Format: Mixture of field-notes and interviews
Interlocutor: Mr. Rasheed Al-Muthafar
So commences my first evening in Multaqa. I arrived towards the end of the night. However, the city, from what I could discern from the plane was wide-awake with vengeful and florescent eyes scattered across its landscape. At ten pm, I entered the arrivals terminal and watched clerks dressed in all shades of burgundy approach clients with fanciful merchandise. From Iranian saffron packaged in gold-inlaid boxes to a frivolous assortment of perfume. A man with sea-green eyes approached me and asked with a soft Lebanese accent: May I offer you a Tom Ford perfume customized for Multaqa? The perfume blotter was small though the scent lingered on it in a spectacular manner and I felt transported to a Damascene wedding hall covered in gardenias and jasmine.
I could not afford this olfactory experience and as I looked around, I wondered if I had enough grant money to guarantee a year of decent living. The University of Michigan awarded me thirty thousand dollars in doctoral research money, half of which I already spent on rent. Multaqa is not easy on the pockets for a researcher. In the past twenty years, it had become one of the richest city-states in the world, sitting over wells and wells of natural gas. When I lived in Kuwait during my father’s time as a US consular there, Multaqa had just gained its independence. Kuwaitis often ridiculed Multaqa, viewing it as a provincial town with ramshackle buildings perched over turquoise beaches. Not anymore. A small town that slept through the Gulf War is now a metropolis entrenched in all sorts of politics and wealth.
Exiting the airport, I waited in the taxi pickup line as a number of locals headed to their Bentleys. The options were numerous though none was affordable. One representative offered me a chauffeured BMW service and another offered me a cheaper option, which was a Mercedes. In the U.S., I promised myself never to take an Uber though now I succumbed to my financial pitfalls and saw it as a last resort. I ordered an Uber, which was a Toyota Corolla and it arrived in a manner of seconds. I sat back in the car and a metal screen separated me from the driver. A few minutes in, a video played and a woman with a British accent spoke in an assured tone: Welcome to the Multaqa of all, we wish you a pleasant journey. Your driver’s name is Adnan and he is from Morocco. For your safety and convenience, we ask that you do not converse with the driver. In case of an emergency, please press the burgundy button on your left.
Sitting back, unable to converse or introduce myself to Adnan, I thought about my upcoming research on censorship. I fidgeted with my phone as a small panic began to take hold of my body. I needed to ensure the government was not alerted to the more investigative scope of my research, which on official records was “to put the systems and literature of Multaqa on the international stage.”
I arrived at the hotel and a man in a light brown jellabiya greeted me: Asalamu Alaykum. Some coffee with cardamom? The hotel was Burj Eleganté in Porto Arabia, a district designated for foreign arrivals conducting short-term business or research in Multaqa. A dull beige color oozed out of every inch of the tower’s exterior, making it indistinguishable from the sandy shore that lay outside of it. The Burj’s lobby had a hugely circular fountain adorned with hundreds of purple orchids and a strong scent of jasmine filled the air until I sneezed. A tall woman dressed in a jet-black suit breezed through the lobby and introduced herself to me, “Hello Mr. Jamal. I am Maysa, the happiness controller at Burj Eleganté. We have been awaiting your arrival and put you up in the nomad room,” she said as she waved at the bellhop to take the bags. “Well I am quite happy to be here,” I said. Maysa did not offer a smile indicating that she was not very appreciative of my joke. She escorted me to my room, which was small, but comfortable. It had a view of the towers, sitting in a vast and multi colored sky. One was shaped as a needle covered in different geometric patterns and another was designed as a tornado covered in blue glass. There were about twenty of them, staring back at me like cloaked guards.
I woke up the next morning at 4 A.M. overcome with jetlag. I decided to jot down notes in preparation for my first interview of the day with Mr. Rasheed Al-Muthafar, the head of the censorship department. I anticipated the interview with a mixture of glee and dread. It was a great opportunity for research, but I had to tread with caution in order not to jeopardize the project itself.
After finishing breakfast, I decided to walk to my meeting. Burj Eleganté was located a short walk away from the Ministry of Culture though Maysa insisted that a five-minute walk “is an eternity in this heat!” The street was lifeless, but grand. I navigated a vast avenue in which different marble colonnades shaped and shaded my pathway. Arriving at the ministry, drenched in sweat, I realized that I should have taken Maysa’s advice. As I combed the moisture out of my hair, I was struck with the architecture of the ministry, which towered over me like a vengeful god. A short and rectangular building lay in the middle as two arches, covered in glass, emerged from each side and met at the end, forming a half circle. In the middle of it, a number of swords spelled out the name “Multaqa” in a sunk relief. Four smaller beige buildings surrounded the ministry with and with their staired exteriors created the allure of a Mayan temple. The buildings were labeled as “security lots” with assigned numbers.
As I inched closer to the entrance, a robotic and nasal voice asked me to stand back. The screen then kept flashing in red as the phrase “await authentication” appeared. A raspier voice creeped its way through the screen and said, “Visitor 12, the authenticator will be right with you and grant you access.” A few minutes later, a man in a crisp navy-blue suit emerged as he hovered an access card over the screen and said:
“Yes, that’s me.” I answered.
“Welcome to the Ministry of Culture! I am the floor authenticator, Omar. Mr. Rasheed is eager to meet you. He is currently in a meeting and will be with you shortly. I will escort you to our Buraha garden where your interview will be held.”
“Garden? It’s a bit hot to conduct an interview outside no?” I inquired while trying not to sound too presumptuous.
“Oh don’t worry. We built our Buraha with ‘cool pool’ technology. It is currently 46 degrees Celsius in Multaqa, but in our garden, it is 26. We have our engineers to thank for that and Allah. In the meantime, make yourself comfortable on our couch. Can I get you a drink?” he asked.
“Some water would be great. May I ask, what is a floor authenticator?” I replied.
“Ah yes, it must be a strange term to you. It means I am in charge of authenticating any visitor entering the ministry and ensuring that all the workings are in line with our country’s vision. Nothing to worry about,” he replied as he gestured at a waiter to get some water.
I sat in the lobby and felt columns rising in my chest. I pressed in the middle of my left palm and attempted to calm my breath before the interview. Looking up, a number of metal rods resembling tree branches hung from the roof. Glass birds colored in yellow, red and white sat on each branch. The branches came together in the middle and formed the Arabic phrase Bismillah, in the name of God. In front of me was a large hologram of the Minister of Culture planting seeds in a pot that spelled the word Thaqafa on it. The seeds then blossomed into a scene of little kids with some running around and others reading books. The black carpet under my feet had various Arabic words embroidered on it in white. From Almajd to Almustaqbal, which together in their delicate and intricate calligraphy alluded to a glorious future. The upper floors of the ministry were laid out in the form of transparent cubes. Looking up to my right, I saw a number of men convening a meeting and looking up to my left, I saw service staff cleaning a room. Omar interrupted my staring and said, “All our offices were designed with transparency in mind. Our Minister, guided by the truth, did not want anyone to be behind closed doors.” “Wonderful,” I said. “Mr. Rasheed is ready for you now in the Buraha, shall we?” Omar asked.
Entering the Buraha, a fresh breeze caressed my cheeks and a cool mist followed my motion. The Buraha was grand in a ritzy manner and had five luscious banana trees growing out of its gray concrete. The weather was just perfect like a Californian afternoon in February. A sound of water created an atmosphere of serenity, as it flowed out of a sculpture shaped like an open book. Mr. Rasheed sat in the middle of the Buraha under a canopy of fumes emitted from his cigar. He wore a white thobe, which revealed from its upper left pocket a silver Montblanc pen that shimmered in the faint garden light. Next to Mr. Rasheed, sat a woman wearing a light pink abaya that covered her body up to her shoulders. She tapped her fingers on her laptop as she watched me approaching them and sat tall in a way that indicated her provenance. My heart raced as I deflected my gaze away from her attempting to admire the lush greenery around me. As I got closer, Mr. Rasheed whispered something to the woman next to him and then looked at me and said “Mr. Jamal, the Lebanese-American researcher! To what do we owe this pleasure?” His voice was cavernous and confident indicating to me that he had a bit of demagoguery in him.
“The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much Mr. Rasheed for granting me this opportunity. I appreciate it,” I said as I firmed up my handshake. I sat down and Mr. Rasheed offered me a glass of water and said, “Coconut water from Zanzibar, where one of our food security projects is running. This is as pure as your intentions. It will hydrate you.” He laughed and his chuckles reverberated across the Buraha. The woman also laughed and so did Omar, but their laughs were nervous and rushed. Omar stepped on my foot as he hurried to move the ashtray, which was made of crystal and had a light olive tint that reflected our palms. He placed it next to Mr. Rasheed’s arm as he ashed his cigar, which emitted a woody and rubbery fragrance that interrupted the gardenia-like aroma of the Plumeria tree that towered over us. I relaxed into the scent as I remembered winter afternoons with my father in Kuwait, when he would smoke his cigars on Saturday. The woman noticed my brief daydreaming, clearing her throat and introducing herself, “I’m Katrina, the ministry archivist. I will be taking some notes as we speak.” “Sure thing,” I said as I took out my own notebook.
Mr. Rasheed drew deeply on his cigar and as he exhaled a long and musky breath, he took on a serious tone, opening his eyes as his forehead lines became more pronounced and said, “Anyways, shall we get down to business? I can give you an hour for the first round and then I have to head out to meet the minister.” “Of course, I don’t want to take up too much of your time,” I replied. I explained the scope of my research, asked if we could record the session and began the interview with Mr. Rasheed. The interview lasted a little over an hour, but it felt like a day spent in gripping conversation. His spellbinding rhetoric, wanton humor, and his steadfast belief in his country’s system, while problematic, captivated me. I had come here expecting a rigid interview with a bureaucrat. Instead, Mr. Rasheed often calmly paced across the Buraha and spoke with a cool assurance. I believe my readers at the University of Michigan will read this interview with utmost curiosity:
Can you tell me more about your work in the censorship department? What is its history and what is its main function now?
Well, the department was founded in 1972 under the patronage of Minister Hameed at the time. His vision transcended his time and he knew that our country was destined for a life beyond its blue shores and sandy dunes. When Minister Hameed stared at our humble corniche adorned with tired palm trees, he did not see Multaqa. He saw the future. He knew that one day our small coastal peninsula will carve out a metropolis so advanced that even Singapore would be envious. In his vision, Minister Hameed understood the importance of safeguarding tradition as we evolved into modernity. He asked the perennial question, what do we want our generation to read? You see, this office was a dusty and drab one back then, where bounded books were submitted to the censors and they would either annul their publication or omit harmful lines. I feel bad for the Egyptian men of the time who probably developed arthritis from the years they spent omitting lines by hand! Now, with the grace of God and with the wealth of our country, we have a much more robust and advanced system in place. I still review a small number of books, but most of our work is done through artificial intelligence. Manuscripts are submitted electronically and an algorithm reproduces a new version of it that we call “Multaqa-ready.” In the process, we remove illicit words, harmful rhetoric and discourse that contradicts the national vision. If the publisher agrees to the “Multaqa-ready” version, we happily sell and endorse it in all the government run bookstores. We have, thanks to god, worked and cooperated with publishers from across the globe from London to Taipei. A few weeks ago, I approved a “Multaqa-ready” version of The Count of Monte Cristo along with an exquisite Arabic translation. Nothing brings me more pleasure than providing my country’s people with culture and the truth.
Fascinating. Tell me more about the “Multaqa-ready” prototype. What defines illicit words and unlawful rhetoric?
Mr. Jamal, let me ask you this question. What belongs to you? Often, for us in this line of work, we ask ourselves what belongs to us. The ‘us’ here is my country’s men and women. I believe what belongs to them is a religious harmony, a trust in the national vision and a culture that has not fallen ill to sexual deviancy. Now you might look at me here, coming from the US and think I am a tad bit archaic. Though I will say this, what cultural benefit or progression occurs when we show a Netflix series that promotes homosexuality and pornographic encounters? I recently discovered this Vietnamese-American author called, Ocean Vuong, a strange name in fact. He has a new book of poetry called In this Space We Tremble. I read it and one of the poems was an elegy to interspecies love and fornication! Imagine if we put that in our bookstores. Trust me Mr. Jamal, our people themselves will rebel against it. They simply know it does not belong to them. Words are an authentication of the manner in which we live and individuals like Mr. Vuong represent a life that is not for us.
Mr. Rasheed often went on long tangents. I have edited the transcript here to highlight the key points from his interview. About thirty minutes in, Mr. Rasheed took a break to drink some water and light his cigar again. He asked Omar to get us some tamarind juice and stood up informing me that it was time for noon prayer. At a frenetic pace, Omar emerged again from the lobby, bringing with him a prayer mat and tamarind. Mr. Rasheed stood angling towards Mecca as Omar turned on a hologram of an Imam. The Imam led the prayer, speaking Arabic with a beautiful Syrian accent as I watched, perplexed. The Imam was quintessentially Aleppan and for a brief moment, it was as if I was transported to the Umayyad Mosque in Syria. He had deep blue eyes and pale white skin as smooth as porcelain. He spoke with a gentle fluidity pronouncing his Bismillah with a soft elegance. When he neared the end of the prayer, his voice took on a virile tone, praying for divine providence with a sincerity that made it seem that we were in some sort of immediate danger. Throughout the prayer, Katrina did not bat an eye, proceeding to work on her laptop. When it ended, Omar turned off the hologram as the Imam vanished into the thin air creating a poof sound. Mr. Rasheed wrapped up his prayer and his face wore a more serene and thankful look as his forehead lines eased and his eyes widened. He returned to his seat, drank a bit of the tamarind juice, and said, “I am not always able to make it to the national mosque due to work. However, that does not mean I will skip my prayers. A few years ago, our Ministry of Religious and Family Affairs issued a fatwa in which registered Imams can have holograms of themselves leading prayer. We are lucky to be living in such pertinent times. Now where we?”
Of course, I understand. You asked me what belongs to me. That is not an easy one to answer. I believe a confluence of worlds belongs to me. However, I want to bring this back to Multaqa and the future generation. How do they fit into this system? Do they inquire on why the publishing industry is administered in the way it is now?
I would not worry about our generation if I were you. We have given them everything. In fact, I would say we have given them the American dream, with an Arab flair. A villa, a free college education, a car and an abundance of utilities. We have over ten universities for a city of six million and the finest faculties of science and liberal arts. Our country’s people are not lacking in needs fulfillment. They are lacking in nurture. The latter we are still working on. Now, not having a copy of Lolita or a performance by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila does not mean we are teetering on a generational loss. It simply means we are putting our kids on a path in harmony with their traditional values and one that guarantees their fiscal success. You are an academic yourself and I am sure you know American history and the great strides the Protestants achieved in education. The Protestants often worried about society’s vices, family collapse and the impact moral deprivation has on culture. Would you have universities such as Harvard University without them? I believe not. Hence, we are on a similar path, but with the grace of God, we are charting it our own way.
Right, I see your point. Tell me more about yourself. You are clearly a cultured man and have a familiarity with the US? How did your background lead you to your current position?
Mr. Rasheed chuckled, adjusted his posture, took out a piece of paper and wrote Men in the Sun on it. He wrote it with a vigor as if this note intended to intensify our current reality. He then stared at me expecting an answer.
Men in the Sun?
Yes, that is the title of my favorite novel by the late Ghassan Kanafani. It is a treacherous and cruel journey in a desert on the outskirts of Kuwait. The whole novel feels like one constricted breath. So fast, so mechanical, it consumes me each time! You have to remember Mr. Jamal in order for me to censor I have to read. Hence, it should not surprise you that I am well read. Now, I have to stress that this is not an act of hypocrisy. My reading, even if enjoyable, does not pose a threat, though opening up a novel such as Men in the Sun to an entire society does. We are not interested in promoting books that incite discord and romanticize radical thought amongst our youth. It takes one flicker for the men in this city to parade around in their land cruisers and wreak havoc on the roads. I do not want that flicker to come from my department. Maybe twenty years from now, they will be ready to read it, arriving at it unharmed due to the trust they built in us. However, with our region being on the cusp of change on so many levels, it is not the time to be lazy with thought. We are orienting towards a tidal wave of success not towards pangs of defeat.
In terms of my life journey, well that is a long story, but I will give you the summary. In the eighties, I received a scholarship from the ruler at the time to pursue higher education in the United States. My family lived on the outskirts of Multaqa, in a border town, the Sekanniya, that no national government had demarcated as its own. It did not have much beyond small mud houses, some cattle and a shop that sold produce and Bahman cigarettes. One day a government official arrived and decreed that if the tribes of Sekanniya accepted to be under their rule, they would fund the men to go on educational expeditions in the U.S. It was at the same time that Multaqa was declaring its independence and demarcating its borders. Hence, it was important for them to cultivate the tribes’ trust.
My father accepted and by the grace of God, look where I am now! Now mind you my scholarship to the US was to study engineering at Arizona State University. However, while there, a Syrian professor by the name of Hamza took a fond interest in me and began introducing me to the literature of the Arabian Peninsula. I am ashamed to say that at the time, I did not even know we had writing coming out of our cities. Exploring the vast library of my university, I was particularly struck by Abdulrahman Muneef’s Cities of Salt and its commentary on oil and abuse of power in Saudi Arabia. Muneef is a true intellectual I must say. He does not write words or fables. Rather, he writes trajectories and builds epochs. Later on when I matured, I realized the dangers of Muneef’s writing for our insular societies and I disagreed with his ill-thought commentary on oil. Without our energy supply and the wisdom of our heads of state, you would not be sitting here in a building designed by Rem Koolhaas and my family would have remained idle, smoking Bahman cigarettes. So that is mainly it my friend.
Wonderful, thank you for that. I do appreciate your frankness. Now I am quite cautious of time and I will ask you this one last question until we continue the interview another day, if you agree. This question might be a tad bit technical, but I will ask it anyways. You are fortunate enough to be in an affluent country and surely, there is a segment of your society that is entrepreneurial and might be interested in opening bookstores. How do you reconcile their needs?
You are not an easy man, Mr. Jamal! I cannot divulge the information on our licensing and distributor practices in Multaqa. However, I will give you one example, in hopes that by the grace of god, it will suffice. Recently, a young girl came to me asking for a license to open an independent bookstore. I reminded her that we only have government run bookstores in Multaqa: Amana Books. She came back, all flustered, informing me that she has a degree in English literature from Duke University and that it’s the government’s duty to nurture her career. I kindly reminded her that we paid for her degree and that she has other pathways to fulfill her heart’s desires. Though I must say, I was in a pleasant mood that day and I decided to meet her half way. I gave her the option to ask the municipality for a café license. Then, I would authorize her café to have three shelves, which she can use to display books. After some hesitation, she agreed. A year later, she visited me to thank me for guiding her on to the right path. Not only did her cafe bring her more financial success than a bookstore, but she also had the honor of being one of the first to present books at a coffee shop! The café, Biblio Latte, is quite beautiful. You should visit it out while you are here! I recommend their specialty drink, the turmeric karak.
Mr. Jamal, I am sorry to say that I must head to a meeting soon and I will need to prepare my notes. It was so singular to chat with you and I look forward to the remaining parts of the interview. If you can please send the transcript to the authenticator, so I can review it later on. Now before I go, I must insist on hosting the next interview at my place. You cannot come to Multaqa without trying our famous Balaleet for breakfast!
Thank you so much for your kindness. All of this will be quite helpful for my research. If it is not any trouble, I will gladly come to your house for our second session.
I thanked Mr. Rasheed and as our eyes locked for a fleeting moment, I witnessed a certain opacity in his hazel eyes. He firmed his handshake and a little flame tingled my palm and then transformed into a fire that coursed through my body. Katrina interrupted us, giving me her email where I could send the transcript, for which I thanked her. I walked out of his office and saw Omar holding a bag in the manner of a Catholic school pupil. He gave it to me, patted my back and said, “A little welcome bag for you.” I thanked Omar and asked him for directions to the Biblio Latte cafe.
Sitting in the Uber, Mr. Rasheed and his absorbing personality gnawed on my mind. I fidgeted with my phone as I thought about every word he spoke. How can so much charm mask so much deceit? He had the seductive allure of an autocrat and the cadence of a fascist. With an uninterrupted ease, words flowed of his mouth and he rarely attempted to take a moment to breathe. At the cafe, I examined the bookshelf Mr. Rasheed licensed as I waited for my turmeric karak. The shelf had a copy of The Quran, The Count of Monte Cristo, an abridged Arabic version of Harry Potter books and a number of business and finance guidebooks. I sunk into my leather couch, opened the welcome bag, and found a traditional thobe with my name embroidered on it. Under the thobe was a book that had a portrait of Mr. Rasheed’s face as the title Hope is a Discipline hovered over his bushy eyebrows. I trailed the details of his face with my fingers as I stared back at his eyes and said: I cannot wait to encounter more of you.
Mohamad Khalil (MK) Harb is a queer writer from Beirut, Lebanon. He received his graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 2018 where he wrote an award-winning thesis on escapism in Beirut. His research practice lies at the intersection of architecture, literature and ethnography. MK currently serves as Editor-at-Large for Lebanon at Asymptote Journal, commissioning and writing pieces relating to Arab literature in translation. At Asymptote, he has worked on a range of topics from the queer lives of Arabic literature to ecological images of the desert in North African literature. His work has been published in BOMB Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic, Art Review Asia, Asymptote, Scroope Journal and Jadaliyya. He is currently working on a collection of short stories pertaining to the Arabian Peninsula. All his writing is available at mkharb.com