Amjad Nasser’s Here is the Rose didn’t make the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist yesterday, although reviewer Ibtihal Mahmood thought the book was worthy of going all the way:
By Ibtihal Mahmood
Does time only move forward? If so, what do we do about the aphorism “history repeats itself”? In 1852, Karl Marx published an essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” which begins with a reference to another great figure from the past. “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.” Marx throws in his two cents by commenting that Hegel “forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time a farce.” A few pages into the essay, Marx quotes Hegel – who originally quoted Aesop:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
[Here is the rose, here dance!]
In other words, it is all about the here and now. How is it possible, then, to change the world while living under the chronic anxiety of influence? How can revolutionaries score victories in a world that presents them with nightmarish conditions, tattered traditions, and overused metaphors? In his second novel, Here is the Rose, acclaimed Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser probes deep into the tensions between the old and the new; the classic and the modern; tradition and innovation. He re-introduces the character of Younis al-Khattat, a Hamiya-born poet and a modern knight-errant, who travels with an abridged, translated version of Cervantes’ magnum opus, Don Quixote, in his lightweight luggage. Avid readers of Amjad Nasser will rejoice as they remember making their first encounter with the Hamiyan protagonist in Nasser’s debut novel, Land of No Rain.
The primordial conflict between the old and the new is present throughout Younis’ journey, in his monologues and actions. Despite being the descendent of a long pedigree of Arabic calligraphers, Younis—a poet and born rebel—chooses to study journalism and mingles with the lowlifes of his neighborhood (placing calligraphy vis-à-vis poetry is one way of steering our thinking toward the concept of phono-centrism in the Derridean sense: speech versus writing).
His open defiance and aversion to traditions, at least according to his mother, is something he inherited from her brother Adham. Later, we learn that Younis adopts his uncle’s name for the functions of his secret life as a member of an outlawed organization. He also writes for Al-Shararah (The Spark), the organization’s monthly periodical, and signs his name as al-Hallaj, the well-known medieval Persian mystic poet executed for holding unconventional ideas – the “Martyr of Sufism,” according to Younis.
But unlike the impromptu, arbitrary expeditions of El Caballero de la Triste Figura (the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure), Younis is travelling unarmed and solo, from his home in Hamiya to Sindbad City and back, carrying orders as an agent on a secret mission to assassinate “the Grandchild.” The latter is an epithet used across Hamiya to refer to the president, among other epithets: The Loving Father, The Immortal Leader, and more.
Readers familiar with the current political scene in the Arab World will not have trouble hearing the echoes of existing regional dictatorships in these epithets; they might even want to locate the fictional places on a map of the real world. But Amjad Nasser is one step ahead of us: he amplifies the fictionalization of places by naming Younis’ home “Na-Koja-Abad,” a Persian term coined by Sohravardi, meaning: The land of nowhere. Still, the aspects of despotism as depicted throughout the narrative (public executions, censorship, paranoid demagogues) will inevitably hit home with many readers around the world.
Following the abortive attempt to assassinate the Grandchild, Younis runs for his life and hops on a train leaving the city. As he tries to summon sweet moments from his past, he is struck only by future images of himself without his loved ones. “As if the time machine had carried him into the future, not into the past to change the future—that is one thing this damned time machine is incapable of. It only moves forward” (p. 184).
Life, then, only moves forward, and so do poetry and literature and the arts. Could Younis accomplish his mission successfully if he was just as delusional as our good old Quixote? We can no longer tell tragedy from farce.
How does Amjad Nasser tell the story? From the outset, he masterfully grips our attention, having found the perfect balance between poetic language and innovative storytelling techniques. The self-reflexive novel opens with an epilogue (in bold font) that begins at the end: Younis is dying, but he doesn’t know it yet. We hear the captivating voice of a self-conscious narrator, openly commenting on the work in our hands, informing us of his status as a storyteller. “I will take one step back, or more, and allow the narration to address an unknown [reader],” explains the narrator at the end of the epilogue. Readers, however, will reencounter the demure narrator in metatext (in bold print) throughout the novel: he repeatedly steps in to tell a backstory, whisper his opinion, or recite a few verses from a classical text – the unmatched beauty of the Song of Solomon is generously spelled over the insatiable love that Younis pours out to Roula, his wife.
It was not surprising to see Here is the Rose longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction of 2018. Such a fine literary work is worthy of crossing the finish line.
Ibtihal Mahmood is a Jordanian-American writer and translator based in Seattle, Washington.