In the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, there was a scramble to commodify in literary form what had happened, with works like Yasmine El Rashidi’s 2011 The Battle for Egypt and Ahdaf Soueif’s 2012 Cairo: My City, Our Revolution being pumped through the publishing industry almost before the blood had dried in Tahrir. For understandable reasons (like the maddening discrepancy between collective experience and the official state-sponsored media coverage of protests), these works are anxious to document; they’re journalistic, chronological, and, in light of how much was lost and how little has changed since 2011, they’re depressingly idealistic. Then there’s Youssef Rakha’s 2013 The Crocodiles, an experimental work which describes itself – aptly – as post-despair.
The Crocodiles is the first book in a trilogy about a group of Egyptian poets who were active from 1997 to 2001, the 90s-generation. There are no chapters or page numbers. It is divided into numbered vignettes, but rather than being linearly ordered, these vignettes are in orbit, spiraling outward in larger, looser concentric circles before tightening in again, dizzying vortically like drain water. The idol at the heart of all this devotional spinning, however, is not revolution. There is almost nothing of the protest-porn one expects from works published at the time, despite the narrator speaking from the vantage point of the revolution’s aftermath, and despite his obvious heartbreak over its failings. Instead, he roams around the grungy intellectual circles in Cairo at the turn of the millennium with his two friends: Paulo, a photographer in love with an older married woman making a fool of him, and Nayf the orphan, so obsessed with translating Allen Ginsberg’s ‘The Lion for Real’ that he begins to hallucinate a lion, for real. Stylistically, the vignettes are conversational, melancholic, taut as prose poems. Here is the first in Robin Moger’s superb translation:
1. On the twenty-first birthday of a poet, ostensibly of our group, whom we knew as Nayf (his real name’s not so very important)—on June 20, 1997, to be precise—the activist Radwa Adel went to visit a relative in one of Cairo’s neighborhoods…. Radwa Adel played with her relative’s children for a little while, then took herself off for an afternoon nap in the bedroom with the balcony. There was nobody at home but the young children, and no sooner had the bedroom door swung back behind her than she went out onto the balcony and jumped over the wall.
Radwa Adel’s character is based on the 70s-generation poet and activist, Arwa Saleh, who did actually commit suicide by balcony in 1997, just a year after her only collection The Premature was published. Her suicide hangs over the rest of the novel like an invitation or a dare. It was the fashion then to appear unhinged and volatile, but ultimately there were those who came to the edge and jumped, those who came to the edge and didn’t jump. This novel is about how to manage despair. Prematurity and coincidences of synchronicity are also themes that vein thickly through The Crocodiles, which is obsessed with – and highly superstitious about – time. Despite the nonlinearity of the narrative, there is a painstaking, almost unhealthy, effort to understand the chronology of minute interpersonal dramas that the characters undergo, as though doing so might explain to all of us, shell-shocked in the aftermath of 2011, just what the hell happened.
We see through the narrator’s increasingly cynical eye the underground world of activists and artists, their petty quibbles and hypocritical ideologies, raving house parties, acid trips, poetry, their violent sex and even more violent heartbreaks, just a few years before these same individuals would take to the streets. It was a dark time to be in Cairo, with so many young people feeling claustrophobic, nihilistic, and in abeyance, turning on themselves and each other. ‘It strikes me now’, says the narrator, ‘that those shrunken spaces where we lived – the places that narrowed about us in the nineties – were the very places where the security forces corralled us when we took to the streets and which one thousand five hundred martyrs or more and one whole year were not sufficient to make wider’. Without being defeatist, this is the sobering reality that The Crocodiles brings to Cairo in the new millennium: that there was a revolution and nothing changed because we as a people have not changed.
399. Ten years on—while from afar I follow the progress of a revolution we were waiting for not knowing that we waited and which, when it came, thundering through like the last train, left us shell-shocked on the platform—I think how all of us became a case or tragedy: if any memory should remain to us, its gist shall always be the ignominies of love and death and birth. Did all this happen so that we might be a fitting subject for the gossip of a slightly greater number of people? I feel my body sinking in the soup as I wonder: All this?
It has to be said that The Crocodiles is philosophical before it’s political, more concerned with the poetics of language than its archival abilities. And yet it is the novel I return to again and again because it holds literature accountable for social change in a real way by demanding: What are the ethical responsibilities of narrative? Nine years later and counting, did all this happen, just so we might write about it? All this?
Or is there something more being asked of us?
Photograph © wikiphotographer