Wiam El-Tamami
Within the borders, there are more borders
DOOR Ahmed Naje
29-11-2012

On the last day, in that small Belgian city, after the pressure of article-delivery deadlines had eased, our group of writers had more time and space to relax, be restless, reflect.

We—the participating writers and translators—had more of a chance to talk that day than on any other. By the end of the night, Yan finally seemed calmer, less anxious. I was amazed when she began talking about her life in China for the first time, about the sense of estrangement and the difficulty of fitting into a society where psychological violence was a fundamental value. It struck me as very similar to the social setup I was so familiar with in Egypt.

On the plane, I thought again of my conversation with Yan, especially the part about the kind of faith a writer might need in such societies as the ones we live in, where duality of values is the norm. When I arrived in Cairo I was stopped, as usual, for half an hour at the airport. Because of a stupid old political matter, my name has been placed on the so-called ‘surveillance lists.’ This has meant that for years now, since 2008, every time I leave or enter the country, the customs and passport control officers have to notify National Security, Intelligence, and Airport Security that I have crossed the borders, in or out.

This was the situation for me during the Mubarak era, and it continues to this day. One time I asked the officer in charge, “They say a revolution happened in this country—why is this still going on?” His response was that there is no solution to this problem.

I come back from Crossing Border. My memories of the days of the festival feel special, intimate; if it wasn’t for the weather and the flu, I would have felt like I was at my house with a group of wonderful guests and friends. But here, within the borders of what we call the ‘homeland’, the borders between groups seem harsher and more fierce than those drawn on maps.

I write this now with a mind divided, scattered among many different ideas and events. I am trying to summon the few days spent in The Hague and Belgium; I am thinking of preparations for this Saturday’s protests; and in front of me now, on the TV screen, a bunch of liars belonging to an authoritarian Islamist current are wrapping up the writing of what they call ‘Egypt’s new constitution,’ amidst public opposition. It is, in essence, a group of laws shackling all liberties—from freedom of creed to freedom of expression: an authoritarian document par excellence that Hitler himself would not have dreamed up.

This time, political differences have gone beyond the circles of the political elite, and are now creating a deep fissure in society. Since my return from Crossing Border, reports have been rolling in of violent clashes all over the country, not just in the capital. The newspapers are talking about preparations for a civil war on Saturday, when confrontations are expected to take place between those supporting the appointment of a new dictator, and those opposing it.

I will go out to the protests on Saturday in refusal of a new dictatorship. At the same time, I am thinking of my father, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our relationship has regained a quieter tempo over the past few years, since we stopped discussing politics altogether. I wonder, will he really go out with the Brotherhood on Saturday to support the new dictator’s decrees?

Saturday’s protests are expected to be far from peaceful. I know that with certainty, and yet I can’t find a way out of my personal crisis. I don’t know how it is possible to cross the borders between myself and him, in a space where neither of us seeks dominion over the other.

Alle vertalingen van Wiam El-Tamami
Within the borders, there are more borders
29-11-12

On the last day, in that small Belgian city, after the pressure of article-delivery deadlines had eased, our group of writers had more time and space to relax, be restless, reflect.

We—the participating writers and translators—had more of a chance to talk that day than on any other. By the end of the night, Yan finally seemed calmer, less anxious. I was amazed when she began talking about her life in China for the first time, about the sense of estrangement and the difficulty of fitting into a society where psychological violence was a fundamental value. It struck me as very similar to the social setup I was so familiar with in Egypt.

On the plane, I thought again of my conversation with Yan, especially the part about the kind of faith a writer might need in such societies as the ones we live in, where duality of values is the norm. When I arrived in Cairo I was stopped, as usual, for half an hour at the airport. Because of a stupid old political matter, my name has been placed on the so-called ‘surveillance lists.’ This has meant that for years now, since 2008, every time I leave or enter the country, the customs and passport control officers have to notify National Security, Intelligence, and Airport Security that I have crossed the borders, in or out.

This was the situation for me during the Mubarak era, and it continues to this day. One time I asked the officer in charge, “They say a revolution happened in this country—why is this still going on?” His response was that there is no solution to this problem.

I come back from Crossing Border. My memories of the days of the festival feel special, intimate; if it wasn’t for the weather and the flu, I would have felt like I was at my house with a group of wonderful guests and friends. But here, within the borders of what we call the ‘homeland’, the borders between groups seem harsher and more fierce than those drawn on maps.

I write this now with a mind divided, scattered among many different ideas and events. I am trying to summon the few days spent in The Hague and Belgium; I am thinking of preparations for this Saturday’s protests; and in front of me now, on the TV screen, a bunch of liars belonging to an authoritarian Islamist current are wrapping up the writing of what they call ‘Egypt’s new constitution,’ amidst public opposition. It is, in essence, a group of laws shackling all liberties—from freedom of creed to freedom of expression: an authoritarian document par excellence that Hitler himself would not have dreamed up.

This time, political differences have gone beyond the circles of the political elite, and are now creating a deep fissure in society. Since my return from Crossing Border, reports have been rolling in of violent clashes all over the country, not just in the capital. The newspapers are talking about preparations for a civil war on Saturday, when confrontations are expected to take place between those supporting the appointment of a new dictator, and those opposing it.

I will go out to the protests on Saturday in refusal of a new dictatorship. At the same time, I am thinking of my father, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our relationship has regained a quieter tempo over the past few years, since we stopped discussing politics altogether. I wonder, will he really go out with the Brotherhood on Saturday to support the new dictator’s decrees?

Saturday’s protests are expected to be far from peaceful. I know that with certainty, and yet I can’t find a way out of my personal crisis. I don’t know how it is possible to cross the borders between myself and him, in a space where neither of us seeks dominion over the other.

After Crossing Borders . . . What Do You Do?
18-11-12

I’ve started to recover from my cold, thanks to Jessa and those strange clear capsules she gave me.

I spent most of the day yesterday in bed, reading the other writers’ articles. I was impressed by how diverse they were: Yan’s spontaneous humour; Marek’s capacity for cultural and historical analysis; Kaweh’s fascinating narrative games and the complex relationships he creates between himself and the characters he writes about.

I finally decided to leave the room around 5pm for lunch and a little walk before my reading. With the first waft of cold air on my face, I let out a powerful sneeze.

Ugh, not again.

I thought I had travelled through time, or that my fever had returned — I was suddenly seeing what I assumed must be hallucinations. In the street was a massive parade: hundreds of people wearing bright, colorful clothes from centuries past. Most were, for some reason, wearing gold earrings in their right ears. They were walking along and being cheered by the bystanders.

There was music and strange kinds of animals, among them a creature midway between a donkey and a goat. The horses were shorter and fatter than I was used to seeing. In the midst of all this a steam car passed.

It was the Sinterklaas carnival.

I started doing what everyone around me was doing: pulling my cell phone out and taking pictures, smiling, receiving candy and gifts from the black slaves. Isn’t that what it means to interact with the other and get to know different cultures and civilizations?

Does interacting with the other really have to begin with finding something strange, then feigning an attempt to understand it, then imitation?

I didn’t like the candy I was given — it was cinammon-flavored — and I was uncomfortable seeing hundreds of people painted black in a country with a long history of trading in African chattel.

I had read before that this celebration creates controversy every year. I was thinking of this, turning the matter over and over in my mind, as I climbed the stairs of the National Theater, heading to the last floor, to paradise…or Paradise Hall.

Crossing borders absolutely does not mean agreeing with or being tolerant of everything we find — just as we don’t feel completely satisfied and in perfect harmony with the place we come from. Sometimes being critical, looking deeper to what lies beneath the covers, the colored clothes, is key to crossing another border that lives within you — the borders of your notions of the world and your understanding of it, getting past the preconceived images of things.

When I arrived at Paradise Hall, Kaweh Modiri’s film was being shown on a small screen. The film tells the story of a novelist living in Amsterdam, who — like a professional killer — follows a troublemaker who has stolen his personal computer.  Modiri’s film was closer to my heart, with its complex plot and its characters at play in an absurdist maze in the streets of Amsterdam. I saw in the film a more complicated and stimulating picture than that which appears in festivals and tourist guidebooks.

As I was leaving the hotel in The Hague, I glanced through the souvenir postcards, since I have an old habit of collecting them from every country I visit. There were pictures of windmills and green meadows, natural landscapes and statues of historical figures. None of them appealed to me and I ended up not buying a postcard. I wished that, instead, I could find an image of Ome Omar, the lead character of Modiri’s film. Perhaps that, to me, represents Holland more.

The Salt & Water Cure
17-11-12

On the way to the National Theater last night, I began to feel that something was off. I recognized that feeling of congestion in the throat — we are, after all, in the scary month of November.

I arrived late; it had taken me more than 20 minutes to find the right door. In the end I was rescued by a member of the festival crew, who led me down long corridors, through halls big and small. A different kind of music bombarded my ears at every turn.

The place was like a jungle, entangled and complex and filled with humans. I would never have managed to get there on my own, but with the help of this woman (whose name remained unknown) I arrived just in time at the Victory Hall, where I had to give a reading with the other writers and translators.

When our session was over, I left the hall with no map and no idea where I was headed. I was trying to get out of the theater. I began to feel the exhaustion of influenza and a rising fever. I opened a huge door in front of me and found myself on the second floor of the large theater. I sat down in one of the seats to rest. An old man entered, accompanied by a pianist. He sang in a sad voice, like Celine Dion drowning in a ship just off the beach of The Hague. My temperature was rising. I was now sure I had caught the flu and would spent the night between the bathroom and the bed, without my medicines, in the grip of fever and its hallucinations.

I was starting to doubt the truth of everything. I left the hall, looking for an exit, and found myself in another hall. The rhythms rising from it sounded like rock musicians trying to play the blues.

In a corner was a table lined with albums, mostly by Dutch musicians. I couldn’t read the names but I think I stayed for over half an hour, pondering the posters and images, before realizing that all the walls of the theater were covered in pictures: photographs as well as oil paintings.

The congestion in my throat increased and I began to feel like there was a small river coming out of my nose. All I could think of was going back to the hotel. Again, I looked for an exit, but every time I walked through a door I found myself in a corridor that led to a small stage or another hall.

So this is how things look after crossing borders: facts fuse with the imagination and meanings of languages are lost, but the images they create remain.

Finally, I found the exit — but with the first step outside I let out a massive sneeze. I was done for. It was cold, but I finally made it back to the hotel. I woke up in the morning feeling like there was a rock in my throat. I went to the breakfast room, where I met Wiam, who told me that I was not the only one in the group who had a cold. But the problem is that I don’t have my medicines. After her usual hesitation she advised me to gargle with warm water and salt.

I feel really sad: I was planning to go to the sea today. Now my highest hope is to recover my voice in time for my reading tonight.

From The Hague to La Hi
16-11-12

The Hague is not called The Hague in Arabic. It’s known as ‘La Hi’ — a name famous in the Arab world because of its association with the International Criminal Court. Just a few weeks ago I was watching a documentary about art and revolution in Syria, in which the protesters were singing:

Bashar Bashar, bye bye

We want to see you in La Hi

But how did it become ‘La Hi’ in Arabic, which sounds nothing like the Dutch or even the English name?

The city first became known to Arabs in the 19th century, when it was under French occupation. So the name was transferred not through direct translation from the Dutch, but via an intermediary language: La Haye in French became La Hi in Arabic.

This little anecdote is just one example of the games and risks involved in translation — especially when it’s through an intermediary tongue.

I had another lesson in this yesterday. When I met with the other writers and translators over dinner, English was the dominant language of conversation. But names can’t be translated — and when you have four writers coming from diverse linguistic backgrounds, the situation turns comic as each person repeats their name at least twice for it to be pronounced properly by the others.

The funniest was Yan Ge, who introduced herself by saying: “Yen…like the Japanese currency.”

These misunderstandings in translating names (whether of cities or of people) is one of the keys to crossing borders. Names, which can’t be translated and are thus rendered meaningless in other languages, have significations and connotations in their original tongue. And so, after the initial stage of learning to pronounce ‘Yan Ge’ and ‘Kaweh’ correctly, came the stage of finding out the meaning of each name, the stories that lurk behind it. Yan Ge does not, in fact, mean Japanese currency — it means ‘colour song’. And Kaweh’s namesake is the hero of a Persian legend.

“Are you Persian?”

“Yes, but I left when I was five years old…”

He tells a story, and someone else on the table responds with another. Little by little, the borders between the individuals fall. Translation may involve risks, and challenges, and mistakes — but the stories embedded in these pitfalls are themselves an experience in crossing borders.

The Life of Bastards
05-11-12

On a wall facing the police station in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s bourgeois neighborhoods, someone has written:

The life of an ethical individual is based on following the universal
system of ethics, but the life of bastards is based on reversing
that universal system
.”

Next to this sentence is a huge graffiti of the face of an urban legend known as Al-Haram, ‘The Pyramid’. He is rolling a hash joint between his fingers, and his head is surrounded by a large halo, like a saint.

Al-Haram is classified in some areas as the god of drug dealers, of guile. In sha’bi [working-class] neighborhoods, small icons of Al-Haram are sold, bearing this verse from the Quran: “We have covered them up, so that they cannot see.” Anyone who wears the icon is thus protected by the shadow of Al-Haram from the eyes of police officers, ethical individuals, and the dogs of the universal system of ethics.

But the deep philosophical statement accompanying the graffiti is not one of Al-Haram’s sayings. The author of the quote is not known . . . and why was it used alongside this image?

This was in the period following the events of 25 and 28 January 2011. The walls of Cairo were heaving with thousands of writings and drawings, most of which were political in nature. But the graffiti of Al-Haram, with its enigmatic quote, remained a deep fissure in the harmonious spirit of revolutionary patriotism that blanketed the country at that moment in time.

***

There is more than one world.

To every issue there is more than one angle, more than one layer. In the universal system of ethics there is a preoccupation with democracy, revolution, the dignity of a prophet, barking dogs, debts and loans and states declaring bankruptcy, struggles taking place onscreen and on the news. But we, here, in the world of bastards, are aware that these are delusions, a lying depiction of life.

While they, in the universal system of ethics, speak of the significance of music and literature in the ‘dialogue of civilizations’, we realize that there is no need for this sort of steering from ‘the system’ for literature and music to flow in this direction.

In Egypt over the past few years, the music of bastards has grown in popularity. Known as mahraganat [literally: ‘street festivals’], this new genre combines hip-hop beats with electronic sounds and the voices of its bastard stars. The songs are recorded in houses, in makeshift shacks, in the dim light of back alleys — and the lyrics transgress all the usual systematic and ethical boundaries.

Without needing to be steered, I recently discovered an incredible similarity between this music that was born on the sha’bi backstreets of Cairo, and a type of gang music that is flourishing like crazy in Brazil.

What borders need to be crossed, then?

The real borders don’t lie between two languages or countries with different visa-issuing procedures. The real borders are between two systems:

The first, universal and ethical, imposes stereotypical images of human beings — as individuals and as peoples — then claims they are all human, with equal rights. ‘Love for the greater good’ drives them to a ‘dialogue’ whose foundations are ownership and competition.

The second is the world of bastards, where the individual is complete within him/herself, and draws his freedom and adventurous energy in exploring life from reversing that universal system — not with the aim of demolishing or imploding it, but for that small secret pleasure.

But that secret pleasure is not all. There’s another side to it: as one of the inhabitants of the world of bastards says: “In this state there’s no security, your life is a poker game, up and down. When you let a bit of wind blow you back and forth, when you run after your bread or the smell of danger, when you roam around all night without a moment to rest your head against a wall or you feet on the ground, when time — for you — is chance, and place is a stroke of luck . . . at that moment, and that moment alone, you know you’ve become a bastard . . .”

But don’t forget: the key to playing poker is courage

The kind of courage that’s not shaken by being outnumbered

The kind of courage without which there is no freedom.