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Jewish Journal

Literary and cultural diversity in the modern Middle East

by Jonathan Kirsch

November 16, 2010 | 9:25 pm

Among the many tragedies of the so-called “clash of civilizations” is the fact that we have been blinded to the richness and diversity of the cultures of the Middle East. “[T]here is no such thing as a monolithic ‘Muslim world,’ “ argues Reza Aslan in “Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East” (Norton: $35), “save perhaps in the imaginations of some in the West.”

So Aslan’s latest book comes as a healthy corrective. Published in cooperation with the international literary organization Words Without Borders, “Tablet & Pen” is a provocative and illuminating survey of poems, short stories, novels, memoirs, essays and drama that allows us to glimpse the previously unseen faces of the Middle East.

Aslan, a professor at University of California, Riverside, is the author of the international best-sellers “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” and “How to Win a Cosmic War,” which has been published in paperback under the title “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization.” Born in Iran and educated in the United States, he is frequently called upon by the networks to explain the Middle East to American audiences. Here, Aslan performs a different but no less informative role as a guide through a century or so of writings that have been translated into English out of the Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu languages, many of them for the first time.

“The aim of this book is to provide a different, more authentic perception of this rich and complex region,” Aslan explains in “Pen & Tablet,” “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.”

From the very first page, then, Aslan begins to chip away at our misconceptions about the Middle East. For example, he points out that the region we call the Middle East — “from Morocco to Iran, Turkey to Pakistan” — is populated by people who “speak different languages, practice different faiths, and possess different cultures.” For that reason, the anthology begins with writings that can be neatly pigeonholed by language and geography but ends with “a ‘borderless’ collage of contemporary poems, essays and stories representing the whole of the modern Middle East.”

A few of the authors are familiar, but the selections from their work are not. Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), for example, is best-known in the West for “The Prophet,” but he is represented by a 1923 manifesto titled “The Future of the Arabic Language,” which can be read as an early shot in a culture war that is still being waged: “The Western Spirit is at once our friend and our enemy,” wrote Gibran. “It is a friend if we can vanquish it, and an enemy if it can vanquish us. ...”

One theme of “Tablet & Pen,” in fact, is that the tensions that dominate the headlines out of the Middle East nowadays are nothing new, as we discover in a poem by the Palestinian writer ‘Abd Al-Rahim Mahmud (1913-1948): “This land, this holy land, is being sold to all intruders/and stabbed by its own people!/And tomorrow looms over us, nearer and nearer!/Nothing shall remain for us but our streaming tears,/our deep regrets!”

But Aslan also shows us other grievances and aspirations that have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Turkey, for example, has been struggling with its own identity and destiny in ways that have been invisible to us until very recently, and the poet Nâzim Hikmet (1901-1963) allows us an oblique and ironic glimpse of these often bloody conflicts: “I love my country:/I have swung on its plane trees, I have stayed in its prisons,” he writes. “My country:/camels, train, Fords and sick donkeys,/poplar/willow/and red earth.”

By a certain grim irony, Aslan points out that Persian writing — “perhaps the oldest and most accomplished pre-modern literature of the Middle East” — was reinvigorated by the tumultuous events of the 20th century, when “it fell to Iran’s writers and poets to call society to account for its failings.” Thus, for example, we hear the angry voice of Parvin E’Tesami (1907-1941): “Formerly a woman in Iran was almost non-Iranian./All she did was struggle through dark and distressing days/Her life she spent in isolation; she died in isolation./What was she then if not a prisoner?”

By the time we reach a 1962 essay by Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969), we come to realize that certain themes continue to resonate in the Middle East — and it casts a new light on such wholly nonliterary concerns as Iran’s nuclear development program. “It’s obvious that as long as we only use machines and don’t make them, we’re Weststruck,” writes Ahmad, echoing the sentiments of Gibran’s manifesto. “Ironically, as soon as we starting building machines we’ll be afflicted by them, like the West.” 

The thought occurred to me, as it will to other Jewish readers, that Israel and its literature have been wholly omitted from the collection. But Aslan anticipates and answers the question. Because the writers and poets in “Tablet & Pen” share in common “neither borders nor nationalities, but rather a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism and Western cultural hegemony,” he argues, “Hebrew literature, which has developed along a different path, is not included in this anthology.” And he refers his readers to Robert Alter’s “Modern Hebrew Literature” and Ammiel Alcalay’s “Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing” as companion volumes to his own.

When we consider the vast achievement that “Tablet & Pen” represents — a survey that reaches out across vast distances of time and space — the omission of Hebrew literature is really just a quibble. “Nothing can be as astounding as life,” observes Ibn Zerhani, “except writing.” And “Tablet & Pen” is a literary banquet with so many astonishing dishes that we can hardly complain there are not yet more on the table. l

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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