Robin Yassin-Kassab

Tablet and Pen

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This review appeared in today’s Financial Times.

In his introduction to “Tablet and Pen – Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East”, Reza Aslan correctly argues that “from ‘the civilising mission’ to ‘the clash of civilisations’” the West has read the East primarily through a security prism, as something to be managed and contained. Apart from a couple of Nobel winners, an Egyptian feminist, and Sayyid Qutb, the region’s writing – and therefore the human dimension – is absent from our calculations.

With Saidean distaste for grand orientalist categories, Aslan argues the literatures grouped here are linked by themes of “imperialism, colonialism and Western cultural hegemony.” A straightforward civilisational definition might have been more logical; African, Indian and Caribbean writing has engaged the same preoccupations. But we know what Aslan means: these 20th Century poems, short stories, novel extracts and essays come from Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the Arab world, the old Islamic heartland connected by common experience and similar cultural references.

The presence of the anthologiser is felt throughout – pleasantly so: Aslan’s introductions and chronologies give historical structure and social context to the pieces, and succeed in making this “not an anthology to be tasted in disparate bits but rather a single sustained narrative to be consumed as a whole.” It’s a weighty and physically beautiful book which is also compulsively readable.

Part one, covering writing from 1910 to 1950, shows Urdu and Farsi adapting to new social conditions, and revived literary Arabic and nationalistically-cleansed Turkish undergoing complete reformations. For the Arabs this period represents a reawakening after their long linguistic and civilisational eclipse. For Turks it was a rupture – their old literature was written in a script which Kemalism forbade by law. In both cases, ornate, stagnant forms were transformed by simplified diction and a more naturalistic style. To suit the readers of the newspaper age, there was a new emphasis on prose.

A fine example of the entanglement of linguistic and social developments is “Persian is Sugar” by Muhammad Ali Jamalzadeh, the founder of the Iranian short story. It’s a prison scene reminiscent of a Chekhov sketch, in which a boy is as terrified by a cleric’s incomprehensible Arabicisms as by a ‘wog’s’ Frenchified Persian.

The great Sa’adat Hasan Manto (a collection of whose stories, about partition, prostitutes and poverty, should grace everyone’s bookshelf) is here with “For Freedom’s Sake,” in which a condom becomes a multifaceted political and religious metaphor.

There’s a dazzling, spine-shivering excerpt from Sadegh Hedayat’s classic hallucinatory novel The Blind Owl, a strange mix of eros, thanatos and transcendence; and the prison poem “Since I Was Thrown Inside” by Turkish leftist and pioneering free-versifier Nazim Hikmet.

Part two takes us from 1950 to 1980. By now Turkey, with Ataturk buried, had become confident enough in its modernity to refocus on tradition. Yasar Kemal, the village novel and social realism were the result. Iran, between revolutions, was energised by the voices that would challenge the Shah before being shouted down by clerics, amongst them Forough Farrokhzad with her intensely intimate feminist verse. Especially in the Arab world, literature at this time saw itself as the voice of the poor and oppressed. The fascination with Palestinian exile, for its own sake and as a metaphor for the disappointments of independence, is exemplified by Ghassan Kanafani’s “Letter From Gaza”, Mahmoud Darwish’s prose poem “Athens Airport”, and performance poetry from Mozaffar al-Nawwab, who alternately rails in his outrage like an Old Testament prophet and smirks like a schoolboy at the Arab leaders’ “trembling testicles.”

There’s a perhaps overlong excerpt from the perhaps over-rated Adonis’s “Grave for New York”. Sadly neither Nizar Qabbani nor Muhammad Maghout, both towering figures, are represented.

One of the best pieces is by the certainly under-rated Zakariyya Tamir. His surrealist satire is at once subtle and savage, and very funny. Also highly recommended is Sadeq Chubak’s wonderful story “The Baboon Whose Buffoon Was Dead”.

The third section, from 1980 to 2010, is the least satisfying. Aslan’s introduction talks of a contemporary regional literature “free of all ethnic and nationalist divisions” – an exaggeration to say the least. Arabs are as likely to read translated Colombian or Chinese writing as they are Urdu or Persian, and writers such as Turkish satirist Aziz Nesin have been regionally popular since long before 1980. The selection is still good but there are suprising omissions. Nothing, for instance, from Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany, author of the internationally renowned “The Yacoubian Building” (worth reading again to contextualise current events), and nothing from the phenomenal Hassan Blasim, who has shown how it is possible to craft superlative art from the chaos and terror of post-invasion Iraq. Also omitted is Ahmed al-Aidy, whose novel “Being Abbas el-Abd” illustrates the effect of the internet and Hollywood on the Arabic language.

Quibbles aside, this is a treasure house, a worthwhile attempt at canonising 20th Century central-Islamicate writing.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Posted in book review

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