It’s in your genes: The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif

Cairo can be an inspiring city, especially in winter. So I think to myself as I come home one evening. The microbus stops where the overpass descends to the street, rain pouring, Road 10 running beneath, the taste of a damp cigarette. Winter is, even so, like religion: both fit spaces for expressing emotion, sadness above all. A whistle lengthening then broken off: a soundtrack to the scene; a perfect summons to tender feeling for a tableau that has been generated thousands of times before and embedded in memory and which, when tickled by the tune, comes back to life.

The Law of Inheritance, by Egyptian poet and writer, Yasser Abdellatif, originally published in Arabic in 2002, and now available in Robin Moger’s crystalline translation, is a delicate, filmic ode to emerging adulthood set against the tumultuous political environment of Egypt in the 1990s. Drawing on his own memories and on mythically-toned stories from his Nubian family history, Abdellatif manages to spin, in a mere 94 spare pages, a richly textured tale.

The opening section, “Introductions,” sets the stage, sketching in fragmentary, third person passages, images of a young man, at various ages from childhood through adolescence, from grade school to high school, from cigarettes to hashish, to the University of Cairo where both creative and Leftist political energies will be sparked. His father is absent, forced abroad to find work, his mother fragile, and the weight of being the older brother rests uneasily on his small shoulders. This brief, cinematic prelude paints a minimalist portrait of the narrator who will soon step out of the shadows to carry forth his own account, framed within a multi-stranded evocation of contemporary Egyptian identity distilled to its most elegiac essentials.

The narrative is moody and melancholic, evocative of time and place, infused with memory and family lore. Architecture and addresses serve as conduits to a personal past—the Lycée the narrator attended as a child, the University of Cairo where he studied Philosophy and finds himself swept up in the fervor of political protests  in the early 1990s, the roads and byways where he and his friends lingered, listening to rock and roll and experimenting with pharmaceuticals. One has the sense of a slow, directionless drifting toward adulthood, which echoes and reverberates with stories drawn from his ancestral past and woven into the tapestry of this lyrical novella. As the narrator unspools his tale, he traces his family’s intersection with the city, with its streets and neighbourhoods. Relatives, pushed into exile from their native Nubia, arrive as social outcasts in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some find the promise of a better future; others find it more difficult to adjust. Yet for all of them, even the narrator and his father who are born there, Cairo seems to be a somewhat uneasy fit.

His grandfather does well. By virtue of his education, he chances to rise from a barman to an office worker, a transition that affords his family a move up in both social standing and neighbourhood.  However, it also loosens the restraints he’d previously maintained against his own religious inclinations, an enthusiasm accompanied by periodic bouts of depression. By contrast, Fathi, a nephew to whom he is very close, has quite a different experience. Given to the pursuit of carnal pleasures, he embarks on an affair with an Italian girl in the mid-1930s. This enrages her budding Fascist countrymen who chase him through the streets and eventually force him into retreat in Rhodes. Another distant relation will fall into religious fanaticism and madness, and will ultimately retreat back to the Nubian countryside.

The Law of Inheritance is a novel of exile—from a homeland, a city, a neighbourhood—that succeeds through its lyrical precision and its measured humility. The narrator warns against vanity early on, and he is, in his own transition to adulthood, neither hero or victim. Likewise, the men in his family whose stories are told without glory or pity. The result is a powerful, moving exploration of what it means to belong in a world that is ever shifting and changing shape.

The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

“The city is bigger than a poet’s heart and smaller than his poem”: Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun

We who are strewn about in fragments, whose flesh flies through the air like raindrops, offer our profound apologies to everyone in this civilized world, men, women and children, because we have unintentionally appeared in their peaceful homes without asking permission. We apologize for stamping our severed body parts into their snow-white memory, because we have violated the image of the normal, whole human being in their eyes, because we have the impertinence to leap suddenly on to news bulletins and the pages of the internet and the press, naked except for our blood and charred remains.

—from “We”

There is an eerie and uncomfortable synchronicity in coming to Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin while, on the TV, a reporter stands against the skeletal structures of the besieged Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, now a ghostly battleground where Syrian government forces are closing in on the last remaining Islamic State fighters in the capital region. That is because this devastated neighbourhood is also the birthplace of the Stockholm-based, Palestinian poet whose first collection to be published in English is one of the titles long listed for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. From a part of the world that has been producing poetic visionaries for more than a millennium, Almadhoun offers a powerful twenty-first century testament that reinvents earlier forms and imagery to create a vivid, contemporary lament for the futility of war and the costs it extracts.

I was going toward death when the fighters stopped me. They searched me and found my heart on me. It was a long time since they had seen a heart with its owner. One of them shouted ‘He’s still alive,’ and they decide to condemn me to life.

—from “Schizophrenia”

His is a poetry about dying or not dying or being dead already too many times to count. About that which death can neither ennoble, nor ensure. In history, in the recent past, and in the ever present. In the world he conjures up, massacre and Damascus are personified, grief and angst are objects that can be purchased, new or second hand, and “suicided” is a verb. Employing a mix of prose poetry and free verse, the images he draws are coloured with unexpected juxtapositions and observations. It is a poetic reality at once modern and ancient, speaking to displacement as does the poetry of an earlier generation of Palestinian poets, but bound with the more recent flow of  refugees who have fled the Middle East and North Africa seeking new lives in Europe.

He is among those refugees, whether he fled or was lured away by love, the place he left behind lies in ruins. Yet, he is aware that the safe quiet space he has found in Stockholm confers upon him a privileged perspective and particular responsibility to be a voice for those people and places who have been rendered mute by conflict. And that elegy extends beyond Damascus, and yet is ever beholden to her—at once his mother and his first lover—and to his Palestinian identity. Take, for example, “Schizophrenia” a poem written following a visit to Ypres on the 100th anniversary of the first chemical weapons attack. Among the visitors to the reconstructed city he notes the contradictions and the burdens his presence represents:

I am the Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish refugee, wearing Levi’s jeans invented by a Jewish immigrant from Germany in San Francisco, filling my camera with pictures like a Russian peasant woman filling a bucket with milk from under her cows, nodding my head like someone absorbing a lesson, the lesson of war: I am the Palestinian distributed over many massacres, standing here naked, trying to wear my poem in the hope that it will hide my wounds, confusedly gathering pieces of me from here and there in order to become a witness.

As this series of poems and collected facts will go onto illustrate, the gas attacks of one hundred years ago, the recent sarin attacks on Damascus, and all of the wartime deaths  rendered by chemical means in between have taught us nothing. Nothing at all.

Almadhoun’s poetry is a potent blend of defiance, passion and melancholic nostalgia. It is a heady mix that produces work of raw beauty. Throughout this collection, his beloved birthplace is never far from his imagination, a bond evoked most intimately in “The City,” where Damascus is portrayed as a multifaceted female figure, timeless and complex:

She is the earliest cemetery, which people have celebrated as evidence that memories are real. I pass her, a stranger to myself, so she passes me without recognising my face. I distinguish her in the faces of strangers who have belonged to her, so she and I are briefly deluded into believing we are one. She is old like a fossil and I am new like the end of history, I hold on to her dress like a child and she holds on to my heart like a woman and we commit a poem, I the dreamer hunting down verse and she reality giving birth to children and not raising them. I the ephemeral and she the eternal, everlasting, I the fatalist stuffed with transcendental truths, she the heretical realist. There is no consolation for me, and no harm done to her, except that by chance we are lovers

The most striking quality of the poems that comprise Adrenalin is the urgency that comes through. These are fiercely intelligent political pieces that invite historical figures, philosophers and other poets into the conversation. Deeply rooted in the intertwined tragedies of recent Palestinian history and the Syrian civil war, it offers an urgent, compelling commentary presented in a style and manner that even those who tell themselves they don’t read poetry will find remarkably accessible and compelling.

Finally, if you would like an opportunity to experience Almadhoun’s poetry in the best way possible—hearing him read it himself—I strongly recommend this poetry video in which  he reads from “Details,” one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. Presented with Catherine Cobham’s piercing translation, against visual and musical accompaniment, this is the best endorsement for this book that I can think of.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun is translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham and published by Action Books.

“No, you are better than me, Yahya”: Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan

He felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names kept repeating themselves in succession without end.

The enclosures were always building themselves in processes to which everything contributed. Everything gave birth to everything. Time, places, names, women, trees, men. He felt he was traversing the book, word by word.

Memory, for Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan, is a troubled quantity, shaken and shaped by the past, near and distant. His work is rooted in the land and the lives of his people, disrupted and dislodged by the forces of history. The losses cross generations. The tremors run deep.

His first work of prose to be translated into English, Describing the Past, was set in a refugee camp east of the River Jordan, a location based on the settlement where Zaqtan grew up after the Israeli invasion of 1948 forced his family out of their home village. The first part of a trilogy, this dream-like coming-of-age story is a tale of loss—the loss of childhood friend and of childhood innocence itself. The narrative, shared by three voices, has a gently circular flow. The young man at the centre, continually eludes to the future yet is sensitive to the ongoing presence of the past, to the ghosts that continue to have a tangible existence in the community.

With the second installment, Where the Bird Disappeared, Zaqtan takes a somewhat different approach, but one that is likewise weighted with lyrical beauty and sorrow. The narrative begins in the years just prior to the invasion and extends to the present day, while its echoes with the past go much farther back in history. Set in the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, the central character is a youth also named Zakariyya. He and his best friend, Yahya not only share their names with two prophets so strongly associated with the region—known to Christian tradition as Zechariah and his son, John the Baptist—but bear distant imitations of their personalities and fates. Other characters and images also shadow figures from the shared Biblical and Koranic traditions.

This novella adopts a narrative style with more of a mythic feel than Describing the Past. The tone is still dream-like, spare and poetic. However, the disruption and violence of the invasion is much more explicitly portrayed in this tale which unfolds in a series of short, intimate vignettes. As adolescents, Yahya is a restless spirit, given to wandering alone in the countryside around the village. Zakariyya is the more reflective of the two, intuitive and sensitive to place. Together with the other boys of their village, they have their own visions and dreams for the future. Until the military arrive.

With the sudden forced migration, as families flee into the hills, all of the young men are thrown into dangerous new roles. They are drawn back to their villages, to try to protect their homes against impossible odds. There are casualties, including Yahya who is captured, and shackled inside the citadel outside Zakariyya. His friends keep vigil for three days and nights until he is finally killed:

Yahya knew that they were listening to him from the cactus field. His voice was full of testimonial. The pain had stopped and the fear had stopped with it. Only the testimonials remained, running through his voice and pouring into the air. They gathered them in the cactus field.

Zakariyya’s own journey commences with the death of his friend. He sets off to find Sara, who had loved Yahya, drawn by his own attractions as much as the need to bring her the difficult news. Along the way, he takes refuge at the Monastery of Saint Saba carved into the mountain side overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between Old Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. His short stay is a time of mystical suspension and release from the burdens weighing him down. He is attuned to the presence of the thousands of monks who passed through the complex over the previous fifteen centuries:

Saints, and pious men at the edges of sainthood, rose up, their chanting lingered as the living met the dead in the vestibules and halls of the monastery, sharing bread from nightfall to dawn.

He listened to their talk and their steps, he distinguished between the weightless steps of the dead and the empty stammerings of language. He arrested the movement of his body and left the air entirely to them.

Gathering the peace afforded him by his time at Mar Saba, Zakariyya sets off again to find Sara. He joins a refugee camp where she also comes to settle with her family. But once he is in close proximity to her, he comes to realize that he cannot approach her, and that to preserve his memories of both Yahya and Sara as they were all once together, to hold on to what little he has of his own past, he must leave. He returns to pass the night at the monastery before continuing “down the falling road” to the Dead Sea.

Zakariyya will settle to work the salt mines, in a land yet again bound to the far-reaching named and remembered history within which he is half aware that he exists. As the years pass, and age bends his back, he finds himself haunted by the strange notion that he was born a father. It’s a sensation that increasingly troubles him. He does not understand it, knowing only that it is bound to a name and that it is becoming more oppressive, leading down a road carved through memory. A road that will ultimately lead him back to Zakariyya. The place. His home.

Rich with allusions, but never forced or heavy-handed, Ghassan Zaqtan weaves a delicately devastating fable that illustrates that the connection of the Palestinian people to their land is not simply geographical, political and economic, but bound through mystical and psychological ties that are enduring. And not easily severed.

Where the Bird Disappeared is translated from the Arabic by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books. The final part of the trilogy will be published in Spring of 2019.

Ancient sorrows, modern woes: The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar

Don’t let the current fashionable popularity of flash fiction deceive you—it is a form with a long history in Arab literature, an allegorical tradition to which Syrian writer and poet Osama Alomar proudly belongs. But, as an immigrant living in exile in the United States, his tightly crafted parables and short fictions have a quality that is both timeless and timely. We cannot but recognize ourselves and the world we live in today.

Free Elections
When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human dignity.

In his most recent collection,  The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories, Alomar employs this traditional manner of storytelling to craft pieces that range from a single sentence to a page or more. Animals and objects—man-made and natural—are often animated to take centre stage, offering philosophical reflections on life, humanity, or wondering at strangeness of the universe. His narrators and protagonists, human or otherwise, speak to sadness, loneliness, and injustice while the shadow of his troubled homeland hangs over their tales. It cannot be ignored. The futility and violence of war is a frequent theme. These pieces may read like age-old wisdoms, but their message is immediate. If they sound timeless, it is because, at the end of the day, little changes.

The Dark Side
The moon wished to punish humans for the many transgressions and frightful crimes they commit against each other and against nature. She decided to hide her lighted side so that they would curb their behavior and return to reason. And so the eclipse took place. But great was the surprise of the moon when she saw millions of people coming out of their houses to enjoy the view of her dark side.

His style is spare and unsentimental. The shortest entries have a sharp aphoristic tone, whereas the longer ones, with a wider stage on which to play out contemporary themes, are painfully heart-wrenching. “Love Letter” is a long message addressed to a woman with whom the narrator was involved. It speaks to intimacy against a backdrop of war and revolution, an intimacy that deepened even after he left the conflict zone. When her letters and emails stop he fears the worst but holds to faint hope. “The Shining Idea,” one of my favourite pieces, is a dialogue between an unconceived child and the man he hopes will give him life. The would-be child sees only the beauty and joy in the world beyond the transparent boundary that contains him. The father he beseeches knows only suffering and poverty and cannot be convinced that his is a world worth bringing another life into.

Time and again, knowledge, compassion and understanding are the ingredients most at risk, or missing altogether in the world Alomar presents us with. His weary narrators and anthropomorphic characters know this well. But, in keeping with the tradition from which he emerges (Kahlil Gibran is one of his heroes), his messages are never forced or dogmatic. They are simply laid bare for the reader to encounter:

 Never Been Touched
A book sitting on the shelf with torn covers and pages filled with comments and notes in the margins said to his colleague who stood behind him, “I envy so much your freshness and your eternal youth!”
But his colleague answered him dejectedly, “I never been touched!”

With over 160 stories spreading across no more than 95 pages, one might be tempted to consume the accessible, entertaining short fictions that comprise this collection in quick succession, swallowing one after another. However, these fables, wisdoms and cautionary tales are best digested slowly, over a few days perhaps. At once beautiful and urgent, they deserve a little extra attention. The chorus of their voices deserves to be heard.

The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories by Osama Alomar is translated from Arabic by C J Collins with the author, and published by New Directions.

Lament for a lost land: Journal of an Ordinary Grief by Mahmoud Darwish

A place is not only a geographical area; it’s also a state of mind. And trees are not just trees; they are the ribs of childhood. The tears flowed freely from my fingers as the bus passed quickly by. Upon our return, the sadness of my childhood came back. This dream standing before me, why didn’t I just wrap it around myself even once so I could say I have felt the joy that kills? The soldiers were guarding the dream, but I will enter it when they sleep.

2017-02-09-15-32-49Journal of an Ordinary Grief, the first of three major works of prose spanning the career of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), is a work of intense, heartbreaking loss and pain. Yet this collection of autobiographical essays is more than simple memoir. He chronicles his family’s history, meditates on the meaning of homeland, and focuses on the horror visited upon Arabs in the occupied territories. He talks about being under house arrest, his confrontations with Israeli interrogators, and his time in prison. He talks of the life of the refugee and the exile. As the translator, Ibrahim Muhawi, points out in his Foreword, Darwish makes it clear that Palestine is his cause. He equates his self with his country; the pronouns he uses—I or you—can represent his own personal experience or those of his people. Here the poetic is merged with the political, and the memoir becomes a requiem for a nation, up close and immediate: “In Journal, as in all of Darwish, we are placed in the middle of an encounter between writing and history where writing gives shape to the homeland.”

He approaches the telling, as a poet, with a lyrical force that levels one powerful image after another. The opening piece, “The Moon Did Not Fall into the Well,” sets out as a dialogue, presumably between a father and son:

—What are you doing, father?

—I’m searching for my heart, which fell away that night.

—Do you think you’ll find it here?

—Where else am I going to find it? I bend to the ground and pick it up piece by piece just as the women of the fellahin pick olives in October, one olive at a time.

In the end we realize that this is the poet’s younger self interrogating his older self. The latter speaks of his family, driven into exile in 1948, only to return to find themselves exiles in their own land. Childlike curiosity meets the sorrow born of experience and loss, wisdom and despair.

Attention to the quality and shape of the sentence informs Darwish’s poetic prose. He frequently, and efficiently, employs a dramatic dialogue in a number of his essays. The title piece is largely composed of a series of “conversations”—commonly ironic in tone—that cast light on the political dynamics of racial discrimination and oppression. The impact is strikingly effective:

—Where are you from, brother?

—From Gaza.

—What did you do?

—I threw a grenade at the conqueror’s car, but I blew myself up instead.

—And . . .

—They arrested me and charged me with attempted suicide.

—You confessed, of course.

—Not exactly. I told them the attempted suicide didn’t succeed. So they liberated me out of mercy and sentenced me to life.

—But you were intending to kill, not to commit suicide?

—It seems you don’t know Gaza. Distance there is an imaginary thing.

—I don’t understand.

—It seems you don’t know Gaza. Where are you from?

—From Haifa.

—And what did you do?

—I threw a poem at the conquerors’ car, and it blew them up.

—And . . .

—They arrested me and charged me with mass murder.

And so it goes. Thus the reader/listener is brought into the heart of the political struggle. Later on in this piece, the narrator addresses his audience directly to illustrate the losses of basic freedoms he has experienced: You want to travel to Greece? You want to rent an apartment? You want to visit your mother on a feast day? Other voices enter and play devil’s advocate. There is bitterness and defiance running through the sections of this essay, but the language carries a frightening beauty: “They place you under arrest when you are committing a dream.”

The poetic spirit and sensibility with which Darwish explores the fate of Palestine, and what it means to live, as he does, as an exile in Israel, pushes this memoir closer to the heart, generating more emotional energy than a more conventional first-person narrative essay format would typically allow. As such, the reading experience becomes more intense as one moves through the essays. And, of course, this work is sadly as relevant today, as it was when it was first published in 1973—speaking not only to the roots of the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine, but to broader concerns facing Arab refugees forced out of divided and troubled homelands throughout the Middle East, and of those who dare to speak out who risk detention, or worse, in many states:

You write to your imaginary lover: “I wish you despair for you, my love, that you may excel for the desperate are creative. Don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for anyone. Wait for the thought; don’t wait for the thinker. Wait for the poem; don’t wait for the poet. Wait for the revolution; don’t wait for the revolutionary. The thinker may be wrong, the poet may lie, and the revolutionary may get tired. This is the despair I mean.”

By making individual experience universal, and personifying historical tragedy and loss, Mahmoud Darwish—though his poetry and his prose—stands witness to the fate of his people under occupation. “The homeland,” he claims, “is always at its most beautiful when it is on the other side of the barbed wire fence.” He grieves, and his grief is anything but ordinary.

Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, is published by Archipelago Books.

Ever returning: Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan

She is my loss and she knows this. She is my absence and knows this too.

From the earliest passages, there is an abiding transience to the narrative flow of Ghassan Zaqtan’s novella, Describing the Past. The language is delicate, the imagery fragile and dream-like. The world his characters inhabit has an eerie timelessness. The past—immediate or distant—is tangible. Ghosts wander the streets, and memories are brought into being as ethereal images or objects that hold a vital presence in the room, breathe, come alive at night. We are among people who have been uprooted once and will be uprooted again; their dreams and recollections sustain them, give them something to hold on to.

ghassan_zaqtanZaqtan, a Palestinian poet, was born a refugee. In 1961, at the age of seven, his family was relocated (for the second time since 1948) from Beit Jala, in the West Bank, to the Karameh refugee camp across from Jericho, in the Jordan River Valley. But, as Fady Joudah indicates in his Foreword, the camp would be burned with the Israeli invasion in 1968. Zaqtan’s tale is set in this community, yet re-imagined and filtered through the chimerical memory of a place, like childhood itself, that no longer exists.

The narrative is carried by three separate voices—designated I, He, and She—each speaking in first person. The central narrator is nicknamed Christian (his mother was Christian, his father Muslim), and his friend, the other young man, is known as the Iraqi’s son after an uncle who identified himself as Iraqi due to his brief role helping the Iraqi Army at the end of the 1948 war, an experience he built into a sustaining myth that coloured his entire family’s identity. The young woman who holds their attention is, at the outset, married to an elderly man who takes her and her mother into his home. When he dies, she will marry the Iraqi’s son and bear him a child before he drowns, leaving her alone. As such, the outline of the plot is simple, much of it alluded to in the first chapter. However, the story is unwrapped slowly, moving back and forth in time, and relying on poetic imagery and the vagaries of memory to sketch out the spaces that exist between these three individuals.

And that is where the magic lies. In the opening section Christian inadvertently chances to see “her”, the young wife of the old man, naked in her room. He had come seeking some tea leaves for his mother and had not realized she was home. Transfixed by the sight of her body he watches her in hiding until she begins to sob and he runs away, terrified and exhilarated by what he has seen. Of course he must tell his friend, who beautifully describes the vividness of the account:

At first I didn’t believe it, it was not his voice. There was a strand of fantasy that glimmered in his words, some current of rash hunger and desire, of fear and fraud. Little by little, like dust growing slowly and insistently into heaps, she started to gather there in the voice toward the point of completion. She became clear and close. I saw her in his voice reclining nude and whole. Her knee flashed at a distance. At the centre of her figure a dark spot of light amassed, turning and breathing. I was there. I saw her in his voice with a clarity that did not exist for him; she was clearer and more complete in his voice than anything he had looked at and beheld.

The narrative glances forward and retreats in time. The voice of the Iraqi’s son who meets an early demise, disappears from the discourse about halfway through. But the dead are never gone. They are greeted in the street. They emerge from photographs. One has the sense of a world crowded with memories, individuals weighed down by what they have lost. The level, steadily-paced poetry of the language enhances this sensation. This novella, only 84 pages long, is best if savoured slowly, allowing the words to be absorbed.

As each of the narrators picks up the pieces of their own stories, the temporal distortion, shifting from chapter to chapter, can be disorienting. “Here” and “now” are terms without a fixed frame of reference. This is intensified because Christian, as the central narrator, rather than providing structure, is the most abstract and philosophical in his manner of being in the world. He is most sensitive to a past that extends beyond his experience. To ghosts. At one point his father had crept into forbidden territory in search of his village, only to find it in ruins, home now to a curtain of cacti and one remaining pomegranate tree. Stuffing his pockets with pomegranates he arrived home covered in juice, clutching one whole fruit:

He placed it on our only table, and the fruit stayed there. We were unable to wound it. We were afraid to cause it, or him, pain. It was in front of us—breathing and remembering—on that squat table, next the knife that my youngest sister had brought and about which we quickly forgot. It was impossible for us to go beyond that. The fruit was completely alive and necessary for him, his only means to make us believe him, to make us believe all those stories he had brought to us—of his house, his village and his land.

Our house, our village, our land.

There is a sense that the three young characters at the centre of Describing the Past are trapped, suspended in lives they cannot control. It is not clear how much time passes. Hopes and ambitions are fleeting when you face an uncertain future in a refugee camp—when the land you live on is shared with ghosts, haunted by memories, and liable to turn to dust without warning. Yet, circular, the dream-like narrative returns, in the end, to complete the fragmentary images that the set up by central narrator in the opening passages. The mood is gently haunting, beautiful and sad.

And it leaves you with chills.

Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan is translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books.

Weighing the power of words: The Crocodiles by Youssef Rahka

Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the Universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy.
– Allen Ginsberg, The Lion for Real

A lion stalks the pages of Youssef Rakha’s intense, compelling novel, The Crocodiles. The fabled beast appears at the outset, waiting in Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg’s living room in the opening stanza of his magnificent poem, “The Lion for Real”, and wanders, in and out of the novel – a prose poem of simmering power – as it unwinds itself across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring.

crocodilesAs revolutionary fervor sweeps the the streets of Cairo in the first months of 2012, this ingenious work imagines an attempt to document the events that transformed the lives of the narrator and his two close friends, Paulo and Nayf, between 1997 and 2001 – more specifically, the years delineating the creation and eventual dissolution of The Crocodiles Group for Secret Poetry. The driving motivation is a desire to make sense of the forces that bound and ultimately destroyed the group, an attempt to place this “premature” endeavour within the broader context of the artistic and political currents of the Egyptian counterculture of the day, and draw connections, if any, to the events presently erupting in the streets. Obsessed with an apparent intersection of incidents and individuals, real and illusory, our narrator, the self-styled chronicler, now nearing 40, is intent on pulling together his recollections, to put ghosts to rest while, if possible, tapping into the emotional void he now carries inside.

His account begins with a startling image that has, over time, taken on mythological importance in his mind. As his poetic cohort, Nayf, celebrates his 21st birthday, just hours before birth of The Crocodiles is announced on June 20,1997; Radwa Adel, a poet and activist from an earlier generation, jumps to her death from the balcony of relative’s Cairo apartment. As the series of reflective paragraphs unfold, she and her life become a refrain, one of the pivot points around which the narrative turns, as it loops back and forth, weaving and winding its way through a tale of the disintegration of youthful intellectual ideals against a backdrop of sex, drugs, ill-fated love affairs, and translations and re-translations of the poets of the Beat Generation. At the heart of this relentlessly reflective exercise is the question of the power of literature to grasp at some truth, and its value, if any, in a world of in the throes of political upheaval.

In the years leading up to the official announcement of The Crocodiles Group, the core members are charged with reckless youthful enthusiasms. The fair-skinned photographer Paulo falls hopelessly in love with a manipulative married woman, handsome Nayf becomes enamoured with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and the narrator, known to his fellow Crocodiles by the appellation Gear Knob, is, if less ambitious in some ways, most dedicated to the spirit of Secret Poetry, and, as such, “most capable of following what was happening.”

Through the shifting lens of memory, infused with a bitter nostalgia, the narrator-poet, gathers his recollections, picking up threads with the benefit of hindsight or, as he describes it, his “hypothetical vantage point” – that perspective from which lines of confluence, elements of cause and effect, appear to crystallize. Looking back, he outlines probable connections but, rather than following them methodically from point A to point B, he brings up images, speculates, alludes to incidents and events, continually circling back in time to orchestrate a contextual panorama rich with writers, lovers, and friends. The fragmentary nature of the narrative creates a dreamy effect that can catch the reader off guard with moments of dark sensual ferocity and a tension that builds with increasing allusions to the event that will finally shatter the Crocodiles forever. And throughout it all, that lion – allegorical, symbolic and, in the end hauntingly, devastatingly real – is a persistent presence.

“It seems to me now – from my hypothetical vantage point in a future that dangled before us, unperceived, up until 2011 – that the lion was the supreme secret: the lion that appeared to Nayf. With a clarity unavailable at the time, it seems to me that its appearance was not the only mythical event to have occurred. And though it was for sure the only clearly supernatural event, I myself never for an instant doubted the reality of the lion. Just that, with distance, I’ve become convinced that it was not the only strange thing. Ghosts crouched atop our destinies all the while. At times they took the form of an idea or incident, just like the poem that comes from its author knows not where: vapors, risen from a vast number of life’s liquids mixed all together without rhyme or reason, and distilled into one rich drop.”

The Crocodiles is an exhortation on the power and legacy of words, the fragile volubility of meaning. As an extended prose poem it builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a rhythm and energy that is sustained and steadily heightened as it makes its way to an anguished, passionate close. Cairo – contemporary and vital, mystical and violent – comes alive on these pages even as a lion, the lion as revolution, roars in the streets. This a rewarding, remarkable read.

And, from my own western “hypothetical vantage point”, as Egyptian poets, writers and journalists increasingly fall under censorship, serious threat, charges and imprisonment, this novel seems ever more timely than when it was first published close on the heels of the Arab Spring. I can’t help wondering where the lion is, that is, the lion as God.

Youssef Rakha is a novelist, reporter, poet and photographer living in Cairo. He curates a website The Sultan’s Seal which features writing in both Arabic and English, along with photographic features. The Crocodiles is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories Press.