Youssef Rakha: You Will Still Hear the Scream

Reading “Correction” in Cairo

Thomas Bernhard by Michael Horowitz, 1976. Source: revistacaliban.net

“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.

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Christmas Gift: Youssef Rakha’s Arab Porn *Remixed*

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Youssef Rakha. A stock photo of a woman in niqab is made up of versions of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s iconic picture, her act of protest of 2011.

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

Scene–1

“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.”

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Youssef Rakha: The Postmuslim

A. Abbas, Pakistan, 1988. Source: magnumphotos.com

Return of the Prodigal Muslim

Everybody knows the Enlightenment is dying. I don’t mean in the hells from which people board immigrant boats. It was never very alive here in the first place. I mean in the heavens to which the boat people seek suicidal access.

They end up drowning less for the love of the Postchristian West, it would seem, than out of despair with the Muslim East. Blame politics and economics, for sure. But could it be that all three phenomena – despair, poverty and dictatorship – are rooted in the same cultural impasse?

Today Brexits, Trumps and, let us not forget, the Islamic Invasion of Europe are spelling an Endarkenment all across the North, confining progressive and egalitarian principles to intensive care units. And I’m wondering what that could mean for despairing Muslims in the South.

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Youssef Rakha: Revolution’s Residue

I had my camera when I went out to demonstrate on Friday, January 28, the climax of the Egyptian revolution (January 25-February 11, 2011). I was on the streets for over twelve hours but I took only two pictures; they were to sit for years on my hard drive, unedited and undisplayed: my only trophies from the revolution. Unlike the majority of “Arab Spring revolutionaries”, from the moment Tahrir Square was occupied in the small hours of Saturday, January 29 and until the long-time president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, I felt that I couldn’t photograph and protest at the same time, that to be photographing would render my presence in the protests insincere and that the protests were about more important things than photography.

At the same time the figures and the faces that I saw daily in and around the protests, and which belonged to both “revolutionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries”, imprinted themselves on my mind more forcefully than ever before: sullen and despairing men, slim women in high heels and children everywhere.

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Antonio Denti: Notes on War in Times of Peace

Generations

I’d rather fight a war tomorrow than think my son might have to do it one day.

This sentence, which I know to be true, does not belong to me. It does not emanate from me. It inhabits me because I am part of this living planet. It originates in the deepest strata of life, in the mechanisms that regulate the way life is handed down from being to being, from generation to generation, across time. It does not make me any more courageous than the moderately frightened – or more heroic than the moderately selfish – man that I am.

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Ali Latife: Immigrant No 1

Paolo Pellegrin. Mediterranean Sea near the Libyan coast, 2015. Source: magnumphotos.com

Paolo Pellegrin. Mediterranean Sea near the Libyan coast, 2015. Source: magnumphotos.com

And so these used ideas

here worn like clothes

will be compensated, without apology,

by the softest chords of their instrument.

— Jim Jarmusch, “Verdict with Guitar”

.

We were drinking homemade alcohol in a small rented apartment in Tripoli the night they stole the statue of the naked women and the gazelle from the city center. That was the last naked woman in Tripoli, possibly even in Libya. No one knows where they took it, but the word on the street is that they destroyed and threw it away or that they sold it.

We were six young men drinking homemade alcohol in a country torn apart by civil war, and for four years since the uprising in 2011 we had all suffered from humiliations inflicted by the rebel militias on almost everyone.

Four of the young men who were sitting with me in the small apartment had been incarcerated for protesting in front of Sudan’s Embassy during the Sudanese protests back in July 2012. The militia that caught them follows the same ideology as the ruling regime of Sudan. The Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist and rebel allies were the rulers of the streets back then and nowadays too. Another had been captured because he is descended from an oppressed Libyan tribe some of whose men had fought the rebels in 2011. We talked about Denmark, Germany, the beautiful lives that awaited us if we could some day get out of this god-forsaken land.

Everything had became tiring lately, the war and what was happening around us and the memories. Even to think of it is tiring, or write about it.

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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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Always a Place for the Still Frame: David Degner on Practice, Vision, and the Future of Photojournalism

David Degner is a Cairo-based freelance photographer represented by Getty Reportage and the co-editor of the Egyptian photo story magazine, Panorama by Mada Masr

 

In an age when video journalism is increasinly paramount and printing is arguably no longer necessary, how do you feel the still image is still pertinent to documentary or news work?

Video journalism serves its purpose and is growing as it is easier to create and distribute, but photos haven’t lost their power in this new environment. A single strong image can be viewed and summarize a situation in seconds. In our fast paced world there will always be a place for the still frame.

Do you think documentary and art photography are important for the development of photo journalism? Is there enough of that going on in Egypt (with the Cairo Image Collective, for example) to create a photographic culture?

As a photojournalist I often steal style from art and commercial photography.  We must be aware of their modern visual language in our work to stay relevant and interesting.  But even though the internet has broken down barriers it can be impossible to find many documentary or art photo books in Cairo.  While in the west you can pick up a thick fashion magazine at almost any store and get inspired by the commercial portraiture it takes conscious effort for photographers to suss out inspiration in Egypt.

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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: On Fiction and the Caliphate

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Youssef Rakha, Palavas-les-Flots, near Montpellier, France, 2017

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

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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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