I finished your magnum opus two days ago, with tears in my eyes, and I’ve been intoxicated since, in the most Faridian sense of the word. Among other things, no one (REPEAT: NO ONE) has ever written so wondrously about love and sex in Arabic the way you did in the last two chapters of the novel, i.e. — making the Arabic language make love as it has never done before. Ibn al Farid should feel so comfortable, and so privileged, and so sexy in your company.
But that’s not your major achievement, No Sir. You managed to write a perfect (REPEAT: PERFECT) Arabic novel, on so many levels. Very few writers have done that, and to enter the Hall of Fame with a first novel is nothing short of miraculous. Your meticulous attention to what turns a text into a stunning novel is absolutely amazing, and your masterful control of all the aspects of your text is something that should be taught in writing programs.
But above all, I think, your major achievement is in being what Foucault would call “a discourse initiator” — someone who single handedly changes a discipline, and in this case the discipline of the Arabic novel. You are my al Jabarti of the Arabic novel.
ABOUT THE RAKHA
Youssef Rakha is a novelist, poet, essayist and journalist who writes in both Arabic and English. His interests include Arab porn and the possibility of a post-Muslim perspective. His first two novels The Book of the Sultan’s Seal and The Crocodiles appeared in English in early 2015. An updated bibliography of Youssef’s books can be found below.
He is represented by Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency.
Born, raised and based in Cairo, Youssef graduated from Hull University, England, in 1998. He has worked as a cultural journalist, literary translator, and creative writing coach since then. He founded and edits тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ, Cairo's Coolest Cosmopolitan Hotel, a bilingual online space.
Youssef’s writing is featured in many web and print publications including The Atlantic, Guernica, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, and The Telegraph. Frequently anthologized, he has been translated into many languages and his books have appeared in French, German and Polish as well as English and Arabic.
A connoisseur as well as a maker of contemporary Arabic literature, Youssef has been interviewed in, among many others, Music and Literature, Reuters and Words Without Borders, and his work is celebrated in Granta, Reorient, and many others.
Youssef’s 2006 photo travelogue Beirut Shi Mahal was nominated for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. He was among the 39 best Arab writers under 40 selected for the Hay Festival Beirut39 Festival in 2010. His first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, won the 2015 Banipal Seif Ghobash Prize for Paul Starkey’s translation, and his third, Paulo, was on the long list of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017 and won the 2017 Sawiris Award.
His work has prompted appearances in, among many other events across the world, the Hay Festival in the UK (2011), the Ritratti di Poesia in Rome (2015), the Internationales Literaturfestival Leukerbad in Switzerland (2016), La Comédie du livre in Montpellier, France (2017), and Dubai's Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature's anniversary round (2018). He has been on the juries of major writing and film competitions.
Youssef’s exhibition “Cairo-Alexandria/Berlin” was held at the Geothe Institute, Cairo in 2006, and he has since published photography on Panorama Mada Masr, Berfrois, Bidoun, Edge of Humanity and Mashalla News as well as individual images on F-Stop Magazine and P1xels, among other outlets, providing cover art for his and other books.
His photography like much of his writing focuses on Cairo.
December 9, 2014
A ferocious and urgent novel of the Arab Spring that begins with a suicide and ends with a doomed revolution, covering sex, violence, metafiction, deception, lost youth, and the last thirty years of a living, breathing, daring, burning, culturally infested Cairo.
This novel is narrated by a man who looks back on the magical and explosive period of his life in which he started a secret poetry club with two friends, doing the things that all young men ought to do: messy drugs, fierce older-woman-activist lovers, violent sex and passive politics, clumsy but determined intellectual bravado, retranslations of the Beat poets, growing up into and growing out of the city. One difference between The Crocodiles and any other novel is that it's set in Cairo between 1997 and 2011, against the backdrop of a burning Tahrir Square and a revolution that we know, even then, will fail. Read and you may well weep.
THE BOOK OF THE SULTAN'S SEAL
December 1, 2014
A PROFOUNDLY ORIGINAL DEBUT FROM HIGHLY ACCLAIMED EGYPTIAN WRITER
Youssef Rakha's extraordinary The Book of the Sultan's Seal was published less than two weeks after then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, following mass protests, in February 2011. It's hard to imagine a debut novel of greater urgency or more thrilling innovation.
Modeled on a medieval Arabic manuscript in the form of a letter addressed to the writer's friend, The Book of the Sultan's Seal is made up of nine chapters, each centered on a drive our hero, Mustafa Çorbaci, takes around greater Cairo in the spring of 2007. Together these create a portrait of Cairo, city of post-9/11 Islam. In a series of dreams and visions, Mustafa Çorbaci encounters the spirit of the last Ottoman sultan and embarks on a mission the sultan assigns him. Çorbaci's trials shed light on the contemporary Arab Muslim's desperation for a sense of identity: Sultan's Seal is both a suspenseful, erotic, riotous novel and an examination of accounts of Muslim demise. The way to a renaissance, Çorbaci's journeys lead us to see, may have less to do with dogma and jihad than with love poetry, calligraphy, and the cultural diversity and richness within Islam.
With his first novel, Rakha has created a language truly all his own - an achievement that has earned international acclaim. This profoundly original work both retells canonical Arabic classics and offers a new version of ''middle Arabic,'' in which the formal meets the vernacular. Now finally in English, in Paul Starkey's masterful translation, The Book of the Sultan's Seal will astonish new readers around the world
“Two novels in translation by the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha have just come out in English, and this will, I believe, prove to have been a real event.” —Hilary Plum, author of They Dragged Them through the Streets
“Joyce has Dublin; Modiano has Paris; Rakha has Cairo.” —Georgia de Chamberet
“Essential reading for our turbulent times.” —Booklist
“Youssef Rakha’s The Book of the Sultan’s Seal gave him an immediate spot in the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature: a stunning achievement for a first novel.” —Anton Shammas again
“Rakha’s books are an education.” —Seth Messinger
“Youssef Rakha employs classical Arabic literary strategies in service of the most postmodern of narratives. [The Book of the Sultan’s Seal] is a brilliant novel from an exciting new writer.” —Kazim Ali, author of Bright Felon
“It is this intent seriousness of purpose, driven by the fierce, forensic intelligence behind it, that lifts [The Crocodiles] above much contemporary western writing.” —Niall Griffiths, The New Welsh Review
“The Crocodiles, a novel where reality sheds its veil to reveal its true face—that of a timeless mythology.” —Amin Maalouf, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Samarkand
“The Crocodiles is also a long poem, an elegiac wail singing the sad music of a collapsing Egypt.” —Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?
“In poet/journalist Rakha’s brilliant novel the numbered paragraphs read like prose poems and flow like the best fiction.” —Library Journal
Azhar ash-shams (Arabic: أزهار الشمس; Flowers of the Sun), short stories, Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat, 1999
The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars (Arabic: كتاب الطغرى: غرائب التاريخ في مدينة المريخ), novel, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2011. ISBN 978-9-77092-988-9. Beirut: Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-6-14419-868-1. USA: Interlink, 2015. ISBN 978-1-56656-916-3. Geneva: Éditions Zoé, 2016. ISBN 978-2-88927-378-2
Paolo (Arabic: باولو), novel, Cairo-Beirut-Tunis: Dar Al-Tanwir, 2016. ISBN 978-977648-358-3
Beirut shi mahal (Arabic: بيروت شي محل; Beirut Some Place), photo travelogue, Alexandria: Amkenah Books, 2006
Bourguiba ala madad (Arabic: بورقيبة على مضض; Bourguiba Reluctantly), part two of Beirut shi mahal (without photos), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008. ISBN 995-3-21334-8
Shamal al qahira gharb al filibbin (Arabic: شمال القاهرة غرب الفلبين; North of Cairo, West of the Philippines), travel essays, Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009. ISBN 978-9-95321-422-1
Kull amakinina (Arabic: كل أماكننا; All Our Places), poems and essays, Cairo: Dar Al-Ain, 2010. ISBN 978-9-77490-022-8
Yadhhar malak (Arabic: يظهر ملاك; An Angel Appears), poems, ebook only, 2011
Diwan 90: Articles on Arabic Literature, ebook only, 2014
Arab Porn, essay (ebook only), 60Pages (long-form collective), 2016. ASIN B01J4YMPZK. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2017. ISBN 978-3-95757-382-7
©2019 by Youssef Rakha