Amjad Nasser’s Here is the Rosedidn’t make the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist yesterday, although customer Ibtihal Mahmood believed the book deserved going all the way:
By Ibtihal Mahmood
Does time only move on? If so, what do we do about the aphorism “history repeats itself”? In 1852, Karl Marx published an essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” which starts with a reference to another terrific figure from the past. “Hegel remarks someplace that all fantastic world-historic realities and personages appear, so to speak, two times.” Marx includes his 2 cents by commenting that Hegel “forgot to add: the very first time as tragedy, the 2nd time a farce.” A couple of pages into the essay, Marx prices estimate Hegel– who initially estimated Aesop:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
[Here is the rose, here dance!]
In other words, it is everything about the here and now. How is it possible, then, to change the world while living under the persistent anxiety of impact? How can revolutionaries score success in a world that presents them with nightmarish conditions, tattered customs, and worn-out metaphors? In his 2nd book, Here is the Rose, well-known Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser probes deep into the tensions in between the old and the new; the traditional and the contemporary; custom and innovation. He re-introduces the character of Younis al-Khattat, a Hamiya-born poet and a modern-day knight-errant, who travels with an abridged, translated variation of Cervantes’ magnum opus, Don Quixote, in his lightweight baggage. Avid readers of Amjad Nasser will rejoice as they remember making their first encounter with the Hamiyan lead character in Nasser’s debut book, Land of No Rain.
The prehistoric dispute in between the old and the brand-new is present throughout Younis’ journey, in his monologues and actions. Regardless of being the descendent of a long pedigree of Arabic calligraphers, Younis– a poet and born rebel– selects to study journalism and socializes with the miscreants of his area (putting calligraphy vis-à-vis poetry is one way of guiding our thinking toward the principle of phono-centrism in the Derridean sense: speech versus writing).
His open defiance and hostility to traditions, a minimum of according to his mom, is something he inherited from her bro Adham. Later on, we learn that Younis embraces his uncle’s name for the functions of his secret life as a member of an outlawed company. He also composes for Al-Shararah (The Glow), the organization’s regular monthly periodical, and signs his name as al-Hallaj, the well-known medieval Persian mystic poet executed for holding unconventional ideas– the “Martyr of Sufism,” according to Younis.But unlike the unscripted, approximate explorations of El Caballero de la Triste Figura(the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure ), Younis is taking a trip unarmed and solo, from his home in Hamiya to Sindbad City and back, bring orders as a representative on a secret mission to assassinate “the Grandchild. “The latter is an epithet used across Hamiya to refer to the president, among other epithets: The Caring Father, The Never-ceasing Leader, and more.Readers acquainted with the existing political scene in the Arab World will not have difficulty hearing the echoes of existing regional dictatorships in these epithets; they may even wish to locate the imaginary locations on a map of the genuine world. However Amjad Nasser is one step ahead of us: he magnifies the fictionalization of locations by calling Younis ‘house”Na-Koja-Abad, “a Persian term created by Sohravardi, meaning: The land of nowhere. Still, the aspects of despotism as illustrated throughout the story (public executions, censorship, paranoid demagogues) will inevitably strike home with many readers around the world.Following the abortive effort to assassinate the Grandchild, Younis runs for his life and gets on a train leaving the city. As he tries to summon sweet moments from his past, he is struck only by future images of himself without his enjoyed ones.”As if the time maker had carried him into the future, not into the past to alter the future– that is something this damned time machine is incapable of. It only moves on “( p. 184). Life, then, just moves forward, therefore do poetry and literature and the arts. Could
Younis accomplish his mission successfully if he was simply as delusional as our great old Quixote? We can no longer inform catastrophe from farce.How does Amjad Nasser tell the story? From the beginning, he masterfully grips our attention, having discovered the best balance in between poetic language and ingenious storytelling methods. The self-reflexive unique opens with an epilogue (in vibrant typeface )that starts at the end: Younis is passing away, however he does not know it yet. We hear the fascinating voice of a self-conscious storyteller, freely talking about the work in our hands, notifying us of his status as a storyteller. “I will take one action back, or more, and permit the narration to address an unknown [reader],”describes the storyteller at the end of the epilogue. Readers, however, will reencounter the demure storyteller in metatext (in strong print)throughout the book: he consistently steps in to inform a backstory, whisper his opinion, or recite a couple of verses from a classical text– the unmatched appeal of the Song of Solomon is kindly spelled over the pressing love that Younis pours out to Roula, his wife.It was not unexpected to see Here is the Rose longlisted for the International Reward for Arabic Fiction of 2018. Such a fine literary work is deserving of crossing the finish line.Ibtihal Mahmood
is a Jordanian-American author and translator based in Seattle, Washington.