From the Archives: Haytham El Wardany on Sleep as the First Stage of Rebirth

Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep was an oft-named author favorite in 2017. In 2018, Minor Literature[s] ran fragments from the book, translated by Robin Moger. The full book appeared last October in Moger’s translation from Seagull Books:

This year, Katharine Halls won a PEN/Heim to Translate El-Wardany’s Things That Can’t Be Fixed.

In 2018, when the excerpts from The Book of Sleep appeared, Moger also translated a Q&A between El Wardany and Roger Outa, which transpired when the Egyptian author was in Beirut for part of the Home Works 7 festival.

We re-run it today.

Roger Outa: How did your interest in sleep begin? 

Haytham El Wardani: I had been interested in sleep but hadn’t yet seen the form that writing about it and around it should take. Subsequently, I tried thinking about sleep without reference to established approaches—the sociological in particular—and without reference, too, to the convention of glossing sleep as dream. This is how I started out, sometime between the latter part of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency and June 30. People were coming out onto the streets and at the same time there was this sense of imminent disaster. What happened on June 30 happened, the defeat came to pass, and it was then that I started to take the subject seriously. It’s true that the book isn’t about the revolution and its defeat but it is haunted by the political through the discussion of sleep and its attempt to escape the conventional portrayal of sleep as a surrender, a laziness, an anti-activity.

RO: That was evident throughout the extracts you read, where you position sleep as the first stage of waking.

HW: That’s in a political context. In terms of the text itself I pose a number of questions about sleep, the most important being its relationship with identity (is the sleeper an individual or part of a group?), with history (where does it stand in history?), the link between sleep and language and, of course, the question of sleep and death.

RO: In your writing sleep seems to approximate what Alain Badiou terms the excluded part. An example of this is the crowd at a football match. They watch the match but without participating, though they are on the point of entering into it. In your texts, sleep also approximates a position of exclusion, on the brink of happening: the sleeper is on the verge of entering into wakefulness. But the issue here is the prevalent conception of sleep as a species of laziness. One of the canonical narratives of the writing process has the writer waking early and devoting himself to his work, thereby dismissing sleep. 

HW: There are always those who associate sleep and idleness as antitheses of action and activity. While impossible to identify the original impulse for this dismissal of sleep, it is possible to observe sleep’s treatment as a something that produces no benefit or that is useless. It is this treatment which makes it interesting, as interesting as any subject—like waiting and hesitation—which are rejected for falling outside the framework of conventional social action.

RO: You don’t think that both idealist and materialist intellectual approaches concur when it comes to dismissing and marginalising sleep, to glossing it as dream, to reframing it as non-production?

HW: Hegel saw sleep as dangerous and against reason…

RO: Lenin defined the revolutionary as the last to sleep and the first to wake.

HW: In the religious tradition there is the ritual of the night vigil, when believers recite prayers and make devotions to God, and its heavenly reward is greater than that of worship performed by day. Here we might turn to Jonathan Crary and his book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and The Ends of Sleep. He conceives of sleep as an island that nothing, capitalism or otherwise, can gain control over procedurally or organisationally. The island is completely ungraspable.

RO: I’m thinking now of one of my friends. When I call him and he doesn’t answer I will write him a message in which I ask him if he is asleep and he’ll reply almost immediately, the first thing he says being, “No, I’m awake,” as if denying an accusation. As if sleep’s become something wrong, a sin. As for the relationship between sleep and the social, you write about an individual who suddenly drops off in public. Is this act of his a extension of the struggle? Is he breaking down the division between night and day? Because no sooner does he sleep than it is clear that, unlike those around him, his night has begun.

HW: I believe that sleep and waking are simply two arrangements for actively engaging with any given period of time. Sleep is the antithesis of the pairing of wakefulness/sleeplessness, in which respect it is one of the forms taken by social struggle. Sometimes the only way to win this struggle is to withdraw from it—is sleep itself. Like the person who resorts to sleeping in the square: he demonstrates his fraility and weakness and proclaims his opposition. To which one might add that sleep is not a weakened state produced by defeat. On the contrary, it assists in the journey towards the self and in protecting the self from disquiet and suicide and depression, particularly in times of disaster. At the moment when the horizon is discovered to be blocked off, when we run into the wall, there is always someone who takes heed, and sleeps.

RO: Which could be connected with Lacan’s concept of the real, which states that real only begins when you and your worldview reach an obstacle in the road. When you sleep it is as though your sleep is the initial formation of the real, of the endless. 

HW: It is the formation of that moment in which you are forced to relinquish your weapons and enter the impossible in order to be born anew and to fashion new tools of resistance. Sleep is the first stage of rebirth and it is this, to be precise, that erases the slogan, “Awake, my people!”

RO: And with it the statement that a people which does not participate in change is a people asleep. No: such a people are awake, neurotic…

HW: The waking self can be a neurotic self, and this is related to capitalism and production, since you must be constantly awake in order to produce, especially in this age of express service in which time is a black hole. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekirk writes about sleep in the Middle Ages and notes that people used to sleep earlier, in the evening, then wake in the middle watches of the night to talk and contemplate and make love and write poetry, before resuming their sleep. It is in this space, in other words: in this “in-between”…

RO: In this space between two sleeps…

HW: There’s a waking state that approximates to unconsciousness, to the narrating of dreams and nightmares, to passion, to writing, etc. This is what was swept away by subsequent eras, the capitalist especially.

RO: It’s notable that sleep was linked to nature: that people would wake and tend to their gardens before the sun rose. And to make it clear that someone hadn’t been up all night, they’d be described as having gone to sleep before the chickens.

HW: Sleep is nature’s burgeoning in culture, but it’s important that it not be mixed in with the nature/culture binary. The point is how energy might be extracted from it, given that it is a passive and un-useful act, characterized by inactivity. Wherever it occurs, sleep is not so much an antithesis in a binary but an escape from the binary relationship itself.

RO: There is a text by Michel Foucault in which he discusses love, and says something to the effect that love allows the body to be here, that it is unburdened of its utopianism in the mirror of the other’s gaze, which is able to see your closed eyelids. 

HW: Jean Luc Nancy says that sleep is the self’s fall into its own solitary depths where only it exists, even outside itself—which is a part of the self though it does not reside within it. In other words, you only attain yourself when the outside is at a remove from you and you contain it, simultaneously. That love is this, not an arrangement between two selves.

RO: But between two outsides… great. I want to pose a classic question to you: Who is the sleeper? What does sleep mean as a way of being? 

HW: The book contains three sections on the sleeper. In the first I write about the relationship between the sleeper and the unseen social. In the second I discuss the relationship between the sleeper and the social body: how sleep opens a space in this body and opens it up to another body. In other words, sleep is body opening up to body and all the desires and fears and dispositions in contains. In the third section, I discuss the sleeper’s relationship with the individual and the group and try to escape the binary or introgressive categories this relationship carries with it to say that the group may be other than what we assume: it may be a collection of non-existent people, or of non-human creatures, or of things, or places, and so on, In any case, I do not seek to define the sleeper or compile a list of its possible meanings, because my aim is not to author an encyclopedia on sleep, but rather to write down ideas and observations, which is why I chose fragments.

RO: Let’s talk a bit about sleep and the state. You write that the sleeper cell is that which substitutes one state for another, while the sleeper invades the empty promise of the state and takes up residence within this promise. This is the site of his long-term struggle with the state. 

HW: After September 11 the term “sleeper cell” started to appear everywhere, and whenever I encounter it, it fascinates me, because it sheds light on the relationship between the sleeper and the state of the rule of law, how the sleeper is not a citizen within it, and this brings us to the Prophet’s saying: “Raise the pen from the page for three things: the sleeper till he wakes, the youth till he reaches manhood and the madman till he comes to his senses” (related by Al Imam Ahmed in his Musnad). The state rejects the sleeper and he, in turn, withdraws from the state. The sleeper cell is something else because it, in its sleep, plots to substitute one state for another, while the sleeper’s battle is neither acknowledged nor conscious: the sleeper enters it in search of different, anomalous places. There is also another section in the book where I talk about the unsleeping state which exterminates the kingdom of night, the kingdom which evades its watchfully maintained laws, as though the state were thereby transforming all moments into a single moment which it manufactures and controls, to make it a single, monolithic time…

RO: To become a time everlasting?

HW: For ever…

RO: As though sleep liberates you equally from eternity and from death and so paves the way for life…

HW: It is the first stage of being born anew, the first stage in the manufacture of a different and unique time. It is also the site of our encounter with the dead, who have no place to go to after their death. We meet them in sleep, without any sense that we are practicing to assume their condition. No, sleep is not a rehearsal for death!

RO: Maybe the opposite is true, that in death you train for sleep! 

Also Read: 

Excerpts on Minor Literature[s]

Al Wardany’s How to Disappear (2014) was translated by Jennifer Peterson and Moger and is available from Sternberg Press.


Robin Moger is a poet and translator based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Haytham Al Wardany is an Egyptian writer of short stories and non-narrative prose.