SPREADING THROUGH American living rooms last winter, as live broadcasts streamed from Cairo's Tahrir Square, was an overdue recognition that Arabs and others in the Middle East were not so different after all, not inhibited by their culture and religion, for instance, from wanting modern political and economic systems. A young, university educated woman articulated in eloquent English her plans for reform. An older man, a shopkeeper, was ready to die to change a system he knew in his gut was wrong. Those who have spent time in the region could not help but feel relief, not only at the bursting-forth of new momentum for change, but at the shift in perceptions here at home. Then came the pop video "Voice of Freedom" by Mostafa Fahmy, showing families in the streets singing of their hopes for the future. The week Hosni Mubarak left office, "Voice of Freedom" reached 1.5 million YouTube hits.
This many could relate to. Protesters were not shouting for Allah to kill Jews and Westerners. They were demanding decency and dignity. Ordinary people rallied against violent intimidation and structural discrimination, for better jobs and an end to money-grabbing cronyism among elites. In Tunisia and Egypt, in Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Yemen and Syria, movements of various sizes and varying agendas began to form. Each country came into focus as distinct. Once these folks began inhabiting the west's laptop screens, we grew anxious to get to know them better. We craved — and still crave — more back story.
How timely, then, is the anthology Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Edited by Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism, the collection came out late last fall just before protests in Tunisia started the season of change. Digital media may have spurred aspiration into action, but it's the region's wealth of stories and poems that have animated the spirit behind the recent events. Al Jazeera's live webcasts were crucial, but so were the words of poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi's "The Will to Live," words activists chanted in Tunis as they began the wave of uprisings in January:
If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.
Tunisians recited these words in the 1950s as they fought for independence from France, and this year their children and grandchildren revived them. This poem, and others by al-Shabi, spread with the speed of a mouse click to Alexandria and Cairo, and now provide comfort to the friends and family of unarmed civilians recently killed by the regime in Syria (more than 1,500 as of this writing).
Aslan's collection makes clear that the Arab Spring of 2011 reflects not just frustration with 30 years of despotic regimes but a century spent grappling with a postcolonial search for identity. While Middle Eastern leaders strutted through the 20th century on the world's political stage and journalists offered vox pop reactions, indigenous writers were all the while voicing the historical undercurrents in their countries, largely unobserved by the West. "The only people who spoke truth to power," Aslan told me in a recent phone conversation, "were the writers."
Collaborating with Words Without Borders, a cross-cultural literary foundation, Aslan spent two years sifting through thousands of works brought to his attention by editors and scholars from the region. One quarter of the nearly 200 pieces presented here had never before been translated into English. Aslan, who holds a PhD in the Sociology of Religions and an MFA in Fiction, said that the more he delved, the more an overarching narrative emerged, a story of conflicted responses to Western influences — from North Africa to South Asia — and this narrative became his organizing principle.
Dedicated to the people of Iran, the anthology opens with "Blue, Grey, Black," a poem written by Iranian Hamid Mosadiq. The words date from 1969 but could have been written last week:
Why not make The East
Why not force open the hands of the vile?
If I rise,
if you arise,
everyone will be roused.
If I sit,
If you take a seat,
who will take a stand?
Who will fight the foe,
grapple the foul enemy hand to hand?
The title Tablet and Pen is from a poem in Urdu by Pakistani Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who expresses a writer's resolve to patiently document the experience of his people:
I shall not cease to feed this pen, but still,
Keep record of what things pass through the soul,
Still gather means for love to work its will,
Keep green this age round which blank deserts roll.
...Let others live for calm indifferent peace;
I listen to earth's pangs, and will not cease.
This volume contains ample poetry, along with short stories and novel excerpts, essays, memoir, and even spoken word. Many will recognize Khalil Gibran, Naguib Mahfouz, Orhan Pamuk and Mahmoud Darwish. But there are scores of others from Morocco to Yemen, previously unknown to even the better-read among us, who bring to life the smells and tastes, hopes and despairs of the region. When we spoke, Aslan said that, apart from Darwish, he'd deliberately chosen works that were actually written in the region, even if their authors, many of whom spent time in jail, later lived in exile.
Aslan conceived of the book as a history of the region viewed through the prism of literature, dividing the material into three stages: 1910 to 1950, when independence movements gained steam; 1950 to 1980, when populations settled for nationalism without democracy; and 1980 to 2010, when globalization moved local identities beyond parochialism. For the first two eras, Aslan further subdivided the material by the four linguistic groups he chose: Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Urdu.
Working within this schema, Aslan included writers from India but not Israel in his literary map of the region, prompting some critics to charge that, by omitting the Jewish state from the Middle East, his collection made a political statement. But Aslan says that his reasons were purely linguistic and literary, arguing that any attempt to define the "Middle East" is fraught: the term was an arbitrary construct of Western powers to delineate the area between Europe and the Far East. For this collection, he said, he sought a unifying concept of the Middle East that was less a geographic region than a specific historical and cultural designation: it is a sampling of writers responding to Western colonial domination. Further, he says, Hebrew as a language of creative expression had its locus outside the Middle East, in Europe and Russia, until the latter half of the 20th century. "Hebrew writing was not concerned with the same issues of identity formation in relation to anti-colonialism," Aslan explained. "Hebrew literature's concern with Jewish history and destiny does not fit with the larger themes."
Nonetheless, it is easy to argue that an anthology billed as a literary "mosaic" of the region - meant to break down cultural barriers - would have been further enriched by a Jewish-Israeli voice or two. (As a preemptive goodwill gesture, his introduction points readers to two anthologies of modern Israeli literature, translated from Hebrew.) Donning the historian's cap rather than conducting a full literary survey, Aslan chose to explore a dominant experience via the four most representative languages (Dari, spoken mainly in Afghanistan, was also left out). He designed the book not as a literary buffet from which to arbitrarily pluck nuggets of good writing, but as a narrative to be read from cover to cover; the anthology includes date charts and section introductions to guide the reader through the locales and eras.
One frustrating aspect of this layout is that the original publication dates are not affixed to the individual works, and author biographies printed only at the end of the collection, forcing the reader to frequently flip back and forth. I can understand the desire to allow the the writing to wash impressionistically over the reader as the book progresses, but given the huge variety of countries and political eras covered in the anthology, the historical narrative would be enhanced if the details of the specific writers' lives were positioned immediately next to their works.
Tablet & Pen provides an exquisite glimpse into life behind a century of headlines, in cafes and kitchens, schools and jails. We witness poverty and hierarchy, love and murder, family devotion and rape, humble pastoral settings and brutal violence. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of so many women writers from all four language groups, since these writers are even less well known in the West than their male counterparts. While most of the women's work emerges in the latter part of the last century, there is a striking earlier example of feminist sensibility in Persian poet Parvin E'Tesami, who died in 1941. In "Iranian Women" she writes:
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?...
...The field of knowledge yielded abundant fruit,
but women never had any share in this abundance.
A woman lived in a cage and died in a cage.
The name of this bird in the rose garden was never mentioned.
The suffering of the Palestinian people also reverberates throughout the anthology. The Aqsa Mosque, a poem written by Abd al-Rahim Mahmud more than a decade before the declaration of Israeli statehood, proved prescient:
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.
In Ghassan Kanafani's story "Letter from Gaza," the narrator explains to a friend why he will not, in the end, join him in America; he has changed his mind after visiting a niece who lost her leg as the result of an Israeli bombing. "I hated Gaza and its inhabitants," the narrator explains. "Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in gray by a sick man." And although he understands the liberation he might feel in "green California ... far from the reek of defeat that for seven years had filled my nostrils," he won't go to Sacramento. Instead he challenges the friend to come home, to come back and "learn from Nadia's leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth."
Ultimately, it is not the exposition of political realities that moves us. It is the power of pure story to tap into our common experience. In "The Refugees," Pakistani writer Abdullah Hussein articulates a son's relationship with his father in a way that transcends cultures. When the man is unexpectedly questioned by his son about running away to Bombay as a youth to become a movie actor, he feels as if the boy "had pierced the thin, invisible membrane on the other side of which he lived in his world of terrible solitude," and what had been "a distant emotion" surprises him with "its sudden, inexorable closeness." Later, when the man is rapt in a frenzy of kicking and arm swinging while re-enacting for his son a swordfight from the one film in which he managed to appear, Hussein identifies "an instant" in which "every boy comes to recognize, unmistakenly, his father in the man before him."
What's exciting in this collection is the sheer amount of good writing. It brings us worlds that are new yet ring familiar, immersing us, in the way that only good writers can, in others's tales and making them our own. The best among these selections plunge us into the stuff of the Middle East, into its erotic longings and squalid nooks, into its most sublime and messiest moments. Refit Halit Karay's "The Gray Donkey," for instance, transports us through rural Turkey:
They moved puzzledly in a haze of smoke and light, sending flashes of light into darkened corners with their lamps and, inadvertently, kicking hardened lumps of manure. This was one of the naked, trackless, wretched villages of Anatolia, two days by road from the nearest town.
In "The Dance of the Savage Prairies," Syrian author Haydar Haydar describes the life of an outlaw in Algeria:
At one point he felt he had become a different person while she talked to him of the conditions of beggars, hoboes, of naked, hungry people plunging like dogs into garbage bins in search of a crust of bread: while she talked of the insane whose nerves had been destroyed by the war, of the unemployed, of the retired fighters, of the thieves and of the peasants inhabiting tin shacks while the oppressors, heirs of the invaders, occupied the palaces, the farms, the beaches, and the parks, all the while sucking the blood of the homeland forcibly and violently.
Throughout the volume, there are few references to Islamic thought or Muslim religious identities. Muslim life is ever present, an organic part of the landscapes evoked, but Aslan's mission, as he has often professed in public interviews, is to show us a Middle East not framed by 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Islamophobia rampant in certain quarters.
The Arab Spring uprisings and the muted response to Osama bin Laden's death underscore the limited appeal of religious fundamentalism for the majority of Middle Easterners. The editor of Tablet & Pen could not have predicted recent events when he began the project, but he sensed there was a need for a different lens. "Literature, " Aslan told me, "is the universal language that allows us to get beyond our differences, to really get to know each other as human beings. " As a sign of his dedication to this idea he is donating his proceeds from the book to Words Without Borders, which posts on its website English translations of foreign authors, in the belief that global citizens must be aware of global literature. Tablet and Pen alone features 77 different translators. Some readers will want to explore the work of certain authors further; I have already ordered Sadegh Hedayat's 1937 Iranian classic, The Blind Owl.
Still, Aslan has been surprised at just how hungry readers are for literary material from the Middle East. The book has gone through three major printings already, and news events will surely drive future sales. An anthology of Middle East writing in the coming years may require the title iPad and Cell Phone rather than Tablet & Pen. But the success of Aslan's collection shows that, even in a media-saturated age, we still need to go beyond the headlines and video clips, to a literature that provides a quiet haven of deeper understanding. This work not only brings us up to date on the region, it reminds us of literature's vital link to identity.