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The Year of Magical Happening
The Dissenters, Emissaries; Mutanabbi II & Crocodiles III
I’m timing this for the full moon, which occurs in my sign of Gemini, so that we can all be werewolves together.
The year has been magical enough to warrant it:
THE DISSENTERS, my English debut, found a home with none other than the incredible Graywolf Press (it should be out by the end of 2024); and in the process, I found an agent in the incredible Ayesha Pande.
In Arabic, a new volume of essays and poems – a sequel to my book of Mutanabbi riffs but without the riffs – appeared in October; and, rounding off a project that began with THE CROCODILES exactly ten years ago, the final part of my Crocodiles trilogy – a novella about two men in a bar, inspired as much by the famous Rumi verse “I am drunk and you are mad, so who will take us home” as by Carlos Fuentes’s Aura – is more or less ready for publication.
More immediately, my collection of revolution-juggling, PKD-, Ballard- and Burroughs-forged short stories, EMISSARIES – also a first – is due out with Barakunan in London, in spring 2023.
EMISSARIES will appear as an audiobook as well as in physical and digital print, and it’s been beautifully recorded by three distinct, discrete voices that bring out all the pathos and the lunacy of Cairo.
I will provide a pre-order link as soon as one is available, but in the meantime – to mark the end of my year of magical happening, so called in homage to the legitimately legendary Joan Didion, who died only a week before it began – I’m sharing one of my favourite stories, THE SECRET HISTORY OF ATHEISM (first published by my intrepid friends at Minor Literatures).
THE SECRET HISTORY OF ATHEISM feels especially appropriate because it started life as a passage in an early, abandoned iteration of what would become first AMNA, then THE DISSENTERS. It is read by Philip Arditti, which makes me feel all the more privileged.
You can listen to and read it below.
Other sparkling moments of 2022 include an Electra magazine interview, a ʿAfikra conversation, and the appearance online – to coincide with signing the Graywolf contract almost exactly – of Madeline Beach Carey’s splendid, generous and in a very real way prophetic Full Stop magazine essay on my work.
Also – and I sincerely apologise in that case – if this is in your email and it shouldn’t be please unsubscribe before you move the message to your spam (that is the only way to ensure you won’t receive group messages from me in the future). I’m leaving you with Leonard Cohen, partly because the documentary Hallelujah made me cry on the plane, but mainly because this old song has been the soundtrack to 2022:
THE SECRET HISTORY OF ATHEISM
In April 2005 a band of militant atheists occupied New Cairo. They called themselves the Yaroslavsky Brothers and their symbol was a red band with Darwin’s quadrupedal fish at the centre in black, the words bila ilah, or ‘without god’, inscribed in Kufic calligraphy inside it. Led by four American University in Cairo students, they had recruited and organised on Facebook in the year since the site went live.
They chose the residential development because of its remoteness and relative dereliction. But it was for the same reasons that they ended up falling off the edge of the world, their existence slipping into an abyss somewhere between the online prank they were believed to be and the Armed Forces battalion they were mistaken for on sight. They lasted five days.
One weekend they put up barbed wire around five feddans of desert west of the central construction site and set up camp. They had a generator and floodlights, tankards of water and sleeping bags. They had a mountain of cans and a boulder of cigarette cartons and chocolate bars. They had tequila. By the time they were busted there was also evidence of shawarma and fried chicken.
On Facebook they declared Dawlet El Nil Bila Ilah or the Godless Nile State, calling on prospective citizens to come home with their tents. Death metal blaring out of two giant speakers, they filmed themselves burning up a model of the Kaaba they’d decorated with crosses and Stars of David, but April 2005 was early days for YouTube. By the time the footage circulated there was no sign of atheism in New Cairo, and the idea that the Yaroslavsky Brothers had never actually existed took firmer root.
On the third day a Special Operations detachment entered the State in the guise of citizens-to-be. They found less than fifty Yaroslavskys dressed in fatigues, fewer girls than young men. The militants blasphemed religiously, taunting each other for half-hearted sacrilege. They wore Richard Dawkins buttons and swore at each other using the English term god-bitch.
The Yaroslavskys had six cars including a Jeep Cherokee fitted with a siren which turned out to be genuine government property, assigned to the Justice Minister Mahmud Rashid’s retinue. It had never been reported stolen. This bemused the Interior Minister Habib Adli until it dawned on him that Rashid had a twenty-year-old son.
In the Special Operations report—I managed to read a copy that was made by hand before the document was taken off the records—the colonel in charge described the State as a decadent campsite populated by a social-media gruel of privileged college dropouts and delinquent teenagers from the shantytowns.
A kilogramme of the Sinai-grown cannabis we call bango was sighted alongside twenty machine guns, enough ammunition for a week of intense combat. The one possession the colonel couldn’t account for was a B83 thermonuclear bomb that appeared to be in working order but would require an aircraft to deploy it.
He recommended a peaceful delegation of representatives of social and moral institutions backed by a small rank of plainclothes operatives to coax the youths out before confiscating the weaponry and clearing the site.
I could picture a soft-spoken sheikh in El Azhar regalia giving his beatific best to a slobbering teenager with a tabby Afro and a Grinov. I could picture an Arab nationalist history professor spastically explaining that Yemelyan Yaroslavsky was not only a Stalinist Jew but also a committed Zionist, his life dedicated to usurping the land of our Palestinian brothers. I could picture a pudgy girl with pigtails hugging the B83, her cheek on the streamlined surface as she crouched before it like a devout Hindu at a Shiva lingam, the plainclothes policemen slipping in the sand while they tried to pull her up.
I could picture the four leaders in a huddle like sportsmen on the field, then three of them dragging away a Coptic Orthodox churchman, the delegation’s National Unity component, attempting to take him hostage while the fourth roared, staccato:
I’ve been in touch with all the Godless pages on Facebook and I can safely say, Hold on, comrades. REINFORCEMENTS ARE ON THEIR WAY FROM KAZAKHSTAN.
All this really happened. Rashid’s son was handed to Rashid after Adli phoned to say, You owe me, your excellency. Others were taken into custody on charges of arms possession and drug dealing.
The shantytown boys were escorted to an abandoned construction site, stripped and made to kneel with their faces in piles of cement. They were sodomised till the sun went down, struck with cables to the head or the spine when they cried out. At night they were packed into a truck and driven through a tributary of the Suez highway. They were abandoned bleeding and half-conscious by the side of the road.
The cars and the electronics were confiscated along with the weaponry, never to be retrieved by their owners. The bango was smoked behind officers’ desks to peals of savage laughter. The barbed wire was collected in a colossal heap on a ridge just outside New Cairo. There it stood like an abstract statue, for months the highest point on the horizon, an inscrutable landmark of suburbia.