Youssef Rakha’s ‘In Extremis,’ on Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo

I have belatedly gotten around to reading novelist and poet Youssef Rakha‘s  recent essay In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)“:

A lovely image I stole from Youssef’s website.

In it, Rakha treads some of the same ground he has tread before — about politicized vs. “post”-politicized literatures (see his “Unfree Verse“) — but this essay takes a new turn by wedding that discussion to the “anthropolgical interest” many Western readers take in Arabic literature.

There is a lot of ground Rakha’s essay doesn’t cover (the timidity of Western reviewers in criticizing Arab novels, for instance), but he begins, convincingly, with a Sufi folktale and Claudia Roth Pierpont’s 2010 essay about Arabic fiction in The New Yorker, wherein Pierpont aims to read novels that will teach her about the (marvellous!) Arab world.

This leads Rakha to: “Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.” (One might, of course, put “know” in quotes.)

Rakha plays these “forensic” or “anthopological” readings (Pierpont’s “marvellous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask”!)  against a certain sort of “politically engaged” Arabic literature. In many instances, this “politically engaged” Arabic literature has meant being  co-opted into the state’s narrative in one way or another:

“By the time the new millennium has dawned, it is not only long outdated but in many cases also a reflection of the nationalist and patriarchal values of which the grassroots bard of the provinces is one kind of guardian[.]”

Rakha’s essay is at times uncomfortably elitist. It disdains much about this grassroots bard — his contemporary microbuses and tuktuks, as well as those of us in the tabloid press — and certainly disdains the bard’s offshoot the pop novel (like The Yacoubian Building, or historical-pop Azazeel).

Yacoubian’s translator, Humphrey Davies — often blamed for the book’s popularity in English — has somewhat defensively said that “literature is a house of many rooms.” Pop novels (and detective stories, and romance, and erotica) do have a place in encouraging the act of reading. But perhaps Rakha would be happier to have al-Aswany down the literary hall if it weren’t for the fact that, as Rakha says, Yacoubian is “more celebrated than any Arabic book of fiction or nonfiction of the twentieth century”.

Or perhaps not.

What does all this have to do with revolution? The post-Jan 25 era puts new pressure on a novelist from both directions: 1) to create a new sort of “engaged” literature (hopefully without falling into nationalist/chauvanist traps) and 2) to produce translations (without “confirming what we already knew we knew”).

And is there something essentially wrong with searching a book for knowledge of “the other”? Perhaps, if removed from all other political contexts, it’s not so bad. But, if literature must be a tool, then the better use of it is to discover new things about not others, but oneself.

A few young authors of works Rakha mentions admiringly, that you might read:

Ibrahim Farghali‘s harrassed and semi-censored Sons of Gabalawi, which he says “recalls both Kundera and Saramago.” You can read Farghali’s Smiles of Saints in translation, Andy Smart and Nadia Fouda-Smart, but I don’t think anyone has signed Sons. 

Rakha mentions no particular work by Mohammed Rabie; presumably he means Amber Planet, although Rabie also has a new book out,  عام التنين, which Kotob Khan Books has nominated for next year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Or perhaps I’m mistaken and Rakha is referring to this Mohammad Rabie, the acclaimed author of عموم الليالي التي, who died prematurely in 2008.

Hamdi Abu Golayyel is still young-ish, isn’t he? You can read his Dog With No Tail, ably trans. Robin Moger, from AUC Press.

Ahmad Yamani; it would be wonderful to see a collection of his work inspiring a translation into English. Rakha has translated a few poems.

Yasser Abdellatif (he has one story in translation in Banipal, but Abdellatif is apparently not fond of the translation). A translation of one of his longer works is currently in progress.

You can also just read the whole essay, of course.

Youssef Rakha is the author of the acclaimed but under-noticed Book of the Sultan’s Sealforthcoming in English translation from Clockroot Books.