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.
An Introduction to Medieval Travelogues: A comparison of Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Fudayl
The act of travelling is as compelling now as it was in the past. It is one of the most powerful catalysts for change in all spheres of human society and possibly more so with Islamic civilisation, which has travel as one of its central themes. The Quran commands the faithful to perform the Hajj, here the pilgrim endures the hardships of travel in order to connect with God. But it also encourages travel in order for man to see what has become of previous nations; to take heed as it were. Whilst this author is no Mohammedan, I do believe in the latter proposition and Medieval travellers are of particular interest to me.
He is arrogant.
Like a Jerusalem oak—growing in the most narrow fissure, the most meager soil—that was his arrogance, at first. There was almost nothing to feed it. It was thin and pale and stood apart from the vast landscape of him—a few dry green leaves that were, at most, a distraction, a distraction from that great and beautiful emptiness. Because that’s what was most remarkable about him—that emptiness—vast and open and almost unimaginable.
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.
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?