Three Colours Cairo
in Black and White — the New Year Special, ladies and gentleman!
First. An excerpt from Madeline Beach Carey's incredible essay on my unpublished English novel (and my two Arabic novels published in English translation).
In April 2020, when we were all still locked down in our homes, Rakha sent me this debut novel in English, Amna. I read the PDF of the manuscript over a few days and looked forward to eventually reading the published version. Yet, the manuscript, now titled The Dissenters (yes, there are more women committing suicide in this one) has not been picked up by any press, big or small, in the UK or the US. I’m perplexed by this, especially after Rakha’s two translated novels received such high praise.
In his previous work I had noticed the eye of a poet, a dreamer exploring a broken, fragmented city. Here I noticed a son, a writer telling perhaps his most important story. And Rakha had decided to tell it in English, one of his languages. Some people might call it his “second” language, but that is a misnomer. I thought about the choice of language only briefly at first, at the very beginning of the manuscript when I first encountered words in Arabic or French, unitalicized, perfectly at home, nested within the English. And then again months later when with some sadness I began to wonder why publishing in English would prove to be so difficult. I felt sadness, but also surprise because I had felt that I was reading in an English of the place, of the time(s) and of the country:
A mawwal is one of three colors depending on the story it tells: white for moral and spiritual instruction; green for nature, virtue and benevolent love; red for human vice and destructive passion. All mawwals start with the ancient and mysterious call ya lail ya ain, the ubiquitous vocative followed by the word for night and then the word for eye. I can see now the two words invoke not so much a time of day or a sense organ as the night of the soul and the source of all vision. They evoke consciousness and its opposite, life and what happened to Mouna.
The language feels alive, varied, rich. Dare we say origin(al)? …
The Dissenters is a beautiful book, funny and raucous and also incredibly tender and sad, both in personal and political terms. While reading it, I was enchanted by Rakha’s voice in English, by his unique ability to mix formal and informal registers in a way that is at once authoritative and playful. The novel is maximalist, glamorous, and intensely psychological: the kind of thing I’m so desperate to encounter in contemporary English-language fiction and so rarely do. His use of Arabic words within the text is seamless, adding to the texture of the prose without distracting the reader or slowing down the action.
Second. My first published photo story in a very long time, with pictures of the city taken from inside the car (text in Arabic).
القاهرة.. مشهد مغبش في المرآة الجانبية | خطــــــــــــ٣٠ — khatt30.com القاهرة.. مشهد مغبش في المرآة الجانبية
Third. A taste of my introduction to A Face in Time, Sherif Borai's incredible collection of Egyptian studio portraits from 1860 to 1940 – out very soon. Like other Zeitouna books, it is a beautiful object and a lasting contribution that I am proud to have been part of.
There followed what might be considered the first leg of Alban’s long journey through Europe, which in the next two years would take him to Rome and Paris; a happy sojourn cut short by World War I. When he left Egypt again in 1918, Alban handed his studio over to his talented apprentice Apkar Retian. Apkar continued to work mostly under the Alban label for decades. Yet another Armenian immigrant from what would become Turkey, Apkar at first replicated Alban’s stylized glamor, but gradually began to adopt a more naturalistic approach and a subtler touch.
Meanwhile in Europe, Alban was making a resounding name for himself, first in Brussels and eventually on the Rue de Ponthieu, off the Champs Elysées in Paris. By now, the young man was an ambitious and irreverent artist. Always a workaholic, his lifestyle was far from conventional. While in Paris, Alban made cover art for Vogue and photographed Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, among other accomplishments. His studio was a bohemian mecca for artists and socialites from all over Europe, and his star kept rising for nearly two decades. By 1940, however, Alban was finding it harder to keep up with the competition in Paris. With the war undermining his sense of security and his health failing, he returned to Alexandria…
Not that anyone would've noticed but perhaps I've been a little less grateful than I should be, all things considered. Of course, it wasn't an easy year. Let's hope 2022 is a little easier for all of us. I leave you with this beautiful tweet by the artist Mohamed Sabri, whose personal reading of my Mutanabbi-inspired, Walid Taher-illustrated book turned into an amazing art project in its own right.