Nourhan Tewfik: The Second Life of Lewis Nawa

Nourhan Tewfik reviews Ebola ’76 by Amir Tag Elsir, translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby

Health care workers, wearing protective suits, leave a high-risk area at the French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders) Elwa hospital on August 30, 2014 in Monrovia. Liberia has been hardest-hit by the Ebola virus raging through west Africa, with 624 deaths and 1,082 cases since the start of the year. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET        (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Health care workers on August 30, 2014 in Liberia. AFP photo by Dominique Faget, Getty Images

As Lewis entered, Ebola was all around. It hovered inches from him, anticipating its moment to pounce. The virus had already claimed the bodies of most of the people he encountered there. It coursed through the blood of the old, sunken-cheeked beggar woman as she silently extended her hand towards Lewis to receive his half franc. It had infiltrated the veins of the stern guard, who now leant against his battered old rifle, his gaze flitting between the visitors as they came and went through the main gates. It inhabited the many mourners who passed before Lewis’s distracted gaze. Even as he knelt in tears beside the grave of his lover, who had died just two days previously, the virus was there, lurking in her corpse beneath the soil.

In his short novel Ebola ‘76, a Darf Publishers title translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby, the Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir moulds a fictionalised account of the 1976 Ebola outbreak in South Sudan and Congo.

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Seth Messinger on Alessandro Spina: Bordello Continent, Missione Civilizzatrice

Seth Messigner reviews The Confines of the Shadow by Alessandro Spina, translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely, a 2015 title by Darf Publishers, London

“Marble Arch Built by Italians to Commemorate their victory in Libya”. Photo by Joe Willis. Source: joewillis.co.uk

Confines of the Shadow is the first of three volumes written by Alessandro Spina and translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely. The London-based Darf Publishers has produced nonfiction works in English about Libya, the Arab World and the Middle East. Recently it started publishing translations of world literature as well. Confines of the Shadow links these two concentrations in one multi-volume project. Spina is at once a Libyan, an Arab, and an Italian. He spent much of his career writing his family’s history, through which he explored a uniquely tangled web of relations with the Mediterranean world.

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​Pieces of a Girl: An Erotic Ramble by Jennifer Coard

From the story

From the story “Aka Ana” by Antoine D’Agata, 2007. Source: magnumphotos.com

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A little girl walking through the woods on her way to her best friend’s house finds a small piece of paper. It is shiny and colorful, ripped from a magazine no doubt, with ragged edges and folded into halves – twice. I still don’t know what makes the little girl take that loose piece of paper into her hands. It is litter, really. But it will never be far from her for the next decade. From that day, she keeps it. Folded as she found it. She gently places it between the pages of The Little Prince or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, perhaps Watership Down. Now and again she takes it out and unfolds it. Over the years, the piece of paper becomes worn and soft, as satin silk or lambskin chamois. Whitened, thin and frayed at the folds until it is too delicate to even open. But the girl keeps it. It has become her confidante.

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Youssef Rakha: Who the Fuck Is Charlie

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From the Miraj Nama of Shah Rukh, 15th century, showing the Prophet Muhammad astride his Buraq. Source: studyblue.com

The mere idea of contributing to the Charlie Hebdo colloquy is a problem. It’s a problem because, whether as a public tragedy or a defense of creative freedom, the incident was blown out of all proportion. It’s a problem because it’s been a moralistic free-for-all: to express solidarity is to omit context, to forego the meaning of your relation to the “slain” object of consensus, to become a hashtag. It’s a problem above all because it turns a small-scale crime of little significance outside France into a cultural trope.

Charlie Hebdo is not about the senseless (or else the political) killing of one party by another. It’s about a Platonic evil called Islam encroaching on the  peaceful, beneficent world order created and maintained by the post-Christian west. Defending the latter against the former, commentators not only presume what will sooner or later reduce to the racial superiority of the victim. They also misrepresent the perpetrator as an alien force independent of that order.

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Youssef Rakha: He Threw Himself into the Sea

The Sultan’s Seal reviews one of Darf Publishers’ recent titles: the Eritrean writer Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, translated from the original Arabic by Charis Bredin

Photo by Alex Majoli, source: magnum photos.com

I immediately began to suss out the reputations of all the local smugglers, remaining in a state of anxious indecision as to which of them I should do business with. There was ‘Fatty’, known for his reliability and the care he took of those who travelled aboard his Titanics. His reputation extended all over Africa and travellers from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana and Liberia would hunt him down as soon as they arrived in [Tripoli]. Other smugglers were known for how swiftly they could arrange crossings. Every week, one of their Titanics would leave for the far shore, completely devoid of safety precautions, and likely to sink a few miles out to sea.

Like Samuel Shimon (An Iraqi in Paris, 2005), and Hamdi Abu Golayyel (A Dog with No Tail, 2009), Abu Bakr Khaal writes reportage with fictional license. Though a Tigré-speaking Eritrean with no apparent connection to the Arab literary scene, he belongs in a recent Arabic tradition of confessional narrative that benefits as much from its authors’ down-and-out credentials as their distinct vernaculars. Whether Khaal’s language is interesting because of influence from his mother tongue, I don’t know.

In Charis Bredin’s decidedly British English, African Titanics is a breezy read, worthwhile for its first-hand take on an essential topic and its pseudo-mythology of pan-African wanderlust.

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The Whisper of the Infinite: An Interview with Niall Griffiths

In the mid-Seventies, Niall Griffiths — aged 11 — left Toxteth, Liverpool with his family to Australia. His mother was too homesick to become a “Ten Pound Pom“, however, and the family went back to Liverpool only three years later. As a teenager who wanted to write, the future author of Sheepshagger (2001) felt constricted and insulted by the “posh” monopoly on education and literature. He left school for Snowdonia in Wales, where he had ancestral connections and developed a feeling for the landscape. Stump (2003) having won both the Welsh Books Council and the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year awards, it is often as a Welsh writer that Griffiths is celebrated, although he equally qualifies as Scouse and, as a writer of “progressive fiction” peopled with the dispossessed and the disaffected, he also belongs in a vernacuar Transatlantic tradition. Griffiths eventually graduated from the University of Aberystwyth, where he now lives, having spent many years working with his hands and hopping from the North of England to Wales, traveling across Britain, or beyond.

Niall Griffiths. Source: natgeotraveller.co.uk

Niall Griffiths. Source: natgeotraveller.co.uk

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You seem to make a distinction between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, not so much in your work but in the way you describe the English (it’s one of the few things that bind people from the former colonies back here with the Celts: hatred of the English). This might sound like a silly question but in the grander scheme of things, from the global perspective, do you think there remains a true cultural difference over and above class?

In some ways, yes, in others, no. . . I mean, this is a united kingdom supposedly but divide and rule has always been in operation, due largely to the entrenched class system. So in opposition to that, I believe that a docker from Swansea should recognise that he has more in common with a docker from say, Hull, than he does with a middle-class professional from Swansea. That said, England still remains the biggest and by far the most powerful country in the UK, and he fact that Wales and Scotland are ruled by London will always be a source of anger for as long as it lasts. It’s the richest country too, and a certain strata of it tends to see Wales and Scotland as its playground. No attention is paid to the different cultures; they’re simply countries where the rich English can holiday in their second homes. This situation is even worse in Cornwall.

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Marcia Lynx Qualey: A Review of the Newest Arabic Novel (Remix)

Arab Muscle Dancers, 1898, by B. W. Kilburn

Insert Title Here, by Our Arab Author, translated by So-and-so. Such-and-such publisher. $12.99.

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? We in the West hear about the Middle East all the time, but for most of us it remains unknown and unknowable. More complicated still is that, as I learnt at the weekend, forms like the novel and short story were alien to Arabic culture before the first decade of the 20th century: the genres are, themselves, imports.

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Angelus Novus: A Letter from Hilary Plum

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Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920. Source: fleurmach.com

Dear Youssef,

A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.

The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.

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Joe Linker: Waiting for Marjane

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I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.

We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.

I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.

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Youssef Rakha: The Importance of Being Lars

Nymphomaniac’s Message for the Arab Spring

 

As an Arab you’re probably expecting me to lay into Nymphomaniac. It’s a film that must seem, if not offensive to my cultural sensibility, then irritatingly irrelevant to the poverty, underdevelopment, and upheaval that surround my life.

In most cases dropping the word “white” in the same paragraph as “Islam’s respect for women” is all it would take to slam Lars von Trier in this context. It would be a politically correct slur, too. I could even draw on Edward Said’s hallowed legacy to point out that the only time non-Europeans appear in over four hours of action, they’re portrayed as dumb sex tools. Not only self-indulgent and obscene but also Orientalist, etc..

But the truth is I actively delighted in Nymphomaniac, and I didn’t have to stop being an Arab for that to happen. To be accurate I should say I would’ve welcomed a von Trier film anyway, but this one showed up when it was needed—and it duly exploded on arrival.

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Writing the North African Experience: Interview with Youssef Rakha

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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.

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Youssef Rakha: The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt

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By Youssef Rakha

About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.

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Youssef Rakha: All Those Theres

Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.

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In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?

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Banipal Interview with SARGON BOULUS

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By Margret Obank

Sargon Boulus has the rare experience of being an Iraqi poet who has been part of the American poetry since the late sixties. Today he is passing this on to the new generation of young Arab poets through his poetry.

He is one of the most important Arab poets today. He started publishing poetry and short stories contributing to Shi’r magazine of Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut. When he went to the US, he was ‘lost’ the Arab world until he re-emerged in the mid-80s with his Arrival in Where-City collection of poems.

His poems and translations have appeared in numerous Arab magazines and newspapers, and he published four collections of poetry. Now in his early fifties, Sargon seems still to have all the energy and vibrant imagination of his youthful days in Iraq and Beirut.

Besides writing poems and short stories, Sargon is well known as an accomplished translator into English and American poets such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden (he is soon to publish a complete an his translations of Auden together with extensive notes and an introduction on Auden’s life), W. S Shakespeare, Shelley, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, John Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, John Logan, and many other poets including Rilke, Neruda, Vasko Popa and Ho Chi Min.

Since the mid-80s, he has been on the move between San Francisco, Paris, London and Cologne a last year has lived in Schoppingen artists’ village in Germany, where I visited him last September. We spent a day under the Sh?ppingen sky, eating, drinking and talking about his life, his childhood, his views on poetic form and his endless experiments with the Arabic language.

I keep going back and forth into the past. The discovery which comes usually late is that most of the material that has made you and still works on you, even today, lies somewhere there, mostly in childhood, so that, in a way, I think that whatever happened to you in childhood, your circumstances, the place you lived in, the time, the happenings, these shape you up, especially if you are a poet, if you are a writer, and later on you would come back to this material and discover that that is your real capital. So I keep going, as I said, in these late poems back into that time, to shape them up anew, see them in a new way, kind of bracket in the perspective, tighten it and bring out the deepest possible meaning in those scenes and happenings and family background.

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Youssef Rakha: The Nude and the Martyr

“Women in the Revolution” grafitti, November 2011. Source: Wikipedia

Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.

Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.

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Jean Genet’s FOUR HOURS IN CHATILA

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Chris Steele-Perkins, 1982. Source: magnumphotos.com

(This is the complete version. The sentences which have been shamelessly deleted by the cowardly editors of the Revue d’Etudes palestiniennes in Paris, in its number 6 published in 1983, have been restored here. The missing sentences, visible here in TT (typewriter police) have been published in the footnotes of the text in the posthumous volume called L’Ennemi déclaré, Gallimard, 1991, p. 408. The English translation has been done by Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud.)

“Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.”

Menachem Begin (Knesset, September 1982)

No one, nothing, no narrative technique, can put into words the six months, and especially the first weeks, which the fedayeen spent in the mountains of jerash and Ajloun in Jordan. As for relating the events, establishing the chronology, the successes and failures of the PLO, that has been done by others. The feeling in the air, the color of the sky, of the earth, of the trees, these can be told; but never the faint intoxication, the lightness of footsteps barely touching the earth, the sparkle in the eyes, the openness of relationships not only between the fedayeen but also between them and their leaders. Under the trees, everything, everyone was aquiver, laughing, filled with wonder at this life, so new for all, and in these vibrations there was something strangely immovable, watchful, reserved, protected like someone praying.

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Instead of waiting, there is writing

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A manuscript page from Antwerp: “I love this quote, I think the image it summons is very powerful): “POSTSCRIPT: Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength. (Significant, said the foreigner.) Odes to the human and the divine. Let my writing be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to grid himself with courage.” Source: bolanobolano.com

Roberto Bolaño belongs to the most select group of Latin-American novelists. Chile of the coup d’état, Mexico City in the 1970s, and the reckless youth of poets are some of his frequent subjects, but he also takes up other themes: César Vallejo’s deathbed, the hardships endured by unknown authors, life at the periphery. Born in Chile in 1953, he spent his teenage years in Mexico and moved to Spain at the end of the seventies. As a poet, he founded the Infrarealist movement with Mario Santiago. In 1999 he won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, previously awarded to Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, for his novel Los detectives salvajes [The Savage Detectives], for which he also received the prestigious Herralde Prize.

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