Tanjil Rashid: In Time’s Late Hour

Al-Ma’ari’s Saqt Al-Zand (or “The Tinder Spark”, Syria, AD 1300. Source: sothebys.com

I am often susceptible to feelings of belatedness. “Is literary greatness still possible?” Susan Sontag asked around the turn of the millennium, and twenty years on, I’m not sure we have had an answer. Is it finally, as Cyril Connolly put it, “closing time in the gardens of the West”? I have always preferred the gardens of the East, but they may not be faring any better.

I am fully aware that this sentiment has been known to reactionaries for thousands of years, and quite often they’ve been wildly wrong. With me it is not by any means a political stance, and probably just a hyperbolic way of appreciating works of art and literature from a time before my own. The feeling is usually prompted by an encounter with a marvellous line composed in some distant time by an ancient poet or sage.

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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: All Those Theres

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.

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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?

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