Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz, Father of Modern Arabian Narrative

Even though his name was featured on the Islamic fundamentalists' sprawling hit list, Naguib Mahfouz lived a long life. Age 94. Admirable, especially for a writer who survived a stab in the neck when he was 82 and still refused the protection of the Cairo police. Now, how's that for a courageous, snooty snub to those tiresome "cultural terrorists?"

I receive the news of Mahfouz's death while I am reading his Cairo Trilogy.

Mahfouz once said, "Everyday a writer must write something, anything." In that spirit, I urged myself to post this blog entry today, though lately I am feeling a bit of a sense of "shifting gears." Recently, my usual writing schedule has become a shade more unusual. Truncated.

Despite that, to come up with something to write on this blog, I imagined what it would be like for Mahfouz to come talk to a character of mine who has been living in my head for some months now. Her name is Riva Djinn. She enjoys cameos here and there on this blog, as is her roguish wont. I suppose she's in one of her more poetic moods to commune with the dead, to play with the shades.

Riva Djinn met Mister Mahfouz at a coffee house on Broadway and Belmont in Chicago. The place is called Latakia; it's owned by a man from Syria, named Malik, who quit his job as a chemical engineer after suffering too much indignity and employment discrimination because of his Middle Eastern accent. Now Malik is his own boss and makes a mean cafe latte, the best in town! He sets his jaw and tries to laugh when he tells the story of how his brother in Syria, who is a developer, has outstripped Malik in prosperity. "I'm the one who came to the States!" Malik says, as if it still surprises him that he ended up less impressive by his mother's estimation.

Malik is a character Mahfouz would have written about.

But Mahfouz won't write another word. No longer bound to his writing desk or his beloved Cairo, Mahfouz can haunt this coffee shop on a rainy day in Chicago. He can play chess with a fictitious coquette who checked out evey book he's ever written from the Chicago Public Library. Now she sits on this stack of his books so that she might be perched high enough to look over the chess board and into her opponent's shady gaze. Though she thinks herself as tall as a suprermodel, Riva is a dwarf or hobgoblin or troll, of sorts. She may be short on physical stature, but she's got soaring sex appeal. In this coffee shop, Riva's admirers sometimes wait for her to finish the contents of her mug. When she returns the mug, they pounce; they vie; who'll be next to put his lips where hers have been?

But now, Riva Djinn and Naguib Mahfouz occupy their own corner table in Malik's cafe, and they play chess in total silence while the chatter, stories, and aromas of the coffee shop swirl around them. That's all there is to this tale, so far. Nothing more. Riva Djinn, the quintessential urban hermit, and the ghost of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, go unnoticed in a coffee house in Chicago; each quietly contemplates the next strategic move. The vibrations of silence and din merge and dissolve, merge and dissolve. A stranger asks, "Does the Mastermind's heart beat here?" Another asks, "Can I get a free refill?"

Riva bows her head, lowers her lids, sighs, as Mahfouz reaches for his queen.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Getting Published

Please visit this recent Fusion Views blog post if you'd like to hear Yang-May Ooi's podcast interview with a literary agent. Yang-May Ooi has published two legal thrillers: The Flame Tree and Mindgame. She lives in London.

Sick Day, yet Inspired

Today I am feeling, well, not myself. I am feeling you, you, and you.
And febrile.

My body's shareholders throw a party in my throat.

How can they just sit there--
Mister Gullet eating foie gras; Madame Trachea finishing off the stinky tofu--
while the anatomy's industrial average nose-dives into the punch bowl?

The insider trader gets a tip: Perspire will merge with Respire to form Expire.

The dance floor belongs to sickness and sweat; their moves whisper
tender offers of bliss.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Seeing the Madonna, the Messiah, and the Terrorist in Everyone

Riva Djinn is the quintessential urban hermit. She lives alone and listens to hours of National Public Radio.

Today she heard that the pop star, Madonna, tours her song “Live to Tell” while hanging from a mirrored cross and wearing a crown of thorns. Sure enough, this act stirs controversy.

A professor of religious studies from St. Michael’s College in Vermont shared her unique views on Madonna’s behavior: the professor said she admired what Madonna was doing. “Madonna has accomplished—in one performance—what I have been trying to do with my students for years. I’ve been trying to get them to see everyone as the crucified Christ. Usually, my students shudder or laugh when I ask them to imagine Christ as a woman. Madonna is claiming a woman’s right to pose as Christ.”

Riva listened to all this with an open mind. When the radio program turned up the volume on Madonna singing, “Hope I live to tell…” She sang along and humped the walls of her studio apartment, remembering the days when she and her fifth-grade girlfriends took naked photographs of one another while listening to Madonna’s “True Blue” album. Riva, to this day, doesn’t know what became of those photos.

The next NPR show to air was "Marketplace." The story discussed recent tightenings of airport security. A Commentator, David Frum, was yakking about how, “Aviation security operates on the assumption that all passengers present an equal and randomized risk. If MI-5 had operated on the same principle, they'd still be kicking open the door of every house in London to search for terrorists.”

Riva listened, but just couldn't suppress her urge to talk back.

As the radio continued to crash its foamless waves into her open ears, Riva, who was now chopping vegetables for her fish filet dinner, waved her chopping knife this way and that and said, “What a wild world! While the religion professor hopes that we see the crucified Christ in everyone, Aviation security is busy looking out for the terrorist in everyone! Now why wasn't I invited to this whoopee party?” She grins and returns to chopping.

Riva never frets. When she’s not listening to the radio and chopping onions, Riva Djinn loves to read novels. She feels so much more fortunate, you see, because she is able to see the epic narrative in everyone. The end.