August 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
An edited version of this review appeared at the National.
This story starts with a birth and a departure, in Jerusalem in 1948. The birth is Omar Bakry’s, and it orphans him. The departure, alongside three quarters of a million others, is his forced expulsion from Palestine. “We’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” one fatefully quips.
Omar, now in the care of a neighbouring family, relocates to Damascus, where the novel unfolds through the fifties and sixties, both an engaging romance and a convincing period drama.
Lilas Taha writes in American English. My British-English ear found it difficult at first to believe in old-fashioned Arabs saving each others’ asses and getting in each others’ faces. The effect was exacerbated by occasionally clumsy dialogue. Real Palestinian-Syrians would see no need to specify, for example, “the ruling Baath Party” or “the actress Souad Hosni”. Realism is lost at moments such as these when the novel, veering into explanatory overstatement, seems too obviously an act of cultural translation. It might have been better to write a preface, or to add footnotes.
But as the pages turn, slowly but surely, the characters come entirely credibly to life. We learn a great deal about them by observing their negotiations of etiquette and social ritual as they traverse a domestic danger zone marked by deaths, difficult births, precarious marriages, and looming scandals.
The cast is close-knit. Mustafa is a farmer denied his land whose lungs are broken in a wool factory. The book’s title comes from his mouth, and provides a wisdom for the drama: “The bitter almonds make you savour the sweet ones more.” His wife Subhia, their son Shareef and daughters Huda and Nadia, make up Omar’s surrogate family.
Taha depicts them trying to make ends meet, their life in cramped quarters, male and female sleeping areas demarcated by a blanket, and the profound familiarities and festering resentments which grow in such conditions.
July 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
This appeared first at The National.
Plenty of news flows out from Gaza, but very little human information. This emotional blackout bothered Ra Page, founder of Comma Press, a Manchester-based publisher producing groundbreaking short story collections. It was Comma that gave the astounding Iraqi surrealist writer Hassan Blasim his first break. Comma has published a high-quality series of literary responses to scientific innovations as well as several collections based around cities such as Tokyo, Istanbul and Liverpool. Why not Gaza too?
“My rather naive idea with The Book of Gaza,” writes Page, “was to try to inch the city ever so slightly closer to a state of familiarity, to establish it as a place and not just a name, through the simple details that a city’s literature brings with it – the referencing of street names, the name-dropping of landmarks and districts.”
The book was by no means the first literary project to aim in some way to normalise Palestinian life. Since 2008 the Palestinian Festival of Literature (Palfest), brainchild of novelist Ahdaf Soueif, has tried to reaffirm, in Edward Said’s phrase, “the power of culture over the culture of power”. In practical terms, this means transforming a literature festival into a roadshow – Jerusalem one night, Bethlehem another, Ramallah on a third… Though these places are only a few miles apart, checkpoints prevent Palestinians from travelling between them. So the guest writers travel to their audience, and at the same time learn something of Palestine’s enormous creativity. This stateless nation has boasted many great literary talents, most notably Mahmoud Darwish and Mourid Barghouti in poetry and Ghassan Kanafani in prose. Meanwhile there are burgeoning film and music (especially hip hop) scenes.
For decades writers had to smuggle their manuscripts out of Gaza to presses in Jerusalem, Cairo or Beirut. The shorter the text, the more likely it was to be published. As a result, the Strip became an “exporter of oranges and short stories.” Edited by novelist and journalist Atef Abu Saif, The Book of Gaza contains stories from three generations. It achieves both the sense of place that Page hoped for and ‘familiarity’ through its treatment of universal themes. The stories are as likely to deal with women “besieged by preconceptions” (in Najlaa Ataallah’s words) as the seige imposed by Israel. The project succeeded in ‘depoliticising’ Gaza, at least to some extent.
But then, immediately after publication, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Story contributors were directly affected by the assault. Writer Asmaa al-Ghoul, for instance, lost nine members of her extended family. Page was driven to this bleak conclusion: “There is no stability in Gaza on which to build a reader-familiarity.”
July 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
This was first published at NOW.
In the Arab world, the public declaration of religious disbelief is as taboo as the open profession of homosexuality. Publically-declared atheists and agnostics can wave goodbye to social respect, marriage prospects, even legal recognition. Yet a 2012 poll in Saudi Arabia – a state whose legal system equates atheism with terrorism, and which potentially applies the death penalty to apostates – found that 19% described themselves as ‘not religious’ and a further 5% as atheists.
In his new book “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East” (soon to be translated into Arabic as ‘Arab bala Rab’) journalist Brian Whitaker interviews activist and quietist unbelievers from around the region, and investigates the pressures ranged against them. Most usefully, the book provokes a question – how can a revived Arab secularism (freed from the taint of the so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships) provide a future in which the rights of religious majorities as well as unbelieving or sectarian minorities will be respected and strengthened?
Demands to believe and submit go far beyond religion. Whitaker quotes sociologist Haleem Barakat, who noted that, like God, the Arab head of state and the Arab family patriarch require absolute respect and unquestioning compliance. “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.” (This is why ‘rab’ – which means ‘Lord’ rather than only the monotheist God – is as apt a translation as ‘Allah’ for the book’s Arabic title). So intellectual atheism is perceived as an attack on family and state, and on community solidarity. The contemporary politicisation of religious identity makes unbelief akin to treason in some minds; for this reason minority sects, dissenters and atheists are frequently seen as fifth columnists, agents weakening state and nation on behalf of foreign powers.
Identity politics in the region took on its modern forms with the building of centralised nation states. Nationalism itself was an assertion of a politicised cultural identity, first against the Ottomans, then against the European empires. For the new rulers of post-independence states, a fear of disloyal communities turned to a generalised rage for homogeneity – ‘the good citizen’, depending on where they found themselves, was to be an Arab, or a Muslim, (or a Turk, or a Jew) as imagined by the state. Many states standardised dress, dialect and worship.
The state’s top-down approach to culture is infectious. Opposition groups too, whether nationalist, leftist or Islamist, have sought to emulate the rulers by seizing control of the state apparatus and imposing their vision from above.
June 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
This review appeared at the Guardian.
In “The Outsider”, Albert Camus’s iconic tale of alienation, ennui and ruthless honesty, the anti-hero Meursault murders an Arab on the beach at Algiers simply because the sun gets in his eyes. “The Meursault Investigation”, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s first novel, winner of the Goncourt prize and from now on an indispensable companion to Camus, is narrated by the brother of the murdered Arab.
In a frame reminiscent of Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, the tale is told in a bar in Oran, “a city with its legs spread open towards the sea,” and addressed one-sidedly to a Western literature student. The narrator intends to construct his own story by using “the murderer’s words and expressions” like the “stones from the old houses the colonists left behind.”
According to him, the dead Arab in Camus’s book was “a brief Arab, technically ephemeral”; nameless, he “had the name of an incident”. But now we learn his name – Musa, a Moses bearing a text on his back (“The Outsider” instead of the Ten Commandments). The narrator, his brother Harun (Aaron), pays homage to, critiques, summarises, analyses, refutes, echoes, quotes and competes with “The Outsider”, and other Camus texts too. In reference to “The Myth of Sisyphus” Harun speaks of “the absurdity of my condition, which consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled down, endlessly.”
All this of course wields symbolic power. Harun is an ur-Algerian reflecting on colonialism, the legacy of thousands of Meursaults and their callous indifference to Arab life. In that sense the novel contains a definite element of the empire speaking back. Yet the narrator rejects simplistic anti-colonial allegorising. “A few decades ago,” he says, “I would have served you up the version with the prostitute slash Algerian land and the settler who abuses her with repeated rapes and violence.” But Harun has since witnessed “the post-Independence enthusiasm consume itself and the illusions collapse.” The liberated capital looks like “an outdated actress left over from the days of revolutionary theatre” (the novel overbrims with such unsettling female images).
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.