Friday, March 31, 2006

Writers & Influence

From El-Ahram:
Youssef Abu Raya's novel Laylat 'Urs (Wedding Night) is set in a rural town, a microcosm of Egypt, that begins as a village and eventually becomes a large, modern city. It is the site of the confluence of many stories from Arab countries and beyond. The events take place sometime between the defeat of 1967 and the October War of 1973. The novel contains echoes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, certainly in the manner in which an entire town colludes to rid itself of a symbol of sexual vitality, though Raya's town, in the end, is perhaps closer to that in the Steinbeck story "Johnny Bear". Houda, the deaf and dumb protagonist of Laylat 'Urs, resembles Steinbeck's eponymous hero: both excel in expressing themselves through gestures. Houda may be deaf and dumb, but he clutches all the secrets of the town to his bosom. Like Johnny Bear, and his Egyptian incarnation in Youssef Idris's "Al-Sheikh Sheikha", it is the fear that Houda will upset the secret symbols of decorum that leads to the conspiracy against him.
I'm intrigued by what and who inspires novels, and right now am interested in which writers influence Arabs and Arab Americans . Abu Raya's book seems to be inspired by Steinbeck and Marquez, and Mahfouz's Author Notes have always said he was influenced by Proust, Zola, Flaubert, and countless other French/Western writers.

This week, many people have asked me about influences of Arab American writers. My friend Hayan Charara reported that, in an informal poll, almost every single Arab American writer cited non-Arab influences. It makes sense to me: the Arab novel is relatively new. The earliest is Heikal's Zeinab, which was written in 1914, and even then, it was written in Paris.

In sharp contrast to the Arabic novel is Arabic poetry. Arabic poetry is too, too rich and complex to consdence into a blog post, or even into one book. Arab poets are, in my experience, almost always influenced by other Arab poets.

And it makes sense: poets work primarily with language, especially in Arabic, where almost all poems rhyme (yet, there are many free verse poets out there). So, for Arab American writers who write in English, it follows that they would be influenced by English-language poems.

So: are Arab and Arab-American writers mainly influenced by Western writers, or are they also influenced by place, time, poetry, folktales, and a rich past that can not necessarily be pinned down to novels? And when they write novels which echo and resemble Western writers' works, do they not-- like all other writers, Arab or not-- "make it new"?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Updike's Newest

I just found out the premise/summary of John Updike's newest novel, coming out in June:
It tells of eighteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy and his devotion to Allah and the words of the Holy Qur’an, as expounded to him by a local mosque’s imam.

The son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who disappeared when he was three, Ahmad turned to Islam at the age of eleven. He feels his faith threatened by the materialistic, hedonistic society he sees around him in the slumping factory town of New Prospect, in northern New Jersey. Neither the world-weary, depressed guidance counselor at Central High School, Jack Levy, nor Ahmad’s mischievously seductive black classmate, Joryleen Grant, succeeds in diverting the boy from what his religion calls the Straight Path. When he finds employment in a furniture store owned by a family of recently immigrated Lebanese, the threads of a plot gather around him, with reverberations that rouse the Department of Homeland Security.

But to quote the Qur’an: Of those who plot, God is the best.
Boy, oh boy. Check out the United Colors of Benetton puppets, I mean, cast: A Jewish conselor! An Irish Mother! A black class mate! A Lebanese store-owner! An Egyptian deadbeat dad! This is either going to be kind and empathetic or it will just plain suck. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's going to suck. Out loud.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Department of Cartwheels In the Clouds: my novel is getting published!

Yes, 'tis true: the novel found a home this week at Other Press. It'll be on shelves flaunting its sassy, original paperback self sometime in 2007/2008, insha allah. I'll divulge more once I have the details.

The novel, a profane and humorous bildungsroman, begins with the narrator's birth to failed artists and ends about 18 years later, but it also jumps back into the '60s and '70s. It's set in Kuwait, Boston, Egypt, the West Bank, and Central Texas, and explores and questions ideas of home, war, identity, family, belonging, marriage, education, and how they all tie in with art and freedom.

I began the novel in San Marcos, TX, in 2000, and after a couple of false starts, moved to a trailer in Kyle and started over. Very soon after, the voice of the narrator, Nidali, became stronger and more present, and she'd visit more regularly. Then, 9/11 happened, and for a week I felt despondent about the work and the world, but I escaped the news and sadness around me by going back into the novel. Many of the novel's chapters -- which include "You Are a 14-Year-Old Arab Chick..."--were written in the ten months that followed. I moved back to Austin and finished the first draft a year later. That was 2003. Over the last 2 and a half years, I've revised more and learned more about the novel and its characters.

It's been an arduous process, and over the years, many of you gave me priceless advice, listened to me ramble, were sweet enough to write and tell me you liked my work, helped pay my rent, watched my kid, read early drafts, bought me dinner/lunch/breakfast, wrote me kind letters, told me about your early publishing experiences, made me potfuls of coffee, stayed on the phone with my good-writing-day giddy self, stayed on the phone with my bad-day melt-down self: were good, good friends.

Your encouragement has meant the world to me.

A thousand thank yous.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

I'm not usually a fan of lists...

But I'm on this really cool one. After a day of BBQ and friends and frolic, this is like dessert.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


It seems the Israel lobby is all over the news right now. Just last night, I read this week's LRB's cover story which describes the ways in which the Israel lobby controls American politics in the Middle East:
In its basic operations, the Israel Lobby is no different from the farm lobby, steel or textile workers’ unions, or other ethnic lobbies. There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy: the Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise it are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better. By contrast, pro-Arab interest groups, in so far as they exist at all, are weak, which makes the Israel Lobby’s task even easier.
Read the rest of it here. The article pretty much caused me to get very angry. I watched Paradise Now before I went to bed. I don't think that helped with the anger.

Then, in today's El-Ahram, Joseph Massad, the dogged Columbia professor, says the lobby cannot be blamed for what are essentially the American government's sins:
The arguments put forth by these studies would have been more convincing if the Israel lobby was forcing the United States government to pursue policies in the Middle East that are inconsistent with its global policies elsewhere. This, however, is far from what happens. While US policies in the Middle East may often be an exaggerated form of its repressive and anti- democratic policies elsewhere in the world, they are not inconsistent with them. One could easily make the case that the strength of the pro-Israel lobby is what accounts for this exaggeration, but even this contention is not entirely persuasive.
Reading Massad's essay seriously confused me. How could a guy who's been hounded for years be letting the very lobby that hounded him off the hook? But sure enough, I got to the end of the essay and he answered the question for me:
What then would have been different in US policy in the Middle East absent Israel and its powerful lobby? The answer in short is: the details and intensity but not the direction, content, or impact of such policies. Is the pro- Israel lobby extremely powerful in the United States? As someone who has been facing the full brunt of their power for the last three years through their formidable influence on my own university and their attempts to get me fired, I answer with a resounding yes. Are they primarily responsible for US policies towards the Palestinians and the Arab world? Absolutely not. The United States is opposed in the Arab world as elsewhere because it has pursued and continues to pursue policies that are inimical to the interests of most people in these countries and are only beneficial to its own interests and to the minority regimes in the region that serve those interests, including Israel. Absent these policies, and not the pro-Israel lobby which supports them, the United States should expect a change in its standing among Arabs. Short of that, the United States will have to continue its policies in the region that have wreaked, and continue to wreak, havoc on the majority of Arabs and not expect that the Arab people will like it in return.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Latest Mahfouz Translation

Though I can't get into his novels or the trilogies, I dig Mahfouz's shorter works. The Daily Star reports on The Seventh Heaven, a collection of short stories by the 95-year-old author, translated by Raymond Stock. Sounds like a cool collection:
"The Seventh Heaven," then, is an opportunity to delve into Mahfouz's earlier, unknown or overlooked short fiction. All thirteen stories were written in Arabic between 1979 and 1999. They appear here in chronological order.

The first piece, which gives the collection its name, is essentially a novella, a 50-page story that serves as a precursor to Mahfouz's 1993 novel "Before the Throne."

A young man named Raouf is killed by a friend-turned-rival in the opening scene. He splits from his body and looks down on the crime scene, regarding himself as a bloody mess sprawled out on concrete. From there, he ascends to a place or a space - "a new city" - known as the first of seven heavens.

Here, Raouf meets Abu, defense counsel for new arrivals, who are tried in a court and either acquitted (in which case they are prepared for ascent to the second heaven), condemned (in which case they are reborn) or given probationary sentences to serve as spiritual guides for the living.
The article draws comparisons between this collection and the works of Rushdie, Kundera, Auster, Marquez, and Murakami. The more you read about it, the clearer the comparison gets.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Sex on the bus

I've been hearing a lot about Ahmed Khaled's new movie, The Fifth Pound, and how it's been having a hard time being released in Egypt. But I am weary about the sexuality being a problem. I saw "I love Cinema" in summer of 2004, in a huge, packed theater, and it's definitely daring in its treatment of Coptic families, churches, and sexuality-- I loved it. This Qantara article goes into depth about the Khaled film:
[T]he unpardonable aspect of the film, is not the bleakness of the stolen kisses, and not the fact that the couple chooses a Friday morning for its tryst, when good Moslems are expected to be in the mosque, and not even the fact the driver, while listening to cassette tapes of the Koran, fantasizes about being in the young man's place.

Most outrageous of all is the fact that the young girl is wearing a headscarf. A woman who wears a veil and yet allows herself to be touched by a man – the very idea flies in the face of every conviction and belief regarding dress codes and morality. And that is precisely what is intended.

"Women with veils are good, and all other women are bad – what nonsense!" Khaled says with scorn. A female attorney has already threatened to take him to court. At a screening of the film in the Russian Center, someone heckled the film, saying such conditions didn't exist in Egypt.
I'm still suspicious of the film's "riskiness." Or maybe I'm being naive. Has Egypt really gotten this retarded???

Friday, March 17, 2006

Fucking finally

Jimmy Carter says "Israel's colonization of Palestine precludes peace".

And Fatah and Co. say they may dissolve and hand the entire pile of crap to Israel, whose ass the crap apparently came from.

Otherwise... Happy St Patty's Day!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Sure, Blame the Wife

Croatian novelist Slavenka Drakulic believes that Milosevic didn't die because he was in jail, but because he was so in love with his wife. She also seems to think his wife is the reason he was a war criminal:
The secret behind his pursuit of power was Mira's desire to make him the most powerful man in Yugoslavia. She was the most important person in his life - and in his death as well it seems. Their lifelong love story, her manipulative nature, her thirst for power which earned her the nickname 'Lady Macbeth' and their complete dependance on one another. All in all they are a rather curious yet fascinating couple.
Via Sign & Sight.

I don't know. Sounds like blaming Daddy's beltings on Mommy to me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Performance Weekend

I'm just now starting to feel like a normal person again. In addition to the fun reading I did at BookPeople last weekend, I performed with "my dance squad"-- the Super Sonic Soul Squad-- at a retrospective for Biscuit last Friday. We had a dance-off with Satan's Cheerleaders (we're all pictured with them above). Gallery Lombardi is a warehouse by the train tracks; the dancing happened on a loading dock, with a train going by every once in a while. We spent about half an hour before the show in the parking lot practicing. We rocket the show! It was so fun. I was trying, during my reading Saturday, to be as chilled out about performing as I was the night before, but I guess without 8 other chicks to back me up, I get nervous. But the reading went well; most everyone I love was there, and I read "Dictations," a chapter from the novel, and people liked it. I feel good about the work right now. I feel good, period.

Million Writers Notables

The list of notable stories is now up, and includes Mohja Kahf's "Wedad's Cavalry," and "Demolition," by Ali Fahmy.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Arab-American Hip Hop

My friend Selina just sent me this hilarious myspace link to Patriarch, Son of a Refugee, a Palestinian-American rapper out of Dearborn. The first song just made my morning. Aywah! Sidenote: his CD comes with a free wristband. Hee.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Reading at BookPeople

Come to this, bitchez! I am going to be super nervous, and my face will be a strawberry, but I will read from my novel, and I've been wanting to read at BookPeople since I was a wee 20-year-old. Plus: 1. There will be free beer. 2. I will be reading first. Saturday, March 11, 6PM. Free.

Chahine uses awesome expletives

Egyptian filmmaker Yousef Chahine spoke with Qantara about Kifaya and demonstrations and politics:
Does the number of demonstrators get bigger?

Chahine: To a certain extent, but it is not enough. We have been living for 23 years under what you may call the "Security Act" which the Americans call the "Patriot Act". They have the same shit, but we are underdeveloped so the shit is bigger. Once I wanted to give the university a gift of very thick sticks. Because the boys go out with a copy book. What can you do with a copy book? Every time they get beaten. For once I want us to beat them.

What do you think is the role of artists in the contemporary political situation?

Chahine: You must participate. You can't be an artist if you don't know the social, the political, and the economical context. If you talk about the Egyptian people, you must know about are their problems. Either you are with modernity or you don't know what the hell you're doing. Because when Mr. Bush farts we jump.

Read the rest here.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Blue Oscars

We at Rockslinga have a snobby attitude towards Hollywood. I hate seeing big roomfuls of actors get honored for working 12 weeks out of the year for 20 million dollars while my friends and I slog away at novels in tiny rooms for years for 3 dollars. But I went to an oscar-viewing party anyway, and ended up laughing my ass off.

I should say, "I ended up laughing my ass off, literally." There were some LA residents at the party, and they claim that LA is all about using "literally" incorrectly. As in:

"I ran so hard to catch the bus my legs fell off. Literally, dude, my legs literally fell off."


"Man, I literally died. Literally. I died."

So, my favorite moments include every single one with Jon Stewart in it, and seeing the color blue on Salma Hayek and Larry McMurtry. Salma looked so stunning I literally had a heart attack. And McMurtry in a Cowboy Tux was the bomb...I loved his props to books and booksellers.

Once, I would have never dreamed of ever writing an Oscars post, but I just did. I'm now going to hide under a rock and hang my head in shame. Literally.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Dentist by day

... top novelist by night: Alaa Aswany in the Guardian.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


is fucking bullshit.