So I’m on the podium. Marcia has handed me the mike, and my thousands-strong and well-informed American audience is rapt. (I would begin by asking them to please think of me as a sand nigger rather than “a writer of color,” because the latter is significantly more offensive, but knowing how much they obsess about race, I’d rather not distract them from what I have to say.) Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the thing:
By Youssef Rakha
In an article about a teenage suicide bomber who killed three policemen in Sinai, I had written that I wanted to imagine him as a resplendent prince in paradise. I was alluding to the fact that his motives were ridiculous, and perhaps also voicing some degree of sympathy with his tragedy. But when the editor said, “You want to see him rewarded?” — I mean, having seen what purposeful misunderstanding readers are capable of in the comments section of the site where the article was published, I was ultimately grateful for this intervention — it was as if he caught me off guard. No, I didn’t want to seem him rewarded. Or perhaps I did? Surely the question kind of misses the point. But I eventually learned that it was something the readers of that publication would be taking me to task for…
I choose this example because it is the mildest, the most rationally graspable of all that has happened to me in this department. Yet it shows you exactly the kind of glitch I’ve been coming up against since my voice started making the journey from Cairo to your parts. It’s a journey I’m grateful for, don’t get me wrong. But it seems as though the closer I get to my destination — the more of your world I engage, and the more directly, that is — the more trouble I have speaking at all. Often in the face of the overriding imperative to lowest-common-denominator “clarity”, the democracy of thought that stands in for systematic commodification of consciousness, I find myself with nothing to say. Or, if I do have something to say, I just know it’s going to be even more “controversial” than what prompted the discussion in the first place.
So it must be something other than the physical conditions for speaking that’s keeping me silent, and my sense is that thing is the unwritten rules governing civilized discourse in the world today (which I believe originate largely in America).
I mean, I suppose I’ve been relatively lucky in terms of access to publications and relevant people. Fortunately in my case, language is no barrier. So it must be something other than the physical conditions for speaking that’s keeping me silent, and my sense is that thing is the unwritten rules governing civilized discourse in the world today (which I believe originate largely in America). Whatever else is involved, it is the Washington-centered unipolar world order’s assumptions about what can and cannot be said that lie behind this encroaching dumbness: the possibility that my voice, or the pitch of it that counts, will be always outside your hearing range.
That’s why I’m here now: to talk about why that’s something to worry about. Though to what end, I’m not so sure. I truly do not want to disturb the political-moral order that you’re happy to live under: your feeling good about yourself when, sitting back in the shadow of the Pentagon, for example, you defend political Islam against “military violations of human rights” in Egypt. But maybe I do want to make you aware of the fact that, though different, I exist.
I don’t mean that, in offering my work to you, I’m trying to become the human-literary embodiment of Hollywood propaganda about the Free World (which seems to me what celebrated writers of color tend to be).
Please understand, ladies and gentlemen. By different I don’t mean that I’m a member of some liberated-slave, former-colonial-subject or immigrant community, ethnic, sexual, skin-tone, refugee, or religious sub-class. I don’t mean that, in offering my work to you, I’m trying to become the human-literary embodiment of Hollywood propaganda about the Free World (which seems to me what celebrated writers of color tend to be).
I also don’t want to belong to some euphemistic category devised for the kind of pride politics that claims to be fighting heterosexually phallocratic white privilege, whatever on earth that is. “Women and blacks” is not a person, it can never be a person, and whatever public space it has carved out for persons I might otherwise respect is not the point. The point is that I am a person, and it’s only in this capacity, as a colorless human peer, that I want you to pay attention to me.
In truth my feeling is that, like a lot of campaigning for recognition and equality in the world today, pride politics does not so much affirm difference as empty it of substance. It reduces the glorious deviance of Jean Genet, for example, to the law-abiding, state-stamped “rights” of a wannabe family man so alienated by his own sexuality that he needs the state and even the church to acknowledge him as normal.
At the same time, by establishing an X-needs section within the same supermarket — even as it remains unchanged — Goliath looks delightfully progressive…
Thus the goliath of neoliberal capital appears to challenge the status quo when in fact it works to contain and delimit any departure from it, bringing the possibility of transcendence in line. It has been doing this as much as anything by slapping a name tag with a salable identity onto every “newly discovered” variation on the human condition — say X — which enables it to shelve that variation along with Y, X, and Z (and, by God, shouldn’t X be grateful to be finally recognized and granted special X rights after those years!)
X doesn’t exist, however. What exist are human beings who lose their edge and depth, the very point of their being who they are, while gaining little other than the status of rightful underdog with eternal grudge. At the same time, by establishing an X-needs section within the same supermarket — even as it remains unchanged — Goliath looks delightfully progressive…
No. By different I mean quite simply that I grew up and live in the third world. Back here consumerist theology isn’t as far developed, and a lot of what you take to be moral sophistication rings absurdly hollow. Where social and self censorship are so active and denial so rife, for example, “trigger warnings” sound like a positively criminal idea. Where dress codes are enforced by the majority religion, hijab does not feel like a personal choice… But what I’m saying is this:
While in Cairo I have traditional censorship to fight with by speaking, America presents me with an infinitely more mercurial foe: the injunction to lose depth and edge so I too can be gobbled up by “freedom.”
While in Cairo I have traditional censorship to fight with by speaking, America presents me with an infinitely more mercurial foe: the injunction to lose depth and edge so I too can be gobbled up by “freedom.” Rather than trying to silence me, you force me to gently caress what I should be punching in the face. You insist on me abiding by discursive procedure at the expense of meaningful discourse. Either I soften and dumb down my uncivilized “opinions” or else — by falling silent when told not to be “discriminatory” and not to “talk down to people” — I altogether cease to exist. For you as well as me, I think, that would be sad.
All of which is my way of suggesting, tentatively — and at the risk of being “offensive,” of course — that while you worry about censorship in the unfree world, ladies and gentlemen, while you stand by the abstract rights and freedoms of persons you will never be, it is your own discursive universe that’s getting lukewarm.
All of which is my way of suggesting, tentatively — and at the risk of being “offensive,” of course — that while you worry about censorship in the unfree world, ladies and gentlemen, while you stand by the abstract rights and freedoms of persons you will never be, it is your own discursive universe that’s getting lukewarm. You’re forgetting the obvious fact that preventing strong opinions is precisely what censorship is, and the most frightening part is you don’t even know you’re censoring. By trying so carefully to include and respect you are actually excluding difference and eliminating the complexity of persons other than yourselves, and only your smug assumption of superiority allows you to do that.
You may think of me as a writer in duress, but I’m actually infinitely freer for being where I am. I may be trapped in a backwater of civilization where bigotry takes on older, more concrete forms, but it is your space that’s getting narrower. And all I really wanted to share with you is the hope that it won’t be too narrow for me.
Youssef Rakha (@Sultans_Seal) is a poet and novelist. He was one of the “Beirut39,” a group of the “39 best Arab writers under 40” selected by judges for HayFest Beirut, and has two novels forthcoming in English: Book of the Sultan’s Seal, trans. Paul Starkey and The Crocodiles, trans. Robin Moger. He’s also a compelling photographer. He blogs at http://yrakha.com/.