| Al tamasih
RAKHA Youssef
Dar al saqi, Beirut, Lebanon, 2013, 192 pages



Crocodiles is between a literary essay and a bitter coming of age novel. Taking the Egyptian Carienese society as a topic, Rakha undertakes its intellectual archeology. Identifying three main strata, he explains the contemporary Egyptian revolution lead by the generation of the 2010, by links with his own 1990’s generation, and the previous one of the 1970’s. Each animated with different ideologies, they are nevertheless all motivated by a unique quest for meaning.

On June 20th 1997, the famous 1970’s social and communist activist, Radwa Aadel, commits suicide. On that day, Nayf, a young poet, celebrates his 21st birthday, and the creation of The crocodiles, a secret poetry society. These unrelated events are however in some way milestones that led to the Egyptian revolution. Radwa’s suicide, Youssef the narrator asserts, gave meaning to words like Nation, People, Revolution, chanted by the youth who took the streets some fifteen years later in 2011. In 2011, these words had a meaning again, even if for a very short while. The madness and recklessness that drives the 2010 generation who toppled the Mubarak regime, is no other than that of Radwa’s, or of Nayf’s in the 1990’s.

Nayf creates the Crocodiles along with the narrator Youssef, and a third friend called Paolo. Apart from a common love of poetry and admiration for the Beat generation, The crocodiles are young men in their early twenties looking for authenticity and total freedom, despising the mercantile values of society. Those were years of unbounded excesses in sex, drugs, and alcohol. But they are also strangely refreshing times, to which the narrator looks back with a mixture of irony and nostalgia. Youssef thinks back to the story of his friendship with Nayf and Paolo, a bond that formed naturally, as if the world had brought them together. But it didn’t survive their growing up. Neither did their wild dreams of a different world. And the uprising, eagerly desired by the crocodiles in the 1990’s, today passes them by.

The novel is a patchwork of reflections and memories, more logically than chronologically connected. The narration however does follow one chronology, the one that culminates in Nayf’s tragic death. Although an accident, Nayf’s death has the after taste of a suicide. As if dreamers were bound to die, burnt by their own visions, like Radwa Aadel was.
It is indeed hard to tell what killed Nayf in 2001. Objectively it was a car accident. But Nayf’s insanity had been increasingly difficult to control in the few months preceding his death. Obsessively in love with a young woman nick-named Moon, he was on his way to confront her in her house, where he suspected she was with another man. A great admirer of the American poet Allen Ginsberg, Nayf spends several years translating his poem “The Lion for real” into Arabic. Until the poem slowly becomes reality, and Nayf finally hallucinates the presence of the lion in his living room, like Ginsberg before him. Nayf is scared of how real the hallucination is, and of how psychotic he seems to have become. He is also scared of the increasingly threatening presence of the lion, with him in the car the day he died. A metaphor of this mixture of energy, recklessness and insanity that give people the power to change the world, the lion is both indispensable and dangerous.

This modern, quite unique and powerful, novel features both a poetic voice (sometimes literary, sometimes slang-like) and great conceptual precision. Correspondingly, the story oscillates between the captivating transformations of three friends in their early twenties, and the analysis of the Egyptian society.

The book, which stands on its own, is part of a trilogy. The next volume is entitled “The lion was right”.

Translation sample

Translation sample

Translation by Robin Moger

[The novel is composed of 400 numbered paragraphs]

194. “You know you’re a coward?” she said, for the first time staring into his eyes without confusion or uncertainty. She hadn’t completely finished tying the ponytail when she looked at him and he couldn’t believe it. “I’m the first to tell you?” Not a flicker; just the first signs of a smile upon her lips. “You really are a son of a dog’s religion of a coward.” And before he could give expression to his astonishment he found his arm in motion, as if of its own accord. “A coward,” she was saying, “because you’re not prepared to exchange your position for another, even in your imagination. You’re scared to put yourself in a woman’s place because you’re scared to ask yourself whether, in those circumstances, you would marry. This isn’t a fear like the human sentiment with which to varying degrees we’re all familiar: it carries a moral presumption and a glib satisfaction with your own circumstances. That’s why I’m telling you you’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward…”
195. And this, as I see it, was precisely Moon’s genius. When she came out with abrupt and sudden declarations of this sort it was with a tremendous energy, an intentness that summoned thoughts of the weak standing up to the strong, the revolutionary to his oppressor, and she would make the man before her feel, in consequence, that her words came forth from a deep place: that she’d thought hard about it and that it pained her. Her subtlety in inferring views, which her inner cogency or indifference would not permit her to air more comprehensively, was what gleamed in her eyes as her lips quivered. Meanwhile the truth was that she said things by way of experiment and cared deeply only about their immediate impact; things that sprang from an absolute lack of cogency. Moon would lie, tentatively, without believing herself, and the things she said were clichés even though our admiration of the speaker might mask the fact. This was the genius Nayf fell for, despite his shrewdness, because it was—as I see it—a genius of cliché, while Paulo and I, with the less brains or the greater weakness, hooked the Joke and the Slogan.
196. She was saying, “That’s why I’m telling you,” when Nayf’s palm settled on her cheek. And when the palm slid down to her neck she went on: “You’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward. Am I right or what? When you said that it makes no difference…”
197. It wasn’t a slap precisely, though the arm was raised, the palm stretched rigid and the shoulders a straight line through a circle’s centre. It was like the threat of a slap, which Moon would have returned immediately had she not lost her balance beneath the weight of the slapper, now standing over her head. As he turned to face her she tottered and swayed, until she came to rest cross-legged on the couch, her long summer dress hitched up off a brown and slender thigh. At which point she looked him in his eyes again. She herself did not know if something in her gaze was different but it no longer fazed him that she looked.
198. A thigh, brown and slender, but aglow and suffused, and her long thick hair, numberless streaked chestnut strands gathered in a ponytail, and her, looking at him. Did Nayf recall the lion? Did the recollection affect an energy pulsing in his body, that was like desire and was not desire? A rosy thigh and thick hair and breath of basil with a pulsing energy and her hair and a brown and slender thigh.

More here.



RAYA represents Dar al saqi for the world rights of this title.

Seven Stories Press (2014, UK – Expired)


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