As a Black writer, I was expected to accept the role of victim. That made it difficult in the beginning to be a writer. James Baldwin
I often feel that there must have been something that I should’ve done that I didn’t do. But I can’t identify what it is that I didn’t do. That’s the first difficulty. And the second is, what makes you think you’re it?
Harry Belafonte, activist and singer at 89
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble; It's what you know for sure that just ainst so.
You can't be brave if you've only had wonderful things happen to you.
Mary Tyler Moore
You can’t defend Christianity by being against refugees and other religions
"I don't have to be what you want me to be". Muhammad Ali
"The Secret of Living Well and Longer: eat half, walk double, laugh triple, and love without measure" attributed to Tibetan sources
Recent audio posts include interviews with Rumi interpreter Shahram Shiva, London-based author Aamer Hussein, South African Muslim scholar, professor Farid Esack, and Iraqi journalist Nermeen Al-Mufti's brief account of Kirkuk City history. Your comments on our blogs are always welcome.
- In The Language of Miracles
- Reviewed by BNAziz
Is Fiction Sometimes The Best Journalism? A Muslim Case Study.
A Muslim youth commits a terrible violent crime and then takes his own life. His suburban family, immigrants in the US for more than two decades is advised to relocate; his parents are divided over how to handle the crisis; his teenage siblings, shunned and mocked by classmates, retreat into fantasy; the community in which they were once so nicely integrated spurns them.
The scenario could be any national news story. Whatever the perpetrator’s motive or mental state, his crime is a ‘Muslim’ one-- an uncivil act; everything associated with him becomes tainted. The religion itself is blighted and criminalized. The violence is seen as further evidence that Islam bears responsibility.
Our media’s preoccupation with and prejudgment of this category of crime is so intense that Muslims find themselves floundering in its wake. With regular frequency, Muslim writers pen commentaries explaining our angst, and cohorts of Muslim spokespeople appear on TV to refute generalizations about Islam and to assure others of the peace-loving nature of our religion and our community.
We know the scenario too well. Yet those eloquent efforts seem naïve, ineffective and superficial. At the same time we find precious few attempts by our Muslim creative community to explore the human repercussions of these events at a deeper level:--through novels, film and drama.
I can think of just three writers, Hanif Kureishi, Wajahat Ali and Laila Halaby who’ve addressed Muslim family experience in these turbulent decades in the West where our social lives are thrown into turmoil, where we are psychologically traumatized, and where our own spiritual values are undermined. (“My Son the Fanatic”, a 1994 story by London-based Kureishi was made into an excellent film; Ali’s 2005 play “Domestic Crusaders” was later published as a book; Halaby’s novel “Once in a Promised Land” appeared in 2007. I suppose we could include “My Name Is Khan” a 2010 Indian-produced film set largely in the USA.)
We now have a novel that tackles this contemporary theme in a fresh and effective approach. Rajia Hassib’s http://www.rajiahassib.com/#!bio/c1ktj “In the Language of Miracles” (Viking, 2015) explores how one American Muslim family is impacted by violence. I don’t know if Hassib intended her fictional piece to be a domestic prism through which to view the American Muslims’ experience of “terror” in our midst. Because there’s nothing explicit here about what’s commonly labeled “Islamic terror”. For me however, her story is essentially a metaphor of our recurring nightmare– “Islamic violence” directed at Western targets.
The plot of “In the Language of Miracles” is an astute tactic to remove the crime from its normally fraught political context to explore what transpires when a simple youth, motivated by jealousy, family tensions and personal stress, carries out an ordinary (American) killing. What happens to his family and his community?”
This cleverly crafted story opens with a veiled reference to a past family tragedy when Cynthia, a (white) neighbor invites the Al-Menshawy (Muslim) family to a forthcoming event; it’s the first anniversary memorial of her daughter Nathalie’s death. The invitation precipitates divisions among family members: Samir, the father and a successful doctor, his wife Nagla suffering from unspecified ailments, their son Khaled, their daughter Fatima, and Nagla’s mother Ehsan visiting from overseas. Each reacts differently to the neighbor’s invitation and we are pulled into the evolving drama over the few days between that awkward announcement and the ceremony itself. We soon learn that the al-Menshawys not only also lost a child, Hosaam, by suicide; it was their son who killed Nathalie, his longtime childhood friend.
We hardly have time to mourn Hosaam or to learn his motives since author Hassib’s story focuses around Nathalie’s approaching memorial which is to be a community affair with speeches and a tree planting. Flyers are posted on social media and across the town, stirring up the community’s grief and anger; not unexpectedly much emotion is directed at the killer’s family.
What should they do? Samir insists they attend the memorial where he intends to make a statement. Nagla rejects this; she’s unfocused and indolent, a condition likely precipitated by the death of Hosaam. Her surviving son Khaled is withdrawn while Fatima tries to ride above the fray. (She has recently befriended another Muslim girl and is perhaps becoming more devout.) Khaled, rejected by all but one school friend, retreats into social media and seeks out a young woman in New York City. With this stranger he’s able to share his distress and revisit events leading to Hosaam’s action. He returns to his troubled home in New Jersey in time for the memorial but too late to rescue his father from his blundering performance there.
The story is presented through Khaled’s eyes, from his grandmother’s pseudo-Islamic incantations and dream interpretations during a childhood illness to his alienation from his brother, the son for whom Samir had high expectations. (In the final chapter we find Khaled and his sister residing in the US while their father, humiliated after his misstep at the memorial, has returned to Egypt with Nagla and their grandmother.)
To build the character of Samir whose psychology Hassib seems most interested in exploring, she takes us back to his arrival in New York as a medical graduate from Egypt to begin his residency. While achieving his ambitions of establishing his own clinic and enjoying social acceptance among Americans, Samir has eschewed his Egyptian culture and his religion. Yet he misreads the very culture he feels so proud to be part of; his children are unanchored and his wife is ill. Worst, he completely disregards his own son’s death anniversary.
Tellingly, the least acculturated family member, grandmother Ehsan, offers her folk remedies, common sense, and some invocations of Islamic texts that she barely understands to address the pain of her traumatized family. She alone seems to possess the cultural integrity to properly recognize the death anniversary of their child Hosaam. In familiar simple Islamic tradition she prepares special pastries and goes to the cemetery to commute with his spirit (and to scrub offensive graffiti off his gravestone) where she also consoles a grieving stranger at a nearby grave.
- Brick Lane
- Reviewed by
The boundaries of inventiveness are continually being challenged and breached in literature. How glorious. The latest such outbreak is in the writing of Monica Ali. Brick Lane, Ali’s first novel, is a complex and satisfying piece of writing. Only recently, 5 years after its publication, I sat down to read this young woman’s work. What a thrill.
I knew that since the appearance of Brick Lane, Ali achieved wide recognition. But this book still astonished me; it is more than the work of a good storyteller. It is a multi-layered story with a new kind of heroine, a British immigrant, a woman, a Muslim. (Ali’s characters in this novel are only excelled by those of Hanif Kuraishi.)
Brick Lane invites us to taste immigrant experience in full splendor. This novel blends fantasy, family conflict, letters from a sister in
, and the ever so slow maturity of our heroine Nazneen. Nazneen had an inauspicious birth in the homeland, and was taught to ‘endure’… everything (at times infuriating for the reader.) When swept into a marriage that lands her in Bangladesh , she clings to that philosophy. Nazneen tolerates a failed husband Chanu who, although clumsy and pompous, clutches a commendable philosophy. While this does not bring him success in London , he speaks some truths. England
Following the downturn of Chanu’s fortune and the emerging independence of Nazneen, we meet a host of believable, refreshing characters in the
council estate where Nazneen resides. Each one, whether a forlorn family doctor and his wild wife, neighborhood women who range from the naïve to the cunning to the dreamy, her own truculent daughter, her hapless lover, fills in the British immigrant landscape. London
Perhaps in an attempt at political reality Ali has Nazneen stumble into an organizing meeting of local Muslims. One the surface they represent hope... and danger. This may be Monica Ali’s attempt to acknowledge real threats faced by disillusioned British Muslims. The eventual collapse of the group may be the author’s way of ridiculing immigrant Muslim leadership. Or it may serve to send our heroine elsewhere.
The heartwarming letters to Nazneen from her sister Hasina in
may be another message from the author. Hasina’s compassion tells us that humanity survives there, even though it may be missing from the lives of Bangladeshi in the Bangladesh . If Hasina can overcome what has befallen her at home, surely there is redemption for Nazeem. UK
Our Muslim author also skillfully weaves the reality of migrated Islam. The people of Brick Lane are not pious Muslims (not at this point in the story), but their prayers and practices are ever present, in fragments, in a vague memory of home, in terms of habit, constantly interrupted by unimportant daily preoccupations. All religion-related episodes in the story tell us that everything in this arena of their lives is unsettled and unreliable. Nevertheless, our heroine can and does finde meaning.
- The Future of the Mind
Michio Kaku, scientist and talk-radio host
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
I’ve decided to learn as much as I can about brain physics. No, I haven’t been diagnosed with a frightening disease. I’m reading “The Future of the Mind” by Michio Kaku.
Kaku, besides being a renowned theoretical physicist and teacher, is someone with whom I shared an affection for radio, and the airwaves of 99.5 fm. in New York. We both hosted our weekly programs at WBAI Radio; he still hosts “Exploration” airing 2-3 p.m. Saturdays which is now widely syndicated.
One of the first journalistic science programs of its kind, “Exploration” on WBAI was initially a forum to expose the dangers of nuclear power and to advocate anti-nuclear policies. It grew into a review of cutting edge science, where Kaku spoke directly with researchers and took listeners’ questions by phone.
The best way to make science comprehensible is through public dialogues like “Exploration”; it was surely the foundation of Kaku’s emergence as a leading popularizer of science. Reading “The Future of the Mind”, we see how Kaku’s interviews with fellow scientists connected an enormous range of research. In his latest book, he credits more than 200 scientists (many over WBAI airwaves) he interviewed.
In 2001, Kaku expanded his reach, hosting “Parallel Universes”, a BBC television series on the cosmos. (His books had already attracted public attention: “Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension”, and “Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century and Beyond” were followed in 2008 by the even more daring “Physics of the Impossible”.) As his influence grew and he is a frequent guest on mainstream television, Kaku remains anchored in radio.
Kaku can make the fantastic (but not impossible) intellectually appealing to the average person; and if he inspires me to learn more about my brain, imagine how young people respond.
Although we will doubtless hear much more from this brilliant physicist/journalist, Kaku’s “The Future of the Mind” may represent the zenith of a career that integrates disparate fields of research and demonstrates commonality between the laws of physics, the cosmos, and the human brain.
Kaku is certainly daring, defining the fuzzy line between science fiction and what’s “possible”. As a child, he says, he was inspired by Sci-Fi books and films. It seems this continues into his career as a theoretical physicist and author; he frequently invokes fantastic events we’ve witnessed in popular Sci-Fi films.
In his introduction to this latest bestseller, Kaku writes: “There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, roughly the same as the number of neurons in our brain. You may have to travel 24 trillion miles to the first star outside our solar system to find an object as complex as what is sitting on your shoulders. The mind and the universe pose the greatest scientific challenge of all… one is concerned with the vastness of outer space, the other with inner space..the mind...” Among other things this book demonstrates how “the universe and the mind continue to intersect...” Wow!
- The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
Good writers are always looking for a new ways to tell a story. It’s not just the plot of a book, or the research; a story must be a seamlessly woven fabric.
Non-fiction writers are as occupied as novelists with the craft of writing. And Rafia Zakaria is such a writer. She has chosen a fairly simple but not customary way to tell the history of her country, Pakistan. It’s part memoir, part journalism, told through a series of specific events where women are central players. (As such, this is a welcome alternative to history as told through men’s achievements or follies.)
“The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” opens before the author’s birth and far from Pakistan at her grandparents Bombay home prior to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1948, and moves through the founding of Pakistan, on to Bengal, part of which succeeded from Pakistan in the 1971 war to become Bangladesh, then the tumult within the region known today as Pakistan. From its pains and promises, Zakaria extracts political highlights, some of which had modest beginnings, often inspired by women, whether students or the daughters or wives of notable political leaders—from ordinary women to would-be prime-minister Benazir Bhutto.
Rafia’s family history is based on the author’s memory of her household in Karachi. Those passages offer the intimacy of Pakistani life with its marriages, festivals and visitors. The household and the neighborhood grow, fields receding as the city bursts with shops and houses, markets and traffic. This dimension of Pakistan, Zakaria juxtaposes in alternating chapters with events from Pakistan’s often tumultuous political history.
Within the family, Zakaria focuses on her aunt Amina whose carefully arranged marriage is fractured when, unable to bear a child, she is shunted aside to allow her husband to take a second wife. Although Zakaria never engages directly with Amina in this story, we assume the tragedy had a profound impact on the author and she uses it to understand deeper dynamics at work. She sees the fragility of her hapless aunt, relegated to a secondary position in an upstairs apartment, first as an expression of the vulnerability of women, but also as the tenuous process of Pakistan’s nationhood. First Pakistan was split off from India, then East Pakistan succeeded to become independent Bangladesh.
Zakaria’s approach to history is effective, providing both intimacy and momentum. We can see pain and promise in the drama of family life and on the national stage. We are introduced through the book to a cast of determined, talented and successful women.
I refer you my commentary on this book where I highlight the author’s concern with addressing misrepresentations of Asian culture though western media.
Published by Beacon Prsss, 2015
- Poetic Injustice:Writings on Resistance and Palestine
- Reviewed by Sami Kishawi
Remi Kanazi’s Poetic Injustice drives to the core of human struggle. His gritty and brazen style pierces the thick curtain of prejudice, intolerance, and blatant hypocrisy draping the Middle East and exposes the daily realities of a Palestinian people hardened by the humiliation and abuse legitimized through the world’s silence.
Kanazi’s articulate style of writing redefines prose; this, balanced with his uncanny ability to conjure up the most powerful images of life thousands of miles away, shows that he really masters the art of storytelling within the form of this seventy-six page book. Poetic Injustice does justice for the human cause.
Each poem in the collection deals with a familiar theme, an honest rendition of the ultimate human experience: war, displacement, racism, facing life’s impending difficulties. Each line forces readers to revisit any preconceived notions of the oppressed. Each word redefines the concept of mutual understanding. Each message contained within this work of textual art hits hard. Make sure you’re sitting in a reinforced chair before cracking the cover.
Remi cleverly designed this book as a manifesto for the morally conscious, those individuals who demand change for the better, the adults and the children who strive for social responsibility, equality, and self-preservation for all. Poetic Injustice is an authentic account of the wrongs that we as conscious brothers and sisters visit on one another, wrongs we can no longer ignore.
As Remi writes, “sometimes a hand in the face is as powerful as a pistol”. It is a common message delivered in a unique and eye-opening way. Put Poetic Injustice at the front of your reading list and make a difference in the world.
Published: 2011, www.PoeticInjustice.net
Reviewer Sami Kishawi is an activist & blogger of Sixteen Minutes to Palestine <http://smpalestine.com/>
- Scheherazade: Tell Me A Story
Yousry Nasrallah, Director, Egypt
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
Is this film a story about women in Arab society? Or about corruption?
Yousry Nasrallah’s 2009 film “Scheherazade: Tell Me A Story” is billed as a tale about women in Cairo. I disagree.
True, women’s lives define the narrative of “Scheherazade". But I wonder if the main message of this film lies elsewhere. The misreading of the story is important because, given prevailing images of women in Arab society, I fear that viewers in the West will walk away talking about abuse Arab women encounter at the hands of men rather than the deeper social message.
First of all, let me say that this “Scheherazade” is a powerful work and should be seen. Writer Wahid Hamed is to be congratulated along with director Nasrallah. It is a moving and brilliantly performed production, with first class acting. Shown in Egypt to wide acclaim, the film has also won several major international awards, another testimony to its excellence. Even so, New York audiences only had an opportunity to see “Scheherazade” this August, two years after its release, at the Africa Diaspora Film Festival.
In a panel discussion with the audience after the film was screened in New York, questions focused exclusively on the relation of Arab women to Arab men and their Arab society. The cultural stereotypical imprint of gender inequality in Arab culture, so deeply embedded in the western mind, threatened to dominate the dialogue. My co-panelist Ginan Rauf rightly asks: “If this were set in another place, would we not be able to see the narrative as a ‘story’ of individual lives rather than a portrayal of a culture?” She asks that audiences try to see the individual people in this story. Rauf added to our understanding with details about Nasrallah’s past work, his early training as an economist, his career in journalism and his wider philosophy. Nasrallah, she points out, has emerged as a major world director, with his special imprint.
Fellow panelist Aydin Baltaci widened the issues further with his comments on artistic strategies used by the director to achieve the dramatic effect. For him the main drama was the compelling and tragic story of three sisters who fought over the affections of a simple but opportunistic young laborer running their deceased father’s shop. Baltaci drew parallels between this and other well known dramas focused on the dynamic of three sisters.
Most of us agreed that, as portrayed in the stories told to heroine Hebba, a Cairo talk show host in “Scheerazade”, in the course of her live interviews with three women, men are domineering, cruel and selfish. All the women are engaged in a constant battle for their rights. We find no redeeming male anywhere in the story.
The three cases, relived through dramatic flashbacks, revealed by the women, each telling her story on TV, are threaded together by interludes where we witness the relation of heroine TV host Hebba and her ambitious husband, a not very successful print journalist. It is in these episodes, that the real plot of the story unfolds. Here the corruption of Egypt’s media industry is exposed. Hebba has been attacking politicians head on in her interviews, but under pressure from her husband re the danger (to his career) of these confrontations, she agrees to abandon this theme out of affection for her young, seductive husband.
Hebba continues the live TV show, but now focuses her investigations on the lives of women. The three women she chooses are bold and frank. Invariably their histories all lead back to the issue of exploitation by men, and their stories either finger prominent men in the capital or the corrupted system of family values. Although Hebba feels she is simply revealing these women’s private lives and not dealing with politics, her angry husband shouts back the truth: “Everything is political”. Meanwhile his career prospects are sinking.
The summary: three women, each from a different background, and with different experiences, find their lives are circumscribed, at one level or other, by the ambitions of men, and the wider culture of corruption in which they must operate. The women are abused—although all fight back—but the men are perhaps abused even more by their deep and direct involvement within the corrupt system, currying favor with officials and bosses, asserting their prowess. In the end Hebba too cannot escape its grip on her marriage. For me this film as essentially a story about corruption in the male dominated society, and how, it reaches, by one means or another into every home, and into every marriage and thereby to every woman.
The redeeming message could be “women fight back, whereas men do not”, this even though women pay heavy price for their resistance. Nawaal Saadawi could have written this film. So I ask, why is it that so much good fiction, or pseudo-fictional stories on gender are produced by men?
- The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
Thankfully, browsing bookshelves can still be an adventure.
There’s no end to new books worth reading, and those of us who enjoy literature have lists of ‘to order’ and ‘to read’. Best sellers compete for our leisure hours; literary prizes point us to new talent. Rather than preparing myself for conversations about Patrick Modiano, this year’s Nobel author, my hand rests on a volume by 1988 Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
Hmm; how did I miss this? “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma” (1983) by the acclaimed Egyptian writer is new to me. Eclipsed by Mahfouz’s popular Cairo series and omitted in his many online biographies, this is surely an overlooked masterpiece. So timely. This simple parable resonates especially poignantly today as we innocent mortals traverse our world of endless wars.
The universal relevance of Mahfouz’s 1983 “The Journey” is surely affirmation of his genius as a writer and political philosopher.
Several layers of morality thread through this short but complex story: there’re the traveler-merchants, protected and untouched, who journey through a series of cultures and wars, profiting as they continue unconcerned with either the morality or any suffering they witness, gliding amorally to their next marketplace. (For me they are Mahfouz’ primary target for criticism.) Accompanying them is Qindil, a young man who has left his home after betrayal by his teacher and his family. He shares the merchants’ immunity but he is more curious and so he dallies.
Qindil claims he’s in search of Gebel, a land of purported purity. Although he knows nothing of its merits and meets no one who’s been there. This traveler, himself from the unidentified, fuzzy ‘land of Islam’, confronts a series of ‘civilizations’— each a land which in its individual way, seems to be a utopia. Each claims religious integrity. Blind to their own deficits, none doubt their superiority which in the end will prove their destruction. And each nation confidently welcomes Qindil, luring him with irresistible hospitality. Is Mahfouz remarking on his society’s values? Or is the story simply a means of moving his protagonist through history? I am uncertain.
Qindil arrives first at Mishraq, a moon-worshipping pagan land of free love where he finds a partner and fathers four sons. He’s ultimately driven from there to the land of Haira –he is welcome here too--which also claims it embodies all that humans desire and need. The same in Halba, the hero’s next destiny. Then on to Aman, and finally to Ghuroub. Readers may identify Mishraq as an aboriginal society, Halba as a capitalist haven, and Aman as a socialistic utopia. Regardless, each people believe theirs is the zenith of human existence. Each proudly accepts that heading its utopia, is an authority whose rights and powers are unquestioned.
Yet war seems to prevail wherever Qindil finds himself. The land of Haira must conquer Mishraq; then Halba is drawn into war and takes control of Aman, then Ghuroub must be subdued. Each conquest seems inevitable and morally wholesome as well. Wars are acts of grace rather than of ambition or ill will.
Qindil moves naively through these lands, withholding judgment whether or not he is mistreated. Whatever love he enjoys, he is able to move on. His sole aim, he claims, is knowledge and he seeks out the wise men in each place he enters.
Predictably, our traveler never reaches Gebel, his purported goal. And he also never seems to acquire the knowledge he asserts is his noble ambition.
Read this story and decide its message for yourself. You’ll find more meanings than I’ve discerned here. And you’ll certainly be struck by Mahfouz’ message on how humans rationalize our endless wars.
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
I first saw this book in the airport before I was about to depart New York for Damascus. The name "Zeitoun", olive, is a popular word in Arabic, and the a common Arab family name. Still I did not realize the importance of the story until a year later when I actually took it in hand to read.
Dave Eggers is now a widely known because of his authorship of this book, and the earlier biography/novel “What is the What”, which I am currently reading.
It seems that Eggers has introduced a most effective, convincing way to tell the dramatic story of his subjects. Extensive recording of a man’s life story, then lightly fictionalized. "Zeitoun" is the account of an American family over a two year period. It is a simple family, as unremarkable as so many millions in the landscape of American history. Abdulrahman Zeitoun has a wife Kathy and four children, the oldest of which is a boy from her first marriage. Together this ordinary couple run a family house construction and repair business. Their days are full —driving children to school, supervising workers, meeting deadlines, bar-B-Q’s in the yard, visiting extended family.
Then hurricane Katrina emerges and heads into their neighborhood in New Orleans. Kathy departs for higher ground in another city with the children; Zeitoun remains in New Orleans to board up houses of neighbors and secure his own properties.
He is an un-heroic fellow who finds he is needed by neighbors, abandoned animals, and three other men in the neighborhood who also remained through the storm. When Zeitoun goes missing after a week, his wife begins to worry. So does his brother Ahmed in Spain.
Zeitoon and his fellow survivors are incommunicado, have been picked up by federal authorizes. For looting.
The tension created by these two locations—Zeitoun in the flood and then in prison, and his family in a distant cit, frantic about his welfare-- is moderated by flashbacks of Zeitoun and Kathy’s early lives in the US, and his youth in Syria, his brothers and his father at sea, his own wanderings around the world, ending up, almost by chance in New Orleans. Compared to his earlier life, the domestic scene they inhabit in the US is rather uneventful.
What makes the book special for me is Eggers’ presentation of the life of the man Abdulrahman Zeitoun, both his heroism in the storm, his determined prayer and belief in himself, his day to day offhand description of his treatment like a caged animal. First we experience Zeitoun and Kathy’s Islam as a very ordinary matter woven humbly into their common American days; then we experience the devastating Katrina hurricane as a calamity; and finally we are confronted by the behavior of federal enforcement authorities during the storm. I read many criticisms of the blunders of authorities, the racism behind the inaction, the incompetency, the priority given to ‘security’, the corruption pervading reconstruction of the city. I watched Spike Lee’s critical film of the affair in “When the Levies Broke”.
Only in this book, in the almost understated words of Zeitoun, do I feel the outrage of the whole affair, especially the caging of American and denial of their rights by the faceless, cold men and women who our government trains in the name of to ‘protecting this land’. But neither author Eggers nor Zeitoun use such harsh words. They just give us the facts.
One congratulates Eggers on his writing and his respect for people that allows them to entrust their story to him. For me, an anthropologist, Eggers illustrates the best in social and political documentary.
"Zeitoun" was published in 2009 by McSweenys.com
- The Butterfly Mosque
G Willow Wilson
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
With a title like Butterfly Mosque, I thought, this book promises something special. It was Sally, a young member of our RadioTahrir team who introduced me to the name of its American author, Willow Wilson. Recently Wilson reappeared with the publication of yet another book, a fantasy adventure novel Alif, The Unseen. I decided to revisit her 2003 memoir.
Butterfly Mosque is not the only autobiography of a young woman’s foray into the Arab world. Nor is it a unique record of religious conversion to Islam. (e.g. Yvonne Ridley who documented her experience a decade ago after her captivity by Afghan rebels.) What makes Butterfly Mosque exceptional is its intimacy. Because Wilson’s entry into Islam and Egyptian culture is woven into her love of Omar, a young man she meets early on and eventually marries. The story is told in terms of culture rather than politics or religion.
The ‘butterfly’ of the title implies gradual metamorphosis and indeed this is a story of someone who emerge into maturity without any special preparation. We know from her account in the early chapters about her carefree almost naïve (typical American?) college years. She wasn’t even a religious skeptic, just a young woman who decides to take up a job offer in Egypt.
In my recent interview with her (to be broadcast in March, 2013) Wilson explains how quickly the book came together from an assembly of emails with her family and friends in the US during her early months in Cairo, and her exchanges with them about what was happening to her. Yet this is more than a collection of letters; there is a real writer’s hand at work here.
- The Moor's Account
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
Stories wrapped in stories generate yet another story. Interwoven, layered tales are a feature of Arabic culture, epitomized in the extraordinary Persian story collection 1001 Nights from which it draws. So beguiling and versatile is the tradition, it’s inspired both ancient and contemporary literary endeavors. Salman Rushdie applies the eponym to his latest novel (Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight (1001) Nights). Of course the format is effectively employed in films too.
Laila Lalami has produced a marvelous new novel drawing on this, her own Arab storytelling heritage, and advancing the reputation she established in her first two novels with a tale whose pages I’ve pursued with anticipation: The Moor’s Account. Lalami, already an established interpreter of the entangling of dissimilar worlds—North African and American-- offers us an unparalleled interpretation of 16th century encounters between African Muslims and Native Americans. Within a single narrative Lalami’s Moor exposes us in a way we’ve not previously experienced, to opposing peoples’ responses to invasion, enslavement, colonialism and fellowship.
Following successful African American historical novelists, Lalami demonstrates that finally an Arab Diaspora writer can negotiate centuries back in time. This is the first novel of its kind to emerge from the substantial body of Arab American narratives penned over the past quarter century where our writers return only to the latest war (we are still so engulfed and traumatized by these events), or we embrace a history of merely three generations. This habit is hard to comprehend for a people with a recorded heritage of five millennia. Never mind; someone had to break the mold, and Lalami has.
This award-winning novel is the autobiographical account of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. (He regularly invokes his linage to assert a proud family identity as did the driver I spoke to on my first visit to Baghdad in 1989; when we parted and I asked his name, he responded: “I am Kamal Abbas Hussein; Hussein us my grandfather; Abbas is my father; and I am Kamal.”)
The Moor’s Account covers eight years of Mustafa’s survival in La Florida in New Spain”, with flashbacks to his youth. Hardly out of his teens and already a successful trader in Azemmur, Mustafa (born in Hegira 921; 16th Century AD in present-day Morocco, Northwest Africa,) nobly commits himself to servitude to save his family during the Portuguese siege of his homeland. He finds himself renamed-- “…Estebanico, converted and orphaned in one gesture”— then rudely transferred from a slave-owning family in Seville to serve Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, an officer of a Castilian armada in the ill-fated Narvaez expedition to the Americas. Castaway with several hundred others --officers, settlers, priests and servants—forced to struggle by foot through swamps and mountains, their numbers dwindling sometimes by violence, sometimes by disease, sometimes by madness, Mustafa emerges undeclared leader, although legally still bonded to Dorantes, now his friend and companion. After eight years in the forest, he is one of four survivors of collective despair, fear, strife, friendships, accommodation with their Indian hosts… and shared stories.
Mustafa maintains his dignity throughout the ordeals of this diminishing band of lost men. He’s inspired both by hope of winning release from servitude to Dorantes and of returning to his mother’s home in Africa. (Both dreams are unrealized.) Eventually, just as today’s revolutionaries conclude that “freedom is won, not given”, he contrives a story to escape the Castilians and strikes out with one companion, his wife.
Lalami employs flashbacks to introduce us to 16th Century Muslim Africa. Mustafa’s world view summons images of African experience we are rarely privy to. As in African American historical novels Lalami’s Mustafa captures the overwhelming experience of subjugation, not only with his enduring dream of freedom but in his interpretation of enslavement: “a rebirth into an alien world” where “I had to learn all the things I was not permitted to do …”. Where Mustafa’s story differs from most modern African slave accounts is in his Muslim identity, skillfully painted by Lalami as quiet backdrop to his character. Lalami builds our Muslim Mustafa as perhaps only a co-religionist could, with unpretentious yet unequivocal imagery, recalling for example the sounds of his home neighborhood in “…the afternoon prayer refreshed me after a long nap, dusk prayer delivered me from my workday to my family, evening prayer commended my soul to God.” Of his home in New Spain he realizes “…why it felt so quiet and empty: I had not heard the call for prayer.” Mustafa refers to time by his Muslim calendar: Hegira 929 (1522 AD) was the year he sells himself, and Hegira 945 the year he escapes his Castilian masters and leaves Tenochtitlan to cast his lot with Oyomasot and her people.
The healing power of shared stories is invoked in each stage of our Moor’s chronicle. Stories aid the lost, frightened men who humor and succor each other with tales from their homelands. Later, when Mustafa is called upon to care for Indians, his stories build trust with his patients and they ease the dying of those he can’t save with medications. Renowned and sought out for his healing potions, Mustafa moves from village to village, taking his wife Oyomasot and three surviving Spanish companions on a journey in which they establish a new co-operative equilibrium with one another, with the land and with its inhabitants
This idyllic period ends abruptly when they stumble on a party of Castilian soldiers. They embrace those men as liberators and follow them to the palace of the governor who, applying his own storytelling skill, lures them into supporting his expansionist designs. While Mustafa’s companions succumb, Mustafa is able to devise a story to outwit his masters. In the final scene, having taken his own freedom, Mustafa is dictating this chronicle to the now pregnant Oyomasot, conscious that at least his descendants should know their own history. Unlike Sheherazade, Mustafa weaves his tales not to escape death but to heal.
And then there’s the story’s teller, Lalami. From Mustafa’s introductory invocation, she has you in her grip, anxiously following the fate of her hero page by page.
- The Martians-- Film Review
Ridley Scott, director
- Reviewed by
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too.
Many claim that books and films-- politicians too—are frequently the result of a deliberate marketing strategy, that they’re designed by a team according to formulae based on earlier successes and applied like an algorithm to the market:--to win. “The Martian” may be one of these made-to-order productions, containing as it does, all essential ingredients-- a star actor, an ethnically diverse cast, a futuristic theme, spectacular cosmic sets, high tech knowhow, and a heroic American plot.
Americans will never tire of their need for muscular heroes engaged in the struggle between good and bad, challenging the forces of nature, triumphing in a valiant rescue. But maybe such needs are not limited to American tastes. Who doesn’t seek heroic resolutions and reassurance that a man’s (sic) intelligence and ingenuity will save us from human folly and tame the power of nature?
I can’t help wondering if Crown Publishers, who plucked “The Martians” from a self-published unknown (Andy Weir), and 20th Century Fox-- within months of the book’s release they secured film rights, released the film in under two years, and rapidly snagged an Oscar nomination-- had been searching for this very story. Following the new “Star Wars” and building on the popularity of space science and its spectacular recent discoveries, a human drama on Mars was inevitable.
The movie’s plot is as credible as a person washed up on that desert island in “Castaway”. In “The Martian” we have a cosmonaut botanist Watney (Matt Damon) lost in future space (on Mars), using his wit and science knowhow to survive, and doing so on less than Tom Hanks had available in “Castaway”.
In the end our space hero is rescued by the woman spaceship commander and her multi-ethnic crew, after tense months of negotiations between them and officials at NASA headquarters on earth. This drama equals that of “Apollo 13”, with Damon’s heroism matching that of Hanks (again). Except that “The Martian” tags a new partner: China.
Filmmaking, like any industry, is sensitive to marketing statistics. Examining these, one begins to speculate about what drives films like “The Martian”. In 2014, one research agency http://www.statista.com/statistics/259985/global-filmed-entertainment-revenue/ announced how film entertainment worldwide was expected to grow from $88.3 billion in 2015 to $104.6 billion in 2019. Another survey http://www.mpaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/MPAA-Theatrical-Market-Statistics-2014.pdf notes how the international box office market is expanding rapidly in the Asian-Pacific region, where, we are advised, China is the market to watch. Thus film companies have their sights set on China’s filmgoers.
Overseas auto sales may be declining but entertainment is an expanding revenue source for the USA. From science fiction (“The Terminator” series) to children’s education (“Sesame Street”), hundreds of US produced TV series and films are translated into dozens of languages and franchised for production by other countries. Futuristic spectacles like “The Martian” become big foreign revenue earners. Everyone enjoys drama; when it’s combined with credible science, special effects and a hero like Matt Damon, it’s a box office success.
It’s also a political winner. As poet Amiri Baraka emphasized and filmmaker Spike Lee reinforces in his productions, everything is political. On the surface, unlike a Lee film, “The Martian” lacks any explicit political message. There are no fearless Marine snipers, no gallant lawyers defending minority rights, no environmentalists challenging corporate polluters, no journalists doggedly pursuing truth at any price.
“The Martian”’s subtext lies in its demonstration of the brilliance of the American scientist and how far his team will go to save one American life. This film is also on target with its ethnic diversity. (Although the hero is still a white man.) While some personalities differ slightly from the book’s characters, they nevertheless represent what’s described as an A-1 cast: stranded Mars cosmonaut Watney (Damon); smart women, headed by the space ship’s commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain); Purnell (Donald Glover), a genius African American mathematician; Martinez (Michela Pena), a compassionate Latino pilot; and Ng (Ben Wong), the capable Chinese Jet Propulsion Lab director. Finally, we have Dr. Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), charged with the rescue of Damon, declaring that his mother is from India. (Everyone except a hijab-crowned physicist, an Arab geneticist, and a Native American chemist is present.)
If we look back at the 1995 all-white-all-male “Apollo 13” cast, it’s clear we’ve advanced on some fronts. Of course “Apollo 13” was based on reality while “The Martian”, like “Star Trek”, is futuristic. And for America, true ethnic parity, while not science fiction, is not present-day reality.
The main hidden text of “The Martian” is found in the role of China-- Communist China, not the scientist played by Ben Wong. China enters the story at the moment of NASA’s despair and saves their seemingly doomed rescue plan. From their Beijing headquarters, watching the drama on live TV, Chinese space officials determinedly put aside their own project and offer to rocket supplies to the stricken Americans. A possible American failure is turned into an international victory, and Damon (he’s always Damon on screen) is reunited with his spaceship. Cheers erupt among crowds watching the rescue in Times Square, in London’s Trafalgar and at Tiananmen Square. (A good time was had by all.)
- Life without A Recipe
Diana Abu Jaber
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
From the Arab American Pen--Diana Abu-Jaber
If an Arab writer comes to mind it’s likely Nawal El-Saadawi, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, or Kahlil Gibran --all non-Americans. But it’s the 21st century and new names claim attention and respect: e.g. Diana Abu-Jaber, an American writer who for 20 years has woven Arab themes into her stories of life in the USA. This skilled writer and storyteller consistently offers us something others cannot:--subtle and intimate portrayals of Arab culture and people. Her new book--her sixth-- “Life without A Recipe”, adds to her repertoire of American life with an Arab ‘flavor’ (her last two books-- “Origin”, a crime story, and “Birds of Paradise” about a runaway daughter—are exceptions).
One of the first Arab American novelists to gain wide recognition, Abu-Jaber now represents an established community of women writers in the USA who contribute to feminist thought and to what’s known as ‘ethnic narratives’. This is a literary community where women far outnumber men writers, a fact that begs explanation and comparison. (Does one find parallels among American East Asian, South Asian and Latino writers?)
During the initial phase of the history of Arab American literature, i.e. writing by Americans of Arab heritage, fiction did not figure in our artistic expression. What literary image we claimed was though poetry, established mainly by Gibran, Samuel Hazo and Etel Adnan. Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, (he’s now 88 and still writing) is barely recognized as Arab; the same is true for Jane Brox whose essays offer scant reference to her Arab roots. Apart from them, our most accomplished writers are poets; with Hazo stand Sam Hamod, Naomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Lawrence Joseph, DH Melhem, Mohja Kahf, and Suheir Hammad-- a few names from scores of established contemporary Arab American writers.
As literary output by Arab Americans grows, poetry remains dominant, and our men are more prolific in this genre.
Just as novels and memoirs arrived late in Arabic literature, they have been slow to take hold in Arab American and Diaspora Arab literary expression. Hanan Al-Shaykh, Nawal El-Saadawi, Fadia Faqir and Adhaf Soueif—all women, although not American -- are well established fiction authors writing in English.
Diana Abu-Jaber is one of the first American writers from our community to establish a reputation as a novelist. She joins Rabih Alameddine whose rich, prize-winning style propelled him into mainstream, with Laila Lalami, a brilliant storyteller moving into the top ranks of this country’s writers with her latest book “The Moor’s Account”. Compared to them, and to Rawi Hage, Patricia Sarrafian Ward and Kathryn Abdul Baki whose tales are set in the Arab homelands, Abu-Jaber’s narratives are (contemporary) America- centered. Today Jaber represents an emerging voice of mainly women authors, e.g. Laila Halaby, Randa Jarrar, Frances Khirallah Noble, Evelyn Shakir, and Susan Muaddi Darraj.
“Life without A Recipe” is a woman’s exploration of a career as a writer told through the influences of her Arab father, her maternal German grandmother, and her decision (with her husband) to adopt a baby. Hers is not a typical woman’s story –two short-lived marriages, a childhood filled with tension between father and grandmother, the decision to adopt, and then raising her child while resuming her career. Yet it is one which many writers and many more women will enjoy and imbibe as they reflect on their own (American) lives. Abu-Jaber shows us that life need not—cannot-- follow a prescription. Added joy awaits us in Abu-Jaber’s masterful imagery and in her delicious way with words.
- And The Mountains Echoed
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
More than a good Ramadan read, a new book by Khaled Hosseini. From the first page I was smitten.
This Afghan-born author has done it again. I read and reviewed his first book "The Kite Runner" only several years after its release. It was unarguably a fine, fine piece of writing. I bypassed Hosseini’s second novel and chanced across this one, his latest, during a casual browse in my local library.
Besides being a well-crafted narrative "And the Mountains Echoed" is a fast-moving, disquieting story about … About what: A boy and his stolen sister? Afghanistan from 1949 to today? Loss and recovery? Daughters? Mothers? Family loyalty? East versus West values? Or, how war forever separates families?
It is hard to say which. That Hosseini’s story defies easy characterization may be a sign of his skill as a writer. Because Hosseini has certainly gone beyond any specific ‘Afghan’ experience in this novel. Employing the techniques of mystery writers, he lifts us out of one place and time, and drops us into another where, for a moment, we are uncertain of our location and we temporarily lose the thread of the narrative, only to find ourselves pondering another episode in an emerging enigma.
So "And the Mountains Echoed" is not a cultural narrative. Avoid this book if your purpose is to understand that exotic troubled land and then, at your dinner tables, compassionately lament the fate of Afghan girls.
If I can’t define the theme, I can tell you how it opens and closes. The book begins lyrically, in 1952, in a bucolic setting. A father is telling Abdullah and his sister Pari a fairy tale; it’s a fable of a loving father who challenges a child-stealing monster in order to rescue his youngest son. Although the man saves the village, he cannot reclaim his lost child and, mercifully perhaps, the monster gives the man a potion that prevents him from remembering the boy and his unsuccessful journey to rescue him.
In contrast to its opening, the book ends with a rather banal experience in a California nursing home. There, an aging woman (Pari) finds the brother from whom she was separated by a sad event in Afghanistan 60 earlier. Now in an advanced state of a kind of dementia, brother Abdullah is unable to recognize Pari (who has come in search of him), or indeed to remember anything about his homeland.
But "And the Mountains Echoed" is not a sad story. Not at all. It is filled with engaging characters of dazzling and credible diversity who Hosseini makes us care about-- from Uncle Nabi who negotiated his niece’s sale, to this same girl’s early lovers and then her husband and children in France, to her suicidal poet-step-mother self-exiled in Paris, to capricious foreign NGO staff in contemporary Kabul.
Nabi (uncle to Abdullah and Pari) is a runaway lad from Shadbagh village who finds employment as chauffeur and cook to a Kabul family. Nabi is secretly loved by his employer and remains at the grand house with the man after his flighty wife (the poet) has departed for France with their ‘adopted' child (the lost sister Pari). Nabi becomes pivotal in the narrative as a link for his fractured family. He eventually passes the task to the Kabul residence’s next occupant Dr. Markos to whom, in an early chapter, he recounts the family history in a long letter (extending 90 pages here) which finds its way to Paris and into the hands of the stolen sister of Abdullah.
Markos, a surgeon working for an NGO in 2010 in Kabul, is a caring man. But it is not in a Kabul hospital where we glimpse what underlies Markos’ compassion. Instead author Hosseini has Markos narrating another long chapter where he flashes back to his childhood in Greece, an enduring friendship with a disfigured girl his own age, and his upbringing by his mother, a wise, strong woman.
From Uncle Nabi, Markos assumes the role of envoy, joining separated generations from Shadbagh village with Kabul, then Paris, then California. We meet a classic Afghan warlord, former fighter, now village patron who has in fact stolen (and remade) Shadbagh village; but it is his young son and this boy’s chance friendship with an angry, homeless lad that somehow eclipses the ills of the warlord. We meet Amra Ademovic working in a Kabul hospital who in turn is an entry to stricken children, war veterans and touring foreigners. We also share the strange relationship of two village sisters Parwana and Masooma whose role in the story may simply be to enhance the theme that although people make some hard decisions, some less benevolent than others, no one is really judged as bad and no action is inherently wrong. There is little place for blame or remorse in "And the Mountains Echoed".
- Fields of Blood: Religion and The History of Violence
- Reviewed by BN Aziz
British author Karen Armstrong’s latest book is necessarily ambitious. Today when so much misinformation dominates the public debate over religion (we mean Islam, of course) and its relation to politics, serious efforts to explore their interconnection is daunting.
Comparative religion scholar Armstrong is known for tackling big subjects. Her "History of God" was a daring work that invited the public to reach further than their own faith. Her studies on Buddha and Muhammad were no less ambitious. Now we have an even more daring adventure, "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence".
"Fields of Blood" seems audacious at a time when Islam and violence are in the forefront of our minds and government policies. Outrage at the killings in Paris and the consequent debates over what constitutes free speech, while necessary and healthy, are polarizing our communities and putting Muslim leaders (and Islam) on the line. (I could find only a single reference to Armstrong in this recent debate. Perhaps she feels this book says it all.)
Fields of Blood begins at the dawn of human history with a review of ancient Sumer, moves through Indus civilization of 4000 years ago, Chinese progress from the earliest records, Hebrew history, the rise of Christianity, across the Roman and into the Byzantine Empire. In each period Armstrong draws on mythology as well as documented history to understand how war fuses with religious ideals and symbols.
In a 2014 interview with Salon.com, Armstrong summarizes--“Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state. Without this violence we wouldn't’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.” There is hardly an era when Armstrong can find they are not handmaidens. It seems Armstrong is reluctant to attribute a causal relation. She demonstrates that religion itself does not give rise to warfare, although expansionist ambitions may foster an upsurge in religious faith.
In her review of modern history, Armstrong suggest that the establishment of secular states may itself have given rise to a particular kind of religiosity, fundamentalism.
“Blaming religion”, Armstrong argues, “allows Westerners to ignore the essential role that violence has played in the formation of our own societies — and the essential role that our societies have played in seeding violence abroad.”
The book’s final chapters concentrate on how religion may ‘fight back’, manifest as a ‘holy terror’; she offers examples which, when we’re faced with today’s attacks, we overlook; e.g. the 1978 Jonestown Guyana suicide of 913 Americans, the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Armstrong proposes that perhaps the death wish embedded in acts of terror
“suggests a flaw in the purely secular ideal that eliminates holiness from its politics—the conviction that some things or people must be “set apart” from our personal interests. The cultivation of that transcendence –be it God, Dao, Brahman, or Nirvana—had at its best, helped people to appreciate human finitude. But if the nation becomes the absolute value (in religious terms, an “idol”), there is no reason why we should liquidate those who appear to threaten it.” (p 341, "Fields of Blood")
Armstrong proceeds to today’s all-too-familiar clashes--what is widely known as global jihad—emerging from the Muslim East. She offers background to the rise of religious leadership in Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine which we’d do well to review since media sources and contemporary books largely ignore critical details of American and European role in that history. Confronted by her arguments, we are compelled to reread the long history of religion and imperial interests offered in the first half of this book.
Still, how can attacks by individuals and groups against western symbols of liberty end? Even if our leaders and academics accept the West’s responsibility for the anger and retaliatory acts now directed at it, the West seems to lack the moral capacity to invent a humane response to halt this cycle. Can we really admit, as Armstrong suggests that “we are all implicated in this violence”?
"Fields of Blood" is not an easy read. But Armstrong has done the homework for us, assembling an overwhelming wealth of facts that is worth our attention; they can at least help us bring balance to the current debate. END
When you learn, teach; when you get, give.
quoted by poet Maya Angelou
Paul Laurence Dunbar
- a poem.. a song..
- Popular Palestinian Vocal
traditional song of The Homelands, Arabic Flash
AbdalHayy Moore reads from 'Ramadan Sonnets' --www.danielmoorepoetry.com
- Book review
- Rajia Hassib's
In The Language of Miracles
reviewed by BNAziz.
- Tahrir Team
- Read about Nadja Middleton in the team page.