Ramadan had started and I decided to find the nearest Egyptian/Arab deli. My expectations were humble. I just wanted to get my hands on a few cans of fava beans (ful) and dried dates. Over the years ful has become a fixture of my suhoor around midnight or as late/early as dawn to guarantee my energy levels wouldn’t plummet over the course of the fasting day. The dates are to break my fast on as is traditional.
We congregate like The Muppets at the theatre: a first tier, a second tier, a third tier. Depending on the age of the host, the “chat” feature is either silenced or not. It is the ideal medium for someone accustomed to exercising control in real life. Yet there is always the sliding into dms. The guy who will tell you: “Why so serious? Ahhh, that hand on your face adds another layer of seduction.” It is just like high school, the kids at the back of the classroom up to no good.
The real gems, though, are the what-a-pleasure-to-meet-you-in-Zoom, I-would-like-to-have-a-meeting-with-you-sometime-early-in-the-morning types. You know it is going to be business during a pandemic, when nobody you know is getting up voluntarily at 6.30 to start a meeting at 7.30 because EST… so when you oblige, and you barely have time to shower, dress and grab your coffee, you know you will rip him a new one. Except he does it first, of course.
I am often susceptible to feelings of belatedness. “Is literary greatness still possible?” Susan Sontag asked around the turn of the millennium, and twenty years on, I’m not sure we have had an answer. Is it finally, as Cyril Connolly put it, “closing time in the gardens of the West”? I have always preferred the gardens of the East, but they may not be faring any better.
I am fully aware that this sentiment has been known to reactionaries for thousands of years, and quite often they’ve been wildly wrong. With me it is not by any means a political stance, and probably just a hyperbolic way of appreciating works of art and literature from a time before my own. The feeling is usually prompted by an encounter with a marvellous line composed in some distant time by an ancient poet or sage.
When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.
They are everywhere now. Satellite museums and universities: Guggehnheim Bilbao, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Disneyland Paris, Disneyland Tokyo, NYU Abu Dhabi, Temple University, Tokyo, Saint Louis University, Madrid. They aspire to assert themselves as leaders in the relatively new global business of improving a country’s image and reputation or otherwise giving it the edge.
I live far away from such big cities, and universities. You could say I am not included amongst the experienced customers these satellites target. I have never visited such destinations. I inhabit a no man’s land in the Canadian prairies and, as an art historian, I work roaming the floors of my local gallery, which shall remain unnamed, for obvious ethical reasons. In my private life I am also your average museum visitor. A Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde persona split does exist in my digital life, though. I post these images alongside presumably witty captions on my Facebook and Instagram feed. As a dutiful digital citizen, I sporadically write on my blog SpectatorCurator (also my Instagram and Twitter handle). I have branded myself, and I have an edge over the Louvre Abu Djabi or the Guggenheim Bilbao – I exist everywhere and nowhere. We know by now we are virtual brands in open competition with the brands and artists of yore, redefining them, submitting them to our capricious gaze. If the Mona Lisa was an example of the quintessential open text, now the whole museum is the viewer’s canvas. It is both an exciting and an uncomfortable instance of negotiation between the self and former colonial models of appropriation. Because our selfies are an extension of our bodies.
Early the staccatos swelled, the jalopies trundled through the eigengrau, martins and peckers perched on wires portending the resurrecting sun. Windows jittered in the cold, and outside the red, blinking mast laddered up the azure-turning sky. Watchmen tinkered with their rusty panels and disappeared into silent folds. I woke up on the sofa in the parlor facing the green glow of the incandescent crucifix above mother’s bed. It waned like the moon in the morning. Occasionally, whirring airplanes flew low with their wheels down headed for the airport’s runways, shaking the houses in their cold silence. She’d face the ceiling on her bed, muttering a prayer, then descend into her loose sleeping robes. Feet sweeping the carpet, she’d examine the children splayed on the floor, my sisters and I, sometimes our cousins, carried a lantern and trudged through the creaking door, then through the hollow hallway.
I received the following in emails sent to me from Australia and Hawaii. The British artist Tom de Freston and writer Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who live in Oxford, are a talented couple who have been together for over a decade. They were married two years ago in Goa, but spent their honeymoon in the Seychelles. By the time this interview appears online, they will be back in Oxford, having also been in New York. They always have their plate full with beautiful projects – books, and journeys. And sometimes, as in this case, they are not physically together while they happen.
What do you think “cosmopolitan” means in the contemporary world? I asked five writers and one artist from multiple backgrounds, with roots spreading across different parts of the world. If I could travel in time and ask Diogenes of Sinope in ancient Greece, he would most probably repeat what he famously said around 2400 years ago: “I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês)”.
Traveling back to 2019, novelist Chloe Aridjis reminds us that animals too are citizens of the world. Artist Ganzeer describes a cosmopolitan place without a single culture forcing itself as the hegemonic umbrella, while memoirist Jessica J. Lee highlights the strong power inherent to connecting distinct ways of being. Scholar Helen M. Rozwadowski warns against a cosmopolitanism that misses the multiplicity among cultures, peoples, and environments. For Youssef Rakha, editor of тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ, a cosmopolitan space is the only space to be, while for writer Fernando Sdrigotti it’s a chance to forget oneself for a while while one is lost in difference.
Before going to sleep I walk down to the river for a swim. With my nostrils slightly above water, I watch the ducks moving among the water lilies. The lips of invisible fish blow circles into the surface on the other side. Cut grass and cold dew stick to my bare feet as I walk back. I wash them away, kiss my boys goodnight and climb into bed to read and to dream.
If I wake up before the others, I push my bike out of the garage and cycle to the morning sea, three miles away. It’s a gulf, to be honest, but we still call it the sea, the Baltic Sea, a tiny inner pocket of the Atlantic Ocean — where it hides what’s dearest, I imagine. There’s almost no salt in the Baltic Sea, they say, but my tongue still tastes it on my lips and my skin when I leave gravity behind with my clothes on the shore and surrender my body to the waves. When I’m dressed again, I explore the white sand with my fingertips and put a couple of stranded splinters, tiny dark brown pieces of driftwood, in my pocket, stamp souvenirs from my own little journeys traversing same paths every day. I am a sea librarian now.
We all descend from someone ancient, and contrary to what is generally believed in the West, they never leave us. Whether you are mystical or logical in nature, the idea sticks. For the former, ancestors spiritually guide us from beyond the grave. For the latter, science now dictates that we genetically inherit their memories and phobias. Either way, an ancestor is someone who passes on information—be it through stories, values, behavior, DNA, or supernatural means—and what distinguishes a good ancestor from a bad one is the quality of this information: a good ancestor hands down wisdom, a bad one gifts us with their pain.
My mother is a bad ancestor and her mother was a bad ancestor too, and if I can’t be a good one, I’d at least like to be better. I come from a lineage of mothers who did not want children. Mean women, selfish women, indifferent women who resented where they came from and had no idea how to nurture what they’d created. Women who buried their aborted babies in the backyard. Women who abandoned their children to others. Women who raged without really knowing why. Absent women who felt unwanted and unloved and unconsciously groomed every last one of their descendants to experience the same.
In the endlessness of life’s cyclical wheel, in the dangerous neutrality of man’s mortal effulgence, and or the cowardly barricade of the conflictual rhythms of his existence, he often misappropriates songs without adequately supplying the right dances to them.
“Don’t sing a song,” he said. “If you cannot find the perfect dance for it.”
Those were the exact words by my father (translated from Yoruba) in 1991 after I’d told him I wanted to join the Nigerian Army so one day I could be a military president. Years later, I would still, in my head, shuffle the judgmental finality of his words, probe at its proverbial complexity and perplexity, and ultimately resign from that variegated prodding of the wheel that will never cease to turn. A song is a song is a song, and a dance is a dance is a dance. Period!
“Greetings from Almaty!” she writes in her e-mail a few days ago. If British writer Caroline Eden is not at home in Edinburgh, she is most probably traveling the roads of Eastern Europe or Central Asia, and her explorations in different cultures have a special kind of prism – food. Caroline Eden uses local food traditions to “tell stories of cities and seas and places and people”. In our interview she compares recipes to “photographs, sketches, snapshots, etchings, vignettes”. Her book, Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light, published last year, is a sensory exploration of the Black Sea region and its post-Soviet countries. Since publication, it has won three awards and was shortlisted for four, and was chosen for the best book of the year round-ups by The New York Times, Financial Times, BBC and The Independent. Black Sea follows the success of her debut book Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, co-written with Eleanor Ford in 2016. I wanted to find out about her thoughts on a sense of place, cosmopolitanism and the role of food in her writing.
Every morning when I wake up, I sit cross-legged, light a cigarette and plan something new
– küçük İskender, Semih Gümüş interview
He was the enfant terrible of Turkish poetry. Gay man and performer who studied medicine and psychology before earning his entire living from poetry. Author of 24 books of poetry, küçük İskender was the voice of Istanbul’s underground and underbelly, Beyoğlu: voice of the junkies, trannies, the suicidal and the broken-hearted. He was a film enthusiast, who wanted his film library to be turned into a foundation. A fan of Kurt Cobain, Kafka and Mayakovsky, Iskender would sit in his smoky basement in Beyoğlu, beer in hand, and hold forth with histories of film, hair-raising stories of literally fatal love affairs and the darker side of Istanbul.
Born Derman İskender Över in 1964, he went by the name “küçük İskender” which means ‘Little Alexander”, a nod at the poet Iskender Pala, who in his mind would be “Alexander the Great”.
He was, without doubt, Turkey’s most prolific and inventive poet of the post-80s scene. He was the scene.
“The Ruins” is a term borrowed from pre-Islamic poetry, in which “weeping over the ruins” is a favorite gharad; the word gharad, which literally means “purpose” and roughly corresponds to genre, is used to indicate not so much a poem’s theme as the driving force behind its utterance.
Josh Calvo is a writer who also translates from Hebrew and Arabic, among other languages dead and alive. He can be reached at this email.
Then the rains washed over the ruins, like a book whose text is written and rewritten….
— Labid (d. 661)
For reasons he has kept to himself, Hakham Abraham Yeshaya Dayan–—born around the turn of the nineteenth century in Aleppo, and risen to become a rabbinic leader in its Jewish community, authoring several religious and scholarly books which have now become obscure, the world to which they are addressed having disappeared and the city in which they were to be read and applied having become in the hundred years since he lived unfathomably and irreversibly unrecognizable—decided suddenly, with the dawning of what would be the decade before his death, that the time had come for him to walk along the walls of his ancient city in search of signs from its long history. For want of some sense of his inner motivations, of what he beheld in his mind whenever he tried to see Aleppo in times he cannot have known, of what image of the city as he knew it over his own lifetime had been building itself in his memory, I can discover little more than he himself has admitted—or that has, by chance or by force, admitted itself—into his words. The nineteenth-century Hakham would not have needed to describe the impression left in mind by what he could still see outside: like the feeling of what remained of what once was: or the music of the undead voices of those who lived before: the cold stone of a synagogue surviving in the walls of a mosques: or the distant echoing of King David’s cavalry and Mongol horses heard faintly, aloft the wind from faraway mountains. And now that the Aleppo he knew has smoldered and will never again be seen, what remains are only these silent words by which it will never be described.
“Because life is the most tragic, most magnificent, most merciless trick death can play on us.”
küçük İskender, “Someone Call an Ambulance”
When you first hear of his illness, you should be in the company of a genius journalist at seven at night and still at work. Upon going into the underwater world of shock, you should walk with said visiting journalist to the fountain that the ravens frequent in Vienna’s Volksgarten. Sit on a bench. As you watch the cascades of crystal beads streaming from between stone wreathes and sculpted longing you might say,
“I can’t cry yet.”
You may regret not having published books with the great poet and letting him have his own way with the stage play you wrote as a canto of his lines. But you didn’t finish it. Now, this is finishing it.
“When the question is asked: ‘Is there death, after life?'”
küçük İskender, “Necromantic”
Reading “Correction” in Cairo
“If one disregards the money that goes with them,” says the narrator in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, a more or less real-life avatar of the writer Thomas Bernhard, “there is nothing in the world more intolerable than award ceremonies.” Berhard goes on to describe his experience with literary awards and how they “do nothing to enhance one’s standing”—also the subject of a dedicated little book of his, My Prizes: An Accounting—revealing the depth of his contempt for the institution, for Vienna’s “literary coffee houses”, which have a “deadly effect on the writer”, and for the compromises and dishonesties required by the writerly life:
I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms, for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him. And to receive a prize is no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on, because one is being paid for it. I have always felt that being awarded a prize was not an honor but the greatest indignity imaginable. For a prize is always awarded by incompetents who want to piss on the recipient. And they have a perfect right to do so, because he is base and despicable enough to receive it.
For a Third World writer inevitably enraged by the tastes, biases and ulterior, including politically correct motives of Third World award juries, the effect is one of liberation. So even in grand old Austria this happens! It is also one of recognition. Here, dead since 1989, is someone who not only knew the truth but wasn’t afraid to say it, going so far as to integrate it into the fabric of his art.
Or How Reading Agha Shahid Ali Changed the Way I Write
“In the Name of the Merciful” let night begin.
I must light lamps without her – at every shrine?
God then is only the final assassin.
On a hot summer afternoon, I find out that the eighth world of Super Mario Bros. is laid out like a labyrinth. The earlier seven Bowsers that have been killed were false bowsers. The real Bowser must be found and defeated in this last world. It is almost impossible to find a way out of the dark underground with dangerous Koopa Troopas keeping a careful watch, Goombas that must be trampled upon, and a sea of lava flowing beneath – at the end of which stands the ultimate enemy. The king of the kingdom possesses immense strength, is almost indestructible, and has mastered the occult arts. He almost always conspires against Mario but in the RPG series he occasionally collaborates with Mario to defeat evil greater than himself.
“Who is god?” my grandmother reads aloud from a newspaper at a distance while peeling baby potatoes.
Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.
– Plato, BC 427–347
Always I have and will
Scatter god and gold to the four winds.
When we meet, I delight in what the Book forbids.
And flee what is allowed.
– Abu Nuwas, AD 756–813
The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence; by asking this question one is merely admitting to a store of unsatisfied libido to which something else must have happened, a kind of fermentation leading to sadness and depression.
– Sigmund Freud, 1937
The revolution is for the sake of life, not death.
― Herbert Marcuse, 1977
Eros is an issue of boundaries.
– Anne Carson, 1986
“Hi, I’m writing a piece on Arab porn and would love to get your input…”
“Why would I be relevant to Arab porn?”
“Porn meaning explicit web content, or sexual self expression in general.”
“I see. Well, okay. I’d like to read what you’re writing but I don’t want to contribute. Not because I’m against the idea. I just don’t feel like revealing anything at this point, or I don’t have anything to reveal. I don’t want to explain myself or my sexuality or whatever.”
There is no escaping the fact. Since 2011, I haven’t been in downtown Cairo except twice, heavily sedated and only for as long as it took to run my unavoidable errand. With the help of medication, my condition had improved enough for me to go there frequently when the protests started in January that year, instead of being confined to Heliopolis as usual. After I was shot with a pellet gun and had to run away from hospital on the first day of protests, for a few weeks I returned to the hotspots of the revolution, but tear gas, shooting and all kinds of attacks often forced me (along with everyone else) to run for my life. This fucked it all up again, in time. Protest hotspots became indistinguishable from vast, crowded spaces too far from home. And, succumbing to my terror of both, I confined myself to Heliopolis.
Rajasthan in four cities
My great-grandfather, a feudal landowner in West Bengal, had a troubled marriage with my great-grandmother, who finally left him in 1927 and came to live with her mother in Jaisalmer. Her mother, my great-great-grandmother was one of the few female doctors in the country at the time and was employed with the royal family of Jaisalmer. My grandfather grew up in the royal household but left home one unsettled morning. He left just a note: my heart doesn’t want.
He wanted to be a classical musician. Failure meant that my mother and uncle grew up in dire poverty in the dirty back alleys of the blue city. No one knows what happened to my great-grandfather or the house or the land. I have never seen a photograph, only an image narrated to me by a distant relative: a man on horseback with leather boots and the eyes of a snake.