Current Stories

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The Nile has no shortage of stories or storytellers, which might discourage most writers from undertaking “a biography of the world’s greatest river”. Not British travel writer and self-described adventurer Robert Twigger, who at the outset of his lively, zigzagging, often oddball tome, Red Nile: The Biography of the World’s Greatest River, declares his goal “to uncover the best stories, in all their light and darkness, the stories red in tooth and claw, the more bizarre the better, the blood and the guts of this river which spills into history”. If you’re going to write another book about the Nile – a river whose chronicles begin with the Pharaohs and whose history, whether ancient or modern, is always being rehashed and reiterated – how else could you do it? To his credit, Twigger brings some self-restraint and humility to this epic, acknowledging he is less an original storyteller than a curator, collecting and rearranging tales and characters in order to say something new.

Twigger’s Red Nile refers, initially, to the moment in early summer when, north of Khartoum, the sediment-rich Blue Nile, at the height of its flood, flows into the White Nile and clogs its clear waters, turning them briefly red. But this is only the most literal version of the Red Nile. As Twigger writes, “the stories that remain are always the most highly coloured, the most passion-filled or the most blood curdling. Naturally, their colour is red.” Often he leans on the latter; among the most bloody stories retold is that of the Delta town of Mansoura, where in 1250, Baibars, Egypt’s future Mamluk Sultan, slaughtered French Crusaders led by Louis IX, and their blood was said to clog the Nile south to the Mediterranean.

Read more at The National.

Egypt’s Conscience: The Genius of Sonallah Ibrahim

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From a prison camp in Egypt’s western desert in 1963, a young dissident, Sonallah Ibrahim, recorded in his diaries that he “must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.” A year later he was out of prison, having served five years of a seven-year sentence for being a Communist. He smuggled his diaries back to Cairo by copying them onto cigarette rolling papers. But Egypt’s capital was its own kind of prison, as the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser kept him under house arrest from dusk until dawn. He tried working on a novel of his childhood, but focused instead on a bleak, honest record of his days in a city browbeaten by Nasser’s omnipresent police. “The new reality consumed me,” Ibrahim later wrote, and so his work had to engage “the struggle against imperialism, the effort to build socialism, and all the difficulties these efforts brought in their train: terror, torture, prison, death, personal misery.”

The outcome was his first novel, That Smell, published and quickly banned in 1966. Its nameless narrator is a recently released political prisoner and writer living under house arrest. He roams Cairo when he’s not checking in with a police officer every night, visits old friends and family, smokes, spies on his neighbors, and otherwise fails at writing and sleeping with a prostitute. The book, devoid of much plot, captures the debilitating effects of police repression under Nasser, but also anticipates a mood of decline and looming disaster brought by Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, followed by Nasser’s death in 1970. State censors decried Ibrahim’s portrait of a listless Egyptian society, singling out its few brief sexual scenes. At a Ministry of Information interrogation, a zealous officer demanded to know why Ibrahim’s narrator fails to sleep with a prostitute. “Is the hero impotent?” he asked, taking more offense to the perceived insult to Egyptian masculinity and, it seems, national prowess, than to the book’s portrayal of torture.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast.

Beirut, Alive but Dead

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“Beirut was, and is, a very real place,” journalist Samir Kassir wrote in his mammoth history of Lebanon’s capital, “whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness.” Kassir was killed in a car bombing in June 2005, three and a half months after the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s own assassination, along with 22 others, in a massive blast along the city’s Corniche on Valentine’s Day. Uncertainty and terror followed Hariri’s death, as the United Nations launched a high-profile investigation while car bombs and assassinations persisted, and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and security forces – and thousands of others rallied around Hizbollah and its sponsor in Damascus. The mood and psychology of this moment in recent Lebanese history is the nominal plot of The Mehlis Report, the English-language debut of Rabee Jaber, the 2012 International Arabic Fiction Prize winner.

Architect Saman Yarid wanders Beirut, investing hopes for peace and answers to his city’s turmoil on the release of the UN investigation led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. Saman is the last member of his family left in their sprawling home in Achrafieh; his sisters have moved abroad, save for Josephine, who was kidnapped in the civil war, and never found. But his story – late nights, long walks, and different girlfriends – leads into an imaginative excavation of the city’s brutal past and present, and the toll of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with 150,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. In Jaber’s novel, Kassir’s “inner seriousness” of Beirut is, in fact, a parallel city of the dead, where those lost in the war wander a nearly empty city, always thirsty, and sit down to write their memoirs. And the “real” Beirut in the months after Hariri’s assassination, as the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid told an interviewer, is really that “Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living”.

Read the rest at The National

Revising the history of Egypt’s regime

I have a review in The National on Hazem Kandil’s new revisionist history of Egypt’s post-1952 regime, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. The book explains Egypt’s evolution from a military to a police state from Nasser through Mubarak, and the internal rivalries over decades between the military, the various branches of police and security services, and the political apparatus. Kandil argues that this history explains the military’s quick support for the millions of Egyptians in the streets calling for Mubarak’s end and the fall of the regime (hardly realized yet). Here’s the opening:

In October 1972 Anwar Sadat met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to discuss plans to retake the Israeli-occupied Sinai. The generals suspected Sadat was planning a limited war – to cross the Suez Canal and then dig in – rather than advance to retake the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes. The deputy war minister objected; it would be a military disaster. When he pressed his point, Sadat erupted, according to the minutes cited by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. “Make one more objection, and you will be asked to stay home,” Egypt’s president shouted. “Learn your place! You are a soldier, not a politician.”

Days later, Sadat dismissed those opposing Scaf members and purged a hundred other high-ranking officers. Sadat called the military council “a group of childish pupils, [composed of] a deceived leftist, an ailing psychopath, a mercenary, a traitor to Egypt, a conspirator.”

This is hardly the lofty rhetoric used to describe Egypt’s military, especially by a president who was among the Free Officers that seized power in 1952. But it illustrates the complexities and internal rivalries of the Egyptian regime that are the subject of Kandil’s bold, revisionist history, which disputes the “misguided belief that the Egyptian regime has maintained its military character.” To Kandil the regime is not a monolith but “an amalgam of institutions” – the military, the police and security services, and the political leadership – “each with its own power-maximising agendas”.

Read the rest here.

Waguih Ghali’s character, Ram, on old Cairo

“Font has two rooms behind the Citadel in old Cairo. His neighbors are barrow-keepers, servants, and sometimes beggars. It is the prettiest and most colorful part of Cairo and anywhere else the arties would have flocked to it, but not in Cairo. The Cairo arties, if not slumming in Europe, are driving their Jaguars in Zamalek. I would like to live in that part of Cairo; I genuinely would prefer to live there. But with me it would be gimmicky. There is a touch of gimmick in whatever I do.”

from Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, p. 31

The Faster Times – Young Le Corbusier in Istanbul

In 1911, the last decade of the Ottoman Empire, a young Swiss-French architect visited Istanbul. He sketched as much as he took notes there, in “Stamboul,” capital of the fading Islamic power. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, went on to become the contentious, formative architect and urbanist of the 20th century, credited with ideas like the house as “a machine for living in,” and the primacy of “space and light and order.” Le Corbusier’s travel diary was the first book he wrote and, according to Ivan Zaknic, the translator and editor of the MIT Press edition, “the last he submitted for publication, only a few weeks before his death on August 27, 1975.”

Journey to the East is a catalogue of a pioneering modernist’s first encounter with so-called vernacular architecture, which shaped many of his future buildings – none more than his curving, concrete cathedral at Ronchamp. Which isn’t to say that it reflects the mosques of Istanbul but rather the spiritual power that the young Le Corbusier felt “upon the hilltops of Stamboul [where] the shining white ‘Great Mosques’ swell up and spread themselves out amid spacious courtyards surrounded by neat tombs in lively cemeteries.”

Read the rest at the Faster Times.

On flying through Dubai

Amit Chaudhuri writes for the LRB blog about flying through Dubai:

Two months ago, before the so-called (and oft-denied) crash in Dubai’s economy, I saw, rushing to catch a connecting flight, Western tourists gaping at, even photographing, the immense granite walls in the airport, with perfectly measured sheets of water cascading down them. I was reminded briefly of a Bengali proverb descended from colonial modernity: ‘To show a Bangal the High Court’. ‘Bangal’, in Bengali, means, strictly speaking, ‘East Bengali’ (someone from the region that’s now Bangladesh). But, just as north and south, east and west, have country-specific, often prejudicial connotations in, say, the US or in England, so too, in Bengal, ‘Bangal’ denoted a villager, or the opposite of a sophisticate. Calcutta was in West Bengal, and the East, for historical reasons, was seen to be agrarian, feudal, and less developed in ideas and institutions; notwithstanding the fact that a great deal of Bengali ‘high’ modernism was the work of East Bengali migrants.

To take a ‘Bangal’ to see the High Court, then, was to confront the oaf with modernity and power. While watching Western tourists at Dubai airport, I reflected on how many Europeans remain ‘Bangals’ at heart. Development generates its own simple but profound enchantment. I, on the other hand (and this too is an oafish anomaly), look out for old buildings and doors when I find myself in new cities. In Fribourg in Switzerland, I found versions of the specked mosaic floors we have in middle-class apartments in India; in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels there were red stone floors identical to those in my uncle’s (now destroyed) house in South Calcutta; in Cheltenham, noticing balconies, I couldn’t decide whether some memory of light among retired colonials had led to these (for England) unique additions, or whether the balconies themselves produced a special effect of light in Cheltenham. In turn, I’m surprised that more people who visit India – or Dubai, for that matter – don’t chance upon buildings, cornices, and windows that stir some buried, unlooked-for memory that tells them more about themselves and their histories than their guide books (which are about famous monuments) can. Dan Jacobson once told me that this was a habit of looking that migrants have: as we stopped to stare at an astonishing old bench on Hampstead Heath, he observed resignedly: ‘The locals don’t see this.’ In a few days, on my way back to Calcutta, I will be flying through Dubai. I can’t think that it will be any different from how I now imagine it.

Read the rest here.

The photo is by Martin Becka, from a recent exhibition “Dubai, Transmutations” at The Empty Quarter in Dubai, in which Becka used 18th century photo equipment and a view camera from 1857.