The world today is a crowded place, and all sort of people push their way in on to the subway car at rush hour.
The tracks are creaking from what in Arabic is called zahma, the crowd, and the price of your ride keeps going up.
But you are different, you tell yourself.
You are not part of this horde.
You think for yourself, and at heart, you are a Bohemian.
And so you ask yourself: Why does one read a novel or view a painting?
Is it to pass the time?
To see the world in a new way?
Why do you still tape those art posters on the walls of your shotgun apartment?
Let me tell you a story.
There was a group of Egyptian artists, once.
They rose during the time of Farouk the King.
Many if not most spoke French.
They traveled to France. They picked up the mannerisms of the Surrealists.
Then of course they wrote a Manifesto. (It’s charmingly dated, like a Tristan Tzara sendup, but worth the quick read, especially the French version.)
Après tout, all Surrealists had to also be pamphleteers.
Some were arrested for threatening the King’s rule.
But then Farouk was forced to abdicate, and the young Surrealists, dubbed Les Inquiets by the art critic Aimé Azar, became super patriotic.
They believed in the Socialist dream.
Nasser loved and supported them. They served a useful political purpose: they proved that his hukooma was not only about hanging those who disagreed with him.
The Inquiets created images of the New Egypt.
Then the Socialist dream turned to ashes in 1967.
Many years passed, and the art of the anxious young Idealists was appropriated by the State, and ended up in dusty government warehouses and in the storage rooms of dilapidated museums.
The revolving ministers of Culture in Egypt saw no value in them.
Neglect fell upon the land of Egypt.
But then, slowly, a market emerged, fueled by private collectors.
Suddenly, Egyptian billionaires like Naguib Sawiris — whose presence is global, even though he purportedly rides around El Gouna in a bicycle — were snapping up paintings by the likes of Abdel Hadi el Gazzar for millions.
Cairo dealers woke up to the commercial value of yesterday’s Idealists, and thus a market for fraudulent art was born.
It continues to thrive in the phoniness of today’s Egypt, as President Peepee and his henchmen arrest and even torture anyone in sight who might speak out the truth.
Just like Mubarak and Sadat and Nasser did, and the English during the time of Farouk and Fouad before that lot. Just like when the young Idealists were nabbed and beaten in jails when Egypt was a kingdom for the few.
Now I ask you again, why do you read novels?
Why do you look at paintings?
Do you say, oh I’m hip to Ganzeer, I know all about how the dreams of the Arab Spring turned to sewage. I know all about Using Life.
Do you really know anything real at all about Arabs?
As the truth about what happened in 2016 becomes clearer by the day, yet the abydocomist-in-chief remains in the Oval Office — you might ask yourself: how is America different in that regard from Egypt? or Iraq? or Iran? or Israel?
You will surely continue to hear, from the xenophobes and charlatans, oh these Arabs do not belong here. This is our land. These are terrorists; they are not part of our culture.
But then you might also hear, by chance, a whisper about some obscure novel and your curiosity is piqued: Is it possible, you say? Did Arabs really emigrate to NYC in the late 19th Century?
Was there a little Syria in the borough of Manhattan on Washington Street, right by where 9-11 took place?
And did an Arab-American writer who lived there during that time produce a sophisticated novel in English as far back as 1911?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes again.
And so you read this novel, The Book of Khalid, and you read about the unusual life of Ameen Fares Rihani, and your astonishment grows, particularly if you were an English major in college and thus able to make the connection to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.
Sartor Resartus? Carlyle? Arabs? And Surrealism too?
Is this possible?
Arabs are animals, they say.
Many have spent their lives over the centuries trying to parlay this idea.
You stop and think:
They speak French, these animals?
They produce culture?
They write novels and create works of art?
In America, more than a hundred years ago, and in the world at large for a thousand years before that?
These are the same animals who are busy producing some of the best fiction being written today, despite the threat of imprisonment and death?
These are the terrorists you hear so much about?
You might also ask yourself: why is it that the 9-11 Memorial Museum suppressed any mention of Little Syria and the tragic if not obscene irony of a generational catastrophe in the very place where Arabs once thrived in lower Manhattan?
What’s that all about?
You stop and again ask yourself.
Why read novels?
Why look at art works or street graffiti?
To be entertained? To make a killing in the art market one day?
Or is it something more urgent?
Are these the last remaining places to find out a deeper though always provisional Truth, as the zahma threatens to leave you brain-dead amidst the rats on the subway tracks to nowhere?
Is that it?
Is it, in fact, the last vestige of what’s left of your humanity?