar territory without adding anything new. There is no tension about the oasis' future, no ambiguity over the characters' natures and motivations. One of the general charms of al-Koni's work is that his characters are both archetypal and sui generis. Here, they are just archetypes: the puppet, the hero, the merchant, the lover.

Nonetheless, this is a writer very much worth discovering. There are several other works by Al-Koni available in English and I'd recommend starting there (in particular with The Bleeding of the Stone). 

     


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On Michel Houellebecq

I have a review of Michael Houellebecq's latest book, La Carte et le Territoire, which just won the 2010 Goncourt, out in The National. I discovered Houellebecq late in life, and consider him one of the best living French writers. This is an appreciation, although it's tinged with a note of disappointment that he didn't win the Goncourt for his 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island, which I think is his best work. 

I don't particularly care about Houellebecq's private life or his provocative opinions, including his rather thoughtless comments on Islam, which is pretty much the only tenuous connection I can find to the usual fare on this blog.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

New numbers on translations into Arabic

The eminent translator Richard Jacquemond spoke last night at the American University in Cairo's downtown campus (as part of the consistently interesting "In Translation" lecture series). Jacquemond has translated many prominent Arab writers, and most notably most of the works of Sonallah Ibrahim, into French. He also ran a French-government-sponsored translation program (from French into Arabic and vice versa) in Cairo in the 1980s. I went to see him speak mostly because I had so appreciated his translations of  شرف ("Charaf ou L'Honneur") and التلصص ("Le Petit Voyeur"). 

It turns out Jacquemond, who has already written a book on cultural politics in Egypt, is writing a new book on "the politics and poetics of translation" into Arabic. 

Jacquemond started out his talk by criticizing the well-known 2002 Arab Human Development Report claim that:

 The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.

The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa'moun's [sic] time (theninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year. (AHDR 2002, p. 78)

These claim have been disputed, by Jacquemond and others. Critics have also pointed to the way they have been simplistically used to make the argument that if only Arabs had access to Western knowledge and values, they could solve their development problems. 

I agree with this point--there is something condescending, perhaps not in the report itself, but in the ways its claims have been parroted (no one laments the absence of translation from Arabic); and that comparison to Spain has been tiresomely repeated. On the other hand it's impossible to deny that there is a crisis in the creation, access and dissemination of knowledge in the Arab world; that translation (like many forms of cultural production) often requires state support and that all states have agendas. Personally, regardless of the state policies behind it or the media discourse surrounding it, I consider every (decent) translation a gift to someone, somewhere. 

In any case, Jacquemond estimates the number of books that have been translated into Arabic with the funding of foreign governments (mostly the US, Russia and France) and of national initiatives at 10,000 and the number of books translated by the market at 30,000. He estimates that today somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 books are translated into Arabic every year (that number is a big increase over the past, and over the Arab Human Development Report's estimate of 330). 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Six cool things about Morocco

 As most readers of the blog know, Issandr and I spent the summer visiting and reporting from Morocco. What follows is a belated, personal and haphazard list of some cool things I discovered there. 

1. Music. Hindi Zahra, a Berber-Moroccan-French singer-songwriter. 


Hindi Zahra - Stand Up
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2. The online magazine Mithly, the first Arabic magazine by and for gay men (Click here to hear my interview with the editor).

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Sonallah Ibrahim, taking stock

Sonallah Ibrahim in his home, June 2010 (Victoria Hazou)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the great Egyptian man of letters Sonallah Ibrahim. The interview--and discussion of his novel التلصص (Stealth), recently translated into English--was fascinating. Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most formally interesting and politically uncompromising writers and although there was a melancholy note to a lot of our conversation, he is a kind, charming and funny man. 

Also as it turns out, Stealth--an affecting, autobiographical novel that deals with Ibrahim's unusual childhood--is a story he has been turning around in his mind for the last forty years. 

It was while in prison that Ibrahim self-published his first book. Financed by his cigarette allowance, the hand-written volume had a cardboard cover of flattened food boxes, chapter titles in red ink made from mercurochrome, and a spine held together by bread paste. It included the introduction to a novel, Khalil Bey, the never-finished forerunner of what would become Stealth. After his release, Ibrahim wrote novels that were published in more traditional, less painstaking ways. But the subject of his childhood haunted him. All along, he says, “I was thinking of it, of how to deal with it.”

You can read the piece here.

When I went back a few days after the interview, with photographer Victoria Hazou, to take Ibrahim's pictures for the article, I brought along the Proust Questionnaire to entertain us while Victoria snapped away. We got through most of it. 

What is your favourite virtue? Telling the truth.

What is your favourite quality in a man? Tolerance towards women.

What is your favourite quality in a woman? Beauty (laughs)...and mind. 

What is your chief characteristic? Being very fond of women. And persistence. When I start something--whether it's washing the dishes or writing a novel--I  have to finish it.

What do you appreciate the most in your friends? That we can understand each other quickly and laugh together.

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Culture links

I've been traveling and then had trouble logging into the blog, so it's been a while since I posted. But here's a collection of interesting culture links from the last weeks. 

1. Beirut 39 -- an event that selected 39 writers under 39 from the region, and aimed at raising the profile of emerging Arab writers -- came to a close. I'm eager to read the anthology that came out of it (even though I am not really a fan of anthologies...) Here's an article about the event in the Daily Star, but I haven't found many reviews yet. 

2. The latest edition of the  Palestinian Literary Festival -- a literary festival that travels around the Occupied Territories, because it is so hard for audiences to all gather in one place, and whose participants regularly face long waits at checkpoints and harassment by Israeli security forces -- also came to an end. Not before Ethan Bronner could lament, in the NYTimes, that it hadn't held some joint events with a concurrent Israeli festival. 

Again, it seemed like the two groups of writers could benefit from hearing one another’s reflections. Should the festivals meet? Should Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, A. B. Yehoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn, all of whom were speakers in Israel, join Geoff Dyer, Victoria Brittain and Raja Shehadeh, the writers on the other side?

Yes, said Anthony David, an American biographer and professor at the Bard Honors College of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. “It is ridiculous to have writers from all over the world in the same city and not meeting each other,” he said as he waited in Ramallah for a reading to begin. “The boycott thinking here among Palestinians is so entrenched that people are threatened by meeting people from the Israeli side. Building networks is the only way to undermine nefarious forces.”

But Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian-British author who runs the Palestinian festival, disagreed. “I feel that Palestinians are too often seen as an adjunct or reverse side of another coin,” she said. “Palestine is an entity in its own right and it deserves its own festival. If the day comes when Jerusalem is a shared capital, then we can reconsider.”

Yeah, the Palestinians don't get to keep their olive groves or their home in "contested" East Jerusalem, can they  have their own literary festival, for #*@*'s sake? 

3. At the Guardian, Jack Shenker gave the Cairene publishing house Merit the kudos it so amply deserves.

Mohamed Hashem's office seems an unlikely home for Egypt's nascent literary revolution: to find it you have to ascend a shabby set of stairs in a downtown Cairo apartment block shared by, among others, the Egyptian Angling Federation and an orthopaedic surgeon. It's a far cry from the slick headquarters of Egypt's biggest publishing houses. Yet on any given day it's here on Hashem's threadbare sofas that you'll find the cream of young Egyptian writing talent, chain-smoking cigarettes, chatting with literary critics and thumbing through some of the thousands of books stacked from floor to ceiling.

4. At the National Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reviewed the latest edition of the home-grown Lebanese art event Home Works, and wonders if it hasn't fallen victim to its own success: 

And this is the thing. Home Works was never meant to be a sprawling international art event, a spectacle divorced from its context. When Ashkal Alwan began in 1994, its mandate was to engage the city and create artworks that tackled urgent social, economic and political issues inextricably linked to the experience of Beirut and its relationship to the region and the world. 

Home Works was an alternative to big-budget biennials and splashy arts festivals well before either of those models was even plausible or desired in a place like Beirut. For better or worse, in its fifth incarnation, Home Works became the very thing it never needed or wanted to be: an art-world power summit, an occasion for lavish lunches, dinners and after parties, an event with little to no local audience or consequence that rolls into town, makes a lot of noise, blows a lot of hot air and disappears.

5. At Al Ahram Weekly, novelist and critic Youssef Rakkah reviewed AUC Professor Samia Mehrez's just-out-in-English Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Paradise. 

By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit -- freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu's notion of literary autonomy -- Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany's phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building ; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics -- the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say -- out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or "intellectual" achievement, what makes Egypt's Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.

6. And at Al Masry Al Youm English, I reviewed the latest collection of short stories (actually written before his novels) from Hamdi Abu Golayyel and the recently translated Drumbeat by Mohammed El Bisatie

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Cossery in Al-Jadid

I've made no secret in the past that I'm a huge fan of the late Egyptian writer Albert Cossery —  who wrote in French and lived most of his life in France but whose works are obsessed with the Egyptian mezzeg. Al-Jadid, the literary review, has a fine essay on him:

Albert Cossery by Mamoun Sakkal for Al JadidBorn in Cairo in 1913 to bourgeois parents of Syrian origins, Cossery was educated in French schools in Egypt, and was introduced to the classic—Balzac, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Stendhal—by his older brothers. In his early 20s, he became involved in an art collective by the name of Art et Liberte, which defined itself by its allegiance to the Surrealist movement, as well as by its opposition to the Third Reich’s condemnation of Expressionist art. After a good deal of travel, he moved to Paris in 1940 – motivated in part by a desire to see the Second World War in the flesh. He lived first in Montmartre, and then, after the war ended, in Saint-Germain des Pres, where he passed the rest of his life in one room on the 5th floor of the Hotel de Louisiane. Cossery thrived in the intellectual climate of Paris, of which Saint-Germain was then the epicenter; he knew Sartre, Camus, Durrell, Henry Miller, Giacometti, Tzara, Vian and Genet, amongst others. He was not as productive a writer as his colleagues were, delivering on average only one slim novel for every decade of his life (“only imbeciles write every day” he once said in a French television interview), but each book is carefully crafted in a French that is at once masterful, concise and trenchant in its humor.

Previously:

Goodbye to Albert Cossery

Words Without Borders on Egyptian lit

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Fact-checking Hitchens on Animal Farm

Get it on Amazon.comThis morning I read this piece by Christopher Hitchens on Animal Farm, George Orwell's classic work of political satire. It's always great to read Hitchens on this kind of stuff, because of his Orwell fetishism, and well because he's such a great writer when he writes about what he knows well, as opposed to endorsing late fascist1 dictatorships in the Arab world.

I have two issues with the piece. One is trivial. Hitchens offers this tantalizing morsel, but no interpretation:

There is, however, one very salient omission. There is a Stalin pig and a Trotsky pig, but no Lenin pig. Similarly, in Nineteen Eighty-Four we find only a Big Brother Stalin and an Emmanuel Goldstein Trotsky. Nobody appears to have pointed this out at the time (and if I may say so, nobody but myself has done so since; it took me years to notice what was staring me in the face).

That's fascinating, I had never noticed it. It's hard to believe that Orwell would have spared Lenin. But perhaps it's that Stalin and Trotsky emerged rapidly as the prime engines of the Bolsheviks, each carrying out acts of mass violence (first Trotsky as army commissar during the civil war, then Stalin in his own military decisions during the civil war and later as architect of command center economics and permanent political terror.) Too bad Hitchens doesn't elaborate.

(Update: a commenter points out that there is a Lenin pig, Old Major, who's the one who has the idea for the revolution. He dies at the beginning of the second chapter (just like the real Lenin!) but before the animals take over, so it's not quite chronologically accurate — or perhaps he's meant to represent not Lenin but something between Marx and Lenin.)

The second thing comes at the end of the article, where he hopes that Animal Farm will come to the countries it is currently banned in, such as China, North Korea, Burma or Zimbabwe. He also writes:

In the Islamic world, many countries continue to ban Animal Farm, ostensibly because of its emphasis on pigs. Clearly this can not be the whole reason – if only because the porcine faction is rendered in such an unfavourable light – and under the theocratic despotism of Iran it is forbidden for reasons having to do with its message of "revolution betrayed".

I don't think this has been fact-checked. The Wikipedia entry "List of banned books" says:

In 2002, the novel was banned in the schools of the United Arab Emirates, because it contained text or images that goes against Islamic and Arab values.

There's nothing on other countries. Reading Hitchens' article, you'd think that there are no Arabic editions of Animal Farm. In fact you can get a bilingual Arabic-English edition here (or download a digital version) and, I would assume, the regular Arabic one in bookshops in most countries (hopefully not all editions have as ugly a cover as the one on the right.) You can find an extensive Arabic wikipedia entry here. Amazon.com sells an "Egyptian Animal Farm" in Arabic, by Mohamed Morsey, adapting Orwell to an Egyptian setting.2 If you're a fan of the cartoon version3, you can get Arabic subtitles here.

I'd be willing to bet that Animal Farm is used in schools in various countries, too. If anyone has information on whether it is banned elsewhere, do let us know.

Footnotes:

1. "Late fascist": A term I use to describe the political systems most of the Arab republics, in comparison to Franco's Spain or Salazar's Portugal in the late 1970s or similar regimes based on public mobilization where the original ideological edifice of the regime is spent. Will have to elaborate someday, but today it applies to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Also in some respects Iran. I think it may well have applied to most Eastern bloc countries in the 1980s.

2. It's self-published, you can get more details here.

3. Watch it on YouTube or get it on torrent sites.