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Papa Sartre

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Papa Sartre is a famous Arabic novel by Iraqi writer Ali Bader, it was originally published in Arabic in Beirut, 2001, and met warmly by the cultural critics and Intellectuals in Arabic world. This parody of the abuses and extravagances of pseudo-philosophers in the Baghdad of the sixties throws into relief the Iraqi intellectual and cultural life of the time and the reversal of fortune of some of Iraq’s wealthy and powerful families[1] An English translation was published in 2009, in AUC press, Cairo/ New York. It was this book that earned Ali Bader many prizes. [2]

Plot introduction

After a failed study mission in France, Abd al-Rahman returns home to Iraq to launch an existentialist movement akin to that of his hero. Convinced that it falls upon him to introduce his country’s intellectuals to Sartre’s thought, he feels especially qualified by his physical resemblance to the philosopher (except for the crossed eyes) and by his marriage to Germaine, who he claims is the great man’s cousin. Meanwhile, his wealth and family prestige guarantee him an idle life spent in drinking, debauchery, and frequenting a well-known nightclub.

But is his suicide an act of philosophical despair, or a reaction to his friend’s affair with Germaine? A biographer chosen by his presumed friends narrates the story of a somewhat bewildered young man who—like other members of his generation—was searching for a meaning to his life.

Plot summary

The novel opens with tow charlatans commissioning a biographical novel. A starving academic is hired to write the life story of an Existential philosopher who died in the late sixties and was acclaimed as the (Sartre of Baghdad). Father Hanna and his sexy consort, Nunu Bihar, are pragmatic and clear from the very beginning: philosophy is a business and the narrator’s assignment is to create a larger than life Iraqi equivalent of the original Jean Paul Sartre. The would-be narrator is introduced to a third party; the project’s funding supreme, Sadeq Zadeh, whose remit is to approve the version of the philosopher’s death. He is then handed dossiers of documents, photographs, diaries, letters and assigned a dubious research assistant, who looks more like a pickpocket, to accompany him on interviews with the remaining few friends of the late philosopher.

The charlatans demonstrate an amorality that fascinates the narrator, with their wide latitude for unconstrained heckling, irreverence and recklessness along with factual discrepancies. Not to mention the scandalously seductive nature of Nunu Bihar’s overt sexuality. A biography can, then, depicts a life with all its flaws, weaknesses and baseness, thinks the narrator. This proves difficult for him at first with collective memory being subject to strict cultural variables. He finds there were those who admired all the dead: servants overlooked and forgave mistakes, hesitated at admitting domestic scandals, attributing superhuman qualities in hagiographic proportions to those no longer living. The philosopher’s friends, on the other hand, told another story, accurate but equally flawed. They decked him out like a Christmas tree. Glossing over a sense of shame, they assigned to themselves important roles, their talk of the 1960s sounded like an elegy for a lost Paradise that had expelled its most prominent philosopher with no recognition. A solipsistic gaze constructed the only life worth living. Existentialist of Al-sadriyah Documents prove similarly discouraging for the narrator: "All spoke a single character, a unique and towering figure, one that summarized for an entire society a tragic world and symbolized for an entire notion tragic anomie" Overriding these methodological obstacles, the narrator eventually succeeds in producing a candid account of the life of Abdel Rahman Sartre’s, the Existentialist of al-Sadriyah.

One day, as on many other days, the Sartre of Baghdad woke up feeling nauseous. He picked up a gilt-framed photograph of Sartre and admired the physical resemblance between them. But adoration turned to feelings of inadequacy. He glanced at the philosopher’s bad eye. "Abdel Rahman had immense faith in the philosophical bad eye, he understood its value and greatness while appreciating how difficult a condition it was attain. It was the defect of the impossible, a metaphysical defect like that of god. He experienced despair…as if something was missing in his existence…(a shortcoming) remained a heavy load on his heart, a cruel destructive feeling that he felt when he was in Paris. The reality of Abdul Rahman Sartre student days in Paris was dismal. His linguistic proficiency was such that he was unable to approach, let alone conducts a conversation with, the giant of existentialism. Incapable of learning French, he never completed his degree, his rapturous audience back in Baghdad would lovingly support Abdul Rahman , "was Sartre a philosopher because of his degree or because of his philosophy?" True. He assumed the role of witness, the man who had seen Sartre and had arrived from Paris to tell them all about him. Unable to write in either French or Arabic and incapable of concentrating for long hours or of thinking with any systematic logic, he owned the complete works of Sartre from which he would read a few lines and swoon into day-dreaming. Our philosopher despised writing as an act of estrangement ; it resembled masturbation in that it was an act of identification with words –images of nothingness-and not with nothingness itself. Speech, on the other hand represented the moment, the emotion-it was as cathartic as it was euphoric. Oral discourse was integral to the culture of the coffee house of the early sixties in Baghdad . Most of the intellectuals of his generation pontificated endlessly over dominoes in the morning and regrouped in the local bars at night. Their knowledge of philosophy was limited to books titles and short summaries found in newspapers and literary magazines. Existentialism legitimized a way of life. "There was no reality, no reality to be understood". Abdel Rahman Sartre’s identity was locked into that world. His aristocratic background shielded his self-image; he never saw the need to work for a living, always believing that he was a speaker not a writer, a philosopher not charlatan. One of the outstanding characters in Papa Sartre is Ismael Hadoub, he first appears selling pornographic photographs in Baghdad in the mid-fifties, his most enthusiastic customer being a rich Jewish merchant, Saul, who owns a store in al Sadriyah and bargains tirelessly over prices. Saul takes on Ismail and transforms him into an obedient and grateful acolyte.

The end

Some of the novel’s more remarkable pages describe the boy’s own unwitting transformation into a master of deceit although he sensed hypocrisy and inequality in his dealings with Saul who represented the paradox of the rich in his Fabian ideals which nowadays is dubbed as compassionate conservatism " If Saul had paid so little for his photographs, how could he possibly believe in a commune of happiness and purity ? If, as Saul said, wealth belonged legitimately to the poor, then why not hand his shop over to them, or open his residence to the downtrodden and impoverished? Ismail believed his logic and comparisons were sound. He learned that by using the appropriate phrases and the right gestures and facial expressions he could seem one of the rich. In short, he could become someone else. Ismail’s initial conclusions awakened his predatory instinct; he wanted the best of life without having to work for it. One morning Saul walked into the shop and wept over the fate of a hero in a novel he had read the night before. Bewildered, Ismail imitated him, trying to imagine what it would be like to see the world with Saul’s eyes. Mime was the best way of turning the tables on his benefactor and becoming a better master to deceit. The moment Abdel Rahman Sartre returned from Paris and set up shop in the coffee houses of Al-Sadriyah, Ismail teamed up with him and became his "de Beauvoir". He affirmed what Saul had known all along : humanity would sacrifice nothing except for monetary gain. Four years later, Ismail was to start an affair with Abdel Rahman’s wife. Nausea permeated all Abdel Rahman’s activities : sex , voraciously eating a tender steak and washing it down with red wine, smoking expensive cigarettes, even looking at a pair of patent leather shoes-all these things made him nauseous. Nausea became permanent and contagious, Dalal Masabni’s night club, where he lovingly hung the portrait of his Existential idol and had his reserved "philosopher’s table" exuded over-emotional nausea. Patting a well-endowed bosom, the dancer of the evening would proclaim the seat of her nausea to be lodged on her "Existential breasts". Analysing Abdel Rahman’s sexual preferences, the narrator applies a somewhat unconvincing Freudian text-book interpretation and traces a genuine nausea back to the time in Abdel Rahman’s childhood when he sneaked in on his parents having sex. The exaggerated odour and the moaning of his mother shocked and nauseated him. His whole life was then a violent rejection on the perceived pretention purity of his mother. Filth represented an antidote, a form of purification, a crude and cruel beauty, desolate, uncivilized. In his world of sexual chaos, filth exited him; debauchery was the closest image to himself and symbolized Existential isolation: cheap, enjoyable, illicit, while the deeper loathing for his body was symptomatic of existential sickness. Abdel Rahman Sartre's wealth allowed him to reinvent his pain, his inadequacies, his persona. With groupies living off the largesse of their philosopher king, no one contradicted him even in the simplest matters. This, the narrator maintains in sweeping statement, characterized the entire generation of the sixties. A difference of opinion implied rejection; it annihilated and humiliated the contender which inevitably resulted in an endless round of insults. So much for discourse. Papa Sartre is a compelling novel because the plot expose the conscious invitation of an identity. The many transformations of Ismail Haddub multiply invented persons. One can argue that Abdel Rahman Sartre’s glamorized intellectual stature is pathologically extreme as he nominates himself the look-alike of the original. Interestingly, Abdel Rahman Sartre dose not fully embrace the francophone world-he would have been unable to with his linguistic inadequacies-he only embraces one aspect of it and imagines the rest. In other words, the parody is not a total mimesis. His Existentialism, as shallow a version as it may be, legitimizes way of life. Others might also object to the inaccurate depiction of the Arab intellectual scene in such broad superficial lines. Yet groupies that surround acclaimed figures are often lesser immulations of the charismatic figurehead-these days one need go no further than an academic conference to spot them. It is the more important theme of identity that Ali Bader addresses in his fictional biography as he explores its many changing variants adaptability. What eventually shatters the world of Abdel Rahman Sartre a week before his suicide the sensational scandal of the illicit affair between Ismail Haddub and his wife. The true nature of the business deal to write the philosopher’s biography is reveled when the tow charlatans Hanna and Nunu Biha attempt to blackmail no other than Ismail Haddub in his new persona as Sadeq Zadeh. After being swindled out of his manuscript and his money, the narrator encounters Nunu Bihar in another guise. Sporting a short hair-cut, loose white shirt covering her ample breasts and tight men’s trousers and shoes, with no make-up, she offers him another deal. And Ismail / Sadeq Zadeh emerges in a third manifestation-totally bald and wearing silver –rimmed glasses, his new project being to construct the Structuralist of al-Waziriyah". The team impresarios dream now of creating the "Arab Structuralism" where all men resemble Michel Foucault and all women wear men’s trousers with boyish haircuts! We look for-ward to the sequel on madness as social construct.



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