| Al tamasih
Dar al saqi, Lebanon, 192 pages
NOVEL 1. The Crocodiles are a group of three poets whose “Egyptian Secret Poetry Movement” lasted barely four years between 1997 and 2001, coinciding with the work of the Generation of the Nineties (the real-life history of which is partly told here). Those four years, the culmination of social-cultural events of the previous four decades, are seen as the precursor or cause of the outbreak of protests in 2011: both the “revolution” and its apparent failure to achieve change. Each book is told by one of the poets in turn: Youssef (known to his friends as Clutch) composes an M.S. Word document of numbered paragraphs, writing during the immediate aftermath of January 25.
His story starts some 14 years before the time of writing with the suicide of a well-known real-life Student Movement (Generation of the Seventies) feminist and activist in 1997; and it ends with the death of Nayf, the third poet in the movement, in a car crash that occurs at the exact moment the first plane hits the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 in New York—killing him a little later exactly as the second plane crashes. The poets are named the Lovers, since a good part of Clutch’s account of events concerns their love affairs, notably with older women—who, like the three poets but perhaps less equivocally than them, are representatives of what Clutch calls the Circle of Intellectuals in Cairo—whose fundamental dishonesties he targets.
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. 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 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 suicide.
This modern, quite unique and powerful, novel features both a poetic voice and great conceptual precision.
NOVEL 2. The second novel, in which the poets are referred to as the Revolutionaries, is titled The Lion for Real in reference both to Allen Ginsberg’s poem, which Nayf manages to translate before he dies (several versions of the poem in Arabic are included in Crocodiles), and to the unexplained appearance of a full-grown male lion in Nayf’s apartment during the last months of his life. Rather than a quasi love story, this is a sort of murder mystery.
In it the second poet, Aamer Aboulleil (or Paulo) takes up the story of the revolution where Clutch has left it off, beginning to write in mid 2012 following the discovery of Moon’s body, savagely knifed, in his place of work. Paulo was told that Clutch left the country and given his laptop, on which he found the file containing the first novel in a folder with the same name. Fleeing to his parents’ small town in the Nile Delta, he decides to make his confession online; and so his story, containing reflections on the revolution and its political aftermath and revelations about his covert involvement with the secret service against the Islamisrs, is told in the form of public Blogger posts. By now dedicated wholly to photography, which he was practicing seriously even in the nineties when he was still primarily a poet, Paulo has been taking nude pictures of Nayf’s old lover, Moon—whom he reconnected with apparently by chance at the start of 2012 (for the first time since her disappearance on Nayf’s death in 2001). For a few months until her murder they were occasional lovers; and often in their time together he did fantasize about slaughtering her, but it was the ghost of a Maasai tribesman—the same creature who used to appear to Nayf in the form of a lion 11 years earlier—that committed the murder.
NOVEL 3. The third novel—as yet untitled—will be told by the spirit of the dead Nayf and contain reflections on a possibly distant future that begins with the rise to power of President Mohamed Morsi (the buildup to which is discussed in The Lion for Real). It will be in the form of emails sent to Clutch’s address from an unknown account, suggesting that Nayf has somehow managed to tap into the ether from the hereafter; and in it the poets will be called the Fathers.
The Lion for Real should be ready for publication before the end of 2013.
[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.
Translated by Robin Moger. More here.
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