Archive for March 2009
Another book review, fairly horribly edited by the Guardian. Here’s the unedited version:
The Arab world’s bestselling novel of recent years has been Alaa Al Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building”, which features a gay journalist, a corrupt minister, and sexual abuse in police cells. The very grown-up film of the book has reached a huge audience. Arabic novels on sale in the Gulf discuss taboos from pre-marital romance to sectarian conflict and slavery. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar, offering the Arabs a range of political debate which shames the BBC, and which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Satellite and the internet have effectively finished the Arab age of censorship. As for books in English, the ‘Arab World’ sections of many Gulf bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the “Princess” variety. So long as it sells, very nearly anything goes.
Given the new level of official Arab tolerance, it was surprising to hear that Geraldine Bedell’s “The Gulf Between Us”, a romantic comedy narrated by a middle-aged Englishwoman, had been banned from the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, and this because the novel contains a ‘gay shaikh’. Both author and publisher cried censorship, plunging the festival – Dubai’s first – into a swamp of bad publicity. Margaret Atwood cancelled her appearance.
A few days after the damage had been done, the truth came out: the book hadn’t been banned. Like many others, it was not selected in the first place. Maragaret Atwood regretted her cancellation.
A book review of Aatish Taseer’s “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands” for the Guardian.
Aatish Taseer grew up in secular, pluralist India. His early influences included his mother’s Sikhism, a Christian boarding school, and He-Man cartoons. Nagging behind this cultural abundance, however, was an absence: of his estranged father, the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer.
The best of “Stranger to History” is the “Son’s Journey” of the subtitle: the movement towards – and away from – his father’s world. Taseer describes the embarrassment, frustration and occasional joy of meeting his father and half-siblings, and of approaching a cultural and national identity which painfully excludes him. Alternating with this story is a more generalised journey into Islam, from the Leeds suburb which produced the 7/7 bombers, through Istanbul, Damascus and Mecca, to Iran and Pakistan. On the way Taseer observes the ‘cartoon riots’, is interrogated by Iranian security officials, and watches the response in his father’s Lahore home to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The writing is elegant and fluent throughout, the characters skillfully drawn.