ART CHECK

Yahia Lababidi as the voice of our global uncertainties

Here is the wayfarer who transits between spaces of differences and spheres of otherness

In Summary

• The book is a magnetic collection of essays and conversations

Yahia Lababidi
Yahia Lababidi
Image: LOGAN WERLINGER

A fortnight ago, I did a review on the aphoristic poetry of Jacob Oketch. This encounter with his rare form of verse opened another door to me this week. I received an email with a Kindle copy of a book by the increasingly famous writer of Egyptian and American heritage, Yahia Lababidi. He is famous for his poetry written as aphorisms and epigrams of truths.

Many in this part of the world have not heard of him before. Yet many still are aware of the centrality of Egypt in the affairs of the North of Africa. Is this not the land that gave us the 1988 Nobel Prize of Literature in the form of Naguib Mahfouz?

Is this not the home of Mo Salah, the legendary footballer from the land of the Pharaohs? Is this not the home of the famous novel God Dies by the Nile by Nawal el Saadawi? Kenyans remember the dramatic deposing of the late Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak as one of the climax of the Arab Spring.

 
 

However, few are aware of the current phases and faces of Egyptian literature. This could explain why some of the rising international writers like Yahia Lababidi remain peripheral even to the corridors of Africa literature today. The Maghreb is rarely viewed as a literary landscape by many a sub-Saharan African readership.

Be it as it may, here is an alluring author whose newest gem, Revolutions of the Heart, has just been published by Wipf and Stock. The book is a magnetic collection of essays and conversations. It treats a cross-section of themes at the nexus of literature, social activism and spirituality.

His books are available from wwww.amazon.com in Kindle format. Amazon is the largest global bookstore today. Barely There is a mix of epigrammatic and aphoristic poetry that excite the reader with both stylistic brevity and pith of purpose.

Signposts to Elsewhere (2019) is an anthology of aphorisms in verse that was selected once as a book of the year by British media. It follows on the aesthetic path of the earlier work of the same poet, titled Where Epics Fail. It was published a year later.

Many know the famous American poet Richard Blanco as the one whose poetry animated the second inauguration ceremony of President Barrack Obama. He once quipped about the exquisite verse of Lababidi thus: Aphorisms are ancient as poetic forms, their current master is this troubadour from Egypt. 

Book cover
Book cover
Image: COURTESY

In Revolutions of the Heart, we are reminded of the grammar of change that is captured in the annals of recent history, in terms of leadership changes that swept across the Arab World and North Africa at the start of the last decade. The Arab Spring remains one of the major disruptive and eruptive moments of Arab society in the 21st Century.

It is important that we remember the intertextuality and inter-medialities that inform literary production in these post-modern times. Texts and contexts are in constant locutions and interlocutions. The vibrations of significations they emit signal the trends of traditions and transitions from here to abroad.

 
 

To read this new book by Lababidi is to harness insights of precious value. In over 250 pages, the poet ponders on the nature of modern society and modern man using the prisms of conscience and consciousness, and concisely so. 

His hyphenated lenses as an Egyptian-American offers him a standpoint of unique nature. Out of this location, he enlightens his readers with topics that range from Rimbaud to Islam. Cultism, spirituality, sexuality, journalism and patriotism continue the retinue of issues captured in Revolutions of the Heart.

Lababidi invokes the muse from lands of the Pyramids and the Statue of Liberty with effortless dexterity. This is evident both in his sublime interpretation of the complex topics mentioned above. To read him is to pause and reflect on the nature of now. What is this now? Now becomes a moment that splits into several slivers, with each shining a truth unique yet universal in equal measure.

Sublimely, in the poem “The Deranged Snowman” (p. 264), the poet captures this infinite instance of revelation thus: Marooned on foreign land, his heart had turned to ice/and the snowed upon man could only blame the weather/Immigrant, militant, belligerent . . . they cried/ when he tried to blend in with other snowmen.

For me, here is a case of the wayfarer who transits between spaces of differences and spheres of otherness. In this traffic of the self and its internal elements, the gravity of dislocation announces itself as a violence. It is with such measures of tiny violences that Lababidi articulates the fractures of the common world.

In his newest book, Yahia Lababidi becomes a voice that textualises and articulates the grains of our own silences in the wake of a world wobbling on but with much uncertainties. We co-opt his tongue of words as a canvas upon which our motions of modernities engrave themselves violently.

The book is available online from www.amazon.com and from the poet himself at [email protected]

Dr JKS Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University