Two strangers: On Kamel Daoud’s “The Meursault Investigation”

imagesI’ve finished Kamel Daoud’s “The Meursualt Investigation”, and I am dumbfounded–by its premise, its narrative energy, its burning language, but most of all by its courage of the imagination–the courage to reverse the tables, so to speak, and tell the story of Camus’ “The Stranger” from the viewpoint of the Algerian brother of the murdered “Arab.”

Not since my last re-reading Tayeb Saleh’s “The Season of Migration to the North,” has a novel affected me as profoundly as Daoud’s slim volume.  Like Saleh’s work, this one too is a sort of confession, more precisely an indictment in the guise of a confession.  Like Saleh’s novel, this one too is the answer from what used to be called the Third World, from colonialism’s victims. And like Saleh’s novel, this too is ferocious in its language and indictments.

But Daoud’s work goes a step further: it makes its story equal to Camus’, or more correctly implicitly argues that Camus’ story is incomplete, that it can be completed only in another novel from the other side of the divide.  In putting forward this premise, Daoud places his novel in direct opposition to Camus’, especially in the telling of the story.  I read the skilled English translation, by John Cullen; I can imagine how much more fiery the French original must be.  But even in the English rendition, Daoud’s language is the language of fire, ashes and embers.  In opposition to Camus’ cool, distanced style, Daoud gives us page after page of burning prose.

What about Meursault’s victim, the unnamed Arab?  That is the question Daoud’s novel devotes itself to, by giving the dead Arab a name, a family, a history, and a geography of place so viscerally–almost erotically–so alive it took my breath away, reminding me of Camus’ beautiful essays on Algeria.  In this and other ways, the novel is also a psychological thriller, a narrative forged on the foundations of a murder, told by a narrator cursed for life who carries the violence of the original murder in his heart and body, whose revenge and punishment is yet to come. The novel concludes with the narrator’s words:  “I too would wish them to be legion, my spectators, and savage in their hate.”

I doubt that Camus’ “The Stranger” will ever be read again without its other, Daoud’s “The Meursault Investigation”–both strangers, the colonialist Frenchman and the post-independence Algerian.


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Varoujan Khedeshian: A Remembrance

~~Varoujan Khedeshian has died.

In the 1960s, when I lived in Beirut, Khedeshian burst on the Armenian theater scene like wild fire. His productions were Armenian renditions of contemporary European and American dramatic works–Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Crucible, Marat-Sade, among others. He chose well, inspired young persons to take up acting, conceived of theater as a total experience (sound, set design, costumes) and generated much discussion, enthusiasm, and controversy. One of the most memorable among the talents he discovered was Arpie Dadoyan, whose riveting portrayal of Martha in Albee’s Woolf is still etched in my memory.  That she was a mere 22-year-old playing the role of a woman much, much older only added to her powerful, magnetic presence on stage.  There were other luminary performances as well, all in Western Armenian, which revitalized the “minority” language and opened it to the world, to its non-Armenian surroundings, and to the themes of world literature.  I wrote about Khedeshian’s productions in the short-lived yet extraordinary literary journal Ahégan. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my love of theater began in those years, in Beirut, where I even tried my hand at play-production for a class I took in college. I produced Albee’s The Zoo Story and Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter.  It’s a love that has neither died nor diminished in intensity–a first love.

The Lebanese Civil War was not kind to the Beirut Armenian community’s cultural figures, among them Khedeshian. Khedeshian’s character, too, was not kind to its holder . But the work stands apart from the person who produces it. What Khedeshian produced is incontestably pioneering, particularly during those pre-Civil War years when so much energy in Beirut–in literature, in visual arts, in theater–was put to the service of innovation and renewal. Renewal, yes, but more than that to the effort to bring the Armenian community into the sphere of Lebanese culture and art, to shed off the status of a meek minority intent on keeping itself cloistered (and safe) from the dangerous currents of the other. The intent was a cross-pollination, a dialogue. Khedeshian’s belongs in that expanded category of cultural production, with a diverse group of artists and cultural figures–Arabs and Armenians alike.

When–and if–the history of that period of Armenian cultural production is ever written, and archived, Khedeshian’s work, like that of others in various spheres of art, will receive its much deserved attention and critique. (In fact, if you do a google search of Khedeshian’s work–in image mainly–you’ll find nothing, not even one photograph.  All is in the memory of individuals who were inspired by his work, and the work of others like him.  Or you can find them in private collections of photos or in community newspapers.) I am not holding my breath that such a project of cultural preservation will take place. We’re busy with big issues. ~~

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Gentle Wind of Ramallah

This summer, Harvard Bookstore, in Cambridge, MA, sent out a call for submissions for an anthology of travel essays to be compiled, printed, and exhibited by the venerable bookstore.  My essay on Ramallah, Palestine, was chosen to be included in the anthology, along with varied, colorful writings from the four corners of the world.



 “There’s isn’t much to see here in Ramallah, as you know,” says my friend. She has in mind monuments and cathedrals, waterfalls and forests, majestic libraries and concert halls–all the things that send tourists to the ends of the earth and back with stories and slides and souvenirs.  She probably has Jerusalem in mind, too, nine miles south of Ramallah. From its founding in the sixteenth century by Christian Arabs, and until the mid-1990s, Ramallah was a resort town with a higher elevation and more greenery, a place of escape from the zeal and madness of Jerusalem’s sacred grounds and institutions.

Ramallah carries none of the awe of Jerusalem’s great monotheistic sites, but awe (in its original meaning) is a double-edged sword, cuts both ways, points to its opposite. Until the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank, Jerusalem and Ramallah were one continuous weave, the latter often providing calm and respite from the pull and burden of religious faith and duty.

None of that awe here, in Ramallah, with its rolling hills, many now dotted with apartment buildings owned by repatriated Palestinians; its vernacular vegetation of olive trees, bougainvillea shrubs and jasmine bushes; its chaotic, animated town center of pedestrians and cars, video-store sellers and falafel vendors doing constant battle; its traditional homes, some dating back to the nineteenth century, their verandas open to a horizon divided longitudinally by blocks of Israeli settlements.

We have just finished a late lunch, and the afternoon is ours. Despite my friend’s self-effacing words on behalf of her native town, there is enough to see, and see again, in Ramallah if we step out onto the street and hail a taxi: the memorial for the poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Friends School, half a dozen Christian and Muslim religious sites, the Sakakini Cultural Center, the Mukata’a, among others. I have been to some of these places before, several times. Actually, during my adolescence in the 1960s, when Ramallah and the West Bank were under Jordanian rule, we used to come here from Amman, the Jordanian capital, for Christmas or Easter observances in Jerusalem. In the afternoon, we would usually escape the pious crowds, take a taxi north to Ramallah for ice cream and coffee and leisurely times.   It was a 15-minute car ride then, the road on both sides thick with eucalyptus and poplar trees. When there were no such religious occasions, on a whim we would drive from Amman directly to Ramallah, a 45-minute whiz of a ride. Yesterday, it took me six hours from Amman to Ramallah, a wretched itinerary of bridge and border crossings, passport checks, bus transfers, more passport checks, questionings, entry fees, exit stamps, and finally a taxi ride to my destination, now a bustling city and the de facto administrative capital of Palestine.

“Or we can just stay here, sit on the veranda, perhaps go for a walk,” I say. “I really don’t want to see anything.” That’s my answer, motivated neither by fatigue from the previous day’s journey nor disinterest in places I have seen before. Something else, something to do with what cannot be seen, perhaps, with what cannot be fixed in words.

We stay, move to the veranda, make some coffee, and begin talking from here and there, our conversation finally turning, as it always does, to literature. It’s a moderately hot June day here, the sky blinding blue, the vegetation near-luminous, the surface of the limestone houses a play of light and shade, and that wind from the Mediterranean, gentle like a whisper, which sways the trees and shrubs, carries the fragrance of jasmine and the faint jingle of an ice-cream truck somewhere in the neighborhood. A bougainvillea petal drops to the asphalt ground of the street below us. A boy speeds down the sidewalk on his scooter as though buoyed and protected by secret hands. We caution him to slow down, he looks up at us, laughs wildly, and charges on.

And like this, time slides slowly, almost stealthily, into early evening, the breeze picking up a little energy, animating our voices, cooling our enthusiasms, improvising an extraordinary afternoon from the most elemental, the most ordinary of natural elements, the wind: tender and comforting, a salve of sorts for the convulsions and roils, the terrors and the wounds, for all that is recorded, spoken, built, captured, all of it awe-inspiring, all of it so far away now. On evenings such as this, the gentle, ancient wind of Ramallah is refuge and home, excitation and restraint, journey and destination.


 The Mediterranean wind knows no nationality, no loyalty, no permanence. It comes from the sea, travels over the entire region between its namesake and the desert, turning everything it hovers over into temporary shelter, and disappears in the thick, deep night. But it is the soulmate of the wretched and the fortunate, the occupied and the occupier, the sedentary and the restless. Like intimacy, it is entirely of the present, and dies with goodbye’s moment, leaving behind no visual afterlife.

We have exhausted ourselves with conversation. The gentle wind turns more bone-chilling. We move indoors. Soon it will be time for goodbyes, until the next time, here in the shade of Ramallah, or somewhere else in the country of words.





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Palestinian Writer Sentenced to Death in Saudi for Poems that ‘Threaten Saudi Morality’

Arabic Literature (in English)

Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, who has been in jail in Saudi for nearly two years for spreading atheism, insulting the Godly self, and having ideas that threaten Saudi society, has now been sentenced to death:

Fayadh was jailed in January 2014, charged based on a complaint from a reader about Fayadh’s 2008 poetry collection, Instructions Within. Fayadh told The Guardian the complaint arose from a personal dispute with another artist during a discussion about contemporary art in a cafe in Abha.

It was Tuesday when a Saudi court on Tuesday ordered Fayadh’s execution. The poet has also curated art shows in Jeddah and at the Venice Biennale. According to The Guardian, Fayadh does not have legal representation, and has just 30 days to appeal against the ruling.

Fayadh is a leading member of the British-Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia. The Guardian writes that he was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes by…

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Getting lost in Mount Auburn Cemetery on a late autumn afternoon…

It’s a yearly ritual–this walk in Mount Auburn Cemetery, when autumn is at its glory, but winter is close.  It was such an afternoon–windy and biting–yesterday’s warmth having given way to more cold day.  The cemetery was quiet, save the screech of the birds on top of trees, and the crunch of dry leaves under our feet.


Certainly not the kind of day for a long, long walk.  So, after an abbreviated walk, I decided to drive slowly through the home of the dead, but soon lost my way and began going in circles.  Even seasoned visitors to this beautiful cemetery will tell you, if they are honest, that they have been lost many times here.  I have been lost before, but have attributed it to emotions; I have people buried here. But today had the added disadvantage of construction.  There’s construction in the cemetery, and so one entrance is blocked off, and, of course, the detour is not clearly marked.


So, I drove around, at first with a tinge of panic in my hands and chest, but as the situation’s gravity set in, I simply gave up and reasoned that sooner or later, I will find my way out. Perhaps the dead want me to stay here, keep them company for a while, I thought, the half dozen persons I know who are buried here, and the many famous folk who draw the large crowds.


But getting lost in a cemetery is not the same as getting lost in a city or a mall or a big building. You’re with the dead, you have to tread softy, drive slowly.  There are strange, muffled sounds in the trees, wayward pedestrians in black wool hats, a few cars here and there, and that shroud of cold air over us all.  Cemeteries are not permanent places of habitation save for the dead.


For us, the living–lost or full of purpose and direction–cemeteries are places we visit and leave.  The whirl and twists of Mount Auburn’s paths can make you think this is your destiny. Finally, you have met your fate.


The first car I stopped did not know the way out; the driver was oblivious to the prospect of being lost, a happy sort of guy.  He laughed it all off, and perhaps was amused at my anxiety.  He looked like a techie.


Then I stopped a portly man and his portlier wife, jolly types, former hippies no doubt.  They were obliging; they took out their iphones and showed me the way out of the construction mess.  I whizzed out as fast as I could, as though someone, some ghost was following me, avenging something as if.


Yes, for all the beauty–and it is a very beautiful landscape–of Mount Auburn Cemetery, it is easy to be lulled into believing that the dead are living, that we are visiting them for a short period of time and then we’re leaving them, their world.  What if night had fallen, I had not found my way, and the autumn beauty had turned dark. What if?


The Armenian saying goes, The earth light on the dead.  For a long time I took that to mean what most of us know it to mean.  But this afternoon, the blessing took on another meaning:  The earth light, not as a wish, but as reality. The earth light–wait till you get lost among them, and night comes.



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Towering Egyptian Novelist and Cultural Critic, Gamal al-Ghitani, Dies at Age 70

Arabic Literature (in English)

Acclaimed Egyptian novelist and journalist Gamal al-Ghitani has died in a Cairo military hospital, aged 70:

ghitaniHe had been in a coma in al-Galaa Military Hospital for two months after being admitted with respiratory problems. He reportedly suffered a heart attack in August and was deprived of oxygen.

According to Al Ghitani’s wife, Magda al-Guindi, he died this morning. Egyptian state media reported that Al Ghitani’s funeral was to be held at Cairo’s Sayyida Nafisa mosque later in the day.

Al-Ghitani is one of Egypt’s most celebrated twentieth-century novelists, author of the widely influential Zayni Barakat, as well as founder and first chief editor of one of Arabic’s leading literary newspapers, Akhbar Al-Adab.

Recently, Egyptian authorities announced that they were naming a street in the Gamaliyya neighborhood — where al-Ghitani was born — for the august author. The street will have its name changed from “Dabbabya” to “Gamal al-Ghitani.” It connects two key streets in…

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Two Figures on a Bench, in a Park, Tiflis, 1914.

This article by me was published today in Jadaliyya.

Source: Two Figures on a Bench, in a Park, Tiflis, 1914

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