Writing the North African Experience: Interview with Youssef Rakha


Centre for African Poetry: Let us begin by inviting you to humour our ignorance. The title of your 2011 novel is translated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, but we wonder which of the two names we have seen for it in Arabic is more accurate – khutbat al-kitab, or Kitab at Tughra?

Rakha: Kitab at Tughra is the title. Khutbat al-kitab means, literally, “Address of the book”; it’s a formulaic canonical phrase for “introduction” or “prologue”, which here and in old Arabic books doubles as a kind of table of contents; on the surface the novel is modelled on a medieval historical text. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the original sense of kitab, which is the Arabic word for “book”, means simply “letter” or “epistle”: every canonical book is addressed to a patron or a friend, and that’s an idea that is particularly meaningful to me.

CAP: We have also read about planned English translations of your novels. When will these translations be available, and who are the translators and publishers?

Rakha: Both Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey for Interlink, and The Crocodiles, by Robin Moger for Seven Stories, are due to appear this winter in the United States. I don’t have the launch dates yet, but the manuscripts are at the editing stage.

CAP:    It can be a challenge to follow contemporary Arabic writing in translation, with its possibly competing orthographies or varying national dialects and spellings for book titles, author names and other texts. Arabic language literature in translation significantly represents its underlying Arabic speech patterns and cadences and other mannerisms in the foreign language of the translated work. This need for Arabic signification goes beyond the usual foreign markers found in a translated work, such as unusual place and people names and customary practices. Do you accept that this ubiquitous presence of an underlying Arabic in most of the translated work can be distracting to foreign readers and critics? Does it matter to you?

Rakha: This may be a little complicated to explain. A spoken dialect can be as different from another as French is from Spanish, and each as different from classical Arabic as either is from Latin. That and variations in the phonetics of French and English can cause the same name to be transliterated in several different ways.

Most books will nonetheless be written in modern standard Arabic, which is the formal language across the Arab world that you hear, for example, on the news; and differences in standard Arabic usage from one country to another are negligible. A translator will as a rule be familiar with the dialect of the writer they are translating, so it isn’t as much of a problem as it might seem to be. But of course an Arabic text loses some of its meaning in translation and that affects Book of the Sultan’s Seal, for example, because it uses many registers and levels of Arabic that will be lost on the reader of the translation. What is tricky is the way texts are presented and marketed in the west, with some very bad writing published as if it were great literature because of its political relevance or for any other reason, but that has nothing to do with the issue of dialects.

At home however I would say there is some concern about literary life in general, because for two and a half years now it’s been virtually on hold, with only political issues paid any attention by publishers, the press, and even writers themselves. I sometimes feel that this tendency will persist, but if it did that would mean that the growing literary scene we had before 2011 was a bubble. Maybe we didn’t have a sustainable literary scene.

CAP: How do you respond to your own work in translation? Libyan and American poet, Khaled Mattawa, is a prize-winning and much praised translator of other Arabic language poets. We do sometimes wonder whether we are reading Mattawa or the translated poet, for example Iman Mersal, in These are not Oranges, My Love (2008). Using that work as an example, what degree of translator intervention are you willing to accept as a writer?

Rakha: From what I’ve seen Mattawa does a wonderful job of translating contemporary Arabic poetry and he’s as faithful as he can be to the original, but that doesn’t mean you’re not reading him too when you read those poets. I don’t believe it’s a question of intervention so much as one of sensibility: the important thing is to re-create the original in a way that approximates its structure and effect, and for that you have to have a feeling for where the text came from rather than where it ended up going, so to speak, which is of course especially true of poetry. Precision doesn’t always help.

As for my own work, unless the translation is very, very bad, I am always grateful. Turning an Arabic text of my own into something equivalent in English or vice versa is such torture that when someone else does it for me I am genuinely moved, every time. That said, I am very sincerely impressed with what Starkey and Moger have done. I don’t see how there could’ve been a better translation in either case.

CAP: Last year, 2012, nine of your poems in English translation were featured by the blogger, Qisasukhra. When you subsequently featured the same poems in your blog, The Sultan’s Seal, there were alterations to the text. Was this done to improve the creative work itself or just to indicate your preferred translation?

Rakha: No, I revised and he revised and we just ended up with these versions on our respective blogs, but it’s all his work. It tends to go through endless drafts and you have to settle on something.

CAP: Considering your work in fiction and the other things you do with reportage and photography, is poetry still an essential part of your oeuvre? Your poems reflect an eclectic referencing of the kind of abstractions present in earlier Arabic modernity but they also reflect the more recent form and subjects of poets closer to your time. Is this a fair comment reflecting the range of your influences and interests as a poet from Egypt, and does your confessed admiration of work by the late Sargon Boulus have anything to do with your creative choices in poetry?

Rakha: I once said in an interview that if I had more integrity I would only ever write poetry. I don’t think that’s actually true, all things considered. My interest is the novel and as such I am technically what you might call an occasional poet. But in a sense every effective writer is a poet by training because it’s in the economy and rigor and music of poetry that you learn your craft.

I believe I’ve written different kinds of poems at different points, though I was often working in a context of engagement with “the Nineties Generation”, which is the subject of The Crocodiles. I don’t know about earlier Arab modernity, I’m not sure there has been any substantial modernity that can be called Arab, but of course you echo the voices that form you. Sargon Boulus is someone I feel I’m having a conversation with through poetry. There must be countless influences I’m not even aware of, but that’s a very important aspect of poetry for me: to be having conversations, whether with people I am close to or with other poets.

So there is a confessional streak in my poems, to be sure, and echoes of that almost Beat frankness that was so current in nineties Cairo. But sometimes there is also something very structured and sober, like a coded message or an algebraic equation… It’s really hard to describe what I’ve tried to do when I’ve written poems, poetry is very difficult to talk about anyway. I agree with the words “eclectic”, but I would also add the word “vernacular” not so much in the sense of my actually writing in dialect as in that of mimicking and building on the rhythms of speech.

CAP: Reading through some of your commentaries, especially your responses to a Kenyon Review interview in 2012, you come across as very much engaged with literary Egypt but also self-consciously distanced from it, perhaps even seeking respite from it. This would seem also true of your work with but emotional distance from the ongoing revolutionary movement in the country. Are you a philosophical outsider or is this just about carving for yourself a personal creative and contemplative space?

Rakha: I believe there’s a difference between being engaged with literary texts, especially good ones, and being part of the “intellectual community”. The latter can be a positive hindrance to creativity, with its incestuousness, complacency and divorce from society at large. Of course temperament plays a part in preferring distance but I don’t like to see myself as purposefully disengaged; I just have more interesting or enjoyable things to do than the compliment rigmaroles and ego battles of downtown Cairo.

Emotional distance from the so called Arab Spring is an entirely different issue. There has to come a point when, having been part of something, you need to step back and think about meanings. So in this case, yes, it’s about carving a contemplative space or, more precisely, going back to the contemplative space I’d always had rather than seeking out a place in the public sphere, which in a way is all that is left for you to do once you’ve had enough of protests and demonstrations as such.

I should add though that I don’t know if there is an ongoing revolutionary movement in the country, or whether the word “revolution” has helped at all with what was essentially a call for serious reform. Regime change happened twice but there is still no reform on the horizon. I say this because it’s important that distance is not necessarily personal. For a while in 2011 I really did believe something positive was happening, but my feeling now is that it has been one massive distraction, a kind of virtual-reality game in which you get so involved you can really die.

CAP: There has been criticism of the poetry being produced from the uprisings in North Africa, mostly concerned with judging its validity as work of enduring aesthetic value. You are one of those writers inspired by the uprisings, with fiction, journals and commentaries already published on the subject, and more to come. Is this just the old quarrel about the value of representing political ephemera in literature, or is there a genuine concern here about a possible erosion of talent and preference for expediency in the new poetry of the uprising?

Rakha: I don’t see any genuine concern. Talentless writing on the revolution was equally talentless when it was about other things, and no doubt will continue to be just as talentless. As for expediency in the sense of having a larger audience for a short period of time, well, as far as I’m concerned that can only be a good thing (so long as it doesn’t affect the quality of the writing itself, of course). In Egypt we have a very ugly tradition of rhetorical verse, which can be more popular than real poetry, and a political event was the ideal occasion for that kind of thing to come to the surface.

I do feel there was space for more topical and on-the-spot creative writing, though, and it’s indicative of the structure and values of the literary scene that there wasn’t. Perhaps I should mention that Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish war correspondent and father of literary reportage, is among my principal role models; and he wrote right there as things unfolded before his eyes.

It’s a cliché of literary discourse to say that you can only write about a historical event once it’s been over for a long while, because you’re supposed to take the time to assimilate and make sense of it. My feeling is that’s a load of rubbish. When time has passed you write in a different way, your writing may have a deeper sense of what was going on. But only when you write with the raw energy of the moment do you really get down the danger and the madness and the beauty of something — I am especially proud of two or three short pieces that I wrote that way.

One thing about this kind of writing is that it defies genre, so you might end up with poetry and political analysis on the same page, as you sometimes do in my long pieces on Arab cities, three of which were published in book form between 2006 and 2010.

CAP: A related question would be about how generational differences, creative and critical attitudes have been affected by this period of instability and shifting positions in Egypt and other North African countries. Egypt’s poetry generation of the nineties (1990s) was styled ‘angry’ (as in Angry Voices: An Anthology of the Off-Beat New Egyptian Poets, Enani and Metwalli, 2003). It was in reality a generation of innovative aesthetes less engaged with the political concerns of their immediate predecessors. Were these ‘radical’ poets of the nineties surprised by the intensity of rage and conviction politics demonstrated by a younger generation of social media ardents, deploying such direct action practices as mass demonstration, nudism and self-immolation against the existing order? Is there this sense of being swept aside by (or swept into) historical conflict among the nineties writers you know and have previously interviewed?

Rakha: Okay, this is very complicated. The Nineties Generation had an aversion to politics, to rhetoric and abstraction and above all ideology, but these aesthetic choices were neither particularly new nor unique to them. What was unique was their degree of frankness and their willingness to abandon formal tradition and surface beauty. I’ve written a lot on that.

Though their insistence on leading free lives against the social odds, their sheer individualism, drove many of them to emigrate, their capacity for subversion and transgression came through in the blogging and rights activism of the Facebook Generation to a far greater extent than did the “commitments”, grand narratives and “struggles” of earlier, overtly politicized intellectuals. I don’t know if “angry” is the right word for these poets. I would say “fidgety”. And the events of 2011 did reflect their fidgeting even if it didn’t — and in some cases it did — involve them personally.

I’d really rather not get into the complications of “the Arab Spring” here but it’s important to say that though it very soon took political form and ended up having (more or less disastrous) political consequences, the revolution was at the beginning and in its essence a social one. Younger people were saying, “Enough crap!” They were reclaiming the public space, taking back words and symbols that had for the longest time been monopolized by official corruption, and they would’ve made love on the asphalt if they hadn’t been brought up to think that was wrong.

For the first time in maybe 60 years, Egypt was truly shedding its skin, even if they didn’t realize it people were making sacrifices for the sake of cultural rebirth, not a power struggle, and politics — as any Nineties Generation poet could’ve told you 20 years before — spoiled everything. Mass demonstration is one thing, but when the young nudist Alia Mahdi went to Tahrir Square to join the demonstrators whom she believed herself to be supporting she was mobbed and assaulted. That was one of many signs that the revolution had very quickly been co-opted by norms and traditions, to be turned into a series of power struggles…

CAP: At the Centre for African Poetry, we are interested in promoting African writing across national, regional and even language borders, but also note the existing emotional ties and regional loyalties, sometimes even racial and religious preferences, which make such cross-border relationships a challenge. As an Egyptian and North African do you think there is enough cultural interest in Africa among Egyptian writers and readers – any growing evidence of African literature in Arabic translation, or sustained interest in contemporary African poetry and other writings? Is there a cultural will to sustain and reach beyond the significant Moroccan experiment with the Arab-African Cultural Forum at Asilah, establishing the Tchicaya U Tam’si Poetry Award?

Rakha: There definitely should be; among readers of poetry there is a lot of interest in what’s happening poetically in sub-Saharan Africa, but maybe the infrastructure isn’t there for sufficient exchange. Despite pan-African stabs at postcolonial unity in the sixties, Egypt is the least connected to Africa of the African Arab states, perhaps because of stronger historical links with the Levant, and yet Egyptians are true east Africans in so many ways, once you learn a bit about the history and culture of this part of the world, variety notwithstanding. Speaking of which, in the novel I’m working on now, the second part of the Crocodiles trilogy, there is a Masai moran – more of a ghost than a character, maybe, but a character nonetheless: a stand-in for the trilogy’s transcendent concept of the lion, one that appears as an actual lion in the first book – and so, with great enjoyment, I’ve been researching the Masai…

 CAP: In her popular blog, Arabic Literature (In English), and in another blog, Africa is a Country, Marcia Lynx Qualey has argued for a greater inclusion of North African writing in African literary competitions. There is usually no regional exclusion clause in the guidelines of these continental competitions, but there are language barriers for North African writing in Arabic. Does this matter not go beyond merely wanting a legitimate share of the African inheritance as Qualey seems mostly concerned with. There is possibly the matter of whether the concerned writers – usually from the North and South of the continent, or domiciled abroad – happily self-identify as African (whatever else they may also be). There is value in wanting to be honoured by Africa but perhaps greater value in identifying with Africa as home, a site of honour in personal history. We know emotional commitment is not a requirement in the legal determination of identity but it matters because it informs and sustains a sense of contributory relationship and belonging. What do you think?

Rakha: I think I agree with you. It doesn’t mean anything to identify with Africa geographically in order to be eligible for a prize. There are continuities across the Red Sea and over the Sinai peninsula that are maybe stronger than what connections exist across the Sahara, in terms of self- and home-definition, and the fact that there is a relatively unified Arabic literary tradition certainly has a bearing on the question. But it isn’t always the case that North Africans don’t think of themselves as African and I believe that can and maybe should change at a collective level. Still, it seems to be the case that when people talk about Africa in this context they are thinking of race, a particular kind of racial pride, and that isn’t as much of an issue in North Africa maybe.

At the personal level I don’t have any conscious loyalties of this kind. I have enough trouble believing in the human race as a whole, why would I ever consciously essentialize myself as Arab or Muslim or African or anything else? Literature is identity enough…

CAP: Looking ahead, what are your thoughts on Egyptian poetry? If you could offer a brief critique on recent Egyptian and possibly North African poetry what would be your concern?

Rakha: The most recent developments in Egyptian writing have not been in poetry, even though there are some very remarkable young voices. But it’s hard to look ahead under the circumstances, with so much upheaval and uncertainty. My concern would be with the readership and the culture of reading, which was never established enough to sustain writers, less with the writing itself. Some things are very good, as I say. But I’d rather there were more people to read them in the original, as they were intended to be read.