Blessed is he who lays a flower on a tomb or a palace or a breast, is he who is born in the seventh month or the twelfth, is the throat become gorge, is he who slaughters his only horse out of kindness. Blessed is he who sinks to his knees pleading forgiveness or overcome with lust, is he who bears a cross upon his back, is he who boils a porridge of cement to hoodwink his children’s hunger, is the sniffer become snout, is the time when a wife could gather together the pieces of her helpmeet’s corpse and he would live, are the truths cowering in the crevices of falsehood, is the nation that feeds on the chatter of the worthless, is the nation that feeds on the prattling of the powerful, is the gulp become gullet. Blessed is he who fashions an ear from clay and an ear from dough until his head is severed, is a sun that still rises in the East, is a star that shines through on a cloudy day. Blessed be this tale, which would not have be told of Mustajab VII were it not for that incident, revealed to the world by a wordsmith whose father laboured as a screenwriter, wherein Mustajab VII secretly murdered Mustajab VI, sold his body to students studying dissection and with the proceeds erected a sumptious pavilion replete with dazzling lights and microphones that resounded with proverbial wisdom, to outfox foes and keep in remembrance the glorious exploits of Clan Mustajab, ancient and modern, then stood at its entrance to receive the sincerest of condolences. This is a slander against the man, which lays the very heart of truth to waste and strikes at the crux of our tale, the point at which it joins with what took place thereafter, for which reason we set over this incident an upturned water jar, and kept it hid.
Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017
Arabic novels are so frequently described as Kafkaesque or Orwellian that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the two authors were themselves Arab. It is a small wonder that noone has yet tried to uncover their secret Arab origins by etymologizing their names (قفقاء and الروال) in the way that the Turks have for Shakespeare. It is true that both of their names have become literary shorthand for a type of writing dealing with dystopia, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. It is also true that Arab societies have continued unabated to live through dystopias, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. But the label flattens out what is particular and new about so much excellent Arabic writing, and suggests that everything you need to know about the daily experience of living in a dysfunctional and cruel system can be captured by the term “nightmarish”.
The only window, in disrepair
Don’t come tonight, sad bat
Packing your head between my brows.
We have denied one another at times
In despair and in defeat. In vain
Face bumping at face,
The heart at the heart.
He had friends,
and they pledged him in the evening of his sorrow
not to turn him over to the soldiers
or to deny him when
he was summoned by the king.
And one turned him over
for a handful of silver
then committed suicide
and by another he was denied
three times before dawn broke
and once he had died his lips
could smile again, and then
he went on his way evangelizing,
boasting that he had known him,
and fished blessings by baptizing
in his name.
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.
My sister screamed in the night
Take me to my brother’s house
And there she screamed that same night
No no! Take me back to the house of my father
They took her back
And when she made to scream again
The night had passed
And the men had gone to work.
Life eternal might not be ours
but there’s what’s worse
that we are really forever
Music through earphones
casts no shadow
does not say to you when you must stop
nor through the earphones
Then the secret was there in my heart
and I was gone and my star set away
my heart by my lord’s secret changed and I
absented from the body’s feeling frame
wherefrom therewith I came
upon a ship of my high resolution
disposed therein my fortress thoughts
through a dark gulf of what I knew
and on my ship my longing blew
as winds, and so it passed
an arrow’s passage through the sea
and across that sea Approach I cut
till I perceived unsecret what
was without name. You!
I said, by my heart seen!
I loose an arrow at your love
for you are dear to me
and you are my festivity
the end of all my passion and my prize.
Ibn Arabi’s original poem can be found here.
Horses at the door
Must this go on forever?
and the hand that slips
from me unnoticed.
Meeting with an Arab poet in exile
At that outcast and lonely hour,
that hour of night when choices narrow
until each absence takes on meaning as a cloud of smoke,
between the voices of the drunken patrons in that small restaurant
and the wash of the still sea that beats, below, against its rocky shore,
at that outcast hour of night, that lonely hour,
he talked to me of the legendary poets of exile
and how he’d known them in his youth, he
who still followed the same path,
and from an ancient notebook
which bore on its cover the cedar of Lebanon
began to read aloud his long two-columned poems.
Two Versions of “The People Are Asleep”
“The people are asleep,
Don’t wake the people, darling,
So she’d tell him
Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,
Whenever his eyes shone behind the door
Like a password,