The first Thursday of October has long been an important date for literature lovers everywhere, as it is the day when the recipient of each year’s Nobel Prize in Literature is announced, cementing the name of one author as a literary immortal. The prize took on even more importance in the Arab region and particularly in Egypt with Naguib Mahfouz’s win in 1988, in addition to three other Egyptian wins in other disciplines: Anwar Sadat (the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin), Ahmed Zewail (the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and Mohamed El Baradei (the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize).
Every year, hordes of reporters sit in the same hall at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm with bated breaths, until one or more members of the selection committee enter to read out the results. This year, however, the anticipation was doubled, because two winners were announced: the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 and 2019 — Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (born 1962) and Austrian author Peter Handke (born 1942), respectively.
This comes after the cancellation of last year’s prize announcements following sexual assault allegations directed at the husband of one of the academy’s lifetime members in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which led to the resignation of several members, and resulted in a full-blown scandal. The fact that both this year’s and last year’s winners are from Europe was a bit of a disappointment, especially in light of the academy’s recent vows for more diversity and “broader perspectives.”
Tokarczuk also won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, originally published in Polish in 2007. The English translator of the novel, Jennifer Croft, wrote this piece in The Paris Review celebrating the author’s Nobel win.
Handke, meanwhile, is a novelist and playwright who also co-wrote several films, including Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). Two of his works have Arabic translations: The Left-Handed Woman (1978, translated by Marie Touq for Dar al-Adab in 1990), and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (2007, translated by Ahmed Farouq for Al-Gamal Publications in 2011).
While Tokarczuk’s prize has been applauded by many for her cultural significance as a feminist writer, Handke’s win, on the other hand, has angered literary circles across the globe, particularly because of his fervent support for former Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević’s genocidal regime during the Yugoslav Wars. (He also attended Milošević’s funeral in 2006.) PEN America, a literary organization with a focus on human rights, issued a statement expressing “deep regret” over the academy’s choice of Handke as the recipient of this year’s prize.
-In The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow exposes the details of Harvey Weinstein’s plot to suppress sexual allegations against him using the aid of an Israeli private-intelligence agency, and how a whistleblower helped unmask the entire affair. Read all three parts of The Black Cube Chronicles here, here and here.
-In response to the heated conversation surrounding director Todd Phillips’ highly divisive Joker, David Ehrlich, senior film critic at Indiewire, asked 11 other critics to pick the film they deem the most “dangerous” in the 20th century, urging them to “consider the question through whatever lens made sense to them.” You can read their elaborate answers to the survey here.
-For years, followers of African literature have speculated that iconic Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This day has not yet come, but in this piece on Literary Hub, Kenyan writer and editor Billy Kahora reflects on Ngugi’s literary craft, his personal relationship with the writer’s work, and its renewed significance among a younger generation of readers in Kenya. You can also check out this interview with the woman who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018, Olga Tokarczuk, where she discusses her Booker-winning novel, Flights.
-Speaking of Tokarczuk and Flights, revisit this insightful Guardian piece on the joys and challenges of translating fiction and the special relationship between authors and their translators, including interviews with the English translators of the Nobel laureate’s work.
-Arab Lit publishes a translated excerpt from Sherif Abdel Samad’s novel Chekhov and the Lady with the Chihuahua (2018), where the author fictionalizes a trip by the legendary Russian writer to the coastal city of Port Said.
-Ahmed Wael recommends A User’s Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible (2010):
In the wake of the December 2010 protests by UK students against government cuts, an event titled The Long Weekend was organized to bring together artists and writers for planning action in the days to follow, which included the disruption of the Turner Prize at the Tate Britain, a collective write-in at the National Gallery and London’s Book Bloc, where protesters used homemade shields in the form of book covers against the police. During the event, and in art schools where the movement was happening, copies of A User’s Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible— a 62-page booklet written in the heat of the protests — were distributed. Written by Gavin Grindon and John Jordan, with illustrations by Richard Houguez, the guide “intended to reflect on the possibility of new creative forms of action in the current movements.”
Described by the authors as “a match struck in the dark, a homemade multi-tool to help you carve out your own path through the ruins of the present,” the guide includes a myriad of valuable critical ideas; for example, it suggests an alternative to teaching students about the needs of the labor market, what they call “educating the market”: “Some students from Goldsmiths have recently even taken this ‘yes and no’ spirit into unlikely spaces. They started their own institution, the University of Strategic Optimism, and rather than accepting the marketisation of education, they began to educate the market, holding lectures which occupied and redefined spaces of consumption — the foyer of a bank, the aisles of a supermarket — as a place to convivially learn and discuss.”
There are also numerous tips and methods in the guide, such as ingenious ways of resisting and protesting the status quo. Grindon and Jordan write: “The dull old rituals of protest are easy to contain, but a little imagination goes a long way when it’s applied to designing dissent.”
An Arabic translation of A User’s Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible by Hussein El-Hajj was recently published by independent Alexandrian press Yadawiya in a limited edition (200 hand-printed issues), in the handwriting of its founder Maher Sherif.
Ahmed Wael recommends Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019):
The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is set to be the penultimate film in the charismatic director’s career, whose fans have followed his journey from a young man who was working in a video store to one of the world’s most outstanding contemporary filmmakers. Tarantino has said on numerous occasions that his tenth film will be his last, and it’s rumored that it will take place in outer space. We shall see.
At two hours and forty minutes, the film is a full-fledged Tarantino fest, complete with homages to other works and the long and artfully intricate pieces of dialogue typical of his films, as seen in the tavern scene in Inglorious Basterds (2009) and the carriage scene in The Hateful Eight (2015), among others.
Unlike most of his films, however, here the pace is laidback and events progress at a slow simmer before they reach a boiling point, the predictable violence erupting only near the very end. Tarantino has always been described as a master of violence, but this is far from his only point of strength. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, his many tributes to works that have influenced him feel as though they’ve been transported from the distinct worlds of other directors, and yet they become an inherent part of the film’s style.
The film is set in the Hollywood of the late 1960s, and is particularly focused on the industry of the American Western, a genre the director fully delved into with 2012’s Django Unchained, then later with The Hateful Eight. The center of the film is the multi-layered relationship between a fading film star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt), and the world in which it is set is filled with the kinds of quirky details appreciated by Tarantino lovers the world over, including the seamless interplay of fact and fiction that has become a trademark of the director’s more recent work.
If you enjoyed the scenes in Inglorious Basterds where the protagonist displayed the flammability of film reels while explaining the plan to burn the movie theater in which Hitler would be attending a screening, then you will probably love Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood too, for its devotion to cinema and the way that it rewrites history. With his ingenious interventions, Tarantino has made a long sprawling work about an era of Hollywood that he loves and is its biggest tragedy.
-A new season of Explained arrives on Netflix:
The second season of the documentary series Explained has just started on Netflix, with one new episode landing on the platform every week.
The show is made up of non-related episodes, but they are all concerned with explaining and analyzing various issues that pertain to the current moment. The first episode focused on the concept of cults. If you’ve watched the first season, which was released last year, then you’ve probably been waiting for this one. If you haven’t, now is a good time to begin.
In parallel to the weekly episodes of the second season, Netflix is also showing a limited series titled The Mind, Explained, which explores the way the human brain works, the effect of psychedelic drugs, the different types and causes of anxiety, among other topics related to the mind. The series is filled with interesting historical information that is contextualized to reflect contemporary questions. For instance, we find out that anxiety was very common in the Victorian era, that it has continued to grow with the development of mega-cities, and that it is directly proportional to scientific and technological progress. Go figure.
At the beginning of every month, Ahmed El Sabbagh presents “Tafneeta,” a playlist of recently-released tracks perfect for the weekend. You can listen to the playlist in full on Spotify, or watch some of the videos on YouTube. Here’s some of what’s in store:
-Dreamy music and a mesmerizing video bursting with psychedelic effects and warm colors from Closer to Grey, the new and long-awaited album by American synthpop duo Chromatics:
-Youssef Kekhia’s “Bshi Yom” (Someday), “a song about reminiscence,” as the artist describes it, one that longs for the way things were “before all fell apart in Syria.”
-A blend of influences in “Taala Tchouf” (Let’s See) by Emirati-Yemeni singer Balqees, with lyrics in Moroccan Arabic a Khaleeji melody:
-”Wo’oud” (Promises) by Jordan’s Da MoJaNaD, another song about the memory of what once was:
-“Lune de Fiel,” a new piece of electronica paired with a short film, from the new album by French music producer M83 titled DSVII:
-A collaboration by pop-stars Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey for the new Charlie’s Angels film, set to be released next month, called “Don’t Call Me Angel”:
-A brilliant comeback by Alexandrian rapper Shahyn in “The Veranda,” featuring L5VAV:
-A gripping live performance by Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds:
-We also have four tracks by “post-cultural collective” NAAR, a platform designed to produce and promote music by Moroccan trap artists through creative collaborations with select European counterparts:
Our guest for this week’s Chit-Chat is writer and translator Haitham El Wardany, author of The Book of Sleep (2017), How to Disappear (2014), Daydream (2011) and The Incomplete Literature Group (2003).
Let’s talk about writing. Does language elude you sometimes?
Yes, that does happen, and it happens even more as one’s experience with writing grows. At some point, after a period of being engrossed in writing, one begins to realize that a major part of the structure of language is its unyieldingness to writing and expression, as though there were something alive within it that resists its usage. And the function of writing is not to tame this resistance or break it, its function is to evoke it as a work method. In that the function of writing should not be to communicate, or at least not just that, but rather to interrupt, or hinder, or — in short — resist a dominant trend or a specific thought, without even one sentence that expresses actual resistance in its content. Perhaps language’s resistance to us is its way of reminding us that it’s more than just words that are available for us to use in order to say something. The function of language is also to obstruct things that are already being said. Therefore silence is not outside of language, nor is it its opposite; it’s actually at its very core.
Any language without silence is not a real language. Because the absence of silence means a lack of mediation. Language mediates our thoughts because it is capable of creating moments of silence. And in these moments, confusion and revisions and obstructions can occur, and the absence of such moments means the absence of any friction or resistance, meaning that mediation is no longer present and therefore the need for language is itself defunct. It becomes reminiscent of telepathy, a sort of direct, mechanical language. This direct language is just a system of symbols, a programming language. A group of codes that are transmitted and received. In this codal system, everything is pre-planned and pre-determined. A real language, meanwhile, always involves an inherent hesitation or an inherent resistance. In fact, the ability to speak in itself, to read and write, can be attributed to nothing else but the existence of this inherent resistance within language.
When you write, do you feel that you belong to a specific generation?
I feel that this idea of decade-based generations has ended with the end of the 20th century. The 90s generation, ours, was perhaps the last generation, or the last manifestation of that idea. If that is true, then it’s a good thing, because there’s something very bureaucratic in the idea of the generation that’s founded on the creation of folders, every ten years we create a folder where we list a few names and that’s it. It’s good that this concept of “generation” no longer plays a large role in literary life the way it used to until the 90s. A generation is not an organizational principle or some sort of literary sect, and it’s not even a group of individuals. A generation is a literary sensibility, a horizon of possibilities born in a specific historical moment, a platform where questions are formed in certain circumstances, a collection of contradictions that at some point must bring forth new sensitivities, choices and directions different from itself. All of this does not take place every ten years the way that the idea of decade-based generation assumes. Generations are political and cultural eras; a cluster of differences, not just common ideals.
But a generation is not the only form a literary group or community can take. A literary community is bigger than a generation. Any work on literature or writing has to happen collectively, even if the writers do not share the same artistic convictions. Why collectively? Because literary production doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a community of readers and writers. Without that collectiveness, there would be no space for writing, and this has nothing to do with the extent of a writer’s solitude or sociability. Reading and writing always happen with, in, around, against or beyond a vast array of older or contemporary texts and writers, and therefore they happen within a certain generation but they are also cross-generational. What is a healthy literary community? What is a literary community that is not based on the concept of identity? What is a literary community that rethinks its tools of production? What is an individualistic community? How can we understand history beyond the logic of annals or chronological succession? Such questions don’t only pertain to the literary community, but to our general perceptions around shared living.
What is a “homeland”?
I’m not going to answer this question.
What about writing the political?
Language is the gravitational force that ties us to reality, without it we are mere particles floating in nothingness. Language is our work on reality, it is what makes us historical beings. Our arguments around and about language are very political. I’m thinking for instance about the battles of the Apollo Group, the Diwan School, the Art and Liberty Group, or the battles around the prose poem in the 90s, and the relationship of these battles with what was happening in society back then. Those were not just literary battles, they were also political and social battles. This is why I don’t think that what makes a text political is its inclusion of references to politics or political stances. What makes a text political is its ability to take the engagement with reality to a more condensed level. Politics is not just an event or a stance, but also the language and form with which that stance is practiced.
How do you see the future? When did the past end?
The function of the writer is not to see the future, but to listen to the past. This doesn’t mean that the writer lives in the past, it only means that the past has not ended, and that the plethora of history’s catastrophes and conflicts and struggles is still capable of playing an inspirational role in liberating us from the shackles of the present moment. The voice of the past is always low; it needs avid, listening ears. The writer is more of an ear than an eye.
What is the thing you love most?
I really love poetry. There is no joy that compares to the joy I find when I read a beautiful poem. But poetry isn’t just poems, nor is it just metaphors and images. Poetry is not really a literary format. It’s much older than the invention of literature. One can even go as far as saying that literature in its entirety is a format of poetry; as well as philosophy, history and quantum dynamics, for example. Poetry is not a way of thinking, thinking itself is poetic. Production is poetic as well, by definition. The Greek word “poiesis” means to create or produce something. And the poetic moment is not a moment that is separate from daily life, but the moment where daily life is condensed and opens up to possibilities of change — possibilities of not remaining “daily life.” Poetry is like silence in language, it is the possibility of hindering or obstructing the many stories we’re trapped within.
But poetry has become scarce. Unfortunately, poetry is slowly withdrawing from our world today. Poetry is abandoning today’s world, and with its departure, the sky is slowly descending upon the Earth, because — as vulnerable as it was — it was the force that kept the world from folding in on itself; that allowed the creation of a margin where life could be renewed. And with the withdrawal of poetry, the present moment is closing in on itself. With the withdrawal of poetry, the world is devolving into a group of causal relationships. With the fading of poetry, production becomes the mere execution of a sequence of logical steps. With the fading of poetry, we stop conversing with the world and only converse with ourselves.
What do you fear the most?
In moments of danger, such as the present moment, one is afraid of many things — of senseless harm, of viciousness in enmity, of oneself. One is also afraid for oneself and for one’s friends and acquaintances who are imprisoned or forcibly disappeared. A naked life is the only kind of life permissible in the shadow of fascism, be it political or cultural. How can one resist being reduced to a naked life? How can one resist fascism? Fear cripples us. Walter Benjamin says that in these moments of danger a past memory suddenly glimmers, and that the role of the material historian is to offer a way to capture that memory and to cognitively possess it. Meaning that their function is to help us snatch a past moment in the heat of the current danger, and set that moment free, in the hope that that might help us set ourselves free. Today we are in dire need of that kind of historian.
Is it true that the world doesn’t change but we do?
The world changes and music changes, but we grow, we don’t only change.
To conclude our chit-chat, let’s reflect on time. “O, time, why couldn’t you have left us innocent…?”
One must thank time for not having left us innocent. In fact, this is the function of time. The innocent belong in Paradise — there is no time there, everything is drenched in eternalness. The fact that we are historical beings means that our hands have been tainted with worldly matters; our history is the history of our failed attempts, of our experiences and mistakes. There is nothing more boring than to remain innocent. Innocent beings are perfect beings that know nothing of politics or desire. Beings who are tainted with history, meanwhile, are material beings. And if there’s one kind of innocence I’m grateful that time has taken away, it’s revolutionary innocence.
The 11th annual Cairo Jazz Festival is happening this weekend at AUC Downtown’s Tahrir Cultural Center and a handful of other venues, with a variety of performances, workshops and masterclasses. If you couldn’t attend any of Thursday’s events and won’t be able to make it to today’s performances either, you still have time to plan for Youssra El Hawary’s concert tomorrow (Saturday, October 12). Here’s a track from Hawary’s debut album, No’oum Nasyeen (Forgetful, We Rise), released in 2017: