note_17 On Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work; ‘Undead, what and who will you defend and nurture as your world drowns?’

KK Death is

Death is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa

(Trans; Leri Price. Pub/UK; Faber)

By Guy Mannes-Abbott

“Death had become hard work. Just as hard as living, in Bolbol’s view.” Abdel Latif al-Salim’s youngest son has promised, “in a rare moment of courage”, to honour his father’s dying wish to be buried with his sister Layla. The retired teacher and belated rebel died of natural causes in a hospital in Damascus when nothing else is natural in the middle of Syria’s uprising. Bolbol triggers the 400 kilometre drive north into Aleppo’s hinterlands, which takes 3 torturous days and ends with maggots climbing the windows of the family minibus.

Death is Hard Work is a huge novel of just 180 pages and the third of Khaled Khalifa’s to appear in English, courtesy of their translator Leri Price. In Praise of Hatred (2008) and No Knives in the Kitchens of this City (2013) were each short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, with the latter winning a prestigious Mahfouz Medal, and arrived in English in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They were preceded by two further novels, while their author has also written for television in Damascus, where he lives to this day.

Khalifa captured a freighted immobility in all this which his new novel disperses with ferocious intent.

Continue reading “note_17 On Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work; ‘Undead, what and who will you defend and nurture as your world drowns?’”

note_09 “It may require courage (but) take these marvelous essays to heart” Mezzaterra, Ahdaf Soueif

Mezzaterra US Cover GMA Quote Independent

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. Continue reading “note_09 “It may require courage (but) take these marvelous essays to heart” Mezzaterra, Ahdaf Soueif”

notes from a meeting, appendix 1. conversation: sejla kameric and i go east [to kalba]

Sejla Kameric 1395 Days Bait al Shamsi Photo G Mannes-Abbott

CLICK on image for more, or read on.

Sejla Kameric and I go East [to Kalba] 

March 2012 Sharjah UAE

1395 Days without Red is the Artangel-enabled film which received its regional premier in Sharjah. It comes in two parts; Anri Sala’s was shown indoors one evening, Sejla Kameric’s followed the next evening in an outdoor screening in Bait al Shamsi. Both are based on the experience of the 4-year long siege of Sarajevo [which began April 5 1992] and make different responses to it -while following a woman’s attempt to cross her city on foot. Continue reading “notes from a meeting, appendix 1. conversation: sejla kameric and i go east [to kalba]”

on not meeting edward said, who was right then and is right now

I enjoy unlikeliness and it seemed unlikely to me that Candia McWilliam would find herself in Edward Said’s memoir of his early life; Out of Place: A Memoir [Granta 1999]. That she does so in her own memoir [What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness Cape 2010/Vintage 2011] is one of many endearing things about it and its author. Also a high recommendation for Said and his own memoir.

I spent a number of mornings in June this year running past one end of Edward Sa’id Street in Ramallah, actualising the way he and his work feature near the beginning of my adult life and have been returned to repeatedly ever since. I’m posting an old review I did for The Independent of his collection of pieces The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and after [Granta 1999 -out of print/PenguinRandomHouseUS 2001 -linked] [BELOW]. Read almost anything of Said’s [especially on the question of Palestine] and the absence of a voice like his today makes you weep.

Continue reading “on not meeting edward said, who was right then and is right now”

al ahram; in the hand of pir wajihuddin

A 16th Century manuscript page in the hand of Pir Wajihuddin courtesy of the Pir Muhammad Shah Library in the centre of the old city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. His pyramidal notes beguiled me on many happy days and ‘look’ like my memory; the heat, peace, civility and airs of the place. I often stayed within earshot of his dargah in Khanpur while this page rests within earshot of the Juma masjid. It’s true that it was an image to me, then. I’m posting it while it still is partially, because now I can read the words…

ahdaf soueif; views from a common, higher ground 2004

Ahdaf Soueif’s stark truth-telling about Palestine, in the journalism collected in Mezzaterra, saved the day in 2004.

It was a bleakly difficult year. The consequences of a series of deaths and accidents were felt thickly while I struggled with the scale and depths of my research on Gujarat, committed to writing a book worthy of a fascinating people/place and my own journeying ‘to the end’. Simultaneously,  global indifference to the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of Palestinians combined unique chronicness with acute horror to maddening effect.

What to do, exactly?

Click on cover to ‘see inside’

Ahdaf’s brilliant piece on Palestinian writers, in particular, lit a double pathway. It reminded me why critical journalism can be worthwhile and inspired the discovery of a way to channel outrage into something positive and productive.

Surely part of the reason Britain has supported the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, part of the reason the British government raced into Afghanistan and Iraq in particular is willful ignorance. Ignorance about the people, their history and a culture only perceived mutely at the end of a gun, as a cross on a screen inside an aerial bomber or a cruise missile launcher.

I decided to discover as much as I could about Arabic and particularly Palestinian writing in English and to champion it in any way I could. In those 6 years there has been some increased attention beyond 2 or 3 best sellers but, just for instance, why is the assassinated Ghassan Kanafani so hard to get hold of in the UK [on this see here]?

More recently, I’ve been learning Arabic and because of the unique way in which it opens up the culture I would advocate a campaign to make a British passport holder fluent in Arabic for every bullet and bomb aimed at an Arabic-speaker in this century, never mind the last.

Take Iraq alone; if for every hundred thousand Iraqis killed by the angels of Democracy, there were an equivalent hundred thousand new Arabic speakers in Britain…

Meanwhile, in her introductory preface to Mezzaterra [dated London June 2004] AS wrote: “Personally, I find the situation so grave that in the last four years I have written hardly anything which does not have direct bearing on it. The common ground, after all, is the only home that I and those whom I love can inhabit.

Towards the end of the preface she wrote; “The question of Palestine is of paramount importance not just because of humanitarian concerns about the plight of Palestinians. It matters that now, in full view of the world and in utter defiance of the mechanisms the international community has put into place to regulate disputes between nations, a favoured state can commit vast illegal acts of brutality and be allowed to gain by them. If the world allows Israel to steal the West Bank and Jerusalem and to deny the history of the people it dispossessed in 1948 and 1967 then the world will have admitted it is a lawless place and the world will suffer the consequences of this admission.

This is to put it as gently -with hard earnt civility and width of appeal- as possible. Six years on settlement activity has flourished and is ongoing, Palestinians [and Lebanese] have been massacred, partly with US dollars and British military equipment, part of Palestine remains under total siege, anyone brave or desperate enough to protest or object is bombed to pieces by a state that is a close ally of the US/UK and EU. At the same time Britain’s fantastically profitable supermarkets are full of reliably cheap Israeli produce.

Instead of making any substantive attempt to stay this aberrant hand the British government has sought ways to weaken the application of International jurisdiction as it applies in Britain, so as to encourage links from the perpetrators of what the UN describes as war crimes. When Rudolf Hess fled to Britain from a mortifying regime he was imprisoned for life. Now the British establishment welcomes leaders who are not fleeing but arrive proud and boastful about their very own mortifying regime.

When despair is insistent it must be resisted. Resistance of this and all kinds is the propellant along an inexorable path towards justice; the easily achieved human justice of courts and a more open and potent recognition of truth. The rhetorical arc of Never Again peaked and fell into Yet Again during my own lifetime but that doesn’t reduce the universal import or urgency of achieving substantial justice in this particular instance. Free Palestine any which way but minus the cant.

Here are some links to directly related pieces by AS:

‘Under the Gun A Palestinian Journey’ The Guardian Dec. 2000 here.

Pt 2 ‘Our World is Upside Down’ here.

‘Do Something’ The Guardian Letter to Blair April 2002 here.

‘The Waiting Game’ The Guardian Nov 2003 here.

NB In between came ‘Palestinian Writers’ The Guardian Sept 2004; an abridgement of an excellent essay republished in Mezzaterra on the richness of Palestinian writers and writing. It is not online.

‘The Palestinians say; “This is a war of extermination”‘. The Guardian Jan 2009 here.

PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature 2010, is ongoing here.

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground,

by Ahdaf Soueif

A glimpse of hope in a polarised world

By Guy Mannes-Abbott

Tuesday, 9 November 2004

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.

Souief 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 new 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.

* AS does write this here, but I’m aware that she has also described a more complex relationship to this identity during earlier years of living in Britain. In 1999 for example she explained to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at The Independent that “15 years ago I think I might have said I was both Egyptian and English. Now I long for Egypt. I feel an anxiety that I am not in Egypt more often; that I am in this place but not of it.”

** Adania is one of the Beirut 39 here and has books forthcoming in English here.

BLOOMSBURY, £8.99/£8.99 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

 

james salter; readers revenge & the sixth sense

Mandelstam,_Cukovsky,_Livshiz_&_Annenkov_1914_Karl_Bulla

James & Kay Salter         –         Osip Mandelshtam

In Life is Meals A Food Lover’s Book of Days, by James and Kay Salter [Knopf 2006], there is the following entry for the 29th May: 

THE SIX SENSES

One cannot think well, love well, slep well, if one has not dined well

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Brillat-Savarin recognised the five basic senses -taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell- but he  believed there was a sixth sense: physical desire, a unique and distinctly French idea.

Everything subtle and ingenious about the first five senses, he wrote, was due to this sixth, “to the desire, the hope, the gratitude that spring from sexual union.”

Well, call me Anglo-Saxon, but BS is a bore if he doesn’t understand the mutual implication of desire in the five senses. Desire uncompromised and desire realised.

I prefer Osip Mandelshtam’s notion of a sixth sense, mooted during his journeying to Mount Ararat:

Ashtarak. “I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, an “Ararat” sense: the sense of attraction to a mountain.

Now, no matter where fate carry me, this sense already has a speculative existence and will remain with me.

[p. 57 Journey to Armenia Next Editions 1980. Orig. Puteshestviye v Armeniyu Zvezda 1933.]

Do we have to choose? Does a mountain sense include desire etc. or desire include “the sense of attraction to a mountain”? Then again, what is it with mediators and authorisation?

A mountain sense is my candidate because it adds something distinct and dimensional to the core senses in ways that desire doesn’t. I write that having climbed Shatrunjaya, ‘the mount that realises all desires’, more than once…

NB See my Note ‘js; reader’s revenge & last night 2006’ on the entanglements and ambivalence of these things.