Thursday, 15 March 2007

Write like an Egyptian

I'm still recovering from the shock of watching the repeat of The Great Global Warming Swindle. It was only as recently as last June when I was first introduced (by my fine friend and uber-entrepreneur Simon Moran) to the concept of 'carbon neutrality' and since then - non withstanding my intercontinental jogs - I have tried to do my little bit for the troposphere, convincing myself that turning off every last appliance from stand-by mode would help to stave off Armageddon for at least another five years or so. But now I too am wondering whether this whole man-made global warming malarkey is all so much hot air (ha, ha). The truly spooky thing is that nearly of the media has been presenting the whole CO2 emission equals Waterworld fantasy as inescapable scientific fact.

I wade through hundreds of pages of newspapers every week, but I'm beginning to suspect that I'm wasting my time and that all the great issues of our time - Global Warming, Al-Qaeda, the War on Terror, the Iraq War - are really the very best in modern fiction. I finished reading a few weeks back a little book I picked up on my New Year trip to Luxor, Egypt, called The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World. The author Galal Amin displays a monumental self-regard in his attempt to defend cronyism, conservatism and corruption in the Middle East, but on one point I think he might be on to something. He compares the American obsession with the War on Terror as the equivalent of the daily 'Two Minutes Hate' in Orwell's 1984 and speculates whether Al-Qaeda actually exists at all. Given that the entire argument for the invasion of Iraq was based on a pack of lies, I wonder whether both the War on Terror and man-made Global Warming frenzy are nothing more than mirages cooked up by an incompetent and corrupt government and a hysterical media.

On the subject of Egypt, I should explain my recent obsession with Arabic literature. We should all have some kind of obsessive Causabonish, over-vaunting project that has not the slightest chance of ever reaching fruition. (Readers of The Tower of London will recognise an allusion here to Soseki's tutor William Craig and his 30-year-plus Shakespeare Lexicon project). Mine is an on-off attempt to try and remap world literature from a non-Eurocentric perspective. I've always thought there really must be more to literature than reading another poll telling us that the greatest authors are Tolstoy, Flaubert and Jane Austen. Trying to get to the bottom of what the true map of world literature looks like is, however, a daunting task. For a start, there's about ten lifetimes of reading to be done. Then you're always in the hands of the translators. For example, I've no doubt that the Chinese writer Lu Xun is one of the great writers of the twentieth century, but all the English translations of his works are dire.

Anyway with Arabic literature the main man of the last century is Naguib Mahfouz so I've been munching through a few of his works. I started off with Children of the Alley which is incredibly good. It's Mahfouz's allegorical retelling of the story of mankind and the rise of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and modern science. Excited by this, and reading reports of Mahfouz as being the 'Shakespeare of the Middle East', I started stocking up on his works, planning to get through the monumental Cairo Trilogy and the popular Midaq Alley. At the shop in my hotel in Luxor, there was an entire bookcase filled with Mahfouz's novels, so I eased myself in with some of the thinner volumes such Adrift on the Nile and Akhenaton. But it was definitely a law of diminishing returns. Adrift on the Nile is at best OK and Akhenaton is tedious and uninspired (and this despite the pharaoh Akhenaton being an entirely fascinating subject! I think I must write a book about him myself one day).

Finally I started on Mahfouz's early work Thebes at War, which is laughably awful. Lo, behold noble dark-skinned Egyptians pitted against fair-skinned Hyksos foreigners and cardboard characters everywhere. Far from discovering a treasure trove of world classics, my conclusion is that Mahfouz is a writer who oscillated alarmingly between dross and genius. To all of us who have churned out our fair share of page filler however I think Mahfouz offers a guiding light - keep chipping away at it, keep knocking out rubbish like Thebes at War and one day you too might hone your skills enough to produce a Children of the Alley.

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