Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 August - 1 September 2004
Issue No. 705
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A geography of conscience

Recent book publications include an exciting novel, a new encyclopaedia of Jews and Judaism and a masterpiece of medieval geography

Alaab Al-Hawa (Games of Desire), Wahid El-Tawila, Cairo: Miret for Information and Publication, 2004. pp271

In the last two years young Egyptian writers have produced an impressive number of outstanding novels, which benefit from the achievements of previous generations, adding to and developing them. The abundance of young, innovative novels has been described as phenomenal, with the critical expression "the novelistic explosion" emerging at the beginning of last year as a means for labelling what others have referred to as the dawn of a new narrative age. The phenomenon has persisted to the present, with novels of significance by young writers appearing one after the other in quick succession this year. Indeed the present book by Wahid El-Tawila is perhaps one of the most important among these. El-Tawila is the author of two collections of short stories in which he experimented with a variety of styles and modes of expression, concentrating on a limited set of themes. While not betraying his generation of writers' concern with breaking through the conventional moulds, or their dogged concern with the minute details of day-to-day existence, El-Tawila is nonetheless firmly rooted in a tradition of modern writing that goes all the way back, past the Generation of the Sixties, to Naguib Mahfouz and Youssef Idris. He has a profound knowledge of the language and a clear idea of characterisation and plot, and what experimentation he practises never falls into easy subversion.

Unlike many young writers, El-Tawila, as this novel demonstrates, is wholly immersed in current historical reality. His writing not only expresses it but also invokes its spirit. Perhaps one could think of the new novel as an elaborate literary adventure, of which transgression and taboo-breaking form the most prominent components. Such, certainly, at some level, is the spirit to which El-Tawila responds. It is a significant, perhaps indispensable stage of literary development, and while it must be admitted that one does not always like it, one can hardly object to it in principle. Yet here, finally, is a young novelist who, while not producing work that can be judged by any standards to be conventional, and in this sense appropriating the most desirable aspect of the new novel, its transgressive spirit, manages nonetheless to systematise his approach to innovation. It is courageous of El-Tawila to broach such well-trodden territory as the world of poor, marginalised fellahin -- a commendable choice, from the historical point of view, for even in the age of globalisation such forgotten agents of grass-roots survival continue to exist and to suffer. He does so not with the preconceived ideas of the grand-narrative novelists of the literary renaissance, nor even through a vernacular orientation like Idris's, but rather by close observation of the phenomenological precepts of his subjects. There is such honesty in El-Tawila's depiction of the imam of a small village mosque -- his main character -- and such delightfully absorbing humour in his recreation of the intricate web of human relations of which that imam is part, this flowing, subdued novel is as gripping as the most action-packed thriller.

Athar Al-Bukaa (The Effect of Weeping), Fathi Abdallah, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation (Literary Voices Series), 2004. pp120

Poet Fathi Abdallah belongs to a new generation of prose poets, whose work has attracted both readers and writers in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. He has published three collections of poems: Raei Al-Miyah (Water Shepherd, 1993), Saada Mutaakhira (Late Happiness, 1998) and Mousiqiyoun li Adwar Saghira (Musicians for Small Parts, 2000). In the present book he resumes his innovative experiments. To an even greater extent than his peers, Abdallah's poetic project is aimed at creating a new poetics that depend on neither linguistic gymnastics nor thematic fabrication. His poems are based, rather, on a distinctly individual sense of existence. Ultimately they reveal a denuded human state -- one that Abdallah, in common with many members of the Generation of the Nineties, naturally invests with not a little personal sincerity. Such confessional transparency is combined with a divergent, individual discourse -- a vision that breaks violently with the past in an attempt to reach a fresh and intense engagement with the present.

Despite his taboo-breaking intent, Abdallah's vision is bound up with a universal sense of the sublime, and his apparently frivolous responses to such age- old poetic themes as love and death betray a consistent yearning for the divine. This is complex, far-fetched worship, though, caught up in a range of historical and individual references, all of which are presented in a seeming epistemological vacuum, with the powerful emotional charge often disintegrating into quasi-surrealist nonsense. It is through such nonsense that the terror and delight of a life devoid of meaning can be adequately expressed, however, and Abdallah rarely fails to underline this aspect of his absurdist endeavour. Perhaps to an even greater extent than other Nineties poets, who have tended by and large to eschew the personal and the confessional, Abdallah's voice is subtly conversational, combining an irreverent tone typical of this generation of poets with self- conscious, often narrative confessional modus operandi all his own: "Joy fills you now/ My friend/ As they take you/ From behind trees and water/ To show your white teeth/ Before the boxers/ While they pant in amazement/ He might die before we can have/ An atom of his large air."

Mawsouat Al-Mustalahat Al-Diniya Al-Yahoudiya (Encyclopaedia of Jewish Religious Terms), Rashad El- Shami, Cairo: Egyptian Office for Distributing Publications, 2004. pp368

This is the second Arabic encyclopaedia of its kind, with as much political-historical as academic relevance, coming after Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri's far more extensive and universally acclaimed 1999 Encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism. In a long introduction the author places his own, briefer effort in relation to El-Messiri's, critiquing those aspects of the latter's work in response to which the present volume is written. El-Messiri's eight-volume reference work, for one thing, is too expensive for the average "Arab intellectual". Effective use of seven of El-Messiri's eight volumes, El-Shami adds, is almost wholly dependent on familiarity with the terms delineated in the eighth, which are collected in the first volume. This according to the present author, constitutes a limitation on the functionality of the volumes in question, for the many specialised terms -- anthropological, sociological and theoretical as well as Jewish -- are by and large too obscure to be readily assimilated; the implication is that, in order to benefit from any one of the encyclopaedia's seven main volumes, the reader must repeatedly consult the first, introductory compendium. El-Shami also criticises El-Messiri's thematic structure, what he describes as inconsistency between theoretical concepts and their practical applications, and his use of unexplained Hebrew terms in the middle of Arabic passages, among many other aspects of the groundbreaking work. With its more lexical emphasis -- the present, one-volume work includes 800 specifically religious Jewish terms, as opposed to El-Messiri's far more inclusive interdisciplinary array of expressions -- Rashad El-Shami's book may serve as a more accessible introduction to the subject, but his more restricted endeavour certainly does not merit the claims of superiority his introduction seems to impart. In critiquing El-Messiri's work, El-Shami in effect exposes the limitations of his own.

Be that as it may, El-Shami's encyclopaedia makes a fine job of addressing the lay reader, summarising as it does the principle constituents of Jewish religion, their implications for the creed of the present-day religious Jew, and their reverberations in modern history. He traces not only the historical-mythical and conceptual roots of these terms and their functions in Jewish social and political life in various historical eras, but also their development through the history of Judaism and the part they play in Jewish religious thought. This is intended to lead to a more or less complete understanding of the mentality of religious Jews, their hopes and fears, their collective aspirations and sense of identity and the bearing they have on 21st century international relations. The book also delineates how religious Jews live their lives, what the Jewish creed imposes on them and how they interpret its doctrines in their present, politically charged context. Such aims El-Shami admirably achieves, illuminating, in addition, the implications of the Jewish creed and the historical baggage Jews continue to carry for the Jewish perspective on the (Arab) Other. Indeed the terms on which his analysis relies could not have been more varied. They cover the full creedal and political spectrum, delving into religious traditions and conventions, rituals of worship like fasting and pilgrimage, social customs and rites, notions of death and the after-life and the full range of new and old sects. El-Shami also covers holy sites, synagogues, the religious judiciary, prophets, religious figures and internal points of contention. The picture that emerges, finally, is thorough and surprisingly varied, and it is in this context that the average "Arab intellectual" is unlikely to be familiar with it. In much the same way as El-Messiri's, El-Shami's book performs an educational as well as academic function; and its contents are so simply delineated, its concepts so clearly explained, it requires but a minimum of concentration on the part of the uninitiated lay reader. It is in this sense that it can be said to fill a crucial gap in Arabic literature on the topic.

El-Shami mentions several points in support of the timing of the encyclopaedia's appearance: that it is more necessary than ever for Arabs concerned about the Arab-Palestinian conflict and related national issues to understand fully the mentality according to which Judaism functions as a politicised religion in Israel; that such understanding will also help make sense of political conflicts within Israel, the parties of which almost invariably employ religious discourse, a necessary condition for playing an effective role in the conflict at hand; and that it is time the ordinary Arab reader, who is willy-nilly an active part if not of the conflict, then of Arab nationalism at large, had at his disposal an easily affordable and readily accessible compendium of the terms without which he would be hard pressed to make head or tale of the Israeli side of regional developments.

Al-Masalik wal-Mamalik (Of Routes and Kingdoms), Abu- Ishaq Al-Istarkhi, ed. Mohamed Gaber Abdel-Aal El-Hini, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces (Al- Dhakhaair Series), 2004. pp218

This book typifies a peculiar declension of what would today be called academic writing, straddling, as many canonical Arabic books do, a number of interrelated disciplines. It would not be accurate to describe the book as interdisciplinary, however, since it belongs to a relatively narrow branch of research in the humanities, a brand of learned monograph favoured by many Muslim writer-scholars throughout what would come to be called the Middle Ages, namely 'ilm al- bildan, ie, literally, "the science of countries", or provincial geography. The relative abundance of such monographs reflects the astounding expanse of the Islamic world, something that inevitably led to the scholarly compulsion to be acquainted with as many of its parts as possible -- a process that in turn solicited wide-ranging interest in the geography of Muslim provinces, their distinct natural features, the geographic and economic significance of their cities, towns and villages, their individual resources, the linguistic and ethnic peculiarities of their inhabitants, their roads, communication networks and political entities as well as the place they occupied in the larger -- political -- picture. Part of the purpose of such research was purely practical: it made moving from one part of the Islamic world to another easier, facilitating cultural and commercial continuity, endorsing beneficial exchange and serving as an aid to adventurers and travellers. In this sense, indeed, 'ilm al-bildan books were equivalent modern-day travel guides. Unlike the latter genre of writing, however, they provide a wealth of information and insight indispensable to students of history and epistemological evolution alike. For many modern lay readers, they make an entertaining as well as beneficial experience.

The author of this particular example of the monograph of 'ilm al-bildan, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn-Mohamed Al-Farisi Al-Istarkhi, who died during the first half of the fourth century of Hijra, remained deplorably unknown during his lifetime, promoted only by such specialised scholars as Yaqout Al-Hamawi, who recognised his importance. Yet he belongs to "a constellation of fourth century geographers", according to scholar Abdel-Aal Abdel-Moniem El-Shami, who revised and introduced this book, which includes such towering names as Al- Masoudi, Ibn-Hawqal and Al-Maqdisi. Al-Istarkhi shares all the virtues of these authors: precision, thoroughness and accessible style. He stands out among them for a number of significant features, the most important of which is perhaps the extensive use that he made of cartography. In fact Al-Istarkhi's concept of the map counts as a major innovation within the discipline of 'ilm al-bildan, for he not only made extensive use of remarkably accurate maps, he also made the map the basis of geographical research -- a tendency that was to be adopted by subsequent generations of Muslim geographers, developing into a school in its own right. Al-Istarkhi's profound and original contribution to cartography is but one aspect of a multifaceted achievement, however, to which the present volume bears ample testimony. Intended as Al-Istarkhi's definitive statement, it was composed over many years and constantly added to as the author embarked on more and more journeys through Islamic countries. The book demonstrate the three fundamental principles on which Al-Istarkhi's methodology rests, displaying an exceptional grasp of the topics at hand: close observation, followed by extensive description as the primary source of information; precision, objectivity and critical reassessment of the work of peers, a modus operandi Al-Istarkhi associated with the impartial and almost sacred mission of the scholar; and, finally, listening to the chronicles and anecdotes of others -- his secondary sources -- only to summarise their content, relating only the most relevant episodes and doing so with concision.

First published in modern times in an abridged zincograph edition based on a single manuscript dating back to the 690th year of the Hijra, the book's survival is largely due to the work of J H Moeller, who edited and introduced it in Latin in 1839. The book has since acquired a special place in the annals of medieval geography, slowly finding its way back to Arab scholars in the 20th century. It is particularly valuable in that it deals with more than 20 provinces of the Islamic world, many of which are directly relevant to contemporary international relations. Ranging from the Atlantic Ocean to Asia Minor, they include much of the former Soviet Union as well as the modern Arab states.

Tazyeef Al-Waei: Aslihat Al-Tadlil Al-Shamel (Falsifying Consciousness: Weapons of Mass Deceit), Salaheddin Hafez, Cairo: Sutour Publications, 2004. pp465

Salaheddin Hafez's introduction to this book affords a more or less complete picture of its contents. "We rest content with complaints about American bias, grieving over the rubble of Israeli destruction and aggression in Palestine and groaning constantly as we speak of the hegemony of American globalisation over our affairs, and the Zionist Lobby's control of Western money, business and media," the author writes. "We forget, or pretend to forget, that we own much, with which we can build a free will and a strong resistance, if we manage to employ it properly. But what to do about [the Arabs'] limited vision, intellectual stasis and lack of imagination. The issue of mind formulation and consciousness creation has become one of the most important issues, receiving special attention throughout the world, as a result of the scientific realisation that it is crucial to policy-making, without which healthy, conscious minds, states and societies remain unable to make progress in any field. And there are conditions for building such minds, the first of which is the guarantee of freedoms: the freedom of thought and research, freedom of opinion and expression and the press, freedom of creed and innovation and the freedom to work and participate. To say anything else would mean either professing falsehood or falsifying." Such is the book's harsh message. Written in a somewhat overly rhetorical style, it calls for a direct confrontation with Arab failures and blunders, favouring relentless critique over optimism.

In 10, carefully constructed chapters, the author deals with the most urgent obstacles in the way of an effective Arab contribution to regional and world affairs. Opening with a discussion of human rights and freedom of opinion, Hafez emphasises "the widespread new understanding of human rights" as a necessarily indivisible, global set of principles and the importance of giving attention to the rights of women and children. He progresses onto the role rights and freedoms play in "the formulation of consciousness", a process that involves the dialectic of freedom of expression versus its possibly destructive or limiting effects, in the case of prejudiced multinational media conglomerates for example. Hafez then focusses more specifically on the media as a means to "mind penetration". Under the rubric of the "three interrelated revolutions" that exploded on a global scale during the last few years of the 20th century -- democracy and human rights; information and media; electronics and communications technology -- Hafez outlines the framework within which an Arab political renaissance might take place. He goes to great lengths to explain why a free press is a necessary step on the way to reform, discussing the processes whereby the hegemony of political power over "consciousness creation" comes about and the means to subverting such hegemony -- an essential goal. Hafez pits the right to information against the efficacy of government policies, delineates the symptoms and scope of the people's "addiction to official failure", critiques the nearly absolute authority of the media, which acts "to falsify consciousness" and describes "the machinery of incitement" and "the hatred wars" it gives rise to. He concludes with a set of recommendations headed by "a free press and an enlightened culture", which offer an alternative to the status quo.

His passionate good intentions notwithstanding, the author nonetheless fails to make an original contribution to some of the most widely discussed issues in current Arab discourse. In common with numerous polemicists who pontificate on the same topics in the same zealous tones, he leaves them, to all intents and purposes, unresolved.

By Mahmoud El-Wardani

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