Book Talk: Rakha sees Egypt through poets’ eyes in ‘The Crocodiles’

Structured in prose poem-like paragraphs, "The Crocodiles" explores the relationship between literature and politics in Egypt through the lives of the members of a secret poets' society set up in Cairo in 1997.
The book mixes fiction and reality through events from the mid-1990s up to 2011 in the build up to Egypt's revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.
Youssef Rakha, the Egyptian poet, writer, reporter, photographer and author of the book talked to Reuters at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair about his novel.
Q: You started writing "The Crocodiles" prior to the 2011 uprising but finished it after events unfolded. What was your inspiration for writing the book?
A: I wanted to answer a question, mainly what it means to be a poet in a place like Egypt. This brings in the idea of politics as a lot of literary life in Egypt was linked to politics and to activism.
I started to do that and then this "thing" happened and I stopped working for a month or so as it was a very affecting event and obviously I took part in it and I was moved by it.
But I wouldn't say it is a focus of the book it is more a context or a framework. The book isn't about what happened in 2011 it is about poets and Egyptian history and the history of Egyptian intellectuals within this time frame.
Q: There seems to be a cynical view in the book of Egyptian intellectuals, why is that?
A: It's not necessarily intentional cynicism. It's not that I sat back and decided to be cynical about them but obviously you go through things and you see things and I think particularly in the build up to and during the "revolution" I could see the failure of this circle, not only in its divorce from wider society but also in the way that they reprocessed problems and reproduced them in a different language.
It's this idea that when you have a society that is extremely conservative and you have a group of people within that society trying to be at the cutting edge or outside of it, what you end up with is really nothing at all.
Q: Is this part of why you think the Arab Spring has failed to move society more towards democracy?
A: If the Arab Spring proved anything it is that the problem is not just despotism. The problem is much bigger than that and whatever political problems and problems of governance you have are actually reflections of wider problems in society rather than the cause of the deficiencies in society.
This was not something, however, we could have known without what happened. 

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