Lalami, or your life

unneccessary woman

How do you replace a country?

By creating the fiction of a new one from the sinews of the one you lost.

Indeed, immigrants to the United States have always created a rich fictional narrative that indelibly defined their place in the sun.

So where is the great Arab American writer novelist?

Fein, oh fein?

As elucidated by Dr. Ramsy Battoum, the famous Syrio-Greek literary critic, who recently sat down for a wide ranging interview with the Paris Review:

Even if one takes into account the inevitable and ubiquitous Laila Lalami, or the sporadic Rabih Alammedine, Arab American fiction has proven to be stunted, moribund, obscure and second-rate. Compared, for example, to the extraordinary cadre of Jewish novelists who redefined American literature throughout much of the 20th century, Arab American novels have, alas, proven to be nothing more, in effect, than thinnish gruel indeed.”

Dr. Battoum, who is widely reviled in certain circles as a self-hating Moslem, continues with his interlocutor:

Just look at the work. Arab America fiction lacks originality or even basic creative vitality, despite having as monumental a subject matter as 9-11 there for the writing, which the late Norman Mailer once said would take writers at least 10 years to absorb. Well, its been 16 years, and still nothing. The Dates of Wrath is not a very good book; in fact, it is a very bad one. Arab-American novelist Raouf el Kharouf’s metaphorical idea for imagining Cairo’s Bourg mistakenly taken down by F-35s during a joint US-Egyptian training maneuver is in outrageous poor taste. The sad truth is that Arab-American literature has remained unsure of its place in the American literary firmament. Its fictional palette is derivative, its stock characters defined not by the imagination of true writers, but by hacks who seek to contextualize external political events, lament the past, or gratingly prove through forced novelistic historical marches that Arabs were part of the American experience since the days of Spanish conquistadors.”

In this inflammatory interview, which elicited howls of protest from Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen, the Egyptian Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef, and the artist known as Ganzeer, Dr. Battoum continue to harp on this theme, by making the following questionable if not libelous assertions:

“This is primarily a victim literature, unable or incapable of being truly American. For example, it’s use of American vernacular invariably feels… acquired. I’ll just leave it at that. This is not the situation with Arab-American literary or cultural criticism — Edward Said immediately jumps to mind — despite the fact that he borrowed many of his best ideas from my work.”

Holding up the coming issue of Mizna on Islamophobia, the flagship magazine for Arab-American literature, Dr. Battoumi singled out a beautiful poem called Tell Me What You See, reproduced here in its entirety.

Trans. to exquisite Arabic by Google

It’s Zareef.

Or even better, it’s Falafel Zareef.

He’s pushing his shiny cart on a busy street corner.

He’s cries out: “Felafels, felafels here!

Strangers rush by on the sidewalk.

Some of them stop by the cart.

They want a quick felafel to go.

With extra hummus.

They hand over their baladi dollars.

Thanks, they say.

But then the unimaginable happens.

After the carnage is over, the strangers turns around and stare at Zareef.

He doesn’t blend in so much any more.

He’s growing a beard, a big thick black one.

Or is he?

In the following rant, Dr. Battoum dismembers Tell Me What You See rather harshly:

As someone whose interest in literature has driven me to earn advanced degrees in Classical Philology at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford Universtiy, I summarily reject this coy poem as complete garbage. Yes, I’m cognizant of the reputation of this publication’s feminist cadre of junior editors for completely mangling submissions. Yet, shame on Mizna for accepting this sort of tripe for publication. It’s neither prose nor poetry. It is just someone sitting in a room at his computer typing. It is just something from Minnesota, like Al Franken without the laughs or the Hazelden clinic.  I have had enough of rubbish poesy from the likes of Mizna, and find that I have to look elsewhere to hear the music of the real poets of the desert; for example, there is a modern-day Bedu writer, totally uncompromised, from Trans Jordan, whose work has not yet made it to the US in translation, due to temporary difficulties with the Israelis.  His work is engaging, dynamic and not weighted down by the usual cloying aromas of couscous and Om Ali.”

Dr. Battoumi concludes his unpleasant broadsides with the following:

The wadi of Trans Jordan fiction may not be wide or deep, but nevertheless it is literature that is defined by a Hawitat writer who has some real skin in the game. He is not the product of one of those innumerable, elitist, soporific MFA programs, so popular in the US, but which genuine writers such as Carver and Cheever repeatedly dismissed in private as places more suitable for getting laid or drunk and collecting a paycheck than producing literature. Wadi Rum is this writer’s Breadloaf, and goat milk his Fullbright scholarship.”

We look forward to catching up Dr. Ramsy Battoum in his next outing, which we trust shall not be anytime soon.

Pessoa’s demons

I have to confess I’ve been remiss in reading the Book of Disquiet straight through. But I did randomly dip into pages from Pessoa’s book, and soon formed an opinion.

This preliminary assessment was also based on everything I was reading about his life, including his obsession with a younger woman:  that he broke up their nascent affair, due to the real world interdiction of one of his fictional alter egos only confirmed my suspicions of this writer. Fernando Pessoa, like one of his grandmothers, was insane; which is perhaps why he drifted into the alcoholism that killed him at 47.

I have always been attracted to the work of introverted writers, such as Samuel Beckett, et al, who drank too much, lived tortured, solitary lives, and, yes, produced literary masterpieces.

So I grouped Pessoa into that bucket; why did I have to read him, when I already was familiar, albeit at a genius remove, with what he was going to say?  When I have already felt what he is talking about? My confirmed indolence had little trouble inventing excuses to delay reading Disquiet.

But then there was this other thing.

As the cartoonish spectacle of the relentless Trumpian self-dealing plutocracy in Washington recedes into meaningless noise, I find myself thinking of things that are completely dissociated from my here and now in Fla.

In particular, I find myself once again thinking about the nature of isolation, and the meaning of salvation: is such a thing possible?

I have also obsessed over the years about the concept of a Second Death.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about it as taking place in a sort of airport lounge.  In this lounge, I’ve envisioned a group of passengers waiting to board the plane to paradise.

There is an attendant who’s engrossed by a small screen at the ticket counter by the boarding gate.

Suddenly, the attendant looks up, leans into a mike, and announces the first group that’s going to be allowed to board the plane to heaven.

These are the innocent, the children who died in accidents or in wars, or the elderly who have led blameless lives, but no one else.

After they all board, which takes some time, the attendant announces the next group.  These are the ones who sinned in this life, but not egregiously so.  They would have to wait for a bit, before boarding.  In an darkening airport lounge where the air conditioning has stopped working.

 

Time passes.  The room temperature in the lounge becomes increasingly uncomfortable.

Everyone begins to sweat, except for the ticket attendant, who goes back to looking at the small screen behind her counter.

After an increasingly tense 30 minutes, a few passengers sigh with relief.

The ticket attendant is again approaching the microphone.

She announces that the group who only did only a few truly shitty things in life will now be allowed to board the plane.

Shouts of joy are heard in the lounge.  There are secret little smiles on the faces of the chosen ones.

The announcer looks at the remaining group of travellers.

Unfortunately, she says, most of the passengers on the flight to paradise will have to wait a little longer.

The airport lounge is now becoming almost unbearably hot and loud.

As the group of milder sinners go through the boarding gate, a few people faint; no one brings them water, or comes to their.aid.

The attendant looks on impassively.

Everyone is thinking about themselves now, as they somberly wait for her to allow the next group on.

Panic is in the air.

The temperature ticks up relentlessly.

It is now well over 50 degrees Celsius in the lounge.

More passengers pass out.

The lounge is beginning to look like a refugee camp

Hours pass.

Finally the attendant approaches the microphone.

Will all the passengers who spent much their lives doing major bad ass things in life please approach the gate? You must have your boarding passes ready, she adds, which proves that you are not completely evil.

The group of predominanty malevolent passengers, most of them red-faced, unsteady on their feet, and sweating profusely, drag their carry-on luggage to the gate and push their way past one another, as they hand their boarding passes to the ticket attendant.

What about us? yell a group of totally evil sinners, standing nearby. When do we get to board the plane to paradise?

The ticket attendant glares at them, which causes the restive gaggle of irredeemables to shut up, and calmly resumes checking in the mostly, but not entirely sinful travelers.

When she’s done, she turns to the damned.

Unfortunately, you will not be allowed to board the aircraft at this time, the attendant finally says.

In fact, you will never be allowed to board this flight. However, your souls will still be allowed to live on in the lounge area. I advise you to repent, pointless though it may be.

A big cry goes up, but the ticket attendant remains impassive.

Water! Water!

Let us board, please, we beg you!

But she remains unmoved.

As this is going on, a small group of  scruffy, barely noticeable, bookish-looking unbelievers huddle together.

They are standing meekly apart from the larger group of hopelessly evil sinners.

Their faces are blank, and none of them are carrying any luggage.

The attendant glances up at them, but without pity.

As for travelers in Group Z, she says, unfortunately I have some worse news. You shall neither be allowed to board the plane nor remain in the airport lounge.

The ones standing in Group Z look momentarily stunned, but say nothing. They remain completely silent, for they realize the irrevocable nature of what just happened to them.

It was as if a side door had swung open in an empty place of worship, letting in a swirling draft that extinguished a candle, tucked away in some hidden alcove, where it had flickered for years but never petered out.

And when the door slammed back shut, it was as if that candle had never been lit at all.

 

Perhaps it is this sort of pessimistic outlook on life that animated writers such as Fernando Pessoa and Samuel Becket, and many others like them, as they contemplated their looming oblivion. They were not only the walking dead in their own lifetimes, often sufferers of some tragedy that turned them into alcoholic zombies, but in fact were worse off than that, for they sensed that they might be snuffed out a second time in the afterlife, a more horrible death even than their first one, a Second Death, as it is known in Scripture, the death that forever wipes souls clean off the face of eternity.

And why?

What sin had these human beings committed to deserve this?

 

Allahu a’lam, as they say in Egypt: God only knows. No doubt a deeper reading of Disquiet will prove revelatory.

As long as Pessoa doesn’t get too carried away.

France: the morning after

Elections have consequences.

Following Macron’s 1st round victory, I studied carefully the results by first reading the NY Times, before doing a more detailed followup by consulting two French regional newspapers: Nice Matin, and the Sud Ouest.

As you can see from the election map above, Nice went solidly for Le Pen.

Nice Matin provides further detail.

It’s abundantly clear that the Alpes-Maritimes region, and in particular, Nice itself, is a solidly right wing (Le Pen + Fillon = 55% of the vote) bastion.

Macron won big in Paris, as one would expect, but also in places like the South West of France.

His win in the Gironde department caught my eye. This is where Bordeaux is located, a city that popped out in a way that hadn’t before for me.

For example, En Marche ! (Macron’s new party) won with 26,14 % of votes cast in the Gironde.  Overall, Macron was not followed by Marine Le Pen, but by Jean-Luc Mélenchon (21,83 %); the Hitler candidate came in a distant third (18,2%).

In Bordeaux itself : Macron got 31,3% of the vote, ahead of  Mélenchon (23,4%), but it was Fillon ((21,8%) and Hamon (10,1%) who followed, with Le Pen trailing badly at 7,4%.

That pretty much settled it for me.  Vive les socialistes!

As I’ve indicated in earlier posts, I have no interest in moving from one right-wing nut job part of the world (Florida) to another (Nice).  I do have a soft spot for Nice, mainly because I spent a Junior Year Abroad there many years ago, and fell in love with a beautiful girl (who dumped me).

Well, that was then; this is now.

I’m already booked to leave the United States the first week of September.  I’m leaving the United States for obvious reasons.

When I booked, in early January, Marine Le Pen had not yet visited an Orange Clown lackey at the Berghof-on-Fifth-Avenue emporium.  But soon it became apparent that she might have a chance of winning, which is why I went into Gouna mode.

Now don’t get me wrong.

Gouna is very attractive at many levels, not the least of which is that I am originally from Egypt.

But there are cetain undeniable realities that are inconsistent with my general outlook on life, which has been deeply influenced by my late father’s disposition vis a vis authoritarian regimes.

Moreover, I reserve a special position in my life for arts in general, and literature in particular.

Gouna, as a childhood friend who now lives there part-time recently told me, is not really that big on books.

It’s mostly a touristy place, with armies of Germans and Italians passing through for a week of fun in the sun, and to enjoy the distressingly loud nightlife by the main marina, the “downtown” area, and the various DJ-ayed clubs in the hotels.

There are also about 20 thousand people who live there full-time. Many who do so, including Egyptians, appear to be quite wealthy — which is not something I can say about myself.

Another thing that stands out about Gouna is its apparent unrelenting pursuit of imitating American culture.

I have lived in America most of my life, and know the States and its culture fairly intimately.  I do not need really to travel to the Red Sea to experience a second-hand approximation of Americana; I have the real thing around me here.

What does interest me about Gouna is the surrounding desert and waters. I am also intrigued by the possible opportunity of venturing further south, away from Party Hell Hurghada, toward Quseir and Marsa Alam and Elba National Park.

There, it’s like scenes ripped out of some Cormac McCarthy novel: desolate, post-apocalyptic outposts in a forsaken part of the Red Sea, where you encounter clusters of half-built, abandoned hotels, decaying from lack of tourists and water, road signs fading under the glare of a relentless tropical sun, brownish palm frond beach umbrellas that stand like pointless sentinels on a rough, empty coastline, despite the gorgeous warm sea and it’s incredibly pristine marine life.

But to live in Gouna year round? Lovely place to visit… but…..

Strange marine pollution found on the beach in Lenval, a beach in Nice. One can easily say to hell with this greedy, unhappy town, with its exorbitant rents, the superficial, overly materialistic shiny blingy lifestyle, the touristy economy with restaurants that serve overpriced crappy food, its seedy old people who mutter constantly under their breath about Muslims (which is often a function of the Pied-Noir background of many elderly residents), the lingering horror on the Prom last year, not to mention the dogshit everywhere, the broad daylight theft by roving gangs of Eastern European thugs on motorcycles, the endless traffic and tram related construction, the Russian prosties and their Bulgarian pimps, the weakling right wing mayor and suffocating playboy race car driver ex mayor who sucks the air out of everything in Nice, the rats that come out at night on Ave Jean Medecin, the pleasant-to look-at but shitty beach, where the only actually sandy patch is artificial and miniscule, with the rest of the Bay of Angels’ plage blessed with uncomfortable-to-sit-on stone pebbles; and, finally, a sea that looks pretty from a distance, but is actually massively polluted, as this pic demonstrates.

Soudainement, it looks like I  might not end up there long term after all.

But hold on, now, wait a second.

What about Leaving America?  Is that all going out the window now?

Isn’t there one bloody place in the world outside of NYC where people are kind of more like me?

Where the vibe is pleasant, and there’s a nice mix of young and old and people in between.

Isn’t there a place where the winters are mild and the summers nice and hot?

Isn’t there a place where it drizzles just enough to keep everything clean and green, without the torrential downpours every bloody afternoon that we enjoy in Florida during the summer?

Isn’t there a place that has beautiful stone buildings and the sort of grand municipal architecture that reminds one of Paris, but where the cost of living is half that of the City of Light, or even Nice?

Isn’t there a place that has lots of English speaking expats, including Americans, so that my independent wife could easily make friends and not constantly have to speak in French or rely on me for everything?

Isn’t there a place with a fantastic, affordable public transportation network and where most working-age people have decent paying jobs and there crottes problem has been solved?

(Note: It seems there is an ~15-25 per cent unemployment rate in Bordeaux, depending on age, and that the tram runs okay in the city, but it is difficult to use public transport around the Department, or county, due to frequent strikes and lack of routes between small villages. Much like everywherd else in France, the French do not seem to think that picking up after their dogs is their responsiblity; thus you have to watch for dog shit sliders everywhere you go in Bordeaux, just like in Nice.)

A place where there are stunning, sandy beaches a hop skip and a jump away, not to mention a history that goes way back to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son, Richard the Lion Hearted, and his notorious Holy Land escapades?

Drum roll….

Yes, of course there is.

It is, in fact, the marvelous city of Bordeaux.

An open secret among  savvy UK and US expats, and a really nice place to live. It even boasts a nifty, thoroughly modern 121-year old library!

Here’s a vid to introduce the former Sleeping Beauty.

And for those who can read French, there’s also this amusingly tongue-in-cheek Buzzfeed article that lists 36 reasons to NOT ever go there, but also this less amusing reality.

Let’s get serious.

France’s surfing capital, Biarritz, is 2 hours away by train.

Let’s get even more serious.

America the Beautiful. Source: NYT

I want to leave America and live in a place that my wife and I find more congenial in our heart of hearts than the vile provincialism of Trumplandia — even though there are unexpected delights, such as a Francophonic newspaper that is published right here in F-L-A.

My wife will not move to Egypt because she will NOT put up with wearing veils and such, not to mention the other cultural barriers.

I have a lovely UK/EU passport, which I just renewed.  It’s unlikely that May will be able to negotiate a hard Brexit under two years.  Five is what you need to establish permanent residency in France.

My UK passport will give us the right of residence for as long as May and her Tory Trumpian ass-kissers take to weasel out of the UK’s financial obligatin to the EU, without any hassles for my wife and I in terms of Carte de Sejour agita.  (As the wife of an EU national, my better half can also live with me in France.)

This summer, I anticipate that the Orange Clown and his despicable cohorts will make insurance skyrocket even more.  I have already paid well over $175,ooo in premiums to the twisted American health care system over the last 15 years. And I’m not the only one to do so. And soon, I fear that many of those who voted for this claque of racist mercenaries will be dying in the streets from hunger and disease, and no one will lift a finger to help them.  It will be like watching Animal Kindgom, as herds of migrating wildebeest get picked off by crocs, whilst those who have made it safely across impassively look on. Animal Planet, mate. Is that the sort of place where I want to live?

Enough already.

Like most people, we want access to excellent health care at an affordable price.

Bordeaux tram. Source: PD

We just might get gigglefits from living in Bordeaux, where the cost of living or retirement in general appears rather manageable.

No one’s getting any younger.

It’s time for my wife and I to actually enjoy life again, as we did for decades in Manhattan, far away from the gothic, plantation-era manias of the American South.

For that, we need an agreeable change of scenery.

My wife absolutely loves France, and I speak the languatge fluently. And the money behind such a move could be there, even if only just.

And so, we await the results of Round 2. With all the requisite ataraxy, of course.

C’est tout pour le moment.