The Book of the Sultan's Seal

By Youssef Rakha

Translated by Paul Starkey

Interlink Books
November 2014


Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı said:

Dear Rashid, your emails are intermittent, if they come at all. And I've grown tired of phone cards. But I have a story I must tell you before it sours. How shall I get it across? I've got a lot to tell you, not just the story. You'll find my news really strange. It may even depress you. I laugh when I imagine you whimpering with distress. You were with me the evening I bought a coffee before going to see the girl, remember? It doesn't matter whether you bother to read these words, really. You don't like reading Arabic (assuming that this is Arabic in the first place). I worry that the few people who read, don't read in Arabic. I don't blame them. Even those people who know no other language except Arabic waste all their energy on rotten translations, translations of translations. English rules. Look how our uncles, the Turks, found peace after they adopted the Latin alphabet!

Nonetheless, the fact is that I'm no longer dazzled by that rotten island you live on—England, indeed—forget that shit, man! I'm just writing this, and imagining someone reading it, someone with a really strong and genuine connection with me, a connection transparent enough to transcend every detail of life and reality. Someone I'm connected with outside time, I mean. Because from the day I left my wife till now, I've actually died and been resurrected, or, more likely, at least become a completely different person. I tell you, I want to write to someone whose connection with me transcends my personal identity.

You, alas, are the only one.

As I write these words, I'm thinking of you, Rashid. I'll send it to you in installments, whenever you like. Or I might leave it in one big installment, so that you can come back and read it again at your leisure. I say come back, as if you'll be coming back to stay, not just for a vacation. As if coming back wasn't just a gentle melody, like a lullaby before going to sleep. Egypt, England, other places. Bound to travel.

You know that I still remember your wish, for us to leave everything and go to Peru or Guatemala.

I've got a proposal for you. Instead of going to South America, let's cross the Western Desert on foot. We'll sleep in a tent and have a camel for company. One day we'll wake up in Timbuktu.

And there be matters veiled, the veil whereof / Through a recovering sobriety / Was wholly raised for me, yet they remained / Concealed from all besides me.—'Umar ibn al-Farid

I'm now in my seat on the airplane, the engines turning faster and faster as we take off, the asphalt burning under our wheels. And the dawn is orange juice as I write to you:

"The world has collapsed around me and I don't know what to do. Family, children. I've been struggling for three months. Hope is an elastic thing. If you keep clinging to it, you don't get anywhere. I cast it aside and carried on. There was a lot of talk in the office. Gestures from my divorced female colleagues. More than one colleague is getting married and I am bad luck. Change and stability. Happy as a criminal who's gotten away with it, and sad as a house. Ever since my father died, perhaps, I've gotten used to misfortune. The memory wrings my heart, and regret returns. But hope is elastic and I have to go on. I'm not clinging to anything now."

Today is April 19, a hot Thursday. Exactly twenty-one days since I left the marital home in Maadi—the period in which the nine events of my story happened one after the other. I didn't leave Greater Cairo during this period. I feel as though in three weeks I've crossed the whole globe, once from east to west and once from north to south. And as I crossed it, this way and that, I was also treading through five centuries, to and fro. Do you understand me, Rashid? But you can't understand me until you read on.

The metal body that I'm inside has climbed and is suspended in the sky, with everything in it. The plane's nose lifts a bit, but we don't feel it. We just feel—or rather, I feel—that I have completed the first stage of a journey that is far longer than you can imagine. Through the oval window, Cairo gets smaller and fades into the distance. Its features shrink into lines, circles, and lengths stretching into nothingness. It looks like a map, becoming more and more detached, quickly changing into a symbol or a talisman. This sprawling city of twenty million souls, just a horizontal talisman whose meaning is impossible to understand.

Now it's disappearing, and clouds come to take its place, together with the air pressure in one's ears, throbbing temples, and a suppressed sense of shaking. Speed. And you know that, if it weren't for these twenty-one days of madness, you wouldn't have been able to see your city in the shape of a talisman, or feel your sudden distance from it as a sort of closeness.

Meaning: you have to imagine me writing to you a few moments from now, when the fasten seatbelts sign is switched off and I can open the tray table that is stowed in front of me in accordance with instructions and put my notebook on it. Write to you, or mark up the memos piled up between the brown covers of the notebook you gave me three years ago, and circle the drawings. You can imagine me writing to you either here or in the café at the Rafic Hariri International Airport, as they have started to call it.

On the balcony of the Bay View Hotel in Ain el Mreisseh, or behind the window of Lina's Café on Hamra Street toward the Pigeons' Rock at Raouché. The important thing is that you imagine me writing, making fair copies, and clarifying the many things that happened to me during those twenty-one days in the form of a letter, as every book is called in Arabic: kitab. When the scene settles in your head, you will continue in your imagination.

Nothing but clouds surrounded by blue.

I have kept in this book to the bounds set by you, limiting myself to things that I have either seen with my own eyes, or I am convinced are true as deriving from trustworthy reporters.—Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi

As you read, you'll notice that there are some sentences or short passages printed in italics. Most of these are stray fragments, like the paragraph I have transcribed above. These are notes I jotted down while on the move. Now I look for them in notebooks or try to remember where they are to be found. The words around them are like a sponge casing. Apart from that, I have nothing except the amazing tale I'm telling you. And I'm telling you the truth when I say that I can still distinguish all of that tale's features. When I focus on a single feature I feel that I have gone mad. But I have learned that I shouldn't always take what happened to me too seriously. In the end, the story tries to pull things together. And whether those things are more or less complicated or comprehensible doesn't really make any difference.

Someone once said to me, about some observations in the notebooks: "This is poetry."

I was rather happy. But what difference does it make whether it's poetry or not?

What makes a difference is that writing things as a book-length letter is better than email or telephone. Perhaps even better than meeting face to face. Writing like this gives things a more palatable tone, just as notes in a jotter can become poetry whether you mean them to or not. They're put in a flowing context and this creates a soothing tone, like a bedtime lullaby.



Yesterday I dreamed that I was beside you in the jeep you used to drive in 2000 and 2001 before you settled on your wretched island. Until you left. We were driving along a terrifying mountain road that was just like the Taba Road. Up and down with sharp bends impossible to predict. The surface was dotted with rocks and potholes. Potholes big as whole towns and rocks like the Urals. You had to avoid them as you drove. We were high as kites on Red Sea bango, totally unafraid of having an accident, and laughing. Suddenly we fell into the crater of a volcano. At the bottom was something like a cloud, which absorbed the shock. We were outside the vehicle, crawling on this thing. After the shock, we screamed with laughter. We dipped down and rose up again in the fresh whiteness, and whenever our eyes met, we were paralyzed with laughter, unable to move, waving our hands about and screaming. When I looked up, there were naked women sitting on the edge of the chasm, spreading their legs and squeezing their breasts, winking and gesturing toward us. I kept looking for you to point them out to you, but you crawled away quickly and disappeared. Then I noticed that the hole was much larger than I had thought. I crawled in an unknown direction, terrified that I might have lost you forever.


Mustafa went on:

I said goodbye to my wife one pleasant evening at the end of March 2007, a day before the Prophet's Birthday. I waited a long time for her to collect her things from our apartment on the Maadi Corniche. Then we both went down, each of us carrying their own things in silence. Before she opened her car door, I put my hand on her hair and kissed her on the mouth. I used to do that every time we parted, whether it was hours or days before we would meet again. I noticed that she didn't part her lips to return the kiss as I expected. I didn't wait to see the expression on her face. I felt that it would affect me more than I could bear that evening. I simply hurried toward my own car. I was so impatient that I didn't even look at the street I'd lived on for more than a year, since we had married.

I had no thought except to leave Maadi.

You know how crowded and fast the Corniche is. But our own street was small and quiet. So tucked away that cars basically don't drive there. Just two steps from the Corniche, on the right, opposite the gas station at Maadi's no. 2 entrance, you know, but it's as if you've entered a different world. You can always park, there's a moon in the sky, and the branches of trees. One deserted building, then the house with our apartment in it. In the apartment there's a staircase leading to the bedroom, a large kitchen, and a television that we only used to watch art films on video or DVDs. I even accepted the expensive furniture, as I was told I ought to. In accordance with my mother-in-law's instructions, we had a dining room and sitting room, but no study. I moved cautiously between the vases and flowerpots. It was forbidden to put anything on the wood.

When it was hot, I would make ice tea with lemon. The espresso was always Lavazza. And when I made pasta with thyme I would use a lot of onions and sliced tomatoes but no sauce. In front of us was Hind Rustam's villa, inhabited only by her miserable dogs, which howled at the end of the night, and behind us a garden that attracted mosquitoes, a smell of vegetation, and green light in the late morning. The frogs croaked. Our street was crossed by another dark street, a little more crowded, which I would watch from the balcony, smoking with only my porcelain ashtray and the cold of the winter for company. In our street, the potholes were filled with mud after it rained, and the roses on the sidewalk were never pruned. Even now, I can almost hear the garden hose and the landlady's daughter calling her dog: "Sandyyyyyyyyy!"

Shaaban the caretaker's family lived in the closed-up garage. They were from Kom Ombo. As I walked past him, I would use the Upper Egyptian expression for "how are you doing?" and he would reply in the same dialect, without surprise. One day we discovered his son had been tied to a pillar with a steel chain because he'd lost his bicycle. And one day his daughter was crying because they'd confiscated her mobile after a young stranger had found out her number. His daughter made no progress in English despite the lessons my wife gave her. Friday mornings she would come to us and I would have to get dressed. And all night the stairwell would be filled with bango smoke. Shaaban never sleeps.

In the sitting-room window there were faint, distant lights. No noise, not even a heartache. Nothing in the world called for tears (or so I thought, until very recently). Imagine, nothing of all this crossed my mind as I turned off beside the gas station to join the Corniche toward the ring road before even opening the car window.

It never crossed my mind that my wife had not parted her lips as I kissed her.


An account of the collapse of the marriage

When I turned thirty, the world was made complete by an actually cool woman my own age. My wife, whom you know, right enough! Between two cultures, like me. She'd been brought up in Eng—excuse me, yes, in England, and I studied there. Fatherless, like me, with just one sister who lived abroad and came for visits. I immediately felt that she was liberated, a suitable partner, and I was happy when I discovered that she was ready for pregnancy and life. She was soon at home in the apartment we rented, happy to be my wife, and we were happy with each other.

Our disputes continued to annoy me, however, especially when they were directed toward my drawing, my solitary nature, and even the sex we had. Disputes for no obvious reason. When I spoke to her, she wouldn't even reply. Torture by silence. As if she were saying to me: "We don't face difficulties. We just store them up." Then, the silence. An eternal silence, and tears. I was always supposed to have wronged her, but it was always unclear how. I'd ask her and try to cajole her to return to normal. I'd try as hard as I could, not understanding. I didn't realize how everything had started to exasperate me, and I put up with it all in silence. Silence, because if I had spoken, we would have come to blows. But everything started to exasperate me. Even my nightly rituals disturbed her, despite the fact that she'd known about them before our marriage. She huffed and puffed at my insults. The fact that we were living in a pigsty didn't seem to concern her. She would constantly enumerate for me any housework she had done and not admit to my own contributions. The cleaning woman from her mother's would come—or not—once a week. "Should we get a live-in maid?" Then she'd get angry. I couldn't even complain to her about problems in the office without her getting angry and saying: "Stop complaining!" But I loved her. Every road has its walker.

After I turned thirty I took comfort in the perfection of the world. And in the fact that she was a cool woman who lived between two cultures. But when you have someone imposed on you whom you no longer want to be with, loneliness can be a terrible thing. I kept reciting old women's proverbs to myself: "patience is a virtue," "lying is a failure," and "may God guide you to each other, my son!" But everything that had encouraged me to marry her was like a trick photograph. Her mother's presence, for example, made her freedom a sham. Comfort meant chinois carpets, especially when she got pregnant, after eleven months or a bit more. During one argument I too had thought that pregnancy would liberate her, but after she became pregnant it was actually worse.

Nothing in the sight of her face gave me pleasure anymore.

To this very day, as soon as I remember, I bite my lip and wish I could disappear from the world. No, I don't want to disappear. I want to go back to December 2005 so as not to marry my wife. After she became pregnant, the exasperation became intolerable, I had had enough of being suffocated. No family, no children. I took refuge in Japanese stories—Ōe, Yoshimoto, Murakami, and so on—while hope played with me like a yoyo until I didn't know what to do. I felt as if even breathing was a lie, and the arguments in the office got worse. I was suffocating. Without any pleasure, how could I throw myself on her and kiss her? Not a single road led to Maadi, I was suffocating and confused.

Sometimes I stood on the Corniche, seeking a friend's help in my mind. Who could I explain this to? I wanted things to be as they were before the engagement, before the dowry, before we bought furniture with the blessings of her sister who had come from England especially for the purpose, and added her father's acquisitions to the house—may God curse him! Before her mother said to me "you must become a family man!" How many times did it happen that I failed to control my emotions and she frowned and shouted and looked me up and down? She fussed over her body and put off the accusations. Days of peace then booooom! She'd reveal that she'd completely changed her mind. The law that obliged you to do housework was the same one that stopped you from traveling. She was even annoyed about my not fasting during Ramadan because her mother wanted me to fast. How many hours had I spent miserable when I was supposed to be happy? "Only God and jacking off can help you now," I would say to myself. And I'd enjoy emptying my bowels far more than I should.

The abandon of our first couplings seemed to have occurred with a different woman. Her passion, her curiosity, her rebellion against the usual assumptions. Where had everything gone, when not a year had gone by? Was it marriage that had made it go? A day will come, I said to myself, when the safety catch will break, and she will be astonished, although if she'd paid attention she could have prevented it. Our conversations were silence, or quarreling.

I had begun to think of my days off as a burden. At home, I would wash the dishes vigorously and smile.

Perhaps I was anticipating the sequence of events. After she awoke from a nightmare—I no longer knew when to take her in my arms—I kissed her and pressed on her shoulder and tried to whisper in her ear. She was my daughter and she would tell me what she had seen. But the moment when the barriers were dissolved could no longer be repeated. At the height of my affection she started up and said, in the English whose rhythms I had grown to hate: "You're rubbish at calming a frightened person." I looked for the humor in her eyes, to no avail. Any brief rage on my part made her leave the place without returning or thinking about consequences. It was up to me to mend all the fabric ripped between us. Any bit of behavior that she didn't understand or didn't like. I started to think, and ask myself, why are you taking this silently? How long will you remain silent and take it? I no longer had the nerve to rise above her insults, truth to tell. It was like living with a warning siren that might go off at any moment, and you didn't know what might set it off. Her mother told me: "Woman was made from a crooked rib; if you try to straighten it, it will break!" Is that so? And my mother, to whom I had recently started complaining, reminded me of her pregnancy, of my father's legacy (may God have mercy on him), and of the sacred duties of men.




Farewell, Friday evening: On the Ring Road, the traffic stopped for a minute. This often happens on the flyovers for no reason, as you know. I think it's just a coincidence, when a certain number of cars leave their lanes in a certain direction all at once and as everyone is speeding up. And as always happens, everyone started honking. Usually, this makes me furious, but at this precise moment, I envisaged the noise pollution as an orchestra from whose instruments nothing emerged but farts of every sort, from highest to lowest—from sad and long to short and joyful. I felt a remarkable happiness as I heard an extempore symphony reflecting my life in this enormous city of twenty million people. As if my life up to now had been a bad Arab film, and this farting movement was the music accompanying the final scene.

Abu al-Rushd, I believe it was at that moment that I lost the city (even though I didn't realize it immediately). It would be my job, after leaving Maadi to stay with my mother in Dokki, to reclaim it, which I would only manage in the third week.

For just a moment, I tell you—despite tense nerves, suspended hopes, and my thoughts about how Fustuq's words related to my wife—I passed through an interlude of total clarity. Sometimes clarity is like being stoned: delight in danger equals the end of a marriage. It was only later that I was surprised that the music accompanying this moment should be cars farting during a short-lived traffic crisis on the Cairo Ring Road.

It simply occurred to me that what had spurred me on to marry my wife was three characteristics which I also falsely discerned in Fustuq (on the basis of the fact that the two of them combined the silt of the homeland with the air of developed countries). She was secular by inclination; marriage in her view was a personal decision that continued to be subject to revision; and her values were not the values of her family.

It seems no one can go beyond their family in personal matters. Even me? Perhaps the difference with me is just a symptom of madness. But even I did not go beyond my family in the matter of marriage, except insofar as I regarded it as no more than a license from society to live together. Living together in a context that was acceptable to my mother, to her mother, and to the people we lived among.

I had never ever imagined that marriage to this person in particular would so quickly turn into the conventional scenario in all its details, or that life would immediately turn into empty family obligations, into regulated tedium, and into rules that had no purpose except to preserve a way of life that I loathe. And I thought that she shared this loathing—the one difference being that I did not have the traditional attributes that a wretched husband needs to compensate for his misery: a woman to take care of the house and of her husband, who knows how to deal with him and other people, or at the very least acknowledges that she is supposed to look after herself.

I tell you, it never occurred to me that the values I would be dealing with from the very first day were the values of her family alone—things that I would run a mile from even if accepting them meant sleeping every night with Su'ad Husni—nor that, in the film that she began acting out from the first day, I was really only playing a stereotyped role in a scenario written five hundred years ago, with whose details she had no intention of interfering. In no time at all, Abu al-Siyout, she became a bad-tempered wife who measured everything, even feelings, in terms of money. A man in her eyes meant a feeling of bitterness, or faking love for advantage. I mean, if I had been intending to start a family like this, why would I have chosen a cool woman who lived between two cultures?

Perhaps this will seem exaggerated, but you knew her before we were married, and you can imagine how shocked I was when I found her—the cultured revolutionary, defender of the rights of the individual and of women, the funky rebel that you knew—trying to control the little money that my father had left me, arguing with me because I'd finished the bottle of juice, for example, or ostracizing me for three whole days because I had drunk a coffee with a girl that I might have seemed to have once desired.

I felt that I didn't know her, and that I didn't want to know her, let alone marry her. I carried on making a fool of myself month after month pretending to know her, or pretending that her mother (the worst influence of all on her, as became clear in the end) was basically right, or that pregnancy and children were good for everyone.

Nothing was any use.



I'm not telling you the story of my marriage. My wife will remain nameless, even though you know her name. What I'm telling you has nothing to do with this tragedy, which, as it turned out, has lost its tragic element. Somehow or other, during the months of the marriage, I was dealing with the facts of the situation, making the decision (even though I did not acknowledge it directly to myself) that this life could not go on. She could be excused for hating me, of course she could. But I am not an institution, not an orphanage or a mental asylum, able to cope with this hate. Perhaps I was deceiving her, of course I was deceiving her, because I was deceiving myself instead of saying to her, "You're the crappiest thing that's ever happened to me, and I'm sorry I didn't say anything before, huh?"

She might ask me: "Do you think that one year is enough to get to know someone?"

And I would answer her in my head: "No, one needs a whole lifetime of misery. A mental asylum or a conviction for murder. Cursed be the father of anyone looking at your face!"

There is nothing easier than making the other party bear responsibility. Maybe it's me who hurts other people. When I thought about my previous relationships, I discovered that it had always been me who had walked away, at an unexpected moment, in a cruel way, with no regard for the feelings of the other party or for the effect on them of my sudden disappearance. I am actually more selfish (and perhaps a little more intelligent) than those I form relationships with: a man infatuated with himself, and with a propensity for anxiety that drives me to behave in a way that makes people angry—perhaps it is impossible for anyone who is with me to be happy.

Do you remember, Rashid, when you confronted me with my true nature as you saw it, and told me that I had a preference for seclusion and a hidden contempt for other people, particularly for their social affairs? That the root of this contempt is an intellectual love of self? That I tend to go for everything I can take from the world, on condition that I don't get tired or sacrifice a thing? You also said that the sole authority I acknowledge is my personal satisfaction, even though I don't always know how to achieve it, which lands me in scenes and situations that I have to run away from, no matter what may happen afterward. I've run out of patience so many times. I always want to be just as I am the whole time, regardless of the context, and because I'm not prepared to make concessions or adapt, I always have to suffer the consequences.

You also spoke to me that day about my more trivial failings: my failure to maintain a sufficient number of friends, my failure to accept others' faults, my constant fear of wasting my time and emotions on something or someone that does not deserve them… and my frightening propensity for detachment.

You know that I don't make any excuse for this. I don't deny it. Only my experience with my wife was completely different. With her I felt for the first time that I had a convincing justification for leaving. Which is what makes me recall your words now.

But as I'm telling you, the biggest problem wasn't my frustration with my wife, or at my having emerged as the villain in a Hasan al-Imam melodrama that I hadn't imagined I would ever actually see, let alone act in. The problem, and the secret of my regarding Michel Fustuq's words as a prophecy, and my feeling that the collapse of my marriage was the collapse of the whole world, was that my experience actually made me doubt all the values by which I lived: individual choice and personal freedom, secularism and rationality in managing one's affairs, respect for the social environment—the attempt to reconcile things by turning cohabitation into marriage, for example—imagining that people can live with each other, physically and mentally, on a non-commercial basis, or express themselves with a degree of detachment from tendencies to hatred or profiteering. A belief that this detachment is what makes people people, or that the mingling of cultures yields knowledge and conscience rather than mad despair.

Call me mad, call my mother mad, she called me mad, liar, scoundrel, murderer, without asking herself what role she might herself have played in all these deficiencies: for example, her family hand-me-downs, which she wanted me to swallow like a drain. In my mind I had only been trying to live with a person like myself who was an Arab and a Muslim but also civilized and contemporary and with a conscience. And now it seemed to me that the picture she presented of herself was just a boastful pretense. Like the female conquests of my Sunni friend Amgad Salah 'Abd al-Galil in Canada, as will be related later, or (and this is really more to be expected) like the streetwise way that Michel Fustuq speaks: she's not a woman, and not cool, and we're not an inch removed from the disasters of this culture and this age.

This son of a madwoman—when everything went wrong, when he found his life reflecting the worst things in the East (treating a woman as if she were a chattel, and observing the outward forms of religion while not working in their spirit; thinking about good works as though they were an account in the bank of the afterlife, for example), and by the same token, the worst things about the West (namely, personal isolation and the inability to achieve a mutual understanding or solve problems in a relationship)—this son of a madwoman imagined that his marriage was a model of the most a Muslim Arab could do to live a modern life, and that his failure was an indicator of the bounds of the possible.

My heart is sick of this world, and will only be cured by journeying to another. Or else, no one in this world should be an Arab Muslim.

What do you think? What if you imagine this world as a building, the pillars of whose foundations move as soon as you take up residence in one of its apartments? The building itself has not fallen, only the pillars have shifted. Perhaps you remember the effect of LSD—way to go—when everything becomes jumbled, so you hear colors and see music, and space turns into time? How about looking at the world as a building under the influence of LSD? A building whose walls and ceilings, staircases, doors and corridors all move while you are in an apartment, and the apartment itself is shifting. You don't know how to go in or out, or stand or sit, or sleep or go to the bathroom. But the building itself is in place?

My heart is sick of this world, as it would be of living in this building.