June 25, 2012KR Conversations

Youssef Rakha

Youssef Rakha is the cultural editor at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly and the author of seven books in Arabic. His novel Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Dar El Sherouk, 2011) is forthcoming in English with Interlink. He has written for, among many publications, Parnassus: Poetry in Review and McSweeney’s. Some of his work can be seen on yrakha.wordpress.com. His essay “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)” is featured in the Summer 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review, and is available as an excerpt here, and electronically in the free digest edition of The Kenyon Review through the Kindle Store.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?  

I’ve learned too many technical things to list here, and they’re all the more difficult to list because it happened mostly in Arabic. But I also learned to pool different kinds of writing – journalism, literary nonfiction, poetry, historical research, erotica, and humor – to bring together my first novel, the Book of the Sultan’s Seal (forthcoming in English translation with Interlink). The result is a kind of pastiche, but maybe all novel-writing is pastiche. It’s not so much mixing and matching styles of writing as juxtaposing ways of looking at the world through mimicking the corresponding languages in which that world reveals itself, through people – the challenge being to maintain a unified and presumably compelling whole.

Since the novel was published it’s been called both an achievement and a pointless experiment: I’ve learned to accept that too. Not criticism per se – was it Ingmar Bergman who said that all criticism is poison? – because you can’t take in poison, but the fact that part of the value of a serious book is that some readers won’t like it. It’s always more interesting to ask what someone likes or dislikes about your work than whether or not they value it as such. Sometimes what is wrong with your book is simply that another writer feels superior (or inferior) to you, or that a person you’ve known doesn’t want to be a character, or to be that character. So your purpose in asking is never to change course to suit a wider variety of tastes. It’s to check your intentions against people’s expectations, taking their positions and underlying assumptions into account. I don’t tend to invent characters, I tend to reinvent and change real people; it’s not always possible to cut all relations with people I’ve written about, and I’m sure as hell not going to mess up my work just so that they stay happy with me!

More importantly, perhaps, in the last five years I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to Cairo literary-intellectual circles, which are limited and limiting spaces. While making up a sizable part of the very tiny proportion of Egyptians actually interested in literature, these circles are so incestuous and inward-looking and small-minded they can make writing, let alone being a writer, seem like a hateful exercise – a bad habit, almost. Now even if it is that, writing – even Arabic writing, even writing for oneself, without ambition – should never feel quite so despicable…


Tell us a little about your KR piece.  How was it written?  What was the hardest part about writing it? 

The idea for the piece came up in (online) conversation with my US publisher, Hilary Plum, who being a writer herself is my guardian angel in your part of the world – even though we haven’t met. We were talking about Arabic literature in translation and I’d shown her a bunch of articles I’d written about literature and the Arab Spring for Al Ahram Weekly, which she thought too removed to be worth collecting for publication in America. She suggested writing a longer piece in which things could come together for readers not familiar with my part of the world.

My starting point was that there need not be anything fundamentally different about contemporary literature in the Arab world than in Turkey, Japan, Eastern Europe, Latin America, or anywhere else – which I really think there isn’t. So the challenge was to show that there has been a continuous tradition of sophisticated writing in Arabic even though, for ultimately political reasons, Westerners have not known about it; and to debunk the mythical (and, frankly, rather ugly) narrative of a recent boom in engaging writing that facilitated a corresponding boom in successful translation to English. The Arab Spring, which happened in the wake of the supposed boom, provided a suitable reference point. Western interest in “the Arab novel” as political commentary or anthropological source material can only misrepresent contemporary Arabic literature and misread its context.

The hardest part was bringing in all kinds of relevant details – Islamism, the Egyptian regime’s shifting alliances during the Cold War, the place of literature in society – each of which was complex enough for a separate essay. I also wasn’t always clear about what needed clarification, because naturally I take too many facts for granted – and it was in this department that Hilary’s contribution proved indispensable. It kind of proved my point, though: for someone who is interested in literature, even the most irrelevant and far-away society need not be more than a backdrop. It might require explanation but that doesn’t come in the way of the life-affirming exchange, both intimate and supra-cultural, that is literature.


Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.”  In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem.  The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time.  The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.”  Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?  

I think they are, yes, to some extent. I think they’re especially germane to my writing a poem, which I do most often while I’m working on other things. But they don’t explain why, occasionally, that just doesn’t work and someone who is normally able to set off your poetic devices will be stuck and blame you, even though you’ve treated your new “emotional concept” in the exact same way… I think what matters in the procedure Larkin describes is how much space you leave within the device for someone to actually invent an emotional concept connected with the one that compelled you to construct it, because I doubt if emotional concepts that you become obsessed with can really be reproduced intact; and sometimes when you try to ensure they are reproduced as is that just alienates someone whose environment or ideas or beliefs are different from yours – which is exactly what literature should not do. I mean, the scary thing about Larkin’s procedure is that it sounds like the recipe for giving birth to a new cliche or – the easier thing, by far – finding a relatively new and interesting way of relaying a cliche. I am not necessarily denying that this may be the most any writer can ever do, but there are better and more fun ways of doing it.

My writing process doesn’t always depend on instantaneous obsession with an emotional concept. I mean, sometimes it does. But I have a few emotionally pertinent concepts that I’m obsessed with all the time: what it means to not be alone, for example; how something becomes real depending on whether you perceive it to be real or on how you talk about it; what society and identity mean for an individual… Each piece of writing is a way of indulging these same obsessions. I couldn’t tell you precisely what my concepts are because they are in constant transition and transformation, but it’s always interesting to trace the interests and experiments you are working on now all the way back to something you wrote ten years ago. And then you change: you really are not the person you were even two or three years ago; I don’t mean that metaphorically. How the obsessions carry over from one “I” to the next is something a writer might be aware of. It can be unnerving.


In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.”  What would you include in your own credo?  What core beliefs do you have about literature and books? 

Most of the time I think of writing as a position on the world – a vocation, a lifestyle, an ethics – in the way that scholarship or performance, say, is a position on the world. Writing is the position on the world that’s not a political position, or the closest thing possible to a position that’s not political – even when it deals, on the surface, with political or historical subjects. What I mean by this is that the knowledge literature produces, the pleasures it involves, the seemingly unethical practices it sometimes permits, all want to experience something more than history. (Remember Joyce’s famous statement: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”) They want to say something more about a person or a group of people than where and when they live, what their lives look like, or what predetermined factors make them look that way – the nightmare, which it really is impossible to awake from no matter what. Literature wants to say something DESPITE that nightmare, something about what lives mean or could’ve meant, how beautiful they can be looked at in a certain way, or why they might be worth living. I think when you try honestly to do that, you speak to more people who are different from you than it’s otherwise possible. That’s partly why literature is important: it emphasizes things that are deeper and more consistent and that last longer than most “history”. In this sense, even though it should always be accessible, it’s a very specialized mode of information sharing; I believe it’s comparable to (though no longer part of) those scholarly endeavors we’ve come to group together as the humanities, which are older than but never entirely incompatible with the natural sciences, and which can rarely do without a historical-political frame.

Still, writing is about language, that infinitely imperfect but necessary tool for going about our lives. It’s about the space that lies between reality and the words with which we manage it: our only way of dealing with, creating, changing (or failing to change) what the universe throws at us or throws us into. Language is more consensual than most other reality-molding tools – weapons or borders, for example – even though those other tools still require it, and even though in literature it’s far more fluid than them. So playing with language – often with the many registers of spoken and written Arabic, in my case – will have to be included in my credo. I try not to do this for its own sake because there are more interesting things to be done in literature. But then it’s always fascinating to see how changing the rules of the language you use will ultimately shape the reality you’re summoning up as you use it. Maybe it’s more accurate to say “the alternative reality” since, like that of any information system, however interactive, the reality literature sustains will inevitably be more ordered and finite than actual, perceptual reality.

My credo would also include a couple of sentences about the fact that in Arabic, the word for book is a more recent usage for what used to mean simply “epistle”. All canonical books in Arabic are actually addressed to a friend or a patron, just like letters. That’s a very moving metaphor for me because when I write, it’s always TO someone, usually to my best friend (who lives in a different country and very seldom reads my work), but also to someone I don’t know. So, considering how limited the readership for literature is anywhere in the world, few things make me happier than finding out my letter has reached and moved someone who isn’t a writer or a critic, who doesn’t exist in the same part of space-time as I, and who may not even speak the same language (that is the advantage of translation and, in my case, of having two languages). It’s because, as well as being a specialized mode of producing knowledge, literature is an affirmation of your existence – in some ways, it is the only one. The thing that you communicate to another which tries to beat history is your person, your soul or your neurochemical imprint, which can’t be mass-produced and will always be subjective and at least slightly insane.


Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing. 

There are a few possibilities here. I want to talk about the late Sargon Boulus (1944-2007), who spent most of his life in San Francisco and had connections with the Beat Generation and City Lights, and whom (perhaps not as sadly as it sometimes feels) I never met. Strangely enough but not – in retrospect – unexpectedly, it was a few months before he died that I first heard of him. I didn’t even hear of him. I walked into a bookshop in Abu Dhabi, where I was living at the time, and picked up a collection of poems; the author’s name was very unusual but vaguely familiar.

I think it’s symptomatic of the catastrophe that was Arab nationalism that this Assyrian-Christian Iraqi, whether because he was an emigre or because he was neither a (Muslim) nationalist nor politicized, remains largely uncelebrated even in literary circles. As far as I’m concerned he is the 20th-century incarnation of the great Abbasid poet al Mutannabi. He has the same incredible inventiveness, the same facility with language, the same combination of intense self-interest and lack of keenness on personal topics. From the time that I found that collection, “The Lantern Bearer in the Night of Wolves”, and until I finished my Book of the Sultan’s Seal, I read all of Sargon’s poems that were published; it is still that first book that I return to most often.

I have no idea what Sargon taught me. Some of my poems are modeled on poems he wrote, some are more or less direct reinterpretations; sometimes I feel that every good poem I’ve written since 2007 is thanks to him. But his “influence” – I guess that’s what you would call it – lies somewhere else entirely. I guess he was what I could never be: a true vagabond (a Beatnik) who had to provide for himself as soon as he started traveling in his teens; a dedicated poet who worked in Assyrian as well as Arabic and English and saw translation as an essential part of his career; a globetrotter with no connection to a city like the one I have with Cairo. But he is perhaps the only contemporary figure who saw the Arabic language exactly as I do:

“There is no pure language in this sense. [Arabic] happened to be the strongest so it pulled around itself, like a magnet, all the dying languages that had seen their day centuries ago. It was a powerful language that absorbed other languages… So, when I write my poetry in Arabic, I tell you this – and it’s a secret between me and myself – sometimes I feel that I am really writing in all these languages, because I believe, finally, that any language contains all the dead memories of the races who contributed to it… it’s like raw material for me. I feel that this language could be extended endlessly into some new idiomatic formulations – which I’m doing all the time.”