Impolite Adab.

Youssef Rakha, an Egyptian novelist, poet, and essayist, writes for New Lines about the less decorous aspects of modern Egyptian literature; some excerpts:

The Arabic word for literature, “adab” also means decorum — implying that good language and good manners are ultimately the same thing. But, aside from the delicate feelings and refined tastes so abundant in [Salah] Jahin’s work, the Arabic literary canon has always had another strand, rich in profane scenes and blasphemous references. That kind of writing tears away the veil of propriety and derives its power from obscenity. In modern times it became a truer expression of fraught reality than decent, respectable literature ever could be. And there is no better example of that than the short, tragic life of [Naguib] Surour whose poetry shocked Egyptians through the 1960s and 1970s.

Surour was a lifelong dissident, repeatedly arrested and tortured for his views. […] Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, he was beaten and “treated” with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It was six months before his friends could locate him.

Up to this point Surour had been flamboyant and outspoken but not especially foul-mouthed. When his marital crisis came to a head, though, he started writing a series of “rubaiyat” (quatrains) — simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking — that flaunted the worst swear words in Egyptian Arabic […] He continued adding verses until 1974, by which time it had turned into a 6,000-word tirade with the offensive title “Kuss Ummiyyat” — combining “umm,” the Arabic word for mother, and “kuss,” a vernacular term for vagina (which the poem used repeatedly).

After his 1971 encounter with Naqqash, Surour was interned again and again for mental and physical breakdowns, but he never stopped working. Although he managed to produce a number of successful verse plays, his epic swear-poem remains his most enduring legacy. Even today, nothing captures the sound and fury of the Nasser era quite like it. In its subversive energy and complete disregard for convention, it recalls Allen Ginsberg’s landmark “Howl.”

The poem has entered the canon of modern Egyptian letters, though half a century later it has still not been formally published. When mentioned in the media and in decent company, its title is shortened to “al-Ummiyyat” to avoid the expletive “kuss.” […]

At any given time, impolite adab expresses the most uncomfortable truths, those that are repressed by power or convention. It confronts what decent writing doesn’t dare come near. It calls things by their names, however unpleasant. It creates a stir by forcing people to face up to their deepest values and their betrayal of them. At any given time, there will be more coherent and more decent polemic. But, even when it doesn’t set out to be oppositional, work like Surour’s will always be more radical.

That is also the case with Abdel Hamid al Deeb, the man responsible for some of the most beautifully scandalous classical Arabic verses ever composed:

I had a cock that made the sirens swoon
Which rising like a lion rampant struck.

I meant to fuck time’s waxing, waning moon;
It fucked me — and fate has a bigger cock.

Deeb was the author of a long poem in the “tawil” meter, which was the 1930s equivalent of Surour’s “Ummiyyat.” Unlike Surour, though, Deeb had no tape recorder, and most of the poem is lost. It is known only from a few scattered verses, and even those are often misattributed to the ninth-century poet Abu Nuwas, the great “enfant terrible” of Abbasid poetry. […]

The brilliant poet Aleya Abdel Salam took many erratic turns as she moved from her village near Mansoura — via numerous locations on three continents — to the Red Sea resort Hurghada. Though now leading a quiet life in the hotel business, she still makes provocative statements. Abdel Salam described renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as “a cheat and a liar” in a Facebook post on the seventh anniversary of his death.

Abdel Salam wrote in a 1993 poem:

In the Metro, in the eyes facing me
I often realize that all I have is naked…
Where do I keep Anwar Kamel’s kiss
Which he gave me at the door of the Odeon?
Who’ll give me back what death took away from me?
Who will enjoy love, like me, under the domes of religion?

(Anwar Kamel is an older critic and activist who died in 1991. He was a widely revered pillar of left-wing politics in Egypt, in the same camp as Surour. The Odeon used to be one of downtown Cairo’s most popular movie theaters.) […]

Between 2000 and 2007, when he died in a freak gas leak at the age of 33, a novelist named Mohamed Rabie — not to be confused with the author of “Otared” — wrote five works of fiction that were so shocking he never even attempted to have them published. Instead he printed them out and distributed photocopies by hand.

An admirer of Marcel Proust, Rabie revived the modernist technique of stream of consciousness. He used it to satirize the religiosity, conformity, sexism and sexual repression of the middle class with a rare expressionistic intensity. He also mixed spoken and written Arabic in arbitrary ways. Though often outrageously shocking, his prose is very readable.

More consciously than anyone mentioned so far, Rabie tackled God and genitalia in a way that makes his work both scandalous and courageous. It also makes it more relevant than most of what is published today.

After his death, Rabie’s writer friends sought to issue posthumous books of his novels, but his family refused — with the result that all five of them were made freely available online. They are still there but, apart from those same friends, to this day I don’t know anyone who has heard of them.

Rakha discusses the conservative attitudes that have come to the fore “in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief stint in power between 2012 and 2013” and continues:

Despite that, it’s hard to walk anywhere in Cairo today without hearing someone swearing. But the hypocrisy is such that in the public sphere people still like to pretend that swearing is taboo. They take issue with it in the arts especially, the assumption being that the artist’s job is moral instruction. In the mainstream media any perceived breach of convention can be deemed objectionable. It doesn’t matter how widespread, realistic or even morally valid that breach might be. The struggle becomes far more subtle in the ceaseless crusade by contemporary novelists from Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937) to Ahmed Naji (b. 1985) to expose the underside of what Egyptians say about themselves, and the words they use to say it. It is brave work, and costly. Ibrahim’s epoch-making novella, “That Smell,” was banned on its release in 1964. (The narrator has just been released from prison, though it is not clear what crime he committed, and the ineffable smell in question is a metaphor for his alienation — and the general malaise in which he finds society.) […]

It was much the same 12 centuries earlier when al-Jahiz — perhaps the greatest Arabic prose writer of all time, and a man not known for profanity or rudeness — complained that “some of those who show rectitude and decency” appear disgusted and distressed at words such as “cock” and “fuck.” The person who puts on such a show of repugnance, al-Jahiz wrote, “is most likely a man who has only as much knowledge, kindness, decency and respectability as his pretense.”

There’s much more at the link, and anyone interested in modern Arabic literature — or indeed in the power of “bad language” — should read the whole thing. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Surprised to see no comments on this incredibly interesting post. It is fascinating that there is a whole strain of Arabic literature that is not only unknown to the West, but, it sounds like, unknown to most of the Arabic literary world. I wish I had time to learn enough Arabic to dip into that.

  2. Thanks for the lone comment — I too was surprised, and I feel the same way.

  3. in the public sphere people still like to pretend that swearing is taboo

    Being taboo is what makes swearing swearing. The question can only be: taboo in which circumstances?

  4. Just to add a linguistic note – I guess I am old enough to find the use of “actor” instead of “actress” here initially confusing.

    His family could not join him but, being Muslim, he didn’t have to divorce Sasha to marry a young actor and settle down with her in a comfortable apartment.

    I am in the weird transition generation that finds men marrying men normal enough, but can’t easily rewrite my programming on how I understand words like “actor/actress”, “waiter/waitress”, etc. So the “her” feels jarring to me until I stop and think about it. I gather we have all agreed to move on from gendered professions in English?

  5. Now that I’ve read the piece, I note a strong whiff of 70s nostalgia – specifically, nostalgia for the louche, lefty, international, irresponsible world of Arabic literati of those days. I guess I can see why, but there’s a lot of 70s nostalgia out there, and it feels a bit stuck in the past.

    I’ve long since gotten used to the near-complete normalisation of swearing in English (in literature as in life), but honestly I’m glad the Arab world has managed (relatively at least) to keep this particular taboo up. It makes ordinary life feel more wholesome, and swearing all the more cathartic.

  6. Ha, Lameen’s inner peever is finally revealed!

  7. I am in the weird transition generation that finds men marrying men normal enough, but can’t easily rewrite my programming on how I understand words like “actor/actress”, “waiter/waitress”, etc. So the “her” feels jarring to me until I stop and think about it. I gather we have all agreed to move on from gendered professions in English?

    As Dinosaur Comics once pointed out, actor/actress is one of the few professions where it makes sense to keep gendered terms around, because they actually contain useful information as to what roles that person is able to play; it’s a bona fide occupational qualification. Whereas for most other cases (like a waiter), it doesn’t matter to the job whether they’re a man or a woman, so you don’t lose much as much relevant information by making the term gender-neutral.

  8. I don’t think I’ve run into “waiter” as a gender-neutral term. The usual choice for that is “server” in my experience in the US.

  9. the excerpts make me excited to read the whole piece, but before i dash off to do that:

    after a quick skim, i’m startled at the apparent absence there of the longer tradition of obscene arabic literature that these writers seem (to my not-that-informed eye) to be part of! my window into it is the shadow plays of muhammad ibn daniyal mawsili*, which were published in english translation about a decade ago. ibn daniyal’s plays, from late-1200s cairo, are among the verrrrry few things i’ve read that give samuel delany’s pornographic novels competition for sheer exuberant filthiness.

    and from what i’ve read about them, their language and poetics of unrestrained vulgarity (and great social and political import) isn’t unique to ibn daniyal, but constitutes a specific strain of arabic literature that makes some interesting connections between court/panegyric poets (ibn daniyal did his share, alongside an opthalmological practice) and the semi-institutionalized underworld (the ‘banu sasan’, to whatever extent they aren’t a historiographical or literary projection). i gather there’s a lot in ibn daniyal of linguistic interest, but i don’t have the arabic, rromanes, coptic, or whatever else is in the mix to do more than wave in its general direction in this learned company.

    * as the name hints, a possibly-kurdish immigrant to egypt from mosul in the wake of the mongol invasion.

  10. This essay, on staging Ibn Daniyal in our age, begins, “The thirteenth-century oculist Muhammad Ibn Daniyal, said to have occasionally blinded his patients…”

    Was Dāniyāl a common Kurdish name?

  11. “The thirteenth-century oculist Muhammad Ibn Daniyal, said to have occasionally blinded his patients…”

    *casts nervous eye at Eddyshaw*

  12. They said, occasionally! Sheesh.

  13. Was Dāniyāl a common Kurdish name?

    There is something on this question here, in Li Guo (2012) The Performing Arts in Medieval Islam: Shadow Play and Popular Poetry in Ibn Daniyal’s Mamluk Cairo, p. 6.

    However, Mosul is one of the many places that claims to be the site of the tomb of Daniel. I don’t know when this tradition began, but Badr ad-Dīn Luʾluʾ (d. 1259 CE) apparently commissioned the Mosul shrine that stood until Da’esh blew it up in 2014. According to this page, it is being rebuilt. Another city of Kurdistan, Kirkuk, also claims the tomb of Daniel.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Nervous eye, you say? We must cut the nerve before it spreads to the brain.

  15. i am constantly entertained and astounded by academics’ willingness to take absolutely everything* said in a medieval poem as trustworthy biographical information about the writer. for poets working in arabic and hebrew, this happens even with rhetorical/narrative tropes like “the renunciation of poetry”, which was a practically obligatory part of any diwan of reasonable size, and yet gets treated as a valid way of dating poems as “late in the poet’s career” (see almost any writing on yehuda halevi for this approach taken far beyond the point of absurdity).

    * except, of course, when they write love poems or erotica that’s not rigorously heterosexual (by mid-20thC middle-class anglo-american standards), which is still generally treated as “literary convention” not to be taken seriously.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    casts nervous eye at Eddyshaw

    There is (apparently) a provision in the Code of Hammurabi to the effect that if an oculist should operate and the eye be lost, the oculist’s own eye should be gouged out in compensation.

    My colleagues and I once discussed whether, if you were a Babylonian who actually needed an eye operation, you should go to a one-eyed or a two-eyed surgeon. We concluded that you should go to the one-eyed man, on the grounds that he would be (a) experienced and (b) extremely careful.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    That anecdote sounded familar. Then I remembered: once bitten, twice shy. What is the point of Codes if not to instill caution through meet judgement ?

  18. John Cowan says

    We must cut the nerve before it spreads to the brain.

    Too late! The optic nerve is part of the brain.

  19. once bitten, twice shy

    i hope that one-eyed oculists, at least, are not using their teeth to operate – the lack of depth perception seems like it would pose problems.

  20. Trond Engen says

    John C.: Too late! The optic nerve is part of the brain.

    I almost wrote “rest of the brain”, and then I chose efficiency in delivery over precision. Should have been an eye surgeon.

    I’ve wondered if that “part of the brain” thing really is special for the optical nerve or if it’s just more obvious for such a huge lump of neurons close to the core. I’d expect the neural networks to interact and form, well, networks with every neuron they touch.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    I chose efficiency in delivery over precision. Should have been an eye surgeon

    Someone has been talking out of school …

    I’ve wondered if that “part of the brain” thing really is special for the optical nerve

    Nah, it’s pukka. The “optic nerves” are covered by meninges, not Schwann cells, and can’t regenerate at all, unlike proper peripheral nerves. Never doubt JC …

    Incidentally, it used to be perfectly possible to function as a one-eyed oculist, indeed as a one-eyed microsurgeon, until the modern “phacoemulsification” techniques for cataract surgery came along (you do need your fine depth perception for that.) I’ve actually known a couple of eye surgeons with very poor vision in one eye (each) who managed fine.

    Pretty much the first question (after “what is your name?”) on the application form to be a resident at Moorfields is (or used to be) “do you have binocular single vision?”, but there is said to be a story associated with that (sadly, a story too potentially libellous to relate here.)

  22. Never doubt JC

    Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet.

  23. I became curious about the etymology of Arabic أدب ʾadab, and I thought that LH readers would be interested in a summary of what I found.

    The general view on the etymology of ʾadab is stated in the first paragraph of the article here in the Encyclopædia Iranica:

    In modern Arabic usage the term adab (plur. ādāb) denotes “literature,” but in classical Islam it was applied only to a limited range of literary works. Nearly all arabists have accepted that it derives from the plural ādāb of daʾb, which means manner, habit, condition, state, or behavior

    This account of the origin of the word was perhaps first proposed by Karl Vollers, footnote 1, p. 180, here. The same view is found in Carlo Alfonso Nallino (1950) La littérature arabe : des origines à l’époque de la dynastie umayyade, trad. Ch. Pellat, p. 13 (quoted in Salah Natij (2019) ‘Le concept d’adab est-il dérivé du mot daʾb ? : retour sur une hypothèse ancienne de Vollers et Nallino’, Journal of Arabic Literature 50, pp. 342–368):

    on sait que dans la poésie antéislamique le mot daʾb revient fréquemment et que son sens de “usage, continuation d’une habitude” n’est pas loin de celui de sunna et d’adab. Quoique son pluriel ne soit pas mentionné dans les dictionnaires, il n’est pas invraisemblable que les Arabes aient formé un pluriel ādāb, c’est-à-dire de type afʿāl, avec allègement de la hamza et, en compensation, l’allongement de la voyelle initiale, comme biʾr pl. ābār, thaʾr pl. āthār… et raʾy pl. ārāʾ. Puisque la bonne conduite et la bonne éducation consistaient seulement à conserver les usages louables hérités des ancêtres, ils employèrent peut-être le mot ādāb dans le sens de tels usages, c’est-à-dire de la sunnah louable. Puis, avec le temps, de ce pluriel d’usage commun, fut dérivé une nouvelle forme pour le singulier, c’est-à-dire adab.

    (biʾr is ‘well (of water, in the ground)’, thaʾr is ‘revenge, retaliation (as in a blood feud)’, and raʾy is ‘view, opinion’)

    Arabic daʾb itself belongs to the root dʾb, ‘strive, toil, perservere’ which probably has a cognates in Hebrew dʾb ‘languish, pine away, grieve, be sad’ (qal 3rd fem. sg. perf. דָאֲבָה dāʾăbāh Ps 88:10; entry in Klein here, for example) and Aramaic dʾb ‘be weak, languish’. Another cognate is perhaps attested in Ḥaḍramitic, in an inscription from Sumhuram (Khor Rori) containing the sequence wdʾb, which A.F.L. Beeston has interpreted as ‘and he worked’ in this instance. For the semantic connection seen between the Arabic on the one hand and the Hebrew and Aramaic on the other, compare Greek κάμνω, both ‘work, toil’ and ‘be weary, suffer, be distressed, be sick’ and Latin labōrō (with English to labor).

    (As for other etymologies of ʾadab, I have no idea what the Wiktionary is on about here in its etymology of ʾadab:

    From the root ء د ب‎ (ʾ-d-b), from Persian دب‎ (dab), ultimately from Sumerian 𒁾 (dub).

    Which Persian دب dab is this? There is a Persian dab, apparently ‘custody, charge’. (The entry in Johann August Vullers’ dictionary here.) But this word seems rather rare and is perhaps localized in Khuzestan. Is this the word intended in the Wiktionary entry? However, I don’t immediately see how Arabic ʾadab could come from this. The morphophonology is difficult, and the semantic connection doesn’t immediately impose itself, either. And I also don’t see why this Persian word dab should ultimately be from Sumerian dub ‘tablet’ (presumably via Akkadian ṭuppu).)

  24. Thanks for that, and I too find the Wiktionary etymology dubious.

  25. In the history I see that someone at some point added “the Kufic language” before “Sumerian”, with the comment “Kufic comes from Melchizedek(as) taught to Ibrahim(as) that old language sumeria not make that language”. That got promptly reverted.
    The Persian/Sumerian are still unexplained.

  26. dubious

    𒈾𒀸𒍝 𒁺𒍑𒃰𒋫 𒈾𒀸𒍝 𒄩𒄴𒄯𒀸𒋫
    Našza duškatta našza ḫaḫḫaršta
    (Hittite, ‘He rejoiced and laughed’.)

    I am going to repurpose your joke all the time in class after this.

Speak Your Mind