Saturday, June 4, 2016

My Bennu


There’s a bird I see, sometimes when I walk the dog, it looks like a heron. Long saffron flamingo legs, white cotton grey bodice, two crested feathers on the back of her head, a yellow long beak. I am not a bird watcher. I don’t know birds, but the Bennu has always been a part of my life. I have taken photos of her on my phone to prove to myself that she’s there, that I haven’t imagined her. I sometimes glance outside the window and look for her, but I rarely see her behind the glass, I have to physically go out. Then, there she is, going about her business, hopping from grass, to branch, to Sycamore tree searching for a worm or a small mouse.

Each departure my heart sinks, the separation feeling like hundreds of years, without guarantees of return, without promises, a frolic, a skip and off she flies - leaving me behind. Where are you going? Do they need you as much as I do? Don’t leave. Stay. As if I could tame a Bennu, or entice a deity with any of my mundane capacities, food, water, shelter. There is nothing I can provide that isn’t in abundance all over the world. I hope, I pray, I beg, for it to find the need to return to my insignificant little patch of jade. I am impatient, and the longer I wait, the more apathetic I turn, hating her power over me, drowning in my own head, and deciding to be blind to all the beauty around me. At my lowest, on an insignificant day, with the rising of the sun, she surprisingly reemerges. From the ashes, I carve soothings words that revitalize my soul. I write stories of the Bennu, for the Bennu, so she can stay. She speaks to me.

I am both the regal ruby gold phoenix and I am the goliath grey heron. I am, sometimes more one, than the other. I am, the exciting fiery deity, the rising sun, soaring, my loud cries undeniable. I am transforming air, time and space into floods of life. I am also the small, common two toned grey heron, perched outside your window, smiling at your confusion, reminding you of the beauty of the drab, the magic of the ordinary, and the importance of being both.

In order to fly forward you must forget about the two feather crest on the back of your head.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review of Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller


The obsession with Greek myths has been a common theme for writers since Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" (800 BC) which was his accounting of four hundred years of oral history. From Virgil's "Aenid", in 20BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans, to David Malouf's Ransom, in 2009, which retells the story of the Iliad from books 16 to 24. No writer has not gone through a phase or an attempt at modernizing or retelling the Greek myths. There are even Egyptian authors who have been infatuated with these myths. Ali Salem's "The Comedy of Oedipus", transports Oedipus to Thebes. Tawfik Al-Hakim's "King Oedipus" islamasizes the Greek myth, by uniting the deities, and changes Oedipus question not of a particular oracle but to general divine revelation.

Miller is even more so obsessed because of her specialized education, having gotten both a BA, and an MA in Classics. Her retelling of Achilles is a success by far, not only is it her debut novel, but she has also earned the 2012 Orange Prize of Fiction with it. She does not modernize the setting like Mark Merlis' "An Arrow's Flight" which tells the story of the Trojan War and Pyrrhus, Achilles' son, by making him work as a go-go boy and hustler in the big city. Miller simply tells the story from the perspective of Achilles friend and lover Patroclus. Since, there is not much written about Patroclus, she is really able to flesh out his personality and create a unique viewpoint without having to deviate from the myth, since in fact there is much to support that Patroclus was in fact Achilles' lover.
Patroclus hence sets the mood, the tone, and seeing the world through his eyes is an unparalleled experience. Patroclus is so in love that he cannot see but the beauty, the divinity in Achilles (son of the Goddess Thetis and King Peleus of Phthia). There is a changing point in the book when Patroclus becomes disillusioned with Achilles, and defies him, and goes to Agamemnon to save Briseis (the Anatolian slave girl who has become in love with Patroclus). The second time was when Achilles refused Agamemnon's apology, and declined rejoining the war, costing the Greeks many lives. Patroclus reacted by joining the war in Achilles' place.
New York Times Mendelsohn's review is very critical of Miller's angle and sees that the love story is a deviation of the classic myth and that her tone creates a "swoony soft-porn prose". This seems harsh but he does make a valid point that her interpretation of sexuality is very modern and that is not necessarily consistent with Ancient Greece. Mendelsohn goes on to analyze the book, by explaining that the romance takes a disproportionate amount, and hence give less importance to Homer's main theme of "who we are, why we act and what remains of us after we die". I agree with Homer that "Song of Achilles" is mostly a love story, but she does manage to make the readers ask the important questions like what are honor and glory? Why do we fight and live? What is pride? Achilles knows that he will go his death in Troy. He still goes to achieve immortality, to become a legend.
The idea of defying the limits - conquering death? is it for his own glory? Or is it to test the limits of humanity?
The futility of education when it leads to murder. Chiron, the centaur, that educates Achilles and Patroclus in Mount Pelion, shows the paradox of that education being left behind to go off to war. "Bitterness of habit of boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder".
The dichotomy of killing and being honorable "no hands ever so gentle- or so deadly" "There is no answer. Whichever you choose you are wrong.

Miller manages to ask why do we fight? What is a hero? What is Pride? "He's going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them" Thetis reminds Patroclus.  "Only cowards did not fight".  "Pride became us -heroes we never modest".

Only honor remains "a thousand ships have sailed for her". This is for Helen of Troy/Helen of Sparta, wife of King Menelaus, King of Sparta. She was kidnapped by Paris of Troy, and so for Sparta's honor the Greeks have joined Agamemnon (Menelaus' brother) to go to war to Troy to bring back Helen and regain their honor.

The writing is what I enjoyed the most, although Mendelsohn sees it as Judy Blumish. I think it flows quite well, and her focusing on the senses, the colors, the smells and light create a unique surrounding. "Brown as richest earth"; "tears that bled"; "honor darkened by it"; "musk of body"; "crushing lips to wine"; "drank light from the moon"; "as if all the morning's sun had been poured out of it"; "we are like damp wood that won't light".

A map would have been a lovely addition to the novel showing where Patroclus was born (Opus), and then the different kingdoms they travelled to or mentioned in the story (Sparta, Phthia, Mount Pelion, Scyros, Troy, Ithaca, Argos...)
The end is particularly satisfying, where both Patroclus and Achilles are dead. Only Patroclus' voice remains after he dies "I am air and thought and can do nothing". "I did not plan to live after he was gone".    

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Review "Ribbons & Heels" by Tarek Hassan Refaat


Part of modern day Egypt is the emergence of Egyptian authors who choose to write in English. Most of our most successful authors write in Arabic, and after achieving fame, their work is picked up and professionally translated.
However, there have always been Egyptian authors who wrote in English about the politics, history, and heritage through AUC Press (aucpress.com). Then, there were a handful of authors who wrote in English at award winning/literature levels such as Ahdaf Soueif and Waguih Ghali.
With more Egyptians identifying with English as their language of creativity, we find a wave of new and exciting authors in many differing genres. This has been enabled by the parallel emergence of new publishing houses willing to put a voice to these authors like Saray Publishing (saraypublishing.com) and Shabab Books (shababbooks.com). The third possibility of publishing in English is through Amazon, and self-publishing. This is what authors like Amira Aly and Tarek Refaat have done.
Tarek Refaat’s "Ribbons and Heels" fits well into the Chick-Lit genre, it’s another take on modern day Cairene relationships. It reminded me of Inji Amr’s “To Each Her Own”, although hers was non-fiction. Inji had explained to me that her drive behind writing this book was that she felt that none of the books out in English represented who she or her friends were. Tarek Refaat goes on with that message and continues by adding to that painting that Inji had started. He helps readers understand the challenges that face modern day Cairene relationships, giving a voice to both the male and female characters.
"Ribbons and Heels" is Refaat's second novel, it was published February 2013. His first novel "Ruptured" (May 2011) is about a woman who was raped and the social/societal implications. This second novel is a much lighter theme, while still shedding light on society and family values. It’s an easy read, and at times I wish Refaat would prolong some of the dialogue which seems to end abruptly, because as the reader you want to get to know the characters more. The Chick-Lit genre is really shaping in Egypt, and finding both readership through books like "Ribbons and Heels" and viewership with movies ever since "Sahar El-layali" (2003) and recently with tv shows like "Hekayat Banat"(2012). Refaat does this genre well and is more successful than others of the same genre at Shabab books.
The four female characters meet for coffee, talk on their mobiles, go to work, discuss their families, all the while trying to work out their love lives. Each character is different, and has her different quirks, and one is easily pulled into their world and roots for the happy ending which the author happily hands over. All the characters live and work in Cairo, they are mostly upper class women, who have the means to lead successful independent lives. The issue of whether independence/freedom must be sacrificed in order to enter in a relationship is another of the themes, and is also happily resolved.
Overall an easy quick read with only a hundred pages, with a feel good ending.