Wednesday 16 April 2014

Recapturing Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Youssef Rakha on Contemporary Muslim Identity in a Post-Enlightenment World

The 2011 regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are not only transforming the political stage, but also impacting on the cultural scene, articulated  through what Hamid Dabashi calls the ‘indexical utterances’ of a new ‘language of revolt’.  Street art and poetry may first come to mind as media for these alternative expressions of creativity, because novels need a degree of critical distance to evolve and mature. And yet, an upcoming generation of younger writers is using the new opportunity space that has opened up in the wake of the Arab Spring to also take the novel into unexplored directions.

Youssef Rakha
One such author is the Egyptian Youssef Rakha, who admits that he was actually overtaken by events when the publication of Kitab al-Tugra: Gharaib al-Tarikh fi Madinat al-Marikh (Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars)[1] coincided with the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Although years in the making, this novel prefigures some of the concerns that led to the uprisings in the first place, as Rakha explains in an essay entitled ‘Islam and the Caliphate’:

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. […]. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity[…] Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

Perhaps Youssef Rakha is a bit too harsh on himself, because the paradoxical juxtapositions he makes seem to reflect the turbulent social and political changes, indicative of the concomitant polarization in Arab societies:

the Arabic edition of The Sultan's Seal
I placed the Wahhabis, against whom the Pasha had fought on behalf of the Sublime Porte, in the same camp as Mustafa Kemal, whose military nationalism my protagonist saw as the other side of the Islamists’ totalitarian coin. Kemal—and Egypt’s own Gamal Abdel Nasser with him—were more like jihadis, Al Qaeda, Salafis and, yes, Muslim Brothers than the sultans.

The aggressively secular orientation of Kemalism had after all broken with even the highest peaks of Muslim heritage; and it was such severance and complete identification with Europe that eventually gave rise to Islamism. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in response to Kemal abolishing the caliphate altogether in 1924 (following which several attempts to reinstate it across the Muslim world all failed).

To my protagonist, both Kemal’s and the Islamists’ collective self-definitions were forms of glorified provincialism. […]

[…] how inward-looking and small-minded is the fellahin-oriented legacy of both Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat. Neither father of the nation truly introduced the judicial and institutional rigour modern Egypt had always lacked; neither adequately replaced the far less pretentious patriarchy founded by Muhammed Ali, or lived up to the standards he set for economic development.

The reference to Muhammad Ali -- the Albanian officer who took control of Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman empire after the British had evicted Napoleon, but in effect becoming an autonomous ruler to whom then fell the task of ousting the Wahhabis from Islam’s Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina – reminded me of a conversation I had with a London-based Egyptian corporate lawyer. When asking him whether it was al-Sisi’s ambition to become a second Nasser, he opined that it was more probable the field marshall wants to emulate this Ottoman viceroy.

The alternative Rakha seeks to recapture is reminiscent of what Abdelwahab Meddeb set out to do in his novel Talismano. The latter’s hallucinatory journey through Tunis and other Mediterranean cities is not dissimilar to the itinerary of the protagonist in The Sultan’s Seal, both of which tap into the rihla genre which offers an appropriate trope for celebrating a past that was much more sophisticated and cosmopolitanism than the coarse essentialism of nationalist, Pan-Arabist and Islamist ideologies.

For the full essay, click here.

[1]An English translation will appear in the Fall of 2014 under the title The Sultan’s Seal – not to be confused with a Jenny White’s book published under the same title as part of her Kamil Pasha detective series.