Egyptians sometimes yearn for the monarchy. Secular city people, especially. Let’s call them “monarchists”. They imagine a kind of convivencia of Italians, Greeks, Jews and state-approved “Egyptians”. They accept the British occupation, downplay the plight of the fellahin. And, looking at the sexagenarian military republic under which they live, they retch.
Not only at the lack of political life and the absence of rule of law. Not only at economic deprivation affecting proportionately more of the population than under King Farouk. Or corruption, repression and waste reaching infinitely higher levels. Not even at the sordid state of higher education. Ineffective infrastructure, insufficient development, inadequate health care…
You can make a point of denying it. You can wire yourself up with explosives and wait for an opportune moment to detonate. Or, having emigrated and purposely forgotten your mother tongue, you can call yourself Chuck and pretend you were born with the name. None of that changes anything.
To be a 21st-century Muslim is to be hopelessly homesick. Wistful or murderous, the impulse is part of your life no matter where you are. Because, in a metaphorical but very profound sense, to be Muslim in our times is also to be homeless.
There is no reason you can’t be a South discourse initiator and a classical music snob at the same time. The problem is when, taking issue with one fantastical view of the Orient, you end up inadvertently paving the way to another.
“There were — and are — cultures and nations whose location is in the East,” the Great Name writes in the holy tome (which he completed in New York the year I was born in Cairo), “and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West. About that fact this study of Orientalism has very little to contribute”.
It can only be politically incorrect to complain of political correctness. But — in the context of Ost-West exchange, especially tweety, web-bound Ost-West — it would be downright wrong not to.
Not that I hope to redeem “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous”, as Stephen Fry famously called Twitter. Still, the question has to be asked. How did it come to be that to say anything, anything at all of any public import, you must first go through a checklist?
Even if I was that way inclined, Mathias Énard is just not my type. Yet of all those I’ve recently perused — Elif Şafak and Sahar Delijani among them — it is Énard I’ve been seeing in my sleep.
At least twice after being submerged in Compass — with this kind of writing, normal immersion is not an option — I sat across a table from the sturdy orientalist. We were in a remote archaeological site somewhere in the Levant, at the foot of some enormous, crumbling ziggurat. We spoke of symphony and Syria. Each time I woke wondering what it was about the book that had got so deeply to me.
There is something to be said for moderatism, no question. But perhaps there is an even stronger thing to be said against it. As the holy ghost in the trinity that rules the world today — capitalism the father and democracy the son — moderatism can be judged in at least two ways.
The good side is easy to see. There are “moderate” as opposed to “radical” Youknowwhats, for example. There is also (1) drinking or smoking in moderation, (2) being a good moderator, whether as judge or umpire and (3) any number of utilitarian associations from tolerance to fair-mindedness. Even human rights emanate less from a universally accepted ethics than a European tradition of post-war moderateness.
Everybody knows the Enlightenment is dying. I don’t mean in the hells from which people board immigrant boats. It was never very alive here in the first place. I mean in the heavens to which the boat people seek suicidal access.
They end up drowning less for the love of the Postchristian West, it would seem, than out of despair with the Muslim East. Blame politics and economics, for sure. But could it be that all three phenomena — despair, poverty and dictatorship — are rooted in the same cultural impasse?
I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was May Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
In it the hero, Mustafa, who will soon start having historical visitations, notably from the last Ottoman sultan, is propelled into rediscovering those parts of the city in which his life comes to have meaning, by drawing the routes he takes as he actually experiences them, with his eyes closed. The shapes that he ends up with later combine to produce a tugra or sultan’s seal—which comes to be the symbol of the city as one person’s madness, the city as Mustafa: a calligraphic emblem with many non-empirical references to reality. A sort of psychological form of map-making thus became at the centre of the creative process.