Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 December 2006
Issue No. 825
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cosmopolitanism redrawn

Hala Halim finds evidence of a new cross-cultural sensibility in the pages of Meena

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Clockwise from left: front cover of Meena 2; a photo by Manuel Lander and one by Randa Shaath, both from the second issue of the journal

The recently published second issue of Meena : A Bilingual Journal of Arts and Letters reproduces a postcard with the following message: "Dear Mr. Gould, Thank you for your letter. You are dead right. New Orleans would be the local setting for an American quartet, why not have a try."

The addressee, Clayton Gould, is a resident of New Orleans, the signature identifying the sender as Lawrence Durrell. The felicitousness of the object, offered the journal by Gould himself, lies in the fact that Meena is jointly produced by two groups of writers, one from New Orleans, the other from Alexandria; the card also functions as a gauge of the distance the journal has traveled, and the kind of cosmopolitanism it broaches, from Durrell's canonised but dubious version.

Edited by Andy Young, a poet from New Orleans, and Khaled Hegazzi, an Alexandrian poet now resident in New Orleans, in collaboration with a group of writers and artists from Alexandria, the journal has a pre-history in both cities. In Alexandria the group traces back to Asil, a literary seminar established by Nubian novelist Haggag Hassan Oddoul, held regularly since the 1990s at the Nubian Club on Nabi Daniel Street, a forum that is particularly welcoming to young writers, says Abdel-Rehim Youssef, a poet and the translation co-editor of Meena. In the mid- '90s Youssef, together with several other writers, including Mohamed Abdel-Rehim, Hamdy Zedan, Hegazzi, and Ahmed Abdel-Gabbar, established the journal Khamaseen. After a few issues it gave way to Al-Kull, an independent publishing collective launched two years ago by writers Maher Sherif and Eman Abdel-Hamid, which has published separate volumes of work by members of the group, including Abdel-Hamid's collection of short stories Muhawalat Lil-Takhafi (Attempts to Hide), in addition to a boxed collection of volumes by them.

Meanwhile, Hegazzi had moved to New Orleans where he was invited to give a presentation at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). He later collaborated with Andy Young, a poet and creative writing instructor at NOCCA, as she attempted to introduce modern Arabic poetry to her students and the general public through a number of small publications. Acquainted with the work of Khamaseen and Al-Kull through Hegazzi's translations, Young secured a grant that helped fund the first issue of Meena (August 2005). The production of the second issue of the journal was covered by sales of the first issue.

Meena takes its place among several recent journals which have a number of features in common. The most obvious parallel is with the Alexandria-based, independently-funded Amkenah (Places), edited by Alaa Khaled, Muhab Nasr and Salwa Rashad. Founded in 1999, it is devoted to the poetics of place and space-based ethnographies, as well as texts comprising a range of genres, albeit privileging orality and "story" over "history". Although initially a forum for material on Alexandria, the journal has expanded to include themed issues -- on the desert and the peasant, for example -- and has published material from a variety of sites well beyond Egypt. One could also cite the Beirut-based Zawaya, edited by Pierre Abi-Saab, a pan-Arab but decidedly oppositional endeavour that upholds the marginality summoned in the various connotations and associations of the title, meaning "corners" or "angles" (see Rasha Salti's "A quiet corner", Al-Ahram Weekly, 20-26 January, 2005), bringing into interface experimental texts that bear witness to "booby- trapped [Arab] homelands," as the title of the October 2005 issue proclaimed, a title that has proved all the more prophetic in the case of Lebanon. In making available in English modern Arabic literature, Meena also bears comparison with the London-based journal Banipal, edited by Maragaret Obank, which is devoted to publishing literary translations from Arabic. Another journal is the Paris-based literary journal Mediterraneans, edited by Kenneth Brown, each issue of which is devoted to a different city overlooking that sea.

Meena, like these other journals, upholds alternative writing and art. It also embraces a more critically inclusive outlook, refusing parochialism. The title, Meena, meaning "harbour" -- which by dropping the "hamza" at the end of the word signals an allegiance to colloquial usage and vernacular tendencies -- indicates both the framework of Mediterraneanism in which Alexandria has long been located together with something quite novel.

The older, dominant articulations of Alexandria's cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had, as I have suggested elsewhere (see, for example, "On being an Alexandrian", Al-Ahram Weekly, 11-17 April 2002), elicited an elite European/ized population, overlooking the majority, the Egyptians, in a city cast as disengaged from Egypt and drifting towards Europe, an "Alexandrea ad Aegyptum", as the frequently reiterated old epithet has it, in complicity with colonialism -- here see Durrell. Meena posits one possible riposte to this; it provides a forum for Egyptian voices from Alexandria and places them in dialogue with another coastal city, not on the European side of the Mediterranean, but a city that, albeit located in the First World, is quasi-Third World with marked African infusions into its "multiculturalism" that carries a patois accent. Conceived as "a port between our cities, our countries, our languages, our cultures", as the editors state in the first issue, the journal, while not politically engaged, adopts a critical stance on global politics. The theme that came to the fore of the first issue was conflict and war, while the second issue was devoted to water, "the element that connects us all", a choice having been made all the more imperative in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the sinking of the ferry in the Red Sea, as the editors comment, drawing in other disasters such as the Beni Sweif fire and the war in Lebanon.

All the texts in Meena, whether written originally in Arabic or in English, also appear translated into the other language, a formidable task for the two translation editors, Abdel-Rehim Youssef and Samy Ismail, who work in collaboration with other translators. Indeed, in the first issue of Meena several English texts had been translated into colloquial Arabic. This practice resonates, of course, with the linguistic preference of a number of Al-Kull writers, including Youssef, Zedan, as well as Maher Sherif, who is also the art editor of both Al-Kull and Meena. For example, the translation of Hank Lazer's "W", a delightful satire on Bush, neo-con policies and the war on Iraq, works very well in Egyptian colloquial Arabic as rendered by Youssef. It is a decision, the Alexandrian group have suggested, that came under attack during a public debate about the journal last summer. Both Youssef and Ismail, however, have worked collaboratively with the authors of English texts over the choice of classical or colloquial Arabic, ceding in one case to a request, by Brad Richard, to have his poem "The Return of Gilgamesh" translated into classical despite their belief it lent itself more to colloquial.

The collaborative work and parallel commentary on common concerns that marked the first issue of Meena are extended in the second where there are what one might call intersecting gazes and a search for mutualities as well as for contrasting positions. Dedicated to Naguib Mahfouz, extracts from whose Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha ( Dreams ) are reproduced here, the issue comprises some 36 authors. The issue's aptly chosen, tone-setting first text is Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef's "New Orleans", translated by the author, "Oh, oh... sleep / Oh, oh... sleep / I'm sleeping / We two are sleeping / In a bed of water. / Oh, oh... sleep/ Water might turn to fire, and winds to axes..."

The cultural commonalities as well as connections between New Orleans and Alexandria are dwelt on in an essay by James Nolan entitled "Amphibious Mirages", which brings out their similarly "alluvial sites", their historically changing languages and religions, the echo between Louis Armstrong and Sayyed Darwish, the link of Napoleon having sold New Orleans to the US to make up for his losses in Egypt, and the shared dispositions whereby "the residents are cosmopolitan to the extreme, yet... believe only in themselves, as if their world alone were real."

The volume includes multiple approaches in several genres to the theme of water -- for example the free-associative piece "The Nilometer" by Sharif S. Elmusa, Rajab Saad Alsayyed's essay "The Politics of Water" which mixes etymology, history and poetic rhapsodies in its reflections on the Nile before moving on to the role of water in the Arab-Israeli conflict via Sadat's aborted plan to reroute Nile water to the Naqab desert "as a gesture of friendship from Egypt" to the Israeli government's policies on water supply whereby a "third of the inhabitants of the West Bank do not get more than an interrupted amount of water, while Israel gets 82 per cent of the supply".

The larger portion of texts and images, though, are naturally devoted to Hurricane Katrina. Photographs of an inundated New Orleans are included by William Sabourin O'Reilly, Neil Alexander and Michael J. Deas. Anne Gisleson, in her article "Industrial Canal", outlines the topographical backdrop of the disaster while John Biguent's essay "A Letter from Atlantis" adopts a marvelously chilling, omniscient God-like tone towards an apparently archetypal and initially Edenic city -- "Imagine a city", "Let the humid afternoon warmth dampen the din of commerce and mute the clack of mule hooves and iron-shod wheels" -- before suddenly shifting to disaster -- "Now -- while they're still laughing -- unpeople the place. Scatter in boarded-up houses, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, twenty- five, fifty, maybe eighty thousand men, women, and their children. But evacuate everyone else" -- that registers this as New Orleans. Jonathan Tel and Megan Burns contribute two poems, respectively "On Water" ("There are to be talks on water / in the framework of the multilateral process / the politicians have prophesied it") and "Listening to the Levee Board Senate Hearings" ("... remember that the water / had no agenda, no contract, no deficit or surplus, / ... remember that the only water that sat in on the levee / board hearings / in Washington D.C. / was in small clear glasses..."), quite similar in their satire on the politicians' treatment of the issue. The extracts from Bill Lavender's "After the Storm: A Primer of American Politics from the Isle of Denial" debunk the myths surrounding the disaster in the media and public discourse, such as the alleged "breakdown of social order". Yictove's poem "Water Town Babies" is a touching tribute to a New Orleans streetwise sensibility and its imaginative resources.

One Egyptian parallel to the Hurricane Katrina disaster that the journal highlights is the dispossession of the Nubians following the building of the High Dam. The issue is brought out through a fine interview with Nubian novelist Oddoul by Ehab Abdel-Hamid (who also contributes a short story to the issue). Oddoul discusses the "organic" and "physiological" bond between the Nile and Nubian lifestyles, rituals and mythology, as seen also in his texts, elaborates on the impoverishment of that culture through misguided resettlement policies, and explains through his experience working on the construction of the dam, the shift in his own perceptions of the transformation, from a resigned belief in the contribution that his people's sacrifice would make to the national project under Nasser to a realization that "I had shared in a murder against them [the Nubians]. My only excuse was my ignorance."

The journal has also published texts by Arab- Americans, including, in the first issue, Naomi Shihab Nye's "Message on My Answering Machine, The Last Day of the Year" and Ibtisam Barakat's "Alphabets of My Life". Hegazzi comments that while Meena is open to Arab- American material, as much as to works from different parts of the world, it is keen on not being ethnically pigeon-holed, something that, according to him, has caused some ruffles in Arab- American literary circles. While the first issue comprised an interview by Hegazzi and Young with Reza Aslan, the Iranian born US-resident author of No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, the second volume brings into dialogue American and Middle Eastern versions of Islam through "Walking in the Hajar's Footsteps", an interview by Tara Roberts with American feminist Asra Q. Nomani -- the author of Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for Islam -- and a response, "Walking... American Woman", by Alexandrian writer Omaima Abdel-Shafy. Nomani discusses her renewed relationship with Islam after 9/11, mosque politics in the US and her activism to allow women access to the main prayer space, her adducing of the figure of Hajar as a forgotten and empowering female model, and upholds the need for new approaches to and interpretations of Islam. In response to a question about the designation "Muslim feminist", she comments that she now finds no contradiction in terms and that she needed to reclaim "the feminist principles from Islam's inception... I do believe that Islam and feminism are redundant."

Abdel-Shafy begins by bringing out the differences in the experiences of an American Muslim woman and those of a Muslim resident in the Middle East. She goes on to argue that construing Islam and feminism as synonymous is reductive, appearing to an Egyptian Muslim to suggest spuriously that it is only women who are the victims of strict customs. Asserting that Nomani's position sounded like a call for separatism here taking the form of "one of those feminists movements which, in my view, care for nothing but fame and controversy", Abdel-Shafy counters with the argument that a more viable position is to maintain that Islam and humanism are synonymous, insists that there is a dividing line between what is permissible and what is forbidden, but agrees on the need for ijtihad with the aim of overcoming "barriers and discrimination". It is an endeavour that, as she sees it, "opposes calls... for such terms as 'Islamic Feminism,' 'American Islam'" and reinforces the lives of Muslim men as much as women the world over.

The Arabic texts included in the second issue comprise four poems by Mahmoud Darwish, a text by Tayyeb Salih, two poems by the Lebanese Joumana Haddad, Abdel-Hamid's short story "Thirst", three poems by Atif Khairy, Osama Dinasouri's "The Poet's Mirror", Rehab Ebrahim's magical realist story "Daughter of Life", and two poems by Emad Fouad, among others. One reservation to be expressed about the second issue of the journal is the dearth of material by the Alexandrian group. Granted, in addition to Abdel-Shafy, the volume includes the colloquial Arabic poem by Zedan "If Uncle Yussef Didn't Come", an ironically affectionate tribute to an old man of the sea who peppers his Arabic with Italian, and a series of drawings by Aly Ashour entitled "Erotica". Perhaps the next issue, which Hegazzi discloses is to centre on the theme of immigration, will be more evenhanded in this respect.

Meena 's website is:>

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