December 12, 2010
Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East is the ultimate gift for anyone who values world literature. But the anthology is much more than a mere sampler of Middle East writers. Reza Aslan, who is the editor/architect of the book, has provided the reader with an unflinching look into the very soul of Middle East culture, organized both linguistically and chronologically and framed by historical context, political timelines and biographical backgrounds that – when read from first page to last – leaves the reader with a far deeper understanding of Middle East humanity and with an indelible respect for the sheer scope and diversity of the much neglected world-class authors, who have written in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu in the past century.
In Aslan’s Introduction, he points out:
…from the ‘civilizing mission’ of European colonialism to the ‘clash of civilizations’ mentality of today, the West’s perception of the Middle East as a mysterious and exotic, savage and erotic place has changed little in the more than two centuries….The aim of this book is to provide a different, more authentic perception of this rich and complex region, an image not fashioned by the descriptions of invaders, but rather one that arises from the diverse literatures of its most acclaimed poets and writers.
Really, Tablet & Pen is like opening up a treasure chest. For those of you who have gotten into the habit of purchasing ebooks, make an exception here. The beauty and care that has gone into the creation of the look and feel of the book is something you will cherish, want to share with friends but – in the end – have returned to you so that you can keep it in that special place on your bookshelf.
Here are a few of the nearly seventy novelists, short story writers, essayists and poets represented in the book.
SA’ADAT HASAN MANTO (1912-1955) A prose writer of Kashmiri origin, Manto fled with his family from India to newly-formed Pakistan in the late 1940s. He settled in Lahore but died several years later at the age of 42, surrounded by controversy over his frank views of society and the stultifying effects of politics. In the excerpt from Manto’s memoir For Freedom’s Sake, the reader learns what happens to a young political star in Amritsar – who vows to abstain from sex until India rids itself of colonial rule – when he becomes imprisoned by his own zeal.
EXCERPT FROM MANTO’S MEMOIR
But the substance of what I’ve learnt is this: it’s no bravery to fight nature; no achievement to die or live starving, or dig a pit and bury yourself in it for days on end, or sleep for months on a bed of sharp nails, or hold one arm up for years until it atrophies and turns into a piece of wood. This is show business. You can’t find God or win freedom with show business. I even think the reason India hasn’t gained freedom is precisely because she has more showmen than true leaders. And the few leaders she does have are going against the laws of nature. They have invented a politics that stops faith and candidness from being born. It is this politics which has blocked the womb of freedom.
ISMAT CHUGHTAI (1911-1991) Chughtai is renowned as the “grand dame” of Urdu fiction. Growing up in Jodhpur, she became the first Indian Muslim woman to earn both a BA degree and a Bachelor of Education. Her most famous story – at once grotesque and wry – is “The Quilt”. It deals with a lesbian encounter within an all-female setting – and a blanket of unsettlingly anthropomorphic habits.
EXCERPT FROM “THE QUILT”
In the morning I could not even remember the sinister scene that had been enacted at night. I have always been the superstitious one in my family. Night fears, sleep-talking, sleepwalking were regular occurrences during my childhood. People often said that I seemed to be haunted by evil spirits. Consequently, I blotted out the incident from memory as easily as I dealt with all my imaginary fears. Besides, in the daytime the quilt seemed so innocent.
GHASSAN KANAFANI (1936-1972) Palestinian novelist, short-story writer and dramatist, Kanafani became a leading activist for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1969, he became the Front’s editor-in-chief. In 1972, Kanafani was assassinated by a car bomb planted by Israeli agents. In “Letter from Gaza”, Kanafani describes his love-hate relationship with Gaza and why, although he would love to accept his friend’s invitation to move to California, he will never be able to leave his homeland.
EXCERPT FROM “LETTER FROM GAZA”
I found Gaza just as I had known it, closed like the introverted lining of a rusted snail-shell thrown up by the waves on the sticky, sandy shore by the slaughterhouse. This Gaza was more cramped than the mind of a sleeper in the throes of a fearful nightmare, with its narrow streets that had their peculiar smell, the smell of defeat and poverty, its houses with their bulging balconies…this Gaza! But what are the obscure causes that draw a man to his family, his house, his memories, as a spring draws a small flock of mountain goats? I don’t know.
YUSIF IDRIS (1927-1991) Egyptian author of novels, short stories and plays, Idris became a physician in the early 1950s, was imprisoned in 1955, witnessed and wrote about some of the most tumultuous years in Egypt’s history -- including the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In that same year Idris gave up his medical career to accept an administrative post in Egypt’s Ministry of Culture. He was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, in part, perhaps, because of his ability to describe surreal situations with a detached surgeon’s eye. In his short story “The Aorta”, the main character is a petty thief who claims the government removed his aorta on the bizarre ground that the organ hosted a disease that threatened to infect all Egyptians. The crowd who captures him will have none of his absurd lie and strip him in a butcher’s shop to see for themselves. It is a cautionary tale of mob mentality: how people who seek to justify anger and revenge may mutilate their own humanity in the process.
EXCERPT FROM “THE AORTA”
There was no direct agreement, no words spoken, just an all-encompassing eagerness that aroused and engrossed us: we were excited, enjoying ourselves as though now quite certain we had discovered our goal….It was there in that sinner, still carrying with him the sin he had committed. He had to get his just deserts. We would gratify all the goodness in us by punishing him, by seeing justice done. And we would gratify all the evil in us by applying justice ourselves, with our own hands, by giving evil a completely free rein, by causing pain and hurt under the guise of proper retribution.
SADEQ CHUBAK (1916-1998) Iranian Chubak is widely considered the greatest naturalist writer in Persian. His short stories are characterized by their intricacy, economy of detail, and concentration on a single theme, leading some to compare them to Persian miniature paintings. “The Baboon Whose Buffoon was Dead” – perhaps the most haunting short story in the anthology – is set in a desolate plain. A traveling minstrel has died in his sleep, leaving his chained baboon suddenly rid of his master’s cruelty, only to realize that he is impotent to survive on his own. It’s a chilling allegory of what happens to a country suddenly dispossessed of colonial rule.
EXCERPT FROM “THE BABOON WHOSE BUFFOON WAS DEAD”
All at once an ache of loneliness seized [the baboon’s] vitals as he realized that in all that wide, vacant plain he was entirely alone. Time after time he leapt this way that way around the stake [to which he was tethered]….He squatted where he stood and stared at the buffoon’s face, remembering the man’s threats and thrashings. Then he turned frightened eyes up toward the dry, dust-soiled leaves of the almond bush beneath which he was tied. And again, as if he were expecting an order, he looked at his master.
What was he to do? Without his buffoon, he was not complete. It was as if half of his brain were paralyzed….For a lifetime he had been performing his tricks at the showman’s commands – standing on his head, waddling about, waving his stick, thrusting his backside into the air – all for the crowd’s amusement and the clown’s profit.
JALAL AL-E AHMAD (1923-1969) Ahmad was a prominent critic of the role of religion in modern society, while also being fiercely antagonistic toward Western cultural hegemony in Iran. These two preoccupations spurred him to write his most famous work, Gharbzadegi, loosely translated in English as “Weststruckness”. He was imprisoned for his opinions in the mid-1950s for several years. He died in rural seclusion at the age of 46.
EXCERPT FROM GHARBZADEGI
…in my view, East and West are no longer two geographical concepts as such. To a European or an American, the West means Europe and America and the East means Soviet Russia, China, and the Eastern European countries. To me, however, West and East have neither a political nor a geographical meaning. Instead, these are two economic concepts. The West means the countries with full stomachs and the East means the ones that are hungry.
ABDULLAH HUSSEIN (b. 1931) Hussein is regarded as the leading novelist in the Urdu language. Although born in Rawalpindi, not far from Pakistan’s capital, he has lived in the UK for the last fifty years. “The Refugees” is a brilliantly constructed tale about Pakistanis being estranged in their own country due, at least in part, by the phantom pull of colonial influence. On a more universal level, it is a story of the irresolvable and self-alienating experience of lost youth.
“The Refugees” focuses on two days in the life of Aftab. The first section takes place in 1940, when Aftab is a boy. Shaikh Umar Daraz, Aftab’s father, takes him on a long walk in the countryside so that he can share with him a pivotal moment in his youth, when he was cast as a British soldier on horseback, in a film shot in Bombay.
The second half takes place thirty years later: Aftab decides to revisit – after two decades of life in the city – his rural birthplace. Aftab has a son of his own now and takes him with him. He is overwhelmed by an ineluctable compulsion to share his past with his son, including his father’s fleeting moment of glory as an aspiring actor.
EXCERPT FROM “THE REFUGEES”
Shaikh Umar Daraz’s skin was a healthy pink. His face reminded one of those sepia photographs in which British colonial officers sporting knickerbockers or breeches, their heads covered with handkerchiefs and hats in a similar fashion, were photographed against a background of tropical jungles or sun-scorched deserts. Even the expression on his face was the same – as if he didn’t belong to his immediate world and lived comfortably away from it, like those colonial officers.
HAIFA ZANGANA (b. 1950) Zangana is an Iraqi author and political activist. During her student days in Baghdad, her opposition to Saddam Hussein landed her in prison. Since her release, she has been living in exile in London. In her memoir Dreaming of Baghdad, Zangana recounts the brief life of one of her fellow revolutionaries, who was imprisoned at the age of seventeen and executed when he was twenty-four by the Ba-ath Party. She then reflects on the discomforting sensation of having survived those dangerous times when, perhaps, more worthy peers did not.
EXCERPT FROM DREAMING OF BAGHDAD
Now, whenever I meet comrades who survived, they are burdened like me with the guilt of still being alive. We spend our evenings talking of the past. I address them as if they are not there, and they talk about me as if I am somewhere else. They speak of a girl in her twenties. I talk about them as young men. The only living presence among us is the past. “What has happened to…? Do you remember…? I wonder if … is still alive?” These repetitive questions underline our feelings of exile. We see each other through a thin veil, an unremovable veil. We stretch out our arms to push away our past lives, our faces, but they stay where they are.
About Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. His books include No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and Beyond Fundamentalism. In 2007 he co-founded BoomGen Studios with filmmaker Mahyad Tousi.
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