TRIAL BY INK
A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi
By Tyler Malone
The English word “essay” came from the French word “essai,” which means “a trial” or “an attempt.” It was first used in the way we define it today (as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject”) by Michel de Montaigne, when he penned his Essais in the 16th century. He saw these pieces as “attempts” at putting down his thoughts into written form, hence the title.
Yahia Lababidi, an Egypt-born writer, currently living in the United States, has just released his first collection of essays. These are, like those of his predecessor Montaigne, attempts at putting down his thoughts into written form. It is fitting then, that the collection is called Trial by Ink. He writes in his introduction to the book, “These are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and my pen across paper, to determine what I think about a given subject.” The subjects are admittedly quite varied. To give you a clue at what a diverse set of topics we’re talking about here, the subtitle of the collection is “From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing.” And that only hints at the breadth of subjects. Everything seems to be up for debate: from Michael Jackson to Bartleby the Scrivener, from Susan Sontag to Ramadan. Though the topics vary widely, one thing remains constant: Yahia’s fascination with the subjects and his depth of insight–both of which serve to make this book a surprisingly quick read, a true page-turner (something collections of essays so rarely are). When you’ve finished the book, you get the sense you know Yahia. You feel you’ve had conversations with him, and not specifically about the subjects he directly discusses in his essays, but just in a general sense.
I hadn’t had any conversations with him, of course–I had only read his essays–but when we did get a chance to chat, I felt like I was talking to an old friend. It was like talking with someone who you don’t know much about, because you’ve been out of touch, but with whom you have some sort of connection. Seeing as this issue is our Global Issue, I thought I’d start by asking about global politics and everything that is going on in and around the country where he was born (Egypt).
Tyler Malone: I know this is an idiotically broad question, but just to get us started, I may as well ask it as simply and plainly as possible: what are your thoughts on the current political situations going on in the Middle East: in Egypt, in Libya, in Pakistan, in Iraq?
Yahia Lababidi: More feelings than thoughts, and hard to summarize. At the outset, let me say that, for as far back as I can recall, I’ve prided myself on being apolitical. I justify this by thinking that an artist, or philosopher is a citizen of no community and, in my defense, cite Einstein’s line about nationalism being ‘an infantile disease…the measles of mankind.’ So, I half expected I’d carry on fiddling while Rome burnt so to speak…yet I will admit that I’ve never felt more Egyptian than I do now. Time came to an absolute standstill for me during those 18 historical days of the Egyptian Revolution and I continue to be surprised by how affected I am by what’s been called The Arab Spring.
Here are a couple pieces that I wrote at the beginning of these upheavals that speak me better than myself and pretty much sum up my feelings regarding Egypt, and the region:
Daring to Care: Notes on the Egyptian Revolution
What is to Give Light (a poem).
Obviously, as an Egyptian, I am more familiar with the Egyptian situation than say Pakistan, but I think the broad lines are similar. Enough is too much. What is now happening is necessary, and long overdue. People in the region are looking over their shoulders and taking courage from one another. It’s about putting an end to injustice and the pursuit of home-made Freedom. I see it as a form of global climate change, and all these dinosaur/dictators are becoming extinct.
Drunk on Freedom, the People finally stood up to confront their bogeymen (Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria). Now comes the hangover: everyday hard work of reasserting freshly-minted values & forging a new reality.
I’m NOT fool enough to think change will come immediately or smoothly. But, I maintain it was necessary and overdue…
TM: In the two weeks from when we first discussed this interview to now actually doing it, one major event in global politics has happened: Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals. Any thoughts on this?
YL: Well, to begin with I’m not so sure how major of a global event it was. Yes, an indefensible, dangerous man has been…eliminated. But, do I think the world a safer place and the celebrations in good taste? No. Really, what closure does the death of one man bring, 10 years later, and at what cost, morally and politically? Speaking of Osama Bin Laden’s death, Chris Hedges goes back to the response to 9/11 and makes a very fine point, I think, when he says: “the tragedy was that if we had the courage to be vulnerable, if we had built on that empathy [from around the world], we would be far safer and more secure today than we are…I despair that we as a country, as Nietzsche understood, have become the monster that we are attempting to fight.”
Of course, I understand the sense of relief Americans have that a monster has been brought to justice, and I share in it. But, again at what cost? The loss of innocence on the part of America, the erosion of civil liberties, the human cost abroad and at home is vast.
Immediately after the news of his death, even while the fist pumping and chest thumping was taking place, the news was bleating that we should be afraid, again, very afraid, of retalliation. Long windy sigh.
It’s this culture of suspicion I lament–’see something, say something’…’even if it’s a member of your own family’ the talking head qualified. That level of basic lack of trust in our fellow man/woman simply can’t be a good thing…
TM: My last global/political question before we get on to specifically discussing your new book: I know it is kind of a broad question, but since in your writings you both discuss American pop culture and Middle Eastern traditions and ways of life, I’m just curious how you see in general the culture clash between the Muslim world and the West?
Again, wording is key to how we understand things. I don’t see there being a “clash” between cultures. If there is misapprehension I don’t think it helpful to set it up between the Muslim world (where is that, who is that?) and the West (by that do you mean the Christian World?). Moderate Muslims, and there are a fair amount of them in the Arab world and beyond obviously, have denounced acts of terrorism/terrorists and suffer the consequences more than the West.
Likewise, what does it mean to wage a war on Terror? Again, unequal terms. I better understand the term “invasion” of countries, like Iraq, for example. But a “war” on terror is absurd, and unfortunately such military occupations have done more to engender hatred and acts of terror than anything else. At heart, I believe violence (in thought, feeling, action) is a kind of cliche: the response that is nearest at hand. We must all try to reach further. Or, as Martin Luther King put it: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”
TM: I couldn’t agree more. In the preface to your new book of essays Trial by Ink, you speak of Montaigne’s Essais (a word which in French means “trials”). Can you expound on this concept of essays as “trials by ink”? And explain why you chose that as your title for this collection?
YL: Well, as Montaigne set out to interrogate and discover himself through his essays/trials, so I am attempting to evaluate what I care for, and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture throughout this book. I wrote about different matters that interested me, or in which I felt somehow implicated, to figure out what I thought of a given subject. In that sense, the essays are personal trials and a form of mental autobiography. Also I like the double meaning of the word “trial.” For, just as I am evaluating what I make of this or that personality or cultural tic, so I am being put on trial myself for what I believe in and stand for.
TM: You are a poet in addition to an essayist–how do you see the relationship between those two different modes of writing?
YL: Poetry and essays express different aspects of myself, I suppose. Probably not the most wholesome practice to divide oneself thus, but I think my mind is behind the essays, whereas the poetry is more a matter of the heart (in the sense that my prose is more concerned with the analytical and intellectual, whereas in my poems I tend to more emotional issues). But, of course, it’s not so cut and dry, and not entirely of my choosing either. I do believe in the secret life of ideas and words. By this I mean their mysterious ability to choose how to dress themselves–say, in poetry or prose–before they address the world.
TM: What made you decide to write a book on such diverse topics? Was it a conscious decision to talk about everything “from Nietzsche to Belly Dancing” as the subtitle of your collection says? Including Michael Jackson and Morrissey? And Ramadan? And Susan Sontag? Or did these disparate subjects just happen organically?
YL: It just happened organically. These are the contents of my head, and the disparate parts my world is composed of. What you have before you is a catalogue of interests, obsessions, and even passing enthusiasms, derived from what I was thinking, reading, watching, dreaming and living over a seven-year period. I do feel if one is engaged in the story they’re telling, the reader picks up on that sense of involvement and discovery. Whether I happen to be writing about pop culture or spirituality, I feel an intimacy for the subject matter and suspect that I stand to learn something essential about myself.
TM: Though the subjects seem scattershot, there is some order to their presentation. Part One is “Literary Profiles & Reviews,” Part Two is “Studies in Pop Culture” and Part Three is “Middle Eastern Musings.” You mentioned earlier that you wrote on topics in which you “felt somehow implicated.” Do you feel that these three sections put together define you in some way?
YL: Yes. Generally speaking, I think I wrote this book to communicate my enthusiasms, the things I care about in literature and culture, in the hopes that others would, too. The third section, on the Middle East, is concerned with the contradictions that bristle side by side in the region: sex and celibacy, superstition and tradition, etc. I do think Art can be a form of cultural diplomacy, and would like to think that a more careful examination of another culture, from an insider’s point of view, might lead to a more sympathetic understanding of it. So, there’s also that aspect of it.
Having made the US my home lately (for the past five years) I find that I am more engaged now with teasing out the truths and contradictions embedded within American culture, trying to inspect the national character at closer range.
But, more than anything else, what informs my work I believe are the books I’ve read, and most of those are neither Arab nor American, but more likely European (albeit in English translation).
TM: What are your thoughts on the classic high vs. low culture debate? Obviously you discuss topics from both sides of that argument in this book, so do you see that binary as a false one? Is everything equal? Or is there a hierarchy in art?
YL: I’m a generalist, I guess, and don’t recognize the distinction, really. So that along with my literary heroine, Susan Sontag, I also feel compelled to declare: “I am–for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture…If I’d had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then–of course–I’d have chosen Dostoyevsky. But did I have to choose?” Thankfully, I did not have to choose, either. In this collection of essays, I am able to share my passion for European thinkers and pop music–collapsing (false) distances and seeking to make connections between cultures–thereby getting to think out loud on everything that captivates me “from Nietzsche to belly-dancing.”
So, I think a generalist reader would enjoy a collection like this. Someone like comedian Russell Brand, whom I very much admire, and who seems equally fond of Wilde and Morrissey, for example.
TM: As a writer, I’d be curious to know who some of your favorite writers are: essayists, poets, novelists?
YL: A lot of formative influences I discuss in my Trial: Nietzsche and Rilke are certainly up there. Contemporary essayists: I hold James Wood in the highest regard; Camille Paglia I think of as a kind of heir to Susan Sontag; Adam Gopnik and Daniel Mendelson are a delight. I don’t read much contemporary fiction, I confess, but as a novelist, I think John Banville is a marvel, and in a league of his own: poet & essayist rolled into one.
TM: What is next for you? Are you working on poetry or essays more these days? Ever consider venturing into a longer form, such as the novel?
YL: I wish that I could write a novel, but I’m afraid I don’t have the breath (or perhaps the imagination) for that. I fantasize about writing a play one day, maybe even trying to collaborate on one. For now, I’m in the process of readying a poetry collection, Fever Dreams, to be published by Crisis Chronicles Press, very soon. You can get a peek at some of the poems included in that collection on my Youtube Channel.
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-born poet and essayist, currently living in the United States. He is the author of two critically-acclaimed books: Signposts to Elsewhere–a Book of the Year, 2008, The Independent (UK)–and Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing.
Yahia Lababidi by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Jeremy Johnson, Dan Larson, Diana Restrepo / All Courtesy of Yahia Lababidi
Design by Marie Havens
Yahia Lababidi, DC, Photography by Jeremy Johnson / Courtesy of Yahia Lababidi
Yahia Lababidi, DC, Photography by Jeremy Johnson / Courtesy of Yahia Lababidi
Yahia Lababidi, FL, Photography by Dan Larson / Courtesy of Yahia Lababidi
Yahia Lababidi, International Poetry Festival in Bratislava, Slovakia, Photography by Diana Restrepo / Courtesy of Yahia Lababidi