An Evening in the Ancient Future

702-2030.jpg

There’s a big show of Yugoslav modernist architecture up in MOMA through January. It moves me to see those drawings of Skopje and the old city of Sarajevo, the big photos of Kongresni Trg in Ljubljana, all the places I used to live being celebrated in the middle of Manhattan.

When I first got to the Balkans in the mid-1990s Yugoslavia was already burned and buried and Slovenes were accused of being Yugonostalgic, as if mourning a lost identity, without being bombed and besieged along the way, was a gross failure of intelligence.

To me, a foreigner who had never been anywhere but suffered some inarticulate homelessness, that lost homeland was medicine for my imaginary illness.

The full letter:

Five Suras

quran-tree-crop

I translated five short suras for Yousef Rakha’s The Sultan’s Seal

The Fig

And by the fig and the olive tree

and by Mount Sinai

and this safe city

where we created people finely assessed

then echoed that they’re lower than the lowest

except the faithful and prayerful – for them an end with no obligation

so why your doubt after devotion?

isn’t God more just than the justices?

 

The full article

 

A Joyful One

cairo - 2018-07-09 12.55.22.jpg

Perched at the edge of the Moroccan Atlantic in the village of Taghazout, currently overtaken by vacationers who crowd the beach during the day with footballs and paddleballs and camel rides and surfboards and stand-up paddleboards and fried sardines and donuts. The clackety-clack of castanets and psychedelic buzz of tambourines and the occasional blast of Despacito. At the end of an itinerant summer that began in Brick Lane in London, where I walked and talked with Yasmin and Tina and Jules and wandered into a production of Macbeth, then to Berlin sitting under the eaves in Neukolln trying to hash out a draft of a libretto about a case of wrongful imprisonment with Raluca, smoking bedtime joints with Antonnis and drinking deadpan Augustiners with Achille, and attending a two-day thing about Arab Futurism where Refqa talked about Habibi’s green man, and where I saw Maha and Heissam after many years, and got to see a film Maha made of one of Heissam’s stories, where a drug dealer was transformed into a goat, who turned out to be not so much a drug dealer turned into a goat, but just a goat.

The full letter:

Writing at City College

ccny.jpg

I taught fiction and nonfiction workshops at City College from 2015 to 2019. My students wrote about everything imaginable — the smell of freshly harvested rice, the grace of a decent foster parent, coming out as trans, crossing borders, parents crossing borders, crossing between languages, good sex and bad sex, deadbeat dads, two seconds of madness between getting and sending a text, the tension of making eye contact with a stranger, portals into other worlds.

Now I’m working with Michelle Valladares, the head of Creative Writing, to create a new curriculum for undergraduates in the department.

Eggplant Baskets and Qutrubbli Wine

Ain al khail.jpg

Here’s the second half of Hamadhani’s “The Saimara Session.” The first half went out last winter. If you didn’t catch it, it’s there in the archive under “Ropers and Bashers and Sugar Cane Candies.”

Recap:

Our narrator known as Ibn al-‘Anbas showed up in Baghdad a rich man. He hung out with the local prominent citizens, invited them to his house and lavished them with food and wine and singing girls until he’d spent all his money. Then they left him and couldn’t care less about him. And he was stuck in his huge house lonely and full of regret, wandering room to room, until he was overcome by insomnia and set out wandering. He roamed all over the world gathering stories and strategies of cunning and trickery until no one could match him. And that’s where our story picks up:

The full letter:

Curses, Support Structures

 

fba512f4-ae5d-4592-b1cc-e6893426f66f.jpg

The 2009 Istanbul biennial began with a storm. The night of September 10th a flash flood washed away almost two thousand houses out by the airport, as well as a couple of schools and hospitals. Factory floors were six feet deep in mud. Forty people died and many others went missing.

And like always, it wasn’t the rain that killed people, it was shoddy construction, bad working conditions.

While crews were dragging bodies from the debris, down by the Bosporus, in front of the Istanbul Modern, there was an inauguration ceremony to open the biennial. The main speaker was Mustafa Koç, representing Koç Holdings, the main corporate sponsor of the event.

The full letter:

Ropers and Bashers and Sugar Cane Candies

Bashers

Hi everyone,

I’ve been working on my Arabic again. God knows how long this will go on. I’ve been translating a chapter from a 10th-century story cycle called the Maqamat. The word means “assemblies” or “stations” or “the place where you stand to tell a story.” When Abdellatif Kilito writes about them in French, he calls them “séances.” I’ve called them “sessions,” as in the Savoy Sessions or the Basement Tapes. The one I’m working on one is by an Arabophone Persian named Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani. His maqamat were much imitated, to the point that the imitations became a genre unto themselves.

In each chapter the narrator tells a story of trickery, cunning, deceit, always about the same trickster. The narrator and the trickster meet over and over again, in one town and then another and another. Each situation is different but we always know what’s going to happen, so the point is not drama, it’s just a showcase for wit and style and absurd vocabulary. They’re written in an incantatory form of rhyming prose called saj’, which, I understand originated with fortune-tellers and seers. The rhymes, when they appear, are irregular, sometimes stressing the end of long lines, sometimes tumbling after each other rapidly. And there’s a rhythmic quality based not on regular meter but on the repetition of word forms and phrase structures that seem endemic to Arabic. I’ve been experimenting to see if there’s a way to suggest this in English that isn’t unbearable.

I’m about halfway through this first attempt. I’m sending it out to you all so you can make fun of it, correct it, ignore it, or drive someone crazy reading it out loud.

THE SAIMARA SESSION
Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani

‘Isa ibn Hisham said he heard this story from ibn Ishaq, aka Abu al-Anbas al-Saimara, and it goes like this:

Here’s what my brothers left me, who I picked out and groomed and tried to keep out of trouble. I told them stories, taught them lessons, if they’d only listen and learn and act like they heard me.

I came from Saimara to the City of Peace, with bags of dinars, goods and gear. I had nothing to fear, so I went around with business barons and real estate titans, high earners and heirs to fortunes. That’s who I chose to hang out with, to rescue from monotony, not stopping at dawn and not at night with a nightcap.

We ate roast suckling goats and baked Persian soufflés, charred platters of lamb and the best kebabs in town. We had honey-wine so renowned and singing-girls so famous, their names echoed off the distant battlements. I ordered peeled almonds and sugar cane candies, armloads of roses and sweet aloeswood incense. And I was smarter than Abdullah bin Abbas, wittier than Abu Nuwas, bigger hearted than Hatim and braver than Basim, more connected than Masrur, shrewder than Shaban, and more poetic than Jarir. I was fresh like the Euphrates and worth more than a body sublime.

The full letter: