Reading two new novels by Egyptian author Youssef Rakha
At the end of 2014, English readers were introduced to Youssef Rakha, a strong and pressing voice from Egypt. A senior writer for Al-Ahram Weekly, Rakha has published a wide variety of articles and short stories in both Arabic and English. The two novels that have been recently translated in English are his first, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars, and his second, the more recent The Crocodiles. Both have received considerable attention, and what is noteworthy about Rakha as a writer is his ability to call upon vastly different styles, tones, and narratives in these two very different books.
The Book of the Sultan’s Seal is, among many things, the narrative of a man’s unravelling. Recently separated from his wife, Mustafa Çorbaci moves back into his mother’s apartment and slowly begins to notice patterns and events that, rather than seem coincidental, are indicative to him of connections between this world and a more transcendent one. Everyday events such as his daily commute between his home and the office of the magazine he works at, near Tahrir Square, begin to take on mystical dimensions. As a result, he starts to make sense of the world by taking the names of familiar Cairo neighbourhoods and landmarks, transforming them into a kind of dream language that is one part his own making, but in another way reflective of the connections between the two worlds.
The action of the novel takes place during the routines of Mustafa’s new post-marriage life. As he commutes from his mother’s apartment to work and back, he travels through the city’s main arteries and traverses the area around the Cairo airport. Mustafa does errands, reflects on the lives of his friends and co-workers, and has a love affair. Throughout, he obsessively ruminates on identity, religion, and melodramatic films, thinking of his new life as also being a new world. Initially, he maps this world as a circle, starting in Maadi, the site of his conjugal home, and later leaves his wife to move to Dokki, his childhood one. From Dokki, he travels daily to Isaaf, a downtown area of Cairo with occasional side trips to the desert in Giza, near the Pyramids, and further out to Carrefour, a large French discount department store. Over time, he begins to realise that the path he takes daily less describes a circle, and more resembles the outlines of a thugra, or, the seal of the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph of Islam. Through this ‘fact’, linked in with the revelation of certain ‘prophecies’ heard in the conversations of his friends, Mustafa slowly discerns that his commute, his colleagues, his relationship, and all the minutiae of his life point to his ancestor’s special relationship with the Sultan, and his current destiny to help restore the fallen Ottoman Empire.
There are at least three ways that one can approach and understand Rakha’s novel. One way is to see it as an extension of the genre of novels from or about the Middle East that take day-to-day concerns and map them onto both a realist and supernatural terrain. In The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, the supernatural seems to intrude on the quotidian in the form of prophecies, zombies, and other apparitions and voices, including that of the Ottoman Sultan. Rakha, however, avoids any narrow Orientalist fantasies through both his approach to character and the relative obscurity of Mustafa’s interests and obsessions.
A second approach would be to read Rakha’s novel as an experiment in apophenia, or, the perception of patterns in a series of disconnected or random events or phenomena. Mustafa sees the machinations of supernatural forces that have seemingly sought him out through his daily life and conversations with friends (and supposed enemies). Much of the novel is framed as a letter Mustafa has written to an older, expatriated friend, who is also a psychoanalyst. Such a structure reinforces the apophenic possibilities; after all, delusions of reference, of the sort that Mustafa experiences, are one of the most profound symptoms of psychosis. But, seeing Mustafa’s experiences as only a delusion is, perhaps, to miss an important part of the novel, as well as what one could call Rakha’s larger ‘project’.
The third way of looking at The Book of the Sultan’s Seal is as a narrative of a fall, a loss of identity, and a kind of social ‘death’. Over the course of the novel, Mustafa winnows down his relationships and contacts. At the start, he separates from his wife for an unknown reason, betrays a woman who loves him by having an affair with her sister, limits his contact with his mother, and slowly severs his other relationships. On one level, he seems enamoured of the ‘lightness’ of being that comes with being a kind of island unto himself; but, on another level, these separations can be seen as being part of a larger process of seeking a kind of cosmopolitan rootlessness that avoids the ties of family and the state. In this way, he is able to have no firm nationality, and this seems to deliver the seductive promise of having no nation but the imagination. This theme of failed relationships also emerges in Rakha’s second translated novel, The Crocodiles.
The ‘crocodiles’ in The Crocodiles are a group of Egyptian avant-garde poets who bring to mind the ‘visceral realists’ of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. Throughout Rakha’s novel there are echoes of Bolaño, not least in the priority given to language and words. One key difference, however, is that Rakha seems less optimistic than Bolaño regarding the possibility of words being able to change the world. Beyond Bolaño, though, are other critical voices such as that of James Joyce, whose use of multiple perspective (across time) and polyphony in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is echoed in Rakha’s work.
Rakha moves the prose segments back and forth to different events and places as he tells its story, serving as a guide to an underground Cairo of drug-fuelled parties and secret heavy metal raves
The Crocodiles is organised in numbered ‘blocks’ of text that are a mix of prose and poetry. The novel is bookended by a pair of deaths, the first of a student and activist, and the second of a member of the trio that founded the eponymous poetry group. Nayf, Paulo, and Youssef (or, ‘Gear Knob’, as he is known to his friends) form the triad at the heart of the book. Each individual has his own literary passions. For Nayf, writing his own poems and translating those of Allen Ginsberg into Arabic become obsessions. Paulo starts as a writer and moves on to focus intensively on photography. Youssef, on the other hand, is the chronicler of the group, and is fixated on the suicide of Radwa Adel, a writer from the ’70s generation’ of intellectual student activists, and the book’s opening victim. Adel has an especially significant presence (and absence), in that she arguably represents Youssef’s pessimism towards writing as resistance.
The book exists in a time of its own making, and Rakha moves the prose segments back and forth to different events and places as he tells its story, serving as a guide to an underground Cairo of drug-fuelled parties and secret heavy metal raves. Unlike The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, it is not hard to look at The Crocodiles as a roman à clef, and to speculate about how closely the events depicted in it bear a resemblance to the unknown facts of the author’s life. One could argue, though, that the facts of an author’s life cannot help but inform their writing, as Rakha’s do, albeit more prismatically than as a reflection. As well, Rakha uses The Crocodiles to write a varied and expansive story of a city, a police state, a resistance, and, to paraphrase Foucault, the way revolutions have a tendency to simply recodify the familiar. To a lesser extent than in his other book, The Crocodiles connects the super-real to the real in the figure of the ‘lion’ (Nayf’s Ginsberg obsession) and the way that events in the characters’ lives are mirrored and amplified in Cairo and throughout Egypt.
Summarising Rakha’s books is difficult, partly because of the intensity of his writing and his imagination. The use of small segments of numbered text in The Crocodiles gives Rakha the freedom to range widely across time and space, and provide a rich textual vein for readers to mine. They offer the possibility of imagining a chapter-like depth (i.e. each segment contains both its past and future). Beyond this is a signature of Rakha’s writing, namely, the demands it puts on readers to decipher his texts.
Rakha’s novels, whether The Book of the Sultan’s Seal or The Crocodiles, start urgently and in media res. There is no lengthy introduction that acquaints one with characters and their contexts; readers unfamiliar with the geography of Cairo are even more decentered, as they may struggle to create mental maps of new space. But this decentering, a feature of Western literature (where are all those provincial towns in Russian novels?), feels even more destabilising in less-familiar cities. It is commendable, one might say, that Rakha cedes nothing to his new English readers. It is also refreshing to read fiction from the Arab world that grants nothing to the Orientalist imagination. The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, which feints in the direction of an intrusion of the supernatural into the world of contemporary Cairo, does so in such an odd way, by focusing its narrative on a restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate.
Rakha’s books are an education. Through them, one learns, or can push oneself to learn about the challenges of identity in contemporary urban Egypt. Rakha’s characters battle each other and themselves over whether they are Muslim, African, Arab, Egyptian, urban, and so forth, eventually eschewing all but the most personal and independent identity as the only solution to preserve their freedom and integrity; but, they also recognise that this private freedom is socially mirrored by an economic one that allows them to buy sexy cars and chic apartments, but is otherwise hollow.
Rakha is impossibly erudite about Egyptian, Arab, European, and American literature. References to Egyptian authors proliferate throughout The Crocodiles as a way to index transitions from the generation of the 70s through to the burgeoning one of the Revolution. But, beyond this, poets from medieval North Africa, from Moorish and contemporary Spain, and from the United States are quoted or cited by characters as influences on their own ‘secret poetry’. In The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha uses his knowledge of antiquarian texts to invoke a cosmopolitan Muslim world spanning the shores of the Mediterranean into Asia, and deeper into Europe.
All of this highlights the importance of Rakha’s voice today. His work is refined and intellectually engaged in writing about how peoples’ desires to create their own presents and futures are constrained, guided, and suppressed by large-scale institutions (e.g. the state, the family, and society), and how these presents and futures nonetheless resist and leak out around the grids erected to maintain them.
Images courtesy Youssef Rakha