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.”