Sunday 30 July 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Cairo to Chicago via the Middle Ground

Listen to Cheb Hasni, a Rai musician from Algeria, popular across North Africa, but as was usual for his time, more popular abroad than at home. He performed at concerts in US, France, Japan, Morocco and Tunisia. He was murdered for his music - fundamentalists disapproved of some of his controversial lyrics on taboo subjects like sex and alcohol. A tragic loss.  He was just 26!

The den of thieves

From the minute we made the move public I heard nothing good about it.

“You’ll get terribly bored,” an expat neighbour said, “very few Indians there, and no desi daal, flour or spices available.” Another guy said that it was a “den of thieves.” The more I heard, the more my mind rebelled against this easy, dismissive scoffing.

To be honest, Cairo wasn’t a completely unknown entity, we had visited shortly after we came to Bahrain. Egypt had been checked off early, long before we reached Dubai, though at the time our entire attention was consumed by the Pharaonic side of things.  Now I knew a bit more. Sure, there were tacky tourist-traps, like in all countries, but looking beyond that it was a deeply rich culture and country to explore – what was not to love? No amount of snidecracks or the lack of Indian spices was going to put me off, phooh!

But visiting a country on vacation and living there are two vastly different things. It’s not my intention to write about that here. Except to relate one incident that happened shortly after we arrived. My husband dropped his wallet on a Thursday afternoon, without any Egyptian IDs in it because his new visiting cards were still at the printers. We spent a horribly anxious weekend. Meanwhile, the gentleman who chanced upon it, rang up the Dubai numbers he found in there and was told we had left for good. Instead of giving up, he then proceeded to track down our current whereabouts on the slimmest lead possible, located and rang my husband at work sharp on Monday. The wallet was restored to him untouched. So much for the “den of thieves!”

Into Yacoubian and on to Chicago

‘Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads’ so goes the old Middle Eastern adage, and I came into Cairo expecting riches. While the bookshops in Dubai were better and broader than Bahrain, they catered largely for a non-Arab expat clientele. I expected Cairo to be different, a deeper and wider well into Arabs and Arabic. What turned out even more important from my POV, Cairo doesn’t just write, she also translates. There is a very active effort by the AUC Press in Cairo to translate Arabic literary works into English and make them available to a non-Arabic readership. Manna from heaven.

The first writer I encountered was Alaa al Aswany, in his second book - The Yacoubian Building, a novel told through a pastiche of the intertwined lives of characters connected to a once-plush building in Downtown Cairo. The Yacoubian Building was published in the early 2000’s and was a runaway best-seller, made subsequently into a film and a TV series.  Set during the 1990 Gulf war it is a scathing commentary of a nation that has squandered its youth and its potential. Here was a very different elegance from Mahfouz, an eminently readable, eloquent page turner that was also a serious, introspective and – given the taboos on sexuality – a very courageous portrait of a declining society. I quickly found some of his other books – Chicago, Friendly Fire, but neither of these had the same weight or charisma as the Yacoubian.

Aswany also wrote about political issues in essays published in the Arabic and international press, some of which have been collected into books. Alaa al Aswany has been the recipient of multiple awards and also been translated world-wide.  A political activist of note, his voice is reckoned to be one of the topmost among influential Arabs.

The map of the middle ground

Somewhere between YB and Chicago, I picked up my first Ahdaf Soueif, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground – a collection of essays written in English.

We saw ourselves as occupying a ground common to both Arab and Western culture, Russian culture was in there too, and Indian, and a lot of South America. The question of identity as something that needed to be defined and defended did not occupy us. We were not looking inward at ourselves but outward at the world. We knew who we were. Or thought we did… Looking back, I imagine our Sixties identity as a spacious meeting point, a common ground with avenues into the rich hinterland of many traditions.

It is from the excitement and the security of this territory that my first stories and my first articles were written.

This territory, this ground valued precisely for being a meeting point for many cultures and traditions – let’s call it ‘Mezzaterra’ – was not invented or discovered by my generation. But we were the first to be born into it, to inhabit it as of right. It was a territory imagined, created even, by Arab thinkers and reformers starting in the middle of the nineteenth century when Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt first sent students to the West and they came back inspired by the best of what they saw on offer. Generations of Arabs protected it through the dark times of colonialism…My parents’ generation are still around to tell how they held on to their admiration for the thought and discipline of the West, its literature and music, while working for an end to the West’s occupation of their lands…true appreciation and enjoyment of English literature is not possible unless you are free of British colonialism and can engage with the culture on an equal footing.
~ Mezzaterra, Ahdaf Soueif.

And because I grew up straddling two parallel worlds, learning to be my own middle ground, I was hooked from the start. I read her short fiction next – I Think of You and the hook went deeper. Her fiction felt delicate, evocative, fresh and fluid, but also very relatable. By the time I’d arrived at her Booker shortlisted novel The Map of Love, I had totally fallen under her spell.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Street Urchin

Happiness comes in narrow corridors
where no furniture achieves the right fit
and wall art doesn’t improve the décor -
nothing manages to lift the minute.
It arrives unbidden - a street urchin
who you nearly shoo away before
you understand what the ragamuffin
carries in his pocket that could be yours.

Even the child doesn’t know the value
of the stone he’s picked up from the trash heap,
he holds it out in exchange for a meal
and its gleam’s a thousand dancing lives deep
in its heart slowly pirouetting and you
forget narrow corridors, walls and chenille.

Since I'm travelling, my posts through July and August are scheduled, but I will check in whenever I can and respond. Meanwhile, you have the happiest summer/season!

Sunday 16 July 2017

Vacancies 2017

The monsoon and I arrive, every year
about the same time, and the sky’s shampooed
with sudsy clouds, the asphalt’s rinsed in mud,       
all the way through the city up to here
awash with reflections, the tree leaves clear
of past dust, debris. But change’s accrued
in infinitesimal moves of blood;
in tiny degrees mapping atmosphere.

A house has fallen vacant on a street -
overgrown, greedy vines snap at its heels.
A locked cupboard somewhere, an empty chair,
a pair of old, worn slippers minus the feet.
The city commute’s the same, the same rain wheels
across the road, just that you aren’t there.

Sunday 9 July 2017

Night sky

This too is a kind of happy -
just briefly preoccupied -
that the night sky is forever
though one pole star has died.

This too is a kind of happy
that others close ranks on the map
even if it’s momentary.
Not one night permits a gap.

This too is a kind of happy -
that the sun’ll rise tomorrow.
That day skies include all stars,
happiness includes all sorrow.

Last month I lost a close and crucial member of my extended family. This is a thanksgiving for his life and a memorial. Always in the midst of our hearts and our lives - all elders.

Since I'm travelling, my posts through July and August are scheduled, but I will check in whenever I can and respond. Meanwhile, have the happiest summer/season!

Sunday 2 July 2017

The Sea, the Mountain, and the Old School Route

A couple weeks back I did some collaborative art here – used a friend’s artwork as prompts to my poetry, and the results were amazingly pleasant for both sides.  Read more about that effort here. So today I am back with some more – two of Mira’s delicate watercolours of Mauritian seascapes. 

The first is of Blue Bay – a well-known picnic spot and a popular beach destination.  And the other is of a mountain called Le Morne. Legend has it that slaves under the French colonial rule escaped here (hence the French appellation) - runaways, maroons sheltered in its caves, and hid from their masters. Some also dived from the cliffs high above into the sea when they learnt they had been located, and killed themselves to avoid capture. This mountain has been chosen by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because of these tragedies. This particular location is also mentioned in Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy as the site of Deeti's cave shrine, which is where I first came across it.

Both of these watercolours took me back in time and place, the Blue Bay to the Blue Beach in the North Coast of Egypt, and the mountain to a much smaller, much less important inselberg parked on the horizons of my school route in Northern Nigeria many years ago. Everything reminds me of something else, deja vu overload. Or maybe I'm just getting old :)  Anyways, here they are - Mira's fingers with the paintbrush, and mine at the keypad -

The Blue Bay, Mauritius by Mira Boolell Khushiram

Wherever I go I can see your face -
in mountains, in cloud forms, in cloudless skies,
in the colours of a sailboat, in the shape
of a triangular sail - the rise

and fall of its movements mirrors my own.
I can still hear your voice in the winds,
suede-soft against the harshness of stone,
calling down years into the labyrinths

of time and memories and joyful verse.
I can still feel your hand right next to mine
a slight tremor, a pulse saying more than words,
your smile transformed into this new shoreline

as if I’d never left, as if you and me
were together still, sailing that same jade sea.

Le Morne by Mira Boolell Khushiram

Everything calls to me, as though it’s a sign
to turn and face the way I came again -
a certain mountain brings back a lost terrain
an inselberg that wore the same outline

in thick sunlight poured on the horizon
beyond the vanishing point, where the road
hid behind distant trees, silken winds rode
acacias, deep grass, Fulani herdsmen.

Too many miles have lapsed, too many autumns
fallen in heaps of leaves. And when I look
closely it’s just something else I mistook -
different mountains, different outcomes.

The track itself turns to mud as I glance
behind, there’s no option but to advance.

I have loved working with Mira's art, so proud to have her paintings lift up my 'walls' to an altogether different level here! Thank you, Mira! Hope the readers will enjoy the colours and words as much as we both have.

Since I'm travelling, my posts through July and August are scheduled, but I will check in whenever I can and respond. Meanwhile, have the happiest summer/season!