The Sauna Series — Youssef Rakha

Youssef Rakha is a writer and photographer based in Cairo. Among other titles, he is the author of the critically acclaimed The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars. This interview was conducted in late October in a sauna in central Cairo, where we happened by chance. 


Fernando Sdrigotti: Thanks for accepting to do this interview.

Youssef Rakha: Always a real — wow, it’s hot, isn’t it!

Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes, terribly hot! I’m aware it isn’t so common to conduct an interview in a sauna… But then, why settle for the common, right?

Youssef Rakha: Absolutely! And I’ve wanted to have this kind of conversation for a long time, actually. At least to be in the nude in such heat. Moobs and all. Aha.

 Fernando Sdrigotti: I’m glad. Very glad… Right… Youssef, you are a novelist, a poet, an essayist, an editor, but also a photographer… Your write in English and Arabic… I can’t help feeling your work is in many ways working at an intersection of several worlds. How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you? 

Youssef Rakha: I have no idea how to introduce myself. There are a number of possible things to say about me: novelist, pseudo journalist-cum-literary hireling, Islamic theorist, Arab porn scholar. Or I could say I’m a poet-philosopher in a Mediterranean tradition that stretches back millennia. And yourself? Who are you, please?

Fernando Sdrigotti: I wanted to be a mariachi but somehow ended up writing and editing this magazine and reviewing saunas for a living! I don’t know who I am, really. It’s hard to define oneself, isn’t it? I envy people who have easy answers for this… So, novelist, pseudo journalist-cum-literary hireling, Islamic theorist, Arab porn scholar, poet-philosopher… Those are many labels!

Youssef Rakha: But they reflect a relatively simple fact: that I view writing (and naturally also editing) as a trade, a skill, a work routine, and that’s what makes it a vocation. My feeling is if you’re a writer you should be able or at least try to do writing, and that means or at least doesn’t not mean in a range of different ways, so — except in terms of career building, maybe: poets in particular seem to benefit from playing this game — I’ve never understood genre fidelity. Language fidelity is of course a different story, though having had a relatively privileged middle-class education I’ve always had two languages, so using English for my work doesn’t feel like too much of an infidelity. It’s more a question of why, which maybe we’ll come to?

More grandiloquently, I’d say that writing is my dharma. Even when I’m not doing it, it’s how I make sense of reality. It provides an ethical code of a sort – negative capability? – and its different manifestations segue into aspects of my psychological and money-making if no longer so much social life.

Fernando Sdrigotti: So how do you fit, considering all the above, in Egyptian letters?

I feel I belong in the 1500-year-old canon. I’d say my strongest affinities are Mameluke; I’m more connected with 16th to 19th century prose writing in Egypt than anything.

Youssef Rakha: Until 2011 — when upheaval and regime change exposed the true size and significance of the historically engagé literary community, the intellectuals, bringing the ugliness of certain lies and absurdities forth in unprecedented ways — I could play the you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours game with relative ease and so I was part of the literary community. Since 2011 I haven’t been able to go on pretending that these people know anything or want anything more than the cheapest personal gains, or even have any kind of readership beyond themselves/each other. It’s like a provincial extended family, you can hardly do anything without various kinds of personal alliances and cross-clique rimming rigmaroles. And I just can’t. Not after everything I’ve seen. Of course my notorious isolation in Cairo has incurred a cost in terms of my being a celebrated part of the scene, but I mean… On the other hand I feel I belong in the 1500-year-old canon. I’d say my strongest affinities are Mameluke; I’m more connected with 16th to 19th century prose writing in Egypt than anything. So, while I don’t think I am in any way separate from the modern Arabic literary tradition that started in the late 19th century (although in many instances I might differ sharply with aspects of it in terms of my thinking or taste), I definitely exist in a state of tension vis-a-vis the current literary scene, for ethical and psychological reasons. And this is mainly why I transformed my blog into a cosmopolitan hotel, to create a wider, more satisfying community not based on personal connections as such. To suggest a different model of interaction and cooperation. But what about Minor Literature[s] and how it started? Have you had anything comparable in your experience?

Fernando Sdrigotti: The original “mission” was to provide a place for writers in English as a second language. Once I started to write in English I quickly realised how little-attuned were most editors to the particularities and needs of writers of English as a second language. I found there was a niche worth exploiting here and that’s how we started. Then we grew into something bigger. Perhaps because we quickly realised the problems that come with “niches”, if you know what I mean…

Youssef Rakha: That’s a very good point, I think. Maybe another problem with Arabic (or indeed Arab) literature in English is that it’s a niche interest, so it’s susceptible to being identity-politicised and otherwise emptied of substance. Or, outside academic and groupie circles, it’s simply ignored. I think there’s a paradox there. On the one hand, to be faithful to your calling, you have to separate yourself from the broader context. On the other hand, once you consciously start doing that, you create a narrower context in which to be equally if not more unfaithful to your calling than if you were to sell out. As with so many other things, I think, the answer is to stay unconscious. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: So what about photography? How does photography fit in this “dharma”?

Youssef Rakha: Even photography is a way of sticking with writing, I think, by exercising a different kind of aesthetic sensibility and varying the routine of sitting, actually lying down, maintaining a wordless connection with the world to make language overdrive bearable over time. (Not that photography can be much more than a kind of exercise, in my view. These days, I mean. It’s comparable to running or meditating, and like them you use your iPhone to do it.) I believe you too were a photographer once?

Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes, I trained as a photographer at a very early age. My grandpa was an amateur photographer and taught me the basics. For a while that was my main mode of expression. But I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. I don’t think I ever had that kind of essayistic vision that I feel a photographer must have. And specially of late, I have become a a bit lazy. It’s easy to get lazy with a smartphone, like you say. So in the past years I also use photography as an aid to my writing. It’s like taking visual notes. 

Would you say that you are at the intersection of modes of expression? And I mean this not only in terms of the media which we have discussed — I also mean languages.

You really have to be at a crossroads of this kind. Between languages, cultural tropes and ethical positions. Eclectic and beleaguered.

Youssef Rakha: I could happily make that kind of statement, yes. And I probably have. But it still wouldn’t explain why exactly that’s the case. Because in reality I believe that part of what it means to be functionally alive in the world today, let alone what it means to functionally write — and by ”functionally” I mean something like purposefully or meaningfully or in any worthwhile sense — you really have to be at a crossroads of this kind. Between languages, cultural tropes and ethical positions. Eclectic and beleaguered. What would you say about being between Spanish and English, the Old and New Worlds, London and Continental (specifically Romance language) Europe?

Fernando Sdrigotti: Well, right now I write almost solely in English. Like with you, writing is for me a way of making sense of the world. The one around me exists mainly in English. And therefore the need to write about it in English. I moved to London in 2002 and only started to write in English — “seriously” — in 2008. The previous years of writing in Spanish were quite lonely: I felt even more isolated than now. Particularly because my Spanish — as my writing overall — is very Argentinean. So the distance was a lot more than if I was trying to plug into the Continent, Spain. I guess I’m still at the crossroads — it’s not like I am an “English” writer, etc. But contradictorily, by exiling myself from my mother tongue I feel more at home now!

Youssef Rakha: Right. My writing seems to depend on being in Cairo, though. Regardless of language. The world around me is mostly Egyptian Arabic. But that’s not the (only) Arabic I would write in anyway. But it’s a fascinating thought experiment to ask whether I might end up working in French or Spanish if I lived in Paris or Mexico City for long enough. It seems to be my setting that ends up speaking through me, though, using whichever language I (know well enough to) let it. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: How do you let yourself be inspired by your city and how do you avoid the commonplaces such a place can generate? I am thinking here of a long list of American and European writers than in writing of Cairo seem to rehash over and over the same clichés… 

I belong in this totally crazy metropolis that has so much going for it in literary terms. I don’t mean the literature that’s produced or consumed in it. I mean it has history and identity and geopolitics, individual and collective psychosis, all kinds of ”colour”.

Youssef Rakha: Cliché or not, these days I’m happy to describe myself as someone in Cairo. Not especially even from or of or inspired by but in Cairo. In the fullest sense of being in an urban space that, beyond visible images of it or ideas about it, remains heavily, harrowingly real. I feel Cairo is a viable self-definition because I’ve come to realise that, however uncomfortably — and believe me, that means extremely uncomfortably: think Thomas Bernhard and Austria — I belong in this totally crazy metropolis that has so much going for it in literary terms. I don’t mean the literature that’s produced or consumed in it. I mean it has history and identity and geopolitics, individual and collective psychosis, all kinds of ”colour”. And it may not be a great place to live but, having these things, it’s a great place to write about. It’s fascinating to think about Cairo in terms of other cities and over historical time. It gives you a perspective, I think a truly critical and unique and maybe verging-on-the-irrelevant perspective on saner, more prosperous places that reflect the global zeitgeist. The absurdity or insanity, let alone injustice or inhumanity of otherwise seamlessly integrated aspects of world culture are more apparent from here.

Fernando Sdrigotti: Not too long ago I heard you define yourself as “postmuslim”. What exactly is this? And how has it affected your writing? I ask because “the West”, in the same way that it imagines itself as homogenous, loves to imagine “the East” as a homogenous whole, as these nuances are lost in translation. How do you think Egyptian literature is perceived in Europe and the USA, where your work is read?

Youssef Rakha: Right, of course. Postmuslim is the relation I’ve cultivated with Islam, having tried all kinds of things since losing my religion at the age of fourteen, which I also want to promote as a viable way out of the notmuslim-vs-closetjihadi dilemma into which all kinds of constricted arseholes have fallen. Postmuslim is modelled on post-Christian, which while completely freed of premodern restrictions is a position that doesn’t necessarily disown its heritage or (in the broadest sense) its historical identity.

As you can see in my extremely short-lived column on the topic, having a postmuslim perspective implies certain things. It implies being a critic of (neo) liberalism and political correctness. It implies being nostalgically cosmopolitan, and seeing the discontents of present-day “multiculturalism” as well. What, incidentally, would be your take on Catholicism (I’m assuming you were born Catholic)?

Fernando Sdrigotti: Oh, god (with lowercase)! Yes. I was born a catholic. Not really into a religious family but in a catholic country. Did the rites because other kids in the hood were doing them; went to a catholic school because it was close to my house — I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember, which led to some interesting debates with the priests at school… I have now stopped using that label because the world of atheists is full of people who exercise fervour like religious zealots, just in a negative way. 

But religion is a strange thing in Argentina. The church still has a lot of political power but most people don’t really practise religion in any way. They only remember they are catholics when they want to oppose abortion rights or same sex marriage — religion provides the perfect excuse, then. And I guess this is what people see abroad, the images of the  middle and upper classes marching to oppose some progressive legislation. And then they must think we are all into Jesus…

Going back to my previous question: how do you think are Egyptian (or Arabic) letters perceived in the “West”?

Youssef Rakha: They’re not, really. Or they haven’t been. I’m not sure why, though the same is true of all literatures not written in European languages with the possible exception of Japanese, it would seem. In the last ten or twenty years certain books translated from Arabic have commanded some degree of attention, but only as political commentary or anthropological source material, never as writing for its own sake, as literature or art. Which explains why the Arabic books that have ”made it” in translation are by and large pure excrement.

Fernando Sdrigotti: Excrement sells! But there is attention directed to your neck of the woods! In the past seven or eight years we have seen a lot going on in the Arab world. What was once deemed the Arab Spring has given birth to many social movements but also to more social unrest and then to more violence, sometimes effected from the state to the people. How has this influenced your work as a writer?

Youssef Rakha: It gave me a little more to write about? Mostly the so-called Arab Spring has been an occasion for horrible, devastating disappointment. Regarding certain things — the real prospects for Western-style democracy, for example — it has definitely changed my perspective. Almost like waking up to the Matrix, politically speaking. There is this interview that outlines my political views in detail. But the effect of the Arab Spring on me as a writer is something far subtler and more complex. It was almost as if reality was catching up with my writing (which deals with the end of the nineties to the end of the aughts), inviting me to catch up with it once again. Hence The Crocodiles trilogy… How has your politics changed since the 2000s?

Fernando Sdrigotti: Well, I come from a rather apolitical generation. As I was born in 1977 I was too young to participate in the democratic intoxication that followed the end of the dictatorship in 1983 and the 90s were quite dead in terms of politics — there was a sort of mistrust of everything political. Many of my generation became politicised after the 2001 crisis, and I left Argentina in 2002, so I didn’t have a chance to participate in this. I only became really involved with politics since I left and found that many of my class privileges (I come from a very middle class family) had been suspended. You know what I mean: suddenly I was an immigrant doing manly shit jobs for a living, etc. So I flirted a bit with some Trot organisations — discussing revolution with guys dressed in cardigans, at the back of nice pubs — and then ended up a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. I guess I’ve become more politically aware since the 2000s. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of age or of my position over here, though…

Youssef Rakha: I can totally relate to that mistrust of anything political. That was one of the tenets of the Nineties Generation poets, which is the closest thing I have to a school or group from which to have emerged. And I think it’s really my baseline state. I lived my whole life until January 2011 as a more or less apolitical person, and by April-May 2011 I had given up on politics again.

Fernando Sdrigotti: Which is a political in itself! Anyway, changing tack: your work has been translated into several Romance languages. In the case of the English translation of Sultan’s Seal — a book that is very anchored in Arab culture, tradition, and even language — the transculturation from one language to the other has been very successful, receiving outstanding reviews and criticism. How was the process of translation? What was your involvement? What do you think are the hardest and easiest bits of translating from Arabic to English?

Youssef Rakha: Arabic is a hugely amorphous term for several standardised varieties of the written language derived from the Quran as well as countless spoken dialects, many of them mutually unintelligible. So it really totally depends what you’re talking about. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: I really don’t know what I’m talking about, so please explain!

Youssef Rakha: Right… In terms of Modern Standard Arabic, which whether in combination with the author’s dialect or not tends to be the language of contemporary literature, I think translation is as straightforward as it would be from French or Spanish. The challenge is rather having a layered understanding of the context and in some cases perhaps the history of literature. The Book of the Sultan’s Seal is as adequately translated as it was ever going to be, I think, though it loses a good half of what it is in any language other than Arabic, just because so much of it plays with Egyptian and varieties of classical and standard Arabic, also in relation to sources and registers and discourses. It’s an experiment in language as much as anything. And, yes, I was part of the translation process because I happen to have enough English, which made a significant difference, I think.

Fernando Sdrigotti: In relation to my previous question, and because it matters to me as writer of English as a second language… How did you arrive at writing in English? Are you the same writer in English as you are in Arabic?

English has facilitated transitioning in a way that had never happened. What I mean by this is only in English could I fully inhabit and write from the perspective of a woman.

Youssef Rakha: Okay, it’s important to point out I never ”switched” in the way you have, I’ve always worked in two languages. The difference is I recently decided to commit to a big, long-term literary project in English for the first time. And while I’m many different people even within the same language — that’s part of what writing is about, no? — English has facilitated transitioning in a way that had never happened. What I mean by this is only in English could I fully inhabit and write from the perspective of a woman. I have no idea why, but I’m sure it’s nothing to do with the nature of English itself as a language. Maybe in Arabic I’m conditioned to be myself in a different way, and so English opened up the opportunity for a sex change operation, as Steven Toast calls it.

Fernando Sdrigotti: Can you tell us a bit more about this project? 

Youssef Rakha: It started out — well, first there was a false start, a completely different thing, and I’ve managed to salvage two short stories out of that first, abandoned attempt — but then it started out as a fictionalised biography of my mother, who’s 78 this year. Someone very like my mother, anyway. But the character very quickly evolved into someone a lot more like me, though still very much a woman of that generation. So there’s this conservative, Francophone, middle-class woman who jumps out of the window in 2015, and there’s her 49-year-old son trying to make sense of her life and how she died, a kind of stand-in for the omniscient narrator. Alternate chapters cover (1) her life from 1956 to 2015 and (2) the four years in which she’s transformed by the revolution, 2011-15. And then there’s a very long monologue by her in the middle. It’s a big book, a kind of confrontation with the European novel especially in its postcolonial format. Because, language-wise, with so much French and Italian and Arabic in it, I feel I’m also writing the Egyptian (as opposed to the Indian) Novel in English. Which, though there are Egyptians who write in English, hasn’t really been done.

Fernando Sdrigotti: Finally, why do you come to this sauna in particular?

Youssef Rakha: It’s in the right area and has the right opening hours and the exact right temperature for my bald pate. But I come mainly because it’s here that I get to have conversations like this, free from capitalist and otherwise oppressive pressures. To quote the late Allen Ginsberg, the best minds of my generation all come here. And I like to be with them. 

Youssef Rakha is a bilingual writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Based in Cairo, his birthplace, he graduated from Hull University, England, in 1998. He has worked in mostly English-language journalism since then. @Sultans_Seal

Fernando Sdrigotti is Sauna Editor at Minor Literature[s]. @f_sd

About the Sauna Series: Wherever there is a sauna there is a writer plotting a masterpiece. In this series we travel the world’s saunas and steam rooms talking to people of letters. The phrase ‘mutual backscratching’ is a cliché in the literary scene, but it has rarely been used so literally.

Image: Les Nuits de ParisThomas Hawk, Creative Commons.