When you are idle, she said, when you do not work or do something with your hands, when you do not think about something and instead remain still and without purpose, the wiswas enters your ear and makes a home of it. There, he whispers, You are not worthy. You are not deserving. You are not. You are not. That is Iblis, she says. And it is because of this that we must learn, and work, and enter society with purpose, she says. Otherwise Iblis makes a home of your mind and in it you are only a guest.
Amira often came to class late. She regularly sat in the furthest right corner of the classroom, from where I, the Adult Education ESL teacher, could see. Among her first questions were, Keef aqool alhamdullilah bil Ingleezi? Keef aqool insha’allah? Henceforth her sentences became, Tomorrow, I go to the doctor, God willing. Today is good, thanks be to God. Having grown up in a household that did not know God, I did not know that Muslims like Amira or my grandmother Um Ali believed depression to be the whispers of Satan. I did not know that Amira or my grandmother Um Ali believed Islam to be a means of warding off mental illness, a means of sanctifying a happy life without negative thoughts, without the unpredictable ensuings of idleness, the unsolicited whispers that come from what seems to be Nothing. Amira’s conception of idleness was entirely new to me though the whispers of Iblis were not.
“All poets have jinn as their muses, she said, it was always so, the greatest of them, Imru’ al-Qais, had a muse who went by the name Lafiz bin Lahiz, the poet was seen walking the desert paths talking to his jinni and what glorious words poured out of his mouth, all muses were considered jinn once upon a time, and she couldn’t imagine me settling for anyone but Iblis, the lord of all the jinn. And Satan said, I wish you had explained to her that I’m not a jinni or a demon, that technically I’m an angel.”
– Ya’coub, the Yemeni-Lebanese poet of Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History
I spent today idle. The early afternoon sun has already entered my room through the wild yellows and reds and blues and greens of the tesselated Ramadaniya tapestry that my friend bought from Alexandria’s Zen’at al-Sittat and then gifted to me. I drank three cups of coffee and had two cigarettes in the nightgown I am still wearing. I laid on the couch reading Alameddine’s The Angel of History and then moved to my bedroom and then the chair in the corner of my room and even took it to the bathroom. Twice. I am hungry but have not eaten since before the midday sun did its colorful dance on the walls of my bedroom. Days like this have always scared me because a look in the mirror at my disheveled self and unwashed body despite the hours’ inevitable passing and my awareness of them has too-often invited the wiswas into my ear. “You should be out there making money. How will you pay rent? Your credit cards? You should see your mother. She is traveling soon and you may never see her again. Your grandmother too, her years nearly uncountable and her soft wisdoms turning to ethereal wisps behind her hardened shell that only becomes more impenetrable with time. Go. Do not stay. Go. It will all pass.”
What I did not expect of Alameddine’s The Angel of History was that it would be a novel about writing. And about the muse. And about idleness. And about the fear of satanic possession. And about submitting to the desires burning longer within us than those a posteriori logics we acquire throughout experience and age, those societal logics that seek to extinguish those desires or rather turn them into tenable flames. That maybe desire is the Holy Fire of the Sepluchre, burning for millennia and that this body, all bodies, its finite wick. The life of the fire elongated by the passing from wick to wick. And that we bodies are consumed regardless. Whether we snuff the flame of desire or instead let it burn. Desire: it will come back like one of those trick birthday candles which make for an entertaining scene for those watching and make for frustration for those just wanting to blow out the flame on the off-chance that those birthday wishes will actually come true. Replace desire with insanity in the previous sentence. Replace insanity with the creative muses in that sentence too.
The novel lives like a poem, moving from passage to passage or line to line with the momentum of Alameddine’s unforgiving cannon of wit and utilization of Arab and Western canon and present as abundant fodder. There is a story, yes, a narrative arc in which a boy comes into existence as the bastard child of a wealthy socialite adolescent Lebanese and his family’s Yemeni maid, is raised lovingly in a Cairene whorehouse, is sent to Lebanon amidst the Civil War to live in an orphanage in which he is illicitly taught about the saints venerated by the Arabs but banned by the French nuns running the place, is visited by the presence and whispers and exclamations of saints and Satan alike, is a poet who writes good poetry, is in San Francisco living and loving as the AIDS crisis decimates his friends and lovers and leaves him a haunted room in which blow breezes of memory and forgetting, is a poet who writes shit poetry, is admitted into the psych ward because of his returning psychosis, is a poet who succumbs not to psychosis but the dæmons, the muses, the jinn, Satan, “Iblis, the lord of all the jinn” and finally writes again. Yes, this contains spoilers. Yes, Alameddine’s prose is taut enough to hold a reader’s attention even if the reader knows what is to come. In the same way we can read a good poem over and over again and take in each enjambed line like a new truth, we can read Alameddine’s novel as it braids the disparate parts of Ya’coub’s consciousness into a tightrope descending into the mind’s hell. And its fundamentally concomitant beauty — if you’re a poet, that is.
As is required, any reflection on or review of this novel must be accompanied by the following:
the Paul Klee painting titled Angelus Novus which is translated to The Angel of History
Walter Benjamin’s reading of the Klee painting
a screenshot of Google Maps browser with a red location marker at the location of the Israel Museum on 11 Derek Ruppin Boulevard in Jerusalem which is where the painting is now
a mention that Ai Wei-Wei, revolutionary subversive artist (within the definitions of the consumptive art world), recently had an exhibition in occupied Jerusalem
a hanging implication that Ai Wei-Wei is a sellout
a screenshot of a Google search browser with the question: what was the name of derek ruppin boulevard in jerusalem before the establishment of the state of israel just 68 years ago?
a screenshot of a Google search results browser with the first result headlined: “Oil City Derrick Newspaper Archives, Apr 24, 1967, p. 8 …”
a mention that Alameddine was a finalist for the National Book Award — maybe mention it twice.