Haytham El-Wardany: Can the Silence of Animals Make Us Reconsider Communication?

On Monday evening, Cimatheque Alternative Film Center in downtown Cairo celebrated the release of Haytham El-Wardany’s latest collection of short stories, Ma la yumkin islahuh [What Cannot be Fixed], now out from Al-Karma Books:

By Phoebe Carter

Photo credit: Phoebe Carter.

The event featured a conversation between critic Ali El Adawi and the author, and it opened with a screening of Maha Maamoun’s short film Dear Animal (2016), based on the first story in Wardany’s collection.

This is the third short-story collection by the Berlin-based, Cairo-born writer, and it follows the publication of two genre-bending non-fiction works, Kayfa takhtafi [How to Disappear] (2013) and Kitab al-nawm [The Book of Sleep] (Al-Karma, 2017). Writing about the new collection, El Adawi says, “[Wardany] explores the possibilities contained in destruction and breakdown. Likewise, he seeks to wrest the representation of animals in literature from dominant tropes of symbolic projection, just as he previously wrested sleep from the cliché of the ‘land of dreams.’”[1]

Much of Monday’s conversation between author, critic, and audience centered around animals. Wardany’s interest in animals, he said, is, at its root, an interest in language. How, he asks through his writing, can the silence of animals make us reconsider communication, speech, and its relationship to power?

The story that Maamoun adapts in Dear Animal, “Ana Sultan Qanun Al-Wujud” (“I am Sultan of the Law of Existence,”) takes its title from a Youssef Idris story by the same name. It is the darkly comic tale of Walid Taha, a lower-rung drug dealer in Cairo who has been turned into a zebra-striped goat. Rather than dwelling on how this ill-fated metamorphosis came to pass (“Walid’s had a put a spell on him,” reasons one of his associates), the crux of the story rests on the animal’s silence: at once too silent and not silent enough. For his associates, his sudden incapacity to speak means that he cannot tell them where he has hidden their latest stash. The boss, on the other hand, is mistrustful of the goat’s silence. He wants him slaughtered despite the others’ insistence that such extreme punishment is unnecessary. Walid Taha will not, after all, breathe a word.

In her film, Maamoun interweaves the story of the zebroid-caprine drug dealer with a series of epistolary voice-overs, all of which begin, “Dear Animal,” and end “Signed, The Dolphin.” These texts were composed by Azza Shaaban as Facebook posts following her departure from Cairo in 2013. While Walid Taha is stuck in his animal silence, Shaaban inhabits the dolphin in order to speak. The juxtaposed narratives never directly intersect, leaving viewers free to draw their own connections. (You can read more about Maamoun’s film in Mohamed Beshir’s essay over at Ibraaz).

We can look forward to further explorations into questions of animals, language, and power from Wardany, who also spoke about a new non-fiction project in the works. While his short stories delve into silence, his current research turns to talking animals as they appear in myths and fables, and what they can tell us about histories of speech and power.

For more Wardany, keep an eye out for Robin Moger’s translation of The Book of Sleep, forthcoming from Seagull Books in March 2020. The same month, Sternberg Press will be reissuing How to Disappear, translated by Jennifer Leigh Peterson and Moger. A first edition was published in 2018.

Phoebe Carter, a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at Harvard University, is ArabLit’s new Cairo Editor.

[1]My translation, https://www.facebook.com/events/843401696106450/?active_tab=about.