Qalqalah

Through the fictional character Qalqalah, Sarah Rifky, grapples with the question what is an institution? Speaking to art institutions and their futures she asks: what is the future of art? And more importantly, what is the future of language?

In keeping with time, before I tell you a story and talk about the future,  let us travel back to a moment in the past. Let us travel back to January of 1977 in Cairo. The capital is on fire and the Egyptian Bread Riots are rippling through the city. They are tearing the liberal policies of Sadat’sinfitah to pieces. In a small apartment in Giza, a woman, a poet, not particularly religious, wakes up from her sleep… Placing one hand on her bump of five months, she whispers a few words to dispel nagging spirits… In her sleep, she was visited by the prophet…peace be upon him. In the dream he said, “Give your child a good name.” A good name does not necessarily mean a name with a good meaning, but more importantly a name that would ensure a good and prosperous future. The first act of language, is always giving a name. The child is born and named: she is called Qalqalah.

It is worth of noting that Qalqalah grows up to become an artist, but this account is not about that. We are interested in what happens a long time after. In 2048 Qalqalah is turning seventy-one. She is an unusual woman in all respects. It all started with the unusual name she was given. Qalqalah, a very Arabic sounding word, is not a name; it is a motion in language, a phonetic vibration, a bounce or an echo, over certain letters of the Arabic scripture that make up the words “QT bgd” — which almost translates into English as “a cat for real.”

Although it is easy to understand how Qalqalah came to be an artist, in the context that she found herself in, in the type of family that brought her up, no one can historically determine exactly when art, as a vocation, as we understood it in 2014, became obsolete… Some argued that everyone had become an artist, or no one was, but it doesn’t really matter. When did art as art cease to exist? It is vaguely said to have been around the 2030’s, shortly after the economy had finally and completely collapsed. The collapse was more of a systematic meltdown, felt and accepted, and didn’t come with a bang or a boom or a clear event. The fact of the future was that the economy, predicted for so long to collapse, had collapsed. Finally. The unimaginable had finally arrived, and with it the order of the world radically changed, much faster than anyone could have possible imagined.

Qalqalah now lives in the United Arab World, a conglomerate of corporations, where as a citizen she takes up her place as a linguist, serving the greater good of UAW (often pronounced by Arabic speakers as: WOW, which also signified the letter “waw”). The waaw is the 27th letter of the Arabic alphabet, of the abjadiya. It represents the number six and belongs to the element of air. It symbolizes the mystical promise of total assent, and it denotes the universal aspect of the whole according to some mystics. Already in the 11the century, Ibn al-Arabi gives quite some attention to waw in a booklet dealing with the letters “waw” “meem” and “nuun”. We find out that “waaw”, a letter, is the first perfect number. By other sheikhs we are told that ‘waaw’ corresponds to the quality of dying when you still are alive, which of course, is a part of the message.

Ten centuries later, in the 21st century, linguists and translators have found a good place in the new social scheme of UAW. This is an unexpected turn to things, who would have thought that linguists and translators would be well-compensated jobs in this future which I speak to you in present tense? Not only that, but to work with words, and words as numbers, are skills that are held high-regard in the era of new corporations. Qalqalah had been lucky: as a young person she hadn’t opted to study languages, but she was naturally attune to many, having grown up with six. Qalqalah’s parents were both poets, and she had briefly married into a family of bookkeepers, of librarians, from the former Kingdom. In her old age Qalqalah regrets never having children, like many of her generation, but she thinks of every word she speaks as giving birth to “new meaning.”

In the winter of 2048, Qalqalah is invited to attend a closed meeting at the prestigious University of the Future Post-Sense (UF-PS). The university is situated in a former parliamentary building of a place that was formerly known as Bern in Switzerland. The overhaul of the school into a sort of think tank was part of the larger education reform movement on a continental scale, and was meant to secure those schools and universities didn’t shut down with the economic collapse of the early thirties. Previous universities realigned themselves to new corporate bodies with the promise that they would bring in returns on investment pretty quickly.

This is a time were philosophy is prized for bringing in fast results and where ideology is incubated, as it has failed to simply emerge in the previous decades, despite ongoing political tumult and hyper-action. The closed convention Qalqalah is invited to is one in a series that are taking place worldwide. She often declines such invitations where she finds herself bored with the lack of imagination of present scholars and researchers… In her seventh decade of life, she finds that pretty much anything that was worth saying has already been said in years before. The effect of recycling language is tiresome to her ears. Qalqalah has lived through a lot. Organizers of such conventions are often younger avid types that have no memory of a past, but sense something akin to nostalgia for it.

It is true of people born in the 2000’s that they have a different experience of memory: they are an entirely different type of human altogether. Save for those who were born into families of time separatists and idealists who had tried to extract themselves from the system and which were very few, the new generations had very narrow attention spans, and contrary to what one would imagine made up human life, no real connection to narrative. Whereas in decades before, the premise of being human was based on a continual history, narrative mimesis and the ability to retell one’s life in stories, suddenly narrative has caught up, it is instant, and it disappears as soon it speaks. Organizers of the convention are interested in Qalqalah, as she is a first hand witness to the early waves of uprising and recounted revolutions and occupy movements in the early tens and twenties of the century. She had lived through regional wars and was part of the dissident movements that caused the collapse of the nation-state system in the Eastern hemisphere in the late twenties and early thirties. Not that much good had come out of that. But like many people at this time Qalqalah has trouble recollecting memories of her past. Suffering from attention disorders, narrative fatigue and spiritually struggling with psychotic breaks means that Qalqalah isn’t as lucid, as we are today, in 2014. Or maybe one could say she is more lucid, just in a way that disagrees with post 1950’s psychiatry. For the Bern-convention, she is tasked with piecing together something that resembles a political narrative, a type of history, of the political cracks in time since the 2010’s. She struggles to remember a distant past beyond the hyper-capital conglomerate of the new United Arab World.

The conference in Bern draws on conscious and unconscious thought and behavior, paving the economy towards a post-linguistic future. Qalqalah is suspicious of institutions, yet thrives on language. She has an innate understanding that there is no future post-language.

On the fringes of the conference, she finds herself amongst a self-proclaimed group of “monolingual activists” from the Indo-European worlds. She attends their meetings and embarks on a set of impossible questions about the future of a region. Is a political paradigm shift possible through a rediscovery of other languages? Is speaking more than one language a form of treason masked as knowledge?

Speaking so many languages, it is impossible to think, she thinks. To think in her native Arabic father-tongue, Qalqalah has to unlearn her other glossal skills. She has an inkling that if she sets out to investigate linguistic facts and little known secrets of the Arabic language, in its chronographic dimension, it would be possible to approach the future differently. Arabic for a fact does not have future tense. Or rather, its future is derivative of the present. Qalqalah is caught in a conundrum of questions, for what does it mean for a language not to encompass a future in speech, she wonders. In end effect, we have to ask ourselves what the political consequences are of introducing new forms and tenses to old languages.

 

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This graphic story features in the Chronic (August 2016), an edition in which we explore ideas around mythscience, science fiction and graphic storytelling. In opposition to the idea of the future as progress – a linear march through time – we propose a sense of time is innately human: “it’s time” when everyone gets there.

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