Youssef Rakha: Revolution’s Residue

I had my camera when I went out to demonstrate on Friday, January 28, the climax of the Egyptian revolution (January 25-February 11, 2011). I was on the streets for over twelve hours but I took only two pictures; they were to sit for years on my hard drive, unedited and undisplayed: my only trophies from the revolution. Unlike the majority of “Arab Spring revolutionaries”, from the moment Tahrir Square was occupied in the small hours of Saturday, January 29 and until the long-time president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, I felt that I couldn’t photograph and protest at the same time, that to be photographing would render my presence in the protests insincere and that the protests were about more important things than photography.

At the same time the figures and the faces that I saw daily in and around the protests, and which belonged to both “revolutionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries”, imprinted themselves on my mind more forcefully than ever before: sullen and despairing men, slim women in high heels and children everywhere.

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Youssef Rakha: On Fiction and the Caliphate

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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.

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