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.

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Go East, young AUCians!

“I’m gonna go where the desert sun is
Go where I know the fun is…”

My husband and I are studying downtown, but last week we had to go obtain our university ID cards (which flatteringly said “graduate student” – made me feel young again!) at the American University in Cairo’s new campus. It’s located in the middle of nowhere, in a new desert development about 40 km east of downtown Cairo.

AUC location map

As the university’s web site tactfully points out, the suburb of “New Cairo” (not to be confused with old New Cairo, Masr al-Gadida, i.e. Heliopolis) is “designed to be a predominantly middle-to-high-income residential community with schools, cultural facilities, commercial enterprises, government agencies, hotels, open spaces and parks, with the AUC campus at its center.” Students and faculty enjoy either a safe but boring life on or near the new campus, or a 1- to 1 1/2-hour commute from the city. Fortunately, the university has contracted with a company to provide highly punctual, air-conditioned, wifi-enabled buses from many parts of the city, so commuters need never look up from their laptops.

But I was glued to the window. A huge Christian cemetery:

A shiny new building for (ironically?) a Housing and Development Bank.

Tons of unfinished construction on very fancy-looking gated communities. (Some of these had pretty elaborate guard towers too. They could be taken for high-security prisons, except I suppose that if they were ever inhabited, the guards in the towers would aim their guns outwards rather than in.)

The curious thing about these construction sites was that, driving by mid-morning on a weekday, we did not see any actual construction occurring on any of them. Were they halted because of the legal gray area that has followed the revolution? Or did they run out of capital long before that? Anyway, it doesn’t matter much; I’m sure it will fill in eventually, and the congestion and pollution will get as bad out there as they are in the city center now. Or what are they going to have, zoning laws?

As my husband points out, Cairenes have a history of this sort of behavior. Fustat getting too small? Repurpose it as a garbage dump and build a new capital a little further north. New dynasty? Build another one.

The university itself is quite lovely, apparently well-designed for an undergraduate experience, full of food courts and cheerfully interacting students, and also, at the moment (even as it largely vacates its Tahrir campus), trying hard to associate itself with the Jan 25 Tahrir movement through an enormous display of artwork based on iconic photos of the revolution.