April 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
This review was published at The National.
“A man,” wrote the poet Shelley, “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another.” The novel, if well-achieved, is the form offering the greatest opportunity to experience the world through another’s eyes, to escape the self by shifting perspective; a novelist could perhaps be defined as a person able to see his home as freshly as a foreigner would, someone unable therefore to take anything for granted. This is Saud Alsanousi’s successful conceit in “The Bamboo Stalk” – a plea for tolerance and 2013 winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a text supposedly translated from Filipino to Arabic, now really (and wonderfully) translated to English by Jonathan Wright.
When he’s in Manila, our narrator is called José, and sometimes ‘the Arab’. In Kuwait, he’s called Isa, and sometimes ‘the Filipino’. José/Isa is the product of a brief marriage between a migrant housemaid and a Kuwaiti of good family. He looks Filipino but has his father’s voice. It’s to him that the title refers – “a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular … the stalk will grow new roots if replanted.”
So Alsanousi, with great wit and lightness of touch, portrays the inner dynamics of not one but two families, and of at least two cultures. Half the book takes place in the Philippines, a tropical and entirely credible setting, redolent of mangoes and diesel fumes. Amongst the vividly drawn characters are a roguish, broken grandfather and Isa’s mixed-race cousin Merla, who has good reason to resent both men and Europeans. She looks to an unconventional love for solace, as well as to the “purely Filipino religion” of Rizalism, a deification of independence hero José Rizal.
March 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
Reese Erlich is a foreign correspondent with GlobalPost and reports regularly for National Public Radio (NPR), the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), and Radio Deutsche Welle. His reporting has earned him multiple awards over the years. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared September 14, 2010, “Reese Erlich Day” in honor of his investigative work. “Mr. Erlich,” the resolution read, “exhibits the finest qualities of…reporters willing to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
He is also a friend of mine. We met in the home of our mutual friend Stephen Kinzer. Kinzer wrote the Foreword to Erlich’s book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba and when Erich was in Chicago in early 2009 to discuss the book, Kinzer hosted a gathering for him in his home in Oak Park. It was a fabulous evening, and Erlich and I stayed in touch. A few months later he was in Iran, reporting on the historic protests that convulsed the Islamic Republic following its June presidential election. He wrote some of the very smartest stuff about those dramatic events. Erlich is a dyed–in–the–wool New Leftist who cut his teeth at Ramparts, the iconic magazine of 1960s radicalism, but he took many of his fellow leftists to task for the utter myopia they displayed amidst the events in Iran that summer. His essay “Iran and Leftist Confusion” was bang-on and desperately-needed. He also provided a healthy corrective to the pervasive narcissistic blather about Iran’s Green movement being a Twitter revolution.
A couple years on, when his book Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire came out, I set up an event for Erlich at Chicago’s No Exit Cafe. And in 2013, when Erlich and Norman Solomon (his co-author on the 2003 book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You) did a speaking tour to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, I set up an them for them in Denver.
In Erlich’s latest book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, he criticizes me and my colleague Nader Hashemi for advocating humanitarian intervention to end the criminal starvation sieges in Syria. He reached out to me before the book went to print, asking me to read this section and send him feedback. We had sharp disagreements about Syria, but I appreciated his spirit of generosity and friendship. In this same spirit, I was happy to host him once again in Denver for a talk on his new book. But I was also keen to sit him down for a critical exchange about his book for the video series that our Center for Middle East Studies produces.
Our conversation reflects both my deep respect for Reese’s work and also my serious disagreements with him. It is a spirited and critical (in the best sense) exchange between two leftists with different perspectives on one of key issues of our time.
February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
This review was published at the Guardian.
“Arab Jazz” – already the winner of the English PEN award – is a brilliant debut, both from Karim Miské and the very capable translator Sam Gordon.
The setting – “between the Lubavitch school complex, the Salafist prayer room and the evangelical church” in north east Paris, home turf of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers – couldn’t be more topical.
And Ahmed Taroudant, the novel’s main protagonist, is in some respects a typical French Arab – religiously non-observant, confused about his identity, haunted by the past, and now set up to take the blame for murder.
Immensely likeable despite his neuroses, Ahmed aims “to lose himself by devouring the whole world in a single, uninterrupted story written by others.” The metaphor fits fundamentalists perfectly, but in Ahmed’s case it’s more literal: he’s a crime fiction fanatic who tries to buffer himself from reality with a wall of books. He’s reading on his balcony when blood drips down from the corpse of his upstairs neighbour Laura, whose love he might have reciprocated had he been clear-headed enough to notice.
Ahmed, of course, wants to understand what’s happening. He’s the book’s third detective; the first two are Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot, an atheist Ashkenazi Jew from the neighbourhood and a Breton of Communist heritage; both, like Ahmad, are well versed in crime fiction, and both are “intellectual, cinephile types”. Karim Miské, the French-Mauritanian author, is a film-maker himself; his book is crammed with genre, literary and film references. One scene is set in ‘Chaim Potok high school’, for instance; the title alludes to James Ellroy’s novel “White Jazz”; and – as if the book were already a film – there’s a playlist of songs at the back.
The characters are strong and various, from the young, second-generation Muslim and Jewish north African immigrants – the girls generally better adjusted than the boys – through such predictable figures as a Turkish kebab-shop proprieter and a Portuguese concierge, to the more surprising – an Armenian anarchist, for instance, or a Hasidic Rastafarian who produces a messianically-sanctioned MDMA-variant called Godzwill.
There’s an implicit commentary here on the new phenomenon of gangster-Salafism: “craving the validation of others … they were frequently tempted to reverse the feeling of stigma, to brand themselves proudly with the very religion which brought them such relentless contempt.” But the implicit critique of religion itself – of “those who clog up their depths, their inner space, with the concrete of certainty” – extends to political and social certainties too. Everyone’s been damaged by their heritage; everyone’s vulnerable to inner darkness and the explanatory narcotic of grand narrative.
“Arab Jazz” is a genre novel in the same way that “Pulp Fiction” is a genre film – superceding the form even as it pays homage. It’s a trans-continental identity novel, dramatising the painful contradictions and fertile syntheses of contemporary multicultural life, focussing on racial discrimination in Morocco as well as Paris. And it’s certainly a well-achieved literary novel, detailed with colours, tastes and flavours, sustaining a light and energetic comic tone even when the material is unrelentingly grim.
The settings are particularly rich, as Miské journeys confidently from his prime location as far as Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or to New York’s Watchtower, global HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and back and forth in time.
The dialogue can be somewhat clumsy, occasionally rendering the plot machinery too visible and the characters too obviously functional. In general there’s a little too much telling rather than showing – in the improbably self-revealing monologues of the police’s interviewees, for example, or the perfectly overheard street sermonising. Perhaps, as a detective story, the novel suffers a glut of too-easily-flowing information. This may irritate some genre readers, but it should be forgiven. “Arab Jazz” should be read charitably as a pushing beyond realism rather than a failure to achieve it. There’s something theatrical in Miské’s world; it’s as if the detective-readers witness performances, or discover texts, instead of teasing out meaning from an inscrutable and intransigent reality. Miské is a writer enjoying himself, playing on his scales, improvising sometimes, his subplots and walk-on acts fed deftly into the whole. The monologues are instrumental solos; the rhythms are propulsive. Like jazz, it’s complicated, but sounds beautifully simple.
This review was published at the Guardian.
Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’
January 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
This essay first appeared in The Drouth (‘The Thirst’), a quarterly magazine published in Glasgow (Issue 50, Winter 2014/2015). I wrote it in December 2014.
The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Edinburgh University Press
Reviewed by Danny Postel
I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today—the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading—let alone reviewing—a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction.
But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:
- ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
- The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration—the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
- There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.
The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one: « Read the rest of this entry »
July 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
Martin Scorsese’s documentary film charting literary, political and cultural history as per the New York Review of Books, America’s leading journal of ideas since 1963.
June 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
I spent the last eight days on tour with Syria’s greatest novelist Khaled Khalifa, artist Khalil Younis, and writers Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen. We were promoting the Syria Speaks book, a collection of art, cartoons, essays, short stories and novel extracts from revolutionary Syria. It felt useful to approach the subject through human stories rather than banging the head against the tired old political discourses. I’m writing about the tour and book for a piece which should be published next month. In the meantime, here on BBC Radio 4′s Front Row, Khaled, Malu and I discuss the new culture, Khaled’s experience under bombs, and the ISIS phenomenon.
May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
I and lots of other writers participated in this BBC radio 4 programme on ‘British Muslim writing’. The programme is written and presented by Yasmin Hai. Those interested in this may also be interested in Clare Chambers’s book “British Muslim Fictions“.