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: You Will Still Hear the Scream

Reading “Correction” in Cairo

Thomas Bernhard by Michael Horowitz, 1976. Source: revistacaliban.net

“If one disregards the money that goes with them,” says the narrator in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, a more or less real-life avatar of the writer Thomas Bernhard, “there is nothing in the world more intolerable than award ceremonies.” Berhard goes on to describe his experience with literary awards and how they “do nothing to enhance one’s standing”—also the subject of a dedicated little book of his, My Prizes: An Accounting—revealing the depth of his contempt for the institution, for Vienna’s “literary coffee houses”, which have a “deadly effect on the writer”, and for the compromises and dishonesties required by the writerly life:

I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms, for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him. And to receive a prize is no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on, because one is being paid for it. I have always felt that being awarded a prize was not an honor but the greatest indignity imaginable. For a prize is always awarded by incompetents who want to piss on the recipient. And they have a perfect right to do so, because he is base and despicable enough to receive it.

For a Third World writer inevitably enraged by the tastes, biases and ulterior, including politically correct motives of Third World award juries, the effect is one of liberation. So even in grand old Austria this happens! It is also one of recognition. Here, dead since 1989, is someone who not only knew the truth but wasn’t afraid to say it, going so far as to integrate it into the fabric of his art.

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Christmas Gift: Youssef Rakha’s Arab Porn *Remixed*

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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

Scene–1

“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.”

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Ulayya bint al-Mahdi’s Epigram by Yasmine Seale

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Gustav Klimt,  Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Source: Wikipedia

To love two people is to have it 

coming: body nailed to beams,

dismemberment.

But loving one is like observing

religion.

I held out until fever 

broke me. 

How long can grass

brave fire?

If I did not have hope

that my heart’s master’s

heart might bend to mine, 

I would be stranded, no

closer to gate than home.

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Youssef Rakha: The Importance of Being Lars

Nymphomaniac’s Message for the Arab Spring

 

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.

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Youssef Rakha: The Nude and the Martyr

“Women in the Revolution” grafitti, November 2011. Source: Wikipedia

Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.

Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.

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