I first learned of Youssef Rakha’s work in June 2011, when Anton Shammas wrote me with an unprecedentedly urgent recommendation. I was an editor with Interlink Publishing, which has been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1987: here was a writer who, as Shammas would later put it, with his debut novel had claimed “an immediate spot at the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” With The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha has, in Shammas’s words, “[realized] at long last, one of the dreams of modern Arabic novelists since the mid-nineteenth century: to formulate a seamless style of modern narration that places the novel in the world.” The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Kitab at-Tughra) had been published in February 2011, coincident with the beginning of revolution in Cairo, and over the following years, as I awaited its translation with the impatience the monolingual are doomed to endure, rumors of the novel continually, insistently arrived. I can only suggest that the anticipation I felt then is the anticipation literature in English does not yet know it has been feeling, the lack from which it’s been suffering, and which Rakha’s novels will answer in force.
In one of those lucky moments when publishing just gets things right, this winter offers readers in English Rakha’s first two novels at once: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey and published by Interlink, and The Crocodiles, translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories. Sultan’s Seal moves us exhilaratingly through the Cairo of 2007, city of post-9/11 Islam, sweeping through centuries of Arab and Ottoman history and into a future of Rakha’s own invention. The Crocodiles takes us up to the brink of 2011, spinning the history of a secret poetry society in Cairo, gorgeous in its fury, hope, and despair. Rakha’s arrival in English constitutes an event.
Hilary Plum: Let’s start with your first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, just out in English, in Paul Starkey’s wonderful translation. In my work as an editor with Interlink Publishing, I’ve been lucky to be reading and rereading this novel for several years. This would have been an exceptionally challenging work for any translator, since the Arabic undertakes a breadth of linguistic experimentation and intertextual references—to diverse works from the Arabic canon, medieval to present-day—that no other language could really reproduce. And yet, here we are, with this book in our hands. I wonder if you could talk to us, your English-language readers, about the experiments you enacted in the Arabic original, creating a style of narration for the novel that you’ve sometimes called “a contemporary equivalent of ‘middle Arabic’.” What drove you toward this endeavor? And what has it been like for you to see this novel come into being in English?
Youssef Rakha: There were two things I wanted to do with The Seal. The first—and maybe it wasn’t the first when I was writing but now that I’m moving into English, kind of the way you move into a house, I like to think it was the first—is that I wanted, from where I was, in post-millennial Cairo, to be part of the larger conversation that is the contemporary novel. By that I mean quite simply world literature today, which though still dominated by a more or less “Eurocentric” ethos is no longer particularly European, and though rife with death-of-the-novel discourse is actually irrevocably novel-bound.
I would argue that the literary conversation that expresses itself in this form was always hybrid and “globalized,” never so far from Arabic as to make it “foreign” to literate Arabs or vice versa, but that is hardly the point.
My here and now was interesting enough to make one tightly packed, fat novel worthy of all that I’d written before: poetry and reportage, confession and satire, narrative and philosophy, history and geography. There were precedents in the Arabic canon, ironically often from times that have traditionally been deemed periods of literary decline. There were the compendia of the weird and wonderful like Abshihi, for example: literary encyclopedias that included both verse and prose and purported to contain all that there was to know about the world or a given subject therein. My subject, of course, was Cairo, so there was little confusion about epistemic frontiers in this encyclopedia. There was Ibn Iyas, who reads like plotless Tolstoy even as he is writing straightforward political history. There were the love poems. There were the rhymed-prose, practical-joke shorter narratives known as maqamat. There were the kama sutras. There were the great, batshit Sufi epistles of Ibn Arabi, which express a kind of joyful paranoia in an attempt to explain God.
And that’s how I came to model each part of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal on a canonical text or genre of text, including Maqrizi and Ibn Hazm and Ibn Khaldoun: by matching the aspect of Cairo that was being discussed to an existing (if hardly ever recognized) way of talking about that subject. Because very gradually over a period of maybe two years, I had decided to have a go at synthesizing as much of what I knew of the canon as was relevant to make a lasting statement about the Cairo I had experienced. I wanted to use purely Arabic source material to talk to non-Arab contemporary writers that I’d read, never mind the fact that they might never pay attention to what I had to tell them. I wanted to say something to Pamuk about the Ottomans and post-Muslim identity, to Eco about the convergence of the thriller and conspiracy theory, to Murakami about madness and I-driven, first-person narration, and—yes—even to Houellebecq about Arabness-Islam and the fantastical imagination.
People talk about the death of the novel but they don’t tell you what the novel is, it’s as if you’re at a funeral where you don’t know who died, and maybe the person being mourned is really someone completely other than what their name suggests. (I remember challenging one Arab critic to explain to me how Camus’s The Stranger, by his definition, was not a short story—and does that mean the novella, unlike its more corpulent sibling, hasn’t died?) Anyway, having consciously distanced myself from what the Egyptian critic Gaber Asfour had very glibly been calling the (Arab) Age of the Novel, I wanted to find out for myself what that sort of book would look like. In a way many—or, let’s say, some—of my peers seemed to have the same aspiration, so very privately it was also a matter of writing the Book of the Generation, which I hoped would turn into some kind of cult classic or at least an academic benchmark: a contemporary Arabic novel that transcends not only the more or less realist tradition of, say, Mahfouz but also its still too realist Sixties Generation offspring: “poetic,” hyperrealist, and faux-medieval, but especially “poetic”—and fucking realist. This new beast had to have narrative breadth and true, plot-like structure. It had to be elliptical rather than merely economical, and to utilize the fantastical imagination. It also had to find a language that effectively combined the spoken Egyptian-Arabic dialect and the literary standard-Arabic vernacular with ancient and fantastical registers of the language.
That was the second thing I wanted to do with The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: to invent a polyphonic, novelistic Arabic to match the ambition of the content. I’m afraid it has taken me over 700 words to begin to answer your question! But I had to begin with the ways in which the book has survived translation. When I looked at the final draft of the English I was relieved, reassured that—as a story, an essay, an inquiry into human and third world “Islamic” city nature: as a novel, in other words—it still stood. I’d been deeply worried that it might not hold together in any language but Arabic. As to the ways in which it didn’t and couldn’t survive being transported onto a different language plane, they are the reasons I categorically refused to undertake the translation myself.
It’s very hard to describe the process by which the language of Kitab at-Tughra came to be. I sometimes have a problem with the word “experimentation,” because it implies something arcane or ersatz—I know this is not what you mean—so I’d rather think of what I was doing as extending existing, present-day idioms of both speech and writing with a view to stylizing and harmonizing them for the purposes of this post-Muslim (as opposed to postmodern) portrait of the city.
I think I’ve mentioned this beautiful quote by Sargon Boulus: “So, when I write my poetry in Arabic . . . sometimes I feel that I am really writing in [all the dead languages that had seen their day centuries ago], because I believe, finally, that any language contains all the dead memories of the races who contributed to it.”
In spoken (and, to some extent, written) Egyptian Arabic, it certainly seems to be the case that long-dead variants of Turkish, Farsi, and Coptic as well as forms of living but unknown Greek, Italian and French—not to mention Arabized English words: the verb rakless, for example, meaning “to relax”—all continue to live and be lived in an unproblematic way. I tried to bring out this layered quality of the language to reflect the layers of experience I was dealing with, and sometimes I had to do some etymological research just to confirm or understand what I was doing in a given sentence. The most common Egyptian word for “table,” for example, tarabezah, comes from the Greek τραπέζι. The word “Rumi,” as in Jalaluddin Rumi—though in contemporary standard Arabic it would seem to mean “Roman”—actually means “Turkish from Rum, outside Anatolia,” evidenced by the fact that in Alexandria what in Cairo is called “Rumi cheese” is still called “Turkish cheese.” And so on.
So whatever idiom I was using—Sixties-Generation-like standard Arabic, whether lyrical or journalistic-descriptive; unmitigated 2000s Egyptian slang (which Paul claimed even his Egyptian scholar colleagues in the UK couldn’t understand); the “middle Arabic” in which I tried to create a contemporary version of Jabarti’s conversational, dialect-inflected classical Arabic so different from either “modern standard” or Quranic Arabic—I emphasized the links, the joints. I made no attempt to conceal the seams or smooth out the bumps. The intention, even if I hadn’t articulated it to myself in so many words, was to produce a sort of commonwealth of Egyptian Arabic, a kind of linguistic caliphate, multifarious but functional. I did this through stages of writing and rewriting, and I feel I ended up with a language that, though it might be pointless to reproduce in other books, is at least as significant an achievement as anything else in the Arabic Novel.
None of this will be available to the English reader, but since the book works without it—and it is so integral to the book—that must mean that it is still there in however occult a form.
HP: Yes, I very much agree: still there, though it would be hard to say how. We have Paul to thank, and I wonder what he would say here. I like your phrase elliptical rather than merely economical, which gets at this idea, the absence we circle around, and which describes a novel’s formal choices as honoring loss, not production. The Book of the Sultan’s Seal circles around Cairo, remapping the city as it moves: the protagonist’s daily journeys reinscribe the shape of a tughra, the Ottoman sultan’s seal, onto the post-millennial city. Your second novel, The Crocodiles, is quite different in form: it’s told in numbered paragraphs, so that the novel presents itself as linear, while the story it tells—of the members of the Crocodiles, a secret poetry society, and of events in Cairo spanning 1997 to 2011—loops and loops, moving forward and backward in memory and through history’s eruptions and recursions.
Two forms that hurtle forward while circling back. Both, too, include poetry—Ibn Al-Farid, Ginsberg, Boulos, more—at the heart of narrative. The distinction between poetry and prose seems the matter of a moment, a plunge into one form or the other, a dialogue between. Could you talk about your approach to form, and perhaps to poetry and/versus narrative prose? One distinction the world seems to have made is that one can make a living—or, sort of—as a novelist but not as a poet (I’m thinking, too, of Bolaño’s poetry versus his novel about poets, the glorious Savage Detectives: the latter known worldwide when the former is not). You also, of course, write journalism and nonfiction (and are a photographer—as can be seen in the images accompanying this interview). More fancifully, I often wonder: how do these choices in aesthetic forms and their production (publication, audience) relate to the forms one’s own life assumes?
YR: It took the Arab literary establishment an incredibly long time to accept the idea that poetry is not synonymous with verse, that it doesn’t have to be written in verse, and in some quarters “the prose poem,” qassidat annathr, is still regarded as the bastard child from the rape of “our beautiful language” by odious foreign forms, a desecration of Tradition. One consequence of this line of thinking is that the greatest Arab poets of the twentieth century remain virtually unrecognized: Wadih Saadeh, for example, whose last collection was published only on the Internet. On the other hand rhetoricians who use verse, however ultimately unpoetic, are automatically celebrated as Poets.
Mahmoud Darwish was perhaps the last true star of Arabic poetry. Working mostly in the modernized, flexible version of traditional meters called “free verse,” he did write some powerful things. But it doesn’t take much theorizing to see that he is celebrated far less as a poet than a rhetorician of the Palestinian cause. Without the political message and the impassioned way he delivered it, his work wouldn’t have solicited half as much attention—and it’s something I think he was painfully aware of. Besides, you know, some of his best known lines make me laugh. They are serious lines, eloquent and sad in a grandiose kind of way, but I just double up when I hear them. I hope you realize it’s a cardinal sin to say that about Darwish—sheer sacrilege—at least if you happen to be anywhere near the Arab literary papacy. And maybe it’s in bad taste to point it out but it’s important, because so much modern Arabic “poetry” that’s held in high regard is so full of itself in that unnecessarily grandiose way and it rings so completely hollow in relation to what it’s about. It’s a kind of test, for me: if it’s unintentionally funny, then it can’t be poetry. Anyhow, because rhetoric in verse was called poetry while, from the late sixties on, poetry was often written in prose and published as fiction, the distinction between propaganda and art is not one that Arab writers-critics have always had the courage or even the clarity of mind to make. Formally talking about verse vs. prose seems more sensible than talking about poetry vs. prose whatever the language you’re talking about, because it remains impossible to say in any definitive way what makes a given text poetry as opposed to prose per se. But Arabic prosody (practically unchanged since the eighth century) is so archaic, so replete with aural and semantic banality, in practice it can only be used for comic effect—or to evoke the aura of a bygone age. And I happen to think that the meters in their original form and historical context are far more effective and far less pretentious than that whole free verse situation, personally.
I go on about this so as to put you in the picture: the nineties, when I started showing my writing to people—that’s when the clash between younger prose poets and older guardians of the poetic ancien régime took place. This is partly of course what The Crocodiles is about. So, when I started writing, I found myself writing prose poems though I thought I wanted to write short stories. But, since I thought short stories were one-page lyrical pieces with a strong music to them that required little or no narrative, maybe I actually wanted to write poems. I did write short stories eventually, more story-like short stories that were published in Flowers of the Sun, my first book, but except for one or two—I remember “The Hakimi Maqama,” which was a kind of appendix to The Sultan’s Seal, written for the Beirut 39 anthology in 2009—I haven’t written short stories in Arabic since Flowers of the Sun was published in 1999. I think you’re right, though: it tends to be a momentary plunge into one form or another, except that poetry can never be planned in the same way. For nearly six years when I was too depressed about the Cairo literary scene to write with a view to publication—and I was busy being a journalist in English—I only ever wrote poems. They would come to me every once in a long while, often as good as they were going to be from the first draft, and until 2005 when I started writing the nonfiction portraits of Arab cities that would eventually lead to the fictional portrait of Cairo you worked on, poems were enough. It wasn’t until The Sultan’s Seal that, inspired by canonical books—which almost always have both verse and prose on the same page—I thought of consciously combining poetry with other registers of language in the same book.
None of this has anything to do with money, alas. Only in journalism have I ever realized my adolescent dream of living off my writing—except that I ended up living off my editing, really. But making a living, or rather leaving his family some money when he died, was the reason Bolaño himself gave for writing novels.
Bolaño also said that Antwerp, an early, short novel that is a sequence of exactly the kind of poem-stories that I started with, was the only fiction of his that did not embarrass him. I can relate to that to some extent. Novels are clunky monsters, compared to poems. They can be of their time to a greater extent, and are more compromised if not by their salability then simply through being accessible. In the end I don’t know, though. Writing poetry is such a temperamental, on-and-off activity it can feel like something you should be doing on the side. In this sense poems are too easy—they happen or they don’t—whereas novels or even nonfiction books take real toil and come off with a different sense of accomplishment. Needless to say it was from Bolaño that I got the idea of imagining poets, making writers the heroes of what is being written, though it wasn’t so much The Savage Detectives—which is more similar to The Crocodiles on the surface—as that impossibly nonchalant, biblical, magnificent thing, 2666.
HP: So often thoughts about the novel seem caught up with the loud ideas you mention about the “death of the novel”—this continual nowadays anxiety about what the novel cannot contain or do or be in the contemporary world. Are the failures of the novel to blame for our failures as—readers, citizens, revolutionaries, lovers, etc.? This isn’t a good question, but it’s one that it seems people keep wanting to ask, and sometimes I’m among them. Thoughts like: Is there a novel through which we could better become ourselves, etc., a novel through which we could deserve our better selves, and would we know how to read it if there were . . . ?
The Crocodiles takes on such questions—broadly, the relationship between literature and politics—beautifully, in many ways, and here’s just one:
And though we went on acting as though what was written in the papers didn’t concern us, it seems to me that what we guessed at when we felt that the space in which we lived was shrinking, that our places were growing too narrow to hold us and our future, was that we, with our myths and disappointments, with the stories that made lovers of us before there was ever a chance to sincerely question if we were really poets . . . that we were the ones who were shrinking the spaces and narrowing the places.
I hope it’s fair now to ask you a question you once asked me: What can a writer do in the middle of the world’s daily tumult and horror—can a writer do anything at all?
YR: I think as individuals with questions, with voids to circle around, there are books through which we can better know and so in some sense be wholer versions of ourselves. Yes. But not as consumers or receptacles of the kind of discursive trash and commercial brainwashing that so often pass for informed public opinion, humanitarian concern, or moral-political commitment, and certainly not as public figures or players of collective roles.
I think literature does provide a methodology for being who we are in a relevant or rewarding way—as individuals with experience and information who have an interest in knowing the truth, some truth. I’m not sure there is something better or worse about it but there is definitely something truer or more meaningful in context, in the sense that unless you’re working with ideas and feelings, with people that affect your knowledge of who you are or what it means to be this person, writing becomes not just vapid but also boring. And by the same token if it doesn’t touch a deep part of us as readers, or if as readers we don’t want to be touched . . . But before I go on let me try and respond to one thing your question implies about the death of the novel: the idea that it has died not as a literary form but as a social or moral force.
If the novel as a post-seventeenth-century European phenomenon once defined or helped to improve society and culture in a broad sense—if it once dictated tastes, spread attitudes, or formulated the zeitgeist—it’s obvious that it hasn’t been able to do that as thoroughly since the emergence of audiovisual and electronic media. Of course we can ask whether, as an aspect of history, novel writing can be a beneficent collective force, but my point is in the end it shouldn’t be. For me there is the extra fact that in the Arab public sphere even in the twentieth century novels were never as important as poetry—well, verse, read out loud—and that makes it harder to ask the question. But I think writing or reading with the express purpose of improving life is a dreary path to tread. A book does have to be about something, but that’s not the same as expecting it to serve a function, however indispensable. Surely it’s by this kind of logic that crappy Arabic novels become bestsellers in the West, because they “tell us about an obscure culture” or express that culture’s “hope for democratic transformation.” In other words, they satisfy our fake desire to know others by having those others themselves confirm our innate superiority. In the end I don’t think writers are in the business of edifying, and it seems to me they entertain only incidentally, through qualities inherent to storytelling and the effective expression of emotion. But even in the seventeenth century, I like to think novels had less to do with “making the world a better place” than quietly, unobtrusively, one person at a time, making sense of the world.
So if the death of the novel means it’s no longer relevant to history at the populist or democratic level, I’d say the novel was born dead.
None of this is to imply that writing should be purposeless or obscurantist. I’m saying a novel is an artifact of aesthetic and intellectual interest rather than an anthropological resource or a manual of moral instruction, but I think it is above all an accessible epistemological exercise. We become better selves reading and writing novels because we indulge the desire to know our truths, not at the level of codified, measurable information, not even in the sense of developing a hermeneutics of our lived experience, but by attempting to articulate with some appeal to consensus what the words that describe the people and the things that matter to us truly mean. That’s why writing can lead to “ontological meltdown,” as Jonathan Lethem has put it, because in as far as you’re a standalone cognitive entity, a balanced and effective ego, it can eliminate you. It can show you that you’re not what you take yourself to be, that you’re less than you can be, or that you could’ve been something whole when in fact you are a pile of ill-fitting shards. Effective writing can do this to you as a person who exists over and above the text they are producing, and ineffective writing can do it to you as a person whose raison d’être is to write, as a writer or, as Thomas Mann defines it, “someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.” This is the risk we take and, while we tend to think we choose to take it, at some point in life it’s no longer an option to want out. I am positive that, if I never wrote a word again till I died, I would still be spending the rest of my life in that same psychic space, always on the verge of self-obliteration in pursuit of dangerous and mercurial truths. You start out with questions, but then the questions—the state of being that having questions entails—overruns you.
In The Book of the Sultan’s Seal the question was: what does it mean to be a Muslim in 2007? In The Crocodiles it was: what does it mean to be a poet in Egypt between 9/11 and the Arab Spring? That partly dictated the form. It’s why the first book was modeled on a canonical kitab (and therefore addressed to a friend: the original meaning of the Arabic word for “book” is “letter”; all canonical books are written to a friend or a patron), and it’s why the second book is structured like a poem: numbering the paragraphs was a way to ensure that each would be its own canto-like text, not exactly independent of the others but somehow self-contained. To define the topic of your novel this precisely, however—and I do think it’s important to be able eventually to say what your novel is about in one sentence, though it makes it sound like some undergraduate humanities syllabus—in a sense this is half the substance that you have, which you develop and expand very differently in each case (as you note), but it remains equally subject to your limitations: not so much the extent of your experience or your access to information as what matters in the experience or the information you do have, what makes it worth having: why it hurts.
The other half is openness to the hurt itself—and for me that beats almost any other way to evaluate literary endeavor, given the impossibly large number of books there are and all the aesthetic ideals that some of them achieve and many parrot—your willingness or ability to completely expose yourself, to make yourself unconditionally vulnerable, in the course of testing the words by which you have lived. This you do by rebuilding the world you think you occupy from scratch, using the brick and mortar of language. You do it to orchestrate what it is about this world that hurts you, and the orchestration—however extravagant or artificial on the surface—has to show how, by hurting you and despite it, the world has turned you into a meaningful human proposition: a unique repository of consciousness, and a voice capable of making someone else laugh and cry. I mean, can anyone on earth or in heaven aspire to being more than that?
If it is commercially or institutionally acknowledged over time, signaling what, wary of the word “success,” we call “recognition”—and in the end the only benefit of being acknowledged is that it helps to preserve it—your work will sooner or later be subsumed by that other public or political, platitudinous, and untrue discourse. It becomes Work of Value. Now it has always seemed to me that the true value of writing is that, completely independently of that—in itself, as a way of formulating questions and a mode of individual interaction, but also as a potentially solipsistic and suicidal worldview—it exists over and above politics or history, it is the “political” discourse that, in staying true to the subject, refuses to be subsumed. It doesn’t even refuse but it just isn’t—I’ve never made a point of rejecting proactive and responsible attitudes but I just don’t have them, if I’m honest—and that is what makes writing a relevant and rewarding way to live.
I think this is my answer to the question I once asked you. Instead of drafting statements, signing petitions, standing on street corners raising signs with large groups of people who generally have no idea what is going on, or coming up with mostly disastrous theories—“speaking truth to power” just crossed my mind: I mean, apart from becoming a contender for the same kind of power, what on earth can that mean?—without taking “positions” or promoting “principles,” a writer can be the world’s daily tumult. The difference is they do so on their own terms.
So, to spell it out, while I do not want to do anything in the sense of objective intervention, it seems to me I can make a more lasting contribution to human self awareness and the possibility of empathy, sympathy, and—to use a horribly hackneyed word—“dialogue.” I can truthfully find out about the world in a way that does not presume to pronounce on how the world should be, and at the same time—without having to force anything on anyone, without pretending to represent any struggle or to “speak for” any group—I can share what I know.
HP: There’s so much here I want to talk about. Perhaps I’ll begin with this fake desire to know others and the process by which literature may be, as you say, subsumed by that other public or political, platitudinous, and untrue discourse. At this moment your work has arrived into English, into the US, into a culture which as you note (and as you’ve written of elsewhere) too often obscures its real desire to suppress Arab culture behind a fake desire to know it (or, to translate this into, say, the case of Iraq, its real desire to conquer behind a fake desire to liberate). With its European origins, the form of the novel can be caught up in this process, as American cultural forces insist that their knowledge of others arrive in whatever forms they themselves find most palatable, or most easily contained (e.g., this article on Arabic fiction from a few years back in the New Yorker, which began, incredibly: “What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? There are, of course, newspapers to keep responsible Americans up to date when trouble looms . . . What else do we need?”).
One cannot control this larger context, but it seems to me that your work engages with it so actively, resists it preemptively. Above you describe Sultan’s Seal as a “linguistic caliphate,” and I’ve been thinking about this since: a caliphate includes within it many smaller borders, further divisions, but transcends them; they’re within the whole. You write in both Arabic and English—obviously—and within your work it seems that both literatures (and each so diverse) are always present. The Crocodiles, for instance, is structured around a poem by Allen Ginsberg, and for those of us reading in English I think this returns Ginsberg to us anew—perhaps in the US his place in the canon had become a bit dusty; in the novel his work lives again and newly. I know, too, that lately you’ve been writing fiction in English as well. I suppose what I want to ask you about is the experience—what conversations occur between works you read across languages; what is happening in your own writing—of moving between, or being simultaneously in, both languages. (I wonder if this has something to do with the openness you describe above—the idea both of the caliphate and of the dissolution of borders between selves.)
YR: Let me start by denying a basic premise of both postcolonial studies and comp lit: that there are many cultures clearly distinct from each other, that they exist contiguously, and that rather than conflict and contempt the relation between them should be tolerance and respect. Rooted in American liberalism and therefore equating culture with race in an arbitrary way, this is one idea that, having gone viral in the English-speaking world, is routinely exported to places like Egypt, where it is shamelessly abused by Islamists to impose profoundly illiberal values, ones that undermine the very existence of the idea being peddled as Western to non-Western populations in order to make it look advanced and effective. This is the kind of discursive bullshit that I mean: the opposite of literature which, from the standpoint of wanting to be better people or to have a better world, does us all the abominable violence of omitting context.
If “Islamic culture” tells “Muslim” women to cover their faces in public, for example, then as non-Muslims we should respect and be tolerant of that, we should “understand difference,” and we should uphold their “personal freedom” to practice their “right” to a custom their beliefs dictate. Well, so much for Londonstani open-mindedness. In Egypt niqab remains one of the ugliest, cult-like anachronisms of oil-greased Arabian (as opposed to hard-up Nile Valley) tradition, imported into the country by politically or economically driven religious fanatics, and indicating not only an absurdly two-dimensional worldview that actively prescribes lack of freedom, denial of rights, and rejection of difference but also an absence of culture in the sense of the kinds of thing we can associate with being literate this many centuries after the Enlightenment: reason, science, privacy, equality, creativity, skepticism, even education. (I would propose a similar argument about hijab but it is far more complicated—widespread because compatible with older mainstream norms, but really amounting to the same thing—too long a digression.) Thus the imperative to “understand difference” from a position of subliminal superiority, without the risk of being that person—this profoundly irresponsible neoliberal good will, and the ubiquitous idiocy that goes with expressing it—can endorse not only reactionary and misogynistic attitudes but also a potentially genocidal capacity for sectarianism: witness democratic transformation in Syria, wherein witness ISIS recruits from the West. Multiculturalism-as-niqab actually has far more to do with neoliberalism than either religious orthodoxy or cultural exchange. But—more important—as a Muslim in a Muslim-majority country, I can tell you unequivocally that niqab is far more other to me than, say, my H&M pants and Ecco sneakers—and I have absolutely no internal conflict about that.
Of course this is just one of the ways in which the reality of being born Muslim—one of my themes as a novelist—can be subsumed by the horror of the world. But, to return to my point, I don’t think you can talk about contiguous cultures so much as cultural tropes constantly bleeding into and changing each other within the overarching zeitgeist, and it seems to me these are demarcated less by things like language and literature than by the global arms trade, media mythologizing, and technology. It would seem that a jihadi from Germany has more in common with one from Somalia than they do with a non-jihadi German, and vice versa. Bin Laden was ultimately far less interesting a figure than the media has made him out to be, and he wouldn’t have existed as a relevant force in our lives if not for the Cold War and the oil trade. The phenomenon of TV preacher celebrities is identical in America and in Egypt, so is the tenor and effective content of the preaching, even though one is Christian, the other Muslim, and one is in the first, the other in the third world. And people with access to the internet seem apart from those without it regardless of what languages they use or even what countries they hail from. But—and this may be all I am trying to say—the overarching culture wherever you are in the world today is science-based and capitalist, and it’s so overarching that to set yourself against it is to lie through your teeth.
So I would say that what is being suppressed in Western publishing is not so much “Arab culture” as Arabic-speaking persons who make literature, and I would also say that the supposed difference of these persons from Westerners which one way or another justifies their suppression—the question of what bearing they have upon Western lives and the assumption that the most they can offer responsible Americans is supplementary news material—is almost entirely constructed. It is constructed, consciously or unconsciously, to suit the hyper-commercial order by which absolutely everything is judged, even the worth of our souls, and in which the culture-producing Arab countries, being far less integrated into the world economy than say Japan, have had no share.
My sense is that Arabs are different not from Americans, for example, but from American media stereotypes of normality, which I would think most Americans are equally different from anyway. And for me the importance of literature is that it’s a discourse that transcends such constructions. That is why whether I am writing in Arabic or English it’s important to break expectations, to forestall being read as typical or representative of anything at all, whether as “a spokesman for the Arab Spring” or “a writer of color”—my God!—let alone as supplementary Middle East news material. I don’t mean that I sit down and think about how to avoid fitting a stereotype or confirming a disingenuous misconception, what I mean is that I trust the practice I engage in to automatically preclude that kind of crap. If being Arab or Muslim has substance, that substance will come through regardless of whether I bring it to bear on my work. And in truth “cultural difference” doesn’t interest me half as much as the way in which novel writing can resolve itself into the same, interhuman practice “across cultures”—you know why that’s between quotation marks!
On the other hand—I mean I hate to admit this, but—because I have two languages and because I make my living in the press, I’ve always ended up in the Building Cultural Bridges aisle of the grand humanities supermarket. Ten years ago, writing for my English-language Egyptian paper, I may have tried to do some earnest building, now I’d really rather blow up all that debris about “activating tourism” and “rectifying the image of Islam in the West.” But I still find myself commenting on Charlie Hebdo, for example, if only to say that there are Muslims who don’t give a shit whether some French bozo wants to make fun of the Prophet (not that they don’t make fun of the Prophet themselves). So it seems it is my lot to be translating people, people who are like me or whom I care about and who—I’ll admit—may not exactly be “the man on the street.” And sometimes I feel it’s my lot to be the only one on earth doing that (now I’m laughing out loud!). But I really feel that way, because I’m translating not in the sense of articulating what people might want to say in another language, not even in the sense of making Arab psychic spaces available to non-Arabs who can’t otherwise experience them (although there is a little of all this too). I am translating in the sense of making a thirteenth-century Sufi poet like Ibn Al-Farid directly relevant to my own experience of post-Sexual Revolution copulation, by having William Burroughs show up in person near Tahrir Square during “the revolution,” or (as you say) by installing an Allen Ginsberg poem on the mainframe of my history of the turn of the millennium in Egypt. I would never have presumed to return Ginsberg to American readers anew, only to make an Arab reader hear him as I do, but you see literature is such a fantastic thing that unintentional exchanges of this kind are happening all the time.
Which is why it is difficult to talk coherently about moving between, or being simultaneously in, both languages. I’m sure there are thousands of Arabic influences in my English and English influences in my Arabic: tiny, involuntary things that operate either too far below the surface or too subtly for me to detect them. There are particular sentences that echo periodically as I write. For example, from Ezra Pound’s Cathay, “And if you ask me how I regret that parting, it is like flowers falling at spring’s end.” Or, from The Thousand and One Nights (it is impossible to translate the sound, which is half of it), wa qad khatar bibali assafar ila bilad annass (meaning, “And it occurred to me to travel to the countries of people”). And sometimes the echo comes from the wrong language, so it has to be assimilated into the rhythms of the one I’m writing in and maybe, probably, it changes that rhythm. In my experience though the influences you’re aware of are never true influences, they are borrowings—I prefer the idea of filchers, no: muggings, anyway: interactions—and these are determined, as I was saying earlier, by the kind of book you’re writing.
What I can say is that being able to read in English has given me incomparably better access to incomparably more stuff than I would otherwise have, and this I think alters my sense of my Arabic soundscape. I like to think I hear more, with the benefit of all the English and translated-into-English at the back of my mind, but maybe I just hear differently. It does make the linguistic caliphate possible, however. It makes it possible because it makes you aware of how language lives and makes love, and it gives you some idea of how language can die—the way it is used in some religious and political contexts, Arabic sounds like the desperate croak of a creature on its last legs—and then there is literature breathing life back into language, injecting it with elixirs extracted if not from another language then from older versions of itself. Anyway, once again, yes: living in two languages does have to do with the openness that I was talking about and that you mention—the hurt—because in some ways it is almost as if there are two of you even though you are one, and the two have to get along at the expense of what makes you one or the other. But, besides, few things are more humbling than trying to be yourself in two different languages.
I’ve had two languages for as long as I’ve known how to write but only now do I feel I truly want to make literature in English. I’m not so naïve as to think that writers get better or better off in places like London or New York, so it isn’t simply the prospect of a bigger audience. It may have to do with the recent political events in Egypt, how for me the Arab Spring—and through it The Crocodiles—exposed the literary community. It exposed not only the lies and stupidities of intellectuals but also the irrelevance of a literary community to the public sphere. It may also have to do with how, since The Crocodiles, the Arab Spring has shown me in dramatic new ways that the implications of Western-stamped “political freedom” in the foreseeable future can only be disastrous. I think that’s why more than before I want to be freed of any sense of belonging and to share my discoveries with people who are not like me, who are not Cairo- or Beirut-based “Arab intellectuals” living with their concessions and nodding to their defeats, but whose own predicaments will maybe resonate with what I have to say.
So, to end this on a positive note, I am still not sure what’s going to happen at the level of feedback, but I am excited and grateful that my two books have arrived in my other language—and it might sound different off my tongue but, you know, English is my language.
Youssef Rakha is the author of The Book of the Sultan's Seal and The Crocodiles. Along with having authored seven books in Arabic, he is the cultural editor at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly and has written for, among many publications, Parnassus: Poetry in Review and McSweeney’s. Some of his work can be seen on yrakha.wordpress.com.
Hilary Plum is the author of the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (FC2, 2013). She has worked for a number of years as an editor of international literature, including as co-director of Clockroot Books, and serves as an editor with the Kenyon Review. With Zach Savich she edits Rescue Press's Open Prose Series. She lives in Philadelphia.