In Praise of Bawdy Words: When Bad Language Makes Good Works

Arab society expects its writers to use tasteful language and behave respectably, but not all comply. Foul phrases may horrify some readers, but the result is often great literature

In Praise of Bawdy Words: When Bad Language Makes Good Works
A Lebanese protester gives the middle finger to security forces during clashes in downtown Beirut on Aug. 8, 2020 / Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images

Egyptian poet Naguib Surour was tramping the streets of Cairo dressed in a tattered, filthy galabiyya (a long, loose-fitting garment), dragging a broomstick and talking to himself when, according to the story, an old friend spotted him from a taxi. The friend was Ragaa al-Naqqash, a prominent literary critic. Alarmed at the sight, Naqqash asked the driver to stop and pulled his friend into the taxi next to him. Despite his disheveled appearance, Surour turned out to be lucid. He inquired after another, far more successful poet — Salah Jahin — who, unlike him, had supported the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“He’s very depressed,” Naqqash sighed, referring to the effects on Jahin’s psyche of both Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Nasser’s death three years later. Surour responded with a vulgar sound. “So I wander around with the short end of the stick up my arse from Russia to Hungary to Egypt,” he said, “and they tell you he is depressed.”

Surour had a point. Jahin’s work was elegant and powerful, but it arose from the comfort and security of a successful man of letters who accepted the powers that be. Surour’s verses, on the other hand, came out of desperation and despair. They reflected the system’s lies and injustices, and their author’s unbending devotion to what he called his “knight’s heart … in love with the truth.” His poetry expressed raw emotions and often did so with expletives. The foul language was far from gratuitous, though. It was a way of telling uncomfortable truths. But he paid a price for his honesty because many preferred Jahin’s less jarring style of writing.

The Arabic word for literature, “adab” also means decorum — implying that good language and good manners are ultimately the same thing. But, aside from the delicate feelings and refined tastes so abundant in Jahin’s work, the Arabic literary canon has always had another strand, rich in profane scenes and blasphemous references. That kind of writing tears away the veil of propriety and derives its power from obscenity. In modern times it became a truer expression of fraught reality than decent, respectable literature ever could be. And there is no better example of that than the short, tragic life of Surour whose poetry shocked Egyptians through the 1960s and 1970s.

Surour was a lifelong dissident, repeatedly arrested and tortured for his views. As a young Marxist he dodged prison by traveling to Moscow on a graduate scholarship, only to fall afoul of the Soviet authorities after the Egyptian government terminated his scholarship, leaving him without an income. With his Russian wife, Sasha, and two children, he fled to Budapest. There he stayed until 1964, when friends secured his safe passage back to Egypt. His talent, they argued, was a national treasure.

On his return, Surour quickly found work with the government, which monopolized art and education. He became an actor, director and playwright at the Pocket Theatre. He also taught at the Institute for Theatre Arts. His family could not join him but, being Muslim, he didn’t have to divorce Sasha to marry a young actor and settle down with her in a comfortable apartment. At the age of 33, his life finally seemed to be coming together.

Alas, by 1969, Surour was convinced that his second wife was being unfaithful. Their divorce left him homeless. And when he wrote and staged a play condemning the Jordanian authorities’ war on the PLO — the 1970 events known as Black September — he became jobless too. With a history of depression and alcoholism, it was easy for Egypt’s secret police, the mukhabarat, to have him anonymously confined to the state mental asylum. Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, he was beaten and “treated” with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It was six months before his friends could locate him.

Up to this point Surour had been flamboyant and outspoken but not especially foul-mouthed. When his marital crisis came to a head, though, he started writing a series of “rubaiyat” (quatrains) — simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking — that flaunted the worst swear words in Egyptian Arabic:

I met a whore
Thinking she’d quit. No way!
A cancer — she wants more.
Her parts are marked “For play”

He continued adding verses until 1974, by which time it had turned into a 6,000-word tirade with the offensive title “Kuss Ummiyyat” — combining “umm,” the Arabic word for mother, and “kuss,” a vernacular term for vagina (which the poem used repeatedly).

After his 1971 encounter with Naqqash, Surour was interned again and again for mental and physical breakdowns, but he never stopped working. Although he managed to produce a number of successful verse plays, his epic swear-poem remains his most enduring legacy. Even today, nothing captures the sound and fury of the Nasser era quite like it. In its subversive energy and complete disregard for convention, it recalls Allen Ginsberg’s landmark “Howl.”

The poem has entered the canon of modern Egyptian letters, though half a century later it has still not been formally published. When mentioned in the media and in decent company, its title is shortened to “al-Ummiyyat” to avoid the expletive “kuss.”

The lack of any printed copies doesn’t seem to have troubled Surour, who no doubt realized that his work had the most impact when recited aloud. He also clearly sensed that informal cassette recordings would be the best way to preserve it. He never stopped reading it to parties of friends till he died following a diabetic coma in 1978, at the age of 46.

The “Ummiyyat” is not just dirty verse. It gets at the inhumanity of life in a police state: torture, mass surveillance, disinformation. Surour had been spied on by Egyptian colleagues who pretended to be his friends in Moscow. When he accused his second wife of infidelity, he was convinced that she, too, was reporting on him to the mukhabarat. A dual paranoia runs through the raw rage at the heart of the poem. Surour feels emasculated as well as watched. Though at times the work is over the top, the tragic-hero image he presents of himself is poignant. It is the voice of someone who truly has nothing left to lose.

Surour’s contemporary, Jahin, had also written quatrains in the vernacular style that were clearly brilliant and technically more polished, though perhaps not as compelling. Unlike Jahin, Surour had no illusions about Nasser being responsible for the disaster of the 1967 war. He, too, was patriotic, but he depicted the Egyptian homeland as a prone woman “with her legs open” to invaders. That’s even what she looked like on the map, he said — and the regime was happy to pimp her out.

Such grotesquery gave the “Ummiyyat” a fatalism and sincerity it wouldn’t otherwise have. Today it may sound misogynistic or homophobic, but that has less to do with the poet’s own attitudes than the culture he is part of. At heart it is a cry of pain. And that is why it still strikes a chord with disaffected Egyptians across classes, even those of them who aren’t old enough to be familiar with the Nasser era firsthand. In Surour’s deep and strangely polite-sounding voice, many recognize their fathers’ rage as well as their own frustrations.

At any given time, impolite adab expresses the most uncomfortable truths, those that are repressed by power or convention. It confronts what decent writing doesn’t dare come near. It calls things by their names, however unpleasant. It creates a stir by forcing people to face up to their deepest values and their betrayal of them. At any given time, there will be more coherent and more decent polemic. But, even when it doesn’t set out to be oppositional, work like Surour’s will always be more radical.

That is also the case with Abdel Hamid al Deeb, the man responsible for some of the most beautifully scandalous classical Arabic verses ever composed:

I had a cock that made the sirens swoon
Which rising like a lion rampant struck.

I meant to fuck time’s waxing, waning moon;
It fucked me — and fate has a bigger cock.

Deeb was the author of a long poem in the “tawil” meter, which was the 1930s equivalent of Surour’s “Ummiyyat.” Unlike Surour, though, Deeb had no tape recorder, and most of the poem is lost. It is known only from a few scattered verses, and even those are often misattributed to the ninth-century poet Abu Nuwas, the great “enfant terrible” of Abbasid poetry.

Deeb shares Abu Nuwas’ irreverence but without his archaic language or his sensual capacity for joy. Deeb’s poetry is always sad, but he was capable of dropping every possible inhibition in his writing. He suffered destitution and cocaine addiction, spending time in prisons and asylums. Dogged by debt and shame, he died in 1943 at the age of 44.

Despite the loss of his most famous poem, Deeb is part of the literary canon, with at least one critical biography that praises his poetic gift and grieves over his troubles. It contains a selection from his less shocking work and many references to the lost poem. His work has no overt political message, but it makes the case against poverty, injustice and philistinism with startling eloquence. The poet presents himself as a failed genius conspired against by both people and fate.

Deeb and Surour shared not only a lack of verbal inhibition but also a scandalous lifestyle. Even if their verses were free of foul language, the way they lived would still court controversy.

By reputation, if not always in fact, this is also true of a later group of fiction writers and prose poets collectively known as the “’90s generation.” Unlike Surour, they wrote in standard Arabic, but it was a far drier, simpler and more down-to-earth register of the language than most previous writers had used. ’90s writing gradually established itself as the default idiom of contemporary Arabic literature. The work itself is sometimes shocking, but that is not why it is relevant to the story of impolite adab: ’90s generation writers changed the image of the author as a stuffy purveyor of morality and patriotism — not least through their attitude toward sex and drugs.

Some women among them have been trailblazers in experimental living. Mona Brens, for example, is not only a writer of fiction but also a controversial academic who consistently challenges ideas about educated women. A chronicler of the revolution, she was a tongue-in-cheek presidential candidate in 2012 but faced suspension from her post at the University of Suez after posting pictures of herself in a bikini and a belly dance costume.

The brilliant poet Aleya Abdel Salam took many erratic turns as she moved from her village near Mansoura — via numerous locations on three continents — to the Red Sea resort Hurghada. Though now leading a quiet life in the hotel business, she still makes provocative statements. Abdel Salam described renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as “a cheat and a liar” in a Facebook post on the seventh anniversary of his death.

Abdel Salam wrote in a 1993 poem:

In the Metro, in the eyes facing me
I often realize that all I have is naked…
Where do I keep Anwar Kamel’s kiss
Which he gave me at the door of the Odeon?
Who’ll give me back what death took away from me?
Who will enjoy love, like me, under the domes of religion?

(Anwar Kamel is an older critic and activist who died in 1991. He was a widely revered pillar of left-wing politics in Egypt, in the same camp as Surour. The Odeon used to be one of downtown Cairo’s most popular movie theaters.)

While many of the ’90s generation writers have since joined the ranks of the respectable, Surour and Deeb are in a state of down-and-out suspension. Unlike Surour, Deeb is completely forgotten. He enters public awareness only through stray verses like those quoted above. The same can be said of a far earlier predecessor, Youssef al-Sherbini, who engaged in literary swearing and portrayed himself as an overlooked genius appalled at life’s mistreatment of him. In 1686, Sherbini published a satire of the “fellahin,” Egypt’s peasantry, almost as shocking as Surour’s poem. Like many older Arabic books, “Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded” (as the late Humphrey Davies translated its title) combines poetry and prose.

With a lot more humor than Deeb, Sherbini uses the peasants’ supposed ignorance as a pretext to swear, blaspheme and offer lurid descriptions of bodily functions. He is not as un-self-conscious as you might think. In his prologue he states that “buffoonery and profligacy” are the way to “stay in tune with one’s days.” In such times as these, he says, “none survive but those possessed of a measure” of them.

Sherbini feels relevant to present-day questions about identity, the role of art and freedom of expression. But even in literary circles, he, too, is virtually unknown. The prurient appeal of shocking writing seems to have done little to keep swearing in literary circulation. The only reason the “Ummiyyat” is relatively well known seems to be its political purview. Not only older but also more recent work in that vein remains obscure.

Between 2000 and 2007, when he died in a freak gas leak at the age of 33, a novelist named Mohamed Rabie — not to be confused with the author of “Otared” — wrote five works of fiction that were so shocking he never even attempted to have them published. Instead he printed them out and distributed photocopies by hand.

An admirer of Marcel Proust, Rabie revived the modernist technique of stream of consciousness. He used it to satirize the religiosity, conformity, sexism and sexual repression of the middle class with a rare expressionistic intensity. He also mixed spoken and written Arabic in arbitrary ways. Though often outrageously shocking, his prose is very readable.

More consciously than anyone mentioned so far, Rabie tackled God and genitalia in a way that makes his work both scandalous and courageous. It also makes it more relevant than most of what is published today.

After his death, Rabie’s writer friends sought to issue posthumous books of his novels, but his family refused — with the result that all five of them were made freely available online. They are still there but, apart from those same friends, to this day I don’t know anyone who has heard of them.

Perhaps this isn’t as surprising as it might appear. To those who know it, the “Ummiyyat” seems as famous as the Cairo Trilogy by the only Arab Nobel laureate for literature, Naguib Mahfouz. But, as one anecdote demonstrates, it is only really well known in literary and political circles. Surour’s half-Russian son, Shohdi, had set up one of the earliest Egypt-based websites, wadada.net, to post creative writing in three languages. In 2001 he posted some of his father’s work, including the first complete text version of the “Ummiyyat.”

Following complaints, the Egyptian police went looking for the author, unaware that the poet had been dead for 23 years. In the end they had to settle for arresting the poet’s son on charges of spreading indecency and offending public morality. Shohdi spent only a few days in custody before returning to Russia to dodge a one-year prison sentence in 2002. He died of lung cancer in Goa, India, in 2019. He was 57.

Offending against public morality is a criminal offense that has come up more frequently in Egypt since Shohdi was arrested. Swearing entered the public sphere with unprecedented vigor during the January Revolution because angry activists and satirists momentarily became freer and more visible. But in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief stint in power between 2012 and 2013 — when everyone was competing to appear virtuous — conservative attitudes redoubled.

Despite that, it’s hard to walk anywhere in Cairo today without hearing someone swearing. But the hypocrisy is such that in the public sphere people still like to pretend that swearing is taboo. They take issue with it in the arts especially, the assumption being that the artist’s job is moral instruction. In the mainstream media any perceived breach of convention can be deemed objectionable. It doesn’t matter how widespread, realistic or even morally valid that breach might be. The struggle becomes far more subtle in the ceaseless crusade by contemporary novelists from Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937) to Ahmed Naji (b. 1985) to expose the underside of what Egyptians say about themselves, and the words they use to say it. It is brave work, and costly. Ibrahim’s epoch-making novella, “That Smell,” was banned on its release in 1964. (The narrator has just been released from prison, though it is not clear what crime he committed, and the ineffable smell in question is a metaphor for his alienation — and the general malaise in which he finds society.)

Ibrahim was among the first to rally to Naji’s support when the younger writer’s second novel, “Using Life,” became the target of prudish scrutiny. Set in Cairo in the near future, “Using Life” is the conspiracy theory-inspired story of a young filmmaker who finds himself working for a global secret society that is about to wipe out the city with a view to building it anew. A kind of hybrid form incorporating illustrations by Ayman Zorkany, it combines fantastical science-fiction elements with gritty, say-it-like-it-is accounts of the lives of the young and the artistically inclined — accounts that involve explicit sex and the use of sexual vocabulary. Plenty of Arab authors have produced similar work — among them the Egyptian Nawal el Saadawi, the Moroccan Mohamed Choukri, the Sudanese Egyptian Raouf Mossad and the Iraqi Hassan Blasim.

“Using Life” was published without incident in 2014. In theory, having prior approval from the censor meant it could not be prosecuted or banned. But when an extract appeared in the state-owned Akhbar al-Adab — Egypt’s best-known literary and cultural weekly where Naji worked — a lawyer and morality vigilante named Hani Saleh Tawfik claimed that while reading the extract “his heartbeat fluctuated, his blood pressure dropped, and he became severely ill.” Tawfik then launched a “hesba” case — in effect, a private prosecution.

This resulted in a protracted trial that ended with the novelist receiving the maximum two-year prison sentence and serving a good half of it. He was set free in December 2016 but wasn’t allowed to travel until the case was finally overturned in May 2017 — at which point he chose to leave the country for good, settling in Las Vegas.

Naji may have been targeted for his political leanings, but the case demonstrated that there is still a lot of sympathy in Egypt for punishing those who say the wrong things about reality or say the right things using the wrong words.

It was much the same 12 centuries earlier when al-Jahiz — perhaps the greatest Arabic prose writer of all time, and a man not known for profanity or rudeness — complained that “some of those who show rectitude and decency” appear disgusted and distressed at words such as “cock” and “fuck.” The person who puts on such a show of repugnance, al-Jahiz wrote, “is most likely a man who has only as much knowledge, kindness, decency and respectability as his pretense.”

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