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The Undeveloped Intellectual in Zombie-land

by Ibrahim Farghali.

The Book Of The Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents From History In The City Of Mars Youssef Rakha (transl. Paul Starkey) Interlink, 2013 The Crocodiles Youssef Rakha (transl. Robin Moger) Seven Stories Press, 2014

The Book Of The Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents From History In The City Of Mars
Youssef Rakha (transl. Paul Starkey)
Interlink, 2013
The Crocodiles
Youssef Rakha (transl. Robin Moger)
Seven Stories Press, 2014

This is Rakha’s second novel after his début, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars, in which he addressed the identity crisis created in Egyptian society by Wahhabism, which was imported into the country by Egyptians who went to work in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and returned home harbouring a Bedouin set of values. Animated by a fraudulent religious discourse that viewed a caliphate as a viable alternative to the concept of the civil state, they transformed the population into something resembling zombies: a mindless mass manipulated to view religion as a single monolithic identity that consumes all other components of the self.

The Crocodiles, meanwhile, revolves around Cairo’s intellectual and creative circles, particularly those active during the 1990s. It takes as its starting point two events of central importance. The first is the suicide of Arwa Saleh, one of the icons of the “Seventies Generation” of intellectuals, whom Rakha recasts as Radwa Adel. The second event, which takes place at almost the exact moment that Radwa Adel takes her own life, is the creation of a poetry group by three unknown poets who dub themselves “The Crocodiles Group for Secret Egyptian Poetry”. The poets produce a manifesto that sets out the rules of secret poetry. This becomes the basis of a poetic bond that adds to their ties of friendship – ties and bonds that will later fall apart for a variety of reasons.

The story spans the years from 1997 (the year of The Crocodiles’ creation and Radwa Adel’s suicide) to the January 2011 revolution and its aftermath. In the two events of 1997, the narrator finds fertile ground for exploring what his generation, whose literary works first appeared in the early 1990s, and the generation of Arwa Saleh have in common. Saleh belongs to the Seventies Generation, which spearheaded the 1972 student movement that called on Anwar Sadat to go to war with Israel to restore Egypt’s lost honour, and that subsequently led the 1977 uprising, known as the Bread Riots, against the domestic policies of the same president. As in life, the generations in the novel are represented by individuals, but also by the private publishing houses whose growth kept pace with that of the Nineties Generation, and the short-lived literary groups and magazines of the period, such as Grasshoppers and Other Writing.

Though the novel is scathing about its literary and historical value, Arwa Saleh’s famous screed against the Leftist and Marxist intellectuals of her generation, entitled The Premature, is a powerful presence within and behind The Crocodiles. With this as a backdrop, Rakha paints a portrait of two generations that never fully escaped their state of prematurity – their inadequacy, immaturity or incompletion – and then widens his focus to address the origins of the Egyptian intellectual. His point is that the great majority of them have come from the provinces to study or work in Cairo, and in making this transition they do not escape their past but are branded by it. In Rakha’s vision, the intellectual from a rural background remains in thrall to traditional rural values, however liberated he or she may seem to be: “I’m talking about low cunning and compromise; the cowardice that gathers men into groups even if the initial impetus comes from rebellion against the social mass.” Although they imagine that they are making “progress” – moving forward and leaving the values of their rural origins behind ­– they are in fact swamping Cairo with the morals (or lack thereof) of the desert and the village. Rakha follows this with another critique, this time of those who scramble for success by trampling over the bodies of friends and lovers. Cairo, with all its ignorance and deprivation, is for once innocent of their crimes: these are the inadequacies and brutalities of those who choose to remain trapped in the past.

The phrase “social mass” points to yet another important tension in the lives of these intellectuals, between the individualism that the Nineties Generation claimed as its watchword and the reality of the lives its members continued to lead, corralled in their groups and cliques; their failure, in other words, to attain the qualities of their heroes: the icons of the Beat Generation. Our narrator picks up on other contradictions, such as the idealism that is at heart a form of exhibitionism (even Arwa Saleh’s suicide is portrayed as just another symptom of a self-destructive desire to show off), concluding that all the characteristics that set apart and joined the two generations were destined to lead to an uprising or a revolution or an inadequate/incomplete/premature movement – the description varying according to the differing outlooks of those who took part in the events of January 25. Rakha often selects a “type” from daily life and inflates it into a satirical caricature; or otherwise chooses truly peculiar characters, whose presence among us can seem authentically strange and incomprehensible.

The denizens of The Sultan’s Seal are no exception. Take Wahid Al Deen, a newspaper editor and an eccentric genius in his chosen field, who vanishes and resurfaces as someone else altogether, only ever appearing by evening or at night, skulking silently along and tormented by his own unrelenting doubts and uncertainties. He and others of equal oddity exercise a fascination over Rakha, who first selects them, then clothes and masks them so that they can stride out onto the novel’s stage as characters permanently wavering between reality and performance, truth and fantasy. It is as though Rakha searches the margins for stories that need to be told, or rather as though the margin – scarcely felt or perceived – will suddenly take shape and deliver the unimaginable: the proposition of an Islamic state, the Caliphate itself, in a country whose path to a civil secular dispensation began more than a century ago. This satirical approach towards the construction of his characters is reflected in the strange names he chooses for them – Fustoq, Aldo, Yalderz – none of which are found in Egyptian reality.

Rakha’s female characters, however, are seldom caricatures, as though he views their tensions and contradictions as more powerful than anything satire could imagine. In The Crocodiles this applies to the three female lovers of the poetry group’s three members: Qamar, or Moon, the married poet who is capable of loving other men besides her husband; Nargis, the talented and social-climbing avant-garde artist who chooses to live by herself – a liberated woman in a closed society who is in flight from a history of failed marriages in the south of the country; and finally Saba, the human rights activist married to an Italian, whose sexual awakening came courtesy of a female friend. In The Sultan’s Seal we have the narrator’s wife or Yalderz, a work colleague. “Seemingly all confidence, culture and good works, so what of the malice, cowardice and self-deception?” Rakha writes of Yalderz, posing a question that could be asked of all his female characters. But confronted by Alia Al Mahdi, the young woman who stripped for the camera and put the picture online, the narrator of The Crocodiles has this to say: “With the pride of someone offering up their soul for freedom in Mohammed Mahmoud Street – something that none of the Student Movement’s great and good had ever done – Alia Al Mahdi put her body on the Net. And she said that this was her revolution.”

In The Crocodiles, Rakha’s language is more or less a single, coherent narrative, a stream of consciousness closer to poetry than anything else, while in The Sultan’s Seal it branches out, multiple and endlessly complex. On one level, the language of The Sultan’s Seal is a blend of formal Arabic and the idioms and vocabulary of Egyptian dialect; on another, it harks back to the construction of the traditional classical Arabic as used in the Islamic era, specifically the Ottoman. Rakha is both totally authentic and original in his creation of language for these two works. But it is in The Sultan’s Seal that his passion for experimentation in form and structure is most evident. The novel is built on fragmentation and cyclical repetition. It starts with the narrator’s description of his separation from his wife and the pain, self-flagellation and cynicism this catastrophic experience has brought him. On the night of their parting, bidding his wife farewell, he describes himself as a defeated general surveying his conquered city for the last time, then compares his feelings of mourning for his lost marriage with tears for Cairo, the city whose sufferings seem to him to be identical to his personal trials.

From this opening he turns to follow the fortunes of friends and colleagues in an attempt to overcome the pain of his separation, and meditates upon his relationship with his friend Amgad, a middle class secularist turned bearded mosque-goer – a man whose life is awash with contradictions. Next, we encounter Sheikh Waheed Al Deen, then move on to his love affair with a Europeanised married nymph, in whose arms he experiences a totally new understanding of sensual and spiritual love.

At the same time as he narrates these fragmented events and impressions our hero is elaborating and evolving a map of the city of Cairo, which passes through various iterations until the narrator’s visual depiction of the city perfectly matches the famous seal of the Ottoman sultans.

Toward the end of the The Sultan’s Seal we find that the “types” populating the text – who plainly represent the greater part of the broader population – proceed through life without the slightest attempt to find answers to the questions that give their existence meaning. They are zombies, half-alive: animated corpses who have surrendered their minds to others and trudge like spectres in thrall to their controllers’ whims – a reference to the superficial piety and rural mind-set that infect an entire society, seemingly alive but brainless – or otherwise in a state of complete surrender to consumerism and the outward markers of social class.

The Crocodiles has two animals at its core, the lion and the crocodile, and it explores the meaning and significance of both. The lion is a vital component of the novel: as it draws to a close we see Nayf, one of the founders of The Crocodiles group, beginning to believe that he can see a flesh-and-blood lion circling around his apartment. His condition worsens until this fantastical beast causes the horrific car crash that claims his life.

This fantasy or hallucination is part of what the narrator sees as the curse of an entire generation that can engage with, and is satisfied by, nothing but fantasies – and it is this that leads to his sense of grief: grief at Nayf’s senseless death and at the delusions of revolutionaries with their ingrained exhibitionism, which makes them see revolutions as nothing more than the chance to stand in squares and engage in non-violent confrontations with a police force armed with gas and guns, offering up their bodies in suicidal fashion and then, after each battle, slinking off to mourn their friends – all without the slightest awareness of the absurdity of what they are doing.

Taken together, the zombie hordes in The Sultan’s Seal and the unformed intellectuals of The Crocodiles complete a terrifying vision of dreams broken before they can begin.

covers togetherThis story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.

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