Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian writer and photographer, and the author of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal and The Crocodiles. We met Youssef last autumn in Cairo, and we are proud to publish Arab Porn on 60pages.
The first time I met Enas was one year after we physically met. We were at a cafe, exchanging words and magic about God and the world, as she descriptively narrated her first solo trip to Europe. Suddenly, I saw a glimmer in her eyes; a glimmer of someone who’s hungry for life; a glimmer of someone who truly knows how to live by the codes of passion.
The second time I met her was when she decided to follow her heart and shift careers. I knew that she has a heart that encompasses the world, and following that heart would never lead her astray. I knew she would put her unicorn heart and soul into whatever she sets her mind on, and that’s exactly what happened.
The third time I met her was when she shared a collaged picture of herself alongside Marge from the Simpsons. She had the eyes of a child. The way she saw the world anew everyday has inspired me to write: “May you grow up enough to become a child”. That was when I envied her for having the soul of an artist and the mind of a world conqueror who grabs the world by the neck – a formidable combination if you don’t know.
The fourth time I met her was when she she decided to give it all up and chase what she loves, when her detachment of all things seemed courageous and thrilling, exactly like her soul.
You will meet Enas on one level or the other, whether she brings you to your knees by singing, melting your heart by casually playing Chopin, or flipping through her thoughts like an eloquent book, and never hesitating to tell it like it is. But if you’re really damn lucky, you’ll meet Enas on a personal level where her existence strips you off the masks you think you need to wear.
She is magic. Not the representation of it, she is it. You only need to meet her once to know that, but one time, mark my words, is the furthest from enough.
She is art, one that cannot be unseen.
I first met Julia through her clone, who was stalking me on Facebook. Then she called me an angel. When we first met in person in summer, I was wearing all white and she was drinking alcohol-free beer. I asked her to do 60Hz together, so now we have a radio show every Monday at 7pm on Berlin Community Radio, with Georg and Armen. For a long time, and still today, it is unclear what Julia does not do. She is an actress, she writes novels, she has a female dog named Henry, is an absolute natural in doing the medleys for our radio show, and when we first said goodbye to each other, we invented a word: Sturzbetroffen.
Aman Sethi carries with him a compass that makes it possible for him to identify the magnetic centre of any reality before him. Neither the dross of received wisdom, nor the fool’s gold of pretended insight detains or harries him.
I have met Aman in the insurgent forests of central India, on basketball courts in South Delhi, on balconies across the Yamuna, in secret libraries, dives, bars, dinner tables, kitchens and nondescript street corners. But in all his travels, in all his attending to distractions and delusions, I have never met Aman far from his own still centre. In Aman, that is a silent place, a place of listening, memory and fine toned analysis of fables and foibles. It is a place where I have found a wry, tough compassion and a febrile anger that never gives way to rage. It is what anyone who writes the first draft of history must have.
I must say I have difficulties figuring her out. Let me try with some facts: I first met Marie as a colleague at the Free University Berlin, where she was (and still is) working and teaching as an art historian. Actually her name was (or still is) Marie-France, but she isn’t French, even though she feels more at ease writing in French than in German – maybe this has something to do with the fact that she grew up in Munich – like some 120% of my German friends in Berlin it seems by the way. Actually, she grew up speaking Romanian as I found out later. Although technically speaking she has an American passport, and for good reasons. Anyhow, as you can tell I have difficulties figuring her out or even reporting some relevant facts. Maybe it helps to mention a few things she likes best, or to put it differently, that she only likes the best : she only publishes with the best publishers, likes the best food, and of course the best shoes, actually many of them. Did I mention that she is also a fantastic swimmer. I also lately found out that she used to make really beautiful court-métrages back in her Paris years – and will hopefully do so again soon. Maybe this might explain why I immediately found her fascinating when knowing even less about her than I do today, already when she was Marie-France, my academic colleague from the department of art history.
I met Beny in the wildness of Poland. Once during our trip, we were out playing, throwing shit around, walking and running in circles. Also talking. I listened to a conversation Beny was having with someone. They were asserting the importance of being humbled, reclaiming the verb—to humble—for a positive use. There was something dissonant about the moment—heavy, heady language conveying an alluring meaning. It remained it my memory. Perhaps it also did enchant how I saw him since, as someone who embodies a contradiction—of being verbose and humble. Beny does it beautifully, with a slightly rough kind of grace.
One day Katti asked me if I did grow up in a strawberry cake, describing an obviously chuffed tone of felicity in my voice (and maybe in my daydream influenced face). What just was a playful saying, come and gone, is in fact one of a billion ways in which she can make sense of the world. According to Katti life itself is not only a bakery ready to take over, where you can bake and eat chocolate cookies, apple pies, and fancy cakes all by yourself. You also can – and should – be a conquistadora of your own state of mind, meaning: bake and sugarcoat yourself to be what you want to be. Finding that recipe of change is the most great endeavour she wants to undertake. So if you ever launch your spirit starship heading to ‘Destination: Honeypot’ best take Katti with you on the ride. She will explore all the oceans of space offside your skillfully calculated bearing to find the candy wonders of life, that wait for you left and right.
I met Mark nine years ago at filmArche, a place where they call him God or nerd or both. He paints the insides of your sunglasses with colours you never saw before. He replaces your headphones by a deaf-aid, he cuts your brain open, puts three cogwheels and a cuckoo clock in and then closes it gently. From then on you can turn your marital crisis into the thrill of a burning helicopter, your postnatal depression into the joy of a jumping jackhammer and your lovesickness into the excitement of stealing silver spoons from your neighbors. You start living inside the fantastic trailer of your own life that you are not living. And you never want to get rid of that feeling again.
Ralph Martin and I met on a Berlin balcony roughly the size of my New York living room. This was in the fall of 2007; it was Thanksgiving. Most of the apartments we haunted back then were, as Ralph describes, a particular kind of Berlin-nice. They were not the coal-moted blocks of the nineties. They were roomy to the point of cavernous and well-lit and, typically, underfurnished, because furniture, like food, existed for us on a strictly need-to-know basis, and we did not need to know the credenza. In any case, this apartment was not Berlin-nice in that particular way. This apartment was New York–nice; it spoke bluntly and eloquently of the unattainable luxury most of us preferred to have out of sight. In any case, there it was, and we were on the balcony. Somebody introduced us and Ralph asked how long I’d been in Berlin. I’d been there three or four months then.
Ralph said something along the lines of, “With all due respect, I don’t think I want to be your friend.”
“Well, you’ll see – or you won’t. It’s just not worth it. People show up and they hang around for an academic year and then they’re gone. You go back to New York or wherever and we’re still here. We’ve learned not to invest ourselves in the new arrivals.”
Ralph has no particular memory of this conversation, though he concedes it may very well have happened, and that it accurately reflected his (generally unvoiced) feelings on the matter of new arrivals. For what it’s worth here, less than a year later I learned what Ralph was talking about. Many of my friends were moving on, when it felt as though we’d barely gotten there. Ralph describes pretty well what that feels like. The main thing Berlin had had going for it was that it was practically impossible to stay too long at the party, because by the time one party ended another had begun in its place. But then all of a sudden your particular cohort has moved on, and the new people are intolerable because they so accurately reflect your own pretentious naivete. In any case, by the time that happened, Ralph had gotten over his initial reservations and we’d become friends. We’d become friends mostly because I’d been third-hand invited to a birthday party Ralph was having in the Tiergarten. The party, I’d been told, had a dandy theme, but because it was Berlin nobody bothered with the effort of a costume. Because Ralph had treated me with such disdain, however, I was nervous to show up in my civilian clothes. I wore a rather silly thin-waled corduroy suit I hoped Ralph might admire. I can’t imagine he liked the suit but he appreciated the effort as a personal gesture.
The following Thanksgiving was at Ralph’s house. My mother was in town to visit and we went. There were probably sixty or seventy bottles of nice wine for maybe twenty people. I’m pretty sure all the wine was consumed. There was the only goose-liver paté I can recall having consumed in my time in Berlin. Ralph had a rather imperious orange cat, and an adorable daughter who thought English was the secret code only her father new. Back then, like now, Ralph’s attitude toward his own bourgeois comforts was self-effacing. He wrote two drily hilarious collections of satirical essays on the cliche of his Prenzlauer Berg existence. (Frankly, they stand with anything David Sedaris has ever written, but for now they remain available only in German.) But what made those books so terrific wasn’t their satire – though that was always sharp – but their warmth, and their generosity. They were funny and moving not because Ralph despised his life in the bezirk of Swabian yoga-mütter but because, despite himself, he loved it. Ralph always worried that more fun things might be happening in dirtier, darker corners, but in reality it was the gaiety and liveliness of his hearth that felt much realer to me, in those years in Berlin, than another night of vaguely fun self-loathing at Berghain.
When Ralph’s son was born, sometime later, our mutual friend David said we should go visit. I was in no particular hurry; none of my friends, at that point, had kids to speak of, and the whole concept seemed retrograde and a little gauche. David said to me, “It’s very important to people that you go meet their children as soon as possible.” We went, and sat around with Ralph and his family until almost dawn. Everything was the same for Ralph, but just a little bit different. A few weeks later Ralph was allowed out of the house for the first time since his son was born, and we went to some Halloween parties in Neukölln and then the old Polish bar on Schlesische Strasse, its Halloween floor littered with broken glass, and ended up spending that dawn on the Oberbaumbrücke. At the time, it seemed to me that it was those nights I’d gone to Berlin for. It feels odd to say now, but I remember the nights at Ralph’s house much more fondly.
So take all of this as a kind of caveat. Ralph has written a very clever, wide-ranging, intelligent, witty, and poignant piece about real estate and speculation and the ambitions of youth. But it should be noted that he should not be taken strictly at his word. His written metier may be bristly self-satisfaction, but his lived metier is, from the outside at least, the adult model to which we might all aspire. It is, after all, that tension that makes his essay feel so vital, and so relevant. Have fun with this essay. But keep in mind it was written by a wonderfully unreliable narrator.