Qandil’s “Moon” Illuminates Egypt, Not Just Samarqand

Here’s the beginning of my piece on Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s 2005 novel Moon Over Samarqand, which appears today on Marcia Lynx Qualey’s Arabic Literature (In English Translation) blog.  Read the whole piece there. Also republished at

“Didn’t I tell you?” the colonel’s daughter Fayza al-Tuhami tells the semi-conscious protagonist of Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s Qamar ʻAla Samarqand (Moon Over Samarqand). “Those soldiers, they’re always looking for an enemy to defeat. And because they’re incapable of defeating the enemy lying in wait across the desert, they defeat us instead. We’re an easy target.”

For obvious reasons, the entire “Fayza” section of Qandil’s novel was suppressed by Dar al-Hilal, the state-owned press that first published Moon Over Samarqand in January 2005. The exotic stories of life and legend in Central Asia — part of Qandil’s nostalgic reconstructions from the medieval Islamic civilizational heritage, including a long section on Uthman’s Quran taken directly from his earlier magazine travelogue — were allowed to stand. So were the disorders and violations of Soviet and post-Soviet Uzbekistan. But the most bitter and immediate part of the novel, which takes place in Cairo and Heliopolis rather than Tashkent and Samarqand, was not deemed fit to print.
Fayza’s story dramatizes the ongoing pathology of Egypt’s relationship with its paternalistic — and far from omnicompetent — military elite. We first meet her at a party; the hypocrite generals and colonels and military intelligence men, including her father and Ali’s, are drinking gin disguised in tomato juice; the young people smoke hashish, listen to music, and make fun of their dads. Later we see that their nihilism has roots in despair. Ali enters the dim basement studio where Fayza (whose name, ironically, means Victorious) paints horrifying canvases: “scratched lines … naked, amputated bodies, their limbs incapable of joining together . . . lost and defenseless, in a limitless grey void.”

It turns out that Fayza has been repeatedly raped by her own father, starting at age 13. One could not ask for a starker metaphor of an army preying on those it exists to protect.  Continue reading…

via Arabic Literature (in English).


More sad news from Palestine

Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who died today at age 80, belatedly achieved international recognition through translations of his work including those by Peter Cole, and even, thanks to Adina Hoffman, became the first Palestinian poet (ahead of Mahmoud Darwish! to the latter’s reported bemusement) to be the subject of a full-length biography.  Now Adina and Peter write:

It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Taha Muhammad Ali, poet and person of exceptional powers. Taha was born July 27, 1931 in the village of Saffuriyya, Palestine, and died October 2, 2011, in Nazareth, Israel. He will be sorely missed.

As all who encountered the man and his work know, Taha’s imagination was expansive, and several years back he had, as it happens, already conjured his final hours as he’d liked them to have been. This is one of his later poems, from So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin, and published by Copper Canyon Press in 2006.

Tea and Sleep


If, over this world, there’s a ruler
who holds in his hand bestowal and seizure,
at whose command seeds are sewn,
as with his will the harvest ripens,
I turn in prayer, asking him
to decree for the hour of my demise,
when my days draw to an end,
that I’ll be sitting and taking a sip
of weak tea with a little sugar
from my favorite glass
in the gentlest shade of the late afternoon
during the summer.

And if not tea and afternoon,
then let it be the hour
of my sweet sleep just after dawn.

And may my compensation be—
if in fact I see compensation—
I who during my time in this world
didn’t split open an ant’s belly,
and never deprived an orphan of money,
didn’t cheat on measures of oil
or violate a swallow’s veil;
who always lit a lamp
at the shrine of our lord, Shihab a-Din,
on Friday evenings,
and never sought to beat my friends
or neighbors at games,
or even those I simply knew;
I who stole neither wheat nor grain
and did not pilfer tools
would ask—
that now, for me, it be ordained
that once a month,
or every other,
I be allowed to see
the one my vision has been denied—
since that day I parted
from her when we were young.

But as for the pleasures of the world to come,
all I’ll ask
of them will be—
the bliss of sleep, and tea.

Bab al-Shams at AUC

Went to a lovely event at AUC tonight: a totally unpretentious panel discussion called “Translating Palestine,” focused on three takes on Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s novel Bab al-Shams. Panelists were Khoury himself (in town for a brief visit), Humphrey Davies (who has translated several of his novels, and won Seif Ghobash Banipal prizes for Gate of the Sun and Yalo), and Yousry Nasrallah, who made a nearly 5-hour film version of the novel (Ahram profile here), co-written by Elias Khoury and Mohamed Soueid.  Prof. Samia Mehrez, head of AUC’s Center for Translation Studies, introduced.
The event was in English, and Elias Khoury started out by saying that it felt “bizarre to be speaking in English about an Arabic novel and especially to be doing so here, in Cairo, which since the events of last winter has started again to feel like the heart of the Arab world. But if that is how it is, then that is how it will be.”  In fact he and Nasrallah (and obviously Davies) were all lexically precise and utterly charming; perhaps having to think in one’s weaker language somehow focuses the mind.

Nasrallah said making the film, as an Egyptian, allowed him to “reappropriate Palestine,” after “years of the regime using Palestine to repress us.” I’ve never heard it put that way.

A thread running through the conversation was the role of metaphor and allegory. Khoury said that most great love stories are about “impossible loves,” so in Bab al-Shams he set out to write, among other things, “the love story of a man and his wife, something usually impossible, since usually we are in love with our friend’s wife, etc.” But of course the situation – Younis lives in Lebanon, Nahila in Israel, they meet in a cave only when he can sneak across the border – makes their love as obstacle-ridden as that of Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, the important thing is that the love story is a love story, the cave is a cave, the hospital is a hospital, not a symbol of something else. The literal object.  And even more so, Nasrallah insisted, in the cinema.  (Never mind what it “means”: what does it look like? What color and texture is it? How do we light it?)  But curiously, literature has its autonomy, too: the stories within the novel refer to each other and to the Arabian Nights, not to any particular refugee’s particular experiences.  Khoury: “Literature is not a representation of reality. I don’t like allegories.”  Hear, hear!

AUC will eventually put up video of the event – watch for it here.