Youssef Rakha: Rediscovering and reanimating the Arabic language

Youssef Rakha

Youssef Rakha, author of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars, the winning work of the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, was in London for the Award Ceremony and Celebratory event at Waterstone’s Piccadilly with his winning translator Paul Starkey. Valentina Viene took the opportunity to interview Youssef for Banipal.

The author’s concept of Cairo, where he lives and works, is at the heart of much of his work. His vision is particularly interesting in the light of the Egyptian revolution. It echoes the general dissatisfaction that preceded the uprising and paved the path to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak. The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Rakha’s debut novel, was published just two weeks before Mubarak left the stage. In the novel Youssef Rakha challenges the contemporary trends of Arab literary production by “initiating a discourse”, to use writer Anton Shammas’s words.
An award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction, Youssef Rakha is a senior editor and reviewer for Al-Ahram Weekly. His blog, “The Sultan’s Seal: Cairo’s Coolest Cosmopolitan Hotel”, showcases not just his work but also photography, poetry, and essays by other Arab and non-Arab contributors.

Your novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars, won the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Why do you think it was came top out of the 29 entries?

I was glad to realise the jury took the quality of the original into account when they made their decision. It means they appreciated my writing, not just Paul Starkey’s kamikaze operation. I think it’s definitely a feat of translation to have rendered the story, the characters and the mini essays that make up the book, as they are – and survived; though, of course, one crucial dimension – the many registers of Arabic, the language play – is completely lost, as I knew it had to be. Which is partly why I said No to the offer of doing the translation myself. I should add that to see Arabic being celebrated alongside all those European languages at “the translation Oscars” ceremony was truly gratifying.

Mustafa Çorbaci, the protagonist, is a journalist like you, and there are other things in common between you and Mustafa. How much of an autobiographical element do you want readers to see in the novel? What about the other interesting characters, Mustafa’s friends and colleagues?

As far as the characters go, the book is drawn from life. They are based on real people, but their traits are distorted and exaggerated to serve the purposes of the story and make them more like the Ottoman archetypes into which one of Mustafa’s dreams actually turns them. Mustafa himself is based on me, yes. But, except for the opening passages about his divorce, it’s not so much as an alias through which to tell my story as a perspective through which to view the city, a locus for all I want to talk about. The question of how autobiographical my writing should be was a major concern to me when I started writing, but as I got older and my writing developed, it became less so. The issue is not whether or not one uses autobiography in fiction but how and to what end one does so. Of course fiction overlaps with actual events and can prompt a voyeuristic reading. This was the case with my second novel, The Crocodiles, in which the reader is intentionally misled, to a greater extent, into thinking the fictional characters are real people. I think it’s always important to stress that a work of fiction should be read as an exercise of the imagination, not an actual statement on reality, but in the end you can’t control how readers interact with your book.

The need to re-map, re-name Cairo culminates in the drawing of a seal that seems to bring back some order and a shape to this city. Islamic calligraphy is all about balance, proportions and rules. Is this what Mustafa needs in his life?

I think Mustafa simply needs meaning, and he needs meaning that harks back to his Muslim legacy without compromising his secular, contemporary outlook. That’s why the map of his Cairo turns into a tughra. Order and balance are part of what meaning is, of course, but in Mustafa’s case I wouldn’t stress them as much as purpose and identity.

The idea of a secret organization that is behind the events of Mustafa’s Cairo. Is that just part of the character’s paranoia? Or is there more to it?

I was interested in playing along with and subverting the conspiracy theories so rife among Arabs and Muslims today. I wanted to parody the idea that Egyptians are not to blame for their backwardness because there are external, super-powerful parties that work against them in secret, but also – in a collectively self-pitying way – to substantiate it. I’m not sure to what degree this has to do with Mustafa’s paranoia as such, though of course his subjective perspective and the “objective” reality he describes complement each other. I feel one must always remember William Burroughs’s statement, “A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what’s going on.”

At the Waterstone’s Prize event, you said that the original version was written in a made-up medieval sounding Arabic and that you used various registers of this invented language. Who or what were you inspired by? Did it take you a long time to forge this language and was it an enjoyable process?

An invented Middle Arabic, as in somewhere between the standard and the current Egyptian vernacular. I wouldn’t say it was medieval-sounding so much as medievally inspired. My models were great historians of Cairo: Jabarti and, before him, Ibn Iyas. It was very enjoyable finding and employing a unique language for the book, mainly because it was risky, a challenge, but also because it was an opportunity to think about words and their origins and how they fit together. It was a way of rediscovering and reanimating the Arabic language.

Interviewed by Valentina Viene

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