Nothing’s truer than fiction, and the crazier the fiction, the closer to truth it sometimes is.
The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, by Youssef Rakha (published in Egypt in early 2011, just after the Arab Spring brought down the Mubarak regime, and released in English this month by Interlink Books) is a fever journey through the streets of Cairo, with mad detours into the history of the Ottoman Empire, the grand heritage of Arab literature, and the nature of failed relationships. At once a love story (Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı leaves his wife and finds true love – and great sex, though it might only be in his mind – in the following 3 weeks) and a story of crackpot religious fervor (during the same period, Çorbacı, a Western-educated quasi-believer – the book never has him praying or embracing any particular religious positions – has a series of dreams and visions and transforms himself into a zombie with the mission of reconstituting the Ottoman caliphate), this is a work of zealotry that offers a vision of Islam that is broad and inclusive and lusty and fun.
Çorbacı (which means soup-seller in Turkish) is a man of both East and West. His name itself illuminates the contradictions inherent in that identity. Mustafa is an extremely common name that means 'the chosen one' and this chosen one is a naïf who can't help but carry with him the modern world’s not-quite-satisfying multi-culti stew.
Here’s his critique of the system of the West:
Neoliberalism angers me more than anything else. In practical terms, neoliberalism means that life is a supermarket. It’s what you buy at the supermarket that defines your identity. And the more your choices increase—a thousand types of orange juice, for example, or seventy different sizes of aspirin packet—the more the world flourishes and the possibilities for fulfillment multiply. Would you like your milk 1% or 1.5% fat, or fat-free? Which brand of dark Irish cheddar do you prefer?So you break your head in a daily job that kills any rebellious instinct in you until you yourself turn into a commodity. Your time, your concentration, your enthusiasm. A job whose only purpose is to increase the supermarket’s size.
And here’s his analysis of the dilemma of a modern man of the East:
To be born a Muslim in this age means that you are perforce a different person. Your historical formation is not a logical result of the situation you’re in. I mean, take these silly examples: you’ve resolved to deal with time in a generous spirit; it is in your nature to grant priority to interpersonal responsibilities and feelings over the demands of work; you explain visible phenomena by reference to the supernatural as well as physical laws: and everything runs, for you, from right to left. This is the complete opposite of the contemporary expectation that time is like an impaling spike, gain is more important than affection, and everything, even emotions and ideas, has a material explanation, in Latin script. So it is quite natural, in a moment of clarity, that you should wake up one day and fail to recognize anything around you, and be surprised even at your own body. There are now only two choices for a way out: either to blend in with the age to such a degree that you forget you were born a Muslim, or to be a Muslim, narrow-minded, extremist, mediocre, in line with the conditions of the age. There has to be a third choice.
The book is, in a wacky way, the chronicle of a man who finds that third way even as he fears it doesn’t exist. Caught between “the mystical forces of history … dressed up as Atatürk, as European colonialism and national independence movements, then as neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism (“the tail end of the same turd,” as Mustafa called fundamentalism in his notebook….),” Mustafa Çorbacı loses his mind – or, you might say, regains it – as he faces the dilemma that “Everything in his life, if he thought about it this way, would be another example of the marriage of East and West, Mustafa Efendi: the most hateful thing that history has allowed.” Or, as he says later, “Everything he’d known in this world was the aftermath of a crime.”
I can draw a connection between things: to have your love of an emigrée defined as a feeling like loss, while you yourself are abroad; and to be where you are—to be a zombie, with all that the term implies, and to have first met this girl at the time you turned into a zombie—while everything is happening to you in an attempt to understand the meaning of being Arab and a Muslim in this age.
As an author, Rakha is an equal opportunity offender – going after extremes of every sort. And he apparently pisses people off in real life, too: Rakha backed the Arab Spring but has been accused of writing in a kind of veiled support of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general whose regime has imprisoned and tortured journalists and activists. (Rakha has told interviewers that he is against Sisi: "I'm not sure the question is why intellectuals failed to criticise Sisi," he said late last year. "The question is how society and the culture came to be in a situation where there is no viable alternative to Sisi except for a Sunni Iran.")
Rakha has written this book, so translator Paul Starkey says, in a kind of ‘Middle Arabic’ that mimics medieval texts while welcoming contemporary slang, frank descriptions of fucking (the zombie sex, when it comes, is a one-sided male fantasy – but, hey, it’s Çorbacı’s book and he is male and a self-involved fantasist, so why not?), and a multitude of English phrases. The novel is also peppered with quotes from contemporary and classical literature – and, through it, you’ll meet Yemeni novelist Ali al-Maqri (“The homeland is treason. Every homeland is treason. The idea of the homeland is treason.”), Iraqi Assyrian poet Sargon Boulus (he emigrated to San Francisco in 1968, and, while continuing to publish his own writing, translated the Beat poets into Arabic), plus medieval historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, and many others.
The book jumps back and forth in time, and flickers between the 1st person and the 3rd. I felt I could detect the imprint of The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk’s novel of Istanbul, in these pages. And perhaps, subversively, The Book of Questions, Edmund Jabes’ elusive poem made up almost exclusively of quotes from imaginary rabbis.
It’s a riotous high-wire act, grounded by one almost-fatal flaw: Rakha seemed to fear that his story didn’t have an ending. So Part 9, the book’s last section, labeled a “conclusion” and a “confession,” gives the unnamed narrator his chance to plead that, as the very last line of text has it, “the story of Mustafa Çorbacı was not just a collection of fairy tales.”
Fortunately, the chosen one had previously given the book his own ending. At the end of Part 8, ready to embark on the first step of his ridiculous mission to restore the Ottomans as the true Caliphs, Çorbacı hops into a taxi to get to the Plane Yard (‘the airport,’ in his personal cartography of Cairo.) The cabdriver asks, as cabdrivers will, “Where are you traveling to?”
And Çorbacı replies, “I’m going to heaven. Haven’t you heard? They now have a direct flight to heaven.”
What a crushing realization. Çorbacı’s headed to Beirut, the city Westerners once labeled the ‘paradise’ of the Middle East, while tourists, when they fly to Egypt's famed beach resort at Sharm el-Sheikh, understandably feel as if they are headed to heaven – and this is, of course, the same thing Westerners are told the 9/11 hijackers felt when they crashed their planes into the World Trade Center towers and what we assume the Charlie Hebdo shooters meant when they shouted “God is greatest” as they killed, knowing all the while they would be hunted down and killed quite soon thereafter. (see here for Rakha's take on those murders in France.)
Like it or not, our world, like Çorbacı’s, includes all these things. There is a third way and it’s a hard way. It emerges from looking at things as they are.
With its zombies and fanatical fever dreams and crackpot conspiracies involving everyone and everything, The Book of the Sultan's Seal does exactly that.