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.
I drove alone from Rome to the Balkans to cover the refugee crisis on the borders of Eastern Europe in September 2015. I saw the physical and human landscape changing slowly. I saw the faces, and I heard the sound of the words. I saw history flowing from Florence to Venice, to Trieste, to the forests of Slovenia, to the Alps and the well kept chalets near Austria, to the flat agricultural peripheries deeper into the former Austro-Hungarian empire, eastwards, towards Serbia and Hungary…
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.
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?
The refugee tells
The refugee absorbed in telling his tale
feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.
He’s absorbed in the awe of being Here
after all those Theres: the stations, and the ports,
the search parties, the forged papers…
He dangles from the chain of circumstance –
his destiny wound like fibre,
in rings as narrow as
those countries on whose chest
the nightmares have piled up.