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.
To build something together one last time
there are so many questions,
like who would live there,
and if no one, why build it?
In our panic we make a house
that looks like a boat,
which reminds me of dreaming
both of us were angels, sleeping at sea.
When we lay the boat down
in the cemetery of love,
we squat over one of its three windows,
and wave to ourselves through the glass.
From “The Little Light that Escaped”
But I remember.
The scent of sun and ash, a taste of resin, blame. Summers across slanting floors and smiles like sickles for thoughts of flight. Abandoned streets and a feeling of sinking. Makeshift holes not far from the sea; closer in, the cicadas’ hum the whirl straight up to twilight’s hem, brittle wings which brought no breeze while all the rest were busy drinking, swallowing the searing-eyed, searing-tongued prophets and seers, and jaundicing into the yellow silence of the years. The tonal monotony of the land.
Days passing, just out of the reach of the sun. Days passing, in a basement room, watching the arc of the sun through a small square of sky. Tides of no turning. Blocks of light mosaiced while the slow days tasted of mineral, copper, rust.
We do not see the hut when the lights first come up, and then we see it. Its inhabitants are not interested in us, perhaps because their problems do not concern us. These women spend their days waiting for a man, and they know that one day he will come. Lights shine upstage from the front of the stage, illuminating a door in the back wall. Neither fully open nor quite shut, it swings gently on its hinges, creaking intermittently, as though the fitful wind outside the hut is knocking to make its presence known within. Then the light sweeps downstage and to the right: we see a flight of stairs rising to the princess’s room, mirrored by a flight on the left leading down to their larder. Centre stage is an old-fashioned, rectangular dining table—or rather, it is simply old: it has no identifiable fashion. Around this table there are four chairs, the back of one slightly higher than the rest. The chairs are not neatly arranged but are scattered about as though hastily vacated. Between them wend the backs of two women dressed in black, cleaning the shabby furnishings and complaining.
“Rizwan, it’s you, it’s you. Is that you, Rizwan?”
“Yes, it is me. But who are you? I know your voice but I can’t put a face to it.”
“Ah, never mind. Your father… your father has been looking for you. Where were you? What took you so long?”
— The first time Carol Sansour saw Jaffa
“In court I once met a person I had never seen before,” the prince said, “but who reminded me of all the people I have ever seen. He said he had something magnificent in store for his head. But I must not think he was going to cut it off himself. He put a knife into my hand and said: Cut my head off, my dear fellow. I have long waited for you to turn up to cut off my head. For I have something magnificent in store for my head. Don’t be afraid, this eccentric said, I have calculated everything in advance. It cannot go wrong. Here, cut! He gave me three minutes. Here, he said, this is the spot where I want my head cut off. I’ll continue to stand, because it seems to me thoroughly undignified to have your head cut off while lying down, let alone sitting. I won’t embarrass you! the stranger said. Incidentally, the knife is manufactured by the Christofle Company, he said. And I actually saw the name Christofle engraved on the knife. I seized the head and cut it off. I was quite astonished at how easy it was. The head then said: You see, you had no difficulty cutting off my head. But then I see that I haven’t cut off his head, and the stranger said: You didn’t seriously imagine you could cut off my head, did you? Or did you? Let us go on, the stranger said. He was my cousin. Actually,” the prince said, “I did not dream the story to its end. That was a pity.”
— from Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Richard and Clara Winston
They ate at a place called El Rey del Taco. At the entrance there was a neon sign: a kid wearing a big crown mounted on a burro that regularly kicked up its hind legs and tried to throw him. The boy never fell, although in one hand he was holding a taco and in the other a kind of scepter that could also serve as a riding crop. The inside was decorated like a McDonald’s, but in an unsettling way. The chairs were straw, not plastic. The tables were wooden. The floor was covered in big green tiles, some of them printed with desert landscapes and episodes from the life of El Rey del Taco. From the ceiling hung pinatas featuring more adventures of the boy king, always accompanied by the burro. Some of the scenes depicted were charmingly ordinary: the boy, the burro, and a one-eyed old woman, or the boy, the burro, and a well, or the boy, the burro, and a pot of beans. Other scenes were set firmly in the realm of the fantastic: in some the boy and the burro fell down a ravine, in others, the boy and the burro were tied to a funeral pyre, and there was even one in which the boy threatened to shoot his burro, holding a gun to its head. It was as if El Rey del Taco weren’t the name of a restaurant but a character in a comic book Fate happened never to have heard of. Still, the feeling of being in a McDonald’s persisted. Maybe the waitresses and waiters, very young and dressed in military uniforms (Chucho Flores told him they were dressed up as federales), helped create the impression. This was certainly no victorious army. The young waiters radiated exhaustion, although they smiled at the customers. Some of them seemed lost in the desert that was El Rey del Taco. Others, fifteen-year-olds or fourteen-year-olds, tried in vain to joke with some of the diners, men on their own or in pairs who looked like government workers or cops, men who eyed them grimly, in no mood for jokes. Some of the girls had tears in their eyes, and they seemed unreal, faces glimpsed in a dream.
“This place is like hell,” he said to Rosa Amalfitano.
“You’re right,” she said, looking at him sympathetically, “but the food isn’t bad.”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” said Fate.
“As soon as they put a plate of tacos in front of you it’ll come back,” said Rosa Amalfitano.
“I hope you’re right,” said Fate.
— from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.
Poem 55 from a correspondence in translations of Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, between Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger. The first two translations are made independently and each subsequent rendering written after the other’s previous version has been sent and seen.
Distance, and desire ruins me. To meet
is no relief. Come or go, desire hardly cares.
Meeting him, unreckoned
things happen. In place of healing,
another ache of longing.
Because to meet him is to see
a person whose beauty grows
ever more abundant, proud.
All I can do is match my love’s ascent
To his loveliness on its measured scale.
It can happen that I am observed without knowing it, and again I cannot speak of this experience, since I have determined to be guided by the consciousness of my feelings. But very often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it. Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice…
A city of stark contrasts, Calcutta breathes deeply in black and white.
The altered reality of the black and white image engages the outlines of the urban landscape.
The Daybook of Bishr the Barefoot
Abu Nasr, Bishr bin al-Harith, sought out debate and discussion and heard all that was said and so inclined to mysticism. And one day he was walking through the market when, taking fright at the people there, he removed his sandals and slipped them beneath his arms and set off running through the sunbaked stones and sand, and none could keep pace with him. This was in the year 227 AH.
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
New York City — The Recent Past
There’s that “something” in the look she is giving you, something in her gaze which tells you that she thinks you’re interesting. You pretend not to notice it, of course, try to maintain your “cool detachment” but you aren’t sure why you’re doing it. You don’t really like to talk about yourself too much but she asked about your writing and writing is, at least to you, essentially the “core” of who you are. How could you not talk about it?
“What do you write? Would I know anything?”
The Two Houses
I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.