Distance in Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass”

There is no such thing as diversity in Arab America; there are diversities. We do not adhere to a singular body politic: we engage in all sorts of politics. We do not occupy an Arab American culture: we belong to numerous cultures housed, somewhat reductively but usefully as intellectual shorthand, under the rubric of an Arab American ethnic community. We do not produce a particular style of literary fiction: like all good authors, we write literary fictions spanning the available range of aesthetic and structural paradigms – sometimes we alter them to better exhibit cultural flavor, and sometimes we transcend them and create new ones.

Steven Salaita, p 2

Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics

 

The simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy gives distance a plural status in literature. One can be both near to something because of empathetic experience and far from it relative to its physical subject as a reader. If I relate to a character I am emotionally intimate with him or her while simultaneously distant from him or her, as I exist outside the fictional story-world, beyond the pages of the book. But how does this simultaneity help us understand plurality in world literatures? In this essay, I will explore how Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass” takes up the simultaneity and relationality of distance by invoking the very act of storytelling and making rhetorical shifts in tense sequence. It is my argument that by so doing, Blasim’s story accomplishes the “ethic of plurality” Salaita says exists for Arab (American) literature and affirms Al-Ali and Al-Najjar’s claim that “Iraqis exist in the plural as any other population” (Salaita 2, Al-Ali and Al-Najjar 32). While Blasim is not himself Arab-American, the translation into English of his stories in The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq presents an important space to further problematize the dangerous us/them binary narrative that exists between what is represented as a dominant U.S. culture, which is itself self-actualizing and patriotic, and what is simply represented as “Arab” culture, which in its creation must oppose and threaten the former and thus must be un-patriotic and non-dominant and which becomes ultimately racialized. In an effort to explain what Carol Fadda-Conrey calls a post-9/11 resurgence of portraying Arab people “through an antihomogonous lens,” I will argue that by invoking distance in the very act of storytelling in “The Killers and the Compass,” Blasim’s characters inhabit a plurality in themselves because of their plural story-world (Fadda-Conrey 534). I will then move on to how the relational function of distance operates to break down or problematize non-plural representations of any peoples and simultaneously re-establishes the artificial boundaries that prevent yet necessitate different realities.

As his older brother, Abu Hadid, trots Mahdi around the neighborhood, each encounter invokes storytelling as a means to understand character. This is to say that for Mahdi, every relation he has to where and whom they visit is tied to a story. The muddy lanes are muddy because of a storm, the smell of fried fish becomes about Majid the traffic policeman’s being drunk, even Abu Hadid’s picking up a stone and throwing it at cats becomes a story about Abu Rihab and his daughter (Blasim 14-15). Blasim’s invocation of storytelling within his story aesthetically creates community within the story. It takes little narrative space to create a sense of a larger community within the neighborhood. Beyond this, it also creates minor structures of storytelling that are then echoed and expanded in the story-within-the-story of the Palestinian kid and the compass.

For example, the shirt as a device travels. Abu Hadid orders Mahdi to take his off then orders the mechanic to fetch a new one. The clean one is from mechanic’s son who is a student at medical college. This is to say the shirt is the article of relation – who wears it, where does it come from, what does it smell like. Associations between the shirt and those who wear it are also in tandem with the way the shirt encounters distances: literally from one person to the next and figuratively based on the experience of the shirt, the shirt “smelled of soap” and was that of the student’s (16). It also inhabits a space of surprise when it fits Mahdi. By invoking this sense that beyond every geographic location in the neighborhood, beyond every article of clothing even, is an infinite number of characters, stories, or memories relationally connected, Blasim is affirming the plurality of these characters. The narrator does not exist in one storyline or even two, but in any infinite number of storylines.

A bit later, there is a brief interlude within the story about Abu Hadid that makes shifts in tense between past, present, and future. What is so special about Abu Hadid that his story can operate both in a past tense that contains a future interlude? This only lasts one paragraph and then the story continues in the past tense. Beyond the paragraph, the story shifts from just past-tense to a future tense: “I would never understand what the man [who Abu Hadid sexually assaulted with a cucumber] had to do with my brother” (18). The interlude creates another circle of distance outside of the story. This is different from the earlier moment when Mahdi questions what his brother whispered to the gerbil: “All along the way I was wondering what Abu Hadid had whispered in the gerbil’s ear” (16). The latter happens within the story-world while the former is outside it. This shift with the interlude allows for the story-world to have another layer within itself. In other words, it’s a story within a story within a story, endlessly. In a story about storytelling, this device may also be a way to remind the reader that he is still reading a story. Nonetheless, the effect is that within each story is itself another story and so on forever.

The narrative distance seems to again affirm the plurality of the universe Blasim creates or is referencing. If there are an infinite number of stories within stories, the more realistic his world remains. While his darker more experimental style seems to toggle into the fantastical, the world Blasim creates is as real as it gets. It is this aesthetic of narrative distance that complicates each character’s life. In a story that seems to be about establishing one’s own god-ness through fear and violence, distance is also unequivocally tied to this relationship.

Distance is relational; it requires at least two parties. It is defined as the observable or felt space between two or more things (OED Online). Understanding something as inhabiting multiple valences of location – being relational, needing more than one part – is another way of saying it operates plurally. Salaita’s monograph, quoted as an epigraph to this essay, aims to take up different sociopolitical contexts for in-depth literary analysis of Arab-American writing, giving due acknowledgement to the frequently misrepresented peoples of Arab America in what self-manifests as a more-dominant American ‘mainstream’ culture. His impetus for this analysis is in establishing what he calls an “ethic of plurality” (Salaita 2). What does this plurality look like? One of the answers to this question may be in the relational quality of distance.

Distance can be far or near, long or short. Intimacy may be accomplished through a short distance while remoteness may be accomplished through a longer one. The plurality of distance exists in its relational quality. As Dara N. Byrne points out in her essay “The Future of (The) ‘Race’: Identity, discourse and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres,” social networking websites like AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and Naijanet can function to facilitate “diasporan interconnectivity” (Lane 439). The plurality that exists in distance’s relational qualities exists because of its simultaneous use toward intimacy and remoteness. One may find intimacy from a remote location by using the Internet. One can be both near to something and far from it because of the remote connection the Internet offers. Even the phrase “remote connection” seems almost oxymoronic given the context that remoteness requires vast distance. Remoteness, in fact, requires connection, for its very understanding lies in its relation to a different perspective.

In her review of Roy Scranton’s War Porn for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Hoenicke says,

All of these characters, and all of us — we either face our realities or don’t, but they remain realities. The Iraqis are for the United States and against it; the people are religious but not always devout; there is intelligence on both sides, and ignorance.

It is the simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy that remains integral to understanding the complex underpinnings of any global landscape. The minutiae are doubly crucial and no local, simple view can suffice. It is by recognizing the vast complexities within each locale, the myriad of details in each character relationship, that we can begin to condense and collapse the orientalist binary that not only sets up West and East but ties them to an endless battle between one another. Further, it is also in recognizing that the binary exists for many people and that the orientalist west-east/us-them dichotomy is the dominant worldview that we can begin to find ways, like in analyzing Blasim’s fiction, to collapse this narrative. Before we can prove the boundaries we create between ourselves are artificial, we must first acknowledge the different power structures that create and benefit from these boundaries. I hope that this essay and other like it become a means to explore these issues further.

 

Works Cited

  • Al-Ali, Nadje and Deborah Al-Najjar, editors. We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. Syracuse University Press, 2013.
  • Blasim, Hassan. The Corpse Washer and Other Stories of Iraq. 2014. Translated by Jonathan Wright, Penguin Books, 2014.
  • “distance, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Arab American Citizenship in Crisis: Destabilizing Representations of Arabs and Muslims in the US After 9/11.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2011, pp. 532-555.
  • Hoenicke, Sarah. “When the Hurlyburly’s Done: Roy Scranton’s ‘War Porn’” LA Review of Books, August 16, 2015. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Lane, Richard, editor. Global Literary Theory: an anthology. Routledge, 2013.
  • Salaita, Steven. Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

The Anxiety of Waiting in Basma Abdel Aziz’s THE QUEUE

For this, I’m reading Chapter 19 of James L. Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East: A history (fourth edition from Oxford Univ. Press) and Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue published in 2013 and then translated by Elizabeth Jaquette and published in 2016 by Melville House. Photo from https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2016/04/29/the-queue-cover-final2_wide-cc4b1914da37ce4ca9181d8e6ced2ac4c05793be.jpg?s=1400.

  1. “[Ines] wouldn’t leave her place for more than a moment, and Um Mabrouk began to send Mabrouk to bring her breakfast every day” 130
  2. “Yehya was distraught for days” 154
  3. “For several weeks [Amani] hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone but Yehya” 174
  4. “For weeks before she’d left her job, Amani hadn’t made any sales” 204
  5. “[Amani] didn’t know how she’d arrived in this emptiness, how time was passing, or whether it was passing at all.” 152

At the end of the Gelvin chapter on the Arab Uprisings, he annotates the historical use of the “spring” metaphor from “Arab Spring” and its first use, “Springtime of Nations,” which ultimately led to the incorporation of liberal ideals into society and government in the greater European area – “even if the realization of those alternatives [to autocratic government] might take a century and a half or so” (346). Thus, he comes to, at the very end of the chapter, a notion of waiting. That perhaps the Arab Uprisings are still in their beginnings or middles and the more liberal governments of the region are in the future. While of course this may be so – that is to say of course time in its most fundamental understanding moves linearly and forward – I wonder if the very question The Queue seems to take up is what that waiting may look like on the ground. In other words, while one might say the region is bound to fully realize the revolutions’ ideals in due time, that due time may in fact complicate that realization and its process.

Above, I’ve chosen several quotes from The Queue that outline, in the first four (from pp 130, 154, 174, and 204), moments when characters experience the anxiety of waiting. To an intentionally absurd extent, the characters spend their time waiting – that is to say all of this waiting occurs in “weeks” or “more than a moment,” both which blur the notion of time as a definable set of moments. In other words, we might experience time as a definable set of points, each moment passing its previous equal. What The Queue’s characters seem to experience via the anxiety of waiting is time not as a set of definable points but time which has begun to itself seem so long, it has become indefinable. I think we all feel this in a colloquial setting – the way we use “five more minutes” or “a few more minutes” interchangeably, each of them undefined when we use them in their own specific (with “five”) or unspecific (with “few”) means. The point is not that we wait exactly five minutes nor that we define how long a few minutes might be. It is the act of waiting that is the point. And in that act of waiting, the specific amount of time, again, does not seem to be what is relevant, which is to say time goes from being undefined to being indefinable, experienced in The Queue as hyperbole or absurdity – or, as I call it, irrelevant. The point, again, is waiting. Not necessarily time.

I digress now because I feel like I’m beginning to sound pedantic.

As I spoke about earlier, this creates anxiety for the characters who have to wait. Ines has to be brought breakfast, Yehya is distraught, Amani speaks to no one and loses her job. Ultimately, then, the anxiety of waiting accumulates and seems to affect the characters’ goings-on in their daily lives. So what does it mean for interference or deviation to seem to cause anxiety? For Gelvin’s piece, it seems to be anger and need for interference and deviation manifests in revolution and where The Queue places itself is after a revolution. The Queue then seems to be making the argument that despite revolution, the afterlives of revolution are weighed down in anxiety and waiting.

This brings me to the final passage above: “[Amani] didn’t know how she’d arrived in this emptiness, how time was passing, or whether it was passing at all.” 152

Time seems to collapse or at least become blurred – that is, felt as time/waiting itself rather than any incremental or specific ordering of time – in the novel due to the sheer amount of waiting. Waiting seems to be the cause of much of the anxiety – for Gelvin’s subjects it seems to be about waiting for the realization of liberal ideals whereas for those characters in The Queue it seems to be that and the fear of the new government and the ways that new government can and does exploit its people. I think a paper is to be written on the ways neoliberal, militarized capitalism functions in The Queue as a means of causing fear and anxiety via waiting.

Perception and Performance Inherently Bonded To Action

For this post, I am reading Hassan Blasim’s story “The Reality and the Record” from his collection The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, which was translated by Jonathan Wright and published with Penguin Books. “The Reality and the Record” was first published by Comma Press in 2008 in Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East, edited by Joumana Haddad.

“We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad.”

p 156, “The Reality and the Record”

“I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum”

p 161, “The Reality and the Record”

 

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how laws are called “acts” — as in the Affordable Care Act or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Questions surrounding the way that laws are inherently actions, they operate not only philosophically or legally or in some abstract realm, but in the most fundamental, semantic way, they are actions. And while I recognize that, unlike Remy and Laura, I’m not versed in law or legal language, I think this is still something that we, as connoisseurs of words, can discuss.

Now obviously each story has action — in fact, what is a story without it? (A tract? a theory?) The very form of narrative requires it. In other ways, the very form of our lives is narrative, and thus requires action. So I don’t want this to be too immersed in the notion of how “action” happens in the story (and out of the story) — of course it does. I want to instead focus on the ways perception and performance are inherently bonded to action.

Take the first quote above, “We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad” (156). Perception begets action. The Professor is known as the professor — but then he is also mad because they hate him. He is both called professor and called mad. This is to say, again, that action derives from perception. This, too, gets us to a “so what?” question. So perception begets action. What does that do for us that we know it? Or Of course it does. Duh.

But take the second quote above, “I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum” (161). This complicates the notion of asylum because it is the very act of story-telling that gains one access to a “right.” It is the details of the narrator’s story that will allow him/her to receive “the right of asylum.” I want to pause here, too, on the word “right.” To (very) loosely quote Rachel Maddow (political correspondent/academic/badass), “[the point of having rights is that you don’t have to qualify them with any sort of voting or action. That’s why they’re rights!]” And yet, within this story we see the complications of seeking asylum — itself only realized if one does something to prove they deserve it (which by the way, does not make it a right — it makes it a privilege, a reward and as we all either know and/or must accept, those who have money or access to the higher tiers, or the people who run the higher tiers) of the hierarchical structure get their privileges first and foremost).

Access to one’s “right” to seeking asylum is itself tied to action. It is the performance of one’s story — in other words “what matters…is the horror” (167).

As we have also briefly discussed the work of Hannah Arendt, I think it relevant to mention that Arendt’s point that human rights do not exist in a vat — that guaranteeing human rights is dependent on the existence of a state that guarantees and protects those rights — is imperative to our understanding of this text and of the refugee crisis itself. Gaining access to an asylum from authoritarian governments that commit countless (with the aid of other governments — like the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China) human rights violations itself involves the admission of one’s own state’s inability or disinterest in preserving one’s human rights and seeking the preservation of those rights by another state. Thus, we have again come up to the inextricable link between action and law, between what is perceived to be true and what becomes so, between what can be done and what is done.

Abdulrazzak’s “Shadow of Their Former Selves”

For this, I am pulling from the Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar collection entitled We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. The image used here is also used as the jacket art for the book, entitled Iraqi Landscape 2005 by Hashim Al-Tawil.

 

“Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes,
Through a night hole hastily sprung,
Emerging on the other side to the warmth
Of an interrogation cell.”

“Shadow of their Former Selves”
Hassan Abdulrazzak

 

The first thing I notice about this stanza of the poem is the second line: “Through a night hole hastily sprung” where the predicate and subject in the syntax have been inverted in the sentence. It still grammatically makes sense, but it doesn’t take much to see the difference between “Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes” and “[Father was] through a night hole hastily sprung.” What does this syntactical inversion do?

For me, my experience reading this, that second line threw me out – I was confused and I didn’t really know what it was saying. I was forced to re-read the line so I could understand. So, there’s this pause then. A stop that interrupts the otherwise consistent syntax of the stanza and the poem. In the same way, the father in the poem’s being taken was a brief pause in the regular on-goings of the poem.

Most of the readings acknowledge that the experience of the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions, and then the 2003 invasion and on-going occupation were all a slow cakewalk, each step different and more severe than the one before it. But most of them acknowledge a specific moment where it’s obvious there is no going back – a pause in the syntax of their ongoings where an inversion occurs.

I want to hastily resist pushing all of these pieces into a one-size-fits-all understanding of the obvious plurality that Iraqi art and experience showcases in We Are Iraqis, so I will digress on this point – with the acknowledgement that while Al-Ali and Al-Najjar demand the collection’s mosaicity, the very existence of this collection seems to be an attempt to invoke that collectivity while still demanding “collection”’s lack as a term.

Back to Abdulrazzak’s third stanza, second line: I’m also drawn into the words (whether it’s because in English the syllable stresses are on these) “night hole” and “hastily sprung.” The term night hole is not one I’m familiar with and after an extensive google search it seems to be an Abdulrazzak neologism, but I’m guessing from the fourth line of the stanza that the night hole is perhaps the keyhole? door of some sort? that leads into an interrogation cell. And yet it isn’t called a keyhole or door. It’s called a night hole. What is the effect of calling it a night hole? A hole is a hollow space in an otherwise solid body or surface. To call it a “night” hole, as if its very existence depends on the time of day seems to imply that the darkness (literal and figurative – invoked from the first line “black Mercedes”) of night is something the hole requires. A hole is also defined informally as a small unpleasant place. But this unpleasant-ness or this informal image of the hole seems to contrast the “warmth” in the third line. The whole both requires its night-ness and its warmth. Now I’m thinking of a damp, hollowed out place in the ground. The warmth from the dirt. But the warmth doesn’t come from the dirt in the poem, it comes from the interrogation cell, from the interrogation. “warmth of an interrogation cell” – So the interrogation is heated? Is what makes the hole warm and nightly the interrogation combined with the feeling of being whisked off in a black Mercedes.

 

Spring/sprung

To spring means to move or jump suddenly upward or forward. He was sprung into the interrogation cell’s warmth via the night hole. But to spring also means to originate from, as in “to spring forth from.” Thus, Father was not only hastily thrown into the warmth of the interrogation /interrogation cell, he has also come from that night hole. I don’t know that there could be a more perfect understanding of this piece than being both sprung into and sprung from. The speaker’s parents are simultaneously themselves and shadows of their former selves. As Sinan Antoon puts it “I am forced to return [home] every day, but not to a physical space … Thousands rot…selling their future after having been robbed of their present and past” (25). Father is both originated from the night hole and sprung into it the same way Antoon’s Barbarian is both forced to return home “as much as [he tries] not to” and home is the place from which he originated.

 

What does it mean to be the shadow of one’s former self?

Just briefly, displacement is where I want to move with this question. To say the speaker’s parents are not themselves, not their former selves, but shadows of their former selves. That’s three degrees of displacement. Refugee status is granted to those who apply and are accepted by the U.N. as people who have been physically displaced for fear of violence or death. But what about emotional displacement? Could a shadow of one’s former self be the definition of an emotional refugee? This relates to a notion of both being sprung into and sprung out of one’s home because the emotional refugee may not ever truly be ‘displaced’ the same way one can be physically displaced. Instead, in a muddled way, saying someone is a “shadow of their former self” still acknowledges the self in there. In other words, this emotional displacement – status as an emotional refugee – may be the experience of being both simultaneously sprung out of home and sprung into home.

However, again I want to be careful not to lump all refugees into any sort of box. Nor do I want to try and take this poem as an understanding of The Refugee, as in all refugees. So, while I’m beginning to reach for larger scaled understandings of the refugee experience, I want to acknowledge that making statements about the emotional status of a refugee neither acknowledges the complexity of humanness that exists in every refugee nor can it ever be complete in its definition in the same way the human experience can itself never be completely explained.

Continual War In Silence: Deixis in Sitt Marie-Rose

 

For this, I read PART II of James L. Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East: A History, Fourth Ed. from Oxford University Press as historical background and the first sixty pages of Sitt Marie-Rose by Etel Adnan, translated by Georgina Kleege from The Post-Apollo Press.

 

“There’s no noise in this world. That’s why the war doesn’t stop. Nobody wants to stop it.”

p. 43, Sitt Marie-Rose

 

The first thing that strikes me about these three lines is the deixis in the second sentence. The deictic “that’s” seems to refer back to the previous sentence, qualifying the phrase “why the war doesn’t stop” with “there’s no noise in this world;” however, the third sentence complicates this by seeming to be a different qualifier of “why the world doesn’t stop: “nobody wants to stop it.” In other words, the deixis in the second sentence functions for both the first and third sentences and I want to explore how each case is different from the other.

Case 1: reason why the war doesn’t stop is because there’s no noise in this world OR (as conditional) If there were no noise in this world, the war would stop.

Case 2: reason why the war doesn’t stop is because nobody wants to stop it OR (as conditional) If somebody wanted to stop the war, the war would stop.

Case 2 seems to be the more direct and yet it becomes the second case, as it chronologically comes last in the phrase. By ‘more direct,’ I mean the claim that nobody wants to stop the war and that’s why it continues is a much more useful, used, understandable, and straight-forward claim than Case 1. It is logical to say nobody wants to stop the war; therefore, the war doesn’t stop. Case 1’s two clauses seem to be unrelated: there is no noise in this world and therefore that means the war does not stop. What does noise have to do with continual war? Why would having noise make war stop?

Case 1 leads us to a subplot functioning in Sitt Marie-Rose: the deaf-mute students at the school where Marie-Rose teaches. We get to see, with the shifting points of view, what may be several or at least one student of hers. It is one of these students that says our chosen quote. So, again I ask: What does noise have to do with continual war? Why would having noise make war stop?

I think in many ways, these children understand the world to be noiseless and one of them comments on their ability to dance by feeling the beat rather than hearing it. In the same way, they can feel the drumming of the bombs. They are ostracized by their communities and families, beaten by their parents, and loved only by Marie-Rose. But this still doesn’t qualify that a silent world means the war doesn’t stop.

Nonetheless, the indirect connection between hearing and peace here is interesting. If we go on this connection further, in what ways does the ability to hear grant one the ability to make peace OR, to combine Case 2 into the discussion, in what ways would the ability to hear grant somebody the want to stop the war?

The figurative function of hearing in the text is thus: Marie-Rose seems to be claiming, in so many words, during her fight with Mounir that he (and the militia) are not hearing her argument or the argument of the Palestinians. She says

“our survival depends on theirs…The Arab world is infinitely large in terms of space and infinitely small in its vision.”

p. 56-57

Here, Marie-Rose invokes a different sense: sight. Literally speaking, she’s saying that of all the geography the Arab world takes up, there doesn’t seem to be much sight. Figuratively, though, she’s talking about vision: a perfect word the translator chose here. It comes with a connotation of the supernatural or of an optimistic future: as in “visionary.”

So, as clichéd kumbaya as this might sound, what Marie-Rose and Case 1 are alluding to is this notion that until we all listen to one another, until we see each other as people instead of as “sects and sub-sects, ghettos, communities, worked by envy, rotten, closed back on themselves like worms” – as enemies – then the war will not end.

Storytelling and Distortion in Kanafani and Gaza

For this reading (in my Literature of the Middle East and North Africa course), we read Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian StoriesMen in the Sun, his novella in this collection is not addressed here.

The group of stories we had to read this weekend was all concerned with storytelling itself. One of the things I find interesting is narratology—it’s just something I really enjoy. One of the things that kept striking me in each of these stories was the focus on the way information gets told to us. Kanafani’s stories avoid direct narration in favor of round-about ways to tell us information.

In “The Falcon,” a lot of the information told to us by Jadaan (particularly at the end) is recognized as “weak and scarcely audible” (107). In the excerpt from Umm Saad, the information on young Saad is all given to us via his mother – and in turn, her advice to the narrator is for him to go and tell the general, not her. “A Hand in the Grave” has characters who are all concerned with the potentiality of the story – Nabil is concerned with being a part of the “in-crowd” if he has a skeleton to bring and Suhail wants the opportunity (and then cashes in on this opportunity) to talk about the experience of digging up a skeleton. Even in the peripheral storylines of “A Hand in the Grave,” the father is concerned with what is not being told to him (whether Nabil got enough rest). Finally, in “Letter from Gaza,” the story is epistolary and we are told that Nadia had previously also written letters to her uncle about what she wanted.

What does this all mean? I’m not exactly sure. What I’m curious to discuss in class is how information gets told to us and what relevance that holds. I gather that Jadaan’s voice is particularly distorted in “The Falcon,” but I’m left wondering why Kanifani mentions this if he goes on to tell us what Jadaan says anyway. Are we to question whether our narrator heard Jadaan’s advice? Are we to question whether to trust the advice if it sounds like it’s coming through a tunnel? When Mubarak is whispering to the narrator, are we to understand this as intimacy or distrust it because he’s seemingly tattling on Jadaan. I know these are a lot of questions without seemingly any sort of thesis to answer them, but I’m just curious with why the way information is told to us is relevant – what are we to think of the information itself if the presentation is altered? That’s my concern.

To zoom out, it makes me think about the media focus that Zionist western sources have taken – on Israel. And even when Palestinian stories are told or used, it seems hopeless – like there is no helping a people who are so hurt and down that they have no sense to lead (when that is in fact not true – there is leadership in the Palestinian fight for independence). But to me, as I was looking through Jadaliyya, I came across a photo set called “Gaza in the dark” from Aljazeera (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/08/gaza-dark-160801143748969.html (Links to an external site.)).

Depicted in the photos is the life of many Palestinians living their lives mostly in the dark, as the Egyptian-Israeli blockade renders electricity rationed. How does this relate? Well, the basis of the series is to illustrate how life looks quote-unquote ‘in the dark.’ This concerns the distortions of imagery and storytelling visually whereas “The Falcon” focuses on the auditory distortions of information delivery and “Letter from Gaza” focuses on the formal procedures of epistolary and “A Hand in the Grave” focuses on the ramifications of telling a ‘good’ story or a ‘bad’ story.

The Prince of Dust: Saadi Youssef and Modern Poetics in The Occupied Arab World

This is a blogpost written for my class “Literature of the Middle East and North Africa” taught by Dr. Angela Naimou in Fall 2016. Our assignment every week is to write 500 words on our reading assignment. This week we were instructed to pick one or two lines from one of Saadi Youssef’s poetry (trans. by Khaled Mattawa), which we read alongside Mattawa’s introduction to his volume of translated Youssef poetry Without an Alphabet, Without a Face

 

I do not want your hand. Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.

— “Reception,” Saadi Youssef (trans. Khaled Mattawa)

 

I. Punctuation

The punctuation is simple, predictable. Just two periods annotating the end of each statement. The first sentence seems more open than the second, not only because the first is declarative while the second is imperative but also because quite literally the first sentence requires open-mouth to form the vowel for “I do not…” while the second sentence begins with a consonant — which are verbally more assertive. Thus, we go from the open (perhaps more amiable) “I do not want your hand” to the critical, more essential “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” However, while the second sentence may seem to be more explosive, it is still punctuated by a period. So while it may begin with a slightly more explosive sound with the consonant and its feeling as an imperative may begin as a louder tone, the sentence as a whole feels more instructive with a subdued, offended anger rather than a fed-up revolutionary or war-like anger.

This reminds me of Mattawa’s introduction of the material when he talks about Youssef’s preference of the whisper over a declamation, “as it captures both the intimacy and the urgency of an utterance.” I think that seems to be what we see here in this quotation from “Reception.” This is not a shout. It begins with the intimacy of both image (a hand) and sound (open vowel sound of “I” and first-person) and then arrives at the more-urgent “Do not” with the consonant and (in the second sentence more abruptly) with the imperative.

 

II. POV and rhetorical position & function

The first sentence is in first-person POV and the second sentence has an implied second-person POV. Together, these two also create a close intimacy – that of the (implied) “you” and the “I.” While this may seem like a short and simple explanation without excitement, in the context of the poem itself, which is a meditation on all of life, this is extremely intimate.

The speaker is juxtaposing several images (in a single line even) that may line-by-line not hold much correlation but that wholly become an essence or microcosm of a greater identity. By this, I mean while one or two lines may not give us any sort of lead about what a poem quote-unquote “is about,” reading several lines and indeed the entire poem gathers into this wider essence that itself is a microcosm of some memory, location, event, and/or people.

The poem features these intimate moments in different POVs – some are in third-person, some in first-person. The only imperative sentence in the entire poem is in my quotation: “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” Plus, it is one of only two sentences in the whole poem in second-person. What does this do for the poem? Well, it means our most intimate moment is an imperative, a command. The other second-person sentence is “They are chanting for you, girl of the harbor tavern.” Because the “you” is named in the appositive at the end of the sentence, the sentence does not have as close intimacy as second-person normally has. Thus, again, the most intimate moment in the entire poem (between “you” and “I”) is these two sentences, the first a repudiation of help and the second a command.

 

III. [I don’t know what to title this section…Conclusion, maybe?]

I’ve already reached my word-count talking about the functions of the specific mechanics of these two lines in the poem so I won’t spend much more time here, but I haven’t even talked about why I chose these two lines. What interests me most about this material specifically is what Mattawa calls Youssef’s “greatest contribution to contemporary Arabic poetry [: …] to preserve the dignity of personal experience, despite and within a context of difficult socio-political realities in his native Iraq and in the Arab world at large.” My quotation shows and intimate moment that does emanate personal dignity: I will not take your help; I did not ask for it; Do not pretend to care for me by giving me your second-rate “help.”

If indeed “the creation of personal freedom was the third frontier for Arab poetry” after (1) wrestling stagnant traditions and (2) wrestling the forces of colonialism, then that freedom also includes the freedom to say no. I think what we’ll encounter (especially once we get to the Lila Abu-Lughod piece) is that no genuine intimacy is ever established between the West and its colonial subjects in the Middle East, no intimacy that would allow for the freedom to say “No, we don’t want your help;” because while we become a part of our own self-rendered colonial narrative of granting Freedom, we do not seem to wonder (1) why we have the right to ‘grant’ it at all and (2) whether those to whom we grant it actually asked for it.