Take these essays at difficult things inside you, let them pulse through your body and mind. And to your heart, yes. It may require more courage – in Britain, in English- than even I conceived in the last months of 2004. Courage and none at all, because these are a range of essays -as the short review below makes very clear.
I’ve been trying to develop a measure of truth in the context of the Persian Gulf and the regime in Abu Dhabi in as universal way as possible from an inventorised location in London and in English. I settled on a millennium-old measure from an Arabic treatise on taste. More on that in links to publications to come, but it reminds me of the increasing difficulty of being able to recognise a Palestinian right to exist in Britain or in English. The import of this is puzzling, hypocritical, cruel and terrifying in a world busily closing-down to enquiry, much pretence at universal laws or principles, and becoming more violently oppressive in service of fantasmatic nostalgia or ethnocentric enclaves -whether in relative decline but still armed to the teeth or in rapid ascendance and armed to the teeth.
Creative and critical intelligence (de)materialises, enables and generates. It includes all human variables -‘the passions’ and imagination- and is all we have left in the end. All that we leave. Successive British governments have removed themselves from the spirit and substance of International Law in recent decades (yes, there’s more, but there’s specificity too). I’m sure that this relates to the quietude/ cover/ complicity with acute and chronic abuses -including crimes and conventions formulated against the horror of the mid-20th century- committed ongoingly by the state of Israel. Perpetrators of genocidal acts invariably regard International laws as prejudicial to them…
So, what I want to risk saying should be utterly straightforward and obvious. It’s necessary to hold to truths once tasted, however punishing the consequences. Not to polish egos or for rad-cred or to merely insist, but because without a clear understanding of what that means we end up with a world of delusional disconnection and systemic mortifying violence. This* at a moment in the human story when we need the opposite to minimise impending climactic consequences that we will all pay heavily for, perhaps with more than we have…
So to the mezzaterra, in this context! I was writing in the last months of 2004, my own mind grappling much more fully with years in Gujarat, including my witness of state-sponsored and enabled racist massacre and displacement (of ‘muslims’ by organised uber-Nationalist Hindu admirers of Israeli crimes and eager to ‘cleanse’ India), my ears ringing happily (in Europe) with Devendra Banhart et al. In the days before spending happy weeks in Andalusia; mainly in glorious Cordoba, but with a jag out to Coimbra and Porto too. We saw a tsunami smash apart the rather remote places we had stayed at 3 years earlier in Sri Lanka on a screen in a foyer in Cordoba that sunny winter…
I simply contrast the finiteness of these moments, elements and events to the infinite injustice lived by Palestinians to this day that was hard to conceive possible at any point in its 70-year horror. For those of us who know; in my case having paid attention and learned, marrying my own direct experience with culturally acquired information over decades, Israeli snipers massacring Palestinian refugees has long been the rule, the norm, the truth of things, not in any sense an exception. We, of course, are the enablers, the more responsible because we do nothing to enforce justice…
My short review was the only notice this collection got in the UK, providing the only quote the American publishers could use for its edition, according to a reliable source. This reflects little credit upon truth-telling me, though it does on The Independent and it’s then Literary Editor. Rather, it exposes all the rest … Would any editor have the courage to open their mind or heart to such a collection in 2018?
Meanwhile, it has fallen off The Independent’s site (no conspiracy! being one of many that fell away during system changes including, say, a critical piece of mine on Susan Sontag, or a celebratory one on Darian Leader’s Freud’s Footnotes. Nothing to interpret) but remains up and out there here.
Mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground,
by Ahdaf Soueif
A glimpse of hope in a polarised world
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
Ahdaf Soueif is best known for The Map of Love, a novel which did much to open up the minds of English-speaking readers to Egyptian modernity. It brilliantly interwove the love affair of an English colonial woman and an Egyptian nationalist in the early 20th century with a burgeoning national “renaissance”, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.
That book followed an earlier novel and two collections of stories. However, the political writing she began in 2000 with Under the Gun has made her a writer of special importance. Mezzaterra includes “The Waiting Game”, her brave, despairing return to the occupied heart of Palestine, and a recent portrait of Palestinian writers under existential siege.
Mezzaterra’s second half, literary pieces from two decades in London, is the surprising bonus. It includes reviews of writers from Jean Genet and Amitav Ghosh to Philip Hensher, along with pieces on al-Jazeera, Islamic “queens” and “the veil”: a term without an Arabic equivalent. Each exhibits Soueif’s demanding exactitude, whereby she will apologise for making “small points” before demonstrating their full import. Words, she proves repeatedly, matter.
Soueif is obsessed with language and power, the way words like “freedom” and international laws are abused when applied to Islamic contexts. She dissects sloppy mistranslations of Arabic and ideological clichés about Islam. More subtle difficulties loom when transliterating her own name from the Arabic as Soueif, in contrast to her brother, Ala Swafe. Reviewing William Golding’s An Egyptian Journal, she takes elegant revenge for Ala’s anonymously belittled efforts to coach the author in such subtleties.
The brilliance of this collection lies in Soueif’s linkage of “small” things to universal categories. She praises her friend Edward Said for being “human”, “fair” and “inclusive”, qualities that describe the “mezzaterra” of her title. This common ground, where differences enrich rather than clash, is civilisation. A “with us or against us” world, with its “war on terror” and “peace process”, is the opposite.
Soueif is transfixed by the Palestinian uprising. She writes, contra Said, of having always felt “essentially in place: Egyptian, Muslim”. So, writing about Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians in front of a wilfully diverted world, her combination of centred gravity, minute precision and insistent humanity generates highly clarified truth.
The truth makes for bleak reading, as her nightmares materialise in massive Israeli settlements. “And yet there is still hope,” she writes, even in ravaged Ramallah where Palestinian writers like Liana Badr and Adania Shibli shape exquisite stories against chronic injustice. The only real hope is for “a viable Palestine”. Although it may require courage, take these marvellous essays to heart.
By way of a footnote;
I was once introduced to Liana Badr (whose short stories appear in the Elmessiri’s A Land of Stone and Thyme, for example, or this issue of Banipal of course, etc.) in London by a friend of mine, who added the names of one or two other friends of mine they thought she might want to know when doing so. My memory insists that she said she was then based in Jerusalem rather than Ramallah (?). I had pursued Adania Shibli about her work in 2004 (which had, I think, already received al Qattan’s young writer’s prize) and she responded by sending a couple of translated short stories (versions also in Banipal 15/16 above, I think). I wanted to form my own judgement, of course, so needed something to work with and that connection was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Just to continue the logic of this last para; Adania was based in London for some years before moving rather fixedly to Berlin, from where she goes wherever she can -including to Ramallah/Bir Zeit.
“… brave enough for the numbing truth …”