One of the more enduring miracles, present in many of the world’s religions and cultures, is that of an impossibly long sleep. In the Talmud, a man naps under a carob tree for seventy years; King Barbarossa still snores in a mountain, and the American folk-tale pantheon wouldn’t be complete without Rip Van Winkle. In the Muslim world, a popular surah or chapter from the Qur’an describes a band of youths who escape religious persecution by taking refuge in a cave. The verses, which draw upon an earlier, Syriac Christian legend, relate how the men had fallen asleep as their loyal dog kept watch. When they awaken, they suppose that a day has gone by. One among them is sent out to buy food, discreetly lest they be killed. But his antiquated coins soon attract attention, and their hiding place is unearthed. The youths realize that they have been sleeping for 309 years; soon after, they perish, and a place of worship is built over the cave. End of miracle.
Soporific as it may seem, it is a story that mankind has never been able to put to bed. In 1933, the same year King Kong made its silver screen debut, and Hitler rose to power, a playwright in Cairo reanimated the legend and revolutionized the Egyptian stage. Far from remaining faithful to the Qur’an, in Ahl al-Kahf, or The People of the Cave, Tawfiq al-Hakim rewrote the story as a psychological love drama, fusing religious tradition with the aesthetics and techniques of modern European theater. His sleepers were three: Yamlikha, Marnush, and Mishlinya, who awaken into a world that has converted from Roman paganism to their own Christian faith. They are greeted as saints in the new emperor’s palace, and at first, Mishlinya even appears to reconnect with his old fiancée, Priska. But the woman he thinks is Priska is actually her great-great granddaughter, and he struggles to come to terms with the gulf of centuries that divides them. Marnush, demoralized by the weight of 309 years, renounces his religion.
The play, hailed among Egypt’s intellectuals, seemed to capture the zeitgeist. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, it was said that Egypt was at last being roused from a five-hundred-year cultural slumber and awakening into modernity, a moment that was called the Nahda, or “The Awakening.” But waking up was a mixed blessing: the question remained as to whether Egypt should try to catch up with the modern world, or whether it had better remain true to an authentic, traditional self. At the end of al-Hakim’s play, all three sleepers, now joined by Priska, end up retreating to the familiar darkness of the cave.
In early 2013, when the writer and scholar Anna Della Subin began work on her book-length essay Not Dead But Sleeping, recently published by Triple Canopy, it was said that Egypt was again awakening. It had been roused by the uprisings of the Arab Spring, which Subin witnessed firsthand in her role as editor for the Middle Eastern culture magazine Bidoun. So went the rallying cry: “The revolution is in Tahrir, no sleeping in bed.” These words appeared as graffiti on a tank, referring to what had become the world’s largest sit-in. In America we are now living in the “woke” era, a term used to describe being aware of social injustice and racism at every waking moment. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Subin begs to disagree.
In a text that moves between treatise and prose poem, Subin uses al-Hakim’s play as a launching pad into a dark galaxy of medieval martyrs and sci-fi saints, messianic sleeper cells and the insomniacs of our late capitalist age, to argue that sleep can have a revolutionary mandate of its own. “The sleeper is the ultimate social critic,” she writes. “Sleepers are assessors of our awakenings. And sleep cannot be censored.” We spoke this summer about Egyptian literature, protests against time, and whether a story can fail.
Michael Barron: I remember reading somewhere a debate over whether it’s a holy or an unholy act to rise from the dead, for instance the resurrection of Christ versus the zombie . . .
Anna Della Subin: For the sleepers, at least, it’s definitely a holy act—that’s why the story, in its earliest contexts, was told. Among early Christians in the sixth century, it was used to demonstrate that the resurrection of the dead is physically possible, and divinely sanctioned. In Gregory of Tours, when the sleepers awaken—there are seven of them—they deliver a quite pedantic lecture on this subject. They use themselves as proof that Christ was able to rise from the dead, and so will us all, at the apocalypse. In the Qur’anic version, God Himself takes good care of them: He diverts the path of the sun so that it won’t shine into the cave, and flips the sleepers side-to-side periodically, like pancakes.
MB: You write about how the sleepers are venerated across many religious sects and in still-existing cave sites, like in Tunisia, Jordan, or Xinjiang, that tourist boards fight over which cave is the “real” one. Have you ever visited any of the caves?
ADS: It’s funny, there are so many sites claiming to be the actual cave or burial place—I’ve counted over forty—but the only one I’ve visited myself is this dark, clammy crypt beneath an old church in Marseille. It has a stone carving, which they say depicts the sleepers, and they give a date for it. But the figures didn’t look like they were sleeping whatsoever, and the date was implausibly early. So unfortunately, the only cave I’ve been in is one where they were definitely not asleep.
MB: Mark Twain, as you mention, visited perhaps the most famous cave, at Ephesus in Turkey. Where did his fascination come from?
ADS: It’s kind of amazing, I’m finding that with every essay I’m working on right now, Twain has already been there first. I’m writing about the deification of Captain Cook in Hawaii for my larger book project, about people who have been involuntarily turned into gods. Twain was there in “the Sandwich Islands” in the 1860s, and he tells the whole story of Cook’s godhood. I’m not sure how Twain got into the seven sleepers, but it’s perfect material for him. His version of the myth, in Innocents Abroad, is that they all got drunk on ancient liquors they found in the cave. When they wake up, they realize they’re stark naked, two hundred years old, and one of them cries, “the jig is up, let us die!’
MB: I wonder if he was there trying to find the origins of the Rip Van Winkle story. Perhaps all American tall tales lead back to religious texts . . .
ADS: I tend to think all things in American culture can be traced back to religious roots. I’m always rather conspiratorially searching for the sacred that lurks beneath the secular . . . I learned a new word the other day, through a lecture the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins gave in London: “meta-persons.” Gods, ghosts, ancestors, divinities, immortals, people who are seen to have supernatural attributes but who also share in the space of the human. I realized that—between my essay on the sleepers and my book on deification—what I am becoming, if anything, is an expert on meta-persons . . .
MB: Where did the idea for Not Dead But Sleeping emerge from?
ADS: In the book there’s a hidden, unnamed presence of someone I’ve written on before—(Saint) Albert Cossery, the Egyptian novelist. I was working on the afterword for New Directions’ reissue of his novel Laziness in the Fertile Valley, about a family in the Nile Delta who sleeps all day. One of the characters has been sleeping for seven years. I kept coming across references to a play, published about a decade before Cossery’s novel, about people who slept for even longer—three centuries. The play, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s The People of the Cave, is occasionally credited with inspiring Cossery, and I learned it was based on a legend in the Qur’an. Perhaps because I’m an insomniac, I was drawn to it, in an aspirational way.
The more I learned about the myth of the sleepers, I realized it has an almost astonishing universality. I got totally lost in a labyrinth of tracking the story for about a year. I did way, way, too much research, reading medieval hagiographies and travelogues, compendiums of fables, dusty scholarship. When you read too much history you start to see out of the eyes of the dead. Along the way I discovered that the late scholar Norman O. Brown had already stalked this maze too, and in many ways my text is an homage to him. He stood at the crossroads of the scholarly and the sublime, which is where I want to be.
MB: How do you then contend with so much research? What’s your writing process like?
ADS: It feels a little fantastical and very mundane . . . There’s this story I love, about King Roger II of Sicily, who used to employ people whose sole job it was to carry his peacocks from room to room, lest they soil their majestic feathers. I feel a bit like that’s what I do as a writer all day, just carrying the peacocks around.
But what I realized as I was chasing after this story of the seven sleepers was that it really isn’t a very good story at all.
MB: You have a line in your book: “A legend that falls flat.”
ADS: Yes—they fall asleep, and then they sleep, and then awaken, and sleep once more. In the Qur’an, the tale begins with a rhetorical question posed by God Himself: “Or dost thou think the Men of the Cave were among our signs a wonder?” As if to say, it’s really not much of a miracle, we can find a better story than this. And Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play, when it premiered in Cairo in 1935, was a famous flop. I came across all these negative reviews in the papers describing how it was terribly boring, how people in the audience fell asleep. This question—can a story be a failure?—is what motivates my text.
MB: But still the story, as you write, seems to appear everywhere in the world. Even in al-Hakim’s script, the characters go off on a tangent about a Japanese sailor who befell a similar fate by being cast out to sea for 300 years. Why, for a failed legend, is it still so prolific?
ADS: I think in an odd way it’s precisely because it falls flat that people continue to tell it. It’s deeply unsatisfying as a narrative, but you can keep adding to it, a love story, dialogues, jokes, like in Twain. Someone found a handwritten manuscript in an old Buddhist cave in Xinjiang that has a version in which the sleepers realize they’re utterly trapped inside the cave. They take turns telling stories of the good deeds they’d done in their lives in order to convince God to pry open the entrance. And each story is like a parable, with morals to be gleaned. The myth is a blank canvas on which to map the meanings you want to convey, or describe the future you want to see. It’s a way to contrast one era with a radically different one—the sleepers are such good critics, because they alone remember the deep past. In its more politicized incarnations, the sleepers become a way to speak out against oppression, in face of censorship, or to imagine a political awakening in which a tyrant has been overthrown. For instance, that Turkish sleeper cell I write about—in 1930 a dervish declared himself and his followers “The People of the Cave,” procured a loyal dog too, and led a violent uprising against President Atatürk’s secularizing reforms.
MB: Some of the criticisms against al-Hakim’s play when it came out weren’t all about how boring it was, but also that it didn’t seem to serve much purpose, in terms of a social or political message. Is that a fair assessment?
ADS: I feel a little sorry for Tawfiq al-Hakim. The literature is full of disparaging remarks about him, the uneven quality of his plays, his supposedly prickly personality. The Egyptian critics you mention attacked him at the time for not using the sleeper story to contrast an era of socialism with that of dystopian capitalism, along the lines of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, or H.G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes. But is it ever fair to fault an author for what he didn’t say? I think they were trying to read it for something more dogmatic than it was.
MB: As you write, the play seems instead to allegorize a moment in Egyptian history. What did it mean for the country to “awaken”?
ADS: In the late nineteenth century there was this notion that Egypt, and to an extent the rest of the Arab world, had been catatonic for the past five hundred years. With the invasion first of Napoleon’s army, and then the occupying British forces, and with the arrival of new industries, technologies, new spirits of nationalism and capitalism, Egypt was finally becoming alert to modernity. This included the arrival of a different form of time—the clock time dictated from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and the solar Gregorian calendar, which was imposed over age-old, Islamic lunar time. To keep the new, lucrative colony on a productive schedule, British colonial officers denounced Egyptians for their laziness. And so the question that so many authors from al-Hakim’s generation, or Cossery’s, are taking on is how one is supposed to live in this new world, and the profound sense of dislocation or “belatedness” that they feel.
The arrival of the kind of time which we would just take for granted now felt quite unnatural and politically charged then, and brought in its wake a whole host of absurdities and confusions. There are some funny, revealing stories in the Egyptian press that the scholar On Barak has excavated. In one from 1928, a man accuses a lawyer of causing the death of his child, after the lawyer’s wristwatch got shattered. The word for the hands of a clock in Arabic is the same as that for “scorpions,” and the man confused the watch parts for the actual scorpions that killed his child.
But I get the sense that these narratives of an epic sleep, of implausibly long duration, and with it, the valorization of laziness, are very much a protest against time itself.
MB: Then again, this sort of tension between types of time isn’t just limited to Egypt or colonized worlds but is something quite universally felt . . .
ADS: Right. In the myth of the sleepers, this is the contrast between time outside of the cave, and time within it, the socially imposed, constructed form and a more natural, eternal rhythm that is restored in darkness. Danilo Kiš, in his version of the story from The Encyclopedia of the Dead, brings out this contrast quite movingly. He describes one of the sleepers, having fled back into the cave: “All he could hear was the dripping of water from invisible vaults, the grinding of eternity in the clepsydra of time.” The sleeper lies there and listens to this other kind of time as it passes.
MB: You write about the Tunisian activist collective Ahl al-Kahf, or The People of the Cave, which in 2011 used the story of the sleepers as a way to frame their own street-art based protests. Has this metaphor of sleep and awakening been present across the Arab Spring?
ADS: In some of the graffiti that Ahl al-Kahf painted in Tunis, there’s a sort of eerie, dripping green man with a clock in place of his head . . . But yes, it’s interesting how the metaphor of sleep and awakening has persisted from the late-nineteenth century, and is very much present today. In Egypt in 2013, when Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were elected to power, they laid out a program for Egypt’s regeneration which they called the Nahda or Awakening (a plan that very quickly turned into a bad dream). In Tunisia, the major political party is the Nahda Party. And the art collective Ahl al-Kahf was part of the climate that led to the toppling of President Ben Ali and ignited the Arab Spring. So the idea of those who sleep and those who stay awake remains potent for the imagination...
A few months after I finished Not Dead But Sleeping, I came across this essay by a prominent Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan who was imprisoned for six years. While in solitary confinement, he writes that he often meditated on the Qur’anic story of the people of the cave. When he got out of prison, and went online for the first time, it was like 309 years had passed in terms of digital time. He reentered this changed world of the Internet, only to find that our behaviors, the platforms we use, have become unrecognizable.
MB: Do you know if it was easy for him to digitally reintegrate?
ADS: I think it was quite hard—to him things seemed to have changed for the worse, and he felt this sense of loss of the old Internet, the one he had sacrificed years of his life for, quite deeply. It’s funny, we corresponded briefly on Twitter; I told him about my essay that was coming out soon, but only as an e-book at first, and he exclaimed, “But why not print? Has the world changed so much while I was away?!” It was like something out of H.G. Wells—when the sleeper awakens after 203 years, books are no longer printed on paper but are made as cylinders, a little like a VHS tape. It’s all very upsetting.
MB: In the sixties Martin Luther King Jr. famously admonished us that nothing is more tragic than to sleep through a revolution, a contention you push back on in your essay. But it points to a kind of anti-sleep, the fact that if you slumber for three hundred years and then awaken into a transformed world, somebody else needed to have been awake to make that change happen. Do think the sleepers face an ethical dilemma?
ADS: Absolutely. There’s a way in which sleep has been and can be a powerful form of resistance, a kind of Gandhian, non-violent protest that is as non-cooperative as possible. But then again—for instance in certain Nordic versions of the seven sleepers myth, women are watching over the men while they sleep. Or in Cossery’s novel, while everyone else is asleep, there’s a girl in the house who comes to clean. So you’re asleep while others are keeping the roof from collapsing, or fighting oppression for you, putting their own lives at risk. There’s the question of what right do you have to make that demand. The sleepers are great critics but then again, all they did was sleep . . . I suppose they’re ambivalent heroes.
MB: Which gets back to the question of whether it’s an unholy or holy thing to awaken . . .
ADS: Maybe one could say they are half in a state of holiness, half out. It reminds me of a line in a Susan Howe essay, where she documents the confessions of Puritan wives in New England. “Yet heard I was under wings of Christ,” a woman reports, “one of them yet not under both.”
Anna Della Subin is an essayist and contributing editor at Bidoun. She has written for The London Review of Books, The White Review, Harper's, and The New Yorker online, among other publications. Her book-length essay Not Dead But Sleeping was recently published by Triple Canopy.
Michael Barron is a writer and editor based in New York. He has previously written for Harper's, Bookforum, VICE, and Frieze, among other places, and is a consulting editor for the British-based publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions.