Thinker, writer, essayist, poet, aphorist… and spy! Yahia Lababidi says he’s a human impersonator sent to spy on humankind. Enigma’s Sunita Rappai talks to the cutting-edge writer about his brilliant new collection of essays, Trial by Ink, From Nietzsche to Belly-dancing, and the trials and tribulations of being an Egyptian artist…
It’s 7pm on another hot, muggy evening in Cairo and I’m due to meet Yahia Lababidi on Skype. We’re conducting our interview online because he’s based in Washington DC these days, so I assume – wrongly as it turns out – that he’s familiar with this miracle of modern technology. When we finally ‘meet’, I can see him but I can’t hear him. We have a comical few moments where he tries sign language and I shout instructions on how to fix up his microphone but it’s not working. After ten minutes, I give up and call him on his landline. This is Lababidi, essayist, poet, world-renowned aphorist, thinker… and self-confessed technophobe. “How do you keep in touch with people?” I ask, when we finally speak. “I don’t,” he says. “I send out faxes when I can.”
He may not enjoy talking to people – he barely uses his phone – and yet, talking to Lababidi, or reading any of his numerous poems, essays or aphorisms, is an unexpected delight. Forget miserable artists (of which more later); in person, he’s warm and engaging, at turns insightful, witty and often self-deprecating. In short, he’s a natural communicator. It’s another one of the contradictions that define the man; like his heroes, Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche, he is both hedonist and mystic. Growing up, he loved Michael Jackson, yet he also had a penchant for sneaking off into the desert with a good book, relishing the silence. This battle between his noisy, attention-seeking self and his melancholy, artistic side – the quest to still his restless mind, as he puts it – has informed his life and work. And it was in writing in the end that he found solace.
Four years ago, he gave up his job at UNESCO in Cairo and moved to the US to focus on his writing full time. The result is his second book (after the widely acclaimed Signposts to Elsewhere of 2006): Trial by Ink, From Nietzsche to Belly-dancing, a collection of essays written over a seven-year period. The book is divided into three parts, each reflecting the different sides of his character. The first is a series of literary profiles and critiques, on everyone from Wilde to Melville; the second delves into pop culture and the third is a collection of his ‘Middle Eastern musings’. Ranging from a Susan Sontag homage to an abortive, hilarious interview attempt with the singer, Shaaban Abdel Rehim, his writing is sharp and incisive – always on the right side of erudition, neatly sidestepping pretension.
It’s also littered with sound bites; pithy, poetic phrases that lodge in your mind long after you’ve put the book down. Take Lababidi on Michael Jackson: “He could be truly electrifying at times, this impossible creature, moonwalking across the laws of nature, deftly defying them in dance.” Or on Wilde: “He was a man who needed to enter society to satirize it, the snob who secretly wanted the acceptance of the mob.” Here he is on the perception of belly dancers in Egypt: “A love/hate relationship for the belly-dancer places her in a perceived moral netherworld, somewhere between actors and whores.” Or in Empire of the Senses, his sometimes scathing critique of sexual repression in Egypt, he writes: “Issues are further complicated in a culture that discourages premarital sex, and where a woman’s virginity is governed by a kind of gift shop morality – you break it, you buy it.”
Writing, Lababidi explains, is his way of making sense of the world around him – a way to “sound his depths.” And yet, he’s wary of describing himself as a writer. “I don’t think of myself as a writer as such. This idea of being a poet or essayist – it’s not me. I’d characterise myself as a thinker – but I’d cringe if I see that in print,” he laughs. “I walk around just trying to figure things out and occasionally it comes out in a form that I feel I can share with someone.” When I push him to describe himself, he says he’s an “observer.” “Though that sounds like a spy! I’m sent to spy on humanity – I’m a human impersonator! I really don’t know how else to put it. It’s like someone sent me from somewhere else to gather data on you guys.”
He may joke but this sense of detachment is a recurring theme in his work and, one senses, a big part of his own personal struggle. Growing up in Egypt to an Egyptian mother and Lebanese father, he was denied Egyptian citizenship for most of his adult life – until a year before he left for the US. As a teenager, he says he was loud – “louder than I care to remember. I was very restless – loud/obnoxious. I had no way of speaking to myself. It was all externally directed so it was like I was always performing or attention-grabbing.” It wasn’t until he went to university in Washington DC, where he read English Literature that he had his epiphany…
“Suddenly I found myself in a situation where I didn’t know anyone. I was in a new country for the first time, so I had the opportunity to be different. And the way I chose to be was silent as much as I could. I would go on these silent fasts… maybe follow an idea through for a week but just be silent for a week.” At the same time, he was devouring books; intense philosophical works by writers like Nietzsche or Kafka, Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde and Kahlil Gibran. “I wanted to have these conversations with someone and I wasn’t having them with the people around me. So I was squeezing these guys for answers. It was stuff I just gravitated towards – no one really recommended them. I would pick up one and then another and another. I was having conversations with them.”
It was the beginning of his life-long love affair with aphorisms – original thoughts, expressed concisely; think Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” as an example. At the age of 18, when most of us are struggling with our first loves, Lababidi was already constructing these pithy little gems. On thoughts, he wrote: “The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we do not, define us to ourselves.” Or, “Impulses we attempt to strangle only develop stronger muscles.” Heady stuff for a teenager. They became the basis of Signposts to Elsewhere, a collection of original aphorisms that gained international respect when several were included in James Geary’s Encyclopedia of the World’s Great Aphorisms.
He was famously the only Arab included in the book which he describes as “absolutely bizarre.” “I grew up listening to these marvelous sayings, these proverbs that Egyptians just spew out, and I loved it. It’s like a fusion of street smart and book smart – they have a saying for everything. So on some unconscious level I was competing with these proverbs when I was writing my aphorisms.” But his relationship with “the motherland” was also complex, more love-hate than love. Egypt is not always welcoming of its artistic souls, and, while he tried to carve a life out for himself in Downtown Cairo after university, it wasn’t easy. “I don’t want to diss the motherland because it has given me so much and I’m not in any way severed from it, even if I don’t visit regularly,” he says. “But it was exhausting. Just keeping your head together takes up all your energies.
“You’re almost a whimsical burden if you’re not a professional there. Which is fine – I understand that because life is so very hard. I was always aware of how extremely privileged I was. I always had the option and safety net of getting out but I always felt guilty too.” In the end, walking that fine line became too difficult. “I realised I wasn’t really making anyone happy, including myself, because it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Towards the end, there wasn’t enough oxygen for me to breathe. As a writer I found myself exhausted. There are great things in Egypt today but the writing I wanted was heading more and more towards poetry. And I don’t write Arabic, I’m ashamed to say. I needed an outlet – this is what I told my boss when I was resigning. I needed to try and get out while I could and write a book or two or three while it was still in me.”
Today, eking out a living as a writer in the US, married to his American college sweetheart, Lababidi has finally found a measure of peace. He’s still in search of meaning and profundity, but unlike his youthful self, he doesn’t believe he has to court misery to do it. His essay in the book on Wilde and Nietzsche, the great tragic heroes of his teenage years, was his way of saying goodbye to that part of his life. “I had ten years of living under their influence and this was my very loving way of saying, thank-you and good-bye. Now it’s my turn to figure out what I can do without you,” he says. There’s still a yearning for profundity and a stoic acceptance of the loneliness that comes with being a writer – that “faintly morbid inwardness” of his chosen profession. But, these days, he’s also about balance. “You don’t have to go knocking on that door and when it doesn’t open, camp out and wait for it, he says. “You can just get on with your life…You can’t fight your blood – you can only submit to it, knowingly and graciously.” The trials of Yahia Lababidi, for now at least, may be coming at an end.