For a while this month it felt like we would be experiencing a perpetual summer, with unusually high temperatures for November, but it looks like the chill is finally here, and we find ourselves rummaging for our sweaters and scarves in those forgotten corners of our closets.
While it might be getting a little cold for overdue trips to the beach, it’s good to be in Cairo right now: you can catch some screenings in the 41st edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, and quite a few other cultural happenings around town.
If you prefer to stay warm at home, however, we have the usual assortment of recommendations for you — from selected pieces to read on the internet, to a couple of documentaries to stream and a playlist of trap music from around the world. Not to mention a chit-chat with Lebanese novelist Hilal Chouman.
-In Against Economics, David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, reviews Robert Skidelsky’s book Money and Government for the New York Review of Books. In a thought-provoking piece, Graeber delves into the history and failures of modern economic theory and outlines a compelling case in the book for the need for a new science. “Ostensibly an attempt to answer the question of why mainstream economics rendered itself so useless in the years immediately before and after the crisis of 2008, it is really an attempt to retell the history of the economic discipline through a consideration of the two things — money and government — that most economists least like to talk about,” he writes.
-November 30 will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle, when tens of thousands of activists from around the world prevented delegates from attending the global trade talks by shutting down the city center. The protests resulted in 600 arrests and the eventual collapse of the talks. It was a watershed moment for the movement against corporate globalization. In The Battle of Seattle at 20, Jamie McCallum, an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College who took part in the protests, argues that the legendary mobilization can serve as a model for today.
-On Iraq’s uprising, Sinan Antoon writes: “This political system was built on a corrupt and false basis, and the system has tried for many years to firmly establish political sectarianism and hateful allocation. But a new generation is leading our people to finally shake it off and reject it. We must be careful in the midst of this celebratory atmosphere. We hope the popular momentum, protests and sit-ins continue in Iraq’s arenas and squares. But maintaining the momentum in the long term is difficult. The militia and arms of vicious dominating forces loom, and behind them, their allies in neighboring countries who will lose their influence and capital if the uprising achieves its demands. They are lurking, preparing to pounce with masks and slogans about maintaining security, ending chaos or defending this sacred thing or that — even after the people have declared that the only sacred thing is the nation.”
-And from Suneela Mubayi’s article “In Defense of Profanity,” published on Megaphone: “Of course, we must not ignore the underlying sexism in most insults. However, the political correctness approach here could turn regressive, since the shamelessness of curse words and the Lebanese people’s great use of them brands them and their dialect negatively, for it is language outside the scope of what is considered appropriate. As for me, I believe that this sort of language exhibits a lot of creativity, which has always been blocked in other dialects (though it does exist!) because of this previously mentioned Victorian tendency, which is prevalent in classrooms, radio stations and public platforms.
I imagine this norm shifting through the biting mockery of humiliation which ‘October slang’ has now mainstreamed. And as a result of regional slang taking up its deserved spot in public spaces, the existing body of profanities will be enriched with amusing additions, which are already becoming music to our ears and adding to our pool of verbal creativity by the power of offensive and innovative insults from Zahlé, among many other examples.”
-With this paragraph, Huzaifah Mohamed begins his rich article “Apostates in the Caliph’s Prisons,” published on Al-Jumhuriya. “What follows is the story of my imprisonment by the Islamic State, my time in more than five prisons in Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Mayadin, the stories of the experiences that affected me and the people I met, some of whom were later able to go back to their families and others who have not returned to this day,” he writes.
“The car drove on as we lay on our stomachs, and the masked man turned toward us and started hysterically beating us, with a hose he was holding, for the purpose of finding the location of the satellite internet device he claimed we brought through the military crossing! In truth, I only brought with me a few hard disks and I did not have internet devices, possession of which would have been enough to make us ‘apostates’, whose fate is death. Many others were killed for offense after the organization had declared that owning them is prohibited.”
-The 41st edition of the Cairo International Film Festival kicked off yesterday, spanning five screening halls in Cairo’s Opera House, as well as Zamalek Cinema, Karim 1, Karim 2 and Cinema Radio in downtown. You can find the festival program here. Happy viewing!
-If you prefer not to leave your couch, however, check out this short documentary by Marwan Tarek, titled Shahyn – The Return of the Fiercest Types of Hawks, which centers on Alexandrian rapper Shahyn, who used to be part of the rap trio Y-Crew and has recently made his comeback as a solo artist. In the seven-minute film, Shahyn speaks about some of the most significant moments in his musical career and shares some of his convictions about art and life.
Ahmed Wael recommends watching Dancing with the Birds (2019):
The documentary series captures the mating habits of birds-of-paradise, from dancing to nest building. The stories that unfold onscreen are filled with intriguing performances of all kinds. Most male birds start by dancing to attract female attention. Some dances are very complicated and require great physical effort, culminating in dazzling displays of color and flair.
And the series illustrates that building a nest is not just a matter of gathering twigs and piling them up — it highlights feats of complex engineering. Some birds build towering nests to attract their desired companion. Sometimes, jealousy moves a male bird to destroy a competing bird’s nest to ensure that the female will not be distracted from his own nest.
Watching this documentary tells us a lot about the life of birds and, most importantly, it shows us how those little creatures do things with a meticulousness rarely ever exhibited by humans.
The documentary is available on Netflix.
“Girls can’t rap, you say … as though you can,” sings Dareen Salama, known as Qeen-D, in the song “3aw2,” a collaboration with Egyptian rap group D.O.P. You will find this track, in addition to many more, on this week’s playlist, which is made up of rap and trap tracks from around the world. Most are songs you can dance to, performed by female (t)rappers.
Another thing these tracks have in common is that they stray from the musically familiar, be it in their composition, lyrics or performance style. The playlist also displays the rapid evolution of the genre, which has witnessed a remarkable degree of innovation in recent years, particularly with the newfound accessibility brought about by new platforms of music production and broadcasting.
Our guest for this week’s chit-chat is Hilal Chouman, a Lebanese novelist with four published works, the latest of which is Kan Ghadan (Once Upon a Time, Tomorrow) [Dar al-Saqi, 2016].
Let us start by talking about writing … What do you write? And for whom?
The question “for whom do you write?” seems to me to be associated with first writings, which explore and maybe not reach their destination. And even though they could be like a wild forest where everything grows without trimming, these writings always have a hint of authenticity that likely disappears in later writings. After the first publication or the unexpected success of later writings, a second question, of the text and the reader, becomes more pressing. The writer can easily fall under the pressure of both questions and with them comes an entire cultural system of devoted writers, critics, awards and publishing houses. In the Arab world, reading is more or less a luxury. Purchasing power is nonexistent, the educational system is at its worst, and whoever reads Arabic novels selects a few they can afford to buy and easily read. The act of reading books — be they printed or electronic — is restricted to certain classes only. In contrast and in the face of limited demand, what is a writer who makes their living from writing to do? Do they try to position themselves, continue to be isolated or try to find some sort of balance? Do they earn a living by publishing in the dead Arab press, work in translation or what? I am not blaming or criticizing anyone here. Unlike models frequently imposed by the cultural system, conclusions here remain very personal. The situation is very bad and with it the ability to work part time, not having to write regularly, and writing about specific topics becomes a privilege. You asked the question “for whom do I write?” I tried to understand how readers received the four novels I published and I did not reach an outcome. When I talked about the matter with a friend who works in publishing, we discussed all the details. The size of the novel? Its content? Its language? Whether it features illustrations? Its structure? In the end, we reached a conclusion: it is very haphazard and in the face of limited readership for Arabic novels, this haphazardness cannot be overcome. Therefore, I left the question of readership unanswered and I only return to it in moments of frustration — and there are many of those.
As for what I write — I am told I write post-Lebanese Civil War novels with “cinematic” additions. To be honest, I do not like this comment. First, does the year of publication really dictate such sharp categorization — a war novel versus a post-war novel? And based on this breakdown, can’t novels be published now with content and approaches that have to do with the civil war? As for the novels I write being cinematic, I think what is really meant by this sentiment is that the novels I’ve published are more grounded in spectacle than language. I try to understand this description, even though I do not agree with its bottom line: spectacle over language, an image more than a phrase. I think this observation says a lot about the expectations of those who make it regarding what any novel written in Arabic can contain and their relationship with language in general. We are carrying a burdensome linguistic heritage. Arabic poetry came to this fight before novels written in Arabic — I try to avoid using the term “Arabic novel” here. Personally, and by staying clear of the final product — which, by the way, I do not return to reading in its entirety after publication — I can say that what I published depended on structural and rhythmic work at the first level, where language is directed by this structure and rhythm. As for the content of the novels, it is very simple and not as planned as many would think. I start with a single phrase that describes an idea or structure.
For example, in Ma Rawaho al-Nawm (Stories of Sleep), the image was one of a fragmented novel about a novel set inside the head of a young man isolated in his room. Whenever he progressed in his novel, he would bleed. The fragmentation is in the form of chapters, their content and rhythm of writing. It is a circumvention of the experience of writing a novel for the first time and a way not to run out of breath during elongated writing, which can go unfinished given the lack of experience and the impatience of starting out.
In Napolitana, the scene was one of a novel written sequentially about a young man who does not understand why his lover left him and after a year, he coincidentally sees her with her husband and baby from behind a restaurant’s glass facade.
In Limbo Beirut, I intended to write five chapters set in five different Arab cities and illustrated by artists from those cities. It was a way to experiment with five kinds of writing. The final product, however, was five separate but related chapters joined by a single event and the consequences of one main scene, so the main characters in an early chapter became secondary characters in other chapters.
In Kan Ghadan (Once Upon a Time, Tomorrow), an image in my head set the whole thing in motion. It was that of mass deaths recurring on the streets of Lebanon for no reason. How would the regime react? What would happen when people are forced to leave their bubbles, which they labored in clinging to for many years? And how will the media, artistic and political community act toward such a horror?
Does language elude you sometimes?
Whenever I am asked about language, I try to go back to the early times I was exposed to it. For me, language accompanies the act of storytelling and relationships with the elderly. I remember myself sitting in my grandfather’s lap as he told me stories about the prophets in a lovely Beiruti dialect. I remember being exposed to phrases of Turkish origin used by my mother’s paternal aunt. I return to the surah [a chapter in the Quran] of “al-’Adiyat” [The Coursers] with the stirring of the letters of the words in its middle, which intensified my efforts to recite it. My first exposure to the Arabic language was a Quranic and social one, which continued while I studied at a Beirut school known for its emphasis on Arabic language. We must not forget here that attention to the Arabic language is, first and foremost, a political act in Lebanon, where such attention has faded possibly as a result of the failure of the pan-Arab project. I was lucky that I had such an opportunity, which came with a burden and expectations. Abandoning this linguistic commitment in its rigid, unmodernized sense was not easy. Ceasing to use Arabic for a long time and focusing on dealing and communicating in English also helped. Something changes in the way you recieve language, its structures and rhythms when you stay away from it and get exposed to other languages. I think that the colloquial dialect, with its combinations, expressions, phrases and all that also plays in the head spontaneously. In my work away from culture and with my use of English in dealing with foreign co-workers, I quickly noticed that I spin and run around the answer without using direct expressions and it always ended with them repeating the same question. This pushed me to think more — especially during the editing process: how does current use of the Arabic language contribute to establishing a form and rhythm of the Arabic novel’s narrative and how can it be changed? These questions follow writing and they mostly emerge when I am away from the manuscript and the editorial process is elongated.
Is writing as a medium enough? Have you thought about using illustrations for instance — after Limbo — or another medium?
I think that when we ask about the feasibility of publishing in Arabic — and I am not saying writing — the question regarding the medium becomes infeasible. The problem is not the medium. The problem is the absence of an Arabic reader. This problem transcends mediums, so shifting between mediums does not solve the problem. The experience of Limbo Beirut was tiring. We received a grant for it and I paid 20 percent out of my own pocket to get to the final product that reached the reader in print. When we finished the file and went with it to the final printing after getting through the reading committee — for every book I write goes through a reading committee that makes the decision to publish — the publisher’s first comment was: “This will not sell in the Gulf, it has images of naked women. You have to cooperate with us by paying money to publish it.” Immediately, I withdrew the novel from the publishing house and took it to Dar al-Tanweer, which thankfully published it. Why am I sharing this detail? To say that the publishing process in Arabic is tiring for me personally. Every time I write a novel, I take it and go around to publishing houses. And every time, I question the point of publishing — and then I return to it. Facing such a process, the question of expanding written work to other mediums seems to be a luxury. Therefore, I do not think I will experiment away from textual writing for a long time.
As a writer, do you feel that you belong to a literary generation or mood, that you converge with a specific group of writers?
In Lebanon, the problem is multiplied and transcends the question of generation and mood to a question of linguistic directions. Arabic readers are historically fewer, and limited to certain groups and social classes able to purchase books. Even though it is the official language, Arabic is ultimately a political stance and this intensifies our problem as writers. To look at written text is always to look at it from a specifically political and nationalistic perspective. Lebanese writing always tries to prove that it is more Arab, so you see these differences in Lebanese combinations and phrasing in the press and literature. This is an extra burden on us when we write and when we go to publish. In Lebanon, there are two competing views: one is overprotective of the Arabic language and the other overly rejects this protection on the basis of the self-flagellation of the “Lebanese” ideology. Therefore, when you are the product of an Arabist environment and when the publishing market is a product of this environment, there are those who expect a certain language from you. For example, I am always faced with a question that is repeated from one publisher to the next: “Do you write your manuscript in English, then translate it?” As provoking as its repetition is, this question says a lot about stance on language and differences in its use. Is it generational? I do not know. I do not favor generational analysis. I think the reality of the Second Republic, which began with declaring the end of the Lebanese Civil War, cannot but bring about this conflict in literary work. It could be very boring for a writer’s stance to be restricted to a front for defending some language. Language, in turn, imposes its topics and vice versa. How do you represent a topic outside topics like the Lebanese reality after the end of civil, military conflict? And is there a single reality? And is the way of expressing this reality really judgmentally related to a generational vision? I do not think it happens like this. There are novels by young writers that have re-published specific tropes about the civil war, relations between sects or the cause’s view toward the beginnings of the war. Those writers did not live through the war and they took the easier route of copying without authenticity, so where does this leave the definition of generational writing?
What about writing the political?
Writing is a political act. I do not waste time reading those who say that their writings are humanitarian. I can immediately assume what these writings will entail. Saying that each party has its narrative is different from exporting the lazy, post-event rhetoric and telling us through novels that sectarian strife can lead to this or that and that civil war is filthy, so avoid it. There is always confusion in these sort of simplified writings. These are not political writings, these are distorted writings disguised as committed writings, even if they hide behind the rhetoric of destroying taboos. If actually committed writings are a product of some context and are characterized by the authenticity of their time period and an attempt to self criticize, humanitarian writings and sentimental, confessional writings are a product of an attempt to frame and seize the meaninglessness that resulted from the lack of a political sphere. And instead of delving into opening this space, these writings come to be anti-political and converge with general directions in society and government to try to simplify matters and resolve them through technical rhetoric. These are technical writings, in the negative sense of the word. These are also “patriotic” writings. And if we go back to press releases announcing prize-winning novels, we will find these references to “patriotism,” “humanitarianism” and “societies” recurring from one round to the next. I find that any writing that does not bear a political feature and does not avoid safe rhetoric is a product of the lack of a political sphere and does not provide anything new worth mentioning. In fact, they could be regressive writings. It is not just a matter of the content of these writings, but goes beyond to language, technique and much more.
What is a homeland?
I answered this question in writing, in a text published in The Outpost. The summary of it was that the answer is intimate people with whom we share specific moments that are a metaphor for an entire life. In this sense, the place is insignificant to the answer. Now, when I think about the answer I reached after elongated sequences of taking one step forward and ten steps back, I find that it is related to the Lebanese idea. Said Akl said in his poem “Lebanon”: “And from the small home, we pioneer the earth / We spread our villages on every beach / We challenge the world, its peoples and corners / We build to establish a Lebanon.” This is the burden we struggle with, a metaphysical idea stuck to us like gum; we cannot escape it, so we try to destroy it from within. The current regime, as embodied by the foreign minister, has promoted the term “spread.” We have become “spread” [across the world] and the nation became a suitcase or maybe we are the ones inside the nation’s suitcase. It is tiring and it is a journey that does not end within the country until it starts all over again when you leave it. What is the Lebanese nation and how can we reshape it? Without these reshaping attempts, constant oppression of nationalities and minorities overtakes the nation in its daily, systematic torture. This all seems related to you in spite of yourself and it is not enough to apologize for it. Home, in this sense, is closer to an accusation than the typical, nostalgic idea.
How do you see the future? And when did the past end?
I answer these questions to the daily beat of the Lebanese uprising, which decided to use the term “revolution” to refer to it in defiance of the Lebanese media, which refer to what is happening as a “movement.” What is happening is huge and although previous movements have recurred in three-year intervals, this is the first time we witness movements that are authentically decentralized from Beirut. This is truly the revolution of the disenfranchised. This is a revolution against lowly rulers who lack both experience and shame. It is notable that there is a regional and international decline from overwhelming dictator charisma to a deadly lack thereof. This is a revolution against this regime, which — with and without the Syrian army — buried narratives both metaphorically and tangibly during its period. When people block roads now, they are blocking them at a previous confrontation line or at a current one. And if the previous mark was determined by sniping lines, the current marks are determined by the architectural cruelty of businessmen and Lebanese banks, which took over what remains of the architectural and residential features of Beirut and drove its people out. The revolution is reclaiming this meaning and is questioning this architectural, business, banking cruelty. The amount of writing on the walls in the center of a city that remains empty at night can only be understood as the escape of the buried. There is a muffled language that found its way to the public on walls and tongues, on bodies and in chants. I read many writings about the “end of the civil war” and the “end of sectarianism,” and as much as I respect the enthusiasm, I tend to describe what is happening as the “expiration of the Second Republic” and an attempt to explore the domain of an authentic, popular formation whose great emergence was created by prolonged impoverishment. I believe the past — whether we call it a civil war or peace — will not end until the fall of the Second Republic, which is the protector of the official narrative of the civil war and the killer of the war’s missing and kidnapped. After that, and only after it, can we talk about the future. Until then, we should protect this great dissent, form it, support it, be humble and listen, learn from the daily momentum, and work more on ourselves so that we do not lose the meaning all over again.
“Where can one find literature?” is the title of a talk by Samuli Schielke at the French Institute on Sunday, where he will be sharing some insights as “an anthropologist among Alexandrian writers.” Schielke teaches photography and anthropology at the Freie Universitat Berlin, and you can find a selection of his writing here.
Also on the same day, you can catch a screening of Jumana Manna’s Wild Relatives at the Contemporary Image Collective at 7pm, followed by a discussion with botanical researcher Abdel Mawla Ismail.