The countdown has started. We are drowning in listicles of every kind: The best films, books, songs of the year — or even scarier, the best decade. Meanwhile, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Booker) and the Sawiris Cultural Award have announced their longlist and shortlist for emerging writers, respectively), as though this process of selection itself is a metaphor for what works are bound to be remembered past the end of the year.
Beyond listing what we’ve loved or hated, the fact that a year is ending always drives one to reflect on what they’ve done and what they want to do, an activity many would rather not engage in, with everything it entails. But, in all cases, may the rest of 2019 bring us joy and no more sad news, and if you’re not ready just yet to reflect on the past 12 months, our recommendations this week (plus a chat with Algerian writer and translator Salah Badis) might help you relax and stay distracted, in a good way.
-Libyan author Hisham Matar reflects on the lessons of silence in an extract from his new book A Month in Siena, published in the Guardian. “The way I feel about my friends, my family, the woman I love can never be put perfectly in words because words are a translation,” Matar writes. “In silence, we are in the stage before translation. And we perceive it. And this strange wordless eloquence of ours is amazing to me. It makes me hopeful about our mutual susceptibility to the truth, and our shared nature, which allows us at times to understand one another, to gain an accurate approximation (for it will always be that, an approximation) of one another’s deepest emotions without even uttering a word.”
-Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon writes in a New York Times OpEd about his friend Safa al-Sarray, a 26-year old aspiring poet and amateur artist, who was killed in October when a tear gas canister struck him in the head as he was peacefully protesting in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square:
“Some years ago, I wrote a poem about those who die for freedom and justice. I never thought that I was writing it prematurely for my friend.
Martyrs do not go to paradise
They leaf through the heavenly book
each in their own way
as a bird
or a cloud
They appear to us every day
we, who are still
in this hell they tried to extinguish
with their blood.
A few weeks ago, I saw a photograph of a white dove perched on the coffin of one of those murdered by the regime near Tahrir Square. Was that you, Safa?”
-Stella beer is an institution in Egypt, dating back to 1897. A new book, Egypt’s Beer: Stella, Identity and the Modern State by Omar Foda explores its history and its economic and cultural relevance. Jadaliyya publishes an excerpt from the book and a Q&A with the author. “My book looks at both macroeconomic matters (e.g., global economic integration and economic imperialism) and microeconomic matters (e.g., prices, consumption, and distribution) together with social and cultural issues, including the development of a middle class, the emergence of youth culture, the politicization of religion, and changing notions of entertainment in daily life,” Foda says.
-This week witnessed the passing of French New Wave icon Anna Karina, who starred in seven of Jean-Luc Godard’s most memorable and groundbreaking films. In this long and engaging interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Karina opens up about acting, her personal and professional relationship with Godard (they were married from 1961 to 1965), and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1960s’ film industry: “… at that time, if you were a woman, you didn’t really have a voice. If you were a woman, it was just: ‘Be beautiful and shut up.’”
-Ahmed Wael recommends Flights (2007) by Olga Tocarczuk:
This is a reading experience that will stay with me for a long time. The days I spent hopping through this exceptionally-crafted novel by an author who I was discovering for the first time, were highly enjoyable.
At first, I thought it had a circular structure, like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (1987), for instance; that one could enter it at any page or chapter. Yet you soon realize that there is a continuous narrative, and therefore you need to start at the beginning. Even Hopscotch, I remember as I read, has a certain trajectory you need to follow, despite the unconventional way in which it opens.
Jennifer Croft’s English translation of Flights which won Tocarczuk the 2018 Booker International Prize, and in October 2019 — as translator Ihab Abdel Hamid revised his Arabic version (for which he used Croft’s English translation as a source, not the original Polish) — Tocarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature (delayed from the year before after the Swedish Academy was shaken by a sexual harassment scandal).
It is a novel founded on movement: after studying psychiatry, the protagonist/narrator vows to become a perpetual traveler, in an attempt at self-discovery. What’s really intriguing is that this journey only begins when she feels that she has become invisible; that, as she grows older, eyes are no longer drawn to her. With this realization, she decides that this is the time for searching — for flight.
“There are two points of view in the world: the frog’s perspective and bird’s eye view. Any point in between just leads to chaos,” Tocarczuk writes. “Take the airport maps so beautifully drawn on airline brochures. Their meaning becomes clear only when one sees them from above, like the monumental Nazca lines, created with flying creatures in mind—the modern airport in Sydney is shaped like an airplane, for example. A somewhat uninteresting, I find, concept—your plane landing on a plane. The way becomes the goal, the instrument the result. The airport in Tokyo, on the other hand, in the shape of an enormous hieroglyphic, is perplexing. What sort of a letter is it? We haven’t mastered the Japanese alphabet, we won’t know what our arrival means. With what word they greet us. What do they stamp into our passport? A big question mark?”
Yet the movement doesn’t just happen in space; Tocarczuk designs bewildering and unpredictable flights in time as well, driving me to wonder, more than once, whether what I read was a product of her imagination or a carefully selected moment from actual history.
This is an author who knows many places, many stories — one who baffles and entertains in equal measure.
-Yasmine Zohdi recommends Marriage Story (2019):
Noah Baumbach first made his mark on the film world with his 2005 drama The Squid and the Whale, a story about a tumultuous divorce told from the point of view of the sparring couple’s children, said to be based on the separation process of the director’s own parents. His latest film, Marriage Story, is another painful (yet at times heartwarming) tale of uncoupling, but this time it unfolds from the perspective of the adults: Charlie (a magnificent Adam Driver), and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson’s in her most impressive performance to date).
The film follows its protagonists — both artists, a theater director and an actress, respectively — as they struggle with the logistics of divorce across two cities (New York City and LA), all the while attempting to make it as civilized as possible for the sake of their eight-year-old son, Henry. And while there isn’t much to follow in terms of plot — it’s pretty easy to tell right from the start that this relationship has to end and that Charlie and Nicole are not getting back together. What’s really intriguing about the film is how it tells this seemingly simple story; like a romance recounted in reverse.
The only time we see Charlie and Nicole as a happy couple is through two back-to-back montages in the very beginning of the film, where each of them relays what they love about the other in a light, heartfelt voiceover narration. Before we know it, however, the illusion is shattered and we realize that these lists were actually an exercise required by a separation mediator they’d hired to facilitate the divorce process. Every exchange that follows between is either a tense conversation or a violent outburst of some kind, yet there’s no shortage of contemplative and tender scenes where both Charlie and Nicole, albeit separately, reflect on what got them here and grapple with what lies in store for them now. With gradual precision, the characters — and the relationship that bound them — reveal themselves before us, in measured but meaningful moments of evocation and exposition: a tearful monologue in a lawyer’s office, a gut-wrenching fight, a soulful rendition of a song in a piano bar.
Even though most critics compare Marriage Story to The Squid and The Whale (for obvious reasons), there’s a lot in the former that can be traced back to Baumbach’s later films, especially While We’re Young (2014) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) — both available on Netflix and well worth watching — where he navigated complex family situations with remarkable sensitivity, wit and compassion. His sharp, nimble dialogue — a highlight in both films — is elevated to a whole new level in Marriage Story, emphasized by the brilliant acting, as well as exceptional editing in key scenes.
There is a lot more to say about this film and the layers beneath its main story — its subtle but smart approach to gender dynamics and how they manifest not just in relationships but also artistic expression, parenthood and the legal system, for instance — but unfortunately there’s not much space to do that here. In all cases, though, it’s safe to say that Marriage Story is one of the year’s best films, and watching it would be a great way to spend an evening at home over the weekend.
Marriage Story has been nominated for six Golden Globe awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Motion Picture – Drama, and Best Actor and Actress in the same category, and is expected to receive several Oscar nominations as well. It is produced by and available to stream on Netflix.
-Ahmed Wael recommends Ruben Brandt, Collector (2018):
Entering the world of Ruben Brandt, Collector — a superbly engaging work of animation — is entering the mind of its titular protagonist: a psychiatrist struggling with nightmares inspired by iconic paintings, from Boticelli to Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol.
The rich, vibrant landscapes of Ruben’s nightmares set the visual tone of the film, which we soon find ourselves entirely immersed in, and also informs the main features of its central characters. As the film progresses, Ruben decides that the only way he can control the torment brought about by his nightmares is if he somehow manages to own each of the paintings that shape them, and this is how he becomes the leader of a band of art thieves, made up of his patients.
Despite Ruben’s profession, the 96-minute film does not burden itself with explaining or analyzing the psychological motives behind its characters’ behavior Rather, it is a poetic combination of action and crime, an animated noir in a setting designed to simulate the world-famous works of art that haunt Ruben as they come to life in a strange, entrancing spectacle.
Ruben Brandt, Collector is available to stream on Netflix.
This week, Ahmed Wael recommends a collection of classics to listen to, coupled with the stories behind them:
It is said that for years, legendary musician Mohamad al-Qasabgy (1892 –1966) was in love with Om Kalthoum (1898 – 1975), content with being in her shadow as an oud player in her orchestra rather than the composer of her songs, long after she’d stopped using his melodies. It is an age-old story of wounded masculinity and unrequited love: it is also said that when she got married, he marched to her house with a gun. Qasabgy wasn’t the only man among Om Kalthoum’s artistic collaborators to be gripped by this obsession, many of them fell in love with her (most famously the poet Ahmed Rami) and as far as we know she shared none of their feelings. Their passions would go on to keep the fire of her art alive, but not her heart. But no one can be blamed; the heart wants what it wants.
It is possible that the reason Om Kalthoum stopped singing Qasabgy’s melodies was that she could no longer fulfil his musical vision, which often utilized the singer’s voice as a mere instrument, while she increasingly sought melodies that accomodated the full range of her voice rather than simply employing it among the sounds (read more about this in Yasser Abdallah’s beautiful study in Ma3azef, titled “The Qasabgy Relapse”). Yet one wonders what prompted Qasabgy to put his career on hold, waiting patiently and hoping for Om Kalthoum to collaborate with him once again. Perhaps it was because he loved her, or because she was the irreplaceable voice that she was. In all cases, their story left us several gems from the late 1930s and 1940s. Here, we recommend Ya Qalbi Bokra al-Safar (My Love, Tomorrow We Depart, 1938), with lyrics by Ahmed Rami:
We also recommend Talet Layali al-Bead (Nights Apart Grow Longer), also written by Rami, which late musician Ammar al-Shereai spoke about on his popular radio show, Ghawas fi Bahr al-Nagham (Diving into the Tunes):
There are many stories about beloved musician Mohamed Fawzi (1918 – 1966) — also known for his refreshing presence on-screen as an actor — the most famous of which is how, upon Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ascent to power, the main distributor of his films, Behna Film Company, was placed under strict surveillance, or how his own record company, MisrPhon, was nationalized by the regime. In his book Mohamed Fawzi: Private Documents (2018), researcher and film writer Ashraf Ghareeb attributes these actions to Fawzi’s friendship with Mohamed Naguib, the initial leader of the Free Officers Movement who was later ousted by Nasser and his allies. Yet the story people often forget is of his long and bitter conflict with his sister, singer and actress Hoda Sultan, over her artistic career. Yet this bad blood went further than his opposition to her career; he even threatened to kill her at some point. Resisting her brother’s tyranny was not an easy feat for Sultan, who resorted to marriage as a way to thwart his attempts to control her (she was married numerous times, most famously to screen legend Farid Shawky for 15 years). Although Sultan and Fawzi remained estranged for a long time, they reconnected when he fell ill in his later years. Afterward, they worked on their first musical collaboration, a song called Lamouni (They Blamed Me), composed by Fawzi and performed by his sister. The music and lyrics are notably poignant, as though colored by a pain that has not entirely faded:
My father, who was a student at the Faculty of Engineering in the 1970s, tells me he had a really angry professor back then, who just couldn’t deal with the fact that his daughter, Farida Fahmy, was a dancer. To make matters worse, everyone referred to him as Farida’s father, not the esteemed professor he was. My father, young as he was, was unaware that he and his friends were the reason the man was so pissed off; they were the ones who would whisper “Farida’s father!” as soon as he entered the lecture hall. But setting aside the story of the professor and his students, expressive as it is of the conservative stance adopted by many against art and women’s freedom back then, Farida Fahmy’s work remains relevant today, in a moment where our awareness of the aesthetics of the body’s representation in art is a lot more fine-tuned. She is a clear embodiment of how movement can work in perfect tandem with music, how a body can merge harmoniously with a rhythm or a beat so that it becomes a visual parallel to the sound, and at times even compete with it. Here, watch Farida dance to Ali Ismail’s beautiful creation on the metronome, introducing her character in the 1967 hit film Gharam fil Karnak (Love in Karnak):
We chatted with Algerian author and translator Salah Badis. His published works include a book of poems titled Boredom in Boats (2016) and a short story collection, These Things Happen (2019). He also translated Éric Vuillard’s Congo into Arabic.
Let’s start by talking about writing. How do you approach it?
Writing is a chance to make up for experiences we have not lived, places we have not been, people we have not known. It is also a recollection of experiences and places and people we may have lived and been and known before. What I mean to say is, writing is a second chance. But as you begin to delve into this second chance at “life,” you find your path is filled with firsts; the joy and the pain of creating something new, that did not exist before; the thrill of discovering a content; or even the fear of falling into a hole from which you cannot come out.
I try to convince myself that I am always writing, even when I’m not. When I’m reading or practicing any kind of activity — and my activities are few, to be honest — there is always a sentence, and idea, or shall we say an escape route that suddenly appears, just like iodes appear to miners and they try to follow them with their shovels. I’ve never been inside a mine, but I’ve read a lot about them and I’ve seen pictures.
How would you describe your relationship with language?
You cannot imagine how many hours I’ve wasted, in brief or long conversations, talking or arguing about language: the language of writing, the language of speaking, the language of the “Algerian people,” the state’s politics of language, marginalized languages, dialects, and so on. It’s funny how people say language is a means of communication, and then they wage wars over language, and they tie the destinies of individuals and groups and determine their degree of “civilization” according to language. But anyway, my relationship with language is my life, and I’m not exaggerating. How can Salah express himself — in spoken and written words — without excess or austerity? How can he play the right note? This is perhaps the biggest question in my life.
What about writing the political?
I’m all for writing about everything, but the real issue is the “politics of writing.” Anyone can write about politics or literature or cooking, but their words might be hollow, ineffective, unable to open any doors or windows or to light up anything — in short, they might bring nothing new to the table. So it all depends on the politics of writing; why, how and when one chooses to say a certain thing — that’s what matters to me.
What’s the thing you love the most?
I love spaghetti bolognese. I hate deadlines.
What scares you the most?
Fear has many derivatives. It starts with the fear of loss, to the fear of writing something flavorless, to the fear of weakness before illness, to the fear of the nomadic bedouins of tomorrow after they’ve turned into “citizens” and become residents of the city, to the fear of fear itself.
Let’s end our chit-chat with talking about time. What is time?
“And the days are not full enough. And the nights are not full enough. And life slips by like a field mouse. Not shaking the grass.” -Ezra Pound
On Saturday, you can attend an interactive exhibition organized by the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences in Darb al-Labbanah, where participants in the institute’s oral history workshop (held from October to December) will be presenting their work. Find out more about the event here.
Also on Saturday, the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF) will be hosting an event commemorating the sixth anniversary of the passing of its beloved founder, Ali Shaath, at its headquarters in Moqattam. In Zawya, catch a screening of Kamal al-Shaikh’s classic, Sayedat al-Qasr (Lady of the Palace, 1985), starring Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif, this Sunday at 7 pm.