Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Generational angst?

Ahmed al-Aidi's An Takun Abbas al-Abd (To be Abbas al-Abd) (2003)

I can’t remember the last time a literary work filled me with such an overpowering sense of desolation and alienation. I read Ahmed al-Aidi’s 120 pages in one sitting, all the while trying to find something endearing, comforting, compelling, or insightful. There’s certainly plenty of humour, and a real knack for capturing the clever, linguistically agile argot of young people, and some deft portrayal of the minutiae of everyday life. But none of the perhaps conventional or traditional qualities of literature: ideas, or well-drawn characters, or absorbing settings, or verbal artistry, or skillful image-making. There’s only an impoverished, mind-numbing reality as experienced by the deeply depressed, twentysomething male narrator. Perhaps this is what’s called the ‘post-modern condition’, but I have no idea since I don’t know what that means. There is, however, one cardinal condition of worthwhile art that Ahmed al-Aidi’s debut novel fulfills marvelously: it’s deeply unsettling. I emerged perturbed and perplexed, a little unsure of my own reality, transposed into a strange mood by a tale I’m still struggling to understand.

I’m not sure if al-Aidi’s novel falls within what has come to be called literature of the “90s generation” but I had heard that it was much talked about and praised and that its first edition had briskly sold out. But I also heard criticisms of its unmoralised portrayal of how some young people actually live and the uncritical embrace of pop culture. New writers can always count on being dismissed for not fitting the mold. So-called “’60s generation” writers Sonallah Ibrahim, Gamal al-Ghitani, Ibrahim Aslan, and Yahya al-Tahir Abdalla were similarly put down for shunning the didactic conventions of Arabic letters and searching for a new language and new forms to articulate their own experiences. Now they’re the leading lights in Egyptian literature (Abdalla posthumously), and have even attained something of the status of cultural gatekeepers. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Ibrahim and Ghitani shepherded al-Aidi and were instrumental in getting him published, along with Miret Publishing House director Muhammad Hashim. Hashim has helped many wonderful and unknown talents see the light; he’s done more than anyone to shake up the networked and exclusionary world of Egyptian publishing and to enrich a desiccated cultural landscape.

To be Abbas al-Abd puzzles me because I still can’t decide whether I like it or not, a few days after finishing it. That in itself is testament to the strange power of this slim novel, blurring easy categories of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and demanding a more probing engagement. Most of the time I had the feeling of trespassing into a deeply bizarre, solipsistic world of a maladjusted young man who couldn’t care less about anything that happens outside his own tormented mind. Indeed, at the end of the list of people to whom al-Aidi dedicates his novel is “the ceiling of my room, which enveloped me when the world moved a few centimeters forward.”

Yet, rather than some Cartesian philosophical rumination, al-Aidi offers up some very astute transcriptions of the texture of daily conversations on microbuses, ‘ahwas, upscale mall cafés, and his group therapy sessions with an overbearing female psychiatrist eager to push the latest antidepressant medications on her hapless charges. The humour in these sections is irresistible and real, extremely clever, and full of bathos at the same time. For instance, the protagonist ends a hilarious phone conversation with the aged, Alzheimer’s-afflicted landlord of his friend Abbas al-Abd with the ironic quip, “I’ll never understand this generation.” His Americanised pop culture references are legion and used to great effect. As the therapist turns on “The Godfather” soundtrack to soothe her patients, the narrator comments wryly, “the music wafts through the room like a sedative, the music that you can’t refuse.”

One of the novel’s most powerful scenes is during one of the group therapy sessions, when it’s the protagonist’s turn to divulge his demons. Prodded by the bossy, new-age therapist, he recalls his abusive psychiatrist uncle ‘Awni, who raised him after the death of his parents by essentially using him as a guinea pig for all sorts of freakish, sadistic ‘experiments’. In one of the most tragic and perturbing literary passages I have ever read, the terrified perspective of a 7-year-old merges with the commentary of the wry narrator in a deafening yet lucid cacophony. Describing the contorted position ‘Awni put him in for one of his experiments, the narrator says, “But I am not Batman, and this below me is not the sky of Gotham City.” An intense, almost crazed description ensues, mimicking the workings of his brooding brain, culminating in: “A muted laughter gets louder, the kind of laughter that you hear in the background of the sitcom ‘Friends’.”

The ubiquitous pop culture references are not contrived nor mere name dropping, but a cornerstone of the protagonist’s cloistered existence, reinforcing his sensory deprivation and tenuous connection with other human beings. Though he seems to interact fine with those around him, his mental energies are entirely consumed by his scarred childhood and a phobia of life tout court. Some interesting formal and stylistic aspects of the novel reinforce the narrator’s sense of detachment and distrust of others. Every chapter is fronted by a four-line aphorism beginning with “don’t believe her.” The name of every imaginable phobia flits about throughout the pages, relics from the protagonist’s childhood with the abusive ‘Awni that have survived to haunt his every waking hour. The preface and epilogue are mirror images of one another. Pop culture permeates the very structure of the text. al-Aidi’s staccato, streamlined prose is further broken up by computing-centric English words in Latin script and familiar cultural insignia such as the generic male/female icons on the doors of public bathrooms.

Enter the quasi-mythical Abbas al-Abd, a shrewd alter ego who’s seen it all and wants to take the narrator out of his solitude. They meet at an ‘ahwa and become roommates; Abbas is everything the narrator isn’t: confident, brash, worldly, fearless, coarse, and perverse: he collects gecko tails in a carefully maintained jar (“it’s a hobby just like collecting stamps”) and spouts the very latest youth lingo. Abbas sets up the introverted protagonist with two of his own girlfriends, and the latter’s rendezvous with both of them at the same café is a hilarious page-turner. It reminded me of scenes in old slapstick Egyptian films, and I wonder if al-Aidi had these or other celluloid products in mind as he constructed this scene (he does make a reference to a musalsal and a silent cartoon).

On a less humourous note, several of al-Aidi’s dead-on descriptions here hint that he means to make a larger statement about gender relations among twentysomethings, but it’s not clear what that statement is. A few pages later, the comic scene morphs into a tragic denouement that vaguely recalls similar scenes in modern Egyptian fiction where chance intimate encounters turn into chastening lessons about class, exploitation, and the degradation of humanity. At the end of the scene, the guilt-ridden protagonist muses, “What happens to make us abandon who we are and become, without noticing, someone else entirely?” It’s one of the few moments where he’s led to reflect on matters outside of himself.

On one level, this is a novel about a young person’s search for self amidst powerful feelings of existential angst and alienation, and as such it’s a story as old as youth, transcending cultural boundaries. It bears some resemblance to Sonallah Ibrahim’s Tilka al-Ra’iha (That Smell) and perhaps might prompt the same moralised distaste that Ibrahim’s short story did back in 1966 (Ibrahim is one of the writers to whom al-Aidi’s novel is dedicated). But unlike the 1960s when politics pervaded fiction writing, al-Aidi’s novel could be set anywhere (save for a fleeting reference to the Palestinian Intifada). It reads like the diary of a depressed yet mentally agile and witty young man who has some arresting insights about contemporary life from his own distinct perspective. Depression has always been a crutch to creativity, but it seems that al-Aidi is one of the first to openly embrace this in Arabic rather than continue to stigmatise or ignore it (Safinaz Kazem too is open about her bouts of depression and use of antidepressants).

Yet the novel also seems to harbour inchoate ambitions of becoming something like a generation’s manifesto. Here is where the writing seemed most stilted and contrived to me, sounding flat and unimpassioned. The same goes for the gimmicky ending, which also seems to aspire to a social statement about a supposedly ‘sick’ society. Not to sound crotchety and stodgily sociological, but why the impulse to represent anyone other than oneself in a deeply personal work of fiction? On p. 41, the author writes, “In Egypt there was the naksa (defeat) generation. We’re the following generation, the generation of “I have nothing to lose.” We’re a united generation living under the same roof, with strangers who have names that resemble ours…You say with the wisdom of someone weary with experience, “there’s nothing worse.” Bullshit. Here’s the upgrade of the wisdom and the update of the experience: what could be worse than not having anything worse?” (English words in the Arabic text in bold).

On one level this reads to me like the ponderous musings of many young people grasping at meaning, and that’s fine but not terribly interesting nor insightful, nor necessarily publishable. On another level, it reads like an attempt to encapsulate some sort of a generational ethos, a self-conscious attempt to be a generational prophet of sorts. This is what I found least attractive about the novel; it injected an unwelcome note of falsity and a hint of posturing. It seems to me much more honest for al-Aidi to stick to the navel-gazing quality of his novel without venturing into broad, meaningless claims about whole generations.

This goes beyond al-Aidi’s novel. I never understood the obsession in Egyptian letters to group writers by ‘generation’, such that it’s become de rigueur to introduce or identify a writer as belonging to or embodying a particular generation rather than expressing certain ideas or experimenting with particular forms. Generational classification has become the dominant organising principle in criticism and publishing and writing, and has led to silly sweepstakes about who’s the best or the most representative or the most accomplished of a supposed generational clique. Yet surely each generation accommodates writers of vastly contrasting hues and temperaments: Ahmed al-Aidi and Nagwa Sha’ban are both of the “90s generation”, but their styles and concerns couldn’t be more different. Insisting on grouping writers by generation is tantamount to treating works of fiction as straightforward reflections of social reality, with no autonomous aesthetic merits of their own.

To be sure, social context infringes on and molds the output of creative writers, but that’s a different matter entirely from classifying writers in generational straitjackets and then proceeding to organise criticism and publishing and literary marketing based on such a rigid and meaningless taxonomy. Writers should unleash their creative energies without worrying about representing or speaking for or excelling over their presumptive cohort. The most compelling parts of To be Abbas al-Abd have nothing to do with generationalism or whatever else, but show a writer who transcribes the intricate processes of his restless mind without guile or artifice. Who cares what generation that might belong to if it’s serious, perturbing art?