“Radwa Ashour was a powerful voice among Egyptian writers of the postwar generation and a writer of exceptional integrity and courage. Her work consistently engages with her country’s history and reflects passionately upon it.”
She is, usually, smart.
At nine years old, the general shape of her personality is set. She enjoys dancing, pop music, great stories (but not always books), and professes a keen sensitivity which causes her to burst into tears if she finds something unbearably sad or beautiful. I once listened to her monologue about the use of Arabic language and the pride one takes in a native tongue; it takes unusual foresight and intelligence for an Arab child raised in Jordan to resist lingering colonialism so deftly.
We often read books and discuss things together. I’m happy I’m a confidante and always happy to spend time with her. I like to think I helped raise her, and that she has been raised well.
Then there was today.
My sister told me that, at nine, she knew who George Bush and Condoleeza Rice were. “But that,” she said, “could have been due to the Iraq War.”
I suggested we test this, and produced a photograph of Barack Obama to show my nine year old cousin. “Who is this?”
“Obama,” said my cousin. “Duh.”
“And who is Obama?”
This put her at something of a loss. My sister decided to throw a hint: “What’s the most powerful country in the world?”
Ah, grins my cousin. “England!”
“No. The world.”
Disappointed, I decided to produce the picture of another world figure. I chose Elizabeth II: Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth, probably more famous than the crown she wears.
“And who is this?”
“That,” she said, proudly, “is Miss Obama.”
I suppose I should be grateful she’s not a racist, and maybe even happy there’s some logic at play here. But who am I kidding?
I have failed this child.
Today, I kicked a one year-old in the head.
On her birthday.
As I was swallowing down a slice of her chocolate birthday cake.
Which I suppose confirms the literary theory that villains aren’t born, but made.
In truth, I accidentally bumped into little M—- as I was walking, my leg connecting with her head when she made a sudden lurch (as crawling babies will) from beneath a chair. Luckily, she’s doing OK; she looked resentful for a solid hour, but it wasn’t anything some nursery rhymes off an iPad couldn’t fix.
But imagine the story she’ll tell in future years.
(And if in future years you ever read this, M—-: I love you!)
I like to think I’m a mature adult, striving towards fulfillment and deeper understanding despite the occasional misstep/failure.
This illusion is completely shattered when I gallop towards a four-wheel drive carrying a POW, a mortar shell screaming down from the sky. Seconds to go before the damn thing hits and the horse breaks over a rock, jumps, lands in a storm of sand. I have a second to aim. The first shot shatters a glass window. Two more take-out the left wheels. The car swirls, the driver screaming. The POW scrambles out the back of the van. He’s on my horse in a second and we burst away before the mortar lands, the explosion cloaking us in dust. The driver is bleeding. In the escape I look backwards. He is caught-up in the cloud.
Just another day in Soviet-era Afghanistan.
None of this is scripted. It’s part luck. It’s part skill. It’s all adrenaline.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is out today. It’s Hideo Kojima’s last MGS game, and I’ve been savouring it over the past four days. It’s been clunky, sometimes, but also fantastic, so far the best of what is and always has been an exceptional series.
Kojima rightly gets a lot of flak for some of his narrative decisions, but I love how daring he can be. So clever. So silly. So exciting. So bizarre. So much to learn from, and so much to criticise.
So much, too, to love.
If games have an auteur, he is that auteur.
What a thrill.
And to think that today I’m back at the office.
I suspect that Terry Pratchett—funny without being silly, insightful without being condescending, lovingly pointing-out human while simultaneously understanding its origins and inevitabilities—works best for non-fantasy readers, despite the fantasy tropes he runs with. This is certainly the case with me; he remains one of the very few SFF authors whose books I genuinely adore. (This particular sentiment he would abhor, but I can defend it.)
I came to Pratchett in 2010. I hadn’t been a fantasy reader, but I chanced A Game of Thrones, loved it…and found it hopelessly draining. My then-girlfriend suggested I take-up Pratchett to cure the blues.
“But he has like a million novels,” I said.
“Just try this one.” She handed me a book. “It’s a standalone. You’ll love it.”
Monstrous Regiment is the story of Polly Perks, a Mulan-esque trooper who disguises herself as a man to pluck her brother from the war. The story is mostly wry and amusing, and, in the last quarter, suddenly hilarious.
But looking back, the first thing I consider about the book, and Pratchett generally, is his Dickensian aesthetic. Like Dickens, Pratchett’s characters are caricatured, but believable and rounded. Like Dickens, he’s got a fantastic, double barrel-absurdist sense of humour, powered by a fabulous wit (“Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life”).
More important, however, is Pratchett’s understanding of comedy as framework for seriousness. The hilarity of Monstrous Regiment’s last quarter is wrapped within a resoundingly truthful climax—one I dare not spoil—elevating it into something sublime, and it’s a visceral truth that works on multiple levels. This element of truth Pratchett packs is rooted in a rage—against injustice, apathy, laziness, misconduct, neglect—which he deftly turns into charismatic charm. In other words, the trick to Pratchett is that, while his books are largely decorated with fantasy tropes, his most famous creation taking place on the backs of four elephants balanced on top of a turtle hurtling through space (I am not kidding), his concerns are, the first two books excepted, human. And he’s polite enough to be funny about it.
It’s easy to see the man behind the text: this humanitarian who saw wonder despite humanity’s effort to obscure it. Easy to glimpse the person who campaigned for the right to assisted suicide, and who would make Choosing to Die.
Not all the books are homeruns, obviously, and I speak from the experience of four novels and some essays. Years after Monstrous Regiment, and needing a laugh, I picked-up Guards! Guards!, a book concentrating on the Night’s Watch and the lovable group which forms it. That book is recommended without reservations, a steady drip of feel-good that I somehow found cathartic. Mort, which sees Death looking for an apprentice, is recommended as well, despite one subplot which stretches believability. But the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, is a parody of fantasy novels, and while it is rich in one-liners (“What he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk”), it is lesser than the sum of its parts. If you are hoping explore his Discworld books, consult a reading guide.
Meanwhile, I’m here thinking that the world is a little poorer today, and I find myself hoping that, when he passed, he passed the way he wanted to, surrounded by loved ones and listening to Thomas Tallis. The strange thing about today is I have a lifetime’s worth of his treasure to discover, and realise that it’s this very body of work which would, on other days, provide comfort.
I cannot do him justice. It’s a task I suspect will be achieved by Neil Gaiman, his co-author on Good Omens (their sole collaboration…and that’s my stupid joke for the day).
But I can say this:
It has been a privilege to see the author peeking from behind the words. It is a privilege, always, to explicate Jane Austen’s views or Eleanor Catton’s or Virginia Woolf’s from the words.
Or Terry Pratchett’s.
Goodbye, you beautiful man.
It’ll be a pleasure to know you better still.
Note: This piece is meant to be purely descriptive, and was written for fun over the course of a slow, rainy afternoon.
Amman is the city of beige. Decrepit buildings stand in decaying yellow on the landscape, which drops into the centre of the city and rises around it like a bowl. At noon, the sky is a polished blue. Outside of a traffic jam suffocated in a cacophony of gasoline smells and car horns, in city streets of scraping asphalt and old men drinking from glass tea cups without handles, the day is still. Paper flaps in the wind; dice lands on a wooden checkers board. Streets of solitude, resolute—remnants of an Amman dead, and here dying.
A young girl in the olive drab of a public school uniform tugs at her brother’s sleeve, but he’s too invested in using a crushed Coca Cola can as a football to respond. His kick sends the can clattering among the garbage bins. The girl, annoyed, tugs again at her brother’s shirt, hurrying.
“It isn’t going to rain,” he says. He looks incredulously at the sky. “There aren’t any clouds.” But the girl swears by her mother’s word, and her mother swears by the forecast. The newspaper said rain, and that means rain, logic be damned. She pulls at him and he reluctantly surrenders, parting a last glance at the can in both tribute and farewell.
Rain clouds gather in the afternoon. They cover the eastern sky, dappled gray and dark hue: thin, thin, thickening, thickening, thickening, thick. Grand, magnificent, beautiful, lush with the imaginative complexity which fills a landscape painter with awe, they soar high over the greased stain of car smoke and scrap and paint and cigarette smoke, over buildings old and new.
In the streets of solitude, the old men look up and mutter. They drain their tea cups and pack-up their shisha. The checkers board closes with a snap. Employees, exiting the offices with a chill, stand around, hailing unresponsive taxis; decent public transport is a dream.
Across the street, an orange light pulses from the baker’s, throbbing warmth. People gather at his door, buyers come to plunder. The smells rise in curls and trails: fresh bread and pita, raisin and sugar and dough. The young boy now presses a bag of bread, round and stuffed with dates, onto his father’s waist. The father humours the boy by adding a pack of coconut cakes. He pops one in his mouth as he stands in line: his teeth break the crust and sink into the soft interior, a delight.
The rain is good for the coffee seller, too. The smell of freshly toasted Turkish coffee beans spills into the street, beckoning unsuspecting coffee addicts to their salvation. There is no cappuccino, here, no macchiato or latte or ice-cold coffee to sip from plastic cups. The local coffee trade is set to a palate different to the modern world’s, with its own champions and critics, its addicts and dependents, hobblers who walk like they are on crutches before their first shot of ahwa. They come and throw their money frantically at the coffee seller. He hands them beans and powdered coffee, dried watermelon seeds salted for snacks (bizir, they call it, and buy it in bags), chocolate and sugar-coated almond.
Traffic police stand at watch near dangerous intersections, ready to direct. People pray that the municipality has removed the manholes, that the tunnels won’t flood, that the torrents won’t rise and cease traffic to a hopeless halt. The comedians scribble jokes—naghasheh, a comedy as sarcastic as it is silly, is an exclusively local commodity. The radio host stands ready to inform people what areas to avoid. Cars, speckled with mud yet recently washed, congest the street. Steam rises from the exhaust port. The city stands poised, tense, waiting. The air is electric.
When the rain falls, it falls with something like a sigh. It is slow, at first. You see it in the light of streetlamps, in glimpses as it dots the street, in pattering on coats and drips in ahwa. Then another burst in the clouds: the rain now in force, in the streets in streams. Children shriek in delight and stick out their tongues to drink in the rain, streaming vapour from their mouths and nostrils, pretending it is cigarette smoke. Then another: the rain now in remorseless torrents, irredeemable and fanatic. It splashes off building rooftops and peels down window panes. People scurry. Ambulance sirens tumble from a distance, reaching for those who bet poorly against speeding in the rain.
The water, shimmering, rushes in waves, rises to ankle height. Socks soaked, wheels spraying, exhaust smoke rinsed. People clutch wet plastic bags bulging with the food necessary to survive the rain, running with heads directed like harpoons for shelter. Women in hijab cluster for warmth. One articulates that Jordanian-Palestinian exaltation of cold: Ahheeeehhhh.
A man sells dried fruit in paper bags, dates and tangerines. Shop owners stick their heads outside their doors, marvelling like children.
The father looks out the window. Behind him, his wife pours out tea for the family. His daughter, now in a dark red jumper boasting incomprehensible English, places her arm around his waist and rests her head there. “Do you think it’ll snow?” she says.
Rain in Amman isn’t rare, but it is an occasion. Children are not experienced enough to know that it does not always herald snow, but snow is a strong enough hope that it factors into their prayers. The father smiles despite himself and hugs her closer to him.
“No,” he says. “I imagine you’ll have school tomorrow.”
“That’s not why I was asking.” The lie dies at her lips, in the sheepish grin reserved for children joking with their parents.
“At least this washes the city,” says the father.
The mother hands them tea and calls-out to her son, who is nibbling on his bread. The father lights a cigarette and blows out the window. His daughter watches the smoke mingle with the steam and once again wishes he would quit. The son switches on the TV at his mother’s command, and she sits cross-legged, watching the local news broadcast images of the city’s heroics—always, of course, heroics. The police pushing a stranded car. The police helping a pregnant woman to the hospital. The police directing the ambulance. The father compares these images with the traffic, which even now suffocates downtown Amman. He chooses to remain silent, fearing a criticism of the government parroted by his children. The government does not look kindly upon criticism.
The news changes. A broken city of grey mud and grey flood blares from the TV, the news presenter giving voice to the fear which has clutched every Palestinian in Jordan. Gaza, bereft of anything in the aftermath of a war now three months dead, drowns in the rain. The faces of the broken, seeking shelter in ruined buildings, smile because they have to.
It is difficult to keep hopelessness at bay—here, always, in the Middle East. The mother prays for God’s support, as she has so often before. The father plucks another cigarette from his pack. The children look on, desensitized except for a small twinge at the hope, which somehow remains, that it snows.
Across the street, the neighbour strums wistfully on an oud. His song is old, so ingrained in culture most can hum it without knowing its origin. The notes drift like silver fish through the rain. Beneath, an old man, wearing a head cap with its wool in tufts, calls-out to him in praise: “Allah!” At the street lamps, a beggar calls God’s name for mercy. She does not ask for spare change, but compassion. My children, she says. My husband. They are sick. They are dying. She holds an open palm and pleads.
From an open rooftop—and most rooftops in Amman are open, flat, an extra floor to enjoy the open summer air—the city is bathed in dark, flourished with lights which glow in isolation in the dark. Teenagers huddle up there, braving the rain to sneak cigarettes. Their fathers, though smokers as well, would loudly disapprove.
And so it happens, year after year. The rain washes away the mundane everyday, then bubbles-up acute hope and exasperation. It unites the city’s residents. It tests the municipality’s foresight and refreshes the air. The people look forward to it, then wish it gone.
The father shepherds his children to bed as the mother curls-up in front of the television. His daughter asks him again: “Do you really think it won’t snow?” Her brother releases an earnest prayer: Inshallah!
The father smiles, shaking his head. “We can only hope.”
Karim Anani’s recipe for self-inflicted anxiety:
- Find the perfect job. Something that fits so well you realise you’ve just fallen in love with a job description.
- Write a covering letter. Work it until it meets the highest quality standard you know: your own.
- After waiting a day, comb through the covering letter, editing as necessary.
- Discover that they want you to copy-paste the content into a text form. Send in the letter after fixing the formatting (butchered by the form).
- Realise you forgot to add a double-spaced paragraph at one point when fixing.
- Try not to worry about it.
- Look at the rest of the jobs section on their website.
- Realise that the covering letter you wrote, while good, objectively, isn’t nearly as funny as the website is.
- But you needed to be professional. Your second-to-last paragraph was a bit jokey, too…
- God, you are so right for this job. If only they’d notice.
- This is like your first crush all over again.
- It’s fine. Probably.
- Continue working, compartmentalising your oversight. Maybe they’ll still be interested.
- Hit the gym afterwards; enjoy the post-workout shower by affirming that your choice of coconut shampoo at the shop earlier was, in fact, the right one.
- Go to bed, a little anxious and really rather hopeful.
- At least you smell like coconut.
Unlike recent posts, this actually happened: the job listing was professional, but warm and humorous, and the more I read on my potential employer, the more eager I’ve been to work with them, which is why I’ve been checking the state of my application twice a day since I submitted it Saturday. There’s a serious Harry Potter-level hype vibe going around here.
The surrealism of being so excited—again, because of a job description—made me think of a passage from Skippy Dies, Paul Murray’s excellent tragicomedy about misplaced faith in authority, in which Ruprecht, possible genius, contemplates his love of m-theory. I thought I’d share it with you before signing-out:
The more arguments he hears against it, the deeper his adoration grows for this esoteric, unreadable scripture that the crude unthinking world will not take time to understand—the longer he spends in his basement lost in topologies, mapping out the imaginary surfaces that undulate beneath its hyperspatial penumbra, shunning human company except for other faceless devotees in sleepless Internet chatrooms, reciting back and forth those golden shibboleths, string, multiverse, supersymmetry, gravitino, the theory’s hundred names…
In fact, maybe it is love after all. Why can’t we fall in love with a theory? Is it a person we fall in love with, or the idea of a person? So yes, Ruprecht has fallen in love. It was love at first sight, occurring the moment he saw Professor Tamashi present that initial diagram, and it has unfolded exponentially ever since. The question of reason, then, the question of evidence, these are wasted on him. Since when has love ever looked for reasons, or evidence? Why would love bow to the reality of things, when it creates a reality of its own, so much more vivid, wherein everything resonates to the key of the heart?