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The Sonic, the Social, and the Novel

Session I-13, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • The so-called “Cairo Trilogy” by Naguib Mahfouz has frequently been analyzed from the perspective of the political and sociological light it shines upon the life of ordinary Egyptians in the early 20 th century, but hardly at all for how it illuminates the appreciation of art, and particularly music, by that same population. The first novel in the trilogy, Bayn al-Qasrayn (translated into English as Palace Walk) is particularly notable for the frequency of its references to popular song and its extended depictions of how song and music are experienced and appreciated. Mahfouz repeatedly evokes specific musical works popularized by a legendary group of late nineteenth-century Egyptian/Ottoman composer/musicians by quoting a single line of the song text. By quoting a single line of text, Mahfouz called to his readers’ memory the entire song, perhaps at the same time evoking a sense of nostalgia for the time period he describes in the novel, which was approximately 40 years before its first publication in serialized form. Mahfouz’ extended descriptions of musical performance and audience appreciation create a mental soundtrack complementing his narrative, calling upon his readers to join the fictional characters in giving themselves up to the enjoyment of the music. Mahfouz’ knowledgeable and literary references to song texts popularized by these musical giants create a mental soundtrack for a readership that he could presume was equally conversant with this musical tradition. This assumption was greatly amplified—and transmitted to a new generation of appreciative listeners—when the trilogy of novels were adapted to musical film in the popular features directed by Hasan al-Imam in the 1960s. But it is Bayn al-Qasrayn that stands out from the other two novels of the trilogy in the sheer number of its references to specific songs, its specific invocation by name of the great Egyptian singer/composers of the late nineteenth century, and its extended depictions of ecstatic performances accompanied by equally ecstatic audience enjoyment. Interestingly, the novelist makes abundantly clear that his fictional performers are nowhere near up to the job of giving a truly adequate performance—but due to restrictions imposed by the British occupation of Cairo on their access to the chief entertainment districts of Cairo, the novel’s musical afficionados must make do with what is available. In this paper I will tease out the novel’s accompanying diegetic soundtrack, bringing the specific songs, their composers, and their most famous performers back into the light.
  • The expansiveness of Ahdaf Soueif’s novel In the Eye of the Sun is not to be underestimated. The novel narrates the period between 1967 and 1981, crucial years that mark a turning point in Egypt’s national history: the defeat in the Six-Day War inaugurates Egypt’s disillusionment with pan-Arabism as well as the waning of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab socialism and paves the way for Anwar Sadat’s neo-liberalism. In narrating this political history, the novel problematizes attempts at neat, comfortable categorizations, foregoing teleology in place of re-tracings and repetitions. By ordering these historical events through innovative modes of emplotment, Soueif’s novel upsets modernist narratives of progression. Examining the epilogue – itself outside of the temporal demands of a novel – I focus my analysis on the epilogue’s representation of an Ancient Egyptian artifact, specifically an unnamed idol that the protagonist, Asya, accidently finds lying face down in the sand at the excavation site in a remote village in rural Egypt. Soueif’s focus on the ancient idol situates her in relation to masculinist discourses of Egyptology. The most obvious, among many, fault of these hegemonic discourses is that they center power struggles between European colonial rivalries while consistently evacuating modern Egyptians from the narrative – especially women, people from rural areas, or the working classes. Through a close reading of the figure of the ancient Egyptian idol, I contend that Soueif rescues it from warring hegemonic discourses and actively engages in re-signifying the ancient artifact within the horizon of the political moment in which she is narrating, that of the transition from Nasser to Sadat. Centering the excavation site in the remote village before the idol becomes an artifact, with no Egyptologists or Archeologists in sight, Soueif saves the ancient idol from a temporal upset in the museum. Ultimately, I propose that ending the novel with this image offers a decolonial national history, one that centers a polyvocal community, women’s collective voices, and an indigenous Egyptology.
  • I examine Mohamed Leftah’s Demoiselles de Numidie, a novel narrating the violence endured by a group of prostitutes, “des filles-cicatrices,” working for two Moroccan men named Zapata and Spartacus. The novel is set in post-independence Casablanca, but those familiar with Leftah’s other novel, Hawa, know that Zapata was born to Warda, a Moroccan prostitute working in Casablanca’s quartier Bousbir, the red-light district built under the French protectorate and operating from 1922 to 1955, and an American soldier who was stationed in Morocco during WWII. I argue that Leftah is envisioning the postcolonial imaginary as “une cicatrice” or a scar, whereby Zapata, half Moroccan and half American with the name of a Mexican revolutionary, navigates this new scene by playing both a pimp to his prostitutes and a prostitute to the Danish Ingvar, who promises him residency in Denmark. Spartacus is the other pimp masquerading with the name of an escaped slave leader and a Thracian gladiator. The chaotic and murderous environment reigning in this novel is emblematic of the chaos and corruption characterizing the postcolonial condition in Morocco, referred to by the narrator as “la cicatrice,” the “scar” that Zapata makes on the bodies of his prostitutes as he marks them with his knife after he owns them. This “cicatrice” is the lasting scar of the injuries perpetrated by colonization, reminiscent of the other lasting scar left by syphilis, known in some circles as “the French disease.” In this narrative, where the Moroccan pimp sodomizes the Danish sexual tourist, Nadia and Sophia alternate lesbian and heterosexual acts, Spartacus ends up “sodomized” (enculé) by getting his eye pierced (énuclé) by Rose, a prostitute, after she learns that her friend dies in a murder-suicide. In his unique way of decentering French as the language of the novel and the structuring skeleton of the postcolony, Leftah suggests that this skeleton stands by these “files-arbres” while the pimps are the chancres, the genital lesions, the parasites, living off the suffering of these women, the same as French colonization is the disease that is still eating up this scarred body. The postcolonial condition, according to my interpretation of Leftah’s novel, is but a scar left from the colonial condition, for which the society’s most vulnerable, the prostitutes, pay the heaviest price. As globalization replaces direct colonization, we witness avatars of real revolutionaries governing a world of repression and violence that ends up turning against them.
  • This paper examines how underground movement, through spaces such as metro systems and subterranean tunnels, has been imagined and encoded as a site of dissent that threatens power, as well as a site that is the object of desired state control. Subterranean spaces not only reflect but also refract the above ground world, allowing us to see both in a different light. Vertical divisions of surface, air, and underground and the relative permeability of these divisions can be as meaningful as the horizontal borders that divide surface spaces and territories. Drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the spatial triad, as well as numerous studies of the (post) industrial emergence of the subterranean as a realm of quotidian life, I consider the potential and limits of both the “underground” as a metaphor for the surreptitious circulation of dissident cultural artifacts, and the physical underground as a site of subversive activity that authoritarian regimes in the Middle East seek to control, flood, seal off, or quarantine. Focusing on works of Egyptian literature and film, including Metro by Magdy al-Shafee (2008), Yousry Nasrallah’s film Scheherezade, Tell Me a Story (2009), Mohammed Rabie’s Otared (2015), and Using Life by Ahmed Naji (2014), I argue that a comparison of pre- and post-Arab spring portrayals of underground spaces and movements reveals a crucial shift resulting from these socio-political upheavals. My reading finds that while works from the late-Mubarak era produce a realist depiction of a Cairo that has resigned itself to a present of corruption and vast wealth disparities, post-uprising works by Naji and Rabie provide a more speculative and often darker vision of the underground as a repository of dystopias and destructive utopian dreams with often devastating consequences. I argue therefore that the Arab spring and its subsequent suppression in Egypt has reinvigorated cultural representations of the underground, transforming this space from a mirror of the society above it that exposes but does not contest forms of corruption and dysfunction, to a space that nurtures and enlivens fantasies and nightmares of future social, spatial, and political transformations. Further, I suggest this shift represents the return of the metaphorical and physical underground as a site of dissent in the face of resurgent forms of political repression.