Melville and Obama and American Racism

“Benito Cereno” [by Herman Melville]  is based on a true historical incident, which I [Greg Grandin]  started researching around the time Mr. Obama announced his first bid for the presidency. Since then, I’ve been struck by the persistence of fears, which began even before his election, that Mr. Obama isn’t what he seems: that instead of being a faithful public servant he is carrying out a leftist plot hatched decades ago to destroy America; or if not that, then he is a secret Muslim intent on supplanting the Constitution with Islamic law; or a Kenyan-born anti-colonialist out to avenge his native Africa.

 No other American president has had to face, before even taking office, an opposition convinced of not just his political but his existential illegitimacy.
… Amasa Delano [In Benito Cereno] represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness. This was a racism that was born in chattel slavery but didn’t die with chattel slavery, instead evolving into today’s cult of individual supremacy, which, try as it might, can’t seem to shake off its white supremacist roots.

THIS helps explain those Confederate flags that appear at conservative rallies, as well as why Tea Party-backed politicians like Sarah Palin and Rand Paul insist on equating federal policies they don’t like with chattel bondage. Believing in the “right to health care,” Mr. Paul once said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.”

Read all Melville, Obama and the Tea Party

WW I in Paris: Murder in Aurora

The Past Recaptured (1932), the US title and Frederick Blossom translation of Le Temps retrouvé, is the seventh volume of Marcel Proust’s immortal  Remembrance of Things Past, [more recently In Search of Lost Time: À la recherche du temps perdu – you decide.]  In Great Britain the translator was Stephen Hudson (psuedonym for  Sydney Schiff) and the title, Time Regained (1931).  I find the Blossom translation more felicitous but that’s not my point here.

A good portion of the novel concerns the experience of WW I on his menageries of characters, mostly in Paris, but in rural Combray and Tansonville as well. Here he is talking about the literary-political salons held every evening in the circle of which he is a member.

 They certainly thought of these hecatombs of regiments annihilated and passengers swallowed by the waves; but there is a law of inverse proportion which multiplies to such an extent anything that concerns our own welfare and divides by such a formidable figure anything that does not concern it, that the death of unknown millions is felt by us as the most insignificant of sensations, hardly as disagreeable as a draft.  Mme. Verdurin, who suffered even more from her headaches now that she could no longer get croissants to dip in her breakfast coffee, had eventually obtained a prescription from Cottard permitting her to have them specially made in a certain restaurant of which we have spoken. This had been almost as difficult to wangle with the authorities as the appointment of a general. The first of these special croissants arrived on the morning on which the newspapers reported the sinking of the Lusitania.  As she dipped it in her coffee and gave a series of little flicks to her newspaper with one hand so as to make it stay open without having to remove her other hand from the cup, “How horrible!” she said.  “This is something more horrible than the most terrible stage tragedy!”  But the death of all those drowned people must have been reduced a thousand million times before it impinged upon her, for even as, with her mouth full, she made these distressful observations, the expression which spread over her face, brought there (one must suppose) by the savor of that so precious remedy against headaches, the croissant, was in fact one of satisfaction and pleasure.”

This passage came to mind as I read about the murders in Aurora, Colorado, as hundreds of thousands of others were also reading, all of us, as Proust tells us, with the enormity of it reduced by a factor of several millions, depending on our distance from any of the victims — or the centrality of a certain ideology as spokespersons, or adherents of the National Rifle Association were quick to demonstrate.

It has seemed to me for decades that one of our greatest failings as human beings is the failure of the imagination.  Most of us are unable to imagine the consequences of a shooting, or a war, and so we proceed, lathered in our own grievances, or in patriotism, to do, or approve,  the most terrible act of all — taking the lives of those we do not know and can not imagine.

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Anatomy of a Disappearance: A Novel by Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance,  easily matches the promise of his first, In The Country of Men, [reviewed here] and is lovelier in image and language, though less obviously of Libya, the country of his origins.  In both the memories which compromise the story are of  a young boy.  In both the boys have exceptionally strong relationships to their mothers, both mothers are often sick — with intimations of depression, while their fathers are often away.  In both, their lives are shaped, in different degrees by political terror.

In the Country of Men, the young boy, Suleiman,  is in the country — Libya– of the terror.  His father disappears.  He and his mother wait and pray for his return; she tries to make deals with the security man across the street; she tells him to destroy all his father’s books.  The normalcy of childhood is metamorphosed into something most of us can not imagine.  Finally, the father is returned:

His eyes were closed, full of air or water or blood, like split rotten tomatoes, and his lower lip was as fat and purple as a baby eggplant.”  

Suleiman is sent to Cairo to be out of  danger and to finish his education; the story has come to an end.

In Anatomy of a Disappearance, Nuri, the narrator, is a young man in his twenties at the time of the story’s telling.   Though born in Paris of an English mother and Arabic — probably Libyan, though never said–father, he has returned to Cairo, where he had spent his younger life, and to the love of the family servants.  Most of the narrative, and by far the most powerful, is of his adolescent years — from age 10, the death of his mother, to 22 when he finishes University.  Though the father disappears when Nuri is 14, there is none of the close violence of the earlier book.  Perhaps some moments of tension as we wonder whether Nuri, or his father’s new wife, Mona, might be abducted by the same mysterious forces but these are minor in the lush exploration of memory, loss, desire and growth,  maturing away from the early love and into a knowledge of his father he might otherwise never have had.

Without knowing Matar’s origins and background one would read Anatomy, unlike In the Country,  as simply a fine European novel,  playing out in Geneva, upper middle class Cairo and London, but without any sense of reading an “Arabic” novel.  Reference to the father’s background, and earlier life are confined to mention of “our country,” or that he was the “most trusted adviser to our king.”  Cairo and Alexandria figure strongly in the story but this has been true of  fine British novels and don’t necessarily “mark” them as Arabic.  Although I came across Matar in a search for Libyan writers, he is not an “Arabic” writer in the pure sense of that notion.  We are not reading a translation.  He writes in English. He was born in New York City and lived in Libya with his parents from age 3 to 9, when the family fled to Cairo from Gaddafi’s violent persecutions.  His education has been almost entirely in English. He is one of a new breed of internationalist writers — as Ahdaf Soueif [and here, here] — comfortable in two or more countries, life lived and families still living in different cultures from which to draw upon; emotional, linguistic, imagistic ties to many parts.   Perhaps he could be called Anglo-Libyan, or Anglo-Arabic, or the reverse.  In any case he is a fine writer,  about whose allegiances there should be no quarrel: to men and women, to children, in their varieties.

The disappearance of the father is the event around which the telling revolves, but the novel is not an investigatory piece, or a mystery in the usual sense.  It is less an anatomy of the disappearance, than of the life and lives interrupted by it.  In the end it is the story of the young man discovering home, and himself, not in the country his father and mother fled but in Egypt, where they put their deepest roots, and with the Cairene maid/mother who brought him up.

Matar evokes nostalgia and memory with a fine sense of description and detail — the glow of a bathing suit strap across the arched ripples of a backbone, the imprint of a foot in the creamy instep of a shoe, the misted outline of a woman’s body behind a shower curtain.  The first awakening of sexual desire in the 13 year old Nuri, and jealousy of his father, is so palpable we are at times uncomfortable.  A sort of Death in Venice in reverse as a young man is obsessed with an older woman, who leads him on, disturbs us, both by the separation of their ages and the sense of kind of incest  setting in.  Our caution alarms ring in our throats..

In both books we are treated to such evocative and unexpected images we have to pause and let them seep inside.  We want to return to them, to gaze as on jewels against the ordinary dross of language.

In The Country of Men we have such marvelous images as

I couldn’t leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette,


in the faint glow I saw him on top of her, moving back and forth the same short sad distance, like one of those old ladies mourning the dead.

Anatomy opens with

“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”

Later, describing the hotel in Alexandria where Nuri and his father meet Mona, he says

You could hear the waves lapping lazily against the shore like a snoring guard dog

After extracting a speck of brown thorn “from the soft pink flesh” of her toe, in an act of self-assurance he has never again felt, Nuri looks at her:

I watched her without restraint. I wanted to wear her, as you would a piece of fold into her ribs, be a stone in her mouth…

These are both marvelous books, connected in their conception and execution but siblings who are completely their own persons.  Don’t waste a minute in getting acquainted with their author. Anatomy may be a more compelling entry point for many, with its familiar themes of adolescent love, and the mystery of the man, whose disappearance is never solved even as hidden years of his life are discovered and  Nuri finds himself becoming more and more like the man he had been searching for.


Nawal El Saadawi: Still in the Mix in Cairo at 80

Nick Kristof in one of his posts from Tahrir Square in Cairo, talks about a hero of his, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi.

In the center of Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, I bumped into one of my heroes, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Arab feminist who for decades has fought female genital mutilation. Dr. Saadawi, who turns 80 this year, is white-haired and frail and full of fiery passion.

“I feel I am born again,” she said, adding that she intended to sleep with the protesters on Tahrir Square. She also suggested that instead of being sent into comfortable exile, Mr. Mubarak should be put on trial as a criminal; that’s a theme I’ve heard increasingly often among pro-democracy activists.

By chance, I’ve been reading one of Saadawi’s novels, Two Women in One.  Written  in the middle of her writing life, Two Women in One, captures a young woman, Bahia Shaheen who is much like a younger Saadawi, at an earlier time, much like the present in Egypt.

She goes to see a demonstration with her girlfriends

Suddenly the world seemed to rumble and shake as if an earthquake were rocking sky and earth…. it was the sound of thousands of voices raised in unison; like the roar of thunder, like millions of voices melting into one enormous sound, filling the world, not merely reaching the ears but penetrating the pores of the skin and investing all the orifices of the body, spreading like gas and flowing like blood through the cells.

And later, after her life has changed enormously:

In the small square Raouf turned right and was swallowed up by the dark street.  Fawzi headed for the main square.  Bahiah strode toward the waiting bus, her chest heaving, her breath coming in gasps.  She clutched the  leather bag bulging with leaflets to her chest.  She knew where to go.  She knew where to take the blazing words.

People of Egypt!  Awake!  Throw open your windows, open your eyes and see the chains coiled around your necks!  Open your minds and see that the sweat of your brows is being plundered.  Your crops are stolen, your flesh is devoured until you are left only skin and bones, skeletons lining up, leaning on each other.  Your breath is torn by fits of coughing and blood pours from a deep wound in your chest.

Two Women in One was written in 1983, after she had been released from prison for objecting to the Jerusalem Peace Treaty. She was released a week after Sadat’s assassination. Despite the above quote, and Bahia’s love of an imprisoned anti-government protester, the novel is not, for the most part, directly political.  It is enormously political in the feminist sense — that the personal is political.   Bahia holds center stage throughout the novel; it could almost be written as a monolog, though Saadawi has chosen the third person to reveal her to us.

We start as Shaheen is in Anatomy class at the university, one of a very few young women, as the professor guides them in dissection. We see her immediately as she sees herself — someone outside the prescribed roles of Egyptian life at the time.

She stood with her right foot on the edge of a marble table and her left foot on the floor, a posture unbecoming for a woman… In those days girls’s skirts made it impossible for them to stand like that. Their skirts wound tightly round the thighs and narrowed at the knees, so that their legs remained bound together whether they are sitting, standing, or walking…the legs and knees remained clamped, as if they were pressing their thighs together to protect something they were afraid might fall.

She had always been curious to know just what it was that might fall the minute a girls’s legs were parted.

The book is a constant, desperate struggle for Bahia to understand her self; her two selves. She is pinched and twisted by the demands of the world she doesn’t understand, or if she understands doesn’t want to accept. When as a child she undresses to show her mother that she is a girl, not a boy, her mother slaps her. When she won’t promise not to do it again, she is slapped again.

…her mind grasped a strange fact: pursing her lips and bowing her head, she realized that people suppress only real desires, because they are strong, while unreal desires are weak and need no laws to keep them in check.

Men can not be trusted

When their fingers moved as they go on or off the triam, they might be exchanging greetings or threats. Everything about them became confused. Their every aspect was identical to its opposite. A smile was a threat, truth a lie, virtue vice, and love hate.

In fact, at times,  it seems we may be reading about a descent into madness, a young woman so out of time, and with so little friendship, that her acute sensation of the absurd will destroy her. At times she can’t distinguish boundaries — did the bright flame come from the candle or from her finger? Someone calls her name. It sounds like it belongs to someone else.

She got a shock every time she heard her name and a hidden feeling would tell her that someone was calling her own name, selecting her from among millions of other bodies…

Faces all seem the same. She asks her mother, “Am I Bahia?” and the mother doesn’t understand her; she never understands her mother.  Their eyes do not meet.

It is only when she meets Saleem that the curve of madness begins to cease falling.

When his eyes moved in front of hers, she felt as if he were seeing her. It was the first time she had ever been seen by any eyes other than her own.

He puts out his hand… it was the first hand ever to envelop hers. He appreciates her paintings.    He says her name.

The name Bahia had become very special. It was not like the name Bahia — any Bahia — but referred to her in particular, her and nobody else, her to the exclusion of all others, that particular being of hers now standing beside him, the borders of her body sharp separate from the space outside…

And so she finds her way into her true self. When her father pulls her out of school and marries her, she refuses the marriage bed, kicking the groom so hard he cannot perform. No proof of virginity stains the sheets. She escapes and tries to hide. Her anatomy professor offers her a ride, and his love. She kicks him as well

“It seems I’ve made a mistake,” he said, “I thought you were in love with me.”
“Where on earth did you get that idea?” she answered in amazement.
“I understand women,” he said in his lecturer’s tone.
“With what brain?”
He pointed to his head and smiled. “Man has only one brain, in his head. Didn’t I teach you that in the dissecting room?
“The dissecting room is one thing, the truth is another,” she said scornfully.
“What is the truth?”
“That a man’s brain is not in his head.”
“Where then?”
“Between his legs,” she answered boldly.
“He put on his jacket, saying “You’re not normal, girl.”
“You’re a perfectly normal man,” she said smiling.

At novel’s end, followed by her father and husband, by government agents as well, for her leafleting she realizes that she can be true to herself only by walking into capture.

She was sure she would not plunge into the abyss. She would not surrender. She would not be Bahia Shaheen, would not return to the ordinary faces, would not sink into the sea of similar bodies or tumble into the grave of ordinary life.

She walks towards the police, holding out her wrists “Let’s go!”

Two Women in One is some times repetitious, in the way of obsessive thoughts.  Sometimes it doesn’t move ahead with the urgency of what is happening to Bahia.  As a very early forecast however, by a very impressive woman, of what is happening today in Egypt — and in which she is able to participate, it is quite remarkable.   As a remarkable “journal” of self-discovery by a determined woman, it is worth reading.  As other reviewers commented at the time of publication, it is not about only  about ‘two Egyptian women in one,’  but to some extent about every thinking woman.

El Saadawi has spent all of her life as a physician and writer.  She was  Director of Public Health in Cairo for a time,  and has worked for the UN.  Threatened by Islamist fundamentalists for her advocacy for women — and her lifelong battle against genital mutilation, which she herself suffered, she fled Egypt in 1988.  She has taught at Duke, and the University of Washington and other universities.  She returned to Egypt in 1996.

And as Kristof tells us, is happy happy happy to be out in Tahrir square.

Amy Goodman has a very recent interview with her on Democracy Now.

Brief comments about her on Kutub, a reading group, where I first ran into her, and this book.

Enotes has biographical and bibliographic information as well as citing some of her critics — as having a pro-west bias by exposing too much of problematic Egyptian culture.