Yahia Lababidi proves aphorisms are alive and well

Posted on January 30, 2012

0


As written for The National, UAE (January 30, 2012) 

To merely call the Egyptian-Lebanese author Yahia Lababidi a “poet” would be like heinously dedicating a blank notebook to a specific purpose – limiting the many possibilities of potential expression to just one.

For Lababidi is not just a rhapsodist, but also an essayist, and even more definitively, one of a dying breed of aphorists.

The term isn’t familiar to many, and understandably so, as aphoristic maxims or “wisdom literature” is a literary genre of expression nearing extinction.

Although the origins of which appear to date back to the ancient civilisations of India and France, aphorisms are understood to be pithily written statements reflective of a truth or observation of the writer, applicable to the reader as something timeless.

Lababidi’s first published book, a collection of aphorisms titled Signposts to Elsewhere, was named Book of the Year by the Independent UK in 2008. He has since established himself, among the esteemed company of notable wordsmiths of the likes of Khalil Gibran and Sun Tzu, as the only contemporary Arab writer in James Greary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists.

So how does one go about compiling a self-composed collection of adages?

“Prior to my move to the US from Egypt, I was an obnoxious, loud and frivolous human being,” Lababidi admits. “So on impulse, I would feel this need to go on occasional ‘silent fasts’, to cleanse myself from all the ‘noise’ I’d made previously. I just wanted to try being quiet for a bit.”

Signposts to Elsewhere is probably seven to 10 years’ worth of thoughts produced as a result of this contemplation. For me, they are quotations of conversations with myself, the resulting echoes of my own silence even, which I thought were worth documenting.

“Admittedly, I was in the right company from the very beginning,” says Lababidi, as he recalls rubbing shoulders even as a young boy with the renowned Egyptian playwright Yusuf Idris, in one of many literary salons his parents would host to entertain the elite bookish circles of Cairo. “Yet even at the time, I never once predicted that I would turn out to be a writer.”

What then, does it take, for a critically acclaimed essayist to find the conviction to get to where he is now?

“I was actually first employed for 10 years as a speech writer for the UN office in Cairo. It was a comfortable profession, but one comes to realise that politics, wherever you go, is a dirty game of compromise,” he says.

“It started to bother me when I realised that I was the one writing speeches that were the vehicles of said compromise. That feeling of leading a double life was my cue, after 33 years of living in Egypt, to pack up and leave for Washington.”

Following Signposts to Elsewhere, Lababidi published Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, a collection of literary and cultural essays, and just last year Fever Dreams, a compilation of poetry, including even a few timely dedications to his troubled birthplace.

“I personally have never understood this need for belonging to one country, but at the same time I couldn’t quite fiddle while Egypt burnt. So although I don’t usually dabble into political literature, I couldn’t help writing about Cairo and the revolutions of the Middle East in Fever Dreams.”

More recently, however, Lababidi was invited to serve as the youngest-ever member of the jury for the 2012 Neustadt Prize, an honour he regards as the high point of his career, especially considering that the award is widely understood to be the most prestigious international literary prize after the Nobel Prize.

“Literature is so extremely hard to classify and recommend,” he points out. “And although my nominee, Irish novelist John Banville, was tipped to win the award, I have no qualms that Rohinton Mistry was granted the honour this year.

“In fact, the laureate for the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, Tomas Transtromer, is a 2005 Neustadt Prize winner. I’m a big fan of his work, and in my opinion, he deserved the Nobel nod 20 years ago.”

Having commented recently as one having resided in both the US as well as the Middle East, Lababidi seems to have found that despite their many differences, the Americans have found much to relate with the Egyptians, particularly during the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.

“It’s at times like these that it becomes inescapably clear how people are people, everywhere, and that we take courage from one another. Injustice is antithetical to human nature and courage is catching. The way that the fire from a burning man in Tunisia seemed to set an entire region aflame.”

Advertisements