Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
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With this, our third issue, Portal 9 begins to experiment with form.?Whereas the first two issues, “The Imagined”?and “The Square,”?revolved around a broad theme, “Fiction” prompts a nuanced engagement with a literary and artistic genre that enriches the journal’s exploration of culture and urbanism.?Portal 9, which is published twice yearly, will henceforth dedicate the spring issue to a theme and the autumn issue to a genre, its own shape and structure uniquely adapted to the form at hand.

By focusing on fiction – prose, visual, or otherwise – we threw the doors wide open for experimentation with the written word and sheer imagination as we sought to do with “The Imagined,”?the inaugural issue, which featured the perspectives of researchers, academics, and writers on the city.

The process has been a remarkable and gratifying adventure.?We commissioned novelist Hassan Daoud to author a novella in Arabic from start to finish, oversaw the translation by Lina Mounzer of the work in tandem with its composition, and are now pleased to share with readers both the Arabic and English editions of Naqqil Fouadaka (As She Once Was) in this issue.?All this in a matter of six record-breaking months!

Collaborating with Daoud as he was structuring and writing the novella, following his progress step-by-step, truly enriched the experience.

His renowned novel, Binayet Mathilde (House of Mathilde), inaugurated the wave of novels about place in modern Lebanese literature in the eighties.?The novel foregrounded the soundscape and heartbeat of place – people, buildings, creatures – just as it pushed to the background the clamor of civil war headlines, which at the time seemed to consume Beirut entirely.

Daoud continued his investigation of the city with such novels as Nouzhat Al Malak (Angel Picnic) and Ghina Al Batreeq (The Penguin’s Song).?For this issue, the novelist presents a text whose setting and events are heavily inspired by the postwar Beirut city center, a place whose newness remains largely untreated by the literary imagination.?In As She Once Was, the novelist grapples with age and place, with the pursuit of an impossible, lost love, and with ever-multiplying beginnings, opportunities to start anew arising time and again.

We chose texts by writers from divergent literary and artistic generations, all of whom are sensitive to the latent heartbeat of the city.?We favored writers who are attuned to nuance, writers not content to limit their attention to exteriors but who dig and excavate, starting with the Self and the Other and then exploring the environment that surrounds them.?The texts plunge into the minutia of physicality; they probe the nebulous city enveloped in secrets.?A gentle touch, a glance, a breath, a tingle – these stories reveal the fragility of the human experience, of our innocence, our vulnerability.

We live in a historical moment in which roaring, bombastic, and shallow slogans are fading and the individual has become reduced to the Self, lacking any trace of depth.?“The old slogans about the dignity of all labor no longer cut any ice,”?states the narrator Artur of Arslan Khasavov’s story, “Steven Seagal’s Personal Assistant.”?Artur, a twenty-something Dagestani Russian Muslim whose father is the target of a manhunt, is job-hunting in Moscow, inching ever so slightly toward the dreams he holds for himself as a talented writer.

“Let the free be free,”?writes Irina Bogatyreva, and she repeats this sentence as a refrain in her short story.?In “Exit,” a staid tour guide tries to perform his job, without any personal or emotional investment in the tourist groups he shuttles between Russia and Scandinavia.?The freedom to do as we please, as Bogatyreva’s story reveals, might sometimes include voluntary, eternal disappearance, even suicide.

The effort exerted by Portal 9 to draw in writers beyond the confines of the Arab cultural sphere was also an adventure from which we learned a great deal. Despite the fact that such a mission doubles the workload (for instance, translating from Russian to English and then to Arabic), we sought at the very least to knock on a door often neglected not only by those who read and write in Arabic but also by many American and European publishers, among others.?A kind of historical amnesia has perpetuated the hegemony of international Russian classics by the likes of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, and this is at the expense of the new, post-Soviet Russia.

From our vantage point, at the very least for those of us in the Arab world, we have become more insistent on reading and learning about contemporary Russia, particularly in light of the convergence of our sociopolitical circumstances.?On the one hand, we have experienced in the past months the extent of influence of this “new Russia” on regional geopolitics, though in contrast to American and European cultural forces, it remains obscure in the broader public sphere.?On the other hand, the crises within Russia itself seem to correspond to the crises in our region, both characterized by oil and gas oligarchies, police states, assassination of journalists, abduction of protesters, and criminalization of homosexuality.?The North Caucasus continues to be a volatile area that has thrown into relief questions of nationhood, ethnicity, and religion, namely Islam.

The past two decades have also witnessed the emergence of trends and cultural currents in Russia, not limited to the metropoles like Moscow and Saint Petersburg but also encompassing cities like Kazan, Tatarstan, where Irina Bogatyreva was born, and Sochi on the coast of the Black Sea. Indeed, the two Russian writers featured in this issue are precisely from this new generation.?Arslan Khasavov is quite similar to his tragic hero Artur, ostensibly a Muslim of Kumuk origins, and his and Bogatyreva’s growing body of work reflects an emphasis on research, mobility, and movement, all resulting from the collapse of the Iron Curtain at the dawn of the 1990s.

In “Fiction,”?we place the experiences of these new Russian writers alongside those from various Arab generations, all focused on breaking through the absurdity of ossified givens and, in the case of?Yazan Khalili, mocking these stiff realities, or maneuvering between strata of society and place to probe “infinitesimal details,” as the urban planner states in Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s “Tayf Al Siqilli”?(“Al Siqilli Dream”):?“Fatimid Cairo remained a lifelong obsession of mine,”?he admits.

Not only do we present a novella and a collection of stories, but this experience has occasioned the authorship of a second novel in addition to As She Once Was. Egyptian writer Ez-Eldin is expanding the story she wrote for Portal 9 into a book whose hero is the aforementioned Cairene urban planner:?Adam Khalifa appears in the dreams of the narrator, looking out from the window of his hotel room in the Ramses Hilton.?He throws burning papers that “lit up like shooting stars before extinguishing as they hit the ground.”


Translated from the Arabic by Eyad Houssami

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 Fadi Tofeili, is a Lebanese writer, poet, and translator. He is the editor-in-chief of Portal 9.

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Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
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