michael scott

Arabesque on the Potomac

Notes on the Arab Cultural Festival in Washington DC Feb 23- Mar 15

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Arabic on the Banks of the Potomac

JFK’s famous dictum “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” may well be traceable to Khalil Jibran, the Lebanese emigrant artist, writer, and journalist and author of the all-time best-selling and hugely popular work, The Prophet – so said Arabesque Festival Coordinator Alicia Adams, launching the festival’s Literature Panels on Thursday, March 5, at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center. It is fitting that the monument to the late president’s celebration of global cultural achievement, should finally be graced by “the largest congregation of Arab artists the world has ever seen,” as the Washington Post recently described the two-week festival of extraordinary events, exhibitions, and performances from the immensely diverse world where Arabic is spoken.

For the older generations of Arab cultural emissaries represented at the festival, the time of the Kennedy presidency evokes the Arab world’s halcyon days. The days, more than 40 years ago, which were still full of hope and national aspiration, before the assassinations of JFK and the Rev. Martin Luther King and – more significantly for the Arabic-speaking world – before the collective Arab trauma of defeat during the Six-Day War with Israel in June 1967. That event and its continuing consequences not only complicated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but gave rise to a broad Arab sense of relentless loss, displacement, and exodus resulting from the dispossession and defeat engendered by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 (the event known in Arabic as ‘The Catastrophe’ or al-nakbah). For the last half century, that experience of loss and exile has been at the core of the artistic and cultural output of the Arabic-speaking world and it seemed fitting that the Kennedy Center was, in this celebration of the Arab arts, providing a venue for this winding, returning ‘arabesque’ to have finally come ‘home to roost.’

Writing it down

Introducing the two panelists invited to discuss “Women Writing Men, Men Writing Women”, panel moderator Amal Amireh, a professor of ‘post-colonial literature’ at George Mason University, drew attention to the fact that the Lebanese novelist, Hoda Barakat, pursued her literary career from a station of exile in Paris, as her country of origin was ravaged by civil war (1975-1991), overlapped with two Israeli invasions and occupations (1978; 1982-2000). Amireh pointed to her own somewhat parallel trajectory, a career in Arabic and other ‘post-colonial’ literatures, similarly pursued in a distant exile from her Palestinian homeland torn apart by internal political strife and Israeli military occupation. She remarked wryly to the audience that her voice could project loudly and clearly without having to resort to the Kennedy Center’s microphones: “Of course, I am a Palestinian!” -- reminding her listeners of the late Mahmoud Darwish’s defiant “Write [it] down, I am an Arab”; with no ambiguity whatsoever as to her identity, years of exile notwithstanding. There is a strong sense of rootedness in a land, period.

Huda Barakat’s remarks also revealed a razor-sharp sense of origin and roots, and how the attachment to land, people and history remains undiminished by years of displacement and the seemingly endless struggle with loss from a station of exile. Her eloquently simple and direct focus on the word ‘qaher’ encapsulates all these experiences and forms the bed-rock of her writing: variously rendered as oppression, pent-up rage, frustration, impotence, and inhibition (particularly in male characters) – ‘qaher’ is all of the above and it conveys an almost physical charge, of suppressed and bruising pain. . .

Acknowledging that the the excruciating but unavoidable process of writing her stories about ‘qaher’ also serves to write away her own ‘qaher’, Barakat confessed that writing was not something that she found ‘enjoyable’ whilst engaging in it – listening to her one could sense the ache and the struggles involved – but she did find that she could take pleasure, at the end of a novel or a short story, in having found a way to say what had to be said, and in the coming to life of her characters, however ‘maqhoor’ [full of qaher] they may end up being.

Barakat’s work is relevant to the panel’s theme of writing along the gender continuum in her acute awareness that she is not a writer interested in relating her own experiences or writing of her own memories, but rather one intent on exploring and discovering ‘the other’. “I write about what I don’t know first-hand – about being a man marginalized, traumatized and defeated by war, violence and sectarianism.” The fascination with the other and the compulsion to “write” the other leads her to cross the boundaries and barriers of the gender divide: physical, mental, geographical and historical. For Barakat, while one’s identity and being are indisputably and intimately tied up with sexuality and gender, “I have no gender when I write”. This claim is perhaps borne out by her dispassionate observation that – in the case of Arab men in the context of war, social disintegration, and exile – “men may have a worse time of it than women.” Is there bitter irony in the title of her work, ‘My Master, My Beloved’, [sayyidi wa Habiibi], where women emerge as better survivors of civil war and foreign conquest?

As a refugee from war, societal collapse, and invasion, from a country that she had clearly come to ask nothing further from, Barakat was able from her exile in Paris to set about writing for her country and its people. One could almost feel the monumental bust of JFK in the Kennedy Center’s Grand Atrium nodding in approval at this gritty but stylish middle-aged Arab woman who models so elegantly the wisdom of Kennedy (or was it Jibran?). One reviewer in the local press observed that the entire Arabesque Festival “weaves a brilliant, comprehensive tapestry of a people rooted in their art”, but Barakat equally clearly offers her readers an art that is rooted in her land and her people, without regard to gender, ethnic background or religious persuasion: compassionate, empathetic, inquiring and humanistic…


The Egyptian novelist and short story writer, Sonallah Ibrahim, is a pioneering exponent of ‘prison literature’ in the Arab world, having spent spent most of the Kennedy presidency years as a political prisoner in Egypt. Following that experience, which gave rise to his collection of stories entitled ‘The Smell of It’, he lived, like so many other Arab writers, in exile – in his case in Berlin and in Moscow. Then he opted to return to live and write in Egypt, earning his living as a journalist.

At the outset of his wry and spiritedly ironic remarks, it became clear that living and writing in Egypt meant, above all else, being a sharp and relentless observer, and monitoring close up just what it was his country was in fact doing for itself – and doing to his countrymen and women. With Sonallah Ibrahim at the microphone, the subjunctive, wishful character of JFK’s patriotic advocacy in “Ask Not…” becomes instantaneously transposed into a reporter’s (or a detective’s) account of what exactly happened.

Just the Facts, Ma’am: a crime scene?

Listening to Sonallah Ibrahim discussing the women’s voice in his novels of Egypt in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s is akin to watching Inspector Hercule Poirot go about piecing together the truth of a whodunit. There is also the intrepid perseverance and stinging wit of a Sherlock Holmes or Detective Columbo. A raconteur, whose every word seemed to illustrate a fine point in the art of storytelling, he charmed the audience with his self-deprecating and humorous anecdotes of his own personal life and quest for domestic harmony in the Egyptian context. One suspects that Ibrahim, like other major Egyptian novelists who were present at the Arabesque Festival (such as Gamal al-Ghaitany, and – in spirit if not in body – his mentor, the late Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz) honed and constantly enriched his narratives through endless hours of café conversation with dedicated and enthralled companions and followings.

Ibrahim squarely placed context at the center of his experience of ‘writing women’ (for whom he clearly has the same affinity and affection that the detectives mentioned above invariably exhibit). He described the environment in which the first of his heroines, “Zaat” (footnote) lived: a woman whose very name, meaning ‘self’ in Arabic, is an utter innovation in the realm of Arabic proper nouns, who struggles for self realization against the whirlwind of seemingly random impediments all around her. Ibrahim dives into the context, telling us that “with the advent of the Open-Door policy [‘al-infitaaH’, Note 3] a deep process of economic, social and political deterioration set in, propagating a widespread sense of meaninglessness, devaluing culture and education, and giving rise to an upsurge of superstition and all kinds of irrational behavior.”

In approaching the issue of context in writing gender identities in contemporary Arabic literature, almost the first word spoken by Ibrahim was this [al-infitaaH], a coinage of the mid-1970’s in the Arab political dictionary. Akin to ‘New World Order’ in the West, the phrase Open-Door Policy in the Arab world conjures the starting-point of the race by American business and multinational corporations to dominate the Egyptian pyramid, leading to the subsequent launch of post-colonial and post-industrial globalization.

Describing the consequences of America’s de facto acquisition of Egypt, and of globalization more generally as ‘the race to the bottom’, both spiritually and morally, Ibrahim pointed out that it was significant that this started in and took off from a nation that had been at the heart of the Non-Aligned Movement led by the iconic 20th century leaders Tito, Nasser, Nehru and Sukarno. InfitaaH in Arabic is synonymous with Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s nemesis, and thus with the Camp David Agreement, and thus the precursor to the ill-fated Oslo Accords – and with the now apparently still-born ‘two-state solution’ in the struggle for the land of Palestine.

It also denotes the predominant splayed-open condition of the Middle East today – or at least of those regimes that US foreign policy pundits have found it useful to label as “moderate”. The moderates, Husni Mubarak’s Egypt foremost among them, are usually contrasted with regimes that are, even if no longer featured in our media “transmissions” (footnote) as belonging to an ‘Axis of Evil’, places that are still keeping uncooperatively aloof from US foreign policy objectives, stated or otherwise.

Zaat : Having an Eternal Mission
(Gamal Abdel Nasser’s sense of the One Arab Nation)

So here is Zaat, the lower middle-class heroine struggling against the enveloping emotional, spiritual and intellectual decay and degradation in Egypt’s moral fiber, which are not merely abstract concepts but the day-to-day context in which she lives. “Kind generous Zaat was a loyal daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution (1952), brought up on the principle that all people are equal regardless of religion or sex or wealth or rank or position.” Ibrahim thus sets her personal tragedy (firmly and relentlessly) in the middle of a perpetually unfolding and expanding public sector horror-story that is conveyed to the reader by the author’s carefully pursued and lovingly perused news clippings and files. These clippings document the nation’s downward slide, much the way Harper’s Index does today for life in these United States.

As these lovingly collected news clippings are juxtaposed with the developments in her ‘personal’ life, reading ‘Zaat’ feels like being a tenant caught in one of the spontaneous and all-too frequent implosions of apartment buildings in Cairo and other Egyptian cities that are (according to your perspective) an outcome of God’s will, lack of regulation and wholesale violations of building codes, most likely all three. In these clippings, we are served up an entire dossier brimming with intriguing domestic, regional and international cases for Inspector Poirot or maybe Clouzot – there can be no doubt that Peter Sellers would have been a welcome guest in any conversation on absurdity and political reality with Sonallah Ibrahim. Death All Over & Everywhere On The Nile?

Although kind and generous, Zaat, as any good heroine, is preoccupied first and foremost with her marital and family circumstances, and the urges, desires, aspirations and frustrations that emerge from those. The predominant “public” event at the outset of the sagas revealed by the clippings is that of the normalization of Egyptian relations with Israel – that arch-enemy of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the revolution. In the first half of the novel there are 15 news items about Israel among the clippings that relate directly and centrally to the demise of both Egypt and the always loyal Zaat (who one senses is every ready to ask what she can do for her country).

Yacoubian Building: Before 1948, Egyptian Jews Lived Here

Thus, right from the very outset, the first significant event mentioned is the insertion of Israel into the Egyptian body politic in which Zaat must live. Israel is first introduced in a tape recording, of ‘something radical and subversive’ brought in by a work colleague of Zaat’s and featuring the voice of a peasant farmer declaring that “Today is the 26th of February 1980 and Sadat has opened an embassy for Israel in Dokki and they’ve raised their flag over it.” Saad Idris Halawa, who characterizes himself as an Everyman proceeds in the recorded transmission of his statement to demand the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Egypt “immediately from Cairo within 25 hours or I’ll kill the hostages and kill myself.” This is in effect the first news item in the novel, and immediately after this passage, Ibrahim introduces the centrality of ‘transmission’, (from the Arabic ‘bathth’, implying a state subsidized diffusion and broadcasting network,), before opening the first chapter of ‘clippings’ with:

The name of Anwar El Sadat is added to the memorial erected by Israel commemorating the “victims of the secret war”.

These first two references to Israel are soon followed by a clipping referring to America’s goals in arming both Israel and Egypt. How could it be in Egypt’s interest to rely for its weapons on the same source as Israel does? Then, an “anniversary” account of the numbers of dead (19,000) and wounded (32,000) during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon between June 4 and the end of September of that year, not including the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Then, clippings about American pressure on Egypt to normalize relations with Israel, the annual $3 billion in economic assistance to Israel and the $2.5 billion to Egypt, including a discussion of American military and intelligence assistance to Israel at the end of the October 1973 which pre-empted Israel’s massive defeat after Egypt’s surprise attack across the Bar Lev line.

Over the course of Zaat’s story, the focus of the clippings shifts, first to Egypt’s newly developing relations of dependence on the USA, and then to the increasing economic and social disparities within Egypt. It is in this context of seemingly inexorable deterioration that Zaat navigates through the challenges and encounters of her life and its coping mechanisms: marriage, children, finding a house, home improvement, neighbors, jobs, work relations, joke-telling, gossip, marital fatigue and power struggles, frustration, fantasy, television, pornography, ‘self-reliant’ masturbation, getting around Cairo, public transportation and frottage, waves of mass piety, veiling fashions, state expense-paid pilgrimages, bribery kick-backs, extortion, criminal neglect, and violent repression.

Ibrahim concluded his presentation of Zaat’s trials and tribulations within the increasingly compliant, ‘moderate’ and opened-up condition of Egypt, noting that her story ends with her sitting on the toilet, crying, beaten down by successive failures and interminable frustrations.

With the novel’s publication in 1992, we cannot learn of how Zaat, or her children, may have lived through America’s wars in Iraq, or Israel’s recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza, or Egypt’s role in the isolation and blockade of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip under land, sea and air bombardment. Undoubtedly the clippings and the transmissions shall be continued.

Contemplating Zaat in the Kennedy Center, one wondered if echoes of her story might resound through the Grand Foyer, the Atrium, the Millennium Stage and be transmitted, in clipped fragment, onwards through ethers of narrative from the Center’s Terrace, across the streets of Foggy Bottom, past the Saudi Arabian Kingdom’s embassy, to the White House and across the Potomac?

Barack Hussein Obama, came to the banks of the Potomac riding the crest of “Yes We Can” and “Real Change”, which sound all too much like some of the Husni Mubarak government’s slogans that Ibrahim collects and presents in his clippings in Zaat. But Obama started his journey as a community worker in Chicago. Another Egyptian novelist, author of the best seller, The Yacoubian Building (which starts with the creation of the state of Israel and the resultant departure of Egyptian Jews from their apartments in the building, making way for waves of residents who are increasingly akin to Zaat), Alaa’ Aswani has also written a novel entitled Chicago; Aswani is a dentist who continues to practice dentistry to keep in touch with the people in his community and to hear their stories; both will have encountered their own Zaats.

Perhaps one day Obama and Aswany will meet, and talk about the Zaats in their lives. But Sonallah Ibrahim needs to be there too. Then, we all, in America and in Egypt and beyond, might be able to share in Obama’s audacity of hope.

Obama was at the Kennedy Center on Sunday March 15th to celebrate SenatorTed Kennedy’s birthday. At the same time, Egyptian jazz musician Fathy Salamah, a member of Cairo’s diverse, bohemian, multi-lingual and gifted joke-and-story-telling community, was performing in another Arabesque event. As I left the building, regrettably unable to attend the concert (or the Senator’s birthday party), I stopped briefly to chat with Sonallah Ibrahim and three other writers, Egyptian and Egyptian-Palestinian, who were all sitting on the Terrace and smoking, regaling one another with stories and jokes. They could have been in Cairo. Obama could have been with them.

We are so very close. And the Kennedy Center by being right there is lending a helping hand.

Baltimore, March, 29, 2009


But more is needed, obviously, when Chas Freeman, the Obama administration’s senior nominee for a major US foreign policy and intelligence post, can make statements such as the following, made as this article was being completed:

“The outrageous agitation [on the part of the pro-Israel Lobby concerning the nomination] will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and related issues...[It casts} doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government…

“The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views…and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those it [the Lobby] favors.”