The Muse of Failure

Egypt and the grandest narrative

Collage by Babak Radboy

I vowed to write upon water,
I vowed to bear with Sisyphus
his speechless rock.
I vowed to stay with Sisyphus
suffering the fevers and the sparks,
and seeking in blind eyes
a last plume
that writes for autumn and grass
the poem of dust.
I vowed to live with Sisyphus.

— Adonis, “To Sisyphus”

The Arabic word for failure is built from the tripartite root of f-sh-l to become fashil, the harshest, most damaging word in the language, at least the way my Arabic teacher pronounced it. The word often twisted his dyspeptic mouth, spattering our lessons like ordnance from a cluster bomb. Everything was fashil. Me as a student, himself as a teacher, Cairo as a city, Egypt as a state, the Middle East as a region, Asia as a continent, communism as a theory, democracy as an ideal, Islam as it was practiced, humanity as a species, and, in the summer when the smog congealed, the sun as a source of light.

“Shams,” I said, when he pointed at the bright yellow ball in our Arabic textbook.

“Fashil!” he exclaimed. “The sun is a failure in Cairo.”

“Ragol,” I said dutifully, when he pointed at the picture of a cheerful-looking man standing next to a well-fed family.

“Fashil! A man cannot earn enough to support his family. All modern men are failures.”

“Al’iqtisad al’arabi,” I read out loud from the chapter about the victories Arab states had won in the face of foreign neoliberalism.

“Fashil! There is no Arab economy!”

Thoroughly imprinted by the speech patterns of my teacher, my practice sentences began to read like the polemics of a fed-up dissident (or, perhaps, a smart-ass American — the line is a fine one):

Ahmed failed to walk to school. His father failed to pay for gas. The official failed to stamp the passport. The glorious culture of Al’Andalus failed to keep the palm trees alive. The third-world dream of Nasser was an awesome failure. The Arab League failed to do anything about Sudan. The UN fails to do anything ever.

Luckily for me, my practice was not wasted. It was 2004. Failure was in the air and all over the Arabic headlines. The American invasion of Iraq was fashil. The fruits of the Arab Spring? Fashil, dead on the vine. And the two-state solution was fashil, as always. As I read the newspapers for my Arabic exercises, it became clear that journalists fell into two camps: those who used the word fashil and those who didn’t. Of the former, the leading light was Abd al-Halim Qandil, whose weekly denunciations of the Egyptian government’s rhetoric and policies introduced me to a dozen synonyms for failure. Arabic is a rich language, book two of my textbook series informed me, rich in nuance and history. A good deal of this nuance and history, it seems, is preoccupied with the meaning of failure.

At a moulid in Sayyeda Zeinab, a group of people gathered around a one-armed man from Afghanistan. Compared to the other sights to be seen-the fire-eating, the exorcisms, the three-armed man-the Afghan was a minor curiosity. He had light gray eyes, partially occluded by bangs, and carried himself with an unwieldy grace, turning and dipping his armless shoulder to make his way quietly through the crowd. Somehow word got out that he was Afghan, and, within the whirlpool of the crowd, an eddy formed as men lined up to shake his hand. Several addressed him as Batl, or Hero. One well-dressed sheb passed around his Oakland A’s hat to start a collection, and an old woman with a faded blue tattoo on one cheek burst into tears. It seemed as though the madness of the moulid had only intensified the crowd’s psychic investment in Afghanistan. The Afghan thanked everyone in exceedingly formal Arabic. “Allah Khaleek, the Arabs and the Afghans will always remain brothers.” Then he slipped away.

Intrigued and tactless, I followed. It was dusk, and lights were going on in the apartments around us — warm yellow rectangles punched out of concrete walls. I stumbled as I caught up with him, and he turned around to see me trip. “Your arm,” I blurted out, my attenuated language skills overwhelming my sense of propriety. “Your arm, why has it failed?” The Afghan, who turned out to be a former Arabic-as-a-second-language student himself, was forgiving of my linguistic butchery.

We walked back to the apartment he shared with two other men, a Malaysian and a Somali. By the time we got there, it was night. The apartment was simple. There were two bedrooms, and the third man slept in the living room. The Afghan offered me tea, and we drank it standing in the kitchen, which was lit by a single bulb hanging on a wire from the ceiling. All three men were seminary students at Al’Azhar; all three were in their mid-forties or so. And all three, strangers in Egypt, clung to each other. The Afghan showed the others the money he’d collected. “Good,” said the Malay. “Keep it up, and we’ll be able to begin jihad again.” He looked at me. “Jihad is extremely expensive. If we’re lucky, the Egyptians will give us enough money and guns to free our nations.”

“And if we’re even luckier, we can get shot and go to school for twenty, thirty years more,” deadpanned the Somali without looking up from his book.

I must have looked confused.

The Afghan explained. “It was the Arabs that got me,” he laughed, “not the Soviets.” A visiting Saudi mujahid had mistaken him for a Russian soldier. “It was noon, though, so I understand.” He didn’t harbor a grudge. The Saudi had felt so terrible about shooting him in the arm that he sponsored his education at Al’Azhar. The one-armed man hadn’t returned to Afghanistan since beginning his studies twenty years ago. “We got the Soviets out. We got the Taliban. America got the Taliban out. We got the warlords. That Saudi’s bullet probably saved my life.”

The Somali laughed. “I call it the Failed Jihadi Scholarship Fund. He gets to learn Arabic and understand the secrets of Islam.” He put one long finger against his lips. “Don’t tell anyone — it’s a secret.” He picked up his book again. He was reading a faded copy of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones. Sayyid Qutb came to the United States in 1948 before publishing Milestones, a text that some believe inspired a later generation to fly planes into the World Trade Center. Since those attacks, hundreds have traveled East to pursue the story of those men who traveled West. One day I will compile the thousands and thousands of pages produced by these crisscrossing intercontinental passages into an anthology called A Thousand and One Nights of Al Qaeda: A Tale of Tales of Terror. It will be filled with Arab characters whose names are now the stuff of myth — Sayyid Qutb, Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden — and the khawegga who try to understand them — Lawrence Wright, Patrick Fitzgerald, a revolving cast of freelancers and academics.

In A Thousand Nights and A Night, fear lends Scheherazade eloquence: a failure to amuse means death. In my version, fear of another terrorist attack will lend a similar urgency to the narration. There will be two differences, however: first, the goal will not be to amuse, but to explain; second, a thousand Scheherazades will die, killed not by an emir but by the knife of another storyteller, eager to spin a tale.

Patrick Fitzgerald appears early in the anthology to tell of his prosecution of the 1998 embassy bombing in Kenya. He speaks in the short, clipped rhythms of a man who knows that time is a privilege he does not have. He will describe the formation of the terrorist plan, outlining with bullet points the backgrounds of the various figures involved, presenting his case to the court.

Next in the book is a series of memos, the interdepartmental chatter of the CIA, to explain what the spooks knew before 9/11. Later still, Lawrence Wright will introduce Sayyid Qutb. Later still, Lawrence Wright will introduce Sayyid Qutb, the prudish Egyptian whose experiences led him to write “The America I Have Seen” (1951), a sweeping critique of the country, from its racism to its spiritual emptiness to its bad taste in haircuts. From there, I will excerpt from books by historians tracing the roots of Islamic extremism, sociologists tracking the relationship between socioeconomic frameworks and the development of terrorist cells, psychologists studying the seductions of terrorism, internet chatroom transcripts, short stories, and flowcharts of terrorist networks and anti-terrorist networks. The anthology will be a cacophonous mess, a contest of clashing cadences and incommensurable registers. Each of its thousand and one narratives will be a failure.

Peter Lance will appear at some point to argue — as he does phlegmatically in Triple Cross (2006) — that Patrick Fitzgerald and his team of lawyers failed to recognize key pieces of information that could have stopped later terrorist attacks. Lawrence Wright will describe the institutional dynamics and skewed priorities that undermined CIA efforts to track terrorist threats. A curmudgeonly historian will snipe at Lawrence Wright, dryly suggesting that it takes a writer to attribute such far-reaching impact to Milestones, a mere book.

It is possible that the anthology will remain a work in progress. The literature of terror is just beginning to flower. But if the long peace were to come and failure no longer sent writers East in search of stories to tell a hungry audience at home, I would grudgingly end the book with excerpts from Bernard Lewis. Not because Lewis is right or wrong, but because, in doing so, I will ensure that no knife remains unsheathed:

In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had indeed gone badly wrong. Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, he world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the primacy and therefore the dominance of the West was clear to all to see, invading the Muslim in every aspect of his public and-more painfully-even his private life.

The failure of his grand narrative of failure will practically guarantee me a sequel.

According to the political-science graduate student who sat next to me on the plane to Cairo, Samuel Huntington’s thesis in The Clash of Civilizations is wrong. I forget the precise contours of the student’s critique, but I do remember the contents of his carry-on bag. We were both subjected to a random search by airport security; I pulled out the second set of clothes that my mom makes everyone in our family pack (in case our luggage goes missing), and a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, which I was inexplicably embarrassed to be caught carrying. The political science student pulled out the latest copy of Foreign Affairs, Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, and his Arabic-English dictionary. He studied the political economy of fear, he told me, as I watched the plane’s shadow crawl over the skin of the Atlantic. The governments of the Middle East had become anxious institutions, he said, both fearful of the governed and determined to inspire fear in them. “These are total institutions of loathing,” he said. “It’s really just misleading to say that you can separate the people and the sovereign when one is constitutive of the other.” I didn’t fully follow what he was saying, but he spoke with a confidence borne of countless hours of impassioned fighting over methodology, and I myself had nothing at stake. Hours passed; conversation ebbed. The kid in the seat in front of me excitedly pointed at the sinuous curves the wind carved out of the desert. A tiny sandstorm rose up miles below us, giving shape to the air. The kid laughed. “Imagine the tiny people!”

We were over the pyramids when I could no longer dodge the question of why I was going to Cairo. “Well,” I hedged, embarrassed, “there’s a book I like, and I have a job for a year.” He pressed me on the book. “It’s more of a short story,” I admitted grudgingly. “By Abdel Hakim Qassim, I said. “‘Good News From the Afterlife.’” I tried to describe it to the political-science student. It’s a difficult story to describe because it doesn’t have much of a plot. A man, an Egyptian peasant, dies. His body decomposes, and his soul is judged by two angels of death — Naker and Nakeer. A small child sits on his grave and falls asleep. The centerpiece of the story is an extended dialogue between the angels and the man’s soul about the nature of the law and duty, prophecy and authority, knowledge and fear.

I began to wax eloquent. Qassim had managed to blend Islamic theology with a distinctly modernist sensibility, a marriage of deep religious rootedness and existential transcendence. He had spent time in Europe, I explained, but had never left Islam. His challenge was that of our times — to free religion from itself without leaving religion.

My new friend looked at me quizzically. He had read another novel, The Seven Days of Man. “Qassim did a fine job depicting the life of the rural poor,” he said. “That’s important. Literature informs our understanding of politics.”

We lost each other in the snarl of traffic after trading e-mail addresses and making the traveler’s promise to see each other soon. Six months passed before we ran into each other again, and, over a beer, it became clear that the Middle East is an especially exciting place for a political scientist. His research was coming along wonderfully, he said, though his focus had changed from terrorism to something more hopeful. It was the first blush of the Arab Spring: Yasser Arafat was dead; Saddam Hussein was in an Iraqi jail; an energized Egyptian Left, with its slogans of Kifaya, had impelled Mubarak to announce fundamental electoral reform. A younger generation was emerging, less rooted in the dogmatisms of old — more open-minded, ready to rise to the moment.

The way he described it, a transformative politics was supersaturated in the air. Its crystallization merely awaited some missing ingredient that would trigger an alchemical reaction in the Arab world. His eyes glowed in the dim lights of the Zamalek bar. This was, I supposed, what a political scientist waits for: a moment when theory is measured against the exigencies of reality, and the social world becomes a living laboratory for the success and failure of ideas.

He asked me how I was doing. I made a noncommittal shrug. He had arrived right on time; I was too late. I had gone seeking Qassim and his Egypt, but the writer was long dead, his body decomposing and his soul judged. I worried that he had been found wanting. His books are perennially out of print.

I ran into the political scientist again another six months later. We were in Tahrir Square and he pulled me into the coffee shop where he sat with his papers. He looked no less excited than before. “The question I now ask is different,” he said. “It is a question of why change fails.” Since I’d seen him last, change had, in fact, failed. Mubarak and the NDP stayed in power; Hizbullah rallied for Syria to stay and Lebanon’s fragments hung together by the loosest of threads; the death toll in Iraq continued to mount; and the Sunnis continued to feel isolated and marginalized in their newly liberated nation. And the political scientist had traded in Arendt for Foucault. It was now a political economy of failure that he was planning to explore — the way “the sovereign and the people alike constituted and were constituted by ossified structures that prevented change.” His eyebrows went up with the phrase “were constituted by.” He used the word aporia a few times, and I nodded gravely as if I understood what it meant. I surreptitiously wrote the word down on a tissue so I could look it up later. He asked me what I was reading, and I told him I was reading a book by Son’allah Ibrahim. He pulled the tissue from my hands to write down the name. Noticing my handwriting, he tucked the tissue into his pocket and, smiling gently, explained what aporia meant.

Son’allah Ibrahim is Egypt’s reigning bard of failure. Ibrahim is sometimes described as the Arab Kafka by dint of his early novella, Al’Lajna, or The Committee, a deeply paranoid story of bureaucratic decadence and autosarcophagy. But Kafka didn’t use footnotes; Ibrahim does. They proliferate obsessively in his work, peeling off from his fictional narrative to tell parallel stories of history and politics. As the narrator of Amerikanli describes, in sometimes excruciating detail, his failure to control his sexual urges during his trip across the United States (hiding behind trees to watch the American girls walk by, then masturbating afterward), footnotes march along in the bottom margin, explaining in small print the cavalcade of failure that is the history of the United States. In Zaat, chapters detailing the heroine’s struggle through life during the era of Infitah — buying a busted television, masturbating while thinking of Nasser, learning to wear the hijab — alternate with chapters composed of snippets of newspaper articles cobbled together to tell true stories of state corruption, of grand engineering projects left unfinished after their budgets disappeared into the private coffers of Sadat’s ministers, of government bread baked with one part wheat and three parts stone — in short, the true story of the failures of the Egyptian state. Ibrahim’s stories are comedic without being cheerful, just as the masturbation he inevitably depicts is pleasurable without being fulfilling. The history of failure marches on with every turn of the page; any moment of triumph is necessarily fleeting, a brief respite before the next disappointment.

Ibrahim was part of the 1960s generation of intellectuals, a group whose story is inextricable from the history of political events. There were the secular hopes and promises of Nasser, the ‘67 defeat, the crackdown on civil liberties and political dissidents, the dissolution of Arab unity, the rise of Sadat, the peace with Israel, the entrenchment of Mubarak. It’s not a hopeful history, and — as my Arabic teacher pointed out — it was Abd el-Hakim Qassim who described it best when he titled another allegory of Egyptian history and politics Qadar al-Ghoraf Al-Moqbeda, or Destiny of Gloomy Rooms. “Compared to Qassim,” he said, “Ibrahim’s a failure as a pessimist.”

My Arabic teacher and I were walking through the streets of Ain Shams at night as we talked about Qassim. The uniform apartment complexes, with unfinished upper floors, wore the melancholic, sepia tones of the street lamps. I had told him I had read and liked that story “Good News From the Afterlife.” And my teacher, of course, exclaimed “Fashil! The title is mistranslated.” He explained why, though the differences were minor. He was quibbling as a point of pride; he had known Qassim and claimed special knowledge of the man and his work.

Qassim’s life was a series of interruptions. Born in a village near Tanta, he studied law at the University of Alexandria but never finished; after working for the postal service, he was arrested and spent several years in prison on suspicion of leftist activity. After a few years working in insurance, he went to Germany to start a dissertation on Egyptian literature, which he later abandoned. After more than a decade in Europe, he returned home, settling in Cairo. He became increasingly religious and began writing for the Islamist newspaper Al’Shab. He ran for a parliamentary seat in 1987, but was partially paralyzed by a severe stroke during the campaign. He died three years later, dictating his final literary works to his wife.

My teacher knew Qassim during those last years. They would meet once a week and he would take dictation from the paralyzed writer, editing and assembling the final product for his Al’Shab column. My teacher was younger then, more hopeful, and far more secular. He was ideologically opposed to Al’Shab and to the Islamist project in general. The two of them would argue, he said. He still felt terrible about it. Qassim had strong convictions but a faltering voice. My teacher was young enough that he substituted volume for logic and was quick to lose his temper, shouting Qassim down when a disagreement arose, calling his choices mistakes, angrily denouncing his decision to turn on his secular friends and join the Islamists. And then, fuming, my teacher would read back Qassim’s latest column for Egypt’s premier organ of Islamic dissidence and quietly accept corrections.

My teacher’s desire to correct language was obsessive. When we watched Al Jazeera, he made a teaching moment out of the commentators’ every dropped tanween. He read books and newspapers with a pen, ready to correct copy editors’ failures and writers’ misuse of classical Arabic. He corrected every written word that crossed his path, without prejudice as to the source: the speeches of doddering Wafdists, the Islamists of El’Osboua, the Naserists of Al’Arabi, the jesters of Al’Dustour, the liberals of Misr Al’Yom and al’Ghad; e-mailed bank statements; flyers from grocery stores; film advertisements; the dropped nuqta of my Arabic textbooks — none were exempt from the judgment of his pen. I once watched, fascinated and a bit horrified, as he compulsively corrected the corrections an elementary school teacher had written over his daughter’s handwriting. “Fashil! She is teaching the students to ruin Arabic lettering.” He looked up from the three-inch daad his daughter had written in crayon and stared at me. “Even you, even you, can probably write a daad better than a modern Egyptian schoolteacher.”

Qassim and my teacher were both born to deeply traditional families in small towns outside of Cairo. They were attracted to Cairo through a love of books and an appreciation for the history of a language that represented the fading dreams of Arab nationalism, Islamic glory, and a way out of their sometimes stultifying homes. And, in the decade after Qassim’s death, they grew more similar. Six years ago, my teacher stopped going to political meetings. He started to pray, grew a beard that he kept neatly trimmed, and stopped talking to most of his old friends. But he would never join the Islamists, he said. People would call him and ask him to go to Kifaya meetings and protests, but he refused. I asked him several times why he made the choices he did. He didn’t give me a straight answer. “My choices are wrong, of course,” he’d snap at me, before asking why he had been cursed with such a terrible student. “How can you understand me when you can’t even write your sentences properly?” He underlined a sentence in my notebook: They failed to restore the Caliphate. “Yafshilo!” he corrected. “Present tense.”