Thursday, April 11, 2013

Away from the Noise

A Different Kind of Pen

In times of strife, there comes a moment when the novelty of news about politics unhinged, about the sudden unknown, the hideous sight of evil upfront and up close, fades. Death itself becomes ho-hum, and so do the words stalking it.

And then appears a different kind of pen to tell us not about the why and how and when but about how life has gone mad, astray, because of them. This pen is quiet, deliberate, slow, lonely, the better to capture the tremors of havoc in lives upturned. 

This, you realize, is when the minutiae of mayhem are finally ready to hold hands as enduring tragedies on a tableau. This is when the tormenters of the human spirit have done the job and have done it well: their prey and victims are everywhere, their heartrending existence a contagion for the history books. The story of a singular soul becomes the story of all. Years from now when those not born yet or those who have become old want to reach back to understand—and on the rare occasion learn--it is this story they will reach for.

We are upon such a time in the Arab world--again. For the browsers of this earth, gore, guns ablaze, street rage and the requisite rush of news and photo ops. For the perusers, that other kind of pen.

Three such pieces, I have come across in the past month.

So, Rania Abouzeid, in the New Yorker, asks, Do you really want to know what the Syrian war looks like?

It looks like messy footprints in a pool of blood on a hospital floor… A young boy and a girl, siblings, covered in a fine dust… A doctor [pausing], waiting for the power to come back on, before he resumes stitching the scalp at the base of a little girl’s skull. There’s no anesthetic. Her short, curly black hair is still in pigtails, tied with pink bands. Her name is Tala, and she is screaming for her mother…

[It] looks, too, like dusty shoes spilling out of a cardboard box by the open door of a deserted, partially destroyed home in a town that, like many, is devoid of civilians… a little girl’s white sneakers with blue butterflies near a woman’s black wedge-heeled slipper, a man’s lace-up dress shoes, and a toddler’s orange patent-leather sandals. Things are in their place; their owners are gone…

Professor Khaled Fahmy’s five episodes take up no more than a few short paragraphs in al Shorouq Newspaper. Hardly symphonies of change on the page, but they do tell tales. Sights and sounds from five seemingly scattered days located between 2011 and 2013, they signal to this Cairene man that the Egyptian revolt is here to stay.

The second episode. Friday, October 11, 2011. Zeinhum morgue…A young man in his twenties on the phone speaks with agitation: 'When I say there will be an autopsy, that means there will be an autopsy. We will not bury him before we open him up.’ Issam Atta…arrested by the Military Police...a two-year prison sentence…torture…death in Torrah Prison.

The father is in a daze ...The mother...beside herself. The brother is talking to his uncle over the phone… The sister begins to wail the saddest laments to my ears… Howls that shroud the earth…for a brother she shall never again see.

The third episode. May 12, 2012. Tahrir… Graffiti…a face split in two: The left half Mubarak, the right Tantawi. Above it, اللي خلف ما مات [that who begets children does not die]. The Municipality sends workers to paint over it… Hours and here it is again, this time with Amr Mousa and Shafiq...soon enough Mohammad Badi’ [the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood].

Art…revolutionary humor… Our sarcasm, for the first time, is not at our expense but the Other: Mubarak, the SCAF, Feloul (old guard), politics’ old geezers, the Muslim Brotherhood.

What, after all, is Egypt today without the Egypt of fifty, or even sixty, years ago? Cliché at first read, this question means to cut through the decades in search of clues before the watershed year that is 1967. Yasmine Al Rashidi finds them in the Novelist Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell.

You could call it good timing. Finally an English translation that “retains the tone, the vocabulary, and the pared down and staccato rhythm of the original,” much like the life the protagonist inhabited then. This matters. Because it was in the oppressive grip of Gamal Abd al Nasser and the 1960s that are uniquely his when Ibrahim broke age-old rules and launched the Arab novel on a revolutionary path of its own. When Nasser’s revolution, if it was ever that, had all but unraveled.

Of course, the Egypt of Ibrahim’s youth would haunt this new Egypt and its youth. Not for the browsers, though, this old heartbreak. Not for them either Egypt’s current struggle to walk away from it.

As if to warn, Al Rashidi dips into some of Ibrahim’s journal entries. And there he is towards the end   reminding us that “those writers who hurry to respond to the demands of the day, who apprise us of contemporary events, deserve the sobriquet ‘skimmers.’”

Indeed they do.

Patrick Cockburn is very rarely a light read, but this recollection in an otherwise depressing piece on Libya last week invites a fleeting tickle: “At the southern entrance of Ajdabiya [back when everyone loved Libya], I remember watching with some amusement as television crews positioned themselves to avoid revealing that there were more journalists than insurgents.”

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

ما حديش فاهم حاجة Nobody Understands a Thing

Breezy lunch, the other day at Tawleh.

A friend at another table pokes me,“No writings these days?” I volley softly back, “T’s the season to be snoozing.” So, he proceeds to tell me a chuckle of a story.

A few weeks back, he was sitting next to a somebody in one Gulf Shiekdom’s Majlis, where somebodies and nobodies and everybody in between congregate to conduct business and ask for and/or dispense favors. My friend noticed beautiful calligraphy on the screen of this somebody’s cell and asked to see it up close.

There it was, that most magnificent of Egyptian sayings: ما حديش فاهم حاجة.  

Revolutions and other such like assortments of trouble will confuse the hell out of you every single time. But, truth be told, making fun of feeling put upon is a tradition with deep roots in these parts, borne out of the tedium of being kept in the dark for excruciatingly long periods. Dungeon humor!

Back in the old pre-WWWeb days, ما حديش فاهم حاجة was a symptom of either information malnourishment or too much conniving behind closed doors; oftentimes both: rummage through the state news all you liked, you had to content yourself with crumbs while waiting for history’s tellers, or some of those deep policy papers, to set the record(s) straight.

You’d think that  ما حديش فاهم حاجة  had finally met its match in this beast of a wild web. What’s that new buzzword? Yes, empowering that push of the button. Breaking news when it’s just about to, stats galore, a scent of Burma this very second should I want it, the marvelous sight of a creeping trend, the discovery of wisdom strewn all over an obscure post, a new great tweep friend.

But barely two years into the uprisings, ما هديش فاهم حاجة is back, aptly enough, swimming  on the surface of an Arab’s cell.

Nifty that: knowing so much until you know nothing. Pendulums will swing faster than the clock ticks when the times are a changing. We all get that, but it does beggar that most profound of questions in this age of cyber abundance: What for, this verbal diarrhea? 

I mean, how many different ways do we need to describe, as if for the first time, President Mursi’s screw-ups? How silly is it to keep repeating that Lebanon’s mess, aside from being messy all by itself, can be dumped on Syria’s? Or that it’s just shocking that sexual harassment is so shocking, shockingly in Tahrir Square? Or that King Abdullah of Jordan talks the walk, but he sure don’t walk it?

And try poking holes in the suckers, all impregnated with enough caveats for that dreaded moment lurking around the corner when they all turn out to be—wrongy!

Seriously now, what kind of friggin ride is this? It could be this or it could be that. Or a bit of this and a whole lot that. Or is it the other way around? Oh, shit! It’s none of the above. 

Pick’em at random, in fact!

The Islamists have arrived. Are here. Are it… Er, Not quite.

Not in a thousand years—maybe less but it could be more--will they rise up in Bashar’s Syria.  

Bashar has packed up the chandeliers and Asma the kids…could be next week…next month…but most likely in 2013; if not, then probably 2014.

Moaz AlKhatib is definitely Qatar’s man... Not! kind of! Ditto for the US.

And, where, where, in the million and one renditions on the Syrian opposition, had anyone, anywhere, mentioned just once the man from nowhere Ghassan Hitto Bitto before he showed up as interim prime minister?

Own up! How many of the pensives saw it coming, when Tunisia’s ex-PM Hamadi Jebali rebelled against the Ennahda Party, which he heads, and slapped Rachid Ghannoushi’s hand which he daily kisses?  Or when the SCAF’s Mohammad Hussein Tantawi and Sami Annan fell out on their ass, booted out by the lower brass?

Which takes me back to that part about the runs. Why all the blabbering heads if they can’t blabber their way to the truth every once in a while? Mind you, quieter types have, from the start, been carefully picking all of those for us. Meows in a circus, though.

Then again, what’s the fun in a sea of change if you’re not flapping idiotically in it? Migraine? Just shut down the popcorn machines (borrowed this one from a novelist friend). Which brings me back to the beginning. The bit about seasons and snoozing.