This piece was originally published in Full Stop Quarterly: Winter 2021. Subscribe at our Patreon page to get access to this and future issues, also available for purchase here. Your support makes it possible for us to publish work like this.
In the early 1990s my mother and another mother from our neighborhood took six of us to the beach over Easter weekend. It was too cold to swim, but the other five girls wore their bikinis. Less enthralled than the others by my adolescent body, I wore jeans and a hooded sweatshirt to the beach where I read Tristessa. Someone took a picture of which we all still have a print: the five girls lined up like children, each hugging the other around the waist, and me, last in line leaning against a sunken sand castle, ever so earnestly reading Jack Kerouac out loud.
Tristessa, Kerouac’s ode to a Catholic prostitute in 1950s Mexico City, is a problematic text, and I very much doubt that teenage girls growing up in suburban Baltimore fancying themselves feminists read much Kerouac these days. But I’m very glad that I grew up in a time and a space in which I read such prose for its lyricism, for the way it made me feel: slightly less lonely, almost luminous in the rain.
Over twenty years later, I didn’t think much about the Beats. Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al seemed passé, boring, almost embarrassing. I was on a train from Barcelona to Tarragona reading a novel translated from Arabic when I recalled that rainy day on the beach, reading Tristessa to my friends. It was a warm day in November and I was reading The Crocodiles (Seven Stories Press, 2014) by Youssef Rakha, an Egyptian writer and photographer. I’m not sure how I got hold of the book, but I think I came across Youssef Rakha via his literary site, The Sultan’s Seal, a digital archive of Rakha’s own writing that also includes work by writers he calls his “compeers.” There, in sunny Spain, I was reading his novel, set in Cairo, structured in 404 numbered paragraphs—sexy and stylish prose poems. The book opens with “The Lion for the Real” by Allen Ginsberg and ends with a poem called “The Revolution for Real” whose finals lines read:
My Bereaved darling, Conferrer of the final orgasm: death/ knit our lives together; /I have seen the comers and goers, kissed bearded ones and run/ from hatchet men on Metro steps, / Have borne my saint down to the grave’s gloom for your / father’s ease of mind and drowsed cross-legged between / two carriages to Cairo, / Have found you beneath my bed and my mother’s army in my room, / Have offered up my neck to the lion’s mouth.
The novel moves between 1997 and 2011, begins with a suicide and finishes amidst a failed revolution. What is the book about? In certain ways it’s about a group of poets in Cairo. But it’s also about wild and wilted memory, youth, friendship, art, desire, drugs, poetry, the peripheries of the political, and grief. All these ideas are explored with the force and velocity of Allen Ginsberg, as if his ghost had returned and manifested as a secret Cairo poetry society called The Crocodiles. I read the book in just a few hours, first on the train and in an empty beach town, drinking coffee at a tiny outdoor café. I raced through because the imagery and staccato bursts of feeling set something ablaze in me. Reading The Crocodiles felt like taking a hit of all the essentially good parts of adolescence.
Weeks later, over lunch, I tried to explain to a friend why I’d liked the book so much. She seemed surprised that I would connect so intensely with an author whose biography had so little to do with my own and with anyone referencing the Beats in the year 2020. Unsure why that would matter, I continued raving about the novel: its fragmented form, its obsession with both grief and reverie. My friend idly googled Youssef Rakha and read from her phone, “‘Rakha is a novelist, poet, essayist and journalist who writes in both Arabic and English. His interests include Arab porn and the possibility of a post-Muslim perspective.’” She closed her phone, “This isn’t exactly your territory.”
We finished lunch and I sent her a message later that evening, a photo of section 3 of The Crocodiles:
On the day of Nayf’s twenty-first birthday, within hours of Radwa Adel’s suicide and shortly after midnight, Secret Egyptian Poetry was born in Doqqi Square, and it seemed as though the working-class wedding whose din drowned out our voices in the café (likewise working-class) had been put on expressly to celebrate this event. The wedding was in Dayir Al Nahya, a short walk from the section of pavement we monopolized alongside the Al Sobki butcher’s in Tahrir Street, and we were unable to see anything from where we sat. In the end, we didn’t get up to look at the wedding, but the cawing cry, framed by the nauseating electronic jangling emanating from the loudspeaker, conveyed to us an ungovernable pleasure and, at the same time, further confirmation of our conviction that poetry, the thing we could believe was poetry, must needs be secret.
She replied that what was important was that the book had gotten me excited about fiction again: a diplomatic and insightful answer. I went back through my old copy of Tristessa and read through some Ginsberg poems online. They didn’t spark much in me—it was something about Rakha’s use of the idea of them—the romantic belief in art for art’s sake, in the fun of secrets, the primal need for pleasure that did.
In February 2020, I read Rakha’s debut, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars (Interlink Books, 2015). This novel, the first of his to be translated into English, is much bigger, messier, more complex and perhaps more ambitious than The Crocodiles. The book’s hero is Mustafa Çorbaci and as readers we follow him as he drives through greater Cairo sometime after 9/11. Çorbaci, in a series of visions, meets the spirit of the last Ottoman sultan and performs a mission on his behalf. Through Çorbaci’s adventures and misadventures, Rakha reflects on contemporary Arab Muslim identity. The novel is delightfully funny, daringly erotic, and a remarkable portrait of Cairo. The translation is an astonishing feat. Because I don’t read Arabic and am incredibly ignorant of its literary strategies, there is much of this book that I miss, place names and references that I don’t understand, layers and layers of codes unknown to me, but there is so much that I loved, and above all there is this driving force, a lifeblood that buoyed me. The book, especially the last two ravishing chapters, ignited me, reminded me of people I have loved and mourned, of how hurt mixes so much with desire and with decay, how loss, strangely enough, lends us breathing room. I couldn’t sleep after reading it. But not in an oppressive way, rather in a transformative way; the book left me full of literary fancy:
When Mustafa penetrated Claudine for the first time, it seemed to him that the fractured world had healed itself and become perfect. The same world, every inch broken, full of anxiety, confusion, and need, dyed in a thousand colors, and no color free of another in its light…the world that his heart had been sick of had filled its cracks, had composed its extension into space … In the whole world, there was no longer up and down, I and you, East and West. Only this one things that made him and her a paragon of perfection, he and she, she and he, shhee.
I wrote to Rakha to tell him how much his work had impressed me, and he told me he was writing a novel in English. I imagined a book I would be able to understand more completely, connect to even more.
In April 2020, when we were all still locked down in our homes, Rakha sent me this debut novel in English, Amna. I read the PDF of the manuscript over a few days and looked forward to eventually reading the published version. Yet, the manuscript, now titled The Dissenters (yes, there are more women committing suicide in this one), has not been picked up by any press, big or small, in the UK or the US.* I’m perplexed by this, especially after Rakha’s two translated novels received such high praise.
In his previous work I had noticed the eye of a poet, a dreamer exploring a broken, fragmented city. Here I noticed a son, a writer telling perhaps his most important story. And Rakha had decided to tell it in English, one of his languages. Some people might call it his “second” language, but that is a misnomer. I thought about the choice of language only briefly at first, at the very beginning of the manuscript when I first encountered words in Arabic or French, unitalicized, perfectly at home, nested within the English. And then again months later when with some sadness I began to wonder why publishing in English would prove to be so difficult. I felt sadness, but also surprise because I had felt that I was reading in an English of the place, of the time(s) and of the country:
A mawwal is one of three colors depending on the story it tells: white for moral and spiritual instruction; green for nature, virtue and benevolent love; red for human vice and destructive passion. All mawwals start with the ancient and mysterious call ya lail ya ain, the ubiquitous vocative followed by the word for night and then the word for eye. I can see now the two words invoke not so much a time of day or a sense organ as the night of the soul and the source of all vision. They evoke consciousness and its opposite, life and what happened to Mouna.
The language feels alive, varied, rich. Dare we say origin(al)?
The Dissenters tells the story of Amna Abu Zahra, an Egyptian woman known by her children as “Mouna.” The story is narrated, in English, by her son Nour, who is speaking to his sister who lives in California:
Later, four years later when it is over and I am ready to move along, I remember that it was Mouna who drew my attention to the Jumpers. Their story feels like the boat I’ve taken down the river of the revolution . . .
And, swollen with all that knowledge, enraptured and disconsolate, I can only be grateful that I have you to share with. Seven thousand miles away, it’s true. But if you were here and we had the business of living between us, how much of this stippled story could I really tell?
I reflect on her destiny in the light of the revolution at Tahrir Square. Or perhaps it is the other way round: Mouna’s destiny tells me why Tahrir Square has failed.
This framing device—a brother writing to his émigré sister about their recently deceased mother—allows Rakha to present an evocative imagining of a mother’s life as well as a dazzling portrait of Cairo and Egyptian society from the 1950s to the present day. It’s also the way in which Rakha infuses the book from the very beginning with a surprisingly frank eroticism. The narrator is male, but the perspective is female. Nour, the son, almost manages to channel a woman’s consciousness as he delivers his mother’s story. The spectral presence of his sister Shimo forms the tension between mother and son, brother and sister, individuals and the collective, and sets this story of political conflict and sexual taboos into motion. From the opening scene the reader knows that Rakha is an excavator of the deepest emotional terrains:
When she opened the door your knees were above your breasts, a string like a sperm’s tail slithering up your mount of Venus. Your panties were hanging off one of the heavy books by your head, and the hem of your nightie flapped over your belly. Your face, she said, looked ghoulish.
In the faint night light from below, I wonder how much she made out, how much the shock impressed on her. I don’t know if she ever discovered the source of that steady, buzzing drone. I simply see her gaping. And it occurs to me that under the circumstances she might’ve screamed, making a point of waking me—to shame you. She might’ve bent down to slap or pull you up by the hair. All she did was step back out and close the door behind her. But in her haste she slipped and crashed into the balustrade. I woke all the same.
The Dissenters is a beautiful book, funny and raucous and also incredibly tender and sad, both in personal and political terms. While reading it, I was enchanted by Rakha’s voice in English, by his unique ability to mix formal and informal registers in a way that is at once authoritative and playful. The novel is maximalist, glamorous, and intensely psychological: the kind of thing I’m so desperate to encounter in contemporary English-language fiction and so rarely do. His use of Arabic words within the text is seamless, adding to the texture of the prose without distracting the reader or slowing down the action.
All that being said, the novel can feel daunting and confusing at times, in part because there are many, many three-dimensional yet minor characters and because the political references are constant and might be unfamiliar to an American reader. Still, I found the book to be smarter than the reader, so even when I felt unsure or uneasy the narrative usually, fairly quickly, reassured me, proved my worries to be unwarranted. Rakha uses controlled repetition to provide psychological mappings of both families and cityscapes. The reader gets the primal scenes, the repeated gestures, the musicality of the family lexicon, the obsessions: names, nicknames, naming, inhabiting names. The subtle but masterful use of alliteration makes the most violent scenes feel dreamlike, almost luminous. It reminded me of certain passages in Kerouac and then expanded on them, did something bigger and better.
Through Nour’s account/confession to his sister, we get an in-depth and many-layered portrait of their mother, ranging from her physicality to her rich interior life:
But, like the lanternshark and the name Mouna, like the shelter in Amin’s chest and her sympathy for Mansour Effendi, the dream too is world-starting. Our genesis. Even if it’s too accurately prophetic for any awareness of it to remain with the dreamer, this song of experience has already toughened up Amna, readied her for what is to come.
While the first half of the novel is told from deep within the swamp of Nour’s own interiority, as the novel progresses a fully formed Mouna comes through. She is thoroughly developed and multifaceted, while also serving as a symbol for the nation. In the second half of The Dissenters, there are moments of perfection: sensual details that also tell of a political reality, Egypt in singular, unforgettable images.
I am, to this day, over a year after reading the manuscript for the first time, quite baffled as to why The Dissenters has yet to be picked up for publication. I wrote to Rakha about the conundrum and we began to discuss, by email, his personal complications as a writer who has already been published in English, but in translation. For publishers, it seems, he is an “other” already, an Arab, a witness, an authentic voice.
Often we think of writers switching languages due to exile: the logic being a new home, thus eventually a new language for creative expression. The Dissenters, however, is not a novel of exile: It is an Egyptian novel in English. Contrary to the examples of so many “language traitors” (Jhumpa Lahiri into Italian or Yiyun Lin into English), in Rakha’s case I don’t get the sense that The Dissenters represents a break or a departure. It’s decidedly part of his ongoing literary project, a novel and a style closely related to his previous work in Arabic. This novel, like his earlier work, explores Cairo through multiple timelines and fragmented perspectives, sifting through the layers in order to understand or at least express the collective political heartbreak of the present. It’s certainly not as if he has abandoned one language for another—far from it: Arabic and English seem to co-exist, collide and converge in so much of his creative work. When I read these novels and come across an Arabic word I don’t recognize, I carry on reading, as if walking through a new city, listening to a crowd, willing to not understand everything, happy to find my way.
Rakha, who wrote me with care and honesty, agrees that his “sin” in part has to do with not being an exile or an emigrant, not fitting the mold of someone who has left one language for another. Nor is he the child of immigrants—one of those willing to act as bridge and interpreter between the homeland and the new adopted country, the parents’ language and English. Rather, he is a postcolonial writer in the truest sense: a person who works, reads, writes, and lives in many languages, whose literary project is based in both Arabic and English. “If it was written after I immigrated to say America, it would be Arab-American, immigrant, whatever—again, not the kind of collision between Egypt and English that I want,” Rakha wrote.
Rakha, like many of us, lives in many languages. And all of those are his home, his rightful place. In today’s world how many of us have a “mother tongue?” Many writers work in two or three languages throughout the day. He writes, “You live in the languages you have, you truly do. And in modern times educated Arabs have always had at least one European language in which they function with as much if not more ease than in written Arabic.”
As a Great Egyptian Novel written in English, The Dissenters clearly provides a collision between Arabic and English. But it seems this is not quite so interesting to the West. Do publishers perhaps want something simpler: an authentic voice from the Arabic? For Rakha, the problem lies with “the capacity of present-day English speakers to have a literary (as opposed to just political) interest in my part of the world, especially when it hits them unmediated by either immigration or translation.”
How interested are Western readers in literature in English that comes from a place so different from our own? Or perhaps I should ask: What is the nature of our interest? Is an Egyptian allowed to write a novel about his mother in English or are certain readers unwilling to understand why he might do such a thing? Here, Rakha puts multiculturalism and a certain insistence on diversity into question. “I feel my edge, the point of me and my writing is that I am other, not in an exotic or threatening way but just in the sense of being, culturally and mentally and perhaps also morally, from and in the other place, rather than a token of otherness subsumed and used by a West eager to congratulate itself on including it.”
Rakha’s work explores sexuality and grief in ways that feel eerily close to my own lived experience while at the same time being worlds away from the morality of our current literary zeitgeist. I can imagine all the ways his expression of a female consciousness could be criticized in the West. (A man writing with such conviction about the interior lives of women feels almost dangerous these days.) However, his ambition is unyielding, all-encompassing in a way that feels at once greedy and inclusive. The Dissenters is a mother story that challenges so many deep-seated notions of women and Islam, mothers and sons, sisters and society, the personal and the political. It’s also a book that makes a reader want to write and live fearlessly, like the member of some poet tribe, unafraid of confronting animal instinct and deep despair. Rakha appears unafraid, though remarkably aware, of Western social justice frameworks and literary trends. I have little doubt about the lasting and resounding success of his literary project. The question of whether or not The Dissenters will be published in its original English is no longer his problem. He has done the work—written a big, devastating novel about women and their city. The problem is ours—a Western problem. And the question we must ask is who is allowed to switch languages, who do we regard as an authentic voice from abroad and why? Who gets to publish in English? Who gets to speak directly to Western readers without the filter of translation?
In the meantime, while we wait for a publisher to lay claims on The Dissenters, may I suggest that we read Rakha’s work out loud? We might be embarrassed or shocked at times, but isn’t that part of reading someone different, part of gazing? And isn’t that what writers are supposed to do? Rakha, in all his wildness, might just remind us of why we fell in love with literature and otherness in the first place. His daring is contagious, revelatory, and complex. It feels so familiar and completely new all at once; it feels like art.
[*Author’s note: In August of 2022 Youssef Rakha wrote to me with good news. His English language debut The Dissenters is set to be published by Graywolf Press in late 2024, early 2025. It took a while, a bit too long, but eventually his great Egyptian novel found an American publisher.]
Madeline Beach Carey is the author of the story collection Les filles dels altres. Her work has appeared in Southword, Conjunctions, El Món d’Ahir, de/rail, echoverse, The Sultan’s Seal, Full Stop, The Momentist, and elsewhere. Carey has been the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Edward Albee Foundation, Faber Residency, Hawthornden Castle, Greywood Arts, and Ventspils House. She lives in Barcelona with her husband and son.
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