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
“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.”
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.
Detail from Umayyad Quran, before AD 725. Source: nybooks.com
A couple of weeks ago, I shared a train compartment from Casablanca to Marrakech with a Moroccan transport engineer, a Dutch-Italian couple, and a professor of Islamic culture back from Saudi Arabia for his summer holiday. The professor was talkative, repeatedly offering to buy everyone coffee and sandwiches. In a combination of fusha and a bit of English he went on about how people needed to know that Islam is not al-Qaeda and Da’esh, but love and friendship. At one point he asked us if anyone objected to him reciting a bit of the Qur’an. No one did, so he closed his eyes, pressed his fingertips together, and began reciting, quietly, beautifully. Afterward he asked the Dutch-Italian couple if they could feel the beauty of the language. Then, in the same voice and incantatory style, he said (in fusha) I am going to a new city. I will arrive and look for a restaurant and a place to sleep. He turned to them and asked if that felt different, but they couldn’t understand the question, and no one translated it, so we never got an answer.
Christopher Anderson, Kunduz, Afghanistan, 2001. Source: magnumphotos.com
“What do you reckon that is?” Abu Imad said, tapping the scope. He looked at me, rubbing his bushy beard thoughtfully. He wanted me to make the two-meter journey to take a look.
“I’m all right here to be honest,” I said, looking at Abu Imad’s powerful frame. In my experience, God creates two types who stay on for the long haul. Either the rugby player variety or the wiry knife wielding sort, used to taking down bigger opponents. Abu Imad belonged to the former.
“Come,” he insisted, “come.”
I didn’t really feel like giving him my opinion. I didn’t want to entertain the mad shit bouncing around his head. What’s it going to be? Either some mountain goat or a hardy plant that has somehow emerged out of this cruel valley where we’d been stuck for years. What new excitement could this brother show me? We hadn’t progressed against the enemy, not because we were weak but because the commanders were arguing sometimes over strategy, sometimes over tactics, most of the time over honour and on rare occasions about God. In spite of them, we held this crag. We were mountain lions in courage and mountain goats in stubbornness.
An Introduction to Medieval Travelogues: A comparison of Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Fudayl
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Arnaut and his dog, 19th century. Source: Wikipedia
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 itscentral 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.
The house sat on stilts. These were the marshlands of South Carolina, where even the birds slept on tall, lanky wooden sticks to keep their plumage dry. When mama wasn’t looking, Tito and I snuck down to wade knee deep in the muck. We terrorized the egrets out of their stroll. We trapped in buckets the legged tadpoles that were not yet grown enough to jump. They drowned each other while we watched. With gummy feet they stepped on each other’s open eyes and threw their bodies against the high, plastic walls for hours. When mama finally came looking for us, we let the live ones go. But even back upstairs it was not quite an inside. The wood hummed with mites. There were spiders knitting in the cupboards. There were ants in the bathroom, lizards blinking from the walls, and once, out of a bag of rice, there bloomed a cloud of baby moths. The kitchen spun with their dizzy dust-magic until the first one fried itself on the bulb. It fell dreamily. I was six when mama found my first diary, filled with pencil drawings of all my animal friends. I gave each of them small droopy genitals like mine.
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.
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.
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920. Source: fleurmach.com
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.
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.
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.