How Youssef Rakha Found New Love in His Own Language

By Youssef Rakha
24 February 2020
Middle East, Essay, Arabic culture, Arabs, UAE, Novel, Hay festival, Literature, Adunis, Youssef Rakha, Long Read, Long Reads
Image: Illustration by Aiste Stancikaite

Ahead of this February's Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, the award-winning Arab novelist explains how he Discovered the unexpected in Arabic

By the age of 12 my mind was made up. Literature was the thing to live for. Neither sports nor sweets, neither girls nor video games could be anywhere near as exciting – or serious.

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Thirty-two years later, I still have no idea what I was thinking. Like everyone my age I wanted to have fun and feel grown-up, but I was too insecure and self-important to seek this out in the usual ways. Meanwhile I figured out that mental and emotional kicks felt more intense and lasted longer when you got them from books, not movies or music. Of course the kind of writing I get my kicks from has changed, but to this day it is the kicks that make writing special. One thing that hasn’t changed at all is the conviction that if I could move someone, a reader, the way I was moved, that made my life worth living and me worthy of living it.

I suppose literature was my secret. The secret was this: If you gave them the effort they demanded, whether you were writing or reading them, books could compensate you for being uncool. They might look boring, but they were better than anything else at conjuring up an alternate reality. And the more alternate realities you experienced, the more knowledgeable and powerful you became. Of course, they couldn’t be just any books. You had to choose carefully.

And so, for the longest time my canon consisted of the Academiyya bookshop’s selection of science fiction titles. Growing up in Cairo, the Academiyya was the earliest bookseller I ever visited alone. It was a vast subterranean space with an old-paper odour hanging over it, cavernous and quiet. It lay within walking distance of my parents’ house. And its staff were too laid-back to take any notice of a shy, overweight 12- to-15-year-old who obviously had nothing better to do than skulk around stacks of university-level textbooks and check out the specialist dictionaries.

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To my geeky eyes, the Academiyya’s shelves appeared like portals to unexplored regions of space: Differential Calculus, Synthetic Polymers, Comparative Endocrinology... For their names alone, I hoped to visit some of those regions one day.

But for now I was happy to dwell in my preferred quadrant: the paperback realm where foreign names splashed across brightly illustrated covers promised far-away planets, magic machines, and quirky creatures. I didn’t know anything about the history or geography of science fiction, let alone more general maps of the literary world. But in retrospect I can see this was a rich if random range, as good an introduction to “literature” as any, and ideal for nurturing my sense of being special because I read special things and aspired to write them. Every so often I managed to save enough to buy one.

I had sampled all kinds of printed matter to make sure. Only books like these were weird and challenging enough to satisfy my standards. They had both the thrills that delighted me and the down-to-earth appeal of someone telling a story. I still have some of them: Vermillion Sands, Brothers of the Head, The Best of Isaac Asimov...

I never asked myself why this kind of book had to be written in English. Though the Academiyya’s small Arabic section could’ve answered that question for me. Not that I would’ve recognised an Arabic classic had it stepped forward and introduced itself. But there was nothing there that realised my idea of literature. The Arabic books at the Academiyya were by and large either how-to guides or manuals of fiqh. And those were the two, un-literary modes in which Arabic had so far presented itself to me (and which kept it out of the land of literature): the practical, and the religious.

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My mother tongue was vernacular Egyptian Arabic, a spoken dialect that was eloquent and polyglot but with no written grammar or dictionary. It managed the everyday world very efficiently, but once things got complicated or specialised it had to be supplemented by classical Arabic or a European language. Then there was said classical Arabic itself, the language of the Quran, with its fiendish grammar and pious cadence. It could do beautiful things when you understood it, but it belonged in a distant and mythical past. Even as “modern standard Arabic” – with its somewhat simplified, synthetic register – it was too stilted and removed for storytelling, something it seldom attempted anyway. Unconsciously convinced of this, I must’ve despaired of Arabic as an alternate-reality generator.

It would take me another five years – three of them studying literature and philosophy in the north of England – to understand how wrong I was. The imaginative wonders of my favourite genre had precedents not only in the famous One Thousand and One Nights but also in Ibn al Nafiss’s 13th-century Theologus Autodidactus, which is bona fide science fiction. For decades if not centuries, people had been using both Egyptian dialect and classical Arabic to give readers precisely the kind of kicks I was so dedicated to.

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But – here’s the rub – such kicks didn’t require a book to be set on an exoplanet or in the future. They didn’t require anything very exotic or philosophical. As my reading diet became more varied I found out about other genres like detective and horror fiction. I also found out that genre rules were not only unnecessary –  by forcing narrative formulas on the story, often together with stock characters and settings, they might actively stand in the way of good writing.

Notwithstanding its diglossia, the world in which I lived was Arabic-speaking. There were intellectual and psychological kicks specific to that world.

Those didn’t have to happen in Arabic, it’s true. When I read Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali at the age of 17, it struck me as a categorically Egyptian novel even though it was written in English. Its humour especially was Egyptian. It also made Fahrenheit 451 seem like a children’s book, and left me depressed for months. But, much more often than not, Arabic is what they happened in.

Formative encounters are unforgettable. There was the fabulous way Youssef Idriss wove the vernacular into the fabric of standard Arabic, making them indistinguishable, in his short stories. There were the unsettling mini-epics of life in Upper Egypt which Yahya Taher Abdullah reportedly composed in his head and recited to friends before writing them down. There was the spellbinding effect of Sonalla Ibrahim’s emotionless prose in That Smell, his diary-like novella of life after political detention. There are many more.

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In each case I saw Arabic doing things I had never thought it capable of when I had roamed the winding aisles of the Academiyya bookshop, coming up against strange nooks and unexpected dead ends piled with volumes in all colours and sizes. In each case, there was mental and emotional stimulation far more profound and relevant than anything I’d encountered in science fiction as such. But perhaps the greatest discovery was that, maybe – just maybe, in my own time – I could get Arabic to do some of those things too.

Youssef Rakha will appear at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi this month; hayfestival.com