Thus the sadness of the heron: Interpreting Aslan's imbaba

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This paper explores the aesthetic experiences of inhabiting informal neighborhoods, a topic overlooked in current, policy-focused discourses on urban informality. It mines Egyptian writer Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron (Malik al-Hazin, 1983-2005) about life in Cairo’s Imbaba, which captures city and informal neighborhood at a revealing moment: the January 1977 bread-riots against infitāḥ’s neo-liberal austerity measures. The Heron’s Imbaba exudes a carnivalesque-grotesque which regenerates, within informal settings, historical folktales like Arabian Nights traditionally featuring ‘grander’ urban-settings. The paper discerns this transformative aesthetic in characters’ movements, dialogues and exchanges, constituting a resistance mechanism which binds the community together, and reframes informality’s oppressive conditions. Imbaba’s urban fabric, alienating after decades of delegitimization and marginalization, is largely eclipsed by Imbabans’ uncanny humor, except for two loci wherefrom carnival unfolds: the café’s gathering-epicenter, and the riverbank of individual introspection. As infitāḥ overwhelms Imbaba, multiple forms of dispossession threaten its residents, and a banal aesthetic, characteristic of late-capitalist culture, permeates its carnival, dissipating inspiration for political action. Communal ties disintegrate as the café is lost, and the river besieged by imaginary monsters. Straddling tensions between carnivalesque and banal aesthetics, characters assume different forms of sadness. Aslan concludes ambiguously on Imbaba’s carnivalesque prospects as bread-riots intensify, as some lives resume barely-affected, but as “dreams withdraw”.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-70
Number of pages28
JournalArab Studies Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2016
Externally publishedYes


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