This week — Monday, September 23, to be exact — marks the official end of summer. Fall is almost here, and we can sense its arrival in the cool, refreshing evening breezes these past few days. And so, in this moment of transition, we decided to take a collective dive into our layered and diverse relationships with summer and to devote this week’s (extra-large) Detox to bidding it farewell (or good riddance). Reflecting on the many sides of the season, we explored a selection of artistic and literary works where it — or the many elements associated with it, from the sea to the heat to the socially imposed idea of “fun” — takes center stage. We also have a (very comprehensive) summer playlist, as well as an interview with writer and journalist Wael Abdel Fattah, who tells us a bit about his “multiple bodies” and the virtues of laziness.
But first, let’s warm up with this description of the sea from Youssef Chahine’s Al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice, 1971):
“Since the spectrum of storm waves is usually peaked, with the energy distributed around one wave period, you can conduct the experiment of determining the period of the incoming waves yourself as you sit on the beach looking seaward. A pretty good estimate of the period of the incoming waves can be obtained by dividing the number of breakers you see at a given location into the duration of the observation. So set your stopwatch and start counting — It’s like taking the pulse of the ocean.”
-Frederic Raichlen, Waves (2012)
What I like about Raichlen’s book is that it somewhat embodies — but even also subverts/hijacks — a lot of poetic writings about the sea. We have, for example, the famous Fernand Braudel, whose work on the Mediterranean — sitting somewhere between a history and a novel — is a call to reinvestigate the story of the sea. He writes (my attempt at translating his beautiful French): “The sea, you have to try to imagine it with the gaze of a man from the past, like a limitation — a barrier extended to the horizon, an obsessed immensity — omnipresent, marvelous, enigmatic.” Braudel belongs to the famous Annales school of history in France, which suggests multidisciplinary approaches to historiography and more focus on social history. Some argue that it was the precursor to world systems theory.
Many years later, in his powerful work Mediterranean Crossings: the Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (2007), Iain Chambers argued how the sea (as opposed to land) can be the center of an alternative imagining of the world. For example, he speaks of the restrictions on mobility through the sea as an invitation to ponder the dark side of modernity and rethink modernity altogether. But Chambers also invites us to think of the sea as a space/device that inspires/equips us with different modalities and tools of analysis, ones that you can say are enshrined mostly in the anthropological tradition, and specifically the fields of uncertainty. In other words, how can we produce knowledge while accommodating and even inhabiting a condition of uncertainty? It’s a very illuminating reminder for us as journalists. Here’s a quote I love, and that I have used and reused, in real-life productions and in the dreamworld: “To be at sea is to be lost, and to be in such a state is to be vulnerable to encounters we do not necessarily control.”
“The Mediterranean becomes the site for an experiment in a different form of history writing, an experiment in language and representation, where it becomes possible to engage with the outside of the history of modernity through points of resistance and refusal that continually relay us elsewhere and leads to an inevitable questioning of history as status quo.”
In borrowing from the sea to build another possible epistemology, Chambers references Edmond Jabès when he speaks about “learning to write with words soaked in silence.”
To this day, every time I leap into a swimming pool, I think of Milan Kundera’s Immortality (1929), even though I haven’t revisited Kundera’s work for a while and no longer feel like it. Although it is a very rich book, in my head it’s distilled to the scene where we first see Agnes in the swimming pool and the story begins.
Because of this association, I hardly ever say no to the idea of going to the pool; despite the intense chlorine and the crowded locker rooms, and the fact that, in recent years, I have become little more than a human board ridden by my son, who is too lazy to actually swim.
Lately, however, I have moved from rethinking Immortality to contemplating the bourgeois solitude created by British artist David Hockney in his painting “Portrait of An Artist” (1972). In it, the artist stands, fully dressed, inspecting the immersed body of another man in the water. This isn’t a public swimming pool, but a private space in a moment of personified solitude. Hockney portrays a body that has grown lighter in the water, painted as though it were part of the setting, covered in its colors. Both men are surrounded by scenery that evokes a still-life painting, which draws me even further into the work.
Hockney’s self-portrait demonstrates, to me at least, that swimming pools were meant to be secluded — the kind of seclusion accomplished by money, accentuated with polished marble or ceramic. The kind of comfort and pleasure that signify luxury. A swimming pool completes the idolized luxury of a bourgeois residence.
When I first moved to our current home, a rented flat in 6 October City, I looked out our first-floor balcony to find a massive hole someone had dug in the ground eating up half of the garden. It was a terrifying sight. Our new balcony overlooked a grave.
Our landlord explained to me that he had been trying to build a swimming pool in the garden, and he specifically used the word “secluded” when describing his failed project, which he eventually abandoned, he said, because of the rising costs of construction.
And so only the giant hole remained.
It’s become a sort of hobby of mine: I’d gaze out at that hole, envisioning the swimming pool, had it been completed, accomplishing my landlord’s aspiration of bourgeois seclusion. Every now and then I see the man, fully dressed, looking down at the failed project that had devoured his garden. It somehow resembles the portrait painted in the early seventies, only instead of the body immersed in the water, the man is studying the dream he’d given up on pursuing — the dream of becoming bourgeois.
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a novel with virtually no plot and very sparse dialogue. Rather, it is a feat of introspection — a profound, nuanced study of the human psyche and the intricacies of adult relationships. Through it all, the sea is ever-present but also absent — it is at times a symbol of mortality and the indifference of nature, in other instances an expression of longing, and eventually it becomes a site of acceptance and reconciliation.
The book is made up of three parts. In the first one, titled The Window, the main source of tension is an anticipated trip to the lighthouse, eagerly awaited by one of the Ramsay family’s children. His mother, Mrs. Ramsay, arguably the novel’s central character, assures him they will be able to go the next day, while his father is convinced the weather will not allow it, which causes a subtle friction between the couple. Through the titular window, Mrs. Ramsay watches the sea (“like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beating the measure of life”), reflecting on the ephemeral nature of existence, and realizing that the moments of joy she works so hard to create for her family (a large portion of this section is devoted to a dinner party she organizes) are only fleeting — one day, none of them will remain, and their memories will disappear with them.
As though her thoughts were prophetic, part two (the shortest of the three), portrays the effects of the passage of time — and of proximity to the sea — on the Ramsays’ house as it remains unoccupied for 10 years. It is told from an omniscient point of view (and sometimes from the perspective of the family’s housekeeper), describing the signs of decay that befall the furniture, the walls, the very foundations of the structure. It is a 20-page metaphor for entropy — inevitable and all-consuming.
It isn’t until the third part of the novel that the trip to the lighthouse takes place, but everything has changed — it no longer holds the same meaning, and yet it offers a strange and unexpected kind of catharsis.
To the Lighthouse is a strange work, and it isn’t easy to get through: Woolf’s acute awareness of human consciousness, so clear in how she captures the unpredictable motion of the mind — as unpredictable, in itself, as the sea — can be exhausting at times. But it is also one of the most realistic (and therefore most relatable) novels I’ve ever read, because — also like the sea — reality is essentially formless, and resisting the urge to shape it is Woolf’s greatest achievement.
Just like Las Vegas, what happens in the summer stays in the summer.
In Abi Fawq al-Shagara (My Father Is on the Tree), the 50th anniversary of which is this year, Abdel Halim Hafez (Adel) goes to the seaside on vacation with his friends. The whole world is stretched out before them — they revel in the cabins and beautiful beaches of Montazah, they plant their umbrellas in the sand and sing about it: about the blue sea and the beautiful sand and the gorgeous sunshine, their youth, love and Alexandria (as the song goes).
Adel is in a relationship with Amal (Mervat Amin), a girl his own age, and their union is blessed by both their families. It is a pure, innocent, chaste love, and it seems it doesn’t fulfill Adel’s expectations as an outgoing young man filled with vigor, because Amal won’t let him be intimate with her. When he confronts her with his problem — that’s he’s known her for a year now and they’re always with her family or their friends — she reminds him that society has traditions they must respect. “So other people are meant to protect you from me?” He asks her incredulously. “Other people are meant to protect our love from us,” she replies.
At the peak of his frustration, Adel goes to a cabaret and ends up meeting Fardous (Nadia Lotfy), an older woman and belly dancer with whom he begins a different kind of affair. The following lines are from a 1969 review of the film in entertainment magazine Al-Mawed: “Unlike the chaste relationship he shared with Amal, Adel is dragged into the dirt of Fardous’s life of sin. He loses the innocence and purity of his youth as she tempts him with darkness. After he drinks his fill from the sea of pleasures she offers, he realizes salt water cannot quench thirst. Adel’s father travels to Alexandria to rescue his son after he hears of his seduction by a belly dancer, but he, too, is enthralled with this world, and drowns into it. Only then does the son wake up, and the roles shift as Adel tries to save his father:‘Dad, they’re all crooks here. Beat me all you want but I must tell you the truth! I’ve seen people being tricked but I can’t watch them do that to you.’
The father eventually snaps out of his false summer fantasy and goes back to Cairo with his son, forgetting the events of the summer as though they’d never happened. “It was a long journey, Amal, but I have not changed,” Adel tells his one true love.
In My Father Is on the Tree, summer is portrayed as a parallel universe where things happen and end without ever finding their way to one’s life in the real world; an exceptional state that we want no traces of once autumn arrives and things go back to normal. Fardous, like the summer, is a fleeting infatuation, while Amal is the rest of the seasons: a safe, stable life.
The summer in this film is colorful, youthful and light — it is a very classical depiction of the season. It’s heavy on melodrama, but even then it’s infused with a certain joie de vivre, unlike the nightmarish winter tragedies where thunder and lightning are used as visual stand-ins for catastrophe, for example.
My Father Is on the Tree was released two years after the 1967 defeat, and Adel can be considered a representation of the promising youth in danger of going astray after their faith in the future was shaken, deviating from the path drawn for them by the state, which was itself going through a rough patch, just like the proper, dignified father was led into temptation. But of course there’s a happy ending; the darkness subsides and the boy runs back into his father’s — and Amal’s — arms, and the father returns to his little happy family. Pure love conquers tainted lust. Adel and Amal run on the beach, hand in hand against the setting sun. They run to the safety of the motherland, growing up and multiplying into countless identical copies, who end up taking part in youth conferences and flocking around the leader of the nation: pure, innocent summer youth cherished by the state — unlike those other young men and women, who remain trapped in a lonely winter far, far away.
A film that takes place during the hottest day of the year on one specific block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Although it’s a predominantly African American neighborhood, the block also houses a pizza place owned by an Italian American family (where the film’s protagonist, Mookie — played by Spike Lee himself — works as a delivery boy), a bodega run by Korean immigrants, and a group of rowdy Latino teenagers. As the scorching heat intensifies, racial tensions begin to simmer, until they eventually reach a boiling point.
Lee’s masterpiece is about a lot more than summer, but the heat — and how it is conveyed — is as much a part of its fabric as its inherent political statement. Here, it is employed as a source of pressure, a catalyst that exacerbates the societal ills already threatening the community, mainly racism and subsequent police brutality.
The ways the characters attempt to deal with the heat, however, make for some of the film’s most delightful moments: Mookie taking an unsolicited break from work to shower at home, Mother Sister — a guiding figure of sorts in the community — sitting at her window to catch a breeze, the neighborhood kids unscrewing the lid of a fire hydrant and playing in the gushing water on the street (drenching a white man’s fancy convertible in the process), and the three middle-aged men sprawled on beach chairs under the shade of an umbrella on the corner, throwing jokes about melting ice caps (the first-ever onscreen mention of climate change). It may be a tragic film about race in America, but it is filled with humor, color and verve.
To me, Do the Right Thing epitomizes what it means to be a politically engaged storyteller: Lee has a clear, strong political message (so much so that he ends the film with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X), but not once does this message overshadow his loyalty to his characters or how their trajectories evolve. And it is because he treats his subject with such empathy, such humility — and not without the right dose of anger — that this film has such lasting impact, 25 years after it was made.
Ahmad Wael recommends Between Heaven and Earth (1960):
A story penned by Naguib Mahfouz, with a screenplay by al-Sayed Bedair, co-written by the director, Salah Abu Saif. “Cairo in the peak of summer … such scorching heat; no amount of water will do,” says the voiceover narration in the film’s long opening sequence, firmly establishing the time and place. It is a carefully crafted, miniature portrait of the city in the sixties, painted through the dramatic interactions between a diverse range of characters on a hot summer day — perfect for saying goodbye to summer.
The film takes place in the confines of an elevator, where 13 people are stuck between the eighth and ninth floors of a Zamalek building, each of them on a separate mission. Prolific comedian Abdel Salam al Nabulsi plays a haughty aristocrat who forces his way into the elevator even though it’s already at full capacity, and his exaggerated ridicule of the other passengers offers a large dose of the film’s humor. There is also a dog, brought on board by a beautiful movie star, played by the ever-charming Hend Rostom.
As the hours go by, the drama begins to unfold between the trapped characters, who couldn’t be more different from one another: besides the aristocrat and the movie star we also have a pickpocket, a house servant, a sexual harasser, a gang leader, and a patient who’s just escaped from a mental hospital, among others.
Within the tight, cramped space, amidst stifling heat and sweat, the passengers experience moments of confusion and revelation, as they hang suspended “between heaven and earth.” Despite its light-heartedness, the film has its serious moments, and that interplay between mischief and profound social commentary appears to be its main concern.
Summer is this mass detox that should make our crazy lives more tolerable. It is a rare moment where the weather, people and (self) exploitation patterns are meant to relax. Our “surface” usually looks better. The food, for one thing, is gorgeous (we should consider an “Eat” section in Detox). And they say vitamin D is excellent for you. Summer is a massive opportunity to cleanse ourselves a bit from all the crap bombarded at us throughout the year. Missing it can be costly.
On a more serious note, I think this moment of socially imposed happiness is weird. As a teenager, this obligation of doing cool things in the summer so you would have something to tell yourself and others come fall was suffocating. In the summer, my dreams of a better life and self would converge in my head, only to eventually be crushed. I’d dream of this:
And I’d end up with an emotional mess like this (maybe the song itself doesn’t really relate, but her voice and this otherworldly guitar line do):
My self-inflicted patterns aside, summer is a violent season. Differences in class, beauty, personality, muscle, and entourage become even more visible, and many make it a point to highlight them. Marketing is obnoxious, taking its emotional blackmailing ways up a notch. The hunger for access and the fear of rejection become more obsessive. On the beach, too much exposure to the sun and the heat; the chemicals and odors of sunscreen and other skin products; the rich, heavy food we consume, and the loud dance music blasting everywhere, bring our senses and burned bodies to exhaustion. Looking and being looked at are the raison d’être. When you type “summer” into YouTube, this is the first thing you get, with over one billion views:
But detoxes are bound to be violent. A full summer detox involves radically changing your surroundings, actively removing certain mental barriers and furiously satisfying certain repressed cravings. But somehow you’re cleansing yourself with a different kind of dirt. Summer is organized unconsciousness; oblivion. It has wildness. It has freedom. It is all about possibilities, about being stupid or being caught in stupid situations without it mattering at all. It can backfire, be uncomfortable — shallow, disappointing, boring — but it can also be wonderful. It has sometimes been wonderful for me, I must admit, once I learned how to better deal with my teenage projections and self-consciousness.
The detox of the detox that we call autumn can be quite rough too. This might prove that our summer wasn’t a particularly healthy detox or that our usual regimen is quite bad. Or that we are addicts to whatever makes our hearts beat faster? Yeah, that too. But well, summer has at least taught us to measure our self-expectations and enjoy the ride:
Our guest this week is Wael Abdelfattah, author of three poetry collections: Kasala (Lazy; 2001); Al Gharam (Love, 2009); and Tango al-Afyal (Tango for Elephants, 2015), and founder of Medina. When we asked him how he felt about summer, the Gemini writer told us he is not fond of it, and would have preferred to have been born in winter or autumn.
What do you write? And who do you write for?
I write pieces that are sometimes labeled as poems, other times as articles, and some pieces that cannot be labeled at all.
Following a certain model or set of rules suffocates me, but I accept these labels about 10-15% of the time. Generally, however, I believe that accepting these labels is nothing but an act of submission and a gradual destruction of the energy that needs space to explode.
Who I write for is a mystery to me because there are many other things I could have done to impress people, like oratory or the scouts—both of which I excelled at a young age. However, upon instigation by my subconscious followed by conscious conviction, I got rid of my oratory skills as well as my gift for memorizing things, for the sake of listening to a very soft sound made by one of my bodies. I am multiple-bodied, not because I’m a Gemini, but because, in my point of view, this is human nature — none of us is only one person. The Gemini partially admits this fact, acknowledging that it’s not one entity but two. As for me, I acknowledge all of my bodies, and writing is a declaration of existence by the weakest of my bodies, the least able to get along. This is why I write, because it gives me the pleasure of liberating this body from mystery. Just like cooking liberates our dormant senses from waiting for recipes from skilled chefs. I write so that me and others could taste a flavor I don’t know, but one that is unforgettable and impossible to replicate. It is a form of exploring the mysterious through intuition or the senses, an attempt at reaching the ecstasy brought by the union of conscious and subconscious. And then I might or might not find a scattered, anonymous thread of humans that likes this writing, or lovers or friends or random passersby in my life who remember me by the pieces I’ve written.
What do you love the most?
When? At which moment of time? Every moment I love some things more than other things, and I take pleasure in things that make me happy: reading a good book, writing a good piece, making a good meal. Other than that, I love coffee, because it’s an emptiness stroked by human murmurs, and swimming because it’s floating in nothingness, and sex because it’s a gravity-less means of elevation, and tobacco because it’s a journey of exchanging experiences in the world of chemical activity. I love anything that takes me from a surrendered position to an extended, horizontal coexistence. Anything that steers me away from the procedures of preserving my life in this life, on this Earth, among society.
What scares you the most?
Being robbed of choice—not being able to choose what I do due to the orders of a warden, a doctor, a nurse, or even a sexton. That’s why I’d love to choose the way I die; the way I’m buried, I mean.
The past was over when…
When I became a father to my parents, and a peer to my daughter. At that moment, the heavy presence of the past crumbled into memories. I became another person with a history built upon dissociating from the patriarchy and letting go of both the perks of familial bonds and their control over me, as well as from raising children. Now is my time to play.
What is a “homeland”?
Annoying question, because while it’s sarcastic you actually want me to answer seriously, and there are a few model answers. It’s like the vaccination shots that leave their marks on our bodies when we’re children. In truth, I am still shaken on certain levels of consciousness when I think about certain patriotic songs, even though I always make fun of them. Those readymade meanings are like the genetic threats one holds in their own body. They also create a bit of a fantastical element, and combining endemic diseases and with fantasy is not a very bad thing — as long as the homeland is the battlefield, as long as I have the heart to fight.
Is it true that the world doesn’t change but we are the ones who do?
The world definitely changes, and so do we.
Let’s talk about time, why has time taken our innocence?
I’ve always been an advocate for laziness, my laziness has made me do things at my own pace—something I didn’t do before because I didn’t want to cause problems. Now, though, I have made peace with willingly bearing the consequences. Being lazy, for me, is abandoning the measuring stick we use as a unit to measure that illusion we call time. As for innocence, I have no issue with it as a gateway rather than a wailing wall.
We’re bidding summer farewell this week, how would you like to say goodbye?
The only thing I like about summer is AC, I even prefer the sea in winter. There may be a few days where I feel like going to the beach, like on my birthday, which I also wish was in winter or autumn, with the abundance of intense moments they have.
We may be leaving behind long, languorous days in the company of the sand and the sea, but we’re also saying goodbye to a ton of annoying things. For one, in the summer one could barely take a walk in the city during the daytime because it’s way too hot, and to be honest, we miss walking. Also, what are your options for a beach anyway if you don’t have your own place in Sahel, which is entirely made up of gated communities with private beaches and is hell to navigate without a car at your disposal? Not to mention the insane prices if you want to rent (it’s probably cheaper to go to Greece). Moreover, within a couple of weeks we won’t be needing air conditioning (at least for a few months), which means lower electricity bills, and less guilt over the damage we’re causing the environment. And as for the sea — well, luckily we still have Sinai, where beach weather extends into the next couple of months.
Cairo and autumn get along well. The weather is beautiful, and all the cultural venues that had been semi-hibernating in the summer resume their activities. The one thing that (almost) ruins autumn in the city is the persistent smell of burning rice straw, although there have been reports that there’ll be no burning this year, and that the straw is instead being collected “for use as animal fodder and in furniture manufacturing.” We hope that’s true, for the sake of the environment, and our sinuses as well.
To sum it up, there may be things we’re going to miss about the summer, but we’re looking forward to fall. And so we choose to end the season on this joyful note:
Salam, summer — don’t come back soon.