‘Brains Confounded’ and When ‘Middle Arabic Disappeared Overnight’

It’s publication day for the paperback of Yusuf al-Shirbini’s seventeenth-century Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expoundedwhich has been translated by Humphrey Davies and introduced by Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha:

Rakha is a poet and also the author of several novels, short stories, and critical work. His ground-breaking novel Sultan’s Seal (tr. Paul Starkey) and The Crocodiles (tr. Robin Moger) have both been translated into English, although his Paolo has yet to find an English-language publisher. Rakha’s Diwan 90: Articles on Arabic Literature is also available as an ebook, and his literary hotel is always open for a visit.

His introduction to Brains Confounded discusses the seventeenth-century satire’s linguistic choices, its movement between fus’ha (literary) and aamiya (colloquial) Arabics, and what’s to be gained in a fluid movement between these registers of Arabic. ArabLit’s editor-in-chief talked with Humphrey Davies when the bilingual hardback of Brains Confounded came out. On publication day for the paperback, we asked Rakha a few questions about his introduction and relationship to the book.

Your introduction to the paperback edition of Brains Confounded is a delight. How did the Library of Arabic Literature know you were their Shirbini man? 

Youssef Rakha: I’ve been wondering the same thing – I have no idea who might’ve suggested me, unless it was Humphrey himself. But it was a good match, wasn’t it.

When & where did you first run across Brains Confounded? There’s a section in Abdelrashid Mahmoudi’s After Coffee when the central character, who is at the time a preteen, I think, comes across the book in a used bookshop in the village of Abu Kabir and can’t figure out what this word quhuf is all about. Anyhow, I like to think of copies floating around small villages. I hope there are a few in Shirbin.

YR: Well I certainly didn’t find it there. (I mean I’ve never been to Shirbin but when I used to go to my father’s town, Zarqa, which is practically within walking distance…) Not that it would’ve occurred to me to look for books. I don’t remember when exactly but interestingly it must’ve been at roughly the same time as I believe Humphrey was working on it, in the late nineties, while I was studying in England and working as a stage prompt for El Warsha Theatre Company in the summer. I discovered all kinds of life-changing literature in this period, between the ages of 17 and 21: Sonallah’s The Smell of It, Beer in the Snooker Club, Camus, Midnight’s Children, Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Jabarti, Mohamed Choukri (or was that a little later?)… 

As a closet nahda-fence-sitter, I always feel like a bit of a crank, & thus I was so grateful for your discussion of what is LOST during the nahda — because often, when scholars write about the nahda, even now, it reads as if the nahda appears from nothing. (And if it came from nothing, how could anything be lost?) To borrow from you:

In the space of a single century, as a result, written Arabic was transformed from a multifarious living language in ever evolving conversation with its earlier (Quranic) form to a single, standardized simplification of said form, purposefully divorced from day-to-day speech. In place of a Middle Arabic that seamlessly combines colloquial with classical registers of discourse, a stuffy, homogeneous, and dialect-phobic Modern Standard Arabic became the order of the day.”

YR: Right. I mean, the Nahda was a very mixed bag. It’s always struck me for example how someone like Taha Hussein, who was so admirably open-minded in other ways, could have had such reactionary views on language (including poetic metres etc.) Of course the Renaissance in as much as it was really a renaissance didn’t come from nothing, and it’s important to note that Shawqi, for example, wrote a lot of amiyya verse and Tawfiq Al-Hakim – whose utterly brilliant play Rusasa fil Qalb doesn’t have a word of fusha in it, unlike his more celebrated Ahl Al-Kahf, which is Quran-inspired and self-consciously “classical” – was a Mohamed Aly Street buff who loved the company of belly dancers and popular wedding musicians and so on.

But I guess what I’m talking about is not so much the Nahda as one of its consequences. I don’t know if it’s anybody’s fault per se but in historical terms it certainly looks like Middle Arabic disappeared overnight. And the fact that “literary” discourse is amiyya-phobic even now is very easy to demonstrate. There is of course my own work and how Paulo was attacked for being “neither amiyya nor fusha” or, as I believe one poet put it, something that “makes you hate both amiyya and fusha” (that’s a valid criticism if what it means is it’s affected, but then why not just say it’s affected!) But there is also the fact that many a contemporary Egyptian writer will use a word like yarkud instead of yagri to write “run” even though they’re both perfectly correct Arabic words and EVEN THOUGH YARKUD IS AMIYYA IN THE LEVANT. You see. A word just needs to belong in amiyya for an author to want to steer clear of it, even if that author is borrowing from another amiyya. How risible is that?

You suggest this caused “self-estrangement among generations of readers and writers.” Would there be…more engaged readers & writers now if people were writing in a messier, more dialect-friendly, less homogenous Arabic? 

YR: I think so. Yes. Round about the time I discovered Hazz I completely bought into the Orientalist-Arabist view that amiyya was in fact a separate language that had been suppressed and must be used. But as my own writing developed I eventually realised it wasn’t amiyya by itself that I was missing, just as I couldn’t use fusha by itself if my writing was to be alive. It was some kind of mixture of the two, which I eventually also identified as the language of Jabarti, whom I was reading on and off at the same time. Does Jabarti make that poet hate both amiyya and fusha I wonder. It seems very obvious now. I remember Nael El-Toukhi saying how amiyya was good enough to express even the deepest ideas and most complex emotions, now that wouldn’t be true if amiyya couldn’t include as many fusha words as it wanted to. And by the same token it would be impossible to conceive of present-day fusha syntax – the movement of words within even a purely fusha sentence – if amiyya wasn’t so present. I definitely think the idea that there are two discrete, incompatible, contiguous Arabics has contributed to the identity problem that a lot of Arabs have in terms of language and reading and beyond. Shirbini is just a beautiful example of how in the 17th-century writing and reading could be an extension of speech the way they are in Chaucer or Shakespeare. Jabarti. Yes. 

You refer to the nahda (Renaissance/Renewal) as a “tyranny of the serious” … is the 20th c in general a tyranny of the serious? 

YR: Like the Nahda, that’s a huge question. But yes. I think the second half of the 20th century in the Arab world at least has definitely had more seriousness than the optimum amount – not just in terms of literature but in religion and politics and all sorts of things besides. 

I also borrow again:

“In contrast to Arab nationalists, who tend to dismiss dialect as a corruption of one of the primary factors of unity, Orientalists have always been pro-‘amiyya. But they’ve tended to conceive of it as a suppressed language, separate from classical Arabic in the way that Spanish or Italian is from Latin, and deprived of the (official) status it deserves by stunted progress. The Arab countries, in other words, continue to disown their true national languages because they are still unable to operate as nation states.”

Is the great aamiya/fus’ha dichotomy a 20th c invention, an invented problem? Or rather, the problem is the dichotomization itself?

YR: I think the dichotomization is the problem, definitely, especially in as much as it’s a purposeful, violent intervention, ideologically motivated. It’s not invented in the sense that you can see them being distinct, but when and why did the phenomenon become a problem? That I think is invented.

Why do you say the text has been marginalized? What position should it inhabit (if should makes any sense here) in the Egyptian & Arabic literary landscapes? Are there other Age of Decay texts you think should be rehabilitated? 

YR: Well I mean everybody’s heard of all kinds of things from the canon, even the so called Decay canon, but not Shirbini. I’m not enough of a scholar to make a list off the top of my head but I totally believe there are at least, at the very least one hundred books of equal importance that should be made available. Some of these may be lost, of course. But many exist and are known only on a very, very small scale. What position it should inhabit in the present, more or less neo-Nahda landscape, perhaps the margins! But in the far more exiting post-Nahda landscape I like to imagine, it should be at least as visible as things like Ibn Khaldun or even The Thousand and One Nights.

Why do you think this text bears reading (or re-reading) now? How, by what means, does it survive the passage through our very different literary expectations?

YR: It works beautifully as satire and parody, in a way that makes it a reading experience very like the kind of contemporary metafiction – so called magic realism, etc. – that so many of us at least claim to find so brilliant, right? It’s hilarious, it’s absorbing, it’s full of gripping anecdotes and fascinating insights into an instantly recognisable if impossibly distant reality. It’s what people like Youssef Idris and Yahya Haqqi never wrote about the countryside, too: the graphic obscenity of it. I mean I don’t know about other people but for me it’s not only relevant but urgent.