Photo: Kelly Bedeian
a writer in an age of anxiety
A response to the question “to what do I belong?” presupposes the possibility of finding a total expression for the many contradictory desires that compel us—the transient attachments of wanting and becoming, and wishing for more—while the push and pull of life makes us feel like ever-mended garments requiring the stitch of a needle.
In quest of an answer, one may suppose memory a suitable starting point. If this is the case, I would admit to many fond memories of my childhood in Alexandria, a city on the Mediterranean. A city Lawrence Durrell called “the city of memory.” One such memory is of the concierge’s young daughter who came regularly to our apartment to help out and babysit. One day, concerned for me as a child suffering from a high fever, she decided on a remedy. She knew a fever could be cured with a teaspoon or two of an infusion of a spell written on paper and soaked in water. Surely, the most efficacious of spells had to be verses from the Quran. She drew words, as best she could, from a large book in our living room illuminated in red and green text. With care, she administered the medicine. The spell seemed to work, and the fever broke. Later, it was discovered that the lines copied were not from the Quran, for she had never learnt to read, but from The Thousand and One Nights. The words I had sipped were not God’s, but those of Shahrazad.
Another early memory is of a sleepover at a friend’s house. We woke to jungle sounds and the beating of drums. We opened the shutters and stepped onto the balcony of wrought-iron railings to see before us the lit screen of an open-air cinema showing a Tarzan movie. We watched in awe as the white man wrestled lions until my friend’s parents arrived to scold us for leaving our beds. But such memories of spells and old movies are not what stir in me a sense of self. What does are the stories my aunt told my sister and me on the weekends she spent with us. These were often tales of children outwitting genies and ogres. She would tell us of her own childhood in a house with a garden of fruit trees on the outskirts of Alexandria and of our grandfather who, as a young man, had migrated to Egypt from Marrakesh, a red city at the foothills of green mountains. This sounded to us as fanciful as her folktales. My grandfather died when I was not yet two years old. As unlikely as it may seem, I do have a sense of his presence. Among the vague memories is a recollection of visiting the city zoo with him on a day awash in sunlight.
When I was in my early teens, my family immigrated to England and then to Canada. In England, I completed high school and university, and after graduating, I began writing for stage and radio then television. I returned to Egypt as a journalist and to teach creative writing at the American University in Cairo. Initially, the reengagement with place, people, and language was refreshing. But my revulsion at a regime that stifled life out of the country made it difficult to feel at ease. Aside from teaching, I wrote stage plays in Arabic, was active in the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and became president of the Egyptian branch of PEN. Eventually, my human rights activism led to arrest and interrogation by the Egyptian State Security. After seven years in Egypt, I accepted a Fulbright scholarship and moved to the United States then back to Canada. Though it would be correct to say I have enjoyed each of the countries I have lived in, it would be true to add that I do not feel I belong to any of them.
A feeling of belonging implies an intimacy with place and therefore might seem to be a function of memory. Yet insofar as such memories are a recurrence of longing and a sense of loss, they approach the state Freud referred to as the uncanny: an anxiety induced by “something long known and once familiar.” But the uncanny, in effect a state of disorientation, is in some respects the antonym of belonging. To approach what constitutes belonging requires a search elsewhere than memory of place.
Shortly after my father died, I was given for safe keeping a file of family birth, death, and marriage certificates. It was a decade before I properly attended to them. A decade spent between the Middle East and North America, training journalists and developing media outlets funded by the US and Canadian governments. When I did return to these documents, it was with the intention of researching my family’s history. Then I discovered the stories told to me by my aunt about my grandfather, taken in my childhood for fantasy, were true. By visiting the city in Morocco where he was from, I was able to fill in gaps in her accounts and to trace a lineage of names that purports to extend back fifteen hundred years. What intrigued me the most was not the verifiably historical but what can only be an imagined past as recorded in the eight-hundred-year-old Arabic epic known as The Migration of the Bani Hilal. This epic, part Iliad and part Odyssey, tells the story of a tribal migration in the tenth century from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa. My grandfather’s family claims descent from the Bani Jabir, a clan of the Bani Hilal tribal confederation. The epic is almost eight hundred printed pages of poetry and prose and comes in several versions from across the Middle East as well as North and West Africa. Many of the Bani Hilal settled in Morocco. Though the broad sweep of the epic is based on documented events, the characters and their stories can only be fictional.
The poem inspires in me a feeling of being related to a specific narrative comprised of a language resonant with the echoes of other, more ancient languages from a region rich in story. Of course, such stories prove nothing of the details of lives lived. Yet I suspect it is out of such imaginary gossamer, embroidered with fact, that all identities are woven.
Researching my grandmother’s family, the Baroudis, I discovered they were originally Mamluks, slaves from the Caucasus, brought as children to Egypt and trained as soldiers to resist European Crusaders and later Hulagu Khan’s Mongol invaders. My grandmother’s uncle, Mahmoud Samy al-Baroudi, a poet famous in his day, was exiled in 1882 to Sri Lanka for resisting the British invasion of Egypt. Submerged beneath everything I have mentioned is my attachment to Egypt’s pharaonic past sourced directly from the great taproot that is Africa. Though I have read much of what little is available of ancient Egypt’s literature, I feel myself kept at arms-length by the impenetrability of a dead language and the unfamiliarity of its script. So it is Baroudi’s poetry, the tales of the Bani Hilal, and the stories my aunt told me in my childhood that confirm in me a sense of identity that is more a relationship to narrative and language than to place. In a manner of speaking, you could say that English is maybe where I work, but Arabic is the home I carry with me like a hermit crab its shell.
Harboring such disparate identities makes me conscious of the challenges of diversity in selfhood. It makes me question whether there must be a master plot to identity to which all other plots are subservient. Can the threads be braided, or must they be melded into a single narrative? Can self be anything more than a containment of fragments? Do terms such as identity and belonging retain any meaning beyond an attempt to disguise our mortality and finitude? How much of identity is choice and how much circumstance? I have no adequate answers to these questions but, for the moment, only an urge to probe further.
Though identity is often a near-synonym for belonging, I would suggest there is a difference. One may choose one’s identity, whereas belonging often requires a degree of social acceptance that is not always granted. If it is not, you are designated one of a minority and expected to earn your place where place would otherwise be assumed. You are labeled in ways others often would not be. Others may assume a license to speak for you, claiming to give voice to the voiceless, as though you are mute. You lose visibility on your own terms and are granted it only on terms acceptable to others. You become an object perceived within binaries you may feel powerless to reconfigure.
Yet it is at this point of weakness that I believe writers may find strength. For insofar as belonging is a narrative act, it can be, as with every narrative, reconstituted and renarrated. In the process, the point of view can be reorientated, the story’s arc altered, and possibilities of outcomes reimagined. Through the mastery of narrative, it is possible to assert presence, and though that may not comprise all of what is meant by belonging, it may be a large part of what any of us can achieve with integrity and good conscience. But even so, I would contend, presence alone is barely a sufficient condition for belonging. To better grasp what belonging can mean in its fullness requires us to widen the circumference of our investigation beyond the personal and the individual and to take a few steps back in time.
In the 1960s, writing on ethnicity, Fredrik Barth summarized the traditional anthropological position as “a race = a culture = a language” and that “a society = a unit which rejects or discriminates against others.” It is a model of a world of separate ethnicities, each a community that is “an island unto itself,” excluding other islands. By the 1980s, the term “ethnicity” warranted quotation marks, as per Dale F. Eickelman, who wrote, “understanding ‘ethnicity’ requires an analytic framework which presents the principles of ethnic stereotyping ... and how these notions are maintained in changing historical contexts.” Writing on Morocco, he noted that ethnicity is a term for which it was “difficult to find a specific counterpart in Middle Eastern languages.” This absence is significant for it places the colonized (or should that be the ‘ethnicized’?) at an intellectual disadvantage: how does one challenge a concept (implying a limiting stereotype of oneself) that does not exist in one’s own language and is often loaded with unfamiliar and restrictive assumptions? Even Adam in The Book of Genesis knew that to name was to exercise privilege and power over the named.
Lawrence Rosen provides examples of the political uses of ethnicity. He describes how, in an attempt to better control a restive population, French colonial administrators in North Africa sought to cleave a Berber ethnicity from that of Arab and Muslim, often emphasizing imagined differences. In 1930, they issued a Berber Decree as a stage in a far-reaching strategy to treat Arab and Amazigh (“Berber,” in colonial parlance) as antagonists, forbidding the Amazigh to learn Arabic and excluding them from the Muslim community of which they were part. A similar strategy of exclusion and exception was adopted toward Moroccan Jews who were provided with separate French-style schools denied to the Amazigh and Arab communities. They too were discouraged from learning Arabic. Thus, as a matter of policy, a hierarchy of ethnic privilege was created by degrees of otherness and exclusion.
René Girard claimed a fundamental role in human development for acts of exclusion leading to scapegoating, human sacrifice, and communal guilt. Similarly, Giorgio Agamben claimed for Western politics and sovereignty a foundation in the exclusion, in Roman law, of homo sacer, a person who “may be killed and yet not sacrificed.” Unfit for sacrifice, they were outside the law, and their killing was not regarded as murder. Agamben drew a line from homo sacer to the concentration camps of the twentieth century and the status of the Jew in Nazi Germany. Denied the right to belong, the Jew was a “life that does not deserve to live.”
Underlying the mechanisms proposed by Girard and Agamben is a metaphor of pollution and purification by exclusion and death. What is excluded represents an otherness, and sometimes a radical otherness, termed an abject, that connotes degradation and elicits disgust. By way of example, Julia Kristeva wrote, “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life.” The abject, situated outside the symbolic order, precedes linguistic and conscious awareness. Masked in terms of hygiene, disease, and danger, the abject represents the fear of loss of meaning, of distinction between subject and object, self and other.
That the abject precedes the symbolic does not preclude it from being integrated into individual and collective consciousness through language. “The corpse, seen without God” is not the same as the corpse seen with God. The perspective of an individual or a society without faith is different from one with faith. An example of a socially and historically conditioned abject is Agamben’s Nazi death camp prisoner who “no longer belongs to the world of men ... Mute and absolutely alone, he has passed into another world without memory and without grief” and is called by the other inmates “der Muselmann,” the Muslim. Another term for him was “gamel,” which meant rotting. This equivalence further relates the word “Muslim” to the abject: a live decomposing corpse. An equivalence that seems prescient, for in the 1990s when concentration camps were next established in Europe, it was not the Jew as Muselmann, but European Muslims who were the abjected victims. The scale of extermination may not have been industrial, as it was previously for Jews and the Romani. Nevertheless, in the former Yugoslavia, in the death camps of Omarska, Keraterm, Sušica, Manjača, and Trnopolje, the intention was genocide.
According to Agamben, the concentration camp is “the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living.” If that is the case, the threshold to abjection has been reduced to what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences,” where any slight disparity can signal a “life that does not deserve to live.”
The world of the camps complements Hannah Arendt’s “paradise of parasites,” those who believe themselves chosen by intrinsic qualities and impersonal forces to dominate the earth. To them, exclusion is strength and lies are truths (alternative facts and post-truths) subservient to the whim of the genius-leader (all else is fake news). Thus language loses meaning to become “an alphabet of murder.” The loss of a world in common means belonging and identity lose specificity for a role in a future of fictions. Through terror, emotion is evacuated and thought “regimented and arithmetized” for a politics, not of persuasion but one organized to exclude and eliminate anything deemed “unfit to live,” everything deemed abject.
Julia Kristeva wrote that hysteria is “an ego that, overtaxed by a ‘bad object,’ turns away from it, cleanses itself of it, and vomits it,” whereas with abjection “revolt is completely within being. Within the being of language ... the subject of abjection is eminently productive of culture. Its symptom is the rejection and reconstruction of languages.” There is “at least a speculative cathexis in the abject ... a seeing ... a cathexis of looking.” Abjection is language (rejected and reconstructed) and image (a seeing and looking) invested with emotional energy (cathexis). Hysteria may not be subject to narration, but abjection can be. And if so, narrative may be a means to counter abjection as savage exclusion.
In a short story collection, Primo Levi recounts—in language that is simple and clear, and in a tone (call it attitude) that eschews self-pity or blame—a history, part memoir and part fiction, of a Jew who lived in fascist Italy and survived Auschwitz. Each story stands alone and is given the name of an element in the periodic table. The volume lacks an overall plot, but taken together the individual narratives contribute to an arc that goes from the inert gas “Argon” and Levi’s grandparents to a coda on “Carbon” and the endless flow of Being renewing itself through transformation. The elements of the periodic table are submerged metaphors for characters and situations with meaning, both secular and transcendent. They evidence how the sciences were for Levi an antidote to fascism, “because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness.”
Several of the stories are haunted by the phantom of the abject taking form every now and then, as the bedbugs in grandmother’s linen, the worm-eaten chocolate of childhood, the fetid scent of chemicals, darkness and emptiness, and, of course, the death camp that was Auschwitz. It is with the penultimate story, that of “Vanadium” and the postwar encounter with Dr. Müller, the German who supervised Levi’s laboratory work when the latter was a prisoner at Auschwitz, that the collection arrives, through a transcendence of fear and pity, at catharsis, a purging not of life “unfit to live” but of mendacity and falsehood by “the element of life.”
W. H. Auden writes of the death camps as the limits of representation: “the Poet cannot get into this business without defiling himself and his audience.” To make entertainment of genuine horror—that which cannot be described for being “destruction beyond reason”—is an act of bad faith, a distortion of truth, and a corruption of language. A writer’s primary duty is “to defend language. And this is a political duty. Because, if language is corrupted, thought is corrupted.” He goes on to say, “What the poet has to convey is not ‘self-expression,’ but a view of a reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective.” A poet’s task is “praise of being.”
Describing a Mediterranean landscape, he writes:
... when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
It is in the interstices between what is seen and what is heard that feeling and meaning take form. Much of what Primo Levi describes as a prisoner in Auschwitz is mundane. But context is everything, and so the underground stream murmurs never far from the surface to cause a tension almost unbearable.
Several episodes in Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz beg the question of what self is, once stripped to bare motive as when, at the end of the war, the camp was abandoned by its guards, leaving the prisoners to scavenge and fight for scraps of bread and potato peels. Is self a shell grown of circumstance around a hollow core requiring anchorage in belonging to some otherness, or is there an essential self, resilient and self-affirming of more than need?
While living in Cairo and working with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, I was arrested by the Egyptian State Security. In a shuttered room, coerced by three interrogators, verbally abusive and physically threatening, I experienced a splitting of the self. One part of me, projected into a corner of the room, watched the rest of me being interrogated. What was that observing self? I would like to think it the self that bears witness and the self that translates experience into language and crafts it into narrative. A self, if not essential, then at least necessary to create meaning out of incidents and happenings and that gives itself form in narrative and story. A writer’s self that Rainer Maria Rilke called “a house of solitude,” for which he wrote: “may all never-belonging be yours” and “to none belonging wholly.” For such non-belonging is the precondition for the creative solitude—the independence of spirit—that is the ground of a writer’s integrity, and the I by which they bear witness.
In the all too few works he has left us, Primo Levi demonstrated how, in an age of anxiety, a writer’s sense of belonging can be rooted in their experience of abjection and exclusion (possibly what Walter Benjamin meant by a writer’s essential experience), and related to language. In Levi’s case, a language that was positive and clear (uncorrupted), honest (truthful, if you prefer) and personal, yet accessible (common to all), with a uniquely crafted point of view. A language composed into narratives that transcended abjection to a catharsis and a praise of being, a recognition that every life—regardless of identity or origins—is a life deserving to live.
Works quoted in the text:
Agamben, Giorgio (1998), Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press.
Agamben, Giorgio (1999), Remnants of Auschwitz, Zone Books.
Arendt, Hannah (1979), The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Auden, W. H. (1982), A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, Faber and Faber.
Auden, W. H. (1991), “In Praise of Limestone,” from Collected Poems, Vintage.
Barth, Fredrik (1998), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, Waveland Press.
Eickelman, Dale F. (1989), The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach, Pearson Education.
Freud, Sigmund (2003), The Uncanny, Penguin Classics.
Girard, René (1986), The Scapegoat, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kristeva, Julia (1982), Powers of Horror, Columbia University Press.
Levi, Primo (1995), The Periodic Table, Schocken.
Levi, Primo (1996), Survival in Auschwitz, Touchstone.
Rilke, Rainer Maria (1994), Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, W. W. Norton.
Rosen, Lawrence (2015), Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew, University of Chicago Press.
In addition to plays for stage, radio, and television, Karim ALRAWI is the author of two children’s books, and of the novel Book of Sands (2015), which won the HarperCollins Best New Fiction Prize. His honors include the John Whiting Award (UK), the Samuel Beckett Award for the Performing Arts (UK), Parent Magazine’s Gold Award for Children’s Fiction (USA), National Playwriting Award (Canada) and several Canada Council for the Arts awards; he was twice a recipient of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture's Theatre and Youth Award for his plays. A former editor of the magazines Inquiry (UK) and Arabica (USA), he has taught creative writing at the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia, the American University in Cairo, and elsewhere. He lives in Canada.