A new anthology of Middle Eastern prose and poetry provides authentic glimpses of the region's diverse and vibrant -literary scene, writes Jacob Silverman.
Voices of the people
Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East
In September 2009, when speaking to a journalist about Pakistan's electricity crisis, Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, read from a short story called Nawabdin Electrician, part of the Pakistani-American writer Daniyal Mueenuddin's short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Holbrooke raved about the book and thought so highly of it that he gave a copy to his boss, the president. The underlying philosophy is clear: beyond its capacity to entertain and elicit emotion, fiction has something to teach us about how other people live.
Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, an anthology of 20th-century writing from North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and the Indian subcontinent, openly allies itself with this paradigm. The anthology is a collaboration between the non-profit organisation Words Without Borders (WWB) and Reza Aslan, a young Iranian-American writer and scholar who, since the 2005 publication of his book No god but God, has become a popular commentator on Muslim affairs. The pairing of Aslan and WWB is an inspired one, as both have shown themselves to be expert communicators - Aslan at elucidating the thorny divisions within Islam, particularly the Shia-Sunni divide; WWB at curating foreign literature for the benefit of English-speaking audiences, both on its impressive website and in previous anthologies, which include writing from the "Axis of Evil" and about the fall of the Iron Curtain.
According to Aslan's introduction, Tablet & Pen is meant to present a diverse range of texts - poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, even an interview with Khalil Gibran - from throughout the last century and across the greater Middle East. With works drawn from Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Turkish sources, the book offers indigenous voices who can provide a more authentic representation of the region, one that "has been shaped by a common experience of Western imperialism and colonial domination".
This is a book with history on its mind. It is first organised by era into three parts (1910-1950; 1950-1980; 1980-2010), with the first two sections containing several subsections structured around various national literatures and times of political upheaval - eg "Those Days: Persian Literature Between Two Revolutions". The last section is called "Ask Me About the Future: The Globalization of Middle East Literature" and is an amalgam of Middle Eastern writers lumped together without regard to nationality. It's essentially an artificial grouping - many of these contemporary writers seem more attuned to parochial concerns than transnational issues - but is indicative of literature's increased ability to transcend national boundaries, aided by the internet and organisations like the WWB.
While this is not an explicitly Muslim anthology, in practice it becomes one. Aslan's introduction rightly claims that "there is no such thing as a monolithic 'Muslim world'" and reminds the reader that some of the writers presented here do not self-identify as Muslim; but nearly all come from Muslim-majority societies and many seem to draw on similar influences. But even casual readers will note the diversity in attitudes towards Islam displayed by these writers. There is the boisterous hedonism of 'Arar - the pen name for Mustafa Wahbi al Tal, a Jordanian poet who died in 1949 - whose poetry makes jibes about drinking and teasingly asks a sheikh which divine texts justify "seeing my reason gone / or behaving like a silly ass". There is the religious proto-feminism of the Iranian poet Parvin E'Tesami, who wrote that "Hearts and eyes do need a veil, the veil of chastity/A worn-out chador is not the basis of faith in Islam". And there is the work of the mid-century writer Forugh Farrokhzad, who in sensuous, imagistic poems offers candid admissions of sin.
While the anthology's tastes are generally catholic, these writers share much in common. Particularly in the first two sections, one observes a flowering of anti-imperialist sentiment, a desire to throw off the political and cultural yoke of the West and to contribute to the life of an independent nation. But these writers don't offer their patriotism blindly; as independence gives way to factionalism, corruption and oppression, literature becomes an outlet for discontent. In Bridge of Old Wonders, a ferocious monologue by Mozaffar al Nawwab, the poet fires a broad verbal fusillade against Arab leaders, exclaiming: "What wonders Arab oil has done for us!", and accusing politicians of sacrificing their autonomy on the altar of global capitalism.
Among these writers, al Nawwab is perhaps the most fulsome in his criticisms of Arab leaders and of the West. (Though it should be noted that Bridge of Old Wonders is transcribed from a public performance, meaning that it contains an inherent theatricality, down to the notations indicating which lines earned applause.) The anthology's excerpt from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's A Mind at Peace offers a more measured, and perhaps more incisive, exploration of the East-West divide. In one scene, a group of bourgeois Turks discusses their relationship with the outside world. One man admonishes his friends that "a Westerner only satisfies us when he happens to remind us that we're citizens of the world"; another pledges himself to artistic freedom but says that forging an "Eastern" sensibility cannot come at the expense of ignoring the past or what the West may have to offer. This sort of discussion, so evidently grounded in liberal ideals, may seem a modern thing, but A Mind at Peace was first published in 1949 and remains a popular and persistently relevant work. In April 2009, the parliamentary leader of Turkey's opposition presented a copy to Barack Obama - around the time that the American head of state was pledging "mutual respect" in dialogue with Muslim nations.
Readers of the region's poetry will be fascinated by the selection presented here. The anthology includes material from usual suspects like Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish (including the well-known Identity Card), as well as Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish writer and communist who wrote slyly subversive lines like "I love my country:/ I have swung on its plane trees, I have stayed in its prisons". Hikmet's work revelled in his country's history and natural splendour, but his communist views repeatedly got him into trouble. He died in Moscow in 1963, two years after the Turkish government revoked his citizenship.
Like a wandering Sufi mystic, the ghazal, a poetic form built upon rhyming couplets of the same length and a refrain, crops up throughout the book, occasionally taking on different embellishments or stylistic tics. The ghazal may be the quintessential Muslim poetic form, but it is also emblematic of the sensibility espoused by Reza Aslan and his editorial partners, for it is nearly as old as Islam itself but has endured passages through many languages and literary movements. Non-Muslim poets ranging from Goethe to Federico Garcia Lorca to Adrienne Rich have also attempted it.
While the ghazal is the structural refrain that crops up throughout Tablet & Pen, providing a kind of linkage between the book's variegated pieces, the perilous position of the writer in an unfree society is its thematic refrain. Many of these writers were imprisoned, usually for their political activism. A number spent time in exile or died there. One, Ghassan Kanafani, was assassinated by Israel's security services for his involvement with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (He served as its spokesman.) Others, like the Nobel laureates Orhan Pamuk and Naguib Mahfouz, have had their lives threatened or survived assassination attempts. The fractured and frequently oppressive political landscape of the greater Middle East has become entwined with the lives of these writers, making itself equally apparent in their biographies and in their work. The result is some wonderful literature, forged in a turbulent crucible.
Reza Aslan and Words Without Borders deserve great credit for the work performed here. But as they would surely agree, this anthology, confined to mostly Muslim writers and drawn from just four languages, is only a sample of what this multitudinous region can offer. (The preface to the last section admits that these pieces "are mere porthole glimpses into the kaleidoscopic world of the modern Middle East".) Aslan wishes to create a cultural milieu in which the "War on Terror" is not "the dominant framework" for East-West relations. It's a worthy effort; to get there, we may need an army of translators.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Republic.