The Iranian-American author talks about his new English-language anthology of Middle Eastern literature, Tablet and Pen.
Reza Aslan's new book explores the titans of Middle East literature
One hour before I am due to speak to Reza Aslan, the world is held spellbound by Cairo. Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman appears on state television and, during an address that lasts 32 seconds, he announces President Mubarak's decision to resign; the pictures are streamed live to thousands gathered in protest in Tahrir Square, and, online, to millions watching around the world. In an instant everything has changed, and everyone knows it.
Eight weeks of Arab tumult have reached what is, for now, their climax; later, it will become clear that this sense of change, animated so unexpectedly in Tunisia in late December, will spread. Today, though, we have Egypt, and when Aslan and I finally sit down our conversation is shadowed throughout by the feeling of speaking on a momentous day.
It's a stroke of luck to command Aslan's attention on such a day. The 38-year-old Iranian-American is a rising star in the US, where he arrived with his family in 1979, in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. There, he is carving out a niche as the go-to public intellectual on Islam and the Middle East. Aslan combines academic clout - his first book, the best-selling No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, was on the history of Islam - with a polished, TV-friendly style that has won him popular attention: he is a regular on US television news, and even on Jon Stewart's all-conquering The Daily Show, while his AslanMedia organisation provides news and analysis on the Middle East to a growing, predominantly western audience.
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Today, though, Aslan is on the line to speak about his most recent book. Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East is an anthology of 20th-century Middle Eastern literature edited by Aslan and published under the aegis of Words Without Borders, an organisation dedicated to bringing international literature to readers of English. It's a gorgeous volume - Aslan says it was important to him that it look like a "bookstore" book, and not a textbook - that plays host to some towering figures: Khalil Gibran, Farouk Saad, Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis and Sadegh Hedayat among them. Giants of Middle Eastern literature, then, who command near reverence across the Middle East, but - even in these times of cultural cross-pollination - remain virtually unread even by the most erudite of westerners.
"These are titans of world literature, and throughout the region they are granted heroic status, the kind that in the western world is given to war heroes," says Aslan. "But in the English-speaking world they are largely unknown.
"Of course, I wanted to change that. But I'm also proud of the fact that later in the book, alongside these huge names, is a new generation of young Middle Eastern writers."
Showcasing the literature of the Middle East is central to Tablet & Pen's purpose. But under Aslan's editorship the book became about more than that. Aslan says that when he was first approached to edit the volume the idea was to produce an anthology of Muslim literature; but his vision pulled the project in a different direction.
"I bristled at the idea of a 'Muslim' anthology," he says. "Muslims are spread all over the planet; they're diverse and have little in common with each other simply because they're all Muslim.
"So I changed the focus to the Middle East because then you're talking about a meaningful geographical entity. And within that, I focused on literature written between 1910 and 2010."
It was, readers of Tablet & Pen are likely to agree, an effective intervention, which lends the anthology a powerful cohesiveness. The "Middle East" as we now understand it, Aslan agrees, was a western designation, but it's precisely this shared experience of being labelled that allows the term its usefulness.
"I defined the Middle East as a geographic location with a shared historical consciousness brought about by an experience of colonialism, of being cast by Europeans as the foreigner, the 'other'." This definition, he says, accounts for his decision to exclude Hebrew writing, which - both before the creation of Israel and after - orbited around an entirely different set of thematic concerns.
"The overarching theme here is literature as a tool for identity formation. These are writers who are using their work as a way of creating new identities, and pushing back against the colonial enterprise."
Crucially, Aslan put much thought into the way Tablet & Pen would function as a reading experience. The book in its entirety, he says, has a story to tell, and he hopes that readers will avail themselves of its full power by reading Tablet & Pen cover to cover, as a novel is read.
"Anthologies are usually meant to be dipped into, but that bothered me. I wanted to create a book that works as a single, sustained narrative," he says. "I don't really think of this book as an anthology, but more as a new way to tell the 20th-century history of the region: not via outsiders, but through the words of the region's own poets and writers who tell you this history as it was experienced in the region itself.
"If you read the book cover to cover you go on a journey: you see those early first stirrings of Arab nationalism and the formation of nation states, then the failed promises of authoritarian leaders and broken regimes, and, later, the rise of the current, globalised generation of writers, for whom these old boundaries, this idea of pushing back against the West, just isn't so important. That's the long arc of 20th-century Middle Eastern history that I wanted to present."
It's that unique window on the recent history of the Middle East that lends Tablet & Pen its power. Just to hold it is to feel in possession of something remarkable, even transgressive: a history of the Middle East that rejects the stories created by the west to justify incursions, or soothe consciences, and instead asserts a new story, told by Middle Easterners themselves and in the most beautiful terms. From Khalil Gibran's 1923 manifesto The Future of the Arabic Language, which opens the book, to an excerpt from Sadegh Hedayat's Iranian modernist masterpiece The Blind Owl, and the rich array of literature from Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere that fills the pages of Tablet & Pen, there is an unwritten rallying cry: "We are here; we are our own centre: we can tell our own story."
It's a truth not lost on Aslan that, in these fractious times, this is a message more worthwhile than ever. Much of his extra-academic work - with AslanMedia, and BoomGen Studios, an organisation that helps develop and sell film and TV ideas - is informed by a mission to foster understanding between the West and the Middle East. But, Aslan concedes, across the past decade it's felt like an uphill struggle.
"In the US, anti-Islamic sentiment is at unprecedented levels right now," he says. "Islam has become a receptacle into which people are throwing all their fears about the huge changes that globalisation is bringing.
"But look what's happening: we're seeing a new Middle East being shaped. You have a massive youth uprising, in which people are calling for freedoms that no one in the West can in good conscience deny them, and that is going to challenge a lot of preconceptions. The ultimate aim has to be to recast people's views of the Middle East."
If Tablet & Pen reaches the curious, attentive and humane readers it so deserves, there's no doubt it can help.
- Tablet & Pen is published by WW Norton & Company
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