Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn

This honest review of Hazem Fahmy’s Waiting for Frank Ocean in Cairo was in exchange for an Advance Reading Copy provided to the author by Half Mystic Press.

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In the spirit of full confession, that unsolicited offering that often makes for great poetry, I had never listened to Frank Ocean before I read Hazem Fahmy’s Waiting for Frank Ocean in Cairo. There is no particular reason why — it just so happened that the algorithms dictating our lives for us didn’t seem to think him a good fit for me. A computative folly, surely, but one not entirely unwelcome, as each italicised phrase the poet incorporated from Ocean’s discography had the added promise of conveying new meaning when I finally got around to hearing it in his mellow, intimate voice.

And there lies the ingenuity of Fahmy’s writing. Lyrics pilfered from a multitude of songs are sprinkled in poems and make up the numerous centos, but in no way do they feel like someone else’s voice. This is no fawning, parasocial relationship between artist and fan. “I was never one for making a saint out of anything”, he says, “let alone a man who makes music I cry to.” Frank does not hang on the poet’s walls, but Frank’s songs linger in the background of philosophical car rides and blare at ear-threatening levels to drown out his father’s angry muttering. The poet wants to dance to Frank’s songs, even if they aren’t meant to be danced to. 

Hazem Fahmy deftly weaves together the personal and political, exploring what it means to shuffle constantly between two different places without feeling like you belong to either. What is home, really? Is it people, even if you don’t get along with them? Is it a country that is constantly looking for ways to spit you out? He expands this feeling of alienation beyond mere coordinates to also encapsulate the chasm separating the values we grew up with, and the values we grow into. Fahmy ruminates over defining himself outside of familial roles, and the need to start taking control over his own life: “Mama’s not taking responsibility / for how me and Amir’s clothes turn out / anymore. She says: / You’re big boys now. / You can figure it out / for yourselves.” 

Anger is an emotion we come across frequently in the narrative, both righteous and misplaced. The poet’s father’s anger is expressed freely, in contrast with his tears, which are not. Their house is a “museum of rage”, where the walls “shake and shiver”, and the poet is the unlucky inheritor of all this fury, clinically depicted through the lines, “High blood pressure runs on both / sides, a technical / way to say that we were born / with this vocabulary: / fiery nostrils, wide eyes, / shaking fists.” In Interrogation of Male Tears, to the Tune of “Bad Religion” however, he writes, “my father whimpers / in the living room while I hide / behind the couch.” He contemplates how burdensome the tears of men are considered to be, how he can hear “how sweet the static / must have sounded” after his mom had to listen to Amir weep on the phone.

But music is not a perpetual antidote capable of curing all the problems that pervade the minutiae of everyday life. In Frank Haunts Me Across a Decade, Fahmy states: “The concert was not the holy / site I once led myself to believe. Music, at the end / of the day, can only do so much. I am learning to call / things disruptive instead of radical.” In Night Anthem, he talks about his need to rest, how he grows “weary of passion”. Sometimes, music hurts more than it helps. Sometimes, it feels good to take a break. Sometimes, “The nights I need unreachable men / to croon me to sleep are less frequent.”

Frank Ocean belongs to that category of artists who space out their releases with significant gaps of time in between, like Lorde and Rihanna. While loyal fans can endure the agonizing wait, coping through memes and hashtags like #WaitingForFrank and #WheresTheAlbumFrank, mentioned by Fahmy in All Summer I Waited for Frank, this also results in the artist themselves undergoing a period of growth invisible to the outside world, and these changes are inevitably reflected in their new music. We observed this phenomenon clearly when Lorde’s Solar Power came out, fracturing an Internet still primarily fixed on her sad girl, perfect-for-Tumblr persona instead of appreciating the carefree, happy person she has grown into becoming. It does, however, tend to feel a bit like being betrayed, or left behind. When Ocean’s new album is released, the poet writes, “I wake up on a Thursday in Cairo and by the grace of God the album is just there on my phone.” He puts his headphones on excitedly, wanting to dance to this new discovery. But he later grasps that he’s in for a surprise: “I pause the album for later. It will take me until then to realize there aren’t even that many songs I can dance to.”

Inspired by the lines, “I wanted / the fleeing ecstasy only possible in the minutes / of a Frank Ocean song”, the night after I read Waiting for Frank, I put my earbuds in and go to Spotify instead of going to sleep. After impatiently sitting through a grating ad and realising it’s nothing compared to waiting for years to listen to this, I select a song at random and try to let Ocean’s dulcet tones lull me to sleep. The lyrics of the appropriately titled Nights, however, had different plans for me. Fahmy knew what he was talking about when he said, “Some nights I lie / awake in bed listening, / knowing I have doomed / myself to a restless sleep.”

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Waiting for Frank Ocean in Cairo is available for purchase from Half Mystic Press’s bookshop. Hazem Fahmy is a writer and critic from Cairo. His debut chapbook Red//Jild//Prayer won the 2017 Diode Editions Contest. Half Mystic is an independent, internationally-acclaimed publishing house and literary journal dedicated to the celebration of music in all its forms.

Tejashree Murugan

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